As was the style at the time, Castlevania 64 was Konami's attempt to bring the series into the new age of polygons and 3D gaming. Naturally, this met with disdain from many old school gamers, who insist that these games belong solely in the second dimension. And it's easy to see why - Castlevania 64 is an unfocused, flawed game that's awkward to control and enjoy. But if you have the patience to get over those frustrations, there's still plenty of fun to have within Castlevania's first 3D adventure. Taking place in the mid-1800s, Castlevania 64 lets you play either traditional Vampire hunter Reinhardt Schneider and magical girl Carrie Fernandez, who attacks with magical balls of lightning that track down enemies. While their games remain mostly the same, there are a few instances where their paths divide and they must traverse different levels.
There are two primary types of levels found here: linear stages that simply require you to get from point A to point B, usually with lots of Tomb Raider-style jumping. The other type are more adventure-like, where you're given a fairly large area and must find certain items and solve minor puzzles before you're allowed to proceed.
Given the nature of the game, most of your deaths will be due to missed jumps. Oddly enough, you only have one life, though there are a plentiful amount of save crystals that let you resume when you die. While you have a fairly large life meter, you'll often find it quickly depleted fight bosses. Thankfully, there is a merchant to be found - the devil Renon is around to sell you meat and other accomodations. Don't spend too much money though, or else you'll be punished at the end at the game.
Much like Castlevania 2, there's also a time aspect to keep in mind - night and day run on a constant cycle. Unfortunately, this barely affects the game at all - a real missed opportunity. Also, if you take too long, and you'll get the bad ending. Konami also tried to tie the storyline a bit closer into the game, with a couple of supporting characters, including Actrise the witch, Charlie Vincent, a Van Helsing-esque vampire hunter, and tortured vampire temptress Rosa.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Castlevania 64 are the controls. Imagine the original NES Castlevania. Now imagine it in 3D. Both characters act as if they are moving through mud, even when they're running. Whipping enemies is a chore, given the long recovery time after every attack. This is made doubly more irritating by the slowdown when facing multiple enemies - and the fact that you get knocked to the ground after powerful hits. To its credit, there is a lock-on system that lets you easily attack enemies, but it's not as nice as Zelda's Z-targeting system. The camera is hardly the most wieldy out there, though it does often change itself depending on the situation at hand - it will stay fixed during platform jumping or at a certain viewpoint when fighting a boss, rather than the default behind-the-shoulder view.
Graphically, the characters are all fairly well detailed, but the environments are a mixed bag. Most the castle interior levels are pretty cool looking, though the caverns and outside stages are often fairly dull. There's also a good amount of fog, which greatly diminishes much of the visual impact. The music also isn't very Castlevania-like - it's more ambiant in nature, and you'll barely hear any classic songs in the background.
While it sounds like Castlevania 64 will provide more irritation than fun, there are some genuinely classic moments. The hedge maze, where you'll be chased by a chainsaw wielding maniac, is one of the most intense moments found in the series. Equally as amusing (or sadistic, depending on your point of view) is a section where you must carry a bomb from one part of the castle to the other. If you jump or are attacked by enemy, it blows up, and you die instantly. Naturally, the level designers threw in lots of narrow platforms that require steady balance if you want to live. And once you get past the dull opening stages of the game, the later levels, particularly the Tower of Execution and Tower of Sorcery, are actually fairly fun (though the Duel Tower will cause you much, much frustration.)
If Konami had fixed the controls and allowed for faster, more dynamic gaming, Castlevania 64 would definitely be a defining point in the series. As it is, it's a footnote in Castlevania's lineage, the first attempt to try to evolve the series before heading to the Game Boy Advance to reproduce its success with Symphony of the Night.
On a final note, Legacy of Darkness almost makes this original release obsolete. Reinhardt and Carrie are both playable in the N64 sequel (though not inititally) and while the level structures are different, they're practically the same game. If you're a completist (or don't have the patience to play through Cornell's game) it's worth picking this up - otherwise, you can skip this one and just buy Legacy.
Thanks to Mario Ciampa for the screenshots.
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Castlevania Games - Castlevania 64