#40: Castlevania: Rondo of Blood
Before Symphony of the Night, there was Rondo of Blood… but not for Americans.
Initial release: 1993
Platform: PC Engine Super CD-ROM
If there’s a holy grail for Castlevania fans, this game is it. Released only in Japan for the PC Engine (the original Japanese version of NEC’s cult favorite console TurboGrafx-16), it was a turning point for Castlevania as a franchise, yet for years remained a mystery for American fans.
It’s not really known why Rondo of Blood never came to the United States originally. Obviously Konami wanted to take advantage of the PC Engine Super CD-ROM technology, with high-quality music, art assets and even fully-voiced (but badly animated) cutscenes, but it could just as easily been on the Sega CD. Perhaps it was NEC; the TG-16 was a failure in the US, and NEC guarded their tiny niche in the industry jealously. They likely would not have wanted Konami just releasing such a big title just anywhere. Sega CD also being a market failure probably doomed an eventual release as well.
Whatever the case, artistically Rondo of Blood marked a transition point, moving away from the 80s fantasy book cover aesthetic (no more ripping off Frank Franzetta!) into a more anime vibe. With that came bigger, more detailed sprites, many of which have remained in use in later games. Rondo might be considered to be one of the last “classic” side-scrolling linear (i.e. not Metroid-style) Castlevania games that isn’t a remake or alternate version. (Legends doesn’t count.) In that sense it might be considered a last hurrah for the old-school mode of the series. (I mean, okay, yes, Castlevania: Bloodlines came out after, but Bloodlines was a sort of last gasp of the old aesthetic and gameplay style — or more specifically, a love letter to Francis Ford Copolla’s silly Dracula adaptation. It’s still a great game, but not the milestone that Rondo of Blood is.)
It’s also a culmination of many of the very best elements of the previous games, even going so far as to riff on Castlevania 1 and Castlevania III’s progression. You start in the burning town of Ajiba (resembling its Castlevania II counterpart) and the very last level has a long bridge followed by a clocktower. There’s also branching paths, an alternate character you have to unlock (Maria — we’ll get to her), and lots of little references—Castlevania is nothing if not aggressively self-referential. It’s arguably one of the most endearing aspects of the franchise. It’s comforting to see the same old front hallway, the same old dip under the wall into a cave under the castle, the same old zombies. It feels like coming home. No wonder Konami did it over and over again.
And yet they were always giving us new things to play with. The item crash is one of the new features, huge, screen-filling attacks for massive damage that eat up large amounts of hearts based on your subweapons. And not every item crash is as useful as the subweapon it’s based on, and vice versa, requiring a bit of strategy.
There are also a number of kidnapped villagers you can rescue, including Richter’s girlfriend Annette, but more importantly Maria, a 12 year old girl with magical powers over nature who got captured for trying to be a hero. here’s the thing about maria: she is OP AF. What might take you 4–5 hours with Richter will take you maybe 90 minutes with Maria. She’s agile, has a high DPS (she can send out two doves at once, compared to Richter’s one-and-done whip strike) and she’s smaller, which makes a big difference. It’s ludicrous and i love her.
The animated cutscenes, while not adding terribly much plot to a game that never needed it anyway, do a lot to give the game a more dramatic vibe. they have that aggressively 90s vibe of simple animation and simple colours, but in 1993 it must have made eyes pop. Who cares if the plot’s not that important? We’ve all been here before: it’s been 100 years since the first Castlevania and some jerks have resurrected Dracula again. Usually the jerks don’t matter, but one of them is an evil priest/mage/whatever named Shaft. Why Shaft? Who knows. Anyway Richter has to go kick Dracula’s ass.)
Speaking of remakes and alternate releases, Rondo of Blood has both, neither of which are actually called Rondo of Blood. (In case you’re wondering, a rondo is a music term for a composition that uses repeating elements or refrains. Fitting, given the game’s self-referentialism, but this also marks the series’ first use of music terms in its titles.)
In 1995, Rondo of Blood was remade (or demade, if you will) into Dracula X for the SNES. While in technical respects it’s mostly a step down (fewer branching paths, Maria isn’t playable, generally less robust music save for the very funky first level theme) it’s arguably much nicer looking overall than Rondo. Look at that fire!!
In 2007 came a 2.5D remake of Rondo of Blood called Dracula X Chronicles for Playstation Portable (probably to compete with Capcom’s 2.5D remakes of Mega Man and Mega Man X on the same platform.) Among other things, it took advantage of a 3D engine for more dramatic cutscenes. That’s not really why anyone bought it though.
The big draw of Dracula X Chronicles was the opportunity to unlock not only an updated port of Symphony of the Night, but also a fully-translated, English-voiced port of Rondo of Blood, the first time the game had an official US release. That’s one way to sell units!
Sadly the PSP, like any handheld not made by Nintendo, was doomed to obscurity and eventual failure. An untranslated version of Rondo of Blood made it to the Wii Virtual Console, but it wasn’t until 2018 when Castlevania: Requiem for PS4 brought the PSP editions of Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night to console.
Dracula X Chronicles, for its part, is now taking its turn languishing in obscurity, though if you have a PSP or Playstation Vita, you can still buy it off PSN, though it’s more difficult than it used to be. It also works in PPSSPP, but the old games have long-standing issues that I’m unsure if they’ve been fixed.
Rondo of Blood will retain cult status as “that game Symphony of the Night is technically a sequel to” and while it continues to be out of reach for many players unless they have the right hardware, it’s still a remarkable milestone in the franchise, and a major step up in production values. All in all, while it’s probably not the best of the “Classicvanias” (IMO that’s Super Castlevania IV) you could do worse than be second-best in a series as venerable as this, and it’s well worth tracking down by any means necessary.