Out of all long-lasting retro game series, not many have a more memorable string of soundtracks than the classic Castlevanias. Ask the average retro game fan what their favorite soundtracks are from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, and you'll no doubt hear a lot of nods toward everyone's favorite vampire slaying series. Featuring some of the most memorable hooks in classic chiptune, the Castlevania games have a staggering amount of spooky spectacular jams.
Toeing a fine line between energetic and eerie, the Castlevania soundtracks have always been great at simultaneously driving the player forward and making them hesitant about why exactly they want to be doing that. The medieval-ish, dark graphical styles mixed with the monster movie enemies make for a great formula for the series, and obviously a great inspiration for the composers.
I had recently gone on a Castlevania binge to celebrate this year's Halloween, playing through the classic Castlevania games I had never gotten around to beating before. I haven't ventured into the Metroidvania-style games too much, but catching up on everything from the NES, SNES, and Genesis eras left me with plenty to work through. However, a soundtrack retrospective of the entire series would take quite a long time, and would be an absolute wall of quality tunes to dig through. Instead of navigating through the history of the franchise, I wanted to take a look at one of the more interesting (not to mention my personal favorite) game(s) in the series.
The SNES game Castlevania: Dracula X is a weird case, as it's a sort-of port of a (superior) Castlevania game: Dracula X: Rondo of Blood.
Rondo of Blood was released in Japan on the Turbographix-16 on October 29, 1993. Its debut would make it the fifth Castlevania game, following Super Castlevania IV for the SNES. Due to the poor sales of the Turbographix-16 in the US, an American port was never brought over. Instead, Konami saw fit to retool the game for the SNES. Released in July and September of 1995 for Japan and the US respectively, the Super Nintendo port Castlevania: Dracula X borrowed a lot from Rondo of Blood. Because of the differences in system horsepower, however, a lot had to be changed.
Looking at the games side-by-side, it's clear how much Dracula X took from Rondo of Blood. Featuring the same art style, as well as the same playable Belmont, it would be easy to dismiss the game as a watered-down port at first glance. However, in the transition, the developers actually made Dracula X quite a different experience. While the SNES port lacks Rondo of Blood's many alternate routes and second playable character, the majority of the level designs are entirely new. I'd actually recommend playing through the both of them, because individually they're both excellent games, and enough is different between each one that they'll both feel fresh. If you like the classic Castlevania stupid-hard-but-entirely-rewarding style, they're both must-plays for any retro game fan.
That backstory, and the division between the two games, lead up to the reason for this column. First and foremost, the music to both of these titles are ridiculously stellar. The majority of the tracks are the same between versions, but what's really interesting are the differences.
The SNES soundchip doesn't provide the same output as the Turbographix-16 chip, leading to duplicate versions of the same song that sound wildly different.
Pretty much across the board the Rondo of Blood versions are better. However, in the process of dumbing down the sounds for the inferior system, the limitations brought out a little audio creativity in the designers.
Bloodlines - SNES
Bloodlines - Turbographix-16
As an example, take the stage theme of level 1, titled "Bloodlines". This may be my favorite opening track out of any video game I've ever played, and I love the variety between the two mixes. The Rondo of Blood tune allows for a more full range of sounds, bringing out a great lower level bass track and mid range. The Dracula X version, however, relies more on the main hook, which is catchy as all hell.
It's these different focuses that set these soundtracks apart. While the Rondo of Blood soundtrack can rely on more authentic sounds, the SNES audio chip makes for a decidedly more video game feel. Neither of them are bad, and with this song I think I actually prefer the SNES version for it's reliance on that amazing hook.
Another track I want to point out is the old Castlevania staple song, Bloody Tears. Even the most casual video game fan will recognize this one, and nearly all Castlevania games have a version of it somewhere. The two versions from these couple of games serve to easily boil down their differences.
Bloody Tears - SNES
Blody Tears - Turbographix-16
The Bloody Tears from Rondo of Blood starts with the closest approximation of an actual organ you're ever going to hear on a 16-bit system. It's spooky to the highest degree. And when the main riff kicks in, it's not immediately overpowering, instead having the organ fade into the background while the guitars take over melody duty, only to kick back in once the chorus hits. It's a good showcase for the amount of different sounds that can be present on one track, unlike the more limited SNES version.
In Dracula X, the song instead relies heavily on familiar lo-fi sounds. It's immediately apparent, moving from one version to the other, the limitations forced on the SNES. Still, though, they worked their damnedest to make another great version with what they had.
The last song I'll call out for comparison is Picture of a Ghost Ship. While Bloody Tears and Bloodlines had their strengths and weaknesses on each system, Picture of a Ghost Ship is just undeniably better on Rondo of Blood. Take a listen, it should speak for itself:
Picture of the Ghost Ship - SNES
Picture of the Ghost Ship - Turbographix-16
Directly comparing any other pair of songs between the two will only force me to repeat statements, really. These songs are impressive regardless of what hardware they're running on.
For the devoted soundtrack listener, it breaks down like this: If you're the type that actively listens to these tunes with a good pair of headphones or a bangin' set of speakers, you're going to prefer Rondo of Blood for it's fuller sound and wider range of instruments. However, Dracula X is built for cheap TV speakers. While the fuller sounds make for better audiophile jamming, I reckon the SNES versions will sound better on a wider variety of audio products. If you're using laptop speakers, for example, I'm willing to bet the Dracula X version will sound more appealing to you.
Finally, I just want to throw in a song from the soundtrack that is so uncharacteristically funky for the Castlevania series, it almost feels out of place. Dracula X isn't a particularly funky game, so it's kind of awesome to see what a dance-funk theme can do to the otherwise creepy atmosphere.
Slash - SNES
Slash - Turbographix-16
Make no mistake, there's nothing wrong with any of these songs. It mostly comes down to preference, and usually I'm in a position where I get to hear the songs with a great set of speakers.
If you own a Wii U, both of these games are available, with Dracula X on the Wii U Virtual Console and Rondo of Blood on the classic Wii side. I recommend playing through both if you get the chance. Rondo of Blood only exists in an official capacity in America by way of the that Wii port, and as an unlockable in the PSP's Dracula X Chronicles. Dracula X Chronicles itself has its own versions of these tunes, but I don't have time to get into that today. Maybe sometime later!
Keep checking back on Sundays for more gaming music related songs, and of course Techraptor as a whole for your gaming and technology fix.