Review by SethBlizzard
Some beloved game series not only survived the leap from 8-bit to 16-bit, but did it with jumps and skips. Mega Man mutated into the exciting Mega Man X series. Super Mario Bros explored its possibilities with Super Mario World. The Legend of Zelda then made A Link to the Past, one of the most beloved games in that franchise. And then there was Castlevania, the Gothic monster-slaying platform games that had proved as fun as they were frustrating and as gorgeous as they were addictive, especially in the case of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. The leap over to 16-bit was less a jump and a skip for Castlevania and more a laboured climb up the stairs. Pardon the pun, but this game confused the hell out of me. For the first Castlevania game on a 16-bit system, Super Castlevania IV is not interested in dazzling you from the start. Like a Dali painting, it starts by just grabbing your interest and then trusting you to have the curiosity to want more. This is to the game's detriment as much as its favour. A few levels into the game, I was bored, something that worried me considering I was playing a Castlevania title. Like exotic Turkish cuisine, though, once the shock of the initial taste wears off, you start to see something at the centre. But is that something good?
Rather than a sequel, Super Castlevania IV seems to be not a prequel, but a retelling. Every 100 years, the forces of good weaken in favour of the forces of evil, culminating in Dracula's rebirth. By rebirth, that usually means him appearing as a full-fledged adult demon, so the forces of good have no childhood or adolescence to buy time. Simon Belmont, who else, has to stop Dracula and his posse. This is before the somewhat fantastical storylines of later on in the series. Fair play to Super Castlevania IV, it excuses its nature as a retelling with gusto, with lots of spooky atmosphere. This was the series' first step in its transition into a more spooky series. Concept-wise, SCIV is very cleverly constructed. You don't start at the castle. Oh no, you go through about a third of the game before you even reach its gates, going through forests, ruins and even sunken cities. I have to wonder if its precisely the fault of SCIV that nearly all subsequent 2D Castlevania games take place exclusively inside the castle. I'm not gonna lie; before reaching the castle, the game was in serious danger of losing me. Whereas in previous Castlevania games, the many environments before you reach the castle itself are inspiring and atmospheric, in SCIV they feel quite bland most of the time.
The art direction might be to blame. SCIV, bless its soul, is very poor when it comes to visuals. The whole game looks bleak and washed-out. The character sprites are as undefined as they can get away with; Simon is a blur of rusty brown colours (his walk cycle is hardly better), and the stationary dragon heads are now just skulls. There's something wrong here; if an enemy shared by the NES and SNES looks better on the 8-bit console as opposed to the 16-bit console, something is off. The environments, even though some are creative (such as a room that gives the illusion of rotating around you in perspective, a Mode-7 piece of graphics that has a kind of surreal charm), are mostly bland and generic. Dracula's Curse was full of memorable scenery, whereas most of Super Castlevania IV's scenery is immediately forgotten. The random colour schemes certainly don't help, going so far as having blue terrain, an orange background and green platforms. Was the art director colourblind? It seems as though the game couldn't decide whether to be cartoony or realistic. The follow-up, Castlevania: Dracula X, thankfully found a good middle-way, but Super Castlevania IV is one ugly game.
SCIV has its perks, though, one of the biggest being that Simon is not as defenseless as he used to be. Overhead enemies have usually been a Castlevania player's worst nightmare. It seems that Konami listened, because now, Simon can whip his whip in multiple directions, making overhead enemies, or even enemies on the floor above you, usually a minimal threat. Of course, Simon still staggers back when hit, and he is a much bigger target in this game than usual, so the whip hopefully balances that out. It serves another function, though; occasionally, you need to use your whip to cross pits ala Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, this only starts prominently featuring as a level device in the final levels, where the number of brass hooks to latch onto increases dramatically. Well, there is an odd sequence in the middle of the game where you need to hang from your whip as the room rotates around you, but even that feels more like a gimmick than anything, and you wish Konami hadn't waited until the end of the game to make whip-swinging part of the level's challenge. As for subweapons, nothing new is here; you still have the Holy Water, the Boomerang Cross, the Knife, the Clock that nobody ever uses, and the Axe, with the occasional appearance of the all-obliterating cross keychain. Straight out of Dracula's Curse. The old sixtet of good is on call.
And yet, for all your nifty gadgets, you sure don't have a lot to do. For about half of the game, not much happens except the occasional lapse into sheer frustration. Remember those platforms that revolve when you land on them and you fall through, often to your death? There is a very frustrating section in SCIV where you actually need to jump on them and jump off at precisely the right time, before they can revolve. This part stretched my patience a lot. In other Castlevania games, these platforms are never meant to be jumped on; they are placed for the express purpose of making you watch your step, because they only revolve if you jump on them. The responsiveness also isn't as smooth as it could be, making this part even tougher. And yet, for most of the game, that's about as tough as it gets. The level designs are rarely engaging gameplay-wise any more than they are graphically. Your biggest threat is usually the enemies, or so you would think. Because you can whip in any direction, and the enemies don't put up more of a show as a consequence (as you would expect), enemies become way too easy to defeat. Rarely is there an enemy who needs more than three whips to be defeated, and you find yourself eliminating baddies on the floor above you at every opportunity. About 70% of the enemies, by the way, are skeletons. The bosses are just as disappointing; for most of them, whipping them before they beat you down will more than suffice as a strategy. For having such freedom with his whip, Simon sure doesn't get a lot of chances to do much with it. Should that still be too hard for you, never fear, you may find a drumstick in candles now that fill up half of what the steaks do. Super Castlevania IV is full of filler moments like walking through a stream where you could get by fine with your eyes closed, and a frog being the most difficult enemy to defeat in a scene and I don't mean the frogmen, no, I mean an actual, lilypad jumping frog, something that I thought was just a background element.
The Castlevania series is known for its catchy, memorable and engaging music. Super Castlevania IV has its share of good music to speak of, definitely, but most of that happens when you've reached the castle's gates. Pre-Castlevania, most of the music trudges by without anything to really capture your imagination. While the occasional melody has merits, they are presented in such tired fashion that they are forgotten immediately when you enter the next area. That's unfortunate, because there are gripping tunes in the castle itself. The library's theme is my favourite, understated and brilliantly catchy. The semi-final boss tune is fast and dramatic, and I can't help but wish that some of the earlier tunes had its energy and presence. But in terms of presence, nothing tops the final boss tune, which is rightly one of the game's most celebrated traits, full of menace that accompanies you up those iconic stairs, onward to the final confrontation. Unlike the graphics, at least, the music does occasionally entrance you. It's just that it does so way too rarely. The sound effects, on the other hand, are poor all around, especially the sounds defeated enemies make. All sounds are muffled, but the bone-snapping noise when you defeat the skeletons is just noise. Strangely, the floating eyeball enemies make the same noise. And why would a dog howl when it's dying?
Playing Super Castlevania IV is a lot like reading the Emperor's New Clothes. Sure, Simon has this new whip-swinging ability and there is some good storytelling at work with the map and occasional bosses, but it all comes across much worse than before, and it isn't nearly as enjoyable either. The Mode-7 graphics didn't look good back then and still don't, but it's the bosses that are the real letdown. I gave Castlevania Legends some leeway thanks to its great bosses, but no such luck here. Most of them are very, very poor. The skeleton-riding skeleton at the start isn't menacing at all, and the mummy and the semi-transparent skull aren't even trying. It's even worse when there are bosses that should be a threat, such as the two-headed dragon in the sunken city. He leaves you with little room to manoeuvre, and yet he barely bothers to hit me, even when I'm just standing in one place! You could very probably beat him with your eyes closed! Oh yeah, that's menacing. When you can just outlast your boss, you know he's not up to scratch, and way too many bosses in this game fall on those hurdles. Don't even get me started on the ridiculous ballroom dancer spectres (a boss that Galamoth would promptly zap to hell in glee at a Castlevania boss meeting). There is a knight in shining armour, though, breaking out of his glass case and attempting to cleave you in twain with his axe, but I just wish more of the bosses had that kind of presence.
Surprisingly, it's only towards the very end of the game when things get really good. The final level is long and arduous, ending in a section where you have to escape a sawblade by using your whip to manoeuvre your way up crumbling stairs (every bit as tricky as it sounds), and then what does the game do? It throws three boss battles at you. In a row. And all of them are so tricky that you almost feel like the other bosses in the game were intentionally easy on you, knowing that these guys would destroy you. I just barely got past the first, sweating and shaking, and then I was lead on a passage, up some stairs and onto a balcony, where a flying dragon attacked. This gauntlet is without question the best part of SCIV, but I wish that the rest of the game had energy like this. Have I mentioned that all bosses adopt trickier patterns (one of them even a different colour scheme) when half their energy is down, just when you thought you had the fight beat? These bosses even depend on your ability to swing the whip in eight directions (I really don't understand why the multi-directional whip didn't catch on, did they feel it made the gameplay too Indiana Jones?). After all three of these bosses are defeated, the game puts the dot over the I and strides to a goosebump-inducing finale that really deserved to be in a much better game. The ending theme is one of the most powerful closing pieces of music in any videogame that I've ever heard.
As you can see, when SCIV does it right, it's very right indeed. But it hits many bum shots along the way. Presentation is certainly the game's biggest strength; it's the thing that's actually being presented that undoes it. The graphics are washed-out and unappealing, the music is very inconsistent in its quality and most of the bosses are very poor. As a result, atmosphere is rarely there. More severely, the game takes too long to really get going with the good stuff, which even then can still be considered a mixed blessing. On the other hand, the multi-directional whipping is one of those brilliant ideas that for some reason fell off the bandwagon (much like the Sega Dreamcast) and the music does rise into greatness at times. What's more, SCIV may start innocent but eventually becomes downright brutal. I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good or a bad thing. Even at its best, though, Dracula's Curse and Symphony of the Night are far better examples of what made this series great. Super Castlevania IV is a decent platformer in its own right that, while not up there with the best of the series, does reward those who can see past its rough exterior. And yet, even with the multidimensional whipping, it was made obsolete with the advent of the following SNES Castlevania game, Dracula X. Good graphics, great enemies, awesome music everything that SCIV struggles so hard to present, its follow-up delivers and more, even as a loose port. If that doesn't say something about how underwhelming Super Castlevania IV is, I don't know what does.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 06/11/12, Updated 09/24/13
Game Release: Super Castlevania IV (EU, 08/27/92)
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