Horrifying times lie ahead for the vampire hunter who lets himself go

Castlevania 64 (1999)

So is it true what they say, about comparison being the thief of joy? Maybe, but how else are you gonna get ahead in life? I always had myself down as a not particularly competitive guy, happy enough to be laidback. And yet my quickness to jealousy and my complete inability to be happy for other people’s fortunes can only lead me to conclude that I must always be the best at everything, better than everyone else, and nothing else will do. Ain’t I a stinker?

But seriously, if you took people’s social media posts at face value, then it wouldn’t be very long before you felt pretty well pathetic, like you’d achieved nothing, ever. It’s not specific to gender either, with beauty standards attacking women everywhere using filters and airbrushes as weapons.

Meanwhile, men become at great risk of being emasculated, especially in the wallet department. Better get working hard for that bigger house, nicer car, leafier garden or trophier wife, or your social invitations will begin to dry up and everyone will hate you.

Bah to social acceptance, I say. If it wasn’t for that, I could be perfectly happy doling it up and doing nothing all day. But no, I’d look the fool at my high-society parties admitting something like that, wouldn’t I? Be richer, fitter and more successful than the rest, and then they can’t bloody touch you.

But then there’s only so long you can keep up that competitive mindset, isn’t there? Eventually you get worn down and you start to settle, start to coast. Or it could be even more extreme – you let yourself go altogether.

I fear that’s what may have happened with Castlevania 64, a Nintendo 64 game (do you reckon?) that I’d have to call an abomination, honestly. Being a dreadful game is somewhat understandable; I’ve played plenty. But the worst part of it is that this game has to live in the nightmarish reality of being released alongside Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, legitimately one of the greatest of all time.

It just becomes uncomfortable to watch, a bit like the complacent husband who’s let himself get fat and bald. Someone who has long since given up. Before he knows it, the younger, fitter, impossibly-chiselled, fine wine of a specimen has swooped in and wiped his eye, taken the house and the kids are now calling him daddy instead. Castlevania 64 is the Kirk van Houten of the series, while SOTN is the American Gladiator who can take wooden chairs for fun.

No really, it’s not even funny how this game pales in practically every aspect to SOTN. Before we even get onto that though, let’s take a look at the game on its own terms. Firstly, you’d think the game released in those awkward first few months of the N64, 1997 as hell. But no, they were years making this one, and it was still graphical clag.

Seriously, it looks rubbish, and for me this kind of game really showcases the worst of the Nintendo 64 and really the early 3D era as a whole. Right from the off, when you watch this early cutscene of skeletons shaking, jiving and coming back to life, I struggle to think of a time when it ever would have looked impressive. The 1800s, when this game is set, perhaps?

The whole thing looks so drab and miserable, and not in a good way. I suppose in the first level, which takes place outside the castle, the moribund aesthetics actually lend themselves well to the grim atmosphere. But after that, it’s a timely reminder and showcase as to why you were better off making your early 3D games as colourful as possible, or risk them ageing like milk.

This game’s graphics, and I’ve worked this out on paper, are a gillion miles away from SOTN’s beautiful spritework, still some of the most lush and impressive 2D graphics I’ve ever seen. And can you believe there was a period in gaming history when this type of origami 3D model was more desirable? Sony didn’t even want any 2D games on their platform at all – it was jagged polygons or nothing. Must have been like that supposed dad-bod craze I heard about, but certainly never benefited from.

It’s Castlevania in three dimensions, and that means a 3D camera as well. And if you haven’t already guessed, it’s one of the worst cameras I’ve ever experienced in any game, ever ever ever. And honestly I can forgive a bad camera, or at least contend with it. I’ve played plenty of 3D Sonic games in my time, you know, one becomes battle hardened. But in Sonic, when the camera tangoes with you before quickstep throwing you across the floor and off the stage, it’s kind of alright because you usually just get set back about 30 seconds.

In Castlevania 64, the world is split into stages that are far too long, and one mistake can spell your doom, throwing you back five minutes, ten minutes, or more. And if the camera didn’t get you, the controls will. And even before you get onto the wretched attempts at platforming, there’s the combat. You see, Ocarina of Time had already written the book on 3D combat, with its good camera control, lock-on capability and Z-targeting, not to mention a nice tutorial area to help you out.

But plainly it didn’t come soon enough for Castlevania 64, which would have you happily whip at nothing in particular, while the camera goes into “Boss Mode”, giving it licence to twist and turn like a rollercoaster as you desperately try to land a few licks on the big, ugly, low-poly skeleton. You’ll never do it, of course, and so the skellington knocks you over and you collapse and die, a crumpled set of polygons in a brown sea of dirge.

Even if you beat the enemies, the falls will get you, often into the poison water or from a great height, particularly when the grab-and-climb mechanic fails to work – again – and your useless body free-falls to another totally avoidable death. Not easy this vampire hunting lark, is it?

Ah, but look how much easier it was in SOTN – no camera woes or bottomless pits, easy combat and platforming that comes natural, stuff you’ve done a thousand times before. Why did Konami make things so hard for themselves, and for us, on the N64? Even saving your game is a pain, requiring the use of a Memory Pak shoved right up your N64 controller’s jacksy.

Alright, let’s be fair, SOTN and all other PS1 games suffered this as well, and you needed a memory card, but at least you knew that going in. Due to the already astronomical cost of cartridge production, onboard SRAM memory wasn’t always available on N64 games – in fact, more often than not on non-first party or Rareware games you were quite lucky to have it.

Just when does the N64 Castlevania instalment finish letting you down? The people behind this game have hopefully left game development and become undertakers instead. You know, when the Nintendo 64 is bad, it’s really bad. And God, you can’t even cope with music either.

Oftentimes it’s completely absent, or merely atmospheric (read – a few stock wind and bird sound effects in the background) and almost no remixes or callbacks to great tunes in earlier Castlevania games, and obviously the noises that did make it into the game ain’t designed to be played on a CD. That means it’s exceedingly low quality stuff, except for the violin remix of Divine Bloodlines on the title screen, which is properly good.

Compare all that to SOTN and… actually, you can’t compare the two. We are talking about two entirely separate leagues of music and sound here, two different sports even. With an incredible soundtrack and CD quality audio to compete against, Castlevania 64 can only retreat further and further behind its beer belly and opine to no-one that it didn’t want to get too muscular anyway, and that those high performers like SOTN and Castlevania Chronicles are all gay or something. Meanwhile Castlevania 64’s wife says nothing, maybe a condescending nod at her husband’s insecure words, while she looks at SOTN transfixed and involuntarily bites her bottom lip.

It’s embarrassing to watch, this. A defeated entity of absolutely zero self-worth trying in vain to establish itself. Take pity on it and bring Castlevania 64 out for an evening if you must, but get ready to be exposed to a gutlord camera, Pot Noodle controls, erectile dysfunctional music and dodgy combover graphics. And worse, it’ll try to blame you for all its problems and attempt to make you look bad by comparison. Meanwhile, SOTN’s already dumped your ex-wife, and is giving one to your high-school sweetheart for good measure.

9 December 2022

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