After having worked your way up through the castle entrance and the adjacent dungeon, you reach the second of three blocks of Castlevania only to find yourself… outside? With a forest in the background?
Block 9 of Dracula’s Curse is a strange one in terms of aesthetics. Although the level design corresponds neatly to the course charted on the in-game map — you’re ascending from the ground level of the castle to its highest point, where Dracula waits — it lacks a cohesive visual identity of its own and does strange things… like featuring a forest and a waterfall in the middle of a towering castle.
But this reflects the nature of the level’s play mechanics. In Block 9, all the chickens come home to roost. There’s nothing new here; instead, it features every notable trick and trap of the previous stages in what amounts to one of those Remix stages in Rhythm Heaven. The game doesn’t dwell on any one hazard for long, instead simply challenging you to survive one before escorting you to the next. A long memory and quick reflexes prove to be your greatest asset here: The memory to recall how these various devices worked the first time around, and the reflexes to switch mental gears as necessary.
So no, it doesn’t make a lot of sense that there’s a forest grove in the middle of the castle, but you don’t really have time to stress about it as Harpies immediately begin bombarding you with Flea Men once you reach the second screen of Block 9-01.
Beyond that, you face a climb that combines threats from both Sypha and Alucard’s route. So I amend what I said before: Technically, this stage doesn’t offer new dangers into the mix… but since you can only see one route or another in your initial through the adventure, this is the first time you’ll be dealing with some of these elements. In other words, memory, reflexes, and adaptability all come into play here.
The first leg of Block 9-02 features the rising and falling spike hazards of the catacombs route with the background detail of a waterfall. The waterfall is simply a visual detail for the moment, but it’ll come into play later.
Beyond the spikes you begin to climb… and the climb combines the deadliest bits of the ascent up Block 5’s tower on Sypha’s path in a single sequence. The long staircases flanked by Dragon Cannons you’ll remember from before, placed just far enough back that you really have to reach to take them down and climb cautiously to prevent intersecting their field of fire. However, this sequence isn’t content to leave it at that; it also throws the swooping gargoyles from later in Block 5 into the mix as well. Previously, these enemies appeared separately, but here they collaborate to make your life hell. Dodging the widening sine path of the gargoyles while slowly making your way up the stairs would be difficult enough without the need to avoid being pelted by fire, but the two challenges in tandem make for a brutal climb.
Still, it’s not unfair. Because both sets of foes work on timers and obey patterns, you can find safe spots and dodge as needed. But you need to pay perfect attention not only to the enemies’ behavior, but also to your movement and how the slope of the stairs causes you to interact with their actions. You need to think two moves ahead and act almost like a mind-reader so that your character’s sluggish movement can keep up.
Block 9-03 brings back another familiar hazard from Sypha’s path: Ratchet scrolling. This time, you’re beset by armored Skeletons wielding swords (which act quickly to block your movements) as well as those nigh-invulnerable fuzzball things that circle the blocks and force you to be mindful of your footing as you climb. Again, if Sypha is lucky enough to have an ice spellbook, this sequence can be fairly trivial; otherwise, though, it’s tough. The layout is too confined to allow Alucard to fly to safety (and the auto-scrolling hampers that approach anyway), while the confined sides and patrolling fuzz-things make Grant’s evasion tactics risky at best.
At the tower’s peak, you face yet another challenge from Sypha’s route: A spillway flooded by rushing water. This one is much trickier than the aqueduct in Block 6-0B, though. It consists of two tiers, forcing you to make your way left across the lower level then climbing to double back across the top. And since water falls off either side of each tier, that means you have to contend with two falling streams on the lower level — which in turn means that the direction of the water’s flow changes three times as you march left. Meanwhile, you’re still beset by Fish Men and crows, because this is the next to last block of the game and why should they go easy on you?
And, should you survive the watery portion of Block 9-04, the final leg of the stage reprises a hazard from Alucard’s route: A length of spinning floor tiles (several of which are lined on the lower side by spikes) patrolled by Medusa Heads. Below, nothingness spans the entire length of the unstable floor. There’s no more mercy left in this game’s design. You’ve had your training wheels, and now it’s time to prove you can get through without a safety net.
Your reward for surviving this hell is one of the toughest fights in the game: The Doppelganger. This wraith fights with the same capabilities as you — more, actually, since you take damage from colliding with it but not the other way around. The Doppelganger transforms to resemble whichever hero you’re currently controlling and will instantly shift if you swap. Its whip range is as long as Trevor’s, it can use subweapons, it can jump and run the same as everyone.
The one saving grace here is the fact that the Doppelganger’s endurance isn’t as high as most other bosses, so it suffers damage pretty hard. That’s something, I suppose.
Of course, Sypha can pretty easily cheese it with the lightning spell, since it favors the fire book when you switch to her for whatever reason. Sometimes playing as Sypha to beat the bosses feel like cheating, but in this case I don’t think anyone could blame you for not wanting to die pitifully against a brutally difficult boss, forcing you to make your way through the double waterfalls and unstable hallway a second (or third, or fifth, or…) time.