Mainlining is our new featured series where we run through all the mainline games in a series one article per game, in often different and original ways. This week we journey back to the Transylvania countryside of Romania in what some call the pinnacle of the entire Castlevania series, the Playstation classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Well, here we are. It’s all been leading up to this — the one you all have a strong (valid) opinion about. And here I am, writing about the game that has been written about more than any other game in the series. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said already?
Plenty. Settle in, for the night is young, and the game isn’t over, it’s only just begun.
You Got “Metroid” In My “Castlevania”
This is the game that coined a term that inspired thousands of games based on its structure. What if you took the structure and level design of Metroid (more specifically Super Metroid) and applied it to the Castlevania series.
I suppose you could say Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was the first non-linear game in the series, and you’d be right, but that game had a few things going against it as I described in painful detail lo those many months ago. The biggest difference is that this game gives you a map, and therefore a general sense of direction, as opposed to Simon’s Quest, whose maps in Nintendo Power were still somehow confusing.
Just like Super Metroid you could find (or in SOTN‘s case, buy) maps that showed you some of the area, but you’ll mostly “fill in” the map simply by exploring it on your own. Hidden areas are everywhere. They can be revealed not only by breaking away false walls but by destroying floors, ceilings, moving bookcases in some instances — you never knew what could potentially lead to a secret.
While you can go wherever you want, areas are carefully blocked and obstructed in a way that makes you still have to progress in a specific order. The difference is, you’re not being led around by flashing waypoints or misleading townsfolk who speak is broken riddles and outright lies.
As you progress and unlock new powers and abilities, you’re able to revisit old areas and access new items and areas you couldn’t before. This process repeats itself until you’ve progressed through the entire game, having slowly been taught the rules of the game in a very deliberate and clever manner.
Sorry, I know most anyone reading knows all this, but for the uninitiated, this is how the term Metroidvania was coined, and a whole new genre of games was born.
Previously On Castlevania…
When I played this game originally in 1997, I was more than a little confused when this game began with a battle between a Belmont I didn’t know and a very chatty Dracula. Rondo of Blood never released in America, so the last time I had played a Castlevania game was Super Castlevania IV.
Dracula and Richter have a hella melodramatic conversation that is well-worn fodder online (so I’ll spare everyone the jokes you’ve probably heard a million times). Then you engage in a battle you literally can’t lose. Maria Renard, the 12-year-old spitfire from Rondo, bails you out with her Dr. Doolittle magic every time your life meter runs out. I had no idea who she was either, but this was my first experience with a Castlevania game telling a story, and I found it intriguing. Not only that, this was a direct continuation of Rondo, and one I obviously didn’t appreciate at the time. However, 22 years later, I have a whole new appreciation for all the wonderful things SOTN does to connect to not only Rondo, but also other games of the past.
The battle consummates (not a typo) as Dracula bursts into flames and Richtir (there’s a typo) and Maria look on as the scene turns into a postcard, leading us into the opening story.
Dracula’s Curse Lives On
Alucard is back, and he’s faster and more glam than ever before. Just check out that nose, that flowing mane of white hair, the elaborate capes and fitted clothing. He’s not a Belmont or a descendant of one, he’s a vampire, meaning he does not possess the legendary Vampire Killer, the Belmont family whip seen in previous Castlevania games (although it was not always referred to canonically as such). This may seem like a departure for purists, but I surprisingly didn’t miss it, despite what I said two articles back.
I stuck mostly with John because if it’s a Castlevania game I’d prefer to have a whip, otherwise, what are we doing here?
– me, in my Mainlining Castlevania: Bloodlines article
Gameplay begins as Alucard flies with inhumane speed through the trees, much like the way Rondo began with Richter moving past trees in the foreground and background, while he rode his carriage en route to that game’s version of Castlevania. Juxtaposition, baby. Video games are art. Sorry, Roger Ebert, you and I never did see eye to eye very often.
He actually starts the game well equipped and ready for battle. He soon encounters Death, who tries to dissuade Alucard from killing his father because blah-blah, patricide is bad, and whatever. When he doesn’t relent, Death takes all your items, which is a Metroidvania staple as well. The Metroid Prime series uses this for their sequel Metroid Prime: Echos, as a way to force you to reacquire all the items you got in the previous game. Some people find this mechanic cheap, but in this instance, I didn’t actually earn these items in a previous game, so I’m unbothered.
With your items all gone, you’re forced to move on with nothing, punching stuff like a sucker. It’s not long before you will find basic weapons such as a Short Sword, maybe a Red Rust. These are your starter weapons for a bit, and they’re sub-par at best, but they’ll get you by for now. But where to go?
First stop is the Alchemy Laboratory where you’ll find your first piece of armor, the hide cuirass, which you’ll find smashing a Bunsen and beakers. A leather shield is not far behind, which you need to equip. Here is where the game forces you to learn the menu system, which will look familiar to anyone who has played an old school Final Fantasy game. That blue gradient background alone should give old school gamers RPG flashbacks.
Since this game came out before designers walked you through each step navigating the menu system, you had to learn yourself. This is made easy since you have next to nothing in your inventory and can learn the process without much confusion or consequence. Also, there is no way to drop an item, so the worst you can do is unequip something.
The Thinking Person’s Castlevania
The inventory system isn’t the only thing the game forces you to learn on your own. Floor buttons that lower spiked obstructions are just there for you to investigate and figure out. You’ll eventually learn that you can move crates to where spiked obstructions were lowered, and then trigger the spikes to rise, giving you access to the areas you couldn’t reach before.
My favorite part of the early section of this game is when you spot an elevator lift that does not work. There is a ledge above it, but you can’t reach it. Red skeletons are walking around, and eventually, you will notice one of the skeletons will step on the lever long enough for the elevator to lift slightly. Eureka! You rush back to the elevator and wait for the red skeleton to trip the switch and up you go, ever so slightly, timing your jump at the apex to access the ledge, but it’s still not high enough!
Super Metroid would often do things like this, where an “Aha!” moment would be followed by an “Oh, but wait…” moment. You’ve cracked part, but not all of the riddle.
Ah, our first Save Room. Ooh, and the PS4 version sexed up the Save Cube. So much so that initiating a save causes the HD Remastered coffin to go a bit wonky. Nevertheless, SOTN is one of those games that requires frequent saving. Not just because you lose all the progress since your last save, but because remembering what you did before, or after the previous save, can get somewhat confusing. You could accidentally think you possess an item, when in fact you merely had it until you died before saving. Eyes up. Check that map. Constantly.
Boss fights in SOTN are tipped slightly if you know how to spot them. When you enter certain rooms, there will be a slight pause and the load time will hiccup a bit. If you are not ready to fight a boss, exit immediately. At the very least, hit the closest save room so you don’t lose a ton of progress. I was Level 5 when I first attempted this fight, and that’s probably on the low end, but I’m a pretty decent SOTN player and smoked these fools like it ain’t no thang.
Your first boss battle with be with Slogra and Gaibon, two characters you’ve fought in previous games, and their battle strategies have evolved slightly, but overall they’re about what you remembered. Take them out and earn yourself a health upgrade.
Boss fights are everywhere in SOTN, and they serve as flexible roadblocks. You might be able to get past them earlier than expected, but in most cases, you’ll need to level grind a bit to power up Alucard.
I grew up on games that force you to grind away for experience. I played Dragon Warrior I through IV, Final Fantasy, Faxanadu, Zelda II, Simon’s Quest, I was used to it. So when SOTN expected me to exit and enter rooms with tough enemies that doled out mad experience points in exchange for a little bit of my time, I was on board.
I realize these days, people don’t care much for the grind, and that’s fine, to each their own. However, I found the grinding in SOTN to serve a greater purpose. Often, you would encounter a pretty difficult enemy who could reward you with a decent amount of experience. If you went at them enough, you’d eventually learn their patterns, making them easier, and making the whole process of grinding much shorter. The hack and slash element goes down, and the pattern recognition goes up.
I personally would suggest doing this somewhere close to a save room. That way, if you take a few bad hits, you can run to a save room and lock in your progress. When you level up a few times, and then die before you had a chance to save? That’s when things get tedious. That’s when you feel much less compelled to reload your game after that strange Game Over screen appear.
Mist Could Pass
There are several different types of “roadblocks” this game puts in your way and remembering where they are, and figuring out what is needed to get past them isn’t always obvious. Sure, some areas blocked by metal bars tell you “Mist Could Pass”, but at that stage in the game, you have no idea you can transform into mist. Your exploring will eventually lead you to blocked paths such as blue, glowing doors that are “sealed by magic” or walls with levers on the opposite side.
Luckily, the game has several warp rooms, which are where you enter a giant glowing keyhole and transport to the next closest warp room going clockwise. Bonus points to the designers for the rocks that also get caught in the warping process that unceremoniously drop to the ground when you reach your new destination. It’s the little things, always the little things with me.
You’re So Obtuse
Whether it’s a wall that needs to be blasted with a canon, or a floor that needs to be broken with a sub-weapon like the axe or the grimoire, there are always secrets lingering all over the castle. Some of them require thinking, while others are just Simon’s Quest level tricky.
Take this late-game example where you encounter a very suspicious wall, and what looks like a button. There is no indication how to press the button, and when you first encounter it, you do not possess the ability to press it.
However, if you press on, you soon find the Demon Card, which allows you to have a demon-familiar sidekick. If you activate the Demon Card relic and return to the button, your demon will see the button and press it, revealing a very integral path in the game. It’s not “Hit your head on Deborah Cliff” obtuse, but it is one of the few times SOTN is vague in a way that drags out the play time in a way that seems unnecessary.
Nestled deep inside the castle is one of Dracula’s humble servants, the Librarian. A man so devoted to his Master that he would never betray him. Unless you have monies. Many, many monies. Then he flips faster than a mobster with no other options. Do you need him to wear a wire next time Shaft drops by to return a book? Because this loose-lipped rat would totally do it.
The librarian is where you can purchase the castle map, the Jewel of Open (which opens those blue, glowing doors that are “Sealed By Magic”), and many other useful (and sometimes useless) items. He’s basically a merchant, buying gems, selling overpriced goods. Also, he repeats the lines “What can I do for you?” and “Hee hee, thank you!” incessantly. Think the Merchant from Resident Evil 4 with his “What ‘r ya buyin? What ‘r ya sellin? Come back anytime!” shtick.
It’s also where you can learn more about bosses you’ve defeated. Not to mention, there is a bestiary that provides tons of interesting information about the enemies you’ve encountered.
The librarian, that squirrely bugger is tucked inside the Long Library in a hard to find spot, but luckily he also sells library cards, which allow you to return to him at any point.
I found that once I visited him the first time I didn’t return until later, much later, but it is a good idea to get potions, I always forget potions until I’m knee-deep in a boss battle.
Now We Know Why We Never Hear About Richter Belmont Anymore
At a certain point, you’ll run into Maria Renard, who is searching for Richter Belmont. She’s concerned for him and suggests you find him. When you do encounter him, he’s gone all Dark Richter and even considers himself Lord of the manor.
What a strange plot twist for a Castlevania game, making a Belmont, the traditional protagonist the new villain. Did the castle corrupt him? By power?
Subverting Our Expectations?
Throughout the game, you encounter Maria, who is not convinced Richter is now #TeamDracula because she was in the last game with him, and that just doesn’t track to her. Four years ago, she was a 12-year-old girl assisting him in taking down Dracula, and now he’s suddenly done a 180 and wants to be the new owner? That’s character assassination. Twitter would be incensed that Richter was not given the ending “he deserves”. I can see the Go Fund Me now for Castlevania: Re Awoken. Maria would be the new playable character, and everyone would call her a badass every chance they got. It would be the Castlevania game we need, now more than ever.
Sorry, I have issues with Twitter I really should work out somewhere else. Those Game of Thrones armchair critics just got to me. Also, if you guys want to fix something, fix Dexter after season four first. OK, now I’m done.
“All Things Must End”
Still, it’s gotta be pretty difficult for first-time players not just to assume Richter is evil and kill him. Especially when you didn’t play Rondo of Blood. I knew (from playing SOTN in 1997) that I had to find the special glasses before confronting him, and I still had to resort to a guide once or twice to acquire all the tools I needed to reach Maria in order to get them. Not to mention, when I played it in 1997, I did what any sensible Castlevania fan would do, and made my way to the top of the castle, found the stairway and killed Richter. Cue bummer credits. Cue “I Am the Wind”. Luckily, the game will spit you back to the point right before you kill Richter, and allow you to explore the castle further.
I recall at the time I had to resort to the internet, which was very much still a fledgling operation in 1997, but gaming FAQ sites were a thing. I learned that what I had gotten was a “bad ending”. I then read what needed to be done, and proceeded to achieve the “proper” ending.
You need to find two rings, a Silver and a Gold ring, each partially inscribed with instructions to wear them in the Clock Room. Only then will the clock strike midnight and open the way below to the castle core, where Maria awaits to challenge you. Once you show her that you are indeed stronger than she is, she gives you the sunglasses, that will allow you to see through the deception that is “Evil Rich”.
This time, when you confront Richter, pop on those sunglasses and battle the ominous green orb floating around the room, which was controlled by Richter. The fight isn’t much harder than it was when you fought Richter, if anything it’s easier taking out a wandering green blob while avoiding Richter.
With the spell broken, Shaft appears and monologues a bit about how this was merely their Plan A and leaves.
Alucard tells Richter and Maria to go, and that he’ll handle this. Although he appreciates them crossing over from their own game, this is family business, and he has to take down his father himself.
When the ending plays this time, dark, ominous clouds circle over the castle, inside the eye of the swirling storm, an image appears, the mirror image of Castlevania.
One More Thing
We here at 25 Years Later Site don’t just give 100%; sometimes a game requires you to give a little more. Say, 200.6%, to see the game to its proper conclusion. And that’s just what we’re gonna do. This was not the end of our Castlevania adventure, not just yet. For like the Trophy says when you defeat the spell that was controlling Richter, things get topsy-turvy.
That’s right; we’re going full Twilight here, needlessly splitting up the final chapter into two parts. Did you Inverted Castle fans really think I’d leave out 100.6 % of the game? No way, Richter Belmont is saved thanks (almost exclusively) to Maria Renard. I helped too. I wore the magic glasses. I broke the curse. I watched the credits (that removed Cynthia Harrell’s “I Am The Wind”, which I will discuss next time). I’m ready to reach maximum emo and confront my daddy issues quite literally.
It’s a stealth two-parter, yawl!
LEFTOVER LIBRARY CARDS
- Somehow this game didn’t sell all that well. I’m always shocked to find out things like this, especially since seeing there was a Castlevania game on the PSX in a gaming store is what compelled me to buy one. Well, that and Metal Gear.
- There are a few side tangents I left out, but fear not, we’ll cover Familiars, Spells, subtle callbacks to previous entries, and all those other extra bits of goodness in the finale of Mainlining Symphony of the Night.
- I had a Do Not Use list of things I didn’t want to do/reference/joke about in this article
- No jokes about “a miserable little pile of secrets”.
- Don’t make any “Ba-boom-a-rang-rang” references. I don’t think that many people actually saw Children of a Lesser God.
- Keep the Missy Elliot references to a minimum, three tops.
- And now, we really begin the final journey through the Mainlining Castlevania series, as next time we Mainline Castlevania: Symphony of the Night Part II – The Inverted Castle.