In all my game reviews, especially recently, I’ve recommended, discussed, and hopefully analyzed a lot of games that I like. Those are games I like because they’re charming, deserve more popularity, have interesting design, or I just think they’re special. Writing an article about a game I dislike is a completely different angle, and feels like a challenge I haven’t encountered yet. Disliking something is hard to justify without expressing those nasty factors of bias, taste, or opinion. But it is my bias, taste, and opinion. This is something I’m proud of, otherwise I wouldn’t want to write an article about it. As many reviewers, I review things from my own point of view, and I’m going to do just that. But enough talk, let’s have at it.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released in 1997 for Playstation by Konami. It was also on Saturn but we don’t like to talk about that. SOTN was the first game in the series to be released on 5th generation consoles, and unlike Mario, Duke Nukem, or Sonic, the game preserved its 2D roots and continued the series with a side-scrolling action platformer. But it didn’t come without another, more substantial change to the gameplay which changed the series and permanently shaped a shitload of indie garbage 15-20 years down the line. Anyways, it follows Alucard, Dracula’s dhampir son who turned against his father in the events of Castlevania III. He goes back to the castle because the last Belmont boy is missing and everyone else is too scared to find out what’s happening. Story was never an important part of the series, but this premise is at least interesting, since Alucard’s past emerges as he encounters his former allies.
For the uninformed, Castlevania used to be
actually good a challenging, linear platformer with limited movement and combat options. The limitations are what made the games challenging and tense, since each jump and attack must be deliberate choices made in an instant. The last games in the series before Symphony of the Night were Rondo of Blood and Bloodlines, and while I haven’t played Bloodlines, the former is one of the best in the series, my personal favorite. But despite Rondo being fantastic, it’s completely understandable Konami was willing to shift the focus of gameplay. It’s difficult to get through more than 10 versions of the same game, and keep consumers interested. So when Super Metroid came out, Koji Igarashi decided he was going to steal from that.
And then SOTN happened, merging nonlinear Super Metroid progression with gameplay that resembles Castlevania if you squint really hard. A lot of things had to change to fit this, and that’s not exactly why I dislike it. Substantially changing gameplay in a series can make a really good, or at least interesting, difference. In games like Resident Evil 4, Metal Gear Solid 3, or even Assassin’s Creed IV, there’s only a few real changes that nudge it into being completely different. Resi 4 still holds the tank controls, puzzles, storytelling, and pacing of the older games, MGS 3 retains all developments from 2, and AC IV is still unbearably unfun. My trouble with SOTN isn’t that some things had to change, it’s that too much changed, and not in a very good way.
I like to see each aspect of a creative work as a necessity, whose reason for existence has some payoff, or is a payoff for another thing. The more a payoff relates to the rest of the work, the more irreplaceable it is. I’ll use Metal Gear Solid 3 as example again. The plot element of survival makes managing hunger and injuries necessary, which are represented by Snake’s stamina and health bars. The regenerating health works to encourage utilizing the food and cure menus. A similar relation can be made between camo and movement, silencers and CQC, and probably something else I’m not thinking about. So what was added to SOTN mechanically, and how is it necessary? Alucard levels up as he fights monsters, making old areas easier and encouraging grinding. Why is this necessary? Alucard now both improves as he fights, and as he finds power-ups and equipment. Neither of these mesh in a complimentary way, only copy the familiar mechanics established in Dragon Quest. So Alucard can also equip armor and weapons, but the items (which drop from candles just like the previous games) work in the old way. Why was it necessary to keep this mechanic? Why not integrate it with the rest of the equipment menu, as things to find and collect? Why do you still have to use up+attack for items when the implementation from Super Castlevania IV is compatible with the Playstation controller AND THE L2 BUTTON GOES UNUSED? I’m not even going to touch the familiars, hidden spells, or the relics which only have a single, specific use case. None of this truly meshes, each new mechanic seems to be glued onto the game in desperate hope it’ll work. Everything seems half-baked, a nonchalant acceptance at “eh, it’s good enough”.
At that, let’s move on to the exploration and non-linearity aspect. Classic Castlevania games primarily worked on left-to-right hallways for levels, sometimes wrapping around, sometimes going the other way. But SOTN is taking level design from Super Metroid, so it should look and play very similar, right? In reality, it all relies on the gameplay itself. Samus’s lateral movement in Super Metroid is quick, preserving momentum while jumping, and allowing her to shoot while running. Moving vertically is a bit more difficult, so tall corridors are slower, and have more options for the player to explore. SOTN doesn’t get much faster than its older counterparts, with the fastest viable movement being mashing the triangle button. With a powerup, Alucard can morph into a wolf, which can sprint, but transforming takes a second, and the diminished capabilities constantly discourages anyone from using it for that. Attacking stops Alucard in his tracks, so fighting a room of enemies isn’t exactly smooth either. So regardless of which level design SOTN takes, the horizontal stretches are painful and long, and any amount of backtracking forces you to walk through a hallway a second time. Enemy design forces you to fight everything in the room anyways, wasting your time and padding your experience points, making the whole game easier. So SOTN introduced a few rooms in the game which you teleport between, which can only be seen as a crutch, rather than a valuable addition. If the level design were made to not require excessive backtracking, and properly looped around on itself, these rooms wouldn’t need to exist. But they do, and the game still suffers greatly despite their service.
Somewhere in that paragraph was a reflection of how SOTN treats powerups in the first place: each one is a key for a certain, specific door, and any other use is unimportant. Contrast this with Super Metroid‘s treatment of the powerup: each one is required at a certain point, and then can be constantly used to make life easier. With the exception of the grappling beam, each powerup can and will be used in combat, constantly. A small amount of upgrades helps keep them significant and memorable. SOTN‘s wolf, bat, and mist transformations are only used at a specific point, with maybe only mist being useful in combat. I said earlier I won’t talk about the countless relics you get in the game and I’m keeping my word. You can look up their descriptions if you want, and you can think of ways to shave off 10 and keep the game intact.
My dislike for Symphony of the Night doesn’t go all the way, and this article hasn’t elaborated on all the little things I like in the game. Many of the boss fights are fun and memorable, I enjoy the inverted castle segment (except for its execution), the feeling of entering a new area is on-the-nose, I like the music almost as much as I like Rondo of Blood‘s OST, the boots that make Alucard slightly taller are the best item, and the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen really make it a true cinematic experience (now if only the game could be capped to 24 fps).
So I’m not sure if I can recommend Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And I’m not sure if I even need to, since you’ve probably already played it, or have heard enough about it to make up your mind.
No, Psycho Mantis, I don’t like THAT Castlevania
Also published on Medium.