Please take a minute from foaming at the mouth about Konami’s recent treatment of its fanbase, and stop to remember the good times. One of its best and brightest titles of all time just celebrated a birthday, and that has to count for some form of fond remembrance, am I right?
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was released in Japan on May 8, 2003 in a surprising move that saw the American release come first just two days earlier. It just goes to show that Konami could easily read its audience back then, because the game was a colossal flop in Japan but was a massive success in the States. The series always enjoyed a much more welcome reception in the English speaking world than it did in its own country, and Konami even changed the franchise’s name in Japan to Castlevania to reflect that.
Aria of Sorrow was produced by famed ex-Konami developer Koji Igarashi, the man behind most of the Castlevania games after his debut on Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Now that I think about it, he teased his new indie game on May 6, Aria of Sorrow’s North American release date, and the timing can’t just be a coincidence!
As for my own thoughts, I absolutely love this game. I remember after the launch of the Game Boy Advance that Konami was trying to recapture the magic of Symphony of the Night in a handheld game. It had already attempted the feat with both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither of those managed to snag my affection. Circle of the Moon has a smart magic system, but it is infamous for being too dark to see and isn’t especially fun. Harmony of Dissonance has nice graphics, but also has the worst soundtrack in the series and a horrendously awful and monotonous dual-castle layout.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was the first game to balance it all out and get it right, and it’s probably this impact of “doing it first” that makes it stick out as my favorite of Igarashi’s six portable games. The game’s plot was the first to introduce Soma Cruz, the indisputable best Castlevania character of the post-Alucard world. While he starts off as a goofy, awkward teenager who wears bell-bottom jeans and a frock, his tale of rescuing his girlfriend evolves into him becoming the perfect vessel for Dracula to resurrect into, and Cruz can either accept this or not.
His powers also rank above everything else that the portable games attempted in the preceding or following games. Cruz can absorb the souls of his enemies and permanently learn their abilities as both passive traits and powerful attacks. If I have any complaints about Aria of Sorrow, it’s that it all this soul hunting comes down to luck. Enemies randomly drop their souls, and that’s fine for an action RPG, but this luck requirement carries over into the boss fights. Not collecting a soul upon one’s destruction means the opportunity to get that soul is lost forever unless the player tries again.
Its direct sequel Dawn of Sorrow would address this, but it would bog down boss fights with its own needless baggage. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow’s boss fights are marvelous though, so attempting again isn’t quite as infuriating as you might guess. Challenging, but not infuriating.
In fact, Dracula’s entire castle is marvelously laid out and is a lot of fun to just bomb around and backtrack in. Konami’s artists perfectly nailed the setting of a gloomy, futuristic winter, one where robot vampires burst from piles of snow. Everything about this game is cold, perfectly complementing Soma Cruz’s white hair and probably addressing why he needs to wear a frock. To quote ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, “cool as the other side of a pillow.”
The game’s art design has this “cold” interpretation as well, seen in some of the official concept works above. One major foothold Aria of Sorrow will always hold over Dawn of Sorrow, besides its initial impact, is its artwork. Concept Artist Ayami Kojima’s classic designs absolutely stun in this game and reign as some of her best works. Sadly though, her style was tossed aside when the DS launched because Konami needed a more friendly anime style to sell to Japanese kids.
Ayami Kojima’s work was reinstated in future games like the console bound Lament of Innocence and Curse of Darkness, as well as the excellent Dracula X Chronicles remake.
Aside from the aesthetics, Aria of Sorrow just feels good. Attacks are responsive to button presses and everything animates smoothly, especially the bosses and the large super weapons towards the end of the game. Oh, and Konami got its act together for the soundtrack, finally learning how to retool the sub-par sound capabilities of the Game Boy Advance into something tolerable.
Dawn of Sorrow might be a more fleshed out, more user-friendly, and generally excellent game, but if I were ever given the option to play just one, it would be Aria of Sorrow. Its art, special powers, boss fights, music, and story all hold up today as the best post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania game and definitely in the upper echelon of the franchise as a whole.
Realizing it is only 12 years removed makes me feel rather sad that the franchise peaked and the collapsed upon itself within the space of a generation and a half.
We might not have the ability to get Castlevania back, but we can still look forward to Koji Igarashi’s indie game capturing the vision of his beloved franchise.
Don’t forget, you still have easy access to Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow thanks to the magical powers of the Wii U Virtual Console. Go ahead and download it for just $7.99. Totally worth it for one of the best 2D games ever designed.