Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sink Your Teeth into Castlevania, Part I: Circle of the Moon

If we’re to believe typical Castlevania lore, Dracula is resurrected every hundred years or so. Sometimes, a foolish villager, a long lost relative, a dark priest, or an angry countess brings him back to life before the hundred years have passed, and one time, Dracula just got sick of waiting and resurrected himself. Whatever the case, when Drac is back on the prowl, it’s usually up to a descendent or friend of the legendary Belmont clan of vampire hunters to rise up and kick Dracula’s undead rear end using the mythical Vampire Killer whip.

Over the last decade, Konami gave the Gameboy Advance some love with three CV titles, each done in the “Metroidvania” style made popular by everybody’s favorite Castlevania classic of the late ‘90s, Symphony of the Night. With Castlevania’s latest outing, Lords of Shadow, mere days away, and before we all start playing games in 16 dimensions with Nintendo’s 3DS (which will almost inevitably give birth to a next-gen reimagining of the classic whip-toting series), and let’s take a bloody gander back at these portable ‘Vanias of the past.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was one of the first GameBoy Advance games and it remains one of the best. After being cut off from Master Baldwin though the trickery of that darn Dracula, young Nathan Graves is left alone in the D-man’s castle with nothing but the legendary Vampire Killer whip, a few acrobatic tricks and nerves of steel. That’s basically the whole story; there are a few ho-hum conversations between Nathan and Master Baldwin’s son, Hugh, but that’s about it. Also, Hugh gets a cool trench coat and your character doesn’t. Darn you to heck, Konami!

The backgrounds are detailed and interesting, but your character is rather small onscreen and normal enemies suffer the same problem. Bosses, however, are huge and intimidating, taking up an entire screen or more. In the same vein, the sound is phenomenal for a handheld game from the early 2000s. The music uses high quality samples and many tracks are remixes of old Castlevania themes; if you’ve been playing CV titles since the president was kidnapped by ninjas and subsequently saved by two bad dudes, the tunes will make the whip-crackin’ memories come flooding back to you. The sound effects are standard whipping and jumping noises; nothing special, but they get the job done.

Ol’ fangface is in trouble, because the controls are responsive and easy to master. There’s a jump button, an attack button, a magic button and a special attack button. The only problem is that you have to double-tap a direction to run, which quickly leads to a sore thumb.

Like many other games in the series, Dracula’s castle is huge, and as the player gains more abilities, you can see more and more of it. Gaining experience points allows your character to gradually grow stronger, and sometimes when you defeat certain enemies, you’ll receive a piece of armor, a special restorative item, or a magic card. Nearly a decade later, however, players are used to forgiving battle systems and in this game, it’s random: Sometimes the outcome of a fight will be determined by a piece of armor you may or may not have grabbed from some ugly skeleton.

Similarly, by combining two magic cards, you can cast a spell. If you’re unlucky, you might not have the cards you need to cast a critical spell. A shop somewhere within the walls of Dracula’s castle would have probably led to a few more people playing this one to completion. Also if the game sprayed vodka from the GBA speaker, but that would have dulled the experience ever so slightly.

Despite its flaws, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a great game. If you’ve still got a GBA or compatible DS lying around and you crave some bloody action on a budget, this is the title for you.

But wait! There’s two more Castlevanias for your portable pleasure! How do they stack up against Circle of the Moon? Find out next time on Dragon Ball Z! …er, Wordsmith VG!

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