An Unhinged Look at the GBA Castlevania Games

At this point, it’s become an on-brand move for me to lightly pepper in a Castlevania article on this website in between other games. Of course, by “lightly pepper” I mean “call upon Mother Nature to pelt the world with golf ball-sized hail”. Even when I don’t write about Castlevania, I’m either referencing it or at the very least thinking about it. It’s a gift and a curse – mostly a gift, because you gotta do what sparks joy, y’know?

This time, I figured I’d up the ante a bit and cover multiple games in the franchise; specifically, the Game Boy Advance entries. The GBA owns and hosts one of my favorite libraries of any console. I started with the original launch model: a true backlight-less experience that made some games damn near unplayable without one of those Nyko worm lights. The most egregious of those is Castlevania: Circle of there Moon, a game that decided those more colorful launch titles that accommodated the darker screen were stupid.

I feel like Circles’s murky, dark color palette has been somewhat redeemed thanks to later incarnations of the GBA, as well as the magic of emulation. The Castlevania Advance Collection in particular is a wonderful way to play this game now since it has the added benefit of save states and rewind (I’ll get into why that’s a good thing later). I genuinely like the way this game looks overall, as simple as it is upon first glance. For a launch title it has some great sprite work, especially the screen-filling bosses that stand between you and kicking Dracula’s ass for the hundredth time. It’s a dank-ass game filled with sewers and caves, and the muddle visuals accentuate the grime of it all.

Its dankness certainly carries over to other aspects as well. The game feels strange to play nowadays when compared to its much smoother successors. It’s almost like the developers were trying to strike a middle ground between the slower, more methodical pace of the classic-vanias and the exploratory movin’ and groovin’ of Koji Igarashi’s entries. I feel like this was a way of easing the player into its world by forcing them to take a slower approach, but it’s immediately mitigated by the dash boots you find a couple of rooms later. It’s a weird first upgrade, especially because Symphony of the Night lets you back dash your ass off from the get-go, but it’s a useful one as you’ll be able to jump to platforms that were previously unreachable.

Before I go further, it’s important to note that Igarashi wasn’t explicitly involved with Circle of the Moon’s development like he was with Symphony of the Night. Circle was developed by Konami’s Kobe branch, the same team responsible for Castlevania 64, a game that I’ve talked about at length on this website and will defend until my bones evaporate. Igarashi would resume his producer role with the next game, but I’d like to dig a little more into Circle’s central gimmick first before I move on to that one.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that Circle of the Moon has going for it is the Dual Set-Up System, which involves collecting cards from downed enemies and combining them to activate certain effects, like stat buffs or elemental attacks. I won’t go too deep into this system (or any of the others) because I don’t want to sound like GameFAQs but I will say that I mostly like this system aside from some absolutely crackheaded drop rates. Like, less than 1% crackheaded. One good thing you can do to mitigate this though is to exploit a glitch which involves activating a card combo you have, pausing mid-animation, and choosing whatever combo you want, regardless of whether or not you own the card(s). It STILL WORKS in the Advance Collection too, which is nice because time is fleeting and sometimes I don’t feel like grinding to get the Thunderbird summon (which is one of the especially busted summons so I can somewhat understand the lower drop rates for its cards).

Regardless, it’s an interesting system that adds a dash of variety to an otherwise standard adventure. I like the elemental sword abilities a lot for their beefy overhead swings, and the aforementioned summons are a lot of fun to bust out during a difficult boss encounter. That’s not to say it’s a super challenging game to begin with, however. Its difficulty is more due to some questionable save room placements and a monotonous sewer zone that can really kill your momentum if you’re not prepared. Seriously I hate the underground waterway so fucking much. It’s a big, sprawling nightmare and there are enemies that can freeze you, AND if you take a hit while frozen it deals extra damage. It’s awful.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the negatives though, because I still think there’s a lot to like with Circle of the Moon. It’s a fairly straightforward ‘vania that impressively condenses the fundamentals of the metroidvania genre into a relatively short experience. It’s not as vast and exploratory as Symphony of the Night, but considering its status as a GBA launch title, it didn’t really need to be. I loved it a lot back then and I still like it a lot nowadays – barring the section where I was constantly being turned into an ice cube.

When I was checking the release dates for these games again, I was shocked to see how close they were all released together. If we’re going by North American dates, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance was released only fifteen months after Circle of the Moon. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, Harmony was handled by a different dev studio under the production of Koji Igarashi. Iga was fairly critical of Circle even, booting it from the series timeline and making Harmony sound like something of a course correction in this interview he did with Computer and Video Games. It’s very apparent that they wanted to capture what made Symphony of the Night such a landmark release, and while I can’t say they nailed it 100%, they certainly made something strange and enthralling in its own right.

Harmony of Dissonance is cracked. When viewing it on the surface, it’s immediately reminiscent of a scrunched down Symphony of the Night with protagonist Juste Belmont’s character design vaguely resembling Alucard. The sprite work in general is bigger and more vibrant than its predecessor, which definitely adds more fuel to Iga’s “we’re trying to do the complete opposite of the last one” fire. This version of Dracula’s castle has always been one of my favorite’s because of the slightly-crusty-but-still-visually-appealing backgrounds and colors. There are a couple of rooms in particular that make me feel like I’m hallucinating because of the way they shift and warp. It’s good shit, and as much as I like Circle’s murkiness there’s no question that Harmony clears it in the presentation department (for me at least).

One of the more contentious aspects of Harmony, however, is its music. In a 2002 Q&A with GameSpot, Koji Igarashi noted that the music was sacrificed in order to focus on the visual side of things, and upon first hearing it you can kind of see where he’s coming from. It’s compressed and crunchy – a far cry from the more pleasant sounding music in Circle of the Moon.

The thing is, I think it fits. And I love this soundtrack a lot.

The compositions themselves are really good. The music is tonally sour and morose, which suits the more melancholy vibes of this game really well. I mean, the game is called Harmony of Dissonance after all. It would make sense for the music to sound…well, a little dissonant. I can understand the complaints to a point though. Castlevania is a series with some iconic soundtracks and Harmony doesn’t quite break into the top tier, but I really like it for what it is and what it adds to the overall atmosphere of the game.

I don’t have too much to say about Harmony’s mechanics: It’s a floatier Symphony of the Night which isn’t a bad thing, and the shoulder buttons let you dash in either direction which makes cruising through the castle a lot of fun. Instead of collecting cards, you come across elemental spell books that can be combined with your sub-weapon to unleash unique special attacks. It’s a simple system, but I loved trying every possible combination out to see what they did the first time I played this. The iconic holy water rainstorm is present and accounted for too so it’s a perfect system as far as I’m concerned.

What I don’t love as much is this game’s main gimmick. Spoilers ahead.

Not too far into your journey, you’ll come to realize that the castle has two “layers” which the map labels as Castle A and B. There are special warp rooms that take you between the two and they interconnect in various ways. The layouts are largely the same but you’ll encounter different monster types, as well as a few aesthetic differences. It feels like an interesting play on the inverted castle twist in Symphony, but here it’s unfortunately way more frustrating and way easier to get sidetracked in. I like the concept a lot and I’m numb to the obtuse progression these days thanks to repeated playthroughs, but I can completely understand people bouncing off of this one because of its design eccentricities.

Still, I think Harmony of Dissonance deserves a crack if you’re even mildly interested. The vibrant-yet-morose atmosphere is palpable and worth the price of admission alone, and it’s short! Did I mention all three of these games can be finished in under ten hours pretty easily? As a matter of fact, the final game in the GBA trilogy is the one I’ve replayed the most. It’s my favorite game on the little handheld and one of my favorite games period. We’re talking top twenty, lads.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the culmination of Iga and his team’s hard work. It represents the best aspects of the GBA entries while carving out its own identity, and it fucking owns. Where the hell do I even start?

Well, for starters, the premise of this one is wild. Without regurgitating wikipedia too much, Aria takes place in the year 2035, thirty-six years after the Belmonts defeated Dracula once and for all and sealed his castle in a god damn solar eclipse. Not too long after, a prophecy was made that the reincarnation of Dracula would come to his castle in 2035 and inherit all of his powers.This is where our protagonist, Soma Cruz, comes in. He and his childhood friend are drawn into the solar eclipse and awake to find themselves in the very castle that was sealed away thirty-six years ago. It’s a hell of a setup and I still find myself longing for the 1999 Demon Castle War game we’ll never get now. Thanks Konami.

One of Aria’s biggest new features is the Tactical Soul system, which replaces the traditional Castlevania sub-weapons with the ability to absorb the souls of the enemies you defeat to gain special abilities. These range from offense-based attacks to stat buffs for Soma. They even tie into the more iconic progression abilities like sliding and double jumping. There’s an incredible amount of variety with this system and it’s a lot of fun experimenting with all the different souls you acquire. Some of the drop rates can be a little agonizing but I never felt like I was having a crisis of faith like I was with Circle’s rarer card drops. My personal favorite is the soul you obtain after beating the Headhunter boss. It provides a stat increase based on how many souls you’ve collected, which means you’ll have some pretty hefty gains by the end of the game if you’ve spent any amount of time farming (though it does cap out at +33 per stat).

This system is great and I adore it, but it’s not the sole reason I find myself returning to this game so much after all these years. It’s the castle’s impeccable design, both in terms of progression and visual flair. I appreciate what Circle and Harmony brought to the table in terms of presentation, but Aria is simply in a league of its own. This game just looks fucking great, and while it doesn’t quite hit the same level of visual charm like Symphony, it really doesn’t have to. It pushes the GBA hardware to its limit with some amazing backgrounds and incredible sprite work. The boss designs are fucking incredible too, especially the ones near the end (the true ending, at least).

And even though I’m an ardent Harmony ost defender, it’s hard to ignore the step up in sound quality here. Michiru Yamane delivers some of her finest work to date, with a particularly strong track that plays over the first section of the castle. There’s still a little bit of that GBA crust that accompanies every game on the handheld and it’s here too, but it’s negligible (especially if you’re playing it through the Advance Collection). Iga’s team delegated more cartridge space and processor cycles to the sound and they managed to do so without sacrificing visual quality. Everything here is top notch, and Yamane is at the top of her composing game here. I really like Julius Belmont’s butt-rock theme, as well as the music that plays in the Floating Garden.

At this point I’m just sort of listing off things I love about this game so I’ll just stop here. Aria of Sorrow is a masterpiece in my eyes, and it’s a game that hasn’t gotten old with subsequent replays. It sits up there with Symphony of the Night in the upper tier of Castlevania games, and was even successful enough to spawn a direct sequel on the Nintendo DS. I’ll cover that one another time, but I think it speaks to the quality of this game’s setting and its likable cast of characters (especially Hammer, the goofy fuck).

The Castlevania GBA trilogy has been with me for as long as they’ve been out. I’ve been there at (or near) launch for each of them and they’ve been in the replay rotation even since. The recent release of the Castlevania Advance Collection (from the port gods over at M2) has given these gems a new lease on life, and I hope people give them a chance. It’s a great collection just taking into account the quality of the ports, but there are little quality of life touches as well like save states and a rewind feature. If you’re pressed for time, Aria of Sorrow is the easiest one to recommend and it’s worth the price of admission alone.

And that’s it! If you made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read all of this. This is the longest thing I’ve written for the site yet, and I really enjoyed covering multiple games in one article! Next piece will be shorter, but much like Aria of Sorrow, will still involve killing chaos.

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