It’s comforting to return to Circle of the Moon and find it to be more than capable to hold its own in a time where Metroidvanias are a dime a dozen.
Here’s the first Castlevania to follow in Symphony of the Night’s footsteps. On less capable hardware no less and it basically gets the core right. That makes it really similar to Metroid II: it simplifies some matters and expands the formula at the same time.
The main issue with the game is probably how it looks. It manages to hit all the beats of Castlevania, from skeletons to man-eaters to the various armours. But, they all lack the gothic flamboyance of the previous games, Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night in particular. It's like they're all functional facsimiles of someone describing the various monsters from those games. The animations are a bit stilted, the details a bit sparse.
Maybe it's intended, for its setting does a similar thing. Gone are the Belmont clan, instead here is a couple of characters that don't seem to fit into the series' lore, but still involves the Vampire Killer and Dracula. It feels like a soft reboot. Or at the very least a careful attempt at branching out, being able to wallpaper over the mess in case everything went horribly wrong.
You could say the mechanics warranted some caution. Jumping and whipping is good, blending the agility of Alucard with the reach of Richter, and yet the game never feels completely smooth. A huge factor here is speed. Your default walk speed is horribly slow and the game make you suffer it for a good ten minutes before relenting and giving you a run option by double tapping a direction on the d-pad.
But why? After acquiring it, you'll find yourself incorporating the double-tap into every movement you make, reducing the action to a nuisance at best and an expletive at the moments it doesn't register properly.
The whip's precision is also annoying at times, with its reach being offset by its thinness, making hitting specific targets rather frustrating. At least it doesn't require a multi-button input.
The true glory of Circle of the Moon lies with the DSS, or Dual Set-up System. Action and attribute cards are dropped by specific enemies at random, and combining one with the other will produce an effect for your character. From elemental attacks to stats boosts to deadly summons, it's a joy to discover all effects and determine when and how to deploy them during the game. So good in fact, that this type of customisation would become a bit of a staple for the Metroidvania-branch of the series, culminating in the soul collecting of both Aria of Sorrow and ultimately Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
Unfortunately, the drop-rate for these DSS cards can be tremendously low. In the original GBA game, it would be quite common for someone to have completed the game without collecting all the cards, let alone know which enemies could drop them.
The Advance Collection version fixes this by implementing an optional gadget that produces a pop-up whenever you hit an enemy able to drop a card. If you already have the card it'll tell you so as well. It's very crudely implemented — hit an enemy five times and you'll see five pop-ups in quick succession — but it alleviates the hunt for cards.
It also highlights that some particular cards are dropped by multiple different enemies, making it clear that even the developers knew about the horrible drop rates and they hoped adding more chance would fix this. It doesn't. Unless you defeat every enemy type multiple times for 30 to 60 minutes straight, it's impossible to tell in the original who will drop what. A guide (or that gadget) is pretty much a musthave. Even though it won't remove the time needed to grind for those cards.
Another sin that's sticking out like a sore thumb, is the balancing. For about the first 80% of the game, it's rather well-balanced making enemies grow along with your skill and card set. The final 20% is immensely brutal. The gauntlet up to the penultimate boss is gruelling, with multiple fast and hard hitting armour enemies, attack disabling flying monstrosities, and petrifying pillar attacks. Dracula itself is also difficult, with him sporting a dash attack that can wipe off 50% of your health total, no problem.
It's a bit of a shame then that at that point grinding for experiencing points and levels is made nigh impossible, as most enemies will not reward enough experience points to make it worthwhile. Likewise, the battle arena area which could alleviate that issue, is set up to not allow MP and the DSS cards. Here's an area where you would be able to go wild in testing your abilities, and it's reduced to jumping and whipping about like the rest of the game never happened. Thank god the Advance Collection allows save states and rewinding gameplay.
The one thing the Advance Collection makes abundantly clear though, is that Circle of the Moon was never designed for a Game Boy Advance screen. Its graphics might be sparse and stilted, its use of colour and contrast is absolutely not. It looks gorgeous on a TV whereas on the GBA the game was primarily known for its dark graphics making it nigh impossible to see what was going on because of the hardware's unlit screen. It redeems the game a fair bit, as a quick comparison with its stablemates in the Advance Collection, makes shows those titles are rather garishly coloured in comparison.
In the end though, this is a very good Metroidvania and a better Castlevania than people give it credit for. It is a bit rough, sure. Looking back on it, it's been instrumental in pushing the formula forward and hit home that Symphony of the Night wasn't just lightning in a bottle.
That all of the issues were probably down to a non-Castlevania development team creating this title under pressure, just proves how strong the formula was and still is.