The majority of players who tried it broken their teeth on its unusual difficulty. I'm talking of course about Magician Lord. The other one was a Konami hit on the Super NES: I'm of course talking about Super Castlevania IV. If for some players this saga is legendary, let's see what this episode can do facing what was released best on the Neo Geo at the same time, back in 1991. In both games, we're involved in heroic-fantasy worlds with castles, ghouls, monsters, demons, wizards freaks, skeletons, and magic powers. It goes without saying that compete with SNK's beast won't be easy for a generalist home system, but the decision can be made on other fields than pure technique. The Neo Geo starts this duel taking advantage on the resolution, displayable colors, animation, sound, and storage capacity.
Super Castlevania IV and Magician Lord both are among the very first games released on their respective systems, so resources were probably not fully exploited. And yet, what a graphic slap was the SNK title upon its release. When in the pages of a magazine you were seeing the pictures of the game, it was impossible not to scan the images and being kind of hypnotized, as it seemed sublime compared to any other production back then. The backgrounds were phantasmagorical, bathed in a medieval-apocalyptic atmosphere. Castlevania, in a more sober genre, was far from ugly, but still can't match the quality level set by its opponent. The sprites are bigger in Magician Lord, either the main characters or the Bosses, and even the basic enemies throughout the levels. Castlevania is a bit dull and seems to use few colors for certain stages. Needless to say the decision can easily be made with graphics, as Konami's game can't compete with the Neo Geo here.
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The respective animations have a little aged in our two games: details that back then did not shocked are a little more 'visible' today: we would have liked more steps of animation, especially for Castlevania, and more smoothness in the way Elta walks in Magician Lord. For the rest, we must acknowledge on both sides some prowess: first, the mode 7 is nicely used on the Super NES. There are stages using full rotation for a different gameplay, providing variety to action. The few zooms used on Bosses or backgrounds are also quite awesome. On scrollings, there's nothing special to say: we are granted some beautiful differentials, but there could have been more. On the rival's side, the least we can say is that guys at Alpha Denshi did an excellent job: zooms and differentials scrollings are gorgeous, the background elements have been well worked, whether waterfalls, fires, explosions. Even loaded with dozens of enemies on screen, the game never slows down, which is a great performance.
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Taro Kudo's Castlevania themes are beautiful and perfectly suit the game, but today it feels a little like they were made on a Bontempi. Speaking about pure quality it's poor, due to the Super NES capabilities. Fortunately some melodies are sublime, especially the first stage's theme. The sound effects on the other hand, they are simple but efficient. Magician Lord is used as a showcase for the Neo Geo audio capabilities: the digitized voices - a technical prowess at the time- are numerous, clear and powerful. Gal Agiese speeches before each stage's Boss are dramatic (and his grammar is, too). The sound effects are a bit more powerful than Castlevania's ones, and the music is also epic, taking advantage of the powerful YM2610 embarked on the system.
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The difficulty of these games will have you spending several hours playing, especially Magician Lord. Eight levels await you, and let's already say you'll get no favors. In the last stage, you will have to face all the resurrected mid-bosses of the game, and then Az Atorse as the final Boss. Be warned, it won't be an easy task to get there. Two versions of the soft exist: in the first, you have two life points, four if you manage to change form. In case of death, you re-start exactly where you died. In the second one, more difficult, the player is granted three life points and six after a transformation. By cons in case of death, you'll have to start from the beginning of the stage, or from the last door crossed. The same checkpoint system is used by Castlevania, with the difference that in this one, the hero has more health points and enemies are less aggressive and many than in Magician Lord. In terms of 'real' life, ie the true length of the game, Konami's game is larger than Magician Lord, which provides it the victory in this chapter.
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If controls in these old games certainly leave something to be desired, once you've spent some time learning commands, both softs are fun to play and addictive. Castlevania offers much different weapons, cure for health, secret passages... and the ability to hang with the whip across the walls almost everywhere. Magician Lord replicates with seven possible warrior's forms: there's the simple magician (Elta), but also six transformations that are based on combinations of elemental orbs you collect during the stages. Jumble you can play as a ninja, a samuraï, an electric djinn, a water-warrior, Poseidon, and a dragon warrior. Three power levels are possible for each character, by collecting orbs of power (P+). Stages sometimes have several doors and passageways providing access to rooms full of bonuses and orbs, but also traps. Handling requires an extreme dexterity, clearly daunting for novice players. Both games feature a simple gameplay but thus provided with opportunities, as well as a nice variety in action.
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Konami's hit loses this duel in large part because of its realization. But could it be otherwise, given the power difference between the two machines? Who knows. Life and variety of Castlevania are better than those of SNK's title. The gameplay qualities are substantially equal, and they don't give an advantage to one or another. It's clear that the colossal difficulty of Magician Lord will repel many, but Castlevania is still not an easy game so far too. If these two games have somewhat aged a little, they're nevertheless great classics, timeless masterpieces, that every gamer worth of the name should complete once in a lifetime!
Super Castlevania IV