I’m Interested In This.

My most recent obsession, out of the clear blue sky, is Castlevania. I’ve never been much of a fan of the series — the Classicvanias were all before my time, and Circle of the Moon’s relentless mediocrity soured me on the Metroidvanias for many years. (It actually went a long way towards souring me on the genre as a whole, until Super Metroid persuaded me to give it another try a few years back.) A few months ago I ran through Aria of Sorrow over the course of a couple days and liked it well enough, but wasn’t blown away or anything. After becoming fascinated by the premise of Harmony of Despair, though, I’ve been devouring anything related to the series. Reading the wiki, absorbing old forum threads, watching videos of Rondo of Blood and Castlevania III playthroughs, and — most importantly — giving Symphony of the Night another shot.

I’ve abandoned several playthroughs of Symphony of the Night over the years. What would normally happen is that I’d play for a few hours, get stuck, then wander the castle awhile before giving up in disgust. (This seems to be part and parcel of the Metroidvania experience for me. Even the good ones require me to force my way through that period of confusion and disorientation before I can get back to the good parts.) This time, however, I forced myself to keep playing, eventually exploring every inch of the first castle and piecing together the secret of the second. And I’m enjoying it a lot more; more even than Aria.

The difference, I think, is one of atmosphere. Symphony is an absolutely beautiful game, the castle extremely well-drawn and gorgeous to look at even in the emptiest, most generic hallways. Every monster and character is crammed with idiosyncratic animations and lots of detail. The portable Castlevanias feel very lifeless and static, but Symphony’s presentation gives the impression of a gothic castle swarming with evil better than any of them.

Symphony of the Night and Super Metroid are associated together a lot in the minds of many people, but I find that I enjoy them for different reasons. With Metroid, I was more impressed by how well put-together it is as a game — it hits the exact sweet spot of allowing openness and player choice while still giving the player sufficient instruction in what to do. Exploring planet Zebes and unraveling its secrets is compelling and engaging. Symphony, on the other hand, isn’t as much fun to play from a technical standpoint, but I think it’s the superior game in providing an engrossing experience. Part of this is personal preference, of course — I tend to prefer Castlevania’s fantasy setting to Metroid’s sci-fi alien caves — but I honestly do think Symphony is better at expressing character and piecing together an interesting game world. You play Metroid for the experience of figuring out the game, but you play Symphony for the experience of seeing the world. It’s a subtle distinction, but a significant one. In Metroid everything in the game has a purpose; it’s a masterpiece of economical game design. Symphony is filled with all kinds of nick-nacks and minutiae which don’t necessary have a purpose, but are fascinating to find and examine.

Anyway, I’ve gotten to the Inverted Castle, and will probably spend the next several days clearing it out. I don’t expect to be as impressed by the second half of the game as I was by the first (I’m given to understand that the Inverted Castle is pretty filler-y), but hopefully the game still has a few surprises in store for me. I’ll keep you guys posted.

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