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, we move on to the last (mostly) linear Castlevania game in the series as we talk about the exceptional, and at one time elusive entry, Rondo of Blood.
WHY YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF IT
If Simon’s Quest, the second entry in the Castlevania mainline series, was a convoluted mess of a game, sorting out all the different versions of Rondo of Blood is a similarly daunting task. Released in 1993, but only in Japan for the PC Engine CD system (which we briefly called the Turbo-Grafx-16 in America), Rondo was a game Western audiences didn’t get to see until 2007, when it was hidden inside it’s own 2.5D remake, The Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP, as an unlockable secret.
It should also not be confused with the much maligned 1995 SNES game Dracula X, which was itself a semi-loose remake of this game. So now that we’ve dispensed of the convoluted backstory behind the game, let’s get into the relatively simple plot of the game.
A STORY RIFE WITH FORESHADOWING
As I kid I never cared about the story of any Castlevania game, except for Simon’s Quest, but that’s only because they made me. This game has a story, and it’s told initially in a grim, monotone Japanese voice as we see a buxom girl sacrificed at an alter in order to resurrect Dracula after 100 years of slumber.
The story speaks of Dracula’s powers, and his ability to change into a wolf, a bat, or even mist. These powers are familiar to anyone who has played this game’s direct sequel Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and this little bit of pregame dialogue that most people likely skip foreshadows the next game succinctly.
The animation in this game is pixel art, but the cut scenes have that mid 90s look to them and are very well done. The dialogue however, as with most games of it’s generation, is stilted and laughable at times. There really is no need to crack wise about the quality, it’s how games were back then, and those of us who have already played Symphony know the dialogue only gets worse.
But enough talk, let’s have at it!
PROLOGUE: GOODBYE HORSES
Based on the cut scene, Richter left his day job as a supervisor in sales, commandeered his trusty steeds and headed out to rescue his beloved Annette who was kidnapped by the dark priest Shaft, to lure Richter Belmont to Dracula’s abode.
Death shows up and fights you briefly before doing the now-cliche “Next time won’t be so easy!” routine and flies off.
STAGE ONE: CITIES ON FLAME, WITH ROCK AND ROLL
Rondo is a tradition Castlevania game, for the most part, and it excels in doing the basic things well. Stage One begins amid a raging fire, as you make your way through a familiar looking town, while a rockin’ soundtrack blares behind you.
Richter reads the sign out loud, saying, “Aljiba”, one of the towns from Simon’s Quest. The familiar stairways and red brick facades almost make you nostalgic for another playthrough of Castlevania II, but that passes quickly.
I used the beginning of this level to mess around with Richter and see what his moves were like. They were a little restrictive, and more akin to the original NES trilogy than SCIV or even Bloodlines, when you consider Eric (Spear Guy), was half acrobat.
However, Richter has a few unique moves we haven’t seen yet. Hitting jump twice makes Richter do the type of back flip Mac always says he can do, but never seems to actually do on It’s Always Sunny. Although I’m sure Rob McElhenney will learn how to do one and then write it into season 18 a few years from now. It just seems like the kind of thing he’d do.
Also, you can activate a buffed-up sub-weapon power that can do massive, across-the-screen damage.
Stage One ends with the classic moment where the hero of the game rolls up on the entrance and just stands there all dramatic-like.
Except — not so fast. A grape dragon swoops in to give you an end-level boss battle first. He’s actually somewhat difficult, especially when you’re still getting acclimated with things, but if you study his patterns, use those axes, and dodge, you should prevail. Now grab that red orb!
STAGE TWO: CLAP FOR THE WOLFMAN
Crows perch high atop columns, while skeletons toss bones at you as they are wont to do. Rogue crows flit around buzzing your head always seemingly dodging your attacks by inches. You approach the raised drawbridge and you encounter your first Axe Knight. This game’s version is blue (although they come in different armor types) and not only tosses axes that act like boomerangs, they also lob axes at an arc, much like you do with your own axe. They also come with a shield that you must break away before finishing them off. Once he is defeated, the drawbridge drops and you are once again in the familiar, but slightly different entryway of the castle.
In Symphony of the Night, a character from this game returns to the castle and notices that it’s changed. The protagonist of that game explains that the castle changes, almost like its a living thing. Sure, it’s a way to handwave continuity, but I’m not a stickler for continuity in-game anyway. I still don’t know if Birdo from Super Mario Bros 2 is a boy or a girl, all I know is that its none of my damn business. If Birdo is happy, I’m cool with that.
Frankly, I’m glad that this was the last of the original “old school” Castlevania games in the series. Despite excellent 16 bit graphics and some of the best music in the entire series (including this level’s version of “Vampire Killer”), having lived in Romania for these past few months writing about these games, I’m a little burnt out on homages and callbacks.
Which is why the very next room catches you completely off guard when, without warning, a giant Behemoth crashes through the wall and begins chasing you. This is where the game gets tricky.
As you flee from this beast, you must avoid ghouls and pits, while breaking candles along the way. Hidden inside one of the candles is a key, which will become your sub-weapon. Under no circumstance are you to lose that key, or swap it out for a different item.
Make your way through the sewer where, once again, Fish Men spring out of the water, only now with greater frequency. Just keep moving forward and make your way to the right. On the right near the stairs to proceed, you will notice a locked gate. Stand next to it and use your key. When you enter you will see Shaft performing some sort of spell on a young girl. Swat him once and he’ll flee. Approach the girl and a cut scene will play, introducing you to Maria Renard, a 12 year old girl who was captured along with your beloved Annette.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM CHILD LIKE MARIA?
Maria has an almost comical blood lust and was going to kill the bad men who did this until she got caught. Richter tries to give her the, “Aren’t you a little young to be in the monster mashing business?” speech but Maria scowls and tells you that you don’t know what you’re talking about. They both agree to be friends (in an odd, abruptly edited bit where they shake hands and say “Friends!”) and Richter has a hearty laugh to rival Tidus from Final Fantasy X, much to Maria’s chagrin.
Once you and Maria go your separate ways, you head for the exit and meet up with the end boss of Stage Two: The Werewolf. He howls at the moon in the distance before leaping into the foreground to battle you. Once the battle has commenced he crumbles to his knees and turns into a naked man (in most versions outside of the original he wears a loincloth to cover his shame) who promptly dies.
For whatever reason, I thought this might be Grant DaNasty from Dracula’s Curse, as he was also a wall-crawling monster until a Belmont whupped some sense back into him. Also, I read into the stage title being “God, Grant Me The Strength” as some sort of clever wordplay that is wasn’t. Alas, he was just some dude who was cursed, that I suppose I “freed” if we’re looking for a bright side in all this.
STAGE THREE: TAKE ME TO CHURCH
It’s “Bloody Tears” time, as Stage Three takes place in the cathedral, which also seems to be loosely based on Stages 4 – 6 from the NES Castlevania. You’ll encounter swinging skeletons, hunchbacks sliding down the rails of a long stairway, and your old friends, the undulating Medusa heads.
You’ll also encounter some platforms that flip when you jump on them, only they don’t take you to your death, they take you to a lower level, where you must battle your way back up. There are lamps in this area, surrounded by moths. When you shatter the lamps, the moths follow you around. They don’t do anything harmful, they’re just drawn to you until the next bright flame comes along.
STAGE FOUR: ATOP COUNTLESS TERRORS
Stage Four, oh my. I know that my gamer skills are waning, but I spent a few days stuck in stage four. Oh, and if you think busting out Maria will help you, you’re sorely mistaken. Yes, her double jumps and distance shots are great, but her jumping becomes an issue in areas where accuracy is key.
There really is no way to beat this level except to master it, and that is no small task when this level throws Axe Knights, Skele-Dragons, traps, spiked pits, and hunchbacks at you by the dozen.
To add insult to injury, when you do die as Maria, the Game Over screen, with its Mortal Kombat “Babality font” and Bubble Bobble style artwork, tells you all you need to know about what mode the designers consider this playthrough to be.
STAGE FIVE: YOU’RE ON A BOAT
Stage 5 is one of those stages that you have to suffer through over and over until your brain gets right, and you come to the conclusion that what you’ve been doing isn’t working. The enemy placement in this relatively short level is diabolical (slightly less so for Maria and her bevvy of animal familiars).
More often than not in this game, the Ax is your friend. There’s no catchy song about axes the way there is about the boomer-rang-rang, but even still, the axe is the way to go. If you experiment with when and where to throw them and consider the trajectory of their arc, you’ll do well.
The boat even has a puzzle element to it, in that you can discover a hidden path and drop down inside the belly of the ship and mash your way to a rare 1Up.
The boss at the top of the boat is none other than Death, making a relatively early appearance here. It seems Death has dropped a rung in Dracula’s Pentagram of Trust. This is the game where brash newcomer Shaft begins taking the reigns as second in command to the big man, pulling the strings, kidnapping the dames, casting spells. Meanwhile, Death merely has the potential to unlock a “You’re On a Boat!” trophy.
STAGE 6: CASTLEVANIA (NES): BOSS RUSH MODE
Stage 6 begins with the “Boss Alert Theme” you hear near the end of most stages already playing right at the outset. This is a boss rush level, where you encounter Shaft, who proceeds to summon the first four bosses of the original NES Castlevania one at a time, via his magical retro pentagram.
Since these articles are a whimsical jaunt down memory lane and not an FAQ or a walkthrough of this game, I won’t tell you how to defeat all four bosses and Shaft, except to say, the Grimoire certainly helps.
Two other things to keep in mind. After defeating the Mummy, you get a Pork Chop Drop to regain some health. Also, if you die fighting Shaft, providing you have any lives left, when you get to the boss room, Shaft will begin fighting you. You don’t have to re-defeat the four throwback bosses again. If you Game Over, however, you totally do.
STAGE 7: A CLOCKWORK CHALLENGE
Use the axe. Use it repeatedly. Use it until you enter the clock tower. Then use it some more and stay alive, no matter what occurs!
This is another of those levels that pays homage to the original game (Stages 16 and 17), beginning with a long bridge filled with bats that leads you directly into the clockworks. These areas are always a blitzkrieg of enemies, and this one is no different.
Once inside the clockworks, the enemies and the overall look of the area will give Symphony of the Night fans deja vu. There is even a secret room to uncover by hitting a gear repeatedly, something SotN players are also familiar with. Taking the time to get in this secret room is critical as you fight a large albatross with a key around his neck. This key will allow you to unlock a room later on where your beloved Annette is being held.
I rescued Annette playing as Maria, and the cutscene that plays in this scenario is pretty amusing. It’s not because of any goofy dialogue, but due to the fact that Annette seems less than thrilled that it is Maria saving her and not Richter. It’s understandable she’s concerned for the life of her 12 year old relative, but even Maria takes it as a slight, as a young child would, and the exchange cracked me up.
STAGE 8: RICHTER TAKES THE STAIRS
Anyone who has played Symphony of the Night knows this is the end of the line because that game begins with you playing an (impossible to lose) variation of this fight. Not many people know Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night are directly connected. SotN is a direct sequel to Rondo but most people didn’t know Rondo of Blood even existed back when Symphony released on the PSX.
Richter scales those familiar-looking stairs and arrives at Dracula sitting on his throne, looking noticeably bored and apathetic. Classic Vlad. He’ll spring into action and will have a move set similar to the original game. This will help seasoned veterans of the series to defeat him. Moreover, if you’ve played Symphony, you know his moves, because they’re shown in the pre-credit / flashback sequence pretty accurately. Only when you run out of life here, Maria doesn’t come and repeatedly bail you out with her weird Dr. Doolittle superpowers. You’re on your own.
Once you defeat Dracula’s first form, he turns into his giant, winged, demon form and the background acts like you’re fighting the last boss in a Final Fantasy game. Again, the enemy moves much like they did in the original NES game, and anyone familiar with that game will find the final fight a challenge, but not insurmountable.
I know I’ve mentioned that this game calls back the original game often, and also that I was initially burnt out on retreading old ground, but I have to say that I never really had a problem with it here, as there is so much in this game that is new, that it never seemed like the game was resting on its aroma-enhancing laurels. It wanted to have its cake and eat it too, and frankly, I think they succeeded.
When I struck the final blow, I half expected Dracula to say his line from SotN, “No…this can not be! Noooooooo….!” He didn’t. He did however have a few things he needed to get off his chest though.
For someone who has just been defeated, Dracula certainly has a lot to say to Richter before heading off for his latest siesta. I know people playing this game today will watch these cutscenes with their well done yet quaint animations, stilted line delivery, and probably chuckle, but I remember when games of this era started to tell stories and it was invigorating.
When I was a kid, if a game had a screen that misspelt “Congratulations” (and it usually did) when you finished it, even as a kid you felt robbed. As game endings became more elaborate and cut scenes became the norm, it added a new layer to the experience. I thought Rondo’s storytelling was a little rough around the edges, but it had a scrappy charm to it that was so immensely likeable.
Of course, I’m now at the point where I want games to just drop me into the world and let me figure things out without watching a ten-minute cutscene but had I played this game at the time of its release, I would’ve loved this ending even more than I do now.
CHRONOLOGICAL vs. ORDER
I probably spent more time than I should have wondering which games I should cover first once I hit Rondo, Bloodlines, and Dracula X. Rondo came out in 1993, but no one played it outside of Japan, whereas Bloodlines, the 1994 Sega Genesis game, was available to Western audiences. Technically, I should’ve done Rondo first, but since it leads directly into Symphony, I made an executive decision and tweaked the timeline. It’s not like this series itself doesn’t play fast and loose with the rules.
Nevertheless, if anyone was considering taking me to task for my timeline, I figured I’d explain my reasoning.
THE STAGES NOT TAKEN
As I’ve mentioned, levels have different paths, and some even lead to alternative levels altogether. When you talk about replayability, this game has it in spades. Not only can you go back and play the whole game as Maria, but you can also seek out the alternate levels for stages 2 through 5.
You will certainly want to play these alternate stages as they are completely new areas, with different themes, looks, and enemies. The alternate path for Stage 4, for example, leads you to a level highly reminiscent of SCIV‘s swamp, filled with those hard to hit frogs and equally evasive crows. The path will branch even further once you reach a waterfall which you can raft down if you so choose.
MY RONDO 2.5 ON PSP/VITA EXPERIENCE
Before I played it on my PS4 via the Castlevania Requiem collection, I began my Rondo experience by downloading The Dracula X Chronicles onto my PS Vita, knowing that the original game was locked away inside of it somewhere. What I found was that The Dracula X Chronicles on the PSP/Vita is, itself, an excellent game. Not only do you get Rondo with a new coat of paint, but you also get new cutscenes.
I found the art style of the cut scenes to be very reminiscent of Dragon Quest games around the time this game released (2007), especially when Richter stands before the drawbridge as he enters Castlevania. Some additions fall short, like the almost comical close-up shot of the Werewolf in Stage 2 howling at the moon. Overall though, the new look and retained controls worked for me.
The sound design is on point, especially with headphones on, which is how I normally play Vita games, as it enhances the immersion. The rain, the clacking of your boots, it keeps you engaged and present in the moment. I found myself really liking this game. I had never played the original version at the time, mind you, so I wasn’t micro-critiquing every subtle change or design choice.
Hidden near the end of Stage Four there is an easily miss-able jump (I assume intentionally) that drops you at a dead end. Whack the wall to discover a cache of bombs. Hit them, back up, and watch as the wall crumbles. This happens in the original Rondo as well, only in this remake, if you proceed and take the high road you will find the original, playable Rondo of Blood hidden in a candle. Granted, Stage Four has caused many seasoned gamers to rage quit, but it is worth it to unlock the original version of the game if you have the PSP/Vita version. The screen does get downsized, but it’s still the best and only way to currently play this game on the go.
Not only that, but beating the game unlocks a full, playable version of Symphony of the Night as well, so value-wise, this game from 2007 whips up some damn good content.
You can still purchase it from the Playstation Store via your Vita or PS3. I believe I purchased it many years ago during a flash sale for a ridiculously cheap price, but it currently sits at $14.99, so if you’re still a Vita lover like myself and want to experience both Rondo’s and Symphony, this is the only way to do it.
So you see, we didn’t need the Castlevania Requiem collection, the Rondo was inside all of us the whole time. Or at least all of us that used to go buck-wild whenever there was a Flash! Sale in the Playstation Store.
- Previously on Mainlining Castlevania: Bloodlines was an interesting experiment that I really didn’t love, and may only revisit to get the trophy for beating the game as both characters.
- Rondo began the series usage of musical terminology in their titles (Rondo, Symphony, Aria)
- As someone who has played Symphony of the Night multiple times over the years, I was shocked at how many items and enemies actually originated from Rondo.
- I originally played this on my PS Vita, playing the Dracula X Chronicles PSP game remake. Once I unlocked the original Rondo of Blood, I continued to play both until I realized the one I was writing about was going to need all my time. This is a difficult game.
- I then purchased the Castlevania Requiem collection, which is Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night for the PS4. When my SotN article is laid to rest, perhaps I’ll do a review of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection (which featured Castlevania I, II, III, Super Castlevania IV, and Bloodlines among a few others) and Castlevania Requiem.
- The PSP remake is very well done, and the graphics and sound are excellent on the PS Vita, should you actually own such a device.
- Next time, we take control of an old friend as we play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which is either the greatest game the series ever produced, or an overrated divergence not worthy of its name.
It’s the internet, everyone speaks in absolutes and hyperbole. What a miserable little pile of hot-takes. Peace out.