Glancing blows and racing certainties with the Belmont in blue

RondoOfBlood

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (1993)

It’s the worst feeling in the world for a man. No, I’m not talking about a Mitre Mouldmaster football, taken full force into the ghoulies on a bitterly cold day, which is heartbreaking enough. I’m not even talking about that very same scenario except this time the football just gives you a glancing blow, which is somehow even more painful. No, I’m talking about being emasculated.

I’m not even sure if you’re allowed to be proud of being a male anymore, but we must take our chances to be manly whenever they come. Admit it – you can vividly remember several occasions when a woman asked you to open a jar for them, can’t you? Even if it’s your own mother, and you half-suspect that the jar would be easy prey for even Mr. Burns, you feel like a king getting some fresh air on those pickles. And whenever the teacher looked for ‘three or four strong men’ to help her lift some hefty boxes, you were out of your chair so fast you could have lit a match off the legs.

But eventually, your masculinity starts to die. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, or if you just stop bothering or if it’s female empowerment or what. But we may have been caught napping here, lads. I’ll give you an example: I was a latecomer to the old driving lark. I’m one of the faces on the bus, part of the bus scene, if I can put it that way. But that was no problem for me, because I’ve had exes ferry me around in their cars.

How unmanly is that?! They even had full licenses and everything. Now see, if this was Saudi Arabia, not a single one of my seven wives could make me look bad like that. But when it’s your missus coming to collect you… I suppose it’s nouveau, but it doesn’t half make a man look like a manlet.

Here’s another one: while I sit at a desk all day forwarding emails and talking nonsense on those dreaded conference calls, my missus is doing some heavy lifting in her job; I’m talking about big sheets of metal, and loading them into machines that’d take the hand off you if you weren’t careful. I’m out of breath just lifting a box of envelopes. And I know I’m making her out here to be some beardless version of Hacksaw Jim Duggan, but I promise you she’s feminine – but not as feminine as me, the guy learning to cook. Or is that cuck?

She was telling me recently she spent most of her day measuring and cutting Corriboard, with her own Stanley knife. How can I compete with that? I bet if we went out and did that classic male activity of bringing a load of rubbish to the dump, it’d be her getting the much greater thrill of throwing our old boxes and wooden furniture in. Meanwhile I’d be in the car, knitting cardigans and not understanding the offside rule.

I tell you what guys, myself and Richter Belmont would make some interesting bedfellows, if you know what I mean. You probably already know the gist of the earlier Castlevania games by now, where every 100 years or so the Count himself rouses from his slumber, goes to make his toilet and then starts threatening the local countryside. Whichever member of the Belmont clan happens to be passing by takes up the whip and storms the castle to take him down.

But this time, we’re not on a console you’ve heard of. The Super Nintendo’s Super Castlevania IV is probably one of the most notable games in the franchise. Or if you were a Sega household, you may have had Castlevania: Bloodlines. Or is that Castlevania: The New Generation? I can never remember – something to do with Europeans having tears where there should be blood.

But there was a third side to this triangle of 16-bit ‘Vania you know. Heard of the TurboGrafx-16? Oh, you must have, it sold over 50 units? Oh, never mind. Well, it existed, and it was more or less dead in the water outside of Japan, to say nothing of its doomed CD add-on (7 units sold). Still, Japan is exactly where a game like Castlevania: Rondo of Blood can flourish, except there it was called Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo. Can you tell I copied and pasted that?

I must say I love the fact that a high effort Castlevania game like this could come out on the most obscure console imaginable. It wasn’t some low-effort remake, it was a full bore effort. And I also love how good the graphical style and spritework looks. I’d already been marvelling at the aesthetics in Symphony of the Night, which I’d previously called one of the best looking games ever made, and that was 1997. Well, Rondo of Blood was 1993, and a lot of SOTN’s beauty actually comes from this title.

But now comes the bad news, by which I mean the emasculating news: Rondo of Blood is a pain in the arse until you unlock Maria. Yes, this game had bundles of innovation, including a save feature, branching paths and an unlockable character. The character in this case is a little girl who uses animals to cut a path through the enemies.

The game is clearly balanced around Maria, or it is if you’re a pilchard like me. She can’t take many hits, bit neither can that useless sod Richter Belmont so you just need to exercise some of the usual caution that you’d expect from Castlevania. It doesn’t help you anyway, when you’re struck by a ball and chain object from offscreen out of nowhere and, with hardly a nano-second of mercy invincibility afterwards, you’re getting more health sapped by one of those ever-so-lovely bats. This game never forgets a projectile, let me tell you, and if a Skeleton ever throws a bone your way, it’s a racing certainty that it’ll hit you.

But honestly, I just cannot get over how bad a prospect Richter is in this game. I know we’ve all made fun of the Belmonts for having gimpy walks, but the rest of the clan all look positively Olympian next to Richter. He can do a backflip as his trump card, which takes precise timing and is more likely to get you killed, a bit like my own real life attempts at flips and aerials I suppose. Maria even has him licked there (careful now) with a much cooler and more useful double jump. Richter can move ever so slightly in midair after jumping, an evolutionary trait new to the Belmont species, but it just brings me back dismal memories.of Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.

I will say that it’s funny to watch a little girl telling Dracula, the actual count himself, not to be doing bad things and asking indignantly what’s so funny when he throws out his customary evil laugh. You witness this in the midst of the animated, voiced cutscenes which have that tremendous early 90s anime style, and all translated into English if you’re playing the PSP or PS4 version. And obviously you are, because that’s a lot easier than importing an entirely new system for one game. But then, that’s what retro game collecting is all about, right?

Anyway, getting to this point where you can pit Maria against Drac does of course mean that you’ll have to choke down the indignity of battling through a gothic, horror themed game as an anime schoolgirl who buttbumps her way through stages. But if that makes you feel like a little boy, then remember: former man Richter’s secondary mission on his quest is to rescue his girlfriend. So how do you think he’ll feel, not even being able to accomplish this most basic of boyfriend tasks without coming to Sailor Moon for help?

Poor old Richter shows himself up so badly I wouldn’t be surprised if Maria commandeered the horse-and-carriage home as well, and kissed his boo-boos better for him – assuming he hasn’t already melted into bloody dust by that time. But those are just some of the dozens of ways that Castlevania: Rondo of Blood shows itself to be progressive, along with its excellent graphics, top-notch soundtrack and novel cutscenes. It just took us a little bit longer than necessary to get there, that’s all.

4 August 2020

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