In my Aria of Sorrow review, I confessed that I had previously had all the contact with Castlevania that one might want with a $50-or-less prostitute, rather than with a long-running, beloved horror game series. After finally beating the first game (admittedly, through the liberal use of save states), I thought I’d enjoy running through the other NES installments, playing them as I may have back in the late 80s. Unfortunately, the very special brand of whale shit we get from Simon’s Quest will require more practice in meditation and emotional control, until I reach a state of tranquility that enables me to transgress some of the most awful gameplay this side of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So instead I worked my way through Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
A few hundred years before Simon Belmont whipped it good through Transylvania, a similar problem came along for his great-grandfather, Trevor. At that point, the Church had excommunicated the Belmont family because the scared people, a problem that today would have earned the Belmonts a position as Cardinal, or at the very least GOP Congressional candidate. However, when Dracula moves his family to town, guess who comes crawling back to the scary, superhuman vampire killers. Trevor has to fight his way through the Transylvania countryside to rescue powerful figures imprisoned by the vampire, and he can take one of them with him on his journey. Afterwards, he whips his way through a castle in exactly the same condition that we see two hundred years later with Simon (at least Dracula likes to keep his home in a consistent state of disrepair) until he comes face to face with the D-Man himself.
Returning to the form of the original, the game opens with a powerful image: Trevor Belmont kneels in prayer at the remains of an altar in a ruined church, then stands up. It’s simple, uncontrolled by the player, and makes an extremely powerful statement. I can’t exactly describe that statement, but believe me. Statement. It makes one. Anyway, from there, the action begins. Much like the first game, Castlevania III has elements of platforming, elements of run-and-gun games like Mega Man, and elements of moving a refrigerator from a truck into your 3rd-floor apartment. Yes, dysarthria must run in the family, as Trevor, like Simon, moves, turns, jumps, and dodges with the urgency of a rascal with low batteries. At least in this game, this feels deliberate. While Simon came off as obnoxiously suicidal, hurling himself backwards and off any nearby ledges at the slightest stub of a toe, Trevor’s movement issues play off the random attack patterns of the enemies, a move that ramps up difficulty rather than simply frustrates players.
Don’t get me wrong, though; it frustrates players as well. However, Simon’s Quest deserves recognition for its contributions to Dracula’s Curse, namely unlimited continues and a password system. Konami still made this game harder than Chinese calculus on viagra, but at least now you don’t have to slog through the first few levels only to never see the later ones. Theoretically. Furthermore, this game lets Trevor partner up with other skilled characters who have a beef with the head honcho. Grant, the acrobat, moves faster than Trevor and can cling to walls and walk on ceilings. The infamous Alucard has a mid-ranged attack in up to three directions at the same time, can turn into a bat, and single-handedly begins the phenomenon of the Japanese spelling Dracula’s name backwards as if they’ve discovered the most clever, insightful and symbolic literary device and not at all a stupid trick to come up with a funny name. Sypha, another vampire hunter, also allegedly has some reason you’d want to use her instead of Trevor. Apparently she can use magic, although I got stuck with her for the majority of the game and never quite figured out how. Trevor has the strongest attack, and generally works better than the others, but occasionally their skills (especially the acrobatics) come in handy. Furthermore, to get these characters, the map offers multiple paths, allowing a different play experience each time through the game.
Interesting side note, something I wish I had known going into the game; you can only take one character with you at a time. If you pick up Grant (the first one available), and then run into either Alucard or Sypha, they’ll give you the option to take them with you. If you accept, Grant ditches you without warning.
Beyond that, the game does justice to the original. The music and scene design creates a worthwhile atmosphere, sub-weapons (all exactly the same as before) add variety to strategy. Death still puts up a bitch of a fight, and you fight Dracula in the same room at the top of the stairs with the same crescent moon in the background. If you liked the first game, you’ll like this one too. Probably the only drawback, bosses don’t stand out as famous monsters. Sure, a few of them return, but I like to think that the others asked for too much money to appear in this game, so Konami had to find other actors willing to play the parts.
Dracula’s Curse also employs a primitive sort of New Game + concept. Not uncommon for games from the 80s, finishing the game gives you the ending credits–which differ depending on which character you got stuck with–and then plopping you right back at the beginning of the game, still with the character you picked up (and apparently, you can’t get the other characters…at least, I couldn’t get Grant again, after he ditched me with Sypha on the previous round). However, on the second play through, it ramps up the difficulty from “brutally punishing” to “setting your couch on fire with rage.” The levels have extra enemies, and some end-game enemies replace simpler, easier to dodge monsters from earlier on. I’ll confess I only lasted two levels on this setting.