I’ve been continuing to explore Super Castlevania IV recently, and a few things about my experiences have got me thinking.
Specifically, it’s got me thinking about whether or not the concept of playing a game in the “correct” way really exists — and if that’s the same thing as experiencing the game in the same manner and the same context as its original release.
This is a question that is particularly relevant to modern rereleases of retro titles such as Super Castlevania IV, so let’s ponder it together today!
Early-era Castlevania games are hard. We’ve previously talked about how the NES-era Castlevania titles in particular began a trend of deliberately paced, technical action games that can be traced pretty much directly forward to From Software’s popular Souls games and their numerous imitators.
But it’s not just about how the individual challenges you come up against in Castlevania games are difficult. No, it’s also about the overall game structure — and how it makes use of old-school arcade game-style conventions despite not actually being an arcade game. (Well, yes, Vampire Killer, I know, but… let’s save that for another day!)
For those unfamiliar with the pre-Symphony of the Night installments in the Castlevania series — Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest excluded — they unfold in a mostly linear fashion. You proceed through a series of numbered “blocks”, each of which are divided into substages, and there is a boss fight at some point in each block — usually, but not always, at the end. There are occasional wrinkles in this formula — most notably Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse offering a choice of two routes at several points — but for the most part, this is how the original Castlevania, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV are all structured.
Lose all your health or fall off the bottom of the screen and you lose a life as well as being sent back to the start of the substage you’re on — even if you’re several “screens” into it. Lose all your lives and, should you choose to continue, you’ll restart from the beginning of the block. It is possible to obtain extra lives by scoring 20,000 points (and every 50,000 points thereafter) or through collecting special items — though the latter are few and far between.
This was a pretty standard structure for games in the 8-bit era in particular, and up to partway through the 16-bit era. They both have their roots in arcade culture: score is a means of comparing your performance against other people and engaging in some friendly competition, while lives are a means of controlling the length of a single player’s stay at the machine on a single coin.
In Super Castlevania IV, they have a slightly different purpose, however. Score is pretty much only relevant for the aforementioned score-based extra life bonuses, since there’s no high score table or competitive multiplayer mode, while lives are less a means of controlling how long you play the game for, and more a means of encouraging you to practice and get better.
The implementation of a fail state in Super Castlevania IV is seemingly designed to be inconvenient and annoying — particularly if you lose your last life, continue and go all the way back to the beginning of a block. But the actual thinking behind it is a bit more clever: when engaged with as originally designed, this game structure means that you’ll end up practicing, learning, memorising and mastering the parts you have difficulty with until you can sail past them with ease.
I’ve found this from my own personal experience. Rather than writing down passwords, I’ve started the game from the beginning each time, and each time I play, I find myself remembering more than the last time I went through it. On top of that, in most play sessions I find myself getting a little further than I did last time; I’m showing a gradual improvement in both overall competence at the game and knowledge of what its various stages confront me with. I’m still nowhere close to beating it, mind, but I’m having a good time trying.
Herein lies a question for modern retro enthusiasts, though: although this is the way the game was originally designed to be experienced, is it the “best” way to do so? Is it the “right” way to play? Or does it make more sense for modern players to make use of tools that SNES-era gamers didn’t have access to — most notably save states?
There’s been a lot of discourse surrounding this issue online in the last few years, mostly relating to whether or not games “should” have an “Easy” mode available. And there isn’t really a straightforward answer, as passionate as some people get about this matter one way or the other.
The fact is, different people play games for different reasons. I’m enjoying playing Super Castlevania IV for the challenge factor; I appreciate the game design, and the structure of the game in its original form is proving to be pleasingly satisfying, as I can feel myself getting better at it each time I play. As such, I’m not using save states at all and, as previously mentioned, when I sit down with the game for a new session, I play from the start rather than using a password or save file.
But not everyone feels that way. Someone who simply wants to appreciate or explore Super Castlevania IV for its aesthetic qualities would doubtless approach the game in a very different way. It is, after all, as we’ve previously discussed, the quintessential SNES game and is thus well worth studying — but the traditional game structure would somewhat get in the way of being able to do this. There’s no reason why someone who wishes to enjoy the game in this way shouldn’t be able to make use of tools such as save states, difficulty adjustments and even cheat codes to delve into the aspects of the experience that are particularly important to them.
In other words, there’s no real “right” way to play most games — even seemingly rigidly structured ones such as Super Castlevania IV. And the great thing about many of these titles being resurrected for a modern audience with today’s gaming technology is that now a broader range of people can experience them in the ways that they really want to; the choice is there. And it’s always better to have more choice in how you approach something than no choice whatsoever!
Me, I’m going to keep banging my head against the game’s challenges and see if I can beat it in the way it was designed to be beaten back in 1991 — but if you want to save-state your way through in order to say that you’ve seen all of it, I’m certainly not going to stand in your way, and I definitely don’t think any less of you!
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