Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe
U.S. Publisher: Konami
U.S. Release: June 10, 2001
Genre: Metroidvania
Format: 8-Megabyte Cartridge

Based on: "What if you were to mix the total awesomeness of Symphony of the Night with the general jankiness of Castlevania Legends? Man, that would totally cook!"

Games | Game Boy Advance | Metroidvania | Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Article by Parish | June 12, 2006

It's shocking and frankly a little depressing to think, but our humble little planet has hurtled about the sun five times since the American release of the Game Boy Advance. Specifically, June 11, 2001 was the drop date for the system -- the first handheld system that people took seriously.

And even then, most HARDCORE gamers looked at the GBA as the medium's annoying little cousin, the Sam McKinney to console gaming's Arnold Jackson. To me, though, the GBA is where handheld gaming really started to get good. (The Neo Geo Pocket Color almost deserves that honor, but its paltry handful of good games that no one ever played didn't quite revolutionize the industry like they could/should have.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, I had picked up a GBA in April 2001, shortly after the Japanese launch. I was planning to wait, honest, but then I suddenly decided to ditch my suffocatingly dull Texas existence in the hopes of carving a niche for myself in New York City; obviously, I needed some portable entertainment until I could settle down. I failed miserably at transplanting myself into NYC's biosystem, being rejected like a bad lung, but hey -- at least I had my GBA to keep me occupied as I bounced from one place to another.

I was a little ambivalent about most of the GBA's early content -- Super Mario Bros. 2 is all well and good, but thirty dollars to play it again? With my favorite character, Toad, turned into a screaming retard? Maybe not. But there was one game I snagged without hesitation: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. See, it wasn't simply the best-looking portable game ever, it also promised to do the one thing I'd been craving for four years. It was going to be another Symphony of the Night?.

As it turned out, that promise was a lie. I replayed Circle in its entirety last month, and here's the awful truth: it kinda sucks. It's really not very fun.

In fairness, though, it deserves some slack. For one thing, the credits make it appear to have been created by about eight people -- and probably not Konami's A-team at that, since it was forged in the crucible of the company's Kobe office. (Hint: all the good stuff comes from Tokyo.) More importantly, though, Circle was a sort of awkward transitional game created before developers were entirely comfortable with the notion of better-than-SNES software to go. Portable action games prior to GBA were almost uniformly awful -- NGPC's best aside -- and Circle still demonstrates a lot of 8-bit thinking. Fortunately, hero Nathan Graves doesn't have to climb any ropes like certain other portable vampire killers did, but on the whole, Circle is a little unpleasantly reminiscent of the stunningly terrible Castlevania Legends from a few years before. My guess is that there was a bit of staff in common between the two.

So... is there anything good about Circle? Sure. It offers a huge castle to explore; it's surprisingly difficult; the power-up system is deep and varied. Unfortunately (and ironically, in the truest not-Alanis-Morissette sense), those are also the worst things about the game as well. Right about the halfway point, Circle's flaws start to reveal themselves, and all the game's strengths begin to transmute into flaws. It's like alchemy, but less fun.

Everything you need to know about CotM's failures is right there on the front of the box: the artwork tries to mimic the general style of Ayami Kojima but ends up looking kinda generic. Just like the game itself. It borrows liberally from Symphony of the Night but was clearly crafted by people who didn't quite get why Symphony was so great.

The "deep and varied" DSS (Dual Setup System) power-up system, for instance. It was a well-intentioned attempt to give a whip-using hero a Alucard-worthy skill set, consisting of twenty cards which could be activated in pairs for a total of a hundred different skills. That's a good start -- but like a lot of things in Circle, it kind of fizzled out somewhere along the way.

The problem with DSS is that the cards are acquired randomly; they're dropped by enemies. And dropped very, very rarely at that. People complain about the soul-grinding in Aria and Dawn of Sorrow?, but at least that's a little more focused: with those games you do have a clear sense of which enemy will drop a given soul (hint: one per enemy), and it's possible to bump the odds in your favor by tweaking your luck stat. Not so in Circle; at no point are you given any indication of which monsters drop what.

Worse, the game doesn't even bother to explain what the various DSS combos do until you figure it out for yourself. That's easy enough when you've come across a card pairing that adjusts the power of your whip, since all you have to do is hit a bad guy while that combo is active for the explanation to show up on the menu screen. But many of the combos have more subtle effects which can be much harder to determine -- you have to let yourself take damage while your DSS is active before the game will tell you how a defensive combo works, for instance.

Trial and error: maybe not the best foundation for a game design. Especially when you have to rely on random luck to get gear and consumable items. I would really like for someone to justify as good design the fact that in my last playthrough I ended up with nearly eighty pieces of leather armor but barely had any health potions to speak of. Go on, give it a try.

And the huge castle, well, that kinda sucked too. Symphony borrowed a lot of things from Super Metroid, and one of those was thoughtfully-crafted map design with clear divisions between areas. Circle's map was a bunch of jumbled-up rooms that all kind of bled into one another, and the limited background tile set made for lots of repetition. There's a lot of ground to cover...but with all the backtracking, it quickly becomes boring. Even with the warp rooms. It wasn't until Aria that the Castlevania team said, huh, maybe bigger isn't better, and Circle suffers the worst of it.

Part of the problem is that the hero sucks when it comes to foot speed. His walk animation is detailed, but very, very slow; a very short while into the game you gain the ability to run, which is great... except that walking remains the default. But there's no use for walking -- meaning that anywhere you go, you double-tap to get there.

And that doesn't even begin to take the game to task for its horribly uneven difficulty, including the single most frustrating incarnation of Dracula ever. But I'm starting to feel kind of bad about this baptism by haterade. I enjoyed Circle back when there was nothing better to be found on a handheld system. It's just that, well, times have changed, the medium's evolved, and Circle of the Moon is a lonely little Cro-Magnon standing in a valley, watching sadly as Neanderthals taunt him with their fancy tools. Castlevania has touched the monolith, you see.

Still, thumbs up to the sheer amount of progress portable games have made in just five years. Woo.

Originally posted in Retronauts