Just when you think you’ve mastered Dracula’s castle, the accursed structure turns your world upside-down. Literally. The entire castle uproots itself from the ground, flips itself 180° and leaves you high and dry on the ceiling, free to rediscover its charms all over again, this time in reverse.
That’s right; Castlevania: Symphony of the Night's entire game map, from the tips of its belfries to the murkiest depths of its basements, was purposely designed to function equally well both sides up. That’s amazing when you stop to think about it – some games can’t even manage to work properly in one orientation, let alone two. If you dropped an onlooker into a random point of the Inverted Castle without telling them the context, only the topsy-turvy paintings and candlesticks in the background would give the game away.
All this effort on the part of the dev for a hidden extra that only the most dedicated players will ever find. You could easily complete it without ever stepping foot in the Inverted Castle. But then, SOTN was never a game built for the dabbler. This is a vast adventure that makes short work of timid players who seek the path of least resistance. Adventurous explorers, on the other hand, will be rewarded with a bountiful crop of secrets tucked away in each corner – every one a potential game changer that completely alters your perception of the space around you and how you move around it.
Keen to break the linear trappings of previous entries, Konami elected to ape the open-ended structure of Nintendo’s Metroid series. The genius of Samus Aran’s space adventures, for the uninitiated, is that they give the illusion of freedom while the player is cleverly funnelled down specific routes in order to collect the power-ups needed to boost Samus’ agility, allowing her to delve deeper into the game world. SOTN copies this template wholesale, but the castle is so well put together that you’d struggle to notice the hand guiding you.
It isn’t just the geometry that makes your progress feel so natural – the pacing is absolutely perfect. Alucard’s metamorphosis from a lead-booted clogger to a super-agile beast capable of transforming into a wolf, bat or even a wisp of mist is so gradual and well-timed that SOTN never overwhelms, despite the layers of depth offered by the equip system – which enables you to arm Alucard with different weapons and kit him out with cloaks and headwear boasting new properties.
The more powerful Alucard grows, the more delightful he becomes to control, until you come to the realisation that duffing up Dracula can wait until you’re good and ready. Combining Alucard’s myriad abilities to uncover the entirety of the world map becomes an obsession bigger than any ideals that might have lured you to the castle in the first place, and hitting that magical 100% figure brings a deeply satisfying feeling of finality that will live with you forever – or at least until you’re staked.