Prior to the release of Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse was not a game I had any experience with whatsoever, aside from one critical aspect: its music.
Specifically, back when the PS1 was current, I had an original copy of Symphony of the Night (which, believe me, I severely regret getting rid of now!) that came with a soundtrack CD. On that CD was a single track from Castlevania III — or more accurately, its Famicom incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu. It left quite an impression on me.
And, as you might expect, I was rather excited to finally be able to experience Castlevania III as truly intended through the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.
For the unfamiliar, the reason I refer to Akumajō Densetsu as the definitive way to experience Castlevania III is nothing to do with any sort of elitist “well, I played it in Japanese long before you losers got the localised version”. No, it’s literally because the Japanese version is technically superior; the original Famicom cartridge for Akumajō Densetsu featured an audio coprocessor chip known as the VRC6; this added two extra pulse-wave channels and a saw-wave channel to the standard five sound channels available on the stock Famicom and NES, allowing for much fuller, richer sound and more complex. layered compositions.
The Western NES did not support external sound chips in its cartridges, unfortunately, so the English release of Castlevania III featured a downgraded soundtrack using just the standard stock sound chip. To be clear, it’s still a fantastic soundtrack even in this more limited format — but if you have the option of playing with the VRC6-enhanced version, I highly recommend taking it. And, conveniently, a post-launch update to the Castlevania Anniversary Collection added the Japanese versions of most of the games in the compilation, putting this version within easy (and legal) reach of English-speaking players for the first time ever. So hurrah for that.
Right, with that out of the way, let’s talk specifics about Castlevania III, as we shall refer to it hereafter.
After the open-structure 2D platforming and RPG elements of Simon’s Quest, Castlevania III marks a return to the format established by the original Castlevania. In other words, rather than freely exploring an open world, you instead proceed through a series of linear stages, occasionally encountering bosses and quite frequently cursing as you forget to press “down” to descend a set of stairs when walking off the edge of a platform.
All the idiosyncrasies of the original Castlevania are still present and correct. That means you still fall like a rock if you step off the edge of a platform; you still get knocked back by enemies (inevitably into a pit); falling off the bottom of the screen means death regardless of whether or not you literally just came from somewhere “below” your current location; jumping is still very “stiff” with no ability to change your direction in mid-air; and there’s no real momentum to your movement.
If you’re more accustomed to the way, say, Super Mario Bros. does things, there will be a period of adjustment for you here. On the other hand, if you, like me, have just come off the back of the first two Castlevania games, you’ll be right at home immediately. Although there are a few new wrinkles along the way to keep things interesting.
Castlevania III starts in a very similar fashion to the series’ first entry. Work your way from one end of the stage to another, whipping enemies into oblivion and smashing every candlestick you come across, grabbing every item regardless of whether or not you need it. Doors act as checkpoints, so if you lose a life, you get reset to the last door you passed through; if you lose all your lives and have to continue, however, you’ll return to the beginning of the numbered “block” you’re on.
It’s this latter aspect where one of Castlevania III’s most significant differences shows up. After you complete the first block of stages, you’re presented with a choice of routes to take. One way will take you into a clock tower — a setting that has been revisited several times throughout the series — while the other will take you through a forest and marsh. These are totally different sets of levels, and in some cases you’ll find the route splitting further, even seemingly halfway through a block.
These split points serve a couple of purposes: firstly, they (theoretically, at least) provide a means of making your overall quest easier or more difficult for yourself, with the upper routes supposedly representing the easier option in most cases. Secondly, the precise route you take determines which of the three “helper” characters you’ll encounter during your adventure — the delightfully named Grant DeNasty, Sypha Belnades or Alucard. And yes, if you watched Netflix’s excellent animated adaptation of Castlevania, it is indeed the same Sypha and Alucard; the Castlevania series was, effectively, an adaptation of Castlevania III’s story, albeit with a fair amount of artistic license taken!
The “helper” characters each have their own unique special abilities, but there’s no obligation to use them if you don’t want to — and indeed doing so often seems like something of a liability. Alucard, for example, can be a pain to use because he is limited to sluggish ranged magical attacks rather than melee and his sprite is a good head-height taller than main protagonist Trevor, making him a bigger target; Sypha, meanwhile, has an extremely short range melee attack, but some of the usual Castlevania subweapons are replaced by magic spells for her, some of which are very useful. Grant, meanwhile, allows you the revolutionary ability to change direction in mid-jump as well as cling to walls.
Castlevania III is a stiff challenge, just like its predecessors, but the nice thing about the branching pathways is that it means on a subsequent playthrough you can try something else. For example, despite the lower routes supposedly being more difficult, I actually managed to get to grips with some of them well before I mastered the upper ones.
One thing that I learned as part of this process is that it doesn’t always pay to be greedy. Indeed, sometimes it’s in your best interests to forego potential rewards in favour of just proceeding onwards more safely. After all, you can’t make good use of those rewards if you’re dead, can you?
Castlevania III plays with this idea quite a lot, and it presents a few takes on it over the course of its early stages. It’s intriguing, because it’s a complete contrast to what Nintendo’s Super Mario series particularly does — and this is particularly relevant when we consider the Super Mario Maker games for Wii U and Switch. Bear with me, we’re going somewhere with this, honest.
In Super Mario Maker, there are a series of helpful tutorials that encourage you to make use of various good practices while building your own courses for others to challenge. One standard that most level builders agree on these days is that, in a Super Mario game, most of the time you will make use of coins to indicate a suitable path for Mario to follow — in other words, rewarding him for taking a particular route.
Exact implementations of this idea vary between creators, but it’s probably most common to see the “critical path” through the level marked with coins — either showing an exact suggested route through the hazards ahead, or perhaps rewarding the player for passing a particularly challenging section. There are occasions when coins are used to bait the player into a more dangerous situation or taunt them with a hidden secret — though in Super Mario Maker 2 this is normally something reserved for the high-value 10, 30 and 50 coin medals — but in many cases, the player is actively encouraged to be greedy.
I find this quite interesting, because if you’re playing one-off levels in Super Mario Maker 2 (as opposed to the single-player Story Mode or the limited-lives Endless Challenge mode), coins are completely and utterly useless. And yet people still want to go for them; there’s something primally pleasing about picking them up and being rewarded with sparkling effects, satisfying noises and a little counter going up.
I bring this up because the original Castlevania and Castlevania III pretty much do the exact opposite.
Let’s take Castlevania III’s Block 2 as an example. This unfolds in a clock tower, and is a rather precarious ascent up a series of mechanically themed stages, in which protagonist Trevor must carefully climb stairs, leap between platforms, hop on swinging pendulums and balance atop enormous cogs.
This is difficult enough by itself at times, given Castlevania’s distinctively “heavy” controls, but this is also a level where you encounter one of the series’ most well-known and widely despised foes: the Medusa head. They’re all over the bloody place in this block, inevitably wending their wibbly-wobbly way across the screen just as you’re trying to make a particularly precarious jump between two tiny platforms.
Thing is, for much of this block, if you simply proceed onwards without stopping, the Medusa heads’ predictable sine-wave movement pattern will mean that you’ll naturally avoid them without having to make any particularly elaborate movements. There are a couple of moments where it’s in your best interest to pause and allow one to pass before proceeding, but for the most part if you concentrate on your final destination and do your best to ignore everything around you, you’ll be fine.
Except it’s not that easy. Every video game ever — particularly from this era — has trained us to seek out shiny things to pick up, particularly those that make pleasing noises when we acquire them. And the Castlevania series’ NES/Famicom installments make very pleasing noises when you pick something up. I’ve always described these sounds as having an oddly “juicy” quality about them, but this may be a mild case of synaesthesia talking; regardless of whether or not your mouth starts watering at the prospect of picking up a low-resolution, two-colour moneybag, you can hopefully at least appreciate the satisfaction value inherent in picking up these goodies in these games.
Here’s the trouble, then: in order to access these many bounteous delights, you have to leave the “critical path”. You have to stop your ascent and make a detour to a side platform; you have to put yourself in a situation where the Medusa heads’ movement patterns might not be quite so predictable. That, in turn, will make you anxious and more inclined to panic and make mistakes.
And mistakes in these early Castlevania games can be costly; given that you get knocked back if you take damage while standing on a flat surface (this thankfully doesn’t happen if you’re ascending a set of stairs at the time), you can easily find yourself plummeting to your doom in the perpetually unseen abyss of death that hovers, out of sight, just below the bottom of the room you’re presently in. You know, the one that means even if you’ve come up a set of stairs from an area below, you damn well aren’t going back down again.
So you have to make a choice. Going for the treasures doesn’t make your life impossible, but it does make it more challenging. If you just want to clear the stage, it may be in your interests to just ignore the possible rewards that lie tantalisingly just off the beaten track, but you might have any number of reasons to pursue them. You might need hearts for a subweapon you want to use against the block’s boss — assuming you can make it there. You might hope to score enough points to get an extra life. Or you might just want to hear those lovely sounds some more. Those delicious, juicy sounds.
Decide that your need for goodies outweighs your need to remain safe, and you’d better be ready for the consequences. There’s no sparkling trail of coins leading you to enlightenment here; greed will only lead you towards danger and, quite probably, death. So I hope you’re handy with both your whip and your jumping skills — you’re going to need them both! And you’ll need to make a key decision: are you a vampire hunter, or a treasure hunter?