My gaming habits over the past year or so have featured two themes pretty heavily: catching up on old games I missed out on and Metroidvanias. Thanks to the recent release of the Castlevania Requiem collection on PS4, I was able to combine those two cherished gaming pastimes by FINALLY playing Symphony of the Night, a surefire Mount Rushmore Metroidvania title.
Good news, fans of this classic game, it totally holds up among the two plus decades worth of titles inspired by its genius. The enemy design, RPG elements, shape-shifting mechanics, and cheesy story would all feel right at home in any modern game. Plus, the extra retro charm naturally present after all this time doesn’t hurt. Really, the true strength of the game is having all the wonderful 1990s era gameplay elements abound.
A small percentage of these remnants of a bygone 32-bit age in gaming are now so hilariously outdated that you can’t help but laugh while remembering all the similarly designed games of the time. The menus are woefully missing what we consider standard functionality as there’s no clear way to even sort items (Ok, it’s apparently the “triangle” button. Thanks, Internet.), and their general aesthetic instantly transported me back to the countless hours spent in Final Fantasy VII. Amusingly, in order to use healing items like potions or turkeys, you must equip them in a hand first then, in several cases, throw them on the ground. Some sound effects, like the one that plays when you turn into a bat, sound straight out of a 70s horror movie and caused me to uncontrollably giggle with glee every one of the 500 times they occurred. The game also features a fairly barebones fast travel system that was probably considered revolutionary at the time. You travel in a counter-clockwise direction between travel points, so you just have to keep going until you reach your goal. It might sound like I’m nitpicking the game right now, but I’m not trying to call these weaknesses. Rather they’re just pleasant reminders of a simpler time in gaming that help further emphasize just how strong the central mechanics of gameplay are that they’re so easy to brush off.
Perhaps the most important relic empowering the longstanding appeal and fun of this game, though, is the ability to break the shit out of it. There are a ton of ways, both big and small, to mildly cheat to tip the scales of this fairly difficult game in your favor. Some are as simple as finding a blindspot in an enemy’s attack motions and camping where they physically cannot hit you (typically immediately in front of them while crouching). Others like the incredible shield rod combo trick turn you into the embodiment of the all-powerful son of Dracula you play as.
During the first half of the game, equipping the shield rod weapon plus a shield grants the player such a high defense stat that even bosses can rarely cause more than 1 HP of damage with their otherwise fatal strikes. As the game progresses, this eventually starts to lessen, but then you find the wonderful Alucard Shield and become truly unstoppable as shown in the video below. Poor Galamoth never stood a chance.
The age of the game also means the scale is somewhat smaller than modern Metroidvanias, but this again works in Symphony of the Night‘s favor. For those unfamiliar with the game, the map consists of 2 separate castles – a normal castle where the first half of your adventure takes place and an inverted version of the same castle where the final half transpires. It’s an absolutely brilliant bit of game design where a completely new experience just magically appears halfway through utilizing an upside-down version of the map you just spent hours on. Thanks to new enemies and a decidedly higher degree of difficulty, the experience feels completely fresh.
Throughout both castles, there are loads of secret rooms and hidden passageways to uncover. My favorite part of the adventure was attempting to find them all, as a well known badge of honor among the game’s fans is achieving 200.6% completion by uncovering all 1890 square “rooms” between the two castles. In the moment, the game felt massive yet accessible. It only took me 10 hours to see every pixel it has to offer compared to the 40 or so of a modern classic like Hollow Knight, and that ability to conquer all there was so quickly felt incredibly refreshing.
Getting to that point wasn’t always a breeze though, as the game did manage to make me feel dumber than any other game ever has. I have a tendency to become hyper focused on my objective when playing a game like this (or in real life). In an effort to beat the first castle, I honed in on every move and tendency of my foe, Simon Belmont, only to have the credits roll without the second castle presenting itself. Furious with being denied my prize, I went to one of those delightful old-school text guides and discovered my fatal flaw. I was so focused on the main boss sprite, that I didn’t even notice there was a massive glowing green ball floating above his head, which I clearly needed to smash. It reminded me of that wonderful moonwalking panda video from years ago and that I am a complete idiot.
As both a time capsule of the birth of a beloved genre and a truly incredible gaming experience, Symphony of the Night is well worth checking out. All this time later, it’s still abundantly clear why so many games took inspiration from this classic. Grab your crucifix and prepare for a fantastic journey through gaming history. Just remember to always be on the lookout for giant glowing green orbs.