Retro reflections by Nick H.
I recently fired up an old NES game and had an opportunity to rediscover what I already knew: that Metroid was brilliant in its level design. Without dialogue, without tutorials it still managed to create a game with rich exploration that did not hold your hand, yet made perfect sense as you played the game. I tried to think long and hard about other games from the same era and settled on Castlevania II: Simon's quest - because it was the exact opposite of all of that.
The funny thing is, I recall very well how much I enjoyed this game when I first had the chance to play it. I had enjoyed the original Castlevania - Knoami had a knack for creating awesome action platforming games on the NES back then. Games like Contra, Castlevania, Rush N' Attack and more served as favourites on the platform for good reason. However, in 1987 when Simon's Quest was released, it promised something more than its predecessor. It teased the kind of adventure and exploration elements that had made games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda absolute favourites of mine.
The platforming and action elements remained, but gone was the linear gameplay of the original as you explored a world with cities to visit, citizens to interact with, good old fashioned grinding for powered-up items and the thrill of discovery. The graphics and music struck a special note (especially Bloody Tears, which may be one of my top video game tunes of all time) and the fall of darkness and the increased difficulty in the monsters struck dread into me when my health was low and I was a long ways from any kind of safety.
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Like The Adventures of Link (another sequel to a popular Nintendo game from that era), Simon's Quest took chances and was initially lauded for doing so. However, over time both games have fallen out of favour with many fans for being so different from the games preceding and following them. More than that, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest made some very curious design choices that have been blasted over the years.
While I to this day do not find it nearly as enraging as some of the other critics did, I have to say that there is one reason that I likely enjoyed the game so much - Nintendo Power. See, back in the second issue of the magazine, Simon's Quest was the cover title and there was a guide to it in the magazine (with a surprisingly morbid cover featuring a decapitated Dracula that I vaguely recall as a being a big deal back then when it released). I had that issue in my hands when I played the game and I beat Simon's Quest so many times that I had learned my way through it without the need of the magazine. The way that the game had different endings encouraged me to replay it and I would wager I beat the game at least a dozen times over the years. The thing is, I needed that Nintendo Power at first to beat the game and did not fully appreciate how poor the game was for people who did not have that guide.
Simon's Quest was quite clever and it was also unique for its time. The platforming elements worked and were generally fair. Sure, there have been many issues over the years with the fishmen that knock you into water or medusa heads flying through the air to derail your otherwise perfectly timed jumps. The platforming and whip-wielding aspects have endured over the years - challenging but generally fair. However, these elements were already in place from its successful predecessor.
Where Castlevania II: Simon's Quest starts to flounder is in the ambiguity of its level design. That in itself isn't so bad. Anyone who has played an RPG knows that talking to people gives you insight not only to the world the game inhabitants, which is great for adding texture to the narrative, but often times they give the player advice as well. The thing is, I swear half of the townspeople are lying asses. The localisation behind the game was pretty rough in places, and it was not helped when people you talked to were often times giving you intentionally bad advice. On top of that, there were some pretty questionable level design choices along the way. Arguably my least favourite were the fake floors. Really the only way to tell where those were at without possibly infuriating/killing yourself was to throw something like the bottles of holy water in front of you so that you could see where they fall through. That does not make for a fun experience. Of course, if you had a guide (like I did back then), you knew where the holes were at. It was not until years later I fully appreciated just how much of my sanity those magazine pages saved me as a kid. This might have been okay as a unique element to one stage, but it shows up time and again and grinds the pace of the game to a halt in trying to navigate through the game.
So aside from villages and floors that are there simply to deceive you, the game is really vague in other ways too. Perhaps the most famous example is the need to kneel in front of a specific wall while holding a specific orb for a few seconds. Man is that some murky stuff that the game never does a good job of explaining to you. And even if it did, given the number of false leads that villages provide, would you trust it? There are other instances where item use is not explained in any way. I am okay with a little trial and error - but it is amazing how obtuse some of these things were in comparison to the self-explanatory use of items found in the games peers, such as Metroid.
The weird thing is the inconsistent challenge that the game provides. These aforementioned elements create a sort of false challenge, because you are fighting the game design itself, but its enemies are usually quite easy to deal with. Certainly you can get flooded with them at times or find yourself on a precarious ledge dodging something that is a little tricky, but by and large the lesser minions are pretty robotic in that they pace back and forth in their respective spaces and make the same patterned attacks that NES games were well-known for back then. Boss fights were also almost comically easy (especially the encounter with the all-too-simple Dracula. Even the Grim Reaper, whom I thought was very cool-looking and intimidating at the time, was not much of a challenge). If you are willing to put the time in and grind, it is pretty easy to overpower Simon for his adventure. This on top of all the doubling back you do over previously explored stages creates a good deal of padding that bogs down the experience.
That is not to say I did not enjoy my trip back to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. There are some pretty obvious flaws that became even more glaring to me having so recently played Metroid (which actually came out before Simon's Quest but proved to be the superior game in overall gameplay design), but there is fun to be had here as well. However, no game should require a guide to make the experience an enjoyable one. I can appreciate what Simon's Quest was trying to do and adding layers of substance to an era where many games were shallow action platformers, but many of its attempts to get players thinking feel short-sighted and misguided looking back on them all of these years later. This risks turning what should be a satisfactory experience into an often frustrating one.
- Nick H. US Editor