Castlevania: Symphony of the Night just turned twenty years old! Originally released on March 20, 1997 for the PlayStation, Symphony of the Night was a landmark in gaming history. Although sales initially suffered from lackluster promotion stateside, the game garnered gushing praise from critics and fans alike, and became a cult hit via word-of-mouth. Today, it’s considered one of the best #VideoGames of all time.
Symphony of the Night helped coin the term ‘Metroidvania’ as a genre, was the earliest known entry in the #Castlevania series to feature a well-developed plot, and contained a number of oft-repeated lines about the nature of mankind that helped seal its place in gaming history.
As Castlevania: Symphony of the Night turns 20, we take a look at the story behind the legendary game and what exactly made it so special.
Reinventing The Franchise
Konami released the first Castlevania for NES back in 1986, so the pressure was on Symphony of the Night to both live up to and improve upon the reputation of an already well-loved franchise.
The game was directed by Toru Hagihara, with assistant director Koji Igarashi exercising creative influence over story and programming. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was envisioned as something of a side story for the series, which gave the developers leeway to take the franchise in a new direction.
Igarashi’s primary motivation for the many innovations in Symphony‘s design was the sight of dozens of Castlevania games sitting in bargain bins of video game stores across Japan. The major take away being that linear Castlevania games offered very limited replay value after completion. To take the series to the next level, Symphony was going to have to offer a satisfying long-term gaming experience with considerable replayability.
Igarashi was of the opinion that regular action games were too short. Consequently, the dev team abandoned the linear stage progression of the previous Castlevania games in favor of an open castle for the player to freely explore. Igarashi and the devs looked to the Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda series for inspiration. The Nintendo classics made use of exploration and back-tracking to extend the amount of gameplay in the same levels.
Based on this principle, the team made the most of the castle areas initially inaccessible to the player. These areas would gradually become explorable as the player obtained items and vampiric powers to unlock them.
This system would reward exploration, but they had another hurdle to surmount. Hack-and-slash action of the previous games was notoriously difficult, even for its time. If the game was going to be extended, the combat would have to be overhauled to make it less crushing and repetitive. Part of the solution was refining the game’s controls to be more responsive, but the team would also have to find a way to keep the combat fresh over the course of a long game.
You Spilled RPG All Over My Metroidvania!
Igarashi felt the classic Castlevania games were too challenging for average players and so he added role-playing mechanics which rewarded players with experience points as they beat enemies. This would level up Alucard’s attack and defense statistics.
In addition, a large variety of items, armors, weapons and spells could be collected. Alucard could equip a weapon in each hand, or use a shield or two-handed weapon. A lot of the weapons had pretty situational bonuses, like swords that increased in power according to how much of the castle you had explored, or even how far the in-game clock had advanced. Other items were advantageous against specific enemies.
The exploration element combined with the RPG mechanics meant that Symphony is still eminently replayable today. Players can change up their fighting style with different items and weapons, challenging themselves to beat the game with different tactics, or to collect the rarest items.
Some of these items were fantastically inventive and opened up new ways to play, such as an armor set that reduced your stats but dramatically increased your luck, or a sword made of wind that allowed for devastatingly swift arcing strikes.
But all the cool weapons in the world aren’t much without a charismatic hero to wield them.
A Handsome Hero With Bad Boy Appeal
Just look at our dapper, dashing hero. Compared to the loincloth-wearing, whip-wielding barbaric Belmonts that preceded him, Alucard sure has some style. He can jump around swordfighting in high heels and a cape and make it look easy. The half-vampire (or Dhampir) son of Dracula and a human woman, Alucard lets players have it both waysâ€”the heroism of the vampire hunter with the dark, villainous appeal of the vampire.
As with any such dark, brooding hero, Alucard has a tragic backstory, centered around the death of Lisa, his mother. Not to mention some serious daddy issues (his name is actually Adrian, but he goes by Alucard to indicate his opposition to Dracula, his father).
This white-haired pretty boy may dress like a bad guy but he’s got a heart of gold and sticks up for humanity despite the temptations offered by Dracula’s minions. One of the things that makes Alucard so compelling is his family connections to the villains of the story. He’s not just another vampire hunter come to kill Dracula just because. It’s personal.
Alucard isn’t just one of the coolest-looking characters in gaming, but the aforementioned RPG elements also make him one of the most fun to play. After beating Symphony for the first time, it’s possible to play through it as Richter Belmont and as Marcia, both of whom play as more classical Castlevania protagonists. But they lack the range and the flair that makes playing Alucard so satisfying.
Alucard personifies Symphony‘s goth-fantasy style, but the supporting characters, enemies and environments are also visually stunning and full of personality. Just as Igarashi sought to revolutionize the gameplay, this aesthetic overhaul is mostly thanks to a particular artist whose work would take the franchise in a new visual direction.
Gothically Glamorous Graphics
The distinctive aesthetic of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night can be attributed to artist Ayami Kojima. Symphony was her first work in the video game industry. As the character designer, she conceptualized the game’s main and supporting cast.
Her bishonen-influenced art style proved to be so popular with the Castlevania fan base that the experiment in art direction became the main look for future titles in the franchise.
Kojima’s vision suffuses the whole game with a sinister gothic grandeur. Dracula’s castle isn’t a dreary dungeon, but full of aristocratic flourishes and intricate detail. Evil as he is, the villain has some serious taste.
The game is presented as 2D sprites animated over scrolling backgrounds, with rotation, scaling and parallax effects used liberally to simulate depth and motion. But occasionally, the 3D capabilities of the PlayStation punctuate the largely 2D world with cool details like the moving clouds in the Royal Chapel or the polygonal clock tower visible from the Castle Keep that rotates as the player moves. Some enemies and spells also render 3D elements as part of their special animations.
Some of the details in the game are still mind-boggling for a 2D title of its time. On the outer walls, you can carefully observe a mother dove hatch and raise chicks from her nest as the game clock progresses. These fine details aren’t always just there for show though.
Keep an eye out and you might just notice that turning the seemingly unimportant gears in the background can open up a secret treasure room, that sitting down in the chapel’s confessional booths can trigger a seriously creepy secret encounter or that certain objects in the castle are upside-down, foreshadowing a dramatic turn of events at the midpoint of the game.
What Is ‘Symphony Of The Night’? A Triumphant Pile Of Secrets
Even when played today, the depth of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night marks it as an absolutely standout game. It’s packed with fantastic little details. From its pretentious yet endearing literary references (Dracula quotes AndrÃ© Malraux, and from the book of Matthewâ€”Edmund Burke also gets a shout out later) to its treasure trove of easter eggs and tricks, Symphony is a rich, meaty, buffet of gaming goodness that more than satisfies the ambitions of Igarashi and his team.
They set out to make a Castlevania experience that was both replayable and satisfying in the long term. Mission accomplished. In researching this article for its 20 year anniversary, I’ve realized that there are still things in Symphony I’ve yet to see or accomplish, and I’m itching to take on Dracula’s castle once more.
Symphony was a perfect storm of action, story and gameplay depth that even later titles in the Castlevania franchise struggled to live up to. Modern indie titles such as Cave Story, Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight are keeping the Metroidvania flag flying, but it looks like a proper successor to Symphony of the Night might be just around the corner.
Koji Igarashi, who left Konami in 2014, responded to the many fan requests to revive the Castlevania franchise by launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night which was pitched as a spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
The Bloodstained Kickstarter was successfully funded with more than $5.5M in pledges, a record-smasher at the time. With Bloodstained, fans of Symphony might finally be getting that Metroidvania title with the depth and gothic flair they’ve been waiting for.
Bloodstained has a lot to live up to, but Symphony proves that Igarashi can deliver a truly great game. I’ll be keeping an eye on it, but in the meantime I’ll be celebrating 20 years of Symphony of the Night by dramatically smashing a wine glass on the carpet and firing up another game with my boy Alucard.
What are you favorite moments from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night?
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a few articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.