Konami has been bringing back some of their older Castlevania titles recently. While 2019's Castlevania Anniversary Collection focuses mostly on the “Classicvania” style of games (stage-based progression, limited lives), this one features the “Metroidvania” style (open-ended exploration, RPG elements) popularized by Symphony of the Night.
As the title implies, the titles contained in Castlevania Advance Collection originated on the Game Boy Advance – Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow – with the SNES version of Castlevania: Dracula X, missing from the previous release, tossed in as a bonus.
Circle of the Moon (just called Castlevania when it was originally released in Europe) was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and stars whip-wielding vampire hunter Nathan Graves. It was developed by the Konami team in Kobe, who had previously worked on the two Nintendo 64 games, and so it looks and feels different from many of the other later Metroidvanias.
The main feature is the Dual Set-Up System (DSS), where two cards can be combined for various effects, including enhanced weapons, increased stats, spirit summons, friendly familiars, and so forth. However, the rub is that cards are randomly dropped by specific enemies, meaning you need to hunt these down, kill them, and then exit and re-enter the room until they relinquish their card. Needless to say, it’s a little tedious. Plus, by default, Nathan’s walking speed is pretty slow, and while you gain the ability to run early on, it also makes navigation a little clunky.
Still, the visuals are decent for an early Game Boy Advance title (and playing on the Switch, they’re much easier to see than on its native console) and the soundtrack is solid too, even if much of it is re-used from previous games. Plus, there are some particularly brutal (and aggravating) boss battles, putting the difficulty level at the midpoint between the challenging Classicvania titles and the gentler Metroidvania games.
Harmony of Dissonance (2002) marks the point where Symphony of the Night assistant director Koji Igarashi took charge as the Castlevania series producer. His first order of business was bringing the look and feel of his games closer to Symphony, including hiring artist Ayami Kojima for the packaging and character artwork. The game stars Juste Belmont, direct descendent of Simon Belmont, as he explores Dracula’s castle to rescue his missing lady friend. There are various elemental spellbooks to find, which can be combined with subweapons for assorted cool attacks.
As a direct response to the dark visuals of its predecessor, the graphics in Harmony were made much brighter to make them more easily visible on the GBA's non-backlit screen, although the colours look overdone on properly lit screens like the Switch. In general it’s still an attractive game though, particularly the large, multi-segmented enemies, animated via sprite rotational effects. However, due to this extra stress placed on the Game Boy Advance’s CPU, the music quality suffers, relying on synth closer to the original NES. Even without that downgrade, the soundtrack in Harmony of Dissonance is very unusual, largely eschewing the strong melodies the series is known for in favor of some eccentric, sometimes abrasive music.
Like Symphony of the Night, there are two castles to venture through, but you explore them in parallel rather than waiting until the latter half of the game. There’s not much variation between them and they both have the same basic layout, making the level design feel bloated. Outside of the spellbooks, there’s also not much in the way of fun equipment or items to find, except for an oddball subquest where you hunt down furniture to decorate an out-of-the-way room. Still, controlling Juste is a blast thanks to forward and dashing functions, mapped to the shoulder buttons, so both combat and exploration remains fun in spite of the game’s other many other faults.
Aria of Sorrow (2003) is where Koji Igarashi and team were able to more faithfully replicate the highs of Symphony of the Night. Taking place in the year 2035, teenager Soma Cruz finds himself in a solar eclipse containing Dracula’s castle, which is seeking an outlet for its dark power. Soma controls much as Alucard did in Symphony, along with several melee weapons, compared to the whip-focused characters in the previous two GBA games. Featuring the Tactical Soul system, each enemy has a Soul that Soma can randomly absorb when defeated, granting him some kind of unique ability. It’s similar to the DSS from Circle, but better implemented since there are so many more enemies, and thus so many more powers to use. It also combines the separate magic and heart gauges into a single pool, which regenerates on its own but replenishes quicker when you gain hearts. Indeed, it cleans up some of messiness found in Symphony of the Night’s equipment system and makes it much more manageable and balanced.
Michiru Yamane returns to compose the soundtrack, which is the best of three GBA games featured here. Due to technical limitations, neither the visuals nor the sound are quite on the level of Symphony, but they’re still excellent, and it’s a fantastic game overall. The map designers finally were able to give a good flow to the exploration, preventing it from becoming tedious, and while the plot twists are incredibly predictable, they’re still cool when they happen.
The odd man out is Castlevania: Dracula X, known as Akumajou Dracula XX in Japan and Castlevania: Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. Originally released in 1995 for the SNES, it’s based on the PC Engine game Akumajou Dracula X, in that it features the same hero (Richter Belmont) and some of the same enemies and design concepts, but is otherwise a completely different game.
It’s also a much worse one. The PC Engine Dracula X was so brilliant thanks to its rich design, with several branching levels, plenty of one-off enemies, and an extra playable character in the form of cutesy girl Maria. All of those elements are either stripped back or removed from this entry – there are only two alternate levels for nine total (compared to 12 from the PC Engine game), and while Maria appears in the game, she’s not playable. The visual style is also muted compared to the bright anime-horror stylings of the PC Engine game.
Even on its own terms, it feels stripped back from the other 16-bit games surrounding it, particularly due to some frustrating level design. It did (correctly) realize that the final boss fight against Dracula was far too easy, but they overcompensated here by filling the room with bottomless pits, making it incredibly annoying. The best thing that can be said about this version is that the soundtrack, adapted to the SNES sound chip from the Red Book audio originals, is characteristically brilliant, with some tunes actually sounding a little better.
The compilation was developed by M2, and includes save state and rewinding functions, as well as screen filters for Dracula X. (Presumably none are included for the GBA games since they were made for the small LCD screen rather than CRTs.) The GBA games also have a few little gadgets that help out a bit, like indicators for Circle of the Moon and Aria of Sorrow that show any cards or Souls dropped by enemies, and Harmony of Dissonance shows important items in the area. There’s also an option for high quality sound which removes the hissing found in the original hardware’s audio output, but it’s only a minor improvement.
The Gallery includes plenty of artwork, as well as full scanned packaging for everything except the American SNES Dracula X. Regional variations are included too, though the Japanese text makes most of them hard to play, and outside of some experience level changes to Circle of the Moon, they’re mostly identical, and there’s only minor censorship changes in Dracula X.
The tweaks are nice, especially the rewinding function that makes grinding for cards and Souls less tedious, though there could’ve been more of them — a revised color palette that would make Harmony and Aria more appropriate for modern displays would’ve been nice, or something to tune item drop rates.
To be clear, it’s mostly Aria of Sorrow that’s doing the heavy lifting with this collection, as it really is one of the best in the entire Castlevania series. Circle and Harmony are alright but on the lower tier of the other Metroidvanias, while Dracula X is middling even on its own standards. These are still very much worth playing, though, and this collection makes for an essential purchase for both longtime Castlevania fans and newbies.