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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Adventure video game by Konami for the PlayStation 1

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The Sweetest Symphony

  • Feb 15, 2003
Pros: You get to be a half-vampire, with all the cool powers!

Cons: Good luck finding it

The Bottom Line: Dante from Devil May Cry has just met his match.

Alright, I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for good vampire lore. Among my favorite books are Dracula (go figure) and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. My favorite character in literature is Lestat, the charismatic vampire rock star who stars in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Buffy the Vampire Slayer used to be one of my favorite shows until Buffy turned into a whining, pining crybaby. And Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of my favorite video games. Strangly, though, I can’t remember any vampire movies off the top of my head that I liked. Except for Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but that was a parody so it doesn’t really count.

For a reenactment of Bram Stoker’s classic vamp, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is about as close as it gets. The star of the game is a vampire... Well, technically he’s only a half-vampire, but being the offspring of Dracula himself has to count for something, right? Since he’s half-vampire, that would mean that Dracula would have to have bedded a human woman. Well, not only did Drac manage to get a human woman into the sack, she came to him of her own free will! The resulting product was given some ultra-long moniker like Adrian Farenheights Tepes, so we all call him Alucard for short. And while Alucard is a mere half-vamp, he gets all the same cool powers as his dad. That includes blood drinking and changing into a wolf, a bat and mist. I’m still out on the whole sunlight issue though, so don’t bother asking me.

Eventually Alucard’s mother was burned at the stake for witchcraft because she practiced medicine. Even so, her last wish to Alucard was that he not hold any grudges against humans. So he doesn’t. In fact, at one point, he helped legendary vampire hunter Trevor Belmont dispose of Dracula. After that, he entered into what was supposed to be an eternal rest, and let the responsibility of knocking off the perpetually rising Dracula fall strictly to the Belmont clan, which, between the times of Trevor and Symphony, would train Christopher, Simon, Juste and Richter (I’m talking in chronology terms here, fanboys, NOT game order). While all four managed to avert the Count’s plans for another generation, only Richter managed to mysteriously vanish four years after his encounter. After a year, his sister-in-law Maria Renard set out to look for him and ran into the supposedly destroyed Castlevania. So where does Alucard enter into all this? Well, the forces of light and darkness began tugging at his soul, and now he’s awake and back at Castlevania to deal with his family problems.

That’s a pretty cool vampire story. Of course, it really should be. The team at Konami had some ten games (at the time of Symphony’s release) to set it up. You even get to play through the end of Dracula X as Richter to play catch-up. After that, the real game begins as you step into Alucard’s shoes to navigate your way through the prematurely resurrected Castlevania. Although Symphony has the Castlevania stamp on its package, the gameplay barely resembles the usual format that Castlevania vets have come to know and love (a general statement that is. I wouldn’t know. I’m not the most worn Castlevania vet). Instead, it redefined the series by taking out the stage format and replacing it with one that resembled Super Metroid-that is, no levels, just areas that you accessed by picking up items to give you abilities. A very unusual and bold decision by Konami, but one that worked out quite well. Even most of the Castlevania vets drank it down like it was water in Death Valley. The only exceptions were the really, really, super-hardcore fans of the series who whined about desecration-they couldn’t accept that the series had changed. So they basically didn’t have any valid complaints.

For those who don’t know anything about Super Metroid, it’s basically a game where you start out with nothing but a gun and a yellow spacesuit. You run around this giant area, taking mental notes about places you can’t enter when you first get to them. To get into them, you explore the area until you find the item that can help you get into the place you couldn’t reach before. Then you repeat the process until you have all the items needed to get to where the last boss is hanging out. Kill last boss. Victory, game over, and maybe a see ya real soon and a return to the title screen. Symphony plays the exact same way, except Samus’ fruit suit was replaced by a superhero cape, her gun with a sword, her T and A with a frank and beans.

Well, our boy Alucard begins the game with all the latest fahion items: The best sword, armor and shield money could buy (if he actually paid money for them). It’s a shame he doesn’t keep them long enough to show them off at school. After a couple of screens, Death shows up and steals Alucard’s hot duds, leaving him with just his fists and the clothes on his back. So, his original plan of rushing to Drac’s chamber like a kamikaze pilot foiled, poor Alucard is now stuck wandering around inside the castle to look for or buy the items. As you go along, you’ll probably notice that most of Big D’s minions are no match for you even despite your lack of vampiric equipment. Heck, most of them are downright pushovers-flick your finger and they break. Sure, you have a few areas where certain eneimies can be a nusuiance because of where they happen to be standing (the colliseum will eat you alive if you’re not prepared or skilled enough) and you get a few real big enemies that can give you fits later in the game, but for the most part, any novelty gamer with the slightest amount of skill will breeze through no problem. Save points, which also regenerate your health, can be found and reached whenever you’re in need of their services. Most of the bosses are slaughtered just as easily. Many casual gamers will get to the last chamber, pound the last boss, and watch the ending while wondering why they ever payed for a game this easy. Even if you decide to buy the map from the librarian, you take one glance, mutter “this is it?” and complain about dissatisfaction.

Ah, those cutely naive casual gamers. Spoiled by their pretty, memory-card-required, 3d video games. They’ll never get it, will they? If they play once, they’ll never get to experience the surprising (and not unwelcome) little curveballs the game will throw if you look hard enough. They’ll never realize that the map only covers about half of Castlevania. One of the coolest things about Symphony is casually walking into another room, looking at the map... And seeing that the room you’re in wasn’t marked on the map. Some of these unmarked areas contain items that will make your quest to get dad a whole lot easier. In fact, if they don’t bother with these secret ares, they’ll never get to fight Dracula at all. You need to have a certain item in hand when you fight the final boss to be able to enter the reverse castle and finish off Ol’ Pointy Teeth for the century. The reverse castle, in case you’re wondering, is an upside-down and backwards version of the original castle. Since this little feature may have casual gamers wondering what the point is, I’ll again tell them: The bad guys who inhabit the reverse castle are different, and they’ll spank you MUCH harder than the guys in the original castle. And if you beat the game with a certain percentage beat, you get to go on with the original tradition and assume the role of a Belmont (Richter) in your next game. Two games for the price of one, and they’re supposedly pretty different from each other.

If the whole two-for-one deal isn’t enough to convince you, then it’s back to Alucard’s being a half-vampire. He has the standard shapeshifts. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to turn him into a wolf, which is a rather pointless transformation. The wolf just plods along, biting his enemies until Alucard’s magic points run out. No real reason to use him, except for the novelty of being a wolf. Then you have a bat (as every good vampire has), that can fly and spit fire (but only with the aid of another relic, of course). Finally, there’s the mist transformation, which allows Alucard to float through closed passages and enemies. Alucard can also get his hands on a spell that lets him replenish his hit points by touching the blood of his enemies. The triangle button serves the function of making Alucard suddenly move backward, as if he was floating just above the ground (which he probably is). Admit it, you wanna play Symphony ‘cause vampires are freakin’ COOL! They rank right up there with ninjas on the coolness scale.

Since Alucard is also half-human, that unfortunately means you also have to put up with his more human side. The upside to this is that Alucard isn’t exactly a wimp. Instead of the old tradition of having just one attack button, Konami allowed Alucard use both his hands. And YOU get to decide what he holds in both of them! Want a standard sword and shield arrangment? Thy will be done! Want Alucard to be an offensive powerhouse with two weapons? Call up the equipment menu and give him the two most powerful weapons you’ve got! Whatever you want Alucard to use is yours to make him use! Nor is it limited to his hands, either. Yep, these days you can also equip armor, headgear and most other RPG standard stuff. Oh, and, uh, Alucard can also jump.

The customization isn’t the only thing that Symphony of the Night has in common with RPGs. The game itself may not move up in levels, but Alucard does-yes, the game records experience points. Quite different from the old ways, eh? Just don’t expect to power up a whole lot in order to make the game easier. Building levels in the original castle is no easy task because the enemies in the beginning get real weak real quickly, and weak enemies don’t yield oodles of experience points. The original castle is easy enough anyway. Once you reach the reverse castle, though, it’s a whole other ballgame, and for awhile it’ll seem like you’ll be gaining a level for every other bad guy taken out. Alucard can use magic spells, complete with magic points, when you pick up the scrolls to learn them off of. Most of these spells are performed by rolling your finger along the d-pad and pressing a button at the end of the movement a la fighting games. And it just wouldn’t be a Castlevania game without sub-weapons. Although the controller layout does leave one button open, Konami decided to let you use the sub-weapons in the old traditional Castlevania way: Pressing up and attack at the same time. Yes, you still use heart points and find hearts by whipping candles. And yes, Alucard can use the cross sub-weapon.

Symphony of the Night is a traditional two-dimensional side-scroller, and so Konami decided to use traditional two-dimensional graphics. While they may sound boring and uneventful, remember that the PlayStation is a 32-bit console. Gamers from the 16-bit old school will flip the on switch and marvel at the amazing things Konami did with the PlayStation’s power. Sure, the sprites could have appeared on the Super NES or Genesis, but they probably wouldn’t have been this polished and fluent. Alucard is an amazingly detailed little sprite. He moves his arms when he runs and his long hair and cape flow behind him. When he changes direction fast, you see him stop moving his legs and begin floating until he turns around. The coolest thing about Alucard is the mesmorizing trail of shadows that trails behind him. Even with all the attention paid to Alucard, Konami still made room to make the most detail enemies ever seen in two dimensions. And those gorgeous, gorgeous backgrounds. Konami clearly tried to push the PlayStation’s limits in certain scenes.

By now you’ve probably heard every cliche about how symphonic the music in Symphony is, so I’ll spare you another one. That doesn’t mean I’m about to shoot down any of those cliches, though. In fact, I’d like to invent another one. Symphony is pure ear candy in every area, employing every kind of music you could imagine. There are haunting classical pieces, hard rock riffs, and even a jazz piano tune in the underground area. Although the some of the tunes in the reverse castle are quite repetitive, they can’t detract from the magnificence and scope of the music in the original castle. The sounds also contribute their part. Things like breaking glass, bouncing skull heads and things erupting in flames all have the perfect sounds to capture them. And although the voice-over acting is the worst I’ve ever heard, it still manages to match the dialogue. Maybe because the dialogue is just as cheesy.

Old school 2d gamers have come to expect flawless controls in 2d games... Nay, they DEMAND it. And Alucard is the smoothest character you’ll ever have the pleasure of controlling. Each sword has a different kind of handling, so the number of times which Alucard can swing it in a certain amount of times varies from sword to sword. It adds some depth. Alucard moves quickly, and his jumps are controllable from the first foot off to the second foot back on. The spells can be hard to cast because of the thumb movements, but they’re still easier to use than most similar movements in fighting games. In a nutshell, the controls are flawles in the way the old school gamers demand. So if you die, it’s YOUR fault.

I shoulda bought it for 20 clams. I woulda bought it for 20 clams. I COULDA bought it for 20 clams. That last one really kills me. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a PlayStation Greatest Hit, which means it was available for 20 bucks once upon a time. But it seems that people introduced to gaming in three dimensions took the same kind of liking to it that old school 2d gamers did. Read: Ya want it, it’s a toughie these days, possibly out of print, and so the stores are willing to jack up the price on any copy they can find-I paid almost 40 dollars for my copy, used and with the Greatest Hits label. I was lucky that my local store even had a copy. If you walk in asking for it these days, the clerks are more likely to laugh in your face and say “good luck”. I’ll tell you though, when I bought it, the clerk told me he paid the full 50 for it when it first came out. He said he’d do it again. I’ll second the motion-Symphony of the Night quickly found a spot of my list of all-time faves.



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Nicholas Croston ()
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The CASTLEVANIA saga takes a new twist with CASTLEVANIA: Symphony of the Night. One hundred years have passed and Dracula's legendary castle is reappearing. For centuries, the Belmont family has tried to destroy Dracula; unfortunately, they've failed. Now the only person who can end Dracula's reign of terror is his son, Alucard. Take control of Alucard rather than one of the Belmonts as he hacks and whips through the monsters that occupy the castle. Although the main character is not a Belmont, much of the classic CASTLEVANIA gameplay returns. Alucard must collect hearts to use special weapons, including a clock that freezes time and holy water that burns the monsters that it hits. There are several familiars that help Alucard along the way. Will he be able to destroy his father? The answer lies at the end of CASTLEVANIA: Symphony of the Night.
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ESRB: T - (Teen)
Number of Players: 1
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: January, 1997

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"The Sweetest Symphony"
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