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Super Castlevania IV Review

Simon’s back for yet more of the same in Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo. Of course, this time, instead of being committed to a jump as soon as you press the button, you actually have a bit of say on where you can land. It’s not the same control that Grant had in Castlevania III, or even the level of control we’ll see later in the series, but it’s just enough that a simple mistake doesn’t mean falling directly into a pit. Simon’s also learned that he doesn’t have to only whip directly in front of him. He can whip eight different ways, which makes it a lot easier to take out enemies at the weird angles the game likes to throw at you. Also, subweapons have been taken off of the Up + B combination of Castlevania I-III, and are now simply on the R button. The game is overall a lot easier to control, which makes it more accessible, which is usually a good thing.

Of course, the problem with all these refined controls is that they don’t really matter, since everything in the game is way too familiar. The parts where you can swing on the hooks don’t really feel important or engaging, since it’s pretty rare. It manages to be memorable in one point where you have to ride platforms up, since you need to stop occasionally and take dudes out, but for the most part it just feels like technological progress for no reason. It’s cool, but really, there should be a lot more of it in the game. The basic levels all feel really similar to Castlevania. The game feels amazing, no doubt, and Simon’s enhanced controls definitely add to that. While the first three Castlevanias were built around your awkward jump and slow whip, it still occasionally felt cheap when you died because of a very minor error. But in this game, cheap deaths are incredibly rare, and the problems with conveyance and the awkward stairs are completely gone. Simon can walk backwards up steps, and putting the subweapon on a different button means you can still use them easily on the stairs. The problem is that the game doesn’t really feel like it takes advantage of that.

The biggest problem in the original Castlevania’s levels was when you encountered something that, say, was clearly designed to be dealt with with the Holy Water, but you didn’t actually have it. You can just throw water down from above and kill a skeleton who is hanging out in your landing zone. But if you don’t have the water, it means you have to deal with it some other way, which will probably get you killed. This is why I said the games are learning games: you need to figure out when and where you need every subweapon, and plan accordingly. It feels fine once you have it down, but learning it for the first time is awkward and prevents a lot of unnecessary challenges which can hamper your enjoyment. Castlevania IV still has those segments, but since you have more control over where on the screen you can hit, you don’t really need to learn the game by dying several times so you can get it. In most cases, your whip is almost as good of an answer if not a better one than a subweapon. They’re still useful, but they aren’t necessary in the way that they were in the original game.

So, what’s wrong with that? Well, learning the game might just be one of the big keys in what makes Castlevania fun. In fact, it’s the sole redeeming quality of Castlevania II, so I don’t think you can overstate its importance to the series. Now that it’s gone in Castlevania IV, the only thing you have to entertain yourself is the level design—which, while good, isn’t quite as uniquely engaging as, say, Super Mario World. Everything in Mario can be dealt with the first time you encounter it, but that isn’t true in Castlevania. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem like they realized this when they made the jump to the SNES. The end result is a level design style which is almost exactly the same as the original game, despite the fact that what made that game engaging is gone. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, part of what made Castlevania engaging was that you couldn’t deal with everything on your first run. Even in the later games in the series you can’t, though they share Castlevania IV’s accessibility.

So, what’s the deal, then? Well, later games in the series are going to see a massive increase in enemy variety. In fact, this happens immediately, in the very next game. Instead of having to learn the level layout in Rondo of Blood, you have to learn specific ways that each enemy attacks. Encounters are based less around the area they occur in, and more the sorts of enemies you’re fighting at a given time. Areas are straighter and flatter. With tighter controls, you’re able to fight more difficult enemies that attack you in crazier ways. Enemies that throw axes overhead would be incredibly cheap in the original games because you can’t always attack up—just look at the flea men, crows, and Death’s sickles—but in a game with more responsive controls it wouldn’t be. Not only do you have more time to dodge since enemies telegraph their attacks, but you can also dodge better in that small amount of time. Ultimately, this is what makes Rondo of Blood the best of the level-based Castlevanias. The problem in Super Castlevania IV is that it’s completely lacking. The levels are designed around using a small selection of enemies in new and unique ways—which is what they did in the original games. Putting a Dragon Head with an Alchemical Skeleton creates a difficult challenge in Castlevania 1-3’s control scheme, but doing the same thing in Castlevania IV doesn’t feel good. It’s trivial. It’s the same thing with the skeleton that’s hanging out in your landing zone. In Castlevania, it’s a clever trick, and taking him out with the Holy Water feels good. But in Castlevania IV it doesn’t matter, since you can just whip him. In later games in the series we’re never going to see anything like that, since the designers actually realize it’s trivial, and know we’d rather face like a crazy skeleton that jumps around and throws boomerangs. This is true even though later games in the series will do away with the huge whip size and omni-directional attacking of Super Castlevania 4. The best enemies to fight in Castlevania 4 are the axe armors and the skeletons with whips and swords, since you actually have to just go toe to toe with them. The enemies are difficult enough on their own that the game doesn’t try to play them up with cute level design. In contrast, almost all of the enemies in Castlevania 1-3 would be completely trivial if you encountered them on a flat open plain like how you encounter enemies in later games. Their attacks are easy to avoid and they die in only one hit. But the thing is, the game doesn’t usually do that, save for some special instances. The level designers realize that the best way to challenge the player is by putting the enemies in spots that aren’t super easy to reach, which is why Castlevania has its deserved reputation as a slower-paced, more thoughtful game.

Of course, the important thing here is that neither style of level design is really better than the other, but that Super Castlevania 4 is an overall weaker game because it uses design that doesn’t fit it. The problem isn’t solely that the whip trivializes the subweapons, and removing the subweapons would not fix the fundamental problem with the design. The level design will still be a bad fit for the whip even without subweapons. In the later games, we see the subweapons and basic attacks interacting side-by-side, and eventually existing as equivalent entities, but the level design actually enhances those elements. Hell, we even see a weapon replacement that’s even more broken than Simon’s new whip controls: the two handed swords in Aria and Dawn of Sorrow. They consistently hit more of the screen, deal insane amounts of damage, and allow you to attack almost anything without even having to worry about which way you swing. But in Aria of Sorrow, using those two handed swords feels great, because the enemies actually attack you in such a way that benefits your abilities. It’s the same reason that there aren’t a lot of enemies in the Mega Man series that attack with swords. You can hit them from clear across the screen, so an enemy that’s only threatening in melee range is pointless. See? I mean, it’s not like there’s nothing in the game that uses the whip. It’s just that it’s rare, and the moments without it are boring. What it does do, like swinging from the hooks, isn’t as interesting as fighting an intricate enemy. When you look at Symphony of the Night, you’re fighting crazy enemies on every other screen. It doesn’t rely on weird gimmicks to be fun. Super Castlevania 4, on the other hand, is incredibly gimmicky, whether it’s riding up the hook conveyor belt, walking through the rotating cylinder, or going behind the fence in the first level. The gimmicks are neat and show a high level of polish, but the game design is what determines whether or not a game is fun to play.

The game still manages to be fun to play, but it’s not nearly as fun to play as the first game. Additionally, it has the same length issues as Castlevania III. More levels is fine, but it’s kind of weird in this game because it never really feels like the game comes into form until you get to Castlevania itself, which is pretty late into the game (the house of Dracula represents the last 5 of the game’s 11 levels.) There’s also a weird issue where the bosses you fight in the middle of the game are way harder than the bosses you fight near the end, save for the encounter with Slogra which is just dumb since he can not only fall on you before you have time to react, but can also recover from taking damage faster than you can recover from hitting him. That’s also an issue against the golem, who counters all hits by having rocks fall from the ceiling. If you whipped him, you have almost no time to move out of the way or whip up before getting hit. With even a tiny delay before his counterattack, it would be a great moment, as well as being one that actually benefits from the enhanced whip controls.

The game has an amazing amount of polish. The music sounds great and the graphics are overall stunning. Most of the new songs aren’t as hot as the soundtracks of the NES Castlevanias, but some of the best songs come back in remixed form. Of course, that doesn’t really fix the fact that the game always feels kind of awkward, but it’s nice. Really, the SNES had a ton of games like that: they look and sound great, but they really end up just being mediocre because of an overall lack of good design. The design didn’t develop at the same pace as the technology, unfortunately. But I suppose the NES itself had a lot of mediocre games as well. We only really remember the best. In any case, Super Castlevania IV wouldn’t be half the game it is without this polish.

Really, I wish I could recommend this game. I love that the controls are more accessible, and I love that the game’s difficulty is pretty much entirely consistent unlike CV1’s harsh spikes at the later bosses. But it’s just not as good as the originals, or the later games. It’s sort of a weird bridge in the series, where the difficulty is starting to shift from solely learning the levels to being more about execution. By straddling the line, it ends up being a mediocre game, and though I’d love to, I can’t justify a higher rating than 6 out of 10. I recommend it for people who like the feel of the originals enough to try it out. The people who really want more of that level-based goodness. I mean, I hope you go for Rondo of Blood first. But Super Castlevania IV’s not bad. Certainly not amazing, but not bad.

2 Comments

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  1. Mark says
    October 17, 2012, 9:26 AM

    You do realize that the reason that this game is more or less a re-imagining of the 1st Castlevania? Yes, it falls short to Rondo of Blood, but for what they accomplished with the limited space on the SNES cartridge is really revolutionary for the time. I’d expect you to write this same review for the Rondo of Blood ‘remake’ on the SNES, but not this one. If any game was a ‘weird bridge’, it would be Castlevania: Dracula X.

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    • Dylan B. says
      October 18, 2012, 2:49 AM

      Thanks for the response, but yes, I do realize that. I think what I said still stands, since my comments are in response to the game’s approach to the level design generally ignoring the fact that Simon’s enhanced control scheme basically devalues everything about the original game’s design. The fact that the game is a re-imagining of the original game is irrelevant to that: if that’s really all it was, then it wouldn’t have these crazy whip controls and jump mechanics. The problem isn’t that it falls short of Rondo, since that’s an impossible standard to hold it against since Rondo wasn’t released yet, but that the game fails on its own terms due to mismatched design between character ability and levels. I brought up Rondo as an example of how they will eventually fix that in the series, and used Rondo specifically because it was the next game (aside from Chronicles, which only came out a few months before Rondo, and I ignored because I haven’t really played it.) Really, you could use any game post-Rondo, though. That’s why I said it was a weird bridge: Castlevania 1-3 level design, but with the fine-tuned character movement that the rest of the series will use to much greater effect.

      Of course, Super Castlevania IV is still fun, but it’s not as fun as the earlier games because of said mismatched design. Well, it’s definitely more fun than Castlevania II. The design isn’t so bad that it kills it, like in that game; it’s just sort of weird and off-putting to me.

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