The difference between this game and its brothers… it’s like day and night

castlevania2 simons quest

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (1990)

So here we are then, back to the shortest day of the year, and that means we’re still only at the midway point of a dark and depressing winter. It’s worse than a month of depressing Sundays, this, especially when you’re a worker drone.

Go to work when it’s dark and blustery, alongside your fellow lemmings. Stare out at the tantalising daylight if you’re lucky enough to have access to a window. Then it’s already dark by the time you leave, even if you bunk off early. Your whole leisure time is dominated by that lurid mixture of black emptiness and orange streetlight.

I read recently that Finland has been consistently rated as the happiest nation on Earth for the last number of years. I must admit that this did give me an immediate dark thought – is that because all the depressos keep killing themselves, taking themselves out of the happiness equation?

When I think Finland, I think suicide, a strict lack of emotion, and looking at your shoes on those rare occasions when you’re forced to make small talk. Not sunshine and smiles and merry jigs, even after they’ve necked a bottle of kossu.

In some ways I can’t blame the Finns for saying sod it and ending it all; if you’re “fortunate” enough to live in the deepest reaches of northern Finland, then in wintertime you’re pretty much only getting sun between 9.30am and 3.30pm.

So that’s half your year spent missing out on a tan, you’ve got bears to evade, the saunas are jam-packed and Bottas still hasn’t won the championship. There’s no wars on either, so what else is there to do besides cashing your chips in?

They’d be much better off on Transylvanian time, where both day and night only last three minutes apiece. There won’t be any risk of leaving a club at two in the morning only to find that it’s already bright again – that’s the last thing us men need when we’re trying to pull.

This is the Castlevania II time zone, and the divide between night and day is one of the few times you actually know where you stand in this, a NES game that’s since become notorious for its cryptic nature. It was enough of a puzzler to get the Angry Video Game Nerd started on his ranting journey, and that makes it a lot easier to dismiss this title without prejudice.

You take up the whip as Simon Belmont once more, which is already unusual because the typical Castlevania deal is that a different, highly unlucky man, woman or beast called Belmont is tasked with stopping Count Dracula every time.

But then, why can’t one of the Belmonts do the business twice? This is only a 1- or 2-hour-long stint every 100 years, after all, which is a tasty amount of annual leave. Here though, only a few years have passed since Simon Belmont’s last adventure, and he’d just about gotten comfortable in his bed when the annoying call arrived. Don’t you just hate that?

Now Simon’s got to journey through the Transylvanian towns, forests and mansions to isolate and eradicate a curse placed on him by Dracula, before he succumbs. The poor divil, I thought he had enough terrible luck having to take down the Grim Reaper in Castlevania 1 – even with save states I kept ballsing that one up. And they didn’t have save states in the 1600s either.

The first and foremost thing to know about Simon’s Quest is that a walkthrough or guide is absolutely imperative. This is a non-linear style game with RPG elements, and you’ll need to talk to the right people and obtain the right items to continue.

But it doesn’t help when the swine in every town outright lie to you. And this goes beyond your customary dreadful translation: they’re actually pathological liars, or else they just spew a stream of pure garbage, neither of which helps you very much.

When some afflicted looking man in one of the towns says, “when I was your age, women loved me”, you can’t help but think, great. Your pokey town gets overrun by zombies every night and Drac’s on the warpath, but you go on, mate.

If you try this game without a guide, then even if by some miracle you found the right item and brought it to the right spot, you’d never guess that you needed to duck against the wall for 5 seconds for the pathway to open or the tornado to whisk you away or whatever. Take too long to figure this stuff out, and Simon will never beat the curse. But that’s fiendish Dracula for you, isn’t it?

With a guide helping you every step of the way, Simon’s Quest actually becomes pretty easy, both in terms of platforming and combat, which is against the ethos of Castlevania I suppose. But the word I prefer is accessible, or maybe un-depressing.

There are still some mis-steps along the way in Simon’s Quest – there’s only three creatures resembling a boss, including the Count himself, and all three of them are insultingly easy. As in, genuinely the easiest-on-the-NES, harder-to-lose-than-win type

It plays a bit similar to Zelda 2 as well, insofar that it’s a platformer with experience points and level ups, but more importantly if you die three times it’s Game Over – which is fine, because Simon helpfully just restarts from wherever he fell.

But he’ll lose all his money and experience towards the next level, and there aren’t actually many levels to reach. It does mean that Simon will need to do a wee bit of grinding to keep himself in the game. But he’ll need to make sure he does it indoors, perhaps in one of the five mansions which serve as the game’s dungeons.

In these areas, time stops. This is vital, because if he lets too many days elapse, then he’ll get the bad ending and croak it. The game won’t tell you this can happen until it’s too late, but maybe your trusty guide will save the day.

Level up and you’ll get more health and take less damage, and I’m always a fan of games that let you extend your life meter. You can find stronger whips and sub-weapons as well, and by the end of your journey through the rural villages and haunted woods, you’re packing more than enough heat to take down Dracula.

Strangely, you needn’t expect your eventual trip to Castlevania, the lair of Count Dracula, to be as torturous an experience as Zelda 2’s Great Palace was; the last area of the game is completely empty of enemies. That, along with a final boss that all but crumbles to dust the minute he appears, makes this the easiest of the NES Castlevanias by far, although it also takes the longest time to play through.

I’ll say this though, the more I play of Simon’s Quest, the more I’m impressed. It’s got manageable difficulty, the graphics are great, especially the spooky backgrounds, and it tried to do something different.

I suppose some harsh words have been levelled at this game over the last, oh, 30 years, which will understandably colour your impression before you’ve even had a chance to sit down and give it a go. But I do implore you to sit down and give it that go, so long as you have a strategy guide nearby.

The frequently derided, slow as hell transition between day and night is a bit of a pain, but it’s more the kind of thing where you just shake your head and laugh a little bit, maybe have a quick play on your phone before it’s time to move again.

Also, whether you move from day to night or vice-versa, you’re guaranteed a banger of a NES tune either side of it. 8-bit music mightn’t be top of your Spotify playlists, but there’s a reason why Bloody Tears, and Monster Dance to a lesser extent, are so loved by gamers. If nothing else, I guarantee you that they’re better than Christmas songs.

21 December 2020

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