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DRACULA X : RONDO OF BLOOD / Konami / TurboDuo
There's a period of time, from about 1988 to 1994 or so, that I like to refer to as the "Golden Age of Konami". There was a particular group of talent at the company then, working on their A-list titles, that was just phenomenal in every aspect of production. Most of Konami's great franchises were either established during this time, or received the high-caliber sequels that would propel them into the elite gaming echelon. The hallmark of these "Golden Age" games is the use of emerging technology to enhance the traditional 2D game and make it more detailed and immersive, rather than following the market trends of FMV crap of the time. These particular games have an aesthetic and gameplay style that is instantly recognizable - cutting-edge arcade games such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Simpsons and Sunset Riders, the Sega CD adventure Snatcher, and console greats like Contra 3 being the most high-profile examples.
Well, Dracula X is vintage Golden Age Konami, and is even perhaps the greatest title of the whole bunch. The only thing keeping it from being as well-known and massively popular as the other games mentioned is that it was released solely for the TurboDuo CD, and then only in Japan since the TurboDuo never garnered much of a following anywhere in the West.
The game is the direct prequel to the much more well-known Symphony of the Night, which takes its opening scenes (loosely) from the end of this game. In the Guten Eichten times, Dracula does his usual revival thing thanks to a cult of jerks that sacrifices maidens to him, so the current Belmont-in-residence (Richter) heads off to put him down before he regains full power. Same drill as always, no stunning plot developments here, but the story is told via very nice full-screen manga-style cinematics, with easily the most impressive introduction the series has seen to date.
At this point, Richter has eight levels of vampire whippage ahead of him, but there is more going on here than in the usual Castlevania. First of all, the CD format is taken advantage of to provide some really beautiful background art, with multiple scrolling layers and oodles of detail. Also, the Konami Kukeiha Club makes their final Castlevania soundtrack appearance, and they go out with a tremendous bang. If you have heard either of their Dracula Battle albums, the majority of the songs they remixed on those originated in this game. This soundtrack, to me, falls short only of Symphony as the best of the Castlevania series, and it doesn't fall short by very much. All the tunes are Redbook audio, using high-quality synths and the odd real instrument here and there (there's a credit for "Guitar Solo" at the end).
As with all the Golden Age games, the gameplay is just about a pitch-perfect blend of stiff challenge with fluid and responsive controls. It will kill you a fair amount of times, but you'll never be stuck on anything for too long, and you don't really get the urge to huck the controller at the screen when you lose. Initially, the game actually seems a bit too difficult - this is due to the fact that Richter is your typical stiff and clunky Belmont in a world where the monsters have all really stepped up their game. He has a couple new tricks up his sleeve, like a backwards flip and the screen-clearing Item Crash, but the enemies are much faster and tougher than they have ever been in previous Castlevania games. Unless the player is very familiar with the controls and sharp, Richter is gonna find himself getting bumraped by common enemies like fishmen, bats and even sorry skeletons for quite awhile. However, in the second level, you have the option to unlock Maria as a playable character. She controls more like something out of a post-Symphony Castlevania game; she has a double-jump, a fast slide, a shadow attack akin to Alucard's, a boomerang-type weapon that makes a small arc upward to hit those pesky flying critters that like to hover over your head, and she even hits a little harder than Mr. Vampire Hunter! Honestly, Maria takes the game from being a bit too hard to a bit too easy. But, she acts as "training wheels" by which you get through the game initially and feel it out while still having fun. Later, you can return to controlling Clunky Belmont for increased challenge if you so desire. On the whole, I actually thought the game was pretty gentle for Castlevania - you can save in-between each stage, and pick up at the beginning of a stage as many times as you like.
The levels are linear, but you can return to any completed one as often as you like. The game is not a "Metroidvania", but it is sort of halfway between that and a traditional Castlevania game. You can return to any level you have previously cleared, using either Richter or Maria; there are multiple paths through each level, which sometimes lead to new levels (there are four to find in total) and new bosses. Also, stashed away in some of the levels are various wenches that Drac was planning on drinking the blood of at some point or another; finding and rescuing all of them is requisite to getting the best ending and a full completion percentage. Also, money that you pick up in-game converts to points (1 for every $100) that can be spent on "technical demos", which are Symphony-like videos of some Konami guy trashing all the bosses without getting touched.
Exploring old levels for new stuff actually ends up being fun, and will likely end up occupying most of your time with this one, as the game proper can feasibly be beaten in one night. The reason it works is that the game is just so well-designed that it is one of those rare examples where you can play the same levels over and over and still have a blast with them. That's the best of old-school design philosophy right there.
The only thing I can even possibly stretch to complain about is that the game probably has the gimpiest Dracula of the whole series. This is after a string of fairly challenging and satisfying boss battles, however, so it ends up coming off as not that much of a disappointment. You also don't get the "YOU STEAL MEN'S SOULS" speech, and Drac looks more like animu elf than bearded wise man in this one, but oh well. Lol continuity.
Anyway, the game was finally re-released for PSP last year, packaged up with SotN, but I've heard some minor complaints about the quality of that port, and apparently you also have to complete SotN first to unlock this game. Emulators, of course, are running it stupendously well, not that I would ever advocate Teh Piracy of Japanese games that we should have been able to play almost fifteen years ago ...
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