Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.
On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Now, before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.
Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit which was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series which began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.
Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.
While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.
The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells which can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.
With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.
It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap which causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, which adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.
Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.
As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (which the manual humorously dubs “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.
To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.
Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.