Though it came out in Japan in late 1990, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s 16-bit debut would hit North America in mid-1991 as their answer to Sega’s Mega Drive (the Genesis in the West) which had beat them to retail shelves in ’88 (for Japan) and ’89 (for NA) and ’90 (for PAL countries). Throw in the PC Engine (the TurboGrafx-16 in the West) which had come out in ’87, and the 16-bit console wars were primed to explode.
Developers began supplying the ammunition for each platform to outdo the other and Konami made a big push with Nintendo having been partners since the Famicom days. This was the era when hardware features could dramatically affect what games were available on what system, where developers’ games often stayed exclusive to one platform because of the hardware, and where those differences fueled fanboys into sticking to one camp or another — a legacy that continues today with die-hards counting pixels to prove the supremacy of their hardware.
Into this cauldron of craziness came Castlevania IV for the SNES on December, 1991 (though the ad above says it’s going to be available in January, 1992). This would be the first Castlevania for Nintendo’s super system and it also stands out as one of the best making use of everything the 16-bit unit could deliver. Super Castlevania IV was like a quantum leap over what Castlevania looked and sounded like on the 8-bit NES. The differences were that huge and to many gamers, going from 8 to 16-bit on the console seemed like the Holy Grail of gaming at the time.
The manual goes into detail about the story that is also told by a detailed teaser at the start of the game. Every 100 years, so it says, the forces of Good mysteriously weaken as Evil encroaches on the world. At that time, Dracula is revived, but his evil schemes are always put to rest by the legendary Belmont family. Though not every member faces Dracula, they have kept their skills sharpened during the intervening years to face evil whatever it might be.
A hundred years have now passed since the last battle with Dracula. Spring approaches the town of Transylvania which readies itself for the annual celebration of its arrival. But there are stories. Whispers. Creatures have been seen at night. Things aren’t what they seem.
At a ruined abbey outside of town, an evil cult seeks to resurrect Dracula and succeed in awakening his power. As darkness creeps across the land, Simon Belmont readies himself for the battle ahead.
Wait, Simon Belmont? That’s what the story says. Mahahiro Ueno (who is credited as Jun Furano since many Japanese development houses didn’t allow them to put their real names in the games they created at the time partly to keep headhunters at bay) was the director of Castlevania IV and regards it as more of a remake of the first game (which he liked) than a completely new chapter. Playing it, however, still felt like a completely new game. This was like Castlevania’s 16-bit HD remake.
Though the game went back to its linear roots — no multiple paths or characters as there were in Castlevania III, for example — Simon’s mechanics underwent a major overhaul to balance things out. His whip was now deadlier than ever allowing him to whip straight up, at an angle, and even dangle it to deal with small, pesky enemies that might be too hard to hit with a direct strike at close range. He can even use it to swing over obstacles all the while looking for those power-up icons to level up its range and power. Simon even has a bit of control with his jumps. Jumping in one direction doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll automatically follow through if you push in the opposite direction. He can also jump up and nudge over to land on low ledges nearby instead of getting distance between him and it.
The game made great use of the SNES’ Mode 7 for special effects allowing for things such as scaling effects to create a pseudo 3D look for certain scenes or rotations such as one of the later stages where Simon has to use the whip to hang safely while a room with spiked walls spins into position. Other dramatic effects, like a spinning curved wall giving players the impression that they were traveling through a giant, twisting pipe, were used. Other tricks and traps like falling stalactites, moving walls that players had to use to slip between others to get ahead, platforming across giant swinging chandeliers, and the final battle with Dracula himself, created a lot of splashy scenes that were exciting to play through.
Castlevania IV found its way to the Wii Virtual Console in 2006 and the Wii U’s in 2013, but as a Nintendo exclusive, that also meant that it never found itself on anything else which is too bad. It’s a great entry in the series and one of my favorite Castlevania titles. As an early SNES entry, it flexed the system’s new hardware and amply demonstrated the gulf between the 8-bit NES and the 16-bit SNES. It’s great soundtrack, creative areas spanning eleven detailed levels, bosses, and a great credit sequence at the end all evoked the movie-like atmosphere that the series had started with.
The film strip notches may be gone from the title screen, but Super Castlevania IV and its action-packed battles, amazing sound, and great scenes had managed to grow up without needing them.