Saturday, October 28, 2023

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation, 1997)


This game is like the Elden Ring of Castlevanias.

There's also a Sega Saturn version that was in some ways superior to the PS1 version, but it never got a US release. Some of the bonus content in the Saturn version was added in for the Castlevania Requiem Collection, which is how I'm playing the game. I consider this a PS1 game regardless.

The PS1 was a fine system that really hit its stride in 1997/1998. When people talk about the greats for that system, you always hear Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, etc. I think this game belongs in that top tier of PS1 classics and gets less hype than it should. It was another big game-changer that set the system apart from previous systems. And in a way, things like this and FFVII made the PS1 more of a logical continuation of the Super NES than the N64 actually was.

This is basically the second half of Rondo of Blood (and thus the second half of "Castlevania V" as I put it). It picks up right at the final battle of Rondo and has you replay it.

We've got a retranslation for the PSP/PS4 version that alters the exchange between Richter and Dracula quite a bit.

Both guys are more articulate and sensical now...yet for the life of me I couldn't remember a word they said after the fact. The original PS1 version, while worse-translated, was infinitely more memorable:

Richter: "Die monster! You don't belong in this world!"

We get a fight,'s Rondo's super easy final boss. That fight being so easy makes a lot of sense now that it's the first boss of another game. Dracula-X on the SNES went ahead and made that fight incredibly hard, which is an interesting bit of trivia.

Dracula's first form/life bar at least gives me SOME grief, while his second form is incredibly easy.

Also, if you lose this fight, Maria appears and revives you. So you might not even be able to game over here, unless there's a point where she stops reviving you. All in all, it's identical to the Rondo final boss fight, with that caveat of being revived.

Now, urban legend says that if you win without being revived (or perhaps it's win without taking a hit), you'll start the game with dramatically increased stats. Nothing game-breaking, but it's kind of like starting at level 10 stats instead of level 1. The stats eventually start to cap (around level 60 IIRC) either way so at some point they'll catch up regardless of if you have this boost or not.

It's a bit of a callback to the first Ridley fight in Super Metroid, where if you performed well enough you could actually get Ridley to drop The Baby.

Speaking of Super Metroid, this game derives quite a bit of inspiration from it. Similar map, similar gameplay loop. Find items that let you reach previously-unreachable areas, go back and check them out to find something new. It lands that sense of exploration, but I also found it to be a bit more confusing. The various areas of Dracula's Castle aren't quite as diverse-looking as the areas in Super Metroid and I frequently found myself unsure of where to go next for the first third or so of the game. Once you unlock the power of flight, things open up a lot and you aren't locked into a single path as much.

The thing about Metroid games (I hate the term Metroidvania but I'll allow it now) is that there are always a couple of ways you can go to meet your next objective. You're never really locked into a single rigid path. If you were, then you might as well be playing a standard action game where at least you can't get lost. Having a single path you have to take in a large map where you can easily go off-course for 20 minutes is a recipe for tedium. So it's important for Metroidvanias to leave you some wiggle room to get lost and still get where you need to go.

Some games get this right, like most of the Metroid games. Some are a little iffier about it, like Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. And some are outright horrendous about it, like Mega Man ZX and its sequel. I spent more time wandering around MMZX's endless identical hallways LOOKING for the gameplay than I did actually playing the stages/gameplay.

Symphony of the Night falls closer to the Metroid end of the scale. You can get lost a bit early on, but once you get rolling you can explore and relax a bit while still getting somewhere.

In any case, Richter won the battle. We get a time-skip to about five years later now. Richter disappeared a year ago, and Alucard (SON OF DRACULA) is headed to Dracula's Castle to investigate.

As this scene immediately follows the previous scene, I was under the impression that the game was an immediate sequel to Rondo. Nope, they squeezed that timeskip into the intro rundown.

The funny thing is that the timeskip is completely unnecessary, and it makes more sense if Richter just disappears after the fight (with Alucard on the way to help). I believe this is what they do in the recent Netflix adaptation of the game.

The only reason we need a timeskip at all is to explain Maria's age, since they decided to make her a hot young woman in this one. That's literally the only reason. The Netflix show handles this by having her be a grown woman during the events of Rondo of Blood as well, so she's just never a kid.

It seems to me like they wanted her to be an adult, and her kid-ness in Rondo was basically a mistake in the overall story. They were going with the anime trope of the spunky little girl and then wanted to walk it back and have her be a supple miss.

I liked her spunky Rondo version, myself, so I'm glad it exists even if they kinda walked it back since then.

Anyway, let's get down to this actual game. You have a status screen, equipment (weapons, armor, accessories, things that bump up your stats), and relics (basically your Metroid-like ability items like being able to run fast or fly). Also Alucard can gain levels, which is awesome. Having trouble? No problem, go level up! With the open nature of the game you can always go somewhere else if a particular area is giving you some grief, as well, so you never really get stuck. This is why it's the Elden Ring of Castlevanias.

Sahagin: "OUR TIME HAS COME!" ::dies::

Man, these damn Sahagin keep trying to take over in every damn game I play, and they never actually succeed. When will they give up?

You start out with a bunch of powerups...and promptly lose them when Death steals them and scampers off giggling.

Interestingly enough, this is something that the Metroid series would lift from THIS game rather than the other way around, as Metroid Prime starts with Samus having a bunch of items that she loses by the end of the intro area.

Now weaponless (but not naive), Alucard must scrounge for whatever he can find. Rusty short swords and tattered clothes? Whatever, I'll take anything.

Good time to mention that Alucard does not use a whip like the Belmont clan. So this plays very differently from the rest of the series in that regard. Most of his potential weapons are swords, but we have a few other things mixed in there too.

This game is also full of statues. So many statues. A lot of them have a boob hanging out. It's like I'm back in France. They love them some topless Joan of Arc statues. And why not? Breasts have power.

The first boss fight is against these two refugees from previous games. Them attacking at the same time could be trouble, except that they aren't nearly as aggressive now. Also if you go to the right of them and start throwing axes, they basically get stuck in a loop where the purple guy picks up the green guy and drops him repeatedly. It's a super-easy, and buggy, fight.

Occasionally you find these warp zones that let you teleport to other warp zones in the castle. Super useful for getting around, and something Super Metroid lacked so it's another good innovation.

There are some interesting and unique items in this game, as they had a lot of room to play around with CD storage being what it was. Peanuts are a healing item that you don't just use: You throw them into the air and have to line Alucard up to catch them in order to get the heal.

All of Dracula's Castle is lovingly created and explorable in this game. So you'll see areas that look familiar from other games. For example, the final level of Rondo of Blood is pretty much the whole top level of the castle in this game. And yeah, the Clock Tower is just as much of a pain in the ass, with the same exact layout.

Alucard battles his doppleganger! It has all the powers you do, but doesn't know how to use them. Like Captain Ginyu.

Here's Maria, now a ridiculously attractive 18 year old. She's also looking for Richter, much like Alucard is. She's playable after beating the game as Alucard. More on that later.

In addition to finding RPG-like equipment to put on and Metroid-like relics to give you new powers, you also find Zelda-like heart containers strewn about the landscape that boost your HP. AND you're able to level up to get small HP gains as well. OH, and on top of all of that, it also has the special weapons from previous Castlevania games, like axes and holy water, that you can find and lob at foes. I generally stuck with the axe for about 90% of the game since Alucard was vulnerable to attacks from above otherwise.

This game took pretty much every fun mechanic I like from other games and threw them in a blender.

I may not have liked the term "Metroidvania" because to me these are Metroid-style games, but this game is of such quality (and innovates enough) that I'm now alright with the term.

There's a shop and it's in a really out of the way spot, which is kinda annoying. Luckily there's an item (Library Card) that warps you back here at will. You still have to run back out though.

A lot of prohibitively-expensive equipment is sold here and I don't think any of it is particularly necessary to get (or possible, without lots and lots of farming). The key things to get here are the item that lets you pass through blue doors, and Potions/High Potions. Those are key for getting through this game. No more slowly dying to death as you find yourself nowhere near a save point. (Yeah, save points heal you in this game, which is a massive help and the game would be incredibly hard otherwise)

The librarian doesn't just sell things, he also keeps a bestiary of everything you've fought. You can look at their stats and everything. This gives completionists something to work on.

Here's the first boss.

At first Maria is actually kind of rude every time she bumps into Alucard. She's skeptical of his motives and finds him aloof. However over the course of the game she realizes he's on her side and actually telling her the truth.

Good time to note that the background visuals in this game are insanely nice at times. Just stunning, and really show off how well the 32-bit systems could do 2D visuals if they wanted to. A lot of games at this point in time were making clumsy, haphazard leaps into ugly 3D visuals. The technology wasn't there yet to have 3D visuals actually look pretty, so for a while our game graphics actually went backwards visually.

More sexy statues. Each of the three chapel-points of the castle has a different statue on top of it.

The next boss is this giant red bird. It FURIOUSLY PECKS. I don't wanna talk about it.

You know what Maria, I don't need your attitude.

The make-up sex between these two would be insane.

Something I haven't mentioned: Alucard's afterimages. He has a trail of afterimages behind him at all times that he's in motion, no matter what he's doing. It's the Speed Booster principle from Super Metroid, extended over an entire game. And it looks incredibly cool.

Sometimes I'll find some items that are out of reach. Tantalizing. What are they, and how do I reach them?

The Clock Tower, as mentioned, is horrendous. Probably the worst series of rooms in this game, just like Rondo. I ended up dreading every time I had to cross through here.

Now we reach a reference to Vlad the Impaler. Some say he was a crusader who defended Romania by impaling Moslem invaders all along the roads as a warning to further Moslem incursions. Others say he was a bloodthirsty dictator who also impaled his own people.

Both things are probably true, but who knows. All I know for sure is that impalement is no way to go.

Eventually I reach Richter, and...he isn't himself at all.

He summons more Rondo bosses to gang up on Alucard.

It's interesting the way it throws multiple bosses at him in this game. Maybe they're trying to get across that Alucard is significantly stronger than a Belmont, so he can fight multiple bosses at once that would give you fits in previous games.

With it being clear that Richter is now evil for some reason, our hero looks for a way to fix him. Next item is the Form of Mist, which lets me mist through iron bars. It's situational right now, but when you find the relic that extends it, it becomes a very useful tool for ghosting your way past really difficult rooms. The Clock Tower is no problem after that, just turn into mist and float through unbothered.

Next boss is the bastardly Olrox. Who?

At the end of the fight he turns into a skeleton and looks like he's going to fight you again, then instead he just collapses. GREAT reference to Crocomire in Super Metroid and it shows how self-aware the devs were.

Now I get the real game-changer: Form of Bat. This grants the power of flight and lets me pretty much explore the entire castle.

High Jump Boots

We get a flashback scene, as Alucard witnessed his mother being burned at the stake. This of course was the thing that drove Dracula to declare war on humankind. I imagine having his wife killed like this would give him single-minded determination to destroy whoever was responsible.

In this case, the flashback is actually an illusion projected by the next boss. Also she relentlessly flirts with Alucard. She's a succubus, what do you expect?

She splits into three mirror images to attack. That must be incredibly useful in the bedroom. Every time you hook up with her it's a foursome. she not wearing any pants? Let's just move on.

Some good trophy names in the PS4 version of the game. Though it does kinda take the drama out of the scene a bit...

Next boss is this horrifying monstrosity that looks like Kurt Russell should be throwing a molotov cocktail at it.

Some interesting stage design here. To progress (and get to those sweet powerups) you need to lure a bomb-throwing skeleton over and have him launch it, breaking the bridge.

Next boss is Cerberus, the guardian of Hades. He's got a Tri-Beam, like Tien.

The game is getting intense now, with more powerful and more closely-packed enemies menacing me in every room. Here we see Alucard going Mist Form and floating past them.

This spike room requires not only Bat Form, but also Bat Sonar to give you just enough light to get through it. Otherwise it's pitch-black. Get through here and you get the Spike Breaker armor, which lets you break spikes permanently. That's right, the game remembers broken spikes and they never come back. Impressive memory there for a game from the 90's.

Alucard to spikes: "F**** YOOOOOOOU"

Alucard tells Maria that Richter is bad now...

...and she doesn't believe him.

I think Maria might have a thing for Richter. Unfortunately (for both of them) he only has eyes for Annette. .......what happened to Annette anyway? Not even a mention of her in this game.

Maria has the item I need to help Richter: The Holy Goggles. These will expose whatever it is that has him under control. However she doesn't want Alucard to fight him, knowing the risk to Richter's health that would pose.

Time for ALUCARD VERSUS MARIA. Fun Fact: This room also hosts the final boss fight of the entire game.

It's a good brawl, and Maria moves quickly. Her main attacks are the same as Rondo, throwing various familiars.

However, she can't contend with my High Jump Boots, and quickly throws in the towel.

Now she'll agree to let Alucard handle Richter. Time to put on our Holy Goggles and get to work.

This is it. THE SHOWDOWN. If you come here without getting the Holy Goggles first, you can still fight Richter, but he'll die and you get the bad ending. So in a way, this could be the final boss of the game if you're doing it wrong. Then you'd miss out on the second half though. That's right, we're only halfway through this beast of a game.

Richter may be Majin right now and under someone's control, but he still has his own objectives. He wants to fight Dracula forever.

They battle it out! This fight is substantially tougher than Maria, and probably the hardest fight in this game overall (aside from maybe Garamoth, the uberboss...more on that later).

Richter's whip attacks do a TON of damage, but I go through a few potions and heave axes at him and win the day.

Wait a that trophy quoting "Work It" by Missy Elliot? WELP. They've outdone themselves.

Shaft ("Shaft!") shows up and he's all about reviving Dracula. I guess Richter spilled enough blood for the revival to happen. Yeah, this is basically the Majin Buu arc.

Maria gets an injured Richter out of here, while Alucard pursues Shaft through a portal. Where does he end up? the tip-top of the upside-down castle.

That's right, there's an inverted version of the entire castle, with new enemies and items. This is actually pretty astounding.

Video time: Equip the Fairy familiar (not Faerie...yeah, they're two different familiars) and sit in a chair for a bit, and the fairy starts singing. It might have to be leveled up a bit (level 12 seems to be generally agreed on) for this to work. This game has SO MANY SECRETS.

In other news, you need to get $500,000 by the endgame if you're going for the platinum / a completionist run, since buying the Duplicator is required and costs that much. This is a pretty excessive grind. By the end I had about $150k so I had to do this one room about 350 times. I suggest putting a movie on.


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