Have you ever played a game so awesome you couldn’t look at your old games the same anymore? That was my experience with Castlevania III. Back in the days when we knew nothing of release dates a friend brought it over completely out of the blue. What followed completely blew my mind and made me turn up my nose at my then current game library. Mind you, we’re talking about a collection that included Wizards & Warriors, Milon’s Secret Castle, and Gauntlet. I’d have been grateful to play almost anything else at that point. That Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was that game is a bonus. Without question this is one of the NES’s best games.
Castlevania III is a prequel rather than a direct sequel to Simon’s Quest set early in the series timeline. In 1476 Dracula returns to ravage the country of Wallachia with his army of demons. The Belmont family, who had long since been outlawed from the region are called on to end the threat with Trevor Belmont answering the call.
Castlevania II was a departure from the first game great and had more in common with the MSX Vampire Killer. While I’m sure they meant well the reaction to Simon’s Quest was mixed. The structure of the game was sound but was buried under bad design and frustrating overall. Dracula’s Curse is a return to form, taking what made the original great and adding numerous additions that extend the life of the game. While the Japanese version is superior (for reasons I won’t get into here) we still got a truly great game.
At its core not much has changed in terms of general gameplay. Trevor is functionally identical to Simon down to the using the same weapons. There is nothing wrong with that as the game is built around their limited capabilities. The variety comes in recruiting one of four partners on your journey. Alucard, Grant, and Sypha all brought different strengths and weaknesses to the table that affect the difficulty substantially. Sypha is the most powerful as her variety of spells can destroy bosses in seconds. To make up for it she takes increased damage from hits. The trade off is often worth it however.
Alucard is potentially game breaking. You don’t use him for his fireballs; they are weak. No, his ability to change into a bat and fly allowed you to bypass the most perilous of stages provided you had the hearts. Grant sadly is not as good; his ability to move while airborne climb walls is useful but prone to failure. His stubby dagger is also not a proper substitute for the whip. Your choice will also have a significant impact on your path through the game.
Aside from its expanded roster of playable characters the level design has seen the greatest leap. If there is one element Simon’s Quest excelled in it was expanding the adventure to the surrounding countryside of Transylvania. That has carried over as you’ll spend very little time in Dracula’s Castle. The variety in locations is astounding. The requisite Clocktower is present but you’ll also travel on a pirate ship, through a sunken marsh, battle dragons in the castle courtyard, and even explore a flooded city. There are more vertically segments and regardless of your partner the stages are designed with Trevor in mind.
What really puts the game over the top is the path progression system. After nearly every level you are presented with two choices ensuring that no two runs are the same. With 15 levels total there is a huge replay value since it is impossible to see everything in one run. The levels vary in terms of their difficulty and revisiting a given stage with a different partner will produce different results. Tackling the pirate ship with Grant will eliminate most of the frustration as his leaping prowess and climbing ability will let you bypass chunks of the level. It really is amazing just how much content was packed into the cartridge and the sense of one grand adventure really is palpable.
The first Castlevania was noted for being a particularly difficult game which still applies even today. Dracula’s Curse is still tough but nowhere near that level. It might just be my imagination but there are more enemies on screen simultaneously but very little slowdown. Depending on which partner and route you take the path to Dracula can be significantly easy (Alucard’s bat form will allow you to skip entire sections) or difficult (Sypha is powerful but the levels along that path are the most brutal). There are multiple boss gauntlets where you face 3 in a row with no interruption which is a bit unfair. The western version of Castlevania III is more difficult however overall the game is still fair.
There are few NES games with better sights and sounds than Castlevania III as Konami really pushed their tech to the limit. Even though this does not have their VRC6 chip (which enabled numerous graphical flourishes and better sound) Dracula’s Curse still has stellar production values. The variety in set pieces in each individual level alone is amazing with a minute attention to detail few games on the system ever matched. The moody soundtrack is dripping with atmosphere and showcases a more advanced usage of instruments than in most similar titles. Honestly I could keep lavishing praise on the production values but I’ll stop here.
Castlevania III is one of the absolute best games in the series and a near perfect refinement of its gameplay. It is the perfect swan song for the series as it entered the 16-bit arena and is also one of the best games for the system. A true classic.