Castlevania II: Simon's Quest
I love the Castlevania series dearly, but that doesn't make me good at the games. So while I've played a big majority of the entries, I've not actually beaten that many of them. I've been playing Castlevania II since it was first released on the NES. It was a bit of a revelation at the time - swapping out of the confines of the castle in the first game and giving us an 'open world' to explore. You could go anywhere - granted it was gated off because you needed a certain item. You could backtrack and find secret areas. Oh, and now it was an RPG as well with experience points and weapon upgrades and so on. If this sounds familiar, it's because Castlevania II is basically a blueprint for one of the greatest games of all time - Symphony Of The Night.
There's hyperbole there, sure. But it's not that far fetched. And really, looking back at Castlevania II, it's astounding just how ambitious a sequel this really was. I mean, Konami could have easily just made another linear level-based trek through another castle, right? Instead they basically changed the game's genre altogether. Of course this was the wild west days of the NES where many sequels strayed heavily from the originals. See: Zelda II, Super Mario Bros 2, etc.
Unfortunately Simon's Quest isn't always remembered for what it accomplished. Instead it's mainly remembered for being kind of an unfair and confusing jerk. So let's unpack that for a moment. Trying to play this game without some kind of walkthrough is a bit of a fool's errand. The NPC's in various towns are infamously liars. And that's when they tell you anything that isn't too cryptic to make sense of anyway. If you were playing this game "blind," I have no idea how you'd figure out that you need to drop garlic in certain graveyards to make an NPC appear to give you certain items; or that you'd need to equip specific items and then kneel down for more than a couple of seconds in specific spots to open up hidden areas; or that the ferryman will bring you to different areas if you have certain items equipped; or that there are invisible platforms in some castles!; or that you need to equip certain items just to SEE some platforms!
I mean yes, there's trial and error. But this feels more like "just try absolutely everything you can possibly think of until something happens and even then you'll probably be stumped on how to proceed at certain parts." I don't necessarily think it's part of a challenging game design so much as this was still the early days and developers were figuring out what really made a game work.
But if we can look past those hiccups - and we can, again with the help of a walkthrough - then there's so much to actually admire in Castlevania II. First of all there's the day/night cycles which actually matter. At night the enemies become more difficult; the town's close their doors and are no longer safe havens. It's interesting stuff, and the mechanic was surely at least partly inspiration for one of my absolute favorite (and vote for most slept-on) NES games of all time: A Nightmare On Elm Street by LJN. I'm being totally serious and completely devoid of irony or counter-culture hipsterism here.
The RPG elements are interesting, though not especially overt. It's definitely akin to The Adventures Of Link. The max level here is apparently six, but I was only level four when I finished the game. Speaking of finishing the game - the bosses are actually a bit of a joke. If memory serves, there were only three of them - the Grim Reaper, a floating mask and then Dracula himself. All of these were easily beaten with very little strategy. Honestly, it feels like the environment was the bigger enemy in this game. I'm pretty sure that any death I incurred was due to a missed jump rather than an actual enemy. I mean once you finally make it to the Demon Castle Dracula, you're greeted to some empty hallways. There's no final gauntlet to make your way through. You're just granted access to Dracula's tomb. It's funny because I had a much harder time making my way through Super Castlevania IV recently - a game considered much easier than this one. Huh.
Suffice to say that I'm pleased as punch to have finally conquered this game, though. It's always nice to beat a game that you've been playing for - OMG... like 30 years? Weird. It's also nice to revisit games and remind yourself just how much you enjoy them.
Ghouls n Ghosts
In the 8-bit days, there were two third party publishers that actually mattered to me. Capcom and Konami were gods. Their names on a cartridge meant Quality Product. Obviously, Nintendo and Sega were a huge deal back then. But Capcom and Konami were the ones putting out the "hardcore" games that me and my friends really cared about.
Konami had Castlevania, which was unrivaled for me and my gaming group of adolescents. And I guess back then, I considered the Ghosts N Goblins series to be Capcom's take on the Castlevania/horror tropes. But they were very different games. Castlevania was a series designed for consoles (Haunted Castle notwithstanding), while Ghosts N Goblins was born and lived in the arcades.
Yes, there were console ports of the GNG games, but they still reeked of arcades. Meaning, they were so ridiculously hard that you had to pump credits and hours into them to make any progress whatsoever. Accordingly, I adore Castlevania, while my relationship with GNG has always been rather love/hate.
The original Ghosts N Goblins came into my life via the rather infamously bad NES port. Probably because of that, I always sort of bounced off of the series. I didn't avoid it, mind. But I was reluctant. And I gave up on these games easily. They're the sort of games that I'd boot up every once in a long while, while I was feeling particularly masochistic. I'd pump some credits in and see how far I could make it before totally rage-quitting. I never intended to make it far. But it was more a way to revisit the game and remind me just how brutal it was. So like I said, that original game - the one that I was initiated with - I love to hate it. And I still fire it up again every few years.
The first sequel, Ghouls N Ghosts didn't find its way into my life until much later. Though I had played various other GNG games in the meantime, I didn't actually play Ghosts N Goblins until around 2011 or so when my wife picked up a Genesis port of the game on a total whim. To my memory, I can't even recall how this happened. We must have been browsing a used game shop or something and the cover caught her eye. But she's certainly not as patient as I am with gaming, so this one had her pulling hair out in short order. I honestly can't even recall playing her copy of the game. And I think we parted with that cart fairly quickly.
But here we are in 2022, and I just finished reading through Rob Strangman's Memoirs of a Virtual Caveman, which had some talk of Ghouls N Ghosts in it. I had previously read the stuff he wrote about the GNG series in HG101's Guide To Retro Horror Volume 1, but like I said, I'm apprehensive with the series. Heck, I had even made the mistake of buying Maximo back in the PS2 days.
But Rob raved about Ghouls N Ghosts. He said this was the one that made him a fan of the series rather than the far more popular original game. He also mentioned that it was (slightly) easier. And given that I could add this game to my library for a mere two bucks thanks to Capcom Arcade Stadium on Xbox One, I went ahead and downloaded a copy. I wouldn't download a car, but I'd download this.
I spent the evening plowing my way through Ghouls N Ghosts, as best I could. Full disclaimer, I decided not to lower the difficulty, though that option did appeal to me. But I decided to face my fear and just go for it. That said, I was no stranger to the rewind button - a modern convenience if there ever was one.
I'm still not a fan of the way ghouls spawn in these games. They come up from the ground and it feels... unfair? Sure there's warning. But I still don't like it. At least give me a full screen to see you coming!
But Ghouls N Ghosts looks great. I'll give it that. The controls feel good - certainly tighter than in the original game. And the music is top notch, which isn't out of the ordinary in the series.
The first stage was (relatively) easy for a GNG game. But things kick up quickly. There's an auto scrolling level that would have sent me running had it not been for rewind. And then there's a stage that requires some absolutely insane platorming that also would have been impossible to me without rewind. The boss battles are at least pretty fun and interesting after the first stage's basic throwback.
I made it all the way to stage four, which even while spamming the rewind button felt like no small feat. At this point I became so completely overwhelmed by enemies from every direction that I had to cut my game short. But I will say this - as frustrating as the experience was, I never hated playing Ghouls N Ghosts. It seems like the kind of game you play when you want to have fun getting your ass kicked. When you just revel in the idea that you are going to die a lot. In that sense, it's not unlike Dark Souls or something - I hate to perpetuate that analogy, but it works.
I'll never ever rank the Ghosts N Goblins games as highly as the Castlevania games. Not even close. But I can totally appreciate the series, even when it owns me so hard. Even though I got completely wrecked, I had a good enough time for the night. And at two bucks, who can really complain? I've spent a lot more to watch way crappier movies. Heck, I'm now wondering if I should drop a couple bucks on the original arcade version of Ghosts N Goblins which is much better than that awful NES port. Plus, the rewind feature might actually mean I can see some more of it for once.