Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
You’re walking through a dark hallway. The antiquated stones look grim, its damp, and you’ve only got a whip at hand. The only form of light is from the small candles and the large moon gleaming outside, and there’s bats everywhere. Take a few steps and the pillars begin to animate. A few more and a mummy or skeleton will as well, and at the end of the corridor it turns out you can only go up. The castle master Count Dracula, has been unsealed by Camilla, and yourself, Morris (a veteran Vampire Hunter) and Hugh (his son) must reseal Dracula. You hear a crack. The floor breaks, and you and Hugh are freefalling down the spine of the Austrian castle. You have no choice but to battle up from the bottom basement, and even that’s not easy when not even your close alliances are safe from intangible aura of Dracula.
Welcome to Castlevania. A vintage series Konami can truly pride themselves upon, where its side-scrolling action platform formula has failed to expire, and despite numerous attempts in 3D it’s still retained its 2D roots on 3D capable platforms. The fine gameplay from Symphony of the Night and Super Castlevania IV is now a reality on a handheld with this GBA debut, labelled plainly as Castlevania (Castlevania: Circle of the Moon outside Europe). Playing as Nathan you must raid every corridor and fend off enemies who disguise themselves in every possible way, to snipe you left, right and centre. Pillars have angry faces on their rear side, which will spurt arrows when woken, and the bats are a total peeve. Skeletons are frequently ready to pounce whilst flying birds will swoop down when necessary. Aside from wading through rooms there’s plenty of exploring to be done, beating certain bosses can grant abilities like bouncing off walls or being able to smash blocks that obstruct passages.
The most prominent feature in this Castlevania is the DSS (Dual Set-up System) which grants Nathan enhanced abilities for a limited time. Aside from using the conventional whip or the secondary weapons (a cross, holy water, axe, dagger or a stopwatch), the DSS works by combining an action and an attribute card of which there are 20 total. Actually using the DSS is more of a subtlety though. It takes time to realise how to make the system work, as many combinations don’t leave much visible evidence to show you’ve activated the DSS. There’s no indication to finding which enemies drop which card, and often relies on luck to if they’re actually going to drop one. Unless you use a guide, you’ll probably only have found a fraction of the cards by completion. When it does work though, the DSS can be a useful tool. There are many power enhancements available, including improved defence, a protective elemental veil to damage encountering enemies, an icy whip freezing enemies or a repelling spinning poison whip. Even having a protective veil of ice can help you ease through a considerable chunk of the passageways.
But even the most effective DSS combinations are futile if Nathan’s level is sub-par. Valuable exp is gained from whipping enemies, and is an emphasised necessity throughout the game thanks to the incredible, if not polarised, difficulty of bosses. In open play the game is usually pretty smooth flowing, and is quite entertaining, however the difficulty of the bosses is unbalanced. Although they shouldn’t be stupendously easy, it’s hardly smooth-flowing nor fun when there is yet another boss to spend lengthy periods training for. RPG’s aren’t fun when you have to frequently level up specifically for a boss battle, and it’s no different here. If you can overcome all this you can give yourself a smirk of satisfaction. To me though, encountering yet another crafty boss is morale-seeping at the best of times, and at worst pretty boring.
It isn’t any more enjoyable when having to repeatedly beat enemies when trying to find your bearings around the castle either. Doing so each time you walk through a room becomes tiresome when merely trying to get to locate the next part of the story. To do so from curiosity is fine, there are many moments when it is fun to re-explore areas of the castle you were wondering how to get to before. New abilities mean new areas and finding hidden rooms is actually beneficial. Maximum HP, MP and heart increases (energy for the secondary weapons) are highly necessary to sponge enemy attacks, whilst armour and ring upgrades are often dropped by enemies which improve your attributes. However, there are too many moments when you have to revisit areas. Castlevania tries to combine linearity with explorative value, and the result is a game with plenty of illogically scattered “unlockable” passageways. I don’t mind whipping enemies because I chose to find a secret area, but I do mind when I’m trying to get to the next part of the story, or even a save room. A wrong turn, it seems, is a highly penalised offence.
For that reason Castlevania is quite a repetitive game, ironic when it tries not to be. There’s enough variation around the castle, starting in an underground chamber and working to the bell-tower, the machine-workings room and even a central series of rooms full of lava pits. It’s definitely one of the GBA’s most artistic games, with crisp looking levels emulating a nightly gothic feel with some well-executed parallax scrolling used throughout. It does come at the expense of brightness; an issue that will affect users of the original GBA, but those playing with a backlight can appreciate the dark effect. Also some of the characters animations are rather ropey; stunning enemy animations are marred by robotic character movements. Nonetheless the castle is a grand work of art, chandeliers, flying bats and every peeve you could want in a castle is here and out to get you. Unfortunately though, this simply fails to maintain its excitement in action.
Castlevania means well, providing marvellous visuals and setting a superb atmosphere. But it suffers from hideous amounts of revisiting. Running around rooms constantly having your health chipped away as you whip down enemies is annoying, especially if you’ve only trying to get to another destination. The DSS card combining is useful but isn’t so obvious in how it works, let alone where to find the cards. But the main problem with Castlevania lies from its unbalanced difficulty and takes away from its entertainment value, although some hardcore gamers wanting the completion buzz may disagree. When the going is good, Castlevania is an enjoyable game. The difficulty builds up nicely in open-play, but bosses stall the action too much. What really happens to Nathan and Hugh? What became of Morris? Unless you can endure quite a bit of frustration, you’re probably best not playing it to find out. Go unseal Dracula in another game.