By Joseph Walter
When the Nintendo Wii released, one of its most noteworthy features, aside from the motion control, was that you could download classic video games for a small price straight to the console. To me, this was the most important selling-point, as I adored NES and Genesis games.
Not too far into owning the console, my friend Tim suggested downloading "Super Castlevania IV," and sung its praises. After a month or so, I caved and purchased it for myself. It was odd, since I'd never really heard much buzz about this game, despite being such a fan of the series. It was always "Symphony of the Night," never "Super Castlevania IV" when it came to rose-tinted remembrances.
Either way, I started the game and was immediately turned off by its music and graphics. It just didn't click for me at all, but I trudged on. I brought up my concerns to Tim, and he said that I was going to reach a certain point and then I would "understand everrryyyyythinggggg" (he has a flair for the dramatic.)
I pushed onward, following his advice when, as predicted, everything changed. I thought I reached the final stage, only to have it revealed that I was merely half-way done. This fact was ushered in through then-revolutionary special effects, such as the Super Nintendo's Mode 7. Finally, after nothing clicking, it all locked perfectly into place and I was hooked.
When telling friends who have not yet played the game to give it a try, I always mention how it will start out slow but that they'll "understand everrryyythinggggg" soon enough.
Now, "Super Castlevania IV" may be my favorite of the "classic-styled" Castlevania games. It has an enjoyable difficulty curve, just the right length, a hella great Map Screen and, my God the music and graphics. Once the game clicked, my erroneous views on those subjects quickly aligned themselves properly.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was being the worst kind of Castlevania fan upon my first exposure to this bonafide classic: I was locked into some absurd mindset where if there was something that differed from the norm I was used to in regards to the series, then it must be garbage.
Thankfully, I was able to overcome that detrimental mind-malfunction and fully-understand just how fantastic this masterpiece was. Likewise, the musical score that I had initially shunned has skyrocketed towards one of my absolute favorites.
As we'll soon discuss, the major difference with the score here is that it nearly completely abandons the "Castlevania sound" in favor of foreboding atmospheric work, delivering one of the most ominous musical scores in the history of the franchise. It's an especially unexpected direction, as "Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse" essentially perfects the "Castlevania sound" that was pioneered by the first two games in the franchise.
In terms of plot, however, things couldn't be more "back to basics:" Dracula has returned to the earthly plane, and Simon Belmont needs to destroy him. The Japanese version makes it clear that this a remake of the first game, but the American version is much less clear. If we take the American version as canon, then Simon is over 100 years old when he maniacally charges into the castle, and wantonly destroys everything in his path. I'll take the American version, thank you.
So, let us listen to this brand new take on a Castlevania score while picturing a 100-plus year-old Simon Belmont mercilessly and viscerally annihilating the hordes of Dracula.
1. Demon Castle Dracula
This track... my God, this track. The differences between SCIV and its predecessors are immediately apparent. Picture a decrepit, ancient stone wall, its bricks crumbling from age with disgusting insects crawling from the crevices. Then the title appears. This track masterfully sets the tone for the entire game, even going beyond the droning "Message of Darkness" from "Simon's Quest." It's an embodiment of the dark imagery that the game contains. Despite not necessarily being "musical," this ambient track is nearly hypnotic.
2. Dracula's Theme
Picture, if you will, a lone grave in the middle of a wasteland. Suddenly, the orange sky darkens and a bolt of lightning tears the gravestone into pieces. A supernatural bat with an unearthly aura emerges and flies off into the pitch black sky. Then a slow, multi-layered, dense fog rolls in as the main "oomph" of the music kicks in, summoning a grave prologue text detailing how, inexplicably, "every one hundred years, the forces of good mysteriously start to weaken" and "the power of Dracula starts to revive itself." There's something so creepy about this text. It offers no explanations as to the hows and whys, but simply states that, inevitably, something of tremendous evil will return and ravage the land. The use of "Dracula's Theme" is extremely fitting for this sequence. The start of this song is nothing more than unsettling, dissonant hits of unusually dark instruments. Then, when the fog rolls in, there's a tantalizing, prickly sequence of organ-like synth hits. Then the incredible string section arrives, layering itself on top of the synths. Then comes the deep brass. The orchestration and layering involved here is so memorable and a paints a very detailed picture of who and what Dracula is. I would say that this is sinister at its finest, but another track later on will trump such a statement.
A very short sequence that plays while Simon crosses the drawbridge into the Castle's domain. It's a muddy collection of instruments that sounds almost ghostly. I might even go as far as to say it sounds like a warning.
4. Theme of Simon
This is one of the few times that the game even attempts to emulate one of the heroic anthems in the previous games, such as "Vampire Killer" or "Bloody Tears." Even though it takes a page from their composition, Theme of Simon is a decidedly darker interpretation. An ominous, ethereal organ opens the piece, then orchestral backing heralds in a jubilant, almost silly sounding organ ditty before returning to a more prickly, cautious style. Following that, a pathetic trumpet plays the body of the song, and then we're greeted with the main motif of the Theme, which is a triumphant organ sequence. Of note is how varied and complex this song is compared to its predecessors. This type of 16-bit sound experience was a selling point for the SNES, and it's not hard to hear why.
5. Forest of Monsters
While Simon marches through a dense forest with a rushing river, he's assaulted by all manner of spirits and the undead. The music is fittingly dreary, yet somehow manages to fit in a heroic moment or two, with a suggestion of hope against the unwavering odds. Much like Theme of Simon, there are many instruments at work here, which makes it all the more interesting to listen to.
6. The Cave
An oddly calming song, prominently featuring a harp. It has smooth transitions from the harp to a noisy trumpet, which offers a hint of danger. The Cave itself is home to mysterious living rocks, but nothing as threatening as the Forest of Monsters. As such, the piece is simple, but still manages to embody the area and its nature perfectly.
7. The Waterfalls
The harp is back, but is now punctuated by deep piano hits and a mournful string section, which is later joined by equally somber horns. It's a sad piece and evokes the desolate and abandoned structures that the water is slowly overtaking.
8. The Submerged City
This is an incredibly unique piece for the series at this point, as it seems to have taken jazz as a major inspiration. While maintaining a bit of a creepy atmosphere, it mostly feels frantic, which gives the proper anxiety to Simon who is wandering around a slowly sinking city. There's a huge amount of instruments at play here, including one hell of a wild flute.
9. Rotating Room
This... this is when the game started clicking for me. Gone were the atmospheric pieces of the previous stages. It was now a return to musical form with a catchy piece reminiscent of something akin to "Wicked Child." But, much like the rest of the musical score, this was still very much SCIV's own style. As Theme of Simon aped previous faire such as "Beginning" while adding a much more morbid overlay, "Rotating Room" does the same. It may have a beat reminiscent of the older games, but the feeling here is one of perpetual, maddening danger. After wandering the various Castle grounds, Simon finally reaches the Outer Wall of the Castle itself, which is eerily incandescent and infested with living skeletons. The music, somewhat like "Monster Dance," has a slight celebratory connotation to it, but is moreso imbued with utter madness. The laws of life and death do not apply here, and these violent monstrosities are eager to make Simon Bleed. Despite the giddy intro, the track quickly segues into a threatening and foreboding style, before teasing the player a little more with its desperate, fast-paced main organ motif. Perhaps even more important than the music is the scene that the track is named for: Simon reaches a perplexing dead-end of a room, with a wall of spikes before him, and a skeleton somehow impaled by them. Without warning, an explanation for his mysterious predicament comes when the room, using the first major exploitation the Mode 7 system, begins to rotate, nearly forcing Simon to lose his balance and fall on the wall of spikes, which is now the floor... unless you were quick enough to whip the chain-link above you and hold on for dear life........ until the Medusa Heads come.
10. Spinning Tale
A continuation of the "Rotating Room," "Spinning Tale" offers an even more maniacal take on the subject matter. Using the power of the SNES and its Mode 7 capabilities, the Outer Wall's inner chamber spins menacingly around Simon as he trudges across a collapsing bridge, being joined by skeletons emerging from above to knock him off balance.
11. Boss 1
This the best Boss Battle music of the series so far, but it's not entirely impressive on its own. Heavy percussion and ominous horns are backed by a "fly my pretties, fly!" string section. It does its job well enough, but it's still missing the soul of something that can make a statement and be memorable simultaneously. At the very least, it abolishes the dreaded repetition of the previous titles.
12. Stage Clear
A glorious, snappy and short rendition of the main motif of Theme of Simon, playing upon touching the crystal dropped by a defeated Boss. It's a more cathartic moment than "Victory" from Castlevania 1, and the use of a recurring motif helps personalize the moment even more.
13. Map A
This game's map screen happens to be one of my favorites ever committed to a cartridge, with its intricate details and flowing water. This song is also a major element of its appeal. The tone is hard to pinpoint, but the pizzicato elements offer a tantalizingly dream-like ambience, and the organ at the conclusion of the piece, coinciding with your little marker on the map symbolically moving towards your next destination, is an excellent set-up for whatever macabre threats await.
14. In the Castle
Also one of my favorite tracks, this is the track that trumps the sinister quality of "Dracula's Theme," and by nearly a lightyear. After slogging through the various landscapes, fighting through the Outer Wall and its maniacal, hallucinatory realms, Simon finally reaches the foot of the Castle. The game is truly just beginning, and this piece lets you know that the road ahead is about become far more difficult than the trials you've previously faced. Imagine the bruised and bloodied Simon, slowly marching up the steep incline, with the otherworldly glow of ethereal candles greeting his every step up the mountain, marching ever closer to the very core of evil. "In the Castle" is a foreboding, immensely ominous theme for the Castle itself, and a warning to all trespassers that not only are they unwelcome, they're far deeper into the mouth of Hell than they'd like to admit. The intense percussion with timpani is the most prominent feature here, and its nicely accompanied by the unsettling sorrowful horns and woodwinds. This is one of the finest examples of "Super Castlevania IV's" superb ability to have its unique style of music paint a vivid picture of what's going on both on screen and behind the scenes, creating a very memorable and personal connection with the player.
15. Entrance Hall
Now Simon has finally made his way into the Entrance Hall of the Castle, which is an eerily dark and comparatively empty structure. Only being interrupted by the occasional ghoul wandering aimlessly through the long hall, Simon struts deeper into the haunted Castle. This song perfectly emotes a sense of tentative danger. Comparatively minimalist to other pieces, a cautious-sounding solo organ plays a short but memorable anthem, never allowing itself to fully explode into something Bach would be proud of, while also having a very subdued-but-sinister orchestral backing that fades in for but an instant. It's a restrained piece that keeps the player (and Simon) on their toes.
One of the more famous tracks from the game, "Chandeliers" is an unsettling, manic and cruelly jovial piece that plays over one of the most memorable sequences. Once again tapping into Mode 7, Simon finds himself traversing enormous, creepily-creaky, swinging chandeliers over an endless gap against a black background that threateningly pulses red. The song itself is piano heavy, along with an emphasis on strings. It has a classical sound to it, but the level of madness it implies is what makes it one of a kind.
17. Pillared Corridor
So... this song. I don't dislike it, but it's a fairly jarring departure from the overall tone of the rest of the score. It's unusually giddy. Despite this, it manages to somehow keep a grasp on a slight eerie tone with its use of specific instruments, particularly with the theremin-esque one during the bridge. But, then again, it's an oddly fitting song for waltzing around a pretty decent library.
Ugh. This stage. Easily the most frustrating stage in the game at this point, Simon has fallen deep into the Castle's dungeon and torture chamber. This tune reflects the macabre surroundings with palpable menace. Very low tones, with an unsettling drum beat that calls to mind skeletons playing bongos. The most interesting moment comes from the prickly tinkling of a synthetic note, which has a nice skin-crawling effect.
19. Map B
The second map screen of the game is specifically for the interior of the Castle. Gone are the lovely details and flowing water. Now, we've got a simple layout of identical bricks within Castle walls, leading to a much uglier and boring screen. This is even reflected musically with a much simpler composition than "Map A," focusing entirely on the bass notes of the piano, sounding as if they are being played by a completely mad classical composer, frustrated with life.
20. Treasury Room
This track is unique, even for the uncommon sound of SCIV. Featuring a dissonant, cruel-sounding intro, it quickly alters its tune to an upbeat, horn-heavy, quick action piece that sounds as though it might fit in a brawler such as "Streets of Rage." Sharp snaps of snare drums punctuate the piece while its goofy horns (and even woodwinds!) carry the main melody. The wildest part about this cacophony is that it totally works. The Treasury Room is one of the most visually appealing chambers in the Castle, with a constant flow of translucent ghosts rising up from the luminescent piles of gold and treasure on the floor. Somehow, someway, this song fits its environment so perfectly that its nearly-out-of-place style successfully meshes.
21. Boss 2
Another of the series' middling boss themes, "Boss 2" still manages to stand on its own with its emphasis on its pounding timpani and regal,but brief, horn movement. Castlevania boss music still has a long ways to go, but this is a step in the right direction.
22. Map C
As the player reaches the tail end of the game, they ascend the towers of the Castle, and the stages are no longer numbered, but instead lettered. There's an immediate spike in difficulty starting with "Stage A," and that's when the map music changes to become something far more meaningful and cinematic. After an entire game's worth of original music, "Map C" provides possibly the best rendition of "Bloody Tears" in the franchise's 25-plus year history. Treated as a motif, it heralds in the final stages, transforming the beloved, exciting song into one of impending doom. The deep orchestral backing adds an ominous note to the mournful woodwind rendition of the main melody.
23. Bloody Tears
An unfortunate side-effect from "Map C's" perfect interpretation, this version of "Bloody Tears," which plays during the difficult Clock Tower segment, is a barebones remix of the CVII tune. Ironically, while novel at the time for its callback to the games that came before it, it also signals the start of an endemic that runs rampant through multiple installments in the series, which are numerous bare-bones "remixes" of beloved songs. While it's always cool to hear the "classic" music in the later games, it ended up becoming a rule of thumb, and any effort to innovated reinvigorate the music was seldom made. Another, more glaring, issue with this particular rendition is its terribly awkward attempt at looping. The song comes to a complete stop, with a solid conclusion, waits a beat or two, and then fades back in from the start. It's a bit of a head scratcher, and it's always bothered me that such a weird problem was seemingly knowingly left in the game. Despite the above gripes, I'll concede that the organ and string build-up in its intro and the timpani in the finale are very cool 16-bit additions to the song.
24. Map D
Now this is more like it. The final stage of this arduous journey is announced through one of the finest interpretations of Castlevania's most famous tune, "Vampire Killer." This time, it's a gentle, harp-centric rendition that calls to mind the morning sun slowly vanquishing the horrible night. Your journey is coming to an end.
25. Vampire Killer
The antithesis to the "Bloody Tears" remix in "Stage A," "Stage B's" "Vampire Killer" takes the classic song and turns it on its head. The orchestration is the star, here: It's triumphant trumpets that tout the familiar main lick are outstanding, followed by an incredibly menacing backing, then leading into the stand-out moment of the timpani-fueled, flute-finished climax, which is decidedly more reserved than most interpretations would have it. All in all, it's a brilliant rendition with the perfect balance of both victorious finality signaling the nigh-completion of the game, while also not shying away from a very dark underbelly, reminding you that despite how close you may be, your stiffest challenges still await.
And.... we're back to essentially 1:1 remixes of classic music. "Castlevania III's" synonymous song sounds admittedly great, but it hardly signifies anything more than that it's a classic. Granted, the complexity of its breakdown (and addition of the french horn) are wonderful, which makes it a worthwhile addition. For the record, though, this song will most likely be at the very back of your mind while playing since this stage is the most stressful one in the game, forcing you to outrun a gigantic gear/sawblade that's ever-rising. Even more devilishly, the only route is up, and Castlevania is notorious for its awkward controls on the stair. Many a sore thumb await.
27. Room of Close Associates
Such a great, classy title for this track. After conquering the extremely difficult towers, Simon is merely a short room away from the Castle Keep (and the Count.) However, just because the distance is short does not mean that it will be easy. As the title suggests, three of Dracula's closest associates assault Simon in succession: The deadly, skeletal Slogra, the flying demon Gaibon, and the Grim Reaper himself. The brutal gauntlet is extremely memorable, and the music is equally unforgettable. What sounds like a harpsichord is feverishly playing, giving a very spine-tingling sensation. It's joined by a baleful and aggressive timpani, which then gives why to some high-stakes string work.
28. Dracula Battle
After finally defeating the three lieutenants, the "Room of Close Associates" theme fades out and the supremely eerie "Dracula Battle" rolls in, much like the fog during the opening of the game. Simon passes by somber-looking statues, whose torches ignite as he passes. The staircase to the Count's chamber, exposed to the open air and basking in the moonlight, beckons. This song is a variation of "Dracula's Theme" from the start of the game, and, as such, features many of the same melodies and instruments, but the fact that you're finally confronting the Count gives it an extra emotional oomph. In a cool, cinematic flair, halfway through the duel with Dracula, "Dracula Battle" is replaced with "Theme of Simon." At this point, you, the player, are filled with the righteous fury you need to finish this task.
29. Dracula's Death
A decidedly creepy, even melancholy tune that signals Dracula's demise. After knocking off the last chunk of his life bar, the nearby window shatters, and the morning sun washes into the room, immolating this cursed being. The predominant use of an organ is extremely effective.
My favorite credits song from the series, "Ending" is one of the most cathartic I can think of. Somewhat like "Castlevania II's" finale, there's a hint of sadness, which I find intriguing. There's also an air of acceptance and finality. This was Simon's destiny, and it's now fulfilled. All of the hardship, the pain, sorrow and selflessness for the greater good. This track uses almost all of the available instruments from the sound set, and opens with a somber string and synth combination that says "it's over." An organ then plays a sad melody, and is soon joined by a trumpet. This combination then becomes a driving, determined force, much like Simon, with the addition of a steady, quick drum beat, which leads to a build-up of all the instruments leading to an incredibly beautiful burst from the full string section, followed by a powerful french horn. This section is almost the perfect personification of catharsis. The song ends there and then loops, but the loop, unlike in "Bloody Tears" is not jarring.
31. Secret Room
Quite infamously, there is an unusual hidden room in the game that not only features its own musical theme, but also features a completely gray moral choice, the only time the series does this. Essentially, you crack a hole through the ground of the Entrance Hall and find a hidden stairwell. Going down, you're greeted by this absolutely bizarre and giddy jig. There're are plenty of candles for your to get money, points and power ups from, but the most interesting aspect is the spirit of a dog jumping around while his ghostly master watches. All's well and good here, but for some unknown reason, you're able to kill the dog, which causes it to collapse after letting out an unearthly howl, which makes the master run to the dog's body, fall to his knees and then weep. Why? Why is this option even in the game? It's just so odd, disturbing and quite creepy, but I love it. Moral questions aside, this tune is entirely unfitting, but also ends up being one of the more musically complicated tracks. Again: Why?
32. Game Over
The saddest and gentlest game over theme yet, prominently using a harp and organ. It's almost pitiful, and it's not hard to imagine the game saying "poor Simon, he just wasn't skilled enough."
My favorite track in the game. Very much a fit for the cathedral-like password screen, the musical vibe is of medieval church music. It contains a very striking, slightly harsh, melody that evokes a prayerful state, but not one of relaxation. Instead, it feels more like a prayer before setting out on your dangerous quest.
34. The Castle's Gate
Identical to the "Prologue" theme, bringing nothing new to the table. That said, it's still a great piece.
35. Death of Simon
A concise, but oddly complex, remix of "Castlevania" the First's death theme. Just as defeating, but the addition of timpani and a very subtle theremin does a good job keeping it fresh.
In the context of the game, the music is strikingly on point with the dreary visuals. If nothing else, the music evokes very specific feelings, more so than the previous three games. Yes, the music is differently paced and more subtle this time around, but it matches the atmosphere that "Super Castlevania IV" is trying to exude. Aside from a plethora of new (unfortunately overlooked) music, SCIV also brings us some cool, if not innovative, remixes of the previous game's most famous pieces, while also giving us the stellar reimaginings of two of them with "Map C" and "Map D." This is one of the few games that I can think of that is absolutely married to its soundtrack, and the two are a perfect couple, each complimenting the other.
Out of Context:
You'd think that after singing the praises of how well the video game and its music fit together, that one would not be able to stand without the other. Thankfully, this is not the case here. Although much of the music isn't even close to the catchy chip-tunes style of the NES trilogy, it offers a more intellectually interesting experience due to the complexity and orchestrations. Even so, I wouldn't classify this as "feel good" or "heart-pumping" music, so it might not be as effective at the gym as, say, "Symphony of the Night's" score. It's perfect to get into the Halloween spirit or if you'd like to brood. Personally, I use "Password" and a few others to help me sleep at night.
A point where SCIV and the original three's scores can agree is that they are unique when compared to their peers. SCIV, despite being the odd-man-out musically when compared to the trilogy, is also musically unique when compared to its 16-bit comrades. While game music was becoming more dynamic and cinematic during this era, SCIV may have been more of a pioneer than is given credit for. Overall, "Super Castlevania IV" produces a very memorable soundtrack experience, with or without context, and it remains one of the most time-tested and cohesive scores in the franchise. Despite its few weaker elements, nothing is enough to darken its holy luster.