Mariovania: Dawn of Sorrow

Review by Mike Finkelstein

Generally speaking I don't pay that much attention to character hacks. While I like the idea of inserting random characters into other games, like putting Sonic or Zero into a DS Vania game, I find them hard to talk about after the fact. "Yep, it's Zero in Portrait of Ruin, so if you've played that game... it's that game." I get why the character was inserted, and it's fun to experiment with them, but there's only so much that can be written about it.

Occasionally, though, I do run across a character hack that does a little more with the subject matter. It doesn't just insert the character, for example, but also changes up enough of the rest of the game to warrant a second look. Putting Mario into a hack is one thing, but to then change up the game to make it feel like a real mashup of Super Mario and Castlevania is something much more interesting. And that's the case with Mariovania: Dawn of Sorrow which does a pretty solid job of slapping together both of those ideas into one more cohesive whole. Mostly.

Mariovania: Dawn of Sorrow puts you in control of Mario as he explores the castle of Celia's Dracula Cult in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. The meat of the hack is built on that original game's "Julius Mode", but instead of that mode's three main heroes, now you have Mario and two of his power-ups. You start with the main Mario, who has access to his hammer and raccoon suit (for maneuverability and power), but over time you'll unlock the fire flower suit (which grants Mario fire powers, very useful during intense combat situations) and then later the blue shell (great for speed and exploration but weaker when it comes to combat). You, of course, need to learn the ins and outs of these suits to maximize your exploration in the hack.

I do, in some ways, appreciate the diversity on display here with the powers. Giving base Mario a hammer (for a large, wide main attack) and raccoon suit (for air progression as well as speedy ground attacks) feels natural. It's a very classic feel for Mario. The fire flower is great, but almost too over powered. You get a ground-based fireball, a lobbed air ball, and a super fireball, all of which are useful against the bosses. It's the poor blue shell that doesn't really get to shine as much. It's speedy on the ground and good for exploration, but when it comes to bosses this suit lacks power. I would have liked to see the lobbed fireball instead be a lobbed hammer from the blue shell suit, giving each power-up a unique attack that was useful for bosses. And, come on, a lobbed hammer is just such a perfect fit for the shell suit.

Graphically, the hack draws primarily from the Mario and Luigi RPGs for the hero. Mario clearly comes from that GBA series of games, and while some of his power-ups may be hacked on graphics (I haven't played deeply enough into that series of RPGs to know all the abilities Mario has gained over time) it all looks natural enough. But it's not just Mario that gets the graphical overhaul for this hack as many of is enemies show up in the game as well.

There is a certain thrill in seeing goombas and koopas wandering around in the snowy village at the start of the game. The graphics look great and they're pasted in well. The creator certainly knew what they were doing as they hacked in the graphics and made smart choices for many of the early and mid-game enemies. I especially liked putting Baby Bowser (in his Clown Copter) in as the Flying Armor boss. That was a creative choice that fit perfectly both for that character and as a swap for the boss. Really nicely done.

Unfortunately, as the hack goes on, less and less enemies are hacked into Mario and Luigi replacements. Only a couple of further bosses get the Mario treatment (one more Koopa kid, and then an awkward stitch-in of Bowser much later), even when there are obvious replacements that could be made. Swapping in Ludwig von Koopa, the musically inclined Koopaling, for Abaddon seems like such an obvious choice that I was annoyed it wasn't done in the hack. Sure, there are probably some limitations to boss sized and colors, but considering the Baby Bowser replacement early I have to think other graphic replacements could have been done. It makes me wonder why they weren't? And don't even get me started on not swapping Somacula over to something more Mario appropriate...

There is an argument that could be made that the deeper you get into the game the more the Castlevania side. You descend deeper and deeper into the darkness of this castle and the hellish monsters become more prevalent. Sure, maybe I buy that, but that would require a in-game story detail to explain that and, sadly, Julius Mode simply doesn't lend itself well for that kind of story exploration. If that was the intent, I get it, but it still leaves the game feeling half-baked when I just wanted more Mario in my Castlevania.

I also have the same complaint when it comes to the music. Early on the hack is filled with Super Mario tracks drawn from across that whole series. It's fun going through the castle while bouncing along to tracks from Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and New Super Mario Bros. (to name but a few). Unfortunately, once you head into the last act, once again the game swaps to the original Dawn of Sorrow soundtrack and it just feels awkward. The game had such a good groove going and to stop with the Mario music doesn't quite work for me.

There is a certain brilliance to the basics of this game. The three Mario suits make for a nice remix of the basic game play from Dawn of Sorrow, and there's enough replacement graphics and music to give you a hoppy, happy feel while playing the hack. It would be nice to see the game go even further, swapping out all the enemy graphics and all the songs to really hit that full Super Mario vibe, and that does hold this hack back from being even better. Still, for just nailing the vibe and getting these two styles to work together, Mariovania: Dawn of Sorrow is work an exploration or two.