tiistai 11. lokakuuta 2011

REVIEW - Castlevania (1999)

GENRE(S): Action / Adventure / Platform
RELEASED: January 1999

Work on the 16th installment in the Castlevania series began in September 1997, six months after the release of the cult classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The game, originally named Dracula 3D, was to be the first Castlevania game for the Nintendo 64, as well as the first 3D game in the series. The game was finally released in early 1999 under the simple moniker of Castlevania, and as expected, it divided opinions due to its radical departure from the earlier games. The game's events were cut from the series' official timeline a few years after its release, along with the events of several other less revered games in the franchise. I've said many ugly things about this game and its sequel in the past, but the truth is that neither one of them are quite as bad as I remembered them to be - far from being masterpieces, though. Let's start with the obscure little game fans of the series like to call Castlevania 64.

When a problem comes along, you must whip it - in 3D

Andrew Hanikson : Reinhardt Schneider
Bianca Allen : Carrie Fernandez

The spirit of Count Dracula awakens in 1852, as the horrible result of mankind's corruption. Reinhardt Schneider, a descendant of the Belmont family of vampire hunters, and Carrie Fernandez, a young girl with mystical powers, set out on a journey to Dracula's castle in Wallachia to seek out the latest reincarnation of the evil one and vanquish him.

In the past couple of years, Castlevania has turned from a guilty, obscure pleasure of mine to one of my favourite video game franchises. There are only three Castlevania games I can profess true love for - those being the original NES game from 1986, Super Castlevania IV from 1991 and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow from 2003 - but I still consider myself a fan of the whole series. Even though there have been several really bad games with Castlevania's fine name on them, trying out a new 'Vania game for the first time has been one of the greatest, most consistent thrills for me in the past year. The idea of giving the short-lived Nintendo 64 series of Castlevania games another chance came to me early this year, when I completed and reviewed Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The much disputed reboot of the series was the first 3D Castlevania game in years, and even though the game was a huge disappointment in many ways, the basic gameplay worked - of course it did, it was ripped straight off the best in the genre. I started to reflect on what the first 3D Castlevania games were really like. Could it be I hated them for the wrong reasons? Could it be that they were quite good after all? There's only one way to find out.

Carrie may sound just as annoying as any other
child character in a video game, but any kid who
can pull of a decapitation like that is fine by me.
OK, so first of all, the plot is stupid. Castlevania never really shined in storytelling before Lords of Shadow, but the plot in this one is just about as full of dumb "bombshells" as it can get. The character and enemy design makes me want to go out and shoot someone; skeletons on motorcycles? I rest my case. The developers invested in free exploration in a full 3D world and a haunting atmosphere, probably due to the huge popularity of survival horror at the time. Actually the atmosphere of the great big outdoors somewhat reminds me of the first Silent Hill game that Konami unleashed less than a week after Castlevania. Coincidentally, the atmosphere of the indoor levels - including the catacombs - reminds me quite a bit of vintage Resident Evil. It's all fair compensation for the game being so off in its presentation.

The clumsy use of the camera is, surprise, surprise, one of the game's two greatest practical flaws. The camera pulls some crazy stunts on the player all by itself, like suddenly panning behind a wall during a boss fight, rendering the screen all black, and leaving you completely unaware of your character's position and situation - it won't move, no matter what you do. The only possible way to get back on track is to run around, hoping for the best, until the cameraman returns from his impromptu lunch break. The insane camera makes routing extremely difficult in itself, and making things even worse is the game's endless supply of enemies. Artificially, the game doesn't look that bad aside from the laughable close-ups of the characters; I guess I should give the boss fights, the outdoor proportions and the diversity in level design some due. Also, blood effects in a Nintendo 64 game always make my day.

Music's always been one of my favourite things to experience and review when it comes to Castlevania games. Since Castlevania isn't (or wasn't intended to be) a full-blown action platformer, but instead an atmospheric adventure game, the music is very ambient and minimalistic. It's good as what it is, not really up to the series' standards when it comes to pure quality, but good enough to make it clear that Michiru Yamane didn't work on this game. A very different remix of "Bloodlines" - a Castlevania classic originally heard in the Genesis game in 1994 - is thrown in as the title track of the game, but otherwise there are no classic tunes or any adaptations of them to be found here. For once, I understand why and I'm not too bothered by it. The game features very random instances of voice acting - if you are a fan of the "WHAT IS A MAN?!" meme from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, I think you're going to "love" the voice acting in this game as well. It's downright abysmal. I have no idea why they even bothered to squeeze in the few scenes, they could've went with text only, like they do in most parts of the game.

I may not be a real Belmont, but I know how to
crack that whip!
Just like in Resident Evil, you get to choose between two playable characters: Reinhardt Schneider, who's supposed to be yet another distant descendant of the Belmont family, and Carrie Fernandez, a 12-year old girl with supernatural powers. Gameplay between the two characters doesn't differ by much; neither game's more challenging than the other. The games just offer different perspective, with some different bosses and scenes. Both characters have two different endings each, depending on how much time has passed according to the in-game clock. Castlevania utilizes a day/night cycle for the first time since Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. It's actually the same; more monsters appear at night, and maybe even stronger ones, I've not paid attention... as if there weren't enough at daytime. A recurring store run by a demonic salesman is introduced in the early goings of the game, and some of these stores are only open at day or night.

The variety of secondary weapons takes a turn back to its most vintage form, although their use is paid with red jewels instead of hearts. With the exception of the stopwatch, each classic weapon from the original article makes a return: the throwing knives, the axe, the holy cross, and the holy water. Sadly, none of them work on enemies as good as the basic weaponry at your characters' disposal. Reinhardt uses the Vampire Killer, and Carrie uses some bullet-like projectiles. Both characters have off-hand weapons as well - Reinhardt has a king-sized, but frankly useless dagger, and Carrie has a razor-sharp ring which, on the other hand, is perfect for melee situations.

Castlevania is supposed to be a balanced mix between an action-adventure and a 3D platformer. Well, if you ask me, the action bit gets pretty tiring after a while, since enemies in the game are endless - literally. You can explore quite a bit, but never in peace. Carefully scanning through each and every branch of a maze or a dungeon, which is usually fun, might kill you when poisonous enemies begin spamming you with their presence. It doesn't matter how many of them you kill, they just keep coming. Nine out of ten of their attacks result in a poisoning, and the game doesn't give a single fucking shit whether you're in the position to visit a store to buy medicine for the poisoning or not - you're not going to find it in the field. Good luck finding your way out or into a conveniently placed store (as rare as a conveniently placed checkpoint in the game) before the poison has its way with you. My other "favourites" include chainsaw murderers (again, the year's 1852... interesting technology) who are completely immortal but are able to kill you with two quick slashes from their beloved tool, and wolves with a bite that paralyzes you for a "brief" moment, which in actuality feels like forever. The Leatherface wannabe and the bad doggies first appear by each other's side, by the way. Not a very fun level. These bastards won't die, while there's just no end to those enemies that do. Crack that whip - it doesn't feel the same it did in 2D, the fun of it dies down after you've reduced the umpteenth wave of skeletons to a pile of bones and ash while simply searching for a narrow path you might've missed for the last hour, but it must be done if you wish to add this game's completion to the list of your life's achievements.

"...Wesker? ...Jill? ...What HAPPENED to JILL
and WESKER?!"
I think it would've helped the game if the developers had concentrated more on its qualities as an adventure game it was promised to be, rather than the endless button mashing parade it actually is behind its thin veil. The dialogue is putrid - again, I'm glad they didn't squeeze in more voice acting to top it all off, and I could've done well with none at all. The "puzzles" are extremely simple. Find a switch, flick it to open a gate. Open a lone coffin - just put a sign on it that says "HEY, OVER HERE!" - to find a pathway into a secret catacomb. Find a key, use it to find another key, and use that key to find yet another key, and hope that the cycle will end soon enough. The game works as an adventure game only up until a point. Even the thrill of exploration fades, first after you realize you've beaten the shit out of the exact same bunch of enemies for a million times already for the same damn rewards, then after you realize how much you are forced to backtrack, and how incredibly small the seemingly incredibly huge levels actually are. Think we're done here? Think again. We still have the platforming bits to unleash just as much hell on as they unleash on us players.

Failing one jump in this game equals death nearly every single time. You die when you fall from a certain height. Since giving Reinhardt or Carrie the ability to swim was too much for the programmers to handle, the storyboard designers decided to make all the water in the game poisoned. If you don't have a Memory Pak, not only are you unable to save the game, you are also prevented from having checkpoints at your disposal - you need to start the whole stage over every time you die. I'll wager that two of the most usual reasons to your sudden case of death are poisoning and failing a jump, especially if you're working your way up. Bumping your head on a higher platform does not send you crashing down, oh no - it sends you flying backwards at an incredible arc which makes sure you won't survive that incident. Your character occasionally (read: randomly) takes a few steps after landing on a platform, and those few steps may take him/her over the edge, straight into a pit or a pool of water. Finally, since this is a Castlevania game, there are flying bastards, classic ones - and also enemy projectiles that may hit you in mid-air and bring your death-defying leap to a screeching halt. As tradition goes, you're lucky if you can survive the Clock Tower... but in the good old games, the Clock Tower provided fun challenge. I don't find having to start the whole level over after just one seemingly minor stroke of bad luck - caused by icky control - to be a very fun challenge.

Thank you for using Satanic Tramlines. We hope
you'll hate your trip.
After getting most of my grudges towards the game out of the way, it's high time to go over a few things I like about it. It might seem like a small thing, especially to fans that blindly love Symphony of the Night to bits, but to me, the simple and easy-to-use item menu is way better and comfortable than the awkward mess in the game's otherwise stellar "predecessor" - of course, in this game, the item menu's not as much of an essential feature, but at least you don't have to equip a Healing Kit to simply use it! The bosses are quite cool, even if their buffs - such as those skeletons on motorcycles I mentioned - suck. Death is almost just as awesome to square off against he's always been. Due to the plot which just keeps getting more rotten as you go, you don't really face THE Dracula in the game at all, even if he's built up as the main villain from the beginning. Either way, the boss fights in general leave a good aftertaste, including the final battle. Lastly, the game has initially interesting and diverse level design; there's way more than just one castle for you to run around in.

Coming complete with two playable characters, secret bosses, unlockables, and four different endings, Castlevania is a challenging and replayable game, if you're enough of an open-minded, enthusiastic fan, who's willing and able to see past all of its worst qualities just because it's one more Castlevania game for you to see and conquer.

I repeat, Castlevania is not quite as bad as I remembered it to be - it's moderate weekend entertainment for anyone who was ever the least bit into the Castlevania franchise, and it retains many subtle elements that positively connect it to the rest of the series, but it's unbalanced and boring, and the problems with the camera and controls are much too severe to be dismissed as minor flaws.

SOUND : 7.4


a.k.a. Akumajō Dracula Mokushiroku (JAP), Castlevania 64, Dracula 3D (working title), Dracula 64 (working title)

GameRankings: 72.71%

To add to the confusion, the unrelated Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (Game Boy Advance, 2001) and Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PlayStation 2, 2003) were both also released in Europe as Castlevania. Ironically, neither one of the games, or this one, are no longer parts of the official Castlevania timeline.

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