Title :Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
Platforms :Game Boy Advance
Publisher :Konami
ESRB Rating :Teen
Game Rating :9.1
Review by :Ken Gagne

A few antagonists have become video games legends: infamous foes that will always return, calling upon good-hearted gamers for vanquishing. Bowser, Robotnik, Ganon, Wily… Perhaps the most archetypal incarnation of malevolence is Dracula. And with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, Konami's launch title for the Game Boy Advance, evil has never been so good. 

Set in 1830, this new Castlevania features the best of both classic and contemporary games in the series. Our hero is Nathan Graves, a whip-wielding young man who must not only destroy the vampire lord, but also save his mentor, Morris Baldwin. In his journey, Nathan will encounter other characters, including Morris' egotistical son, Hugh, and the evil Camilla. 

Instead of progressing through defined stages, Nathan can explore Dracula's castle freely, similar to the gameplay in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for PlayStation, or even the older Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. A map shows where Nathan has been, and marks the locations of warps and save points. 

Players should save often, as the castle is full of powerful fiends of all sizes. Bosses are refreshingly difficult and may require multiple attempts to defeat — but vincible they are. Castlevania's play is balanced, avoiding the extremes of boringly easy and frustratingly difficult, unlike too many other games. 

This balance is partly provided by the progressive nature of the game. As Nathan explores the castle, he gains experience and strength. New items also enable him with new maneuvers with which to reach previously inaccessible areas. 

A new gameplay feature is the Dual Set-up System (DSS). Nathan can find and combine two kinds of ten magical playing cards each with varying results, from temporary invincibility to an electrified whip. Players must collect the cards and experiment with 100 different combinations to learn their effects. Not all results have expected effects; for example, an ice whip does not inflict extra damage on a fire demon. 

The Game Boy's buttons are small but responsive. Given a player with sufficient reflexes, Nathan can sprint through the castle, making perfectly-timed leaps and strikes. Attack and jump are performed with the 'B' and 'A' buttons, which can be held down for a spinning whip or longer jump. DSS combinations are enabled with a press of the 'L' trigger, while the 'R' trigger employs the occasional special maneuvers. 

The graphics on Nintendo's new handheld do not leave the dead turning in their graves. Castlevania's visuals include scrolling backgrounds with the occasional window to let the moonlight cast its circle, while detailed foregrounds depict libraries, chapels, and dungeons. Some sprites are dark and difficult to see on the Game Boy's shiny surface; proper lighting is essential to good gameplay. 

The music is appropriate for a handheld: though the Game Boy Advance is a 32-bit system, it's still just a handheld. Circle of the Moon does not live up to the name and legacy of its predecessor, Symphony of the Night. But on its own, the game has a great soundtrack, full of new and familiar tunes. There are sound effects aplenty, though not a single word of digitized speech. After the great voice acting of SotN, it takes some adjusting to regress to printed dialogue balloons. 

Not only does Circle of the Moon successfully carry on the tradition of the Castlevania series, it does so while being innovative. The free-range style of gameplay is still relatively new to the series, but has again been pulled off with finesse. The classic whip has returned as the main weapon, but is enhanced by the DSS. A game like this comes out once in a blue moon, so stake your claim on this must-have Game Boy Advance title.

This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 18-Jun-01