Review by discoinferno84

"The dark side of the moon..."

Dracula. One of the most fiendish literary villains of all time, and one of the most used villains in video game history. Of course, his current rise to stardom is all thanks to the Castlevania series. Currently, the highly acclaimed saga of the fight against the vampire has come to the GBA in the form of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and two other gaming titles for this generation of consoles. I've been a casual fan of the series for years, so I jumped at the chance to collect all three of the GBA titles. Thankfully, the portable crusade against evil has left me not only satisfied, but also craving for more.

As like any other Castlevania game, we're on a quest to kill the seemingly immortal Dracula. We start off with a group of three valiant vampire hunters: Morris and Hugh Baldwin, and Nathan Graves, Morris' lowly apprentice. They've come to Dracula's castle because of the dark lord's resurrection at the hand so of Camilla, Dracula's long lost love. Apparently the fair lady has been going through some separation anxiety or emotional breakdown and has already brought the emissary of evil back to live to wreak havoc upon the unsuspecting world. And faster than you can say midlife crisis, the evil duo proceeds to annihilate the highly-trained team of vampire hinters. Morris is taken out of the picture, and Hugh and Nathan are left to fend for themselves within the deep confines of the dark castle. Unfortunately, Hugh Baldwin is stubborn and thickheaded, so he ditches young Nathan in an attempt to save his father and mentor. If Hugh wasn't such a blatantly idiotic character, his devotion to his father could be seen as endearing. But in the end, Nathan Graves is left alone within Dracula's castle, with only his rookie skills and ability to see him through the night.

The idea is simple: explore the castle and kill anything that gets in your way. Instead of being a linear setup, the gameplay revolves around Nathan's progression through the massive castle. Of course, all of the rooms, ledges, and areas are all strategically placed so that you won't be able to reach some without finishing some sort of objective first. And since Nathan is a puny mortal with relatively little experience with the supernatural, he'll need all the help he can get. Luckily, there are quite a few power ups that he can find to aid him on his quest. It's starts off with little things, like the Dash Boots or the Double Jump. But as you progress through the game, you'll find plenty of handy little magic items that will have you gallivanting around the castle like a drunken fool.

Forget the wooden stakes and eat the damned garlic cloves. Nathan Graves may be inexperienced, but he is downright deadly with his hands on a whip. And luckily for our whip-happy young hero, there will be plenty of evil minions to practice his skills with. Actually, there are too many of the darned things for their own good. When you first start playing, you'll be overwhelmed with the sheer amounts of evil villainy crowding the halls of the castle. Maybe they're planning some sort of big party for Dracula's reawakening…In any case, the incredible forces of villainy can be pretty daunting until you get a firm grasp of Nathan's abilities and attacks. But there is one positive aspect though: Nathan can gain experience points and level up, thus making him stronger and more potent against the dark lord. That means you can spend countless sessions coming and going out of rooms, killing the numerous enemies that have respawned, and harvest all the experience your patience will allow. Thus all of the villains standing in your way are leveling fodder, leaving you with a leisurely stroll through the castle.

Of course, the game designers couldn't help but put in an extra gimmick or two to make the game seem more entertaining. We're got plenty of nifty sub weapons, like throwing daggers, holy water, even a neat little stopwatch that can freeze time for a few seconds. Unfortunately, all of these neat trinkets have almost no use in the fight against evil. They're either far too weak to be even remotely effective or too awkward to handle given the circumstances. But where the sub weapons fail, the DSS system shines. You can find a set of collectible cards as you make you way through the castle. When two of these cards are combined, voila! You get a cool little attack or power added to your whip! Sometimes it can give you extra attack power, sometimes it can make you invincible. Who cares if this is really just a rehashed gimmick and none of us really know what DSS stands for? You can mix and match the cards to come up with some interesting magic spells that can dish out destruction.

Thankfully, the graphics don't end with the fancy DSS attacks. Dracula's castle is both massive and fraught with wonderful rendering. However, a fair warning to those with the regular GBA: this game is dark. Kind of makes sense, considering that vampires can't stand sunlight. Unfortunately, this lack of light really hurts the presentation of this game if you don't have benefit of the GBASP backlight. Chances are that you'll miss the detailed enemies, Nathan's utter lack of detail, the decent lighting effect, and the flowing water the list goes on and on. This game was released back in the infancy of the GBA, so the game designers didn't really take into account the lack of light necessary to make an enjoyable presentation. But for those of you with the latest incarnation of Nintendo's handheld, you'll be treated to plenty of excellent visuals.

At least the game takes advantage of the GBA's audio capabilities. Nathan can only yell battle cries, but he has no other voice whatsoever. Also, you can hear the whip cracking against the flesh of the evil minions or the whoosh of the whip being swung through the empty air. And lest we forget, this game has a dramatic soundtrack to back it up. I haven't played a Castlevania game since Bloodlines, so hearing some of the old themes early in the game brought wave after wave of nostalgia to me. Overall, the audio just balances out the decent graphics, making for a an appealing presentation.

For some reason, bashing Dracula never gets old. Maybe it's the massive castles to explore, the rehashed stories and attack gimmicks, or maybe it's the fact that we get to face a villain that never disappoints. With this new wave of Castlevania games to hit the GBA, I expect great things for the future of the series. Who knows when Dracula will rise up again? All I know is that this game makes me look forward to kicking his supernatural arse one more time.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 07/25/04

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