Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Super Castlevania IV - Review

Castlevania's first foray onto the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was a fascinating one. It was a remake of the original game. Well, remake may not be quite the right word, perhaps reimagining is more correct. There are several more levels and few follow the layout of the levels in the original. The bosses from the original are pretty much all there, but not on the same levels. The "story" as it is, is the same: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and only Simon Belmont can take him on. The gameplay, though, is quite a bit difference due to one major change.

Since the story in Super Castlevania IV is nonexistant, the gameplay is what drives it. Like previous Castevania games, you jump and whip. Candles in the levels give you points, health, hearts, subweapons, and a few other goodies. The subweapons (knife, axe, holy water, cross, and stopwatch) are (with the exception of the stopwatch) all distance weapons that let you hit heart to reach enemies. They deplete your hearts (which are not health) when used.

The control innovations in this game over is predecessors are twofold: First, you have some some control over your jumps. You can turn around during them and have some influence on how far you jump after you are already in the air. Second, and most hugely, you can now whip in any of eight directions around you. For those who didn't realize how huge this is, previous Castlevanias only let you whip horizontally. Which meant that a good part of the challenge of the game was figuring out how to get next to enemies and hit them without getting hit/falling. In a way, the omnidirectional whipping makes the game much easier. You can take out foes above (and to some extent below) you without quite getting to their level. It really changes how levels and enemies can and should be designed. Along with the omnidirectional whipping, they decided to take a page out of Bionic Commando's book and provided certain hooks in the game that you can latch onto with your whip and swing from.

The levels you trek through are very reminiscent of older Castlevanias. The first few levels are outdoors as you work your way toward the castle. Then you head indoors and move through various parts of the castle. Finally, you climb the tower and approach the final battle with Dracula. The levels have the block platforms and stairs familiar to older veterans. Many levels, though, involve more organic elements. The ground you walk on and paths you tread aren't always discrete blocks. There are gears, conveyer belts, spiky mashers, decaying platforms, and flipping platforms that return from earlier games. There are new environmental hazards, like quicksand-like ground, falling rocks/spikes, and large moving portions of the levels. There are also the new hooks that you must whip onto and swing from and many levels have unique elements such as huge swinging chandeliers you cross, a spinning razor blade that chases you upwards, and a room that rotates around you.

The enemies generally show less innovation than the levels. The bats, skeletons, axe knights, and medusa heads all return from previous installments. There are some new enemies such as slimes, ghosts, and gargoyles. Since most enemies are dispatched by a crack or two of the whip and since you can whip in many directions, it is generally not difficult to defeat them. Still, there are quite a few sections that combine precise platforming and enemy killing that work very well, even if there is only so much inspiration in the enemies. The bosses, though, show great inspiration. The remakes of the original Castlevania bosses all have very nice touches added. Frankenstein's monster now hurls potions. The giant bat is now made of gold and gems. The new bosses are all very bright and colorful. Some are not much bigger than you and are just expert swordsmen or axemen. Some are huge, taking up a good portion of the screen. Some take advantage of SNES effects to grow and shrink or appear and disappear. Like many games of this ilk, the bosses are the highlight.

Largely because of the omnidirectional whipping, this game is much easier than its NES counterparts. I didn't really start to have any trouble until level 7. Level 8 is where the levels start being downright difficult and level B made me pull my hair out. Fortunately, despite the initial challenge, the game is quite fun. You feel accomplished when you are taking down enemies and jumping from platform to platform.

Part of what makes this game so entertaining is the amazing graphics and sound. The enemies are all crisp, clear, and detailed. The bosses especially so. The levels are crafted with care, with details and animation in both the foreground and background. The game makes great use of transparency in both enemies and backgrounds to achieve amazing effects. There is also plenty of Mode 7 (sprite scaling) used. To complement the beautiful graphics, the soundtrack is, as usual, wonderful. At first, I was a bit put off by the music. Not because it wasn't good, but because it wasn't the gothic style of the NES games. Many of the levels sounded like they would be dungeon or cave music in an RPG. They are extremely well done compositions and once I got used to them, I greatly appreciated them. The remixes of music from previous games at the end also worked well.

It really amazes me that this was one of the early releases for the Super Nintendo. Konami must have put all their programmers into figuring out how to get the most from the SNES. While the gameplay has its downsides, especially the uneven difficulty, the entire package of the game is quite impressive. Super Castlevania IV is still great to play today.

Rating 8 / 10

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