24 years later, the best Castlevania game ever still lives up to the hype
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a bloody good time.
What is a game, but a miserable little pile of secrets? They slowly reveal themselves to us with their clever mechanics and tutorials, and we love them for it. Secrets titillate and tantalize us. We delight in uncovering them, especially when it’s something valuable like the Ring of Varda or a pot roast. Both equal treasures in the greatest entry in one of the greatest franchises in gaming history.
Konami released Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN) in 1998. An operatic tale of vengeance and honor, it gave most fans their introduction to its protagonist Alucard, the half-human son of Dracula who debuted in Castlevania III. Widely regarded as the best entry in the series, it’s the perfect way to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the franchise since Konami is too busy building pachinko NFTs in the metaverse or whatever.
If it’s your first time, or your first time in a while, your initial impression of SOTN will likely be that it is awesome. Textbook awesome, in the sense that there is cool stuff going on everywhere you look. Alucard is every inch the goth boi hero with his billowy capes and rockstar hair flowing behind him.
The animations whenever you defeat an enemy are a sight to behold. Creatures howl and bellow as they explode like firecrackers or collapse into geysers of blood. It’s non-stop, over-the-top arcade action.
It's worth acknowledging the context of its release too.
In 1997, the game industry was just beginning its love affair with the third dimension. The previous year saw titles like Mario 64, Tomb Raider, and Diablo literally change the way many players looked at games. SOTN not only showed the world that 2D side-scrollers could be every bit as exciting, but it accomplished that so emphatically that it created a literal genre unto itself. Metroidvanias of today still takes cues from the pioneering gameplay of SOTN.
Good gameplay always ages well, and SOTN is spectacular. It balanced the intricate dungeon crawling the series was known for with new RPG elements and managed to still “feel” like the game fans expected. A big plot twist in the very opening of the game (ultimately playing as Alucard and not a member of the Belmont family) sets the tone for what’s to come. Expect the unexpected. It was both the best and most unique Castlevania experience up to that point. If it feels familiar, it's because studios are still making games like this today and probably will forever because when done right they are loads of fun.
The music is pitch-perfect. The story is big without being cumbersome. Dracula’s mansion is a massive cupboard of secrets big and small. SOTN is not an easy game, but because there is such a variety of equipment and spells and abilities (looking at you Mist form), and so many branching paths on the map, you never feel buried in it. Epic boss battles punctuate an engaging grind and new equipment and abilities constantly open up new areas. The only reason to avoid picking it up is the fear of being unable to put it down. Play it ASAP and remind yourself that games > NFTs.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is available on PlayStation, Xbox, PC, and mobile. (It’s not available on Switch because Konami gotta Konami.)
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