Friday, March 3, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Emotional Scars - Memory Log #52

Castlevania 64

It was finally happening: At long last, the Castlevania series was set to make its jump into the realm of three dimensions. Soon the Belmonts would be joining Mario, Link, Mega Man, Snake, Bomberman and the rest of the gaming pioneers in the space wherein revolutionary change was possible--wherein decades-old video-game series could reinvent themselves and forge bold new legacies.

To me, a person whose skeptical sentiments regarding the industry's shift to 3D were completely washed away by the illuminating power of mind-blowing works like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the announcement of which should have been received as monumental. As a Castlevania fan, I should have been thrilled to learn that one of my favorite series of all time was about to make its transition into the world of 3D, where, if fueled by such ambition, it could find the potential to zealously reinvent its formulas and reestablish itself as a powerhouse.

Yet I wasn't feeling the excitement. The news that the plainly titled Castlevania (to which I'll refer as Castlevania 64, its christened title, to avoid confusion) was coming to the N64 failed to evoke a single positive emotion from me. My mind refused the notion of pouring over screenshots with enthusiastic energy. I'd read through previews with indifference my only countenance. Nothing depicted on those magazine pages could arouse the slightest of interest.

The fact remained that the Castlevania brand had lost significant pull with me over the previous four-year period. Part of it was that I'd felt burned by Castlevania: Dracula X, yes, but in truth I'd started to fall out of love with the series even before then. I can't speak with any certainty as to why my passion for the series waned the--and my self-examination turns up no satisfactory answers (though, I can point to Castlevania: Bloodlines being announced as a Gensesis exclusive and Mega Man X stealing my heart as possible contributing factors)--but the reality was that it did, and Castlevania no longer held the same allure to me.

Oh, believe me: I wanted to be excited about Castlevania 64. I wanted desperately for some amazingly transformative game to come along and reignite my passion for the series. But I wasn't hopeful that it would happen. No--Castlevania: Dracula X had sent me a clear message that the series had lost its standing as one necessarily worthy of Konami's best efforts. So even if I felt that my contemporaries were being too cynical when they deemed that Castlevania 64 would be nothing more than "3D Mario with whip," I was hesitant to raise an objection, since I could think of no reason to put faith in the idea that the game's development was being driven by some sort of grand ambition on Konami's part. Recent history told me that I'd come out looking like a fool if I were to place that level of trust in the company.

After much introspection, I decided that I didn't need to own Castlevania 64. So I tuned it out: I stopped following the coverage. I ceased talking about it with my AOL buddies. And I denied it any further mental space.

Was I was really looking toward a future in which Castlevania was no longer part of my life?

Of course not, silly. You knew where this was going.

Now, I'm not really sure why ultimately I decided to purchase Castlevania 64 on that February day in 1999. Maybe it was that I'd finished all of my Christmas games and needed something new to play on my N64. Perhaps I caved in to a haunting sense of obligation. Or it could have been that the decision was made on impulse as prompted by the recurrence of a familiar scene: That is, my brother, James, was heading out to our local Electronics Boutique to pick up some games, and he inquired as to whether or not there was anything I wanted. Never one to pass up such an opportunity, I handed him some money and told him to grab me a copy of Castlevania 64, which was the only big-name release missing from my collection.

I wasn't confident in my decision, no, but I was hoping that the game would surprise me.

When he arrived home, he saw that his friend Ricky was standing near our front steps and invited him in. They came in the front entrance and immediately headed toward the den, where I was waiting. When James pulled the game from the bag seconds later, Ricky saw the name on the cover and took an immediate interest. He requested that I give him the first crack at it. "Yo--Castlevania!" he expressed with genuine astonishment, as he was previously ignorant to the fact that the series was still producing new games. "Before you play it, can I give it a try?"

I was a huge sap, so naturally there was no way I was going to deny his request. I wasn't in that much of a rush to play it, anyway, so I didn't see any harm in sitting by for a few minutes and watching him mess around in the game's early stages. I was sensitive to spoilers, sure, but there was no chance that I was going to leave that den; being the paranoid nutball that I was, it was my inclination to keep a watchful eye over his activity and make sure that he didn't touch any of my stuff. (Those G.I. Joe figures may have lain in pieces due to my tossing them into the ceiling fan, but those severed arms and legs had to be worth something, dammit!)

In its opening minutes, Castlevania 64 looked kind of promising. For one, there was a genuinely cool moment when lightning struck a tree and sent it crashing to the ground in a fiery wreck. The sudden violent impact of the unanticipated blast caused Ricky and I to repel back with great shock. And as we shook off the feeling of fright, we looked toward each other and agreed that this occurrence had made a memorable early impression. You could even say that I was intrigued by the game's desire to surprise us.

But the more I watched Ricky play through that forest stage, the clearer it became that something wasn't quite right with this game. Upon closer analysis, I could observe that its graphics were bland-looking and lifeless, the stage's separate areas blending together to form a particularly unattractive gray-and-brown mass. The skeleton enemies, including their giant club-wielding comrade, were generically designed and had no character to them. Reinhardt's jumping ability seemed shaky and unreliable. And Ricky continued to struggle with camera movement and general orientation. All the while, as he stumbled about the mundane environments, Ricky had a look on his face that screamed "Why did I ask to play this again?"

I wanted to reserve judgment until I could see more of the game, but I couldn't deny that its whole vibe spoke of a second-rate production.

So after fruitlessly wandering around for another ten minutes or so trying to find the mechanism that supposedly unlocked an obstructive gate, Ricky gave up; as he handed me the controller and prepared to retreat to the basement--my brother's domain--he did his best to conceal his bewilderment. All he could do was feign thankfulness for my having provided him this wonderful opportunity. I believe his parting comment was something along the lines of "T-thanks, man! That was very, um, 'interesting.'"

Having witnessed those disastrous 15 minutes of gameplay, I had no desire to pick up where he left off. Instead, I immediately switched off the N64 and decided that I'd come back to Castlevania 64 later on if not the next day--after I had time to digest what it was that I just saw.

The toughest part was finding the motivation to return to it. I'd tell myself that it was unfair to judge the entire game based off of one poorly received sampling of its action--that great things would happen if I were to give the game a chance to fully flex its muscles. I considered that it might have had an interesting story to tell. Maybe the explosive lightning-strike sequence was a harbinger of can't-miss surprises coming down the road!

It wasn't working; there was no fooling myself. I could paint the rosiest picture imaginable and still there would be no quelling the sense that something about this game was terribly amiss. So I had to force myself to play it. And quickly all of my fears were realized: The Forest of Illusion, with its inexplicably uninspired labyrinth of switches and gates, was every bit as tedious and as it looked originally ("Castlevania isn't about mundane activities like pushing switches!"); the indistinguishable environments, with their samey textures, only exacerbated the feeling of mundanity. The combat was slow and clunky. The uncooperative camera controls rendered platforming a maddening exercise. And as a result I couldn't reliably make jumps or even line them up, the most likely outcome of any attempt being my plunging into the deadly liquid below following an unexpected, unpreventable camera shift.

As I stated in my review of the game: I was prepared to give up on it, permanently, halfway through this very first stage due to the poor camera controls and the platforming challenges they rendered nightmarish.

"Why is this game so dull and unimaginative?" I wondered during my dozenth go-around of switch-flipping and unintended high-diving. "Isn't it supposed to be that designers seek to wow you in the early moments of their first 3D creations--showcase their creative spirit and exhibit for us the advancements made possible by this new technology?"

Super Mario 64 had us acrobatically leaping across the most fantastical 3D environments we'd ever seen! Ocarina of Time allowed for us to explore a wonderfully expansive world wherein we could tactically battle clever enemies, charge along the landscape on horseback, visit wondrous locations, and conquer amazingly intricate dungeons!

"So why, then, does Castlevania 64--an entry in a series that has shown its propensity to match their sheer quality--have me running around flipping switches and fighting dryly designed enemies in the aesthetically unappealing confines of a generically constructed set of cramped corridors?" I questioned in my anger.

And I could use the same language to describe the rest of the game, through which I struggled only for completion's sake. I suffered through every one its mind-numblingly labyrinthine stages. I enviously dreamed of its aesthetically brilliant predecessors as I defeatedly gauged its bland, uninteresting enemies and dull, repetitive environments. I continued having a miserable time with its unmanageable camera and hatefully designed platforming challenges. I spent countless minutes just standing there waiting in front of specially marked doors that would only open at certain times during a day. And I almost had a mental breakdown as I attempted to complete a Castle Center sequence in which I was tasked with carrying a bottle of nitro down three floors without jumping or taking damage. I can't tell you how many times I was cheaply squashed by the rotating gears even though I was clearly standing in the open space between them. 

That entire sequence was a microcosm for the game's plodding, madness-inducing pacing problem. And Castlevania 64 knew no shame; it was unapologetic in advertising its aversion to excitement. That lightning-striking event back in the Forest of Silence? "Nothing more than an outlier," it told me. From that point forward, there were no redeeming moments to be found.

Well, except for the Garden Hedgemaze chase wherein I was being relentlessly stalked by a chainsaw-armed Frankenstein Gardener (his right arm was literally a chainsaw) and two hellhounds; I have to admit that this memorably plotted scene packed intensity and was often harrowing. Really, the game might have had a chance to succeed had its designers channeled their energy into crafting more challenges whose gimmicks entailed this type of dramatic, pulse-pounding action.

And if I'm going to give credit where it's due, I have to acknowledge how well the soundtrack did to provide complexion to the game's world; notably, the music grew more expressive and increasingly atmospheric as the game progressed, its melancholic resonance working diligently to convey the story's tragic undertones and supplied stages their only meaningful texture. It didn't have the power to capture the magic of the classic Castlevania games' masterfully composed, diversely haunting soundtracks, no, but its tonal distinction was attribute enough to provide Castlevania 64 a sense of personality. Also, the game introduced some memorable characters (among them Charlie Vincent, the seasoned yet foolishly overconfident vampire hunter; Renon, the enigmatic demon salesman; and the tormented vampire Rosa, who desperately sought escape from her cursed existence) and told an interesting story (though, I wouldn't learn of its full scope during this first play-through, since I got the bad ending).

Oh, I knew I'd earned a bad ending--Malus' suspicious behavior working to communicate the obviousness of my failure--but I just didn't care. I'd seen all I needed to see, and I had absolutely no desire to entertain the notion that I should endure more of the same suffering for the purpose of witnessing a few presumably rewarding cinematics. As far as I was concerned, I could live happily ever after if it meant never again having to look upon or hear about Castlevania 64.

I might have followed through on that sentiment had circumstances not dictated that I reconsider. That is, I was now running a comprehensive Castlevania fansite, the nature of which demanded that I thoroughly explore each series game and provide informed, detailed coverage. As much as I dreaded the idea of returning to Castlevania 64, there was no shirking my responsibility; I'd have to play it again and work toward the true ending if I wanted to acquire the knowledge necessary to fill my site with information that properly reflected its story and character motivations. So I did what was normal in these situations: I blocked off an entire Sunday, confined myself to our den, and persisted until the game was fully completed. It was an unpleasant experience, as I guessed it would be, but surprisingly not as tortuous as my original play-through.

It might have been that my newfound motivation worked to shield me to the game's pervasive lethargy, or, more likely, that I'd taken better advantage of the all-too-easy access to the health items whose abuse helped to trivialize battles like those against the final boss Drago, the enormous beast's chaotic assault easily endured via a roast-beef-fueled slugfest. I'd never been so relieved to finish a game--to be free of the burden of having to complete a game out of obligation. Now I'd never have to play it again (well, about that...)!

Castlevania 64 was a lost cause. For certain, it didn't take the series to the next level. It couldn't. It had neither the heart nor the determination. And its inability to break free from the chains of mediocrity was interpreted by its critics to mean that the Castlevania series hadn't the moxie to excel in the 3D space. I didn't want to associate with their group--give credibility to the logical leap they were making--but I couldn't deny that I, too, was having serious doubts about the series' ability to translate well to 3D. The reality might have been that Castlevania's most dependable formulas, which were born from and cultivated within environments whose chief principles prescribed the tactical restricting of movement and inviting the player to imagine the world's depth using evocative imagery, were simply incompatible with 3D gaming. Even 18 years later, we're still debating this point.

Of course, Castlevania 64's inability to translate the series' formulas to 3D didn't mean that it couldn't have succeeded regardless. I mean, consider what Super Mario 64 taught us: an introductory 3D entry didn't necessarily have to remain faithful to its predecessors--neither in terms of gameplay or aesthetics--to win our hearts. All it had to do was achieve greatness. And if it were to meet that standard, we'd happily overlook its disregard for convention and rave about how it changed all of the rules. Castlevania 64, for whatever it was intended to be, wasn't great, and that failure, alone, was what removed it from the conversation.

I'd be reminded of such every time I returned to Castlevania 64 for the purpose of farming content for my site, which was the only reason I'd go anywhere near it. And as was usual, I'd find myself overcome with an overpowering sense of dread whenever it became apparent that my current objective required that I play through more than two of its stages. But I'd always go through with it; I knew that if my efforts were to be taken as sincere, I'd have to push aside those feelings of apprehension and dedicate myself to the cause; I'd have to become intimately familiar with the game and master its every mechanic. So that's what I did. In time, I'd come to know every inch of its world, the thought of which was previously unimaginable to me.

Now, I won't lie to you and say that Castlevania 64 grew on me over the years or that it proved to be a better game than I'd given it credit, but I did come to have greater appreciation for the things it did well (how it told its story, how it developed its characters, and how it used music to provide evocative ambiance). As strange as it sounds, I even developed some nostalgic feelings for it. But I guess that's to be expected. I mean, I feel the same way about a lot of late-era N64 games, which to me represent the last of their kind; those like Castlevania 64 would stand as the final creations of uniquely specced, unapologetically dedicated video-game hardware, which would disappear as technological homogeneity became the norm.

I tell you, man--I miss those days dearly.

For me, Castlevania 64's legacy was salvaged somewhat by its greatly improved remake, Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness, which I purchased on the cheap through in April of 2001 (cartridge-only, as there were no boxed copies available anywhere). I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed playing through Cornell campaign, whose scripted path entailed both newly added stages and those that had seen structural refinements. Suddenly, exploring the Forest of Silence wasn't an emotionally exhausting trial! Tightly focused level design, a more-realized weapon system, and overall better content (including Henry's nonlinear rescue mission, which was a fun diversion) helped Legacy of Darkness to attain "pretty good" status, which, while not a huge leap, was still a big step up.

Had Legacy of Darkness been the original product, history might have played out a bit differently. Legacy wouldn't have done better to revolutionize the series, no, but it would have been a decent enough game to where the conversations centered around it focused on the potential it showed--how a future 3D Castlevania game might successfully build upon its formula.

But there's no point in exploring the hypothetical. It won't change anything. We have to acknowledge Castlevania 64 for what it is: a rushed, butchered mess of a game that fell way short on its promise to bring the series roaring into the modern age of 3D gaming. Critics will remember it as the big-budget disaster that had its lunch eaten by some cheaply made, underhyped 2D side-scroller on a rival console. Series fans will remember it as the game that left a permanent black mark on the series' reputation. And I'll remember it as the game that almost succeeded in driving me away from the series for good.

Oh, but there'd be a happy ending to all of this. There would come a day when I'd discover the true scope of Castlevania's amazingly rich history and fall in love with the series all over again. Konami Computer Entertainment of Kobe (KECK), Castlevania 64's developer, would redeem itself with the solid, well-received Castlevania: Circle of the Moon for the GBA. And soon the series would see a renaissance of sorts under the leadership of Koji Igarashi. We'd all come out clean on the other side.

Together we'd overcome Castlevania 64's dark curse and earn ourselves the best ending.

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