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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon Review
Posted on November 30, 2008 by

Today I am going to focus on the first Castlevania game released on the Gameboy Advance, Circle of the Moon. This game was released in June 2001, at the time of the GBA launch in America. Of many good games, COTM was definitely the highlight. This game somewhat caught me by surprise as I did not know about a new CV game coming out and I was pleased to discover that the team would continue to use Symphony of the Night's gameplay engine.

This game takes place in 1830, and Dracula has been resurrected by his minion Camilla. The interesting part is that the ritual doesn't seem to require anything but the right conditions, Camilla just utters some prayer of sorts and then Dracula appears. While it is true that Dracula needs a deus ex machina for full power, it still pretty convenient. In Rondo of Blood, Shaft's cult needed the sacrifice of virgins. I guess a little dark magic solves all those concerns. That would be a handy trick for bringing people back to life, too bad it only seems to work on evil. Dark magic is strange like that, handy as it is.

The game stars the Baldwin family, Hugh and his father Morris. You play as Morris' apprentice Nathan Graves, who seeks to inherit the power of the Hunter Whip that can destroy Dracula. Little of this makes sense, even by Castlevania standards. Who are the Baldwins? Are they related to the Belmonts, or does their power come from elsewhere? Dracula seems to know Morris from the intro, but nothing is really said about it. It is the uncertainties of elements like these that cause me not to miss COTM being removed from the official timeline in 2003. This game is a muddle of storytelling, saved by its gameplay.

Circle of the Moon's graphics are a unique case for Castlevania, the environments are varied and many of the castle's outside areas really reflect a huge sense of scale when compared to Nathan. However this game was the bane of the original Gameboy Advance. The graphics in is this game lack much detail in background or enemies. There is also a lack of ambient light around objects or characters. These two factors when combined with the lack of a GBA backlight made it very difficult to play this game.

For many annoyed gamers, it was like back in the day, trying to see where Mario was going in Super Mario Land by tilting the box to get just the right light angle. Few expected to see the same thing again, and few were pleased with it. This is demonstrated by the great positive response to many internet sites that offered to install GBA backlights behind the screen.

I had high expectations for GBA audio, as its visuals were more powerful than a SNES, surely the audio would be similarly advanced? Not quite. The GBA sound chip was inferior to the SNES one, and this is at its worst in the many GBA ports of SNES games, there is a very noticeable loss of quality in the music and sound.

In original games like COTM, it often depended on the composer. This is a good thing in Circle are the remixes of classics, like Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears, Visions of Dark Secrets and the Sinking Old Sanctuary from Castlevania: Bloodlines. Definitely the best music of all the GBA Castlevanias. I tried to articulate above that it was the composer who was responsible. This is as such because COTM's composer seemed to be aware of the GBA's sound limitations and wrote the music accordingly. An assiduous move.

Gameplay is built on Symphony of the Night's engine with non-linear progression, level-ups, and equip menus. But the similarities end there. Circle of the Moon has a most unique system involving the use of enchanted card combinations. There are cards that you obtain from defeated enemies. The system is called the DSS (Dual Set-up System) with action cards and attribute cards used in various combinations to produce all manner of effects, from offensive to defensive to summoning of creatures that can do both. This system is powered by your MP whereas hearts power the traditional subweapons.

The DSS system allows for great flexibility in playing the game, you can have everything from screen destroying Thunderbirds to flame whips to ice grenades. Or if you so desire, you can play with just the traditional whip and subweapons for a retro experience. All this adds up to significant replayability, probably the greatest of all Castlevania games in sheer variety. And it gets even better in the bonus modes.

This game is a lot like Aria of Sorrow in its challenge, in that it is very easy if you go directly for the best card combinations. If you don't know what they are, it is quite challenging, probably the hardest Castleroid. You can't really fall back on items, no merchant to buy from, and if you don't know about the healing summons...

As above, the replay value is through the roof with new modes to access each time you beat the game with your cleared save data. These modes include having all 20 DSS Cards from the beginning to having very high attack power. All of these modes are worth trying out, and do a lot to make the game to feel different each time you play.

In summation, Circle of the Moon is probably my second favorite of the GBA Castlevanias. If I had to name weaknesses, the ambiguity of the story is disappointing, like it was an afterthought. There are also a lot of glitches in this game that, unlike most other games, are easy to access, such as the card combo glitch. They are a handy way to save time, but it is a programming oversight. Playing the game was a frustrating experience the first time through, due to lack of knowledge of card placement. This seems to be a game that the more you know about it, the more fun it is. This is an oddity in gaming to be sure, but there it is. - og (@) | all author's articles

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