Though Part II included some duds, such as the extremely unimpressive version of The Sorcerer’s Stone for the PlayStation 2, it is the handhelds where the worst Harry Potter video games come from. Thankfully, there’s still plenty of charm in the early titles, especially when such a unique genre was chosen for the adaptations found on the Gameboy.

Years 1-3: The RPGs

Harry Potter RPGs. It is always exciting to inform someone who had no idea that the series had an entire trilogy of titles in this style of their existence. What’s less exciting, however, is actually playing through them. Turns out that, unfortunately, setting an entire RPG trilogy inside what is basically just one building is not a great idea. Hogwarts is a big building, mind you, just perhaps not big enough.

A Wizard saying Harry's parents must be very proud
Too soon, random wizard guy

The first two games could, in theory, create a separate duology. The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets were Gameboy Color titles, sharing all the assets, locations and music, while The Prisoner of Azkaban was a slight reimagining of the formula on the Gameboy Advance. While I wasn’t particularly a fan of any of these games, the Gameboy Color ones won me over more.

There’s a sort of goofiness surrounding the presentation of these two games. Trying to showcase these locations and events in all their splendor on the Gameboy Color was certainly no easy task, which is possibly why the RPG genre was chosen for it. Simply spending more time in them might give the illusion that Hogwarts truly is a grand castle. It works out rather well overall, but it’s just that everything is so weird.

Each floor has a theme going for its corridor, kinda replacing the moving staircase. One has an Egyptian theme, with a Sphinx whose butt serves as a shortcut to another location. Another’s theme is just a big angry grandma statue in the middle of the room, shaking her fist at the young witches and wizards. It’s certainly unlike any other rendition of Hogwarts you’ll see, that’s for sure.

Exploring each room on a floor rewards the player with either Famous Witches and Wizard Cards or healing items. There is no discernible sign of an item being in a room, meaning the player has to walk up to any and every piece of furniture and press a button in hopes of receiving one. It’s a very poor system, making visiting a classroom less of a fun distraction and more of an arduous process.

Aside from that, the other distraction is the random encounters. There’s a sort of blue floating fog that spawns around in empty classrooms or everywhere at night. Walk into one and you have yourself a battle. Here’s where each title differs the most: the first has you fight as only Harry, while the second occasionally allows Ron and/or Hermione to join. There is equipment, gender-locked in some cases, but there’s not much pre-planning involved.

A statue of a grandma shaking her first
There she is, the famous Hogwarts grandma!

The battles themselves don’t offer much of a tactical challenge. Some enemies take more damage from one spell, though there is no bestiary to indicate that until The Chamber of Secrets, meaning you’ll mostly want to spam one spell over and over. There are spells with status effects, but given the fact that most of the fights will have you at a numbers disadvantage, wasting a turn on them makes little sense since they don’t last long. The biggest advantage the player can give themselves is simply grinding. Even though I spent about an hour grinding at the beginning of each game, by the end I still didn’t feel powerful. The final battle with Quirrel required the use of a Wizard Card Combination to stun him for several turns, none of my spells could do that.

Wizard Card Combinations are these game’s versions of summons: you get a little animation and, well, something happens. Not always positive, mind you, you won’t know until you’ve used the combination, destroying the cards you’ve collected. There’s this funny trend in both games where each major story event makes a new combination become available in a certain classroom, and the game gives the player a message with victory music on top of it.

“To commemorate this victory, a new card combination is available in the club!” or something similar will be one of the most repeated phrases the player will see. The messages tend to try and tie the ongoing situation into the club gaining a spark of inspiration or something, but there are just so many that it seems like they just give up sometimes.

The second game gives Ron the ability to use a Scabbers ability once per battle, and Hermione can use her book knowledge. There’s even a 2-minute section where Lockhart joins the player, and without his wand, he simply throws his autographs at enemies. That’s about it for the combat system. Realistically everything except the best damaging spell is useless or takes way too much time to gather to be consistently useful.

It’s a bit of a shame because the combat sprites are the best thing the game has going for it. There are a lot of clever enemy picks: big rats, bats, living armors, household appliances which came to life, spiders, trolls, and all sorts of magical creatures and critters to fight. Some are simply recolored versions of one another, but that’s a common RPG trope. They all look very good for the Gameboy Colo, the animated bestiary from the second game is a real beauty.

While discovering new things to fight can be exciting, progressing the story is very boring. Harry will have the pleasure of undergoing the finest selection of fetch-quest and bad minigames the series has seen. The devs, in an attempt to squeeze a real RPG length out of these little titles, follow the books more closely than they do the movies, though they still add some of their own scenarios.

You’ll see Professor Beans at points; he’s the ghost history teacher completely absent from the movies. You’ll go through Gingott’s as if it’s a dungeon with a boss at the end. You’ll collect various items for various teachers. Many times. You’ll get poisoned during a lesson and progressively lose health while trying to find a way to heal yourself. You’ll also go to Nearly Headless Nick’s birthday party where you’ll play bowling using a detached, ghostly head!

A bowling minigame presumably using ghost heads as bowling balls
My personal favorite Harry Potter moment

There is some humor to it all, and the writing isn’t half-bad if a little drab in places. The scenarios themselves are silly and the mood is kept rather lighthearted, befitting the early Harry Potter adventures, though it does clash occasionally with the serious parts of The Chamber of Secrets. The Basilisk going “rip… tear… kill…” right after the bowling segment is a bit off-putting.

And that’s really it, these two games are just silly little projects, fun trivia, but they’re somewhat annoying to revisit. Gameboy Color didn’t have a great selection of RPGs though, and I’d say these are just unique enough to have been a fun time had you owned the console back when they were released. The Prisoner of Azkaban, on the other hand is, well, not much better at all.

The Gameboy Advance title has several things going for it. There’s the updated art style, colors, a much better UI, and the character-changing mechanic from the mainline versions. None of this, unfortunately, makes the experience much more enjoyable. In fact, I would say that it ranks even below The Chamber of Secrets, as its problems are much more egregious and impactful on the overall experience.

In the extra year of development time this game had compared to its predecessor, several changes were introduced to the core gameplay. This game largely does away with the “press the action button on every piece of furniture” style of exploration, replacing it instead with chests scattered around Hogwarts and its dungeons, making for a more straightforward experience. This is in some ways better, in some ways worse.

The corridors and classrooms are all extremely boring to look at, with a lot of brown walls and repeated tilesets, so exploring them isn’t much fun, but had exploration been a bigger part of the game, perhaps more effort would be put in making them look more unique. The dungeons don’t fare much better, they are often confusing as to what is an incline and what is a wall, leading to the assumption that the player met a dead end when they did not.

A brown corridor with some off lighting, and a showcase of a discovered and undiscovered enemy as a blue cloud
Weird shadows, weird walls, lots of brown. Roaming enemies though!

Helping with the lacklustre visuals is the addition of roaming enemy sprites. Though initially, Harry will encounter the familiar blue clouds from the previous game as random encounters, once they have been identified in the bestiary, the enemies will show up on the map itself. This allows for some additional strategy as to whether or not we want to face an enemy that is, for example, only weak to a high-cost spell.

The combat is much smoother here in general, largely thanks to the perfected UI. Choosing spells is smooth as butter, and the other actions are placed appropriately to how often the regular player would choose them. This makes grinding that much easier. Saying that, grinding is, once again, a requirement. There are clear moments where the player will feel a bit underpowered against the enemies ahead and will have to spend time on mindless button presses.

Grinding is a much bigger issue here, considering that this game is shorter than its predecessor. Completing the main story takes around half as much time, and there are also a lot fewer side activities. The game flow isn’t particularly great, in between the key events, a lot of time is spent on the same, simple move from point A to point B, visiting locations seen several times before.

It’s a dungeon-focused experience with okay combat, only interrupted by simple overworld puzzles where the characters use the spells they learned or the spell unique to them to move forward. Usually either pushing a block or just using a spell for its one, designed purpose. Combat isn’t much different I suppose, you spam the one spell that works after identifying a foe until they fall down. Nothing about this title stacks up well against its contemporaries, even on its own console.

Draco Malfoy as the final boss
The final boss: Draco Malfoy, guarding Sirius’ prison cell, for some reason

There’s little else to talk about in this title, other than I suppose how many liberties this one in particular takes as an adaptation. Malfoy is the final boss of the game, as he stands atop the Hogwarts tower where Harry and Hermione, after being chased by a horde of dementors (who would make a much better boss fight) duke it out in a simple “spam the cheapest spell” duel.

There’s also the unique fight with werewolf Lupin, where the two are accompanied by Buckbeak. The flying friend is the only one who can damage the beast, so the job of the other two is buffing him and putting negative status effects on Lupin. It’s really the only time when these spells are any help. The series has never required much tactical thinking, but I suppose that fight was a nice change of pace.

The Harry Potter RPG experiment was enjoyable as an experience. There are a lot of wacky stories to tell about the games that I think fans of the series would be interested in as a piece of trivia, but playing them is a chore. Too much time is taken up by grinding and exploring the same few locations, and no mechanic is actually enjoyable. If I had to pick one, I would recommend The Chamber of Secrets, should you be inclined to check out what these games look like.

Years 1-2: Gameboy Advance Action Platformers

The first two titles from the childhood years to be tacked on this retrospective are the forgotten Gameboy Advance games. Easily the most obscure of the bunch, these two small little pieces of media are likely the least unique ones as well. The first is a top-down action game consisting of mostly walking and talking to people (something those familiar with the console’s library should know all too well) with some extra dungeons, and the other focusing more on platforming and exploration.

A location filled with bland character models and tile sprites
The Sorcerer’s Stone on the Gameboy Advance is easily one of the ugliest games in the series

The Sorcerer’s Stone is easily among the worst games in the series. Controversial opinion this is not, I assume. It is a very mechanically poor walking simulator, where every single thing the player interacts with is either annoying or confusing and everything looks very bad. Harry is able to move in 8 directions, and so are the enemies, but he is definitely the clunkiest thing on the screen at all times.

All animations take much longer than they need to, making it difficult to line up a quick spell or hit something that moves. This is especially annoying when a goblin or another enemy is running at you while performing a serpentine manoeuvre at the same time. It’s just so hard to not get hit, even by stationary things such as a spiky bush.

Said plant requires 4 hits to clear for some ungodly reason, but also lets out spikes in all directions after each attack, meaning that Harry, whose spellcasting animation may not even be finished by then, has to reposition himself after each one. Pure time-wasting at its finest. I could clear the exact same bush in the PC version in 0.2 of a second.

Things don’t even have to hit the player to take away their health, all it takes is touching a pixel of one of the many holes in the level while trying to run away for damage to be dealt. There’s little health to be spoken of in the first place, but there’s also even less healing to be found in any given stage, which usually takes about 15 minutes or more to complete.

Would you, dear reader, want to hazard a guess on what happens should the health be depleted? If you guessed “you go back to the very beginning of the stage” after seeing the overabundance of terrible mechanics already, you would be correct! There are also other fail states, such as getting caught during stealth sections, that make this game a nightmare to beat, as repeating simple, yet annoying segments over and over again gets more and more tedious.

Puzzles don’t fare any better. Once again, it is usually either using the spell that interacts with the thing or block puzzles. And it is the block puzzles that are the most confusing part of this game. The game itself teaches the player how the pushing spell is used to push blocks, and how it dissipates when it hits something. Then, as time progresses, they break this rule in two different ways.

First, in a greenhouse block puzzle, shooting through a wall is required to progress. This is the only time too. Then, later, when I guess someone forgot how to design levels, Harry no longer needs to hit a block from behind, as when a bridge needs to be made to cross any given gap, he simply needs to hit the block with the same spell and it will be pulled to him. This is not consistent or anything, just that whenever a game needs it the same spell can pull things.

There’s little good I can say about this game. One, however, is that fellow students say some funny things when you hit them with a spell. Some react in horror, while others calmly explain to you the consequences of your actions in a very serious manner. Another is that the speedrun for this one, which I discovered after beating it, takes only around 2 minutes and is a very fun and easy one. At the time of writing, I am the 4th best speedrunner in this game.

I am much more positive about The Chamber of Secrets, thankfully! This one is a very enjoyable, short platformer with some great exploration. It also looks great! There’s some very nice pixel art to be found here.

A screenshot of Aragog's first encounter with Harry in the game
Though you, unfortunately, do not fight him, Aragog in this version looks great!

The main collectible of most games, beans, is a finite one this time, and each stage, as well as the castle and its grounds, has a set amount of them to be found. Because of that, they do not serve as the castle’s currency, which is instead replaced by coins. These coins allow you once more to buy things at the Weasley’s shop.

Behind the shop, there are some platforming challenges that unlock the other main collectible: the Wizard Cards. Here they feel like a proper reward, there’s usually either a big chest or animation whenever you get one, and you can see the beautiful artwork from the PC version on full display alongside a description. I believe some of the cards cut from the mainline versions found their way here, such as the person who discovered the properties of, uh, Bubotuber Pus, whatever that is.

The aforementioned platforming challenges, however, are a serious, physical pain, and easily the worst part of the game. That is because they just look weird and out of place. This game is littered with some of the most confusing backgrounds I’ve ever seen in a video game. Instead of an empty, dark hole, it goes for space imagery instead, for reasons.

The player will find that Hogwarts is a home of black holes and endless, starry night skies. The last of these stages? A spinning starry night sky, just to make the player wanna vomit. Truly, the ultimate challenge. I am not someone who suffers from motion sickness due to games, but that got me real good. It made me feel very dizzy, and I had to take a good, long break after beating it. Note to all developers: moving platforms on a spinning background is a terrible idea.

Aside from that, I don’t have any major gripes with the game. It is a bit shorter than it had to be, but each dungeon feels quite unique. I’m not a big fan of stealth here, but there is very little of it and it is not that intrusive. If anything, my one other gripe is that it requires the player to switch out spells a lot, and the menuing takes a bit too long.

On the other hand, you get the satisfying exploration of a nice-looking castle, each spell challenge has stars to find which test the player quite well, most spells have multiple functions and it is just a jolly time. This version also has probably the best version of the Basilisk fight, believe it or not. It slithers around, looks big and dangerous, and requires proper precision and positioning on attacks.

Harry hitting the basilisk with a spell
The best Basilisk encounter out of all the Harry Potter games

The Chamber of Secrets, unlike The Sorcerer’s Stone, does not deserve to be forgotten. It’s a tight game, definitely the best one in the series when it comes to platforming. Its vision of Hogwarts is memorable and even its weak points are memorable if nausea-inducing. This Gameboy Advance title comes with a clean recommendation. Just don’t get too curious about the previous title.

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