Over time, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest has seen its reputation slowly but surely deteriorate. What was once properly acknowledged as a flawed but quirky and interesting game is now viewed with open scorn and disdain by most who care to express their opinions on the subject. You talk to townspeople, and you’re given false information. You find a written clue in a mansion (one of the game’s ‘dungeons’), but it is misleading or useless. Later mansions are nigh on impossible to find. While the complaints directed at the game take many forms, they all reduce to a pretty simple idea – “This game does a terrible job of telling the player what she/he is supposed to be doing.”
My counterpoint here is that while yes, most of the written clues you receive throughout the game, whether they be from notes found in mansions or from talking to people, are not very useful, their assumed importance among those who diss the game is, well…assumed. Castlevania II doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to be doing, but it does show you, to an extent. While the game is not a proper Metroidvania, Castlevania II wants you to ask yourself the same questions you would ask if it were a Metroidvania. What items do you have? What items do you appear to need? What items can you find but not afford? What areas can you access? What areas can you access and survive in?
The first (and most important) item in the game is the holy water. While not the damage dealing machine it is in the traditional formats of Castlevania and Castlevania III, the holy water is the item you need in order to find things. Holy water knocks out false blocks to reveal hidden passages, and it falls through false floors in mansions (and believe me, the game designers didn’t think of a false floor trap they didn’t want to use). If you throw holy water on the ground constantly, nine times out of ten you’ll find the next thing you need.
For the other times, the crystals have got your back. There are several crystals placed throughout the game, and when you find a new crystal it is imperative that you acquire it as quickly as possible. Equipping crystals allows you to see hidden platforms (again, the game loves hiding platforms) and also allows you to access certain areas. If you find yourself so stuck in the game that you simply cannot find where to go next, even after dropping holy water absolutely everywhere, equip your crystal and crouch at the furthest point you are able to access. This will reveal a new area at least twice.
That said, even if you understand how to best proceed through Castlevania II, the game is not perfect. You need to buy lots of items, which means you need to spend lots (and lots) of time grinding for hearts, which serve as currency. While continues are unlimited, you lose all your hearts in the event of a Game Over, which can be a real kick in the teeth if you’re in the middle of a long grind. Some of the mansions are uninspired and something of a chore, and getting through a mansion can feel anticlimactic. Later mansions feature boss fights to liven things up, but these fights are often comically easy, and in general, the only aspect of the game that’s particularly difficult is finding where you’re meant to go next (which is especially perverse, given the series’ reputation for unvarnished brutality).
Castlevania II might not be a Top 10 (or even Top 20) NES game, but it’s still worth playing. Ignore the haters and ignore the townspeople. Keep exploring and grind and getting items, and you’ll have fun with it. That is all.