Castlevania whips up a double helping of frustration and animation

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Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1992)

When I heard that they were going to do a Castlevania series on Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised, in spite of myself. It wasn’t the kind of surprise I would have expected from Netflix because, and you can lambast me all you want for saying it, but there’s an awful lot of guff on Netflix.

It’s really little wonder you don’t see TV or film reviews on there anymore. Some of the film choices are appalling – only the female Ghostbusters is on there in my region, leaving the original version out entirely. I know Netflix is more about TV series and boxsets, but they’re not always winners either.

I’ve always found the movie selection on Netflix to be poor, and it gets annoying when only certain countries have a particular series or film on there. I know rights in different territories must be a nightmare to negotiate, but when UK Netflix is different to US Netflix or South African Netflix, it gets impossible to know where you stand.

This also means you could be in the middle of watching a lengthy series, before it disappears on you without any kind of warning, in a virtual puff of smoke. You don’t run that risk when it’s a Netflix original series of course, and it’s under this umbrella that the recent animated Castlevania series falls under.

Who’d have thought it? Not only would there be a Castlevania series for the modern age, but it’s Netflix backed as well, which ought to guarantee it a bit of budget. Netflix’s own productions can be horseshit to use a polite phrase, but maybe we could settle in for this. I think the fact that it’s animated is also a bonus when it comes to video game adaptations.

After all, we all know about live-action attempts at adapting games – they’re always going to be hokey. It was the same with Super Mario, or Street Fighter, or Mortal Kombat; when they’re live-action, even Kylie can’t save things. When they’re animated, they’re so much better. It doesn’t matter how many big name actors you bolt onto the front – live-action video game adaptations just don’t work.

Still, I had to raise more than a couple of eyebrows at this one, and believe me when I say I have several eyebrows just for doubting purposes. This Castlevania series was going to be based mainly on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse for the Nintendo. I don’t believe many NES games are known for their elaborate plots, especially the NES Castlevania trilogy.

Even if you don’t know anything about Castlevania, you still know that it’s all about the Belmont family who endeavour to take down Count Dracula every once in a while. And sometimes there might be a couple of additional characters, as there indeed was in Castlevania III. But ultimately, this is a rough and ready NES platformer, almost exclusively action sequences with barely any story.

So how do you squeeze several thirty-minute episodes out of that? And it’s not short-lived, we’re onto the third series now. Remember, so long as there’s just the slightest bit of fuel present, Netflix will stretch the series out even further than when my car’s petrol light used to scream at me. And I insist on saying the word series, because ‘seasons’ is an American word.

How does this NES game look, when it’s been given the Netflix animation treatment? Well, when we find Trevor Belmont at the beginning of the series, he’s properly down and out. He loves getting plastered, he has to forage for food, he doesn’t even have anywhere to sleep. That’s a good subversion from the start: this is not the gallant, ne’er-do-wrong hero that you might have expected.

This is someone who’s proud of his family heritage, and strong in combat. But otherwise, not someone you’d put much confidence in. He gets a bit more of a reason to get involved in tear-ups when he meets Sypha, the Speaker with magical powers and a Hispanic accent, as well as Alucard. The son of Dracula always steals the show whenever he shows up in the games, and it’s no different in this series, especially since Alucard is his usual long, grey-haired self – his NES rendition was a bit more Bela Lugosi style.

He and the rest of the characters have mostly British accents as well, which I much prefer in animation. Maybe that’s just me being an Irish lickspittle, but I think that a British accent, heroic or villainous, is always a better shout than an American brogue. I wouldn’t have even minded if animated Castlevania was a Japanese made series that was dubbed later, but either way, this is as Western as it gets.

I’ll tell you something else as well, it’s bloody violent. Even in the first couple of episodes, you’ll see bats getting gruesomely killed, people losing their eyes or their fingers, with blood everywhere. People get ripped in half by Dracula’s gargoyles, intestines on the floor, and it’s a lot to stomach.

Of course, Dracula is instigating all this violence because they burnt his wife at the stake. People tend not to forgive and forget these things, especially when you watch her burn alive and you observe the infinitesimal pieces of skeleton that remain. Castlevania is no children’s game, and there’s no censorship anywhere.

And that’s a good thing too, because you need bad language and violence in a game series as dark as Castlevania. I do hate it when they adapt something, anything, a book or a game or a radio series, but they make it all PG. After all, you don’t want suggestions of something dastardly happening offscreen – you want to actually see the grim detail for yourself. Castlevania’s lovely animation gives you that detail, so much so that it can become tough to get through at times.

And I’d say the game it was based on is pretty damn tough to get through as well, being one of the hardest on the NES for sure. I mentioned that when we find Trevor Belmont at the beginning of the show, he’s already in shambles. Well, that makes sense because this game is hard enough to turn anyone to drink.

At least he’s got three recruitable companions to help ease his burden. One of them doesn’t appear in the animated series at all: Grant DaNasty, a wall-climbing pirate itinerant of some sort. With a name like that he sounds like he ought to be in Goldie Lookin Chain, or in a rival street gang to Ali G.

And the other two I’ve already mentioned: Sypha, the witch who Trevor would later marry. Sorry, not only is that a spoiler, but it’s not very nice either – she’s a sorceress. And then there’s Alucard, who battles a bit like his daddy. I was told that picking the Alucard route would make the game as hard as it could possibly be, but that didn’t bother me since I was eager to try him out. He certainly doesn’t give you as much power as his forms in Symphony of the Night and the Netflix series, but that’s okay – he can still get great mileage out of his fireballs.

Better than that, he can always turn into a bat to get him out of a spot. That’s a pretty enviable trait, that. Say the teacher calls on him for the answer, but he weren’t listening. Well, he could just avoid a detention in the dungeon with Mr. Frankenstein by becoming a giant bat and flying away. That’d get the weasels off your back, wouldn’t it?

I should point out that this is one of those times where I can say, hand on heart and without any weebness, that you’ll play the Japanese version of Castlevania III if possible. It’s slightly easier, which goes a long way.

But crucially, the Japanese game has an extra sound chip that enhances the music way beyond what your regular NES could do. Even if the music doesn’t swing it for you, you’re torturing yourself if you don’t play the easier version. It’s telling that the US version included a cheat called, HELP ME, masterful in its appropriateness, that’ll give you ten lives per continue.

To be honest, having played both Japanese and USA versions, the USA version of the game definitely wasn’t as hard as its reputation had preceded, although I should point out that I only beat the Japanese version, and my teeth were definitely starting to grind around seven or eight levels in. But with alternate paths and bundles of levels, you’ll get good replay value out of this, even if it sometimes slaps you in the face no matter what route you choose.

Those ten lives per continue still mightn’t be enough, not when losing to Dracula sends you way back. The decision to ramp up the difficulty was seemingly done to combat the rental market, to ensure that people would have to buy the game so they could master it. Hence, the gruelling misery would pertain in their lives for more than one weekend. Which is about as long as it takes to watch the Netflix series, incidentally. You and I know that you’re not doing anything better this weekend, so why not?

26 March 2021

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