Being as I am a fledgling pop-culture critic, I usually like to think of myself as being reasonably up-to-speed when it comes to trends and goings-on in the online blogosphere.
I say I like to think that because I just get caught with my pants down, such as today when an online acquaintance told me there was something called "Review a Good Game Day" happening, and I'd somebody completely missed it. To make matters worse, I live in the UK, so while it was still the middle of the afternoon for him, he being a devious Oklahoman, for me it was nearly 10PM. It'll still be April 8th in much of the world when this goes up, but still.
Being as this is a last minute scramble to get a full review of something finished in under 2 hours, do forgive me if I end up seeming a touch rambling or incoherent. With that all said, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
The year is 1796, the hero Richter Belmont having slain Dracula and destroyed his castle 4 years earlier in the game Rondo of Blood, which I haven't played though feel I ought to have. Castle Dracula has risen thanks to Dracula's dark acolytes yet a-fucking-gain and Dracula's dhampir son Alucard takes it upon himself to rid the world of his father once and for all.
SoTN is often described as a game caught between generations, it's easy enough to see where that sentiment comes from. The fifth generation of video game consoles is looked back on as the period when all of the third and fourth generation mainstays were forced to evolve from 2D into 3D or die, and SoTN did neither of those things, being a 2D game that went on to become one of the most acclaimed games of all time.
Nowadays it's more widely accepted that 3D and 2D are simply alternate ways to design a game, neither innately better than the other, but at the time this wasn't quite as common a view (see the lukewarm to Capcom's Street Fighter III: New Generation released the same year for proof of that). Even at the time of release however, people seemed to unanimously hold SoTN as proof that a side-scrolling game could still have lasting appeal.
A simple way of explaining this would be to say that the game was just that good that even the most staunch proponent of 3D couldn't deny it's charms, but I think a better way of explaining it would be to say that it uses the technology of the PlayStation (and eventually the Saturn) to do things that simply couldn't have been pulled off on prior consoles. Even putting aside the gorgeous spritework (and it is gorgeous, I often found myself focussing on Alucard's cape flapping as he walked and running into spikes by accident), the game's sound and visual design is simply dripping in synthy gothic ambience.
Each area of the castle is visually and tonally distinct from the others, while still feeling like part of a logically connected map. There's some toying with polygonal backgrounds in some rooms, and unlike some I actually find PS1-era polygonal art quite charming, but contrasting against the uber-detailed sprites they're pretty jarring I have to confess. Even so, it's a visually cohesive vision of Dracula's castle, and the addition of a Metroid-style world map rather than a level-based structure really sells the castle as being an unholy labyrinth, rather than a gauntlet of challenges one after another.
The sound design is yet more robust. Enemies produce theatrical cries of pain when hurt or killed, and the care's been taken to make the enemies sound totally different from one another, which is a degree of care and attention to detail most games reserve for bosses. Konami veteran Michiru Yamane's score is almost assuredly the best part of the whole game, drawing on a range of styles and genres but all of them carrying Yamane's distinctive, laid-back melodies. (The tracks Lost Painting and The Tragic Prince I think deserve special recognition here.) Even the much maligned English voice acting I thought was a plus. The awkward, hammy line delivery and overwritten dialogue are overwrought and ridiculous in a way that fits the 18th-century-Gothic-literature crossed with a Shoujo-manga storyline to an absolute tee.
The only pervasive weak-point of the game lies in the game design itself, which you'd think would absolutely ruin it. This game marked Castlevania's first brush with a JRPG-esque stat system. Alucard can equip a variety of different armour and weapons that, in addition to bolstering his attack and defense, can give him resistance to certain elemental types of attack, increase his speed etc. You can tell this is the first time they'd done something like this because it's balanced in the most ass-backwards way possible. At about the halfway mark Alucard will have become so powerful and so versatile a character that nothing outside of the late-game bosses poses any sort of a threat anymore. The game's now very well known halfway-plot twist of "The castle flips upside-down and it's like a whole second castle man", while incredibly cool in theory, means an awful lot of the rooms are laid out to be nearly symmetrical and geographically very simple, and I can't help but wonder to myself if I'd had more fun overall if I'd have rather had just the one castle, but diversify the room layout a lot more to compensate.
This is all offset neatly enough by Alucard just being a fun character to play as, from his elegant walking stride animation, to the more outlandish powers you get as the game progresses on (the ability to transform into a cloud of poisonous gas and suffocate enemies in yourself is a particular highlight). That and the game's overriding sense of style are what makes Symphony of the Night the rightfully-venerated classic it is, rather than just another passable Metroid clone.