If you read nothing else in this review, just know this: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of the greatest games ever made, and it’s yours for 10 bucks. Now go buy it.
It was originally released on the PlayStation in 1997 and was the first of the “Metroidvania” games in the series, the one that set the stage for all of the handheld installments to follow. Rather than simply running left to right, whipping one undead baddie after another, Symphony charges you - as Dracula’s son Alucard - with exploring a gigantic castle, upgrading your gear and eventually gaining the strength to kill your father.
At first, Alucard is weak and lacking in overall strength and abilities. But as you press on, fending off rotting corpses and building-sized bug men, you'll discover all kinds of reasons to continue spelunking through Drac's enormous home. Swords, spears, brass knuckles... any melee weapon you can think of, Alucard can probably use it.
His vampiric powers enable him to morph into a bat, wolf or poisonous mist, plus learn a host of Street Fighter-style spells to cast (semi-circle on the d-pad for "Dark Metamorphosis" and such). This was the first Castlevania that you just could not stop playing because of all the choices you had over Alucard's progression. A beautiful, haunting soundtrack makes the gothic visuals all the more inviting too, so keep the sound up. Way up.
The Xbox Live conversion is a solid one. Thanks to Microsoft removing the 50-meg size cap on Live Arcade games, even the stupendous soundtrack and gawd-awful voice acting remain mostly intact. The once crisp 2D graphics don't hold up well in high definition, but then again, they weren’t the best quality when the game was first released.
Everything animates beautifully (especially Alucard, flowing hair and all), and the effects still look pretty decent a decade later. The "enhanced" graphics the publisher was touting at one point consist simply of a filter that reduces the sharp edges on pixels. It's tantamount to smearing Vaseline all over your screen. It actually doesn’t look all that great, since you lose a lot of detail on some of the smaller creatures and items.
Gameplay on the 360 is almost perfect, but for the mushy d-pad on the wireless controller. Precise jumping (of which there isn't all that much, thankfully) or very quick direction changes aren’t always easy. You definitely have to want to look past some of the issues this creates. But when the core game is this great, that’s pretty easy to do.
Live Arcade's been doing great as far as original content and arcade classics are concerned, but Symphony of the Night is the first bonafide console hit to make its way to the service. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.