When I played Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for the first time a few months ago, I was looking for some grand thematic statement about good and evil. That is exactly what I found as I made my way through the castle, though not in the way I had assumed. Mostly devoid of exposition, Symphony expresses its archetypal conflicts almost entirely through its mechanics. The protagonist Alucard is always on the edge of destruction, fighting against a vampire and his horde of nameless baddies.
The goal is understood: triumph over evil with the tools and skills at your disposal. Anything beyond that is a narrative of your own construction. The meaning of any given Castlevania has more to do with player expectation than established narrative.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is surprising because it manages to replicate much of the magic of its predecessor. But it does so within the limitations of the GameBoy Advance hardware, which is technically inferior to Symphony‘s PlayStation in nearly every conceivable way.
Well, almost every way…
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon fits in your pocket. And to make up for the fact that the graphics, sound, and scope have to be scaled down for the GameBoy Advance, Circle cranks the difficulty way up. This game is hard!
I’ll admit that I’m not particularly good at games that require reflexes or precision or any kind of skill. At least in Symphony, I could get by with a bit of luck and some level grinding. In Circle of the Moon the game grinds you. I guess that makes sense within the story of the game. Nathan Graves is a regular human being and likely to be much squishier than Alucard, who is the son of Dracula.
What I learned is that Circle of the Moon is about perseverance and careful progress. The line between order and chaos is much more tenuous for the human who fights evil.
This is what we may learn from Nathan Graves, a “normal” human like you and me. There is good work to be done. But the meaningful work will be difficult. With a bit of perseverance and strategic thinking, we can make our small corner of the world just a bit better. Perhaps this is why video games are all the more important to me as I grow older and increasingly aware of how difficult it is to be a good person.
Anyway… back to Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
It’s almost unfair to say that Circle of the Moon succeeds “in spite” of its limitations. It succeeds because it crams the core elements of Symphony of the Night—exploration, progression, loot—into a much smaller package. Immersive experiences are so plentiful on our super powered mobile devices that it’s hard to imagine how exciting it must have been to have such a sprawling adventure on a portable. Believe it or not, the game still holds up quite well.
And apparently, there are a couple more Castlevania games on the GameBoy Advance. Now, excuse me while I dig out my GBA. I think it’s under my bed.