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NES

 

Genre

Platformer

 

Publisher

Konami

 

Developer

Konami

 

Released

1988

 

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Castlevania 2

 

castlevania-2-1.gif (9360 bytes)          castlevania-2-2.gif (6139 bytes)

 

Yes, Simon Belmont is well and truly cursed.  Although he was successful in vanquishing Dracula, thereby assuming command of the in-game space of Castlevania (and demolishing it), it seems a festering affliction flowed from the Count’s body into Simon with the killing stroke.  The back of the game’s box, the manual, the in-game information, are all extremely vague about the nature of this plague -- but fortunately a game counselor once explained it to a curious friend of mine.  It’s a real curse of empathy: apparently Simon will feel the stabbing pain of a stake through his heart, every moment of every day of the rest of his life – the pain gradually increasing over time before it kills him.  This strangely has no effect on Simon’s in-game abilities or health, but from the first image we can tell that he’s cursed (and it’s not just because he’s been infused with Dracula’s own colors: deathly white, ominous black, crimson blood red).  It’s a very nifty, barely noticeable effect – the game opens, and instead of Simon, a row of towering buildings and houses dominate the screen for a second (they blot out the sky) while the camera actually tilts down to reveal the comparatively puny, insignificant main character.  It’s the polar opposite of the confident, possessive gaze Simon leveled at Dracula’s castle in the previous game’s opening.  His luck has clearly taken a turn for the worse.  But that’s not the only way the jinx afflicting him manifests itself – not by a long shot.  How shall we count the ways?

 

Simon Belmont is cursed through his associations.  Since its release in 1988, Simon’s Quest has often generated comparison to various other games with a similar off-hand design – but unfortunately these comparisons have created a fairly inaccurate context for Simon’s Quest which I think misrepresents what the game is.  Metroid is the most common frame of reference, which I think is an interesting example in theory, since Metroid and Castlevania, though vastly different as games, were originally two sides of the same coin: Metroid basically the first game to create a vast, continuous on-screen space, Castlevania the first to create a unified sense of architecture in that space.  But Metroid was so free-flowing in its creation of more and more space that there were hardly ever any dead-ends, and it was very easy to get utterly lost.  In fact, I think that was what made Metroid so much fun; finishing the game was almost besides the point (the designers clearly weren’t interested in the final section of Metroid, Tourian).  But Castlevania 2 isn’t like Metroid at all; at all times you can really only go either left or right endlessly, and even then that choice is often an illusion (just try going “left” out of the first town and see what happens).  Nor does collecting any in-game item help expand the space as it does in Metroid or even Rygar: a lot of the items you end up retrieving, in fact, like a ricocheting diamond, have only a rudimentary novelty factor at best (I can only hope it helped Simon turn Pinballvania into the latest fad).  The game also contains a relatively hackneyed experience/level-up system (possibly leading you to think it’s a first-generation role-playing title), but as it’s so crudely done and has virtually no noticeable effect on the game it’s hardly worth mentioning.

 

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In this manner is Simon Belmont cursed by his land.  Although the fact that the countryside of Castlevania is merely one endless, left-to-right, wrap-around loop drastically cuts back on the thrill of discovery, its attendant psychological sense of entrapment, of being walled helplessly onto a path that you cannot deviate from, is palpable, and in my

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opinion, more effective.  I love the dreadful backgrounds of Simon’s Quest in the same way.  Every forest in the game is composed of a single tree, replicated thousands of times over and placed next to each other in such a way that no light seeps through; all that is visible is a hypnotic expanse of tree.  The same goes for the mountains, graveyards, and virtually every other location in Simon’s Quest.  The sameness is deadening, and you gradually become numb and listless in the face of the scenery.

 

Simon Belmont is cursed by his fellow man.  Since Castlevania 2 now takes place in an entire country as opposed to just a castle, that means a lot of towns and even more people who live there.  When you consider that popular RPG titles like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy had yet to be released in America, the level of interaction on display here in Simon’s Quest was unprecedented.  And since most of the areas outside of the towns are so straightforward, I suspect the player was meant to spend the majority of the game time mentally puzzling through the ubiquitous “Dracula’s Riddle” (whatever that might be!) with the clues proffered by the townsfolk.  It’s too bad they all seem to have in it for Simon.  Castlevania 2 is replete with…unintuitive actions, the type that you’d need to be told about to be able to try.  Despite the game’s nefarious reputation, every necessary task is obliquely referred to and clarified at some point (though the most important clues can only be found in hard-to-find books) – but good luck trying to decipher what the villagers are referring to in their messages; just try to remember to throw the clove of garlic before you whip the third gravestone from the left, kneel for five seconds, and leap backwards.  And even then are the other, unhelpful people – women only interested in turning tricks, old men trying to sell you their daughter or, worst of all, those who feed you false information.  Fortunately, the liars always seem to be making reference to actions which are physically impossible in the game, so it’s not too hard to dismiss what’s inaccurate.

 

castlevania-2-3.gif (8357 bytes)         castlevania-2-4.gif (6616 bytes)

 

Simon Belmont is cursed by the flow of time.  Although I learned not, or never bothered, to pay attention to them, ticking clocks were the rule in side-scrollers.  You could play the perfect game, but your character would still die the same as if he’d been struck down when it hit zero, and he’d be reset at a checkpoint (I suppose it was the game character’s version of battle fatigue).  There is still a timer in Simon’s Quest counting down to the ominous nightfall, but when it comes…nothing happens…to Simon.  He instead voices his existentialist angst at suffering with his pain, the screen fades to black, only to reload with him exactly where he was.  The sweet reprieve of death doesn’t come for Mr. Belmont; he gets no recess of any kind.  Over time I find the constant rising and setting of the sun to have a numbing, insomniac effect on the player, making you long for a short rest.  Experientially, like the background design, it’s quite effective.

 

Technically, even the soundtrack is out for Simon’s head-on-a-platter…However, as the soundtrack for Simon’s Quest ranks as one of my five or six favorite video game soundtracks of all time, it doesn’t seem right to phrase it that way.  Like the visual design of the game, the songs are fairly repetitive -- in the sense that they start over a bit sooner than the average song might.  But what’s really worth mentioning about the musical score is that all six or seven of the various pieces make heavy use of a sharp percussive beat -- a sound spectrum I can’t recall being used in any other Nintendo game, and every song here leans heavily on it.  I find that the repetitive beats are so deep and forceful that they reverberate in my chest, as if something is pounding against the inside of my rib cage.  Someone really knew what they were doing when it came to designing the visual and aural aspects of Castlevania 2.  And the music is still about as incredible as any soundtrack could ever hope to be.

 

Yet, despite the tranquilizing sense of sameness that permeates the majority of Simon’s Quest, the game really transforms itself in its final legs.  Since all of the information provided in Castlevania 2 is in some way important (even the false leads always make reference to things you need to know about), I feel compelled to bring up an extremely unusual tidbit pertaining to the eradication of the curse – in fact, the information comes from one of the secret books randomly concealed throughout Simon’s Quest within false blocks, where the most important counsel is usually found.  The book eagerly proclaims, “Destroy the curse and you’ll rule Brahm’s Mansion!”  It’s a fascinatingly evocative though seemingly irrelevant message, and I spent some time wondering what was so crucial about that information that it needed to be discovered (and why couldn’t I pick my own mansion; I didn’t like the color of Brahm’s).  The only thing distinctive I could find about that manor was that the Grim Reaper lived there, but the significance of that didn’t really register with me immediately.

 

Not until the very last stage of the game, the ruins of Castlevania – at which point the games pulls several unorthodox technical tricks, very subtle ones, in an attempt to drastically refit the game experience -- to present this environment differently from all the others in Simon’s Quest.  First, the game “starts over” – when Simon first enters the remains of Dracula’s keep, the camera again focuses on a higher plane and tilts down before stopping on him (this striking effect only occurs at these two times in the game).  For the first time, the game is using partly-recycled background from the original Castlevania; I enjoy the irony, in that only as you enter the desiccated seat of all evil do you suddenly feel comfortable (after the stultifying backgrounds of the rest of Simon’s Quest).  In much the same way, for the first time the music shifts from a hectic, frantic beat to a far more regal, stately (though still heavily percussive) melody; it plays you in to the castle like the beloved returning monarch come home to roost (which is, in a way, quite accurate).  Every screen in Castlevania 2 swarms with monsters (even the towns are infested with zombies) save this one; you are the sole ruler of this enormous space.  And the stones of Castlevania glow a mesmerizing radioactive purple; it was so distinctive I was forced to think where I had seen it before – the Grim Reaper was the same color – which is when I finally realized that he was Dracula’s second-in-command, and I would be taking his place when the curse was destroyed.

 

Now suddenly Simon’s Quest made a lot of sense to me.  Over the years I’d finished the game about five times, and had actually seen all three of the multiple endings, but I kept thinking I was watching the same one since they all took place at Dracula’s grave.  The relationship between these endings is fascinating as well; apparently, the reward for doing the best possible job in the game is watching Dracula rise from the grave, while the “worst ending” has the dread vampire rest in peace.  Is Simon’s Quest then meant to be some form of initiation ritual, with Belmont proving his worthiness to take Death’s place at Dracula’s side?  As with the original Castlevania, I find the box-art somewhat revealing: Dracula looking down at the whipping main character beneath him, but Simon isn’t facing him; his lash is directed out towards whoever’s holding the game box (who would probably want to vanquish Dracula…).  What a horrid curse for the savior of Castlevania: condemned to die in agonizing pain if he doesn’t revive Dracula, bound to his will if he does.  Thankfully Konami spared us the grisly details in Castlevania 3 and instead shifted the focus to the protagonist’s ancestor Trevor Belmont; I wouldn’t want to see Simon as a boss in the clock tower.

 

Brendan Lynch

(September 23, 2006)

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