Castlevania II and the Horrors of Sidescrolling RPGs

GhostAndy

img_6312It’s sometimes amazing how inspiration strikes me for some of the articles I publish here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere. Case in point, I was already to deliver a meandering trip down video game memory lane with a review of the Castlevania collection available right now on the Switch. This is especially relevant given season 3 of the incredible Castlevania anime series on Netflix dropped last week, and I’ve been devouring like crazy.

Anyways, I was going to chat about the fact that I might use the game as an excuse to finally beat one of the few games of that illustrious franchise that has thus far eluded me, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.

Ah yes, the black sheep of the Castlevania games, this cross platformer/RPG game is very much like the ill fated Zelda II, in that it’s somewhat of a major departure from the normal game play we expect from the series, and as result, made more enemies than fans over the years, including yours truly.

 

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See the major issue with both of these games is the fact that side scrolling and RPGs really don’t mesh well. Mainly because of the entire concept of jumping. Nothing frustrates me more than having to delay my progress in any RPG game because I have to backtrack through a section which requires expert jump timing to navigate.

I mean you are already asking quite a lot of me in the fact that I have to solve difficult logic puzzles, taking on an ungodly large amount of fetch quests, XP grind through hordes of nameless minions to power up my character enough to beat the bosses, but then you throw in timed platform jumps?!?

Are you a some sort of sadist?!?

And worse yet, you only give the player a set number of lives, and missing jumps doesn’t just make you lose some hit points or something, but a whole life, making your chances of actually making it to the boss or side quest item or whatever even more frustratingly unlikely.

 

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Indeed, there is nothing worse that sickening thud in the pit of your stomach when you are closing in on the boss lair, full health, stacked with power ups ready for that big showdown only to see your hopes dashed when a random bird or Medusa head knocks you off a ledge into a bottomless moat. Worse yet if it happens to be your last guy and you have to start all over from the last check point in a town 15 screens away. It’s enough to make you throw your NES controller into the nearest box fan!

The Castlevania series was notorious for these kinds of cheap deaths almost as much as Ninja Gaiden with it’s never ending hordes of rampaging linebackers and murderous hawks. As was Kid Icaras, Rygar, and the aforementioned Zelda II, all flush with potential massive frustration spawning moments.

 

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I will say at least Metroid cut you slack most of the time, with building boards on top of boards so that it played vertically as well as horizontally, thus sparing you an instant death if you happened to topple into the inky black void of “off screen”. Of course, that was its own frustration as often those vertical stacks took a long time to scale thus getting knocked off set you back a ways, but hey! At least it wasn’t a dreaded “game over” screen!

Rygar, one of my personal favorites from the NES era due to its incredibly unique design and internal mythology, was extra notorious in that it didn’t even have a save game function, just a continue feature, thus you had to beat the game in either one sitting or leave your NES on for days, which was always difficult in an era where Mom and Dad were always complaining about the electric bill.

 

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As a result of all of these factors, many of these classic games I never conquered until many years later when the game manufacturers began to repackage these now retro games on virtual consoles, giving us the almighty “save state” feature. Now if there was a particularly tricky jump, you could save right before attempting it and if for some reason you bit it, redemption was only a click away.

Sure, most gamers might think that’s cheating, but for someone that is already pretty secure in his video game playing skills, this option just allows me to overcome what I consider “limitations” in the game play of these older games. And in allowing me to do that, I can actually finish some of these classics, like I would in finishing a movie.

I mean could you imagine how frustrating it would be if every time you wanted to finish watching Star Wars, seeing the Death Star Trench scene depended on whether you could precisely whip jump an dive bombing seagull that randomly respawned on your TV screen! No good, folks! No good!

But yeah, over the years I’ve beaten many of the ones I’ve mentioned above, except for Castlevania II, with good reason, which I’ll get to in just a moment after I lay on those youngsters and others that have been under a rock for the past 30+ years just what this game is all about.

 

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The first sequel to the widely successful Castlevania game which took the video game world by storm in 1986, game developer Konami decided to take a different approach with this follow up from standard platformer. Introducing non linear game play and RPG elements into an open world style adventure game, Konami was looking to build upon the concepts that they first introduced in their MSX release entitled Maze of Galious.

The story is really one of the few “pure” sequels to the original Castlevania in that it immediately follows the story line from the first game with the same main character in Simon Belmont. Simon has been cursed by the spirit of the vampire lord, Dracula, for this role in his demise at the conclusion of the first game, and now seemingly suffers from endless insomnia as well as being hunted by Dracula’s monstrous armies both day and night.

The day and night aspect is pretty important to note, as this game does cycle back and forth between the two using an internal timer, and there are pretty substantial differences in the game play during the different times of day. Night time is always proceeded by an alert to the player that “What a Horrible Night To Have a Curse” (which as a kid I thought was an pretty eerie and ominous phrase), after which all the towns are closed and infested with zombies as well all of the monsters outside the towns are much more difficult to beat.

 

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Additionally, the game does keep track of how many “days” it takes you to visit the 5 haunted mansions in the game, collect the various remains of Dracula’s corpse, get the magic cross, and return to Dracula’s castle for a final boss battle. Depending on how long it takes, you might get one of 3 possible endings, with the “best” one happening if it only takes you 8 of these day cycles to beat the game.

8 days?!?

See there are two problems with that lofty goal and I’ve already expounded to a certain degree on the first which is the fact that its again a platform game in design and yet requires an insane amount of backtracking, meaning at any moment your whole day may be ruined by that mistimed jump as you have to traverse the same areas over and over again.

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However, worse yet was that the game is some what notorious for having incredibly cryptic and unhelpful hints, exposition elements, and general direction as to where you have to go or what you have to do from the townspeople.

This is just plain unacceptable to modern RPG design. I’m not saying you have to telegraph players exactly what the next steps are, but when the clues given are misleading, poorly translated (aka the “Deborah Cliff” clue), or just aren’t given at all, then you have to chalk that up to a failure to provide an environment where the player can actually succeed.

 

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I will say that some of my fellow GotS folks  believe using strategy guides to defeat games is somewhat cheating, however a solid walk-through is actually necessary to have any chance of beating Castlevania II given some puzzles have absolutely no way of figuring out what to do without one. Case in point with the infamous “Tornado in the Graveyard” puzzle, which has no in game clues and could only be figured out by a random guess if not for the walk-through.

That’s why I feel like the second ever issue of Nintendo Power was so important for gamers back in 1987. It was well before the internet, so it was the only place you could get a 14 page guide for the how to access the first 3 mansions in the game, thus getting you well on your way to beating half of the game. Still though that Tornado/Graveyard puzzle is after the first 3 mansions, so it still wasn’t super helpful.

 

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Speaking of that particular issue, it to became more than a little infamous in its own right as it sparked a slew of angry telephone calls and letters from parents who claimed the cover with a cosplay wannabe dressed up like Simon Belmont holding Dracula’s severed head in his grip gave all their poor little kids nightmares. Ah…the mid 80s and the power of Mom groups demonizing video games.

Yeah, I remember that particular cover, and trust me, it didn’t give me bad dreams. I think Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the tons of other slasher pics dominating theaters in that decade did more from that perspective than a reject from the Stewart’s annual Halloween party ever would. Hell, Unsolved Mysteries with the reenactments of alien abductions which were on mainstream TV was worse for my night terrors than this.

Anyways, I’m still glad this bad boy exists because I plan on beating Castlevania 2 as old skool as I can and that means using this original Nintendo Power guide as my personal cheat sheet just as I would have done back in the day. Accordingly to long play videos on YouTube, it can take an experienced gamer that knows exactly what to do and where to go about an hour and a half to defeat all of Simon’s Quest.

 

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I doubt I’m going to get even close to doing that, but I will say it seems as if the boss battles at the very least are simpler than in Castlevania I, so if I can survive the frustration of making all of those stupid jumps, I should be able to tackle the challenge of at least getting the really good ending (whatever that means…).

And beating this game has been a long time coming. Although I might decry it above as being a exercise in vexation, it really was a game that captured my imagination as a kid, as did all of the Castlevania games. So much so, that I even asked for the Castlevania II Tiger hand held game so I could play it on the school bus on the way home from elementary.

 

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Boy, I had great memories of that game. Sure, it was simple and buggy, but it got me through a lot of long afternoons on the bus attempting to avoid the gaze of bullies.

Plus, I feel without Simon’s Quest, we wouldn’t have eventually got the greatest of this series on the NES in Castlevania 3! Yep, they definitely wouldn’t have learned their lesson in dumping all that backtracking quest garbage and just focusing on delivering the RPG elements in the more digestible form of multiple story paths and the choice of supernatural partner to help Trevor Belmont defeat the forces of evil.

 

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However, I will say that Simon’s Quest also begot probably the best game of the entire franchise in Symphony of the Night although I will say the exploration aspects were handled so much better in that game than it ever was in Simon’s Quest.

 

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Still though even with Symphony of the Night, I feel like that game is so good it was an exception to the rule versus proving the rule.  RPGs are best as top down affairs. I will fight anyone that tries to argue that fact with me…

 

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