Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse
The church is ruined. The walls are cracked and crumbled. A giant holy cross is decaying from exposure. Moss and weeds are creeping up through the stone. The same rotting, decrepit setting as far as the eye can see. The place has been abandoned; if there was a God, he’s no longer here. Dracula saw to that. He razed the entire city and let his undead minions rule over the remains. Powerless to do anything, the few survivors hired an outsider to kill their conqueror. A bitter irony; they hated and feared this man almost as much as Dracula himself. His ancestors – the Belmonts – were banished from the lands generations ago. They had supernatural powers, some kind of dark and otherworldly magic. If there’s anyone capable of defeating a seemingly immortal vampire, it’ll be this outcast. Thus Trevor Belmont begins a quest that will determine not only the fate of the world, but the future of his descendants as well.
No, that wasn’t a typo. The hero is Trevor Belmont. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is a prequel, so Simon’s legendary exploits from the last two games have yet to happen in the continuity. It’s a little jarring to see, especially after the interesting premise of Simon’s Quest. But the overly simplistic plot represents what the game is attempting to accomplish: going back to the fundamental aspects of the series and improving upon them. Gone are the RPG aspects of the previous title; it’s returned to the harrowing platforming stages of yore. Cleverly-placed ledges, annoying bats, upgradeable whips, sub weapons with heart ammunition, and cheap deaths galore. Trevor is practically identical to Simon in terms of the limited range of his weapons (he can still only sling the Vampire Killer straight ahead) and awkward jumps, but his speed and responsiveness have been improved. Considering how awful Simon was, however, that’s not saying much.
He’ll need every shred of skill he can muster, though. One of the greatest aspects of Dracula’s Curse is its excellent and brutally tough level designs. The first few areas are simple enough. Trevor wanders through the ruins of a city, climbing into the rafters of a massive church – with some gorgeous stained glass windows in the background – and taking down a hulking skeleton barbarian in the gloomy, shrouded fields of a nearby cemetery. But as things progress, the complexity, length, and difficulty increase dramatically. If won’t take long before you find yourself ascending a massive clock tower, climbing over moving gears, narrowly avoiding instant-death spikes and ever-spawning Medusa heads. Or trying to navigate the quicksand marshes and underground caverns, desperately trying to stay balanced on a tiny platform while multiple enemies try to knock you into a watery grave. Or jumping along a bunch of disintegrating blocks and enemies try to snipe you from afar. Or walking across a room of flipping platforms, only for some bat or spider to knock you back, triggering a flip and sending you plummeting off-screen. Or dodging an endless hail of blocks and acid as whole rooms and towers build and destroy themselves within seconds. This culminates with the inevitable showdown with Death, the defeat of whom requires some of the most perfect timing and handling skills you’ll ever see in a NES game. If you thought the original Castlevania was difficult, you might destroy a few controllers trying to beat this.
At least you won’t have to endure all of it in one playthough. One of this game’s biggest innovations is its introduction of alternate levels. Every so often you’ll be given the choice of which path you’d like to follow, thus leading you into different sections. While this adds a bit of variety and replay value to the quest, it serves a far more prominent purpose: the extra characters. Depending on the routes you take, you’ll be able to meet and recruit an additional hero that can be toggled out at any time. Grant DaNasty, a vengeful pirate, is much faster that Trevor and has the ability to walk or climb on walls and ceilings. He’s perfect for finding hidden power-ups, making insane jumps, and dodging bosses. His crappy attack range and defense make him useless otherwise. You’d be better off with Sypha, a witch with extremely powerful spells and terrible defense stats. But if you want to go with something a little more badass, you can even team up with Alucard (you know, the guy from Symphony of the Night?) and let him unleash his demonic powers upon his father’s forces…assuming he actually kills something. His fireball attacks are pathetic, even when they’re fully upgraded. If anything, you’ll probably just use his morphing ability; he can turn into a bat (steadily draining any hearts you‘ve collected), which lets him skip over whole levels of insanely difficult platforming. These sidekicks are interesting because of their variety; their abilities offer an alternative methods to the typical Belmont-style heroics. Since you can have only one partner at a time, you’ll have to figure out which character best suits your playing style. Such options demonstrate how far the Castlevania series has gone beyond just some guy with a whip.
You’ll understand long before you make any of these choices. The growth of the series is demonstrated in the first scene. It doesn’t just have some generic hero marching up to the gates of the castle; Trevor is crouched, shrouded beneath the symbol of the church. Lightning crackles, and he dramatically unfurls his cloak before the classic Beginning theme kicks in. The backgrounds are far more ambitious and detailed than before. You can see the outlines of ruined buildings and the moss growing through the cracks. The clock tower stage is gorgeous for a NES game; the gears and parts have impressive movement animations and add life to the level. The forests are infested with evil, staring owls and mutant toads. You’ll have to explore a bog, wandering through a misty gloom while dodging fireballs and mutant jellyfish. The block puzzles in the later stages are fascinating as well; bright orange blocks falling and disintegrating into elaborate platforming puzzles as you struggle to find the right patterns without getting crushed. The same goes for most of the enemies; everything from the generic skeletons and bats to Dracula have been fleshed out with more detailed sprites. Combined with some superb remixes of the music (Vampire Killer especially) from the last two games, Dracula’s Curse is one of the most impressive games of its time.
It’s also the best of the NES Castlevania games, and arguably that of the traditional platformers in the series. It takes everything that made the original game awesome and refined it. Trevor may look and attack like Simon, but his improved handling makes him far less awkward to use. The stages become longer and more complex as the quest wears on, offering several new spins on old ideas. Given the sheer challenge of the latter half of the game, it’s a safe bet that you’ll break a controller or two before finally slaying Dracula again. The branching paths offer an interesting take on the typical designs; not only are you given a choice of where to go, but what obstacles you’ll have to face. The additional heroes makes things even better; with a wide variety of playing styles and strategies, the game gives you a chance to tackle its challenges using different approaches. Such creativity is extended into the scenery itself, offering a detailed presentation of a world ruined by evil. It’s the perfect way for the Castlevania series to leave the NES; in the end, Dracula’s Curse is actually a blessing.