Looking back, it's incredible to think that Konami took such a risk with the Castlevania series during its formative years. Having tasted critical and commercial success with the original NES outing, the Japanese company decided to give its direct sequel a different spin. The result was Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, a game which is fondly remembered by some fans and totally reviled by others. While Simon's Quest was — and still is — an interesting fusion of platforming action and RPG adventuring, it wasn't what players of the period really wanted. Thankfully, Konami was listening and for its third and final NES Castlevania produced one of the finest games ever to grace Nintendo's world-beating 8-bit console.
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse reverts back to the linear level-based formula seen in the original game. Trevor Belmont's Vampire Killer whip can be upgraded by collecting certain power-ups, and there's the usual selection of special sub-weapons which, when used, deplete your stock of hearts. As ever, hearts can be replenished by whipping the various torches and light-fittings located throughout the game — one of the hallmarks of the Castlevania series which, even after almost thirty years, is utterly charming in that it makes no sense whatsoever.
Konami clearly spent a lot of time fine-tuning the gameplay here, because the control feels utterly perfect. And by that, we mean it gives you just enough control to play skillfully, but never so much that it becomes a cakewalk — a criticism which is often levelled at Super Castlevania IV, which added multi-directional attacks to Simon Belmont's repertoire and consequently made it slightly less punishing than its predecessors. In this third game, you can only whip horizontally, which means you have to time your movements and attacks precisely in order to avoid taking damage. Enemies are placed in positions which make them tricky to hit unless you plan your offensive and sub-weapons become essential in later parts of the game, where they must be deployed to manage a certain airborne assailants while you use your whip to dispatch land-based enemies. Dracula's Curse is at times brutal and unforgiving, but never to the point where it's completely unfair — learn the levels, monitor enemy patterns and master the sub-weapons, and you'll soon find that you can master even the most demanding of stages.
However, aware that a straight sequel wouldn't cut the mustard, Konami made sure that it included new features in this title. The most obvious is the branching pathways, which allow you to take several different routes through the game and add immeasurably to the replay value. You'll also get to call on special companions, which Trevor can switch places with at any time — the catch being that you can only have one companion with you at any one time. These three additional characters — Sypha Belnades, Grant Danasty and Alucard — have since become part of the fabric of Castlevania lore, but back at the time of release the biggest deal was that they added tactical depth to what was already a fantastic title; certain levels are easier to stomach with the right partner. Alucard would of course go on to star in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as the lead protagonist, and seeing him make his series debut will surely be one of the biggest kicks new fans of the franchise will get when experiencing this title for the first time.
Given the time of the game's release — it actually launched after Super Castlevania IV in Europe — it should perhaps come as no great shock to learn that Dracula's Curse is one of the better looking (and sounding) NES games. Granted, it is leagues away from the 16-bit opulence of the SNES sequel, but compared to other 8-bit titles, it's a real feast for the eyes. The variety shown in the environments is striking; one moment you're stalking the ghoul-filled streets of a Transylvanian town, the next you're trudging through thick, oozing mud trying to avoid the unwanted attention of frogs as large as horses. Elsewhere, the usual tropes exist (what would a Castlevania game be without a clock tower level?) but on the whole, this is an incredibly fresh journey into hell, and one that some fans would argue has never been bettered — at least not in the traditional side-scrolling entries.
Musically, Dracula's Curse improves on its prequels dramatically, offering up some amazing tunes which break away from the limitations of the host hardware to create some of the strongest and most memorable aural offerings in the entire franchise. NES soundtracks have a quality all their own — hence the desire of many modern developers to imitate that iconic sound — but the songs on offer here can be regarded as some of the best you're likely to hear in any game. That might sound like nostalgic hyperbole, but spend five minutes in the company of Dracula's Curse and you'll soon come around to our way of thinking.
Castlevania has taken many twists and turns as a franchise, from the side-scrolling originals to the "Metroidvania" epics of more recent memory. Given that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 seems to have performed poorly and alienated many hardcore fans, there's never been a better time to play what is unmistakably one of the highlights of the lineage. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse may have been released close to its visually and sonically superior SNES successor, but many devoted followers will argue that the NES game offers the better experience; the branching pathways, the additional characters and — possibly most importantly — a sterner, more rewarding challenge. This is rightly regarded as one of the finest NES titles ever made, and now is the perfect opportunity to rediscover its charms.