Game Review

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest Review

USA USA Version

Posted by Morgan Sleeper

Should've put a stake in it

With 1987's Castlevania on the NES, Konami created a classic. The vampire hunting action game was a whip-roaring success, kicking off one of gaming's most iconic series and introducing a generation of gamers to the adventures of Simon Belmont, the joy of whip-based combat, and the explosive properties of holy water. The inevitable follow-up shook things up in a way that seems almost ahead of its time, in hindsight, and though it's remembered less fondly than its predecessor, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was still a landmark game, inspiring both a remarkably gory Nintendo Power cover and the many open-world Castlevania games to come. It's brought down by some incredibly arcane objectives and a host of cheap tricks, and there are better Belmont adventures to be had on both the NES and the Wii U Virtual Console, but patient, skilled gamers looking for a challenge will still enjoy Simon's solid second quest.

The journey begins when we learn that things didn't go exactly as planned for our heroic hunter at the end of the original Castlevania; Dracula was dead, but had already extracted his posthumous revenge by placing a lethal curse on Simon. As the hex worsens, the whip-wielding warrior sets off on a mission to reassemble Dracula's scattered body parts (how's that for "Mild Fantasy Violence"?) and kill him again in a final showdown, lifting the curse and ending the vampire once and for all.

As you wander the woods of Transylvania, searching for the five mansions and the important Dracula-bits hidden within their walls, the gameplay revolves around platforming and dispatching various creatures of the night with your trusty whip - a surprisingly satisfying weapon even after all these years. There are some significant differences from Simon's first outing, however; this is the game that would inspire the series' suffixation as part of the "Metroidvania" genre, by introducing a continuous, non-linear overworld with different areas to explore, villagers to talk to, shops to buy from, and secrets to unearth.

Simon's first sequel also adds some light RPG-style character progression, where defeating enough enemies will "level up" your life bar. There are also weapon upgrades and items to purchase, from crystals (required to discover new areas) and holy water to throwable daggers. You'll pay for these - somewhat morbidly - using hearts dropped by defeated enemies. This mechanic can introduce an incongruous amount of "grinding" into the experience, unfortunately, and with various items necessary very early on, we found ourselves spending a good deal of Simon's grand adventure walking back and forth across a single screen, killing endless reincarnations of "Left Werewolf" and "Right Werewolf" in a quest for their cardiac currency.

Finally, Castlevania II adds a continuous clock cycle from day to night - an idea later borrowed in the original Shantae, among other games - with enemies becoming stronger (and more numerous) and shops closing down when darkness falls. You'll also be able to see different endings depending on how many in-game days you spend getting to Dracula, so speed-runners will be well catered for. It takes around five real-world minutes for dusk (or dawn) to roll around, and the transition from day to night is always accompanied by the pointed, oddly poetic observation of the game's most enduring line: "What a horrible night to have a curse."

Unfortunately, that unintentionally charming catchphrase is one of the more penetrable pieces of Simon's Quest's lost-in-translation script, which contains errors and oddities ranging from the chuckle-inducing ("You now prossess Dracula's Rib") to the utterly incomprehensible; needless to say, fans who've since been drawn to the series by its alluring, elaborate lore will be rather unimpressed with what Simon says here. This wouldn't be so much of a problem if it weren't for the fact that talking to the townsfolk is the only way to figure out what exactly it is you're supposed to be doing. Admittedly, the ambiguity is built into the game - some of the villagers are "pranksters", meant to give you false clues on purpose - but even the true clues are vague enough that most of them will only make sense after you've stumbled across whatever they allude to on your own. It's one thing to leave the player free to explore, but through a combination of design and translation issues, Simon's Quest seems to actively obfuscate its every objective, making a walkthrough practically mandatory for first-time players.

Like the recently redistributed count Dracula himself, Simon's Quest is a relic of an earlier age, and that shows in its platforming and combat as much as its script. It comes from a time when enemies were terrifying not because of what they looked like, but because of how they moved; that blue, B-movie-grade lycanthrope might not strike fear into your heart at first, but just wait until it starts jumping, handily avoiding your horizontal-only whip and raining 200 pixelated pounds of furry death down on poor Simon. Enemies also aren't afraid to hurl themselves and their projectiles at you even as you attempt some of the game's punishing, pixel-perfect jumps, often onto tiny platforms occupied by skeleton sentries. All this is made trickier by the fact that coming into contact with a fiend or fireball won't simply "blink" Simon invincible for a second or so, as in many other games - hitting an enemy flings you up and backwards, leaving you at the mercy of a cruel and often poorly-placed parabola.

Of course, the challenge isn't necessarily a problem; platforming fans who cut their teeth on the classics will relish the reflex tests, and while it can admittedly feel a bit cheap when you're hit with the perfect storm of pit, projectile, and patrolling enemy, in general, the action feels very well done. The one exception is the prevalence of "trap door" tiles in the mansions. These are indistinguishable from every other piece of flooring, except for the fact that walking over them will send you falling right through them - often to a lower level filled with more trap tiles, and often requiring extensive backtracking to make your way back up again. The only way to know where these tiles are is to fall through them - or to throw Holy Water every step, to be fair - resulting in a frustrating process of trial and error that gets old very quickly. It's also worth noting that the end of these labyrinths will be anti-climactic for some - only a few feature boss battles, with a number of Dracula's parts left surprisingly unguarded.

Even with its anachronistically cruel tricks, some aspects of Simon's Quest have certainly stood the test of time, especially its standout soundtrack. The pulse-quickening pipe organ intro of "Bloody Tears" has gone on to become a staple of the series, but all of the tracks are fantastic, with bounding baselines and catchy chiptune melodies that will linger long after Dracula's been disposed of. And while they aren't going to turn any heads these days, the graphics are a definite improvement over the original Castlevania, with varied backgrounds and small but good-looking sprites. The only issue comes from some significant slowdown when too many monsters or projectiles crowd the screen. The controls are nice and responsive, and apart from some 8-bit idiosyncrasies - being completely and hopelessly committed to a set of stairs once you've started your ascent, losing all forward momentum when walking off a ledge - Simon moves just as nimbly as you'd hope for a vampire hunter.

Playing on the Wii U adds in off-screen play and restore points, the former of which might help alleviate the potential boredom of grinding for hearts by freeing up the TV for more engaging pursuits. Restore points serve as a much-improved replacement for the original cartridge's cumbersome password system, and while it seems like they'd be a big help in navigating the booby-trapped floors and other cheap tricks in the castles, the game itself is actually pretty forgiving outside of its trial and error structure; dying simply means respawning on the same screen, and though you'll lose your hearts and levels gained when you run out of lives, choosing "Continue" will still start you right back where you were. Perhaps the biggest advantage of the GamePad, however, is the ability to pull up the web browser and access a guide as you play. When you hit the Home button to pull up an instant, infinite font of Konami knowledge, spare a thought for the '80s kids who had to figure out what in Vlad's name "Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole" meant before the internet existed.

Conclusion

With an "I AM ERROR"-esque script, merciless traps, and ambiguous environmental puzzles that might generously be called "unfair", Castlevania II isn't for everyone. That said, with patience, the right attitude, and perhaps a walkthrough at hand, there's plenty of challenging platforming fun to be found on the way to Castle Dracula, and the superlative soundtrack makes repeated treks through Transylvania much more enjoyable. If Simon's Quest bites into your nostalgia vein, you'll doubtless enjoy revisiting your old haunts, but newcomers will likely have more fun sinking their teeth into a different Drac; consider whipping up the NES original for an old-school adventure, or Super Castlevania IV for superior, 16-bit staking.

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User Comments (45)

SkywardCrowbar

#2

SkywardCrowbar said:

@UnknownNico Same. I find it odd how much he hates this game. I've never played it or any Castlevania game for that matter, but it's weird how much he hates it since it's such a well regarded franchise. It's not like it's an LJN game or something. :P

Mitsuko_Chan

#3

Mitsuko_Chan said:

What people don't understand is that James actually likes the game. It's his AVGN side that he hates it.

UnknownNico

#4

UnknownNico said:

@Kawaii_Neko True, except we aren't talking about James Rolfe here. We're talking about the Angry Video Game Nerd.

On the subject of LJN and AVGN, remember when he found out who made Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage?

Spuratis

#5

Spuratis said:

This was my favorite Castlevania as a kid for some reason. Now.. not so much, but I still think it's a good game.

Agent721

#7

Agent721 said:

I bought an original NES last week & this is the first game I put in & beat. It too less than 6 hours, but was highly satisfying. It was the first time playing it since it came out in 1988 & it was just as much fun. What's great is your can do the mansions in different orders & the lack of guidance from the game gives you a lot of satisfaction when you finally figure it out. There's also a ton of cool weapons & the music is truly outstanding. My GF was humming the tunes by the end of the weekend, without paying a second of the game. For me, this game is a solid 9...open world, night/day cycle, character upgrades and good 8 bit graphics. It is definitely a classic!

tanookisuit

#9

tanookisuit said:

6 isn't very fair, it's a good game that just suffers from a bad tip like how to get around that solid cliff. If you get a hint on how to deal with that the entire game is very approachable and really is the skeleton bones of what would later expand into the 'SotN' style of Castlevania titles. It's fun, the upgrades are good and the added weapons are reusable/buying items are fun enough to bother with too.

Sosa

#10

Sosa said:

Give this game a try if you haven't. I think it's a classic. Use a guide.

TreesenHauser

#12

TreesenHauser said:

AVGN might hate this game, but the only one he seems to hate more is that dreadful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game

Darknyht

#13

Darknyht said:

This was always my favorite Castlevania, but I also consider it the easiest of them.

soma

#14

soma said:

This is a fantastic game, one of my favorite Castlevanias. True, you will get lost and don't know what to do a couple of times, look for help to avoid the frustration and enjoy this Classic.

Discostew

#16

Discostew said:

It's a good game, even for being the odd one of the bunch. It was my bro's favorite game on the NES.

Bass_X0

#18

Bass_X0 said:

What people don't understand is that James actually likes the game. It's his AVGN side that he hates it

Doesn't mean its not a flawed game. Castlevania II may well have its likeable moments, but that doesn't mean its a good game. The AVGN nitpicks at a game and while he may offer an intentionally biased opinion against the games he reviews for the sake of humor, I've not known him to actually lie about a game. He always backs up his viewpoints with videos and explanations.

Stu13

#19

Stu13 said:

This was the most blackmetal NES game and pretty much the impetus of the goth phase I went through as a young man. And for that, I am eternally grateful. It's all devil horns and unending horror and howling at the moon and I absolutely love it.

KnightRider666

#20

KnightRider666 said:

I actually beat this game for the first time recently. I could never get anywhere in the game as a kid, but I loved the soundtrack.

ricklongo

#21

ricklongo said:

I know it's quite the unpopular opinion, but I think this is the best pre-Playstation game in the series. The others haven't aged so well - I recently got Super Castlevania IV for Wii U Virtual Console, and it feels just like any random old sidescroller with its über-linearity. This game at least had the guts to try and be quirkier, even if the execution is somewhat flawed.

DemonicNinja

#23

DemonicNinja said:

The constant stream of nes games is redicolus,,wtf is going on..give us snes,n64,gba,GC etc etc,but stop with the nes games please

sleepinglion

#24

sleepinglion said:

A solid review. Toggling between the game and IGN's wiki page via the gamepad makes this one hurt a lot less to play.

sdcazares1980

#25

sdcazares1980 said:

@Kawaii_Neko I'm not sure about that. Why take the time to bash the game that everyone seemed to love? He even trashed the original TMNT game for the NES despite winning Nintendo Power's GOTY (or "Overall Game") in 1989. Even through his AVGN persona, he's got a lot of points on both of these games.

millarrp

#26

millarrp said:

This was one of the first NES games I owned. Not quite as fun now as it was then but I don't regret getting the wii u version at all

ecco6t9

#27

ecco6t9 said:

Castlevania 2 has aged fairly well. It was a game that I had hoped would of received the Castlevania Chronicles or Rebirth treatment.

Mikau94

#28

Mikau94 said:

I like Simon's Quest. It's difficult and unfair at times, but that describes most games from that era.;)

ogo79

#29

ogo79 said:

i upgraded this to my wii u just today.
if i say its a good game, that means its good. im just shallow like that.

ajcismo

#30

ajcismo said:

Somewhere in a box in my garage I have the Nintendo Power issue with this on the cover. Really gruesome back in the day, especially for Nintendo.

Cia

#32

Cia said:

It may not be the best Castlevania... but even this one is better than the atrocity called Lords of Shadow.

gatorboi352

#33

gatorboi352 said:

"When you hit the Home button to pull up an instant, infinite font of Konami knowledge, spare a thought for the '80s kids who had to figure out what in Vlad's name "Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole" meant before the internet existed."

Hahaha so freakin true man, amen to this. I think i even called the 1-800 Nintendo Gamer Pro Tip hotline for this game.

SetupDisk

#34

SetupDisk said:

Some of my best memories in gaming. "What a horrible night to have a curse." Bonus exp and hearts yeah!

Bones00

#35

Bones00 said:

I could have sworn like a week or two ago you gave this game a 5/10 and now it's a 6/10.

joeb1kenobi

#36

joeb1kenobi said:

This was always my favorite of the original NES trio. I also love going to see the minibosses rock the CV2 soundtrack!

MagicEmperor

#39

MagicEmperor said:

Say what you will, at least this game gave us "Bloody Tears." One of my favorite game music tracks ever.

KillScottKill

#40

KillScottKill said:

Simon's Quest is such an interesting game. At face value, it's a pretty bad game. Without the title "Castlevania" it would be lost in the NES library. Yet oddly enough, it has a unique charm about it despite being the black sheep of the franchise. Something about hearing "Bloody Tears" and "The Monster Dance" while walking around aimlessly in this game makes me happy.

justjoined

#42

justjoined said:

@Kawaii_Neko Didn't sound like AVGN was in character to me. The tone of the video is more serious than his other works and somebody who watches it for the first time wouldn't automatically assume that James is playing a character. Remember it was filmed 2 years before the nerd character was established. That means no theme song, no rolling rock, no outfit and no raging. James didn't even make an appearance in the video, so I think it's perfectly logical to assume his opinion of the game was true at the time. Now it is possible he had a change of heart over the years but until I hear him say it I'm not going to assume it. I think it's perfectly clear what he thought about this game in 2004.

defrb

#44

defrb said:

I had this on my nes in the early days, was my introduction to the castlevania series. The open world and night/day cycles were quitte unique almost evolving.
Sad to see this classic get a 6 while some titles get easy a 9 without a clear reason.

Dont let anyone fool you, catelvania is as classic and epic, gaming would ever get :P

Mok

#45

Mok said:

I bought Castlevania II back in the NES days and I loved it. I'm not too sure I'd enjoy it as much today however.

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