Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Castlevania was an undeniable success.  As one of the earliest third party games for the NES it immediately stood out with its darker theme, nuanced gameplay, and especially its vicious difficulty.  When the first news of Simon’s Quest hit in Nintendo Power (it’s embarrassing to admit but that cover gave me nightmares) I expected more of that same great gameplay.  But the reality was completely different.  Like many NES series this second installment is wildly different from its predecessor.  As to whether it is a good game or not, that is a hotly debated topic.  For my money I can see the good intentions from the designers.  However they are obscured by flat out bad design that will frustrate most that pick this up.

Simon Belmont was victorious over Dracula at the end of the original Castlevania but all is not well.  In defeating the Count he has fallen under his curse and has a limited amount of time before he dies.  To rid of himself of the curse Simon must assemble the missing parts of Dracula scattered around Transylvania and burn them before it is too late.

If ever a game needed a remake this is it.  There are a number of good ideas buried in here but most of them are ruined by shoddy execution.  Most of these fumbles are simply due to the time in which the game was released; back in 1987 basically the entire game industry was still learning the ropes in terms of good game design and many mistakes were made.  That excuses some of Simon’s Quest’s faults but that doesn’t mean I can recommend the game as is unless you do it with a guide which saps most of the fun out of it.

Castlevania II is one of the first games in the series to experiment with RPG elements.  Nearly the entirety of Transylvania is open for you to explore.  There are numerous towns to visit, NPCs to converse and buy items from, and a burgeoning inventory needed to reach the game’s climax.  Although you know the general goal of the quest how you go about it is left in your hands.  Probably the greatest aspect of the game’s nonlinear status is that it moves beyond the confines of Dracula’s castle.  There are numerous graveyards, forests, and mansions to explore this time around which greatly adds to the visual variety. 

The curse in the title manifests in the game’s day/night cycle.  After a set amount of time night falls (which the game infamously informs you of).  All enemies become stronger but also drop hearts in greater frequency.  Unfortunately enemies populate the towns at night and so any business must wait until day time.  I like the curse idea in theory but in practice it is simply aggravating.  The interval between cycles is too short and ends up annoying rather than being interesting.  There is nothing worse than reaching town only to have to wait ten minutes for day to break to continue.  Time is an important factor in which of the three endings you receive, with the best reserved for completing the game in under seven days.  So it’s bad that the curse wastes so much of your time.

The game’s free form nature is also the cause of most of its frustration.  Like many titles back then very little direction is given and you are left to basically stumble into your objectives.  The villagers offer some of the most cryptic and obtuse clues in video game history.  Even calling them clues is being polite.  A good many outright lie or reference specific locations.  The problem is there is no map.  This is a frequent occurrence and while the manual has a loose map of the world it offers little help. 

I haven’t even mentioned the worst part!  Accessing the most crucial areas of the game requires some of the most obtuse reasoning to figure out.  To access the second mansion you must equip the white crystal while kneeling down in front of a lake for a few seconds, at which point a path will open.  Who the hell would even think to do that?  To reach the fourth mansion, you must equip the red crystal while crouching at a dead end. According to the game, this is Deborah’s Cliff.  After a while a tornado will spirit you away to the next objective.  Only one villager gives a loose hint to this but Deborah’s Cliff is never named in game.  I’m fortunate my next door neighbor had one of those Nintendo strategy guides that walked gave hints or else I would have given up on this. 

Speaking of mansions these are the game’s equivalent of dungeons.  A significant portion of the time spend with the game take place here.  In each mansion is an old man who will sell you an oak stake needed to crush the orb where Dracula’s part resides.  These areas aren’t too large however they can be a nightmare as they are full of false floors and breakable walls that block your progress.  Whatever interesting layout each mansion might have had is ruined by the fact that you’ll spend all of your time tossing holy water every few steps to avoid falling through the floor to potential death. 

If you are expecting to toss the controller in frustration rest easy as Simon’s Quest is one of the easier games in the series.  Your life bar is generously long and increases at regular intervals.  Death carries little penalty other than losing some experience.  In fact you respawn exactly where you died.  Despite the curse making enemies stronger it amounts to very little added danger overall.  Everyone remembers the nightmarish boss battles of the original but the few here are so simple Konami shouldn’t have bothered.  The Grim Reaper is a shade of himself and can essentially be stunlocked to death.  With the right subweapon you can kill Dracula before he even has a chance to move!  Can you believe that?

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I may have my issues with the game’s structure but its production values are on point.  Simon’s Quest bests the original in every way with far more detailed environments and a greater variety in settings.  More impressive than the graphics is the soundtrack.  Some of the most popular themes in the series were introduced here such as Bloody Tears and Theme of Simon.  The entire soundtrack is actually small with just nine pieces of music however every single track is memorable and fantastic.

In Closing

I’ve painted a grim picture yet the most baffling fact is that despite its problems I still like it.  Would I recommend it now?  Not unless you have a strategy guide on hand.  Simon’s Quest is not as good as it could have been but isn’t completely worthless either.

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