*Warning: Possible 30-year-old Castlevania spoilers ahead*
No doubt, thousands of Castlevania fans are getting their first taste of the sheer brilliance of Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse through the recent hit Netflix show. I'm just about to sit down and binge through the show, and I'm fully prepared to enjoy a solid two hours with four icons of my childhood.
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse was one of the games to worm its way into my NES collection as a kid. As I often recount, my original NES was kept at my grandmother's house, and I only had access to it on family vacations there. All three Castlevania games were waiting for me each time I visited, and I always dedicated a set amount of time to at least one of them. After getting my own NES and moving to Wyoming, Castlevania III was the only one my parents eventually bought for me.
And that's all I really needed. With all due respect to the establishing Castlevania and the ambitious Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse stomps all over them. Everything that the NES Castlevania series strived for appears in this game with a rock solid horror setting and nearly perfect level design for its style of platforming, and it remains a favorite of mine in the series to this day. Hopefully, this recent Netflix show brings appreciation for this timeless classic to the front of the stage, and those who enjoy it will take the chance to check it out.
And who knows, maybe we'll get another game out of it starring Castlevania III's brilliant cast. Trevor, Grant, Alucard, and Sypha have long been favorites of the fandom, and hints of their legacies and fates always bring up a ping of happiness whenever they are mentioned in the series' modern entries.
The four Vampire Hunters
You kids and your internets. When I was young, all I had was the video game instruction manuals to get a sense of what my video game characters looked like, not that I mind because nothing is cooler than an intact NES instruction manual. Often times, these booklets of brilliance would give a brief rundown of each character and supply a bit of art.
While you get to gawk at these hyper cool anime renditions of the characters, we only had a minuscule concept art and 8-bit featureless sprites to make a connection to each character. Needless to say, our imaginations had to fill in the gaps. These works of art come from the Japanese manual and have color, but the North American renderings of these images were black-and-white.
Trevor Belmont is the hero of the game, one of the earliest notable members of the Belmont family line, and the first to actually conquer Dracula. For those of us who jumped into the game without reading the manual right away, we thought that this was just another adventure with the legendary Simon Belmont since their sprites are nearly identical, but nope. This is Simon's great-great-great-grandaddy, or something like that.
This was a shock to many of us when we found out and a bit disappointing that Simon wasn't our hero, but history tends to remember Trevor a lot better in retrospect. He appears in more games than Simon, enjoys the ongoing reputation of Castlevania III, and he stars in a quality Netflix show.
Sorry Captain N: The Game Master, you just can't compete.
Gameplay-wise, you'll spend most of the time as Trevor Belmont. He's the most basic of the four characters and the most effective of the bunch. He can take punishing hits, dish out heavy damage at a safe distance with his lengthy whip, and has useful tools for bringing down the horrors of Dracula's castle.
Of course, the classic complaint of his stiff jumps still remains, but all three of the NES Castlevania games build their levels entirely around this jump physic. They accommodate for every move Simon and Trevor can make, so if you jump into a ditch or bump into an oncoming airborne enemy, that's on you, not on the game.
Trevor also stars in Castlevania: Curse of Darkness on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and zombie impersonators also make appearances in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin. Yes, he also appears in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate… but meh, that is a different incarnation of the character.
Grant Danasty has the least impact on the canon of Castlevania, but he's still an endearing figure of the franchise. Originally, Grant made a dishonest living as a thief in the country of Wallachia, but when Count Dracula overran his homeland, he forced himself into a life of resistance. A failed attempt on the life of Dracula led to the slaughter of his comrades and Danasty being cursed into the form of a demon. Dracula torments him by placing him as the guard of Castlevania's clock tower, where he waits in ambush for trespassers.
He's the first ally Trevor has access to at the end of the optional level 2. Those who choose to ascend the clock tower will battle Grant's demon form on the roof and then descend it with him in tow as an ally after the main bridge collapses. Of course, this stage is totally optional, and many who play Castlevania III skip out on Grant altogether since they plan to ultimately ally themselves with Alucard or Sypha instead.
Even if you don't stick with Grant, it's a fun side-quest, and you can end the game knowing he's been safely rescued.
Grant is a solid character and is often considered the best of the allies in tight competition with Sypha. He's light and agile, and he can even climb on walls! That's a mechanic which leads to plenty of countless deaths via falling.
In the North American version, he's actually nerfed! Konami replaced his throwing knife, similar to Trevor's special weapon, with a simple melee dagger. In the Japanese version, the throwing knife as a basic attack makes him a far more dangerous ally as a ranged character. Perhaps that would put him over the edge of Sypha in many eyes.
Sypha Belnades is a wandering witch whose family was burned at the stake during her youth. As her powers manifested, she turned to vampire hunting as an agent of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which took her in as an orphan. In Castlevania III, she disguises herself as a man during the Church's raid on Dracula's castle, a precaution for the locals' same fear of witches that led to her family's death, but she is kidnapped and turned to stone by a Cyclops.
She remains a statue in the cemetery, awaiting rescue.
Sypha was originally mistaken for a man by the players as well as Wallachia's citizens. The instruction manual and in-game localizations both refer to her as male, leading many to be confused about the series' canon for many years. Yes, we'll take another jab at Captain N: The Game Master for getting this wrong.
In the canon, she marries Trevor after the ordeal, again confusing many gamers, and she helps carry on the Belmont family line. It is because of her abilities that many Belmonts are able to control magic elements.
In the game, Sypha is generally considered the best of the three allies, although it's a tight choice with Grant. She is very fragile and takes twice as much damage as Trevor does for each hit, but her excellent selection of offensive magic spells can turn challenging boss fights into seconds-long skirmishes. You better practice dodging if you want to use her, which I do most times I play.
The last of the allies is easily the most famous of the three. Alucard is the son of Dracula, and he switches allegiances to join the Belmonts in putting his father's reign of terror to an end.
Alucard, of course, makes a return to the series on many occasions, most notably in the 1997 smash-hit Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the PlayStation. In this game, he battles his father once again and is torn apart from the warring instincts of his human mother and vampire father. He also appears in Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow hundreds of years in the future as Genya Arikado, an advisor to the young Soma Cruz.
Thank goodness Konami was able to reimagine the character into such a badass because Alucard is definitely the worst of Trevor's allies in Castlevania III. His ranged attack is short and weak, and he only has access to the useless Stopwatch item. His special ability of turning into a bat is also nigh useless except in one difficult trap stage. However, only Alucard has access to this place, so it ultimately doesn't even matter that he alone can traverse it with ease.
That being said, he's clearly among the most popular characters in the series… and it's all thanks to his later appearances. Alucard remains Castlevania III's sole poor design choice in an otherwise flawless game.
Timeless sounds and that brutal Difficulty Curve
Castlevania III is also infamous for a few more reasons. One, history reveals to us in North America that we never even got the true version of the game! More so than just Grant's weapon, the Japanese version also had an entirely different soundtrack that was far more technologically advanced. Konami's FC VRC6 chip that is used in the Japanese Famicom carts tapped into more sound layers, meaning more instruments could be generated at the same time within the game.
Nintendo of America banned such chips from the NES cartridges, and Konami had to dumb down the music and lots of other graphical effects to accommodate. For the sake of the music, listen to the differences between the two games with the opening stage's theme.
They both rock, but there's no going back once you get ahold of the Japanese Famicom cartridge.
Castlevania III also supports a pretty fair difficulty curve. When I replayed the game last year, I used the Nintendo 3DS emulator for the first time and challenged myself to beat it without save states. I almost accomplished this, relying solely on my dwindling NES gaming skills to practice and beat each boss fight with just enough pattern memorization, but I fell short. The last level and final boss fight proved too much for me.
Castlevania III, like most NES games of its era, is challenging but most of it can be overcome with enough practice.
Not this final fight though. Castlevania III's final stage is hard enough! And getting to the boss with a full meter of health is nearly impossible. Follow this up with three rounds against Dracula's three forms, and you're bound to lose time and time again.
Each time you die against Dracula, you have to run the last gauntlet of enemies before taking on the boss, which means you're not even guaranteed to make it to Dracula to get a few rounds of practice in. Only then does the true grind begin. You have to practice against Dracula's first form. Once you are good enough, you have to kill it flawlessly time and time again to get enough practice against the second form. Then, once you are skilled enough at killing both the first and second form flawlessly, then you can fight the third form and get your practice in.
Eventually, it will look like this. (We didn't have YouTube to help us learn patterns back in the day)
BUT, not without a lot of suffering. Each Game Over means you have to run the entire level again, which is painful enough. If you can beat the stage without taking a hit, and trust me, that's no easy task, you have my permission to use a save state at the bottom of the staircase to Dracula's Keep. That will at least save you the hassle of having to replay the level over and over again.
No save states during the fight!
The renewed interest in Castlevania is both pleasing and distressing to me. I am thrilled that young gamers have a new entry point into the series, especially one so directly related to Castlevania III. The return of Trevor, Grant, Sypha, and Alucard is, of course, a thrill ride beyond anything I hoped possible for the series.
However, as calls to Konami grow and grow to make a new game, I wonder if it has the will or talent left to do the series justice. Making a new game that stars these four characters would all be for naught if it turns out bad, like a cheap mobile cash-in or an "erotic violence" pachinko game. If any such game were to be made, Konami would have to hire some genuinely talented game designers to channel the series' high points.
Koji "Iga" Igarashi, producer of the series since the late 90s, famously moved on from Konami after the sales of the DS games plummeted to make Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. I don't think there is much hope in that marriage ever again.
It's a tough call, but some young developers out there have to have been touched by the series to be inspired to make a new era of greatness. If not, there's no point in trying again. Castlevania's legacy has set a standard that is too high, and anything less than that standard is just superfluous.
The Netflix series gives me hope that Castlevania still has lots of untapped potential, one that Konami might hopefully explore. It will have to do some soul searching to get back to the point of making games this good again, though.