Castlevania, which released in the spring of 1987, remains one of the my favorite games on the Nintendo. Its horror themes, outstanding level design, terrific boss fights, and challenging, yet rewarding difficulty made it one of the first mega hits from Konami. Along with Super Mario Brothers 2 and Zelda II, Castlevania II has been one of my most anticipated games this year. After the sequels to Mario and Zelda drastically changed gameplay elements, it was almost expected that the Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest would do the same.
Once again you play as the vampire slayer Simon Belmont. Although Simon killed Dracula in the first game, he has been cursed. To remedy this and stop Dracula once and for all, he must locate and collect the five pieces of Dracula’s body, which are scattered across Transylvania. Like the first game, your main weapon is the whip, which is used to dispatch a huge variety of enemies such as skeletons, gargoyles, zombies, spiders, and many more. The first game featured stages filled with multiple areas and a boss waiting at the end. The gameplay was straight forward, as the difficulty focused on challenging bosses and menacing common enemies such as Medusas and Fleamen. Simon’s Quest plays quite different. In fact I’d describe it as a mixture of Castlevania, Metroid, and Zelda II. I love all three of these games, but blending them together has some mixed results.
Rather than jumping right into the action, you start the game in a town – the first of several. The towns consist of one enormous building with many doors to enter and about a dozen townsfolk to speak with. Like Zelda II, you’ll find most of the residents are useless and have nothing of importance to say. There will be items to purchase from wandering merchants. Most of them are required for your quest such as the Oak Stake, the White Crystal, and Holy Water. Hints given are often confusing or perhaps just poorly translated. The bottom line is don’t hope to rely on the villagers for help. Most of the game you’ll need to figure out by yourself (or with the help of publications like Nintendo Power).
The towns feature a church where you can heal yourself. Gone are the mysterious chickens hidden in the walls for a quick top-off on your health meter. Again, this game has no levels or stages. When exiting the first town, you have the choice to go the right or the left. This is where game is quite reminiscent of Metroid where exploration and discovery are prevalent. There are lots of branching pathways where you’ll have to choose where to tread first. On your journey you’ll eventually come to another town, a mansion, a seemingly dead end, or an area that you cannot yet reach. Like Metroid, this game does not feature an in-game map. When I first started playing, I found myself lost pretty quickly. I restarted the game, this time making my own hand drawn map featuring a lot of notes.
Traveling between areas is where most of the action takes place. Much like the first, there are some incredible settings in this game. Areas consist of caves, lakes, swamps, mountains, forests, and graveyards. This is a dark game and has an extremely eerie tone to it, even more so than the first. Hordes of monsters are constantly on the attack, and much like the original you use your whip to take them out. You start off rather weak, where even common enemies take multiple hits to defeat. There are several upgrades to your whip and in this game they are permanent, including the powerful flame whip.
Hearts also appear when killing monsters, but in this game hearts are used as currency rather than an alternate weapon. So the incredibly useful boomerang and axe are not in the sequel. You have a life meter and when that runs out, or you fall in the water, you lose a life and begin at the same location that you died in. If you run out of lives, it is game over, but you are able to continue with all your progress and special items, but you lose out on your hearts and experience that you’ve saved up. Another new element is the experience points, which work a little like Zelda II. As you defeat the monsters, your experience will grow, eventually netting you a larger life meter.
Simon’s Quest has a unique night and day cycle, which is a really cool idea, but is going to annoy most gamers. During your travels you’ll be interrupted with a dreadful message indicating dusk has arrived. As the lights go out, the monsters become faster and more powerful. The towns also shut down and they are now filled with enemies The very worst part is if you have business in town, there is nothing you can do other than wait until daylight. The sole benefit of the nighttime hours is that this a great time to gather hearts and build experience, as there’s not much else you can do but kill the undead.
Your goal remains to gather Dracula’s five body parts. These are all found in the mansions. Inside, you must navigate the corridors and staircases, vanquish monsters, and avoid the many false floors to locate the orb, which conceals the body part. You usually need to have a particular item to successfully get through. Each body part gives you a new ability when you have it equipped. Similar to Metroid, there are multiple endings based on the amount of time it takes to you complete the game. The first time playing, you are almost guaranteed the poor ending, but a second time through the better ending is achievable.
The music in Castlevania II is outstanding and could possibly be the best on the Nintendo. The haunting title screen theme sets the mood perfectly. The town and mansion songs are well done, but the star of the game is the Daylight music. This rocking, lightning fast tune will certainly stick in your head and will be another incentive to fire up this game. The nighttime theme is also superb. The only drawback to this is the total lack of songs included.
The graphics are hit and miss throughout the game though. Some of the settings look great, particularly in the forest and swamp areas. However, the towns all look incredibly drab and leave little to the imagination. The mansions are also uninspiring and lack any features that mark originality. It could be debated that Simon looks better in the first game as well.
I really enjoyed my time playing this ambitious sequel, however there are plenty of issues I had with it. The biggest complaint people will have is the varying difficulty. The first game featured some fantastic and tough as nails boss fights – all classic monsters such as mummies, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Death. There are only a few boss fights in the sequel, and all of them are rather easy. Rather than placing the difficulty in the combat and bosses, Simon’s Quest can be overly difficult due the frequency of getting stuck with little clue as to what to do next. There are many areas to explore, but eventually all paths lead to an inaccessible area. There were many times where I had no idea what to do next and backtracking back and forth to no avail grew frustrating. The townsfolk give very little information or help. Eventually you’ll learn to kneel in random spots and throw holy water everywhere – which dissolves floors and reveals hidden areas. I love secrets in games, but locating these in Simon’s Quest is required to progress and being stuck for hours can take the fun out of a game, particularly for gamers who lack extreme patience.
Also there are times where the fun just gets sucked out of the game. When it’s nighttime and you can’t do anything it can be very dull simply waiting for daylight to emerge. The mansions are pretty boring and can be annoying with all of the false floors. They are nothing like the exciting palaces featured in Zelda II. Despite these many issues, the exploration, role-playing elements, and music are wonderful and help Simon’s Quest overcome its problems. Like Metroid and Rygar, I loved the exploration and sense of discovery. It was always extremely rewarding deciphering a clue, uncovering a secret or reaching a previously inaccessible area.
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
Final Thoughts: GREAT
After putting several hours into this game it is clear that many improvements could be made, however the highlights far outweigh its shortcomings. The music and atmosphere are both phenomenal. Any fan of horror movies and books should appreciate this game. Overall I do give a slight edge to the first game, but I can see myself playing through this game several more times. I highly recommend this title, but beware; it is likely to frustrate certain audiences.
Aaron got his NES in 1991 and has loved and collected video games ever since. In addition to gaming, he enjoys Stephen King novels, Twins Baseball, and his cats.