Jagged bolts of lightning fork their way across shrouded sky, revealing a grim castle’s silhouette.Jagged bolts of lightning fork their way across shrouded sky, revealing a grim castle’s silhouette that beckons from atop a hill in the Transylvanian countryside. Above it, the moon peeks from behind the clouds, as if ashamed to witness what is about to happen, yet unable to look away.
This is the image on the cover of the North American edition of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Konami’s seminal 1997 classic, and the only one in the series made for the original Sony Playstation. Spring cleaning unearthed this gem from a dusty cardboard box and the cover’s allure drew me back in. When Dracula rises, one must heed the call to battle the vampire lord, and prevent him and his minions from plunging the world into eternal chaos.
Sixteen years ago, SOTN was the first Castlevania title I’d had a chance to play thoroughly. By then, game developers had taken advantage of the Playstation’s power and moved into the realm of 3D gaming, so SOTN was an anomaly at the time: a 2D side-scrolling adventure, lifted straight from the playbook of Castlevania classics of yore, but with elements derived from role-playing games including player leveling, collectible weapons and items, and open-ended, non-linear game play. Even more iconic was its lead character: Adrian Farenheights Tepes, better known as Alucard, son of Dracula. For the first time, a Castlevania title did not feature a member of the vampire-slaying Belmont clan as the protagonist.
As excited as I was to play again, I wondered how the game had aged. Sixteen years in the gaming world might as well be sixteen million; the Castlevania series had long since gone into 3D territory on major home consoles, and I now had a big flatscreen to play on, instead of my old 13” TV in my college dorm. I was prepared for big blocky chunks of pixels but not for what I saw instead: the graphics had remained stunningly detailed. As I cavorted through Dracula’s immortal castle, I savored every line in its architecture, every wind-tossed shutter, every scurrying mouse, every impaled corpse in the background. Every unique enemy death was as righteous as ever. Even blown up to 42 inches, the care the designers took to layer the castle’s rooms with multiple background images, creating the illusion of a three dimensional space in the game’s 2D format, is enough to have cemented SOTN’s legacy alone.Yamane wasted no time ditching the crusty, cartridge-canned synth music of Castlevania: Bloodlines and going all out.Adding to that legacy is Castlevania veteran Michiru Yamane’s sumptuous score. The Playstation’s power allowed for CD quality, full stereo recordings, and Yamane wasted no time ditching the crusty, cartridge-canned synth music of her previous work on Castlevania: Bloodlines and going all out, recording a body of work that spanned every musical genre including classical, jazz, and electronica. And nothing was as completely satisfying as, after entering the Clock Tower area, to hear the orchestra fade, and receive the welcome crash of electric guitars and heavy metal riffing. Between this and Nobuo Uematsu’s equally iconic Final Fantasy VII score, released that same year, video game soundtracks had finally arrived, the limitations of gaming hardware no longer an obstruction.
However, the real beauty of SOTN, and tragically the thing that modern games have lost sight of, is its lasting value as a replayable game, and one that is enjoyable during each replay. The next time you’re in a game store, take a minute to bend down and look at the rows of games on the lower shelves. It’s a video game graveyard, hundreds of titles, most of them unknown, returned for any number of reasons, but all with one in common: there was no reason to play them again. Action titles clock in around 15 hours to see an ending, RPGs anywhere from 60-80 hours, but consist largely of tedious experience farming. And both genres are plagued by a lack of depth that inspires a quick return to the game store.SOTN, clocking in at an average of twelve hours, offered reasons to play it again.By contrast, SOTN, clocking in at an average of twelve hours, offered reasons to play it again, even revisit once you cleared the game’s final boss. Completionists would be rewarded with incredible treasures for scouring the rooms for unique enemies that dropped rare items, not to mention covering as much territory as possible to see the coveted 4th ending. I even consulted the internet this time to find secret rooms I’d missed on my last pass, getting new items for the first time ever.
But the reason I keep coming back is the rich story. At its heart, SOTN is a classic tale of a son trying to overcome his heritage, and not let the sins of his father compound his own. Of course, games of this type don’t have the ability to inject tons of exposition or dialogue and remain enjoyable. The story, though fleshed out by interactions with supporting cast members, is not really told through them, but rather incorporates their narratives into the mad world of Castlevania. Put together with its visual and aural elements, the result is a story told by feel, rather than by text or plot. Every new area you explore is a reflection of Alucard’s guilt and sorrow, every tiny crack in the walls and floors that make the castle itself a character as well as a setting, every haunting piece of music, every mystery revealed by a cast member, all move the story forward in ways that serve the game far better than needless cutscenes. All of it, the music, the rooms, the action, become vital organs in the life of the game, rather than a reason to bring up plot devices. And in totality, these elements stand alone as a work of art worth revisiting as much as any painting or sculpture.These points can’t be glossed over, for they reveal a profound truth about video games: attention to detail is necessary for a classic game.None of these points can be glossed over, for they reveal a profound truth about the nature of video games: attention to detail is necessary for a classic game, not powerful technology. In an age where the major competitors vie for faster processor speeds, innovative control schemes, and more realistic physics engines, the subtle flutter of an albatross’ wings before the bird nests just outside a lookout point still thrills me. It doesn’t affect the game in the slightest, except to set mood, ambiance, and drama. All games since have aspired to this level of detail, but younger gamers who grew up on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3’s multi-million dollar budget blockbusters may not really understand why it was such a visceral thrill to come out of the gloom of gaming’s early days of platform hopping and racking up of points, and into something resembling an honest, true, experience. To keep coming back for more though, 16 years after the release, is a testament to Symphony of the Night’s greatness – one matched by only a handful of titles since.