Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the follow up to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It was originally released by Konami in 2001 as a Game Boy Advance launch game. It is also available on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ll always remember it as the darkest Castlevania. Not because of it’s graphics or themes, but because I could hardly see anything on my launch GBA. Playing this on a TV is almost like playing a new game for me.
The story is set in 1830, 33 years after Symphony of the Night and 87 years before Bloodlines. Recurring Castlevania boss, Camilla, has resurrected Dracula once again. Nathan Graves, his Vampire hunting teacher Morris Baldwin, and his rival Hugh Baldwin run in to stop her, but they're too late. Dracula is revived at partial power, he captures Morris, and throws Nathan and Hugh down into the catacombs of the castle. Nathan then sets off to save his master, and Hugh sets off to try and beat him to it. Hugh is sort of like the Gary Oak of the game. He is jealous that his dad gave Nathan the “Hunter Whip” instead of him, so now he must show Nathan up somehow.
I found the standoffish way the game handles the lore very weird. For example, Morris Baldwin has Morris as his first name and not his last, like John Morris from Bloodlines. Was he originally related to Jonathan, Quincy, and John Morris? What about this “Hunter Whip”? Is it the Vampire Killer, or just a really nice whip? And why does the castle have areas that look like Castlevania, but is only referred to as an old Austrian castle? It comes off like they changed the story to not have anything to do with the Belmonts or Dracula's Castle.
In 2002, Koji Igarashi took Circle of the Moon out of the official timeline. Igarashi was working on Castlevania Chronicle at the time, and was not involved with Circle of the Moon, so that might have had something to do with it. He claimed that the development team always intended it to be a standalone game, though. CotM was listed in the timeline that came with Portrait of Ruin pre-orders, but was not included in the official timeline that Konami released in 2009.
Circle of the Moon is a Metroidvania, and is structured very similarly to Symphony of the Night. There's still a lot of freedom to explore, hidden rooms, XP, armor, consumables, and stats. Classic Castlevania special weapons, like the axe, holy water, and cross return, and you still break candles to get hearts to use them. Unlike in SOTN, though, there is no money or shop, so you can't buy or sell anything. That means that if you want a specific item, like potions or gear, you're going to have to farm for it.
Nathan himself controls a lot like Richter Belmont, but with floaty jumps, like Alucard. I feel like he jumps unusually high for a Castlevania game. Nathan can only whip forwards and twirl the whip, but not like Richter or Simon in SCIV, you just hold B down to do it. He also gets a slide by default, which comes in handy for sliding through small passages. It can also damage enemies that are too small to hit with the whip, adding a new layer to the combat. Nathan doesn’t walk with purpose, like a Belmont, he walks slowly, like he's going on a leisurely stroll. Luckily, the first ability you get is a pair of boots that allow you to run by double tapping forward. Other abilities include a double jump, a block breaking tackle, the ability to push crates, and the weirdest wall jump I've ever seen in a Metroidvania. You just hold R near a wall while jumping and go through a long and floaty wall kicking animation. Some of the last few things you're rewarded with after killing bosses include a switch that breaks sarcophagi blocking your way and boots that cleanse the water in the sewer area. That's right, magic sewage cleaning boots.
Nathan only gets one whip throughout the whole game, but he can use magical weapons and spells, thanks to the Dual Setup System. The DSS lets you combine cards, which some enemies drop, for up to 100 different effects. There are 10 Action Cards and 10 Attribute Cards, which you can combine for effects like a flame whip, ice whip, a rose thorn sword, a 25% luck boost, and even a Rondo of Blood style item crash. I was initially disappointed that there were no other weapons in this game, but the DSS more than makes up for it. The amount of MP consumed by effects like the flame whip become so low as you level and upgrade your gear that you can pretty much use them as long as you want.
Circle of the Moon is certainly not an ugly game but it doesn't look as good as Symphony of the Night. The GBA’s resolution really holds it back. GBA games were just a little over half the resolution of the average PlayStation game. The graphics look much more pixelated, and color gradients aren't nearly as smooth as in SOTN. The environments look fairly detailed, and it features a lot of new enemy sprites and edits of sprites from Rondo of Blood and SOTN, which look good for the most part. The frame rate is smooth throughout most of the game, but it does slow down when a lot of enemies are on screen.
The GBA’s sound hardware was a step down from the PlayStation’s, and even the SNES’s, but Circle of the Moon still manages to have an awesome soundtrack. It features great new tracks, like “Awake”, “Proof of Blood”, and “Fate to Despair”, which evoke the sound of SOTN’s orchestral tracks. It also features awesome new remixes of classic tracks, like “Vampire Killer”, “Dance of Illusions”, “The sinking Old Sanctuary” from Bloodlines, and “Clockwork Mansion” from Super Castlevania IV. I don't think the decision to include SOTN style music and classic remixes was a coincidence. It feels like they're trying to merge the classic whip wielding games with the new SOTN style with the music, too.
I think Circle of the Moon is definitely one of the better SOTN style Castlevanias. The music and graphics are good, even if they are held back by the GBA hardware, the gameplay feels like a good mix of the classic whip wielding Castlevanias and the new SOTN style, and the DSS card system gives you a lot of cool stuff to play with. I didn't think the abilities, like the double jump, were anything special, and stuff like the boots that cleanse the sewage were pretty lame, but traversing the castle was pretty fun, thanks to the great level and enemy designs. I don't think Circle of the Moon is quite as good as Symphony of the Night, but it's definitely worth playing.