‘Fear Has an Address’ – The 1997 release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night

Nearly 25 years later, Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is billed as one of the quintessential classics of the Playstation One library. Personally, Mega Man 2 is the only game in existence that holds more favor to me than SotN. Recently, I was able to take in a little bit of media from when the game released and it got me thinking about the game’s likely innocent release among the powerhouses from the fifth generation of video game consoles.

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Internet archived versions of Konami.com from 1997 thankfully exist, and the early stages of this U.S. website are an absolute delight to revisit despite portions of it being broken and inaccessible. Understandably, the site made a big deal about Konami’s Castlevania series splashing on the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64.

KONAMI’S ANNOUCEMENT

The internet widely accepts (Thursday) Oct. 2, 1997, as the release date of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. As a way to tie this date to an official source, Konami’s own Castlevania portal does indeed list Oct. 2, 1997, as the release date for the game.

Interesting enough, Konami’s press release stating the company has shipped Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is dated (Tuesday) Oct. 7, 1997. The U.S. branch of Konami went with the tagline “Fear Has an Address” for the marketing of SotN, and this press release is titled “Castlevania, Konami’s Popular Dracula Hunting Adventure, Continues for PlayStation.” In the past, it was not uncommon for game companies to provide a “release date,” but this did not always account for the time it actually took for the game to reach stores shelves where consumers could purchase the product.

I recently discussed a similar matter regarding Super Mario Bros. for NES, and there are full articles available online asking the question: “When did Super Mario Bros. actually release in the United States?” There are sources with dates all over the place, such as one I pointed out – An Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine states Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island was intentionally being released by Nintendo on Oct. 2, 1995, the date that marks Super Mario Bros.’s 10th anniversary. However, Nintendo’s own Mario portal indicates the game released on Oct. 18, 1985.

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In my further Konami research, I noticed Konami’s own press release materials show the U.S. release date of Silent Hill 2 for PlayStation 2 is printed as a couple of days different than what is widely accepted through online sources. It goes to show how some of video gaming’s history has been documented over the years. But, you know, when you’re standing outside of the company’s walls, when current-day Konami says Symphony of the Night released Oct. 2, 1997, we kind of just have to take their word for it.

In the sheer coincidence of stating Yoshi’s Island marked 10 years of Super Mario Bros., Konami’s press release points out SotN hit the PlayStation to mark a decade of Castlevania games. Now, being the U.S. branch, this is likely referring to when Castlevania released on the Nintendo Entertainment System – a release that Konami’s Castlevania portal lists as April 30, 1987.

For the U.S. market, the O.G. Castlevania game, Vampire Killer on the MSX never released stateside. As a bonus factoid out of my sheer interest, I didn’t realize Haunted Castle, an arcade-only version of Castlevania was so close to the release of the NES cart, launching Dec. 26, 1987.

From Konami’s launch press release: “This is the 10th anniversary of the original Castlevania,” notes Randy Severin, senior product manager. “This new version takes the series over the edge. The graphics, the story, the tried-and-true gameplay, make this the best game in the series.”

“Fans of Castlevania have been crying out for a PlayStation version for a while, and Konami is proud to announce that it’s now available,” said Mark Porwit, vice president, Planning. “With a CD-quality musical score that sets the tone while playing and some of the most beautiful art ever seen, Castlevania–Symphony of the Night is the most expressive and impressive Castlevania game ever.”

The press release details the character Alucard and largely lays out the expansive castle that he explores. “Just when gamers think they’ve finished, they find that they are far from completing the game.” The game’s trove of secrets is marked as a selling point and it goes over Alucard’s abilities to turn into forms such as the bat, wolf and mist.

Konami’s website detailed the more than 140 different enemies and RPG elements, billing it as “the largest Castlevania ever.”

Konami also hyped the official strategy guide to the game, which was written by Christine Cain. This would be the BradyGames version of the game – a guide that sold for $11.99 at launch, and now has $130+ buy it now prices on eBay. Prima also released an “unauthorized” guide for the game.

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THE GAME’S RECEPTION

At this point, the game had reached the hands of publications, with the press release including quotes from the very positive reviews issued by Playstation Magazine (October 1997), GamePro (September 1997), DieHard GameFAN (April 1997) and Game Informer (October 1997). Remember when the newsstand had multiple video gaming magazines to leaf through? Mentioning newsstands perhaps makes me feel older than the thought of SotN approaching 25 years old …

Playstation Magazine – “One of the best video games ever – period.”
GamePro – “Run – don’t walk – to get this. It’s one Symphony worth attending.”
DieHard GameFAN – “The control is utter perfection, to the point of pure gaming bliss.”
Game Informer – “This is easily the best Castlevania title yet.”

To take an aside, I do like to look at the overall spectrum when it comes to how games were covered. There were sources that were simply not impressed by SotN, largely when compared to Castlevania’s Nintendo contemporaries. During the late ’90s, there were games writers who would slam a game for presenting itself with pixels, no matter how gorgeous they were (this oddly occurred with GamePro for games like Guardian Heroes after the magazine gushed about SotN).

The most famous of these accounts is widely known due to a “things that aged poorly meme,” featuring a snippet from Nintendo Magazine (UK) #57 (June 1997) in stacking the Nintendo 64 Castlevania up to SotN:

“If you ever needed proof that the N64’s miles ahead of the 32-bit competition, just compare these shots to the new PlayStation version of Castlevania. Whereas the N64 version features fully 3D characters and backgrounds, along with dazzling lighting effects, the PlayStation title is a flat, 2D platform game where the tiny hero has to fight big, cheesy monsters. No comparison, really …”

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Interestingly enough, one of the sidenotes available on the internet shows how SotN trying to “flex the Playstation’s muscle” actually kind of backfired in the final product. As noted in a feature by Nadia Oxford for US Gamer in 2017, “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” it was stated the CGI cinematic of Dracula’s castle was farmed out to another Konami team. Instead of showing off the power of Playstation, “the flat, texture-less model is an eyesore next to Symphony of the Night’s beautiful sprite-based graphics,” and it was said “Koji Igarashi and the rest of the Symphony of the Night team were disappointed with the quality of the opening and ending movies.”

While the US Playstation Magazine slapped a 10/10 review score on SotN, the UK variation, in issue #26, was far less impressed. I will outright state I am cherry picking some of the quotes out of here to show the different viewpoint and criticisms. In fairness, the review does say some very positive things about the game, but the following are bits of justification used for what the writer was going for in giving the game a 7/10:

“The first thing you notice about Castlevania: SOTN is its graphics: the SNES version (possibly viewed through rose-tinted glasses) boasted spectacular levels with loads of parallax, subtle lighting and lots of pseudo 3D and over-the-top graphical effects. This version – as far as we played at [any] rate – was all a bit 2D; probably because of the increased size of the game. However, it certainly doesn’t look particularly 32-bit, especially the woodenly-animated baddies and decidedly low-rent death-throe explosions. Secondly, the music isn’t really a patch on the SNES title, which boasted some of the coolest tunes to come from Big N’s old beige box.

“There’s little here that couldn’t have been done on the 16-bitters, save size and sound – hell, the scroll ‘n’ flick screen system even harks back to the old 8-bit machines.”

One of the photo captions reads: “Wow! Check out the 16-bit explosion on this badly animated plant-thing.”

“Graphics: Pretty, but unimpressive 5/10; Lifespan: Huge – if you can be arsed 7/10; Originality: Too old-fashioned 3/10. Playable and vast, but lacking the sparkle of Konami’s previous offerings, and it’s all a bit 2D.”

The review pitches a lot of comparisons to older systems. I can tell you this was not uncommon for the time, as many magazine reviewers wanted to move on with 3D polygons. This was very much pushed by the Playstation and Nintendo 64 at the time, as full 3D was the “now and future” of video games.

MY INTRODUCTION TO THE GAME

I can’t say much of anything against criticism of the game in recalling my 16-year-old self. I remember Castlevania: Symphony of the Night releasing, and I sat on it for way too long. That’s right – I nearly dismissed what would end up being my second-favorite video game of all time.

I’ve detailed a few times that Final Fantasy VII released in the U.S. right on my 16th birthday – Sept. 7, 1997. It’s very likely myself and my friends were still caught up in this adventure to really take note that SotN released a mere month later.

I couldn’t really place a time line on my initial experiences with the game, I just know at some point I found the game on the shelf of our local rental store and I took it home for the weekend. By this point you’re probably expecting some amazing story about how I immediately fell in love with Alucard’s adventure to defeat his father once and for all. I don’t know if I would have been distracted by school, other games, hanging out with friends or what, but, in the twist to this story, SotN absolutely did not click with me the very first time I played it.

It was a neat 2D Castlevania game, but, for whatever reason, I ended up taking the game back after the weekend, probably only completing about 5-10% of the game.

My memory is unfortunately fuzzy on this, but, some time later, I found myself at the rental store. I saw Symphony of the Night sitting there. Perhaps it was reading some of the reviews and magazine coverage, I don’t know, but the game came home with me for another weekend. By fate, this was somehow the playthrough that hooked me like a fish.

Outside of sleeping and eating, I did absolutely nothing other than play SotN that weekend, and I may have even extended that rental for a few days. I plowed through the game killing Richter; I found a hint, and then I saved Richter; I flailed around the upside-down castle struggling against the stronger enemies; I finally defeated Dracula; I looked up more information on the game and again beat the game using the “luck code;” I found out how to play as Richter. Each time I replayed the game I was finding more and more of the secrets – the game was rewarding me for playing it over and over.

I sunk a lot of time into that rental copy. I’m never certain why I didn’t purchase my own copy at that time. Fast forward almost three years after SotN released, I was inside a Meijer location picking up a brand new copy of Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64. In getting an employee to retrieve that game for me, I looked over, and in the Playstation section, a copy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night looked back at me. I nodded my head, and said, “I’ll take that too.”

And now this green “Greatest Hits” stripe is a reminder of how big of a doofus I was for waiting three years to grab this game. At least that means I got it for $20 instead of $100. The XBox LIVE Arcade release was also a treasure to me. You can even ask my wife – This time I set an alarm to wake up super early to download the digital version of this game the moment it was made available.

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THE 1997 KONAMI Q&A

Getting back on track to the 1997 release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the game did have some highlights on the Japanese Konami website, although it doesn’t seem to be to the degree the US branch covered the game release. Konami’s site at the time gave Akumajō Dracula X: Gekka no Yasōkyoku [悪魔城ドラキュラX 月下の夜想曲 – “Demon Castle Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight] a March 20, 1997, release date.

As tech savvy game players were drawn into the world of the internet, they were becoming more aware of what was available worldwide, and people’s knowledge of what Symphony of the Night featured in Japan was highlighted in a chance for consumers to submit questions for a Q&A based on the game.

This resulted in an interview with Mike Gallo, who was the US producer for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Surprisingly, the interview didn’t back down from pitching out submissions from people questioning the changes and removed content.

According to Gallo, the changes from the Japanese versions to the US version include the omission of two familiars, text translation and English voice-overs. However, Gallo said the sound test feature that can be purchased from the librarian was actually an addition to the US version.

“We have tried to keep the actual game as close to the Japanese version as possible,” the Q&A response reads. “None of the actual artwork has been changed.”

The two familiars removed from the game are numbered six and seven, which is the pixie and demon. Whether or not gamers were pleased with the answer, Gallo’s response was, “The reason is they didn’t serve any purpose since they work exactly like the 1st versions of the familiars.”

In speaking on the cover art that was chosen for the US version (which features a plain rendition of Dracula’s castle versus the Ayami Kojima portrait of Alucard on the Japanese version), Gallo said the change was made due to the marketing approach Konami of America wished to take with the game.

“We try to use the Japanese artwork whenever possible,” the interview reads. “In this case we had a plan to do a lot of advertising, both on TV and in print. The Japanese artwork was fantastic but it didn’t lend itself to the unified look that we wanted on the package and the advertising.”

The voice acting for the game came up in a couple of the submitted questions. Having experienced some early examples of voice acting in US video games, I always thought the English voices in SotN were fine – there’s a few samples I still laugh at, but it’s largely good compared to what we could have been given at that time. Perhaps these players were more accustomed to importing video games at the time? I didn’t own my first import game until nearly the end of 2000 …

But, question number 13 in the interview just spills it out – “Why are the voices in the US version bad?”

“We always do our best to maintain the quality of the product when it is converted from Japan to the U.S.,” Gallo responded. “We feel that the voices are as good or better than most of the voice acting in PlayStation games to date.”

The very next question brings up Alucard in particular, asking why the US Alucard is portrayed as a “typical gung-ho action hero(?)” as opposed to the “elegant, noble and reserved” Alucard from the Japanese voice recordings.

“We can’t really say if changing his voice was a good or a bad decision,” the response reads. “We’ve had mixed reviews on it, some people like it and some people don’t.”

It was asked why the US version doesn’t haven’t an option to toggle the Japanese voices, with Gallo stating “We simply didn’t feel that [it] was necessary to leave the Japanese voice in the US version of the product.”

A question also asked about bringing the soundtrack CDs to the US. Gallo said Konami was looking for “creative ways” to bring such extras to the US, but made no promises on the delivery.

However, in addressing a question about pre-order bonuses, Gallo noted retailers were offered an art book and a CD (the Japanese release was said to have included an art book, CD and comic book). He said, having the option, there were stores that took both, or only one of the items.

“The reason that we offered it as a pre-sell only item is because there was no other way to make it available to the U.S. market,” Gallo responded. “We felt that it was the only alternative to get the premiums into people’s hands and keep the cost of the product at a reasonable level.”

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At this point in the game’s development, Gallo had to “no comment” questions asked about the Nintendo 64 Castlevania game, other than clarifying that it would be a completely original Castlevania game planned for release in fall 1998. However, an inquiry was made on whether the SEGA Saturn version would be released in the United States.

“Currently it is only planned for release on the Saturn in Japan, but we are watching the US Saturn market closely,” Gallo said.

Maria Renard is playable in the SEGA Saturn release of the game, and wasn’t accessible to US players until later re-releases of the game. The Saturn version did not release until 1998, but one of the questions submitted asked about being able to play as Maria.

“Simply did not have the time to work her into the story as a playable character,” was Gallo’s response. “We didn’t want to make a playable character out of her without doing something special (I.E. more animations, a new story, etc.).”

A question also brought up a PC port of the game.

“Yes it is possible to port SOTN to the PC,” Gallo said. “We are currently studying the PC market in hopes of releasing some product in the future.”

According to the archived Konami website from this time, Konami’s US branch had some … interesting PC projects lined up as they were seemingly breaking into the format. This may be a feature for another day, though!

While the majority of the questions detailed what was changed or “what-ifs,” a few of the questions did dive into the development of the game.

Gallo said Symphony of the Night took “just a little over two years” to develop. It was asked why Alucard was chosen to be the main character in the game.

“We always try to add new and interesting twists to the story line,” Gallo said. “The thought of the character fighting against his own Father and struggling with his duality is very intriguing.”

The game concept also strays from the formula of the Belmonts placing a whip into the hands of players, and a question was asked about if the team had worries about the change.

“To be frank, we were somewhat concerned about straying from the ‘normal’ game play,” Gallo responded. “However, the key to the change was to make sure that the game play remained faithful to the originals. We feel that we were able to accomplish that, even with all of the new weapons and items found in SOTN.”

It was also asked why the series was moving toward “more recent times” in its settings.

Gallo pointed out Castlevania: Bloodlines is the most recent story in the timeline, as the series is set up to tell a story over multiple centuries.

“We really haven’t even scratched the surface yet …” Gallo said.

Questions were also asked about why the game is so short, and Gallo had to pitch out hints about how you are supposed to save Richter and not kill him. Someone noted a GamePro issue showed Alucard outside of the castle, and Gallo attributed this to the picture being from a version from an unfinished version of the game. The floating, purple eye from the background of the hallway was also brought up, and Gallo said it exists merely as a background element with no possible interactions or hidden meanings.

FEAR

One of the last really cool things floating around on the Konami archives was the ability to download the game’s 15-second commercial spot that aired on television to market Symphony of the Night. I guess when you sit down and look at the advertisements for this game (for whatever reason I simply do not remember seeing SotN ads inside the magazines I had at the time), the talk of the “unified marketing” makes a little bit more sense. Maybe we wouldn’t have taken this approach these days, but this commercial is definitely a slice of fifth generation game advertising.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has definitely left an impression on gaming, and we tend to talk about it fondly to this date, so I hope you enjoyed this attempted look at the game from the eyes of people who were there in 1997. Feel free to share your stories in the comments!

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Categories: GemuBaka Feature

Author:indiesnack

Indie Snack is a video gaming Web site focusing on independent developers and game releases. Indie Snack will also soon have services made available to independent developers to include tools aiding them in public relations and game marketing.

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