I never had an NES as a kid, but I knew plenty of people who did. I had friends of the family who could hook me up, so through them I would be able to rent games like Super Mario Bros, Alien Syndrome and my two favorites: Friday the 13thand Castlevania. I was a monster kid and a Dracula kid in particular. Anything that dealt with that world was going to appeal to me. I played Castlevania I and III pretty regularly and found them incredibly challenging. As much as I loved games that appealed to my particular interests, I was never very good at them. The Castlevania series proved to be no different.
As much as I enjoyed it, I felt like I was never going to get to face off against Dracula or see any of the cool creatures that I saw on the back of the box or inside of the instruction manual. In terms of a playable character, as a kid I found Simon Belmont pretty boring. The monsters were what attracted me to the game, and I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
When I got my hands on the original, first-gen PlayStation, I was gifted a few games that left me pretty underwhelmed. As much as I was a fan of the material, Beast Wars and Casper were not the most captivating games for the system. But that’s how it goes. You get a system for Christmas and you’re given games. Some of them are bound to suck.
But then, sometime shortly thereafter, I received Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And it brought the franchise back into my heart in a huge way. It was possibly the first game for Play Station that I loved. And I fell for it right from the opening. The graphics are obviously dated today, but that opening sequence revealing the castle is still stunning. As someone who was terrible at the previous Castlevania entries, this one gave me everything I wanted just by kicking off with a fight against Dracula. As someone who never would have gotten there had the Count’s only appearance come at the end, that was hugely important.
The biggest thing that appealed to me, though, the thing that always kept me going back and playing this game, was the fact that the protagonist was a vampire. The Belmont family still has a powerful presence in Symphony of the Night, but they’re no longer the main characters. Instead, you play as Dracula’s son, Alucard. It’s a little too on the nose, I know, but it’s hardly the first thing to use that name. In fact, it’s kind of a nice reference to Universal’s Son of Dracula.
This game gave me everything I wanted. All at once. Monsters, a journey through a haunted castle, a battle with the King of the Vampires, and you play as a vampire who does vampire things. I couldn’t believe it and I’m still amazed by it. To wield an assortment of great weapons while also utilizing magic and being able to turn into a bat or wolf made it a weird kind of wish fulfillment for a vampire-obsessed child.
Looking back after twenty years, I think Symphony of the Night holds up in so many ways where other games have failed to make a cultural impact. This is one of the most highly regarded entries—if not the most—in a long-running franchise. And there are a lot of reasons for that. The fact that the graphics are 2D helps it not to feel as dated as many other PS1 games. There are definitely Castlevania entries that followed this one and have aged much worse because they didn’t adhere to the 2D side-scrolling format.
Alucard’s arc is interesting and feels a little more layered than past protagonists. The dialogue is sparse and only occasionally reveals anything about the characters, but it’s clear that Alucard feels a great shame for being a part of this family. There’s a sense of wishing he could appeal to any kind of humanity in Dracula, but knowing that it’s just not there. He knows his father is a monster, plain and simple, and he has to live with being the offspring of that. It’s almost like the complete reverse of Luke’s journey to redeem his father in Return of the Jedi.
There’s a great sense of momentum to the game as the physical journey of the character is very simple and very clear. We’re moving upward through the castle, seeing all manner of creatures and sights to be seen in there, and then it we’ve got to go through it again, upside down. Elements of weirdness like that only add to the game’s memorability.
But the true star of Symphony of the Night is, without a doubt, the score. The music in this game is unbelievable. It starts out orchestral and, well, symphonic. The opening prelude is exactly the kind of score you’d expect to find in a Dracula movie, albeit a really good one. From there, it gets progressively more modern, a little edgier before dropping us into full-on synth rock sounds for the gameplay itself. It’s a long game. There’s a whole lot of castle to go through. Yet there’s not a single track on that soundtrack that’s not memorable.
It’s amazing that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is now twenty years old. But it doesn’t feel like it came out yesterday. While it doesn’t necessarily feel aged, it’s easy to feel the age of it. Because it’s something that so many of us grew up with. It’s not just something that appealed to a love of monsters and the supernatural, but something that helped to keep that love alive through endless replay. When I played that game as a kid, I stepped into the shoes of a noble and badass vampire.
And now I look back on it as an adult, not stepping into the vampire’s shoes for fear that they won’t fit quite the same way. So instead I come back to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as a human, wishing to pay it tribute.