More than 20 years after its release, Symphony of the Night is still fondly remembered as the best game in the Castlevania series. To some fans, it might even be the greatest game of all time. And its tight controls, CD soundtrack, and impeccably-designed labyrinthine castle still hold up incredibly well today.
However, Symphony of the Night was only the first game in the series to adopt the RPG mechanics and Metroidvania-style level design that the series is now known for. In many ways, the three handheld titles that immediately followed Symphony of the Night arguably surpassed its greatness.
The trilogy of Castlevania games that appeared on the Game Boy Advance – Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow – represents one of the most successful eras in the franchise’s 30-year history.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
Handheld gaming in the ‘90s was very different from what it’s like today. Cell phones could maybe play Snake, and the portable market was dominated by the Nintendo Game Boy.
There are tons of great games on that system, but even back then, its green and black display and miniscule processing power were showing their age. The introduction of a color model in 1998 (and of course the massive popularity of Pokemon) helped revive interest in the handheld through the late ‘90s, but by the new millennium, it was time for Nintendo to release a true successor to the long-lived Game Boy.
The new portable was called the Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit wonder capable of some of the best-looking 2D graphics around, and even some solid 3D graphics with a little bit of programming magic. Seeing the massive interest in the new handheld, Konami invested heavily in its launch line-up. Circle of the Moon was easily the best title available when the GBA hit the market in June 2001.
Even though series producer Koji Igarashi had nothing to do with Circle of the Moon’s development, the game borrowed heavily from the best of Symphony of the Night.
The map is massive and it easily takes more than a dozen hours to complete on your first playthrough, and there are tons of different armor and accessories to equip. The enemies are varied, and the game is often even more challenging than its predecessor. Admittedly some of the challenge does come from overwhelmingly dark graphics, which make it difficult to keep track of protagonist Nathan Graves against the black and gray backgrounds. Such are the downfalls of launch titles.
Unlike Symphony of the Night, which had a variety of swords, spears and other weapons, you only wield a trusty whip throughout the adventure, but that’s where the real genius of Circle of the Moon comes into play. The game features DSS, or Dual Set-Up System, a gameplay mechanic in which you combine magical cards in order to gain different abilities. These can give Nathan Graves a flaming whip, a powerful hammer attack, or even a healing ability, though all of these techniques also come at the expense of mana points. DSS is the rare gameplay system that actually gives players the freedom to play through a game however they wish without any penalties.
Igarashi disliked DSS, however, as he did not feel it fit the series’ style. Nothing quite like it has been seen in a Castlevania title since, but Igarashi brought several other exciting ideas with him when he returned to the series for its second GBA installment.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance
When Igarashi was put in charge of the second GBA Castlevania game, he seemed intent on making something as close as possible to Symphony of the Night 2. Harmony of Dissonance stars Juste Belmont, the grandson of Simon Belmont. With long, wispy white hair, a flowing cloak, and the ability to dash forward, Juste bears more than a passing resemblance to Symphony’s Alucard. And just like Symphony of the Night, Harmony of Dissonance features two castles to explore, but in this case, changing something in one castle can have a direct effect on the other.
Because of these similarities to Symphony of the Night and a new system that combines subweapons and spells for screen-clearing magical attacks, Harmony of Dissonance feels like a much faster game than Circle of the Moon. It’s also much better looking. The bright Gothic graphics and towering bosses that fill the entire screen have enshrined Harmony of Dissonance forever as one of the most graphically impressive GBA games.
But in other ways, Harmony of Dissonance falters. For one, it’s incredibly easy. This isn’t just a game where dying is rare. It’s fully possible to make it through your first playthrough without dying once. It’s also noticeably shorter than Circle of the Moon (due in part to the low difficulty). There is also a second “Maxim mode” that allows you to play as a character named Maxim, but with only one weapon (a boomerang), the mode feels more like an afterthought than a real, fleshed-out second playthrough.
And then there’s the most widely panned aspect of Harmony of Dissonance: the music. While Circle of the Moon sounded just fine, it, of course, couldn’t quite reach the CD-quality sound of Symphony of the Night. With Harmony of Dissonance, Konami basically gave up even trying to make a decent soundtrack so they could put all of the GBA’s power into the game’s insane graphics. To put it simply, Harmony of Dissonance sounds like an NES game and not a terribly great one at that.
The soundtrack and low difficulty have hurt Harmony of Dissonance’s reputation with series fans in recent years, but it’s really not a bad game. There’s a reason it was critically acclaimed upon release, and it’s still one of the better games on the GBA, it’s just not the absolute best that the Castlevania series has to offer.
Luckily, Konami let Igarashi take one more crack at making a Castlevania game on the GBA.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow
It’s rare for a sequel to fix nearly all of the issues present in its predecessors and still add exciting new ideas of its own, yet that’s exactly what Aria of Sorrow managed to accomplish. Annoyed with the critical response to Harmony of Dissonance’s music, Igarashi vowed to create a better soundtrack for Aria of Sorrow, resulting in one of the more creative and catchier soundtracks in the Castlevania series. And somehow there’s no real drop in graphical fidelity, either.
Aria of Sorrow is an unforgettable trip through another bright, yet creepy version of Dracula’s castle. DSS and spellbooks are completely abandoned for the final title in the GBA trilogy. In their stead is the fair superior Tactical Soul system. With this system, protagonist Soma Cruz can steal the souls of almost every enemy in the game and put them in four slots: bullet, guardian, enchant, and ability. By the end of the game, you have a fully-customized and nearly unstoppable demon-slaying machine that plays exactly how you want.
But perhaps the best thing about Aria of Sorrow is the story. Castlevania games aren’t really known for creative stories beyond “Another Belmont kills Dracula,” but it’s well worth paying attention to the cutscenes in this game.
The whole game takes place in 2035, long after the supposed final battle with Dracula in 1999 that we may never actually get to see in a Castlevania title (but is still heavily referenced in Aria of Sorrow). This means that there are even a few nods to current/future technology, like the ability to use a handgun.
You don’t actually play as a Belmont in this one, or anyone related to the Belmonts. In fact, you play as Dracula’s reincarnation, Soma Cruz, who is fighting against the evil influences of the dark lord – easily the coolest twist in the entire franchise.
In fact, so beloved is Aria of Sorrow that Igarashi immediately followed it up with a direct sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, on the DS. That led into a new handheld of trilogy of Castlevania games (rounded out by Portrait of Ruin and Order of Ecclesia), which is also excellent, though overall that trilogy never quite reaches the heights of what Konami did on the GBA in the year immediately following Symphony of the Night. In many ways, those games were hurt by being on a more powerful system, as they focused more on gimmicks like using the touchscreen for spells or swapping two characters throughout the game.
Putting the immediate sequels to Symphony of the Night on a significantly underpowered system than the PSX forced the developers at Konami to craft truly innovative games that focused on gameplay over graphics and gimmicks, and this creativity is ultimately what makes the GBA trilogy the highpoint of the entire Castlevania series.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.