Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - The Incredible Metamorphosis
How an ambitious few bravely shattered conventions and put together one of the grandest, most transformative games I'd ever experienced.

Frankly, it was starting to get on my nerves: Every time I'd run a Castlevania-related web search, its name would dominate the results listing. Every time I'd hit up Yahoo! and attempt to research a particular aspect of a recently played series title like Castlevania: Bloodlines or Castlevania Legends, that same ol' name would come to occupy the first two or three pages' worth of returned links in place of whatever it was I actually typed.

"What is it with this damn 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night?'" I'd wonder for the umpteenth time as I skimmed through those ever-familiar results, my expression one of annoyance. "Why do these search engines insist on spitting it out as the most relevant match when clearly my search queries couldn't be any more disparate?"

That's how it was during the early days of my Castlevania site's construction, when I was busily journeying my way through history but kept finding myself distracted by the uncomfortable reminder that a highly acclaimed series title had recently seen release on a modern console I knew little about and didn't care to research. I realized that this was going to pose a huge problem for me going forward; under the circumstances, it was going to be impossible for me to provide Symphony of the Night proper coverage, since I had no desire to own a second console, and it was unlikely that I'd find an alternate means to access the game. Things being as hectic as they were, I just didn't need the headache that came along with thinking of ways to deal with the issue, so it was my inclination to simply avoid the topic of Symphony of the Night for as long as possible. "Let it wait until I'm good and ready to acknowledge its existence," I'd say with a sneer.

For however much I rationalized that I was annoyed with the game because of how its unavailability threatened to stunt my site's growth, I knew that my sentiments toward it were born more so from a place of bitterness. After all--here we had yet another instance of Konami bringing a Castlevania title exclusively to a non-Nintendo system when previously such ventures had been met with failure. "Why not also bring it to the N64?" I wondered, my shade of frustration similar to what it was when I first saw that only-on-Genesis Bloodlines commercial five years prior. "You know--where the audience who grew up with the series and actually appreciates it is currently playing?"

At the time, I was only vaguely familiar with Sony's 32-bit PlayStation, yet I knew enough to where the mere mention of its name would fill me with feelings of resentment. That is, my opinion of the PlayStation brand was informed mainly by the obnoxious, needlessly inflammatory commercials that the company was pumping out at a rapid clip; the biggest offender was the one where a man wearing a Crash Bandicoot costume drove up to Nintendo's headquarters and started shouting disparaging remarks over a microphone. Whenever I'd force myself to suffer through it, I'd do so while while shaking my head and holding my arms up in puzzlement. "Why is Sony choosing to be so petty?" I'd wonder each time it aired. "Why does this company think it can win me over by tearing down the competition?"

As I'd always found the idea of system wars to be repellent, this was grounds for me to write off the PlayStation entirely. Seriously--no company was going to endear itself to me by pissing all over the industry's beloved pioneers, be it Atari, Nintendo or whoever. I regarded this this type of marketing as egregious, just as I did in the early 90s when Sega adopted the same tactics, and there was no way I was going to reward such behavior.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's only crime, then, was being guilty by association.

Of course, I was acutely aware of how childishly I was behaving. For however pissed I was about the whole exclusivity deal, I possessed wisdom enough to know that I had nothing to gain from ignoring great games and viable consoles because I felt somehow aggrieved by their creators. So if I wanted to play Symphony of the Night, which by all accounts was "the best Castlevania ever," and earnestly provide coverage for it on my site, then I was going to have to man up and get myself a PlayStation. And as it just so happened that there were a few other PlayStation games in which I'd recently taken interest, it seemed like the perfect time to jump in. So sometime during the autumn months of 1999, my brother and I went to our local Electronics Boutique and picked ourselves up a PlayStation and a copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Though I'd chosen to adhere to reasonability, I couldn't deny that I was feeling like a bit of a traitor for bringing a PlayStation into my home. I mean, here I was unboxing a console whose marketing campaigns entailed belittling enthusiasts like me who had a strong attachment to the medium's history and its most notable contributors. Yet something strange happened: All of those traces of resentment vanished in an instant when I placed the PlayStation atop the makeshift "cabinet" ("shoddily constructed assemblage of cheap wooden trays") in front of our den's big-screen TV and in that instant realized what this console symbolized; even back then, before my passion for the medium was fully developed, I could feel that sense of enrichment that came from owning a new type of console--an unknown, unexplored platform whose library was likely filled with the types of wonderfully unique games I'd come to love if only I were to give them a chance. Suddenly it was exciting to think about what this console--my new PlayStation--represented!

But for the moment, there was only one question that needed answering: No--not "Is Symphony of the Night, on its own, worth the price of admission?" but instead "How in the hell do we get this game CD to fit into the disk tray?"

No, really: My brother, James, and I spent upwards of twenty minutes trying to figure out why the lid wouldn't close. "Is the console defective?" we wondered. "Or maybe we're supposed to remove part of this apparatus and then screw it back in over the CD?"

We didn't think to depress the CD down onto the peg, because our feeling was that the CD might snap in half if we pushed down on its sides with any amount of force, so we'd just kinda lay it down atop the peg and leave it tilting at an angle. None of our arrangements would bear fruit. In the end, we had to admit defeat and call Sony's customer-service department to find out the correct method for inserting CDs. The company's operators must've thought we were a couple of crackpots.

And that was about as far as James' interest stretched. He wouldn't come into contact with the console again until months later, when, as per usual, he started amassing a large collection of used PlayStation games and of course never played any of them for longer than an hour. That was my brother--the flakiest of flakes.

All that remained was my date with destiny.

I was eager to play Symphony of the Night, though my excitement was somewhat tempered with skepticism. After all: There had been plenty of instances where I'd been misled by Internet opinion--where I'd purchased an allegedly "amazing" game only to discover that the voices in question had deemed it as much on the basis of their favorable assessment of game aspects that held little value to me (graphical realism, extreme violence, needless complexity, superfluous length, and such)--so there was room for me to suspect that Symphony's values might align more with, say, the showy and eventful but ultimately shallow Mortal Kombat than the artistically brilliant, technically nuanced, and endlessly replayable Street Fighter II. I mean, I had to take into account that the PlayStation was supposedly the console for super-cool, "mature" people who championed those like the former; they didn't care to find common ground with some unevolved dink like me with my "broad range of interests" and "20-year history with the medium." According to them, I wasn't a "real gamer," yo.

But Symphony of the Night wasn't a game that cared about my skepticism or preconceived notions. It had no interest in promoting system wars or tribalism. No--its was a tale of transcendence. Right from the jump, it showed itself to be uncompromising in its agenda to blow me away with a level of majesty I couldn't possibly have foreseen. It wasted no time in expressing its intense desire to shatter my expectations--of thwacking me with haymakers--starting with an unanticipated opening scene that brilliantly provided context for Symphony's story by reenacting the final moments of Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, its direct predecessor. "How did I not know about this?" I wondered in amazement.

As I'd missed out on the PC-Engine exclusive--my experience with Dracula X limited to the butchered SNES port--it was surreal to unexpectedly find myself in control of Richter Belmont in the traditionally designed side-scrolling "Final Stage" of a game I never played. Until then, my only knowledge of this scene was derived from the screenshots I'd viewed on the Castlevania Dungeon website; now here I was suddenly playing it--or at least an interpretation of it. What an awesome surprise!

As I ran about the structurally faithful Castle Keep, collecting hearts while taking in the absolutely rocking musical accompaniment, I was struck by how much this "Final Stage" reminded me of the early minutes of Super Metroid, wherein R&D1 effectively used the familiar setting of old Brinstar to evoke the spirit of the series' progenitor and make me feel instantly at home. So too did the "Final Stage" create a sense of comfort--a feeling of authenticity that did so much to convince me of the creators' competence. It had to have been that they were keenly aware of Super Metroid's creative successes and wished for their game to carry its spirit, though to what extent I wasn't yet sure. But one thing was crystal clear: The people who made Symphony of the Night were highly respectful of the games that influenced it; I could trust that theirs was a sincere effort. And I was certain that the game they'd crafted was about to take me to a special place.

Sure--I felt inclined criticize the voice acting (in both this scene and indeed the game as a whole) for its hamminess and how it might have been memorable for the wrong reasons, but I wasn't offended by its presence. To the contrary, I considered it an essential part of the experience; for however goofy the dialogue was, it worked to provide the game an extra bit of character that would have been otherwise lost to cold, awkward silence. Had I never played the game again, I wouldn't have forgotten memorable lines like "What is a man?" and "Have at you!" I could say early on that Symphony of the Night was one of the most utterly quotable games around.

Alucard's campaign felt epic from the very start. One event bled into the next, each contributing its puff to the ballooning the sense of enormity. I remember it all so vividly: Alucard raced through the haunted woodland--the sounds of fierce winds and crashing thunder providing the scene its eerie texture--and breached the closing drawbridge with a breathtaking leap. The tension built as he slayed the guardian Wargs within the dark, silent Castle Halls, the frequent lightning strikes supplying them the briefest of luminance. Then suddenly the castle sprung to life, much like old Brinstar and Crateria before it, as another stunningly rousing tune (which I'd later come to know as "Dracula's Castle") kicked in. 

Palpable ambition reverberated through every corridor in following; even those that were devoid of enemies or purely functional were imbued with a haunting quality that contributed to the overarching sense of grandeur.

I wasn't expecting any of this: The impressively crafted cinematics! The smooth-as-silk controls! The amazing graphics and visual effects! The unfathomably awesome music and sound design! "Where did this game come from?" I'd wonder every few moments as the game constantly endeavored to find new ways to fill me with awe. I wasn't a fan of RPG systems in side-scrolling action games, but Symphony's was implemented so incredibly well that I never once felt intimidated by it; and it was unmatched in terms of how it visually communicated information--in how registered strikes would produce numbers that sometimes wiggled, pulsated and zipped off the screen with a neat distortion effect. I can't name an RPG-driven game in which leveling up holds such visceral appeal!

I was fully absorbed in Symphony of the Night. I was looking forward to seeing what each new room held--to gauging its aesthetic wonder and finding out which gorgeously designed enemies were lurking within it. Still I'd take time to idle within vacant rooms and let myself be enveloped by their atmosphere--to soak in their conveyance of danger, unease and epicness as generated by the appropriately symphonic combinations of lovingly detailed backgrounds (including one memorable instance where a giant eyeball was tracking my progress from the Marble Gallery's background) and sweeping, orchestral-level musical compositions. The game knew how to stoke my imagination and fill me with energy, and for that reason I was pumped to see and hear more of it.

As I'd done minimal research on the game in the run-up to purchasing it (as is normal for me, since I prefer to be completely surprised by a game's content), I came to hold many assumptions about Symphony of the Night.. I expected, for instance, that its bestiary would feature a largely unique cast of enemies, with a few of the overexposed veterans (like the Phantom Bat, Medusa, Frankenstein's Monster and the Grim Reaper) filling out the list. That's why I was genuinely shocked when I ran into Slogra and Gaibon in the Alchemy Lab. That's right--two iconic bosses from Super Castlevania IV, one of my all-time series favorites, were teaming together in a game that I never imagined would welcome their kind--a pair of one-off bosses from a game recent Castlevania directors seemed apt to ignore; yet here they were in Symphony of the Night, looking as though they'd been ripped directly ripped from their game of origin. Save for their newly introduced tag-team maneuvers, they looked and performed just as faithfully as I'd remembered. I couldn't have been more pleased with what I was seeing!

So what if they'd been demoted to jobber status? Their appearance represented another one of those unexpectedly awesome moments that made the game for me. It told me that Symphony of the Night had no intention of disregarding the contributions made by games pre-Rondo of Blood. No, no, no--this game was going to be all-encompassing in a very special way. Anything was possible, it seemed. And I couldn't wait to find out who was going to show up next!

From there, my memories become less specific; I'd consider all of the other steps of the journey to be the tiny memory fragments of a more memorably epic whole. Really, I'd be here for three years if I attempted to discuss every detail that meant something to me (I'll save some of those for "Moments in Games" or whatever features I dream up), and the result of that effort wouldn't be particularly healthy for your browser. So instead I'll speak of the rest of my experience in more general terms.

Like Mega Man X and Super Metroid before it, Symphony of the Night was in its opening hour looking to be one of those games that seemed capable of achieving a perfect score in just about every measurable category. The sheer awe-inspiring quality of each newly introduced set piece, music track, boss battle and game mechanic was further testament to how astonishingly ambitious the game was. As I continued playing it, the same questions kept popping up in my head: "Did the developers know that theirs was turning out to be one of the most amazing games ever made? And if so, when did they realize it?" "Who designed all of these unique environments, textures and backgrounds, all of which I can observe have been painstakingly filled to the brim with character-imbuing details?" "Who composed this incredibly powerful soundtrack, its every diverse, masterfully crafted composition a lesson in how to use music to all at once build atmosphere, invigorate the player, and tell a climactic story? Was he or she possessed at the time?"

I wouldn't have guessed at the time that Symphony of the Night was a budget title. No--its outstanding quality would have belied such a notion. "This game is nothing short of an amply funded large-scale production!" I would have stated confidently. How could it have been anything less when it was dripping with such ambition--when its creators had gone the extra mile in every instance? There were more than a dozen expansive areas to explore. An exhaustive list of impassionedly composed music tracks. Hundreds of uniquely attributed weapons and items. Twenty-plus spectacularly presented boss battles. A number of cool spells. And an enormous bestiary filled with a diverse assortment of superbly designed baddies. We're talkin' three types of mermen, baby! The other games never thought to give you more than one.

So what if the developers recycled some enemy sprites from Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood and the X68000 game? Their type represented what--a quarter of the list? Big deal! There were enough new enemies here to populate two or three unique games!

And the best part was that you didn't need to collect everything or even know about, say, 75% percent of the game's content to have an amazing experience. A great many of its weapons, items and spells were purely optional--there for you if you so desired to find them and put them to use. The best action-adventure games earned such distinction for how they so brilliantly invited players to fully explore their environments, but Symphony of the Night took it to the next level in how it allowed us to explore its world as well as its every system and mechanic.

There was always more to Symphony than I realized. Case in point: I've defeated Richter Belmont to earn the ultimate victory, right? As the credits roll, I reflect upon how I've just completed one of the most outstanding Castlevania games in existence. It was an anticlimactic ending, sure, but I got six-eight hours of high-quality entertainment for the $30 I spent. I couldn't have asked for anything more. For now, it seems that I'm all done here. But no--I go online to find out that there's a whole other half to the game! I learn that if I complete a few undemanding tasks and win the final battle under certain conditions, I get to extend my quest and explore an upside-down version of this castle! That's nuts!

The reverse castle was a simple idea executed brilliantly. They didn't just flip the existing structure and call it a day; rather, they thoughtfully considered the logistics of the newly contoured environments and implemented workable schemes for enemy-placement and platforming. Also, they were zealous enough to stuff it full with dozens of unique minor enemies while providing the player eleven additional fully-fleshed boss battles! What had the potential to be mere padding instead turned out to be a marvelously designed expansion that could have stood alone as its own game!

Somehow Symphony of the Night blew away the N64 games on what--a 10th of their budget? It managed to succeed despite Konami's best efforts to slot it as a second-tier release. In its first run, it achieved sales of somewhere around 800,000. And I think we'd all agree that it deserved to sell much more than that.

When it was all over--when the stirring credits theme I Am the Wind had drawn to a close--all I could think was "What a grand experience!" I knew I'd just completed one of the best video games ever made. It had so captured me with its excellence that I made sure to immediately play through it again and then a third time in Richter Mode, which I was happy to discover entailed a wonderful mix of the new and classic gameplay styles. Richter Mode represented some of the best post-game content ever; it stood out to me as another shining example of Symphony's astonishing depth.

In the end, I could say that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was worth every single penny of the $200 I spent for both it and its host console, the Sony PlayStation. And I was certain that I'd be extracting value from both of them for years to come.

Symphony of the Night's successes were indeed many. Of those that meant the most to me: It delivered on my hope that its content would be all-encompassing. If you look carefully, you'll find that it pays respectful tribute to just about every other game in the series: It replicates some of Castlevania's most memorable structures (the main halls, the castle keep, etc.). In addition to borrowing Simon's Quest's gameplay formula, there's a point in which it tasks you with collecting the scattered body parts of Dracula. It makes obvious references to Dracula's Curse (Alucard, himself, being one of them) and features zombified versions of Trevor, Grant and Sypha, who form a deadly boss trio. Its bestiary includes enemies whose sprites were ripped directly from Super Castlevania IV (Slogra, Gaibon, Dhuron and Thornweed); also, Richter can wildly brandish his whip as could Simon. And much of its design is informed by Rondo of Blood, from which it borrowed a slew of enemies and whole environments (like the remarkably faithful clock tower with its collapsing bridge and structurally identical corridors).

Covering for any inconsistencies with the explanation that Castlevania was an ever-morphing "creature of chaos" was a genius move. I've been in love with the term since the first time I heard it.

I couldn't wait to start covering Symphony of the Night on my Castlevania site. More than anything, I dreamed of providing pixel-perfect captures of the game's enemies, whose collective represented the Holy Grail of sprite-ripping. My prayers were answered when I learned about the PlayStation emulator Bleem!, which could run actual game CDs! After downloading and installing it, I spent the next few days excitedly tapping away at my keyboard's Print Screen button as I snapped screenshots and ripped enemy sprites directly from the Master Librarian's bestiary listing (though, because I'm anal about such things, I inevitably went back in and painstakingly captured the non-cropped versions of larger enemies). I was quite proud to be the first Castlevania webmaster to have on display Symphony's enemy cast!

Symphony of the Night's mere presence on my site was enough to greatly bolster its value. It imbued it with an increased sense of life. It provided it enrichment. I saw it as a turning point for the site, which before then was kinda, well, lame. Suddenly my site was worth visiting! Such was the allure of Symphony of the Night, whose radiance served as a beacon for series fans both old and new.

Symphony of the Night is another example of what I call a "peak game," which by definition is any series entry that so thoroughly perfects the formula that you can't surpass its quality by simply increasing the size and complexity. People who yearn for an imitative "Symphony of the Night 2," thinking that its creators can somehow raise the bar, would be wise to take a closer look at the GBA and DS games, which clearly demonstrate for us that you can't create a better Symphony of the Night by simply repeating its formula and adding more stuff. Really, those who so desire for Castlevania to retake its place in gaming's upper echelon should know that traveling this road is pointless; it results in only more of the same--strings of underwhelming sequels. For Konami's brightest to produce a game that has the power to rock our worlds as Symphony once did would require their having the courage to take risks and move in a new direction when logic and history tell them that it's safer to continue pumping out derivative sequels.

Toru Harihaga, who acted as both director and producer for Symphony of the Night, understood this well. I compare him to Gunpei Yokoi, the man who so passionately guided the Metroid series' development for ten years, in terms of how he was able to think outside the box and inspire his team to carry out a vision. When I speak of a "missing creative force" in my reviews for the Symphony-like portable games, I'm referring directly to him. Harihaga's thinking was apparently lost on Koji Igarashi, his directorial successor, whose imitative works were high in quality but unsurprisingly never groundbreaking. Had Harihaga, or someone of his caliber, been around to guide Igarashi's obviously talented team, the series might have continued to evolve in a meaningful way and become the type of revolutionary force that begets considerable commercial success.

Oh, what might have been.

I can't accurately guess as to how many times I've returned to Symphony of the Night over the past 17 years. Between all of the full play-throughs and my mining it for content, the number has to be somewhere in the hundreds. Aside from my wanting to continually re-experience what I consider to be a flat-out amazing action-adventure game, I have another very good reason to return to Symphony: its astounding depth. Almost two decades later, I'm still finding new things: new weapon combos; new Sword of Dawn techniques; secret weapon attributes; specially encoded messages; the Familiars' special attacks; unnoticed graphical details like the fountain's water turning blood-red when it overlaps hovering moon; and Slogra and Gaibon making a Ridley-like appearance in the courtyard if you retreat back to the Castle Entrance after visiting the Alchemy Lab. And I'm sure there's still tons of stuff I haven't yet found!

Put it all together and you've got yourself one of the medium's all-time masterworks. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night combines with Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, its direct predecessor, to complete one of the best one-two punches in gaming history. It makes a convincing case for being the best game on the Sony PlayStation. And it stands together with Super Metroid atop the pantheon of action-adventure games, the two unapproachable.

I've never been comfortable with the idea of comparing Symphony and Super Metroid. I mean, they occupy the same genre, and they're remarkably similar in design (Symphony does unapologetically lift its map system, after all), but I find that they take entirely different routes in achieving their greatness. Theirs are different strengths: Symphony can't touch Super Metroid in terms of its organically flowing, wondrously interconnected world (really, breaking your way through an obviously tattered wall to access a secret room is hardly comparable to finding a hidden item by bombing, speed-boosting and shinesparking your way across entire series of cavernous structures) and its haunting environmental conveyance, while Super Metroid can't match Symphony's pure action or depth. I don't see one as being better than the other; more than anything, I see the two as complementing one another. The action-adventure space wouldn't be complete without both of them.

Now, I'd been warned that the Sega Saturn version of Symphony (to which I refer as "Nocturne in the Moonlight") sloppily ported and that its extra content, which was the main selling point, was shallow and superfluous, but I didn't care. I seriously coveted it: I wanted to explore those new areas! I wanted to know what it was like to play as Maria! I wanted to see all of those new enemies in action! And most of all, I wanted to give it proper coverage on my site--snap those screenshots and rip those sprites! So early in March of 2001, I headed over to eBay and won myself a copy of the game, my winning bid totaling a ridiculous $200.

As there was no way I was going to spend any additional money to get myself a Saturn, which at the time was running for somewhere between $400-500, I had to resort to ripping the CD's contents and playing Nocturne via emulators like GiriGiri, Satourne and Cassini at about, oh, five frames per second (faithfully emulating the Saturn was mission impossible, apparently). Its critics weren't lying: The port was hamstrung by unfortunate control issues (the blame lying mostly with the Saturn's controller, which had less available input), odd structural changes that beget additional loading times, and other questionable design choices.

But still I had fun running through the game with Maria and discovering all of its differences; as always, I was fascinated with seeing one of my favorite games exist in some other form. The newly added content might have indeed been superfluous, as they said, but I didn't believe that it tarnished the original's legacy in any way. It couldn't. Nothing was going to knock Symphony of the Night off its pedestal. 

Nocturne wasn't a replacement for it; it was just different. And for that reason, there was great novelty to it. I was glad to have it in my collection.

"So tell us, you long-winded freak," you say as you clear the crust from your eyes, "if you believe Castlevania: Symphony of the Night to be so incredible, then why isn't it your favorite game in the series?"

Well, the simple answer is "length factor." When it comes right down to it, I need for my Castlevania game to do a job for me; I'm looking for it to fill an itch--to make its point within a time-frame of, say, two-three hours, which I consider the sweet spot. Games like Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Dracula X: Chi no Rondo do that for me, so I slot them ahead of Symphony on my list of series favorites. Don't take that to be a measure of Symphony's comparative quality. No--it just might be the best of the bunch; it's more that the others do better to meet my needs.

I return to it less frequently than I once did because of said length factor, not because it doesn't deserve to be played as much as the Metroids, Mega Mans and Marios. But when I do, I'm always reminded of its power. No matter how many times I play it, it never loses its sense of enormity--its feeling of unparalleled epicness. I treat every play-through of Symphony as a big event for which I have to excitedly prepare myself. I make sure to absorb its every vibe. I do my best to savor every minute of the journey. And I delight in the fact that I'm playing one of the greatest games ever made.

That's how it'll always be with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the little budget title that shaped up to be so unfathomably awesome that it could turn the whole world upside-down.

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