In this game, you play as a vampire slayer, armed with the legendary Vampire Killer whip. You’ve entered the castle because Dracula has recently revived through the machinations of his loyal minions. The castle is lengthy, twisted, and you continually find paths you cannot reach with your current abilities. They’re just out of reach, or too narrow a space, or under dangerous water. There are paths though, and as you take them, you uncover more and more abilities, unlocking more and more of the dungeon as you go.
What I just described is a huge chunk of the Castlevania games, and part of why the “–vania” part of Metroidvanias exist. There’s little debate that these are seminal games in a lot of way. The particular game we’re looking at now is, well, the one in the title: Circle of the Moon.
Originally released in 2001 for the GBA, the game has been rereleased as part of the Castlevania advance collection on the Switch (and other places). I actually got this game back when the GBA launched, because it had RPG elements (you level up as you kill enemies), and there weren’t many other options. That makes this my first actual metroidvania game, though I more often point toward Bloodstained, which I played with more awareness and memory years later.
The story of the game is incredibly bare bones, even from a -vania game. You play Nathan Graves, a vampire slayer who has inherited the whip despite not having the blood of the legendary Belmont clan. You, your partner Hugh, and your master… Master enter into the castle because Dracula has revived. Nathan and Hugh are dropped into a pit from the start, and Hugh’s jealousy of Nathan soon shows as he takes off.
This is not some stirring tale of betrayal and torment. It doesn’t even really lean into the cheese that’s so prevalent among the -vania games: nobody really monologues too much. There’s only one speech about the darkness in men’s souls. In many ways, this is a streamlined game: you explore the castle at your will.
it’s a little odd seeing a game designed for the tiny GBA screen blown up to a larger screen. I played this entire game docked (I play most of my games docked through my massive television screen), and it felt almost surreal seeing a game with graphics and setup like this blown up. Surprisingly the port’s pretty good: there’s not a lot of tearing and stretching and there are options. I also appreciated being able to save anywhere, something I most definitely took advantage of at a few points (I’m not ashamed to admit to some light save scumming [saving and loading at key points to get desired results]; if you give me the option, I’m going to take it).
Twenty years later and the gameplay here is still solid. There are modern games that wish they could be this well controlled and smooth. The castle feels as grandiose as it does in any -vania game. There really aren’t any inspired sections here, no levels that stand out later or enemies that you remember later (excepting one; we’ll get to them). But it’s well designed throughout.
Like most -vanias, most of the regular enemies are easy enough. The big issue becomes the battle of attrition: healing items are sparse and the game offers no store to purchase them or anything else. That latter bit got annoying as I was stocking up on a bunch of useless equipment.
The big add here is the magic system. several enemies drop cards, and through combining cards you get various magical effects. They call this the “DSS” system, and it works pretty well, showing some real ingenuity. One card changes all your whips to different elemental whips. You equip the “change whip” spell, then the “fire” element and you’re good to go.
The updated release even kindly lets you know which enemies have cards you haven’t acquired. A smart player would farm until they got the card each time it shows up. I didn’t do this until later in the game and found myself regretting it.
The bosses are the real meat of -vania games, and the same can be said here. The balance almost always felt fair: bosses were tough and required me to utilize what I’d learned and mastered throughout the rest of the game. I got the cross sub-weapon early on and spent most of my time flinging it at bosses (some are wrecked easier than others by this). But finding the right sub-weapon/whip/magic combination is usually the key to success here.
The only boss that stands out as unfair was the zombie dragon boss. Here you are dropped into a pit with not one, but two zombie dragons, one on either side of a precariously small platform. They give you a narrow slice of space where you aren’t injured, and you have to hop around and do your best. This boss along probably accounted for 1/7th of my playing time, and it felt designed against me (though I admit I probably had the wrong setup and was bullheaded in my attempt to defeat him).
Still, I mostly walked away from this feeling like I’d played another Castlevania game. That’s a bit of a mixed bag. Any -vania game that utilizes the -vania strategy has a similar feel: you’re in a castle, you explore, you get new abilities, you explore further. They’re successful, but they have a very samey game feel after a bit. If you’re looking for that on the cheap, this is part of a collection (the other two will come as I beat them). it has just enough uniqueness to it to make it worth playing if you’re a fan of the genre. If you’re not, there’s far better titles out there to explore (Hollow Knight if you’re hardcore, Shantae if you’re not, Super Metroid if you’re super cheap). If you get the collection anyway (Aria of Sorrow is supposed to be one of the best -vanias period), it’s worth a playthrough for sure.
6 it may be a classic, but it hasn’t aged all that well. Doesn’t stop it from being a good game, but does stop it from being great.