Castlevania: Circle of the Moon - Card Mode

Review by Mike Finkelstein

While Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was a huge success upon its release (reportedly giving Konami their much deserved "million seller" after the much more muted response to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), the game hasn't remained at the top of just about any fan-curated list of "the best of Castlevania". While other games didn't have the sales numbers to match Circle they are better regarded among fans of the series.

What happened to shift opinion of the game so drastically? Probably a lot of it has to do with the timing of the game when it came out coupled with a lot of nagging issues with the title that have only seemed to stand out even more as further games in the series released. Being the first big Metroidvania title to come out after Symphony of the Night, and with the aura, allure, and luster of that game only growing since its initial release, Circle of the Moon benefited by comparison to Symphony. Anyone that missed out on the PlayStation title, or were simply looking for a "proper" sequel to that title, could sate their desires with this Game Boy adventure.

That said (and while those of us at The Inverted Dungeon still absolutely love the title), Circle of the Moon does have a number of issues that do hurt its legacy. For one, when played on original hardware, the game is a tad dark and muddy. The earliest models of the Game Boy Advance didn't have the right lighting, lacking a back-light that could illuminate the game and make it easier to play. Thus, the dark and lush graphics of Circle were absolutely hard to see when played on original hardware (which is why the next two games in the series erred on pastel colors to make the games easier to see, to the detriment of the art itself).

Worse, though, was the card system. As a primary mechanic of the game, the card provided a lot of variety and interesting things you could do in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. The downside was that all the cards were tied to enemies in the game as random drops (in most cases very rare random drops). To get the cards you'd not only have to figure out which enemies had the cards (which, good luck knowing that without a guide already open in front of you) but you'd then have to spend a lot of time grinding those enemies hoping for the elusive cards. Some of those enemies were hard to find or get to, like the special candle enemies that would only appear in two boss chambers long after you've left those areas and progressed the story, or two other cards being locked as drops on enemies only found in the Battle Arena, forcing you to fight through the whole area simply in hopes of getting a drop.

Thanks to the power of emulation, the first issue with the game -- the lack of a back-light on the hardware making the graphics look muddy -- has already been solved. Played on a TV or monitor, Circle of the Moon looks as lush and fabulous as Konami intended. Meanwhile, with the Card Mode hack created by Dev Anj, the issue with the cards has been all but eliminated, allowing players to proper enjoy all the cards in the game without having to go digging for them on enemies in their first play-through.

What "Card Mode" does is it swaps the cards out as random drops from enemies, instead placing these items around the castle in (generally) secret areas the players have to find. These secret rooms aren't new areas, mind you, but are the rooms hidden behind breakable walls that would normally have health or heart max upgrades; some of those items were removed and the cards were placed at those locations instead. Thus, if you know the map of Circle of the Moon, or are just willing to attack every wall that seems suspect, you'll eventually find all 20 cards in the game without issue.

I'm generally a fan of this as, frankly, the placement of some of the cards in the original game was outright rude. How would you know that the Earth Demon near the start of the game had the Serpent (read: Ice) card? That makes no sense. How would you know to go to boss chambers you've already completed simply to see if maybe the devs decided to hide something there a couple of hours after you've completed the area? What's the point of that except to purposefully make players spends hours upon hours backtracking through the castle, documenting every enemy they fight to see what two drops each and every enemy has. It's ridiculous (and I say that as someone that loves the original game, mind you).

That being said, the placement of the cards in this mod does space them out so they're more "evenly distributed" in the game. I got a lot of mileage out of the Serpent card in the early going of the game and that card is actually placed a little later now, meaning I had to change my card use and routing a bit from what I'm used to. And that's true of all the cards as, due to them no longer being drops but physically placed around the castle), you'll spend a lot more time with less of the cards before you figure out where the dev hid the next one so you can get that power for your collection. it's like a give and take and, in some ways, I wonder if this distribution is better for strategy than having to grind specific enemies.

The other issue I have with the mod is that all it does is place the cards as items in the castle but, in all other respects, leaves the game alone. The intent, of course, was simply to re-balance the game so the cards were easier to get, which I can respect, but I wish the dev had added in some other surprises to the mix. Maybe they could have changed some enemies and used the new cad placements to lay some traps or puzzles for you to think through. Yes, that would had changed the basic layout of the castle but, for all the time I've spent in the game already, I didn't feel like I needed yet another trip through just to find the cards more easily. I've already ground a copy of the game so I could have every card (and there's the Magician mode you can unlock that gives you all the cards), so just placing them around the castle wasn't quite enough for me.

But maybe I'm not the type of player this is intended for. For those players that haven't experienced much of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, or those where weren't insane enough to grind, over and over, for cards so they could have a complete set, this might just be the right kind of mod for them. It makes finding cards easier, which was the goal, and thus allows players a better way to enjoy the game to its fullest. I wanted more, but perhaps this is enough on its own.