I have, as they say, been looking forward to this.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is not a game I have any experience with whatsoever, aside from one critical aspect: its music. Specifically, back when the PS1 was current, I had an original copy of Symphony of the Night (which, believe me, I severely regret getting rid of now!) that came with a soundtrack CD. On that CD was a single track from Castlevania III — or more accurately, its Famicom incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu. It left quite an impression on me.
Now, thanks to the release of the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, I finally get to experience Castlevania III as truly intended. And I’m very excited about it.
For the unfamiliar, the reason I refer to Akumajō Densetsu as the definitive way to experience Castlevania III is nothing to do with any sort of elitist “well, I played it in Japanese long before you losers got the localised version”. No, it’s literally because the Japanese version is technically superior; the original Famicom cartridge for Akumajō Densetsu featured an audio coprocessor chip known as the VRC6; this added two extra pulse-wave channels and a saw-wave channel to the standard five sound channels available on the stock Famicom and NES, allowing for much fuller, richer sound and more complex. layered compositions.
The Western NES did not support external sound chips in its cartridges, unfortunately, so the English release of Castlevania III featured a downgraded soundtrack using just the standard stock sound chip. To be clear, it’s still a fantastic soundtrack even in this more limited format — but if you have the option of playing with the VRC6-enhanced version, I highly recommend taking it. And, conveniently, a post-launch update to the Castlevania Anniversary Collection added the Japanese versions of most of the games in the compilation, putting this version within easy (and legal) reach of English-speaking players for the first time ever. So hurrah for that.
Right, with that out of the way, let’s talk specifics about Castlevania III, as we shall refer to it hereafter.
After the open-structure 2D platforming and RPG elements of Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III marks a return to the format established by the original Castlevania. In other words, rather than freely exploring an open world, you instead proceed through a series of linear stages, occasionally encountering bosses and quite frequently cursing as you forget to press “down” to descend a set of stairs when walking off the edge of a platform.
All the idiosyncrasies of the original Castlevania are still present and correct. That means you still fall like a rock if you step off the edge of a platform; you still get knocked back by enemies (inevitably into a pit); falling off the bottom of the screen means death regardless of whether or not you literally just came from somewhere “below” your current location; jumping is still very “stiff” with no ability to change your direction in mid-air; and there’s no real momentum to your movement.
If you’re more accustomed to the way, say, Super Mario Bros. does things, there will be a period of adjustment for you here. On the other hand, if you, like me, have just come off the back of the first two Castlevania games, you’ll be right at home immediately. Although there are a few new wrinkles along the way to keep things interesting.
Castlevania III starts in a very similar fashion to the series’ first entry. Work your way from one end of the stage to another, whipping enemies into oblivion and smashing every candlestick you come across, grabbing every item regardless of whether or not you need it. Doors act as checkpoints, so if you lose a life, you get reset to the last door you passed through; if you lose all your lives and have to continue, however, you’ll return to the beginning of the numbered “block” you’re on.
It’s this latter aspect where one of Castlevania III’s most significant differences shows up. After you complete the first block of stages, you’re presented with a choice of routes to take. One way will take you into a clock tower — a setting that has been revisited several times throughout the series — while the other will take you through a forest and marsh. These are totally different sets of levels, and in some cases you’ll find the route splitting further, even seemingly halfway through a block.
These split points serve a couple of purposes: firstly, they (theoretically, at least) provide a means of making your overall quest easier or more difficult for yourself, with the upper routes supposedly representing the easier option in most cases. Secondly, the precise route you take determines which of the three “helper” characters you’ll encounter during your adventure — the delightfully named Grant DeNasty, Sypha Belnades or Alucard. (Yes, that Alucard, though he looks rather different to his later, more well-known incarnation here, it has to be said.)
The “helper” characters each have their own unique special abilities, but there’s no obligation to use them if you don’t want to — and indeed doing so often seems like something of a liability. In my experience so far, Alucard is a pain to use because he is limited to sluggish ranged magical attacks rather than melee and his sprite is a good head-height taller than main protagonist Trevor, making him a bigger target; Sypha, meanwhile, has an extremely short range melee attack, but some of the usual Castlevania subweapons are replaced by magic spells for her, some of which appear to be quite useful. Grant, meanwhile, supposedly allows you the revolutionary ability to change direction in mid-jump as well as cling to walls, but I haven’t encountered him yet at the time of writing.
Castlevania III is a stiff challenge, just like its predecessors, but the nice thing about the branching pathways is that it means on a subsequent playthrough you can try something else. For example, despite the lower routes supposedly being more difficult, I actually managed to get to grips with them well before I mastered the upper ones.
I’m nowhere near beating the game as yet, but my early impressions are very positive indeed. If nothing else, the deliciously rich textures and satisfying timbre of that VRC6-enhanced music keeps bringing me back for more… but there’s an extremely satisfying streak to the gameplay, too. Let’s talk more about that next time!
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