Wikipedia features a rather interesting page titled “List of video games considered the best.” Compiled by cross-referencing different publications’ editorials of the greatest games ever made— typically top 100 articles— said list reads like a “Who’s Who” of the most influential and genre-defining video games spanning nearly half a century. Simply skimming the list with some video game knowledge or context, it’s not hard to understand why games like Pong, Super Mario Bros., and The Legend of Zelda are listed. Not only are they important games that helped legitimize the video game medium, they’re also all mechanically refined to the point of still holding their overall quality today. Then there are games like Secret of Mana.
While a critical darling at release, Secret of Mana did not end up having the same long-term impact its contemporaries did. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past perfected an action-adventure formula that would be used for years; Super Mario World fine-tuned its platforming to near-perfect precision, essentially forcing Nintendo to have to go 3D with their next mainline entry; and Final Fantasy VI more or less set the foundation for Final Fantasy VII to take the stage all while being a tremendously high-quality RPG in its own right. Secret of Mana, on the other hand, has no real legacy outside of being a good SNES RPG.
Which is arguably an issue with how the Mana franchise was handled in the west. A sequel to Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana is the second game in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. More importantly, it’s the game that sets up Seiken Densetsu 3 (now titled Trials of Mana) mechanically. Unfortunately, Trials of Mana was not released outside of Japan until June 2019. As a result, it only makes sense Secret of Mana would lack a legacy of its own. What directly followed Secret of Mana internationally was Legend of Mana, not Trials, a game that didn’t build itself on Secret’s foundation.
More importantly, Secret of Mana is an interesting case on the “List of video games considered the best” page as general consensus very much deems Trials of Mana not only the better of the two games, but the best entry in the Seiken Densetsu franchise. Where a compelling case could be made for Super Mario World and Final Fantasy VI being better than their 3D successors, Secret of Mana doesn’t afford the same luxury. Not only because its direct, mechanical sequel was never released outside of Japan, but because Trials of Mana is just such a clear improvement all around featuring better gameplay, a better story, and better music.
That said, this train of thought ignores a very important aspect of game analysis: video games are more than the sum of their parts. Due to the advancement of technology and the relative infancy of the medium, video games are at a stage where they seemingly benefit most from sequels. After all, a sequel can iron out any mechanical kinks that slipped through the first go around. This is exactly what Trials of Mana does, laterally and logically improving Secret of Mana, but it isn’t Secret of Mana. When it comes down to it, there’s only one Secret of Mana and, for all its flaws, it will forever be considered one of the best games of all time. Why and how, though?
After all, Secret of Mana isn’t just overshadowed by its direct sequel, but by its sister game as well: Chrono Trigger. Unfortunately for director Koichi Ishii, Secret of Mana was being developed for the Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter, an add-on for the console that would have made use of the “Super Disc.” As the peripheral was being developed by both Nintendo and Sony shortly before they parted ways, Secret of Mana had to be trimmed down considerably with roughly 40% of the game being scrapped. Of note, in “Retro Gamer”’s February 2011, Ashley Day revealed that producer Hiromichi Tanaka not only planned for the story to be much darker, but for there to be multiple routes and endings ala Chrono Trigger.
With 40% of the planned game gutted to fit on a Super Famicom cartridge, Secret of Mana was at a disadvantage at release and it shows. As soon as players gain access to Flammie, any sense of direction or pacing is thrown out the window. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the late-game focus on exploration as a crutch to overcome nearly half a game’s worth of missing content and story. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that Secret of Mana was developed in an era where game development was limited in general. The Super Famicom CD-Rom Adapter would have certainly helped bolster the game, but true creativity shines when artists need to be mindful of what they can and can’t do.
In a September 2006 interview Swedish magazine “Level,” Koichi Ishii specified that Secret of Mana was “his game” in the context of his career. Even without 40% of the game’s planned content, Secret of Mana still represents the director’s vision in earnest. Although Ishii would go on to direct Legend of Mana and Dawn of Mana, he interestingly left Seiken Densetsu 3’s director role for Hiromichi Tanaka, opting to instead serve as the game’s character and game designer. As a result, even on the Super Nintendo, Secret of Mana feels distinctly unique when compared to its immediate successor.
When it comes down to it, understanding Secret of Mana’s status as one of the best games of all time necessitates an understanding of Koichi Ishii’s direction. Worth noting, Ishii did direct the original Seiken Densetsu for Game Boy, a title that featured a classically tragic story where death was a natural occurrence alongside Final Fantasy iconography and an almost western cartoon aesthetic. Starting up Secret of Mana, the aesthetic is very much alive, if not more so, thanks to its vibrant color palette and festive score, but there’s a distinct difference in how Secret of Mana presents its narrative. At first, at least.
Final Fantasy Adventure wastes no time cutting to the chase, opening with a boss battle outright and killing the character who’s meant to be the protagonist’s best friend. The English translation does muddy the impact quite a bit, but the game’s visual style of storytelling does preserve the intent. Secret of Mana, however, kicks off with a fairly middling opener. After a title crawl that explains the game’s backstory and lore, much of the early game is spent dealing with lower stake encounters. No one dies, antagonists aren’t fully identified for quite a while, and the saddest thing that happens is the protagonist Randi being kicked out of his village, something he seems to accept rather quickly.
It certainly doesn’t help that Final Fantasy Adventure puts its best foot forward while Secret of Mana front-loads its worst content right at the start of the game. Things don’t really start to pick up until the full party is formed, and it isn’t until players can access to magic that the gameplay opens up meaningfully. Until then, players are left running back and forth between Pandora, Gaia’s Navel, the Water Palace, and the Haunted Forest far longer than they perhaps should. Which is actually an incredibly important detail to consider.
What Secret of Mana unquestionably has over its predecessor, and arguably even its successor, is the promise of scope. Cannon Travel may just seem like a clever way of tossing the party around the map, but every time players use a cannon, they get a glimpse at the world around them. There’s more to Secret of Mana’s overworld than meets the eye, and spending so much time in the starting area only makes finally leaving it via Cannon Travel all the more impactful. More importantly, this style of pacing allows the game’s scope to grow naturally.
Although many might argue that an ebb and flow would have ultimately benefited the game’s pacing, much of Secret of Mana’s identity is tied to a sense of escalation. As the story progresses, stakes do raise. Randi’s role in the plot becomes much clearer, Primm’s romance with Dyluck is explored in more detail, and Popoi gradually becomes a more realized character. They’re a rather bland party in the grand scheme of things, no doubt due to a mix of the script’s rushed localization and the missing content, but there are surprising nuances and layers to each character.
While Tanaka did serve as a writer for Secret of Mana, Ishii’s character direction nonetheless shines through. In many respects, Randi’s arc follows many of the same beats Sumo’s did in the first game while also relegating his growth to the background. Someone simply rushing from point to point likely won’t even recognize that either character grows during the course of their journey, but slower, attentive players will gradually see Randi mature up until the very end. It isn’t a particularly compelling arc, but it’s an interesting one if only because it isn’t on the nose.
As was the case with Final Fantasy Adventure, though, Ishii’s creative vision is at its most clear in the moment to moment gameplay. Tanaka may have intended a richer narrative when first drafting Seiken Densetsu 2, but the fact of the matter is that story never would have been the priority with Ishii serving as director. IGN named Koichi Ishii the 97th best game creator of all time in 2009 and rightfully so. Ishii’s gameography places an emphasis on titles that understand the heart of the medium: interactivity.
No, running in and out of Gaia’s Navel isn’t particularly engaging on a surface level, but learning the area while uncovering a new culture is. There might not be much in the way of party interactivity, but the fact that every character has weapons they can level does mean there’s a constant sense of progression. Doubly so when taking into consideration both Primm and Popoi’s unique magic leveling. The antagonists lack a compelling motivation, but that hardly matters when the game makes an active effort to depict them as a legitimate threat, going so far as destroying the Mana Tree near the end of the game.
The Mana Tree specifically is an interesting beat to linger on as it’s perhaps the best example of Ishii’s direction in action. Over the course of the entire game, players are told that their only hope is restoring the Mana Sword in order to stop the Mana Fortress’ revival. Closer to the end, the heroes latch onto the idea of using the Mana Tree to power up the sword, a concept that would bare a considerable amount of meaning for anyone who played Final Fantasy Adventure. The journey to the Mana Tree is a grueling one, done entirely through gameplay, and it all ends with a quick scene of the Mana Tree being eviscerated before the heroes can properly arrive.
In a game where improving one’s weapons is a core mechanic, there’s something very powerful about watching the one thing that could have powered up the strongest weapon in the game being taken away at the last possible moment. Pure Land is the longest dungeon in the game, featuring six bosses and an onslaught of enemies in-between. With barely any dialogue happening in the dungeon, the story plays out through gameplay exclusively up to the point the Mana Tree is burned down. This is a trend that Secret of Mana uses for most of its dungeons, allowing gameplay to take center stage, but it pays off most when the stakes are high and telegraphed clearly through gameplay.
All that said, while Ishii’s gameplay leads to incredible moments, the gameplay itself would need to be quite good to pull off such a feat. Unfortunately, Secret of Mana’s core combat isn’t all that intuitive, but it is something better: interesting. What Secret of Mana will always have over its far more fluid successor is the stamina meter. An impatient player will find themselves immediately frustrated with the fact that Randi can’t just wail on enemies that should be dead in a few seconds flat, but that creates an intimacy not just with the combat, but with the enemies inhabiting the overworld.
Secret of Mana’s combat lives and dies by its natural rhythm. Randi, Primm, and Popoi can attack at any time so long as their stamina meter is full, but they have to wait through a cool-down before they can strike again. Enemies also stagger when hit, meaning that players also have to wait for monsters to regain their composure before they can be attacked again. It can be called padding as it forces the player to spend more time with the game than they’d otherwise need to, but a little bit of patience is hardly a bad thing. Secret of Mana is an adventure, and adventures take time. More importantly, this back and forth adds to the idea that Secret of Mana takes place in a living, breathing world.
Alongside the stamina meter, attacks can be charged up in order to inflict more damage. The higher the weapon level, the longer the weapon can be charged. By the end of the game, charging up one’s weapon is incredibly important when it comes to dealing damage. As the game progresses, how someone plays the game is bound to naturally change, either out of necessity of curiosity. For as interesting as the stamina meter and charge-up system are, it’s the vast variety of weapons that keeps Secret of Mana so fresh. With eight different weapons to choose from, players have full range over how their party controls.
Randi will need to use the Mana Sword during the final boss fight, but it’s anyone’s game up to that point.This goes double for Primm and Popoi as they have their own sets of magic to level and use. Not every weapon or spell is necessary for completing the game, but they’re not useless either. No two playthroughs need to be the same, and it’s entirely possible to get through Secret of Mana focusing on just about any weapon or spell. Secret of Mana, by its very nature, is a game that gets better the more it’s played. Koishi Ishii’s touch is one that lingers all the way to the very end of his games, and Secret of Mana is the clearest depiction of his vision.
It’s entirely possible that if Trials of Mana released in the west in the mid-90s, it would have usurped Secret of Mana’s place on Wikipedia’s “List of video games considered the best,” but ideally both RPGs would be featured. Secret of Mana might be as hyper-competent on a mechanical or narrative level, but not every game has to break the mold to be considered a classic. Likewise, Secret of Mana does not need a legacy that extends past itself. It’s an incredibly important entry in the Mana franchise, one that would directly influence what’s considered to be the best game in the series, but it’s also its own game with its own vision. A gripping, charming, and at times even frustrating adventure that understands its medium better than most, Secret of Mana might not be one of the best games ever made, but it is undeniably one of the best games of all time.
Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’
Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.
When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.
Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.
Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.
With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.
For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.
There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.
Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.
While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.
This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.
It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.
‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day
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.
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
‘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.
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 Castlevania– Aria 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 that 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.
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.
Aria of Sorrow goes beyond wanting to replicate the greats and instead chooses to be great in its own right.
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.
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.
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.
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 offers 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 in between. 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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