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Horror Classics: Castlevania 64

Castlevania isn’t usually thought of as a horror series. Sure, the games use the trappings of horror, sending players to gloomy Gothic castles to battle vampires, werewolves and ghosts, but rarely do the developers set out to actually scare the player. There is, however, an exception to every rule, and that exception is the 1999 Castlevania, often referred to as Castlevania 64 due to its exclusivity to the Nintendo 64 console. The power of the N64 allowed the creation of 3D worlds more complex and atmospheric than ever before, and Konami took full advantage of this fact to unleash their imagination on the unsuspecting children of the late 90’s.

Castlevania 64 is determined to scare you before you even start playing. The very first thing you see in the game is an intro featuring swooping shots of an imposing castle under a blood-red moon, while lightning flashes in the sky and some of the most tense music ever recorded for a video game plays in the background. This scene is immediately followed by one of a young boy playing mournful violin music, just to let you know that Konami are as comfortable with “subtly creepy” as they are with “dramatically terrifying”. Even the menu’s are unsettling, with spooky music and ominous moaning sounds that are about as far as you can get from the cheery beeps and boops usually associated with video game menu screens.castlevania2

Things just get creepier when you actually start playing and are dumped into the Forest of Silence, a bleak, desolate forest outside of Dracula’s castle. The first things you’ll encounter are a dead body and an ambush by skeletons, which is bad enough, but that pales in comparison to what comes next. The path is blocked by an immense gate, which slowly creaks open… to reveal an equally immense skeleton. For about a second, the monster simply stares at you, giving you enough time to soak in just how big it is. Then, with an ear-splitting shriek, it rushes forward, plunging you into your first boss fight within minutes of starting the game.

That scene is just one of an endless array of scary moments that punctuate the game. As you fight and explore your way to the final confrontation with Dracula, you’ll encounter similar scenes around every corner. A mysterious woman watering a rose garden with blood. A “villager” whose lack of a reflection tips you off a second before he turns into a vampire and lunges for you. The corpse of a giant bull-like monster that springs to life with a roar and attempts to trample you. And the scariest of them all, the scene mentioned whenever this game is discussed: The hedge maze.

The hedge maze level starts innocently enough. You’re traversing the maze when your suddenly confronted by chainsaw wielding Frankenstein’s monster. Intimidating, certainly, but you’ve fought worse before, so you boldly plunge forward into battle. Soon enough though, it dawns on you that your attacks aren’t actually harming this enemy, and the best you can do is slow him down. At that moment, the game abruptly shifts from a horror themed action platformer to full-on survival horror, as you race frantically through the maze (without the benefit of a map) trying to stay one step ahead of the unstoppable Frankenstein and his equally invincible hunting dogs. The heavy clanking of his meta boots follows you everywhere you go, and whenever you think you’re safe, he smashes through a hedge directly in front of you. This might be the scariest level ever seen on the N64, and the vampire boss fight that follows is positively a relief in comparison.

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Frightening as the game was though, it had plenty more going for it than just scares. The gameplay followed in the tradition of previous Castlevania games, featuring a mix of combat, platforming, and exploration, and made the leap to 3D with more grace than most franchises. The combat was fairly basic, mostly a matter of mashing the attack button while jumping around wildly to dodge enemy attacks, but was enlivened by the presence of a variety of side weapons. Throwing knives, crosses, and bottles of holy water all helped to add some variety to the fights and give you an edge over the forces of darkness.

The platforming elements suffered the most in the 3D transition, with Castlevania suffering from some of the same camera and control issues that continue to plague 3D platformers to this day, but fortunately few of the platforming segments were particularly difficult, so frustration was mostly kept to a minimum. A few questionable level design decisions did make it through though,  including one infamous segment that sees the player trying to transport a container of explosively unstable nitro through a level teeming with traps, enemies, and spinning gears.

Exploration, on the other hand, benefited immensely from the 3rd dimension, with a variety of complex environments that felt like real places. From the decadent vampire mansion to the lizard infested underground waterway, every level has its own style and atmosphere, and each was littered with puzzles to solve and items to find. The lack of a map, coupled with the need for backtracking, meant players would have to become very familiar with the layout of the stages, adding to the sense of exploring a real castle.

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The game’s presentation played a vital part in establishing the mood for each area. While the graphics look painfully dated today, the sound design remains just as masterful as ever. Tense, spooky, or dramatic, the soundtrack covered everything you could want from a horror game. Even the ambient noises were top-notch, from the moans and snarls of your undead foes to the echoing sound of your own footsteps. It all added up to a game every bit as tense and nerve-wracking as any horror movie, and is a big part of what made Castlevania 64 so great.

Sadly, Castlevania 64 has never been re-released on any other console, so it seems that this N64 gem is doomed to fade into obscurity. If Nintendo ever does put it on the virtual console though, or if you can find a second hand copy and a working N64, it’s well worth picking up. Just don’t blame us if you develop a crippling phobia of hedge mazes.

 

Screenshots from vgmuseum.com



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