I mentioned in my review of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest that it is just like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, in the sense that it deviated from what the public expected a sequel to be, offering more RPG-type elements instead of just straightforward platforming (or in Zelda's case, action-adventuring). But if Castlevania II is like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, then Castlevania III is its own series' Link To The Past. Everything that made the original Castlevania game so special and welcomed by the masses is back in full force, alongside new elements that trumps it. "Third time's a charm," they say, and it's never been more true than with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse for the NES.
This "prequel" of sorts takes place about 215 years before the original Castlevania. Simon Belmont has yet to be born; it is Trevor Belmont who must slay the irritating vampire debonaire with blood-sucking flair himself, Dracula, who has risen after a lengthy period of power retention and extensive waiting (centuries after the events of "Castlevania: Lament of Innocence" for the PlayStation 2)! So he has risen, and it's up to Trevor to go take him down and take him OUT! But unlike past adventures, Trevor's not alone in his quest. He will meet a few new characters along the way with abilities that may come in handy. I'll get to that part a little later.
Just like the original Castlevania game, this is a standard platforming game. You can walk left, right, and up and down stairs (although Trevor can't seem to land on them too well after plunging a distance... that's quite typical of the series), jump, and duck. However, no Castlevania game would be complete without the Vampire Killer, the legendary whip capable of defeating Dracula. Unfortunately, he can only whip in one direction (straight ahead), unlike later games which deliver a little more freedom in that respect. However, this is an NES title, so I'll let that one slide. Besides, he doesn't NEED those diagonal whipping abilities to survive here, although the ability to whip upwards wouldn't have hurt. In addition to his whip, he can pick up items such as the cross, the holy water, and the axe, as secondary weapons, powered by spending collected hearts. Trevor will also be able to snag power-up items for his whip to improve its attack power and range. The controls as a whole are quite responsive, so any deaths you think are "cheap" or generally ill-founded can only be blamed on the player -- YOU!
As I mentioned earlier, there is more than one controllable character in this game. This is true, but you must befriend the others in order to gain their help. Furthermore, you can only have one ally at a time, so if you have one already, you must make the choice as to who you'd rather have accompany you further. The interesting thing about this game is that at certain points in the game, you'll have the option of selecting different paths to travel upon (in other words, two different stages branching off from the same location), and whatever stage you choose to take may determine which character you encounter first (or at all). I'm not sure if it's possible to get through the game without MEETING anyone, but I believe it's possible to go through without taking anyone with you. Don't quote me on that though. Anyway, I'll talk a bit about those three potential allies. There's Grant DaNasty, a creepy short knife-wielder with the ability to climb walls (which may come in handy for some reason); next is Sylph Belnades, a sorceress with funky magic spells at her disposal; and Alucard, the son of Dracula, who likes to rebel against authority by shooting fireballs and morphing into bat form at will. (Yes, Alucard is Dracula spelled backwards. I know it's not original at all.) So, who would you like to take with you? I hope you find who you're looking for.
The graphics of the game are very dark and dreary, just as a spooky Castlevania game should be. In the Japanese version of this game, there is a special mapper chip that allowed for more detailed graphics and some cool effects, but that still doesn't detract from the ambiance of the varied locales of Castlevania III, including a forest, a swamp, a haunted ship, and the always necessary clock tower stage. The individual sprites animate fairly well also, although the main character has never been one to possess too many frames of animation. Similarly, the bosses and enemies, although fairly detailed, feel somewhat static, but I suppose I can only criticize a game like this so much since the NES certainly had its limitations. I might also take the opportunity to note that for non-Japanese releases of this game, there were some cases of Nintendo censorship, such as statues in the background being covered up, thus eliminating the exposure of stone chestal regions that are present in the Japanese version. Oh, Nintendo, you wily folks!
Just like the graphics, the music and sound are quite impressive. And just like the graphics, the Japanese version of the game had a new sound chip (the VRC6, to be precise) that allowed for extra channels of sound, resulting in more advanced synthesized music in the Japanese version. The North American and European releases did not have this chip; the music is therefore of lesser quality. However, the music is still quite catchy and sounds great coming from the now-ancient NES deck. Sound effects are standard Castlevania fare, often taken from its predecessors, but still of good quality, adding to the overall experience.
As far as quality goes, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse is by far the best Castlevania game of the original NES trilogy. Acknowledging all the great elements within -- the music, the graphics, the tight controls, and even the enjoyable level layouts that never seem too difficult to surpass, but still provide a surmountable challenge -- it's easy to see why so many people like this game, myself included. Pick this one up in your local pawn shop if you ever find it, or (hopefully) it might appear on the Wii's Virtual Console (it's always a possibility, since the original Castlevania is already there). And if you already have it, pop the cartridge into your NES and whip it! Whip it good!
(As a sidenote, you see that red sticker on the box front? There was a contest held upon this game's release which allowed you to win a trip to Dracula's hometown! Who won? Well, it certainly wasn't me...)