When the SNES came roaring into the 16-bit console race back in 1991, it was the perfect opportunity and means for Konami to continue its famed franchise. The hardware would allow them to exploit a new level of technology, to potentially take its series to new heights after the Dracula's Curse masterpiece, and the console was surely home to the company's most ardent fanbase--those loyal to Nintendo who grew up playing Castlevania, Simon's Quest, Adventure and the rest. Quite simply: Super Castlevania IV, Konami's first entry into the SNES' library, is another of its grand achievements in the realm of side-scrolling action games. Or is it?
For those of you who aren't aware of its history, you'll be interested to know that this title was not created in-house by Konami; rather, the company instead commissioned a smaller group of its independent programmers and designers to come up with a concept and make it all work within an allotted time-frame. That group, which came out of nowhere to succeed big time in producing a hit, would later disassociate itself from Konami and form its own game-developing company called "Treasure." It was Konami's loss.
So this small group of programmers once again called upon the services of Simon Belmont to bring Castlevania into the 16-bit era with a bang. Before you think that this is extraordinary--that Simon Belmont would have to be over one hundred and twenty years old to take on such a mission under the present storyline--you may be disappointed to learn that Super Castlevania IV is simply a storyline remake of Castlevania, the NES adventure from 1986. Beyond that, you will be pleased to know that there's nothing "simple" about Super Castlevania IV, a title which manages to ace just about every conceivable category you could use to grade a video game.
So Simon Belmont must head on out to Castlevania to confront the Count, who has been waiting one hundred years for a rematch ever since Christopher Belmont vanquished him from this world. You must guide Simon through multiple stages en route to the castle and its keep for the final boss battle. Because this is a remake of Castlevania, they don't try to overly deviate from the working formulas in terms of inventory--Super Castlevania IV shares largely the same assortment of weapons and magical items. Simon always starts with his leather whip, which can be powered up two levels into two more effective forms--first into a chain whip and then into the all-powerful Morning Star whip. And he'll once again command those same ol' mystic sub-weapons--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang and the stopwatch--and power them using the big and small hearts found by whipping candelabras and killing enemies.
With this intent in mind, you'll instantly recognize the collectible magical items: These are of course the money bags, rosaries, double- and triple-shots, invisibility potions, 1-Ups and pot roasts of games past. The only really new addition is the little energy-replenishing chicken wings that can be found in candelabras, and they're meant to otherwise provide a smaller boost of energy when a pot roast is nowhere to be found.
It's seemingly standard fare when it comes to gameplay and its mechanics. However, in reality it's a whole new ballgame when it comes to its level of detail, imagination and execution--mostly in deference to Simon Belmont. Mainly, our hero is beefed up when it comes to his offensive and defensive abilities: He can swing the whip in five directions when grounded--left, right, up, and diagonally up left and right--and in all eight directions while airborne. More convenient is his ability to brandish the whip, wherein he can swirl it around wildly and hang it down unto enemies while standing, ducking or jumping; while brandishing doesn't damage enemies quite as much as regular whip strokes, you can stylishly string together multiple hits and thus freeze enemies in their tracks. Simon can also use the whip, in any form, to latch onto floating rings--those locations from where he can swing back and forth and gain momentum needed to clear long distances, to access out-of-each platforms or the next in the series of floating rings. Finally, Simon has a crouch walk that he can utilize to carefully sneak under narrow and spike-lined passages and skillfully avoid enemy attacks while forwarding his momentum.
If you're expecting a carryover of Dracula's Curse vision of alternate routes and allies, you'll be disappointed again. Simon's is a solo mission, and his path is set. But be encouraged to know that as a "remake," they didn't mail it in and repeat the more clichéd formulas; you may stumble upon some familiar-looking landscapes, yes, but the stage design here is all-new, never simply taking an area from Castlevania and slapping on some new skin. The group abandons the archaic mindsets (like that zigzagging mentality of platforming) of gaming and presents to you their own vision. While they don't attempt to recreate the series' working formulas in spectacular fashion, they expand them in ways that amplify the most basic of premises without ever trying to overly rely on them.
The stage design is just one of the elements that keep Super Castlevania IV from falling into that "Adventure trap," where the average team of developers would try to cover up its lack of originality with insane platforming. Oh, there are difficult jumps and other intimidating scenarios reminiscent of those you may fear from the NES titles, but Simon is more than equipped to handle them. The group just does so many subtle and unique things to make it seem all-so-new: There's a giant gate you can negotiate your way around using the entrances in the front or the back; the changing tides of the streams and their watery slopes; the mazes of platforms in the graveyard and the caverns that offer different paths to the destination; spinning, twisting and moving rooms; the crouch-walking beneath spikes while rug creatures try to lift you to your death; a vertical chamber where you must outrun a spiked gear; and so on. It has so many dimensions that give new meaning to "horizontal" and "vertical." You're hit with what will be one memorable moment after another, and this is what makes Super Castlevania IV stand out even though it really isn't trying to majorly revolutionize the series or change its direction.
Naturally, being the first of the 16-bit entries, it's by far the best-looking game of the series to this point in 1991. Such an explanation alone doesn't do the artwork any justice: Never before has a Castlevania world looked so alive with energy and filled with energy. The multiple backgrounds, foregrounds and textures are beautifully designed, intricately detailed, and layered over each other in a way so that you're drawn in by their very movement and especially by the mode-7 scrolling ability of the SNES. It really adds a whole new dimension to a game when the surrounding environment is alive, filled with animation plus new and interesting things to look at, instead of just plastered on. Make no mistake about it: They went all out here to impress the consumer; the game was marketed and therein accentuated by some of its special effects, which includes a room that rotates 270 degrees, where you have to hang on to a floating ring and hope for an escape route; a room that spins around like a wheelbarrow as enemies break through its foundation; challenging jumps onto oversized swinging chandeliers; its giant rotating and scaling sprites; and the destruction of the giant Koranot. The soon-to-be Treasure had in mind a game that would deliver classic Castlevania action while pushing the boundaries of the new hardware, and they succeeded in both instances.
The enemy selection is both typical of what you'd expect and yet indicative of the push-it-to-the-limit scope of Super Castlevania IV. The characters, too, have never before been so rich in color, in the amount of detail, and in their animation. Old favorites like skeletons, axe knights and zombies do their job well, but it's newcomers like the glowing ectoplasm, the crumbling stone men, the pursuing caskets, and the stifling grabbing portraits that show off the creativity and power of this engine and its designers. Simon looks a bit awkward in that green outfit, bland and as faceless as ever, but he occupies many frames of animation. And he demonstrates in his brandishing move one of the more impressive effects when dealing with the manipulation of sprites; how they managed to make the individual chains of the whip flow and cycle in such a natural fashion is anyone's guess, and it remains so even years later, it seems.
The music and sounds also represent what is another outstanding effort--the developers did a great job of creating a soundtrack that combines remixed themes with those that are newly created and consequently standard-bearing. Every theme hits you in a certain way to cause an emotion, with drum beats and a bass that will cause chills as you explore--and it shows that this group, too, has mastered the art of matching up themes and environments, perhaps more than ever before. The chilling clock tower theme, Bloody Tears (once used as the "outside" music in Simon's Quest), is the best example of their work; it sets a mood that matches the frantic movement of the tower's many gears and other frightful mechanics while urging you to move quickly. The downbeat theme of the caverns, where everything moves slowly and the gloomy reality sets in, is another good example. Considering Konami's track record to this point, it seems almost redundant to tell you how much of a winner its soundtrack truly is. They know how good it is, too: Like they did in Dracula's Curse, they supply a sound test so that you can enjoy the wonderful tunes without having to play through the game. They know what you want.
The accompanying sound effects are also some of their better work. Every action from every character comes with its own sound. It's as if each demon has been afforded its own little selection: Simon violently snaps the whip; enemies howl and gasp in pain; they experience exploding, flaming and screaming deaths; their attacks whir, flutter, drip and slam; and other sprites crash, rumble, rattle and shutter. It contributes to what I said earlier--it all adds a wonderful sense of "life" to a game already filled with it. It manages to be over the top while at the same time very appropriate.
After years of slaving to control heroes whose mechanisms were in many ways flawed, the shackles have been released. Due to the developers' efforts to present a title where the challenge is defined by the level design and not the unconquerable limitations, a control scheme has never been so easy to master. The maneuvers are familiar, but they've been enhanced as repeatedly showcased: Simon can redirect during jumps, twisting and turning back and forth to avoid danger and compensate for any ill-planned decision-making, and he can now jump directly onto stairways instead of having to climb from their bases. Quietly alleviated is the inconvenience of having to push downward to descend down a stairway that lay over a bottomless pit--Simon now walks down such stairways automatically. To utilize sub-weapons, you now only have to push one button ("R1"), which eliminates any possible control conflict while faced with the predicament of climbing stairways while battling enemies, and it's a really welcome addition.
Simon's new moves are the best example of a realized control scheme. Mainly, it's his whip control that's "super": You can swing the whip in multiple directions, half-swing for a quick response, hang it down from different positions, and even swirl it around ("brandish") with amazing speed and accuracy while never missing a beat as you march forward; this will in effect sometimes give you a huge advantage over the enemies, especially those situated on platforms placed higher and lower. The brandishing move is important for dealing with smaller, weaker enemies like bats and ravens, who fly in from angles with little warning, and it turns out to be your greatest defensive maneuver, too, as in hanging it down you can form a wall that thwarts projectiles. The whip is just that fast that you can do all of this in such a short period. Whip control is most important when you're gripping onto floating rings, which sounds intimidating in explanation but is made so simple that you'll enjoy the very process: If you don't build proper momentum, you may plunge into a bottomless pit when releasing the button too soon; you'll have to build to the proper speed while hanging at a relative distance to clear certain gaps. Finally, there's the crouch walk, which is also easy to control and proves to be useful for tricky scenarios like maneuvering beneath aforementioned spike-lined platforms and squeezing into tight spaces. In the end, all of the advancements and conventions allow for the game to speed along as quickly as you're willing to go.
Super Castlevania IV can be just as difficult as the series' reputation will have you believe. Its challenge is really difficult to gauge, overall, because of one factor: The game's mechanics really help in making it easier. Since you can whip in multiple directions and strike by hanging the whip downward, enemies placed on platforms above and below are never really a threat (this may be why they eliminated this type of whip control in future games). They probably give you too many power-ups, too, what with all of the chicken wings hidden in candelabras. If you find that the level design doesn't present a challenge, it's because they gave you the means to master it. If anything, the only true imbalance is in the difficulty of the boss battles--some bosses really put up a fight, utilizing every last bar of energy, while others are just too easy in comparison. There's really no strategy involved in the latter instance because it results in simple slugfests, and you'll find yourself just whipping as fast as you can to destroy the boss before it can destroy you. It's just a matter of if whether or not you have enough energy left in the tank to take the beating it can dish out, which you're likely to do considering how liberal they've been with energy replenishment. They wanted to present an all-action game, and that's what you get. But don't let this discourage you--we're really talking about "one thousand" compared to "nine hundred and ninety-nine" when dealing with what may be perceived as a lack of balance to its presented challenges. It all depends upon how well you master the mechanics. One way or another, you will find this to be a difficult game to master.
Super Castlevania IV is easily one of the best games of the series. It took a gamble, but Konami made a wise choice in allowing a virtual second party to handle its production. The programmers brought in a fresh perspective that allowed them to succeed in supplying the heart-racing adventure for which fans clamor complemented by its own well-executed ideas. Everything has been expanded upon in a new way, and Super Castlevania IV's style and personality are unmistakable. On that level, I recommend it as strongly as I do Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Even without a system of allies or alternate routes, it in its simplicity manages to be fun each and every time you play it, and such value is what it's all about in the end. So if you're hungry for some series action on the SNES (and you have two choices), you'd be making the right decision by picking up Super Castlevania IV as soon as possible.
They may not exist within Konami's infrastructure anymore, but they in their one shot surely created one of the standouts. This is an easy perfect five.