Released: May 2019
Originally Released: December 1989
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
After dramatically altering the straight-forward action/platforming of the original Castlevania (Konami, 1986) with the awkward and frustrating Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (ibid, 1987), Konami went back to the drawing board for the third outing and, thankfully, opted to return to the formula that worked so well in the original game. What resulted was one the more well-regarded titles in the series; Castlevania III made up for a lot of the failings of the second game by not only ditching the role-playing elements of Castlevania II but also featuring the unique ability to ally with one of three other additional characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and being able to switch to them on the fly, and also offering branching paths for the player to take. I was primarily aware of Castlevania III’s due to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo, 1997), which continued the story of Alucard and directly referred to the events of the third game, and its influence on Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon (Inti Creates, 2018), which was, basically, a spiritual successor to Castlevania III. After being unimpressed with Castlevania II, however, I was happy to just return to the tried-and-true gameplay of the original Castlevania.
A prequel to the original Castlevania, Castlevania III sees Simon Belmont’s ancestor, Trevor, arming himself with the legendary Vampire Killer whip and battling the dark forces of Count Dracula. On the way, he teams up with one of three new characters, each with their own motivations for confronting Dracula and, together, they journey to end Dracula’s curse.
Ditching the role-playing elements of the second game, Castlevania III is, once again, a 2D sidescrolling action/platformer; this time, however, players assume the role of Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor. This doesn’t really alter the core gameplay that greatly, though; it seems clunkiness runs in the Belmont family tree as Trevor is just as stocky, weighty, and cumbersome as his successor, and also attacks enemies with the same whip and sub-weapons as Simon. What is new, however, is that the game offers the player the chance to take different paths at various times; the path you choose leads you to encounter not only different enemies and obstacles, but also an encounter with one of three additional playable characters. Trevor can team up with the sorceress Sypha Belnades, the acrobatic Grant DaNasty, or the dhampir Alucard and, at the press of a button, the player can (sl-ow-ly) switch over to controlling this character. While none of them can use sub-weapons, they each have their own abilities that, like the Vampire Killer, can be upgraded to deal more damage.
Unlike in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, you can only team Trevor up with one of these characters and they all share the same health bar and heart counter. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, as well: Sypha attacks with a magic wand and can, eventually, unleash magical attacks upon her enemies but isn’t much for jumping; Grant can cling to walls and ceilings but is limited to stabbing at enemies from close range; and Alucard tosses fireballs and can transform into a bat to avoid enemies and obstacles entirely but this drains your hearts considerably. Yes, the hearts are back once again; luckily, there’s no need to waste them buying weapons and upgrades this time. Instead, you once again use hearts as your ammo and replenish your character’s health by breaking walls and finding pot roasts. As in the original game, the player is also fighting against a time limit, though I found this to be quite generous and never actually experienced a time over. Castlevania III offers far more instances of auto-scrolling than its predecessors; more than once, you’re tasked with out-racing a rising or falling screen, all while respawning enemies wait to swarm you at a moment’s notice. Jump too soon and you’ll die, either from plummeting to your death or touching the equally deadly top of the screen, but you’re not always safe on platforms either as Castlevania III loves to have blocks crumble beneath you or flip around to stab you with deadly spikes.
Such areas are often accompanied by broken staircases and fireball-spewing pillars; rather than taking the time to destroy these, its far better to watch their patterns and time your jumps to avoid them entirely. This is made all the more troublesome by the fact that it seems far more difficult to climb up and down stairs in this game; previously, I experienced no real issues with this mechanic but, in Castlevania III, I constantly found myself slipping down a bottomless pit rather than going down stairs as I intended. It doesn’t help that going down stairs seems a lot more troublesome than going up, and Castlevania III is far more vertically layered than its predecessors. There’s a couple of other obstacles to contend with here as well, most notably the rotating gears in the clock tower and the swinging pendulums that you must jump to (while avoiding erratic bats) to reach the final staircase to Dracula’s throne room. The path you choose will determine which enemies and obstacles you’ll come up against, lending the game a much greater degree of replayability than its predecessors as you can experiment with different paths and different characters on each playthrough.
Graphics and Sound:
Castlevania III is a far more ambitious title than its predecessors; there are a variety of environments here, and even Dracula’s castle has received an upgrade in its details, obstacles, and colour palette. This makes the game far more detailed and ambitious than previous Castlevania titles, which can make it difficult to spot your character’s sprite against some of the more meticulous backgrounds, especially as some areas of the game start you on the right-hand side of the screen, rather than the traditional left.
Thankfully, the game seems a lot more stable than its predecessor but is still, clearly, pushing the limits of its 8-bit hardware. There is far less slow down and sprite flickering than in Castlevania II but it is still present, mainly because the enemies constantly respawn in most areas and, when these areas are filled with other obstacles or moving elements, the game can struggle a bit with rendering everything but it’s nowhere near as noticeably or obtrusive as in Castlevania II. Castlevania III features easily the most ambitious soundtrack of the series so far; composer Hidenori Maezawa helped to create a custom VRC6 coprocessor to provide the game with five extra sound channels, effectively doubling the sound channels available in the Famicon version. While this had to be downgraded slightly for the NES version, Castlevania III still features some of the most memorable tracks and versions of Castlevania’s iconic themes, resulting in one of the most impressive 8-bit soundtracks of the time.
Enemies and Bosses:
Like Simon, Trevor will battle a slew of gothic and supernatural enemies and bosses, many of which featured prominently in the first game; he’ll come up against skeletons (who throw bones, wield swords, or reassemble themselves), the always-annoying bats, crows, and Medusa Heads, and giant spiders (who spit out smaller spiders this time, rather than webs…) Trevor also battles against swarms of zombies, fishmen (who hide underwater and attack with fireballs), and axe-throwing knights but he’ll also encounter some decidedly tougher enemies; flying, shield-wielding gargoyles, hunchback-like goblins who bounce around the screen, and mud men, for example.
While Castlevania II largely abandoned boss battles, Castlevania III brings them back in full force…but makes the equally disappointing mistake of repeating many of these battles. You’ll battle the Cyclops and Mummy more than once (which is a shame as these are relatively simple or annoying fights, respectively) and battle new versions of the Queen Medusa, Giant Bat, and Frankenstein Monster. However, you’ll also battle against the Skull Knight and the two Water Dragons; while this first battle is easy enough, the latter is made all the more difficult by the fact that it’s pretty easy for your character to take a hit and be sent careening to the deadly water below.
To recruit Grant and Alucard, you’ll first have to defeat them in battle. Similarly, you’ll also have to fight against a doppelgänger of your character; even if you switch characters during this fight, the double switches accordingly, meaning you can’t just tank Sypha with Trevor’s superior attacks. I found this to be one of the more difficult boss battles in the game, easily up there with Death’s first form and the gauntlet against two Mummies, a Cyclops, and the demonic Leviathan. After being a pitiful shell of his former self in Castlevania II, the Grim Reaper returns with a vengeance here; not only do you have to battle him and his maniacal scythes in a startlingly accurate repeat of the fight in Castlevania, you’ll also have to fight Death’s second form. Luckily, however this is simply a giant floating skull that spits scythes at you and isn’t too difficult…providing you survived Death’s first form with enough health!
Similarly, Dracula is now a far more formidable foe; this time, you’ll face the Count in a three-stage boss battle. In the first, he surrounds the player with pillars of fire, spawning a third right underneath you; in the second, Dracula’s becomes a floating mass of blood-spitting heads; for his final form, Dracula becomes a gigantic, demonic background element who zaps at you with laser bolts and manipulates the ground. As in the first game, Dracula’s only weak point is his head, meaning it’s best to have the axe for this boss fight; the most difficult thing about Dracula’s first form is making sure you have enough room to manoeuvre between the pillars of fire to avoid the third pillar. The second form isn’t too bad but it’s best to run underneath it so you don’t get cornered. The final form is pretty simple but, like the Water Dragons, is made more annoying and difficult by the presence of bottomless pits. Despite this, though, it’s pretty easy to dodge the Count’s attacks and lob axes at his head until he’s finished.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Each character can upgrade their attacks to deal more damage, as is the Castlevania tradition; it’s worth noting that, if you’ve upgraded the Vampire Killer and switch to your partner character, the upgrade won’t carry over and you’ll have to grab the upgrades for your partner as well. This is very much encouraged; I partnered with Sypha for my first playthrough and never upgraded her attacks, meaning she just uselessly smacked skeletons with her stupid little wand. When I switched to Alucard, I upgraded his fireball and it became a very handy spread of fireballs, so it’s best to upgrade each of your characters. All the sub-weapons from the first Castlevania return as well; this time, I found the axe the most useful as there seems to be more flying enemies, or enemies placed above you, or more uses for this compared to the Holy Water.
Like its predecessor, Castlevania III features a password system, which allows players to continue their game after a game over. Inputting certain player names and passwords will also grant you extra lives, allow you to skip to certain levels with different partners, or jump to the game’s “Hard Mode”. Yep, like the first game, once you clear Castlevania III and view one of the game’s four different endings (each of which is pretty positive, in comparison to Castlevania II’s endings) and the game’s credits, you’ll be plonked right back into the first stage in Hard Mode. As you’d expect, enemies deal more damage to you in this mode and, while some are missing, you’ll encounter tougher enemies a lot sooner. The Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection has four Achievements available for this game, one for finishing the game with each of the game’s partners and one for finishing it with just Trevor, and the same features available for the other games in the collection (save states, frames, and display options).
After Castlevania II turned the franchise on its head with its annoying day/night system, barren castles, and reliance on obscure clues and role-playing elements, Castlevania III is a fantastic, and much welcome, return to form. Unlike the sequel, this prequel takes everything that worked in the first game and improves upon it; there are branching paths, more playable characters, more options available to you, and vastly improved environments. It’s clear that Castlevania III is pushing the NES to its limits and is an extremely ambitious title for an 8-bit system; Konami would go on to improve upon many of these elements in later, graphically-superior games in the series, but it all started here. The bosses are better, the environments are more interesting and varied, the characters add some much-needed variety and, despite the same janky controls that plagued these earlier Castlevania titles, this is clearly the best of the 8-bit Castlevania games and, thanks to the different paths and character options available, offers far more replayability than its predecessors.
What did you think about Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse back in the day? Did you play it on the NES back in the day? Which of the four characters did you prefer? Whatever you think about the game, or Castlevania, in general, leave a comment below and check out my other Castlevania reviews.