The PC Engine was a machine well ahead of its time. Not only was it the first home console to employ 16-bit graphics, its CD-ROM drive add-on served as gaming’s introduction to the format in the absurdly early year of 1988. If anything, you’d expect the world of high end home computing to have brought us that particular innovation. Nope. The PCE’s initial crop of CD games are widely acknowledged to be the earliest ever produced.
Until just recently, I’d been limited to running cartridge games on own PC Engine. As much as I wanted to dive into its expansive CD library, I didn’t feel like bothering with the upkeep a finicky decades-old disk drive usually requires. This changed when I got my hands on the Super SD System 3, a nifty aftermarket accessory that uses flash memory to replicate the function of a CD unit without all those troublesome moving parts. That’s what I call an upgrade!
Now where to start? As a die-hard Castlevania lover, I can’t help but opt for 1993’s Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (“Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood”). It’s the most famous Japan-exclusive title for the system, after all. Konami wouldn’t deliver an official international release of Rondo until 2007, when it was finally ported to the Sony PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles. The years in-between saw the rise of the Internet and game emulation, so it should come as no surprise that this fabled lost epic has built up quite the cult following here in the West. Is it truly the greatest old-school Castlevania of them all, as many of its admirers maintain? Well….
First off, this is my kind of Castlevania game: A pure 2-D action-platformer with no experience points, no backtracking, no menus to futz with, just your wits and reflexes pitted against Dracula’s army of the night. It’s a damn attractive one, too. The PC Engine’s broad color palette was put to masterful use rendering these vibrant backgrounds and richly detailed sprites. The enemy sprites in particular are so good that many of them were reused wholesale in 1997’s Symphony of the Night for PlayStation. Rarely is in-game art able to bridge a hardware generation gap in this way.
The soundtrack is equally stellar. We do get the predictable nostalgic reprises of mainstays like “Vampire Killer,” “Bloody Tears,” and “Beginning,” but it’s not all golden oldies. Original tracks such as “Divine Bloodlines,” “Opus 13,” and “Den” can stand toe-to-toe with anything that came before. The CD medium also means we get to enjoy the historic debut of real instruments in a Castlevania score. I can’t imagine this material disappointing anyone with a fondness for the saga’s signature brand of Baroque-tinged prog rock.
Rondo’s central figure is Richter Belmont, descendant of Simon and heir to his family’s warrior legacy. The year is 1792, and a group of cultists led by the corrupt priest, Shaft, have used blood sacrifice to resurrect Count Dracula once again. Dracula abducts Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and three other young girls, intending to use them as bait to lure the young vampire hunter to his castle. It works, of course, as Richter promptly rides off to the rescue with his ancestors’ enchanted whip in tow. It’s a plain, functional, business-as-usual plot, albeit one bolstered somewhat by periodic voiced cutscenes. Not that I can understand a word of them in the Japanese, mind you.
Richter handles in the traditional Belmont manner, with a leisurely walk speed, stiff jump, and slightly delayed whip attack. The whip can be supplemented by a selection of sub-weapons that draw on a limited supply of hearts for ammunition. Sub-weapons include the long-established dagger, cross, axe, holy water, and stopwatch, as well as a newcomer: The Bible. I’ve never really found a good use for the Bible, myself. Its weird spiraling trajectory renders it awkward to deploy. Oh, well.
Also introduced here is the concept of Item Crashes. These are more powerful versions of each sub-weapon’s regular attack that’ll run you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hearts per use. While not all Item Crashes are created equal, the more punishing ones can easily lay waste to most bosses. I’m looking at you, cross and holy water. I’m a fan of this mechanic. It leads to interesting scenarios wherein you have to weight the immediate benefits of using your sub-weapons on regular enemies against the long-term goal of saving as many hearts as possible to Crash bosses. A solid risk/reward dynamic.
All these capabilities make for a formidable protagonist indeed. Richter doesn’t have to go it alone, though. There’s a second playable character in the form of one of the kidnapped girls, Maria Renard. If you’ve ever wanted to beat down the undead as a little kid in a pink dress, she’s your chance. Maria is more agile than the plodding Richter and has her own separate set of animal-themed weapons. She’s actually a much stronger character on the whole, despite having less health to work with. She’s such a force of nature, in fact, that I found playing as her to be rather boring. The novelty of carelessly plowing through the opposition as a silly joke character didn’t last nearly as long as I’d hoped. John Morris and Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines serve as a far better example of how to implement two distinct, relatively balanced heroes in a Castlevania game.
In addition to Maria, Rondo’s other defining feature has to be its abundance of secrets. Every area is teeming with hidden power-ups, cute visual gags, and even passages leading to entire alternate stages with their own unique bosses. This effectively encourages you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, lest you miss out on some cool piece of bonus content. The game automatically saves your progress, too, so you can easily revisit conquered stages in order to scour them more thoroughly in pursuit of that elusive 100% completion rating.
All of this raises the question: If Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, plays great, and includes all this great stuff to discover, why is it not my favorite 16-bit Castlevania? I certainly like Rondo. I have ever since I first encountered it on the PSP over a decade ago. Now that I can play it on my PC Engine, I expect it to become a staple of my action gaming rotation. Still, when it comes to this period in the franchise’s history, I generally prefer both Castlevania: Bloodlines and Akumajō Dracula (aka Castlevania Chronicles) for a couple of reasons.
An overall lack of difficulty is one. Super Castlevania IV catches its share of flack for being too easy, yet I tend to lose more lives to random platforming flubs there than I do to anything in Rondo. While playing as Maria is a cakewalk by design, taking down the same levels as Richter is only marginally more taxing. A couple of the late game bosses, specifically Death and Shaft, put up a respectable fight, but that’s about it. This is obviously a highly subjective critique on my part. As a hardened veteran of the series, I can see how less experienced players might view this “failing” as a major plus. I just happen to favor a Castlevania experience with more bite.
More crucially, I’ve always gotten the impression that much of the tremendous creativity that went into making Rondo could have been better directed. Sure, the locations you visit are packed with wacky Easter eggs, secret passages, and the like, but how do they stack up as Castlevania stages? I find you mostly leap over some pits, climb a few staircases, swat at knights and skeletons, and collect hearts on your way to the boss room. In other words, it’s fundamentally nothing we hadn’t seen before on the NES. This game features no equivalent to the rotating rooms and whip swinging of Super Castlevania IV or the many elaborate set piece platforming challenges of Bloodlines (the rising water in Greece, the swaying tower in Italy, the hall of mirrors in England, etc). Instead, the lion’s share of the work on Rondo seems to have been devoted to polishing its presentation to a mirror sheen and cramming in as many quirky peripheral elements as possible. I’d gladly trade a little of that for some more ambitious level design.
I’m not about to declare Rondo of Blood overrated or imply that anyone who’s head-over-heels in love with it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it’s an impeccably charming adventure fully worthy of its pedigree. I dig it. That said, I do think its grandiose reputation stems more from its history as a rare and expensive import item than from any sort of inherent superiority to similar games in the series. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t need to be some mythic über-Castlevania that towers head-and-shoulders above its peers. It’s plenty good, and that’s good enough for me.