I admit that I don't play many handheld games. I never really owned the original Game Boy. I do own a Game Boy Color, though, and frankly I prefer that even to the technically superior Game Boy Advance. I suspect it has something to do with the simplicity of the "inferior" graphics. The Game Boy Advance (GBA) is impressive, yes, but I have trouble taking in all that visual information on such a tiny screen, especially when I'm juggling it with the momentary distractions that inevitably come with portable gaming. Of the Game Boy Advance titles I've played, the ones I've felt are truly conducive to the small-screen experience are those which are especially concise in both visuals and gameplay. Games like Chu-Chu Rocket! or WaroWare are perfect examples of this kind of thing. They can be played for mere seconds at a time and only demand comprehension of two or three key bits of information on the screen. To me, that's really when handheld gaming makes the most sense. Otherwise, it's usually something I'd rather be doing at home, with a large screen, where I can actually absorb all the visual information that's been designed to enrich the experience.
Games that are story-oriented, which are usually the kinds of game that try to create evocative and beautiful spaces filled with detail, seem made for admiring in this way. In my experience of playing story-driven games on a portable platform, the only ones that ever really worked for me were ones on Game Boy Color. The ultra simplistic visuals of Dragon Warrior or Metal Gear: Ghost Babel were palatable enough on a small screen that I was never distracted by the fact that I just couldn't focus on everything I was seeing. Thus, I was able to immerse myself in the fictional universe just as I would playing a normal role-playing game (RPG) or Adventure game. Although I respect the technical feats that make it possible to cram so much detail onto the Game Boy Advance screen, I can never totally shake the notion that some types of games just need to be played on a television. Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is one of those games.
I generally agree with all of Scott's comments. The game is, at best, a diversion rather than an experience. The designers take the tried and true Castlevania formula that worked to beautifully in the now classic Symphony of the Night and make it manageable within the portable format. They do an excellent job of it, in fact. Of the two previous GBA Castlevania titles—Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance—I confess to playing only bits and pieces. However, it's clear playing just a few minutes of Aria of Sorrow that they finally got it right. Everything from the spot-on play control, to the rich skill system, to the lush graphics, to the fluid animation: they all scream both quality and class. Scott is also right that the general balance and pacing of the game is nicely done. Backtracking isn't very bothersome, and all the areas of the castle are visually interesting and accompanied by memorable music that sets the trademark gothic rock n' roll tone that has been the series hallmark for years.
So then, why I ask myself, was I generally frustrated and impatient to get to the end of the game? Granted, it might have something to do with the fact that I was borrowing someone else's GBA to finish it in time for a review deadline. However, I was under similar constraints when I played Metroid Fusion—a game with an almost identical formula—and I found that a more enjoyable experience. I think it probably has to do with two things: the dull familiarity of the series, and the limitations of the small screen. Unlike Metroid, Aria of Sorrow is, after all, the third game of its kind on GBA, and it is virtually identical to its predecessors in terms of the conventions it follows. The "explore castle, upgrade character, fight Dracula" progression is utterly unchanged. And although it breaks convention in some ways, such as in the protagonist's use of edged weapons and supernatural skills, they are all merely returns to elements that were present in Symphony of the Night in the first place. In other words, while Aria of Sorrow is different from its two predecessors, it only is so by virtue of being even more similar to the original game that inspired the formula. The result, while technically superior, feels even less like an original game that either Circle or Harmony. It feels almost like a point-for-point remake of Symphony, right down to the castle design, weapons, skills, characters, bosses, and even the plot. All it left me thinking was, "Wow. Symphony sure was great. How much longer is this game anyway?"
To be fair, I suppose my main criticism here is predicated on the fact that Symphony of the Night is so familiar to me. I can easily imagine players who haven't experienced its inspiration being more impressed by Aria. However, I think what lingers regardless of familiarity with the series is the tone Aria inescapable inherits from Symphony by copying so completely. Set up as an epic showdown between Good and Evil against a sweeping gothic backdrop, it speaks a language that promises an experience rather than a diversion. It sports a lavishly detailed world, amazing sights and sounds, and enthralling action in a dramatic context. Somehow, all this epicness feels hampered by the tiny screen. There's a reason why we go to the movie theater to see sweeping vistas and epic battles and stay at home to watch short, to the point comedies on television. I think the same logic applies to home games versus portable games. I just can't think of a reason to recommend Aria of Sorrow unless you're a fan who must see what happens in the story. Otherwise, if what you're looking for is a dose of 2D gothic coolness that will blow your mind—Symphony of the Night is absolutely everything Aria of Sorrow is and more. It's the same larger-than-life characters, larger-than-life action, and larger-than-life setting in the only place they make sense: on a large screen.