Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (AKA Dracula X: Rondo of Blood) was originally released in Japan on the PC Engine (Japanese TG16) in 1993. It was one of 3 Castlevania games being developed at the same time. The other two were Castlevania for the X68000 (Castlevania Chronicles on PS1) and Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. The original version of the game never made it outside Japan, but it is now available on Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles for PSP/Vita and on Wii Virtual Console, which is the version I played for this review.
Rondo of Blood is the first part of the story of Symphony of the Night. The game takes place in 1792, 101 years after the original Castlevania and 5 years before SOTN. Dracula has been resurrected once again and decides to take his revenge on Simon Belmont’s descendant and heir to the Vampire Killer whip, Richter Belmont. Dracula has his minions kidnap 4 girls from a nearby village, including Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and Richter’s distant relative, Maria Renard. Now Richter must save the kidnapped villagers and kill Dracula once again.
Rondo of Blood plays a lot like the NES Castlevania games. Your movement is a little slow, you have very little control during your jumps, and whipping has a slight delay between button presses and actual damaging animation frames. The old whip upgrades are gone, but you still use hearts to use the sub-weapons. All the sub-weapons are the same as in Castlevania I, but there is a new way to use them, the Item Crash. The Item Crash allows you to use a bunch of hearts to do a special move that will do a lot of damage and hit everything on the screen. For example, the Holy Water Item Crash makes it rain holy water and the Cross makes giant crucifixes fly up the screen. Richter also has a new move, the backflip. You do a backflip by double tapping the jump button. It’s is kind of like a backdash and a high jump at the same time. It goes a little higher than a normal jump, so it can help you jump onto ledges or avoid attacks you normally couldn’t with a regular jump.
Rondo of Blood doesn’t have multiple difficulty settings, but it does have Maria Renard. You might know her from SOTN. This is the younger version of her. She is 12 years old and dresses kind of like Princess Peach here. Maria has a slide, a double jump, she can attack while running, and has much quicker attacks with longer range than Richter’s whip. She uses her animal friends for all of her attacks. Instead of whipping, she shoots doves out, and instead of the regular sub-weapons, she summons animals, like a cat and a turtle. Playing with Maria is basically an easy mode. Her double jump and quicker attacks make even the hardest bosses a breeze. She feels like a character with powers from other popular video game characters, like some sort of inside joke.
What really sets Rondo of Blood apart from the rest of the series is the branching paths. After stage 1, the path on the map splits into 2. The upper path goes into Castlevania and the lower path goes into the wilderness around Castlevania. The paths meet again on stage 6, where you fight Shaft for the first time. The stages themselves also have branching paths. You could go through the main entrance or fight your way through the sewers below in stage 2, for example. Each path leads to a different boss, and depending on which boss you kill, you go to a different stage. You can cross over into the other path after every stage, until you get to Shaft, if you want. Castlevania III also had branching paths, but all that involved was picking a route after beating a stage.
Rondo of Blood is not an action adventure or Metroidvania, like Simon’s Quest or Symphony of the Night, but since there are multiple paths through the stages, they feel like they’re a little bit more open than in Castlevania I and III. In previous games, when you fell down a pit, you died and started over from the last checkpoint. In Rondo of Blood, you might fall down a pit and end up in the previous area or in one of the alternate paths. There are still pits in which you will die if you fall in; though, so finding the alternate paths takes a bit of experimenting. One of the paths through a stage is usually much harder than the other, so making it through one path can become a way to challenge yourself. There is a stage select on the main menu, so going back to play through each path doesn’t require starting the whole game over.
A lot of stages in this game pay homage to stages from the NES games. This game might actually be more faithful to the NES original than Super Castlevania IV or the X68000 game, which were retelling the original game’s story. Stage 1 starts off in a burning village that looks like it’s straight out of Simon’s Quest. Stage 2 is a remake of stage 1 from the NES game, which takes you through the main hall, down into the sewers, and back up into the area where you fought the giant bat. The last stage has the same bat infested bridge leading up to the clocktower, which leads you up to the iconic stairs going up to Dracula’s throne room. I love the consistency here. The developers were obviously big fans of the NES games.
Every boss from Castlevania I appears in this game. Shaft actually makes you fight the Giant Bat, Medusa, the Mummy, and the Creature to get to him. Death and Dracula are also very similar to their fights in the original. Some of the new bosses include the Minotaur and the Werewolf, which were used as normal enemies in some of the future games. A boss from Simon’s Quest, Carmilla, also appears in this game. She would later return as the main villain of Circle of the Moon on GBA. The bosses felt extremely tough at first, but they’re actually pretty fair. The game even has perfect run strategy videos for all of the bosses in the main menu. We didn’t have YouTube back then, so this was a nice addition.
Back when CDs started being used for games, some developers took the opportunity to fill their games with tons of horrible, low resolution, live action video. Luckily, Konami went with the other popular trend, anime cutscenes, voice acting, and CD quality music! The cutscenes are a lot like the pixel art cutscenes you found in other games of that time, but with more animation. There are cutscenes for the intro, the ending, and every time you rescue one of the kidnapped girls. The music in the game was by far the best in the series up to that point. SOTN’s soundtrack really took the music to another level with all the different genres they used, but Rondo’s soundtrack feels like the beginning of that trend. I could tell that music had more of a hard rock or a classical sound now. It was a huge step up from the chiptunes of the previous games. The game also features full voice acting for all the cutscenes and new sound effects and voice clips for a lot of enemies and bosses.
This game used to have a sort of mysterious aura around it. I only saw it in game magazines back in the day. Not many people had played it, since it only came out in Japan, on a system not many people had in the West. Not anymore! It’s only on one of the best selling systems of all time. Rondo of Blood might be my favorite old-school Castlevania. I think the original NES game is still great, but Rondo does everything the original did even better. It definitely lives up to the hype.