Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Classic Game - Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo)

Since I spent the last feature article bashing the crappier side of the Super NES platforming genre, I feel I should rain some positivity down on the 16-bit wonder console. And what better way to do than so than to sink my teeth into two of the finest games for the system, Super Castlevania 4 and Zelda : A Link To The Past? I have recently reacquired both titles and am currently playing through them again. Firstly I will look at the whip cracking, bat whacking adventures of Castlevania.

The Castlevania series is one of the longest running franchises in video games. Ever since players assumed the role of Simon Belmont over 25 years ago, the series has maintained its popularity. It seems vanquishing Count Dracula is something that resonates with many gamers. There is even a new 3DS game, the long winded Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate. There have been over 25 games in the series so far, ranging from outstanding (Symphony of the Night) to absolutely dreadful (Castlevania 64). Here I want to focus on one of the series' highlights, one that holds fond memories for many gamers of a certain age. I am, of course, talking about Super Castlevania 4 on Super Nintendo.

A familiar sight for fans of the series - Castlevania 4's castle stages 
soon switch to underground caverns, graveyards and librarys

Before I begin to talk about the 4th game I should first admit that I was never really a fan of the first 3 NES Castlevania titles. I found them too difficult to be considered enjoyable, and actually quite dull to play. The second NES installment, Simon's Quest, tried to do something different by adding an open world to explore, but was completely ruined by overly cryptic puzzles that were impossible to solve without a guide book. The third game fared better as it played much more like the original but improved on it massively by adding additional playable characters, updated graphics, and multiple routes through the stages. It was still bastard hard though and I was never able to complete it, and my interest in the franchise all but disappeared.

NES - Castlevania

NES - Castlevania 2 : Simon's Quest

NES - Castlevania 3 : Dracula's Curse

1991's SNES edition of the blood sucker slayer was to rekindle my interest though. Super Castlevania 4 amped everything up tenfold, and was one game that definitely deserved its Super prefix. It put the machine's 16-bit power to good use, with many sections showcasing the SNES's abilities. Who can forget the abundance of graphical trickery such as the swinging chandeliers, the rotating tunnel stage and the Mode 7 level that saw you hanging from a hook while the level turned around you?

This rotating stage looks awesome in motion, showing 
off the Super Nintendo's graphical prowess

Another SNES graphical trick shows these giant chandeliers
 swinging from side to side as you attempt 
to navigate them - take your time

It wasn't just visually impressive either, new abilities such as being able to swing your whip in multiple directions – a gimmick that disappeared in some of the future installments – and using hooks to swing, Tarzan style, over gaps enhanced the experience no end. The game also has one of the most memorable beginnings in game history. Starting outside of the castle, with only the sound of atmospheric pads setting the mood, you make your way to a closing drawbridge and enter the castle grounds. Upon entering, the screen begins to rumble as fences rise from the ground and Gothic orchestral music begins. Once it reaches it's peak it switches into the iconic music that anyone who has played the game will forever remember, and you really get the feeling that you are now undertaking an epic quest. Perfect.

The atmosphere throughout the game is top notch - here we 
see Simon using his trusty whip to swing over a deadly drop

All the familiar Castlevania gameplay elements are here – hitting candles to release hearts that, rather strangely, work as the amount of secondary weapon you can use, which include axes, throwing knives, burning potions and a boomerang-like crucifix. The selection of beasts you face include the usual assortment of bats, skeletons, undead knights and zombies. Even the irritating Medusa heads are here, causing many deaths as you try to navigate platforms over pitfalls. Indeed, fans of the series will spy many familiar sprites as the series seems to reuse them in abundance. Even the recent Metroidvania games contain many of the same enemies and obstacles from the earlier titles.

Fighting a familiar foe in an underground cavern - the bottom one 
doesn't seem to realise he is facing the wrong way

As with the rest of the series, Super Castlevania 4 is extremely challenging. The levels throw many enemies at you as well as expecting you to perform tricky jumps. Death can result in restarting a fair way back from where you perished, so navigating the instant-death pits can be quite hair-raising. The staircases can also be problematic as you cannot easily avoid projectiles when climbing or descending them, and moving on to them without holding the appropriate direction can lead to you falling through them, often to your death. It can be frustrating but as the gameplay is so good, you are willing to overlook many of the unfair elements the game throws at you. The bosses are memorable too, from the two headed hydra and Frankenstein's monster, to the stone gollum that changes size as you batter him with your whip. There are 11 stages to overcome so it is a great relief that the game features a handy password system for those of you who don't have the time to sit through the entire game in one sitting.

Just one of the many memorable boss encounters - despite 
having two heads, this hydra is fairly easy to defeat

For fans who were first introduced to Castlevania via Symphony of the Night or the multiple hand-held games, the SNES game may seem quite archaic and limited. There is no levelling up or inventory here, but this also means the game feels like a pure test of skill rather than an RPG-lite open world adventure. While I still prefer the Metroidvania games (the sublime Symphony of the Night being my personal favourite), Super Castlevania 4 is both an extremely exciting and satisfying game to play, as well as a great showcase of the Super Nintendo's power. It is a classic title that is well worth tracking down and, with prices for a cartridge copy (especially boxed) spiralling, now is the perfect time to grab a copy and enjoy this seminal SNES title.



Japanese Super Famicom