Sequels of the present day are almost an inevitability; a safe way for a developer to earn some extra revenue by expanding their previous game, slightly tweaking gameplay nuances and throwing in additional levels and enemies. However, in the late '80s, things were different – sequels could vary wildly from their predecessors, unrecognisable aside from a title and some key characters. Super Mario Bros. paved the way for Super Mario Bros. 2, a title that (in the West, anyway, but we all know that story), despite being the redheaded stepchild of the series, is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. The Legend of Zelda was succeeded by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, an instalment thick with RPG tropes and an entirely different playstyle. Castlevania followed suit in that its sequel, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, bares very little resemblance to either the original Castlevania or the fantastic Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse.
The unfortunate distinction, however, is that Castlevania’s second instalment — unlike that of Mario or Zelda — fails in almost every regard.
Simon’s Quest begins innocuously enough, retaining the distinctive weighty jump and whip mechanics seen in the first title and combining them with a large, multi-tiered environment. Simon’s Quest mostly eschews the focus on challenging platforming segments in lieu of a non-linear pseudo-RPG – acceptable in theory, but huge flaws in its execution render the entire experience a frustrating slog, mired in poor design choices and questionable level design. When the first character the player encounters informs Simon (in a PAINFULLY slowly scrolling text-box) that the “FIRST THING TO DO IN THIS TOWN IS BUY A WHITE CRYSTAL”, the confusion and tedium begins to set in. What is a white crystal? What does it do? Do I really need it right away? Where can I buy one? These are all valid questions, but not queries the game feels it necessary to answer, either at this juncture or at any point later. This is just the tip of the iceberg for Castlevania II's needlessly confusing lack of conveyance.
Items are purchased using hearts, spoils that occasionally appear from felled enemies – the use of the word ‘occasionally’ here is very intentional, because recovering enough hearts to purchase even the most basic items is a tiresome grind of constantly defeating the same predictable foes over and over. These enemies become more resilient at nightfall, taking on average twice the number of blows to topple. This would be dull enough in its own right, but the transition between night and day is so mind-numbingly boring the thought of grinding for hearts is enough to fill even the most patient player with dread. The game’s iconic protracted text-box leisurely informs the player ‘WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE’ before fading to black and switching the colour pallet to a more subdued tone, taking around ten seconds each time. This happens fairly regularly and is unskippable – why the designers felt it prudent to constantly interrupt the player rather than have the time of day change during level transitions is beyond reasoning, but renders the game irritating and tedious as a result.
The goal of Castlevania II : Simon’s Quest is to retrieve the five body parts of Dracula to revive and defeat him, undoing a curse the wily vampire (apparently) placed on Simon at the conclusion of the previous game. As a justification to traverse the impressively expansive world, solving puzzles and conquering dungeons this is passable, but the esoteric riddles and obfuscating translation of Simon’s Quest make completion of the game nigh impossible without a walk-through. For instance, a denizen of a neighbouring town helpfully advises the player to "HIT DEBORAH CLIFF WITH YOUR HEAD TO MAKE A HOLE"; apparently this is not an invitation of violence towards a woman named Debbie, but a recommendation to ‘crouch down at a dead-end for several seconds whilst holding a red crystal to be picked up by a tornado’. Discerning the correct course of action from the game’s laughably bad (and often fallacious) dialogue is borderline impossible, and perhaps the only thing more confusing than the game’s script is how it got through quality assurance in the first place.
Graphically Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is passable; sprites and environments fairly detailed, although both are often drab and muddy in places, an unfortunate inversion of the previous game's refreshing use of colour. The music is a mixed bag, boasting the introduction of the excellent 'Bloody Tears' theme as the daytime motif — now a staple of the series' excellent musical repertoire — but also harbouring some of the series' most grating tunes. It's all moot, anyway; fantastic presentation would not have been enough to save Simon's Quest from its many shortcomings, but the effort that is sorely lacking here would have been appreciated nonetheless.
Beyond the game’s gruellingly slow pace and terrible misdirection, there’s very little to shout about here. Castlevania II retains the same control scheme as its predecessor without any of the tight, clever level design crafted to take advantage of it. Combat is entirely comprised of mashing the B button until oncoming foes are defeated, sometimes taking 10 or more blows, whilst stages are littered with ‘fake’ blocks inserted to give the player a cheap death. It’s frustrating, unrewarding, tedious and badly designed. Credit where it is due to Konami for trying something different with Castlevania II, but a failure in almost every regard. Avoid this shambling mess and stick with any of the other superior whip-slinging Castlevania adventures.