Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES) Review

The Short

Pros

– Feels like a grand adventure

– Adds a leveling/currency sense of progression to the series

– Attempts to give an open world, which oddly enough is believable

– Has phenomenal music

– Looks decent enough

– Has a day/night cycle that actually changes how the game is played

Cons

– Level design is a joke

– Bad translations and obscure puzzles are a poor mixture

– Next to no bosses to speak of

– The game turns into farming for hearts (currency) to continue

– Graphics lack the visual “pop” from Castlevania

Say what you like about the game, I love the way this forest background looks.

The Long

If there’s one thing I can really say that’s positive about Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest it’s that it made me realize how much time and care had to have gone into the original Castlevania. That or the first game was a total fluke, in which case I am sad.

Simon’s Quest is universally scorned by gamers, and is considered one of the “unholy trinity” of odd game sequels to come out of the NES (the other two being Mario 2 and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, both of which I think are great games). More than a few people have made videos about it, and honestly it seems you can’t be a frustrated gamer on youtube these days without covering Simon’s Quest at some point. But what it boils down to is this: Simon’s Quest clearly meant well, it was just misguided. And in an industry where gaming journalists scoff and scorn at the lack of innovation only to criticize a game a moment later for not fitting their review criteria, Simon’s Quest probably deserves another, fresher look.

The game is still pretty rotten, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a good deal to still enjoy here.

There’s a Death Cab for Cutie song about this, I think.

Simon’s Quest is rare as it is a direct sequel story-wise to Castlevania, something they didn’t really do until Dracula X –> Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow –> Dawn of Sorrow later down the road. Simon has killed Dracula, but he seems to be under a curse. Not Dracula’s Curse (that’s the third game), but some sort of other curse. Anyway, the only way to fix it is to gather up various parts of Dracula’s anatomy, put them all in a pot, and revive him. And then kill him again. No, I don’t get it either.

Story doesn’t matter, what matters is the game objectives. You start by finding yourself in a town, not Dracula’s castle, in fact his whole castle seems to be missing in this game and is instead replaced by a variety of mansions. It’s almost as if the developers played Legend of Zelda, realized that they liked the puzzles, items, rupees, and dungeons on that game and wanted to make it in a 2D platformer sense. Which, now that I’ve typed that out, sounds pretty great. Too bad Simon’s Quest isn’t.

Well, at least I know my neck is safe.

Simon’s Quest differs from Castlevania so dramatically I hesitate to even call it a Castlevania game. Gone is the linear platforming, the obvious tight level design and arcade-style points system. Instead we’re on an adventure, or a “quest” if you will. Simon murders various Halloween-style monsters to procure hearts, which have gone from ammo to currency in the weirdest economy known to man, and then spends those bloodbags on powerups he needs to beat the game. Shields, flame whips, holy water, and so forth. Most of the sub weapons are now used for specific objectives rather than primarily as weapons (again, this is Zelda-esque) and can be employed to uncover secrets.

The world itself is also quite nice to look it. It does fall into that “everything has a black outline so the game looks darker than the back of the moon” vibe that many third-party NES games fell victim to, but the sprites are well detailed and the backgrounds especially are large and feel detailed. The forest is genuinely claustrophobic and the open mountain spaces feel as real to me as the planes of Skyrim, if that’s saying something.

So for the first ten to fifteen minutes of Simon’s Quest you’re probably going to have a great time, just soaking in the atmosphere, great music, and the familiar controls. It’s when you try to progress in the game that the big deep problems emerge.

Thank you. That is very helpful.

Simon’s Quest, first off, is heavily dependent on grinding. Stuff costs lots of hearts, and so you’ll be bashing monsters left and right for them. Seeing as dying to a Continue causes you to lose all your hearts, you’ll quickly realize the best way to get hearts is to stay close to whatever village has the item you want and just murder easy werewolves or skeletons outside. Which means running back and forth over the same two or three screens for half an hour to buy the item you need. Strike one.

The next problem comes with knowing where to go. While you may brave out past the three safe screens near town to explore this monster-ridden world, odds are you won’t find much in ways of guidance. The village people aren’t much help – it appears English is their fifteenth language – and signs and even hints you can buy a cryptic or flat out wrong. While finding the first mansion is certainly possible by simple exploration, will you know you need a wooden stake to destroy the orb at the end? Well, you do. Just FYI. You can thank me later. Strike two.

Pray all you want, it won’t fix their bad translations.

Lastly, the dungeons themselves. Obviously meant to be the best parts of the game (or at least, I’d imagine that’s the case) even they’re rather unfun. There’s a handful of reasons (bad enemy placement, having to backtrack back out after completion) but what really buttered my biscuit was the invisible drops. Some blocks you can walk on. Others, you can’t. How do you tell them apart? By lobbing holy water at them like a deranged priest. Since there’s no visual indication whatsoever without seeing of the water jar passes through, you’ll have to lob every single square of floor in these mansions just to be certain you don’t fall down and get impaled on spikes or something. Whomever thought that idea up should have been fired on the spot and slapped, not necessarily in that order. It’s a load of rot and an absolutely unforgivable waste of gamers’ time. Strike Three.

Now, I am going to be fair here: Simon’s Quest did lay a framework for what would eventually become games like Symphony of the Night and the GBA and DS Castlevania games. Persistent leveling, a non-linear world, money to buy stuff with, dungeons to explore; all of these things carried over in one way or another. And I applaud them for at least trying to experiment with it. But while I can commend them for their attempt, I can’t reconcile the final product. Simon’s Quest just isn’t fun, and is designed with systems that exist only to waste your time and provide frustration. While much of this game could be a good idea in theory, little of it transitions over to being ok in practice.

At least the music is great. Or this song, anyway.

Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest is the only one of the unholy triforce of NES sequels that I think is a rotten apple, and even then it isn’t…horrible. It mean, it’s totally playable. It controls decently enough, looks fine, and has…a lot of…content.

Who am I kidding? This game’s rubbish. Though it does go to show one thing: many of the design choices in this game developed solely to waste your time are being actively used today. Providing minor rewards to give the illusion of progress, an open world with a whole lot of nothing actually in it, and other such “advances” are usually given high marks in reviews these days. The difference is that modern games have done a lot better at hiding the fact that these elements are there to waste your time, either by upping the immersion factor (which is almost enough to save Simon’s Quest for me, if I’m being totally honest here) or making them so addicting you just don’t notice the fact you’re being abused. And I realize now I might have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’m going to shut up.

Point being: Simon’s Quest isn’t good. It exists to waste your time, and as such playing it will…waste your time. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

It’s not completely irredeemable, but it sure tries its hardest to be. Though I will say you may get some enjoyment booting it up clean and just wandering about for a half-hour or so with no actual intent of getting anywhere. Just soak in those great graphics and sense of adventure. Then put it away and repeat the process in a few months when you need to justify having bought it.

Two out of five stars. 

Sorry Simon, your quest is in another castle.

Author: Nathan Major

Spirit Shark: Hammerhead. Retro game collector, true ginger, and SNES fanatic. Goal in life is to become Karnov from the NES game Karnov.

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2 Comments

    • i love it too! I remember trying to beat it as a kid. That stake thing took us forever to figure out: no internet

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