February 8, 2014

The Five Best Things About Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Part 1)

Castlevania is one of gaming's great classic series, originally debuting in 1986 and still going strong today. You don't get to hang around that long without having some ups and downs, some accolades and some embarrassments. In this case, one of those embarrassments -- and a favourite whipping boy of modern gamers -- was the second NES installment, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. You don't have to look far on the internet to find scathing, detailed indictments of everything that is wrong with this game. It's full of typos and translation errors. Townspeople habitually lie to you or provide cryptic "hints" that defy even the most generous of interpretations. Combat and enemy behaviour is full of easily exploitable holes. Progress is artificially slowed by the need to farm enough hearts to buy special items. The list goes on and on.

Even so, I admit to being a Castlevania II apologist. Oh, don't get me wrong, the game is terrible -- but I can't help but have a soft spot for it. At times, it does do something right, or at least tries to. I respect Simon's Quest for its aspirations, if not its accomplishments. After all, there are plenty of bad games out there that fly well below the retro rage radar. Surely, the game must possess some special qualities, to invite such a degree of widespread ire.

Dracula becomes more than a one-hit wonder

The original Castlevania pits whip-wielding warrior Simon Belmont against a mish-mash of horror movie monsters and mythological beings: skeletons, ghosts, werewolves, mummies, dragons, Medusa, and even Frankenstein's monster and Igor. The head honcho of all these spooky fiends, decidedly, is Count Dracula. Yes, Bram Stoker's vampire character. Relatively speaking, his presence in the first game is trivial -- no more or less important than any other video game boss. However, with Castlevania II, we learn that Dracula -- despite having been killed by Simon in the first game -- retains a portion of his power and infects the land with a lingering curse. Famously, the count has always been one to blur the lines between life and death, but even in the original source material he doesn't come back from being ultimately destroyed. Already, we see that the video game version "Dracula" is playing by a different set of rules, taking on an un-life of his own.

In order to lift the curse, Simon must track down various pieces of Dracula's remains that have been divided and hidden by the count's devoted followers so as to preserve some measure of his power. Only by reassembling Dracula's body and destroying him properly will Simon attain true peace.

Of course, this is not the last time we see ol' Drac. He withstands even this second death, and goes on to star as the villain in almost every Castlevania game henceforth. Interestingly, a continuous chronology of events start to take form, more members of the Belmont family are introduced, and we learn that their bloodline is irrevocably tied to the repeated struggle against Dracula over centuries. Once Koji Igarashi takes the reins of the series as a producer and scenario writer, a greater emphasis is made on weaving together a coherent history that links the events of each game together. We're given snippets and hints of Dracula's past, and eventually an origin story depicting his human life, born Mathias Cronqvist. The narrative lifts completely out of the subject matter of Bram Stoker's novel, sharing little with the original book save a name and some vague imagery. The Castlevania Dracula has essentially become something else entirely. Criticisms of some hokey writing aside, a two decades long build of plot continuity across various installments isn't something one witnesses very often. Just imagine, if Castlevania II never introduced the notion of resurrecting Dracula to begin with, and instead opted to feature some alternate villain! Where would the series be, without him? It's almost impossible to even imagine it.

Bloody Tears makes its first appearance

Just about every Castlevania fan knows and loves Bloody Tears, even if they hate Simon's Quest. This music is original to the second game, playing when Simon is venturing in outdoor or forest areas during the daytime. I remember working out how to hen-peck that opening riff on the piano as a kid. That beat is really energizing, too, practically pushing Simon forward at all times. This may be a pretty short, simple track, but it's definitely one of my favourite pieces in the series. And that's saying something, because I really love Castlevania music in general.

Of course, half the fun of Bloody Tears is the huge collection of remixes and reinterpretations we've seen over the years. The games themselves have revisited the theme many times: I'm rather partial to the version in the third Gameboy title, Castlevania Legends, as well as the version in that awful Wii fighting game Castlevania: Judgment.

There are also tons of great fan tributes to be found. Here are some of my favourites:

Heavy metal version from the album Perfect Selection: Dracula Battle

Rey Tang's arrangement for piano

Electronic metal version by S.S.H. (Saitama Saisyu Heiki)

An a capella arrangement by Smooth McGroove

Edit: I just found out about Lara de Wit, who does a pretty great piano version as well!

As if this weren't enough to warrant Castlevania II some recognition as an influential part of the series, I have three more points to make next time. Check out Part 2 now!

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