The GameBoy Advance holds a lot of promise, and I mean a LOT of promise. Case in point is Konami's Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, or as I like to call it, Symphony light. This game is what would happen if you combined Richter and Alucard's abilities from Symphony of the Night and made it into a handheld game. The result is pure gold.
The year is 1830. The evil sorceress, Camilla, has resurrected Count Dracula and plans to restore him to full power through a secret ritual. Morris Baldwin (apparently no relation to John Baldwin from Bloodlines), his son Hugh, and his apprentice Nathan Graves confront the evil count, but Morris is captured while the hunters in training are cast into the Abyss. Fortunately, one of the amazing tricks known to all vampire hunters is the ability to fall as far as necessary, provided there's a floor, without getting hurt. After dusting himself off, Hugh sets out to find his father, leaving Nathan behind. Ole' Nate, earnest and sincere, decides to also pursue his master and thus you set off on a romp through Dracula's castle.
The story isn't going to win any medals; there's very little in terms of plot other than "defeat Dracula", though there is some interaction and moralizing between Nathan and Hugh on the rare occasions that they meet. However, this is not a game you play for the story: it's all about the gameplay.
Circle of the Moon is like a toned-down version of Symphony of the Night for PSX. You roam around the castle, fighting the undead minions of the count and gain experience for each one you kill. You have the trademark Vampire Killer whip, which can either be struck left/right or twirled for lower but continuous damage. You also have the trademark Castlevania subweapons (axe, dagger, holy water, cross, stopwatch) that you use with hearts that you collect from whipping candles, killing enemies, etc. Here's a hint: if you get the cross, don't bother with any other weapon.
Depending on your luck, certain enemies will drop certain items, either armor or consumable such as antidotes and potions, and sometimes they'll drop spell cards.
Spell cards are put to use in the Dual Set-up System (DSS). There are two types of card: action and attribute. Action cards control what the attribute cards do, for instance the Mars card allows you to use a different elemental sword depending on which attribute card you combine it with. Attribute cards possess different elemental attributes such as the Salamander card's fire power. Combining two cards will give you a unique ability, such as raising your luck or letting you summon a certain creature to attack, and all card combinations consume magic points which replenish over time.
I found the DSS to be a novel idea and it was executed quite well. Switching combinations is as easy as going into the status screen and highlighting a different card. I usually kept mine on Mandragora and switched action cards around, but that's not to say the others aren't useful. The summons, specifically, are helpful against bosses, provided you have enough magic points to spare. Of course you have to actually use each combination before the game will list what the combo does, so it pays to experiment for that fact alone.
The famous map from SotN returns as well, and you'll be checking it every few screens to figure out where you can go next, since after beating certain bosses you gain artifacts that give you new powers, such as double jump, that allow you to access new areas of the castle.
The only problems I had with the gameplay (and these are VERY minor) are that there was an incredible lack of healing items from killing enemies, and the subweapons were not balanced: only the cross and holy water were really useful. Otherwise I have no complaints.
Control was rarely a problem: the interface is set up very simply and special moves are easy to pull off. Though my fingers started to cramp up playing in the tiny GBA, I give major kudos to Konami for their ability to make playing such a tiny title easier.
There there were the graphics, which made playing the game much harder. I say this not because of the quality of the backgrounds or characters; they were all richly detailed and gothic, really helping to set the tone of the game. However, the graphics, using such a dark color palette, made the game very difficult to see, especially since the GBA is not backlit. You may have heard this in other reviews, and it really is true: visibility is incredibly poor on this title, and I recommend getting a worm light as otherwise you will have to fight for angles in the sun to see what's going on.
Musically I liked CotM since it pretty much ripped tracks from all the other Castlevania games for its soundtrack. I had a hard time figuring out whether it was fan service or a lack of originality that prompted the inclusion of all the classic tunes, but either way I enjoyed it. You'll find renditions of tracks from Castlevania: Bloodlines, Super Castlevania IV, and of course, the classic "Vampire Killer". There were a few original tracks, such as the underground sewer, but come on, give me a little more originality than that, Konami.
The sound was good, however, and the sound effects were at least 16-bit quality. This is one game on which you'll want to keep up the volume. An aural pleasure.
My recommendation for anyone who owns a GBA and enjoys action RPGs is to get this game. Also, if you liked Symphony of the Night, it would behoove you to get this title as it's more of the same great gameplay you loved from the PSX game, shrunk, simplified, and even added to a bit. Add to all that quite a bit of replay from a few secrets you find after you beat the game, and you've got a masterpiece on your hands. Just remember to have your play area well lit or you WILL go blind. Excellent job Konami.