Netflix’s Castlevania series has proven to be one of the streaming service’s most consistent surprises. Bursting onto the scene with relatively few (or perhaps just low) expectations, the animated series has since gone on to not only capture some of the best elements of the Castlevania games but forge quite the legacy in its own right.
That legacy was recently furthered with the release of Nocturne: the latest chapter in the acclaimed series that shakes a few things up while retaining the show’s high standard of quality. In this case, though, the thing that fascinates me most about Nocturne isn’t how it works so well as its own thing but rather how it pays tribute to the Castlevania games it is largely based on. My greatest hope is that Nocturne may even revive interest in the most underrated Castlevania game: Rondo of Blood.
Released in 1993 for the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine, Rondo of Blood’s platform was certainly the first hurdle in its path to relevancy. I think the TurboGrafx is one of the best video game consoles ever, but a series of bad decisions quickly contributed to the console’s market failures. A modified version of Rondo of Blood (known as Castlevania: Dracula X) was released for the SNES in 1995, though that port is generally considered to be technically and mechanically inferior to the original version of the game.
Platform and port choices aside, the biggest reason you may have never played (or even heard of) Rondo of Blood probably has something to do with its release in relation to the rest of the franchise. Rondo of Blood was sandwiched between 1991/1992’s Super Castlevania IV and 1997’s Symphony of the Night. Compared to the former game, Rondo of Blood was seen by some as a slight step back. It lacked the various gameplay refinements that made that game an instant classic (especially for SNES fans who tried playing Dracula X after Super Castlevania IV). Compared to Symphony (which is a chronological sequel to Rondo of Blood), Rondo really feels like a relic of the past. Indeed, Rondo is sometimes best known as the “Did you know?” predecessor to Symphony.
However, the game has always deserved a legacy that it has often been denied. Yes, Rondo of Blood is pretty old-school even by the standards of its time. Specifically, Rondo of Blood feels like a direct continuation of the acclaimed 1989 NES title, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
Yet, that’s the core of what makes Rondo of Blood so special. Dracula’s Curse was an incredibly advanced NES game that introduced quite a few new concepts to the franchise (such as multiple playable characters with unique abilities, multiple paths of progression, and even multiple endings). Yet, for all the acclaim that Super Castlevania IV garnered and deserves for its many refinements, that title actually abandoned some of Dracula’s Curse‘s most notable innovations.
Well, Rondo of Blood furthers those concepts in incredible ways. Its cast of playable characters may be smaller than what we got in Dracula’s Curse, but Richter Belmont and Maria Renard do offer unique and viable styles of play. Richter is your classic Belmont protagonist complete with a whip and all the usual sub-weapons (which are enhanced thanks to the series’ introduction of the “Crash” system which lets you convert those weapons into powerful special attacks).
Maria, meanwhile, can perform a double jump, potentially do more damage, and has access to an array of special sub-weapons all based on animal abilities (as well as a flock of doves that are always ready to attack). However, she takes significantly more damage than Richter, which essentially turns her into a glass canon. It turns out that a glass cannon is a fascinating weapon to wield in this Castlevania game that is as unforgivingly difficult as the most challenging Castlevania titles. None of the game’s multiple paths of progression offer an easier way forward (though they do provide a welcome bit of replay value due to the pleasantly unique experiences they lead to).
Again, though, that’s a big part of what makes Rondo of Blood so special all these years later. I love Symphony of the Night and its many spiritual follow-ups as much as the next Castlevania fan, but it’s always been slightly disheartening to realize that the success of those titles essentially meant the end of those classic Castlevania adventures. Similarly, Castlevania IV is perhaps the most “playable” version of those games, but it sometimes lacks the ambition, brutality, and, in some places, even the style of those previous games.
In a way, then, Rondo of Blood represents the very best elements of those NES Castlevania games we never got enough of. It is certainly challenging in ways that even the hardest NES games are, which is another way to say that it’s often absurdly difficult in ways that will leave you questioning why you are doing this to yourself.
Yet, every time you see the animations of those wonderfully rendered levels flicker in the background or experience the thrill of whipping a werewolf in the face so many times that he turns into a fleshy husk, you will instantly recall why you put yourself through all this pain. At their best, those classic Castlevania games represent a rare form of video game horror that celebrates the fun side of the genre. There is a Hammer Horror-like quality to the ways Rondo of Blood lovingly presents every dark corner of its Gothic environments. For horror fans, few pleasures compare to walking through another castle corridor or a foggy graveyard while a wonderfully haunting score fills your ears and warms your heart. It’s no surprise that Nocturne is as stylish as it is given the source material it was working with.
Tragically, Rondo of Blood ultimately represents an all-too-brief deviation in the Castlevania chronology. In a different world, the franchise would have supported those wonderful Symphony of the Night titles as well as those classic Castlevania experiences. Instead, we’re left to look at Rondo of Blood and dream of what might have been if someone had decided that both styles were worthy of being embraced, evolved, and continued.
This Halloween, do yourself a favor. Watch Castlevania: Nocturne, then hunt down Rondo of Blood either as part of the Castlevania: Requiem collection or through whatever means are available to you. What you’ll find is that rarest form of nostalgic pleasure: one that feels both pleasantly familiar and wonderfully new.