"Trevor, who powers axe and holy water and dagger and stopwatch with fallen hearts from candles on walls to augment his whipping power; just as Christopher would do before him, and as Simon - the most famous Belmont - would do after him. And then there is Dracula, who is both pitiful and inspirational in his totalitarian rule of despair and depravity, rallying every undead and crumbling and rotting wraith of yesteryear to follow him, to fall in line with him, to encircle his kingdom with grotesque protection and make him whole. "
The Blueprint -or- More Castlevania than you can shake a stake at
Laugh now, dammit. But you can't stop me. Let the nay sayers howl with incredulity, I say. Let the nonbelievers mock the gushing tone of this hyperbole-laden review. Get it all out of your systems right now before you've read the review, taking as long as you like, and then read on, because it's worth your while.
I suppose I have some explaining to do. Just where the hell do I get off calling a game ''the blueprint'', as if it were somehow the perfect Castlevania? And isn't the praise especially ludicrous when the game is of the side-scrolling, 8-bit, jump-and-attack platformer variety that was so utterly commonplace over a decade ago when this dark adventure first saw the light of day! Am I so besotted with sappy romanticism and youth-coloured nostalgia? Well, yes. But there's more to it.
It's not that Dracula's Curse (the game's subtitle) looks and sounds so good that you'll think that you are really in the boots of brave Trevor Belmont, nobly immersed in the thick, pulpy danger of Dracula's infamous castle - because that just can't be. This is an 8-bit game with 8-bit game limitations. There can be no Silent Hill 2-like hallucinations suffered due to super-realistic sights. Let's be sensible: all we get are short, squat, cartoonish characters - the good and bad guys alike - a protagonist controlled by just two action buttons, colourful blocks to walk on and simplistic scenes to walk through, and archaic midi organs pounding their aural tales insistently, capped beneath the day's technology. So how can it be that Konami found the blueprint to the ideal adventure?
The opening filmstrip that scrolls upwards telling of the epic adventure to come is not lying. The limited, ultra-cartoonish graphics manifest a visual intensity that is just right. Those mighty midi melodies blow by the ear's delight of right now, into the joy of forever, because they resonate just right. And when sounds and sights are just right, atmosphere happens. No matter how primitive the atmosphere that blankets the air, when it sucks us into its world, and holds us hostage…as gamers we're helpless, and we love every minute of it. Homework deadlines slip by carelessly, work is skipped with the aid of improbable flu hoaxes. Castlevania III hit my friend's NES with such an atmospheric impact as to have the whole bunch of us at his house every day after school in rapt attention - the five of us engaged like this, by the pull of a game that could only be played by one person at a time.
Oh, how grades fell by the wayside. Trevor saw to that.
Trevor, with his ancestral whip in hand, ready to let it fly at Dracula's minions of the dark. Trevor, who powers axe and holy water and dagger and stopwatch with fallen hearts from candles on walls to augment his whipping power; just as Christopher would do before him, and as Simon - the most famous Belmont - would do after him. And then there is Dracula, who is both pitiful and inspirational in his totalitarian rule of despair and depravity, rallying every undead and crumbling and rotting wraith of yesteryear to follow him, to fall in line with him, to encircle his kingdom with grotesque protection and make him whole.
Is there a more compelling bad guy to want to reach out and kill than the darkest of vampires? Not this side of Darth Vader, no. You'll savour the prospect of guiding the irresistible Trevor Belmont on his quest to find the holed up cloaked coward and bury a few dozen knives in his forehead. The dark, dilapidated church that welcomes you to Konami's small, splendid hell is awe-inspiring for an 8-bit offering, and pretty in any estimation. There's a skull knight waiting just past the shining and cracked stained glass windows that are so pretty that they clash ideally with the somber stench of death in the courtyard beyond. The remains of the fallen warrior will rise and forge into a howling (yes, he really howls) amalgamation of bone and evil automatism, claiming sword and shield so that he might do battle once more.
From there, choose your path, your fate, with surprise and care. When did you have branching paths in a Castlevania game before? I'll help you: never. This isn't the sprawling back-and-forth of the pseudo-RPG Castlevania II, but in a nod to the expansiveness of that game, it's much, much longer and more involved than the original NES Castlevania. Should you delve into the belly of a spectacular clock tower full of brightly coloured platforms and background bricks, spikes and flying medusa heads? Or should you forge ahead into the dark forest with giant gleaming eyes that turn into massive owls that swoop down as your axes arc hurriedly upward to cut through their air and over-ripe bodies?
And the weight of your fate is more than branching areas and tons of levels. You have three very special allies. The allies don't tag along with you, like the spirits from Ninja Gaiden 2; they give you an alternative. Say you choose the clocktower path, and defeat the boss - you will have earned the respect of your first ally. At any time you may choose to use either him or Trevor, as the situation demands. Later on, when the second and third boss/allies are confronted (and defeated), you'll have to decide whether you want to continue on with your current companion and pass on the new one, or bid your erstwhile ally goodbye and welcome the fresh legs. It's not an option, however, to get rid of Trevor in favour of having two of the special allies in your control. He's the star of the show, after all.
That clocktower boss and first ally is Grant DaNasty (no, I'm not kidding). He's a small, fleet-of-foot pirate with stabbing knife and unnatural wall-climbing abilities. Out-of-the-way goodies and clever boss battle hiding spots are his alone to find. Sypha Belnades is a mysterious white-robed magician whose main weapon is weak, but to compensate, his powerful magic spells fill the spot of the Trevor's auxiliary weapons and often the screen, with death. And finally, meet Alucard. Yes, that's Dracula spelled backwards, and yes this is his first appearance, Symphony of the Night fans. He fires flames. He transforms into a bat so that he can fly through entire levels and save your yellow skin. He's not the sword-wielding champion of lucid movement and electric personality that he would become later, but he is Alucard, and he was born here.
Here, in the most compelling of worlds yet cursed by Dracula, there are waterfalls that fight Trevor's surging strides, there are fire-breathing dragons that have shed their scaly skin to fight dressed only in bone. There are Death (the Grim Reaper) and Frankenstein - horror game staples - and there is a multiple faced Dracula: a Castlevania staple to be sure. His incarnations here are probably his most impressive ever though, showing us no less than three demonic shades to his dark countenance… the last phase is the biggest and baddest we've ever seen him.
And so I say, to hell with technological advancements. The storied Castlevania franchise has had more than its fair share of encroachments upon the shores of flawlessness, but the third NES outing splashes about nonchalantly by the shoreline while flashy, present day Transylvania adventures flounder in deeper waters.
If it made a difference at all, we could beg Konami’s programmers, with all their power to push pixels and shade polygons, to create a gloriously welcome return to a time when processing prowess came a distant second to the proudly primitive gameplay of classic cartridges. If it made any difference at all, Castlevania III might well be our ideal bargaining chip.
Perhaps Dracula’s Curse was the game that Konami had to create. It maintained the action of the first game, with some of the sprawling expansiveness of the second. But the additional playable characters, the branching quests, the unparalleled score and intensity, the final confrontation, the excessiveness of it all… is still shockingly satisfying even now. It's more Castlevania than we bargained for, and with over ten years to build on it, somehow it's more Castlevania than Konami has managed to squeeze into today's Castlevania games. Regardless of your expectations, it's more game than you expect.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 31, 2003)
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