Ah, the Halloween season is now in full swing…by which I mean it’s late-October. And although I can use the month to justify a spurt of survival horror (the likes of which may resurface in December or January, considering my recent purchases), it’s important to remember that not all horror is “survival.” Well, technically speaking everything is survival. Mario has a strong desire to avoid Bowser’s incinerating halitosis, Pikachu tends to fight more effectively with regular trips to the hospital, neglecting your tamogachi/giga pet may have no lasting effects but makes you feel like a careless murderer, and whenever I leave my house I tend to subconsciously scan the area around me for ways not to die. But I digress. What type of writer would I be if I let an October slip by without reviewing a game from a series arbitrarily chosen to represent horror? This year, having been derelict in games from non-disc systems, I thought I’d dig into the one NES Castlevania game I’ve as yet overlooked, Simon’s Quest, in which Simon Belmont slaughters armies of werewolves, undead, and even fucking chtulu monsters, but still reacts to water like a cat with a heart condition tied to a bowling ball.
The story, as told by the instruction manual, picks up where the last game left off (not yet realizing that sequentially numbered games have to skip along a timeline like Quentin Tarantino at Old Country Buffet). Simon Belmont has gotten a bit cocky after putting the legendary vampire king to rest “once and for all,” but a beautiful woman appears to him in a vision and tells him he’s been cursed. In order to lift the curse, he has to assemble Dracula’s body parts, set them on fire, and then kill Dracula again, which sounds an awful lot like how he got into this mess in the first place. In spite of the fact that no intelligent, rational person would put their complete faith into a hallucination who gives them a dangerous quest based on some vague notion of a curse without providing so much as a description of what said curse actually does, Simon gladly accepts the quest.
Simon’s Quest feels like Konami looked back on the previous Castlevania title and felt it came off a little heavy on the castle without including very much vania. So this game gives you free reign of Transylvania, letting you do all the typical video game stuff like barging into people’s houses, slaying a disproportional amount of apex predators roaming the countryside and city streets, and rolling around in poisonous marshes with nothing but a stick to protect you. Along the way you can buy weapon upgrades and find or buy items that augment your skills and abilities. Simon’s Quest is the hipster Castlevania—it was doing Metroidvania before Symphony of the Night made it cool. Granted, this early attempt at flirting with an interesting idea feels about as awkward as my first middle school dance, complete with the raging erection over something that hadn’t quite developed yet, it’s definitely a good thing even if no one involved had any idea what to do with it. (An open map with branching paths clearly had a lot of potential, but after descending into a dark, murky cave, the last thing I expect to find is a warm, inviting town.)Case in point, item collecting is fun in Zelda and Metroid, but despite being a horror game, it felt…let’s go with “out of character”…for Simon to wander through the countryside with Dracula’s viscera stuffed into his pockets, whipping out various body parts like his own personal multi-tool, or wearing them like the latest fashion trends. Furthermore, I’m not sure the random assortment of body parts Simon finds would, even accounting for dark magic, add up to a vampire. Forgoing the usual collection of torso, legs, right arm, left arm, head, Simon instead collects Dracula’s rib, heart, one eye, a fingernail, and somehow this curse-breaking spell can get DNA information from Dracula’s ring. Considering both the lackadaisical effort in reuniting the scattered remains of the vampire and the fact that none of those things actually burn very well, it’s no wonder that Vlad comes back to life at the end for one last hurrah as an obligatory final boss battle. Although to his credit, he’s quite a bit smarter than Gannon. In Zelda II, Link quests to stop the pig lord’s revival. In Castlevania, Dracula gets Simon to do the dirty work for him. (But then again, that makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever seen Captain N.)
Typical NES Castlevania controls apply here. Simon still moves like a drug mule running Ambien and one of the condoms broke. He can equip secondary weapons that by the end of the game kill enemies as effectively as coughing on them and hoping they come down with a severe cold in a few days. Fortunately you can upgrade your whip, permanently, four times, and the fact that these upgrades are spread out over the game makes it feel like something a little more valuable. In the original—as well as Castlevania III and many of the games to follow—you only have to whack a few candles and if you don’t have a fully upgraded weapon after breaking open two or three of these waxen piñatas, it feels like the game has cheated you. As usual, going up and down stairs is a bit of an ordeal, as this brave, Herculean vampire slayer also epically listens to his mom when she tells him not to screw around on the stairs: he refuses to run, jump or throw weapons, and will only whip enemies providing he can keep one hand on the railing at all times.
As one of the earliest games to have them, Castlevania’s night-day cycles makes the game interesting…if by interesting, you mean infuriating when you’re looking for a shop and arrive just as the sun goes down so the shopkeep won’t let you inside. Night prevents Simon from entering buildings. Monsters double their life total, and drop more hearts. Of course, since Simon and Link shop for wallets at the same 8-bit store, he can’t carry more than 256 at a time, so night usually just means harder monster and standing on a wall, flipping through facebook while you wait for the sunrise.
All in all it’s a rather odd game. Often maligned for its confusing layout, unclear purpose, and depending too much on backtracking, I have already pointed out that the layout, purpose and backtracking with new items to access new areas put Castlevania on a lot of people’s map with Symphony of the Night and other metroidvania style games. But I can’t disagree that something is wrong with Simon’s Quest—it’s boring! While other games are detailed and use vibrant colors, this one looks like Konami painted it with their toddler’s water-color set where all the paints have mixed together. The enemies, even at night, put up only a token resistance. All the dungeons are staffed by the same bored and confused skeletons. There are only three real boss fights, and even Death comes at you with the defeated apathy of a cop who’s ready to retire because he’ll never stop the endless wave of life he’s dedicated his…life…to stomping out. When you die, you restart with full health on the nearest safe ground to where you were, and don’t lose anything except hearts—if you have to continue your game—but like I said before, this punishment is like pouring a single bucket of water into the room with you to deprive you of air. If you haven’t played this game before, pretty much all you’d need is a decent map and you could get through the game in an hour or two.