Sunday, September 7, 2014

Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse - Stumbling Upon Destiny
How "anything" became the only thing that could alter the course of history.

Try as I might, I just couldn't get past that fourth stage in Castlevania. I'd played through punishing action games in the past, but most of them were largely obstacle- or puzzle-based, the closest thing to an end-boss being that perched projectile-spitting demon you could harmlessly sprint below in Bruce Lee. That is, I was still new to the idea of super-tough end-stage bosses, among whom the duo of Frankenstein and Igor were certainly top-ranked. It wasn't that I was pissed at the numerous limply countered thrashings I took so much as those few times times I'd somehow get them down to one hit only to be soul-crushingingly killed by a conveniently propelled fireball, fired as if its trajectory was based more on clairvoyance than actual calculation. 

There were moments in games that discouraged me, yes, but being repeatedly denied victory by a perceived impenetrable boss--completely random in its offensive onslaught and thus immune to all conceivable strategies--left me feeling sour enough to where I never wanted to see Castlevania again.  Here was a case, like with Bionic Commando, where I was in love with the content and setting of a game, but I was so peeved about one specific element of it that I was content to file it away for good, leaving it only to memory. The experience colored my judgment so disdainfully that I didn't even entertain the notion of purchasing its sequel, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, even though I appreciated its divergent shift and was equally enamored with its setting and aesthetic qualities.

No--I was done with the Castlevania series, and there wasn't much out there that was going to change my mind.

Then something happened that altered the course of my entire gaming history. It's a tale I've recounted a few times before: It was the winter of 1990, and I was at the zenith of my NES ownership. I'd come into possession of countless more games in the coming years, certainly, but I already had everything I needed, and I was deeply immersed in recent standout releases like Mega Man 3, Maniac Mansion, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game, all of which were consuming my leisure time. One day, my brother was about to head out to the electronics store to no doubt clean up on some bargain-bin releases when he asked me if there were any games he wanted me to pick up. I had nothing in mind, since the NES' release-list was rapidly drying up, but there was always something tempting about the idea of my big brother cruising down to the game store and loading up on games, as if I'd be missing out on some major opportunity for personal enrichment if I didn't snag any prizes. So I did what I was apt to do in that situation: I handed him $40 and told him to "get anything."

I'm not sure whether to call it a random act of fate or some divine intervention by the gaming gods, but something steered him toward Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which I'd seen prominently displayed in stores during the previous months but never paid much attention to it in light of my unpleasant experience with its progenitor. So when he came home that day and presented me with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, I was mildly annoyed. "Why would I want to play the sequel to a game that frustrated me to the point of madness?" I thought. I wasn't going to return it, but I also had no real plans of giving it serious consideration. If I was going to give it a quick sampling, that is, it was only because real money had been spent on it, and I felt I owed it to my brother, who was nice enough to include me in his game-hunting activities (even though it was me paying for this one).

So I dispassionately inserted Dracula's Curse into the NES, suspecting my time with it would be short, and prepared for the worst. Suddenly, I found myself caught off guard by its intro, which caught my attention; I thought it was quite innovative how the opening storyline sequence elapsed as if it were being presented on old film, which created an "antique" feeling that seemed appropriate for a series whose subject-matter originated in another age; the profoundly sad music and dark-shaded imagery provided a grim, somber resonance to the storyline explanation, which made for quite a tonal change in comparison to Castlevania's non-serious monster-movie vibe. 

The intro simply stated that Dracula's forces had ravaged most of Europe, as they were prone to do, and that the previously banished Trevor Belmont was called upon to counter the threat, but the picture it created was rendered with a tint of austerity beyond what I originally perceived to be a series centered around a goofy-fun monster-hunt. Was this thoughtfully crafted title-screen a sign that I almost missed out on another wonderfully divergent sequel? Well, not at first. When I took control of the action, after the praying Trevor turned toward the camera and majestically flipped his cape to signal the start of his righteous journey, I groaned upon learning that it played exactly like Castlevania, which would have been obvious to me had I actually taken a token glance at Nintendo Power previews (or at anything else that wasn't in my direct interest). 

The formula was clearly a copy-paste job, with the same heads-up display, the same controls, and apparently all the same weaponry. Save for a headband and long hair, Trevor even looked remarkably similar to Simon in both his movements and color-scheme. I found it kind of cheap in light of the existence of Super Mario Bros. 3, which returned to its block-breaking roots around the same time and didn't need to replicate its inspiration down to every pixel. And there was at least an excuse for Mega Man's unchanging sprite design: It was the same guy! "What gives?" I silently questioned. I even paused the game to skim over its manual, whose listings confirmed that indeed shared all of its items and weapons with its forebearer. There was also something in there about "alternate routes" and "ally helpers," but I wasn't yet so invested in Dracula's Curse that any of it registered with me.

But there was much more to Dracula's Curse beyond what I'd gleaned in those first few seconds. Indeed, the serious, unsettling tone created by the strong opening sequences continued to reverberate through to that first stage, which I observed to reflect a desolate, dilapidated world brought to life by the game's astonishingly detailed graphics; the near background was littered with wrecked buildings and ruins as being slowly enveloped by vegetation that would inevitably become its only exterior, and the distant backdrop was dominated by the silhouttes of edifices whose arches and pillars were mere shadows and yet so much more. 

Also, this stage had a startlingly awesome musical theme whose complex arrangement entailed several powerfully intertwined strains, including most prominently, I thought, a moody baseline that both guided the piece and supplied it emotional depth; created was an evocative symphony of sound that further defined Dracula's Curse's dystopic world, its every aesthetic now reverberating throughout every corner of my room.

Dracula's Curse looked and sounded terrific, I had to admit, and I hadn't even passed the first door. Truly, the visual feast continued beyond that first segment, as I now climbed my way through a church whose walls were adorned with stained-glass windows so detailed that you could identify each sash's depiction of an angelic figures. Then it was on to the town the limits, where you could view what was left of the people's abandoned homes from the foreground--particularly the depressively brown-hued outer walls that spoke of the method of destruction. The craggled, decayed zombies rising from the ground were the perfect symbol for the town's current status and state of disrepair. 

Soon the action shifted into a neglected graveyard, with more in the way of zombies and a deepening permeation of death; better yet, the entire scene was flanked by menacing, darkly shaded mountains (my favorite!), which to me was a prime visual and made Dracula's Curse worthy of my stamp of approval. The stage's increasingly impressive aesthetic presentation culminated with a nicely scripted Skull Knight battle; while it wasn't a particularly difficult boss fight, the entire sequence demonstrated to me the extent of the extra-mile craftsmanship that went into making this game, citing specifically how the formless Skull Knight, seen laying in a heap even before the battle's commencement, suddenly sprung to life and then screamed in agony upon its defeat. The NES wasn't known for its strong voice-sample output, which was scratchy and often jarring, but the developers managed to pull off some type of voodoo that allowed for clearly audible, convincing death throes. 

My sense was that Dracula's Curse was another of those next-level efforts, a game whose technical quality seemed to stretch far beyond the bounds of that which the NES was capable (this was the same console that was once known for having a version of Donkey Kong whose space limitations required that Nintendo cut out one of only four stages), and one that could convincingly stand in a next-generation launch title. Its graphics and sound were certainly far superior to those in Castlevania, which--don't get me wrong--looked great and provided an imagination-stirring interpretation of a tattered, haunted castle, but it was sloppy and incoherent in spurts--some of its backgrounds best described as messy sprite-collages comprised of cobbled-together chunks of previously seen structures.

I still wasn't sure about Dracula's Curse, though. I mean, what I'd seen thus far was assuring, and this was certainly a next-level video-game, but I had one very big worry: That first stage was entirely too long, and I took it as a very ominous sign that Medusa Heads, Hunchbacks and Bone Pillars were appearing this early in the game. These were enemies whose presence was a clear measure of the original game's difficulty-progression, and here they were in the first stage, which was lengthier than any of those found in Castlevania. If Dracula's Curse was fairly difficult at even its starting point, then how much worse could it get? Where would this game's "Frankenstein and Igor" show its face, and how soon would I hit that same impenetrable wall? 

But I was intrigued; I wasn't sure that I possessed the mettle necessary to handle yet another NES-hard game, but I'd deemed that Dracula's Curse was worthy of a bit more inspection.

In following, I was given a choice between two stages: A clock tower and a woodsy area. "Alternate routes" was a concept much more interesting when seen in practice. "A clock tower this early, though?" I queried, somewhat distressed. "Wasn't that the toughest stage in the original?!" I decided to check out the clock tower, anyway, and was again taken aback by the scene soon playing out. Another complex, stirring stage theme--this one more urgent in tone and yet somehow sobering--gave welcome to a starting screen filled with animation, with gears of all shapes and sizes spinning dutifully, their every movement orchestrated by a series of chain-linked pulleys that could be seen running throughout the clock tower. 

This was a far cry from Castlevania's static, lifeless clock tower, whose motionless gears functioned as normal platforms. No--a lot of this clock tower's innards were tangible, and I was able to traipse along large gears, either vertically positioned or flat, and even hop onto giant pendulums, the visual and animation of which was super-impressive and made me wonder, "How did they do that?" I wasn't happy to see swarms of Medusa Heads flying about--here in the most uneven of settings--but I was beginning to become more adept at predicting their patterns and reacting accordingly. The long climb up this terrificly designed stage ended with a battle against Nasty Grant, whose defeat introduced me to the ally system I'd also glossed over. 

I accepted Grant's offer, of course, and was ready for the next stage, which was ... the clock tower again?! Yes--it appeared I had to now descend down the same series of rooms I'd already negotiated. "Wild!" I thought, having never seen something like that in a game. Even though his offensive skills were too weak to keep him persistently active, I had a lot of fun testing out Grant's surface-crawling ability (outside of suffering a few plunging deaths as caused by control hiccups during corner-crossing)--another wonderfully inventive, awe-inspiring mechanic--and finding interesting ways to skip large swaths of the stage by climbing over cut-off walls and recklessly dropping down the long vertical passages.

I was back on the linear path and heading into the forest, which from its starting point was appropriately haunting. Unlike the woods in Simon's Quest, whose assemblage of trees was crafted by repeating one tree design over and over again, the forest here had a more detailed set, its grouping including two layers of trees whose between-spaces were embellished by a sprinkling of creepily twisting foilage and distant objects shaded blue to express their harrowing depth. A sign of such were the glowing eyes that would appear in the blackest of its spaces, their sudden illumination a warning that giant owls would soon emerge from the darkness and swoop down for the kill.

The overpass in following was another of the developers' "Hey--look at this!" specialties, as I found myself besieged by several layers of fog whose ascending thickness worked to obscure the action while barely shrouding the frightening-yet-harmless lightning bolts that continued to loudly rip through the background. There was no boss here, strangely--just another split path. So I decided to take the high road, whose luminous statues looked more welcoming than the dreary marshland. Oddly, this path appeared to be an extension of the previous area, with more in the way of woodsy-type environments and fog (or, considering its intangible nature, an asset recycled to represent a flowing river) and some new enemies, like the Balloon Pods that gave me trouble at first. 

I was surprised when my defeat of the Cyclops led to the appearance of Sypha, since I assumed that, as in the case of Grant, all gained allies would initially appear as bosses. I agreed to the request to bring "him" along but unfortunately lost the services of Grant, who I was hoping would stick around as a third wheel. Sypha, it turned out, was just as physically weak as Grant but without the agility factor, and I wasn't especially happy with the choice I made. But I soon learned why the trade was in my my best interest: The magically inclined Sypha was a beast. I procured a fire spell in the opening area of the next stage, The Haunted Ship of Fools, and witnessed its dismantling of the irritating Dhurons and all other undead scourges with its morning-star-level range and considerable ferocity. "This ally system is brilliant," I concluded from evidence gathered thus far, and I couldn't wait to see if my path of choice would lead to the acquired services of others like Grant and Sypha (I was hoping the manual was omitting mention of additional characters).

Dracula's Curse was quickly growing more challenging, now with craftier enemies (like those positioned to knock you into bottomless pits), the addition of mid-bosses, and the introduction of those gaps whose clearing space was two blocks in both height and width and required pixel-perfect jumps--a skill necessary if you hoped to clear the most worrisome of their kind, which gave way to bottomless pits; in my earliest sessions with the game, I had a strong tendency to always come up short on these jumps, which created a mental hurdle I wasn't quick to overcome. This was the kind of stuff that ordinarily would turn me off to a Castlevania game, but I didn't feel deterred in this instance; rather, I felt somehow capable with Sypha and her deadly spells at my command.

Without realizing it, I was now fully engulfed in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which had sucked me in with its gorgeous visuals, incredibly evocative music, and amazing sense of atmosphere. Every inch of every stage decor was embellished with memorable little touches like the aforementioned gears that spun ceaselessly and without clearly defined function (I always wondered why there were so many of them and if some were forgotten or now lacking purpose); the darkened evergreens that added personality to forest backdrops that could have otherwise been left blank; and the thunderstorm that continued to rage during the Cyclops battle. Even the tiniest details, like a ghost ship's logical construction (with decks, masts, hulls and sails where they should be) or a red-colored tower suddenly turning a gloomy shade of purple as I reach its open-air heights, kept me engaged enough to continue playing over the next few days.

I saw the game through to its end even though I struggled with terribly difficult portions like the bone-dragon-littered red-tower climb and the penultimate Castlevania stage, which featured a combination of seemingly every insidiously designed stage hazard and the ulta-tough Doppelganger boss (who I had to resort to cheesballing on the advice of Nintendo Power, which suggested that I continuously switch between partners and nip away at the Doppelganger with cheap hits as it morphed in kind). I played it quite a few times over the weeks in following but mainly gravitated toward the easy route--that is, the path that entailed the Ship of Fools and the most linear path to the castle. Though I would assuredly swap Grant for Sypha fairly quickly, I always made sure to visit the clock tower, anyway, since I loved its design of it, its music, and the reversed second phase.

I wasn't at first interested in fully exploring the alternate paths, since the route I was taking offered what I felt was enough game-content on its own (really, I was still a bit unadventurous and perhaps a little intimidated by what Nintendo Power revealed to be the game's most-challenging stages), but I really wanted to find out what Alucard was all about ("Dracula already?" as the magazine framed it). Well, it was a lot like meeting the 12th Baldwin brother: An exciting proposition at first, but ultimately pointless. His fireball attack, even when fully powered to three-directional, was too weak to effectively assail the most minor of enemies, no less bosses, and I found little use for him outside of lazily flying over certain obstructions and trouble spots like those dreaded caverns with all those headache-inducing Mummy Men (both among my least-favorite game elements).

While the elapsement of its showy flood sequence was impressively executed, I also wasn't a fan of the Skeledragon-infested sunken-city stage, whose second half required that I outrace a rising tide to conclude a Bone Dragon King boss battle that previously halted when it tried to escape and flood the city in response to my pounding on him. Even when my advancement was flawless, there were still times when I'd drown before I could finish the deed. And I absolutely hated the Mountain Range level and particularly its second half, which was akin to a painfully tedious, non-interactive game of Tetris. The pattern of the falling blocks was predictable enough (at least until the pile started nearing the screen's vertical limit), but I still couldn't help but be abused, knocked repeatedly into the gaps on either side by blocks that would find a way to nick me. I'd rather use Alucard to fly up and around the whole mess, which wasn't necessarily an available option considering that it took hearts to power the ability and they'd probably be in too short in supply.

Add in a series of excessively long, brutally difficult segments plus a trio of recycled bosses (who will certainly be tougher than advertised due to your likely lacking for health) and you have the worst stage in the game and a prime reason to avoid ever taking this route. Sorry, Alucard.

For better or worse, though, it was all gravy. Dracula's Curse had long since cemented itself as one of my favorite games, and I loved soaking in every inch of it. If the original Castlevania painted a portrait of a quaint, deteriorated castle situated in the most remote region of Transylvania, then Dracula's Curse marvelously sculpted a stunningly expansive world whose bounds were few. Where else could I go to climb up and then down a massive clock tower? Balance my way across a ship's unsteady masts as they dip under my weight? Hop across large spinning gears and giant pendulums? Solidly freeze a stream of water and all of its inhabitants rather than resistantly trudge through it? Outpace collapsing towers and rising floods? Battle so many massive bosses?

Dracula's Curse's was a vast world whose painstakingly detailed scenery popped to life and inspired me to imagine; it was alive to me, its every sound thunderously impactful, whether it was a Cyclops slamming its sledgehammer into the ground or a simple transitional event like a coffin door swinging open. Even superfluous tricks like the harnessing of lighting as an alternate means to dispatch the Cyclops showed me that the developers were keen to commit themselves to an exhaustive effort to pack in as much content needed to make Dracula's Curse's feel like an genuinely functional world. And I thank them for that.

More importantly, Dracula's Curse got me back into the Castlevania series. Having now been supplied confidence enough to tackle its previously insurmountable challenges, I felt the urge to earnestly return to the original Castlevania (a game even my friends agreed was "impossible") and finally take down the dastardly duo that so tormented me. My ever-improving Castlevania skills (and more than a few vials of holy water) allowed me to do just that and more. Thus, after a rocky start, Castlevania also became one of my favorite games and one I haven't stopped playing since.

I returned to Dracula's Curse consistently over the years in following, always with the intention of reliving an unforgettable experience and never missing the chance to enjoy basking in its rich, engulfing atmosphere. I considered a masterpiece--an all-time great video game from a company that strived to push the NES to its limits and produce one of its best titles. They succeeded masterfully, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse doing for the Castlevania series what Super Mario Bros. 3 did for its own. As I grew, I even came to value the series' patented brand of challenge, which I could observe was disappearing in favor of "accessibility" (bzzzzzzt) as we moved into the 16-bit era; much of what fueled my countless revisits was my desire to more effortlessly tackle its intentionally stiff trials and gain a semblance of mastery over it. In time, I could clear it without suffering a single death, which once seemed implausible.

My more recent experiences with Dracula's Curse are centered around the eccentric Japanese version, whose array of differences has made for a trove of endless discovery. For one, the quality of its already splendid musical composition is even more pronounced thanks to Konami's specially created VRC6 chip, which allowed its Famicom games to output superior sound. Ally Grant wields useful throwing daggers rather than a short, insufficient knife. Hunchbacks are absent, replaced by those Gremlins that I was sure saw their true debut in Super Castlevania IV. Some enemy sprites differ, the North American versions having been altered to make them look meaner (because, apparently, Japanese companies thought that Westerners wouldn't buy games unless all characters were depicted as scowling or grimacing). And there's additional list of trivial graphical and mechanical changes that are too myriad to list here (you can read about on my site). Really, it has enough differences to qualify as a different game. I learn something new every time I play it.

In truth, I haven't played through Dracula's Curse in quite a while. Chalk it up to (a) burnout after having played through it too many times and (b) the existence of Castlevania, whose shorter, more-manageable length has led to it becoming my chief go-to series game for any of those times when I get that vampire-hunting itch. It feels weird to so neglect a game for which I have so much affection--one that I'd be liable to immediately name upon being asked about my favorite games--but I know that there's no span of disengagement long enough to make me ever feel truly distant from Dracula's Curse. Even if I never play it again, it'll still always be right there, continuing to shape my memories and spur my imagination as it always has.

Dracula's Curse was instrumental in elevating the Castlevania series to the top tier of my gaming pantheon. It's therein responsible for my embracing of its two predecessors, for which I came to have great adoration, and the many Castlevania-titled games to follow. That's the true measure of its power.

Above all, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse remains my favorite Castlevania game, and it's not likely it'll ever be eclipsed.

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