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Game Boy Advanced

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

SquareEnix – GBA – 1 Player

It’s fairly common knowledge these days among gamers that the Final Fantasy II we got on the SNES in the US wasn’t actually the second game in the series.  It was actually the fourth.  The true second game was released on the NES.  It eventually and finally made it to US shores in the Playstation “Final Fantasy Origins” collection along side the classic Final Fantasy I.

This wasn’t a straight port however, it was an updated version featuring updated 16 bit graphics.  These two games would be released together again in essentially the same design on the Game Boy Advance in a pack called Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls.

In addition to an updated 16 bit version of the game, these Dawn of Souls compilations featured additional dungeons and updated game play style.  This review only covers the core game.  I honestly don’t have the time or care to play through the added content.

The most impressive part of this game compared to it’s single predecessor is how modern it feels.  Ok, by “modern” I mean “16 bit”.  It’s hard to believe this level of presentation was ever on the 8bit NES but the game is a faithful translation.  There are cut scenes and player controlled interaction in conversation all over.  If I didn’t know that this was an 8-bit game with 16 bit graphics I’d swear it was originally available on the SNES and not the NES.

The plot itself is considerably more story driven as well.  Final Fantasy I has a plot but it doesn’t move forward unless you talk to someone or do something, and often you only get a single cryptic sentence to guide you.  Final Fantasy II changes that considerably.  Also since the party consists of real characters and not generic classes, they actually get some development along the way.  While you can name 4 of the party members at the beginning of this quest, one of them doesn’t make an appearance until very close to the end of the game.

That brings up another interesting aspect of this game, once again, considering it’s NES origins.  The party changes over time.  You get 3 constant members of the party but the 4th slot is constantly being switched around as the plot drives it.  Characters also develop skills in a useful manner, by using them.  The game lacks traditional level mechanics and instead players gain stats by using weapons and doing actions.  Want a quick sword fighter?  Wield a sword and wear light weight armors.  Need a strong magic user?  Carry a staff and cast lots of spells.  They will start out weak but over time they will get stronger.  On that note, this game also lacks the traditional “Cure 1, Cure 2, Fire 3, naming convention.  There is only one Cure spell, it gets stronger the more you use it.   As a nice touch, they get have different animations in battle as they evolve.

There was one aspect of this port I didn’t care for, the sound.  Generally I’m not too opinionated on music and sound effects but in this installment they are particularly annoying and generic.

Overall, this game plays somewhat like Final Fantasy I only better.  When you put the two together for Dawn of Souls, you get a sure winning combination.  Just a warning though, these are RPGs, and while these revamps play more briskly than their NES counterparts, they are somewhat old school in style.  Personally, I’m kind of sick of the new style myself however.