Blogtober 2019 – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

One of my goals for a gaming blog site was to document my experiences with games I had never known as well as catching up on some older games that I’ve never gotten around to playing despite knowing full well of their existence. For my final Blogtober gaming entry I’ve chosen one Konami’s Playstation masterworks – Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I wasn’t going to go through the entire Halloween season without at least one Castlevania game, and given how much I love Metroidvanias it’s downright embarrassing I hadn’t played through this before.

Symphony of the Night was first released in 1997 for the Playstation and Sega Saturn. It is the result Konami project starting in 1994 to create a sequel to Castlevania: Rondo of Blood(the 1995 SNES port in North America was known as Dracula X) for the Sega 32x…oh the alternate history that could have been. The 32x project was abruptly scrapped and thus plans to create a brand new Castlevania title for the Playstation were created. Koji Igarashi, the writer and eventual assistant director for the project implemented some new gameplay elements to reinvigorate the beloved franchise. Symphony of the Night presents a departure from the formula in previous Castlevania games by eschewing the entirely linear side-scrolling action and incorporating non-linear exploration, with some RPG elements added in as well. This evolution in gameplay soon became one of the series’ defining features and in the process is responsible for all other entries within the sub-genre of action/adventure games with heavy emphasis on exploration and upgrades being known simply as a “Metroidvania”; a word used somewhat regularly on this site as it is among my favorite types of games to play.

Symphony of the Night begins with a prologue in which you play the finale of Rondo of Blood. Players control Richter Belmont and ascend the steps to the uppermost tower of Dracula’s castle to confront the Prince of Darkness himself. The battle with Dracula is similar to many older games in which you begin at the end of the previous game and play through a boss battle(usually fixed) to serve as a summary of the events leading up to the game you’re currently playing. The story then shifts to four years later – Richter Belmont has disappeared just as the foreboding Castle Dracula reappears from mist. Enter Alucard – the half-human son of Count Dracula we first met in Castlevania 3, who awakens from his slumber and is drawn to his father’s castle to investigate its sudden re-appearance. While traversing the castle he meets Maria Renard who is searching the castle for Richter. He happens upon the lone descendant of Simon Belmont, proclaiming himself to be the ruling of Castle Dracula before dispatching two monster henchman to destroy Alucard. After further searching the expansive fortress, Alucard once again meets up with Maria who begs him not to kill Richter as she hands over a pair of Holy Glasses(Batman!), allowing the user to see “beyond illusions”. He confronts the vampire hunter in Dracula’s tower as he sits upon the throne of his vanquished nemesis. Wearing the newly acquired spectacles allow Alucard to see the floating green orb above Richter and destroy it, releasing him from the control he was subject to. After the orb is destroyed the dark priest Shaft(you’re damn right…), a servant of Dracula affirms that he was the one to lure Richter to the castle and was controlling him while he works to resurrect the Dark Lord himself. Shaft then retreats as Alucard follows him upward to a phantom of Castle Dracula that sits inverted, directly above the former. He then proceeds through the inverted castle, fighting many familiar minions to gather the five body parts of Dracula before battling Shaft in the ritual room where he is preparing to resurrect his master. After Shaft is defeated he informs Alucard that he is too late and there is no way to stop Dracula from returning to this world once again. Count Dracula emerges from the darkness as he is confronted by his half-human son, who swears to his father that he will not seek revenge against the humans that killed his mother and he has no other choice but to stop him. After defeating his father and dispelling him back into the darkness, Alucard then meets up with Richter and Maria who await his return outside the castle as he bids them farewell, stating his blood is cursed and he intends to disappear from this world as Castle Dracula fades away behind him.

Symphony of the Night is unique in the fact you are not controlling a vampire hunter descendant of the house of Belmont, but rather the immortal half-vampire Alucard. The game bestows a sense of freedom to explore and discover every corner of the castle, all while upgrading your health and equipment in order to survive the nightmarish creatures that dwell within its confines. Rather than the ultra linear “point A to B” levels of previous Castlevania games, Symphony of the Night emphasizes the adventure element of Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. You are not pointed which direction to go, but simply to explore every inch of the castle and uncover its secrets along the way. This is one of the aspects of Metroidvania games that have always appealed to me: being able to chart your own course throughout and allow your own curiosity and sense of adventure to guide you.

Another addition to the formula is some lighter RPG elements such as a character progression system that upgrades Alucard’s health and magic as he continually gains xp by defeating enemies. You have your four standard character attributes: strength, defense, intelligence, and luck which can be upgraded by consumable items or by finding better equipment. Your equipment can also have elemental damage or resistance as you encounter enemies later in the game that deal fire or lightning-type damage. As with nearly any Castlevania game you have a number of hearts allowing you to use familiar sub-weapons like axes, holy water, and knives; these can be upgraded by finding heart icons in the same way you would find missile expansions in Metroid games.

The visuals have held up reasonably well for a game released in 1997, especially in comparison to other games of the era showcasing the groundbreaking(at the time) 3D graphics that consoles were capable of. The 2D graphics provide a nice complement to the dark gothic setting inside the castle. The soundtrack of the game is an amalgam of moody goth rock, classical, and just a touch of new age and is a perfect accompaniment to exploring the castle, where the mood and feeling can shift within the next screen. Symphony of the Night provides the eerie ambience one has come to expect of the series and I love it.

The levels are well designed without many areas that may serve as a source of irritation for WHEN, not if you will need to make your way through a particular section multiple times. I even enjoyed scaling the bell and clock towers of Castle Dracula, something I can’t always say when discussing Castlevania games; the enemies awaiting you(to no surprise) will test your patience and determination. There are many sections within the castle that feature long corridors or large spacious areas, this didn’t seem all that impressive at first, but make for a unique experience once you reach the Inverted Castle as nearly every inch of the castle inverted or not is accessible. Symphony of the Night has a plethora of boss fights that through the first few hours of the game didn’t seem to pose much in terms of difficulty, but the boss fights found in the Inverted Castle provide a greater challenge, especially if you’re not optimally equipped to face them. The Inverted Castle certainly ups the difficulty and sheer number of enemies thrown at your every direction. It also contains a gauntlet of familiar Castlevania bosses: Mummies, Frankenstein monsters, Medusa, and Death make appearances in opposition to Alucard…flying scythes and all. One of the more memorable encounters was Granfaloon – a giant mass composed of decaying bodies. The bodies are continuously dropped to the ground and require you to fend off the hordes of mindless husks as you attack the main…blob.

What will probably be my most memorable moment of my playthrough of Symphony of the Night will probably be the moment it dawned on me I had to make my way through the entire castle a second time, only mirrored. I had spent the previous 5 hours combing every room of the castle and my game file showed that I was 76% of the way through…only to discover if you truly have completed everything in the game your progress will show 200.6%. This reminded me of my first time playing through Resident Evil 4 – you make your way from the village to the castle, only to be informed that in order to rescue Ashley, you need to make your way through another entire island where she has been taken. You’ve probably had a similar experience in a game where you’re thinking the end must be soon only to realize it was merely the halfway mark…right?

Nearly everything about Symphony of the Night is exceptional; the controls are wonderful with the combat having that familiar “crunch” of older Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden games and the jumping has the lightness as though you’re elegantly floating through the air. The visuals are sound are top notch and don’t overtly give the appearance of a 22 year old game. The boss fights are one of the highlights of the game, as in most Castlevania titles. My only gripe about the game is the fact that quite often you will enter an adjacent room or an area above you, a clock tower for example, and you will get hit by an enemy waiting immediately on the other side and because of the knockback damage(as much a part of Castlevania games as anything) you will be pushed backwards into the previous area only to re-enter the room and have to clear out any enemies you may have defeated already as they have respawned….that and Medusa heads in the clock tower 😉

All in all Symphony of the Night is a phenomenal game with exquisite gameplay that in the years since its release it is considered among the elite titles in the Playstation’s impressive library of games. And to think three of the most memorable PS1 titles – SOTN, Silent Hill, and Metal Gear Solid were all from Konami. Its legacy was also carried on in the beloved Game Boy Advance titles – Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow. What may be the most impressive is the way Symphony of the Night was able to reinvigorate the franchise while still possessing the essence of its esteemed predecessors. This also being the case of other games like Metroid: Prime and God of War(2018) in they were able to breath new life into an established franchise while holding on to what made them special in the first place. The night is still young…

That’s all for now! Have you played Symphony of the Night? How do you compare it to other Castlevania games? Let me know in the comments. Thank you to everyone bothering to read my Blogtober posts, I enjoyed writing about(and playing) all the games over the past month. Now I’m off to go do some ghost busting in Luigi’s Mansion 3 and graze on a box of Boo Berry cereal…Happy Halloween!

Blogtober 2019 – Vampire: Master of Darkness

An influential and beloved game series like Castlevania is going to have is share of copycat versions, a Mello Yello to its Mountain Dew, right? I recently came across the game Vampire: Master of Darkness, released in 1993 on the Sega Game Gear and Master System(PAL only), and by just looking at the screenshots of the game it was quite apparent the game was created as a response by Sega to compete with the Nintendo-exclusive(at the time) Castlevania, being one of the most successful and recognized of Konami’s game franchises in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s. I happened to look through the Virtual Console games on my 3DS and had completely forgotten there were a few Game Gear games available. So, is the game worth playing or is it simply a Castlevania clone? I was pleasantly surprised to find out the game is actually pretty good…

In Vampire: Master of Darkness, the story begins with Dr. Ferdinand Social, a Ouija board playing psychologist(I bet that’d look interesting on a resume…) who receives a message telling him to head to the Thames River to confront Jack The Ripper. Thus begins Dr. Social’s adventure across the streets of Victorian-era London before battling Jack The Ripper who has been tasked by Count Massen to bring him fresh blood to perform a ceremony to resurrect an ancient evil(Spoilers – it’s Dracula!). Dr. Social makes his way across the foggy streets of London, a Vincent Price-less House of Wax, generic Cemetery, and finally Castle Dracula in the mountains of Transylvania. The level design isn’t bad by any means, as one may view the levels(and game in general) with a greater degree of scrutiny due to the high regard typically held for the game it so closely emulates.

The look and feel of Vampire: Master of Darkness is nearly IDENTICAL to that of Castlevania. you pick up primary attack weapons like daggers, axes, rapiers(easily the best weapon due to its reach), and a silver-handled walking cane (because England of course!). You also have a few secondary weapons such as a pistol, bombs, or a boomerang with which there is clearly show NO similarity to the daggers, holy water, or crosses thrown by members of the Belmont lineage. The game also uses the exact same staircases to ascend higher floors in each level, along with the giant pendulums for you to jump onto as you traverse through a clock tower, which may same eerily familiar. The level design isn’t bad by any means, as one may view the levels(and game in general) with a greater degree of scrutiny due to the high regard typically held for the game it so closely emulates. The final level, which takes place in Dracula’s Castle actually take a cue from the Mario games you simply need to navigate your way through a maze-like arrangement of floors before finally reaching the final boss; I wandered around this level getting quite frustrated before finally realizing two random stone blocks were able to be destroyed, providing access the floor below granting access to the boss battle. I honestly should have been looking for this, as each level has several areas where small sections of the wall can be destroyed revealing additional health…of course.

The boss fights themselves were pretty enjoyable, seamlessly fitting into any Castlevania game(almost) and like older Castlevania games, several of the bosses you can defeat by ducking in the corner and unleashing all of your secondary ammo and hopefully deal more damage than receive…that’s how we all play, right? The final encounter against Dracula also seemed downright easy once I realized he had just about the exact same attack pattern as the first Castlevania where he will appear randomly around the screen and you will need to jump and attack to target his head while evading the oncoming projectiles.

The critiques I have of Vampire: Master of Darkness are primarily of the enemies, which all too often lunge at your from offscreen to get in a cheap hit at you enter the next room or ascend a staircase. Another annoyance is the fact that enemies will home in directly on you to where you are unable to attack them as they’re too close for your weapons to register the hit-box, this is something incredibly frustrating AND common in older platforming/action games like Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden. And speaking of annoying enemies, there’s an abundance of dogs to charge at you which are incredibly difficult to hit due their smaller size and speed at which they attack, and of course there’s bats…I really, really hate bats! I did appreciate however, the fact that in Vampire: Master of Darkness, there isn’t any knockback damage from enemies, which always seem to cause as many deaths as anything in older games. Enemy ambushes that seem to always exploit a far-sighted blind spot are my biggest complaint about the game.

As for the positives aspects of the game, the level design and bosses are pretty good with surprisingly good visuals and control. The ability to crouch and walk under walls and other obstacles is also nice to have in reaching a few hidden areas within the levels, the game is a bit more forgiving in terms of difficulty than the old-school Castlevania games as well. The game only consists of five levels which means the entire game will take two hours or less to complete. This may seem unreasonably short, but this was first released on the Sega Game Gear, a handheld console that would devour a six AA batteries every three hours or so. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with Vampire: Master of Darkness. I had never heard of the game until very recently and honestly wasn’t expecting much more than just a Castlevania rip-off. While the game does certainly copy borrow many similarities to the Konami’s beloved series and doesn’t even attempt to establish much of an identity of its own, other than providing a Victorian England setting, I still believe it provides an enjoyable enough experience to warrant a try. The old adage of “Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery” seems quite applicable in regards to this game.

Have you ever played Vampire: Master of Darkness? Have you every played a game that looked merely like a copycat version only to end up enjoying? Let me know in the comments. I apologize for getting a little behind on my Halloween Blogtober posts, but I plan to get a bit more accomplished this weekend and still have quite a few games to go over in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for reading!