Review: Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Wii U eShop / NES)

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.