Saturday, June 28, 2014

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest - Finding Dracula's Second Part
Did my search yield a vital fragment, or was I cursed to a series of horrible nights?

My early interactions with Castlevania had left me scarred and beaten. I couldn't remember a time when a game had frustrated me so, and I knew that any fantasy I had of actually clearing it was a total nonstarter. Really, after being pummeled so many times by the dreaded duo of Frankenstein and Igor (well, mainly Igor), I never wanted to see it again. So after I'd taken that last fatal fireball to the face, I angrily switched off the NES, yanked out the cartridge, and probably made a few a few idle threats ("I'm bookin' a flight to Japan right now! You hear me?!") while spastically slipping it back into its sleeve and jamming it back into my game case. Castlevania was summarily forgotten as I turned my attention to all of the new games that were quickly filling my ever-growing NES library. 

It seemed the appropriate reaction. I mean, what reason could I have for wanting to revisit a game that evoked within me only feelings of hopelessness and doubt?

Well, not quite. It would be a long time before I was convinced that Castlevania was worth further inspection. However, my introduction to Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, though a lesser milestone, helped keep the series fresh in my mind even though I was content to keep my distance. 

While I was vaguely aware of its existence, I first saw Simon's Quest in action during one of our annual late-year trips to my uncle's house in New Jersey. My cousins remembered that I had recently come to own Castlevania and were excited to give me a look at its sequel. I was intrigued by what I saw not because I yearned for more of what Castlevania proffered but because Simon's Quest looked so different. It was obviously mechanically similar, Simon's movements swifter but still a bit stiff and clunky, but it gave off a completely unique vibe; I don't know if it was because Simon was mostly traveling about the ominous-looking outskirts of Dracula's castle, or if there was a notably different tone and pace to the music, but there were parts of it that resonated with me even months after I'd watched them play it--and that was only for a few minutes.

Because the preview was so abbreviated, I couldn't even begin to grasp what the game was about; I never noticed anything pertaining to a day-to-night system, any RPG-based elements, or even the fact that it completely shifted to a whole other genre. But I continued carrying with me those images of Simon rushing over dilapidated bridges as shadowed by oppressive mountainscapes and the grim woodland backdrops interspersed throughout his seemingly urgent venture. Still, though it made a positive impression and I was prone to immediately desire any game my cousins showcased for me, I wasn't really feeling all that compelled to own Simon's Quest. I had nothing against it--it's just that I was so burned by its predecessor that I couldn't take the chance of buying a sequel that for all knew might have espoused the same punishing, hateful values. It wasn't worth the risk.

Any and all exposure to Castlevania ceased for about a year until the winter months of 1990, on that fateful day when my brother was off to the electronics store and asked me if I wanted any game in particular. When I handed him $40 and passively told him to "get anything," I couldn't have predicted that he would bring home Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse. Though I was annoyed that he'd chosen a sequel to a game for which I harbored ill feelings, and I planned to only dispassionately sample it, my experience with Dracula's Curse turned out to be, unexpectedly and somewhat-shockingly, highly positive; the first few of several playthroughs made such an indelible impression on me that Dracula's Curse attained status as one of my favorite games and reinvigorated my interest in the original Castlevania, which I now felt the desire to finish.

My conquering of Castlevania was more than just a landmark occurrence in my gaming history--it taught me the true value of difficult-but-thoughtfully-made games and that I was indeed capable of beating them if I would only put in the time to get better. Too, it unlocked my true, repressed feelings for the game, which I always appreciated even if I was ostensibly angry at it; I had to admit that it was more well-designed than I originally gave it credit and that the repeated failings were wholly mine to own. As I played through it again and again, Castlevania began slowly creeping its way up toward the top of my list of favorites. More importantly, it helped elevate the Castlevania brand to the upper echelon of my game-series hierarchy, which had been exclusively occupied by the likes of Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., and a few others. 

Still, there was only one thing missing.

I don't know why it took me so long in following to consider picking up Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, but I remember that my lack of the complete trilogy continued gnawing at me for some time. It was after I'd spent an additional year learning to passionately love my two Castlevania games--my adoration for every pixel of their being hitting its crescendo--that I finally felt motivated enough to scrounge up some cash and grab a copy of it. Truthfully, I couldn't wait to revisit that intriguing world of towns, forests, and other hauntingly eerie locales that had been stuck in my memory for over two years.  

But there was a big problem: It was currently somewhere between late-1990 and early-1991, and the game had been out of print for two years. No store had it in stock--not any of the local joints or the big chains like Toys "R" Us, Electronics Boutique, or Radio Shack. I spent what felt like weeks searching any store that had even the faintness connection to electronics, and I came up empty every time. I even dragged my poor mother into the effort, begging her to drive me around Brooklyn as I surveyed passenger-side store displays, playing lookout for anything rectangular and silver. Every such expedition ended the same way: Nothing. It was as if the game had ceased existing and I was doomed to having a permanent hole in my library.

I had no reason to believe that our last-gasp trip to the Caesar's Bay Bazaar strip mall would turn up anything but more dashed hopes. Not surprisingly, none of the flea-market outlets on the first floor had it in their bins, and all of vendors at the game-centric booths elsewhere acted as if I was requesting photos of the Loch Ness Monster. "Maybe I should forget it," I thought. "I don't think I'll ever find this game." I had resigned myself to this reality and would conclude the fruitless trek by following my mother around as she finished browsing for whatever it was she had no intent on buying. And great--now she wanted to check out the clothes stores on the mall's second level, too. Oh, joy!

As I lagged behind, moping about, it was only by some stroke of luck that I spotted a single copy of Simon's Quest on display at a dimly-lit mom-and-pop store (run by an elderly couple who didn't seem the type to care about video games) buried in the second floor's northeast corner. I joked on my Castlevania site that "Its silver glow called to me like a chalice awaiting its holder," but that description wasn't far off considering the extent of my hunting efforts and how I'd been building the game up in my mind. It was an unbelievable feeling to hold the actual casing in my hands, and I couldn't wait to get home and to start tearing into it.

It was only after I'd read the manual and moved about the game's opening screens that I began to understand its true nature. It wasn't like the first Castlevania at all, as I had sensed back in '89--but this was to an extent even greater than I'd originally realized. I was surprised to learn that it was more like Metroid, whose free-roaming formula had since won me over in a big way; how it altered the series' direction yet retained certain core elements also reminded me of Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which were famous (or infamous) for their divergent shifts in gameplay. I loved that Simon's Quest had its own special traits and standout personality and wasn't simply a retread, which was an uncommon thing despite the ubiquity of the two aforementioned titles in these types of conversations.

However it played, I found the atmosphere of Simon's Quest very alluring. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, outside of the manual's vague explanation, so I spent my first session taking in the sights. I recall uneasily roaming about the hostile towns and conversing with their disparaging citizens, racing past the endless woodland as crawling with bony and slimy savages, taking in its imagination-stirring mountainscapes, and exploring its creepy cave systems and cemeteries. I was disappointed that the game's soundtrack was so light on content, but the limited selection of tunes was every bit iconic and made me feel as though I truly was in dire straits, beset by a cursed world where it wasn't safe to stand around and even the towns were wrought with danger. Though it had since been replicated and executed better, the day-to-night system was a defining feature and added palpable feelings of tension and then relief; the excellent Monster Dance, which augmented the nighttime setting, was truly fear-inducing and something I'd hope not to have to endure for long.

I was a fan of just about all aspects of its art direction, from the memorable cast of monsters to the investigative, labyrinthine feel of its mansions. I remember how the presence of the deadly Two-Headed Creatures as first encountered in the woods left of Jova's left exit always served as a stern warning that I probably wasn't ready to head in this direction. They as well as the Freddies (obviously inspired by horror-movie villain Freddy Kruger), Fire Men, and other unique villains did well to shape Simon's Quest's contrastingly outside-the-castle-walls setting and enrich the game's general atmosphere (I couldn't imagine any of them existing in the original). Even if the process for solving their mysteries was rather simple, I always liked traveling through the mansions, whose maddening theme and exclusive armed skeletal enemies set a worrying tone--a feeling that you might be trapped here forever, destined to join their ranks; the repeated images of long-deceased hanging victims always captured that sense.

There was still a little issue of me not having any idea of how to go about completing the main objective. I got that I had scour the mansions in search of Dracula's five body parts, but I eventually ran out of real-estate to explore. I couldn't find a third mansion even after retracing the entire known map several times over, and I didn't suspect that the shady Ferryman would be hiding anything as important as access to the game's second act. "What the hell am I missing?" I wondered. I had to resort to turning to a new strategy guide I'd recently picked up at a school fair: Jeff Rovin's How to Win at Nintendo Games #3. It's here where I learned how to influence the Ferryman and what I had to do after clearing Brahm's Mansion ("I have to do what to make a 'tornado' appear?"); I was used to this type of game being somewhat opaque, but the initiating sequence of "kneeling down on a cliff for five seconds while holding a red crystal" was some next-level of obscurity. 

How was I supposed to figure that out? Yeah--one of the villagers might have mentioned something of the sort, but the dialogue was so poorly translated that I probably would have had better luck finding the actual Death Star.

Having to consult a guide didn't bother me too much, since I had no intent on exhausting every possible option even if I was 13-year-old with all the time in the world. And truly, even the silliness about having to kneel in front of lakes and summoning tornadoes didn't dampen my experience; I didn't need to understand the villagers' clues, find any hidden books, know the helpful properties of Dracula's parts, or even realize that the game had a leveling system to conclude that I was very much enjoying myself. There were clear design flaws, it had some bad localization (though, I was convinced that prossess was an actual word and probably higher language), the weapon systems maybe weren't fully realized, and--yeah--it may have been a little on the easy side, but I was happily immersed in the world of Simon's Quest and just liked being there. People always argue about graphics versus gameplay, which are both important, but lost in the discussion, I think, is the value of a game's ability to make you feel like you're somehow a part of its world.

I remember the night I finished Simon's Quest. I had finally breached the abandoned, silently disturbing halls of Castlevania (which I didn't yet recognize as having the same main-hall structure from Castlevania due to its general aesthetic differences) when I had to pause the game for a while because my father got home from work and brought me a hamburger on a toasted English muffin. I recall eating it while pacing back and forth through the upstairs hallway, outside my room, while excitedly contemplating what would be waiting for me when I unpaused the game and solved the riddle of Castlevania's ruins. I'm not sure which dining establishment it was from, but I remember that it tasted great and that I never had anything like it again.

That was a good night.

Simon's Quest is a game I don't like rating because it excels only in categories that are probably more important to me than to the average enthusiast. It's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it's difficult to explain what that means to someone who's looking for traditional metrics like "graphics," "sound" and "controls." It's not by any means the series' best entry, but I like it a lot and always look forward to returning to its world. I understand why people feel that it's polarizing, but what pisses me off is that modern opinion of the game is wholly shaped by the Angry Video Game Nerd, whose audience is too dumb to realize that the man is being facetious. Thanks to an army of unthinking dinks, Simon's Quest has been solidly slotted as a "bad" game, and one look at the comments on any related Youtube video will showcase this hideously vapid, ill-formed "opinion"("Man--this game sucks! I know because AVGN said so!").

True to its divergent brethren, its bravery in changing up the formula was a success on two levels: It gave us a unique, evocative Castlevania game, even if it was flawed and maybe a bit disappointing; and, for fans and critics alike, it made the series' eventual return to its classic roots in Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse feel that much more special. If I were to judge it on its own merits, I'd still call Simon's Quest a "classic" game that at the very least deserves credit for its contributions to the action-adventure genre, which would play a big part in Castlevania's future. It's the kind of game you can appreciate without actually liking, and I hope it can reattain such status in the future.

That is the best ending.


1 comment:

  1. I truly believe there are a lot of people who believe the AVGN is James Rolfe, rather than a character PLAYED by James Rolfe. Oh well.

    I love Simon's Quest for similar reasons to yours. The game is oozing with atmosphere, and even if the game is obtuse, the mechanics of the game make it fun to just walk around and explore, even if you aren't sure what you're doing. I think the game's biggest flaw was the choice to make the villagers give you incorrect information - even if it were translated correctly some of it still would have been wrong.

    In a recent video the AVGN looked at a romhack called "Simon's Quest: Redacted," in which the villagers' dialogue was changed to supply the player with ACTUAL hints, and the day-night transition text was sped up so it doesn't slow the game down as much.

    Anyway, make sure you don't look into the Death Star. You'll die.