Now, I consider myself a somewhat experienced gamer. Yeah, I prioritize RPGs mostly. I don’t play sports games at all and I’m more or less meh about first person shooters. Thing is…when I’m presented with the concept that a game is important enough to stop whatever I’m doing and play it, I do it regardless of it classification. I experienced Half-Life and played the second because I was told that these games would change my fucking perspective on what a god damn video game is, and they did. I played old adventure games after never having even known what an adventure game was for Christ’s sake. Portal, The Neverhood, King’s Quest, Shenmue, Grim Fandango…all games that were strongly recommended to me that I would never have played otherwise. I opened up because I trusted the person who presented them to me. The circumstances under which I came to finally play SotN won’t be the topic of discussion here only because the most important thing is that I’ve finally played it. From the moment the credits rolled until the end of my natural life I will honor Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as one of the greatest games that was ever created by a man or group of men. Do me the personal favor and just go play it if you haven’t.
SotN is the type of game that should be issued to each person by the government upon reaching a certain age…but because the government isn’t handing out copies to families you have to go get it yourself (if like me, you‘d never played it before). I’m finding it difficult to even come up with a single criticism of the game really. It’s one of those kinds of things that if some other company just flatly emulated it with generic characters, story and music that bullshit wannabe game would still stand out. In fact…Circle of the Moon…ugh. Yeah Circle of the Moon sucks but it stands out because of the formula it borrows from SotN. It’s still better than a lot of the more traditional Castlevania games, ya know?
Well… so what is it about this “new” formula that’s so special exactly? We’re probably all aware of Metroid’s roots and how those games played out. Run around in a side-scrolling view, unlocking rooms and uncovering map space…rinse…repeat. It’s a simple concept that I would be doing everyone a disservice to further elaborate on. What Symphony of the Night (and let’s be fair here, Koji Igarashi) did was slightly evolve this tried and true design choice. I guess a more specific way to describe what he did to improve this lifeless format would be to say that he gave it character. Instead of a stale planet underground or generic sci-fi locale #8745, what we get in SotN is an elaborate medieval castle. Replacing a personality-less armored soldier (who before the reveal could’ve been any random male or female officer) is an extremely dynamic son of Dracula whose mere presence fills every moment of the game with charm. It’s really hard to dislike Alucard and that’s all I’ll say about it. For my purposes the associations to Metroid can stop there. It’s obvious that Igarashi saw something he liked and decided to improve on it. Other than that I consider the comparison not much more than an insult to Symphony.
I would love to quit right here and say that all of the magic of this game lies in its characterization and formula but that’s not the whole truth. Every aspect of this game that doesn’t improve on any specific industry cliché (item farming, secret rooms/items, “ultimate weapons”) is either a shout-out to the series’ roots or a completely innovative idea. Actually… wait, I can come up with some criticisms (and responses to them). Let’s discuss:
– Honestly, the voice acting is amateurish.
That’s almost a legit complaint, right? Not really. Dracula’s “What is a man?” speech lives on not only as an in-joke between gamers but a serious argument for standardizing voice-acting in video games. At the time of the original PlayStation release for SotN there was very little voice-acting in console games anyway. Just the fact that there are even voices AT ALL was a huge step in the right direction. I can’t even think of a single instance where the voice-acting took anything away from the game.
– Ok the graphics weren’t up to snuff for the PlayStation.
Very true. No Argument there! Does that matter though? Not every game can be Vagrant Story or Chrono Cross. The sheer amount of content in the game itself completely derails any thoughts of graphical disappointment (for me anyway). If they have to sacrifice some pixels to add more overall content I’m obviously game for that. Also, something that goes under the radar far too often is the art direction in games. The fact that Alucard’s animations and so fluid and varied supports the idea that there was a lot of attention paid to the graphics and presentation. It’s somewhat unfair to say that Symphony under performs in superficial categories. Additionally, the 3D renders that were actually used in the backdrops and whatnot worked surprisingly well with the sprite based animation. That can be difficult to sell sometimes.
– The music is, while high quality not exactly a bunch of tunes you’re going to be humming from memory once it’s over.
The music is high quality and there are remixes of previous Castlevania songs. The fact that the music itself is more orchestral in nature sort of supports the non-hummable argument but we can’t honestly expect a game this grand to be beepin’ and bloopin’ all over the place. There’s definitely a debate to be had here whether or not the advent of better sound technology in consoles has created a culture of less catchy, more serious theme songs for games. Couple that with the fact that older Castlevania games have amazing soundtracks and it’s hard to say that it (or anything these days) can compare to, say Super Castlevania IV. But what can? The music gets the job done and sprinkles in some memorable themes.
Every single other aspect of the game is beyond criticism. To put it simply: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night puts on a fucking clinic. The number of items is simply staggering. The layout and pacing of the castle is phenomenal. The boss fights are memorable AND throwbacks. The controls are responsive and complete. The amount of secret and bonus content is overwhelming. The story is epic but personal as well as thoughtful and philosophical. The game is ambitious in every aspect of its design and you can’t avoid admiring just how big it is. If you go away from SotN unimpressed then it may be the case that you are a retard.
So there’s something about this game that I have yet to mention, mostly because I wanted it to be my main argument about why everyone (gamers and developers alike) should put it on a pedestal. Yeah, all that other shit is great right? It’s a cool game and whatever. OK. By itself everything I’ve mentioned so far would probably get this game pretty high on my list. If I ended this write-up right now it would still make the top five easily. What I haven’t mentioned yet and why this game goes from great to special is the second castle.
I mean, when this shit happened to me it fucking blew my brain up. If you just happen to figure out a particular riddle in this game and follow through on the hints, after fighting what appears to very much be the last boss you are transported to ANOTHER castle that is an exact replica of THE ONE YOU JUST WENT THROUGH only UPSIDE DOWN. WHAT??! Not only is it just as big, the map is completely blank requiring you to traverse it once more…facing NEW enemies, NEW BOSSES, FINDING NEW ITEMS and facing the true boss of the game, Dracula. THIS GAME IS TWICE AS BIG AS YOU FUCKING THOUGHT IT WAS! Mind bomb. One of the best and most shocking moments in gaming, plain and simple.
I don’t want to elaborate on the logistics of it all because it’s really something you have to experience to get the full effect. What I do want to discuss though is how this concept proves many points about the fall of modern gaming. SotN is a gem because it’s awesome but it’s also a shining example of what gaming used to be about. It’s the perfect illustration of how certain ideals have evolved (or I guess devolved) into what we see today in video games.
Think about it. What would the second castle in SotN be by today’s standards? DLC. It would be an $8-10 add-on that was probably built right along with the game but held off until later so you could buy it. The first part of SotN would be sold as the complete game for $50 with the promise of DLC to come in the near future. Games like Resident Evil 5 prove that this mentality exists with their insistence on adding a multiplayer aspect to the Mercenaries mode that had a download size of practically nothing. That shit was already on the disc guys. You just paid for what essentially amounted to an unlock of the last few pieces of the game that were ALREADY ON THE FUCKING DISC. This sort of bullshit is not only stifling developer creativity but slapping gamers in the fucking face. Right in the face too, not from behind. Castlevania represents a time when creators still built secrets into games and they felt like an actual part of the game. How many stupid little add-on missions does Mass Effect 2 have now? How much money does that all amount to? By the time you’re done paying for all the shit they’re selling you, you’ve spent about $100 and you still don’t have a game that comes close to the amount of content that Symphony of the Night does. Yeah, welcome to the next generation everyone. SotN has literally as many or more equipment/items to find as any RPG (or any game ever really) on the market. Coupled with a re-playability factor of precisely a twazbillion, the term “they don’t make ‘em this this anymore” couldn’t be more bang on.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a beautiful game that not only overshadows many “greats” but is a depressing yet realistic reminder that something in the gaming world has gone missing. There was once a time where developers took the time to polish things, cram MORE stuff into their games and just make something special that can withstand and rise above scrutiny even years later. A time when concept and execution met up to create something worthwhile and potential was actually realized. It’s almost laughably ironic that this monumental experience can be fully downloaded for pocket change on the damn service that has more or less caused the downfall of true gaming, Xbox Live. Then again we can be glad that it is there whether or not the fourteen year-olds ever think to download and play it. As far as I’m concerned SotN is one of the most valuable pieces of gaming history that we have. Its god damn insistence on being just that spectacular elevates it to legendary status. I cannot be more clear about this fact: Everyone MUST PLAY this game. No exceptions.