Friday, 19 October 2012

CLASSIC GAME - Castlevania Symphony Of The Night

I have recently finished yet another playthrough of this seminal title. This was the first year I have done so on the XBLA version rather than on the original Sony Playstation hardware, and it has inspired me to take a closer look at this true classic.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night set a new benchmark for 2D platforming adventures when it was released for Sony's Playstation console in 1997. It injected new life into the Castlevania series, which up until that point has been standard platforming fare, albeit highly polished, enjoyable, and challenging fare. It took the exploration template made famous by the excellent Super Metroid on the SNES and imported it into the Gothic world of Castlevania, coining the Metroidvania term that is used frequently to this day. Love or loath the term, due to the popularity and classic status of both games, it will forever be part of the gaming lexicon. Indeed, when hearing it, you know what to expect, 2D platform games with a central world, certain parts which can be explored from the offset, others inaccessible until a suitable ability or power-up is found. Symphony of the Night is the game that cemented this style of play as the template for all 2D platform adventures from then on. It added RPG elements, leveling up, equippable gear and magic items, things that are taken for granted now but at the time were truly ground breaking. Those who have played the more recent handheld iterations of the franchise will be in familiar territory here, indeed, may even wonder what all the fuss is about when playing SOTN, but this was the game that pioneered these elements. 

The game starts at the end of the previous Castlevania, with you playing as Richter squaring off against Dracula himself. Luckily this encounter isn't too hard and soon Dracula is vanquished and we are transported ahead to the setting of this game. Now, instead of one of the Belmont clan you are playing the role of Alucard, the son of Dracula, and you are tasked with the unenviable job of destroying your father once and for all. To do this you must traverse the enormous castle (twice actually) that makes up the game world. Along the way you must fight a smorgasbord of enemies, from basic skeletons and bats to monstrous hybrid creations made up of human, monster and plant parts. There are giant bosses situated throughout the castle whom you must defeat in order to access new areas containing more powerful spells, equipment, and abilities that enable you to progress further.

Exploring this vast world is hugely enjoyable, made more so by the fact the game doesn't lead you by the hand. You feel like you can go wherever you wish, only coming to a halt when you find a ledge too high for you to reach, or water blocking the path. You note these places on your map and go off to seek the item that will allow you to proceed. If a boss is proving too hard, then you can explore elsewhere finding new items and levelling up until you are powerful enough to vanquish him. The game is littered with secrets and hidden areas and this really drives you on to explore every inch of the castle. Along the way Alucard gains the ability to morph into 3 distinct forms; a wolf, a bat, and a cloud of mist, which grant access to more of the castle. Not everything is compulsory like other games of the genre, so you feel more accomplishment when finding new items and areas.

The graphics are gorgeous, the bestiary of foes are creative and well animated. The many sections of the castle are varied and a treat to behold, from the holy cathedral complete with stained glass windows and bells, to a huge library and a clock tower, all are distinct and make you forget that this is one huge castle. The musical score is an absolute masterpiece, fusing classical tracks with funky jazz numbers, each song is wonderfully produced and adds immeasurably to the whole fantasy Gothic feeling. I must mention the shockingly bad dialogue and voice acting, however. Badly translated, far too loud and coated in too much reverb, it is hilariously bad. Who could forget such scripted gems as “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets” and “Alucard! What do you here?”. Strangely enough this seems to add charm to the game rather than detract from it and it will at least make you laugh.

The game offers a stiff challenge, especially once you reach the inverted castle (oh shush, you have had 15 years to discover this for yourself), with its even more difficult array of bosses. Luckily there are plenty of save screens dotted around the castle, a quick nap in his spinning coffin and Alucard is refreshed and ready to continue. There are also teleporters in each major area of the game that, once discovered, can be used to avoid unnecessary backtracking over large distances. Along with the secret areas and breakable walls, there are also some very clever hidden elements to the game. Wearing certain combinations of magic items can bestow the player with new found powers, access to more areas of the castle, or even lead to multiple endings to the game. There are small tricks and glitches to exploit to find even further secrets, i.e. using your special jump to hit the librarian from the screen below (yes yes, Spoiler Alert blah blah, just try it!). All these factors make the game feel like an open world, where you can find any number of strange rewards simply by experimenting.

Symphony of the Night is a game I can return to every year for a complete playthrough and never tire of it. In fact each time is a joy, and the game loses none of its appeal, even when you have explored all 200% of the game many times over. This year was the first time I have done so on the XBLA platform rather than the original hardware, and it was amazing to play it on a large HD screen. The new HD filter used is nice, but I prefer to play using the original Playstation graphics mode, purely as I am so familiar with them, but both perfectly convey the beauty of the game so it is a matter of personal preference.

Not only is it the finest game of its genre, it is simply one of the best games ever made. With the original Playstation version going for steep prices, a mere 800 points is simply unspeakably good value, heck.. it's worth every penny of its high asking price in boxed Playstation format. 
The limited edition even comes with a lovely art book and the soundtrack on CD (Note the glorious art of the Japanese and European releases was replaced with an appalling and generic cover for the American NTSC release).

Quality Artwork
First day on Photoshop? WTF?

If you don't own this game already I urge you to make this your next purchase. It is utterly outstanding in every way.

The Handheld Castlevanias

After Symphony Of The Night, the metroidvania Castlevania titles took their leave from the home consoles and moved to Nintendo's handhelds. While Konami attempted to move the franchise into the realm of 3D gaming on the Nintendo 64, with poor results, the 2D games blossomed on the new Gameboy Advance handheld. Between 2001 & 2003 there were 3 titles released for it; Circle of the Moon, Harmony Of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow. Once Nintendo's DS arrived, Konami stayed loyal and proceeded to bring us another trilogy of similar Castlevania; Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia.

They were all excellent titles that suited the formats well, but none were able to match the beauty and scope of the Playstation pioneer. They were fun games in their own right, but lacking the epic CD quality soundtrack, wonderful level design, and general 'wow factor' of SOTN, the handheld games feel slightly soulless when held in comparison. The presentation drifting further into anime territory, and the large amount of enemy sprite rips from SOTN didn't help matters, though I may be biased as I have never found handheld gaming to be as engaging as using a home console. I did find all 6 portable Castlevania games fun, just not in the same league as Symphony of the Night. However, I do recommend all of them to fans.