For those of us in North America, Castlevania was a franchise that seemed to fall off the face of the Earth following the release of Super Castlevania IV. "Where did our favorite series go?" people asked. Wherever it was, it surely wasn't finding the same type of success that it had always enjoyed. It wasn't until after the release of the disappointing Castlevania: Bloodlines, which was released more than three years later for the Sega Genesis, did it seem that the series was going to storm back in full force and reclaim its throne as the horror-based action-adventure king. This seemed likely because news reached gaming magazines that Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the critically acclaimed Japanese-only title for the PC-Engine, was coming to the west and, more specifically, to the SNES console.
Many were prepared for what they had heard was the greatest game the series had ever known. However, the transition wasn't going to be easy: We would not, publications learned, be getting our hands on a faithful recreation of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. Such rumblings confirmed that on the menu was instead Castlevania: Dracula X. "A simple name-change? That's fine," you say. Though, this name-change would not be dictated by localization but rather by the fact that the release would entail a wholly different gameplay experience than was originally promised (thanks to confusing legal issues regarding the use of the original trademark). It would be pointless to divulge further, because, as you could guess, the end result is an even larger disappointment than the aforementioned Bloodlines. In short: It was a sad destiny that Castlevania: Dracula X could only present itself as loose translation of Rondo of Blood and nothing more. And as someone who has played the original, I can confirm "loose" to convey the highest sense of the word. Rondo of Blood is what everyone was expecting to play, but Konami would have none of that.
So in 1995, SNES owners were treated to Castlevania: Dracula X, which acts strictly as a storyline replacement to Rondo but nevertheless introduces us to Richter Belmont in the years preceding his role in Symphony of the Night. In this version of the story, Dracula has returned, in no certain terms, to wreak havoc on the people of Romania. In an act of revenge against the Belmonts, he has commanded his forces to kidnap two people close to Richter's heart--his girlfriend, Annet Renard, and her younger sister, Maria--more so to goad him into a duel. So it's up to Richter to endure the madness of Castlevania, to save Annet and her younger sibling, and to defeat Dracula on his own home turf. If you're looking for Shaft, Iris and Tera's involvement in all of this, they're nowhere to be found in this alternate version of Rondo's similar-but-much-more-interesting story.
Dracula X is a one-player game featuring nine stages of classic Castlevania whip-and-jump action. You control Richter, your typical Belmont warrior, through at least seven stages as you march toward the castle keep for the final battle. Richter wields the famous Vampire Killer whip, but it cannot be powered up--instead, it's always in morning-star (long chain) form and won't regress. You can, however, give it a temporary boost by pushing the item-crash button (Y) when no sub-weapon is in his possession; this will result in a single flame-whip blast at the expense of his heart-total. Also, for the sake of defense, Richter has a backflip maneuver (performed by quickly tapping the jump button twice) that can be used to cagily escape from an incoming enemy or a projectile attack.
Richter will collect the typical five sub-weapons--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang, and the stopwatch--and power them using the big and small hearts uncovered by whipping candelabras and by destroying enemies. There are some minor differences when it comes to Dracula X's assortment of sub-weapons: (1) You can throw more than one of a given weapon at a time, in natural progression, as a nod to the double- and triple-shots that have since been done away with, and (2) the range and strength of both the dagger and holy water have been upgraded--the dagger is thrown in threes, and the holy water spreads across the ground in a wave of flames. Additionally, for maximum effect, Richter utilizes an item-crashing ability, a system that adds a superpower to his current sub-weapon but in return drains a larger-than-normal portion of his heart-total.
The magical items are what you'd expect from Super Castlevania IV and the NES adventures: Big and small hearts power sub-weapons, invisibility potions render you invulnerable, money bags add to your point-total in building toward extra lives, rosaries clear the screen of all enemies, hidden pot roasts restore energy, and 1-Ups symbols automatically increase your life stock. On a certain stage, Richter can also find a key, which while not in their class will replace his current sub-weapon, and it can be used to unlock doors that lead to where Maria is being held and thus to Annet on the secret stage that can then be accessed; if you somehow lose the key by picking up another sub-weapon--by, say, dropping the key into an abyss--you'll have no way of saving the women without plunging to your death to restart the stage. While the above very closely follows Rondo's formula in terms of inventory, it does so only in that shallow way it seems emulate all of its vital elements.
Dracula X, as the virtual equal to Rondo of Blood, has only one true convention: If you collect a sub-weapon while in possession of another, you'll drop the current weapon instead of permanently losing it. This way, you can snatch it right back up if you didn't want to switch to the new weapon. Of course, it's not always so simple: In a trick that has worn out its welcome, candelabras that hold daggers are always placed in frantic rough spots where you have no choice but to swing your whip and watch as your holy water, axe or boomerang plunge into the abyss below.
The gameplay is a pretty standard affair, and no real risks are taken in terms of stage design. On each stage, you'll fight an endless assortment of enemies en route to its end where a boss awaits. To save the two women, you'll have to do some extra work on stage three to unlock the aforementioned secret stage. Otherwise, you'll in completing the game earn a bad ending, even if you save just Maria. There's only one quirk to this: While linear in nature, Dracula X features an alternate route taken from its third stage; if you fall into a pit within the stage's pillar-and-gap room, you'll immediately surface on stage four-B and upon clearing it converge on stage five. This means that you'll miss your chance to save the women, and you'll thus have to restart the game if you hope to get another chance. Your punishment, in this case, is the game's worst ending and not having to face the Grim Reaper on stage six (yay?). Whereas Rondo was Vampire Killer-like, with its clever design and open-ended stages, Castlevania: Dracula X's attempt at "alternate routes" shows its lazy and thrown-together nature; it's done in such a poor way that it'll make you question what they were trying to accomplish.
The game's makers take their only true risk in terms of graphics; they don't simply splash on Rondo's background textures and accompanying animations and call it a day. In a more honest effort, they decided, boldly, to go with a more cartoony look to the background and foreground layers, an anime-style presentation that's very impressive when you just stop and look--you'll always find something interesting to look at, like the flames of the burning town, the zombies trapped in the stalactite-filled caverns, the bats circling the castle's heights, and the ever-present gears of the clock tower. There isn't much in the way of scrolling layers, lending a more flattened landscape, but the setting is always appropriate. It amounts to a worthy presentation that truly distinguishes it from Rondo of Blood, more in terms of atmosphere. They had something in mind here, and it was executed nicely, and it's just too bad the rest of the game has so much trouble trying to keep up.
Its characters are smaller than what you'd expect after playing Super Castlevania IV and Bloodlines, and, while nicely animated, it seems that the quality of their appearance has suffered in the carryover from Rondo. That's not to say that the characters don't look good; they look great, actually--but for some reason not as big, as animated and as colorful as those found in Rondo and Symphony's selections, which while virtually the same hold up much better. Castlevania: Dracula X's (and moreover the SNES') palette seems to have failed them somewhat when translating Rondo's color schemes, and the clean look of its enemy selection is gone as a result. For a clear example, take a gander at the badly colored ravens and the muddy-looking blood skeletons. Because of the adjustment, other foes have experienced full color changes (most notably the now-hard-to-look-at behemoth). Also, most disappointingly, a large portion of Rondo's enemy selection is missing, which is sad because the presence of many of its more interesting foes (like the blade skeletons, the spectral sword, the bone golem and the mace knights) would have been to the benefit of the overall presentation.
You won't even have to play more than two stages to realize how rushed the game truly is. It's almost as if when contemplating how to link the two games superficially, they made the strange decision to emulate Rondo's overall design in quick-fire clumps, like those you'll see in the generic castle halls of stage two and in the sword lord-filled halls of stage five. They wind up instead tying together several areas from Rondo that otherwise should have broken up into single stages, and this works to make the entire game's look and flow come off as incoherent and not well-planned. For example: You leave the base of a cavern, and now you're in ... a clock tower? Or you'll exit a catacomb from the left and enter a new one from ... the left? There should be a rhythm and a connection between stage areas, but, instead, there's no real fluidity, which the designers try to hide with truncated areas padded out and highlighted by a simple theme of zigzagging around and around.
The most glaring example of their truncated stage design is the confusing use of the alternate route on stage three: The enemies--bone pillars and Medusa heads--are perfectly placed and specifically programmed to knock you into those many pits and thus into the dreaded caverns that beget an unsatisfactory ending. They almost want you to finish the game quickly, as if saving the women is not worth your time. It's altogether a surprisingly short game when you consider that you can basically skip two stages. Where's Rondo's sense of familiarity and fun stage design? Part of Rondo's allure in utilizing alternate routes is the freedom to explore stages and choose your destination. If this was supposed to be true to its PC-Engine counterpart, why did they leave out the best parts? And if they wanted to make their own game, why, then, even try to weakly emulate its formulas?
Castlevania: Dracula X does have a bit more going for it. Its soundtrack is the game's true high point, and that constitutes a very high point when considering the source. This is Rondo's soundtrack, yes, and they use it very well in spite of the SNES' lack of CD enhancement. Rather than the dark-toned, meticulously-paced and often spooky themes presented in Dracula's Curse and the rest, this soundtrack moves in its own direction, offering more upbeat, rhythmic tunes--this to add a sense of energy and adrenaline to what is a more fast-paced game. While its standalone themes are all impressively crafted and very catchy, the composers make sure to pay homage to the series' roots; they've upgraded some of the classic tunes, remixed others, and have combined the rest using superb bridge techniques to produce yet another A-plus selection. All of it works. There are some that would even argue that the SNES's version of this soundtrack, though not as populated, is superior to that of Rondo's, even with its CD enhancement. It's that good.
The sound effects aren't really up to par in that sense, however, as almost everything makes either a snapping or a crash sound. Richter lets out a nice war cry when pulling off an item-crash, but beyond that, there isn't much of which to speak. Most inexplicably missing are the voice samples for the enemies: In Rondo, the enemies bellowed, sliced through the air, screamed in agony and exploded into oblivion, but in Castlevania: Dracula X, you get the mute assortment--to call it "toned down" would be an understatement. This doesn't have a particularly adverse effect on the action, but this game needed something more, a greater sense of life and personality that are simply missing.
Its controls are not easy to judge. Rondo of Blood's control scheme surely didn't take Super Castlevania 4's conventions into account and raise the bar to the next level, but it did a serviceable job in not hindering the gameplay. It's a basic scheme: You can only whip in two directions, and you have to push up plus attack to throw sub-weapons. But there's something about Castlevania: Dracula X's stage design that brings out the worst of this scheme: I find that Richter has trouble controlling the whip in the air because of how he commits to a direction; the wild leaps make it difficult to accurately pull off whip slashes. Because you're always on unsteady ground, there's already too much to worry about without having to begin frantically swinging the whip. They place you on so many crumbling and moving platforms that Richter's wild leaps will more often than not lead to a mistimed response and a frustrating death. Also, the use of sub-weapons again leads to conflict while climbing stairs because of the applied scheme; it would have been easier to use Super Castlevanias IV's convention of pushing just "L" or "R" until they were ready after twelve games to, oh, finally eliminate this nagging problem. To limit the frustration, they give you the ability to jump onto and off of stairs as you please, which reduces the amount of stair-time and hopefully minimizes the conflict; in general, this speeds up the game, and it helps when you're attempting to mount instant offense while climbing up to a platform stocked with enemies that are waiting to bombard you.
It's challenge-level is clearly unbalanced. That is, it's always teetering between very difficult and unfair. It's overall a very difficult game because of the sheer amount of enemies and traps faced in succession. They hit you with so much so quickly that your energy meter simply won't suffice. If your idea of fun is battling water skulls and skeledragons while frantically zigzagging around to race against a tide using platforms whose bottoms are lined with spikes when you simply don't have the time or room to defend yourself, then, why, Castlevania: Dracula X is perfect for you. Platforming is a constant struggle in light of endless amounts of crumbling platforms and sinister enemy clutter--think of Ninja Gaiden-like enemy placement, only with a hero that can't compensate for mistakes.
Another element of challenge is bred from what I call the unpredictable nature of the newer enemies, like the Sword Lords and Spear Guards, who are among the most annoying you'll ever face. Even then, it's the boss battles that take the cake: They are clearly the most challenging element of the game, and the battles are made more difficult by the fact that you'll never have all of your energy when you finally reach them. Ravens and fleamen will make sure to gobble you up en route to these guardians and their leader, the Count. Rough spots are numerous, as discussed, which results in scenarios where you'll die again and again due to one specific obstacle, and you'll often have to continue from the stages' starting points only to fall victim to them again. And that final battle with Dracula atop the pillars? Well, let's just that say that when you finish Dracula X, you'll breathe a big sigh of relief for more than one reason.
Castlevania: Dracula X is obviously a huge disappointment. Not only was it rushed--I'd bet that Konami would admit to this with hardly any sense of shame. There's no acceptable reason why they shouldn't have brought Rondo of Blood to American consoles, and it's sad that the series' die-hard fans have to painstakingly track down a PC-Engine with a copy of Rondo to truly appreciate the effort and its spawning influence. What obviously affected Konami's decision was that the PC-Engine and Turbo Duo, while very popular in Japan, just weren't successful here in the U.S. as the "Turbo Grafx" and "Turbo Grafx CD." So as not to make a poor financial choice of bringing Rondo to a dead system, they locked it away in the vaults. And since the SNES alone (no less the Genesis) wasn't powerful enough to handle the complete package, they decided to make an all-new game based off of it instead of watering down their masterpiece. This happened anyway. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was on its way to the PlayStation, so they had no choice but to rush this game over here as a Rondo replacement so that we wouldn't have a giant hole in the storyline with Richter (it's not like that's stopped them before).
While I've come to loathe this game for a variety of reasons, I'm not going to say that it's altogether terrible. I look at it like this: If Castlevania series hadn't existed up until this point, and we had never heard of a Simon Belmont, Castlevania: Dracula X might have been perfect as a first game of this series, as an introduction to Castlevania and its universe--but not as a rendition of Rondo of Blood and certainly not as a follow-up sequel to a giant like Super Castlevania IV.
It's with great disappointment that I can only give it three little Medusa Heads.