Mainlining is our new featured series where we run through all the mainline games in a series one article per game, in often different and original ways. This week the Castlevania series goes where it’s never gone before, the Sega Genesis, as we look at Castlevania: Bloodlines.
I wonder how many reviews of this game referred to it as “a bloody good time”. I mean, that is the obvious pun you would go to for a game this drenched in plasma.
Was it the influence of Mortal Kombat (released two years prior in 1992) that made Konami go so gore-heavy for this installment or was it simply to do what Ninten-didn’t back in the 90s? Either way, every level of this game is dipped by it’s heels in the red stuff. In the first level alone you are treated to enemies being graphically disemboweled, while chained victims missing their lower torsos writhe above rotating mechanical torture devices. You know, for kids.
CASTLEVANIA: A SHORT STORY
Castlevania: Bloodlines is like the console version of an arcade game that never existed. The stages are about as long as your usual Castlevania stages, but they’re split up into more subsections. While in Super Castlevania IV (which I’m gonna go ahead and abbreviate as SCIV from now on) you had a pork chop in every wall practically. You’d often have your hearts maxed out at 99. Not so in Bloodlines.
The health upgrades are sparse, meaning you’ll actually die often in this game, and when a stage is 11 sections long you’ll potentially lose all your lives. That means you’ll have to start at the beginning of the level even if you die in the boss fight, and they dock you a Continue. That’s NES harsh.
I mean look at the picture below. I barely made it out of the first stage. I only had three cherry Pez left, and there are no more Rest of me. I’m hanging on by a thread here. You just know I’m dying somewhere in Stage 2 and then there goes one of my two precious Continues.
Yes, this is one of those games that gives you limited continues. I never cared for games with limited continues. It was always some game that didn’t need to do it, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. I still haven’t recovered from a last-second kill shot from Shredder all these years later.
We live in an era where action platformers like Bloodlines have eliminated the points system. It’s an obsolete goal to get the high score in games of this nature, but there’s a good reason for an emphasis on points here. This game requires you to not squander your lives. You only get those two continues, and unless you like plugging in grid-based codes to restart a level, you’ll need extra points to earn extra lives in order to make it to the end of this quick jaunt around Europe.
THE DEVOLUTION OF A BLOODLINE
In this game, you have the option to play as two different protagonists right from the get-go. First up, we got whip-wielding Texan, John Morris, who is related to Quincy Morris, a character from the Bram Stoker novel Fangs! (or something or other). He’s also tangentially related to the Belmont clan which is supposed to explain how he has the Vampire Killer, the legendary Belmont whip, in his possession.
Unlike previous games, you can upgrade the sacred whip three times instead of the usual two, with the third upgrade turning your whip into a flame (which of course was the most powerful version of your whip in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest). Instead of getting the familiar-looking Morning Star power-up, in this game you get the Coat of Arms, which look suspiciously like the familiar Contra power-ups. Bird wings, looks like a pilot pin, you feel me, right?
Then we have Eric Lecarde, a filthy rich Spaniard who wields the Alcarde Spear (which once you get past the character select screen is exclusively called the Alucard Spear for there on out), given to his family by Alucard to be used along with the Vampire Killer to fend off Dracula. Apparently there’s some backstory where John and Eric get all competitive over which anti-Dracula deterrent is better, but since I’m not reviewing a manga I’ll skip all that noise if it’s all the same to everyone.
Bloodlines takes Simon’s whip moves from SCIV and sort of splits that range of movement between John and Eric. John can swing around on certain ceilings, which is an interesting concept that never gets used in any real meaningful way. Eric is slightly faster and has a longer, if slightly weaker, reach that can also attack diagonally and straight up.
I stuck mostly with John because if it’s a Castlevania game I’d prefer to have a whip, otherwise, what are we doing here? All that being said, it is nice that you can switch out your character when you use a continue because Eric is much better for those later levels if you ask me.
Elizabeth Bartley, Dracula’s niece, and the hottest video game character since the villain from Battletoads is the main antagonist in Bloodlines. Don’t worry, Uncle Dracula makes his mandatory appearance, but it’s this green-haired vixen that is behind all the stone-cold machinations.
Now that I’ve done my little pregame segment, let’s head to the theater and get to why we’re all here. Let’s Mainline this bloodsucker.
CHAPTER 1: IN WHICH JOHNNY LEARNS WHAT HE’S IN FOR
I never played this game when I was a kid because I didn’t have a Genesis. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this game from 1994, but I prejudged it a little. I felt like I somehow would’ve heard more about this game if it was that good. Nevertheless, I was ready to play it now twenty five years later. It’s kind of our thing around here, so even if I wound up hating this game at the very least it was totally on brand.
Immediately starting the first stage I got the initial impression that this game was going to be a little rough. There’s a skull directly above your head that is just jawing at you and I instantly didn’t know if this game was in on the joke or not. It’s weirdly unsettling for a second when you first spot the cackling skull and it’s a great way to let your audience know you’re in for something different, but it also changes over to being oddly comical in record time. Was that also it’s intent? Am I overthinking the jabbering skull most people don’t even notice?
Let’s take a moment and recount all the advances SCIV made. You could whip in 8 directions, you could change your jump in midair, you could crouch and inch forwards and backwards, you could even grapple. Well, the good news is you can still grapple when you play as John, sorta. It’s more of a graceless swing or a clumsy attempt to use a chin-up bar. It’s gangling and awkward.
Gone are the days when you collected hearts to use your sub-weapons. Now you collect little cans of Coca Cola, which I eventually figured out were red gems. For the longest time, I had no idea what the red gems did until I realized they went towards your total of blue gems. Wait, why did the red gems counts towards your blue then? Well, blue gems are worth 5 gems, whereas red gems are only worth 1. Well, then why didn’t they just make all the gems blue and make the 5 pt gems a bigger blue gem? Because this is the Genesis, and they don’t play by your old-timey rules, grandpa. But no, I agree, it’s a lousy system, sir.
One thing this game does that bothers me is the usage of the cracked wall. In older Castlevania games, there existed walls that would break and reveal secrets such as food, hearts, and item multipliers, and Bloodlines continues this trend. The only problem is, they dumb it down. Somewhere along the line, games felt the need to flat out tell you where the secret walls were. If you ask me, that sort of removes the whole secret aspect of finding them. You don’t so much discover a secret wall through due diligence, as you do observe the clearly suspect structural integrity of a wall with your eyes. I realize Bloodlines didn’t invent this shift towards dumbing down the experience for gamers, but it is the first game in this series to employ it.
Also, look at the block of animation where the hole is, or where a block of animation should be. That is some 8-bit effort for a 16-bit game. The graphics in this game as a whole are a mixed bag. The opening story sequence is very well done, whereas the level designs are sub-par by comparison. Not to mention, coming a few years after SCIV, it’s surprising just how noticeably inferior they are.
Keep in mind, this game is going for a different vibe than the previous entry. This game returns to the classic linearity of the original game. Although there are opportunities for each character to wander a small bit in certain sections due to their unique abilities, it’s 6 stages and we’re out. Quick and dirty.
Playing this game I often felt like it was chronologically out of order. Watching games in a series evolve, the one thing that almost always improves in a 2D series as it goes along is that the graphics get better. In this instance, the graphics went backwards. That’s not to say I wanted Bloodlines to look like SCIV, as I prefer a game to blaze it’s own trail, while still sticking with the core mechanics that make the series great, but I don’t know, I just wasn’t vibing with this game.
CHAPTER 2: REFLECTIONS OF ATLANTIS
Even though this game takes place over 100 years after the events of SCIV the Belmont offspring have suddenly gone back to being expert vampire killers that nevertheless can’t get wet. Yes, water once again can kill you on impact, and there are many dangers roaming the angular columns of the Atlantis Shrine just waiting to bump you to a watery death.
There’s nothing quite like eking out a win in Stage 1 only to watch your entire roll of Pez go down to zero in an instant because you got your boots wet a little wet and “drowned”. Bogus.
The sheer number of deaths you’ll endure because a minotaur backed you into the rising water, or from simply missing a jump, will be staggering. At least it was for me.
Then there’s this guy that you encounter that just hovers in the air and does nothing. He just hovers there. You don’t know if he’s going to talk to you, or if you have to fight him. Eventually, I just started swinging on him around the same time I realized the water below me was rising. Luckily, this guy doesn’t fight so you whack away and eventually he leaves and the water lets up.
There is a bit of inconsistency as to when and where water kills you on contact. There is a strange section where the water drains and you have to drop down along with it using little rafts that are indiscriminately placed everywhere. Drop down too far and you’re underwater, but making contact with the water is fine. So to quote The Gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “What are the rules?”
CHAPTER 3: THE SWAYING TOWER IS PISA
Just like in any TV show or movie, if you’re characters are in Italy, they’re hitting the Leaning Tower of Pisa. At the very least, they always have a beautifully framed view of the tower from their hotel room, but I’m not here to talk TV tropes—ever—so let’s get to this feast of 16-bit special effects.
This first part of the level has you making your way towards Pisa, while battling some old foes from games past like mummies and Skele-Dragons. Eventually, the path to the top of the tower has you jumping from one platform to the next as you circle the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa. So where were we before? Does every structure around here lean? Doesn’t matter.
Stage 3 culminates at the top of the titular tower where you will do battle with a monster that honestly looks like something different each and every time you look at it. I’m not joking. See if you can find the hidden crab, insect, bear, koala and wolf inside the bat, in just this one screen capture alone. Actually don’t because you’ll be entranced like a Magic Eyes poster, maybe just take note of how skinny and narrow the top of the tower is. You have very little margin for error when jumping, but I suppose a tower top battle wouldn’t be exciting without the possibility of an obscenely long fall to your death.
Once again, my biggest issues with this boss fight was that 1) I had no idea when I was connecting on him and 2) I had no idea when he was connecting with me. So while I’m busy looking up to see whose Pez dispenser is emptier I’m getting biffed in the head with a meteor, or whatever those boulders are supposed to be.
The game does employ several tricks from the 16-bit era such as rotating backgrounds and tower doing a fair share of tilting in lieu of leaning. In the section where you are outside the tower circling it, platforms initially appear to go around in an upward circular motion.
However, eventually, platforms descend from the top of the screen as well which causes the screen to devolve into a cluttered mess of platforms, that reminded me of the section in Stage 2 where you are jumping from one randomly placed raft to the next. Something about it just seemed sloppy.
CHAPTER 4: RETURN OF THE UNDEAD
I think once I got to Stage 4 of Bloodlines I finally got it. I understood what my problem was with this game. It was me. I was the problem. I was taking this game too seriously. The vibe in SCIV was that of a Merchant Ivory film in the 90s, whereas Bloodlines was a Golan-Globus film, pure mid 90s cheese. I’m pretty sure it was the skeletons wearing helmets in the biohazard area opening at the stage start that really hammered that point home. The Castlevania games always had their tongue in their cheek, it’s just that Bloodlines chose to have its tongue burst through its cheek in a gory mess and then lingered on the shot for several beats too long. That’s when it hit me, that cackling skull from Stage 1-1 was laughing with me. I came expecting Indiana Jones and Konami was serving up Remo Williams. Once I mentally switched gears, I won’t say my opinion of the game completely changed, but it certainly lightened up a bit.
Furthermore, the art direction a few sections later blew me away. I’m not someone that gets all excited about pretty graphics (outside of Rockstar and Naughty Dog games) but I’m a big fan of old school “busy backgrounds” and subtle bits of visual flair like the single chain that hangs in the foreground of Stage 4-5. It wasn’t that it was particularly impressive 16-bit graphics, but since the style of graphics in general hearkened back to the NES era, they managed to look like impressive 8-bit graphics. So basically what I’m saying is, even my compliments regarding Bloodlines are backhanded in nature.
This section gives off heavy Dracula’s Curse vibes with the gears you can use to move forward, and the parts that can be totally skipped if you as playing with Eric, whose spear allows you to vault over dicey jumps altogether. It’s such a spot-on evolution of these trademark Castlevania sections.
Of course, then there are parts where these random pistons move in and out as they are wont to do, sure, but I’m not even sure they can crush you at any point. I suppose it’s just another little flourish, a piece of flair, something I supposedly enjoy from time to time, yet they seem so inessential.
Later on, you encounter moving platforms that are controlled by rotating gears. You see, without the gears those platforms would just be hovering in midair. The gears are there to hold the platforms in place. So, I guess my follow up question would be, “The gears have the platform, but who has the gears?”
Is that picayune? Hell yes. The first thing someone will say to that is, “You’re questioning this in a series where weapons, food, and various sundries are housed inside candles and walls?” Fair enough, but I still contend that without some foundation of internal logic, some things just seem sillier than others. Also, you were supposed to read that hypothetical someone’s retort in the voice of a thoroughly uneducated person, so that you’re more inclined to take my side. My article, my rules.
As far as difficulty goes, this game is pretty tough overall. You can actually choose the level of difficulty in the setting, and on Normal mode, it’s a pretty daunting task. Stage 4, however, was a relative breeze for me, and we’ve established me beating (or re-completing) these games hasn’t been easy for me thus far. Yeah, there were a few parts that can be deceptively tricky and lead to some deaths that the programmers clearly knew you’d walk into, but overall the stage is perhaps the easiest since the first.
Unfortunately, the boss at the end of the stage, Gear Steamer (the stupidest name since Lumen), is yet another boss where it’s near impossible to tell when you are connecting on a hit. There are apparently specific times when a hit will connect on ol’ Gear Head, yet there is no way of outwardly knowing when that is. All hits look and sound the same. Imagine fighting the Darknuts in the original The Legend of Zelda and not having a different clanking sound effect for when your sword is not doing any damage. Welcome to Bloodlines, where your guess is as good as mine.
CHAPTER 5: TOUCH ROSEY, GET WOOZY
Stage 5 takes place at the Palace of Versailles and the overgrown gardens surrounding it. The lush greenery is filled with giant roses that dust up your allergies something awful. I thought roses die fast. I thought that was the biggest knock on them. Apparently they grow them strong in the Garden where you have to whack away at these things like you’re in a rye field with a dull sickle. I don’t do metaphors often, now you know why.
This epic war of the roses is more tedious than dangerous. The rose spores make you act all disoriented but you don’t take damage from them, which is fair since at one point I couldn’t figure out how to progress until I realized I had to take the spores in and adjust my gameplay accordingly. Basically, you reverse the controls until the effect wore off. This game mechanic was also used in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island a year later.
My favorite part of this level is when the fountain you pass goes from pumping water to blood. Red skeletons, those unkillable staples of the Castlevania series rise up repeatedly from the pools of blood. Just keep moving.
Something I found while playing this game and writing this article is that I didn’t always appreciate the animation and graphics when I was playing the game, but whenever I was editing in the screen captures I took, I was often taken with the intricate detail you don’t notice when playing. Chalk this up to the fast pace and hectic action I suppose, but it bears noting. I may not be a real fan of the art style, but I can certainly appreciate it nonetheless.
The Princess of Moss is the end boss, and she initially looks like one of the benign dancers from SCIV. That is until she falls to the ground and a gigantic freaking moth bursts out of her back like some reverse-Alien shit. It got an audible “whoa…” out of me.
STAGE 6: CASTLE PROSERPINA
The way they begin Stage 6 by flashing “Final Stage Start” across the screen caught my attention. I think they knew that if people got to the end of this stage and found out then that this was the end of the game, people would be shocked at the short length. This way they don’t have long to process that information as they are immediately thrown into the bizarre actions going on inside Castle Proserpina, home of my girl Miss Elizabeth.
The level begins with a bit of a mind freak, as the castle behaves like an NES cartridge that isn’t connecting on all 72 pins. This section bleeds into a short segment where everything is upside down and backwards, and gravity is topsy-turvy.
This section is bananas. First off, the aforementioned fractured screen effect. Second, there is a barrage of Medusa heads and carefully placed pits for you to fall into. As difficult as this part is, it’s nothing compared to the onslaught that follows.
SOME OF YOUR FRIENDS ARE HERE
So you’ve finally reached the stairway, that magical stairway that leads you to Dracula. Only…not so fast. You haven’t even fought Elizabeth yet, and besides that, you haven’t had your date with Death yet.
The Death battle includes a mini-boss rush where you battle previous bosses from the game in addition to also fighting Death, who shuffles a giant deck of cards and makes you attempt to choose the order in which to fight them. Lucky for you some of those cards have Pork Chops in them.
Once you defeat Death, you move on to a second stairway, and at the top of the stairs in none other than Ms. Bartley. I’d been waiting all game to square off with Elizabeth who promptly transforms into none other than Medusa. Yes, Medusa is the penultimate boss of Castlevania: Bloodlines. She finally gets her due in an epic battle that lasts more than 3 seconds! In fact, she’s quite difficult if you happen to be someone that panics easily.
It funny to me that I’ve been talking for four articles about how Medusa goes out like a punk each and every time she shows up and now here she is giving me a straight beating. Eventually, she too fell, and I knew there were no more monsters to slay except the ultimate one.
Again, I don’t want to spoil the final fight too much except to say that it’s three phases long, and compared to your fights with Death and Elizabeth/Medusa, it’s not bad by comparison. Still, you do fight three forms of Dracula, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
THE MORNING SUN
I did it. I don’t know how but I did it. I beat this game, beginning as John and ending as Eric.
For the record, I’m not sure if this is Castlevania or Castle Proserpina that’s crumbling in the background. I didn’t really think about it. I was too busy splayed back on the couch with my arms outstretched breathing a sigh of relief to think about it. I immediately went to my capture gallery to make sure this snapshot auto-saved. I wanted proof I beat this game. Luckily they don’t require you to beat it on Expert mode to unlock the trophy because I’m never doing that.
When I started playing this game my preconceptions were both validated and quashed. Bloodlines was neither a black mark on the series, nor was it a masterpiece. It was perhaps the toughest game in the series to beat since Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
I probably won’t play this game again until I’ve stood from a distance and watched the final version of Castlevania crumble. I do need to complete the game as John Morris to get that coveted other trophy, but not yet. I would say I’d see this game again in twenty-five years but I just did the math in my head, and I’m guessing my hand to eye coordination won’t be up to the task by then. Unless video games really do keep your hand to eye coordination sharp, in which case I’m gonna smoke some fools at the retirement community.
LEFTOVER GEMS (SODA CANS)
- Previously on Mainlining Castlevania: Super Castlevania IV was super pretty and Simon was huge.
- In some countries this game was called Castlevania: The New Generation because the standards and practices in that country didn’t allow the word “Blood” to be in the title. I tried really hard to make a joke where the Coca Cola looking red gems were all blue in that version because Pepsi was the choice of a new generation back then, but it never fully came together.
- They called the levels “Stages” here, as they stopped trying to make “Blocks” happen.
- I never learned Eric’s name the whole time I was playing the game and writing this article. His placeholder name was SPEAR GUY.
- Jokey names I considered for Gear Steamer included Richard Gear and Raymond Spur.
- Next time, we stick with the blood theme, as we play Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, another game I’ve never played before.
- Where is Dracula X for the SNES you may ask? Well, since that’s the US remake of the Japan-only Rondo, which is widely considered the superior game between the two, I’m not covering it. I heard it’s just a terrible game, however, should I find myself in possession of a working SNES and a copy of it, I’ll gladly cover it someday down the line. Let’s make it an even 100, in honor of it being a Castlevania thing.