Friday, June 11, 2010

Super Castlevania IV

Platform:  Super NES
Developer:  Konami
Released:  1991
Genre:  Platformer

The Game
Dracula has once again risen to plague the land.  Simon, a member of the Belmont clan and sworn to face and defeat the evil vampire, must take up the legendary whip Vampire Killer and meet his destiny in Dracula's castle.

Super Castlevania IV used to occupy a somewhat strange area in the Castlevania series.  It was built to be a remake of the original Castlevania and was considered so over in Japan.  When it was ported over to America, however, Konami's American branch presented it as a sequel to the previous games in the series.  It continued in this dual role for some time, but now it is universally considered to be a remake only.  Which is a good thing, really, because otherwise it would have made an already confusing timeline even more convoluted than necessary.

It still carries the moniker "Super Castlevania IV" here in the English speaking countries despite this clarification.

The Characters
Simon Belmont is our hero, purportedly one of the greatest if not the greatest member of his clan.  If nothing else, he seems to be the most highly revered.  But like most silent action game protagonists, he's got very little in the way of characterization.  About all we know about the guy is that he's plenty determined to plant the tip of his whip right in between Dracula's beady little eyes.

Dracula is Dracula.  You know the drill, surely . . . swanky nobleman type with mysterious powers and an unending streak of evil several miles wide.  He also drinks the blood of the living, leads an army of monstrous minions, and has some prime Gothic real estate.

The Writing
You are Simon.  You gotta kill Dracula.  Doesn't get much simpler than that.  Nor does it get any more complex.  But that's to be expected for this type of game.

The Gameplay
SCIV is notable for upgrading Simon's abilities from the original Castlevania with many of those abilities becoming staples of the series from that point forward.  Instead of just flicking his whip out in one way over and over again, Simon can now attack in almost any direction . . . though whipping downward in any way requires him to be up in the air.  He can also hold the whip out and flick it around lightly (while still able to cause damage) in whatever direction the player presses, one of the innovations that was carried over in several later titles in the series.  He can latch on to fixed points and swing Indy Jones style from platform to platform.  And so on and so forth.

Overall, I was half-impressed and half-disappointed in the gameplay.  Being able to whip in virtually any direction was a most definitely welcome addition, the whip flicking worked well both offensively and defensively, and Simon moves very well.


You can jump onto stairs, you can jump down from them, but you can't jump up from them, causing a bit of frustration.  It doesn't matter how dire the situation is and how helpful it might be for you to jump up to a higher platform from the stairs to get away from congregating enemies, Simon is stubbornly stuck to those steps as if they were all made of glue.  This becomes especially annoying with the stairs that connect right to the edge of a platform.  Several times I found myself trying to jump from that platform to another one, but because I was just a single pixel to far to one side, I would end up flailing helplessly on the jump button while Simon stood there on the top step and looked at me all confused, saying "What?  What?!  I don't know what you're wanting me to do!"

Whenever Simon gets hit, he flies around like the victim of a 10,000 volt current.  I understand that this is supposed to be a hazard and is a common element of both a lot of platformers in general and Castlevania in particular, but in this game, it really does seem like he's been caught in a miniature explosion, throwing him several yards to one side.  The overblown nature of this effect is especially felt in areas where getting hit is both almost entirely unavoidable and invariably results in getting tossed down the nearest pit.  Simon really should have taken his anti-convulsants before going into Dracula's lair.

I was both impressed and disappointed right from the beginning by by dual layered fortress level (1-2).  Though a simple gimmick, I rather liked it and it gave some extra depth (Get it?  Two layers?  Depth?!) to the level, but sadly it was not repeated again in later levels.  I thought it was at one point and was all excited until I realized that there was just stuff hanging down on another, non-playable layer in front of me.  I find it kind of strange that they would not take further advantage of this game mechanic throughout the rest of the game.

Still, overall, it's not too horrible bad.  It all evens out to a pretty standard platform experience.

The Challenge
This game can't seem to make up its mind whether it's trying to be super-easy or super-hard.  The difficulty curve does indeed gradually curve upward overall, but in specific instances it will shoot up and down erratically at breakneck speed.

One of the parts where it seems to be easier than it really should is whenever you die and start the level over.  At the beginning of the game and every time he dies, Simon starts out with a basic leather version of his whip.  It's short and it's not very powerful, but pretty much without fail the very first candle you snuff out will provide you with a whip upgrade.  And then within the next five to ten candles, you get the second and final whip upgrade.  If they're just going to hand out these upgrades like it's Halloween and you're wearing your very best vampire hunter costume, then what's the point of having the upgrades at all?  I think I killed approximately seven monsters in all with anything less than the fully powered up whip.

One of the parts where it seems to be harder than it really should is whenever spikes are involved.  Fuck you, spikes!

End bosses seem to be a mixed bag.  One might be somewhat challenging, the next taken down with a mere flick of your whip in its general direction, and the one after that a nightmare from which you may never wake.

The Graphics
I gotta say, the graphics are pretty nice.  Each area is pretty creepy, the sprites are fairly lively, and there is some good use of the SNES' Mode 7 feature, including one stage that has the background constantly rolling in the background, making it look like you're moving through a massive funhouse tube.  The boss sprites are pretty imaginative and well made . . . I can see why a lot of them were reused in Symphony of the Night.

The Music
I wasn't really paying attention to the music for the most part (oops!), but what I recall of it was pretty good.

The Bottom Line
I'm gonna be up front here . . . the straight platformer Castlevania games aren't my favorite things in the world.  I'm one of those guys who much prefer the Metroidvania style entries that eventually took over the series.  Still, this wasn't half bad.  Good graphics, decent gameplay, and the addition of some of the things that I like about the later Metroidvania games all add up to a pretty good installment.  Points off for being just one of a few remakes of the original Castlevania, but still a pretty good game despite that.  Worth playing.

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