Castlevania’s 35th Anniversary sees three classic Metroidvanias freed from handheld purgatory!
The Castlevania series has seen its fair share of exclusive titles in its 35 year history. Konami has rarely liked to play favorites in the home console market opting instead to produce at least one entry in the storied series for each major home console, with a few notable exceptions. However, when it came to the handheld market they were left with little choice for platforms. The only hardware that showed any staying power in the 80s and early 90s was Nintendo’s Game Boy which defiantly weathered the assaults of not only Sega’s Game Gear, but the NEC Turbo Express and Atari Lynx as well. This resulted in a trio of pint-sized Castlevanias for the little gray brick: Castlevania: The Adventure, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, and Castlevania: Legends (later retconned out of the series timeline).
However, towards the turn of the Millennium the battle for handheld supremacy was starting to heat up again. SNK had finally landed a portable in North America with their Neo Geo Pocket Color, and over in Japan there was talk that Bandai’s Wonder Swan Color might dethrone the Game Boy line if Nintendo didn’t act soon. Unfortunately for the competition, Nintendo had been deep in development on a new portable system since shortly after the Game Boy Color’s release in late 1998. The Game Boy Advance’s launch on March 21st, 2001 in Japan, and two and half months later in North America, was met with wild excitement by fans and rapidly took the wind out of SNK and Bandai’s sails. Nintendo’s grip on the portable market was once again uncontested, and Konami was ready at day one to serve up another bite-sized helping of horror, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
The lack of involvement by series producer Koji Igarashi was readily apparent in many aspects of Circle of the Moon’s development. Enemy designs were bland, levels unremarkable, and the characters and story flat and unrewarding. The controls also felt stiff oftentimes hindering the player in combat. However, these failings didn’t prevent Circle from going on to relative commercial success and becoming a classic in the eyes of the fans. Its soundtrack is considered a standout in the series despite the GBA’s limited abilities. Additionally, the game’s DSS (Dual Set-up System) card system was well received by gamers, reviewers, and even Igarashi himself. Lastly, its steep difficulty curve pleased the hardcore base who felt the transition to the Action RPG formula had reduced the challenge the series had been well known for.
Konami and Igarashi weren’t just going to rest on their laurels, however. In terms of technical performance Circle of the Moon had barely scratched the surface of what the Game Boy Advance was capable of. Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance released little more than a year after the handheld’s launch and stunned with its leap in graphical presentation. Harmony was visually stunning for a handheld game, and may stand today as one of the Game Boy Advance’s most graphically potent titles, but the game had little else going for it. Essentially a portable version of Symphony of the Night, Harmony felt less ambitious than its predecessor and the game lost much of its sense of originality. Its audio performance also struggled as valuable technical resources were sacrificed in the name of its graphics. In the end, though, Harmony did prove that the GBA was a powerhouse of a handheld.
To many fans’ surprise and delight the wait for the next installment in the series was shockingly short. Nine months after Harmony’s launch a third Metroidvania graced the Game Boy Advance’s tiny screen in the form of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Aria starred a new, modern protagonist, Soma Cruz, in a unique story that shed many of series’ familiar tropes as well as the fine-tuned Tactical Soul gameplay system by which Soma could utilize the souls of his slain enemies to augment his offensive, defensive, and utility capabilities in order to progress through Dracula’s labyrinthine castle. Aria had actually been in development alongside Harmony and greatly benefited from the extra time and resources. Critics and fans considered it as the definitive portable entry that struck a marvelous balance between Circle’s innovation and challenge, and Harmony’s visual prowess without sacrificing its audio fidelity.
Konami and Nintendo’s partnership for portable game development stayed just as strong through the Nintendo DS’s lifespan which saw the release of three more exclusive Castlevanias. However, due to a heavy restructuring at Konami the honeymoon came to an end during the Nintendo 3DS’s time which only received one new entry, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, a tie-in to the recent reboot of the series co-developed by Mercury Steam. In all Konami produced ten Nintendo portable exclusive Castlevania titles which represents more than one third of the entire series to date, and until the Castlevania Anniversary Collection dropped in 2019 the only way to play any of these titles was on a Game Boy system or on the Wii and Wii U virtual consoles. But now, thanks to M2’s efforts all three of the Game Boy Advance exclusive titles have been released for multiple platforms in the Castlevania Advance Collection!
M2 is no stranger to porting older titles to modern hardware. Their pedigree includes the Collection of Mana, Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Contra Anniversary Collection, Mega Man X Legacy Collection, and the Namco Museum Archives just to name a few. The Advance Collection shows the same amount of polish and admiration as their previous compilations complete with a slick and stylish interface, region selection, independent customizable controls and save states for each game, instant replay, screen wallpapers, and more. A comprehensive art gallery, which includes regional box art as well as both the full Japanese and North American manuals for each game, is available for viewing right out of the gate. There’s also a music player containing the complete soundtracks for each game as well as a playlist tool so you can rock out to a custom selection of your favorite portable Castlevania tunes.
While the visuals for the GBA games haven’t received any significant overhaul they do look remarkably clean especially when adjusted to Pixel Perfect screen mode, and run at a consistent frame rate. A fair warning, though – the Game Boy Advance’s screen boasted a measly 240 x 160 pixels so there’s only so much that the Advance Collection can do when displaying these games on a giant LCD screen or 4K monitor. They will look very pixelated – Circle of the Moon being the biggest culprit.
Being direct ports meant that the audio did not receive any upgrades as well. Not that the soundtracks for these games are terrible – though many of Harmony’s tracks do sound as if they were made with the original Game Boy’s audio processor – personally I would have preferred a high fidelity scrubbing of each game’s soundtrack just to clean up the noise and crackling that can still be heard in this collection in many of the tracks.
The Advance Collection includes trophy/achievement support, and I have good news for all of you Platinum Hunters out there. This is a relatively easy one to complete especially when you factor in the brand new Gadget overlays that you can toggle on and off for each game. For those that haven’t played any of the GBA Castlevanias, each game featured a unique collection system. Circle of the Moon had the aforementioned DSS cards which drop from certain enemies, Harmony of Dissonance featured a special room in Dracula’s Castle that could be decorated with various items found throughout the game (a feature originally meant to appear in Symphony of the Night), and Aria of Sorrow had the Tactical Soul system. Keeping track of your collections is made significantly easier with on-screen updates of which cards/items/souls have and have not been collected. Additionally, each game includes a built in Encyclopedia that players can reference to track down missing collectibles.
But that’s not all! In a surprise to many, Konami and M2 included a bonus fourth game in the collection, the SNES’ Castlevania: Dracula X. A pared down remake of Castlevania: Rondo of Blood for the PC Engine Super CD-Rom, Dracula X has long been considered a black sheep in the series. Thought still technically canon in the Castlevania universe it was seen as a poorly made clone of a vastly superior game. However, Dracula X is still a fun romp and a bloody challenging one at that so hardcore enthusiasts should be thrilled.
Though a bit slim on content when compared to the Anniversary Collection, for $19.99 this is another solid compilation from M2 that definitely deserves a look regardless of your affinity for the series. It has successfully taken three amazing Castlevania games that were thought to be forever lost to portable purgatory and Nintendo exclusivity and unleashed them upon the gaming masses, and that is something we can all be thankful for.
Until next time, Geeks!
Overall Score: 7.5
Graphics: 7.0 / Sound: 7.0 / Gameplay: 7.0 / Value: 9.0
Four classic Castlevania titles in one slick little bundle, the Advance Collection provides enough content to satisfy most fans and justify its price tag. If you don’t have access to a Game Boy Advance or the Wii U Virtual Console this is the ONLY way you can play Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow on a non-Nintendo platform.