You enter the Castle Corridor with a knife, handed to you by Aluca—erm, right, Genya Arikado—who ushers you in, to “go to the throne room, all will be revealed”. Zombies appear to come from all nooks and crannies, secreting fedit mucus spilled all over the slippery floor. Crows in the distance keep watch, the light of the moon somehow completely absorbing in their pitch black feathers. You take a stab at a zombie. It barfs and crumbles into four pieces. Six more appear.
Welcome to Castlevania!
Or rather, welcome back. It’s been what, 20 years? Yup. Castlevania Circle of the Moon was a Game Boy Advance launch title, released all the way back in 2001. Harmony of Dissonance would follow a year later, and lastly Castlevania Aria of Sorrow in 2003. The GBA castlevanias did end in a bang—Aria of Sorrow is well-regarded as one of the best Castlevanias ever, let alone on a handheld system. A few years ago, the classic Metroidvanias received a timely collectable re-release—Game Boy games included. But the best metroidvania ones were left in the dark. This collection contains all GBA games plus Dracula X on SNES as a bonus. Let’s take a look if they’re still playable. After all, we’re used to Hollow Knight now!
The GBA Vanias
To get the obvious out of the way: Aria of Sorrow is still one of the best GBA games out there, period. Everything in my 2018 article I wrote during my third playthrough still holds true. This time, I knew almost every location of good equipment by heart, although that did not bother me at all. It was a breeze to replay the game for the nth time, and probably will be the next run. The atmosphere here does it all. After opening up your first “barricade” (door), you’re greeted with Castle Corridor’s soundtrack and it his all the right notes—as does the game.
I’ll let the screenshots do most of the talking here.
Aria is the culmination of two other GBA Castlevania attempts. Circle of the Moon’s atmosphere (and perhaps its emphasis on castle design, although some things went wrong there) and Harmony of Dissonance’s bright and big graphics. The conversation text box and the in-game menu reveals that it shares (more or less) the engine with its predecessor, but the annoying bits and pieces of Harmony of Dissonance have been completely fleshed out.
These games are almost twenty years old and they’re still better than the average metroidvania rip-off released nowadays. That is pretty telling. Iga knows his stuff really well—apart from getting Bloodstained to run well on switch… Aria’s soul system was recycled in Dawn of Sorrow and the unofficial Castlevania sucessor Bloodstained. It is a clever way to keep the player farming for both more gear and abilities that works better than Circle of the Moon’s DSS card system, simply because of higher drop rates.
Soma can equip weapons in Aria of Sorrow, just like Alucard could in Symphony of the night. For Harmony of Dissonance and Circle of the Moon, you’re playing as a Belmont, and your whip is mandatory. There are still plenty of ways to upgrade or enhance it, though, but to me, it never felt as great as being able to equip a cooler weapon. Furthermore, in Harmony, I spent ages walking around before finding the Steel Tip that ups my damage. On the other hand, once you’ve got your hands on weapons like Balmung and Claihm Solais, you likely won’t equip anything else in Aria. It’s a delicate balance that works well enough in all three games, although I prefer Aria’s system.
Don’t play this collection starting with Aria of Sorrow: try to adhere to the original release dates. Because that’s exactly what I didn’t do, and it was admittedly a bit tough to get back to Harmony of Dissonance after finishing the masterpiece that is Aria. The castle layout is a big chore: Konami stole the dual castle layout (and enemy layout and elevator sprites and …) from Symphony of the Night, increasing the backtracking rate to an alarming rate.
The game never really clicked with me until I finally reached the clock tower and was able to unlock the better portion of the game. Harmony’s castle is full of what I’d call hard stops: barricaded walls, locked doors, and dead ends. Although the latter might contain a HP Max Up item, you’ll only be able to overcome the former near the end of the game. This, again, makes backtracking a pain. There aren’t as much neatly placed portals sprinkled around as in Aria and the music can sound really awful at times.
That sounds bad for an Iga-Metroidvania, but in practice, it’s still a very good installment. The chiptune like music was the consequence of going big and bright on the graphics—which was a consequence of the critique Circle of the Moon got, thanks to the Game Boy Advance’s absence of a backlit screen. You can see why they needed two “test”-games to get the third one right. Circle of the Moon is the least pleasant to replay in 2021: double-tapping to run gets old very fast. The castle is large but empty and the card drops that help you take on the sometimes too difficult enemies are frustratingly uncommon. The bosses are excellent though, if you can handle the huge difficulty spikes.
As for Dracula X, the addition is a pleasant surprise. Not being a Metroidvania, the game might not be the reason to buy the Advance Collection, but it wasn’t there in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. Rondo of Blood was, which still is a superior game compared to this SNES port. Still, the music is awesome, and the Mode-7 graphics are still impressive. A nice dessert after you’ve ploughed your way though the main course.
The extras in the Collection
Besides the presence of the obvious save state and not so obvious rewind system, which I never bothered to try out, there’s actually a lot to like in this package. A built-in encyclopedia is present for each game, spoiling the surprise for the items but reminding you that there’s still more to fetch. I especially liked that with Harmony of Dissonance’s furniture collecting quest to fill Juste’s room.
The emulation work is top notch here, which can be expected from M2, who also were responsible for putting out the Anniversary Collection, the Genesis Mini and the TurboGrafx-16 Mini.
Perhaps the best reason to buy this collection, even if you like me already own all three GBA games, is the ability to play them on the go (on Switch) or the big screen. The pixel-perfect rendering option does a great job at putting out these retro pixels on any screen. It’s still a joy to watch the graphics and animations from the GBA era.
That said, if you do plan to play it on the Switch, perhaps go for the Switch Lite or buy a Pro controller. The joypad buttons are laughably bad for a fast-paced 2D platformer such as these ones. They are extremely loud and clicky and even hurt my thumbs after a while. The D-pad on the Pro controller is also a bit better, but compared to my original GBA, not much. In Harmony of Dissonance, you constantly press L/R to zip through the castle, and the clickclickclick gets annoying fast.
But don’t let that stop you from (re)visiting these classic and pristine Igavanias! Happy vampire hunting!