Disclaimer – This review is part of an 9 part series of reviews for the the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to Super Castlevania 4.
In the small european country of Transylvania there is a legend which fortells the forces of good will waver, the forces of evil will embolden and the Prince of Darkness – Dracula – will return. For generations the Belmont clan have stood steadfast against Dracula’s minions and have successfully put the cursed abomination down time, and time again. Once more a Belmont has risen, once more they will venture into Castlevania, once more Dracula’s evil must be vanquished. This is Super Castlevania 4.
Super Castlevania 4 is an odd duck. it’s the first Castlevania to land on the comparitavely mighty Super Nintendo, it’s a remake of the original Castlevania and most importantly, it attempts to shake the series up in a way that rivals Simon’s Quest. The question is then – Does Super Castlevania 4 pave the future of Castlevania or does it falter like its forsaken pseudo-sequel, Simon’s Quest? Let’s find out.
As is tradition with all Castlevania’s up until this point, every game must be more cinematic than the last, every game must exude that classic 30’s horror vibe. Super Castlevania does not disappoint, putting all of its 16 bits to good use in the process. You are met with a decaying stone wall as a slow pan reveals the title screen. A few seconds later you are informed of Dracula’s century-cycle and bam, lightning strikes and the Dark Lord returns. Spooky stuff that is only slightly tarnished by awfully simplistic writing. You hit start, wolves cry out and you carve your name into stone as church organs play. The scene shifts to reveal Simon standing boldy before Castlevania and the game starts. As far as intros go, this is one of the best and perfectly sets the mood – writing be damned.
Once all that fluff has been dealt with you are slapped straight into the action and you will immediately see how far the graphics have come. The world you inhabit is highly detailed with Gothic architecture everywhere. Simon’s sprite is large and imposing, once again retaining his Belmont strut. Enemies are bursting with character yet remain recognisable when compared to their 8-bit counterparts. The game is a undeniably gigantic step up, and this continues throughout the adventure. Stages are heavily themed, often showcasing unique visual set pieces that set them apart. Backgrounds have multiple, animated layers that are used to to great effect to simulate motion. Stage 4 is a standout example, with its rotating cylindrical main chamber.
Music follows suit, bringing the Super Nintendo’s impressive sound chip to bear. Music is larger than life, often synergising with the environment to bolster the atmosphere the game is trying to achieve. Sometimes bombastic, sometimes ambient, it is a joy to behold despite its age. Sound effects are sharp and snappy with Simon’s whip in particular sounding like it is piercing time and space. Super Castlevania 4 goes out of its way to wow you with its overall presentation and production values.
After that one-two punch, Konami finish you off by cracking you over the bonce with gameplay. Simon is the most mobile he has ever been. He can alter his momentum mid jump, he can leap onto stairs and even swing from dedicated points using his whip like a grappling hook. Combat has seen an even more drastic overhaul. Whilst Simon still has a slight windup on attacks, his options for engaging his enemies has increased, allowing for 8 directional whipping. This allows Simon to attack enemies from every conceivable direction, with whip upgrades extending his range even further. His tool belt has been further expanded with the the return of Sub Weapons making Simon a veritable killing machine. Simply put, Castlevania has never looked, sounded or played quite like this before.
Unfortunately, this is where the problems creep in. Super Castlevania 4 is an enigma. Everything I have said so far is positive, so surely this game is as much of a masterpiece as the original or Dracula’s Curse, right? Not quite.
As far as the graphics have come since Dracula’s Curse, the game looks not only busy, but drab most of the time. There are too many details that drown out the visuals leaving a distinctly muddy, or murky impression throughout the game. Super Castlevania 4’s thematic stages, whilst interesting, are often very gimmicky and in this day and age, are a pain to look at. Finally Simon’s spirte compared to the rest of the world is way too big. Ginormous infact. To put into perspective, he is around 50% larger than in previous games and the game runs in the same resolution, meaning he takes up a massive amount of screen space. More on why that is an issue a little bit later. Finally, the game runs like crap. There is frequent slowdown which just hampers the gameplay from start to finish. This is a very real case of “less is more”.
The music, like I said is wonderful. Undeniably so. What it isn’t however, is Castlevania. Mostly anyway. Castlevania has some amazingly catchy tracks in its library and Super Castlevania fails to meet that standard the vast majority of the time. The only exception to this rule is the main theme at the start of the game and remixes of older songs which are scattered throughout for nostalgia. Unfortunately this isn’t Castlevania for the most part. It just doesn’t capture that heart pounding, heroic kick assery of the previous titles.
“This isn’t Castlevania” is a fitting phrase, as it can be slapped onto the gameplay as well. Super Castlevania 4 is a wonderful game to play, that is without question. The solid platforming, the new whip, returning sub weapons – they all feel great. None of it feels like Castlevania though, and that is for a number of reasons. Firstly, let’s touch on Simon’s sprite again. Simon is fricken huge. This scaling up has naturally increased the size of his whip, meaning Simon thwacking straight ahead can basically hit you several postcodes away. Throw in 8 directional whipping, giving Simon the means to kill everything on screen, mostly without moving, and you stumble into another issue.
Redundancy. Simon’s whip, and by extension Simon himself, is signifcantly more powerful in Super Castlevania 4 than he has ever been in any other title. This directly impacts his Sub Weapons and effectively makes them useless. In previous games, Sub Weapons were used to fill in the gaps when it came to Simon’s limited attack options. Axes allowed for aerial enemies to be dealt with, Holy Water for enemies below etc. Now that Simon can attack in every direction known to man, none of his Sub Weapons are needed – ever. Using your whip was mostly the least effective strategy for dealing with enemies, now it is by far the most effective.
This massive boost in power has also lead to another, possibly unintentional, side effect. The game is way too easy. I am in the camp that Castlevania games are, for the most part, not that difficult. Instead they require you to understand the complex puzzle that is their design, rewarding you heavily for mastery. Super Castlevania 4 is not complex. In fact it can be figured out within the first handful of screens. It is so unbelievably easy in comparison that I found myself getting bored when nearing the finish line, something I have yet to feel when playing any previous game – Simon’s Quest included.
What gets me the most is that for the most part, Super Castlevania 4 is a good game. It looks impressive for, it sounds great and it plays really well. Whipping enemies just feels good. But it isn’t Castlevania. It has taken the formula, made huge changes without fully understanding the repercussions. Looking back all the games that followed Super Castlevania, it is clear Konami felt the same way as they never returned to this style of game. Is Super Castlevania worth playing? Absolutely. Is it a good game? Yes. Is it a good Castlevania? Absolutely not.
This is a good game, but it makes a lot of missteps that take away almost everything that makes Castlevania so great. Let me know in the comments below what you think of this highly contentious title. Do you prefer this “new” style, or are you firmly in the camp of “ClassicVania”?
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