Konami tried something bold with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Where the original Castlevania hailed from classic arcade roots, escalating the form with its sensible construction design, beautifully realized sense of space, and logical architectural progression, Simon’s Quest pushed for something more akin to a role-playing game.
This approach wasn’t without antecedent! Around the same time Castlevania launched in Japan (as Akumajou Dracula for Famicom), Konami published a game by the same name on the MSX home computer. Unlike its NES counterpart, though, this MSX adventure — which we’ll call by its European title, Vampire Killer, for efficiency — followed the same general progression as Castlevania but unfolded through a completely different style of stage layout. Straightforward linearity took a back seat to a more free-roaming approach reminiscent of a number of home computer games of the same time (as well as Konami’s own The Goonies for Famicom). Vampire Killer still sent Simon Belmont through six discrete stages, but within each level he needed to uncover certain tools before he could unlock the stage door and advance.
The thing is, Vampire Killer was considerably less fun as a game than Castlevania. I think it’s fair to regard Simon’s Quest as an attempt to reconcile the more enjoyable game mechanics of Castlevania while attempting to embrace (and expand upon) Vampire Killer‘s relative sense of freedom and exploration.
Admirably, Konami also incorporated a sort of proto-role-playing design into Simon’s Quest. This makes the game among the first to attempt to answer the question of how both action and RPG concepts can live in harmony. As such, its solutions often feel imperfect, and there’s considerable room for improvement.
For instance, there’s no real failure state to speak of in Simon’s Quest; it clings to the arcade concept of lives, allowing players to pick up in the precise spot where they died. And even continuing when you run out of lives doesn’t exact much of a penalty; all that happens is your current experience count (incremented since your most recent level-up) resets to zero. This would be ample incentive to play cautiously, since the game’s endings are determined by the time you take to complete the adventure, but for the fact that grinding for experience becomes trivial inside of Mansions, where time freezes. The optimal play style for Simon’s Quest, therefore, is to slug your way across the landscape to the best of your ability, then stop and grind for experience once you reach a mansion, moving along only once you reach that mansion’s level threshold and no longer gain experience for fighting there.
This, of course, means that it doesn’t make much sense to break down Simon’s Quest as if it were its predecessor. The game doesn’t operate by the same rules. While Simon’s eponymous quest does ultimately take on a linear sense of progression as players acquire the weapons and tools that unlock subsequent areas, the path through the game involves a great deal of backtracking. While the Mansions in which the game’s quest artifacts — the fragments of Dracula’s body that Simon must destroy — could be seen as levels of sorts, their overall uniformity and lack of advancing design evolution from Mansion to Mansion causes them to blend together and generally serve the same function. Meanwhile, the world outside the Mansions functions as a sort of loop with various branches and offshoots. And so, we adapt.
Stay tuned, kids. Unless you hate reading people’s pointless analysis of 25-year-old games, in which case I’m not even sure how you ended up here. You should probably leave now, before things get ugly.