Editor’s Note: The Backlog is a recurring feature in which I try to play through the huge pile of video games I’ve amassed and then write about them. For the rest of 2015, I’ll be focusing particular attention on games for the original Sony PlayStation, which debuted in North America 20 years ago this September. And of course, I’ll be playing Halloween-appropriate games for the month of October. So, with no further ado, come along as I kill two birds with one stone and close one of the most shameful gaps in my PS1/Halloween-game knowledge. – Z.H.
I’m just gonna come out and say it: there is, bar none, no better series of video games to play around Halloween than Castlevania. Plenty will argue in favor of a more conventional horror game, of course–and I’ll certainly play those, too–but “horror,” to me, isn’t really what Halloween is about. Halloween, to put it bluntly, is about clichés: gloomy cathedrals, ornate crosses, velvet-lined coffins; the kind of iconography we indulge in, not because it actually frightens us, but because it’s fun to play with such near-universally-recognized signifiers of fear. And that’s exactly what Castlevania allows us to do: the series at its best is nothing more or less than a great, big Gothic toybox of every horror-lit and monster-movie cliché in the book, with some of the best 2D action-platforming design in the business to back it up.
Given my enthusiasm for the Castlevania franchise, then, it may be surprising that until this month, I’d never played its most widely-acclaimed installment: the series’ debut on the PlayStation, 1997’s Symphony of the Night. I was, of course, aware of its influence on many of the Castlevania games I had played–particularly the underrated Order of Ecclesia for the Nintendo DS–as well as its importance to the history of action platformers more generally; what, for example, is the recent breakout indie hit Rogue Legacy, if not Symphony of the Night married to the mechanics of the roguelike? For whatever reason, however, I never made it back to the source…until now.
And, here’s another shocker for you: Symphony of the Night is good. Like, really, really good. Co-director Igarashi Koji’s addition of RPG character progression and free-roaming, Metroid-style exploration to the existing Castlevania formula is as inspired now as it was 18 years ago, adding a real sense of place and discovery to the ever-familiar location of Dracula’s castle. And even with all its innovations, Symphony‘s take on that aforementioned formula is still polished to perfection. The early Castlevania games, while brilliantly designed, are notorious for their touchy mechanics, with lumbering vampire-hunter protagonists prone to falling through flights of stairs and flying backwards whenever they take a hit; but controlling Symphony‘s swifter, more acrobatic half-vampire hero, Alucard, is never anything less than a pleasure (except when he transforms into a wolf…fuck that shit).
Okay, okay, I guess I can’t slip that last sentence past without a little bit of scrutiny. In Symphony of the Night, you do indeed play as a dhampir, the product of an apparently consensual relationship between a human woman and Count Dracula himself, named Alucard–or, translated for non-nerds, fucking Dracula spelled backwards. And this isn’t even the dumbest thing about the game. Symphony of the Night‘s patently late-’90s voice acting has become the stuff of legend; in particular, Dracula’s “What is a man?!” monologue from the opening sequence (see the video above) has long since joined the likes of “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” among the most infamous of video-game memes.
But what the game lacks in gripping narrative and dialogue, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Of course, Konami house composer Yamane Michiru carries on the series’ grand tradition of moody, dramatic scores; meanwhile, the debut of concept artist and character designer Kojima Ayami brings a more baroque sensibility–and, yes, a tasteful dash of bishōnen manga aesthetics–to Castlevania‘s classic visual style. Room by room, the environments in Dracula’s castle are filled with intricate details and visual flourishes, from the eerie statues in the Marble Gallery to the creepy confessional in the Royal Chapel. Sometimes, the art design can get downright ghoulish: the boss fights with Granfaloon (a.k.a. Legion) and Beelzebub in particular are almost Grand-Guignol in their fascination with sloughing limbs and desiccated corpses–certainly a far cry from the relatively tame spooks of the earlier NES and SNES games.
Or, for that matter, the 3D incarnations on the rival Nintendo 64. While I didn’t play Symphony of the Night in 1997, I did play the infamous Castlevania 64 two years later; and, quite frankly, that game’s muddled, aimless attempt to translate the series’ conventions into three-dimensional space probably played a minor role in my decision to trade the N64 for a PlayStation. Indeed, the relative quality of these two Castlevanias might go some way toward explaining the PS1’s enduring upper hand against its most prominent rival. Nintendo limited its options by going all-in on 3D games, with an awkward controller that made digital input a chore and a graphics processor that heavily favored polygons over sprites. But Sony‘s machine was the best of both worlds; it could do 3D games, sure, but it could also do games like Symphony: picking up directly where the Super Nintendo left off, with a generational leap in complexity.
Of course, not even Symphony of the Night is perfect. The game’s now-famous “true ending”–involving a whole second castle for Alucard to conquer, a mirror image of the first–is perhaps a little too obscure for my taste; I doubt I would have found it myself were it not for the 18 years’ worth of collective memory and institutional knowledge (read: FAQs and walkthroughs) available at my fingertips on the Internet. Symphony‘s open-ended nature also makes for a somewhat uneven difficulty curve; about halfway through the game, I got lost, wandered around for an hour or two, and ended up gaining so much experience that I pretty much cakewalked through the rest of the bosses. But really, these are minor quibbles for a game so influential, so fun, and so ideally suited to the Halloween season. There’s a reason why this game is so highly regarded. Play it, if you haven’t already. And then go out this evening for pleasure. The night is still young.