Oh look it’s the (other) bad Castlevania, the one stuffed up to its gothic bat-filled rafters with instant death water, a terrible lock-on system, and that hellish section involving backtracking, very sensitive explosives, and a run through an almost comically lethal gauntlet of crushing spikes and narrow walkways. Yay.
Yes, yes… everybody knows this game got all of those things wrong – but let’s not be so quick to forget everything it did right.
The full Japanese title for this game is Akumajou Dracula Mokushiroku: Real Action Adventure and that little English subtitle’s the real key to understanding the game – this is an action adventure. To judge this as if it was trying to be classic Castlevania with a fresh coat of polygons would be as much a disservice to this game’s intent as it would be to complain about how “pointless” it is to sit on chairs in Symphony of the Night or bemoan Alucard’s lack of whips. The aim here was never to take the series’ standard formula and nail it to the Z axis but to bring Belmonts, vampires, and a castle’s worth of roast chickens into a whole new interactive world.
Part of this interactivity involves being able to freely wander around most areas (and they are areas, rather than stages or levels) and examine various points of interest ranging from human-sized instruments of torture to scattered corpses and even carefully-tended white roses stained bright red with blood (of course it’s blood). While never pushing the descriptions of these scenes to the point of being genuinely frightening the ability to look at one of Dracula’s outlandish gizmos and have either playable character express concern for their intended use or see a collection of impaled bodies and wonder who these people once were definitely adds an unsettling layer of background noise to the already strange mix of industrial machinery and classic Hammer-like monsters found throughout Dracula’s castle. To further heighten the tension a first-person point of view is used whenever a character passes through a door, forcing the player to be the first to see whatever danger lies ahead and view this unknown exactly as the character would. This technique’s just as effective here as it ever was in Resident Evil, directly putting the player into the heart of Castlevania in a way that simply wasn’t possible in the series before now.
I made a point in the paragraph above of calling the places in this Real Action Adventure areas and that’s not simply down to them being mostly free-roaming spaces with the odd locked/sealed door and a few keys or switches to find but because they exist as complete, crumbling, (and sometimes unique to one character) locations, each with their own quirks and their own story to tell. Let’s use an early boss as an example: The bony White Dragons guarding the portcullis mechanism at the top of the castle wall’s tower. In most games the reason why players can’t simply run up to the giant lever next to the boss and then rush straight back out would be thanks to a very old and very simple “transactional” sort of game design rule: Players don’t get to do the thing they wanted to do without being made to earn it first – in this case, by defeating a boss – because that’s how games are supposed to behave. And in reality there’s not much difference here; players still have to slay the dragons before they can pull the lever and open the way to the next area, except here the reason isn’t framed as “Because the level designer said so” but a logical necessity due to the dragons being thoroughly tangled up with the cogs needed to make the lever work. There’s an obvious reason why the monster must be dealt with first, and thanks to this thoughtful positioning of just one enemy model what could have been an A-to-B-to-C runaround is instead a necessary trip through a stone tower capped by a vicious battle against an undead foe. It’s a small yet meaningful detail in a game packed with small yet meaningful details, all working in harmony to create depth and atmosphere out of what might have otherwise been seen as nothing more than pointy hairdos and tiny, blurry, textures. This is a game where monsters made of blood don’t simply appear out of thin air but manifest first as red tears streaking down an angelic statue’s cheeks before finally coalescing on the floor, where a “villager’s” plea for help is only undone by the room’s mirror revealing the vampire’s lack of reflection, where lizardmen pour out of the machines that created them, sword in hand. These environments are always more than a level to jump through or an arena to fight in (Duel Tower excepted), they’re virtual towers, mines, and waterways containing necessary items, worthwhile secrets, and plain old shortcuts hiding above, below, and within all three dimensions.
Even with all of this intricate work on their plate Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe weren’t afraid of giving themselves even more to do, and thanks to their efforts even this first and unfinished foray into 3D still retains much of the graphical opulence and fine detail the series is famed for: Light streams through boarded-up windows onto plush carpets leading to ornate staircases, and further inside the villa’s maze of golden doors and marble fireplaces loose ballroom curtains flap in the breeze under candlelit chandeliers. Giant cogs whirl against each other inside the always-dreaded clock tower. A gigantic minotaur’s fur and skin burns away as they’re fought, revealing skeletal innards. Why? Because it looks amazing (and the poor thing has something of a habit of ending up looking a little dishevelled in Castlevania games). Now clearly anyone with at least one eyeball can see there’s a significant fog-shrouded gap between what the game’s putting on the screen and what it’s actually trying to convey: Supposedly round pillars have definite sharp corners, “detailed” stone statues are often flat sprites made all the more obvious by the way they always face the camera, and far too many rooms can be honestly described as “squares with a few rectangles for decoration”. None of this matters because the visual language used is so strong players always know they’re standing in front of a gilded staircase, a carved stone fountain, or surrounded by stacks of dusty books in a hidden library even if the technology isn’t quite able to show it off for real. In fact the overly-angular design actually helps with the vampires and other humanoid creatures, all of them beautifully straddling that unsettling line between “This is definitely supposed to be a person” and “This is definitely not a person” thanks in part to the limited level of detail forcing unnatural shapes to lead the imagination down paths it would rather not go.
Navigating these trimmed garden mazes and magical crystal towers isn’t as awful as gaming wisdom would have everyone believe either, with most areas involving narrow walkways, moving platforms, or other potentially hazardous leaps either automatically repositioning the camera directly behind the player or swooping it around to a pre-set angle that does its very best to show where the player is, where they need to be, and whatever trouble’s in-between the two. When it comes to gripping on to ledges, edges, and hedges characters will automatically turn mid-air towards the closest grab-able side, completely eliminating any potentially deadly “If only I’d turned 0.45281 degrees further to the left, I would’ve caught that” woes. Are Castlevania’s ledge-clambering and camera systems perfect? No, not by a long shot: Reinhardt and Carrie are quite slippery in action which can lead to many avoidable deaths even when everything else is going well, and if they’re not already facing the direction they need to leap in there’s a chance they’ll perform a useless short hop to the back or side that’ll see them sprawled out on a distant floor with a thousand broken bones (and isn’t especially helpful even when used as intended either). The game’s weak attempts to lock-on and keep moving targets in view is really quite atrocious as well, so much so that a large part of real reason why Carrie’s game is easier than Reinhardt’s is down to her having a long-range homing spell as standard as opposed to not-Belmont’s stand-n-whip attack. Even so – honestly, how much worse are these grievances than others found in similar games of the era? A little… but not by much. It’s absolutely fair to say these issues detract from the game and will kill even careful players from time to time, but they’re annoying missteps rather than game-ruining horrors.
So Real Action Adventure’s not wholly successful and its remake-ish sorta-prequel Legacy of Darkness doesn’t really address the original’s flaws nor reinstate much of the wished-for content that was originally lost. Konami’s Kobe division definitely took on more than they could handle; even after making the decision to cut the game’s planned playable content by half it still contains obviously unfinished ideas and various things quickly bodged together for the sake of getting the game out of the door in time… So that means it’s just like Vagrant Story, which is also missing a lot of planned content and at one point has a very obvious “SOMETHING WAS SUPPOSED TO GO HERE BUT IT’S GONE NOW” break in the game’s flow, or the first Soul Reaver – a game that’s almost as unfinished as it is complete. Let’s not forget about Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s bespoke lock-on cartridge created to add back in levels (and more) that were supposed to have been in there in the first place, and while I’m here I may as well mention how the first Devil May Cry‘s made up of cobbled-together concepts from an abandoned Resident Evil and one unintentional bug found in Onimusha. My point being that while the lost content and sticky-tape patching up is a shame the unusual thing here isn’t for a game to be released as unfinished as this one is – but it is unusual for the public to be so keenly aware of it (and to bring it up every time the game’s mentioned). Besides, between multiple endings, time-sensitive events and secrets, unique stages, plot threads, recurring rivals, and optional battles with Renon and Vincent depending on the player’s actions throughout the game – there’s plenty in here as it is, and more than many will find the time to experience for themselves.
There are other Castlevanias out there that I feel really do not deserve the reputation they’ve been saddled with and unlike those, I can’t honestly say I don’t understand the most common complaints levelled at this N64 release. But for all the legitimate issues this game does have – the haphazard save crystal locations, the infuriating targeting system, the vampire curse status effect – there’s always a sense these things happened because the developers were trying to work things out as they went along – and they had to, there’d never been a 3D Castlevania before this one. It would’ve been nice if they’d experimented on someone else other than their paying and playing customers, but I’d still rather have this game and its tantalising glimpse at an adventurous alternative to both classic Castlevania and the now endlessly copied “Metrovania” styles than not.