Written by Dan Gill
Launch games play an important role in selling a console on release day; Super Mario World, Halo, Sonic Adventure, Tetris, Wipeout – all great games, all big successes. By its launch in 2001, the Game Boy Advance would’ve sold if the only game released was a tarted-up port of Super Mario Bros. 2 (OK, that was released, and was pretty good to be fair), but the GBA was blessed with a handful of great titles to choose from on day one (certainly in Europe), but probably the biggest and most “home console”-like game on offer was Castlevania.
Following on from the critically successful Symphony of the Night rather than the N64’s 3D titles, CotM has you taking protagonist Nathan Graves through a labyrinthine castle in the hunt for his mentor, Morris Baldwin. Morris is captured by Dracula in the opening scene, so the player needs to make their way through the castle, exploring all its nooks and crannies for items, magic and abilities to aid in their quest to rescue Morris and destroy Dracula.
The items in question range from new abilities to access previously unavailable areas, spells, clothing and armour, and your standard secondary weapons. This is the big draw of the title; the exploration aspect firmly puts CotM in the “Metroidvania” section of Castlevania’s history. Seeing unreachable areas and returning to them at a later point once the relevant ability has been required.
The series’ staple whip (although not the “Vampire Killer” from earlier games) and secondary weapons return, but this time they’re joined by new abilities which are acquired from boss fights. These expand Nathan’s move set, giving access to more of the castle. Standard stuff, but the real addition to the game comes in the form of the Dual Set-up System (DSS). The system utilises cards randomly (and rarely) dropped by enemies. Each card is either an action or attribute, and takes its name from gods and goddesses from Roman myth. When one action and one attribute card are combined and triggered by pressing R2, they’ll take effect. These effects range from increasing attack to offering a protective poison cloud to summoning creatures. The combinations are varied, and can only be discovered by trying them out (in the case of summoning, a button combination needs to be used). It adds real variety to the game, and can help out in some tricky moments (namely the boss battles).
The difficulty throughout is pitched pretty well; you level up as you beat enemies RPG style, so there’s a real sense of progression when you return to weaker enemies later on. The only point at which you may run into issues is when fighting the bosses of the castle. While they start off being reasonably challenging but beatable, the challenge quickly ramps up a few bosses in (damn you, Adramelech!), and requires either amazing dexterity, a high character level or a good DSS combination (or any amalgamation of the above) to overcome each one, but as tough as the bosses are, they’re never unfair. There are attack patterns, there’s always a window of opportunity for retaliation, and finally overcoming one of these behemoths grants a great sense of achievement.
An ever-expanding map, hidden areas, backtracking, this has it all; it’s fun to navigate and looks nice with it. It’s just a shame that the colour palette is so dark. While playing this on a GBA SP or Game Boy Player avoids this issue, remember that this came out at a time before Nintendo included any built in lighting as standard for its handhelds (Game Boy Pocket Light being the only exception at the time). If playing on an original GBA you’ll struggle to see some of the enemies, and will really struggle to see doorways on the Castle map. It’s a shame, as some of the gloomy artwork is very atmospheric and fitting for the title, but it seems that it wasn’t designed with that dark screen in mind. The only upshot of this is that you won’t quite be able to make out the few frames of animation used for the player character. Nathan often looks like a two page flick book animation when walking. It’s a shame, as most of the animation for the enemies is much better.
Where the title really stands out is in its presentation is the music; a wonderful soundtrack pops out of the GBA’s little speaker, harking back to the 16 bit tunes of Castlevania IV and The New Generation. It’s a catchy score which is most likely to encourage you to pop in headphones and show it some appreciation. This is due in no small amount to using a combination of old tunes with new. Personally, I never tire of hearing “Vampire Killer”.
So, is CotM as good today as it was fifteen years ago? In short, yes. The exploration remains enjoyable, and you can normally find where you’re supposed to go next. If you’re collecting the cards for DSS combinations you may grow weary of the low drop rate, even if you have equipped Nathan so that his luck stat is through the roof. There’s also a fair bit of level grinding required to take on some of the game’s bosses (many a save game was re-loaded after losing to the Zombie Dragon), but no more that you’d find in a JRPG. It’s a game that brought the gameplay style of Symphony of the Night to a handheld, which was a pretty big thing at the time, and it’s a game well worth revisiting if you never beat it the first time around. Even if you have, there’s the option to reply through the game as a magician, fighter or thief version of Nathan, forcing you to change your tactics through each play through.
Sure, it’s been bettered by a few of its successors, but some of its traits remain unique to the title, and it’s worth a few more hours of your time; especially as you now have the option of playing it on a backlit screen, just prepare yourself for those boss battles.