Turns out Castlevania Advance Collection is real, and it’s excellent, collecting three of the best Castlevania games of all time as well as a fourth pretty darn good one. While the emulation quality is excellent—courtesy of the experts at Japanese studio M2—like many official re-releases, I find Advance Collection still has a lot to learn from the supreme personalization of fan-made emulators.
I’ve spent the past week messing around in the collection, and mostly having fun. Last night, I finally defeated Dracula at the end of 2001 Game Boy Advance outing Circle of the Moon, and briefly dipped my toes into 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance before realizing how late it was. Having missed out on most of the GBA lineup as a kid, I can safely say these games are largely worthy of the lofty status bestowed upon them by fans.
Still, I can’t help but be disappointed by the bundle’s visual options. Unlike the fully customizable controls—an absolute godsend, by the way—the screen settings simply let you pick between three different aspect ratios: Pixel Perfect, the slightly more zoomed-in Standard, and a vile Fullscreen option that makes the trilogy look as if you’re playing it through a funhouse mirror. No matter which one you pick, however, the games always fundamentally look the same.
This is a far cry from the freedom provided by unofficial emulators. Using a neat program known as RetroArch, for example, I can boot up a Game Boy Advance game and, in seconds, load a custom shader that almost completely overhauls its visual presentation. I generally want games to look as close to their original counterparts as they can on my laptop monitor, which for the GBA means utilizing Retroarch’s handheld-imitating shaders to give the games a faux-LCD look.
It’s practically night and day. While the emulation pros at M2 did an amazing job getting Castlevania Advance Collection to play like its Game Boy Advance counterparts, there’s no comparison to the amount of control unofficial solutions put at your fingertips.
As frequently demonstrated by one of my favorite Twitter accounts, CRT Pixels, old-school games just weren’t meant for today’s new-fangled, high-definition displays. This can even be true for games made for vintage LCD screens, as with Castlevania Advance Collection. We weren’t supposed to see every individual pixel blown up to several times its original size with crisp, clear edges. More often than not, developers designed their games in concert with the drawbacks of the day’s CRT and LCD displays, utilizing the (now) out-of-date technology to create graphics that were soft and evocative despite the pixels’ inherently blunt blockiness.
Color is frequently an issue with GBA games, too. The original hardware’s screen was so dim that developers began to super-saturate games’ colors to compensate. That helped games look better on that strange screen, but on today’s modern displays the boosted colors can look downright garish. Indeed, they sometimes do in Castlevania Advance Collection. Shaders let you dial the colors back down to look more reasonable, and thus strangely, closer to the original intent.
Don’t get me wrong: Castlevania Advance Collection is a wonderful bundle. In addition to the custom controls, M2 also added multiple save state slots, a rewind mechanic, and even on-screen hints to make life easier for folks returning to these old-school adventures. There’s a lot to love here, and I plan to continue making my way through these lovely Game Boy Advance games that I missed out on the first time around.
My only hope is that, in the future, collections like this provide more ways to customize the visuals, especially if it means providing the means to make re-released games look more like their original counterparts. It might sound strange, but I know I’m not alone in feeling that sometimes a game’s original presentation just looks better. Today’s shaders and filters are great at simulating very authentic looks, so why not give us the option?