The Castlevania series is undeniably iconic at this point, with the first game releasing 33 years ago this year, and an incredibly long list of games making up its history in that time and one that continued to evolve before perfecting a formula.
On this point, the series went on to become genre defining, with games after Symphony of the Night (and ever since) that share mechanical similarities being called “Metroidvania” titles after it and Nintendo’s Metroid series.
The title we looking at today is the first in a trilogy of Castlevania titles released for the Nintendo GameBoy Advance, 2001’s Circle of the Moon.
Circle of the Moon opens with the revival of Dracula (again) by his minion, Camilla. Before his full power can be restored, Morris Baldwin and his two apprentices arrive; but before they can do anything of any use, Morris is abducted and Nathan and Hugh are thrown down into the castle depths as the minions of Dracula clearly didn’t account for weapons.
From here, players take control of the impossibly handsome Nathan, as he begins his journey through the castle to find his fellow apprentice, rescue his mentor, and put an end to Dracula. This title contains all the twists in the narrative you’ve come to expect, complete with betrayal and almost inconceivable schemes. So far, so Castlevania.
Also along the lines of expectations is the gameplay, sticking to the tried and tested sprawling map complete with impassable routes to overcome once you have the right abilities. So, you’ll be seeing tantalisingly breakable blocks and unsubtly out-of-place crates throughout that will bug you until you gain the ability to move past them.
Nathan fights with the Vampire Killer whip, which he was given by Morris, along with a set of different sub-weapons that all require hearts to use. Luckily hearts are plentiful, dropping from almost every light source in the castle. This is all business as usual for the series, but the introduction of the Dual Set-Up System (DSS) changes things slightly.
The DSS is signified by a set of tarot like cards depicting various Greek and Roman gods. These are broadly divided into ‘Action’ and ‘Attribute’ cards and can be combined in any order giving buffs to Nathan’s offensive and defensive capabilities at the cost of MP. This is initially confusing but quickly makes sense through experimentation.
The problem here is that everything it does, it does well enough, but not great comparatively. The scale of the castle is staggering and gives the impression of a large adventure, but it lacks the cohesion of layout seen in the later and earlier games. Also, the controls aren’t quite as tight either, feeling manageable but slightly jarring for the first couple of hours.
One place this title doesn’t fall down though is in the aesthetics. Visually, Circle of the Moon looks great, with highly detailed spritework on both the characters and monsters (especially the boss designs), and tremendous detail in the various locales of the castle. In fact, the only downside to this title in its original form is that the game was a little dark.
The sound on this game is incredible too, bringing not only some great music out of the GBA’s limited sound chip, but also having some satisfying and punchy sound effects to boot. Also, all of the key art for this game is gorgeous, as is the rest of this era for the series, acting as both an homage to earlier games whilst also courting slightly more anime sensibilities.
Ultimately, Circle of the Moon is an oddity, not quite reaching the heights that the remaining two GameBoy Advance titles reached, and not coming close to the legacy of Symphony of the Night. It has a decent narrative, a wonderfully large, if confusing, castle to explore, and a large amount of nice little additions like the DSS. It’s a great game, but not a great Castlevania.