Terrible Design Choices at the Start of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

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.


16 thoughts on “Terrible Design Choices at the Start of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon

  1. Pingback: AARPG – Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review | My Sword Is Unbelievably Dull

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  4. I just have to say I really appreciate your analysis/review style. Your well written and substantive wording makes a mockery of the clowns writing at Kotaku or GT or several other big name sites. Your objective approach to things you dislike such as this doesn’t have the same abrasive or closed minded feeling that some like Yahtzee (as much as I love watching his stuff) have. Plus you even occasionally source other people that have similar opinions, so you lend yourself a certain credibility without having to resort to phrases like “having over a decade of experience with…”, or otherwise trying to prove how you know what you are talking about (even when you did source your about 7000 hours of writing practice, it was in the context of a matter of fact example as oppose to credential). I really should have posted this on one of your other things, but reading this article was the last straw that repaired the camels broken back. When it sunk in that there was a dude on the intertubes talking honestly about games, ponies, and anime without needing to be overly snarky, or an overly positive white knight, I had to comment right away. Keep up the good work dude.

    PS: You probably already get this an obnoxious amount, but I dig the Garzey’s Wing.

    • Thanks man, I really appreciate all of that! Even the last bit, which I never get! Not a lot of people know Garzey’s Wing!

      I hope it’s not presumptuous of me to say that I agree with everything you said. I generally like to be honest and optimistic about things, and I really dislike snarkiness in general. I’m a big fan of Yahtzee as a comedian, but as a guy writing about games, I think he’s too quick to go snarky, and when he analyzes a game, he tends not to go all-out with it. I get that it’s mostly out of time restriction and having to review stuff he doesn’t care about, but it’s a little saddening.

      If you decide to read more of my stuff, tread carefully. I’ve been running this site for six years, and I really meant what I said about my skills improving lol. If you go too far back, you’ll find a lot of horrid analysis that will be everything wrong with everything XD

      By the way, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but other writers who have my non-snarky approach are Extra Credits and Errant Signal, which are two of the best games-related video series on the internet. Both of them are big influences on me and very worth watching.

      • Huh, at the very least I thought people would Google the lines and figure out what they are a reference to.

        Yup, agreed. Even though snarkiness can be a genuine tool of dissection, it gets abused or perhaps used as a crutch to pander to the cynical teenager market or something.

        I did read about the change in quality of the site, so I am ready to roll with it. It’s something you have to deal with when you get into anything that’s been around a while on the internet, so I do not mind.

        Hells yes, I have been an avid watcher of Extra Credits since its Escapist days and love it dearly. I have not heard of Errant Signal though, so I will definitely go check them out. Er, sorry for continuing a discussion thread on a rather obscured article and all that, I’ll go back to lurking.

  5. Some good points. For my part, I enjoyed the hell out of that game (it was my favorite out of the three GBA games), but I think you are absolutely right about many of the things the game did wrong. I think I enjoyed it so much because I knew enough about the series to get over the poor design choices and lose myself in the extremely large amount of sheer content the game has. As bad as its level design admittedly is, the game does a wonderful job of creating and balancing enemy encounter difficulties for an experienced Castlevania player over its five(!) game modes. So far as I am aware, the CotM was made by a second-tier group at Konami (as opposed to the top-tier group that developed HoD, which sucked horribly, and AoS, which was pretty good), and it shows in many areas, like the graphics, which were sub-par for the system and time, and the music, most of which was borrowed from other games in the series. Likely they had budget and time constraints that forced them to focus on only a few areas of the game. Still, to be fair I think they got some things right.

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  7. *Facepalm* Wow, that’s the entitled generation of gamers for you…. “Wahhh the game doesn’t play itself and I actually have to figure a thing or two out”. As for the controls, RTFM. Didn’t your mothers teach you anything? Do you expect them to continue to wipe your butt? Grow up. The old NES games would chew you guys up and spit you out.

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  11. It would have helped to have a look at the manual to learn the controls before starting the game. Using the up arrow+B to special attack and pressing up to activate save points/enter doors is pretty standard for this kind of game.

  12. Don’t let a bad experience with CotM let you down ;) Others GBA Castlevanias have MUCH better design choices ! Save points near every boss, teleport rooms that make more sense and so on and so on. Just finished playing it again, and the final battle is ridiculous. You have ONE move that you figure out to avoid Dracula’s phase 2 damage, and once you figured that you just spend 10 minutes doing damage bit by bit until he dies… And there’s no save room just before (and absolutely ZERO justification for it). Classic Castlevania fans loved it because it was a grindfest (which is weird, since it’s totally against the base principles of action Castlevanias…) and its perceived difficulty. But the game isn’t hard, it’s just ridiculous at times, but when you figure it out it’s over easy. Castlevania 1 was hard, CotM is just… meh. It’s good for a Castlevania player with experience and that’s all

  13. I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think you missed the entire point when playing the game. A few criticisms were legitimate, but a lot of what you wrote was subjective difference of preference or just completely unreasonable.

    The whip having a notable delay is a bit annoying, but saying that it requires no “skill” is nonsense. You definitely have to have some sense of timing (a “skill”) to accurately hit some of the smaller and faster enemies in the game (of which there are many). The game also gives you special options and modifiers as the game progresses which can instantly alleviate this for you. It’s an intentional game mechanic, common in most Castlevanias, that added to the challenge of the game.

    You say there was no tutorial.. well.. I don’t really understand that as a criticism of this game specifically. It was pretty common for games during that time to have all of the instructions in their included game manuals. Games incorporating their tutorials into themselves didn’t really become mainstream until the PS3 era and beyond. Yes, there were some games that had tutorial elements included, but the majority did not at this time. I don’t think it’s reasonable to criticize CotM for something not specific to the game and common in the industry. That would be like criticizing Final Fantasy VII for having long load times when every PS game has long load times, because it was a CD media.

    “The ridiculously open-ended level design provides no sense of direction, and would get me completely lost if not for the map.” That’s the whole point and exactly why you have a map. You’re encouraged to explore every nook and cranny of the castle. Many people, myself included, enjoy this style of Castlevania. If you did not, it just means the game isn’t for you; it doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

    You say that powerups are scattered everywhere and “there is no gratification behind getting these upgrades.” I disagree completely (as many powerups required skill and maneuvering; making getting them gratifying). You should avoid writing objectively (“there is no”) rather than subjectively (“I received no”) when talking about an opinion; it’s misleading to the reader.

    Now this part “I stumbled into the first boss room,” I’m sorry, but I blame this on you. The boss door is a large glowing, blue door, different than any other door in the entire castle that, when you enter, stops the music and actually allows you to look at the room and be like “oh this might be dangerous” and leave. I agree there are a lot of design decisions that could be better, but this is one of their best ones. It’s extremely obvious that it’s a boss door.

    Now as for legitimate criticisms: the main character moving extremely slow but having a dash option is mind boggling. If he didn’t have an unlimited dash, I could understand a perspective like “this makes the game harder and makes you think about your positioning,” but since he CAN dash, all it means is that instead of moving left or right with one press, you constantly double-tap it all game in order to dash. It was a tedious mechanic that was not well thought-out.

    The map definitely could have been designed better. It’s a bit non-sensical and crazy, but it’s not unbearable. It is a bit drab, too, with generally unmemorable music (although I can forgive this since it was a launch GBA title; I actually think it looks pretty good with that perspective in mind).

    It’s interesting, because most of my criticisms with the game are with things you didn’t even get to experience (having to go to the menu to switch DSS, different DSS being way more useful/useless, farming for cards/items, lack of good healing options [personal preference]), but the vast majority of your grievances are simply from not reading the manual (which you probably don’t have, but, again, is an issue with this era, not with this game). All of these issues would have been solved by reading the instructions first: “at the start of the game, I was given no information whatsoever on how to play,” “one of the first enemies drops a ‘DSS card,’ and the game in no way suggests how to use it,” “I picked up a knife, and R didn’t make me throw it. There was no option for weapons in the equipment menu,” “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,” “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.” Almost half your article was “I didn’t read the instructions and thus didn’t know how to play; therefore, this game is bad.” Like what, seriously? I’m not saying the game doesn’t have flaws, but a lot of your analysis was really shallow and, at times, fallacious.

    To be completely forward with you, I hated this game when I very first started playing it for many of the reasons you stated: slow character, weird whip, infrequent save points, poorly designed map; when I went back to play it again, however, and got past that first boss, the game really opened up for me and I found myself enjoying it immensely. From what you wrote, I really think you should play Symphony of the Night instead. I’m not sure why you chose Circle of the Moon as your starting point (it’s both non-canon AND many people thought it was too hard). SotN addresses almost every concern you have. It has a well-designed, intuitive map that’s intended to lead you around with the way the map is laid out. Rooms are memorable with different, unique enemies (there are many rooms where an enemy appears once) with extremely memorable music (the music in SotN is one of my favorites to this day). It’s difficult at times but not insanely so (like CotM can be). There is a huge variety of weapons, so you’re not stuck with just the whip. The character does move slow, but he doesn’t have an annoying double-tap to run, so the game is balanced around him moving slower, and it doesn’t feel odd or tedious. The voice acting is rough, but it’s PS era, so.. yeah. (Quick note, the game starts you with a character that you won’t be playing the whole game, just fyi)

    If you do end up deciding to play SotN, I would recommend reading a manual of some sort. I didn’t need to personally, but I was already acquainted with some of Castlevania’s stranger nuances (hearts are sub-weapons for example). I do hope you give these games another shot, because you’re missing out on some extremely fun and memorable games. Definitely play SotN first, though.

  14. I agree with most of this, after playing aria of sorrow I decided to try COTM, one minute in and the differences are noticeable, the sprites are smaller, the walking speed is slow at best, the carácter feels heavy when you jump, the whip delay is annoying. After being obliterated by the first miniboss I’m not sure I want to keep trying because is not only de clunky controls, visually is no Match for aria of sorrow, I’m gonna try harmony of disonnance

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