Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
It finally happened. After centuries of fighting the Belmont clan, Dracula had a revelation: He was doing it all wrong. Usually, he’d let his evil influence slowly corrupt the world, letting his minions conquer and kill everything in sight. He’d unleash hordes of nightmarish monstrosities and complex platforming areas to wear down his opponent, then wait at the summit of the Castlevania. Despite the odds, a Belmont would always persevere and kick his undead ass. Realizing the sheer stupidity of his old schemes, Dracula decided to take a more proactive approach. Upon his latest resurrection, he immediately launched a full-scale assault on the heroes’ hometown in hopes of preempting his latest opponent. A great plan…except his target wasn’t there. Richter Belmont returned from training just in time to see his village being burned to the ground and Annette, his fiancee and a handful of other women being kidnapped. Armed with the legendary Vampire Killer whip, it’s up to him not only save everyone, but to continue his family’s legacy and slay Dracula again.
Okay, so the plot’s not exactly original. Aside from the whole kidnapping angle, it’s almost identical to the previous stories. A warrior has to brave the horrors of an evil castle, enduring a gauntlet of incredibly challenging platforming stages, destroy tons of well-placed enemies, and slaughter diehard bosses. Aside from the iconic whip, Richter can wield axes, holy water Molotovs, cross-shaped boomerangs, and other classic sub-weapons. That’s where the similarities end, though. Richter’s playing style requires far more finesse and skill than those of his predecessors. This is best demonstrated by the Vampire Killer itself; it lacks the multi-directional controls and limp chain effects from Super Castlevania IV. It even lacks additional upgrades, which puts it a step below its NES iterations. The reversion is understandable; it makes the combat more challenging in terms of both timing and handling. It’s also worth noting that Richter is much faster and more agile than any of the previous heroes. Aside from his fluid and quick moves, he can easily adjust his jumps and even back-flip away from oncoming attacks. His biggest strength, however, is his Item Crash ability. At the expense of extra heart ammunition, he can perform supermoves with his sub-weapons. Casting a maelstrom of holy water, summoning giant crosses, and lighting the whip on fire are just some of the tricks he can pull. While his Vampire Killer isn’t as strong as before, his additional capabilities make Richter the most powerful and balanced Belmont in the series.
He’ll need everything he can get, too. Rondo of Blood hearkens back to the days of Dracula’s Curse, when every level was crammed with brutal platforming segments and annoying enemies. While the levels in this game isn’t quite as tough, they offer far more in terms of creativity. One stage has you making a slow, arduous ascent up a stairwell, narrowly dodging a barrage of iron balls. Another has you scrambling over a collapsing bridge while a swarm of bats constantly tries to shove you back into the watery abyss. Not to mention the dungeon, which has you carefully hopping over a series of small columns as a small army of Flea Men try to knock you into the spiky floor. The enemies aren’t pushovers, either. Many of the later baddies can take several hits, which forces you pay closer attention to their movement animations and attack patterns. The bosses are even more engaging; their moves may be predictable, but they’ll make you pay for any mistakes. These fights require more dodging and timing than anything else. Some of bosses even make a last-ditch effort to kill you while they’re dying. There’s nothing quite as demoralizing as surviving an attack by a giant, axe-wielding minotaur, only for him to sucker punch you into oblivion at the last second. These battles may challenging, but it makes them that much more satisfying.
The game isn’t just about fighting, though. Rondo of Blood has an impressive amount of secrets that, unless you take the time to explore, can be missed entirely. It brings back a few concepts from Dracula’s Curse, but adds some subtly to it. Rather than blatantly giving you the option to take alternative routes, the game incorporates the choices into the levels themselves. What appears to be a bottomless pit may be an entrance to another area. Remember all of those women who were kidnapped? They’re hidden somewhere in the castle, and saving them can lead to different stages, bosses, and endings. This is best exemplified by Maria Renard; she’s imprisoned in one of the early levels, and she’s easy to miss. But if you figure out how to find the child, she’ll join you as a second playable character. While a cute little girl doesn’t exactly look like a typical Castlevania hero, her playing style makes Richter – the strongest Belmont in the entire series – almost obsolete. Rather than wielding a whip and sub-weapons, she can summon animals. No, seriously. Dragons, turtles, cats, and birds. Her primary weapon is a couple of doves that move like feathery boomerangs. It’s better than it sounds; those tiny doves will absolutely wreck Dracula in seconds. She might not have Richter’s strength and stamina, but she’s much faster, more agile, can rack up multiple hits with a single move. Not to mention her sliding and double-jump abilities, which make it possible to skip over whole sections and dodge enemies with no effort whatsoever. Needless to say, Maria is just one of the many reasons that make Rondo of Blood worth exploring.
Even if you don’t uncover every little secret, you’ll still be overwhelmed by what’s shown to you. Not satisfied with being just another Castlevania title, the game strives to be more immersive and compelling than its predecessors. It starts off Richter frantically racing back home on a horse-driven carriage. As the rain pours down and lightning crackles, Death appears onscreen and attempts to assassinate the young Belmont. He threatens the hero in Japanese – this is the first Castlevania with voice acting – before spewing out a gigantic flaming skull and vanishing into the stormy night. When Richter enters the town (a superb homage to Simon’s Quest), he braves the burning buildings while fiery ash and tinder float in the breeze. Shortly after infiltrating Castlevania, he gets chased down a zombie-filled hallway by a screen-sized, half-rotted bull carcass. Just before the climax of his crusade, he has to face a gauntlet of all the major bosses from the original Castlevania recreated with new sprites, deadlier moves, and remixed music themes…before taking on Shaft, the priest responsible for Dracula’s return. The anime-style cutscenes make it even more dramatic; Annette angrily defies the dark lord, confident that Richter will save her from certain death. Dracula’s cool, sinister lines make him seem that much more dangerous. By the time you ascend that iconic staircase – a lavender crescent moon glowing ominously overhead – the build-up to this final showdown will have been immense. For the first time, slaying Dracula has meaning.
You know what the ironic thing is? Rondo of Blood is easily the best of the old school Castlevania games, if not the defining title in the series…But chances are, no one’s heard of it. It was only released in Japan. Aside from ports to the PSP and Wii, it’s fallen into the deep void of gaming obscurity. It’s a travesty. This game has so much to offer. Richter is a wonderfully balanced hero, offering all kinds of combat options without ever seeming too powerful. His improved handling and Item Crash options make fighting far more interesting. The cleverly designed stages and excellent boss fights offer more than enough challenge. The branching levels, alternate endings, and extra secrets provides plenty of incentives to explore everything. Maria, despite her appearance and ridiculously over-powered moveset, gives gamers a chance to tackle stages in different ways. The animated cutscenes, the little atmospheric details in the levels, and voice acting help tie Richter’s crusade into an incredibly slick and entertaining experience. So before you replay Symphony of the Night for the umpteenth time, take a second to remember this game. Rondo of Blood deserves to be appreciated as much.