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Top 10 Games with Staff Writer, Izsak Barnette

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Top 10 Games is a new, semi-regular series that hopes to offer a bit of insight into the twisted minds of Goomba Stomp’s writers, editors and podcasters by allowing them to tell you about their all time favorite games, and why they love them to such an unhealthy degree. 

About Izsak:

For my seventh birthday, my grandparents let me pick between a PS2 and a GameCube. I chose the GameCube and I don’t regret it. Why would I? After all, the Big N, while it suffered from plenty of issues, gave me plenty of good, quality games to play as a kid, a rarity in today’s world of mobile-focused shovelware and mature, AAA-focused titles. In the following piece, you’ll find ten games, from childhood favorites to relatively recent releases, that I cherish above all others. I hope you enjoy the list!

10) Super Mario Maker

I’ve always loved Super Mario platformers. From the incredibly creative Super Mario World to the maddeningly tedious Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels, they’ve been the one game series that I’ve played consistently throughout my life. My love for them has stayed consistent, even as my tastes in gaming have matured or diverged entirely.

However, when Super Mario Maker was first announced in 2014, I remember feeling, well–not much of anything at all actually. I genuinely didn’t care about the game in the slightest (a side-effect of waiting eagerly on Xenoblade Chronicles X, I suppose.) The graphics looked pedestrian and while the game’s concept seemed interesting, the presentation most certainly wasn’t.

Fast-forward to September of 2015, however, and my opinion had changed entirely. I hadn’t bought the game at launch so I was watching videos about it courtesy of YouTube channel GameXplain instead. It was then that I realized that the game being released was not only much more polished than the product originally introduced in 2014, but that it also looked like a lot of fun.

Pretty soon, I was playing the game (courtesy of a well-timed birthday gift from my parents) and my family and I fell in love instantly. What normal Super Mario platforms had lacked in difficulty, depth, and variety was improved by a community dedicated to creating some of the most fun, diverse, and difficult Super Mario levels that I’ve ever seen.

Nearly four hundred hours of collective playtime later, its safe to say that Super Mario Maker became not only one of my favorite games of all time, but one of the games that I’ve had the most fun playing with my friends and family. We’ve spent dozens of hours playing through 100 Mario Challenge and countless more designing and polishing our own levels, which you can find here.

In a world where games are often criticized for how they separate people, Super Mario Maker is a rare example of a game that does the opposite, a game that not only brought my family a lot of fun, but also brought us closer together.

9) Super Paper Mario

While often considered the black sheep of the Paper Mario series, Super Paper Mario is a classic. I forget how many dozens of hours I spent as a kid roaming the world of Flipside while on my journey to save the world from the all-encompassing Void. While certainly not as well-polished as The Thousand Year Door, or the portable Mario RPGs, Super Paper Mario successfully manages to create a fun and engaging experience nonetheless.

Aside from its oftentimes banal combat system, the story is one of the better ones in the Mario RPGs, pursuing a depth and maturity that has yet to be topped. It is ultimately a game about love, loss, and the end of the world. The main villain, while lacking the traditional evilness and grativas associated with Mario RPG villains, is excellent.

A character reeling from pain and reacting in kind, his actions paint him as perhaps one of the most complicated characters in Mario series history; a welcome addition to a series whose villains often possess paper-thin motivations.

While its gameplay leaves much to be desired and it lacks the breadth of previous Mario RPGs, the depth of its storytelling coupled with a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and original script, makes it not only one of the best Mario RPGs, but one of the best Mario games of all time. Super Paper Mario truly is a game worth experiencing.

8) Super Smash Bros.

The Super Smash Bros. series has been a favorite of mine since I played Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. The series’ fun mechanics paired with a roster full of  Nintendo characters from almost every one of the Big N’s franchises has given me countless years of enjoyment. However, picking between the different titles in the series is simply too difficult for me; each game is simply too good in its own way.

Super Smash Bros. Melee has a fun, engaging Adventure Mode as well as the most fun (not to mention the most challenging) Events in the series. Super Smash Bros. Brawl has the Sub-Space Emissary which, while not a favorite of all fans, features two of the most most impactful and memorable cutscenes in Nintendo history. Finally, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has (in my personal opinion, don’t flame the comments Melee fans!) the most well-balanced and fun combat mechanics, balancing the combo-heavy nature of Melee with the easy-to-pick up floatiness of Brawl into a package so fun that it can be enjoyed by Smash players of any skill level.

It’s simply too great of a task for me to separate such iconic titles from each other, with too much nostalgia at stake for me to even attempt it. They are in a class of their own, a testament to the genius of series creator Masahiro Sakurai and a visual reminder of just how great a treasure trove of IPs the Big N has at its disposal.

7) Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares 

It would be an exercise in foolishness to try and count how many hours I spent playing the Master of Orion series as a kid. I owned both Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares and Master of Orion III for the PC. Courtesy of watching my father play them when I was young, I fell in love with the series quickly. While Master of Orion III doesn’t hold up particularly well today, instead playing like an instance of “Excel Spreadsheets: The Game,” the second game absolutely does, a testament to how well good game design can carry a game that’s even older than I am.

Released over two decades ago, Master of Orion II possesses gameplay that, while rudimentary by today’s standards, is impressive for a game older than the Millennium itself. A complicated meta-game evolving around balancing special attributes and a punishing AI highlight what is perhaps the greatest feature of Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares, its nigh infinite replayability.

I have seldom found a game that I can come back to, whether after a week or a year, and still have just as much fun as the day that I first started. Master of Orion II is an exception to that rule, a game so fun and enjoyable that I still return to it, even today.

Master of Orion II doesn’t hide its age well and it doesn’t have to. Much like any classic, it can instead rest upon its timeless brilliance, brilliance that transcends the rapid development of PC hardware and the space-strategy genre. Master of Orion II is a classic space strategy game, and one that needs to be experienced by anyone who loves PC gaming or strategy games. It is a masterpiece of timeless game design.

6) Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga

While the Mario and Luigi series has hit something of a snag recently with two good, but not great, entries in the series, its debut game is still as great as it ever was. Another gift from my childhood, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga maintained a constant presence in my Game Boy Advance’s carrying bag as a kid.

Fun, cartoony visuals punctuated with a masterful score by legendary composer Yoko Shimomura make most every moment of playing Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga a zanily enjoyable experience. Although I had played Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door by the time I received Superstar Saga as a Christmas present, it was my first true RPG; a fact that made it very hard for me to finish as a kid.

I can’t remember how many times I got stuck on a boss, puzzle, or just got lost in the game, but Superstar Saga‘s difficulty paled in comparison to its final boss, easily one of the most difficult final bosses that I’ve ever played against.

It wasn’t that the game was particularly hard, but that, like most children, I was impatient. Not content to spend the limited time I had to play games defeating enemies for experience points, I often ran from encounters, increasing the difficulty of the game further. Looking back, it’s a wonder that I ever finished it at all.

Regardless, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga is a superb adventure, and one well worth revisiting either on the Wii U eShop or when its remakeMario and Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions comes out on the 3DS this fall.

5) Chrono Trigger

It is very, very easy to make a bad JRPG. Trust me, I’ve played plenty of them. Even today, the genre struggles with crafting experiences that differ significantly from JRPGs that were released twenty or thirty years ago, with a few notable exceptions.

While most older JRPGs (such as the perennially loved Final Fantasy VI) show their age through use of by-the-book JRPG design, Chrono Trigger‘s originality and timeless gameplay still holds up as well as any RPG released today. An excellent, well-written time-travel story, an engaging battle system, and lovable characters made Chrono Trigger an easy game to fall in love with.

And the characters are what makes Chrono Trigger so different from many other JRPGs. From the enigmatic Magus to the indisputably honorable Frog, each characters stands out from the crowd of traditional JRPG archetypes, a testament to the game’s memorable presentation.

All of this goes without mentioning the spectacular soundtrack, which, as a first production by now-legendary composer Yasonori Mitsuda, is rivaled only by a select few. Its timeless melodies and luscious synth-jazz trills still give me chills to this day. It’s a masterpiece in sound design, and a testament to how well timeless music can set the stage for an excellent game.

Timelessness really is Chrono Trigger‘s greatest strength as, even 22 years after its initial 1995 release, it still holds up remarkably well. True timelessness is rare among games, but especially among RPGs, whose greatest tool is their ability to immerse players within a world. Despite releasing on hardware less powerful than the modern smart thermostat, Chrono Trigger still impresses today, a monument to what can be accomplished with enough pure talent, even on severely outdated hardware.

4) Final Fantasy XIV

There is no game on this list whose memory is more bittersweet for me than Final Fantasy XIV. The MMO genre is known for its ability to draw people in, to have them consider a fictional world of polygons and vectors their second home. FFXIV was no different for me.

I’ve written about it extensively before, but I played FFXIV during a time of great dynamism and change in my life. It relieved a lot of the stress from my final year of college and gave me goals that, while essentially meaningless, provided a release from what writing 15 papers in 14 weeks will often do to a person.

It helped that the game was a masterpiece in MMO design. While more “amusement park” MMO than sandbox, FFXIV was filled with so much content and so many callbacks to previous entries in the series that I often felt like it was a game designed specifically for me. A great story, epic soundtrack, and addictive content treadmill made playing FFXIV feel rewarding. Even if it took fifty hours to get the exclusive loot that I was after, it ultimately felt worth it in the end.

For more than a year and a half, all of my gaming-related decisions revolved around playing FFXIV. After I first played the game on PC, I bought a copy for the now-shuttered PS3 so that I could play while the computer was being used. When I got a PS4, I upgraded from the PS3 version so I could enjoy better graphical fidelity and smooth frame rates while in the living room. When I upgraded my computer to be able to play FFXIV at 1080p and 60FPS, I purchased a new keyboard and mouse, specifically to enhance my FFXIV experience. Everything I did, gaming-wise, at least tangentially, considered FFXIV, something I haven’t done for any other game, before or since.

I stopped playing FFXIV shortly after the release of Patch 3.1 in the Fall of 2015, when I made an attempt to come back and play it again. It simply wasn’t the same. Most of the members of my Free Company (FFXIV‘s version of guilds) had moved on. As a result, my desire to return slowly dropped away.

However, my memories of Eorzea haven’t. They remain as poignant today as they did then, a reminder of how games can move us in unexpected ways and make a discernible impact on our lives; a reminder of how powerful gaming is as an entertainment medium.

3) Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door

I remember the first time I heard about the Paper Mario series. I was standing in Wal-mart with my parents, watching one of those old CRT TVs that used to droop down from the ceiling, when an advertisement for The Thousand Year Door came on.

I was skeptical of the game’s appeal, as its cutesy, paper aesthetic immediately made me label it as a game for really young kids, and an uninteresting one at that.

Fast-forward a few months and, lo and behold, I received The Thousand Year Door along with Super Mario Sunshine for my birthday. As soon as my father and I began to play the game, I realized just how wrong my initial impression had been.

Far from the boring, Mario Paint-esque art game that I was expecting, The Thousand Year Door was one of the best games that I had ever played. An initially simple battle system unfurled into the subtly nuanced Badge System and a story that could have been mailed in was, instead, unfolded with great care. Side-missions involving Princess Peach and Bowser added variety and flavor to the game without interrupting its pacing.

Such brilliance was also evident in the design of each chapter of the game’s story. While there is one relatively weak chapter in the game, Chapter 2, the rest stand out as among the best in Mario RPG history. Adventures such as Mario’s trip to Glitzville and journey on the Excess Express are as memorable as anything the portly plumber has done over his nearly four decades of existence.

Despite paper-thin graphics, the game world comes alive brilliantly, the ultimate evidence that visual creativity often trumps pure graphical fidelity, especially as a title ages. Beautiful colors and an excellent paper aesthetic decorate a world that’s as beautiful and creative as any in the Mario series.

It’s a shame that Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door hasn’t been re-released yet. Such creativity ought not to be held back by the poor sales of a middling console, and one of the greatest games of all time ought not to linger behind while lesser games absorb the spotlight. It’s long past time that Nintendo reminds gamers of its brilliance and re-release The Thousand Year Door so that a new generation of gamers can see its greatness.

2) Metroid Prime

I received Metroid Prime in a bundle along with my GameCube for my birthday in 2004 and it’s the quintessential nostalgic tale of my childhood. I’ve discussed Metroid Prime at length before but, simply put, it’s one of the greatest gaming experiences of all time.

While previous Metroid games were excellent in their own right, Prime took the series to new heights. By taking the player within the suit, Nintendo and Retro Studios allowed one to truly experience the game, taking immersion to an entirely different level. Such excellent immersion, when paired with true in-game isolation, allowed Prime to craft an impressively quilted atmosphere that the series has yet to match in subsequent entries.

That goes without mentioning the excellent graphics, which hold up even today. While working with laughably antiquated hardware, Retro Studios managed to produce a game that looks as sharp as any Nintendo game ever has. While zones mainly stick to their themes, each is populated with detailed, believable flora and fauna that fit perfectly in their environment. From the fearsome Baby Sheegoth that stalk the Phendrana Drifts to the oh-so-annoying Shriekbats that haunt every corridor, Metroid Prime‘s biodiversity is one of its greatest strengths.

The music, composed by Kenji Yamamoto, remains some of Nintendo’s best. Soft, mellow glaciality highlights the expanse of Phendrana Drifts while the bubbly harmonies beneath the main melody of Magmoor Caverns showcase not only its incredible beauty, but also its danger. Perhaps no other Nintendo game executes so well on its soundtrack as Metroid Prime does.

Overall, Metroid Prime is, in every way, the quintessential Metroid game and one well worth experiencing. From its impressive vistas to its groundbreaking immersion, the original Metroid Prime isn’t only the greatest Metroid game ever made, it is also one of the greatest games ever made.

1) Xenoblade Chronicles

Once one witnesses true greatness, it becomes that much harder to stomach the dullness of mediocrity. I witnessed this greatness when I first played Xenoblade Chronicles in 2012, and I have yet to witness a game that approaches its stratospheric excellence.

I have spent the better part of five years searching wide and far for a JRPG capable of dethroning Xenoblade. I haven’t succeeded. Despite playing through almost the entirety of the Final Fantasy series and playing Xenoblade’s own spiritual successor, nothing has come close.

And, that’s not because they lack quality, it’s simply because Xenoblade supersedes them in every way.

Xenoblade’s story is breathtaking, a testament to the passion of director Tetsuya Takahashi. Unlike previous projects of his, such as Xenogears or the Xenosaga trilogy, Xenoblade doesn’t suffer from rampant issues in pacing nor the game’s own obtuse need to repeatedly remind the player how smart it is. While there’s still plenty of philosophizing (Xenoblade borrows heavily from Gnosticism), it is kept under control for most of the story, allowing the player to keep at least a tangential understanding of what is occurring on screen.

As a result, Xenoblade maintains its pace throughout the entirety of the adventure. While most JRPGs have either a slow beginning, a glacial middle, or a soul-crushingly difficult end, Xenoblade stays, with the exception of one ultra-challenging boss toward the end, incredibly well-paced. From the beginning until the end, there isn’t a single section that overstays its welcome. For a game that can stretch to over 100 hours, Xenoblade moves at a remarkable pace.

The story is assisted by an even better soundtrack. While I’ve heard a bevy of great music from a variety of JRPG maestros such as Nobuo Uematsu, none of them can match the consistent quality of Xenoblade’s soundtrack. Tracks such as “Unfinished Battle” and “You Will Know Our Names” are truly some of the greatest tracks in not only the history of JRPGs, but also of video games.

In fact, Xenoblade remains the only game whose soundtrack I listen to on a near-daily basis. Its vast collection of 91 songs covers nearly every perceivable emotion. Sad? Xenoblade has a song for that. Happy? Xenoblade has a song for that. Feel like crushing robots with the power of your magical sword? There’s a song for that too.

Every aspect of Xenoblade, from its incredible setting upon the bodies of two titans, to its excellent gameplay, seems designed to create the perfect JRPG. It aims for excellence and soars way above its mark, hitting true greatness.

And that, ultimately, is why Xenoblade Chronicles is my favorite game of all time. Its excellent story, superb music, and creative setting outclass every other game that I have ever played. While it isn’t perfect, it is far and above the greatest game that I’ve ever played, proof that JRPGs, despite stagnating as a genre, can still tell stories worth hearing.

10 Honorable Mentions: Civilization V, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 (Wii), Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ricky D

    August 30, 2017 at 11:32 pm

    How … why … how … no Zelda on the top 10?

    • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

      August 31, 2017 at 7:28 am

      Zelda games are objectively good games, with Wind Walker being my favorite. However, I’ve never enjoyed playing them as much as the games on this list. If this was a perfectly objective top 10, Ocarina would certainly be on here.

      • Ricky D

        September 2, 2017 at 7:04 pm

        Refresh my memory but did you play and like Xenoblade Chronicles X?

        • Izsak “Khane” Barnette

          September 3, 2017 at 8:15 am

          I played it and I really didn’t like it in the slightest. The story was poor and very boring, the character models weren’t that good, and it lacked the appeal of the first game. I remember being so disappointed when I played it. After all, I had waited almost three years to play the game and it didn’t meet my expectations in the slightest. Tops my list as my most disappointing game of all time. A lot of people like it, though, and I have no problem with that.

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Game Reviews

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

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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

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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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Awesome Mixtape: Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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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: Gordy Haab and Stephen Barton and the London Symphony Orchestra (and London Voices at Abbey Road)
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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