When you’ve been playing video games for most of your life, from childhood into adulthood, there are always a bunch of anniversaries that remind you of your mortality. For me, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of them.
It hasn’t been that long since many developers realized how popular the Metroidvania genre is in certain territories, but SOTN was one of the titles that helped popularize it. It was in 1997 when the Castlevania team at Konami’s main Tokyo office wanted to take the franchise in a new direction after making several linear side-scrolling installments. But instead of going the 3D route like many other franchises around that time in the PlayStation era, they stuck to 2D. The team also realized a free-roaming approach would work with a then-modern Castlevania installment, one previously done with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest on NES with iffy-though-interesting results. This led to the creation of Symphony of the Night.
(Notably, Castlevania did make the 3D jump in that same generation with Castlevania 64 for Nintendo 64 in 1999, though it was developed by a separate team at Konami’s Kobe studio. It received a prequel/expanded version with Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness for the same system in the same year. The games weren’t bad, but their quality wasn’t on par with the 2D installments.)
There are several good reasons why SOTN is frequently cited as one of the best Castlevania installments in the series, if not the best, and why it’s more discussed than other Metroidvania Castlevania installments.
The biggest reason is the overall castle design. The designers made sure it was well-paced to prevent the player from being bored, despite the game’s relative ease compared to the linear installments. It was the first full-on Metroidvania of its kind, so the designers needed to prove the switch in format was worthwhile. They even made sure it was enjoyable to play through the inverted castle, despite its ostensible awkwardness. The player can also quickly return to certain locations to access new areas once specific items and equipment were acquired thanks to well-placed teleportation areas; the designers made sure not to add too many areas so the player wouldn’t be overwhelmed, and could remember where they should explore next. And that’s not even getting into the sheer number of neat secrets stuffed into both sides of the castle.
The secrets also apply to the attention to detail given to most areas. Producer Koji “IGA” Igarashi has a knack for inserting plenty of little secrets and details in every game he works on, which further helped them stand out compared to their predecessors.
Alucard was also a joy to play compared to previous protagonists from the series — including his older self from Castlevania III. The array of swords (smaller and larger), knives, and wands were fun to use when many had their own unique gimmicks, particularly those tied to items and equipment also being worn. The level of experimentation was high enough that it was easy to use different sets of equipment in multiple playthroughs, to venture through the game in a different way. Not to mention the unique fighting game-like command moves Alucard had access to, where more steadily unlocked as the game progressed; some of them admittedly broke the game in half, but it was tough to complain when they were fun to use.
In addition to being fun to play and replay after all these years, it’s also fun to watch and absorb. The good sprite work justified the team’s decision to stick with side-scrolling in the 3D era, despite some enemy sprites being reused from the then-Japan-only Rondo of Blood. The soundtrack from Michiru Yamane and artwork from Ayami Kojima helped establish its mood and atmosphere, both of which are important for Castlevania games.
All the aforementioned elements add up to show why SOTN is well remembered after two decades, but it’s a pity its progeny wasn’t quite on par with this game in terms of popularity and — in some instances — quality. While that’s partly due to the platform choices, since some would rather play them on consoles than handhelds, their level and art design weren’t quite on par with this title. Konami was mostly to blame for both issues, as despite SOTN’s popularity, they felt there wasn’t a significant enough market for 2D titles on consoles and allocated a minimal budget and resources to each title. The team’s 3D attempts were underwhelming, and were also hamstrung by resources.
SOTN holds up well in terms of visuals and gameplay, to the point that its progeny only had to make minor accessibility modifications over the years. The team never had the ability to rival or potentially top this title while at Konami, but many of them are currently working on the crowdfunded Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Given its name, it’s easy to tell it’s a successor to SOTN. There’s plenty of pessimism around regarding how this could turn out, particularly after the disappointing Mighty No. 9, but hopefully they’ll beat those expectations for the sake of establishing a new Castlevania-style brand.