Castlevania: Bloodlines (Genesis) Review

 

The Short


Pros

– Brings back the regular, forward whipping Castlevania to the Sega Genesis

– But wait! There’s a bonus character, who has a multi-hitting spear!

– New abilities like a power-spear vault and the ability to whip onto hooks to swing do a great job combining the old with the new

– Speaking of which, the game is designed around these abilities, meaning you get an equal challenge regardless of which character you pick

– Refines powerups to three key ones, all of which work great

– An excellent mix of difficulty: challenging while still being very much beatable

– Graphics and music are both excellent. Lots of blood and gore for a retro game, which is weird and kind of great.

– Honestly feels like a direct sequel in every regard to the first Castlevania game.

Cons

– While the sprites look great, the backgrounds are severely lacking, especially when compared to Super Castlevania IV

– The music also, while introducing and remixing some iconic tunes, does fall a bit short

– Password system is massive. Seriously. Why is it so big?

– Often overlooked by many fans, which is straight up tragic.

– The last 2D linear Castlevania game ever made that wasn’t a remake or a re-release. Think on that for a moment, and cry a little.

It’s Castlevania, now with Blast Processing.

The Long

I’m just gonna give it straight: I reviewed the other Castlevania games in order just so I could get to this one. And yes, chronologically Rondo of Blood/Dracula X came out before this one, but hush now, we’ll get to that after I finally beat the PSP re-release.

The point is this: Castlevania (1) was a masterpiece. It’s the kind of game you know they drew out the levels on grid paper, calculating exact jump and whip distances, judged player reaction and the screen view, and plotted every single corridor down to the utmost detail. It was a level of meticulous game design you just don’t get anymore, with infinitely spawning enemies, monster closets, and linear pathways where enemies just pop out to be killed, rather than poise an actual threat.

We got sequels, some good, some bad. Castlevania III: The One With Dracula Innit came close to matching this sort of OCD level design Castlevania presented, but it still felt lacking. Plus the extra characters sort of broke the game because they didn’t bother designing the levels around these additions. Super Castlevania IV was a game where enemies just existed to die, your character a powerhouse and the challenge usually platform related rather than a blend of world and enemy. Good, but still not up to par.

Castlevania: Bloodlines is the true sequel to Castlevania on the NES. It is a game that you feel they designed every single stage, every screen, and every enemy with a purpose. The sprites are kept to the same ratios as the original game, with just the right amount of vision and weapon length to make the game intimidating and yet accessible. Jumps and platforming are tricky but not overly frustrating (like many in Super Castlevania or Castlevania III). And, on top of it, there’s a host of new features that fit right into the universe as well as provide necessary improvements to the series.

People say Symphony of the Night was the game that took Castlevania forward, but I honestly think it could have been Bloodlines. The problem is nobody bought this game or played it; they were too enamored with whipping all over the place in Super Castlevania IV, and it became a game nobody talks about, hardly ever reviews, or even remembers.

Luckily, I’m here to set the record straight.

It even brings back the old “Monster Movie” aesthetic that permeated the first game.

The story is pretty much routine at this point. Dracula’s niece or daughter or something is trying to bring the ol’ Count Chocula back to life to just be a nuisance again or something. Seriously, what does Dracula actually do? What is his end goal? World domination? Just being annoying? In a world full of dragons, Medusas, and living skeletons he seriously seems like just another annoyance. Dunno what the fuss is about.

Anyway, a major difference is this game covers all of Europe, and is set in 1917 instead of medieval times. As either John Morris, who apparently is a Belmont despite not having it in his name, or The Long Haired Dude Who Has The Spear (I think his name is…Eric? Maybe?) you travel across the continent lookin’ for trouble in all the wrong places until you reach the revived undead lord himself and either whip or spear him back to the afterlife. Pretty basic.

But honestly, the story doesn’t matter. It’s a unique setting (and surprisingly less “gothic” than previous installments) and you have some new dudes to play as. Big whoop. On to the game.

Well gee, doesn’t this look familiar?

Probably the reason people glossed over this game is it came out a good deal after Super Castlevania IV, and didn’t have the most notable feature from that  game: the extendo-whip. It also had characters that weren’t massive and was on the Genesis, which is known to be an inferior system graphically. However, what makes Bloodlines good is that it goes back to Castlevania 1, looks at how that game was set up, and improves on that formula rather then adding some stupid gimmick like “whip anywhere you want.” It then works off that and the Castlevania 3 idea of multiple characters to make this game incredible. 

John Morris is pretty standard. He whips forward relatively quickly and deals a lot of damage. He can also whip diagonally up when in mid air, but this is more for a grab/swing (one of the few things taken from Super Castlevania) to get over specific ledges. Because the “whip everywhere” is gone, sub weapons are actually useful again, which is intelligent design. More on the sub weapons later.

Eric is a bit different. His spear can attack diagonally, as well as straight up, but it is a slower weapon and a bit clunkier. Missing will mean having to retract it and possibly take a hit. He also doesn’t move quite as quickly or jump quite as high, but he does have a duck+jump move that makes him vault off the spear to get to higher areas. He can use the same sub-weapons (which are useful because they attack fast, which makes up for the slow spear) but you’ll probably use a different set because of his increased normal weapon versatility. With John it’s about hitting the blind spots, with Eric it’s compensating for speed.

Also, dat spear. It’s huge!

The point I’m getting at this this: the game is brilliantly designed around both characters. Levels feel equally difficult regardless of who you are playing; Eric isn’t just a cakewalk because of his versatility and John isn’t “hard mode” or anything (in fact, I tend to prefer him for some levels). There also are traversal areas where the way to go splits depending on who you are playing; if you’re Eric you may have to vault up to a different path, while John will instead swing forward another way. It’s clever and cool and encourages replays with different characters to master their styles.

This is even more impressive considering how well designed each level is regardless. As I said in the intro, this is OCD game design at its best. Every trap, every enemy, and every jump seems planned for a reason. Enemies are put in frustrating spots that require memorization to overcome (or very quick reflexes). Jumps are tricky but not unfair. Health is hard to find but still available, and those who play cautiously will be well rewarded. All this makes this game feel more like Castlevania 1 than any of the other games I’ve reviewed just far. It’s sublime in how well it all fits together, which is something I haven’t seen in this series for a while.

Plus, since it’s on the Genesis, blood galore. 

There’s other minor improvements that really make this feel like a sequel to the first game. Sub-weapons have been rethought out and redefined so that there’s less of them, and the fat is trimmed away. If you liked the Clock or the Knife…too bad, they’re gone. Instead you have just three: the axe (the necessary “arching” weapon for John), the Scythe (a mixture between the knife and the cross), and the Holy Water (same as it was before). Also, in a smart change, candles no longer drop hearts but gems, but they serve the same purpose. I mean…come on. Even that makes more sense then hearts. Hearts are life, dumb dumb.

This refinement of the sub-weapons is brilliant because it trims the fat and modifies them down to the three important ones: the arching weapon, the quick forward directed weapon, and the sustain/hit enemies on lower platforms weapon. Choosing which one to use where is actually worth thinking about, and if you remember levels you may find yourself avoiding swaps. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t do that thing it does in Symphony of the Night where if you accidentally pick up a new sub-weapon you have a brief second to swap back, but nobody’s perfect.

It ain’t Castlevania without a clock tower level.

I could ramble on and on about the design, but let me just end saying that the difficulty is darn near perfect. The challenge is there but after getting used to the controls and figuring out your characters, you’ll be totally rocking it hard. You’ll come to anticipate the design (much like Castlevania 1) so that you’ll play cautious but with an idea of what to expect. The game does get quite tough the further in you get, but it’s a good difficult. It feels beatable, and you actually feel like you’re getting better at the game. As all good games should make you feel.

Graphically, the game doesn’t dress to impress as much as one would hope. The foreground characters and enemies all look decent, and there’s a delicious amount of violence and gore (in the NA and Japan versions; the European versions got censored). Like…a lot, though. Like the first zombie you whip rips in half and leaves bloody innards on the ground. Genesis does what Ninten-don’t, it seems. Aside from the new gore, however, as well as a few tricky stages using “blast processing,” the game is a bit dull to look at. The smaller sprites are appreciated (unlike the freakishly huge ones in Super), but the backgrounds are particularly drab and the overall game is underwhelming. It’s easy to see why, just looking at screenshots, a kid of the 90s would grab Castlevania IV over Bloodlines.

The soundtrack is also a mixed bag. It does have some really cool tunes (as well as remixes) and I always felt the Genesis’s sound chip was better suited for electric guitar and really kickin’ beats. However, Bloodlines doesn’t hit the level of awesome that games like Castlevania 3 and 1 did. That being said, it does have remixes of key songs from those games in addition to the new songs, and hearing them on the Genesis chip is a treat.

That’s some serious Genesis-level tunage going on.

I’m gonna say it again: Castlevania Bloodlines is the true direct sequel to Castlevania. It improves perfectly on what that game set out to do, and refines and trims the fat and isn’t afraid to make some dramatic change to the gameplay styles to do so. While this may be considered the black sheep of the linear Castlevanias for not being on a Nintendo system, adding a non-whip character, and axing hearts for gems, Bloodlines is as pure Castlevania as you can get. It’s a massively overlooked gem, and should be an essential part of both a Castlevania fan’s collection as well as any Genesis collector’s stash.

This could very well be my most favorite linear Castlevania game. With solid design, excellent improvements, and multiple characters to encourage replaying, there really isn’t any other game in the series quite like it. Super Castlevania IV may have had “Super” in the title, but Bloodlines was where it was at my friend.

Kick Dracula back for good, or at least until Konami needs to make another game to pay the bills. Five out of five stars. 

And off we leap into the sunset.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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