Konami has been on a Castlevania republishing blitzkrieg via Virtual Console. While the VC service has been basically an excuse to wring us for money we already spent for games we already downloaded during the Wii era, the Castlevania project appears to be dedicated to giving us all-new, all-different selections. We got Dracula X — not the good one, but the less-fun-yet-almost-as-expensive Super NES one — and next week will see both Aria of Sorrow and Harmony of Dissonance.
This week, though, we got Circle of the Moon. And thumbs-up for the completist vote, I suppose, but I can’t say I’m excited. Every time I revisit Circle, I find it a little less entertaining than it was the last time. I was going to write a post on why that is, but then someone reminded me I’d published this, so I guess I don’t need to. You’ll have to forgive my poor memory. I’ve written a lot of articles about video games since then, and I wasn’t in a particularly happy place at the time I penned that (having just lost and buried my grandfather).
Having recently spent some time with Castlevania: The Adventure, though, I now find it much easier to quantify exactly how Circle came to transpire. Clearly Konami had some sort of grim parallel track of development running throughout Castlevania‘s early life, and Circle was the culmination of this alternate universe. Like the series’ previous handheld outings*, it was portable, gorgeous-looking, bursting with glorious music, and about as fun in action as invasive dental surgery.
Circle carries forward all the bad habits that began with The Adventure and carried forward with Castlevania: Legends almost a decade later. Stiff controls, terrible jump physics, clumsy and amateurish level design, horrible balance. Actually, Circle exacerbates the balancing issues by trying to incorporate an RPG-like mechanic with an inventory and a customizable skill system called DSS… which would be pretty cool if it weren’t utterly and completely random. Aside from a handful of mandatory DSS cards that drop throughout the adventure, you’re basically at the whims of a churlish random number generator as to which skills you acquire. Having played through Circle a few times, I’ve never acquired more than about a quarter of the possible cards without making an effort to grind. Compare that to the soul-stealing mechanic or the Sorrow titles, or Ecclesia‘s glyphs, which are far more generous about giving you the fun stuff. Maybe they’re not as hard as Circle, but they’re an awful lot more fun. Challenge is all well and good when it feels fair and thoughtful, but Circle feels like any difficulty you may encounter stems from poor design.
I get why people like the game. Some folks relish a challenge, however unfairly the game goes about generating it. And the game made a heck of a first impression back in 2001 — I imported a Japanese Game Boy Advance and a copy of Circle because I couldn’t wait for the U.S. release, and my eyes basically bugged out of my skull at the sight of Genesis-level visuals and Super NES-quality audio on a portable system; it was easy to forgive any mechanical failings, because damn.
Most people haven’t made a career out of revisiting their favorite old games with a critical eye and poking holes in their nostalgia. You guys are smart. I don’t know what I was thinking.
That being said, there’s nothing particularly villainous about Circle. I think it’s a sloppy and awkward game, but it means well. The number of crummy Castlevania games throughout the ages has proven beyond shadow of a doubt that making a great Castlevania game is really, really hard. Especially the nonlinear, RPG-like ones. Koji Igarashi and his Symphony veterans made a hash of it on their first go, too; Harmony of Dissonance was better than Circle in many ways (music aside), but it was still boring and clumsy. Castlevania masterpieces are precious gems that we should be grateful for. And anyway, it’s great to have access to as many of the classics and not-so-classics as possible for a reasonable price. Here’s hoping that Konami’s upcoming Castlevania Virtual Console release plans include Bloodlines and Legends, even if Legends is a big ol’ pile of poop. It’s a very expensive pile o’ poop, and I think the world deserves to experience its tragic life without paying $200 for the privilege.
* Except, I’m told, Belmont’s Revenge. Unfortunately it’s going to be a while before I get to that point at Game Boy World, so it’s something I can look forward to, I guess.