The Castlevania series is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, thanks largely to MercurySteam's commercially successful Lords of Shadow sub-series. However, as many hardcore Castlevania fans will repeatedly tell you until they are blue in the face and you are deeply, deeply bored, the God of War-style gameplay seen in these recent entries is a million miles away from the traditional Belmont-against-Dracula experience; Konami's vampire-slaying franchise began life as a 2D, side-scrolling action platformer and to its most ardent followers, that's how it should have stayed.
While the NES titles are firm favourites with Castlevania aficionados — with the possible exception of the unique but flawed Simon's Quest — it is the first entry on the SNES which is considered by many to be the benchmark against which all other instalments are judged. Super Castlevania IV is essentially a remake of the first title, and stars the irrepressible Simon Belmont in the lead role. Thematically it's very similar to the NES and MSX versions, but the level design and enemies are entirely different. The time and setting may be the same, but Simon is facing a fresh and unique challenge here.
Belmont's adventure takes him from the foreboding gatehouse of Dracula's Transylvanian fortress to its very heart, where he faces the Prince of Darkness himself in an epic final confrontation. Along the way our hero will wade through stinking swamps, navigate spinning tunnels, battle in a dusty library and explore Dracula's massive vault of gold and jewels. Super Castlevania IV has plenty of variety in its level designs, but ironically it starts off at quite a slow pace — in fact, at the time of release many reviewers criticised the plodding first and second levels. While it's true that the game doesn't really get started until you enter the confines of the castle proper, there's a feel to the early stages which is almost bewitching — something which is due in no small part to the superlative soundtrack.
The original Castlevania is held up by many old-school players as the perfect example of a challenging action platformer. In the 8-bit original Simon can only whip horizontally, and players were forced to adapt to this limitation in order to survive. In Super Castlevania IV, Belmont has gained some new tricks; not only can he whip in eight directions, he can also "tickle" enemies by flailing his whip in the air. This move looks odd and is actually quite weak, but comes in very useful when you want to deflect incoming projectiles.
In essence, what we have here is a much-improved control scheme, but some diehard fans have suggested that it renders the game too easy; without the almost unavoidable deaths triggered by Simon's limited moveset, this sequel is robbed of its punishing challenge. The fact that Konami would never again give a Castlevania protagonist the same whip-based repertoire seems to lend credence to this viewpoint, but it would be erroneous to label this SNES outing as "easy".
Granted, the game isn't as frustratingly difficult as the NES original — and the introduction of save states on the Wii U Virtual Console makes it less of a pain to play through in a single sitting — but Super Castlevania IV remains a challenging romp. The key distinction here is that unlike its 8-bit ancestor, it's never difficult to the point of being borderline unfair; there are segments which will test your reactions dearly — and may well cause a few annoying deaths — but once you've figured out what is required of you, there's an incredibly rewarding feeling to overcoming the odds. As before, Simon can pick up weapons such as daggers and axes to make things a little easier, and these are limited by the number of hearts you have in reserve — still inexplicably gained by whipping candles.
Visually, Castlevania IV showcases quite a restrained and subtle look, especially when compared with the anime-style direction Konami would later take with Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. While there's little colour being splashed about the screen, the visuals are detailed and effective, and are arguably much more in tune with the dark gothic subject matter than the bright graphics witnessed in future Castlevania outings. The aforementioned music — expertly composed by Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo — adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, and ranks as one of the finest game soundtracks ever produced on any system. The almost painful beauty of the music included here is made all the more incredible by the fact that this game launched on a cartridge and not a CD. If you need any proof of just how aurally adept the SNES sound chip is, look — or listen — no further.
Super Castlevania IV is one of those games which clearly had a massive emotional impact on the players lucky enough to experience it first time around, but there's more than nostalgia at work here — Konami's gothic epic has engaging gameplay, plenty of challenge, inventive levels and a sumptuous soundtrack. Unlike many of the other 16-bit platformers of the era, the game has a mature and distinguished feel to it, neatly sidestepping the unintentionally humorous tone that was often struck by the NES original. It also makes excellent use of its host platform's technical skills, with Mode 7 being employed to dazzle on a visual level (you'll never forget that rotating tunnel section) as well as to enrich the gameplay.
Although Castlevania would be taken to a new level by Symphony of the Night, when you're talking about the traditional instalments — where good, old-fashioned platforming was the central focus — then it really doesn't get any better than this. Super Castlevania IV is a masterpiece of 16-bit programming and has lost none of its ability to enthrall and captivate two decades after its original launch.