Castlevania's Portable Past
Games like Super Castlevania IV on the SNES or Symphony of the Night on the PSOne might get most of the attention, but the Konami franchise actually has a storied handheld history...
If you're any type of gamer, you may have heard of a little game that was released recently called Castlevania Portrait of Ruin. While fans of the franchise are busy slashing away at candelabras and jumping into paintings in this latest adventure, I felt this was the perfect time to take a look back at previous portable Castlevanias. Games like Super Castlevania IV on the SNES or Symphony of the Night on the PSOne might get most of the attention, but the Konami franchise actually has a storied handheld history...
Castlevania (GBA 1986)
Ah, the game that started it all. In this port of the classic NES Castlevania, players are introduced to the protagonist Simon Belmont in all his whip-cracking glory. The port is almost exactly like the original except for an enhanced save system that lets you keep the save point even after the game is turned off. The graphics may not be much to look at by today's standards, but upgrading whips and collecting weapons is still as engaging as ever. The tunes are also pretty catchy in an 8-bit blip bloop way.
The classic Castlevania pits Simon Belmont against a never-ending parade of enemies in preparation to face Dracula. Simon faces ghosts, mummies, more bats than you can shake a whip at, and flying heads. Those familiar with the modern Castlevanias might notice something different about this one. Instead of Metroid-like exploration, the first Castlevania had more of an emphasis on platforming. After a few poorly executed jumps, it's easy to realize that the enemy is not only Dracula, but also the cruelest enemy of all: gravity.
Castlevania: The Adventure (GB 1989)
I knew it was a bad sign when I couldn't figure out what the proper name for this game was. Is it 'Castlevania: The Adventure' or 'The Castlevania Adventure?' Either way, this game was... not fun. The developers must have exhausted themselves coming up with a title because they forgot to put in a story. Sure, the first game wasn't exactly Bram Stoker, but this one had no plot at all. All I knew from the time I started this game to the time I put it down was that the player controls Christopher Belmont. Christopher must have been the lame Belmont because he moved at a sluggish pace compared to Simon's brisk walk. The platforming might have been fun except it was hampered by the fact that Christopher moves about as fast as a tortoise with food coma. The game was made more frustrating by weakening Christopher's weapon each time he gets damaged.
I usually don't complain about a character's speed, but one particular part of the game made me quit. Those who have played this game will know what I'm talking about. In one practically impossible stage, the player had to not only climb a series of ladders and whip at enemies, but must execute flawless jumps from platform to platform while being chased by spiked walls. I, like most people, put the game down at that point. No one should have to be subjected to being chased by spiked walls.
Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge (GB 1991)
I guess Christopher Belmont survived the spiked walls of terror from the Castlevania: The Adventure, because he's back in this one and he even brought a story. Belmont's Revenge is a touching tale about a father's love for his son -- Christopher's son was kidnapped by Dracula so he has to enter Dracula's castle once again to rescue his son. Fortunately for the players, Christopher's slow pace was fixed and the addition of wielding sub-weapons was added.
This game is a lot better than the first Game Boy Castlevania even though that's not saying much. Players had a choice of the order to tackle four differently themed castles. Once those castles where destroyed, Dracula's castle could be accessed, which gave players 2 more stages to go through.
Castlevania Legends (1991)
Finally, a story that has substance. This last installment of Castlevania on Game Boy features Sonia Belmont as the main character and Alucard as an important NPC. The story goes basically like this: Sonia takes on the task of destroying Dracula and meets Alucard, Dracula's son, who believes destroying Dracula is his responsibility and not hers. Without delving into too many spoilers, drama unfolds.
Unlike the Belmonts of previous games Sonia has the ability to go into Burning Mode, which gives her invincibility for a short amount of time. She can also collect soul weapon abilities from defeated bosses, which give her different skills such as health replenishment or vanquishing all non-boss enemies on screen. It's a wonder that Castlevania Legends was built on the same engine as Castlevania: The Adventure but is about 10 times more playable.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001)
A Castlevania game that has nothing to do with the Belmonts. Circle of the Moon features a story that runs parallel to the previous Castlevania titles. This story revolves around vampire hunter Nathan Grave and his quest to save the man who brought him under his wing and into the Baldwin family. One key characteristic of CotM is the Dual Set-Up System (DSS) for magic. Players can pick up randomly dropped cards from enemies. The cards come in two types: action and attribute. By combining one card from each type, they are able to unleash different abilities.
Many regard Circle of the Moon as the beginning of the golden age of portable Castlevanias despite not featuring the famous Belmont clan. Dracula's castle is divided into several areas and each area has its own theme music. After beating the game the first time, players unlock the option to play through the game again with the Magician character, who has more Intelligence, which lets him utilize the DSS better than Nathan can.
Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (2002)
Just when people were thinking nothing could top Circle of the Moon, out comes another Castlevania game: Harmony of Dissonance. HoD brings focus back on the Belmont family. This time, Juste Belmont, grandson of Simon Belmont, has to venture into Dracula's castle to rescue a friend. In HoD, players can combine secondary weapons such as holy water, crosses, and axes with the help of spell books to give the weapons special abilities. Different enemies favor different abilities to beat.
While people may say Harmony of Dissonance is a tad too easy, its saving grace is the fact that upon completion, a more difficult mode can be unlocked and the player also gets the choice to play as a different character, Maxim. Since Maxim has different stats, playing as him forces the player to adopt a different fighting style, so while the surroundings are the same, it's like playing a (slightly) changed game.
Did you notice? Starting with Harmony of Dissonance, the series leans toward a more anime-like art style? Compared to Circle of the Moon, which was had a dark color palette, Harmony of Dissonance featured a bright spectrum of colors.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (2003)
Finally, the trifecta of GBA Castlevanias is complete. Aria of Sorrow is most like the PlayStation Castlevanias. The player controls Soma Cruz, who inexplicably wakes up in Dracula's castle with a classmate, Mina. Even though he's not a Belmont, he holds his own. Soma is able to absorb the souls of enemies he beats. The game boasts over 100 souls to collect, which means over 100 different abilities to use.
While the game is definitely not long, multiple endings and collecting every soul may keep players on the game after the first ending screen.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2004)
The sequel to Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow brings Soma Cruz back. The soul collecting ability is also back, so it should feel familiar to those who played Aria of Sorrow. The dual screen is utilized with the action taking place on the bottom screen while character stats are at the top screen. Also added to Dawn of Sorrow are seals - by drawing the correct seals on the screen at the appropriate time, bosses can be banished.
For those who felt that the soul collecting in Aria of Sorrow was lacking in some way, Dawn of Sorrow will make up for it. Players can not only collect one soul from an enemy, but they can also collect up to 9 souls. The more souls from a particular enemy, the stronger that soul ability.