Super Castlevania IV
Review by Mike Finkelstein
A year after Dracula's last defeat at the hands of Simon Belmont, the evil demon has once again resurrected (his gravestone, last seen at the end of Castlevania II is struck by lightning, and Dracula's Bat Soul flees the grave). It's up to Simon Belmont, famed vampire hunter, to once again traverse the steps of the Demon Castle and face off against the beasts within, all in a quest to destroy Dracula once and for all.
When Super Castlevania IV came out, for many Americans it was another great game in the legacy of Simon Belmont; his third official venture into Dracula's castle. It made sense for video game players in the States -- if Mario could keep going after Bowser, time and again, why not Simon and Dracula. Officially in Japan, though, Super Castlevania IV was a remake of the original game, and the story setup here-in only helps to clarify details, for Japanese game players, that were lacking in the original game (we at the Inverted Dungeon feel differently).
Regardless of context, though, Super Castlevania IV plays like a worthy successor to the series, an expansion of many of the gameplay mechanics and an evolution of the style and ambiance the series had set forth. Much of this is due to the platform: Super Castlevania IV was the first game released in 16-Bit on a home console (the "bit" rating for Haunted Castle is questionable, although certainly higher than any of the NES entries). The Super Nintendo Enterainment System (SNES) allowed the creators (KCEK, an internal team within Konami, members of which went on to the much beloved Treasure) to push boundaries and see what they could accomplish with all the SNES had to offer.
What resulted is a game that can only be described as "lush". From the first strings of music on the opening screen, with the dark, gothic graphics, lightning strikes, and the evil demon bat, Super Castlevania IV sucks you in with its ambiance and grace. Few gamers can forget the opening moments when Simon first steps into Dracula's castle -- the drawbridge has just gone up, the gates rise up from the ground, and the opening chords of the "Theme of Simomn" play. It was an intro into a Castlevania game unlike any that came before, and it showed a maturity of concept and style that helped to define the 16-bit era (Super Castlevania IV still tops most "must have" lists for any Super Nintendo collection).
When it came to gamplay, much had been refined here, as well. Simon, first and foremost, can finally change directions in mid-jump. If you mistimed or misaimed your acrobatics in previous games, you were sunk -- you were committed no matter what. Now, there was a chance to save yourself, to avoid a narrow death or needless damage. Not enough can be said about this one "simple" change and what it gave to the character. It was freedom of movement that many other games already had implemented years before (Mario could always change directions in mid-air, so why couldn't the Belmonts?). As a bonus, Simon can even jump onto stairs (and not fall through them as in older games). It's a nice little addition that gave you an extra bit of options when trying to avoid dangers.
But "Twinkle Toes" Simon came in with more than just some impressive jumping skills -- he also refined his whip wielding. Now Simon could whip in every direction (up and down as well as horizontally, and even the various diagonals). He even could let the whip hang loose in front of himself (and twirl it around), giving him extra protection against projectiles. Plus, on certain anchor points, Simon could whip onto those points and swing (Indiana Jones-style), allowing him to reach additional areas he never could before.
For all the good of Super Castlevania IV, though, there are a few flaws that keep the game from being perfect. Firstly, unlike previous entries in the series, Super Castlevania IV does not have an unrelenting difficutly level. Some may argue that this is, in fact, a good thing, that easier games allow more people to play through to the end -- and certainly I like the fact that I can actually beat the game. The inclusion of a "hard mode", though, would have pleased the more hardcore gamers and given everyone what they wanted. Additionally, some of the boss encounters were uneven. Many of the bosses are big hulking beasts that simply move (or fly) back and forth, attempting to damage Simon by running into him. They aren't memorable bosses, and while some of them prove challenging, they aren't exciting.
The biggest knock against it, though, is that at times Super Castlevania IV feels like a "tech-demo". Certain sections of the game aren't difficult, and obviously were built to showcase what the SNES could do over how it would actually add to the gameplay. Famously, there's a rotating hallway (where-in the background rotates up and down around the otherwise boringly straight hallway). The "rotation" doesn't add anything to the hallway, aside from an "ooh pretty" factor, and it actually causes a fair bit of slowdown, detracting from the overall experience.
Flaws aside, though, Super Castlevania IV does a great job of ushering Castlevania into the next era of gaming. Of the old-school games in the series, Super Castlevania IV is up there with Castlevania III as the pinacles, the must have games of the series.