Classic, old-school Casltevania fun
Set in the 15th Century, Dracula's Curse puts you in the role of Trevor Belmont. You will have to traverse through the Transylvanian countryside and infiltrate Dracula's castle, where you will face the evil vampire himself in an effort to save the continent of Europe.
As Trevor, you use your trusty Vampire Killer whip as your primary weapon, as well as an assortment of other standard Castlevania secondary weapons such as the axe, the boomerang, and the fiery holy water. You will come across enemies you've encountered before like skeletons, mermen, and the floating medusa heads. While the game sticks to the basic Castlevania formula, there are two features introduced in this game that separate it from the rest if the series.
In the midst of your quest, you'll be given a choice as to which level you'll play next. Depending on which path you take, you will eventually encounter certain characters who, after defeating them (or their captors), will offer their help in your battle against Dracula. Only one spirit may accompany you at one time so if you already have a spirit by your side, you must choose who stays with you when you encounter another one. The combination of these two features keeps the game interesting long after you've beaten it the first time, as you'll want to explore every possibility in consequent replays.
When you recruit a spirit, you'll be able to transform into them, granting you access to their unique set of weapons and special abilities. The pirate, Grant Danasty, is very agile and can climb walls, allowing you to reach places other characters cannot and even bypass certain areas all together. The sorceress, Sypha Belnades, possess the game's most powerful spells. Dracula's own son, Alucard, has the ability to transform into a bat that can fly through the level. Each character offers a different style of play and you'll find yourself creating strategies depending upon whom you choose. Regardless of whom you pick, you'll still rely upon Trevor since he offers the most balanced set of weapon and use your spirit as the situation calls for help.
However, not each character offers the same amount of help. Alucard is arguably the weakest of the three; his primary weapon is incredibly weak and cannot be used when he's walking on stairs. His ability to transform into a bat, while well animated and fun to use, is not nearly as applicable or useful as Grant's ability to climb walls. This is in stark contrast to Sypha's powerful spells. She has an ice spell that can freeze enemies and running water, and her lighting and fire spells deal tremendous damage to your enemies.
Like most Castlevania games, Dracula's Curse is very difficult. Unlike a normal progression of easy to hard, this game progresses from hard to even harder. You'll face multiple zombies at once while flying medusa heads swirl in the air. You will face giant spiders that shoot webs at you while you jump from one platform to another. Get used to dying because it will happen a lot. Fortunately, there is a password screen that allows you jump right into the level you were last playing. Despite the many dire situations you'll face throughout the course of the game, it hardly ever feels impossible. Every situation and boss is tough within reason and if you're having trouble, it's because your current strategy isn't working. Persistence and trial and error are always rewarded with success in this game.
As an 8-bit game, Dracula's Curse shows its age. Despite improved graphics over two first games, the game looks pixilated. However, the game does have its moments. The clock tower level is beautifully designed. As you ascend, you really get the sense that you're in the inner workings of an actual clock tower. You'll see the clerestory windows and gears in the background, and even use the clocks pendulums as platforms in order to progress. Another level places you in a sunken city. The city is beautifully designed, especially when you notice the ruins of temples and statues in the background as you walk through the level. One of the most memorable parts that level is near the end when you have to battle a skeleton dragon as the city sinks further into the water. With the pulsing music in the background, it is one of the most tense-filled situations in the entire game.
Speaking of music, the game also features one of the best scores I've heard in an NES game. Despite the MIDI format heard in the game, you can clearly hear how orchestral the score can be (just YouTube "Castlevania III Piano" if you don't believe me). From the methodical tempo of the music used in the clock tower, or the bass-heavy beat heard in the cavernous depths of Dracula's castle, each track is perfectly suited to the stage you're playing. As you approach the end of the game, the music becomes increasingly more kinetic with each passing level, creating a sense of urgency and anxiety as you draw nearer to Dracula himself.
Once you've beaten the game, you can start a second "hard" quest from the beginning accompanied by the spirit with whom you finished game. Yes, the game can get even harder than before. Not only will you face tougher, upgraded versions of every enemy found in the game, they will appear in bigger droves and in places they weren't in the normal quest (Remember those pesky Medusa heads? They've been replaced by flying skulls that fly unpredictably in the air). The second quest provides excellent replay value for those looking to extend their experience.
Those who enjoy the Castlevania series will enjoy Dracula's Curse for its classic Castlevania fun while infusing new elements into its game play. But people for whom this game is their first foray into the series will find a satisfying challenge. And with all the different ways to get through the game, Dracula's Curse is a game you'll want to revisit several times.