Review by Arkrex
"Will the real Dracula X please stand up?"
There's a lot of history with this game. With the recent release of Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles there's surely a lot of confusion to go with it, too. Castlevania: Dracula X was released on the SNES in 1995, two years after the release of Dracula X: Rondo of Blood on the TurboGrafx CD (US)/PC-Engine CD (Jpn) console. The latter game is the one that's featured in the aforementioned Chronicles collection and it's the one that's met with high acclaim across the board. This game, which should be more appropriately titled Dracula XX, is based upon that much-talked about game that never made it outside of Japan (until now), but it's quite the rough chip off the old block.
If that sounds too confusing, basically what I'm saying is that this game is but a shadow of its inspiration. It's definitely the weaker version. But there are more than a few differences to justify a degree of separation. Think of Dracula XX (as I call it) as an evil twin; it's an uglier, garish sounding beast that's much tougher to crack than goodie two-shoes Dracula X, but by and large, it shares the same incredible gene makeup, and hence, it's still a quite a worthwhile game to play.
You play as Richter Belmont, the latest pretty boy in an illustrious line of vampire hunters, blessed with the power of a mighty whip, aptly called Vampire Killer. Dracula's been up to his usual evil deeds, this time kidnapping Richter's dearly beloved among several other fair maidens. He's just asking for it, isn't he?
Your job is to stride into the castle with the famous Belmont shuffle, utilising the famous Belmont sub-weapons to defeat the famous Belmont sworn enemy and his minions just like in all Castlevania games that came before then. Richter has more refined controls than his predecessors. He is able to jump off from stairs (yeah, his forefathers had a real tough time getting to grips with this concept) and he can perform a somersault manoeuvre. He's not as floaty as Super Castlevania IV's Simon, but at least his movement has a more physically realistic feel. However, compared to the original Dracula X, his air control is terrible: once you've jumped towards either side, there's no chance in hell that he's going to go the other way. This means missing crucial jumps between platforms is quite common, as is inadvertently bumping into enemies, and this is the first thing that makes this evil offspring much more fiendish.
Enemies have also been given an upgrade when it comes to kicking Belmont ass. There are less of them per screen (due to hardware limitations), but the flying ones especially (crows, medusas, red ghosts) now pose much more of a threat than before. Their patterns tend to place them just out of reach of whipping range and unless you have a handy sub-weapon to hit them from afar (like an axe), there will be many tense moments as you attempt to anticipate how they're going to swoop in for the kill. In some ways they are more dangerous than the hulking armoured knights and even the pesky little fleamen; a single surprise hit from them (the ghosts like to appear at the most inopportune times while you're airborne) will knock you back into a pit more often than not. And in all except one special case, that pit will lead to an instant demise. Coupled together with relatively poor air control, Richter's got it pretty hard; strike number two.
But what if there isn't a pit in sight? (This doesn't occur too often, though.) Things should be quite straightforward then, right? Not really. Richter has some weird collision detection issues here. Firstly, when it comes to how close he can be to an enemy before the game counts it as a hit, it can get a bit dodgy. You'll swear that the spear wasn't swung anywhere near your body or that fireball barely touched your hair, but the game says it did and lose a chunk of health as a result. You still get a moment of invulnerability when you're hit, but for only a fraction of the time; it's so easy for enemies to combo you because of this, bouncing you two, three, or maybe even four times before letting you off. Sure, they do less damage than before, but multiple hits still cause large cumulative damage. And they usually place you in a disadvantageous position (like in a tight corner) or else simply knock you back into an instant death pit. Yikes! The third difficulty woe.
In any other game, Richter would be out of the count by now, but this is Castlevania, and Belmonts are manly men who laugh in the face of adversity, be it a spiteful vampire or dodgy controls. If you're looking for a challenging action-platformer, Dracula XX is your game.
At the end of each stage, there are boss characters to whip away. Some of them have been adapted from Dracula X and given a few new techniques, but the majority are entirely new and while they aren't as good looking as what was seen before (even compared to Super Castlevania IV), they are nevertheless very satisfying to kill. There's a demon mutt ready to meet you in the first level who could rock the socks of Dracula X's two offerings and later you'll meet a necromancer who discharges paralysing energy balls whilst summoning skeletal warriors during his first phase, only to go crazy with lobbing tombstones and calling upon dirt monsters in greater numbers for the second part, and with a fully re-energised life bar no less! Due to the controls and the boss's general increase in aggressiveness, the fights are tough, but the harder they are, the more satisfying the fall. The same goes for Dracula; the final confrontation here as arguably the toughest Dracula battle next to Castlevania III's finale. He's up to his usual triple fireball and metamorphosis tricks, but this time his throne room has been broken up into several uneven platforms; that's right, there are pits here! God, this game loves pits, doesn't it?
So while Dracula XX isn't as fine-tuned as the original Dracula X, it's still a great game. The feeling of progressing through Transylvania to kick lordly ass is there: from beginning in the burning village, progressing onto the castle walkway. You may happen to drop down into a musty cave (yeah, there are still a few branching paths here too), before trudging your way out of a cesspool, then ascending a clock-tower, and finally, walking up those well-trodden steps to meet the Count for a good one-on-one. It's tough getting there, but it's worth it.
The SNES was clearly incapable of replicating the amazing audio-visual quality of the CD-based Dracula X and as a result, the sprites aren't as animated and the colour palette isn't as striking. Some scene transitions clash a bit, too. It's odd to go from a light sandy brown mountain range to some gourd coloured hallways without any doorway to speak off. With less attention to detail, you have to pay close attention to catch the vague segues and this removes some of Castlevania's characteristic uniformity.
But at least the funky, vampire-killing synth is just as good as ever. Most of the original's soundtrack has been remixed for Dracula XX's lesser sound chip; some do come across as dumbed-down with less backing instruments (particularly the bass), but they are still fairly good renditions and the opening Bloodlines is perhaps even better than the first's! Having great sound quality does make a game more convincing and I'm sure that the SNES could've done better, but you can't fault wonderful compositions and the ones here are all that.
Imagine a set of genes, each one coding for a different aspect of Dracula X/XX: sound, graphics, control, difficulty, enemy patterns, level design etc. etc. There are always two alleles for every gene, one that's dominant and one that's recessive. Despite the former sounding like the ideal, that's really not how it works. But describing the two Dracula X games using this analogy allows one to see how they are the same, but different at the same time.
Rondo of Blood dominates in all aspects and while the difficulty isn't as severe, this is mostly due to more refined controls. The un-subtitled Dracula XX (okay, Vampire's Kiss for the PAL release) is the evil twin as I mentioned previously. It has all the recessive alleles, so while it shares similar traits - the same sub-weapon system with item crashes, Richter's aerial acrobatics, the whole saving the maidens deal, some ripped and compressed enemy sprites, similar chunks of level layouts etc. it's different enough to be considered as an entirely different game in its own league. Sure, you can't play as Maria (i.e. there's no such thing as an easy way out here!), the death-traps have been replaced by aerial pests, and the branching paths has been heavily toned down along with the maiden hunting. The game is definitely a lot more linear than its brother. Some hit mechanics and control issues can frustrate, but those attune to the ways of the NES Castlevanias should really have no problem, although that's not to say it will be easy going for them; far from it.
Sitting down and replaying this once again has reaffirmed why I love the Castlevania franchise so. The games have an incredibly rich atmosphere that's made even more believable by some truly great music. The sub-weapon system passed onto subsequent generations of Belmonts (and cousins) have always been a successful formula, each time introducing new quirks; this time, Richter can pull of some impressive item crashes like the holy water hydro-storm (everyone's favourite!) The bosses are rock-hard, but that's why you get such a feeling of accomplishment once they're beaten down and stomped on; if you can finish this game legitimately, my hat goes off to you. So although Dracula XX isn't the surreal experience that Dracula X AKA Rondo of Blood is, it's still one of the greatest games out there and if you have any recently sparked interest in the franchise's beginnings, this comes highly recommended; in this author's opinion, even over the fan-favourite Super Castlevania IV.
VERDICT 8.0/10 Why wasn't this included in The Dracula X Chronicles!?
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/31/07
Game Release: Castlevania: Dracula X (US, 09/30/95)
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