Castlevania 64, A Twenty Year Reunion
Whenever you ask a die-hard Castlevania fan which game he/she considers to be the absolute worst in the entire series, there is a big chance the pick will be Castlevania 64. Originally released twenty years ago, this was Konami’s first attempt at bringing the traditional 2D action-platformer series to a fully polygonal 3D world. This was also the first Castlevania game to be released after the humongous hit that was Symphony of the Night, so expectations were sky-high. People ended up massively disliking it due to its glaring issues.
I’m not here to talk about how bad this game is. In fact, I stand in a very weird spot. Castlevania 64 is, and has always been, my favorite Castlevania game and I’m here to remember the good things it had to offer, as well as the various bad things it featured. Hey, I might be crazy but not that crazy. I certainly know it ain’t perfect.
The first thing that happens when you boot Castlevania 64 up is being presented with a rather somber in-engine intro cutscene with Dracula’s castle and a little kid playing a fantastic gothic tune on a violin. If there’s one thing that nobody can argue about when it comes to this game is that it excels in providing a macabre atmosphere with its excellent music and sound effects.
For a game released on a console lacking in both storage space and the existence of a sound chip, Castlevania 64 does wonders in this department. The MIDI-based tracks don’t try to replicate Symphony‘s energetic rock-inspired tunes, instead sounding like something you’d hear on any horror piece of entertainment set in the mid-19th century, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Penny Dreadful. The sound effects are also excellent; whenever a lightning bolt hits a tree, it is always accompanied by a loud thunder, for instance.
Visually-speaking, Castlevania 64 does whatever it can with the limitations provided by the Nintendo 64’s hardware and storage capacity. The environments range from a forest full of corpses to a torture chamber and a calm village surrounded by a hedge maze. The larger and more open stages suffer from the console’s typical distance fog limitations, but smaller and more cramped levels, such as anything set inside Drac’s actual castle, are fog-free for the most part. The framerate is also quite decent for Nintendo 64’s standards, being mostly locked at 30fps. Back in the day, 20fps was the norm.
The characters are obviously constituted of very few polygons, but Konami did manage to do a good job with the few resources they had. The game’s protagonists look decent enough and are well-animated. The roster of enemies, while not as varied as what a typical 2D Castlevania offers, ranges from skeletons riding motorcycles to mutated dragons. All of your classic foes, such as medusa heads, bone dragons, and the Behemoth from Rondo of Blood, make an appearance here.
In terms of atmosphere, Castlevania 64 does wonders, given the limitations of the time. It also boasts two complete campaigns, each one with a different character, storyline, boss fights, and level distribution. Reinhardt Schneider is a whip-wielder, specialized in close-quarters combat, whose campaign subplot revolves around saving the soul of a vampire love interest. Carrie Fernandez is a magician who specializes in long-distance homing attacks, whose campaign revolves around her family lineage. You can easily summarize Reinhardt as the hard mode Trevor Belmont clone and Carrie as the easy mode Sypha Belnades clone.
I have praised Castlevania 64 nonstop so far, but I am aware of the issues that made people consider it the black sheep of the series, even though we live in a world where Simon’s Quest, The Adventure, Legends, Lords of Shadow 2, and Harmony of Despair exist. I can filter them down to three main issues.
The first issue is, without a doubt, the game’s camera. That’s a common complaint for nearly all 3D games from the era, as we were still living in a world where the concept of twin analog controls was as foreign as thinking Lou Reed would ever record an album with Metallica. Castlevania 64‘s camera is incredibly erratic and it constantly goes in the opposite direction it should. This issue isn’t that huge inside Drac’s castle, but whenever you are in a platforming section in a more open level, it becomes hell. That leads me to the second main issue with the game.
The Forest of Silence. Oh boy, that’s one abysmal level. If there’s one thing I can say about Castlevania 64, it’s that it suffers from a condition known as “terrible first level syndrome”. The forest is confusing in design, looks absolutely bland and repetitive, goes on forever, and features one of the worst platforming segments I’ve ever seen in a 3D game. People who have played this game know what I’m talking about. The river crossing sections are a nightmare due to the game’s stiff controls, the terrible camera placement, and the fact that if you touch any body of water in this level, you die instantly. A lot of people eventually gave up right at the beginning of the game, even though it gets a lot better the second you reach the Castle Gates.
The final issue, and by far the most unfair of them all, is the fact the game was the first Castlevania to be released after Symphony of the Night. People were looking forward to what Konami would do right after the most acclaimed game in the series. Instead of a fast-paced, near-perfect 2D metroidvania, we got a slower-paced, 3D recreation of the linear-but-branching gameplay first introduced in Castlevania III, riddled with typical issues found in earlier 3D games. Developers were still figuring out what to do with an extra dimension and it shows.
Due to these issues, people have largely focused on what Castlevania 64 did wrong and not the things it did right. Not only did it perform well on the Nintendo 64’s hardware, but it also featured one of the few instances of karma-related ending possibilities on a game released for the console. Thanks to a neat day/night cycle system, the game would keep track of how long you’d take in order to reach the final boss. Reaching Drac before a specific amount of time would result on a different, more positive ending. The day/night cycle would also interfere with your enemies’ health and strength. Fighting werewolves during the day is a lot easier, for example.
The game would also keep track of how much money you’d spend at Renon’s store. Renon isn’t only a merchant, he’s also a demon hellbent on taking your soul to the depths of the underworld in case you spend more than 30,000 pieces of gold, therefore resulting on yet another extra boss battle before Drac.
Castlevania 64 is, purely and simply, a misunderstood game. Yes, it has a lot of glaring issues, and it definitely didn’t age as gracefully as its 2D counterparts, but I’ll forever defend all the good things it did, despite the immense limitations it faced due to the Nintendo 64’s hardware. If you are patient enough to withstand the first level without quitting in frustation, you’ll be graced with a game like no other for the N64. Give it a try someday. It’s definitely not as bad as the internet says it is.