It’s been 30 years since Konami first released the sequel to their massive hit game, Castlevania. And yes, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest wasn’t the follow-up that many fans were hoping for in 1987, and rightfully so. What was a simple yet addictive formula had been tweaked to incorporate elements that bore similarities to another sequel that was totally different to its predecessor: Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure Of Link. It also didn’t help that the game had some significant shortcomings. Serious flaws introduced with the changes ended up frustrating players, leaving them lost or uninterested. However, in spite of this, Simon’s Quest did introduce lay the groundwork for later games in the series.
First, some background: Shortly after the original Castlevania was released on the NES, Konami released Vampire Killer aka Akumajō Dracula for the MSX2 computer in Japan and Europe. The game was essentially an enhanced version of the original game, but was a more open-ended platformer, and required the player to seek out keys in order to progress through the areas. You could also buy items from merchants. Konami took these concepts and used them in Simon’s Quest, which was originally released on the Japanese-only Famicom Disk System or FDS, but eventually made its way to North America in cartridge form.
The story for the game has Simon being afflicted with a cure placed on him by Dracula in the previous game. Simon must now collect Dracula’s body parts that were scattered by his minions after his defeat, resurrect Dracula, and kill him to break the curse. This is where the linear gameplay from the first game is replaced with an open-ended exploration of areas that involve players visiting mansions that hold body parts, which also double as items for the player to use. Along the way, Simon must also purchase items from people in various towns in order to progress. Instead of collecting whip upgrades or subweapons from candles, players must buy them from shopkeepers using hearts that they collect from defeating enemies. Hearts are also used to power some subweapons, so players must “grind” to gain enough hearts from enemies. This grinding aspect of Simon’s Quest, while tedious, is offset by the other introduced RPG element: Leveling. The player will increase in health once they reach the required amount of hearts necessary to gain a level.
Also introduced is a day/night cycle, where after five minutes of game time, the time of day shifts to night (“What a horrible night to have a curse.”) or to daytime (“The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.”). During the night, enemies are stronger (but drop more hearts), and the townsfolk are nowhere to be seen. Keep in mind that this cycle factors into game’s ending, which depending on how long you take, can result in one of three endings. Given the amount of time players would spend in the game, Konami introduced a save system in the FDS version, and a password feature in the cartridge version.
These concepts – the non-linear gameplay, the experience system, the purchasing of items to progress, the multiple endings, a password/save feature, and even the day/night cycle – were all revisited in subsequent games, and some became staples in the series. However, despite those innovations, Simon’s Quest is still regarded by many as an average game (or worse). Sure, the music is fantastic, and gave fans a series’ mainstay with “Bloody Tears”. But the things that made the original game so much fun, with its punishing difficulty that required players to hone strategy and skill to master, were gone. The danger of death was negated by the fact that you can continue right where you left off if you died. Even then, if you lost all your lives and continued, the punishment was losing your experience points gathered for the next level, and all of your hearts. The game’s bosses are a joke when compared to the previous game’s nightmare fights. Some pose little or no challenge in Simon’s Quest (you can literally walk right past Death and avoid fighting him). Dracula himself is a pushover if you stun-lock him with a certain item.
The biggest flaw, however, was its translation. Konami had done a poor job of localizing the game, resulting in townspeople spouting nonsense that was originally meant to be hints as to what to do (“Get a silk bag from the graveyard duck to live longer.”). Granted, some of the characters in the Japanese version also gave bad advice, but it also easy to determine. Not with the English version. This made the need for a strategy guide a necessity, and unless you subscribed to Nintendo Power, you weren’t going to get one.
So, three decades on, does Simon’s Quest deserve its “black sheep” status in the series? If you look at it from the original NES trilogy? Maybe. The gameplay took a step back, and was overall a more mundane affair compared to Castlevania. For Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Konami scrapped the RPG elements, and opted to return to the linear style of gameplay merged with a branching paths concept, and the ability to play as multiple characters. But, the concepts first introduced in Simon’s Quest later showed up in later classic entries like Rondo of Blood, Symphony of the Night and Castlevania 64 (okay, maybe not that one). For that, Simon’s Quest should be seen as “laying the groundwork” for these entries, as well as a curiosity in lieu of outright hatred. It’s not a perfect game, but it still does deserve a playthrough once in a while.
Plus, it did give us this awesome Nintendo Power cover.