Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is a side-scrolling platform video game published and developed by Konami for the PC Engine CD. It was released exclusively in Japan on October 29, 1993. The critically acclaimed Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is a direct sequel to this game. Outside Japan, the PC Engine and its CD add-on were known as the TurboGrafx-16 and the TurboGrafx-CD. While the system and its add-on did moderately well in Japan, they did poorly everywhere else, and so many of its greatest games never got released in North America and Europe. This is one of those games. Some would argue that the reason the TG16 and TGCD didn't succeed overseas is due to the lack of good games being localized, but that's neither here nor there. Through the art of imports and eventually the modern magic of emulation, people outside Japan finally got to experience the game. Shortly thereafter, Rondo of Blood quickly garnered the reputation of being one of the best Castlevania games of all time. The game certainly deserves its reputation, because it's darn good.
The game is set in the year 1792 within a fictional universe in which vampires and other monstrosities roam the Earth. Leading the forces of darkness is none other than Count Dracula, who terrorizes humankind to fulfill his own sick desires. The only thing standing in his way is the legendary Belmont clan, a family of vampire hunters that have been keeping Dracula's evil at bay for generations. Passed down from one Belmont to the next is the sacred Vampire Killer whip, a weapon of mythic power that is able to slay the creatures of the night. The current heir to the Vampire Killer is a 19 year old man named Richter Belmont, who also happens to be this game's protagonist. After having had his girlfriend, Annette, captured by one of Dracula's servants, Richter volunteers to assault the Count's castle and put an end to him once and for all. Basically, this is the standard Castlevania plot, but unlike previous games, it has plenty of voice acting to give it a more dramatic feel. The intro is voiced in German, though, which doesn't make sense, considering the game is set in Romania and was intended for Japanese audiences. Also, this game is so hardcore that it begins with a virgin sacrifice. Not many other games can top that.
After the chilling intro setting up the story, there's a neat anime cut scene showcasing the game's visual and audio prowess. Graphically and musically, this game kicks butt. The graphics are fairly good, with detailed backgrounds, nicely animated sprites, parallax scrolling, and so on. In fact, the graphics in this game are so good, that many of the sprites were later reused in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Quite a few of the enemies and bosses also have multi-jointed sprites, giving them a truly impressive look. The game's soundtrack switches between Red Book audio and the sound chip's native capabilities. Because of this, the soundtrack is out of this world. The sound effects are a bit unimpressive by comparison, though. Rondo of Blood certainly doesn't skimp out on visual flair and musical mastery.
You begin the game by taking control of Richter Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire. Sorry, ladies, but he's taken. Richter controls like the classic Castlevania hero, being able to walk like a human, duck like a duck, jump like a frog, and swing his trusty whip. Unlike previous Belmonts, Richter's whip is always in a fully powered up state, eschewing the need for power-ups. He also has a couple of new moves that previous Belmonts didn't have, such as a midair back flip and a sick moonwalk that would make Michael Jackson proud if he were still alive. Like his predecessors, Richter is able to use countless projectile sub-weapons to supplement his core abilities. The sub-weapons are hidden throughout the stages inside destructible candles and include stuff like throwing daggers, axes, boomerang crosses, bottles of holy water, and even The Bible itself. The ammunition for these sub-weapons is hearts, also found inside candles, which is a strange staple of the series. A nice touch is how your previous sub-weapon falls to the ground if you grab a new one, allowing you to switch back if you don't like what you just got. First introduced in this game is the Item Crash; an ability that allows you to expend a large quantity of hearts to perform a super special attack using the currently equipped sub-weapon. With all these abilities at his disposal, Richter is a powerful individual.
Maria Renard is the 12 year old sister of Richter's captive girlfriend and is, surprisingly, a competent vampire hunter. She wasn't competent enough, however, because she was captured after venturing into Dracula's castle in a failed attempt to rescue her sister. Early on in the game, you'll have the option of rescuing Maria. From that point onwards, you'll be able to select Maria as a playable character. The young vampire huntress controls fairly different from Richter, being nimble enough to perform rolls, slides, and even a double jump. Additionally, she attacks with deadly doves instead of a whip; these things are deceptively powerful, as they can hit enemies multiple times to do massive damage. Maria also has a set of sub-weapons unique to her, all of which are animals based on Chinese mythological beasts. The main drawback to Maria is that she takes far more damage from enemy attacks than Richter. Still, if you master using this lolita, she's a far superior character to Richter, almost unfairly so. I mean, she makes short work of bosses and turns most jumping sections into a total breeze. Being able to unlock a somewhat secret, awesome playable character like this is pretty cool, but things are a tad imbalanced.
Stage design is top priority for games like these, and Rondo of Blood does a standout job. The game goes with the classic Castlevania formula of getting from point A to point B alive, but it does so in a varied and interesting manner. The first stage is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, in that it's the village of Aljiba from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest on the Nintendo Entertainment System, except on fire. Lots of cool stuff happens here, like skeletons bursting out of windows from burning buildings in the background. One stage features a gigantic behemoth with its lower body torn off chasing you around until it smashes into a wall and decapitates itself. And there's a phantom ship stage with possessed picture portraits that try to attack you, which is freaking cool. There are even skeleton ninjas! If that's not awesome, then I don't know what is. The stages get frustratingly difficult later on, with enemies being placed in positions that will knock you into deadly pits if you aren't careful. It never feels unfair, though. Great enemy placement and decent stage design makes the game exciting to play through.
This game is so awesome that it starts off with a boss fight against Death himself! The beginning of the game has Richter riding to a village by way of carriage, only to be assaulted by Death and forced to fight during the ride. It's not a real boss battle, though, because Death flees after taking a few hits. The real fight against Death doesn't happen until much later on, and it's excruciatingly difficult, but also super cool. You'll fight all kinds of boss monsters in this game: wyverns, giant serpents, werewolves, headless swordsmen, and more. There are also sub-bosses, and some of them are pretty creative. One that comes to mind is a poltergeist that possesses a bunch of sharp weapons and makes them float around the room; all you have to do to beat it is attack the glowing sword, but getting in between all the other bladed weapons is tricky. Near the end of the game, Dracula's dark priest, Shaft, will summon a bunch of bosses from the original Castlevania on the NES to fight you, providing a neat reunion. The only annoying thing about the bosses, besides them being really hard, is that some of them have a surprise revenge attack right before dying, which is kind of cheap. Barring cheap attacks, the bosses all range from good to great.
Even though it's mostly a linear affair, there is a little bit of nonlinearity to the game in the form of alternate exits. You've got access to a convenient stage select feature, which allows you to replay old stages in an attempt to discover new exits. Almost every stage has a different exit that leads to an alternate stage, not unlike Super Mario World. Sometimes finding an alternate exit is as easy as falling down a suspicious pit, but some are deviously hidden behind destructible walls. There are even a few exits that are accessed by solving simple puzzles, like this one where you need to operate a pulley elevator system by using a large rock. Alternate exits frequently lead to different bosses, too. Occasionally, there will be alternate routes that don't lead to secret exits, simply giving the stages more flexibility. On top of the secret exits, there are also four beautiful damsels in distress to rescue, including Maria and Annette. This usually entails finding a key and using it to open a door. Rescuing a girl initiates a voice acted scene that reveals more plot details, though it's mostly for boosting completion percentage. In order to get 100%, you'll have to complete all stages and save all maidens. Doing so is well worth your time, as it adds replay value to the game and is good fun.
Rondo of Blood is a game that exudes excellence. A lot of that excellence is due to the hardware it's on, as the Red Book audio certainly enhances the experience by leaps and bounds. The visuals are pretty gosh darn good, too. Playing as Maria is also extremely enjoyable, even if it does feel like cheating at times. By far the most appealing aspect of the game is all the hidden exits leading to alternate stages, blending the linear game play of traditional Castlevania with the nonlinear map concept pioneered in Super Mario World. If you only play one PC Engine CD game in your life, then definitely make it Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.
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