As a young Castlevania fan, this was one game I had no opportunity to get my hands on and barely even heard of. I knew of Vampire’s Kiss/Dracula X, which was basically a downgraded alternative, but Rondo of Blood for the PC-engine’s Super CD, was one obscure game that I wanted so dearly to own. Thanks to the Wii Virtual Console and eventually the PSP as well, I was able to experience this previously Japan-exclusive title. The game presents us with a new Belmont, Richter, who must defeat Dracula and his army of horrific creatures, like his forefathers did before him. If that was not enough, Dracula has also kidnapped 4 maidens, with one being his lover Annette. Armed with the trusty whip known as the Vampire Killer, he sets out to save the night.
Traditional at its finest
After a prologue-stage, we are set in a semi-linear platforming game, with each stage ending with a bossfight. Richter Belmont is restricted to attack only left and right with his whip, which is quite fast and can’t be upgraded. This whip is rather like a fully upgraded one from the other games, with good reach, strength, and the ability to block enemy-projectiles. He sports the stiff jumps the clan is known for, but slightly more maneuverable and Richter can also backflip, which is a handy dodge-maneuver against the enemies. Due to the more restricted movements, sub-weapons are an important asset once again and they are all back in full force. Using collectible hearts as ammo again, you can use daggers for some fast and long throws, axes to attack enemies above you, the cross-boomerang for possibly twice the damage and holy water to create fire at the ground for multiple hits. Two will consume more hearts upon use than the others; the stopwatch that slows down time, and the new bible that flies in a circle and attacks anyone it comes into contact with.
A lovely feature, is the ability to pick up a sub-weapon and having the equipped one being thrown to the ground. This makes it so you will be able to choose how you want to deal with the upcoming threat, which is a great addition. If that was not enough, you can also hit select for an “item crash”, that consumes a huge amount of hearts for a devastating attack. They can be activated when the counter for hearts flashes green, which is a nice help as each “item-crash” consumes different amounts of hearts due to their varied effects. For example, holy water will make it rain and damage anyone in contact with the water, and daggers will throw insane amount of daggers in one direction quicker than the eye can see. Since each attack consumes different amounts of hearts and all weapons have clear uses, they feel well balanced.
The stages take good advantage of our hero’s capabilities, with moving platforms, vertical and horizontal stage progression, stairs that Richter can jump on and off, and enemies that all behave differently and are placed so you have to be prepared. Due to the fact that the Belmonts have had more interesting abilities with their attacks rather than their jumps, and this installment is no different, the enemies have been an important part. Here, they are simply fantastic. Armored grunts with brutal attacks, peering eyes that fly above you, all will make you pay attention and are never placed in cheap spots. Some will even dodge your attacks and fight accordingly. This is a fantastic challenge and I love how demanding it becomes without ever being unfair.
The layouts of the stages themselves also change and they all have something unique to them, such as running from a beast at the entrance of the castle or venturing through a ghost-ship with small ambushes, testing your fighting-skills. Some stages are also semi-linear, due to multiple paths you can take that will lead to different stages. It is not just a great idea for having some exploration added, but also in case one stage should prove too difficult. Then you are able to go back through a stage-select and take another route, making them still offer a challenge, but always give you an option for another route to take. There are a total of 12 stages and you will have to go through 8 stages to get to the end, with only the last 3 and the first stage being mandatory. Sweetening the deal, is the autosaving, making it so you won’t lose any progress, which is nice as this game can be quite difficult. Adding to this wonderful challenge, are the boss fights that get gradually harder for each fight. The bosses are demanding on your reflexes and attention, such as a wall climbing and agile werewolf, and a ginormous minotaur that will charge at you with huge attacks. Some might even try to get in a last hit before they die, making it so you will have to be on your toes at all times.
What is so fantastic about this entry, are the small touches to make Rondo of Blood hard, but never make you feel ill-equipped to deal with the challenges you will meet. It is a perfect challenge, with memorable enemies and bosses, and levels taking good advantage of your skills. I honestly could not ask for more.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
Rocking the CD-capabilities Castlevania Style
I love the visuals. There are so many gothic areas with dark and colorful creativity to them, like the town you will visit being in flames, or the ghost-ship that is an unsettling threat. Areas are filled with details, such as one mirror reflecting you as a skeleton, and bosses appearing in the background at times, making this world come to life. All the designs are gothic and beautiful. Adding to this, are the wonderful different enemies you can attack. Skeletons jumps from burning buildings, medusa-heads and hunchbacks attack inside a church, and of course the bosses that have some gruesome designs. The hydra, for example, will have its skin falling off, leaving only the skeleton to try to get one last hit in on you, or the werewolf that turns into a human when you kill him. This adds to make each location memorable. Some minor parts can be a bit lacking in the amount details compared others, but are still pleasant to look at, especially since stages have multiple areas to them to never make them dull.
The few cutscenes that are presented, are quite impressive, despite stiff movements. All of them are very detailed and include voice acting that are well performed and entertaining from what little Japanese I know. I do also love the intro being in Germany with almost an uncomfortable vibe to it. Then we have possibly among the best soundtrack of any game ever. All tunes are memorable thanks to making them grand, with some compositions being from previous games in full CD-quality. They all are rhythmic with plenty of instruments and energy-pumping heights, making you ready for anything that will come. It is among my 3 favorite soundtrack from this generation and I even own multiple copies of the soundtrack, despite the fact I don’t own a CD-player anymore. Sound effects also take advantage of the technology, with my favorite example being the dying screams of certain enemies that are unsettling, yet satisfying
Presentation Score: 9.5/10
Saving the maidens
Due to the multiple paths most of the stages provide, you have the ability to explore and venture through plenty of different ways, with one included after you beat the main-game. The 4 maidens are also people to look out for, and both them and paths to the new levels, are not so obscure that they are impossible to find, but well hidden enough to make you pay attention. One maiden that might be the most important to acquire is Maria. She is a glass-cannon, but has a double-jump, maneuverability in midair, short-bird attacks that she can use while moving, and interesting animal-attacks as sub-weapons. It is incredibly satisfying to venture through stages with both characters, and each also has their own cutscenes for finding the other maidens and beating Dracula, which are great extras. There is also a completion-percentage to indicate that there might be a road you have not yet taken. All are huge treats to make me go for the 100%, and I have done so multiple times.
Extra Score: 10/10
With this, and having the knowledge of the upcoming games, I can honestly say that this is the best linear Castlevania game. It knows how to make every stage work with our hero’s capabilities, and the small changes makes our hero more skilled, but not overpowered, which holds the challenge high. The presentation and the amount of replay-value simply sweetens the deal. You have, of course, the PSP-remake, but I find it rather ugly at times. If more content, redone soundtrack that is as amazing as the original, and an unlockable English translation of the original are on your wishlist (and having the best version of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) it is definitely worth the package. But the original is fantastic in its own right. I even own the original PC-engine version now, and I don’t want to tell you how much it costed me.