While entries in the Castlevania series had appeared on Nintendo handhelds before the 2001 release of Circle of the Moon, the results varied in quality and rarely lived up to their console brethren. Hardware limitations on the Game Boy resulted in short games with poor graphics and limited save capabilities. All of that changed with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, which launched alongside Nintendo’s new Game Boy Advance, ushering in an era of high-quality handheld Castlevania games that continued throughout the GBA’s run and then through the Nintendo DS as well. While I’ve played and loved the two games that followed this on the Game Boy Advance – 2002’s Harmony of Dissonance and 2003’s Aria of Sorrow – it was time to go back and play Circle of the Moon to see if it could hold up against its successors.
Plot-wise, there’s not much different here from any other game in the series. Though the series mainstay Belmont family is nowhere to be found, you instead control Nathan Graves, whose only personality trait is that he has devoted his life to ridding the world of the seemingly immortal vampire Dracula. Nathan arrives at Dracula’s castle alongside his vampire-fighting trainer Morris and Morris’s son Hugh. Morris, however, is stolen from the group and the floor falls out from under Hugh and Nathan as they fall the entire height of the castle; upon reaching the ground they split up, at which point all plot basically ceases for the rest of the game.
Like most Castlevania games the focus of Circle of the Moon is on the side-scrolling exploration of a giant castle; it’s laid out like a grid and a handy map can be accessed at all times giving you an idea of where you’ve been and where you have yet to explore. Level design is the series’ bread and butter and for the most part it works in Circle of the Moon. My obsessive-compulsive needs were fulfilled exploring every last inch of the castle, and the map itself lets you know what percentage of the game you still haven’t seen yet. It’s also fun to check out the random black squares that occur in the middle of the map. Is there a secret entrance to get a bonus item? Or is there just nothing there? There’s a few warp points located throughout the castle allowing for quicker travel to its further points, although I feel like this was carried out better in subsequent games. Their locations sometimes felt randomly placed, leading me to just skip over them entirely most of the time. Still though, there’s an exhilarating feeling every time you find the one new direction that takes you to a huge new wing of the castle, with no idea how much exploration you’ll need before you find the next save point.
The combat hasn’t changed much either. Nathan Graves wields a whip just like the Belmont’s and almost all non-boss fights will involve whacking the enemy a few times with it. The creativity here comes less from landing your simple hits and more from avoiding the more complicated enemy attacks. While early enemies will go down without much of a fight, later random enemies may take over the entire screen with their attacks and force Nathan into various states of sickness. While healing items are few and far between, Nathan does at least have a small arsenal of side weapons he can use with limited ammunition – throwing daggers do weak damage but use little ammo and hit from long range, axes are more useful to hit enemies above you, and a stop watch can be used to stop time completely to get out of a rough situation or deliver some uninterrupted hits. Nathan can only choose one side-weapon at a time though and he needs to stumble upon a weird weapon-changing station if you want to switch.
In addition to the basic combat, Circle of the Moon included a new gimmick known as the Dual Set-up System, or DSS. Basically enemies will randomly drop “Action” or “Attribute” cards containing pictures of monsters or gods, each with vague explanations of what they will do when equipped – Nathan can equip one of each at a time. There are ten of each card type, meaning one-hundred possible combinations. In theory this is a fun idea – mixing and matching cards to discover whether they give you a particular stat boost or change the effects of your whip’s lashes. Unfortunately the cards themselves rarely seem to drop, meaning you’ll rarely be straying from a few card combos, regardless of whether they help your current situation. These seem like items that would have been better suited as hidden bonuses rather than random drops – why not award them for dutiful exploring rather than repeated killing of the same enemies?
The DSS cards aren’t the only way to make Nathan more powerful, as the series incorporates some role-playing game elements – namely receiving experience for defeating enemies and using this to level up and get stronger. While it was nice to notice Nathan getting stronger the further the game went along, the sudden spikes in difficulty sometimes slowed the game to a crawl. A few times it made more sense to go find one specific enemy and just keep killing his kind for an hour or two than to press on further in the game. This kind of thing is forgivable in an RPG where combat is deep and fun; in a Castlevania game it quickly grew irritating and killed the flow of the game. Thankfully, the forced grinding was toned down in subsequent games in the series.
Finally, while the Game Boy Advance was a major step-up in hardware, there were still some limitations that held the game back. Despite its gothic setting, Castlevania games have often benefitted from brightly colored environments, but Circle of the Moon was a bit too dark for comfort at times. A reconfiguration of the controls would have helped as well – running, one of the most basic movements in the game, involved double-tapping the D-Pad left or right rather than the standard of holding a button down to go faster, which was particularly inconvenient on small platforms where Nathan might want a running jump. Later games in the series were able to fix this as well at least.
Overall it’s tough to ignore how much of an improvement Circle of the Moon was over the previous handheld installments in the series. While there were a few questionable choices made, the game is still extremely playable fourteen years later and is well worth the time for anyone who enjoys these side-scrolling action “Metroid-Vania” style games. For those who are just looking to give the series a first shot however, later entrants in the series would be better suited as they refined Circle of the Moon’s rough edges and made for stronger games.
3 Chicks out of 5