Castlevania Chronicles II: Simon's Quest

Review by Mike Finkelstein

In the pantheon of Castlevania titles, there is probably no single game more confounding the masses than Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Sure, there are games that are harder in the series, and games that are objective worse in all respects, but Castlevania II had this air about it that the game has never been able to shake. It was a strange and different title from its predecessor on the NES, it had hard to parse puzzles made worse by a terrible translation, and it seems to struggle to figure out just what, exactly, it really wanted to be. It was limited by the hardware in such a way that the game just couldn't quite find its footing, relegating it to "also ran" status within its own series.

And yet, undeniably there is some spark to the title, something that keeps fans of the series looking at it and wondering, "maybe, with the right enhancements, the game could really shine." That's certainly the thinking at play here, I'm sure, with Castlevania Chronicles II: Simon's Quest. As the name implies, this is a "Chronicles" style re-imagining of the NES sequel, bringing it closer to "on par" with other titles in the series. It retools the whole game, top to bottom, with new graphics, new music, new sound, and a whole new engine to, in essence, build an entirely new game. But at its core there's still that little spark of Castlevania II. The fan-game is interesting, and a great first run at the concept, even if there are some niggling issues that keep it from perfection.

Upon first booting the game you'll get those nostalgia vibes the game is meant to convey. You start in town, as you'd expect, with the option to go right, go left, or explore the town. Talking to people reveals information, there are items to buy, and then you can set out on your quest to defeat the curse and save Simon Belmont. Thins, however, take a bit of a twist the second you try to leave town via the left side. Instead of having free reign to wander as you see fit off into harder sections of the overworld, instead you're blocked by a Cerberus statue. The only way past is to collect Dracula's Heart, and that of course requires going out of town via the right side and exploring other areas, earlier areas in the game. This version purposefully limits you to control where you go and what you do so that you never get ahead of the difficulty.

In some ways I like this as it means I, more or less, know where to go. While the general flow of the overworld matches the original title, just enough has been changed and revamped that I could have seen getting lost or confused if the game didn't put some rails in place. At the same time, though, part of the joy of the original game was just wandering and finding off-road areas to explore for a hint, a clue, or a new item. That doesn't really happen here.

That's especially true in the mansions, which have been completely redesigned. Now, instead of massive edifices to explore, getting lost in their labyrinthine halls, the mansions are very linear levels, like single stages from other Castlevania titles. Instead of trying to pick your path, you largely just stick to the main route, killing enemies and looking for the end. You get through the stage, fight a boss, and then collect your Dracula Relic free and clear. Easy peasy.

Well... almost. One of the big hurdles this game puts in your way are the bosses. There's one for every mansion, not just the two from the original game. Carmilla and Death, Frankie, a Zombie Dragon, and a Giant Skeleton, and, let me tell you, these guys can be pretty annoying to fight. For starters, they're damage sponges, soaking up a ton of hits from Simon's dinky whip. Sure, you can upgrade your whip over time as you find new versions, but the bosses also increase in power and health, meaning your enhancements feel negligible.

And, man, can these bosses dish it out. You have to learn their patterns, use all the movement tech at your disposal, and be lucky, and still you'll likely die against them a few times. Just getting past the third boss, Frankenstein's Creature, was an issue for me, to the point that I nearly quit the game entirely. I pushed through to write this review but I'm not sure others necessarily will. And when it comes to hard bosses, nothing beats Dracula in this game. Even fully powered up, with every enhancement, I was still taking a quarter of my health in damage from the master vampire, and he was shrugging off all my attacks. I tried a few times to beat him, it felt hopeless, and I quit. The difficulty spike, right at the end game, was simply too much for me to take.

I get it, of course: you want the game to have some challenge to it. Certainly, with the right gear, the original NES title was easy once you got to the bosses as they all could be cheesed. Maybe there's some pattern for Dracula I didn't see, some way to cheese the boss, but really it felt like I had to simply play perfectly for five minutes in a stressful fight to have a chance of defeating him, and that's not hard. That's verging on unfair. It's weird, too, because wandering the overworld, fighting regular enemies and dealing with the traps and tricks, the game never even gets that difficult. It's just the bosses where the balance suddenly tilts too far, too fast, too hard.

While I didn't get past the end boss (so I don't even know what ending I got for this remake), I did enjoy much of the experience around it. The graphics are, for the most part, nicely done, selected from many of the later titles in the series and grafted together pretty well. There are some instances where the graphics don't quite seam right, like stairs that don't seem to have top sprites, or backgrounds that loop oddly, but these are minor moments in and otherwise very pretty to look at game.

And the game has a really nice collection of tunes for its soundtrack. It features a selection of remixes and rearrangements from Haunted Castle, Castlevania: Bloodlines, Castlevania Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, and more, plus a few nods back to Castlevania II, of course. The developer has made the soundtrack available for download, and I do recommend picking it up as the tunes are really solid.

You'll enjoy just going around looking at stuff while playing as Simon. He controls well, with smooth motion and quick actions. You never really feel the lag between when you press a button and Simon moves, so by and large the damage you take is your own fault. Helping to mitigate that is a new slide that's been put in; it gives a limited amount of i-frames, allowing you to slide through some enemies to avoid damage. No more getting pinned, unable to escape an onslaught from minor foes.

There are also some tweaks I really did appreciate. The sub-weapons now no longer need a menu and you can just scan through them by pressing an item button. The cross has been expanded into a proper holy boomerang (instead of just opening the way to Dracula's Castle), letting you properly use this classic item. And some other collectibles, like the garlic and laurels, are now one-time purchases that just activate when you need them.

And that's in addition to the game getting rid of the confusing hearts mechanic of the original title. Now you level up from fighting bosses, so there's no need to worry about if you're getting experience or from where. Hearts are now just hearts, so you collect them to power your sub-weapons. Money now drops from enemies, and just about every enemy in the game will drop some when killed. Thus, the economy has been streamlined and, even with some stuff being more expensive to purchase in this version of the game, you won't need to do much grinding to be able to purchase everything you need. It really does make the game much more playable.

Honestly, it's the bosses that keep this from being perfect. The mansion baddies need to be smoothed out some, made a little less tanky, just a tad easier to kill, so that they aren't complete road blocks. Meanwhile, Dracula really does need to get revamped (no pun intended) because he's just an impossible experience. Dracula is, more than anything, what drops this game from a fantastic title to something that's just pretty good. It's a solid experience aside from the bosses, but that's a pretty big asterisk to put on the game.

I think, if you load this up, you'll easily be able to have some fun in Castlevania Chronicles II: Simon's Quest. It's pretty, it sounds good, and it has smooth game play. Just don't be surprised if one of the bosses forces you to set down your controller and go do something else. For a free fan game, maybe a couple of hours of fun is all you need.