Pet the Black Sheep: Castlevania 2

Just like everyone once knew that vampires were the cause of the Black Death, everybody knows Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest is a bad game.  It has been the butt of jokes made by at least a few famous people who talk about video games in an angry way, namely AVGN and Egoraptor.  We’re talking about one of the OG classics of bad games, here, right?  And here comes this “apples baps” lady to say it’s actually not that bad?  Get outta here with this!

But see, here’s the thing.  Not only is Simon’s Quest really not that bad, it got mostly positive press from reviewers (here’s one example, this stuff is hard to find internet links for, as it’s very old) when it was released.  It’s only really in the modern era that people started retroactively hating the game as a meme.  And it’s that modern era of gaming that has basically ruined everything.  So, we’ll talk about that a little bit too.

Simon’s Quest starts pretty much right where Castlevania 1 left off.  Simon has vanquished Dracula, but has had a curse laid on him as a result.  Unless he resurrects Dracula soon, he’s going to die.  Simon being the badass that he is, he decides, okay fine.  I’ll just resurrect this guy and whoop him again, no problem.  Resurrecting Dracula requires gathering up his body parts, so Simon sets out to go hunting for them in the backcountry of Wallachia.

In stark contrast to the linear stages of CV1, Simon’s Quest turns you loose to explore an open world.  In this respect, it wasn’t quite groundbreaking (Metroid got there first, along with the MSX Metal Gear), but it was still remarkable to see in those days.  Cartridge space was very strictly limited on the NES, and the color palette you had to work with was tiny.  Creating any kind of sense of distinct places within a large world was extremely difficult.

Look, basically what I’m trying to say here is you kids are fucking spoiled.  As funny as their videos can be, AVGN and Egoraptor in particular have zero excuses for their meme-riffic displeasure here, since they’re just as old as I am and grew up in the same era of gaming; they should know better.  Looking back at the artifacts of childhood with disdain is unfair, to say the least.  Kids don’t know things, they don’t have taste and standards, they have no basis for comparison!

Anyway, even taking into account the limitations of the technology, this is a pretty damn good game for the time.  A lot of NES games were incredibly simple arcadey noisemaker things.  People remember the gems, like Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden, The Legend of Zelda, or The Guardian Legend, but the really good games were few and far between in an ocean of Elevator Actions and Pole Positions, and shit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Simon’s Quest’s open world was a big risk, and one that mostly pays off in my opinion.  There’s much to be said for the brilliant enemy placement and level design of CV1, definitely.  But this blind insistence that games do the same thing over and over again is how you get Assassin’s Creeds and Call of Dutys all over your industry.

In CV2, you can go wherever.  If you go left from the starting town, the enemies are way harder and scarier than if you go right, but you can mash your face against going left until you brute force your way through if you want, and the game consistently guides you toward the path forward in this way, by its area and enemy design.  People praise this sort of thing when Super Metroid or Fallout: New Vegas does it.  But Castlevania 2 was too ahead of its time, I suppose.

People complain that the villagers lie to you, and that the puzzle solutions can be obtuse.  People also complain a lot about how you have to grind for hearts in Simon’s Quest, and how this is a bad thing.  These things are linked, and my counter-argument here is twofold.  First, grinding by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  CV2 has the same mechanics as CV1, and it’s fun to run around whipping badguys and collecting those hearts.  The overall lower difficulty was a smart choice to help with making this more enjoyable as well.  Y’all can sit around grinding in MMOs for literal years of your lives just fine, don’t talk shit about grinding in a game with mechanics that are actually good and fun.

Secondly, you don’t actually have to grind that much in Simon’s Quest unless you’re cheating.  I’ll elaborate.

When Simon’s Quest came out, GameFAQs was basically not a thing.  The internet was barely a thing.  It was around, but it was a whole ordeal to get onto, you had to ask to use the family phone line, listen to your parents lecture you for playing games in the first place, it’s a beautiful day outside etc etc.  Once you got online, everything was so slow it would make your fucking head explode if you tried to use it now.  And a lot of the time, what you were looking for just didn’t exist.  Those nice comprehensive FAQs hadn’t been written yet.  The internet was just a bunch of different people’s sites with like, Under Construction gifs and spinning skulls and guest books and visit counters.  You had to know where you were going, because search engines were shit like Ask Jeeves, stuff that barely worked.  That’s if you weren’t calling sites like phone numbers and dialing into them directly.  That’s right, I’m old as shit.

Basically, you couldn’t go online and look up solutions instantly when you got stuck in a game, whipping out your miracle phone at the first sign of trouble, mind completely empty, no neurons firing whatsoever.  You were just stuck, until you figured that shit out.  If you didn’t figure it out, oh well, guess you’re never beating that game then.

I cannot urge you strongly enough to play Simon’s Quest (and all your games) without using the internet.  Looking up where to go in CV2 is what creates the need to actually grind for hearts.  Trying to optimize your path actively ruins the fun, both by giving you fewer enemies to fight because you’re not actually wandering or exploring but instead making a beeline for your destination, and also by forcing you to grind for heart drops by going back and forth fighting the same one or two enemies near a screen transition, i.e. the most boring fucking shit imaginable.  Of course you’re not having fun if you play the game this way.  It’s not a list of sidequests in some Ubisoft open world, a grocery list of tedious bullshit.  Stop letting games tell you what to do!

Instead, I want to challenge you to just let yourself wander and explore.  Dive in without knowing all the solutions and routing in advance.  Just… you know, play the goddamn game!  You’ll have more than enough hearts for whatever purchases you need by the time you find the people to buy stuff from.  The one exception to this are the merchants in your starting town, since you haven’t been outside to kill stuff yet.  But hey, you know what?  You don’t need their stuff right this second!  Don’t zone in and out of town fighting that one wolf over and over so you can get the white crystal right now, that’s stupid as hell.  Look around, talk to villagers, listen to their lies, and try to think about what they’re telling you and whether you should believe them.  Go test out what they tell you, see if it works.  Don’t approach the game needing it to already be over.  Instead, enjoy what’s there and take your time.  I guarantee you will not have to grind a single heart if you play this way, and you won’t care about the truthfulness of the villager dialogue, since it gives you places you might want to go, things to check to pass some time.

You’ll also be having a lot more fun.  Which is, you know, the whole point of video games in the first place.  I feel the conclusion approaching already, so let’s not fight it.  It’s okay for this to be a short article.

Not everything we do needs to be hurried through and completed as fast as possible.  Let go of your speedrunning impulse, your need to optimize everything.  Life is messy, it’s an ongoing problem without any clean immediate solution.  If you don’t enjoy every minute, if you constantly worry about getting the most and the best of everything in every moment, you’ll just be dead before you know it, your entire life blown past you because you never stopped to sit and breathe, never just decided “this is what I’m doing today” because you were too paralyzed by choice.  World record, takes damage to save time.  Video games are not always about having the most dopamine pumping into your pleasure centers.  That way lies loot boxes and “games as a service”.  Sometimes you can just whip some skeletons and that’s a perfectly fine way to pass the time.

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