The whip slashing, monster fighting CastleVania is back with Dracula’s Curse for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Gone is the need to grind for hearts from CastleVania II, instead its a more traditional and focused game like the original. Its still a big game from start to finish, just without the fat from the second. You’ll still traverse a giant land, trudging through graveyards, swamps, a ghost ship and it all leads up to a segmented castle at the end with Dracula as the final boss. Each level connects with no way to return. Some levels even have branching paths and you’ll decide which to take. This allows for some great replay value.
Dracula’s curse is that he returns once every one hundred years, so long before Simon from the previous two games, there was your new character, Trever Belmont. He’s the same vampire hunter with a whip that Simon is, but its just a logical jump of how you can face Dracula again and again. New to the series are three partners that you can switch between. You’ll need to find each one and you can only have one with you at a time. There’s Grant, the thief that can cling to walls, but he’s weak in general. Sylpha the magician with powerful spells and finally Dracula’s son Alucard that can turn into a bat, allowing him to fly to all sorts of new places.
These characters play similar, but different. Grant is a speedy jumper that uses a knife, but he’s pretty weak. For special weapons, he can only use the dagger or the axe. Alucard has a spreading triple fireball and he can’t use any special weapons due to his almost useless bat powers. As for Sylpha, instead of typical special weapons, she has three unique spells. The flame tongue that is a short range attack. A freeze spell that is so powerful it can stop a raging river with frost. Last but not least is a lighting ball that will seek out enemies. To make up for these powers, Sylpha is pretty weak and uses a short range staff.
Returning to the series for Trevor Belmont are special weapons that cost hearts to use. You’ll find these weapons by whipping candles and you’ll get hearts either from candles or defeating enemies. Sylpha’s magic and Alucard’s bat morph also use hearts. The dagger fires straight forward. The boomerang does the same thing, but it returns to you. Holy water gets thrown to the ground and burns anything that touches it. The axe gets thrown at an arc to catch anything high above your head. The stopwatch well stops everything.
CastleVania as a series for the NES has always been a deliberate and stiff game to play. When you jump, you’ve commit to it. When you attack, you’ve commit to it, because you can’t move or dodge when your whip is out. You either kill or get hit. Each hit you take knocks you back. So if there are any pits around, you might fall in if you’re not careful. Getting knocked back can also be a blessing in disguise, because it lets you bounce up to higher platforms so you can skip some areas.
The controls are easy, left and right to move, down to crouch, A to jump, B to whip and Up + B to use a special weapon, spell or bat morph. Grant’s wall clinging requires you to push into a wall or the ceiling. It might be easy enough to cling to surfaces, but transitioning from wall to ceiling can be a bit more challenging and sometimes he’ll just fall off.
Two of the three new characters are originally bosses, so you’ll get to see their talents in action, before you agree to have them along. As for the third, she’s stuck as a statue with a cyclops guarding it. There are several new big bosses for each level and at some point the game runs out of bosses, so it has you fight two if not three bosses back to back. Its without a doubt a challenging game, but its still possible to overcome.
The other bosses are throw backs to the original. You’ll face Medusa’s head, twin mummies that throw toilet paper at you, Frankenstein monster and even death itself. The grim reaper and Dracula are old buddies. One kills people and the other buries their bodies I guess or maybe brings them back to life as an undead fiend forced to walk the land as a bloodthirsty creature. Even the first boss bat from the original game makes a return with some modifications. It can now split when it takes damage.
Each level is broken up into three parts, divided by doors. Death (not the grim reaper) sends you back to the last door you went through or the beginning of the level. If you lose all of your lives, you’ll be restarting the entire level again. Oh and you’ll die a lot. Its more than from just enemies, spikes and pits are instant deaths. Exploring with Grant has caused many of my deaths, but its still undoubtedly fun to have a look around.
There are plenty of things hidden in breakable walls once again. You’ll find meat for a healthy recovering snack, a double or triple shot that lets you use more special weapons at once. Invincibility potions and sacks of money can also be found hidden away. There’s all sorts of things probably hidden in your own walls, you just don’t have the fortitude to go busting up your own house to find a cooked pig in there.
These levels are diverse, everything from clock towers full of moving gears to ships with rickety platforms that fall through. Everything has a different look and feel to it with a lot of effort put into beautiful backgrounds that keep changing from section to section. A lot of effort was put into making this game one of the most beautiful on the NES. I say beautiful in an eerie, creepy, grimy and ugly sort of way, but for a game full of unholy creatures, it sure fits.
CastleVania has always been known as a series with fantastic music and Dracula’s curse is no different. There’s a great array of new songs and new versions of old ones. In the past games, they’ve all been upbeat, frantic zombie stomping songs, but in Dracula’s Curse there’s a lot more variety and even some more atmospheric, creepy tunes. Everything sets a different tone for each level.
As for the enemies, like all the games in the series, this one piles them on! Skeletons, zombies, bats, mixed with new ones like giant toads, owls and so on. Each has their own tactic that you’ll need to compete with. Spiders shoot webs, jellies hop from ceiling to floor, ghosts materialize and follow you. You’ll need to kill them all, even the undead ones which aren’t really alive, but somehow they all still have hearts.
CastleVania has always had a flair for the dramatic. The opening has Trevor at a church before he unfurls his cape to reveal his lean, mean, vampire slaying body. The series has done a lot without enemies too. Everything from letting you learn how to use your whip and jump, to mastering the stairs free of enemy harassment to climbing the stairs before the final boss battle.
At the end of the night, CastleVania III isn’t just the best CastleVania game for the NES, its easily one of the best games for the entire system. Its still a difficult game due to its stiff, deliberate controls, but you’re rewarded with fantastic music, great backgrounds and a lot of enemy variety.