Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
In looking over the history of video games, and not just the Castlevania series specifically, there are many instances where a video game series is forced to evolving, to become something new to keep up with not only fan expectations but the growing changes in the market as a whole. The argument could be made that many franchises drastically changed after a single title (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, to name a few), with the old way of doing business left behind (never to been seen again, except in compilations and purposeful revisits to specific titles). Of course, the moment where that happened in the (classic) Castlevania series can be traced to 1997's seminal work, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
It's hard to overstate the significance of Symphony of the Night on the rest of the series. Although Castlevania had seen its share of exploration-based platforming titles -- Vampire Killer and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest -- those games had only flirted with the genre that would come to be known as "Metroidvania". It was Symphony of the Night that put the "vania" in Metroidvania, and the reason for this was the excellence of the game. Symphony of the Night is a masterwork of the Castlevania series.
The brain-child of Koji Igarashi (who had been hired by Konami previously to work on a romantic dating sim, which reportedly was a hit, giving Igarashi carte blanche to work on whatever next title he desired), Symphony of the Night was the culmination of all of the weird ideas Igarashi wanted to see in the series (at least, after an abortive first attempt to build his game on the soon-to-fail Sega Genesis 32x attachment, then under the working title of Castlevania: The Bloodletting). Igarashi had observed the development of Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood and loved the way that game played; he wanted to take that title and, working with that game's director, Toru Hagihara, create a game that built on that foundation but was bigger and better in all regards.
The resulting game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Akumajo Dracula X: Gekka no Yasokyoku, translated as "Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight"), was a labor of love that far exceeded the groundwork laid by the games that came before. Mixing the base of Castlevania with RPG elements and Metroid action, Symphony of the Night crafts an expansive adventure to the delight of fans of the series.
Alucard, son of Dracula, arrives at the demon castle after sensing a rise Dracula's dark magic. Exploring why, he comes across Death who steals Alucard's equipment, forcing the son of Dracula to explore the castle looking for the powers, and the arsenal, that will aid him in his quest.
But Alucard is not entirely alone in this quest. As a direct sequel to Castlevania Dracula X, Symphony involves the heroes from that previous title, too. As Alucard adventures, he encounters Maria Renard, there looking for her brother (or brother-in-law, depending on the version of continuity you accept), Richter Belmont. It seems Richter went missing sometime before, and then Dracula's castle showed up, leading both heroes to think there is some connection between these events. It's through Alucard's adventure, and Maria's assistance, that the mystery of Richter's disappearance, and how it ties in to the resurrection of Castle Dracula, is solved.
In style and action, Symphony of the Night is pure Castlevania. Like heroes of the past, Alucard is a close up fighter, using his melee weapons to battle back the hordes of demons populating the castle. The graphics and music craft a stunning exhibit for the PlayStation that still feels delightfully of-a-piece with the previous games in the series. But, as Alucard explores, the other influences on the game come to light. Quickly, Alucard will find weapons and armor that drop off enemies and he can equip these items via his inventory. Additionally, he'll gain experience, leveling up as his quest unfolds. These RPG elements, both experience and inventory, were included in the game, as Igarashi put it, to make the game a little easier, allowing not only the hardcore fans of the series, but new and casual fans as well, a chance to see all the sights of the castle, potentially making the ending accessible for all that came to the party.
New powers and abilities could be unlocked, too. Some items, like the Jewel of Open, were simply key-lock items, but deeper into the adventure Alucard would gain access to more impressive function. His vampiric powers, such as the Souls of Bat and Wolf, as well as the Form of Mist, grant Alucard better ways to explore the castle, increasing his damage output and attacks as well as increasing his reach. This is the Metroid side of things which, coupled with a map you can reference to explore the castle more efficiently, makes this title a worthy answer to Nintendo's own Super Metroid, which are big shoes to fill, certainly.
As Alucard explores the castle, he'll even find and unlock even more stuff to aid him in battle, such as magical spells he can cast (fireballs and blood magic and so forth), and familiars he can summon and level up (such as a bat, a spectral sword, a ghost, a fairy, or a devil). There are quite a number of various options and way to navigate the game, it does seem at times like the entire programming group was just sitting around going "oh, and wouldn't it be cool if we added this!"
The legacy of Symphony of the Night looms large over all of the Castlevania series. It can be seen in how the series evolved to focus on Metroidvania game play, with Alucard's larger role in the series and repeated appearances going forward, and with Igarashi eventually becoming the series lead through what is often considered the artistic "golden age" for the series. Fans would consider this the greatest success in the series, the biggest hit Castlevania had ever seen. Artistically that might be true, but, at least in the U.S., the game's initial release was anything but a rousing success.
In Japan, the game was quite successful, with its blend of 2D visuals and new game play ideas culminating in brisk sales and critical success. In the U.S., though, the critics were less kind. For whatever reason, magazines often denigrated the game, calling it "old" because it featured 2D game play at a time when every console was going into 3D polygonal graphics. The game was described as "flat" and "old", and this critical lambasting resulted in poor sales of only 40,000 copies in both the U.S. and European regions. There was an eventual shift of opinion about the game, leading to steady sales over time with over 700,000 copies of the game selling over the life on the PlayStation (and Sega Saturn). Lifetime sales for the game eventually reached 1.57 Million via re-releases and digital sales to, finally becoming the "million seller" Konami desired, but that took time and tempered the company's initial expectations for the game.
That goes some way to explaining the next moves the company made. The Saturn-exclusive remake of the game was released only in Japan (where sales of the initial game were brisk). Then, instead of making another Metroidvania title, the company shifted to the Nintendo 64, trying to give the West the 3D title in the series fans supposedly desired (they didn't warm to the game, and Castlevania 64 was also a financial disappointment). It wouldn't be until the first true sequel to the Metroidvania format, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, that Konami would find both sales and artistic success with the genre, and with that, the promise of Symphony of the Night would truly be fulfilled.
The Legacy of Symphony of the Night:
Although Symphony of the Night would eventually become a watershed moment for the series, redefining what it would mean to be a Castlevania game, that transition did not come without some growing pains. Many fans would end up lamenting the shift in focus, demanding a return to "old school" titles (although when one of those titles was released, Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth also wasn't a huge sales hit). While the Castlevania series reached new heights in popularity after Symphony of the Night, there were many that would grouse about "one more Symphony-clone" (the term Castleroid, which eventually morphed into Metroidvania, was used by some as a derogatory term).
Metroidvania games were easier, unlike old-school platformers that defined the series. Classic fans wanted their old, difficult, "Nintendo Hard" games, while the new audience wanted more of what drew them in -- Symphony of the Night and its stylistic sequels. It was a push/pull for the series that might, in the long run, have actually hurt sales leading to lower numbers for the series after Circle of the Moon.
There is also the possibility that the desire to recreated Symphony of the Night over and over led the company into something of a rut. Each successive game started feeling like more of the same and there were calls among fan-sites (this one included, back in the day) for Konami to return the series to its roots. Having plenty of Metroidvania titles was great, but the series needed a fresh new look and style to help carry it forward.
There's something of a monkey's paw to that request, of course, as the series did get a fresh coat of paint in the early 2010s. That was when Konami teamed with MercurySteam to produce the Castlevania series reboot, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. That game was a financial success when it came out, but it also felt like an even bigger departure for the series than Symphony of the Night, and it's sequels, too, met with financial disappointment. Long run, you can trace the heights of the series from the starting point of Symphony of the Night right down to the crash of the series after Lords of Shadow, leading to the company all but giving up on the series entirely.
As a U.S.-based fan site, it's not our goal at the Inverted Dungeon to track all the various minutia that changes between the Japanese and U.S. releases of a Castlevania game -- whether there are covered breasts or naked boobs on a statue, whether a cross is included or removed on a gravestone. That said, it's important to note that the original U.S. release of Symphony of the Night omitted two familiars included in the Japanese version of the game: the Sprite and the Nose Demon. These two familiars were based on Japanese comedians and as such would have made no sense to American players.
Additionally, they had the same functionality in game as two other familiars: the Fairy and the Devil (respectively), meaning their removal from the game did not substantially change it in any way. It's only vital to report this as, in the Dracula X Chronicles reissue of the game, those two familiars were included back into the game. We at the Inverted Dungeon still don't get the references (we can't speak Japanese), but appreciate their inclusion.
Also included in later remakes of the game were a playable versions of Maria Renard. The Saturn version the game featured a rather "punchy" version of Maria, but her Chronicles version functioned much more like her version in Rondo of Blood. The inclusion of Maria here helped to create the most "complete" version of the game Americans had ever received (although the two bonus levels included in the Saturn release did not also make the cut for the Chronicles edition).
Later releases of the game -- first as part of the Castlevania Requiem package (with Symphony and Rondo packed together) and then the later release of Symphony on cellphones, have been based on the PSP Chronicles port of the game. The cellphone version does include on-screen controls as well as the ability to play with a controller, but otherwise the game was not changed at all between all these ports.