By the early ’90s, the Castlevania series had established itself as one of the big-name platformer franchises like Mega Man, Mario, or Alex Kidd. Despite starting on Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System, the franchise made its way onto the Game Boy, arcades, and Sega Genesis as well. If there’s one Castlevania title that’s become a bit of a cult hit, it is Rondo of Blood, mostly due to the fact it wasn’t available outside of Japan till well over a decade later. Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is the last of the classic Castlevania titles before the series found its new niche in the action RPG genre ala Symphony of the Night, and it’s also one of the best classic Castlevania games.
Before looking at Rondo of Blood, let’s look at the TurboGrafx-16 console or the PC Engine as it’s known in Japan. Created by Hudson Soft, the PC Engine was the first 16-bit console and released in Japan in 1987. This was a full year before the Genesis and 3 years before the SNES. The console was ahead of its time, selling for roughly $200 in Japan where at one point it was even outselling the Super Famicom (SNES) well after its release. It didn’t have much luck in the States, though. The PC Engine’s price was doubled to $400, and by now the seemingly equal power Genesis had launched at half that amount while the aging NES had a larger library of games. It struggled to make a footing in the Western market and we lost out on a lot of great games because of this.
In Japan, the thriving success of the PC Engine led Hudson to play around with new technology and resulted in the earliest CD-drive for a console. In December of 1988, Hudson released the CD-ROM². CD technology added a lot of extra space for games to use in production, and because of this, the PC Engine gained a lot of arcade ports and arcade-like titles. However, there were plenty of original titles that also made the most of the CD storage capacity, and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood is an example of how to bring out the absolute best in the PC Engine hardware.
Originally released in 1993, Rondo of Blood follows the story of Richter Belmont. Dracula and his minions have kidnapped several young women, including Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and it’s now up to the young vampire hunter to get them back. The story is certainly not Shakespeare, but it is about on par with the rest of the series up to that point. What really sells the game’s story is its cutscenes. This is where Konami really took advantage of the CD-ROM². Just about every major scene in the game, including the pre-start screen opening, are beautifully detailed sprite images. While they’re not fully animated, they do give off a comic-like vibe. Each scene is also narrated with some pretty good voice work, not that you can really appreciate it much without knowing Japanese.
The game has 9 main levels, each methodically thought out in the same way as Castlevania and Castlevania 3, and 4 alternate levels you can play by finding secondary paths. These secret areas are pretty well hidden, many of them being in otherwise deadly pitfalls. To lessen the burden of looking for spots, Rondo of Blood lets you go back and replay levels. As long as you’ve completed a stage you can go back and play through it again from the start menu, no passwords required. Enemies will swarm around you quickly if you don’t eliminate them, boss patterns can sometimes feel more like a bullet hell game, and even certain stages require a strong understanding of Richter’s limits when it comes to jumping. It’s not unbeatable, though, and conquering a stage feels really rewarding because you know you’ve earned it.
Richter brings a few new tricks to the table to make his trek more manageable. For starters, there’s the item crash, a special move where Richter can trade in a large amount of hearts to unleash a finisher-style move with whatever equipped sub-weapon he has. Most of these are full-screen wipes, but on the chance that Richter lacks a sub-weapon, he’ll simply increase the power of his whip and give it a flaming a hit. To balance this out there are no whip upgrades like in previous games, and there’s certainly no 8-way whip attacks like in Super Castlevania IV. Part of the challenge of Rondo of Blood is mastering sub-weapons, and making full use of your arsenal. Richter can also do a backflip by hitting the jump button again. It’s helpful in certain areas, such as dodging long-range attacks from spear knights or clearing large gaps.
Richter might fill the role of the classic Belmont, but Rondo’s other playable character is the real star of the show. The first maiden you can rescue is Annette’s little sister, Maria, and she decides to help Richter out in saving the rest of the girls and stopping Dracula. Don’t let her small stature fool you, Maria is actually an engine of destruction and one of the most powerful Castlevania characters out there. Her main attack is throwing doves at her enemies. She can throw a maximum of two at a time, and they each have a hitbox when tossed as well as when they come back to her. Maria also has a plethora of dodging options, such as a low-ground slide, cartwheels, and a double jump, solidifying her as a very agile character. She can’t really take that many hits compared to Richter, so mastering Maria comes down to knowing enemy attack ranges and making the most out of her ability to dodge. Rondo almost feels like a completely different game with Maria, right down to the visuals. She comes with her set of sub-weapons and item crashes. Things like food are changed from pieces of meat into sweets and other confections, even the extra life drops look different.
Maria’s abilities to roll and cartwheel make her one of the most agile characters in any Castlevania title. Rondo is no slouch on visuals or audio either. I already covered the voice acting and detailed cutscenes, but this quality carries over in-game as well. The character and enemy sprites are beautiful and detailed for their time. They’re so good in fact, that they’ve been reused in multiple Castlevania titles decades after Rondo’s release (Symphony of the Night can really thank Rondo for a lot of its sprite work). Rondo’s soundtrack is also phenomenal, mixing in actual guitar riffs with synthesized tones and drumbeats to create one of the best sounding OSTs of the early 90s. It was so well received that it got an official 2-disc release in 1994, combining some of its remixed tracks with those of the Genesis title, Castlevania: Bloodlines.
Despite the game’s rarity, there are a few ways to get your hands on a copy of Rondo of Blood. The original PC Engine game commands a pretty outrageous price of $250, making it out of reach to most players. If you have a Wii though, the game can be purchased off the e-shop for closer to $10. PSP or Vita owners can track down Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles, which is a full 2.5D remake of Rondo that has the original game (as well as Symphony) added in as a secret unlockable.
For any Castlevania fan, Rondo of Blood should not be skipped. As both a great classic platformer and setting the standard for many Castlevania titles after it, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood still feels as great to play now as it would have back in 1993.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 15, 2016.