The greatest 2-D platform game ever made. Period.
The mark of a genuinely great game, is one that can capture your imagination, and truely bring an atmosphere of other-worldlyness through the screen. This game did just that.
The visuals are a vast improvement on the 8-bit versions of this classic series, as you would expect from Nintendo's new 16-bit box-of-tricks. The visual style is very gloomy and pixellated, which contrasts heavily with the clear, cartoon-style graphics of most games of the time. Despite this, though, the significant gameplay elements on the screen are normally clearly visible.
The enemies are generally very impressive-looking, and read like a who's-who of cliqued Transylvania-based characters. Ranging from the plentiful skelitons, to the heavily-armoured undead knights, and very impressive bosses, the spites are all very well drawn and animated. While Simon himself strolls across the screen with the self-assurance and arrogance that you come to expect from a member of the Belmont family. As for the level with the swinging chandaliers, well that, at the time, really had to be seen to be believed. Also, along with F-Zero and Super Star Wars, this was one of the first games the make use of the Super Nintendo's new 'Mode 7' capabilities, which allowed game worlds to rotate round an axis.
It's impossible to discuss the qualities of this game without paying homage to the soundtrack. It still stands out as one of the best ever, even when compared to wonderful audio present in more modern classics like Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy and, of course, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Gloomy, dark tracks add atmosphere to the more sedate levels, while the frantic all-action levels are played out to some brilliant fast beating music, which really contributes the feeling of danger.
The gameplay is typically Castlevania. Simon Belmont has his trusted whip, which can be slashed in 8 different directions. Special tricks with the whips also include a slingshot-style spin attack, and, best of all, the ability to snap the whip onto a hook, and swing vast distances Tarzan-style. Because of the versatility and flexibility of Simon's whip, the extra weapons don't play as big a role as they do in the sequal, Dracula X. Throwing knives are useful for taking out enemies from distance, and the clock, which freezes all on screen enemies, has occasional uses. Generally, though, the trusted whip is all you need to progress.
A general trend in Castlevania games is for them to be very difficult, and extremely frustrating, at times. This game, though, has the best difficulty curve of the whole series. It is truely challenging, without ever seeming unfair. The enemies are generally beatable, but health recovery items are rare. The bosses range from being very easy early-on, to being pretty tough towards the end of the game, but never seem unbeatable. Like most of the early Castlevania games, most lives will be lost through falling off platforms, or, to a greater extent, being knocked off by an enemy of some description. Again, though, this doesn't happen with sufficient frequency to make the game seem grossly unfair (unlike Dracula X, which truely is an unfair game).
It's hard to think of much to say against this game. The password system, which consists of putting different items in a grid, was annoying. But this is a pretty trivial complaint.
I think the main sticking-point is over the hero's ability to jump (not an insignificant factor in a platform game). From the evidence of this game, and many others in the Castlevania series, the Belmont family members all seem to inherit the ability to jump like artheritic rhinos. The character feels heavy in the air, and cannot re-adjust once he's taken off. Furthermore, some gaps seem to be further than he's capable of jumping (normally the ones over spikes and bottom-less pits), which can lead to some frustrating moments. Also, there are issues with the responsiveness of the character when you press to jump. This again is a pretty minor complaint of the straw-clutching variety (although try telling that to someone who's just seen Simon walk of the platform to his doom, despite his efforts to make him do otherwise....).
The Bottom Line
A true 16-bit classic, and a game that remains extremely playable to this day. Blessed with some of the greatest visual effects of the time, and one of best soundtracks ever made, this game was brilliantly atmospheric, and brought weird and wonderful fictional world of Transylvania to life.