A lot of the classic video game series that started in the NES days have a few black sheep in the family; Metroid II, Zelda II, Super Mario Bros. 2 (both of them). Castlevania has a whole herd of them, but most people probably think of Castlevania II as the odd one of the bunch. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was first released in 1987 on the Famicom Disk System, about 11 months after the original Castlevania, and like a lot of those sequels I mentioned, it was a pretty big departure from the first game.
Simon's Quest ditched the linear level-based structure, floating candles, and action platformer level design of the first Castlevania in favor of a more Zelda-like action adventure structure. Simon's Quest is just as much about gathering clues and collecting items to progress as it is about platforming and killing monsters. It introduced an inventory screen, towns, dungeons, nonsensical puzzles, a day and night system, leveling, and persistent upgrades to the series. It was a Metroidvania 10 years before Symphony of the Night.
Simon still controls exactly like he did in the first game. You have the same whipping attacks, slow walk, and rigid jumps. Everything regarding subweapons and whip upgrades is different, though. Since there are no candles anymore, you buy whip upgrades from the vendors in towns. Your whip is also not downgraded when you die, so it’s not like you have to keep buying upgrades. You can buy a couple of the subweapons, but most are either found around the game world or are dropped by bosses. There's 3 daggers, which work just like daggers in the first game, each with increasing travel distance; the holy water, which no longer spreads on the ground, but does break some stone blocks; a fire magic spell, and the diamond, which bounces all over the screen, like in SotN.
Simon's Quest takes place in 1698, 7 years after the original Castlevania. Simon Belmont is visited by a woman who tells him that Dracula put a curse on him with one of the wounds he inflicted on him. Maybe this game should have been called Dracula's Curse instead. This curse will eat Simon's body away and kill him, resurrecting Dracula when he dies. The only way for Simon to save himself is to gather the 5 scattered remains of Dracula, take them to the ruins of Castlevania, and burn them. Of course, Dracula is resurrected as soon as Simon throws everything into the fire, and you have to fight him again. Which makes me wonder if that woman was one of Dracula's minions, like Carmilla, or maybe just another lying NPC.
A lot of the weirdness of Simon's Quest stems directly from the towns and its NPCs. Towns are filled with helpful and not so helpful villagers. There's villagers who sell and trade, a priest who will heal you at the church, and villagers who give you hints and clues to help you on your quest. Of course, since there is no in-game map, it's hard to tell what people are talking about, even when they're being helpful. Then there are villagers who are trying to mislead you. They lie to you, say off the wall things, or just don't make any sense. The horrible translation doesn't help matters either. Things only get weirder the further you get into the game. At some point, vendors start hiding under floors and behind walls, and you have to break the stones with holy water to find them. Trapping yourself in a room with no windows or doors probably isn't great for business, but what do I know. And to top it all off, you have to wait until day time to heal or buy whatever you need, giving the game a little bit of a Shenmue flavor.
There were games with day and night levels before Castlevania II, but I had never seen anything like Simon's Quest's day and night cycle before. Simon's Quest has a day and night cycle that actually affects gameplay. Around every minute and a half, day turns into night, and after about 3 minutes, night turns into day. It definitely is horrible to have a curse with these long nights. During the day, villagers are out and about in towns and you can go inside buildings. During nighttime, towns are overrun by zombies, NPCs are nowhere to be seen, and the monsters in the wilderness take twice as much damage to kill, but drop hearts twice as big as they do during the day. The game also keeps a count of the in-game days it takes you to beat the game, and gives you 1 of 3 different endings depending on how long it takes you to beat the game. For whatever reason, this timer freezes while inside the mansions, so that's the perfect time to farm experience points.
The leveling system in Castlevania II is also pretty weird, and very similar to Zelda II's. In Castlevania I, you found hearts inside candles and they were only used as subweapon ammo. In Castlevania II; however, they drop from enemies, give you both experience points and money, and are used as ammo for some of the subweapons. You can collect up to 256 hearts for money, but XP has different restrictions. Hearts won't give you any XP if you outlevel the monster they dropped from. You can only get XP from hearts that monsters in areas at or above your level drop, so there's a hard limit to how many levels you can gain. Leveling up increases your attack power, HP, and defense. It's important to keep gaining levels as you go from mansion to mansion because monsters also get stronger as the game goes on. Both your money and the XP you've gained towards the next level are reset to zero whenever you get a game over, so farming to make sure you level up before you go to a higher level area where you could easily die is a good strategy.
The mansions are the dungeons of Simon’s Quest. Their design mixes elements of Castlevania I with a little bit of Zelda, but they really don't play like Zelda II or any Castlevania. They have a little bit of Classicvania platforming, and a lot of stairs, but the level design is so cluttered and abstract, they don't feel like Castlevania levels at all. Every mansion has exactly the same 2 obstacles, too. First you have to find some wall to pass through, without any kind of visual hint letting you know you which one, and then you have to find a vendor to buy a wooden steak from which you then have to use to break open the container in which that mansion's Dracula part is in. Half of the mansions don't even have a boss. Most of the challenge of these mansions comes from just trying to find the wall you can pass through and collecting the 50 hearts to buy the wooden steak without getting a game over. You always continue close to or right where you died, even after a game over, and you don't lose your steak when you die, so none of the enemies, pits, or obstacles are that big of a threat after you get your steak. You even continue right inside boss rooms, so even when there are bosses, they're not too much trouble at all.
The Dracula parts you get from each mansion do have some abilities tied to them, but you have to equip them first, and they’re completely optional during normal gameplay. Their true purpose is to be the key to the final battle. None of them give you a double jump or any traversal ability that a subweapon doesn't provide. Dracula's rib can be used as a shield that reflects fireballs, Dracula's eyeball reveals hint books hidden inside breakable blocks, Dracula's nail gives your whip the block breaking ability the holy water has, Dracula's heart will get the ferryman to take you across the lake on his boat, and the ring doesn't do anything. They’re more than a little Zelda II.
The art direction in Simon's Quest is one of my favorite things about the game. I love how they made this world with the Castlevania building blocks. The towns have the series’ trademark stairs connecting the walkways made of the familiar stone blocks. The buildings have arched doorways, square window panes, and even though you can't break them, there's still lanterns hanging all around town. The influence this game had on the graphical style of the series is just as big as the first game's. See Rondo of Blood and Order of Ecclesia for examples. Simon's Quest really helped define what the world of Castlevania looks like outside of Dracula's castle. This game is severely lacking in background variety, though. There's only a handful of environment types, and they're simply re-colored and reused all over the game. The only unique environment in the game is Castlevania itself, and it's not very big or impressive. The game also has pretty bad framerate problems. The game will chug whenever there's more than a couple of enemies on screen.
There aren't a lot of songs in Simon's Quest's soundtrack, but it did give us one of the best and most memorable Castlevania tunes of all time. This was the first game “Bloody Tears” was in. It's the song that plays while you're out in the wilderness during the daytime. The nighttime theme, “Monster Dance” is also really good, but not quite as popular. Aside from “Bloody Tears”, none of these songs became series regulars. Which is kind of strange because it's a really good soundtrack.
Simon's Quest has its fair share of problems, but it's not the worst Castlevania game. It’s worth checking out for Castlevania fans who are interested in seeing where stuff like the ferryman, Dracula parts, and Transylvanian town designs first appeared, at least. It’s no Zelda II or Wonder Boy III, but it holds up better than a lot of other 8-bit games. I think if you go in knowing that the game is actively trying to mislead you, and with a good map of the game world, you’ll have fun with it.