Monday, 20 March 2017

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX)

Castlevania Symphony of the Night title screen
Developer:Konami|Release Date:1997|Systems:PSX, PSP, PSN, Saturn, Xbox 360

Today on Super Adventures I'm celebrating the 20th anniversary of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night! It was the 20th anniversary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series a few days back and it'll be the movie Blade's 20th birthday next year too, so in retrospect the late 90s was a terrible time to be a vampire.

Speaking of things that happened in ages past, man it's been while since my epic marathon of all the traditional Castlevania platformers. "This is going to be the final Castlevania game I'll be playing for a long long time," I wrote at the end of my Castlevania Legends article, but I had no idea it'd take me 6 years to get around to the next one! You could make a third of a Duke Nukem game in that time.  Though in my defence I used to avoid writing about games I'd played before and I've actually beaten this one on the Xbox 360.

If playing all those classic Castlevanias taught me anything, it's that Konami were determined to get those Belmonts onto every system they could, and that each console had to get its own exclusive game. Seriously, to play the whole series up to this point you would've needed access to a NES, an MSX2, a Game Boy, a PC Engine with a CD drive, an X68000, a Mega Drive, a SNES and an arcade with the Haunted Castle cabinet. In this case though they skipped the Sega 32X due to it being dead and put their new 2D Castlevania on two consoles, the PlayStation and Saturn (with the Game Boy getting Legends instead and the N64 getting both Castlevania 64 and Legacy of Darkness two years later).

It was a bit strange though that Konami released this for the PlayStation, at least in the West, partly because Sony of America had a real hate on for 2D and partly because it's the direct sequel to a game that didn't get an English release until a decade later! In Japan the game’s called Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku (Nocturne in the Moonlight), because it follows on from PC Engine game Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (Rondo of Blood). This 'music term of the vampire-related thing' theme carried on through a couple of the GBA games until they started throwing in words like 'Dawn' and 'Portrait' and ruined the pattern.

Anyway I've waited long enough to give this a replay so I should get on with it. I hope I don't hate it now!



Castlevania Symphony of the Night select your destiny file select screen
Hey, the game's finally given me something to listen to! It's choir music rather than Gothic metal, but I'm sure they're building up to that. It's given me something to read as well, but it might take me a while to translate these glyphs because this is not the most readable of fonts and the fancy decorations aren't helping.

Name entry screens have been around in Castlevania games for a while now, since back in the NES era, but it took until the X68000 game and Rondo of Blood before they attached a save game feature to it. Before that you were just entering your name to personalise your passwords. Then they went back to passwords again for Bloodlines and Dracula X... but that doesn't matter right now, because I'm playing Symphony of the Night, and with a memory card plugged in it gives me all the save slots I could want! (Limit: 1 per playthrough).

Alright I've put my name in, now what?

Uh... sure I could do that! As long as you agree to stop being all weird with your text formatting.

Hey the game's got a pre-rendered intro! I've never seen this before as they took it out of the Xbox Live Arcade version to save space. It was the biggest game on the service at the time even without the videos as Microsoft made a special exception for it.

Turns out I wasn't missing much though as the video shows a shot of a map, then it pans around this scruffy looking 3D model of Castlevania castle for a bit and it's done. Rondo of Blood also came out on CD and I like its semi-animated anime intro better, even if I couldn't understand a word of it because the narrator was German and the subtitles were in Japanese.

Speaking of Rondo of Blood, I'm in Rondo of Blood!

In a bit of a break from tradition for the Castlevania games, and video games in general, Symphony has started me off in the final stage of the previous game, just a short walk away from the last boss! The level has been remade though with fancier pixel work, clouds speeding past and a massive real-time 3D clock tower in the background that isn't actually on the model they just showed me in the intro, but whatever.

Seems that HUD at the top left has survived the transition unchanged though, except they've removed the score; Symphony of the Night's got better numbers to keep track of. There's no timer either, though that was true of Rondo as well.

Also I got that awesome metal track I was after: Symphony of the Night OST Track 2: Prologue (YouTube link). You could listen to it in another tab while trying to spot the differences between Richter Belmont's old PC Engine sprite and his shiny new PlayStation one.

Well... he's got a bit of a collar now I guess. Plus his wrist band's a little thicker. I'm not really seeing a massive leap here in pixel art technology though considering that the PC Engine was 7 year old hardware by this point. The two games are even running in pretty much the same resolution, with the sprites getting stretched horizontally by 25% by the time they make it to the TV screen.

I've stretched him here but I'll be leaving the rest of the screenshots alone because messing with the aspect ratio typically leads to blurriness or nasty doubled pixels. So if the sprites are looking a bit skinny you know why.

They may not have changed his art much but they've given him a lot more of it, as Richter's got all kinds of new moves and extra animation frames to go with them. I can steer him in the air now as well and twirl the whip around freely like in Super Castlevania IV! Best Belmont ever.

After getting to the tower I got to work smashing every light fixture to steal the hearts within (you know, to power my sub-weapons), and accidentally hit a switch that dropped a secret staircase down. This is actually a homage to the invisible staircase you can find here in Rondo of Blood, which itself is a homage to an invisible staircase glitch in the Famicom Disk System version of the original Castlevania. Probably.

The Famicom game's glitch staircase isn't going to take you anywhere you'd want to go, but this one brought me to an attic filled with badass weapons! Richter can't actually equip gear though so it was all entirely wasted on him. Still, he's got the legendary Vampire Killer whip already so it's not like he even needed it.

Alright, let's go say hi to Dracula in the next room.

Oh damn, I'd forgotten the voice acting! And Dracula's sick burn on organized religion.

If you're wondering why the text isn't getting typed out letter by letter in the first few boxes, it's because I cut out a few of the frames to keep the size down. I'm always butchering art like this.

Here's a fun fact for you: this translation was done by the same guy who went on to translate Metal Gear Solid. Here's another fun fact, this is one of the most famous and beloved parts of Symphony of the Night, so of course they went and changed all the lines and the voice acting for the Dracula X Chronicles port on the PSP!

Original PlayStation Translation

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


Dracula: It was not by my hand that I am once again given flesh. I was called here by humans, who wish to pay me tribute.

Richter: Tribute? You steal men's souls, and make them your slaves.

Dracula: Perhaps the same could be said of all religions.

Richter: Your words are as empty as your soul. Mankind ill needs a savior such as you.

Dracula: What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets! But enough talk... have at you!
New Dracula X Chronicles Translation.

Richter: Dracula. Die now, and leave this world! You'll never belong here!

Dracula: Oh, but this world invited me. Your own kind called me forth with praise and tribute.


Richter: Tribute? You're a thief. You steal men's souls, their freedom...

Dracula: Freedom is always sacrificed to faith, good hunter. Or are you truly here by choice?

Richter: All I'm here for is you. To hell with your heresy! You're nothing but a blight on mankind.

Dracula: Ha! Mankind. A cesspit of hatred and lies. Fight for them, then, and die for their sins!


Funny thing is, it seems that they both take massive liberties with the Japanese script, mostly because it was a bit boring and corny. But in any language Dracula thinks that humans suck, Richter thinks they're great, and this disagreement can only be resolved with a glass of blood getting smashed and a fight to the death.

Sure, just throw me into a fight with the final boss of the game then. I've already mastered climbing staircases and whipping candles so I'm clearly ready for the ultimate challenge.

I was kind of hoping that playing all these games for my site had levelled up my skills to the point where I could take this guy down without being hit, but nope. I couldn't even dodge his very first fireball! At least I've learned that special attacks are activated in the traditional way: accidentally, while I'm trying to move and attack at once. Pressing up + the whip button unleashes my chosen sub-weapon, at the cost of a heart.

The vampire king's too lazy to actually walk anywhere, so he's gotten into a routine of teleporting in, shooting some variety of fireballs at me from his cape, then teleporting back out again while I'm trying to dodge them. I thought I was being a smart ass by throwing the holy water sub-weapon at his feet to deal a ton of damage, but then I looked at his health bar and realised I was wasting my time, so I switched to whipping him in the face instead. 

Fortunately it’s actually really easy to get a hit in and then dodge his fire without taking damage, it’s just time consuming. I almost want to restart and try again without losing health because I'm supposed to begin the main game with better stats that way, but… time consuming.

Wait, what’s that other bar for? His mana? Oh shit they’re both health bars... he’s got a second form!


His second form sucks!

The tower disintegrated to leave us in a dimension of swirling nothingness, but Demon Dracula still managed to find a corner to back me into and then followed it up by raining fireballs down on me from his mouth. I watched the last of my life bar disappear and it seems like that was that... but then Maria (the second playable character in Rondo of Blood) ran in and used her magic to make me invulnerable! She was always the best character to have around in boss fights.

So I just stood there and whipped Demon Dracula in the knee until he burst into flame and exploded, yelling “No, this cannot be! AGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!“

C'mon Dracula, this can't be that much of a shock to you. You must have gone up against a half-dozen Belmonts by this point and you always always lose! Also maybe you wouldn't have been so exposed to my attacks if you'd left your damn pants on.

Hey the game's given me a Polaroid photo of my victory to keep as a souvenir! The photographer even managed to get the HUD in frame, which is clever.

Aww, the photo fell away into the darkness and then went and burst into flames itself. That was my only proof that I got the kill and not Maria for once! Granted she did help out a bit, with that invulnerability spell she cast that made it impossible for me to lose.

It was nice of the developers to let all players have a go of reaching Dracula's tower and killing the guy regardless of their skill level, as it's something I missed on entirely during the earlier games due to being crap, but the fight's not going to be so easy next time we meet.

Unless I find the Shield Rod and the Alucard Shield, then it will be.

Oh good, an unskippable opening scroll, just what everyone wanted from their Castlevania game. At least they had the sense to put it after the fight against Dracula, so I've become too invested to turn it off and do something else.

This has new voice acting on the PSP version but here the narrator's strangely silent. Apparently the original English voice track turned out so bad they scrapped it entirely. But that's fine as it means that no one's talking over the music.

The text reveals that it's been four years since Richter's win in the prologue, and the guy's gone missing! Maria's not a kid any more so she's gone back to Castlevania on her own to look for him, but I'm not playing as either of them. Instead I'm Dracula's half-human son Adrian, last seen as a playable character in Castlevania III on the NES! Though he prefers to be called Alucard.

Alucard was huge in Castlevania III, towering over Trevor Belmont even when he wasn't a boss, but the new Alucard sprite for Symphony dwarfs him. Plus his hair's gone grey during the last 321 years or so he's spent sleeping in a box, waiting for his chance to be the star.

But Alucard can't wield the Vampire Killer whip himself, because he's not a Belmont. Plus he's a vampire and besides Richter's still carrying the thing. In the NES game Alucard was stuck using the same fireball cloak attack as his dad, but this time I'll mostly be using swords.

Here's something Richter Belmont never had: a menu screen full of stats. His ancestor Simon Belmont went a bit a RPG back in Castlevania II, increasing his level and filling up an inventory, but not like this. They both start at level 1 though, which is a bit weird considering they're both legendary heroes with a game under the belt already.

It's not the prettiest of menus (I think it's a placeholder they never got around to replacing), but I love that Ayami Kojima portrait art in the corner. The Dracula X Chronicles version is just as rubbish looking, but they've moved the time over to the right a bit so they could fit 'Quicksave' on the menu. It really means 'save and quit' though, and if you load up you're put back in the last save room.

Fortunately Alucard’s making up for his inadequate level (and the crappy starting stats I earned for him) with a set of swank gear. He’s got an invisible Dragon helm, a personalised Alucard chain mail sword and shield set, a Necklace of J and a sparkly black Twilight cloak (for vampires)!

What this means is that I can kill anything in basically one hit. I might not be carrying the legendary Vampire Killer whip but I make do without. Plus this blade is so much faster; I press the button and things die, no delay.

I can still do the Dracula teleporting fireball cloak trick by the way, but it requires one of those fighting game d-pad moves I struggle to pull off and it costs a little mana (which is a different resource to the hearts). Plus I'm not supposed to know how to do it until I've bought the instructions from the in-game shop.

Man, there's something really familiar about this hallway and not just because the ghouls I'm slaying have the exact same sprite as in Rondo of Blood.

Castlevania (NES)
Yeah, thought so; this is the same entrance hall you fight through at the start of the original Castlevania! And Castlevania X68000, Rondo of Blood, Bloodlines... in fact I think they probably all end up here at some point. I know you come here at the end of Castlevanias II and III at least.

The layout and design is always a little different though, as the castle is a creature of Chaos and may take many incarnations. The current incarnation is looking way better than it did on the NES, though Alucard's much bigger on screen than Simon Belmont was so I've got a bit less room to see what's coming. And the damn candles aren't dropping anything when I smash them any more!

Here's what the Saturn version looks like by comparison:

Saturn
It's basically the same except with dithered explosions instead of translucent ones because the Saturn's otherwise powerful 2D hardware doesn't do transparency and they didn't want to mess around with pulling off the effect in software. Even though they totally could've.

It's not the greatest of ports really, as the frame rate can really drop during the action, while the PSX game keeps a steady 60 FPS. This slowdown is my fault though as I wanted to give you time to properly appreciate Richter's amazing slide kick backflip move. I bet he knew how to do that the whole time during Rondo of Blood, he just chose not to because he wanted to make my life harder.

Oh that's something else I should mention, the Saturn port features a character select screen letting you choose to play the entire game as Richter or even Maria! They're at a bit of a disadvantage considering that they can't level up or wear equipment, but you can see that Richter's already one-shotting giant wolves from the start so it's definitely possible to win as them.

The original PSX version doesn't feature Maria as a playable character (they ran out of time), but Richter's in there to play as. Trouble is there's no select screen, so I'd have to complete the entire bloody game first as Alucard and then start a new file with the name "RICHTER" before it'd let me use him!

After the hallway of wolves I ran into Death and had a chat. He seems like a nice enough bloke, or at least he did until he telekinetically stripped all of Alucard's clothes off him and flew off with them! So that’s a thing that Death can do now apparently. Farewell Necklace of J.

Oh damn I just noticed what's going on in the background. That's so horrible I'm physically shivering at the sight of it.

I don't mean the artistically arranged corpses, impalers gonna impale, I mean that bridge behind them. It's bringing back memories of Dracula X and all the attempts it took to get past the collapsing bridge stage before I even made it inside the castle. There's another game that reused Richter's sprites now that I think about it; these guys were all about recycling.

So here's the current situation then:

Alucard’s strength has gone down from 10 to 6, his constitution’s gone down from 16 to 6, and his attack and defence are a mere fraction of what they once were! Though on the plus side his intelligence has gone up by 14%, so I guess that invisible helmet was cutting off the blood flow to his brain. Things aren't ideal, but hey at least I survived my first brush with Death.

Plus Death failed to account for the fact that Alucard was wearing a second set of identical clothes underneath the ones he stole. So he's weaker now, but still fashionable. I'll just have to live with having a grey lined cape instead of a red one.

Also wait a second, Alucard’s got a Neutron bomb? Death stripped him of everything he was wearing including his necklace but somehow missed that? I’d stick it into an empty hand so that I can use or to activate it in combat, but I don’t want to risk atomising half of Transylvania and obliterating Richter and Maria along with it.

Right, I guess I’ll just continue onwards like I know where I’m going then.

Here's a rare glimpse of what Symphony of the Night would look like if someone used motion stabilisation on it to keep a GIF's filesize down. Turns out it's very much the same, as I'm still getting my ass kicked by crap-tier enemies either way.

This was so much easier when I was unstoppable! Not that it's all that difficult now, I've got enough health left for him to knock '5's out of me all afternoon (well, 12 more times). But I don't want to make a habit of it as health's hard to find in this place.

Apparently that extreme knockback you're witnessing is due to my pathetic constitution stat, so I'll hopefully get that levelled up a bit before I run into any Medusa heads. A rubbish constitution stat can actually work to your advantage though, as if it's low enough at the start you can get knocked back all the way across the room you meet Death in, skip the conversation, and hold onto all your gear.

I charged back up the stairs, punched the skeleton so hard he exploded into bones, picked up his short sword (8 attack instead of 6 woo), and then ran straight into this locked door.

Look at that mysterious heart pick up behind it, sitting next to the door switch, both of them taunting me. Seems that I can only go this way when I’ve already been there.

Though I do appreciate that they've put the switch near to thing it activates, so there's no mystery to what it'll do. Some games will put a lever somewhere on its own and when you use it you get a message saying "Something has opened elsewhere!" (I'm looking at you, Hexen), but this doesn't pull that shit thankfully.

So I continued up the stairs, slaying monsters and investigating the other branching passageways along the way. It's a lot like Metroid in that the castle’s one big open level split into separate areas, so when I move around this staircase the camera will follow me around, but if I walk up to that doorway on the left the camera's going to wait until I'm in there before showing me where I'm in.

Hey something's just occurred to me: this game doesn't have any Castlevania stairs in it at all. Sure it's got stairs around, I just climbed a bunch of them to reach Dracula's tower, but it doesn't have those background staircases that you have to push up on the d-pad to use. You know, the ones you get stuck on. The ones you fall right through and die when you try to jump onto them. Man, fuck those stairs. Instead I'm just jumping up through the holes in the ceiling.

The next doorway led to a Metroid-style save room! Well Metroid II really, as the first game didn't have them... though none of them feature a mysterious 3D d20 that turns into a coffin and explodes, to my knowledge.

Anyway it's a nice room and I appreciate it giving me my hit points back, but it seems that some thoughtless asshole's stacked bricks in front of the second exit so I need to go back out the way I came and continue on up the stairsless stairs. I'll be sure to come back some time though, like when I need another health refill (because I ain't getting it back any other way it seems).

At the top of the stairs room I found two exits, with the one on the right's blocked off until I've already been there. But I also found an item! It's a Cube of Zoe... so that's good, I guess. Can never have too much Zoe.

I've read that Zoe was the name of the translator's daughter and the Necklace of J refers to his son Jin, so that's one mystery solved. He could've been a bit more subtle about it though.

Hey maybe this cube's one of those relics I'm supposed to be looking out for. I'll check the relics page in my menu and see if it's shown up.

Man there's a lot of collectable relics in this game.

Ah there you go, the description says that it causes items to materialise. That's only slightly less vague, but it sounds useful; I'm totally going to leave this thing turned on.

Oh I see, it's making the candles drop hearts when I smash them! Wait, does that mean that the Belmonts' ability to get hearts out of candles was a weird hereditary super power the whole time? Does this explain the mysterious roast dinners hidden in the walls too?

Wow, I guess it's actually not so bad being a Belmont then. Sure every 100 years one of them has to go out and face impossible odds and incredible hardship to invade the Vampire Lord's cursed stronghold and take him down in one-on-one combat, but the rest of the family gets to stay at home, knocking a chunk out of the wall any time they're hungry for fresh cooked chicken. 

The exit on the left led to Dracula's Alchemy Laboratory, which I know because it covered the screen with the name while I was trying to fight a skeleton. Helpful that.

After spending a while trying to encourage a skeleton to stand still on a floor switch long enough to activate a lift and take me to a side room I gave up and carried on left to find a punchable wall with a secret Heart Max Up behind it! I was hoping for some of that tasty wall chicken but a permanent upgrade's okay too. I also found a leather shield which I equipped in my empty hand to raise my DEF from 2 to 3. That's a 50% upgrade!

This next room has little skeleton things speeding around the outside of ledges, dripping poison as they go. I know it's poison as I just got my dumb ass poisoned as I was walking under one of them. Weirdly it seems that poison actually halves my attack instead of slowly chipping away at my health though, so I'm not massively bothered.

Besides, I'm sure the effect will have worn off by the time I've implemented my ingenious block puzzle solution. I lowered both sets of spikes surrounding the box, jumped down and pushed it a little to the right, then raised the spikes again to give me a platform I can jump onto to get up to the right hand ledge. This led to a dead end with a cloth cape in it, bringing my DEF from 3 to 4!

I'm struggling to think of any puzzles like this showing up in the other Castlevanias I played, but I'm coming up dry. Simon's Quest came closest I guess, but its idea of a puzzle was to have an NPC tell you "Wait for a soul with a red crystal on Deborah Cliff,” and then let you either tear your hair out trying to figure out what it actually wants you to do, or give up and buy the strategy guide.

These axe armor assholes were definitely in the earlier games though. I remember having so much trouble with them in Rondo of Blood.

I followed this route upwards and found another passage in the ceiling I couldn't get into yet, this time because I can't fly. Then I ran into another passage blocked by a blue door. It said ‘magically sealed’ but it really meant is ‘needs blue keycard’.

Seems that I have a lot of backtracking in my future when I acquire the powers of flight and keycards. Fortunately I found another save room too so when I find myself retracing my steps it won't be because I got my ass whooped.

Oh balls, they could've given me some clue I was walking into a boss room! Marked the doorway or something. At least that way I would've known to save first... which I did anyway, but still. I could've spent a while grinding for hearts as well! Though that sounds tedious and I'm glad I didn't.

And of course the game that has Dracula as the first enemy would put me up against two bosses for my first real fight. These two first appeared in Super Castlevania IV and were each considered dangerous enough to be a solo boss on their own, but hey I'm sure I can take both of them at once. I just have to work out their pattern and stop getting hit by every bloody attack they throw at me.

At least I've got a lot of room to move around here, as this is a much bigger arena than the ones you'd find in the earlier games. Though that also means I've got more room to lose track of these two in. Then I get to enjoy surprise fireballs out of nowhere.


Castlevania Symphony of the Night Game Over screen
"Let us go out this evening for pleasure. The night is still young." What? Also why am I looking at a dragon skeleton out in the deserts of Transylvania?

Well the bosses won, which isn't a huge shock really, but I am a bit surprised that the game isn't letting me continue at the last save room. The Castlevania games had infinite continues from day one, but this one has kicked me right back to the title screen and is making me load my save! So I'm going to doing a lot of waiting before I get to jump back into action.

A friend who's been watching over my shoulder just asked why I didn't just use the leather shield I'd picked up to block the projectiles, so I took this opportunity to explain to him the one singular flaw in his otherwise excellent plan: I didn't know that I could do that!

So I raced back to the boss and sure enough the shield works. Turns out that it wasn't really necessary though as I just had to stop being terrible and start spamming more axes and both the bosses went down no trouble. They even left me a Life Max Up pick up afterwards as a present and restored my hit points! I'm totally running back to the last save room though.


MEANWHILE, IN THE SATURN VERSION.


Saturn
Out of curiosity I checked to see how well Maria would do in a boss fight, and there's your answer up there. Maria can't level up or collect gear, but she's got ranged magic powered by mana and special moves activated by awkward fighting game d-pad combinations. As if she wasn't overpowered enough, she's also got a healing spell and mana recharges so that's unlimited regenerating health right there! So she's a good choice for someone who's mastered all the Mortal Kombat fatalities, but isn't so great at platformers.

You can also play as Maria in the PSP port included with Dracula X Chronicles, but she's apparently dramatically different in that. I'd check and see for myself, but it seems I'd have to beat the entire game first, so... nah.

By the way, this might GIF be wider than the PlayStation screenshots but the Saturn's not really running in a higher resolution. Remember how I said I didn't want to stretch my screenshots to 4:3 because it'd cause ugly double-width pixels every few rows? Well that's the method the Saturn uses to stretch the graphics out and you can't turn it off.


RIGHT AFTER THE BOSS FIGHT.


The game's got a strange fondness for sticking me in narrow flat passageways with enemies blocking my way.

These skeletons are nothing to one who has mastered the dash backwards button... but I'm not actually using it here. I'm just running back and forth, because every time I remember I have a backdash button I end up hitting it when I'm already walking backwards, causing me to backdash forwards straight into the enemy attack I'm trying to dodge!

I love the way Alucard glides when I turn around by the way. He's very different to stompy Richter; kind of like a bishōnen vampire ninja with a ghostly afterimage.

These strange empty airlocks confused me a bit when I played the game on the Xbox 360, but they make a lot much sense now that I know that the symbol above my head that kind of looks like that letters 'CD' under a picture of a disc really is the letters 'CD' under a picture of a disc. This is a loading room, to give the game time to get the next area from the CD. In this case I'm moving on to the Marble Gallery!

Though if I was playing the Saturn version I'd be moving on to a loading screen, as it's not quite able to get all the loading done in the room made especially for loading.


LATER, AGES FROM A SAVE ROOM.


What the shit? 43 damage from one attack's a bit much isn't it? I wonder what my chances of blocking that with a leather shield are.

I thought I had him as well, as he was finally sitting in one place long enough for me to use my salt or garlic or whatever it is I just threw at his feet to burn him.

It seems likely that I'm meant to go another direction and leave him until I'm stronger, but fuck that! This guy must be guarding something good if he's just a regular enemy. Plus I get more EXP for enemies that are above my level (and less for those below it), so killing him should be worth my time.

First though I've got to load my save game and walk all the way back here. The game says that I'm level 6 and 10.3% through by the way, but that percentage is only half right.


3 MINUTES AND 45 SECONDS OF HIKING FROM THE LAST SAVE POINT LATER.


Holy shit, they've upgraded these throwing daggers a bit haven't they? I'd say he might as well have not turned up at all this time, but he pretty much didn't, as only an arm and a head made it onto my screen before I annihilated him.

Sub-weapons are bloody useful in this, which is good because it means I'm not just slashing everything all the time. They still work like the older games though, in that I find them in candles and I can only hold one at a time, with the previous one falling out onto the floor for a bit in case I change my mind. This means if I want to collect a specific sub-weapon I need to remember where I found it last.

Alright, let's see where the path of skill and daring has taken me.

Oh, I'm back at the stairs next to the first save room. It’s taken me in a big circle. Joy. Well at least I’ve opened up a shortcut, plus it's always satisfying to get more of my Super Metroid looking automap filled in. It'd be cool if it was a labelled automap, so that I'd know which bit is the Alchemy Laboratory and which is the Marble Gallery, but with this resolution I can forgive them for not doing that. At least they made the save rooms red.

Now I need to get back up to the top of the map to figure out which of these exits is going to take me somewhere new. So I've got a choice: go back the way I came and fight those monsters again, or go around the long way and fight easy skeletons. Either way won't have to face the bosses again, they're done with.

I decided to go back the longer easier way, to see if I'd missed anything, and managed to reach another blocked shortcut! This one's more interesting than most though as it's got the treasure on this side of the wall (a sword I don't want) and it's opened up by firing a cannon at it.

That's one of the problems the game has by the way. Not indoor cannons, but loot you don't want. The rooms aren't meant to be visited in a particular order, so you can end up collecting a good weapon early, and then find that wherever you go next you're being rewarded with stuff you'll never use. Takes half the fun out of exploration.


LATER.


I've found Maria! Which means more dialogue and more voice acting. Though these actors sound fine to me to be honest, considering that they're delivering lines like "What do you here?" I wish I knew Maria, I really do.

Alucard's here to do blow up this castle, it turns out, so Maria's content with letting him carry on with that. You'd expect her to say 'hold on until I find Richter' but all she tells him is that they have the same purpose and then says 'bye' and runs off. You'd think that they could join forces seeing as both of them have teamed up with a Belmont in their previous games, but this time they're going solo. It's a shame really, as I could do with a bit of invulnerability in my boss fights.


A LONG WALK IN A STRAIGHT LINE LATER.


Figures that the one instant-death bottomless pit in the game would have Medusa heads flying around it. You'd think they'd be all about turning folks to stone, but nope all these ones do is fly across the screen in a wavy pattern that's easy to predict and a bastard to avoid, just to knock you off into the abyss.

In earlier Castlevanias falling off platforms was often the quickest way to die, but Symphony never really punishes for falling off a platform; the worst that happens is you land on an enemy and have to climb back up again. So I doubt even this is a fall to the death, but I think I'll hold off on taking a risk on that until I've saved.

I'm over at the far right-hand side of the castle now, in the Outer Wall zone, so I've got a fair amount of walking to do to get back if I mess up now. Mostly in a straight line though to be honest. Haven't seen the save room yet but I did find a fence I can't get through, so that's interesting. It means I can come back here when I get the ability to turn into mist. It's one of the lesser-known vampire abilities as you have to do a lot of platforming and exploration to unlock it and most vampires can't be bothered.

Uh... this doesn't look like a save room. Shit, I knew I should've picked the door on the left! Maybe if they'd put some signs outside I'd have known what I was walking into. Seriously, if you're making a game with save room and boss rooms, let the player know which is which!

Seems to me like I've just wandered into the evil doppelgänger room. This guy's just like me, except much better at it. He can even dodge my rapid-fire miniboss-slaying throwing dagger move, so I’m pretty much fucked here. The trouble with this being more open than the previous Castlevanias is that I'm never sure I can even win this yet with the gear I have. I mean I'm sure someone can, but I don't know if I've done all I can to bring the difficulty down to my level.

After I inevitably got my ass kicked, I decided to explore around a bit more instead (after hiking all the way back down the endless hallway from the save room in the previous area) and ran into an armoured enemy who wouldn’t die, no matter how many axes I put into his head. I was curious about this so I checked a walkthrough to see if it was worth persevering and learned that there’s a secret elevator behind him if I hide in a wall for a bit. So I got inside and collected some shiny Jewel Knuckles for my trouble. Zero range, but 26 damage! Doppelganger didn’t like being punched for 26 damage at a time.

Also this time I brought throwing axes and I remembered that I could use my shield to block projectiles, so that helped.


SOON.


A little further up I found a (relatively) friendly librarian on a toilet who also happens to have knives, hammers, magic missiles and high quality 12000 gold Diamond plate armour stashed in his drawer. And he’s selling the blue keycard I needed forever ago!

Weirdly I can’t sell anything myself except for gems, so I’m just going to have to keep hold of all my crap tier gear. I'm getting a real temptation now to grind for money and get all the best gear straight away (or at least some potions), but nah. I will get the 500 gold Library card though, because… I dunno, it might be handy somewhere. I have no idea what it does.

I also bought a map! It hasn't revealed the whole castle, but it’s enough to put me on the right path. Well, paths actually, as the game's started to open up more now and give me choices. Those yellow rooms are teleporters by the way, so I can get back without taking all the long tedious flat hallways now.

Alright I'm going to teleport back to the start (bottom left), fight through the Alchemy Laboratory again for the third time and open up the blue keycard door next to the first boss room. That'll take me to the diagonal room up on the top left, which will hopefully give me something more to do than walking right and hitting things.

I went through the blue keycard door, carried on up a long staircase into the this lil guy who's more scared of me than I am of him. He was throwing his sticks at me earlier but when I got close he started cowering and shaking in terror. Which is understandable but ultimately futile.

It's cool how much personality this game has. Even when it reuses sprites from older games it doesn't feel like the developers did it because they were lazy. They did it because they were busy. In fact this place almost feels like a museum of old Castlevania games, which I'm able to appreciate this time around because I've actually played them all in the meantime.

Well, I played them for a bit; didn't get anywhere. They're bloody difficult!

It says a lot about Dracula's arrogance that the guy would have an elaborate and impossibly expensive chapel built into his evil castle, complete with a confessional, and then have it decorated with one of his main vulnerabilities. He's even got evil ghost priests that stab me with axes when I sit down. Multiple axes!

I really shouldn't have done this, because I knew what was coming and I haven't seen a save room in ages, but I couldn't resist. Incidentally there's other chairs in the castle that Alucard can sit in and just have a nap for a while. Doesn't get me anything, it's just another nice touch.

Shit! I was looking for the save room, found a fire breathing bird instead.

I was only at 44 health when I came in here, I'm not ready for a boss fight! Not that I'm ever ready, but you know what I mean. If this thing kills me I'll have a lot of map to fill back in, but there's no way to get out. I ran to check the doors on each side on the off chance that maybe just once it'd let me escape and come back later, but nope. Never can. I'm stuck here until it's over.

AND IT'S OVER!

I shouldn't be so smug as I've got those overpowered Jewel Knuckles on, but I'm still kind of smug.

Nice painting by the way. The castle's filled with this kind of elaborate pixelled artwork as the PlayStation has the memory and disc space for it that the older consoles never did. It doesn't need the flashy effects to look a clear step above last gen platformers.

Alright, now I just have to fight my way through to the next save room with just 124 HP. Hey if anyone can lose that to a corridor full of easy skeletons, it's me.

Oh first there's another brief cutscene as Maria comes by and the two of them talk about Belmonts. Seems that Richter's got himself a new coat, but when Alucard thinks back to his buddy Trevor we get to see a cameo of his old Castlevania III sprite! Alucard's recollection isn't perfect as the NES didn't have the shades for anti-aliased sprites, but that's basically what he looked like. Which is cool.

Alright after all that effort I'm right back at the Outer Wall, but now I've unlocked my wolf ability. My first vampire transformation!

Not sure how this helps at all, but it must be good as wolf mode gets its own button on the controller. The sub-weapons don't even get that! Either way it feels like I've achieved something so I'm turning the game off here. Else I could go on like this all night.


CONCLUSION

Symphony of the Night has some great music, just had to get that out of the way first. Seems that Michiru Yamane had only composed for one previous Castlevania and the was the Mega Drive game, but she nailed it.

It looks pretty damn good as well, better than you'd think considering all the recycled sprites from older games. It's got one foot in the 16-bit era and one in the PlayStation era, with the developers having fun with all the flashy new effects the hardware's capable of. There's moonlight shining between pillars, 3D buildings in the background, enemies turning into blood geysers, wavy loading text you can twist around with the d-pad... all kinds of stuff!

The game's also got a great feel to it, which is a first for the Castlevania series. Well okay that's not fair, the earlier Castlevanias restrict your movement deliberately so that you have to to be patient and careful with your jumps. Every stage in those games is a separate challenge to be practised and mastered with your limited move set and your infinite continues, until you've got the skills to reach the boss with enough health left to kill him and earn the next challenge. This on the other hand lets you leap around like a ninja and shoot fireballs from your cape from the start and by the midpoint you've been down all the hallways forwards and backwards, and the average encounter is a joke.

Symphony of the Night is all about looking back at that stories, characters, locations and bosses of the earlier games, it even starts with you replaying the ending to Rondo of Blood, but when it comes to the gameplay this is definitely meant to be an entry point for new players rather than a challenge for experienced fans. Instead of using extreme difficulty to increase the game's playtime and end up driving away the less skilled or patient players, they've hidden all the content around a huge castle map so that people have to backtrack to find it. So there's the big difference between this and something like Dark Souls: it doesn't demand that you rise to the challenge. Sure that's an option, but it's deliberately designed that anyone who puts the time into it can eventually become powerful enough to beat it.

You could also compare this to Zelda II or Metroid, but I'm going to say it's like it's like the Jet Set Willy to Rondo of Blood's Manic Miner. You're basically facing the same obstacles, but the interconnected levels makes it a very different experience. Well that, and the shitload of gear and abilities you get. Instead of trying to climb a mountain because it's there, you're filling in a map and collecting things. Things you get to keep. So it's got the extra appeal of having things to collect, places to explore, numbers to increase and progress you can save and improve on.

So it's a good thing that exploring the castle's fun in itself then, as the platforming you do along the way has taken a step backwards. The level design's pretty dull and repetitive, with towers filled with identical ledge patterns, and long flat hallways blocked by enemies. I'm glad they've taken out the bottomless pits and stairs, I can live without the frustration, but there's not much actual platforming to do any more. There's plenty of respawning monsters to kill along the way though and getting experience for every kill takes a lot of the sting out of encountering the same ones over and over again. These RPG aspects could've encouraged boring behaviour like farming hearts or grinding EXP, but I got more than enough of both by wandering around and looking for alternate paths or treasure I might have missed, so it all works out pretty well. Though there is one tiny downside to your steady accumulation of power that seems barely worth mentioning: the difficulty curve slopes the wrong way.

I realise saying this is so out of character for me that it you might think that I've been replaced by a robot duplicate (I haven't) but... the game's a bit too easy. Or at least it's too easy to make the game too easy. Like when I started I was so keen to get the Shield Rod so that I'd have a chance against the later bosses, which are huge screen-filling monstrosities that I'd clearly have no way to beat fairly (not that I ever tried), but I got it so early that I trivialised the game! Of course I could just... not use it, but it's against my programming to make boss fights harder than they have to be. And this isn't the only item or spell by far that tilts things way too much in your favour.

That said you can end up racing to a bad ending if you're not careful, as the game's designed to be played twice. You're supposed to rush through the castle the first time through, take down the last boss, and realise that there must be more to it than you're seeing. Then next time through you eventually discover there's a whole second half of the game! A second half I remember being even more repetitive and having even less chance of giving you gear better than what you've got at the end of each area you visit. But it's cool, extra stuff is good.

I had a brief look at the different ports and they all seem very similar to me. This isn't a Rondo of Blood vs. Dracula X situation; you're basically getting the same game whatever you play it on. On PSP you can either run the PSX version or get the Dracula X Chronicles port with its new de-cheesed translation and playable Maria. The downside of that though is you first have to beat a secret level near the start of the 3D Rondo of Blood remake that's harder than Symphony itself! The Saturn version's a less than perfect port with extra content, a dodgy frame rate, super-powered Maria and everything written in Japanese as it never got a Western release. I've never seen the PSN version but I remember the Xbox Live Arcade port being pretty decent, with no CG videos but plenty of achievements to push you to do stupid things like reaching 200.6% completion or beating it with Richter. Which I did. Because it's good.

So my verdict on Symphony of the Night is that it's a great platformer with less than great platforming that's really fun to play but spoiled a bit by the fact that you can become a god halfway through, trivialising all threats and taking all the joy out of finding new weapons.



Oh damn, all those words and I forgot to say anything about it being a Metroidvania game! Article invalidated. But you can still leave me a comment if you want.

You can try to guess the next game as well, but like Symphony of the Night I think I've made it a bit too easy this time.

4 comments:

  1. The next game is Serious Sam.

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  2. That spinning wireframe coffin save icon reminds me of Mercenary: Escape from Targ on the C64.

    I'm sorry. I don't have anything more useful to say.

    Oh hang on.

    Incidentally there's other chairs in the castle that Alucard can sit in and just have a nap for a while. Doesn't get me anything, it's just another nice touch.

    You can sit in Dracula's throne, I think, and something odd happens. Or I may be misremembering that. Anyway, there's another game where you can sit in the villain's throne and you get a Castlevania reference, but I can't remember what the game is. Maybe Resident Evil 4.

    I don't think you've done Master of Darkness for the, er, Master System, have you? That's more or less Castlevania without being Castlevania and I remember it getting good reviews at the time, but I don't know if thats because (a) it's good, (b) there were no Sega Castlevanias at the time, or (c) magazines at the time were massively biased. Probably all three.

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  3. My favorite game ever \o/
    Platformers with rpg elements work really well for me, but Symphony of the Night has that charm and epicness that few games could reach!!

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  4. I've actually seen a guy beat this game quite literally blindfolded. Fun time, that.

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