Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – NES
Release Date (NA): December 1st, 1988
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Reviewed by The Cubist
My earliest memories of the phrase Simon’s Quest stem from an old Tiger Electronics LCD game that I had as a child. Of course this has nothing to do with the NES title, but having a hero with a whip as his main weapon always stuck with me. The Castlevania series isn’t something I ever played much of as a kid, but these games have a richness on the NES reminiscent of my other favorites for the platform. For most gamers however, these games stand no chance against the ceaseless flow of time. Indeed, Simon’s Quest does have its own significant shortcomings, but it becomes easy to look past these flaws as one descends into this nightmarish and expansive epic.
The player again assumes the role of Simon Belmont, and must reunite Dracula’s body parts in order to lift the curse placed on him in the preceding installment. The environment of Simon’s Quest is vast, spanning across several towns interspersed with forests and other natural features where all manner of creatures are hiding. Along the way, Simon must enter a number of mansions and search the interior for a piece of Dracula. Meanwhile the towns allow Simon to buy or trade for stronger items and gather somewhat important clues about his “quest” from talking with the townspeople. It’s interesting to note that not all villagers speak the truth, so their words should be heeded with caution.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Simon’s Quest is its transitions between day and night. This was an innovative idea to implement into a game in 1988 and serves to drastically alter gameplay. When night falls, monsters are tougher and more prevalent, and the townspeople have retreated indoors. After the sun rises, many creatures vanish back into the shadows, the ones left are considerably weaker (by about half), and residents can be found wandering around with information and, in some cases, necessary items. Merchants only conduct business during the day, and open doorways cannot be entered at night. The night and day dynamic does not apply when inside any of the mansions, however.
Simon’s unique technique for dispatching monsters is his Vampire Killer, or “leather whip” as we would call it. It can be upgraded throughout the course of the game. He also possess another offensive tactic, deemed a “sub-weapon” by the instruction manual. Sub-weapons include the throwing of vials of holy water, daggers, and special items such as garlic and laurels. The whip is by far the most useful of the bunch when it comes to combat, but it’s best to keep the holy water on hand for much of the game in order to find hidden areas. Not only will the vials break some regular looking stones to reveal secret passages, but they will also pass through illusory stones that while appearing solid, are actually areas that Simon can walk (or fall) through. Besides his whip and sub-weapons, Simon can also equip one item, usually either on of the 3 progressively powerful crystals or one of Dracula’s body parts. These items are automatically put into effect once selected and have varying uses, the most essential of which allows access to “hidden” or otherwise unreachable areas of the map.
Using the sub-weapon requires the player to press both Up on the D-pad as well as B. Not a difficult task by itself, but when times get tough it’s hard not to activate the sub-weapon while jumping around to avoid enemies and trying to catch some of them in mid-air with the whip. It’s a cool idea to have 2 active weapons, but it’s quite an unorthodox way to implement them. As adversaries take to the air and as Simon’s whip increases in power, one needs to be able to jump and whip with precision and instead will often end up throwing the generally weaker sub-weapon.
A monumental amount of effort is required to succeed in Simon’s Quest. Even with the free energy refills at churches, this game will kick anyone’s ass. It’s not even that each individual enemy is terribly hard to defeat; it’s mostly a matter of numbers and how gratuitous the computer is with respawning foes. Also, falling into water straight up KILLS YOU, which is kinda stupid. After about 2 hours of struggling with fighting the monsters while also trying to unravel the mystery of Dracula’s body parts, I cranked the Game Genie up to full blast and started making some real progress.
Navigating this strangely large yet mostly linear world is generally fun, but Konami’s attempt to differentiate towns by colors gets a little lost among all the forests, graveyards, and underground areas, and I found it necessary to draw a crude map to keep track of where I was. Once I’d completed the first mansion and recovered Dracula’s rib, I had great difficulty in locating any of the remaining 4, and alas, it proved a little too difficult and I was eventually on the web looking for a little help. Perhaps if I’d paid better attention to the words of the villagers I might have had a better idea about what to do. Still, the puzzle and problem-solving elements are as tough as they come in any NES game.
The visuals perfectly exemplify the crude yet effective style of well done 8-bit games. Most creatures look convincing, and the back drops of mountains, dead trees, and graves all help to maintain the spooky atmosphere. However, it seems in some places the designers put a little bit too much detail into smaller elements and as a result they can be difficult to distinguish. The two-headed creature, the mud monsters, and other elaborate beasts are hardly recognizable as such, instead appearing as a vaguely humanoid shape. Contrasted with the relative simplicity of the human sprites, I have to wonder why Simon himself wasn’t given more attention. Among the best looking foes are the floating (or flaming?) apparitions and the boss “Death.”
I was hoping for some creepy synth music to accompany me on these travels, but instead, the music adopts a rather frantic and urgent tone most of the time. While not altogether unpleasant, it does get a little old, there isn’t a great melody to catch on to, and no one would ever hear these MIDIs and think “vampire game!” Fortunately, the music does change between towns, “the wild,” and mansions, and also shifts dramatically from day to night.
For avid “retro-gamers” (I hate that term), the controls will feel fairly familiar, although if your only experience with the NES has been a handful of Mario titles, you’ll be in for a surprise. Simon doesn’t exactly move fluidly, more like a choppy, fixed set of motions. Controlling him with any real precision is difficult and takes practice; jumping across the single blocks on the water immediately comes to mind as a task where one could easily lose a dozen lives. Jumping is indeed the most complicated maneuver of all. Simon is uncontrollable once airborne, and he can’t exactly jump in any direction other than up from a standing start. Many jumps are structured so that the preceding platform must be jumped from when Simon is at the very edge. What looks to be the edge and what actually is the edge are quite different. Simon can walk a step or two “off the ledge” but not fall, and often it is required that one must run until just before the step that would make Simon fall and jump. Also frustrating is Simon’s inability to run, and his stumbling backwards after being hit. This can cause a nasty cycle of going back and forth between screens, or being knocked into the deadly water mid-jump.
The RPG elements of Simon’s Quest are minimal and will seem grossly inadequate by today’s standards, but in 1988 we didn’t have quite so many genre conventions. It would be these somewhat under-utilized, prototypical role-playing game mechanics that would come to define the style in years to come. There’s a crude “leveling up” aspect worth noting, and were the quest longer it might play a more important role. As is, hearts that are collected from defeating certain enemies are totaled up, and once a new “level” has been reached, Simon has additional hits added to his energy bar. This is an absolute must if you’re not a cheater like me, but it’s difficult to know which enemies need to be slain in order to acquire hearts that will actually add to this count.
Talking about hearts leads me into another oddity pertaining to Simon’s Quest, that of in-game currency. Hearts, as commonly purposed in similar games, usually serve to fill up whatever life meter is present. In this title though, hearts act as both money and as objects that (sometimes) bring up the “E” count, ultimately determining when Simon levels up. This was quite confusing in the couple of hours I spent with Simon’s Quest sans the Game Genie. The energy bar can of course only be filled by entering churches, and hearts are necessary to purchase most of the goodies and items strewn along the way.
The other RPG-ish aspect is the acquisition and use of several necessary items. Most items don’t exactly need to be activated; when equipped they are constantly “used,” such as Dracula’s Eye that allows Simon to see the hint-containing “books” wherever they may be hidden in breakable stones. Others take on a more subtle role, requiring Simon to kneel in a specific area while equipping the proper crystal in order to gain access to new areas. I suppose one is expected to glean enough knowledge from scattered books and conversation with NPCs to understand the procedure of accessing the mansion beneath the lake or being transported away from the “Deborah Cliffs;” for me however, the riddle was too great and I was unable to progress through/to either of these areas without the use of the lovely Internet. There’s also the strange affair of having to equip Dracula’s Heart before speaking to the Ferryman in order to be taken to mansion number 3. Another point I was wholly ignorant to without the collective help of those at Castlevania Crypt.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a true adventure game, the kind which don’t come around much anymore. 8-bit freaks like me will always hold affection for the colorful and simplistic graphics of these NES giants, but I would be remiss to deny how dated they are. I certainly took pleasure in whipping my way through hordes of monsters, and the Castlevania series goes a long way to appease everyone’s latent horror fan. The music could’ve done more to set the tone, and the difficulty is beyond generic descriptions such as “hard.” I have no idea how the hell anybody got through this back in ’88 without access to some sort of collaborative game-playing resource. All told, Simon’s Quest is a title worth playing for seasoned gamers, specifically veterans of the NES, but more casual fans may find it a bit too challenging to stick with for very long. Irritating control flaws bring the game below the score it would otherwise deserve as many of them are obstacles to overcome in their own respects, but I’m already looking forward to coming back to Castlevania II in another six months or so and doing every bit of it all over again.
Be sure to check out Nerd Bacon’s other Castlevania reviews!
- Castlevania (by Doobs)
- Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (by The Cubist)
- Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (by Doobs)
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