Jump and whip.
This was the foundation of the Castlevania
The two core gameplay elements which defined
If one took away the music, graphics, and
horror movie themes, it would still be easy
to identify a Castlevania game thanks to the
I wonder what would happen if these two Castlevania
pillars were fundamentally changed…
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is the
final chapter of the NES trilogy, and a return
While the second game experimented with a
large connected overworld, RPG elements, and
a vastly expanded item set, Dracula’s Curse
is a more traditional Castlevania experience.
It would be years before Castlevania would
expand upon the ideas presented in the second
However, Castlevania III still experiments
with new features.
First is branching paths.
At various points in the adventure, the player
is given the choice to take a lower path,
or upper path, each featuring different stages.
These paths all eventually converge, but it
does add replayability and variety to the
And unlike a 3D Sonic game… one doesn’t
have to replay the game multiple times to
unlock a true final boss, which is nice.
More importantly, these different paths feature
different side characters.
Trevor Belmont controls exactly the same as
Simon as best as I can tell, from jumping
Even the sub-weapons are the same, lacking
However, while Trevor is old hat, the three
new characters are anything but.
Upon beating certain bosses, the player will
have the chance to let one of the characters
join the party.
Once joined, the player can switch between
Trevor and the ally at any time with the touch
of a button.
Sypha introduces new magic to the game, with
a flame spell, homing ball spell, and a freeze
spell… that I never used on my recorded
It can also be used to freeze water which
is neat, I guess, but mostly useless.
The flame spell is alright, but isn’t really
better than the whip.
The homing orbs are game breaking though,
eliminating the players need to aim while
dishing out some impressive damage.
Alucard’s gimmick is his ability to turn
into a bat and fly, which does use up hearts.
This allows the player to fly past certain
obstacles and short cut through some areas.
The trade off is Alucard doesn’t have access
to sub-weapons, except the stop watch.
He does have a projectile attack though, which
fires in three directions once fully upgraded,
but it lacks the damage output of the whip.
Lastly, there is Grant.
He moves noticeably faster than the other
three characters, he can change directions
in the air, his jump is higher, and he can
climb up walls and ceilings.
His primary weapon is also the throwing dagger,
in the Japanese release anyway.
He even has access to sub weapons, so one
could have a throwing dagger, and the ax,
which is a powerful combination.
Or I guess one could ignore all of the alternate
characters if they so choose.
As I play Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse,
I can’t help but think about how these characters
change the core gameplay, and wonder if the
developers considered all the possibilities
these new characters brought to the table.
From boss interactions to platforming, Castlevania
III is a often a much different experience
than its predecessors.
Another major change is the verticality.
The original Castlevania was a side-scrolling
affair through and through.
For the most part, the stairs were merely
used as a screen transition.
Castlevania II is a different beast.
The towns and mansions scroll in all directions,
and stairs are no longer just a screen transition,
but a more integral part of the experience.
Unfortunately, Simon walks up stairs extremely
slow, and there were rarely any obstacles
to contend with, so these segments felt a
slow and boring, breaking up the pace of the
In retrospect, I rather appreciate how the
first game handled them, as screen transitions,
rather than the main component of the stages.
In Castlevania III, the vertical elements
are vastly improved over Simon’s Quest.
Trevor moves at the same speed on stairs,
but enemies are actually designed around these
moments so level pacing remains in tact.
Even better, stairs aren’t always the focus
of the vertical sections anyway.
In the first level is a long trek up a tower,
and half the time, the player is required
to jump to make progress, rather than just
march up the stairs.
It is a good teaching moment too, letting
the player see exactly how far, and high,
Trevor can jump, information which will be
crucial later on.
As the player ventures closer to Dracula’s
tower, these vertical sections turn into auto-scrolling
Sometimes upwards, and sometimes downwards.
These moments can be tough, with the player
expected to deal with difficult enemy patterns
while on stairs, and make accurate jumps,
all while the screen slowly moves, forcing
It is a stark contrast to Castlevania II…
which never seemed to utilize the vertical
movements in meaningful, or engaging ways.
Dracula’s Curse also marks a return of a
The tile works is truly exceptional.
Despite limited cartridge space, memory limitations,
and color limitations, the artist managed
to craft a vibrant and detailed world.
I was struck by the swamp stage, not only
by the excellent color usage, but the decaying
trees in the background.
Even with limited information on the screen,
it is clearly communicated to the player exactly
what the environment is.
The caves are another awesome area.
Despite there being just a single background
layer, there is still depth.
The far background is blue and details are
And then there is a closer layer, with a different
color pallette and the rocks more easily defined.
It gives the scene extra depth, and represents
a level of artistry not often found on the
And as this game takes place in the 1400’s,
there is plenty of brick.
And again, the artists at Konami managed to
take this simple building material and make
it visually interesting.
Be it large bricks, small bricks, background
bricks, round bricks, the environments feel
natural and realistic, rather than feeling
like a grid of basic tiles.
There are plenty of organic elements as well.
Water plays a much more prevalent role in
Castlevania III compared to its predecessors.
There are plenty of waterfalls for example,
and they are significantly more interesting
than those found in Simon’s Quest.
This is a simple effects, just alternating
colors to simulate movement, but little touches
like this go a long way in the overall level
of polish presented.
The sprite work is also terrific.
I love the monsters in the swamp.
Thanks to clever animation and color shifting,
they actually look like they are dripping
Or these headless monsters.
Despite their small size, compared to a boss,
it is easy to make out exactly what the creature
The level of details is at times, truly stunning,
and Castlevania III contains some of the best
pixel art I’ve seen on the hardware.
My only complaint would be the slowdown.
At times, Dracula’s Curse chugs along.
While one could say this is proof the game
is pushing the hardware to the limits, I would
say the game is pushing the hardware past
The result is extremely sluggish gameplay
pulling the player out of the experience.
I feel some restraint should have been exercised
to keep the gameplay smooth.
The excellent presentation continues with
I should preface by noting I am playing the
I chose this version primarily because the
Famicom cartridge includes the Konami VRC6
memory mapper chip, which includes additional
sound hardware adding three channels of sound
to the stock hardware.
Unfortunately the NES does not support audio
expansion through the cartridge slot, so the
soundtrack was reworked for the Western release.
Anyway, my lack of familiarity with the Western
release prevents me from making a determination
on which soundtrack is superior.
But having been an NES fan for my entire life,
I was excited to hear something completely
different coming from the hardware, and thus
I purchased the Famicom cart.
And wow, the audio team at Konami did not
Not only do the three extra sound channels
allow for extra complexity not available on
the stock hardware, but the channels were
put to good use with some absolutely stunning
‘Beginning’ is an epic tune and an amazing
way to kick off the adventure.
The opening is loud and intense, much like
the game, and then segues into the verse with
some rich piano notes harkening back to the
monster movie roots the game was based upon.
They build into an epic chorus, with an extremely
sinister beginning, while ending with what
can be described as a guitar solo.
Something which would sound right at home
in a TSO concert.
The energy found within in this track is contagious,
and the piece easily stand shoulder to shoulder
with ‘Vampire Killer’ and ‘Bloody Tears.’
‘Clockwork’ was another stand out track
First, it sounds like an organ.
The instrument choice is excellent as it fits
the time period for which the game takes place,
and is also a classic instrument often used
in horror movies from which the game takes
Second, the mechanical nature of the clock
tower mirrors the technical marvel that is
a classic organ.
I don’t want to take anything away from
the composition though.
The crunchy base blends perfectly with high
pitched notes to create something which sounds
both organic, and mechanical.
The way the notes climb in pitch perfectly
matches the vertical nature of the stage,
and the track stayed with me longer after
putting the controller down.
‘Mad Forest’ is another that struck me
with each play-through.
The opening is dark and heavy, and sets the
perfect mood for a forest which begins with
a dilapidated building containing crushing
Again, the piano and organ motifs lend a rich
gothic feel which permeates the entire game.
The structure continues the trend of a verse
building towards an epic chorus packed with
The additional sound channels are also utilized
perfectly here, with a layer of depth I’ve
not experienced on the hardware.
The track manages to sound menacing, haunting,
and suspenseful all at the same time, and
really sets the tone for Trevor’s quest
towards Count Dracula.
Lastly, there is ‘Anxiety.’
While I’ve highlighted three tracks with
a lot fast pacing and high energy, Anxiety
is the complete opposite.
It is slow, the notes linger on for what feels
like forever, and the chorus is filled with
an overwhelming sadness.
Considering this track plays on a haunted
ship which appears out of nowhere, one would
have to conclude the ship is haunted.
And the music captures the feeling perfectly.
Castlevania III contains many more memorable
tracks and as a whole, nearly every one of
them is amazing.
Like the first game, the composers matched
the music to the environments and moods the
protagonist is experiencing, giving the game
a cinematic quality.
On paper, Castlevania III is a terrific game
featuring great production values including
excellent graphics and an amazing soundtrack,
and added variety from multiple playable characters.
However, these elements alone don’t make
for a great game.
Yet again I must reference the infamous Sonic
’06, which features excellent visuals with
true 720p running at 60 FPS and a stunning
soundtrack, with a whopping 9 playable characters.
Yet that game is… not good.
Needless to say, I find the checklist style
of reviewing to be an inadequate way to determine
a game’s quality.
Instead, I find the most important aspect
of a game are the interactive bits, the elements
other forms of entertainment cannot replicate:
First, the opening level in Castlevania III
The first section contains no enemies, allowing
one to quickly acclimate with the control
scheme, jumping, and stair climbing.
It is simple for sure, but I appreciate these
brief moments letting a player get up to speed
without tutorials or text boxes.
I also like the item placement.
The first sub-weapon offered is the dagger,
which just so happens to be an excellent weapon
to use against the bats, offering observant
players a safe way to take down these enemies.
The stage also features these flippable platforms.
Nothing happens when standing on one, but
if the player jumps, or gets knocked back
into one, they flip and Trevor falls through.
The first few have platforms underneath as
well, so a player isn’t killed before figuring
The practice is a welcome addition, as these
obstacles are featured later on in the adventure.
Their introduction, and the progression later
on, are excellent and well designed.
While not exclusive to the first level, now
is probably a good time to point out the double
and triple shots.
Some viewers pointed out using the sub-weapons
on enemies and candles 10 times will cause
candles or enemies to drop double, and later,
This is fairly easy to pull off in stage 1,
with an abundance of candles and easy enemies
to wrack up hits on.
Despite the stage not normally containing
a triple shot, I was able to reach the boss
of the stage with Holy Water and a triple
shot, allowing me to drop three holy waters
at a time, and quickly decimate the boss.
There were two other areas where I found this
trick invaluable as well.
Death is another beast of a boss, but it cannot
be cheesed like the first game thanks to a
different platform structure.
I found grinding candles with the Axe throughout
the level, to ultimately turn the double shot
into a triple shot, to be the easiest way
to dispatch this devilish foe.
Lastly, is the final boss.
The final area before Dracula contains the
cross, and thanks to the stairs, one can grind
candles for hearts by going up and down them.
Using the Cross to break the candles, will
eventually reward the player with the double
shot, and triple shot, which makes the final
boss encounters significantly easier.
Moving past the first stage however, and Castlevania
III is far more inconsistent.
The difficulty, pacing, and level length varies
wildly from beginning to end.
Easy levels follow difficult areas.
Sometimes the ideal weapon is available, sometimes
it is not.
Never in a game have I suicided so often so
I could just start over to obtain the correct
weapon or multi-shots.
And there is some serious balance issues with
First, Alucard feels under utilized.
His weapon is so awful there seems to be no
reason to even try to use him.
The whip is just better.
The flying is interesting, and I guess is
a counter balance to the nerfed weapon, but
I honestly rarely used him, just to skip a
few obvious sections here and there.
About the only time I found having him as
a side character engaging, was in stage 7.
In the middle of the level is a mid-boss,
something the game occasionally throws at
the player, which can suck up a lot of hearts
The section after this, is an obnoxious block
falling segment, which can be bypassed with
Alucard’s bat power.
However, one has to make sure they have enough
hearts, to actually make the trek up.
I found it fun to make sure I was stocking
up on all available hearts, to make sure I
had enough to get through both of these obstacles.
However, outside of this, there was no resource
Just switch to Alucard, engage the bat for
a few seconds, and then switch back.
While I rarely used Alucard, Sypha was more
Well, her energy orb attack is anyway.
It costs just a single heart to use, launches
three enemy seaking projectiles, and the orbs
do massive damage.
Against Medusa here, one orb will do three
hits of damage.
Against the final form of the final boss,
it does two damage.
Do the math… and one can see how devastating
However, it doesn’t feel balanced.
The massive damage, ease of use, and efficient
heart cost, feels game breaking.
And in most cases, it absolutely is.
Last but not least, is Grant.
While I rarely used Alucard, and occasionally
used Sypha, Grant is a character one can use
for a majority of the game.
His wall and ceiling climbing abilities allow
the same types of shortcuts as Alucard, but
doesn’t require hearts to use.
However, his primary weapon is game breaking,
especially on bosses.
There are so many instances where Grant can
just sit on the screen launching daggers and
completely cheese a boss.
While I can only speculate, I hope the throwing
daggers were removed from the Western release
as a way to balance out the character.
He is seriously overpowered.
On the flip side, I did enjoy him on vertical
His taller jump allowed obstacles to be tackled
and jumped over in a completely different
My only complaint is with how his climbing
It is a bit finicky and climbing around corners
can be janky.
On a few occasions, Grant never made the transition
and promptly died.
And this leads to my another complaint with
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
The game is at times, incredibly cheap.
For whatever reason, the designers loved to
have an enemy appear as soon as a screen loads.
This means cheap hits on the player.
The platforms don’t always match Trevor’s
fixed arc jump, like against this boss fight
against the Bats.
This gear on stage 2 is a real pain, and the
medusa head always seems to dive down at the
perfect angle to knock the player into a bottomless
Collision detection often doesn’t make any
For whatever reason I could not register a
hit on this Frankenstein’s monster encounter
with the whip.
Though I had no issues whatsoever with the
On a different path, the encounter includes
a platform which places the whip at the perfect
height, and it always registers a hit.
These inconsistency drives me nuts.
Checkpoints are another oddity.
Generally speaking, in a hard game, checkpoints
are placed after a tough section.
Once a player finally overcomes an obstacle
they are rewarded, and don’t have to repeat
However Castlevania III doesn’t always follow
There are a few roadblocks that will likely
trip up new players.
On the bottom path, stage 6 has a baffling
After dying on the boss, players are reset
to this screen.
As Trevor respawns with the leather whip,
which has a short reach, the player is vastly
overmatched by this Red Skeleton, who has
a long whip.
It feels like the checkpoint should have been
on the next screen, where a player lacking
any upgrades has a fair shot at success.
Level 7 is another road block.
This stage is loooooong.
There are these acid drip screens.
And brick drop areas.
A sub boss.
The vertical flight area.
A collapsing platform medussa head area.
A vertical scrolling section.
And a final boss, with three different segments.
This was absolutely brutal on my first playthrough,
and I must have spent hours on this thing,
getting a little farther each time, just to
get hosed by falling blocks, taking damage
while going up stairs, being surprised by
enemies attacking as soon as one enters the
screen, and by what is perhaps the most difficult
vertical scrolling stage found in the game.
The level is absolutely brutal, and would
feel more at place as a final stage.
But nope, there are still three stages to
It is bizarre and feels out of place.
This jump here requires pixel perfect precision,
with Trevor halfway off the platform before
jumping, to land on this see-saw thing.
Again, I suspect this was a life suck for
many first time players back in the day.
Most of the platforming in Castlevania III
is fine, but stuff like this just feels way
out of place.
Also feeling out of place are these acid drop
The player is tasked with just sitting there,
doing nothing, until the blocks disappear
revealing the path forward.
There is no strategy here, nothing difficult
about it, it is just a time waster, and a
Finally, there are the bosses.
These will either be incredibly easy depending
on the platforms provided, or incredibly frustrating.
And of course, if one has Sypha with her electric
orbs, or Grant, virtually all of them are
Some bosses, like the this hammer wielding
guy are decent with Trevor.
One has to pay attention to the boss’s actions.
If he stops and moves his legs, he is about
If not, it is safe to jump and whip.
This flying demon thing is also decent.
He does three short hops, and then a long
hop, which is the time to run underneath.
If I lost track of the count, I would often
But it felt fair, and the pattern was easy
enough to learn.
Others, aren’t engaging at all.
The mummies are easy.
Just whip high for the first one.
Then kneel and whip low for the second one.
Alucard, before he joins the team, is also
Throw an axe, whip the projectiles, repeat.
The difficulty, fairness, and challenge, are
all over the map and adds to the inconsistent
Now I understand my critiques will be a surprise
Castlevania III is often heralded as the best
of the classic trilogy, and one of the best
games available for the Nintendo Entertainment
However, I feel like the cheapness and inconsistencies
are often glossed over and accepted as 8-bit
I reject this notion NES games are somehow
exempt from critique.
With that said, there are some great moments
in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
I do enjoy how useful the subweapons are.
I found myself using subweapons far more frequently
in this game than the previous two.
The amount of enemy patterns requiring different
techniques is awesome, and many moments in
Castlevania III are engaging and action packed.
The exact kind of twitchy action one looks
for when revisisting 8-bit action titles.
And I can’t stress enough how good some
of the vertical auto-scrolling segments are.
Timing jumps, keeping one’s eye on multiple
enemies, figuring out when to attack and when
to dodge enemies, all within strict time limits,
is a rush.
Unlimited continues are again a God send,
and while I hate to beat a dead horse, it
is worth repeating some of the most difficult
NES games feature unlimited continues.
So when games released much later fail to
adhere to an established, and correct, design
standard, I find it unacceptable.
Like Simon’s Quest, Dracula’s Curse also
features a password save allowing one to pick
up where they left off, if they need to take
Overall, I can’t help but feel like something
is lacking from the overall experience.
Some checkpoints are forgiving, others are
The difficulty of the stage order is bizarre.
Some boss encounters are a cake walk, others
It makes for a poor game pace.
For every moment where the classic Castlevania
flow is alive and well, where enemy patterns
are well timed, and skill is needed for progression,
there an equal amount of frustrating moments,
and others lacking any sort of engagement
The defining jump and whip gameplay is strangely…
Instead Castlevania III is filled with ideas
that are never fully realized.
The extra abilities offered by the new characters
feel tacked on, and the level design rarely
takes these abilities into account.
Challenges are bypassed, bosses are cheesed.
There is no longer a defining gameplay element,
or a cohesive design theme.
Castlevania III doesn’t feel tight and meticulous,
but rather, unfocused, and inconsistent.