As the hunt continues, from Aria of Sorrow to the beginning of Castlevania’s appearance on the GBA, Circle of the Moon, I have the uneasy feeling that my whip offers less solace in this scarier version of the castle. The encounter with an earth demon in the very first minutes acts as a warning for the rest of the game: be prepared to see YOU DIED a lot! Nathan Graves has to free his master from the clutches of - you guessed it - Dracula and partners, on the way avoiding the increasingly jealous Hugh Baldwin, the son of his master.
If you’ve read the reviews, you know that Circle of the Moon is considered a hidden masterpiece, but you also know that it was “too dark”, had “drab” graphics, was “too difficult” and that Iga even scratched it from the official Castlevania timeline, thereby admitting it might have been a mistake. The darkness can be solved with a GBA SP, modded GBA or Nintendo DS, but the difficulty is something you have to get used to - especially if you’ve played Aria of Sorrow before, like I did.
I’m still not sure whether I like the difficulty or not, or the game in general. It tries to do it’s own thing: different enemies spawn in familiar locations after defeating certain bosses, forcing you to never let down your guard, even while backtracking. As backtracking is such a big thing in the Metroidvania series, it got me to swear quite a few times. Simple axe armors are replaced by Dark, Light, Forest or “whatever” armors and these guys know how to dish out damage: three strikes and you’re out. Taking the odd and too economically placed save rooms into account, that can hurt my gameplay experience quite a bit.
Nathan uses his “DSS” card system to pull off magic attacks like Soma uses his Souls. Enemies drop those cards but they’re rare: very, very rare - not AoS soul-like rare: even rarer. LUCK boosting items and repetitious killing, walking in- and out rooms to re-spawn enemies, is mandatory. After 10 times your attention starts floating resulting in getting hurt. Quite hateful. In the end, I used a familiar and effective card combination that increased my defense for the most part of the game and didn’t bother anymore. Until you face the second form of Dracula and find it impossible to complete the game without that summon card or other tricks…
And yet, it still managed to hold my attention for over 6 hours to reach the end boss. The music is magnificent with a great opening track and some remixes thrown in. Sound effects are a bit lackluster though: the hollow sounding footsteps and “ugh” effects take me out of the experience. The castle is huge and Nathan feels puny compared to enemies, stairs and hallways. The player sprite is literally smaller than in AoS - it’s part of Circle of the Moon. I honestly did not like the endless staircase repetition, even if the castle is unique and big it grew tiresome in some places rather quickly compared to Aria. The worst part is the first relic you acquire: dash boots that lets you run. What? Double tap the directional pad and you can finally increase the snail-like speed of character movement? I had to stop playing on my Gameboy after an hour because my hands got cramped after constantly double-tapping - I can’t believe they didn’t playtest that for longer than 5 minutes.
Circle of the Moon feels like a more classic mix between classic Castlevania and Metroidvania: the inclusion of the subweapons, the increasing difficulty and oh, the big kickback after being hit is very painful. The bosses are all very challenging, even the first one got me to reload three times! Of course, once you find the cross, all other subweapons are obsolete and bosses are a bit easier to defeat because of their big hitboxes. If you don’t like a cakewalk like Aria of Sorrow or Harmony of Dissonance you’ll find what you’re looking for here.
It was actually not the castle design, the card system, subweapons or relics that got me hooked, but the challenge and unique monster design that did. A lot of the enemies make it into the later games that were invented here: the ice maiden and floating tables are recognizable from Aria and Dawn of Sorrow. Where Aria shines in item, soul, castle and graphic design, Circle shines in the challenge an sich. There is still a big sense of progress with a gradually unlockable castle and the item hunt in the form of HP, MP and Heart upgrade containers from Symphony of the Night are also present - mostly hidden behind breakable walls that are a lot of fun to search for.
Sadly, too much grinding can hurt my interest in finishing a game and that is the case here. I even had the feeling I was required to look up which enemy dropped which card: going in “blind” in a game like this is something reserved for grandmaster whiplashers. That leaves us with one more GBA game to play: Castlevania Harmony of Dissonance, the “fix” Konami came up with after listening to the darkness complaints. On to the last (GBA) one!