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 the promise of superstitious fear.
In nearby towns, 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.
Why this game? In a word – atmosphere. The opening level is a European village under attack from an undead scourge: zombies, skeletons, and evil animals, stalking the streets. Power ups in the context of Christian symbology, implying a real-world connection to the supernatural. Abandoned cathedrals, graveyards, and menacing forests. Tight controls that demanded discipline, confidence, and thoughtful planning. Giant, well-animated bosses straight from your favorite classic horror films.
This was heroic adventure, set against the American Gothic fear incarnate.
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 weak attack but amazing spell power, a worthy companion? Or will the defeat of Dracula's prodigal son, Alucard, give a supernatural resonance to the defeat of the master of evil?
The music is, despite the downgraded American cartridge, 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, and it shows.
The only real complaint one can render to the game is its difficulty. While difficult games are not uncommon to the NES, this title is made especially legendary in its increase in difficultly from the Japanese version. 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 and ignoble challenge for dedicated players, considering the length and depth of challenge preceding the final stage. 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.
Horror fans, those looking for a challenge, and anyone looking for a title reminiscent of a childhood obsessed with horror movies and Halloween will find a welcome experience in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.