Monday, December 18, 2023

Castlevania - Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance, 2001)


Four years after Symphony of the Night, we got a sequel of sorts. This is the next "Metroidvania" in the series. It doesn't measure up to its predecessor very well at all, but it's still a pretty good game. This also kicked off the series' second golden era (the first being their 16-bit triumphs). It's the first of a Game Boy Advance trilogy of Metroidvanias that was immediately followed by a DS trilogy. They're all good (though some much more than others). A few bullet points first off:

-This was a Game Boy Advance launch game. I totally missed out on that era myself, but it's pretty awesome that people got this as a launch game.

-The European version was just called "Castlevania" which is kind of funny. Made it look like (yet another) remake of the first one.

-Koji Igarashi didn't work on this at all, and later kind of disavowed it as not being canon. He was back for the next one, Harmony of Dissonance, to "fix" things. IMO that game is the weakest of the six GBA/DS Metroidvanias, though, so not much fixing went on. This game is easily the second-weakest, with the other four being well above the first two.

-Playing this on the PS4 Castlevania Advance Collection which is a pretty nice value (and again, means I'm not forced to emulate, so I'm glad they're making an effort to re-release these things). That said, the GBA trilogy found on said collection is much easier TO emulate or even buy than the now-rare DS trilogy that followed it, so I was really hoping they would do a second collection with the DS trilogy. No such luck. Where's the DS trilogy, Konami?

This takes place a few hundred years after most of the other games in the series. Dracula's Castle is now-defunct, lurking out in the wilderness. A bunch of his worshippers have gathered there as someone is doing the rites to bring him back.

That someone is the nefarious Camilla, who really needs to be in more of this series, has organized the revival of Dracula. This isn't his normal revival every hundred years, which I believe ended with Rondo of Blood. Nope, it's basically a summoning.

I wonder if this is like getting out of prison for Dracula. Camilla is certainly dressed for the occasion.

Before they can get busy, a bunch of vampire hunters burst into the room. AW COME ON. Can this guy get a break?

Noted vampire hunter Morris Baldwin and his two students are here to lay waste to the prince of darkness. If you're wondering who the hell Morris Baldwin is... he was made up for this game and is basically non-canon to the series. They allude to him defeating Dracula previously, but there's no such game. Chances are, the new guy who show-ran this game wanted to establish some of his own canon.

In any case, Dracula quickly makes the floor collapse, causing Morris' two understudies to fall to their deaths.

Well, that was a short game.

Wait, no, they're fine. So one of them is Morris' son High, who has pulled a Vargas and carries a lot of hate around due to Nathan being his dad's favorite student.

Nathan isn't even related to Morris, yet Morris has dubbed him the next in line to wield the Vampire Killer (the old Belmont whip). This really grinds Hugh's gears. In any case, Hugh runs off and we're left to play as Nathan and explore the castle.

We've got an inventory screen to put on equipment (armor, weapons) and so forth. This is basically the next "Metroidvania" game after Symphony of the Night, so it does a lot of the same things.

Most importantly, you can level up. Levels seem to be more "necessary" than they were in Symphony. I feel like in that game the levels just came naturally as you played through, and didn't make a massive difference. Meanwhile, this game dictates that your levels be at a certain point in order to stay ahead of the difficulty curve, which isn't optimum.

All of that said, leveling up is easier in this game than any other one in the series, due to all of the rooms where enemies spawn infinitely. Holding down the attack button causes Nathan to spin the whip, which is the equivalent of a Wood Shield type move from a Mega Man game.

In one of the first rooms you can stand under these things that infinitely drop snakes with like 1 HP, and just collect EXP. It's 1 EXP per foe, but it still levels you up pretty fast. I usually get to like level 5-7 here before I even do anything, which isn't overleveling believe it or not.

The biggest issue with this game* right off the bat** is the slow movement speed. You walk around super slowly and it's a PITA. So within a few minutes you get these boots that let you double-tap to run around quicker. This saves a LOT of time and annoyance to say the least. I wonder why they didn't just start the player with this, considering this is like ten minutes into the game at the most and I suspect a few players might have been warded off from the game by the slow speed. Especially now on the Advance Collection when you've got other stuff to play.

* - On the original hardware, the biggest issue was the dark screen. That was hands-down the most difficult to deal with aspect of this game. The GBA wasn't backlit (until the SP version) and this game was pretty dark on top of that. They brightened it up considerably for this port, thankfully, so it's infinitely more playable here than it is on a GBA.

** - bat, heh

You can also find various perma-boosts to HP, MP, and heart capacity. Most of these are hidden in side-rooms or out of the way areas. They give nice boosts, pretty much equivalent to two level-ups for that particular stat. This makes it fun to run around exploring, since you're constantly getting small upgrades.

The big gimmick of this game is the DSS system. Which is a fancy way of saying you can equip cards to get powerups or attacks that happen if you press L. There are two sets of cards and you can equip one of each at a time, with the combinations having various effects. The top row are all names of Roman gods, while the bottom row are names of enemies in the game. All of them, from either row, are rare (1%) drops from certain enemy types. So if you want them all, that's a TON of farming. Only a few of the combinations are actually useful, though.

Venus + Thunderbird: Increases attack power proportionate to map completion. Later in the game when you have like 80% map completion, this is a HUGE boost and almost doubles your damage. It only affects the whip, though, not special weapons, and special weapons are what I use more against bosses. You press L to activate this and it lasts until MP ticks down to zero. (MP regens automatically over time)

Jupiter + Thunderbird: Probably the best combination. Press L and it doubles your defense, while making every hit knock you backwards. There are no death pits in this game and almost everything knocks you backwards anyway, so it's basically just a free defense double. It also doesn't seem to drain MP faster than you regen, so this can be left on infinitely.

Mercury + Salamander: Gives you a flame whip! This looks awesome and is probably the first combination you get access to in the game since both cards are so early (and common drops compared to the rest). It doesn't really increase damage much, except against ice-elemental enemies. Ice enemies are also the most annoying foes in the game, so it works for me.

Uranus + Thunderbird: Do a button combination to summon Thunderbird to wreak havoc for a chunk of MP. Does a ton of damage to bosses. Seems like this is the best combination to use to quickly dismantle bosses, though I prefer to use the attack or defense combinations and fight it out.

Mars + Unicorn: Lets you swing a giant holy sword instead of the whip. Costs some MP every time but it hits harder and (surprisingly) swings faster than the whip. Plus it just LOOKS really cool.

Pluto + Black Dog: Turns Hugh into a skeleton, which lets him throw arcing bones as an attack (kind of like the axe throw). Not very good, except that every time you throw a bone, it has a 1/8 chance of being a giant bone that does a metric ton of damage. So you're throwing bones for 10 damage and then suddenly you get a 500-600 damage throw randomly. 1/8 is pretty often too. In Magician Mode (more on that later) it actually out-damages most of your other moves, especially early on.

There are about a zillion more combinations and it's actually pretty deep. Thing is, the game isn't long enough to really get full use out of all of them (or even a tenth of them) and most players will likely just find the few that work well and stick with those.

First boss is Cerberus. This guy gave me some grief in Symphony of the Night and here he's pretty bad too, especially for a first boss.

Winning here is mainly a matter of being leveled-up enough to survive.

This is a HUGE game-changer, much like the dash. Not only can you explore a lot more of the castle now, you have way more mobility in battle as well.

The castle in this game is very vertical compared to Symphony. There are tons of vertical areas and long drops.

Axe Knight! A lot of the enemies in this are lifted right from Symphony. The map layout is quite different though.

We're gonna rock down to! Electric Skeleton!

The next area has a ton of undead in it, like these endlessly-spawning mummies. The main danger is if they team up with The Giant and double-team you.

Here's why there are undead everywhere: The next big boss is this undead-animating menace.

Necromancer is the first big boss in the game, and probably the first real roadblock if you haven't been leveling. The cross boomerang does a huge amount of damage to him compared to other weapons, and I'm finding it to be pretty OP. Aim it well and during the arc of the throw, where it hovers in one spot for a second, it'll rack up hits on your foe.

There's a second form to this fight where he throws off the robes and we see him in all his nood splendor. I'm not big on second form bosses in these games, but he falls quick to the cross boomerang as well. At this point I'd say winning any fight you have issues with in this game is just a matter of A) Level up a bit for more HP and B) Bring the cross boomerang with a full stock of hearts and just let rip with that.

Next is a Clock Tower type area, but it's nowhere near as bad as the usual Clock Towers in these games.

Next boss: Clay Golem. This guy unleashes devastating ground-pound attacks that hit you anywhere onscreen unless you jump in time. I win with, you guessed it, cross boomerang spam.

Nathan finds his friend? Hugh laying around. I guess he lost a fight with the boss. Did you lose a fight with the boss, Hugh?

Hugh: "My family and I are in SERIOUS conversations with our legal teams regarding next steps as the allegations that have been made have been made with complete disregard for the truth of the matter these allegations were made by individuals who self-admittedly aren't even financial or legal professionals"

What the? I did NOT see that coming!

Getting past that boss gets me the High Jump Boots from Metroid! ...well, no, but they look just like them. These actually let you wall-jump, which is super useful for getting to higher areas.

The next area is full of these giant groping grabby-hands. I've learned getting back into the 'Vania games that one of their coolest aspects is the consistency between games of having the same enemy types showing up in game after game. The bosses in particular are classic.

I find a suit! Do I want to trade a defense drop for a lesser attack raise, though? ...not really.

The bell tower is home to these tiger enemies that leap around like madmen. They're almost as bad as Kintaro, but have fewer arms.

Outside the next boss room, it's Hugh. Looks like he lost AGAIN. You know that "All I Do Is Win" song? It isn't about Hugh.

"Give me my trophy, bitch!" says Hugh while flopping around.

This giant monstrosity is Adramalech, which looks a lot worse than it is. Probably one of the easier bosses, especially considering that the cross boomerang is wildly overpowered in this game. Especially against large targets like this one where it'll hit a bunch of times going through.

Hugh is not happy that Nathan defeated the boss without him. This guy is such a dick. There's never even a point where he tries to get along with Nathan. How did they even co-exist before this?

Hot statues herald my arrival in the second half of the game. This is a pretty sizable game, but it's smaller than Symphony and easier than any of the traditional 'Vanias. So it doesn't take too long.

....what the hell?

Whip this candle and a body flops out and disappears. This is the one time in the entire game that it happens.

Next I find a good level-grinding spot. These ghosts spawn infinitely and can be taken out with the whip-spin. They also give 3 EXP, as opposed to the 1 EXP given by earlier infinite-spawning enemies. This makes leveling 3x as fast which is a big deal. Unlike SOTN enemy exp doesn't depreciate as you level up, either, so they'll always give 3 EXP. Just rubber band your controller and come back the next day to be a bunch of levels higher. Totally eliminates the need for any late-game level grinding.

The next boss is a full-on doozy, so I grinded up at a good time. There's some trick to beating this boss, but hell if I could figure out what it was. I just stayed on the center platform and tried to spam cross boomerangs and whip swings.

The next big item. This isn't super useful in moment to moment gameplay but it does unlock a ton of side-rooms with powerups in them. Nothing interesting, just mostly HP Ups and MP Ups.

The next objective was to get an item that cleansed the poisonous water in the sewers. Before, this water would continuously damage Nate if he ran through it. Now that it's just plain water, I can traverse this next area without any issue. I think this part can be sequence-broken since technically you don't NEED for the water to be cleansed.

This leads to a showdown with... my nemeses, the Sahagin.

"Our time has come!" they screech while attacking en masse.

Death is next. Is he wearing a fedora?

This is like every other Death fight in the later games of the series. He flies around throwing sickles, then has a second form where he turns into a ground-based monstrosity and you have to slug it out.

After slaying Death, we arrive at Camilla, who I maintain really needs to have a larger role in this series. Not to be confused with Elizabeth Bathory who summoned Dracula in earlier games.

Camilla: "Well, he's two stories tall, and I refuse to date short guys."

She turns into a giant vampiress riding someone's face. Welp.

This is a super obnoxious fight because she constantly sends out these purple bubbles that knock you all over the place. One of the few places in this game where knockback becomes a real serious issue. I tucked into the doorway nook here and just spammed cross boomerangs, which have been my mainstay for pretty much every boss at this point.

I win by giving her a firm spanking. What a perfect screenshot on every level. Get outta here, Camilla!

What? Hugh just saw a full moon firsthand.

Next powerup is...sort of the Space Jump from the Metroid series, but not really. It lets you do infinite upward springs. Symphony of the Night had this same move, which was the only way to get through Richter Mode since he didn't have bat form.

Stats before the final battle. Pay no attention to the clock, that's just from leaving it on. The spectre room got Hugh from level 18 to 38, but clearly it took an excessively long time. I'm sure there are better ways to level up, but hey. This works when you're busy and want to catch up without having to manually grind. Too many other things going on.

It'd be better to be around level 60 for the endgame fights to go smoothly...though who knows how long THAT would take. Maybe the idea was that players would stop and grind out the DSS cards, thus getting their levels that way (while extending the game's duration by like 3x). I don't know. Hard to imagine non-completionist players would bother though. Overall, this game can be beaten in about 6 hours on a first go, and isn't that long at all. Would be half that if you didn't need to level up and be thorough with finding HP Ups to stand a chance against the endgame.

Final map. I've got it 82% complete, and unlike SOTN it tops out at 100%. There's one major area I'm missing and it's the postgame arena. Not much to say about that place, you go through a bunch of rooms and fight harder versions of main game enemies.

Also unlike SOTN I don't feel any particular need to get 100% map completion in this one. The game just isn't inspiring enough, at all. It's worth beating, though.

First up of the final battles: Hugh. He's had enough of Nathan!

...what did Nathan actually DO, you ask? I don't know. Nate has been really nice to him all game and Hugh is just going Full Vargas.

It's funny how Nathan is still surprised at Hugh's behavior, even though it's all he's exhibited all game. When Hugh takes a swing at him, Nathan is shocked. Shocked!

He's going to get his rival out of his way once and for all and By God become the next in line for the Vampire Hunter title.

He's not being controlled by anybody, bro. He really just doesn't like you.


This is hands-down the hardest fight in the game, at least for me. Hugh has a TON of HP and he hits hard. Much like the Dragon Zombie, I couldn't get a viable strategy going here and would generally end up just spamming boomerangs and whip strikes while trying to leap away from his return fire. His own attacks consist of similar moves: A sword swing and vampire hunter special weapons (axe, holy water, etc).

Nathan's whip reaches a lot further than Hugh's sword, so that was my one advantage here.

....huh, I see why Hugh feels so inferior.

After losing that fight a few times (can't imagine how bad it'd be if I didn't level up first) I need a new strategy. Turns out that the Dark Armor enemies right outside the boss room are actually an outstanding farm target. They have a 2% chance of dropping Platinum Armor (the best armor I've seen in this game, by a good margin) and a 1% chance of dropping Double Grips (the best accessory in the game). You'll need one of the former and two of the latter. This might seem like a ridiculous farm, but it is what it is. Also nets a few more levels. Equip a couple Luck Rings and get to work!

Note: There's actually a better armor that I found later. Going back to Machine Tower at this point, there's a Lilim in the hidden room at the center of the area with a Heart Up in it. She's a unique mob that only spawns late in the game, and has a 1% chance of dropping Dark Armor which is considerably stronger than Platinum Armor. This would have been a huge help with the final bosses and it's worth noting. At least, it's supposed to be 1%... I got it on the first try, which is probably the only time I've ever gotten lucky on a rare drop in any game.

Equipping two Double Grips gives you a huge stat boost (it's zero with one by itself). Between that, the Platinum Armor defense boost, and the DSS attack boost based on map completion, I can fight Hugh on more even footing.

There we go. Long-awaited is right. And even with all my extra preparation I still barely won. The devs really did expect you to either level through the roof or get super-good at the game.

After beating him up, he realizes that he was wrong and that Nate was the one with the maturity to inherit the whip. It's cool that he wasn't actually being demonically possessed or anything. He really was just incredibly jealous. Makes him seeing the error of his ways mean a lot more when it isn't just some curse being lifted, but actual introspection.

Next fight is Dracula, with Morris Baldwin being held hostage in the background. This is your standard teleporting Dracula fight, with one key difference: His entire body can be hit, not just his head.

Once I realized this it was a snap to win, just launch cross boomerangs and whip away. Sometimes this first Dracula form is the hard part and his second form is a gimme, like in Castlevania Chronicles. Other times the second form is the real problem and the first form is easy, like Dracula-X. This game is the latter. The good news is that it actually lets you leave the room and go save/recover before challenging the second form. Not sure why more games in this series don't allow that, because it would have been very welcome.

Drac's final form is a doozy, almost as difficult as Hugh. He's got a ton of HP and can only be damaged when his midsection-eye opens.

Cross boomerangs were my friend, as always, and I spammed them every chance I got. His attacks also hit incredibly hard so I was very reliant on the double-defense DSS power to carry this fight.

The last phase of the fight is one of the most obnoxious things in this entire series. He does these huge dash attacks that are impossible to dodge (well, normally) and can one-shot you if you've got any less than 70% HP or so. The good news is that the space jump power sails you over the dashes.

The bad news is that he can only be damaged when he breaks apart into this swarm, and the bat-shield has more range than your whip does. He also flies at erratic patterns. So you get hit constantly trying to line up a strike. Oh yeah, and he still has a ton of HP left when he goes to this phase. Just an incredibly obnoxious battle. I'd say this phase is a good time to break out the Thunderbird summon and unleash it.

Morris: "Hell no! I feel like shit!"

In any case, everyone lived happily ever after. We never see any of these characters again, because...

...the guy who ran this game was out after this and IGA was back in charge. So this game basically exists in a bubble.

Beating the game unlocks Magician Mode. Start a new game with "Fireball" as your name. This is the hard mode or challenge mode of the game, kind of like Maria/Richter Mode in Symphony. It's the same exact game, though, unlike those modes. The difference from the normal game is that Nathan's HP and defense are halved (and gain half as much per level up), attack power is cut to two-thirds (and gains two-thirds as much per level up), and his MP / magic power are quadrupled.

It also starts you with all of the DSS cards unlocked. In the PS4 version, this gives you the trophy for collecting all of them (after playing a few minutes and making use of the system), so you don't actually have to farm them legitimately in the game. Which is a bit of a relief if one wants to platinum this.

So basically you're at a distinct disadvantage, but you're free to get more use out of the DSS system and really experiment with it to succeed, with a ton of magic power to go along with it. It's a fun mode. I can't wait to give it a run and spam summons for the first time all game.

I made sure to go back and do one thing:

Go back and summon COCKATRICE to decimate the sahagin mermen.

"NOOOOO! FOILED AGAIN!" they screech as the giant chicken runs them over.

Note: It's possible to beat the game in like 3 minutes in this mode (for a pro) since having all DSS cards unlocked lets you sequence break easily.

Final thoughts? Good game here, though possibly the least-good of the six GBA/DS Metroidvanias in the series. Harmony of Dissonance is the only one I think I like less. I actually have ten more 'Vanias I want to cover at some point, a nice even number. For now though, I got done with the five I specifically wanted to do for Halloween, so the rest will be later.

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