Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review: Castlevania II - Simon's Quest (NES)

Another famous game franchise entry is up for review here in the form of the sequel to Konami's side-scrolling action/adventure game, Castlevania. Unlike so many follow-ups, Simon's Quest actually innovates and dramatically changes the gameplay structure of its forebearer. These deviations don't work in all cases though, making Castlevania II a game that strives for more ambitious inventiveness than it's ultimately capable of fulfilling.

The alternative tone is apparent from the outset as whip-cracking protagonist Simon Belmont begins his quest in a small town absent of enemies, but instead inhabited by townsfolk who offer cryptic "clues" for Simon's journey as well as selling items as merchants. The only direction given the player is the paragraph of prologue during the title screen dictating that Simon must recover five pieces of Count Dracula, whom he defeated in the previous title, in order to rid himself of a deadly curse which has been cast upon him. The player can choose to exit the town screen to the left or the right, which seems to offer a degree of open-worldness, but the left option is a far too difficult path at the beginning of the game. This is one example of many in Simon's Quest where the game appears to offer the player distinctive choices when in actuality there is only one correct solution.

Upon exiting the town the player will have to fight though enemies to get to the next destination, which, for the most part, is a breeze. If the player simply upgrades Simon's equipment at every opportunity in the towns and finds hidden items along the way these monsters will continue to be pushovers. Even the boss characters can be beaten with ease given constant attacks with the right weapon. Defeated bad guys might drop hearts which act as the game's currency. Simon's Quest also cycles through day and nighttime settings every few minutes, with enemies at night being more powerful and espousing more hearts as a reward. There will probably be a couple occasions where the player must grind through some enemies outside of a town to build up enough hearts to purchase a desired item for sale, but usually normal world traversal will yield enough moneys to serve one's needs. Simon begins with three lives, and will lose all stored hearts if he is killed in action so it's best to think strategically about when to venture away from towns and when to grind through nearby enemies to play it safe.

Simon's Quest is a very difficult game, not because of its enemy forces, but because the game is incredibly vague about what the player is supposed to be doing in so many situations. The "clues" from townspeople are most often not helpful or incorrect information. There are three acquirable crystals that are essential to progressing in the game but even in the instruction manual it's not explained how they can be used. Apparently having one equipped and holding the "down" button in the correct locations will open up new pathways. This obtuse trial and error process also rears its head with the countless fake floors and walls that reveal themselves after being doused with holy water, requiring throwing vials of water every step just in case there might be something secret that would otherwise be overlooked.

Unfortunately, the way to make Simon's Quest a much more fun and manageable game today is to sparingly use an online walkthrough to inform players on these otherwise indecipherable situations. It seems reasonable that if someone was to play this game when it was just released that a number of the abstract solutions to the game's challenges would have been spread through word-of-mouth. Given that Simon's Quest is a much older game now, using a free guide is the way to go unless an extensive timeframe has been set aside to play it.

Castlevania II does have plenty of positives going for it that both show innovation for the series and help compensate for some shortcomings. First and foremost the game has an excellent soundtrack that players may find stuck in their head hours after putting down the controller. The score includes the debut of Castlevania series staple "Bloody Tears," which sounds especially great considering it's coming off a NES cartridge. Simon's Quest's day and night cycle may not have truly capitalized on the feature, but it was still a pretty novel addition at the time. The main purpose of the device, other than some combat variety, is to keep track of time. Remembering back to the prelude text, Simon is growing weaker because he's been cursed, and so the sooner he can defeat Dracula for good, the better. This brings about another emerging gameplay system: multiple endings. Depending on the speed one completes the game, they could be rewarded to one of three endings depicting whether or not Simon was fast enough to reverse his condition and truly kill Dracula.

Castlevania II certainly has its problems (botched localization, lack of instruction, and an incoherent hint system), but knowing about these issues ahead of playing will prevent them from being much of interruptions. This is a case where some limited exposure to help texts or even just taking into account the troublesome scenarios listed in this review, will make for a far less frustrating game experience and allow for the positives of the game to shine. Not to make too many excuses for a game that clearly misses the mark on some important design decisions, but there is still a considerable amount of fun to be had here.

:screenshots from VGMuseum:

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