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ARTICLE

Gaming's Defining Moments #10

Much the same as the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled, one of the defining moments of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - in a game rammed full of them - you mightn't have even knew existed.

In 1997, and still some years before online forums and specialist tip sites offered every game's secret for the cost of a simple search, Konami ushered in the first Castlevania of the new generation.

With the franchise's first aborted attempt into the third dimension two years away, the Castlevania brand graced the 32bit era with a sprawling 2D RPG platformer that took its design cues from Nintendo's Metroid series, adopting an open-ended mechanic that became the template for the series over the next decade until 2010's Lords of Shadow.

The entire game took place within Dracula's Castle, a huge labyrinth of multiple floors and rooms the exploration of which was mostly left to player choice. Areas were either off-limits or frustratingly out of reach; progress only possible through the slow build of magical upgrades and character enhancements through searching. Double-jumps, mist transformations and more granted access to therefore blocked rooms, and offered reason to retread sections.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
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Such gameplay has become commonplace in the years since the PSOne release, but back then there was still an air of mystery and surprise in every new finding. In a time when knowledge couldn't be bought for the price of a name typed into a search engine and titles had neither tutorials or extensive help guides in-game, there was a joy of discovery in every square meter of the Dark Lord's domain.

Yet because of this the game's greatest secret could easily be missed. The game began where the last, Rondo of Blood, ended: with Richter Belmont taking on and defeating Dracula in the towers high above the castle.

Symphony followed Dracula's son, Alucard, as he explored the castle years later looking for answers. Some hours in you came across and defeated Richter. Cue end sequence, credits, fin.

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Except it wasn't: even if you were dangerously close to the game's 100% completion rating through extensive exploration, you still had barely half the story. The game's RPG elements allowed you to equip items to upgrade your stats. Perfunctory texts described each equipment in bare detail.

And even then, equipping two rings whose descriptions where two halves of one sentence - one clue - you might have been unaware the need to wear them in one specific place in the castle, in order to unlock an secret area in which you were granted a relic to see past dark illusions.

I certainly didn't see the connection; luckily the completion of my playthrough coincided with the latest issue of CVG, and the reveal that in following these instructions and reengaging Richter while wearing these Holy Glasses would reveal a third player in the throne room were you fought; a device that controlled Richter.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
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Its destruction - a tricky feat in itself as you had to avoid harming the renown vampire hunter - would instigate the reveal of the game's brutally brilliant second half. An inverted castle above the original, filled with new foes and new discoveries. The game's true completion rate was revealed: 200%+.

Developers have doubled the size of their games since, but frequently the spin is cheap: repeating the same levels or boss fights. Here we had something bizarrely familiar yet startlingly different. One can only guess at the work the studio put in in making sure every room and area worked perfectly upside down as well as normal, measuring jumps and gauging leaps so players could transverse only what their current attributes allowed them to.

It made me appreciate the design of each hallway and castle wing. This was a Game Plus still within the framework of the original story, and a chance to replay the same areas but make it feel new. There's something I love about games that load out your abilities then extend the time you have feeling like a complete badass.

Most of all it was one of the few times a game has truly surprised me, and in a title full of defining moments that I'm sure to come back to, this topped the list.

You can experience Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for yourself on Xbox Live Arcade: the title's available for 800 Microsoft Points.

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