Formerly Japan-Only Castles from the Past – Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

The manual cover for the game featured our fearless vampire hunter, Richter Belmonth, on his way to free the prisoners of the evil Count Dracula. Of all of the Castlevania titles, Rondo of Blood embraced the anime aesthetic moreso than the others within its manual illustrations and the game itself before settling on Ayami Kojima’s vision which would debut in 1997 with Symphony of the Night.

That’s the less-than-literal translation of Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo which was a Japan-only release in 1993 for the PC Engine (which came to North America as the TurboGrafx-16). While the Playstation’s Symphony of the Night and Super Castlevania IV on the SNES get a lot of love, a number of Castlevania fans that managed to import this particular gem back then are quick to call it their all-time favorite for a number of great reasons.

The Japanese manual, of which a scan can be seen over at Mr. P’s Castlevania Realm, tells the story in both German and Kanji, an interesting approach which also follows on through the elaborately detailed introductory cinematic. According to the Castlevania timeline, Rondo of Blood takes place in 1792, roughly a century after Simon Belmont’s adventure in the first Castlevania.

While Symphony of the Night exposed Castlevania fans in the West to the potential that the CD-ROM format could give the series, Rondo’s lavish intro, done in anime style, made great use of the format and Red Book audio capabilities four years earlier in 1993 on the PC Engine arguably creating one of the series’ best intros. And it doesn’t stop there. As a result, the PC Engine’s Castlevania is often considered by many to be one of the best sounding and effects laden Castlevanias in the “old-school” vein before transitioning to an open-world castle with Symphony.

After a sacrifice brings the evil Count back to life, Richter Belmont races to Dracula’s castle to rescue his girlfriend and many others from the vampire’s nefarious clutches. Though short on story, the game was huge on presentation.

Richter Belmont's ready to take on Dracula with his trusty Vampire Killer at his side. Beware, evildoers!

Richter Belmont’s ready to take on Dracula with his trusty Vampire Killer at his side. Beware, evildoers!

First off, the soundtrack was amazing. Using the advantages afforded by CD-ROM, the Red Book audio format made the game sing with a few redone versions of the series’ iconic themes such as the iconic Vampire Killer which plays in Stage 2b along with a number of others that crop up later in other games such as Symphony of the Night. Voice acting for a number of characters was also part of the presentation including special effects such as screams, groans, and the usual suspects in a game featuring a monster slayer wading into the depths of evil.

Graphically, the game was also quite good to look at, especially with the creative license taken with many of the stages such as the burning town in the opening act which fans of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest may feel a little deja vu over. The final battle with Dracula, in particular, took place in a chamber whose floor was broken up into smaller platforms creating an incredibly tough fight.

The opening prologue drops the player right into the action, fighting Death while racing through a storm on the back of a wagon. And this is just the tip of what the game had to offer.

The opening prologue drops the player right into the action, fighting Death while racing through a storm on the back of a wagon. And this is just the tip of what the game had to offer.

There were also hidden areas containing weapons, 1ups, and other goodies rewarding the curious. Sub weapons like Holy Water, dagger, and axe were also back, fueled by heart points as in previous games, but grabbing one of these doesn’t necessarily mean having to live with them. The weapon you were replacing would drop allowing players to pick it back up. There were also no power ups for the whip — it starts out at its full length. On the downside, you can’t dangle the chain or swing it upwards or diagonally as you could in Super Castlevania IV, either, limiting his attack options.

Though the game didn’t have the kind of branching level design that Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse brought to the table on the NES, it had a small piece of that worked into the game splitting the adventure into one of two pathways that eventually converged later if the player was clever enough to find those alternate paths.

A number of stages had multiple pathways to explore with their own hidden dangers and extras, like this river ride and the hawk carrying a chest you can hit for weapons, heart points, and other goodies -- as long as you don't accidentally kill the hawk.

A number of stages had multiple pathways to explore with their own hidden dangers and extras, like this river ride and the hawk carrying a chest you can hit for weapons, heart points, and other goodies — as long as you don’t accidentally kill the hawk.

In another slight nod to Dracula’s Curse, the game also featured a secondary character that players could experience the game as after unlocking her early on. After rescuing a young girl named Maria, players can opt to select her as a playable character on starting the game. Her magic attacks consist of throwing doves (that return to her like a boomerang) at enemies. Her “sub weapons” are actually special animals that she can use to attack with such as a cat that runs along the ground or birds that fly diagonally above her.

Another hallmark of the game was the difficulty. There was no ‘easy’ mode with the game and despite allowing players to save their progress (the stage they left off at) and continue, enemies could be unforgiving. The famous axe knight, for instance, throws multiple axes mercilessly punishing players who miss the timing of their whip swings or special weapon throws. Then there were those crows. Medusa heads are back for more weaving fun in the air, too.

Yep, It's a Castlevania pork chop inside another wall. Super sized.

Yep, It’s a Castlevania pork chop inside another wall. Super sized!

Rondo of Blood’s journey from Japan and finally into the hands of players in the West is also something of a convoluted story. It eventually made it over, or at least a facsimile of it did, in the form of Castlevania: Dracula X on the SNES in 1995 for North America (it was called Akumajou Dracula XX in Japan and Vampire’s Kiss in Europe when it came out there a year later). While it would be the first taste of the game that many would experience in the West, in Japan, it was treated as more of a gaiden standing apart from the canonical beat of the major chapters like Rondo of Blood.

Unfortunately, Dracula X was also something of an inferior port (which also found its way over to the Wii U Virtual console in 2014) of what was considered a critical and fan favorite back in Japan. Maria, for one, is no longer a playable character, the intro is entirely missing, and other changes (such as a heightened level of difficulty) made it a disappointing entry into the series.

It would resurface once more as an unlockable title in Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles (featuring a remake of Rondo of Blood featuring updated 2.5D graphics along with a port of its sequel, Symphony of the Night) released in 2007 for Sony’s PSP. An “Original Game” option for the original version of Rondo of Blood becomes available once unlocked after finding the secret to doing so in the remake of Rondo of Blood. For the most part, the original version is as faithful a port as you’ll find outside of getting the actual PC Engine original. It even has the anime intro with English subtitles for the German speaking parts along with other localized bits such as the voice acting. It had even found its way over to the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2008 in Japan (2010 for the West) as a downloadable title although it’s not the localized version that found its way to the PSP a few years earlier.

Little touches like the bats flying outside the windows, thunder and lightning flashes, and other effects made a number of areas jump with plenty of detail.

Little touches like the bats flying outside the windows, thunder and lightning flashes, and other effects made a number of areas jump with plenty of detail.

As one of the last of the “old school” Castlevanias that followed a linear format, Rondo of Blood stands out today as one of the series’ best. The original Japanese version of the PC Engine release is also something of a collector’s item nowadays because of how well received it was at home with the rest of the world eager to grab a copy for themselves today. You can’t blame them — it really is a great Castlevania title no matter what system you might find it on.

The addition of Maria as an unlockable character, hidden secrets, and branching paths had also added a great deal of replayability especially because of its admittedly tough difficulty level. Punch in the great soundtrack, effects, and a batch of creative levels, and it’s easy to see why it continues to be a fan favorite. The road to finally get a localized version into the hands of a Western audience was as twisted as Dracula’s schemes, but for vampire hunters that grew up with the stories of Belmont family since the days of the NES, it was a chapter well worth waiting for.

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