Title: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Akumajo Dracula: Circle of the Moon in Japan)
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe
Publisher: Konami
Date Published: June 8, 2001 in North America; March 21, 2001 in Japan
Platforms: Game Boy Advance
ESRB Rating: T (Teen) for Animated Blood and Animated Violence

Introduction

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a new-school Castlevania game in the vein of Symphony of the Night, and follows it chronologically. It was one of the launch games for the Game Boy Advance, at least in North America. Circle of the Moon it is not really a sequel to Symphony of the Night, however, as none of the characters or plot elements (besides Dracula) are in common between the two. Also, being a handheld game, Circle of the Moon is considerably simpler in both graphics and sound. Particularly, the horrible voice acting in Symphony of the Night is gone, replaced by a traditional scrolling text system.

Plotline (no spoilers)

In 1830, Camilla, follower of the vampire lord Dracula, began the rituals to revive Dracula and unite the forces of darkness. The aged vampire hunter Morris Baldwin sensed this and rushed to the ancient castle where the ritual was being performed, along with his apprentices, Nathan Graves and Hugh Baldwin. They arrived too late, and Dracula used his power to imprison Morris, and cast Nathan and Hugh into the castle's dungeon. Nathan and Hugh split up to separately search for Morris and try to prevent Dracula from coming into his full power. You control Nathan Graves as he battles his way through the ancient castle.

Gameplay

Circle of the Moon continues Symphony of the Night's fusion of traditional Castlevania jumping and whipping with an RPG-like levellling system and Metroid-style nonlinear gameplay. Nathan Graves's primary weapon is the whip, and in addition to whipping out in the standard manner he can twirl the whip in a circle. He can wield a range of 'subweapons', such as a dagger or vials of holy water. These subweapons use up 'Hearts', which are found by breaking torches with the whip. This is traditional Castlevania fare, going right back to the NES and MSX.

Less traditional is that Nathan has a level reached by earning experience points which affects his damage, defence, hit points, magic points, and Heart capacity. The magic points are used in a system called the 'Dual Setup System' or DSS, where Nathan finds magical cards from dead enemies which combine in pairs to produce various magical effects. To differentiate these from subweapons, which use Hearts, none of the DSS effects are instantaneous effects, but are switched on and off and affect the game continuously while they are active. Only one DSS effect can be active at any given time, and each effect has a different rate of MP consumption. Nathan continuously regenerates magic points as he moves around, so some DSS effects are essentially free. The game can be saved at any of the 'save rooms' in the castle. Also, Nathan's HP and MP are restored at save rooms.

Level is not the only determinant of maximum HP, MP, and Hearts. Scattered throughout the castle in numerous small nooks are power-ups which significantly increase one of the attributes. The similarities to Metroid do not end there; each boss battle is followed by the acquisition of an additional 'magic item' that provides a new movement ability, like chaining jumps or breaking blocks, opening new areas of the castle to Nathan. In a move that streamlines moving through the castle, a few 'warp rooms' can be found. Each warp room transports Nathan to other warp rooms that he has visited.

Control

The control in Circle of the Moon is both simple and tight. The GBA's D-pad is used for movement, and the A and B buttons are used for jumping and whipping, respectively. If the B button is held down Nathan will do his whip-spinning move. DSS effects are activated and deactivated with the L button. The Start button brings up a menu where DSS combos can be selected, items can be used, the cards and magic items can be examined, and basic game settings can be adjusted. Each magic item describes the new move it allows, which sometimes involve the otherwise unused R button. Subweapon use is the only action not intuitive or directly explained; it occurs when you hold up on the D-pad and press the B button. However, since this is the same in pretty much all of the Castlevania games, it should be clear to anyone who's played Castlevania before.

Graphics and Sound

Being a launch game for the Game Boy Advance, Circle of the Moon is designed to show off the improved capacities of the new system. The graphics are much more finely detailed than anything on the Game Boy Colour, and the palette is richer. The buzzy square-wave NES-style music of the GBC is superseded by sample-based music and true digitised sound effects. It wasn't Symphony of the Night's wonderful music and high-quality sound effects, but it was far better than anything most people had seen on a handheld. Nathan is well-animated, with distinct, smooth animations for all of his moves. The enemies are also fairly detailed, with wiggling tentacles or flowing hair when apropriate.

This game, however, was at the centre of the controversy over the Game Boy Advance's rather dark screen. As an early title, the graphics were completed before the contrast level of the GBA's screen was known. When it came out, it best displayed the problems with the non-backlit LCD. Under many light conditions, the game shows up as a uniform field of black. This is too bad, because when the game is properly visible, the palette of the graphics fits very well with the overall mood of the game. Both Konami and Nintendo have taken steps to improve this problem. Konami brightened the palette in their next Castlevania game for the GBA, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, and added a bright trail after the player character to aid in locating him. Nintendo, on the other hand, brought out the backlit Game Boy Advance SP, which makes all Game Boy Advance games, including Circle of the Moon, visible under arbitrary lighting conditions.

Summary

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is probably my favourite GBA game at the moment, although I'd like Metroid Fusion better if it wasn't so damned hard at points. I haven't finished it yet so I can't comment on the additional modes unlocked when you finish the game, but they are claimed to be a welcome extension of the basic game. Since this is a relatively old GBA game, it should be easy to find for cheap, even in the bargain bin (which is where I found my copy). Highly recommended.


This write-up complies with the E2 FAQ: Video Games standards.
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This writeup is copyright 2003 by me and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial licence. Details can be found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd-nc/2.5/ .

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