Top 100 Retro Games: Castlevania II Simon’s Quest

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Nintendo Entertainment System
#69 (Nice)

In a recent episode of the Player One Podcast, one of the presenters described Castlevania II as being the “first cohesive world” they had encountered in a video game. I totally agree with this assessment of the game and, while it has been considered a bit of an anomaly in recent times, is one of my favorite games in the series. This was also the first Castlevania game I played when it came out in December of 1988. I am fairly certain we purchased it from a mall kiosk sometime that next spring. This was the same kiosk I would find Castlevania, the first game, at later that year. The first Castlevania game, like the first Mega Man, seemed to be a bit hard to find and available in limited qualities. Other people seem to have had the exact opposite issue? Weird.

I got Castlevania II and beat the game with a combination of tips from Nintendo Power and a few kids from school who helped each other out with the more difficult parts of the game. I remember sharing a password with someone to get them through a part they were having trouble. There was a notebook pad page tacked up on my childhood wall with a lot of passwords for the game and descriptions of where they put you. I did the same for Metal Gear, Mega Man II, and other games.

So, the plot of Castlevania II goes something like this: Simon Belmont is back. This time he has to find five parts of Dracula’s body and then defeat him in his castle. Each part does something…for example, Dracula’s rib, somehow, can be used as a shield. The goal of the game sounds straight forward, but this game is definitely not. It is much more RPGesque than the platformer original Castlevania, or even its third incarnation, and does side scroll, but takes Simon around the world of the game. In theory, you can go a variety of ways through the game, but some paths are easier to navigate than others. The MSX2 game Vampire Killer did this as well, but was never released here in America.

Castlevania II was also on the cover of the first issue of Nintendo Power I received after subscribing. The cover has become a bit infamous because of the severed head of Dracula on the cover. Apparently this caused a lot of parental complaints. I don’t remember being moved or bothered by it. When I found there had been controversy about the cover years later, I just shrugged.

Nintendo Power offered a guide to the first part of the game and then some further clues. It also included a map that hung on my bedroom wall for years but, because the game was a side scroller, wasn’t the most helpful when playing the game.

One of my biggest memories of this game is how much it took over my neighborhood. It seemed like everyone in our town was playing this game during the spring and summer that year. As I said earlier, I knew a few kids at school who shared ideas with me, and we helped each other through the game. I was in attendance for at least two other kids beating the game. A long discussion of one of the mansions took over someone’s birthday party. The means to summon the tornado at Deborah Cliff came straight from one of those maybe, perhaps not, official guides you would find in stores at the time. You can read a bunch of those on the Internet Archive.

In the summer, we had camp with the two other elementary schools in our town. There was a little bit of territorial beef for sure and some pride in being from each part of town, think Springfield versus Shelbyville, but everyone bonded over video games and Castlevania II was a big topic of conversation that summer. Another kid, the one I mentioned in another episode who stole baseball cards from me a few years later, was the first person I remember trying to do password hacks to get different items.

Castlevania II introduced some RPG aspects into the series. Immediately upon entering the game, you need to buy a whip from a cloaked villager. Eventually, your maximum health will go up, but back then it was not clear how and when that happened. Jeremy’s Gintendo episode about the game does a good job of clearly explaining how and why you gain health. If you aren’t racing through the game to get the “good” ending, you will also need to grind a bit to make sure you can always buy better items when you get to a new village or for oak stakes in mansions. Within mansions, time stops, which is something I have never taken advantage of until recent times.

The differences between day and night in this game really set it apart from other games of the era. Nowadays, it is fairly normal to have different, and stronger, enemies at night, but I would dread to switch to night when enemies became more difficult. Seeing villagers replaced with zombies always made me wonder if they WERE the villagers. I would always let out a happy sigh when “The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night” came on the screen finally.

The way villagers lie to Simon when he speaks to them is an odd choice. Nothing they said ever really made sense to me, so I mostly just ignored them. There is a town near the end of the game that only has one villager. That creeped me out so much. All of this weirdness did add to the aesthetic of the game. I constantly thought something really awful was going to happen or come out of nowhere to attack me.

Another thing that added to be creepiness was the fact that you could die in villages if you missed a jump. I did it often enough that I remember feeling tentative the first time I replayed the game in college. I definitely had some memories of issues with the game that I needed to work through.

I did not know until reading a recent essay about the game by Jeremy Parish that the main inspiration for the series was Ghouls and Ghosts. I can definitely see that and wish I could remember which game I played first or if I thought about that back then.

I came back to this game a number of times over the years. In grad school, I spent a summer playing through all the Castlevania games I could get my hands on and remember having a lot of fun coming back to this game again.

The cover for this game is great with Simon whipping his whip with Dracula in the background. Castlevania games always had very distinct covers. I love the Konami game aesthetic that is also seen in games like Contra, Metal Gear, and Jackal.

The soundtrack is also fantastic. This game really establishes some of the classic Castlevania tracks like Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears. There is now a vinyl release with both versions of the soundtrack. If I was still a vinyl collector, I would probably buy that, although vinyl is really, really, expensive these days.

The Famicon versions of these tracks are a bit different. Both versions are pretty interesting. I like the added bass and bells in Bloody Tears.

I played through Castlevania II via the 3DS’ virtual console. When we did an episode about Castlevania III, I discussed the choices given to gamers in regards to which direction to go to as Trevor Belmont marches towards Dracula’s castle. In Castlevania II, I never really considered how brutal the left direction is until now. The game basically forces you to go right until you need to go left, which is probably not as difficult by then so it feels like a reward. In theory, it is an open world game, but there are parts you will have a lot of trouble with if not prepared.

This game, especially when playing with a solid guide, is not that difficult but quite enjoyable. I have so many fond memories of the quirks of this game that it is always nice to return to it again. The soundtrack is an absolute classic and hums along in the background as you go through the game.

There are some issues with slowdown at various points in the game. This sometimes works to your advantage when an enemy also slows, and you have a half second to plan your next move. The map geography is odd as well. Why are there so many backwards staircases? There are a number of parts of this game that look like someone randomly placed different game pieces in a Castlevania Maker game.

I’d buy that.

Question: Why is someone living in the mansion to sell you oak stakes? Why don’t Dracula minions care?

The only place where I had some trouble was with the Grim Reaper. That battle is always difficult for me, for whatever reason, but I got through it eventually. The end of the game is rather anti-climatic. You walk through part of Dracula’s castle and then have a quick fight with him. I will always remember the first time I went through it and how I kept thinking THIS MUST BE A TRAP because no enemies would show up. Something seemed so off and my heart raced as I was so certain a bunch of enemies would show up.

I DID get the good ending this time, but I don’t really worry too much about that stuff. The advent in the nineties of gaming websites that explained all of those things, with screengrabs, and now playthroughs on Youtube, focuses me so much more on just enjoying the game.


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