Part IV of this retrospective introduced the single worst mainline version of the Harry Potter video game formula, The Goblet of Fire. The terrible idea of transforming the most protagonist-heavy part of the series into a co-op title has not paid off whatsoever, resulting in a mess of a game. In this part, I will move on to some of the best and some of the worst titles this series has seen.
Years 5 and 6
After a game still despised by many fans of the series, EA has come up with yet another interpretation of the gameplay. This time, more than ever before, the success of the movies has shaped the way in which the players got to explore Hogwarts. The entire castle is modelled after the movie, and so are the newly scanned faces of the actors. Some even reprised their roles through voice acting!
Most notably, Rupert Grint plays Ron in the mainline version. It is a bit jarring when only one of the three main characters has the same voice as the movies, but the other voice actors do a good job. This is less of an issue in all the various dubs of course, as most of the time the actors would reprise their roles from the movies in the tie-in games.
This whole spiel is important because, quite frankly, being a movie replica is the biggest thing these games have going for them. EA, for the first time, got the right to “Hedwig’s Theme,” the castle is the same as the movies, the faces are the same as the movies, and every single collectible leads to a bonus interview with the actors from the movies or a collection of stills from behind the scenes.
Right, collectibles, the little shields… wait, again? Are shields actually a big collectible in Harry Potter and I am just out of the loop? Well, if they are, then the biggest fans will love collecting thousands of tiny ones scattered all around Hogwarts. While running around, certain objects will have a green circle around them. A quick cast of a pull (Accio) or a push (Depulso) spell and a dozen flies out for Harry to collect.
Casting spells is a bit different between the console, PC and Wii versions, all of which share the core gameplay ideas with some slight tweaks. Generally, however, this is the first game in the series where the player is expected to cast spells in a more interactive manner, rather than with a press of a button.
This game was released on both the 6th and 7th gen consoles, meaning the quality of visuals may differ quite substantially. In all of them, however, the player is expected to draw shapes to cast spells, be that spinning their analog stick/mouse/remote in a circle clockwise or counter-clockwise, flinging them up, down, or both a couple of times, or maybe even left and/or right! Someone was feeling spicy. It is unironically a genuinely engaging spellcasting system and fits the slow, exploration-based nature of the game.
The way the player gets to utilize these spells is by finding interactable objects scattered around Hogwarts. Both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince have slightly different versions of the castle, with the latter generally being more expansive, including a path to the Quidditch field. The interactable objects always lead to a menial task, such as lifting a broom to sweep up some leaves or putting one thing on a place with the corresponding symbol, but some can lead to a fun discovery or a slight change in the environment.
The Order of the Phoenix especially goes very hard on the nostalgia factor. Harry can find a lot of the objects from the previous movies, such as the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets or the box in which Moody was kept in during Goblet of Fire. In general, that installment specifically feels a lot like a glorified DVD menu, for anyone who remembers those.
There is plenty to interact with and it makes for a cool way to revisit moments from the story in some interactive form, but it is all so mind-numbingly simple and requires so much navigation that it can get tedious and is kinda not worth it. The charm of seeing the castle in its full splendor disappears when you are tasked with walking along the same routes for hours on end.
This is not to say the gameplay cannot pick up. There is combat, after all. The same combinations used for casting spells during exploration are used to cast spells during combat. There are three types: damaging, immobilizing and shielding. There are more than three spells, of course, but they all fall into these categories. The duels usually consist of spamming the attack ones, because they end the encounters the fastest, as fun as paralyzing someone may be.
The real meat of the game, however, is the minigames. They are unironically where most of my time with the game went. Specifically one of the Gobstones challenges, which is kinda like curling but with balls and a bunch of different sets of rules. Sometimes the player’s balls need to be the closest to a specific ball, sometimes they need to be the closest to a hole in the middle, and sometimes they need to be chucked to throw many of the balls in the middle outside of a ring.
While every other Gobstones challenge is easy to win by just smacking the opponent’s balls around after their turn, there is one kid who plays the third version of this game who took me several hours to beat. Gobstones utilizes one of my least favorite mechanics in games, which is “push/pull lightly.” I never truly knew how much power will go behind a fling, and it is just really difficult to not have your ball fall out of the ring, which forfeits your score to the opponent.
The other minigames are exploding snap, which is snap, and magical chess, which is chess. These, while a nice distraction, are just that, a mere few minutes of gameplay between running from one point to another. To be fair, there are ways to speed up traversal. By doing quests for talking portraits the player can unlock shortcuts, but these also include running back and forth between multiple points. I believe that even the speedruns do not utilize most of them.
The events of the film are somewhat expanded upon. There are multiple sections where the player gets to run around the same locations to either recruit members for Dumbledore’s Army or do some property damage when Umbridge becomes the headmistress. These are just excuses to run around the castle some more. The best part of The Order of the Phoenix is the final battle, where the player gets to take control of Sirius fighting Bellatrix and, soon after, Dumbledore fighting Voldemort.
Things turn for the better with The Half-Blood Prince, which was originally one of my least favorite parts of the series. What really helps this game is, ironically, the lighthearted tone, the comedy and the banter between characters. It is the first time this series had a genuinely enjoyable sense of friendship between the main trio. There are a lot of lighthearted jabs and snappy comebacks. It’s good!
Technically this adaptation is supposed to be all scary, with everyone realizing Voldemort is a real threat, but, in reality, there is still a lot of teenage drama, romance, bickering, etc. Slughorn is just a silly old fella, and Harry’s attempts at getting closer to him are largely comedic. The atmosphere is similar to that of The Chamber of Secrets, but somehow even sillier, and the game embraces that.
Additionally, all the minigames are fully incorporated into the storyline, rather than being side activities to unlock lame rewards. The Half-Blood Prince has three of them: Quidditch, dueling and potion-making. Quidditch is really nothing to write home about, it is an autoscroller consisting of flying through rings, but it takes way too long, making it one of, if not the worst version of Quidditch the series has seen. The other two, however, are very enjoyable.
Dueling is very easily exploitable but in a fun way. By providing Harry with a charge ability, he can now load up a very strong attack to one-shot any enemy directly in front of him. The tactic then becomes: use one of the paralyzing spells, charge up the damaging shot, walk up directly into the opponent’s face and absolutely demolish them with what is essentially a shotgun blast.
The real highlight is the potion-making—a hectic time trial where the player has to pick up ingredients and quickly throw them into a cauldron, pour something in until the liquid turns a different color, stir it, heat it up, throw ingredients again, stir, pour, heat up, again and again, all with a progressively shorter timer. It is quite exhilarating, so much so that this system would later be turned into an entire game with the Book of Potions, an augmented reality title for the PS3.
The Half-Blood Prince is also much shorter. While The Order of the Phoenix needlessly padded its content with boring missions, this game goes for a tighter experience. Even getting a 100% is quite enjoyable, because the main secrets are fun to collect. The medium-sized shields (at this point I will just assume I missed the memo on this one) require more interaction, as they are usually found stuck to a wall where the player has to fling an item into them to make them fall.
There are also a few other mechanics making collecting things easier. At random, the aforementioned green circles will glow a bit more brightly, leading to an explosion of ten times more shields than usual. Additionally, another mechanic of collecting the medium-sized ones is a timing-based event where Harry has to volleyball spike a bunch of tapestries for one of them to drop the item. It is all just so much more interactive.
I generally seem to be in the minority on this one, but I do vastly prefer The Half-Blood Prince game over The Order of the Phoenix one. Perhaps it has to do with the whole binge factor and it being a shorter entry, but I do believe it is more replayable and enjoyable, as there is less busy work to do and more of the actual fun parts are ingrained into the main progression.
The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince differ in the number of versions, as, for some ungodly reason, EA decided to push out a Gameboy Advance port for Order in the console’s dying years. It was, in fact, one of the last games to release on it. While, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the single worst version of these games, all of them have one simple thing in common: they are all very bad.
There are the least amount of changes in the PSP version of The Order of the Phoenix. It is largely similar to the mainline counterpart, but the console obviously lacks the second stick which was used for casting spells in that game. There are also more spells than there are buttons. As such, the developers introduced the worst possible idea: button combinations.
Casting spells in this game is annoying to an unbearable degree. The combos don’t register instantly, the player is required to hold each button for some indeterminate amount of time, let go before Harry casts a spell, and proceed to do the same for the next one or two buttons. Despite finishing the game, I still do not know how long one has to hold it exactly, and I failed at casting simple spells numerous times.
There are a few smaller changes. Some quests are skipped, and some collectibles are changed. In this version, Harry rips off newspaper articles from the walls. It is less exciting than collecting shields, somehow. There is also a reputation system, where gaining influence among certain houses allows the trio to get past certain blockades. It is weird but largely inconsequential, except for a few scripted scenarios.
Graphics obviously take a big hit, but they do try to keep it similar to the mainline version. All of these games, however, use a fixed camera perspective, making it difficult to traverse as Harry gets out of control whenever there is a screen change. This also results in the removal of one of the best parts about these games—the player is not exactly able to marvel at Hogwarts when they lack camera control.
Lastly, the combat AI is just awful, worse than in any other version. They still have these action duels, but it feels like whenever an enemy gets damaged, they tend to get stunlocked into standing still or sidestepping. It is, admittedly, kinda funny seeing Voldemort just stand there and eat 20 spell missiles per second, but it is merely a culmination of all the lame fights.
The DS version fares a little bit better. Though it is a bit uglier, it has a more interactive gameplay core and skips a lot more of the game, making it less monotonous. There are also a lot more minigames, even the spell-casting turns into one as everything is done on the stylus. The player gets to draw what are basically runes to cast all their spells.
They also get to attend all sorts of different classes and get graded based on their performance. There is even a final exam where the player goes through them all in a row to get fully evaluated. It is an overlooked part of the universe, so seeing that there are unique minigames for stuff like History of Magic or Divination was actually a pleasant surprise.
What is more, they are integrated into the main gameplay loop. Characters tend to ask Harry to help them with homework. They can also be accessed from the Gryffindor dorm. There are even some extra minigames, most notably Quidditch! Yes, this version has Quidditch, and it is honestly one of the best iterations inside the main games, as the player gets to control the whole team and score points to charge up the snitch meter for the win. It is really fun!
Overall, the DS version is my favorite version of The Order of the Phoenix. While still a fetch-quest extravaganza, it is broken up more often with some of the best minigames this series had. The Gameboy Advance version on the other hand, is not only my least favorite adaptation of this movie, but also my least favorite game in the entire series.
First off: it looks absolutely cursed. I had a friend compare it to Silent Hill, and I can see it. At times it can be genuinely horrifying. Since the main gameplay loop is repeated, the fixed camera is present, the pre-rendered backgrounds are as well, and the Gameboy has to handle character models at different distances from the camera, everything ends up looking off. Sometimes it is just because of pixelation, while at other times it is because of the perspective.
Doorways can be three times bigger than the characters, and at other times the characters can be bigger than the doors. Harry can be comprised of four pixels, or he can be looked at up close while lacking all facial features. It is bizarre. Towards the end of the game, the pre-rendered backgrounds completely fall apart, and the Ministry of Magic ends up looking like a pixelated nightmare of all shapes, colors and sizes.
The interactable objects are immediately visible on any given screen. They stand out like a sore thumb. Casting the spells is painful once more, as one of the many terrible minigames appears on the top left of the screen. It is accompanied by some sounds and a wonky visual effect that covers up the screen once it is done casting. Another strange aspect.
There is music, but it is crunched beyond belief. There are only two or three tracks I believe, all on a very short loop, so throughout this 3-4 hour game, I got to hear the same chunky, whimsical beats more than I would like. It obviously clashed with the visuals. Once more, it only made it more uncanny.
Here, of all places, because I do not want to talk about this game much more, I will mention that both this and the DS version of Order have turn-based combat. Gone is the action angle, as the player is required to attend the Dumbledore’s Army training and level up spells to then use mana points and cast them on enemies. You mostly beat up Malfoy and his goons though, in fact, every other section has a duel with him.
It kinda works in the DS version, it takes up both screens horizontally so they need to be flipped, which is a rare and cool feature of the console. On the Gameboy it only means more creepy-looking character models on a tiny screen with no faces, weird proportions, kinda-standing, kinda-levitating above what barely resembles ground. In a fish-eye lens, sometimes.
Most of the minigames from the DS version make a return, but they are usually harder to control using buttons or take up more time. There is no Quidditch, of course, that would be too much fun. There are also fewer stages of these minigames, meaning that the difficulty spikes up quickly and goes from painfully boring to painfully annoying in an instant. Nothing is good, nothing is fun, and nothing is magical. Everything is nightmarish though. Avoid this like the plague.
Finally, Order is the only installment where I attempted and kinda succeeded, at playing a mobile phone game from the series. For all the youngins out there, before the app stores of today, people had to input a code they found on the back of a magazine and pay for every single mobile game, only for them to look awful and use the simplest, but oftentimes most annoying mechanics known to mankind.
These games had different versions for different phones, but they all followed a similar routine of walking from one point to another by following arrows, casting a spell, dueling and sneaking. Some have certain features, while others do not. I know the Deathly Hallows games were more action-adventure-oriented than these walking simulators, but they were all obviously rather unimpressive. I skipped the rest due to a general lack of availability and problems with getting them to work properly.
The Half-Blood Prince thankfully only has a DS and a PSP version, and they are one and the same except for the controls. I didn’t exactly know that going in, because previous games that people made out to be the exact same included some pretty big differences. First, I tried to play the PSP version. Getting it to work led to some interesting developments.
The most popular emulation tool for the PSP has this game hang up at an infinite loading screen after the second section in the game: the train. What I had to do is resort to finding a no longer supported emulator to play through that part and obtain a save that can be used on the other emulation tool. The result: a completely glitched-out screen.
The screen somehow quadrupled, and then quadrupled again, with each screen being a slightly different size, slightly more transparent and one of them being upside down. My eyes suffered for art for the second time during this binge (throwback to The Chamber of Secrets on the GBA). If you are a lucky owner of the English version of this game, please, share a save file from after the train section somewhere on the internet if you can. It would save some people a lot of trouble.
Perhaps I should have thought of that and kept that save file. Oh well. If I had to suffer, so will the others. Nevertheless, all this has led me to find one more bad game. It was easy to spot it would be bad the moment they reintroduced exploding snap back as one of the minigames, after having Harry run around the train doing fetch quests.
The game also manages to ruin Quidditch by switching perspectives. The 2.5D version of it from The Order of the Phoenix worked really well, but here they changed it into a top-down view, made everything much more slippery to control, and introduced quidditch practice, which mostly consists of awkwardly swiping away incoming balls to the side. It feels awful.
There is also Wizard Skittles. It is Breakout. There are potions! That one works well enough, though the stirring is quite finicky and I failed because of it a bunch of times. There’s Gobstones. Oh god, not Gobstones. They are not as bad as they were in The Order of the Phoenix, thankfully. They introduce an actual power meter.
There is dueling! It is quite different from most iterations, the participants can shoot fast or slow missiles from above or from the ground. They can also deflect. If the missiles collide, they dissipate. It becomes a waiting game, trying to find an opportunity to spam a few spells in-between barrages or reflect. Lastly, there are on-rail shooting segments, where Harry blasts some Dementors out of this plane of existence.
Finally, the core gameplay: running around Hogwarts. Once more, the camera is fixed, but the character models look completely different from their mainline counterparts. They have these big heads, making them all look a lot like the 3DS chibi JRPGs. Think Bravely Default. It is certainly unique, and I have no problems with it, but it does not look nearly as good as the full glory of Hogwarts from the console games.
While running around Hogwarts, the player will uncover a whole new trading system. Beans are a thing of the old, the wizarding world has entered full barter mode. “Oh, Harry, you want one Root Beer? You simply need to give me 30 Wizard Cards, 20 Gobstones, or 10 Chess Pieces.” These can all be obtained by casting spells on some objects or winning minigames. Is this an optional activity leading to a secret reward? Nope, this is the core gameplay.
This system is painfully tedious the first time around when I had no idea what can be found where, or which minigames gave what rewards. While replaying on the DS, things went much smoother, but that first experience is truly awful. None of the minigames are particularly enjoyable, a lot of them can end up feeling random and up to whether or not the AI pulls off an insane maneuver.
All of the portable titles for these two parts end up feeling like “nothing games.” Ones with no unique mechanics, no inspiring visuals (unless you count The Order of the Phoenix GBA, more power to you), and no replayability. These are games where the player would only trudge through a story just to see what happens next. The problem is, these are tie-in games. More often than not, you already know what happens when you pick them up. I think it is safe to call them cash-ins and move on to The Deathly Hallows.