Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a 2D sidescrolling platform adventure game with RPG elements developed by Konami for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In fact, this, along with Metroid on the same system, are some of the earliest examples of what we now call metroidvania. I have beaten this game both on the NES and on the 3DS virtual console, so at least this time I’ll have a bit more street cred on the review compared to the first one. I’d still recommend you read that one first if you’re unfamiliar with the first Castlevania, but that’s up to you. You have been warned.
So the plot of this game is that Simon Belmont has returned to Transylvania on a quest to remove the curse Count Dracula put on his family. In order to this, he must travel the land and recover the pieces of Dracula’s remains, bring them to his castle, and resurrect Dracula so that he can kill him and thus lift the horrible curse. This consists mainly of wandering throughout the world looking for mansions. These mansions are guarded by Dracula’s minions as each one prossesses a part of Dracula’s remains. In order to obtain it from the orb at the end of the mansion you must find a merchant inside, purchase an oak stake, and use said oak stake like a sub weapon in it. You can equip one part at a time and take advantage of its unique ability to help you progress. I’ll keep those enhancements a secret so they aren’t spoiled for you.
Of course, to get to these mansions you’ll first find yourself traveling a bit. You’ll often find yourself in the wilderness between towns and mansions. There are mountains, forests, swamps, and even graveyards with different kinds of enemies to fight. The controls are all the same as the previous game, but here when enemies die they may drop either a small heart, half of a big heart, or a full big heart. These can be collected for multiple purposes. Mainly they are used as currency to purchase consumables, better whips, and a few sub weapons from merchants throughout the game. Secondly, they are also how you gain experience points. Depending on what level you are and what area you’re in, collecting hearts will net you experience points towards the next level. Once you cap off at that area’s limit you can no longer level up, but the max level is 6. You gain some more max health with each level. And thirdly, a certain number of hearts are consumed when you use most of your sub weapons. The only exceptions are the oak stake, which you will need to purchase with hearts one at a time anyway, and holy water which is infinite. The holy water is infinite because, while very weak, it can be used to destroy some blocks and can also be used to help identify false blocks. This is also often the way to uncover secret hint books hidden in the walls of mansions that tell you clues on how to defeat Dracula.
You can find more clues in the towns from townsfolk but this is less reliable. Some townspeople speak in poorly translated riddles. Others tell you what are known as half-truths which only partially help you without seeming too helpful just in case Dracula catches wind of it. And those too loyal to or afraid of Dracula will either refuse to help you or straight up lie to your face. Take everyone’s words with a cup of skepticism. Towns are also usually where you’ll find shops. Most towns will have a church as well which is where you can go to refill your health. The only other ways to do this are to level up or die and respawn. If you die you’ll respawn very close to where you died, but if you run out of lives you can either get a password or just continue. Either way, you’ll respawn right where you left off without any hearts or experience. There’s also a day and night cycle. Every so many minutes while you’re outside, be it in the wilderness or in a town, the game will transition from one to the other. At night the towns are filled with monsters and all the buildings are closed. On top of that, all monsters are twice as strong but also increase the value of their heart drops. The world is one large map with a few secret routes, a few dead-ends, and multiple forks in the road. Aside from the secret paths, the forks in the road are usually determined by existing via an upper or lower part of the current screen’s boundary. Once you have navigated your way to all of the mansions, recovered all the remains, and returned to Dracula’s castle, you can resurrect him. If you win this fight you’ll win the game and be given one of multiple endings based on how quickly you beat the game.
Castlevania II manages to nail it pretty good once again with the art and style of the visuals. It also nails some more awesome music too. It even keeps the same controls and basic gameplay withsome interesting new twists. The large world with lots of people to talk to and secrets to uncover make it really fun to dig in and try to figure things out. It’s not even that difficult to beat once you do eventually figure it all out. The leveling is a fun addition that makes killing enemies feel more worthwile, especially when grinding hearts for ammo or shopping. The metroidvania origins are also really interesting to see here. Things like getting new abilities from the body parts and magical crystals feels like an early form of the equipment from later Castlevania titles. It was a bold choice to turn a game that was more focused on action into one more focused on adventure for the sequel yet still keep the same basic controls and game feel in the process. If nothing else, you have to respect the ambition there.
The thing is, there are a lot of faults in this game due to it being perhaps a bit TOO ambitious for the time. The way the leveling system works is very strange and unclear without researching it online, not to mention the low cap and lack of upgrades for it leave a lot to be desired. There’s no map in the game to help track where you are or where you need to go. The day and night mechanic often leaves you waiting at the mercy of the clock just to utilize towns. The password feature is appreciated but saves would’ve been even more appreciated for such a lengthy experience. After a while there’s not much point to grind because you don’t really need the hearts anymore other than for using your weapons or buying oak stakes, which then makes the trips to different locations a boring task. The mansions are perhaps a bit too easy for how crucial they are to the game. They should’ve been the parts that retained the balls hard difficulty from the first game. The poor translations and untrustworthy advice of NPCs can be pretty frustrating in a game that forces you to reply on them, lest you go to the internet for guidance. A few of the secrets are just too difficult for you to reasonably figure out through the hints and trial and error. Even KNOWING what to do I had trouble figuring out what some of these hints meant. And by secrets, I mean things that you wouldn’t know how to do naturally but are still required in order to beat the game. If those snags aren’t enough to slow you down and ensure a worse ending sequence, the game’s focus on grinding definitely will. If you die you lose progress on hearts needed to purchase items. And you really want to get all these items and get experience so that you can get stronger and make the game easier. So basically the natural design of the game encourages you to do things that will pretty much guarantee the worst ending. I even managed to breeze through casually going the right way the whole time once, but because I got the upgrades I STILL got that bad ending.
To put it simply, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest has a lot of issues but was ambitious for its time and remains an interesting part of the metroidvania origins. If you loved the first Castlevania, it’s worth a look. If you like the later metroidvania-style Castlevania games then this would be interesting as a predecessor to those. You might even raise an eyebrow if you’re a fan of Metroid. It’s maybe only something I could recommend spending 15-20 bucks on, but it’s worth checking out if you’re interested. It will make you turn to the internet for help, piss you off with it’s bullshit secrets, and maybe leave you a bit underwhelmed in a lot of areas, but it’s bound to be interesting and impressive in other parts and a fun enough experience to be worth having. I’d love to leave a little teaser line here for the review of Castlevania III but… if I couldn’t even beat the first one then I don’t think there’s any god damn way I’d be able to beat THAT one. So uh… let’s just pretend the curse was defeated forever… at least for now.