Aww yeah, now we're talkin'. No more of this mix of good and bad stuff, get ready for a big ol' gush.
After two years of making mixed products with the previous two games, Konami didn't want to fuck around with their next one. They cracked their knuckles, pulled out all the stops, and set out to make somethin' great. Gathering their team leads, they discussed how to make a damn good game. What was it that people liked about the all-time favourite, Symphony of the Night? Magic spells? Fluid motions? Pretty protagonist? Equipping various weapons varying between swords, spears and hammers? Yes to all!
But how to go about all of these things? One problem with Symphony of the Night was the legions of useless expendable items that you accumulated over time. No one ever used them, and they were a pain to equip, use, and re-equip your usual sword. So, let's cut down on those. Only weapons, armour and an accessory to be equipped. Keep it simpler. But how to keep the variety going with the game without giving the player a fuckton of dubious usefulness weapons?
Magic! There's the answer! But how to go about this. The fighting-game direction and button press system with Symphony wasn't all that great. Many found them hard to do, and often forgot about them. A subweapon mixing system like Harmony of Dissonance? Nah.... The card system of Circle of the Moon? No no, let's be more original here folks.
Well, how about we just make the player able to steal abilities from the enemies?
Say what now?
Y'know, how like with the skeletons throwing their bones, or the axe armours throwing axes? Why not just let the player steal those moves?
Bad idea? Okay, never min-
PROMOTIONS AND RAISES FOR YOU GOOD SIR.
Seriously, I fuckin' love the magic system of Aria of Sorrow. I have a soft spot for the experimentation and mixing of Circle of the Moon and its cards, but Aria of Sorrow took a relatively simple idea, used often in many games previously to great effect, and ran with it. They went to town here, adding a ton of fun and useful variety of spells stolen from the enemies you kill. They kept it simple, and yet with an amazing variety. They even did damn good about keeping a lot of them useful.
And, heck, why not make said magic system the central focus of the plot?
Um, this is a Castlevania game... Why do we need a plot?
DID WE NOT SET OUT TO MAKE THE BEST DAMN CASTLEVANIA EVER.
Well, yeah, but who plays Castlevania for the stor-
BEST. DAMN. CASTLEVANIA.
Though that's largely left to opinion, objectively, Aria of Sorrow, I believe, does get the most things 'right' out of all the Castlevania's. Sure, Symphony is a grand masterpiece and all, but it has a kind of clunky (to me, at least) magic system with limited usefulness (short of the game-breaking Soul Steal), plus it's very much on the easy side. The difficulty was cranked up nicely for Circle of the Moon, and Aria keeps that going with creative bosses, enemies and a 'Hard' mode to play with after you've gotten the good ending.
Oh yeah! Another great thing! Multiple endings!
Yeah yeah, Symphony of the Night is kind of the crown king for those, but they kinda fell by the wayside until Aria of Sorrow. (unless Harmony of Dissonance did them too? I don't know.) Without certain kind-of-hard-to-get souls equipped when you come to the 'final' boss, you'll get a standard ending. WITH those three important souls (books scattered through the castle give hints as to what souls they are), you're treated to more areas to play around in, a VERY fun soul that makes exploring a blast, and the TRUE final boss.
It all makes for a great package. There isn't much to fault this game.
And yet.... It's only my second favourite of the GBA Castlevania's.
Which is kinda funny, because my favourite one is based entirely on personal bias. I fully realize the faults had with it. And yet, despite all that...
Circle of the Moon is my favourite one.
Why? Personal bias. I enjoy two things most in video games: Exploration and satisfying movement. All of the Metroidvania's have exploration down very well, but only Circle of the Moon has movement that I truly enjoy. The simple ability to run makes things SO much more engaging for me.
Well, there's that, and I like the DSS card system in Circle of the Moon even more than Aria's excellent magic system. There's more of a feeling of experimentation, trial and error, and all the effects given by the Pluto card. Some are outrageous and silly and outright not useful, but they're fun.
But hey, that's my thoughts. I know that's probably what you come here for, so there ya go. Happy?