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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Set a Flawed Foundation for Greatness

Symphony of the Night is only as good as it is because Simon’s Quest dared to take Castlevania in a bold, new direction — flaws and all.



Simon's Quest Feature - image courtesy of Giant Bomb

Step into the shadows of the hell house. 
You’ve arrived back here at Transylvania on business! 
To destroy forever the curse of the evil count, Dracula.
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Prologue

Simon’s Quest has often been written off as an unworthy successor to the first Castlevania in the years following its release. Structurally, the sequel has little in common with its predecessor. Where the original was a linear level-based action-platformer, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a non-linear action-adventure game with an emphasis on exploration and light puzzle solving. Gameplay in the former is purely skill-based while the latter makes use of a character leveling system and purchasable upgrades to control its curve. The stark contrast in design philosophies means fans of the original might easily bounce off its successor. Yet Simon’s Quest has the kind of charm only an unorthodox Nintendo Entertainment System sequel can have. 

Simon's Quest and Symphony of the Night - image by Renan Fontes

Unlike its contemporaries like Super Mario Bros. 2 USA or The Adventure of Link, Castlevania II’s style of gameplay would not only be revisited with time, it eventually served as the basis for the series’ direction beginning with Symphony of the Night. Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was functionally a “Metroidvania” before the term was ever coined. The gameplay loop boils down to exploring an overworld, finding items to get around gate checks, and remembering where to backtrack once you hit a dead end. Progression is ultimately player-driven and reliant on how much of the game world you pay attention to. Simon’s Quest expects you to make note of landmarks and bits of dialogue like any modern Metroidvania would. 

Unfortunately, there are a few issues that make it difficult to fully appreciate Castlevania II’s otherwise forward thinking design conventions. The way currency works, coupled with an under abundance of enemies, means you will need to grind in order to purchase items and upgrades. Simply playing through the game naturally isn’t enough. Unless the lack of in-game direction confuses you, in which case you’ll rack up more Hearts than you need trying to wrap your head around where to go next. NPCs do offer clues on what to do, but several outright lie in order to confuse you, making it hard to trust dialogue at face value. 

Bizarre secrets that defy reason serve as pace-breakers and are a large reason why Simon’s Quest has built up such a negative reputation. Obtuse design means game flow comes to a screeching halt when you hit a wall, and it doesn’t take long for Castlevania II to start raising its walls. More than a few merchants are arbitrarily hidden under untelegraphed breakable floors. The criteria behind gaining access to new areas are often as ridiculous as they are nonsensical. You need to duck at Yuba Lake while equipping a Crystal so Simon can drain the water blocking Rover Mansion’s entrance. A ferryman will only take you to Braham Mansion if you have Dracula’s Heart equipped when speaking to him. The lack of clarity makes it very difficult to progress as intended, especially when the English localization makes every hint as hard to trust as they are to parse. 

That said, all this isn’t much of an issue in a post-internet age where you can circumvent lying and a poor translation with simple research. Which isn’t to say that Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is above criticism just because guides exist, but time has been kind to it in its own way. The game is overall less refined than the original, but it’s not charmless and instances of poor design aren’t egregious enough to ruin the experience. Simon’s Quest has its moments of greatness, few and far between they may be. Every now and then, all the pieces click together and gameplay settles into a fun rhythm. The Transylvanian countryside isn’t so bad when you actually know what to do and how to do it.

Castlevania II Gameplay - image courtesy of IGN

Undaunted by the perils ahead, you steel yourself for the quest. Are you clever enough to unveil the darkest secrets? Strong enough to battle demonic foes in a land primeval?” 
– Nintendo Power #2 (September/October 1988 Issue),
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Feature

It goes without saying, but Castlevania II undergoes some significant structural shifts to match its change of pace. Cursed by Dracula following their battle, Simon Belmont is left with no choice but to find the Count’s dismembered body parts hidden across Transylvania and resurrect the Prince of Darkness for one final duel. Simon’s quest takes him across an overworld connected by towns, mansions, and transitional stages that cycle through a variety of settings. For all its faults, the overworld is brimming with personality and accented by strong art direction. 

Simon's Quest Cavern - image courtesy of Neogaf

Backgrounds are lush with detail, combining a distinct color palette with top-notch sprite work that brings each screen to life. The woods are dense with dark greenery and heavily textured trees. Their green leaves are shaded black the further up the screen they are, the sky peeking between the trunks. Graveyards are tinted pale blue with headstones, crosses, and mountains looming in the background. The water sparkles at riverbanks. Caverns are lined in purple, blue, and black crags. Dead trees litter endgame fields while a day and night cycle lends the backdrop dynamic flair every few minutes. Sunlight is obscured in darkness as the light blue sky turns purple. 

The real star of Castlevania II’s presentation, however, is Kenichi Matsuraba, Satoe Terashima, and Kouji Murata’s score. While featuring fewer tracks than the original Castlevania’s soundtrack, Simon’s Quest has no shortage of incredible music. “Message of Darkness” is a haunting tune that establishes the game’s ominous atmosphere right away. “Bloody Tears” is an adrenaline-pumping song that captures the confidence of day, while “Monster Dance” pivots towards chaotic harmonies that embrace night’s mania. “A Requiem” is a somber track to end the game on, an anthem bidding farewell to Simon Belmont. 

Simon's Quest Mansion - image courtesy of Corona Jumper

The actual level design leaves something to be desired beyond the excellent presentation. Platforming challenges are sparse and what few there are don’t hold a candle to Castlevania’s. The vast majority of screens just throw enemies in your path and call it a day. Bottomless pits are basically non-existent and rarely pose a real challenge. Mansions are the most elaborate and involved Castlevania II’s design gets, but their structures are consistently unintuitive. 

Aesthetically, mansions do a good job at setting a mood. Flooded pits, dungeon bars, and hanging skeletons all add a welcome touch of horror. Mechanically, mansions are exercises in frustration defined by unfriendly design decisions and traps. Spike traps and flooded pits are fine enough in terms of challenge, but invisible walls and floors push things a bit too far. Toss in (untelegraphed) breakable walls with maze-like architecture, and mansions can quickly become a chore to explore. It takes one wrong move to lose progress and Simon’s Quest doesn’t shy away from platforming set pieces inside of mansions like it does in transitional stages. Tight jumps are required and failure is punished with backtracking. 

Backtracking altogether is a big problem. Every mansion follows the exact same gameplay loop: find an Oak Stake, find Dracula’s Body Part, find your way out. It’s not particularly fun playing a level you just beat in reverse, let alone five times. If nothing else, needing to backtrack does keep you on your toes. You can’t afford a single moment to breathe. Even towns are dangerous, most featuring pits of water you can fall into if you aren’t careful. What should be a safe haven where you can speak with NPCs, purchase items, or heal at a church can be your doom. Especially at night when zombies roam the streets and NPCs board up their homes. Although this is irritating on a design level, it at least has the benefit of conveying a sense of horror integral to Castlevania’s identity. 

The Transylvanian countryside may be quaint, but danger is lurking around every corner. Nowhere is truly safe.

World Map - image courtesy of strategy wiki - Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

What a horrible night to have a curse.” 
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Nightfall

Simon’s Quest has the honor of being the first Castlevania to make use of leveling and currency as a form of player growth. Leveling up increases Simon’s defense and his health bar every two levels. Interestingly, levels are capped based on in-game areas. Once you reach Level 1 in the first region, Simon won’t be able to reach Level 2 until you progress further into the overworld. No longer gaining experience lets you know when it’s time to move on. Experience is not earned by defeating enemies, but by picking up Hearts they might leave behind. Hearts also double as currency, which can be used to buy new items or upgrades in towns. 

Simon Belmont Castlevania II Art - image courtesy of Castlevania Wiki

The only way of improving Simon’s attack power is to purchase new Whips. The Vampire Killer starts out as a plain Leather Whip with a short reach. The Thorn Whip keeps Leather’s white coloring, but is nearly twice as long. The Chain Whip is covered in red links and the Morning Star’s all-orange body extends into a heavy ball. Finally, the Vampire Killer can be enchanted into a red hot Flame Whip near the end of the game. Whipping never evolves mechanically, but being able to track Simon’s growth through new whip designs is a fun touch. 

Sub-Weapons make a comeback, albeit in a much more limited capacity. The Axe, Bible, and Cross are all gone. Instead, there are three variations of the Knife: a Dagger, a Silver Knife, and a Golden Knife. Holy Water returns, but it loses most of its capabilities. The Sub-Weapon’s main use in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is to stun enemies and destroy breakable walls & floors. There are additions for what it’s worth. The Sacred Flame summons a pillar of fire from where it falls while the Diamond bounces all around the screen, ricocheting from wall to wall. Dracula’s Rib functions as a shield that reflects projectiles, his Nail lets you destroy breakable blocks with the whip, and his Eyeball reveals hidden items inside of walls and floors. Sadly, while there’s a lot of gear to play around with, there’s little in the way of combat challenges to use them against. 

Bone Pillar Simons Quest - image courtesy of strategy wiki

Enemy placement is poorly handled to say the least. Without bottomless pits, there’s little consequence to getting hit half the time. The enemy design isn’t too engaging either. Things start promising enough with jumping werewolves and eyeballs that hone in right on Simon, but they never evolve from there. Mainly because the level design never thinks to pair interesting enemies together. There’s no screen anywhere as brutal as Stage 15 from the first Castlevania, or as tense and demanding on the reflexes as Stage 11.

Bosses in particular are a big step down. There’s no real strategy required for any of the fights. Boss AI is pitiful and does little to actually engage with the player. Death makes a meek comeback and Carmilla, while visually interesting, has next to nothing going on mechanically. They both outright respawn every time you enter their room. The only reason Dracula doesn’t is presumably because he’s the last boss and the game immediately transitions to a cutscene once he’s dead. Simon’s Quest is far from elegant, but nothing else in the game falls as flat as the bosses. The level design is simpler than it should be, but gameplay still feels appropriately Castlevania. Exploration is directionless, but the overworld is at least visually interesting and guides exist. Bosses aren’t even a chore. They’re barely present. 

Simon's Quest Dracula Nintendo Power - image courtesy of Castlevania Crypt

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.” 
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Daybreak

By far the most interesting aspect of Castlevania II is the game’s “time limit,” so to speak. The day and night cycle isn’t just there for aesthetics, it plays a key role in determining which of three endings you get. You never actually run out of time, but taking longer than two in-game weeks to defeat Dracula triggers the worst ending. The goal is to get to Dracula within a week in order save Simon from his curse. Any longer than seven days and he ends up dying, even if you clock in at under two weeks. The timer is an interesting way of not only adding replay value, but building tension. The longer your playthrough takes, the worse Simon’s fate will be. You’re encouraged to learn the game and beat it as fast as possible. 

Simon's Quest Ending - image courtesy of The Cutting Room Floor

A speedrun where you know exactly what to do and where to go when actually flows at a nice pace. Simon’s quest builds tension with each passing day bringing you closer to the grave. Every night is an endurance match where you have to push forward, never stopping to grind or wait for daybreak. The difficulty curve honestly works better when you’re lower level, making some screens an actual challenge to overcome. Sub-Weapons become more important, as does routing the overworld so you waste as little time as possible. There’s a reason fans still play Castlevania II in spite of its poor reputation. When all is said and done, there’s an engaging adventure playing underneath the nonsense. 

Simon’s Quest is in many ways better than good. It’s good enough. Its design conventions occasionally defy reason and there’s a distinct lack of polish compared to its predecessor, but Simon’s Quest has the same fun gameplay loop and strong atmosphere that defined the series. Castlevania II was ambitious in an era where ambition didn’t always pay off. But a good premise, gorgeous sprites, and an iconic soundtrack do make a big difference. And at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Symphony of the Night is only as good as it is because Simon’s Quest dared to take Castlevania in a bold, new direction–flaws and all. Castlevania II proves you don’t have to be great to set a foundation for greatness. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.