When I did a review of the original Castlevania, I mentioned that I wasn’t particularly familiar with the older series. I’d played some of the NES Castlevanias in my youth, but only as a rental or at a friends house and I never made it past the early levels. Even among the later titles, many of which I’ve played and beaten, I never spent an exorbitant amount of time on them. However, as the NES and SNES Castlevanias have been released on the Virtual Console, I’ve been jumping at a chance to pick up a piece of gaming history that I so sorely missed. At this point, I would say I’m rather familiar with the series, though I’m still unclouded by nostalgia.
With that disclaimer out of the way, Castlevania III: Dracula’s revenge is an exciting game in the series. The original Castlevania was a great platformer, but it brought little new to the system. Despite this lack of innovation, it was extremely popular. So, it was strange when the developers decided to turn the straightforward, but tight platforming of the original into weakly controlled, but open platforming in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. It was a mistake, and, although we got Bloody Tears from it, Simon’s Quest is a game that most people are willing to forget. Castlevania III came in as a compromise between the two. It took the more accurate and fun controls from the original game, while keeping an element of choice, though not to the extent as was seen in Simon’s Quest. While this element of choice would disappear from the series when Super Castlevania IV returned wholly to the model of the first game, it laid the seeds for what would become the most popular Castlevania game ever made – Symphony of Night. More importantly, it was popular, unlike Simon’s Quest.
At its core, Castlevania III is a straightforward NES platformer with all the trimming associated with the genre. You’ll generally be traveling to the right, zoning between screens as you kill enemies and avoid certain death from traps. You play primarily as Trevor Belmont, who, like Simon Belmont before him, has access to a whip and various sub-weapons. These sub-weapons include a throwing knife, axe, holy water, cross, and stopwatch. Each of them has an advantage in combat, though the holy water is clearly the best in the game, causing extreme damage and slowing enemies. Like many NES platformers, difficulty plays an important role in the game. In fact, the game is significantly harder than either the original Castlevania or Simon’s Quest. I’ve heard some people say that Castlevania III is among the hardest NES games out there, along with Battletoads. Though I wouldn’t go that far, the game is clearly aimed more at the masochistic among the populace unlike the much more forgiving Super Castlevania IV. While the difficulty definitely extends the playtime of the game, it isn’t nearly as necessary as it was in the original Castlevania.
What I mean by that is the game is already considerably longer and, more importantly, there’s a lot more replayability here. In between various stages, you’ll be given an option to divert your path. This often leads to a whole new set of levels you can play through in order to get to Dracula’s castle. As such, you cannot see every level in the game on a single playthrough, and countless deaths will force you to experiment with paths to see which ones are the easiest for you to traverse. Even if the game is a cakewalk to you, these paths are worth exploring because the level variation is varied and the design is of the height of the system. There are a few clunkers, but there’s so much to see in this game, especially when you’re dying non-stop.
There is another complication, however. Along the way to fight the King of Darkness, you’ll come across various new characters depending on which paths you take. Collecting one allows you to switch from Trevor Belmont to them whenever you want to by pressing select. The trick is that they come with very different abilities and thus play styles as compared to your normal whip-slinging hero. Grant is fast and can stick to walls, opening up huge movement and level skipping potential. However, he’s weak and only equipped with a knife, which is wholly inferior to Trevor’s whip. Sypha has extremely versatile magic including a boss-destroying lightning spell and an ice spell that opens up a lot of movement options. She’s just as weak physically as Grant, though, and her melee weapon is very short-ranged. Finally, there’s Alucard, who has an extremely weak, but long-ranged attack. His big advantage is that he can turn into a bat and skip whole difficult sections of levels with ease. Each of these characters add tons of replayability to the game as they completely change up the flow of each level. The kicker? You can only have one with you. When you agree to travel with a companion, any previous companions you have go away.
The music in the games is good, but it is clearly the worst of the first four Castlevania games. There are a few memorable tracks, but nowhere near as good as Bloody Tears, Vampire Killer, Wicked Child, or half of Super Castlevania IV’s ambient tracks. That’s not to say that the game is disappointing on the music front like Mega Man IV was after the excellent Mega Man III, but it isn’t the strongest. Graphically, the game shines strong. The NES wasn’t known for beauty, but Castlevania III eeks out every bit it can. As such, Castlevania III is among the best looking NES game from both a graphical power standpoint and an aesthetics standpoint. The levels are crisp and clear and without clutter as is the case with games such as Contra.
The biggest weakness of the game, like many NES games, is when a developer puts in a room that is a little to frustrating. Difficulty is good, but frustration and unfairness aren’t. This happens on occasion and it grinds the game to a halt, wasting the otherwise good level design that preceded it. While it isn’t nearly as derivative as the original Castlevania, most everything in Castlevania III was done already by a different game. This forces the game to rely far too much on its charm, which it has in spades, rather than providing a strictly new experience.
On paper, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is the best NES Castlevania. It’s bigger and more faceted than the original, and infinitely more fun to play than Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. However, when the game stalls, it stalls bad. This alone may be enough to prefer the simpler original Castlevania. Nevertheless, Castlevania III was a milestone in the series in that it marked the first successful time a Castlevania game had branched out to quasi-RPG territory, and it is most certainly a game worth playing.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer