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Game Boy Advance

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 – Final Fantasy I (Dawn of Souls) (GBA)

SquareEnix – GBA – 1 Player

I has been brought to my attention that December 18th was the 19 year anniversay of the original Final Fantasy. I suppose a review for Final Fantasy, even if it is the Game Boy Advance remake, should start with the story of the Origin of the Final Fantasy Title. You see, 19 years ago, Square was a failing game company. Previous hits such as “King’s Knight” and “Rad Racer” just weren’t cutting it so Square put all of it’s development power into an RPG. A Fantasy RPG. If this game failed, which they apparently expected it to, it would be the Final game that they would produce.

Hence Final Fantasy.

The game was a hit. At the time it was a revolutionary was of doing a console RPG. Games such as Dragon Quest had players controlling a single character. The had few “Boss” type enemies and little story. Final Fantasy changed all of that. While it still had little real story, it jumped ahead of Dragon Quest’s game play by leaps and bounds. Players could choose classes for their party of 4 playable characters, pick names, outfit them with a slew of weapons, magic, and armor. Each of these classes was highly distinct in nature with limitations on each.

There have since been 12 games released in the main-line Final Fantasy Series with a 13th on its way. Each one has kept with the same basic principles of its predecessors while still innovating on the concept. Up until FFXI, the battles were always the same basic “Line up on one side against a line of enemies”. The menu commands in these battles have always been the same basic commands, Fight, Magic, Items, Flee. Other commands have popped up over time but players can almost always use these basics. On top of these 12 core games, there have been numerous spin off games such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy Legend, one shots like FF: Crystal Chronicles and FF: Mystic Quest, movies such as Advent Children and that Legend of the Crystals Anime, even direct sequels to several of the main line games.

Not to mention influence on pretty much every RPG following and remakes of every game before FFVII. Basically, Final Fantasy turned into Square’s cash cow. In fact they pretty much don’t make anything that isn’t directly related to Final Fantasy in some way.

Of all the games in the series, the first has been remade the most. Other than the initial release for the NES, a game I played many years ago way more than one should, it’s been remade for Cell Phones, the Wonderswan, the Playstation and now the Game Boy Advance. This latest revamp features updated graphics and sound as well. Gone are the old 8 Bit Sprites, replaced with beefy updated 16 bit graphics. Ok, yeah, 16 Bit is only one step up an it’s pretty paltry by today’s 3D standards, but it still looks really nice.

While the plot remains identical, find the four elemental crystals to unlock the gate to defeat Chaos 2000 years in the past thus creating the series’ first time paradox, the gameplay is altered quite a bit. In addition to updated 16bit style graphics comes updated 16bit style game play. Inventory is no longer limited to potions and tents and key items all on one screen, they are separated like later games. Weapons and armor are carried by everyone instead of just 4 items per character. This helps a LOT in keeping specialized weapons such as the Ruin Blade or Ogre Sword. Each character only equips items they need in the appropriate slots (Head, Armor, Accessory, Weapons.)

The most drastic change comes with the magic system. While spells are still purchased at shops, they now consume MP instead of the limited Spell Point system. This means you’re able to cast more powerful spells more frequently and sooner in the game. You no longer have to wait on that one level 9 Spell Point to pop up before casting Nuke, simple consume the necessary MP whenever you want. This actually tends to make things a lot easier. Previously you would have to carefully ration out magic points as you traveled through the various dungeons, now you can just suck down a few Ethers when needed.

These two changes not only make the game easier, they make it pass a lot faster. The game in general seems toned down a bit with less flat out enemy grinding needed in order to gain the necessary levels to traverse the next area. This makes the game less “pure” but actually helps make it more enjoyable.

Overall, this sort of RPG is still not for everyone. There is a severe lack of story and “purty movies”. Still, it’s a good classic that old school fans of the series should enjoy. The Dawn of Souls game pack also includes a copy of Final Fantasy II, which is a much better game that has seen very little light on US shores.

The game also includes several elemental themed bonus dungeons. Traveling through these dungeons will net you additional powerful weapons and armors. I do not however have the time or will to travel these dungeons as they are very long and randomly presented. If I do embark on this quest I’ll cover it in a separate review coupled with Final Fantasy II’s bonus content.

Review – River City Ransom EX (GBA)

River City Ransom is a favorite game among many “old school” gamers. It’s fast paced combination of action and RPG coupled with a first rate two player set up make this a game everyone loves to play.

So, like its NES bother Super Dodge Ball, River City Ransom gets a GBA revamp. This game gets not just a complete facelift to 16 bit style graphics, but also many new features. The best new feature, and probably the worst, is the save system. No longer will gamers be plagues by extremely long strings of random symbols and letters. Now you can simply create a data file on the game pack with your character’s abilities.

The new save system unfortunately is extremely flawed. It’s not that it doesn’t work; it’s more that it’s extremely unintuitive. Loading the game lets you pick options such as difficulty, number of enemies, if you want the other character to follow you around (computer controlled). It also lets you load data for each character. However, it requires you to load for both Ryan and Alex; whether you want the other character with you or not. You can circumvent this however by simply entering the game and loading from in game.

Saving also works a bit strangely, as far as I can tell, it automatically creates a new file no matter what, so you’ll likely end up doing a lot of file deleting. This can lead to frustration as there’s nothing to differentiate a file other than player name. This of course can lead to accidentally deleting the new file.

Save system aside, the game also introduces player partners. In the original, two players could pair up as Ryan and Alex to trek across River City. This game allows you to let the computer to control the other hero. The computer isn’t really helpful for much more than absorbing damage though. He’ll take down a few enemies but he won’t really come rescue you too much if you’re starting to take a beating.

Ryan and Alex aren’t the only heroes anymore either. You can get up to 3 followers ranging from new characters to Zombies (the bosses). You’ll have to satisfy certain story based requirements to get these different partners.

Unfortunately, the game is not without its flaws. Firstly, I’ve played around with this game several times and I can’t get Thor to appear in the warehouse like he should. I’m not sure if there is some new story sequence I have to find or if my copy is buggy but this prevents Ivan from appearing to unlock the gates of River City High. Unfortunately the save file doesn’t save your progress, just your stats, so in order to try again I have to go through the whole game again.

Second, The cost of special moves has been increased dramatically. There are MANY new special abilities to learn and each character starts with one already learned (Alex gets Dragon Kick, Ryan gets Stone Hands), but the skills are now in the $150-$300 dollars. When you couple this with the enemies, who seem to be stronger and more numerous in this version, it means you’ll be hard pressed to actually save money when you have to spend it all refilling your life.

It’s not impossibly difficult, but this artificial increase in difficulty removes a lot of the fast paced fun of the original game. The new features and story make things a lot more complicated and as a result this remake loses almost all of the fun charm of the original. Honestly I find myself bored and frustrated more than enjoying playing the game.

The Game Boy is the kind of portable gaming. My portable gaming goals are likely different than others, but when I play my game boy I am looking for something I can either complete in 10-15 minutes or less (even if it’s one mission or quest) and something I can save and come back to in 5-10 minute spurts of game play. The save system not keeping story progress and the excessive time needed to raise money remove these aspects from the game. It’s a nice looking remake but it just isn’t as fun as the original game.