Sunday, July 23, 2017

Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo - Japan's Finest Export
Why it was worth paying a massive sum to experience the action of Richter Belmont's true origin story.


"These cats must be crazy," I'd conclude any time I was reading through a message-board post within which hardcore Castlevania fans were raving about how this disturbingly familiar lost title was apparently amazing.

"Aren't these people painfully aware of Castlevania: Dracula X's unrelenting mediocrity?" I'd silently object, my hands gesticulating as if I were attempting to choke the computer monitor. "How in the world can the game on which it's based be anything other than equally middling? How can the game that established this regressive mold possibly be considered a great series entry or more ridiculously 'the best Castlevania ever'? Hell--any game that evokes memories or even mere images of Castlevania: Dracula X can't be anything other than second-rate!"

That was how the disgustingly uncultured 1999-era version of me felt about Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, which the community's leaders had curiously labeled "Dracula X: Rondo of Blood."

At the time, I couldn't make sense out of any of it. I failed to see how a "Circle of Blood," whose connotation suggested some type of intricately weaved bloodline connection, related to the undeveloped, rather-vanilla Richter Belmont character. I was further puzzled by the popular sentiment that Rondo's story might not even be canon (those who claimed authority on the subject were certain that the "Dracula X"-titled games constituted a spin-off series), the idea of which would render the subtitle's implication either contradictory or meaningless. And above all I was still struggling to understand why Konami was so intent on marrying Castlevania games to obscure or largely unobtainable systems like the PC-Engine TurboDuo (the Japanese version of the TurboGrafx-CD).

But it didn't really matter whether or not I was able to nail down the specifics of Richter's ancestral ties or grasp why it was that Konami was resistant to the idea of porting Rondo to viable 16-bit systems; truly, these were actually minor quibbles when compared to the weighty, irreconcilable issue of Rondo sharing its values with Castlevania: Dracula X, a game I'd come to regard as a huge step back for the series. Rondo's appearing to have so much in common with the SNES game was reason enough for me to believe that there was something amiss about the fan enthusiasm surrounding it--that what we had here was another case of the Internet telling me that a game was "superior" for how it exhibited qualities that were popular with only a subset of "hardcore" enthusiasts. In reality, they might have been telling me that Rondo was "great" because it flaunted "glorious anime cut-scenes," a "spectacular combo-based fighting system" or a "wonderfully complex RPG leveling system"--none of which I had ever cared about or taken into consideration when judging the worthiness of a Castlevania entry.

If I was reading any coverage of Rondo of Blood, I was doing so with a skeptical eye. I wasn't going to be easily convinced (a) that a game that played similarly to Castlevania: Dracula X could somehow trump exemplars like Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or (b) that Rondo was so gosh-darn amazing that I needed to go to the extreme lengths necessary to hunt down a copy of it!

But you know how it goes: Circumstances change. Defensive postures born of ignorance succumb to reason. And rationality inevitably wins out. The truth is that I cracked over time as I looked deeper into Rondo's history and conducted some genuine research (mainly, I began paying closer attention to the content of the screenshots and made it a point to actually, you know, read the words); and it turned out that there was far more to the game than I'd calculated upon first reading about it. That's when I started to believe that there was a solid foundation for the great enthusiasm that had been shown by those who were lucky enough to have exclusive access to it. It wasn't long until I'd fully bought into the hype and developed a strong desire to play it.

I could find plenty of other reasons to take the plunge: For one, if I wanted to claim that mine was a sincere effort to build an authentically comprehensive Castlevania fansite, then I'd need to actually own a copy of Rondo. I'd need to expose myself to the genuine article so I could honestly assess its quality; provide accurate descriptions of its storyline, characters and gameplay attributes; and, most importantly, capture some personalized screenshots and enemy sprites!

Also, the game had a stage that faithfully recreated the Town of Jova from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, man! I mean, what else did I need to see?!

Though, there were some very real hurdles to my gaining ownership of Rondo. Most deflating: It was said that none of the current PC-Engine emulators could run ripped CD romsets, so scouring the Internet in search of them would likely prove pointless. Sure--I could have located them and downloaded them in anticipation of future ISO-compatible releases/updates, but I didn't feel that it would be worth the risk--not in 1999, when the Internet was still in its Wild West phase, its every corner a potential hive for computer viruses and shady websites. Green as I was, I didn't yet possess the confidence or the computing experience necessary to safely navigate my way across the 'net's troubled waters. Too much could have gone wrong.

My only real option, then, was to import it, though I had no idea how I was meant to do so. We were talking about a Japan-only game that was both rare and highly coveted, so importing it using conventional means (mainly the services of recently established online import stores, which in their early days were lacking for a desired range of inventory) seemed to be an impossibility. Honestly, my prospects looked pretty bleak.

But I had such a strong desire to own a game that had now grown mystical in how I perceived it, and I was willing to engage in a more risky practice if that's what it was going to take for me to get my hands on it! Ultimately, I decided that one of those newfangled online-auction sites was my best bet. So I headed on over to the still-fledgling eBay and made myself an account in advance of participating in my first online auction. All the while, I remained apprehensive about the entire process because (a) I had read that rare games had been selling for ridiculous prices, and I didn't want to spend over $100, and (b) I feared that I might be taken in by a foreign dealer and potentially cheated out of my money (and who doesn't enjoy enduring the reimbursement process?).

Also, there was another issue: I wasn't going to be able to play the game without a PC-Engine--another exceptionally rare item that was no doubt going to cost me a pretty penny. Frankly, the auction prices were insanely high (on average $400-plus), and procuring one via this method was completely unrealistic. So even if I'd managed to win a copy of Rondo, I'd have no means by which to enjoy it. "What the hell am I going to do?" I wondered in frustration.

However, as luck would have it, it so happened that the TurboGrafx-16 emulator Magic Engine had recently added CD support, and the functionality, I learned, would be available in even the free version! Of course, there was no guarantee that Rondo would land on the emulator's compatibility list, nor could I be certain that my computer had the capability necessary to carry out such a function (you remember how those old PCs used to be), but at least now I had hope!

But first I needed to secure a copy of Rondo. So I logged into my eBay account and found a desirable target--an auction that was trending low and pulling in a limited amount of traffic. It was looking as though I'd be able to swoop in and snag the game on the cheap, therein avoiding the anxiety that would likely result from an intense, costly bidding way. However, in the auction's latter days, the price continued to grow at a worrying rate; soon the price swelled to around $180, which was a great deal more than what I intended to spend. Yet I didn't care; I was all-in at that point. I wasn't going to back out and look elsewhere--undergo that entire stressful process all over again. Oh, no--that copy of Rondo was going to be mine--right now, no matter what it cost me.

In the end, I decided that my best strategy was to refrain from bidding and rely on the cheapest possible tactic: put in a higher bid at the last possible second and hope that my adversaries didn't think to do the same. It worked; the bid was accepted, and I won the auction, though not glamorously (I imagine the other participants were pissed about losing in such a fashion). My winning bid totaled a little over $200.

Truthfully, I felt particularly uneasy about the fact that I was now going to have to dump two large bills on a single video game, yet my ill feelings were somewhat negated by the excitement that came with being the proud new owner of Rondo of Blood, which I viewed as a retrieved sacred treasure. I was like Indiana Jones discovering the location of the Holy Grail.


About a week later, Rondo of Blood arrived in my mailbox (to my great relief, since it marked the completion of a transaction that entailed my stupidly sending a cash-filled envelope to the Japanese vendor). As I held its blue CD case in my hands and pored over its flavorful Japanese text, the prevailing feeling was that I'd gained possession of the forbidden fruit. Really, I wasn't sure that my mortal eyes were meant to look upon it. Truly I was in awe of its glow.

But there was no time to be lost in the moment. I had me a game to play, baby! I couldn't wait to pop that CD into my PC's disk tray and find out what Rondo had in store for me.


Though, mine was a nervous anticipation. After all--it would only be a few moments before I'd find out if (a) Magic Engine could actually run the game, and (b) it was worthy of such unrestrained adulation. My first fear was assuaged when that iconic Konami logo flashed across my monitor. It indeed worked! Right then, it was sort of surreal; I mean, here I was about to play a critically acclaimed PC-Engine game on my 1998 Windows PC. I was about to find entry into an exclusive club. This was the type of moment I lived for as an enthusiast.

As for the game, itself: Well, it worked out that my first experiences with Rondo were more about immersing myself in its world--soaking in its every uniquely conveyed vibe--than chronicling my interactions. All I remember for certain was that I was blown away by its quality--by its every attribute, from its stirring intro scene (with its strangely exotic German narration) to its brilliantly executed level design to its strikingly-well-rendered "Castlevania" aesthetic.


Oh, I could attempt to make a list of the specific moments that stood out to me, but then we'd need to build a second Internet to accommodate this piece. In short: Rondo of Blood was the real deal--surely what I'd call an instant classic. For sure, I was thrilled to be exploring the world that Konami originally envisioned for Richter and his pals. Finally it made sense to me.

The rest of that week was all about Rondo of Blood. I locked myself in my computer room and spent hours meticulously exploring every inch of the game--uncovering split paths and alternate routes in pursuit of a 100% completion-rate. All the while, I kept dreaming about the day when I could start covering the game on my Castlevania site and expressing, through the use of both mountains of text and an abundance of imagery, how much it had rocked my world!


The only real downer was that the free version of Magic Engine didn't support music output, which left the now-focal sound effects (enemy wails, rumbly explosions, and squeaky whip-strikes) as the lone form of aural enhancement. But I wasn't completely locked out from enjoying the soundtrack: It so happened that Windows recognized PC-Engine sound files; in fact, Media Player treated the Rondo CD as a music CD by default, which meant that I could listen to the music whenever I wanted and not have to deal with the game's restraints. And so I did--my web-browsing often augmented by the music tracks of Rondo's awesome soundtrack, which was a close rival for Symphony of the Night's.


Of course, I'd heard these tunes before (or at least a large portion of them) in Rondo's tragically underdeveloped SNES conversion, but not with this level of instrumentation, audio quality, and sheer reverberance. I lamented the fact that I was currently unable to gauge how these tunes worked to enhance Rondo's aesthetically brilliant visuals, but I was content in knowing that I'd find a way to make the two would inevitably converge. And when they did, it was pure magic; the wonderfully haunting music combined with the tonally pitch-perfect visuals to create what I felt was the quintessential "Castlevania" atmosphere, the power of its absorbing conveyance on par with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse's. I could definitely feel a spiritual connection between the two.


Rondo of Blood quickly found its way into my top-three series games, beating out Symphony of the Night to earn second place behind Dracula's Curse. As did the latter's, Rondo's separate parts came together to form an exemplary whole--the perfect "Castlevania" experience. It should tell you a lot that Rondo was able to usurp games like the original Castlevania and Super Castlevania IV, both of which I held sacred--for how well they played and how they never failed to draw me into their worlds.


What I loved most about Rondo was how it expanded upon Dracula's Curse's template in terms of level-advancement. That is, the game's stages were loaded with split paths, alternate routes, and a number of out-of-the-way secret rooms that served no real purpose but were worth visiting just for the sake of gauging their mysterious activity (like an unassailable cyclops operating a pulley system by picking up and dropping boulders onto its individual lifts). And never was any of it superfluous; every fly-filled corridor, engine room, and Ferry Man-assisted boat ride played an essential role in helping to define the game's personality. That's what Rondo was it was keen to boast that it was a classically styled stage-by-stage that exhibited the values of an expansive action-adventure game.


It was true that Rondo was a bit more linear than its inspiration--the stages on either of its parallel routes predictably converging at the doorsteps of regular or alternate bosses--but it was far richer in terms of explorability and the number of ways in which you could interact with the environment, be it pushing tombstones and steel girders, setting off large bells, or striking the gears and assorted triggers whose manipulation would open the way to the chambers within which the kidnapped women (including the then-playable Maria Renard) were being held. Even when I felt that I'd thoroughly explored every inch of the game, I was always had the sense that there was still more to find--that there were more secrets resting below the surface. Only the best games could make me feel that way.


Now, sure--Rondo wasn't a match for Dracula's Curse in terms of the number of playable allies. Really, its selection was limited to one: Maria, who could only be substituted in on the map screen. But her skills were implemented well: Her high-jumping ability was a key component to accessing certain hidden paths that were off limits to Richter; it was fun to experiment with her uniquely functioning animal friends (her sub-weapons, essentially); and if I was in a hopped-up mood (or if I needed to trek far into a stage to grab a screenshot for my site and was too impatient to put up with Richter's more-sluggish movement), I could quickly tear through the game thanks to Maria's speedy maneuvers and her overpowered weapons, which could reliably take down bosses and even the mightiest minor enemies in seconds. In that regard, using Maria was akin to playing in "easy" mode.

The point is that Rondo consistently made the most of what it had.


The tight gameplay, the challenge, the tense boss fights (which were otherwise purely frustrating in the SNES game)--it was all there. Rondo was everything I wanted a Castlevania game to be. It succeeded wildly in conjuring the spirit of its most storied predecessors; it proudly promoted the same values. Really, Rondo was a post-NES Castlevania game that somehow felt like an NES Castlevania game! I could enjoy it as a fast-paced action game, yes, yet I could also derive enjoyment from it by leisurely strolling through its stages and soaking in its atmosphere--by taking the time to appreciate the love and care that went into making it feel so authentic (it helped that there were no time limits).


If anything, Rondo showed me that the "Dracula X" control scheme, which I viewed as a downgrade from Super Castlevania 4's, was actually solid--that Castlevania: Dracula X's problem was its lack of quality level design, its haphazardly designed environments apt to bring out the worst in its control mechanisms. Rondo was revelatory in this regard.


I returned to Rondo again and again for years in following. And I continued to appreciate its every homage--its every little touch. I loved that its opening stage replicated the entire Town of Jova right down to the readable sign. That you could snag a big heart by destroying the rightmost block in the stair's base at the end of the game's Main Hall stage, as you could in the original Castlevania. That they brought back the familiar boss-battle, death and victory themes--all of which felt right at home. And that they paid tribute to the series' progenitor by including all of its bosses (sans Death) in Shaft's boss gauntlet.


I was also grateful for how I could learn first-hand how Rondo informed so much of Symphony of the Night's design. I was floored when I realized that Symphony had borrowed a number of Rondo's environments--including the entire Clock Tower stage, whose recreation was pretty much faithful (visual tone aside), and the Castle Keep secret room. Also, I was fascinated to know that many of Symphony's enemies originated here; if you had told me beforehand, I wouldn't have believed that those like the Grave Keeper, Skeleton Musket, Flail Guard, Blade Master and Stone Rose had appeared in a pre-Symphony title. I don't know--something about the way they maneuvered about told me that their type belonged exclusively to an action-adventure game.


It was my nature to fixate upon these types of connections. In fact, it was my obsession with Rondo and Symphony's similarities that led to the creation of my site's Castleography section, which unsurprisingly sees a heavy focus on the two games in question.


It makes sense that the Dracula X team was so eager to make these connections--to show such reverence for the series' past. After all: Its members, too, were big fans of these games. Hell--Koji Igarashi (staff contributor and future series director) has stated on record that his favorite Castlevania game is Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse! There was no way that Rondo would end up being anything other than a respectful tribute.


Quite simply: Dracula X: Rondo of blood was a masterwork--like Symphony of the Night not just a magnificent series entry but one of the entire medium's all-time greatest works. As I'd play through Rondo, my mind would begin filling up with questions similar to those that would arise whenever I'd play Symphony: "How did they do so well to hit all the right notes in terms of graphical tone and atmosphere?" "Did they know that they were making such a special game? And if so, when?" "How did these people manage to pump out two incredible Castlevania games one after the other?"

The only thing I knew for sure was that I was a fool for ever doubting this game.


So here we are 17 years later (man--has it really been that long?). Rondo and I--once separated by thousands of miles and an ocean's-worth of ignorance--are now longtime acquaintances. Thank goodness that the winds of fate brought us together!

Honestly, I haven't played Rondo all that much since the mid-2000s; my interactions with the game have been limited to briefly experimenting with the Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles and Wii Virtual Console versions of it. Yet it still resonates strongly with me. I'll forever fondly recall the journey I had to undertake to obtain a copy of Rondo. I'll always remember my surreal first experience with it. I won't soon forget how I was blown away by its presentation, art direction, music, level design and loving references. And I'll continue to hold it in the highest regard.


Now, I do hope to return to Rondo sometime in the immediate future. Really, I'm just waiting for it to resurface in a convenient format--to appear on, say, Steam or the upcoming Switch Virtual Console. I'd like to avoid sullying my precious copy of the game by snapping into modern PCs' cheaply constructed disk trays, within which the CD could potentially get stuck; also, Windows-based PC-Engine emulators still can't run the game perfectly (it's either that there are odd graphical glitches or the music fails to naturally loop).

Ready availability on a plethora of digital services is what Rondo deserves. People need to be playing it. It's too good a game to be lost to time.


For that matter, it would ideal if Rondo's return also sparked interest in the PC-Engine, which shows itself to be an amazing little system. Those who know of only its North American counterpart--the TurboGrafx-16--will pleased to discover how versatile a machine it truly is. Certainly I'll have a lot more to say about NEC's unassuming wonder-box when inevitably I dive deeper into its waters.


Until then, I'll continue to happily reminisce about its finest showpiece: Dracula X: Chi no Rondo--a game that was worth every penny of its $200 import fee.

4 comments:

  1. I know you don't get a lot of comments here, or at least that's my impression, but I just wanna say I appreciate your writings.

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    1. Outside of a few emails and a comment left every month or so, I don't get much feedback for this blog, no. It's a little disappointing because it'd be fun to discuss the games in question with people who have similar stories/histories with them.

      But that's OK; the mission is to share my experiences with others--be it a dozen readers or several hundred--and evoke some good memories. Knowing that these pieces are working to that effect is motivation enough for me to continue producing them.

      In any event: Thanks for the feedback! Every comment/view is appreciated.

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  2. This game has been a special part of my life. I could go on and on about its impact on my life through the years. Mayhaps one day I will be able to articulate it in writing, as you have done.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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