The Game Boy Advance had an impressive lineup of games in its relatively short life. Released in 2001, then shoved out the door by the Nintendo DS in 2004, it was home to 2 brand new Metroids, 3 new F-Zero games and 3 Castlevanias among others. This little writeup will be about Castlevania as I’ve just played through all 3 of them on the Wii U Virtual Console. I had an amazing time exploring each game, and I’m absolutely blown away that these 3 games were made within 3 years. Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow are all interesting in their own ways.
Aria of Sorrow was the last of the trio to release in 2003 but it was the first one I played. Coming from Super Castlevania IV I just felt like continuing a Castlevania binge. I wasn’t sure if I’d still like this more open style of game, so I dove straight into what’s regarded as the “best” one. Immediately I felt the difference to classic Castlevania with a cool scenario set in the future. There’s an eclipse in 2035 and some crazy shit happens, and suddenly you’re in Dracula’s castle. I love the idea that Dracula is still out there in the future, no matter how many Castlevania games you beat.
You’re some blue dude called Soma, but where does he fit in? Who is this guy? Is this Castlevania? How can this be a castle? The character himself has the same questions with not much being explained in the beginning. In this way, the scenario itself sets up a cool feeling of discovery as you start to explore the rooms. I was playing not just to level up and fill out the map, but to find out what’s going on.
The combat is much less intense than classic Castlevania, with basic movement including weapons that hit horizontally in one direction. It felt limiting to me at first, but the game makes up for it with a variety of weapons and abilities that stack on, including a stylish backdash and double jump. Soul skills are the secondary weapon in this game and I had a lot of fun with them. You can throw spears, cats, emit bat pulses, and they all have different kinds of trajectories to hit enemies from different positions. It feels empowering to use enemy’s abilities against them.
The music is something I was really looking forward to, and I was so happy to hear a crazy classic baseline in the opening area’s song. I had that stuck in my head for the entire few days I was playing Aria of Sorrow, everywhere I went. Apart from a few songs though, I didn’t find the soundtrack as good as classic Castlevania. It has a consistent spookiness and flavour, but I can’t recall most of the songs. It also struggles to optimise the GBA with an odd cheapness to the output. Not horrible, just a bit of static and muddiness. It’s not the GBA’s fault since the Fire Emblems and other games have a nice crispness to them on the Wii U. Just feels like they didn’t extract the most out of it here, but it’s not distracting or bad by any means. The sound effects sound similarly cheap, with monotone menu beeps and not much variety. The one sound effect that matters most however, is the crunch when you hit enemies. It’s very satisfying, rich, and almost soothing as you grind your way to the end.
I got completely addicted to Aria of Sorrow and finished it after a few intense sessions. I had to continue riding the Castlevania high. Harmony of Dissonance was next, but boy did it feel different.
I could feel the dissonance right away with ugly graphics and horrid music. It was released 1 year before Aria of Sorrow yet somehow I felt like I had gone back to the Game Boy Color. The music uses so few channels, leading to a super annoying whining sound in all the melodies. The graphics are extremely muddy and pixelated, to the point where they had to add a blue outline to the character and enemies to make things visible. I’m glad they DID, but still a very strange necessity. To top it all off, the jump has a really awkward floaty feel to it.
I kept exploring, and my impression of HoD improved significantly the more I played. The game is BIGGER than Aria of Sorrow and the exploration has more elements to it. There’s more environment interaction, including triggering items and events to destroy walls, flipping switches, and finding keys for doors, and a huge late-game spoiler I will avoid. It has the biggest adventure feeling of the three with a lot of interesting concepts, and the bizarre graphics ended up adding a unique otherworldly flavour.
The story is a bit convoluted and confusing. For some reason Dracula is appearing 50 years after he’s been vanquished instead of 100, just because some guy did some stuff he shouldn’t have. It allows some different world design with the plot point of finding Dracula’s remains as keys and more I won’t go into. I found the scenario, characters and dialogue lacking, but the concept was ultimately worth it for the world design. That is by far the most important part of a Castlevania game.
The movement grew on me as I started utilising L and R dashing all the time. It’s a bit faster than running, and dashing is just super fun to do. Other games will have a backdash as a special move, but HoD has L and R permanently mapped for dashing left and right. There’s no limit or cool-down, you can just mash the button and go dsh-dsh-dsh-dsh-dsh. It feels amazing to drop down a platform, backdash left while facing right, then fall down the next platform and be facing the right way as you land. HoD has super cool, fun movement that isn’t immediately apparent until you start gaining confidence. The map is GIGANTIC in this game, easily the biggest of all the Castlevanias I’ve played, and I still didn’t mind traveling back and forth to find things because it was so fun to dance everywhere. They say Dracula is good on his feet, so it’s all good practice.
Circle of the Moon was the final one I played and the first one released at the GBA launch. It has the same exploration structure with a much more classic feel, as we go back to an Austrian castle in 1830. After the ridiculous plots of Aria of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance, I didn’t mind this at all. The art style is a bit bland, but the graphics have a very solid feeling to them. The movement is slower and heavier, which is immediately apparent when you start the game by falling. The music is also good again, thank god. This has the best soundtrack of the 3 games in my opinion, with great arrangements, a thick sound, and even the soothing Game Over melody from SCIV returning to comfort me.
I got immersed in CotM for a completely different reason than the other two games, and that came down to combat difficulty. Exploration in this game is much more straight-forward than the other GBA entries, and the challenge comes more from surviving. One of the first enemies in the game takes about 8-10 whips to kill and can do a lot of damage, it’s a good teaser for what’s in store. Often I found myself stuck between save points on low health, very frantically chipping away at the enemies while nervously running back to preserve myself. It’s a very dangerous game.
Circle of the Moon recognises its own combat-heavy design, and changes up some enemies in rooms you have previously visited. When different enemies appear in familiar rooms, it expands the gameplay scope with the same size map, and basically transforms the way you move through the game. I had a lot of fun figuring out not just where to go, but how to safely travel through rooms. Boss fights however, I have mixed feelings about. I didn’t talk about the bosses in AoS and HoD because they were a bit easy and forgettable in my playthrough, but here they put up a huge fight. I absolutely loved the challenge of most of them until the final boss. That is one of the hardest things I’ve ever beaten in my life. Maybe the hardest boss I’ve beaten in a game. Absolutely awesome, but ridiculous and I will never play it again. Perhaps being an early GBA game, they wanted to give people a reason to grind to level 99 to compliment their 9,999,999 score in Super Mario Advance (who else did that?). Still a ridiculous feat to grind that high, I was level 52 when I beat it. It was a very long fight and an epic way to cap off my experience.
Finally, I have to give a shout out to the Wii U for being an amazing platform to play all 3 of these games. Here is the digital manual for Circle of the Moon displayed on the GamePad, giving you the ability to read it on the bottom screen WHILE playing the game on the TV. You don’t even have to pause the game. The GBA VC is by far the best on the Wii U eShop and doesn’t get enough credit. I think it’s the best official emulation ever done on a console. NES and N64 have some problems, while SNES and Wii games are good, but don’t go the extra mile like the GBA VC. The GBA VC includes full colour manuals and they have adjusted the brightness of the games themselves to look well-balanced on the big screen. It has a screen-smoothing option, fully customisable controls, and restore points. I have 13 GBA VC games now and they are all amazing, like a little classic system with rich gameplay. DS games also have manuals, but the dual screen display is not fully translatable to the TV screen and the experience is less “perfect” than GBA. Some games work better than others for DS, and I’m hoping the DS Castlevania games would be great with the TV fully dedicated to gameplay and the map on the GamePad. I think they would actually feel like Wii U games. Please Konami, resurrect Dracula three more times while the window for dual screen gaming is still open.