Well, my “Castlevania-thon” for this year went pretty well. I’ve managed to play some Castlevania every day this month, and I’ve finished more of them than I initially expected. And now I’ve had my fill of the series, at least until next year. But I’m glad I was able to play through a couple of my favorites, Bloodlines and Portrait of Ruin, so I thought I would talk about those a little bit and why I enjoy them so much.
Bloodlines (known as The New Generation in PAL regions), released in 1994 for the Genesis/Mega Drive, is kind of a black sheep among the classic games in the series. It was the only one released for the Genesis and has yet to be available on any current download service, making it a little less easy to come by. It was also released between Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, two games that were not only tied together narratively, but also evolved the series into a more exploration/RPG style. Bloodlines was a more straightforward arcade-style game, like the original Castlevania, and seen as a step backwards compared even to Super Castlevania IV from 1991.
I first played Bloodlines when I rented it around the time it first came out. I don’t remembering being immediately impressed with it. I think I found it to be a little too difficult, but that was to be expected for a Castlevania game. I finally bought it from a bargain bin in the early 2000s, and it was then that I really started to appreciate it for what it was. It didn’t reinvent anything; it just stuck to what it knew, and did it extremely well. It is arguably the most solid and refined game to follow the original formula.
One of my favorite aspects of it is the atmosphere. It’s very dark and foreboding, and maybe that’s partly due to the limited color palette of the Genesis, but it really feels like Castlevania to me more than any other game in the series that I’ve played. The music, composed by Michiru Yamane, matches the atmosphere, combining the more traditional rock music with a baroque style.
The game was also the first attempt at tying the series in with Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The connection is tenuous, but it begins a short era in the time line in which the Belmonts were unable to wield the Vampire Killer whip, and passed it to the Morris family for safe keeping. As such, the main hero is John Morris, the son of Quincy Morris from the novel.
And that brings us to Portrait of Ruin, released on the Nintendo DS in 2007 for the 20th anniversary of the series. When I first heard it would be a follow-up to Bloodlines, I got really excited for it. It’s not really a direct sequel, but it does continue following the Morris family’s possession of the whip, with the main character being John’s son Jonathan. The game is structured in the “Metroidvania” style that most Castlevania games at the time followed.
At first, it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a connection between Portrait of Ruin and Bloodlines besides some brief story allusions and only one remixed music track. But there are some subtle thematic details that hardcore fans might notice. Bloodlines takes place during Word War I, while Portrait is set during World War II. In both games, the initial main villain isn’t Dracula, but another vampire trying to harness his power. Also, both games have two main playable characters: a whip-wielding Morris and his childhood friend. There are other little details as well, like the way certain items work.
But perhaps my favorite is the way both John and Jonathan use their whips. The Belmonts always whipped using their “forehand,” with their back turned to the screen. But both Morris’s whip with their “backhand,” facing the screen. It’s a minor cosmetic detail, but it connects father and son. It’s little nuances like that that producer Koji “IGA” Igarashi and his team were known for adding to their Castlevania games, and they enrich the experience more than you would think.
I suppose I enjoy Portrait of Ruin partly for its association with Bloodlines, but it’s still my favorite of all the “Metroidvania” Castlevania games to appear on the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Advance. Like Bloodlines, it doesn’t reinvent anything, it just overall does everything really well and is always satisfying to play. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Bloodlines and Portrait of Ruin make up an interesting part of the Castlevania narrative, and are both excellent games that are worth checking out.