It's 1999 and Konami Computer Entertainment of Kobe (KCEK) is set to release Castlevania 64 for Nintendo's N64 console. Upon its shoulders lay one of the largest burdens a game could ever know, a responsibility that spelled failure even months before its release: It had to live up to and perhaps surpass the insurmountable expectations brought upon by Symphony of the Night's creative successes and fairly impressive commercial viability while smoothly transitioning the series into the world of 3D. For a number of different reasons, it failed on all accounts.
It wasn't so much that the stage design was rough, the basic mechanics and controls were awkward, the gameplay was generic, and the camera system was death--it's that promises were broken. Due to the usual deadlines and cost-cutting measures, the game fell victim to truncated production that saw the elimination of multiple stages, two additional hero characters, and many intangible elements that maybe would have afforded it a better chance in the marketplace. We were treated to a halfhearted version of what the game was originally intended to be. So rather than leaving bad enough alone, KCEK wanted us to know its true vision, and thus Castlevania: Special Edition, the complete package that Castlevania 64 should have been, was soon on its way to the N64. By the time it was ready for release, it had been retitled Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, the hope being that it wasn't too late to reverse the damage of Konami's previous miscalculation.
For the most convenient description: Legacy of Darkness is an update to Castlevania 64 in much the same way Nocturne In the Moonlight for the Sega Saturn is an "upgrade" to its PS1 counterpart. If you go in expecting an all-new game, a highly focused reimagining of the previous title, you'll be making a mistake; if you're looking to experience Castlevania 64's action in a newer, more realized way, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. Nothing has changed in regard to its mechanics, its controls, its camera system and the rest, but because the development team has better mastered and has a better understanding of the hardware, the group has managed to improve upon Castlevania 64's many deficiencies through little adjustments. Combined with the increased number of playable characters and stages, Legacy of Darkness turns out to be only a slightly different yet surprisingly enjoyable experience.
The main difference, you'll find, is that you can only at first play as Cornell. Cornell is a member of the secret order of the man-beasts, and we follow him on his adventure, which takes place eight years before Carrie Fernandez and Reinhardt Schneider's eventual meeting with Count Dracula. Cornell has returned home after a campaign of severe ascetic training only to find that dark forces have ravaged his village and have taken captive his sister for sinister means. The infuriated Cornell must travel into Castlevania to track down his sister, find out who kidnapped her, and put a halt to what is an even grander scheme. Only by satisfying certain conditions through playing Cornell's mission will you begin unlocking the game's many secrets.
Cornell's mission is a one-player affair that stretches out over thirteen stages and culminates at the castle keep for the final battle. Cornell's main weapon is an energy scythe projectile that can be powered up two levels by finding morning-star symbols--both strength levels are denoted by only a slight color change. To better deal with peskier and weaker enemies who like to get up close and personal, Cornell can clear some space with his secondary attack--a quick-hitting claw swipe. Though he's in no way connected to the family of legend, he has no qualms about using four of their special sub-weapons (the axe, the dagger, holy water and the boomerang), which are powered iusing the collectible red jewels that come in large and small forms. Also, while in full motion, Cornell can deliver a sliding kick to slice through enemies.
His most defining characteristic, Cornell can at any time use his man-beast powers to transform into a werewolf, wherein his speed, strength and endurance are bolstered and the effectiveness of his attacks see a large increase increase. For each second he's in werewolf form, his jewel meter drains by one; at zero, he reverts back to human form--and only when the meter reads zero will he be able to retake human form, with no option to switch manually. Since Cornell has only one ending available to him, there's no rush to complete his mission. Therein, in his case, the day-to-night system is even less important than before.
Once you complete Cornell's mission, you'll be able to play as Henry Oldrey, who you will have saved in the Villa hedge maze early on in stage four (the Villa). Henry, who is now eight years older, is assigned his own mission that's concurrent to that of Reinhardt and Carrie's: While the main heroes are meeting their respective destinies, Henry must search in and around the castle to save six of the children that Actrise has kidnapped. Henry's main weapon is a six-shot pistol that can be fueled for more explosive power by collecting morning-star symbols--these increase the power of the shells up to two levels. Henry must reload the rifle after six shots, which leaves him temporarily defenseless. His secondary weapon is a short sword that'll provide him better luck in fighting against smaller and weaker enemies and those who attack at close range. While in full motion, he, too can deliver a sliding kick. Also, not surprisingly, he can collect any of the four noted sub-weapons.
Henry will be able to travel to and from six stages in the process: These include the Forest of Silence, the Castle Wall, the Villa, the Outer Wall, the Underground Tunnel and the Underground Mine. He has seven days to save as many children as possible, and the amount of children saved triggers whatever ending is earned for such efforts. It's important to save as many children as possible, because their rescuing opens up more of the game's secrets--mainly the unlocking of Reinhardt and Carrie. Our two familiar heroes are virtually identical to how you remember them, with only with slight changes: They have alternate costumes, the newest of which are default; Reinhardt resembles more of a knight while Carrie goes for the schoolgirl look (you can unlock their original outfits by saving certain children with Henry). And Reinhardt's whip actually changes form when morning-star symbols are collected--it transforms into a chain whip and then into a powerful flame whip. Their paths to Dracula haven't changed, insofar, nor have their story arcs and endings. When at this point, the game more or less becomes Castlevania 64 with better stage design and some newer enemies.
Legacy's assortment of magical items, not surprisingly, hasn't changed: You collect morning-star symbols that continue to be the means for powering up weapons, and red jewels, of which 99 can be stocked, continue to power sub-weapons. Any money bags procured will increase your total "Gold" stock, a source of currency that you'll use to buy items at 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. Cornell's mission features more in the way of sequence-initiating collectibles, but those listed above are the heroes' most common means for navigating the castle and its surroundings.
Legacy has one new gameplay addition: If a hero collects a sub-weapon that's already in his or her possession, the number "2" will appear below it in the sub-weapon box atop the screen. The power and range of the weapon will thus increase. If he or she collects the same weapon again, the number "3" will appear, and the sub-weapon will now be afforded magical power. For example: When a hero throws an axe, lightning will strike down at the point of impact, the enemies damaged repeatedly. If you pick up a different weapon, of course, the power will be lost. This is a nice throwback to the old days of double- and triple-shots.
"But how does any of this equate to the 'enjoyment' of which you speak?" you ask. Simple: Legacy's biggest adjustment is to its stage design. There are new stages-- like the Haunted Ship, the Outer Wall and the Tower of Art--and they're all well crafted with appropriate themes attached, but the bulk of the stages that return from Castlevania 64 are restructured or refined. Did you hate journeying through the Forest of Silence? Well, now the Forest is much more straightforward, so much more solid in design that even "switch-hitting" can't drag it down. The Duel Tower isn't just some "square" room with boring cage fights: Now you never know where the next were-beast will pop up or in what type of arena you'll fight it. Even the Clock Tower, while altogether similar, will hit you with better puzzles and more-clever traps. Cornell travels through many of the same areas and faces the same trials carried over from Castlevania 64, so it's important that these improvements were made.
The enemy selection has increased by about twenty or so, with nine new minor enemies, ten new bosses, and an exclusive "Dracula" form for Cornell to battle at the end of his own mission. The minor enemy additions are either clones of existing foes or based on their design--like zombies, mud men, fishmen and goblins--and are thus nothing special, but our four heroes will this time around face some of the better bosses. Medusa has returned, straight out of Clash of the Titans, with her bow and arrow and shield; there are some new vampires and were-beasts to slay; the Harpy and Chimera-like Ortega will test your patience and abilities upon their shaky battlefields; and the Water Dragon and Ultimate Dracula will put a new spin on things with a battle perspective that has you occupying the foreground while they occupy the background. It's no shock that a stage actually seems worth the effort taken when a boss or an appropriate challenge greets you at its end.
There are even some new graphical elements: When you collect a morning-star symbol, the character will become surrounded by an ambient glow that signifies the powering up of his or her weapon. And the lighting effects have been improved, too, which means that the heroes will cast bigger shadows, light will deflect off of surfaces, and the character models' clothes and skin color will change to accommodate the glow of a given light source. While the game's look can be considered "dated," since its graphics are recycled from a game made almost a year earlier, they hold up a bit better because of these additions and changes.
Legacy also has an expansion pak option of which you can take advantage. The pak affords the game a higher resolution that results in bumped-up textures, increased engine speed, a smoother framerate, and better processing power for improved draw distance. Unfortunately, the pak has one dangerous quirk when dealing with the largest of stage areas: Since the N64 is now processing so much more at one time (especially in the Villa and its hedge maze, which contain enemy clusters), there's a painful amount of slowdown that can ultimately and continuously result in screen-freezing crashes, and you may have to reset the game many times and restart certain stages. It's nice to beef up the graphical presentation, but it's probably not worth the effort. If you instead remain on a lower resolution, you'll eliminate the threat of a crash, though the graphics will remain somewhat ugly and pixelated.
The soundtrack includes a few new tunes, but it's mostly the same selection (that is, an exceptionally large collection when compared to previous titles). There's a new introduction sequence that works for a more heart-racing story buildup, and the original selection-screen theme has been jazzed up with guitar riffs; both help to set a better mood and atmosphere leading up to your character selection while supplying an earnest attempt to make the game feel like something new. For nostalgia-inducing effect, you'll hear the intro to Vampire Killer when you begin the Haunted Ship stage, and the intro to Theme of Simon plays whenever Henry rescues a child. The sound effects have been given a boost, too, due to the addition of the two newer, more vociferous characters, the power-up ambiance, and the exploding sounds of the level-three sub-weapons. It's an improved effort over Castlevania 64, as they've squeezed a bit more out of the aging N64.
The control scheme bears repeating beyond the normal running and jumping: "R" locks onto enemies for more accurate offense, especially in the case of the projectile users. You have to hit the "Z" button to crouch and pull off your slide moves, which works well because of the accessibility of the button. In the case of Cornell, you have to push the "L" button to transform him into a werewolf if you have more than one jewel. Things remain a little rough 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 engulfing it with holy water only to get a nice close-up instead.
For all of its improvements, however, some old hindering problems still lurk. When you first play as Cornell, you'll be slipping and sliding all over the place, and you'll likely slap yourself across the head and say, "Oh, no--not again!" The dizzying camera system will surely continue to compound the frustration. The solution to the problem lay in the tweaks made to other areas of gameplay: (a) The three projectile-using characters have an improved lock-on feature that forces the camera into a more agreeable position. (b) The stages have a reduced number of crazy jumps, which gives the camera less of a chance to wildly shift and negatively impact the platforming perils. And (c) the stages' newer, more straightforward design tends to keep the camera pointing at a forward position, which further prevents it from shifting around to the side at the most inopportune times. Such changes manage to make Carrie and Reinhardt's missions seem more tolerable than you'll remember.
The consensus is that Legacy is more challenging than its predecessor due to its length and increased amount of enemies, but I find it to be easier. I attribute this completely to the new stage designs, since the ridiculous jumps, as mentioned, are minimized, and the improved stage layouts will actually instill within the player the will to play onward where Castlevania 64's design will have repelled her or she. There are always going to be those instances where you run around endlessly looking for items you're not sure exist, but I think that such instances are easier to endure because the stages' objectives are more clearly defined. Energy-replenishing items are still all-too-readily available, and, if possible, there are an overabundance of save points to be found, but this will perhaps help to engage the player where trial-and-error is still the rule. And while the flawed camera system still doesn't do you any favors, the adjustments made work hard to deliver an easier, less frustrating experience.
While on the surface virtually the same, Legacy of Darkness is a better game than Castlevania 64. When I originally played Castlevania 64, I immediately learned to hate it--I couldn't stand going through the Forest of Silence, the Villa and the Castle Center stages. Now, for reasons given throughout this review, they're not nearly as bad. So even if I still hate the Villa and the Castle Center, I dredge through them by looking forward to upcoming stages, which are either redesigned or newly added. Henry's mission is also a nice little distraction: If you just want to run around leisurely in a more detective-based mode, you have that option. And because the children-saving is important for unlocking secrets, there's a real reason to play through it, and you may feel compelled and encouraged to play through again using both Carrie and Reinhardt. Replayability is certainly present.
I echo the sentiment that this is what Castlevania 64 should have been. Had this been the game they introduced to us in 1999, I may have had a different opinion on Castlevania's 3D potential. In Legacy's case, I actually wanted to play it past the first stage and solve the mysteries surrounding Cornell's adventure. Still, it's an empty feeling, because I don't really know what any of this means in the grand scheme. That is, one question keeps entering my mind: Was it too late to repair the damage? Probably. Legacy of Darkness was a commercial failure, an increasingly rare find due to be printed in such limited numbers. Even then, I think the damage done by Castlevania 64 was near-fatal, having failed on a level where the series' fanbase was completely unwilling to even give it a chance. That's too bad.
While the still-far-from-perfect formula results in a package that I can only call "good," Legacy of Darkness shows enough flashes of brilliance that I could almost justify giving it a higher score. That in mind, I recommend the game as something more enjoyable than it should be, and not in the sense that its predecessor fostered lowered, easily surpassed expectations. If you're going to pick up only one of the N64 titles, make it this one. For all of its improvements, I give it three and a half Medusa Heads.