Review by BloodGod65

"Bark at the Moon"

Back in the day of the original Playstation, Konami released a game that changed the face of the Castlevania series forever. Symphony of the Night truly brought the franchise into its own by mixing classic Castlevania mainstays with a large open-ended castle players could explore at will. The result was a critically praised cult classic which, oddly enough, was never given a true follow up. From that point on, console Castlevanias were strictly of the three dimensional type. Thankfully 2D side-scrolling Castlevania eventually found a home on Nintendo's humble little handheld, and Circle of the Moon is Konami's first venture into this brave new world of pocket vampire slaying.

The year is 1830, the setting an Austrian castle (Transylvania is so thirty years ago). The unkillable undead Count Dracula has been resurrected yet again by his faithful Camilla. But, predictably enough, a group of vampire hunters have gotten wind of this and soon burst through the castle gates. Expert hunter Morris Baldwin and son Hugh, accompanied by one Nathan Graves arrive just in time to see Dracula rise again. Dracula immediately recognizes Morris as the man who defeated him last, but dismisses Hugh and Nathan by collapsing the floor under their feet, sending them crashing to the bowels of the castle. Hugh immediately runs off, intent on saving his father but leaves Nathan behind with the typically arrogant line of “you'll just slow me down”. At this point, players will take control of Nathan and begin the quest to defeat Count Dracula.

Like most Castlevania heroes Nathan carries a whip, a weapon which is apparently the bane of all things supernatural. Though it just might be the most ridiculous and impractical weapon in video game history (with Cloud's Buster Sword a close runner up), it attacks pretty quickly and has a good range to boot. Nathan can also carry a secondary weapon such as a throwing knife, an explosive potion and a time-stopping watch among others. Secondary weapons use hearts, which can be found by smashing things in the castle. At different points through the game, Nathan can also gain new abilities that will help him traverse the castle, such as dashing, double-jumping and pushing heavy objects.

While those elements were in Symphony of the night, Nathan has a new trick that allows him to use magic in the form of DSS (Dual Setup System) cards. By combining two magic cards, one for action and another for attribute, Nathan can activate a magic spell to aid him. Action cards determine what the combination ultimately does, such as enhancing the whip attack. Attribute cards determine what added effect each combination has. For instance, combining the Mercury action card (which is for whip attacks) with the Salamander attribute card, you get a combination that causes whip attacks to add flame damage. Switch out the Salamander card for the Serpent, and the whip does ice damage. Not all DSS combinations are solely for offense. Some give Nathan a defensive ability, while others are more subtle and boost stats or have different effects, such as gaining experience points by walking. Some cards even create familiars that follow Nathan around or summons that sweep across the screen doing massive damage.

While the DSS mechanic is interesting, there are plenty of card effects that are impractical or useless (the aforementioned walking experience combination only gives out a scant few points every twenty steps or so). There is one irritating factor with the system. Cards can only be gained randomly from a single enemy type. Unfortunately the game gives no indication of what or where these enemies are, so it's largely a matter of luck to get them if you don't know what you're looking for. I suspect most people will end up back on GameFAQs searching for what enemies produce cards. And even when you've done that, you still may have to kill the same enemies over and over for hours on end until they finally drop the card.

As with Symphony of the Night there are some RPG elements sprinkled in, with Nathan leveling up by killing enemies. Leveling up has the same effect as most games in that his stats will increase, giving him more health, more mana and a stronger base attack strength. Fortunately leveling up isn't the only way to make Nathan stronger. There are all sorts of permanent powerups scattered through the castle, such as health, mana and heart boosts. Enemies can also drop random items that can be equipped, such as armor and other accessories.

Continuing on in the Symphony of the Night tradition, the castle in Circle of the Moon is a large non-linear environment players can move through however they please. Dracula's castle is comprised of many different areas that all have their own distinct look and enemies, so moving through the place rarely gets boring. But many of these areas are initially inaccessible due to artificial barriers such as crates, rocks or places that require jumps Nathan can't quite make. As mentioned before, Nathan can gain abilities which will allow him to get through these obstacles. Eventually players will also find teleport rooms, which blast Nathan to the far reaches of the castle.

Circle of the Moon makes good use of the Game Boy Advance hardware so it's an excellent looking platformer. Character and enemy sprites are nice looking and their details are crisp and clear, which makes them readily distinguishable from one another. The environments look good as well and even though the color palette is a bit drab, it still looks appropriate and well detailed. Animations are a little lackluster and sometimes don't flow into each other very well or look jerky. Enemies usually only possess a single attack animation, and shuffle back and forth to get closer to Nathan. There's a single problem area with the game during one of the boss fights. In this instance the frame rate takes a dive due to the large screen filling sprites and constant attacks.

Konami has also shoved some excellent music onto the tiny little cartridge. The songs are all fairly complicated and usually fit the area they play in. On the other hand, sound effects are a little sparse as monsters don't make much sound, but you'll hear Nathan grunt as he jumps and the crack of his whip.

After the game has been finished the first time, players will be able to jump in once more using a code that unlocks a different character type. There are several of these which alter the game just enough to justify going through it again. For instance, finishing the game once unlocks Magician mode, which lets players start the game again with all the DSS cards and high magic ability. Subsequent playthroughs unlock even more codes.

Konami may have not continued on in the 2D side-scroller vein on consoles, but Nintendo's handheld seems to be a great fit for the franchise. Circle of the Moon represents not only a successful transition to a different market, but a continuation of the Symphony of the Night formula that has become so revered in the years after its release. Good graphics, good music, rock solid gameplay and a respectable amount of replayability make this a game anyone with a love for 2D action games should pick up.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 08/10/09, Updated 07/06/10

Game Release: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (US, 06/10/01)

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