Dracula X: Rondo of Blood was a surprise for more than one reason. For all of the success that the franchise had enjoyed on Nintendo-made consoles, Konami, as would become its pattern, was willing to leave a foundation laying in favor of developing for hardware that offered any type of new technology. By the early '90s, the PC-Engine (the "Turbo-Grafx" to those in the west) had in Japan become a player in the video game industry; in 1992, its CD-based follow-up, the Turbo-Duo, upped the system's life-cycle in a Nintendo-dominated market by providing a platform for some of the best 16-bit games on the market. So in 1993, Konami came a-calling to grace the new powerhouse with the seventh unique entry into our favorite series and the ninth entry overall.
Dracula X: Rondo of Blood is that lost title. Its mystique is second to none when compared to others of its kind, because never has a set of ideas been so realized and so utterly perfected; those who were lucky enough to have played it knew that Konami was onto something special. My tale yielded the same result: After being introduced to the Internet in 1998, I had heard all the same rhetoric: "Dracula X: Rondo of Blood is the best Castlevania game ever made." The moment I saw a screenshot, I said to myself, "Oh no--not a Japanese version of the SNES' woeful Castlevania: Dracula X!" As I learned more, however, and I became more open-minded toward its existence, I wanted to play it, but I had no way of doing so. After I bought Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the direct sequel to Rondo, in 1999 (and after I became an obsessive Castlevania-maniac), I just had to have it--I had to know how its formula culminated in an effort this superior. eBay, and a little bit of cash, made that wish come true.
To begin: Rondo is the true representative of this era's Dracula-versus-Belmont war--and not Castlevania: Dracula X, which truncated or axed some of its more important elements. If you've played only the SNES game, you won't understand a lot of what's going on when you finally play Symphony of the Night. Its story: In 1792, a dark priest called Shaft is another in the long line of those who want to resurrect the Dark Lord and achieve world domination; using his black magic, he is successful in reviving Count Dracula. Now again inhabiting this world, Dracula has struck the first blow: He has commanded his forces to ravage a nearby town and kidnap some of its women, including those most important to Richter Belmont--including his girlfriend Annet and her younger sister, Maria. So it's up to Richter to suppress the burden of his heritage, to save the town women, to remove Shaft as a threat, to infiltrate Castlevania, and to destroy Count Dracula.
It's up to you to control Richter through twelve stages to reach the castle keep for the final battle. Richter, for easiest reference, controls as you may remember from Castlevania: Dracula X: His Vampire Killer whip is always in morning-star form, and it can't be powered up nor will it regress; in a more traditional sense, it can only be swung left or right. However, if the item-crash button is pushed when no sub-weapon is equipped, Richter will release a flame-whip blast at the expense of his heart-total. Richter moves quickly, fluidly, jumps smoothly, and he can utilize an exclusive backflip move to both avoid incoming attacks and squeeze his way out of tight situations. And at his command are the five mystic sub-weapons used by heroes past--the axe, the dagger, holy water, the boomerang and the stopwatch--plus one exclusive: The magic book, his own personal addition, which positions him within a rotating, spiraling shield of sharp-edged pages. In contrast to the sub-weapon norm, Richter can throw more than one of given sub-weapon at a time plus holy water receives a boost in that it now spreads across the land in wave of flames. In any form, sub-weapons are powered using the hearts found by destroying enemies and by whacking candelabras and other item-holding objects.
The rest of the magical items have been borrowed from Castlevania, Dracula's Curse, Super Castlevania IV and the like, with small and big hearts that power the sub-weapons, money bags that earn points and thus 1-Ups, potions that render you invincible, a rosary to clear the area of enemies, 1-Up symbols that automatically add to your stock, and different variations of the aforementioned. Additionally, Richter can collect keys, which are used to unlock the doors that often lead to kidnapped women; while not in their class, keys replace his current sub-weapon and can be used in much the same way (up plus attack). If a sub-weapon is collected thereafter, Richter will lose possession of the key--sometimes permanently, if you consider bottomless pits.
Rondo adds to the formula some important gameplay aspects and builds upon others. For instance: If you collect a sub-weapon when one is already in your possession, you'll simply drop the current weapon instead of losing it; this way, you can reclaim the lost weapon if you didn't intend to give it up. To enhance the potency of sub-weapons, Richter can execute for each item-crashes, an ability that allows him to unleash super-powered attacks that can devastate enemies; the quirk is that such attacks eat up larger-than-normal portions of his heart-total. By utilizing item-crashes, you can punish the enemies with monsoon-level downpour, a barrage of giant crucifixes, storms of boomerangs and axes, and much more. Finally, Richter can jump onto and off of stairs as he pleases, which helps to decrease any control confliction while speeding up the game in general.
What's exclusive to Rondo is the ability to play as Maria Renard, Richter's sister-in-law. After saving Maria on the game's second stage, she'll become available as a playable character for any of the stages that Richter has already cleared--this can be done from the stage-select screen when Richter runs out of lives or when the game is reset. Maria has her own set of weapons: She attacks normally by throwing out one or two cute but deadly doves that fly a short length before returning to her care; rather than the mystic assortment of sub-weapons, she brings along five of her animal friends--more birds, a cat, a turtle, a dragon and an egg--to form a unique brand of offense, and she utilizes her own musical book to stifle enemies with her beautiful voice. Maria, too, can utilize an item-crash ability to intensify the destructive nature of these attacks. Otherwise, her physical maneuvers differ from Richter's: She can double jump, to reach places Richter can't; she can speedily crawl and tumble, to race past enemies in a blaze; and she can use a magical projection spell to double-team enemies or, if desired, to let the image do all of the work. She employs the use of the very same magical items, yes, but Maria is assigned many exclusive health refills and a unique 1-Up symbol.
Rondo's stage-by-stage design is simply unmatched. On any path into the castle, you'll traverse through at least eight of the twelve stages en route to Dracula, and these entail many familiar locales (the town of Aljiba, the main halls, the dungeon, the clock tower, the castle keep, and others) and many more that magnificently capture the atmosphere that the series' fans crave. The ideas used in presenting graveyards, pirate ships, bridges and chapels permeate a feel that conjures up images of Castlevania, Simon's Quest and Dracula's Curse while adding in a touch of class that makes the game feel way ahead of its time. Everything blends together to create an adventure that's amazingly all-new but still very familiar. It's really unexplainable.
Stages contain almost no conventional "bottomless pits" into which you can fall; as you'll learn, stages are anything but linear: Each encompasses secret rooms, hidden passageways for surrogate access to the level's end, and, more importantly, alternate exits. If you fall into a gap, let's say, you never know where you'll pop up; if you solve a certain puzzle, you may open up a secret passage featuring a less-bumpy road to the stage boss, or you may find yourself facing an alternate boss whose defeat will allow access to an alternate stage--those usually denoted with hyphens (3', for example). There are four alternate stages beginning with the one you can locate on Stage 1, and if you hope to stay on this four-step path thereafter, you must keep locating the alternate bosses or risk returning to the normal route (regular stages 2, 3, 4 and 5). So while Stage 2 and Stage 2' may both lead to the Werewolf boss battle, alternate exits found in both stages will lead you to the Bone Golem, which will send you to or keep you on the alternate route.
For better reference: This type of stage exploration is reminiscent of Vampire Killer. While not as maze-like or as bizarre, your success is sometimes dependent on taking chances and maybe once in while leaping into a seemingly bottomless pit. There are secret passages and/or sealed-off areas everywhere, so you should always try new things, like, say, whipping away a hanging iron ball or using your weight to push a wooden plank. If you can see something prominent lurking on a stage, you can manipulate it, which makes the experience all the more interactive. While therein the dangers and challenges aren't as unique or as eye-popping as those you saw in Super Castlevania IV, it's just so much more fun to fully explore each stage, to see what new things you can find each time you play.
Rondo, while not the series' most graphically superior entry, is the most appropriate-looking and most detailed of the bunch. The developers managed to capture the allure of past games, as mentioned, while not limiting themselves to old gaming clichés, and this is perhaps the game's strongest trait. The PC-Engine is powerful enough to display several layers of backgrounds and still run at a good speed, and they use this precedent well. Thus, Rondo is afforded many of its own impressive graphical displays, effects and clever ideas--these include the always-impressive rotating and scaling sprites, skeletons that swing from ceilings, fleamen that slide down banisters, multiple animations comprising each background layer (Dracula who from a mountain cliff watches your progress in the graveyard, for instance), dramatic enemy deaths, and more than can be digested through simple explanation. If there's one tiny drawback, as is usually the case with CD-based systems, it's the loading times endured before successive stages and boss fights. At this point, in 1993, it was a necessary evil, so no real fault can be levied.
Just when you think they're done there, Konami hits you with the best, most vibrant looking selection of familiar and unique characters--that's to say well-animated, colorful, clean, lively and realistic-looking. The characters' template is so good and effective, in fact, that future titles Akumajo Dracula X68000, Castlevania: Dracula X and Symphony of the Night borrow many of these designs rather than reinventing them. Here you'll meet the blade skeletons, guardians, mace knights and grave keepers that broaden the selection, and they're sure to be some of the more memorable foes you'll ever encounter. Richter is patterned more after a character you'd see in Street Fighter 2--with his steadfast breathing animation, backflip and wild style--but is in that regard the perfect manifestation of the growing Belmont chromosomes. To top it off, Rondo surely offers a topnotch presentation, with interesting and spooky menu designs that are fully accessible, inventive, and a nice warm-up to the actual mission.
The hit-parade surely doesn't end there: It's for Rondo that they created perhaps the greatest soundtrack for a series game (and perhaps for any of their numerous series). If you loved the music in Castlevania: Dracula X, you'll be in heaven once you turn on your PC-Engine and discover the source; while you'll recognize the same selection, the CD-powered system put no limitations on what they could do, and the individual tracks are composed to a much higher level compared to those you'd find in the average 16-bit title. But don't go in expecting just a snappier version of Castlevania: Dracula X's soundtrack: There's a whole new assortment beyond that for your listening pleasure; they remix older songs, combine others, and create a rhythm that masterfully moves the game along at a very desirable pace. (I find that this soundtrack is a much better fit for Rondo, because it better complements the game's darker atmosphere and more cohesive stage design.) If you're a veteran of this series, you'll even notice that they threw in classic Castlevania boss and stage-ending themes for a pure nostalgic touch. They really went all out to create a memorable soundtrack, and it shows. If you want a taste of this, pop the Rondo CD into your PC's CD-ROM, open it up using a media program, and revel in its excellence.
Its sound effects, while not quite to the level of those heard in the bar-raising Super Castlevania IV, are adequate enough to define the action. In some instances (like Richter's connecting whip snaps and the breaking of glass) the sound samples are a little bit "squeaky"--that's to say hardly becoming of the accompanying action. From a superficial view, it'd be easy to guess that the soundtrack was more the point of emphasis. However, when you imbibe further, you'll find that the voice samples for Richter, Maria and the enemy characters are very well done--the heroes expel battle cries, ravens squawk, zombies scream, Minotaurusu calls upon his bull rage, and so on. In the end, the aural presentation is appropriate and believable. And, if it's your thing, Rondo also features live voice-acting for the main characters (including Richter, Maria, Shaft, the missing women, and Dracula) when the game switches to the between-stage anime scenes. You'll have to understand Japanese to know what's being said, but the situations therein should be obvious enough.
The control scheme can be described as "smooth." The heroes' jumps can be controlled very well; that is, they can turn quickly in the air, redirecting to face enemies and deliver offense. They're a little wild in their leaps, but since it's easy to judge distances, the deaths attributed to falling into bottomless pits will be kept to a minimum. The stair-climbing aspect is another concern that has been tackled: Though the control conflict still exists between climbing and sub-weapons and you're confined to whipping in two directions, the ability to jump onto and off of stairways becomes another minimizer--enemies on platforms above are no threat to you on the way up because you can adjust during a jump and nip them before yourself arriving on the platform. The only real quibble is that direct contact with enemies tends to inflict upon the heroes more than one hit; the game's very generous hit-detection will reduce many such instances, but, especially in the case of Maria, it may not be enough, especially where the more mobile enemies are concerned. Really, there's a theme to its mechanics: The developers only cover up certain perennial problems, yes, but they do it well. Besides--Symphony had to have something to improve upon, didn't it?
Rondo will offer you a fair challenge. The game's creators--the "Dracula X Team," as they would become known--make no bones about it: They want to make games that anyone can beat. To prove this, simply play as Maria; she can easily tear through the game and Dracula without much resistance. That's not to say it's an easy game--it's just that they make it easy for you by supplying excessive amounts of power-ups and the mechanics to plow through the fray. I'm not even saying that the anyone-can-win mindset is prevalent here, because such creative forces, while they only helped to create the game, had yet to take the reigns--but you can certainly see their fingerprints. When it comes down to it, this is only considered an easy game by Castlevania masters, but, on its own, it will still challenge even above-average gamers with skill-testing stage design (especially those that involve water), pesky minor enemies, and resilient bosses who stage after stage become progressively difficult. Its challenge is certainly not Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse-level, but Konami somehow succeeds in supplying a challenging yet more universally playable game, especially where Richter is concerned.
It's a guarantee that Rondo of Blood will leave you wanting more, and Konami supplies after the adventure's completion enough options and extras to keep you happy: Since you can save your mission's progress into a memory slot, you can go back and play any stage you wish with either character, assuming you've already cleared that stage. You can keep going back until you achieve 100% file completion; to do this, you must find all of the alternate routes by uncovering all twelve stages and by saving the four missing women. As you finish stages with Maria and Richter, also, you can locate and collect twenty-four special money bags; on the level-select screen, you can use this form of currency to buy strategies on how to beat certain bosses (this is the same feature offered to you by the Master Librarian in Symphony of the Night). Finally, there's the always-popular "Sound Test" for your listening pleasure.
So what happened? Why wasn't this game brought over to the west for the Turbo-Grafx, or, at the very least, the SNES or the Sega Genesis? Well, the PC-Engine and the Turbo-Duo were quite simply not much of a success outside of Japan, and, even then, our most relevant version, the Turbo-Grafx CD, was beginning to fade. Since we're talking about localization, it would have taken until at least late 1994 before Rondo's arrival. By that point, it just wouldn't have been an economically viable decision to make when dealing with a near-dead system. But that still leaves the SNES and the Genesis. Konami's possible reasoning could be that neither of the two systems could handle a port of a CD-based game, and it would have been forced to release a less-than-complete version. Their only choice, later on, was to make an all-new game only based upon Rondo. But that's another review.
You'll definitely want to pick up Rondo of Blood as soon as possible due to its rare nature. It's that once-in-a-lifetime game experience where everything manages to click like no one could ever imagine. For sure, it's the one thing that Castlevania: Dracula X isn't--fun. What's makes it even more special, at least to those who are just discovering it, is experiencing it post-Symphony: To be able to go back to 1993 and see the already-realized elements it built upon will only enhance your appreciation for the whole effort. Furthermore, Rondo aims to be and is a giant collection of all of the series' greatest triumphs. And yet it still successfully incorporates the little things: The whole town of Aljiba is its own stage, and its clock tower is ripped right from out of the future Symphony. Why does that appeal to me so much? I don't know. When it works beyond explanation, you know they've done something very right. If you do happen to find any negatives, I'd bet that such an instance would be concurrent to, oh, your seventy-ninth play-through.
So save up some cash if you want this one, because it's going to cost you a pretty penny. It'll be well worth it for a game that easily stands the test of time. Even if they one day remake it, perhaps as an entry into the the Chronicles' sub-series, you'll still have the original Japanese version. And you'll still be able to say that you've played Rondo when its mystique was still locked away in legend.
That's about all I can say without further drooling. For Rondo, the masterpiece before the masterpiece, it's second-easist perfect five I've ever handed out.
For the Chronicles version review, please click here.