Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is often credited with coining the term “Metroidvania”. Ignoring my own distaste for the term–“Being in the Castlevania series” is about the only thing the Castlevania side contributed to the portmanteau; in all other ways, the genre is just Metroid-like–I think SotN is wrongly credited for this innovation. It’s not even the first Metroid-esque game in its series.
Released in 1988 by Konami, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a marked departure from the first game. You once again play as Simon Belmont. In the first game, you killed Dracula. Unfortunately, you didn’t do a very good job, because you’ve been inflicted with a painful curse. The only way to undo the curse is to collect Dracula’s body parts, bring them to Castlevania, and resurrect him, so you can kill him again, this time doing it right.
The first game was a simple affair, where you went through stages, jumping and whipping enemies. The action is the same this time around, but the framework is much different. Right away, you’ll start off in a village. It’s noontime, you have 50 hearts and a Leather Whip, and not a whole lot else. You’ll have to talk to the villagers, collect items, and figure out how to get around this strange world.
One of the features of Castlevania II is that the game time passes in real-time. Every second of real time, with the exception of being inside a building, causes 4 minutes of game time to elapse. At 6PM, night falls, and you’re in trouble. Villagers cower in building, and zombies roam the towns instead. Worse, enemies in the area you’re in become twice as durable. This lasts until 6AM, when the morning sun drives the night away, and you can converse with and buy things from villagers again.
There are multiple villages in the game, some of whom have more helpful townspeople than others. You can purchase items or trade goods with some of them, others give you helpful advice, a few others…well, they try, but something is lost in translation, and still others actively mislead you.
You see, for quite awhile, it was thought that one of the reasons the game is so obtuse about where to go next is a bad translation, with lines like “GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER” being touted as representative examples. As it turns out, though, the game is just that obtuse–while the translation at times isn’t great (YOU NOW PROSSESS DRACULA’S [BODY PART], when other places spell “POSSESS” correctly), most of the “mistranslated” lines are correct, including the Graveyard Duck line. It turns out that there are hidden clues that you have to track down, which try to be more helpful in how to advance. Even these, though, are badly translated, or don’t tell the whole story.
Besides the fact that where to do and what to do is unclear most of the time–seriously, just look up an FAQ, or you’re not getting anywhere–Castlevania II isn’t difficult from a challenge-your-reflexes standpoint. The three “bosses” in the game are some of the easiest in the series, especially if you know what to do for them. It’s very possible to defeat Dracula before you ever see him, for instance. The game is also pretty good about indirectly guiding you to the next area by way of enemy strength–roughly, each area in the sequence contains enemies twice as strong as those in the previous area, meaning you’ll need to find the next strength of whip to take them out in one hit during the day. Finding Drac’s body parts involves investing in oak, specifically an Oak Stake you’ll find in each one of five mansions.
The game gives you three lives, and puts you right back where you were when you died. Game overing resets your hearts and experience, but otherwise carries no penalties. Additionally, Castlevania II gives you passwords to save your progress. Each password sets the game to noon of a given day, puts you back at the starting village, and keeps your experience level and any items you’ve collected. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll need the passwords. If you do, the game is beatable in under an hour, though my last playthrough took me about 2 and a half hours from start to finish, since I missed an obvious area to go to and wasted a bunch of time as a result. Finally, the game has three different endings, depending on how quickly you beat the game.
Castlevania II is a fun game, but it’s also a pain in the butt to get through without an FAQ handy. There isn’t a lot of help provided by the game itself–even the hidden clues aren’t always forthcoming about what to do next. Still, it’s an interesting look at what the proto-Metroidvania was like. If you’d like to try it yourself, it’s available on all three Virtual Consoles, or you can try to find the original game on EBay or a similar service.