My deep, passionate love for Castlevania began in 1989. This had to have occured during spring break, as I'm certain it was a weekday. The memory is tinged with the seemingly sinful joy of playing a videogame all day when I would normally be engaging in something productive. That, and the parents of my friend whose house I played the game were completely absent.
Of course, now that I think about it, this is the same house where I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time at the ripe age of eight because there was no parental supervision to stop us. It's entirely possible that my recollection is suspect where this is concerned and my friend was just a latchkey kid. Well, I may be spacing out on some of the details but Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is still one of the most awesome games I played as a child.
At least, that's what I thought until the internet came along. All of a sudden, I discover that this cherished game that had come second only to Symphony of the Night in my mind, is considered by many to be a low point for the series. How can this be? Obviously, more investigation was required.
I will start out by admitting that Simon's Quest is not exactly a triumph of storytelling. Seven years after defeating Dracula at the end of Castlevania, Simon Belmont discovers that he was cursed by the vampire lord in his final moments. The curse, which will soon kill the whip-weilding hunter of undead, can only be removed if Simon seeks out five parts of the deceased vampire's corpse, returns them to Castlevania and uses them to ressurrect Dracula for a final confrontation.
Simon's Quest is certainly the odd one out when it comes to the trilogy of Castlevania games to appear on the NES. The most glaring difference is that instead of a linear series of platforming levels, there's an entire Transylvanian countryside to explore, complete with towns, lakes and foboding mansions. If you're skilled (or have a death wish), it is possible to acquire most the assorted bits of Dracula in almost any order you choose, with only one of the mansions explicitly requiring you to have a specific body part to reach.
That's just what appears on the surface, though. Simon's Quest has surprisingly deep gameplay, complete with an experience system which rewards you with greater damage, resistance and health. It's interesting to note the manner in which experience is awarded, however. Simply killing monsters isn't enough, as you only earn experience when you collect a dropped heart. In addition, as you increase in level, weaker enemies cease to reward you with the experience at all (though they do still drop hearts). So, while the required points for the next level gradually increases, the game pushes you further along a bit more forcefully by simply eliminating any experience gain.
Hearts themselves work differently as well. While they have traditionally been used to power sub-weapons, only a few of these killing instruments have a cost associated with their use. Instead, hearts serve the purpose of currency for purchasing upgraded whips and other items from merchants in the towns.
Speaking of items, Simon gains an inventory only a few of the classic sub-weapons appear in Simon's Quest. The dagger returns and comes in three flavors with differing damage and heart cost. The diamond, too, makes an appearance. Holy water is present and can be used as a weapon but is mostly used as a tool, both for finding the game's many false floors and breaking blocks to open hidden passages.
The organs you are collecting in the course of your travels also have some useful properties. Dracula's rib, for example, can be equipped as a shield to deflect projectiles and his nail gives your whip the same block-breaking properties as holy water. Apart from that, the body parts are either useless or only used to access a certain area of the map. Still, I always loved the idea of carrying aroune a vampiric rib as a shield
One of the more famous features is the day and night cycle. After a few minutes of running around, the action stops cold and a text box appears with that magical phrase, "What a horrible night to have a curse." During the nighttime, monsters take double the damage to kill while dishing out twice as much to you. If that weren't enough, the living denizens of towns lock their doors and close the shutters, leaving you alone in the street with ravenous zombies until the sun comes up. It's quite well-executed and, early in the game, can make one quite nervous if they've wandered into an area they were already unprepared to tackle.
This passage of time serves another purpose. Simon's Quest features three endings based upon how long you took to complete the game. The best ending requires that you defeat Dracula in just over a week's time (roughly an hour). Should you fail to achieve that time, the consequences for Simon are dire indeed. His days are numbered, after all.
There are, of course, flaws (beyond my typical complaint about how poorly the Belmont clan can jump). My first gripe relates to the difficulty. The platforming is challenging enough without being ridiculously hard, which is nice, but that sort of play balance is not at all reflected in the boss fights. To call them a joke is a staggering understatement. All three of them rank among the easiest boss battles in Castlevania history, if not all of gaming itself. Even Dracula can be easily conquered without taking a single hit. They're so pathetic that you probably shouldn't waste your effort, a fact demonstrated by your ability to simply walk right on past them to the room they guard.
That is another issue entirely. While you could just stroll through their room without bothering to deal with them, one of the two boss enemies drops an item that you need to get into Castlevania to ressurrect Drac. So, if you were to decide to avoid the fight (since they obviously aren't going to stop you), you could wind up having to backtrack to a highly inconvenient mansion because you can't finish the game.
Thankfully, this will only be an issue for less than 1% of players who attempt the game without the use of a walkthrough. Why? There are only two types of people who could successfully finish Simon's Quest unassisted: clinical cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder and biblical figures named "Job". As I've previously mentioned, playing the game isn't hard. Figuring out where you're supposed to go and how to get there, on the other hand, is nightmarish.
The reason for this is that the clues which should point you in the right direction are either so vague that it is hard to imagine gleaning any insight from them or, worse, completely non-sensical and inaccurate. Typically, this is blamed on poor localization of the game but, as Igarashi explained in an interview in 2006, there is a much more sinister plot at work: the people in the towns who are supposed to be guiding you are fucking liars. In the Japanese version, townsfolk were explicitly designed to misdirect the player while providing subtle hints. The hints were almost completely lost in translation and American players were left scratching their heads, forced to attempt throwing holy water on every patch of ground and wondering what the hell the crystals were for and why they kept trading them with random townies.
In spite of its massive shortcomings, I still love this game. Not because it is a great game (though, with actually helpful guidance, it would brush with brilliance), but because of what it led to. Symphony of the Night and all of the following "Metroidvania"-style games have their roots in Simon's Quest. Just as in our personal relationships with significant others, it's really hard to stay mad at something which has brought you so much joy. That's why I just smack the cartridge around a bit when it gets uppity.
Ain't love grand?