Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES) Review

The Short

Pros

– Back to the linear Castlevania format

– Graphics are a hybrid between the first Castlevania and Simon’s Quest, and look fantastic

– Music is kickin’

– Four playable characters (three of which you have to discover) help mix up the gameplay

– Branching and split paths

– Some of the levels are ingenious

Cons

– Really, really hard

– Like, absurdly hard. You won’t beat it. Ever. Unless you have Game Genie

– Seriously though, sometimes I think this and the Mega Man games were invented solely to sell Game Genies.

– Not nearly as tightly designed as the first Castlevania game was

This looks really familiar.

The Long

Castlevania III: Breaking Dawn Part 2 feels like a compromise. It’s as if the people who made Simon’s Quest were insistent that Simon’s Quest wasn’t all bad, but it was clear that people really just wanted more of Castlevania’s linear style. “But you go outside the castle!” the Simon’s Quest fans cried. “That’s cool! And you have options to go different places and in a different order!”

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Purse is a good Castlevania game, unlike Simon’s Quest. But it should have been the best one on the NES, and instead it’s just in second place. And it’s a game that goes to show that even if you add a bunch of stuff to a tried-and-true formula, if you don’t nail the “tried-and-true formula” part, you’re going to screw up your game.

What I’m trying to say is Castlevania III is too hard.

It does have a pretty sick intro, though.

Castlevania III is a prequel to the first Castlevania, though with these old NES games you really have to rely on the manuals or Nintendo Power to know that. It stars Trevor Belmont, who looks exactly like Simon from the first game except Trevor has a cape, and he’s on a quest to whip Dracula into shape. As in kill him. Not jazzercise him into shape, if that was confusing.

On it’s surface it looks like a return to form from the series. Hearts again are used for subweapons, not as an economic staple. Levels are linear and challenging and are chock full of enemies ready to murder you. Stages end with a challenging boss fight (though the bosses have a tendency to be recycled) and give you a glowing orb thing that refills your health. It’s Castlevania again, hooray!

With a few twists that should make it better, and…sort of do?

Finally, a female playable character in a Castlevania game!

First off, after every stage or two you’re given an option to branch to a split path. A little background image on the far right shows you the general gist of what you’re getting in each excursion, so you can easily identify the clock tower level and avoid it. Some paths contain hidden characters (like Syfa above) which you can then swap out for at any time in your journey. Others give you nothing but death and an empty feeling inside. All eventually get to Dracula’s castle, but there is very distinctly a “right way” to get through the game, and the game doesn’t tell you what way that is. You’ll have to find out by playing it through a half-dozen times or going to Gamefaqs (or grabbing a Nintendo Power).

The extra characters, of which there are three (Grant, Syfa, and Alucard’s first appearance) are all surprisingly unique and yet can all tackle each stage. I imagine that’s why the stages don’t feel as “tight” as they did in Castlevania 1: Eclipse; they had to be designed so that four distinctly different characters could beat them. That bit of “looseness” in the levels is a bit of a downer, as I’d imagine if they’d cut the characters back they probably could have made the levels feel more designed for the specific characters rather than a “one size fits all” thing.

Except that size is hard, and the fit is your death.

This seems fair.

Castlevania III is infamous for it’s absurd difficulty, and I’m just going to prove to be the echo in the Grand Canyon in that regard. The game is hard, really hard. About the time you hit the ghost ship you’ll be thinking, “man, was Castlevania this hard?” When you hit the Red Keep (or that’s what I call it anyway) you’ll wonder if the game developers are sadists. And if you ever make it to Dracula…good luck. That’s all I’m saying.

Since the game community is such a nonjudgemental and supporting one, I feel obligated to give this disclaimer: I like hard games. I’m not a “casual” or a “noob.” One of my biggest draws to old-school gaming is the lack of handholding and the sometimes malicious difficulty curve. It’s gaming at its purest, when it’s pulled off successfully, and gaming at it’s most frustrating when it isn’t. Castlevania III skirts the line in that regard: it’s a lot of fun for a good portion of the game, and it’s very frustrating for another portion. As such, you’ll probably play it for about half an hour before getting stuck, and only the elite will continue to bash their heads against the brick wall of whatever level it is until finally persisting through. That or they’ll grab the Game Genie.

See if you can find Trevor. Here’s a hint: he’s totally boned.

The game still looks quite good, sort of a graphical hybrid of Simon’s Quest and Castlevania (and probably another compromise between the Simon’s Quest apologetics and the Castlevania purists). While Castlevania relied heavily on color contrasts, Castlevania III does as well…for the most part. In some instances it’s impossible to tell the background from the black-outlined flight of stairs you’re supposed to take down, and the dark-outlined enemies can often feel mashed into the background. It’s still an incredibly gorgeous game and a monument of pixel art, and while it’s certainly one of the best looking games on the system it doesn’t have the “pop” that Castlevania had.

The music is some of the best in the series, top to bottom, though still pales in comparison to the first game. The opening theme, however, is killer.

Here’s just the whole soundtrack because why not?

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Quest is a fine decent game, but one few people will ever actually see the end of. If you’re a collector then you’ve obviously got your eye set on it, but if you’re browsing the Wii Virtual Console and needing a Castlevania fix, there’s better options (not Simon’s Quest, mind). If you want an absurdly hard challenge to bang your face against for the next few weeks (or months. Or years) then this game is an excellent example of “Nintendo Hard” for you to get all nostalgic over and then be glad they don’t make games this difficult anymore.

It’s still one of the better Castlevania games, and since they don’t make 2D linear ones any more your options are forever limited. Plus that cover art is just incredible. I guess the point I’m trying to make is in the compromise mentioned at the beginning, in the end the Castlevania guys won out. But that doesn’t stop some bad decisions from Simon’s Quest to nearly spoil the experience.

Get this game if you hate yourself. Three out of five stars. 

Purple tombstones are what I want to be buried in.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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