Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Developer: Konami
U.S. Publisher: Konami
U.S. Release: May 6, 2003
Genre: Metroidvania
Format: 8-Megabyte Cartridge

Based on: Finally getting it right after many fumbling attempts: A portable Castlevania truly worthy of the name.

Games | Game Boy Advance | Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

Article by Parish | June 6, 2006

Today is 06-06-06, which means the entire Internet will be awash in LOL SATAN jokes. I know when I can't beat 'em, so instead I'm joining with a write-up of the closest I'll ever come to dabbling in devil worship: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

Here's how you know Aria is an amazing game: this past weekend I completed a 100% game. I never go for 100% clear files; I think the last games I even considered bothering with were Chrono Trigger (because those extra endings were brilliant) and Chrono Cross (because I'm a psychopath and wrote a FAQ about it). But there's something about Aria that made me want to grind away for hours trying to collect every single monster soul in the game.

Yeah, even the stupid Sky Fish.

I have, in the past few weeks, played through all three GBA Castlevania games in their entirety; Aria is without question the absolute best of the bunch. It's so good I even drew a comic about it, and that's something I abhor on general principle. Seriously, the only way in which Aria even falls slightly short of its predecessors is in terms of the visuals, which seem flat and washed out compared to the vivid contrasts and multiple parallax layers of Harmony of Dissonance. Plus, it features the smallest castle of the three games. And the smallest character graphics, too. Soma's so tiny compared to Juste.

There's a very good reason for all of this, however: with Aria, Konami was clearly focusing on quality above all else. Maybe the graphics took a hit to allow for better music; maybe the dev team just wanted to devote its resources to making a more compelling game. Whatever -- it worked. And after the tedious castle designs of Harmony and Circle of the Moon, Aria's smaller game space was a godsend. It was large enough to be substantial but compact enough not to be boring.

So what made Aria so damn good? I am contractually obligated to name three factors:

1. The overall gameplay design. From the smartly designed castle to the smooth play control, Aria took all the standard Castlevania components and refined them. Refined them so hard. There wasn't really much new in terms of the areas to explore, and Soma was basically Alucard? in terms of control options. But gosh darn it, everything was put together so much more thoughtfully than in the previous two GBA titles it's almost painful to go back to them.

2. The Tactical Soul System. I don't know what it is about Japanese game designers, but they always have to have some wackily-named (and frequently Engrishy) gameplay mechanic, and Castlevania's no different. The TSS, though, is so completely great that I don't even mind the intrinsic goofiness of the name. In short, every monster in the game possesses a "soul," and capturing that soul grants the player some sort of special ability. Basically, this works out to be an enormous and varied skill system for Soma -- which combined with his various physical equipment makes him quite possibly the most versatile action game hero ever. It also adds purpose to repeat playthroughs; since Soma's soul acquisitions are random, it's perfectly safe to say that the game is a little different every time. Unless you soul-grind every monster as you encounter it, but seriously, talk about missing the point.

3. The plot. Story isn't exactly Castlevania's strong point, but ever since Symphony it seems there's always a twist of some sort. Some are cool, like Symphony's inverted castle; some are stupid, like the garish evil shadow castle from Harmony. Aria's twist was unique in that it had to do with Soma himself and didn't artificially double the game's play time. Plus, it led to the best "bad" ending ever, and paved the way for Dawn of Sorrow's ultra-genius Julius Mode. In other words, v. good stuff.

Above all else, Tactical Souls are what make Aria stand apart from the usual Castlevania fare -- and, ironically, they likely signal the death of Belmonts as protagonists. Belmonts are pretty limited as heroes; they can only wield the Vampire Killer whip and use an assortment of sub-weapons (Cross, Axe, Knife, etc.). Non-Belmonts like Alucard and Soma can do pretty much anything, including mimicking Dracula's powers. So it's probably no coincidence that of the seven Castlevanias Igarashi has managed/is managing, only two have starred Belmonts -- and those two have been the least interesting.

The TSS is also the game's biggest source of unending tedium. Some of those monsters just don't want to give up their souls at all. You kill them and kill them and still they refuse to surrender. Jerks.

But in the end, it's almost worth it just to be able to have a hero with more than 100 different skills. Granted, some of them are useless or just plain weird, but the who ever said videogames have to be practical?

Part of what makes the recent Castlevania games so entertaining is that their producer, Koji Igarashi, is pretty much a fanboy himself. I mean, check out the Legion soul (above) -- it looks an awful lot like Gradius Options shooting lasers. And the Man-Eater soul fires Ripple Lasers. That is completely awesome.

I think it's pretty likely that the games IGA oversees are basically the games he would want to play himself. Maybe that doesn't speak so well for his tastes in the case of Nano Breaker, but where portable Castlevania is concerned it equals sweet, sweet goodness.

Anyway, I'm not quite done with said sweet, sweet goodness -- I'm all set to do a hard mode/New Game+ playthrough. Since I went to the trouble of collecting 100% souls for my first go-round, that means I have the Chaos Ring and thus infinite magic points. Which in turn means I can cruise around with the Alastor soul active -- it'll be just like having a familiar in Symphony. Word.

Originally posted in Retronauts