The Greatest Games: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Developed by Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo

Where several other series gracelessly stumbled into the PlayStation era and its 3D technology, Castlevania was a rare series which decided to hold back and continue to evolve 2D gameplay. While its contemporaries were treading murky water in a new form, few 2D games had ever felt as smooth as Symphony of the Night.

That’s not to say Symphony of the Night was just another Castlevania with a stronger aesthetic. The series started as a traditional platformer, but Symphony of the Night mixed in elements from the Metroid series. This led to the specific niche being titled ‘Metroidvania.’

This is a popular style to imitate among indie developers, but few have ever neared the heights of the two games which popularized the genre. The format is an excuse to make platforming games with one giant world. The difficulty here is making sure that world both offers reasons to revisit earlier areas while also never being too unruly. The trick to a good Metroidvania is a design which subtly guides the player in the right direction while giving tons of room to explore.

Another key element is a certain thematic consistency. Get too scattered without much cycling back through older areas, and a ‘Metroidvania’ game might simply come off as a traditional platformer where the levels are linked together. Symphony of the Night achieves this by being all about Dracula’s Castle. Even as Alucard wanders through endlessly different halls, this feeling of one massive location remains throughout the experience. This sense of one epic level is something few genres can pull off.

And then you reach the top, and this massive world literally turns upside down. The second half of the game finds Alucard in an inverted castle, which carries over the exact same layout with stronger enemies. While plenty of games get deserved flack for repeating areas, the realization they had to design these areas to work in both directions is truly impressive. Despite the same visual aesthetic, navigating these areas becomes an entirely new experience. Meanwhile, the player is still able to explore based on their knowledge of the original castle. It’s a bold choice which could have come off as simple padding, but it turned out to be an efficient and effective way of doubling the length of a fantastic game.

The combat in the Castlevania series has always been simple fun. Most of it revolves around the cycle of getting close enough to enemies to land a hit, with a few special moves to hit from some distance. The skill is based around adapting to the unique enemy designs. Some fly around the screen, others give narrow windows between attacks. Add in the fluid movement, and it’s simply enjoyable to wander aimlessly around this castle until stumbling into the next boss.

A major reason I prefer Metroidvania games to traditional platformers is their focus on sustained damage. In games where levels are broken into smaller chunks, death tends to come in one or two hits. For a proper Metroidvania, enemies slowly chip away at health, and the challenge stems from trying to safely arrive at the next safe zone. I find this experience less stressful – dying in a traditional platformer can feel like punishment when the game keeps sending the player back to the beginning when only one section is actually giving trouble. It feels as those these games are asking the player to be perfect and exaggerating any failure. Generally, when you die in a Metroidvania, it means a lot of little things went wrong, so going back to the last check point actually feels deserved.

Dozens of great Metroidvania games have been released since Symphony of the Night, but few have matched the contained environmental design. Sure, the maps have gotten bigger, but the sheer style of Castlevania is difficult to match. Outside the genre, few moments are as shocking as the castle flip. Symphony of the Night offers tons of surprises and variety, all made easy to consume through its top-notch 2D gameplay.

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