The Castlevania series has served as a stalwart example of solid platforming on numerous consoles, from the early days of the NES, all the way up to the more modern PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. These games illustrate the constant struggle between good and evil as, time and time again, a brave and noble young fighter brandishes the legendary Vampire Killer whip and ventures forth without thinking twice to remove the scourge of Dracula from their lands. The Game Boy Advance was among those to be graced with Castlevania, receiving not one, not two, but THREE unique titles, including the first, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
Once again, like clockwork, Dracula gets revived by someone who seems to think it's actually a productive use of their time. In this case, it's Camilla (who first appeared in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest), a disciple of the Count, who opts to bring him back for another round. No Belmonts can be found here, but the trio of Morris Baldwin (a former vampire hunter that had aided in Dracula's previous imprisonment), his son Hugh, and Nathan Graves (get it? Graves? Death? Scaaaary?), another of Morris' hunters-in-training. Dracula appears and separates the group, keeping Morris — likely to kill or steal his soul — as revenge. Nathan and Hugh fall a great distance down some mysterious shaft in the castle, but they seem to land on their feet without any bone fractures, which is conveniently fortunate. Hugh vows to save his father on his own, still upset that Nathan has become the favoured hunter over himself, and dashes off. The dialogue here is about as entertaining as watching meat spoil, but it's usually brief and pushes the game's limited plot along. But the path is clear: Nathan must first fight through the hordes of darkness to save his beloved master and defeat the newly-revived Dracula!
But first he has to fight through the darkness on the screen!
In June 2001, I was a (debatably) fresh-faced teenager, excited about the brand-new Nintendo handheld coming out, having only a monochrome Game Boy for over eight years, yearning for something, anything, that looked a heck of a lot better. I was able to snatch myself a first-generation Game Boy Advance, that wide purple behemoth, slick, with shoulder buttons that clicked ever so and a shimmering LCD screen that beckoned for new and more intense experiences. Of course, at the time, I had to select but one game. We're not all made of millions! After a brief perusing of the many launch titles available &mdsh; Super Mario Advance, Rayman Advance, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2... uhhh... Iridion 3D, I suppose — but one title stood out above the rest: a brand new Castlevania advance. There was no contest. After all, who can compare plucking vegetables or riding a skateboard to brutally whipping sordid vampires into submission as they attempt to devour your succulent flesh?
So I brought the system home, unpacked all the stuffing, scrambled around the house in search of a few renegade AA-batteries, and said goodbye to the parents, as I had anticipated being holed up for a while, immersed in a scary, bone-chilling adventure. With batteries inserted and cartridge injected, I flicked on the system and...
Ummm... what? I can barely see anything. Is my Game Boy Advance broken already? I just started it for the first time!
Talk about being whipped.
This was why I didn't play it much when I first bought the game. The graphics are rather dark. Coupled with the initial Game Boy Advance's notable lack of any backlighting (an issue somewhat remedied with the next model, the Game Boy Advance SP), Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a shady mess. You could be laying next to the Sun and only be semi-satisfied with how well you can see the visuals. (Granted, you're likely melting at this point and have bigger problems.) But when you can see what you're doing, you'll notice that the graphics, while better than anything Nintendo threw into the original Game Boy, aren't a significant showcaser of what the Game Boy Advance is capable of, settling for being a step above Game Boy Color. I'm disappointed by Nathan, our stickly protagonist, for being just that: a non-descript beanpole. Compared to the majesty of Alucard in the game's predecessor, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, he falls absolutely flat and is devoid of any striking features. Likewise, the environments have that simple look; they're not ugly, but a distinct lack of variety does give Circle of the Moon a drab feeling. Maybe that was the point?
But it ultimately all comes down to the gameplay, and Castlevania: Circle of the Moon has this down pretty well. From the start, Nathan feels very weak, possessing no special moves other than being able to whip feebleminded skeletons and bats. As he defeats enemies, he'll earn experience points to raise his attack, defense, and other attributes. Over time, by defeating grandiose enemies, Nathan will discover additional abilities, including the always-popular double jump, wall kick, and even the skill of changing toxic water into, well, less toxic water. I still wouldn't drink it. As in most other "Metroidvania" games of its genre, the attainment of these capacities opens up new areas to visit and explore. Just keep a close eye on your map to remember where you haven't been yet, or you'll be more lost than the cast of "Lost". The controls here are solid and simple, responding when they need to, so the action focuses on skill, not how to maneuver with a broken control scheme.
Circle of the Moon also introduces the DSS system for enhancing your character. DSS, which stands for "Dual Set-up System", has you hunting down cards, which, when paired up and activated, gives Nathan new abilities. For example, some cards give Nathan's whip new properties, such as poison or the power of flame, while others may equip Nathan with summons. Who DOESN'T want a floating Medusa head following them around? The problem with the DSS system is that most cards are only available in specific rooms within Dracula's castle, and the likelihood of a drop is actually very low. It's possible that an enemy will drop a card on the first whipping, or it may take an hour of dashing in and out. Plus, you never know where specific cards will be — collecting them all will even require backtracking to rooms you never expected to visit again. Completing the card collection will be a testament to your patience, hunting skills, and flat-out luck.
If you're looking for a twinkle of nostalgia, look no further than the game's soundtrack. It's chock full of throwbacks to previous Castlevanias. I was amazed at how many themes are tweaked here, including the essential "Vampire Killer" tune and "Aquarius" from Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. There are some new tunes as well, but the classic tracks will stand out more.
For an adventure on the go, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon definitely offers a good challenge, if not a slightly long-winded one. Though it has been eclipsed by both its PlayStation predecessor and superior subsequent entries on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, Circle of the Moon (and I didn't really think about how unusual and unrelated that name is until now) is sure to please fans who just want to give Dracula a good whipping to the face. Isn't that what we all want?