Few video game genres have developed quite like Metroidvanias.
In their first outings back in the ’80s, Metroid and Castlevania had basically two things in common: they were both released on the NES, and they were both side-scrollers. Aside from that, there was little to connect them. Metroid was a rousing space adventure with relatively fluid controls, while Castlevania was a gothic homage to the Dracula novel and myths that controlled like a stubborn rock. Both were exceptional games in their own right, but no one could have guessed how their evolution would eventually converge a decade later.
After 1997’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night successfully combined the world of Castlevania with the non-linear exploration of Metroid, the series attempted to move into the 3D space with mediocre entries on the Nintendo 64. It wasn’t until four years later that Konami seemed to realize Symphony of the Night had been a hit, so they revisited this 2D genre mashup on the Game Boy Advance. And frankly, they hit it out of the park, releasing a total of three Metroidvania titles for the GBA, and three more for the Nintendo DS. However, aside from their Wii U Virtual Console rereleases, the GBA titles were never available outside of their original system. Until now.
In the Castlevania Advance Collection, we get Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow in one jammed-packed collection. Rather than have a single reviewer try and tackle all three titles, we decided to get one Castlevania veteran and two series newcomers to look at how each game holds up and see if this collection of Metroidvania games is worth your time.
by Jonathan Logan
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
To set the bar low: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a Game Boy Advance launch title from 2001, and it looks every bit like one. To set the bar high: modern 2D Castlevania games are almost always excellent, and Circle of the Moon is a standout among those. Both of the above claims are true; Circle of the Moon is visually dated and has some annoying menus, but it’s otherwise a hugely entertaining part of the Castlevania Advance Collection.
In true Metroidvania fashion (Castlevania is half of that portmanteau, after all), Circle of the Moon sees players, as Nathan Graves, explore a 2D non-linear space full of secret passages, monsters, and treasure. Progress is often gated by boss fights and useful items and skills, like being able to break walls or push blocks. The castle in Circle of the Moon is a foreboding and exciting area to explore, with Castlevania mainstays like catacombs, clock towers, and aqueducts connected by corridors with candlesticks ripe for the whipping. Most of the new features found only in this release of the game are in a new menu accessed by the shoulder and trigger buttons, and these include a bestiary, a quick save and quick load menu, and the ability to adjust your screen size.
Circle of the Moon‘s soundtrack gives each part of the castle a distinct flavor, with a few remixes of classics like “Vampire Killer” and “Aquarius,” joined by catchy new tunes like “Awake” and “The Sinking Old Sanctuary.” Beloved recurring Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane wasn’t involved in the Circle of the Moon, but the end result is a worthy entry in the vast library of great Castlevania tunes.
Nathan’s castle-crashing moveset consists of whipping enemies, using sub-weapons, and casting magic spells. Getting a feel for Nathan’s whip range and the best uses for sub-weapons is key to success in Circle of the Moon. Magic is trickier than using sub-weapons, as it involves collecting rare magic cards from enemies, then equipping combinations of Attribute cards and Action cards for specific effects. Nathan can get around by walking, dashing, whipping, jumping, and a few aerial tricks conferred by items.
The visuals are probably the single greatest weakness of Circle of the Moon, as even with some polishing, these are still 2001 Game Boy Advance graphics. The pixels have been smoothed out for modern consoles, and the game is now well-lit (this was a major caveat of the original GBA version, which looked great on a backlit GBA SP, but needed an external light on older models). The environment and boss sprites look great, but these 2001 sprites are undeniably dated, and the low framerate is also very noticeable on modern hardware.
I had a fun, nostalgic, and surprisingly challenging time replaying Circle of the Moon, and it’s as good as, or better, than I remember. A few bosses and areas took me multiple tries before I could get past them, the visual presentation hasn’t aged perfectly, and obtaining cards to unlock more spells is still a frustrating but optional (but not for a skill collector like me) loot grind. But those are nitpicks. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a rock-solid action RPG that’s perfect for series veterans, the Castlevania-curious, or anyone who, when a problem comes along, must whip it.
by Michael Sollosi
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is my first exposure to the notable Castlevania series and the Metroidvania subgenre in general. Playing for the first time, I found it to be a very enjoyable title with a ton of action RPG goodness and varied platforming elements. The game starts with two vampire hunters, Juste Belmont and Maxim Kischine, on a quest to rescue their kidnapped friend Lydie from Dracula’s Castle. The story is a bit on the light side, but I found the tale of friendship to be a good motivator for exploring and fighting. There are even three different endings to uncover depending on your actions throughout the game, adding replayability. You also unlock a fun and challenging Boss Rush Mode after beating the game once.
Players take on the role of Juste as he traverses through the numerous areas and levels of the castle, uncovering its various secrets. You gain access to three helpful abilities as you progress: slide, double jump, and high jump. These allow you to explore previously inaccessible areas to unlock more helpful items for your quest and give you more foes to vanquish. Juste levels up to bolster his stats, and he also gains equipment that helps strengthen him further. You also have access to various sub-weapons as you traverse the castle. When combined with an equipable spellbook, these sub-weapons grant you access to specialized and powerful magic attacks.
I found Harmony of Dissonance challenging without being frustrating.I did have to start over every once in a while when I had limited health recovery items, but that was largely because I had to learn how to best approach a given foe, or find out how to reach the next area, not that there was a challenge too steep to overcome. Save rooms are helpfully placed throughout the castle and restore health and mana whenever used, though a quick save feature exists and you can access this easily in the Castlevania Advance Collection. In addition, a mysterious traveling merchant exists in special rooms, but you can only access them if you have met certain prerequisites. I didn’t actually unlock my first merchant room until halfway through the game!
Graphics-wise, the game holds up well with its colorful sprites. The collection gives players the option to play the game in its original GBA visual style, a crisp ‘pixel perfect’ version, in fullscreen. I played on a docked Nintendo Switch and, while it looked nice enough, I believe the visuals would look better on a smaller screen given its GBA origins. The music has a nostalgic note to it, and I thought it fit well with the action taking place onscreen and was very appropriate for the game’s setting.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is an entertaining, solid game improved by small quality of life enhancements for this version. I had fun diving in and exploring to my heart’s content and found myself pushing to go that much farther every time I loaded a save file. As this is my first Castlevania experience, I can’t say how it compares to other titles in the series, but I did find that it is a great starting point for those curious!
by Audra Bowling
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
If you were to ask me where I’d like to spend my time hanging out, within Dracula’s monster-infested castle in the midst of his revival wouldn’t have been my answer until recently. But Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow turns Dracula’s Castle into a compelling playground where players can experiment with a plethora of powers plucked from the onslaught of enemies they must endure. In addition to the weapon variety usually seen in Metroidvanias, which already provide players plenty of room for prioritizing personal playstyle preferences, protagonist Soma Cruz can absorb the souls of the enemies he defeats. These souls can be equipped at will, granting Soma unique powers.
There are times when the game requires you to use certain powers to pass, specifically with the exploration-focused ability souls. For instance, if you need to swim under a platform, you’ll need to equip the soul that grants the ability to swim. In addition to these passive powers—which you still get countless opportunities to play around with outside of pure exploration—you can equip two more souls simultaneously. One is generally more offensive that activates when pressing up and B simultaneously, and the other is usually used for maneuvering and activated by pressing R.
Just like with Aria of Sorrow‘s wide variety of weapons, some skills may seem more effective than others overall, but the game’s solid level design and vast assortment of enemies offer enough leeway for personal preference to win out in the end. Whether players want to approach the game aggressively, defensively, or even using cheese strategies, all manners of playstyles are accommodated in Aria of Sorrow. The save state feature included as part of the Castlevania Advance Collection makes experimenting with these strategies all the more viable. Although genre and series veterans may not have as much concern in this area, newcomers can approach Aria of Sorrow with a sense of security, showing that the game, while certainly challenging at times, is not only manageable but highly open to player expression.
It’s this that gives Aria of Sorrow room to welcome a wide lineup of potential players. People dabbling in the Metroidvania genre will find in Aria of Sorrow an enticing title that—even at its most challenging—can be overcome in a manner that is wholly unique to the person playing. Discovering synergistic skill combinations or unexpected exploits results in a strong sense of satisfaction that propels players forward, an intrinsic incentivization that sees them through to the end. The call of Dracula’s Castle is a strong one, and Aria of Sorrow gives players of all stripes the tools they’ll not only need but want to use to answer it.
by Niki Fakhoori
Though Castlevania: Dracula X (a reimagining of Rondo of Blood for the SNES) is also included in the Castlevania Advance Collection, we will not be going into it, as it’s a straightforward (though rewarding) side-scroller with no RPG or Metroidvania elements. However, that title only adds to the incredible value of the overall collection.
Though Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the first entry to truly embrace 2D exploration and non-linear progression, it was in these three GBA titles that the “-vania” was permanently affixed to the “Metroid.” Individually, they are fantastic games, and together, they offer an irresistible package to fans of the series and genre. Our reviewers very much enjoyed each game in the collection, and we highly recommend it to those looking for engaging, challenging, and expertly crafted Metroidvania games!
by Jonathan Logan