Review by Tarrun
"Dracula X is the underachieving little brother of the Castlevania series."
Much to the disappointment of my piggy bank, Konami's marketing strategy in the early nineties was to create separate games for all of the competing video game consoles, giving birth to Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania Bloodlines, and Dracula X: Rondo of Blood within three years of each other. Unfortunately, for the children of the average middle class family, owning three or even two video game consoles from the same generation wasn't possible, and as a result, many Castlevania fans were forced to choose which games in the series they wanted more. Ironically, perhaps the best Castlevania game created during that time was for an exclusively Japanese console, leaving Americans yearning for what they heard was the pinnacle of the Castlevania series. In an attempt to appease the masses, Konami released Castlevania: Dracula X, a loose adaptation of the TurboGrafx-16 version, two years later in 1995. Unfortunately, several key aspects of the original game are missing in the Super Nintendo title, and what's left is an extremely average Castlevania game.
The story in Dracula X is basically the same one found in Rondo of Blood, which is pretty much the same as every other game in the series. The year is 1792, and Dracula has been revived once again, presumably by the dark priest Shaft, though the character is absent from this version. In an effort to lure Richter Belmont, the latest heir of the Belmont Clan, to his castle, the Prince of Darkness decides to kidnap several villagers from the town and hold them hostage, including Richter's girlfriend, Annett Renard, and her sister Maria, though Iris and Tera are excluded from this version. Not one to let his woman hang in peril or let evil prevail, Richter takes the Vampire Killer and heads for Castle Dracula.
The graphics in Dracula X are actually pretty nice, and it's one of the few examples where the game's developers attempted to take any sort of risk. Instead of trying to emulate Rondo of Blood's backgrounds and animations, they decided to recreate the levels with more of a cartoon-style look to it. The end result is impressive, and it's one of the only examples were the developers made an honest effort to give the game any sort of life instead of watering down Rondo of Blood. All of the levels are designed well, and every area has unique features that are worth stopping to look at as you press forward. Few players will be able to forget the burning town from the first level which vaguely resembles one of the towns from Simon's Quest or the tower leading up to the final battle with its opulent stained glass and stone designs that juxtapose the dank slums of the rest of the castle. Imprisoned zombies reach for you through their cell bars in the caverns, water free flows through the elegantly designed remnants of a town in the underwater ruins hidden beneath the castle, and rusting brass gears in the clock tower whir and grind together all of which create an atmosphere in their respective levels that works perfectly. The backgrounds are fairly two-dimensional, so everything comes across as very flat, but otherwise the graphics are extremely memorable.
The characters themselves aren't quite on par with the levels, but they too are very clean and visible. While they're much smaller than the ones you'll find in Super Castlevania IV, they're also much less pixilated. I do take issues with some of the enemies, however, as they can be dull and flat most of the time. Similarly, the comic book screens that serve as cinematics are too lifeless and empty; there simply isn't enough going on in them, and nothing that is there is worth paying attention to. Fortunately, their appearances are limited.
However, the soundtrack in Dracula X is fantastic, and there's very little that's lost in the transition from Rondo of Blood. Castlevania fans may notice that both soundtracks are unique among other games in the series, which previously aimed for dark, gloomy tracks that, granted, you would expect to find in a game of this nature. Instead, however, many of the tracks in Dracula X are fast, upbeat, and have a distinct rock and roll feeling to them. This theme was continued in Symphony of the Night, and, of course, it drastically alters the tone of the game, which is more exciting and adventurous as opposed to the spooky sense of dread. All of the important tracks from Rondo of Blood have been included, and bears a balance between familiar favorites and new themes. In particular, Opposing Bloodlines, the first level's theme, is exceptionally noteworthy, as well as a very cool rock remix of Vampire Killer in the second, all of which sound exceptional considering the downgrade in technology from a CD-ROM to the Super Nintendo's sound chip. In some cases, it even sounds better. As for sound effects, most of them are fairly corny, but they're far and few in between so it isn't as much of an issue as it could be. Sure, the evil laughter that greets you when you begin a new game and the various groans from monsters are comical, but not so much that it will distract you from the game. Overall, though the sound effects do not nearly have the same intensity that Rondo of Blood did, the soundtrack is remarkable, and more than makes up for it.
In terms of gameplay, Dracula X follows the traditional Castlevania style of a one-player side scrolling action game with a mixture of fighting and platform puzzles. Richter sticks to the Belmont's Guide to Vampire Killing and is the typical main character you'd expect to play as, wielding the legendary Vampire Killer whip and various sub-weapons. Curiously, your whip can't be upgraded, though you seem to have a fully powered Vampire Killer that is sufficient to tackle the legions of the undead that stand in your way straight from the beginning. The sub-weapons have all returned with their original attacks, and include the knife, holy water, axe, cross, and stopwatch. Hearts collected from dead enemies and candelabras power your sub-weapons, and you'll notice that it takes significantly fewer hearts, usually just one, to perform an attack. This is because the main use of the sub-weapons aren't their conventional attacks, as Rondo and Dracula X introduce the item crash a powerful attack using the sub-weapons at the cost of a larger number of hearts. The attacks vary depending on the sub-weapon, ranging from summoning a dozen crosses that erratically fly around the screen to creating a storm of holy water. Should Richter not have a sub-weapon in his possession, using the item crash will temporarily charge the Vampire Killer into a flame whip. As an added bonus, Richter is invulnerable during item crashes, which gives you the opportunity to potentially save yourself when in a tight situation. Although the sub-weapons in general are more powerful, you still won't find yourself using their conventional applications, as your whip is enough to get you through to the end. The bosses, however, present more of a challenge, and the item crashes prove to be a godsend in this case, which means you're usually better off saving your precious hearts for when you really need them.
The first thing you'll notice about Dracula X is that the Belmont you're controlling is extremely rigid in every sense. Richter walks fairly slowly and seems to lack any sort of flexibility, making his walking animation look somewhat awkward. This becomes more noticeable while you're traveling from one screen to the next, and you'll find yourself wishing there was a run feature. It isn't surprising to lose patience with Richter's inability to keep up, and I often find myself jumping forward instead of walking to make better time. In some cases, this is necessary, as some of the puzzles require Richter to be much lighter on his feet than he is. Most notably, puzzles that involve bridges that crumble beneath your feet can give the player trouble, as it's impossible to move fast enough while fighting Mermen to stay alive just walking.
That being said, Richter has absolutely no mobility while jumping, and it's reminiscent of the original Castlevania in the sense that you're forced to commit to a jump completely. Richter either performs a jump that sends him about a third of the way across the screen or two steps in front of you. Not surprisingly, this is a source of immense frustration. There are several puzzles that require you to jump from a small platform to another, but they're separated by a distance that's just close enough that performing a regular jump from anywhere but on the far edge will send poor Richter plummeting to his death. There is a second type of jump a backflip that you can perform by quickly pressing the jump button twice in a row. Unfortunately, there really aren't too many places to use it, and where it conceivably could be, it's easier to simply jump normally. Add that to the fact that it can be difficult to perform, and it's not surprising that you won't be tapping into Richter's acrobatic talents as frequently as you think. This concept was later expanded upon in Symphony of the Night with more abilities and a responsive system, but in practice here it just doesn't pan out.
The above issues is the essence of Dracula X's gameplay. To put it bluntly, it's stumbled backwards about seven years. Nearly all of the innovative gameplay aspects from Super Castlevania IV are gone; along with the return to uncontrolled jumps, Richter only whips horizontally, you once again have to press up and the Y-button to throw a sub-weapon instead of utilizing the L and R buttons, and the hooks that you could swing from are absent. In fact, there are only two aspects of the gameplay that are less than a half of a decade old besides item crashes. For one, when you collect a sub-weapon, the item you were previously carrying falls to the ground instead of disappearing, allowing you to exchange it for the one you had. Otherwise, you're also able to finally jump off of a set of stairs. This is extremely valuable, as you know longer have to worry about helplessly standing around while enemies claw at your face. Overall, however, the game's controls are mediocre at best.
This might be more bearable standing alone, but Dracula X combines this archaic and uninspiring set of controls with level designs to match. The enemies you'll encounter throughout the levels are either utterly brain dead, choosing the tried and true combat strategy of standing around and waiting for you to kill them, or frustratingly aggressive, none more than the annoying Spear Guards. However, regardless, there are just so many of them attacking you, particularly Medusa heads and Flea Men, that it becomes impossible for Richter to attack them all without losing chunks of your life meter in the process. This even holds true for bosses, and in some cases it's so unbalanced that it's borderline unfair. In particular, it seems that someone must have decided that the battle with Dracula was an anti-climax, because it's been changed so that the entire fight takes place on a half-dozen columns. This means that being hit even once will likely send you plummeting to your death, as well as making it impossible to get close enough to attack if Dracula appears more than a column away. The end result is that the Count's first form is dragged out for far too long, and is still followed up by a formidable second demon form. Anyone who's ever played a platform game will know that there's a thin line between challenging gameplay and intentionally being a pain, and that line is trampled over within the first few levels of Dracula X after the second or third collapsing bridge or jumping puzzle that's made difficult by poorly placed bats or Medusa heads. There are simply far too many moments where you'll be on the receiving end of a cheap death and are forced to replay the entire level, only to be killed in the exact same spot despite your best efforts.
This idea is never more apparent than in the third level, which serves both as the crossroads for the alternate route and the opportunity to rescue Annett and Maria. Near the end of the level, there's a long gap with pillars interspersed along the way. To successfully reach the end, Richter must jump from pillar to pillar, avoiding stacks of bone skulls, Medusa heads, and skeletons without accidentally jumping or being knocked off the edge. Doing so will automatically end the level and send Richter to level four, eliminating his chances of rescuing anyone and sentencing the player to the worst ending. Again, by itself this isn't necessarily a terrible concept, but when receiving a single hit dictates how the rest of the game will play out while not allowing the player to correct their mistake without restarting the entire game it makes you question what was going through the developer's mind.
Should you make it to the end, Richter will find a key that is kept as a sub-weapon, though it can't be used to attack. However, it will open a locked door in the next screen, which take Richter on yet a different route, one that gives the player a chance to rescue everyone. Unfortunately, should you die at any point, you lose the key, and that opportunity with it. Likewise, if you whip one of the many candelabras hanging over a gap that contains a sub-weapon, you'll be forced to watch your precious key drop into a pit while you get a brand new knife to play with. It almost seems as if the game intends you to quickly breeze through the levels, skipping past the rescue mission, defeat Dracula and call it a day. Considering what an intricate part of the game saving Maria and Annett was supposed to be, its execution is mishandled so badly that the final draft is just sloppy.
That's not even taking into account that the levels are simply a mess. In trying to emulate Rondo of Blood's areas, the developers borrowed bits and pieces of each level, spliced them together in no particular order, and called it a full level. As a result, you'll stumble upon several inconsistencies and paradoxes, such as leaving an area from one end and entering the next one walking in the direction you just came from. Similarly, in condensing the number of levels from thirteen to nine, you'll notice that levels simply don't fit together. Certainly, I'm not an architect, but it seems odd to have a series of caves lead into a clock tower at the top of the castle. Even giving the game this small bit of attention to provide some sort of consistency would have greatly benefited Dracula X's overall presentation instead of slapping the player in the face as it does now.
Castlevania: Dracula X is simply a perfect storm of poorly executed gameplay, a noticeable regression from previous games in the series, and near impossible expectations to meet and the result is a game that can't help but disappoint no matter how you look at it. As a game by itself, the lazy attempts at creating functional gameplay and the overcompensation with irritatingly positioned enemies will deter casual players from enjoying Dracula X, and you'll quickly learn to hate the same tired puzzles that aren't even clever the first time you encounter them. For a Castlevania fan, it's impossible not to look at the game and not wonder why it essentially has the same gameplay and flaws as the original 1986 version. If it wasn't possible to recreate Rondo of Blood, where are all of the new, cool features from Super Castlevania IV or Castlevania Bloodlines? And of course, Americans bought Dracula X expecting to play Rondo of Blood, and what we were never told was that although the two vaguely resemble each other, they are not the same game.
Thankfully, the game is fairly short, so if you can simply plow through it, you may get a kick out of Dracula X the first time through. Unfortunately, the reward for completing it is a three-second clip and one of three background images depending on who you rescued, so there's a good chance any inkling to replay the game will be lost when you realize that there's little reason to achieve the better endings. Dracula X needs more than that it needs more personality to separate itself from Rondo of Blood, and more life to keep the player interested. The way it is now, Dracula X doesn't know what it wants to be. If you're looking for a Castlevania from the early nineties to play, there are better options. And with the release of The Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP, if you're looking for a substitute for Rondo of Blood, there's an alternative for that now as well.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 03/10/08
Game Release: Castlevania: Dracula X (US, 09/30/95)
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