Since its US debut in 1987 on the NES, Konami's Castlevania series has gone on to become one of the most popular franchises in video-game history, with releases on nearly every major platform (including the Super NES, Genesis, and GameBoy). The latest installment - Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the PlayStation - is quite possibly the best 2D action side scroller ever.
Symphony takes place four years after Dracula X, a PC Engine title in Japan that never saw a US release. Unlike most previous Castlevania games, Symphony features a main character who isn't one of the whip-cracking Belmonts. Stranger still, it turns out that our hero, Adrian Fahrenheit (aka Alucard), is actually a son of Dracula. Your task is to explore Dracula's castle (rumored to only appear once a century) and find out why Richter Belmont, the hero of the first game (and descendant of the original Castlevania hero, Simon), has mysteriously vanished. Oh, and you've also got to kill quite a few monsters along the way .
Since the main character doesn't carry a whip, gameplay has obviously changed quite a bit from past Castlevanias. Now you can use several different weapons and items, each of which is kept in an RPG-like inventory subscreen. But Symphony mimics an RPG in more ways than one. Experience is gained from killing enemies; attributes are raised whenever Alucard levels-up, which is good incentive not to pass up enemies when trying to get from one area to the next; special skills are learned by performing different control-pad movements that subsequently save to a move list in the subscreen; and you can find and use numerous magic items during your quest. Even with the new trappings, though, the basics of the game are true to previous installments - break candles, collect hearts and money (which you can now actually spend in a shop), and fight ghoulish enemies.
Perhaps the most important new feature added to Castlevania is its map system. Extremely similar to the one in Super Metroid, the map (which can be viewed at any time by pressing the Select button) opens up room by room as you travel through the castle. You can buy an extended map that shows you some of the areas you have yet to visit, but as you might imagine, it's limited and doesn't show you any of the castle's hidden portions. Even if it did, it wouldn't much matter; like any good adventure game, many areas can't be accessed until later in the journey. Specifically, you can't visit certain places until you've found the three souls that Alucard can transform into - Wolf, Bat, and Mist, each of which can be used at any time for a small amount of magic power.
Needless to say, the graphics and musical score are great, which is what you'd expect from Konami. The anime-style look of Dracula X has been replaced with a more Roman approach that adds a surprising amount of depth to the game's wonderful atmosphere. Each area comes to life with vividly animated enemies, gorgeous backgrounds with multiple levels of parallax scrolling, and stellar special effects (particularly of note are the lighting and fog effects used in certain levels). The voice acting is also good, and the storyline is awesome.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is easily one of the best games ever released and a true testament to the fact that 2D gaming is not dead by any stretch of the imagination. The game is very large and will keep you entertained for a long time.