|By Dan Hearth||Wednesday, 31 Oct 2007|
When I first got my Game Boy Advance, the two games I started with were Golden Sun and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Both of these games are fantastic, but I liked Castlevania a little bit more, so I ended up playing that first. The GBA was a big step up from the Game Boy Color and Circle of the Moon really illustrated what the new handheld was capable of.
In Circle of the Moon, you play as Nathan Graves, a vampire hunter in training. When Dracula is revived by a woman named Carmilla, Nathan, Morris Baldwin (his teacher), and Hugh Baldwin (Morris’ son) race to Dracula’s castle to slay the Count before he can once again spread his evil across the land. Nathan and Hugh get separated from their teacher when Dracula sends them plummeting into the catacombs. Hugh decides to abandon Nathan to search for his father on his own and the game begins from here as Nathan fights his way through the demon castle to find his master.
Circle of the Moon plays similarly to Symphony of the Night where you are free to roam the castle rather than follow a particular path. At first, you are limited to where you can travel, but as you collect new items, more and more of the castle opens up to you. At first, you are armed with only a whip, which is your primary weapon for the course of the game, but you soon find other sub-weapons common to the series, such as the dagger, holy water, crucifix, etc. These all require hearts to use and each weapon uses a different number of hearts for each consecutive attack. You can equip armor and items you find in your travels to help protect yourself from the many threats throughout the game, but unlike Symphony of the Night, there is no shop in which to buy new items. Instead, you will have to rely on whatever your enemies randomly leave behind upon their deaths. This is rather tedious as you will have to fight enemies over and over in order to get the equipment you desire. Occasionally, you will find relics that grant you new abilities, including the ability to run, double-jump, do a shoulder-block and so on. These are all necessary to advance through the game and are usually guarded by one of the game’s many bosses.
A new addition is the inclusion of Magic Cards. These grant you new attacks and abilities by tapping into your magic points. There are two varieties of cards: action cards and attribute cards. The action cards grant you a number of skills, while the attribute cards determine exactly what skill you use. There are 10 of each kind of card for a total of 100 different skills and abilities. The cards are the defining feature of the game and will likely have a great impact on your overall experience. Because each card is dropped randomly by defeated enemies, it can be rather difficult to acquire them all. Also, some combinations of cards are a lot more useful than others. A favorite of mine is the Mars card which grants you different weapons, like elemental swords, hammers, even a pistol. But for every good combination, there are a few bad ones. The Jupiter card is rather useless; it causes different objects to slowly rotate around you, acting as a shield. This sounds more useful than it really is, I assure you. The key is to try all the combinations out and find the ones that will be the most helpful.
The visuals in this game are quite impressive, especially when you consider that this was a launch title for the GBA. Most of the sprites are a bit small, but detailed none the less. The bosses in particular are very pleasing to look at and are among the most detailed objects in the game. I have but two complaints with this game’s visuals. One is that Nathan himself is not very well animated. He has a wide variety of animations for different situations; it’s just that all of them seem to have too few frames of animation than they should. His running animation has about four frames to it and that seems unacceptable when you consider how well animated the previous games in the series are. The other complaint is that the graphics are much too dark. If you play this game on the original GBA, you’ll be lucky if you can see a damn thing. However, this can be remedied by playing it on one of the newer, back-lit Game Boys or using the Game Boy Player to play it on your TV. I know that Castlevania is supposed to have a dark and eerie look to it, but this is too dark for a handheld. Konami obviously took note of this; the following game, Harmony of Dissonance, was made much brighter.
Castlevania is known for having quality audio, especially with its music, and Circle of the Moon is no exception. You might consider the music to be a tribute to past Castlevania games as most of the soundtrack is reprisals of songs from previous games. There are a lot of songs from Castlevania III (including Clockwork, Aquarius, and Nightmare), one from Super Castlevania IV (Clockwork Mansion), a few from Bloodlines (such as A Vision of Dark Secrets and Sinking Old Sanctuary), and even a few from Rondo of Blood and Castlevania 64 (Illusionary Dance and Requiem from RoB, and the Introduction from CV64, respectfully). The game has its share of songs composed for this game specifically as well. The Catacombs music is the first area’s theme which is catchy and gets you in the vampire-slaying mood, as it should. What surprises me is that Konami never topped this game’s sound quality with either Harmony of Dissonance or Aria of Sorrow. It’s clear they took some extra steps to get the most out of the GBA’s sound processor with this game. The only downside to the game’s audio is that there’s a bit of a hissing noise when playing. It is noticeable, but it doesn’t really detract from the experience. You’ll likely be too busy admiring the game’s incredible music. As for sound effects, they are of high quality as well and often fitting for the actions they represent. The snap of the whip, the crumbling and burning of defeated monsters, the roars of the large and menacing bosses… they all add to the experience.
You’ll likely notice right away that this game is very challenging. Unless you level-up constantly, you’ll be getting your ass handed to you regularly. Some people may be turned off by this game’s brutal difficulty, but if you’re a Castlevania veteran, you likely won’t mind the challenge. The controls are very responsive and Nathan is easy to maneuver, so any aggression you have towards the game is your own fault for getting yourself killed. The game is quite long for a handheld game and it will take you many hours to explore all the nooks and crannies of the castle, especially if you take the time to find every secret passage and get 100% map completion. The game also has a few bonus modes for those skilled enough to slay Dracula. I won’t go into details for those of you who like surprises, but they add some replay value to the game for those who enjoy it enough to play again.
All in all, Circle of the Moon is another quality entry in the Castlevania series. Take note, this game is frustratingly hard, and if you’re not a patient person, you may get discouraged and want to give up. But if you’re a fan of past Castlevania games, this game has everything you could want. I would say that Circle of the Moon is one of the Game Boy Advance’s finest games, and is easily the best Castlevania for the handheld. Pick it up if you see it!