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The Forgotten, the Maligned: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, has long been the black sheep of the classic Castlevania series. While the original game is remembered as one of the forebearers of the horror genre and the third game is often seen as a premier example of the term “NES hard,” Simon’s Quest is often overlooked as “the weird one” in the franchise, the one that simply does not stack up to its brethren due to odd design choices. The reason behind the game being overlooked can be linked to several factors. Castlevania II was, like many NES sequels, far different from the title from whence it spawned. It was not nearly as linear as its predecessor, for one. The game simply threw you into the world and expected you to figure it out many of its secrets on your own. This is in stark contrast to the original Castlevania, which was a very by the numbers platformer. It also had the misfortune of bad translation and negative word of mouth spread over the years. Many modern gamers, for instance, may be more familiar with memes that spawned from the game and negative reviews from YouTubers such as the Angry Video Game Nerd, who tackled the game in his very first video. This really isn’t fair to the game as a whole, though. While it’s certainly not without its faults, it has a very special niche in gaming history. When we look back at the evolution of gaming, it is, in fact, a key title: a transitional title in the Metroidvania lineage.

The term Metroidvania has long been part of the gaming lexicon. While I have been unable to determine the exact origin of the phrase, many attribute it to a 2008 YouTube video featuring Jeremy Parish, Scott Sharkey, and Chris Kohler of 1up and Retronauts. The genre refers to side scrolling platforming games with a heavy emphasis on exploration, backtracking, and character upgrades. The term itself is a portmanteau of the titles of its two most influential series Metroid and Castlevania. The Castlevania branch of these games share some key features Metroid lacks, most notably in its use of standard RPG elements. You can, in the exploration based Castlevania games, level up and buy new gear just as you can in a more typical RPG such as Dragon’s Quest or Final Fantasy. These are features that first made an appearance in Simon’s Quest, which also introduced towns full of NPCs that Simon could interact with, including shopkeepers that would sell upgrades for his gear.  Similarly, this is the first game in the series where a player can level up by defeating enemies. In addition to this, this is the first game in the series that involved heavy backtracking and a rich world that you had to explore. These are characteristics Koji Igarashi would revisit when making Symphony of the Night. It is because of these attributes that the game is important, as it is the series’ first attempt at dipping its proverbial toe in the “Metroidvania” waters.

Still one of the best video game magazine covers of all time

Still, the game should not only be remembered due to its influence on later games. It has, for an 8-bit Konami game, a lot going for it. The enemy sprites are nicely detailed and the game has Simon venturing through a variety of interesting locals. Sure, the environments might not have been quite as varied as in the first game, but this is largely due to the size of the game. NES cartridges could only hold so much, so assets were reused throughout the title. The controls are also vintage Castlevania. Sure, they may be a bit stiff…one might even call them tank like. Simon really commits to his jumps, and as a result changing direction in mid-air is verboten. This can be frustrating, but it’s the same as the controls in the first and third games. I find the lack of control actually enhances the gameplay. The limited mobility makes it hard to avoid enemies, which imbues the player with a sense of dread, which is an added bonus for a horror game.  The enemy patterns are distinct, and many iconic series monsters, such as the ghostly eyeball and the mud men, make their debut in this game. Speaking of debuts, this game is the first to feature the character of Carmilla, who would go on to be a recurring boss character in the series. And of course, the one area where even the most ardent Castlevania II detractors would have to begrudgingly admit it shines is its music. The sounds produced by this NES cart are pure 8-bit bliss. This is the game that introduced “Bloody Tears” to the world, a track that is not only one of the most recognizable and beloved Castlevania songs, but one of the most heralded video game songs, period.

So, all that being said, why exactly does Castlevania II have such a bad reputation? Well, first off, the game is, despite its strengths, deeply flawed. The day to night transition, though somewhat revolutionary, took far too long to complete. The transitions were also very abrupt and would jar the players hindering gameplay. The boss fights are mostly optional and all are laughably easy. This would be a problem in any game, but it is especially an issue in a sequel to a title known for its fun yet challenging boss encounters. Most importantly, though, the game is a bit of a confusing mess. Simon’s Quest has many obtuse objectives. Drop a piece of garlic in a graveyard at night for a power up? Kneel by a pool with a blue crystal to reveal a mansion? How in the world are you supposed to figure these things out? Ostensibly, the answers to deciphering these riddles would come through hidden books and conversations with the games many villager NPCs. Unfortunately, this is near impossible in the English language version of the game. The translation provided by Konami is notoriously awful and is known more for advice about not staring into the death star or villagers inviting you to be their roommates than for actually being helpful.

This leads to a larger issue with game: it is just not accessible or rewarding to new players. It is not the fault of modern gamers, really. There are many more games to choose from now than there were in 1987, after all, and the format that Castlevania II established has long since been improved upon by so many games, especially from its own series. This may help explain why a game that debuted to much fanfare and positive critical response has devolved into its current state. When the game first came out, it was a grand adventure. Young Nintendo fanatics everywhere, hyped beyond belief by the game’s spotlight in the second ever issue of Nintendo Power, became lost in the rich gothic countryside of Transylvania. We were enamored with the concept of figuring out just how to break Dracula’s Curse, and we did not mind asking our friends or resorting to write ups in Nintendo Power to do so. It is strange, in a way, that as information on the game became more easily available that the disdain to use it would also grow. It is easier than ever to find a walkthrough for Simon’s Quest, but most first time players feel like they really shouldn’t have to…. and, to be honest, they aren’t wrong.

The NES period was a strange one. Developers were often unsure of how to approach video game sequels, and they constantly struggled against the limitations of the actual hardware they worked with. It was a time of experimentation, and drastically unique sequels like Zelda II and Castlevania II exist. What is really interesting about these games, however, are the elements of them that worked. That is the true value of Castlevania II. Sure, not every design decision in the game was a winner, but the ones that did combine to create a rich and unique gaming experience. It is an imperfect construct that contains the seeds of something greater, a title that has some good ideas with some bad execution. That is not enough for it to be maligned or forgotten, however. It is a title that should be played, and examined, and one that I think is well worth your time.