Sunday, May 15, 2016

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

In early 1987, Nintendo released Zelda II, which took the formula of the first Zelda game and turned it on its side, converting the game into something more akin to an action RPG than a sprawling adventure game. Konami must have looked at that and thought, "Say, that's a great idea!" because several months later they churned out the sequel to their classic game from the frustration genre, Castlevania. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is not like that first game in most of the ways that matter, which occasionally manages to be a good thing. All the same, it's a game with Castlevania in the title, so I went in with expectations accordingly low.

Town church.One of the first things you notice about Castlevania II is the first sentence of the game booklet's introduction, which reads "You are Simon Belmont, bravest of the brave, boldest of the bold, a gothic warrior respected by kings." Wait wait wait. Simon Belmont? What happened to SeƱor Belmondo, Matador to the Stars? You can't just up and change someone's name and nationality like that! This is all very disorienting. More disorienting is the fact that when you boot up the game, instead of appearing in some old haunted castle or something like you might expect, you're standing in the middle of a town with people milling about. That's right: like Zelda II before it, Simon's Quest has a map full of villages with chattable townsfolk. The analogues go on, as the towns will often have peddlers in basements selling you equipment (see Zelda's creepy wizards) and churches to restore your health to full (see Zelda's brothels). Usually though, every house you walk into is just empty. Transylvania looks like it's been largely abandoned by everyone who did more than just pace back and forth all day, and really, who could blame them?

Now, I know what you're thinking. Between non-combat areas and actual dialogue, this doesn't feel like the kind of torture I expected another Castlevania title to be, right? Wrong. As you waltz without a care through that starting town, you'll fall into a small canal, which was built with no bridge, for no reason. And then you'll drown instantly, because this is a Castlevania game. Make no mistake about that. Heck, when you first try to leave the town you'll be immediately bombarded with fireballs spit by lizardmen until you retreat in the other direction. Castlevania II isn't messing around. Once you realize that, it's time to start Simon's Quest. What is that quest anyway? Looking back at the instruction booklet, it seems that some time after you killed Dracula in the first game, a "beautiful maiden" appeared to you, and told you that you'd been possessed by "Dracula's curse." Whatever that means. She tasked you with finding Dracula's body parts, which were buried in separate mansions specifically to help prevent his return, and gather them up to have a fun lil' bonfire. Sure. So you'll take a glance at your map to get your bearings and...oh no. Don't do that to me, Konami. Why would you make a sprawling quest game and then not give me a map? Why is this such a hard concept to grasp? It's not like Simon himself would just show up here without a map to guide him. Why make virtual Simon wander blind?

Whipping monsters over lava.So, wander you will. You'll cross area after area of monster infested terrain, fighting all kinds of horrors. Mostly just skeletons of various colors, though. And like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles after it, enemies respawn as soon as their spawn point is on the screen. So while you may have killed those flying eyeballs, the moment you turn around and take a few steps, they're back. But it's not the floating eyeballs you need to worry about. It's - shockingly - not even the medusa heads, which return in a vastly less deadly form. No, Castlevania II is all about the forest spiders. These things crawl around the treetops, occasionally lowering themselves a little bit in order to launch projectile webs at you. Please note that I said "webs," and not "webbing," because these spiders launch fully-formed octagonal webs, every time. When you get more than one on the screen, it turns into a deadly game of dodgeball. Except that these balls can hit you multiple times. That's right: if a web hits you it may well knock you back into that same web again and again. It's brutal. And sadly, unlike Link in his second quest, Simon has not yet learned what the word "up" means, and therefore can still only attack directly in front of him.

So you travel through the spider forests and past a stage the manual literally calls "The Bridge over the River DIE," which goes about how you might expect, and you end up at a giant lake. Giant, in this case, meaning it's a little less than a full screen across. You, being a champion vampire hunter, have still not learned how to swim, so this is effectively a dead end. Now what? I guess you just turn back and look for answers elsewhere. So you cross your fingers and head back the way you came, killing skeletons and merely surviving spiders, taking alternate routes until you at last luck into a new screen. It's a big mansion with an inviting open door. All right! Finally the first dungeon! Time to make some progress, right? Nope. You walk in and it's just a drop into more death water. There's a hallway above you, but you have no way to get there. So...yeah. Stuck again, haha! Better roam that ol' countryside some more!

Death by Death Star.So what's your recourse here? Well, as it turns out, the dialogue from the townspeople in Castlevania II is actually useful (present picture notwithstanding). Everyone you talk to in the towns will give you some sort of clue for how to advance forward. Granted, most of it is hopelessly confusing without a map to help you figure out which place they're talking about, but still. You'll storm through the towns and get all sorts of insight about things that don't make sense to you at the moment. But more importantly, you'll find a bunch of peddlers selling you things like whip upgrades or a mysterious white crystal. It turns out that, by equipping that white crystal, you can see something hidden. As in, one hidden thing. And that hidden thing is a moving platform in that dungeon that lets you access the place. It's a rotten waste of time, and you'd never know that's what you need to do, but there it is. You're welcome.

Not that things get much better on the ignorance front when you actually get into that first mansion. The place is peppered with illusory floors that you'll just fall through, having to repeat large sections of it just to return to your previous spot. And there's no way to know or predict which floor tiles are real and which aren't, so you'll likely be retreading your frustrated steps repeatedly. One such fake floor occurs right before the end of the dungeon, and actually sends you through a gauntlet of enemies to even make it back to the dungeon's start, from where you naturally do the entire thing over again. Castlevania: where just sending you back to the start is too generous. When you finally make it through to the end, you see that the "boss" is just a pulsating orb that you can't interact with in any way. You had to take a side path earlier in the level to find a peddler selling oak stakes and buy one. Then you throw that at the orb (after you find your way back again!) and you're greeted with a victory message: "YOU NOW PROSSESS DRACULA'S RIB." Lovely. Thanks for that.

Side spikes.With all the enemies you'll be fighting through and all the times you'll have to redo the dungeons because "Sike! That floor ain't real bro!" it's nice to know that a few combat things have improved in Simon's Quest. First, your health bar actually functions like a health bar now. In the first game, you had a similar looking health bar but it was a sham because you always died in four hits, from anything. Here, you'll take different levels of damage from different attacks, with the smallest being what amounts to half a "line" of the health meter. That's a big deal! I can work with that! Second, you can equip secondary items now. In the first game, finding a secondary weapon meant discarding the one you had, but in Castlevania II you get them all. You can equip whatever is right for the situation and use that with confidence, knowing your other options are available if you need them. Finally, continues have been made more generous in this sequel. Instead of starting you at the beginning of the level with nothing, using a continue starts you right around your previous location, with all your gear intact. It's a big change and one that makes it very tolerable to slog through difficult areas of the game, so credit where credit is due.

The one thing you will lose upon use of a continue is your supply of hearts. Hearts in the first game were just the ammunition supply for your secondary weapons (and a source of tinnitus at the end of every level). Here they also serve that function, but they don't serve it exclusively. Hearts are also the currency of the game, which is a little creepy I suppose, but this is Transylvania, so I'll allow it. In addition, hearts function as a sort of experience point system. If you're in an area that the game deems a suitable challenge for you given your current progress, collecting hearts from slain monsters will yield experience. When you hit certain threshholds, your maximum health and your damage resistance will improve. You'll also be restored to full life, which is very helpful in a pinch, since there isn't roast chicken lying around anymore. The one baffling thing about the heart system is that the game's menu displays four digits for your heart count, but the maximum you can hold at any time is 256. Why bother putting that extra digit there, guys?

Mask Boss.Ultimately, despite the clues you get from various village people, Castlevania II really just boils down to a grand guessing game. You never really know where you're supposed to be going next, and worse, when you get there you don't really know what you need to do to progress. Often it's equipping a specific item and performing a specific action, but these secrets are typically reserved for books hidden in the walls of the dungeons. And you can only get them by throwing holy water at the walls and hoping it dissolves them. For that matter, all those abandoned houses I mentioned at the start of the review? Yeah, if you chuck holy water at the floors and walls, you'll find secret passages to hiding salesmen, many of whom are necessary to complete the game. There is no indication anywhere in-game that you will be required to flood people's houses one vial at a time; it's just assumed that you will.

Even beyond just your secondary weapons, the bits of Dracula you recover can themselves have uses that aren't obvious. That rib you now "prossess?" Turns out when you hold up Dracula's rib bone, it turns into a wooden shield! Who knew, right? Other things are way more obtuse, like a crystal that requires you to crouch in place at a specific wall so that a tornado can come whisk you through a mountain. OK! The point is, playing this game without a guide is just a big exercise in trial and error, which really dampens the enjoyment of the whole thing.

And speaking of dampening enjoyment, there's one other little tidbit I should mention. See everything above? As in, everything I've mentioned in this entire review. Throw it out the window, because IT'S A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE. That's right, friends! Castlevania II has a "real time clock" that doesn't work in real time. Every twelve hours of game time, day turns to night or vice versa. This happens suddenly, with the game interrupting whatever you were doing to give you the all-caps important news bulletin. You can only interact with people or enter houses during the day. So what do you do during the night? Why, you kill monsters with double health, of course! The nightly curse (and really, is any night a good night to have a curse?) increases the number of monsters while doubling their health. Towns become overrun with green ghouls. If you get to a town in desperate need of a little faith healing and it turns 6 PM right as you get there? Prepare yourself for 12 hours of ghoul defense instead. Just...ugh. "Day/Night cycles" is one of those ideas that sounds really interesting and novel, and then just sucks in practice. I appreciate your intent here, Konami, but this mechanic is bad.

Dracula in 8 or 5 bits.If you manage to solve all the "puzzles" of the Transylvanian landscape, retrieve the body parts from all five mansions, and not take a sledgehammer to your system at the ninth straight horrible night to have a curse, you'll still need to locate Dracula's castle to finish the game. This is tricky, because there's no new route opened up anywhere that will point you in the right direction. Rather, they just superimposed some new screens on top of the ones that have always been there, so you kind of stumble across it unexpectedly and with a lot of confusion, assuming you find the place at all. The castle itself is completely deserted, but that doesn't mean it's not problematic. The entire thing consists of a pseudo-labyrinth of stairs. To get from the top floor to the basement - where you need to burn those vampire bits - takes like five minutes of monotonous stairs-ing. Finally you reach the bottom and the altar upon which you attempt to incinerate Dracula's remains. And instead, as Dracula is wont to do, he revives.

Now I want to be clear here. The revelation that Dracula, now looking remarkably like an animated Batman villain, was reanimated instead of destroyed by your little quest teaches you four key things. First, whoever that weird maiden was is a dirty rotten liar. Second, Simon Belmont is a big gullible doofus. Third, if you die on Dracula, you're going to have to go through that whole mess of stairs again, and that's tragic. And finally and most importantly, a body can be comprised solely of an eye, a heart, a rib, a fingernail, and a piece of jewelry. That's all you need. We've been going through life with all this excess baggage for ages, totally needlessly!

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, like its predecessor, isn't a great game. But it's sort of hard to even compare them to one another, because they just feel so different. Whereas the first game was very linear and level/boss focused, Castlevania II feels like it's not focused at all. Some of that makes for a more compelling time: the ideas of interactive townspeople, shops, and selectable equipment all contribute nicely to the game's fun factor. The basic design of the plot and progression, however, is pretty bad. In this case, from a strict scoring perspective, the good outweighs the bad for Simon's Quest and makes it a "better" game than the first Castlevania. That's not high praise though, and I'd still recommend skipping it regardless. I mean, when you beat it, you get an ending based on how quickly you finished the game. The best possible ending specifically shows Dracula coming back again! It's all so pointless. The middle ending even kills Simon for no reason. The "worst" ending is actually the best! This game is so backwards I don't know even how to feel about it. At least the music is on point. Maybe Castlevania just needs to be turned into a rhythm game. It'd probably be terrible, but I'd still try it. What can I say? I'm a glutton for punishment.

Bottom Line: 11/20