Konami's classic 2D adventure game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, will be 10 years old this year. Unlike a lot of older games, SOTN hasn't seen a multitude of updates and rereleases. The first of two releases planned for 2007 is an emulated version of the original PlayStation game for Xbox Live Arcade. It marks a couple of firsts, such as the first emulated console game to appear on Microsoft's download service. It's also the first game to go over the now-outdated 50MB limit for downloadable Xbox 360 games. Considering the size, scope, and sound contained in Symphony of the Night, that larger size makes sense. It all adds up to a faithful version of a classic game that's just about as fantastic today as it was when it was first released.
The bulk of Symphony of the Night puts you in the shoes of a man called Alucard. He's Dracula's son, but he's turned his back on his vampiric legacy, instead choosing to slumber for an eternity. But Alucard wakes to find that Dracula's castle has risen, and someone is trying to resurrect the vampire leader. You take control of Alucard in Dracula's castle and attempt to figure out what's going on. While you'll enter the castle fully armed and armored, you'll quickly lose all of your items and abilities. From here, you'll start with nothing and have to collect items and explore the castle.
Symphony of the Night follows the same classic 2D action adventure blueprint that the first two Metroid games stuck to, so you'll explore, fighting enemies all the while, but you'll notice that plenty of areas seem just out of reach. As you acquire various items, you'll gain new abilities, such as double-jumping, transformations, and so on. Unlocking these powers, then, as you might expect, lets you explore more of the castle. The game never really points you in any specific direction, but it gives you a map that will often at least show you where you haven't been yet. This sort of exploration leads to a bit of trial and error as you look around the castle for where to go next. Since you're constantly fighting and earning experience points that increase your statistics, wandering around and fighting has its uses, as well. Of course, if you're one of the legions of players who have already memorized the layout of the castle, you can whip through this version just as quickly as you could the PlayStation version.
There are multiple endings in Symphony of the Night, and two of them cut the game's length in half. To truly see what's going on in Dracula's castle, you have to acquire specific items and handle the "final" confrontation a little differently than seems apparent at the outset. Doing this sends you to the inverted castle, which, just as it sounds, is an upside-down version of the castle you just explored. This is like a "second quest" of sorts, but in order to get the best ending, you'll have to explore every nook and cranny of both castles.
As you explore, you'll get a lot of items to play with. You have an equipment screen where you can outfit Alucard with different weapons, shields, armor, and other items. Each weapon type has different properties, and a few even have special abilities that let you cast spells with the weapon. Alucard has a magic meter that governs his spell use. In addition to his casting abilities with weapons, Alucard has a few spells of his own, including the ever-handy soul steal, which drains life from everything on the screen and uses it to replenish your health.
Upon beating the game you'll get a few secret options, including the ability to play as Richter Belmont, a vampire hunter who appears in the game here and there. Playing as Richter is an entirely different challenge that gives you a good reason to go through the game again. Symphony of the Night has some intelligently designed achievements that will reward diehard players. Can you beat the game, including the inverted castle, as Richter? Can you get 200.6 percent completion? These are the game's most time-consuming challenges, but they certainly aren't impossible. There are plenty of easier ones that you'll get over the course of normal play, such as achievements for killing 10 enemies in various ways, casting all your spells, finding all the form changes and familiars, and so on.
Like many other old games that have appeared on Xbox Live Arcade, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has two graphics modes. The default is an enhanced mode that filters the original graphics to soften some of the edges. This can make text look a little strange in spots, and it feels sort of cheap, though some players may prefer it to the original mode, which turns off all that filtering and gives it to you raw. On an HDTV, you can see every single pixel, and it looks great. By default the game runs in a window, but you can stretch the image out to fill your screen. It would have been nice if the game used the entire screen naturally, giving you a wider view of your surroundings in the process. All in all, the updates are a little disappointing, but this game is faithful to the original where it counts.
SOTN came out right around the time when developers were realizing that their CD-based games could be filled with fully orchestrated music, as opposed to the synthesized stuff that was so prevalent during the cartridge days. As a result, the game is filled with plenty of great music. There is also a fair amount of speech in the game, but just because you can fit real speech into a game doesn't automatically mean you should. Most of the speech in the game is terrible, though it's at least terrible in a relatively funny way most of the time.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is an epic adventure that set the tone for all of the 2D Castlevania adventures that we've been seeing on the GBA and DS over the past several years. It's a healthy-size adventure that expands nicely to make multiple play-throughs desirable, and it's probably the beefiest Xbox Live Arcade release yet. Even at its 800-point ($10) price tag, SOTN feels like an absolute steal.