Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Platform: PlayStation, Xbox 360
Release Year: 1997
Symphony of the Night is a game of excess. Castlevania itself is already a cornucopia of creepy, cribbing heavily from Universal’s slate of horror icons and injecting as many public domain monsters as one can shake a stick at until the most baroque, Halloween game comes out the other end of an otherwise traditional NES action platformer. By the time Symphony of the Night (the tenth game in the series) came out, the world was ready to move on. 3D was in, and everything about the Castlevania formula had been hashed out. Fans would enjoy whipping through some stages, but nothing truly new was happening with the series.
It’s into this world that Symphony of the Night emerges, confident and light-footed, just as its protagonist rushes through the woods into Dracula’s eponymous castle(vania). This is Alucard, estranged son of Dracula, a moodier hero for a more dramatic game, illustrated with Ayami Kojima’s now iconic gothic bishonen style. The castle he finds himself in is not the stage-level format of most of the prior games, but instead a constant, contiguous world that cribs heavily from the structure of Nintendo’s Super Metroid. Not only do you have a map and save rooms, but you have RPG mechanics, as Alucard levels up and equips armor and weapons in his expanding skill set.
These familiar mechanical developments are in service of something much more profound, however. Utilizing 3D game console hardware to create a sprawling 2D game, Symphony of the Night grants Dracula’s castle an unknowable power in just how elaborate it is. Baroque only hints at the castle’s variety and impossible geometry, as marble hallways open up into vortexes of stormclouds, where statuary pulls back to reveal occult laborities, where the catacombs underneath the castle expand into lakes and tombs so deep your path is surrounded by roiling lava. Every part feels whole unto itself, but in concert the array of structures bolted onto each other feels impossible to navigate, dizzying in its chaos and fundamental inscrutability.
Which is the world that Alucard finds himself within. This lone, tragic hero enters his fathers house only to find that it is actually as complicated and strange as the idea of a mythical super-Dracula’s castle would evoke. Much has been made of Castlevania as a narrative of asserting identity and reclaiming sense of self over abuse or trauma, and that makes sense given the basic mechanics of the game. Alucard enters what should be his home, and he and the player find it challenging—in finding its many secrets, in fighting the foes within, in even surviving its spaces without harm—until you and Alucard both begin to slowly make headway against the evil forces and geometry in front of you.
Each square uncovered on the map is the reclaiming of the unknowable into the dominion of your understanding, each shortcut or hidden room a growing of your knowledge and a lessening of the power your enemy holds over you through secrets and illusion. Even the literal inversion of the castle, an entire second world where Alucard’s world is literally turned upside down, only slows you down until you begin to doggedly chip away at the edifice of this hurdle in pursuit of the inner peace Alucard seeks at the end of his journey.
Symphony of the Night is a game out of time depicting a world out of time, a strange amalgam of new technologies and old design to create something that sits in the middle of the history of game development as a testement to the power of both in unison. Later that year, Final Fantasy VII will emerge as the torchbearer to the future of cinematic 3D storytelling. On the SNES, the power of moving pixels and scaling sprites could only create a dynamic action version of Castlevania with rocking music, but it couldn’t give you the spaces of quiet and beauty and the insurmountable myriad obstructions with the assured, methodical atmosphere and melancholy of Symphony of the Night.
Of all the games people consider great games, Symphony of the Night exists firmly in one of the most important crossroads in the history of the medium. That it triumphs as the last bastion of an old generation of games speaks not just to the power of an ethos supposedly long-gone, but of the marriage of old and new, artistic and technological, in an elegant assertion of mastery over one’s powers and the forces of darkness that threaten to engulf us all.