Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse – NES
Release Date (NA): September 1st, 1990
Nerd Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Reviewed by The Cubist
five centuries (I believe this is incorrect; I think it’s more like 200 years between the games, but damned if I can completely straighten out the timeline) prior to the events of the original Castlevania, the Belmont family was called into action to stop Dracula’s takeover of their homeland, Wallachia. In this prequel, the player assumes the role of Trevor Belmont, a distant ancestor of our hero Simon from the first and second games. Once again it’s a battle against monsters of all sorts and every bit as hard as Simon’s Quest. This time though, Trevor has help from some “friends” he meets along the way and the quasi-RPG structure of the previous game has been abandoned in favor of a more traditional platformer/adventure game in the vein of the first game in the series.
I went into Dracula’s Curse with very few expectations. I was clueless to the details of gameplay, hadn’t looked at any screenshots, and was looking forward to whatever surprises it held after my mostly positive experience with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. However I did read that it was on several NES “best of” lists, and couldn’t wait to see what Konami had improved upon from its predecessor. Boy oh boy, from the second I fired this dusty ol’ cartridge up, I knew I was in for a disappointment.
Gone was the free-roaming nature of Simon’s Quest. No more night and day. Any mechanics even remotely representative of an RPG were dismissed. Instead, we have a fairly straightforward platformer (with a few divergent paths along the way (essentially an “easy” course and a “hard” route)) with no items or puzzles and a noticeably faster pace. Simon, er, Trevor, I mean, goes from stage to stage killing bad guys, stumbling across quite a large number of bosses and relying on quick reflexes, impeccable timing, and a smidge of luck. Dracula’s Curse is amazingly difficult, and I can’t help but attribute much of the challenge to flaws in design.
As I mentioned before, the most striking new feature in the third Castlevania installment is Trevor’s ability to acquire allies along the way. These extra characters are found after boss battles, and the player is given the option to bring them along on the journey or leave them behind. Trevor can only have one companion at any given time, so if a new one is taken on, the previous one will depart. Each new character has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, and the game’s ending is dependent on who is with Trevor once the game is finished. Our new friends are Grant Danasty, the Acrobat; Syfa, the Vampire Hunter; and Alucard, Dracula’s son (Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards). Each one has differences in jumping ability and attack strength, and the player can alternate between Trevor and an ally by pressing “Select.”
Some of the standout abilities of each are Grant’s skill of changing jump direction in mid-air and the capability to crawl along all vertical and horizontal surfaces; Syfa’s proficiency with magic spells; and Alucard’s ability to transform into a bat. Trevor possesses the greatest overall strength but is the weakest of the four in terms of jumping.
While the differences between the characters offers a promising range of possibilities, the effect is dampened by only having one of them available at a given time. Unless one has previous played the game and taken copious notes regarding each stage, it’s impossible to know which of the characters will be most useful at a given time. My tendency was to stick with Trevor for the majority of the game, though I often ran across situations where I found myself thinking something along the lines of “I wish I hadn’t traded Grant for Syfa.”
Earlier I touched on the insane difficulty of Dracula’s Curse, perceived by myself to be the result of numerous design flaws. This game is hard. Really hard. Although enemies don’t endlessly respawn as they did in Simon’s Quest, sometimes they do attack in a continuous pattern. Coupled with the many precision jumps that must be made and the mechanic that pushes characters backwards when hit, crossing simple gaps is often a tedious chore requiring several attempts. Hordes of monsters are one thing, but massive interference with otherwise simple tasks strikes me as nothing more than a mistake. In many instances there’s no way to plan or time or jump, or take the time to kill the enemies in the way as they continue coming. Blind luck plays a large role in the process.
Another serious issue I have with this title is how easy it is to simply fall and die. For instance, if Trevor is walking on a platform which terminates in a staircase, the player must press “down” to descend the stairs. If Trevor walks over to the stairs without pressing down, he’ll fall directly off the platform and die. This situation and numerous variants occur regularly throughout the journey causing a lot of frustration and the need to redo large portions of levels.
The graphics of Castlevania III vary between the exquisite and the confusing. There are many striking and memorable backgrounds such as the stained glass of the church, the stormy backgrounds complete with lightning, the crescent moon leading up to the final battle, and the detail put into many of the bosses, particularly Frankenstein’s monster. Other times however, there’s too much going on in the backgrounds at one time. Not only does this make Trevor and the enemies indistinct, but it also leads to severe confusion as to where staircases and platforms are located. It’s very easy to mistake a background element for a solid platform and vice versa. Staircases are almost invisible during certain portions.
The music is an improvement over the strangely out of place tunes in Simon’s Quest, but it still doesn’t have the eerie tone that I imagine in my head while slaying all manner of beasts. Much of the music borders on jaunty, lighthearted adventure music, and while none of it is particularly memorable, there is enough variation to stave off monotony.
I’m giving Dracula’s Curse a 5.5, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to think of it as an average game. In some respects it excels beyond the bland cluster of other 8-bit titles, however it is also rife with too many flaws to be ignored. There are far too many difficulties to overcome that seem incidental to gameplay mechanics and level design rather than a deliberate measure of a player’s video gaming ability. Too much of the challenge found in Dracula’s Curse has nothing to do with a player’s ability. The beautiful scenery and other innovative elements compensate for these failures somewhat, and overall I feel like much of the really good and unforgivably bad cancel each other out.
Be sure to check out Nerd Bacon’s other Castlevania reviews:
- Castlevania (by Doobs)
- Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (by The Cubist)
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (by Doobs)
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