When I wrote about Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter, I celebrated finally getting my timeline in order for this series. I had started haphazardly, playing things and then realizing I should add other games that had come before, resulting in awkward jumps back and forth in time. With that post, however, I had finally finished playing catch up, and everything should have been in nice chronological order moving forward. But it only took one more post — about Sega’s Master System game Lord of the Sword — to make me realize I had to jump back in time again. Lord of the Sword’s design, which is basically an action platformer game but set in an open world inspired by role-playing games, reminded me of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, a game I really should have covered already. I wrote about Metroid, after all, and Simon’s Quest is the game that added the “vania” to Metroid to create the “metroidvania” genre.
Originally released in Japan in August 1987 for the Famicom Disk System (with an American release for the Nintendo Entertainment System arriving in December 1988), Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest slots after Cleopatra no Mahou and before The Magic of Scheherazade in this series. I didn’t cover the first Castlevania game, and I don’t intend to. Most of the Castlevania games are straight arcade-style action platformers, with a sequence of increasingly challenging stages to play through. I’ve played a few of them, and they’re fun, but often very difficult, and I never got that far in them. Instead, I gravitated towards the few entries in the series that actually qualify as metroidvanias, with an open world to explore and upgrades to find that allow access to new areas. The most famous of these is Castlevania: Symphony of the Night which released in 1997, but the first was Simon’s Quest.
I’ve actually never played the first Castlevania, but I did own Simon’s Quest as a kid. Or maybe I just semi-permanently borrowed it from a friend; I definitely played it a friend’s house first. Either way, I got pretty far in the game back then, but never finished it. I was simultaneously excited and afraid to play it again, because I remember it being frustrating. Returning now, I had a much better time, in part because I remembered a surprising number of the secrets that must be uncovered to progress in the game. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Castlevania series follows members of the Belmont clan of vampire hunters in their generations-long battle against Dracula. Simon’s Quest picks up where the first game left off: Simon Belmont has defeated Dracula… or did he? He finds himself afflicted by Dracula’s curse, slowly corrupting his soul. The only way to break the curse is to find the five body parts of Dracula, which are scattered around Transylvania, and burn them in Dracula’s castle. So, he once again picks up the Belmonts’ ancestral weapon, the fabled Vampire Killer, imbued with magic that makes it deadly to Dracula and his minions. But this is no magical sword or wooden stake, oh no. The Vampire Killer is… a whip.
I do not know where developers Konami got the idea of battling Dracula with a whip, of all things. Does anyone actually fight with a whip? It must be the single most unwieldy melee weapon. But Konami were on to something, because it feels great to use in the games. Pressing the button to attack causes Simon to heft the whip behind him before striking, so there’s a tiny delay between the button press and the attack. That sounds like it would be annoying, but it’s actually incredibly satisfying. Attacks go whip-CRACK, whip-CRACK, the windup making them feel weighty and powerful. The whip also has a decently long reach compared to melee combat in other platformers. In Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Wonder Boy In Monster Land, both platformers with role-playing elements that preceded Simon’s Quest, the heroes need to get uncomfortably close to enemies to land their sword strikes. But Simon can engage at medium range, allowing for more interesting positioning during combat.
When researching for this post I expected to learn that Simon’s Quest was inspired by those games, and maybe also by Metroid, but the designers at Konami actually cite The Maze of Galious, released in 1987 for the Japanese MSX home computer (and later getting a Famicom port), as their main inspiration. I’ve never played this, but I have played the original freeware version of La-Mulana which is strongly inspired by The Maze of Galious. La-Mulana feels pretty different than Castlevania to play, although its protagonist does start with a whip (which I think is inspired by Indiana Jones). I do see some similarity in the way exploration works, however, especially the devious secrets (don’t worry, I’m still going to get to those) and the vertical elements of most locations.
Whatever its source of inspiration, Simon’s Quest changes the game structure drastically compared to the first Castlevania game. Gone are the pre-set stages. Instead, Simon travels the countryside of Transylvania via interconnected scrolling areas. Many only scroll left and right, but many more also scroll vertically, with the stairways returning from the first game to allow Simon to reach higher ledges. These stairs everywhere, and I’ve never seen anything quite like them in other games, so to me they feel quintessentially Castlevania. I remembered them being annoying to use, but was surprised to find I didn’t mind them this time around. Climbing or descending stairs is slow and prevents Simon from jumping, but he moves slowly and deliberately in general, so this doesn’t disrupt the flow of play. Even Simon’s jumps are deliberate: there’s no air control, so if he jumps forwards he’s locked into a forward arc, even if it puts him on a collision course with an enemy or a pit. Simon’s Quest is a game where players must think before they act.
The stairs mean that there’s much more vertical exploration than in most platformers. The mansions in which Dracula’s body parts are hidden are large areas crisscrossed with stairs and platforms and many hidden traps, and the correct route through them is not always clear. In most platformers, it’s fairly obvious where to go, but the mansions in Simon’s Quest manage to be more maze-like, as I believe The Maze of Galious was. Some stairs might lead to dead ends, or separate passageways, or areas where walls or floors can be destroyed to open an unexpected path. This is compounded by the fact that Simon must locate a hooded figure in each mansion and purchase a wooden stake from them, needed to access Dracula’s body part which is hidden elsewhere in the mansion. So each mansion hides two things Simon must find.
The towns that Simon can visit also feature lots of stairs, often having entire upper “floors” with their own sets of buildings and people to converse with. Here Simon can get clues for his quest, buy special items and upgrades, poke around in a few buildings, and heal at the church before setting off into the wilderness once more. Special items are also carryovers from the first Castlevania, where they granted Simon alternate attacks that could reach enemies his whip could not. In that game (and in most Castlevania games) these special items consume hearts when used, which can be collected by defeating enemies or extinguishing candles. In Simon’s Quest, hearts are a currency, which he uses to purchase new special items, consumables, or upgrades to his whip (his lowly leather whip can become a chain whip, a morning star, or even a magical flaming whip).
I’d completely forgotten that collecting hearts also earns Simon experience points, which let him level up. New experience levels alternately grant Simon better resistance to damage or more maximum health. This is briefly mentioned in the game manual, but I only learned how it actually works when researching for this post. Critically, Simon’s experience level is capped based on where he is in Transylvania. Early areas with less challenging enemies will only get him so far, and eventually collecting hearts will no longer earn him any experience. Explore more dangerous places, however, and he can resume earning experience once more. Earning levels and purchasing new equipment make Simon’s Quest feel much more like a role-playing game than I remembered.
But the system for collecting hearts and experience is one of the more punishing design elements. Simon has a few “lives” to complete his quest, but if he dies enough times players must choose to continue or to receive a password that will let them resume later with their items and experience levels intact (the original Famicom Disk System version allowed for saved games, but the cartridge version for the NES required passwords). Selecting continue restarts Simon wherever he perished, instead of back in the first town like the password does, but both options make him lose all the hearts he’s collected and any experience earned since his last level up. Since many locations have an experience cap that halts Simon’s experience gain, this is a harsh penalty. Although I will say that combatting enemies in Simon’s Quest isn’t as difficult as I expected. The only time I encountered enemies I couldn’t handle is when I headed left instead of right from the starting town. Otherwise, I was able to keep on pace with enemies by upgrading Simon’s whip and earning levels, and Simon’s health pool is large enough that he can weather many hits before falling.
Instead, the danger comes from the platforming. Falling into water will kill Simon instantly, and he encounters many places where he must leap across precarious platforms above water pits. One of the first places players will explore after starting the game is a half-ruined bridge over a river, and it’s all too easy for one of the fish-men who leaps from the water to knock Simon backwards into a hole in the bridge, killing him. Other locations aren’t quite as punishing, but still feature illusory blocks that Simon can fall through, forcing him to repeat a long climb or even navigate through most of a mansion again. These elements are what most frustrated me as a kid, but I found I was better able to handle their challenges now. Key to that is liberal use of holy water.
One of my strongest memories from playing Simon’s Quest as a kid is using the holy water special item, so it was the first thing I bought. Simon can toss an unlimited number of these small vials in front of him, and while they do a little damage to enemies, their main use is to break through certain blocks (or to reveal blocks that are actually illusions). Most floors and walls in the game are made up of hefty stone blocks, and sometimes they can be destroyed to reveal a book containing a hint, or open up new passages. Indeed, many of the buildings in the towns hide secret rooms that are revealed using holy water, and often hide one of the vendors who will sell upgrades or other items. Breaking open blocks this way is even mandatory for completing some of the mansions. As I played, I constantly tossed holy water everywhere, searching for secrets.
It’s not too hard to find secret passages with holy water, but Simon’s Quest is filled with far more obtuse secrets to uncover, most of which are required to complete the game. This is where I got stuck as a kid, and if my research is any indication, it’s caused popular opinion of the game to plummet in the years since its release. Secrets are unlocked in bizarre ways, like having Simon equip a specific item and then kneel in a certain place for several seconds in order to open a new passage. Or, equipping an otherwise useless item for one specific conversation with a different character, which will cause them to reveal a new location. It’s basically impossible for players to find these secrets on their own. In the original Japanese version, the townsfolk are all liars, but I have read that it’s still possible to deduce the way forward from their cryptic hints. The poor English translation in the NES version means this no longer works, as most of their comments are unintelligible. There are some hidden hint books scattered around that reveal some of these secrets, but I typically found these hints after I’d already passed the section they referred to, and many of them I simply never found, as they are hidden in weird places throughout Transylvania.
No, to complete Simon’s Quest, one needed to find hints somewhere else, like in Nintendo Power magazine. Fortunately, many of my friends got this magazine, so hints and solutions were passed around by word of mouth. I surprised myself by remembering most of them. When you know where to go and what to do, Simon’s Quest becomes much easier. It allows for more efficient exploration of Transylvania, without too much backtracking through earlier areas, and takes Simon through places of gradually increasing difficulty where he can steadily earn experience without hitting the cap, which in turn earns him levels that makes him last longer in battle. Players who didn’t know what to do, however, would likely find themselves wandering aimlessly, hitting the experience cap quickly, then maybe stumbling across a much more difficult area and promptly dying. It’s a game that can’t really be played without a walkthrough on hand.
The other design decision that often frustrates is the day/night cycle. As Simon travels around Transylvania, time shifts from day to night and back again. At night, monsters take twice as many hits to kill, but drop more hearts when they die. That’s fine. The problem is that at night, all the townspeople shut themselves away in their houses, and Simon cannot interact with anyone until day breaks again. Some of the games I’ve covered in this series which released after Simon’s Quest also featured day/night cycles, like Hydlide 3: The Space Memories and Dragon Quest III, but in those games players can simply rest at an inn to reset the clock to morning again. In Simon’s Quest, there’s nothing to do but wait. Simon can’t even visit the church to heal at night. It’s especially annoying when night falls while Simon is actively exploring a new town. It’s a rude interruption that forces players to wait while they battle the zombies that stalk the streets, who don’t even offer much of a challenge. Just tedium.
These aspects of the game are a shame, because there’s a lot to like about Simon’s Quest. I already mentioned how good the combat feels, and Simon’s slow and methodical movements also feel great for exploration, once I got the hang of them. I love the way the countryside areas feel different from towns and mansions. The latter are destinations, places that Simon must thoroughly explore as he seeks new items or Dracula’s body parts, but the countryside areas are the journey. Many reduce the vertical elements a lot, letting Simon take a simple path across spooky forests or menacing swamps. Other times Simon’s travels lead him into multi-level caverns, with branching paths to other parts of Transylvania. These places all look the part too, gloomy and creepy, even by the light of day. Naturally, they look even more threatening at night.
The Castlevania series has always struck a very particular gothic horror tone, and Simon’s Quest is no exception. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, yet never quite tips over into farce. Simon battles wolfmen, animated skeletons, mummies, floating medusa heads, winged demons and more, yet none of these feel out of place. Of course these creatures are here; the whole of Transylvania is under Dracula’s evil curse. Even the townsfolk are a bit sinister, expressing fear or anger at Simon’s heroics as often as they offer their help. What can one man do against Dracula himself, after all?
I also need to celebrate just how good Simon’s Quest sounds. The music that plays in the countryside areas during the day, “Bloody Tears“, ranks among the best music I’ve ever heard in an 8-bit era game (some of the music from the Mega Man series is up there too), and the rest of the music is great too. The music was actually improved for the North American cartridge release on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which is surprising because the Famicom Disk System that ran the original Japanese release had a higher fidelity sound channel. But the cartridge allowed for faster memory access, which let the designers to include more percussion and rearrange the melodies for the game’s music. The result is one of the best soundtracks of that time, offering a great accompaniment to the action. Excellent work from composer Kenichi Matsubara. I should say that the sound effects are great too, with a satisfying swish-y sound for whip strikes, and wonderful little warbles for when enemies take damage or Simon picks up some hearts. The only sound I didn’t like was the high-pitched crash of a holy water bottle breaking as it strikes the ground, which is unfortunate given how many of those I was tossing everywhere.
As I mentioned at the start, I had a surprisingly good time with Simon’s Quest this time around. I’d remembered about 80% of the tricky secrets, which meant I could make steady progress through the game with a nice difficulty curve. Unlike many of the games I’ve played for this series, Simon’s Quest doesn’t have very challenging boss encounters, and there aren’t that many either. In several of the mansions I was surprised to stumble upon Dracula’s body part without having to battle some ferocious guardian first. Even the climactic final battle was easy, and I later learned of strategies that make it completely trivial. This probably bothered some players at the time, but I like it. The battles in Simon’s Quest are never too taxing, because it’s really a game about exploration. If you can figure out its tricky secrets, it’s a joy to travel Transylvania and work towards breaking Dracula’s curse.
But I did have it a little easier than I would have at the time of release. I was too lazy to write down passwords, using save states to return to game over screens and select “continue” instead, which meant I always restarted in my most recent location instead of back in the first town as I would have with a password. That certainly helped, because it’s easy to forget which paths lead where. Towards the end of the game I looped back into earlier areas and then was left confused as to where to go next. I ended up checking a guide and learned that there was a path through the countryside that I’d simply never taken, and then I’d forgotten about it. It promptly took me to the finale of the game. Also, since I knew about the experience caps, I was careful to keep Simon alive long enough to level up, which increases his survivability a lot.
As a kid, I never knew that Simon’s Quest has multiple endings, depending on how many in-game days players take to finish. Since I wasn’t constantly restarting at the first town, I managed to get the intermediate ending this time, which was pretty cool. I checked the other endings out on Youtube afterwards, and they’re not that different, and actually the “best” ending (for the fastest completion) doesn’t really seem like the best one. Still, it’s an interesting feature that might have encouraged players to play the game a second time and try to finish as quickly as possible. That’s assuming, of course, that they even knew that there were different endings.
In the end, I found myself liking Simon’s Quest more than most players do. Go in unaided and you will quickly find yourself at a loss as to where to go, but with a guide to reveal the more esoteric secrets, Simon’s Quest is a lot of fun. And it’s interesting to see this early design template for an open world action platformer role-playing game. Along with Metroid, Simon’s Quest established what open world platformers could look like, and both the Metroid and Castlevania series would iterate upon these ideas and establish a style that is still being emulated today with games like Hollow Knight or the Ori games (or, if you want some that I’ve written about on this blog, Guacamelee! or Iconoclasts).
If you want to play Simon’s Quest today, it’s been re-released a few times. It’s part of the Castelvania Anniversary Collection (ugh, couldn’t find a better catch-all link for that than the fandom wiki page, apologies), and can be purchased for Nintendo’s Virtual Console. It’s also included with the American and European versions of the NES Classic Edition. Or, you could just play it via emulation, as I did. I used the Retroarch frontend and the Mesen emulator core. I did have one issue with vertical overscan, however, where some areas had secret bits above or below that I shouldn’t have been able to see because they are normally past the edges of the CRT screens that would have been used back when the game released. I fixed this in the core options menu: I launched the game in Retroarch, then hit F1 to get the menu, choose Core Options, then set top and bottom overscan to 8px. I didn’t actually optimize this, so other overscan settings might also work.
However you choose to play, I’m sure you will enjoy your travels in Transylvania. Next time, we’ll be returning to our originally planned chronology!