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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon – GBA

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon – GBA

Castlevania: Circle of the MoonPlatform:  Game Boy Advance

Release Date (NA):  June 11th, 2001

Developer:  Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (KCEK)

Publisher:  Konami

Genre:  Action/Adventure, RPG

Nerd Rating:  7.5 out of 10



After taking a partially intentional and partially unintentional break from my relentless pursuit to play every Castlevania game, I’m back on track and starting with the oldest domestic entry that I haven’t yet reviewed, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.  Circle of the Moon kicks off a trilogy of games developed for the Game Boy Advance and was one of the launch titles upon the GBA’s release.  The third game in Castlevania’s stint on the handheld, Aria of Sorrow, may be most often cited by critics as the best of the three, but Circle of the Moon clearly remains a fan favorite (of the entire series by some accounts) and is regularly described as the one installment that most closely resembles the universally lauded Symphony of the Night.

Don’t get me wrong, Circle of the Moon isn’t quite Symphony of the Night 2, but it did set the precedent that most other handheld iterations would follow and continues to embody the concepts behind the “Metroidvania” genre.  It’s a lengthy and in depth affair with just the right sprinkle of RPG elements.  However, a few flaws keep this one from getting a solid 8 from me, particularly the confusing nature of obtaining items and some immensely frustrating battle sequences.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Circle of the Moon takes a cue from the N64 installments with its various “were-animals.” Besides werewolves, it’s got were-panthers, were-jaguars, were-horses, and were-bears.

Let it also be known that Circle of the Moon is damn hard, so I have absolutely no reservations about employing the use of my trusty GameShark SP.  I didn’t, however, use the enhancer to beef up my attributes or fill my inventory with powerful items prematurely.  Instead, I gave myself infinite health, infinite hearts, and infinite magic.  I also experienced roughly half of the game on the GBA SP unit itself and later moved to the Game Boy Player for the second half.  (For those who don’t know or haven’t yet read any of my other material, the Game Boy Player is an add-on for the GameCube that makes it possible to play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and GBA games on one’s TV, not unlike the Super Game Boy unit for the SNES.)  I enjoyed playing substantial parts of the same game in these two different ways, mainly because it gave me an opportunity to really separate the device from the game itself.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Are you keeping up with the original Castlevania continuity?  I must confess that my own internal timeline of events has gotten fuzzy after digging into the Lords of Shadow trilogy, though I do still enjoy piecing together the extensive history of the Belmont clan’s struggle against Dracula.  In Circle of the Moon, our story takes place during the 19th century, during a time when the Belmonts were conspicuously absent from vampire slaying.  The cancelled Dreamcast game Castlevania: Resurrection would’ve explained the family’s departure in more detailed terms, but alas, it was a story never to be told.  Anyway, our story starts off in 1830 and has little connection with the rest of the series.  Officially, I think Circle of the Moon has been stricken from Konami’s Castlevania canon, probably because of this very lack of connection.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon


Our three main protagonists are Morris Baldwin (not to be confused with the Morris family (Quincy, John, and Jonathan) from Bloodlines and Portrait of Ruin), Hugh Baldwin, and Morris’ ward, Nathan Graves.  Nathan’s parents died a while back and Morris took him under his wing, training him in the art of killing monsters and endowing him with the “Hunter Whip.”  Hugh is a bit jealous and his tension with both Nathan and his father is evident.  A “woman” known as Camilla (of Castlevania II fame) is in the process of resurrecting Dracula when Morris and his crew charge in to halt the ritual.  The two fiends react in kind, kidnapping Morris and destroying the floor beneath the others.  Nathan and Hugh fall down  a long shaft into the catacombs beneath Dracula’s castle.  The impetuous Hugh, eager to prove his worth, charges ahead.  Meanwhile, Camilla and Dracula make preparations to use Morris’ soul to bring Dracula up to his full strength.  Nathan, worried about his adoptive father and confused by the growing darkness in his companion, carefully begins making his way through the castle.

And so the game begins.  The comparison with Symphony of the Night is apt; gameplay remains rather identical.  Nathan jumps around platforms, explores accessible areas, whips the hell out of monsters, and collects any useful items laying around.  There’s a great deal of freedom, though the player will usually find that after going in one direction long enough, they reach an impassible point such as a ledge that’s too high to jump on or an immovable object blocking the way.  Eventually the player will stumble across a boss, afterwards receiving an important item that gives Nathan an appropriate ability to surmount one of the obstacles and then make more progress.  It isn’t “linear” in the strictest sense of moving in a straight line, but it does require that certain tasks be completed before others.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

One of several types of obstructions. In this case, Nathan must possess the ability to burst through this block.

Ultimately this formula proves to be a lot of fun.  Between the platforming elements, combat, item collection, and exploration, there’s hardly a dull moment for the first three quarters or so of the game.  Sometimes it can seem as if there’s absolutely nowhere left to go, but if nothing else, there is always that one spot that leads to something that can then unlock other parts of the castle.  The nature of the map leads to a ton of backtracking, and although it can get tedious as the end of the game approaches, jaunting around the castle stays fun for the most part.

In addition to collecting the really important items that allow Nathan to access new parts of Dracula’s castle (such as the ability to double jump, move heavy objects, and smash obstructive rocks), Circle of the Moon also features a rudimentary inventory system.  It isn’t as elaborate as Symphony of the Nightbut I happen to think that simplicity behooves this aspect of the game.  Nathan is restricted to using the “Hunter Whip” as his weapon, though all kinds of other stuff can be found along the way.  Armor and other trinkets that improve various stats are most common, but the most interesting feature is the DSS Cards.  These cards are divided into 2 groups.  Nathan can equip one card from each group to produce a special powerup, the duration of which is determined by his magic meter.  There are several cards and combinations to try out with all sorts of interesting benefits.  The sheer number is difficult to keep track of and perhaps borderlines on overkill, but the idea is intriguing and it would’ve been nice to see it in future games.

The inventory system is small enough for the player to get to know well, a facet much appreciated by yours truly.  My main complaint concerns the acquisition of said items.  The really important stuff is tucked away behind bosses, but everything else is held by enemies, and they don’t always give up the good stuff easily.  Without an in-game store, equipping oneself properly can be a real hassle, and what’s worse is that the player may not even know it!   It’s perfectly conceivable that the player may not even realize that it’s necessary to go around killing monsters for the express purpose of getting bigger and better digs.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

DSS Cards!

Combat is straightforward.  Nathan uses his whip much like his predecessors except for the new DSS Cards, which have various effects depending on their combinations.  For example, combinations with the Mercury Card yield a variety of whips, those of the Jupiter Card surround Nathan with a sort of offensive or defensive barrier, Mars Card combinations bestow different weapons on our hero, and so on.  These combinations are fun to play with and some are truly useful in specific situations; the only problem is how haphazard the process of collecting cards is.  Much like Symphony of the Nightthere’s a complex system determining how much damage is taken, including different types of damage (fire, lightning, poison, holy, etc.) which are either stronger or weaker towards certain types of enemies.  Although it isn’t necessary to completely understand all of the variables at work, it can make for a richer and more rewarding experience for the astute player.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

A proud and rare moment.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

More clock stuff!

As the game wears on, the enemies take a huge leap forward in terms of difficulty, to a degree that’s downright frustrating.  Some later foes and bosses and have inordinately large numbers of hit points and equally devastating attacks.  Dispatching these fellows can be a real pain, even with my infinite hearts, magic, and health cheats activated.  I can only imagine how miserable an un-enhanced Nathan would be in these situations; the last quarter of the game reminds me very much of the unrelenting difficulty of SotN‘s inverted castle.  Two more issues compound the problem: how far Nathan is thrown after being hit and the inability to do anything when cursed.  Nathan is flung great distances when hurt, sometimes making progress a slow and arduous affair.  In other games, being “cursed” usually meant the inability to use one’s whip, but subweapons still worked.  In Circle of the Moon, it’s impossible to attack with either weapon and anti-curse potions aren’t exactly in abundance.  I found this aspect beyond maddening.

These issues aren’t insignificant and they do add a certain annoyance factor to gameplay, but the entire ordeal is still fun to play for the most part.  The ultra-challenging portions of Circle of the Moon drag out a bit too long for my liking, but I suppose the same can be said for many other Castlevania installments from the action-RPG vein.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Another great looking but exceedingly frustrating boss, the Dragon Zombie (shouldn’t it be zombies?)

On to the graphics!  The GBA, in my opinion, posses some excellent graphics in the handheld world, especially compared to its predecessors.  Being a launch title, Circle of the Moon didn’t have the chance to benefit from later advancements, but, as a launch title, it was also designed to show off just how capable the new GBA was.  In a word, the graphics are great, and again reminiscent of Symphony of the Night.  Plenty of different environments abound; there’s an ample amount of scenery within and underneath the castle.  Backgrounds are full of ornamentation and detail and do a fine job of conveying a sort of decaying opulence that one would perhaps associate with Dracula’s residence.

The enemies are, of course, the best part.  The detail and variety is scaled back from the likes of SotN, but plenty of monsters can be found roaming the castle.  Sprites may be tiny, but they perfectly capture the grotesqueness and creativity one would expect from a Castlevania game.  One interesting happening is the reuse of certain foes.  Many times an earlier enemy with a palette swap will reappear as a completely different creature.  It’s mildly confusing at first, and likely done due to space constraints, but thankfully it isn’t overused to the point of distraction.  Highlights include the Cerberus, Death’s final form, and Dracula’s final form.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

The optional area of the castle known as the Battle Arena pits Nathan against the worst of the worst that Dracula has to offer, including the “Devil.”

I mentioned earlier that I spent a lot of time with Circle of the Moon on both the GBA SP and on the TV thanks to the GameCube’s Game Boy Player, and I was intrigued by the differences. Circle of the Moon is perfectly playable on the GBA SP.  Although originally released alongside the original GBA, I would surely hate to experience a lengthy game like this on such a dark screen, but that’s why we have the nicely backlit SP.  Anyway, the details and intricacies are all perfectly discernible on the small screen.  The control layout is sufficient and overall the experience is without fault.  The only remote hindrance is the subdued color scheme and resulting darkness on the small screen.  It isn’t impossible to see, but a slight bump in brightness would really help the graphics shine that much more, especially in areas of the game where the background is already dark to begin with.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Extremely impressive graphics on the handheld become outright amazing on the TV.

Having no issue with the gameplay on the SP (other than the small size which obviously can’t be helped), I was pleasantly surprised to see what a difference a larger screen made when I used the Game Boy Player.  Even with the tiny graphics blown up to 10 times their normal size, there’s no marked distortion and the exquisite detail is perfectly preserved, I daresay even enhanced.  With the game’s new found brightness on the TV, the elaborate backgrounds are even more noticeable.  If anything, seeing the graphics on a much larger screen made me appreciate how amazing the artwork is even more than before.  And might I add that it’s much more enjoyable to play such a long game with the comfort of a TV and GameCube controller at hand.

Since 1997, Castlevania fans everywhere have been waiting for another Symphony of the Night.  Is Circle of the Moon the closest we get?  I can’t say for sure since I’ve still got a handful of games yet to play, but as it is, it does manage to come pretty close.  Portrait of Ruin probably comes closest to fully realizing SotN’s concept in an updated form, though Circle of the Moon does retain the general feel and several of the core mechanics, yet it also lacks a good deal of the complexity and variability of the former.  This could be good or bad depending on your perspective; I happen to think that Circle of the Moon does a fine job of capturing the essence of what makes SotN so special while standing on its own at the same time.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

The Dark Lord himself.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon has turned out to be one of my favorite experiences in the series, even with its shortcomings.  Fans of both Castlevania and the Metroidvania style of play in general won’t be able to resist Circle of the Moon’s enthralling nature.  It has an amazing degree of depth considering handheld games of the time and stands as an appreciable achievement in its own right.  I really enjoy the elements of exploration and customization, while at the same time having some of the more complex aspects toned down for a simpler overall experience.  The DSS system is a welcome addition and it’s a shame that it hasn’t made it into any other games since.  Still, Circle of the Moon has me excited to soon delve into the remaining GBA installments!

Reviewed by The Cubist

Written by The Cubist

The Cubist

Co-founder, Head Author, & Site Technician

Find out what these ratings mean and how I rate video games.

I collect as much video gaming paraphernalia as I can get my hands on, especially when it comes to hardware. With over 40 systems including oldies like the ColecoVision and Intellivision, obscurities like the CD-i and 3DO, and the latest and greatest including the Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, and PS Vita, I get easily overwhelmed. Most of the time you can find me firmly nestled sometime between 1985 and 1995 when it comes to my games of choice, but I’m also having a great time seeing what the 8th generation has to offer.

Currently in love with: Mortal Kombat

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  1. Pingback: Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance - GBA - Nerd Bacon Reviews

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