Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami
Original Release: Game Boy Advance 2003
Also Available On: Wii U Virtual Console

Third time’s a charm! Out of the 3 GBA games, I think Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the one where they finally got it right. Circle of the Moon wasn’t a bad game, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as good as the previous Castlevania, Symphony of the Night. Harmony of Dissonance was pretty bad, though. Aria of Sorrow feels like a game made by developers who learned a lot from HoD and are getting the most they can out of the GBA hardware. When people talk about the GBA and DS Castlevanias, two games always come up, Aria of Sorrow and its sequel, Dawn of Sorrow.

One of the coolest things about Aria of Sorrow is its story. It’s the second part of a 3 part saga, which concluded in Dawn of Sorrow. That’s pretty epic as far as Castlevania stories go. Tragically, we never got the prequel showing us how it all started in 1999. That’s when Julius Belmont and his companions (Maybe Yoko and Alucard) killed Dracula “once and for all”. Castlevania itself was sealed in a solar eclipse (don’t ask me how that works), and the Vampire Killer whip was left inside the castle to contain its power. Fast forward to 2035, the reincarnation of Dracula, Soma Cruz, and his friend, Mina, are sucked into an eclipse and end up in Castlevania. Inside, they find a few other people running around, including a Belnades mage, Yoko, and Alucard himself.

The gameplay in Aria of Sorrow is classic SotN. You explore an area, maybe see some places you can’t reach without a specific ability, find the next save point, fight a boss, get a new ability, and maybe talk with one of the other characters along the way. I think the castle layout is where AoS really shines. Everything flows together so well. It’s so much better designed than Harmony of Dissonance’s, which had a lot of dead ends and teleports in terrible locations. AoS has well-placed save points and teleports, and the teleports start becoming available very early on in the game, so I rarely felt like getting somewhere was a chore. I also like how it’s always obvious if you need a specific ability to reach a certain area, and how NPCs give you hints, so there’s isn’t a lot of aimless wandering around. The way you run into the other characters around the castle is also very SotN-like and feels very natural. I love how the story unfolds as you clear or reach new areas. That’s one thing AoS does even better than SotN.

The new gameplay system that sets AoS apart from the previous 3 Castlevanias is the Tactical Soul system. Tactical Souls is how this game does subweapons, transformations, special moves, stat boosts, and some abilities. You have a chance to get a soul from enemies when you kill them, and these souls power up the more of them you get. You get 3 slots for different types of souls; Bullet, Guardian, and Enchanted Souls. Bullet Souls are subweapons, Guardian Souls are on use abilities like the bat form, and Enchanted Souls are passive abilities and buffs. You can also unlock special perks with some combinations of powers. It’s much cooler than CotM’s cards or HoD’s elemental spell books. The only bad thing about it is having to go to the menu screen to switch souls out. There’s one area where you have to switch between the water walking and underwater walking soul a few times because they go in the same slot, and it gets kind of annoying.

Equipment and special abilities, like double jumps and slides, are still in this game too. There’s lots of fun and different things to play with, like giant broadswords, spears, knives, hammers, and even a whip sword. It's too bad that you get it early in the game, so it isn’t very strong. There is a Julius mode, though. There’s something for pretty much all Castlevania play styles in AoS.

Aria of Sorrow has the best graphics of all the GBA Castlevania games. There are some very plain looking backgrounds early in the game, but most are really nice and detailed, especially in the second half of the game. I especially love the famous staircase to Dracula’s throne room in the background of the boss battle against Death. That’s a very clever touch. The GBA’s 240 x 160 resolution kind of holds the graphics back, though. That’s even lower than the NES’ 256 x 240 resolution. It doesn’t matter if they reuse graphics from SotN and Rondo of Blood, it's never going to look as good as those games on a GBA because of its lower resolution. It’s still a really good looking GBA game, though.

The music in Aria of Sorrow is also the best of the GBA games. It’s not quite SotN good, or even SNES good, but the quality of the audio is greatly improved over Harmony of Dissonance. It doesn’t sound all distorted anymore. The composition of the songs themselves is also very good. Michiru Yamane and Sohiro Hokkai, who also worked on HoD, return here and they do an amazing job of keeping the Castlevania sound alive with both new songs and remixes. My favorite song is “Don’t Wait Until Night”, a remix of a song from the Haunted Castle arcade game which plays during one of the coolest boss battles in the game.

I don’t think Aria of Sorrow is as good as Symphony of the Night, but it’s close, and being close to being as good as one of the best games of all time is pretty amazing in my book. This is by far the best of the GBA Castlevanias, and one of the best Castlevanias of all time. It has some of the best music and graphics on GBA, a great castle design that flows extremely well, lots of fun gear and abilities to play with, and one of the best stories in the Castlevania series. It’s one of my favorite GBA games. A must play for all fans of Metroidvanias.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom Review

Developer: Tecmo
Original Release: Famicom/NES 1991
Also Available On: Wii U and 3DS Virtual Console

Maybe the title should say Ninja Ryukenden III. That's the Famicom version of Ninja Gaiden III. The game I played the most for this review. The NES version of Ninja Gaiden III is kind of a mess. Apparently, the US branch of Tecmo wanted NGIII to be harder so that it couldn’t be easily beaten in a rental, so the developers did as they were told. They took away unlimited continues and capped them at 5 (there’s a 99 continues code, though), increased damage taken, put in extra enemies, took out many health refills, and made it so you still took damage during knockbacks. They turned the easiest Ninja Gaiden into the hardest Ninja Gaiden. The Famicom version of NGIII isn’t a bad game, though. It’s just not on the same level as Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2.

Series like Zelda, Castlevania, and Mario had their weird sequel with number 2, but number 3 is the weird one of the bunch for Ninja Gaiden. The first thing I noticed is that this game is much slower than the first two. Ryu runs slower, his jumps are floaty, and even the enemies move slower. This makes the game a lot easier than the first two. Easier than some of the hardest NES games, but it isn’t exactly Kirby. The difficulty in the Famicom version of NGIII feels pretty average for an NES action platformer. The biggest thing that makes the game easier is how generous the checkpoints are. You never go back to the beginning of the level, even after continuing. You just go back to the previous checkpoint. Also, the last boss’ forms actually stay dead after you die or continue. He doesn’t send you back to the beginning of the level either. You just go to the previous checkpoint. He’s much nicer than Jaquio.

The game still plays like Ninja Gaiden, but it also feels like Tecmo trying to make the game like other NES games. I see a lot of Strider and Shadow of the Ninja in Ninja Gaiden III. Ryu gets a monkey bar climb, just like the one in Shadow of the Ninja, and there’s also a new power up that gives Ryu a much larger sword slash that looks a lot like Strider Hiryu’s. I find it so weird that Ninja Gaiden would be looking at the games that it influenced for inspiration. Oh, and Ryu finally learned how to climb onto ledges after a wall climb in this game.

The level design also has a bunch of obstacles that are new to Ninja Gaiden, but will feel very familiar to fans of NES action games. There’s moving platforms, spike traps, quicksand, jumping piranhas, rising lava, falling platforms, and a bunch of vertical areas. I was reminded of Mega Man, Mario 3, and Zelda II among other NES games. The level design is totally different from Ninja Gaiden I and II’s super challenging platforming sequences. It makes the game feel more like 20 other NES action platformers than a sequel to NGII.

The game also looks a lot like other NES games. It reminds me of games like Sunsoft’s Batman and Shadow of the Ninja. There’s a lot of metal walls, steel beam platforms, bricks, pipes, and random machinery in the backgrounds. They also got rid of the slightly 3D camera angle from the first 2 games in favor of a straight on 2D shot of the action, just like every other NES action game. I do like the graphics in the jungle and the desert, though. The framerate is good too. I didn’t notice any slowdown. Technically, the graphics do look a little better than NGII, but stylistically, it doesn’t really look like Ninja Gaiden.

The cutscenes in NGIII are also a big step down from NGII. I don’t know what happened to Ryu, but he looks weird. You can see the outline of his nose and mouth through his mask, and his mouth covering goes up the bridge of his nose, so the only part of his face exposed is his eyes. He looks like some kind of anime parody of regular Ryu. Everything in the cutscenes has this weird kind of look to it, and some of the color choices for key scenes are very puzzling.

The music is actually not bad. It uses the same template as the previous games; lots of fast-paced, heroic anime music during gameplay, and slower, more dramatic, movie score-like music during cutscenes. The music during the levels does sound a bit more like dance music than in the previous games, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

There really isn’t anything special about Ninja Gaiden III. It’s kind of fun while it lasts, but you’re better off playing Vice: Project Doom, Shadow of the Ninja, Sunsoft’s Batman, Shatterhand, or Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2. Ninja Gaiden III is just sort of generic and forgettable. It’s kind of sad that the NES trilogy ended with this. I would have much rather had another Ninja Gaiden like NGII. Just more of the same.