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Going Back To Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, The Franchise’s Greatest Entry | Retro-Specs

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a gaming staple that holds up better than most games nowadays. Today, I revisit the classic in today’s entry of Retro-Specs.

I remember standing inside of a Funcoland when I was about 11 and browsing the PlayStation games for something new. I had $20 saved up and burning a hole in my pocket and was ready to try something new to me. Normally, I’d look for the green stripe that said “Playstation’s Greatest Hits” when I bought a game they always came budget-priced, and I knew they must be fun if they sold so well.

I found one that caught my eye, a dark castle barely visible in fog and the words Castlevania written along the top. As a fan of old monster movies I instantly wanted this game. I bought it, brought it home and had my mind blown. Rarely had I beaten gamesin the past, but I played this for hours until I finally killed the final boss, or so I thought, and then immediately played it again. I did everything all wrong, not understanding leveling or the equipment, but man, did I have fun.

That year I had two games that really showed me what games could be past platformers that I had cut my teeth on. One was Final Fantasy VII. The other was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (SOTN from here on) and my taste in games was forever altered by it.

Press Start

First, a little Castlevania history so you understand where this game comes from. Castlevania is a minor NES classic. It isn’t Zelda or Mario, but most people remember it fondly. A very difficult action platformer with style that ended up spawning quite the franchise. Its sequel, Castlevania II: Simons Quest was…different. It’s the black sheep of the NES Castlevanias mostly because of what it introduced. RPG elements and non-linear style were what it brought to the table, and the game did so very poorly. It had almost no bosses, extremely cryptic puzzles that you couldn’t solve without a guide, poor translation that made the NPCs give outright wrong information. And of course, it had the famous horrible night to have a curse transition. It got mixed reviews at the time but has not aged as well as the original.

The next game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was a return to form, expanding the original game while returning to its platforming roots. It is considered a definitive NES game and the series stuck to that formula for years until the 16-bit era. One important thing to remember is a game that until relativity recently was never released in the USA, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. This was considered by many to be the peak of the old school Castlevania games.

So when the 32-bit era was coming, Rondo of Blood co-director Koji Igarashi decided to take influence, not from Dracula’s Curse like most sequels but the black sheep, Simons Quest. He mixed the RPG elements and item collection of that game with the backtracking and powerful upgrades from the Metroid series to completely change how Castlevania games would be made from then on.

A Mystery Box

Some minor spoilers in this section and one major one for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. If you wanna go in blind, I’d skip ahead to the next section.

So the game begins pretty straight forward with a recap of the previous game’s, Rondo of Blood, final boss battle. You reenact it and defeat Count Dracula, you get a bit of story and then the game starts in earnest when you take over control of Alucard, Dracula’s son. You tear through monsters like tissue until Death himself shows up and steals your items. What a jerk.
From there the game is exploring the castle, gathering equipment, experience points, and new powers like Bat form. Each ability lets you unlock new areas, kill some cool bosses and work towards your ultimate goal, killing the master of Castlevania.

You can play pretty straightforward and beat it in just a few hours but there’s so much more than it seems. Hidden rooms, secret areas, powerful items, and the biggest trick ever played on me by a game all await.

See, in my first playthroughs as a kid, I defeated the boss and assumed I was done. The ending wasn’t satisfying but I didn’t care. It was a fun game. Fast forward to me years later returning to the game for a nostalgia trip and online I read that not only did I get the bad ending but I missed half the game.

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Before the final boss fight, if you go into certain secret rooms and collect certain secret items, you can unlock a hidden floor which leads to another secret item. Equip that during the final fight and a small orb appears. Kill it instead of the actual boss, and boom, it reveals the true villain and unlocks an inverted version of the castle. That’s right, I had not even come close to completing the game.

Fighting your way through the inverted castle and collecting Dracula’s body parts — a nod to Simon’s Quest — allows you to face Count Dracula and get the true ending of the game. This blew my mind. There were no hints, no messages, nothing that let you know about the whole second half of the game. You just had to be thorough enough to find it on your own. To this day there are secrets I uncover whenever I dive in again and that’s what makes Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so replayable.

It’s one of the only few games I’ve beaten more than once, clocking in around 7 times now.
It’s like a never-ending mystery box that has layer after layer of tricks up its sleeve and you never know what to expect.

Ages Like Wine

Ok, no more spoilers! The best part of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is its graphics. Its choice to make it a 2D platformer means it holds up beautifully in modern-day. The graphics are gorgeous pixels with detailed backgrounds and the animations are smooth. The gameplay is timeless, the combat simple but satisfying. There are also hidden spells you can discover by trying different Street Fighter-like inputs. Finally, the boss battles are fun, creative, and just the right kind of difficult.

The soundtrack is so good I actually own it and listen to it now and then. It’s an all-time classic from top to bottom. This is easily one of my favorite games and has countless imitators, even a spiritual successor in Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

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This is the game that forever changed the direction of the Castlevania series from a difficult, but satisfying, action game into a deep experience with tons of systems to work with. It even helped create the term “Metroidvania.” The “genre” is characterized by sidescrollers that feature spots you can’t reach until you return with an upgrade of sorts. It’s an approach popularized by entries in both the Metroid and Castlevania franchises and is a well-used term nowadays. There’s a reason it’s on many all-time greatest lists and a game that will keep you coming back.

There’s never been a better time to dive in to this game than now. It’s available on Xbox 360 and Xbox One through backwards compatibility, PS4 through a compilation that includes a Rondo of Blood remake, even your phone or tablet thanks to a recent release on mobile (Bluetooth controller strongly recommended!).

Whether to return to an old favorite or try out one of the most influential classics for the first time, I say now is the perfect time to enter the dark and gothic world of Castlevania and put an end to Dracula’s evil once and for all…or at least till the sequel.

What’s your favorite Castlevania: Symphony of the Night memory? Let us know your thoughts down below!

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