This week, Zero Punctuation reviews one of the often lauded greatest games of all time, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Perhaps I was too hard on Portal 2 last week, because the new releases I've tried since then have all just made me very depressed. See, I started playing SOCOM 4 with a heavy sigh of dread, and after pawing through Linear War-Torn City #759 for five minutes, I grew suspicious of the huge Black soldier speaking with a reedy Australian accent. So I looked it up, and, sure enough, the accents of the main characters actually change depending on the region you're in. And after that I just felt insulted, like they seriously think the only reason I get a bad taste in my mouth from Modern Warfare right-wing gun-wank games is that the main characters aren't from the same country as me, so if they just redub a few voices they can win the international mindless racist market.
There was Mortal Kombat, but Australian customs currently regard that alongside black tar heroin wrapped up in child pornography, so after hitting the white wine spritzers pretty hard, all I played this week was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on XBLA, so I figure it's either time for a retro review or my long-delayed suicide.
But this is a retro review with a difference! Because although it's considered a classic and I've enjoyed many games that took inspiration from it, I've never actually played Symphony of the Night myself. Around the time it first came out, I was living off baked bean sandwiches in somebody's bin. So playing it for the first time this week, will it be one of those old classics that still hold up from a fresh, modern perspective, like Super Mario World or Patrick Stewart, or will it be one of those embarrassing elderly relatives that survive on nostalgia and self-effacement, like Myst or William Shatner or the entire superhero comics industry?
Symphony of the Night is a metroidvania-style game - of course it, it's literally the game that contributed the second half of that word - a 2D platformer with free-roaming exploration in which you play - ugh, for some reason the Japanese have this thing where they think spelling "Dracula" backwards is really fucking clever - Alucard, the son of Count Dracula, who can only move around with a forwards moonwalk. And if you're playing the XBLA version, on a widescreen TV, there'll be massive big pictures of Alucard and Dracula either side of the screen glaring at each other for the whole game like both are waiting for the other to own up to eating all of Mrs. Dracula's pies.
So Castle Dracula unexpectedly shows up yet again, like an annoying family you met on holiday, and while sorting these things out generally falls into the Belmont family remit, Alucard feels there's never going to be a better opportunity to say "fuck you, Dad" and storms the place. The Castle Dracula has somehow become kind of dosshouse for every monster from every mythology ever; it's where they all hang out when they're not appearing in front of very credulous people with shaky hands and inexpensive cameras.
And the first thing that strikes me about Symphony of the Night is that the sheer number of different monsters is utterly-nutterly-butterly. There are lots of monsters that only appear in one room, and a lot of those would be a boss in any other game, the amount of design that went into them. If I was an artist at Konami, I'd probably have left this project feeling slightly embittered. If I have an issue with this, it's that the monsters are so arbitrarily varied that it's impossible to tell on sight which are hardest to kill. The very first enemies are giant wolves the size of semi-trailers that die in one hit, while a cluster of imps can fuck your shit up faster than a coprophile in zero gravity.
Visually, Symphony of the Night is dense as all shit. But then it was on the PS1; with the advent of CDs for console gaming, games suddenly had lots of disc space to spread their elbows out, and a lot of developers used that to have FMVs up the butt or make games in that hideous first-generation 3D that looked like origami modeling with used toilet paper. But Symphony of the Night stuck to 2D and completely tarted itself up, and it's still nicer to look at than the many incarnations of Captain Gray-brown Loadsofbloom.
And I suppose it's a good thing that very little is used twice, because you'll get plenty to chances to see it all as you backtrack through the giant world map trying to figure out where the chuffing buggercripes you're supposed to go next. I don't mind that so much, because that is the nature of exploration games, and it has RPG elements which means I could get tremendous satisfaction from revisiting monsters who gave me lots of trouble twenty levels ago and barbecuing their villainous floppy bits with the Elemental Fire Sword of Pettiness.
But even the enemies that are completely beneath you can still do one damage, and Alucard is a dramatic ponce who has the same reaction for everything from having his ears flicked to taking a broadsword facial, and that's to hurl himself backwards like he's trying to get the other team sent off. And since enemies respawn when you leave the room, there's nothing more frustrating than clearing out most of a corridor before a lone skeleton coughs in your general direction and you go hurtling out the door.
But having said that, what surprises me is how easy Skimpy Nightie gets by the end, because if there's one thing that usually characterizes retro games, it's that they're about as forgiving as playing The Floor Is Lava on the surface of Mercury. But as you level up, get used to the sub-weapons, and get used to the fact that Alucard always slashes slightly higher than you think he does, then the game only gets more and more trivial, culminating when you get the power to turn into poison gas so that enemies can't touch you and their faces melt off if you're so much as in the same postcode; which I think is game's way of saying: "Will you just go to the fucking final boss room already?" But if you go to the final boss room of Sexy Underpants before you've done a bunch of arbitrary bullshit the game never tells you about, you literally miss the entire second half of the game.
Make no mistake, bitch: Symphony of the Night isn't here to impress you, you're here to impress Symphony of the Night. "Congratulations, you found the power jump and the special wolf attack!" Wow, thanks, Symphony of the Night. Now how exactly do I do those two things? "What, you need a fucking hand to hold, player? Piss off, I'm recoloring the skeletons again." This isn't really a good thing, but it certainly illustrates how this game couldn't possibly be made today. Games these days are terrified the players will miss something and will shove the player's face under their skirt lest they overlook a single square inch of their carefully groomed pubes.
Overall, Dirty Knickers passes the nostalgia test in that I actually really liked it as a game, and not because it distracted me from my mother's drinking problem when I was fifteen.
It's like an Oedipus complex but without the mum fucking: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I love those superhero comic fans who refer to Superman and Batman as 'Clark' and 'Bruce' like they're on first-name terms or something
Grandma's legs used to be metroidvany but now they're metroidvania