The most time I got to spend with Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow was at the insert credit fortress in Los Angeles. It was the week of E3. Chris Woodard and Doug Jones were reading over my Final Fantasy II review. Eric-Jon Waugh and I were playing Castlevania: Aria of Sorrrow on the GameBoy Player on a mono television. I skipped past the opening scene -- something about a foreign exchange student in Tokyo in 2035 -- and into the part that deals with Dracula's castle.
The hero, Soma Cruz, wears blue jeans and a white fur coat. That's kind of spiffy. Surrounded by People Who Say Things, Soma semi-unconsciously kills a demon and absorbs its power. He's then told, by a guy whose last name is "Arukado" -- that's Katakana for "Alucard"! -- that he has the ability to absorb souls and use their powers. The "powers" might be new weapons, or stat boosts, or special effects, or what have you.
I only got to play for a few minutes. In that lovely opening hall that appears in any Castlevania game in its right code, I killed zombie after zombie with a sword. Shortly afterward, I had to turn the game off, so we could all go out to dinner. We missed out on a chance to eat wood-fired pizza by a few minutes. It was a real shame.
At any rate, the next day, Doug Jones, Eric-Jon Waugh, and I were at the bus stop, waiting for the bus to the LA Convention Center. It was the first day of E3. At the bus stop, Eric-Jon and Doug both played their respective copies of Aria of Sorrow. They were comparing their soul collections. Apparently, they told me, there are hundreds of souls to collect, and you have very slim chances of getting them when you kill monsters. Luckily, you can collect more than one of each soul, and then trade with someone else.
Doug had two of a particular soul Eric-Jon didn't have. Eric-Jon had two of a soul Doug didn't have. Doug, ever the savvy 21st-century Pokémon-ing gamer, had a link cable in his pocket. So they linked. While they were linked, the bus arrived. They boarded the bus while still linked, and completed their trade before we reached the Convention Center.
This gaming-while-bus-riding went on for the rest of E3. Eric-Jon and Doug whipped out the respective GameBoys all over the place. I even caught Doug playing Aria of Sorrow during the media lunch.
I felt out of the loop. I really wanted to get in on some trading.
On the bus ride back to the insert credit fortress on day three, Doug handed me his GameBoy Advance SP.
"Dude, press up and B."
I did as I was told; the hero transformed into a giant manticore-ish thing, and flew across the screen, obliterating monsters.
Eric-Jon Waugh was watching, too.
"How many of those do you have?"
"Just got it," Doug said. "I'll see if I can get another."
"Please do," Eric-Jon Waugh said. He, too, was playing Aria of Sorrow, on his pink GameBoy Advance.
The bus was rounding the corner by Del Taco. I was listening to LINK's cover of "Chain Gang" on The Blue Hearts Super Tribute 2003. The volume was low enough to allow me to hear Doug scream "Dude!"
He'd just gotten a second soul that gave the transformation power.
"Let me get to a save point," Doug was telling Eric-Jon.
We were out of the bus, on foot, headed for the insert credit fortress, when the trade was completed.
"Excellent," Eric-Jon said.
Not excellent was the fact that we were locked out of the insert credit fortress. We had to go to Friendly Neighbor Joe's place, where we met Chris Woodard, and Doug and Eric-Jon continued playing Castlevania. See Doug in this picture? He's playing Castlevania. Chris Woodard is in the foreground. I'm the one who's not playing Castlevania.
I can't say I blame Doug or Eric-Jon for keeping their Castlevanias close. What little I played of the game proved addictive. Weeks later, I was back in my room, back with my Sega Saturn, playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as Alucard, thinking: they should make a massively multiplayer online Castlevania.
They really should. It'd work. The towns could be like in Simon's Quest, multi-tiered and creepy. The dungeons could be like Dracula's castle, only random. Weapons of differing levels of strength could be found. Sometimes, a la Diablo II, they'd have to be identified in town.
Combat in any of the recent RPG-like Castlevanias is so fun, so addictive, that I could see it working in the MMO sense. Imagine -- different character classes! It'd remind me of Castlevania III, where I could pick between the vampire hunter Trevor, the wizard Sypha, the wall-crawling thief Grant, and the wacky vampire Alucard. Add a choice of male or female, and maybe a clothing-customization feature, and you've got a real moneymaker.
The game could be divided, like Diablo II, into worlds and quests. You'd have to complete certain quests to advance the plot. Gaining levels could be hellaciously time-consuming. Personal urges to find rare or unique sets of armor or accessories would not go unrewarded. Battles between upper-level characters would be something to witness. It'd be more exciting than your little sister's Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments, that's for sure.
I know this all because I saw Doug Jones and Eric-Jon Waugh enjoying Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow more than I see most people enjoy new games these days. They enjoyed the game so much they wanted to take advantage of its every feature to the fullest extent. Hell, I only played the game for a fleeting moment, and I was digging it. I wanted to sink into the game, deep, in get everything there was to get.
Seeing them trading on the bus reminded me of a time two kids in my middle school sat at a lunch table, trading boss strategies for Gaiares. It reminded me of the unashamed gaming that went on when we were younger. Am I a criminal for wanting to see this sort of experience . . . taken online?
The last time a game made me want to full excavate its every corridor was Metroid Prime, and look how that one turned out. Before that was Pokémon Sapphire, which I honestly gave up after a little less than two-dozen hours.
Still, Aria of Sorrow, being 2D, and action-oriented, and map-endowed, makes this full-excavation feel so much more . . . possible. And I thank it for that, and I'm going to go ahead and give it a thumbs-up.
Summary: My brother is here. He's playing Gokujou Parodius! on my Super Famicom. He's not doing too badly. He's just barely surviving the Tokyo highway level as Dracula. I always wonder why Dracula's fourth powerup is "needle". I mean, what does a "needle" -- even a homing one -- have to do with Dracula, anyway?
Further Recommended Reading: I was only able to play the game in loud, cramped places, or else on GameBoy Advance SP, where my headphones aren't welcome in this country. As such, I can't speak on the music. For more on that, you'll have to read Eric-Jon's review.
--tim rogers was an exchange student in tokyo of 2035, once