May the defendant rise to the stand.
*hustle in the stalls as the defendant rises*
The prosecution of this trial accuses the defendant, Castlevania 64, of the following charges against gaming: tedious back-and-forth quests, precise pixel perfect jumping, a main character with the stupidest name ever, a moment half way through where if youíre touched its instant death, using the right-C button for actions, two playable characters as a cheap way to extend the length, a camera which changes perspective every few seconds, use of the N64 controller pak, platforms that in no way you can judge whether you can get to, deaths that donít feel like your fault. Oh, and a sequel which is practically just a replica of this, but with a werewolf character to make it look different. These are all very serious offences against gamers, and to the protection and safety of their controllers, as documented in many cases upon being in contact with the defendant they have felt the pressure of swiped across the room in frustration. However, the defense has attempted an enormous feat to construct a case which provides adequate reason to believe that indeed, Castlevania 64, is not as harmful as first impressions may heed. Quite how this could possibly pan out would be rather interesting to follow.
May the defense proceed.
*Imagine violin in background*
I guess it rings true with gamers: the less money you pay for them, the more likely you are to enjoy what you brought. I just fetched out my old copy of Castlevania for the purpose of writing this piece, complete with pre-owned £9.99 sticker and battered box to accompany it. I was fifteen the first time I played this game; a bit late to its arrival since by that time, the Gamecube was already out and Iíd seen a lot of greater, visually-shinier titles released. But the angular charms of Castlevania still haunted me: Iíd read the old previews in magazines which said it was a decent horror game, and so next time the retro gamer inside of me broke he decided to pick this title up. Itíd be a nice time for me to finally get into this series, I thought.
Yes, this was my first Castlevania experience.
Post-Symphony of the Night, I now completely understand that if you payed full price for this game at the time, youíd no doubt be disappointed by its attempt at the third dimension. This isnít Super Mario 64. It doesnít just magically translate into an entity where the good outweighs the flaws; quite the opposite in fact. Heck, the lead character is called Reinhardt Schneider, presumably because one name with awkward spelling and pronunciation wasnít enough. And the jumping... well, Iíll get more onto that later. Still though, when I first went through it, I had a riot with Castlevania! For the purpose of this piece I also played it quite recently, where apart from a few minor (very) frustrating parts I managed to fight my way through, I still found it quite a competent entertaining game. And one that to the day, holds at least two of my favourite ever videogame moments!
My recent experience was pretty much how I recalled it from all those years back, minus a few surprises Iíd completely forgotten about. (Skeletons on motorbikes!) From the haunting melody played during the title screen, I was drawn back into the game once more. Then a badly voiced intro (not even funny bad like in Symphony) drops me out for a second, but Iím pulled back up by the introduction of Reinhardt: successor to the Belmont clan, with his trusty whip at side. I walk forward and are immediately impressed with the graphics, as lightning strikes a tree right in front of me, sending it crashing to the ground. I dodge this flaming wreck, and find myself surrounded by some of the gameís prime enemies: the skeletons.
Go on. Whip that giant bastard!
An action game should be judged on how satisfying its weapons are to use, and Reinhardtís whip is no exception; its really satisfying in practice. Hitting the B button to cripple a skeleton with that lovely ďsmack!Ē sound is a lovely experience. Reinhardt also has a close combat sword on the left C button, but this truly is a pitiful weapon. You can feel its designed only to be used when the enemies are too close for the whip to be effective, but hopefully that wont happen often. Another cool addition was the slide move on the Z trigger. Just pull it during a run and your character (I canít be bothered to type his name every time) will do a sliding tackle into any enemy youíre pointing at, sending them back to the ground. Nice! Iím glad it made the transfer from past titles. Then we have the throwing items: crosses, daggers, axes and holy water all cost crystals to use (not hearts) and they all feel quite nice because of the way they seem to home in on enemies. Got a knife, hit the button and itíll send a straight line right through a skeletons skull. Throw an axe and itíll rip the flying bats to shreds before landing home on a vampires head.
This is the fun part. So far, so good; the mechanics of the protagonist seem to work rather well. Unfortunately though, not everything can run as smooth as it has done up to now.
It doesnít help that right after youíve tapped the A button he already appears to be several meters off the ground; it gives a rather floaty feeling to your control in the air. Whatís really annoying though, is the platforming sections. Seriously, they shouldnít have been allowed.
I really wanted to say a lot of great things about this much overlooked game for this piece, but playing it again, four years later, has made me slightly less forgiving than my young mind would have seen. Twice during my play I found myself in front of platforms that really didnít look like I could jump to them. Of course it was the only way to go, but youíd only gain this knowledge with a leap of faith. Which only works half the time. When I fell into a poisoned river I had to reload my save, which while not being too far away, was still annoying.
Once during my time, I made a jump into the center of a platform, but due to the cameraís position it landed me right on the edge, just inches away from falling into the death pool below. Another time, I jumped up a tiny ledge only for Ray to do the half jump - the type where he clunkily lifts himself off the ground a few inches - back into the poison pool of anger. And I wont even get into climbing that spiral staircase, I could be here a good while with that particular experience...
Rare shot where the camera is actually behind the character
Now is the point where I realise Iím trying to convince people that this is actually a good game. Yes, the platforming is dire and shows some seriously bad design, but I wouldnít be typing this here if I still thought I had a legitimately terrible game on my hands. For the fact of the matter is, if you can overlook the initial, quite jarring flaws this game proceeds, there are some great set pieces and a nice story to be told in Castlevania.
The thing I always liked about this game was its subtlety. It doesnít try to spook you with things that live under the bed, or throw its legions of polygonal vampires your way all at once. No, what this game accomplishes well leans more toward the uncanny: as you travel further into Draculaís castle there becomes a more apparent sense of tension which truly moves and unnerves the player, as they linger through the many corridors that become.
I stated before that two of my favourite moments were in this game, and if youíve played it, I know youíll at least remember the first one. Remember walking into that room with the scared villager, and the conveniently placed mirror at the opposite side. Remember walking up to the mirror, and noticing that only your own reflection was visible. Yeah, you know whatís coming next.
Even then, I still freaked like I did the first time I saw Alex in the bathtub in Eternal Darkness. That close up of the first vampire. The thing I love about this moment though, is how there was a pause between the mirror and the revelation that *spoilers* the villager was dead all along. Its like the game wanted to prolong the silence of the room, before the obvious inevitable happened. Itís a very tense moment. Heck, maybe though this was just the result of bad storytelling, where the game actually wanted to go fore one of those derivative Hollywood shocks, but ended up resulting in a completely unintentional, different effect entirely. I donít know, but I still love it.
The other moment was from the introduction of the female character Rosa, and is all about watering roses. Back at the time, this was one of the most touching moments I had ever seen. Rosa is a kind hearted, youthful-in-appearance vampire who attends Draculaís castle. Already, she is a stark contrast to the previous monsters weíve been introduced to, making this scene particularly uncanny. Though furthering this - my favourite part - is the actual watering of the roses. White roses they are, she says. Wait, but those are red roses, Reinhardt replies. Then it cuts to a shot of the actual liquid pouring out of the watering can. Its red. Blood.
I ask, why? Why do they water their roses with blood? Why the blatant explanation that theyíre white roses in the first place? Theyíre vampires!? I realise though, to question such aspects would be to miss the point entirely. Just watch the scene play out, and embrace the spot-on gothic nature of it unfolding. This is what I felt when I first played the game. This is what I still feel now. Its fantastic stuff.
This is Carrie, the witch. She's the second playable character, and a very different beast to Reinhardt. Aside from her magic attacks, the game's stages differ depending on who you play.
To conclude Iíd like to highlight some of the other features which really made Castlevania 64 great for me. A hedge maze starring chainsaw Frankenstein made for a heart-pulsing chase scene, years before Resident Evil 4 followed humanís innate fear of nutbags with chainsaws. And a few moments in which your actions can actually change the course of the game. One involving a shady contractor, and the other playing on the omnipresent yet mostly ignored day/night feature. Just be warned, if you fall into some certain conditions in this game, you might be facing a few more bosses than you expected at the end. Including some which could be at the expense of certain characters you may get attached to.
Castlevania 64 was a really good game. It had its issues, but at least I felt that the narrative and variety involved kept them to one side. As for staying true to the series, well, Iíll put that in the corner with the jumping controls. You fight Dracula, you play a descendant of the Belmont clan, and thereís hidden secrets where you can get special items by jumping to invisible platforms which I wouldnít dare try, but apart from that, its strictly non-canon. As a standalone piece of gothic work though, itís quite the brilliant journey.