Unreleased Script: Castlevania Circle of the Moon

As we discussed in our episode about Symphony of the Night, I did not really “get” Metroidvania games until recent years. It was a replay of Symphony of the Night about six years ago that really unlocked the genre for me. I still have some issues with it, for sure, but generally can try to find things to enjoy about it.

My Gameboy Advance was primarily used for RPG reissues of old games. I did not play many new games on it. I remember playing the game for a little bit, not really getting it, and moving on. While I am glad I checked Circle of the Moon out for this year’s installment of Castlevania October, the game is average at best and has little of what makes Symphony of the Night one of the best games ever. Let’s talk about why.

We have covered many games in the Castlevania series. We will keep doing so. This year’s Castlevania October games will be Circle of the Moon and Belmont’s Revenge.

So, the plot of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon goes something like this: It is 1830 and Nathan Graves….uh, Graves? Hmm maybe a Belmont descendant married and took their husband’s last name…So, Nathan Graves and his mentor Morris try to stop Dracula from being resurrected yet again. After failing at this, Nathan…Graves must go through Dracula’s castle, stop his mind controlled brother, and vanquish Dracula again.

Uh, who are these people? Where are Simon, Richter, and Trevor? Some of this plot sounds familiar. Hmm.

Issue #145 of Nintendo Power previews Circle of the Moon, but Game Pro gives the game a much fuller review. Game Pro states:

Circle closely resembles the PlayStation’s famed Symphony of the Night with a non-linear game structure, a host of power-ups, potent weapons, a gigantic piece of real estate, and play time that’s guaranteed to suck the life from the Energizer bunny. Set against a myriad of beautifully rendered 2D environments, the detailed visuals convey a feeling of dread, and although perceptive Castlevania fans will notice several music pieces have been lifted from previous ‘Vania titles, they’re no less effective here.

The first issue of Nintendo Power Advance in 2001 also covers the game. That was a shortly lived spin off from Nintendo Power to cover games on the Gameboy Advance.

In the show notes for this episode, I am going to link to a few episodes of Retronauts that were very helpful with creating this episode, as well as the episode of Jeremy’s Gameboy Advance Works series that cover the game. This episode really solidified a lot of my feelings about the game and made me feel better about putting them forth in this episode.

I like Circle of the Moon’s cover. Nathan is shown wielding his whip, which is not the Vampire Killer, more on that in a bit, while Dracula’s castle looms large in the background. I like the torn up look of the right side of the cover. I would like it more if it was a Belmont though!

One of the real highlights of Castlevania Circle of the Moon is the soundtrack. While some of it is redone tracks from earlier games, as always, it really adds to the game’s vibe.

Castlevania Circle of the Moon has not really been reissued outside the Wii U Virtual Console, which is how I played the game for this episode. Perhaps now that Konami seems interested in reissuing their past games, a collection of this era of Castlevania games could be in the works?

Editor’s Note: We did it! We willed another retro collection into existence.

So for this play through of Castlevania Circle of the Moon I played the game via the Wii U’s Virtual Console, which is, as noted earlier, the only way to legally play this game on a modernish console. Fine. I first played the game on Extra Life Day back in November and then spent time during the holidays and winter playing through it. I got to about 60% completion before I ran out of things to do, could not figure out what to do next, and lost interest due to some of the issues the game presents to gamers. There is a decent game in here, but it also has some flaws that really hurt it too.

The first problem that Circle of the Moon has is that it is not Symphony of the Night, which absolutely perfected this genre and will always be the standard that other Metroidvania games have to live up to, which also means it has a lot to live up to right off the bat. The lack of connection to the Belmonts, whether of the Simon, Trevor, and Sypha generation or of the Richter, Maria, and Alucard one, immediately harms this game.

Who the hell is Nathan Graves? Why do I care? Where is a Belmont? The game even cribs a bit from Symphony’s plot by having Hugh play the role that Richter does of brainwashed annoyance that pops up from time to time.

I think immediately, something that would have helped Circle of the Moon is not being a Castlevania game. Given that it was wiped from the Castlevania Canon a few years after it came out makes it clear this would be a fine attempt at making a game in the vein of Symphony of the Night for a portable system, but the connection to the Castlevania series by name drags it down because of the high standards the series had, mostly, set before it. Maybe put it up on the ULTRA label!?

So much, like Jeremy noted in his GameboyAdvance Works video, this is a really fun game for a few hours. My experience with Metroidvania games, good and better, normally breaks down into an initial exploration stage where I open up a lot of the map, a more focused exploration of a segment, which hopefully leads to more of the map, and then….

Well, and then comes the part that makes or breaks the game for me. It is that next part: Is there something interesting about the plot to keep me exploring? Has the map taught me enough about how the world works to be able to continue exploring? If so, I am all in. Games like Symphony Of The Night, Timespinner, and Axiom Verge are great examples of this.

Circle of the Moon is the opposite. I got over halfway through this game and then quickly lost interest. The game began feeling so directionless, and whatever I needed to open up more parts of the map was not clear. I also ran into a very difficult boss that I was clearly under powered to fight. I did not feel any compulsion to grind further to continue, so I put the game aside and began preparing my notes for this script. The other concerns I had been having about the game were greatly perpetuated by this issue.

One of the reasons Symphony Of The Night is likely the best game of the nineties is how smoothly you control Alucard. His weapons move swiftly. His jumps are pitch perfect. Nathan’s jumps are awkward. His whips move like molasses. It is a real problem in closed quarters when you’re trying to fight off enemies or a powerful boss. What is great about Symphony of the Night is not replicated at all in the playable character.

Another issue is the map, which, at least on the Wii U, awkwardly fits onto the screen once you open it up beyond the original base you are given. This leads to problems at times when trying to figure out where to go next. I can’t imagine it is great on a GBA either. Modern iterations of this genre do a way better job here.

Something Jeremy and I share as a concern is the length between save spaces. When I began playing Circle of the Moon on Extra Life Day I barely made it to a save point near the end of the hour with very little health left. I felt like there was this massive gap between save points and that is an issue throughout the game. Again, this is such a downgrade from Symphony of the Night.

Another downgrade is the lack of any kind of intrigue. As gamers we have zero connection to Nathan outside of him having a brother and a mentor who need rescuing. There is no lore or myth building. In Symphony of the Night, you’ve seen Alucard in Dracula’s Curse. Richter and Maria were in Rondo of Blood, which you may or may not have been able to play by then. Most people at least knew who they were from the world wide web. I cannot imagine caring about Nathan or his compatriots the way I do about the Belmonts.

The double dash mechanic is also not great. In theory, it can be useful, but the moves you need to make on the controller to do it right are hard to pull off consistently. There had to be a better way to implement this! I had a hard time climbing up part of the eastern map due to this. It is a real frustration.

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