Koji Igarashi’s first effort to remix Castlevania into a new play genre is arguably one of the finest games ever made, PS1 or otherwise. It has a creative dedication to its mechanisms and its world that none of the subsequent games would ever muster. Alucard, free from the tyranny of the Belmont clan that had mostly consumed the series (in terms of primary heroes, only Bloodlines had deviated from that family up to this point), has a myriad of options for attack unprecedented in the franchise to that point. The famed Vampire Killer has no place in Alucard’s inventory (besides, Richter Belmont still has it); instead, Alucard wields swords, shields, rods and a wide swath of magic as his offensive toolkit. And he is like 95% fun to control and run around with — the only nitpick I have is the clunky inventory system to use items, which requires you to “equip” a potion, exit out and use it, and then repeat if necessary. It does kind of kill the momentum to use potions this way, and while there is a familiar who can eliminate this step, the fact that there has to be a familiar to do that is a bit silly.
But there are very few slights to be thrown at Symphony. It’s the most visually appealing game in the series, with lovely spritework and an eye for detail unrivaled by any other ‘Vania. Secrets spill over with this game, with so many hidden touches and abilities to search out that exploration is simply overflowing with joy and discovery. The gameplay is nearly perfect, with Alucard’s slow but steady unlocking of skills providing a nice Metroid-style tapestry to the series (thus the term Metroidvania). And the game is very memorable, with plenty of moments well worth experiencing blind to fully appreciate it.
For me, it’s a very close call between Symphony and Aria of Sorrow for the best overall game in Castlevania history. Symphony definitely wins on the audio-visual front, and the devotion of its team to stuffing it full of neat extraneous bits and a plethora of secrets makes it a little more appealing in terms of level design and structure. And Alucard is a great brooding hero, despite the mediocre voice acting and wonky script. But as we shall see next time, I do have a slight preference for Aria.