Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
In October of 1997, I was in high school and working part-time at a local video store. The store was less about renting and selling movies, though, and more about renting and selling video games. In particular, used games and older consoles that were a bit hard to find. They were becoming harder as well, because the year prior a new generation of videogame consoles were making their way to store shelves and pushing the likes of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems and games into bargin bins or cheap discounts. It was a new generation. Mario was running around in 3D worlds, games were utllizing photo-realistic pre-rendered backgrounds and classic, 2D sprites and artwork found in side-scrollers were giving way to rather muddy, ugly polygons with bad animation.
Still, the 3D games were new. Fresh. Different. So it's no wonder that, while working at this store, I found Castlevania: Symphony of the Night a hard sell to customers.
The incredibly bland and uninspired art on the cover didn't help matters. Seriously, who OKd this?
For me, it was an easy choice. I loved Castlevania games since the original Nintendo, and this was the first one to come out in a long, long while. In fact, Castlevania Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis was the last game I had played in the series (and wasn't particular good at it) and that came out years prior in 1994. I pretty much expected to get more of the same: Gothic, horror-inspired castle exploration, classic side scrolling levels and a boss at the end of each. If I was lucky, it might even give me the option to select paths.
Boy, was I blindsided. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or SOTN as the internet as now dubbed it, threw out all notions of what Castlevania is supposed to be, keeping only the Gothic aesthetic charm, and re-structured it from the ground up. Instead of level after level, you now had a completely open castle that you could run around in, various rooms to explore, equipment to buy and experience points to gain to become more powerful. I should have known better. Even the title is a bold reinvention. "Symphony of the Night" sounded ridiculous at the time, now it just rolls off the tongue and every Castlevania game since has had an equally ridiculous sounding title.
So many memories...of blood fountains, corpses and sharpy spinny thingy things.
It was like a side-scrolling role playing game meets the open-exploration of Metroid, and me being a huge fan of role playing games and Super Metroid by that time made it a wonderful experience. Throw in my fondness of all things horror and gothic, and it shouldn't be a surprise why I not only consider this one of my favorite games, but a game that is still vivid in my mind when thinking back to my younger days.
This, though, didn't matter to the customers. Here I was, a huge fan of this new game, and selling Playstations to customers who were looking for a game. And you know what happened when I handed them the case from behind the counter, don't you?
Sure you do, because you probably did the same. They flipped it over, took one look at the screens, and handed it back. They didn't need to say anything, I knew what they were judging. Castlevania: SOTN kept one thing that prevented it from being a huge hit sales-wise (because review-wise, it's considered one of the best games of all time). It was that "awful" 2D side-scrolling gameplay. These people looking to buy a new console were looking for new games as well. Games that reflected the generation-jump into new technology. A game like this? A 2D sidescroller that could have been done on the Super Nintendo? Who would want that? Side-scrollers were things of the past.
Of course, screenshots never did the game justice. Sure, it was 2D, utlizing sprites and pretty standard layers of depth for scrolling, but it was a polished 2D. The animation was smooth, the enemies full of variety and detail and, beset of all, giant, huge bosses that would often take up two-thirds of the screen. It was 2D, but it was still the "next generation" of 2D. Throw in the CD-quality soundtrack, precise controls and a giant, expansive castle to explore and you have something that would last you hours and engross you the entire time.
Voice-acting I notably left out of the list of quality things.
I remember selling one copy. Just one. In fact, it was the only copy we ordered because my boss, much like the rest of the world apparently, didn't foresee it as a big seller. Though history has proven those people wrong, the game is lauded to this day, he was right. It wasn't a big seller, which is why I remember selling this one copy so well.
Well, that, and that the customer, three days later, came back and wanted a refund.
Now he wasn't upset or anything. Nor was he looking at, say, Tomb Raider and wondering why Castlevania didn't look like that, as one might assume. (History proved those people wrong as well, Tomb Raider has aged incredibly poorly while Symphony of the Night still looks fantastic). Rather, he was upset over how quickly he beat it. The conversation, and keep in mind this is going off my memory so it may not be entirely accurate, went something like this (photos are an approximation):
Customer: Hi. I bought this last week and would like to get a refund.
Me: Oh, I'm sorry. Was it defective?
Customer: No. I already beat it.
Me: Oh, you must have played it a lot.
Customer: Not really, just a few hours.
Got to that Belmont guy then that was it.
Me: You know, that's not the final boss, right?
Customer: Yes it was.
Me: ...No it wasn't.
Customer: Yes it was. Dude. I saw the ending. UR WRONGNSTUFF. Give me my money!!!
Well, as you may or may not know, you can accidentally end the game by defeating that "Belmont" guy. Truth is, the game has a whole second half, an upside-down version of the castle you just spent hours exploring that's full of all new baddies, powerups and bosses. This guy wasn't having it, though. He pretty much made up his mind, wanted nothing to do with the game, and even though I didn't give him a full-refund, he got a pretty good chunk of change back due to the game being pretty damn new.
This made me realize there were different kinds of gamers. I've kind of always known it, but here it was more apparent because now even people that didn't really play games, or weren't "gamers," were buying consoles and games. There's no denying that during this Playstation and N64 generation, the floodgates really seemed to open to the popularity of gaming. People began to become more divisive and not in the "Sega versus Nintendo" sense where people were simply divisive because they usually owned one or the other. Now it was a new element of proving your worth. The fact is this: Symphony of the Night looked old, stuff like Crash Bandicoot and Mario 64 looked new. As another customer once noted when, like many, he looked at the back for three seconds: "This looks like it should be on the Genesis."
The amount of eye-rolls I did during this period of trying to sell people on this game...
Anyways, I'm badly digressing as I always tend to do on these things, because my real focus for this rambling, nonsensical series of nostalgic bliss was to discuss the atmosphere. Castlevania Symphony of the Night, thanks to its alteration of gameplay structure and sense of exploration, added a crucial aspect to the "feeling" of the game the previous titles haven't had. While every Castlevania title has always been rooted in a great horror/gothic aesthetic: from creatures and moody lightning to floating candelabras and organ music, there was never a sense of unknown to it all. You pretty much walked straight ahead until you reached a boss, then moved on.
Symphony of the Night, however, put out that sense of unknown. You didn't really know what was around the corner, which way to go and who or what you were about to encounter. Should you go left? Right? Up? Underwater? Outside? In other words, by not giving you a direction to always go in, a level of mysteriousness and uncertainty crept into the gameplay. You felt alone. Isolated. In the same way the Metroid series did, only not quite as full of despair. (Note, I would note Demon's Crest here, but I'm pulling from obscurity if I do that). It was more of a "I can't go this way...but I don't want to go that way and...oh crap, what is that?" and a surprise boss-fight type of way.
Symphony of the Night is full of little subtleties that create that sense of uncertainty. If you were, in fact, going to go to Dracula's castle, there's a good chance it would play mind games and tricks on you. That's exactly what Symphony of the Night does, and thus the Castle itself, not Alucard (our hero) or the supporting cast, becomes the main character. For once, the name "Castlevania" feels right. It's not about a Belmont-clan vampire killer, nor is it about Dracula or his minions. It's actually about the Castle itself.
I still have my copy of Symphony of the Night. I even still play it once in a while, though it has been at least three or four years. It's a game, though, that stays with you. From the little moments, like a confession booth where a Priest might or might not try to kill you or when you finally get that mist-power and can travel through some walls, to the big moments, such as fighting a giant ball-o-corpses in one of my favorite boss battles or the epic, Gothic music that permeates throughout the entire game.
Here's some gorgeous official art from the game...and again I ask, why wasn't this used for the cover?
Castlevania Symphony of the Night is one of my favorite Playstation titles, well, ok games as a whole would be a more accurate description, but it is specifically my favorite Castlevania game. Know this, though: it has nothing with it being the first one that changed the formula (now often dubbed Metroidvania) nor because it was the first "new" game in the series in a while at that point. It's simply because it captured an essence that really hadn't been there before or sense. Not the Gothic music or dark setting, but the element of "surprise" around every corner. Being "surprising" is what instigates fear, and all the previous Castlevania game, while also moody and cool, never really delved into trying to surprise you. They were all straight-forward and you knew what was coming.
By its design, I never knew what was going to be in the next area or section. As much as I belittle the customer who returned the game, guess what: I didn't know about it either until I read about it. I had already played the game by that point and felt there was something off with that moment. Found the truth. Went back and played it and was joyed to find out I was only about half-way through.
The difference is I'm not an asshole looking for an excuse to get a "awesome 3D game" over this old-fashioned "Super Nintendo" title trying to prove to myself its a "new generation of gaming!"
Generations or technical proficiency doesn't matter. A good game is a good game, no matter how it might look on the outside. This was a lesson I learned with Symphony of the Night and still carry to this day. Don't write off a game based on screenshots...and don't listen to idiots.