Super Castlevania IV ReviewJoe Shaffer
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse left me reeling and hungry for a sequel. Three monster-whipping platformers packed with tricky jumps and abominable fiends wasn't enough. Thankfully I saw that wish granted, and in a way I had never imagined. Around that time, Konami announced the successor to Dracula's Curse, a post-lauch release for the upcoming Super Nintendo called Super Castlevania IV. Not just Castlevania IV, but SUPER Castlevania IV. There was no way a game bearing such a moniker could flounder. The concept of a "super" Castlevania gave me the worst kind of gooseflesh, as did the prospect of vanquishing Dracula's minions in state of the art 16-bit. I had to get my hands on SNES following this announcement, even if it meant a murder conviction.
Thankfully, it never came to that. Unfortunately, though, I wouldn't obtain one for two years after its launch. It was well worth the wait, agonizing though it was, especially after securing a copy of Super Castlevania IV and tearing into its introductory stage. It didn't seem like much at first, sporting a lackadaisical BGM with a massive moss-covered skull in the background. After crossing a drawbridge that was in the process of drawing, I entered a skeleton-ridden courtyard where a terrible grinding noise filled the air. Up from the ground rose an ominous gate covered with ivy. Coinciding with its appearance, the once torpid BGM picked up, slowly at first and then building into an epic explosion of adventurous music. This was 16-bit. At that moment, I felt like I was living in the future and would have a flying car soon enough.
I tore past every obstruction in the first stage, loving every second of its turning platforms, illogically placed loops that allowed me to swing like Tarzan, and gates that granted me access to the background, taking advantage of SNES's Mode 7 technology. I also discovered and appreciated the new ability to whip in eight different directions and annihilate virtually anything before it became a huge threat. At the stage's climax, the music shifted to a maniacal and equally powerful boss theme that announced the arrival of Rowdain, a skeletal warrior riding a similarly skeletal horse. Though this encounter lacked challenge, I felt my heart racing. With a few knives tossed and fireballs avoided, I felled the horse. It came to head-to-skull against the undead assassin, and I mopped the floor up with his frail frame. Afterward, I collected the trademark stage-ending red orb and swelled with pride as the game belted out a magnificent victory fanfare. It was such a solid start that I thought it would maintain this level of awesomeness until the end.
I chalk up my delight in playing the first stage to shock. After all, I had just joined the 16-bit culture and was at that moment playing an advanced game in one of my favorite franchises. Thanks to that, it was much easier to ignore the negative and notice only the positive, the latter of which consisted more of visual and auditory treats than actual substance. I know this because replaying the first stage doesn't hold the same spell over me. The level and its cosmetic elements are not new anymore and incapable of shocking or blowing me away.
Where before I saw an excellent introduction, I now see a tedious slog through a stage that's so simple it's damn near embarrassing. Previous Castlevanias' opening rounds, and even later additions like Rondo of Blood, showed off what you could expect from later acts. Super Castlevania IV's first stage showed off little of anything besides banal platforming and basic combat set to updated visuals and awesome audio. It's as though Konami main interest was in showing off SNES's specs.
While I appreciated the upgrade, I was unfazed by most of Super Castlevania IV's further endeavors. Many of the stages, like the first one, stood bereft of challenge and presented ho-hum environments. I traversed typical forest and swamp stages and plowed through a dank cave with ill-fitting music that stirred mental images of peaceful hot springs. Despite appearances from classic bosses like Medusa and the twin dragons from Dracula's Curse, I found my interest waning, which was a personal first for Castlevania. I could only hope, illogically, that the game would pick up later.
Around stage six, I entered Dracula's castle and the game shifted gears. I pushed past the familiar zombie-filled entryway and into a grand dance hall. Maddening music pounded from the speakers featuring a pianist beating impressively on ivory keys. Massive chandeliers swung to and fro over forbidding pits, resurrecting insane platforming events I remembered from previous titles. Yes, Konami had pulled it together!
From there I saw not only an increase in difficulty, but a boost in creativity where environments are concerned. I whipped my way through an ancient library, complete with possessed books and troublesome staircases leading deeper into the bibliotheca. With that challenge surmounted, I fell into a tough torture chamber loaded with raising and falling spiked traps and pools of acid. This malevolent playground consisted of navigating a series of deathtraps, hoping you had enough health and lives left at the end of the affair to defeat Frankenstein's monster. Stages after that continued to increase in awesomeness as I charged through a treasure trove where the very floors were built of gold nuggets, coins and gems, then ascended the classic clock tower for a sweet battle against the mummy Akmodan II on the enormous clock's precariously positioned hands.
My one and only complaint with the latter half involves scrapping with Drac's greatest cohort, Death. Throughout the franchise are many legendary battles with this fiend, most of which are tough as nails, frustrating, and damn well fulfilling. Super Castlevania IV, unfortunately, is one of the exceptions to the rule. Here you engage the grim reaper in a no-frills spat in which the scythe-wielder shows off a repertoire of predictable and easily avoided attacks. Have you an axe as your sub-weapon, a little patience, and a modicum of skill, then you'll see the undead master fall without much trouble. Rather than legendary, this brawl is forgettable, which is the last thing I associate with tangling with Death in Castlevania games.
Ultimately Super Castlevania IV, despite its early hiccups, is a worthwhile trip. The game opens with a shaky first act, but pulls itself together with a fierce second half. Were it not for that weak start, the game would have been as outstanding as the rest of the franchise. Regardless, it's worth a playthrough for any Castlevania fan, though certainly not as enjoyable as some later post-8-bit entries.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.