Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
   Here's all most readers will need to know: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is in every way the spiritual successor to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Fans of the PlayStation game should go buy a Game Boy Advance and a copy of the game right now--that is, if they haven't already. For everyone else, however, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is one of the best 2D adventure games ever created on any platform; though a few minor flaws keep it from perfection, the title never dips beneath greatness.

   The story of Circle of the Moon (hereafter "CotM") is notable only for its complete absence of members of the Belmont family. Elder vampire hunter Morris Baldwin, his son Hugh Baldwin, and his protegé Nathan Graves, appear to stop the dark-yet-busty priestess Camilla from resurrecting Dracula. Again. The Lord of Darkness is tenacious, if nothing else. Dracula captures Morris for a strength-restoring ritual and banishes the two youths to the depths of his castle. Hugh runs off alone to save his father, leaving Nathan's fate in the hands of the player.

 All your blood is belong to me!
But enough talk -- have at you!

   The basic gameplay of CotM is similar to games in the Metroid series or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night ("SotN"). Nathan travels through a non-linear network of horizontal and vertical hallways and corridors, whipping (or otherwise dispatching) anything that gets in his way. Exploration is free-flowing, but eventually the player will find they have nowhere left to go, giving Nathan no choice but to defeat a boss character and earn a new movement ability. Armed with this new ability, the player can reach previously inaccessible areas. Repeat as necessary, uncovering secret passages along the way, until the entire castle's secrets have been unfolded. CotM's labyrinthine castle is every bit the equal of those found on non-portable system, and the absolutely necessary automap feature keeps exploration firmly under the player's control.

   CotM sharply diverges from SotN on the issue of difficulty. SotN, as wonderful as it is, is a very easy game. CotM is very not. Save spots are fewer and further between, and level ups no longer restore your HP and MP. It's not at all uncommon to die during normal exploration, even in areas thought "safe." Moreover, the difficulty of enemies in some previously defeated areas increases as the game progresses--meaning the pushover, fragile Skeletons you remember could be replaced by towering Grizzly Bears. Bosses are also very hard; most will take multiple tries to defeat. CotM isn't unnaturally hard, and any persistent gamer will find success. Just be prepared to break a sweat.

Castlevania COTM
Flaming whip in action

   Nathan's first line of attack is the standard whip and a variety of special weapons: the Dagger, the Boomerang, the ... just use the Boomerang, okay? He can enhance his power and unlock untold potential via the Dual Setup System, or DSS. With DSS, Nathan simultaneously equips an Action Card and an Attribute Card. Once he has chosen a combination, he "activates" the ability. For example, combining a whip-enhancement card with a fire-elemental card yields a fire whip, while a projectile card and a poison-elemental card yields a cloud of harmful poison gas. Cards can generate spells, swords, and even familiars. Some combinations yield more original effects, such as a rotating fireball shield, longer invincibility after being hit, or increased luck. The DSS system is versatile, original, and fun; unfortunately, it is also tragically flawed.

 We're all out of clever

   Almost universally, cards are found via random drops from enemies. Cards, understandably, are an enemy's rare item. Rare items are exceedingly rare--you could kill an enemy several hundred times and still not receive their rare item. Even by game's end, a player will likely have obtained only a small fraction of the total number of cards, especially the rarer Action cards. The cards are also balanced heavily in Action's favor; a new Action card opens up an entire world of gameplay, such as swords, spells, and more, while a new Attribute card simply means a new form of a previously known Action type. The haphazard way with which cards are distributed means it's entirely possible to play the game from start to finish without experiencing much of what it has to offer. It would have made far more sense for Action cards to have been distributed like abilities, and tied to your progress through the game. This would have made the cards more of an integral gameplay element, rather than a series of random, if interesting, power-ups.

Johnny Jump-Up's cameo appearance

   Graphically, CotM is very impressive. The animation sometimes leaves something to be desired, especially your character's walking and running animations. Your character has a surprising number of animation frames, however, many of which are not apparent until they're unlocked via the DSS System. Enemy animations range from good to surprisingly fluid. The backgrounds, though, are universally excellent, with rich, ornate graphics and multiple levels of parallax. It's true that the graphics are dark and sometimes hard to see, but given the alternative--a Castlevania game built from bright, easy-to-see colors--it's clear that Konami made the proper design decision.

   Music and sound effects are also stellar. From the moment you hear the haunting vocals of the title screen track, it's clear that the sound is a world appart from the simple chip tunes of the previous generation of Game Boy hardware. Quality original composition is matched by the return of several Castlevania classics, many for the first time. Sound effects are also digitally sampled and fit the gothic tone perfectly.

   Perhaps the most impressive thing about CotM, however, is that it needs no caveats for its handheld nature. The game stands on its own merits as a 2D adventure title indepedent of any specific platform. It is for the Game Boy Advance--all that means is you should buy one, already! It's less of a 2D renaissance, and more of a damned good game.

Review by Andrew Vestal, GIA.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
Developer KCE Kobe
Publisher Konami
Genre Action RPG
Medium Cartridge
Platform Game Boy Advance
Release Date  03.21.01
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Chu Chu Rocket box art unveiled
21 screenshots
5 high-resolution character designs / 6 monster designs / 2 wallpaper images
North American box art