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.