20 Years of Hindsight Have Complicated My New Relationship with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

I love me a good Metroidvania, but when it comes to the genre’s namesake franchises, I’ve always been quite a bit more Metroid than Vania. My first Castlevania play-throughs were in 2013, starting with Dracula’s Curse for the NES, followed by my first Igavania, Aria of Sorrow. (“Igavania” is the shorthand term for the more SotN-like exploratory games in the franchise, named after series director Koji Igarashi.) After following Aria with Dawn, going back to beat Castlevania 1, and then starting Portrait of Ruin before falling off, I sorta set the franchise aside and haven’t really gone back.

This leaves gaps you could drive a truck through in my Castlevania history. I respect the series, but more by legacy than experience. I never stumbled bewildered through Simon’s Quest, I never flipped the castle in Symphony, I never squinted at a GBA screen to attempt to discern what was going on in Circle of the Moon.

That last one changed with the release of Castlevania: Advance Collection last week. Thankfully, the crappy GBA screen wasn’t a factor, so there was less squinting and headaches. Well, that last one isn’t true, but the headaches had other sources.

Playing Circle of the Moon for the first time 20 years after its launch release was, and continues to be, a fascinating experience. I think I love this game. I also think I hate this game. Maybe the best thing to say is that this game has a phenomenal promise, and the strength of that promise is enough to keep you going even when the game kicks you in the stomach repeatedly and asks you if you’re having fun yet.

I was so intrigued by my playthrough of Circle that I went and sought out articles and videos about the game to see what others had to say. Since my postgame thoughts were so conflicted, I hoped hearing other people’s thoughts would help me clarify my own. I watched speedruns, I checked out favorite essayists of mine like Jeremy Parish and others I’ve occasionally watched like Pikasprey. The videos were great (Jeremy’s in particular, as always from him), but the thing I especially noticed across all the speedruns and essays were the comments sections. So many comments had this basic sentiment: “Circle of the Moon was my first Castlevania game and I still love it to death. I got it at the GBA launch and just poured myself into it, even if it was too dark to see well on that original screen.” I was under the impression that Circle was an offbeat, mostly forgotten entry. It’s not even canon anymore by Konami’s standards! What I found, in contrast, was that this game has a passionate, nostalgia-fueled fanbase. This was driven home for me when two of my close friends on Twitter had basically the same story as the YouTube commenters.

My circumstances in approaching Circle couldn’t be more different. I’m a jaded, old man. I’ve played other Castlevania games, even in the Igarashi style. I’m experiencing it in a polished collection on a beautifully backlit LCD screen. I’ve played dozens of Metroidvania games in the 20 years since 2001--games that learned specifically from mistakes made in this very game! And yet, in those comments under Circle of the Moon videos, I can see myself. It’s not my story, but I can imagine that it could have been if my personal GBA launch had been a little different. I think that even as I played it for the first time in 2021, there was still some childlike wonder involved. It was still remarkable to me that they could pull this game off on a GBA. Just a few years after Symphony of the Night, Konami produced a game with seemingly the same scope, but on a handheld. In a lot of ways, this game is magical.

Unfortunately, the game also did its best to ruin that magic for me along the way.

One of the biggest mechanics in Circle of the Moon, and something that has enchanted players of the game since its release, is the Dual Setup System (DSS). There are 10 Action cards and 10 Attribute cards, and you can pair them up for 100 different game-changing effects. This is so cool! Some combinations are more useful than others, of course, but some combinations change everything about the way you approach the game. There are even some card combinations that are considered essential. The creativity and depth of this system is remarkable.

Allegedly, anyway. I don’t know much about DSS. How could I miss such a core mechanic? Well, this is what my subscreen looked like.

I ended the game with exactly 5 cards. And I only had one Action card, which means that the 4 Attribute cards were just modifiers to my whip--and I didn’t even like any of them. I basically just used the fire whip the whole time, even though it was a little slower. A lot of the time, I just didn’t use a card combo at all. After 3.5 hours of game time, I had 4 of 100 possible combinations. This is not for lack of interest or lack of trying, either. I just didn’t get the drops! It’s not like I was avoiding enemies or going out of my way to skip content. The drop rates are just that abysmal. After I beat the game and looked up some potential card combos, I was shocked not only by what I was missing out on, but how ridiculously easy it was for me to miss all of it.

This led to me having profound struggles against basically all the bosses. Honestly, with Nathan’s base movement and attacks, it feels like the bosses were designed for an entirely different game. Almost every boss is nimble with tight reaction windows baked into their patterns, but your player character is just downright clumsy in many ways. To make matters worse, the save rooms are often placed several screens away from the bosses, so even when you pull off a heroic boss win by a narrow margin, there’s no guarantee that you won’t get sniped by an offscreen skeleton on your way to record your progress. (This happened more than once.) I’m sure that these bosses would have been far more bearable with more leveling up, better gear, and a deeper understanding of DSS. That’s all well and good…but the game kept all of that from me, locked behind random number generation and unfair drop rates. Even if I wanted to grind (I didn’t), there was no in-game way of knowing what to grind for. I wanted to love this game, but this game was not interested in my love. Thanks to bad luck, this game wanted me to struggle, so struggle I did. I was basically doing a speedrun-strat challenge mode of the game without even realizing it. Yes, this is mostly me being unlucky, so I can only be upset with the game itself to a certain point. The issue is that the design of the game is such that luck is far too much a factor in what you see and do.

Yet, I’m still coming away from Circle of the Moon fulfilled, intrigued, and hungry to know more about it. After I play through the other games in the Advance collection, I might even do a Magician Mode run, exploring the depths of the DSS that I sorely missed out on the first time. In general, Circle’s New Game Plus is awesome; there’s magician mode that gives you all the DSS cards right away, Fighter mode that eliminates DSS but boosts your stats (this is basically what I did initially, now that I think about it), as well as Shooter and Thief modes.

This game was clearly designed to be an investment. Many of the problems I experienced in my first run were admittedly because I tried to rush through the game too quickly. If I had played at a more leisurely pace and had been more willing to grind, I probably would have gotten some of those dope cards and beneficial gear that I missed out on. Kids getting lost in the castle on GBA came to the final boss at a significant advantage over me, simply because they took more time to get there. Circle of the Moon is the kind of game that gives back to you that which you put into it. The robust New Game Plus modes are a testament to that. Trouble is, I’m not currently in a place where I want to invest that amount of myself into any game.

There’s still so much to love here, though. Nathan’s movement might be a bit clunky, but it still feels crisp, weighty, and deliberate. Every mistake I made felt like my own fault, not the game’s. Outside of the save room placement, the castle is wonderfully designed, offering far more positive than negative lessons for Metroidvania games to follow down the line. The game looks gorgeous, especially on modern-day screens. The audio design does valiant battle with the GBA hardware and ends up coming out on top, delivering some of the best Castlevania remix tracks out there and even some cool originals. In so many ways, it is remarkable that this was a GBA launch title.

The bosses may have been intense, but they are all very cool fights conceptually. The Zombie Dragons freaked me out when the left dragon started to eat the right one to replenish its health. Adramelech was massive and intimidating, even if confined to the stocks. Camilla’s transformed form was disgusting and awesome. I may have had to bash my head against some of these fights for a while, but the elating feeling of triumph was always there in the end. Thankfully, the Advance Collection offers save states, so I did utilize that to compensate for what I felt was an unfair factor in the original design. If that bothers you...deal with it.

All of these positives have an unfortunate side effect though: they end up highlighting the weaknesses all the more. I loved the feel of playing this game, which made the luck-based difficulty spikes all the more frustrating. I loved the castle, which made the sparse, seemingly random save rooms even more upsetting. The bosses are all so cool, which makes their unfairness just that much more hard to take. I am just not sure how to feel, here.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the kind of game you could replay forever. Its New Game Plus system is so robust and customizable, its mechanics are deep and varied. In an alternate timeline, there’s a Jared who got Circle of the Moon at the GBA launch in 2001, pored over every inch of the game for months, grew intimately familiar with it, and now shouts from the rooftops how it’s his favorite Castlevania game. (That Jared had seemingly infinite Kid Time to devour this game, no matter what it threw at him.) There’s another alternate universe where a Jared plays Circle for the first time with Advance Collection’s release in 2021, then drops every other game on his backlog to try every alternate mode, mess with every DSS Card combo, and maybe even speedrun the game. (That Jared probably got a lot better luck in his first run.)

This Jared, though, is going to love Circle from afar. I respect its depth and potential, but ultimately I’m going to view it as a wonderful, flawed game that dealt me a really rough hand to play with. This will lead me to forever think of it as the proof of concept that handheld Castlevania was possible, yet only as an entry that doesn’t truly make good on the series’ promises—promises to be fulfilled two games later with the masterclass Aria of Sorrow.

Is that fair? No, maybe not. But in my defense, neither is Circle of the Moon.

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