Mainlining is our new featured series where we run through all the mainline games in a series one article per game, in often different and original ways. This week, we continue through the Castlevania series as the NES trilogy of games concludes with the exceptional, brutally difficult Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
I’ve relived the childhood joy of killing Dracula in Castlevania, and I relived the childhood agony of trying to make heads or tails out of Simon’s Quest, and now, here we are my companions, ready for Simon Belmont’s swan song on the NES. Only our protagonist’s name is Trevor Belmont because this story takes place before the original game. That’s right yawl, it’s time for a prequel.
PICTURE IT, WALLACHIA, 1476
Replaying these games one after another really is an interesting experience. You see subtle little callbacks to the original that you may not have noticed as a kid playing these games so far apart. In the very first screen of gameplay in Dracula’s Curse, you walk a short path and whip candles on your way to a doorway. This is very familiar to the original game where you were given a moment to catch your bearings and get used to whipping, jumping and collecting items.
However, something about this seemed very familiar to me, so I went back and played the original game’s opening moments and was surprised to find my theory was correct.
Inside the candles in Castlevania‘s first screen you get: 2 Whip upgrades, 2 hearts, and a Knife.
Inside the candles in Castlevania III‘s first screen you get: 2 Whip upgrades, 2 hearts, and a Knife.
I love discovering little things like that.
Whoa. That was just like the first game! And yes, this game brings back a lot of aesthetic things you’ll remember from the original. The animation is much more akin to that game with the crumbling architecture and Gothic themes. The score and health bar information return to the top of the screen, and sub-weapons are back, and once again usable by acquiring hearts from candles and enemies.
Luckily Dracula’s Curse doesn’t rest on its laurels (no matter how much they enhance the aroma of soup) by simply giving you more of that basic Castlevania goodness. It gives you new game dynamics, amped-up difficulty, branching paths, swappable companions, and multiple endings.
NEW WHIPPERSNAPPER ON THE BLOCK
Trevor controls exactly like Simon, so if you’ve played the original game, you should feel right at home with his slow methodical stride and inability to change direction mid-jump. Along with the familiar controls, the first block (BLK) as each level is now called, includes the return of Chicken-a-Blocks (Pork Chops, if you must be technical) and even the useless Cross, being mostly useless once again.
Medusa Heads and Hunchbacks are reintroduced right away. These are no longer some of your more imposing threats. No. This game is familiar, but make no mistake, this is no retread. Brand new enemies await to swarm and frustrate you.
Here Trevor scales what simply cannot be a place of worship, what with Nintendo’s strict ban on anything religious. This is probably just where everyone meets for boomerang practice.
The first level (sorry, I’m not calling them Blocks) is an easy re-introduction to the Castlevania gameplay we know and love. It shows us old enemies and items, and it integrates them with new dynamics. Hell, they even give you a Cross in a non-useless situation.
While most people battle the first level boss with the Dagger, if you can find, and hold onto, the Holy Water use that instead. So much quicker.
Completing a level is exactly like the first game as well. When the boss is defeated, the Red Orb falls to the ground, you grab it, and all your remaining time and hearts go toward your score. Just one little difference. Touching the Red Orb freezes you on the spot, meaning you can’t do a cool pose while your score is tallied up. There is no Vamping in Dracula’s Curse. If this game came out today, they’d have patched that back in after the inevitable backlash, because if I know the internet, picayune things like that get taken care of with the swiftness of something that actually matters.
TWO ROADS DIVERGED…
Now that we’ve gotten back in the groove, Dracula’s Curse throws you for a small loop. Decisions. Do we go to the Clock Tower or do we head into the dark, moody woods? I’ll be honest, I never liked the Clock Tower section as it always gave me trouble, but for the sake of completing as much of this game in one run as possible, I chose to go there.
Frankly, in all Castlevania games these sections vex me, but I really have trouble with this one specifically due to the physics of the rotating gears taking some getting used to. It’s hard to tell when you need to jump and when you need to wait, what will kill you, and what won’t. Through trial and error, and a few deaths, you’ll eventually get the hang of it, but for a second level, this is a bit of a gauntlet.
It’s important to note that they introduce the gears without enemy interference initially. You are given a few gears to interact with at the start. I appreciate this kind of game design where each new dynamic is rolled out one piece at a time. That way, when Medusa Heads escalate things, you are at least aware of how the gears behave, more or less.
You guys remember how much I loved the boomerang during my Castlevania run. Well, it’s early on through Dracula’s Curse and I can’t say enough about the Holy Water. It smokes the first two bosses in seconds. I know neither boss is all that tough, but the Holy Water is the best all-round sub-weapon at this point in the game.
The aforementioned second boss, Grant, looks like the first man up on the Evolution chart in his “ghostly” form. I always assumed he was more so cursed by Dracula until Trevor came along and whipped the curse out of him using the Vampire Killer, the legendary Belmont clan whip. Either way, after Grant snaps out of his fugue state, he asks to join you in your fight as his family was killed by Dracula. Whether or not you take him with you, the bridge to Castlevania collapses and you have to backtrack your way to the entrance of level 2.
WE HAVE TO GO BACK!
Trevor and Grant do the only backtracking you’ll be forced to do in this game. Apropos of no sequel in particular, I think we can all agree backtracking is a miserable chore and does not make one’s quest any richer.
When Grant falls he can change direction so you can save yourself at the last second, unlike Trevor who will often plummet to his death. This is far and away Grant’s best quality, but here’s the thing about Grant in my personal opinion, he’s not that great.
Sometimes I wonder where my poor gaming skills end and poor controls begin. I’ve never been able to properly scale walls as Grant. He slips off almost immediately. I mean, is this really a 1Up when I lost three lives slipping off the edge of the wall attempting to reach it?
THESE OWLS ARE EXACTLY WHAT THEY SEEM
Trevor and Grant, who I will not use under any circumstance going forward, continue on to the third level. Yeah, I’m really not gonna call them blocks, and I’m sorry if that offends any Blockheads out there (don’t worry, that’s not even a real thing).
We don’t know what will happen, or when, but there are owls in the Dark Mood Woods and clearing them out quick is the best way to survive. Now, I know I’ve been all about the Holy Water so far but is that a boomerang I spy? Hello, lover. I snap up the boomerang because I can’t help myself. Ba-boom a rang rang, baby.
This section is merely a brief interlude as you quickly come upon where two roads diverged in a bluish woods.
I CHOOSE YOU
If you take the top path you are led to Sypha, who is referred to as Syfa in the game. I will, however, refer to her as Sypha. The game also refers to her as him. This actually makes sense within the story context, however, nothing in-game explains why he is suddenly referred to as she at the end of the game.
If you choose the bottom path you are lead on a much more downright precarious journey, although you do pick up Alucard, Dracula’s prodigal son.
I chose Sypha because there are several sections in the Alucard run that I downright loathe. However, because I am a professional vampire hunter analyst, I will touch on these as well. Alucard will be represented and the vampire community will feel seen.
For now, my Castlevania adventure took me to a place where flying jellyfish are a thing.
And just in case you thought this game takes nothing from the previous game, they used the spiders from the woods!
The level ends with another boss that goes down immediately if you have the Holy Water. Should you not have it, he’s still relatively easy to kill, but it takes a little more time.
Once you defeat the Hammer Cyclops and free Sypha from her curse, she offers to go with you, humble-bragging that her magic is quite powerful. And just like that, sorry Grant, “You’re off the project.”
Grant takes his pink slip with class. He decides tagging along for two levels = family avenged, so off he goes. Congratulations, Grant, on a job…done.
Choosing Sypha is the easier path. I know this because I went the Alucard way as a kid, and that way is torture. I remember playing that part of the game and being genuinely mad at it. Not Simon’s Quest mad, no no no…this anger came from a different place. You see, difficulty-wise, this game is always trying to top itself. The levels auto-scroll up and down rushing you into last second choices, floor bricks crumble under your feet making complacency impossible, and the sheer number of enemies is overwhelming. And that’s in Sypha’s path.
Once we had dispensed of third wheel Grant, I found that I played almost exclusively as Sypha. Her sub-weapons are her magic spells: Holy Flame, Ice, and Lightening. They are also custom made for whatever level they appear in meaning if you got the magic, use the magic.
The Ice spell will freeze enemies and then shatter them. It will also turn water into ice. It’s still not the best spell though.
That honor goes to Lightening, or Blue Orb, as I’m going to call it, because that’s how I see it.
The Blue Orb is the best sub-weapon in the game. Once I got this, I mercilessly smoked one boss after another. You basically launch orbs at the enemies, and as long as you’re facing them, those orbs are gonna land. It’s perfect for long distance attacks. No wonder its found in such a tricky spot.
WELCOME TO CASTLEVANIA
No matter how many times I see a game mimic this aesthetic it still succeeds in making me nostalgic for the original game. The difficulty even drops back down a little during this trip down memory lane.
SHOWDOWN AT BLOCK A-03
I think the first thing I felt when I saw this was elation. I had made it. Was it with the easiest character, so say the internet? You betcha. Didn’t care.
The second thing I thought was, “Is that porn music?” Seriously, the music here has a definite porn vibe to it.
Dracula doesn’t even bother to be in fighting position when you arrive. Once he deigns to stand up, he attacks in a somewhat similar fashion to the original. He warps around often landing right on top of you and instead of three fireballs, he tosses three fire pillars.
Outwit him, and you battle a floating five-headed demon, before taking on his gigantic final form. Of course, you will most likely die and restart back at the stairway. Except they don’t restart you back at the stairway, they restart you back at the beginning of Level A-02! And I had three lives! Guess how fast those went?
It always struck me as a totally wrongheaded choice for the game designers to make when I was a kid, and even still today. In the original Castlevania, once you reached the Final Stairway, every restart, even after continuing, starts you at that stairway. This game for some reason made the choice to send you back to A-02. I remember thinking that was a needlessly aggressive thing for this already difficult game to do to me. I’m over here just asking for a fair shake and the game is telling me that life isn’t fair, it’s short and hard like a Hunchback. So basically the game is kind of a jerk and not great with metaphors.
OR MAYBE IT HAPPENED THIS WAY
If I had to pick the best sidekick, it would have to be Alucard. He has the coolest powers like shooting fireballs and flying by turning into a bat. It’s just that the levels you have to play through are not fun.
One level literally took one of the things I hated the most about Zelda II and managed to shoehorn it into the gameplay needlessly. I’m talking about bricks. Falling bricks. Bricks that would randomly be destroyed by dripping acid. The brick sections involve waiting if you want to take the easier paths. There’s nothing too difficult about this section, it just feels oddly out of place.
Alucard’s path has annoying enemies like mummies that seemingly regenerate until the end of time. There are challenging enemies at every turn. Your long range attack is weak, so while you will land hits without having to get up close, you will have to land a lot of hits.
You’ll probably find Alucard’s path easier to manage if you switch back to Trevor often, especially during boss fights where Holy Water can once again be your most valuable companion.
THE DRAWING OF THE THREE
I’m sure everyone has their favorite companion. Sypha has her magic spells that are powerful and allow for different styles of play. Alucard has the bat ability that is the one power you constantly want to use. And Grant pokes at people with a lil’ dagger while slipping off things.
Seriously, I think I need to know. Just how slippery is Grant supposed to be? Because the dude can not cling to anything to save his life. He’s got one good trick and he’s not even hanging on to it. I’m sure there are people who swear by Grant because he can probably do a lot of game-breaking trickery with his moves, but how do people get him to work? I can’t figure Grant out. He’s always been the slippery little nuisance that I ignore.
Alucard’s powers are fun to use, but they only come in handy in a few, character specific spots. Again, I usually avoid Alucard because his levels are either tediously boring (blocks are falling, blocks are melting) or painfully hard. I’m judging him mostly by his environment. I feel bad about it but it happens.
I’m team Sypha, I based the majority of the piece around her, so that’s no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. But far and away the best thing about Sypha is that she can stand on the platform below and just rain down thunder (Blue Orb) on her doppelganger at the end of level 9.
THE 8 BIT CASTLEVANIA ERA ENDS IS STYLE
The reason Dracula’s Curse was such a great game was because it took what made the first game special and improved on it. That’s it. Was it overly difficult in places? Absolutely, but that was more than common back in the days when you wanted to get your moneys worth out of a game. Besides, I’ll take a game that is hard to complete because of difficulty over joyless padding any day.
You can get four different endings depending on who you finished the game with. That means you even get the loner, rebel, solo Trevor ending should you choose the anti-social run. I won’t spoil any of the endings here. I only got the Sypha one anyway because I’m only good enough to beat this game going the easiest route possible, and I’m perfectly OK with that.
Castlevania III wraps up the NES trilogy and is a fitting farewell to the 8 bit era. The difficulty and challenge are punishing, but just keep repeating to yourself, “It’s only a game, it’s only a game…” and maybe you won’t get upset when you die. But you probably will get upset when you die. It’s that kind of game. But in the absolute best way possible.
- Previously on Castlevania… Mainlining the Castlevania Series: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)
- Castlevania III is superior to the original game in every way, and yet I still love the original more.
- As much as I love going all-in on Sypha, I also enjoy a good Trevor run. This is Castlevania and it feels a little odd to not be slinging your whip through these areas. Also, I’m antisocial in real life, so it tracks.
- My articles have Easter eggs in them too. For example, try to find the Ben Folds reference.
- Koji Igarashi, who was a series producer on the Castlevania game series, released the Dracula’s Curse homage Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon in 2018. It’s really good.
- Next time, it’s on to the SNES era as Simon Belmont and Dracula reunite for the gritty remake-quel Super Castlevania IV.