Monday, February 11, 2019

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse Review

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was originally released by Konami on the Famicom as Akumajou Densetsu (Demon Castle Legend) in 1989, a little over 2 years after the Japanese release of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Castlevania III is a very influential game within the series. It was the first Castlevania with branching paths, multiple playable characters, and it introduced Sypha Belnades and Alucard, two major characters in Castlevania lore.

Castlevania III takes place in 1476, 215 years before Castlevania I, and the year in which the real life Vlad Tepes Dracula died. It's also sandwiched between Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (1094) and Curse of Darkness (1479) in the official timeline. It's set in a period of time in which the Belmonts are exiled from Wallachia because people fear their supernatural powers, and Dracula and his monsters are taking over Europe and committing genocide. The governing church has no choice but to call upon the help of Trevor Belmont, current heir to the Vampire Killer.

By today's standards, Castlevania II was a Metroidvania. You could explore the world, visit towns, and get upgrades and new items like in games such as Zelda II and Shantae. Dracula's Curse dropped all those action adventure elements and went back to the series’ roots. Castlevania III is a traditional action platformer like Castlevania I, but you can choose between 2 levels to play at multiple points throughout the game. These branching paths don't work like in Bloodlines or Rondo of Blood, though. There's no exploration or experimentation involved. They're single screen rooms completely separated from the actual levels. They're really just glorified stage select screens. You usually come across these forks in the road after a boss battle at the end of a level, and there are also a few times when you can choose between 2 paths at the halfway point of a level. Different paths lead to completely different levels, and different recruitable characters. There aren't a lot of unique bosses, though. You seem to fight the Mummies, Cyclops, and Skeleton Knight 2 or 3 times no matter which route you take. I really like how you can play through the game in a few different ways, but I like the implementation better in Rondo of Blood.

Similarly to how Castlevania I’s levels tell the story of Simon traversing Dracula’s castle, Castlevania III’s levels tell the story of Trevor traveling from a village in Wallachia to the castle, and then through Castlevania to Dracula’s throne room. Taking half the game out of the castle allowed the developers to get more creative with the level design and try new things, which I enjoyed for the most part. I liked seeing the Castlevania level version of a ghost ship and a haunted swamp, for example. There are a few levels that are just annoying to play through later in the game, though. Especially on Alucard's route, and even more so if you don't have Alucard with you. For example, there's a level that has you dodging blocks falling from the sky for about 5 minutes as you jump on them to get to the top of the stage that's incredibly annoying.

The other defining mechanic of Castlevania III is the recruitable allies. After beating 3 specific bosses in the game, you'll be given the option to recruit one of 3 playable characters. These characters will join Trevor, and you'll be able to switch between them by pressing the Select button. The switching animation is very slow, but all the enemies are frozen in place while you switch, so you're not a sitting duck. You can only have 1 ally with Trevor, so if you recruit a character while you already have an ally, the old ally will be replaced with the new one. The 3 allies play completely differently from Trevor and each other, and you'll get different endings depending on who you have with you when you beat the game.

The 3 recruitable characters are Sypha, Grant, and Alucard. Sypha Belnades is a Witch who was part of a group of Vampire hunters sent to kill Dracula by the church. The others were killed and she was captured and turned to stone by a Cyclops. Her melee attack is very weak and has a short range, but she can cast powerful elemental magic spells that do a lot of damage. Sypha can walk a bit faster than Trevor, and she can use her ice spell to freeze enemies in place and use them as platforms, so she’s no slouch when it comes to mobility.

Grant Danasty looks like a Flea Man dressed like a pirate, but he is actually a thief who was part of a group of rebel fighters who tried to take on Dracula. They failed, and Grant was turned into a demon and put in the clock tower as a boss. Grant’s main attribute is the ability to climb on walls and ceilings. You simply jump towards a wall and hold down the direction the wall or ceiling is in and cling to it. Since Grant climbs on all fours, he can use this ability to crawl through small spaces that no one else can, and since he's so short, he can duck under some enemy attacks which the other characters can't. In the Japanese version, Grant’s normal attack allows him to throw daggers without having the dagger subweapon or using hearts, but that was changed to a stab with terribly short range in the Western versions. He can still use the dagger subweapon and do the same thing, though. Grant can also use the Axe subweapon, and he can use both it and the dagger subweapons while climbing. Grant has a little bit of air control, which none of the other characters have, but his head can’t pass through overhead blocks while jumping, so his jumps are constantly blocked in mid air if his head hits something. It's really annoying. All the other characters keep moving forward even if their heads clip through a block.

Alucard is the son of Dracula and his second wife, Lisa. He is a Dhampir, half human and half Vampire. He looks more like the classic Universal Monsters Dracula here, but he is the same Alucard you play as in Symphony of the Night. Alucard does not agree with his father’s intent to kill all humans, so he is looking for someone to help in stopping him. Alucard can shoot fireballs, kind of like how Dracula usually does in the first phase of his fight in most games, but this attack isn't nearly as powerful. Alucard has the weakest normal attack out of all the playable characters. This makes Alucard the worst character in the game to me, since it takes twice as long for him to kill anything. The cool thing about Alucard is his ability to turn into a bat and fly. This ability consumes hearts to activate and uses more hearts every second you’re transformed, but you can use it to fly over difficult platforming sections with ease.

Trevor plays exactly like Simon Belmont in Castlevania I does. He has the same heavy jump with no air control, the same slow walk, same whip attacks with the little windup animation, and the same subweapons. The only real difference between Trevor and Simon is their sprites. Trevor does the most melee damage, has good reach with his whip, and can use all the subweapons, so he’s my favorite character to use. I guess his only real weakness is his mobility when compared to the other characters’.

Frankly, I don't like playing as any of the allies. Sypha is the only one I can tolerate during normal gameplay. Grant and Alucard are just plain frustrating to to use. I mainly use Trevor and only switch to the others in specific sections. I basically use them like special abilities. They just have too many weaknesses for me to use them over Trevor. I almost wonder if these characters were even intended to be used outside of specific situations with how weak they are in regular combat.

When I think of the NES style of graphics, I think of games like Castlevania III. This is the look games like Shovel Knight draw their influence from. Castlevania III uses a very limited color palette, but it uses a lot silhouettes to add layers to the backgrounds, and outlines, highlights, and shading on the environment pieces to give everything a textured look. You can see bricks showing through the torn wallpaper on walls, splintered wooden boards holding the catacomb walls together, and moss growing on the stone steps leading up to Dracula’s throne room. It’s the same art style used in Castlevania I, but with a lot more detail. There is some slowdown, especially in areas with lots of moving pieces in the background, like the clock towers, but the framerate is smooth most of the time. It’s certainly much better than in Castlevania I and II.

Castlevania III’s soundtrack just might be the best soundtrack of any NES game period. Nearly every song in it is a classic. Clockwork, Beginning, Mad Forest, Riddle, Aquarius, Vampire Killer. All great and memorable Castlevania tracks. It’s worth noting that the Famicom version has a special sound chip in the cart, which allows for a few more audio channels. It’s the same tracks, but they all sound like the have more instruments in them, so it sounds much better than the NES version. It's a shame Koji Igarashi didn't get the chance to remake this game like he wanted to because we might have gotten an even better PS1 quality version of the soundtrack.

I think Castlevania I will always be my favorite of the NES trilogy, but Castlevania III is a close second. It has great music, great graphics, and it’s a pretty influential game within the series in terms of both gameplay systems and story. There’s just a few things holding it back. I think a handful of the levels are pretty bad, I don’t like playing as any of the recruitable allies, and I also think the balance of checkpoints and stage length is way too punishing in the second half of the game, but you can cheat your way around that with save states now.