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.