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Counter Attack #1: Remembering The Xbox One Reveal



Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’re looking back on the Xbox One reveal event, five years later.

Poor thing just needs a little cuddle.

Can you believe it? It’s been five years since the Xbox One was revealed to the world and it still boggles the mind just how spectacularly Microsoft fucked the whole thing up. I don’t think they could have done a better job of fucking it up even if they were actively trying to sabotage their own product. It was a masterclass in unforced error, public relations nightmares, and massively, catastrophically misreading the desires of their own fanbase.

Today, Xbox is helmed by Phil Spencer and he’s doing a rather good job. He’s made a series of consumer friendly moves like implementing backwards compatability into the Xbox One, and they’ve come up with a splendid idea in Game Pass. But, as I recall Bobby “The Brain” Heenan saying once, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit,” and as good a job as Phil is doing he can only do so much with the hand he’s been dealt. When he inherited the job of leading Xbox going forward the One was in a fairly dire situation, being resoundingly beaten in sales, market share, and mind share by the PlayStation 4. The mistakes Microsoft made early in the generation were so disastrous to the brand that it still hasn’t recovered five years later.

In honour of the five year anniversary of the reveal event for the Xbox One, I for one think it’s important that we revisit this pivotal moment in the console war, not just to laugh, but also to learn. Unless you already know the story, in which case it’s mostly just to laugh.

The Death of the Video Game Console

The video game industry was a very different beast in late 2012 and early 2013 compared to today. We were in the twilight years of the longest console generation ever – partly a necessity due to the economic collapse of 2007 – and industry pundits were prognosticating the death of the traditional video game console in the coming generation. Conventional wisdom at the time said that the rise of mobile gaming would continue unabated, and the future of the games industry would lay with free to play dross rather than AAA blockbusters. The struggling sales for several high profile hardware releases only served to back that hypothesis up.

Poor sad Vita. I still loved Persona 4 Golden, Vita. But, you know, I’m hoping they remaster it on PS4 so I never have to turn you on again. Sorry.

Nintendo’s follow up to the wildly successful Wii – the Wii U – had crashed and burned at launch thanks to a combination of confusing marketing, a weird name, a lack of killer apps, and being massively shit. Nintendo’s 3DS was also a bit of a flop, with a 3D gimmick that was about as popular as syphilis and a lacklustre line-up of games failing to convince people to throw $300 at a handheld. Sony’s PlayStation Vita was a misfire, so badly designed in a few key areas and so lacking in compelling software to sell it that it’s greatest achievement was in helping to sell Nintendo’s handheld. Ultimately, the 3DS would turn into a sales powerhouse, but back then it was just another indication that the gaming industry as we knew it was about to undergo a radical – and not altogether welcome – change.

Sony’s reveal event for the PlayStation 4 took place in February of 2013 and it was a largely successful affair. While the company was mocked for hosting a reveal event without actually showing off what the console looked like, Sony’s new and improved public relations strategy of a) appealing to hardcore gamers, and b) not being arrogant dick-holes, was working a treat. The PS4 was a console designed with input from several key developers which led to features like the share button (yey) and the touchpad (nay) being implemented into the controller, as well as much of the technical stuff beneath the hood of the console being optimised for ease and speed. This led to an extremely user and developer friendly console, bereft of costly proprietary processors or gimmicky hardware.

It was, in short, a video game console designed to play video games and little else. Sure, it would have Netflix and all the usual paraphernalia, but after the rise and fall of motion controls, Kinect being forced down our throats at every opportunity, and some developers switching focus to unfulfilling, microtransaction-laden mobile games , many traditional gamers were eager for a return to the good old days. PS4 was, for better or worse, a system that catered to the hardcore gaming crowd, focusing primarily on playing games and doing it better than any other console.

The Adam Orth Incident

In April of 2013, Kotaku ran an article citing credible but unnamed sources revealing that the upcoming but so far unannounced Xbox console would require an online connection at all times or it wouldn’t function. This perhaps doesn’t seem like a huge deal in 2018, at a time when we have games like Overwatch and Destiny 2 being unplayable offline, but back in 2013 we’d just the seen the disastrous launch of an always online Sim City that required an Internet connection to work even when playing alone, and it had left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Sim City’s list of issues at launch was so devastating in severity and so farcical in quantity that gamers became instantly suspicious of any game that required an Internet connection to function, let alone an entire video game console. Why did it need the online connection? What was it for? The gaming community needed answers and they better be good, and Microsoft needed to control the narrative before it spiralled out of control.

Unfortunately, Xbox Creative Director Adam Orth didn’t get that memo, and he proceeded to wade into the debate about an always online gaming future with all of the subtlety of a Carry On movie, landing himself in some hot water in the process. Ol’ Orthy decided that he’d heard enough of people badmouthing an always online Xbox console, and he began mocking the complaints of gamers in a series of smug tweets that were rightly pounced on for being anti-small town, anti-consumer, and anti-not being a wanker. He Tweeted about how concerns about an always online console failing to function in the event of a downed Internet connection was in principle no different to not being able to use a vacuum cleaner during a power out, which is, frankly, a shit analogy, but we’ll let it slide.

Adam Orth was one of the first casualties in the console war between PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

What really rubbed gamers up the wrong way was when he belittled the worries of gamers that their Internet connections may not be stable enough, or in some cases, that they didn’t even have an Internet connection for their gaming console at all – soldiers stationed on barracks, for example – telling them to “get with the times.” Eventually, he started posting “deal with it” memes.

Within days, Adam Orth was the subject of a backlash from gamers angered by his dismissive attitude towards their valid concerns. He became the poster boy for the pent up frustrations many Xbox fans were feeling with Microsoft over the rumours they were hearing about the upcoming console. His Tweets had been featured on gaming news sites. He was pilloried on Twitter, and received threats to his safety through various mediums. He became an Internet meme, and he had a Hitler reacts video dedicated to him.

While Adam Orth’s behaviour was undoubtedly a bit shitty, the level of vitriol directed at him by the dregs of the Internet as a result was, as always, disproportionate to the crime. Ultimately, Adam Orth lost his job at Microsoft, and he moved house out of fear for his family’s safety. He was eventually involved in the creation of space floating simulator Adr1ft, which was written as a metaphor to explain his feelings over the April 2013 incident. For Xbox, meanwhile, Mr. Orth’s Tweets and the ensuing shitstorm came with another unfortunate side-effect – they’d practically confirmed that the unpopular rumours about the next Xbox console were true.

TV. Sports. Sports. Call of Duty. TV. Call of Duty. TV. TV. TV. TV. Sports. TV. Etc.

When it came time for Microsoft to officially unveil the next Xbox console, gamers were eager to see how the boys and girls from Redmond would handle the negative press that their upcoming gaming box had found itself surrounded by. With the right spin, perhaps, Microsoft could control the story and win gamers over to their vision of an always online future. Would Kinect be mandatory? If so, Microsoft needed to sell it to us. Used games a no-no? Tell us what we’re getting to make that worthwhile. There were countless articles and innumerous forum posts featuring predictions, theories, worries, and hopes, from both gaming industry pundits and armchair enthusiasts alike. What few seemed to predict, however, was that Microsoft would simply ignore most of the lingering question marks hovering like the Sword of Damocles over their new console, and deliver one of the worst hardware reveals of all time.

What a shitshow this was. You might think this is me being hyperbolic, which of course, one is prone to do from time to time, but this really was the worst console reveal ever. Remember that time Sony revealed the PS3 and when people balked at the $600 price tag, they said people should want to get a second job to pay for it? The Xbox One reveal was worse. Remember the PS4 Pro reveal where Sony spent less than an hour talking about HDR and 4K and it was so boring it felt like it lasted for about three weeks? This was worse. Not too long ago, remember when Nintendo held the Switch reveal event and they started with that stupid fucking cow milking simulator and ice cube counting rumble bollocks? This made that look like the Metroid Prime 4 announcement.

At the Xbox One reveal event, Microsoft’s strategy was to show off the non-gaming capabilities of the system, planning on then showing off their games at E3 in a few weeks time. This might have made sense had they announced that prior to the event, and as a strategy perhaps it would have fared a little better before the various controversies surrounding the less popular rumours regarding the system, but whatever their original plan was, they desperately needed to adapt it to play to the crowd and the climate and they simply didn’t do that. And so what we got was a reveal event that concentrated little on games beyond a Call of Duty showcase that spent an embarrassing amount of time fawning over how impressive the graphical fidelity on a dog’s face was, and they barely even attempted to address any of the four or five elephants in the room. Instead, they spent most of the reveal event talking about how the console would use Kinect to integrate with your television.

Live TV! Remember that thing you used to watch before Netflix and Amazon Prime came along? Well, Microsoft bet the lot on television integration, misguidedly believing that it would appeal to the casual crowd. They’ve always had designs on taking over the living room in the same way that they’ve got a monopoly on PC operating systems, and so this was, to them, a natural extension of that. The games would bring in the hardcore gamers, being able to talk to your television and ask it to put The Price Is Right on for you would bring in the casuals. Theoretically. But the problem was that this reveal event pissed off practically the entire hardcore gaming community who desperately wanted answers to their list of concerns, and reaction to the television features of the Xbox One was fairly mixed. I mean, it’s not that hard to just press a button on a remote, is it? Couple that with the fact that the TV stuff wouldn’t work outside of the US at launch (or possibly at all) and the whole thing fell a little flat.

Making matters worse, gamers obviously didn’t seem to care much at all about the TV features and desperately wanted to know about Kinect, about always online, about trading games, and when pressed for answers on these issues, Microsoft reps mostly either fumbled their answers, contradicted each other, or gave half-truths, and in the rare cases that they actually gave proper answers, the answers sucked.

The Aftermath of the Reveal

Not long after the dreadful reveal event for the Xbox One, Microsoft sheepishly confirmed most of the rumours about their maligned console in a press release the week before E3. They hoped to win gamers around at E3 itself when they would show off their line-up of games for the system, and then maybe all of the bad press would just go away. Few people remember this, but Microsoft actually had a pretty good conference at E3 2013, but it was completely overshadowed and almost instantly forgotten about in light of what went down in the PlayStation conference. In one of the savviest public relations moves Sony has ever made, they remained quiet in the months leading up to E3 regarding always online and used games, leading many to believe that Sony would be doing the same thing as Microsoft.

Conventional wisdom said that Microsoft wouldn’t be bold enough to attempt anything so anti-consumer without knowing that Sony were doing the same thing, and so when Sony revealed on stage at E3 that their console wouldn’t require a costly camera that nobody wanted, wouldn’t stop working without an Internet connection, and would allow users to trade or sell the games they’d bought at will, the crowd erupted into chants of “Sony! Sony! Sony!” Jack Tretton started giggling to himself numerous times as the crowd cheered and thanked him and Sony for what they were doing. There was a palpable sense of relief that you could feel even watching it on a stream, as people around the world realised that if they didn’t want console gaming to head into a place that they weren’t comfortable with, all they had to do was vote with their wallets.

This smug, grinning face was responsible for sounding the death knell for Xbox One.

It was one of the few E3s that had an almost objective winner. Nobody could possibly have watched those conferences and thought that Microsoft came out of it looking better. Their entire Xbox One strategy was pulled apart on stage by Sony executives to rapturous applause. Later at E3 proper, Microsoft reps were on damage control when asked about the unpopular moves the company had made regarding Xbox One, but you could tell they were deflated. Major Nelson’s entire defence for the Xbox One’s draconian DRM was a half-hearted, “Yeah, but did you see how good Titanfall looked?” while Don Mattrick famously told Geoff Keighley that if Xbox fans wanted an Xbox console but they didn’t have an Internet connection they should just buy a 360. You could practically hear the grim reaper of video game consoles chiselling R.I.P. onto the Xbox One’s tombstone as Mattrick spoke.

A couple of weeks later, Microsoft issued a press release indicating that they’d rethought their Xbox One strategy, and now the console wouldn’t require an Internet connection to function. They also pledged to allow the Xbox One to play used games, meaning gamers could trade or sell their copies as they wished. They were hoping to get back a little good press before launch in November, but the damage was already done. When Xbox One launched alongside the PlayStation 4, Sony’s console quickly found itself outselling Microsoft’s handsomely around the globe, including in the US, previously the only territory to practically guarantee strong sales for the brand. Today, the PlayStation 4 is on course to be one of only four video game consoles to break the 100 million units sold barrier, having currently amassed an impressive 75 million sales since November 2013. Microsoft stopped releasing Xbox One sales figures years ago, but current estimates put it at around 30 million units sold.

The Xbox One of 2018 is practically unrecognisable to what was originally revealed. The online requirement was dropped. TV integration is all but forgotten about. Despite promises to the contrary, Kinect was no longer a mandatory part of the Xbox One bundle not long after launch, and now the camera peripheral with a once bright future is dead. The console was given price cut after price cut in an effort to compete with PS4, efforts that ultimately failed. Xbox One is so far behind PS4 in sales that if it carries on selling at the pace it is now, and the PlayStation 4 was discontinued today, it still wouldn’t catch up in units sold until 2023. The console war is lost, and it was the first battle that proved costliest for Microsoft.

The Xbox One reveal event was a hugely important moment that helped to decide how the current console generation would shape up. Microsoft made so many errors in judgement, so many public relations blunders, and so many misguided design choices when it came to their third video game console that they practically handed Sony a license to run rampant with PS4. It was an open goal, and sure, Sony still had to score, but Microsoft really couldn’t have made it much easier for them. Today, the video game industry is thriving, with the PS4 and the Nintendo Switch both proving hugely successful across the globe, and Microsoft pondering their next move, hopefully learning from history, so that with their next console they don’t repeat it.

Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at

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Game Reviews

‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day



Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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‘Aria of Sorrow’: The Symphony of the Night Sequel Castlevania Needed



Castlevania’s run from 1986 to 1997 is downright legendary. While there are a few duds sprinkled throughout the series’ first decade (Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Dracula X), this is the same franchise that produced Super Castlevania IV, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines over the course of three years– three of the greatest action platformers of all time. 1997 saw Castlevania reach what was arguably its highest point when, unprompted and with no real need to do so, Symphony of the Night pulled off such an expert reinvention that it ended up creating a new genre altogether. With 11 years of goodwill to bank on, Castlevania’s future would never look as bright again– and unfortunately for good reason. 

Following the revolutionary success of Symphony of the Night, Castlevania almost immediately fumbled as a franchise. 1997 closed out not with Symphony of the Night, but the ferociously underwhelming Legends, a Game Boy title that took a cleaver to the franchise’s lore and massacred it. The Nintendo 64 would see the release of Castlevania in 1999, arguably the worst transition from 2D to 3D on the N64, followed by a moderately improved but still mediocre re-release that same year, Legacy of Darkness. By 2000, Castlevania had entered the 21st Century at its lowest point, with Symphony of the Night silently in the background, untouched. 

As if to signal a return to form, however, 2001 saw Konami release two fairly noteworthy titles: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and Castlevania Chronicles for the PlayStation. Where the latter was a remake of the first game, Circle of the Moon marked the series’ first attempt at producing a mechanical sequel to Symphony of the Night. Utilizing the Metroidvania format SotN popularised, Circle of the Moon was met with near universal acclaim at release due to its difficulty curve, tight platforming, and a gameplay loop catered towards old school fans. 

aria of sorrow

Which alone is enough to make Circle of the Moon less a Symphony sequel, and more a Castlevania stuck between the Classicvania and Metroidvania model. It’s a good title for what it is, but Circle of the Moon is so fundamentally different from Symphony of the Night that series producer Koji Igarashi overcorrected when re-taking the reins for 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance, a game that– while good– shamelessly apes everything it can from SotN in an attempt to win over audiences. Juste Belmont looks like Alucard, there’s a variation of the Inverted Castle twist, and the game was designed with the explicit purpose of capitalizing on Symphony of the Night.

To Konami’s credit, the series had regained its legitimacy between both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance, but neither game captured Symphony’s inventiveness. CotM deserves some slack for generally doing its own thing and remaining the most unique Metroidvania in the series to date, but Harmony of Dissonance plays itself too safe, ultimately just winding up a worse version of Symphony of the Night. Not just that, there was the matter of the series’ story. 19 games in and past the turn of the century, the story couldn’t stay in the background anymore. Legends, Legacy of Darkness, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all tried to tell a compelling story and they all faltered along the way. 

Castlevania wasn’t in need of reinvention in 2003, but refinement. The series was good, not great, and every new release was only shining a spotlight on how good Symphony of the Night was, not on how its successors were following it up. It only makes sense, though. How is a franchise meant to follow-up a game like Symphony of the Night? How can Castlevania even be discussed anymore without mention of what is unquestionably one of the greatest video games of all time? It seemed as though the franchise was suffering for no reason at all, but there’s actually a fairly simple answer as to why the series struggled between 1997 and 2003: the lack of the dream team. 

Castlevania often shuffled around its development teams, but Symphony of the Night managed to land a team that in retrospect is on-par with the likes of Chrono Trigger’s legendary development team. Alongside Koji Igarashi– who at the time was assistant director, a programmer, and the scenario writer– Michiru Yamane composed her second soundtrack for the series following Bloodlines, and Ayami Kojima made her debut as a character designer, solidifying the franchise’s gothic aesthetic for good. Unfortunately, the three wouldn’t all intersect again for some time, leaving the Castlevania games to come without the essential players who made Symphony of the Night what it was. 

Igarashi and Kojima would work together again on both Chronicles & Harmony of Dissonance, but Yamane’s other work kept her from Castlevania between 1997 & 2003, and none of them would work on Legends, Legacy of Darkness, or Circle of the Moon. The nature of the industry meant there was no guarantee the three would work on the same project again, but now Castlevania’s lead producer, Koji Igarashi had pull to hire Yamane as the lead composer of his next Castlevania game. Ready to address Harmony of the Night’s criticisms, Koji Igarashi set the stage for the game that would breathe new life into CastlevaniaAria of Sorrow

Instead of calling attention to itself as a successor to Symphony of the Night– something the game admittedly could’ve gotten away with given its production team– Aria of Sorrow does everything it can to assert its individuality asap. Soma Cruz has seemingly no connection to the Belmonts or Dracula, Dracula’s Castle is now inside of an eclipse, and the timeline is no longer rooted in history with the story set in 2035. This is all information conveyed in the opening title crawl, but less than a full minute into gameplay and audiences are already introduced to the Soul mechanic, a system which allows Soma to absorb enemy Souls in order to use their techniques. From there, it’s on the onus of the player to explore. 

For such an all encompassing opening, Aria actually kicks off with little fanfare. Symphony of the Night, Circle of the Moon, and Harmony of Dissonance all open with spectacle, but Aria of Sorrow keeps itself subdued, understanding that while Symphony’s spectacle was indeed an important part of its identity, it’s the gameplay that ultimately won audiences over. Aria of Sorrow wastes no time in presenting its defining Soul mechanic, making it the very first concept players will fully understand: kill enemies to get Souls, use Souls to kill enemies. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but it keeps Aria of Sorrow’s blood pumping long after the credits roll. 

With Soul drops determined by RNG, no two playthroughs will be the same. Such an approach might bother those looking to 100% the game, but it’s exactly this reason why Aria of Sorrow remains so enjoyable to replay. With over 100 Souls available for use, Soma can accomplish far more than any other Castlevania protagonist. Soma can equip three Souls in total at any given moment: one Bullet Soul, Aria’s sub-weapons; one Guardian Soul, skills that can be triggered with R; and one Enchanted Soul, passive abilities that don’t need to be activated. Soma also has access to Ability Souls, inherent techniques that he can activate & deactivate ala Alucard’s skills from Symphony

While the Soul system is more than enough to freshen up the series’ core combat, Aria of Sorrow ditches whips and goes back to the Alucard method of collecting multiple different weapons. Between Souls and Soma’s generous arsenal of weaponry, all play styles are accommodated. Normal Mode is also more forgiving than usual, with Hard Mode better designed for series veterans. This isn’t ideal since most will play Normal and miss out on Hard Mode altogether, but it’s an approach that– in theory– does accommodate fans old and new alike. Aria of Sorrow has an almost overwhelming amount of content, but that’s exactly why it’s so accessible. There’s a weapon, Soul, or difficulty for everyone. 

aria of sorrow

Engaging combat mechanics mean very little without the proper level design, however. Where Harmony of Dissonance comfortably followed a “bigger is better” mentality to its castle’s design, Aria of Sorrow shows a considerable amount of restraint. There is no second castle to unlock– what you see is what you get. Areas are more interconnected than usual, ensuring that fewer areas end up in dead ends, and the castle’s settings are visually grounded for the most part. Aria indulges in chaotic visuals and level design for the final area, but the castle leading up to the finale is unusually comprehensible. As far as navigation goes, this is the best castle in the series. 

Of course, the high quality castle only makes sense when one remembers that it’s Ayami Kojima’s art style that serves as Aria of Sorrow’s base. Moody and gothic, Kojima’s self-taught style has an earthy quality that easily tips into the fantastical, an aesthetic that fits Castlevania perfectly. Michiru Yamane’s score seemingly builds off of Kojima’s art, following the lead with less catchy and more atmospheric tracks on a whole. This doesn’t mean Aria of Sorrow isn’t bursting with amazing songs– one only needs to listen to Heart of Fire to understand that– rather, it’s Aria’s way of keeping a mature, sorrowful tone throughout. 

And Aria of Sorrow is indeed more mature than previous Castlevania titles when it comes to story. Where both Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance played their stories straight, Aria of Sorrow features a decent amount of subtext to bolster its already incredibly intriguing plot. Aria doesn’t just take place in the future, it takes place in a future where Dracula has been killed for good. No Dracula means that a new villain can rise up in the form of Graham Jones, and while he’s not that compelling, he ends up representing everything Dracula claims to despise in humanity. Graham is a hateful coward who thinks too highly of himself, and too little of others. A miserable little pile of secrets. 

That said, while it’s always beneficial to keep characters who fill similar roles antithetical to one another, Graham’s personality is more layered than that. He may be the main antagonist, but he’s no Dracula. Literally. The main plot of Aria of Sorrow concerns itself with who Dracula has reincarnated into. It’s obviously Soma, a fact the series no longer tries to hide, but Aria of Sorrow very cleverly gets around this by doubling down on Graham’s evilness. He’s blatantly evil from his first interaction with Soma, but that’s exactly what keeps players from guessing the Dracula twist their first playthrough.

Soma being Dracula is the cherry on top of Aria of Sorrow, that last little detail that makes everything just right– not just in the game, but in the context of the series. Fast-forwarding far into the future, Aria of Sorrow establishes Dracula’s demise, a grand battle that took place in 1999, and the last Belmont– Julius– the man who killed Dracula for good, but lost his memory in the process. Aria doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Soma either, making him succumb before the end of the game and even featuring an alternate ending where he embraces his demonic powers, leaving Julius to kill Dracula yet again. 

Although Soma has a clear love interest in Mina Hakuba, it’s the relationship between Soma and Julius that ties the story together. Aria is just as much a character study of Dracula through Soma as it is a celebration of the ultimate struggle between the Belmont clan and the Count. The roles have been flipped this time around, with Julius serving as the penultimate battle in one of the best (& hardest) boss fights in the franchise. As he’s not the main character, Julius is also allowed greater depth than the average Belmont. When he appears, it’s because the story calls for it and his scenes are never wasted. 

They’re always used as a means to either flesh out the game’s backstory, or build up to the confrontation between Soma and Julius. The two build a slight bond over the course of the game, one that turns into genuine respect by the time the two men are fighting to the death. It’s easy to overlook the substance in Julius’ interactions since he’s only in six scenes (including the bad ending), but they all slowly chip away at the man underneath– his history, his connection to Dracula, and what it means to be a Belmont. Which in itself is important, as it gives audiences an opportunity to see a Belmont in his element from not only an outsider’s perspective, but Dracula’s. 

Soma’s relationship with Julius may be what best contextualizes Aria of Sorrow’s role in the franchise, but this isn’t to say that the supporting players don’t contribute. Hammer and Yoko Belnades are both on the flat side, but Mina and Genya Arikado do some heavy narrative lifting. Mina evokes images of Dracula’s wife, Lisa, who was first introduced in Symphony of the Night. Their dialogue shows how deeply they care for one another, and Soma’s Dracula-related insecurities end up tainting their dynamic at the end of the game, cutting Soma off from his only source of genuine affection and love. Not just that, Mina proves that Dracula could have adjusted to a normal life had mankind not killed Lisa. 

Then there’s Genya Arikado, a man so blatantly Alucard that the word “Alucard” doesn’t need to appear in the script a single time for fans to make the connection– which it doesn’t. Aria of Sorrow features the main character from Symphony of the Night in an incredibly important and relevant capacity, and he neither looks like he did in Symphony of the Night or directly acknowledges his identity. Frankly, it’s the only tasteful way to use Alucard in a post-Symphony of the Night context. His character has evolved with time, and seeing him in a supportive capacity only makes sense given the events of his own game. His presence helps draw in a sense of finality alongside Mina and Julius. 

aria of sorrow

These three characters thematically represent the main fixtures of Dracula’s life: Mina, the love that ties Dracula to humanity; Genya, the son who in spite of his father’s evil, loves him enough to ensure he can truly rest; and Julius, the final descendant of the Belmont clan and perhaps the strongest man alive. At the center of it all is Soma Cruz, the reincarnation of Dracula. Aria of Sorrow feels like the end of everything Castlevania represents. More games would follow, and Aria would even see a direct sequel in Dawn, but what makes Aria such a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night is that it wasn’t afraid to do something new and bold with Castlevania. Most of this boldness stems from the gameplay, but the story presents itself as a thematic end for Castlevania if nothing else. Dracula and the Belmonts may finally put their feud to rest. 

Or not. As previously mentioned, Aria of Sorrow features an ending where Soma goes full-Dracula. It’s morbid and cuts off right before Julius begins his fight with the dark lord, but it only makes sense. Aria doesn’t shy away from Dracula’s nastier aspects, and that means allowing Soma to be corrupted. Castlevania was always about the eternal struggle between Dracula and the Belmonts, so it’s only fair an ending offer a scenario where the cycle simply repeats. Regardless of which ending players find most appropriate, Michiru Yamane’s use of Bloody Tears in the track Epilogue makes one thing clear: Aria marks a new chapter for Castlevania

When all is said and done, Aria of Sorrow doesn’t even feel like a sequel to Symphony of the Night. Aria goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right. The end product is the end result of the series living in Symphony’s shadow for years. Koji Igarashi went beyond parroting himself, and instead entered production prepared to take Castlevania to the next level with a tried and true team. But even in sharing the same core members as Symphony, Aria never feels like anything but its own distinct game– a mature goodbye to Count Dracula, the Belmont legacy, and everything that happened inbetween. Aria of Sorrow might not have had the same cultural impact of Symphony of the Night, but it’s exemplary of Castlevania at its best. 

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019



Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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