Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (PC Engine CD) / Vampire’s Kiss (SNES) Review

It’s time to admit something: I was going to review Rondo of Blood alongside it’s sequel Symphony of the Night last year given they’re packaged together but despite slowly but surely making my way through it I never did in the end because I lost the screenshots I took when I cleared the Symphony of the Night folder. Well, now with the SNES port of Rondo (known as Vampire’s Kiss in the UK, Dracula X in the US) on the latest Castlevania collection I thought “Perfect, I’d hate to leave it unplayed and now I have an excuse!” … Jesus, I was not prepared for the increase in difficulty found on the SNES version. So I’ll admit given I’d already completed a version of the game I spammed save states like some sort of bitch, whatever that means. So while most of the later game screenshots come from a “cheaty run” I can promise you I have played at least the original legitimately…

With that overly long opening out of the way: Let’s take a look at it/them!

Background:

Ritcher still has the Belmont strut! (SNES)

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was first released exclusively in Japan for the PC Engine’s “Super CD ROM” add-on on October 29th 1993. In terms of this original version it did eventually see a release in the West as a PSP 2.5D Remake of Rondo titled “The Dracula X Chronicles” in these parts was released on October 23rd 2007 in the US, November 8th in Japan and February 15th 2008 in Europe. Why am I mentioning a remake here? It included a full English translated port of the PC Engine CD version of the game as an unlockable extra. Later this translated version of the PC Engine original was released alongside its sequel, Symphony of the Night, as part of the “Castlevania: Requiem” digital package, released in 2018 for the PS4, XBOX One and PC.

As for Vampire’s Kiss, or Dracula X, the SNES “port” was actually built from the ground up due to a combination of software limitations and Rondo being exclusive to the PC Engine. It was released in Japan on July 21st 1995, the US September 1995 and Europe February 22nd, 1996. Due to being on virtual consoles and the recently released Advanced Collection it has appeared on the Wii U, 3DS, Switch, PS4, XBOX One and PC over the last decade…

So it’s funny to think that a game that originally started as a PC Engine exclusive has ended up on so many consoles in so many different forms. That being said it still has a way to go before beating the originally Gamecube exclusive Resident Evil 4…

Gameplay:

I’ll never understand why Dracula uses zombies that die in a single strike as the first line of defence… or any line of defence really… (PC Engine)

Both games share most things in common, gameplay-wise, which is why it’s easier to talk about them together here. Rondo is a classic Castlevania game, meaning it’s just walking around levels, platforming, whipping enemies and using side weapons until you reach the boss, defeat it and move on to the next level. No Metroidvania exploring or returning to old areas here, though there are branching paths leading to different levels and multiple endings, so it’s not quite as straight forward as some earlier titles. Ritcher, the lead playable character, can also unleash an “Item Crash” for the first time in the series, which is basically a screen-clearer that looks different depending on which of the sub weapons you have on you at the time (the sub weapons being classic offensive weapons in the Cross, Holy Water, Axe, and Dagger, and defensive ones in the Grimoire and the Pocket Watch, the latter of which freezes everything on screen). Another item you can pick up that will fill your sub-weapon slot is a Key, which you can use to unlock dungeon cells and free your love interest Annette and relative/love interest’s relative (depending on narrative) Maria (plus others if you’re playing Rondo), freeing both key characters before reaching the final level will get you the best ending but finding them requires a specific route be taken…

Let’s see, instant death pits, large tower of fireball firing enemies and a Medusa head just about to float up Ritcher’s arse. Fun! (SNES)

That’s it for Vampire’s Kiss but the original Rondo of Blood had an unlockable character in Maria, once you save her. She has a completely different moveset to Ritcher, having animals aid her in combat, literally “firing” birds as projectiles and her six sub “weapons” are all different animals that have similar effects to Ritcher’s weapons. With the exception of your regular health restoring or weapon powering pick ups (plus hearts which act as “ammo” for your sub weapons) which are obviously universal across both games (and indeed nearly all games in the Castlevania series in general!) that’s about it!

It’s worth saying however that Rondo of Blood is challenging but in a “keeps you retrying to get better” way, plus has saves in between stages, where as Vampire’s Kiss the difficulty has been massively increased to a “can’t be bothered any more” way and the most you get is a Password system. If you have the means play Rondo, not your region’s SNES titled remake…

Graphics and Sound:

Love the Werewolf intro for the first big boss fight, leaping from the moon-cast shadow towards the screen and then dropping in front of Ritcher. Great stuff. (PC Engine)

Unsurprisingly the graphics and sound are vastly different between both versions. Rondo has quite large and detailed sprites and clear backgrounds with some fancy effects like waving flames and water. Over on the SNES the sprites are smaller and less detailed, the levels looks a bit darker and more “muddy” and there is a loading sequence in between parts of stages, where the original was pretty smooth all the way to the boss. I will give the SNES credit for still having good 2D flame effects going on though!

Sound-wise we’re talking a CD quality audio experience vs. a 16-bit cartridge, so the CD wins here. Clear and catchy music, beefy arcade-like sound effects and even really terrible English voice acting / average English voice acting, depending on which version of English language Rondo of Blood you get. Obviously for the SNES there are no voices beyond a few screams from Ritcher and the soundtrack is MIDI, though still catchy enough. The sound effects are very SNES as well, which I do enjoy even if they aren’t as clear. Honestly in both cases you still get a game that’s good for the system it’s on…

Story:

Ritcher gets suited and indeed booted during the Rondo animated intro! (PC Engine… obviously.)

There are slight variations in the story between the two versions. In Rondo of Blood Ricther’s love Annette is captured by a dark mage named Shaft who resurrected Dracula and so Ricther, a Belmont and descendant of Simon who previously vanquished the Dark Lord, picks up the Vampire Killer whip and heads to Dracula’s Castle. He defeats Dracula’s minions, including Shaft, and rescues a bunch of people including a Nun, the daughter of the Village Doctor, his “distant relative” Maria and Annette. He then defeats Dracula once and for… a few years. This is the canon telling of Ritcher’s adventure as Shaft reappears in Symphony of the Night and has turned Ritcher evil as a side-story.

Dracula X / Vampire’s Kiss reduces the story to Ritcher’s girlfriend Anette and her sister Maria have been captured by Dracula, who has been resurrected by means unknown, so Ritcher picks up the Vampire Killer, rescues the two girls and slays the Dark Lord. That’s it. Simple and effective I guess, but due to removing Shaft entirely it’s clearly the non-canon version!

Thoughts Now:

Yeah, totally got to the final boss with no cheap assistance, then killed him first time. Yep. (SNES)

I enjoyed my time through Rondo of Blood. I’ll admit that I didn’t like it any where near as much as the “Metroidvania” titles, I just prefer the exploration and frequent save spots aspect of those, but the soundtrack, visuals and branching paths made it a fun time. Vampire’s Kiss? Nope. That’s the kind of old school maddeningly difficult game I try to avoid nowadays. Maybe back in my late childhood or teens, with much more free time and patience I MIGHT have given it a proper go, but now? A hard pass. Looks and sounds nice though! I guess despite reviewing them together I’ll have to give different scores…

Rondo of Blood:

Vampire’s Kiss (alias Dracula X):

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