Released in 1991 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Castlevania 4 is, in my opinion, the best of the Castlevania games. With my cards hastily thrown onto the table this early into my review, let me elaborate on my opinion, and also go on to say that Symphony of the Night is still a fantastic game, before I find myself lashed to a cross for my heathen beliefs.
The plot is much the same as ever, in that a mighty Belmont is sworn to defeat the vampire Dracula and his evil hordes using the legendary Vampire Killer whip and a plethora of other tools and weapons. This time, you play as Simon Belmont, the original Belmont from the first game, in what could be considered a remake of the NES classic.
From the offset, the menu screen, the game drips with that macabre atmosphere that became so synymous with the series in the NES era. This was no Super Mario, this was Castlevania, and the fourth installment lives up to expectations in thr 16-bit era.
That is to say, the game is a remake of the original Castlevania, at least in a notable ways, but also did its best to rectify some of the problems with the original which made it so harsh and unforgiving. These improvements upon an already classic game exist as a perfect example of a remake done perfectly well, taking everything which made the original brilliant, that whip-cracking, side-scrolling action, and removing elements which detracted from the experience, such as the lack of control on staircases which so frequently forced you to either take hits or fall to your death in the original.
The most important improvement however would be to Simon's whip itself, which can now be launched in eight directions around Simon, which adds an entirely new element to core gameplay. After all, the original Castlevania limited you to whipping forwards and forwards alone, while now, Simon can take down several opponents from all directions while dodging and jumping. This means that fights could become much more than simply running at enemies and whipping, and allow for a degree of strategy. Enemies come at you from all directions and the game expects you to take advantage of your new freedom of movement.
Another new gameplay mechanic which never ceases to be fun is the ability to whip onto certain 'hooks' in the scenery, which allow you to swing from side to side. This can be useful in clearing large gaps and leaping to distant ledges, but also comes into its own on some of the game's more interesting stages, such as when the entire room begins revolving and you're forced to dangle from a hook to keep yourself tumbling onto spikes. Another room immediately following this really shows off the capabilities of the Super Nintendo, having Simon run through a cylindrical room which spins all around him, while the bridge he is on collapses. These dynamic stage designs serve as a sort of display of how great the difference between the NES and SNES is, and from here on Castlevania would be a franchise synonymous with impressive level design.
Naturally, the graphics for the time were far more impressive than ever before. Simon appears as a burly, long-haired armour-clad warrior, rather than his short, squat, beige self from yesteryear. The environments are suitably dark and grim, from moss-covered castle walls to underground caves filled with waterfalls, all accompanied by that ever epic Castlevania soundtrack, which starts with Dance of the Holy Man and brings back some of the much loved classic tunes such as Vampire Killer later on.
As is standard, 3 lives and a password system for continuing the game means that there remains no excuse for giving up. The game is brutally challenging in places, notably in boss sections, as Simon's crippling 'backwards jump' when he gets hit seems like less of an issue here than it was on the NES, as your overall control of Simon is a lot more fluid. To make up for this, some of the bosses are tough going, starting with a skull creature which seems to cave the entire stage in around you, and only getting tougher from there. That said, the final boss, Dracula, is almost too easy! Simon's new ability to flail his whip around in all directions and deflect projectiles means that the Prince of Darkness' usual fireball-from-the-cloak attack is rendered entirely obsolete, and his secondary attack is a simple 'stand between the pillars of pain' dodge. Rinse and repeat until the castle windows crumble and he perishes in the sunlight!
Ultimately the stages are not too difficult, certainly not the gruelling series of pitfalls and never-ending medusa heads from the previous games, but it remains a trying game. For all its improvements over the predecessors, I'd argue that Super Castlevania IV is infinitely easier, but that doesn't detract from the experience. The game feels like a Castlevania game should, in my opinion. It's as close to a perfect degree of control over your character as you were ever going to get in a Castlevania game, one which has hardly been improved upon since.
While Symphony of the Night is so oft heralded as the best Castlevania game in the series, (a fact which again, I am not disputing as a reasonable belief, it is certainly an incredible game), I cannot help but adore Super Castlevania IV more. It has the feel of the older games, the linear progression through Dracula's castle before all of that Metroidvania stuff came into play, while giving you such perfect control. The music is stellar, and the graphics still hold up today as gorgeous in a 2-D sidescroller, which even attempts some pretty decent 2.5-D elements in its level design.
Downsides? No Clockwork stage music.