|Platform:||Xbox Live Arcade (originally PlayStation)|
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was a landmark title, the one that changed the series forever. No longer would the game be a linear stage-by-stage platformer; instead, Castlevania would grow as an Action RPG series complete with equipment, experience points, skills, and plenty of exploration in a massive dungeon (that is, Dracula's castle).
In March of 2007, Microsoft released the title on Xbox Live Arcade as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360. A few months later, Sony did the same thing on their PlayStation Network, so that Symphony of the Night could be played on either the PS3 or the PSP. Note that in October of 2007, a PSP bundle "The Dracula X Chronicles" was released that featured a 3D remake of a previously-unported Castlevania title (Rondo of Blood) and an improved port of Symphony of the Night. In other words, this game has made a big return to the scene one decade after its original release.
It is important to recognize that the game has come to these services virtually unchanged. There are no bonuses, like we saw in the Japan-only port for the Sega Saturn in 1998. As far as we could tell, the only differenced could be found in the XBLA version: "achievement points" were added, and a different ending vocal track is used. Loading times are slightly better than they were a decade ago, but generally, you're getting the same product for a bargain-bin price.
But why this game? Why use this game as the guinea pig 32-bit release for both Microsoft and Sony? Two reasons. First, the game has a simple design to it, allowing for easy emulation. Second, the game is ridiculously fun.
Perhaps you've forgotten after all these years, or perhaps you never knew. I don't know how well Konami's vampire-slaying series had been doing up until this point, but anyone "in the know" will tell you that this was the game that solidified Castlevania's future for years to come, paving the way for games like Lament of Innocence, Dawn of Sorrow, and others. The formula is pure genius. We'll lay it out for you.
First, you borrow the basic design for Super Metroid and use it for the purpose of navigating Dracula's castle. A simple 2D map displays your progress as you go, and special rooms (such as save points and teleporters) are shaded with different colors. Making progress in these dungeons requires the use of specialized "relic" items, which can be found hidden away in dark corners, high ledges, or at the other end of a room guarded by a ferocious boss. You'll have to remember what obstacles you've run into before, and where they were, so you can backtrack along the way. You'll be able to transform into various entities (a wolf, a cloud of mist, or a bat), summon familiars to fight by your side, receive new abilities (double jump, etc), and gain keys to unlock special doors.
Improving on the Super Metroid formula, Symphony of the Night introduced RPG elements such as equipment and character growth. Backtracking doesn't seem like much of a chore if you know that you need to kill enemies to gain levels and pick up much-needed items for your inventory. Customization is limited compared to the scope of today's more complex RPGs, but the seven equipment slots are impressive for a simple Action RPG.
If these simple features don't catch your attention, perhaps the game's premise will. Two years after the events of the previous Castlevania, where Richter Belmont slayed Dracula in the late 1700s, the castle mysteriously reappears. Legend holds that Dracula's castle is only supposed to appear once per century, so this is certainly an anomaly. Who should show up to right this wrong than Dracula's own half-human son, Alucard? That's right, you get to play as a half-vampire named Alucard who is sympathetic to humans and always ready to pick a fight with papa and his minions. This adds an element of depth to the plot, since there are many sentient beings in Dracula's castle who know you and partially sympathize with you, but ultimately hold allegience to Dracula.
Granted, the game's not perfect. Even for its time, the graphics weren't spectacular and they are certainly dated by today's standards. Even more upsetting is the truly awful English voice acting; fortunately, there isn't much dialogue throughout the game, so you don't have to put up with too much of it. Contrasting the poor voice acting is some excellent music. It was during this time that Michiru Yamane first acquainted herself with Castlevania, and ended up writing some excellent music. Truly, truly memorable stuff.
Symphony of the Night is chock full of challenging bosses, unique puzzles, large areas to explore, and something that we can only nebulously call "fun." It's hard to pin it down, but this is an Action RPG that will keep you on your toes and you won't want to pull yourself away until you've completed the game. Even then, you can go back for more in a New Game Plus or play as Richter (who does not level up or have an inventory) for a special challenge.
If you've been hankering for a good 2D Action RPG that lets you dash around as a half-vampire in a massive dungeon, maybe it's time you go back and check out the game that really started the modern Castlevania phenomenon. All you need is a next-gen console (or even the handheld PSP!) and some spare change. Of course, if you want a more deluxe version of the game and you own a PSP, you'll want to hold out for Dracula X Chronicles.