Castlevania: Circle of the Moon | A Review in 2021

The era of Castlevania I’m usually most excited about is from Rondo of Blood until everything started going 3D for some reason; but I’ve always been more of a casual fan so not surprisingly I missed out on just about all the handheld titles. So, the mostly spoiled surprise of the Castlevania Advance collection going to Switch was an instant purchase for me; I was more than happy to dive into an era of 2D Castlevania I completely missed in a neat little package just in time for Halloween. Sure, I could have been loading these up in emulators or a flash cart but that isn’t nearly as engaging sometimes, but that it is a whole other article for a whole other time. 

Also let’s get it out of the way, if you’ve played the other recent Castlevania collections you know exactly what to expect here–a small collection of related games with a couple of bonuses and grade A emulation. M2 once again did a fantastic job getting everything running like a top and adding in some QOL improvements. This also isn’t an article that is going to do a 1:1 comparison for emulation accuracy– but I can tell you things run wonderfully, the sound is amazing, and the graphics look fantastic. 

Since it is called the Advance collection you can probably guess it only includes the Castlevania titles originally on the Game Boy Advance, and that would make sense but for some reason they also included Dracula X that was originally on the Super Nintendo. My assumption is to make this collection feel more in line with the previous Anniversary collection, which they didn’t include Dracula X in oddly enough. But Dracula X in context of this collection feels shoehorned in and doesn’t actually add that much value in my opinion; it sticks out like a sore thumb since it doesn’t play like the other three games at all and isn’t nearly as good as the worst of this collection. I almost would have rather the collection be a few bucks cheaper and left it off–though I guess if the 3 games would have still cost $20 I’m fine that it is here. I’m personally not a huge fan of the game in general so I’m a little biased, Dracula X on SNES just always felt clunky to me and a port of Rondo of blood deserved better. 

Okay but seriously time to talk about Circle of the Moon…

So now on to the actual main topic of this article, since at the time of writing this it is the only one I have completed, Circle of the Moon. I may still write something on the other two games but I wanted to collect my thoughts on CotM before I forget them and before October is finished. 

Circle of the Moon originally released on June 11th 2001 making it over 20 years old as of this new release; that is the same time that the Game Boy Advance released, making it a launch title. Despite being quite an impressive game for launch on the handheld it did have some fundamental issues–such as being way too dark for the GBA non-backlit screen. But it sold like crazy and reviewed well–it was often compared to Symphony of the Night in terms of quality and no matter if you agree with that or not it is almost impossible to not make the comparison since it was the first since SotN to use that same gameplay style. 

Much like Symphony of the Night this entry has a sprawling map that is blocked off by random obstacles, blockades and locked doors. Most of the solutions for these will come by obtaining a new ability in some hidden room or after a boss fight. So you’ll be constantly backtracking to get to a new area that was previously inaccessible using that new ability to get through it and filling out the map. You’ll also be gaining experience points and grabbing random pieces of armor the whole time so you can level up and gain better stats, adding a little RPG flair to the exploration and combat action. Okay yes, it is a “Metroidvania”, there I said it. We’ll come back to more of that later. 

In this Castlevania you play as Nathan Graves who, like in many other Castlevania games, shows up to a castle to keep Dracula from returning to full power. You arrive with your master named Morris and fellow student Hugh who is Morris’ son. The usual nonsense happens and you and Hugh are separated from your Master/Father; of course it would make too much sense to stick together and take on the challenges of the castle as a team so you immediately split up. 

Nathan Graves despite not being a Belmont still fights like one, and by that I mean you once again use the whip for all your vampire killing action. It mostly behaves like every other whip in the series where you can throw it out directly in front of you or do the same while jumping and crouching but I’m honestly surprised there is no option for attacking in any of the other directions or an angle, something that was already established in previous titles over 10 years ago. You can however hold down the attack button and spin the whip, but that attack is almost pointless in 99% of situations since it does so little damage. As an example if you current attack is 12 you’re likely going to do 1 to 2 with the spin attack; great for clearing a cluster of Ectoplasm bad for basically anything else. 

Nathan can also do a slide kick of sorts across the floor which is mostly just useful for getting through narrow places and you also have your usual assortment of sub weapons. Sub weapons behave the exact same way they have in previous Castlevania games–you collect hearts by breaking candles and those are your ammo count for the sub weapon currently in your possession. I definitely preferred the holy water in this one, it made quick work of most enemies. 

You also have something called the DSS or Duel Set-Up System, which is just an overly complicated way to give you a magic system–I have a few problems with Circle of the Moon and the DSS is one of them. Basically you have two rows of cards that you can collect and matching them up in the menu gives you either a big attack or more of an augmentation which can be defensive or aggressive. The big room clearing attacks remind me of the item crashes of Rondo of Blood; after selecting the right two cards you press the left shoulder button and after a half circle on the d-pad Nathan leaps into the air and goes super saiyan for a moment while the room fills with something like lightening. The other options are something like having two fireballs circle around you at all times, which is what I generally had turned on through most of the game. Your magic is limited though so you can’t just use the big crashes all the time, but you can just leave the defensive ones on without any issue as they drain very little magic to turn on and then don’t drain it constantly. 

The problem with the DSS is how you find those cards. They aren’t hiding in secret rooms or at the end of a boss battle, they are completely random. Okay not completely random, they do drop from specific enemies, but you have no way of knowing which enemies drop which cards and the drop is all a game of chance. You can of course boost your luck stat by equipping certain items (also completely random drops) and by grinding to level up but when you don’t even know which enemy drops an already unknown card it is kind of a futile endeavor. Oh that’s right, they are all unknown until you stumble onto them and what they do is unknown until you make a correct pairing and activate it. 

At one point towards the end of the game I decided to just look up what cards might be good ones to have and just because I hadn’t used any that much yet. One of the more useful cards was dropped by one enemy that appeared in two hallways only AFTER defeating a certain boss. That drop is crazy rare too, I was finding people saying they tried for over two hours to get one; that is just a broken mess of a system if I have ever heard of one. 

My other main problem with Circle of the Moon is the level progression. During my play I had a few sticky spots but it was nothing more than needing to gain one, maybe two more levels and it didn’t long to achieve that. Usually if I just noticed I was struggling in a hallway I decided to look at my map, see what likely hidden room I missed and by time I got there and back I was plenty strong enough to progress. But about 3/4 of the way through that just wasn’t possible, I had hit a brick wall. I wasn’t necessarily struggling with the enemies, but they were knocking a large amount of health off of me so my room for mistakes kept getting ridiculously smaller as I went forward. I was already topped off with the armor I had so I had the choice of either looking for new armor like my DSS experience or grinding until I leveled up. Opting for the second one I began to just wander down the same halls until I leveled up enough and I spent a huge amount of time doing that, I lost track of how long even. 

Not the worst situation, I generally have no problem grinding for a few levels in this style–it is way more engaging being action based then needing to do that in a turn based RPG–but this was kind of silly after a bit. What earlier was a moment to pause and re-strategize suddenly became a chore; the game has just had a spike that killed all momentum. I’m sure by now someone is thinking how I just need to “git gud” and fine I’ve never claimed to be some pro gamer, but I know when things stall out and become less fun in what is probably a problematic way. 

But after that moment of frustration the rest of the game leveled back out, mostly because I was now at the endgame, there wasn’t much to do from there. But even the final fight with Dracula (I wouldn’t consider that a spoiler) felt easy in comparison to this little stretch. It was a weird hiccup in pacing, in the difficulty curve–this game has a lot of those. 

Seriously Circle of the Moon is by all means a wonderful game kind of brought down by a case of hiccups, and drinking mustard while upside down won’t fix it. Nathan also unfortunately controls on the stiffer side, especially when once again comparing to Symphony of the Night. It isn’t anything too terrible, in fact I don’t even know to describe it any further, and I adjusted to it just fine–really only noticing again against some of the larger enemies and bosses. I’m sure some of it has to do with the inability to double jump or run until unlocked and you have no dodge/back dash. I’d also argue that the Castle layout doesn’t flow very well, not Harmony of Dissonance bad (spoiler for later writings), but I definitely felt lost a number of times and extra thanks to very “samey” environments, and the map not marking anything, not even just doors unlocked or locked. You also need those usual power ups to get through the blockades in the level so you can reach other parts of the castle–they aren’t the greatest. Usual suspects are present, double jump like I mentioned, another jump which is almost flying, some strong attack that breaks stuff, etc; I’m not sure why running is gated off to a power up. I did have to laugh that one is just the ability to move boxes as well, which fits into something like a classic Zelda game rather than a Castlevania game. 

I mentioned there were issues with the game being too dark on the unlit GBA screen–looking back at past reviews a lot of people complained about the art being too gray and the sprites not having enough detail; I can kind of see that especially in context of that screen. But now on the 4:3 or pixel perfect those pixels are sharp and the colors really stand out on a modern TV; so if the complaint was valid in 2001 it really isn’t as valid now. Things are a bit gray and don’t have a lot of variety and it isn’t the best sprite work on a. character I’ve seen but overall the art direction is solid and it from start to finish feels like Castlevania. 

Music and audio design in general is awesome too, I don’t think that will be shocking to most. Taro Kudo, who composed on Super Castlevania IV returned as composer for this entry and while not as atmospheric as Castlevania IV it does have that contrasting high energy monstrous boss music against romantic era compositions.  There are even simulated harpsichord and stringed instruments in a few tracks mixed with that more rock influenced video game soundtrack style. It can be very typical to a video game but it can also be very symphonic. A great track is Awake which appears early on in the game but you’ll be hearing it a lot since it plays in a very central part of the map.

As far as the rest of the gameplay goes–the enemies and their designs, the secondary weapons, the power ups you find–are all very Castlevania so no real surprises here. Enemies and bosses are well designed either going for the spooky and disgusting horror movie vibe, lots of skeleton based things, or getting inspiration from mythology and folk lore. If you’ve played a Castlevania game you’ll see some familiar creatures too, like Medusa Heads or the Harpy, keeping a nice consistency in the series. There are a few in between that are less interesting and coincidentally just kind of frustrating; the various forms of walking Armor for example. They are kind of redundant, mostly just changing color outside of a different weapon, and by the end of the game they are a bit overpowered and damage sponges. Bosses are a bit scattered with the first half being kind of forgettable and the two most interesting bosses design wise being very static. Adramalech is this crazy green goat chained to a wall with lots of leather straps; a very futuristic industrial vibe that doesn’t fit in with the game at all–but they sure are cool looking. But the boss fight sucks, they never move and you mostly get smacked around by purple bubbles and flying skulls. Similarly there is the Dragon Zombie which is as cool as it sounds, but they just kind of shuffle around and of course there are various fire attacks. All cool bosses in some way or another though, just not the part that will make the game unforgettable. 

Overall I liked Circle of the Moon, and I am glad I finally got around to playing it. This probably isn’t the one I’ll come back to multiple times but my frustrations with it, those hiccups, faded after I was done playing it for a bit so it isn’t completely unlikely. If you’re a Castlevania fan especially of this style and you’ve never played it you really should. If on the other hand you’re more of a casual fan you probably won’t regret pushing this one to the back of the list or skipping it. My only other other word of caution towards buying it is this is digital only deal right now, and you may want to wait to see if a physical version is on the horizon–if you care about that sort of thing. If you have a Game Boy Advance or a Game Boy Player a loose cart isn’t a bad option either, you can probably get it for under $30, just make sure it isn’t a fake. The entire collection is currently up for sale on the Nintendo e-Shop for $19.99, consider giving it a purchase for some Halloween gaming.

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