Few games stand out in my childhood memory as prominently as Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
I grew up living in the backwoods of Western New York, surrounded by tracts of abandoned farmland and endless expanses of forest. The winters were endless and unforgiving, the springs and summers brief but beautiful – and the falls… Well, the falls were awe-inspiring.
The hills would come alive with a cacophony of color. Fog would roll in from the swamps. Darkness would creep into the valleys earlier and earlier, shrouding the landscape in mystery and a sense of superstitious fear.
The changing of the seasons signaled a shift in culture. Apple cider, festivals, Halloween decorations, horror movies on TV, Dracula in English class.
And Castlevania III, borrowed from an older cousin, on my Nintendo Entertainment System.
What makes this game so great? In a word – atmosphere. The opening level is a European (Transylvanian?) village under attack from an undead scourge: zombies, skeletons, and evil animals stalking the streets. Power ups and background graphics are couched in Christian symbology, implying a real-world connection to the supernatural adventure on your screen. Abandoned cathedrals, graveyards, and menacing forests wait for you to explore them. Tight controls demand discipline, confidence, and thoughtful planning – making each death a painful lesson. Giant, well-animated bosses straight from your favorite classic horror films are the highlight of the game, each new terror met on your path at once intimidating and fantastic.
This is heroic adventure, set against Gothic and mythological settings and tropes.
And choice. Choice! Can you imagine? An 8-bit epic where the player decides where to go – and who to choose as companion – next. Should you brave the crumbling, difficult clock tower (both up and down) to earn the skills of the acrobatic pirate Grant DaNasty? Is Sypha the wizard (witch?), with a weak attack but amazing spell power, a worthy companion? Or will recruiting the wayward son of Dracula, Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards – get it?) be your greatest ally?
The music is, despite the downgraded American chipset from the Japanese Famicom version, brilliant and atmospheric. The controls are tight and perfection-oriented (if unforgiving, especially when in the context of staircases or medusa heads). The graphics are top-notch, with weather effects, detailed sprites, and creative use of a limited NES color palette. This is a game optimized for the NES console, built by programmers who know their way around the limitations of the system, and it shows.
While difficult games are not uncommon to the NES, this title, like the previous Castlevania games, has some serious design issues that artificially increase the challenge. Using stairs is a near-suicidal endeavor. Enemy attack patterns can sometimes produce situations where you cannot escape taking damage. The game is lengthy, and the final battle against Dracula is made more challenging by sending the defeated player back to the beginning of the final stage. This is an artificial challenge and a bit of a slap in the face for dedicated players. The challenge should be defeating Dracula, not grinding through an obtuse final level over and over again, only to end up at the final boss with limited health. That said, a password system and cheat codes go a long way to alleviating the frustration of this design choice.
Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse remains one of the best titles for a classic system, inspiring future generations of quality games, both within the Castlevania franchise and without. Its greatest strength is its atmosphere, graphics, and sharp gameplay – and its pure, unadulterated sense of Gothic adventure. While its sequel Super Castlevania IV for the SNES is arguably a superior title (and it’s much, much easier, which is not at all a criticism), Castlevania III remains a milestone in the series and is a true artistic and technical achievement on the NES.
Anyone looking for a retro title to bring them back to a childhood spent obsessed with horror movies and Halloween will find plenty to love in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
This review first appeared in its original form as part of 1 More Castle’s Review A Great Game Day 2013.