Castlevania is a series with a rich legacy. But despite spanning well over 20 titles, it’s perhaps 1997’s Symphony of the Night that is most revered.
Symphony of the Night brought in many drastic changes to the series, most notably deep RPG mechanics which led to the coining of the phrase Metroidvania – a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, used to describe games combining platform mechanics, open-ended exploration and RPG aspects. Since ported to a variety of systems, it might surprise some to know that the original release of the game didn’t fare particularly well at retail, being produced in limited numbers and selling poorly.
Of course, those few who did pick up the game found themselves in for a treat; sporting deep gameplay mechanics, gorgeous 2D graphics – unfashionable during a time dominated by the rise of 3D gaming – and dozens of hours of gameplay, Symphony of the Night has since gone on to become one of the most-loved games of the last two decades. There are many moments that stick in the mind when considering the game – we could discuss its music, its memorable opening sequence, or some of its boss encounters. But as memorable as these moments were, nothing quite sticks in the mind like the first time players discovered the inverted castle.
Symphony casts the player as Alucard, son of Dracula, on a quest to destroy the legendary vampire and prevent his scheme to cement his control and power. While superficially resembling a platform game in common with other series titles such as Super Castlevania IV and Rondo Of Blood, Symphony of the Night introduced a wealth of new gameplay systems. Killing enemies accrued XP points which led to you leveling up and growing more powerful, while fallen monsters would drop loot, allowing you to customize your equipment. As time went on you would garner new abilities, such as the power to transform into a wolf or a bat, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas.
It’s this open-ended structure and need to explore that led to Symphony of the Night being compared to Nintendo’s superlative Super Metroid, coining the term “Metroidvania” – a phrase which has gone on to become a standard description for any game that blends open-ended platforming and exploration with RPG mechanics to this day.
After over a dozen hours of gameplay – during which you’ll have defeated an increasingly challenging series of monstrosities – you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve explored most of what the game has to offer. The map screen will have been largely filled out, and you’d find yourself being prompted to move towards your final confrontation with Dracula, lurking in his throne room in the top-left corner of the castle. Players who took the time to continue poking around though, discovered that the game had only just begun.
Towards the “end” of the game, players would find themselves confronted by Richter Belmont, former series protagonist and now unwitting slave to the will of the evil Count. Defeat him, and you would reach a point of no return. However, if players equipped a well-hidden item – the Holy Glasses – they could see a green orb surrounding Richter.
Destroying the orb allowed you to end the fight without ending Richter’s life and free him from his enslavement: it was only then that you realized the sheer scale of the game that Konami had created.
Destroying the orb transported you to an inverted version of the castle, and it’s not until you unlocked this segment of the game that you were able to appreciate just how clever Konami’s level designers had been. As well-designed as the game’s areas were up until that point, the inverted castle made you realize that the entire map was designed from the start to provide a coherent gameplay experience from two different perspectives. If there was a pillar hanging down from the ceiling in the regular castle, you could guarantee that it was there to be used as a stepping-stone once you experienced the map upside-down. While the general layout remained the same, certain areas and backgrounds were different, and the enemies in the inverted castle were far more challenging.
Your time in the inverted castle was spent gathering 5 artifacts strewn across its halls. Only after gathering these were you able to truly defeat the evil vampire and obtain the true ending.
With over a third of the content locked away in a manner which meant only the most dedicated players would ever find it, the inverted castle was an incredibly brave move by Konami, but also one which has gone on to define the title. While Symphony of the Night may not have set tills on fire upon its release, its legacy has since gone on to define the series; even the combat-heavy Lords of Shadow sub-series by developers Mercury Steam carried the weight of Symphony’s wealth of secrets and vast, open environments.
Subsequent installments in the series have largely been incredibly playable – the trilogy of handheld games on the Gameboy Advance owe much to the foundations laid down by Symphony – but none have quite managed to come close to replicating the awe and depth of Alucard’s adventure.
With Mercury Steam having taken the series in a more combat-heavy direction and with the most recent handheld game on the 3DS being a largely linear affair, many fans have found themselves wondering if the legacy built up by Symphony of the Night has been abandoned by Konami. Meanwhile, the sub-genre it helped to define has been enjoying something of a boom in popularity in recent years, particularly among the indie scene with titles such as Cave Story and Valdis Story employing many of the same mechanics.
Castlevania may have moved on from the ideas perfected in Symphony of the Night, but it hasn’t managed to better them. Despite its lackluster sales upon its original release, it remains the definitive title in the series and one which, nearly 20 years on, remains as immensely playable and fresh as the day it was first unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.