Continuing our season of Castlevania content, this week is a recommendation for the first Castlevania game I ever played. Castlevania for the Gameboy Advance (better known as its US title, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon) is not one of the most talked about entries in the series. The ground-breaking Symphony of the Night is perhaps the best regarded for, well, breaking new ground – ushering in the ‘Metroidvania’ era of the series. Then there’s the older games without back-tracking and RPG elements, with 1, 3 and 4 in particular are often regarded as high points in the series. These earlier titles excelled as action platformers, but their difficulty makes them less accessible. Circle of the Moon, then, is unfairly disregarded – it was not worked on by the ‘father’ of Castlevania Koji Igarashi and was later scrubbed from the series timeline.

This game saw a new vampire hunter wield the whip: Nathan Graves. The name should be a clue that he’s perhaps not the most interesting protagonist the series has ever seen. The repetitive plots of Castlevania games is one of their weaknesses (and most Dracula related media in general but thats a whole other conversation) so it should come as no surprise that you need to kill Dracula. Nathan must traverse back and forth across Dracula’s castle,  killing bosses in order to gain new abilities to reach new areas. The roleplaying elements make this much more palatable, not only adding value to each set of traipsing down a corridor, but equally reducing the need for dedicated bouts of ‘grinding’.

It may have retained the exploration and roleplaying additions of Symphony of the Night but Circle of the Moon also added something special of its own. The Dual Set-Up System, or DSS, despite its clunky name was a fun system that allowed for a versatile and customisable use of magic. Throughout the game Nathan could find two twenty cards. Ten ‘Action’ cards that changed the type of Nathan’s magic, and ten ‘Attribute’ cards that changed the overall effect. As an example, one action card adds an additional effect to Nathan’s whip, with one attribute making it a flaming whip while another makes it a whip of thorns. Other action cards performed things like adding boosts to stats, element-proof armour and even summoning monsters to assist you. It was a system unique to this game and a real shame that it has not been revisited as it has huge potential.

While it may not be ‘the best’ Castlevania game this entry is an extremely solid package that can played with no prior knowledge of the series. Circle of the Moon’s graphics have aged reasonably well – you’re unlikely to be caught up in their majesty but they shouldn’t be off-putting, either. Similarly, you probably won’t catch yourself humming its music on the bus but it does feature pleasing quality remixes of classic tracks from the series. With ‘new’ Castlevania games seemingly quite low on Konami’s list of priorities Circle of the Moon is a great way to get a feel for the series’ Metroidvania entries. And, if you like it, there’s plenty of follow-ups on the GBA and DS (just don’t expect to see Nathan Graves again).