Calling Aria of Sorrow the best handheld Castlevania is quite a bold statement: they’re all great in their own way. But after replaying this again (and again…) I’ve made up my mind: it is the best Castlevania - period. It’s the second best Gameboy Advance title of all times according to IGN. Yes, I am insinuating it’s better than Symphony of the night. And yes, I know of the inverted castle’s greatness and the rip-off in Harmony of Dissonance. Soma’s gameplay mechanics: the soul system, is simply more engaging to me.
According to Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken book, we the gamers are looking for a way to “fix” the real world by escaping into worlds that reap higher immediate rewards. It’s a very interesting read and reflects my love with the Castlevania (Metroidvania) genre quite well.
The sense of progress while exploring the castle keeps you pushing forward. After unlocking special abilities like being able to walk over water (or walk underwater, for that matter) makes it possible to dig deeper into the castle that also will require quite a bit of backtracking. But that backtracking is never a real problem or a chore in any way: when Soma levels up and finds better gear, the feeling of being more powerful than an hour ago while passing through the same corridor is great. Instead of hesitantly dodging and crawling you’re confidently jumping and hacking away, maybe even yelling “out of the way, minions!” at your Gameboy. I know I did.
Bringing up this argument might sound weird coming from someone who hates certain jRPGs with a passion: the obligated level grinding completely ruins the fun for me. The difficulty spike isn’t levelled at all in games like Dragon Quest (VIII): you can clearly feel the hick-ups in each “new” area of part of a dungeon. You can almost hear the designers whisper to you “Go back and grind some! You’ll suck at the boss!” - ignore it at your own peril. Of course Aria of Sorrow includes a lot of grinding to grab each monster’s unique soul. But that grinding is completely optional - nobody is telling you to get all souls (except 2 to get the alternate ending).
I want to grind when I feel like it, not when the game tells me I haven’t encountered enough enemies yet to progress through that part of the map. That indicates a design flaw to me - or a way to artificially lengthen the game, as it did in the NES days. The Dragon Quest formula hasn’t really changed since then. I don’t mind: I’m a retro gamer. But as McGonigal points out: we need to be intrinsically motivated to do anything well, from playing a game to doing chores in real life.
Running around to reach new places can become boring if the world is empty or if it takes a long time to go from point A to B. Aria of Sorrow has neither. Even without Black Panther to dash, a quick travel system allows you to jump from one area to the next and even those aren’t too far away if you decide to do things on foot. Hollow Knight, a great and highly acclaimed modern Metroidvania, doesn’t offer quite the same: there are a lot less but more dangerous enemies and it’s a bit too large to reach one of the edges for my liking. Souls aren’t readily harvested so punching the same monsters in the face again and again will net you something interesting instead of simply gold.
Why choose if you can have both? Since Iga’s Metroidvania system, the protagonist levels up and has a bunch of stats one can look at every few minutes. Old school castlevania’s like the recent Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon are also great but offer less sense of progress because the player keeps on being just that: the player. Soma evolves towards Dracula - even in the story.
Getting to the end boss does net you a scrolling stage select screen that also gives visual feedback on your progress. There are also semi-hidden permanent potions that increase your mana or health pool but that’s about it. Hitting a particularly difficult enemy with your whip feels awesome thanks to two things:
Without #2, Diablo wouldn’t exist. Why would anyone be motivated to do Nightmare or Hell runs in Diablo 2? To gain experience quickly, and to find nice items in the form of monster drops. Aria of Sorrow enemies also drop items and it’s also a rarity that could be increased with the right soul or support items. Another reason why backtracking isn’t bad here.
“Getting better” also means getting more flexible: unlocking a double jump, or being able to fly with the Giant Bat soul. Soma literally strengthens on the screen, separate from the statistics only visible in the character screen or in the health bar number. The implementation of all those things combined yet to be matched in my mind.
Handheld Castlevania’s have the added bonus of being portable: that’s a huge plus for me and those 2D platformers are a perfect match for handheld systems. Everyone agrees Aria of Sorrow is the pinnacle in the series on the Gameboy Advance: Harmony of Dissonance squandered the CPU on flashy graphics and Circle of the Moon on the soundtrack. The result is a barely audible game and a barely visible game. Harmony of Dissonance borrows the castle design from it’s bigger brother Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon’s gameplay mechanics simply don’t evoke the same feeling of progress as Aria of Sorrow.
Dawn of Sorrow on the Nintendo DS is a real competitor but the obligated touch controls ruin the fun. Killing off a boss forces the player to stop mashing buttons and grab a stylus to draw some kind of pattern - and quickly too, otherwise the boss will regenerate. Dawn of Sorrows’s character art system also made a weird - and unjust - move to anime that diminishes the atmosphere. I’m ignoring the last 2 DS games because of the completely different castle design: a big non-linear map, it is not.
The last piece of the puzzle why Aria of Sorrow is one of the best Metroidvania’s ever made is this: atmosphere. It’s a big word that encompasses everything: from monster and character design to pixel art and of course the epic soundtrack. The word “epic” is something else very interesting in McGonigal’s Reality is Broken book, defined as a feeling to be part of something that is bigger than yourself. Like entering a castle infested with Death’s helpers while slowly becoming his Master, Dracula. The “powerful and compelling scenario”, according to Gamespy, is the best in the series since Symphony of the Night. Knowing technical details of GBA development myself, the color palette range is even more appreciated compared to others on the GBA.
Aria of Sorrow’s Soundtrack is a masterpiece that still sounds amazing, 15 years later, ripped from the Gameboy Advance. The opening song, “Castle Corridor”, sends shivers down my spine every single time I hear it. To be fair, all the Castlevania DS soundtracks are at least as good, as is of course the Playstation instance.
So, would I burn through this game again anytime soon? It can be over in 5 hours, with the map reporting “97,5%” explored. I neglected to mention the map! Another great piece of the puzzle that is required in games like this. The castle map that slowly becomes more and more visible also serves as an immediate graphical feedback on the feeling of progress. Games like Etrian Odyssey add another dimension to this mechanic by making you draw the map edges yourself, but the core concept remains: each “block” is slowly automatically discovered when you enter that particular area.
I can keep on talking about this game and friends even start to shake their heads when I start sentences with “In Castlevania”. So instead of putting more words down here, I think I’ll take on Cirlce of the Moon again. Time to pick up the whip and start hunting…