Review by Achilles Heel

"I think the hero's constipated. Where're those laxative Life Savers I had a few days ago...?"

It’s been a while since a game has actually completely enveloped me, and not let go. The source of the problem is most likely my buying habits; getting one game per week doesn’t lend well to spending quality time with each one, unfortunately, and I’ve been feeling a bit ... Disillusioned. I’d been anxiously awaiting the Game Boy Advance’s release, as the SNES is my favorite system ever, and GBA was supposed to have about the same genres of games. One genre’s return that I anxiously awaited was the 2D side-scroller; in recent days, picking have been slim. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, from what I’d heard, was exactly what I wanted (and maybe needed). And was it? Most certainly.

Story: 5/10
Ten years ago, Dracula was defeated and forced back to his grave by Morris Baldwin and Nathan Graves’s parents. Unfortunately, both of Nathan’s parents perished in the conflict, so Nathan apprentices to Morris with his son, Hugh. Hugh is very jealous of Nathan, since his father decided to give Nathan the fabled Hunter Whip instead of him. Dracula has not been quiet in his grave, however: his evil (yet beautiful) minion Camilla is preparing the chants to revive him. Morris and his apprentices rush to the scene, but Dracula is awakened moments before they arrive. The evil vampire destroys the floor beneath Hugh and Nathan, separating them from their master, and they go their separate ways to save him.

The story really isn’t anything special. Out of the few plots twists there are, none succeed in being particularly surprising. I get the feeling that this is just a bare-boned excuse for the game, and that’s probably true. Still, it was enough to make me feel involved enough to want to save Morris and defeat Dracula.

Gameplay: 9.6/10
Circle of the Moon is, at heart, a classic Castlevania game. It consists of mainly jumping and using the Hunter Whip on a 2D plane to smack the hell out of Drac’s minions. Your traditional subweapons are used, such as the dagger, cross (it is not a crucifix!), and ax, using hearts like before. However, while that gameplay is what made Castlevania the series it is today (ignoring the awful N64 editions), there’s more to it. CotM is an Action/RPG; by defeating enemies, you gain experience points, and become more powerful. Also, you can equip armor on your body and arms dropped by enemies. Enemies also drop DSS cards, which opens up a whole new way to play Castlevania.

The DSS system has 2 different sets of cards, 10 in each: action cards and attribute cards. Action cards give you things such as swords, or summons. For example, using the sword action card with the fire attribute card gives you a fire sword! A summon is a particularly interesting magical item: by doing a specific button combination, you can “summon” mythical creatures to give huge amounts of damage to your enemies. Since all the action cards can be used with all of the attribute cards, you’ve got 100 different possible combinations! Of course, some combos are practically useless, but most of them are great.

There are no true “levels” in CotM; there are areas, but the whole castle is one huge level. It’s completely seamless; there are no load times whatsoever. At the end of each “area” is a boss, based on a mythical creature (such as Cerberus, the three-headed dog). After being defeat, they give you an ability such as kick boots, and the roc wing (which lets you practically fly!). As you gain more abilities, more of the castle becomes available for exploration. This isn’t to the level of say, Donkey Kong 64, where once you gain an new ability, you have to go back to find specific items to continue, but it’s a good idea to go back. In most of the secret rooms are HP and MP upgrades, so in order to become completely powered up, it’s necessary to go back through the areas.

There is also an additional “Battle Arena”; here, you are drained of all MP, and have to go through over ten extremely difficult rooms with harder enemies. However, if it is defeated, you get the Shining Armor, one of the best items to equip in the game. The Battle Arena is purely optional, but it’s a good idea to go through it, like finding the secret rooms.

There are five different “modes” in CotM; once you beat the game the first time through in “VampireKiller” (the default), you open up Magician mode. Magician mode is exactly that: your magic abilities are stronger, but you’re fairly weak physically. Once Magician mode is defeated, Fighter mode is opened, in which you cannot use magic, but physical attacks are powered up. Fighter Mode leads to Shooter Mode, in which you’re very weak, but acquisition of two daggers allows you to fire homing daggers! Finally, Shooter Mode leads to Thief Mode. In Thief Mode, Nathan is also very weak, but his Luck statistic is very high. Now, he can more easily get items from enemies.

The one tiny problem in CotM is that healing items are extremely hard to come by. Enemies dropping them appear to be extremely stingy; even with an extremely high Luck level, you’ll only get two or three potions in thirty minutes of hard battling. Save points, which refill your health and MP, become the only spots of rejuvenation, unless you use an extremely slow DSS combo or a summon using a very rare DSS card. Still, this is a minor problem, and really doesn’t make a huge impact on the gameplay.

Control: 9.8/10
Utilizing all four of the GBA’s buttons, the two face buttons jump and whip, and the shoulder buttons turn on/off DSS mode and do your special abilities. Since the face buttons are used the most, and it’s quite simple, my hands never hurt like some other games (*coughTHPS2cough*). The one problem people have had is summoning (down, down-right, right, up-right, up, B). I have no clue why, though; it really isn’t that hard, and I can pull it off every time.

Difficulty: Hard
Castlevania games have never been easy, and CotM is the same. The lack of healing items and high difficulty of regular enemies (one of the first baddies you come across can kill you in three hits!) makes this a very hard game. Also, the Battle Arena is very difficult. Since CotM is a game with one huge “level”, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to go next, too! Circle of the Moon is a tricky game, but once you’ve played for a while, it becomes much easier.

Graphics: 4.5/10
If you’ve read anything previously about Circle of the Moon, you’ve most likely heard that it’s extremely dark, and you need a light source to see. In my personal opinion, it is dark, but many are exaggerating. If you buy a light (which you should already have), it’s much better. The real problem is the stiff animation. Nathan only has about three frames per action, so it looks like he’s constipated and needs some laxatives! However, the backgrounds are painted and look very nice, saving the graphics.

Sound: 9.8/10
If nothing else, the music in CotM is some of the best I’ve ever heard on a handheld. It’s spooky, eerie, and absolutely wonderful. I even leave it on just to hear the music! The sound effects are also good: the effect produced from whipping enemies is soothing, and there are a few grunts and yells. Enemies, when they die, put out a scream that is truly haunting!

Value: 9.3/10
The first mode is only around fifteen hours long, but the other four modes add about sixty more! Of course, some of you won’t feel like doing them, as they’re the same game but with different stats, but I think that each is a different enough experience to warrant a play through. Also, finding all of the secret rooms and MP and HP upgrades takes even longer.

Circle of the Moon is, in my opinion, the best Game Boy Advance launch game. Even though it’s got lackluster graphics and story, the other features completely override them. If you have a GBA, there’s no excuse to not buy this, unless all you want is graphics. Go buy CotM today!

+ Excellent basic gameplay and RPG elements
+ Great sound
+ Very long
- Unfulfilling story
- A bit dark
- Poor animation

Overall Score: 9/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 07/17/01, Updated 11/08/01

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