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Virtual Spotlight: Super Castlevania IV

An entertaining glimpse into what might have been for the Castlevania series.

Review by Jeremy Parish, .

A lot of Castlevania fans regard Super Castlevania IV as the best 16-bit entry in the series, if not the best Castlevania game, period. While it's a great game, I can't say I entirely agree with their assessment, and revisiting it on Wii U Virtual Console has reminded me why.

I will give Castlevania IV the nod for one superlative, though: It's definitely the most atypical Castlevania game. You can definitely tell which franchise it's a part of, but moment to moment it really doesn't play like any other entry in the series. It kind of feels like the designers looked at the shiny new Super NES hardware, took stock of the series to date, and declared, "Alright, we have to make this the most Castlevania Castlevania ever." And so, in a sense, it's almost like a work of self-parody -- Castlevania exaggerated to the point of preposterousness.

Consider our hero, Simon Belmont. In the original Castlevania on NES, he moved slowly and methodically, but with precision and a certain rhythm. In his sole Super NES outing -- which was essentially a remake of the original NES game -- he moved with agonizing slowness. His gait was stiff, possibly because his upper body appeared to have been fused to some sort of metal rod that kept it from moving at all, and his stride covered only tiny amounts of ground with each step. And if you wanted to make him move even more slowly, you could make him duck and crawl at half-speed.

Simon moves more stiffly than ever here, and it's not only Medusa's fault.

To compensate, Konami gave Simon greatly improved whip-handling skills. No more of that miserable "whipping only forward" nonsense; Castlevania IV's Simon could whip in eight different directions, a revolution of input design that required a fundamental change to Castlevania's core mechanics. Subweapons were shifted to their own button so that "attack + up" would cause Simon to actually attack upward rather than flinging a dagger or boomerang -- a simple, logical change that couldn't have happened until the advent of controllers with more than two face buttons.

Actually, a lot of Castlevania IV felt like it was designed to show off the new hardware. The fourth stage has become fairly infamous for basically coming off as a glorified tech demo. There was the room with the spinning background (which was entirely for looks), the rotating room of spikes (which put Simon's ability to grapple and swing with his whip to good use), and the boss that shrank as you chipped away at its mass. Neat at the time, but hopelessly gimmicky in hindsight. On the other hand, the soundtrack's composition made full use of the Super NES's distinctive sound chip, embellishing the adventure with a muted, jazz-like score low on bombast and heavy on sampled pianos, woodwinds, and acoustic bass. It's frankly like no other video game soundtrack ever composed, and it's all the more precious for its unique style.

Castlevania IV's stages play out like a compressed version of Castlevania III -- you have to make the trip to Dracula's castle before you can battle through the ancient structure for which the game was named, but you don't have a choice of routes by which to travel. Familiar monsters and tools appear along the way, including bone-chucking skeletons and the stupid weak dagger no one ever wants to use. Simon has a few new tricks to make use of; not only his improved whip skills, but also the ability to jump onto and off of stairs. Revolutionary!

Yes, this area looked cool. Yes, it's totally a stupid gimmick.

The plodding pace of the game is its greatest weakness. Older Castlevania games moved slowly, but not like Simon does here. This game lacks the rhythm and grace of its predecessors. Clearly, someone at Konami agreed, because no other game in the franchise plays quite like this. (The closest being the other remake of the original Castlevania for the Sharp X68000 home computer.) The next game in the series, Rondo of Blood, took a more adrenaline-soaked approach to the NES style and ended up setting the tone for the core games for more than a decade. If anything, Castlevania IV is noteworthy for establishing a new trend for the series: An anything-goes willingness to throw out preconceptions and put a different spin on Castlevania. It's not a direct predecessor to games like Bloodlines, Symphony of the Night, or the N64 titles, but it certainly was a spiritual precursor.

In any case, it's a smartly designed experimental take on Castlevania. It may have been an evolutionary dead end for game design, but it's one worth dabbling in even today.

A fascinating offshoot of the Castlevania series, Super Castlevania IV doesn't hold up quite as well as certain other early Super NES games. But it's a load of fun, and frankly it's worth playing just to soak up its moody masterpiece of a soundtrack.

4 /5

Virtual Spotlight: Super Castlevania IV Jeremy Parish An entertaining glimpse into what might have been for the Castlevania series. 2013-11-02T13:30:00-04:00 4 5

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for cubadoo #1 cubadoo 3 years ago
    I think the soundtrack saved this game .Graphically was pretty weak and patchy but still a decent castle. I feel the pc engine cd Rondo of blood was the best game in the series .
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  • Avatar for presagiador #2 presagiador 3 years ago
    Second best old school castlevania for me. but ambient and music wise it's as you said jeremy a masterpiece
    I still get goosebumps when listening to the intro stage of the game and the transition to simon's theme.Edited November 2013 by presagiador
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  • Avatar for Makgameadv #3 Makgameadv 3 years ago
    I tried playing it a couple of days ago after initially playing it for the first time a few years ago and stopped at the first ballroom stage of the castle since I was trying to play it in one go. It feels like there's too much filler compared to the quicker pace of the original Castlevania and Dracula X SNES (which I prefer). I got a Castlevania 3 vibe from the stages too, thinking about when it was developed in relation to previous entries at the time.
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  • Avatar for Lync #4 Lync 3 years ago
    "Neat at the time, but hopelessly gimmicky in hindsight." Don't agree with that, it's still a fun surprise to see these tricks after 'normal' levels but they still fit in with the strong 16 bit visual design.

    Can't say I find the pacing off either, walking speed isn't very fast but this emphasises precision jumping and combat rather than just slowing down the game.

    Anyway, agree with the score if not the text, which reads a lot less generously.
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  • Avatar for jeremycarrier12 #5 jeremycarrier12 3 years ago
    Super Castlevania IV is good, but compared to Rondo of Blood? It's not even a contest. Hell, its not even as good as Bloodlines, which is faster, more challenging, tighter paced, with more varied level design. Moreover, the 8-way whip goes completely against the CV game design. The whole point of sub-weapons in the NES trilogy like the holy water and the axe is because they can hit in places you can't; if you have a long-range weapon that just can just whip diagonally, you make those weapons redundant. Its a sloppy game with game mechanics retrofitted to the 16-bit generation with little regard to how they fit their new vision.

    And its just soooooo looooong and soooo slooooow. When people talk about this game, its always about that fourth gimmicky Mode 7 level with the sloooooowly revolving room and such. Ask them to describe the other 10 levels sometimes.
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  • Avatar for BeeZee #6 BeeZee 3 years ago
    I constantly hear people saying that the game is gimmicky, but I don't know that I agree with it. There's plenty of strong, inventive level design on display, and the game using some new (for the time) tech doesn't diminish that.
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  • Avatar for touchofkiel #7 touchofkiel 3 years ago
    I've read a lot of Parish on Castlevania over the years, but, come to think of it, I'm not even sure which is your favorite! I've always wanted to get into the series, but SOTN was the only one that could really hold my attention. The NES games feel like a chore to me, the 3D games look rather boring... and the DS games... well, I played one (which? can't remember) and enjoyed it.

    Moment of truth, Parish: which is your favorite Castlevania?
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  • Avatar for raymondfernandes09 #8 raymondfernandes09 3 years ago
    Of the 16 bit era, this is my second favorite Castlevania game. Obviously, the TG CD version of Rond of Blood takes the number one nod.

    With this game, Simon may be even slower, but I always loved the whip mechanics. There's a real sense of empowerment and music is some of the best. My favorite being the Theme of Simon Belmont. It has a thumping groove that drives you forward and an epic heroicness. Later reinterpretations of this tune have failed to capture this. Great game.
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  • Avatar for Yesshua #9 Yesshua 3 years ago
    I'm not convinced that Super Castlevania IV's quirks need to be such a dead end though. Sure it isn't perfect in it's original form here, but I think it's a crying shame that the basic design concept never got revisited. The basic premise of a character with strictly limited mobility but the ability to reach many different angles is a good one that just requires a different sort of level design. Mastery of Super Castlevania IV is similar to Bionic Commando in a way and it's a real bummer that rather than keep exploring the possibilities of that design Konami opted to back off to their older formula.Edited November 2013 by Yesshua
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  • Avatar for presidentcamacho #10 presidentcamacho 3 years ago
    While I have had fun with SCIV (I still have the SNES cart), I've never understood why it's so well loved versus the other Castlevanias. I found the pacing to be too slow, the art style to be ugly as shit for the most part (I very much prefer even the NES CV's styles over IV), and the sound design used to be mostly ass (more a product of the samples used than the compositions themselves, as hearing CVIV's unique pieces in other games shows their strength). I've always found it shocking to think that the same company who made Contra III (a game that has excellent sound design from start to finish) for the same system around the same time managed to extract such bland sounds from the SNES's very nice audio palette.

    In my opinion, the SNES Dracula X is much more fun, with significantly better pacing, bosses, art style, and sound design (the music of which I prefer over Rondo's, which used a lot of cheesy CD quality synth) than CVIV, with a better challenge to boot.

    Out of the 16 bit era CV's I've played, I'd rank them Rondo > SNES Dracula X > Bloodlines > CVIV.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #11 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @touchofkiel Why do I have to have a favorite? I like many Castlevania games for entirely different reasons.
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  • Avatar for Yossy #12 Yossy 3 years ago
    jeremycarrier12 nailed it perfectly. While almost every game in the series is good, IV, which is really just a remake of I, is only held in high regard by those unfortunate enough to only have access to a SNES during that time period. It's not as good as Rondo, Bloodlines, or the X68000 version.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #13 Funny_Colour_Blue 3 years ago
    "...and the stupid weak dagger no one ever wants to use."

    :(

    ...But I love the dagger...I use it every chance I get in Castlevania. :'(

    Edited November 2013 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #14 Godots17thCup 3 years ago
    As much as I love my SotN-style Castlevanias and would like to play more of them, I think I'd be just as eager to play a new "old school" CV that skews more closely to Rondo of Blood and the NES entries (rather than SCIV, though I still like that one too).

    Though I suppose that makes me part of the problem when it comes to 2D Castlevania's seeming inability to evolve beyond those two distinct formulas.
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #15 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    I'm not sure I'd say this is better or worse than Rondo, just different. I enjoyed the heck out of it, just like I did Rondo. Both games definitely made the move towards accessibility, as they're not even close to as difficult as their forebears.

    As for the oft-forgotten Bloodlines, there's just something... off about the game for me. It's still a great game, just something didn't click like it did with Rondo or SCIV.

    Wish I had picked up Castlevania Chronicles, though. Maybe I should track it down. :)Edited November 2013 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for Cyberbro #16 Cyberbro 3 years ago
    I wish I could articulate right now why I disagree so hard with most of this piece... can't... get... thoughts... together....
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #17 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    I agree with everyone else in that Rondo of Blood beats this game in every way. But then again, Rondo is a masterpiece and the best game in the series, while IV is merely a great game.

    Castlevania IV does have a different feel to it, and not necessarily in a bad way. Sure a lot of it's effects were gimmicky, but in a cool way. Gimmicks aren't always a bad thing. And there's plenty of great stuff to go along with the gimmicks, like a killer soundtrack.

    The controls feel a bit stiffer than I'd like, and the graphics are sometimes muddy and don't compare to the beautiful art style of Rondo. But I'd still call this a classic game, and it holds up very well. It's still tons of fun to go back and play today.
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  • Avatar for docexe #18 docexe 3 years ago
    I haven’t’ played Bloodlines, but while I think Rondo of Blood is the better game, I still think Super Castlevania IV is among the best of the old school Castlevanias, and IMO way better than the Dracula X “port” that was released for the SNES (IMHO the only thing that game has going for it is the graphics).

    Admittedly, the graphics are muddy at times (understandable considering it was practically a launch game for the SNES), but overall the art direction is strong and full of nice tiny details (the vines growing in the fence on Level 1, the small waterfalls forming in the background in level 3, the books moving in the shelf in level 7, the coins flying everywhere when you step on the coffers on level 9, etc.). The game was incredibly atmospheric at times, and Jeremy is right when he says the soundtrack was a masterpiece.

    I have to agree that the character is infamously slow, which do affect the pacing of the game, but I think the whip’s offensive capabilities and focus on precise platforming compensate by shifting the focus to a more methodical gameplay. Admittedly though, the possibility of attacking in 8 directions made most of the subweapons useless, with the sole exception of the Cross/Boomerang (and in some specific scenarios, the Axe).

    The levels are quite varied and really challenging, which is why I never found the game monotonous despite the slow pacing. Admittedly, many of them seem inspired by levels from the 1st and 3rd game on the NES, but I still found many sections of the game memorable. Level 4 might be the most (in)famous one due to the overuse of Mode 7, but my favorites are Level 2 (the forest and the river especially), Level 6 (the dinner halls inside the castle, especially the part with the chandeliers, and the boss: the dancing specters), Level 7 (the library), Level 8 (the dungeon with its acid pools and spike deathtraps), Level 9 (the treasure chamber, and the boss: the golden bat), Level A (the clock tower), and Level B (the crumbling bridge and the Vampire Killer theme, kind of an ode to the classics really).
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