At some point, many years ago, Konami was actually regarded as one of the best video game developers in the world. The Castlevania series was finally reaching worldwide acclaim with the company pushing the titles to the point they defined genres. Multiple Metal Gear Solid titles, Silent Hill 2, Suikoden II, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, many of these games released within five or six years of one another, notwithstanding the success Konami was having at the arcade. The Castlevania Advance Collection is a selection of 3 GBA Castlevanias from around the height of the series popularity, as well as the incredible SNES title Dracula X.
Three of the four games in the Advance Collection play akin to the Metroidvania roots established by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, with Dracula X being more closely related to the perfection of the classic Castlevania formula.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the first of the Gameboy Advance games, and it continues the game design trends established by Symphony of the Night. You have your main whip attack you can perform and sub weapons you can use by spending hearts, but as you progress through the game you’ll also acquire a dash attack, double jump, the ability to wall jump, and more. The environments of Circle of the Moon are just as solid as you’d expect from a Castlevania game, with its gothic architecture and fantasy monsters like minotaurs, zombie dragons, and more. Boss fights are challenging, especially in the beginning when you have a more limited move set.
As you progress in the game, you’ll have more options to use via the game’s magic system, which involves combining two cards to give you a variety of unique powers. You’ll find action cards and attribute cards in various areas of the game, and utilizing them properly will allow you to power up your whip, fire projectiles from your whip attacks, turn your whip into a different weapon, boost your running speed, or even summon a Thunderbird to help you take down bosses. There’s a wide variety of combinations to use that are different in all sorts of situations, and not every combination of cards is offensive, as some can allow you to spend your MP to heal yourself or prevent you from getting poisoned.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the second of the Gameboy Advance titles, and it had a variety of changes from Circle of the Moon to address fan criticism. The colors of Harmony of Dissonance are bright and readily apparent, likely to address concerns over Circle of the Moon having too muted a color palette for the Gameboy Advance, as both of these games released before the Gameboy Advance SP was a thing with its native backlight. To further change things up from the previous game, Harmony of Dissonance doesn’t just have one castle for the player to explore, but two. Both castles have different layouts, but activating something in Castle A might open up a new passage for exploration in Castle B, which makes progression interesting even if the difficulty of the game is on the easy side.
Harmony of Dissonance changed up the magic system from that of its predecessor, as well, with Harmony providing players with five magic spell books as they explore the castle. Each tome can be combined with one of the six sub weapons, giving you 30 total spells with which to spend your MP. There’s also armor, upgrades to your whip, HP, MP, and hearts, and more, so you’re always progressively getting stronger throughout the adventure. If there’s any one demerit for Harmony of Dissonance, it’s that the game has a pretty weak soundtrack, using a large number of dissonant tones to try and convey horror, but it just didn’t work well with the mediocre sound chip of the GBA.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the final Gameboy Advance Castlevania game, and my personal favorite of the entire series along with its direct sequel, Dawn of Sorrow. Aria of Sorrow takes place far into the future of the other Castlevania games, and utilizes a completely different skill growth system from the previous titles. Soma Cruz can absorb the souls of slain demons, allowing you to use their powers against them. The hearts system from previous Castlevanias is completely removed in this entry, so the sub weapons you use will primarily be the powers of slain demons.
The major environmental design is still just as solid as ever in Aria, with most of your traversal upgrades still being present as souls you find throughout Dracula’s Castle. Some soul powers mimic sub weapons from older Castlevania titles, while others can buff you, summon familiars that attack alongside you, or suck HP out of foes with a magical vacuum cleaner. A ton of variety in customization is present in Aria, plus there’s a variety of weapons for you to use, armor and accessories to collect, and the visuals, music, and even story of Aria are a step above for the series.
Castlevania: Dracula X is the final game of the collection, and one that doesn’t fit this collection very well. Dracula X was oddly missing from the Castlevania Anniversary Collection previously, so perhaps this was just a way to squeeze this game in since people obviously wanted it. It’s important to note, though, that Dracula X plays like the classic Castlevania games from the Anniversary Collection, for example, and is specifically not a Metroidvania like the other three games in the package. Your jumps are heavy, restrictive, and every movement or attack you make must be deliberate, so you need to plan ahead in order to succeed.
Dracula X is known for being particularly unforgiving among the classic Castlevania series, but also made some very nice advances for the series. Item Crashes, powerful screen-wide attacks that consume many more hearts than usual, debuted in this particular title. Some other things were ironed out, such as being able to jump on stairs to climb them, which can make this particular game feel more fluid to play than several older Castlevanias. Beyond that, Dracula X is the game immediately preceding Symphony of the Night, and there’s never been a better time to try this particular game considering this collection has a rewind feature that the Castlevania Anniversary Collection lacked.
The Castlevania games in this collection greatly benefit from finally being viewable on a large screen. A major problem with Circle of the Moon, back when it released on the Gameboy Advance, was that the screen of the Advance and the color choices of the game, itself, made it difficult to see and comprehend what was going on at all times- that’s substantially less of an issue with the Advance Collection version. The colors are typically vibrant and make perceiving the action of the games quite easy, especially if you’re used to the Gameboy Advance versions of the titles. On top of adding a handy rewind feature, quick saves with multiple slots, and some extras like an art gallery, the Advance Collection is a handy step forward for Konami’s Castlevania retro collections, should they do more in the future- I can’t be the only one who wants a Castlevania DS Collection with Dawn of Sorrow, Portrait of Ruin, and Order of Ecclesia, after all.
That being said, The Castlevania Advance Collection is probably one of the best collections Konami has put out in some time, owing to both the solid emulation and the quality of the games, themselves. This particular microcosm of the Castlevania franchise is probably the best period in the history of the franchise. From Symphony of the Night on the Playstation all the way up to Order of Ecclesia on the Nintendo DS, the Castlevania series unequivocally hit it out of the park seven times in a row, and even more so if you have a taste for the even-more-difficult classic Castlevania series that came before.
If you’re a fan of Metroidvanias, RPG action-adventure titles, or games with Gothic aesthetics, it’s hard to come up with reasons why not to play the games included in the Castlevania Advance Collection. Of course, should you not enjoy Metroidvanias or action-adventure games, then this would absolutely not be the type of game for you. For everyone else, though, Aria of Sorrow should at least be the worth the ticket price of entry.