Not all Metroidvanias are created equal

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.

8 thoughts on “Not all Metroidvanias are created equal

  1. CotM isn’t difficult per se. It’s just the difficulty spike that happens right around the time you hit the dragon zombie twins.

    • It’s not difficult per se. It’s that the difficulty is wildly unbalanced and can only be mitigated through random item drops.

  2. Hm. Yeah, I never got around to finishing Circle (or playing any of the other GBA Castlevanias, which sounds like it was a mistake); I think you’ve done a good job of explaining why.

    I don’t own a Wii U and it’s disappointing that there have been so few GBA releases for 3DS. Is that because the 3DS isn’t burly enough to emulate GBA and has to run those games natively?

    • Aria of Sorrow is so good. Probably the best post-Symphony Castlevania, period. Grab it next week.

  3. There’s a bug in CotM’s DSS that lets you select any combo once you have one combo. You just pause during activation and select empty slots, and the combo will still trigger, even if you don’t have them.

    Makes the game more tolerable if you have access to all the skills, especially the speed running.

    • True, there is that. But calling a game “more tolerable” if you exploit a glitch isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement….

  4. I’m playing through the Shooter mode of Circle of the Moon right now. I actually like the game quite a bit (obviously, as this is my fourth playthrough in a year’s time). Really, the main flaw is the low drop rate for items and cards… as well as the fact that a walkthrough is all but necessary to find some of the best cards; for example, the card that lets you use summon monsters is a VERY rare drop from a monster that only appears in an out-of-the-way boss room… but the monster only shows up in that room after you’ve beaten two other bosses, hours later! And to make matters worse, Dracula is almost impossible to beat without the summon spells!

    I guess that is a pretty huge flaw, now that I come to think about it, but I can’t help liking the game despite that. Probably the music, with its stellar remixes of old Castlevania tunes, as well as some awesome new songs thrown in. Certainly the grating music is the main reason why I’ll never replay Harmony of Dissonance.

    • Right, that’s the thing. There’s a lot to like about Circle, it’s just that some of the fundamental underpinnings are total garbage. They got the look and sound right and even did a generally better job of the action than they had with Legends, but they had no clue how to balance a complex, customizable character-building system.

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