For whatever reason, a truism of several series that started in the NES era is “The second game was nothing like the first, then the third game was the first game on steroids”. In the US, Super Mario Bros. was like this (The Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was deemed both too difficult and too similar to the original game for US audiences–amusing considering how similar the various New Super Mario Bros. games are to one another), while the Zelda series was like this world-wide. While Metroid II was somewhat similar to the original, its more linear style and increased focus on Metroid hunting would put that series in this category too.
The game in this entry is no exception to that. After Castlevania II laid the prototype for what would come to be known as the “Metroidvania” style, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse marked a return to stage-based vampire-whipping action. But really, it’s more than that.
Released in the US in 1990 by Konami, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse takes you back before the first two games. According to the intro, Dracula is attempting to create “a bad world filled with evil”. This strikes me as redundant, but okay. After previously running the Belmonts out of town, the villagers come crawling back, begging a Belmont to save them from Dracula’s reign of terror. Trevor Belmont, Simon’s ancestor, answers the call.
Mechanically, the game is similar to the original. Trevor controls a lot like Simon, right down to having to fully commit to his jump the instant he leaves the ground. You get the classic power-ups–holy water, boomerang, etc. But this is not just Castlevania 1.1–this game is bigger, longer, and dare I say even more challenging than the original.
Castlevania III adds some new wrinkles to the “Classicvania” gameplay. First of all, there are multiple routes through the game. Periodically, you’ll be given a choice of routes. All paths lead to Dracula’s Castle, of course, but even there, where you actually begin in the castle is dependent on the road you took to get there. The other, bigger wrinkle comes in the form of other playable characters. There are three scattered on the various routes, and you can have one at a time. Grant DaNasty is a pirate who attacks with a dagger; his agility, complete control of his jumps, and ability to cling to walls and ceilings probably make him the best beginners’ companion, even if getting him involves playing an extra stage early on (His route is also one of the easiest, relatively speaking, through the game). Sypha Belnades has a completely different set of powerups than any of the other characters, using spellbooks and a staff to decimate opponents. Finally, Alucard, the Lost Son of Dracula, is a half-vampire who can turn into a bat and attacks using fireballs. Once you acquire a helper, you can press Select to switch between Trevor and that character. Of course, for the ultimate challenge, you can choose to go solo.
Akumajou Densetsu, the Japanese version of this game, contained a special chip, the VRC6, whose primary purpose was to add additional sound channels. This gives the Japanese version’s music a fuller sound, although honestly, which version of the soundtrack you prefer probably comes down to which you hear first. Both versions of the soundtrack are great, though. “Beginning”, the first level’s song, was remixed in numerous later Castlevanias, “Aquarius” has a bit of a “Bloody Tears” vibe in its beginning, and “Pressure”, short as it is, sounds a bit like the Billy Joel song of the same name if you strain your ears hard enough.
Castlevania III has a password system to save your progress. And believe me, you will need it. I first played this not long after it came out in the US, but didn’t beat it until about a week ago. And even then, I had to rely on some tricks and general cheap strategies. One of the big things about this game is that it shows no mercy at the end–the last stage is extremely difficult, and unlike most Castlevanias, you don’t get a checkpoint just before Dracula–lose to any of his three forms and you have to re-do the stage immediately preceding him. And unlike Ninja Gaiden, the game doesn’t save where you were in the Dracula battle–you get to re-do the whole thing each time.
It took me something like 20 years of off-and-on attempts to finally bring this game down. That said, most of that was before youtube and the like; my playthrough in which I finally broke through and completed it (DISCLAIMER: I had gotten through most of it at various points in my life, first getting stymied three stages from the end many years ago) took me about an hour and a half. Of course, that was only one route (The Grant route, leaving Sypha behind), and each path including Trevor solo has a slightly different ending, so there’s plenty of replay value for the masochistic. And that doesn’t get into the second loop, where the game somehow manages to get even harder.
Put bluntly, Castlevania III is a must play (Note that if you choose to go that route, Akumajou Densetsu is slightly easier for a number of reasons). Besides the NES original, it was released on Wii Virtual Console, and if you don’t live in the US, it also came out on the WiiU and 3DS VCs. However you get it, though, get it.