25 Years of NES, Part 10: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
No game better illustrates the odd second game syndrome that effected many NES series than Castlevania II. This affliction is characterized by the second game in a series be wildly different from what came before it or what would come after. Mario 2 has some of this, but it is simply not actually a Mario game. Zelda 2 is another, perhaps more apt game than Simon’s Quest to illustrate this because while at the time both were very different, the Castlevania games have evolved to be more like Castlevania II, while Zelda 2 is still an outlier in its series.
Castlevania II is not as good as its predecessor in many ways, but it is a hard game to hate because it is so ambitious and so innovative that its failings become easily forgivable. Simon’s Quest keeps the basic control and gameplay from the original. Simon still moves, jumps and whips the same. The graphics, more specifically the colors have improved dramatically. Simon’s Quest is much less brown than Castlevania. The biggest change to the game is the replacement of the level structure with an open world and the addition of some RPG elements. Instead of steadily advancing through progressively harder stages, the player was dropped into an open world and tasked with finding their own way through, somewhat similar to Nintendo’s classics Metroid and Zelda.
Unfortunately, for Simon’s Quest, many of its advancements were too ambitious and poorly implemented. For instance, the game features a day/night cycle. The idea of the game world changing from day to night at fixed intervals, with more than just cosmetic changes, was a pretty big thing for an NES game. The enemies were twice as strong at night and more frequent. Also all the towns close down and fill with zombies. It was as interesting idea, but there were some problems. The biggest of which is the text that denotes the change from day to night and back. The phrases “What a horrible night to have a curse” and “The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night” are burned into many players brains. Moreover, the increased difficulty of night, combined with the aimless nature of the game, has been known to be off putting to new players.
Then there is the free-roaming open world gameplay. It is a very good idea. Later games, both in the Castlevania series and other games would do this type of game well. Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are two examples of this done extremely well. Simon’s Quest simply doesn’t pull it off very well. Its proto-Metroidvania structure is flawed to say the least. The biggest problem with the game is that it is often just damn obtuse. The player often has no clue what to do. It is possible to beat the game without help, but I wouldn’t call it likely. The villagers are there to ostensibly help you out, but the poor translation combined with the fact that many of the villagers are simply lying bastards makes them almost useless. While the attempt. To make the game somewhat nonlinear is laudable, the obtuse and inscrutable hints and objectives make the game nearly unplayable save for the use of guides and walkthroughs.
Despite the flaws outlined above, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a memorable and enjoyable game. The story, brief as it is, is nearly as good as story telling got for NES action games. For defeating Dracula in the first game Simon Belmont and his family was cursed. In order to remove this curse, Simon must collect Dracula’s body parts, revive him and kill him again, once and for all. It gives an interesting quest and a reason for Dracula to return. And the gameplay was still just as good as the first game. Once you get your bearings that game is also significantly easier than either of the other NES Castlevanias. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a gem, but a supremely flawed gem.