So, you can imagine, at a time, when just voices in a game was a total novelty--seriously, there are folks who will never know how jaw dropping it was to hear your TV sing "SE-GA!" at you--how a 10 year old's mind might've been blown going from this:
Enter the game that sold me a Super Nintendo. Granted, I didn't actually get one until '93, when a classmate sold me one, but I lived in an apartment complex, we knew one kid with an SNES, and when he wasn't grounded for some reason or another, game was fucking on. And when game was on, it was pretty much this, Mario World, and Turtles In Time all day, every day.
It's ultimately a little thing in terms of the game itself, but as much as I love the atmosphere in these games taken as a whole, I can count on one hand the moments that, right from the start, instantly put the outside world away, and drag the player against their will right into this world. One is the scene above. One is Castlevania 64's intro slipping into Malus playing that gentle, empty, violin rendition of the Dracula X theme. The other, now, is the opening scene of Lords of Shadow 2, with a frail Dracula feebly leaving his coffin to explore the outside world, while Oscar Araujo aces that shit.
But anyway: Castlevania 4. The game itself is exactly as advertised: Konami spreading their wings on 16-bit, doing everything the 8-bit games had been trying for, with few, if any, restrictions. The physics feel comfortable, but still Castlevania, and just that perfect level of wrangling required to get the game to work your will. The enemies, drawn and created in much more detail. The graphics are able to portray not just ruin, but the natural world trying to retake the castle, with vines, wild plantlife, and random flora visible everywhere outside. Once inside, the decaying magic holding the whole place together takes over, becoming more of a haunted house, but even then, that magic has a mischievous sheen to it that keeps it from becoming just a cartoon again.
Then of course, there's the wacky Mode 7 stuff, which is mostly just Konami showing off. Again, at the time, stuff like the rotating stage, the vertically scrolling background section after, and the giant chandeliers were just insane, but years removed, it's shown to be rather simplistic graphical trickery more than a vital game mechanic. But, hey, it was the SNES. Why not do a bit of a victory lap?
So, I was a staunch Sega kid through most of the 90s, and it was only after '95, when I developed a taste for JRPGS, went back and played Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 6, did I go back and fill in a bunch of the gaps in my SNES library, ultimately figuring out I was on the wrong side of history. That's not to say the Genesis was a bad system, by a longshot, but that the best games on Genesis are still a few notches under the best games the SNES put out.
Where the Genesis made its bones, however, was in their willingness to get down and dirty with the red stuff. And it's easy, on paper, to see Bloodlines as cashing in on that fact to look good to the Segans. In reality, though, time's revealed Bloodlines as possibly being the better of the two, between this and IV.
Bloodlines feels like a game with a chip on its shoulder. Being released 3 years in the wake of IV, it can't compete on a technical level. The Genesis can't do graphics as deep and moody as the SNES can. So, it compensates in pure innovation and a visceral mean streak a mile wide.
For starters, Dracula's not the main antagonist this time, but a bad Engrish translation of Elizabeth Bathory and her servant, Dorothy Szentes, rewritten here as a witch. They don't go too deep with that connection, but the game does plenty to stay neck deep in gore. The second you enter the castle, zombies don't just vanish in red flame, but spill out like gross, fleshy pinatas. The first boss is a half-rotted werewolf (though, to be fair, Rondo of Blood started that enemy trend a year prior), whose top half explodes, leaving an entrailed stump. Platforms are made out of giant skeletons, blood drips from all the platforms. If the past games took their cues from Hammer flicks, this feels like its trashy cousin. But that's not enough to make a good game, as LOTS of Genesis titles would figure out. What makes Bloodlines work sheer design. The technology in Castlevania IV is there to make a very pretty, dramatic game. The technology in Bloodlines is there for minor moments of cool--The clockwork boss is kind of ingenious, and whipping the heads off the giant colossus statues in Greece is a simple joy--but for most part, it's there to fuck with the player.
The Munitions Plant in Germany feels like a Contra stage they couldn't fit into Hard Corps, but even that has skeletons in Nazi helmets, and thus may be the best level ever. Versailles feels more like a Castlevania game than anything since the first level, but with its own twists. Giant roses that spew control-fucking pollen, fountains turning into blood, chandeliers you can strategically drop on enemies, and then the yet-even-more-creepy Princess of Moths boss happens. The final stage is where they toss the kitchen sink at you. The best stage music in the game, a first platforming section that splits in six funhouse mirror pieces, which is a trick I've never seen a game try before or since. An upside-down bit, then a 7 boss gauntlet, starting with probably the most interesting fight with the Grim Reaper in the entire series, where he deals 7 different cards you have to choose, which either take you, Dr. Wily style, to one of the past bosses, explode with energy when you need it, or just plain try to shoot fire at you.
By its rep, Dracula X is kind of an abomination, given that gamers were promised a translation of Rondo of Blood and got....this: A relatively straightforward, traditional Castlevania game that attempts maybe a quarter of Rondo of Blood's technical trickery.
Dracula X hit in '95, around the same time the PS1 had arrived on the scene and everyone had started preparing to abandon ship at that point, so Konami and Capcom essentially decided they were gonna push the SNES to its technical breaking point. Dracula X may be a different game than Rondo of Blood but as a 16-bit technical achievement, it's almost breathtaking. The soundtrack is probably the system's best. The graphics match Rondo's easily, keeping the same not-quite-a-cartoon look that still allows for some impressive, atmospheric, and unique visuals. It moves a little slower than IV and Bloodlines, but it's still not as stiff as the NES titles.
So, no, it's not the worst Castlevania game by any means. It's just the hardest god damn game in the series, is all.
....but other than that, it's kinda cool.