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35 Years Later, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Is a Faulted Experiment

The NES classic mixes genres and styles of its time. But can it find a place in the current videogame landscape?

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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Logo

Unlike Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, the original Castlevania is a simple game. You are Simon Belmont, vampire hunter, and explorer of evil mansions. You move left and right, up and down the stairs. You unleash your whip against floating medusa heads and jump from platform to platform. You get hit and lose some health or get knocked back and fall to your death. Finally, you collect hearts to power special weapons, to stunlock bosses for an easy win.

Movement aside, Castlevania II is a different beast. Gone is Dracula’s castle, and with it the linear levels of the first game. In change, we get a proto-open world: an interconnected series of levels, complete with forking pathways, NPC towns, and many riddles and dead ends.

With the new RPG mechanics, combat relies as much on the player’s skill as on the character’s health pool and equipment. The enemy encounters don’t have much in common with the other Castlevanias on NES, but they foreshadow the future of the series. Corridors-levels full of the same type of enemy separate the real areas of interest, while unavoidable ambushes only let through players with the right items and enough health. If it wasn’t for the draught of real options, we could almost call this an early Metroidvania.

Castlevania II as a Sequel

A screen from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Image: Konami

This sort of change isn’t rare among the NES sequels. The very first line of Nintendo’s console games lifted much of its design from arcade classics and older console hits: The Legend of Zelda took from Atari’s Adventure, Super Mario Bros. from Donkey Kong, and the original Mario Bros.

The second generation of NES games, many sequels to the consoles’ classics, had instead the luxury of drawing from within, from the contemporary catalogue of console games. Playing to the strengths of home consoles, many action series like The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania became entrenched in RPG mechanics. Many sequels became more complex since only experienced players would come back for part 2. And with players now used to save files and password systems, games were able to grow longer.

Those changes didn’t reflect well on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, an experiment that takes as much from its predecessor as from Zelda 2 and Ninja Gaiden. The result isn’t a good mix: the slow moveset of the NES Castlevanias clashes with the erratic enemies of Ninja Gaiden, and what remains of the classic tailor-made encounters is ruined by the varying equipment and level-up mechanics.

Books, Clues and Mysteries

A screen from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Image: Konami

Those new RPG elements inspired by Zelda 2 are both the highlight and the curse of Castlevania II, and nowhere is this more evident than in the NPC conversations. When in one of the few towns scattered through the game, the player can rely on the villagers’ wise words to guide them through their quest. Except for when their words are meaningless, deceitful, irrelevant, or if they’re so poorly translated that they might as well be lies.

More reliable than the villagers are the many books hidden throughout the world. In the original Castlevania you could whip a wall to reveal a reinvigorating roasted chicken. In the sequel, you can splash a column with holy water (which you first need to find) to get a cryptic clue on how to progress to the next area.

For those who are wondering about exactly how cryptic we’re talking, here’s an example from the start of the game: “A symbol of evil will appear (sic) when you strike the stake”. Spelling aside, what this word salad is trying to say is that players need to use the Oak Stake item (which again, you first need to find) to break open Dracula’s weird strobe ball, where they’ll find one of those “symbols of evil”. What the book fails to mention is that collecting those items is the objective of the game.

It doesn’t say where to get the stake, or what to strike against, or the fact that they’re a single-use item that you’ll definitely throw against nothing, wasting it, as figure out how to use them. But while most messages are just as confusing as this one, the secrets they protect are sometimes truly spectacular. A standout example is the lake riddle: “To replenish earth, kneel by the lake with the blue crystal.” Do just that and you’ll notice the camera slide downwards a few blocks, revealing a safe passage to the seabed and the drowned city beneath.

Should you play Castlevania II in 2022?

A screen from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Image: Konami

In short, no. You should probably not play Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest in 2022. If you want to play a good, classic action-platformer, play one of the other NES Castlevanias. If you want a Zelda 2 kind of action-RPG, you might want to look at the SNES library instead. As it stands, the terrible translation and general obscure dialogue make Castlevania II too obscure to recommend.

If you really do want to play it and it’s your first time, just do yourself a favor and use a guide. For one, there is absolutely no way to distinguish between cryptic clues gibberish and actual lies. You’ll read “Dig up the 4th grave in the cemetery for a diamond” and spend the next hour figuring out how to dig in this game, before realizing that you can’t.

Alternatively, you can try using the “Castlevania II English Re-translation” patch, though you’ll need a ROM of the NES version for that. It is absolutely worth seeking, as it adds many quality of life features, as well as making the dialogue a little more understandable. Just be warned that the game itself remains extremely cryptic for modern standards.

You can find Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest on the Nintendo Store, alone or bundled with 7 other games in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection. If you’re not sure if you should get the complete package, why not read our articles on the two masterpieces that are Castlevania and Castlevania III.

Well-rounded nerd and self identified loveable weirdo, Diana loves stories in all their forms, even though she’s too lazy for most things that aren’t games. She’d drop anything for a night of TTRPGs, and often does. You can find her rummaging trough the tiniest of indie games releases, or trying to wrap up a 50 hours long Visual Novel she regrets ever starting.

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