Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness – N64
Platform: Nintendo 64
Release Date (NA): November 30th, 1999
Developer: Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (KCEK)
Nerd Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Released just under a year after its predecessor Castlevania (or Castlevania 64 as I’ll call it to reduce confusion), Legacy of Darkness was passed over by many fans after their dismal experiences with the former. You’re probably wondering how Konami managed to crank out an all-new game and have it ready for release a mere 11 months later; the truth is, it can hardly be called a “new” game at all. Characters, levels, enemies, items, gameplay, and basically everything else from Castlevania 64 has been recycled, albeit with a few new (and I think worthy) additions. Those who got a dose of Castlevania 64 before Legacy of Darkness might be disappointed, but if played in reverse order, it’s easy to see why Legacy is the stronger game.
If you haven’t read my review for Castlevania 64, I’d encourage you to do so before continuing. The interconnectedness between the two naturally lends itself to comparison, and I’ve gone into great detail about gameplay and other aspects in the above article.
As if the criticism of Castlevania 64 wasn’t laid on thick enough, Legacy of Darkness tends to be slammed even harder. I’m not sure why; several things point to Legacy of Darkness being closer to the original vision that the developers had for the preceding game. In fact, our main character, Cornell, was present in early media reports and press releases regarding Castlevania 64 but for unknown reasons removed from the final product. If one can view Castlevania 64 as a premature release rather than viewing Legacy of Darkness as a rehash of a previous game, it all makes a little more sense and Legacy can better be judged for what it is. That’s not to say it’s a great game, but it is a better one.
Our story kicks off in the mid 19th century and 8 years before the events of Castlevania 64. In this installment, we learn more about exactly why Dracula is afoot in the previous game. Although the game contains 4 playable characters, it takes quite a bit of work to unlock 3 of them, and the “main story” revolves around Cornell, our resident werewolf. The in-game dialog prefers terms like “man-wolf” and “man-beast,” with only one instance of the more familiar term and spelled “warewolf” no less. Our story opens with Cornell’s village being burnt to the ground by Dracula’s minions while he searches for his sister Ada. An old frenemy and fellow man-beast named Ortega continues to taunt him throughout the game, acting in a similar capacity as Death in many other Castlevania titles.
Henry, an unlockable character, has a story that takes place a few years later. Appearing as a child during Cornell’s story, he then grows up, dons a suit of armor (and a fucking pistol!) and proceeds through several of the early levels to rescue children before 7 in-game days have passed. It’s actually a pretty fun way to explore the levels with greatly lessened difficulty. Reinhardt and Carrie are also unlockable and although a few new bosses have been thrown in, their games appear to be the same as the previous game. Storyline-wise, Reinhardt and Carrie are not embarking on a new adventure; their inclusion is meant to represent their original role in the story told in Castlevania 64.
Gameplay basics remain the same from the last game with a few small tweaks. The first, which I found a little frustrating, changes how characters climb up ledges. Rather than pressing “up” while hanging, the control stick now has to be pushed in the direction that the character is facing. It may seem minor, but with all the jumping and hanging going on, it gets used a lot. One welcome change is that now subweapons can be upgraded. I had to find out about this in the instruction manual though, because going about upgrading the subweapons isn’t an intuitive process. If one has a subweapon and picks up the same subweapon again, it becomes stronger and depending on the weapon, gains new features. This can be repeated a second time for an even more powerful weapon, however, it won’t seem obvious to the average player to pick up the same subweapon that one already has. Still, it comes in quite useful, especially when the axe gains the ability to create lightning bolts and shockwaves. Another change of note is the ability of a character to change direction mid-jump, at least to some degree, leading to far less over-shoots. The lock-on feature is marginally more functional and it’s slightly easier to break torches and other objects this time around.
The selling point of Legacy of Darkness is of course Cornell’s ability to transform into a werewolf. While satisfying and fun to use, it doesn’t play as large of a role in the game as one might think. As a werewolf, his attack power and defense are greatly increased, but at a price. Although Cornell can morph with just a touch of the L button, his lycanthropic state is powered by red jewels and as such, he’s unable to use subweapons while in man-beast form. This isn’t a big deal by itself, but instead of being able to toggle from werewolf back to human, the player is forced to exhaust his or her red jewels before returning to human form. Sustaining the beast isn’t the simplest feat if you plan on ever using subweapons, so it’s best to use Cornell’s power sparingly and stock up on jewels prior to boss battles.
My major criticisms of Castlevania 64 revolved around how dull and meandering the first half is contrasted with the inexplicable difficulty of the second. Legacy of Darkness has a more balanced feel to it, equally incorporating problem solving, exploration, and good old reflexes and timing throughout all stages. There’s tons of jumping, dodging, waiting, and fighting, but it’s presented in a more doable manner. Most, if not all, of the platforming elements in Legacy are more complex and therefore harder than those of Castlevania 64, but in a way they’re also easier because they’ve been better planned and designed to work more precisely with the game’s mechanics. Obstacles and perils are far more numerous but they’ve also been refined to a higher degree. What is it I’m trying to say? I suppose it’s that Legacy relies more on skill and consistency than the sometimes blind luck factor of 64. True accidents are far less common and with enough coordination and observation, any hardship is surmountable. Difficult sequences of jumping and other problems are more complex yet have an identifiable solution not always present in 64. My personal belief is that Legacy underwent more thorough testing and seized the chance to improve upon the by then well documented inconsistencies of its predecessor.
Konami has also blessed the 2nd 3D installment of Castlevania with far more save points, particularly in difficult areas. Having to redo long portions of difficult platforming and/or combat is much less of an issue. For the most part, one can feel confident that after a difficult section is completed, there will be a save crystal nearby. Despite the praise I’ve heaped upon Legacy, it’s still fraught with a few problems from its predecessor. The most noticeable are the sprawling nature of a few of the levels and the ambiguity surrounding some puzzles. Objectives are not always clear; sometimes it takes an extended period of time wandering around to figure out what needs to be done and other times the solution is stumbled upon purely by accident. Routes through levels are not always clear and too often are the clues to puzzles too scarce. Most levels eventually contain one or more divergent points with one direction leading to a key (or switch, lever, etc.) and the other route leading to the door or obstacle requiring said key (or switch, lever, etc. to be manipulated). The game nowhere screams absolute hopelessness, though it can come close on a handful of occasions.
I said earlier that it was important to view Legacy of Darkness as an improvement over Castlevania 64 and while I stand by my assertion, it’s still impossible to ignore the reuse of large portions of the earlier game. Most of these levels occur near the beginning, and it can be a little tiring having to go through the exact same motions once again. Konami did their best to spice up old levels where possible; for example the hedge maze is navigated in a completely different manner. Other levels, like the Duel Tower and Execution Tower have been completely redesigned, and still a few more (the Clock Tower, Tower of Science) retain many of their original characteristics but throw in all new features and layouts for part of the level. It helps, but it’s still disappointing to see the same things over again. Cornell does, however, get to play through a few brand spankin’ new stages.
The rampant reuse of levels is somewhat redeemed by having each of the 4 characters play through a different set of stages. Cornell takes the largest swath, while Carrie and Reinhardt maintain their route from the last game. Henry takes on a very different approach. I mentioned earlier that while playing as Henry, one’s goal is to rescue 6 kids within 7 in-game days. Because of this, Henry is treated to shortened versions of the first 3 levels. The levels themselves haven’t really changed, but in some cases it’s unnecessary to spend time gathering keys or completing other tasks. The main objective is finding the child, often tucked away in a peripheral area or just out of view from the camera. While speed is of the essence, time passes more slowly than one might think and much less time is being used than normal because Henry isn’t having to go through all of the exact motions that Cornell did.
The last 3 stages are accessed via jumping into a coffin at different times of day, returning to the coffin, and jumping in again. These levels force Henry to backtrack in novel ways (since players aren’t generally attempting to return to the start) and also showcase the stages included for Carrie and Reinhardt that Cornell doesn’t visit. In other words, one can experience all of the game’s stages by playing through as both Henry and Cornell without having to essentially redo Carrie’s and Reinhardt’s journeys from 64. The shift of focus to exploration and swiftness in Henry’s quest from that of completion in Cornell’s is a welcome change of pace and a nice addition to the game. Playing as Henry didn’t carry near the amount of monotony that I thought it would after having just finished the game as the man-beast.
The graphics are still south of “good” and only slightly north of “serviceable.” There is some improvement over 64, mostly in the realm of anti-aliasing, but Legacy of Darkness still falls victim to curves drawn as sharp edges, a muted palette, and textures that appear warped, distorted, and generally unnatural. Even the bosses that would be considered impressive (such as the Harpy and Ortega’s Chimera form) are blocky, lacking detail, and borderline featureless. Most bosses have been recycled, but as always, Dracula does not disappoint. Expecting the dragon/centipede hybrid once again, I was instead treated to an all-new Dracula, dubbed “Dracula Ultimate” according to the in-game text. Taking on the shape of a more traditional, satyr-like demon, his face is concealed within his chest, making for a bizarre and unnerving appearance.
One aspect I was looking forward to the most was the use of the N64’s Expansion Pak, you know, the little squarish thing that came packaged with Donkey Kong 64. To my knowledge, only a handful of games utilized the increased RAM offered by the Expansion Pak, and only 2 games actually required it for play: the aforementioned DK 64 and Majora’s Mask of the Zelda franchise. If inserted, the first prompt greeting the player as Legacy is booted asks whether one wishes the game to be displayed in High or Low resolution. I spent most of my time playing in low res mode, but I did go back and play through about half of Cornell’s quest in hi res. The main complaint seems to be that the Expansion Pak interferes with the game’s frame rate, and it’s 100% true. Many portions of gameplay were quick and jerky, endeavoring to induce more dizziness and inner-ear off-balance than usual. When the enemies pile on the screen it’s a different story and we get a weird sort of slow motion effect, kind of like the NES or SNES getting overloaded with sprites. Furthermore, I didn’t much of a difference in quality either, but this could be the result of using my older TV. Better graphics or not, the disturbances in frame rate are hard to justify or overlook.
When all is said and done, Legacy of Darkness may be the better of Konami’s early 3D efforts with Castlevania, but there’s still something missing. Put quite simply, it lacks a certain degree of enjoyment. Technical aspects have been refined and gameplay mechanics have been improved, but moving through the game isn’t as fun as it should be. I can’t quite put my finger on it; perhaps playing Legacy feels more like a chore than recreation. Perhaps it feels more like a test of skill than an experience designed for satisfaction. One difficult task after another leads to a feeling of relief rather than reward, and for that reason Legacy along with its counterpart will always remain positioned at the bottom of the proverbial barrel.
In short, feel free to believe everything you’ve ever heard about Castlevania’s first and second forays into 3D. They’re not completely terrible, but they are unsuited for casual gamers. If anything, they stand as interesting examples of where 3D gaming isn’t always preferable and serve to remind us that it takes innovation and ingenuity for a franchise to make a successful transition; converting 2D sidescrollers and platformers to 3D versions of themselves isn’t simple or straightforward, at least not if an enjoyable product is the desired result.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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