Genre: Action Adventure
Since the earlier days of console gaming, Castlevania has been a standout series alongside esteemed first-party brethren like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Over the course of the 8 and 16-bit days, the series managed to produce just under 10 or so unique games for itself, and the popularity it gained after the night-untouchable Symphony of the Night released on Playstation made it a force to be reckoned with. While keeping true to its core mechanics, for the most part, Castlevania rode the waves of evolution over generations in a way that many series with they could have, whether by quantity or quality.
Inevitably, this would mean that when the jump to 3D gaming started to rise with Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Castlevania would surely take the leap with them. With a strongly established mythos and plenty of recognizable elements, the series brought a dark tone to the otherwise colorful and fantastical offerings plenty of other powerhouses had been for years to the Nintendo world.
Looking back now, there are some horrors aside from the creatures of the night the Belmont Clan had been used to that many games entering the 3D arena had to compete with. Notoriously, Castlevania 64 tripped into some of these pitfalls, but so did plenty of the heavy hitters during that time. Why, then, have we seen so much love for Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time but not for Konami’s attempt at making a more immersive trip to the Count’s castle abode?
In the year 1852, a wave of terror begins to creep toward the fields of Wallachia. It has been sixty years since Wallachia has seen the unimaginable horrors that had been unleashed by the bloodthirsty and merciless Vlad Tepes Dracula. With the aid of the Belmont family line and their allies, however, the people residing there have seen very little conflict, relishing in their peaceful days.
There are always those, however, who do not handle peace properly.
Where there is oppression, indulgence, and human ignorance, the shadows of the great Count Dracula’s castle takes shape once again within Wallachia’s forests. While the growing aura of evil begins to take shape, two young members of the country’s supernaturally savvy bloodlines become aware of Dracula’s impending return: Reinhardt Belmont, trained as his predecessors had been in the whip and blade, and Carrie Fernandez, a member of a waning but powerful magical family tree.
As the moon hangs in the sky over their doomed homeland, Reinhardt and Carrie make their way to the gates of the Count’s castle, prepared as they can be for the forces of evil and despair that roam its halls.
Playing like a number of 3D adventure games, you choose your character at the beginning of the game and maneuver them about their environments, defeating enemies and exploring to find items and power-ups to help you proceed. Like past games, you can bust open items (including candelabras) to find sub-weapons and other goodies to strengthen your arsenal. Along with the usual running and jumping involved with these games, you can cling to and climb up on ledges, dodge to a side to avoid attacks, and even slide under obstacles or into enemies, causing minimal damage to them as you connect.
The game handles both Carrie (my protagonist of choice when I played) and Reinhardt with very different playstyles, though both are similar in structure. At their core, both characters have a short and long-range attack. While Reinhardt’s long-range- the Vampire Killer whip of the Belmont Clan, just for confirmation- is stronger against more enemies in the long run, Carrie’s magical energy bursts can be charged up and will hone in on the enemy, bringing about a different tactical set than her counterpart. They can also both collect sub-weapons like daggers, crosses, and holy water to use by utilizing a third attack button, so there is versatility to be had depending on your desired method of attack.
In a passing way, the game utilizes a few new ideas. The most prominent is that there is a Day/Night Cycle mechanic where enemies are a bit weaker during the day and get tougher at night, adding another layer of strategy. Certain events will happen if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, as well, offering up helpful items or chance NPC encounters. Something the game doesn’t necessarily outline, though, is that your ending can also be dependant on these mechanics so manipulating this mechanic through items or procrastination can be risky. Thanks to the save game system implemented, though, it can be easy to explore around and rectify any mistakes or grand gambles.
The Good, The Bad, And…
Castlevania has had a tendency to be fairly “open world” in its major entries since Simon’s Quest on the NES. The third game, Dracula’s Curse, had branching paths to take, Symphony of the Night was the progenitor of the “Igavania” model that many of the later games abide by. Castlevania 64 handles this in a fun way by giving Reinhardt and Carrie the same first half of the game with a few different NPCs and situations to run into and splits them off into their own unique second half that pertains more to their thematic slant. It adds both a level of replayability to the game as well as a bit more character for both protagonists. Given how different they both feel in a gameplay sense already, it’s a fantastic move on the developers’ parts.
In a trend that seems to permeate most of the early Nintendo 64 library, the camera is brutal at certain points in this game. The original Castlevania games are known for their platforming elements that can get a bit tough due to enemy placement or a need for precise footing. Castlevania 64’s attempts at translating this to a 3D realm are nerve-wracking in a whole different way thanks to the slippery control mechanics, questionable camera angles, and some strange depth perception issues with the visuals. I have never been more thankful that there were frequent save points near most of these sections of the game, but it got bad enough for me to have to step away from the game once or twice so it feels fair to warn anyone interested in trying this entry.
The visuals for the game are incredibly indicative of the time to look back on. There are a lot of textures stretched over polygons but they have a certain charm and still feel dark and gritty in the Castlevania flavor. The usual attention to detail is expended on the bosses and environments, which all feel distinct and look fantastic. There are a few bland areas throughout the experience, but in the end, everything looks sharp, if not incredibly dated.
Castlevania 64 also upholds the series’ long-standing reputation for fantastic audio. While not as iconic, grand, or innovative as some of the games before it, the music does wonders for elevating the mood of the game, especially in the later sections. The voice acting isn’t terrible, either, but again following in the footsteps of the one other game it had to live up to, Symphony of the Night, it feels just on the campy side of over the top at times. Thematically, it’s on point.
There are a number of reasons Castlevania 64 has fallen off of the radar for a lot of folks who are more casual about their involvement with the series. Not only was it surrounded by highly regarded titles, but it was expected to live up to the benchmark set by Symphony of the Night, something fans of the series feel has only been hit once or twice since- and even that’s arguable. The game had a lot to live up to from the start anyway being the first of the Castlevania games to go 3D.
The game’s succinctly average from a gameplay perspective and it only gains a few more points if you’re a fan. All of the necessary pieces are present and accounted for but the mechanical execution falls flat a number of times, providing a fun experience if you are willing to jump those particular hurdles. It isn’t so terrible, though, that I can easily say to avoid the game. If you’re a fan of Castlevania and you have access to this game, you’ll know by the time you reach the castle gates whether you’ll enjoy this plunge into darkness or rather you’d rather wander elsewhere to defeat the Dark Lord and his minions.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
While this isn’t necessarily full of spoilers, I do enjoy talking about a few facts about this game that make it stand out to me.
Viewing this game from the standpoint of a gaming enthusiast and Castlevania fan, the game almost feels like a mistake that Konami tried to cover their tracks after. While I haven’t played the second game on the Nintendo 64, Legacy of Darkness, it sounds like it made some necessary quality of life improvements, especially in regards to the camera. Since that game came out in the same year with some content added on, this entry is rendered near obsolete, as you can play through Reinhardt and Carrie’s scenarios through that game.
The game also has the distinction of being one of the few that is not considered a ‘canon’ entry to the true Castlevania timeline. In interviews with Koji “IGA” Igarashi, it was stated that this game was meant to be an alternate timeline, making it feel like the game is even more of an outlier along with the other few games that share the honor of having been nullified or set off from the actual timeline. In an official capacity, however, he has gone on record to state that most of the games that were removed from the official chronology were removed for the sake of keeping the continuity of the series clean.
I suppose even with all of the ties to the original cast and tropes, sometimes a series gets too vast to keep everything straight and necessary adjustments need to be made. This does feel like at least one element as to why Castlevania 64 isn’t as well-remembered in a thematic sense, quality of the game set aside.