When Nintendo released their successor to the ultra popular portable Game Boy Color system, the Game Boy Advance, it wasn't really "out with the old and in with the new" as much as it was "out with the new and in with the old." Despite having a 32-bit computer processor (comparable to that of the home console PlayStation), the lack of a 3-D graphics co-processor ensured that the Game Boy Advance's initial library would consist mostly of modest updates and ports of classic 2-D games from the 16-bit Super Nintendo and Genesis era. Of course depending on whom you ask, that may or may not be a bad thing. A substantial portion of the gaming population (consisting mostly of older gamers), to this day, still believes that games of yesteryear had more innovation and "magic" than the current crop of CG-intensive big-budgeted clone-athons. Whether this assessment is true or not is ultimately subjective and will be endlessly debated by rabid fans on Internet newsgroups and message boards like our own here at GameCritics.com. What is undeniable is that 3-D videogames did not kill the 2-D star and Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon is proof of that.
Circle Of The Moon, a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, is an obvious throwback to the "run-and-jump platform" games of the past. The surprising thing, however, is that the many years since its original 8-bit release has done little to diminish the indelible trademarks of the series. The eternal struggle between good versus evil represented once again by the ancestors of the vampire-slaying Belmont family against the endlessly resurrected Dracula and his legion of dominions still resonates strongly.
The gameplay should also be instantly recognizable and strike a chord with long-time followers of the series. The basic structure of the game still hasn't changed much from the old whip-twirling attacks to the "battle-the-boss-at-the-end-of-the-stage" formula. But the developers have added a few new elements to the mix.
Despite being a quick-paced action-adventure game, it's clear right from the start that Circle Of The Moon devotes much more attention to its characters and story than previous Castlevania titles (with the exception of Symphony Of The Night on the PlayStation, which follows in the same mold). The stages are also more open-ended and don't require players to go through them in a linear fashion. Areas can be explored leisurely and slowly mapped out one section at a time (similar to that of Metroid).
The most significant addition to the gameplay, however, is role-playing game-style elements like attribute building, equipment finding, and inventory management. Players gain experience points by defeating enemies and eventually building up higher stats once new levels are attained. Armor ratings are improved by finding breastplates and magical bracelets. The most unique part of the game is how the main weapon upgrades are handled through what Konami dubs the Dual Setup System (or DSS for short). Throughout the game, players can randomly obtain magical cards of different properties from certain defeated enemies. By activating different pairs of card combinations in a collection, all kinds of special abilities from weapon enhancements to protective barriers can be enabled. In all, over 80 different card combinations are possible and the amount of variety is mind boggling.
Technically, there isnt much to complain about. The game is decent in length. The controls are dead-on and everything looks and sounds great. The only minor snafu appears to be the overly "dark" graphics. Ordinarily, this would seem richly appropriate, but with the notorious shady screen of the Game Boy Advance, some stages in the game are outright indistinguishable without abundant lighting.
In the end, there werent many moments in Circle Of The Moon that really blew me away. Some of the new additions to the gameplay were interesting, but not entirely fascinating either. There are virtually no missteps overall, but thats not surprising when the game isnt exactly stretching its gameplay boundaries. I will say that there was enough here to refresh the Castlevania formula to the degree that it reigned in my attention and kept me playing for weeks on end. The game was solid, addictive, and incredibly likable. However, in the greater scheme of things, Circle Of The Moon is a small step for the Game Boy Advance, and nowhere near a giant leap for videogames.