A fantastic evolution of the original adventure
Review written by
Jonathan Ashley Moore
August 7th, 2014
RPGs are a certain breed of game. Not only are they different from the typical platformer of the NES days in mechanics, it's a different experience entirely and one that we weren't incredibly familiar, nor comfortable with. RPGs really started to take off much later, perhaps even generations later, but certain parts managed to squeeze their way into the games us westerners were playing and sometimes, they even managed to fully immerse us, such as the popular Dragon Warrior titles and Final Fantasy. The original Castlevania was a platformer through and through, go right or left, traverse through castle until boss, defeat said boss, proceed. It was familiar, it was the NES, it was classic. Which is why Castlevania II: Simon's Quest comes off as such a shock to the system, especially to anyone without a jumping-off point.
Simon's Quest was released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was the year Nintendo really started to become the global monster it would continue to be up until the release of the Sony PlayStation. But it shares something with releases of that particular year (Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Super Mario Bros. 2) in that it is highly regarded as the black sheep of the franchise. There is something about the second title to arrive in multiple NES games, Zelda II, Mario 2 and Simon's Quest were all significant departures from the originals. Simon's Quest decided to throw in RPG elements, non-linear gameplay, NPCs, multiple-dungeons and more. It was a bigger game, far and beyond the scope of the original Castlevania and perhaps controversially in this reviewer's opinion: Better.
The story continues off from the first game, as it seems that Dracula has put a curse on Belmont after his original slaying at the hands of Simon. Simon must now find the five parts of Dracula's body, separated in different mansions to once again fight the famous vampire and finally seal Dracula's fate. Although not elaborate by any means, it at least shows that they are thinking to an extent about continuity. It is nice to have some sort of jumping off point coming in to the sequel. Castlevania II manages to retain the same gripping and haunting atmosphere the original provided, however it feels even more inclusive and lonely with the addition of almost-deserted towns, churches and masterfully crafted sombre environments.
To elaborate a little on the RPG elements, the hearts in the game (unlike the first game, which allowed you use of your secondary weapon) allow you to buy items off characters, buying those items and talking to other characters later in the game will reveal paths to mansions and other such items. You will need hearts to buy oak stakes, which will be a common item throughout. The biggest problem I found with these elements is that if you lose all your lives, you lose your hearts, which can be tedious to regain as you have to grind, defeating enemies. However, this adds some depth to the game the original Castlevania never had, expanding what was originally capable. Perhaps the most dire of the changes is the transition from day to night, which occurs frequently and unfortunately lasts far too long before transitioning back to day, a problem more and more unfortunate as your time with the game progresses because if you want to recover life through a town church, it's impossible until the sun rises.
Castlevania II feels just as tight as the original, with the same exact programming going into Simon's actions, it would seem fairly obvious that Castlevania stands up in the gameplay department as well as the original. For any action that wasn't taken from the original, it works just as nicely and as fluidly. If anything Castlevania II purely gameplay-wise actually is a more fluid trip than the original simply by virtue of the fact that Castlevania II is easier. Castlevania was an incredibly frustrating game for the first time round, it was a constant practice, a testament of how hard it was to complete that game was simply how many times you'd have to play it before the credits. With Castlevania II there are reasons it is difficult to complete the game, however enemies are not one of them. In fact, perhaps we should dive into the difficulty and how this differentiates from the original extensively.
Castlevania II is a hard game but for inexcusable reasons. The original Castlevania was hard, but it was your fault if you died. It gave you the weapon and you failed to move correctly or use it correctly, it was tough, it was unrelenting, it was Castlevania. Castlevania II's difficulty in just one word would be... well, cryptic. The townspeople you talk with sometimes tell you the correct information, sometimes incorrect and you have no way of knowing which. Some parts of the game (unless you found absurdly hidden hint books) are literally impossible to pass without the use of a guide and in 1988, all you had was Nintendo Power or the receipt so you could go and buy a game you could actually complete. This was very much a problem with the original Zelda also, but this is on an entirely new level of confusing. There is no excuse for Castlevania II's walkthrough-style design and unfortunately stops new players from really being able to experience this monumental title in the series to this day.
But alas, this is all I really had a problem with. On every other level, Castlevania II is kind of a masterpiece. The non-linear nature of the game really opened it up to new levels, it pushed how much I could think about the environments. Instead of knowing I was in the same castle, I was wondering what the next town or the next mansion would be like, would it have many townsfolk? Would it be difficult or deserted? Who knew - and I guess that was what was so great about it, it was unpredictable and a whole world. It was a nice change of pace to be outside of the castle that will inevitably crumble, it was a different scenario.
Musically this release is the best of the trilogy on the NES. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest may even be the best soundtrack on the NES. From the beginning melody to the end, you can tell extensive work was put into this sequel. Mansion music is perfect, exciting and fast. Town music slows down but still keeps it creepy. Night-time is a classic, I would recommend this soundtrack to anyone. For me, this really shows what was possible with the sound chip on the Nintendo, this couldn't have been done on the Master System. Even the sound effects are fantastic. This is quality Castlevania music purified, absolute perfection. Graphically Simon's Quest fares just as well as the original, perhaps better, although there isn't a noticeable difference, with the exception being just how big some of the mansions are and the outside of the mansions always look impressive.
I think there's a reason people are less inclined to sell their old RPG games: I think it's a personal journey. A personal journey that you experienced with those characters, you traveled far and wide to finally bring peace back to the land, as the old stories go. You are attached because you spent so much time on this journey. This, I'm guessing, is why Simon's Quest is loathed and loved so opinionatedly in this day and age. In my experience, Simon's Quest is a fantastic evolution of the original. It brought excitement and originality to a series that could have very easily done the same thing over again. Simon's Quest is not a game I will forget any time soon and this is not the last time I will take this epic journey, to rid the land of Dracula once again.
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