It's been 20 years since the world first was re-introduced to Castlevania through what is easily the iconic series' most important entry, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The legendary action game launched in Japan on March 20, 1997, and it reached North American shores later that year on Oct. 2.
While the title enjoys a tier at the upper echelon of gaming history nowadays, it hasn't always been beloved. In 1997, many gamers had turned their backs on 2D gaming to explore 3D spaces thanks to hits like Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye. Symphony of the Night received praise from those who got their hands on it, but by and large, the world was more enamored with the upcoming Castlevania 64.
Yeah, it was a different time.
Castlevania's leap into the 3D wasn't met with nearly the same level of praise, and as the PlayStation 2 rolled around and 3D gaming became the norm, audiences started looking back on the late 90s 2D classics that they had shamefully ignored. Those that hadn't enjoyed it when it first came out discovered Symphony of the Night, giving it a much-needed reappraisal alongside other cult-hits like Tomba!, Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Mischief Makers, and Bangai-0.
The Game Boy Advance also capitalized on this revived interest in 2D Castlevania, and Symphony of the Night laid the groundwork for six handheld Castlevania games, which remain the series' most consistently reviewed and successful run. The term "metroidvania" became a staple of the gaming lexicon during this era of the series' history, and Producer Koji Igarashi got off to a decent start with Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance. The series reached new heights with the release of 2003's Aria of Sorrow, which is secretly the best of these "metroidvania" Castlevania games outside of the legendary precursor itself.
The Nintendo DS birthed three more Castlevania games, each consistently good but struggling for inspiration to break the mold. This never happened, sadly. Dawn of Sorrow led to Portait of Ruin which led to Order of Ecclesia. At that point, a decade after Symphony of the Night reinvented the franchise, the mystique started to wind down and sales weren't where Konami wanted them to be. A few failed pet projects from Igarashi like the downloadable Harmony of Despair and the Wii fighter Castlevania: Judgement for Koji Igarashi led his visions to be shelved, and MercurySteam took over with the far more conventional AAA Lords of Shadows games.
All the right moves
So what exactly does Castlevania: Symphony of the Night do so right to make it a masterpiece even in this day when so many have copied and expanded upon its ideas? Well, for one thing, no games played like this when it first came out. Few had the idea of 2D exploration, most notably Super Metroid, but no franchise had thought to tie RPG mechanics too deeply into the gameplay. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is loaded with possibilities thanks to a wide arsenal of weaponry and special abilities at Alucard's disposal.
And speaking of which, there is the protagonist himself! Alucard is a huge departure from the Belmonts of old. The protagonist is the son of Dracula himself, and controlling a creature of the night was an exciting premise that gamers only ever got a taste of in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, back when Alucard was… well… terrible.
The music too is on an entirely different level when compared to any other game of its era. It was one of the first games to truly take advantage of all the space on a CD for musical purposes, and because it didn't have to worry about the file size thanks to it being a 2D game, it could cram as many high-quality jams onto the disc as possible and stream them perfectly to your television. In fact, the original CD for the game can act as a soundtrack if you put it in a CD player! It even has a secret track tucked away at the very end.
Size is also important. The irony is that despite adding an entirely new dimension in Castlevania 64, its explorable space is still dwarfed by the immense size of Symphony of the Night's castle. The highly detailed sprites and environments give a sense that this building is both alive and unfathomably gargantuan. And wouldn't you know it, a secret ending effectively doubles the size of the game when you enter an inverted universe and player everything upside down!
Many of us didn't realize it at the time, but Symphony of the Night is also a direct sequel to the previous game in the series. It takes place five years after the events of Richter Belmont's crusade against Dracula in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, picking up the game's cryptic ending and taking its nightmare scenario as far as it will go. Those who fail to get Symphony of the Night's "good" ending will see not one but two adventure's come to a tragic close.
We didn't know that Symphony of the Night was a direct sequel for many years simply because we never saw Rondo of Blood in North America until much later. A Wii port through Virtual Console delivered it to us in Japanese, and we didn't get a full English localization until 2007, when the original was included as a secret within its remake, The Dracula X Chronicles. If ever you see this on PlayStation Network on sale, or even at full price, Rondo of Blood, its solid remake, and Symphony of the Night are all included, and, together, they make up one of the greatest gaming bundles of all time.
Don't miss out on it! It's a "must own" for the PlayStation Vita, and your life is incomplete without it.
Bloodstained carries on the torch
20 years after Castlevania: Symphony of the Night set a new standard for action video games, we are now set to receive the first spiritual successor now that Koji Igarashi is no longer at Konami. We all know the story of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night by now, but if you've forgotten, it's the spiritual successor to Castlevania now that Konami has washed its hands from video gaming. The spirit of these excellent games lives on through this title, and the tune of $5 million+ through Kickstarter made it happen.
Whether or not Igarashi is able to live up to his legacy on a tight budget is yet to be seen, but just knowing that he is trying to keep the creative spirit that fleshed out one of gaming's greatest triumphs alive is enough for me. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will be released for the PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2018.
I'd go back and celebrate by playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night today, but here's the thing… I just did so less than a year ago! No surprises that it's still a undisputable champion from beginning to end, and seeing it alongside an entire generation of indie titles that it helped inspire shows just how influential it ultimately turned out to be.
And it didn't even have to be in 3D!