Monday, 29 April 2013

Vampires, whips and 16bits

Throughout the years much has been much written about Konami’s wondrous Castlevania series (a boat load in all honesty). And for one instalment in particular there is very little that has not been said, no part of the game left upraised and no dimly lit Transylvanian corridor unexplored... I am talking of course about the legendary SNES offering; Super Castlevania IV. Even though this game has been pulled apart on innumerable occasions, it has not deterred me from adding my own two penneth’s worth into the mix.

Released in 1991 as part of the Super Nintendo’s first wave assault on the gaming landscape, Super Castlevania IV arrived on the scene carrying with it the heavy burden of reputation - the rabid love for its predecessors was a force to be reckoned with. Although on the face of it, seemingly not much more than a simple 16bit re-working of Simon Belmont’s original NES outing, it soon becomes apparent that the cosmetic Mode 7 upgrades are just the beginning of this vamp-tastic (yes that’s a word!) adventure. Konami unleash upon us an array of undead baddies, eerie vistas and demonic overlords that will test even the most intrepid of vampire hunters.

Once again the game focuses on the tale of the unfortunately named Simon Belmont and his quest to slay the biggest and baddest undead fiend of them all; Dracula. Belmont must navigate the vast labyrinths and mazes of his nemesis’ castle (as well its substantial ‘grounds’) and using his trusty whip, slay hordes of minions and generally kick arse along the way (there may also be some swinging involved...but thankfully not of the fruit bowl variety).

Visuals – 8.5 / 10 

In what is a rare occurrence for a Konami game, the graphics do not immediately blow you away and in fact for the first 20 minutes or so you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. This is not to say the appearance is initially poor (far from it), the graveyards and outer reaches of the castle are immaculately drawn and ooze atmosphere, it’s just that it’s all a bit...brown, or maybe “earthen” is a better term. Though this does fit in with the gothic and chilling undertone of the game, it can feel a little samey.

Anyways, as with many of the finer things in life, once things get up and running you are treated to a Konami master class in how to how to “do graphics”. There is gorgeous use of parallax scrolling, seeing the night sky drift past the dilapidated walls is heaven for any 16bit fan! The sprites for the legions of evil creatures are beautifully drawn and then we get to the bosses which manage to put a decent amount of later Super Nintendo games to shame. From the delightfully translucent giant skull to the brutish take on Frankenstein’s Monster, these end of level titans are as jaw dropping in their appearance as they are in their difficulty.

And as was the way in the early 90’s, Super Castlevania IV takes huge advantage of the SNES’ (still mind boggling) Mode 7 trickery...leading to one of the most talked about and impressive scenes of the 16bit era. Yes, the chandelier bit is as good as everyone says it is...there is just something immensely satisfying about dancing over giant swinging light fittings! The scene’s cemented renown in gaming folklore is very much deserved.

Sound – 10/10

As any fan of the series can attest to, music is one of Castlevania’s strongest and most enduring features, and the SNES version is no different. It is well known amongst fans of the console that the Nintendo’s second grey box had the capacity to produce some quite staggering musical scores, so it is rather pertinent (to me at least) to say say that Super Castlevania IV’s is up there with the very best that the system has to offer.

The soundtrack is dark and foreboding – classic horror stuff and you could honestly be forgiven for thinking it was scored by an actual orchestra...on a cartridge! The use of organ (or the midi version of it anway) fits in perfectly well with the baroque style ambience of the game and adds a genuine feeling of darkness to each level you tackle. For my money, a video game soundtrack is only truly exceptional when I find myself listening to it outside of playing the actual game, this one has been on my iPod for a number of years now...and it will not be going anywhere soon.

Playability – 9/10

Once again here Super Castlevania IV starts off at leisurely pace, the first couple of sections are nothing more than an evening stroll around the castle grounds slaying a few slow moving monstrosities...this does seem trying initially but later on you realise that the period of familiarisation was actually a must. The gameplay is similar to earlier incarnations of the game but with some much needed improvements; Mr Belmont can now whip all around the place (or at least in eight directions as opposed to just four) which makes for some lovely diagonal action. The whip (aptly named ‘The Vampire Killer’) can also be held in front of the player and swung around like a flail; this inflicts less damage in exchange for much more frequent hits. An extra treat also comes in the form of sub-weapons such as daggers and axes which come in handy when the going gets tough.

Although controlling Simon initially feels slightly cumbersome, once you have the hang of it, the system feels very natural and then we get to Konami’s pièce de résistance: the whip can be used to latch onto and swing over various obstacles which allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Although this kind of thing seems standard today, it was revelatory stuff for the series and gives the game a much more fluid platform style flow.

Longevity – 8/10 

The game is stretched out over 11 magnificent and varied levels, cunningly each one is just that bit tougher than the last so you never feel like you've run into a wall of difficulty. Make no mistake though, this is a hard game and death is never far away. Even though you learn that certain jumps require super precision and certain enemies have a pattern you’ll probably use continues and become familiar with the password system. If you’re not skilled at the platform genre then making it to the end and besting this beast may be a tremendous test of patience. The game is best suited to committed folk looking for a challenge and a bit of exploration to go with their platform escapades.

Sadly the western releases of the game were blighted by the usual censorship shite that we had become used to. Dripping blood was replaced by green ‘slime’, certain religious crosses and removed and the obligatory topless statues were given some clothing to keep them warm...but even this overly nannied approach though does not detract from what is an awesome spectacle with tonnes of replay value.

Overall In more recent times, Super Castlevania IV has (in my eyes at least) been eclipsed by the nigh-on perfect Symphony of the Night for the PSX. Never-the-less it is still a veritable classic and one of the Super Nintendo’s flagship titles, whilst it does begin at a rather sedate pace and maybe lacks the initial wow factor of a Super Mario World or F-Zero, those willing to persist with it will find true quality the likes of which is all too rarely seen.

I am a long time fan of this fantastic game and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion it absolutely carries the torch for a time when video games were not only scaling new heights of technical excellence, but were also crafted with genuine heart and soul...something which seems sadly lacking in many of today’s releases. Super Castlevania IV is dripping in both class and charisma and although I dislike the phrase, it really is a tour de force that once again shows what Konami could achieve at their brilliant best...and when playing with Super power.

Go out right this minute and buy it!

Score 9 out of 10

Saturday, 27 April 2013

SFC box art number 6: Super Mario Kart

Full name: Sūpā Mario Kāto
Genre: Racing
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
First released: 1992

Here we have a video game colossus that really needs no introduction. If you're a fan of console gaming, then it's likely at some point you've played Super Mario Kart (or at least one its various offspring). A great many games are often hailed as revolutionary or genre defining, but in this case that tag actually does apply.

Although there's nothing hugely clever or jaw droppingly pretty going on here, I've always found the Super Mario Kart artwork totally bewitching. The ingenious use of some of gaming's most lovable characters and the promise of bags of vivid and colourful fun, is one of the most powerful images of the 1990's. Mostly though it harks back to an age where Mario still had a bit of belly and a weft of innocence about him, and when a young lad from Liverpool (me) was left wide eyed at the prospect of racing a koopa trooper around a beach!

I think the biggest tribute that I could pay to Super Mario Kart is that even though it was released some 20 plus years ago, it still remains the most fun I've ever had playing video games. And I honestly can't see anything displacing it.

Friday, 26 April 2013

SFC box art number 7: Vortex

Full name: Vortex - The FX Robot Battle
Developer: Argonaut
Publisher: Pack-In-Video (Japan)

So we arrive at number 7 in my Super Famicom box art countdown, and what's giant mechs thus far?! Fear not, as this will now be addressed with the very interesting Vortex. Developed by British company Argonaut; Vortex was one of the first (and few) games to show off Nintendo's shiny new Super FX chip and gave 16bit gamers a taste of what Transformers could have looked like on the SNES.

I've got to be honest, part of me thinks this box art should have been number 1 in the list, but the RPG fan boy in me (and my girlfriend) just wouldn't allow it. It is however, absolutely stunning.

It's very rare I've come across a piece of Super Famicom art that's so foreboding and so...epic. The level of detail on show on the giant mech (named 'Morphing Battle System') beggars belief and the background only serves to exaggerate the scale of the metal behemoth. This picture looks like it's been taken straight from the cover of a sci-fi novel about a distant and apocalyptic war.

The reverse side brings with it a slice of reality with some screens of what the game actually looks like, but seriously, you tend not to pay it much attention.

Although Vortex is a fine game, and uses the SFX chip remarkably well, I can't help feeling that it suffers from a classic case of the artwork being just too awesome for the game to keep up. That said, what Argonaut achieved with just a measly 4mbit cart is astounding, and I'd have loved to see what they could have done with a bigger 16mbit cart.

This particular example was purchased from the wonderful Genki Video Games. Check them out!

Thursday, 25 April 2013

SFC box art number 8: Dolucky's Grass Baseball

Full name: Dorakkii no Kusayakiu
Genre: Sports
Developer: Zoom
Publisher: Imagineer
First released: 1993

Ok here's the thing, I like cute stuff. Doraemon, Keroppi, Moogles...I have a real soft spot for them all. So you can imagine the first time I saw this little round ball of fur stepping up to bat, I was smitten! Dolucky's Grass Baseball is a typical Japanese baseball title, with a RPG style career mode and the ability to challenge your friends to multi-player antics.

The game features developer Zoom's mascot; NECO as the main character, and sees him and his equally adorable friends from the forest don their soft drink sponsored baseball kits and play some ball (I think that's the correct term). I'm not sure where this one sits in the pantheon of great baseball games, but I certainly had lots of fun with it.

I absolutely adore this artwork! From the charming font right down to NECO's comedy sized feet and stuck out tongue, this box art just screams fun. And I would imagine that most other fans of cutesy Japanese characters will be in kawaii heaven with the vibrant and colourful images that adorn the entire box (and if you think that's cute, then just wait till you see the manual).  

I'll be honest, being English I have no idea about baseball (rules, teams etc), and I did buy this game solely for the artwork, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much of a grin it was and how much effort Zoom seemed to put into it...especially the characters. This makes it even more of a shame that the scheduled US release of Doluck'y Grass Baseball (which was to be renamed Zoo Ball) ended up getting cancelled.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

SFC box art number 9: Garou Densetsu 2

Full name: Garō Densetsu 2 Aratanaru Tatakai
Genre: Fighting
Developer: SNK/Takara
Publisher: Takara
First released: 1993

Instantly recognisable to all fighting game fans, Garou Densetsu (released in the west as Fatal Fury) was SNK's attempt at muscling in on the 2D brawling craze caused by Street Fighter 2. And what a series it is! Boasting BIG sprites, colourful characters and the very impressive plain shift technique, Garou offered a striking alternative to the Capcom standard.

I became interested in the art of SNK titles (and in the games themselves) the first time I happened upon a feature about Art of Fighting in an old magazine, but it wasn't until seeing a preview of Garou 2 in my beloved Super Play, that my love for all things SNK really blossomed.

Though Garou 2's artwork is not as "pretty" as that of something like Wonder Project J, there is something about it which appeals greatly to me. Seeing this rag-tag band of fighters strutting their stuff in hand drawn glory drew my attention instantly, and you can almost hear the shouts of "Power Wave" trying to escape the cart inside.

This dramatic style is carried over to the reverse of the box, which shows Terry Bogard's signature 'Fatal Fury' baseball cap lying discarded on the ground (thrown there in victory, I hope!). And as an added bonus there is a typically (for the time) epic message below the Garou logo, which speaks of the Lone Wolves taking on the world...if I'd read that in 1993, I'd have took up martial arts there and then!

Admittedly, I never enjoyed the Garou series as much as Street Fighter, but in terms of artwork alone, South Town's finest definitely scores the knockout blow.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

SFC box art number 10: Wonder Project J

Full name: Wonder Project J: Kikai no Shōnen Pīno
Genre: RPG/raising sim
Developer: Almanic
Publisher: Enix
First released: 1994

A curious and totally enchanting video game, which centres around a young robot boy (or Gijin, as they're known) and his exploits in learning to be more human. Inspired heavily by the story of Pinocchio, and with an added layer of Steampunk goodness; Wonder Project J represents heartfelt gaming at its best.

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that this title actually pre-dates Magic Pengel as Studio Ghibli's first foray into the world of video games, and it's not difficult to see why. Pino (the main character) looks like he'd fit right in to the machine heavy world of Laputa or the vibrant cities of Howls' Moving Castle. And whilst there was no direct involvement from Miyazaki and co, the influence the company's works have on this game is there for all to see.

The clever meshing of medieval (grand castles, rural villages etc) and industrial revolution settings makes for a truly extravagant fantasy world.

Being a bit of a Ghibli nut and a fairly big fan of anime style art in general, this charming design leapt out at me immediately. From the striking design of the characters (check out Pino's joints!) to the stunning location in the background, Wonder Project J was always a shoe-in to make my top 10 list.

This game could have sold on its box art alone, but when you add in the fact that it is genuinely brilliant too...well, the package is complete.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Box art: Super Famicom top 10

I like video game box art.

I like it a lot. So much so that I have been known to purchase more than the odd stinker of a game just because the picture on the front box was very pretty or interesting (Pachio-kun Special, anyone?). I know that to some people this practice is absolutely bonkers, but those who feel the same way will totally understand me.

I also like the Super Famicom...a lot.

In recent months my collection has swelled considerably and I now own a very healthy 147 complete in box (CIB) titles for my beloved 16bit box of tricks. And this got me thinking, in amongst this horde are some truly stellar examples of box art at its best, so I've been trying to tackle the difficult (and very fun) task of ranking them in top 10 format.

Anyways, starting today I intend to countdown through the list and try to explain why each example is appealing to me.

So, if you're a fellow box art nut, then please join me for the ride...