Released: May 2019
Originally Released: August 1987
Developer: Konami Digital Entertainment/Konami Industry Co. Ltd
Original Developer: Konami
Also Available For: Family Computer Disk System (Famicom), Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Nintendo Switch, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, PC, and PlayStation 4
If Castlevania (Konami, 1986) has a reputation for being one of the more difficult games of the days of classic 8-bit home consoles then Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest has an even more infamous reputation for being, perhaps, the most frustrating and confusing title in the entire series. Famously lambasted by the Angry Video Game Nerd for its obscure hints, non-linear gameplay, and frustrating gameplay mechanics, Castlevania II stands as the black sheep of the franchise.
Castlevania II follows a trend in NES series of the late-eighties in that, rather than improve and define the gameplay mechanics and structure of the first game, it takes a dramatic right turn; in this case, into a more non-linear, adventure-style role-playing game (RPG). We saw a similar thing happen with Super Mario Bros. 2 (Nintendo EAD, 1988) and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (ibid, 1987), which both featured deviations from the gameplay styles of their predecessors.
Rather than being a relatively straight-forward action/platformer, Castlevania II places far more emphasis on grinding for experience points (EXP), levelling up, purchasing items, talking to non-playable characters (NPCs), and using key items in obscure ways. Because of this, and the game’s dodgy reputation, I can’t say that I was too excited to delve into this game; to make it easier, I’ll admit to using a guide so I would know where I was going and what I was doing, which was enough to make this a more annoying experience than playing the first game.
Seven years after defeating Count Dracula in the original Castlevania, Simon Belmont finds himself suffering from a fatal curse placed upon him by the evil Count. To break the curse, he must “prossess” Dracula’s five body parts in order to resurrect, and defeat, the Count once more.
Castlevania II is a sidescrolling action/adventure platformer; players once again control the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont, who controls largely the same. Once again, Simon is a slow, plodding character with little control when leaping from platform to platform, and suffering from the same annoying trend of throwing himself backwards into bottomless pits or deadly bodies of water when hit with attacks.
Simon primarily attacks enemies with his trademark whip, the Vampire Killer, and can throw a variety of sub-weapons at his enemies. As before, the whip can be upgraded to deal greater damage but, in a twist, this must be done by purchasing the upgrades from NPCs. Similarly, the sub-weapons are acquired either by defeating one of the game’s handful of bosses or buying them from NPCs, placing a greater emphasis on the collecting of hearts.
As Simon defeats enemies, they will drop hearts; these can then be used to buy new weapons and upgrades, as well as being your ammo for using sub-weapons. As items and upgrades come at a high price, you will be finding yourself farming for hearts a lot throughout the course of the game.
This is helpful, in one way, as Simon now gains EXP for dispatching enemies; with enough EXP, he will level up, further increasing his health bar. However, working against him is the fact that, at regular intervals, the game will suddenly succumb to the curse of night. When night-time falls, the enemies deal greater damage, take more hits to defeat, increase in number, and even swarm the game’s usually safe towns. The towns also close up at night; the normally-vague and fearful NPCs hide indoors, the church (which is the only place Simon can refill his health) and other buildings shut their doors, and Simon is forced to sit and wait for the sun to rise and dispel the curse. This night-time mechanic has, rightfully, drawn the ire of many commentators over the years and rightfully so; it’s an annoying, frustratingly awkward mechanic that takes way too long to load up, lasts for far too long, and generally results in you either standing around like a moron waiting for the night to end or battling tougher enemies to gain more hearts.
Compounding the matter is the fact that the game’s translation leaves a lot to be desired; NPCs dish out incredible vague and obtuse “clues” that really don’t help your progress through the game. You’re given items with little explanation as to their purpose and are required to use them in some really weird ways; without a guide, I really don’t see how anyone would be able to figure out that you need to kneel down by a body of water or in front of an impassable wall with a certain gem in order to access new areas.
All this might be bearable if the game made up for it with some interesting levels and dungeons but it really doesn’t; the bulk of Castlevania II’s enemies are found in the overworld and all of the castles look and feel the same. You’ll jump across the same spiked pits, attack the same enemies, and acquire Dracula’s accursed body parts in the same way (throwing a wooden stake at a glowing orb, of course). Hell, the final castle doesn’t even have any enemies; it’s just a minor inconvenience of a maze leading to an anti-climatic battle with the Count himself. Depending on how long you take to beat the game, you’ll be treated to a variety of endings; sometimes, Simon prevails but succumbs to his wounds, others he will triumph unabated. This is probably where Castlevania II’s replayability comes into play as you’re encouraged to get the best ending but, considering how annoying it is to slog through this bland adventure, I can’t say that I’m too interested in trying to beat it any faster or better (or play it ever again, for that matter).
Graphics and Sound:
Castlevania II doesn’t really improve upon its predecessor much; it looks, feels, and sounds pretty much exactly the same, with the same limited sprite animations and colour palette.
If anything, Castlevania II is a graphical step down as there are often so many enemies and sprites on the screen at the same time that you’ll notice some sever sprite flickering and super annoying slow-down. As if Simon wasn’t slow enough, he’ll now jitter through the air and, often, it feels like you’re walking through wet mud; it can massively affect your trajectory when trying to clear deadly pits or spikes and mean the difference between a decent health bar and struggling to progress.
At the same time, the game does feature a soundtrack to rival its predecessor; “Bloody Tears” has since become a recurring theme in the franchise and I like that the music changes when the game shifts from day to night but, as good as the music and sound effects are, they’re not enough to really increase the appeal of this game.
Enemies and Bosses:
Once again, Simon will battle against a slew of gothic and supernatural enemies; he’ll mostly encounter skeletons and spear-wielding knights in the castles and areas he visits but will also battle mummies, bats, floating eyeballs, and Medusa Heads as you progress.
Boss encounters are few and far between and a pitiful inclusion compared to the battles you endure in Castlevania; there are only three boss battles in this game, two of which can be bypassed completely (though you’ll miss out on two of the game’s stronger sub-weapons), and all three are pretty pathetic compared to the first game. This is best exemplified in the battle against the Grim Reaper, which was an annoying test of my endurance and skill in Castlevania; here, Death is slow, predictable, and easily dispatched after a few hits.
Similarly, Dracula is renowned for his ludicrous ease in this game; granted, this battle is potentially harder if you didn’t acquire the Golden Knife sub-weapon but even without it, you can land a ridiculous number of his as Dracula spawns into the arena and defeat him before he can even launch a single attack. It’s a dismal end to a dismal title and as though the developers knew that gamers would struggle with the game’s level-up system, day/night cycle, and more obscure elements so over compensated by significantly reducing the number and difficulty of the game’s bosses.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As before, Simon can upgrade the Vampire Killer as he progresses to new towns and visits new areas. Certain NPCs will sell you an upgrade that turns the whip into a chain and its eventual strongest form, the Flame Whip. However, to acquire these upgrades, you’ll need to not only locate these NPCs (usually they’re hidden behind blocks or walls that must be destroyed with Holy Water) but also have enough hearts to purchase the upgrade.
Similarly, the first game’s sub-weapons return but must be purchased with hearts, which are also necessary to use these items. However, perhaps because of his pivotal the Holy Water is for checking for illusionary blocks, the Holy Water is free to use so you can spam it as much as you like. There’s some new power-ups here as well, though, like the powerful Sacred Flame or the Laurels, which make Simon invincible for a short time, and cloves of Garlic (which, when used in the right place at the right time, spawn an NPC who will provide Simon with free upgrades).
Castlevania II features a password save system, which was probably very useful back in the day when most gamers were renting the game or, lacking a guide, were unable to finish the game in one sitting. Unlike the first game, though, there is no “Hard Mode” awaiting you; the game is hard enough as it is and you’ll need to be really good at it in order to beat it fast enough to get the game’s best ending.
If you’re playing the version featured in the Xbox One Castlevania Anniversary Collection, as I did, you can earn an Achievement for completing the game and make liberal use of the save state feature to chart your progress and come back to where you left off whenever you want. There are also a number of frames and display options, though they don’t really do much to improve the appeal of this game.
No matter how you look at it, Castlevania II is a poor follow-up to Castlevania. I was expecting a lot worse but I can’t deny that the game is far less fun that the original; it’s a slog to get through, even with a guide, and just a far more boring experience.
Perhaps if the game made better use of its castles and included challenging bosses it would have more appeal. The day/night cycle is annoying but I like the added challenge it provided; the problem was that, most of the time, I just stood around like an idiot waiting for the sun to rise so I could heal up and continue. Any game that means you have to stand stationary for minutes on end is a bad game for me, and Castlevania II asks way too much from players; I get that a lot of RPGs and games back then were vague and non-linear, but this game takes the piss with its terrible “hints” and massively obscure item usage. I can’t see myself returning to this title again any time soon.
Did you play Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest back in the day? Do you agree with the reputation is has for being one of Castlevania’s weakest titles or do you feel it’s an under-rated gem? Which of the titles in the series do you consider to be the best, worst, hardest, or easiest? Whatever you think, drop a comment below and pop back next Saturday for my review of the next Castlevania title in the Castlevania Anniversary Collection.