Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood
Released in 1993, Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood (which is the name fans have given to the game released in Japan as Akumajo Dracula X: Chi no Rondo which translates literally as "Demon Castle Dracula X: Reincarnation of Blood") was hailed as one of the greatest of the Castlevania series. Containing a mix of branching paths, different playable characters, improved artwork and music, and a whole lot of replayability (fans looking to "one hundred percent" the game had to do a lot of exploring into every nook and cranny of the title), Rondo of Blood had everything a Castlevania fan could hope for.
That is, if you lived in Japan. Released only across the pond, the original version of Rondo of Blood never had a "proper" release in the West; overseas the console was released as the TurboGraphix 16 and that box had trouble catching on in the U.S., in no small part because NEC's American offices didn't seem to want to publish any of the quirkier games from the PC Engine's library, Castlevania Dracula X included. This reportedly led to protracted disputes between NEC of America, NEC of Japan, and Konami, all before the port of the game was eventually scrapped altogether. While, admittedly, porting the game to the U.S. wouldn't have been economically feasible due to the low install base of the TurboGraphix, this could have been a killer app for the title that might just have driven sales. Instead, most American fans didn't even realize they were missing out on one of the great Castlevania games of the era, at least not until the Internet came along and documented this "lost" title.
Rondo of Blood was, in just about every way, an improvement for the series. Hero Richter Belmont came to the party with the family's whip, the Vampire Killer, and a whole assortment of sub-weapons which he could release in over-powered attacks called "Item Crashes". During his adventure through Castle Dracula, Richter could find various other characters, one of whom would join up as a second playable character, Maria Renard.
Maria, 12-year-old vampire hunter, was a huge innovation for the series. Previously, the only time another hero could join the adventure was in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, and they certainly were supplemental to Trevor Belmont. Here, Maria featured abilities and powers than made the game easier (in comparison to Richter and his abilities), and Maria proved to be just as capable as the Belmont (if not more so). Maria's main attacks were animals, with doves as her primary attack and other spirit animals are her secondary sub-weapons and item crashes. While she wasn't as strong as Richter, her powers were at times better, and the fact that she could double-jump made navigating many of the dangers of the castle much easier to avoid.
The two heroes could find multiple paths through the castle (the main path and a second, secret path), and the computer would track all the passages found, giving the player a percentage of the game explored. This system encouraged players to explore every inch of the game, as much for "completeness" as to ensure they got the best ending (and this, in turn would illustrate the way forward for the series as it moved towards its eventual emphasis on Metroidvania adventure).
On top of all the features and ways to play, Rondo of Blood had some of the best music to date. Using the full power of the PC Engine's CD-ROM, the soundtrack for Rondo of Blood was an orchestral/rock treat. Even now, over a decade later, it is still considered one of the best soundtracks in the entire series. The graphics, though good, were not as drastic an improvement, though, but coupled with the stellar soundtrack and included anime cut-scenes, Rondo of Blood was considered to be quite the cinematic audio-visual treat.
In just about every way, Rondo of Blood was the game all Castlevania fans lusted after. That goes some way towards explaining why, for the longest time, there was quite the resale market for original copies of the title (at one point going for upwards of $300 on auction sites). American audiences did receive a remake/re-imagining of Rondo of Blood, Castlevania: Dracula X for the SNES, but that game wasn't nearly as good as the original (and it experienced dismal sales numbers upon release). That port, though, was considered "good enough" by Konami for years, explaining why there was no bigger effort to bring the original game worldwide for well over a decade.
It wasn't until 2007, in fact, that the West got a true version of the original game in the Dracula X Chronicles. This title featured a new, remixed, 2.5D version of the game as well as the original (plus an enhanced version of the sequel, Symphony of the Night), finally sating fan desires. This was the definitive collection of one of the best games to ever come out for the series, and it, too, is a highly prized collectible for fans (even as Konami continues to release digital-only ports of Rondo on console networks ever since).
Ports and Re-releases
As noted above, Rondo spent some time languishing, unable to be played outside Japan as Konami refused to port the title. Eventually, though, they relented, and the game was included as an unlockable bonus in the Dracula X Chronicles, although you had to play through the 2.5D remix of the original title to get it. If that doesn't interest you, there's also the PS4 port that came later, as part of Castlevania: Requiem. That version is the PSP unlockable mode -- the classic game with the proper, English translation -- so if all you want to do is play the original title (and not the PSP remake), this is the way for you to play.
- Box Art: JPN PCE [PDF]