Updated: Nov 13, 2021
(Warning: I’m not shy about spoilers here! Though none of these games are exactly narrative powerhouses, just remember that you’ve been warned).
I love Metroidvanias. From Hollow Knight to Axiom Verge to Iconoclasts, I always end up totally captivated by the steady sense of progression and opening up the world that the genre is known for. The thing is, though, I have fairly little experience with the two franchises which make up the genre’s (fairly dubious) name. I’ve played Super Metroid but never quite finished it, and aside from playing a thankfully tiny amount of the much maligned Metroid: Other M when I was a kid, that’s the extent of my experience with the series. This isn’t that unsurprising, all things considered, with how the series was in a constant state of half-death during the Wii and DS eras, and just the simple fact that Metroid isn’t that well known of a series compared to Nintendo’s other offerings ‒ none of my distant relatives were getting me Metroid games for Christmas.
At least that’s some level of familiarity. With Castlevania, despite the series being alive and well during the DS era, I was a bit too young for it. I bought the Castlevania Anniversary Collection and still haven’t downloaded it. Before picking up the Castlevania Advance Collection, I had genuinely no experience with the series at all. And that seems kind of weird, right? I was familiar with the games that the series inspired, but not the series itself. On some level, I was kind of hesitant to actually pick up some of these games. I’ve been burned before when it comes to trying out games that are considered all-time classics but that I’ve personally felt don’t hold up all that well, like the aforementioned Super Metroid or Super Mario Bros 3. I can appreciate both of those games for what they did at the time, but I don’t get much out of playing them nowadays over more modern and refined iterations on their respective formulas. This hestiance was furthered by the fact that I’ve played a ton of Hollow Knight, a game that I’ve seen frequently cited as the gold standard of the genre and a crowning achievement of game design in general, a sentiment I don’t wholly disagree with. The unfortunate thing about starting at the top is that you can only go down from there. But, I’m an absolute sucker for the Gothic aesthetic, and just a huge fan of games history in general, so I felt like I owed it to the series to give it a shot.
The “Does it hold up?” question isn’t really all that useful analytically, to be honest, but I think it’s worth answering here: I think all 3 of the Castlevania GBA games (Excluding Dracula X, since that’s both not a GBA game and not a Metroidvania) hold up much better than Super Metroid and embody so much of what I love about the genre, while even managing to maintain a unique flair and design ethos that you don’t really see in modern Metroidvanias. There’s no time I’m happier to be wrong than when I was worried I wouldn’t really like something. So, join me, if you dare, on this harrowing journey into the hellish depths of Dracula’s castle and the legacy of a franchise I owe a lot to.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
Circle of the Moon was the first game in the collection that I played, and it’s also my least favorite by a significant amount. That’s not to say I actively dislike this game; the fact that I actually bothered to finish it is a solid indicator I still had a decent time, but it’s also the title that left me the most consistently frustrated and most frequently had me scratching my head at some of its design elements. Circle of the Moon is an interesting title in the franchise since it tries to marry the traditional, “Hard As Balls NES 2D Platformer” style of the franchise’s early days with the more explorative style that was introduced in Symphony of the Night. This is only really the second proper “Metroidvania” in the series, and it kind of shows. There are areas in which I think they missed the mark, especially in where the Metroidvania mechanics and the old-school mechanics intersect.
Circle of the Moon brings over the levelling system and RPG elements introduced in Symphony of the Night. This is one of those things that’s actually fairly unique among the franchise and doesn’t crop up too much in modern Metroidvanias. Sure, there’s obviously character progression, but a traditional RPG-style “gain EXP and level up” system isn’t something that crops up all that often in titles outside of this series. Circle of the Moon is where I feel the RPG systems are the most poorly implemented. Firstly, Circle of the Moon is by far the hardest of these 3 games (or at least I found it to be so), and grinding feels significantly more incentivized in this title than it does in the other ones, especially since the item drop rate is fairly low, and there’s no shop or anything where you can stock up on potions in a pinch. It feels like the game is constantly nudging you towards grinding, which is tedious and awkward in pretty much any action game, but especially so here. To properly grind EXP or grind for drops, you need to go to whatever specific location on the map the enemy you’re hunting is in, kill it, walk out of the room to respawn everything, walk back in, and rinse and repeat until you finally get what you want. Even though I know it’s intended to work like this, it always feels like gaming the system in a weird way. I had the same problem with Diablo II, which wanted you to straight up quit to title to respawn everything, and while Circle of the Moon isn’t that bad, it’s still not optimal.
Grinding for gear is annoying, but unless you’re a compulsive min-maxer, I think most players will be fine with just coasting by on whatever they picked up earlier, hoping for one or two lucky drops for a substantial power boost. Since you only get armor and accessories, anyways, if you’re good enough at dodging, gear should theoretically be no issue since it largely doesn’t affect your damage output. However, there’s another element of the game where grinding feels like way more of a problem, and that’s the cards or DSS system.
All 3 of these games have a unique character customization system that affects what special abilities (which I’ll hereby call “spells” because it’s simpler terminology) you have access to. In Circle of the Moon, you can collect different cards, a set themed after Roman gods and goddesses, and a set themed after various mythological monsters. By combining a card from each category, you gain access to a new spell. For example, by combining the Mercury card and the Salamander card, you get a fire whip. If you were to swap out the Mercury card for the Neptune card, you’d instead gain protection from fire damage. This system is, on paper, an absolute banger. The flavor of it is absolutely on point (who doesn’t love Tarot card symbolism in their horror franchise?) and the amount of options it gives the player is seriously impressive. With this system, you gain access to 100 spells. The problem is, unless you’re a seriously dedicated 100%er, you’re fairly unlikely to actually collect most of these cards in the first place. Some of the most interesting ones have dreadfully low drop rates and can only be obtained by farming a single, very specific enemy you have to go miles out of your way to hunt. For example, the extremely useful Uranus card, which gives you access to some exceptionally powerful mass damage spells (that are very nice to have if you want to do the final boss without ripping your hair out; more on that in a few paragraphs), has a measly 0.6% drop rate, and can only be obtained from an enemy that only appears in a room formerly used for an early-game boss fight, which is connected to pretty much nowhere else of any importance for the entire game, and only spawns there after a certain point in the game, and furthermore despawns very quickly after you attack it, meaning you have to cross a DPS threshold to even have a chance of getting the card. I have no idea how anyone would even stumble across the fact that this even exists without looking it up, and even when you know it’s there, it’s still going to take you an annoyingly long amount of time to acquire.
This isn’t unique to this game. Both Circle of the Moon and Aria of Sorrow have a similar “grind for new spells” aspect, but whereas in Aria of Sorrow, every enemy in the game has a unique soul and many of their effects are interchangeable, only a very select number of (occasionally very well-hidden) enemies in Circle of the Moon brought their yugioh decks to work with them today. This is also where the game’s difficulty comes in. Calling this game “hard” might be kind of a misnomer; more realistically, I’d call it “woefully unbalanced”. There are multiple fights in the game that felt practically insurmountable until I discovered a very particular way to cheese and totally trivialize the encounter, which typically required a very specific combination of cards. My primary example of this is the Dragon Zombie bossfight, one of the most obnoxious bossfights I’ve ever seen in a game thanks to the arena mandating that you stand on a half-inch long platform directly between two enemies constantly pushing forwards and dealing contact damage. This fight felt genuinely insurmountable until I discovered that you could cheese it completely by standing in a corner and using the healing spell (Jupiter + Mandragora, if you’re curious), since none of the boss’s attacks could damage you there. Even then, the fight took an egregious amount of time to finish, most of which was spent scrolling through social media while I waited for my health bar to slowly increase. It wasn’t very fun, but the actual fight was so obnoxious this was a preferable alternative. And while it’s not grinding, per se, it’s a similar principle: A significant enough time investment is a suitable replacement for learning and improving at the game. This is a fine paradigm for strategy games and JRPGS, but in action titles like this one, I think it’s a bad spot to be in.
The final fight against Dracula is a similar case, though the fight overall isn’t nearly as annoying. The main issue is that the meteor storm attack in his second phase is extremely hard to avoid and nearly impossible to predict, but can be completely neutralized by a specific combination of cards, which basically trivializes the entire fight. Similarly, you can cheese his third form by just spamming one of those mass damage spells using the Uranus card I mentioned earlier. It feels like cheating, but at the same time, some of the obstacles the game throws in front of you feel so insurmountable that pseudo-cheating is the only option. Basically, there are a lot of areas where the game is either demoralizingly difficult or embarrassingly easy. It’s an unfortunate spot to be stuck in, because neither end is particularly enjoyable.
That’s my main problem with Circle of the Moon overall, but there are definitely others. The levelling system overall feels oddly vestigial, given that there are hidden HP/MP/Heart Max Up pickups that the game uses as a reward for exploring, which made me constantly question why boosting my stats via levelling was really necessary when I could also boost them via exploring. The story isn’t very compelling, though it doesn’t need to be; these aren’t narrative-focused games, but it’s still worth acknowledging. The graphics on the switch version are fine, though I’ve heard that on the actual GBA, the game was extremely difficult to play due to the system’s lack of a backlight and the game’s dark colors and small sprites. It’s not an incredible looking game, but the art is sufficient. Circle of the Moon was actually a launch title for the GBA, and it kinda shows.
Circle of the Moon, though, is still perfectly capable of providing that sense of exploration I love the genre for. The cards system and hidden enemies actually inspire the player to go back to earlier areas (though just hiding pickups behind ability gates can also do that, as the game itself is very much aware), and it always feels like something new is opening up somewhere. It’s easy to get caught up in the progression. The castle isn’t too large and has a solid number of fast travel points and checkpoints, so it isn’t tedious to get around. Overall, Circle of the Moon is a decent game, but it has some fairly significant flaws which make it my personal least favorite out of these 3 games.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
100% real fun fact about this game: the title actually refers to the “dissonance” resulting from the fact that the soundtrack was produced with an Atari 2600 sound chip. But, you know what, if the worst thing I can say about a game is that the soundtrack was clearly a rushed, last-minute addition that’s better left muted, that’s probably a pretty good sign for the game overall. Harmony of Dissonance leans much more into the Metroidvania style than the old-school Castlevania style, which I personally prefer. Harmony of Dissonance lightens up on the grind by making consumable items more easily available and making spell access based pretty much entirely on exploration in contrast to the Circle of the Moon card system. Unfortunately, Harmony of Dissonance introduces its own tedium and questionable design, but it does cut down on the grind fairly efficiently.
The first thing I noticed about this game was how drastically it overcompensated for the complaints regarding Circle of the Moon’s graphics. Juste Belmont is outlined in bright blue and leaves behind ghostly apparitions of himself when jumping or dashing. The sprites are significantly larger and more detailed. I can’t imagine it was easy to lose track of Juste’s position on screen. The game, overall, looks great visually, and I occasionally had to remind myself this was actually on the GBA and not a modern game in a pixel art style. It’s just an excellent looking game, though not an excellent sounding one. The story is, realistically, not all that much better than Circle of the Moon, though the characters feel a mite more developed. There’s a pattern among these games where there’s always an excuse to have a “mirror boss” where you fight a character with a very similar skillset to yourself, a trope I’m a big fan of. I still wouldn’t exactly call the story here Shakespearean, but it feels a little more developed than before. The addition of multiple endings adds to that, and is something that Aria would later expand on, but more on that down a bit further.
Harmony of Dissonance’s spell system is probably the least interesting out of these three games. You can find hidden spellbooks throughout the castle, which can be used to cast different spells based on what subweapon you have equipped. You still have a decent number of options, but it just doesn’t carry that same energy as the card system. I never felt incentivized to experiment with different spell and subweapon combinations; I’d usually just find one that worked well for me and stick with it the whole time. Part of that might just be from the fact that Harmony of Dissonance is significantly easier than Circle of the Moon. It’s also a lot bigger than Circle of the Moon, due to one particular gimmick: There are actually 2 castles to explore here. When you see something like this, you’d normally expect it to be a “light” side and a “dark” side, but since both areas here are Dracula’s castle, there’s really no light side to be found. This means that the two castles aren’t really that different, aside from color palette preferences, which does kind of drag the whole gimmick down. The main thing that drags the gimmick down, however, is how extremely tedious exploration in this game is. Not only do you have to remember where something you want to come back to is, you have to remember which castle it is in, and when it’s time to go back there, you’re probably going to have to walk all the way there. The game does have a fast travel mechanic, but you only gain access to it after picking up a certain item, and the method of unlocking the fast travel feels more like something out of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest than a modern title (It’s worth mentioning: the method is, once you’ve obtained Hint Card 3, you can crouch in front of the mirrors that switch you between castles A and B to use them as warp points instead. I’m going to go ahead and say the game does a bad job of explaining this instead of admitting any potential fault on my part). Even with warp zones, the pace of exploration is pretty tedious and slow when compared to the other two titles in the series.
As I mentioned before, Harmony of Dissonance is fairly easy, surprisingly so for a series that’s well known for being difficult. The game’s easiness combined with the slower pace of exploration could potentially make this game feel like somewhat of a slog for longtime series fans, but as previously established, I am not a longtime series fan. I enjoyed Harmony of Dissonance, even with its pacing issues. Hey, the game’s got questionable pacing, but it’s still not all that long (Even howlongtobeat.com, a site I usually consider to over-estimate runtime, only clocks this game in at a comfortable 8 hours). I’d recommend Harmony of Dissonance. It’s probably not going to win you over on the genre if you already had your reservations, but for genre fans, it’s a worthwhile experience.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
We’ve saved the best for last. Aria of Sorrow is just a downright very good video game. It’s the most complex, most visually appealing, most narratively fulfilling, and most gripping. In all honesty, at the start, I was kind of put off by one particular change in this entry: different weapons. In the first 2 entries, you only had access to the whip as a primary weapon, but in Aria, different weapons become a new equipment slot. This adds a whole new layer to combat, and allows you to further specialize your character to your preferred playstyle. It’s not perfect; I find it pretty difficult to convince myself it’s worth springing for the close-quarters options in a 2d game with contact damage, but the idea is sound. The big thing here, however, is obviously the souls system. Every single enemy in the game has a soul, and you can use these souls to enhance your character in different ways, from combat spells to passive benefits. In a way, I view it as the fixed version of the cards system. You still have an immense wealth of options, and you’re no longer incentivized to grind extremely specific enemies. Over the course of a normal playthrough, you’re fairly likely to pick up a substantial amount of souls naturally, through exploration, and so you’ll have a wealth of options without the tedium of grinding. If you love grinding and collecting them all, though, you can do that! It’s a perfect system for both the chronically impatient and the chronically patient.
The variety of weapons and souls leads to the complexity, but what about those other points? Firstly, this game is genuinely visually stunning. I honestly can’t believe this was actually a Game Boy Advance game. The artwork here is excellent, some of the best pixel art I’ve ever seen. This game is so far ahead of Circle of the Moon it’s not even funny. As for the narrative fulfillment, while I still wouldn’t cite this game as having much more than an average story, it has the widest cast of character and there’s a fairly solid, lurking intrigue. It doesn’t always make sense, but I actually thought about it while playing the game, even if the big twist that Soma is actually Dracula (Yes, the spoiler warning was there for a reason) was extremely predictable.
That third point, that it’s the most gripping, is probably the hardest to explain, since it’s made up of all of the other points. In general, I found myself not wanting to put this game down. There’s just something about how the pace of exploration stacks up here specifically that made me always want to keep playing, just so I could see that one new area. There’s a lot to explore, but the castle isn’t too large or overwhelming. There are a few areas that necessitate switching between different souls that grant movement abilities to make progress, which is a little bit annoying, but it’s not a dealbreaker, and I’ve definitely seen worse (I’ve played The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. It honestly doesn’t get much worse than that). The game’s difficulty strikes a balance between Circle and Harmony, where it’s not frustratingly unapproachable like Circle, but not a bit of a walk in the park like Harmony. There were fights that gave me trouble, until I actually learned their patterns and got good at dodging. It felt a lot closer to playing Hollow Knight than any of the other titles did, which is a big compliment. Aria is just a really good game, and if you’re new to the genre, I’d say start here.
All in all, on my personal Metroidvania tier list, I’d put all of these games ahead of Guacamelee! 2, in the general vicinity of Blasphemous (with Circle of the Moon trailing a bit behind it), while the other 2 sit fairly close to the top, ahead of Yoku’s Island Express but behind Iconoclasts and Hollow Knight. These 3 games all share a lot of obvious similarities, but each have their own identities and don’t feel totally iterative on the same formula. I think I’m really starting to understand why this franchise getting totally Konami’d was such a huge tragedy for a lot of people. I want more Castlevania; maybe not quite enough to spend $100 on a DS game, but I definitely want more. It’s easy to recommend the collection as a product: it’s $20 for 4 games and extras, and these games are perfect for playing on a handheld Switch. But what do you all think? Am I just bad at videogames and Circle of the Moon isn’t really that hard? Is Harmony of Dissonance worse than I think it is? Do you want to flame me for saying Mario 3 and Super Metroid aren’t that great nowadays? Leave a comment below!
Next up: I’ll be talking about either a very new or a very old roguelike, depending on what happens in the near future. Stay tuned!