Guest writer Nathan Terencio tears into one of his favorite games ever.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
The legacy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night cannot be overstated. The game created one half of the subgenre of Metroidvania, revived interest in the Castlevania franchise, and set a decade-long precedent for the games that followed. Symphony is considered by many to be not only the best Castlevania game, but one of the best 2D side scrolling games ever, but is it really? As someone who has played Symphony of the Night multiple times I can with confidence say, no. It is not by a long shot. Castlevania Symphony of the Night was incredibly innovative for the time, but looking at it objectively now it leaves a lot to be desired. I’m not saying I’m not fond of the game, but there big flaws that shouldn’t be ignored.
Before I dig into the huge flaws with the game I want to soften the blow by talking something that is almost universally agreed to be objectively good and which has stood the test of time, the pixel art and overall art direction. If you have ever played a Castlevania game pre-Symphony you are bound to have noticed the huge change in art direction. It’s even jarring playing Rondo of Blood, the game which came before Symphony. Castlevania has always had a Western-influenced design, not only in setting, but in character models and the design of its protagonists. All previous iterations of Castlevania had protagonists that looked more like caricatures of super buff action heroes of the 80s and 90s, which is huge juxtaposition to the main protagonist of Symphony, Alucard. Alucard’s design is reflective of the changing art style the development team took with Symphony, opting out of the traditional western aesthetic and replacing it with a bi-shonen one. Alucard’s incredibly flamboyant and beautiful anime boy design was done by a franchise newcomer, Ayami Kojima, who would return for later titles including Castlevania’s spiritual successor Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. This change to a bi-shonen style combined with the graphical fidelity of the original Playstation makes Symphony of the Night one of the best-looking pixel art games even by today’s standards. The variety of color and gorgeous animations combined with the 90s edgy environment design all fit cohesively together to make a title that while visually varied, is focused and beautiful. It even symbolically works with this idea of change by juxtaposing Richter’s dated design and moveset with Alucard’s flurry of finesse and glamour.
The reason I bring this up in a video where I talk about why Castlevania Symphony of the Night is a bad game is because everything else about the game lacks that cohesion. One of Symphony’s biggest changes from previous games in its franchise is the focus on exploration. The castle’s huge impossible proportions and room layouts, inspired by Super Metroid, gave the player a large open environment to explore. Unfortunately, Super Metroid did it much better. Exploration is shallow, and you don’t really feel like the game’s encouraging you to take part in it. Exploration rarely rewards you with anything really useful around the mid-to late game, and it makes me wonder what’s the point of exploring if only to find a crappy sword with stats weaker than the weapon I currently have. There is a reward for exploring super thoroughly but I will save that for later.
Backtracking in these games is almost never fun, and Symphony’s backtracking is the absolute worst. The backtracking alone isn’t what’s bad, it’s the fact that the level design does not compliment this at all. In a game where you are continuously backtracking, why would you purposely put repetitive long hallways with enemies that serve no purpose other than being annoyances. Alternatively, there are rooms that are incredibly difficult with tricky enemy placement and platforming, but if I’m supposed to backtrack through that room multiple times why make it so difficult in the first place? There’s no balance here, the game lacks a lot of the level design pragmatism that even other games in its own franchise did well. Why encourage me to explore and backtrack but have poor level design that doesn’t compliment me having to go through the same room a million times.
This is further messed up by the addition of RPG elements. RPG elements are much more predominant in this game than previous installments. As you fight monsters you gain experience which in turn is used to gain levels to increase your stat points. There are an abundance of items you can equip, familiars you can summon, and even magical spells you can cast. I don’t typically mind RPG elements in games, but its seems as though Symphony of the Night added RPG elements without thinking about how they affected the rest of the game. For example, there is a lot of action platforming in the game, you can use mechanical skill to combat most encounters, very typical for Castlevania games of the past. However, this doesn’t always coincide with the RPG parts. By late game it is very easy to kill enemies just because you’ve collected enough good equipment and leveled enough that enemy patterns don’t matter as much. So what is the point in finesse when everything dies in one hit, and on the opposite end of spectrum what’s the point of RPG-esque resistances if you can jump and dodge elemental attacks?
Noticing a theme? Everything about Symphony of the Night is a jumble of mis-matched mechanics that don’t flow together. Is complicated level design necessary if you’re just going to grind and backtrack most of the time? What’s the point in complicated and interesting enemies if you can just sort of treat everything as war of attrition? Do you need spells and resistances when this is still an action platformer and you can dodge attacks? All further complicated by room design that doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be a precision based action platformer or an RPG grindfest.
The lack of depth in the RPG elements is shown with the clunky bloated UI as well. Throughout your backtracking journey you will collect a myriad of gothic anime weapons that will be more often than not worthless, so the logical thing to do would be to sell it right? Wrong! All you can do is set them to the bottom of your inventory and watch the garbage pile up. What RPG in any time frame ever did that?!
Let’s move on. There’s a lot of mixed feelings about Symphony’s plot, it’s usually the last thing people talk about because of how cheesy and theatrical it is. The game starts where the previous game ended, with Richter Belmont slaying Dracula. Years later Alucard, who is totally not the son of Dracula or anything, arrives at the castle and must battle grindy mobs and backtracking while trying to kill Richter who has claimed the castle for himself. That is the premise and boy is it delivered with the theatrics that only an ancient Athenian theater can pull off. The voice acting is bad, laughably bad. And yet, I have to confess that I actually find the cheesiness kinda charming.
So, as you progress through the game you fight a myriad of bosses, most of which are cool, and finally confront Richter. Richter’s evil plan is to resurrect Count Chocula so that he may fight him for all eternity. This is probably my favorite part of the story, the symbolism of fighting Richter who represents the old Castlevania, with Alucard who represents what Castlevania will be is something truly spectacular. Now the game ends there with you killing Richter, unless you of course you do a bunch of bullshit to unlock the inverted castle, yes the inverted castle. If you unlock this you find out that Nosferatu is going to be resurrected anyway, so now you have to kill your dad. The inverted castle, as the name implies, is essentially the castle but flipped. It does have better level design and is much more challenging, but the fact that they added a whole second game that’s just the first game backwards is indicative of Symphony of the Night’s biggest problem, and the reason it feels like so many of its mechanics have nothing to do with each other: feature bloat.
Feature bloat is when a game tries to add features or aspects for the sake of quantity, creating a sense of value by how much there is. The problem with this is when the quantity lacks an equal amount of quality to scale with how much is there. The fact is that Symphony of the Night is shallow and messy, and this was probably done because of the winding popularity of the series, which prompted newly made director, Koji Igarashi to change up the game. It is said that he wanted to change the direction of the franchise because he felt traditional action games at the time were too short, and that is where the problem lies.
In an attempt to add value to the game, he put in elements that gave the game a shallow sense of progression and scale. Now to be fair, this was their first attempt at this type of game, and I can safely say that later ‘Vania games did better with managing the RPG elements and action platforming. However, this does not excuse that there were missteps with Symphony. I respect that they wanted to completely change the direction of the franchise and do new risky things, but not all of them worked. While I do love Symphony there is a sense of diminishing returns as you play through the game. The sense of progression and the badass pretty anime boy power fantasy loses its luster after playing for so many hours.
Symphony is neither a good platformer nor a good RPG. It’s kind of just meh. I respect what this game did and the legacy it has left behind, but it’s hard to deny the jankiness that is present. I think if we can take away anything from Symphony is that if you are going to combine elements of different genres, make sure they work with each other rather than grinding against each other. A middle ground is possible, the Souls games prove that RPG elements can be combined with a super difficult action title and still have good exposition. Symphony of the Night is not as good as people remember it to be and that’s okay. Things with a long standing legacy and influence aren’t always objectively sound, I still love Symphony of The Night but it is a messy, feature-bloated mess. Also never name your main character Dracula backwards.