Castlevania 64, which is how we shall refer to the original Nintendo 64 vampire-killing game to avoid confusion with the other Castlevania, is a game that’s been unjustly left on the series' scrapheap for far too long, and I’m going to tell you why.
Now that doesn’t mean I’m here to excuse the game’s faults, pretend that having to restart from the nearest save point after missing another tricky jump (with medusa heads, and spikes, onto a moving platform) is the pinnacle of game design, or that the dreaded dynamite-carrying section wouldn’t have St Francis of Assisi hoofing kittens into next week, but these are the lowlights in an otherwise inventive and atmospheric game - you wouldn’t judge Mega Man entirely on the presence of its insta-kill spikes, would you?
Many games have a bit of fluff in the manual that tells you how bad Nasty Evil Person is and how incredibly dangerous your mission is, but they tend to forget it not long after the first cutscene and instead guide you through a series of carefully designed tutorial areas before eventually building up to a comfortable challenge for the last section. Not so with Castlevania 64. Much like hardcore favourite Dark Souls, this game is content to throw you in at the deep end and your continued survival is considered a personal act of defiance against Castlevania itself – and also like Dark Souls, this makes your hard-fought victories all the more dramatic and memorable.
Castlevania 64 is a game that delights in making you feel uncomfortable. We all know that games are built on a set of rules, and older games especially tend to adhere to the classic “stage-midboss-more stage-end level boss” routine. Yet within just two minutes of starting the first stage Castlevania 64 throws that out of the window, pitting Reinhardt and Carrie against a giant club-wielding skeleton and a horde of underlings. The rest of the game continues on this off-kilter note, leaving players unsure whether they’re going to face a gauntlet of enemies, some tough platforming or even a bit of light puzzling/exploration in the next area.
But not all of Castlevania 64’s worth comes from finding pleasure where perhaps most gamers would find pain – the game’s dripping with a foreboding atmosphere in a way that the series hasn’t matched since, and was only very lightly touched upon previously in Super Castlevania IV. Your quest is a difficult one, you’re pressed for time right from the start – and with vampires becoming stronger at night you’ve got a real reason to be afraid of the dark. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from stocking up on healing items from Renon, the mysterious merchant, but even that help can have unforeseen consequences…
If these gameplay quirks are a little too subtle to really instil any sense of fear or unpleasantness then perhaps statues crying blood, gelatinous cubes of bone and offal pumped onto some macabre production line, or enormous monstrosities suspended in fliud-filled glass tubes, will do the job instead. This is not a game that pulls its punches or spares its characters any heartache – Carrie's bad ending has her safely escape from Castlevania only to find herself unwittingly promise to become Dracula’s bride, while Reinhardt has to deal with kindly vampire Rosa’s attempted suicide no matter how well his progress goes.
Castlevania 64 is flawed. But it was an incredibly ambitious game no matter which other game in the series you put it up against. Even this vanilla version of the game features multiple characters with their own unique levels, bosses, and cutscenes, a day/night cycle that affects the gameplay as well as the ending, hidden extra costumes, an unlockable hard mode – there’s a lot in here that later games in the series would have benefited from copying, and it’s a real shame that we haven’t seen anything this brave or experimental since.