Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (1987) - Nintendo Entertainment System

This one has been a long time coming.

First off, readers of the site might - if you try reaaaaally hard - remember that I wrote a review for the original Castlevania during Halloween... 2014. Pretty much right after I wrote that piece, I actually had designs to play its sequel and the years just kept flying by without me devoting the time.

Here we are five years later and I've finally done it!

Now, that's not all. If you'll take a quick trip back in time with me for moment, you'll see a young RyHo, sitting in front of a dusty old Nintendo Entertainment System in a cabin near a lake. It's summer and it's nighttime. After spending the day swimming it's time to find something to while away the long, hot night.

The young lad's cousin has an assortment of games that he's never played before. One of them is Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. With no manual to aid and a cousin who knows next to nothing about the game, the youth tries and tries again, but can't make heads nor tails of how to even play this title. It's not like the Castlevania game he's used to, but all the spooky monsters and bright vibrant colours keep him absolutely enthralled.

That was my first attempt at playing Simon's Quest, circa 1990 or so. This game has been a monkey on my back for approximately 30-effing-years.

This feels good.

I played the game on the new Castlevania Anniversary Collection, which released in May of this year in conjunction with developer Konami's 50th anniversary, alongside two other collections: Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection and Contra Anniversary Collection.

I've had the thing on the NES Classic since 2016, though, and I could've picked it up on just about any Nintendo Virtual Console since 2007, so I have no excuses. Not to mention the fact that copies of the game fall out of NES collector's pockets constantly there's so many of them around.

Be that as it may, I took the plunge and made Castlevania II part of my Halloween 2019 celebrations and I'm so happy I did!

Most people think of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as the first of the Castlevania "Metroidvania" titles, but the fact is that it all started with... Vampire Killer?

Oh, you never heard of that one? It's considered an alternative version of the original game, which released in Japan and Europe for MSX2 PCs. It landed on European shelves before the series made it to the US and would receive its branding under the "Castlevania" title.

Simon's Quest is the second Castlevania game of this style, which hit shelves in Japan in 1987 and in the US in 1988. That said, since most people don't even know Vampire Killer exists, many would consider this as their first open-world CV game.

All of the classic elements are there: an open, non-linear environment for the player to traverse and new weapons and upgrades that can unlock previously unreachable areas of the map. The player is just plunked in the middle of a town with no idea which direction to traverse and they must speak with the villagers to gain clues on where their adventure should take them.

The game brings back the hero of the original title, Simon Belmont, who after having defeated Dracula has found out that the Master of Darkness managed to place a curse on him before his demise. In order to remove the curse, Simon must find the five parts of Dracula (I dunno what the townsfolk did to the dude after the first game, but shit got dark), which are holed up in five different mansions around Transylvania, and resurrect the monster... so he can kill his blood-suckin' ass again!

As I mentioned, you can go anywhere you want in the game - no levels here- but in true Metroidvania style certain enemies will be too tough to deal with unless you've completed a certain area, retrieved a new item, or upgraded Simon's strengths.

Simon still has his trusty whip to aide him in his quest, which you can upgrade throughout the game thanks to finding hidden gypsies. Yes that says gypsies and I don't mean like kinda hidden. Whoever developed this game doesn't like you and didn't want you to complete it.

This is among a handful of titles for the NES that I usually refer to as the "Nintendo Power sellers", because they garnered subscriptions to the famous magazine like Evians in the desert. Not only are many of the required items and clues hidden in the most devious of places, even if you have all the right pieces to the puzzle the game requires you do the strangest things to progress.

Like, if you have the Blue Cystal, which you need to magically drain a river at the beginning of the game, what would you think? You'd equip it in the menu and hop in, right?


You'd equip it and kneel next to the water for several seconds until the game revealed the hidden path.

This kind of stuff cropped up in The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, as well. I'm sure it was all a scheme of sorts. You should see my conspiracy board sometime!

So, if you can find the right path, get the right items, figure out all the crazy hidden secrets, survive the mansions, and defeat Death and Lady Camilla, you can take on your old pal, Drac and say bye bye to that curse!

Provided you finish your quest in under 8 "video" days. If not, you die anyway. Yeah, that's what we used to call "Nintendo hard" back in the day, kids!

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the "day and night" mechanic, which is surprising, because it will drive you mad as you enjoy this perfectly wonderful game! Every night at 6PM in the game, which by the way you don't have a handy pocket watch or anything so you have no idea when, the game flips you into night. It pretty well just means that the colours get spookier and the enemies get harder, ya know, in case you weren't having enough troubles as it was.

All in all, Simon's Quest is a great game that I wish I had just tasked myself with completing a long time ago. Although I came of age with Symphony of the Night, which is certainly a much more playable Metroidvania, there's a lot to enjoy here. The only issue I would take from the game is the repetition.

They reuse a lot of enemy sprites and the music isn't very varied. I remedied the music problem by listening to Dino Drac's Halloween Jukebox (I can't promise if that link will work after October 31st or not), which I couldn't recommend enough, by the way! As for the enemies, they spice things up by giving them outlandish different colour palettes and I just can't get mad at a game that lets me fight nuclear green skeletons.

Once you get into the groove of deciphering all the crazy stuff the townspeople say and you figure out the trick to finding pretty much all the secrets (just throw Holy Water everywhere... that's it. That's the trick) you'll realize how much fun you're actually having. Just make sure you have that copy of Nintendo Power handy - you know, the one with the beheaded Dracula on the cover (how did they sell this thing to kids?) - and you'll be right as rain!

Like I said, there's no lack of ways to get your hands on Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but I couldn't recommend the Castlevania Anniversary Collection enough, which is loaded with other awesome games from the series for the price of a pizza ($26 CDN, to be exact). Oh, and the Anniversary Collection also includes Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, which is the October 2019 Game of the Month for the Cartridge Club! See, win-win.

Keep it spooky!