By Joseph Walter
For those who don't know, "Simon's Quest" was an unusual departure from the action-platforming roots of its predecessor. While the core gameplay of whip-swinging and spotty jumping was still there, the player was no longer confined to a strict level-to-level system within the walls of the titular Castlevania, but was instead turned loose into the wilderness of Transylvania. Revolutionary at its time (and under-appreciated now) "Simon's Quest" was an open-world adventure with RPG elements and a heavy focus on convoluted and obscure solutions to mysterious puzzles and riddles.
Perhaps most infamously, the various towns that you visit are populated with villagers who, at best, are liars and, at worst, actively hate you. This made for a surprisingly memorable and oppressing experience that effectively turned up the creepy-factor that the first game pioneered.
Storywise, Castlevania II is also unique: Set seven years after Simon Belmont defeats Count Dracula, his wounds have never fully healed. He soon finds out through an apparition that, despite the Count's demise, his curse remains firmly in place, causing Simon's precarious predicament while also keeping hordes of unholy beasts and monsters roaming and terrorizing the land. The only solution is to track down the remains of Dracula (collected by his servants in the interim) and to destroy them once and for all in the ruins of the collapsed Castlevania. In a novel inclusion for the franchise, there are multiple endings depending on how long it takes you to complete your task, with the canon ending being a somber and shocking conclusion.
Famously ripped into by a very angry video game nerd, "Simon's Quest" gets an unearned amount of scorn. Yes, it's confusing. Yes, its night and day system is a bit slow, but at its core, it's a surprising change of pace that remains good fun while adding a surprising amount of world-building and depth.
Despite the alleged gameplay flaws, the soundtrack has received nearly universal praise, particularly for bringing the world "Bloody Tears," a track that is just as popular as the first game's "Vampire Killer." Overall, the soundtrack is a bit moodier, but still a truly unique collection that helped further refine the "Castlevania sound."
Let's enter Hell house ourselves and, just in case...
1. Message of Darkness
Being welcomed to the Hell house, this exceptionally eerie title screen track takes us right into the morbid tale of "Simon's Quest." It's an excellent set up for all that ensues, including the incredibly menacing ferryman, the unexpectedly dreary nights, and the shell-shocked woman living in the sewer of a burnt out town near the ruins of Castlevania who wants you to stay with her, along with so many of the other downright disturbing elements this entry has in store.
2. The Silence of Daylight
One of my favorite tracks, the town theme has some ominous, hopeless qualities, yet has the feeling of an adventure about to begin. There is something very sinister about its "Vampire Killer"-esque main lick. This is a great example of how much more complex the music in this game is compared to its forefather, with a mood that's unlike anything in the first game.
3. Bloody Tears
The Bach-like style returns again with the fugue-esque intro of this famous piece. There is nothing better to accompany a trek through the treacherous woods and swamps than this track. Yes, it has an air of adventure, but the desperation of the quest is perfectly exemplified with its yearning string section. It's an unforgettable companion while whipping skeletons and spiders in the haunted woods, or being chased by the ever-following disembodied eye-balls in the dungeons. I'll never forget the first time I played the game and discovered I could walk left as opposed to right (the direction that most side-scrollers tend to move) and was immediately assaulted by fire-breathing, two-headed werewolves, bouncing menacingly towards me while this song blasted. Scary times for an 8-bit game.
4. Monster Dance
"Monster Dance" recalls the spooky antics of spirits and specters in the evening. When night falls during Simon's quest, we're greeted with Simon's infamous lament of "WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE" as the palette changes to the darkness of night, where all of the creatures become much more powerful. And if you think you'll find sanctuary by running back to a nearby town, you'd be wrong: the church, with all its healing powers, is locked and the town is occupied by countless wraiths, their arms raised above their heads in ghoulish delight, running amok. "Monster Dance" is a fitting title, as the song is an almost celebratory anthem of the creatures enjoying their newfound power as they terrorize anyone in their way during the twilight hour. Its frantic pace recalls Simon desperately fending off the swarming forces of evil, trying to find cover.
5. Dwelling of Doom
Famously aping a Yngwie Malmsteen tune, "Dwelling of Doom" evokes the perils of the haunted, abandoned mansions that house the evil Dracula's remains. The tune itself is perilous, but also has a deliciously evil lick that makes these tough experiences a bit more fun. It's one of the more upbeat tunes in the game, and stands out for not quite meshing with the rest of the soundtrack. Either way, it does its job of representing the danger within the mansions, and the supremely metal concept of destroying the medieval undead with a flaming whip.
6. Within These Castle Walls
Dracula's Theme has an air of regality, and sounds like, as a friend once called it, "The Tea Party of Doom." Very eerie, spooky, and unsettling, while maintaining the royal atmosphere of the dilapidated Castlevania.
7. Last Boss
An unusual Boss Theme for Castlevania, it has an air of finality to it, while still repetitious. I prefer it to "Nightmare" by a long-shot, and it comes across as a "Poison Mind" 2.0. Luckily, the repetitious nature isn't overly grating as the boss encounter with Dracula's wraith is unbelievably brief (particularly if you're armed with the proper weaponry.)
8. Game Over
Another Toccata and Fugue inspiration, but a fitting Game Over theme with its funereal style signifying your failure. You'll hear it often, but Simon's Quest is merciful with its comparatively low penalties for deaths and game overs.
A beautiful ending theme, taking a page from "Voyager" while expanding on the concept. It contains both a solemn joy and tragic sadness. A perfect fit for all three endings, it delivers the game's sentiment of a hope that the future will be better, but not without great cost (and the loss of Simon's life). It's unusually lengthy for its era, and has a great cinematic quality, especially living up to its namesake with an "Amen" ending.
"Simon's Quest" has a mood that is more dreary than its predecessor, and contains an atmosphere that wouldn't quite be matched again until "Super Castlevania IV" or, perhaps even more explicitly, "Castlevania 64/Legacy of Darkness." Because of the morbid material, visuals, and writing, the music reflects that with its more malevolent tones. Once again, the music perfectly accompanies both what's on screen, and what's implied by the atmosphere.
OUT OF CONTEXT:
Much like the first game's score, "Simon's Quest" provides a unique soundscape when compared to its peers. Things start to get a little more complicated though. Despite the moodier material, some of its main anthems are more reflective of typical action fair. What separates them, though, is that they have a very distinct "Castlevanian" flavor, which grants them a unique identity. For example, the Baroque influences in "Bloody Tears" make what could be interpreted as a typical action piece a distinctly dread-filled anthem. All in all, without the actual game behind it, this score still provides an interesting listening experience, and one that is far more creepier than the first "Castlevania's."
With less grating boss music, and a strong horror-theme throughout, "Simon's Quest" manages to create timeless 8-bit themes that live on well into the future, along with some of the more unique themes for the series. Despite this, the soundtrack, as a whole, does not carry the legendary weight of its predecessor, lessening its musical footprint. It also has fewer tracks. Despite being my favorite OST of the original trilogy, I'm going to have to knock it down a few notches due to its lessened variety (you'll be hearing "Bloody Tears" and "Monster Dance" a lotttttttt).