When Halloween season rolls around, and everyone gathers around a collection of scary movies and Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episodes to watch, I find myself drawn to a classic action horror video game series: Castlevania. Despite the non-linear exploration gameplay introduced in Symphony of the Night that moved the series solidly into the Metroidvania genre, my favorite vampire hunting adventure is still Super Castlevania IV on the Super Nintendo.
To the uninitiated “Castlevania” might sound like a silly game title, the mashup of “castle” and “Transylvania” being a rather odd choice. But the game’s original Japanese title is Akumajō Dracula, which literally means “Devil Castle Dracula”, so the constituent parts were there from the beginning. Historically, Nintendo has been rather strict about censoring anything with even vaguely religious content from their games, so I wonder if the devil/demon part was omitted from the English title just to avoid any possible Satanic controversy. (However, they could have also called it “Dracula’s Haunted Castle” and had just as accurate translation.)
The original Castlevania was release on the NES way back in 1986. Players took on the role of Simon Belmont, fighting through a ghastly ghoul-filled castle on his quest to slay Dracula, the titular undead aristocratic of Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel. The Belmont clan, as game lore would establish, were a religious family of vampire hunters, traditionally armed with a whip (for some reason). The Belmonts were repeatedly called upon to vanquish Dracula, as demonic forces would resurrect the vampire lord every 100 years.
The first game was immensely popular and quickly spawned sequels. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest in ‘87 and Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse in ‘89 continued the series on NES, while two black-and-white handheld games, Castlevania: The Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, were released on the Game Boy.
Then in 1991, Dracula and the Belmonts made the technical leap into 16-bits with Super Castlevania IV. While the fourth game in main series, Super Castlevania is actually a remake/reimagining of the original Castlevania on the NES. And though other games in the series had established more members of the Belmont line (like Trevor and Christopher), this game reintroduced Simon, the OG whippersnapper players were most familiar with.
Super Castlevania’s overworld map layout, alongside some impressive level variety, effectively makes the game feel like a cohesive journey. Starting just outside the castle gates, you must first make your way to the castle before ascending through it, always climbing towards Dracula’s chamber. It’s a worth noting that you don’t actually enter Dracula’s castle until the sixth level, about halfway through the game. And the journey is, of course, a gauntlet of monsters the whole way.
Simon Belmont is back in action from the original Castlevania, and he moves kind of like a tank. His walking animation looks labored—just as it had in the 8-bit original—as if his short-shorts armor are made to prioritize sturdy defense over easy mobility. That said, our beefy protagonist does feel considerably more agile this time around, especially when jumping and whipping diagonally. Stairs are still a bit awkward for old Simon, though he can now moonwalk up them in certain circumstances.
The whip—creatively named “Vampire Killer”—has always been the Belmont family’s main weapon, and it has never been more badass than this. Super Castlevania allows you attack it eight directions, including diagonally, giving you 360 degrees of whip-cracking freedom. You can also hold down the Y button to just let the whip dangle loosely to the floor, then pressing any direction on the D-pad to cause the thing to flip and flop about like a wet noodle. And as dumb as this sounds, it’s actually a shockingly useful defensive technique.
In another innovative first for Castlevania, the game allows you to whip onto hooks and swing over chasms like Indiana Jones. This is already ridiculously cool and unnecessary, but the fact that your whip’s grapple points are little gargoyle-ring wall fixtures makes it extra rad.
But the Vampire Killer whip isn’t just cool, it also deals out the damage like nobody’s business. Beginning as just a standard leather whip, a power-up (which is always quickly found) turns your main weapon in a chain whip. The upgraded Vampire Killer packs a real punch, making it so effective as to render your secondary weapons pretty much useless. Apparently a chain whip is all it takes to battle an army of the undead.
In true Castlevania style, candelabras are scattered throughout every level. Whipped candles will drop items, such as power-ups, secondary weapons, gold (which adds to your score), and many, many, many hearts. Hearts is this game are not related to health, but instead act more like ammunition, allowing the player to use their secondary weapon at the cost of one heart point. Hearts can be collect in both singles—small heart icons that slowly float to the ground like a feather—and a larger variety that provides five heart points.
In order to regain health, Castlevania players need to find meat. Candles will occasionally drop a small turkey leg, though it is the typically the farther flung, harder-to-get-to candles that contain a carnivorous snack. Whipping at the crumbling castle walls is usually a better way to uncover the live-giving protein, hidden away a completely unsanitary spot.
The whip isn’t your only means of attack, as secondary (or "sub”) weapons can be picked up and thrown as projectile as well. Of the sub weapons, the knife is straightforward, flying horizontally when thrown. The axe flies in an arc, making it a handy option for hitting enemies on a plane above you. (Though since you can whip diagonally in this game, axe is considerably less useful.) Holy water hits the ground right in front of you and burns for a bit. I’m not actually sure how much damage the holy water deals, but it seems rather useless to me.
Finally there’s my favorite sub weapon: the cross! For some reason, the cross in Castlevania acts as a boomerang, flying horizontally out in one direction before reversing back the other way, dealing damage to everything it hits along the way. The cross boomerang is clearly the best sub weapon of all, giving you the most bang for your heart counter buck. It also looks pretty rad.
Picking up the same secondary weapon power-up twice, or even three times, acts as a multiplier, allows you to toss out more than one of that same projectile at a time. Having three crosses flying around the screen at once is quite satisfying. Unfortunately, if you accidentally pick up a secondary weapon that you don’t particularly like, it replaces the one you previously had. It can be really annoying to be kicking ass with triple crosses, whip a candle directly above you, and accidentally catch an axe power-up. No more boomerang action for you, my friend.
Super Castlevania has an impressively wide range of monstrous enemies to encounter, drawing from several sources to build their army of demonic baddies. From fire-spitting Bone Pillars and flying Medusa heads, to ballroom dancing ghosts, zombie dogs, and animated suits of armor, there’s every manner of mythical beast, boogyman of folklore, and classic monster to face. There’s even Creature from the Black Lagoon-esque frogmen, which is always fun to see.
Castlevania’s skeletons alone come in several variations. There are the normal run-of-mill skeletons, soldier skeletons with swords, red skeletons that crumble when defeated but reanimate after a short time, fencing skeletons with long rapiers, badass whip-wielding skeletons, and blinged-out golden skeletons to boot.
In addition to its regular enemies, Super Castlevania also has some iconic boss fights. Simon Belmont will face off with the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, Medusa, a huge stone golem, the literal incarnation of Death, and of course, Dracula himself. The demonic fun just doesn’t let up!
The pixel art in this game is 16-bit magic, with not only is Simon Belmont animated to perfection, but a wide variety of ghoulish creatures popping off the screen, each sprite more impressive than the last. Visually Konami pulled out all the stops, utilizing the SNES’s Mode 7 graphics to rotate, grow/shrink, and bend sprites to dazzling effect. Level 4, in particular, uses Mode 7 effects to produce a dungeon room that’s constantly rotating around the player in the foreground. It’s such a showstopper that I’ve actually heard of players feeling a touch of motion-sickness from it.
While the game’s visuals impress, the music in Super Castlevania is just plain amazing! Admittedly, I have an undying love the Super Nintendo soundscape, but this game still remains one of the prime examples 16-bit audio artistry. Composers Masanori Adachi and Taro Kudo crafted a soundtrack that not only feels unsettling and eerie, but also strangely old. Each track exudes a pseudo-historical vibe that’s perfect for a spooky adventure through fictionalized 1691 Transylvania.
Rock themes from the original game, of course, return to drive the action. But while those energetic bursts are metal as hell, it’s actually the quiet pieces that most effectively create the game’s horror atmosphere. The use of baroque instrument samples is particularly brilliant, lending the 16-bit soundtrack a legitimately gothic flare.
This game has no saves, instead using a password system. While password systems like this were a bit cumbersome back in the day, they did enable you to jump to whatever level you wished, so long as you had (or had looked up) the appropriate password. These days, of course, you can simply use save states to record your progress, assuming you’re playing the game on the SNES Classic Mini (or other emulator).
Beating the game unlocks a second quest, which begins immediately after the credits finish. Including a second quest was a nice touch by the developers, kind of a throwback to older titles in the action horror genre—like Ghosts 'n Goblins, for example. While it is likely to be ignored (or go completely unnoticed) by most players, the second quest provides a new option for challenge-seekers, and even has its own set of unique passwords.
Much like Dracula himself, Super Castlevania IV looks amazingly good for its age. This game is gem that really hold up, even 27 years after release. The action horror gameplay is thrilling and rock solid, with the 8-direction whipping mechanic taking the old-school adventure to a new level. The wide variety of enemies and areas to battle through make the game feel stunningly expansive for an adventure through a single castle. The fun of slaying demonic ghosts and monsters really hits a high point here.
And yet the thing that truly makes the game stand out isn’t the action, but its eerie, brooding atmosphere. The game’s quiet moments are hauntingly still and unsettling, with archaic baroque musical touches that drive home a palpable sense of ancient evil. Super Castlevania isn’t just a good action game that happens to include demons and vampires. It balances the adventure elements with a sizable dose of gothic horror to deliver some legitimately satisfying Halloween chills.