We've just received an import copy of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance and have had a chance to sit down and play the game. As Circle of the Moon begins, a young sorceress revives the perpetual Castlevania antagonist, Dracula. Immediately thereafter, a trio of characters enters Dracula's lair and confronts the pair. Dracula then summons a bat that proceeds to destroy the ground underneath the feet of two of the characters, Nathan Graves and Hugh Baldwin, causing them to plummet to the caverns below. Dracula holds the third character captive. Once they reach the bottom of the cavern, Nathan and Hugh split up to rescue their Dracula-hunting companion and destroy the king of the underworld once again.
Circle of the Moon plays similarly to previous 2D incarnations of the franchise. The side-scrolling 2D gameplay is full of platform jumps, whipping action, and sections that require precise timing. You use your whip by pressing the B button and jump by pressing A. Classic special weapons like holy water and knives are included in Circle of the Moon and may be used by tapping the R button. You may also run and slide, hold in the B button to perform a spinning whip for defense, and perform superjumps. Additionally, you can collect cards that give your characters special attributes or actions. Pressing the select button brings up a map to help you find your way.
In keeping with the tradition of previous Castlevania games, there are plenty of bosses to fight that require you to memorize and avoid attack patterns while striking back at the same time. The first boss is a winged demon that causes the ground to erupt in damaging spikes. On the whole, the graphics in Circle of the Moon are some of the best for a GBA launch game. The dark environments look amazing, with excellent color shading and an impressive visual clarity. While the characters appear a bit small onscreen, they feature nice details, such as capes that flare out while jumping.
The sound in Circle of the Moon isn't quite up to par when compared with the sound in more recent Castlevania games, but for a game on a handheld system, Circle of the Moon sounds quite good. The game opens with a gothic composition with a female voice singing in melancholy tones. The music during the gameplay is more akin to that of the Game Boy Color than the SNES, but several of the classic songs from previous installments of the franchise have returned.
Those interested in importing Circle of the Moon will be able to play through it, as the menus are in English, but following the plot, which makes heavy use of Japanese text, will likely be a problem for most. From what we've played thus far, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a worthy successor to Symphony of the Night, which appeared on the PlayStation in 1997, and one of the Game Boy Advance's most impressive Japanese launch games. Circle of the Moon is not currently scheduled as a North American launch title, but it should follow shortly after the handheld's June 11 launch.