The years following this franchise's glory period in the early 90's, specifically from 1997 to 2000, weren't kind to the Castlevania series. Though Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was one of the finest games ever made and perhaps the series' pinnacle, it was not the commercial success that Konami hoped it to be--this due largely in part to the comapny's hot-potato hardware philosophy that saw the series bounce around to five different platforms over a five-year period; this approach, which to the average consumer seemed like a perpetual disappearing act, wore away at the series' drawing appeal and took a franchise that was teetering just below the Sonics and the Mega Mans of the world and made it a niche concept that was selling sparsely on its name alone. Castlevania Legends went virtually unnoticed, and I can't say that I blame anyone for that. And the more recent efforts, two ill-conceived and lacking 3D-based Nintendo 64 titles, did more harm than anyone would like to admit.
But if we were to skip past the melodrama surrounding the series' direction, this question would remain: How do you fix all of the damage? Well, if you're Konami, you go back to what brought you to the dance: You return the series to its 2D side-scrolling roots, and you do it on a Nintendo system that was made just for this purpose. In short: You give KCEK a chance to redeem itself after its N64 disasters with the series' latest entry: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the wildly popular handheld known in longform as the Game Boy Advance.
KCEK knew a winning formula when it saw it, and Circle of the Moon's destiny would surely rest in the hands of a previous entry; it's not much of a surprise, then, that the crew chose to pattern its gameplay style and play-mechanics after those found in Symphony of the Night, with sprinkled in a few of its own little touches. Take Symphony's formula, marry it to a 16-bit world, and watch as it results in a very worthy (and very familiar) RPG-fueled platform-adventure that focuses on the meeting of goals rather than the clearing of stages, featuring that same Super Metroid map structure that makes it oh-so-familiar. During your romp through the ancient Castlevania, you'll be tasked with powering up the hero by using an RPG system to gain levels; by collecting armor, meter enhancers and relics; and by maintaining a rather large inventory of magical items.
That hero is Nathan Graves, a warrior whose family is surely related by blood to the famed Belmont clan but whose place is the lineage is not solid. Part of the mystery surrounding the title is that we're not sure how the tale fits into the functioning storyline or if its some lost episode--a sort of urban legend or exaggerated folklore I liken to tales carried forth by troubadours. If we take into account the date 1830, it's sandwiched somewhere between Symphony and Legacy of Darkness. So sometime after Alucard vanquishes Dracula, the growing evil in the world has resulted in the return of Camilla, the subservient countess who acts as the conductor in yet another resurrection of the Dark Lord. The fate of the world lay with three vampire hunters: The old hunting master Morris Baldwin; his son, Hugh Baldwin; and Nathan Graves. The trio doesn't arrive in time to thwart Camilla's ritual, and the result is that Dracula returns, Morris is captured, and the youths are banished into the castle depths. Now it's up to Nathan to put up with Hugh's jealous nature and a castle of horrors to endure a mad quest to destroy Camilla and Dracula and thus rescue his master.
While Nathan's play-style is similar to that of the very same Alucard you controlled in Symphony, he's more attuned to the Belmonts you know: At his most basic, he attacks enemies with his classic Vampire Killer whip, which he can swing left and right and swirl wildly in a circular motion for a weaker but more defensive posture. To supplement the whip, Nathan can collect and utilize the five basic Belmont sub-weapons--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang and the stopwatch--that can be powered in varying totals by candelabra-held hearts.
Nathan must also collect a number of relics that will afford him special fighting abilities and increased castle accessibility. These include the now-mandatory dash, double jump, sliding kick and super jump techniques. Nathan can increase his offensive and defensive abilities otherwise by collecting and equipping a limited number of armor types via his inventory; all armor types mathematically increase or decrease his attributes in several categories, including the following: Strength, Defense, Intelligence and Luck--the latter two of which affect his magical ability and the item-dropping potential of the enemies. Finally, he can collect several health replenishment items to carry around in his inventory for circumstantial use; you know these as curse- and poison-curing bottles, pot roasts, heart refills and the like.
From this, it's easy to deduce that Circle of the Moon is not quite as large an adventure as Symphony and thus dismiss it as a dumbed-down version for a system not nearly as comparable in power to the PS1. That would be an unfair assumption when you consider that toning down the pure amount of collectibles may be beneficial to those who believe that Symphony goes overboard with its near-endless item list filled with stuff you'll probably never use. Even then, KCEK looks to make up for any shortfalls by enhancing the existing gameplay using a "system" whose use is optional but highly effective if you choose to take advantage of it; they call it the "DSS Card System." By collecting the sometimes rare Action and Attribute Cards, which are dropped randomly by specific enemies, you can combine a single card from one group with one from the other to create any of one hundred different effects. These entail upgrades for Nathan's whip, all types of swords, a pistol, a hammer, magical shields, familiar-summoning, martial arts attacks, and many other unique magical and physical abilities. Some combos may require experimentation to realize their true potential, but, for that effort, some of the more advanced powers will prove to aid Nathan greatly in his battles, especially those against the extremely challenging bosses and the insane Dracula forms.
Once again, you'll explore Dracula's huge haunt, which is this time broken up into fourteen different sections, by navigating the "rooms" that the game defines as the areas that make up each section. KCEK tries to closely mimic the structure of Symphony's castle while mixing things up a bit. Sometimes you'll come across sections or rooms that look quite similar to those in Symphony or even to those from earlier titles; other times, you'll see names like "Outer Wall" and "Underground Cavern" flash onto the screen when you reach a new section, but you'll be hardpressed to see any resemblance. While I commend its sense of familiarity, however erratic, it's hard to ignore that KCEK tends to rely on Symphony's template a little too often, particularly when using that annoying platforming scheme of zigzagging around and around to reach a room's top, and this in part holds the game back from establishing its own niche. And what's most disappointing is that Circle of the Moon abandons all convention and instead employs boring ideas like "switch-hitting" and "box-pushing." Except for maybe one instance of piling boxes onto one another, there isn't a puzzle here that's clever, fun or memorable. It's true that within the many rooms you'll find typical obstacles--like collapsing bridges, conveyor belts and crumbling platforms--but it all seems so shallow and forced, like they exist just to slow down your progress. Considering the high expectations that this genre commands, such level design just doesn't find the correct balance between castle structure and the puzzles encompassed therein. Super Metroid would not be proud of its settling for less.
Always, your immediate goal is to fight through the many rooms, the majority of which contain randomly paired enemies and the aforementioned dangers, to reach the most immediately accessible boss. Whereas Circle of the Moon's castle structure is bland and generic, the game's personality and lasting image is derived directly from these boss battles, which are very challenging, frequently fun, and frankly blow away the major battles from Symphony with an old-school quality that will warm the heart of any longtime fan. In light of the fact that the game is not too packed in the boss department--featuring about eight unique monsters, not including Hugh Baldwin and Dracula--KCEK thankfully dashes the bosses-are-just-larger-minor-enemies philosophy, and it makes its mark well. In order to defeat bosses, you'll have to gain levels by sometimes fighting the tougher minor enemies again and again, which, admittedly, can often be time-consuming and redundant, but it's important to be at a certain level when you face them. In effect, you'll quickly discover that it's useless to force your way through to a boss' chamber and destroy it while on an unsuitably low level. It's silly to try when you consider the difference for even one level. Don't say that I didn't warn you.
Circle of the Moon takes its strongest blow in the graphics department. It's common knowledge that the Game Boy Advance is capable of graphics and graphical effects that are at least equal to the SNES', but KCEK sacrificed a lot of the game's look for the benefit of memory and cart space devoted elsewhere. The castle's very dark, brooding design; its large rooms; and its huge and very detailed scrolling backgrounds manufacture a playing field for only smaller, less animated characters. This helps to make things easier on the processor and thus prevent slowdown. Considering the detail of the more suppressive backgrounds and foregrounds, it can be a sight to see, and it will conjure up a sense of awe while supplying a strong dose of that "classic" atmosphere. But that's in theory.
I say this because "very dark" is no exaggeration: KCEK's coloring of the large backgrounds, and some foregrounds, is so dark-toned that it creates many an instance where you won't be able to see a thing even under the strongest light source. The original GBA is not backlit, true, but that's not where the problem stems; they colored the backgrounds in this manner purposely. This is extremely agitating, because it occurs mostly when you're fighting bosses; since many of the boss attacks are colored purple and dark blue, they blend into the backgrounds, and you'll be repeatedly damaged by projectiles and mist formations that you can't see coming. I can't overstate how much this can kill the whole experience, though I can suggest three remedies: (1) Buy a GBA SP, which is backlit and thus better reveals the game's lively scenery. (2) Play it using a Game Boy Player, on which its graphical presentation is done justice. Or (3) try to play near a location closer to the sun, like, say, on a mountain top.
The character design doesn't fare much better. As mentioned: The characters are smaller and less animated in deference to attention paid to other play areas. The ugly and scarcely detailed characters are disappointing considering the previous games' templates, and most can't even manage more than two frames of animation. It doesn't amount to an interesting enemy selection, which has become a series trademark. Even though there are many enemies, the limited amount of resources aimed at enemy design dictates that most resemble each other; they take an existing character design, splash on alternate colors, and pass it off as a whole new enemy. This always works well in RPGs and shouldn't be a problem here, again in theory, but they do it too much. How many levels of multicolored knights and demons do you really need? I'd expect a better selection from a game that trumpets its large amount of enemies. In contrast, its standout boss creatures are sharp-looking, more detailed, and the pinnacle of this selection.
What can you say about the series' music that isn't a cliché at this point? It's always a given that Konami pumps out some of the best soundtracks for its game franchises, and Circle of the Moon is no exception. This is fortunate, too, because its soundtrack is largely a collection of remade or remixed classic tunes, like those you've heard in Castlevania, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines. This is most prevalent when you first switch on the game only to hear the Rondo of Blood Gregorian chant intro perfectly recreated. You could say, as in the case of the mechanics and castle structure, that KCEK is overly relying on the series' past and coasting by on others' ideas, but you can't deny when something works to a high level; the soundtrack works brilliantly because it's of the highest quality and they did well in matching up and applying each theme to an appropriate castle section (like Nightmare, the catacomb theme from Dracula's Curse, which plays in this game's catacombs early on). It's easy to tell, from its quality, that most of the cart's resources were dedicated to the music.
While not quite on that same level, Circle of the Moon offers a nice selection of sound effects to accompany actions. Nathan snaps the whip viscously, twirls it around frantically, and lets out a battle cry or two when a DSS item-crash is used. A few of the enemies also come with their own voice samples for when they're on the attack or in a state of being vanquished, but don't expect this to be common. For the best comparison, I'd say that its sound effects are about a smidge better than those heard in Castlevania: Dracula X. If you're looking for Symphony of the Night-level sound and music, however, you're again lofting unfair expectations upon this game. KCEK did an outstanding job of getting more out of the GBA, sound-wise, than the majority of the handheld's other developers.
The play control is a mixed bag. Jumping, whipping and the tossing of sub-weapons are all done in a smooth and precise fashion, but executing special moves can be a little tricky; you must utilize certain button combinations to activate them, and this is hindered by frequent stalling and unresponsiveness in the buttons. For example: You'll try to pull off a special move (such as pushing up plus r-special to use your super jump) but nothing will result out of it except for an idle Nathan. You're most vulnerable to this when you try to use special moves in succession because they expect you to actually wait a second or two, following, before you try another, and this is never a good thing during boss battles, where you must act quickly. If it didn't happen at such inopportune times, it wouldn't be so noticeable. I would say that the controls feel a bit "sticky," which, judging from the stalling between moves, is more likely a byproduct of the lacking animation. Whether or not it hurts your enjoyment depends on your button-mashing experience. All in all, though the going can get rough, KCEK did a good job of mapping out the buttons, considering the system's lack of them, and assigning to them regular and special moves.
And then there's the challenge. Many have dubbed the more recent titles to be "too easy," with the finger pointed mainly at Rondo of Blood and Symphony. I think it's evident, as I've discussed, that KCEK doesn't comply with Koji Igarashi's theory that people want universally beatable games. No--the boss battles here are instead something to fear, and most every battle will require patience, a solid strategy, the right weapons and armor, being on a high enough level, and some luck; this doesn't even take into account the extremely dark backgrounds that are apt to make things even more challenging in the way they mask bosses' almost-translucent attacks. Even making it to the bosses requires mettle: Though there are many save points scattered throughout the castle, they're always placed deep into a section, and while scurrying to reach them, you'll be in for some heart-racing scares while battling minor enemies that are almost always too strong for your level. Plus there are no save points directly after bosses, so you'll often have to retreat through minor-enemy-heavy territory to get your game all saved up after what was surely a long, tough battle. If you die, you'll have to again fight the ultra-hard boss. It's simple, really: If you like an old-school challenge and revel in a good, long battle, this should be your cup of tea. If not, you will learn to hate Circle of the Moon.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a very good but still slightly disappointing game. I, too, levied almost-unfair expectations upon it from the start--from gauging screenshots and movies, I thought I'd found the game that would thrust the series back into greatness. I think I made the mistake of expecting the greatest thing ever; I was looking for Symphony times-two, so I was disappointed when I made it to Dracula within seven hours. "That's it?" I questioned. "No upside-down castle? No second quest? No super plot twist?" I was looking for effects that would make Super Castlevania IV squirm; to be pushed to the limit in terms of character and story depth; to experience dozens of boss battles with oldies, like Slogra, Frankenstein (he's just a "minor enemy" again?) and newcomers alike; and to see my favorite series evolve into something even more realized. It didn't deliver quite to that level, obviously, and I shouldn't have expected it to.
But this is an enduring game. There are some potentially big problems, yes, like the darkness and untimely control lapses, but what KCEK did well, it did to a great degree, and, therein, it did manage to create a level of depth similar to that found in Symphony of the Night--truly, you can return to the game even years from now and still discover new things. Really, Circle of the Moon serves very well to conjure up that classic atmosphere that Legends and the N64 titles clearly lacked. Due to such factors, I believe that it will go down as the most memorable of the three GBA titles when all is said and done. So while I'm still worried about the direction of the series on the whole, I can tell you that Circle of the Moon, as an RPG-fueled platform-adventure, remains mostly true to what the series is all about.
This would be KCEK's final contribution to the series, and it's easily their best offering. It's surely a must-have title for the GBA. In closing, I say to you that their creation, Circle of the Moon, is a gaming experience worthy of four Medusa Heads.