After what seemed like a long layoff following Super Castlevania IV, Konami shipped its franchise over to the Sega Genesis for a short visit. To the average consumer, in those middling years, it seemed as though Konami had for some reason forgotten about one of its top series. In reality, it hadn't. What did happen is that Konami began displaying a pattern of behavior in the mid-90s--as the industry continued its rapid expansion, the company adopted a new philosophy for developing, a hot-potato approach to supplying any new hardware with its famous trademarks regardless of conventional wisdom.
I, too, wondered why Konami would bring a unique title to the Sega Genesis rather than to the SNES. It wasn't until I learned of Konami's exploits on the X68000 and the PC-Engine that the reasoning became apparent. In retrospect, I don't understand what it was doing; it was either trying to broaden its horizons, to make this series a major force on all systems, or it was trying to drive the loyalist consumer insane. Whatever its motivation, this method of multi-console game-making is frustrating to consumers because it forces them to spend way too much money when all they want to do is play a game. I mean, who wants to buy a whole new system just to play one game? That's a nice way to screw over your fanbase.
But life goes on, and new systems debut. Thus, Konami brings to you another console exclusive in Castlevania: Bloodlines, an entry that's fairly defined in its action and story but is ultimately a standard affair. Its tale of good versus evil is placed in a more modern time-period: Dracula's long-dead niece, the countess Elizabeth Bartley, has been unintentionally resurrected by a practicing black magic user. Now reoccupying the world she once hated, Bartley has every intention of in turn raising her uncle from his grave to help her in this quest. Upon learning about the basics of this plot, John Morris and Eric Lecarde, worthy hunters born into families related to the Belmonts by blood, hurry to the unkempt Castlevania to prevent the plan's completion. In a surprise twist, Konami successfully blends together the universes of Castlevania and the novel Bram Stoker's Dracula to envision a hybrid--the game relies on references to Stoker's tale to define the prevailing storyline while the series' working formulas comprise and carry the classic gameplay.
Bloodlines is a one-player game, so you'll have to choose which hero best suits your play-style. In either case, you must guide your selected hero through six stages to meet whatever final challenges lurk. Our main hero is John Morris, the typical whip-wielding Belmont warrior. He commands the famed Vampire Killer whip, which can be powered up two levels by collecting coat-of-arms symbols--the first transforms it into a chain whip, and the second expands it into the Morning Star whip; additionally, it can be powered up to a third level by collecting a magic book or a special coat-of-arms symbol, both of which will afford it flame power. In any form, he can swing the whip left and right while grounded, and he can while airborne swing it diagonally up and straight down. Disappointingly, there are only three conventional sub-weapons available to him--the axe, the holy water and a more traditional boomerang; however, a fourth sub-weapon, a destructive crystal, is temporarily earned, also, if you attain the magic book or find a special coa-of-arms symbol. John's special ability is one that allows him to latch the whip onto platform bottoms or ceiling structures to swing across long gaps and over obstacles in the vein of Indiana Jones; also, the swinging motion acts as a flying kick that protects John during this period while damaging enemies.
Then there's Eric Lecarde: The Spaniard commands the long Alcarde Spear, which can be powered up twice by collecting coat-of-arms symbols--the first replaces its normal tip with an axehead attachment, and the second replaces the axehead with a trident tip; he, too, can collect a magic book or a special coat-of-arms symbol to afford the weapon a flame attribute. While standing, Eric can stab the spear left and right and thrust it straight upward, and he can while airborne thrust it straight down. Additionally, he can only while standing quickly twirl the spear from right to left and vice-versa for a weaker attack that can counter a string of smaller, weaker enemies. Eric, too, is limited to the three sub-weapons, but he can also earn a fourth, a special spearhead accessory, by collecting the magic book or the special coat-of-arms symbol. Eric's special move is a super jump that allows him to spring straight up to out-of-reach platforms; the motion of the maneuver seconds as an attack, a sort-of mule kick, that protects him while damaging enemies. This special move allows him to reach certain locations that John can't access and vice-versa when it comes to Morris and his whip.
In terms of magical items, Bloodlines doesn't stray too far from the formula, but, like Castlevania: The Adventure, it tries to shake things up by eliminating certain items and simply replacing them with newer items that render the same effects: Mainly, big and small jewels replace the hearts in the powering of sub-weapons, black crystals replace invisibility potions, and mirrors replace room-clearing rosaries. The rest are familiar: Money bags increase your point-total and count toward earning extra lives, pot roasts refill your energy meter, and 1-Up symbols worklessly add lives to your stock.
Bloodlines does offer some true conventions: Interestingly enough, Konami defines candelabras in a way that makes their item-dropping less of a mystery; it distinguishes between regular-item candelabras (three candles) and sub-weapon-holding candelabras (single candles). This helps most in the case of sub-weapons, wherein you won't accidentally pick up a new sub-weapon if you already have the one you want. In borrowing an idea from Rondo, the two characters can execute item-crashes (the "C" button), a system where they utilize sub-weapons for more effective barrages; the quirk is that item-crashes drain much larger portions of their jewel-totals. While the available crashes are really nothing special, especially when compared to those from Rondo, using them sparingly will be a test of your mettle. Finally, borrowing further from Rondo, the heroes can jump onto and off of stairs as they please, which goes one step beyond Super Castlevania IV's stairway control and almost completely tackles what has always been the series' nemesis.
While the stage design is best described as "typical," this is not your average Castlevania quest--the six stages are spread out over the entire globe, from Castlevania in Romania, to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, and then to a castle in England with more stops in between. Because Konami has chosen to go with only six, all stages are excessively long, and they entail many do-or-die challenges and one-three mid-bosses before the big battle with a final guardian. Since you're only supplied three lives and only two continues, stages will have to be navigated in a more conservative fashion, which works as another means to stretch out the game's lengts. I would have preferred more stages with alternate routes reserved for the two separate characters, but that's not what Bloodlines wanted to be.
While Bloodlines tries to have fun with the formula, it comes off feeling like a incoherent collection of ideas, and there's no real fluidity to how the stages move you along. Still, its unique and sometimes fun ideas go a long way in defining its gritty personality: These ideas include an instance where you climb diagonally up the spine of a long-dead dragon while it crumbles away, piece by piece; racing against tides as they engulf entire areas; maneuvering between spinning bladed gears using only their small semicircular openings; walking on ceilings for upside-down mayhem; staircases that rotate and spiral out of control; and all other types of twisted use of moving and rotating platforms. Nothing here can match the pure adrenaline rushes provided by the twisting and turning rooms of Super Castlevania IV, but Bloodlines still has fun with its assortment of platforming tricks. The problem is that there's no logical progression to these challenges, and they seem self-contained and sometimes throwaway when a theme would have been more appropriate.
While its graphical presentation, either, isn't quite on the level on Super Castlevania IV, it's no slouch when compared to the rest of the Genesis' library. The game engine allows you to move along very quickly, and it never slows down when it attempts special effects or combinations thereof. The characters are big and colorful, they look convincing, they're very-well-animated, and they thus move at a fluid, almost gliding pace. While the environments aren't anything really special, due to the lack of multiple scrolling layers or animation available to those that exist, the game features some pretty-looking, atmospheric backgrounds. These include the giant skeleton structures that inhabit the main halls of Castlevania, the slanted brickwork of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the gears of the clock tower, and the woodland in France; and this helping of decor adds that important "classic" feeling to a game that's situated in the 1900s.
Bloodlines, though, has the other 16-bit titles beat specifically in one area: Some of the game's non-scrolling backgrounds (like the fallen temples on stage two), with their beautifully photoesque artistic style, will draw you in by their level of detail. Gauging its quality, it's a shame that the rest of the game's graphical elements couldn't keep up. Bloodlines tries its hand at special effects, too, but there isn't much of note besides one instance of the breaking off of giant statue heads--in terms of reflective surfaces and rotating and scaling sprites, Super Castlevania IV, Akumajou Dracula X68000 and Rondo of Blood scoff in its general direction.
There's a whole slew of enemies, old and new, to be conquered, and these foes represent the game's most fun and inventive element. Swinging monkey skeletons, knights on wheels, barrel-inhabiting skeletons, feisty plantlife, minotaurs that pound you with whatever they can find--there's all kinds of appropriate wackiness. While the battles with mid-bosses tend to resemble slugfests, where you whip as fast as you can and hope for the best, the stage-ending battles often require a certain strategy without going too overboard. A simple thing like giving a boss a weak spot that's hidden or protected in a certain way separates these battles from the norm. There's plenty of variety when it comes to the game's assortment of ultimate evils because of their large number; Konami doesn't really cheat much, either, in recycling foes even considering the liberal use of multiple mid-bosses.
Bloodlines' musical score is difficult to gauge. It has a couple of standout themes, like Sinking Old Sanctuary, Reincarnated Soul and the returning Theme of Simon, but there's nothing here that matches up to any of the soundtracks of its 16-bit counterparts. It's not hard to understand why: The quality is tarnished by the Genesis' awful sound hardware--the music's composition is fine, but it's adversely affected by digital and screechy output. I don't think there's much they could have done to get around this, and you know that they tried their best. Its sound effects department suffers because of it, too: Gone are the sounds of exploding bones when skeletons are destroyed, rattling bone bushels, enemies screaming as they're engulfed in flames, or any of the other sounds you'd expect to find in this era of games. The heroes' movements and attacks, which are limited to "plip" and "plop," are subdued and mundane. Characters come to express themselves in a way that, sadly, instead sounds more like something directly out of Pac Man.
It's in Bloodlines where Konami finds an acceptable compromise between the unfair-for-the-enemies control scheme of Super Castlevania IV and all of the rest. The characters control well, and they have the means for battling enemies from all angles without being able to overwhelm them. But the rest is a mixed bag: The character movements are sometimes shaky, and it's easy to get out of control while jumping since you must commit to one direction--the sprite-detection is favorable, though, which means that you'll clear certain distances even though it'll seem like you should have missed badly. The characters can easily jump onto and off of stairways, which, while it doesn't completely eliminate the conflict between climbing and the use of sub-weapons (you still have to push up plus the sub-weapon button for item-crashes), really speeds up the game--you simply don't spend enough time on stairways for problems to consistently develop. They did an above-average job, yes, but I think that there was a little more to learn from Super Castlevania IV that could have made this a smoother playing experience. You can see its influence, but Bloodlines never truly takes the next step beyond stair-climbing.
This is one of the more challenging games of the series for one reason: The long stages with their sometimes multiple rough spots, those specific areas where you're bound to lose lives in clumps (monkey skeletons, anyone?). While Bloodlines is fair in its enemy placement and its use of stage hazards, they expect you tackle multiple mid-bosses with very little in the way of energy replenishment. Hell--the final stage alone pits you against six bosses in a row before Dracula. You never lose too much energy for damage received, true, but the stages are just too long if you're hoping to hold out. Where you get in trouble is when you're low on continues. If they expire, you'll have to restart the entire game. And if you think you can cheat the system by just reentering a password, know that it remembers how many lives and continues you had left. The last two stages, especially, are the biggest culprits when it comes to overwhelming you with enemies and mid-boss onslaughts, and, therein, you just have to think that it's happening this way because they couldn't come up with something more interesting.
While Bloodlines tries hard and honors the classic Castlevania tradition, it's tough not to see it as a disappointment. I didn't get the chance to play it until three years after its release, when I bought a Genesis from a friend. I went in expecting something Super Castlevania IV-level, or, at the least, something that redefined the series in some way. The addition of Eric Lecarde as a secondary hero, while it lends the game a modicum of replay value, just isn't it. I see hints of the fun factor I'm seeking--I really like the game's first stage and its clever use of familiarity, and I appreciate its execution of ideas in regard to platforming--but I could never get into it because it felt so shallow, like a cliff-notes version of what was a grander tale.
I did begin liking Bloodlines more and more as time passed and I accepted its flaws. But here's the impasse: Let's compare Bloodlines to even Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. How was it better than Dracula's Curse--a fully realized game made four years earlier on a lesser system--if at all, and how does stand up to it now? After that, you may understand why I think they could have done much better.
I suppose it's Bloodlines' fate to forever be compared to its main 16-bit counterpart, Super Castlevania IV, a game whose world of ideas seems to have been lost in the ensuing years. Bloodlines just isn't in its league. Tainted by that thinking or not, I give it three and a half Medusa Heads because it's a good game but always limits is own potential, in some fashion, to the point where I can't call it "very good." It is, in all honesty, close to that level, and I do find it to be an enjoyable action-adventure game.