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Game Boy Advance

Review – Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA)

Konami – GBA- 1 Player

Itching for more Game Boy Castlevania action after completing Circle of the Moon, I set out to find a copy of the Castlevania Double Pack.  This is a repackaging of Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow onto one Game Boy Advance cart.  Both games are complete and there isn’t any extras so I’lm just going to review them as separate games.

Since Harmony comes first in release order, I’ll start with it.  It is however the third game I played through.  I started it second but after about five minutes of play I couldn’t stand it and decided to give Aria of Sorrow a go.  I can’t really place why, but I just don’t care much for this game.  One major gripe is the controls.  Most Symphony style Castlevania games have a “Back dash” button.  This one has a “Dash Left” and “Dash Right” via the L and R buttons.  While this almost seems intuitive since it means always dashing in one direction, when you’re used to always dashing backwards with one button no matter which direction your sprite is facing, it becomes a problem.

That seems a bit confusing.  Ok, traditionally, if you’re facing “left” and press “back dash”, you slide backwards, to the right.  This is regardless of which button is assigned to back dash.  With the new system, if you’re facing left, and press the L button, you dash forward, press the R button and dash backwards, if you’re facing right, L makes you dash backwards, and R makes you dash forwards.  Anyway, it really screws with your head when you’re just trying to dash somewhere and you keep changing direction.

The next issue is the graphics.  They are just plain huge and ugly.  They tried to make them colorful and flashy but it just ends up being kind of a mess.  Also, many of the enemies have different looks than one might expect them to.  First rule of sequels, if you’re recycling enemies, make them resemble the same type of enemy from previous games.  You can update the look somewhat but a previously fat heavily armored “Armor” enemy shouldn’t suddenly be tall and lanky.

Also what’s up with Juste’s constant glow.  He’s also too huge for the screen.  Actually it’s possible he’s not any larger than our other protagonists but I just found he seems slightly too large, especially for the small GBA screen.

Anyway, this game uses a new magic system as well.  You gain magic books based on elemental properties as you progress.  These books combine with your traditional sub weapons (knife, axe etc) to create a more powerful “Item Crush” style attack.  The problem with this system is that you’re limited to one type of sub item at a time.  Finding the better items isn’t always easy and occasionally you can accidentally pick up another item and loose your useful one.  The result is that you’ll pretty much just end up using one or two of these abilities ever (generally the most useful are the rotating shield ones).

Also, your only weapon is the whip.  While this was also true in CotM, it would have been nice to see the return of Symphony’s multi weapon system.  Instead of new weapons, you equip your whip with various stones to give it additional powers.  Essentially it makes the whip a little stronger.

The primary saving grace for this game is the plot, which is actually pretty decent, even if it does come off as a rehash of Castlevania 2.  There is a bit of a twist fairly early in the game involving the castle itself that is pretty well done.  Also the plot points surrounding Maxim are rather intrigue, though really obvious once you realize what’s going on.

As far as new school Castlevania goes, I’m going to have to rank this one at the bottom of the barrel.  It’s fun for many of the reasons Symphony and Circle were fun, but at the same time it all around feels like a huge rip off from lots of previous Castlevania games.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy of this game, if you can get the Double Pack with Aria then it’s well worth it.

Review – Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)

Konami – GBA – 1 Player

Castlevania is a game series I haven’t always cared much for. The early games were just plain too difficult for my tastes. If I was going to play a tough platform game I’d play something fun and fast like Blaster Master or Ninja Gaiden. After many recommendations I picked up a copy of Symphony of the Night. It languished for years, un-played, on my game shelf. I’d never been a big fan of the whole “horror/gothic” thing, why would I want to play a game full of it?

I then of course played Symphony and loved every minute of it. This sort of side scrolling action game just isn’t made anymore on these next-gen systems. It’s all about 3D! Sadly, Symphony left me wanting more. Armed with my trusty Game Boy Advance, I managed to find more with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. 2D is all but dead on the home console but it’s still pushing it self out on the Portable system.

Fortunately, Konami realized the popularity of the new format used in Symphony and continued the new exploration and RPG style elements from SotN into its Game Boy series of Castlevania games. This installment takes us back to the whip thrashing heroes of the older games with out hero, Nathan Belmont, err… Nathan Graves. Nathan sets out with his companions Morris and Hugh Baldwin (No relation to the actor) to slay the newly resurrected Dracula. There’s pretty much only one staple for the Castlevania series, and that’s the fact that Dracula is always pulling the strings SOMEHOW and is pretty much always the final boss. If you didn’t finish by killing Dracula, you’re probably not done yet or you got a “bad ending”.

Gameplay is pretty comparable to Symphony. In this game you’re stuck with using the whip for the entire game however. To help out though you collect DSS (Duel Setup System) cards. These cards are themed around mythical animals and gods and are combined for varying themed effects. For example, combining a Flame based Salamander card with the whip enhancing Mercury card will give you a flaming whip. The Earth based Golum card with Mercury gives an longer earth based whip. At the same time combining either of these animal cards with say, the Jupiter based recovery card will cause Fire or Earth damage to heal you. Only two cards, one from each set, can be used at a time though so you’ll find yourself often switching and strategizing. The cards are obtained randomly from enemies and can be a bit of a challenge to collect.

Still, you’ll end up using the same half dozen combinations for most of the game. A lot of them are mostly useless, especially the projectiles and special whips. I found only the Earth whip to be of any true use since it has a longer reach. This lets you hit many enemies before they get too close and start attacking. Hit, not kill, mind you. Most of the enemies take about twice as many hits as should really be necessary to kill them. I find the hits tended to decrease by one for each level gained but near the end of the game the experience necessary to level becomes astronomically too high. I believe while I was “power leveling” I figured up having to pass through the entire Coliseum bonus areas (filled with the toughest monsters) something like 2-3 times before gaining a level. This is not a small task and the Coliseum enemies are tough and give more exp than normal enemies. Still, with a few DSS exploits the final boss was still relatively easy to defeat at my finishing level.

At least there is a fair variety of enemies to keep you entertained in your times of leveling need. Even basic color swaps (like the armors) have completely different attack patterns. The castle is also expansive and varied enough to keep things interesting the whole trip through. You’ll do some backtracking, but it’s backtracking that makes some level of sense.

In comparison to Symphony of the Night, which is a game that all three GBA Castlevania games try to emulate to varying degrees, I’d say it’s a decent follow-up. It’s not quite as polished overall but it has its own merits and methods. A game doesn’t have to be an exact copy of its great predecessor in order to be worthwhile.

Review – Metroid: Zero Mission (GBA)

After wrapping up the remake of Metroid II with Metroid: Samus Returns, it seemed like a good idea to look back a bit on Metroid Zero Mission, the remake of the original Metroid put out for the Game Boy Advanced.

Previous to Metroid Zero I had just finished Metroid Classic, the GBA remake of the NES game. The best part of the Classics series is that they are pretty true to the original titles. I’ve previously played bits and pieces of Metroid but the sheer massive randomness of this game has always kept me away. Also it’s “really hard”. Or at least I used to think so. For this outing I decided to cop and use a downloaded map to find my way around. It’s surprisingly easy in Metroid to pick up nearly ever power up and accessory before fighting even one boss. This actually makes the bosses a bit of a push over.

Zero Mission changes things up a bit and gives you a built in map akin to the more modern Metroid titles. The trick here is, many of the areas have been altered slightly requiring special items to access the next area. In fact, Metroid Zero is extremely linear in its storyline.  Many times in the game you’ll find Chozo statues that will point you in the direction you need to head next.

Metroid was pretty ahead of it’s time with it’s free form game play mechanics. Metroid Zero stream lines this idea by adding modern puzzle limitations. The whole experience is very similar to Metroid 3 for the Super Nintendo. It’s still a bit limited by its controls.

In the original Metroid you could shoot, jump and shoot missiles. You access missiles by pressing select. Zero Missions adds a few more items to the mix from its Metroid 3 predecessor, namely Super Missiles and Power Bombs. This makes things a bit tricky however since the Game Boy Advance doesn’t have the same number of buttons as the SNES control pad. Select still cycles through the missile types but the more powerful attack is activated by pressing and holding the R button. The other shoulder button is used for a fairly useless diagonal shot. I can’t help but some sort of scanning power up would have been a better use for the L button. Especially given the number of hidden blocks and the large variety of ways needed to destroy them.

Zero Mission’s map doesn’t make finding everything easier however. I’d estimate that the overall map is at least twice the size of the original if you count the added on final area. Even without that section there are many additional secret hidden paths to find. Oh right, yeah, I said bonus area. I don’t want to spoil things too much but Zero mission doesn’t have quite the same ending you might remember. The bonus area also uses some different play mechanics than players are used to. Play mechanics leaning the irritatingly difficult side of things unfortunately.

Like I said, I don’t want to ruin it too much. Back to the main game. With Zero Mission’s expanded map there is also an expanded selection of bosses. Technically Ridley and Kraid are still the only true bosses but there are a whole slew of new mini bosses that must be defeated throughout your journey across Zebes. The old bosses also got a major facelift. Kraid is now the massive giant he was in Metroid 3, though he’s a lot more of a pushover this round. Ridley is also larger and more resembles his modern pterodactyl self.

In the original Metroid the bosses were not much larger than Samus and followed a simple attack pattern of “Throw lots of things at the player”. This actually made them a bit more difficult as the battles more or less broke down to pounding your opponent with missiles and hoping he died before you did. Zero Mission has more epic scripted boss battled and neither Ridley nor Kraid really do much damage with their attacks. Truth be told, New Ridley is easier to defeat if you let him pick you up so you can pound on him point blank with your missiles. Zero Mission is all around more forgiving of a game. In Metroid, when your health was depleted you were dead. Sure, you had a password but there was no direct continue or save feature. Also in the original Metroid, refilling your health is difficult to do, usually involving killing many of the little bug creatures popping out of the ground.  Also. Zero Mission has health restoring Chozo statues all over. Instantaneous relief.

Finishing the game also unlocks a playable version of the original Metroid.  The remake’s modern mechanics however make it a lot less of a chore to play and much more enjoyable

Review – Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA)

Ah yes, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.  Things finally start to come together for out portable Castlevania titles.  This one is set pretty far in the future compared to most of the other Castlevania games so the overall styling is a bit of a treat as well, well, it could have been…

The Belmonts are pretty much the heroes of the Castlevania series but really there’s probably as many if not more games NOT starring
Belmonts than there are games with them.  This game is one of those games, starring the fruitiest hero of any game in the series, Soma Cruz.  Even is name is ridiculous.  Instead of a cape he wears a long white trench coat.  At least it’s not black like some Matrix wannabe.

Still, the fruity hero thing worked in the best game of the series, and it works pretty well here.  In fact this is the closest we’ve gotten to Symphony of the Night on the GBA.  The best aspect is the ability to switch weapons.  There’s even a gun weapon however it doesn’t appear until the end of the game, it’s slow to fire, and generally sucks.  You’d think for a game set in modern times the weaponry would be a bit more… modern.  Of course that would take the sword slashing fun out of things.

Like its predecessors, this game features a customizable power up system.  This one centers on collecting souls of monsters.  Each soul causes different things to happen, usually dependant on the monster it was collected from.  For example, collecting a bat soul will allow you to emit sonar attacks.  You can equip several different souls at a time, one of each type.  Some are always active, others you activate manually.  The souls are used rather cleverly to find the “real ending”.  You’ll have to use a specific set of souls in order to achieve the true ending.

The plot for this game is also quite a bit divergent from the previous games.  You see, in 2023, when the game is set, Dracula is dead.  Like dead dead.   You’re character is called to Dracula’s castle and as he absorbs souls, be becomes consumed by the desire to become the “new Dracula”.  Soma will have to over come this or face off against Julius Belmont in order to save himself.  Of course killing the
Belmont means becoming the new master of the castle.  Yeah, who knew such a flakey guy could be so sinister.

Plot nuances aside, the game play on this title is rock solid.  It’s not quite as good as Symphony but it comes in a pretty close second.  The castle is large and interesting, the enemies are closer to their more traditional selves after Harmony’s oddball designs.  Control is good, the soul system is much better than the DSS and magic books of the previous two GBA titles.

Best yet, there’s a decent sequel waiting for you when you finish this one, though Dawn of Sorrow will require a DS to play.  Chances are you’re only going to find this game in the double pack with Harmony but either way, alone or doubled up, it’s still worth the price of purchase.

Review – Super Dodge Ball Advanced (GBA)

Super Dodge Ball Advanced Site Banner

GBA – Atlas – 2 Players

This game is a remake of the classic NES hit Super Doge Ball. While it doesn’t feature the old well known Kunio Gang (aka “The River City Ransom Guys”) it does play identical to the original with many extra bonuses. For instance, we are treated to nice little cut scenes of the team’s nose less manager chick between each round. It should be assumed that if this game actually had a story beyond slamming balls into the other team, that the manager would probably be the love interest of the main character Ken. Though of course Ken is only main character because the manual says so, and because he is captain of your team. It doesn’t even mention he’s captain of anything in the game.

Anyway, the plot of the game is that in the year 20XX (you can tell it’s cool because it has a fake year), the world sport of choice is dodge-ball and every country competes to be the World Champion Dodge Ball Team. I suppose one could assume it’s something like the movie Robot Jocks, where all wars are no longer fought with armies but in small group combat where four man teams whip volleyballs at each other in hopes of killing the other team before they get killed themselves.

So why is this game so great? Do I need to hit you in the head with a ball moron? I mean it’s a fucking game based on a sport that is more mindlessly violent than football. I mean you kill people with a fucking volleyball, how many ways do I have to spell it out. The game is just so fucking ludicrous in it’s concept it is automatically great. Plus it’s addictingly fun. Play for hours vent your frustration at being killed by the Afro sporting Korean team by kicking the shit out of the guy on the sidelines.

I mean people are hailing Castlevania (CotM) as the best GBA launch title, fuck that, I have Castlevania, it’s great but I mean a whip? Come on, killing people with whips is so cliche. There is only one thing that could be better then SDBA on this system, and that would be River City Ransom Advance. Heck I like the new updated look of SDBA’s characters so much that I wouldn’t mind if they changed to something similar in RCRA. So anyway, Nintendo if you are listening, we want a RCR remake of this caliber. Nice new crisp graphics, Nice options and interface, good controls, fun game play, this game has it all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally written previous to the release of RCR EX