Some people love Mario. Some people love Zelda. Some people love Sonic. But when it comes to picking my favorite video game series of all time, I would have to say that I'm partial to the Belmont clan. While not every Castlevania game has been a must-own experience, there have been enough amazing adventures to keep this franchise front and center. Castlevania is one of the few 2D games that is not afraid to stay that way, a series that knows what it can do and does it well. I love Castlevania.
With a lot of long-running game franchises it's hard to pinpoint their greatest moment. Was Mario at his peak with Super Mario 64, or was it years earlier with Super Mario Bros. 3? Is The Twilight Princess really better than Ocarina of Time? Can anything top Sonic the Hedgehog 3? These are questions that video game fans have debated for many years; they are questions that have no easy answer. But that's not a problem with Castlevania; there is one game that stands above the rest. That game is Symphony of the Night, the sixth game in the series and the first Castlevania to hit the PlayStation. On its tenth anniversary Alucard, Dracula and all of the creepy characters from Symphony of the Night have returned to infest your Xbox 360. And regardless of whether you missed it the first time or love it unconditionally, this Xbox Live Arcade version of Symphony of the Night is a must own game.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night successfully changed the way we played the series, going from a level-based structure to an open world style that rewarded you for exploring every nook and cranny of the castle. Games like Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow have all taken this open world formula and tried to recreate the magic of Symphony of the Night. Some have come close, but Symphony still stands above the rest thanks to its creepy visuals, amazing level designs, and involving story. This is the game that all other Castlevania games aspire to be.
Symphony of the Night picks up right at the end of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, where Richter Belmont, the legendary vampire hunter, is fighting to defeat Dracula and his menacing castle once and for all. Even though Richter is successful, Dracula's castle reappears several years later. Convinced that something is wrong, Alucard (the lovechild of Dracula and a human woman) sets out to uncover the mysteries of this castle and defeat whatever it is that is lurking inside. Along the way Alucard starts to put the pieces together and realize that the villain of this story may not be Dracula at all, but instead Richter. It's up to Alucard to determine what is going on and put a stop to it.
At first it looks like Alucard is ready to rush in and save the day, but it won't take long before the Grim Reaper shows up and steals all of our hero's equipment. This means that you have to start from scratch and earn back all of your abilities, weapons and spells. To do this you must explore a gigantic castle that has all sorts of secret passages, locked doors and creepy enemies waiting to kill you. What set this Castlevania apart from all of the other games in the series is that this time around you could go where ever you wanted, essentially carving your own path trying to find the items you need to go even deeper into the castle. While a lot of the game is just waiting for you to explore, you will have to deal with a lot of areas you can't access until you get a certain relic, earn a new ability or wear a certain combination of items. This means that you'll constantly have to search around and backtrack when you find a new item.
Along the way you'll run into quite a few cool looking enemies, from your basic zombies to magicians to decapitated heads and so on so forth. There's no shortage of creatures to sink your teeth into, all of which have their own attacks and patterns. Even better are the bosses, which seem to take every major monster movie character and turn them into larger than life enemies that will pound you down to size. The bosses in this game are one of the highlights and you definitely feel a sense of accomplishment when you've taken one of them out.
As you kill these various monsters and excise the bosses you'll be earning experience points, similar to a role-playing game. Earn enough of these points and Alucard will level up, effectively making him stronger and improving his stats. But this is not all about leveling up your character, the items and abilities also play a major role in this game. There is a huge selection of weapons (mostly swords) just laying around Dracula's castle and just as much armor, rings and other items that you can equip. Like any great role-playing game it's important that you pay attention to your inventory and make use of all of your items at the most opportune times.
Even more important than the weapons are the various abilities and familiars. As you play through Symphony of the Night you will discover that Alucard can change into other creatures (such as a bat, mist and a wolf). You are also able to bring a familiar along, which will give you a computer-controlled helper that will protect you as you're fighting other enemies. And that's not all; Alucard is also able to cast spells, double jump, and other interesting things. By the end of the game you'll feel almost overwhelmed with all of the cool abilities Alucard has been granted. If you have any hope of finding every nook and cranny of this castle then it's imperative that you learn how to use every ability afforded to you.
Exploring every inch of this game is one of the biggest draws of Symphony of the Night. What is really impressive is how well this game is put together, every new room looks different and even the most basic hallway is full of character. Best of all, you are rewarded for filling in the entire map, which is no easy feat. There is a lot of backtracking involved with Symphony of the Night, but that's hardly a bad thing when the castle is so full of life and interesting.
And just when you think the game is over you realize that (surprise, surprise) you're only half way done. Seeing as the game is a decade old I can only imagine that the big "secret" about Symphony of the Night is out of the bag, but if this is your first experience with this game then prepare to go through this game again in a completely different way (believe me when I tell you that Konami literally flips the game on its head after you've beaten the last boss). All told there's a good 12 - 15 hours of game play here, especially if you're the type of person that wants to find all 200.6% of the game.
Once you've beaten the game your job isn't over, like the original PlayStation version this Xbox Live Arcade game gives you the opportunity to play the game a second time with Richter Belmont. Unfortunately Richter's quest isn't nearly as developed as that of Alucard, but it's still a lot of fun (if not a whole lot more challenging). There are a lot of people out there that will want to do this if only because it's attached to a 45 point achievement.
Speaking of achievements, this is really the only thing new about the game that makes it feel like an Xbox Live Arcade game. Since the quest is exactly as it was on the PlayStation and there's no online mode (outside of some leaderboards), Symphony of the Night feels kind of out of place on Microsoft's system. That's not to say it's great to see it there, but the game hasn't changed a whole lot since we first played it ten years ago. It's worth noting that this version of the game offers slightly improved graphics, but they are hardly noticeable and only help to smooth out the pixel look of the original game. The good news is that the game didn't require a whole lot of help in the art department. The graphics in Symphony of the Night may be 2D, but they are among the best 2D sprites ever drawn in a game like this.
I wish I could say the same about the sound in Symphony of the Night. Don't get me wrong, the music is still fantastic and the sound effects are good, but the voice acting is just awful. It's not just the voice acting either; it's the entire localization of Symphony of the Night. Just like the PlayStation game released ten years ago, this Xbox Live Arcade version features painful dialog that sounds like it was written with crayon. I can't decide if the voice acting is bad or if it's just the material they had to work with was no good. Either way, the story elements that feature spoken words are cringe inducing and if Konami was going to fix anything I wish it could have been that. Having said that, Konami is planning on redoing the voice acting when the game is re-released in the Dracula X Collection being released on the PSP this fall … but little good that does us now.
What we have here is easily one of the best action/adventure games of all time, a masterpiece from beginning to end. It shouldn't surprise anybody that ten years later Castlevania: Symphony of the Night holds up remarkably well, it's just one of those timeless games that will be fun no matter how old it is. I have gone through this game at least a dozen times, there's just something about it that keeps me coming back. The level designs are flawless, Alucard is an amazing hero, and I never get bored of killing these cool bosses. As a $10 Xbox Live Arcade game it's a no-brainer, this is easily the best game released on Microsoft's download service since Geometry Wars Evolved. It wouldn't shock me to find out that most of the people that own the Xbox 360 have never experienced Symphony of the Night, and here's hoping that this inexpensive port will show those people what they've been missing.