Circle of the Moon had it rough right from the start. It was the follow-up to Symphony of the Night, widely regarded as one of the BEST GAMES EVAR, so it had some impossible expectations to live up to before it was even born. Symphony had a luxurious 600 MB of CD space to work with; Konami decided to do Circle on the GBA, in a cartridge that had maybe 8 MB or so. Not only that, it was one of the near-launch titles for the system, which always means the developers aren't nearly as comfortable with the hardware as they could be, nor are they knowledgable about tweaking it for maximum performance. Add all these things up and you have almost guaranteed mediocrity and lukewarm critical reception at best. The gaming press at the time was actually pretty fond of the game though, probably mostly owing to the fact that it was the first and at that point only Symphony-like title available; over time, and with comparison to the slew of later and better Castlevania entries for the GBA and DS, opinion has definitely become more chilly towards this one.
I think that's rightfully so, though, and opinions on this game are more accurate in hindsight. Circle has it's good points, but it's really a very frustrating and rough-around-the-edges game, quite often really not a whole lot of fun to play.
This one is set in the 1830s, and stars neither the Belmonts nor the Morrises, but a new family called the Baldwins that are tasked with the care and maintenance of Dracula seals. You actually play as a kid named Nathan Graves, who is assistant to the current vampire killer Morris Baldwin and his son ... uh ... Steven (sorry, I forgot his name already ... shows how involving the plot is huh). Anyway, that evil chick Camilla from Bloodlines is busy trying to revive Drac yet again, so you all rush into the castle to stop her, only Nathan and Steven get dumped into some pit of doom and Morris gets kidnapped to have his power sucked dry for Drac revival purposes.
Nathan plays more like a traditional Belmont, with the whip and the slow shuffling walk and everything. He's actually fairly robust though - near the beginning of the game you acquire the ability to run by double-tapping, and you also get a double jump, and you can do a Mega Man-style sliding kick right from the beginning. Of course, you'll continue to acquire more powers throughout the game. In addition to getting the typical sub-weapons (knife, stopwatch, holy water, etc) out of candles, Nathan also uses something called the "DSS System" which uses card combinations to provide various stat buffs and elemental effects.
The problem with the game really isn't Nathan, though he can be a little stiff and clunky sometimes, and the way he flies back and becomes completely uncontrollable with every single enemy hit gets pretty annoying pretty fast. No, the major problem with the game is that the difficulty is very uneven and spikes in extremely sharp jags. Particularly problematic are some of the boss battles in the later part of the game, which are so difficult as to require a pretty epic amount of level-grinding and equipment-gathering to so much as stand a reasonable chance of survival in.
That leads into another problem - the game has no shops or money system at all, all equipment is gained via random drops from slain monsters. Well, the problem with this is that the drops are truly and extremely random. It can wind up taking forever to find a halfway decent set of equipment to challenge a tough boss with, and this extends to the DSS cards as well, which are dropped just as randomly and sporadically as the weapons and items are. DSS is also problematic in it's own right, as the game doesn't tell you what the combinations of cards do until you use them and see the effect for yourself. Well, in the case of certain things like defense buffs and resistance to elemental attacks, the only way to get that information is to actually get hit by a particular kind of attack. Not knowing this ahead of time, the best you can do with some of these cards is "Hmm ... these two cards together make me ... glow gold? That's all the more I know about them!". You can wind up going through the whole game never knowing what a bunch of your card combinations actually do.
Compared to Symphony's excellence, the map design in this one is kind of uninspired. You get a lot of stretches of the same thing over and over again, monsters hovering just offscreen tossing projectiles before you can see them, and some very long and ardurous streches between save points.
On the positive, the game is really not bad looking. Nathan is kind of plain and 8-bit looking, but some of the boss monsters are fairly impressive, and there are some nice backgrounds and spell effects as well. The music is pretty nice, with new arrangements of some good old obscure CV songs (including one of my personal favorites, The Sinking Old Sanctuary). This one is unusual in that it is scored by Sotaro Tojima, instead of Michiru Yamane who handled most of the other games in the Symphony lineage. Tojima was responsible for the cool ambient tunes of Super Castlevania 4, though in this one he sticks mostly to remixes of good tunes from the previous games.
Circle Of The Moon really ends up being a matter of comparison. I think if it had come out in the 16-bit era and preceded Symphony it would probably have been widely considered a classic, despite it's flaws. Looking at it now, with not only the sublime Symphony to compare it to but also four far superior GBA and DS games that came after it, it really just seems too clunky and aggravating to be bothered with.
Original Soundtrack (mp3)