By Hans Niedermair
The 16-bit era is home to an abundance of excellent games that were rarely played on North American shores, either because they were only available on the third-bestselling system, or because they were never published here. Originally released only in Japan in 1993 on the PC Engine CD – known as the TurboGrafx-CD on these shores – Castlevania: Rondo of Blood falls into both of those categories.
While the game is unlockable in the PSP compilation, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, Rondo of Blood’s recent release on the Wii’s Virtual Console marks the game’s first appearance on big screens in North America and Europe. And when fans of the series’ previous 8 and 16-bit ghoul-slaying adventures get their mitts on this game, they’ll be wondering what took so long.
It’s easily one of the best of the bunch, which includes three NES titles, two games on the Super NES and one outing on the Genesis. While Dracula X on the Super NES is based on this game, with a similar story and graphic style, Rondo of Blood is a completely fresh, and superior, experience. Rondo of Blood features different stages, more branching paths, more enemies and bosses, a second usable character, CD-quality music, and a nimbler Richter Belmont. In fact, the differences are so many that any diehard Castlevania fan will want to see both games to completion. Like most Castlevania games, Rondo of Blood is a treat for the senses, setting the tone during the opening scene, where Richter Belmont rides a horse-drawn carriage, complete with creaking wheels and galloping hooves, while battling the fiendish Grim Reaper.
Rondo of Blood features the best music and sound effects of the 16-bit Castlevanias, hands down, thanks to its original CD format. Actual instruments were utilized in creating the tunes, which include many of the classics from earlier games in the series and several terrific melodies that made their debut in this game. The haunting organs, Gregorian chanting, funky bass lines, blazing guitar riffs and anguished moans of defeated enemies are easily worthy of cranking up the volume.
Visually, the game features a wide variety of nicely detailed locales and backdrops and a huge assortment of enemies and bosses. The game even features voice acting, although it’s in German and Japanese, rendering it useless for most North American gamers. Giant golems, a huge teleporting eyeball, and stages that take place on a derelict pirate ship and a castle engulfed in flames are just some of the visual highlights that are too numerous to mention. While the TurboGrafx system lacked the processing power of the Super NES and Genesis, Rondo of Blood still manages to look better than Dracula X and Bloodlines, although it doesn’t feature the level of detail and visual flash of Super Castlevania IV. But gameplay is what makes many players point to Rondo of Blood as the best of the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias.
The game features a total of 13 stages, making it the second-largest Castlevania of its era, next to Dracula’s Curse on the NES. However, like the NES game, players won’t be able to see every stage in one playthrough, as the game’s many branching paths will determine which stage is played next. Finding the branching paths, as well as jailed damsels, hidden roast beefs and other items is one of the sheer joys of Rondo of Blood. The game contains many more “secret areas” than any of its 8 and 16-bit counterparts.
Players frustrated by the traditionally slow movement of the armor-laden Belmonts have the option of playing as a second character, once she is rescued by Richter. Twelve-year-old Maria – who unleashes a flock of doves as her primary attack – is faster, has the ability to double-jump and slide, and can utilize a plethora of unique secondary weapons, some of which summon creatures such as dragons, cats and turtles. Meanwhile, Richter is more nimble than some of his ancestors and descendents, possessing the ability to back-flip and jump on and off of stairways. In addition to the traditional secondary weapons, such as the axe, holy water and boomerang, Richter can also use a magic book, which rapidly flies around him in an increasingly larger orbit.
Rondo of Blood also offers a save feature, a quality sorely lacking in its contemporaries, which either provide passwords or force the player to complete the game in one sitting. The game has four save files, and represents one of the earlier games to track the percentage of the game the player has completed.
Players can use the Wii Remote turned sideways or the Classic Controller for Rondo of Blood. The controls are traditional Castlevania: move with the D-pad, attack with the 1 button, and jump with the 2 button. Unfortunately, unlike Super Castlevania IV, the protagonists are unable to attack in eight directions.
As in most games in the series, holding up on the D-pad while attacking will trigger the secondary weapon, whose uses are limited by the number of hearts in stock. Rondo of Blood also utilizes the “item crash” feature, which consumes a large chunk of hearts to unleash a devastating attack that differs depending on the secondary item equipped.
As far as the storyline goes, fans of Symphony of the Night will be pleased to know that Rondo of Blood is its prequel, taking place in 1792, five years prior to the PlayStation game. However, there are no subtitles for the foreign dialogue, so players will have to try to figure out the story through the cutscenes’ visuals. Then again, cutscenes are unusual for Castlevania games of this era, which usually feature minimal storylines.
But those who were turned off by the less challenging gameplay of the “MetroidVania” games need not worry. From falls, spikes and other traps that will instantly kill Richter or leave him within a sliver of his health bar to annoying enemies such as fleamen and Medusa heads, Rondo of Blood certainly provides a challenge. And while little Maria does make several parts of the game easier, players always have the option of using Richter.
While it certainly took its time getting here, playing Rondo of Blood on a wide-screen television with a 21st-century sound system makes the wait worthwhile. It would be hard to argue that this isn’t the best “old-school” Castlevania.