Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Simon Belmont is dying. The once great champion of the Belmont family- the man who killed Dracula and saved the world – is coming to a cruel and painful demise. He can barely hold his legendary whip anymore. Not just because he’s grown weak, but because his body can’t handle the movements. His old wounds are still aching. His muscles are slowly rotting off his bones. His skin has become pale, lifeless. It’s not old age; it’s only been seven years since the first game. It’s something far worse: Dracula’s curse. Before being defeated in the original Castlevania, he made sure the hero wouldn’t get off so easily. The only way for the spell to be reversed is for Simon to search the world for Dracula’s remains, return them to Castlevania, then resurrect and face the demonic overlord one last time. He doesn’t have much of a choice; if Simon doesn’t get everything done soon, he’ll wither into nothing.
It’s got the makings of a great, dark story. A dying hero making a desperate search for a cure, being manipulated by his arch-nemesis from beyond the grave. That’s actually a decent plot for a retro game. The problem is that, despite being such a cool concept, it’s executed in an incredibly flawed way. Dracula’s remains have been separated into five pieces and stored in different mansions throughout the land. It would have been easy for Konami to just have side-scrolling levels that represent each of the mansions. Kill some bats and zombies, do a little hardcore platforming, kill a boss, retrieve a body part. Move on to the next mansion. Simple. It would have been the easy, logical way to develop Simon’s Quest as a sequel; just take what made the first game good and expand upon it. That’s all they had to do.
But then Konami screwed up everything.
There are no levels. There’s nowhere near as much platforming, and what little does exist is a joke compared to the last adventure. Rather than having you play through a bunch of stages, Simon’s Quest dumps you into the middle of the in-game world and lets you figure out everything on your own. Side-scroll your way through towns, talk to NPCs, and explore the monster-infested countryside in between areas. It’d be quaint, if it wasn’t so horribly designed. It’s like they were trying to make a Castlevania RPG and only had a vague understanding of how to do it. You’re not given much in terms of direction or objective. Talking to the village folk is a crapshoot; they’ll either tell you ridiculously cryptic clues or outright lies. Stuff like, “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole” or, “Get a silk bag from the graveyard duck to live longer.” Gee, that’s so helpful. The puzzles and obstacles themselves are even more mystifyingly obscure. Stuck at a river? Try kneeling for a few seconds and watch a miracle happen. How is Simon supposed to know about invisible platforms? And why are the merchants hidden beneath floors that can only be destroyed with Holy Water?
That’s assuming you can even get to them. You can’t access any of a town’s services once night falls…which happens every few minutes. The game runs on its day and night clock – an innovative idea for its time – that determines your progress and the ending you’ll get. Once the sun fades (you‘ll know when Simon suddenly spouts: What a horrible night to have a curse.), all of the skeletons, mermen, and other demonic creatures you took for granted suddenly become twice as powerful, leaving you to frantically mash the attack button and pray that you can kill them before they suck away your health. If you survive, you might be able to limp back into town to get healed by a priest…except that the church is closed because it’s the middle of the night. You’re left slaughtering zombies (who have inexplicably replaced the townsfolk) as you wait for morning. This needlessly tedious process is made slightly more fun by the combat and leveling mechanics. Simon is slightly faster and more responsive than he used to be. Given the predictable attack patterns of the enemies, you shouldn’t have much trouble. The heart pickups have been retained, but perform a different role. Rather than giving you ammo for your sub weapons, they give Simon experience points and can be used as currency. That’s actually one of the few things this game gets right; by placing so much importance on the pickups, it gives you more incentive to fight more enemies. Considering how much you’ll be going around in circles, you’ll need any reason to keep playing.
The screens themselves provide a nice distraction, though. Despite all the repetitive scenery, the majority of it looks better than what Castlevania had to offer. As you explore the towns, you’ll notice the cracked bricks and the faded, peeling signs. The forests at night are a blend of jagged shadows and murky, poisonous marshes. The mansions have those massive, foreboding gates and doors that look like the gaping jaws of some otherworldly beast. The interiors are just as detailed; many of the dungeons are decorated with grimy bricks and rotting corpses hanging from the ceilings. The enemies aren’t quite as impressive. The skeletons, demons, and mutant spiders look little more than moving masses of pixels. The animations aren’t much better, either. Despite his slightly better handling, Simon looks and moves almost identically as his previous iteration. Utterly slow walking, awkward jumping, and stiff whip attacks make him an easy target. The music more than makes up for any shortcomings, though. Bloody Tears, one of the most iconic tracks in the entire series, makes its debut along with a handful of other awesome tunes. It makes those of other titles sound like trash. Too bad the soundtrack is hardly enough of a reason to get you to play an otherwise boring game.
You’ve got to give Konami some credit, though. They were trying to be creative. They wanted to try out new things with their series. No one can accuse them of not attempting to be innovative. There are a lot of interesting ideas. A protagonist being manipulated by the villain, slowly wasting away as time marches on. A day and night system to give the game more atmosphere. A massive world to explore on your own. A leveling mechanic that doubled as your currency. It’s got the makings of a great game. The problem is that all of these ambitious ideas were mashed together so haphazardly that it crushed any of its potential. The challenging platforming segments – arguably the most fundamental aspects of the series – are almost completely absent. There’s no good sense of direction or goal, which forces you to waste time wandering aimlessly in the wrong directions. The puzzles are so ridiculously obscure, and even interacting with the NPCs and uncovering even the most basic secrets is a chore. Unless you’ve got the patience to explore every last possible way to advance to a new area, you’ll probably end up consulting a walkthrough. Considering how poorly made this game is, you’re going to need all the help you can get.