A few weeks ago I set out on a sample mission: to play two of the most important Metroidvania games ever made. Those were Super Metroid on SNES and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on PS1. Responsible for sparking off a whole genre it felt like I owed both games a play through for the first time ever. Last week I finished my time with Super Metroid, and I really liked it. This week I moved onto Castlevania: Symphony of the Night; I’m less impressed.
It’s inevitable when going back to older games that there’s potential for let down. Some experiences age better than others – either mechanically or visually. It is with the power of nostalgia we are able re-visit our favourite old games, and overlook their ageing failures using rose-tinted glasses. The issue is I have never played Symphony of the Night before, that forgiving nostalgia for Castlevania does not exist within me. And although there are many who have experienced Symphony of the Night for the first time years after launch and loved it, I’m sorry to say that’s not true of me.
Let’s start off positively though. Presentationally Symphony of the Night has held up extraordinarily well. Visually it still looks great, thanks in no small part to the games use of sprite based art, a rarity at the time as games were starting to make the jump to polygons and 3D. Castlevania’s castle in particular is the star of the show. Each area of Dracula’s home has it’s own unique aesthetic. Each location from the entrance to the alchemy labs has it’s own distinct spooky aura. A hodgepodge of varied dark colouring from sickly greens to aged browns the castle is as uninviting as you might expect, but totally engrossing.
In turn each of the buildings locale is home to it’s own unique brand of enemies. Skeletal watchers wander the large halls defiantly guarding against would be intruders. But other zones are home to monsters like creepy floating mannequins, winged monster, ever burnings skulls and huge demonic beasts. Plus countless more I’ve not yet seen. Each boss I’ve encountered so far too is wholly individual, in both appearance and ability.
Last words on the presentation – the music. Oh boy. I’m genuinely shocked at the quality of sound in this game for it’s age. The music is utterly remarkable. Moody, Gothic, fantastic and ominous every kind of feeling you could want is audible at some-point in the sound track. At points it’s even cheery. Every zones unique feel is exacerbated by the wonderful score. My only beef really is the awful dialogue and voice acting that were par for the course at the time. There’s multiple times I’ve seen the characters utter sentences that make literally no sense. But there’s a sort of charm to wonkily translated dialogue. I love to imagine voice actors uttering lines that make no sense.
Mechanically though is where I feel Symphony of The Night has let me down in my first few hours. I’ve been spoiled by modern Metroidvania games, ones obviously inspired by Castlevania – ones like Guacamelee. Symphony of the Night feels unresponsive, and really slowed paced compared to it’s modern counterparts. When hero Alucard runs he gains a kind of blurry aura to insinuate speed, but it doesn’t translate across to gameplay. The same is true of combat, it lacks fluidity by modern standards, it’s stiff and cumbersome; it’s clearly not meant to feel that way. Even navigating through menu’s to equip new armour and weapons feels unnecessarily trying.
Even navigating the castle feels frustrating. It’s meant to be a maze I get that, but a simple map would have been nice. Instead I wandered the non-de-script locales aimlessly wandering their long corridors searching for where I needed to go. Nothing was obvious. I don’t resent a game not holding my hand, but I don’t approve when it hardly provides the tools for me to figure out what I’m doing.
I suppose my first impressions sound pretty lacklustre. It’s not that I’m not enjoying Castlevania, it’s more like it doesn’t live up to the legend. It’s not the greatest game ever made like so many of it’s lovers would have you believe. It’s deeply flawed, and since it’s the progenitor of the formula utilised by so many games today it’s aged prematurely. These impressions though are skin deep, there’s still a lot of castle to see and monsters to kill. So maybe I’ll have changed my mind by next week. Until then, I prefer Super Metroid.