Rated PG-18 - Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
Halloween is the time of year when two very different groups representing certain lifestyles manifest themselves to their absolute fullest. For the first group, this is the time of year when gays hang out in gay bars wearing buttless leather pants and deep-throat kiss each other in public while other gays dressed like the devil or their favorite female Broadway singers look on, and this is acceptable because it's the one day in the year where they get to legitimately play "dress-up" and get fewer comments from disgusted heterosexuals than usual. This group might also consist of sorority girls dressed like prostitutes and frat boys dressed like pimps, because in college, the only things that are promoted as cool are pimps and alcoholism, even though real pimps with alcoholism end up homeless and begging for change after serving time and repeatedly violating probation. The second group consists of hardcore goth types setting up haunted houses and cutting themselves while listening to death metal, which again is acceptable for the season, and should be promoted for all goths under the condition that they bleed out, thereby controlling the goth population every Halloween. But for fans of the NES, Halloween is the time to turn off the lights, get out the Castlevania trilogy, and whip every ghoul and ghost to death like a slave who stole a Southern landowner's VCR. But if you're planning on a Castlevania marathon, you better set most of your time aside for Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, a game that redefined the action-adventure genre and set the standard for nonlinear gameplay for years to come.
Developed by Konami in 1988, Simon's Quest takes place just after the original game. Dracula, who seems to have anticipated his demise at the hands of Simon Belmont (Belmondo in the first game, which also happens to be a legitimate Romanian surname), places a curse on Transylvania, causing it to become overrun by hordes of demons and the undead. The only one who can break the curse is Simon himself, who must gather five of Dracula's body parts from five haunted mansions and place them on an altar hidden deep within the ruins of his castle, thus resurrecting the Lord of Darkness and enabling Simon to kill him again. I'm not sure why nobody kept track of Dracula's body parts or where Simon left him when he killed him the first time, but one thing's for sure: the Belmonts are not a smart family. For some strange reason, even though it's common knowledge that Dracula tends to resurrect every once in a while, the Belmonts always wait for him to fully regain power, recruit more evil spirits, and remodel his castle complete with brand new death traps. You would think one of them would be smart enough to set up some sort of shift system, where they would watch for any sudden movements in the corpse and whip him to death any time there's even a doubt he's still dead. Even if some construction or an earthquake caused the casket to vibrate, whichever Belmont is on watch should open the casket and start whipping the shit out of him just for good measure.
He'll take you to a good place. HEH! HEH! HEH! I don't know why that's funny. Maybe it's a whorehouse.
Gameplay follows along the same lines as the first title with sidescrolling whip action, but adds several new twists and increases depth to a great extent. Simon's Quest is one of the very first games to work on a time-based system where day transitions to night and back again. Enemies become twice as powerful at night, and all access to merchants and villagers is cut off. The amount of time lapsed up to the end of the game also dictates which of three endings you will get, another major innovation in gameplay. Simon can also increase his strength by collecting a certain number of hearts, which will add to Simon's life bar and build his resistance to damage from enemy attacks. In addition, instead of the run-of-the-mill action format with six stages and six bosses, Simon's Quest takes an almost totally nonlinear approach. Right from the very beginning, Simon must utilize clues and items from townsfolk in the village in order to know where to start. Although some information is bogus, other people might lead you in the right direction and give you solid leads on where to find mansions and how to access them. You will also find some useful clues from each of 13 hidden books. Pay close attention and read between the lines, because even though some clues are written in poorly transrated Engrish, they still might provide you with enough information to break some new ground. Clues like "Clear a path at Berkeley Mansion with a white crystal" will definitely help you, but other ones such as "The curse has killed the laurel tree" don't make any fucking sense at all. It's up to you to sort out the bullshit from the actual help, so it will be of utmost importance to keep your mind working in a way that only a devoted NES player can think of.
Or not. Some of it might just be dumb luck.
Much like any other adventure game, Simon doesn't just start out ready to kick some ass, opting instead to go it alone with a leather whip and an attitude. Again, common sense would indicate being as well-equipped as possible or at least as much as the previous game, but I suppose it's possible Simon pawned that stuff off to support his steroid and amphetamine use, which would explain his ability to carry himself in armor and whip everything in sight nonstop for weeks on end. Common sense would also indicate that the Transylvanian people (known affectionately by Hungarians as "Trannies") would assist Simon in any way to be rid of the trouble of friends and family members being eaten alive by zombies and lizard men, but we must consider the heavy gypsy population and understand the importance of a merchant culture where wealth is unevenly distributed. Sure, Simon would greatly benefit from just being given holy water and a morning star whip, but a gypsy's gotta eat. You want holy water? 50 BUCKS, ASSHOLE. Luckily, enemies often leave behind hearts when killed, which are not only used for weapon and item use, but also as a form of currency in order to upgrade whips or buy other items.
Well, if you'd give them to me for free, I'd like that. Oh yeah. Gypsy.
Although Simon gets charged an outrageous amount for weapon and item upgrades, most are well worth the time and trouble. Simon has access to a previously unprecedented amount of special items to assist him in killing enemies and uncovering hidden passages, clues, or weapons. Early use of holy water is highly recommended, since it not only clears away certain blocks to gain access to other areas and uncovers clues to Dracula's riddle, but will also fall through false blocks and reveal them to be pitfalls, which will be vital in order to survive in the mansions. Speaking of the mansions, it's important to save up enough hearts to buy an oak stake, which just happens to be sold by a gypsy merchant in each of the mansions to unlock Dracula's body parts. Some of these guys are so dedicated that they'll put themselves just over spiked pits or Transylvania's ever-dangerous zero-buoyancy water in which Transylvanians, even Belmondos, will instantly drown. On the plus side, mansions are some of the only locations where time stands still, allowing you to collect hearts and gain levels at will.
Collecting all of Dracula's body parts will allow you access to the ruins of the castle, and some of these parts have different effects when equipped. For example, being in prossession of Dracula's rib also means you can use it as a shield to block some forms of enemy fire, and Dracula's eyeball gives Simon the ability to see Dracula's riddle books without use of holy water. The weapons and items found throughout the game have some awesome effects, and the variety of items at your disposal had never really been matched up to this game's release. Weapons such as the Sacred Flame and gold dagger will come in very handy against the tougher enemies, and you will also find some good use out of garlic and laurels. The whip upgrades kick as much ass as any game has ever featured before. Once Simon manages to get the morning star whip and you thought he couldn't get any stronger, finding the Flame Whip will send you over the top. All of a sudden, you'll start wishing for night to fall and realize how wonderful a night it truly is to have a curse.
Progression to the kickass stage of Simon's development will not come so easily, though. There will be numerous instances where you'll find yourself wondering where to go or what to do in order to find the path to the next mansion. Pay close attention to any and all clues from books or townsfolk, and try absolutely everything you can think of. Equip different items before talking to people. Kneel in some places for long periods of time. Commit suicide if you have to. Simon's Quest is one of those games where patience pays off, and it honestly feels legitimately rewarding to discover how to pass through some areas assuming you're not using a guidebook. Just accept at the outset that you're not going to be spoonfed and pampered along the way with extensive tutorials and menus. There isn't much focus on boss fights in this game, however, so chances are, if you can find out how to get to the few bosses in your way, you can figure out how to dispose of them without much hassle, even when it comes to Dracula himself. Most of the gameplay involves solving mysteries and uncovering new routes, so the slow pace remains constant even in fights.
Now you realize the power I prossess.
The graphics in Simon's Quest are some of the best in the entire NES library. Simon dons a new set of armor in this one, with the black and red color scheme making him look like less of a Cleveland Browns fan. The animation of the Flame Whip is awesome, and the use of the Sacred Flame is equally cool. There is a wide variety of creative enemy designs, some of which are unique to Simon's Quest alone, such as the fire monster, Freddy, and the floating giant eyeballs. Backgrounds are richly detailed, with the added color scheme of night throughout the countryside, although this mostly consists of various blues and greens.
There are only a few select music tracks, but again they are among the very best of the NES. The daytime countryside music, also known by name as "Bloody Tear," has been reimplemented in just about every post-NES Castlevania game to date. The mansion and night tracks are also pretty catchy, and it's a shame there haven't been more versions of them since. The sound effects are typical NES fare, although there are few more pleasing sounds than hearing that Flame Whip being cracked on a mummy's face. Even though it's likely you'll hear and see much of the same thing for hours and hours assuming you're just learning where to go, it never really gets boring. Simon's Quest is one of the most aesthetically perfect games on the NES, and you'll definitely notice this once it all wraps up.
Dracula: "Beware, Simon! Beware my penis! It's... THIS BIG!! MWAHAHAHA!"
Simon: "OH MY GOD! I'M FUCKED!!"
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Simon's Quest is one of the all-time classic NES games, and remains a timeless masterpiece despite lots of negative reviews on the internet and some unfavorable words from gaming magazine reviewers' revisionist history in "retro" reviews. What most of them fail to realize is that this game set the standard for future adventure games and utilized nonlinear gameplay to its limit with a number of weapons, items, secrets and strategies. Don't believe the bad press. Simon's Quest is all about keeping you thinking and on your toes, and figuring out where to go or what to do is one of the most rewarding gaming experiences you'll ever have assuming you haven't been cheating by using a guide. Go find it. Go play it. Go kick the naysayers in the groin after knocking on their door and scream "TRICK OR TREAT, MOTHERFUCKER!!!" in their face while they're doubled over in pain. It's worth it in the end.
See? Now is a perfect time to just start with a holy water/garlic/whip the hand.