Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest - “Bloody Tears”
So without further ado, I’d like to welcome everyone to “Guess Who’s Coming to Smash,” a week where instead of Nintendo series we look at potential future candidates from third parties. Analyzing series that we know aren’t part of Smash but otherwise have a relationship with the company gives us something to talk about as the music of the 3DS version starts to get doled out. So let’s talk about our first piece!
Okay, so this isn’t exactly an obscure piece of game music, but I may as well start with one of Smash Bros' most popular outside hires: Solid Snake's corporate cousin Simon Belmont of Castlevania.
The origin of Castlevania as a series hasn’t garnered much of any popular interest, and a cursory search doesn’t show any in-depth looks at its early years. While I’d love to pick the brains of the first developers, it’s probably not a necessary thing. In the mid-1980s, the NES was doing strong, creating an appetite in players for larger and more elaborate titles that the large number of arcade ports weren’t able to satiate. Konami probably just saw itself as filling a need when they made an action game for the Famicom and MSX-2 in which a lone, possibly French barbarian invades Dracula’s castle, fights his army of movie monsters, and kills him with a whip.
Whatever reasons for the game’s development, the NES version made it a worldwide success. The increased visual capabilities of the third generation of consoles made more aesthetically-minded works possible, and the first three Castlevania used the machine’s hardware to great success. It had a sense of mood - adventure crossed with operatic horror - that gave it a great deal of distinction. While some recent games have taken criticism for re-using over 15 year-old sprites, it’s remains a series that takes that flair to heart, with beautiful environments, and a ludicrously large number of enemy types.
While some fans of current survival horror games may scoff at the notion, Castlevania is very much a horror series; its first installment was likely the first one most NES players encountered (incidentally, when I was researching this article, I was surprised at the number and diversity of horror games on the console). Its roots are obviously in the vein of classic horror films, particularly that of Universal Studios and Hammer Films, all historical castles, rainy nights, and famous monsters. Even its original credits was rife with puns on many of their major figures, including Boris Karloffice, Green Stranger, and Christopher Bee. Later games vastly expanded its “Universal monsters” focus to include gods, monsters, and urban legends from every corner of the world; Cthulhu, the Chinese hopping vampire, and an ersatz version of Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre have all shown up apropos of nothing.
To be honest, the original game was often slow and clunky, accidentally foreshadowing the “tank controls” of survival horror titles like Resident Evil. Possibly to accommodate the enhanced graphics, Simon Belmont walked in a bizarre gait that made his movement comically slow. It’s sequel, Simon’s Quest, took that to almost parodic levels; it was a notoriously difficult and antagonistic game whose manual actively lied to players, had puzzles with incomprehensible solutions, and graded your speed with multiple endings. While later games would make at least improved movement a priority, the series has always been known for difficulty that is, if not punishing, at least more challenging than its contemporaries.
But the reason why so many Smash fans see it as ideal is that it’s had an association with Nintendo for the entirety of its storied history. The one significant exception - beyond the TurboGraphx-16’s Rondo of Blood and 2010’s inconsistent and often misguided Lords of Shadow - was debatably its greatest and most important: the PlayStation’s Symphony of the Night. Director Koji Igarashi (who’d later helm the series) kept it a 2-dimensional sidescroller at a time where Sony had an unofficial policy against 2D games but radically changed the series’ goal, dramatically shifting it from a straight up action platformer into a nonlinear, exploration-focused action-RPG. It took inspiration from Super Metroid, and collectively the two games codified what became known as “Metroidvania,” a wonderful genre whose audience has largely been underserved. Beyond the reference to a Nintendo series, it’s a style of gameplay with roots in the original Legend of Zelda, and in general has a strong association with the company’s exploration-heavy philosophy.
Many of the series’ major installments, from the first game’s greatly expanded remake Super Castlevania IV to its first ill-advised entry into 3D on the Nintendo 64, have been on Nintendo consoles. This includes many of the superlative follow-ups to Symphony; the three DS titles in particular were among the console’s best, which already had an incredible array of games. A loathsome version of Simon was even one of the leads on Captain N: the Game Master with Pit and Mega Man; he’s currently the only pre-existing hero used on the show not in Smash in some form.
It also helps that Castlevania is incredibly well-suited to a Smash translation (though, as we’ve seen with several characters, that’s not as necessary as we may think). The series’ backlog of auxiliary weapons and sidescrolling history makes a moveset fairly easy to come up with, and it’s famous for a number of enemies and environments who could be added with minimal reimagining. And, of course, it’s a series that’s also incredibly well known for its music.
Fitting for a game who’s subject of that aforementioned pun would release a symphonic metal album in 2010, the series’ music largely consists of light metal, frequently oscillating between an upbeat and Gothic tone. Even from the beginning, it’s sound was well-regarded; while the music was never as central to its imagery as its Capcom rival Mega Man, its score had some of the most iconic pieces of the NES. And unlike other series at the time, each of the series’ huge number of tracks had individual names, reused frequently in new contexts.
While there is a huge amount of music I could have gone with, I instead went with possibly its most famous song. “Bloody Tears” (the daytime theme of Simon’s Quest) is an incredibly well known piece of classic video game music. It’s excited yet dramatic tone made it vastly different from virtually anything else on the NES; it’s a microcosm of how the series as a whole has spent most of its life adjacent to, but never totally part of, trends in contemporary games. And despite a massive number of remixes, its original piece remains very catchy and good, a sign of the skill in Konami’s composers.
Castlevania, along with Mega Man, is one of the best examples of how vague the line of what makes a series part of “Nintendo” is, because despite their third-party status they are so representative of the company that they could easily be seen mistakenly as Nintendo titles. Its history, consistent popularity, and association make it an ideal series for inclusion, the often complex relationship between Nintendo and Konami notwithstanding. Too many third parties could potentially denature Smash's formula, but it would be great to see Snake come back with his 17th century coworker in tow.