symphony of the night

Symphony of the Night – My Home for the Holidays

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a game I’ve played so many times that I feel like I know its halls as well as the childhood streets I grew up on. It feels like I’m on autopilot through most of the game at this point. I’ll meander through the Library, Coliseum, and Chapel like I’d walk through a quiet, snow swept road. Admittedly, there’d be a bit more stabbing, but I get a similar comfort and sense of familiarity from the game that I’d get from coming home for the holidays. Perhaps that’s why I always end up coming back to this game at Christmas time.

The 3D Castlevania titles may have eclipsed this game around its release in 1997, but it certainly surpassed them as the years went by. The shift from separate stages to turning Dracula’s castle into an interconnected labyrinth was a genius move for the franchise. Not only that, but it would really cement this exploratory kind of action game as a solid genre. I have a soft spot for Metroid, don’t get me wrong, but I never got a sense of connection from its alien halls. Symphony of the Night had a wild logic to it, in my mind. The strange places made sense. That, or maybe I just never got lost as much as I did playing Metroid.

My first experience with the game involved watching a friend play it. Not having much money for renting or buying games growing up, any time my buddy rented something, I’d go watch him play it. One winter weekend, he rented Symphony of the Night. I scoffed at the idea of going back to 2D sprites at the time (I was an N64 kid). Sidescrolling? Pixel art? Hadn’t we left these things behind? Where was the 3D action? I soon understood the appeal as I watched him walk through the halls of Dracula’s castle, though. With the help of the powerful, enemy mulching Crissaegrim weapon, which he got on a lucky drop on his first run.

I had played most of the Castlevania games before this point. I’d found varying levels of enjoyment with each, but I loved the worlds that their stages weaved. The countryside of Wallachia was full of all manner of hostile creatures and haunted places (especially in Castlevania III). Spooky clock towers would give way to woods filled with vicious monsters. Toxic marches would lead to decaying ghost ships. Eventually, all roads would lead to Dracula’s castle, a multi-stage gauntlet that conveyed a real sense of scope. It felt like a real ordeal to make your way there.

Castlevania II did something similar, having you work your way through infested fields and forests as you tried to burn Dracula’s remains in his crumbled castle. It felt like many of the games had been trying to convey a sense of place to the world of Castlevania. It wasn’t just random video game paths, but a bleak, haunted land. Symphony of the Night would take these world-building concepts and make them feel connected and whole, creating a single, massive castle to get lost in.

For many years, I did get lost in there. There are a good two thousand rooms in the game, and many different ways to get around. You can shapeshift into a wolf to run around faster. You can pick up a double jump to get to higher platforms. If that wasn’t enough, you could turn into a floating cloud of mist to drift higher. You could even become poison mist to choke foes. If you just wanted to fly, you could acquire the ability to turn into a bat. You had many, many tools to explore with.

symphony of the night

Symphony of the Night gives you even more options to smack foes around, too. A seemingly-endless supply of weapons and armor is lying around the castle, allowing you to customize Alucard however you like. Enemies also offer rare drops of very special weapons. These rare tools could totally break the game or offer an entirely new way to play. I’ve played the game dozens of times, and still get surprised when some piece of gear drops that I’ve never seen before.

For the most part, though, I’ve seen much of this world a great many times. While I might take a wrong turn here or there, I mostly just coast through the halls. I’ll periodically slow down if I know I can’t kill a foe in one hit, but otherwise I rarely break stride. I’m not at a level where I’m speedrunning the game, though. It’s just that I know it so well that I don’t have to think much as I walk around. I just kind of “go”. Which sounds like I should feel disconnected and bored, but it’s not that. It’s that feeling of a leisurely walk through a familiar place.

Symphony of the Night just feels like a game world that I enjoy walking through. It’s like a favorite path where the sights and sounds feel comforting. Back when I was a teenager, I’d periodically go on walks through the city in the middle of the night. It was a quiet town, and I’d enjoy the sound of my feet against the sidewalk as crickets chirped in the air. The slight warmth that comes during a light snow. The quiet familiarity, but the ability to slowly take the town in. There was no rush during these walks. Nowhere to hurry to. Just me and the world, empty save for my own presence.

symphony of the night

This game carries a similar feeling, now. Yes, monsters are trying to kill me, but they don’t stand much of a chance these days. So, it feels like I’m taking a similar walk through Dracula’s castle. I’ve marched past the halls dozens of times, but now, I’m just slowly, idly walking and drinking it all in. Maybe I’ll see something new. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I just enjoy this peaceful walk through a familiar place that I love to return to.

It’s strange to feel that way. Getting a sense of “coming home” from a horror action game? That’s weird, right? However, the streets I used to walk are changed, now. New homes, roads, and stores have replaced the tree-lined paths. Coming home for Christmas comes with new issues that make it hard to come home at all. I feel like I pine for a place that isn’t around any more, physically and mentally, around the holidays. But Symphony of the Night is still there, just as it always was. It’s still filled with dangerous undead, but its familiarity and connectedness gives me a much-needed home to come back to every Christmas.