One Giant Leap, 1997: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we take a break from charting early 3D platformers to look at the Metroid-inspired Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Genre is a funny thing. It’s a famously imprecise categorization; everyone kinda knows what does and doesn’t belong, mostly, until some weird edge case comes along, and then if you try to write down an objective definition you just get “Behold! Plato’s Man!”ed to death.1 And that goes double for video games, a young medium that defines genre in a unique way.2 Defining genre as you create its seminal works results in a lot of revision and refinement; “Doom clones” became “first person shooters”, “GTA clones” became “open world”, etc, as each genre gets enough entries that it develops an identity beyond “derivatives of a famous pioneer”. Currently, this process is happening to the term “Metroidvania”, as the genre enjoys a renaissance in the 2010s. But, even beyond the “”famous antecedent” clone -> generic genre name” pipeline, “Metroidvania” is a weird name. All of these others are named for one seminal game, not two. Why does Castlevania: Symphony of the Night get to share naming rights with Super Metroid when the latter came out three years earlier?3 I played SotN for the first time in part to try and figure that out, and have come to the conclusion that, for the time being, the genre should be called “Metroid-like” because quite frankly this game isn’t fit to polish Samus’s Hi Jump Boots.

Okay okay now that I’ve thrown down a fucking gauntlet let’s spend the rest of the article walking it back. I don’t think Symphony of the Night is a bad game, exactly. There’s plenty of fun to be had. It’s just…you know how sometimes on Chopped everything goes wrong for a chef and they have 5 minutes to get something in front of the judges, so they call what they serve “deconstructed” to try and excuse the fact that it’s just a bunch of stuff on a plate? That’s basically SotN. And it wouldn’t stick out so much were it not for Super Metroid one station over presenting immaculately constructed haute cuisine.

No Alucard, don’t go for the ice cream machine! Have you even seen this show before?!

In the early going, I found Symphony of the Night to be punishingly difficult. There’s one specific section4 that was incredibly long with no save points, and I just could not get past it. I spent an entire night doing nothing but die to this one stretch. Symphony borrows its basic mechanical structure from the classic Castlevania titles, meaning that healing is highly restricted (unlike the semi-frequent health drops of something like a Metroid game), positioning matters a lot (lots of fighting-game style footsie as you try to get in range to attack an enemy without opening yourself up to a counter) and getting hit sends you flying back but gives very few invincibility frames. I just could not deal with all of that over this long stretch; I would take too much damage to enemies who were hard to deal with cleanly and inevitably hit 0 health before reaching the end. It was to the point where I nearly restarted my whole playthrough on an emulator to just cheat through this bit.

Instead I went to the in-game shop and bought a sword with like 5 more power and easily cleared the section on my very next attempt, and the game was never even a little bit difficult again.

And this is the sort of thing I mean. Symphony of the Night is like half JRPG on its mother’s side, featuring stats determining things like the player’s strength and defense, the ability to level up, and a large amount of equipment to buy and/or collect throughout the game. And while these loops are inherently engaging (I’m not immune to the simple pleasures of “number go up”) it also makes the game impossible to balance. As a Metroid-like, SotN features a large world map the player backtracks around throughout the game, meaning you’ll have to design the difficulty of each segment having no idea how strong the player might be when they encounter it. So you get a section that’s maybe a bit too hard with early game equipment that falls over if you jump the curve even a little, and then not that much further in the player will be so highly leveled that they one-shot everything and every attack deals the minimum 1 damage (out of an HP value in the hundreds).

You could theoretically use the lock-and-key structure of a Metroid-like to alleviate this a little, putting harder enemies in areas you won’t be able to access without several key upgrades, but SotN doesn’t really allow for this. One of the neat elements of a game like Super Metroid is how it slowly unfolds for the player. The explorable space starts out pretty small, funneling them to their first upgrade, which then unlocks just a little bit more, and then the next one a little bit on top of that, and so on. Maybe you’ll encounter some one-way gates that chunk up the world into smaller sub-spaces during the mid game, just to keep things manageable. You won’t have full access to the majority of the world until the late game, which helps keep the player from feeling overwhelmed, and makes them really feel like they’ve earned something once everything opens up.

Instead, here’s how much of the world map you can access from the jump:

After your first critical-path upgrade:5

And after the very next one:6

All images shamelessly stolen from Game Maker’s Toolkit, because graphic design is decidedly not my passion.

That’s two upgrades giving you access to ~85% of the total space. After your third and fourth7 you basically have everything available to you, absent a couple side rooms. Personally, this isn’t my favorite way to structure a Metroid-like, but that’s partially because I don’t have great spatial memory and enjoy when the game helps me out. But what’s less personal is that giving the player access to basically the entire map from the jump means you have to balance the entire map for an early-game player. You can’t account for a player with mid-game stats or equipment without making those areas unfun for a player hitting them when they’re first expected to. So instead Symphony of the Night is simply forced to become trivially easy after only a couple hours.

Which is a shame, because this part of the game is otherwise its strong point. I would have preferred to experience them in a more curated order, but there are still a lot of cool areas to explore and neat-looking bosses to utterly demolish. And one of the benefits of the game’s loot system is that the game can offer you cool rewards behind every corner without having to make a whole lock-and-key setup to justify its existence. I’d imagine it’s this section that earned the game its status and allowed it to muscle in on naming rights.

Unfortunately the praise can’t last. After defeating Shaft, you unlock a second map, which is just the first castle but inverted. In this section everything’s available to you immediately and your goal is to find 5 last relics to unlock the true final boss fight against Dracula. The pacing here’s just all wrong; this is the same thing you were doing, but now more, behind a fake-out ending. Having a big section of the game where the developers know for a fact the player’s pretty strong does allow for some tougher enemies, finally, but unfortunately they also drop like a million exp. points each so that only lasts for a minute.8 Also, simply flipping the existing map upside-down results in a space that’s not always fun to navigate; lots of jumps that are just barely out of your range. You can of course use the bat form to traverse, but it doesn’t feel good to use it to cover for these short gaps. It’s just another example of Symphony lacking focus and tightness.

It’s honestly a big shame that Symphony of the Night’s been burdened with such purpose due to the haphazard genre name it accidentally co-owns. It is, again, not even remotely as good as Super Metroid, but it is by no means a bad game. It’s my understanding that SotN originally flew under the radar; gamers just weren’t interested in a 2D game this deep into the PlayStation’s lifespan, even one that looks as sharp as Symphony. It developed its reputation as a cult classic, before its own successors on the GBA/DS catapulted it to its current perch. And while SotN can’t really live up to its billing as Super Metroid’s coequal, it’s damn fine as an underrated gem. Simply channel the power of Nintendo’s state media and then be pleasantly surprised.

“Cheesy” literally what does that even mean here. Honestly.

Stray Observations:

  • This game technically has a magic system, but it’s mostly irrelevant, because every spell’s input is some absolute fighting game bullshit that works maybe 1 out of 5 times. Just another example of this game being loose as hell.
Genuinely what is this. Complete gibberish.
  • This game features a “bad ending”, where you can fight Richter before collecting the Holy Glasses that let you see that Shaft is controlling him, kill Richter, and be done. And, without knowing ahead of time that this was in here I’m not sure I would have realized that wasn’t just it. The risk of a fake bad ending I suppose.
  • I feel bad for the wolf form. It’s the only one that doesn’t get to be a progression key and as such it sees way less use than the other two.
  • This game has a lot of relics, but it kinda pads out the count a bit. Did we really need the ability to collect hearts from smashed objects gated behind a relic?
  • Also, I admire/am frustrated by Castlevania’s stubborn commitment to hearts being a pickup for ammo for your secondary weapon and not a health pickup.

Other 1997 platformers of note:

1997 sees the release of Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back because back in those days the combination of “games aren’t that hard to make if you have things kinda figured out already” and “everyone is 22 and literally lives at the office” meant games could just get made in a year. This one focuses in compared to the first, adding modern quality of life improvements (such as the ability to save at will) and dropping the top-down levels to focus mostly on the behind-the-back viewpoint. If you only play one Crash game it should be this one (and you should try and play the PS1 version, rather than the N. Sane Trilogy remake, though it’ll be ~2 years before this series gets into the details there).

Elsewhere, we find that Castlevania isn’t the only NES-era series getting a 2D sequel in a 3D world, with the release of Mega Man 8. Like most post-NES games in the classic series it’s a bit divisive. It gives Mega Man a soccer ball attack for some reason? Today, it’s mostly known for its FMV anime cutscenes, which is theoretically a cool use for the expanded room available on PlayStation, but…

Next Time: It really does sound quite absurd, adventure of a bear and bird. Nevertheless, we look at Banjo-Kazooie