Though it was a highly anticipated sequel to one of the NES' hottest properties, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest didn't sell as well as Konami had hoped. While its style of play was unique and it was indeed a very worthy follow-up to Castlevania, its deviation from the original formula was understandably a turnoff to many a loyal consumer. But this didn't faze the gaming giant one bit, and rather than abruptly ending its series as a result, Konami immediately went back to the drawing board--it knew that the world of Dracula and friends had so much more to offer, and we hadn't yet even scratched the surface. For Konami, the solution to the problem was obvious: We must revert back to the original formula and never look back.

Thus, it introduced to us perhaps what represents the finest, most realized entry into this entire franchise: Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. And while based heavily on the formula of the original NES adventure, Dracula's Curse absolutely shatters the mold and breaks out to become one of the deepest, most satisfying and all-encompassing games available for the NES and, furthermore, for any system in any era, period.

Its other distinction is that we're taken back two hundred years before the time of Castlevania (even though its instruction manual gaffs on this fact) as a prequel to the adventures of Simon Belmont. In Dracula's Curse, you play the role of Trevor Belmont, the forefather of Simon, in one of the family's earliest campaigns against Dracula. What we learn is that Count Dracula, after years of terrorizing Transylvania, has reached the pinnacle of his reign. Trevor's hometown, Warakiya, feels the aftereffects and has been left in ruins in wake of attacks by the undead denizens of the Count's army. Because Trevor and his family had been exiled from Warakiya due to fear of their power, no one could possibly counter the assault and the people have fled. Warakiya will be rebuilt--but for now, the people call upon Trevor to come forth and protect them. The feisty Belmont, holding no ill will, sets out to hunt down and destroy Count Dracula. Now, it's your job to take control of Trevor Belmont and guide him through a portion of the game's sixteen stages en route to Dracula's castle where you'll duel to the death with the Dark Lord.

Dracula's Curse is a pure-action side-scrolling game not unlike the original, but thanks to advancements made in developing for the NES, its engine is amplified and its technology is always on display. It shares all of the same elements in terms of platforming, like the utilization of stairways and the negotiation of moving platforms, but Dracula's Curse likes to hit you with something Castlevania lacked--vertical platforming. Such vertical passages include simple towers, those that scroll upward at a set pace, and others that dramatically shift. Konami aims to impress you with its new tricks: You'll race through a city while the water-level frantically rises; you'll traverse across moving gears, swinging pendulums, weighted platforms, and rotting bricks; and you'll cleverly use environments to your advantage--the ability to freeze pools of water and walk upon the frozen surface, for example, and the harnessing of lightning while fighting the Cyclops. The presentation, which is exponentially tweaked yet highly familiar, is one that makes you feel right at home while elevating the experience to the highest of levels.

Since we're dealing with a relative upgrade to Castlevania, Trevor's mechanics emulate Simon Belmont's to a tee. At his most basic, he commands the standard leather whip, which can be enhanced twice by collecting morning star symbols: The first transforms it into a chain whip, and the second expands its range in becoming the all-powerful Morning Star whip. He'll also utilize those same five mystic sub-weapons--the axe, dagger, holy water, boomerang and stopwatch--that can be powered using the big and small hearts uncovered by whipping candelabras and slaying enemies. Also available to Trevor are the magical items you may remember: The invisibility potions, rosaries, money bags, double- and triple shots, pot roasts, and 1-ups.

The immediate difference between Dracula's Curse and Castlevania is the ability to travel along alternate routes to reach the castle. There are three possible routes you can take, each with an unwritten but noticeable difficulty assigned. Since you're free to take any path you wish, the more difficult routes are instead reserved for those who like to think of themselves as "masters." That is, it's to each player's discretion--it's simply your choice if you want to stretch out your adventure to its maximum capacity. Your choice doesn't come without consequence, though: The route you take determines from which location you'll enter the castle--and that's either through its main entrance or from its basement. Even on what's considered the "easy" route, you'll be able to stretch your adventure out to at least ten stages.

And, most intriguingly, you're presented with the opportunity to bring along a spirit helper, an ally to which you can switch for special assistance. No matter which route you take, you'll encounter at least two such allies who will volunteer to follow behind and offer their services. However, you can only have one ally at a time; if you already have an ally tagging along when you meet another, you can either reject the new offer or accept it and consequently lose the current ally.

Of course, it would hardly be worth it if the allies didn't have special abilities to complement or even supplant your own: Grant Danasty is likely to be your first encounter. As a quick and agile yet short pirate, he can climb on walls and ceilings, jump high and walk speedily. He attacks with a short dagger, but it can't be powered up. He's weak and fragile, but his small size allows him to duck under most projectile attacks and squeeze through tight spaces for increased accessibility. In some instances, he can skip over whole stage areas by climbing over giant dividers or high-up platforms. He can collect three sub-weapons--the axe, dagger and stopwatch--and he can even toss the stabbing weapons or drop them down while climbing; furthermore, he can use double- and triple-shots to power them. The only magical item he can't collect is the morning-star symbol.

Then there's the magic-using Sypha Belnades. As a fighter, she's not all that powerful, what with her short and weak magical staff, and she takes more damage than normal for absorbing attacks. Her true worth is realized through her command of three crippling spells that she can harness as sub-weapons: These include (1) Fire, for a long flame blast. (2) Ice, to freeze enemies solid and in following crack them to pieces; to otherwise use them as temporary platforms; and to freeze large pools of water, which allows the heroes to walk on their surfaces and also halt the the progress of the enemies within. And (3) lightning, to create and employ three heat-seeking electrical orbs. She has no use for morning-star symbols and double- and triple-shots, but she can collect the stopwatch as a fourth, more traditional sub-weapon.

Finally, there's Alucard, the estranged and forgotten son of Dracula. He's tall, frail and in peril when used within the narrow passages that feature spikes and claustrophobic jumps; and his offense is limited to the weak ball of destruction, an attack that can be powered up two levels by collecting morning-star symbols--to a two- and then three-directional fireball onslaught. His one true strength is his ability to transform into a bat, a power that allows him to fly over and around all possible obstacles, to access out-of-reach platforms, and to thus save large amounts of time in dealing with platforming, especially in tall vertical areas. The quirk is that your heart-total drains by one for each second he's in bat form, and any enemy contact will cause him to immediately revert back to human form. While Alucard has no use for magical items other than the morning-star symbols and hearts, he, too, can collect the stopwatch.

By exploiting the allies' strengths, you can make your mission a whole lot easier. If you don't choose wisely, you may bring along an ally who is of no use to you in certain scenarios. However, you're not obligated to take along an ally--you can reject all help and take on the challenges with just Trevor. Therein lay the true beauty of the game: You can virtually choose the challenge-level that's appropriate for you and your comfort level. Furthermore, the addition of these ally characters combined with the premise of separate routes allows for multiple combinations of events, which gives Dracula's Curse a large dose of replayability. Even years later, it doesn't get old or lose its charm.

Dracula's Curse is by far graphically superior to the first two NES entries: Its atmosphere is risen to new levels thanks to a painstaking effort that you can see exuding over everything from the title screen to the ending. The backgrounds and textures are engaging and just more interesting to look at, and all of the characters are so much more detailed, more artistically defined than ever before. Konami knows how important the visuals are and how much they carry the slower parts of the game; to showcase this thinking, they certainly supply many unique environments, including woods, chapels, caverns, a sunken city, clock towers, marshland, a pirate ship, the mountain side, and a whole lot more. And yet they don't cheat: Each stage has its own atmosphere, themes, and challenges, and yet no two ever look the same. It's as close as possible to mastering the hardware, and while some artwork in regard to backgrounds is still a bit choppy, as it was in Castlevania, it still manages to blow away any of what its direct competitors offer, and thus the repetitiveness of Simon's Quest is but a distant memory.

The engine didn't limit what they could do with enemies. Many of the classic foes from Castlevania are brought back to once again make your life miserable; a select few from Simon's Quest are mixed in; and they've gone the extra mile to create an all-new selection of minor enemies and bosses to fill out the rest of the large cast. As a complete work of art, Dracula's Curse serves well in its quest to expand and build upon the universe that the previous games created. Because it does this to such a higher level, I can proudly say that Dracula's Curse very expertly captures the atmosphere of this universe and utilizes it better than any game in this entire series, including Symphony of the Night.

The aural presentation is another category that Dracula's Curse aces--the selection of music on the soundtrack is mostly all-new, with but a few familiar tunes. The use of music here is a very important element in exploring the terrain: Whereas slow, spooky themes mean that you should trek carefully, fast-paced themes often mean that water is rising, screens are scrolling quickly, or time is short--and you'll love all of them regardless. Even for a lesser system, it's still one of their top-five soundtracks ever because of its association--they've cleverly matched up every stage with an appropriate theme; considering the game's size, this is certainly a feat. Luckily, a sound test has been implemented to satisfy those hungry to just listen to the tunes found throughout the game without having to partake in any action.

The game's sound effects, such as those annoying grunts made by injured heroes, are mostly recycled from the previous two entries, but supplied is so much more. Hearing a boss characters scream and roar in agony as its being destroyed, for example, is certainly a welcome addition. They do their best to make the stages seem alive with little effects: The raging storms, the flowing streams and waters plus the thundering stage-shifts also help to make this selection a cut above. Sometimes just a bit more is all that's really needed, and they certainly give you more than "just a little bit."

Castlevania's control scheme is ever-present here, and it's unfortunately the cause of some minor problems. You should expect the same stairway issues: Certain doom will still be met by not pushing down when approaching stairs near a cliff (sigh), and the stairway plus sub-weapon control confliction still exists. While Grant controls excellently in his jumps, climbing on walls and ceilings can sometimes be tough; that is, trying to negotiate around corners can be a trial if you're not precise about it, and you'll often fall to your death for reasons you may not understand. Alucard is slower by design, and he's a little rough to control while in bat form since he stalls on quick turns, but I suppose this was necessary to prevent the player from abusing this power. There are really no major problems that you shouldn't be used to by now except for one: To make some of the more difficult jumps, it's required that you start your leap from the very edge of a platform if you hope to cover the distance. Since it requires precision, you'll often walk right off platforms, to your death, or miss making a jump because you leapt too early; this is a task made more difficult when you're in a rush or on scale-like platforms. For beginners, this will be a turnoff, but series veterans will persist as they always have.

Dracula's Curse is a straight-out difficult game that's on par with Castlevania. In that regard, it's the very definition of "old-school." The challenge, as discussed, is largely dependent on the route you take and the ally at your side, yes, but even the "easiest" challenge of Dracula's Curse is still greater than that of the ordinary game. If you can settle on the right combination of stages and allies, you'll be more apt to find a rhythm that'll carry you through the game, each time you play, no matter how you go about finishing it. If you're looking for a greater challenge, though, you can always try a different route with another ally (or lack of an ally) to further test yourself. True, there are no bosses quite on the level of Frankenstein and Igor and the Grim Reaper from Castlevania, but the length of the stages, their multiple minor enemies and bosses, and all of the quirks therein will surely make up for it.

Dracula's Curse offers a most-satisfying gaming experience that offers to you hours and hours of replay value. It's the strongest type of replayability--it's the perfect example of a game that stands the test of time because it finds the right balance between the complexity of today's games and the simplicity of those that are much older. Konami nailed almost every category: It manufactured the perfect atmosphere, produced a first-class soundtrack, supplied unique and challenging stage designs and bosses, and put forth a monumental effort to take this series to the next level. More than a decade later, it still reigns supreme, and it's definitely worth the money to pick it up if you're lucky enough to come across a copy.

Dracula's Curse is the embodiment of a perfect five. It's still, to this day, my favorite of all the existing series titles.

While similar in tone to Castlevania, its look is unmatched; no two stages look alike
Classic series' action with a healthy dose of replayability via alternate routes and allies
This complete effort elevates the action with one memorable stage theme after another
The original's control scheme returns as is, which causes the very same problems
As it was with Castlevania: While the game can be mastered, some may never finish it
 

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