Summer Classes: “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. This week, I start up the PS1 classic “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.”

It took our family a long time to upgrade from the 16-bit consoles when I was a kid. As such, I played a lot of Super Nintendo RPGs and action platformers, namely “Castlevania IV.” Its one of the high points of the SNES’ library and, although I don’t think its as good as the original, its a challenging, smart and well designed game. Finishing it is one of my biggest videogame triumphs.

Now, we went for the Nintendo 64 over the Sony Playstation so I missed out on the series’ next massively well received game, “Symphony of the Night,” the first moment where the series embraced RPG stylings and all of the adventure gaming intrigue that made “Super Metroid” a triumph.

The story, as far as I see it, is pretty inconsequential. Dracula, as he does, has risen and his son and player avatar, Alucard, awakens from his eternal sleep to kill his father and the evil priest that summoned him. At first, the game is a lot of what you’d expect from the series. You’re jumping around, killing zombies, slaying giant wolves and dodging and blocking attacks with your blade.

There are two things that really separate the game for me in the 90 minutes I’ve played so far and that’s the integration of the inventory system, particularly the sub-weapon system, and the open ended exploration. The sub-weapon system is the smallest change but its what’s taken me the most time to get used to.

In Castlevanias past, your only defense was your ability to dodge enemy attacks and stop them with your weapon. Defense was based on your own reflexes and your willingness to sacrifice an opportunity to strike for an opportunity to block. “Symphony of the Night” changes this, giving players the opportunity to either wield a two handed weapon or a sword and shield as they choose. As far as I can tell, using the latter combo is the only sensible option but it can be hard to remember to pull up the shield and it still has the same crazy delay that Alucard’s sword has.

The more apparent difference is in the game’s structure. “Symphony of the Night” gives players the illusion of limitless options. There are doors everywhere, series of interconnecting rooms and occasional difficulty spikes that almost seem to discourage exploration. Its a classic problem. The game forces players to deal with the tricky balancing act of wanting to progress through, cleaning rooms of enemies, grabbing items and advancing with the less exciting fact that occasionally players are virtually required to farm experience, leveling up their avatar strength to get through a difficult sequence.

At one point in my session I had fallen into a  small room with two paths. Not knowing which way to go, I wandered through both, making some progress before getting killed monsters. It was getting infuriating and I wasn’t making any actual progress. Eventually, I was able to make it to another area where I was able to heal and save before getting murdered by a boss, a faster clone of Alucard. I kept attempting the fight only to be mercilessly killed every time. The only possible solution I could come up with was to wander the same stretch of rooms over and over, slowly building up experience so that I could level up and slowly improve my strength and health. After about 40 minutes of mindless grinding, I finally beat the boss and moved on. I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much but at least I was able to keep playing and run into new monsters and challenges.

After beating the boss, I stumbled onto a teleportation area that let me go back to the beginning of the castle so that I could track down the items and upgrades that I missed. Loaded back up on supplies and adding a new, mostly pointless, weapon to my arsenal, I warped back to where I was, found a place to save and then was mercilessly murdered by a knight who shot fire from his massive sword.

Game Over, screen melts, reload, select file, load, try again.

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