Comparing things is always a good time because it’s shocking how many common threads there are throughout pop culture. It makes sense when you think about it, though. People borrow ideas from one another all the time, like how A New Hope was partially inspired by samurai films, or how Rise of Skywalker was influenced by what I can only assume was a cocaine-fueled weekend in Las Vegas, except with none of the fun that would entail and double the stupidity. Today I’m going to be comparing two games that are basically clones of one another. They’re the same genre. They have the same mechanics. They have the same producer in Koji Igarashi.
That’s right, folks. Today Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, the 2003 GBA masterpiece, is going head-to-head with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the Iga-vania Kickstarter success story released last year.
First, Some History
We here at 25YL love the Castlevania series so much that Gaming Editor/Mario expert Johnny Malloy wrote an in-depth and shockingly thorough retrospective on many of the earliest games in the series. It’s clear why, though. Throughout its history, the series has had so many more hits than misses. Symphony of the Night was the entry that cemented the series as an absolute gaming mainstay, with its superb blend of open-ended exploration and ARPG combat. It was a smash hit no matter how you slice it, and once Konami heard there was a new Nintendo handheld on the way, they immediately set out to create a handheld entry that would mirror some of the best aspects of Symphony with the good but uber-challenging Circle of the Moon.
While that game is dated in some ways, it still holds up as a rock solid Metroidvania game to this day (I played through it for the first time about two years ago and quite enjoyed myself). This was the start of a great run on Nintendo handhelds for the company. Even though Harmony of Dissonance was something of a mixed bag (it looked and sounded great, but combat was rather one-note and the pacing dragged), they followed it up with the superb Aria of Sorrow and continued that success with their trilogy on the outstanding handheld that was the DS with Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia. All of those are great games in their own way, but they don’t quite reach the same heights as Aria.
Then Castlevania rebooted (for some reason) with the solid-but-underwhelming Lords of Shadow, and the series has been more or less dead since Lords of Shadow 2, which had you fill the boots of playing as Dracula himself and living the power fantasy by being forced into stealth segments as a rat. Igarashi left Konami and went off to do his own thing for a while before launching the Kickstarter for a “brand new” IP called Bloodstained.
It was a resounding success. We got a throwback title in the form of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, which heavily aped the superb Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. But that was just the warm up. The main course to come took a little longer, but was worth the wait. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, for all its talk of Shardbinders and Alchemy, was a Castlevania game in the style of the great handheld titles of the past decade through and through. It reminded you of why you loved that series in the first place.
But how does this new entry fare against what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest examples of the Metroidvania sub genre?
It’s All About Context
Let’s discuss and compare the stories of each game first.
Castlevania, as a series, is not exactly renowned for its storytelling considering that 90% of its entries boil down to “someone has resurrected, or tried to resurrect, Dracula and you must stop them.” Sure, there are twists on that. Portrait of Ruin saw you taking on another vampire named Barlowe at first, until the game pulled a Link to the Past style twist and had it turn out that, you guessed it, Dracula is the real bad guy pulling the strings. It’s simple, it’s fine, and it serves as an excuse to get the player into yet another castle to take down more bad guys.
Aria of Sorrow had a really nice twist on this. The year is 2035, and Soma Cruz and a few other people are swallowed into an eclipse and transported to Dracula’s castle. There’s a guy named Graham trying to resurrect ol’ Drac, who was supposedly defeated for good in an unseen war in 1999 by Julius Belmont. It turns out, though, that Soma Cruz, the player character, is the vessel for Drac’s reincarnation. As such, with the powers of a Vampire available to him, he is pretty capable in combat and can steal the souls from his enemies in a strange but fun Pokemon-esque collection system. The story isn’t mind blowing, but it is a nice change of pace from the rest of the series.
Bloodstained follows Miriam, an individual known as a Shardbinder, which is someone who has alchemically gained the ability to use Shards, which she gets from foes that grant her powers. She sets out to stop Gebel, another Shardbinder, from wiping out Europe with his army of monsters holed up in his castle. How convenient, huh?
The world of Bloodstained is further fleshed out by lore notes and character interactions, and the world is surprisingly well-established. You can tell the writers were trying to lay the foundation for a potential franchise. Miriam and Gebel’s personal motivations are slightly more interesting than those found in Aria, despite that game’s significant expansion of series lore.
Winner: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Weapons of War
Here is where the games will get tougher to distinguish from one another. Even though my statement that Aria is the best Castlevania game might be contentious, there’s a pretty significant reason that I’m pitting it against Bloodstained and that’s because they share the exact same mechanics.
In Aria of Sorrow, players can randomly obtain enemies’ souls, and each one gives them different powers. These range from standard abilities like tossing an axe through the air in an arc, to more creative ones like dashing around or summoning familiars. Its sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, would further expand on this, adding in things like the ability to shoot giant lasers out of your hand, because if I had to be the reincarnation of Dracula, that’s something that I would want to do. These abilities nicely compliment that huge variety of weaponry you can find throughout the game, which includes katanas, giant swords, hammers, spears, and more.
In Ritual of the Night, players can randomly obtain enemies’ Shards, and each one gives them different powers. Customization is a bit tighter in this title, taking many of the options from Dawn of Sorrow, including the ability to swap builds on the fly. Familiars are now a separate slot, which means you can have a bullet attack, a trigger attack (which are often times aimed with the second control stick, which is a nice touch), and some kind of passive buff. Additionally, you can use Shards to upgrade weapons with a really extensive crafting system. Weapon and armor buffs are pretty necessary, but crafting things like food turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth since you need to constantly swap between menus to see what ingredients you need to make what. Either way, the Shards add something of a grinding element to the game, more so than in Aria, but it adds to the game’s replayability and completion tasks if that’s your thing.
Additionally, you can now have a primary weapon and gun equipped in various build slots, and as you go you gain more slots, meaning you can change your build on the fly and really experiment without having to spend too much time in menus.
While Aria offers a simpler, more focused system, Bloodstained undoubtedly offers tighter customization options thanks to its multiple build slots and more extensive equipment load-outs.
Winner: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Looks Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing
Aria of Sorrow used the GBA to its fullest extent, with Soma Cruz animated beautifully. The game uses bright colors and has a huge variety of enemies, each one well designed and iconic, with bosses being the standout (Headhunter remains one of my all-time favorite bosses from a design standpoint). It is, simply put, 2D art at its absolute best. Animations are tight. Blood effects are simple but extremely effective when coupled with their wet sound effects. There’s a gruesome edge to the design that stands out. Oh, and the soundtrack is absolutely top freaking notch, not just with series staples, but some of its own original tracks as well. It’s almost unfair to Bloodstained.
Bloodstained uses a full 3D engine on a side scrolling plane. I played it on Switch, so of course it looked rather rough at first, with muddy textures and frame rate issues. Those problems have since been fixed, and the game looks much nicer now, but there’s still something…missing. The environments don’t quite pop as much, and enemy design is largely forgettable from a design perspective (although boss battles tend to be pretty fun challenges).
Ultimately, this section mostly comes down to preference, as from a technical stand point, Bloodstained is totally adequate. But for me, the gorgeous pixel art work of Aria is good enough that it is still a really nice looking game.
Winner: Aria of Sorrow
A (Not So) Miserable Pile of Secrets
The core of any Metroidvania is the exploration and sense of progression. The whole point is to limit players’ abilities in the beginning, showing them places they can go later on, but can’t reach right that very moment. Then, when they come back, they’re stronger, making the enemies pushovers and they can access that new area. It’s that simple feeling of growing stronger and discovery that makes the genre so beloved. The same can be said of me going from age 13 to 14, except I didn’t really get stronger and I only discovered that my social skills were inept at best. Tough to believe now, I know.
The problem here is that both games do this very well. In each game, you really are very weak in the beginning. Aria of Sorrow gives you a knife and a soul that throws a measly bone at enemies. By the end, though, you’re wielding swords bigger than Soma Cruz and blasting foes to bits with Death’s Scythes. Same goes for Ritual of the Night. By the end, you’re a total powerhouse, almost totally unstoppable and it feels wonderful.
That leaves the levels/gameplay itself to do the heavy lifting here, and I think that Aria ekes out the winning spot by a small margin. The aforementioned gruesome design of everything makes areas more interesting to explore than the somewhat bland environments of Ritual of the Night. Not only that, but the bosses are more interesting and somewhat more challenging. You go through all kinds of environments that are, simply put, fun to explore. Same can be said of Ritual of the Night, but to a lesser degree. Not only that, but Aria shipped with the classic Castlevania bonus features, including an alternative character to play as and a great boss rush mode. Yes, Ritual of the Night did add these features shortly after launch, but back when Aria released, games shipped as is, and didn’t have the option to be patched post-release like they are today.
Granted, Ritual of the Night makes good use of its European setting, with an opening stage that stands apart from its inspiration series. Taking place on a boat, it establishes the macabre, dark fantasy atmosphere of the game very well, although later environments struggle to stand out as much.
It’s a tough call to make. But my verdict is final, dam-nit.
Winner: Aria of Sorrow
A Wonderful Night for a Curse
So, here’s the problem. Of these four angles I examined the games in, we got a tie. Ritual of the Night got two, Aria of Sorrow got two. There’s another reason it’s tricky, too. You know that scene in Rick and Morty where Rick points out that Scary Terry is a legally safe knockoff of an 80’s movie monster? Ritual of the Night is the Scary Terry to Aria of Sorrow’s Freddy Krueger. Ritual does very little truly original, but it executes everything we love about the handheld Castlevania titles very well.
Temporal context is important, too. At the time of Aria of Sorrow, the Metroidvania genre was titled as such because Metroid and Castlevania were the only two major series really producing that kind of game. Both series have since fallen from grace (although Metroid has a hopeful future ahead and Castlevania at least has an absolutely kick ass Netflix show) and it’s been left up to the Indie scene to pick up the slack. We are now inundated with wonderful Metroidvania titles like Hollow Knight, Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, and many more. There’s an argument to be made that the once underrepresented genre is now over-saturated, but even though it does kind of struggle to stand out from the crowd, Ritual of the Night is one of many examples of why the genre is so effective in the first place.
Plus, both games are so close to one another that it really is a matter of preference. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking, but for me, Aria of Sorrow wins out. It hearkens back to an era of variety in mainstream game design, and remains a great, if somewhat dated, example of one of gaming’s biggest genres.
Still, though, if you haven’t played it, Ritual of the Night is absolutely worth your time.