Given the amazing critical response to Aria of Sorrow on the GBA, it made sense for Konami to create a sequel for Nintendo's new handheld, the DS. Dawn of Sorrow feels very much like Aria but on steroids; the visuals are massively improved and are much closer to those seen in Symphony of the Night, while Masahiko Kimura (Castlevania 64)'s soundtrack is also much more refined (even if it's not quite up there with the best of the franchise).
The 'Soul' system from Aria makes a return and the game is impressively proportioned, but the technical gimmicks – such as having to draw seals on the touch screen to kill bosses and the WiFi system (which is now unavailable as Nintendo has taken the DS' wireless portal offline) – don't add much to the experience. It's also a shame that Ayami Kojima wasn't invited back to do the character artwork; instead, we get a very basic 'anime' cast of characters that lack charm. Despite its shortcomings – and the feeling that the whole 'Metroidvania' template is growing stale by this point – Dawn of Sorrow is still an excellent game.
The first Castlevania game to leverage the storage power of CD-ROM, Dracula X: Rondo of Blood sort of picks up where Castlevania III left off. The branching pathways are back, as is the ability to play as someone other than a Belmont. However, what makes Dracula X so appealing is the way it uses the power of the CD to offer a staggering level of presentation. Animated cutscenes abound, and each stage feels fresh and different.
The soundtrack, too, benefits immensely from the fact that it's no longer constrained by the limitations of cartridge media. While the bright, anime-style character designs aren't quite as moody and atmospheric as they should be, Dracula X's position as one of the greatest games in the series is secure thanks to its impeccably-designed levels, fantastic visuals and gorgeous music. The game was later remastered for PSP in the form of Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, but the 2.5D visuals have aged much worse than the 2D ones of the original game. Thankfully, The Dracula X Chronicles includes both the PC Engine version of the game and Symphony of the Night as unlockables.
Following Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance – both of which fell short of hitting the same highs of Symphony of the Night – Koji Igarashi and his team returned to the Game Boy Advance with Aria of Sorrow, a game which many fans consider to be the second best 'Metroidvania' in the franchise. The action takes place in 2035, but the setting is still resolutely gothic, with little in the way of modern or futuristic elements. Aria of Sorrow's 'Soul System' offers an incredible amount of replayability, and the sheer number of items, weapons and pieces of gear to collect is staggering – even more so when you consider this is a portable release.
While it never quite beats Symphony of the Night in terms of scale, it's a match in many other ways and is a must-play for all fans of the series, and Metroidvania genre. Aria of Sorrow is included on the Castlevania Advance Collection, which is good, because the Game Boy Advance original is prohibitively expensive these days.
Castlevania was at something of a crossroads in 1997. The advent of 32-bit consoles like the PlayStation and Saturn had introduced a new era of 3D visuals, and many of gaming's biggest franchises were shedding their 2D origins and embracing the world of three dimensions. When Konami revealed that its first 32-bit Castlevania title would still be 2D in nature, there was some degree of apathy in certain parts of the gaming world – but Symphony of the Night proved such doubters wrong. It's unquestionably one of the best video games of all time, skillfully mixing traditional Castlevania gameplay with the exploration and gear-gating of Super Metroid (hence the term 'Metroidvania') whilst adding in hundreds of items to collect and an RPG-style levelling system.
The scope of Symphony of the Night is truly staggering, even by modern standards; fully uncovering every inch of Dracula's castle is an undertaking that will consume weeks of your life. The presentation is arguably Konami's 2D zenith; superbly-animated sprites and beautiful backdrops abound, while the music also represents some of the finest audio in the Castlevania canon. While programmer Koji Igarashi – who would later become series producer – iterated on the 'Metroidvania' concept with his GBA and DS outings, none of them really overtake Symphony of the Night in terms of brilliance. That's why we consider it to be the best Castlevania game of all time.
A Japan-exclusive Saturn port was released in 1998 which added in new levels and the ability to play as Maria, but it is also saddled with longer loading times and weaker visuals overall. Castlevania Requiem on the PS4 bundles the game with Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, and Symphony of the Night was also included on the earlier PSP collection, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. Finally, it's worth noting that we nearly got a port for Tiger's ill-fated Game.com handheld, which was cancelled before launch and recently rediscovered.