Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was masterpiece in the action-platformer genre. It was rare when it debut in 1993, since it was a Japanese exclusive, and was only playable on PC-Engine CD; an already obscure console.
When it was announced that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System would be getting Castlevania: Dracula X, many assumed it was going to be a port of Rondo of Blood. A lot of the same art was used in the marketing, and promotional images appeared to be re-workings of the same game. Naturally, it was easy to assume it would be a Rondo of Blood port.
When Dracula X came out in 1995, every Castlevania fan was disappointed by how different it was from Rondo of Blood. Features got cut, difficulty was increased, and the entire game was changed so much it became something else entirely. Unfairly labeled as a port of Rondo of Blood, Dracula X still offers a unique Castlevania experience and deserves another look.
Castlevania: Dracula X
Platforms: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (reviewed), Wii U (eShop), New Nintendo 3DS (eShop)
Release Date: July 21, 1995 (SNES), October 2, 2014 (Wii U), Dec 29, 2016 (New Nintendo 3DS)
Price: $7.99 USD (Wii U, New Nintendo 3DS)
There was no way Rondo of Blood‘s experience could be replicated on SNES hardware. The limitations of cartridge format would not allow features like the voiced cutscenes, red book audio, and animated sequences which were a big part of the appeal.
It will always be a mystery why the developers chose to not adapt the gameplay experience, but instead what we got was basically a new game. There is a lot of new stages and unique bosses that make Dracula X distinct. The only remnants of Rondo of Blood is a very generalized take of the scenario and the item crash.
Dracula X‘s gameplay might disappoint fans of Super Castlevania IV, since it also lacks the features it pioneered. Swinging the whip in a circular motion is gone, there is no grappling, and Richter cannot moonwalk like his ancestor.
Dracula X is a lot like the original Castlevania or its remake, Castlevania: Chronicles. They are all very simple, yet very challenging action-platformers. There is no looking back, and Richter is not interested in “exploring.”
Like every Belmont before him, Richter will have to make his way towards Dracula’s castle, slaying every unholy abomination that crosses him. The stories in these games have never been more complex than being loosely inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and rarely amount more than some crusader fighting an anti-Christ metaphor.
A little Hammer horror inspiration here and a little Greek mythology there, all mixed together and you get the Castlevania ethos. The plot was always an excuse to brave medusas, wolf-men, and skeletons; and Dracula X is not different. What sets it apart from the likes of Castlevania IV is its style and presentation.
Castlevania IV was a rugged and gritty SNES game that came out close to its launch in the early 90s. Its profoundly dark and moody atmosphere was heightened by its low and growling music. Dracula X is a stark contrast with its bright, giallo-esque vivid colors.
Dracula X came out very late in the SNES’ life; roughly one year before the Nintendo 64 launched. Being late meant that artists honed their craft, and designed sprites and backgrounds that were almost on par with what the PlayStation was capable of.
This all down to smart use of colors that compliment each other, and artists being so bold to use unconventional pallets. The results are striking, and lead to imagery that is in some cases superior to Rondo of Blood. The introductory stage’s razing flames that engulf the setting is one notable stand out effect that looks amazing.
Character sprites are very bold and clean looking. Defined silhouettes and poses make every character and threat memorable. While some assets have been recycled from Rondo of Blood, they have been redrawn and scaled within the SNES’s architecture and color pallet.
Almost every environment has been reimagined. The level design is totally different, and presents all new challenges; further illustrating that this is not Rondo of Blood. The stages that Dracula X does have is a diabolical gauntlet of pain and eternal darkness.
Dracula X might have been designed to exploit the rental market by driving its difficulty very high. The enemy placement and spacing of jumps is truly Mephistophelian, and demands no room for error. Understanding the hit-boxes and the timing of Richter’s whip is crucial to clearing some areas unscathed.
Failing to absorb the intricacies of the mechanics will almost always lead to Richter getting sucker-punched by a fast moving enemy. While he does have a life-bar, at times it may as well not exist, since a single hit causes direful knockback. This means falling into an instant-death pit.
Castlevania is no stranger to pitfalls, but Dracula X takes it to new heights by peppering the entire game with holes like a huge wad of Swiss cheese. The designers went so far that they managed to make the final boss be a bottomless pit that fights Richter alongside Dracula.
Even if you become a Dracula X master and learn how to clear the hardest areas with perfect muscle memory, most people never beat Dracula because his arena is full of pits. Richter is effectively fighting on top of a few pillars that are only slightly wider than his sprite. Dracula has a lot of HP, and two forms which have powerful attacks that are not easy to dodge, making a knock-back death inevitable.
No matter what stage or boss you are fighting, Dracula X is merciful enough to lose the timer mechanic. Being able to take your time and not rush is a relief, and the extra flexibility means less frustration.
Dracula X may be one of the hardest Castlevania games, but it does balance things out by not booting you to the start screen when Richter loses all his lives. While he will have to start the stage from the beginning, this is part of the learning process to mastering the game.
Dracula X is very short if you know what you are doing, so having to replay a level from the first screen is not a terrible set-back. It may be demoralizing, but fighting the anti-Christ should be designed to crush your spirit. Getting good and learning the way enemies behave and how to move through levels is rewarding, because it’s impressive to negotiate such a crushing game.
It is annoying that a late SNES games still used passwords, but this is due to the game’s short play time of about one hour. This highlights just how little content there is in Dracula X. There is not a lot of variety like in Castlevania IV, which had whip swinging or being able to interact with the game world in a meaningful way.
There is only two girls to save, and you cannot play as Maria like in Rondo of Blood for added replay value. There needed to be more cinematic scenes to fill out the story. Ninja Gaiden on the NES did this amazingly well with 8-bits, and it is inexcusable that Dracula X is so cinematically empty in comparison.
There are only two alternate paths, and not having a save file system means having to replay the entire game from the beginning. A save system for Dracula X should function as a level select for areas that have been cleared. I shouldn’t have to write down or memorize symbols for a password, even considering the time it was produced.
Control refinements in Dracula X allow Richter to leap from stairs, and it is possible to change directions while in the air. Despite his slow power-strut, the man has decent air-mobility, and can move faster by bunny-hopping. Not that he should since speed kills.
The most important skill to have to win is a good memory. Knowing which sub weapon to keep, and where to stock up on hearts makes the boss battles so much easier. You don’t even need to know their patterns at a certain point if you have enough hearts to rely on sub-weapons or item crash. Just make sure you don’t die, or else you heart counter is reset to zero.
This is one of the most difficult Super Nintendo games, and despite its short length most never complete it. Getting good at Dracula X feels like learning how to pick a lock; it is a rare and impressive skill.
Over the years as fans have gotten over their initial disappointment of Dracula X, it has been rediscovered. There is a new appreciation for its fiendish level design, and the artistry in the visuals and sound finally gets recognition.
The music is especially impressive. It may not be red book audio, but the SNES sound chip’s warmth does wonders with these classic Castlevania tunes. Vampire Killer never sounded better than it does in Dracula X.
The drawback to this newfound popularity is acquiring a copy of Dracula X has become outrageously cost-prohibitive. Used authentic cartridges are always several hundred dollars, and a sealed new copy goes into the thousands; roughly the cost of a car down payment. Sadly, Dracula X was not included in the Castlevania: Anniversary Collection.
Wii U and New 3DS owners are in luck since those platforms are supported by Nintendo’s Virtual Console eShop and Castlevania: Dracula X is still available for $7.99. With the Wii’s eShop closure, it may be a matter of time until it happens to Wii U and New 3DS.
Anyone who does buy it from the eShop will get the option to save state. This is not recommended, since it defeats the point of Dracula X. Exceptions for emergencies are understandable, but anyone who save states their way to beating Dracula will be missing out on what makes Dracula X so enjoyable.
Castlevania: Dracula X can seem unfair at times, and it often is, but who ever said that the lord of darkness would ever be fair? Not everyone should be able to beat every game. It becomes more personal and special if only a few can actually beat Dracula. Even if you don’t beat him, forcing Dracula to get off his chair to defend himself is almost as impressive.
Castlevania: Dracula X was reviewed on Super Nintendo Entertainment System using a personal copy. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.