Saturday, April 4, 2015

Super Castlevania IV - A-twistin' and A-turnin'
How Konami literally turned my world upside-down and cemented my faith in the SNES.


The months leading up to the SNES' release were a confusing time for me, my thoughts tinged with conflicting feelings of excitement and trepidation. I couldn't help but get caught up in Nintendo Power's web of hype as I pored over its monthly SNES coverage--ogling over every screenshot and compulsively re-reading the glowing previews for impressive-looking 16-bit games like Super Mario World, Gradius III and F-Zero--but somehow my most predominant emotion was irrational anger fueled by the belief that this newfangled next-generation machine was going to storm in with intent to swiftly supplant my beloved NES when I felt strongly that the 8-bit wonder still had a whole lot of life left to live.

I'd misguidedly framed the SNES not as a respectful successor but as the desctructor of everything I'd come to cherish about the home-console scene, and it took the combined might of Nintendo, Capcom and Konami's well-received launch offerings to convince me that mine was a poor assessment--that the SNES represented an evolution of the old values and not the end of consoles as I knew them. Even games like SimCity and F-Zero, which seemed alien from a distance, had more in common with my old NES favorites than I realized; for how easily I could relate the feelings they evoked from me to the aesthetic resonance of the 8-bit classics I so adored, they stood as proof that the NES' spirit was in no danger of being extinguished--that the old gray box was welcome to happily enjoy its prosperous final years right there beside its descendant, the two a father-son portrait for my TV stand. If a shift in the landscape was inevitable, I could credit the SNES' early releases as having played a key role in revealing the truth behind it.

Yet it would be a sin not to discuss the strong impact a certain upcoming title that I had been keeping close tabs on ever since I saw that first blurb in the latter pages of Nintendo Power Volume 27--a holiday special that not only looked amazing but was purported to espouse all of the NES' established values while taking them to a level beyond.


Its name was Super Castlevania IV, and it was scheduled to arrive at the perfect point in history--during the height of my Castlevania fandom, when the incredible Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was still rocking my world and its rediscovered predecessors were staking claim to ever-larger pieces of my heart as they, too, continued their ascent up my list of favorites. I was so excited for Super Castlevania IV's imminent release that I spent hours at a time drawing up potential scenarios and wondering about how Konami was planning to top Dracula's Curse. Future Nintendo Power previews only fueled my imagination with nuggets of information like the hero's ability to use his whip to "swing like Indiana Jones" and other nebulous tidbits that I obsessed over and elaborately shaped in my head.

Though, Nintendo Power's previews left me confused as to the nature of the game's story, which apparently starred Simon Belmont but was said to take place a century after the events of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. "But how can Simon still be alive 100 later?" I questioned, baffled by the contradiction. I wanted so much for the magazine's explanation to make sense that I even went as far as to entertain the notion that time flowed differently in the Castlevania universe. My other theory was that Simon had somehow attained eternal life via his "curse" and was doomed to fight Dracula forever. I'd become knowledgeable enough about localization houses and their habit of fudging storyline facts as a means of putting their stamp on things, so I was happy to disregard everything I'd read; I'd concluded, instead, that Super Castlevania IV had to take place only a few years after Simon's Quest.

At the least, it was the only explanation that could satisfy my continuity fetish. I clung to it tightly for the next eight years.

As did most kids in the area, I first saw Super Castlevania IV in action at the SNES kiosk that had become a fixture in the Toys R Us over by Caesar's Bay Bazaar. The demo reel, most famously, showcased a scene where a bridge was collapsing as Simon Belmont scurried across it, the falling rubble seemingly transforming into additional members of a pursuant colony of bats. As the winter months dropped off, similar kiosks started appearing in every electronics store I visited, but I never thought to sample the demo or even get too close to the unit despite how incredible the game looked. No--I was determined to have my first physical interaction with the game within the familiar confines of my own home, where it would feel most genuine. 

Still, what I'd seen of the game left me a bit worried, since I hadn't observed any signs of what I considered to be essential gameplay elements. "Where are the new ally characters?" I wondered. "And why hasn't there been any mention of split paths?" These were amazingly evolutionary mechanics, I felt, and needed to be advanced upon in Super Castlevania IV if it had any chance of surpassing Dracula's Curse, which was the picture of ambition. By the time I'd finished warily skimming over Nintendo Power Volume 32's full feature, which was disappointingly bereft of any such information, it had become my fear that Super Castlevania IV might not be the follow-up I had dreamed about.

All it took was one Christmas day session with Super Castlevania IV to make all of my skepticism and apprehension disappear into the ether. It started with the game's tantalizing intro--a powerfully somber title-screen sequence that gave way to a prologue where a tattered tombstone could be seen resting beneath a quickly darkening sky, the ominously foreboding music soon interrupted by a lightning blast whose destructive wake was cause for the liberation of the grave's winged occupant, Count Dracula; as clouds began to flow in from the screen's left side, the music turned chilling and eerie, welcoming thoughts of dark fantasies as a text scroll appeared and provided details of the Count's latest resurrection. 

I found myself becoming more and more engrossed as the goosebumps-inducing intro continued building to its crescendo both aurally and visually, neither my focus nor my concentration compromised by the inexplicably restated plot-point of the game taking place 100 years after Simon's Quest, which I maintained had to be a translation error. As the screen faded to black, I could speak to only one inarguable truth about Super Castlevania IV: In just a few short minutes, it had tightly grasped hold of me and wouldn't soon be letting go. I'd normally watch a game's intro sequence one time and then forevermore skip over it, but Super Castlevania IV's was so mood-defining--so much an essential warmup to Simon's adventure--that I'd make sure to rewatch it every time I'd play the game.

What that fantastic intro did was intimate to me that something truly special was waiting beyond that title screen, and it surely wasn't posturing. I spent the next few hours being utterly impressed by the game's every aesthetic--how it looked, how it sounded, and how its graphical trickery came to define every pixel of every screen. I remember stopping near the start of Stage 1 so I could take in the sight of that giant skull mountain with the bats emerging from its eye sockets--a delightfully freaky visual that served as an unforgettable preview for the type of disturbing, imaginative imagery Super Castlevania IV had in store for me. "Oh, they nailed this," I thought as it scrolled from view and a crescent moon emerged from the layer behind it.


I remembered that Super Castlevania IV 's advertising was based around the wow factor of its spectacular graphical effects, but I didn't know that it wasn't going to waste any time throwing everything it had at me. And, really, I was floored by even the most simple things, like the slowly raising drawbridge located a few screens in--the most impressive demonstration yet, I thought, of the SNES' ability to render tilting and rotating sprites of all shapes and sizes. As was true of many of Super Castlevania IV's special effects, the closing drawbridge was as fun to experiment with as it was to watch; from day one, in fact, it became customary to see how long I could resist the drawbridge's increasingly stiff incline before being forced into the next scene.

From there, Super Castlevania IV became a highlight reel for all of its creators' greatest graphical and mechanical achievements, like Simon's 8-directional whip-control and the brandishing ability that allowed him to wildly flail the weapon about in a way that made me wonder how in the world such a thing was even possible ("Do pixels even work that way?"). I could use a fence's gates to switch between two separate planes, which was an effect even most arcade games couldn't pull off. I could hook the whip onto floating rings and swing over long distances "like Indiana Jones." Pinpoint controls allowed for Simon's jumps to be influenced up until his very moment of landing. Dispersed enemies didn't simply vanish--they'd meet their end via boney explosions and fiery disintegrations. The game's wonderfully crafted panoramic map zoomed in and out as it carved out my path and spotlighted the next destination. And, hell, nothing said "next generation" like the ability to jump directly onto stairs, whose negotiation was for so long a trouble spot for the series that Super Castlevania IV's remedy seemed almost miraculous.


Descending down stairs near a cliff was handled automatically, where previously you'd plunge to your death if you weren't holding downward. You could throw sub-weapons with the right shoulder button, eliminating the persistent stairway-sub-weapon control conflict. You could even defensively moonwalk! On the ground and on stairs! "This game thought of everything!" No--Super Castlevania IV didn't think to include ally helpers or alternate routes, but its first two stages were packed with so many fun platforming scenarios and so many interesting visuals that I completely forgot.

I loved how the backgrounds' multiple scrolling layers worked in harmony to provide the game's world a sense of depth, the observable movement creating for breathtaking views that tickled my imagination much like those 8-bit worlds I often ruminated about. New enemies like decapitated horse heads ("Mr. Hed," as the manual punningly named it), snake swarms, camouflaged plant creatures, and self-replicating stone men lent further augmentation to their habitats while helping to afford the game a distinct personality. And a tense boss encounter, initiated by an epic intro, brought any stage's action to a fitting climax, a thrilling victory always appropriately punctuated by my catching the stage-clearing crystal while striking a pose. Super Castlevania IV was the kind of game that was as fun to analyze as it was to play, and I'd often take to my video-game-themed "Superbooks" to trace out and examine its design features.


Super Castlevania IV was married to convention yet not always faithful. There was still potential for a surprise at any turn, like when a stage's lone boss--like, say, Medusa--would show its face somewhere mid-stage where traditionally it would show up at the end. I liked that the designers were willing to take chances like this but only sporadically, since the scarcity of such variances made them so much more memorable.

Now, Super Castlevania IV wasn't breaking any new ground in terms of its scope, which was rather limited when compared to the character-rich, multi-branching Dracula's Curse, but I felt that the craftsmanship behind its marvelously designed stages was strong enough compensation for the reduction of content. It wasn't that every stage was unique but every separate area. A dilapidated castle gave way to haunted, neglected barn. A graveyard spilled into a dreary swampland. A series of rickety bridges granted entrance into a stream whose tides would change on only a moment's notice. Claustrophobic caverns exited out into the shrouding waterfalls of a sunken city. Expertly matched stage themes provided each area greater depth of character: The soundtrack began exerting its influence with the empowering Theme of Simon, which colored Simon's romp through the distant farmland with shades of energy and enthusiasm, before growing appropriately darker and more menacing in the following stages.


Compared to all of those SNES games I'd played or would play, Super Castlevania IV's music had patently distinct instrumentation, a style and tone that would remain unmistakably its own.

And then came the defining moment of Super Castlevania IV--a particular graphical occurrence that was so heavily promoted in magazines that I was unable avert my eyes; sidebar after sidebar was dedicated to it, the accompanying text sounding so incredible that I couldn't help but give it a look. It was Stage 4, the affectionately named "Death Tower," whose opening segment featured walls bedecked with giant skull heads that tracked Simon's movement (upon seeing them for the first time, my brother's friend Jeff remarked, "That guy had a big head," which made me laugh). But that wasn't what amazed us. No--the real fun began after the stage's mid-boss, the long-tongued Puwexil, had been defeated, after which the action shifted into an empty red-bricked room with a lone skeleton impaled on a spiked wall. As soon as I made my way up stairway, the room, as promised, began slowly turning, leaving me time enough to comprehend what was happening and find safety via the floating ring.


My mind was blown as I watched pixels shift about in a way I'd never seen, the formerly vertical tiles turning horizontal and the walls becoming traversable platforms. To see it in motion was to instantly realize the true potential of this next-generation machine, which just a few short months ago I was treating like the plague. I don't remember if I got knocked into the spikes by one of the soon-emerging Medusa Heads that first time, but if I did, I'm sure I didn't mind, since it was no "punishment" to be granted a second opportunity to witness the room's awe-inspiring rotation. On the strength of this one event, if it hadn't been slotted as such already, Super Castlevania IV had earned itself a place on my list of all-time classics.

But the game hadn't yet emptied its bag of tricks. The very next room featured another first: A room whose background spun around like a wheelbarrow--another hypnotically awesome effect but one that worked to create a sense of discomfort in a room that seemed otherwise straightforward. Oh, except for the fact that skeletons could break out from the background's stone-covered fissures at any time and drop directly into view, which my mind could only process as more of that unbelievable programming sorcery. The next room's scrolling-platform gimmick wasn't as impressive, but its action culminated in a battle against the gargantuan Koranot, who would crumble and lose mass every time he was attacked and eventually shrink down to Simon's height; he's best remembered for his expanding-contracting death sequence, which on its own demonstrated the full range of the SNES' rotating and scaling abilities. 


This entire stage was the developers' shining moment--what they were building towards since moment one. They aimed to thoroughly impress me with their spinning, turning, and rotating rooms and succeeded masterfully, in one fell swoop creating a truly unique take on Castlevania--its inventive spirit never replicated in future series titles--while helping to cement the SNES as console worthy of my adoration. Yes--Super Castlevania IV was that game.

Once Super Castlevania IV had made its most indelible mark, everything in following was gravy. I loved its interpretation of the famous main halls, the extended castle entrance a showcase for more graphical wizardry like giant swinging chandeliers, stretchy glowing phantasms, and a rotating circle of coffins. I wasn't a fan of the Dungeon's disappearing-reappearing block segment, which to this day still makes me nervous, or some of the stage-design choices in the Treasury, but the game's amazingly conveyed atmosphere and aesthetic brilliance (all of the Treasury's skeletal enemies were colored gold, too!) had a way of overwhelming my sense of judgment and my ability to critically assess its design choices.


Konami's masterpiece was completed by the game's final two stages, both of which won points with me for their musical accompaniment starting with their introductory ditties, which were shortened, wistfully composed versions of their main themes. The Clock Tower in particular became instantly memorable to me thanks to its remix of Bloody Tears, which otherwise went unreferenced in Dracula's Curse; I was pleasantly surprised not only by its return but by the power of its composition. I quickly came to count it among my favorite series tunes and in subsequent play-throughs couldn't wait to make it here so I could stop and listen to it. Not to be outdone, the final stage featured rather snazzy remixes of Vampire Killer and Beginning, which provided the appropriate level of nostalgia for a stage that featured the return of Dhurons and that collapsing-bridge sequence I remembered from the in-store demos.


The stage's fearsome tower-chase sequence frustrated me for a long time because the floating staircases would sometimes collapse before I could start climbing them; it took me a while to realize that aiming for the very first step of any staircase was a recipe for a disaster. Also, the diagonal-platform sequence in the tower's upper portion was inexplicable to me, and I could only get through it by hugging the screen's left side and hoping for the best (I appreciated the designers' continued creative spirit, but maybe some restraint could have been shown here). Though, I could never forget the newly debuting pair of Slogra and Gaibon, whose likenesses are always among the many mental images that appear in my head whenever someone even mentions the name Super Castlevania IV. The Death battle, preceded by the most memorable of boss intros, was tough but more manageable than ever, which was symptom of the game's enhanced controls. And while Dracula disappointingly had no true second form, the final battle with him was as frenzied and epically scripted as I would expect from a game of this caliber.


I don't remember if I finished the game that day or the next, but I know that I loved every second of it. I played through it repeatedly in the days and weeks that followed, each time becoming more immersed in its entrancingly rendered world. Super Castlevania IV became a part of my personal culture: I recorded its entire soundtrack on my tape recorder and listened to it daily. I'd draw its bosses in the back of my school notebooks. I included all of its enemies in my "Master of Evil" card series, giving preference to the likes of Slogra and Gaibon. The game would dominate my monthly "Top 20" lists for years, consistently beating out Super Mario World, Final Fight and other SNES greats. I couldn't call it my favorite series game, the honor of which went to Dracula's Curse, but it was definitely god-tier as far as I was concerned.


It's not that I needed an excuse to return to the game, but I couldn't wait to load it up and apply my knowledge of the secrets I'd learned after going back and fully reading the past Nintendo Power coverage. Every kid knew about these: The two hidden rooms and the castle keep's invisible platforms, the second of which triggered a storm of items including hearts, chicken legs, a boomerang, and the two sub-weapon multipliers. I don't think I ever took on Dracula again without first showering in his secret stall.

For the rest of the 16-bit era, Super Castlevania IV remained one of my go-to games, the most obvious choice whenever I had some time to fill and an SNES was nearby. It retained that role even until the mid-2000s, before I got burned out on the series. 


Sure--I can admit to its flaws. There isn't much strategy to most of the boss battles, the encounters apt to degenerate into slugfests. Outside of boomerangs, the sub-weapons are kind of useless. Being able to whip in 8 directions compromises the level design, allowing you take out enemies placed above and below from a safe vantage point, and diminishes the game's overall difficulty. A lot of the background work is spotty and too simply drawn. And some of the enemy design is a bit flat, certain creatures not readily identifiable (the Gargoyles, I thought, looked more like flying Ninja Turtles). 

But Super Castlevania IV's is a case where a game's strong points far outweigh its negatives. The only criticism that could be levied against it, then, is that it's not perfect. But it doesn't have to be when you take into account how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do; it's a fast-paced, viscerally pleasing romp through an alluringly dark world of monsters and mayhem, an aesthetically wondrous action game packed with one awesome, jaw-dropping moment after another. I can't name many games that do it better.


I often talk about how certain games succeed at capturing the spirit of their respective eras, encapsulating the sensibilities of our favorite platforms when they're most relevant to our lives, and I believe that Super Castlevania IV belongs in the conversation. If the 16-bit era was a time of experimentation and invention, then it could be said that Super Castlevania IV was the blueprint for everything that followed. Even if a lot of what it did was merely cosmetic, Super Castlevania IV was a game that defined a series, a genre, a console, and a technologically advancing medium on the whole. For me, it served as preview for what the SNES was going to ultimately represent: Not just a tool for bumping up the graphics but a platform for those ambitious, passionate developers who were seeking to explore new ideas and impress us with their unrestrained creativity. For auteurs who longed to craft new worlds, reinvent old ones, and win over our hearts with the most grandiose video games we'd ever play. Super Castlevania IV was their emblem.

  
As he did a half-decade earlier, Simon Belmont stood among giants and played a major role in defining a generation for console enthusiasts everywhere. More than that, his amazing game, Super Castlevania IV, turned my world completely on its head.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your appreciation for this game, still my favorite Castlevania of all time (for the same reasons you describe!)

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    1. Thanks for responding! It's always reassuring to learn that there are others who share my affinity for twisting and turning rooms. The rest of the game is pretty great, too, of course.

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  2. "I'd misguidedly framed the SNES not as a respectful successor but as the destructor of everything I'd come to cherish about the home-console scene"

    Since I was an oldest child in the early 90s, the 16-bit stuff was already in full bloom by the time I was playing games. I had a very similar attitude toward the next console generation - particularly when rental stores were showing off kind of lame stuff like the 3DO. But I never warmed up to that generation as much as you did with the 16-bit consoles - N64 never felt like the great successor to the SNES that I wanted it to be, and it was worse since my best friend seemed to have all the good games on the PS1.

    I've come to forgive both systems. But I still prefer those two earlier console generations to later ones.

    As for Castlevania IV, I couldn't really express my love for the game without parroting most of what you said. It's a near-perfect game. You mentioned the qualities of the soundtrack - the only other SNES game that feels similar in that way to me is Super Metroid (compare the sound Simon makes when he lands from a long jump to the sound Samus makes for the same action, and especially the deep, atmosphere notes of the music).

    Oh and I still love the names "Puyexil" and "Koranot" even though I know they were just the translators being cheeky.

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    1. I guess my fears were somewhat realized in that the SNES lacked all of those arcade-style games like "Balloon Fight" and "Wrecking Crew" (not counting "Wrecking Crew '98, which was a falling-block puzzler). In fact, I don't have many multiplayer-based memories outside of our time with "Super Mario Kart."

      Truthfully, though, the console was packed with so many unforgettably amazing games by its second year that there really wasn't any time for me to even consider as much.

      Unfortunately, history did repeat itself, but I'll talk about that some other time.

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  3. Too many times the game made me feel caught between a rock and a hard place. It did a lot of things right but the stage design drove me nearly insane!

    I kept on asking myself "Why am I still playing this game? I hate it!"

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    1. Well, that's sad to hear.

      I would maintain that the ability to whip in all directions compromises the difficulty and makes victory very much achievable. Or was it that you had problems with platforming challenges like the disappearing-reappearing surfaces in the Frankenstein stage?

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