Saturday 10 November 2018

Super Castlevania IV for the Super Nintendo

Vampires are a smug bunch, aren't they? Alone among the undead they're feted and admired. They make death sexy, and thanks to reams of not unsympathetic cultural product they get a much better press than your brain munching zombies, ghosties, and assorted others from beyond the grave. Thankfully, Super Castlevania IV, one of the canonical titles of the 16-bit era, dispenses with such nonsense. Yes, generally speaking vampires are Very Bad Things but here, at least early on in the Castlevania series, we're dealing with no frills evil.

Fans of the games know the plot by now. Every so often Dracula rises from his grave to rule over Transylvania. Naturally, some of the local peasants don't take kindly to have the prince of darkness on their backs and from among them one of the Belmont clan comes forward to take him on. Okay, it's not much of a premise and one hardly standing out from the afterthoughts that were often the plots for eight and 16-bit games. Then again, it doesn't need to be. And what we have in Super Castlevania IV is one of the greatest arcade platformers ever programmed.

Gameplay is easy to pick up. Just move your Belmont ass (Simon in this case) to the exit offing enemies along the way. In the beginning you're up against standard skeletons and the occasional, um, flying Medusa head (it's a thing), and as you might expect they grow in toughness as the game wears on. Skeletons that come back, skelly-bones armed with swords and javelins, axe throwing suits of armour, bats (the bats!), and occasional beasties that pop out of the scenery to give you a clout. Thankfully, Simon Belmont is no slouch. He is armed with a whip that is powered up very quickly. This can be flung in eight different directions and, when the game requires it, can be used to swing across long jumps Indiana Jones-stylee. There's also something very satisfying about lashing your enemies to death (granted, many are already dead but here we are), especially when you crack open a wall to find a treasure trove of goodies inside.

Additionally, destroying wall-mounted candles reveals love hearts, which - weirdly - are not energy boosts but ammunition for the secondary weapon. These are picked up along the way and vary between daggers, holy water, axes, and crosses. Don't worry, the latter doesn't look like crucifixes - this is Nintendo remember, and we can't upset the religiously minded parents of early 90s America. There are the customary boss fights to face at the end of each stage and, with a couple of significant exceptions, these are nowhere near as taxing as the tithes Dracula's goons enforce on his peasant charges down in the valleys. Frankenstein's monster, a teleporting mummy, a ghostly waltzing couple, the odd demon, the patterns aren't too difficult to get down.

Words deserve expending on the look of the game. Konami were never slouches when it came to squeezing the best out of the SNES, and as an early title they really made it sing. Super Castlevania IV is a colourful game which, considering the horror theme, doesn't detract from the atmos at all. They also had to get the hardware tricks in there but they weren't gratuitous nor distractions from the gameplay. Swinging chandeliers, rooms that rotate, a stomach-churning spinning background, all worked to show this game was more advanced than and a cut above not totally different offerings on rival systems. And the music - just a note. The Castlevania series is often praised for its soundtracks, and this instance was no different. Call me a philistine, I just wasn't feeling it. The offerings here were quite atmospheric, but not up to the standard later set by Super Metroid, nor were they that memorable. A case of not being bad, but the mystery of why they get such praise is beyond me.

Nevertheless, Super Castlevania IV is a superlative game. The controls are spot on, the game is exceptionally well designed, and there is nothing unnecessary. The only gripes are the infamous knock backs when struck by an enemy, the bizarre decision to let Simon fall through stairs linking platforms (and not jumping while on them), and the artificial inflation of difficulty. Yes, this is a tough game but is made unnecessarily so by locating the respawns miles away from your demise. And this becomes especially annoying when you've battled your way through a challenging level to meet a boss whose patterns you've got to learn the hard way. Then again, who said battling the undead was easy?

Anyway, vampires. On top of their affected urbanity, they inhabit mountaintop castles, and they oppress peasants. Vampires aren't just annoying, they are the class enemy. But a very particular kind of class enemy. Super Castlevania IV is set in 1691, a time in which capitalism was in the first flush of its youth. The first works of political economy were appearing, and production for profit was not only the economic law of the land in England, it was spreading. Where capitalism intersected and touched pre-existing feudal relationships they tended toward their reinforcement - particularly in Eastern Europe - while stimulating the merchant classes and transforming them, at the margins initially, from middle men to nascent bearers of capital: a proto-bourgeoisie, a capitalist class in formation. This game can be read as a digital reflection of the class struggles of that time.

The vampire is persistent because it is the monster that condenses the fallen spirit of ruling classes down the ages. The aristocracy, Dracula's real life inspiration, lived off the backs of the peasants they taxed or had work their fields. An existence of effortless grace and refinement was possible only because of the miserable lot endured by their vassals. This was an elevated condition purchased by sucking the best, most active years out of the labouring class. It's not for nothing that Marx's Capital evokes the vampire more than once when describing the process of surplus extraction in capitalist societies. Yet Simon Belmont and his clan are not of the people, nor really for the people. If Dracula is the aristocracy, the Belmonts are the rising bourgeoisie. Consider the in-game evidence. As the player character, Simon has to shepherd - some might say accumulate - his resources as he makes his way through his antagonist's domain. Success is only possible if you collect every heart to build up your store of secondary weaponry for use against the enemy. Likewise, one has to be entrepreneurial and take risks to master the obstacles and the opponents while Dracula's undead minions are stuck in the same groove, a clear contrast of the individual dynamism of the coming bourgeois epoch vs the torpor and stagnation characteristic of declining feudalism. And then there is the level near atop Dracula's castle. We enter his treasury and there is gold, gold everywhere. But this is hoarded wealth, money sat idle, presumably extorted from the subaltern classes and doing nothing. After Simon makes his way through the piles of coin and jewels, the money finally comes to life in the form of a glittering giant bat. Here the elemental powers of wealth rise up against him, but by command of his own abilities he is able to get the patterns down and master the money monster. 

And last of all, seeing off Dracula is a family responsibility, a task to be handed down generation after generation like property. But this isn't a blood bond as per aristocratic lineage, but a repetition of activity, of performing class struggle through the accumulation of capital to see off a recrudescence of undead serfdom and preserve the freedoms the Belmonts won by the sweat of their brows.At the end of the game when Dracula's castle turns to dust, the land is rid not just of a tyrant but the door is open to an unseen force of domination. One more subtle and discreet than the neck chomping of the dear old Count. Capital arrives promising our peasants a better, freer life. Little do they know that what's in store for them and their descendants is to be on the receiving end of a different kind of vampirism. 

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