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Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES) artwork

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES) review

"It's almost beautiful how the old mechanics and concepts can be adapted into a different style of game, one that looks brilliant at first glance and feels adventurous and exciting. It all seems so picture perfect that when it finally goes wrong you can't help but shed a few bloody tears of your own."

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest asset

Such an iconic quote from a less than impressive title. Yeah, I said it. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is the black sheep of the franchise for a very good reason: it's no fun. Perhaps in the late '80s and early '90s it was entertaining. There was something magical about calling your friends up for a weekend session of "beat Castlevania II", remembering especially to invite the rich friend in your circle who actually had a subscription to Nintendo Power, and staying awake until the wee hours trying to rid Simon of his curse.

...and all that magic emanated from a very particular source: Nintendo Power. For without it you bumped around in the dark until you accidentally found your way or gave up.

Sure, there's some magic in setting off on your own without the almighty NP as your guide. Castlevania II attempted to take the franchise in a different direction, away from its platformer roots and towards a non-linear adventure, rife with exploration and secrets. Ready as you might be to lay the whip to legions of undead creatures, you actually begin your quest in a town with various citizens who love to chat. Much of what they say is uninteresting, but later townsfolk spout off either helpful clues or accidentally hilarious lines.

"Rumor has it the ferryman loves garlic," an old woman says.

"Careful not to look into the Death Star, or you will die," another says, apparently afraid Lord Vader has his sights set on Transylvania.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest screenshotCastlevania II: Simon's Quest screenshot

Leave town and that's when things pick up. You stumble into a tenebrous forest, greeted by the snarls of powder blue lycanthropes, menacing skeletons, and spiders as large as your torso. The now legendary track "Blood Tears" kicks in and your ire rises. Whip in hand you commence smiting evil through dense cemeteries, barren wastelands, poisonous swamps, and across decrepit bridges. Your pathway branches here and there, providing you with an ample amount of areas to investigate. There are even several towns along the way with more clues and items for sale, all purchased with the disembodied hearts of your foes. Your main objective is to locate several body parts of Dracula to break the curse put upon our hero. Each one can be found inside one of the various mansions scattered about the land.

It's almost beautiful how the old mechanics and concepts can be adapted into a different style of game, one that looks brilliant at first glance and feels adventurous and exciting. It all seems so picture perfect that when it finally goes wrong you can't help but shed a few bloody tears of your own.

There is a persistent annoyance in Castlevania II and it comes from that quote at the top. Every so often, a text box with appear and very slowly spell out said quote, then the screen will very slowly fade to black, and very slowly fade back in. Night has fallen, and you've become much weaker. Enemies dish out extra damage, and you deal less. After a short while, the very same thing happens with a slow transition to day time. This wouldn't be an issue if it were a rare occurrence, but this phenomenon happens about every five minutes and it gets old very quickly.

But no matter. It's a minor aggravation. You trudge onward, unabated by the annoyance, until you reach the entrance of a mansion. Enter and you'll notice that it's structured much like the levels of the first Castlevania, complete with interspersed platforms, traps, and all sorts of "challenging" situations. More disappointment ensues. Most of the platforming situations are about as amateur as they get, like playing the first adventure with training wheels. The only complication comes from fake pieces of floor. Take one step and you fall through, usually plummeting to a watery grave. A tiny bit of a challenge, yes, but still only a minor setback. By tossing holy water before taking each step, you can not only avoid falling but effectively kill the pace and reduce your indoor adventure to a slow crawl.

You endure all of this banality in the hopes it will climax with an epic boss battle as it had in the previous title. Yet, all there is at the end of the mansion is a crystal ball. (Only two mansions have bosses, and both are incredibly easy). You wonder what the bloody hell you're supposed to do with the crystal. You try whipping it, touching it, throwing holy water on it and nothing happens. Turns out you're supposed to buy a stake and throw it at the crystal to reveal one of Dracula's body parts. Unless you happened to talk to the right person or accidentally unearth the right hidden tome, you might never have found that out.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest screenshotCastlevania II: Simon's Quest screenshot

Simon's Quest suffers from one crippling, consistent flaw, and it has to do with uncovering the game's many secrets. How would you have known to kneel at a random rock wall with a red crystal equipped to travel to a different part of the world? You can talk to every person in the game and nab some clues, but that one is never really addressed. Some clues are even completely unreliable. Remember the old lady that told us about the ferryman and his garlic fetish? Try giving the ferryman garlic and the clove will fall through his boat and into the water. That's money wasted on a clove of garlic, and if you want another you'll have to pad back to the nearest town that carries garlic.

Careful inspection of a nearby issue of Nintendo Power will reveal that Dracula's heart is what the ferryman is after, and not garlic. It's at that moment you speculate that Konami developed Simon's Quest as a means to sell more issues of Nintendo Power and other game magazines, possibly for a kickback. The only sure way to make it through this quest is with a walkthrough. Now days we have the Internet and a dense population of talented FAQ writers, so getting through Simon's Quest is no biggie if you're willing to spoil the secrets. Unfortunately, secrets are the heart and soul of the game. Take that away and you've reduced your experience to little more than following someone else's orders and going through the motions.

It's understandable that Konami wanted Castlevania II: Simon's Quest to be a challenging experience. When a title lives and dies by secrets, it's only fitting that said secrets should be difficult to uncover. However, burying them beneath layers of counterintuitive ideas and bizarre conditions is downright cheap. Any minute now someone's going to say: "Well, what do you expect from an NES game?" I expect quite a bit, actually. Titles in vein of Simon's Quest like Faxanadu, Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, and Battle of Olympus were able to deliver the same style of gameplay with far less ambiguity and/or illogical solutions to their secrets and puzzles.

Thankfully, this wasn't the end of the franchise. Konami would eventually return Castlevania to its roots with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, a marvelous and challenging installment to the series. For now let's be thankful that they haven't revisited Simon's Quest's style of gameplay. Let's put it behind us and remember only the good!


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Featured community review by JoeTheDestroyer (October 04, 2011)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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overdrive posted October 05, 2011:

I can get into this. When I was younger, I liked Simon's Quest (I wasn't the rich kid, but I still had Nintendo Power...didn't have it when they specifically covered this game, but I think it was a Q&A in a later issue that gave the answer to the whole "duck and hold position until tornado carries you off" deal.

I'd say it's a game that aged badly, but I think the problem was more along the lines of how it never was a good game, but by NES standards, the production was good enough to put it above a lot of others I had. It had good graphics for the time and no horrid glitches. And a good lazy day game back then because it was so easy. I can't imagine how dull and annoying it'd be now, though.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 05, 2011:

I didn't realize how weak this game was until I played it about five or so years ago when I was still in college. I wanted to finally finish it once and for all, and I almost didn't make it through because I grew so bored of it. I had to dig up my copies of Symphony of the Night and Dracula's Curse to get the bad taste out of my mouth.

I rented it a lot as a kid because I really had no idea what going through the entire game was like. I just wandered, whipped things, happened upon mansions, and thought I was having a blast. When it occurred to me to try to finish the game, that's when I found out I wasn't doing squat. I had only seen the tip of the iceberg.
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Masters posted October 06, 2011:

Good work. You are kinder than I am.

The other NES titles you listed are certainly better than this game, but if you manage to get a hold of Night Creatures for Turbografx-16, you'll be playing something that feels far more in keeping with what Konami was going for here (not that that game is perfect either).
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 07, 2011:

Thanks, Marc. I have seen Night Creatures, but never did play it. I've considered it, though. I've been meaning to retry Faxanadu and Battle of Olympus, so maybe I'll add Night Creatures to the list as well.
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overdrive posted October 07, 2011:

I need to get around to replaying Battle of Olympus sometime. I loved everything about that game in high school except the damn passwords. Weren't as bad as the Guardian Legend's but they still resulted in at least one frustrating "go back to last one because I mis-wrote one of the ungodly long string of letters/numbers" day.
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SamildanachEmrys posted October 07, 2011:

I need to get around to replaying Battle of Olympus sometime

Same here. I alternately loved it and hated it. I really liked that whole side-scrolling adventure/RPG thing, but I found Battle of Olympus really difficult.

I never got very far into it. I seem to remember getting lost frequently, so any time I went back to it after a couple of weeks or months, I couldn't remember where I was or where I was going, so had to start over.

Anyway, on topic, I think this review does a good job of bringing to life the reasons Simon's Quest doesn't work. It's become such a reviled game (largely thanks to AVGN, I suspect) that it's nice to see someone give it a fair shake, put it in the context of its time, and bring a different eye to proceedings (even if the conclusions are roughly the same).

I've learnt that you're a reasonably consistent reviewer, in quality terms. Well done in general, as well as for this.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 07, 2011:

I enjoyed Battle of Olympus, even got pretty far at one point, but god is it tough as nails! I tried replaying it a few years ago and gave up before long, though I wouldn't mind putting my more refined action/platformer skills to the test again, possibly even finish it this time. Same goes for Faxanadu, which I was never able to finish despite enjoying it for the most part.

Thanks! I wanted to avoid covering the same ground James Rolfe already did, but the two of us share a pretty common dislike for the game. I mainly didn't want to trash the game as horribly as he did. It could have been a capable adventure title. It sported decent graphics for the time, a great soundtrack, and some interesting ideas. I couldn't completely trash it for at least trying and getting a few things right.
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SamildanachEmrys posted October 08, 2011:

Yes, that's one of the things I appreciated here. Simon's Quest at least had good ideas, it just executed some of them poorly. I'm a sucker for a balanced opinion.
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overdrive posted October 08, 2011:

The first thing I thought when I saw you guys talking about how hard Battle of Olympus is was to make a vague "MAN THE EFF UP" insult. Then I started thinking and, yeah, that game is hard. I just played it so obsessively that I got through it in a couple weeks and played it so much that only a few areas were still hard for me. It'd be interesting to see how quickly that game would break me and cause me to ABUSE freeze states nowadays. Things I remember being evil.

The first Lamia boss by Athens.
The one cave where you have to pick the right pit to fall down for something. Other pits are bottomless death traps.
The Gracae (sp.-- the three witches with one eye between them) fight.
Those two late game areas. The first has you in the mountains on the way to get the golden apple in the flower garden area. The second was absolutely hellish where you'd go in and out this building and EVERY TIME you went outside, you'd be fighting a big snake monster that'd utterly slaughter you if you didn't immediately assault it.
And the most hateful of all: the Cerberus fight where it regenerated at WAY too fast a speed.

They don't make them like that too often anymore. That might be good. My patience and blood pressure probably aren't what they were when I was in high school.

Back to SQ. Yeah, that was the heartbreaking thing. It did some things right and had good production values. But the finished product was just disappointing. Death looks at all his overly easy Metroidvania forms and blames his utterly punchless incarnation here for that. And Dracula wonders why he only was able to spin around the room and take whip lashings meekly.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted October 08, 2011:

And with the right weapons, you can kill Dracula before he even moves. What's up with that? And there are no enemies in the final area. Did Konami just give up at the end?
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dagoss posted December 02, 2011:

This review hit all the right notes.

I think a lot of NES games that get a bad rap (like Simon's Quest) for using obtuse logic weren't meant to be played in isolation. NES games, even the single player games, were a social experience. That was the only way to get through them, to talk to your friends and play together. Some games, I look back on and realize that it wasn't just the game that was fun but the people I played with. I almost feel like that's something that lacks in games today, when all the answers are on GameFAQs and you play with friends online instead of on the couch.

I'd probably be kinder to Castlevania 2 for that reason, because we can't really play it any more the way it was intended, but on the other hand, it is totally not fun. I traded my copy to a friend for Karnov a few years ago. Totally worth it.

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