Castlevania III returns to the series’ first game’s action roots, adding a variety of new elements to the mix. It introduces a new hero, Trevor Belmont, who is essentially identical to previous hero Simon Belmont in every meaningful way. The primary differentiator of Castlevania III is that it also introduces three other playable characters, each with their own style of play.
The structure of Castlevania III is quite odd by NES standards. There are a total of 17 stages, but in any playthrough you’ll encounter no more than 10 of them. The second stage is fully optional, and lets you recruit one of the new characters, and the game splits into distinct paths, each with its own recruitable character, shortly after that. A second, smaller split occurs later on one of these paths, giving the game a total of three basic routes to play through. Because you can only have one character with you, there are a variety of ways to play through the game.
While you don’t actually have to recruit any of them to complete the game, the three optional characters really make Castlevania III special. Sypha has the same lack of mobility as Trevor, and a less impressive weapon, but wields powerful spells as sub-weapons. Grant can control his jumps in the air and can climb walls and ceilings, but lacks a variety of offensive options. Alucard can turn into a bat to fly past obstacles, but his only offense is in the form of a weak ranged attack. The game truly shines because the stages work so well with the different characters. You can freely switch between Trevor and your recruited character, and it can be incredibly fun to see how differently any given level plays with the mobility options of Grant or Alucard. The switching mechanic also finally makes the whip upgrades introduced in the original Castlevania serve a purpose, giving you an incentive not to neglect Trevor.
Unfortunately, while Castlevania III sports great level design, the game can be brutally hard at times. As with many action games of the time, the US version of Castlevania III was made considerably more challenging than the Japanese version, in an attempt to foil the rental market and give players an incentive to buy. Many stages, particularly on the harder route, need to be memorized in order to be beaten without a great deal of luck. It’s satisfying to complete the game, but the effort can be aggravating. If the basic game challenge isn’t enough for you, you can replay the game in a harder mode after viewing the ending. This even lets you take your recruited character to stages they would not otherwise be available for.
Castlevania III is a great game marred by unfair difficulty. It’s worth mastering, though, and there’s plenty of room to experiment with different characters and game routes. If you’re a fan of the old-school Castlevania style, this is the game for you. But don’t let the presence of Alucard fool you into thinking this game is similar to Symphony of the Night and its ilk.