Review by JIrish

"A higher standard of gaming"

Some games are just insanely tough acts to follow. Metal Gear Solid, for example, was widely considered the single greatest PSOne game by many (though not all), and the sequel would practically need to be bigger and badder than the first one just to avoid disappointing a now rabid fanbase. I, personally, would go so far to say that the Final Fantasy series is almost a victim of it’s own success, having created an image and even a prestige with entries 6 and 7 in the series that future games could have almost no chance of living up to. For quite a few fans of the Castlevania series, myself included, Symphony of the Night was seen as a similar pinnacle, particularly for 2D platform gaming on the very non-2D oriented PSOne. Granted, this game is certainly not the be-all, end-all of all for the long-lived series, just ask anyone who owned the stellar 8-bit and 16-bit games, but it’s still regarded as one of it’s best. A stylistic follow-up was pretty much a no-brainer on the part of Konami, but it would be long in coming.

Enter Castlevania: Circle of the Moon in 2001, the first Castlevania game for the then-launching Game Boy Advance and, yes, the game that many believed to be the first true follow up to Symphony of the Night. Obviously, there were a lot of expectations riding on this one. Did they meet them? Did it come close?

The year is 1830, and once again, as happens about every 100 years or so in this series, dark forces are conspiring to resurrect the very incarnation of evil, Dracula. This time the forces are being led by… a Muppet chicken? No, no, her may be Camilla, but instead of feathers and a clucking voice, she’s a brunette fan-service character who looks more like an expensive working girl than a disciple of evil would. Regardless, in comes Morris Baldwin, a vampire hunter who took part in the last defeating of Dracula, and his disciples, Hugh Baldwin (his son) and Nathan Graves. Dracula opens up the floor, sending the two students into the depths of the castle, leaving Morris in the hands of the enemies. Hugh and Nathan go their separate ways after Hugh says that rescuing Morris is his task, and then you take control of Nathan.

Wait a second… Hugh… Morris… somebody at Konami must have been a fan of the WWE’s Bill DeMott.

Anyhow, the game is more or less classic Castlevania. You’re in a side-scrolling environment, jumping to platforms and beating assorted undead and other things that go much more than bump in the night with your whip and assorted other weapons you find around the castle, namely by destroying candles and torches on the walls. These other weapons are powered by hearts that you’ll find through those same burning objects. Gain enough experience from defeating your enemies, and you’ll go up a level, gaining an overall boost to all of your vital statistics instead of a small boost to a few random stats. Even at the very beginning, you’ll notice there are places you can’t quite reach yet. That’s okay, you’ll eventually find magic relics that’ll get you to those places one way or another. In fact, going back to places you’ve already been to find out just what is up there or what is behind that stuck box is a pretty decent part of the game itself.

Another important part, which is in fact new to this game, of the game is the Duel Setup System of magic. Over time, you’ll be finding cards from your enemies. They’ll be named either after Roman gods (Mercury, etc) or after mythical creatures (Serpent, etc). Combining one of the former with one of the latter will create a magical effect. So, for example, if you had combined the two cards just mentioned, you’d get a Fire Whip, which boasts a slightly boosted attack value. There are 100 different effects in total, and they all cost varying amounts of mana, anywhere from 2 to 100. Enemies also drop armor, potions, and other goodies, so keep your eyes peeled.

You’ll probably be watching the game pretty closely anyway, since this game is dark with a capitol “D”! Castlevania games as a rule have always been pretty gothic in nature and have their fair share of dank, murky scenes. On a television, this is one thing, but if you’re playing this game on a GBA model without a back light, expect to be fighting with the light in the room to find just the right position to view this sucker. It’ll be worth it, anyway, since there are some well drawn graphics to be found here, especially the backgrounds and the bosses. The animation, though, is kind of limited. A lot has been said already about Nathan’s infamous 3-frame walking animation, so there’s no reason to harp on it further. This applies to just about every other character in the game, though, it’s just that some creatures, like the Medusa Heads, hide it much better. At the very least, there is almost never a point in time where you’re wondering just what you’re looking at when it comes to an enemy, so the graphics in this one mostly pass the test.

Sound, on the other hand, is pretty darn good. The music, especially, stays with you, and at times cam be every bit as memorable as in past Castlevania games, and also ranks up there with some of the best early offerings on the GBA. The opening theme in particular sets a very haunting mood, while the music for the first stage is on par with that of any of Symphony’s best songs. The other sounds, particularly Nathan’s grunts and cries in combat, are audible and distinct. There aren’t too many different sounds that the creatures make, though, which does make the matter a touch repetitive. It’s not that big of a deal, though, but combined with the graphics, it makes one wonder if Konami wasn’t sure just how far they could push the GBA as a system. Considering this was a launch title, that’s reasonably understandable.

So how does this game compare to its PSOne predecessor otherwise? Well, after controlling Alucard and his speedy attacks, through several replays, Nathan and his slightly slower whip take just a little more getting used to. But it’s a light learning curve that’ll have you whipping it good in no time. Those who are new to the series will more than likely not have the same sort of problems that I did at first. As for play value, while there is plenty to do and find in this game, this isn’t as long a quest as Symphony was. Not by a long shot, in fact. That’s mostly made up for by a couple of points that are so challenging that you’d swear you were playing an early Neo Geo game. And even after you beat the game, there are still other things that it offers you to do, but I won’t give those away.

When you get right down to brass tacks, it’s not the sheer intimidating depth of the game that’ll bring you back for more, but the high challenge of getting to it’s very end. So while it’s not the same type of experience as the venerable classic that Symphony of the Night has by now become in some minds, it doesn’t quite try to compete with it on that level, either. And in the end, that’s probably what makes it a classic in it’s own right.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 04/20/03, Updated 04/24/03

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