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Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES) artwork

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (NES) review

"Of horrible nights, curses and confusion."

With how the Internet has taken over so many aspects of our lives, I don't know if younger generations will ever truly understand how essential one magazine was to so many of us older gamers.

Nintendo Power's monthly appearance in my parents' mailbox wasn't just the arrival of a magazine; it was an event that made crawling out of bed worth it. Essentially serving as a glossy advertisement for Nintendo's gaming systems, it included lengthy, illustrated partial walkthroughs for games and generally did its best to make anything it gave coverage to seem like a necessary purchase (to the chagrin of my parents). It was also a great location to find tips and hints to get through tricky parts of games, both in those walkthroughs and in "question-and-answer" sections.

Nintendo Power was the reason why, upon purchasing Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, I was able to complete that game without any real trouble and, for a while, considered it a personal favorite worth replaying more weekends than not. Nintendo Power was the reason I found myself confused when I discovered that game's excellence was not a trait universally agreed upon. And upon replaying the game, I feel like I should credit Nintendo Power for most of the positive feelings I ever had about it.

Simon's Quest was a new type of Castlevania. After the original game found success as a short, but brutally difficult, platformer, the second eschewed all that stress-inducing action for something slower-paced and more intricate. After whipping his way through Dracula and his allies, Simon Belmont's victory was marred by a curse set upon him by the vampire. And so, he must collect five body parts of Dracula, perform a ritual to bring him back to life and then kill him again in order to remove that curse.

To do so, he'll have to traverse a fully-realized world, going to towns for information and equipment and then exploring a vast countryside containing graveyards, swamps, rivers and five large mansions, each containing one piece of Dracula's body. Find and collect those five pieces and he'll be able to access the ruins of the vampire's castle in order to finish the job once and for all…or at least until the series' success warranted another installment.

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

And on the surface, this was great! Linearity was thrown out the window in favor of exploration. From the very first town, you can travel to the left or right with the only indication as to which direction is the better option being how enemies are a lot more powerful and aggressive if you go one way. Instead of simply upgrading Simon's whip via power-ups, you can purchase more powerful ones from merchants. And it wasn't like everything had changed. Action still takes place in a side-scrolling manner, with Simon jumping and whipping just like always. The vampire hunter also has a number of sub-weapons, some quite useful, to be obtained. It's basically Castlevania, but you won't be white-knuckling the controller in your latest vain attempt to clear that one brutal enemy-laden corridor, just so Death can kill you instead of a medusa head or axe-wielding knight for once. Instead, you'll be eagerly seeking out alternate paths in the hopes that you'll be led to a useful item that will pay dividends in your efforts to collect the assorted pieces of Dracula.

And let's look at how the Castlevania series has evolved over its history. While its games in the 8- and 16-bit eras tended to be action-packed and difficult, Symphony of the Night eschewed that in favor of giving players a vast castle to explore and giving them new abilities as they progressed, which allowed them to traverse more and more of the place until they'd finally reached Dracula -- an idea that proved so successful that its concept was recycled multiple times on various handheld systems. Yeah, this game was ahead of its time and could be considered a precursor to the "Metroidvanias" that became so popular long after its release.

But if you grew up without Nintendo Power and had to find your way through Simon's Quest on your own, well, I shudder to imagine the effects that had on your emotional well-being. A handful of factors made this game near-impossible to find your way through without some degree of help.

First, we have the in-plot reason. Townspeople are a bit suspicious of Simon, considering that his quest does involve him resurrecting Dracula. so some of their hints will turn out to be falsehoods. Secondly, we have the porting issues. The Japanese language is more condensed than English, so more can be said in less space on their cartridges. To make those lines fit in the American port, the writing had to often be greatly altered -- at times turning a legit hint into barely-decipherable gibberish.

But then, we also have things that are just…whoa. Maybe some of this stuff would have been sufficiently hinted at by adequately-translated clues so that people could figure things out on their own, but just take a look at what constitutes "puzzles" in Simon's Quest. One item you can purchase is garlic. On two random screens, you can drop that garlic to cause a guy to appear and give you an item. To access part of the world, you have to reach a dead end, equip a particular item and kneel for a few seconds, causing a whirlwind to appear and carry you away. Also, a ferryman can take you to two different destinations depending on what you have equipped and, if you have the right crystal in your inventory, kneeling by a particular body of water can lead to you finding that it's apparently an illusion, allowing you to turn a dead end into a new path to follow.

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

And "puzzles" like this are the main source of difficulty in the game. Assuming you buy new whips when possible and gain a few levels by whipping sufficient enemies and snagging the hearts they frequently drop, you'll be far more likely to perish due to an errant jump than anything else. If Simon's Quest makes one nod to the tougher-than-hell action that most of the older Castlevania games possess, it's in the jumping. Simon can't alter his leaps in mid-air and there are a lot of jumps that require near-perfect timing, as the distance you'll have to cover is basically the entirety of his jumping range.

When I was young and had Nintendo Power issues by my side, I didn't have many issues with this game, other than the frustration acquired from botching the first damned jump in the first damned mansion while trying to do a "one life" run. But now, when I realize that I don't remember all this game's tricks and I'd need to have a guide up on my computer to have a clue what I'm supposed to be doing? Things start to magnify up to the point where every positive attribute this game has feels like it's countered by a negative.

The game has three endings determined by how quickly you progress through it! But it seems like the text and graphics don't necessarily match what the ending should be, leading to a situation where you can get the "middle" of the three and find out that Simon was too late in re-killing Dracula and succumbed to the curse -- a far more pessimistic ending than the one involving you taking the most possible time.

There are day-night cycles in this game that actually affect things with monsters being tougher at night and shops also being inaccessible during that time! And believe me, you WILL know about that cycle, as whenever day turns to night or vice versa, the action will be interrupted by slowly-appearing text that cannot be hurried or skipped through, regardless of how many times it's appeared.

Simon's Quest is somewhat out of place, compared to the other Castlevania games of its era. It's a "Metroidvania" released long before that word ever had meaning and it's a very primitive one. Monsters offer far less resistance than in the series' more action-oriented titles, but knowing what to do and where to equip certain key items often is near-impossible to figure out without help. With magazines by my side in my youth, this game felt like a breath of fresh air, with me having a blast exploring the world and finding the secrets to accessing new parts of it. But now, it's hard to look at this game as anything more than than a clumsily-designed precursor to a number of vastly superior games.

overdrive's avatar
Featured community review by overdrive (November 13, 2019)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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CptRetroBlue posted November 18, 2019:

This game and the likes of Phantasy Star III would had served better as a side story/companion than an actual sequel in my opinion.
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overdrive posted November 18, 2019:

Yeah, I'd agree with that. With Simon's Quest, it was just another case of a series on the NES making a dramatic change from the first to the second game and going back to the style of the first for the third. Kind of like Zelda, where the second had RPG elements with XP and gaining levels and had side-scrolling dungeons and caves AND how SMB 2 was a tougher SMB in Japan and something very different in America.

One of those weird aspects of the creative process for that time as compared to most times in gaming where if something was successful, it seemed like a lot of things had to be changed for the sequel, as they didn't really want them to be too similar to the original.
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Nightfire posted November 20, 2019:

Perhaps this is also the reason that Mario Bros. 2 was completely out of place in the series. It was actually a reskin of another project called "Doki Doki Panic," as I recall, with Mario characters inserted into it instead. Mario Bros 2 in Japan was an entirely different game; it was later released in North America as "The Lost Levels." Some cursory research suggests that there was a video game crash in the mid-80s that accounts for this; companies like Nintendo were trying new things to try to boost sales.

Your reminiscing about the relationship between video games and publications is right on the money, too. I remember how games like Mega Man 2 and Metroid were basically impossible to navigate without help. It makes me wonder if the developers and Nintendo Power were in cahoots to sell more copies of the magazines. The PC market was similar, and perhaps even more overt about it; Sierra adventure games like Police Quest and King's Quest were basically impossible to beat without help. You needed the hint books you'd see on the shelves at your local gaming shop (the ones that came packed with invisible ink-revealing markers), or the help of those shady 1-900 numbers who gouged you at incredibly high per-minute calling rates. And unlike today, you were completely at the mercy of these publications and hint lines to get the answers you needed, because the internet really wasn't a thing yet. Sources like Gamefaqs simply didn't exist. C'est la vie.

Great review, by the way. :)
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overdrive posted November 20, 2019:

Oh yeah, I had a couple Infocom text adventures back in the day. That I beat SOLELY because they had built-in hints that would give the solution to every puzzle if you typed in the "hint" or "help" command.

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