Castlevania Advance Collection
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Konami essentially doesn't release new games anymore, at least not on consoles. The mobile space, and gambling houses, certainly get their share of games from the company, but home consoles owners have been left in the cold by the company for a while, with only a few sputtering digital releases to show that the company even knows we exist. The few times the company does open its vault, its to put out another collection of previously released games, living off the past while still not moving into the future.
All that being said, there is a case to be made that, for the sake of game preservation, keeping these older titles alive is a good thing. And with packages like the Castlevania Advance Collection, at least the company is doing it right. While this isn't as good as a new game in the classic Castlevania series, this collection of games -- three from the Game Boy Advance era, which is where the collection draws its name, plus one largely-forgotten SNES title -- does make a case for Konami to continue bringing forward the old, especially if it some day decides to do something new as well.
Castlevania: Dracula X
Starting in release order, we launch this collection with Castlevania: Dracula X, probably one of the least loved titles in the series. This game is, in essence, a port of the fantastic Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (which was, itself, only released in Japan on the NEC PC Engine, the TurboGraphix of that region), and then because the U.S. had this SNES title, Konami considered it "good enough" and spent years never bringing the original version over to Western shores. This left a bad taste in the mouths of fans, but frankly this game wasn't going to win a lot of fans over regardless.
For fans that played the previous SNES title, Super Castlevania IV, or even the Sega Genesis sequel Castlevania Bloodlines (that came out after Rondo but before this SNES port), Dracula X feels like a downgrade in many ways. Hero Richter Belmont isn't as lithe as the directly previous heroes, lacking multi-directional whipping or smooth, brisk movement. He does have a seemingly useless back-flip and some under-baked item crashes, but nothing that seems to rival Simon Belmont in his SNES glory.
Plus, the game is punishingly hard. Going back to this title for the collection, I struggled to get through the first stage just due to enemy placement as well as bedeviling placement of the pits and traps. This was a game that made you work for it, locking every inch of real estate behind rote memorization of where the enemies would be and what you had to do next. In comparison to the SNES and Genesis titles (the latter of which could be hard but not as bad by comparison), Dracula X seems to outwardly hate its players.
The one thing it does have going for it are its graphics and music. While the soundtrack's compositions may not be as nice as in the PC Engine original, which was able to use CD audio, this port's soundtrack does use the SNES's hardware to great effect, crafting a solid version of the game's tunes that suit the hardware well. And the graphics are stunning. Personally, I think the game looks better on the SNES than it did in its original version on the PC Engine. There's a silky smooth quality to the graphics that the PC Engine edition lacked.
For good and ill, the Advance Collection gives us Dracula X as it was originally released, without any options or tuning. Like all games in the collection, you can play this title in its U.S., Japanese, and European versions, and playing the EU edition means you play it at 50 frames per section instead of 60 (a nice touch that stays true to the original). But in comparison to other games in the set, this feels like a very bare-bones oddity.
Considering that the original version, Rondo of Blood, is in previous collections, having this game preserved at all is nice. Many fans of the series assumed Konami basically wanted to shove Dracula X under the rug. Maybe putting it in a collection of unrelated titles from a different area is the same thing, but having it at all is great... I just don't expect to play it all that often. It's nice to see, but I'd rather play the other, better titles in this set.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
With the next game in the set, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, the Advance Collection feels like it actually begins. We get three proper Metroidvania titles, all presented in their versions from all three regions (with different translations, logos, and everything else you'd expect), and with some nice bonus features to boot.
Circle of the Moon is one of my favorites from the series, a moody and evocative created by one of Konami's best in-house development groups, KCEK. This game was everything fans asked for in a Castlevania title in this era: a proper follow up to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that took its exploration-adventure cues and pushed them out further and into different, interesting directions. It was harder than Symphony, with new mechanics and new ideas. It was what the fans craved.
And it actually sold pretty well, outselling Symphony at the time (although re-releases helped to push the PlayStations entry back up towards the top of the Castlevania list). But in terms of actually delivering on all the promises that fans wanted, this game did fall a little short. While it's a gorgeous game to play now, in emulation, it was a dark, often muddy mess on the original GBA (which lacked a back light). All those moody and Gothic graphics didn't play as well when it was hard to see what you were doing on the old GBA screen.
The game is also often quite obtuse. The big mechanic of the title was the DSS cards, ten cards of Roman Gods and ten of elemental animals that could be paired together to create cool magical effects. Only issue was that you had to find said magical cards, and all of those are random drops off of enemies, and often not enemies that you'd expect to have those cards. That meant that, for long portions of the game, you'd end up grinding on various enemies just to see if they had a card in them, praying that you'd get more cards so you could use their spells to get further into this game.
I will admit that the grind in this game is pretty bad. As an example, when I played the game for this review, I stopped at the Earth Demon that shows up early in the game, grinding on that beast so I could get the first of the God cards I needed. I spent enough time there that I went from level 1 to Level 8, got 17 magical gauntlets off the enemy (its other drop) all before I finally got the card. That's the worst grind I've ever had from that enemy before but it is still indicative of how bad the game could get.
I fairness to this collection, the developers did realize players might want some help with the card grind so they made one concession: on by default is a pop-out that will show up whenever you fight an enemy that has a card. It'll hide what the card is until you get the drop, but at least you now know what enemies have cards so you can focus on them for your grind. That smooths things up a fair bit even if it doesn't change the fact that enemies will keep their cards locked away seemingly just to spite you.
Honestly, this game does feel a little sluggish, a little slow in comparison to what else we have in this collection, and I think the comparison doesn't do it all that many favors. It is still a great game, pretty to look at and with lovely music, and I appreciate what the developers went for here. But in terms of the Game Boy Advance games, it's not the best of the set. I still enjoy it a great deal, but I have to admit there are better Metroidvania games in the series.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
Speaking of better Metroidvania titles, this is not one of them. Coming on the heels of Circle of the Moon, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was the first new game produced by Koji "IGA" Igarashi who, with this game, became the series lead producer for a solid six years. This game was IGA's rebuke of Circle, a return to the style of Metroidvania he wanted to make and, well, honestly his vision still needed some work.
As a recalibration away from Circle of the Moon, the game actually goes too far to "right the wrongs" of that game. Where Circle was dark and muddy on older GBA hardware, this game it all bright colors and pastels. It certainly made the game easier to see on non-back lit hardware, but it looks pretty ugly now in emulation. While I get what IGA and his team was going for with the graphical change, redoing everything from the ground up for the GBA, the game just doesn't look good now (and honestly didn't look that great then).
The other major difference is that the grind is completely gone in this game. Sure enemies have armor pieces they can have as rare drops, but none of that is essential to progress in the title. Here, if you want to get new magic (various spell books that pair with hero Juste Belmont's sub-weapons) all you have to do is search the castle and they're there. This goes for everything you need, from key items to magic and even (for some reason) furniture -- all of the secrets of the castle are laid bare (especially because there are no breakable walls anywhere in the game to hide things).
You can tell that the people that worked on the Advance Collection port struggled to think of some special feature they could add to this game. Since none of the drops are essential to the game play, instead they decided to show question marks on the side of the screen for each area our hero explored. When a key item was found, the question mark would get replaced with the item. It's a nice idea, but considering some of the key items were locked away until much later in the game, all it did was leave you wondering what you missed, how you could fill that in and complete the game. It's an on-screen feature lacking any necessity, really.
In comparison to Circle of the Moon, Harmony doesn't feel as smooth, either. Juste has some weird quirks to the way he controls -- getting locked in mid-air when he jump-attacks, having a whip that doesn't feel nearly long enough to reach enemies safely -- making Harmony feels slower and more plodding than I think the developers intended. There's a spark missing from this game, something that would give it the verve and soul it needs. Were it not for the inclusion of Castlevania: Dracula X, Harmony of Dissonance would easily be the worst game of the set here. It's not bad, but it's not that great, either. It just... exists.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
And then we come to the highlight of the collection, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. I have to admit that while I thought this game was good, but maybe not great, upon its release, the years have only made this game look better and better. It's aged well, like a fine wine, and going back to play it again in the collection has only shown just how well designed and brilliant this game really in. This is the masterpiece of the collection that could easily sell it on its own.
In construction, Aria of Sorrow is a proper refinement of everything IGA had wanted to do with his games up until now. It features a hero, Soma Cruz, who isn't that far off in style from IGA's last big hero, Alucard, and who goes on his own sprawling adventure finding all the secrets of the castle lurking in every nook and cranny. In style, substance, and tone, this is the single best Castlevania on the GBA, and it might even surpass Symphony of the Night in terms of refined game play
The big mechanic of this game, and what makes it so interesting to play, is the soul collection. Soma has the power of Dominance and, for whatever reason (as revealed in the plot), can collect the souls of enemies as he kills them. Each soul has its own unique power, and with over 100 souls in the game to collect, there was a lot of depth to the various builds that could be created in the game. Having souls randomly drop from enemies as you explored, getting cool new powers and helpful abilities, really added fun and depth to the adventure and made you want to explore more to see everything the game had to offer.
Like with Circle, the developers of the collection put a helpful enemy pop-out on screen in this game. You'll see that pop-out a lot since every enemy (save three bosses) has a soul to collect, but it was useful to see on screen "yes, I have this soul" or "no, I need to go grind on this enemy some more." The grind isn't as bad in this game, mind you (I never leveled up more than once on an enemy while trying to get their soul), but the pop-outs are still might helpful.
And that's in service to a perfectly crafted title. The music is great, the graphics (while still lighter than Circle) look really good, and the game has a story and structure that pushes the series forward and makes you care about the characters. This really is the masterpiece of the collection and its no wonder why fans continue to hold it up as one of the greats of the series. If you somehow are on this site and haven't played this game before, this is reason to get the Castlevania Advance Collection. This title alone is worth the price of admission.
Overall this is a good little collection. I appreciated that the various regional versions were in the set (even if it was essentially three versions of each rom put in here, for a total of 12 roms in the set) and I liked the on-screen prompts when they were actually useful. If you already have all these games and want to play them on older hardware instead then there probably isn't much reason to pick up this set. That said, just to have them upscaled on HD, looking good, and all together, makes this a pretty sweet collection at a low price point. It's hard to argue with two really great GBA games, one decent, one, and an SNES also-ran for completeness sake.
If there's a flaw with this collection its in what isn't here. Considering this was all really just emulation, I would have liked to see the classic Game Boy titles included in here as well, as those didn't make it into the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and are still waiting for their due. Four games is good, and two of them are stunners worth playing again, but considering how many games were in the Anniversary collection, it feels just a little thin now. I think it's worth the price, mind you, but I can absolutely understand why some fans might think, "man, only four games in this? Pass."