Monday, March 22, 2010

Videogame Classics - Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest - Konami for NES - 10/10

Hooray! Everybody has a number of classic games that they wait eagerly for. They buy themselves a couple Wii Classic Controllers just for the occasion. Well, folks, here's mine.

A little backstory for everyone first. As a teenager, Castlevania was my favorite videogame series. This was sometimes contested by Super Mario and Contra and Ninja Gaiden, but it always came back to this. It was also a favorite with many of my oldest friends from Duluth, Minnesota. If you were sick of the winter weather that day - and, kids, this was back in the day when we actually had winters...back when we had polar ice caps - just turn on the Nintendo, then turn it off, then turn it on and off again, then pull out the cartridge and blow on the ends, then pop it back in, turn it on....and start playing.

Um, yeah, by the way? If you ever find the person who actually designed the NES, please punch him in the stomach for me. Anyway, let's get back...

Castlevania! It's part gothic, part monster movie, part serious, part jokey, and all hardcore gamer fun. These were the tough games, the ones you blistered your fingers trying to beat. Just how are you supposed to get through all those armored knights? Slash, slash, jump, that's how. You have to be fast, too. This becomes something of a bonding experience for everyone involved. Many grownups assumed that one person is playing, and all the friends are merely watching, but that's not the case. We're all in this together. Castlevania's the prime example in my case.

Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest was my favorite NES game. It still is. Played it to death through high school, at least until we all got to that point where were were all hopelessly stuck. This is a fiendishly tough game. Like many Nintendo games of its day, it's more of an adventure quest than an arcade game. Blaster Master, Rygar, Zelda, Guardian Legend - just a few titles off the top of my head. The NES couldn't compete on the graphics front, so developers resorted to deep, lengthy adventures instead. It was the smarter choice, I think. This is why I often lament the poor choice in Virtual Console titles for the NES. Some of its best games have never been bettered, because technology enabled software makers to take a simpler route.

I've discovered over the years that Simon's Quest has a mixed reputation because of this. Many gamers prefer the straighforward action of the original Castlevania, and they felt Konami strayed from their roots. As it turns out, everyone has it completely backward. The long-running series began, not with Castlevania (or Demon Castle Dracula, as it's known in Japan), but as Vampire Killer on the MSX computer. The game was an adventure game, using single screens instead of a scrolling environment. The settings were identical to the first Castlevania, only with different arrangements and a more adventure-minded style.

There's actually a bit of dispute about this, since Vampire Killer and the Castlevania we all know both appeared within weeks of each other. You could say that this was the stripped-down version, created due to the MSX's scrolling limitations. However, Symphony of the Night challenges all that. Now, the Castlevania series follows in the mold of MSX Vampire Killer and NES Simon's Quest.

In any case, it's far easier to appreciate Simon's Quest today, after all the post-Symphony titles in the series. I can't imagine what any fan would find wanting. There's just as much to fight and just as many enemies to kill. Only now you're fighting through the forests and villages of Transylvania, and stuggling to figure out where all those other castles are hiding.

For me, this was the greatest thing about Simon's Quest - it's atmosphere. There's such a wonderful Bavarian style to these lands, to the designs of the towns, the way everything is build with those damn stone blocks. It was the most compelling and believable game world I had seen up to that point. People walking by are always eager to offer advice or hints; I was floored when I discovered that most of what these people have to say is, frankly, bullshit. Ahem.

This is a great sendup of all those adventure and role-playing games in which every civilian has some key piece of information that's useful only to you, and only at that moment. It's all so contrived. Konami clearly felt so, and they decided to mess with our heads. This is a great game for messing with heads. You can explore most of the countryside, find such things as flames for your morning star, or secret books, or crystal balls. But you'll be damned if you can ever get beyond that first castle. Dracula's first castle is a gimmie, it's right out on the main road. The others are deftly hidden away. It took me and my peer group years to finally figure it out.

Sure, you boast that you won't get stumped. Then again, you can just go online and look at the solutions at gamefaqs. Heck, most major games have cheat books that walk you by the hand all the way through. You have an easy out. Kind of defeats the whole point of playing an adventure game, I would argue. We didn't have those options in the late '80s. The solution to discovering Dracula's second castle relied upon a gameplay maneuver that wasn't even revealed in the instruction book. You were just expected to solve it yourself. You kids today are coddled.

If you can somehow withhold the temptation to reach for those easy cheats, you'll really see how challenging and mysterious Simon's Quest truly is. Like most adventure games, and most riddles, it loses a degree of mystique once the secret is revealed, so it's far more rewarding to struggle and sweat it out by yourselves. I don't even want you reading the Simon's Quest strategy guide I wrote for the first issue of V, my old zine. No! Bad toad! Bad toad!

Like all the classic Castlevanias (meaning, frankly, all the ones before Symphony), this game is deeply challenging without ever feeling unfair. You're never placed into an impossible situation, nor left underpowered against foes. It's a brilliant example of game design from the NES era, just as it's a perfect example of Konami's skill. This series may have long since lost its lustre, but back then, the NES days? Konami were the kings back then, baby. They were the kings.

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