Castlevania II: An Ode to Obscurity by Diplo
astlevania 2: Simon's Quest is one of those games that some people look back at and kind of wonder how they got through it. Maybe there was that issue of Nintendo Power. Or that friend who always had the answers to the tough spots. Maybe it was sheer luck. Maybe – just maybe – we handed our controller over to one of our parents and asked them to try something out.
Simon's Quest is a "weird NES sequel," in there with Super Mario Bros. 2 (U.S.) and The Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link. It represents that drastic, temporary transformation before the rigorous shift to the original formula in the subsequent (and oft-praised) installment. Levels give way to a continuous world, RPG elements make their way in, and many more things are tweaked. It is, by many accounts, the ancestor of Symphony of the Night.
It's a game that terrorized select kids with its horror-entrenched, spindling soundtrack and day-to-night cycle. The statement, What a horrible night to have a curse, becomes a transitional motif in the game, just as the doorways were in Castlevania. The meaning here is completely different, however, being the acknowledgement of an impending horror.
To take that further, Castlevania 2 is really the only Castlevania game to instill a genuine sense of fear. In the tense moments of things like Belmont's Revenge, they're . . . exactly that. There's the worrying about "what will happen if I jump over the pit at the wrong time," the threat of possibly having to redo a level - but never a silencing anxiety. This is part of what makes Simon's Quest what it is. At the most basic level (living/dying), it is one of the easiest games in the series. This does not limit it, however, because of the context. Instead of being about making your way through stages and having now, here, you might get hit and fall down a pit around every corner, as well as the nervousness aroused by structure, Simon's Quest haunts players with its illogical and illusory design.
The game is pretty focused on morbidity. Simon is dying, donning a grim mix of red and black clothing on his rigid, anonymously faced sprite. The landscape is decaying, barren, poisoned. The towns themselves are unsettling: barren-roomed architecture that is stacked together, splotched by grays and browns, their very placement questionable, what with bottomless pits interspersed on the floor. In one house, a man tells you that when he was your age, women used to love him. In a town that's almost completely deserted, the one inhabitant says, "Let's live together."
And even with the population of the world, these presences make the game all the more distanced. There are people, and yet all they can do is walk and offer strange remarks. Some will sell you items, and then leave it at that. When the night comes, they lock their doors because they know of the oncoming danger. Simon himself is never admitted at this time. There are disconnections within all of these connections. The rest of the world is completely hostile. Being able to escape Dracula's castle, in fact, doesn't offer relief.
Simon's Quest behaves in an occult manner. In the same way that its divergence draws parallels with Zelda 2, its environments and mechanics toy with the preconceptions of the player. We get the sense that the world is otherworldly, as if the laws can be bent to bypass obstacles – and, with this in mind, the game is also distinctly Metroid-ish. The experience becomes like a weird dream. One of those almost-nightmares, that you wake up from and somehow relish, where you go into a store and find that a darkened, descending stairway, once not there, has appeared in the wall. Or where you reach into your dresser and find an unexplainable, frightening object that connects to an unknown.
Crouching by a lake for five seconds makes the camera lower to reveal that there really isn't a body of water there: a dark space exists below, with staircases leading to other trails. Seemingly impenetrable walls are bypassed by jumping in their direction as you would through an empty space. Equipping a relic of Dracula has the ferryman row you to an unexplored area for no apparent reason. This abundance of hard to find possibilities creates an unnerving ambience. Simon is interacting with things that go beyond knowledge. There's a nearly alchemic charge to the universe.
It's difficult to say if the designers were mimicking and altering the Metroid maxim of "anything is anywhere," or whether they were playing with the 2D format to make the adventure more challenging. In the end, there's no doubt about it: Simon's Quest is a mess when it comes down to solid design. This, I then admit, is why it's so interesting to play. Like Harmony of Dissonance, there's a love and hate among series fans and others for its baffling execution.
Transylvania has curious, unexpected spatial qualities that make it all the more depleted and broad. Spatially speaking, its predecessor was/is incredibly cognizant; more specifically, in terms of utilizing that space to form continuous situations. There are moments to pause - the intuitively placed spaces that inexplicably house pot roasts allow this, as do the pauses in between levels, obviously enough – but, overwhelmingly, Castlevania is about forward motion and constant activity.
You'll periodically walk down a very long staircase with nothing around you, though, in Castlevania 2. Or you'll be plodding along a bumpy pathway with monsters wandering around in random locations. In a mansion, after going up a shaft crawling with spear guards and skeletons and then wandering down a completely unpopulated corridor, you'll find yourself at a stone wall. Instead of being an expansion of Castlevania's framework, like Bloodlines, the game diverges and becomes a sort of imprecise, contradictory being. It is simultaneously joined and not joined. Its presences stress its absences, and vice versa.
Around the land there are mansions, the 8-bit, twisted equivalents of Symphony's castle, really, and ones that are hard to find. Once we come upon them, they are imperious, superannuated and supernatural. As other things do, the mansions transgress establishments of order. Their frameworks are ghostly and chaotic – invisible pits in the floors, platforms that cannot be seen by the naked eye, tarnished and psychedelic colors, and winding staircases that lead to dead ends. Hooded merchants wander in certain areas of the buildings, eternally confined. If you find them, they'll sell you an item. Hanged bodies, now skeletons, droop from the ceilings. At the end of each maze lies a relic, which, for some reason, can only be gained by throwing a stake at a glowing orb. We are most bothered by what we can't understand. Simon's Quest doesn't consciously realize this, but it certainly disembogues a queer impression on our mood.
It's felt in the aesthetic of places: this thing is being suppressed by Dracula's absence, lurking below, influencing what it sees fit. The monotone, gradually filtered colors of the sky, the frozen blues and blacks of the towns at night, the grays of the trees, their very arrangement, and the consuming black of the mountains that rise beyond them. This troubling quietude and corruption. Trees' trunks don't turn green when it's night - do they?
The ending, the usual peak of the journey, of Simon's Quest is silent, underplayed. In the prequel, the finale's presentation is . . . well. It is a presentation, being grand and climactic and all. Simon is on the top of the world, with all his past challenges lying below, and we can almost feel like there are crowds of common folk below, seeing Simon climb the steps. Dracula and Simon nearly lock gazes and exchange invisible charges of ferocity. With Simon's Quest, it's forgotten and subterranean. You make your way through a forsaken town, and then across a bridge, the land more putrefied, yet odorless, than ever before. Suddenly, you're in the utterly abandoned, windowless ruins of Castlevania. It's all just there.
You work your way down, down, and come to a chamber, this room off to the side. Dracula appears – a massive, phantom corpse, swaddled with black garments, apparently a skull mask in the place of his face. Simon then does not fight, but deals with Dracula, and at the point of victory, it's simply over. The adventure's conclusion is sudden, yet suppressed, presenting more questions than answers. Why is all of this stuff happening? How is it happening? Where is Simon going? What the hell is with this world, anyway? Are we supposed to be playing this?
Simon's Quest is an obscure thing. It is one of the most unique games in the series. And its sheer weirdness is worth being experienced by anyone.