So after Castlevania: Symphony of the Night released, the world was amazed. THIS was a great game. An 'instant classic', to quote an over-used phrase. So naturally, it was time to see if Konami could replicate that success!
....Half a decade later, on a much less powerful system. The Gameboy Advance? A handheld typically associated with kids? Make a game with blood, demons and dark tones on that platform? Makes perfect sense!
Well, in retrospect, yeah, it kinda does. Metroid Fusion was released quite early on in the Gameboy Advance's life as well, and that was certainly a tad bit darker than the usual fare. (what was it rated again? Teen? I can't remember.) Ah well, at least we got some good games out of the Gameboy Advance that weren't all kid fare.
The first of these ones to come out was Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Now, it's obvious that the Gameboy Advance just wasn't up to packing in as much detail as one could stuff into a Playstation game. There isn't as much raw hardware power behind the little thing. Without some miraculous innovations, there wasn't a way that a successor to Symphony of the Night could work on the comparitively measly Gameboy Advance. So, in making Circle of the Moon, rather than try to step forward with their game, they kinda... Stepped to the side a bit instead.
What do I mean by that? Weeellll, lemme tell ya all about it! (or don't, see if I care.)
Symphony of the Night had an amazing amount of detail to every room in its castle, with each and every one of them being unique in their own right. Whether or not a Gameboy Advance has the storage capacity to pull something similar is debatable, and even then it would certainly be difficult. To have so much individuality between the rooms, AND to keep it on any kind of scale comparable to Symphony of the Night... Well, perhaps for a game released later down the line, when programmers had managed to figure out the Gameboy Advance programming a bit better, but for something to be made and shipped pretty much alongside the release of the damn system it's on, well, that would take nothing short of a miracle to pull off.
And I can honestly say: No miracle took place here.
While Circle of the Moon is a very well made game, all considered, it's... uh... Well, a tad ugly. Graphics are kinda muddy, with drab colours scattered mostly throughout, and while a few of the sprites are fairly impressive, they aren't very well animated. Many, many, many of the enemies are just pallette swaps from each other that act differently. (you will believe that there's an Armour enemy for every element) This improves a bit down the line near the end of the game, where there's many unique and new monsters, and every area usually has at least one or two new enemies, but it's still Recolour Central a lot of the time.
Sometimes they don't even act very different at all. To bring up the Armour's again; every iteration of them will merely walk forwards a few steps at a slow pace, fling a projectile forward, and continue with their plodding march. It's... Not too terribly stimulating. Granted, the types of projectiles the different types of Armours throw vary greatly and each need to be adapted to in different ways to effectively dodge and attack. Still, even when the projectile homes in on you from off-screen, it's still fairly easy to dispatch the various Armour's, even at their worst, when you know exactly where they're going to be.
Where YOU may be at in the castle as a whole may be a trickier affair. Since the Gameboy Advance doesn't have much in the way of storage, there's a LOT of reused backgrounds. This leads to a fair bit of confusion as to your whereabouts in the castle. There certainly isn't much in the way of landmarks to help keep track of things. The devteam for Circle of the Moon tried their best to change it up, they really did. The levels themselves never feel stale or old. The layout and design for each room is done creatively, differently and interestingly. Enemies are placed just right to be challenging if you're not careful, but never an extreme nuisance. It's all very well designed. It's... Just not much to look at. There's also no spatterings of decorations and pieces of furniture anywhere. ANYWHERE. What made Symphony seem so alive was that no two rooms were identical, and there was so much to look at. Furniture, windows, changing weather patterns... No where in Circle of the Moon are there anything of these sorts. (save perhaps a window here and there, but those don't have any of the fancy paralax scrolling for the background behind it that also made windows so neat in Symphony of the Night)
Okay, just one more thing to rag on before we get to the good, I swear; The animations. They're, uh.... Well, again, the devteam tried. They really did. Even if there's only three or so frames for most of the enemies walking sprites, some still seem very lively and quick. Some attacks come from odd angles, making you keep on your toes, and one in particular can follow you across giant rooms and chase you unrelentingly. They do a good job of 'masking' how clumsy they sometimes look.
Worst of all, though, is that this follows even to the protagonist. If only two more frames were added to his running and walking animations (the only Castlevania to my knowledge where I can make that distinction!), the game would look a fair bit better. Many of his special animations are animated fairly nicely, which really kinda only make the poor look to his runing sprites stand out even more. I think Grant DeNasty in Castlevania III is better animated, and that game is almost a decade older. (this is hardly a conclusive or scientific statement, so don't read too much into it) Hell, if you're one of the people who got Circle of the Moon when it first came out, and you had just played through Symphony of the Night in anticipation, you must have been highly disappointed. After the fluid moving and beautifully animated Alucard, Nathan Graves just looks kinda awkward by comparison.
But, enough of that. ON TO THE GOOD. The most important aspect of anything here, the gameplay, is thankfully very sound and satisfying in Circle of the Moon. While the very beginning seems a bit slow, since the default walk speed is painfully slow (it's faster to slide around with down and jump than to walk), the pace quickens considerably once you get the Dash Boots, which allow you to run with a simple double-tap of the arrow buttons, you'll be running around with nary a care, with much longer jumps as well. The game in general picks up considerably from that point on.
Now that the pace issue has been resolved, now one starts to notice just how... Good everything feels. The sound of the whip sounds like an actual leather whip, with sharp sounds to go with it. With each hit on an enemy, the whip makes a satisfying SNAP. True to Castlevania fashion, the whip is hardly the fastest, and so attacks must be carefully timed to have time to dodge and run when needed. The flow of such comes to you quite quickly, and even after years of playing it, I still don't tire of even just the default whip.
But even if you don't like it, here we come to the second best part of the game: The magic system. Magic in Symphony of the Night was more of a fighting game affair, with you punching in an arrow and button combination to fling out your spells. Circle of the Moon changes that out entirely with the DSS system. (what that stands for I don't know) Your magic is done by having two magic cards selected; a spell and an elemental card. For example, the very first cards you're going to get 95% of the time are Mercury and Salamander. Mercury is a spell card, and Salamander is an elemental card. Mercury has the effect of enhancing your whip. Since Salamander is a fire card, these two combined add a fire attribute to your whip.
As you play through the game, you'll be getting more of these cards. Once you start collecting a large amount of them, the game gets very very very fun. The Mars card in particular brings some very nice effects onto the table, and mixes nicely with nearly every elemental card. As you gain more and more cards, each new card you get can be mixed with something else. Later in the game, it's VERY much a great thrill to finally get a new card. And once you beat the game, you can start a new one in Magician mode, which starts you off with ALL of the cards and a gigantic mana pool. To balance, it drops your hit points and your strength to near-nothing, which makes the rest of the entire game need a completely different set of tactics than you used the first time around.
Per the Castlevania standard, the music here is fantastic. Most of the songs are new creations that fit the theme of the game wonderfully, and every so often you'll catch a great cover of a classic Castlevania song. Personally, some of the new songs in Circle of the Moon rank easily high up in my top ten favourite Castlevania tunes, and a lot of modern covers of the songs are extremely catchy now that they're 'free' from the rather poor music synth of the Gameboy Advance.
Sadly, Circle of the Moon has not recieved a modern port or re-release, so getting a hold of a copy can get tricky and/or expensive. Ebay would be your best bet.
Yeesh. That was a big'un. The articles to follow are likely to be much shorter than this one, since they aren't so much of a mixed bag as Circle of the Moon is.