Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is my favorite game of all time. I’d wager to say that 25% of the articles I’ve written here have mentioned it or featured it entirely. Surprisingly, I’ve yet to make it the focus of a Retro Spotlight.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SotN) was released in North America on October 2, 1997 for PlayStation. It was directed by both Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, the latter becoming the name most synonymous with the game and Castlevania franchise since its release. During development, Konami was focused heavily on bringing the franchise to 3D, putting its “A” team in charge of Castlevania 64. Because the attention was largely on how the franchise would utilize polygons, SotN was allowed to go a little crazy.
Originally, the game was being developed as a side-story to the franchise. 2D Castlevania games were a thing of the past, so Igarashi and team tried to reinvent how they were created. Rather than the more traditional arcade-style 2D games, which featured a handful of challenging levels presented as stages, SotN would become an open world of sorts, allowing the player to explore the world and backtrack when new abilities were learned. Taking inspiration from the likes of The Legend of Zelda and Super Metroid, SotN placed the player inside of Dracula’s Castle, and early in the game demonstrated that not every area could be accessed. Through continuous gameplay, the player would acquire new skills or find a key that would unlock a new section.
Keeping with the traditional games in the series, the player interacts with the world on a 2D plane, encountering enemies which must be defeated as they come at the player. Igarashi and team changed a lot about the basic concept aside from opening the game up to exploring, by introducing RPG elements to the game. Taking control of Alucard, son of Dracula, the player levels up as the game progresses, earning higher stat points, health points, etc. The player can eventually earn the ability to transform into different forms, including mist and a bat.
SotN interestingly hides a major portion of the game to those competent enough (or with access to a guide) to piece together a puzzle that unlocks an entire half of the game world. Players may only experience half of what the game has to offer and never see the true ending if certain actions are not completed.
The game introduces the first strong narrative in the franchise history. Previous games told the story of the Belmont clan and their fight against Dracula, however the story was largely told during credits sequences and game manuals. Here, the game features voice acting and a story that develops as the player progresses through the game. The story changes depending on how the player progresses through secret areas and how much is uncovered.
SotN largely gave birth to the portmanteau Metroidvania, defining a style of game which involves a large map that can only be completed through repetitious exploration and backtracking. Following its release, Igarashi continued to develop games in the style of SotN, producing three games for the Game Boy Advance and three for the Nintendo DS. Many developers refer to SotN as inspiration for their games, and entire websites have been devoted to cataloguing games in the genre.
Igarashi has since left Konami, and is now developing Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a game which looks to recreate the magic that is SotN in a world outside of Castlevania.
The game holds so many small details, easter eggs, and references to previous games in the series. An item called “Secret Boots” contains an item description that reads: “Discreetly increases height!” Equipping the item has no effect other than raising Alucard’s sprite by one pixel. The entire second half of the game has Alucard collecting pieces of Dracula, much like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. At one point, the character will fight zombie versions of Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades, and Grant Danasty from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
There is no game as perfect to me as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. There is no game that I can return to year after year like I can Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s been just over 18 years since its release, yet the game still looks and plays great. It is truly a classic and a game that you must experience if not once then one hundred times.