Castlevania 64 – N64
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release Date (NA): December 31st, 1998
Developer: KCEK (Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe)
Nerd Rating: 4 out of 10
Note: The actual title of this game is simply Castlevania. To avoid confusion, I’ve listed it as it’s colloquially known, Castlevania 64. The “64” is appended most everywhere and commonly used to distinguish it from the original release for the NES.
My oh my, where do I even start when it comes to Castlevania 64? I’ve had quite an experience with it these last couple of days, and this will be my third major revision of my review because I just can’t seem to nail down my thoughts on the matter. One moment it’s not so bad, the next it’s marginally enjoyable, and then within 5 minutes I’m ready to hang it up for good. My first major blunder occurred when I misidentified the ending. Yes, I’d been working my way through on “easy,” and misunderstood what was happening at the end of the 5th stage. As it turns out, level 5 is as far as you go on easy and you must restart the game on normal to access the 2nd half of the game – an additional 5 stages. Initially, I was also content to gloss over many of the differences between the 2 selectable characters, but the more I played, the more my interest grew and the more appreciable I found their impact. So I persevered. What I’d thought was a quick 5 stages turned into 2 complete playthroughs on “normal,” 1 with each character. I’ve done my best to integrate revised thoughts with initial impressions; it should be noted that there’s a very clear shift of nearly all aspects of Castlevania 64 from the first half to the second.
The mid to late 90’s saw several franchises transition to 3D and rocket to success – particularly those of Nintendo – but we don’t often think of the ones considered to represent a step backwards for a series. Castlevania, or Castlevania 64 as it would come to be known to avoid confusion, is regarded by many to be the genesis of a low point in the franchise’s history. Would it have fared better on a more powerful system? Possibly, but thin graphics notwithstanding, Castlevania 64 is a joyless affair fraught with a lack of depth. The effort to steer the series in a new direction is commendable, but it ends up losing much of what made the previous games so special and fails to replace it with anything comparable. A few interesting concepts are introduced, but their potential is never realized. Castlevania 64 isn’t a complete waste of time, though it tends to feel a bit watery and bland when placed alongside similar virgin-3D endeavors.
This time the player is thrown into 1852, fighting yet another incarnation of Dracula. Taking a cue from Bloodlines, two characters are selectable at the beginning: Reinhardt Schneider, current wielder of the Vampire Killer and heir to the Belmont name; and Carrie Fernandez, a young sorceress. The in-game path of each character is a bit different, with Reinhardt and Carrie each playing through 3 (out of 10) distinct levels from the other (stages 4, 6, and 7). The two also utilize different attacks, expose different storylines, and reveal different endings. Reinhardt’s story is intertwined with a female, morally-torn vampire named Rosa, and he eventually goes up against Death himself. Carrie has much less interaction with Rosa and instead faces off against the witch Actrise, having no contact with Death. The male warrior and female magician tropes would later appear in Portrait of Ruin as well.
Reinhardt whips away a la most other Castlevania protagonists, and Carrie shoots little balls of energy from her hands. Their close-range / secondary weapons are also different but function identically, and all subweapons can be used by either of the two. The main point of consideration is the characters’ primary modes of attack. It’s easy to imagine the practical differences between a whip and bolts of energy; for starters, you’d probably be inclined to think that the energy blasts could be wielded with a higher degree of accuracy and lethality, with the added benefit of range over something as crude as a whip. However, Castlevania 64’s physics lead to an entirely different story. The lock-on feature works great with the whip. At times, Reinhardt will take out several enemies standing close together with a single lash. Range is limited, but it ends up reaching further than one might think.
Carrie’s energy bolts, on the other hand, fail miserably at locking on to all but the most obvious of threats (and sometimes not even those). When I began my second game as the young soothsayer, I looked forward to having a projectile as my main attack, but it did little to improve or shorten combat and in some instances made me pine for the whip. Sometimes she’s throwing bolts all over the place and it takes several small adjustments to initiate the lock-on mechanic, and other times it never engages at all. For the majority of Carrie’s quest I found myself using her subweapon for enemies afar and her short-range, melee attack when the wretches closed in. Her powers did come in useful when navigating the treacherous Tower of Science (a Carrie-only level) but otherwise I was sorely disappointed.
It’s worth noting that neither the Vampire Killer nor Carrie’s energy manipulation are very powerful on their own. If the player manages to gather up 2 powerups to amp up the strength of these weapons they work quite well, but as the game wears on, these powerups are harder to come across. Additionally they do not carry over after death, so as one advances and begins dying more frequently it’s hard to keep the primary weapons up to snuff. Short-range attacks are generally useless and only come in handy during a few situations which leaves the subweapons as the most powerful option. They constantly impart considerable power and range: holy water spreads over an area and continually damages enemies in the vicinity, crosses can hit multiple enemies multiple times in the same pass, axes travel in an arc and deliver extensive damage, and knives can traverse significant distances. Unfortunately “red jewels” are required to power subweapons, much like hearts in earlier games. Fortunately I have an N64 GameShark and I know how to use it.
Gameplay is different from its 2D counterparts in the way that all 3D gameplay differs from 2D, but it’s fairly standard of other 3D action-adventure games. The weapons feature a strange lock-on mechanic, automatically targeting the nearest enemy. While generally helpful, especially for those times when you don’t know you’re being chased, it serves as an annoyance when trying to break objects. In addition to their main weapon, characters also possess both a secondary weapon and subweapon, happily mapped to their own buttons on the controller. Foes drop items familiar from past games including money, power-ups, and different subweapons, however, instead of merely walking over them to pick them up, a special investigate/pick up button has been designated. Though useful for its intended investigation purposes (although I tend to find it problematic determining what is “investigatable”), it’s an outright pain in the ass to pick up every item dropped by a fallen foe. As the enemies get tougher and more numerous, one must run around to avoid certain attacks and many times the items will disappear before one has a chance to claim them.
Apart from these changes, most other mechanics function as expected, albeit in a now 3D environment. The act of jumping has long been an on-and-off point of contention in past Castlevania games, and I’m happy to report that Konami finally got it right in Castlevania 64. Our protagonists can leap far, land precisely, and even have a helpful grab-onto-the-edge-of-the-ledge feature to assist with tricky sequences. At times the game relies heavily on precision jumping ability, firmly planting Castlevania 64 in the land of early 3D platformers. Perhaps the most surprising facet of jumping is the lack of tendency for the camera angle to obscure one’s view…for the first half at least.
Camera angles in general were the single greatest plague to early 3D gaming – in fact, for all the praise heaped on Super Mario 64, it was very easy to get tangled in awkward camera angles – but Castlevania 64 manages to nail this aspect as well as can be expected during the first 5 stages. Not being able to see behind the character is annoying at times but nonetheless an acceptable mark of realism. The game includes a button that brings the camera to a first-person perspective in order for the player to take a good look at one’s surroundings and also has the pleasant side-effect of “resetting” the camera angle. Angles adjust appropriately to difficult passages involving tough jumps and overall excel at following the character without getting stuck behind walls or other pieces of the environment. However, the seemingly intuitive camera goes on vacation for Reinhardt’s 6th and Carrie’s 7th stages in particular. These levels are very demanding with regards to jumping accurately and quickly, and though the camera can be correctly positioned with a little trial and error, these areas rarely allow enough time to do so. One is forced to jump blindly at times, doing their best at quickly orienting themselves and then taking a leap of faith.
One addition that may not be immediately noticeable is the game’s treatment of time. Going back to a feature not seen before or since Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Castlevania 64 reintroduces the concept of night and day. A small clock in the corner shows the in-game time, passing considerably faster than actual time but at a nice speed conducive to gameplay. The day/night mechanic is used sparingly (typically as a condition of “puzzles”) and feels a bit contrived and unnecessary, but at least it doesn’t interfere. Your main interaction with the differences between day and night will occur during outdoor combat; monsters are tougher, stronger, and more numerous when darkness falls. Inexplicably, a handful of necessary doors can only be opened during either daylight or nighttime hours. I’m not exactly sure why; one can simply wait out the time in front of the door. My best guess is that it acts as a sneaky nudge for players to use their “Sun” and “Moon” cards (cards that will automatically advance time to the next nightfall or sunrise). If too many Sun and/or Moon cards are used by the end of the game, it results in “the bad ending.” Furthermore, if you choose to spend lots of money on cards (or anything else) you’ll end up squaring off against Renon, the merchant demon, before the final battle with Dracula.
The mechanics governing Castlevania 64 may be dodgy and inconsistent, but it is a relatively competent game with the expected ups and downs common in most early 3D games of the sort. Nothing serves to hinder Castlevania 64 so bad as to render it completely unplayable (well, aside from a couple of rough spots I’ll mention later), it’s just that the game itself is bland and dull to begin with, before morphing into super-hard exercises of reflex and timing. A modicum of exploration is necessary and combat ranges from super-easy to frustrating at times. Most of stages 1 through 5 are spent walking from one room to another, finding keys, and deciphering a handful of clues in the dullest possible fashion. Levels 6 through 10 aim to test the player’s patience, stringing one impossible task after another. The majority of adversaries don’t have the recognizable horror or mythological origins of past games and most foes appear in droves of easy-to-defeat drones. A ghost, a bat, a skeleton, another skeleton, even a vampire here and there: it’s all pretty much the same. Whip it a few times and run, repeat until dead.
Worth mentioning are a couple of spots that have the potential to bring the game to a screeching halt. Correction: a more accurate description would be a slow, agonizing loss of momentum punctuated with denial. Early in the game, your character must possess a certain key to progress. To get this key, one must bump into Vincent after having met Rosa between 3 and 6 a.m. a couple of rooms prior. The catch? Unless you happen upon Rosa by sheer luck during those 3 hours, you don’t even know to look for her until after you bump into Vincent. But if you meet Vincent before meeting Rosa, Vincent doesn’t give you the key, nor does he ever reappear. See the circular logic? What’s even worse is that you won’t realize anything is amiss right away. You’ll run across a save point, make a little more progress, and then find yourself completely stuck. The worst part of it all is that it’s impossible to revert to a previous save point since you’re almost guaranteed to save before you realize what or when the problem happened. The only option, besides starting an entirely new game, is to go find the one enemy in the area that continues to respawn, let it kill you, and instead of choosing to resume from previous save after “Game Over,” opt to restart the entire level instead.
A similar occurrence manifests 2 stages later. The player needs to get two objects in the same place at the same time, yet can’t carry both simultaneously. If the player ends up on the wrong route within the level stuck with either of the objects and chooses to save, he or she will find themselves utterly stuck because there’s no way to drop the item or use it outside of its intended destination. Again, realizing the mistake isn’t sufficient since one is forced to restart the entire level rather than reverting to a previous save. While the first instance could possibly be construed as a nasty little lesson regarding Castlevania 64’s idea of puzzles, the second is nothing less than poor game design.
The first half of Castlevania 64 may be lukewarm at best, but suddenly, the game becomes crushingly difficult, requiring multiple sequences of complicated and well-timed jumps. Reinhardt’s Stage 6 alone includes unseen/unseeable hazards (until you’re killed by them), an unclear and confusing route through the level, a series of very difficult jumps coupled with periodically atrocious camera angles, and it contains zero save points because the idea is to make it through in one try. The trend continues in the next few levels, though there are a few blessed save points from time to time. The spike in difficulty is inexplicable; suddenly the player is forced to contend with situations beyond anything previously encountered. Getting knocked off platforms by endless flying enemies has always been one of the worst hazards of the series, and in Stage 7 (for Reinhardt) we get a whopping helping of this feature in 3D for the first time. The Tower of Sorcery sees Carrie making tremendous leaps across wide gaps in a featureless void, leading to a very poor depiction of depth. Overshooting her landing is just as likely as falling short, and the entire affair boils down to trial, error, and memory.
Scenery and graphic quality don’t do much to help the lifeless (no pun intended) situation either. Colors are drab, and the textures and shading are vague and muddy. Whether you’re in the forest, castle, or tunnels, you’ll notice only neutral shades of brown and gray. Brown wood, gray stones. Brown ground, brown tunnel walls. Gray platforms, brown enemies. While I wouldn’t expect a rainbow of color from a Castlevania release, it seems that Konami could’ve compensated for the lackluster realism by using a more expansive color palette.
The N64 just wasn’t ready for the kind of graphics that consumers demanded. Then again, its contemporaries (the first PlayStation and Sega Saturn) suffered from the same blocky and angular presentation. Castlevania 64 embodies this dated aesthetic with muted details, hard angles for chins, elbows, fingertips, and everything else that ought to be round, and increased emphasis on 3D functionality over expressive design. Monster sprites have continuously been one of my favorite elements in the Castlevania series, and it’s all but lost in the franchise’s first foray into 3D. Creatures are indistinct and lacking detail and none are particularly impressive. Coupled with the muted color selection, sometimes it’s hard to even spot an adversary: thank goodness for the weapon lock-on feature, though the red square does muck up some of the better visual effects such as the ghosts.
Castlevania 64 isn’t totally without its visual high notes. Admittedly, the giant undead bull is pretty badass looking, and Reinhardt’s battle with death features an impressive demon. The Carrie-exclusive stage “Tower of Sorcery” is filled with beautiful, floating crystal that shimmers and refracts light for an alien yet majestic appearance. Dracula’s final form is easily the most memorable, and while it still looks like a pile of triangles, trapezoids, and parallelograms, a genuinely grotesque, other-worldly, and totally original being is presented and will not soon be forgotten by any witnesses.
Despite marginally serviceable graphics, the music is a real highlight. The sound effects are a little on the generic (and sometimes aggravating) side, but the background music is excellent. Besides being of a quality better than most would expect, it’s also ear-catching. Moody and somber, it perfectly encapsulates the Castlevania spirit. Right from the creepy violin solo on the start screen, it’s clear that ample thought was put into the game’s score.
Should you choose to play through on easy, the first half will leave you wondering why this installment receives so much criticism. Truthfully I didn’t notice a huge change in difficulty upon replaying the first 5 stages on “normal,” so it’s probably best to start there and give yourself a shot at the full game. In a word, the second half of Castlevania 64 is abysmal. It’s too hard to be enjoyable and relies on a level of precision that neither the graphics nor in-game physics can reliably deliver. Gameplay in the first half may have been uninspiring at best, but at least it was manageable. Finally, however, we are treated to a worthy climax with an amazing rendering of Dracula’s final form. Part dragon and part centipede, the creature is a sight to behold and one of the best Draculas I’ve seen in the series thus far. For some players, the increased challenge of the second half of Caslevania 64 will be welcomed. The straightforward nature provides some respite from the time spent backtracking and exploring early on, but progress is slow and paid for with blood. This slant towards the impossible brings the game down to a firm “mediocre” in my eyes.
Castlevania 64 isn’t a bad game through and through, and it probably doesn’t deserve quite the level of derision it receives. Early 3D games faced a number of problems, and though Castlevania 64 retains its share of them, only a few of them interact negatively with the gameplay. The aforementioned struggles from the first half aren’t so egregious in and of themselves, rather it’s the manner in which the game deals with correcting these errors and how long it takes the player to identify the mistake. Hardships encountered in the second half are largely the result of lazy level design and the unavailability of adequate in-game mechanics for the player to properly negotiate such demanding passages. Our first 3D adventure hunting Dracula ultimately suffers from a lack of innovation. We’re still doing the same stuff we were doing in 2D, only with an extra dimension to move around in and with worse graphics. All told, it’s a relatively vanilla installment; it doesn’t suck, but it ought to be more fun than it is. There’s no single flaw that unequivocally brings Castlevania 64 to its knees, it just happens to exemplify “unremarkability” with a dash of “what were they thinking…?”
Eleven months later, Konami followed up this title with another attempt at pushing the series into 3D, Legacy of Darkness. Be sure to check it out as well!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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