As Konami tells it, the PSP's hardware sales were in a downward spiral. Then they released Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, the game sold well, and the PSP's sales abruptly spiked. It's hard not to draw a line between those facts and the decision, which is already proving somewhat controversial, to release The Dracula X Chronicles on PSP.
This compilation disc represents something that American and European gamers have been asking about for more than a decade now: a translation of the Dracula X: Chi no Rondo, or more simply, Rondo of Blood.
Rondo made its debut on the PC Engine in 1993. While NEC's system was a going concern in Japan right up until 1999 or so, it was roundly defeated in North America and Europe by the Sega Genesis. That, combined with unspecified "technical issues," as mentioned by Koji Igarashi at Konami Gamers' Day 2007, prevented Rondo from being ported to another system or translated. (The SNES version of Dracula X, while not wildly dissimilar to the PC Engine version, is in the end a much different game.)
This was all the more bizarre, as Rondo came to occupy a bizarre niche in the Castlevania franchise. It was not only the last major 2D sidescrolling Castlevania, but its story led directly into that of Symphony of the Night, which many still consider to be the apex of the series. Additionally, most of Rondo's sprites have been recycled for the later games in the franchise, with Rondo sprites appearing in games as new as Portrait of Ruin.
The Dracula X Chronicles contains the original PC Engine Rondo, complete with its sprite-based graphics and anime-style cutscenes; a visually updated version of Rondo, containing polygonal 3D graphics on a 2D plane and virtually the same gameplay as the original; and a copy of Symphony of the Night, which Igarashi has stated he plans to make "additions" to while he has the chance.
What form those additions will take is a matter of feverish online speculation. The original Symphony had several interesting features hidden within it, such as an unfinished part of the castle and a fifth ending, but none of it ever made it into the final version. Igarashi also failed to mention whether the version of Symphony on Dracula X Chronicles will be the PlayStation version... or the Saturn version, which featured the addition of a playable Maria Renard.
Rondo currently plays much the same in its 3D version as it did in its 2D version. The first level of gameplay was available for us and it's virtually the same, down to the point where power-ups were available in the same places. The lone exception is that it seemed a touch easier than the original version, with enemies moving a bit slowly, but Igarashi and others were quick to point out that the code was very early, and glitches such as Richter's sluggish walking animation will be fixed by the time the game's on shelves.
For those who haven't found a way to play the original Rondo, you're in for a treat, as well as one of the most challenging and elaborate 2D games on record. Rondo was, in many ways, the ultimate expression of 2D Castlevania, combining elegantly hand-drawn sprites with lengthy, impressively animated levels. The player's task, as neophyte vampire hunter Richter Belmont, was to free four maidens from captivity along the way to battling the evil Count Dracula; one of those maidens, the young magician Maria Renard, became a second playable character.
Richter plays much the same as any other Belmont has, wielding the magic whip known as the Vampire Killer as well as several of the series's traditional subweapons. Richter enhances this moveset with the addition of special moves such as a backflip, however, and the "item crashes": powerful super moves determined by the currently-available subweapon.
With Maria, however, Rondo becomes a very different game. She can double-jump, unlike Richter, and goes into battle accompanied by a set of animal companions. She's smaller and less durable than Richter, but she's far more agile. Her standard weapon involves sending a pair of birds out to attack an enemy, which allows her to land heavy-damage combos in a short period of time.
Rondo is, in short, one of the best games of its era, and with its 3D remake, it should appeal to both new and old players. Its announcement has already got many gamers counting pennies to buy a PSP, which is good news for both Konami and Sony. Barring spectacular mistakes or an act of God, this seems to be a guaranteed success.