Super Castlevania IV
I made Super Castlevania IV’s acquaintance before anything else, for a then sparkling new Super NES powerhouse. Mode 7, magical music and Castlevania mystique anticipated a final product greater than the sum of all its parts. The equivocal result left me oddly stunned and unsettled when taking on subsequent Super NES games that would come down the pike. While I would always remember SCIV fondly as one of the best Super NES games ever, almost all other games—especially platformers—would suffer in my eyes, struggling to attain even ground in the classic’s wake.
Here’s the inevitable history lesson for the uninitiated: Simon Belmont runs the family business. He kills Vampires—his father did it, and so will his son after him (where are the wives? Are the Belmonts born of artificial insemination?). The weapon of choice for killing the head vampire, Dracula, and all his underlings, happens to be a whip. Power ups turn the leather into steel, and with this chain in hand, Simon is able to lash out in eight directions, swing about by way of special iron hooks, and ‘flick the whip’—a new and useful technique that makes Simon look like a cowboy ‘charging’ his lasso. All of these skills are new to Simon. His lazy forefathers were only able to whip in four directions, and could only dream of the Indiana Jones-esque whip swinging and dangling he can now execute with ease.
These new attributes make the game easier. They also make the game seem more refined than perhaps Castlevania was meant to be. The facility and versatility with which your hero can move about and dispatch enemies is atypical of the series, so if you haven’t played any of the titles yet, perhaps this shouldn’t be your first foray into the fear; it will likely spoil you.
In many ways, SCIV transcends the Castlevania name. It is a game not simply content with bearing the famous franchise’s name; not content with four-way attacking; not content with resting on the laurels of the musical legacy it follows. As mentioned, it feels different, and it also offers more.
Take Simon through a slow build of Castlevania content. His first level push will allow you to experience the stirring new anthem, Simon’s Theme, and provide decent warm up whipping action. Knee-deep in rushing crystal waters, make your way to the mythical Medusa in all her topless glory; she may just turn you to stone.
The quiet beauty of the third level’s caves, is populated by stalactites and stalagmites; creatures comprised of rock and the two-headed Hydra. As always, you will have auxiliary weapons at your disposal, from holy water to heavy axes. Collect hearts to power them, and use them often—this stage offers many opportunities to practice their proper use. Meanwhile, you will find the gentle flute and strings comforting, even if your company is not. Castlevania was never this melancholy, never this beautiful.
Mode 7 is in exorbitant use in SCIV. Attribute this to Konami showing off, plain and simple. Stage four is home to the ‘money shots’ as it were, featuring a room that rotates as you hold on for dear life, another where the walls revolve around the fading, falling platform beneath your feet, and an end boss who shrinks with every hit, before scaling impressively toward you, and then away.
Dismembering the granite giant gains you entrance to The Castle. Level five covers your getting there, while phase six’s castle rundown is reminiscent of the opening to the very first Castlevania game. True to form, SCIV adds to the familiar with its own memorable bits: the swinging, massive chandeliers; the spectral, dancing couples; the spirited, possessed furniture. A jaunt through the Library is next, highlighted by one of the sweetest, melodic tunes this side of Bloody Tears.
The game makes a remarkable turn from this point onward. Stage eight offers typical Castlevania difficulty, thunderous, spine-tingling music, and spiders and spikes. If the first seven levels felt like Super Castlevania, the last four feel like Castlevania IV; if the beginning was the ‘bettering’, the finish is the sequel.
The harder, archetypal final phases have you leaping atop treasure chests filled with gold, platforms made of gold, and a giant bat made of (guess what?) gold. While level four truly displayed the money shots, level nine is the money level. Stage A and B revisit the classic themes from Castlevania II and III respectively, and feature intense clocktower navigation and a taxing, hazardous climb where sharp spikes threaten at every step, turn and leap.
When you finally reach the ultimate confrontation with Dracula himself, it will mean you have met with Death and survived, it will mean you have destroyed The Prince’s top lieutenants of terror, and you will bear witness to Simon’s Theme resonating with a new significance and synergy as you strive to extirpate the evil one. The climax is an engaging and thoroughly satisfying combination of your sweaty controller, the shouting organ and white light. The reward is the best-sounding ending in the series, driven by deep-voiced strings and brass, and bittersweet organ orchestration.
Super Castlevania IV is a classic if ever there was one. Here is a game that does everything a sequel/launch title should do: it does things in the same familiar way as the original, but it adds to the mix viable new staples in their own right, driven purposefully by the new technology. Thrown to the wind is the excuse many games for fledgling consoles cling to—namely, ‘the programmers need to warm up to the hardware.’ If that is true, then Konami’s best must have been prematurely, thoroughly hot and feverish while creating one of their first ever—and the best ever—Super NES titles.
It’s true that there some minor slowdown when engaging with large cliques of the creatures, and that things will begin slowly for series’ diehards, but these nicks in the armour are negligible, and do little to dull the high shine of this game that gives us what we want as fans, and is not afraid to give us what we would not have considered.
There is much excellence in the Castlevania tradition, and while this game may not necessarily epitomize it, certainly it is the only game that can claim to be super Castlevania. Brilliant.
Ten out of ten