As a wee whipling, I remember being both enamored and terrified by Castlevania’s creepy crawlies and haunted halls. Sure, by today’s horror standards and advances in technology that may seem difficult to imagine, but I was tiny, the world was scary, and the simple idea of fending off some of the biggest bedtime baddies brought to life was utterly frightening. Yet I always came back. Perhaps fueled by fear, I found myself entranced by the series’ uncanny ability to paint a consistently unsettling, yet oddly engrossing atmosphere, even when compared to some of the most prolific genre juggernauts of today.
Over time, and with the guidance of my fearless father by my side, slaying Dracula eventually became second nature: just as important a task as saving princesses from castles or restoring order to Hyrule. In fact, some of my fondest memories spent glued to ye old boob tube consist of trekking the cursed lands of Simon’s Quest, slaying all manner of mutant mermen and man-eating werewolves, wondering just what the heck you do with that blasted Blue Crystal. (Kneel before your maker, apparently).
Mind you, I could never beat any of these 8-bit nightmares at the tender age of four. As any descendant of the Belmont clan will tell you, those early adventures were nothing to scoff at, oftentimes requiring immeasurable skill and the patience of a veritable saint to overcome. Nay, fellow hunters, in truth my appreciation for cracking whips in the face of demons wouldn’t come until a few years later, tucked snuggly under a dimly lit Christmas tree alongside Nintendo’s superpowered system and a colorful copy of Super Mario World. I’m talking, of course, about the 2D action-adventure masterpiece Super Castlevania IV.
So sharpen those stakes and stock up on some holy water as I take you on a Transylvanian trip down memory lane and resurrect my feels for what makes Super IV one of the greatest platformers to ever shamble on earth.
WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE
Long ago, in a time before warring gods hack ‘n slashed their way to the heavens or intergalactic bounty hunters fell under the hypnotic gaze of Symphony of Night director Koji Igarashi, the Castlevania series stuck to a much more conventional platforming formula. Back in the pixelated days of the late ‘80s, gameplay was largely a linear affair as you whipped your way through eerie forests, treacherous courtyards and stagnant swamps, only to finally arrive in the final stages outside the count’s creaky keep an extremely battered, yet battle hardened hunter. Inspired by these traditional roots, director and programmer Masahiro Ueno sought to create a more action oriented Castlevania adventure that players of all skill levels could enjoy. Just like that, Super Castlevania IV was born.
Released during the Super Nintendo’s more formative years, Super IV essentially ended up a reimagining of the 1986 original, right down to its timeless plot and humble side-scrolling beginnings. Players once again don the tattered grieves of iconic vampire hunter and whip wielding warrior Simon Belmont on his ancestral mission to stake the infamous bat-winged demon himself, Dracula. While the premise largely stayed the same, the development team over at Konami was given free reign to run rampant on Nintendo’s new hardware, creating a compelling opportunity to test out the system’s Mode 7 visual effects — so much so the game at times came off like a Nintendo sanctioned tech demo. (Stage 4’s rotating tunnel comes to mind.)
This flexibility in design, along with the interdisciplinary skill set of its incredibly small team, lead to a slew of new ideas and welcome features making the cut. Most importantly, Simon was given the acrobatic flexibility of a trapeze artist (at least by series standards). At the time, Castlevania was notorious for its rigid controls and stiff protagonists, best depicted by an inability to redirect one’s jump midair or whip in any direction other than forward. For better or worse, the result was an artificial difficulty that catered to only the most seasoned of vamp-bustin’ veterans. Understanding these grievances, an eight-directional whipping mechanic was implemented, alongside the ability to crouch, change direction mid-jump and grapple swing past pitfalls, vastly improving our hunter hero’s maneuverability. Funny enough, many of these mechanics were rarely seen again, with both immediate successors Rondo of Blood and Bloodlines returning to the time-honored horizontal whipping mechanic. Still, these revisions made leaping over ledges and crackin’ skelly skulls all the more enjoyable, and it’s hard to imagine the game being nearly as successful without them.
Of course, what really keeps the Dark Lord’s monstrous manor forever emblazoned in the darkest recesses of my mind is its incredibly detailed environments and hauntingly brilliant soundtrack. Apart from its muted use of color, each stage is brimming with visual flair and structural tidbits that enchant the eye — from sprawling vines and floral backdrops in the count’s courtyard to submerged cities buried deep beneath the castle’s catacombs. The blood-soaked cherry on top? Brand new compositions and returning arrangements based on previous Castlevania titles. Each treacherous track envelopes players with a sense of ominous dread rarely captured by future installments’ more gothic rock offerings — from the more heroic highs found in familiar anthems Vampire Killer or Bloody Tears to the dramatic tension built in Dracula’s Theme. Even taken out of context from their respective stages, these addictive arias are a thrill to listen to, enshrining Super’s soundtrack amongst the best the 16-bit era has to offer.
FROM THIS DAY ON, THE BELMONT CLAN WILL HUNT THE NIGHT!
While not necessarily my favorite whip wielded trek through Dracula’s decrepit castle, Super Castlevania IV will forever hold a special place in my heart as much more than just the pinnacle of the classic 2D action-platforming formula entombed by its NES predecessors. While engaging gameplay mechanics, inventive level design and a superlative soundtrack make revisiting Vlad’s fiendish fortress a devilish delight, I’ll remember it much more fondly for helping me shake my childhood fears by beating the butts of beasts bumpin’ in the night. Even by today’s standards, and unlike many other 16-bit platformers of the era, its vampiric veins pulsate a mature and timeless feel throughout, resulting in one of the Belmont clan’s finest feats to date.
And who knows? With Super Bomberman R’s recent return to its bombastic roots and the first season of Netflix’s animated adaptation of Castlevania wrapped up to critical acclaim, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Konami resurrects the immortal bloodsucker for yet another staking.
Our Super September series celebrates the games on the SNES Classic Edition. Join us as we hop in Mario’s Time Machine and lovingly reflect on all our favorite games the mini superpowered system has to offer.
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