- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night revolutionized the Metroidvania genre and set the standard for future titles with its nonlinear exploration and RPG-inspired mechanics.
- The game successfully attracted both longtime fans and new players with its side story narrative and accessible gameplay, while still catering to the series’ hardcore fans.
- Symphony of the Night‘s focused design, visually distinct environments, and haunting atmosphere, along with its unforgettable soundtrack and iconic art style, contribute to the game’s timeless masterpiece status.
Over the years, Metroidvanias have grown into one of gaming’s most popular genres, especially among indie developers. Countless contemporary classics fall under its umbrella, including Cave Story, Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, and Dead Cells just to name a few. To this day, Metroidvanias are still going strong with constant new releases and passionate developers intent on finding new ways to innovate on its tropes. Despite the abundance of ambitious attempts, no game has left as monumental an impact on the genre as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Although the genre started with Nintendo’s Metroid series, Symphony of the Night is responsible for shaping the modern Metroidvania formula. The game’s mixture of nonlinear exploration, RPG-inspired mechanics, and Castlevania‘s traditional side-scrolling action was revolutionary for its time and paved the way for thousands of similar titles. However, 27 years have passed since Symphony of the Night was first released on the original PlayStation, and the Metroidvania genre has seen numerous innovations and evolutions since then. In a medium that advances as rapidly as video games, it doesn’t take long for classic titles to fall below modern standards. But even after almost three decades, Symphony of the Night is still a shining example of its genre.
Symphony of the Night Ushered in a New Era of Castlevania
At the time of its release, Symphony of the Night represented a radical shift in direction for Castlevania. Ever since the original Castlevania in 1986, most games in the series had been linear 2D platformers defined by their memorable monsters and tough-as-nails level design. It didn’t take long for the franchise to garner a sizable fanbase and become one of the most popular video game franchises of the late ’80s. While the Castlevania games remained successful for years, the series struggled to attract new players due to the short length and intimidating difficulty of each entry. The directors behind Symphony of the Night, Toru Hagihara and Koji Igarashi, hoped to rectify this problem by experimenting with new ideas and breaking away from Castlevania‘s usual formula.
To avoid alienating longtime Castlevania fans, Symphony of the Night was advertised as a side story that stars multiple familiar faces. Set four years after the events of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night follows Alucard — the dhampir son of Dracula who first appeared in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse — as he ventures to Dracula’s castle to uncover the reason behind its mysterious return and stop the planned resurrection of his father. Along the way, he repeatedly encounters Maria Renard (one of Rondo‘s protagonists) as she investigates the sudden disappearance of her friend and guardian, Richter Belmont.
Taking inspiration from the open-ended designs of Super Metroid and the infamous Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Symphony of the Night abandons the straightforward levels of past games in favor of one massive, nonlinear map. While this approach could have easily resulted in an unnecessarily confusing layout or loads of tedious backtracking, Symphony of the Night thankfully avoided these potential pitfalls. Its version of Dracula’s castle is just as tightly designed as previous incarnations, with nearly every room and hallway matching the quality of past Castlevania titles. As players explore the different parts of the castle, Alucard will also acquire key items and vampiric abilities such as transforming into a bat or a cloud of mist, allowing him to reach previously inaccessible areas.
Symphony of the Night also included an RPG-inspired leveling system, which would eventually become a staple of the Metroidvania template. Defeating enemies allows Alucard to earn experience points and level up, with each level improving his various stats. Players can further enhance these stats by equipping stronger weapons (some of which alter Alucard’s fighting style) and armor pieces (which may also include passive effects). This leveling system also applies to the Alucard’s summonable familiars, allowing them to grow stronger alongside the player.
For as simple as they may seem, Symphony of the Night‘s RPG mechanics were a brilliant addition to the Metroidvania genre. Backtracking became far less tedious when players could still be rewarded with experience points and item drops. In the same vein, the new stat and equipment systems added an extra layer of depth to the formula, giving players more options to prepare for difficult encounters or deliberately handicap themselves for a tougher experience. Either way, Symphony of the Night provides the accessibility that Castlevania previously lacked without neglecting the series’ most hardcore fans.
Symphony of the Night was the dramatic shakeup that Castlevania desperately needed. While the series was still releasing quality titles at the time, the early ’90s entries like Castlevania: Dracula X and Castlevania: Bloodlines were some of the worst-selling games in the series’ history. Castlevania continually improved with each installment, but the aging franchise wasn’t doing anything to interest new players or lapsed fans who grew tired of its formula. However, Symphony of the Night reinvigorated the series in a way that appealed to both fans and newcomers, allowing the game to reach a broader audience and set a new standard for future Castlevania sequels and the rest of Metroidvania genre.
Symphony of the Night is a Timeless Masterpiece
Even without knowing the historical context behind Symphony of the Night, the game is still worth playing. Although it lacks many mechanics added in later installments, Symphony of the Night‘s simplicity results in a focused and tightly designed experience that remains enjoyable from start to finish. Every mechanic in Symphony of the Night serves a clear purpose, from Alucard’s magical abilities expanding the game’s movement to the prevalent RPG systems adding variety to combat. Likewise, every part of the castle is visually distinct and memorably designed, ensuring that exploration stays exciting and unpredictable. Symphony of the Night may have been an experimental project for its developers, but the game succeeded at everything it set out to accomplish.
The deliberate nature of Symphony of the Night‘s design is further reflected in its confident presentation. The Castlevania series swapped between various themes and art styles over the years, ranging from retro horror homages in the first few games to supernatural action adventures in the early ’90s. With Symphony of the Night, the series finally embraced its underlying gothic horror. Dracula’s castle is suitably atmospheric with backgrounds featuring hauntingly detailed statues, vibrant stained-glass windows, and other architectural spectacles. Symphony of the Night took full advantage of the original PlayStation’s hardware to deliver lavish environments like the castle’s clock tower and blood-filled fountain, as well as introducing the most nightmarish monsters in the series such as the rotting corpse of Beelzebub and the mass of bodies that comprise Granfaloon.
Along with its creative designs and immaculate sprite work, Symphony of the Night owes its chilling atmosphere to two talented figures. Michiru Yamane, the game’s composer, delivered an unforgettable soundtrack that’s still hailed as one of the greatest in gaming history. She also composed the similarly superb soundtrack for the previous Castlevania game, 1994’s Bloodlines, but her work on Symphony of the Night captured the title’s unsettling atmosphere while stretching across a wide variety of genres including rock, jazz, techno, and classical music. Symphony of the Night was also the first game to feature Ayami Kojima’s iconic art style (seen in the game’s character portraits and official artwork), which would become synonymous with Castlevania as a whole. But even without considering their influence on the series’ identity, Symphony of the Night‘s art and music are outstanding on their own merits and helped cement the game’s captivating atmosphere.
In addition to delivering a masterful main campaign, Symphony of the Night includes plenty of side content. Starting a new save file and entering specific names can unlock additional modes that allow players to use boosted stats and special items with Alucard or take control of completely different characters. Additionally, Dracula’s castle is full of secrets that most players will likely miss on their first playthrough, which provides some incentive to revisit Symphony of the Night. For many hardcore fans, however, simply being able to return to the game’s engrossing atmosphere and unforgettable battles is enough to justify starting another playthrough.
Symphony of the Night remains an outstanding example of why the Metroidvania genre continues to thrive. Although it was a drastic change for Castlevania, the game single-handedly saved the series and simultaneously paved the way for countless copycats, loose reimaginings, and spiritual successors, including Igarashi’s own Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Most importantly, Symphony of the Night is simply a fantastic game in its own right, and it remains a must-play title for anyone who enjoys Metroidvanias.
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