Monday, 29 April 2013

Vampires, whips and 16bits

Throughout the years much has been much written about Konami’s wondrous Castlevania series (a boat load in all honesty). And for one instalment in particular there is very little that has not been said, no part of the game left upraised and no dimly lit Transylvanian corridor unexplored... I am talking of course about the legendary SNES offering; Super Castlevania IV. Even though this game has been pulled apart on innumerable occasions, it has not deterred me from adding my own two penneth’s worth into the mix.

Released in 1991 as part of the Super Nintendo’s first wave assault on the gaming landscape, Super Castlevania IV arrived on the scene carrying with it the heavy burden of reputation - the rabid love for its predecessors was a force to be reckoned with. Although on the face of it, seemingly not much more than a simple 16bit re-working of Simon Belmont’s original NES outing, it soon becomes apparent that the cosmetic Mode 7 upgrades are just the beginning of this vamp-tastic (yes that’s a word!) adventure. Konami unleash upon us an array of undead baddies, eerie vistas and demonic overlords that will test even the most intrepid of vampire hunters.

Once again the game focuses on the tale of the unfortunately named Simon Belmont and his quest to slay the biggest and baddest undead fiend of them all; Dracula. Belmont must navigate the vast labyrinths and mazes of his nemesis’ castle (as well its substantial ‘grounds’) and using his trusty whip, slay hordes of minions and generally kick arse along the way (there may also be some swinging involved...but thankfully not of the fruit bowl variety).

Visuals – 8.5 / 10 

In what is a rare occurrence for a Konami game, the graphics do not immediately blow you away and in fact for the first 20 minutes or so you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. This is not to say the appearance is initially poor (far from it), the graveyards and outer reaches of the castle are immaculately drawn and ooze atmosphere, it’s just that it’s all a bit...brown, or maybe “earthen” is a better term. Though this does fit in with the gothic and chilling undertone of the game, it can feel a little samey.

Anyways, as with many of the finer things in life, once things get up and running you are treated to a Konami master class in how to how to “do graphics”. There is gorgeous use of parallax scrolling, seeing the night sky drift past the dilapidated walls is heaven for any 16bit fan! The sprites for the legions of evil creatures are beautifully drawn and then we get to the bosses which manage to put a decent amount of later Super Nintendo games to shame. From the delightfully translucent giant skull to the brutish take on Frankenstein’s Monster, these end of level titans are as jaw dropping in their appearance as they are in their difficulty.

And as was the way in the early 90’s, Super Castlevania IV takes huge advantage of the SNES’ (still mind boggling) Mode 7 trickery...leading to one of the most talked about and impressive scenes of the 16bit era. Yes, the chandelier bit is as good as everyone says it is...there is just something immensely satisfying about dancing over giant swinging light fittings! The scene’s cemented renown in gaming folklore is very much deserved.

Sound – 10/10

As any fan of the series can attest to, music is one of Castlevania’s strongest and most enduring features, and the SNES version is no different. It is well known amongst fans of the console that the Nintendo’s second grey box had the capacity to produce some quite staggering musical scores, so it is rather pertinent (to me at least) to say say that Super Castlevania IV’s is up there with the very best that the system has to offer.

The soundtrack is dark and foreboding – classic horror stuff and you could honestly be forgiven for thinking it was scored by an actual orchestra...on a cartridge! The use of organ (or the midi version of it anway) fits in perfectly well with the baroque style ambience of the game and adds a genuine feeling of darkness to each level you tackle. For my money, a video game soundtrack is only truly exceptional when I find myself listening to it outside of playing the actual game, this one has been on my iPod for a number of years now...and it will not be going anywhere soon.

Playability – 9/10

Once again here Super Castlevania IV starts off at leisurely pace, the first couple of sections are nothing more than an evening stroll around the castle grounds slaying a few slow moving monstrosities...this does seem trying initially but later on you realise that the period of familiarisation was actually a must. The gameplay is similar to earlier incarnations of the game but with some much needed improvements; Mr Belmont can now whip all around the place (or at least in eight directions as opposed to just four) which makes for some lovely diagonal action. The whip (aptly named ‘The Vampire Killer’) can also be held in front of the player and swung around like a flail; this inflicts less damage in exchange for much more frequent hits. An extra treat also comes in the form of sub-weapons such as daggers and axes which come in handy when the going gets tough.

Although controlling Simon initially feels slightly cumbersome, once you have the hang of it, the system feels very natural and then we get to Konami’s pièce de résistance: the whip can be used to latch onto and swing over various obstacles which allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Although this kind of thing seems standard today, it was revelatory stuff for the series and gives the game a much more fluid platform style flow.

Longevity – 8/10 

The game is stretched out over 11 magnificent and varied levels, cunningly each one is just that bit tougher than the last so you never feel like you've run into a wall of difficulty. Make no mistake though, this is a hard game and death is never far away. Even though you learn that certain jumps require super precision and certain enemies have a pattern you’ll probably use continues and become familiar with the password system. If you’re not skilled at the platform genre then making it to the end and besting this beast may be a tremendous test of patience. The game is best suited to committed folk looking for a challenge and a bit of exploration to go with their platform escapades.

Sadly the western releases of the game were blighted by the usual censorship shite that we had become used to. Dripping blood was replaced by green ‘slime’, certain religious crosses and removed and the obligatory topless statues were given some clothing to keep them warm...but even this overly nannied approach though does not detract from what is an awesome spectacle with tonnes of replay value.

Overall In more recent times, Super Castlevania IV has (in my eyes at least) been eclipsed by the nigh-on perfect Symphony of the Night for the PSX. Never-the-less it is still a veritable classic and one of the Super Nintendo’s flagship titles, whilst it does begin at a rather sedate pace and maybe lacks the initial wow factor of a Super Mario World or F-Zero, those willing to persist with it will find true quality the likes of which is all too rarely seen.

I am a long time fan of this fantastic game and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion it absolutely carries the torch for a time when video games were not only scaling new heights of technical excellence, but were also crafted with genuine heart and soul...something which seems sadly lacking in many of today’s releases. Super Castlevania IV is dripping in both class and charisma and although I dislike the phrase, it really is a tour de force that once again shows what Konami could achieve at their brilliant best...and when playing with Super power.

Go out right this minute and buy it!

Score 9 out of 10

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