Mainlining is our new featured series where we run through all the mainline games in a series one article per game, often in different and original ways. This week we crack the whip on the first sequel in the long running Castlevania series, Simon’s Quest.
Where the original Castlevania was content with being a straight-up sidescrolling platformer, the follow up sought to integrate new elements in the series that were becoming prevalent in other games during this stage of the NES era.
It was not odd for games to switch up the formula for their sequels. The Legend of Zelda‘s follow up, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link added action RPG elements, towns, level grinding, ugly graphics, and brutal difficulty. Super Mario Bros. 2 was originally very similar to the first one, but was deemed too difficult for western audiences, which resulted in North America getting a reskinned version of a game called Doki Doki Panic with Mario characters plugged in to replace the four original main characters. Super Mario Bros 2 was naturally a success based on name recognition alone, but was disliked by Mario fans for straying too far from the basic elements from the original.
Simon’s Quest is more akin to The Adventure of Link as it took elements from the original game and did new and different things with them—for better or worse.
So with that being said, let us step into the shadows of the Hell House and try to eradicate this curse Dracula retroactively gave us at the end of the original Castlevania.
USE YOUR WORDS, PLEASE
Let me be clear right off the bat; This is not a game you can just sit down and play from beginning to end and succeed by your wits and dexterity alone. You see, Simon’s Quest is cryptic as hell. The translations are awful, and without Nintendo Power back in the 80s, you were hard-pressed to understand what you were supposed to do, and when to do it, and with what item equipped, and so on.
I realize dinging an 80s NES game for bad localization (translating a game from Japanese to English) is like blaming an 80s movie for having bad special effects, but it really is egregious how bad and misleading some of the clues are.
Moreover, at times the game seemingly goes out of its way to unnecessarily confuse you. Take the first two conversations you have in the whole game.
SETTING THE TONE EARLY
The adventure of Simon begins in the drably colored, bland looking town of Jova, filled with townsfolk you’ll grow to recognize as they appear in all the other singularly colored towns as well. They give out nuggets of wisdom like “13 Clues will solve Dracula’s Riddle” and “To restore your life, shout in front of the church”, neither of which is all that useful, and the latter is flat out incorrect. Sometimes they just confuse you for no reason.
The very first person you encounter in the entire game suggests that the first thing you should do is get a White Crystal. Great.
The very next guy you encounter tells you, “A crooked trader is offering bum deals in this town.” Well great, seeing as I’m 5 seconds into this game, I have no idea what constitutes a bum deal, so now everything is going to seem like a potential scam.
Then you go down a staircase and you’ll find a man asking if you want to buy a White Crystal for the low, low price of 50 hearts?
C’mon! You just started playing this game, you don’t know if this is a scam or not. Is it overpriced? Is it a fake? Why couldn’t they have left the crooked comment out? It was needlessly confusing. By the by, yes, you need to buy the White Crystal. That “crooked trader” comment was a mistranslated train wreck, the first of many. You actually start with enough currency (represented in the game by hearts) to buy it right away, so go ahead and do what the first guy told ya.
You actually need to buy everything this town is selling. You need the White Crystal, you’ll need the Thorn Whip and you’ll need the Holy Water (which is no longer called Fire Bomb anymore since it is, and always has been, clearly Holy Water). But you don’t have enough money to purchase those other things, so you need to venture out into this open world and start killing some minions.
THE GRINDING OF SIMON
They go out of their way to let you know the left way out of town is a hot mess by sending a bunch of strong, unavoidable enemies charging towards you immediately. Now is not the time to battle these foes. Not with your piddly leather whip, and to-this-point-useless White Crystal. No, we must head east to the Jova Woods, where more new elements are introduced to the Castlevania formula.
In order to earn hearts, for both money and experience, you head east into Jova Woods to grind away at enemies. This means attacking a few enemies and then either exiting the screen and returning so they reset, or simply walking left to right causing them to respawn on the screen. This is a tedious and time consuming slog where you are just mindlessly hacking away at enemies trying to collect as many hearts as possible.
As you go along collecting hearts, you will encounter your first Day / Night transition.
When night falls, your curse kicks in, making the enemies stronger. Not only that, towns shut down due to them being overrun by monsters and bats. Even the church is closed! Yeah, God apparently has banker’s hours here. It truly is a horrible night to have a curse.
The only way to get your life back in this game is to visit a church (spoiler: you don’t need to actually shout in front of it, just go inside like a normal believer) or level up, which happens all of six times in the entire game. Not to mention you rely on a life system that will take away all your hard-earned grinding hearts if you lose them all. And make no mistake, you will lose them all because there are sections just made to siphon all your lives mercilessly.
Look, I think the best way to talk about this jumbled mess of a game, is to highlight the roadblocks I encountered as an adult, trying to complete this game with childhood memories, a quick Google or two, and instinct.
FALSE CLUES ARE THE KEY TO DRACULA’S CURES
Don’t mind the title, that’s supposed to say Curse, that’s just something I call a False Title. When Nintendo Power magazine had to explain what Simon’s Quest‘s clues were trying to actually say, they attempted to hand-wave away the poor translations as the townsfolk giving you “False Clues”. Nice try, but we all know when an NES character is being deceptive they always end by saying “Heh-heh-heh.” These aren’t false clues, Nintendo Power, these are just excuses and lies.
But whatever, I had a subscription to Nintendo Power, so I was all set. Not to mention my phone would ring, and kids from class would actually want to talk to me. Sure it was because their mom and dad were not calling the official NES Hotline, but I still felt pretty important providing tech support to classmates trying to hit their heads on Deborah Cliff.
For example, this early clue doesn’t even happen in Denis Woods, which means you’re gonna feel stupid having spent all that time in Denis Woods, because why would you go anywhere other than Denis Woods? And don’t tell me, False Clues. Not now. Not after all the time I just spent in Denis Woods.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE DEBORAH CLIFF?
This is the big one. For those of us who played the game as kids, this is the one we all remember.
Can you really solve the Deborah Cliff Conundrum without outside assistance? Not really. I was a kid with Nintendo Power, so I knew what to do, and as an adult, I figured it out by recalling the important bits using good old childhood memory. But as for anyone going by the clues from the game, they had about 75 % of the information at best. Once again, the poor translation leaves the player twisting in the wind.
The Goonies II, another Konami game, was known for its poor localization as well. Characters such Eskimo would tell you, “I’m Eskimo! There’s nothing here!”
I remember as a kid, I took the Eskimo at his word. It was actually my mother that suggested I hit the Eskimo. She felt, mayhaps he was lying, and perhaps we could beat the truth out of this poor Inuit that was honestly just ice fishing inside a cave, minding his own business. Some of the memories are dark.
I didn’t need the guide though. It was obvious to me that the confusing clues were leading me to seek out none other than the Eskimo from The Goonies II. Sure enough, I eventually convinced him to come with me to hit his head on Deborah Cliff. It didn’t work.
OK, fine, none of that happened, but it makes about as much sense as the real way to “Hit your head on Deborah Cliff.” Of course, that means going to Deborah Cliff and holding the Red Crystal while crouching for a few seconds until a tornado shows up. I mean, I literally said “the poor translation leaves the player twisting in the wind” three paragraphs ago. I could not have been more clear about what you need to do.
OK, maybe I could’ve mentioned crouching. That’s a big part of it, and it never gets name-checked, either by me, or the game at any point.
GARLIC IN THE GRAVEYARD
Even straightforward hints have annoying little, unspoken caveats. This straightforward clue about using garlic in the graveyard will lead you to drop garlic in the graveyard and watch as, potentially, nothing happens. At least it will if you’re like me and you drop garlic in the wrong place.
At first I thought it didn’t work at night, so I came back during the day, and it did work, but only because I stood closer to the entrance of the cemetery. It would’ve been better to have the Stranger spawn wherever you dropped the garlic, but it was 1988, so waddaya gonna do?
Again, not sure why this guy loves garlic so much, and why he meets strangers in the cemetery to exchange garlic for various sundries, but not a lot of this game makes any logical sense so why start now?
THERE IS A TON OF PADDING TO BEAR
Even if the localization problems were ironed out, the game would still have plenty to offer in the padding department. This game is frequently all about wasting your time. In lieu of giving you a concise, entertaining gaming experience like the original, Simon’s Quest is packed with different ways to drag this whole endeavor to feature-length. It’s filler. You can dress it up any way you want, Haneke, it’s filler.
As someone that played Simon’s Quest as a kid, I can tell you that I didn’t have good feelings about having to play through this entry in the Castlevania series again. I knew there were parts designed to drag out the playtime. Parts that were not fun for the player. Parts that were downright confusing even with a guide.
I met the ferryman for the first time late in the game. That caused confusion. Because depending on whether or not you present him with Dracula’s Heart, he takes you to different locations. Again, he could care less about garlic, despite what that earlier clue suggested. The garlic clove when used just drops right down into the water, mocking you, much like the Ferryman himself.
This part always gets me turned around because you can cross the river and end up in different locations. My hand-drawn map had multiple arrows and letters and numbers trying to connect one part of the map to another. Madness.
AND EACH TOWN LOOKS THE SAME TO ME…
I realize that this is probably more my challenge, and not yours, but I feel like my colorblindness became much more apparent when I played this game as a kid. In order to discern one area from the next you had to refer to its color. As a kid, I saw this town as crimson red and orange, but sometimes also purple and green.
You know, honestly, if I had to match pictures with the actual names of the locations, I wouldn’t know Veros Woods from Denis Woods. The towns and mansions are all just palette swapped. Some of the mansions have small, unique differences, but for the most part, they’re all the same underwhelming visual experiences.
That makes it very hard to ever get your bearings as to where you are on the map. As I mentioned, I even had a hand-drawn map to keep track of where I was, but the way the game loops around and plays with geography, it’s still hard to orient yourself.
THE AIRING OF MISCELLANEOUS GRIEVANCES
RPGs were still relatively new for the NES, and Simon’s Quest perhaps takes an unfair drubbing from me at times, but there are more than a few things this game does that just takes the fun out of the whole experience.
You have the Trap Floors. Basically, at any point in the game, you can be walking along minding your own business and suddenly fall through the floor. This happens most often in the dungeons, but also outside in the world as well. The only way to know if a floor is “false” is to be constantly throwing holy water on each and every single block. Step by step. Again, a very tedious thing to do.
You have the mansions, where you seek out orbs containing Dracula’s body parts (eye, fang, heart, rib, and nail). However, you have to find a guy selling stakes inside the mansion first before you find the orb, because a stake is the only way to shatter the orb. So if you get to the orb first, sorry Charlie, you gotta go back out and find ye olde Stake Shop and then backtrack.
YOU GOT IT, BOSS
Another thing people dislike about Simon’s Quest is that it has very few bosses, and when you do fight them, their attack patterns are so basic and simple, it’s almost laughable how easy they are.
Vampira spins around and shoots fireballs in the exact same pattern the entire fight. Although you can actually blow right past her and acquire Dracula’s Ring in the next room (you got a stake right?), you do actually need to defeat her, as the Magic Cross she gives you is the only thing that will allow you to reach Dracula’s Castle.
Even the Grim Reaper, the man of many scythes, is reduced to a slow lumbering chump that takes a lot of hits to defeat, but isn’t exactly a challenge.
THE PATH TO CASTLEVANIA AND YOUR FINAL CONFRONTATION
When you finally have all of Dracula’s body parts and accessories and are ready to end this nightmare, head to Castlevania for one final disappointment.
Castlevania is empty. No enemies. No traps. Nothing. Just a leisurely stroll down to the fire pit where you burn Dracula’s body parts only to discover someone hid a sixth remain inside the ruins, Dracula’s fang, which resurrects him on the spot.
However, just like all the other bosses in the game, Dracula unceremoniously goes down easy.
SHOULD YOU TOO FIND YOURSELF AT THE END OF THIS MESS
Some people actually still complete Simon’s Quest nowadays. I’m not sure why. It’s almost an interactive game the way you need books, videos and FAQs to get through it. It’s such a strange little game. However, I did beat it, and even took a screen capture to prove it.
I remember as a kid defeating Dracula really fast and being genuinely surprised. When the end credits rolled they were colorful and the story even ended on a cliffhanger as Dracula’s hand burst through the ground at the end.
Except, none of that happened this time. I got the Bad Ending.
In the end, my confusion over how the Ferryman works cost me a good ending because I completely blew past the mansion where you get Dracula’s Eye twice and wound up wandering the map. After all this hard work, and mild cheating, the game basically says, “You don’t get the good ending, you get the bland one. Thanks for playing our drab, confusing, soul-crushing game, here’s your black and white ending, slowpoke.”
Yeah, I don’t much care for Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.
- I honestly do not recommend this game. It is nearly unplayable without guides, childhood memories, and (in my case) a homemade map. Even with all this I didn’t get the good ending because this game and I are not on the same page emotionally or spiritually.
- When “Graveyard Duck” is left on the article cutting room floor, you know this game is chock full of weird.
- People complain that the Day / Night transition is too slow. but as a kid it never bothered me, and it still doesn’t really bug me. Besides, Simon’s Quest: Redaction exists for people with those type of complaints.
- I didn’t make a “Possess / Prossess” joke, and it’s important to me that you know it was a choice.
- After two games with Simon, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse gives us Trevor Belmont, along with Grant, Sypha, and Alucard as the series goes back to basics in a series high point that pays homage to the original.