There's something innately wrong with a game industry that believes that in order to be successful, games have to have cutting edge graphics. Even ten year old games that were well designed and had a compelling storyline and characters are still fun to go back and play, even if its not your first time through. Someone at Konami knew this when they began designing a new Castlevania for the Playstation, and instead of changing a 2D formula that worked for so many years, they merely took it and perfected it, creating what many consider to be the as yet unparalleled pinnacle of the series.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night begins a little confusingly for those unfamiliar with the history of the series. The player takes control of Richter Belmont in what is announced on screen to be the "Final Level". This final level ends with the destruction of Dracula, which most would presume to be the end of a game about vampire hunters. Several short cut-scenes later, the player suddenly controls a new character: Alucard, the son of Dracula.
It doesn't take long to grasp the control scheme of the game. Jumping and weapon use become second nature after about five minutes of play time, which is about all the time it takes Alucard to have all of his equipment stolen by the Grim Reaper. In a surprising twist, Konami added a full-fledged RPG leveling system into this game, with equippable swords, shields and even rings and charms. This system leads to some interesting in-game choices for the player. Will he/she sacrifice some strength of attack for the opportunity to find more valuable gems? What kind of armor do you want, spike-breaking or chill-protective?
The layout of the game is a bit unorthodox for a platform-centric game. Whereas classics such as Super Mario Bros. are laid out in a linear fashion, Symphony of the Night maps out Dracula's castle as a complicated maze of halls, staircases, and underground tunnels. Navigating this large maze and trying to visit every area would be a much larger pain and undermine the fun of the game if not for the conveniently placed teleportation rooms. While there are still Bosses associated with each area and a particular progression of Boss difficulty, this doesn't necessarily mean you have to face them in the particular order in which they are meant to be faced. This is both frustrating and excellent, because it means that the player's game experience will differ from that of others who play the game.
It's impossible not to notice the background art and music while playing through. The artists took advantage of the 2D perspective and created intricate murals on the back wall that one can stop and admire during play. Certain areas have beautiful stained glass windows, and others have extremely Gothic style statues passing in the fore and background. The music, too, is on par in most areas, capturing the spirit of a 17th century European Castle. There is one area (yes, Arena, I'm looking at you) whose music seems too bombastic and heavy handed to be appropriate for inclusion in any section of the game. This is nicely balanced out, however, by the fantastic accompaniments written for the Underground Caverns (a lilting, jazzy tune that adds to the sparkling crystal feel) and Abandoned Mine (a creepy, nearly piano-exclusive melody that could be right at home in a haunted house).
There is no question that this game deserves its place among the top games ever made. I believe that the 2D perspective of the game has made it age much more gracefully than some of the other, 3D games that graced the Playstation (such as Final Fantasy VII; great gameplay, but it looks unbelieveably dated). The only reasons this game didn't receive a full score were the few gripes I had: the shield is hardly ever useful, saving takes too long, and the ultimate sin, extending the game by reusing the same map twice. Outside of these minor details, I highly recommend this game to anyone over the age of 12 who enjoys experiencing a part of gaming history.
(Rated T for Teen. Offensive content: portrayals of blood, implied non-explicit nudity, frightening situations/creatures)