In 2001 Nintendo released The Gameboy Advance. It was the first step forward for Nintendo in the handheld after having years of that same old clunky gameboy (and the Gameboy Pocket and Gameboy Color). There had been handheld Castlevania games released before but due to the limitations of the Gameboy (as well as the clunky design of those particular portable Castlevania outings) the Castlevania games released on the original Gameboy weren't very fun. The gameplay was simply odd and the jumping mechanics and slow frame rates didn't always help. For the Gameboy they were probably the best you could do. Yet with the Gameboy Advance having such superior hardware and being able to animate things so much better as well as have a lot of nice graphics, sound and a bit more ease with play control, it was a chance for Castlevania to actually redeem itself in the handheld market. The GBA had a few interesting launch titles, but the one that actually stood out the most is still the most surprising: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
The game centered on Nathan Graves. An orphan taken in by the Baldwin family. Nathan and his brother Hugh and his adoptive father Morris hear of the resurrection of Dracula by Camilla and decide to put a stop. Dracula doesn't have all his strength and kidnaps Morris while dropping Nathan and Hugh into a pit. It's up to these two to save Morris and stop Dracula. In spite of being separated together they quickly split up and you'll take control of Nathan Graves, brandishing the Vampire Killer.
Castlevania isn't a game series that has focused a lot on storytelling. Circle of the Moon doesn't either. Instead it focuses almost entirely on gameplay. This is where the game really succeeds. Circle of the Moon was the first Castlevania in four years to adopt the Metroid style that Symphony of the Night began in 1997. And the castle is indeed huge, with several corners to explore. Of course like Metroid and Symphony of the Night, it's not all open. You'll have to defeat bosses and find different abilities just to progress further and really explore the depths of the Dracula's Lair.
If anything could be said right off the bat, it's that Circle of the Moon utilizes a nice little system to give it variety. The DSS system. When you defeat enemies they'll drop cards. Combining two of these cards give Nathan the ability to do different things. They start off as simple things such as being able to brandish a fire whip or increase his strength, but eventually they become bigger by allowing him to do things like remain invincible for a given period of time or perform summons. It's a simple system that's easy to grasp, but actually adds a complex layer to the game. Likewise, you can still find a multitude of sub weapons just like in previous Castlevania games. The game also provides you with RPG style mechanics such as finding different pieces of armor that are hidden or that enemies drop. Finding potions that increase your HP and MP and a level up system to increase your overall stats. These elements all blend together rather well to make a very competent game.
On the other hand, Circle of the Moon is most certainly not an easy game in the slightest. In particular boss fights can be punishing for those who don't really utilize the DSS system. But this can be hard given that enemies are pretty stubborn about NOT dropping cards (but there's a simple solution to this). What makes the game really hard, however, are the bosses. You'll find yourself going through some tough fights in the game, mainly because healing items are scarce and bosses can do a lot of damage. The game isn't impossible, it just requires a lot of skill. But if you're adept at exploring the castle and killing everything in your path and utilizing your sub weapons really well, you'll be able to get through much of the game. On your first run through, however, it's just easy to get stuck on some of the bosses who are tough. Although some of them have simple patterns it's the damage output from them that makes them a threat, not exactly their predictable movements. Once you get the patterns down most bosses can become much simpler, even in the face of them being able to deal large amounts of damage.
The game gives off some replay value, however, by throwing in lots of different modes that emphasize different aspects of the game and can provide their own challenges. For example you can complete the game and unlock a Fighter Mode which makes you run through the game without using any of the magical DSS cards, but the trade off is that you'll have a lot of strength and HP. Magician Mode starts you off with all the DSS cards from the get go and allows you to experiment with them all you want. The trade off for all that MP and HUGE magic attack (not to mention magical charges) is that you don't get a lot of HP, strength or defense. Afterwards there is still a thief mode which increases your luck to absurd degrees making enemies drop vast amounts of items, while also giving you a bit more power for some of your sub weapons. These various modes ask you to play through the game in different ways. And once you master them they can be really fun. Magician Mode in particular, is one of the most thrilling and unique ways to go through the game.
On the downside, Castlevania Circle of the Moon isn't the best looking game. The level designs are excellent, but the character models and sprites aren't always. This is to be expected from a game that launched with the GBA. The visuals aren't terrible by any means, but future Castlevania titles on the GBA (Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow) make Circle of the Moon look a little murky. There aren't a lot of animations and a few enemies are recycled. Given that it is a launch game some of these things can slide given that it was still quite a leap for Castlevania handheld games in spite of everything. It still runs consistently, the playing mechanics are refined and the experience was just smoother overall. It was the perfect chance for Castlevania to make a competent handheld game. It shows as Circle of the Moon is unquestionably one of the best in the series.
The best part about the game is actually the soundtrack. It remixes and remasters several older tunes. It is certainly nice on the hears. Who knew the GBA was capable of such refined music? Of all the GBA Castlevania titles, Circle of the Moon stands as having the best soundtrack by far.
There isn't really a lot that holds the game down. The only thing that might turn some gamers away is the unrelenting difficulty the first time through. It doesn't get to the point where it's frustrating, but it gets to point that you wish the developers had taken it easy on the player. In one fight in particular you've got to fight two huge Dragon Zombies... both spitting fire and making debris fall on you. It's huge damage and they both have astronomical HP. They're battles that can take you by surprise simply because it's hard to prepare for such difficult trials. This is no reason not to try it. it's just not a cakewalk and is more than willing to let you know this. But it can and has turned some gamers away.
For a game that launched in 2001, Castlevania Circle of the Moon stands up rather well. Especially for Castlevania. It still stands as one of the best in the series, even though Casltevania has moved on. The biggest thing the game probably showed us, however, is that Castlevania can actually perform well on a handheld given the right care and devotion given to it. It shows. The handheld releases since 2001's Caslevania: Circle of the Moon are often far better than the 3D games that showed up on the Playstation 2 and the XBOX.
If you have a Gameboy Advance and for some reason you haven't played Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, it's definitely worth giving a shot.
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