Monday, March 30, 2020

Super Castlevania IV Review

Developer: Konami
Original Release: SNES 1991
Also Available On: 3DS and Wii U Virtual Console, SNES Classic, Castlevania 30th Anniversary Collection (PS4, XBO, NS, PC)
Version Played: SNES Classic

Super Castlevania IV is one of the weirdest mainline Classicvanias. For starters, it's neither the 4th Castlevania game or the 4th in the timeline. The only reason this game has a 4 in its name is because it was the 4th game released on Nintendo consoles. It's actually a remake of the first Castlevania on NES. It was released in 1991 on the SNES, after the GB games, so it's the 6th mainline game, and the 9th Castlevania game if you count Haunted Castle (arcade), Kid Dracula (Famicom), and Vampire Killer (MSX 2).

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Super Castlevania IV is how it plays. This game feels very different from the usual rigid and methodical Castlevania. You’re still whipping candles, killing monsters, and jumping on platforms while avoiding bats, but this version of Simon Belmont is a lot more athletic and creative with his whip. In previous games, you could only whip directly in front of you, but in Castlevania IV, you can whip in 8 directions while standing and in midair. You can also dangle the whip if you hold down the Y button, and twirl it around by doing circle motions on the d-pad while holding Y. All this whip twirling and 8 way whipping was partly flashy 16-bit graphics flexing, but it's integral to the gameplay.

The 8 way whipping is for more than just attacking. You can also use the whip to grab onto and swing from hooks hanging all over the game, like some kind of Vampire hunting Indiana Jones. You can even swing from hook to hook if you’re good enough with the whip, and hang from the whip on these hooks, which comes in handy when rooms start spinning around you. You also have air control for the first time in the series, you can use stairs on the edge of platforms by simply walking onto them without holding up or down, jump onto stairs, drop down through stairs by pressing down and jump, and move forwards while kneeling, which looks like a real workout, and is great for when you need to crawl under spikes.

This flashy style of gameplay probably sounds like sacrilege to Castlevania purists, but I like it. It’s part of what makes this Castlevania special. To this day, the first things I try when I play a new Castlevania or Castlevania clone is whether or not I can do stuff like spin the whip around, jump on stairs, and attack in 8 directions. Most of the later games with a whip wielding character let you do some of the stuff Simon could in SCIV, but none of them let you do all of it.

The story of SCIV is a retelling of the original Castlevania's story, but the game’s levels are pretty different from both the NES original and Castlevania Chronicles, which was a more faithful remake of the first Castlevania. Super Castlevania IV goes to all the key locations; the courtyard, entrance, clock tower, bat bridge, and catacombs are all here, but we don’t even get to the entrance until level 6. We have to go through stables, forests, swamps, and caves before actually going inside Castlevania. It reminds me of Castlevania III with how much game there is before we actually go into the castle. And I guess that was the idea. The inside of Castlevania has also been expanded with a library, museum, and treasury. I really like how they added in the new areas and expanded upon the weirdness of the castle itself. There's definitely something cool about starting a Castlevania game with the classic entrance hall, but having to work your way there is cool, too.

Super Castlevania IV really looks like a SNES tech demo at times. Konami just did stuff in this game because they could and didn’t worry about whether or not they should. See the small area that has you going through a tunnel with the castle walls spinning around you in a cylinder while the framerate tanks, for example. What kind of Vampire magic is that? Konami used just about every parallax scrolling, transparency, rotation, and scaling trick the SNES had in this game. There’s fences you can go behind and in front of in the first level, which would have looked great on 3DS, all kinds of stuff animating in backgrounds, a room that spins around you, a boss that shrinks and grows, and ghosts flying up through the floor in the treasury. The game was a graphical showcase for the SNES back in the day. But sadly, this was one of those early SNES games that suffered from a lot of slowdown. Rumors say that Nintendo told 3rd party developers that the SNES had less RAM than it actually ended up having, so some of those early games, like Final Fight, Gradius 3, and this game suffered because of it. Any time there’s more than 2 enemies on screen, or the backgrounds get too crazy, the game slows down. It’s not Gradius 3 bad, but you can’t miss it.

The game’s art style is also a big part of what makes this Castlevania stand out from the pack. Konami was definitely going for that Conan movie poster-like style that was used on pretty much all Konami game boxes back then. Which is totally different from the style that was used in the NES Castlevanias. I mean, when I compare Super Castlevania IV, Chronicles, Bloodlines, and Rondo of Blood to the NES games, Rondo is the one whose style is closest to the NES games, and Super Castlevania IV is definitely going for something completely different. The way Super Castlevania IV looks reminds me more of Haunted Castle than the NES games.

I don't like SCIV's soundtrack as much as Rondo of Blood's or Bloodlines', but I still think it's pretty great. It has a lot of jazzy, classical, and orchestral kind of stuff, or at least as close to the orchestral sound as you can get with SNES MIDI. I was definitely reminded of some of the more haunting songs with a small number of instruments from SOTN by the organ and violin tracks in this soundtrack. There's also some really good remixes of classic Castlevania tracks, like a Jazzy version of Vampire Killer and a sort of violin and keyboard heavy version of Bloody Tears, which I love. My favorite track has to be the Treasury Room song.

Super Castlevania IV used to be one of my favorite Classicvanias back in the day, but after playing nearly all the others for reviews here, I wasn't sure how I would feel about it now. I'd probably rank SCIV somewhere in the middle of the bunch, but I still think it's a great game. There's definitely worse Castlevanias out there.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection Review

Developer: IntiCreates, Capcom
Available on: XBO, PC, PS4, NS
Version Played: NS
Price: $30

After playing the Mega Man and Mega Man X Legacy Collections on Switch, I wouldn't blame you if you were a bit apprehensive about buying a similar collection for the Mega Man Zero and ZX games. Half of the previous collections were plagued with issues. They had a lot of input lag, screen tearing, slowdown where there was none in the originals, and questionable filter and aspect ratio options. It looks like Capcom listened to the feedback, though. This collection isn’t plagued with technical issues, and the video options are pretty good, for the most part. I’d even say this is the best of the Mega Man Legacy Collections so far.

Mega Man Zero/ZX Legacy Collection includes Mega Man Zero 1-4, which were originally released on GBA, and Mega Man ZX and ZX Advent, which were originally released on DS. All these games are enhanced ports of the DS versions and not emulated ROMs. Mega Man Zero 1-4 have the white text (instead of yellow) and the enhanced soundtrack from the DS MMZ Collection, and none of the slowdown of the GBA games. All these games also have higher resolution cutscenes, higher sound quality voice overs, a new optional checkpoint system, and the Casual Scenario Mode from the DS MMZ Collection. The Casual Scenario Mode lets you play with a fully upgraded Zero from the start, so you can cruise right through the games if you want. And unlike in the DS MMZ Collection, it uses a separate save file for each game.

The “Save-Assist” or checkpoint system is like something in between traditional checkpoints and save states. The checkpoints are actually visible in the game, unlike in MMLC2, and save your progress when you walk past them. These saves are separate from the regular saves these games have, though. These saves work more like save states. They save your progress up to that point and ignore further progress until you save at another checkpoint, even if you beat a boss or make a hard save. These checkpoints also automatically load after you die, even if you've made a hard save, which can put you in some weird situations. For example, while playing Mega Man Zero, I beat a boss, saved with Ciel, died in the overworld, and respawned at the checkpoint before I beat the boss. I then had to exit back to the title screen to load the save that had the boss beaten. Aside from issues like that, they're pretty nice. They basically give you infinite lives because of how they work, which makes MMZ1 a lot less annoying to play.

My biggest issues with the Switch versions of Mega Man Legacy Collection 1 and MMXLC1 were the poor performance and excess input lag, so I was on high alert for this kind of thing when playing this collection, but thankfully, both are fine here. I played all the way through MMZ1 and a bit of every other game, and didn’t notice any slowdown or screen tearing, and the response times felt very close to how they do on DS.

Since the Mega Man ZX games used the second screen on the DS for the map, the video options for these 2 sets of games are pretty different. For the Zero games, you have 4 screen layouts to choose from. Type 1 is 3:2 scaled unevenly to fill the screen from top to bottom. It maintains the original aspect ratio of the GBA, but will look a little blurry compared to Type 2. Type 2 is 3:2 scaled evenly to 4x its original resolution at 720p (handheld) and 6x at 1080p. It covers the exact same amount of the screen in handheld as it does at 1080p on a TV. Since Type 2 is evenly scaled to a whole number, it will give you the sharpest image. Type 3 is 648 pixels vertically (at 1080p), so it’s a 4.05x scale square in the middle of the screen. It’s tiny and unevenly scaled, so I don’t know what this is for. I guess it’s close to the size of a GBA or DS screen when played handheld on Switch. Type 4 is the image stretched to 16:9 to completely fill the screen, which looks terrible.

For the ZX games, we get 7 screen layouts, most of which are the same thing with the bottom screen in a different position. Types 1-4 give you a 5.625‬x scale top screen (at 1080p), filling the screen from top to bottom, next to a tiny bottom screen in a 1.875‬x scale. Types 1 and 2 put the screens side by side, and Types 3 and 4 center the top screen and put the bottom screen in either the bottom left or right corner, layered over the top screen. Types 1 and 2 are the only ones I use because I don’t like the idea of covering one screen with the other. Type 5 gives you a 3.375‬x top screen on top of a 2.25x bottom screen. I guess this is trying to give you something resembling the original DS layout, but the scale is all wrong, and it’s really small. They could have used a vertical (tate) mode for Switch in handheld mode here, and it would have worked much better. Types 6 and 7 stretch the top screen to 16:9 to fill the entire screen and put the bottom screen in either the bottom left or right corner. The bottom screen stays the same size and aspect ratio as in Types 1-4 for some reason. Don’t 16:9 stretch fans want everything to look equally as ugly? For whatever reason, Types 3, 4, 6, and 7, the ones that layer the bottom screen over the top screen, give you the option to make the bottom screen even bigger and a transparency slider. None of these screen layouts give you an evenly scaled image, so they all look a bit blurry, but nothing too bad. They could have had an option with a 5x top screen and a 2x bottom screen that would have looked much better, but I guess they thought it was more important to cover as much of the screen as possible.

If you’re wondering how you use the virtual DS touchscreen, you move a cursor with the right analog stick and click it (L3) to simulate a stylus press. The touchscreen on the Switch is not supported in these games at all. This works fine for the ZX games since the touchscreen isn’t used a whole lot, and you don’t have to do anything crazy with it, like in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow.

All games get the same 2 video filters; a smoothing effect, and a grainy “CRT” effect. The CRT effect doesn’t have any scanlines, so it’s not doing a great job of replicating the look of playing on a GB Player on a CRT TV, if that’s what it’s going for. It just adds a bunch of flickering and grain, which looks pretty bad. The smoothing filter is just an ugly emulator-like filter that smudges pixels together. I’m not a fan of filters, so I don’t use any.

Unlike in some of the previous Legacy collections, wallpapers are not game specific, so you can use any wallpaper with any game. Each game gets 2 wallpapers with artwork from those games. There’s also a Z Chaser Wallpaper and an unlockable Special wallpaper. Overall, I think they did a much better job with the wallpapers than in previous collections.

In addition to the 6 games, there’s also an all-new racing mode. Not like Battle & Chase racing, there’s no karts involved. It’s a speedrunning race, like something you’d see on Games Done Quick. There’s 2 levels from each game available, and you can play it with someone locally or play against someone’s online ghost. When you finish a level, you can upload your ghost and post your time on a leaderboard. This mode could probably use a few more levels, but it’s still pretty fun as is.

This collection also includes a gallery and a music player. The gallery has key and concept art from all the games and some new artwork used in this collection. All the e-Reader (Not that e-Reader) cards from Mega Man Zero 3 can also be viewed and used here. These cards can be toggled on to change little things in MMZ3, like make cats and paintings appear in the base. The music player has all the music from all the games, and the new music recorded for the collection. There’s looping options for single songs, entire game OSTs, and the whole thing, so it’s a much better player than the one in some of the earlier collections. You can also make a 3 song playlist and play it while looking at the gallery, which is kind of cool.

I was a bit worried about the quality of this collection, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with it. There’s no excessive input lag or performance problems, and even though the scaling for the DS games could have been better, the video options for the GBA games have everything I want. The Z Chaser Mode is also pretty fun. The games included are really good, too! I know a lot of people skipped these games because they weren’t on consoles, and they’re not as popular as MM and MMX, but this is a great bunch of games. Mega Man X fans will probably love them most of all since they are definitely building on the MMX formula.