The unnerving thing is that it's been almost ten years since the release of Symphony of the Night. In that time, Konami's put together seven new Castlevania games which all owe some degree of debt to Symphony's success, but more importantly, it's been long enough now that there's probably a new generation of gamers who've played, say, Portrait of Ruin, but haven't played the game that started the Castlevania series down that path.
Symphony of the Night was a train whistle when it first came out for a host of reasons. It was a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, the infamous untranslated Castlevania for the PC Engine, so most Americans had no idea where it was coming from. It also abandoned the series's sidescrolling level-based roots in favor of an approach that, frankly, owed a great deal to the Metroid series, and for the first time in the series's history, did not have a Belmont as the protagonist. Instead, it had the sword-wielding Alucard, the son of Dracula, as seen in Castlevania III, who has come out of retirement to find out why Dracula's castle has risen once again.
Symphony was defiantly well-animated 2D on the PlayStation, a system that was notoriously inhospitable for 2D games, and it had one of the, if not the, best soundtracks in video game history. If Symphony had been the last 2D game to ever get made, it would've been the best epitaph that 2D fans could've hoped for.
It transformed the Castlevania series from straightforward platformers into exploration-based action-RPGs, and for years afterward, the question has been how subsequent games in the series have stacked up against Symphony.
Playing Symphony on Xbox Live Arcade, the answer is that since Aria of Sorrow, the portable games have stacked up pretty well, thanks. Symphony had more than its share of clunky play mechanics--having to equip healing items before you can use them, the hilariously retro fonts, the justly notorious voice acting, Alucard's tendency to go flying backward thirty feet if a Medusa Head so much as touches him, his inability to swim--and many of them have been corrected in later games. Having to deal with them again is sort of problematic.
The game is also effectively over the moment you get more than fifty MP, since Alucard's Soul Steal spell is a guaranteed reset; everything onscreen, including fireballs and torches, gets hit repeatedly and you get healed for a surprisingly large amount of HP. If that's not enough to get you through the endgame, there's always the hilarious Shield Rod/Alucard Shield combination, which is capable of destroying any boss in the game in seconds.
The game is still pretty amazing, although it's been cut down a bit, presumably to make for an easier download. The soundtrack is oddly muted, the sprites seem much darker, and there's an oddly floaty quality to Alucard's jumps that takes a little while to get used to. (I'm told this is a problem with the 360 controller rather than a problem with Symphony itself. YMMV.)
As a 360 game, Symphony is weird. The Achievements are insanely easy and seem to have been chosen at random. None of them require any real thought to accomplish, either. Symphony is the easiest two hundred Achievement points you will ever earn.
You'll probably enjoy earning them, though, as long as you can overcome the game's shortcomings. Symphony hasn't aged terrifically well, particularly in view of how highly polished its sequels have been, but it's still one of the must-play games of the late 1990s. It has more than its share of drawbacks as a 360 game, but this is as close to a sure thing as you can find on Xbox Live Arcade.