Disclaimer – This review is part of an 9 part series of reviews for the the Castlevania Anniversary Collection for the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. Due to a full review of the collection coming soon, I will not be mentioning everything the collection brings – only mentioning those that pertain to Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest.
With one final lash of his whip, Simon Belmont vanquished Dracula and stood victorious as Castlevania crumbled to dust. His victory over the Prince of Darkness was short lived however, as a terrible curse had befallen him – tainting his soul. A maiden appears out of the mist and tells Simon of his plight, its only cure being to gather the remains of his fallen foe and destroy him once and for all. This is Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest.
After the success of it’s forebear, Simon’s Quest sought to expand the mechanics and world of Castlevania – taking it to heights never before seen. Unfortunately as many veteran gamers will attest, the game became infamous for all the wrong reasons and is considered the blacksheep of the Castlevania family. After three decades, how does this much maligned sequel hold up?
When you boot up Simon’s Quest you will immediately notice the graphical upgrade from the original. Simon’s sprite is more detailed, enemies sprites are revamped and look great. Environments have extra background layers and effects like enemy death flames enjoy a pretty significant face lift. Considering how rushed Simon’s Quest was, they did a fantastic job making it look the part.
Where Simon’s Quest stumbles in the visual department is in its use of colour. Castlevania used contrasting colours like orange and blue to make its world pop. Simon’s Quest abandons this idea almost completely, turning Simon into a red and black speck in a world that doesn’t necesarily complement that change. In fact, the entire game looks drab in comparison, with entire screens being drowned in a single colour, bringing nothing to the forefront. This is especially noticeable in towns and mansions. Unfortunately this manages to kill the graphical improvements, and I personally prefer the stark colours of the original to the high detail, drab look of Simon’s Quest.
Castlevania blew my mind with it’s phenominal soundtrack and Simon’s Quest follows suit with some of the best music in video game history. Series staples like Bloody Tears made its debut in Simon’s Quest, and it sounds fantastic in all its 8-bit glory. Famous tunes aside, most of the games score is solid and will have you bopping along to it with carefree abandon. Unfortunately more hurdles appear to trip Simon’s Quest – in this case, it’s repetition. You will hear the same tracks in every town, every time you leave town, every mansion. It doesn’t matter how good the music is, when you hear it on repeat for hours on end, it gets tiresome.
Where Simon’s Quest shines, like its predecessor, is in its atmosphere and classic horror themes. The world is under siege by Dracula’s minions. The townsfolk blame you for the corruption that has befallen the land, and are understandably hostile towards you. As you get closer to Dracula’s resting place, the population of nearby towns get more and more sparse. Similar to original, there is no text explaining the story to you in game. You have to piece what little information you can gleam together and mix it together with a bit of imagination. For all of it’s missteps, Simon’s Quest still manages to feel like a classic Castlevania title.
That feeling carries over to the gameplay as well. Simon controls mostly the same as he did in the original. Whipping enemies feels great. I’d venture to say it actually feels better than before thanks to improved death animations, giving you a great sense of impact when you lay the smack down on your enemies. Navigating the world is as tight as ever thanks to the return of its signature fixed jump arcs and Belmont strut. At no point playing Simon’s Quest did I feel like the controls screwed me over, which is awesome. Shame the rest of the game doesn’t really follow suit.
For all of its similarities, Simon’s Quest is a very ambitious game. For starters this is an RPG. Simon starts his journey very weak. Enemies are able to kill him fairly quickly, whilst his ability to dispatch them is significantly reduced compared to other games in the series. Killing enemies and collecting hearts will slowly power Simon up, although this will only increase his durability. To increase his monster slaying capability you need to purchase new whip upgrades. Each upgrade will increase Simon’s power exponentially, eventually returning him to his former glory.
The issue here is hearts. Unlike in Castlevania where hearts acted like ammunition for your sub-weapon, Simon’s Quest uses it as EXP, currency and also ammo. Since you need hearts to become stronger, you need to grind enemies. Because you need hearts to buy consumables, sub-weapons and integral plot items, you need to grind enemies. Because you need so many hearts to do anything in Simon’s Quest, you are actively discouraged for using sub-weapons, which is a real shame because the sub-weapons made Castlevania feel so good.
Grinding in games is not inherently a bad thing, but in Simon’s Quest it feels like padding. Enemies drop between two and six hearts when they die (if they drop them at all) and you will need between 50 and 200 hearts for each item or upgrade depending on what you are buying. At most, I grinded for maybe half and hour in total when playing Simon’s Quest, but when the game is only around three hours long, it feels much worse than it actually is.
What truly makes grinding potentially the most frustrating element of Simon’s Quest is dying. If you die and you are out of lives, you lose all your hearts. This can be heart breaking (literally) if you fall into a death pit, or get killed on the way back to town. This never happened to me, however consumer be warned, this is a very real threat to your sanity. This is made even worse by the day and night cycle. As innovative as this was back in 1988, it throws a huge spanner in the works. Shops are only open during the day, so you can only buy the stuff you were grinding for half of the time. The other half you will be assaulted by monsters – increasing the risk of death. Wonderful.
Grinding aside, Simon’s Quest also made the bold decision to abandon the typical stage structure of the original – instead introducing one interconnected world with various towns and dungeons scattered throughout. The problem with this is there is no map, very few directions on where to go and you have no idea what it is you’re supposed to do. Towns are filled with NPC’s who are happy to talk to you and relay various bits of information, unfortunately none of it makes any sense thanks to an abysmal translation. Simply put, you should probably ignore 99% of NPCs in Simon’s Quest.
The translation is not the only thing holding the world back however. Simon’s Quest is unbelievably cryptic. Progression can be completely halted by puzzles with no logical solution. One puzzle requires you to kneel beside a mountain whilst holding a specific orb for an unspecified amount of time so a tornado can come and sweep Simon up and drop him off outside of a dungeon you don’t know is there. That is one of maybe four puzzles that require ludicrously unintuitive actions to solve, and it hurts the game massively.
Dungeons, or mansions as they are called in game, don’t fare much better. Every mansion looks the same aesthetically and is a complex series of fake walls, floors and dead ends. If you manage to make it to the end of the mansion you will have the opportunity to acquire a piece of Dracula’s body. To claim your reward, you need to have found a merchant inside of the mansion who will sell you an oak stake (for hearts). You then have to throw this one use item at an orb that will produce the gruesome appendage. Again, very cryptic.
Mansions themselves are fine enough to play through. The core combat of Castlevania is there, making defeating Dracula’s minions a fun distraction. What baffles me is the lack of bosses. You would expect to find some sort of boss defending Dracula’s body, but nope. Over half the mansions, of which there are five, have no boss. Heck, the final mansion has no enemies. It is a bizarre omission, one I assume was brought on due to time constraints. Not that the bosses are anything to be excited for. All bar Dracula can be avoided by walking past them. If you try to kill them, they put up no fight whatsoever and go down like a lead balloon – Dracula included. A drastic shift from the tense, nail biting fights in the original.
Baring all of this in mind, I have to confess, I used a walkthrough to beat Simon’s Quest. Honestly, this is the best way to experience the game. With the cryptic shenanigans removed, you are left with a game that feels surprisingly great to play. Despite all of the negatives I have thrown at it thus far.
Having a even the most basic of guides suddenly makes traversing the world fun since you actually have an idea of what to do. Grinding for hearts and levels is pretty low since you aren’t getting lost and murdered by enemies constantly. You truly feel like you are gathering the weapons and tools required to kill Dracula once and for all – and I loved it. Every second of Simon’s Quest played in a way that removed the insanity was one that I enjoyed. This is no small part down to the oppressive atmosphere and great combat. When you take away the crap, you are left with Castlevania, and that is certainly not a bad thing.
In conclusion, if you want to play Simon’s Quest – look up a guide. If you love Castlevania and want to see the dawn of the modern era of games, then checking this title out is something I can recommend. If you want to play this blind, then good luck I guess. Out of all the games in the Castlevania series, this is the one that needs a full remake to truly make it shine.
This is a step down in almost every aspect from the original, and played blind is a busted mess. Strip away the crap and you are left with a solid title that fans of the series should check out. Have you played Simon’s Quest? Did you pick it up back in the 80’s? Did you use a guide? Let me know in the comments below.
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