For quite some time, Castlevania X: Rondo of Blood (Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo)was the Castlevania that got away. It held mythical status among the fanbase since it was only released in Japan on the PC-Engine Super CD-ROM². In the ‘90s and into the ‘00s, that might as well have made it available exclusively on the moon. Some discovered it via word of mouth and emulators. At the time, that would kind of make you feel special as if you had learned some arcane knowledge.
However, because the seminal Castlevania: Symphony of the Night leaned so hard on it, it was perhaps a matter of time before it was remade as Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles in 2007 on the PSP. That got localized, and the following year, the original console version was ported to the Wii’s Virtual Console.
However, while I had picked up and played Dracula X Chronicles, I had yet to do a complete playthrough of it. That might have been partially because I wasn’t yet a real fan of the series. It’s somewhat amusing it took so long, since, in the meantime, I had even completed the SNES off-shoot/remake/ bastardization, Castlevania: Dracula X. Dunno why. However, I’ve finally consummated with Castlevania X: Rondo of Blood and slapped Dracula’s face, so I can talk about it in a bit more detail.
After the NES reached its twilight, Castlevania seemed to have difficulty finding what to do with itself. There was an SNES remake of the first title, a few Game Boy entries, Rondo of Blood, another remake of the first game on the Sharp X68000, then finally, a Genesis-esized title. It wouldn’t be until Symphony of the Night that it would truly find its new direction, but that was built atop Rondo of Blood.
Rondo of Blood follows pretty closely from the original Castlevania, and even includes a nod to Simon’s Quest in the first level. Of all the games I listed above, Rondo is probably the most faithful to the original formula. Many of the levels resemble areas from the original game, though often you’re forced through detours that allow it to feel distinct. The movement controls follow the original feel, ignoring the changes made in Super Castlevania IV. It’s a good progression of those mechanics.
This time around, you play as Richter Belmont. If you’re unfamiliar with the overarching storyline of the Castlevania games, every hundred years or so, Dracula wakes up from a nap, disoriented and grumpy. The Belmont clan is tasked with breaking into his home and putting him back down. To complicate things, Dracula has kidnapped Richter’s girlfriend. I don’t know why a damsel in distress is a necessary addition to the narrative. It doesn’t make Richter any more relatable or interesting than Simon or Christopher before him. He’d eventually get better development in Symphony of the Night.
Early on, Richter can also rescue Maria Renard, who becomes a second option as a playable character. She’s interesting, as she uses animals as weapons, which she’s allowed to do since she can’t be tried as an adult by the justice system. She sort of acts as Rondo of Blood’s easy mode, which is kind of a shame. She can attack faster than Richter, double-jump, and even slide to dodge. The only downside to Maria is that she takes more damage, but that’s hardly a problem when she has so much mobility.
I would have preferred it if it was a John Morris and Eric Lecarde system from Castlevania: Bloodlines, where the two were equal but had different paths through the game. Or even like Castlevania 3, where each of the characters had their distinct advantages and shortcomings. Instead, playing as Maria feels like something of a failure. Or a joke.
I felt obligated to play as Richter because of this. Honestly, though, Richter is probably one of the best protagonist designs in the series until Shanoa in Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, even if the PC-Engine color palette makes his hair blue. For that matter, I prefer when he’s depicted with a dapper white undershirt rather than his ripped sleeves look. At least he isn’t wearing suspenders over his sweater vest. What were we talking about?
Cutscenes are the big CD-powered addition. These are all fully voiced, which is neat, but they’re dopey as hell. When Richter meets Maria, he’s understandably like, “This is no place for children. Run on home.” She counters with, “I can take care of myself. I’m a badass,” so he just lets her go alone. I mean, sure, he’s not her dad, but you’d think he wouldn’t just rescue someone to then let them run around Dracula’s castle unattended. Of course, she’s right. She could probably kick Richter’s ass.
Stupid sexy minotaur
Castlevania X: Rondo of Blood features a branching path system. Sort of. It’s more like there’s a direct route through the game, as well as a hidden path. It’s not like in Castlevania 3, either, where you just select which path you take. You have to search for a hidden area in the first level, then defeat a hidden boss. Otherwise, there’s usually a hidden exit on each of the other levels until everything converges toward the end. One of the secret levels even requires you to beat Dracula first before you can reach it.
They’d feel more like “bonus” levels, but they’re also where Dracula’s hostages are hidden, so there is reason to explore for them. The “good” ending you get for rescuing everyone, however, isn’t so different from the normal ending you get for just rescuing Richter’s girlfriend in the clocktower stage. So, yeah, the secret levels are just bonuses rather than a different route.
On the other hand, within some levels, there are sometimes different paths you can take, which is a bit more unique for the series. These aren’t big changes to the classic Castlevania framework, but they do make things feel a smidge more dynamic.
Like, really, just a smidge. The third level, for example, aggressively tries to shove you into a hole. If you fall, you have to go through the basement before facing off against a sexy minotaur. If you manage to avoid falling into a hole, you climb the stairs and face off against… the same sexy minotaur. There’s essentially no benefit to going through the effort of avoiding holes.
Stupid sexy werewolf
So, really, that’s a lot of complaining about extra features not being very exciting. And, whatever, in the grand scheme of things, it’s… whatever.
Actually playing the game holds up a lot better. It’s a solid Castlevania title: challenging, compelling, and tight. It belongs on the top shelf alongside Castlevania, Castlevania 3, and Castlevania Bloodlines. Just kind of below them. Like on the second top shelf.
I can’t really point to any issues with Rondo of Blood; it’s just weaker in a few spots. The level design, for example, just feels kind of plain. Castlevania felt like a cohesive journey, while Castlevania 3 and Bloodlines got inventive with their challenges and mechanics. Rondo’s design isn’t too bad; it’s just underwhelming by comparison.
The bosses are at least above par. They’re pretty nuanced, which is great. They provide a nice challenge and a great variety. Early on, you fight a sexy werewolf who turns into a beef jerky man when you defeat him. Then, later, there’s a sexy minotaur. So, uh… yeah, the bosses. They’re pretty great. Mm-hmm.
Stupid sexy Dracula
What I like best about Rondo of Blood is that it just does a great job of fitting with the games of the original Castlevania formula. It even has a kicking opening tune, which seems to just be the way with these first games. Castlevania has Vampire Killer, Castlevania 2 has Bloody Tears, Castlevania 3 has Beginning, Castlevania 4 has The Theme of Simon Belmont, and Rondo of Blood has Divine Bloodlines (or Blood Relations of Heaven and Earth as the soundtrack refers to it.) Castlevania Bloodlines is no slouch, either, with Iron Blue Intentions, but its soundtrack isn’t quite so transcendental.
The classic formula for the series fell by the wayside later in the ‘90s with the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I like the gated progression style just fine, but nothing speaks to me like the classic challenge. It’s enough to make me feel slightly embittered toward the latter-day games.
Other than that, Castlevania X: Rondo of Blood is just a pretty good classic Castlevania game. There are better games in the style, and there are also worse ones. But when you’re talking about the Castlevania series, being somewhere in the middle is still really high praise.
This review was mostly conducted on an Analogue Duo using a PCE Works reproduction disc. It was paid for by the author.