Yes, I just wanted to beat this before GBeast did...
Castlevania is dead. If Konami didn’t bury the name under pachinko machines and Lords of Shadow 2, the official stake to the heart came during the company’s controversial departure from the game industry during 2015. Of course, Igarashi’s putting out the not-so-subtle Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, but Castlevania as a series is unfortunately long gone. However, that will never diminish the quality titles that the series has outputted in the past. Rondo of Blood is a fan-favorite amongst many of the other franchise giants, and while it’s not perfect, it still proves itself to be another great adrenaline-filled adventure against the forces of Dracula.
Beginning in 1986, the Castlevania name was immediately impactful and successful. Combining elements of Japanese aesthetic with classic horror motifs, the franchise has set itself up from its initial production run to be a market hit. The first three titles released for the NES were financial proof of this, providing Konami with what would easily become one of their biggest intellectual properties. Following its success, Konami would extend its reach across every platform, developing for not only the SNES, but the Genesis and the TurboGrafx-16 as well. However, while the SNES game (Super Castlevania IV) and the Genesis game (Castlevania: Bloodlines) would reach North American audiences, the TurboGrafx-16 game wouldn’t be released at all. This was mostly due to the fact that Rondo of Blood was developed solely for a revision of the TurboGrafx-16 named the PC-Engine, which was released exclusively in Japan; think of something akin to the Sega CD, only it was unavailable in American territories.
An American edition would see the light of the day in Castlevania: Dracula X for the SNES, but it’s only a loose interpretation, and is ultimately a much different game as a whole. It retained the same plot and characters, but the level design and gameplay options are very different. Rondo of Blood wouldn’t actually see an English version until a strange PSP port within Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, which arrived in 2008. Most people would finally get to play the long-awaited action game in 2010, which saw another re-release through the Wii’s Virtual Console.
Meet Simon Belmont’s descendant: Richter Belmont, otherwise known as that guy you play as during the opening of Symphony of the Night. The year is 1792, and Richter is now out to save his lover from the clutches of Dracula and his various henchmen; and that’s about it. Castlevania as a series is admittedly never something you want to play for the story, but it should be noted that Rondo of Blood goes out of its way with its anime cinematics. Perhaps this was just their way of demonstrating the power of CD technology, but it seems like they put a lot of work into presenting a near-nonexistent story. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy these aspects, but the plot is hardly ever stressed in this series, so it just comes off as odd to me that would dedicate significant resources to this.
Castlevania usually takes the form of three different styles: linear 2D action games, Metroidvanias, and 3D hack-and-slash games. Rondo of Blood is notable because it’s probably the last linear game in the series to make its way stateside, and what a conclusion it is. More than any other before it, Rondo of Blood instantly proposes awesome set pieces and memorable environmental design. Similar to Super Castlevania IV, no two levels look alike at all, leaving each to be as intriguing as the last. To me, the core quality of a Castlevania lies with its level design, and Rondo of Blood exemplifies this aspect, because the raw gameplay is as solid as ever within the walls of the castle. Add that with some of the series’ most engaging and challenging, yet still fair, boss fights to date, and you’ve immediately got the the composition of another great Castlevania title.
The mechanics of Rondo of Blood may be its biggest drawback to some, as it does initially come off as somewhat of a step back from what Super Castlevania IV presented. You can’t move the whip in all the directions that you could before, and you’re back to the more one-dimensional utilization from the NES titles. However, this is a simple cost from the overall improved mobility and item usage that Rondo of Blood justifies itself with. Yes, Richter can do back-flips, but the real highlight here is honestly justing moving regularly. There’s something less sluggish about the process than there has been in past, even in four, and traversing through the tribulations of Dracula has never been more intuitive. In addition to that, items now have more significance than they had beforehand, particularly evident with the new given feature of Item Crash; an ability that allows for some sort of super attack to be used with a sub-weapon.
Despite all that, the end-all best feature of Rondo of Blood is something that places it apart from its predecessors in the best way possible; there’s no pointless timer. While I understand that it was a normality from the era, something that naturally latched onto games after the Arcade boom, it goes without saying that it’s the last thing you want to worry about when playing something like this. Why it took this long to deviate away from that tradition will remain a mystery. In light of this new design decision comes a slight twist to the format of the levels themselves. Very similar to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, there are alternate paths and characters to experience. Each given level has a direct beginning, but the actual conclusion can vary based on how you play. While the alternate paths do lead to completely different level and boss encounters, it never leads to the unlocking of a multitude of characters like Dracula’s Curse did. In fact, Rondo of Blood only has one other playable character in Maria, who ultimately breaks the entire progression. It’s to the point where it’s honestly not as fun anymore, and the real game lies with the playing of Richter.
My biggest complaint with Rondo of Blood is that it’s rather short. While the actual level count is probably around the length of the first game, the levels themselves never seemed to last as long as they have in the past. At least in first and fourth game, there was something grand about the level progression that’s a bit lacking in Rondo of Blood, even though they’re still solid selections. Another aspect that should be noted is that the game is noticeably easier than past entries. There are undoubtedly some challenging parts to the main game, but let’s just say that it never quite reaches the difficulty heights of that Medusa Head room from the original game. It’s still hard, but closer to Super Castlevania IV in that regard.
Turns out the 16-bit era still genuinely looks good. While the game’s sprites aren’t quite as detailed as what was prevalent in future titles, like Symphony of the Night, but the terrain and creature is noticeably more intricate than anything in the series before it. On top of that, it goes without saying that the music is nothing short of incredible. The Castlevania series has always had my personal favorite original soundtracks, and Rondo of Blood just may top that list with its own take on symphonic/progressive metal, even though the synth is noticeably more pervasive. Perhaps the only downfall in the audio department is the fact that it’s on a CD. While this allows it attain a better overall sound quality than past titles, it succumbs to obvious loops; something of a normality for Playstation and Saturn games as well. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I understand it was a limitation of the technology, but it does admittedly take you out of the moment briefly when it does happen.
If you’re looking for a classic Castlevania to ease yourself into the series, look no further than Rondo of Blood. It carries over the classic strategic elements, while also retaining the pulse-pounding feel that make the ones before it so good in the first place. While I admittedly have a few minor nitpicks with the design choices over some of the other games, the game as a whole is still nothing short of excellent. In a world where Konami will probably never put out another game in this franchise, and Igarashi’s future endeavors will probably only consist of Metroidvanias (which is still not a bad thing), Rondo of Blood stands out as one of the final goodbyes for this classic style in gameplay. To be honest, Rondo of Blood isn’t even my favorite in the series, but its quality should not be understated.