One of the games in Konami’s Castlevania Anniversary Collection that I was most interested to dig into was Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.
I say this with the full knowledge that it has a bit of a reputation as being one of the least well-regarded Castlevania titles out there — but that was, in part, why I was curious to check it out for myself.
The other reasons I was keen to explore it was that the very concept and ambition of it intrigued me — and it’s one of the few early-era Castlevania titles that I’ve never, ever played before at all. So let’s take a first look!
Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Castlevania II hereafter) is a direct sequel to the first game; none of the jumping around in time that later installments do. Nope; here, you’re once again in control of Simon Belmont as he wields the legendary Vampire Killer whip, only this time he’s not infiltrating Dracula’s castle to take down the legendary Count. He already did that, after all.
This time around, Simon is trying to save himself. It seems that his battle with Dracula in the first Castlevania left him with a rather pesky curse that is probably going to kill him at some indeterminate point in the future, and it comes to his attention that if he were to gather up various pieces of Dracula’s body (which, naturally, have recently been scattered throughout several nearby mansions) and set fire to them, he’ll probably feel a whole lot better. Would that it were so straightforward to solve one’s personal problems in this modern age.
Anyway, Simon starts in a local town armed only with Vampire Killer, 50 hearts (used as currency rather than ammunition here) and three lives to his name. And immediately from this unassuming opening, Castlevania II makes it abundantly clear that we’re in a very different sort of game.
For those of you who thought that Symphony of the Night was the first Castlevania title to take on the open-structure 2D platformer format, I’m afraid that you have been grossly mistaken. Castlevania II was, in fact, the first of the Castlevania titles to take on this structure, albeit in a somewhat more simple format than its 32-bit successor.
Yes, as soon as you take control in Castlevania II, you’re free to go where you will, and herein lies an interesting point. You remember how back during our exploration of the first Castlevania I mentioned how certain modern action games (particularly From Software’s popular Souls games) were the natural result of gradual evolution from Castlevania’s slow-paced, deliberate mechanics? Turns out that Castlevania II also clearly had something of an impact, too, though in this case it’s the overall structure and design of the game that got carried forward somewhat.
I’ll use Demon’s Souls as my example here, as that’s the From Software game I’ve probably spent the most time with over the years. (This, admittedly, isn’t saying much at the time of writing, but I do fully intend to rectify this… some…time…)
Early in Demon’s Souls, you find yourself atop a castle walls, with several possible routes you can go. Which way do you go? Nothing seems to immediately indicate that one way or the other is “better”, so you head off in one direction. Shortly afterwards you find yourself confronting a very powerful knight who most certainly does not hesitate to introduce your squishy bits to his pointy friend Mr Stabby.
The more stubborn among us would, at this point, throw ourselves against this powerful opponent at least a few more times before realising that the game is actually trying to tell us, through nothing more than its mechanics, that it’s probably a little early for us to be heading in this direction, and wouldn’t it be a better idea to go the other way instead? Of course, the fun thing about Souls games is that if you’re skilled enough, you can actually overcome that challenge and head off in that direction anyway, but for your average player, it will eventually be interpreted as a signal to “go the other way”.
Castlevania II does exactly the same thing right at the very start. Rather than proceeding linearly from left to right as in the original game, you’re immediately given the opportunity to head in either direction. Head left from the starting town and you’ll be beset by powerful enemies who will probably beat you down quickly; much like in Demon’s Souls, a skilled player probably can overcome this challenge with some effort, but what the game is actually trying to tell you — again, through nothing more than mechanics — is that you should go the other way.
This continues throughout the game. At no point are you given explicit directions in Castlevania II — in fact, the manual even makes a point of saying that “some” (read: most) of the villagers you can speak with throughout your adventure are “pranksters” that will deliberately feed you false information. Latter-day series producer Koji Igarashi claimed in a 2006 interview with German publication G Wie Gorilla that all of the townspeople in the original Japanese version were liars so, assuming the manual was actually telling the truth, we got off lightly from the sound of things.
Anyway, the point is, you don’t get told where to go in Castlevania II or how to get there: you just have to explore and experiment until you find something. But you can use those game mechanics to figure out if you’re heading the right way, and here’s where the game’s RPG elements come into play.
Generally speaking, if you’re gaining experience points from enemies but they’re not horrendously difficult to defeat, you’re where you “should” be for an optimal run. If you’re killing everything in one hit, it’s time to move on somewhere else. And if everything is taking four or five hits, you should maybe consider either levelling up or upgrading the Vampire Killer.
The game also gates a few areas off in way that will be familiar to fans of Symphony of the Night and beyond: the requirement to posess a particular item in order to progress. The difference here is that you’re not necessarily given any clues on how to use those items, and this can easily leave an unfamiliar player stumped.
Take the three magic crystals you acquire over the course of the game, for example. The first causes a moving platform to appear in the first mansion you come across, allowing you access to its interior rather than restricting you to the entranceway. You’ll probably discover this by accident, as it will likely be the only “equippable” item you have in that slot at this point in the game.
The second, blue crystal is more obtuse, however. This crystal is used to descend beneath the waves of a lake and continue onward, but it’s not just a case of being able to jump in the water and survive — oh no. In order to “use” this crystal, you have to equip it, and then kneel down on the bank of the lake until the screen scrolls down slightly, revealing platforms you can reach beneath the surface. At no point are you given any indication that the crystal can be used in this manner.
It’s situations like this that cause a lot of people to bounce off Castlevania II if they’re not familiar with its particular idiosyncrasies. But go in with at least a vague idea of what to expect from the game and what it might expect you to do at various points and there’s actually a really interesting open-structure 2D platform adventure here — and one I’m looking forward to exploring further.
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