Thursday, October 22, 2015

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES, 1988)

The second game in the series is...well, how to say this. It is not like the others. It emphasizes exploration and collection of powers. It's a "proto" version of some of the later titles, rather than a straight-up action game like the original. It seems like companies were into trying entirely new things for their second game rather than sticking to what worked at the time, if this and Zelda 2 are any indication. Both are, to an extent, the black sheep of their series. Regardless, this is the first of many "Metroidvania" games. I originally wrote about this in 2010, but here's an entirely remastered post. The original post was legitimately not good and in dire need of editing.

While we're on the subject... what's up with the word "Metroidvania"? Shouldn't games of that style simply be referred to as "Metroid-esque" since Metroid did all this stuff first? "Metroidvania" is like referring to "Reaganesque" politicians as "Reagan/Perry-esque".

...well, maybe not quite that bad.

The prologue has surprisingly good spelling and grammar for an 80's game. Over time, I have wondered if perhaps game text in those days couldn't be edited or something. If a programmer made a mistake, that was IT. No do-overs... you're just screwed. It would explain a lot. In any case, the story of this game involves Simon Belmont gathering up the pieces of Dracula so that he can dispose of the villain once and for all. This is like in the latest Terminator movie when they have to dissolve Terminator parts in acid.'s exactly like that.

The whip returns, and it's just as satisfying as ever. The color scheme is a bit duller in this game right from the get-go, and the art direction of the backgrounds isn't quite as good as the original. The areas are far more open and explorable, though, and at first that's cool. In a way, this is the genesis of not only the explorable Castlevania titles, but also later open-world action/adventure hybrids like Dark Souls. Whoa.

Every so often, day turns to night in this game. Night means the enemies are far stronger, plus the game is suddenly viewed through the same blue lens that they filmed the entirety of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Seriously, go back and watch it. I dare you to find a scene that isn't all blue!

In any case, the worst part about this is that every time we shift from day to night (or vice versa) we get a super-slow text crawl in a window onscreen. Later romhacks of the game patched this out or at least made it much quicker, but in the original NES version it's a major annoyance.

Here's the same scene during the day. Ideally, you want it to be daytime as much as possible, as daytime significantly decreases the enemy presence. Some sections are extremely difficult at night, and this encourages the player to sit there and not play for minutes on end waiting for the day to change. Not a very good game mechanic, and I could have done without it. It's just one of many issues this game has, though.

This game is full of hidden passages and various things that you would NOT know to look for without guide help. They might as well have stamped on the cover that you need Nintendo Power to get through the game. Oddly enough, Nintendo Power launched right about when this game came out. I'd be willing to bet that this game was one of the primary titles that kids ran to Nintendo Power for help with. Here's where the open-ness becomes somewhat of an issue: The game often doesn't give you too much of a clue as to what to do next.

At least Metroid games have fairly clear markers of where you need to bring newly-acquired abilities, be they certain-colored doors or special blocks or simply jumps that are a little too high for you until you get the nearby jump boots. This game, on the other hand, is just vague all-around and requires a lot of wandering. It isn't the crisp, to-the-point experience that the first one is.

On the bright side, it's much easier overall if you know where to go and what to do. The player-vs-enemy gameplay itself from area to area is pretty simple and doesn't have nearly as much frustration as the first game. Not too many pits or medusa heads working in tandem here. There's also a password system for this one, which takes away the pressure to get through the game in one go. It's pretty much necessary, because this game is much longer than the original.

After blasting through the floor with Holy Water (I don't get it either) our hero gets a weapon upgrade. There are only a few of these in the game, and they're crucial to victory. Again, it's the proto version of hunting for that rare Titanite Slab in Dark Souls so you can upgrade your favorite weapon.

This would be a good time to mention that hearts in this game function as currency as well as ammo, since shops are now a thing. Between that and the non-linear, repeatable areas where you can farm the same hearts from the same enemies repeatedly, it's accurate to say that success in Simon's Quest requires quite a bit of back-and-forth grinding for hearts.

Since you lose all your hearts if you die (and can't go back to your corpse to reclaim them or anything like that), you're pretty much forced to stop and grind in whatever nearby safe spot you can find if you need to buy something from a shop. And by the time you can afford what you need, it might be night-time, which means the shop is closed, which means standing around and waiting. Urrgh!

Here's the chain whip in action, complete with a morningstar at the end. Nice. It can be upgraded further past this point to become a flame whip, which is an outstanding visual effect and a lot of fun to swing at foes.
Speaking of which... oh yeahhh. This is the single most fun thing about this game. The Flame Whip is definitely the best new addition to the series.


While I'm riding this new weapon high, here's a sampling of the music in this game; much like the original, it has an incredibly memorable soundtrack.

The goal of the game is to find a series of mansions, like this one. Each one is basically a dungeon to accompany the rest of the game's "overworld". It is by no means a straight shot through these mansions, however, with lots of exploration and backtracking (and Nintendo Power) required. It gets very tedious very quickly, especially with the lack of ingame maps. I get what they were going for and it was a good first attempt, but I couldn't wait for this game to be over.

The first mansion is cleared, and our hero gets the first of Dracula's severed body parts. TO THE ACID BATH! ...except Simon doesn't do that, he just stashes the parts away like the X-Hunters hoarding Zero's parts. Why is he doing this? Isn't there a good chance that if his parts are all gathered together Dracula will melt down and re-form, like the... uh... ya know, I'm drawing a blank on anything that reminds me of, mainly because I already used up the full quota of references to one particular thing in this post.

So yeah, I prossess Dracula's Rib, and it's onward to... huh? Prossess? Is that like, a prostate? I hope Dracula's Prostate isn't in the game, because that would just be unnecessary.

Speaking of which, next Simon must traverse a graveyard, during which purple hands of doom grasp and grope furiously at his nether-regions. Not cool, bro.

What? You think that isn't what they're grasping for? Look at their cupping position! They're going to cup Simon's balls whether he likes it or not!

One of the game's many moments of "Give up? Time for you to get the power! Nintendo Power!" is right here. There's a lake, with no way to cross. That's it. Players worldwide were no doubt baffled. You can see a platform a little below you, so the only real visible option is to hop down onto it...but that results in death as soon as Simon hits the water, because he's made of biodegradable packing material.

So... what do you do? Well, equip the blue crystal, and kneel down for a minute or so, and then...the screen shifts downward, and the water is no longer damaging. This is the kind of vagueness I alluded to before.

This game headlined the second-ever issue of NP, and drew a lot of flack from parents back in the day because Simon was carrying around Dracula's head. Never mind that him gathering Dracula's fragmented body was the story of the game, one could look at this and assume it was a game about beheading people or something. And there's a skull on the ground! And some red color! CLEARLY this magazine is teaching kids witchcraft! Burn it!

This a lot worse than it looks, trust me. Like most of these old games, your worst recurring foe in this game is the pit. There aren't anywhere near as many pits in this game as in your typical NES game, but that is balanced out somewhat by an abundance of low ceilings. This is a problem, to say the least.

I can only imagine what it must have been like growing up with the NES era (I was an SNES boy)... it must have been rough. With no difficulty settings or particularly balanced gameplay, the only way to finish any games was to just play and play until you got good enough to reach the end.

Speaking of pits, this is about as bad as the game ever gets with them. You can't see it here, but these blocks move. Timing is everything here, and if your timing is less than perfect, Simon goes into the pit. This section just goes on and on and ON well past the point where it stops being fun. At least there aren't any medusa heads...

I might sound like I'm complaining a lot, but I actually like this game. It's my least favorite of the early Castlevania series, by far, but I can recognize the nostalgic value that it possesses (or prossesses).

That said, some aspects of this game can be pretty cheap and/or flawed. For instance, this shot. There is NO WAY to get to the bottom of these steps without taking a hit, since the game doesn't allow you to jump off of stairs and the knight is camping out right there at the bottom. YOU ARE A FOUL BEAST, GAME!

It's the Grim Reaper from the first game. One of the most feared bosses in the Castlevania series! Luckily, in this game it has been drastically reduced in difficulty from the first. As if that weren't enough, it's actually possible to run right past it without even fighting it, due to the lack of doors in this room. But if you do that, you know what you're doing? You're fearing the reaper. Don't fear the reaper.



There's a reward for taking the time to lay the smackdown on Death Himself: The best special weapon in the game. It fires straight ahead and freezes foes. It's sort of like Samus' Ice Beam in that it both damages and stuns enemies so you can continue to wail on them.

Another body part, and it still says "prossess". Oddly enough, the Golden Knife message got the word right. I can only conclude that they cut and pasted the message for all of Dracula's body parts, but nothing else. It's a wonder that the rigorous playtesting didn't catch these oversights. DOES THE NINTENDO SEAL OF QUALITY MEAN NOTHING AT ALL, BY GOD??

Nope. Nope, it does not.

With Death handily defeated, it's time to cross what I assume is the River Styx. A creepy skeletal boatman takes Simon to the next mansion, as Simon furiously whips him. Giddyup!

Another place where most kids had no idea what to do. You find a dead end here, and the logical conclusion is to turn back. But nope, that isn't the way to progress. You must equip another stone and sit here until a whirlwind shows up. And that's the problem with this game: It's so damn vague half the time. Usually, games of this era would have lots of hint-giving NPCs who could clue you in on things like this. However, there's a definite lack of NPCs in this game, and the few that exist don't really have anything useful to say.

Talk about low ceilings... this one has SPIKES. Yeouch. It's okay though, we're closing in on the finale.

I acquire yet another part of Dracula. The question is, how does Christian Bale feel about the script of this game?



Next, our hero must cross a poisonous, health-draining bog that goes on for a while. By the time I get to the other side, I've lost a bunch of health. Hopefully there's some artifact that I'm missing that would make the swamp not damage Simon so that he can safely cross it. As far as I know, though, you've just gotta eat the health loss.

Editor's Note: I've just been informed that there is indeed an item that lets you avoid taking damage in the swamp, so I take back any criticism in that regard. Unfortunately I don't think I had the item in question when I got to this point.

Side note: I'm playing Dark Souls for Halloween and just did a section of that game with a similar poison bog that you have to wade through and suffer the health loss, and in that situation you can bring mitigating items as well. Yet another comparison I can draw between the two games, despite their being more than two decades apart.

I try to get a shot of the Flame Whip in action, but it isn't easy because the flames are individual sprites that flicker on and off when you strike a foe. Either way, it obliterates everything in my path. No whips are better than the Flame Whip.

...except for Cool Whip. Useful on desserts... and nipples. Oh yeah.

Aside from the enemies being a bit easier than the previous game, the bosses are MUCH easier. It definitely seems like the designers got a bit lax when it came to making the bosses challenging. The next one I face is a largely-forgettable flying mask. Note how the far door is open, so again it's possible to just run on by. No fun in that, though, and these bosses usually have some loot to acquire if you slay them.

Dracula: Your parents help you put it together!

The final level is Dracula's castle, which lay in ruins from the first game. There's nothing here. No enemies, no nothing. Bizarre. It might be the most anti-climactic final area I've ever seen. Simon assembles Dracula here in order to...kill him for real, I guess? I don't know, the plot lost me somewhere along the line. I still think an acid bath would make more sense. If it's good enough for T-800s, it'll work on Dracula. He isn't even made out of hyperalloy, nor is he fully armored or very tough.

Here he is. The revived Dracula. Now that he's all put back together, it's time to kill him for real. The good (bad?) news is that he's just as anti-climactic as his castle. If you bring Holy Water, you can simply pummel him with it. With the stun component, he won't even have a chance to move, and the fight ends quickly.

That isn't how I roll, though, and I fight him on the up-and-up. And if you do that instead of going for the easy win... well, good luck. He launches an OFFENSIVE FLURRY of mass destruction, one that puts his attack pattern in the first game to shame. Matter of fact, he can totally obliterate Simon in mere seconds. I didn't see THAT coming, given the lower overall difficulty of the bosses in this game compared to the previous.

How does one defeat such a foe? Simple... throw daggers to stun him for a second, then WHIP FURIOUSLY. The fact that he stands there for an extended period of time at the beginning of the fight also helps, and with rapid Flame Whip strikes it's possible to defeat him before he even mounts an offense. ...which is good, because if he gets one good attack off he might completely dominate the fight. What a bizarre final battle. It's either very difficult or un-losable, depending on what you do at the beginning of the fight.

With that, the game is over with... and none too soon. The longest of the original NES 'Vanias, yet the most lacking in all regards. It has an amazing soundtrack and a TON of nostalgic value, but overall it comes across as unbalanced and confusing a good portion of the time. Most of the challenge comes from figuring out where to go and what items you need, rather than from the enemies. In that sense, I miss the linear platforming experience of the other games. At least it's all uphill from here.

Thoughts on Castlevania? Thoughts on this post? Leave your comments below, and share this with the buttons on the left. Thanks!


  1. On the plus side, while you're waiting for the sun to vanquish the night, you can listen to Bloody Tears.

    Many games fuse platform game fundamentals with elements of action-adventure games such as The Legend of Zelda or with elements of RPGs. Typically these elements include the ability to explore an area freely, with access to new areas controlled by either the gaining of new abilities or through the use of inventory items. Metroid and later 2D games in the Castlevania series are among the most popular games of this sort, and so games that take this type of approach are often called by a portmanteau of these two games, either "Metroidvania" or "Castleroid".

    So sayeth wiki. Or you could say the term was originally used mockingly to say how much SotN resembled Metroid, to the point where Metroid had even gobbled up the title of the game.

    LJN was allowed to sell videogames, so no, I'd say the Seal of Quality didn't mean squat.

    People didn't Play it Loud until the Genesis was around. You might think it's a clever knock on the inferiority of the Genesis's audio prowess compared to the SNES, but it's not.

    Thanks to the notoriety of the Zelda Rap, quite a few people will get that reference.

  2. I actually found Dracula's Castle kinda cool. IDK why, but the dark emptiness really made it feel like endgame. Plus if I remember correctly, I think before you fight Dracula there's a big drop you can't turn back from, which gave it a sense of finality. I guess from a narrative standpoint I find it entertaining.

  3. I appreciate the thoroughness of this post. I wonder what Nintendo Power had to say about it!