A Glance at the Past: Super Castlevania IV (SNES)

Dracula has been brought back from the dead again, and it’s up to Simon Belmont to take him down in this sort-of remake of the original Castlevania game. Although sometimes considered a remake of the original Castlevania game due to how many elements it does actually carry over, Super Castlevania IV still feels like its own distinct entry in the series, not really serving as a replacement for the original but definitely taking its gameplay style and evolving it into something much more fun and interesting.

 

Super Castlevania IV is an action platformer with a surprisingly big emphasis on the platforming. As Simon Belmont, you must work your way into and through Dracula’s Castle, fighting his hordes of monsters ripped from myth, media, and a few obscure sources. For the most part, you’ll be smacking them with a whip to dispose of them. The whip is much more versatile than it was in previous Castlevania games, able to aim in most directions, hook onto rings for some platforming help, or do a hilarious looking limp flail that is weak but good at taking care of small problems. You’re also able to pick up hearts, not to heal you, but to fuel your subweapon. Subweapons mostly take the form of projectile weapons like throwing knives, throwing axes, and so on. They mostly aren’t too necessary too use, the whip packing enough of a punch on its own and capable of hitting most foes far more easily than the limited trajectories of the subweapons. The power of the whip means you can handle most small enemies quite easily, hence why the game decided to emphasize its platforming to give you a challenge.

Super Castlevania IV’s levels have some excellent visual variety to them and some peppy tunes to back them up, but you can almost guarantee that the main worries when entering them won’t be the enemies. Bottomless pits and spikes both serve as instant kills in this game, and since most enemies don’t put up much of a fight, the game sort of leans a little too hard into putting these instant death traps all around the place to beef up the challenge. Without them, the game would be a lot easier, and their presence alone certainly isn’t enough to detract from the game, but there are more than a few levels where the game goes overboard with this design philosophy and ends up hampering the game’s quality because of it. Particularly noteworthy is a long vertical tower where an instant kill cog is chasing you from the bottom, forcing you to speedily climb it on staircases that disappear. If you mess up on one of the staircases, they won’t regenerate, so its either die to the wheel or to a pit at that point since there is no way of continuing onward. The tower, of course, has plenty of instant falls to your death as well, coupled with a section immediately after where you have to ride floating platforms up towards a ceiling covered in spikes that you must carefully slip past to find the way upward. However, you would have had to have picked a platform that was capable of doing so with no way of seeing what was above you before you picked your ride to the top.

 

Thankfully, save a few extreme cases like that tower, most levels achieve a good balance of elements to make them fair without being reduced to cakewalks. Levels have one or two checkpoints of sorts where you will revive if you die, and continuing the game after a game over will only set you back to the start of the current stage. If you wish to stop playing and return later, there is a simple enough password system to get you moving again, although you have to get a game over to view the current password for the stage you’re on. Most areas can be learned pretty easily too, meaning the run back after a death will be speedy and simple. The game’s biggest challenges though come not so much from the levels, but from the bosses. Your health is pretty easy to ignore during the bulk of the stage; enemies deal very little damage and are spaced well enough that you can take them out without taking hits yourself. However, the real reason to avoid damage from the enemies is not for fear of dying in the level, but because you need that health when it comes time to fight the boss. The bosses are all pretty good at cornering you or putting you in a bad spot where you will absolutely take damage, meaning you can’t exactly walk into them on low health and hope to win. However, the best strategy for a lot of bosses seems to be running in with enough health to take the hits and dish them out at the same time, hoping that you’re going to win the damage race. Some fights will require you to learn the boss’s maneuvers at least somewhat, so thankfully they’re not all about mindless whip smacking.

Even though the gameplay is simple when boiled down to its basic elements, Super Castlevania IV, save where it overindulges in spikes and pits, is able to make an extremely fun game through its design. Levels will usually bring something new and unique to their design. From something as simple as passing between two sides of a fence to the spinning cogs of the clock tower and the crumbling gold piles of Dracula’s hoard, you’ll be given new things to deal with and steadily more challenging foes along the way as well. Unfortunately, while the game tries to make the castle and its exterior have a lot of visually unique areas, the Super Nintendo can’t quite hold up to what the game tries to do at times. Slowdown will crop up when there’s a lot going on on the screen, and one area in particular where the background is constantly spinning can lead to the game chugging to a crawl quite a bit. You will only encounter a few moments with this problem though, and they aren’t areas that will require fast reflexes or careful jumps. In fact, despite the prevalence of bottomless pits, jumps aren’t as hazardous as you might expect. At first, I was more than a little antsy taking the jumps, since it seemed like my jumps would just barely clear the gaps. Eventually though, I realized that the spacing was perfect; the game didn’t make more space than was needed to land the jump. That’s not to say there aren’t tricky jumps that will test your platforming skill, but the simple moment to moment traversal isn’t an issue.

THE VERDICT: Super Castlevania IV is considered by many a classic, and for good reason. However, this game definitely showed why it is important I play a game before writing a review rather than relying on any nostalgic memories of it to fuel my rating.  I had played Super Castlevania IV years back and had a blast playing it, so time eroded away a few of the game’s rough edges to make it seem like it could be one of the best games ever made. Taking a look at it again, I can see both what made me love it so much and the problems the game has despite what it does well. Super Castlevania IV has a capable protagonist who is fun to play as and a wonderful world full of catchy music and interesting locales, but those locales are hurt a bit by the designers overindulging in instant kills to make up for how strong the player is, and the bosses are sometimes too simple because of the player’s power. It’s not enough to drag this game down into the dredges, but its freckles can’t be ignored when it comes to potentially giving it the lofty title of one of the best games ever made.

 

And so, I give Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo…

A GREAT rating. Without a doubt, Super Castlevania IV is still a phenomenal game, perhaps even the best Castlevania game to use the original format of a simple action platformer, but time has allowed a few of its flaws to show. The design is mostly solid, and a lot of the visual and musical flair is on point, but those moments where it falters with the bland and slow challenge of avoiding spikes and pits hold it back, as well as the low level of challenge found in most of the combat.  However, these drawbacks are exceptions to an otherwise solid experience. After all, there was a reason I loved it when I was younger, and that was because Simon Belmont is so much fun to play as and Dracula’s castle is a wonderful place to explore for the most part. As much as it hurts to say it, but making Simon a bit weaker could have made the game much better, as the challenges could have been designed around combat a bit more instead of avoiding uninspired hazards.

 

If you are looking for an action platformer, Super Castlevania IV is still among the top of its class, and if I made a list of my favorite games of all time, it might still make it if the list was long enough. However, it can’t quite rub shoulders with masterpieces because of those few moments it falters. As is, Super Castlevania IV is still one of the best games in the Castlevania series and a marked improvement over the game it is a pseudo-remake of.

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