In many ways, Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood was a groundbreaking game. It was the first Castlevania released in a disc-based format, the first to feature CD-quality aduio and wear it's anime influence openly. But beyond just aesthetics, the game took many of the best features of Castlevania III and improved upon them, making a game that, in most ways, felt like an evolutionary leap over what came before.
Of the two heroes featured in Rondo, Maria would prove the more interesting. Like only Sypha before her, Maria was a female hero in a series dominated by men. She was also the first child hero in the series, aged only 12 in her first appearance. Certainly the game played up these aspects, giving her a pink dress to wear and showing a cutsey Game Over screen any time she died (as opposed to the grim and gothic Game Over Richter got). But those little flourishes were part of her charm, a certain playfulness that the series hadn't really expressed before.
The fact that Maria endured, growing up and gaining new play styles later in the series also worked to her advantage -- for some players, the fact that they could see Maria change and grow up gave the events in the series some context. Unlike with Richter, or Christopher where the passage of time is stated but the characters remain ageless, Maria truly changed.
Of course, the series flirted back and forth with her age, using both the younger and older Maria in her various apperances (Judgment made her fifteen, splitting the difference between her age and styles) wanting to have the best of both world when dealing with the character. Still, among all the Castlevania, Maria remains unique for the risks and changes the series was willing to take with her.
Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood
Growing up in the region of Romania, Maria knew well the dangers lurking in the lands outside Dracula's castle. Her own family, the Renard clan, were powerful vampire hunters (with distant blood-ties to the Belmont family), and Maria grew up learning much about her potential power. That power, the magic within her that granted her the ability to fight the forces of darkness, would put her in danger, though.
The dark priest, Shaft, seeking power to aid his lord, Dracula, kidnapped girls from the local village to use in his dark ceremonies. Among them was Maria, who Shaft prized for her power -- with the magic inside the girl Shaft knew he would have a very powerful sacrifice for his dark lord. Killing her family, Dracula's minions kidnapped the younger Renard and imprisoned her in Dracula's castle.
While in captivity, maria and Annette bonded, growing close. The two were so seperated, and Maria was taken to Shaft's dark chamber to be made ready for the sacrifice. However, the dark ceremony was interrupted by Richter Belmont, the local hero who had come to the castle to save the girls and defeat Dracula. Freed of the dark magic, Maria refused to leave the castle, instead swearing to aid Richter in his fight so as to keep the lands, and her new friend Annette, safe.
Together the two heroes fought their way through Dracula's castle. Maria, for her part, summoned a variety of animal companions to aid her in battle, including doves, lizards, and cats. These animals proved effective in combat, and worked as a counter-point to Richters more bombastic style. Once they reached the throne room, Maria took on Dracula, using her newfound power to deliver the fatal blow against the demonic fiend.
As the two heroes, Richter and Maria, watched the castle crumble he took the young girl under his wing. Adopting her into his family (as they already had a distant connection), Richter vowed to raise the girl in the Belmont clan. She also deepened her bond with Annette, who was Richter's betrothed, taking to calling the older woman her "big sister". The lands were safe, and Maria had a new family to call her own... for a time, anyway...
Although officially Rondo of Blood is the 1792 AD entry on the Castlevania timeline, much of Maria's story actually comes from two later remakes. Castlevania: Dracula X (commonly referred to as Dracula XX or simply DXX) was a SNES remake/reimagining of Rondo that established Maria was Annette's younger sister (before, the two were completely unrelated). While a small detail, Maria would again affirm that Annette was her sister in the official sequel, Symphony of the Night. Considering that DXX wasn't an official in-continuity, this was an odd detail to perpetuate (even if it did give Maria some more background shading).
Eventually, continuity was adjusted by a later remake, Castlevania: the Dracula X Chronicles. This game established that the Renard clan were vampire hunters with a connection to the Belmont clan. Maria was, then, a distant relative of Richter and, with her family dead, Richter took her in as his own adopted sister. With Richter and Annette later married, Maria would then be Annette's adopted sister-in-law (which, due to differences between Japanese and English, can also be translated simply as "big sister" or "older sister").
It should be noted that, as shown in the later sequel, Symphony, Richter was the hero to officially kill Dracula (although Maria is there on the sidelines to aid him if he were to fall in battle). While players can fight Dracula as Maria in Rondo, her version of the fight is not officially canon.
A couple of years after her time fighting Dracula with Richter, Maria was comfortable but a touch dissatisfied with her life in the Belmont household. Having matured some in the interim years, Maria still had a desire for adventure, to be among the grown ups and not treated like a child. To that end, with her new barn owl pet, Maria ventured out into the lands of Romania one fateful night (because they're always fateful nights). There, among the monsters that always seemed to roam the lands, Maria encountered the time-traveler, Aeon.
As Aeon explained, in the far future Galamoth (evil villain and rival to Dracula) looked to defeat Dracula in the past and change history so that Galamonth came out on top. Sensing the kind of damage this could do to history (i.e., a lot), Aeon was looking to bringt heroes and villains together in the rift in hopes that he could find one among them with the power and skill to stop Galamoth's plans. Promising Maria a great prize if she competed, the young vampire huntress readily agreed to participate in his fighting tournament, and the two ventured into his time rift.
(Of course, since it was a fighting game any one of the heroes, or villains, could have proved victorious -- the exact hero to end Galamoth's plans was never determined by Konami, so it's up in the air now if Simon officially cast the fatal blow or not.)
One part of Maria's story that we glossed over, primarily because it is such a point of contention among Castlevania fans, is that Maria has a particularly annoying fixation in this game: tits. We're not kidding when we note that Maria was absolutely obsessed with huge breasts -- she was young, still a girl, and lacked big ta-tas, so she'd go out of her way to talk about hoe other women in the tournament had humongous gazongas. It became, in no uncertain terms, hugely annoying, and it reduced Maria to a one-note character. Sure, it would have been worse to have a male character always commenting on tits, but it's not that much better coming out of Maria's mouth.
Still, aside from her annoying dialogue, the fighting-game version of Maria was an interesting bridge between her Rondo version and the playable characte she'd become later. Swapping out her doves for an owl (as she would in later games), Maria is a capable fighter with decent reach. She also has a certain amount of gliding capabilities, being able to float after jumps with the assistance of her bird companions.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Five years after Dracula's defeat at the hands of Richter Belmont and Maria Renard evil fell over the land once again. When her adopted older brother, Richter, goes missing right around the same time Dracula's castle magically reappears on the high mountains of the Borgo Pass, Maria realizes the two events have to somehow be related. Taking matters into her own hands, the teenaged girl heads to the demon castle to once more fight whatever evil may be lurking within its passages.
In the castle, though, Maria meets and unexpected stranger -- Alucard (one-time her of Castlevania III). The strange reveals himself to be a vampire lord and son of Dracula, but he proves that he'snot on the side of the devil, instead working against his father's evil machinations. Although at first the young Renard doubts his verasity, it's with his help that Maria was able to track down Richter. Unfortunately, the Belmont seemingly went mad, proclaiming himself the ruler of the castle.
With Maria's help, Alucard is able to track Richter to the high keep of the castle and reveal that Richter is just a pawn in a greater game. Captured and brain-washed, Richter was made into a puppet by the dark priest, Shaft. It's through Alucard's confrontation with Richter that the dark magic was broken and Richter was freed from the evil spell. With Maria's aid, Richter was escorted from the castle to safety while Alucard went deeper in to find his father and end the evil that spread across the land. Together, the heroes watched as Dracula's castle crumbled.
Although Maria was not playable in the original version of Symphony (although she was originally planned for inclusion, her playable role was cut for time), a Japan-only port of the game to the Sega Saturn (referred to as Noctunre in the Moonlight, the Japanese name for the original, to differentiate it from the English release we got) included her in a playable role as well as two new, small areas to explore. Unfortunately, the Sega Saturn was a bad fit for a game as detailed as Symphony, and the engine was severely compromised during the porting process.
A second remake of Symphony was eventually released as part of the The Dracula X Chronicles. A playable version of Maria was included in this version as well, although the bonus areas from the Saturn port did not make the transition. Over-all, though, this was the most complete and best version of the game released to date.
Castlevania: The Bloodletting
Although Symphony of the Night was the first official sequel to Rondo of Blood, originally a different game in the series was intended to fill that slot. Called Castlevania: The Bloodletting, this game would have seen Richter and Maria team up on a new adventure against the forces of darkness. Both characters were redesigned for the new game, featuring new sprites in a slightly different style from Rondo of Blood. However, the intended platform for the game, the Sega Genesis 32X add-on, was quickly scrubbed from existence due to poor sales, and The Bloodletting was quietly cancelled.
While Richter's sprites from this failed game were (it is thought by fans) used to Zombie Trevor's sprites in Symphony of the Night, Maria's redesigned sprites seemingly never saw the light of day. While we at the Inverted Dungeon took to calling these new sprites "Gretched Renard", that name never seemed to stick (unlike with the horrible things we've done to Hanz Belmont, aka the Rival), and everything about Maria from The Bloodletting has pretty much faded from the series.
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin
Although Richter has an in-continuity appearance in Portrait of Ruin as part of the Whip's Memory (a boss battle Johnathan Morris has to go through to unlock the true potential of the Vampire Killer), Maria's appearance in the game is strictly non-canon. As part of the unlockable Richter Mode, Maria can be used to explore the castle along side the older Belmont. In this game she is in her 12-year old appearance, making this mode feel very like Rondo of Blood.
Castlevania: Harmony of Despair
Maria also made an appearance, alongside Richter, in Harmony of Despair. As part of a downloadable character pack (with Richter), Maria was once again in her Rondo guise. This, despite many of the enemies coming from Symphony and later games. Still, since Richter was also in his Rondo incarnation, this made a cetain amount of sense.
Playing as Maria:
In her initial apperance in Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, Maria was a fast, light character who proved much easier to control than Richter (a good starting character for people looking for an easier time making it through the game). She came equipped with doves she could throw as well as animals she could use as sub-weapons. Her play style was very different than Richter, including a double jump Richter didn't have access to, giving her mobility over the Belmont. However, she wasn't as strong as Richter, helping to balance her out some.
It's worth noting that her Rondo of Blood incarnation was exactly the version that was used for both Portrait of Ruin and Harmony of Despair with only very minor tweaks to her character. Anyone that played her in one version would easily be able to pick her up in the other two games. ALso of note is the fact that, although included as a girl to rescue in the SNES port of Rondo, Dracula XX, Maria is not a playable character in that game.
The big changes for Maria came in the ports on Symphony of the Night. The first version, Nocturne for the Sgea Saturn, drastically changed her play-style. Instead of throwing doves, Maria gained martial arts-style punches and kicks. She also could summon over-charged versions of her animal companions, acting a lot like the item crashes Richter could use. That said, while Maria in this version could use sub-weapons, she was unable to perform item crashes with them. Still, this version of Maria was extremely agile, having a high jump added to her repertoir, making her an interesting character to control (even if she wasn't the "easy mode" she started off as in Rondo.
While she was again included in the second remake of Symphony included in The Dracula X Chronicles, this time Maria played more like her Rondo form. She remains as agile and mobile as before (more so, in some ways, since she retained a high jump and gained the ability to glide after jumping), this time instead of throwing doves, Maria threw owls (a minor aesthetic change). She also could, once again, use her animal sub-weapons attacks, and she was capabale of performing item crashes with them. Interestingly, Maria was also included as a boss in this version of the game, one ALucard had to fight to progress the story forward.
Finally, Maria made an appearance in Castlevania: Judgment. Here she camed armed ith a staff that had a cage on the end containin her owl companion. She could glide with the aid of her birds, use the common sub-weapons, and can summon her animal companions (as special "call" spells). She had a lot of range and, although she played differently from many of the other characters, could prove to be quite formiddable... if you could get past her awful dialogue.