My views on Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest have certainly oscillated over the years. I spent such a long time loathing the idea of the game more so than the game itself. Why couldn’t Konami just make another action-platformer and given us a trilogy of three amazing games? Instead, what we got was an overly cryptic game that: Flat out lies to you, makes you do outrageous things like crouch in a corner so a tornado can sweep you away, and disrupt the game every 5 minutes to remind you what a terrible night it is to have a curse. Castlevania II tried out many new ideas, yet their execution left much to be desired.
As a huge fan of the original Castlevania, I was never too sure what to make of the cryptic and nonlinear nature of its sequel. Like so many other NES trilogies, the second game in the series changed things up. As seen with the transition from the original Legend of Zelda to Zelda II: Link’s Adventure, role-playing mechanics were added in to complement the exploratory nature of Castlevania II. The antithetical design of Simon’s Quest leaves much to be desired in comparison to the more fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled action of the original and third game. It felt like one of the more drastic changes made within an NES trilogy. However, given the history of the original Castlevania, the changes made for its sequel begin to make a lot more sense. Let’s take a brief look at the history of Castlevania and find out how Simon’s Quest came to be.
Castlevania, known in Japan as Akumajō Dracula, was released for the Famicom in 1986 and in North America for the NES in 1987. Castlevania was developed by Konami and directed by Hitoshi Akamatsu, who would go on to design and direct the original trilogy. It is an action-platformer in which you take on the role of Simon Belmont who comes from a long lineage of vampire hunters. You are tasked with infiltrating Dracula’s castle, Castlevania, and slaying the fiendish vampire. As Simon, you have various tools at your disposal: His primary weapon, a legendary whip known as the vampire killer alongside various sub-weapons including a dagger, an ax, holy water, boomerang, and a stopwatch. As you proceed through Dracula’s castle, you will fight your way through 6 stages, fighting monstrous foes, bosses straight out of horror films, and collect hearts used as sub-weapon ammunition.
Castlevania is fondly remembered as a classic for the system. IGN ranked it #19 on the top 100 NES Games, saying:
“In an era of 8-bit graphics and MIDI music, Konami crafted a game that immersed you in the horror of Dracula’s castle, while all you were looking at and hearing, was an artful combination of the typical sights and sounds of the day. It wasn’t only the aesthetics that made the original Castlevania a great game, one that spawned one of the most popular and well-known series in gaming history. It was the gameplay that was at the heart of Castlevania’s epic rise from unknown brand to Konami flagship.” (IGN Top 100 NES Games)
My relationship with the franchise first came about during the early 2000’s. It was a game I had missed out on growing up. I use to absolutely hate anything horror related as a kid; Thank you, Freddy Kreuger, for all those sleepless nights. But around the time I reached middle school and begun to learn more about films, I realized it was all just a bunch of dudes in makeup and rubber suits. None of it was real, and if anything, was highly impressed by the practicality of the special effects. So, as a young kid who was starting the transition from an intense fear of horror films to adoration, Castlevania spoke to me. It was filled to the brim with references to old universal horror films including boss fights with a Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Dracula Himself. The castle itself was haunting and uninviting; Torn curtains, crumbling stone walls, and dungeons filled with the remains of tortured souls made up the aesthetic of the castle.
But not all elements of the game aged gracefully. The difficulty is largely attributed to Simon’s stiff controls. He isn’t all that agile and when hit by an enemy, is launched backward; not all that helpful in a game with various bottomless pits. And don’t even get me started the Medusa Head Hall. You’ll never understand the pure hatred Castlevania fans have for medusa until you’ve played the game. Yet, despite the controls, it still comes together into a cohesive package. Whipping enemies to death and drowning the Grim Reaper in holy water just never gets old. It remains one of my favorite NES games of all time and alongside Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night, one of my favorites in the franchise.
We then see the release of Akumajō Dracula (also known as Vampire Killer in Europe) for the MSX2 computers In Japan and Europe. It was developed in tandem to the Famicom version of Akumajō Dracula and released a mere month afterward, sharing many similarities in its aesthetic and plot. But what sets Vampire Killer apart from Castlevania is its nonlinear approach to level design. The castle is structured more like a Metroid game, having the player explore each level in search of keys in order to open new paths. Players can find treasure chests and merchants which both provide various items to help you in your quest. Yet a lack of screen scrolling makes it a much more awkward environment to traverse. Exploration works well when given incentive; Metroid rewards players with permanent upgrades that allow them to further explore the caverns of Zebes. Circumstantial item found in claustrophobic spaces isn’t exactly my idea of fun in an action-platformer.
My time spent with Vampire Killer was excruciating, to say the least. The ideas set forth are fascinating, but never fully realized. Given the power of the MSX2 Home computer, the visuals of the environments are more detailed than what’s found in its Famicom counterpart.
But one of the biggest issues is the imbalanced difficulty due to the nature of its design. There are many times in which you will encounter enemies much tougher than found in the original, requiring several whips to the face before they go down. This leads to a tedious trek of finding items to help defeat these foes, only to die along the way. And if you are not properly equipped, you will die. Game Over.
Wait, that’s it? One life? Yup. The game commits one of the greatest gaming sins. There are no continues and no extra lives. For the average player, it might as well be impossible. While the original was difficult, unlimited continues meant you could always learn from your mistakes and eventually overcome the challenge. There is no light at the end of the tunnel with Vampire Killer.
“A cynical person might almost suggest that the game was developed purely to sell Konami’s Game Master cartridge, which enables a level skip, amongst other cheats, that were already built into the cartridge. Even in the modern age of emulators and save states it’s an overwhelmingly difficult game.” (Hardcore Gaming 101 Presents: Castlevania, pg. 9)
It’s certainly a game filled with ambition, making ever attempts to be more than just another action platformer, but ultimately held back by its masochistic nature. But Vampire Killer has to be given some credit for its attempt at innovation, despite how lackluster it may be. The game helped lay the foundation for the more open-ended exploratory style of Castlevania, which would eventually lead us to Symphony of the Night. It’s a long and treacherous road from here on out. Simon must gather the remains and revive the Dark Lord if he has any chance of lifting the curse placed upon him.