It’s more than slightly fitting that there should be a haunted Castlevania game. Like most hauntings, of course, Dracula X is ghastly. This was fairly obvious even at the time, when the game got lackluster reviews. Indeed, a new Castlevania game is the sort of thing that could plausibly have gotten me to buy a SNES game in 1995, and certainly could have been good for a rental, except that it appeared in all regards to be a step back from Castlevania IV. No multi-directional whipping, comparatively garish graphics, and in general an approach that looked like it was rejecting all the progress made in the series over the years. And that was beyond stuff like the seemingly pointless and meaningless title. I mean, Mega Man X was one thing, but this was just silly.
And truth be told, it’s a bad game. Most obviously, it’s stupidly difficult, and difficult in fundamentally mean-spirited ways. The most revealing example comes at the start of the second level, which combines a lengthy stretch of crumbling platforms with a chain of Mermen that jump up to attack you, which essentially means that any time you get hit it’s a fatal one. The section’s very early in the level, but the effect is still to make it so that you’re overwhelmingly likely to be down one or more lives when you get to the rest of the level, which isn’t exactly massively forgiving either.
But more than that, there’s just not much to the game. It gives the ugly impression of being shovelware – a Castlevania game rushed out for no reason other than that the Super Nintendo was still the dominant console and there hadn’t been one in a while. Which is almost but not quite what actually happened. In reality Castlevania: Dracula X was nominally a SNES port of Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, released on CD for the PC-Engine, the Japanese version of the Turbografx in 1993, and more commonly known in English as Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.
Unlike Dracula X, Rondo of Blood is a good game. For one thing, it’s a sensible follow-up to Castlevania IV. It’s still in a starkly different mould, but instead of feeling like a step backwards it feels like a reasoned and deliberate move in a different direction. Which is perfectly fair – Castlevania IV probably took its approach as far as it was worth taking it. Instead of offering marginal refinement to its predecessor, which at this point simply wasn’t what Castlevania did with its sequels, Rondo of Blood defined its own. Castlevania IV was lushly beautiful and reveled in the possibilities of Mode 7, but was also a relatively slow game. Rondo of Blood, on the other hand, is fast and action-packed – more interested in adrenaline than atmosphere. It also expanded on the handful of secret areas in Castlevania IV and linked them back to Castevania III’s multiple paths structure to create levels with multiple paths and, at times, multiple bosses and exits that lead to different levels.
In practice, of course, Dracula X and Rondo of Blood had little to do with one another. They featured completely different level design, with Dracula X being simplified (only two levels had any branching) and, as mentioned, worse. And when they did mirror each other, Dracula X was a pale imitation. Both games open with sections in a burning village, but in Dracula X this amounts to some fire effects in the background, whereas Rondo of Blood offers a detailed village and satisfying spectacle like enemies who burst out of windows to attack you. Nevertheless, the link between the two games was explicit and stressed, from the otherwise inexplicable title to the fact that the back of the box explicitly proclaimed it to be a “new conversion of the hit Japanese game Dracula X.”
But it’s worth thinking about what that marketing angle actually means. A recurring theme in our explorations has been the somewhat spectral role that Japan plays in American video game culture – an alternative whose primary appeal is its unknowability. And that’s certainly in play with that description, with its teasing description of the “hit Japanese game.” But in the background, things were slowly changing and Japan was becoming fundamentally less unknowable: by 1995 we were in the early days of the boom in American anime and manga fandom.
It’s not that getting actual information about Japan was easy yet. Video game knowledge was still primarily an oral tradition among school friends. I imagine on the west coast, where there was a more sizeable Asian population through which imports and lore could pass, information was at least somewhat more available, but that’s pure speculation. Connecticut was certainly still a black hole for anything like what Rondo of Blood was or was like. Except that by 1995 a new front of information was opening in the form of the Internet. And so what would have previously been extremely niche information like that there was an actually very good game that Dracula X was nominally based on could be somewhat widely disseminated.
The obvious turning point in this regard is still two years out, namely Final Fantasy VII, whose US release marked the end of renumbering the games for the international market and opened the obvious question “wait, what the hell happened to Final Fantasy IV-VI?” And in 1999 the floodgates began to open as Final Fantasy Anthology saw a US release of Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy II making it out in 2003, and Final Fantasy III finally completing the set in 2006. Other games took longer – most famously Mother, which took until 2015 to finally get a “proper” US release, although the prepared and abandoned translation had leaked ages before.
But Rondo of Blood proved frustratingly obstinate. Even after Konami had a minor hit with its direct sequel Symphony of the Night, they declined to make any sort of Playstation port of Rondo of Blood. In 2007 they released a remake of it for the PSP, but this was a) a remake and b) for a system barely less obscure than the Turbo-CD. More to the point, the game was a pain in the neck to emulate – its CD-audio soundtrack meant that the files were large, and PC-Engine emulation was far from a smooth ride. It wasn’t until 2010 that it finally got a release for the Virtual Console. I finally got my hands on it just a year or so earlier with a Homebrew installation on the Wii.
Except… I’m not entirely certain about that. Other than the familiarity of the start screen, playing through a (these days trivial to get working) emulated copy of Rondo of Blood to research this post was an entirely unfamiliar experience. With the hacked Wii long since passed out of my possession, I can’t go back and figure out what’s up, but I can’t help but feel like I’d remember the ostentatious excesses of the first level. And I remember finding the game dispiritingly hard, with a bit early on in the second level that I flat-out couldn’t get past. Yet this time around I found it a robust but fair challenge, and it’s not as though I’m in particularly fine fighting shape when it comes to platformers right now.
All reason, of course, suggests that this is just silly. I probably ended up on a different path this time around and got a different second level entirely, fighting the serpent instead of the wyvern. Or perhaps I just have a poor memory of a game I’d been waiting for more than a decade to play. All of that is self-evidently much more likely than the possibility that I played a Castlevania game years ago that doesn’t actually exist.
But this has always been a project more about memory and secret histories than real ones. And in this maze of near-copies and remakes, in a series that pioneered the idea of recycling bits of previous games in altered forms, what seems truest and what seems most plausible are at odds. There is some other Castlevania game lurking out there, half played and half remembered. It’s too foundational a myth to be false – the vaguely remembered game that may or may not exist.
And yet what follows from it? Any effort to recover this lost Rondo of Blood is self-evidently doomed to resolve into banality. And even if it weren’t – even if I tracked down my old hacked Wii and got the ROM of this strange game off of it and revealed it to the world, uncovering a Castlevania game lost even to its supposed developers… what then? It would not matter. Nothing would change because of it. No. The point is not to recover these lost strands of the past. Rather, it is to recognize that this is what the past is – a teeming mass of impossibilities that serve neither to explain nor justify the world, but merely to make it mysterious – to render it incommensurable with itself. A miserable pile of secret histories.