Castlevania: Dracula X – SNES
Platform: Super NES
Release Date (NA): September 1995
Nerd Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Castlevania: Dracula X would be the second and final release of the series for the Super Nintendo. Although it would never come close to achieving the success of its predecessor Super Castlevania IV, it would go on to become one of the rarest and most expensive SNES games to date. Securing its place as one of the most divisive games among fans, some consider it a respectable port of its Japanese cousin while others deride it for the same reason. Dracula X is typically, and perhaps over-simplistically, touted as “the American version of Rondo of Blood.” Rondo of Blood was a popular 1993 Castlevania release exclusive to Japan on the PC Engine Duo (what North Americans would know as the Turbo CD or Turbo Duo). To the astute observer, the inherent limitations are already clear. An SNES cartridge can’t even begin to hold the kind of data that a CD-based game can, and thus we have the major differences that set these 2 apart.
I won’t go into a point-by-point comparison of the 2 games, but it is important to note that Dracula X functions as more of a game “inspired by” Rondo of Blood than a strict port. Much of the artwork is different, the layout has changed, and (as expected) some features, and overall length, are reduced. Aside from the Richter sprite, the titles are blatantly dissimilar, and having played both, I think it’s best to look at these as two separate games with the same storyline.
So just what is Dracula up to this time? The year is 1792, and Richter Belmont is a “direct descendant” of some sort from Simon himself. Drac’s back, and kidnaps Richter’s betrothed for whatever reason. Dumb move, since Richter has the original Vampire Killer! Monsters pop out, people die, Medusa heads fly, and hilarity ensues as usual.
Giving Dracula X such an average score necessitated a tumultuous inner struggle. Parts of the game edge towards greatness and it’s easy to see the Symphony of the Night style of gameplay and artwork emerge. Other aspects, however, hearken back the poorly designed / poorly tested levels present in Dracula’s Curse, and cause undue frustration. Those interested in seeing further refinement and expansion of all the things that made Super Castlevania IV a hit will be sorely disappointed. Why they did away with the advancements made in the control department are a puzzlement; multi-directional whipping and a dedicated sub-weapon button were features from the former that really brought it up to then-modern standards. Now we’re back to “Up + B” to throw an axe or dagger. Yay…
Dracula X will never (in my opinion) be one of the strongest games in the series, but it does deserve a chance at standing on its own. The artwork is beautiful and we really begin to see the series transition out of the castle a little, a concept fully realized in Bloodlines. There are some wonderful backgrounds of a burning village and vivid but foreboding caves underneath Dracula’s lair. Enemy sprites, while always a joy to gaze upon in previous games, make their first big leap towards the style seen in Symphony of the Night and later entries of high regard. More movement, more detail, and more variety are all obvious improvements. When looking at the North American chronology of releases, Dracula X marks a turning point in artwork where the simple-but-effective is replaced with the lavish and intricate.
So far so good, and if you’re fortunate enough to play this title, you’ll initially feel the same. However, the difficulty shoots up quickly, and all I could think about was the endless falling backwards from Dracula’s Curse. In many places, the level design is absolutely maddening. Combined with Castlevania’s infamous fly-backwards-when-hit mechanic, traversing pits or vertical passages can be needlessly painful. I’m inclined to believe that Richter gets flung even further backwards than his previous counterparts. Typically in these sorts of games, when the character gets hit, he has a brief flash of invincibility to keep him from continuing to take damage. This window of invincibility is virtually non-existent and it’s way too easy to take 4 or 5 hits in quick succession from being flung back and forth from one monster to another.
Richter’s jumping ability doesn’t help either. His jump is actually well ranged, but if Forward + Jump is pushed with exactly the correct (or incorrect, depending on your perspective) timing, Richter leaps in an immovable arc. This can be extremely frustrating when you’re trying only to jump up one step and end up jumping all the way over the step and into the pit on the other side. The final confrontation with Dracula is particularly frustrating. It’s more or less the same old Dracula we’ve come to know and hate: first human-like form with teleportation and other familiar attacks followed by a monstrous second form.
What makes this one of the hardest final battles of the series that I’ve yet played is the room itself. There’s no floor, just a line of columns of differing heights. Jumping around them while dodging projectiles is extremely dangerous. The best one can hope to do is hide and jump out of the way when Dracula teleports to your spot. Still, you’ll be forced to do some jumping to hit ol’ Drac in the head. With ample patience, his first form can be beaten somewhat easily, but it’s definitely a defensive fight. When his demonic form manifests, all hell breaks loose. Not only does he fly towards you, but also downward, making it very hard to jump to a “safe” column. As usual, I used the Game Genie to get me through, but even infinite energy wasn’t enough to keep me out of the pits. Eventually I had to enter a code that prevented me from losing hearts during an “item crash” and perform these as quickly as possible before he ever got to me.
Essentially linear, Dracula X takes yet another cue from Dracula’s Curse and utilizes divergent paths around the 3rd, 4th, and 5th stages leading to a couple of different bosses. Also hidden in these alternate stages are Richter’s lover, Maria, and another random village girl who are being held prisoner. The game gives absolutely no hint to these ancillary objectives, and during my first playthrough (before reading too much about the game’s specifics), I had no idea that I was supposed to save these chicks, despite stumbling across at least one of the “prime” areas. (The hidden stages are labeled as Stage 4′ and Stage 5′; when saying these out loud, one doesn’t say “I got to 4 apostrophe!” Instead, it’d be “Stage 4 Prime.”) It doesn’t really add anything to the game, and with no clues to encourage the player to explore, and no way to move backwards through the stages, I don’t at all understand their inclusion.
Dracula X is fucking hard, and not even in a satisfying way. It’s more like a “what the hell was Konami thinking” way and it really drags this beautiful game down…a lot. I doubt much of anyone will have any real fun with this release, though if you’re an expert at platformers with lots of combat action then you may want to flex your muscles with Castlevania’s final appearance on the SNES. Using a Game Genie makes the endeavor tolerable, but there’s still a shitload of obstacles requiring impeccable timing, careful observation, and a heap of luck at times.
Doomed from the start? Maybe so. Dracula X had huge shoes to fill as the followup (to North Americans at least) to Super Castlevania IV, and as for the hardcore fans, it could never live up to the CD-based Rondo of Blood. While it ends up quite a few notches below perfect, it does at least deserve to be judged as its own entity. Hard to image why the improved control scheme of IV was left out, but even without it we still have a familiar and recognizable Castlevania experience. A familiar and recognizable and literally unbeatable Castlevania experience.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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