Castlevania: Dracula X
Review by Mike Finkelstein
It must be noted before even going in to a review of Castlevania: Dracula X (Akumajo Dracula XX in Japan, Castlevania: Vampire's Kiss in Europe; we'll call it Dracula XX for the sake of this review going forward) that some fans despise this game for the potential it could have had. As a "port" of Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the SNES iteration is sorely-lacking.
As a reviewer for an American website, the job is to look at the game with fresh eyes - or at least eyes not influenced by games that hadn't come to our Western shores. We have to try and take the game "as is", not by what could have been. Even with knowledge that a superior version existed, this was the game we received and, for a long time, was the only "version" of Dracula X available on Western shores)
For fans coming directly from Super Castlevania IV, it's hard to argue that Dracula XX isn't a step back. Even from it's SNES predecessor, many features were lost -- key among those being all the fancy whip techniques Simon Belmont could perform (the multi-directional attacking, the swinging, etc.). In Dracula XX, Richter Belmont (descendant of Simon) is only able to whip left or right and his whipping is noticably slower than Simon's. This makes it harder to defeat the many enemies Richter will have to face on his quest to traverse Dracula's castle, especially when many of the enemies are put in places where they can easily hit you without you ever having a chance against them.
The lack of technical skill in the attacks in supposed to be balanced, we guess, but the various techniques Richter brings to the table (many of which carry over, in some form, from Rondo of Blood). You can perform item crashes powerful versions of Richter's sub-weapons, which can create massive attacks and deal a lot of damage. These can be useful against bosses, assuming you can get into the boss rooms with enough hearts left to perform them, but it must also be noted that the games difficulty often precluded that, and many of the bosses could dodge or shrug off these attacks.
Worse, with the item crashese being one of Richter's main attacks in his arsenal, the player will be blocked from using them for a good stretch of the game (assuming they're looking to get the best ending). Richter will find, and be forced to carry around, a key in his "sub-weapon" slot; the key isn't any use against enemies and is only there so you can save the two girls (Annette and Maria) tucked in out of the way places in the castle. Since the key can't be used as an attack, and it also can't be crashed for any real effect (beyond Richter getting confused), that's a large part of the hero's arsenal that's simply taken away when he needs it most.
Of course, if you know anything about Rondo then you know that Dracula XX tragically omits Maria as a playable character. She's included, sure, but she's of no use to you except for a better ending to the game. She's not a feature that you would "notice" if you never knew she was once playable, but the game is challenging enough that her inclusion certainly would have helped to make the whole game palatable. Fans that do know how good she was in the original version of the game were probably even more upset that they had to spend a large chunk of the game lugging a key around only for the pay off to be so meager.
Richter also has a back-flip, performed via a double-tap of the jump, and this move technically allows him to jump higher and reach out of the way places. At least, that's the theory behind it. While it can be used, more often it's simply easier, faster, and safer to use Richter's normal jump. There are a few key places where Richter's back-flip is necessary, it's a feature included mostly because it was in the original version of the game but the levels themselves don't really need or require its use. It's a "cool feature" but it doesn't really add anything to the game.
Instead of back-flipping around in the game because it's silly and fun, players would have to focus on the game and it's meticulous (read: often unfair) challenges. This game is brutally tough, a gauntlet of enemy and traps that will, more often than not for a casual player, lead to their frequent and elabprate deaths. It's not the hardest Castlevania game (a dubious honor held by the half-baked Castlevania Adventure) but it is quite frustrating in places -- especially if you're trying to keep the key in your inventory through all the stages you have to carry it without once
So those are all the bad parts of the game, and they are numerous and hard to ignore. In that game's favor, the presentation is pretty slick and stylish. Maybe it's personal preference, but in a side-by-side between Dracula XX and Rondo of Blood, I tend to choose the graphics of Dracula XX over the original version. Levels are prettier, with graphics that are much more lush (the SNES having a much better color palette than the PC Engine/TurboGraphx-16). Although the level design isn't the most inspired of any Castlevania game, the graphics are beautiful. If you're struggling in the game at least you'll have plenty of time to admire the pretty level graphics.
And while the music in Dracula XX isn't as good as its predecessor (the difference between the SNES sound system and CD-Audio), some of the remixes of the original soundtrack are pretty solid ("Opposing Bloodlines" being a standout example of a good, SNES-engineered, arrangement of the original track). The stylish presentation isn't enough to make the game worthwhile, mind you, but it does make the package go down a little easier. It shows more care for the title than might have been expected from a stripped down, less-impressive version of Rondo of Blood.
Bear in mind that the lack of Maria is the biggest removal from this title but it's not the only one. There are less stages, less girls to save, and less overall content than in the original version. Some of that may have been due to the limited size of the SNES cartridge but it doesn't sting any less. Even by the standards of the previous SNES game, Super Castlevania IV this SNES title feels painfully short (as well as just painful). Any comparison you do makes this remake seem worse by comparison.
In the end, even on its own merits, Dracula XX just isn't a very good game. It loses too many improvements from Super Castlevania IV without adding in enough of the good parts of Rondo of Blood to balance it out. As a straight successor to Super Castlevania IV it's a poor follow-up. And in this day and age when even Rondo of Blood is available on the Wii Virtual Console, it's hard to recommend playing Dracula XX. Simply put: better games in the series are available instead.