MEET RICHTER BELMONT, FORMER VAMPIRE HUNTER
Exterminating flea men and ectoplasms for local villagers was fun, but it didn't pay the bills. To earn a healthy income and build a prosperous life for himself and his charming fiancée Annette, this dashing young German moved to the city, striving to build a career in the industrial age. Although he pined for his girlfriend, who was busy planning a festive wedding in their rustic hometown of Veros, these were sunny days for Richter. With a stable income and a beautiful woman in his heart, the future shined very brightly.
Alas! Being a town rich in devilry and mysticism, Veros played host to a cult of necromancers and sorcerers. With his dark magic arts, the strongest of these conjurers -- a shady fellow by the name of Shaft -- assembled the scattered organs of Dracula and once again summoned the undead overfiend to the world.
Summoned by huuuumans for the purpose of destruction, Dracula unleashed a plague upon the village. Consumed by infernal flames, the citizens of Veros burned until only bones remained -- skeletal corpses skulking amidst the smoldering rubble, newborn servants to the evil king of vampires. The women of the town were stolen away by golems, harpies, and armor lords. The young lass Maria Renard, a spiritually powerful vampire-hunter-in-training, was captured by wizards for twisted, human experimentation. As for Richter's lovely fiancée, Dracula himself imprisoned her within the nearby castle.
With the family's sacred whip clenched firmly in hand, Richter set aside his peaceful intentions, bent on fulfilling his own personal sense of justice. He's the Braveheart of the Belmont clan: plucked from his peaceful life and cast into the cauldron by his inescapable heritage.
Belmont versus Dracula. From time immemorial (unless you're old like me and actually remember 1987), gamers have followed the duo's tragic dance. Simon Belmont defeated the evil Dracula. Wizards resurrected Dracula. Countess Elizabeth resurrected Dracula. Simon himself resurrected Dracula . . . so as to kill him again. And now Shaft has resurrected Dracula. Konami must have sensed that gamers were tiring of the constant resurrections, since Dracula X was once promoted as the finale to the seemingly endless saga.
An epic episode requires an epic hero. Richter's not as adept with the whip as eight-way Simon, but he's fleet of foot and agile. He covers ground with ease, changes direction mid-jump, and can even fire off volleys of daggers straight ahead while vaulting backwards. And what a vault he has! "Air" Richter's backwards somersault carries a surprising amount of lift, easily capable of clearing diving ravens and boomerang axes. To supplement the special weapons that Castlevania fans expect, Richter summons the mighty "Item Crash". With holy water in hand, the skies rain with purity.
Unfortunately, the crimson skies of Richter's hometown rain with ash and flames. The villain is obvious and his abode imposing, but Richter doesn't immediately stand at the foot of Castle Dracula. He must first traverse a burning town, fending off barrel-heaving Skeleton Apes, enormous golems, and even man-eating flytraps. As Richter fights through the city, dots of sparkling soot waft across the screen, carried by the winds of Veros. It takes a powerful song to match the scenery's spirit . . . and in this case, a stirring CD melody by the name of "Opposing Bloodlines" succeeds, capturing the violent nature of Richter's tragic hometown return.
When a battered Richter steps foot in Dracula's courtyard, rain pouring from the sky and lightning crashing in the distance, it's easy to be swept away by the audiovisual style. But don't let the fancy effects or fantastic Roland Surround melody of "Vampire Killer" distract you from the raging, cloven-hoofed deathbull stampeding across the screen! With its detailed hair, curled ram horns, and bloody torso, Behemoth is quite a sight. As you run like hell to avoid being gored, leaping over holes in the floor, you may at some point screw up and fall into one of the pits. But you won't die . . .
. . . you'll fall into a new area, The Sewers!
Richter's quest isn't so linear as that of his ancestors. Yes, it's a Belmont's duty to rid the world of Dracula. But Richter also gets to stop the evil priest and, assuming you're good enough to find keys to Dracula's prison cells, save pretty women along the way. To do this, you'll need to actually explore each level. Break some walls, and you can enter a hidden grotto. Take a leap of faith from the Aqueduct, and Charon's ferry will catch you below, escorting you through Merman-infested waters. Barrel headfirst through the Skeleton Monkey infested forest and meet the headless knight Dullahan . . . or find and flip all the switches to open a secret path into the Underground River, where the siren Carmilla awaits. Secrets and optional paths -- and even alternate bosses! -- abound in zone after zone. This is why Dracula X features a Stage Select screen; I spent many nights excavating every last nook and cranny in each of the dozen levels.
Once you rescue Miss Maria Renard, you can switch characters and slide through narrow crawlspaces, double-jump to unreached heights, and generally have a very fun time with an entirely new set of weapons in the form of animal spirit guides!
When first released, Dracula X was an exciting blend of old and new. That hasn't changed. Gamers who grew up during the age of "Metroidvania" will recognize the final battle against Dracula; after all, it was famously recreated in Symphony of the Night, and you can experience the original version here . . . if you can actually defeat Shaft, who is by no means a slouch in combat. Through vile necromancy, this wicker sorcerer brings familiar foes from past adventures back to life, and it will take some skill to avoid perishing during this gauntlet of terror.
Watching someone play through a level, PC Engine Dracula X looks damned good, as any Castlevania should, but may not appear to be the holy grail of gaming as some have hyped. Spend one night with Dracula X -- one night exploring and re-visiting old friends -- and you'll understand. "Crimson-plated flail guards? Ball-swinging plate lords? Bone Muskets! So this is where those cool Symphony of the Night enemies came from!" This game wants for nothing: travel through a moonlit harbor, ride on a raft across raging rapids, and uncover hidden glowing money bags. You'll even see the Grim Reaper wag his finger in "you won't win with that puny effort!" Dikembe Mutombo style. Dracula X: Rondo of Blood drips of Konami's passion and love, as they delivered us the world (and more!) crammed on one CD. Give the game a single night of your life, and you'll be playing for many more to follow.
--- Emerald Rocker