Armagideon Time

Plans fall apart, interests change over time, but an annual playthrough of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has been a fixture of my October festivities since 1997.

The Japanese version of the game — along with Bushido Blade — was the reason I sprung for a region-free modded Playstation back in the day. The tantalizing screenshots on import gaming fansites and rumors that the game might not get a North American release made short work of my fiscal restraint.

I didn’t feel any buyer’s remorse after a localized version made to these shores. It merely offered another reason to play through the game, this time with a dodgy English translation and some voice acting for the ages.

I even bought the import Saturn version of the game, whose punishing load times and visual downgrades were offset by additional characters and some new regions of Dracula’s castle to explore. With the possible exception of Dig Dug, I have purchased and played SOTN more times and across more platforms than any other videogame…and I still come back to it every October, without fail.

The funny thing is that I wasn’t wasn’t much of a Castlevania fan before SOTN. I enjoyed watching my high school pal Damian screaming at his TV while playing the original NES game, but its punishing combo of high difficulty and fiddly platforming elements put it beyond the limits of my thumbskill and patience. SOTN changed things up with a side-scrolling hybrid of Metroid and Diablo — where grinding for experience levels and gear drops mattered more than precision timing. There were still oodles of monsters to slay and bosses to overcome, but the emphasis was on exploration and discovery.

The ability to grind past any combat challenge in SOTN is seen as a point against it in some quarters, but I think that assessment misses the point. Yes, it is possible to become so powerful that the final third of the game becomes a joke, but the process of getting that powerful requires a fair amount of time, effort, and lucky item drops. This isn’t Dark Souls, but rather “flaunt what you got.”

The real joy to be had comes from discovering some new secret or rare drop or equipment combo, knowing that the trip through Dracula’s domain isn’t going to hit an impassable difficulty curve. Later iterations of the formula have attempted to cap the power creep by stricter controls on inventory and level-gating, which is probably why none have captured and retained by attention the way SOTN has.

A quarter century on, and I’m still finding new-to-me facets to the game each time I play it. That’s a more remarkable design feat than some “challenging” boss fight will ever be.

Recommended listening:

One Response to “Halloween Countdown: Day 3 – Crissaegrim tidings”

  1. J.R.

    Nice to see you back! Yeah, I think I have bought and fully completed SOTN on just about every platform I could get my grubby hands on.

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