Most of you won’t be at all familiar with Castlevania Rondo Of Blood. The game was released overseas in Japan only, and was exclusive to NEC’s 16bit PC Engine, otherwise known as the TurboGrafx 16 in the USA, or just TurboGrafx for its unofficial and extremely limited release in Europe. A conversion of the game finally arrived in all territories in 1995 on the Super Nintendo. However it was a very different game than Rondo Of Blood despite sharing most of its aesthetics with that title. Levels had been redesigned, and many gameplay elements had been removed, due mainly because of the difficulty in Konami working with NEC in doing a direct conversion.
As a result the Super NES version, called Castlevania Vampire’s Kiss in Europe, had been cut down and simplified, featuring only two alternative routes to play through compared to the PC Engine’s four, as well as less frames of animation and simpler sprites for certain bosses and levels. Although the storyline and much of the graphics were in fact shared between the two games, making Castlevania VK an actual conversion as well as a reworking. Either way it was inferior in every way to the PC Engine CD-Rom original, which thankfully we have here in all its glory, available for the first time worldwide on Nintendo’s Virtual Console.
Rondo Of Blood is in many ways a traditional Castlevania game. It’s still the same side-scrolling action-adventure style platform game you’ve come to expect, which sees you running around as another Belmont, armed with his trusty whip, wading through various stages bringing death to the undead, all the while trying to save as many villagers and innocent citizens as you can. At one point in the game, saving a village maiden known as Maria allows her to become playable later on in the game, adding a slight change in gameplay for the title, which is pretty cool.
Though in Rondo there are no upgrades to your whip, various other weapons can be picked up and used through the game. These include axes, daggers and holy water, which are classed as sub-weapons and can be found by breaking open the torches and candelabra found through the levels whilst exploring. You can only carry one of these sub-weapons at a time, and have the ability to used them in something called an ‘Item Crash’, which basically allows a sub-weapon to be used in a super attack, either directing damage to all enemies on-screen or delivering concentrated blows to one specific area depending on which of the sub-weapons is used.
Like with previous Castlevania titles the game initially directs you down a linear path, allowing you to explore the route it has chosen for you at your leisure. However the middle of each stage is particularly open, allowing for plenty of exploration and some backtracking if need be, which is something not really seen in the series until later instalments. In fact, the overall style of gameplay to be found in Rondo is very similar to that of series favourite Symphony Of The Night, but featuring concentrated doses of multiple routes and branching paths, rather than a whole scrolling labyrinth full of them.
The levels generally start off in a linear fashion before opening up in the middle, and finally closing back up again near the end as you approach the obligatory boss battle. Somewhere in the middle of the stage, the route you go down dictates what the following stage will be. In Rondo there are eight stages in total, but you will only need to finish four of them in order to complete the game. In addition each of the stages also has more than one ‘end’ as it were, just to further expand upon the series growing beyond its original linearity.
In many ways Rondo acts as a bridge between the earlier Castlevania titles and the modern Symphony Of The Night with its non-linear progression and multiple paths. However the style apes Castlevania III on the NES the most, in which players also had a number of routes they could go down each being different linear path they could take. It’s quite interesting to see how the series progressed from straight up platform action, to a Metroid type platform adventure, later coming complete with RPG elements.
While I was playing through the game I also noticed that many of the enemies are the same one found in SOTN, as is the main character for a certain part of the game before taking on the role of Alucard (in SOTN). The visual style, from the sprite work to the overall art design contained within also match up, and act as a continuation of what began right here with Rondo. Most impressively, and this is something I didn’t know, is that Rondo is a direct prequel to SOTN. And when you eventually reach the end of the game, it sets itself up for its sequel, which plays out the same final battle against Dracula found right here. Sadly, I haven’t quite got to the end yet, instead finding my self repeatedly dying somewhere along in the third stage.
Taking all this into account, except the last part about dying, Rondo is not only one of the best games in the castlevania series, but also one of the best side-scrollers of the 16bit generation. It also happens to be, in my opinion the best Castlevania game of that particular era, with some nice sprite artwork, filled with smooth animation and intricate little details, whilst combining the series early flagship gameplay with a taste of the open-worldness yet to come. The game even uses parallax scrolling in the background plane, something not found in too many PC Engine titles.
At four levels long, you might also be inclined to think that the game is relatively short, but don’t count on it. Stages whilst being large, aren’t massively huge in size. They are however, pretty damn tough to clear, with high levels of enemy AI showing no mercy, and with Ritcher himself highly prone to taking damage. Perhaps the biggest thorn in your side comes at the expense of the game’s rather stiff jumping mechanics, which feel more like a throwback to the NES games than later instalments. In addition your attack range is somewhat limited, making combat feel pretty restrictive at times and death that little bit easier to bring upon yourself.
To be honest, this is only to be expected for a game of this age being nearly seventeen years old, and it isn’t something which breaks the game in any way, just something which shows how much of a cakewalk this series has become, and how stiff the series used to feel compared with later instalments. Although I’d like to call it ‘a respectable challenge’ rather than a cakewalk, but hey, frustrating as it can be, the challenge works rather well by providing a much needed sense of achievement.
In terms of music and effects, the soundtrack has been compressed down from its original CD format, although I couldn’t honestly say if it was of a lower quality as a result not having the original version to hand. All the effects however are accurate, and sound exactly like they did on the PC Engine version. That is to say they come across as sounding a little too much towards the 8bit side of things, despite the system being capable of vastly superior audio. Like with the gameplay issues, much less to be honest, they don’t really take a lot away from the experience. And there’s a certain charm to it all, which if taken away wouldn’t represent the game faithfully as intended.
Castlevania Rondo Of Blood in many ways could almost be talked about in the same way that SOTN is fondly remembered. This game was arguably the first to really consider branching paths and open-ended level design in a way that none of the NES titles ever could, providing gamers everywhere with a challenging, but tightly designed and extremely well animated 16bit adventure.
For most of you, this Virtual Console release will be the first time any of you will have had a chance to play what is now a cult classic amongst fans, and one which I think is definitely well worth picking up. Fans of later games like SOTN and later games shall enjoy the combination of old and new elements, and although the difficulty is arguably a little too high, and the animations a little too stiff, that shouldn’t put anyone off from diving in and enjoying one of the most impressive forgotten games from the 16bit era.
Like with most Virtual Console titles, Castlevania Rondo Of Blood can be played in its original 240p resolution via an RGB scart lead, or in 480i/480p via component.