A couple of weeks ago, I finished my first playthrough of Super Metroid and wrote a few words about it. At the end of the article, I suggested I might consider taking a look at the second title that serves as the foundation of the Metroidvania genre of open-ended action adventure games. That other central pillar of Metroidvania is, of course, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and as you may have gathered from the title of the article I have now completed my first playthrough of this PlayStation classic.
Symphony of the Night was originally released in Japan in March 1997 under the title… hold on, let me check my notes real quick… *ahem* Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku, or “Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight” which is one of the most awesome titles for anything ever. Not that there’s anything wrong with the international title either, although I always thought “Castlevania” was kind of a silly name in general (apparently a byproduct of Konami of America’s senior vice president in the 80s thinking the original Famicom game’s title translated to “Dracula’s Satanic Castle” and wanting nothing to do with that Satan guy and his rock and/or roll music). At least Symphony of the Night evokes the same sort of feeling the Japanese title went for, even if it doesn’t sound quite as theatrical.
In any event, Symphony of the Night launched in October and November 1997 in North America and the PAL region respectively. That meant the international releases happened only weeks before Final Fantasy VII, and while it’d be a gross oversimplification to attribute SotN‘s poor showing in retail (only 60,000 copies sold in NA and Europe each, apparently) to FFVII alone, I’m sure being released nearly simultaneously with the most popular JRPG of all time did not help either, and the general lack of marketing for the game certainly didn’t help attract buyers. Me? Well, I didn’t have a PlayStation at the time, and all my PlayStation-owning friends bought Final Fantasy VII instead of Symphony of the Night.
Symphony of the Night‘s 2D graphics and gameplay are sometimes suggested as one of the reasons for the poor sales. While this seems completely ludicrous now, especially when you see how utterly gorgeous the presentation of Symphony of the Night actually is to this day and how good the game itself is, the fact is that 2D was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned in the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era. As I mentioned in my Mortal Kombat 4 review years ago, the gaming landscape of the late 90s was such that perfectly fine games would get docked points in reviews simply by not being in 3D and thus supposedly looking and feeling dated. Doom 64? Flat 2D sprites and creaky old gameplay, 4 out of 10. Go play Turok instead. Symphony of the Night? What is this tired old crap, look at the amazing 3D on Castlevania 64! (a paraphrased quote from Nintendo Official Magazine).
To be fair, Symphony of the Night generally managed to avoid this sort of reaction, although Entertainment Weekly unfavorably compared the game to Nightmare Creatures of all things and slapped it with a C-, and IGN wrote “The graphics are initially similar-looking to SNES and Genesis incarnations of the game, the character animation isn’t particularly smooth (DOC’S NOTE: It absolutely is, and it’s gorgeous) and 3D is resigned to limited background effects and the odd special effect” in their 9/10 review.
Despite the largely glowing reception from the critics at the time, the general game-buying public simply didn’t bite. Perhaps the market had just changed in general and Castlevania was no longer the heavy hitter it used to be in the 8-and 16-bit days. Wouldn’t be the only time that happened, and the 3D Castlevania games on the Nintendo 64 apparently did even worse in terms of sales numbers (although the only source I could find was VGChartz, so take this with a grain of salt). Regardless, before we dive deeper into Symphony of the Night, we should take a look at the history of the Castlevania games and see how we got to this point.
The original Akumajō Dracula/Castlevania came out on the Famicom Disk System and the NES in 1986 and 1987 respectively (with later ports to home computers such as the Amiga and Commodore 64, as well as an MSX game with the same Japanese title and premise but different gameplay, known as Vampire Killer outside Japan), and was a fairly straightforward level-based action platformer starring vampire slayer and cool guy extraordinaire Simon Belmont. Simon whipped his way through basically the entire catalogue of monsters from old Universal and Hammer horror films, with Dracula himself obviously serving as the final boss at the game’s climax. Simon kills Dracula, the castle crumbles into the ground as the sun rises, the end.
Not that I’ve ever reached the end myself, because Castlevania is a notoriously difficult game. Not only are the levels filled with tough platforming and devious enemy placement, but Simon’s mobility and attacks are very limited and it’s easy to get knocked into a pit and die or simply get overwhelmed by the barrage of enemy attacks coming your way. This would set the tone for the series going forward. Personally, I am not a huge fan of classic Castlevania because of the punishing difficulty. I’m certainly not averse to challenge, but old school Castlevania is one of those games I’ve just never gotten along with. I love the style and the excellent music, but I’m completely hopeless at the actual gameplay.
Castlevania sequels largely kept to the formula established by the original game, with the notable exception of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (“Dracula II: The Seal of the Curse” in Japan) which experimented with an open-ended world design and light RPG elements. The results were rather mixed, with many players despairing over obtuse puzzles and aggravating mechanics. What a horrible night to have a curse, indeed. I played through Simon’s Quest on my NES a few years ago and found it an interesting experience, although admittedly I did have a guide handy. A bit cheaty, yes, but nobody ever played Simon’s Quest without an issue of Nintendo Power or the NES Game Atlas (which I believe is what I actually used for that playthrough for the authentic experience) on hand in the first place. While Simon’s Quest definitely had its issues, it was positively received on its 1987 release (1988 in the US) and its reception in fact helped co-director and possible vampire Koji “IGA” Igarashi pitch Symphony of the Night to his bosses at Konami, as stated by the man himself in a USGamer interview in 2018:
“[Simon’s Quest] actually played a very important role for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Before Simon’s Quest, games didn’t [delve] much into RPG elements like exploration,” Igarashi told me through a translator. “Simon’s Quest had that foundation [of exploration]. It was easier for us to let the higher-ups know [Castlevania] works with exploration, and that we wanted to put more of that into [Symphony of the Night].”
The games following Simon’s Quest returned to the linear action gameplay of the original Castlevania, with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse rounding out the NES trilogy and introducing multiple playable characters, and Super Castlevania IV on the SNES being a full 16-bit reimagining of the original. The linear gameplay style continued in Castlevania Bloodlines on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis in 1993 (1994 outside the US), and unbeknownst to most players at the time there had also been another game in between Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines. That game was Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo on the PC Engine Super CD-ROM², better known as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.
Rondo of Blood is another classic style Castlevania game, starring Simon’s descendant Richter Belmont, but this time there is more emphasis on story and actual animated cutscenes to move the plot along. Richter is lured to Dracula’s castle after his girlfriend Annette is kidnapped, and it falls upon him to defeat the resurrected Dracula. Along the way, Richter frees other kidnapped women and meets a young girl named Maria Renard, who is then unlocked as a second playable character.
Rondo of Blood stayed in Japan until finally surfacing on the PSP as part of Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles in 2007 and on the Wii Virtual Console in 2010. Castlevania: Dracula X on the SNES featured a similar plot and many reused assets, but was a very different game and not particularly well-liked among series fans. I’m sure you noticed “Dracula X” in the Japanese title of Symphony of the Night, and there’s a good reason for that because Symphony of the Night is a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood. The gameplay is very different, but the plot picks up right where Rondo of Blood left off. And I mean right where it left off, as the prologue of Symphony of the Night is called “Final Stage: Bloodlines” and features Richter as he takes on Dracula at the end of Rondo of Blood.
Richter defeats Dracula after an epic battle, and the story skips ahead four years (or five, depending on where you look). Dracula’s castle has risen from the depths once again despite the fact it normally only appears every 100 years or so, and this time Richter is nowhere to be found. Dracula’s son Alucard, who had helped Trevor Belmont defeat Dracula 300 years prior in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, makes his way to the castle with the intention to destroy it, and this is where Symphony of the Night truly begins.
Alucard’s introduction is spectacular. As the half-vampire son of Count Dracula, he’s obscenely powerful and able to kill anything with a single slice of his sword. You don’t get to enjoy this power for very long, though, because Alucard soon has all of his weapons and abilities taken away by Death as punishment for not turning back and leaving the castle.
With that, you’re left with a massive castle to explore and only Alucard’s fists to fend off the hordes of monsters lurking within the castle walls. Fortunately, you don’t have to go very far to find a basic short sword, so there’s no need to resort to fisticuffs for long. At this point, there is only one real way forward, so you fight your way through the Alchemy Laboratory and defeat the first boss. Along the way, you’ll find various paths you can’t access just yet, so you keep going towards the outer wall of the castle and encounter Maria Renard, who has come to the castle to search for Richter. While it’s never mentioned in the game itself, the Japanese manual states Maria is now Richter’s adopted sister.
After exploring some more, you find the double jump powerup. This is where things open up and you can start exploring a bit more. Want to check out the castle keep? The library? The underground caverns? The chapel? Only one leads to actual progress at this point unless you do a bit of sequence-breaking, but if you explore the other areas and manage to survive, you can still find some nice goodies and gain levels. Once you get the rest of the powers, you can explore wherever you feel like and visit areas in any order as is Metroidvania tradition.
While exploring, Alucard can come across health and heart bonuses, the former of which is self-explanatory and the latter allows you to use sub-weapons such as daggers, the cross and holy water more often. Certain nooks and crannies contain weapons, armor or usable items, and the librarian also has some interesting things on sale (including the all-important castle map and a jewel that lets you open the glowing blue doors around the castle, which is eventually required to progress). Some rooms contain save points or warp doors to make your exploration easier.
In order to fully explore Dracula’s castle, you need all of the powerups unless you really know what you’re doing. I already mentioned the double jump which needs no explanation, but there are also transformation powerups which let Alucard turn into a wolf, a bat or a cloud of mist. The wolf form is optional unless you want to explore every inch of the castle, but the bat form’s flight and sonar abilities are required to progress and in order to collect the Soul of Bat item needed to use the bat form, you need to use the mist form to pass through a metal grate.
Each form has multiple upgrades to find which offer useful abilities, so collecting them is worth your while even though most of them are strictly optional. All of the transformations drain Alucard’s mana as long as they’re active, but it quickly replenishes itself afterward and can also be restored with items.
Alucard can also find cards hidden around the castle, which allow him to summon Familiars. Familiars are creatures that help you out in a variety of ways like attacking enemies, casting useful buffs on Alucard, pressing otherwise inaccessible switches or pointing out breakable walls. They are nice to have around, but sadly you can only have one summoned at a time and since each of them gains EXP separately, you probably should stick with one or two at most on each playthrough. I only really used the bat and the faerie. The bat is my favorite because a little heart pops up next to it when Alucard morphs into bat form and a confused question mark appears when Alucard transforms back. It’s just adorable and perfectly demonstrates how Symphony of the Night doesn’t always take itself too seriously.
Many of the food items that restore Alucard’s HP are completely anachronistic and out of place in general — pizza or ramen in Dracula’s castle in 1797? Sure, why not. Alucard can also find peanuts, which heal a decent amount but can only be eaten by tossing them in the air and catching them by pressing up on the d-pad at the right moment. To move through water without losing health (Alucard is half vampire after all), you need to find the “Holy Symbol”. Said symbol is quite well hidden, but once you come across it you’ll immediately notice this most hallowed of items is in fact… a snorkel. Or how about the “Secret Boots” which are said to “discreetly increase height”? When you put them on, Alucard’s sprite is slightly stretched vertically. That is their only purpose. Then there’s the Alucart armor set, not to be confused with the Alucard set. This set has godawful stats but increases Alucard’s luck significantly, but not before changing his name on the status screen to ALUCART.
Of course, this silliness is all well and good, but this is still a Castlevania game so you will also be doing plenty of combat. There is a larger emphasis on combat than in Super Metroid, and Alucard can use a variety of weapons and offensive spells to deal with Dracula’s servants. The item descriptions are rather vague, so you often have to figure out the best weapon to use by trial and error. A sword with an attack stat of 50 isn’t necessarily an upgrade over a rod with 40 ATK, because the latter might attack faster and deal more damage per second than the sword would. Sometimes a weapon has a special ability you can use if you figure out the input, and some of these abilities are completely overpowered especially in the endgame.
Igarashi’s intention was to make Symphony of the Night more accessible to less skilled players, and as the least skilled Castlevania player in existence I can say he and his team succeeded at that goal. Arguably, they went a bit too far, because Symphony of the Night is generally a very easy game. You might have some trouble early on because you don’t have any decent weapons or abilities and may not have grasped the mechanics yet, but once you gain a few levels and find powerful weapons such as the Holy Rod (which isn’t that strong on paper but can be swung quickly and almost everything in the castle is extremely weak to holy damage, meaning you basically do double damage to everything) you’ll be either completely or mostly unstoppable depending on how willing and able you are to break the game. If you don’t use any of the overpowered abilities, you might encounter a couple of difficulty spikes (and even then, you can buy a stockpile of potions to get through those sections), but if you know what you’re doing you are literally unkillable and can obliterate the last boss in five seconds or less.
Even though the game is easy and it’s usually very difficult to die unless you really screw up, the gameplay does have its share of frustrating aspects. The primary one that comes to mind is an old Castlevania staple — the knockback when you get hit by an enemy. It’s nowhere near as irritating as in old school Castlevania games because there are no instant death pits in Symphony of the Night, but it’s still quite easy to get hit by some useless skeleton or Medusa head and get launched halfway across Romania or at least through the nearest area transition, which is just infuriating. I also found some of the late-game enemies incredibly annoying to fight, but admittedly I wasn’t playing optimally and didn’t know any of the ways to make those enemies easier. At least that problem fixed itself once I got the poison mist form, which only requires beating the hardest boss in the entire game.
There are also a few occasions where the path forward is a bit more obtuse than I’d prefer. For example, in order to reach the Royal Chapel, you need to head to the room with the giant clock in the Marble Gallery, where you first met Maria. If you look at the ceiling in this room, you can see three paths leading upward, but there’s a good chance all of them are inaccessible. The two on the left and right are blocked off by statues, and the middle one is just a vertical shaft so you’ll need the bat form which you don’t have. It turns out the path on the left opens up only at certain times, so you must either wait for the statue to move out of the way or use the stopwatch subweapon that is normally used for temporarily freezing enemies. Using the watch opens both the left and right paths, and the latter contains the aforementioned Alucart armor set. If you don’t have the stopwatch, you’ll have to wait in the clock room for quite some time before the path opens up, so it’s easy to miss the way forward. It’s not the most intuitive thing in the world.
One of the coolest moments in Symphony of the Night happens when you reach what appears to be the climax. You and Maria find out what’s going on with Richter, and then it’s time for the final showdown… except it turns out you’re only halfway through, and now it’s time to explore the castle again but this time the layout is inverted, all the areas have received a makeover, and the weak enemies have been replaced by much nastier ones. Not only that, but your map is blank as well and has to be filled in all over again. Hopefully you remember where everything was in the normal castle and where it would be now that everything’s quite literally flipped upside down!
I also appreciate the fact you can still return to the normal castle at any point, either by making your way to the portal or using the library card item to warp you to the librarian, so you’re never locked out of anything you might’ve missed before the castle got flipped. Your main goal in the inverted castle is to find five key items to unlock the final boss fight, and these can be collected in any order you want although some are naturally going to be easier to obtain than others.
As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, Symphony of the Night is one of the best-looking games on the PlayStation. As impressive as some of those early 3D games seemed at the time, they never had any chance to hold up as well as Symphony of the Night‘s high-quality 2D art. The Gothic and Renaissance-inspired halls and corridors of Dracula’s castle look absolutely phenomenal and make use of both advanced parallax scrolling and 3D effects to convey a staggering amount of depth and detail. The character sprites are still recognizably Castlevania sprites, just immensely more detailed and smoothly animated than their counterparts on older systems. Alucard’s sprite in particular is incredibly well done, and screenshots can’t possibly do justice to how good this game looks in motion. The portraits by Ayami Kojima are equally beautiful, both in terms of the artwork and the characters themselves. Her bishounen-inspired style would characterize Castlevania art for years to come.
You simply can’t talk about Symphony of the Night without mentioning Michiru Yamane‘s amazing soundtrack. When your game is called Symphony of the Night (or Nocturne in the Moonlight), you pretty much have to absolutely nail the music and that is exactly what Yamane did. SotN‘s soundtrack is a mix of moody orchestral themes and traditional rock-style Castlevania music, as well as the occasional darker ambient pieces and somber piano tunes. A special mention has to go to “Wandering Ghosts” which plays in the Colosseum area and reaches (hell, probably exceeds) Persona 5 levels of funkiness with its pulsating bassline and the Latin vibe of the guitar and horns. Overall, Symphony of the Night‘s soundtrack would probably have to go to my top 10 video game OSTs, which is saying quite a lot.
Symphony of the Night received ports to the Sega Saturn, Xbox 360, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 4, as well as iOS and Android. On paper, the Japan-exclusive Saturn version sounds like a winner. The Saturn was a 2D powerhouse and usually wiped the floor with the PlayStation when it came to 2D games, after all, so it should be able to run Symphony of the Night like a boss. Right? Well, not quite. Symphony of the Night was designed specifically for the PlayStation hardware, and the Saturn’s architecture had real issues dealing with ports from the PlayStation — at least without considerable extra effort by the developers to retool these games to take proper advantage of the Saturn’s dual video processors.
The most obvious problem with SotN on the Saturn comes from the difference in rendering resolutions, as the graphics were stretched horizontally to fit the Saturn’s minimum resolution of 320×224. The PlayStation renders the visuals at an 8:7 aspect ratio and your TV would stretch that to 4:3, and that is what the art was designed for. The pixels were intended to be slightly wider than they were tall, and that is how they appear on a 4:3 CRT screen. This is not an option on the Saturn which renders at 320 pixels wide natively, so another solution was required. One option would’ve been to leave the narrower aspect ratio intact and add extra borders to create a 4:3 image, but in the case of SotN the sprites and other art assets were adjusted beforehand by doubling every fourth line of pixels. The end result looks horribly distorted (check out the railing on the staircase in the above screenshot) and grainy, but that’s not all.
The Saturn version also lacks most of the transparency effects from the PlayStation original. While the Saturn can do actual transparency (and does even in this game, as the water is transparent), mesh transparency was commonly used instead and looked decidedly unpleasant if your video cables were even vaguely decent. The Saturn port also suffers from lengthy load times. On the PlayStation, loading was masked by the distinct “CD” corridors you’d walk through between areas, but the Saturn version adds an actual load screen at the end of each corridor. You also have to access the menu to view the map, which is a pain because the menu is quite slow to load. The menu renders at 480i, which causes video scalers to drop sync for several seconds as the game switches resolutions. Finally, performance tends to drop drastically in effects-heavy scenes. A full technical breakdown of the Saturn port can be found in John Linneman‘s excellent DF Retro episode on Symphony of the Night.
The Saturn version does have two new bonus areas and extra bosses as well as some other tweaks, and both Richter and Maria are unlocked as playable characters from the start. Although Maria is at least a lot of fun to play as on the Saturn, this didn’t help make the Saturn port any less of a disappointment in the eyes of fans, critics, and even Igarashi himself, who wasn’t involved in its development. SotN on Saturn is probably best avoided, which isn’t difficult because it was released only in Japan and copies cost a small fortune these days. Unfortunately, that latter point also applies to the PlayStation version, so what is the best way to play Symphony of the Night today?
The Xbox 360 version was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2007 and developed by Digital Eclipse. This is mostly a straightforward emulation of the original game and a decent enough way to play Symphony of the Night if all you own is an Xbox 360 or Xbox One, but it’s not without its flaws. Most obviously, the FMV sequences from the original PlayStation release were all omitted to reduce the file size. SotN on the 360 was the first Xbox Live Arcade title to exceed the original file size limit of 50 MB, coming in at a whopping 95 MB.
That same year, Sony released the original PlayStation version on the PlayStation Network. This release is playable on the PS3, PSP and Vita, and is the most convenient official way to get your hands on the PlayStation version nowadays. The main flaw with this PSone Classics release is the poor resolution scaling on the PS3, which makes the visuals appear rather blurry. The PSP runs the game at its original 240p resolution, with the Vita offering a 2x upscale. Sadly, the PlayStation TV/Vita TV microconsole doesn’t handle PSone Classics all that gracefully and they look overly blurry when upscaled. It should also be noted that the PAL PSone Classics release is the old 50Hz version with borders and slow motion gameplay, so buying SotN from the US PlayStation Store instead is highly recommended even if you’re in the PAL region like I am.
As I mentioned earlier, 2007 also saw the release of Dracula X Chronicles on the PSP. This was a compilation featuring a 2.5D remake of Rondo of Blood as its main draw, along with the original Rondo of Blood (with new English voice acting) and Symphony of the Night. The Dracula X Chronicles version was re-translated with a completely new English dub, and this is also the version used as the basis for the Castlevania Requiem compilation. Requiem was released for the PS4 in 2018 and is essentially Dracula X Chronicles without the Rondo of Blood remake, and there have been suggestions the PS4 is actually running these games using a PSP emulation layer. I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s certainly feasible. These are reportedly the exact same versions from 2007 and even all the glitches are intact. Regardless, the Requiem versions of Rondo and SotN both look excellent and run at a native 4K resolution if you have the setup.
Requiem is the most convenient way to play SotN, but it’s far from perfect. The translation may bother longtime fans, there are some odd glitches here and there, all the added display options are completely awful (why on earth is there a filter that simulates interlacing flicker when SotN never ran in interlaced mode outside the Saturn version’s menu screen?) and the input lag may be an issue as well. To be fair, the PS3 and Xbox 360 releases also exhibit input lag because a certain degree of lag is unavoidable under emulation, and of course there’s HDTV lag to consider as well. A completely lag-free experience on this game isn’t happening unless you play on a CRT display.
It’s really a shame there is no truly definitive version of Symphony of the Night available anywhere. Such a hypothetical version would contain all of the content from the PlayStation, Saturn and Dracula X Chronicles releases, with both English voice tracks as well as the Japanese one, and maybe you could even pick and choose which content you want. For example, if you don’t care for the new areas in the Saturn version, you could disable those while still keeping Maria’s unique gameplay from that version. This is obviously a complete and utter pipe dream, but it’s still fun to think about.
I believe that does it for Symphony of the Night. In conclusion, this is an incredible game that holds up perfectly 23 years after release and looks and plays every bit as good as it did back then. The Metroidvania formula has been used in multiple Castlevania games since, although due to Konami being Konami it’s been many years since a new Castlevania title was released. Koji Igarashi has moved on as well, and recently directed Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night which was designed as a spiritual successor to his Castlevania games. I haven’t played that one, but maybe I should. After all, the night is still young…