Review by matt91486

"You know, the moon is only viewed as being round for approximately three days of the lunar cycle"

Other than those three days, you see the moon as a crescent, or that awkward shape in between a half moon and a full moon. But out of those twenty-eight days, Konami chose the most haunting three of all to base their latest vampire quest on. Something about a full moon, from the legends of werewolves coming out of their human hosts, to the haunting images provided by Poe’s writings, invokes a sense of fear within the human psyche that only repeated airings of Mama’s Family can induce.

Terror alone cannot make a game. That’s something that the makers of the Resident Evil clones learned the hard way. A story about vampires kidnapping your mentor (Morris Baldwin) and leaving you alone in an abyss just wouldn’t work if Konami was unable to deliver the gameplay goods as well. Thankfully they delivered it with more consistency than the U. S. Postal Service could pray for.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the spiritual sequel to the PlayStation smash hit ‘Symphony of Darkness,’ which made waves with its innovative combinations of a classic action/adventure series with role-playing elements and is widely considered to be one of the best games of all time. The first GameBoy Advance foray into the world of those who track Dracula follows this pattern, rather than the action only ideals of the Nintendo 64 incarnations.

One of the biggest ways role-playing elements are infused is with the DSS cards. These cards are collected from enemies throughout the quest, and two can be combined together to form a unique effect. These range from adding needles to the tip of your whip to forming a protective aura around your character, Nathan Graves, who is searching to find his master before Camilla can perform the rite to strengthen Dracula, so the lord of darkness can take control once again.

Hearts are also collected throughout the game. For each heart you are able to use your alternate weapon (you pick them up hidden in torches along the way) once. Since you can only hold one of these weapons (swords and axes are the most common examples), selecting the right weapon for your current situation in the game is just as important as keeping that heart meter refilled. Scattered throughout the levels, from the Machine Tower to the Audience Room, are pieces that increase the capacity of your heart meter, so you should always be searching down every path. In addition to heart pieces, there are items that increase your HP and PP, and items that give you special abilities, like the ability to double jump in mid-air, or dash along the ground to allow you to get through the levels faster. Even if you’re too lazy to look, your statistics will still be boosted from leveling up, which occurs when you get sufficient experience from defeating your foes.

Just because Castlevania: Circle of the Moon features a lot of role-playing elements does not mean that the game has entirely turned its back on its forefathers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Circle of the Moon still features the crazy side-scrolling maze action that Konami has been doling out for years. These levels and stages are filled to the brim with Dracula’s minions, traveling by land and air, attacking physically and magically, and just generally getting in your way. So you just have to make Nathan whip those pesky enemies back to the throes of hell from which they arose. Side-scrolling action at its finest is what Castlevania presents to you, so take advantage, and destroy some fools.

Arising deep from the Austrian countryside, Dracula shows his face one fateful day in 1830, for the first time in many years. Luckily the graphics of the GameBoy Advance are powerful enough to show this momentous occasion. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is easily the best looking of all of the titles that launched with the GameBoy Advance, and it is still among the graphical elite of the portable console a year later.

The lack of backlighting capabilities really is the biggest visual flaw that Konami’s masterpiece has to overcome. Since the game is set in a gloomy setting, in a castle designed to please the vampire overlord, colors are designed to be faded and dim. Unless you have an extremely bright light source you will have trouble adequately seeing your character. In general level navigation this does not present a huge problem, but when you are faced with a barrage of enemies on screen, you had better be able to see them all.

Part of the reason while navigation is bearable regardless of the adequacy of your light source is the extremely detailed map. Pressing ‘Select’ calls up a map that outlines every room you have entered in the entire castle from the very first seconds of the game. Konami intelligently showed the map in a light electric blue against a jet black background, so the players can better see the map in poor lighting. These detailed maps also show locations of teleporters, save points, and various other important points of information, so it is always a good idea to check the map every so often just to make sure you did not miss something anywhere.

I am continually amazed at the intricacies that Konami could include on characters and items in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon using only dimmed colors. I am pretty sure that the artists invented a few new shades of gray just so they could draw Dracula’s face. You can even see individual wrinkles in character’s faces, something unheard of in a portable title. The animation is all extremely fluid, and lag is limited as much as possible. Effects of the DSS card combinations are not only deadly, but they are visually a sight to behold, especially the ones involving flaming effects. All in all, Konami’s artists had to work overtime to make Circle of the Moon look so good. And word is that Harmony of Dissonance looks even better.

Maybe there was a little wager going between the artists and music technicians at Konami. Maybe overtime pay was tripled before this game launched. But, whatever the case, Konami’s audio is just as good as the graphics in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.

The music is this masterful game is absolutely insane. Have you ever heard a full orchestra on a GameBoy cart? I did not think so. And with these impressive speakers that Nintendo built in to their console, the sound clarity is never better than ever. Songs change frequently, and each stage has their own fully orchestral theme that relays the feel of the levels and really add to the atmosphere of the game. At least the real kicker is that every single one of the songs, even though there is an extensive variety, sounds great. The songs are even somewhat complex (another rarity in portable games), and well paced.

The sound effects are not quite up to the high standards that the music set for them, but they are still quite good indeed. More variety in the sounds of battle would have been a nice touch, but the crack of the whip and the cry of a fallen foe still sends shivers up my spine. What would have been a great addition would have been different noises for the whip when various DSS cards were activated, so you could better distinguish exactly what power you were using at a given time.

Still, even with those omissions the sound effects in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon are among the elite on the system. The menu noises never great on you, and add subtle artistic touches to navigating even the most redundant of them all. The other sound effects all do great jobs presenting their amazing details as well. Maybe sometime down the road we can even get some quality voice acting in a Castlevania game, to see if Hugh Baldwin’s voice is as grating as I imagined it.

I have already told you that this Castlevania contains the best music of any portable game ever. But, even more impressive, Circle of the Moon may also be the most controlling GameBoy game around. Nathan responds instantly to your commands, and navigating these complex mazes is a breeze. Konami’s button configuration is flawless, making movement, character editing, and attacking all extremely convenient, simple, and efficient, so that you have as few delays in your quest to rescue Morris and fell Dracula as possible. That company always seems to find ways to raise the bar with portable games.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon may be a frustrating, at times difficult, quest through an enormous castle. But despite all of this, it manages to be one of the more fun GameBoy Advance titles around. The puzzles within the maze tend to be of the sort where the solution is painfully obvious, but you just get tunnel vision and cannot locate the solution for a while. They are not actually that difficult at the core, but they do a nice job of tricking you and playing with your emotions. So, when you make it past one of these puzzles you simultaneously pat yourself on the back for a job well done and slap yourself across the face for not seeing the solution earlier.

Puzzles withstanding, the most difficult aspect of this Castlevania has to be the boss fights. It generally takes me at least three tries to fell a boss, using the first two for some advance scouting to find attack patterns and strengths and weaknesses so that your third go round can be successful. But there have been times when I was forced to go out and level up my character extensively before I could beat a boss, sometimes as many as seven times. Other than the puzzles and boss fights, though, you shouldn’t have much problems progressing through Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, unless you miss a save point along the way, and you have to waste all of your items healing yourself instead of merely saving and being replenished for free.

Once you complete the grueling task of navigating your way through those complicated mazes and fierce boss battles, you will tell yourself that there is no way you’re going back. You may have had fun; The quest was a great time. But Konami failed to provide any incentive to play through the game. As Jewel once said “It’s been swell, sweetheart, but it’s time to run.”

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon truly is the class of the GameBoy Advance launch, and it still sits at the top of the system’s line-up much, much later. I have yet to see another game that blends two genres so different half as well, and the music and graphics are to die for on a portable console. Let Nathan Graves always fulfill his goals, and let’s pray that we all get along for the ride.

PROS
*Combines action and role-playing in one amazing package.
*The best music ever heard on a portable system.
*Impeccable control makes navigating and warring a breeze.

CONS
*A little more variety in the sound effects would have been a nice touch.
*No incentive to play through again.
*Graphics are extremely dark and dim.

SCORE SUMMARY

GAMEPLAY--9
GRAPHICS--9
MUSIC--10
SOUND--8
CONTROL--10
FUN--9
CHALLENGE--MEDIUM TO HIGH
REPLAY VALUE--LOW TO MEDIUM

OVERALL--9


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 07/17/02, Updated 07/17/02


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