February 9, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 2)

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is by no means a perfect game, or even a good one, but it does have some redeeming features that secure its place in the history of the franchise. I outlined a couple of reasons why in Part 1 of this feature, and today I'll be finishing things off with a few more. But enough talk, have at you!

A sequel that isn't just more of the same

One of the things I love most about the early 8-bit era was its approach to sequels. It wasn't just assumed, right off the bat, that a successful game's follow-up should play just like the first. As early as Donkey Kong Junior, we start to see a distinct lack of cynical assumptions about replicating the gameplay of the originator too rigidly. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link dumped a successful, overhead-view format for a controversial side-view approach. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game adopted a much more enjoyable side-scrolling beat-'em-up format after the first game's alienating platforming and clumsy controls. Final Fantasy II, though it saw no North American release at the time, completely abandoned the concept of player-chosen character classes in favour of a wide-open and dynamic skill system. And of course, there's the infamous case of the English Super Mario Bros 2 -- which, while it was technically an adaptation of the unrelated Doki Doki Panic, was nonetheless how Nintendo chose to frame the next iteration of its flagship brand overseas.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest takes to this attitude as well, playing not much like the first Castlevania title at all. It's still a side-scrolling adventure, but not the standard stage-by-stage progression of intricate platforming, punctuated with boss fights. In fact, there is a noticeable scarcity of platforming-heavy sections, and a precious few bosses in the entire game. While the first game is completely linear, challenging the player to complete as many levels in sequence as possible, Simon's Quest is a slow-cooked experience built on non-linear exploration. For the first time, there are clues to unravel, village folk to talk to, and shops to visit. Finding out the location of the mansion where the next piece of Dracula is kept is as much part of the experience as whipping a skeleton in the face or dodging a fish-man's fireball. You collect magical items that increase your power and unlock progress, in a way resembling The Battle of Olympus, Faxanadu, Zelda II, or any other basic action-RPG. Granted, Castlevania II is a particularly bad action-RPG dependent on broken mechanics, invisible gaps, and impossibly cruel pseudo-puzzles, but in those days the lines between good and bad game design were a little murkier. In today's age of quest logs, on-screen maps, story progress markers, and fast auto-travel, we expect to be spoon-fed every last detail regarding how to succeed in a game. If the player ever asks "What am I supposed to do?" it is considered a failure of game design. However, this wasn't always the case -- the onus used to be on the player to figure that out. Simon's Quest enforced that ideal far too zealously, guilty not of veering down the wrong road but of flooring the gas pedal after downing a six-pack.

I fully accept that Castlevania II is a fundamentally flawed experience beyond repair, but the raw ideas behind it were nothing if not daring. In this modern age, where we can have almost full knowledge of the nuts and bolts of a game before it's even released, and sequels are essentially expansion packs tacked onto their predecessors, it would be nice to have more surprises. In my mind, a good sequel is one that carries on the spirit and atmosphere of the original, but isn't content to merely copy its formula. Castlevania III returned to the straight-up, linear action game style, and it is a better game for it, but if we had three Castlevania games that all did the same old thing, each one would probably seem less special.

The dawn of the real-time day-and-night cycle

A dynamic passing of virtual hours, with environments transitioning from daylight to nighttime and back again, is still not overly common in games today. I think I see it most in RPGs, online or offline, but even then it's considered a cool novelty and not taken for granted. It can be an immersing device to make the world seem more alive -- literally, time is passing and things are happening, with or without your input. Usually, NPCs behave differently at certain times of day, shops might close for the evening, sneaking around is easier in the dark -- or, in the case of most MMORPGs, it could be just for show.

Castlevania II, as far as I'm aware, is one of the earliest examples of a real-time cycle of day and night in a video game. It wasn't a very complex system, but it was one of the game's more interesting features -- maybe even a good one! An unseen timer would tick away as you played, then suddenly a text box would pop up, alerting you that night time had arrived before fading to darkness.

At night, monsters out in the wild were stronger, and even the towns were overrun with ghouls, so townsfolk would stay indoors. The night also had its own music, spookier and more sinister than the daylight themes. One could never quite know exactly how close it was to nighttime, and being caught in the middle of nowhere when things grew dark really increased the tension and element of risk. There was nothing Simon could do but keep fighting, and hope that morning was soon coming. It was a simple gimmick, but a rare mechanic to see at the time -- especially in a side-scrolling, action-based title. There were even three different possible endings, dependent on how many in-game "days" it took you to finish!

There was, apparently, a sci-fi game on the ZX Spectrum in 1985 called Tau Ceti that implemented a day/night cycle. From what I gather, the position of the sun in the sky affected how shadows were displayed on buildings and ships, though it sounds like it had little impact on anything outside of visuals. Castlevania II still takes the prize for having a significant difference in game content between night and day.

A hazy glimpse into Castlevania's  future

After Simon's Quest, Castlevania games return to a more linear style for a long time. RPG-inspired boosts in character power are outright avoided, and although some iterations like Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood have optional routes through stages, hidden levels, and multiple ways to progress through the game, that progress is always in one direction: forward. It isn't until the wildly successful Symphony of the Night on the Playstation that things open up again, and a new trend overtakes Castlevania's format completely.

Guiding Dracula's son Alucard, players defeat enemies for experience and level up, collect weapons and armor, and gain skills and transformations that can uncover new areas at one's own pace. The entire game takes place within Dracula's immense, demon-haunted castle, necessitating the use of a helpful map that is very reminiscent of the one in Super Metroid on the SNES. Due to comparisons between the two series, people start to use the word "Metroidvania" to describe any non-linear platformer focusing on exploration-based gameplay. After SOTN, most Castlevania titles follow this non-linear, action-RPG style of design. However, as we know, this shift isn't a sudden tangent that comes out of the blue. Symphony of the Night and its successors take the bumbling experiments that Simon's Quest brought to the series, and finally makes them work. Grinding monster battles and building your character can happen, but it isn't forced. Progress milestones are hidden, but not so obtuse that one can't find them without a walkthrough. There are more direct nods to Simon's Quest, too, such as a creepy ferryman who takes you across a stretch of water to a new area, and even a late-game quest to retrieve the same divided pieces of Dracula's body that you searched for in Castlevania II.

Towns are gone, but each game hereafter has at least some manner of healing sanctuary room or method of finding/purchasing items. We don't see the night/day cycle return again, but Order of Ecclesia on Nintendo DS does include a central hub town full of villagers, and gets the hero out of the stuffy castle and treading various forests, plains, and the like. It feels the most like a spiritual successor to the ideas that Simon's Quest was trying to communicate, and at one point the heroine Shanoa makes a pretty amusing reference:

I'm not saying Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is solely responsible for the modern style of the series, but to deny it had any influence would be short-sighted. I would be very surprised if the team who put together Symphony of the Night didn't at least say something like "Hey, why don't we think about making a more open game, like Castlevania II was?" Even though the second game might be regarded as a failure, it's reasonable to consider the developers shelving the ideas they originally were shooting for until the series was ready for them and better tech was available.


  1. Great article. I got Simon's Quest for Christmas back in 89 or 90... something like that. It was my first Castlevania to play. I remember getting stuck at one point and I had to go to Wal-Mart and purchase a non-image strategy guide. Though the book was probably full of tips I only used it for one tip. There is a point where the player has to have Simon squat down and a whirl wind comes and takes him away.

    Without the internet how was one supposed to know to do this.

    I did conquer this game without secret codes or game genie... not even sure those were available.

    I felt very satisfied beating this game but a little disappointed in the ending. All that hard work for a lousy ending. Still a fun game back in the day.

  2. Yeah, that one where you have to kneel up against a wall for a while, to summon a whirlwind, always gets people. I think you even have to have a certain crystal equipped while you do it, as well. From what I recall, the game doesn't really give you the necessary information/hints to figure this out. It's sort of like "well, this one will keep the kids busy for a while, heh heh!"