Delving Into Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest – #2

I’m enjoying Castlevania II, but I’m also seeing some of the reasons people might bounce off it a bit.

There’s not really anything fundamentally wrong with it when taken in the context of its original release, but when revisited from a modern perspective it’s easy to find yourself missing the conveniences of modern games.

Let’s take a look at some of those areas where newcomers might struggle!

As we mentioned last time, one of the main obstacles to enjoying Castlevania II fully as a complete newcomer is the fact that it doesn’t explain anything to you. The original manual drops a few little hints here and there, but without making anything particularly explicit, and as such it’s easy to find yourself running headlong into a brick wall.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. One that you’ll run into pretty quickly is something we mentioned last time: the white crystal, which an NPC in the starting town suggests you buy immediately. This doesn’t appear to do anything by itself, but upon reaching the first mansion — assuming you find it — it will cause a moving platform to appear.

The white crystal can be upgraded to a blue crystal by finding an NPC in a particular town who is indistinguishable from all the others. Talking to this person will cause them to swap your white gem for a blue gem with no opportunity to argue. Thankfully, if you check the manual, you’ll see that the blue gem is an upgrade in terms of its magical power, but the manual also doesn’t mention what this magical power might be. Beyond that, there’s also a red crystal, which the manual says you’ll need in order to get into Dracula’s castle at the end of the game, but which it doesn’t mention is capable of summoning a whirlwind if you kneel at the base of a particular cliff.

Or how about the garlic you can buy in several of the towns? The manual simply says that dropping this in front of an enemy will weaken it significantly, which is fair enough. But it’s not especially practical to use as a weapon, since you just drop it rather than throwing it, and you’re very limited in how many you can carry.

The reason for this is that it’s not intended for use as a weapon at all; rather, if you put it down in the right place in the two graveyards in Castlevania II’s world, you’ll summon a gypsy who will provide you with either the silver dagger subweapon or a silk bag, the latter of which allows you to carry more invincibility-conferring sprigs of laurel.

Neither of these items are essential to complete the game, but they’re nice to have. But there’s one case in particular that is widely cited as a point in the game where many players get completely stumped as to what to do next, and that’s the ferryman.

Hop on the ferryman’s boat and he’ll carry you across the river. Makes perfect sense. On the other side of the river is a town and a bit more of the world that eventually seems to conclude in an impassable dead end. Eventually you’ll come back this way to use the aforementioned red crystal to summon a whirlwind, but when you first stumble across it, you’ll feel like you’ve quite literally hit a wall.

Instead, you need to talk to the ferryman while holding Dracula’s heart, at which point he’ll take you somewhere completely different. The manual explains this as him taking you somewhere “based on the body parts you possess”, implying that you simply need to be carrying the right parts, but no; you need to actually have it equipped.

This is counter-intuitive because the heart, by itself, is an otherwise completely useless item (despite the manual’s terrible pun that claims “the heart attacks”!). Dracula’s rib, meanwhile, which you acquire in the first mansion of the game, acts as a shield that can deflect projectiles, so it’s pretty unlikely you’ll think to unequip this in favour of something apparently useless. But that’s what you need to do, and you won’t progress if you don’t.

I have a theory about this, and it relates to the fact that these games came out before the Internet was a thing. Today, it’s a simple matter of looking up a walkthrough online and immediately being able to find out what you’re supposed to do. But back when these games were originally released, they were intended to keep people busy for a long time — and moreover, get people talking about them, in turn making more people want to try them.

In other words, a lot of these games were designed with the expectation that players would talk to their friends about them, exchanging strategies or secrets they’d discovered, helping to generate buzz about the game and perhaps convincing their extended circle of friends to try the game out in the process.

Of course, this theory relies on people actually being able to find out the more obscure secrets (such as the garlic thing) in the first place, and that’s where the specialist media often came in. Often, you’d find a month or two after a big release had come out, at least one of the monthly magazines would print a guide or some tips for that game, helping to sow those seeds of knowledge and gradually spread them around through friendship groups and little communities.

The side-effect of all this was that if you did, through experimentation or pure accident, find yourself discovering one of these secrets for yourself, you felt absolutely on top of the world and could quite feasibly, depending on how nerdy your friendship group was, find yourself respected as a fountain of knowledge on the game in question. Hell, even if you were the first person to read a guide in a magazine and be able to beat a seemingly insurmountable challenge before any of your friends, you’d still feel like a big ol’ badass.

Have we lost that today? In some respects, yes; more often than not, mere hours after a game has been released, there are already walkthroughs, FAQs and YouTube videos spoiling every inch of it online. On the other hand, though, game designers have got significantly better at making games challenging in ways other than indecipherable obtuseness.

Oh well. If nothing else, hopefully what I’ve mentioned in passing in this post will help one or two of you complete your own journey through the world of Castlevania II!


More about Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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