During the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for Castlevania spiritual successor Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, one of the reward tiers promised a retro-styled prequel minigame. Nobody really knew what to expect at the time, but three years later it resulted in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. Developed by Inti Creates, it was a shockingly decent tribute to 8-bit games which took direct inspiration from Castlevania III, and also the only game to use the traditional sprite-based, 2D style since 2009's Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, which only saw release on the (now defunct) Wii Shop Channel. This spinoff was apparently successful enough for Inti Creates to create a sequel – which comes a whole year after the main Bloodstained game was published – called Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2.

Much of it is similar to its predecessor; you take on the role of four monster hunters and travel through eight stages to reach a demonic castle, each of which has various branching routes. Like the classic Castlevania games, these are mostly linear and have little in the way of exploration compared to their Metroidvania counterparts – though there are secrets and a few permanent upgrades to find.

There are two main distinctions in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, the biggest being its character roster. Travelling Japanese swordsman Zangetsu is still the primary character, being something of an ersatz Belmont. New to this game is Dominique, who appeared in Bloodstained as the shopkeeper, and attacks using a spear. She's not quite Eric Lecarde from Castlevania: Bloodlines, but her main weapon is more versatile than those of the other characters, and her special attacks – which can send tornados up unto the air or send shocks along the landscape – are incredibly useful.

New to the series are Robert, a sniper whose rifle has incredible range but weak firepower, and Hachi, a top hat-wearing corgi piloting an alchemy-powered mecha who doesn't have any special items but can turn himself briefly invincible. Hachi maybe veers a little too close to "lol, random" humour, but then again, Dracula X for the PC Engine had a cute girl in a frilly dress throwing cats at bad guys, so it's not entirely out of place.

The other addition is two-player simultaneous local play. This is something Castlevania fans have been wishing for since the series' inception in the mid-1980s, and it's surprising that it's taken this long to show up (not counting the oddball spinoff Harmony of Despair, anyway). It's quite player-friendly, allowing one character to ride the other if they want to be carried through tougher jumping spots. You're granted two Zangetsu characters in this mode, but you can only play as one of each of the remaining characters. If one player dies, they can swap between any of the active players, if there are any remaining; if not, they need to sit it out until the other player dies, beats a level, or is able to obtain a resurrection spell.

The original Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon was aimed more at players who wanted to remember NES games without the brutal difficulty that accompanied them, and so it was relatively easy, at least by Castlevania standards. To appease those desiring a bigger challenge, it had an unusual system where Zangetsu could forgo companionship with the other characters (or even kill them for enhanced skills) to make it harder. That's gone in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, but the overall difficulty level has definitely increased a bit.

The first five stages or so shouldn't pose much of a challenge for Castlevania aficionados, but the remaining three have challenges that require you to use all of your resources and character skills to conquer tricky platforming tasks and troublesome boss battles. The Veteran difficulty has limited lives but also has a scoring system that lets you increase them, providing you stop to kill enemies instead of avoiding them. The Casual difficulty mode has unlimited lives anyway, so it doesn't have feature – plus, it reduces enemy damage, adds extra checkpoints, and removes knockback when getting hit. It's great to see a game accommodate such a wide range of player skill.

As with its predecessor, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 also asks that you play through the game a few times, with each route offering different character rosters. Many of the alternate routes in the stages are only reachable with certain characters, ensuring that subsequent playthroughs won't be quite the same. However, if a particular character is dead and they're needed to access a route or one of the several upgrade items, the only recourse is to either skip it or run out of lives until you respawn with a full cast – an annoying holdover from the previous game.

In one of the later modes, you even unlock Miriam, Alfred, and Gebel – the heroes of the original Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon – for their own quests. Physically, they're weaker than the core team of the sequel – you can no longer cheese bosses with Hachi's 'super armour' ability – but on the other hand, previously difficult platforming areas become trivial using Gebel's bat transformation. But that's also the biggest strength of its design, as it really challenges you to become well acquainted with the characters you have access to, and learn how best to use them – for the most part, none of them are required for certain sections, though they can certainly make your life easier (though heaven help you if you're stuck at a boss battle with a physically frail character like Alfred or Robert). One minor disappointment is that Dominique has a jumping downward thrust ability that can bounce off enemies like Scrooge from DuckTales, and Robert has a wall-jump a la Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, but there aren't many spots in the game to actually use them, and so both go criminally underutilized.

The visuals use the same "juiced up 8-bit aesthetic" as Shovel Knight, which resembles the NES but with much higher colour depth and more judicious use of parallax scrolling. It is still visually faithful to the Castlevania games – particularly the uniformly-coloured sprites – but that also helps set it apart from the scores of other games trying for the same style. Like the first game, the most impressive moments from a visual perspective are the boss fights, most of whom are absolutely massive. Their designs are very cool; there's a sexy mushroom woman and a hulking dragon with salamander head for a tail, plus there's a train with a flame-spewing flower and a sword-wielding statue on top. What more could you possibly ask for?

The mid-level cutscenes that show the troupe hanging out around a campfire are always amusing, and the death animation where Hachi leaps out of his mecha before it explodes will never not be funny. There are some Konami references, too, like the distinct flares that pop out of flames a la Life Force, and areas with judicious use of Moai heads. The music still sounds like the VRC6 enhanced tracks as found in Akumajou Densetsu, the Japanese version of Castlevania III, though the compositions aren't quite as good as in the first Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon.

Conclusion

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 could've easily fallen into the Mega Man 10 trap – that is, another retro-styled follow-up that fails to make much of an impression since the gimmick has lost its lustre. Indeed, it does feel like the game could've been a little more ambitious, either in changing-up its design or upgrading its aesthetics to 16-bit level. But thanks to its somewhat higher difficulty level and a wider cast of characters, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is an extremely solid game that very slightly edges out its already excellent predecessor, and old-school Castlevania fans will absolutely love it.