Uh, Dracula X is not Symphony of the Night.
Well, that’s a pleasant surprise. Just over two years after the Castlevania Anniversary Collection was released, we are treated to the Castlevania Advance Collection, which includes the three fantastic Game Boy Advance games (of increasing quality) and … the SNES’s sinister Dracula X itself “demake” of the Turbo Rondo of Blood. I already reviewed all four of these games when they were released for the Wii U virtual console. Here I give my current impressions of the games and what makes this collection unique.
The games included here are Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, and for some reason Dracula X. We’re going to talk about that last stinker in a moment, but let’s talk about the good games first.
I’ve been a little pissed off with Circle of the Moon since playing it on Wii U. Protagonist Nathan Graves moves stiffly and the size discrepancy between the tiny but detailed character sprites and the huge rooms in which they live borders on hilarious. Warp points are rare and far in between. There are some areas with extremely cheap enemy placement. The bosses tend to be extremely tough, and Circle of the Moon is an order of magnitude harder than Harmony or Aria. This time, however, I did a lot more research with the DDS system and was impressed by the wealth of effects it produced – it also clearly inspired a lot from Aria’s Soul System. Despite its sometimes devastating difficulty, I find Circle a beautiful game with great music (I was wrong in 2014) and it’s well worth playing through (and you can unlock multiple status change modes).
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed Harmony of Dissonance this time, although my core complaints remain: Navigating the locks is a real bear, as there are locked doors or stone barriers everywhere. The garish color scheme – an over-correction of Circle’s muted colors – is just as bad in other ways. The music is bizarre 8-bit quality, and the sprites are too big, too pixelated, and don’t animate very well. Juste’s jump is unusually floating. All in all, I really like the design of the castle (s), and while most of the bosses are ridiculously simple, I enjoyed going over the top and butchering them without any resistance. Dracula’s final form could be the easiest Dracula fight in franchise history. And hey, there’s a Boss Rush mode that you can absolutely break through.
Aria of Sorrow remains my favorite entry in the entire Castlevania franchise – certainly the best of the Igavania games. It’s a stripped-down, fast-paced game with an inventive collecting aspect (enemy souls) and a fun castle design. The plot is actually interesting for a Castlevania game, and the redesigned magic system – where you pick up enemy souls and use their powers – is fun and leads to a lot of experimentation. The spritework is far superior to Harmony, as is the music and the general level design. You still have to equip certain things to get the real ending, but those things fit into the plot so well that I’m always impressed. In terms of difficulty, it’s very accessible, but (sometimes) more difficult than Harmony, which is another welcome change. If you only play one game in this collection, make it Aria of Sorrow.
But seriously, Circle and Harmony are also worth an experience.
We don’t even need to talk about Dracula X, because you shouldn’t play it under any circumstances. The fact that this game was included in the place of Symphony of the Night or Rondo of Blood – both of which affect the Advance games – is utterly puzzling to me. I don’t understand why Symphony in particular remains inaccessible to Nintendo systems. The original PSOne version is currently available on the Xbox Store (it was an Xbox 360 arcade game), but the re-translated version of Dracula X Chronicles (PSP), as well as the Rondo of Blood version of that game, are currently only available on Castlevania Requiem “Collection” for PS4. The only other way to play Rondo of Blood in 2021 is to get your TurboGrafx-16 / PC Engine Mini out – which everyone has access to, of course, right? This is obviously ridiculous, and Konami is doing players a disservice by releasing two Castlevania collections that happen to be missing two of the most important and influential games in the series.
And no, Dracula X is not a Rondo of Blood SNES port. The two games share art assets (which don’t look as good on SNES), but there is no comparison in terms of gameplay and level design. The only thing I’ll say about it is that the final battle with Dracula (spoiler?) Involved bottomless pits, hard-to-avoid fireballs, and a furious recoil. Look just don’t play it.
These ports were handled by M2, which is still the best in its field. There’s a gallery of key images from all four games, plus scans of the boxes in each region and instruction manuals – but no concept art, which I found disappointing. You can also listen to the soundtracks of each game and change the region – Japan, Europe or North America. Unfortunately, your save files cannot swap regions. So if you start Circle of the Moon in Japanese, you have to end it in Japanese (which I don’t recommend).
The three GBA games have handy “encyclopedia” options in the system menu (press ZL during each game) that provide helpful information about enemies, drops, magic combinations, and more. This is especially helpful for Circle of the Moon, although it doesn’t show the keyboard shortcut you use to activate incantations (semicircle from bottom, forward, up + B). You can also change the button configurations for each game, although instead of simply pressing the button you want for that action, you first press A, which will bring up a menu of actions for that button. A little more complicated than it had to be, but still appreciated.
You can also create save states that make some of Circle’s more difficult boss fights less frustrating and rewind by holding down ZR and pressing left on the D-pad or left stick. You can rewind a surprising amount of time, which makes Rondo at least halfway bearable (should morbid curiosity overwhelm you). I want to say that all three GBA games look better in handheld mode than on a 50-inch TV – a consequence of their handheld origins.
So while the bells and whistles aren’t necessarily something to write home about, the GBA games that are at the heart of this Castlevania Advance Collection are well worth the price of admission. I remain stunned and upset that Konami is holding Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night hostage for the time being, but hopefully that will be resolved one day.