Few video game villains have ever put the "killer" in "killer app" like Dracula. As a video game villain, Dracula seemed just too perfect: He has superhuman strength, sucks blood, and can change into a bat. He terrorizes the townsfolk, sucks their blood, makes minions of his victims and - most importantly - has a weakness for pure, beautiful women. Traditional methods of killing don't work on him. Best of all, he can keep coming back to life so video game companies can keep milking his name for money. Is it any wonder why Konami cast him as the key character in Castlevania, their marquee series?
As long as there has been Dracula, there has been the Belmont clan to protect the innocent. Every 100 years, Dracula comes back, and so every 100 years, a member of the Belmont family courageously takes on the daunting task of smacking Ol' Pointy Teeth around with a leather whip. This annual smackdown sends Dracula back into hiding for the next hundred years to lick his wounds before he self-resurrects to bring the terror to the locals once again. In later years, however, the Belmont family really began to branch out. After Dracula's son, Alucard, rescued Richter Belmont from dad's control, the family name seemingly gave way to a line of differently named descendants.
The descendant in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is (I'm assuming) Nathan Graves. The year is 1830. The story is that Camilla, one of Dracula's most loyal assistants, is in the midst of bringing the vampire himself back to life. Charging into the main chamber seconds late are vampire hunter Morris Baldwin, his son Hugh, and Nate. While Drackie is still somewhat weak because he's not a morning person, he's still perfectly capable of taking Morris hostage and sending Hugh and Nathan plummeting to the depths of the castle. Hugh, a hotheaded lad who's jealous of Nathan being his father's successor, angrily darts off in search of the Count as if he was in some sort of contest with Nate (the one who saves Morris and kills Dracula first gets a BRAND NEW CARRIAGE!). Therefore, the objective is to guide Nathan through Castlevania, save Morris, kill Dracula, and perhaps show Hugh why he didn't deserve the Belmont whip.
First and foremost, don't begin playing Circle of the Moon in the hopes of finding a traditional Castlevania game. As a member of the post-Symphony of the Night Castlevania series referred to as "Metroid-vania," Circle offers you one massive playing board which you almost aimlessly wander through. In your journeys, you find magic items which help you gain access to previously unreachable areas of Dracula's humble abode. You'll undoubtedly get yourself lost several times along the way, which I guess is why Konami included the word "circle" in the title. The nickname "Metroid-vania," for the uninitiated, refers to the old NES game Metroid, which contained the very same type of layout. Symphony of the Night was the first Castlevania game to adopt it, and the result was a whole new legion of fans (including Yours Truly) discovering Castlevania despite whining from the super-hardcore fans of the series.
With Circle of the Moon, Konami called on the old maxim "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." While nothing was added to the formula which made Symphony such a popular game, Konami did strip Circle of the kinds of plot twists which existed in Symphony. Outside of a few taunts from the bosses and some encounters with Hugh, Circle is Symphony stripped to almost bare bone - which makes it even more like Metroid than its predecessor. In Circle, you don't earn money to buy new equipment, you pick up the equipment from fallen enemies. In Symphony, Alucard used both of his hands independently, so you could strike a foe with a sword which was in Alucard's left hand and then block with a shield in Alucard's right hand. In Circle, you get just one hand to use - which is kind of ironic, considering Nathan doesn't get to carry a shield. That's another difference right there: While Alucard had a vast assortment of weapons and armor with which to lop up his father's minions, Nathan only gets the whip he starts with.
But it's not like Nathan is tackling this task without a few tricks up his sleeve. Despite its departure from the original Castlevania layout, Circle of the Moon kept one Castlevania constant: The sub-weapons, which are found in lanterns and powered through hearts which are also found in lanterns. The dagger, holy water, axe, crucifix, and stopwatch can all be found at various points in Dracula's castle. All these nice weapons have their own strengths and weaknesses. The big systematic adjustment to Circle of the Moon, however, is the Duel Set-up System (DSS). Wandering around the castle, you discover some enemies leaving cards behind. These cards are not your standard Las Vegas casino deck. They're pictures of mythical figures, and each one holds a particular power. Combining two of the cards results in something weird - and usually advantageous - happening to Nathan. Just don't expect to make some kind of super-mega-hyper-killer concoction that can take out bosses before they even show up onscreen. The unfortunate flaw in the DSS is that certain cards only have effects when paired with certain other cards, and the game gives you the liberty of figuring out what does what when paired with whatever.
It's a shame about the super-mega-hyper-killer combo you're dreaming of concocting, because if any of the "Metroid-vania" games needed such an item, Circle of the Moon is it. The sole complaint of many Symphony of the Night players was the game's laughable easiness. Konami heard the complaint, listened, and responded with a vengeance. Similar-looking areas are just the tip of the difficulty iceberg in one of the hardest handheld games you'll ever play. It won't take long to see that Nathan suffers from throwbacks - Nathan gets kicked back a little when he gets hit. Nothing new, but it has rarely ever been such a source of frustration. While the enemies all attack in set patterns, they're also placed in the exact spots which makes destroying or getting around them an infuriating experience. Giant bosses like the Adremelech and Twin Dragons are extremely difficult even after you crack their patterns, common enemies are often hard hitters who are hard to hit, and a fair number of projectiles are almost impossible to see in the dark backgrounds. With the unintentional and intentional challenges in Circle, you have yourself a game which will cost you several hundred dollars in anger therapy, and several hundred more in new Game Boy Advances, before you reach the halfway point. (Which may take awhile. Circle is considerably bigger than Symphony.)
I have a saying that works for most role-playing games: If at first you don't succeed, level up. Since Konami retained the level-up system used in Symphony of the Night, this works. However, Circle of the Moon is still Konami's second attempt at creating a level-up system, and it's obvious they were still having trouble grasping the concept of leveling up when they made it. While it's easier to level up than it was in Symphony of the Night, the necessary experience needed still skyrockets a bit too early for leveling up to save you from the frustrations of fighting the Adremelech and Dragons. At least not unless you have a LOT of patience.
There are a lot of video game developers who would use the "Metroid-vania" layout as an excuse to be lazy in the design department. Konami, thankfully, isn't one of them. There are a lot of rooms and areas around the first few sections of the castle that look a bit too similar to each other, but after the first quarter of the game, telling where you've been and where you haven't been without looking at the map is no trouble. What's interesting to note is how the designs subtly get more complex as the game goes on. This is excellent because it allows you to use Nathan's powers on a steady basis, and because it challenges you to use everything you've learned to do over the course of the game. The DSS abilities aren't used so cleverly, though. While several DSS combos do have useful effects, too many of them are just there for the sake of creativity. Most DSS combos have no unique uses. They're just different methods of killing your foes. Some of them, like the Rose Sword, actually end up impeding you instead of helping you.
If you said you were afraid of the dark after playing Circle of the Moon, no one would blame you. So much of the background is black, you'll think the GBA's designers forgot to include a backlight. Oh, hold on, they DID forget to include a backlight. That's exactly the problem! Circle of the Moon is an awesome game, but it's easily the most painfully excrutiating to play on the Game Boy Advance. Way too much of the background is dark, and a number of enemies wield dark-colored projectiles, so you can expect to be killed by an unseen nothing at least a few times. However, what you CAN see of the backgrounds is pretty good. There are a lot of creative sights, like the bells and the window. The sprites are detailed, but extremely stiff and lacking animation. I wanted to give the graphics a better score, because their gloomy, eerie beauty fits the mood of the game. But the stiffness and darkness are too deterring for me to do that.
Since Circle of the Moon lacks a musical name like its spiritual brothers (Symphony of the Night; Harmony of Dissonance; Aria of Sorrow) I can't use any dumb jokes like "Composition of the Moon has a wonderful composition!" But lack of jokes won't detract from Circle of the Moon's outstanding musical splendor. The score, like the graphics, is a compliment to the game's dark setting. The excellent sounds are loud and clear, and they don't struggle to be heard.
The gameplay in Circle of the Moon can be a bit frustrating to Symphony vets; Alucard's sword, after all, would decimate anything it touched. But Nathan's whip is quite flawed. It takes a long time to stretch out, and more than once an enemy will hit you before your whip is crackling dangerously through the air. Other than this, Circle meets the excellent control standards set in Symphony. Nate jumps high, and you're in complete control of his every move from the second Nate lifts his first foot off the ground to the moment his second foot touches back down. The magic items used to progress are easy to use and remember, and DSS combos are activated at the quick push of a button.
Symphony of the Night it's not. But Circle of the Moon, at the time of its release, was considered the best game available for the Game Boy Advance. These days, it only costs ten dollars to see why. I highly suggest you do so.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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Circle of the Moon is a new installment in the Castlevania legend. It's designed to take advantage of Game Boy Advance's 32-bit color graphics. The bloodthirsty vampire is back in action, nestled deep within his castle and guarded by an army of undead demons waiting to hurl themselves at any human intruder. Instead of simply working your way from point A to point B in Dracula's castle, you'll be able to choose your own route through branching passageways and corridors. You might have to make a few wrong turns before you figure out where you're supposed to go next. By collecting Action Cards and Attribute Cards, players can create more than 80 spell effects that range from Fire Whips to Ice Blizzards.