I have been enjoying the Castlevania games ever since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night won me over. The castle labyrinth with its secrets and fun gameplay made me wish I got into the series earlier and play other games in this fashion. While I would later play Castlevania: Order of Ecclessia and some of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, there were older games in the series that I missed out on completely (especially for someone who loved the GBA). Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, & Aria of Sorrow were three Castlevania games that came out on the Gameboy Advance. All three games followed the structure of Symphony of the Night with the core gameplay of explore a castle with various rooms while finding items to increase your abilities and clap Dracula’s cheeks at the end. All three games are regarded as great games for the GBA and have high standards in the Castlevania franchise. Originally, I was going to purchase all three games via the Wii U Virtual Console (because good luck getting them for cheap physically), but one magically day, rumors started flying around about an Advance collection that had all three games in one package. Great for me, sad day for my Wii U. So for the month of October, I set out to complete as many of the games that I could. I finished all three GBA titles plus Dracula X which was included for some reason. Each game gave off different impressions for me, which made playing each a good different experience than playing the same game with a different skin. I will be going over all four games in the order that I played them. This post may get long, so get comfy and play any of the Castlevania soundtracks for background noise (all of the soundtracks can be found on Spotify)
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
It is the year 2035. Since that is 14 years from now, I am not surprise that the threat of Dracula still haunts us. Soma Cruz and his friend Mina Hakuba are enjoying the lunar eclipse when they are suddenly transported to Dracula’s Castle. Meet by not Alucard, Soma finds himself drawn to the castle as if he was a teenager who likes to trespass onto people’s property. He soon learns that he can absorb the souls of monsters if he is lucky enough, and has to stop a man named Graham from becoming the next Dracula.
This All Feels Familiar…
I will be completely honest here. This is not my first time playing through Aria of Sorrow. I played it back in the day when I first discovered emulation and it was one of the first games that I played with that method. That didn’t disrupt my experience with replaying this game since I had mostly forgotten the layout of the castle. The only thing I remembered were the three souls required in order to get the true ending of the game (for clarity I went for the true ending for all three games). Castlevania games have a tendency for including multiple endings with specific requirements in order to obtain the true ending. Just know for this game you need to obtain and equip the Flame Demon soul, Succubus soul, and Giant Bat soul during your fight with Graham to unlock the true ending route.
Mechanically speaking, Aria of Sorrow is the best out of the trio. The controls, movement, and items that you can obtain are similar to Symphony of the Night while standing out on its own thanks to the Soul Absorption mechanic. You can absorb the soul of every enemy in the game and it will add a new ability for Soma. There are three different types of souls: Bullet Souls shoot projectiles for long range attacks, Guardian Souls that can either transform or provide offensive or defensive buffs, and Enchanted Souls that provide stat boosts. What the three different soul types provide are multiple play styles that you can choose from during each playthrough. There are definitely certain souls that you want to utilize for effectiveness, but having the option to make your playthrough easier or more difficult is something I like to see in games. Along with souls, Soma can equip different weapons that change up his basic attack. Weapons range from shortswords, lances, hammers, brass knuckles, and even a gun. Each weapon also changes how you go about fighting enemies since they each weapon has a different animation, range, element, or aliment attribute to them. Just because one weapon has the higher attack value doesn’t mean that you can tackle all enemies and bosses with ease. During my playthrough I had to switch up weapons since some were harder to hit certain weapons. That all changes once you find Claimh Solais and start murdering enemies since the sword takes up most of the screen.
Difficulty is present in this Castlevania game. Throughout my playthrough there were definitely times where I felt outclassed or the enemies were just kicking my ass over and over. Being a Castlevania game, you are encouraged to explore each area you visit to ensure you find weapons, armor, and souls that can help you get through some of the castle’s challenges. The game is an RPG, so it tricks you into thinking that you need to grind levels in order to be more powerful to tackle these areas. If there is one thing that you take from me about almost all the Castlevania games is that you do not (I repeat DO NOT) need to grind levels. Obstacles require patience and understanding of how certain enemies more, what their weaknesses are, and understanding the best way to overcome their BS. The solution is not thinking that once you get to a higher level you can go on a killing spree. Just like the boss fights, the enemies in this game require your respect and a well thought out plan will get you through their obstacles.
Overall, Aria of Sorrow provided me with a good challenge and a great time navigating Dracula’s Castle (which felt like the shortest out of the three). Collecting souls, finding hidden areas, and blazing through the castle always feels good and the game provided. If I had to complain about something it would probably be the length of the game. I finished the game in about 5 hours across five sessions. I found navigating the castle to be simple and I hardly had to stop and consult a guide on where I had to go to next. Each area is very telling if you should be here on not, and once you find an ability soul for a specific ability, you pretty much know where to go to next. The game is super fun and replayable; I highly recommend playing this in the collection.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
The year is 1830. While the Belmonts were off playing dead or something, Dracula took the opportunity to plan his resurrection for the seventeenth time with the help from Carmilla. Because this tale is non-canon to the series, a vampire slayer by the name of Morris Baldwin, accompany by his apprentices Hugh Baldwin and Nathan Graves, storm the castle to stop the ritual. They fail as Morris is captured so that his blood can be used in the final ritual, and Nathan and Hugh demonstrate what you will be doing for most of the game by falling down a large pit. Hugh rushes off to save his master/father while leaving us with Nathan to ponder why the fall didn’t crush their tendons.
Easily the worst game in the trilogy. I had high hopes for this game since people were talking good things about the game; the collection proudly features Nathan on the title and home screen, and it had high reviews at the time. This was the biggest let down for me and I was hoping that the game would turn around for me at some point, but it never did.
Let’s get my biggest complaints out of the way. I understand that some people may not like the long hallway sections in these games since they are giant time wasters that have nothing interesting in them except hordes of zombies or skeletons. Now, take those horizontal hallways of nothingness, set them up vertically, and make most of you map based on that. The game is essentially a repetitive notion of climbing up sections just to go through a few rooms that make up climb us less, to then climb up some more until you eventually need to go back down to get somewhere else. This wouldn’t be an issue if they included some cool enemies to challenge you on your way up or vary up the platforming a little besides the clock tower. Each ascent just feels the same and their are hardly any enemies or platforming tricks to make the climb feel engaging. It is interesting to have a Castlevania game focus on vertical progression over mostly horizontal exploration, but if there is nothing interesting to do or see while climbing, then its just a waste of time. This bothered me the most during my playthrough since I would get lost often on where to go next; only to find that I need to be on the other side of the castle and will have to backtrack mostly on foot (since there are no warp points at the bottom of the castle) to continue progress. Just writing about it makes me mad and makes me dread playing it again in the future.
Another thing that baffled me was at the beginning of the game. When you start off, Nathan has the classic slow walk like in the classic Castlevania games. You cannot run, you cannot get running starts to some platforms, and it is a slow experience to start the game with. This would deter most newcomers as it seems ridiculous to play a game at this speed until you found the ability to run. What I found to be bad game design is that in the third room that you go into, you find the boots that make you run. What was the point of not having it at the beginning if you are just going to get it without a fight or trial. It feels completely useless to start you off without the ability to dash, only to go through one room with where you fall and get pass a couple of enemies to then be rewarded with the privilege to play the game at a distant speed. If I hadn’t committed myself to play the game all the way through, I would have stopped playing the game right then and there out of spite and worried what other questionable game design choices the devs made.
Okay. Some non-negative things about the game now. I did enjoy the Dual Set-up System (DSS) mechanic that Nathan uses. Defeating certain enemies will make sometimes make a card drop representing an action or attribute. By choosing different combinations of action and attribute cards, you can turn Nathan’s main weapon into a different type of weapon or create spells that can help you offensively or defensively. My favorite spell was to combine the ice attribute card with the barrier action to create a rotating shield that helped me defensively as well as with offense. It made traversing much more tolerable and made some boss fights a joke since my barrier would destroy any projectiles they had. I hardly used any other skill once I had access to this.
Another enjoyable feature that is included in the Castlevania Advance Collection is the ability to create save states and rewind. I didn’t mention these features when I was talking about Aria of Sorrow since I hardly utilized them but would occasionally use the rewind function if I did something stupid. In Circle of the Moon I abused the hell out of these two mechanics. Since running around the castle was a pain, I would use a save state on one side of the castle, and if I realized the path I took was a horrible mistake, I would just reload the save state and choose a different path. No shame in doing that. I would also save state outside of boss rooms since I didn’t have the patience to restart the fight if I somehow lost. This didn’t matter since I abused the hell out of the rewind function during boss fights since I wanted to be done with this game as soon as possible. This made the final Dracula fight so much better since he had this stupid one hit kill rush that you have to avoid or start the whole fight again. I didn’t have the time or patience for that so I became a time wizard and just rewind time to avoid my untimely deaths. Again, I have no shame in using those tools. Without them I probably would not have finished them game and would have caused some minor property damage.
Overall, Circle of the Moon was a chore to get done and I hated every minute of it. I get why some people were excited to revisit what was possibly their first Castlevania experience on the GBA, but with so many better games that came before and after this game, I don’t get it. The slow start, boring level design, and worthless vertical progression just makes me want to stay away from this game forever (knowing me however I will probably stupidly want to go back and 100% it).
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
It is the year 1748. Juste Belmont gets an invitation to a party in Dracula’s Castle. Attending the party are Maxim Kischine, Juste’s friend who went on a self-discover quest only to forget who he was, Lydie Erlanger, the damsel in distress plot, and the typical rose gallery of monsters you would find in these games. Juste and Maxim work together to find their friend Lydie who is held captive somewhere in the castle. While zooming through the castle, Juste realizes that the castle keeps changing, and Maxim goes from chum to chad depending on where he goes. It’s up to Juste to use his Belmont powers to crash the party, save his friends, and maybe murder Dracula along the way.
Better Than Expecting
I won’t lie. I thought this was going to be the game that I would hate in the collection. I found the pixel art for the characters to be awful and one of the driving factors to why I never bothered to play this game. Once I got past that issue, I found this game to be enjoyable and now one of my favorites in the series. Who knew that if you look past a game’s visuals you can find a fun game underneath?
I think the first thing that made this game for me was the speed at which Juste can move. Unlike Soma and definitely Nathan, Juste starts off with a forward dash that he can do with a push of the trigger buttons. It is about the same speed as doing a backstep in Aria of Sorrow or Symphony of the Night, but you are able to spam the dash to make Juste fly through some of the rooms. This made retracting places so much better in my opinion since instead of backstepping my way through places, I could keep a forward momentum while facing forward in case I had to dispatch enemies on my way. The speed at which Juste moves is also a good thing considering this has the biggest map out of the GBA trilogy. Iga wanted to bring back the feel of going through the same castle like in Symphony of the Night. The only difference is that Castle B isn’t upside down like in SoTN. Castle B is more than least the same as Castle A, so it makes you flip through two copies of the same map with the only thing that are different are enemies, background visuals, and items that you have to find. This may be disappointing for some who believe this to be lazy game design just to inflate the length of the game, but I didn’t mind it.
One of the reasons I didn’t mind it was because for the first time in a good while, I got lost on what to do next. The game doesn’t really spell it out to you on where to go next like in the other two games. It gives you plenty of guesses on where to go on the map, but most of the times it is an impassable wall or requires a certain item to get through it. Harmony of Dissonance took me the longest to finish by only an hour, but it was mostly because I was constantly getting lost at certain points, and then when I found my correct path it was a euphoric moment. For context, I didn’t use a guide at any point during this game until it came down to finding one item. When I consulted the guide, it basically told me that I was at the end of the game, and I felt good about figuring things out on my own up to that point. This does make the game hard for newcomers who are not use to the gameplay flow of Castlevania to retrace steps to find hidden secrets and retain knowledge on how to get back to certain areas. I did feel good that I am used to this type of gameplay, but I would find this game tortures to anyone playing it for the first time.
Going back to Juste. I found him to be extremely powerful for having nothing but his whip and sub weapons to mostly rely on. Harmony of Dissonance is still an RPG, so you will have to spend some time outfitting Juste with armor and accessories to boost his stats. I did find this game to rely more on the RPG aspect as it gives you four slots to outfit Juste with head, body, arm, and leg armor with you picking and choosing what fits best for your playstyle. Juste only has the Vampire Killer whip at his disposal, but that is all he needs to kick ass. During your journey, you will find certain tips that you can equip to the Vampire Killer. This tips are mostly elemental tips that you can change out to deal elemental damage to enemies, but some have special properties like the Crash Stone that can destroy certain walls and the Platinum tip that adds a +20 attack to the whip. Classic sub weapons are present like the dagger, axe, holy water, bible, knuckles (which is new), and my favorite, the cross. If your basic whip attack is too short, these projectiles have you back as always, but can be helpful in other ways. Another mechanic that Juste has access to are spell books that can be used to change how sub weapons are used. I would like to be honest and tell you which each did, but there was only two that I used. Those were the cross + fire book spell which creates a giant flaming cross that can stay in one place until you input the command again, and the cross + lighting spell that turns Juste invincible for a moment and summons a giant pillar of crosses that deal massive damage. Boss fights became a joke with that last spell since I would use up most of my magic just casting that and then finishing the job with my whip. The spell book system is something that you can turn off and on when you need to, and it is wise to turn it off when you don’t need it. Sub weapons require hearts to use them, but spells require MP in order to be used. So if you are in a fight and run out of MP, turn the spell book off and you will be able to use the sub weapon no problem since you didn’t have to waste hearts while combined with a spell. This versatility may seem simple, but it makes Juste feel deadly and one of the strongest Castlevania characters that I’ve ever played.
If there is one more complaint I could make it would be the lack of secrets that you can find and things that you could miss. I spent a lot of my time hitting walls thinking that one of them would be a secret room, but in my entire playthrough I didn’t find a single one. Breakable walls have been a staple of the Castlevania series, and if I knew this game didn’t have any besides the visible ones that you need a certain item for, then I wouldn’t have wasted my time checking everywhere I went. Instead of breakable walls, you do discover that some walls have an invisible path that you just have to discover on your own. To my knowledge, no other Castlevania game features invisible walls, so it trips up both newcomers and veterans to check for stuff like that. Going along with this, there are relics around the castle that help you travers different areas. There is a point in the game where you get the high jump ability, but you will sometimes find barriers that you can’t get through. You would think that you would need to find a relic to help you get through that barrier, but that is not the case. There are random boots that you have to find located off the beaten path that gives you the ability to break those barriers when equipped. The same thing happens when you come across one dark area and have to find night vision goggles to get through the area. For something as important that you need to get the things you need to unlock the final area, I wish it was a little bit clearer that these boots were important. If I didn’t read the description of them, I would have missed the fact that performing the high jump while they are equipped will destroy the barrier. Something minor that most people won’t have a problem with, but I could have spent another hour searching for something that I already had in my possession.
Overall, I was surprise that I enjoyed this game. Looks were very deceiving and I was not expecting to have a good time. So far, Juste may be my second favorite Belmont right behind Richter (his game on the other hand makes me rage).
Castlevania: Dracula X
One day while watching people suffer while playing Castlevania 3, Toru Hagihara was displeased that he didn’t have a bombing soundtrack to go along with his entertainment. He decided to task Akira Souji, Keizo Makamura, Reika Bando, Koji Yamada, and Satan himself to create on of the best soundtracks that they could come up with. After months of work, they created one of the best soundtracks that blew everyone away. To market on this great soundtrack, Hagihara had the great idea to program a game around it and sell it as a video game instead of a music CD. The team decided to call this album, Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and release it as a computer game to get pass customs and dominate the PC music genre. While they saw great success for the PC version, they quickly realized that they didn’t live in the era of the PC master race and not many people played/listened to music on their home computer. The team then decided to re-release the soundtrack two years later in a cartridge format to fit into people’s cars. The cartridge wouldn’t fit into most commercial car radios, but it would fit perfectly in Nintendo’s Super Nintendo at the time. They were also lucky that Hagihara’s game program was also on the cartridge so that listeners could do something while jamming out to the music. Thus, Castlevania: Dracula X came to existence. Oh yeah and I guess the game has something to do about a guy named Richter Belmont storming Dracula’s Castle in order to save his lover Annette or something…
I am bad at this game
I played this entire game without figuring out how to perform the Item Crash ability. That should set the tone of how badly this playthrough went. I will admit that when it comes to Castlevania, I am a bigger fan of the “metroidvania” design over the 2-D platformer. The difficulty curve that they can throw always infuriated me with how bad I am with platformer games to begin with. It is all about trial and error and knowing how to utilize the tools that are at your disposal. None of that really translate to my brain much as I’m just trying my best to get to each goal as best as I can. It doesn’t help that health is hidden in each stage and there are limited. Thus, this creates a stressful environment for me where I am trying to play my best while avoiding hits that make me unprepared for the next screen or boss fight. I like to play games to relax and not send me to my therapist office every Friday evening.
But, Rondo of Blood/Dracula X felt different from other classic Castlevania titles. Sure there were some unfair enemy placements to create that artificial difficulty, but the game didn’t feel impossible or cheap like the time I played Dracula’s Curse. I could actually tell that the game was trying to help me get through the stages with helpful sub weapon placement and telegraphed enemy movements that makes playing the game easier if you notice these things. Of course there were times where I felt like my own skill level was preventing me from tackling things better, but once I took my time to analyze things and work at my own pace, I found the journey rewarding and manageable. I still don’t like the idea that Richter will jump back like a meter to the nearest pit if he gets hit, but all of this became manageable once I started utilizing the best feature of the game.
Yup, I used the reset function like crazy in this game. I probably used it more here than in Circle of the Moon due to my zero patience for platformer games. Does this diminish some of the difficulty of the game? Absolutely. Do I give a flying fuck? Absolutely not. When you are garbage at platformer games like me, you take all the advantages that you can take, and since the rewind feature is built into this version of the game, hell yeah it becomes a game mechanic. This doesn’t mean that I was going about rewinding after every hit or death. There are such things as strategic defeats in order to gain the upper hand. This mostly came in when I was low on health and couldn’t get past the onslaught of obstacles in my way. Dying will put you at the beginning of that screen, and then from there it is just practice to find the best ways to get past enemies. Randomly on like Stage 6, I finally discovered the backflip ability that you have access to at the beginning of the game…so that helped me out a lot going forward. Bosses can either be challenging or a joke if you can see their attack pattern coming ahead. Surprisingly, boss fights weren’t difficult to me since instead of platforming I just had to learn their pattern and attack when the opportunity came. The Dracula fight however is extremely tedious and requires you to jump on several platforms just for the change to attack him, and the time it took me just for the chance to hit him almost killed me before he got the chance to do so. The second phase however is a joke if you came to the fight with the cross (the cross will always be my favorite sub-weapon).
So with all of that, it would be no surprise that I didn’t like the game for being a challenging platformer game right? Well, as a shocker to myself as well, I came to enjoy this game once I got a feel for it all. The soundtrack to the game definitely helps since it was one of the driving forces that kept me pumped for more. Of course Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears are instant bangers, but other tracks like Richter’s theme Blood Relations and the Cemetery just struck a cord with me that boosted my moral. Without the rewind function, I probably would not have finished this game as fast as I did, but with it, I discovered what is now probably my favorite classic Castlevania game. I will have to play the game one day without the rewind feature, but hopefully by then I will know the game well enough that I don’t have to rely on it (and my blood levels can stay stable).
Advance Collection Overall
Honestly I am really glad that I experienced these games in this format. Playing the original games with an actual Game Boy Advance will probably feel like the best way to play these, but this collection makes these so easy to play. I played the collection on my Switch and the first advice I can give is to play these games with a comfortable controller. I played everything with my 8bitdo controller since it is in the shape of a Super Nintendo controller and felt comfortable playing games like this on. You do have the ability to customize your button layouts and that was a saving grace for me for attacking and jumping comfortably (its an available option, use it). Each game has a built in tracker that helps keeps tracks of relics that you find, cards and souls that enemies drop if you are trying to collect them all. This is super helpful and makes collecting items so much easier. There is also the after mentioned save states and replay functions. If you are having problems playing through the games due to their difficulty, please please please use these features to help make the games more tolerable. They are built in functions for you to use; use them to the fullest and never feel bad about it.
Overall, these are all good games that are worth playing (even if I think one of them is technically bad). They take no time to beat and can be replayed over again. If I had to rank them out of my personal enjoyment it would go as following:
1. Aria of Sorrow
2. Harmony of Dissonance
3. Dracula X
4. Circle of the Moon
Thanks for reading this really long post!