Castlevania: Circle of the Moon - Retroview

Good formulas never die
By: Phillipe Richer

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 8
   Interface 8
   Music & Sound 7
   Originality 5
   Story & Plot 2
   Localization 6
   Replay Value 9
   Visuals 7
   Difficulty Moderate
   Completion Time 8-11 Hours  

Playing hide-and-seek with a big oaf of a golem.
Playing hide-and-seek with a big oaf of a golem.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

   In 2001, the GBA came out. The system was far from being deprived of good games what with the extensive GBC library of titles, but several new games appeared to showcase the GBA's power and painful lack of lighting. Among the first few titles was Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, the follow-up to the acclaimed Symphony of the Night (SotN). While the game isn't quite as spectacular as its predecessor in many respects, CotM stands for sheer fun and still remains one of the best titles available for the GBA.

   As in most Castlevania games, Count Dracula, or the lord of all evil as his friends call him, has been resurrected. You are cast as Nathan Graves, the protégé of the legendary Morris Baldwin, who must wander through Dracula's huge castle in order to find the single key (literally) which will allow him to face Dracula and vanquish him once and...for a while. Hugh Baldwin and Camilla are also part of the cast for the sole reason of bringing more gameplay to the game, something which is delivered in grand fashion in CotM thanks to a wonderful magic system.

   Nathan is armed with a deadly whip to help his cause of good vs. evil. The directions at which he can swing the whip are rather limited, but a spinning shield can be made if the attack button is held to provide some cover. He'll find several sub-weapons, ranging from daggers to holy water flasks, hidden behind candlesticks which can be used by pressing the d-pad up along with the attack button. Using sub-weapons depletes your number of hearts, fragments of which can be found anywhere. You can equip Nathan with various armors and accessories and use curative items when needed. The number of items dropped is somewhat low however, so those will only be used as a final resort. You'll discover several special items, most often guarded by bosses, which allow you to explore the castle more thoroughly by lending you special abilities. Your HP and MP gauges will be restored automatically at save points.

   MP is used in conjunction with the Dual Setup System (DSS) implemented in CotM. By defeating certain types of enemies, you'll sometimes be rewarded by spell cards. There are 20 cards total; 10 elemental and 10 attribute cards. By selecting various combinations of an elemental and an attribute card, Nathan can perform over 80 different special attacks. The DSS is what makes CotM a standout game. Because of the relative difficulty of the game (when playing as a Vampire Killer at least), you'll be forced to devise your own DSS strategies when facing your adversaries. Some combos work well only in certain places, some are useless, but some will quickly become an integral part of your arsenal. This doesn't ring true when playing as different personas (more on that later), but for the first playthrough it does make all the difference.

The DSS is simple but also wonderfully diversified.
The DSS is simple but also wonderfully diversified.

   CotM doesn't burden you with many menus. Aside from the status menu where you can equip items and change your DSS, there isn't much text at all to be found. What is great and what makes the game playable is the excellent castle map available by simply pressing the select button. You'll have to make good use of it to determine your next course of action and to try and find all those secret rooms filled with HP, MP, and heart power-ups. Thanks to those secret rooms, the exploration part of CotM is almost as keen as its gameplay. With a simple and fully configurable four buttons setup, playing CotM quickly becomes a second nature.

   SotN was notorious for its excellent soundtrack and thankfully a good deal of effort was also put into CotM's. Even with the less advanced sound card of the GBA, most melodies are particularly enticing. The first two or three songs are especially good and sound even better with a pair of headphones. The subtle instrumental rhythms make the melodies a pleasure for the ears, even though some compositions are somewhat skimpy on the quality. Let's put it like this: if I had the money I'd definitely buy the soundtrack. Sound effects are less fetching however. Spells sound appropriate, Nathan shouts when he should, but enemies are almost completely silent which translates into a less engaging mood. Still, the music is surprisingly good.

   Castlevania games have never had a strong plot, simply because that's not why the series has become so successful. CotM makes no exception to the rule. Dracula has been resurrected, he sealed himself behind a huge door, and you have to get the key to send him back to the netherworld. There are conversations between Nathan and Hugh, but it's really nothing to call home about. Whip some skeletons, kill Dracula, and enjoy the credit music; that's what the story's all about.

   Directly correlated to the practically nonexistent plot is the nonexistent localization job Konami had to do. There are about two pages of dialogue in the entire game, and what there is of it is translated decently. There are no typos, the item descriptions are short and accurate, and the enemies are well identified once you start attacking them (their names show up on screen). They must have spent a good day or two on this for sure.

Fighting fire with fire.
Fighting fire with fire.

   Simply put, the game is fun. It is short (about 8-11 hours on the first playthrough), entertaining, and challenging enough to give you the shivers in some instances. As mentioned previously, the quantity of hidden rooms increases the fun factor tremendously (unlike the latest game, Harmony of Dissonance). Obtaining good pieces of armor as well as finding every DSS card on your own will keep you playing for a while too. But the best part is incontestably the various "personas" you can play as on subsequent playthroughs. When you finish the game once you can play as a Magician, with all the DSS cards available to you from the get-go. After you beat the game as a Magician, you can play as a Fighter, which puts the emphasis on physical attacks and allows no utilization of the DSS whatsoever. There are two more configurations to play as, meaning that you can potentially have five completely different playthroughs to enjoy. Playing as a Magician or a Fighter renders the game very easy. However, try playing as an Archer to see what you're made of. It's not easy, but it's oh so fun.

   As one of the GBA's first title, CotM really demonstrated what the system was capable of. Nathan looks a little crude, but most enemies, especially the bosses, look decidedly frightful. The backgrounds are very detailed and very intriguing, though most people will say that the awful lighting makes things very, very hard on the eyes; and they wouldn't be wrong. You'd better find yourself a great source of light, or else you won't be able to appreciate the level of detail in the game. Spell effects are just as good as the backgrounds, with awesome fire and lighting effect and plenty of sheer visual delight. Okay, maybe not that impressive, but you certainly won't turn away in disgust while playing.

   Even a year and half after its release, CotM still stands as one of the best available action/RPG for Nintendo's handheld phenomena. The DSS is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, and when combined with the astounding replay value and the strong score you get a game that will keep you entertained you for a long while. Not quite SotN, but close enough for me.

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