Review by discoinferno84

"When you've only got a hundred years to live..."

A hundred years. That's all you get. A century to prepare for the battle that will determine the fate of the everything. As a member of the Belmont clan, it's the only purpose for your life. You train every day, learning how to use weapons and mastering magic spells. You build a family, and you teach your children how to fight. To kill. Pass down the knowledge, the techniques, and pray that your descendants will be able to get the job done. That they will finally be able to do what you couldn't: slay Dracula, the immortal vampire and embodiment of evil on Earth. Nothing else matters; if he isn't defeated, Dracula will conquer the world with his undead armies and wipe humanity from existence. Now that he's been resurrected again, the burden of saving mankind falls on Simon Belmont.

Wait. Hasn't he done this already? Twice? Simon's exploits are indeed the stuff of retro gaming legend. Not to mention he was dying the second time around. It's not like he'd be in any shape to slay Dracula again. Instead of continuing the series as a sequel, Super Castlevania IV is a SNES-style retelling of the original game. The essentials remain the same; Simon has to contend with a series of platforming levels while whipping his way through legions of skeleton warriors, annoying bats, and the rest of the legions of Hell. Breaking the castle's countless decorative candelabras yields a decent assortments secondary weapons, ranging from crucifix boomerangs and throwing axes to holy water molotovs. You'll also be able to collect hearts which serve as the ammunition for said weapons. Whip and jump your way through the stages, beat a boss (including the inevitable Death), and make a final, glorious ascent up Castlevania's stairs and take down the fireball-slinging Dracula. This is the stuff that makes Castlevania games tick, and this title is no different.

What it does do differently, however, is improve upon nearly every aspect of Simon's functionality. Veterans of the NES games are undoubtedly haunted with memories of the stiff and limited attack animation, the awkward and oftentimes glitchy jumping mechanics, and his ridiculously slow movements. Simon can now change the trajectory of his jumps in midair, which makes platforming a far less tedious affair. He can leap on to stairs (and even walk backwards to attack enemies at the same time), thus eliminating the need for him to start from the bottom or top steps and avoid potential cheap deaths. His whip got the biggest upgrade, though. It can be swung in all eight directions, which makes him capable of killing enemies that are above or below him without having to jump or crouch. He can even let the chain go slack, and you can fling it in any arc to rack up extra hits. He can even use it to latch on to conveniently-placed hooks and swing around like a gothic Tarzan. Considering how Simon used to be limited to attacking straight ahead on a single plane, this upgrade is mind-blowing. The new whipping mechanic is one of, if not the greatest innovation in the old school Castlevania games.

The problem is that it's a little too good. You can easily abuse the whip by simply letting it go limp. It can cancel out projectiles and trap enemies into multi-hit combos by freezing their movement animations. The majority of the baddies can be killed by dangling the chain for a few seconds. The bosses don't fare much better, either. Many of the climactic fights involve little more strategy than spamming the whip attacks until your foe collapses after a dozen or so hits. What happened to the pattern recognition and reading the enemies' movements? Where's the challenge? This lacking quality also extends to the levels. One of the greatest achievements of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was its superb design; each level featured well-crafted platforming challenges that tested the limits of your skill and timing. But nearly half of this game is spent on mediocre stages that barely utilize the new features. The whip can be used as a makeshift rope, but aside from one late stage, it's cast aside like an afterthought. You spend an entire stage walking down a river that occasionally changes its flow, throwing in a few instant-death spikes here and there. Why aren't there more obstacles and difficult platforming segments? Another has you storming a demonic garden, occasionally stepping behind ivy-laden fence. It could have been used to lead to an alternate path, but ignores any potential innovation for the sake of adding depth to the background scenery. In spending so much time developing the combat mechanics, Super Castlevania IV sacrificed the creativity and difficulty that made the older games so engaging.

The game tries to distract you by making everything as colorful and eye-catchy as possible. Though overly simplistic and easy, the levels and sprites are decently detailed. Simon's been upgraded from a jumble of pixels to something that slightly resembled a man in a tunic and some shoulder armor. The enemies are don't look bad either; they're much faster, and a lot of them have great death animations. There's nothing quite like smashing through a skeleton warrior and watching the bones go flying in every direction. A few of the bosses, including a multi-headed dragon and a giant skull, are stunning the first time you see them. Some of the stages (the ballroom with the ghostly dancers and the possessed tables come to mind) offer interesting settings. The game shamelessly indulges in the SNES's Mode 7 graphical capabilities, and it shows. You've got one room that rotates on its axis as you cling for dear life. Another has you leaping along a series a massive, quasi-3D chandeliers as red lights flicker ominously in the background. Yet another has you running along a bridge of dropping platforms, all while the walls spin at a disorienting speeds. These high points are few and far between, but they make getting through the rest of the generic stuff worthwhile.

It's ironic, in a way. Super Castlevania IV is a paradox in that it both advances and regresses the series at the same time. Compared to the previous three, it looks like a work of art. Its contributions to the combat mechanics can't go unnoticed; Simon can move far better than any of the previous heroes. The upgraded whip is by far the most valuable and innovative weapon in all of the old school titles. It comes with a price, though. The game is far too simple and easy, in terms of both enemies and level designs. Gone are the challenging bosses and the hard-won fights. Gone are the platforming segments that challenged the limits of your gaming skill. They've been replaced with a bunch of mediocre stages that don't get even remotely interesting until the latter half of the game. It's bland and underwhelming, even with all of the insanely awesome visuals that Mode 7 delivered. In terms of graphics and fighting style, it easily trumps its predecessors. But when it comes to creativity and engaging aspects, Super Castlevania comes up a little short. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Simon Belmont is just that good.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 06/08/10

Game Release: Super Castlevania IV (US, 12/31/91)


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