Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

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Console: Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
Released: 1990
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Famicom? Yes (as Akumajo Densetsu – English Translation: Devil’s Castle Legend )
Instruction Manual: Not necessary – Link
Difficulty: Moderate
Played it as a child? Yes
Value: $12.25 (used) $172.82 (new) (pricecharting.com)
Price: $15-$20 (used) $289.00-$500.00 (new) on eBay
Digital Release? Yes – Virtual Console (NES version) – $5.00

What are you supposed to do?

Castlevania III returns to its roots and is an action platformer.  Unlike the original, the game isn’t entirely linear, giving you branching paths along your way.  Of the game’s 15 levels, you will play 9-10 of them depending on your decisions, eventually making your way to Dracula.

Review

As one of the later games on the NES, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is surrounded by technical mastery.  In fact, it utilizes such an expansive amount of supplemental hardware (ie: chips) that the Japanese version isn’t even capable of working with the NES (unless you modify it, of course) and the US version is incompatible with “famiclone” systems.  For all that work, however, Castlevania III is a great title that impresses on all fronts.  Back to the extra hardware – the memory management controller chip, version 5 (MMC5) allowed the game to be playable on the NES albeit at the cost of some of the impressive sounds and graphics in the Japanese version.  This doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means, the game still looks and sounds better than a majority of games ever released on the console, it’s just that the Japanese version is a bit better thanks to the VRC6 microprocessor.  Normally I don’t gush on video game soundtracks, because save for a select few I don’t really consider it a notable factor.  This is one of those rare cases that I must say the game sounds amazing, in any form.  1up’s own Jeremy Parish captured the difference in a YouTube video that I have provided below so you can hear the difference for yourself.

Sound and graphics aside, the game also introduced some play mechanics that were pretty ahead of its time.  The ability to select your path to Dracula is a big one, especially when you consider these games had mega replayability without branching paths, now you needed to play the game multiple times just to see every level.  Since this game is a prequel to the original, you play as Simon Belmont’s distant relative Trevor Belmont, who can join forces with allies in this game as well.  For the first time in the series, you weren’t limited to jump and whip mechanics, you had other gameplay choices.  Grant DeNasty, a wall-walking pirate, could throw knives as projectiles and reach parts of levels no one else could.  Sypha Belnandes used magic for several effects and made range battle tactics an easy win in boss battles, but took more damage than any other character.  Alucard, the son of Dracula, was also a playable character that had the aspects of his father, including the ability to turn into a flying bat.  Depending on the path you take, any two of these characters can be found in a single playthrough and you can swap between Trevor and his ally at will, but you were only allowed to have one ally at a time.  What surprises me most today is the fact that although these characters and their play styles are very diverse, the game isn’t really broken in any way by using any of them.  I’m sure the branching paths allowed the game to streamline the levels each character could be in, but no one character makes the game much harder or easier, so it’s really just who you prefer to play as.

Level design was also greatly improved with large multi-screen stages and vivid backgrounds.  While the original and the sequel had a handful of good enemies, the overall number of unique foes was small.  By the third game there were more new enemies to experience and plenty of bosses that hadn’t yet been exhausted by the first titles, despite some of them making a comeback.  It also focused on many aspects that are commonplace in the Castlevania series today, like a clock tower level and underground water-filled caves.  No doubt about it, Castlevania III had it all and anyone who had the game at the time was proud to own it.

While knowing the differences between the Japanese version is cool and everything, the reality is that few of us (myself included) will ever be able to play the original Japanese version natively on a console.  I do own Akumajo Densetsu and I can play it on my NES (thanks to an adaptor), but I do not own a Famicom and will not import one solely to play this game in all its technical glory.  On the other hand, emulators these days are capable of playing that game with expanded soundtrack and everything if it is a big deal for you.  Otherwise just pick up the original US version and be prepared to get lost in yet another iteration of the adventures in Dracula’s castle.  It also helps that the game isn’t as brutally difficult as the original Castlevania, but don’t worry, you will definitely be challanged.  Castlevania III also offered a glimpse into the great action platformers we would see on the horizon of the 16-bit generation.

For those with a Wii it’s only 500 points on the Virtual Console (and you importers can get Akumajo Densetsu in all its advanced graphics and sound glory on the Japanese VC).

Written by Fred Rojas

July 20, 2012 at 1:27 pm

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