Games can usually be broken down into two distinct categories: experiences and diversions. Experiences tend to be ambitious games, large in scope and innovative in design. They can surprise me, knock me off balance, make me think and wonder and use my imagination. They make me feel genuine emotion, and absorb me for weeks, or even months on end (The Legend Of Zelda series consistently does this). Experiences create vivid, detailed worlds that I'm often reluctant to leave. Diversions, on the other hand, are something for me to do while I wait for my frozen pizza to unthaw.
Aria Of Sorrow is certainly gorgeous: the moon constantly lurks in the background, chalk-yellow and ominous; the gray clouds ripple nicely. This particular incarnation of Castlevania features an ingeniously designed castle. Rarely did I find myself doing any aimless wandering, as I did in Circle Of The Moon and Harmony Of Dissonance. Aria Of Sorrow also represents a return to aural glory for the series. I'm amazed that the tiny speaker on the Game Boy Advance is capable of producing such rich, complex tunes. And the gameplay? Vintage Castlevania. Being a 10-year veteran of Castlevania games, I know the drill at this point: Storm the castle, explore every cranny and nook, find weapons, level-up my character (in this case it's the sexually ambiguous Soma Cruz), dispatch monsters and battle bosses. In other words, this is basically the exact same gameplay formula that's been in place since Symphony of the Night. The only true innovation this time around is the new Soul System—kill enemies, absorb their souls, gain their powers—which replaces the Holy Water/Rotating Bibles/Arcing Axes sub-weapon system of old.
Aria Of Sorrow is easily the best, most cohesive Castlevania on the Game Boy Advance—the gameplay has been tweaked to absolute perfection—yet the cart never quite managed to become an "experience" for me. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the game once again features monsters that aren't even remotely frightening. In fact, most of the monsters, like the man holding the trident while he rides around in a walking oyster shell, are downright silly. As I raced through the castle halls, vanquishing roomfuls of these so-called hellspawn, I began to feel less like an all-powerful vampire hunter and more like a glorified exterminator, albeit one dressed in a long, flowing jacket adorned with a feather boa. And these "monsters" can't be killed. No matter how many times I killed the man riding in the oyster shell, he always came back—always—which only served to make me feel even more like an exterminator. Of course, respawning enemies is a trademark of the series, but it's one that I've never been especially crazy about. I understand why it's a necessary ingredient in the Castlevania formula—without respawning enemies, not only would it be impossible to level-up my character, but the castle would quickly become a hollow, lonely place. That said, not once in over a decade of playing Castlevania games have I thought, How exciting and fun it will be to kill these monsters again!
As usual, the Medusa Heads put in an appearance. I prayed that they'd sit this adventure out, but about halfway through the game, there they are, floating across the screen, on their way to knock me from a just-reached perch or turn me to stone (or worse, knock me from a just-reached perch and turn me to stone). Medusa Heads have been the bane of my Castlevania existence since my old NES days. Note to the development team working on the next installment in the series: Kindly leave the Medusa Heads out. Thank you.
Over the course of the seven or so hours it took me to complete the game, I felt a few brief twinges of excitement, as well as moments of curiosity (what could be beyond that sealed door?) and empowerment (some of the Soul Attacks are truly awesome). Yet, overall, what I mostly felt while playing the game was vaguely restless. And sometimes I felt just plain irritated.
Maybe what irritates me is the fact that I've basically been playing the same game for 10 long years now. I'm getting tired of whipping candles to make them cough up hearts and bags of money. I'm tired of Mermen, tired of bats, and tired of those cursed Medusa Heads. But what tires me out the most is the fact that the Castlevania franchise remains a lowly diversion when it clearly has the potential to become a dramatically rich and emotionally complex experience. Look at the resurrection of Metroid last year, or the Zelda series, or Grand Theft Auto. In the lifecycle of any franchise, the gameplay must evolve in order for the franchise to remain commercially and critically viable. I've grown up, and I'm waiting for the Castlevania series to grow up, too.
Since Aria Of Sorrow is the third Castlevania in as many years, I'm also concerned that Konami is growing increasingly content to simply rest on their laurels. As Chi wrote in his recent story exploring the notion of videogames as art, "Until developers and gamers expect more of themselves and of videogames, the financiers and publishers of videogames will continue to clone the latest proven bestseller rather than innovate new ways to challenge gamers intellectually and emotionally." Here I am, a gamer expecting more of the Castlevania franchise, wanting more. Unfortunately, the hard truth is that lousy sales figures are often what makes developers take artistic risks. As long as the Castlevania carts keep moving off store shelves, it's unlikely that Konami will feel the need to fool with their proven formula anytime soon.
For now, I'll continue to keep a candle burning for a Castlevania that surprises me, knocks me off balance, makes me think and wonder and use my imagination; a Castlevania that creates a detailed, vivid world that I'm reluctant to leave. Let's hope the PlayStation 2 Castlevania, due later this year, will be the bona fide experience I've been hoping for and not just the latest in a long line of diversions.