I have been doing a lot of Sony articles lately, haven't I? I think it's time to change the pace to something a little more retro. Of course, the majority of you who end up playing this game will likely do so on either the PSP or PS4, so I cant quite escape Sony's grasp. Before Konami became a rival to EA's title of "worst video game company on earth" (a title that EA still seems committed to defend), they made excellent third party games. Prince among them was Castlevania, a series that delighted players for generations. Whether its the 8-bit NES trilogy, the 16-bit trilogy, Symphony of the Night, or the GBA and DS games, Castlevania found a way to make fans out of anyone who touched them. In particular, I've grown a fondness for the six classic games that came from the 8 and 16 bit eras. Each one excelled at having the same core game ideas, but presenting them in six radically different ways. Each game felt like a rebirth of the first, like five different developers were asked to take the original and make a sequel. Out of all of them, the initially Japan only Rondo Of Blood is not only one of the best PC Engine CD games, not only one of the best Castlevania games, but best games on a 16-bit console. Considering the quality of the games that appear on them, that's high praise.
Rondo of Blood follows Richter Belmont, a descendant of Simon that was the next in line to take on the Dracula. Aided in his resurrection by the dark priest Shaft (You can't ask me to choose just one joke), Dracula kidnaps four maidens, including Richters girlfriend Anette, and a young girl named Maria Renard, who hails from a different clan of vampire hunters. All four are to be sacrificed to the dark lord, prompting Richter to strut his way to Dracula's always shifting castle and blood dine in. It's the simple style of storytelling that characterizes games of the era. The story serves to explain the games mechanics and that is basically all. Although there's a bit more here than most Castlevanias of the time, with big, gorgeous pixel art cutscenes, complete with voice acting. There’s more scripted sequences, like the brief prologue fight against death that serves little more than to set the tone. Enemies make screeches and screams, other distinct noises that take full use of the audio capabilities of the CD format, just to add some flair. That’s the best way to think of Rondo’s presentation. It's classic Castlevania with a little more flair.
The key to this games success is its open endedness, in every sense of the word. Typically, a Castlevania is set up as a series of room by room challenges, testing you to overcome a series of set piece challenges. It's like climbing a literal tower. Rondo of blood keeps the towers skeleton, and knocks down all of the walls. A pit is no longer bottomless; it is usually either a way to return to a previous floor, or an alternate route entirely. These alternate routes may lead you to an entirely different boss fight than if you completed the stage another way. Which may lead to an entirely alternate stage. Which may lead to an entirely different ending! It's platforming exploration at its sweetest. Every secret is a masterclass in subtlety. It’s designed to make you feel clever for solving its various ins and out, and rewards you accordingly. The main secrets are the four maidens to find, which depending on if you get them or not, the ending changes. Maria is one of these maidens, and you are actually able to play as her once you do so. It’s almost a different game with her. She takes hits much harder than Richter, but she has animal buddies that are damn near broken as far as attacks go. She also has a double jump, letting her get to places Richter can not. She is practically essential in the alternate Stage 5, which is only able to be unlocked after you beat the game. For a platformer in 1993 on what is an 8-bit console in sheep's clothing, there’s a lot here.
Everything here feels like Konami perfected the classic Castlevania formula. The enemies feel difficult, but fair, with a wide variety of them hailing from various other games in the series. Item crashes were introduced, which is the equivalent to an items final smash. You use up a ton of hearts for one super attack depending on the item. It’s extremely useful for some boss battles, and also as a way to clear the screen if you can afford it. There’s also the music, when it’s not remixing songs from the NES trilogy, is energetic and fun. It’s starkly different from the previous game, Super Castlevania IV, which went for an atmospheric approach. No, this is what would happen if you made an 8-bit castlevania soundtrack with a rock band. It’s the pillows atop a perfectly made bed, and every layer of sheets is the deep, complex game underneath. This is the game that makes me long for a new classic Castlevania. Only a handful of classic styled games made it out in this post-symphony of the night world, one of which is the PSP remake of this game. I think that’s a shame, as Rondo of Blood is one of the best Castlevania games period. If you are even remotely interested in the franchise, this would be the game to sell you on it. The easiest way to play it these days is the Castlevania Requiem collection on PS4, which features Rondo and Symphony of the Night, it’s direct sequel. In fact, at the time of writing, this collection is on sale on the PSN for $10. That’s an absolute steal for two of the greatest games of all time. Go, buy it now.
FINAL VERDICT: Pure Castlevania Good
ONE SENTENCE REASONING: Castlevania Rondo Of Blood is the defining game for the PC Engine CD, the master of adventure platforming design, and the best Castlevania.
(Nick Miller is a video game historian and collector based in Cincinnati. You can reach him at [email protected])