Castlevania for the Nintendo 64

Game Overview

In the wake of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Konami was desperate to try to find a way to make the series relevant to then-modern audiences. While we tend to view Symphony as a high-water mark for the franchise, its sales in the U.S. were initially quite disappointing. It was a quality game, and sold briskly in Japan, but the collective Western response was that Symphony was not the game audiences were looking for. They wanted something that would capitalize on the 3D polygonal power of the newly released consoles (like the Nintendo 64), and Koji Igarashi's 2D Metroidvania opus didn't cut it.

Seeking to answer the calls from Western audiences, Konami shifted gears and immediately put their Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe division on the task of making a Nintendo 64 Castlevania game. This would be an ambitious title, the first fully 3D game in the series on new (for the company) hardware. Reportedly planned for a one-year development, that would have put the game out sometime in 1998. But between difficulty working with the hardware, and this being the first game in the series in this play style, the game ended up getting pushed back eventually all the way to January of 1999 in the U.S. and March of that year in Japan.

Although we view the game as something of a disaster now -- it's two years of development meant that while the game struggled to come to fruition, other titles had already grasped the quirks of the 3D format and worked around many of the growing pains of the format. By the time it came out, Castlevania (aka Castlevania 64 to the fans, known as Akumajo Dracula: Mokushiroku in Japan, translated as "Demon Castle Dracula: Apocalypse") already felt behind the times, a rough first draft when other series had already learned the various mistakes of the 3D platforming genre and moved on from them.

Hyped as a Mario 64-level reinvention for the series, Castlevania 64 had a lot to live up to. In fairness, early impressions of the game were solid, and if the game had been able to come out anywhere near its initial proposed release date, the game might have fared better at the time. It did promise to take everything that was beloved about the Castlevania franchise and bring that into new, 3D rendered realms (certainly, Nintendo Power did its level best to pitch it as such). Even if it did miss the mark, Castlevania 64 turned out to be a solid early 3D platformer owing more to its own roots than Mario 64 or Symphony of the Night.

The game takes place in the mid-1800s, after the time of Richter Belmont. The famed Vampire Killer whip had been passed on to a non-Belmont wielder, Reinhardt Schneider, and when the demon castle one again rose in the mountains of Romania (a sure sign that Dracula had returned), Reinhardt set off to defeat the evil at the heart of the fortress. Reinhardt was joined in his quest by Carrie Fernandez, heir to the Belnades clan, and each took their own path through the castle (and met their own cast of characters) before the final climb to Dracula's keep.

Unfortunately, due to time limitations, two other characters -- Cornell and Coller -- had to be removed from the game as playable characters, despite having been hyped in early production art. Cornell was eventually rescued, given a starring role in the later "Director's Cut" of the game, Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, but Coller was lost completely, reduce to just a cameo as the evil gardener found near the Villa section of the game.

As a fully 3D game, the world of Castle Dracula was been opened up for more exploration (although not quite to the level of Symphony of the Night). Castlevania 64 still featured a rigid level progression system, reducing how much exploration could be added into the game. Some levels did set the heroes on exploring around for items to collect, keys (and items that functioned like keys) that allowed entry deeper in the castle. There's was no going back to earlier areas, and no need to do so, setting up a structure much more akin to the games of old. The levels did feature NPCs to talk to, and recurring storylines, mimicking some of the more modern touches in the series even as the game felt very beholden to the series of old.

It was probably this very "old school" feel, coupled with already aging play mechanics, and graphics that seemed dark and muddy even at the time, that led to the game being far less successful than Konami had hoped. Initial sales were lackluster, with reports of it selling 100,000 copies (and maybe less). Considering the time and money Konami had invested in the game, those aren't great numbers, which may indicate why the company was willing to let the KCEK team continue working on the title, eventually releasing the improved version, Legacy of Darkness just ten months later.

In the view of hindsight, Castlevania 64 is a misstep in the series. Both it and it's prequel/remake Legacy tried to capture a new style of play for the series but between difficult hardware and inexperience, the team just wasn't able to make a title truly worthy of the Castlevania name. After this, Konami let the KCEK team develop a version of Castlevania they honestly wanted, which led them to craft the far superior Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the Game Boy Advance, and that title finally gave the team, and Konami, the hit they'd been looking for.