Uh, Dracula X is not Symphony of the Night.
Well this is a pleasant surprise. A little more than two years after the release of The Castlevania Anniversary Collection, we’re treated to The Castlevania Advance Collection, which contains the three fantastic Game Boy Advance games (of increasing quality) and…the SNES’ dismal Dracula X, itself a “demake” of the Turbo’s Rondo of Blood. I previously reviewed all four of these games when they were released for the Wii U Virtual Console, so if you want the basic gist of them, check the links below. Here, I’ll be giving my updated 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…Dracula X for some reason. We’ll talk about that last stinker in a minute, but first, let’s talk about the good games.
I’ve soured a little on Circle of the Moon since replaying it on Wii U. Protagonist Nathan Graves moves stiffly, and the size discrepancy between the tiny, but detailed, character sprites and the massive rooms they inhabit borders on hilarious. Warp points are few and far in between. There are some areas with extremely cheap enemy placement. The bosses tend to be extremely hard, and in fact Circle of the Moon is an order of magnitude tougher than Harmony or Aria. I got a lot more into the DDS system this time around, though, and was impressed with the wealth of effects created—it also clearly inspired much of Aria’s Soul System. Despite its sometimes crushing difficulty, I think Circle is a beautiful game with great music (I was wrong in 2014) and is well worth playing through (and you can unlock multiple stat-changing modes).
Surprisingly, I found myself really enjoying Harmony of Dissonance this time around, although my core complaints about it remain: navigating the castles is a real bear, since there are locked doors or stone barriers all over the place. The garish color scheme—an overcorrection of Circle’s muted colors—is just as bad in a different way. The music has a bizarre 8-bit quality to it, and the sprites are too big, too pixelated, and don’t animate particularly well. Juste’s jump is unusually floaty. All that said, I really like the design of the castle(s), and even though most of the bosses are ridiculously easy, I enjoyed being over-leveled and slaughtering them without any resistance whatsoever. Dracula’s final form might be the easiest Dracula fight in the franchise’s history. And hey, there’s a Boss Rush mode that you can absolutely tear through.
Aria of Sorrow remains my favorite entry in the entire Castlevania series—certainly the best of the Igavania games. It’s a slimmed-down, fast-paced game with an inventive collect-a-thon aspect (enemy souls) and a fun castle design. The plot is actually interesting for a Castlevania game, and the overhauled magic system—in which you absorb 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 general level design. You’ll still need to equip certain things to get the true ending, but those things dovetail with the plot so well that I’m always impressed. In terms of difficulty, it’s eminently approachable but more difficult (in places) 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 well worth experiencing as well.
We don’t even need to talk about Dracula X because you absolutely should not play it. The fact that this game was included instead of Symphony of the Night or Rondo of Blood—both of which inform the Advance games—is an utter mystery to me. I don’t understand why Symphony, in particular, remains out of reach for Nintendo systems. The original PSOne version is currently available on the Xbox store (it was an Xbox 360 Arcade game), but the retranslated Dracula X Chronicles (PSP) version, as well as that game’s version of Rondo of Blood, is currently only available on the Castlevania Requiem “collection” for PS4. The only other way you can play Rondo of Blood in 2021 is to break out your TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine Mini—which of course everyone has access to, right? This is patently ridiculous, and Konami is doing gamers a disservice by releasing two Castlevania collections that just happen to lack two of the series’ most important, influential, games.
And no, Dracula X is not an SNES port of Rondo of Blood. The two games do share art assets (which don’t look as good on SNES) but in terms of gameplay and level design, there’s no comparison. The only other thing I’ll say about it is that the final battle with Dracula (spoilers?) involves bottomless pits, hard-to-avoid fireballs, and infuriating knockback. Look, just don’t play it.
These ports were handled by M2, who remains the best at what they do. There’s a gallery featuring key art from all four games, as well as 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’ll have to finish 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 displays helpful information about enemies, drops, magic combos, etc. This is especially helpful for Circle of the Moon, although it does not display the button combo you use to activate summons (half circle from down, to forward, to up + B). You can also change the button configurations for each game, although rather than simply pressing the button you want for that action, you have to press A first, which brings up a menu of actions for that button. A bit more complicated than it needed to be, but appreciated all the same.
You can also create save states, which will make some of Circle’s more difficult boss fights less frustrating, and rewind by holding ZR and pressing left on the D-pad or left stick. You can rewind a surprisingly good amount of time, which will make Rondo at least semi-tolerable (should morbid curiosity get the better of you). I will say that all three GBA games look better in Handheld mode than blown up on a 50-inch television--a consequence of their handheld origins.
So while the bells and whistles aren’t necessarily anything to write home about, the GBA games at the core of this Castlevania Advance Collection are easily worth the price of admission. I remain flummoxed and annoyed that Konami is holding Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night hostage for the time being, but hopefully that will be resolved someday.