Monday, October 24, 2011
Retro Review: Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo)
The original Castlevania series has long been regarded as one of the strongest franchises in Nintendo's cannon and deservedly so; beautifully designed platforming action, a gothic horror setting and perhaps the best balance of challenge and reward ever seen in a video game series. The Castlevania games have since strayed from their platforming roots and settled into an RPG format that fans have grown to love, however the games from the 8-Bit and 16-Bit Nintendo era still reign supreme in my mind. From the time I played the first game in 1988 to that pivotal moment when Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse won my heart in 1989, these games were the benchmark of my gaming youth and the arrival of a fourth installment on the new 16-Bit Super Nintendo was something I eagerly anticipated. Needless to say, I was not disappointed and Super Castlevania IV remains not only one of the best games on the SNES, but one of the best platforming games of all time.
Super Castlevania IV landed under my Christmas tree, along with the console itself, back in 1992 and I remember the feeling of euphoria when I unwrapped this beast and saw the screenshots on the back of the box. Keep in mind that this was an era before the internet, so there were no gameplay videos we could turn to and we had to rely on small pictures of the gameplay on the box and in video game magazines. Playing a game sight-unseen was part of the risk and reward that we had to contend with, but I was confident that I would love Castlevania IV without having even laid eyes on the gameplay. When everything was hooked up and I started the game, I was immediately blown away by the graphics and the music...and this was just on the title screen. For me, this was the moment of revelation when I saw how the 8-bit era transitioned to 16-bit and just what the new technology was capable of. Given that I was such a fan of the first and third Castlevania games on the NES, being able to play a new installment with enhanced graphics and sound completely blew my 12 year old mind.
The plot essentially follows the same thread as the first game on the NES, with Simon Belmont on a quest to kill Dracula, though the world in which you play has expanded somewhat. Whereas the original game took place entirely in Dracula's castle, part IV incorporates additional stages that take place outside the castle and add some much needed variety. Unlike Castlevania III, which allowed you to play as four alternate characters and choose branching paths, part IV is a return to the linear levels and single character experience of the first title. This is not a bad thing since, like any platformer, the gameplay ultimately determines the experience and this is where Super Castlevania IV really excels. The same platforming elements of the NES titles is still intact, however many welcome refinements have been made to allow for better controls and a more even difficulty level. This incarnation of Simon Belmont is easily the most agile with his whip and is able to shoot in eight different directions, allowing you to whip diagonally to take out enemies that would have previously killed you. Every aspect of Super Castlevania IV feels like a refinement over the previous entries in the series.
This precision in the controls also extends to the jumping and platforming, allowing you to move mid-air and adjust your jumps to prevent the cheap deaths and instant kills that were the bane of my existence in previous Castlevania games. The difficulty has also been tempered to the point where it offers a challenge without feeling punishing or cheap, though you will still die often but due more to your own error than faulty design. The additional buttons on the SNES controller are also put to good use, with an intuitive button layout and the additional weapon being mapped to the right shoulder button. Anyone who has played the game knows how comfortable the controls feel and the game is still easy to pick up and remember, even if it's been years since the last time you've played. I own both versions of this game, the original SNES cartridge and the downloadable ROM on the Wii Virtual Console, and both look and play identical, though the Wii Classic Controller is a requirement if you want to play the latter version.
Discussing graphics and sound in a game that is 20 may seem pointless given how far gaming technology has come since, however it cannot be overstated how great this game looked at the time of release. Super Castlevania IV was not a launch title for the SNES, however it was released early in the system's life-cycle and it was one of the games that really showed what it was capable of. The enhanced graphics showcased a leap forward in character animation and environmental design, with lush detail and beautifully rendered scenery proving a treat for the eyes. The stereo-quality sound was also a highlight and it gave a boost to every aspect of the game, from the sound that your character and the enemies make to the beautiful music that plays throughout the levels. The music itself is a mix of new tunes and re-imagined classics from the first three Castlevania titles, making this the perfect fan-service game for those who love the old school entries in the series. As a 12 year old who was weaned on the Atari 2600, Colecovision and the NES, the impact this game had on me cannot be overstated. It was a great feeling of revelation and giddy excitement that has rarely happened since.
The Castlevania series has taken on a new life since leaving the 16-bit era, including the very good (but somewhat overrated) Symphony of the Night on the Sony Playstation and the downright abysmal 3D games on the Nintendo 64. Subsequent releases on more current generation consoles have pushed the series away from the standard "A to B" platforming of the early games, to the point where only remnants in the music and the occasional character cameo remain. For me, the original NES and SNES Castlevania games are what the series is all about and part IV is where it hit the apex, making one of the most enduring and memorable games of that era. I have fond memories of playing through it several times over and I still have fun whenever I go back to it. If you have never played this game, consider it a high recommendation from an old school gamer. The cartridge is easily obtainable and the downloadable version on the Wii Virtual Console is well worth the small investment, so there is really no reason not to give this a try. A great time for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre or retro games is guaranteed.