Released 30 years ago this month in Japan, Castlevania 3: Draculas Curse can be seen as a return to form after the brief experimentation of Simons Quest. Thats not a knock against either game, though the RPG aspects of Simons Quest were seeds that would take almost a decade to come to fruition with Symphony of The Night. That being said, Draculas Curse offered up some seeds of its own, while bringing the series back to the basics of what made the original so enjoyable to play.
Taking place prior to the first two Castlevania games, the year is 1476 and Count Dracula has begun ravaging Europe with an army of monsters, with the sole purpose to exterminate mankind. The Belmont Clan of vampire hunters, once exiled from Wallachia due to their super-human power, is begged by the Church for help. Trevor Belmont, the current wielder of the Vampire Killer, travels to Transylvania to end the Count.
Jettisoning the adventure game and RPG elements found in the previous entry, Draculas Curse goes back to the original games linear stage progression. However, in a progressive twist, players could take alternate paths along their journey to Draculas Castle. Depending on the path you take, you encounter one of three companions, each with specific abilities: Grant, a pirate captain; Sypha, a witch; and Alucard, the son of Dracula. You can only take one companion at a time, so if you happen to encounter a second companion, you must make the choice of taking the new companion, or leaving them and continuing on with your original companion.
As one would expect, each character played differently. Trevor retained the classic Belmont stiffness and deliberateness in his movement, while Grant is quicker and more agile in the air, and is able to climb walls/ceilings. On the negative side, Grant is also weaker in offence in the non-Japanese versions (instead of a throwing dagger, Grant attacks with a short sword), and will also take more damage. His defense pales in comparison to Sypha, who is the weakest of the characters, offensively and defensively. She instead must rely on her magic attacks, which tend to be overpowered in the Japanese version (particularly her lighting attack). Meanwhile, Alucard is the slowest and least agile of the group, but makes up for it with his bat transformation. He can be hit out of it and uses up hearts quickly, but is invaluable for avoiding certain hazards.
Konami didnt just put these gimmicks in for nothing, as you will often have to switch to your companion (which shares the same health bar as Trevor) in order to make traversing the stages a little easier. These stages in question are leaps above the original game in terms of content and complexity, with their designs logically matching up to their location on the map. No longer are you tromping around the grounds around Draculas castle. Again, depending on the paths you take, you may make your way through marshes and caverns, a rotting galleon, the clock tower, a forest and more. Depending on your companion, you can use their abilities to traverse walls, freeze streams in order to make it easier to cross, or simply fly above an obstacle.
And you will have obstacles. From trying to navigate between swinging pendulums, avoiding dropping blocks while waiting for them to drop enough to let you make it up to the exit, acid eating through blocks, to a stage where you have to climb as quick as possible in order to not be cut off at the bottom as it scrolls up in chunks, Draculas Curse doesnt let up. Thats on top of the multiple bosses in some stages, which require you to fight in succession. True, some of the bosses are repeated across stages, but given how much Konami was able to cram into the game, its easily forgiven.
As you might expect, Castlevania III is superior in the graphics department to its previous entries, pushing the aging hardware to its limits. Along with the aforementioned pendulums and the rotating gears in the clock tower, the game kicks off appropriately with Trevor kneeling in front of a cross (which looks more impressive in the Japanese version). Lightning flashes, Trevor stands up, throws back his cape, and were off. The game maintains a dark and gritty atmosphere throughout, with many of the stages changing their look midway through as your progress. There are a few jumbled messes of tiles from time to time, but its nowhere near how the first game looked.
Its at this point that by law you have to talk about the soundtrack, which is legendary. Composed by the trio of Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi, and Yukie Morimoto, the soundtrack (in the Japanese version) was aided by a custom memory mapper called the VRC6 that added more sound channels. The result was higher quality fidelity music and sound effects. The European and North American NES lacked the hardware necessary to use the VRC6, so the music was a few notches below the Japanese version. That being said, the music is still a staple for many fans today. The first stages music, Beginning, has made frequent appearances in successive Castlevania games. Other songs such as Mad Forest, Aquarius and Prelude are also standouts.
The music wasnt the only thing changed when the game arrived a year later for English-speaking countries. As alluded to with regards to Grants weapon, the game was made noticeably harder. Syphas overpowered magic was dialled back and doesnt track enemies as well as before, enemies were added in places, and each enemy now dealt the same amount of damage to the player (although this damage increases in the later stages). The checkpoint system was also changed where if you lost to Dracula in the final battle, the player starts back at the levels second section instead of right outside of the castle keep.
This all made for the common Nintendo hard complaint about Castlevania III. Its definitely a difficult game, and there are a few cheap hits and deaths to be found. However, most of the games difficulty requires you to memorize certain aspects in order to better yourself. Like some games that straddle that line of difficult and impossible, Draculas Curse is a tough but fair affair. Approaching it as you would Super Mario Bros. would have you ending up dead rather quickly. Like modern equivalents such as the Souls-like games, Draculas Curse requires a methodical pace and patience to truly succeed. Plus, if you tried to plow through the game, youd end up missing a lot of the cool graphics and music! Unlike the first game, you also now had a password system that made coming back to Castlevania III a little easier if you took a break.
But probably the most noteworthy aspect of Castlevania III is its legacy. Konami reached the pinnacle for a lot of old-school players with this one. And while Castlevania IV and Rondo of Blood carved out their own successes, they still treaded the path set out by Draculas Curse. Of course, after Rondo of Blood, the series experienced a further revolution with Symphony of The Night. And, if you needed further proof of Castlevania IIIs endurance, look no further than the Castlevania Netflix series, which took the original concept of a Draculas Curse movie and expanded it into a multi-season show.
As far as the original NES games, Castlevania III is a perfect send-off. The game advanced and refined practically every element from the first Castlevania, and even with the SNES on the horizon, Konami still devoted time to pack Draculas Curse full of content that rivalled almost any other 8-bit console title. Adding to all of this is its enduring appeal, which not only exemplifies for many what made a Castlevania game, but also what could be done in other mediums.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero