I’ve always held that the Gameboy housed the best of the Metroidvania style of Castlevania games. Aria of Sorrow remains a triumph, sharpening the design of Symphony of the Night significantly and delivering a worthy end to the centuries-long feud between the Belmont clan and Dracula. Playing things out from the other side, Aria puts players in control of a new, reincarnated Dracula trying (and failing, depending on player choice) to put the Vampire Killer to rest. Aria certainly feels like the most confident of Koji Igarashi’s games. Unlike its predecessor, Harmony of Dissonance, it knows when to play according to expectations and when to flip the script. No one would dare call this a risky game, but it is never so desperate to ape Symphony either. The castle featured here is one of the smallest in the series, but that proves to be a fairly ingenious move. Metroidvania’s are plagued by an inescapable sense of fatigue somewhere around the 70% map completion mark. You’ve seen most of the game’s locations and you’ll be ping-ponging back and forth between hallways you’ve seen a million times over. Exploration becomes busy work. Aria’s map is too small to ever be much of a hassle to traverse and the game doesn’t overstay its welcome either. In and out in about 5 hours for the true ending, the game plays like butter as you have Soma slide, double jump, and glide through the castle’s halls. He’s at home in this environment like maybe Alucard only was. It makes sense, too. This is Dracula, back in his stomping grounds. Nothing much poses a great challenge in Aria, be it traversal or combat but I figure if anyone would have an easy time of navigating the castle’s labyrinths, it would be the vampire that built it. Aria may seem archetypical and unimpressive by the standards of contemporary Metroidvanias, like Hollow Knight, but this was truly the first game to nail this brand of world design and draw out its full potential. Even now, the game stands out for being a compact, economical demonstration of everything that is beloved about this subgenre.
More controversial in the Gameboy’s lineup is Harmony of Dissonance. This one is utterly shameless in its desperate need to be Symphony, but on the Gameboy. The game is also absolutely hideous, and I mean that in the best way possible. Visually, no Castlevania game (and few games, period) have been so arresting. I’d compare it to the more recently released Cruelty Squad as an exercise in visual vomit that works for some unknowable reason. The seizure warning that opens the Castlevania Advance Collection is justified by Harmony alone. In every other respect, Harmony fails to stand out. The game feels disappointingly safe, like a cover that never quite manages to reach the heights of the original, that being Symphony. In many ways, the game feels like an over-correction in response to the oddities of its predecessor, Circle of the Moon. Igarashi was particularly harsh on Circle, a project with which he was largely uninvolved, and promised that Harmony would prove a return to form as a worthy successor to Symphony’s legacy. One of those statements proved to be true. Circle of the Moon blows.
Circle of the Moon is the most ambitious Castlevania on the Gameboy, if only because it attempts to unite the two disparate halves of the series: Classic Castlevania and Igavania. This doesn’t work out so well. The characteristic clunk of NES-era Castlevania, complete with excruciating walk speeds and jumps that kill any morsels of forward momentum, are all to be found here and they pair unfavorably with Igavania’s sprawling level designs, frequent traversal, and emphasis on combat over platforming. The movement system, transplanted as it is from classic titles, does not serve the level design here even remotely. Expect much of the runtime to be occupied by slowly strutting down dim, gray hallways or slowly walking away from enemies, fruitlessly trying to avoid an incoming blow, or slowly platforming with a jump that has the dubious honor of being the worst this series has seen to date. Rumor has it that some enjoy Circle of the Moon quite a bit. Beware these people.