Saturday, October 24, 2015

Castlevania III: Akumajou Densetsu (Famicom, 1989)

(Originally posted in 2010, now heavily remastered for 2015. This is probably the most-remastered of anything I've remastered. Without further ado, let's start this.)

Time for another classic game. It's worth noting that what I'm playing here isn't Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse as we know it here in the States. It's the Famicom version of that game, translated as Legend of Demon Castle. (Note: Pay no attention to the title screen spelling it "Akumajyou", as the Y is evidently a typo in the version I got ahold of).

Why play the Japanese version over the U.S. version, you ask? Well, this version has vastly better music and a more down-to-Earth challenge level. That's right, this is one instance of an NES game that was actually made more difficult for the North American version. A more manageable challenge level is very welcome here; the U.S. version is so difficult that it might as well have been a game about birthing a meteor. The music is also notably improved in this version, due to it having a special sound chip that the North American version lacked. Now that we've established all of that, time to play the most well-balanced version of the third game in the series.

The story begins with Trevor Belmont kneeling in a ruined church...

...before standing up with a stylish cape-toss!

He's the ancestor of Simon Belmont, which means this game is a prequel to the first two. Trevor Belmont functions pretty much the same as his later descendant, using a whip to fight his way through Dracula's Castle. This game introduces some non-linear elements like alternate routes through stages, but doesn't go overboard with nonlinearity to the point of becoming confusing like the previous game. Also, there are three side-characters to recruit and play as, a first for the series. One of them is Alucard, son of Dracula, making his first series appearance.

Fun Fact: Surprisingly, the cross seen here actually made it into the North American version intact. Given how censored the North American versions of games of that era were, it's surprising that any religious imagery would be allowed.

While the first two games have fairly clear backgrounds with good art direction, things get a bit muddy for this one. These backgrounds are a bit chaotic and not exactly easy on the eyes. The character sprite for Trevor is an improvement from the previous games, at least. I also like the silhouettes of buildings in the background. The levels are back to being hallways without any real back-tracking involved. All things considered, this is more of a followup to the first game than it is to Simon's Quest.

The graphics outside may not be the best, but they get very good when it comes to interior areas. For an NES game, these stainglass windows are impressive. Combine that with the special sound chip that this version sports, and it's a bit of an audio/visual achievement. The sound isn't SNES-level but it's better than the typical NES game for sure.

 Trevor has a good amount of frames of animation for an 8-bit game, too. Check that guy out.

Time for an audio comparison, while I'm on the subject. Here's one of the better tracks in the game, but from the North American version.

And here's the Akumajou Densetsu version of the song. WOW.

With that, the game resumes with...oh, come on. Here we see Trevor taking a leak somewhere. Is that really necessary, man? The peasants work hard to survive under Dracula's tyrannical regime, and Trevor just comes along and pees wherever he pleases?

Unfortunately, the leak ended up landing right on an old minotaur burial ground, awakening the first boss. This game places much more emphasis on the boss fights than the previous games did, and features them in abundance. This minotaur skeleton is an easy fight, but the difficulty only goes up from here. One thing worth noting is that the boss' attack reaches further than Trevor's whip, something that holds true for most of the major foes in the game. To draw another Dark Souls comparison, you need to be on the ball when it comes to knowing how far you and your foe can reach, especially with the whip being somewhat slow to strike with. Getting in close and attack-mashing won't get you far in these games, and you won't win a slugfest with any of the bosses.

One of the cool things about this game is that sometimes the path branches, and the player can choose which stage to continue with. This leads to the secondary characters, so let's take a look at them.

There's the heroic Alucard, son of Dracula, who isn't yet the super-badass he ends up being in later games... but he can turn into a bat. He deals with his father issues through brute force.

 Grant Dynasty, an odd hunched-over brawler who has to have one of the coolest names in the history of gaming. He can walk on walls and the ceiling, which has situational uses.

And finally, Sypha, who may or may not be a dude and/or a chick. He/she is a mage. Unfortunately, without the instruction booklet, I can only guess at his/her gender. I know the kids these days have Wikileaks and whatnot so maybe someone can figure this one out.

(2023 Editor's Note: Sypha's a woman. Well, glad we cleared that up)

The crushing spike platforms of doom from the other games make yet another appearance here. If only Trevor could slide!

The clock tower from the first game returns, and it makes sure to let you know right away that it isn't going to cut you any slack this time either. It's full of spinning gear platforms that lead you right to your doom. This room is particularly nefarious, as it leaves you with little room to jump.

Another boss follows, and it's a big troll with a hammer. Check out those 8-bit lightning flashes! The visuals have a blocky look to them and the color palette could definitely be better, but the art direction is still excellent overall considering what they had to work with.

Hey, wait a minute...can we get a zoom-in on that hammer-wielding boss?


I acquire Sypha, and now we come to one of the game's big questions. Is Sypha a dude or a chick? This subject is up for debate, depending on who you ask. Most likely, this androgynous he-beast hails from the same alien race as Zarbon.

(2023 Editor's Note: IT'S A CHIIIIIIICK)

Next up is a ghost ship. Historically, I have never liked ghost ships in games. They usually end up being my least-favorite area for some reason. Super Ghouls and Ghosts comes to mind. This one isn't too bad, but it's chock-full of bone-tossing skeletons.

Here we see our hero PLUMMETING TO HIS DEATH. This is the worst thing about this series in general: The knockback from getting hit. One bump from an enemy and your characters recoil as if they took a shotgun blast.

Actually, there IS one other major threat in these games: The stairs. Once you're on a staircase, you're generally stuck to it, and can't attack anything. It's a real pain, especially considering that getting hit will knock you off/through the stairs, often to your death.

A medusa attacks our hero at this point. It's a pretty easy fight, though, and only gets mini-boss status. Turns out medusae aren't so bad when they're full-bodied as opposed to a simple flying head. Unless you're Al Snow, this definitely the preferable way to encounter a medusa in Castlevania III.

The procession of mythical monsters continues, as our hero battles Frankenstein's Monster. ...again. I know this is a prequel, but it almost seems like a remake of the original game at times like this. It hits many of the same beats and traverses the same areas. These bosses are classic, so I'm not complaining. And at least the bosses remembered to put doors on their rooms in this one.

I press Up as I find what appears to be a door...  but nothing happens, because this game doesn't have background doors. This one is mystifying because it isn't a normal part of the stage background, and with the larger platform it really did look like it led somewhere.

Next thing I know, twin dragons roar up out of the water and attack by spitting fire. This fight isn't bad at all, as the game continues to be a fairly smooth run. The difficulty curve is slow and well-adjusted in this version of the game, not getting particularly difficult until the late-game.

And just as I say that, we're getting to the difficult era, as stage seven has a downward-autoscrolling area with breakaway blocks as steps. Yeah, it's as hard as it sounds. And since we're on Stage 7 now, the game has officially surpassed the original in length.

After that autoscrolling mess, our hero finds himself engaged in an interesting battle. First, waves of mummies emerge from coffins and go on the attack, then...

...our hero must deal with this formidable foe. It isn't as bad as it looks, though, and follows a simple pattern.

Finally arriving at Dracula's Castle, there's a familiar map to be seen. That's right, we've gone through more stages than the original game and we're only just now reaching the castle itself. Haven't really played as Sypha at all so I can't report too much about her/him. I know he/she utilizes magic and can freeze enemies. Personally I'd rather just use the trusty whip to get by.

Inside the castle, Sexy Women Statues are everywhere. Well...marginally sexy, with their long serpentine necks. The castle is in a state of disrepair, and you'd think a count like Dracula would be able to afford some carpenters.

The Grim Reaper returns. And here's where the game gets nasty. The Reaper in Simon's Quest may be a pushover, but this one isn't. It's up there with the reaper from the original game. Which is the worst? It's hard to say, but this one is pretty bad indeed.

Trevor chucks axes at the Reaper. I found that just hurling a ton of axes is the best course of action here, as the sickles are extremely difficult to evade no matter what. Axes travel in just the right arc, so it helps to bring lots of ammo and all-out blast your foe with them.

It ain't over yet! This time, the Reaper has a second form.

Also, enjoy never sleeping again.

The only thing creepier than a disembodied head? Two disembodied heads, as the boss quickly breaks into multiple images. Overall, this fight is easier than the Reaper's first form, though.

The next stage is a total mess, as these purple death gremlins attack en masse. They drop out of the sky and hop around much more quickly than Trevor can evade them. At this point the game really needs a dive roll button ala Dark Souls.

Next up is a pretty unique boss, the Doppleganger. Whatever powers Trevor has at this point, the boss has. Sound tough? It is. Reminds me of the clone fight in the original Mega Man.

There's a trick to winning here. Duck by this platform and he'll generally just stand there, swinging at the air every few seconds. Between attacks, it's simple to jump up and wail on him a few times. Given where my HP was when I arrived at this fight, I'll take it.

The final stage is short and yet harsh. Chrono Trigger esque pendulums are your only platforms towards the end of the stage, unless you have Alucard as a sidekick and can fly over them. Considering I never even used Sypha, I can safely recommend Alucard. He's weak, but his flight power can bail you out late in the game. Some sections are outright unfair and there's no shame in just flying over them.

Finally, it's Dracula time... and there's the iconic moon yet again.

"Ah, finally the delivery-man has brought me my sacrificial virgins" says Dracula while sipping a fine cabernet.

He soon realizes that he was mistaken, as he was lacking his trusted spectacles.

This fight is seriously difficult, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, his fire attacks are brutal to deal with. Historically, Dracula fights in this series are some of the hardest fights in gaming history, and this might be the most difficult out of all of them. If you get past him in this form, he has TWO MORE FORMS.

This grotesque monster is actually a lot easier than Drac's first form, and if you bring the boomerang it can be easily defeated without taking any hits.

And here's the THIRD form... this fight is a real nightmare, for sure. Dracula usually gets pumped up on steroids for his final form...for the ladies.

And here's his fourth form... just kidding. Once you see this screen, you know that the nightmare is over.

With that, Dracula's Castle collapses in a heap. I guess it gets reconstructed between now and the original game, time-wise.

And now, it's time to answer the big question of the game... what's the deal with Sypha?

My God! Sypha is... well, he/she looks pretty feminine from here. Seems obvious Sypha is a lady, but translation errors and misinformation fogged this game a bit.

Now Sypha cozies up to Trevor. Well, that settles it. There's no way an NES game would have the balls to have Gay Action, so Sypha must be a lady. And we've got proof from later games in the series.

2023 Editor's Note: Finally. Yes.

 Oh Yes. I take it that she went on to get together with Trevor, which led to the later Belmonts? Interesting.

Credits roll, and we see the wall-climbing dude I missed, Grant. He's labelled an acrobat, which is a cool idea for a game character. As long as you aren't playing an RPG. Every RPG I've ever played with an Acrobat class, it ended up being like the worst class in the game.

And that's it. Extremely unforgiving, this one, even with the scaled-down Japanese version. Regardless, the music is as top-notch as it gets on Nintendo's 8-bit system, and it's more fun Belmont action. Stay tuned, because the October Castlevania Remastering isn't over yet... and the best is yet to come. Happy Halloween!

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  1. Sypha Belnades (サイファ・ヴェルナンデス, Saifa Verunandesu?) (aka Sypha Fernandez according to Harmony of Dissonance) appears in Castlevania III and Castlevania Judgment. A priestess (called an apprentice monk in Japanese) and witch of the church who uses elemental magic in battle, Sypha hid her gender to become a vampire hunter. She fought for the church to destroy evil, though her sister witches were hunted down by the church. She went on a journey to confront and destroy Dracula. On her way to the battle she ended up in the Time Rift, and decided to take it upon herself to defeat those tainted by darkness, despite which side they were on. Upon the defeat of the Time Reaper she was returned to her own era (Judgment). She continued her journey to destroy Dracula confront, but was defeated by his minion, the Cyclops, and imprisoned in stone. She was freed when Trevor Belmont killed the Cyclops, and aided Trevor in his battle against Dracula. After Dracula's death she and Trevor married, adding her magical aptitude to the Belmont bloodline.

    Wiki confirms there's no gay marriage.

  2. The Y in "Akumajyou" isn't exactly a typo. It's a literal romanization that ignores the rules of English spelling. What we call "jo" is じょ in Japanese: じ is "ji" and よ is "yo." But you can't say "jiyo" because that would confuse you with the actual two-syllable じよ (see how I made that ょ bigger? ょ! よ!). Anyway, I've seen this error a lot.

  3. I really love seeing how the games improve within a console's life-span as developers figure out more things to do with it.

    Ah, so Sypha is like FF1's white mage, then.

    I'll take a medusa over medusa heads any day.

    Sypha has a horrible color scheme, she looks like a part of the background even when it doesn't mesh.

    I never knew anyone with this game as a kid I'm say to say. Everyone either had the first or the second.

  4. The Y in Akumajyou isn't quite a typo; it's *scrolls down* oh I explained 5 years ago! Nice, moving on then...

    Like Brayn said, it's cool to see such a thorough improvement on the original. And the extra characters certainly add replay value; they seem unique for sidekick characters in general.

    I love when games have stained glass windows.