Castlevania 64 was supposed to be a landmark for Konami's famed franchise. As the next-generation console wars were becoming a burgeoning theme, 2D gaming was foolishly deemed to be passé, and it was no longer economically viable, video game companies felt, to produce two-dimensional titles for increasingly powerful hardware. Some were prepared to successfully adapt to this mindset: Mario would have his Super Mario 64, Link would have his Ocarina of Time, and the rest of the pioneers--like Sonic, Donkey Kong, Samus and even Pac-Man--would soon be joining them. And, finally, for after thirteen years of service, the Belmont clan, too, would be imminently graduating into that realm of 3D via the Nintendo 64.
The pressure all lay upon KCEK, a division of Konami, to carry over and build upon any momentum that the soon-to-be-known-as-KCET's masterpiece, Symphony of the Night, might have garnered more than a year earlier. There were opposition and hurdles from the start: (a) The loyal fanbase residual from the 2D era was suspicious if not unaccepting of the series' move to 3D. (b) Because the series' name-value had decreased due to its mishandling during the mid-90s, there was a high risk of Castlevania 64's release being overshadowed by Ocarina of Time and other highly-touted N64 titles. And (c) the gaming press was already declaring it a retread of another sort--"Mario with a whip," they'd call it. So when Konami delivered the news that the title was being stripped down heavily due to budget and time restraints, its fate was all but sealed. Gone were many of its stages and bosses; gone were two promised heroes (at the time unnamed); and gone were the hopes that a quality 3D Castlevania title was on its way. So how did things turn out? Let's have a look.
Castlevania 64 is a one-player action-adventure that unfolds over twelve stages of madness. Available to you are two heroes: Reinhardt Schneider, heir to the ancient Belmont clan of vampire hunters, and Carrie Fernandez, a powerful young woman descended from the Belnades family most popularly represented by Sypha, who fought alongside the legendary Trevor Belmont. Your goal is to guide one of the heroes through nine stages to reach the castle keep for a final battle with Count Dracula. While I'd like to call their different paths to this finale "unique," the truth is that the respective heroes navigate most of the same stages--they select different routes on stages 4, 6 and 7 but ultimately converge where you'd expect. This has only a marginal effect on the story arcs assigned to the characters' missions.
Schneider's is the more standard plight: The young man, burdened by his heritage, must prove to himself that he's worthy of his place in the lineage by coming forward to defend Transylvania from the threat of Count Dracula's inevitable rising. Reinhardt begins the game with the leather version of the Vampire Killer whip, which can be powered up two levels by finding morning-star symbols--the power increase is only denoted by a change in color rather than a full transformation. His secondary weapon is a short sword that'll provide him better luck in fighting against smaller and weaker enemies at close range. Additionally, he can collect any of four typical sub-weapons--an axe, a dagger, holy water or a boomerang--and power it using the collectible red jewels that come in large and small forms. Finally, Reinhardt while in full motion can deliver a sliding kick to slice through enemies.
Carrie will have her own trials: Because of her magical potency, she has drawn the ire of Actrise, a heartless witch who despises the Fernandez family while standing firm as an ardent supporter of Count Dracula. Carrie has vowed to honor her recently deceased mother by using her powers to fight against evil, especially Dracula; thus Actrise, his loyal follower, will surely be an instigating presence along the way. Carrie has the special ability to fire homing balls from her fingertips; this attack can be charged up before release for more range and destruction. The attack can otherwise be powered up two levels by collecting morning-star symbols--though, the increase in power is only denoted by a color change. For means of battling smaller and weaker enemies in close-range situations, Carrie utilizes her cufflinks, two deadly steel-bladed rings; with the push of a button, she'll extend her arms outward and flail away. The rings are also used during her dash attack, using which she can can execute a slicing face-first slide. Additionally, she, too, can collect and command the axe, the dagger, holy water and the boomerang sub-weapons.
Castlevania 64 has its own assortment of magical items: As mentioned, you procure morning-star symbols that continue to be the means for powering up weapons and collect up to ninety-nine red jewels to power sub-weapons. Any money bags gathered increase your total "Gold" stock, a source of currency that you'll use to buy items from Renon's shop when he's summoned through the location of a hidden contract. Otherwise, you have basic collectibles: There are purifying crystals that reverse a vampiric state when you've been infected by certain enemies plus cure ampoules that cure poison status. Large roast beef and smaller chicken restore lost energy in their respective ways. And moon and sun cards use powerful magic to speed up time.
All such collectible items are stored in the heroes' inventories, wherein nine of each item can be stored. Furthermore, the heroes can locate white jewels, which are spread all around each stage, and use them as means to save the missions' progress onto the memory card. While not limited to the above, these are your basic and most valid means for guiding the heroes toward their destinies.
The gameplay can best be described as a hybrid, a marriage of inconvenience between some of the series' better ideas and a generic style of 3D platforming that holds them all back. The dual emphasis of each stage is a certain amount of combat combined with exploration and puzzle-solving. I say "dual emphasis" because Castlevania 64 doesn't quite know what it wants to be. It wants to be, say, Shadowgate, where you can interact with the environment and solve intriguing puzzles by manipulating scenery and its props, but it doesn't want to supply any interesting settings, and it thinks that "hitting a switch to open a gate" is still a groundbreaking and novel premise. The game handles combat pretty well, with a targeting system that'll remind you of Ocarina of Time, but the creators only hit you with meaningful battles only sporadically, and such battles seem out of place as a result; some stages have bosses, some don't. Some enemies only seem like bosses, but they're not. Some bosses aren't really bosses. I mean, what the hell is going on? They supply no explanation as to what is your immediate goal.
To compound the confusion, Castlevania 64 works on a timer that controls the flow of time from night to day and vice-versa. The timer is used, in terms of "days," to decide whom you battle at game's end and the consequences of those battles. More simply: The longer you take, the worse the ending you'll get. This system worked well in Simon's Quest because attached was a them. Here, night or day doesn't make a bit of difference except for a few instances where you can only find a certain supporting-cast member during a specific time of day, and such instances are all piled into the same single stage (the Villa). There's also a rather questionable stage quirk represented by "time doors," which can only be opened if it's the correct time of day. This seems like nothing more than a cheap way to force the use of moon and sun cards, to drain away time more quickly and loft onto the player a bad ending, as if there were otherwise no challenges with which they could come up to do that same job. Don't have a moon card when you come to a "moon door" in the daytime? Well, you're screwed. Thank you for playing.
Castlevania 64 does hit some right notes: It's one true thrill is a Villa hedgemaze ambush where you must guide the young Malus to safety while two paralyze-inducing hounds and a strong yet speedy chainsaw-armed Frankenstein chase you all the way. And there's a tricky sequence where you must carry a dangerous container of nitro down several floors, all of which are filled with appropriate traps like large spinning gears, swarms of poison-spitting mermen that try to knock you off the narrow platforms, and an ambush by motorcycle-riding skeltons--the catch is that you can't whip or even take to the air without igniting an explosion. The rest of the "ideas," sadly, are recycled from numerous other games. There are your chains of events where you'll have to find this key to open this door to find this guy who wants this item in exchange for the missing link that'll open the way to this boss; there's the never-popular switch-hitting; and there's a lot more in the way of generic mechanics. Even if you consider its unique ideas, the rest of the package sadly subtracts from the sum, which amounts to monotony and the opposite of a clearly defined gameplay experience.
Some stages are linear, others are open-ended; each culminates in much the same way--in a boss' domain or at the direct entrance to the next stage. The common thread, in either case, is the tackling of platforming. The heroes must negotiate sometimes series of difficult jumps and use their ledge-climbing ability to maneuver around solid structures. You're traveling through a 3D world with heroes who are less than graceful, apt to slip, slide, and defy the very control scheme; as is, it's often difficult to gauge the distances between platforms and settle on the proper timing needed. It's then made near-impossible to master because of a nemesis that's greater than any foe you will encounter in Castlevania 64: The mechanics of its camera system. This is where the game falls completely apart.
The system doesn't work because you barely have any control over it--the camera has a mind of its own, and it's intent on never wanting to agree with your pattern of movement. In some cases, the camera fixes itself into a position, without the convenience of zooming out to notify you of incoming enemies, and expects you to judge distances for which you can't get a feel. More frequently, when you're out in the open, the camera tries to capture the best viewpoint of the action, regardless of whether or not it benefits you. This causes wild shifts as you run and always when you're attempting difficult do-or-die jumps. Most frustrating is that the controls change in deference to the camera angle. So let's consider what you have to overcome to make a jump: You have to gauge the distance, line yourself up, hope the camera angle remains static, pray that the control scheme follows suit, and get enough juice on the jump to compensate for the horror that may follow. Things are no better on the ground: One moment, you're running straight ahead, away from danger, but then the camera shifts because you're too close to the wall for its liking, so you're now pressed up against it, wide-open to attack. It's much the same for ledge-climbing: Sometimes you'll become so confused, so lost in figuring out which direction has become "left" while the camera circles you in a whirlwind, that you'll just hang there, idle, until something knocks you off.
In terms of visials, Castlevania 64 is a pretty nice-looking game. The characters are well-animated, their face-mapping nicely detailed, and they look like they belong in the Castlevania universe (particularly Charlie Vincent, who conjures up thoughts of Morris Baldwin fused with Julius Belmont). It's not a top-of-the-line effort, but it doesn't have to be. The stage design, most notably in the confines of the Villa and in the Underground Mine, is overall convincing and supplies maybe a bit of that "classic" atmosphere to a 3D game that's naturally going to bereft of that aura. However, the price of having such large castle areas is the element of fog everywhere you look; the game does poorly in the area of draw distance, so you can't always see that far into the distance--since the processor can't handle that much information at once, your forward destination is likely to be the big cloud of smoke to which you're unwittingly working toward. And for as well as they do with face-mapping, the game's textures instead look stretched on, like they're two sizes too small for the polygons they decorate, and this does little to hide their jagged nature. It's all very tolerable, but Castlevania 64 can be an ugly game to look at if you just stop and inspect it too closely.
There's a good selection of monsters, and most are inventive: You have skeletons that chase you down before exploding, club-wielding skeletons that ride around on (anachronistic) motorcycles, a large assortment of acrobatic vampires that attempt to suck your blood, the intimidating Frankenstein Gardener, and the always fun were-beasts (mutated animals of all types that want to pummel you). Old favorites like bats, Medusa heads, Cerebros, knights, bone pillars and skull heads return to better their attendance records and earn their 3D stripes--and they do well. The bosses are all big, scary and mean-looking and supply some of the game's better, more action-packed combat scenarios. The demon bull will test your mettle and your dodging and leaping skills, Actrise will try your patience with her never-yielding shield of crystal shards, and Drago will destroy you in seconds if you don't learn its tendencies. I wish there were more of them, as the game is short on real boss battles, and most guardians are relative clones of existing models.
The soundtrack is mostly all new, which isn't necessarily a good thing. While the title-screen and mission-select themes are memorable, though overused, and there are several catchy tunes (like the the depressive cavern theme), there's no variety to the soundtrack, as it's all slow and meticulous. And there are those times when you'll play in complete silence, which keeps things spontaneous and unpredictable but makes you wonder if they were really trying. There's no rule that says you have to remix older themes in every new game, but they would surely help to add a rhythm and a flow that's otherwise needed in light of its overt sameness. I realize that everything beyond Symphony is judged on a different level, but there's a lot more that could have been done to liven things up. Or maybe they were saving their best efforts for last, because the music does become more engrossing and more meaningful as you near the game's end. It's no coincidence that the Dracula X boss-fight music and Dance of Pales Dracula-battle theme show up right around that time; too, Intrusion, its best unique theme, is one of the most chilling I've heard. It's surely not the most complete effort they've ever mustered, but they do manage to strike the right chords at the right times for what is ultimately a serviceable soundtrack.
The sound effects are a little lacking in life and never pull you into the action. All characters come with their own sound samples, but a lot of it is repeated, hollow and not always appropriate. Reinhardt should be a more noisy fellow, like Richter Belmont, conveying his will through a war cry or two. Instead, you get a nice little whip snap but whimpering jumps and sub-weapons that make it sound like you're attacking the enemies with mouse traps. The characters convey thoughts through text, rather than through animation sequences, which lends credibility to the theory that confrontations and violence in this world are very subdued and mundane things. There is one instance, in the beginning, where they get you good--when a series of trees is suddenly felled by lightning in loud, fiery explosions, but this seems to be the limit of their imagination. If they would have based the game on more surprises like this, where the enviroment at least sounds alive, Castlevania 64 might have been worth playing past the first stage.
It's very difficult to grade its control scheme, because the camera system, frankly, ruins everything. It affects how the characters' basic movements and heavily influences whether or not they'll make certain jumps. I don't feel like repeating this, so I'll stick to normal controls: The characters run, jump and attack well enough, but they have a tendency to slide along the ground when redirected, which never helps your reaction time or the lining up of jumps and whip strokes. "R" locks onto enemies, which helps keep you in line, but it doesn't persuade the camera's viewpoint so that you can actually see what you're targeting. You have to hit the "Z" button to crouch and pull off your slide moves--this works well because of the accessibility of the button. But things get a bit confusing when dealing with the four "C" buttons, which control your secondary weapon, sub-weapons, the "look-around" viewpoint, and the picking up of items--they're so close in proximity that it's easy to forget which is which. It's never fun to run up to an enemy with the intention of bopping it with an axe only to get a nice close-up instead. I don't really have any problems with the mapping out of the buttons, really, but the terrible camera system exudes its bad influence over everything that can be controlled.
It's in theory one of the more challenging games in the series; if one thing carried over from the 2D games, it's the old-school thought-process behind challenge. The enemies have their patterns but are tough to figure; certain tasks, like the carrying of nitro and the escape from the Villa hedge maze, require trial and error; and they like to hit you multiple-boss onslaughts, especially during the marathon battle against Dracula. What quells the flame is another element that begrudgingly carried over from recent 2D offerings: An excessive amount of save points and healing items. While I can't say that I mind the save points, items are found most everywhere and in abundance; with the money you're always in the process of collecting, you can constantly keep stock of large amounts of beef and chicken. The problem? Well, a boss is never a challenge when you can stop the action at any time and simply refill your entire energy meter. I almost feel guilty about it sometimes. I suppose that the aptitude for greed is tempered by the threat of having to confront Renon, who after selling an excessive amount of items will challenge you as a second "extra" battle right before Dracula, but even without his services, you'll still find more than enough in the way of health-replenishment. Therein, your toughest challenges will be the later boss creatures and, more likely, the rotten camera system.
I want to tell you that you'll never really be in danger of earning a bad ending, because they give you at least ten days with which to work (a long time by the game's set standard). But because it's easy to become lost and often confused by the sometimes objectiveless level design combined with "time doors," it's highly possible that you'll get a bad ending the first time through. This is a problem in the sense that Castlevania 64 is a game you might not ever want to play a second time. I can't say enough about how poor its camera system truly is: I was ready to abandon the game midway through the first stage, the Forest of Silence, due to my inability to make even the most simple jumps. Archaic formulas like switch-hitting only helped to magnify the game's deficiencies and lack of imagination. It's not a fun experience. Not in the least.
I can only call it a fairly decent game. If this was supposed to be its idea of a project that was going to carry on the momentum of Symphony of the Night, the group at KCEK failed miserably. While I wouldn't exactly call Symphony of the Night a monetary juggernaut of success, it was a game that could have been used as a launching pad to elevate this series to new heights, even in 3D. Instead, I accredit the quick, painful downward spiral that followed directly to Castlevania 64. If it was unfinished, unrealized, or a turning into a project that was failing to match the creators' vision, it should have been scrapped early on if not canned altogether in favor of reusing its assets at a later time in a better game (which they of course had in mind before releasing the it anyway). Instead, they vomited out a deeply flawed video game at one of the worst possible times.
If you were looking for the next generation of "Castlevania," keep looking. If you're interested in something to rent for a day or two, to catch up on the story (which is a nice little mystery when it's all said and done), then Castlevania 64 is worth maybe a little of your time. I give it three Medusa Heads.