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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Review

There is no such duck.

And we’re back, broadcasting to you live from Dracula’s very own Castlevania. This time, the story is that in a gross turn of events, Simon Belmont, the hero of the first game, has to gather Dracula’s body parts and return them here to summon the dark lord himself. Which is admittedly a step better than Simon having to kill Dracula and do nothing else. Maybe. Not really.

The game controls basically the same as the first Castlevania. Simon has the same whip and same crummy jump arc that he had before. Only now, instead of walking to the right through a treacherous stage, he has to walk through forests that are absolutely swarming with ghouls and other nasties in order to reach castles, where he mostly walks to the right through a treacherous stage, only now he has to buy a stake from a mysterious dude who is usually hidden in a wall for some reason.

It’s kind of weird that the hearts of your enemies are used as currency, but it was also weird that they were used as subweapon ammo in the first game. Honestly, subweapon ammo was pretty pointless. You almost always had a ton, and the rare times that you had a limited amount it didn’t really amount to much. Even a few hearts was usually plenty. The best weapons in Castlevania 2 do still consume hearts, which is really just a pain, since you need a ton of them to get anything done. It’s basically required that you upgrade your whip to proceed, which really devolves into a lot of running back and forth on a single screen killing skeletons. It was probably intended for you to get the hearts as you go through the castles, but since you lose your hearts when you game over, they’re a bit hard to keep track of. Late entries in the series would fix this in two ways: first, instead of having to buy weapons, you just find them. This means that a clever playthrough of Symphony of the Night and its successors is more about knowing where the better items are. The other way is that instead of carting around a bunch of hearts, you just level up by experience. Castlevania II also has experience, but you lose it when you die, so again, if you want to level, you just grind easy monsters until you get your health boost. Which is really helpful, since Dracula hits like a dump truck, when you finally get to him. The game only has three bosses, which somehow manage to run the gamut from trivial to cheap. On the plus side, Death is more manageable, but the Mask is best fought by standing in one place and jump attacking when you finally can, and Dracula flies around the screen in a huge circle if you don’t manage to kill him as soon as he spawns.

Another thing that the later games improve is the enemy strength. Castlevania II’s enemies jump in strength seemingly randomly, and when they jump, they jump a lot. By the end, your basic whip ends up taking upwards of ten hits to take out a single enemy, but the fully upgraded whip can take out the same enemy in one hit and also covers more of the screen when you attack. There’s a significant difference between attacking an enemy ten times to kill it and one time, and the difference is that hitting it ten times is really, really dull, especially considering that we’re talking about basic enemies, here, and not the more complex ones like Axe Armors. Later on in the series, we’ll pretty much never see basic or even the harder enemies take more than a few hits to down. Only the truly monstrous beasts like the Final Armors take that many hits, and unlike Castlevania II where you sort of just stand there and whale on them, it’s actually tough to get those hits off. They actually have a reason for taking so many hits, which enemies in Castlevania II do not.

Also unlike Castlevania, where you were healed after every level, Castlevania II only heals you in towns. It’s supposed to make getting between towns really intense, but when you die, you just respawn where you were standing. So really, once you’ve bought the last whip upgrade, there’s no reason for you to even care about dying, which is kind of dumb because you don’t have to worry about it since you can actually kill enemies now. Symphony of the Night and on would see these intense experiences brought to light when trying to walk between two save points for the first time. You’re not sure where you’re going, and nothing can heal you until you find the next save point. Your health is limited and you’re making an arduous journey into areas where you’ve never been, facing enemies you’ve never fought. The best moments in those games happen there, when your health is low and you encounter a new demon for the first time. And then probably die. But at least you don’t respawn back in the same place where you died, but back at level one!

But there’s a lot of things that Castlevania II does poorly where the later games that follow its standard will really take off. The important thing to remember, here, is that Castlevania II is not a good game just because it tries a bunch of new things, since it fails at all of them. Not a single new thing it tries is a success. The game is only in form when you’re in the castles, where it’s effectively a slightly more exploratory version of Castlevania. The only other thing that it might have done well is that the entire game is really about exploration, but even that is sort of under explored. In much the same way that Castlevania was about learning the level design and knowing how to approach everything, Castlevania II is about learning the entire game world and how to approach it. The point isn’t to have a difficult experience while getting from point A to point B. The game is designed around you having to figure out the way between those two points. The castles act as a microcosm of that: you start at the entrance and need to get to the treasure within, but the way is never completely direct. You also usually have to make a detour to find a mysterious dude who is just hanging out with the zombies, selling wooden stakes. You know, because there’s totally a big market for wood stakes in zombie infested castles. But I guess I should be thankful, because exploring those castles is really the only fun aspect of the game. The alternative would just be that the guy would stand around in a town, meaning that between every castle you would have to make a lengthy detour to that town to buy his stakes. Really, he’s doing me a service by venturing all the way out there on his own. The convenience is probably also the only reason he can charge fifty entire hearts for a single stake of wood, which by all rights Simon could just make on his own with a knife. It’s the same reason Pepsi cans in a vending machine cost, what is it now, 65 cents? But in a twelve pack, it’s only about .30 per can. Still, if he’s going to go through all this trouble to sell me a stake, the least he could do is stand at the front door of the castle, right?

Outside the five castles, there’s a huge world full of towns. The towns are a huge time sink of talking to people who really don’t make any sense, but are at least trying to help you out. Additionally, some people sell you garlic, which is basically worthless aside from trading with two dudes who hang out in graveyards, and laurels, which are required to get through life draining swamps without getting hurt. Also you can just use them any time to be invincible, which is nice if you’re ever trying to get to town without getting hit. By the way, these merchants are all hiding under their floorboards for some reason, and the only way to find them is by throwing holy water on the ground to break the blocks. But don’t expect anyone to tell you that. I happened to figure it out by accident. But the thing is, once you find the hole in the floor of one empty house, you just check every other empty house you see for breakable floors and walls. So is there really a reason for hiding these merchants under the floor? If they’re all gonna be down there, what’s the point? It does a neat trick at one point where breaking the wall reveals another empty room that you have to break the wall of, but it’s not like it was a real stumper. By that point I’d already been well-trained in breaking walls in barren rooms. I guess the only reason they felt the need to do this is because Castlevania also had breakable walls, but in that game they served a purpose: they hid the meat you needed to stay alive. The invisible wall thing also happens inside the castles, with an added element that some walls aren’t breakable, but you can just jump through them. But there, it’s just required to progress through the level.

While I can appreciate Castlevania II for starting as much as it did in the games I really love in the series, that is to say, for being a terrible version of Symphony of the Night, I do still have to face facts. Castlevania II is not a good game. It’s not engaging to play, and it ends up being a time sink more than anything else. Playing it once was entertaining, but playing it twice seems completely unnecessary, even though there’s an alternate ending. Even though the later games take after it, they’re still not exactly the same. Castlevania II is too open, and the metroidvania style constraints placed on you in the later games really benefit them. But Castlevania II was made in 1987. Back then, games were made with a ton of hidden secrets, which in this case you needed to know just to get through the game. Everyone loves it in, say, The Legend of Zelda, but Legend of Zelda actually gives you enough information to get through the game without looking anything up. But back then, “looking things up” didn’t have the scorn that it does today. Games were designed with secrets, because the designers wanted people to talk about their games. When you find a secret, you’re intended to share it with your friends. Unfortunately, there’s no real reason to share anything you find in Castlevania II with your friends, because in all honesty, friends shouldn’t let friends play Castlevania II.

So I’m giving this game a 3 out of 10. I recommend it for anyone who has played all the metroidvania style games in the series and wants, really badly, to see where they came from. But no one else. And even then, if you want to beat your head against a wall and have the means, you could try the MSX version of Vampire Killer, which I’ve never played but from what I’ve heard is undoubtedly more obtuse and pointless than Castlevania II. Who knows, you might actually like it. It’s not completely without merit. As with Castlevania, the game is available on the Wii’s virtual console. Next up for review is Castlevania III. Same vampire bat-time, same vampire bat-channel.

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