It was only last month that we looked back on the original Castlevania, which after 35 years, still remains one of the Konami’s best NES games. And, after a sequel that, while initially maligned, laid the groundwork for what was to come for the franchise, and a third entry that is still praised as one of the very best games ever on the NES, where do you go from there? For Konami and director Masahiro Ueno, you looked ahead to the SNES with Super Castlevania IV, which was first released on Halloween in Japan back in 1991.
For Ueno (known in the credits as Jun Furano, as Konami didn’t allow the team to use their real names at the time), Super Castlevania IV (once again titled Akumajō Dracula in Japan) was his first 16-bit title, which was being developed in parallel with Castlevania III. Ueno was a fan of the original game, and wanted to make the sequel “a pure action game”, with none of the RPG elements from Castlevania II. The end result was released not long after the SNES debuted in North America, and was an instant hit.
Castlevania IV is essentially a retelling of the original game (Ueno considers SCIV to be a remake of the original game “to some extent”), but with some expansion. Set against the backdrop of Count Dracula having been awoken from a 100-year slumber (when the forces of good mysteriously weaken), vampire hunter Simon Belmont must now embark on a quest to destroy the vampire and free Transylvania from Dracula’s power. Only now, Simon must make his way through eleven stages instead of the original’s six, and must actually make his way to the castle itself.
Obviously, with the jump to the 16-bit SNES, expectations were high for improvements. Ueno and his team initially didn’t have the SNES dev kits, and as a result had to sketch the levels out on paper. Eventually, once they got a hold of the kits, production involved experimentation with the the SNES’ abilities, including the console’s famous Mode 7, which allowed for scaling and rotating of sprites.
Compared to the original, SCIV‘s gameplay was smoothed out to ease the frustration of players. Simon doesn’t move as stiffly as before, and players could now control Simon in mid-air with his jump. Players were also now granted the ability to whip in eight directions, as well as have more control while climbing stairs. You could even now crawl forward while crouched, and even jump on and off stairs. The special weapon now had its own assigned button, and you could now hold the attack button to have the whip become slack to allow players to flip it around to take out projectiles and minor enemies without having to waste time with the whip’s wind-up. As part of the experimentation, Ueno’s team instituted grappling mechanics that allowed Simon to attach his whip to specific hooks to make his way across large gaps, as well as have something to hang onto for certain situations.
The increased power of the SNES also allowed for larger and more detailed sprites, meaning Simon finally resembled how he appeared on the game’s box art. Enemies are also given the graphical upgrade, allowing for cool effects like skeletons exploding into bone showers when killed, mudmen splitting off into smaller versions when hit, enemies appearing out of the background to attack you and more. Bosses were also given the love, as they were larger, more detailed and more inventive in their design. You had the Zapf Bat made out of treasure that dropped coins as it moved, the massive stone golem Koranot (which was actually a background layer) that would splinter off rocks and shrink as you hit it, and the giant skull Puweyxil (read the name backwards) and its massive tongue that by the same token would chip off bone fragments as you damaged it.
Likewise, the levels also received their upgrade. No longer was a Castlevania game limited by browns and greys, as the game’s levels were massive as they were detailed. Water now dripped while in the caverns. Vines grew up and snaked around cast iron fencing that erupts from the ground. Simon now had to jump from giant chandeliers, or navigate spike-filled rooms that rotated at a moment’s notice (again, the power of Mode 7). Fancy new things like transparency were incorporated. Backgrounds were more detailed and had animation. In the very first stage, you could now move between the foreground and the background via the doors.
And no, you can’t talk about Super Castlevania IV without talking about the absolutely legendary score by Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo (credited as Masanori Oodachi and Taro in the game’s credits). Not to take away from the superb sound design, which has all of the whip cracks, howls and bone rattling you could ask for in a Castlevania game, the score combines longtime fan favourite tunes, as well as introducing new fan favourites. Ueno desired to make the music and sound effects contribute to the game’s “spooky and real” atmosphere, and it succeeded. While “Vampire Killer” opened the original game, players were just as energized and psyched up once “Theme of Simon” started after the drawbridge closed and the iron fencing appeared. It was a technical marvel that Konami’s sound team were able to program the organ, bass drums, flute and more into such an early SNES title. And the soundtrack to this day still holds up to modern games. And while this game’s rendition of “Vampire Killer” isn’t quite up to the original for yours truly, Super Castlevania IV‘s version of “Bloody Tears” is absolutely amazing.
As was the case for a lot of titles on Nintendo’s consoles at the time, the game was censored before going outside of Japan. Prior to the North American release in December ’91, the cross on Dracula’s gravestone was removed, as was the dripping blood on the title screen. Blood was also changed in the sewers was to a green slime. As for the dreaded nudity, topless statues were covered up, and Medusa had her nipples removed (though she still had her breasts).
With all of this praise for SCVIV, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the game does have some flaws to it, ironically some introduced with the improvements. Whereas the original Castlevania had a deliberate learning curve to the way Simon moved and attacked, it tied also to the size of Simon’s sprite. With the sprites now larger in Super Castlevania IV, there are points in the game where due to Simon’s size, the game can feel “cramped”. This is probably most noticeable during boss fights with Koranot and Puweyxil, where your size limits your manoeuvrability in dodging the raining debris. Also, because of the use of the directional whip, there are some enemies that can be “exploited”. You can simply droop your whip so that it hits an enemy below you, eliminating the frustration found in previous games where you could be attacked while on the stairs. This, which combined with some of the earlier boss fights, does lessen the difficulty of the game in spots. Which, to be fair, is what Ueno wanted. He felt that the original game was “a bit too difficult” and frustrated players.
Ueno also favoured the original Castlevania over Castlevania III, and as a result, the features of multiple playable characters and the multiple paths introduced in Castlevania III were omitted. Had Castlevania III already been released prior to the start of production on Super Castlevania IV, Ueno admits that he would have implemented the branching paths to give players more of a sense of exploration as in the previous two NES games.
Nonetheless, Super Castlevania IV was acclaimed by critics and fans upon its release, and remains a staple on many gamer’s list of not only one of the best SNES games, but also one of the best games ever. While Castlevania‘s difficulty was part of its charm, Super Castlevania IV focuses less on the difficulty, and more on style and atmosphere. And, apart from some deviation with Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Super Castlevania IV remains the epitome of the original Castlevania gameplay style. SCVIV is still a blast to play today, with the game’s music demanding that you stop and listen for 5 seconds or so, or to analyse the sheer beauty of the graphics, which are still impressive. If you have to play a horror video game this Halloween, you certainly can’t go wrong with Super Castlevania IV.
Credit to Retro Gamer Magazine Issue 119 for key information.