Before I begin: I’ve never played a Castlevania game at length. I’ve played a few hours of Portrait of Ruin and a few minutes of Symphony of the Night. I’ve also played the Castlevania-inspired Touhou doujin game Koumajo Densetsu at some length.
I wanted to check out Castlevania, not starting with Symphony of the Night, but picking a game that that’s somewhat well-liked. All three Castlevania games for the GBA are listed high on the console’s best-of lists, with Aria of Sorrow being the most popular. I decided to start with the first one, Circle of the Moon, and go from there.
Right off the bat, the first thing I noticed is that my character moves slow as fuck. It’s not just that the movement speed is slow, but the sprite itself looks like it’s taking its sweet time, even though I’m supposed to be urgently finding my way up the Castle to save my mentor and kill Dracula.
Like in the early Castlevania games, the whip has a delay on it, so that there’s a split-second between hitting the B button and the actual use of the attack. This reminded me of Egoraptor’s Sequelitis video about Castevania II: Simon’s Quest, wherein he criticized the delay on the whip because it didn’t fit with the more streamlined combat of the game, compared to the densely calculating combat of the first game.
Timing the whip in Circle of the Moon (going on my experience playing up to the first boss) is not difficult, but merely annoying. Ground enemies attack slowly, and never rush the player in such a way as to necessitate lightning-quick decisions. There are elements of timing with some enemies, but they don’t necessitate the whip delay to be difficult.
What makes the delay a pain in the ass is that there’s a lot of flying enemies, and enemies on the ceiling. To attack these, I must hit the B button before reaching the apex of my jump, so that I’m at the crest of my jump when the whip activates. Because I have to hold the A button to control the height of my jump, timing the press of the B button is awkward and annoying.
At the start of the game, I was given no information whatsoever on how to play. This is forgivable because there are only so many buttons on the GBA, and the game isn’t especially complicated. However, one of the first enemies drops a “DSS card,” and the game in no way suggests how to use it. There’s a DSS section in the menu, but when I tried clicking on a card, I was redirected to the start menu.
By checking the controls section, I found that DSS is used with L, and weapons are used with R. However, I picked up a knife, and R didn’t make me throw it. There was no option for weapons in the equipment menu. The L button did nothing until I tried it later in the level, and it gave me a very powerful flaming whip. I think that the power only activated after I’d collected a second card, although I couldn’t switch between these cards, and they were in separate parts of the menu for reasons I don’t know.
Five minutes into playing, I ran into a mini-boss and got my ass kicked. I hadn’t run into any save points yet, so I had to create a whole new save and sit through two minutes of unskippable cutscene once again.
This time I found the save point in a path which I hadn’t taken before, because the game doesn’t indicate in any way which path is best to take. Every room has a ton of doors, some of which lead to dead ends, some of which lead to upgrades, and a rare few which lead to save rooms. The splintering off of rooms is almost constant.
In the save room I discovered—again by trial of the GBA’s limited number of buttons—that to activate it, I had to press up on the D-pad; which was a first for me.
After the miniboss, I picked up the dash boots, which made it so I could dash by double-tapping a direction on the D-pad. The dash speed is what the normal speed should’ve been, and the purpose of separating the two is lost on me. Dashing is necessary to make a lot of jumps, which is just a pain in the ass and not a challenge in any way. I don’t get why the dash boots couldn’t have been permanently turned on or, you know, the normal fucking walking speed.
The ridiculously open-ended level design provides no sense of direction, and would get me completely lost if not for the map. Power-ups are scattered all over in random locations, and are too frequent to feel like significant accomplishments. I got two Max HP, two Max MP, and one Max Hearts increase before fighting the first boss. There is no gratification behind getting these upgrades—there’s not even a sound effect for grabbing them.
The game’s pixel art is pretty, but level design is bland, and the rooms lack any semblance of cohesion. I started in a brown, underground-looking area, then entered a grey, dungeon-like area, then a big metal door lead into what appeared to be an outdoor or subterranean cemetery, which lead right back into another castle area. All of these rooms featured the same way-too-short music loop.
After wandering around, aimlessly collecting power-ups for fifteen minutes, I stumbled into the first boss room. I hadn’t located a save station since the one at the beginning, because again, the level design didn’t point me in any specific direction. Despite my flaming whip power, the boss wasted me, since I didn’t know how to predict and work around any of its very quick attacks yet. After being sent back to the start menu, I stopped playing.
In the first episode of Castlevania III on Game Grumps, Egoraptor mentions that he hates the term “Metroidvania,” because the quality of level design is so much higher in the Metroid games, and I agree, based on Circle of the Moon. He cites the lack of landmarks, the difficulty of figuring out where to go, and the worthlessness of power-ups as major problems—and I’m right with him on all of those.
Metroid has worlds that are huge, but which rarely lose the player completely. There are a few major paths to choose from, and each of them leads to somewhere significant with its own unique challenge. It’s easy to remember where you have and haven’t been, and when you get a new ability, it’s easy to remember all the places where it could be useful. In Castlevania, there are rooms which I might never have even gone to where a power could be useful, and there are so many splintering paths that I have no idea what order to take them in. I ended up at the boss before taking the route to the save point because the game didn’t present the route to the save point at a logical moment. In Metroid, a save point is almost always an obvious door which is right in the middle of the path, with little resistance in getting to it, because it’s supposed to be hard to miss. Metroid never tells the player exactly where to go, but it uses clever design to nudge them in the right direction.
Circle of the Moon feels like someone drew a big-ass map, and then marked a bunch of places at random to put items, mini-bosses, and save-rooms, with no consideration for how the player would go about exploring these areas. This is also why the enemy placement is sporadic and unchallenging. In Metroid, as well as the first Castlevania game, the level design is built around the unique challenges, whereas in Circle of the Moon, the challenges are shoehorned into the level designs.
It might seem weird to spend as much time dissecting the start of this game as the time I spent playing it, but I felt this was a great way to observe how much a game can do poorly right from the start. Circle of the Moon isn’t a terrible game all-around, but it’s full of terrible design choices which I don’t think I can handle.