Thursday, February 17, 2011

GBA Review: Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

So today it’s time to talk about a game many consider the greatest GBA Castlevania ever made – Aria of Sorrow. When it was first announced in January 2003, I was cautiously excited about the game and pored over every screenshot and trailer released. But I never really got into the game when I bought it after it was released in May of that same year.

I really should have liked it more, because at the time, Aria of Sorrow was as close to Symphony of the Night as one could get. It was just by that time I had moved on from gaming in general and had started to pursue other interests. Still, this is a good time as any to rediscover the GBA games I’ve overlooked.

I don’t usually play the same type of game, much less a direct sequel to the game I just recently finished. I like to try finding a different type of game for a different type of gaming experience than the one I had just had. I was thinking of perhaps playing a racing game or a typical jRPG after completing Harmony of Dissonance.

But having just finished Harmony of Dissonance, and finding myself at my wife’s parent’s house in the middle of the monsoon season with nothing to amuse myself with but for my DS lite and a copy of Aria of Sorrow. I had no choice (unless I wanted to play in the rain and become a flood victim) but to take the leap and jump straight into another Metroidvania game.

Because I immediately jumped from Harmony of Dissonance to Aria of Sorrow, I couldn’t help but make instant comparisons. Two things came immediately to mind upon starting the game: 1) the quality of the sound was significantly improved, compared to Harmony of Dissonance, and 2) control of the main character felt a bit sluggish.

Let’s talk about the sound quality first. Instrument samples and synths have been hugely improved. No longer do the music sound like 8-bit chiptunes. Instead they sound more like real instruments, very similar to what was achieved with Circle of the Moon’s soundtrack.

And now we come to the controls. Harmony of Dissonance made controlling Juste, the hero of that game, akin to controlling a speeding cheetah. Just press either shoulder button to dash, dash, dash everywhere. It was smooth to the extent that it spoiled me for playing other Castlevania games. Every other Castlevania game would move like a snail from now on.

And so it was when I first played as Soma Cruz, teenage schoolboy and pretty boy protagonist of this game, I had to take a while to acclimatise to Aria of Sorrow’s controls which seemed to feel “slower” but once I discovered that it actually was very much akin to controlling Alucard in Symphony of the Night, it became much more acceptable and I learned to “unlearn” the constant zipping and dashing around of Harmony of Dissonance.

Soma Cruz’s similar controllability to Alucard is not the only thing in Aria of Sorrow that it shares with Symphony of the Night. There’s a lot in this game that was intentionally designed to make it not only similar to Symphony of the Night in terms of controllability but also in terms of Soma Cruz’s powers and abilities, which is managed by a system called “Tactical Souls”.

Tactical Souls allows Soma to collect “souls” occasionally dropped from creatures he has defeated and use their powers for himself. I like how when Soma collects a soul, the animation is very similar to when Alucard steals monster’s souls to heal himself in Symphony of the Night.

For you see, and I’m coming into spoiler territory here, Soma Cruz is very much alike to what Alucard is, except not quite. The game’s story delves into this quite a bit and if you want to know more, I suggest playing the game and finding out for yourself. (I pity those who’ve already played Dawn of Sorrow, the DS sequel to this game before playing this game as it spoils the major reveal of Aria of Sorrow right in the beginning.)

As with a lot of GBA games released during that era, there was a bit of a Pok√©mon influence in Aria of Sorrow. Because players could collect souls in the game, there were many chances to collect multiple souls of creatures. You only needed one, so what to do with the extra souls you amassed? Why you traded them via a GBA link cable of course! This was probably an interesting feature if you had a lot of friends who played Aria of Sorrow, but seeing as I’m the only one around playing the game, this feature was quite useless to me.

There’s only one castle this time but it’s a huge one so a second castle isn’t really missed. The castle has the classic setpieces expected in a Castlevania, like the opening hallway, the trademark steps to Dracula’s throne room and of course the clock tower. There are some new themed areas as well, like an unexpected pirate ship in a cave, perhaps a tribute to The Goonies.

All these different locations are drawn in that beautiful 2D way that is becoming increasingly rare nowadays. The graphics are detailed, with many little touches making it seem like the castle is a real place. Light from the illuminated statue bounces of the walls in the sacred Save Room. Huge groups of bats fly in the background near the entrance. The clock tower in the background of the stairs that lead to Dracula’s throne room is rendered in 3D that’s not out of place, just like in Symphony of the Night. Monsters and enemies are incredibly detailed with an amazing amount of sprite animation. But hey, that’s always been the case with Castlevania games, especially the Metroidvania games made by IGA.

IGA himself wrote the scenario that moves the plot behind this game. Is that a good or bad thing? I dunno. It’s 2035, and Soma Cruz is visiting his friend Mina Hakuba (a not-very-subtle homage to Bram Stoker’s similarly named character in the novel, Dracula), who is the daughter of a caretaker of a Japanese shrine. It so happens the moment he visits is also the moment a solar eclipse is happening right over the shrine. Just as he steps into the shrine, he finds himself somehow teleported and trapped in Dracula’s castle that was trapped in a solar eclipse in 1999.

Yeah, the story’s a bit ridiculous but the backstory on what actually happened in 1999 is quite intriguing, and major points to IGA anyway for trying to make this game’s story different than the usual “random-Belmont-comes-to-kill-Dracula” plot.

Still, the story allows for several supporting characters to appear, including a Belmont and someone called “Arikado” who seems to have the similar powers to Soma. It’s never really told outright that Arikado is Alucard, but the game drops enough hints. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. The Belmont character in this game is of course the secret unlockable character, very much like how you can unlock Richter in Symphony of the Night and Maxim in Harmony of Dissonance.

Aria of Sorrow, though having only one castle to explore, it took me much longer to complete than Harmony of Dissonance and it provides a better level of challenge. Still think it’s easy? No worries, there’s hard mode for the masochists. The game rewards you for collecting as many souls as you can and even provides a New Game+ mode, which allows the player to carry over souls from the previous game to a new one, ensuring high replayability.

Early on I said that many consider this the greatest GBA Castlevania ever made. Count me among them. It’s the game that comes closest to the benchmark, Symphony of the Night, and is highly replayable.

I’ll end this review by mentioning a song in the game that really stuck with me even after I finished it. The remix of the classic “Heart of Fire” song from the original NES Castlevania makes it into Aria of Sorrow during one of the battles, making it one of the most epic battles in a Castlevania game, probably more epic than when Alucard had to battle a brainwashed Richter in Symphony of the Night.

Do play this game if you ever have the chance to.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Retro Boy Advance - the Handheld.

It has come to my attention that my carefully thought out name (okay, not really) for this blog was already being used by other people to name their modded consoles.

Here's one.
Here's another.

Ah well. Chalk it up to coincidence!

Monday, February 7, 2011

GBA Review: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

My first entry into Castlevania was the very first game for the NES. I hate to admit it now but when I played it I thought it was a dumb game. Having come from the Mario School of Perfect Controls, I thought the controls were terrible and awkward. Ugh and let’s not talk about climbing stairs!

My standing with the series has improved quite a lot since then though. Having played and enjoyed Castlevania: Bloodlines and Symphony of the Night many times over made me a true fan and I have since actually finished the original NES Castlevanias, along with a few others as well, including Castlevania Chronicles on Playstation.

Symphony of the Night however remains my favourite Castlevania to date and while I love the linear platforming of classic Castlevanias, there is nothing I enjoy more than a good Metroidvania-style romp against Dracula.

The Game Boy Advance, awesome system that it is, launched with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, which was a game that was deeply inspired by Symphony of the Night. Unfortunately, it was made by a different team, Konami Kobe, who incidentally were also the developers of the infamous Nintendo 64 Castlevanias and that somehow made fans slightly wary and less accepting for it. A shame, for it was a great game. A lot of things can be said about Circle of the Moon but perhaps I should save that for another time when I actually get a chance to replay it.

When Koji Igarashi, one of the main developers for Symphony of the Night, announced that he was heading a team that would be creating a new Castlevania for the Game Boy Advance and screenshots leaked, the internet exploded. Well, okay, maybe just the little corner of my internetexploded. More specifically, the Castlevania forums on GameFAQs and Castlevania Dungeon exploded, which is where I hung out back in those days.

People were excited that this was a “true” Castlevania sequel, made by the guy who had “made” Symphony of the Night and had clearly become the de facto Castlevania guy at Konami. Even now, people mostly assume that Koji Igarashi, or IGA, as he is fondly known, had spearheaded Symphony of the Night, when the fact is he was merely an assistant director and scenario writer. He only became producer of the Castlevania series starting from Castlevania Chronicles, and even that was just a remake and not full blown wholly new game.

And yet because of that very assumption, people thought this new Castlevania from IGA would be the BEST Castlevania EVAH!!!111

My personal theory as to why people thought this was so is because on the Castlevania Chronicles CD, there was a mini documentary featuring an interview with IGA, in which he claimed (or at least the subtitles did) that the “the major work of [his] would be directing and programming CASTLEVANIA –Symphony of the Night-.” Also of interest in this interview is that IGA reveals that he has built a big team comprising staff from both Symphony of the Night and its prequel, Rondo of Blood, for an upcoming game. He promises that this game would be “astonishing!!!". The three exclamation marks has been quoted verbatim from the interview.

So the stakes were high. IGA had his dream team and they were working on a yet, unannounced Castlevania which would blow people's minds. It would be "astonishing!!!".

And astonished some fans were when the first footage and trailers appeared for that "upcoming game" IGA had mentioned, mainly for two reasons. For one, the graphics looked bright and cheery, a marked contrast from Circle of the Moon, which was dark and gloomy, a fitting atmosphere for a Castlevania game but a terrible design decision which hampered players’ ability to actually see the game on a handheld system that had not yet implemented a backlit screen.

The second reason, and the reason that received the most backlash from fans expecting a second Symphony of the Night from IGA, was the notable downgraded quality of the sound that was apparent from the trailers. Symphony of the Night had a brilliant and remarkable soundtrack, an opinion which is still highly regarded today and so fans had expected something that would at least match the fantastic audio of that game. And despite many fans indifference towards Circle of the Moon, it had a good soundtrack with remarkable audio quality for a Game Boy Advance game. But this new game seemed to have a soundtrack right out of the 8-bit era and fans would NOT take this lightly.

It’s a pity. Nowadays, the chiptune scene is highly regarded and even a new game with retro stylings like Scott Pilgrim could not only get away with a chiptune soundtrack but would be highly acclaimed for it. Back then gamers would have none of that. The Game Boy Advance heralded a new era where 8-bit gaming had finally been left behind so having this new, modern Castlevania with a last-gen soundtrack, especially after the expectations Symphony of the Night had created, was something fans could not accept. Not from IGA and his dream team.

When the game finally came out, I vaguely remember the general consensus being that the game itself was excellent, aided by beautiful 2D graphics but hampered by its terrible soundtrack. I’ve always been a fan of the 8-bit sound so I never found this to be a problem and have always wondered why people hated the soundtrack so much. The quality may be lacking, but the compositions themselves were quite brilliant with quite a number of memorable tracks, most notably the theme of the main character, Juste’s Theme, which also had a high quality sampled version for the game’s ending credits.

The reveal of the trailer also brought with it the game’s Japanese title which fans translated into “White Night Concerto”, a title I thought horrible. Fortunately, localisers fixed this for the Western market and called it Harmony of Dissonance instead.

Having finished Symphony of the Night several times by that point, and with both US and Japanese versions (yes, I owned both), I was suitably hyped by the game. I simply could not wait for the game to be released and when I finally had it in my hands I spent the next few days playing the game non-stop. I don’t remember exactly what I thought about it at that point but considering that I actually finished it, I must have thought it was loads of fun. It wasn’t memorable though, because when I replayed it last week, I could barely remember any of the scenes that happened in the game.

But revisiting it with no expectations and no memories of the game gave me a somewhat more enjoyable experience than I had playing it the first time all those years ago. I wasn’t disappointed with the ridiculously bright graphics the designers had put in to circumvent the darkness of the Game Boy Advance unlit screen. I wasn’t disappointed with Juste neon blue outlines telegraphing his location on the screen all the time. I wasn’t disappointed with Juste’s inability to deftly manipulate the whip like Simon in Super Castlevania IV or like Richter in Symphony of the Night.

In fact, I gained a new respect and fondness for the game for incorporating aspects from classic Castlevanias which I simply did not notice before. The most obvious of this is the collection of Dracula’s myriad spare parts, reminiscent of Simon’s Quest. But my fondest throwback is when Juste manages to collect a particular item and a particular magic book, he gains the ability to perform the very same powerful “Grand Cross” Item Crash move which Richter can perform in both Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night.

All in all, I think Harmony of Dissonance doesn’t deserve most of the criticisms it gets. I think the soundtrack is great despite (or really, because of) its 8-bit chiptunes. The castle map is huge and the two castle concept from Symphony of the Night returns again, having given Circle of the Moon a miss. Juste is one of the most nimble Belmonts out there, with the ability to dash left or right with simply a tap of the L or R buttons.

Perhaps the only criticism I can level at it is its difficulty, or the sheer lack of it. I managed to complete the game within 8 hours (more or less) with all the endings. I didn’t bother getting the two secret characters’ endings but I doubt that would take me much more time if I put myself into it.

So would I play it again? Probably not. At least not within the next decade or so. It’s a great game, but it’s not Symphony of the Night, which is an unfair assessment I know, yet the fact is that's the game we compare all Castlevanias to.

Oh, and before anyone still thinks I hate the original NES Castlevania, I don't. Not anymore. A few years back, I went and played it again until I beat it. I enjoyed every second of it.

Richter fan art image credit: Candra