I typically enjoy older games more than newer, and having grown up with the Nintendo lineage, I feel I am well-versed in many a classic paragon of the 8- and 16-bit eras. And I, like many others, have a special fondness for Castlevania - it's deep, engaging lore; compelling, stand-behindable characters; and awesome, vampire-killing gameplay. So it may come as somewhat of a surprise that my first experience with Castlevania III, the last entry in the NES Castlevania lineup, was but a mere six days ago.
Florid prose aside, I enjoyed my brief time with it. Like many a stellar title of NESes past, an end-to-end run of the game is quite short. Assuming a success as the end marker, you're looking at 30-45 minutes for a decent run with minimal deaths; much longer than that, obviously, if you factor in "Nintendo hard". And don't get me wrong, this game is quite difficult, especially if you are not generally familiar with the mechanics. So, let's get to it.
First things first: you are Trevor Belmont, last in a long line of superhuman vampire hunter Belmonts, tasked with breaking Dracula's curse. That's it - no super-extended intro, no movie-length cutscenes, just a title screen, name entry, and six-second placement shot between you and the game. How I miss that no-bullshit approach.
Let's cover a few regular aspects of the game, starting with the graphics.
8-bit is 8-bit, let's not kid ourselves - everything is that special 320x240 chunky, the enemy sprites are sometimes difficult to identify (is that a monkey? a hunchback?), and the parts of a level that are solid vs. not can be downright confusing. But for 8-bit, it's not terrible, and have somewhat improved over Castlevania the first. The sprite limit is still in effect, as is some general slowdown (in isolated cases) and the normal glitchy flicker or two. Even with the limitations of the day, there's a surprising amount of pleasant...um...surprises. A lot of background set pieces are animated, there's a few atmospheric effects in play, and transparency is at least attempted on more than one occasion.
For 8-bit audio, many NES games have some of the greatest of the then-era musicks, and Castlevania III is no slouch. There's a bunch of awesome new tunes, plus some reimaginings from Castlevania the first (spoiler alert: the CV3 version of Vampire Killer is pretty damned sweet). Oh, and if the original isn't enough, there's tons of fan-works dedicated to the whole Castlevania series, with at least one full album just for CV3 itself! Sound effects are nice and punchy - you know when you've hit something, you know when you've killed something, and you know when you picked something up. Also, the end-of-level ditties are eminently acappella and empowering for your one-step-closer-to-victory party.
(Super bonus link: Unchosen Paths, by goat)
Controls are a solid piece of work. You move left, you move right, you jump, and you attack; all the benefits of two buttons and a D-pad. As part action-platformer, the jumping itself is slightly above average; the arc is fixed, and it'll take you some time to eyeball the maximum distance you can clear in a single bound. That said, once you are so acclimated, you will know as soon as you leave the ground whether you will land where you wanted or not (if at all). There's no mid-air readjustment, so once that button is down, you're committed.
The whip (Trevor's primary attack) is solid and requires a few frames to spin up, but it generally gets most jobs done. Breaking open secrets, like wall chicken and other bonuses, seems a little looser than Castlevania the first; that is, you need to be closer than you would think, and it's not quite as snappy as the original. Small nag, though, as its still a rather badass way to hunt vampires.
As a Castlevania mainstay, the secondary weapons are many and powered by hearts. You get your dagger, axe, boomerang, and holy water; with smaller subsets (or none at all) for the alternate characters. My personal favorite is the boomerang - let that sucker fly and you're covered on a straight line across the entire screen nearly twice over; though, the holy water is almost overpowered against ground-based foes, and handy for freezing airborne ones even remotely near the flame. The placement of these secondaries throughout the levels is inspired, but you won't realize that until after you've picked up the wrong one. Thankfully, they're in consistent locations, so you can avoid them as you desire.
As you go through the game, certain levels allow you to join up with a second character, who has their own quirks and abilities. For Belmont purists, this is unnecessary, but it lends a level of depth to the linearity that is classic Castlevania which otherwise would be jump, whip, jump, whip, whip, duck.
- Grant - acrobat; moves faster and jumps higher, and change direction mid-jump; can climb walls and crawl along the ceiling, and toss daggers from anywhere
- Sypha - vampire huntress and mage; physically weaker, but has a one-frame short-range mace attack, and can cast fire and ice spells
- Alucard - of Symphony of the Night fame; taller, moves a bit slower, but can cast a three-shot spread fireball, and transform into a bat
The unfortunate limitations to this system are that you can only have one of the above with you at a time (you can choose which to keep at meeting points), and that you share health bars with them. The positive, however, is that you can switch between Trevor and your partner at will during the game, with a three-second fadey-fade.
As linear as the levels are (start at point A, get to point B, maybe kill boss), the sequencing of each level is pretty damned cool. CV3 actually managed to introduce some limited level branching, with different paths you can take (you must physically walk Trevor to your selection between areas). Length-wise, there's more levels in total, but roughly the same amount of play regardless of the paths you choose.
For a mostly straight forward game, CV3 includes a password system. Any time you get a "game over", you can either continue or get the password up to that point: a 4x4 grid composed of up to 4 unique symbols; just large enough to be difficult to remember, but certainly not as bad as more text-based ones (I'm looking at you, Metroid). Curiously, I found it rather difficult to actually enter the damned thing, and opted simply to play the game up to the points of my untimely demise again.
There's a few glitches here and there, but nothing truly game-shattering. In true NES form, most enemies that go off-screen will not return; however, some actually do, and which ones do so appears to be random. Also, because of this, enemy duplication is possible, at many inopportune times. At some points, the game tries to mimic curved surfaces, and the collision detection with said surfaces is...bad, at best. A good attempt was made, but that's all it was.
Anyway, I'm not one to generally recommend a possibly-illegal method of playing a great game, but if you do not have access to an NES console and the Castlevania III cartridge, grab an emulator and play this wonderful game. You shall be enriched by it; moulded by it; and, if your spirit prevails, accepted by it.
I also don't do "scores" on reviews, so it's either a recommend/not-recommend to play it. As I already stated above - play it.
That's all for now.
Zero Hour Productions