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Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse Review

As far as the basic game mechanics go, there isn’t much difference between the three NES Castlevanias. Simon and Trevor have the same jump and the same whip. They can get the same subweapons, which behave in the same way. Of course, Trevor is joined by three companions who play slightly different, which really exemplifies the design style of Castlevania III. You come across branched paths pretty often, which is probably inspired by the open exploration style of Castlevania II. What they really manage in this game is to combine the exploration with the strong level design of the original Castlevania. The game feels good to play, but you also get to explore all the wilderness around the titular castle to come at it from different angles and try to rescue your friends. The focused design that having linear levels brings is played as a major strength here. The level design in Castlevania II was weaker all around because of the exploratory elements, even within the castles, but in Castlevania III, since you approach every area in a linear fashion, they were able to plan every approach, every staircase and awkward jump, and the game manages to be of the same quality as Castlevania. Well, maybe not exactly the same. Castlevania III has a lot more in the way of traditional platforming than the original game, which is really to the game’s detriment. There are floating platforms, which don’t feel integrated with the basic game mechanics of jumpin ‘n whippin, since they tend to exist in a vacuum. There are also a few sections where the screen moves, forcing you to move with it, but due to conveyance and some weird glitches, these areas all fall flat.

When the screen starts moving up, your natural instinct is to move up to the top of the screen, giving you plenty of time to react to your new environment. Unfortunately, if you do so, enemies tend to spawn on top of your head. This is especially dumb considering that the enemies don’t spawn when the ground level that they stand on shows up, but when the level where their head belongs shows up, so areas that look clear actually aren’t. Additionally, you’d have to progress vertically in these areas anyway, so the scrolling screen doesn’t really even matter. It never moves fast enough that you feel threatened. All it does is encourage you to go in the direction you were already going, which is really pointless. The segments where the screen moves down are fine, since in those sections the game uses enemy spawners like the Medusa Heads or bats which fly in from the edges. The problem there is, when you come into those areas you start going down anyway, and the screen moves at the same pace as your descent. There’s nothing at the top of the screen indicating that it can kill you, but if you linger, it’s easy to get squished. By nothing. There’s nothing there. There’s also nothing at the bottom of the screen that would kill you, but if you jump down to an area where you know there’s a platform before the screen shows it, you’ll die, even though the fall would’ve been the same length. There’s vertical segments in other games that don’t have these conveyance issues, so the blame falls solely on an oversight, since it isn’t due to limitations with the hardware. And even if it was due to limitations with the hardware, that just means that including these sections was a bad idea, right?

In this image, I'm about to take an axe to the legs.

There’s also some issues with the stairs in the game. They take away a lot of your agency, since you can’t jump or really use subweapons while on them. This results in some sections where there’s a guy hanging out at the top of the stairs and there isn’t really anything you can do about it, even if you happen to have brought the axe along. But the real issues are when you have to fight around a staircase. At one point, an Axe Armor is hanging out on top of one. You have to duck to hit his projectiles, but if you push down when you’re above the stairs, Trevor starts walking down them. In comparison, this never happens in the original Castlevania. There are also long segments where you have to climb stairs which are incredibly difficult, not because of clever design, but because maneuvering on the stairs is so hard. It does manage to finally hit a good stride in the last area, so it’s not solely a problem. When it works, it feels good. I just wish it could feel even better than that.

Really, that about covers it for the problems, though. I harped on the incredible difficulty of the bosses in Castlevania, but they’re actually well balanced in Castlevania III. While the fight against Death is almost exactly the same, you have a lot more area to maneuver around in, and the section immediately before him is not only very easy, but it gives you any subweapon you want. In later games, we’ll see pre-boss rooms that give a variety of subweapons and hearts, but it all starts here. The main thing that makes bosses in Castlevania III more reasonable than in the first game is that they actually telegraph their attacks now. While Igor would shoot fireballs at a set interval, bosses in this game will actually, for example, hold their sword up before attacking, giving you some much needed reaction time and not forcing you to learn the exact interval before the boss is even possible. Ultimately all of the bosses feel a lot better than they do in the original game. Getting hit by them feels justified instead of random, and beating them actually feels like you accomplished something. In addition to this, if you’re a fan of the series, Castlevania III is noteworthy in having probably the best and one of the only unique battles against Dracula. I think he still hits a bit harder than is reasonable, especially considering the battle lasts a very long time, but again, he telegraphs what he’s doing, so you actually have a bit of time to react. Granted, it’s possible to get kind of screwed over by his attack pattern in the first form, since it can lock you into having no maneuvering room and it’s kind of hard to understand how the attack actually works.

Of course, like I said in the review of Castlevania, the thing about these games is that they’re fun to play even if you don’t win. I would gladly play the first five levels of Castlevania ad nauseum for entertainment whether or not I even got to fight Dracula. They’re just thoroughly fun games to play, even at low levels of skill. Castlevania III offers a lot of easier levels, at that, because of its exploratory nature. It’s not all impossibly hard staircase towers. So even if you can’t beat the game, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Just take a look at Super Mario Bros. The game isn’t popular because beating it feels so fulfilling; it’s popular because it’s fun to play whether or not you win. There’s a lot of content to be enjoyed there even at a low level, and Castlevania III offers the same experience. The game even has four different protagonists who all feel very different from one another. Not only do you get to try things with Trevor’s silly jump and small attack range, you can try the similarly clunky but surprisingly incredibly powerful Sypha, the knife-flinging wall-climbing Grant (who, notably, lets you skip some entire areas,) and the incredibly useless Alucard, who finally gains some worthwhile skills in Symphony of the Night, at least. Grant is also an important step forward in the series as a whole, since it’s the first time in a Castlevania game you can actually control your jump after taking off, which is something you’ll be able to do in almost every game in the series after this.

All the characters feel very different to play, but importantly, none of them really feel like an easy mode. Grant probably comes the closest, but I’m not sure that has to do with game balance so much as it has to do with him not having the awful jump physics that the others contend with. Later on in the series games will have different playable characters, as well. My only real problem with Castlevania III’s system is that switching takes a long time, which is probably due to programming issues, and that the second character doesn’t have a subweapon when you change. It would be nice if they had the equivalent one to whatever Trevor was holding, or at least some basic one. Especially for Sypha, whose basic attack is almost worthless save for torch smashing. On that note, Sypha’s capable of freezing waterways with her freeze spell, which unfortunately encourages the level memorization thing I mentioned in Castlevania. If you don’t know about it, you can’t benefit from it. Of course, it gives you her freeze spell in the proper place, so it’s not a huge issue, and it makes for a really neat little secret in the game.

Actually, I suppose one problem that you could take from that is that since the game is, after all, a platformer, all of the characters aside from Trevor actually do have some advantages in terms of just getting through levels. But it isn’t really a big deal. Additionally, while the others feel balanced, none of them really feel as engaging to play as Trevor. The level design is basically all built around Trevor’s abilities, and though they may have a slightly easier go at it, playing them doesn’t ever really feel like the intense and thoughtful experience of the original Castlevania.

Aside from the aforementioned glitchy areas and a small other assortment, I think the biggest problem with the game is its length. Castlevania is a pinnacle of the short but sweet style of design. A full clear takes less than an hour. Castlevania III, on the other hand, can take quite a bit more to get through even on the most direct route. In fact, none of the games will ever feel as tightly constructed as the original because of this. Rondo of Blood comes the closest, but we’ll get to that. Of course, Castlevania III does offer a password system, and a lot of that additional content is good because of the aforementioned low barrier of entry to enjoy, so it isn’t a huge deal. If you need a break, you can just take one—but there’s certainly something to be said of being able to sit down for a rousing spot of Dracula slaying, isn’t there? The compact package of the original game is something a lot of modern games are lacking.

While the game is functionally the same as the original, it’s just not as fun to play. It doesn’t really fail on any level so much as it doesn’t meet up to the standard of enjoyment set by the first game, and ultimately I’ll go back to the first game (actually, make that Rondo of Blood, or Adventure ReBirth) more than I’ll go back to this. Still, it’s not really a worse game in any way, and in a lot of ways it’s an improvement over the original: it ends up with the same 8 out of 10. I recommend it for anyone who enjoyed the first game, whether or not they ever managed to beat it, since they might have better luck here based on their problems. And still, it’s an enjoyable game anyway. I also recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of exploration in their level-based game: so, in particular, fans of Order of Ecclesia. The game’s available on the Wii’s Virtual Console, once again.

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