I played Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest with my mom. Not actively, of course, but she was there — watching, listening, answering questions like “what’s a laurel?” — as I took up the whip and set out to vanquish Dracula once and for all. But her experience and remembrance of the game radically diverges from my own.
I’m pretty sure my mom hates Simon’s Quest. It might even be the thing that makes her wonder if video games were a mistake. She knows the whole soundtrack backwards and forwards. Almost 30 years later and the first few notes of “Bloody Tears” will make her scream. And it’s all my fault.
Simon’s Quest might be my favorite console game. More than the Legend of Zelda, Mega Man 2, or Ninja Gaiden — the 8-bit era is defined by my love of Castlevania II. It also has the distinction of being the first game I felt utterly compelled to own. While I enjoyed brief forays into the original Castlevania there were already a wealth of competent 2D action-platformers for the NES in 1988 — I wanted something more. Konami’s 1989 sequel understood craving and was poised to deliver.
Building on the platforming of Castlevania, Simon’s Quest pursues a nonlinear progression akin to Metroid with the addition of minor RPG elements. It slowed the tempo of the original, zones replaced stages, items developed specific purposes, a leveling mechanic was introduced. But more interestingly — the game developed a system of towns, sometimes safe places, harboring NPCs Simon could talk to. Castlevania had temporarily shifted gears to be more than an action-platformer.
I was six years old, I was enraptured.
The only store nearby that had it was an hour away at the Williamsburg Outlets. My mother, ever the saint (and unable to turn down a trip to the outlets), consented to take me.
The name of the store escapes me now, but I exasperatedly explained to the store manager why I had come, and after handing over the $50 I scrounged from birthday and Christmas money — she handed me my prize.
A gleaming silver-edged Konami NES game box with Simon in all his whip-swinging glory before an imitation of a famous AD&D module. All that was left was to drive home and begin the true quest…to slay Dracula.
But I was terrible at Simon’s Quest.
No, really. I was so bad. I had anxiety whenever night would fall. I’d spend it in towns, perched on a ledge at the far corner of the first town, just out of reach of the ghouls, only occasionally daring to throw a holy water as one neared me until dawn would vanquish the horrible curse. I wanted it to be day, to find the friend I had waiting for me in the town of Aljiba who wanted to talk to me about crystals. Those times I would venture out into the forests, swamps, even one of the game’s five mansions to acquire the broken pieces of Dracula’s Body to end the nightmare for good — I could barely manage the game’s mechanics (and Simon jumped like a brick).
My mother, scratching away at copy on a yellow legal pad with a red PaperMate Flair pen, calmly watched as I accrued countless deaths and the day/night cycle ticked away. I imagine she hoped I’d either finish the game or just move on to something else.
Eventually, I’d gather up my courage and press on. Dying, restarting, dying, restarting. Each time, the driving and iconic town music by composers Satoe Terashima and Kenichi Matsubara pushing me to try again.
Seriously, I was really bad. Don’t put me in charge of killing Dracula, ever.
When you’re six years old that almost doesn’t matter. When you’re the parent of a six-year-old with an unshakable love for one particular video game, and your child is also unfathomably bad at that video game — you will want to die. I was that child, and my mom was that parent.
I certainly wasn’t the traumatized video game wunderkind from The Wizard, or the blonde gamer jerk — hell, I wasn’t even Fred Savage. I was flat out terrible. And I have to wonder if my mother regretted thinking that video games were not only important creatively and professionally, but educationally as well.
If you combined all the hours I spent on all the games I played for the NES — My playtime in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest would still come out on top. That’s a lot of time to hear the circular drone of the game’s menu theme while your child slowly inputs a 16-character password every time she restarts the game.
My mother certainly appreciated my love for Simon’s Quest. She even helped me make a Simon Belmont costume (and no, it wasn’t for Halloween). But I don’t think she ever understood it.
I try to imagine the frustration of a parent, as their child struggles to comprehend the meaning of “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole” only to watch them jump impotently against a pixel cliff for hours before realizing perhaps not everyone in town is my friend or can be trusted. The mechanical sucking sound repeating over and over as your creation routinely fails to clear a jump across a treacherous lake. It sounds exhausting.
I wonder when my mom reads this whether or not she’ll think — despite the hundreds of hours she had to endure my deaths and all the ghastly keening the Ricoh RP2A03 could muster — it was all worth it.
I can tell my mom about the back alley crystal trade of fantasy 17th century Transylvania. Show her a map of how towns, marshes, the decrepit mansions of Count Dracula’s Best Buddies are all connected into a full and layered world. Explain the bizarre and exciting journey she joined me on without even realizing it. She watched as strange men in dark rooms tried to sell me garlic, holy water, the aforementioned laurels, and a bizarre woman tried to make me live with her — but her experience can’t match mine. She can appreciate my love, but can she understand or share it?
I never did beat Simon’s Quest properly. Not even with the “Normal” bad ending — I only ever got the bad, bad ending. But I certainly tried, for most of the lifespan of my NES. Having now crushed the Dark Souls trilogy, I could go back to it. Finally end Count Dracula’s curse in under 5 days with the skills I’ve picked up from a lifetime of gaming. But I don’t think I will. This way Simon and I can remain on our quest indefinitely. I can stay in that world of cryptic NPCs, untrustworthy localizations, and friends who believe in the power of crystals. Those memories of a small child, her mother, and a grey box full of possibility remaining forever in play.
I don’t know if my mother will ever understand the importance of my experiences with Simon’s Quest. Even though she was there every step of the journey, I don’t know if I could even communicate them to her. But I imagine when I send her a link to this piece, I’m going to get an angry phone call about how much she can’t stand “that song!” because all songs in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest are “that song!” after twenty-seven years of lurking around your head — even for me.
And you know? Maybe that’s enough.