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Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo) Review
~Review by tankMage (October 2019)
-Good classic platforming action
-Somewhat challenging gameplay
-Comfortable and responsive controls
-Stages have their own visual themes that fit very well into Castlevania lore
-Some portions of the game require memorization to get through
-Multidirectional whipping is fun, but trivializes many otherwise difficult situations
-Many of the bosses are pushovers
Dracula sucks, but Castlevania IV doesn’t!
If you’re getting old like me, then you probably remember a time when Konami made good games… well that actually wasn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but it’s been long enough. At any rate, the Castlevania series was one of the jewels in Konami’s crown and Super Castlevania IV is a 16-Bit remake (or retelling if you prefer) of the 8-Bit game that started it all. From Stage 1 it’s clear that this game was a launch title designed to show off the Super Nintendo’s capabilities, but it has something many games, both past and present lack: substance. Every aspect of this game, from the stage themes to combat is well planned and thought out. Though lacking the ambition and scope of Rondo of Blood, Castlevania IV is a fresh exploration of the classic NES title that’s more approachable than its ancestors, making it a good choice for newcomers to the series.
Super Castlevania IV tells a simple story, using few words, yet I struggle to think of many games that do a better job of getting a point across. Everything that takes place during Simon’s adventure builds up to the final battle with Dracula. The music, setting, and monsters all set the stage for the inevitable and climatic conflict with the master of vampires in a way that is difficult to explain. The best comparison I can make is that Castlevania IV is like a masterfully written instrumental song that needs no words to evoke emotion in the listener.
For those curious about the story, Simon Belmont is a member of a famous vampire hunting clan who has been charged with slaying Dracula, lord of the vampires. Dracula resurrects along with his castle every hundred years, so slaying him is a Belmont family tradition. The only written portion of the plot outlines this fact at the beginning of the game, then the story is free to speak for itself through visual means rather than verbal narrative or dialogue for the rest of the adventure. While simplistic, the story leaves plenty of room for the player’s imagination to fill the gaps and it gives us more to work with than the original that had little more than a blurb in the instruction manual for a story.
I didn’t play Castlevania IV until later in the SNES’s lifespan and had mixed feelings about its visual style. On one hand, there was plenty of detail, especially considering the game’s age. On the other hand, the colors were rather drab, especially compared to the flashy titles I was accustomed to. Years later, I understood that the dev’s choices were quite deliberate and meant to enhance the atmosphere.
Being a launch title, CV4 shows off a lot of the SNES’s capabilities; parallax scrolling, Mode 7, and music that sounds great even decades later. With this in mind, many of these effects come off as quaint in this day and age, but they were used judiciously and creatively by the devs. As a result, Castlevania IV has aged more gracefully than other titles that used things like Mode 7 more liberally. They also threw in some really imaginative effects that meshed beautifully with the gameplay, including a room that rotates and giant chandeliers that the player must leap across. The only use of Mode 7 that was poorly executed comes in the form of a spinning background in Stage 4 that looks pretty awful, but back in the early 90s it must have been novel and exciting.
Many of the classic horror enemies that we all know and love make their appearances and they look good, though not quite as nice as some of their later incarnations. Castlevania’s ability to make cliche video game villains interesting puzzles me, since bats, skeletons, and Medusa are played out, though I think it has something to do with the quality of the art. Plenty of attention was put into detail for the monsters and they have nice animations that move and feel like natural parts of the game world. Some of the monsters were given inventive redesigns, like the Giant Bat from the original Castlevania, which appears as an animated pile of treasure that takes the form of a bat in this game. Even a classics like the Grim Reaper and Dracula got fairly impressive overhauls and some nice damage animations that add greatly to the climatic final battles. However, I’m not a big fan of Dracula’s sprite in this game; his reddish hair and blue face make him look like a gigantic smurf.
As with many Castlevania games, Drac’s Castle is emphasized as much as the creatures that inhabit it and this version of the castle looks great. Every stage is infused with an oppressive atmosphere that’s almost palpable, from the dingy ballroom to the decaying waterway. Additionally, the stages have more clearly defined themes than those of the NES games, making Simon’s trek through Dracula’s lair even more dramatic. However, portions of the early levels come off as a bit bland despite the effort that went into them. I can’t really blame the devs for this, because I’m not really sure how you can make a gatehouse or stable all that interesting and they at least had nice details like skeletal horses grazing in the background of the stable.
On a side note, I have to comment on Simon’s whip animation, because it’s really impressive. Simon has several whip animations that change depending on where he is aiming his attack. While these are cool by themselves, he can also block with his whip and swing it around with animations so fluid that they look like they made some sort of physics engine just for the whip. Of course that’s not the case and after looking it up on Spriter’s Resource, it became clear that they achieved this affect by making the whip out of several smaller pieces that bend in different shapes, which was quite clever.
The controls for this game are superb. A few of the eccentricities from the earlier titles, like Simon’s tendency to cling to stairs are alive and well, but the devs were kind enough to expose players to fewer dangers while climbing steps and it’s possible to drop off of staircases, which makes life a bit less painful. Players will also appreciate the password system, though it’s a bit clunky compared to the auto-save features used by the majority of the more recent games, but it’s sure better than nothing.
Music and Sound
Castlevania as a series has produced some excellent music over the years. 16-Bit remixes of some of the best songs from earlier games grace Castlevania IV, making it an excellent title to listen to as well as play, but it’s the lesser known tracks that really give this game it’s sense of tension. Alongside awesome renditions of “Simon Belmont’s Theme”, “Vampire Killer”, and “Bloody Tears”, you’ll find brooding, ambient pieces that further enhance this game’s atmosphere. There are also a few themes, like the song that plays in the library, that appear later in the series that seem to have originated in this game. All in all, Castlevania IV’s soundtrack is something of a greatest hits playlist thanks to all the awesome tunes.
The sound effects are good too. Powerups, especially those for the whip come with a satisfying sound and hearing Simon touch down safely on a platform with an audible tap is always fulfilling. With that in mind, Konami seems to have changed the whip sound effect at some point, because the one used in the North American version differs from that of the Japanese release. Why they did so is puzzling to me, because I prefer the metallic clanking of chains in the Japanese version over the “swoosh” used in the North American localization, though it’s not a big deal.
When you’re talking about old school platforming, it doesn’t get much better than Castlevania and this remake does the original justice. Simon has plenty of foes to whip through, hazardous jumps to make, and powerups to collect. All of the action takes place in eleven tightly constructed stages whose threats build upon one another as the game progresses. There are also a few features that only appear in this addition to the series (as far as I know) like the ability to whip in eight directions and swing from rings scattered throughout the game, which makes Castlevania IV feel unique among its peers in the series.
I have little to say about the stage designs, since they are mostly well done. The game manages to present a challenge to players without throwing anything at them that is totally new, which makes the game tough, but fair. For example, you’ll have to learn how to use the whip to swing to platforms early on. At first the game only requires you to swing from point A to point B without dying, later on you’ll have to do so in cramped areas that have a smaller margin of error, and you’ll eventually have to swing from moving rings. As even keel as the action may be, you’ll have to use a combination of reflexes and logic to get past obstacles, which keeps the experience fresh since you’ll need to constantly innovate. Unfortunately, there were a few spots in the game where I felt like I was relying more on my memory than on skill, especially in the final two stages where some unprecedented problems arise, like the infamous buzzsaw room. However, these were minor bumps in the road that did little to detract from the fun and even made the game more satisfying once conquered.
This title’s bestiary feels bit thin, even though there are plenty of classic monsters from the series and a wide variety of them at that. Many monsters only appear in single stage, which makes each area feel more unique, but it also makes the skeletons and bats that populate just about every level seem more prevalent than they are in reality. This seems to be the price Konami paid for putting a fair amount of care into the design of each monster. If you’ve played a few old school platformers, you may have noticed that enemy AI tends to be stupid. Even in high quality titles, enemies jump into pits or move in a way that allows you to just run past them. The reverse is also true in some games, where mobs pop out of nowhere or swarm the player in ways that make the game unfair and frustrating. There’s little of that in Super Castlevania IV, where mobs are carefully placed. If you didn’t see something coming, it’s usually your fault (aside from a few exceptions) and players will quickly learn to advance carefully, while paying close attention to their surroundings. This is thanks to careful AI design and placement of the enemies, which is much better than a game clogged with a varied of poorly implemented foes.
Simon’s arsenal of weapons and skills is something of a point of contention. Out of all the Belmonts, Simon is best with the whip… well at least in this remake. He can strike enemies in almost any direction, brandish his whip to use it as a shield, and even swing from hooks with it. While the improved whip mechanics are a lot of fun, they tend to detract from the utility of the sub-weapons that players often had to rely on to hit enemies that were out of whip range. If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll probably recognize weapons like the ax, holy water, and cross, which feature improved range and angles of attack compared to the whip. Being limited to a short frontal attack with the whip forced players to use the ax’s arc or the dagger’s long reach to hit monsters, which added to the overall strategy of gameplay. In CV4, I was mostly able to get by on the whip almost exclusively and often forgot about the sub-weapons. While the whip is certainly overpowered, it makes the game stand out and it’s something Castlevania fans should enjoy while it lasts.
Most of the stages in this game have bosses that made appearances in the original Castlevania. For the most part, the bosses are fairly easy and a skilled player can beat them on their first or second try. This may be disappointing some players (I know I was underwhelmed by the bosses) but there seems to be some logic behind it as getting to the bosses is sometimes challenging in itself and the boss fights were something of a welcome break from platforming. The game also makes up for this in the final stage where the player must fight a gauntlet of the game’s strongest bosses. The fights with Death and Dracula are particularly exciting, though they become trivial once you learn the tricks to beating them.
I have a fair amount of nostalgia for Castlevania IV. It was the first game in the series that I made any reasonable amount of progress in during my childhood. Consequently, it is responsible for forming most of my perceptions of the franchise. Back then, I thought it was impossibly hard and unfair, though this was due more to a lack of skill and patience on my part than the game’s shortcomings. Like many classic games, Castlevania IV isn’t for everyone, especially people accustomed to modern games, which are generally more forgiving, but those willing to put the work into mastering this title will find it extremely rewarding. In fact, if I had to pick a title that made me improve as a gamer, it would be Super Castlevania IV, because it taught me a lot of hard lessons when I was a kid and forced me to sharpen my skills again as an adult when I played it years later, preparing me for greater challenges like Ninja Gaiden.
Super Castlevania IV will satisfy most classic platformer fans, though its slower, more deliberate pace takes some getting used to.