Before reading this post, I suggest putting on Castlevania Bloodlines awesome FM-Synth music while you read: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL01D23354DB6D47D3
Castlevania Bloodlines was truly the last of its kind, and that is probably why it’s my favorite “Classicvania”. Released in 1994, with a gaming industry so eager to drop 16-bit consoles and jump onto the next generation, Bloodlines was the last* fully original Classic-style Castlevania before the series evolved in the next few years, splitting into “Metroidvanias” and 3D entries of mixed quality. Released 8 years after the original Castlevania, and with about 10 entries into the series by then, it seems everything that could be done within the “classicvania” framework has been done:
- Simon’s Quest has an open-world style level design that foreshadows Symphony of the Night
- Castlevania 3 has multiple characters and branching paths
- Super Castlevania 4 has 8-way whip attack. And um…neat mode-7 stuff.
- Belmont’s Revenge on the game boy has selectable stages ala-Mega Man
- Rondo of Blood on PC-Engine takes the branching paths idea from Castlevania 3 and expands it by making it fit more organically within the levels, instead of being discrete choices at the end. It also has 2 playable characters. And also Item crashes, which made most boss fights pretty pitiful. And anime cutscenes.
Looking at it, Bloodlines doesn’t have that big brand new feature that anyone can easily point to, nothing to call its own. Bloodlines is simply a great culmination of the series at that point. Konami simply looked at the series history, collected the best ideas, modified them, and then put them into the game.
For example, you have 2 playable characters in Bloodlines. John Morris is the classic whip-wielding Belmont (and son of Quincy Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for some reason). Unlike Simon Belmont in Super Castlevania 4, John Morris can’t whip diagonally on ground, so now he has to rely on using sub-weapons to cover those vulnerable angles, giving back sub-weapons their purpose, just as they were in the NES titles, and making them much more useful here than in Super Castlevania 4. However, Morris can whip diagonally while jumping. This is mainly useful against high-flying bosses, but it also allows Morris to hook his whip onto any ceiling and swing around just like Simon in the SNES game, although in some ways it’s less essential here in Bloodlines, even though you have more opportunities to use it.
On the other side, you have Eric Lecarde, the fair-looking Spanish spear-wielder. He can point his spear in several directions, sort of replicating the “8 way-whip” control scheme from Super Castlevania 4. Lecarde can also use his spear to vault up higher than his jump, making him able to reach areas that Morris can’t. It’s a nice concession to Super Castlevania 4’s luxuries I think. Lecarde inadvertently becomes “easy mode” in this game, while more hardened fans looking for a more genuine Castlevania experience can play with John Morris, who has a more challenging time due to his more limited abilities.
Item crashes from Rondo of Blood return here too. But they’ve been drastically toned down, so they’re not as spammable as in Rondo, and they do require the player to be fully power-up in order to use them. And any single hit would lose them.
So Bloodlines may not have anything new mechanic-wise, but it does do one thing differently from other Castlevanias: It changes the setting from just Dracula’s Castle to become a cross-country adventure across all of Europe, starting with Dracula old castle ruins in Romania, across Athens in Greece, Pisa in Italy, then Germany, then France, and finally to Dracula’s new lair in England. And throughout the journey, you’ll be going across well known sights, whether it’s Ancient Greek ruins or the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or the Palace of Versailles in France. It’s weirdly unsettling to see these familiar places get run over by Dracula’s usual host of monsters, makes the game a little bit more real.
And I think that’s what the setting and aesthetics of Bloodlines try to do. They makes things more “real” than ever. Bloodlines added a lot more gore and blood, so much so that it got toned down for the PAL release. The story is set during World War 1, one of the most tragic events in human history, and directly links the cause of the war to Dracula’s resurrection. And the stages as I mentioned take place in real locations across Europe.
Of course, “realism” is never a requirement to making any piece of media great, and Bloodlines is certainly not realistic. But it FEELS real, and that is what really matters. Jeremy Parish recently did a write-up on USGamer listing 8 essential ideas that Bloodstained (the crowd-funded Castlevania spiritual successor headed by old-time producer Koji Igarashi) needs to adopt. And one important idea mentioned in that article (and one that was mentioned by Parish many times before in his various writings on Castlevania) is about “The tower in the distance” trait. This was specifically about the appearance of Dracula’s tower (the final destination of nearly every Castlevania) in the background of stage 9, almost exactly the midpoint of the first Castlevania (which had 18 stages).
The idea is, unlike a lot of video games at the time, Castlevania levels were made with a real sense of cohesion to them. The sequencing of the levels made sense. Stages fit together long before Symphony of the Night actually made them physically interconnected with no cut-off points. Dracula’s Castle felt real even if it was a giant magical shape-shifting place filled with all sorts of fantastical monsters.
Obviously, Bloodlines cannot exactly replicate that trait because of the way the game’s narrative is set. John Morris and Eric Lecarde are traveling hundreds of miles across Europe. And the stages are geographically hundreds of miles apart. You can’t put Dracula’s tower in the background of Stage 4 since stage 4 is set in Germany, while Dracula’s Castle is somewhere in England. But Bloodlines does tries to maintain that sense of reality and place by instead incorporating real-life sights. I suppose in some sense this is a lazier way to do it, but Bloodlines reproduces each location with a surprising amount of detail. The background artists at Konami were able to accurately recreate these locations on the Genesis/Mega Drive and it’s such a wonder to see and compare them to the real thing. For example, lets take stage 5, which takes place in the Palace of Versailles in France, and see what those BG artists put in:
You first start outside in the gardens of the Palace, which now have gone crazy mutant thanks to Dracula’s power, with giant killer roses and thorns everywhere.
Then you come upon the Latona fountain, which turns blood red as soon as you reach it’s epicenter and red skeletons start rising.
Then you move onto the hall of mirrors, filled with beautiful but deadly chandeliers (not just to you, but to the Axe Armors wandering the hall as well).
Next you reach the fifth chapel, where Louis XVI married Marie Antoinette, here the paths split: Eric Lecarde’s vault-jump allows him to go to the rooftop of the palace, while John Morris’s swinging ability leads him to the wine cellar (Although I don’t think the real palace has any sort of wine cellar).
Finally, you go off the outer stairs and then fight the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who then turns into a huge killer butterfly because this is Castlevania after all. There’s just stunning amount of detail here, and you can clearly recognize what each part of the stage is modeled after in the real world. Similar attention is also given to the Pisa stage.
This attention to detail to recreate real life places is one of Bloodlines most impressive traits, and the one thing that Bloodlines can really call its own since not many other Castlevanias are set in real-world locations. But Bloodlines is also a great Castlevania in the traditional sense. The control scheme is at a nice midpoint between the rigidness of the classic NES games and the fluidity of Super Castlevania 4. The difficulty is well balanced, always giving you a challenge but never trying to exploit the Belmont’s (& co.) rigid, slow, and deliberate movement. You won’t find something like the falling blocks segment in Castlevania 3, or the fight with Dracula that’s set on tiny pillars in SNES Dracula X, or the slow-as-molasses race against impending death by spiked-walls in Castlevania The Adventure. And lest we forget, Bloodlines has an amazing soundtrack by the venerable Michiru Yamane, this being her first Castlevania soundtrack. Yamane handled the series from then on, become the main composer for pretty much every subsequent entry. I love Bloodlines but it is a crying shame it never got ported or re-released, not on Virtual Console, nor anywhere else. So the only way to play it (well, legally) is by buying the original Mega Drive/Genesis cart. And trust me, it will be worth it.