Pocket Power: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

Koji Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night made waves in the gaming press for being one of the more successful video game Kickstarters ever. With it, the tried and tested Metroidvania genre is looking to receive a monumental resurgence. Igarashi is one of the leading pioneers of the concept behind this genre, and produced constant hits for Nintendo handhelds when he was still with Konami and in charge of the Castlevania franchise. That being said, there is one revered entry in the franchise that did not have his involvement, and that was Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. No developer has a taint-free track record, and Koji Igarashi’s opinion on Circle of the Moon has landed him on the naughty list of many a Castlevania fan. Circle of the Moon is so heavily disliked by Igarashi that he even decided to drop the title from the series’ official timeline canon. His sheer prejudice against Circle of the Moon is almost petty, especially considering that it was an excellent title that simply didn’t have his involvement as a producer. Canon or not, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is one of the best games in the series, if not one of the best you will ever play.

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The Game Boy Advance launched in North America back in 2001, a much hyped successor to the hugely successful but rapidly aging Game Boy Color. The then dubbed “32-bit” handheld saw a fairly impressive launch with the likes of Super Mario Advance and Pinobee, but no launch title was as lavishly produced and impressive as Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. It’s not often that a system’s launch title ends up being one of its top ten must have titles; the Xbox has Halo: Combat Evolved, the Nintendo 64 has Super Mario 64 and the Game Boy Advance has Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Perhaps one of the criticisms at the time was something that wasn’t so much the fault of the game itself, but rather the hardware. The original Game Boy Advance model was notorious for its dark screen, and this was something that did not complement the dark, gritty and artistically detailed aesthetic of Circle of the Moon. That being said, as uncomfortable as it was, the game wasn’t unplayable as long as you had the right lighting. Subsequent GBA hardware revisions would fix that dark screen issue, making Circle of the Moon a more comfortable portable experience.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is quite simply the cream of the crop. When you consider things like progression, pacing and overall level design, few video games come together as flawlessly as Circle of the Moon does. With a constant challenge, treacherous boss battles and an evolving RPG system that has players experiment with different cards to create some cool spells, Circle of the Moon captivates from the very first screen and holds that attention until the end. Visually and musically, it’s one of the most memorable entries in the franchise, with some songs staying with you years after you’ve completed the game, and it helps that the soundtrack contains special remixes of many classic tunes from the series’ history.

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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon can now be picked up with ease from the Wii U’s ever growing Virtual Console library and it looks mighty fine on the Game Pad too. Circle of the Moon might possibly be the best game in the series, arguably even better than Symphony of the Night…and maybe that’s what keeps Iga awake at night.

  • Pshaw. I love Circle of the Moon, but everyone knows the best GBA Castlevania was Aria of Sorrow.

    (I only sort of keed here… Aria was a far more memorable entry in the series. No argument that COTM was great, however!)

  • Christopher Lewis

    Circle of the Moon was possibly the worst of the Metroidvania Castlevanias. It’s definitely nothing compared SotN, AoS, DoS, OoE, or PoR. Actually I didn’t even know for sure that IGA didn’t make it until this year, but I always knew something was off about it. I can’t tell if this is a troll article, a hipster article, or an article from someone with bad taste.

    • Nathan Graves

      I don’t know if this post is a troll post, a post from someone who is a teensy bit upset that his opinion is not satiated or a post from someone with even worse taste… The fact that no arguments are articulate as to WHY is the worst in the series is quite petty, and resorting to accusing the author writing a ‘hipster’ article is plain offensive. Everyone knows that supporting SotN is the hipster thing to do!

      Firstly, the post disregards the existence of Harmony of Dissonance. Anyone who has a skerrick of knowledge about the series will without a doubt agree that HoD is the worst title among the ‘Metroidvanias’ – the design of the castle is awful and confusing, the combat devolves from its predecessor, the style is awfully convoluted and for the life of me I can’t figure out why you had that shadow tailing you.

      Secondly, SotN is the most overrated title in the series, and even with taking into account the IGA was just a grunt on the series at that point and many original legendary developers worked on the project. I appreciate it for introducing the formula to the gaming world, but there is SO much that was done better in CotM. SotN is easy, it’s actually quite linear in its design where you can just follow the one direction, the RPG system feels redundant and purely cosmetic because of the ease and design, discoveries feel redundant as well – almost as if all those empty rooms that add to our percentage are there purely to congratulate you for finding that room but without any tangible reward. And looking back at it now, the upside down castle really comes across as a gimmick that is now an overused gaming trope.

      Thirdly, AoS and DoS are conceptually cool but awry in execution. There is nothing about AoS that shows you’re as far in the future as you are, the castle design feels erratic and is particularly easy to get lost in the towers. However, after CotM, AoS is my favourite titles – the music is awesome, the style is evocative of Castlevania, the story is interesting and the RPG elements have some meaning. DoS on the other hand is just as overrated as SotN. Discoveries have no meaning, game is easy until you have to hurry and use those seals, but worse of all, it is stylistically the worst game in the series. There might have be a good reason for it (contractual reasons) but changing from the beautiful gothic inspired art to a generic Saturday morning anime ‘style’ that looks like it was stolen from ‘Twlight: The Anime’.

      PoR is mechanically the best game in the series, but took the whole ‘imitation’ thing too far. After thinking how wonderfully creative the title was with its concept and gameplay, it throws it all away with laziness by trying to monkey SotN too much. The horizontal reversal of all the levels feels like you’re replaying the same game – a sin that should have been eradicated after Devil May Cry 4… OoE is actually a pretty interesting departure for the series and a great advert for female protagonists… but still lacks the element of design that allows for discovery and the castle feels really really small…

      Overall, I don’t need to repeat what the article says because it’s all there, but CotM does everything that the above titles don’t – immaculate design that challenges you to think how to get to the next target, a challenging and diverse set of enemies, epic and huge boss battles, a diverse magic system that allows you to tinker your play style and genuine secrets and discoveries that take effort and lateral thinking to find, while occasionally dropping you a great little surprise. This is a great and brave article, so I applaud the author for taking a stand for this oft forgotten gem.

      • Christopher Lewis

        Goodness that is a lot to tackle and I probably won’t tackle it all or even much of it haha. I suppose I should start off by saying that it’s fine if someone prefers Circle of the Moon. It’s just a difference of opinion. I actually didn’t know how well liked Circle of the Moon is. Now that I know this I agree that it’s not a “hipster article” as I said earlier. Saying that supporting SotN is the hipster thing to do makes even less sense though considering the fact that SotN is more popular. A lot of my friends like Castlevania and we pretty much all agree that Circle of the Moon is not bad, but not very good either. So I just sort of assumed that most other Castlevania fans felt the same way. My personal reasons for not caring for it are the lack of weapon variety and the way the character handled. Also I have played a beat Harmony of Dissonance and it and CotM are my two least favorites. Although I think I might prefer HoD to be honest, but not by much. The character controlled better in HoD. It still didn’t control very well. Just better than CotM.

        I’m not going to go into each individual game because I’m lazy and it will take too long. It’s not that important if we disagree on which Castlevanias we like the most and the least. I will say this though. The reason my original post took such a negative tone is because the article is bringing up some decade old bullshit that has already been played out. The only reason this article was written is because someone is still butthurt about CotM not being a part of the official timeline and they’re upset about IGA’s recent success with Bloodstained. The original article says this: “Circle of the Moon is so heavily disliked by Igarashi that he even decided to drop the title from the series’ official timeline canon” which is bullshit. He only took it out of the timeline because it was a standalone thing. Also I’ve never seen anything about him disliking Circle of the Moon. He just pointed out some flaws as far as I know (some of his points I agree with and some I disagree with).

        Even if IGA disliked CotM and removed it from the timeline for that reason, this is still old news. It was like the author saw his recent success and went to dig up the one negative thing he could find about him. They also said “and maybe that’s what keeps Iga awake at night.” which is also bullshit. I’m sure IGA’s concentrated on Bloodstained rather than worrying about a decade old GBA game that he didn’t make. I still stand by everything I wrote in my original post except for the hipster article thing, but it’s fine if you disagree with me still. People enjoy and prefer different things for different reasons. At this point we should be positive and looking forward to Bloodstained because it’s more than likely going to be amazing.

    • jatre

      Unsurprisingly, the same could be said about you. Shocking! You are not clever.

  • jatre

    I respect Igarashi as a developer, but his CotM “criticism” is total junk. The only bit he covers is the brightness complaint that everyone everywhere covers, and even then I never had an issue playing all three of the games on a regular GBA.

    The controls aren’t a problem at all, and just about every reviewer agrees; they work about the same as SotN and the other games anyway, except for the dash. He takes issue with the DSS system… then proceeds to stick similar magic spells in the very next game, and then copies DSS wholesale for three games (AoS, DoS, OoE). He dares to criticize the difficulty here, then turns around and does the same thing (possibly even worse) for OoE. He then removes the game from the timeline of a series that wasn’t really his yet, so that he didn’t have to try to fit in some game that he didn’t work on.

    Oh, and Konami still did a rerelease in 2005 anyway, because the game deserved it.