Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles for the PSP collects two (or three, depending on how you look at it) separate installments of Konami's Castlevania series together on a single disc. The formerly Japanese-exclusive Dracula X: Rondo of Blood represents two of the three games on the disc. You can play this old-school classic in its remade form, which features 3D graphics and newly recorded music and voice acting. Alternately, you can play it just as PC Engine CD-ROM owners experienced it back in 1993, with its original music and 2D graphics, as well as your choice of the original Japanese dialogue or a new English translation. The third game on the disc is a rendition of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that boasts some miscellaneous improvements over the PlayStation and Xbox 360 versions you might already be familiar with.
Rondo of Blood was the last level-based Castlevania produced before Konami shifted gears to the interconnected rooms found in recent installments. In it, you control either Richter Belmont, a vampire hunter armed with a whip, or Maria Renard, a young girl that tosses doves at her enemies, and guide your chosen hero through side-scrolling levels populated with bottomless pits, surprise traps, and loads of creepy monsters. Both characters have a no-nonsense repertoire of moves: they can walk, jump, and unleash an attack directly ahead, as well as make use of various projectile subweapons. Richter has more health than Maria, but he walks more slowly and his backflip-style double jump is tougher to use. Conversely, Maria's speed and traditional front-flip double jump make her easier to use, but her miserly stamina means she's dead meat in two or three hits. At the end of each level, you'll match skills against a boss based on a familiar horror villain, such as a werewolf, the headless horseman, or Dracula. "Skill" being the operative word, because this game is absolutely abundant with precision jump sequences, double-team situations, and other stamina-sapping hazards that will cause you to mutter profanities as you die repeatedly while learning the layout of each level.
Rondo's old-school sensibilities are obvious. Richter walks at a decent pace, but he practically crawls up and down stairs, and you have to push up on the control pad just to get him to ascend them. Otherwise, you'll fall right through. He also gets knocked back when hit by an enemy, which, coupled with the stair thing, means you'll endure plenty of cheap hits and punts into deadly traps as you work toward honing your skills. It sounds like self-torture, and it sort of is. However, the payoff for memorizing each level back to front is that you get to see some truly inspired level designs and participate in one memorable boss fight after another. You won't forget rafting the rapids and dodging vine-swinging skeletons in the jungle, or the first time you slay the blue serpent only to discover that you actually killed only one of the towering beast's four heads.
The Choose Your Own Adventure-style level progression and the forgiving save system also help take some of the edge off. You need to work through nine levels to reach Dracula, but many of those levels offer branching paths and optional areas to explore, and those optional areas often lead to different bosses or alternate levels that replace the ones you'd normally visit by following the linear path. All the while, the game automatically keeps track of which levels you've played and lets you restart from any of them whenever you like. So, if there's a particular level that's trying your patience, you can seek out an alternate path or keep chugging away until victory is yours.
To find new levels and bosses in Rondo of Blood, you have to crack holes in walls and jump into pits that only look bottomless.
For the most part, the 3D graphics in the remake look nice. There's loads of detail evident in both the enemies and the backgrounds, and the backdrops convey a much grander sense of depth than the traditional 2D backgrounds in the original. Your attention will be drawn to the fires burning off in the distance, and to the streams that flow in from the background and cascade into the bottomless pits in front of you. As you walk through a massive, round library in one level, you can't help but ponder how cavernous the gilded, candle-lit room is. Some bottomless pits are hard to notice because they blend in with the innocuous scenery, but you can avoid any unfortunate mishaps by making it a point to remember that water is generally just as deadly as spikes or a black void.
The 2D graphics in the original game are nothing special, even by 1993 standards, but the backgrounds are sufficiently detailed, and certain enemies are positively mammoth. All of the different transitions where enemies and bosses leap in from the background are also attention-catching the first couple of times you see them. Overall, the emulation is spot-on. The music and sound effects are loud, and the graphics are presented in their original resolution in the middle of the screen. It's hard to see dark-colored enemies in those stages that have dark backgrounds, but that unfortunate pairing really happens only in small sections of two different levels.
Konami's developers made good use of the CD-ROM format when crafting Rondo of Blood. Anime-style cinematic scenes, complete with voice acting, appear in certain locations. Purists can choose to listen to the original Japanese dialogue and view English subtitles. Everyone else will probably be very satisfied with the recently recorded English voice work, which comes across as a little dramatic and a little cheesy, just the right sort of stuff for a game about vampires and the people that hunt them. And the soundtrack--the soundtrack consists of an awesome mix of classical instruments and synthesizers that harkens back to the glory days when Brian Eno and Vangelis were still composing music for Hollywood movies.