Konami's long-running Castlevania series is renowned for its chilling atmosphere, fantastic music, and, most importantly, superb 2D gameplay. Now, for the first time in its illustrious 13-year career, the series is making the jump into 3D - a jump that understandably has many fans feeling quite skeptical. Fortunately, the development team at KCE Kobe has done an excellent job of making the transition to 3D, while still staying true to the series' roots. While not quite the overall epic masterpiece that was Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation, N64 Castlevania provides an oddly compelling 3D vampire-hunting experience that fans of the series should definitely not miss.
Castlevania lets you take the role of either Reinhardt Schneider, the latest whip-toting member of the Belmont clan (don't ask us why he's got a different last name), or Carrie Fernandez, a young girl with magical powers and a grudge. Both characters have their own separate (though similar) storylines, complete with entirely different endings and a couple of stages that are exclusive to each other's quests. Interestingly enough (to hard-core Castlevania fans, anyway), Carrie is a descendant of Sypha Belnades, the 15th century mage from Castlevania III. Unfortunately, Konami didn't bother to keep Carrie's and Sypha's last names consistent in the translation, thus ruining an otherwise interesting plot point of the game.
Unlike Symphony of the Night, with its RPG-like elements and free-roaming gameplay, N64 Castlevania plays more like the older games in the series (aside from the obvious fact that the gameworld is now 3D). The game progression is more linear, and each character has only two weapons they can use (a main weapon that can be powered up twice and a subweapon). The trademark special weapons are back (knife, ax, holy water, and cross), but as far as items go, there are only a few that you can collect during play, most of which are of the healing type.
While the game does feature a real-time clock function (similar to Zelda), it doesn't factor in to gameplay nearly as much as you'd hope. Only a couple of puzzles rely on the time of day, and they're hardly what you'd call inspired. There are a few other thought-provoking puzzles in the game (similar in style to the ones found in Resident Evil), but otherwise most of the emphasis has been placed on well-timed jumps and old-school platform-style gameplay. Some of these jumps can be rather frustrating if you're not careful with the controls, but it's nothing any old-school NES Castlevania fan won't be able to handle.
Each of the game's 12-plus stages is huge. A couple of the more confusing ones would've benefited from an in-game map (like the Forest of Silence and the Tunnel), but on the whole, the level designs are very nicely done. The graphics are nice and varied, with good use of textures and very little fogging (which seems to be used for atmosphere more than anything else). The lighting is real impressive, too. If there's one thing worth complaining about, it's the camera. All things considered, it's not that bad, but it does seem to get out of whack at the worst possible moments - especially in high-risk areas or during fast-paced battles. The game does offer three different camera styles, but the problems stem more from collision detection than the actual viewpoints.
Despite these minor gripes, Castlevania definitely excels. The developers have done a fantastic job of capturing the atmosphere and spirit of the series, while providing a well-balanced, challenging gameplay experience that's filled with pretty visuals, awesome (though limited) music, plenty of secrets, and some incredible bosses (just wait until you see Death... whew!). Let's just hope this doesn't mark the end of the 2D era of Castlevania games.