Symphony of the Night is platforming at its peak. Eschewing the 3D graphics that were becoming more and more popular at the time with the Nintendo 64 and Playstation consoles, Castlevania stuck to its tradition of 2-D adventuring.
...And that's where the similarities to all other Castlevania games end. No other Castlevania game had tried to change the formula of side-scrolling levels, one after the other, until the end of the game (with the exception of Castlevania II, but that's like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Mario 64). Maybe a few choices of which level to go to next existed, but that was the extent of the open-endedness. Symphony of the Night turns that formula upside-down (literally!) to create an unforgettable adventure through Dracula's Castle.
You assume control of Alucard, Dracula's son in this chapter of Castlevania. Story has never been the series' strong suit, but it's illustrated enough in this game to at least be interesting. I know the LAST thing I noticed was the smoothness and ease of motion that is offered when I took control of Alucard. The reason it was the last thing was that after completing this game I tried to play Super Castlevania IV (which I had previously thought was the best Castlevania ever). The difference is night and day.
Transitions between Alucard's various forms (bat, wolf, mist) as well as special weapon usage could not have been executed better. Graphically, the game is done very well, with weapon and enemy animations that still look perfectly acceptable today. The castle environment is also very well illustrated with almost no wasted space. Speaking of the castle, the level design is brilliant. I had traveled through Dracula's castle for 6-8 hours, never noticed anything strange about it, then halfway through the game the castle is completely inverted yet remains just as playable. Very impressive. Progression through the castle is similar to the style in the Metroid series; the player must get a special item or piece of equipment to access the next area, yet there are always multiple places to explore.
This game has been compared to Super Metroid, and there are similarities as far as general gameplay and exploration. However, the combat system in Symphony of the Night is far more in-depth. Alucard can equip 6 pieces of equipment (weapons, armor, and accessories) and all can be switched on the fly to adapt to different situations and enemies. The RPG elements in Symphony of the Night are also much more in-depth, incorporating stats such as strength and intelligence, as well as experience points, player levels, and enemy HP.
Aurally, the game really shines. The soundtrack is one of the best I've heard, and suits the mood of each different part of the castle perfectly. Whether it's the orchestral song of the heart of the castle or the haunting sounds of the catacombs, the music is very well-placed and excellent, running the gamut to traditional Castlevania "organ" tracks to rock and metal. I never got tired of the music even after the fairly lengthy 15 or 16 hours of normal gameplay.
Replay value is also outstanding. Not only is there the somewhat daunting task of discovering every single room in both castles (normal and inverted), but one can spend many, many hours completing the bestiary, looking for rare item drops (yes, even those exist in this game), and collecting all the pieces of equipment. In addition to these activities, one can also choose to play the exact game over as Richter (a Belmont armed with only a whip, making for a more traditional adventure) or embark on the never-ending adventure to finish the game in the least amount of time.
The game is extremely fair. This was another thing I noticed while I was playing; never once did I have a gripe with what happened to my character. I never got stuck due to glitches, never died for no reason, never found that there "wasn't a way". There's something to be said for a game that's just plain made well. There's also something to be said for a game that doesn't make the player unleash constant strings of curses and controller throws. The fact is, it's just too enjoyable to get mad at. I usually end up turning a game off or cursing constantly at it because there's a part of the game that just shouldn't exist. No such thing with Symphony of the Night. You will enjoy playing this game so much that you won't want to stop playing, much less throw a controller at it.
A couple of very minor issues kept this game from getting the highest possible rating. First of all, the bosses are all quite easy with the exception of...one. This makes the difficulty seem strange at times. I can remember several instances where I died at a few different points on the way to the boss from normal enemies, then slaughtered the boss with very little effort. Secondly, the translation isn't the best, nor is the voice acting. Luckily it's not a butchery, and doesn't really detract from the game, but it is a small issue. Of course, the near-perfection of the rest of the game far overshadows it.
It should be noted that I had not played this game until 2008 when it was released on Xbox Live Arcade, though I had played most of the previous Castlevanias. I've played through countless games and I just can't remember the last time that I instantly knew a game was this amazing. It's also been a very, very long time since I had to change my top ten games of all time, but there's simply no choice after experiencing the divinity of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.