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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES) Review
~Review by tankMage (January 2020)
-Expands on the lore of the first game.
-Suitably gloomy atmosphere.
-Controls feel more smooth than those of Castlevania, while maintaining the game’s deliberate pace.
-Secret items to discover.
-Soundtrack is good, particularly Bloody Tears.
-Day night cycle that was novel at the time.
-A message announcing the transition from day to night and vice versa interrupts the action every few minutes.
-Few bosses. Those that are present are too easy.
-Poor translation makes certain puzzles nearly impossible to solve.
-Towns are closed at night and the player will have to wait until dawn to buy something.
A case of the terrible twos?
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is one of those oddball sequels on the NES that attempted to experiment with the design of its predecessor and achieved mixed results. As such, it’s maligned by some and beloved by others. In order to better understand Simon’s Quest, I first played the original Castlevania and the contrast between these two games is jarring to say the least. Castlevania is a tightly constructed, often merciless platformer whose goals are always self evident, while Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a Metroid-esque action RPG whose main focus is exploration with a bit of puzzle solving on the side. It’s no surprise that fans of the original and the third installment in the series (which largely returned to its roots) reacted viscerally to the second game. With that said, Castlevania II is not a bad game, especially by the standards of the NES and it manages to be a rewarding, howbeit anticlimactic adventure even with all of its flaws.
The story and objective are nearly as simple as that of the original game. Simon learns from a mysterious and ghostly maiden that he was cursed after defeating Dracula. His only hope is to gather the body parts of the evil count and immolate them in the halls of Castlevania itself. There are five body parts in total and Simon must brave the perils of five haunted mansions (which are presumably property of Drac’s followers) to obtain them. Much of the game takes place in the wider world of Transylvania, which players must explore this world in order to complete their objective.
Things start out far differently than they did in the first game, as Simon begins his journey in a town. This is also where things get interesting, because players can talk to townspeople in order to gather clues. The devs even made it so that some of the NPCs lie or make misleading statements, which is demonstrated right from the start when one villager tells you to buy the White Crystal, while another claims that there’s a shady salesman in town ripping people off. Players will need to gather certain items and use them at the right time in order to advance, so the White Crystal is important since it basically allows entry into the first mansion, but statements made by the villagers place doubt on this fact.
Many of the puzzles were cleverly constructed, but the hints this game provides the player are almost useless. Even those that are actually true are nearly impossible to figure out, because of translation issues. Infamous lines like “Bang your head on Deborah cliff.” are basically the norm as far as hints go and while books hidden in mansions often provide more reliable advice, they’re still vague. It’s also unclear what many of the items do, though this is something that can at least be figured out through a few minutes of trial and error.
The mansions themselves are generally kind of disappointing and I found exploring the overworld to be far more engaging. All of the mansions are populated by the same skeletons, armored knights, slimes, and the occasional demon. The only real difference between these enemies is that they change color and become more powerful in later mansions. There are only two bosses out of the five mansions and both of them are pushovers…in fact the last boss is also pathetic. Even worse, you can just walk past the first two bosses, though you do need to defeat one of them to enter Castlevania.
Just to make searching the mansions less entertaining, the devs included fake blocks Simon can fall through, which forces the player to throw holy water on the ground to test for hidden pitfalls or risk having to backtrack. Players also need oak stakes that can be bought in the mansions to acquire Dracula’s remains, which was an interesting mechanic, but they even managed to mess this up, since you can buy the stake needed for the next mansion in the way out of the one you just completed. This really kills the challenge of finding the stakes and also makes it possible to walk through some of the mansions in about three minutes, which is great if you’re a speedrunner, but likely disappointing for everyone else.
Then there’s the day/night cycle, which was a brilliant innovation back in 1988, so it’s a shame they botched this too. The basic premise is that monsters get stronger at night and towns shut their doors to outsiders. While this adds to the feel of the game, it also gets irritating as messages telling you it’s night or day constantly interrupt you on the overworld. On top of that, you cannot enter shops or churches at night and the towns are filled with monsters. This is all well and good, but it gets boring standing around in a town waiting for sunrise just so you can buy a new whip.
I spent a lot of time bitching about Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, but there are things it does really well. For one, it has a great sense of atmosphere as the world becomes more desolate and gloomy as Simon nears his goal. The music is great, especially Bloody Tears, which makes its first appearance here. I also liked the fact that Simon can buy better whips and hold weapons permanently. Finally, I like Castlevania II’s graphics a lot more than those of the first game. There’s more detail, Simon isn’t bright orange, and many of the monsters were redesigned to look better. That said, the bosses look stupid. One of them is a mask that floats around, Death somehow looks worse than he did in the first game, and Dracula is equally lame.
One thing I find intriguing about this game is the fact that they left things like crosses and hanging corpses in. This was something I didn’t even notice the first time I played it years ago, but back then I wasn’t aware of the fact that potentially controversial imagery was often removed from the US versions of NES games. I’m really not sure why Simon’s Quest was left alone, maybe the localization team realized no one would really care or notice, but I’m glad they did, because it preserved the spirit of a game that already had a lot of problems.
No one can accuse the team that made Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest of failing to innovate, because plenty of creative ideas were tossed around in this title. I actually really like the fact that NPCs sometimes lie to the player and would have liked to have seen the concept appear in a game with a better translation. As for my verdict on this title, well it’s not as bad as some people claim, but it’s also not all that great. The lack of bosses and monsters in mansions that seem like they were just dummied in made me wonder if Konami decided to ship a half finished game. If that’s so, one can only imagine how this title would have turned out had the devs been given more time, but what we have is what we have and it’s ok for the most part.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is probably better left for die hard fans of the series or for people who really love NES action RPGs. Everyone else will probably want to skip it.
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