Dracula Rises Again, For the First Time – A Review of Castlevania III for the NES

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.

c3The 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.

Watch the Angry Videogame Nerd Review Castlevania III
Watch the Angry Videogame Nerd Review Castlevania III

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.

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Film Review: The Haunted Palace

Directed by Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Debra Paget, Lon Chaney Jr.

The Haunted Palace caught me off-guard.

I’d borrowed the film from my local library. It came on the same disc as another Vincent Price-Roger Corman film, Tower of London. I expected a schlocky, low-budget affair from Roger Corman—a workingman’s effort, sure, but I was prepared to sit through a film limited in quality.

Boy, was I wrong.

Advertised as an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the film is more accurately an adaptation of several H.P. Lovecraft stories, including The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Seeing the Old Man’s name pop up in the opening credits surprised me—was this the first film adaptation of Lovecraft’s work? And how had I never heard of it before?

The film opens on a scene of classic gothic horror. A warlock, Joseph Curwen (one of Vincent Price’s two roles in the film) is burned alive by the townsfolk after allegations of rape and witchcraft. This is heady stuff, and really surprised me that a mainstream horror film of this era would tackle the subject of rape… especially if the rapist proved to be something beyond a sadistic old man.

Just before Price’s character is put to the torch, he curses the town. Who wouldn’t?

One hundred and ten years later, the warlock’s descendant (also played by Price) returns to claim his ancestral home. It’s not long before the spirit of his dead great-grandfather makes moves on his psyche, hoping to possess poor Charles Dexter Ward and continue the wizard’s dark work.

That work is nothing less than cross-breeding humans and monsters, coupled with a little bit of necromancy. The goal—although it’s never stated how exactly he’ll reach it—is to open the gateway between worlds so that the Elder Gods—great Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth specifically—can reclaim earth as their own. Ward—err, Ward possessed by the warlock Cerwin—doesn’t really understand his own motivation. And that makes it all the more disturbing.

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“We obey,” he says ominously. Indeed. Sometimes, the less about a horror that is explained, the better. Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand this anymore.

The cinematography in The Haunted Palace is excellent, with great use of color, fog, and beautiful composition. The sets are great—even if much of the film is set in a stock spooky castle replete with secret passages and a haunted painting. Although the setting isn’t exactly original, it  looks good. It’s never over lit—which was a common pitfall of the 50s, 60s, and 70s (Hammer) gothic films. Supposedly, this is a low-budget film, but it never shows.

The make up effects are great. There’s a monster in a green pit that looks cool (although it’s clear it doesn’t actually move; camera trickery gives it a look of extradimensional waviness), and the villagers suffering from genetic corruption are suitably creepy. One of the film’s best scenes involves the villagers descending on Charles Dexter Ward and his wife in the middle of town, only to be called back at the last moment by the ringing of a bell.

What church do those mutants attend, I wonder? Mayhap the Esoteric Order of Dagon?

Despite its marketing as an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, Lovecraftian themes abound: we have dark lineages, the corruption of blood lines, the Necronomicon, Elder Gods… And there’s even a reference to the Tillinghast family. This is a labor of love for the work of old H.P. Lovecraft, and was well ahead of its time in that respect.

For fans of Roger Corman, H.P. Lovecraft, gothic horror, or the master Vincent Price, you can’t do much better than The Haunted Palace. I’ll be adding this one to my personal collection.

Best Read by Candlelight: A Review of The Lord Came at Twilight by Daniel Mills

Published by Dark Renaissance Books

Review by Michael Bryant

The wind howls through the skeletal branches of the forest outside my house, as light of the flame throbs yellow on the paper. My eyes slide over the words on the page.

“In that lonely hollow, the oak tree broods as it has done since days of Eden, feasting on the dreaming dead, alight with autumn’s fire.”

Reading at my desk, the candle flame feebly pushing away the darkness, I feel my heart pulse and the bleakness of the winter night creep into my bones.

From author Daniel Mills comes a sampling of antiquarian New England horror. Mills serves up a melancholic brew of tragic characters, oppressive atmosphere, and the abysmal fear of the unknown beyond. He is the satyr leading us through the phantasmic history of the spectral wilderness, and bewitched urban landscapes of North Atlantic America. Melding pagan traditions with puritan dread, Mills sends the reader floating down a course twisted as the Miskatonic. Formed in modern style with classic intonations, Mills’ stories tease the imagination and drive the reader into feasting on the lugubrious aesthetic. After gorging on the tome, we are left hungering for more.

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The opening story “The Hollow” examines the beauty of despair, with freedom from the memory of love, where escape from that abyss is found only in the eradication of one’s existence. “Dust From a Dark Flower” finds the burying ground in the village of Falmouth infested with a soul-devouring fungal growth, whose insidious tenacity does not restrict itself exclusively to the deceased.

A favorite pastime of mine is strolling through an old cemetery, admiring the engravings and decoding the history of a community, seeking the sum of lives laid to rest there. Daniel takes us on such a tour of an old churchyard in “Whistler’s Gore”, where it seems  the year of 1798 was a trying time for the settlement. “The Falling Dark” administers an injection of cosmic horror and the struggle of temptation at the threshold. A veteran of the Civil War relates the horrors of Shiloh, and his strange and brief stay at “The House of the Caryatids”, a southern manor with valkyrie guardians. The anthology concludes with the title story “The Lord Came at Twilight”, which steps out of the American locales and into the arena of middle ages Europe where a series of misfortunes plunges the faithful and virtuous into the pit of corruption and debauchery.

Wayne Miller illuminates the gloom of Daniel’s mind with his illustrations, enhancing the experience of the stories and steering the reader’s mental imagery to the intended discourse of the emulation of sorrow. The literary and visual artworks combine to create an overall sense of morbid ambiance, sure to delight the most discerning weird fiction enthusiast.

Settle in for the evening and wander the broken and muddied path through the centuries with Mr. Mills as your guide, moving toward the hour of twilight and His coming.

5/5 Fungal Rotted Tombstones