Game Description: Konami's Simon Belmont started hunting vampires back in 1987, and he hasn't quit yet. Now he's chasing them across the Game Boy Advance in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. He'll use his trusty whip, as well as a few magical items, to combat Dracula and more than just a few foul minions. The game takes advantage of the GBA's rich color palette to create detailed, moody environments and intricate spell effects.
When Nintendo released their successor to the ultra popular portable Game Boy Color system, the Game Boy Advance, it wasn't really "out with the old and in with the new" as much as it was "out with the new and in with the old." Despite having a 32-bit computer processor (comparable to that of the home console PlayStation), the lack of a 3-D graphics co-processor ensured that the Game Boy Advance's initial library would consist mostly of modest updates and ports of classic 2-D games from the 16-bit Super Nintendo and Genesis era. Of course depending on whom you ask, that may or may not be a bad thing. A substantial portion of the gaming population (consisting mostly of older gamers), to this day, still believes that games of yesteryear had more innovation and "magic" than the current crop of CG-intensive big-budgeted clone-athons. Whether this assessment is true or not is ultimately subjective and will be endlessly debated by rabid fans on Internet newsgroups and message boards like our own here at GameCritics.com. What is undeniable is that 3-D videogames did not kill the 2-D star and Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon is proof of that.
Circle Of The Moon, a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, is an obvious throwback to the "run-and-jump platform" games of the past. The surprising thing, however, is that the many years since its original 8-bit release has done little to diminish the indelible trademarks of the series. The eternal struggle between good versus evil represented once again by the ancestors of the vampire-slaying Belmont family against the endlessly resurrected Dracula and his legion of dominions still resonates strongly.
The gameplay should also be instantly recognizable and strike a chord with long-time followers of the series. The basic structure of the game still hasn't changed much from the old whip-twirling attacks to the "battle-the-boss-at-the-end-of-the-stage" formula. But the developers have added a few new elements to the mix.
Despite being a quick-paced action-adventure game, it's clear right from the start that Circle Of The Moon devotes much more attention to its characters and story than previous Castlevania titles (with the exception of Symphony Of The Night on the PlayStation, which follows in the same mold). The stages are also more open-ended and don't require players to go through them in a linear fashion. Areas can be explored leisurely and slowly mapped out one section at a time (similar to that of Metroid).
The most significant addition to the gameplay, however, is role-playing game-style elements like attribute building, equipment finding, and inventory management. Players gain experience points by defeating enemies and eventually building up higher stats once new levels are attained. Armor ratings are improved by finding breastplates and magical bracelets. The most unique part of the game is how the main weapon upgrades are handled through what Konami dubs the Dual Setup System (or DSS for short). Throughout the game, players can randomly obtain magical cards of different properties from certain defeated enemies. By activating different pairs of card combinations in a collection, all kinds of special abilities from weapon enhancements to protective barriers can be enabled. In all, over 80 different card combinations are possible and the amount of variety is mind boggling.
Technically, there isnt much to complain about. The game is decent in length. The controls are dead-on and everything looks and sounds great. The only minor snafu appears to be the overly "dark" graphics. Ordinarily, this would seem richly appropriate, but with the notorious shady screen of the Game Boy Advance, some stages in the game are outright indistinguishable without abundant lighting.
In the end, there werent many moments in Circle Of The Moon that really blew me away. Some of the new additions to the gameplay were interesting, but not entirely fascinating either. There are virtually no missteps overall, but thats not surprising when the game isnt exactly stretching its gameplay boundaries. I will say that there was enough here to refresh the Castlevania formula to the degree that it reigned in my attention and kept me playing for weeks on end. The game was solid, addictive, and incredibly likable. However, in the greater scheme of things, Circle Of The Moon is a small step for the Game Boy Advance, and nowhere near a giant leap for videogames.
By now, most Game Boy Advance owners should be comfortable with (or at least accepting of) reliving the past with the majority of releases 'revisioning' or outright porting the biggest hits of generations past. Konami helps this case of initial deja vu in its dark (in tone and luminance) Castlevania: Circle Of The Moonby mixing venerable 16-bit gameplay with an entirely new adventure.
Memories of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night should come rushing back to players as they fight through the minions of the undead while exploring the labyrinthine castle. What Circle Of The Moon lacks in originality, it almost redeems itself with excellent controls and a high level of refinement throughout. The bosses are imaginative and well designed, and challenge the player to use all the tricks they know in slug matches. I found the RPG elements in the game to be a bit hit or miss. Leveling up occurred frequently, but the resulting improvement was so slight that it was difficult to get excited about.
As Chi mentioned, the game includes a card system where players can combine cards they find to generate special abilities. I really enjoyed interacting with these abilities because Konami did a great job creating them. A number of them are really fun to play with (the sword effects are great) and the majority are useful, even if only for a few moments in a boss fight. The only flaw with the cards is the haphazard way that they are distributed. Cards are random rewards for killing monsters that occur rather infrequently. Individual cards are distributed across the game to specific monsters in specific locations. So if you pass over a part of a dungeon and happen to not kill the correct enemy (or kill the correct enemy a few times and the card never appears), you would have just missed a card but without any indication. Finding all the cards is frustrating even with a hint guide because of this random factor—you have to kill the same enemy over and over again and just wait for the lucky item to pop out. Finding all the cards without the help of a hint book requires an amount of diligence and patience that might be more appropriate for someone thrown into solitary confinement. It is a shame, because the card system could have been a great hook for the game—I certainly would have played more frequently if the cards were distributed via exploration (like other power ups in the game) or were rewards for knocking out the bosses.
Other than that, there's not much to talk about with Circle Of The Moon. Solid and fun to play, but with both feet solidly planted in the past. Those who miss this style of play should definitely pick up the game, but those waiting for an innovative title to cross the handheld are forced to wait a little longer.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood, Mild Violence
For parents, this game isnt exactly riddled with gratuitous violence, sex, and profanity. However, with all the devilish monsters, the horror theme may be too intense for younger players. If your kid doesnt like scary movies, this may not be the ideal title for them.
It is also strongly recommended that all gamers purchase a Game Boy Advance light to compensate for the sometimes-intense "darkness" in the game.
Long-time fans of the Castlevania series will adore Circle Of The Moon. It is highly regarded as the finest launch title of the Game Boy Advance and a notable entry in the franchise.
Fans of old-school "platform" games will also enjoy the many hours of classic and semi-updated gameplay that Circle Of The Moon offers.
For fans of cutting-edge 3-D graphics games, this probably isnt what you are looking for. The bitmapped graphics are good, but not a technical or artistic marvel.