Review by Blech san

Reviewed: 06/16/02 | Updated: 06/16/02

The Phantom Menace of the Castlevania series

Anxiously awaited but ultimately hollow and disappointing, Concerto of Midnight Sun is fitting to be called the “Phantom Menace” of the Castlevania series. I just hope (probably in vain) that there won’t be an “Attack of the Clones” to follow.

CoMS isn’t the first bad Castlevania game or even the worst (Legends and the N64 games predate it and were real stinkers), but after the advent of SotN, it was thought that Castlevania games with IGA at the helm would pure greatness. If the so-so port of X6800 Castlevania to the PSX shook that belief somewhat, the release of this game comes very close to destroying it completely.

CoMS again adopts the Metroid-style gameplay of Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon. It’s all about exploration and receiving new movement abilities that allow you to reach previously inaccessible areas, doing battle with hordes of Dracula’s minions all the while. Good stuff.

Unfortunately, the good stuff doesn’t come without a few unnecessary problems.

While Juste is pretty responsive to your input in general, the controls do have a couple of problems. In this game you lack the ability to sprint or gain a powerup that allows you to sprint. In their respective games, Richter and Nathan could sprint to move around quickly and add some oomph to their jumps, just like it’s been since the earliest days of platform games. Here sprinting is replaced with the ability to dash forward or backward. While dashes can be repeated in quick succession to cover ground quickly, they do not add any momentum to your jumps unlike the similar mechanism from the Mega Man X series. In theory it was probably an attempt to make Juste feel more like playing as Alucard, but in practice it just comes off as awkward.

I’m also disappointed that the L and R buttons are both wasted on dashing, when one button held down with a tap in either direction would have sufficed. The other shoulder button should have been used to toggle your spellbook, instead of the clumsy “hold L and R and press down” shortcut that the game uses.

Another problem is the lack of hidden areas and items. There is only one spot in the entire game where can you whip down a suspicious wall to be rewarded with a hidden room or item. Beyond that and a few fake surfaces, 99% of the game’s items are lying in plain sight or contained in a clearly off-limits area until you get the appropriate powerup.

CoMS’ biggest gameplay shortcoming is its terrible lack of main weapon variety. Each of the game’s 9 whip powerups (of which you can use only 1 at a time, and most of which are worthless) are only very slight variations of the same thing – 4 elemental whips, 2 damage increasers, 1 that charges, 1 that auto-twirls, and 1 that shoots pathetic little fireballs when your health is full. Particularly bad is the fact the 4 elemental whips have absolutely no audio or visual difference from a regular whip. While it’s true that CotM had only one “real” weapon as well, it made up for it by allowing you to alter it with many different DSS combos. This game would have benefitted from more types of powerups (extended reach, increased speed, etc.) and the ability to mix and match them similar to Samus’ blaster from Super Metroid.

Likewise, the spellbook system is mediocre at best. Instead of using card combos or Street Fighter motions like previous games, CoMS utilizes spellbooks. Basically you can use one at a time and turn it on or off, when it’s off Up+B will activate your current subweapon, and when it’s on Up+B will do an “item crash” that consumes MP instead of hearts. What type of crash you use is determined by the current combination of subweapon and book. What this gives you is an easy way to throw out a powerful attack, what it does not give you is the versatility of the DSS system since you are stuck with your current subweapon’s 5 different crashes until you find a new one.

By default the game is pretty easy (you can kill many of the bosses almost inadvertently!), although there are codes that allow you to increase the game’s difficulty or disable spellbooks. After finishing your first trip you will unlock a code to play as a second character, and you’ll also gain the very cool boss rush mode that allows you to tackle a series of bosses in sequence, and with use of the famous Konami Code, you can even play boss rush as CV 1 Simon! Cool! All that adds up to give the game a nice amount of replayability.

So to make a long story short, CoMS fixes the main things wrong with CotM (better variety of items to find, less reliance on rare drops), but fumbles some things that CotM got right (poor weapon and attack variety, odd controls).

As just about everyone knows by now, Concerto of Midnight Sun does not suffer from the eye-straining dimness of Circle of the Moon. The palettes used are generally a couple of shades lighter or so, which leads some to say that the graphics are too bright and have a “neon” look to them. I tend to disagree. In my experience the graphics were never too “loud” to be distracting, and besides – visibility is (or should be) paramount with any GBA game in the first place. The game is very playable under regular light, and looks awesome under a Flood Light or Afterburner.

The sprites, backgrounds, and animations are a step up from Circle of the Moon. Gone is Nathan’s choppy run. Particularly impressive are the huge multi-sprite enemies, of which there are many.

The backgrounds are great for the most part, with a few exceptions. While the Corridor in the Air’s Mode 7 clouds look great for example, a small number of sections such as the Iron Ball race use cheap repeating-tile backgrounds that look like they were ripped from some idiot’s webpage on Geocities. Still, the good does outweigh the bad by a sizeable margin.

Overall this is easily one the best-looking games on the GBA.

Now we come to the game’s weakest point. Whereas CotM managed some decent-sounding tunes, CoMS’ MIDI sampling sounds like what you’d expect from an old GB or GBC game. IGA claims that his team had to sacrifice music quality for the sake of the visuals. I’m not sure I believe that. If MGS2 taught us anything, it’s that you can’t trust a word that Konami says. :)

Nevertheless, the issue of whether or not better MIDI samples could have been used isn’t as important as the composition itself; and that is where the real problem lies. Most of the game’s “music” is little more than noise, almost universally lacking discernable melodies or for that matter, any element or concept commonly associated with principles of musical composition. Given the game’s supposedly limited music capability, you’d think that Konami would cover for it by simply recycling some old tunes from CV1-3 or something to that effect. Nope. Instead you get a bunch of forgettable droning garbage and a butchered version of Vampire Killer. If they could rip Simon’s CV 1 sprite for boss rush (as I said, a pretty cool extra), why couldn’t they at least do the song the same way to match? It boggles the mind.

On the subject of mind-boggling decisions, if you get the game’s “real” ending you will unlock a sound test mode. Why anyone would ever want to actually use it is beyond me.

Thankfully the SFX aren’t bad, but really nothing too special. Everything sounds more or less like you would expect it to.

I don’t think that the language barrier is much of an obstacle here, and I can’t read a word of Japanese. Basically the menus and any text that they needed to make sprites for are in English, and most of the pure text is Japanese. While that means that you’ll miss out on conversations and such, AstroBlue’s excellent item translation FAQ and a little common sense will see you through. Most items are recognizable by their icons, many of which you’ve seen before if you’re a veteran of SotN.

OVERALL (not an average) – 6
I really wanted to like this game. Symphony of the Night is my favorite game of all time, and I thought Circle of the Moon was good but just needed a few improvements. When I heard that IGA’s team at KCET (rather than KCEK who did CotM) was working on this one I was elated. I waited what seemed like an eternity for its release. I anxiously dug into it as soon as it arrived, but was already feeling quite a bit of disappointment by the time I turned off the power switch after my first session. Even after finishing it I still want to like it, but the poor music, lack of secrets, and skimpy weapon/attack variety are flaws that are just too big to ignore.

I’d recommend it for diehard Castlevania fans, but I don’t really need to do that since most of you already have a copy or downloaded the ROM (shame on you). For everyone else, wait for the US release if you’re interested at all. There are better things to do until then.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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