The original Castlevania for the NES from 1986 was the starting point of a franchise that, much like its main antagonist, refuses to stay buried. A trendsetter in platformers, the series went through many changes over the years to stay fresh, but one version that tried to freshen up the game wound up stinking like rotten garlic.
The story of this game begins with another title entirely. Castlevania: Symphony of The Night is considered one of the best in the series, but gamers just weren’t that into it when it arrived on the Playstation in 1997. It looked too old-school at a time when the industry was all about the future, and the future was 3-D. Games were transitioning from 16 bits to 64, and Konami didn’t want to fall behind. That same year SoTN was released, the developer revealed their next game in the franchise, Castlevania 64. It was later renamed to Dracula 64, and finally Castlevania… even though today, we all know it as Castlevania 64.
Intended to be Konami’s first fully 3-D game, the development team for Castlevania 64 envisioned a cutting-edge title that ended up like a vampire trying to feast on a dinosaur. In other words, they bit off more than they could chew. The majority of it was completed just in time for its January 26, 1999 release date, a miracle by all accounts. Not only were the devs grappling to design something in 3-D for the first time ever, but they also struggled to work within the limitations of the Nintendo 64. Today, it’s held in low esteem compared to its siblings, but Castlevania 64 doesn’t deserve the disdain it gets from fans. At least, not all of it.
What was Castlevania 64 about?
Picture it – Transylvania, 1852. In between his usual 100-year regeneration cycle, Dracula has abruptly returned to conquer the world. Players can choose between Reinhardt Schneider, a distant relative of the Belmont family armed with the iconic “Vampire Killer” whip, or Carrie Fernandez who uses twin blade rings and magic. Both character’s campaigns play out similarly but have separate arcs in addition to their main mission of hunting down Drac, which makes the game worth replaying.
The gameplay is business as usual for Castlevania fans. Players traverse the many sections of Castle Dracula, facing off against enemies like fire-breathing hellhounds, arachnid women, were-tigers, chainsaw-wielding Frankenstein’s monsters, and knuckle-dragging 12-foot-tall skeletons that preceded the Home Depot sensation (accompanied by a skeletal motorcycle gang).
En route to the inevitable main event, the player learns about their character through personalized cut scenes. But Reinhardt and Carrie aren’t alone on their charge, running into the likes of Charlie Vincent, the self-proclaimed “mightiest of all vampire killers,” demon shopkeeper Renon, enigmatic vampire Rosa, a witch tied to Carrie’s past named Actrise, and the purple-haired child Malus, who holds a shocking secret nobody is ready for.
Same Old Castle, New Tricks
Like Legend of Zelda 2 and many other retro games, Castlevania 64 earned a bad rep that might not entirely be deserved. While some of the ambitious goals Konami desired were left on the chopping block, the elements that survived added depth to the formerly 2D series – but they came at a cost. To hit their January deadline, storylines were cut, the playable characters dropped from four to two, and an entire multiplayer fighting mode was eliminated. The final product wasn’t quite what they hoped for, but Konami squeaked by to pull off something they hoped would elevate the franchise into modernity.
Graphically, it was on par with the polygonal games of its time. The low-res textures may not age well, but you’ll be absorbed into the world through the eerie atmosphere, augmented by colored lighting changes within environments. If it felt reminiscent of Resident Evil’s mansion, you wouldn’t be wrong making that comparison. When there’s music, it’s moody and eerie, perfectly setting the classic horror vibe.
What separated this game from others was courtesy of their move into 3D, implementing a trio of interchangeable camera modes – normal, action, and battle – with a fourth exclusive to boss battles. You’ll have to get used to changing these on the fly, but your fingers will quickly pick up the habit. Being 3-D also allowed players to climb and fully explore the limited sandbox-like levels, and a day and night cycle that affected certain enemies and parts of the games you can access depending on the in-game time.
In previous Castlevanias, the only vampire you ever tussled with was Dracula. For the first time, this entry had no shortage of fanged foes standing in your way, a change that hasn’t been repeated much in modern titles.
Is Castlevania 64 as bad as people say?
Old-school gamers remember the frustration of being knocked back by enemies in Castlevanias past, but in the N64 version, players instead get stopped in their tracks. This is less than ideal when platforming near the infamous Medusa heads while fighting with the camera, forcing you to plummet to your demise and angrily slam your controller down just like old times. Many monsters infinitely respawn, and with no experience system to make it worth grinding, getting wrapped up in these never-ending conflicts is futile.
The most notorious part of this game came courtesy of a YouTube video from 2010 starring The Angry Video Game Nerd, where James Rolfe documented a rage-inducing moment that happens midway into the game. The player must find Nitro and Mandragora to break through a wall, and the AVGN was clueless in character about how to do it, claiming it broke the game. However, a Lizardman in a room with a hazardous materials disposal chute (which players can use if they pick things up in the wrong order) provides more clarity on the explosive situation. It’s still not easy, especially trying to walk across the map while carrying these dangerous elements, but it’s not as impossible as the YouTuber described.
Really, it’s the Duel Tower from Reinhardt’s campaign you need to be worried about. A gauntlet of monsters battling you in steel cages with rapidly descending ceilings, moving to each fight through high-stakes platforming with no safety net between every bout. It’s an exhilarating section, but it’s also non-stop stress.
At this point, Carrie’s quest diverges from Reinhardt’s, taking the young witch to the Tower of Science and the Tower of Sorcery, shifting from gothic architecture into sci-fi. The action escalates in boss battles unique to each character, and both tales converge towards a harrowing run through the ever-irritating clock tower before the final climatic fight in the Castle Keep.
Oppose the Power of Darkness
The 1998 holiday season was a competitive time for gamers, with the release of Metal Gear Solid, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Banjo-Kazooie among others vying for shelf dominance. Arriving one month into 1999 avoided the stiff competition, but the timing couldn’t help make it a success. Making matters worse, this game came three years into the Nintendo 64’s existence. By then, other game devs had a handle on 3-D, so the awkward Castlevania 64 looked and played light years behind its rivals.
Later that year, Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness was released, a sequel that was a prequel set eight years prior to this game. It used the same engine while improving quality-of-life elements, as well as offering more playable characters like the man-beast Cornell, but critics were puzzled by it. Prequels weren’t common in that era, and while most agree this is the superior of the two N64 entries, it languished into obscurity. And yes, the motorcycle skeletons returned, but now they had a sidecar to hold a second skeleton with a machine gun!
Castlevania returned to its retro side-scroller roots for future games, finding success in handheld consoles, only occasionally returning to this 3-D style like in 2010’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadows for PS3 and Xbox 360.
Castlevania 64 is a clunky transition into modern gaming, but its reputation is unwarranted. There’s fun to be had in the fighting, even if it’s goofy compared to the tight controls modern gamers are accustomed to, and the sweaty platforming is enjoyable once you get used to how the cameras function. It’s never going to make anyone’s top 10 game list, but it doesn’t belong in the bottom ten, either. Today, the only way to play it is if you own the original console or find an unofficial emulator, but if Nintendo ever put it on their Switch Online subscription, I’d recommend a visit with these creatures of the night to satisfy your 3-D bloodlust, just understand what you’re walking into before you crack that whip.