The first half of the year has been rife with fantastic games coming out on almost a monthly basis for the NES. 1990 is shaping up to be the best year ever for the aging console and we still have four months to go! There have been all sorts of new experiences with games like Final Fantasy, but it’s the sequels that are really delivering the goods. We started off the year with the absolutely amazing Super Mario Bros. 3, and then a few months later Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos blew our socks off. Now it’s Konami’s turn with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, and after destroying two controllers and rage quitting a few times, I’ve finally seen the Count defeated and the credits roll. This is perhaps the best game in the series, and even though there’s a password feature this time around, it’s still brutally difficult. But don’t let that deter you, otherwise you’ll miss out on one of the best games of the year!
Castlevania 3 is set 100 years before Simon Belmont’s birth. That means you’re playing as Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor who is just as lethal with a whip. But that’s not all, you’ll actually be able to team up with three different spirits that, once defeated, will join your side to help vanquish the evil Count Dracula and rid the land of his evil curse. Each character has a unique set of moves and weapons, so mastering all of them will be the key to your success.
Unlike Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, this game returns to the level-based action of the first title. In other words, you won’t be roaming the same countryside over and over again in search of some mythical treasure. This time around you have seventeen different courses, each with beautiful and creepy vistas to explore, that must be completed before facing off against the bloodsucker himself. Unlike the first game, this one isn’t completely linear because there will be branching paths that you’ll get to choose, opening up different levels to play through. Depending on which route you pick you’ll encounter different stages, enemies, bosses, and challenges. This is also how you find the three spirits that will assist you on your quest. You can only have one partner at a time, so if you have one you like and you come across another that wants to join up, you’ll have a choice on who to take further into the game.
The first teammate I came across was Grant DaNasty. He used to be a pirate captain and he’s quite nimble and can attack from all sorts of places. Once Trevor defeats him he’ll offer up his services. If you take him along you’ll be able to instantly swap him in at any time with the press of a button. He’s quite a fun character to control because he can jump higher and even latch onto walls and ceilings! That makes for some easier exploration of some of the courses, and indeed sometimes you can find secret passageways with him as well. His main weapon is the dagger that he can throw at enemies. He can also wield the axe, which is more powerful and great to use against bosses. The big downside is that he takes more damage than other characters and thus can die fairly easily. You’ll want to experiment with using him on various stages, but you’ll have to really be careful when fighting the big baddies because he can die before you realize it.
You can also add Sypha Belnades to your group. Another vampire hunter who uses magic instead of weapons, this character is quite useful, if not a little slow moving. Like Grant, defense is not a strong suit here. Luckily there are some very useful spells that can be used to push back the enemy horde. In addition to whacking enemies on the head with a staff, you can also acquire special attacks, like the flames, frozen crystals, and lightning bolts. Although powerful, I found myself constantly running low on the hearts needed to supply power to the spell attacks, so you’ll want to use them sparingly.
Perhaps the most fun can be had with Alucard. He’s Dracula’s son who has had enough of the evil and is now fighting the good fight alongside Trevor. As a vampire you can transform into a bat and fly around the stage! This consumes hearts at a rapid rate and if you get hit by an enemy you’ll revert back into your normal form. He’s very useful if you have a difficult section that requires precise jumping. Simply turn into a bat and fly across the abyss to safety! You can’t attack as a bat, so be careful to avoid enemies. In normal form you have fireballs that you flail across the screen. Find power-ups to increase the number of fireballs and take out more enemies at once!
Of course the main character is still Trevor Belmont and he comes equipped with the old standby weapons that we’ve seen in prior installments. Your main method of attack is the whip. You can find power-ups hidden in candles and lanterns that will extend the reach and power of your whip. Sub-items also return and require hearts to use them. Once again the battle axe and the boomerang are often the most useful on bosses thanks to their reach and power. The Sacred Water (holy water) will burn most enemies of darkness to the ground. The pocket watch returns to pause all enemies on the screen for a few moments. This one is especially helpful against Medusa Heads. Remember to whip everywhere because there are secrets to be found in the walls!
Much like we saw with the Super Mario Bros. series, where the second game deviated a lot from the first and the third one sort of returned the gameplay to its roots, the same can be said with Castlevania 3. This one plays almost identically to the first game, which in my opinion is a good thing. The difference is that the stages are much longer here with more areas to explore and the ability to choose different routes and playable characters. Everything is bigger and better and it’s quite amazing how much stuff there is to do in this game. And that transcends to the audio and visuals as well.
As much as I enjoyed the music in the last game, there were far too few tracks and the songs became repetitive. I’m not sure if Konami read my review, but they’ve more than made up for that shortcoming with Castlevania 3’s soundtrack. There are a bunch of different songs included here and the overall musical score is absolutely fantastic. You have the sort of horror rock music from the first game making a return, but there are stages that have a much more slower tempo that really help to set the mood. The different tracks evoke an eeriness not heard before on the NES that simply have to be heard to be believed. Music is one area where the NES still excels, even when compared to more powerful systems like the Genesis. Even with the limited technology the developers have found ways to make the games sound so good on the 8-bit system and it never fails to impress. There are so many stages filled with music that matches the setting perfectly that this game simply has to be in the running for best soundtrack of the year.
The visuals are also a step up from the prior games with more detail and colors on the screen. Many of the enemies are bigger and animate better than ever before. The variety in the locales and the background imagery throughout is impressive. That being said, I’ve seen better visuals this year with Ninja Gaiden II where the masters at Tecmo have somehow enabled four layers of parallax scrolling on the NES. I was hoping for at least a little bit for this game, but alas we’ve got a more static experience when it comes to the scrolling backgrounds. Still, the striking color schemes and moody set pieces partially make up for the less technical prowess.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is a return to form for the series. It’s got more stages, more enemies, more songs, and better graphics than the predecessors and there’s plenty of challenge to boot. The inclusion of multiple playable characters is genius and I hope Konami continues to explore this idea further in future titles. The branching paths and different routes make replaying the game more likely and there’s plenty of variety to be had throughout. This is the best horror game on the NES thus far and it has arrived just in time for the Halloween season. Don’t be tricked out of missing this treat!
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse Review
- Graphics - 8/108/10
- Sound - 10/1010/10
- Gameplay - 10/1010/10
- Lasting Appeal - 10/1010/10
Final Thoughts: EXCELLENT
What a year for fantastic NES games! Castlevania 3 is the best game in the series thanks to an amazing soundtrack, fantastic level design, fun characters to play as, and branching paths that increase replay value. The game is hard as nails, but thankfully there’s an easy to use password system that should help alleviate some of the frustration. Don’t sleep on this one!