Happy Anniversary to Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, the Best Successor to Symphony of the Night

STARTING SCREEN | The humble Game Boy Advance follow-up to Symphony of the Night managed to live up to its predecessor—and even exceed it in some ways.

Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite game music, movies at the box office, and more.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance. Aria of Sorrow wasn't the first game to follow 1997's Symphony of the Night, but it was the first subsequent Castlevania game to understand what made Alucard's PlayStation outing such a masterpiece.

Aria of Sorrow still sits in the upper tier of Castlevania's pantheon. If not for limitations imposed by the Game Boy Advance's hardware—fuzzy (though well-composed) music, a lack of graphical effects, and a much smaller castle compared to Symphony of the Night—it might have a serious shot at usurping its big brother. As things stand right now, the 2D games that followed Aria of Sorrow (2005's Dawn of Sorrow, 2006's Portrait of Ruin, 2009's Order of Ecclesia) are all excellent, but it was Aria of Sorrow that cleaned up some of Symphony's flaws on top of sewing some new innovations into the lining of its well-worn parent series.

Aria of Sorrow grabs your attention immediately by throwing you and your new protagonist, exchange student Soma Cruz, into the "far-flung future!" of 2035. This is already a big departure from the series' preference for medieval countrysides and foreboding gothic architecture. Soma and his childhood friend, a shrine maiden named Mina, are chilling and enjoying an eclipse when suddenly the two of them are somehow pulled into the phenomenon. They wake up in Dracula's castle, which has been sealed in the eclipse since 1999 thanks to Belmont-brand sorcery.

Why was Soma called there? What does Dracula have to do with the most recent eclipse? Who is the mysterious black-haired gentleman who—okay, "Arikado" is clearly Alucard, and apparently he failed to seal off his cursed bloodline yet again. Point is, he knows why Soma's been pulled into Castlevania, but he's not big on talking.

Whatever's going on seems to have something to do with the fact Soma can suddenly harvest souls from enemies and claim their powers. Soul absorption is Aria of Sorrow's calling card, and it's a big reason why I still had a good time going through the game when it received a re-release on the Wii U Virtual Console in 2014. Symphony of the Night dabbles with letting you take command of enemy monsters via the random "Monster Capsule" items you find, but those just let you summon a skeleton to fling a few feeble bones. Aria of Sorrow goes far beyond Symphony's capsules. If you can kick the crap out of it, you can probably claim its soul. Some souls can be equipped for passive abilities or stat boosts, and some allow you to borrow your foe's attack. These active "bullet" souls range from almost-useless (shooting a low-powered water gun as a merman) to devastating (the Lightning Doll's lightning attack) to delightfully stupid (throw hot curry as a skeleton waiter!).

Soma's knack for collecting and equipping souls makes him one customizable dude, and the fun is carried further by his weapon stash. Like Alucard, Soma has access to a huge array of swords, but unlike Alucard, there's quite a variety to pick and choose from. If a quick sword-stab isn't your style, you can opt for heavy spears, great swords, guns, and even a sword-whip if you're in the mood to go super-retro. When you're done with weapons you don't need anymore, you can sell them off to an arms dealer hanging out at the front of the castle. You no longer need to scroll through pages of non-disposable weaponry just to get what you need. Take that, stingy Master Librarian and your refusal to buy anything that's not a jewel. I'm glad I kicked you around until you gave me the Dracula Tunic.

Direct sequels are rare in the Castlevania series, but Aria of Sorrow received one by way of Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS. I might have to sign up for a witness protection program for saying so, but I believe Aria is the superior Soma outing. Dawn of Sorrow is still a great game, and its graphics and sound quality are much-improved over Aria (its rendition of Bloody Tears isn't quite as good as Castlevania IV's, but it still goes hard). However, it lacks that initial "Wowie!" that made me fall in love with Aria of Sorrow. Dawn of Sorrow just feels like a follow-up to Aria, whereas Aria still feels like the first worthwhile successor to Symphony of the Night—and Aria doesn't have a forced puzzle element that involves fumbling with your stylus at crucial moments to draw a "seal" around defeated boss enemies. Fun fact, I failed at sealing Zephyr repeatedly and he kept resurrecting and attacking me with his throwing-knives. By the time I finally won, an actual carpet of blades littered the floor of the battleground.

I suppose there's no point in nitpicking about the superiority of Aria of Sorrow over Dawn of Sorrow, or vice-versa. All that Igarashi excellence has since dissolved into one burbling pile of Erotic Violence. Well, I can assure you the Castlevania series was in an excellent spot 15 years ago. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone, and all that. Happy anniversary, Aria of Sorrow. [Sniffle]

This Week's Notable Releases

  • Conan Exiles [May 8]: The survival game trend may have been supplanted by the Battle Royale one, but there's still some gas left in the tank. Conan Exiles is a survival titles in the Hyborian Age, where Conan the Barbarian has his adventures. Start as a random person, fighting and crafting your way up into a fearsome warrior with no peer. The game has been in Early Access on Steam since January 2017, but this is the full release. Conan Exiles is launching on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
  • Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire [May 8]: Obsidian Entertainment follows their first shot at an original adventure with this brand-new sequel. Players will return to the world of Eora and take up the mantle of the Watcher, a being that can look into souls to see their pasts. This time, the high seas mark a big part of the playable area, giving players a customizable ship to explore uncharted islands for treasure and more. Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is coming for PC right now, with console release planned for later in 2018.
  • Steins;Gate 0 [May 8]: Fan-favorite developer 5pb returns with another installment in the Steins;Gate series of visual novels. Though this title has been available in the West for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, Spike Chunsoft is bringing it to Steam finally. Step back into the shoes of Rintaro Okabe, as he continues to find himself mired in complexities of time travel.
  • Laser League [May 10]: Laser League is a sports game from the folks that brought you Olli Olli. Two teams of different colors fight it out in a futuristic arena with a twist: controlling certain regions of the arena causes colored lasers to spawn. Lasers of your color don't hurt you, but your opponent's will cut you to shreds. Can survive the brutal light show? Laser League has also been in Early Access on Steam, with its full launch coming this week on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Floating Gardens from Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

In my dripping love letter to Aria of Sorrow, I admit Dawn of Sorrow has better music quality over Aria—but note I stop short of admitting it has better music. I think Aria's soundtrack comes out on top because its music composition is more interesting than what we hear in Dawn of Sorrow for the most part.

Floating Gardens isn't just my favorite track in Aria of Sorrow; it's one of my favorite Castlevania tracks, period. I suppose its (successful) struggle to sound interesting while being held back by the Game Boy Advance's sound chip makes it that much more special to me. It's like composer Michiru Yamane looked the Game Boy Advance and said, "OK, but what about...violins? And claves? Yeah!"

And on that note, I'd like to announce I'd gladly die for the rise and fall that happens at 1:02. Thank you.

Mike's Media Minute

Avengers: Infinity War continues to own the box office here in North America and worldwide. The film has already crossed $453 million at the domestic box office and $1.16 billion worldwide. The latter milestone is a record, with Infinity War reaching the $1 billion mark in only 11 days. It's running right behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens in terms of box office.

Running alongside Marvel's tentpole film is Black Panther, which made $3.2 million domestically this past weekend, bringing it to seventh place at the box office. At this point, if Black Panther holds on, the film will cross $700 million domestic. It's already in the #3 spot in terms of all-time domestic grosses behind The Force Awakens and Avatar, and it's probably not going to get any higher. Still it's the highest of any of the solo Marvel films by a wide margin.

Right now, we're just waiting to see how much Deadpool 2 cuts into Infinity War's legs. Currently, that film is tracking for an opening weekend of $120-145 million according to analysts at Box Office Pro. That's a hefty amount, which points to the film matching or exceeding the take of the first Deadpool. Unfortunately, its leg could be hurt by Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is trending for a strong Memorial Day 4-day weekend opening of $153-185 million. In all these cases, Disney still wins: Infinity War, Solo, Deadpool 2, the money will still make it back to the House of the Mouse eventually.

Caty’s AltGame Corner

Last week on Starting Screen, I highlighted a different game from the latest Ludum Dare game jam, wherein game developers meshed two completely opposite genres together. This week, I'm spotlighting another gem from the jam: Dungeon Racer. Dungeon Racer is a racing game mixed with a dungeon crawler. You control the car with your arrow keys, with a machine gun and a shotgun in your vehicle's arsenal. You can peel around tight turns, Fast and Furious style, and blow up foes that shoot in your direction.

Dungeon Racer is a rockin' good time (with killer music to skid around to). You can play Dungeon Racer for free in your browser from itch.io.

This Week's News and Notes

  • Avengers: Infinity War owned the last two weekends, but the "most ambitious crossover event in history" isn't done yet. Today, Epic Games and Marvel Entertainment announced that Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet would be making an appearance in Fortnite Battle Royale. The Gauntlet will spawn in matches and whoever picks it up will become the Mad Titan himself. It's quite possibly the most perfect crossover of two properties at the height of the popularity. The mode is only available for a limited time, but that the crossover is happening at all is a testament to the power of Fortnite.
  • Last Friday was May 4, 2018, which many avid fans may also know as Star Wars Day because of the small joke "May the Fourth be with you." To honor the event, Mike wrote and entire article about 7 lost and forgotten Star Wars titles that deserve a reboot with a new developer. Do you think From Software or Double Fine would make a great Star Wars game? Then this feature is worth a read.
  • Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the latest Wii U title that's getting a new life on the Nintendo Switch. Nadia wrote about the game's new Funky Kong mode; Tropical Freeze is still hard, but Funky gives players an easier onramp to the overall experience. Some folks might get all elitist up in their feelings, but anything that makes Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze more enjoyable for the whole family is a-okay to us.
  • Speaking of Nintendo, you'd think with the Switch in full swing that the 3DS would be on its last hurrah. According to Nintendo though, that's not the case. In a recently-published investor Q&A, current Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima said he still sees the 3DS as the system that parents will buy for their children over the Switch. Combined with the existing 72 million 3DS systems out in the world, Nintendo isn't ready to count the system out yet.
  • Let's be perfectly honest, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is lacking in any real sense of personality. That's part of why Fortnite is winning the war for hearts and minds. Freelancer writer Chris Breault argues that the new muscle car added to Miramar points to a game that's looking to find some personality in the future.
  • Kat is out on vacation, but before she left she made a strong argument as to why we probably won't see Pokemon on Nintendo Switch this year. It could happen, but all the signs, tarot cards, and bone dice are pointing to Game Freak's flagship series making its debut on Nintendo Switch next year.
  • The USgamer Podcast: It hurts, but the USgamer Podcast is currently on hiatus. We loved doing it; Mike, Nadia, and Caty enjoyed shooting the shit each week and talking about video games. It was just a big drain on manpower in the middle of the week, especially with a small team. If we can find a way to bring it back without derailing an entire day, we shall!
  • Axe of the Blood God: In this week's Axe of the Blood God, Nadia and special guest host Anthony John Agnello talk all about RPGs they can't play anymore because they're out-of-print and Dragon's Crown Pro, which isn't out-of-print. Subscribe here!

Tagged with Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Feature, Starting Screen.

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