When you think of the definitive side-scrolling Castlevania experience, we imagine for most people it’s imagery of Symphony of the Night or Super Castlevania IV that first creeps into the ol’ noggin. But while those might be the most popular of responses, there’s a slightly more obscure game in the franchise that many die-hards hold in high regard: Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. Originally a Japan-only release for the PC Engine (known as TurboGrafx-16 in North America), Rondo eventually ventured out to other regions in the form of a Super Nintendo remake/port called Castlevania: Dracula X. Often referred to as one of the biggest disappointments in the entire Castlevania franchise, does this Frankenstein-esque creation incorporate enough worthwhile pieces to earn a recommendation?
The best answer to that question is: not really. Even when looking at Dracula X without comparing it to Rondo, it’s still an incredibly weak video game. The biggest issue we can draw is simply with how it plays. Simply put, Dracula X feels more primitive that it should when compared to other action-platformers released during the same time-frame. Controlling the main character, Richter Belmont, is a frustrating affair, one that will turn away many from the get-go. Weighty jumps that are too restrictive once airborne — as well as attacks with your whip that are limited to horizontal directions — are better suited for the 8-bit era than the refined, multi-directional controls that came with most SNES games; look at the range of motion in Super Castlevania IV, for example. In Dracula X, it’s almost as if there’s a slight delay to every movement, forcing you to react pro-actively as opposed to reactively. While that might not be precisely accurate to say, it does feel that way.
When coming into contact with an enemy or one of their projectiles, Richter will be knocked back a couple spaces and there’s no grace period to allow players to catch their breath. On many occasions an enemy would lunge directly into us, inflicting damage, and then they’d collide into us again before we could clear the area, often resulting in death. Not being able to escape the vicinity of these baddies because of this silly design choice is liable to put your GamePad at risk of coming in range of your wall. Just wait until you must climb numerous flights of stairs in succession; the detection is very poor and if you jump while scaling, you're likely to fall through the stairs and to the ground below.
To make matters worse, there are baffling instances of poor level design that accentuate the clumsiness of the controls. For instance, in Stage Two, you’ll trek across a castle wall/bridge as it crumbles into the nothingness below. Hopping from one section to the next — while swinging away at Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon-like enemies that suddenly jump into view — is as clunky as it gets. Back on the NES, mastering the controls and having a complete understanding of their quirks and shortcomings was part of the challenge, one largely born of the limitations of the time as opposed to taut and calculated design decisions. But when the Super Nintendo released, those problems mostly became a thing of the past. The developers of Dracula X apparently weren't aware of the improvements and advances occurring around them. It's also worth noting that the amazing branching level design of the PC Engine original has been removed entirely in favour of a linear progression, and there are no additional playable characters — so you can't strut your stuff as Maria Renard like you could in the PC Engine version.
When it comes to cosmetics, Dracula X is a mixed bag. The main character and select enemies feature nice and detailed sprites that are lifted wholesale from the PC Engine version, but the re-imagined environments aren't always as appealing. Ditching the pronounced sprite-work for something with more of a flat, pre-rendered look, the gothic architecture and accompanying décor give a sense that it's stuck between 16 and 32-bit, and it can often be pretty drab. There are, however, nice character animations, attractive colours and sometimes even cool fire effects, but there's an equal dose of instances where these fail impress. Many have been quick to criticize the soundtrack when compared to previous Castlevania efforts, though we rather liked it. It’s of a higher audio quality than we’re used to in a lot of SNES games, and its vibe is complimentary to the action. Considering that the PC Engine original had the benefit of CD, the replicated songs in this cartridge version are surprisingly faithful. The stage one music is particularly noteworthy, and stands as one of the best tunes in the entire franchise.
We were harsh on the controls previously because they are a problem, but please understand that even though they are detrimental to the overall quality of Dracula X, they aren't entirely game-breaking. If you don’t like archaic controls, stay away. If you’re still okay revisiting Castlevania titles from the NES, then you might not have as large of an issue to begin with. This game is really tough, and we felt that much of this difficulty could be attributed to the control troubles and sloppy level design. Technical hindrances — like crippling slowdown — can also surface and complicate matters further. If you want to visit all nine stages available and have at the final boss, be prepared to tame your anger on multiple occasions.
Regardless of how it stacks up to Rondo of Blood, the biggest issues we have with Castlevania: Dracula X stem from the primitive controls and lazy level design. Cheap deaths, clunky mechanics and high difficulty combine to make for more hair-pulling moments than most would care to endure. If you consider yourself a huge fan of the franchise then you'll probably want to form your own opinion of Dracula X, and we don't imagine our warnings would do much to sway you. Everyone else, however, would be best off giving Super Castlevania IV or the PC Engine original — which is available on the Wii Virtual Console, we might add — their precious time instead. This one just doesn't have enough bite, and is a poor facsimile of a legendary release.