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CONSOLE: PlayStation DEVELOPER: Konami PUBLISHER: Konami
RELEASE DATE (NA): October 2, 1997 GENRE: Platformer
// review by Jeff

This is probably the only symphony I could sit through to the end.

The Castlevania series has prevailed since the mid-1980s, ever since it first appeared on the old Famicom Disk System add-on back in 1986 when Simon Belmont first brandished the coveted Vampire Hunter whip. It has seen more than its fair share of sequels and side-stories across pretty much every popular console so far (note the underlining of "popular" -- don't expect to see Castlevania games on he Atari Jaguar), and there is no intention to slow down. Some titles have been questioned due to their change in structure. Castlevania Judgment for the Wii, for example, played out as a 3D fighting game, and has been widely criticized as such. Heck, pretty much every 3D Castlevania title has been nitpicked by fans of the series. But there is a "different" game that most players instantly fell in love with, and that is "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night". Unlike all previous Castlevania games at the time, this was more than a mere stage-by-stage platformer. Bearing some exploration elements from the Metroid series, you also had to travel back and forth between different areas, finding new items and opening passages that would help you to progress. Castlevania became a true adventure, and it proved to be one of the finest games available for the PlayStation.

The beginning of the game sets the tone for the rest of the game's storyline. Set after the events of the Japan-only "Akumajo Dracula X Chi no Rondo" (or "Castlevania: Rondo of Blood" as a rough translation), the game starts out with you playing the role of Richter Belmont, yet another in the Belmont bloodline, having to fight and defeat Dracula. Fast forward four years later, and you have Richter under the curse of evil, being controlled by Shaft the dark priest. He's a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman (not to mention that he's a bad motha-shut-yo-mouth). Richter has been proclaimed as the Lord of Castlevania. This unfortunate imbalance of good and evil plays horrible tricks on the sleeping patterns of Alucard, son of Dracula, and awakens him. Yes, that's right, Dracula's son's name is Alucard, which is just Dracula's name backwards. How creative. Hey, care to meet MY son, Ffej? How about my daughter, who is also named Ffej? Anyway, Alucard, also knowing that Castlevania isn't exactly a castle, but more like a nasty entity all its own which changes shape to muddle the minds of passersby, notes that the castle is indeed changing shape again. After a balanced breakfast of toast and blood wine, he rushes there to find out what's going on, and that's where you (the player) come in. Help Alucard solve the mysteries of Castlevania! ...oh, and some fine-looking gal named Maria Renard is also looking for Richter, and she will meet up with you to drop some new information at your feet.

With a plot like that, the game had better be fly, eh? And fly it is. First thing you'll notice is that at a time when three-dimensional releases were the hip thing to produce (not to mention the ugly thing to produce), the development team stood their ground and released a two-dimensional sprite-based adventure that looks absolutely phenomenal. The extremely detailed Transylvanian castle interior scenery (and some exterior moments) are well-crafted and deliver an eerie yet mildly comfortable atmosphere to your quest. Alucard even gets the option to sit down in a variety of neat chairs throughout his quest -- a testament to designer Koji Igarashi's distinct love for furniture. (The ability to sit down was transferred to future Castlevania titles as well.) Every sprite is perfect down to the finest detail, and the bosses, typically large and composed of numerous sprites together, are believably spooky. Alucard, in particular, is animated flowingly with a translucent trail behind for an extra weird effect while moving. The game does occasionally cross over into 3D territory, such as with haunted books that try to attack Alucard, or a slowly rotating clock tower in the background, but these aspects are implemented in such a way that it almost feels as though they genuinely belong there, as though a mutualistic relationship between 2D and 3D has formed. Even 3D buffs can admit that this game looks and feels charming. And let's not forget about the wonderful soundtrack, which grabs elements from all sorts of genres to create a unique feel to the game. I wish I could say the same for the voice acting. My goodness, did they record all the voices in a tunnel or something? It sounds like they had a budget of $20, and only used up about 8 of those dollars and spent the rest at McDonalds afterwards.

But the gameplay is the most important part of any game, right? Well, it should be. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night boasts the typical platforming structure you would come to expect from the series -- almost. Alucard controls a bit more fluidly than previous iterations, but unfortunately, he does not have a whip. That's right -- no whipping for us! Instead, Alucard wields swords, spears, wacky boomerangs... he basically is a one-man army. Plus he can also equip nice armor and accessories for greater defense and other effects, not to mention the classic sub-weapons, the variety of which is even more astounding this time around than ever before. And as you go along, you can slice up enemies and gain experience so you can level up and boost your powers! It's like an RPG, isn't it? You'd better build yourself up fairly well, or some bosses will beat the living daylights out of you before you know it. Unfortunately, as you become stronger, the enemies start giving you less and less experience points after you defeat them, so you are pretty much forced to move on, rather than take the cheap way out and build yourself up ahead of time. Clever boys, Konami hired. Over time, Alucard will also gain some special moves. I didn't really have a need for them, but if you want your character to also be the ultimate weapon of choice, the opportunity is there. But perhaps better still is his ability to summon Familiars to accomopany him. As you collect them, they will float around you and do what they do best as the situation warrants. The Faerie familiar, for example, will heal you when you are feeling low on health, while the Bat familiar will swoop down and cause a bit of damage to foes (not THAT much damage, though -- expect to do most of the work yourself). That's great, but until these familiars level up to a decent point (which never seemed to happen much for me because even at fairly high levels, they stunk), they're just eye candy. But I saved the most interesting part for last: when you find the special orbs, Alucard can transform into several different creatures of the night! Be the bat to fly to formerly unreachable heights, be the wolf to run around really quickly and plow through lowly foes, or be the misty cloud and... float through grates. Yeah, that's really something else.

However, the best part of the game actually happens at the end, though. Or so I thought it was the end. The final boss is supposedly the possessed Richter Belmont, which you may have already figured out. However, if you defeat him under certain conditions, then you discover yourself that it is Shaft who is up to no good. But he is hiding out in a second castle that you must travel to, so there's a second half to the game that some players may not even get to see! And what's even more amazing is that the second castle is actually the first one UPSIDE DOWN. Everything old is new again, so whatever was on the ceiling is now on the floor, and everything is maze-like once again. Note the furniture still hanging from the ceiling. It is truly a sight to see and something that pretty much doubles the value and the charm of this game.

But every game has downsides, right? That's true. So what's wrong with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, you ask? For starters, going underwater is an absolute bitch. No matter what I tried, all I did was lose health rapidly while diving below the surface (not to mention due to all the other lousy creatures who have a vendetta on Alucard). Your best bet is to just stay out of there unless it's necessary. Secondly, precisely what you have to do to solve certain puzzles is not always immediately apparent... or ever apparent at all. Knowing that you have to wear certain rings in a certain room is a bit too cryptic for my tastes, unless someone just comes out and tells me so. It's not as enigmatic as the mysteries of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but still, Castlevania players were never thinkers -- they were vampire slayers. So don't make us think too hard; pepper some half-decent clues around. Lastly... whoever thought HEARTS would be a good currency needs to get their head examined. Aside from maybe a transplant centre, what is a shopkeeper to do with 1200 rotting hearts on his counter? Perhaps he has a heart fetish. I don't know; I don't want to know.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is hailed as a true classic on the PlayStation, and I will agree with them. Sadly, mere words do not describe the infinitesimal details that make this game such a joy to play through. Plus there are so many different items to find and nooks to explore (not to mention the neat crannies, too) that the replay value is boosted significantly. Although it may be more costly to buy a copy for the original PlayStation (or Sega Saturn, if you still own one of those things), the game is readily available by other means. You can download it directly via Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network, and it's also available on the PSP as part of "Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles", which features a remake of this game's Japan-only prequel. Give it a try, and you will experience what many consider to be the best of Castlevania.


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