A brave new frontier of emulation glitches awaits us poor sods. While the review was essentially conducted on a PAL N64, we got the snapshots via emulation by playing the game again. Yes, again. N64 emulation, much like any console's emulation of that era of gaming, is complicated. By that I mean getting it perfect involves the use of the word 'plug-ins', and using that word is a guaranteed way of making me and my idiot writer hide under the table like dogs on Bonfire Night until it goes away. We're not good with computers and high-end emulation, you know. What this basically means is there may be emulation glitches in our screenshots for this one. So, you know, watch out. Also, click any pictures to make them balloon in size so you can analyse them to find glitches and send us angry emails about it.
Gotta get something out the way before we can start here.
There! There's your obligatory screenshot of the skeletons on motorcycles.
Every time, every time I mention this game, these jokers are the first thing people think of.
With that established, let's talk about Demon Castle Dracula in 3D
Sometimes part of the series' official time-line, and sometimes not- I'm pretty sure it's back in canon now- the N64 Castlevania (yep, just Castlevania in the US/EU- Japan got the less confusing title Demon Castle Dracula Apocalypse) concerns itself, as ever, with the Lord of Darkness, Dracula, who stirs in his castle in Wallachia, Transylvania in 1852. Generally, this is seen as A Bad Thing, and only two people can stop the Count from ushering in an era of darkness across the land- Reinhardt Schneider, a descendant of the famous Belmont clan wielding the legendary Vampire Killer whip, and Carrie Fernandez, a relative of Sypha Belnades from Castlevania III who can use powerful shots of magic. What awaits them in this cursed castle? The usual Castlevania suspects, mostly- skeletons, medusa heads and sentient suits of armour, amongst other horrors. They've got to make their way through this treacherous castle and destroy Dracula once and for all! Until the next game, anyway. Seeing as the last game in the main series at this point was Symphony of the Night (sorry, Castlevania Legends), Castlevania 64 is a strange shift in direction with no Metroidvania elements in sight. Not necessarily a bad thing, as we'll find out.
Now, this was the series' first foray into the dreaded third dimension, so before we can talk about anything else, we've got to establish how it works in 3D... And, well, it's OK, I guess. The basics of Castlevania are essentially in place- each character has a standard weapon (Reinhardt has the whip, Carrie has homing magic) and a single sub-weapon (knife, axe, cross, holy water) that uses up ammo (jewels in this game) usually found in candles- but they've been transplanted into 3D with varying results. For a start, the combat is, well, serviceable. It's slightly different depending on which of the two characters you play as (we'll get to that) but the game has a strange soft-lock-on system, where the game will pick which monster you're aiming at for you- not always ideal, as in boss fights especially it'll often pick on the small-fry enemies and not the actual boss. You can lock on with the R Button but this roots your character in place- not so good for tackling groups, perhaps, but you're rarely attacked in massive numbers, and locking-on is far more beneficial in the boss fights, as it lets you perform the dodge (a short, sharp leap to any side, done normally by tapping the analogue stick and Jump at the same time) much easier. The addition of a super-close-range weapon is also a nice touch, because as in 2D Castlevanias there's a little delay on your primary weapon and sometimes you need to just get enemies off you. However, the whip-centric 2D Castlevanias have very precise, tight combat, especially in boss encounters, and this is something that's inevitably lost in this early 3D attempt. Everything feels a bit loose, a bit wishy-washy. It's not ruinous- it does its job well enough- but it feels more like you just get through enemies rather than conquer them, particularly the boss fights, so a bit of the satisfaction is lost.
The other important element of Castlevania is the platforming and this is a little more hit-and-miss. Unsurprisingly, this is mostly down to the camera. For some of the jumps- and in some cases, to even know where to go- you have to 'tease' the camera by moving around in strange ways to get it to automatically focus on the jumping you want to be doing, and while there's an option to look from a first-person perspective, it's still quite easy to get lost in levels like the Duel Tower, Clock Tower and Tower of Science (lots of towers in this game). The camera also has a habit of getting stuck on certain parts of the screen, like it's seen something more interesting than your platform exploits. You can switch to an 'Action' camera for platforming, but all this really does is spin the camera more than usual, which actually made me motion-sick! When you finally get the camera in position, jumping is OK- being able to cling to platform edges is very handy, but as this means you have to hold the Jump button, often I'd jump too far, actually make it to the platform first-time rather than cling on, then fall off as I was getting my bearings. Another bugbear about jumping is that, as mentioned, your character has a dodge performed by hitting an analogue stick direction and Jump at once... In the heat of platforming, this is very easy to do, and if you do it in the wrong place, you'll fall. And die. And have to start the section over. And cry for a bit. Again, the precision of the 2D Castlevanias is lost here, but at the very least, it has much trickier platforming than Symphony of the Night, and when it's not frustrating the hell out of you (that'd be the Clock Tower), it can feel a little satisfying (that'd be the Tower of Sorcery).
With the meat and potatoes of the game out of the way, let's look at the structure. It's an odd halfway-house between the 'old' Castlevania style (split into levels, no backtracking between them, attack strength only increased by power-up items that you lose after death/loading a save) and the 'new' Metroidvania style, albeit only in limited ways- the inventory system (you can hold on to roast chicken/beef for health, cures for different statuses, keys, and there's a demon shopkeeper to sell you stuff), a curious-if-underutilised day/night cycle slightly similar to how SOTN kept track of time in the Clock Room (you have 16 in-game days to reach the Castle Keep or you'll trigger a bad ending, and depending on if it's day or night, certain doors open, secrets appear, and vampires are weaker/stronger). These two elements aren't huge additions, but they do keep the game from being full-on old-style Castlevania. I can see why the level structure of older games was kept here- as this was the first 3D instalment, going all-out Metroidvania may have been too ambitious. The game benefits from it, in a way- there's no interconnectivity, but beyond the first few levels each area stands by itself and tries to be memorable (with varying degrees of success). The game slows the pace down for the Villa and Castle Center stages, as you need to talk to the few NPCs of the game (including vampire horticulturist Rosa and best/worst vampire killer Charlie Vincent), solve rudimentary puzzles to advance, and you can even examine things like beds, fireplaces and blood-splattered demon-creation tables (no, really) for the full hunting-for-clues effect. I kinda wish more of the game was in this style, as these stagse have some of the most memorable moments of the game (the Villa has the garden maze chase, the Castle Center has the sorta-hilarious Magical Nitro item, etc.). Not to say that the action stages don't have their moments, but they're tempered with more frustrating parts.
The other element of the game's structure worth waffling on about is the character selection. Two different characters means two different playstyles- Reinhardt is slower, and has a whip so he has to get fairly close to enemies, but it does good damage and can hit multiple times quickly, while Carrie has chargeable, homing magic blasts that allow her to attack from a distance but she can only have one active at any time. Additionally, they each have three levels and two boss encounters that the other character never see, mostly adjusted to suit their playstyle (Reinhardt's Duel Tower has cage matches, Carrie's Tower of Science has far-away enemies). There's 10 levels per playthrough, so they mostly visit the same areas, but a little variety does help for your second runthrough, eh? I definitely enjoyed the game the most as Carrie, though- while Reinhardt isn't bad to play as (he's got a surprisingly good reach with his whip and can deal with enemies like lizardmen and wolves easier), the Reinhardt-only stages are some fierce bullshit (Duel Tower is awfulllll with lots of instant and sometimes unfair deaths possible). Carrie's playstyle is a bit different from the Castlevania norm, her exclusive levels are less frustrating (Tower of Sorcery is easily my favourite stage in the game, and has some great music) and generally I just had more fun during her journey. It also helps that Carrie takes no crap from anyone.
Now, so far, this all sounds fair enough, but the main selling point of Castlevania 64, such as it is, is the atmosphere of loneliness. Symphony of the Night, in the early stages before Alucard becomes too powerful and can take on anything with a flick of his wrist, had a certain ambiance of fear, as while the areas were very crowded, you'd often find one enemy far more powerful than the rest- examples include the Spectral Sword in the Royal Chapel and the Sword Lord on the Outer Wall- which was effective at making the castle a scary place. 64 goes for something different- it's a very lonely game. The castle's areas- the Castle Center and Forest of Silence especially- are large and open, but very sparsely populated (I only ever encountered enemies in groups of three) so you feel quite small and isolated, and the music is fairly minimal and more ambient when compared with other CV tunes. As a result, it gives the game a very lonely feeling, like you're almost completely by yourself in this dark, haunted castle, something that's especially impressive considering the era the game was released in. This is helped by the exploratory nature of some of the levels, although even the action-intensive stages have quiet moments, like the in-between rooms of the Clock Tower. Additionally, the game uses cutscenes to really great effect- not as polished as today's efforts, mind, but little scenes like the player looking at the panicked villager through the mirror, the statue crying blood, and Charlie Vincent's great opening all add to a sense of dread and loneliness. Some of them are also really effective at making you feel small, like the Minotaur looming over you or Dracula mocking your efforts from afar. The fact that the camera is usually pulled back quite far accentuates this feeling of being lonely here, and when the game's not frustrating you with its hit-and-miss platforming, there's a very unique atmosphere to it.
That said, I think that the game's problems, as I've pointed out above, don't quite make it an essential game. It's one hat you need a fair bit of patience for, to put up with some of its more noticeable flaws (mostly the camera, and a little bit of the unsatisfying combat). That's the sort of thing that keeps it from being a great game. However, that means it's an OK game, and not some sort of complete and total disaster, and for me that's good enough. The entire concept kinda works in 3D, albeit with problems, and I felt that it had enough of a Castlevania feel- albeit its own take on it, ramping up the loneliness at the expense of crowding the game with enemies- to keep it from being some kind of series ruiner as I've heard it called here and there. If the idea of a lonely, haunting game appeals to you, and you're willing to put up with a considerable amount of frustration in certain perts, then seriously, give this one another chance. You just might be surprised!
For trying its best to adapt some vampire-killin' action in 3D, Castlevania is awarded...
In a sentence, Castlevania is...
And now, it's that time, folks!
And now a little bit of background on the game's development. Just a smidgen, mind.
Going under the name Dracula 3D at one point, the game's development was prolonged- it was shown off in a 10% completed state around September 1997 and didn't come out until early 1999 for most parts of the world. Near the end, features were axed from the game to speed up development time. Most famously, two of the game's four planned characters were cut. One was Cornell who we'll be seeing in a moment, the other was Coller (mispelled as Kola in some translations) who was, it seems, reused as the gardener in the game's hedge maze sequence. Most of the stuff that was omitted is nicely documented on Unseen64's two pages on the subject, here and here- other cut stuff includes several items, a 'stone' status and Reinhardt being able to use his whip to swing from hooks. However, we're not entirely out of content here on Gaming Hell- if you click the image above, scanned from Official UK Nintendo Magazine's September 1997 issue (we think? The cover's disintergrated over the years) you might notice something slightly odd about those screenshots.
Can you spot it?
Yes! It's that insignificant text that reads 'Castlevania 3D -Working Title-" which isn't in any other shots I've seen.
Hey, I didn't say it was exciting, now did I? But speaking of cut content...
Ahh, it's a Special Edition! Except it's not.
Barely a year after Castlevania 64's first release, it was followed up by Legacy of Darkness, a pseudo-sequel.
Apparently closer to the original intentions of the designers than the origianl Castlevania 64 was, it's tempting to think of Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness as a Director's Cut version of the first game, and so the original game has been made obsolete. Not so fast. That's not exactly the case here. It's closer to a remixed game with two new playable characters, and a slightly-altered version of the first game included as a bonus... But with all but one of the four playable characters locked from the get-go. Essentially, this is new character Cornell's game rather than Reinhardt or Carrie's own, and that's an important distinction to make. Before we get into all that, though, let's talk fundamentals. The following is a rough list of non-graphical, non-structure-based changes to the game:
* The game now supports the N64 Expansion Pack, and if it detects it when you switch the game on, it'll let you pick between Lo-Res and Hi-Res (as with other Expansion Pack games, you can't change it mid-game). Hi-Res increases the resolution to 640 x 480 but has a much choppier framerate.
* The game is prone to slightly less slowdown when not in Hi-Res Mode, and is a touch faster in general.
* 'Normal' Camera has been dropped, leaving just the Action and Battle Cameras selectable (however, the Action Camera seems to act more like the Normal Camera anyway). The game will also display Auto Camera when the game is doing the work for you- it would just go blank in the original. Also, the D-Pad can be used to adjust the camera manually now.
* When you centre the camera with the R Button, the game now allows you to move rather than root you in-place. The game will also flash up a warning, 'USE LOCK-ON!!' when fighting a boss that flies above you so you don't miss them.
* When clinging on to a ledge, the controls change to be relative to the way the camera is facing- rather than press Up to climb up, you have to move the analogue stick in the direction your character is facing, and moving left/right on a ledge changes accordingly.
* Sub-weapons can be made stronger by collecting multiple icons of the same type (up to three times)- collecting multiple Axes, for example, causes lightning to strike when they hit the ground. However, changing weapon or dying reverts it Level 1)
* Carrie is now allowed to charge and fire a projectile even if one is already active and chasing a target
* The font has been changed, it's now thicker with a black outline and turns red when highlighted.
* Picking up a Power-Up icon now triggers a sound effect and 'power aura' visual.
With that out of the way, we need to talk about the four playable characters. You start with only Cornell unlocked- a werewolf, his story is set eight years before the events of Castlevania 64, and has him venturing to the castle to rescue his sister Ada and avenge his village, torched to the ground by Dracula's forces. Cornell moves pretty fast, has a standard attack that might as well be a projectile, and pressing the L button turns him into a werewolf with increased strength, but this drains his available red jewels until they're empty and he turns back to normal. To be honest, I found Cornell kinda dull to play as- his primary attack feels too powerful with too much range, so the limitations of Reinhardt and Carrie's weapons is lost on him. Just feels like cheating, really (and it doesn't help that Cornell himself is boring- at least Carrie's story had, I dunno, moxie to it).
That's nothing compared to the main problem with Legacy of Darness- the redesigned/new levels. Cornell visits four new areas (Foggy Lake at the start, Outer Wall, Art Tower and Tower of Ruins instead of the Tunnel/Waterway/Castle Centre areas) and the other parts of the castle have been changed, but it's when you reach the Castle Wall that the redesigns start to grate. I'll just rattle off a quick list of examples... You have to scale the Castle Wall a minimum of 3 times now and the Left/Right Tower doors are behind Sun/Moon Doors so you have to waste Sun/Moon Cards to proceed; the garden maze chase has been replaced with an excruciatingly slow and painful escort mission where your ally is an incredibly slow-moving child; the Art Tower has Sun/Moon Doors behind other Sun/Moon Doors designed only to make you use Sun/Moon Cards; the Clock Tower has a infuriating section where you have to slide down a massive slope where you can't move left/right or you'll fall down a hole and can potentially lose 80& of your health... He also has to visit all four character-specific Tower areas (their redeigns are less noteworthy, although Duel Tower is less gruelling) and there's also a new final boss which is one of the most incompetent boss fights I've seen in a while (it turns the game into a crosshair shooter, almost). While I would gladly replay any of Castlevania 64's route, getting the shots for Cornell's route here was a trial.
It's a shame Cornell's story mode is such a dive in quality from the original CV64, as you have to play through to unlock Henry, who offers a much more interesting adventure- he has seven in-game days to find six kids, one each in the Forest of Silence, Castle Wall, Villa, Outer Wall, Tunnel and Waterway areas... And they're hidden in pretty crafty places, so you'll have to scour these areas pretty well. For his quest, Henry is armed with half a knight's outfit, a short sword for close-quarters, and... A gun. It's just as baffling as it sounds- it's a massive pistol that can shoot six times before you have to reload it. Needless to say, it's quite amusing to watch, so it's a shame it's locked behind Cornell's game. Additionally, each kid you saves unlocks another extra feature- Hard Mode, Reinhardt and Carrie's quests, and alternate costumes for every character except Henry- so it's where you'll get your replay value from.
The frustrating thing here is that, for the most part, Reinhardt and Carrie's quests are in-tact, just with the general changes listed above. Structurally, the main changes are that they both start in the Foggy Lake area, and the Forest of Silence, Tower of Science, Tower of Sorcery, Duel Tower, Tower of Execution and Clock Tower areas use their new designs (and Tunnel/Waterway keep their new bosses). The other areas they visit are slightly different too, usually with different enemies, but aside from that (and the removal of voice acting in certain cutscenes) it's the same game, with both of them sticking to their character-specific routes and bosses. Only downside is that the Simon Belmont/Maria Renard costumes are no longer here, as they now sport a new costume and their default CV64 outfits.
So... Yeah, it's a bit weak, really, since you have to play through Cornell's story to have the benefits of the engine changes in Reinhardt/Carrie's story, and those benefits don't magically make the game ten times better. And you've probably played the game already the first time around. A lot of things going against this one already, eh? If you ask me, you're best sticking to the first game, simply because the engine changes do not miraculously improve the game, and Cornell's story really isn't worth going through (even if he serves as the game's lone connection to the rest of the series- Cornell would show up as a playable character in Wii fighting game Castlevania Judgment. For some reason). That's it, really. Not impressed with Legacy of Darkness. Oh well.
... Having said all that, in the Japanese version, Henry's scenario is actually available from the start (thanks, TCRF!) so if you really want to give Legacy of Darkness a try but can't be arsed with Cornell's story (and can bluff your way through the game), the Japanese version may be a better option.
Well, there you go. We just stuck up for Castlevania 64 but not Legacy of Darkness.
Next time, we'll be coming up to bat for Contra: Legacy of War. Haha, no we won't! What a crazy lie!