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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon: A spooky, labyrinthine adventure

The Game Boy Advance received a trilogy of Castlevania games, beginning with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon in 2001. It was a launch title for the handheld console. It was influenced by the non-linear exploration-adventure design of the PlayStation game, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Previously I had only played the NES and SNES Castlevania games. With Circle of the Moon I was struck by how the map and non-linear design reminded me of Super Metroid. As the main character, Nathan Graves, explores Dracula's castle, he acquires relics that grant him abilities. These abilities allow him to enter previously inaccessible parts of the castle. For example, a necklace allows him to double-jump, winged boots empower him to wall-jump, and the wing of a roc lets him fly.

All the parts of the castle are interconnected as a single map, rather than different areas connected by stairs, elevators, or portals. Different sections are identifiable by changing backgrounds and music. The game even shows you the name of a new area when you enter it. These helps are appreciated, as it can all seem very labyrinthine, especially when backtracking. There are a few magic portals that make it easier to traverse the castle in a hurry.

As Nathan makes his way through the castle, monsters grow increasingly difficult. They are classic zombies, skeletons, werewolves, demons, and such, as one would expect for a game about the eternal villain of Bram Stoker's imagination. Most enemies move slowly and are easily dispatched with Nathan's whip. In fact, they're too easy. I grew bored at times of the repetitive walking and whipping. Enemies began to feel like nuisances in my way.

All the secondary weapons from the older games return: the axe, holy water, cross-shaped boomerang, throwing knives, and stopwatch. Just as in those games, they aren't particularly noteworthy, given how powerful the whip is. The boomerang, as before, seems to be the best. One nice feature is that, when you pick up a new weapon, the old one falls to the ground, letting you switch right back if you prefer. This eliminates the annoyance of accidentally losing the weapon you already had and wanted to keep (the boomerang, probably).

Unlike Metroid, Circle of the Moon uses a full-blown RPG stats system, with HP, MP, XP, and stats like intelligence and luck. Whenever Nathan gets a level up, the game pauses to announce it, though no numbers are shown (they can be checked in the menu). In addition to leveling, maximum HP and MP can be increased by 10 by finding purple and blue potions, respectively. There are also items that look like Zelda's Heart Containers, increasing the number of hearts Nathan can have. Don't get too excited, though: hearts in the Castlevania series are merely ammunition for the secondary weapons. 
More interesting than the weapons is the new dual setup system (DSS) Tarot cards. Enemies infrequently drop these, with different enemies dropping different cards. Once Nathan picks one up, it is added to his collection for the rest of the game. There are two sets of ten cards. The first series is astrological: the eight planets (excluding Earth), plus Apollo and his twin sister Diana (aka Artemis). The second series is monsters: griffin, unicorn, golem, cockatrice, etc. At any given time, Nathan can equip one card of each kind. Each combination grants a different effect. Each of the 100 effects is described in the DSS menu, though only after you've tried it out for yourself! For example, Mercury + Thunderbird electrifies the whip, and each swing costs 10 MP. Uranus + Unicorn summons a unicorn to heal Nathan, at the cost of 100 MP. Venus + Serpent increases his defense by 25%. Since this is a continuous effect, his MP slowly drains for as long as it remains equipped. Messing around with the different combinations is fun. It's always exciting when an enemy drops a new card, unlocking multiple possibilities.

Each section of the castle ends with a boss fight. These can be difficult. It took me several attempts to defeat the second boss, the Necromancer. He shoots orbs at Nathan while floating around and summoning zombies and skeletons. It was during this fight that I discovered Nathan has a slide attack, activated by pressing ↓ and A, which is the jump button rather than the attack button (B). I'm surprised the game doesn't teach you this move when you start.
The game also has a story, with pop-up dialogue boxes with character profiles like an RPG. Nathan and his friend Hugh seek to thwart the resurrection of Dracula. To be honest, the story is thin. Graphically, the game offers the high-quality 16-bit pixels and backgrounds one expects on the GBA. The music is pleasingly haunting, especially the Kyrie eleison that is chanted over the title screen! Jeepers creepers!

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a fun platformer and great evolution of the older games. I was underwhelmed at first, but only because these GBA games have been so highly praised over the last twenty years. This is a solid, old-school game, and I'm enjoying it.
Grade: A
Linked Review
"While the lack of strong enemy AI is disappointing and the visuals could use some improvement, fans of the series and the "Metroidvania" genre it helped inspire will find a lot to like in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon."
— Lee Meyer, Nintendo Life, 8/10


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