Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the Tiger Electronics Game.com
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Castlevania has seen its fair share of releases across portable systems. Most of those games were designed with the core system in mind; the Game Boy titles were built knowing the limitations of the hardware, including graphics and sound, and were designed with those limitations in mind. As the systems got more powerful, the games on them improved in a number of ways, but each game was designed with its system in mind (i.e., you didn't have a full, 3D experience on the Game Boy Advance).
One game in the series, though, was built differently. While this game was never released, for obvious reasons, the system came after the game was initially released, requiring the creators to then figure out how to port the title to a system that clearly wasn't designed for it. While compromises were made, arguably the creators tried to keep as much of the original experience in tact as they could, leading to a product that really didn't live up to the glory of what came before. We're speaking, of course, of the Tiger Electronics' Game.com port of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
For those unaware, the Game.com was a black-and-white, cartridge-based handheld released by Tiger Electronics in late 1997. While the name "Tiger Electronics" conjures a very specific type of game (namely, the cruddy old handhelds like their Castlevania II: Simon's Quest "port"), the Game.com did have some things going for it. Technically it had a faster processor, alongside a touch screen (the first handheld to have one) and an Internet connection, all together in a base model priced at $69.95 upon release (and down to $29.99 for the pocket edition released a couple of years later). It was set against the Game Boy in hopes that it could pull some market away from the biggest contender in the room.
It didn't. Despite some advantages, including a robust initial games list including action titles, sports games, and even tournament fighters, the Game.com never really found the market share it needed. In the end it sold less than 300,000 total units before hitting the dustbin of history. A big issue with the console, as noted by all of its commentators, was the system's blurry screen and low frame rate. It simply couldn't keep up with the demands of the games, and players quickly got bored with what the Game.com could offer.
One of the games that was supposed to come out, but didn't, was Symphony of the Night. The port was well on its way to completion when it was canceled. Thankfully, some people from within the company eventually managed to get a port of their code Online so the rest of us could experience this nearly lost edition of Symphony. When you boot it up, though, you can see why, exactly, this version of the game never officially saw the light of day.
Credit where it's due, the creators tried to make this game look as much like Symphony of the Night as they could on monochrome 8-bit hardware. The graphics are detailed, large, and look nice... so long as nothing is moving. If you just saw screenshots of the game you'd think, "yeah, this is a nice looking portable port." Once the characters start moving, though, that's when the illusion falls apart. Everything is slow, janky, and very, very hard to control.
To begin with, Alucard moves at a lethargic pace. His walk speed is bad, and his jumping speed is even worse. There's noticeable lag any time you try to do anything, from jumping to swinging your sword, to anything else. If you hit a ledge while jumping, Alucard loses all upward momentum and drops like a rock. Platforming, in this platforming game, is a lesson in frustration. While you can play through the whole game, from the opening entrance all the way through a version of the Inverted Castle right up to Dracula himself, doing that is such a slog it's just not worth the effort.
And that's to say nothing of the sound design or, really, lack there of. The game, in its current form, only has one music track, which plays on a long loop. It's plinky, with only one instrument that bleeps and bloops. As you listen to it you can almost hear the song from the original game they were trying to emulate, but it's not really there. The sound effects are better, with a few of them sounding like they came from the original title (just compressed down), but there aren't a lot of effects, and certainly not enough to make up for the bad music.
Oh, and the game is unstable. That's to be expected with a title that wasn't polished for release (as this was still in development at the time), but man, it's rough to play this and see, sometimes, enemies lock up, Alucard get stuck in a pose, or occasionally the game just straight up crash. If it does crash, you can't load from a save file because there are no save files. There are the classic save rooms, yes, but they just give you a password and, as you'd expect from this buggy game, not all the passwords work. Thankfully you will be playing this on emulator and can just make save states, but still, that's a bit of an issue.
Would some of these flaws have been fixed if the game received an official release? More than likely. I'm sure the password issue would have been fixed, and likely more real music tracks would have been put it. But the game play is par for the course with Game.com titles and I don't know how much more they could have polished it before release. The real takeaway is that the producers really wanted to put in the full Symphony of the Night experience, and they crammed all they could in. They were let down by the fact that the Game.com just wasn't up to the task of doing the game they wanted to make.
Maybe they could have done a more stripped down version, one that played far more like a basic, linear Castlevania (although frankly this version of the game is already pretty linear anyway), but I have a feeling even then the system would have struggled with it. Maybe there was a way to fit a Castlevania properly on the Game.com, building it for the system from the ground up. I just don't think the effort would have been worth it.