20 Years Later – Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
It’s easy to say that Symphony of the Night divided Castlevania into before and after, but the fact of the matter is that it took years for the franchise to settle into its Metroidvania phase. Following Symphony’s 1997 release, Castlevania briefly returned to business as usual with Legends before trying & failing to transition into 3D on the Nintendo 64. For four years, Konami failed to carry Symphony of the Night’s momentum, leaving it to a 2001 launch title for the Game Boy Advance to usher in a new era for Castlevania – Circle of the Moon.
There are several factors that make Circle of the Moon something of an anomaly for Castlevania, however. The game stars neither a Belmont nor Morris, with only a cursory reference to the latter family. Protagonist Nathan Graves does not wield the legendary Vampire Killer, opting for the more mundane Hunter Whip. The final boss is still Dracula, but the main antagonist is series mainstay Carmilla and the whole story is set inside her castle for a change. Circle of the Moon is also set in 1830, which – taking into consideration past titles and Morris Baldwin’s in-game backstory – means Dracula has been revived four times in less than 40 years.
Notably, former series producer Koji Igarashi openly criticized Circle of the Moon when he retook production of Castlevania with Harmony of Dissonance. Igarashi was particularly critical of how CotM clashed with the franchise’s pre-established tone, along with assuring fans HoD would have brighter visuals, tighter controls, and denser level design. The stand-alone nature of Circle of the Moon’s story also resulted in Igarashi striking the game from the Castlevania timeline, explicitly referring to CotM as a ‘side project’. Criticism from the franchise producer is never a good look and Igarashi isn’t exactly wrong, but he doesn’t give Circle of the Moon the credit it deserves for following up Symphony of the Night’s foundation with so much tact.
For all of its faults, Circle of the Moon is not derivative. Although a success in its own right, Harmony of Dissonance invited too many unfavorable comparisons to Symphony without bringing enough new to the table. Juste’s design lifts heavily from both Richter Belmont and Alcurad – the two most popular characters in the series – while HoD’s level design uses a very similar twist to SotN’s Inverted Castle, with little of its grace. And this is to say nothing of the fact Harmony actually lifts narrative cues from Circle. Circle of the Moon is an acquired taste that flies in the face of the franchise’s Metroidvanias, but it has a clear vision: to be the classic Castlevania Symphony of the Night couldn’t.
Philosophically, Symphony of the Night was inspired by the level of exploration present throughout The Legend of Zelda. The average Zelda game typically features secret areas Link can only access after finding set equipment later in the story. This not only rewards observant players, but it also increases a game’s playtime while ensuring the act of backtracking rarely meanders. A Castlevania veteran should be able to clear a classic title in under three hours (if that), which Igarashi wanted to avoid with Symphony. As a result, SotN’s castle is filled with over 20 distinct bosses & areas, along with copious secrets to gradually uncover. Circle of the Moon is much more reserved by comparison.
To begin with, Circle of the Moon has only 10 distinct areas in its castle, less than half of Symphony’s. While this might seem like a flaw on paper, CotM’s incredibly tight level design plays to classic Castlevania sensibilities that aren’t present in SotN. Symphony of the Night’s more exploratory castle came with an absence of platforming, instead placing gameplay emphasis on combat. Circle of the Moon’s maps are far more deliberate, featuring enemy placement that plays off level design akin to the NES games. Where Alucard could cut through most enemies with little effort, players need to learn attack patterns as Nathan since his knockback is so heavy.
The Underground Waterway is harder to traverse than anything in Symphony of the Night. A lack of candles means players need to contend with the Hearts they walk in with. Ice Armors can freeze Nathan with their attacks, dealing extra damage with a follow-up. The verticality in the level design means getting hit can eat into progress, sending Nathan back down below. Enemies are regularly positioned by floating platforms, as well, making it easy for careless players to jump into damage. There’s even a navigational puzzle to solve involving levers and moving staircases, arguably doing more than SotN ever did to capture Zelda’s penchant for puzzle-solving through level design.
In many respects, the Underground Waterway feels like a long classic Castlevania level. Enemy placement is designed to challenge your mastery of platforming, rather than just feeding Alucard/Nathan experience. There’s a set piece in the Waterway where players need to deal with three enemies at once while trying to platform over water. A Witch flies above while shooting out magic, Abiondargs circle the platforms ready to electrocute Nathan, and Spearfish wade in the waters below. One wrong move can result in players losing platforming progress and taking a considerable amount of damage in the process. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the flurry of monsters here, but CotM’s level design is trying to encourage patience.
At the end of the day, Symphony of the Night is a fast paced action RPG with revolutionary level design – but it doesn’t offer the same platforming challenges as its predecessors. If you run into a wall in Symphony, you can always just grind. This isn’t the case in Circle of the Moon where mechanical mastery plays a firmer role. Grinding will make the enemies in the Underground Waterway easier to kill, but that doesn’t make the platforming any easier. Enemies appear in abundance in CotM, turning entire stretches of the castle into an endurance match where save points are few and far between. Damage accumulates fast even when overleveled, demanding that you play intelligently at all times.
Harder enemies also routinely replace weaker ones in earlier sections of the castle, turning what would otherwise be basic backtracking into a dangerous and dynamic endeavor. While Circle of the Moon’s level design is naturally simpler on account of taking influence from classic Castlevania (thus explaining its fewer areas, as well), Carmilla’s castle features a healthy dose of hidden walls to break down. Nathan won’t be finding any equipment, but Health Potions, Magic Potions, and Heart Containers all increase his stats. Unfortunately, the fragmented nature of the castle does mean most areas end in dead ends. Not only that, the lack of save points means first time players will be spending a lot of time backtracking unless they’re desperate for a Game Over.
In this sense, Circle of the Moon’s castle isn’t particularly well designed. Individual sections are tightly crafted vignettes where players are forced to hone their platforming skills, but there’s little cohesion to how stages are connected – which was arguably Symphony of the Night’s single greatest strength. The end result is a castle where players need to commit to long journeys in-between save points. Exploration is time consuming not because the castle is large, but because you can never let your guard down. There’s no time to relax when everything can kill Nathan and you have so few opportunities to save that anything but methodical play is foolish.
There aren’t many warp points either, and they tend to be poorly positioned, rarely adjacent to save points. Generally, they’re stationed betweens major areas of interest without ever being exactly where they should be. The Observation Tower is the last major area in the game – dense with dangerous enemies – but there’s only a single save point halfway through, with the warp point further ahead (and not even close enough to the boss room). Warp points are just useless enough where you may as well walk everywhere. Or you would if Nathan weren’t so slow.
Koji Igarashi was much harsher than he needed to be in his critique on Circle of the Moon, but he was dead-on about the controls being frustrating. Castlevania’s classic control scheme is deliberately slow and demands that players commit to their actions, but linear level design and thoughtful enemy placement means movement is only a problem if you don’t understand how to play. Nathan’s stiff controls are at odds with Circle of the Moon’s grand & spacious level design, at least during transitional sections of the castle. While it’s true stages take philosophical inspiration from the classic titles, CotM is still a Metroidvania by design and Nathan is stiffer than any Belmont ever was.
You have to double tap the D-Pad to make Nathan run (now an early unlockable instead of an inherent ability) and he lacks Alucard’s back-dash, making it difficult to dodge attacks on the fly. All it takes is one poorly timed jump to send Nathan flying. Floating enemies are a regular occurrence and they make a habit of clipping through scenery Nathan can’t reach with his horizontally inclined Hunter Whip. Since enemies are so much faster than Nathan, positioning plays a vital role in keeping him alive. Just like in classic Castlevania, you should only attack when it’s safe. Unlike in classic Castlevania, Nathan has several unique techniques that help mitigate his sluggish control scheme.
By the end of the game, Nathan can kick-jump from wall to wall, repeatedly leap into the air with the Roc Wing, and make use of the extensive Dual Set-Up System (DSS) to augment his abilities. DSS is a card based skill system where different card combinations influence how Nathan plays. DSS cards are split across two 10 card decks, with Action Cards on top and Attribute Cards on the bottom. Players can set their DSS in the menu and then activate Nathan’s abilities in-game for a buff. The only penalty for DSS is that it drains MP, but never so much where you can’t experiment.
The Mars Action Card replaces Nathan’s equipped weapon depending on his Attribute Card. Salamander, Serpent, and Mandragora all change the Hunter Whip into elemental swords. Manticore turns the Whip into fast hitting Poison Claws, Thunderbird lets you use Martial Arts, and Black Dog straight up gives Nathan a gun. Uranus allows players to summon monsters, like Cockatrice or Manticore, to deal obscene amounts of damage with the right Cards. Saturn spawns Familiars that will help Nathan during combat, Neptune lets you drain elemental damage, and Venus offers traditional buffs. DSS is fantastic conceptually, but it comes with a major asterisk: random drops.
Cards are dropped by enemies and only by a select few. With no in-game bestiary, it’s impossible to know who drops what without either looking it up or getting lucky. In turn, it’s virtually impossible for a first time player to use DSS to its fullest, let alone fully understand it. It’s never explained how exactly Cards are dropped or what they do, leaving DSS to trial & error on the players’ part. That’s part of the fun, of course, but it does mean newcomers are less likely to actually experiment as intended. Not helping matters is the fact items and equipment are also tied to random drops due to the absence of gold. Anyone looking to take advantage of DSS (or just outfit Nathan properly) should strap in for a healthy dose of grinding.
Grinding for specific items or Cards can feel like an exercise in futility. Luck plays so much of a role that it’s honestly better to just roll with the punches half the time. For what it’s worth, this does seem to be the expectation on a design level. A natural playthrough will usually net around half a dozen cards along with just enough equipment to scrape by. Anything extra is just a means of decidedly giving players an advantage. The lack of a shop also gives item drops more weight, making minor upgrades in armor feel all the more significant.
No two playthroughs will be alike by virtue of random drops, giving replay value a unique edge. Completionists might not care for this approach, but character variety (especially since it’s enforced on the player) is part of what makes Circle of the Moon so compelling to revisit. The equipment and cards you have on hand inherently change inherently your play style, whereas other Metroidvanias in the series feature set item locations or paced out drops that make it so it’s never difficult to have the best gear available at any given time. Nathan has to make do in CotM, placing greater importance on a player’s actual skills.
At the end of the day, no amount of equipment can make up for how demanding Circle of the Moon is. The right DSS combinations can be screen nukes in their own right, but the hardest bosses require you to learn attack patterns and figure out when to be on the offensive & when to switch to the defensive. Patience goes a long way and Nathan’s whip strikes are slow enough where it’s rarely a good idea trying to risk too many at once. It’s important to pace boss battles out, react accordingly, and never take unnecessary chances. In this respect, CotM is easily the hardest Metroidvania in the series. Bosses are consistently challenging, culminating in an excruciating final battle against Dracula.
The uptick in difficulty does mean Sub-Weapons can play a crucial role, however. Heart Management is more important than ever since Sub-Weapons offer far more versatility than the Hunter Whip. If you don’t have the Mars Card to change Nathan’s weapons, Sub-Weapons do wonders in expanding where you can attack & how. Daggers are relatively weak, but they can pepper enemies with damage from afar; Axes are a strong aerial weapon that cover one of Nathan’s worst blind spots; Holy Water deals damage on the ground; the Stop Watch slows down enemies; and the Cross deals continuous damage near-equal to the Whip on contact (but is much harder to find as a result).
Circle of the Moon doesn’t scratch the same itch as Igarashi’s Metroidvanias, but the game is refreshingly old school in a way its successors aren’t. Carmilla’s castle embraces platforming on the cusp of Castlevania pushing the genre aside. Nathan’s slow controls means you have to pay close attention to enemies and the level design to stay alive. Boss fights are grueling and can’t be overwhelmed by just grinding a level or two. CotM ushered in a new era of Metroidvanias for the franchise, but it strives to be more than just Symphony of the Night 2. It may not have set the foundation, but Circle of the Moon divided Castlevania into before and after – calling back to the classics all the while.