Though I got a late start on it, I’ve finally embarked on my October playthrough of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
This will be the twenty-first year I’ve observed this annual tradition, which is a bit scary in and of itself. Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku was one of the first games I imported (alongside Bushido Blade) after acquiring a non-region locked Playstation in the spring of 1997. I dropped the seventy bucks on it because the fansites (anyone else remember Anime Playstation?) hyped the game to the nines and there was talk it wouldn’t get a localized release because of Sony’s desire to move away from sprite-based graphics.
I wasn’t much of a Castlevania fan prior to that. As interesting as it had been to watch my junior high buddy Damian whip and axe his way through the original NES cart, I didn’t have the patience for action-platforming offerings with steep difficulty curves and limited player lives. Kenseiden, the Master System’s answer to Castlevania, at least offered permanent power-ups and branching pathways to mitigate the ordeal and featured superior graphics, to boot.
I did, however, adore the Metroid games and their emphasis on exploration and discovery over twitchy gameplay and iffy collision detection. The franchise was heavily referenced in fansite reviews which stated Akumajō Dracula X owed more of a debt to that franchise than to its own predecessors. Throw in mentions of RPG-style leveling, loot, and inventory systems, and it became a package too tempting for my cash-strapped self to pass up.
It was clear that the money was well spent within my first thirty minutes of the game — a sprawling dungeon full of all manner of strange beasts, plentiful loot, and hidden secrets, rendered in gorgeous sprite-based graphics that still hold up well into the present day. Everything from the orchestral rock soundtrack to the character controls was absolutely perfect, and sunk hundred of hours into deciphering its mysteries and getting past the language barrier. (There were a few times I got stuck because I couldn’t read the description of certain progress-necessary artifacts like the amulet that opens magical doors or the double jump thingamabob.)
The game is jammed to the rafters with content, much of which is superfluous towards completing it — interactive animation triggers, oddball inventory items, and other Easter eggs that exist more as colorful flourishes than anything else. It’s entirely possible to “beat” the game while only experiencing a quarter of what it has to offer. Decide to dig a little deeper, and you’ll be rewarded with an overwhelmingly rich vein of material to explore.
This opt-in expansiveness is why Symphony of the Night has remained on my all-time favorites list for over two decades. Every playthrough reveals something new — mostly minor, but occasionally gamechanging (such as the time I leveled up the sword familiar and it vanished from the screen only to turn up in my inventory as a powerful wield-able weapon that could be further improved by leveling up its familiar form some more). Even if I’m operating on muscle memory when it comes to the combat and platforming sequences, the game is still capable of tossing in an odd surprise or three.
Symphony of the Night was game that inspired the “Metroidvania” genre tag, but it also spoiled my exceptions about what the term entails. For me, it’s more that just power-up enabled backtracking and exploration. I expect that absurd (and entirely unnecessary) level of depth and “what the hell is this now?” which keep me coming back to the real deal.