Hello all! Last time I was here, I talked about D, not so much a horror game as it was more of an interactive movie. It was pretty unique for its time. It’s kind of unique now, though a bit tough to actually play.
Today brings me to a somewhat unpopular, divisive entry in a long running series.
Castlevania 64, as it’s known (it’s just called Castlevania, technically) was the first 3D entry in the classic Dracula hunting simulator series, released for the *checks notes* Nintendo 64 in 1999. Taking place in 1852, you fire up the game and choose one of two characters to play: Reinhardt Schneider, the latest descendant of the Dracula-killing Belmont clan, equipped with the Vampire Killer whip, or Carrie Fernandez, a girl with magic powers. No matter who you choose, the mission is the same as it always is in Castlevania: find and kill Dracula. But the two play slightly different; Reinhardt uses a whip, while Carrie shoots balls of energy. I always found Carrie more fun to play, but the experience is more or less the same either way.
Most of your time in Castlevania 64 is spent exploring, solving puzzles, and fighting monsters. There’s a light survival horror aspect to the game, as you’ll need to horde supplies like food, antidotes, and red jewels (ammo for your sub weapons), as well as find money to buy supplies from Renon, the mysterious merchant (if you buy too many things from him, you have to fight him—which I think is pretty cool). The game plays like a standard N64-era action platformer—in that it handles quite loosely. There’s no real lock-on feature i.e. Ocarina of Time, but orienting your character towards an enemy turns a cursor over them red, meaning your attacks will land. It takes a while to get used to, especially today, where we take lock-on for granted. Still, it’s something you get used to quickly, along with the somewhat finicky camera (you can press R to center it behind you instantly, but it’s still a bit rough).
Castlevania 64's combat can be hit or miss sometimes, particularly with the weird semi-lock-on system mentioned above. I mean hit or miss in a literal sense; occasionally, attacks you’re certain you landed end up missing wildly. It doesn’t happen often, though, and once you get used to the generally loose feel of the game, you can breeze through it. Which is not to say it’s too easy; the difficulty hits a sweet spot, offering a challenge without being so hard as to not be fun.
I first got Castlevania 64 soon after it was released, as a gift from my parents. I still remember going to KB Toys to pick it up. I was eleven or twelve years old. I liked it a lot at the time, but this was a time when I was quite young and liked pretty much every game I played. Not all of them, but you know. I played through both campaigns and got the good endings for each. And then I moved on to something else; I don’t remember what, but Castlevania 64 was quickly...not forgotten, right away, but moved off to the side. And then forgotten, eventually. I didn’t play Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, the expanded version of this game that came out later that year. It would be a while until I even played another Castlevania at all, actually.
I hit upon covering Castlevania 64 for this series of articles while replaying Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, which was to be this week’s game, until I realized I had little to say about Lords, despite liking it. I also wanted to see if Castlevania 64 was as bad as everyone says it is. Mention 64 to your average Castlevania fan and they’ll tell you how horrible it is and how much it deviated from classic ‘Vania. I figured I don’t remember it as bad, but I also haven’t played it in eighteen years. I also figured, hey, Game of the Week was originally about the oh-so-slightly forgotten games out there, so here’s something I can cover. So, I popped the game in.
And holy hell. It’s awesome. I love it.
I’m swayed as soon as the game starts. This opening song, a classic Castlevania-ish tune that segues into a somber violin cover of “Divine Bloodlines” from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, is outstanding. The intro itself is quite cinematic, too. I had completely forgotten about this, and I bet some of you have, too:
But I think what impresses me the most about Castlevania 64 is the sheer ambition of the game. The original intent, of course, was to transfer the Castlevania formula to 3D—not the classic games, but the more Metroid-style ones like Symphony. What resulted was a sort of combination between the two styles of play; 64 is like 70% linear with a healthy if light amount of exploration. But beyond that, 64 tries a bunch of new things, like a day/night cycle that determines what enemies appear, which doors are open, and what ending you get (take more than 16 in-game days to finish and you get the bad ending). There’s a hedge maze sequence that I think is brilliant; wolves and a chainsaw-wielding Frankenstein’s monster chase you through this maze while you frantically search for an exit. The game world is big too, yet it also represents an early attempt to create a (relatively) realistic space; Dracula’s castle feels more like a real place that could conceivably exist, for the most part—this is still a video game, and there’s still a bunch of “game-y” areas.
It’s also far more cinematic than previous entries in the series, and even more so than most games of this era. While voice acting is mostly nonexistent, attention is paid to camera angles and framing in cutscenes in a manner you didn’t really see often back then. While there’s few characters in the story here, that’s often to the game’s benefit, as more time can be spent developing the (admittedly cliche) cast. I should also note the boss battles, some of which are far better than I remember them to be. And the music is awesome; I’m humming some of the tracks as I write this.
I fully expected to dislike replaying Castlevania 64. It’s ancient, I figured the controls would prove insurmountable compared to today’s titles, and...well, it’s Castlevania 64. It has a bad reputation. But that reputation is undeserved. Slightly clunky as it may be, it’s fun as hell and, as I said, worth experiencing because it’s so hugely ambitious. It tried to be a more cinematic, bigger game than previous entries; maybe it flew a bit close to the sun (I feel like it’s held back slightly by the tech of the day), but it’s still very impressive when you sit down and study it. I often maintain that 64 isn’t the worst Castlevania made, but this replay made me see it might be one of the secret best in the series. Go play this.
P.S. there are skeleton bikers.
Thanks for reading my stuff! Yell at me on Twitter about why I’m wrong, and/or suggest other games I should cover! Hit the comment section!
Next week, we look at long, epic JRPG with excellent writing and somewhat weird looking characters. This one’s an Xbox 360 exclusive, and that just gave it away.