#49: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
A rare misstep in an otherwise golden age for Castlevania
Initial release: 2001
Platform: Game Boy Advance
Fresh off the success of Symphony of the Night (and the failures of Castlevania Legends and the Nintendo 64 games,) Konami realized it was Symphony of the Night that was the winning formula. So they set their Kobe studio to work on a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, that little purple handheld that was to be the next generation from the venerable Game Boy.
The story opens in Austria in the year 1830, and the vampiress Camilla is performing a ritual to resurrect Dracula, eventually succeeding in reviving him, but not at full power. Just then, Morris Baldwin the vampire hunter and his two students, Hugh (his son) and Nathan (not his son) burst in. Dracula throws Hugh and Nathan down a deep pit, and the game begins from there as Hugh runs off, leaving Nathan to explore the castle by himself. He’ll go from deep catacombs to a vast chapel to marble corridors to a stinking sewer, looking for a way to rescue his teacher.
The canonicity of the game is in question; the development team themselves say it’s an AU game, and IGA says it’s not canon, but it’s also been on timelines in official media. My thinking on it is that it can be canon but with heavy retcons and a little fudging. It’s the nature of a long series, especially one that spent most of its early years not really focusing on a coherent narrative or universe.
Circle of the Moon is, in some ways, a marriage of the free-wheeling, exploration-focused Metroid-style action RPG gameplay with the stodgy controls and punishing difficulty of classic Castlevania. A lot of the things we take for granted in later Castlevania games are simply not here. There’s no shop. No money to earn, even as points. No equipment to find, only as drops from enemies. It’s in every sense a classic Castlevania with a non-linear structure. The only thing to set it apart from its earlier brethren is defeating bosses unlocks new skills.
Much like classic Castlevania, your movement speed is… limited. You’ll spend most of the first half hour walking at a glacial pace. Eventually you find the dash relic which lets you double tap the d-pad to run, and you will be running everywhere if you want to not spend hours wandering the castle. It’s not endearing.
And make no mistake: this game hates you. With so few resources to rely on, you’re at the mercy of RNGesus, and He hates you too. Item drops are low, the few potions you get are absolutely worthless, the magic system is fairly opaque, save points are placed sparingly. I could go on. The magic system, by the way, operates on cards. You basically get two rows of cards, one with the names of planets (or Roman gods, whatever) and the other with the names of mythical creatures. Combine cards from each for special effects! … If you can find the fucking things.
So much of the game is a grind. Many enemies take multiple hits to bring down, and towards the end you’ll be dealing with enemies that can take upwards of 10 hits. If you’re very, very lucky, you’ll manage to get certain card combos that can help… but you’re usually not lucky. Most cards are only dropped by certain enemies, and you basically have to look up a guide to figure out which enemy you’re looking for. And then you have to spend an hour killing them over and over before they finally drop the card. It’s madness.
But even with all this, the game is still doable. You can bypass a lot of the long, boring hallways by dashing and jumping over everything. It’s the bosses where things get tricky. Some are easier than others, but then there’s bosses like the twin zombie dragons. Or Dracula.
Let me tell you something about Dracula: he’s a dick.
The first form isn’t too bad, the standard teleporting around, throwing bats at you, whatever. You don’t even have to aim for his head this time. The second form though… the second form can lick lick lick my ass. After giving up and watching someone else do the final battle on Youtube, I was honestly shocked at how even with a nearly full set of cards, several levels over me, and plenty of healing items (all stuff he must’ve spent hours putting together) it still took a full 10 minutes. Castlevania is known for its difficulty, but this is ridiculous. I’ve dealt with some seriously impossible final bosses before, but this one takes the cake. I’d much rather go toe to toe with that secret final boss from Demon’s Crest than put up with this shit anymore.
The Dracula fight is emblematic of the game overall: bad design laid over boring design. The castle is infuriatingly nondescript; none of the areas in the game have any real character to them. The enemy roster is a few skeletons, some random things and 20 fucking types of knight. While they avoid reusing the same old Symphony of the Night sprites, unlike every 2D Castlevania game after this, I can’t say I’m terribly impressed by the enemy design. A lot of it is workmanlike at best, or cheap, poorly-animated facsimiles of Symphony of the Night sprites. Even Nathan has like 3 walk sprites.
I will say that the soundtrack is okay. It reuses a few old songs (including one of my favorites from Super Castlevania IV) and mixes them in with a few new songs, but there’s not a lot of variety. The opening track, “Awake,” is also kind of annoyingly cheery and not at all befitting the gloomy surroundings.
Ultiamtely, this game feels so aggressively simplistic in design and feel; it could honestly have worked on the Super Nintendo, as it took so little advantage of what the GBA was capable of. That’s likely due to it being a launch title, of course, but the fact is, there simply isn’t a lot here. It just feels like Konami banged this thing out to have it ready for launch. it’s a marriage of the classic style and the Metroidvania style, but it’s a match made in hell, combining the worst aspects of both.