Konami's Castlevania has changed directions in recent years, with the Lords of Shadow titles polarizing fans of the long-running series. That's why fans of the "Metroidvania" outings should flock to the Wii U eShop and download the Game Boy Advance Castlevania titles, which feature the series' signature exploration-based, semi-linear platforming action gameplay. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, and the Wii U GamePad's bright screen and the Virtual Console's ability to save at any time make this the definitive way to experience this fun, deep game.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon stars Nathan Graves, an apprentice vampire hunter who is separated from his mentor, Morris Baldwin, after a confrontation with the newly resurrected Dracula. After Morris' son Hugh decides to go off on his own, Nathan decides to infiltrate Dracula's castle, find his mentor and defeat Dracula. The story is perfect for newcomers to the series, as it doesn't rely on Castlevania's complicated and sometimes-convoluted lore — hardcore fans will note that there are no Belmonts involved this time around. While the story isn't exactly nuanced or complex, there's a fair bit of character development along the way.
For a game that was originally released as a launch title, Circle of the Moon is highly polished, with interesting, deep gameplay. Initially, Nathan isn't very strong. He can use his whip to vanquish enemies from the start, but there are many places he can't reach or access. As Nathan progresses through the castle and defeats bosses, he will find magic items that allow him to double-jump, launch himself from walls, move heavy objects, break large rocks and more. Nathan will also find subweapons, like throwing knives and holy water, that consume hearts. There are HP, MP, and heart upgrades hidden throughout the castle, so it's important to return to locations you've been through already when you gain new magic items to find upgrades you couldn't reach earlier.
There are light RPG elements, as well; enemies sometimes drop equipment and accessories that will boost Nathan's strength, defence and other attributes. Nathan also levels up as he defeats enemies. At first, we found that we were moving through the castle faster than we were levelling up, which made the first few bosses very difficult. But rather than grinding for hours on end to level up, simply fighting through the castle and killing enemies rather than avoiding them proved to be perfectly effective. Boss battles are rather straightforward, following a pattern of attacks that help the player figure out the best time to attack and to evade. In fact, all enemies are pattern-based; there's no real AI, allowing the player to learn how to defeat enemies quickly but also making things repetitive.
Circle of the Moon introduces to the Castlevania series the Dual Set-Up System (DSS), which unlocks as Nathan collects cards from fallen enemies. The DSS gives Nathan special powers, such as infusing his whip with fire or granting him passive upgrades. There are two types of cards — action and attribute — and players can combine them for different effects. There are 10 of each type, allowing for 100 different combinations. The DSS is a simple, streamlined approach to character customisation and comes in handy throughout. Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a lengthy GBA title and should take players several hours to finish.
When Circle of the Moon was originally released, it was criticized for its dark visuals, which were hard to see on the poorly lit GBA screen. That problem is immediately fixed on the Wii U, and players who enjoy pixel art and sprite-based characters will be impressed with the detail of the castle and enemies. The animation is generally fluid, though a few enemies move too stiffly. But while the game is easy to see with the new technology, the colour scheme is still a bit bland, especially compared to later Castlevania games. Thankfully the music is impressive, featuring remixed songs from earlier titles in the series.
With strong games like this available on the Virtual Console, the Wii U continues to beef up its library and become a great system for hardcore gamers. While the lack of strong enemy AI is disappointing and the visuals could use some improvement, fans of the series and the "Metroidvania" genre it helped inspire will find a lot to like in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.