Thursday, March 24, 2011

Black Sheep: Castlevania 64

C64's awesome cast
There are few 3rd party franchises that have been around as long as Castlevania. Sure, franchises like Metal Gear may still be around, but only after a LONG hiatus; Castlevania is one of few franchises that consistently had a presence in the industry for 25 years, going toe to toe with Nintendo's beloved Legend of Zelda and Super Mario. Heck, a (terrible) version of Simon Belmont was even on Nintendo's Saturday morning cartoon/shameless commercial "Captain N: The VideoGame Master". When 8-bits became 16, Castlevania was there. When handheld gaming burst onto the scene, Castlevania was there. When Nintendo's big hitters were making the jump to the 3rd dimension, Castlevania was there. Oh man, was Castlevania there.
Castlevania in glorious 3D

Understand that I'm being completely serious when I say that this game is essentially the Super Mario 64 of Castlevania; the direct and logical evolution of the 2D game's mechanics and structure into the 3rd dimension. Remember, Castlevania was not then the franchise we know it to be now, as the Metroidvania game type had yet to dominate the franchise. Hell, I don't even think "Metroidvania" was even a phrase yet, Symphony of the Night had only just come out. For now, put all that nonsense out of your mind, and think about what Castlevania meant in the 90's: difficulty, platforming, action, adventure, cheap deaths, pitfalls like mad, medusa heads, frustration. In fact, if Castlevania 64 has any true flaw, it is fidelity. The game plays exactly how a 2D Castlevania game would in 3D, and to date is probably the most accurate adaptation of the series. Unfortunately, difficulty and frustration were no longer video game staples, and sensibilities were changing rapidly, leaving Castlevania 64 in a strange position. Despite these facts, Castlevania 64 is one of the finest games on the N64. As far as action adventure games go, there is quite honestly nothing better, barring Nintendo's own Legend of Zelda games.

Most of the bosses are pretty huge
In true Castlevania tradition, our heroes travel to the depths of Dracula's demonic keep to slay the Prince of Darkness. Along the way they'll meet numerous characters, like the unsettling child Malus, the Van Helsing style vampire hunter Charlie Vincent, the devilish salesman Renon, among others. Much like the much beloved Rondo of Blood, C64 offers two playable characters; the typical whip wielding Reinhart Schneider, and the magical girl Carrie Fernandez. They each have their own play style, and although they largely share the same levels, there are a few stages that you'll only see as one or the other. Their story lines are also unique, providing a good reason to try playing as both. Reinhart's story largely centers on his romance with a young vampiress, Rosa, whereas Carrie's centers on her conflict with a fellow witch, Actrise, but both are pretty interesting, as far as Castlevania plot lines go, which brings us to one of the games strong points; the plot of the game changes based on what you do! Based on how quickly you beat the game (there is a in game clock that figures into puzzles), and how much money you spend at shops, you'll fight extra bosses or receive different endings.

You WILL see this screen frequently
 Branching storylines aside, the scale of this game is truly impressive; each stage is huge, with tons of secret paths and items, and plenty of tricky platforming and nasty enemies. The stages are all very distinct, and offer a ton of variety in both design and gameplay. Sometimes you'll find yourself simply heading for a goal, platforming and fighting enemies along the way, other times you'll be exploring and finding keys and items to solve puzzles. In one scene, you'll even be chased through a garden maze by a chainsaw wielding Frankenstein, in what is probably the scariest level in any N64 game. With tons of traps and obstacles, and platforming heights sure to give you vertigo, Castlevania 64 is extremely challenging, but never unfair.

Classic enemies like bone dragons appear
Of course no Castlevania game is complete without excellent music, and the first 3D incarnation of the series does not disappoint. Although there are admittedly fewer classic tracks, the music is atmospheric and moody, while still creating some truly memorable melodies. The nods to classic tunes, such as Malus playing "Sign of Blood Pulse" on the title screen or the occasional burst of  "Bloody Tears", are appreciated and of course very cool.
Rosa's Garden
In many ways, Castlevania 64 was the last real Castlevania game; future installments favored the structure introduced in Symphony of the Night, leaving the classic platforming action a thing of the past. With multiple playable characters, branching plotlines, multiple paths through the game, hidden items, a robust cast of characters, big bosses, huge, unique levels, and classic Castlevania gameplay, Castlevania 64 boasts some impressive features, many of which haven't been used in the series since. Had Konami refined the gameplay established on the N64 for future iterations rather than totally starting from scratch with Lament of Innocence, Castlevania could have maintained its presence as an icon in the industry; for now, its future is uncertain. The recent Lords of Shadow was probably the closest to Castlevania 64's structure, but suffered from some irritating tropes of modern action games, and didn't seem all that much like a Castlevania game. Who knows, maybe the DLC will fix that? One can only hope.

Personally, I want to see this badboy remade on the 3DS. Hear that Konami!? Make this happen!

The Japanese boxart. "Real Action Adventure"!

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