Pocket Power: Castlevania Aria of Sorrow

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

Castlevania has been one of the most popular game franchises since the days on the NES.  The second installment in the series, Simon’s Quest, has been a divisive title among fans of the series.  There are many people who flat out hate it, and while their reasons for despising it are valid, it is my personal favorite entry of the NES trilogy.  Unlike the first game that followed a linear path using a three similar stages boss fight repeat formula, Simon’s Quest kicks the player out into the woods and leaves them with no direction.  The sparsely populated towns are filled with liars and obtuse clues, partly by design and partly due to poor translation standards of the 80s.  Being very young when I first played this, I spent a bulk of the game wandering around clueless as to what to do next.  The immense freedom to explore was overwhelming, but whenever I got closer to resurrecting Dracula by collecting a body part, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

Subsequent Castlevania games returned to a more linear format.  Sure Rondo of Blood and Dracula’s Curse did offer some branching pathways, but this was nothing compared to the open world with no direction given sense of exploration that was in Simon’s Quest, that is until Symphony of the Night was released.  Symphony used Simon’s Quest’s open world as a blueprint, but expanded and refined it in every possible way creating what is arguably the best Castlevania title.  The series fell into a very dark time after this when Congress ratified a law that required all Nintendo games to take popular 2D games and introduce them to the third dimension, to results that ranged from amazing to downright disgraceful.  Castlevania falls into the latter category, but years later the Gameboy Advance blessed us with a return to the glory days of 2D Castlevania, the highlight of these would be Aria of Sorrow.

Aria of Sorrow has the distinction of being the first Castlevania to take place in the future, though does so without sacrificing the fact the majority of available weapons being limited to the most advanced medieval technology.  It is also the first Castlevania to have the player control dontyouevendare Soma Cruz, a new protagonist that has the ability to take the soul from whatever creature he kills and equip it like an item to use it’s power.  The soul I enjoyed the most belongs to a witch, which gave me the attack of throwing cats that charge violently into battle (not recommended to be done with actual cats, learn from my mistake).  The are naturally other souls with more useful attacks and granting more interesting abilities, but throwing cats is still a highlight of this title.

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This Tactical Soul system ends up replacing the use for subweapons and many typical items found in Castlevania games.  There are four types of souls, which would be Bullet, Ability, Guardian, and Enchant which are differentiated by color.  Bullet souls are the ones that replace the traditional subweapons and include that poor cat mentioned above.  Ability souls give the player abilities (as if that wasn’t obvious) that are necessary for reaching certain areas of the castle and advancing through the game.  Guardian souls do things that temporarily transform the player into another creature or summon a familiar to provide a helping hand.  Enchant souls either increase a stat or grant some skill when equipped, such as the soul I renamed the Jesus Feet soul that allows the player to walk on water.  Souls can be theoretically obtained from all enemies in the game except from humans and the final boss.  If anyone remembers gaming before everything including toaster ovens had wifi, it was possible to trade collected souls with friends provided you had a GBA link cable.

All three of the GBA Castlevanias were good games and a welcome return to the Symphony of the Night template, but Aria of Sorrow was remarkably better than Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, the latter being a sadly accurate title for a franchise known for such wonderful music.  The story was among the most unique of the Castlevanias, with Soma Cruz visting Mina Hakuba at the Hakuba Shrine in Japan and being sucked into Dracula’s castle during a solar eclipse, which is odd since Aria takes place in 2035 and Dracula was killed by Julius Belmont in 1999.  Soma learns from the other people in the castle that Dracula was destroyed in 1999 but his powers are passed down to his reincarnation.  Soma spends the game exploring the castle and meeting characters such as Yoko Belnades, Genya Arikado, Graham Jones, Hammer, and a man with amnesia simply known as J.

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Symphony of the Night is one of the very few games I can rightfully be accused of putting on a pedestal, and the only thing that holds Aria of Sorrow back from surpassing it is its short length of time needed to complete and no inverted castle to explore, which is probably partially due to a CD ROM being able to hold more data than a GBA cart.  The graphics and music were impressive by the standards of a portable game in 2003 and replay value is added with a new game plus mode and the playing as Julius Belmont is unlocked after beating the game.  Aria of Sorrow is a perfect example of why I bang my head against the wall whenever I see a new Castlevania title being released in 3D.  To be fair, the 3D Castlevanias that have come out in more recent years have come a long way since the N64 titles, but the GBA and DS titles have only made me wish the development teams of those games could make something that took advantage of the current gen consoles’ abilities.  Thankfully Bloodstained will likely grant this wish after many years, but until then I can at least revisit games like Aria of Sorrow, a standout title in a renowned franchise.

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