After beating Rondo of Blood, I did two things. I downloaded Super Castlevania IV on my WiiU and played through that and I started playing the Symphony of the Night port in the PSP. That was the game I was originally trying to play in the first place. I had wanted to play the Castlevania game that most often gets called the best, and almost unanimously agreed that it is the best of the “Metroidvania” style games, the style it brought to the series. I have played all the games the sprung from this one, but by the time I was aware of it on the PS1, it was hard to find and expensive. While it has been on the PSP and Playstation Store for quite a while, I hadn’t made time to play it until now. I’m glad I’ve played it now; Symphony of the Night is excellent.
Symphony of the Night turned the level based set up of the previous games into the series into a giant, connected, Metroid-like map. Instead of a steadily more challenging tour through Dracula’s Castle, here it is one giant map that is kind of free to explore from the start. The game doesn’t force you to go anywhere, but you are limited by what abilities Alucard has found. This means that the difficult can be uneven. It is also changed from being a straight action game to being an RPG. Alucard gains levels and has quantified stats. It is not necessarily a good change, but it is certainly not a bad one.
Symphony of the Night doesn’t feel as perfect and complete as Super Metroid, the other game that led to the made up word Metroidvania. Super Metroid is pure, distilled perfection. There is nothing extraneous in the game. All of the tools and abilities that Samus ends up decked out with are to some extent necessary. (I am of course referring only to a normal playthough, not using any of the special tricks that can almost break the game.) Symphony of the Night, on the other hand, is filled to the brim with extraneous tools and abilities. Yes, Alucard gains necessary abilities like the double jump and the bat form. But there are also elements like the weapons, which are varied and special but none of them are strictly necessary. There are the familiars, which I didn’t even realize existed until I was more than halfway through the game.
That is what makes Symphony of the Night great. Super Metroid may be neat and polished; Symphony of the Night is messy. It is filled to the brim with stuff to find and toys to play with. The fact that most of these elements add to the game rather than detract from it is amazing. The player doesn’t really lose anything by not using familiars, but they add something to the game. If the player doesn’t want to deal with messing with their equipment, they can use the short sword that the player is almost required to get. While it uses a similar set up to Metroid, it ends up being quite different. Every time you play Super Metroid it is largely the same. Symphony of the night changes with each attempt, depending on what items enemies happen to drop and which tools you choose to emphasize. Those tools are fun to use. There are tons of weapons to choose from, many with unique special properties. The experience of the game can change drastically with some equipment choices. While not exactly the strongest weapon in the game, the Shield Rod has special abilities when paired with certain shields. Some weapons have greater range or swing faster. The leveling system can also be manipulated into making the game harder or easier depending on how you approach the game.
One of the most interesting things about Symphony of the Night is that while it seemed an offshoot, a strange experiment for the series, it ended up being the true continuation of the series. It is the game that kept the Castlevania series limping along for a decade when most 16-bit franchises not owned by Nintendo fell by the wayside. The series went 3D like everyone else, with about an average amount of success; which means that the games were bad, but not completely terrible. It wasn’t the smashing success of Ocarina of Time or Mario 64, but neither was it Bubsy 3D. The 3D side of the series muddled on, but those aren’t the game people remember. The ones that people love are Symphony’s progeny, the Metroidvanias that Konami produced for the GBA and DS. People remember Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow, they don’t tend to recall Lament of Innocence.
None of the later games ever surpassed Symphony of the Night, though. They often came close, but never quite reached the peak. The rough edges that made Symphony special were never really sanded off, they were usually just moved to a new area. Whether from a lack of care, money or time (or a combination of all three) none of the handheld games showed the same attention to detail that this game did. This one was a masterpiece, a one of a kind game that deserves its reputation for being one of the greatest games of all time.