The label "Classic" is a hard one to quantify, you often hear people throwing it around when describing particular movies or games or whatever without really explaining why. The general consensus is that something is a classic when it's among the "greatest ever" of a particular genre, i.e. Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind are among the greatest movies ever made, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, or the Beatles are among the greatest ever rock and roll artists, etc. Does this game qualify as a classic? Well, SOTN may not be the Citizen Kane of video games but it's pretty damn good regardless.
The game is a direct sequel to the Japan only release Dracula X: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine CD system. The closest thing we Americans got to this game was a lackluster Snes port (although a 3D remake is to be released for the PSP in later this year.) The game follows Alucard (from Castlevania III) as he investigates the disappearance of Richter Belmont several years later. The game starts with a small boss battle where you're armed with all the best stuff before Death strips you bare and traps you in the castle. From here on in the game is essentially a side scrolling action title with RPG elements and lots of exploring, similar to Super Metroid (a style which has since become known as "Metroidvania.") The style might seem familiar as it's the convention that the later GBA and DS Castlevania games follow. You explore each section of the castle, destroying bosses and collecting powerups on the way.
This was the first Castlevania game to allow the main character to switch weapons. As opposed to the whip that Belmont characters use Alucard is an adept at several different edged weapons, swords, axes, and the like. This is also one of the few games that allow you to use a shield (the other being Castlevania II way back in 1988.) As well as the various weapons you also learn several magic spells which involve entering button/joypad combinations similar to a fighting game. In addition to throwing fireballs (the "hellfire" attack from Castlevania III) you also eventually get the traditional vampire transformation abilities into a bat, wolf, or mist, which must be used to progress at certain parts of the game. You also find a number of demonic "familiars" that hover around and fight with you (such as an animated, floating sword, a little imp, or a tinkerbell like fairy.) Your familiar will increase in levels along with you and grows more powerful.
The game actually tends to go into inventory item overload at times. There seems to be no end to the type and amount of items you can collect. Problem is that you just don't use most of the stuff, so why is it there? It is good to have options I suppose. However it is kind of lame to go through a big long cavern to find a sword that's more useless than the one I'm already using. However the converse of this is also true - while you do pick up a lot of useless stuff that you don't use, certain combinations of items can make you near invincible (more on that later.)
The castle is vast, it just never seems to end. Each room is highly detailed, with lots of little graphical touches all over like curtains or trees blowing in the wind or animated waterfalls and such. The layout of the castle also seems pretty logical, as in it follows the general design that a real building would but with lots of sinister blind corridors and dead ends. The castle could have used a few environmental challenges, like booby traps and such. As it is you enter a room and generally explore until you find whatever hidden items are there. Nothing wrong with this (as it's actually quite fun) but it would have been cool to see some of the traps and hazards from the previous Castlevania games. Just when you think you've got it all covered you then unlock a whole inverted castle, which means you're only half way through the game. All the bad guys and bosses are harder in the inverted castle, but you also find the best stuff in the game here.
The game shines in it's enemy types and boss battles. Bosses are pretty cake until you get about halfway through the game (into the second castle) whereupon they get noticeably harder. Some of the them are practically invincible until you find some kind of special item (such as the Galamoth, which uses this lighting attack that covers the whole screen and is impossible to dodge, until you get an item that actually makes lightning heal you..) The enemy types and bosses follow the usual Castlevania pattern, bats, floating medusa heads, haunted suits of armor, Minotaurs, etc. A few of them are particularly frightening (Beezelub appears as a huge rotting corpse that drops maggots on you) while others are pretty lame (Frankenstein's monster is a big stupid hillbilly looking thing with a mallet. And he rolls on the floor after you like Sonic the Hedgehog. Yeah that makes sense.) The monsters are usually too tough for you the first time you enter a particular area until you go up a few levels - by the time you hit level 85 or so you can pretty much wander through the castle unimpeded.
That I think is the major problem with the game. About halfway through the inverted castle you find an item called Alucard's shield, which combined with another item called the Shield Rod makes you practically invulnerable and able to kill anything just by walking into it. You're even able to beat Dracula with this in less than five seconds, merely by walking into him. Even without the Shield rod/Alucard's shield combo there are still other high powered swords and armor and such that also make you too strong. Items like this are cool in a game however something that makes you practically invincible should be hidden until the game is at least completed once.
Overall the game is a very fulfilling experience. While a lot of it seems like all you're doing is just accumulating stuff that you don't use, the hunt in itself is pretty fun at times. The nearly endless combinations of items leads to a lot of experimenting, and completeists will have a field day trying to find every little scrap of armor, jewel, food item, rare sword, etc. On top of this you get multiple endings and can play through as Richter after you finsih the game.
There's been some renewed interest in this game recently as it's been rereleased for download over Xbox live, it's a must buy for any Castlevania fan (or fan of action RPGs in general.)
Graphics: Quite possibly the best looking 2D game ever. At the time this was released Sony had a "no 2D" policy on the Playstation, thus some feel this game redeemed the 2D platformer as a genre. Very well drawn and animated sprites for the main character and enemy types, beautiful, detailed backgrounds, excellent graphical effects for nearly every area, item, or magic spell. It doesn't get better than this.
Sound: An excellent soundtrack with a full orchestra, which has since become a hallmark of the series. This was the game that did it first.
Gameplay: Explore, kill things, and find stuff - a lot of stuff. The game comes to borderline too much stuff to find (over 200 items in all) however most of it is optional. A few item combinations make the game too easy, and even without them you still become too powerful. The last boss of a game should pose some kind of a threat. It is fun to explore and experiment and to search every last inch of the map for stuff.
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