Released: May 2019
Originally Released: December 1993
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Mega Drive, Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4
For the longest time, Castlevania was a series synonymous with Nintendo’s home consoles; handheld or otherwise, Castlevania was generally played on a Nintendo-branded product, meaning those of us (like me) who were playing SEGA consoles missed out on the chance to slay Dracula like those Nintendorks. Castlevania: Bloodlines (also titled Castlevania: The New Generation) changed that…or, at least, it would have except for the fact that Castlevania: Bloodlines is still one of the rarest and most expensive videogames these days. Luckily, the title was not only included as part of the Mega Drive Mini but is also available on the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, being only one of two 16-bit titles available in that collection following Super Castlevania IV (ibid, 1991).
It’s 1917 and the dark countess Elizabeth Bartley seeks to resurrect her uncle, none other than the evil Count Dracula. To facilitate his resurrection, she sends her minions across Europe to cause chaos and bloodshed, only to be opposed by two young vampire hunters: John Morris and Eric Lecarde.
Castlevania: Bloodlines is a 2D, sidescrolling action/platformer and the first game in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection to not include one of the legendary Belmont family. Instead, players can choose to control either John Morris or Eric Lecarde right off the bat, making it only the second game in the collection to include another playable character and the only one where this character can be selected from the main menu rather than switched to mid-game as in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (ibid, 1989).
Choose John Morris and you’ll be in for a traditional Castlevania experience; like his forefathers, Morris wields the Vampire Killer to fend off the forces of evil. Morris isn’t quite as adept with the whip as Simon in Super Castlevania IV, though; he can only attack diagonally and upwards when jumping and can’t let the whip hang loose to freely aim it or block incoming projectiles. Similar to Simon, Morris can use his whip to swing across gaps but the mechanic is noticeably more clumsy and tricky to pull off here as, rather than swinging from hooks or metal rings, Morris dangles from ceilings and, while you can alter the length and speed of his swing, it’s far easier to just drop to your death than clear the gap.
Pick Eric Lecarde, though, and you’ll get a fresh, new Castlevania experience; Lecarde wields the Alucard Spear, giving him a greater attack range (if slightly reduced attack power). Lecarde can also attack in all eight directions, swinging his spear in a flourish to quickly attack enemies both in front and behind. Lecarde is also slightly faster and can leap higher thanks to his super jump, allowing him to reach platforms and levels Morris can’t, though I actually found him a bit clunkier and his attacks to be slower than Morris’s.
Both characters have access to all the classic Castlevania sub-weapons (and even a few new ones), which are now used thanks to the acquisition of jewels rather than hearts. You have no idea how happy this makes me; like the hearts replenishing health in Castlevania: The Adventure (ibid, 1989), having jewels rather than hearts just makes so much more sense. Unlike Super Castlevania IV, there’s only one piece of meat available to replenish your health, but you can still upgrade each characters’ weapon by collecting orbs and even perform an “Item Crash” manoeuvre; this unleashes a more powerful super attack for each sub-weapon at the cost of a substantial number of jewels.
Both characters are noticeably faster and more manoeuvrable than their predecessors but still fly backwards upon receiving damage, often to their doom. Thankfully, Castlevania: Bloodlines finally ditches the limit limit of the previous games and is light on the instant-death traps and spikes; often, when you jump or fall into water, your health will be slowly drained as you take damage (presumably to represent the character drowning) rather than immediately dying. That’s not to say that bottomless pits and instant-death spots aren’t present, or that you won’t find yourself just slipping or walking off a ledge when you meant to jump thanks to a slight (but glaring) delay in the game registering your button presses, or that you won’t be tasked with making some difficult jumps or awkwardly swinging across gaps while fending off projectiles or enemies.
After two games focused more on rope climbing, the staircases are back! And, what’s more, it’s super easy to climb up and down them, and to stop and attack enemies while on them; there’s no sudden dropping to your doom here…unless you’re stupid enough to jump through the staircases. Like Super Castlevania IV, Castlevania: Bloodlines also uses the power of its 16-bit hardware to render some impressive graphical mechanics; you’ll jump up rotating platforms, traverse the Leaning Tower of Pisa as it sways alarmingly, and hop across floating platforms as the screen auto-rises and auto-scrolls. Yes, auto-scrolling is a thing in Castlevania: Bloodlines but, for the most part, its far less stressful or annoying than in previous Castlevania titles; not only are there are more opportunities to save yourself from death and far less enemies to contend with, you also don’t die from touching the top of the screen, which is always useful.
Castlevania: Bloodlines operates using a simple six-stage formula; you progress across Europe via an automated map screen and, in each unique area, you’ll face different platforming requirements, obstacles, enemies, and, of course, a boss. Of all the Castlevania games I’ve played for this marathon, Bloodlines has the most variety in terms of its graphics, stages, and enemies; rather than simply ploughing your way towards, or through, a gothic castle, you’re exploring a munitions factory or exploring the ruins of Atlantis. Some of these locations have been hinted at before, or served as inspiration for the aesthetic and atmosphere of the Collection’s other games, but nowhere have they been more fully-realised than in Castlevania: Bloodlines.
That’s not to say that the game is flawless though (but then again, few games are). Sometimes, the game takes its new mechanics and features a bit too far, asking you to jump across platforms while upside down or your vision is distorted by mirrors. While this wouldn’t be too bad, the developers also threw in erratic Medusa Heads and constantly-respawning skeletal demons to make these sections more frustrating. It doesn’t help that I found myself just as likely to simply walk off a platform to my death or pointlessly hop in place rather than make a successful jump, or that you’re seemingly destined to jump right into the path of an enemy or projectile if they’re onscreen but, thankfully, these sections are few and far between and, for the most part, Castlevania: Bloodlines is a crisp and visually impressive experience.
Graphics and Sound:
Super Castlevania IV set a high standard for the series, dragging it out of the 8-bit era and into the glory of full-colour, arcade-style 16-bit graphics and Castlevania: Bloodlines only builds upon that foundation. Sprites aren’t as big as in Super Castlevania IV but they’re no less detailed for it; both Morris and Lecarde stand out from the game’s many and varied detailed backgrounds, popping out at you thanks to their unique colour palette and sprite art, and enemies are easily spotted and fantastically animated thanks to the game’s 16-bit engine.
Simply put: there is a lot going on in this game’s stages. Not only do they slant or flip upside down, they’re also filled with some fantastic blood and gore as corpses and hanged victims litter the background of a lot of the stages. You’re also required to pull off some tricky jumps from rotating platforms, gears, and moving platforms and stages are filled with variety and teeming with life and danger alike. Konami borrowed a trick from another of their fantastic titles, the criminally under-rated Rocket Knight Adventures (ibid, 1993), for the water reflection effects seen in stage two, where (as in Rocket Knight Adventures) you’ll use the reflections in the rising and falling water to jump safely across the ruins of Atlantis.
You’re also tasked with attacking the crumbling, ancient pillars to create new platforms and jump from others as they collapse beneath your feet and jumping from platform to platform up the swaying Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is a cakewalk compared to having to negotiate the small, annoying, rotating platforms in stage five. Given its more modern setting, you’ll also have to content with conveyor belts, pistons, massive gears, and razor-sharp circular saws in stage four, all of which only add to the game’s more steampunk-inspired aesthetic.
The danger in the stages is compounded further by the way Bloodlines incorporates enemies into each stage; Minotaurs break parts of the marble pillars off and attack you with them in stage three, Fish Men leap from the depths below, Medusa Heads swarm around you as you hop from wooden platforms while the water level lowers, skeletons throw bones at you from behind a chain-link fence in stage four (they also jump over the fence and pop out of barrels without warning) and form (and re-form) from a bloodied water fountain in stage five, where skeletal monkeys wing at you from vines, tossing explosives at you and trying to cut you in half.
The game returns to its gothic roots by the time you storm Castle Proserpina, the game’s final stage, which sheds the more steampunk-driven aesthetic for a traditional, stone castle familiar with anyone who has ever played a Castlevania before. All of these graphical and gameplay elements, while impressive, do lead to some noticeable slow-down in many areas of the game, however, which can (literally) drag down the otherwise thrilling experience Castlevania: Bloodlines has to offer. This is accentuated further by the game’s impressive and atmospheric soundtrack; the 16-bit games really did put all their power and benefits to the best use possible, allow this game to not only look fantastic but, thanks to Michiru Yamane’s fittingly gloomy soundtrack, sound amazing as well.
Enemies and Bosses:
Castlevania: Bloodlines offers one of the more diverse and varied bestiaries in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection; unlike many of the other titles, which simply recycled the same enemies with some minor tweaks or alterations, I felt like Bloodlines actually put some effort into really giving even the most basic enemies some life and vigour. Sure, all the usual suspects are here (skeletons, bats, ravens, the Pillar of Bones, etc) but even some of these have been spruced up to offer more of a threat. Skeletons wield swords, shields, and whips and there’s a variant that swings a massive axe and another massively annoying one that swings at you from vines.
You’ll also encounter Harpies (who attack unevenly from the sky with spears), Mummies (who both float their bandages at you and try to whip you with them), man-eating plants, plants that screw up your controls (which is always annoying), mace-wielding barbarians who leap right in your face, and charging Minotaurs. In keeping with the game’s more steampunk-inspired aesthetic, you’ll also face a wide variety of knights; there’s knights that sprint at you, ones that brandish swords (as well as that old favourite, the Axe Knight), ones that fire arrows at you in an arc, and even ones with giant mallets, gatling guns(!), and on wheels! The level of detail in each enemy is impressive and even the most small and seemingly-insignificant enemy can be a threat thanks to their placement, attack patterns, and the limitations of Morris’s whip.
Castlevania: Bloodlines also stands out by its use of sub-bosses; you’ll face the likes of Hellbound (a bloodied, half-skeletal beast that haunts the ruins of Dracula’s Castle), two large, armour-plated heavies (one with an axe, one with a mace), sentient faces brought to life by some kind of poltergeist and even a Castlevania custom, Frankenstein’s Monster. Some of these are, honestly, a bit more creative and visually interesting than the stage’s actual bosses, such as the giant suit of armour that barely poses much of a threat at the end of the first stage.
Things pick up considerably once you reach stage two’s Golem, however; in this fight, you have to first whittle away chunks of the creature’s mid-section before you can attack its vulnerable head and actually do some real damage, all while dodging falling rocks from the ceiling. Stage three’s Gargoyle can also be a bit of a pain without the right sub-weapon (…unless you use Lecarde) as it buzzes around your head, trying to whip at you with its rock-like tail, all while the top of the tower you’re on (and the background) excitingly rotates. The mess of gears and cogs that acts as stage four’s boss is probably the wildest and most ill-fitting of all the Castlevania bosses I’ve fought so far; don’t get me wrong, I love a good bit of steampunk but this…thing…was not only kind of boring to fight (despite its multiple forms and attacks) but also needlessly frustrating. The Princess of Moss from stage five is marginally better but ridiculously easy even after she transforms into a giant…moth…?
Once you get to Castle Proserpina, the shit really hits the fan as you have to face a gauntlet of sub-bosses and bosses, each with different forms and attacks at their disposal. First, you’ll battle the Grim Reaper once again; this time, Death surrounds himself with tarot cards and, as you attack, you’ll either spawn a whole mess of health-restoring food, get attacked by a fireball, or be warped to one of the game’s previous bosses. Luckily, these guys are much weaker the second time around but, once you’ve defeated them again, you’ll have to face Death himself once again. Fortunately, Death isn’t anywhere near as formidable or daunting as in previous titles; he glides around above you throwing sickles at you, tries to rush you with his scythe, and sits in the corner throwing his scythe like a razor-sharp frisbee but all of these attacks are easily dodged or avoided and he’ll go down pretty easily (especially if you have the axe).
After that, you’ll battle Medusa; this isn’t like the floating, snake-haired head from previous titles, though. This Medusa is a horrific, snake-like creature that blasts at you with two different types of fireball, tries to whack you with its tail, and then awkwardly crawls towards you to try and throttle you. Each attack is predictable and relatively slow, meaning you can deal massive damage even while the Medusa is attacking, to say nothing of when she shuffles towards you like a slug. Once she’s dealt with, you’ll have to fight Elizabeth Bartley herself; ol’ Liz likes to teleport from one side of the screen to the other and throw a fireball at your head and, if you don’t damage her enough times (the number of hits is determined by the different elemental orbs she summons, though these can’t hurt you), she’ll unleash a powerful attack upon you. This shouldn’t happen, though, as it’s ridiculously easy to duck under her one projectile and hit her no matter which side she choose to spawn on, meaning she will fall without much bother at all.
Finally, you’ll face Dracula himself who, despite your efforts, once again awakens from his coffin. Initially, Dracula attacks very similar to Super Castlevania IV, teleporting in through a column of light and tossing fireballs at you with a sweep of his cape. However, his teleport cannot damage you and, while you only have a small window to hit his head, it’s pretty easy to land a hit and still dispose of his projectiles without taking a hit.
After you’ve drained his health, Dracula transforms into a floating, cloaked sorcerer form and darts around the screen above your head in an inconsistent pattern. Being as he’s often just out of reach, this can be tricky with Morris as jumping to hit Dracula may cause you to make contact with him and take damage, so it’s best to keep a safe distance and use the axe. Dracula blasts two fireballs at both sides of the screen in this form (these travel down the screen and across the floor and can be tricky to avoid thanks to the game’s janky jumping physics) and drops columns of energy into the arena that can deal massive damage if you’re not standing in a safe area. Still, this form isn’t especially difficult and I found it more than doable to destroy him before he could unleash this more devastating attack.
Once bested, Dracula transforms into his largest and more horrific form yet: a massive, Devil-like creature with a fanged stomach, huge devil horns, wings, and claws. As intimidating as it looks, though, this final form isn’t much of a threat; it lumbers around in a clear and identifiable pattern, first throwing sickles at you in a spray, then trying to roast you with fireballs that are easily ducked (in the far corner) or jumped over, and, finally, spewing bones at you. These can be tricky to avoid if you’re caught on the wrong side but there’s a clear gap between them you can dart into and, even with Morris’s difficulty in attacking upwards and diagonally, it isn’t long before Dracula is done in once more. What makes Dracula so difficult this time around is the fact that you have to face all three forms in a gauntlet, with no healing in between and only the health, ammo, and weapons you have on you.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
All is standard in Castlevania titles, you can upgrade the Vampire Killer and the Alucard Spear to increase their reach and damage output. When you fully upgrade the Vampire Killer, it takes on a glowing, plasma-like appearance that looks more like energy or lightning than the usual fire, while the Alucard Spear glows with an ethereal magical power. Sadly, though, you’ll lose an upgrade when you take damage, meaning that you may be left with you bog-standard weapon by the time you reach the stage boss.
As always, this means relying on the game’s items to help turn the tide when things get rough; you can grab 1-Ups on the rare occasions that they appear, briefly become invincible, and wipe out all onscreen enemies and grab one of the three sub-weapons: the axe (which travels in a high arc and is perfect for aerial enemies and bosses whose weak points are out of reach), the Holy Water (which travels along the ground in a fiery path), and the boomerang (here an actual boomerang rather than clearly being a cross, this time being razor sharp and travelling high and low to return to you, which is perfect for dealing additional damage). Additionally, as noted, you can perform an “Item Crash” with each of these weapons and each character has a specific “Ultimate Item” they can pick up: Morris has the Water Dragon (which fills the screen with a powerful, homing orb) and Lecarde has the Thunderbolt Spear, which unleashes a torrent of thunderbolts and lightning.
Castlevania: Bloodlines features thee difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, and Expert) and the ending you get depends on which character you use and which difficulty setting you pick. Finishing the game on Easy takes you straight to the credits, while Normal only gives you a brief glimpse of your character’s ending and challenges you to try the game on Expert in order to earn a more complete ending. The game also employs a password system to allow you to return to the stage where you left of, jump to different stages with different characters, or start the game with extra lives.
Castlevania: Bloodlines has two Achievements tied to it; you get one for beating the game as Morris and another for beating it as Lecarde. With the features available in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection you can also save your progress at any time, apply different display filters and effects, and play with one of three different frames around the game screen as with the other titles available in the collection.
Castlevania: Bloodlines is easily one of the top three titles available in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection; you should purchase this collection for this game alone and see the others as a bonus as it really is a tight and well-crafted videogame. Despite some issues with slipping off platforms and mastering Morris’s awkward whip-swing mechanic, the controls are smooth and generally responsive; Morris and Lecarde both move at a far faster pace than their predecessors and, between the two of them, offer as much versatility as seen in Super Castlevania IV. Bolstered by its incredibly detailed graphics and atmospheric soundtrack, Castlevania: Bloodlines is probably the darkest and most foreboding title collection thanks to the inclusion of blood and gore. This really lends to the game’s atmosphere and the franchise’s tendency towards macabre horror that it is so often stunted by the localisation and restriction these early Castlevania titles had to endure. The steampunk aesthetic is married with the series’ trademark gothic styling which, while it does include in some weird and ill-fitting enemy designs, results in some amazingly detailed sprites and environments and makes Castlevania: Bloodlines a solid successor to Super Castlevania IV.
What did you think of Castlevania: Bloodlines? How do you think it compares to Super Castlevania IV? Were you lucky enough to own an original copy of this game back in the day or did you pay out through the nose to get a copy of it only to find it much more affordable in this collection? Whatever your thoughts on this title, and other Castlevania videogames, leave a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.