Disclaimer – This review is part of an 9 part series of reviews for the the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse.
Long before Simon Belmont crushed Dracula and destroyed his dark citadel there was Trevor – the first Belmont to slay the Prince of Darkness. Thunder cracks through the skies above Valachia and Castlevania once again rises. Trevor must steel his nerves, for he must face the fanged fiend with whip, axe and blessed water in hand. He is not alone on his venture however, for he will encounter and befriend a ghostly pirate, mystical enchantress and even Dracula’s own flesh and blood. All of which seek to end the Dark Lords vile reign. This is Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse.
Upon it’s initial release, Castlevania 3 had a laundry list things it needed to do to save the series from falling into obscurity. The release, and subsequent failure, of the then abysmal: Simon’s Quest threatened the stability of the entire franchise. Luckily for us, Dracula’s Curse abandoned practically everything Simon’s Quest brought to the series, opting instead to go back to basics – it went back to Castlevania.
Upon ramming your disk, slamming your cartridge, or gingerly pressing “A” on your downloaded copy of Dracula’s Curse, you will be greeted with something weird – a cutscene the likes of which the series had never seen up until this point. A slow text crawl with some simple animations set the scene and give you a very, very basic rendition of the plot at hand. The writing is beyond simplistic but it does its job at filling you in before, BAM! you are hit with the title screen. You punch in your name and you are greeted with Trevor kneeling before an altar, adorned in a sexy cape. With a Belmont worth twizzle, he whips his cape around and the game begins.
Within seconds of starting you will be inundated with feelings of familiarity. The music, the way Trevor moves, the Belmont strut – it all feels fantastic. It feels like Castlevania all over again. But Castlevania this is not. Dracula’s Curse keeps a tight grasp on one single, solitary aspect of Simon’s Quest – scale. Dracula’s Curse is massive, comparatively. Both in terms of game feel (more on that in just a moment) and literal size. Firstly, you do not start in Castlevania, nor do you start just outside of it’s gates. You actually have to travel through various locations, battling Dracula’s minions along the way before you even reach the gates of his fortress. As basic as this may be by today’s standards, it still impressively relays that feeling of adventure and progression. You feel like Dracula has corrupted the land. That the people have fled, been murdered or transformed into the hideous beasts that now hunt you.
Dracula’s Curse is also many times larger than that of its predecessor, rocking in at a whopping 17 stages. This also neatly leads into one of its most brilliant additions to the formula – branching paths. A “run” in Castlevania 3 does not take you through all 17 stages. You will pick between stages as you make your way to Dracula’s Castle and contend with different enemies, bosses, stage hazards and entirely unique gameplay mechanics. Because of these branching paths, Dracula’s Curse encourages multiple playthroughs to see all of its content, even offering multiple endings and plot points.
As a final masterstroke to Castlevania 3’s replayability is the multiple playable characters. For the first time a Belmont is not the only main character. Based on your decisions you will encounter Grant DeNasty, Sypha Belnades or Alucard (yes, that Alucard). Each character offers new and interesting ways to tackle the challenges laid before you – whether that be Grant’s ability to scale walls and ceilings, Sypha’s mastery of magic that can interact with the stage itself, or Alucard’s power of flight. Switching between Trevor and one of his companions can be done at any time and opens the game up to whole new ways of play. It also completely optional. You can beat the entire game with only Trevor should you desire, or with only one of the newcomers, once you unlock them of course. The choice is yours.
As I may have already aluded to, Dracula’s Curse is a return to classic Castlevania in terms of gameplay. This means enemies will be coming at you from all angles, your whip can only strike in 1 direction, your attacks have a wind up and your jump arcs are set in stone. This also means Sub Weapons make their triumphant return after they took a backseat in Simon’s Quest. If you liked Castlevania, you will feel right at home here. That trademark puzzle-esque combat and platforming is on full display and it’s as glorious as ever.
I made the bold statement in my review of Castlevania that the game wasn’t actually all that hard once you understood what the game was trying to teach you. Those words do not apply here. Dracula’s Curse is a ball-bustingly hard game that takes no prisoners. It will throw mid-late game enemies at you from as early as stage 1. It will assault you relentlessly with enemies at all angles. Death pits are everywhere and they even throw in some new stage hazards to keep you on your toes. This game will beat you black and blue, forcing you to either give up, or push through. I recommend pushing through because once you achieve the required “Next Level Castlevania Skills”, you will find a game that is supremely satisfying from start to finish, even if there is some questionably rage inducing moments on your journey to mastery.
Graphically Dracula’s Curse is the most impressive entry yet. As with most things, it abandons Simon’s Quest’s “improved” graphics and instead opts for a more refined take on the original. This means we are back to a bright orange Belmont and an over abundance of blue tones…and I love it. Like the original, your eyes are always fixated on the task at hand, and you never feel like you want to throw holy water at your retinas because everything is melding together in a drab mess. Sprites look as good as ever with new and returning enemies getting a face lift. Bosses are unique and elaborate, with a few familiar faces popping up from time to time. Finally your companions all look fantastic. The skulking grant, the robed Sypha and the supremely regal and beastial Alucard just help bring the package together.
Stages are also taken to the next level with more background details than ever before and even some little environmental tricks that will trip you up in ways the previous games couldn’t. Each stage has a unique theme and aesthetic, once again pushing the concept of replayability, because you want to see what else they brought to the table. Heck they even managed to squeeze in weather effects. It is a truly staggering achievement that all of this managed to fit on an NES cart. Easily one of the best looking games of its era.
As always, we can’t talk about Castlevania and not talk about the music. Even Simon’s Quest managed to score top marks here, and Dracula’ Curse knocks it out of the park. Every track manages to nail the feeling of Castlevania and manages to tie in with the stages perfectly. Signature tracks like Vampire Killer make their return and slap you in the face with pure nostalgia. If you own a Famicom or the Anniversary Collection, then you can even play the Japanese version of Dracula’s Curse which dials up the music quality to 11. Not that it’s needed, the NES rendition is pure gold as it is.
Dracula’s Curse blew me away. I did not expect to find another Castlevania that touched my soul in the same way as the original, but Castlevania 3 not only reached those heights, it exceeded them. Whilst this may be the most difficult game yet, its challenge, once met, elevates this game to a whole new level. A true return to form that I cannot recommend enough.
Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse’s only misstep is its difficulty, and even that helps fuel its success by the time the credits roll. Let me know in the comments below what you thought of Dracula’s Curse. Heck, do you prefer this Alucard or Symphony of the Night’s Alucard? Personally I love the beastial swagger of C3’s!
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