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Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse

Year released: 1990
Company: Konami
Genre: Action/Adventure

Although I spent a good three pages lambasting him, I will have to agree with Jeff Rovin on one thing: sequels are difficult to design, much less evaluate. On one hand, staying too close to the early installments cause drudgery, as we all get the impression that we've done this before. On the other hand, being completely unbonded to the conventions and institutions created by the series might anger devoted fans of the series, since if the year 1990 has told me anything, it's that messing with perfection is a direct cause of diminshed quality.1 Perhaps that is why the folks at Konami had a positively genius idea - combine the lineality of the original Castlevania to the open-ended elements of Simon's Quest to produce what I consider to be the best game in the series by far.

The plot is certainly predictable: Dracula is terrorizing the Transylvanian mainland, and has unleashed his undead army, yadda yadda yadda, and it's up to the Belmonts to save the world. The interesting twist to this story is that it takes place 100 years before the first game. That, plus the megadose of backstory given when the game is turned on and left alone (displayed on the screen as a reel of film - nice touch), plus the diverse albeit brief motivations of your spirit partners, give the storyline the touch that few action games have.

The audiovisuals continue the tradition of being as high-quality as one could expect. The graphics return to the Castlevania 1 template, which by no means would imply that they are simplistic. The animation is refined, the scenery is more colorful and detailed, and kudos must be made for inventing a font in lieu of that atmosphere-robbing ASCII type. But even the graphics are outdone by the soundtrack. The only theme that I really don't care for is the final level, only because it's so short and repetitive; all the rest of the music (and I do mean all the rest) is magnificent. Once again, the combination of tense and bopping themes truly exemplify what good game music should be.

Alas, the one thing that they didn't correct really brings down the average for this game, and that is the play control. Once again, you recoil like mad after taking a hit, and jumps by any character other than Grant are stiff and uncorrectable. And if anything, the call for acrobatics is increased in this game, giving the player an unfair disadvantage when good, clean jumps are required. Plus, there are some areas of the game (such as the mast jumps in Route 13)2 where it seems only Grant or Alucard could clear the jumps, meaning anyone who carries Sypha along is in real trouble.

Almost every single fault in both prequels as far as challenge is concerned was corrected. The large number of levels in the game rectify the compact-thus-steep learning curve of the first installment, while a password and 10-life option (use "HELP ME" as your name) guard against starting from scratch, which was SQ's main problem. Alas, one major fault still carries over: the game once again bases the amount of damage taken on the Route number rather than the nature of the attack. So, like before, getting smacked in the noggin with an axe in Route 7 still takes less energy than being nipped by a spider web in Route 16. Still, if you know what's in store for you ahead of time, hits can be minimized and thus some of the trouble that this causes can be alleviated.

The overall enjoyment of the game is helped drastically by the use of three separate roads one can use to reach Castlevania. All of them start with the first level (natch) and an optional tour de force inside a clock tower (which also involves climbing back down), but after that it's anybody's guess as to which direction you want to take. Combine that with the possibility of bringing one of three spirit partners with you, and you have a number of different ways to play. (Sadly, not all spirits are avaliable in every path.)

The fun factor benefits from this in two ways: First, each road has its own level of challenge, thus allowing both beginners and veterans to the game a chance at equal footing. Second, once you actually complete the game, you have the opportunity to do it again, but only with a different path. Or a different spirit. Or both. Considering how there are four different endings - one for each spirit partner as well as one for those who go it alone - the incentive to play over and over again is certainly present.

I'd like to think that it was this installment of the series that gave me the compassion to look at the other two again and pump up their ratings a little more. When a game enhances the overally quality of the series, you know you have one heck of a title on your hands.

1 - Back in 1990, revivals of The Joker's Wild and Tic Tac Dough were released, complete with bastardized formats, over-caffeinated hosts, cheap sets, low-end prizes, and chinsy theme music. Friends don't let friends watch Kline & Friends.

2 - Yes, I use Nintendo Power's route labels to specify each level. Crucify me.

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 14
Challenge: (Hard)
Aesthetic Score: 20
Overall Score: 81%

You are now listening to the Route 7 Music to Castlevania.