Castlevania came into our hearts in that golden era of gaming back in the mid-1980s, when Mario, Link, Samus, Mega Man and the rest of the blue-collar video game heroes were working hard to make names for themselves. While never becoming quite as popular as the aforementioned, Simon Belmont's considerable fame, spurned by Castlevania's success, called for a sequel in a time when other such heroes were earning for themselves second forays into the spotlight--in Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda: The Adventure of Link, most prominently. There was a clear theme to these sequels: Their developers, looking to push the bounds of the NES, sought to isolate the most important ideas and elements as taken from the original winning formulas and transpose them into something new and different. In order to compete in such a market, Konami had every intention of exploiting that theme with its young franchise.
Thus, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Konami's second series venture on the NES, was born. With in mind the theme associated with this time-period, Konami shifted the series away from the action-platform genre and instead created an adventure-RPG in the vein of The Adventure of Link. It took Castlevania's basic mechanics, expanded upon many of Vampire Killer's conventions, and borrowed a system of exploring from Metroid to create an all-new adventure for the ever-present Simon Belmont. And it therein presented to the consumer a nonlinear quest centered around the meeting of goals en route to a final destination rather than the more prolific formula of defeating progressively challenging boss creatures in order to move on through equally challenging stages.
This precedent is all fueled by the game's story: As told, Simon Belmont battled and destroyed Dracula approximately seven years before, and it seemed that the world was at peace. However, the wounds suffered during the battle continued to linger and in time began to bring unto him greater and greater pain. One night, in his dreams, it was revealed to him by a beautiful vision that he was infected with Dracula's curse and would surely perish unless he willing to take on a daunting mission: To collect the scattered remains of the still-lurking Dark Lord and burn them away in the heart of his destroyed castle.
So Simon's quest for survival is a dangerous search-and-locate mission that's open-ended in a somewhat controlled way yet never restrictive to the point where the illusion is shattered. He starts his mission with only his typical Vampire Killer whip (short and weak leather form), but he will get stronger almost immediately because there are right from the get-go more weapons and items at his disposal via the town merchants and the building-housed shops. Available to him in his travels will be new whips, which he can use to replace the Vampire Killer, and an assortment of special sub-weapons. He'll be able to store all the collected goods in his inventory and use them whenever needed.
Furthermore, the RPG system can be exploited so that Simon can gain levels to render himself stronger offensively and defensively while increasing the length of his health meter; to keep him in check, the gain in levels is limited in regard to but a few--that is, he'll stop gaining experience once he has become too strong for a certain power-level of enemy. While the gaining of levels is only optional, it's worth the trouble to accomplish since the enemies become tougher and your regular energy meter and your basic strength may not always suffice.
Only a few items from Castlevania have carried over: Most apparent is that you'll have to collect hearts of different value by defeating enemies and use them for the dual purpose of powering most sub-weapons and buying newer accessories from the town- and mansion-dwelling merchants. You'll recognize the dagger and holy water, of course, which are the only carryovers in the sub-weapon department; these combine with new tools of destruction--like the rebounding diamond, the invincibility-rendering laurels, and the all-powerful golden knife--to form a whole new selection that Simon can switch between. Other items that appear in his inventory exist only for situational usage. For example: There are the three crystals that allow for magical effects such as raising pools of water, locating hidden platforms, and riding in a tornado; the body parts of Dracula that offer him a shield and other manipulative powers; and the cross that allows him to enter Castlevania. While most of the more powerful weapons can be purchased from the merchants, others can only be found by locating and uncovering hidden souls that lurk in the most baron areas of Transylvania.
The object of the game isn't really all that simple. Spread throughout Transylvania are towns, forests, bridges, cemeteries and other types of ghoulish locations. You must travel through all this terrain and locate five mansions, where Dracula's remains are being guarded by his most powerful forces. The maze-like mansions must be explored to find the body parts. Some mansions introduce their own brand of puzzles while the others are more straightforward; in either case, you can break your way through structures (or "bricks," as canonically called) to find secret books that may offer a solution to a conundrum. Naturally, each successive mansion is tougher to explore than the last, since the enemies become more powerful and more numerous and the traps become more devious. After you've managed to locate and collect all five body parts, you can take them to the abandoned Castlevania where the final battle can be initiated.
Because we're dealing with a game as powered by an RPG-based system, the enemies, as you would expect from this hybrid genre, will also be getting tougher to handle as you get deeper into the game--their attacks and movements increasing in speed, their doling out of punishment greater, and their endurance doubling exponentially. The toughest foes you'll encounter, regardless of your level, are the game's only two "bosses." And I say "bosses" loosely because the Grim Reaper and Vampira are more "giant obstacles" than they are enemies--they're basically just larger minor enemies who regenerate after defeat whenever you reenter their domains. In fact, it's possible to finish the game without ever bothering to accost the Reaper, who you can gleefully pass beneath as you rush to the next room. Whereas it makes sense in terms of the game's open-ended nature, I wish that these battles were more numerous and thus more meaningful to Simon's quest.
Simon's Quest's graphical presentation is much improved over Castlevania's though more repetitive--you can bet that every bit of woodland you'll travel through will look exactly the same except for the color of its trees. This is understandable, since it's a much larger game that pushes the boundaries of the NES and its palette. The NES is only capable of producing eight colors at one time, so this heavily impacts the game's look; this is the reason why any given enemy (like, say, a skeleton) is apt to appear in so many different colors to match currently displayed background schemes. Konami did a very good job of turning this negative into a positive by associating the color differences with the enemies' advanced levels and thereby effectively hiding the limitation.
The greatest strength of Simon's Quest is that it simply has an atmosphere all its own, which stems from having some of the best location detail; that's to say its visuals are so appropriate that the game's very tone tickles the senses in a way that makes you feel like you're a part of this universe or at least a temporary resident. When combined with what are imagination-spurning backgrounds and effectively detailed textures, it creates a memorable world that you'll want to visit again and again. All throughout your quest, the landscape will be shadowed by ominous mountains, graveyards, woodland and stalactite-filled caves. And yet, it's the little things that manage to increase the effect--the small evergreens, the tombstones, the fading horizon, and the memorable town-building designs. To pull it off so well required a thoughtful effort. I, at least, was impressed with the developers' willingness to supply Simon's Quest its own personality, which when considered has gone unmatched in the years following.
The characters, too, complement the game's atmosphere: The town habitants are mysterious yet approachable; the enemies, like the two-headed creatures and freddies, are mean-looking and all the more frightening for it; and even Simon looks better this time around, however faceless he remains. And because it's a cleaner-looking game, it moves at a much smoother pace than what the clunky Castlevania presented, and this helps provide a consistent tempo, a sense of speed, and fluid character animation (I like how some of the foes seem to glide along surfaces).
Even though Simon's Quest's musical score offers only a few tunes, the soundtrack is still A-plus quality work and a standout effort of its time. Bloody Tears (a tune based on classical organ work by J.S. Bach called Toccata and Fugue, says contributor Daniel Krauze), the game's most oft-used track, stands out so well that it basically became the Belmont family's second theme, and its Monster Dance track, reserved for nighttime, is among the most famous in 8-bit history. The selection works so well because it seems to capture the essence of the game's atmosphere, always matching the action and thus carrying it to a higher level. Fast- and slow-paced themes work to either raise your comfort level or to keep you off balance, which further heightens the game's sense of life. Its sound effects department is populated by many of the same snaps, splats, grunts and crackling from Castlevania, which is a good or bad thing depending on what school you're from (is it "lazy" or the means to create consistency?), but its spell-casting, flame-whip-snapping, and untimely death effects show an effort to expand beyond the archive. Konami proves again that it knows its way around limitations.
What makes Simon's Quest truly unique is its day-to-night system; that is, the game runs on a fairly realistic timer that has it changing from day to night and vice versa. Certain quirks are associated with the time of day: In the daytime, towns are fully accessible and enemies countrywide are at their weakest. When nighttime arrives, the enemies grow stronger and the activity of towns dies down as the people avoid the waves of zombies by fleeing to the safety of their homes. You're surely affected by the change to nighttime, because replenishing your energy, the purchasing of new items, and talking to villagers becomes moot since you can only enter the churches and other buildings during the daytime. Unless you plan to spend the whole night--and they are long nights compared to the short daylight periods--fending off zombies, it's always a better idea to keep moving for one reason: The day-to-night system ultimately plays a role in another of the game's defining elements, and I'm of course talking about its endings.
This is the first entry of the series to have multiple endings. To this day, however, no one is really sure what's triggering these endings (one good, one satisfactory, and one bad) if logic is at work. They say that the ending received is dependent upon the amount of time spent reaching Castlevania and defeating Dracula, which obviously means the longer you take, the worse the ending. Right? Well, I'm not entirely sure, because the best ending is earned by taking as long as possible to reach the final battle--or it at least seems like the best ending from its content. I'd like to say that something got lost in the localization, but the Japanese version is much the same. I don't know what they were going for, and not one of the endings bears any meaningful fruit, but it doesn't really matter, in the grand scheme, unless you're compulsive to the point where you can't live with apparent failure.
The control scheme very much mimics Castlevania's. The whipwork is unchanged and sub-weapons are activated by pushing up plus attack; if there's a drawback attached to sub-weapons, it's that you can't throw another until the initial one wears off or disappears. Inventory-only items require specific movements if you hope to utilize them, but there's nothing restrictive or overly complicated about the process. Climbing stairways still works the same, and it's a "problem" only theoretically because the developers worked to alleviate the pain in two ways: (1) Instances of fighting enemies near stairways are more rare, which combats the usual sub-weapon conflict, and (2) there are almost no bottomless pits to be found near stairways (almost all of the pits placed by stairways are those found in towns, which are supposed to be the safest places. Go figure); they're instead embedded into the middle portions of platforms. And there's a new, sometimes confusing twist on jumping to series of vertical-moving platforms: To make certain distances, Simon must use the momentum of such platforms by leaping off of them while they're ascending upward; if not timed correctly, it will result in the effect of being sucked down into the abyss below. Since there's no need to rush nor will you be bothered by enemies during this instances, you can simply tread along slowly to plan out your course of action.
The challenge-level is varied due to the game's formula and its lax nature--it's almost guaranteed that you'll finish Simon's Quest, and it's just a matter of how long it'll take rather than dilemmas presented by the complexity of the design and the enemies. Level design is solid, with a few challenging platforming perils only hindered by some cumbersome obstacles (like the sometimes exceedingly long marsh pits which at first seem to have no counter, and the unpopular "fake floors"), and most of it spills over into the mansions, in which you'll spend plenty of time as you search the varying-in-size domains in search of Dracula's body parts (only three of which are well-hidden, really). You're given three lives with which to work, and there are no 1-Ups to be earned since there is no points system, but this doesn't matter at all, because you start over from right where you died--even after using continues, which are unlimited. The only quirk of continuing is that you'll lose all of your hearts and current experience-total, but in a game where gaining excessive levels is restricted, the latter isn't really a big deal; it's your loss of hearts that will hurt most, since they power most weapons and purchasable goods are pretty costly (and you don't want to be stuck in any mansion where you can't afford an oak stake, which you'll need if you hope to release Dracula's body part from a protective orb).
Some of the game's puzzles range from easy (like striking a block that looks out of place--"duh!") to "How the hell was I supposed to know I could do that?" perplexing (like using garlic to summon hidden souls and kneeling at a certain location to summon a tornado). When it comes to locating hidden items and areas, the developers never give you much indication on what your future course should be. Well, they in a sense do, actually, but you'll find that the clues shared by villagers and those found in secret books are utter nonsense, either intentionally so or by product of terrible localization; you'll oftentimes be left scratching your head as you wonder what it is you're supposed to be doing next. So I should state again, with this knowledge, that the game's premise, as defined by a world that's almost boundless, is its only true challenge. Unless you have boatloads of free time to spend exhausting every possibility, it may be your best option, as much as it may pain you, to use some sort of guide.
Simon's Quest is maybe too lax for its own good, as mentioned when dealing with the probably-unintentional uselessness of the Grim Reaper. It's a classic example of a strange imbalance between the perceived danger of a world and your efforts in exploring it. When you finally confront Dracula, for example, you'll be overwhelmed quickly in what'll seem like a hopeless battle scenario; then you'll discover your stack of extra laurels, or, more likely, Dracula's fatal weakness to a preemptive strike via engulfing weapons, and thus defeating the Dark Lord will now measure in at "ridiculously easy" in a battle that's completely unimaginative, especially when compared to the titanic clashes you've experienced against Dracula in other series titles. "And what?" you'll wonder. "He doesn't even bother to morph into an insane second form?" Oh, well--I guess. You'll come to accept that these are necessary evils, because the nature of Simon's Quest, with its sometimes directionless free-roaming, dictates a sense of eventual ease.
Despite its negatives, which its positives I promise far outweigh, Konami was successful in carrying over Castlevania's world of ideas into another genre, and it's definitely a case of everything clicking well enough to where we have on our hands what is surely another classic. To this day, while not among the most superior of entries, it still remains one of my favorites due to its intense atmosphere, which chillingly recreates a playing environment that I envision is true of Transylvania and its landscape (or at least the one presented theatrically); it's just one of those games that you'll love to revisit again and again just to feel what it's all about. While the price of creating such an atmosphere comes at the expense of never actually navigating Dracula's castle beyond just the main halls, you'll know that Simon's Quest had to do an exceptional job to make you forget it.
More importantly, Simon's Quest, with its unique style of play, continues the lineage of this great series while setting the stage for the future Symphony of the Night and its offspring. For all it accomplishes, I award it four Medusa Heads.