Monday, February 7, 2011

GBA Review: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance

My first entry into Castlevania was the very first game for the NES. I hate to admit it now but when I played it I thought it was a dumb game. Having come from the Mario School of Perfect Controls, I thought the controls were terrible and awkward. Ugh and let’s not talk about climbing stairs!


My standing with the series has improved quite a lot since then though. Having played and enjoyed Castlevania: Bloodlines and Symphony of the Night many times over made me a true fan and I have since actually finished the original NES Castlevanias, along with a few others as well, including Castlevania Chronicles on Playstation.

Symphony of the Night however remains my favourite Castlevania to date and while I love the linear platforming of classic Castlevanias, there is nothing I enjoy more than a good Metroidvania-style romp against Dracula.

The Game Boy Advance, awesome system that it is, launched with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, which was a game that was deeply inspired by Symphony of the Night. Unfortunately, it was made by a different team, Konami Kobe, who incidentally were also the developers of the infamous Nintendo 64 Castlevanias and that somehow made fans slightly wary and less accepting for it. A shame, for it was a great game. A lot of things can be said about Circle of the Moon but perhaps I should save that for another time when I actually get a chance to replay it.


When Koji Igarashi, one of the main developers for Symphony of the Night, announced that he was heading a team that would be creating a new Castlevania for the Game Boy Advance and screenshots leaked, the internet exploded. Well, okay, maybe just the little corner of my internetexploded. More specifically, the Castlevania forums on GameFAQs and Castlevania Dungeon exploded, which is where I hung out back in those days.

People were excited that this was a “true” Castlevania sequel, made by the guy who had “made” Symphony of the Night and had clearly become the de facto Castlevania guy at Konami. Even now, people mostly assume that Koji Igarashi, or IGA, as he is fondly known, had spearheaded Symphony of the Night, when the fact is he was merely an assistant director and scenario writer. He only became producer of the Castlevania series starting from Castlevania Chronicles, and even that was just a remake and not full blown wholly new game.

And yet because of that very assumption, people thought this new Castlevania from IGA would be the BEST Castlevania EVAH!!!111

My personal theory as to why people thought this was so is because on the Castlevania Chronicles CD, there was a mini documentary featuring an interview with IGA, in which he claimed (or at least the subtitles did) that the “the major work of [his] would be directing and programming CASTLEVANIA –Symphony of the Night-.” Also of interest in this interview is that IGA reveals that he has built a big team comprising staff from both Symphony of the Night and its prequel, Rondo of Blood, for an upcoming game. He promises that this game would be “astonishing!!!". The three exclamation marks has been quoted verbatim from the interview.



So the stakes were high. IGA had his dream team and they were working on a yet, unannounced Castlevania which would blow people's minds. It would be "astonishing!!!".

And astonished some fans were when the first footage and trailers appeared for that "upcoming game" IGA had mentioned, mainly for two reasons. For one, the graphics looked bright and cheery, a marked contrast from Circle of the Moon, which was dark and gloomy, a fitting atmosphere for a Castlevania game but a terrible design decision which hampered players’ ability to actually see the game on a handheld system that had not yet implemented a backlit screen.

The second reason, and the reason that received the most backlash from fans expecting a second Symphony of the Night from IGA, was the notable downgraded quality of the sound that was apparent from the trailers. Symphony of the Night had a brilliant and remarkable soundtrack, an opinion which is still highly regarded today and so fans had expected something that would at least match the fantastic audio of that game. And despite many fans indifference towards Circle of the Moon, it had a good soundtrack with remarkable audio quality for a Game Boy Advance game. But this new game seemed to have a soundtrack right out of the 8-bit era and fans would NOT take this lightly.

It’s a pity. Nowadays, the chiptune scene is highly regarded and even a new game with retro stylings like Scott Pilgrim could not only get away with a chiptune soundtrack but would be highly acclaimed for it. Back then gamers would have none of that. The Game Boy Advance heralded a new era where 8-bit gaming had finally been left behind so having this new, modern Castlevania with a last-gen soundtrack, especially after the expectations Symphony of the Night had created, was something fans could not accept. Not from IGA and his dream team.

When the game finally came out, I vaguely remember the general consensus being that the game itself was excellent, aided by beautiful 2D graphics but hampered by its terrible soundtrack. I’ve always been a fan of the 8-bit sound so I never found this to be a problem and have always wondered why people hated the soundtrack so much. The quality may be lacking, but the compositions themselves were quite brilliant with quite a number of memorable tracks, most notably the theme of the main character, Juste’s Theme, which also had a high quality sampled version for the game’s ending credits.


The reveal of the trailer also brought with it the game’s Japanese title which fans translated into “White Night Concerto”, a title I thought horrible. Fortunately, localisers fixed this for the Western market and called it Harmony of Dissonance instead.

Having finished Symphony of the Night several times by that point, and with both US and Japanese versions (yes, I owned both), I was suitably hyped by the game. I simply could not wait for the game to be released and when I finally had it in my hands I spent the next few days playing the game non-stop. I don’t remember exactly what I thought about it at that point but considering that I actually finished it, I must have thought it was loads of fun. It wasn’t memorable though, because when I replayed it last week, I could barely remember any of the scenes that happened in the game.

But revisiting it with no expectations and no memories of the game gave me a somewhat more enjoyable experience than I had playing it the first time all those years ago. I wasn’t disappointed with the ridiculously bright graphics the designers had put in to circumvent the darkness of the Game Boy Advance unlit screen. I wasn’t disappointed with Juste neon blue outlines telegraphing his location on the screen all the time. I wasn’t disappointed with Juste’s inability to deftly manipulate the whip like Simon in Super Castlevania IV or like Richter in Symphony of the Night.


In fact, I gained a new respect and fondness for the game for incorporating aspects from classic Castlevanias which I simply did not notice before. The most obvious of this is the collection of Dracula’s myriad spare parts, reminiscent of Simon’s Quest. But my fondest throwback is when Juste manages to collect a particular item and a particular magic book, he gains the ability to perform the very same powerful “Grand Cross” Item Crash move which Richter can perform in both Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night.


All in all, I think Harmony of Dissonance doesn’t deserve most of the criticisms it gets. I think the soundtrack is great despite (or really, because of) its 8-bit chiptunes. The castle map is huge and the two castle concept from Symphony of the Night returns again, having given Circle of the Moon a miss. Juste is one of the most nimble Belmonts out there, with the ability to dash left or right with simply a tap of the L or R buttons.


Perhaps the only criticism I can level at it is its difficulty, or the sheer lack of it. I managed to complete the game within 8 hours (more or less) with all the endings. I didn’t bother getting the two secret characters’ endings but I doubt that would take me much more time if I put myself into it.

So would I play it again? Probably not. At least not within the next decade or so. It’s a great game, but it’s not Symphony of the Night, which is an unfair assessment I know, yet the fact is that's the game we compare all Castlevanias to.

Oh, and before anyone still thinks I hate the original NES Castlevania, I don't. Not anymore. A few years back, I went and played it again until I beat it. I enjoyed every second of it.

Richter fan art image credit: Candra

3 comments:

  1. It really brings me up to the good old days.. I loved "symphony of the night" above all the others too. Great review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Look forward to Aria of Sorrow next!

    ReplyDelete