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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #17—Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

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Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game is a classic—a founding title in a genre loved by many to this day.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 4

#17. CASTLEVANIA: SYMPHONY OF THE NIGHT, by Daniel Pereira

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is truly a special game. Few titles within the industry can be labeled as a work of art, and Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is, without a doubt, one of them. Being born of an ideology that a new direction could be what was best for the series after three iterations  of the same style, Symphony of the Night took a leap of faith for the franchise, and looking back on its success, players will have no question that the leap paid off.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night takes place five years after the events of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, where Richter Belmont traversed Castle Dracula to take down the main man himself and once again reset the Castle’s reappearance cycle .

What is interesting about Symphony of the Night was that  the game begins as Rondo of Blood ends: with the climactic battle of Richter and Dracula in the throne room. Once the battle is complete the game transitions and players are now reintroduced to Alucard, Dracula’s half-vampire son with a human woman. This game is the first time players had seen Alucard since Castlevania III (1989), and this time he is the primary playable character.

Castlevania Symphony of the Night gameplay screenshot 2

Alucard’s introduction within Symphony of the Night as the playable character created a whole new dynamic for the player to wrap their head around. Since Alucard is not a vampire hunter nor a member of the Belmont family, he does not use a whip to slay monsters. Instead he uses a variety of weaponry that players can discover throughout their journey into the castle. Interestingly, the game starts the player off at what is essentially Alucard’s peak performance, as he is able to slice and dice his way through any enemy before him—that is, until Alucard is reunited with Death, who strips him of his abilities and gear forcing the player to start their adventure empty-handed.

The developer ’s choice to start the player completely fresh and weak contributes nicely to the game’s new direction. Unlike previous playable characters, Alucard can equip different armor, weapons, and abilities to further aid him while traversing the castle. Ultimately, Alucard’s goals are to figure out why the castle has reappeared only five years after being destroyed, and locate the missing Richter Belmont. Despite a narrative that captures player attention  immediately, Symphony of the Night proves that its new gameplay direction is what will ultimately steal the show.

As a revolutionary new direction for the Castlevania series at the time, Symphony of the Night was the first entry that did not end after a stage completion or boss fight . Instead, Symphony of the Night surprised players by simply continuing forward. In previous games, after completing a stage, the player would be taken to a map screen to select the next area of play; however, in Symphony of the Night, the map can be toggled with the press of a button and only indicated areas that were visited by the player, with everything else nonexistent until discovered. This promoted exploration and returning ventures to familiar areas, allowing the game to really showcase its roots  and establish a formula that would usher it into the history books.

In addition to the new approach to level design for Symphony of the Night, what is most surprising about the game, and perhaps what solidified it in most gamer’s memory, is the fact that after what would seem to be the final boss fight, the castle would then invert and could be played entirely upside down. For this event to conspire, the player would have to complete specific tasks before and during the boss encounter, and whether or not those tasks were done would determine if the game ended there or continued with the Inverted Castle. As a truly remarkable feature, Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was designed to look just as beautiful upside down as it was during the normal playthrough. Not only was the aesthetic of the castle perfectly preserved in its inverted state, but it also played just as seamless as it did right-side up.

As a testament to the wonderful art and craftsmanship by the developer for this title, the gothic horror atmosphere combined with the excellent sound design of the game only attributed to how incredible Symphony of the Night‘s Castle Dracula was. That the artistic integrity of Symphony of the Night has withstood the test of time is truly astonishing. At a time when the industry was shifting to 3D models, the team behind Symphony of the Night chose to go against the grain and create what feels like a swan song for the 2D gaming genre.

Recently, director Koji Igarashi released the long-anticipated Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. OnlySP had the privilege of reviewing the new game, and although it exceeded our expectations and presents itself as a worthy successor, it cannot replace or recreate the zeitgeist that was Symphony of the Night. The 2.5D graphics of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night are outclassed by the 2D pixel art  of its predecessor. A style decision, yes, however one cannot help but wonder what the final product would have looked like with a 2D template.

Of course, Symphony of the Night cannot be truly praised without mention of its greatest contribution to the industry. Without this game, players would have never known that man is a miserable pile of secrets. Thanks to Symphony of the Night’s original intro battle, the industry will always remember the significance surrounding Dracula’s rhetorical question of “What is a man?”

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a stylish love letter to fans of the series. More importantly, however, is the game’s contribution to the industry and the Metroidvania genre as a whole. To this day, Symphony of the Night is recognized and referenced as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Metroidvania game of its generation.

From the outset, players might question how this game could come with such accolades, but the easiest answer is more often than not the simplest one. For one to understand what makes Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so great and worthy of a spot on OnlySP’s 50 Favorite Games, all they need to do is play it.

Thanks for joining us as we take a look at one of the founders of the Metroidvania genre. Join us next week as we look at a very different game from a different genre—but one that has remained inspirational for years nonetheless.

To stay tuned, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in to our community Discord channel.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #13—Shadow of the Colossus

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OnlySP Favorite Games 13 - Shadow of the Colossus

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at one of the best examples of video game as art—an immersive title that pioneered the PlayStation 2 era to success.

#13. SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, by Ben Newman

Has a game ever released that has been so successful as a result of one singular focus? While Shadow of the Colossus is a deep, multifaceted game, Team Ico’s opus succeeds by nailing down a single concept: scale. Gamers had seen big enemies before, they had witnessed moments gameplay-driven tension, but they’d never seen a colossus. By framing most of its gameplay in 16 bosses —an espresso shot of action—Shadow of the Colossus was exactly what the 2005 zeitgeist needed.

Shadow of the Colossus is an oddity. How can a game function with so little gameplay and so much quiet, meditative atmosphere? While the premise for the game can be seen as too simple, the journey through the husked world feels nothing short of an epic. In actuality, the journey to find each colossus serves as palpable tension, a player-driven build-up through lonely dustbowls and delicate forests. The pay-off is the colossi themselves which, in design terms, are simply puzzles, but each has enough variation and moments of tension for players to forget their simplicity. When scaling a colossus, players feel on top of the world, like a David fighting a Goliath. The core gameplay loop of the title is reminiscent of gaming’s primordial years, yet Team Ico managed to imbue this simplicity with an oblique sense of originality. The game was a revelation because it decided to be reserved in a time where maximalism was the barometer of success.

Shadow of the Colossus

Story-wise, Shadow of the Colossus exists in the same mould as Ico. The game tells the story of Wander, a silent protagonist on a mission to revive a woman named Mono. After taking her to a forbidden land, he makes a deal the god Dormin: Mono will be revived, but only on the condition that Wander slays all 16 colossi. Wander, and his horse Agro, are seemingly the only living creatures in this land. Before the player knows it, they are riding across a wasteland on a sole promise, slaying colossi that, at worst, seem morally neutral. The land itself acts as an extension of the story, perfectly mirroring Wander’s desperation, confusion, and love.

Each colossus follows the same routine: players use their sword to guide them to the next colossus, they find them, find their weak spot, then kill them. Along the way, though, the hauntingly stunning environments of the game will keep players entranced, so much so that sometimes the discovery of a colossus is bone-chillingly shocking. Each colossus needs to be climbed, with players having to figure out how to traverse their bodies through platforming, managing the grip meter, and taking opportunities to strike.

Shadow of the Colossus

A poorly timed jump, mismanagement of the grip meter, or simply annoying the colossus too much will result in falling and possibly death. By facilitating a trial-and-error approach, Shadow of the Colossus is continually humbling, right up until the point where the colossus is beaten. For a few moments, players feel unstoppable, but this veil of self-confidence is quickly cast aside at the implication that these creatures may not be inherently evil, and that the ends may not justify the means.

Though released 12 years later, the open world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild invoked memories of Shadow of the Colossus. Though the latter has next to nothing to see or find in its map in terms of collectables and side quests, the way the environments of both games are designed overlap. In Shadow of the Colossus, you’re inspired to explore through simple interest. Breath of the Wild succeeded as its open-world was designed to always have “something” on the horizon to climb and explore; Shadow of the Colossus succeeded for the same reason, drawing players on with unexplained relics, cliff tops, and crumbled architecture always in view. By stripping back the open world and effectively de-littering it from collectables, side missions, and other distractions, Shadow of the Colossus was a statement to explore for exploration’s sake.

Shadow of Colossus

Talking about the colossi too much may move into spoilers, so in-depth discussion around each one will be kept to a minimum. Most of the fun of fighting them is figuring out how to fell them, but the other half is the magisterial use of music and organically interwoven set-pieces. Getting knocked off of the back of a colossus, only to hold on through a stroke of luck, working your way back up, and finally defeating it feels like nothing else in gaming. Somehow coming out on top against a colossus through a mix of luck and pure instinct feels like the Daigo parry of single-player gaming; through only gameplay terms, players can feel the fine margins between success and failure.

If the game was solely moving between each colossus, then it would not have been the runaway success that it was. The major appeal of the title was how it parcelled this linear framework in an open-world that reinforced the game’s message. Everything from the music, visuals, sound design, story, lore, and gameplay reinforced one another without any of those aspects being overbearing. The balance of Shadow of the Colossus is why it is so timeless, an example of a team working with unparalleled knowledge of how to employ subtlety.

Shadow of the Colossus

How, then, do you try to better that? Team Ico faced a similar question after 2001’s Ico, but Shadow of the Colossus seemed impossible to follow up. Perhaps that game’s success led in part to The Last Guardian‘s development hell as the lead Fumito Ueda struggled to re-capture lightning in a bottle. The 2018 remake by Bluepoint Games largely succeeded in bringing the game to modern times, cleaning up the much-criticised framerate drops and making the overworld look more detailed, full of half-dead life.

However, for me personally, nothing will beat the 2005 original. The original lighting system, grain filter, and more washed out aesthetic are embedded in my brain. Even though the 2018 remake was a success, the original left such a big imprint on my developing tastes that nothing can substitute it. Shadow of the Colossus stands as a game that cannot be replicated, an imperious statement of what it means to be a magnum opus for not just Team Ico, but an entire console generation.

Thanks for joining us for a look at one of the greatest games of the PlayStation 2 generation! Next week, we go even further back, looking at one of the classic titles of the last century…

To stay tuned, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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