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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance) artwork

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance) review

"It's no secret that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was absurdly easy, but I've always found a certain beauty in that. While I wouldn't want every game to be like it, there's something satisfying about seeing enormous boss monsters strut their stuff and then slaughtering them before they have the chance to pull off a single attack. Turning Alucard into an unstoppable machine was half the fun, and it was no accident; in the final battle, Dracula summoned earlier bosses and crushed them in the ..."

It's no secret that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was absurdly easy, but I've always found a certain beauty in that. While I wouldn't want every game to be like it, there's something satisfying about seeing enormous boss monsters strut their stuff and then slaughtering them before they have the chance to pull off a single attack. Turning Alucard into an unstoppable machine was half the fun, and it was no accident; in the final battle, Dracula summoned earlier bosses and crushed them in the palm of his grotesque hands, as if to admit his army's worthlessness and defiantly cry: “You'll have to do better against ME!”

Then you killed him in twenty seconds with the Crissaegrim. Beautiful.

For better or for worse, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was developed by people who think that SotN is for pussies. Their game is grueling, and by a few hours into it, every single encounter could be your last. Armor Lords of all types guard the castle: as if throwing axes at you in the older games wasn't bad enough, one version summons clouds of gas that can poison you and slowly suck away half of your hit points. Another does the damage up front by shooting black fucking holes. Thunder demons in a chapel summon pillars of lightning just in case the diseased flying swords aren't enough, and unlike the last time around, these attacks don't chip away at your life bar so much as they chop it in thirds.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is not an elaborate game. It's narrowly focused on pushing you to your limit without letting anything else get in the way, and that clarity does wonders for it. Medusa Heads knock you off platforms in the obligatory clock tower stage like it's 1988, while archers shoot you down from the very ledges you're trying to jump to. Survive any one room and you'll feel an equal mix of achievement and dread, the dread coming from the fact that you're just as likely to die but now much further away from the sanctuary of a save point. Dracula's minions will never grant you a reprieve, and that's what makes it so addictive.

Even when you do finally put a dent in a level, the brutal boss monsters are way more likely to kill you in twenty seconds this time than the other way around. The very first is Cerberus, the three-headed canine guardian of Hell everybody laughed at and killed with a single soul steal back in SotN. It's not as easy for a Belmont, and it's amazing how much things have changed now that a few damage numbers are different. When he's not trying to devour you, he'll leap to the other side of the room and vomit a laser beam across the room that absolutely destroys you if you can't get behind him in time. Killing him in Symphony makes you feel like Alucard is a champion; doing it in Circle makes you feel like the champion.

Taking a strong stance in praising this game would be foolish, since it's so completely tailored to one audience at the expense of another. The game is never unfair, but it's tough. Reviews that say it's too hard and complain about wasting hours leveling up to stand a chance against it are perfectly valid, and if you're not the sort of gamer who appreciates challange for challange's sake, I concede that you're better off taking their opinions to heart than mine.

There's a waterway in this version of Dracula's castle that you're not supposed to explore until later in the game, since the water runs red with blood and drains your life until you find a relic that turns it back to normal. It's nearly impossible to navigate without that relic, since you could barely make it from save point to save point even without the enemies, and yet to a few of the people I know who've played this game... that wasn't even a yellow light. A level that forced them to hunch over their GBAs for hours and plan that perfect run through was just the next logical step in sadism, and part of me envies them for how good it must've felt to make it through all that.

Circle of the Moon isn't perfect, not even when it's playing to a sympathetic crowd. There's a neat magic system, with twenty cards for you to find and permute for different powers. One combo gives you a rotating shield of fireballs, another lets you transform into a skeleton as a gag, and still more summon wild beasts to wipe the screen clean of evil at the expense of all your magic points. I'm surprised my reviewer chum Overdrive didn't appreciate the rose whip as a way to express his hidden sexuality.

But the cards come from random drops when you kill certain enemies, and if you're unlucky, it's possible to miss a lot of them entirely. I'd rather they have been rewards for exploring or for beating the bosses, but instead, progress through the game is made by acquiring items that let you push boxes, break boxes, and jump over boxes. It's a good thing that this Castlevania's difficulty is its own reward, since it wouldn't do too well in the FPS scene's infamous start-to-crate awards.

If this game isn't for you, though, hiccups like that won't be why. It's a spartan entry in a series that's been known for theatrics ever since it left the 8-bit NES, and whipping your way through hordes of tough monsters for fifteen hours might not be what you want from Castlevania. There is no epic prologue, there is no sword that devours the blood of your enemies, and there is no leaning tower that sways in the wind as you climb it. Death doesn't decapitate himself, or even take the time to rough you up a bit at the beginning. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon's appeal lies only in its challange, and for some, that's going to be a deal-breaker.

For me, though, it's just right.


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Featured community review by mardraum (August 20, 2009)

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JANUS2 posted August 21, 2009:

Excellent review bluberry. It's nice to see someone pinpoint exactly what makes Circle of the Moon unique and not just repeat the tired "it's SotN-lite" angle. It's very well written, too. The way you described some of the enemies and levels actually makes me want to replay the game. Although I'm surprised you didn't mention the fact that the game is too dark to see at times. (EDIT: actually, after reading some other reviews, maybe this is not the problem that I remember it being.)
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bluberry posted August 21, 2009:

that's mostly the original GBA's shitty hardware, I've played it on an SP and an emulator too and it's been fine. even on GBA, it was no harder to see than F-Zero.

anyway, thanks! glad you liked it.
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Suskie posted August 21, 2009:

Yeah, that was a problem at the time, but play CotM on anything with a backlit or frontlit screen and you'll be fine. I replayed it recently on the DS and had no problems.

Good review Boo. I'd probably give it a 9/10 actually, but I agree with most of your points, especially concerning the magic system. I liked the DSS cards but they made it so you basically had to run off to GameFAQs if you wanted to have any idea where to get them.
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overdrive posted August 21, 2009:

Yeah, I remember that, Suskie, with the magic cards. Weren't there a couple that you got as random drops from candle enemies that appeared late in the game in rooms where you'd fought bosses earlier (Cerberus and one or two other bosses). You'd have to know to go back to these rooms that have no significance anymore; you'd have to be strong enough to kill the candle monster in 1-2 hits before it disappeared; and you'd have to go in and out of the room repeatedly until it dropped the card. Not the most intuitive way to find spells.

Which reminds me of my most ingrained memory of CotM — Lilith. Bitch drops the best armor in the game. I wanted the best armor in the game. I killed her about 200 times before she dropped it. That was GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR-EAT!
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bluberry posted August 21, 2009:

haha, I forgot how that armor was better than the Shinning Armor. which is kind of stupid. "hey, you beat the Battle Arena. here's the second best armor in the game!"
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Masters posted August 24, 2009:

Great review, dude. Ha, CHALLANGE.
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bigcj34 posted August 24, 2009:

Arhg, I've been on and off with that game. I've been meaning to write a review for CotM (simply known as just Castlevania in the UK), and it's straightforward at times then I get stuck for ages. Very tumultuos in difficulty and not one I enjoy. If I can lkabour to the end I may wrtie something. Would 87.5 completion be enoguh to write the review now?
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bluberry posted August 30, 2009:

thanks Marc! always good to hear you dig one of my reviews.

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