With the upcoming release of the Nintendo Entertainment System: NES Classic Edition (NA) / Nintendo Classic Mini: Nintendo Entertainment System (EU), we're going to provide short profiles of all 30 games included on the system. This series has already looked at Castlevania, so not it's only fitting that we move our gaze to its successor - Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.
It may seem like a strange statement now, but the NES was a technical marvel when it arrived, at least compared to other home gaming systems. It had a bit of a free run after the so-called 'video game crash', admittedly, but it delivered games that seemed beyond anything young gamers had seen before. Super Mario Bros. blew minds, and third-parties didn't take long to produce exciting, eye-popping games - Konami's Castlevania certainly hit the mark way back in 1987 (NA) / 1988 (EU).
The technology and sizeable audience (for the Famicom and its Disk System in Japan, NES in the West) also excited developers, and we saw some ambitious ideas committed to cartridges. Simon's Quest most certainly qualifies for that category, taking the movement and combat mechanics of the original and putting them within a sizeable, obtuse and challenging RPG adventure.
Unlike the A to B level traversal of Castlevania (and indeed Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse), what we have is a large map and some flexibility in approach. The plot puts this down to Simon being cursed at the end of the first game, and to remove it he needs to gather Dracula's body parts from five different places, take them to the castle and then destroy him once again. It's gory stuff.
Doing this requires exploration, and a whole load of mechanics that put the 'RPG' into the experience. You gather currency by defeating enemies, you level up, you buy items and improved equipment, and you talk to villagers that are often baffling or downright deceptive. If you die you can continue but lose your upgraded levels and currency, so the fear is definitely there - if you perish, it's a long way back. Infamously, it also regularly transitions from day to night, with the latter period changing the atmosphere in villages while enemies in the outside world become more powerful. The transition is frequent and perhaps overlong, an annoyance that helped launch the career of the James Rolfe, aka The Angry Nintendo / Video Game Nerd.
Now, it's tempting to bash Simon's Quest, but we're going to try and defend it while acknowledging that, in terms of the Mini NES, it's more of a curiosity than a must-play game.
For one thing, this writer has been playing a lot of Dark Souls III and Bloodborne over the past few months, and it's humorous to think that ideas seen in Simon's Quest are praised when part of modern games that have the means to deliver upon a vision. Level ups? Check. Weapon upgrades and purchases? Check. Danger of losing significant progress and 'currency' (Souls, Blood Echoes)? Check? NPCs that speak in riddles and make little sense without research? BIG CHECK. Strange rituals and obscure requirements to access some areas? Yep, another check. Not to mention the fact you travel around a large world collecting materials (which you do by slaying bosses in DSIII / Bloodborne) as objectives.
We're not arguing that Simon's Quest is a great game or in the same league as modern From Software classics, but we're highlighting the fact that good ideas don't always convert well on certain technology. Simon's Quest had the same Director (Hitoshi Akamatsu) as the original, and it's evident that the team wanted to push the franchise in an ambitious new direction.
Two other things worth noting in this defence of Simon's Quest. It actually reviewed rather well at the time, despite some translation problems producing text that's truly cringeworthy (though apparently NPCs are supposed to be liars in the game). Another is that titles like this had a life of their own through magazine guides and playground chatter - what some would call 'a Nintendo Power game'. Word of mouth and guides were a part of the gaming culture, and this title, with its obscure riddles and tricky ideas, was perfect for that side of NES gaming.
Despite our defence of it, let's be clear that this game has its problems. Our most recent review said as much, and this article by Jeremy Parish is an excellent write-up on the game's eccentricities and shortcomings. A bold concept and set of ideas struggles to knit together into a cohesive whole, leaving a flawed experience behind. Yet it's oddly enticing because of its weirdness, and can also be pretty atmospheric to boot. Oh, and it has great music.
So don't dismiss this on NES Mini. Prepare for flaws (and 'Prepare to Die') and get a walkthrough handy on a tablet or phone next to you; you may be surprised by it.