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Off The Shelf: Castlevania II

Remember when I said that Doom was one of the craziest game novelisations out there? These are the very first words of Worlds Of Power: Castlevania 2: Simons Quest.

I mean it. No kidding, no editing. Ahem.

It looked as though Count Dracula was going to win the battle.

“I will drink your spirit like cherry pop!” said the count, flapping his wings and showing his fangs.

It only gets weirder from there. You have no idea. But you will.

And I’m sorry. I’m so very, very sorry.

One of my first NES games. One of my faves. YES I KNOW.

Castlevania 2 has been something of a punching bag amongst retrogamers for the last few years, ever since this video. Most of the criticisms are fair, but I have a soft spot for it. It was one of the games that sold me on desperately wanting an NES back in the day, the first Castlevania I played, and one I had a great deal of fun exploring. The premise is while hero Simon Belmont, no goddamn relation, managed to defeat Dracula in the first Castlevania, it came at a cost - the count’s curse still infesting the land and dooming Simon to an early grave. The only way to defeat him is to gather the pieces of his body, revive the count and… uh… kill him again in the hope that this time it would stick. This involved the single lamest boss battle in gaming history, in which Dracula appears with pomp and ceremony, and then promptly gets stunlocked by every single player who ever played Castlevania 2 and defeated without even being able to move. Hell, use the Knife and he doesn’t even get time to appear!

Here’s the complete story, told as well as it deserves.

 

But still, Castlevania 2 is a very dark, moody game by NES standards - wonderfully atmospheric, varied, and while admittedly full of complete bullshit clues like “HIT DEBORAH CLIFF WITH YOUR HEAD TO MAKE A HOLE” and “GET A SILK BAG FROM THE GRAVEYARD DUCK TO LIVE LONGER”, I suspect that most people who played it in the day did so with at least some help from the magazines and such at the time. It’s also a rare case of a Nintendo game with a real story, which you’d think would make it one of the more appropriate for the novelisation treatment.

More so than, say, Ghouls and Ghosts, anyway. Or Solar Jetman.

Seriously, characters, the passing of time, puzzles.. I loved it when I was a kid.

Enter Worlds of Power, created by Seth Godin but credited to F.X. Nine - or to give him his full name, ‘Dull Wet Farty Noise’. There were ten of them in total, including Ninja Gaiden, Wizards and Warriors, Mega Man 2 and Metal Gear… yes, really… and they took enough liberties with the source that I think Captain N probably deserves an apology. Amongst the weirder moments, they had Mega Man accidentally becoming a human boy, called Solid Snake “Justin Halley” (and as in the non-Kojima designed sequel, Snake’s Revenge, had him up against Colonel Vermon CaTaffy, best buds with Higharolla Kochamamie… yes, really) and did whatever the word for Photoshopped was on the covers to remove or town down any visible weapons. The result was covers where Simon’s whip was half its supposed side and looks more like a dog lead, Mega Man is reduced to pointing at his foes, and Solid Snake seems to be going into battle with nothing but the ability to call all of his enemies massive wankers. Observe…

But oh, soon that will seem so sane…

Which brings us to Simon’s Quest, or to give it its true name, What In The Name Of **** Am I Reading?!

For starters, it’s not the story of Simon Belmont, fearless vampire hunter, but Tim Bradley, obnoxious teenager who plays Castlevania on his NES and lusts after a girl called Carol who - I quote - “is nice enough to acknowledge his existence, unlike other more socially conscious teenage females who shunned him.”

Aim for the stars, Tim. And ideally never admit to stuff like this:

Tim Bradley didn’t normally notice girls much. There were far more important things to be thinking about in his life. However, with her brunette good looks perking just inches from him, he certainly noticed Carol. And it was an experience with every bit the excitement of a nervous moment in the middle of the game Zelda.

Sigh. Deploy The Joke.

Be sure to practice good sexual elf.

Be sure to practice good sexual elf.

The closest he seems like to get to a date with her though is going shopping to find a cheap game for her little brother, or at least getting a visit from her in the hospital after her actual boyfriend beats the shit out of him. Hiding in the bathroom, Tim muses:

Tim was pretty good when it came to wrestling Hulk Hogan or Macho Man on the Nintendo, but when it came to eral life he wasn’t the kind of kid to fight much.

Gosh, he was really in kind of a jam, and it wasn’t the grape kind either.

Well, it could be a battle cry, I guess… But, escaping into the toilets on the grounds for one last pee on the grounds that the bully doesn’t want him to have “any accidents while I’m pulverising you!”, Tim’s day takes a turn for the weird when suddenly Simon Belmont appears and teleports him into the world of Castlevania.

Simon Belmont. Abducts a 14 year old boy from a school toilet. With his magic leather whip.

That. Just. Happened.

“This is a joke, right? Everyone has ganged up on me ‘cause they know I’m an ace Castlevania player and I’m being persecuted for my hobby.”

“No! I swear upon my sacred honor!” insisted Simon.

“Sure. Okay, suppose there really is a Castlevania and you really are Simon Belmont. What’s your girlfriend’s name, huh?”

“Why, Linda Entwhistle of course!”

“Hmm. You’ve done your research.”

No, there’s no “Linda Entwhistle” in the games. Of course there isn’t. Equally predictably, Simon Belmont isn’t just dropping in for a casual visit, but has come to our dimension to find the best Castlevania player to help him defeat Dracula: Tim, armed with nothing more than wit, an entire satchel full of chocolate which will fail to give him any character development over the next hundred or so pages, and puns. Which he weaponises.

“Aha! You’re a puny little nothing, aren’t you? Why ever did Simon Belmont choose you?” asked Dracula’s voice, coming from Simon’s transformed body. “I can see that my success in taking over his body is is virtually assured!”

“Oh yeah!” blurted Tim. “I happen to have already beaten you nineteen times!”

“Is that right, mortal? I certainly remember none of those times. You are a silly thing, aren’t you? I shall enjoy hearing you squeal and feeling you squirm when I sink my lovely fangs into your soul!”

“Is that the tooth?” Tim shot back.

“Aaargh!” cried Dracula’s voice. Simon’s body jerked back as though physically struck. “A pun! I abhor puns! If there’s one thing I can’t stand more, it’s stupid, silly jokes!”

“Really! Well then, Drac, maybe you know why a duck flies looking down?”

“No!” Simon’s body shook with violent tremors. “No! Stop or I shall tear you to pieces!”

“Because he doesn’t want to quack up!”

“Aaaaaaaaargh! Dumb joke! Stupid joke!”

“No, Drac,” said Tim Bradley, sensing victory within his grasp. “It’s a fowl joke.”

In the same fight, he also tells him “Don’t Count Dracula your chickens before they’re hatched, wimp-pire”, and celebrates his victory by eating a Hershey bar, everyone’s favourite brand of chocolate that tastes like sick. Simon of course warns him not to get over-confident. He has after all made a powerful enemy…

“If he defeats me and gains the use of my body and remains in this dimension, he will take great pleasure in flaying every inch of your skin off. And after he pours salt on your raw nerves, he will dip you in a vat of acid. And then, Tim Bradley, he will start torturing you!”

Gotta say, I think I’m on Dracula’s side for this one.

By day, towns were full of variably helpful people. By night, zombies! No wonder everyone’s so depressed.

The puns don’t stop, which would be fine if they weren’t shit. Diamonds are a ghoul’s best friend, ghouls just want to have fun, and some really tenuous stuff like telling a floating eyeball that he’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s weight trainer because he has a big pupil. The running gag is that Simon is too serious to ‘get’ them, though I think it’s closer to say that he’s using all his self-restraint not to throttle Tim and deliver his corpse to Dracula as a peace offering. But at least the writing is high enough quality to make up for it…

Tim Bradley lifted the sword that Simon had given him just after they’d arrived at the inn. He would have preferred a gun. However, Simon Belmont had informed him not only of the fact that there were no guns in Castlevania, but that even if they were imported from another dimension, they wouldn’t work here. Gunpowder didn’t explode in Castlevania.

“Things work on magical principles here, Timothy,” Simon had explained. “And also on the moral laws of good and evil. That is why I am very good and Dracula is very bad.”

Yes, no guns. Ever. But of course that doesn’t stop his magic whip working in the real world. It’s also worth pointing out that the world is simply “Transylvania” in the game, because even Konami’s writing team wasn’t that bad. Bad enough to give Solid Snake an enemy called Colonel CaTaffy, yes, but even they have limits. This does however hit an odd point later on when a character openly says “After Castlevania, I warned you not to return.” I always hoped Castlevania 3 would include the line “After Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, I realised I spoke too soon.”

Partnered up though, Simon and Tim do vaguely begin on the quest from the game, to retrieve Dracula’s pieces - starting with the rib so that there can be lots of idiocy masquerading as jokes about it being barbecued, and going on a stake-out and it being a rib-tickler. Speaking of which, truer words have never been spoken than this:

“All of life is not fun, Timothy Bradley. If you learn nothing else from this adventure, you should learn this.”

The duo’s first destination is Berkeley Mansion, much like the game, only it’s a bit different. Not many monsters for starters, just an old lady caretaker called Ezederada Perkins whose job it is to… keep it looking dusty and ramshackle and cluttered and smelling bad. It’s not until they enter the dungeons that they finally meet a proper monstrous form, and well, hmm.

“Aaargh!” it growled.

“Back, oh villainous creature of the night!” said Simon Belmont, bringing his arm back for a snap of the whip.

“Hey, hold on there!” said the thing. “I said argh because I just stubbed my toe trying to get away from you guys. You wanna give me a break?”

ADVENTURE HO!

“Just because it’s big, wicket looking and ugly doesn’t mean it works for Dracula.”

“Please!” said the creature. “Your companion is correct. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Freddie.”

“Say, no kidding. We have a guy in the horror movies back home. His name is Freddy too.”

“Ah, but Freddie with an i-e?”

“Hmm. No, I suppose it’s with a y.”

“Well, there you go! All good monsters have there (sic) names end with an i-e, all bad ones with a y. Helps keep things straight.”

Freddie further explains that he’s not one of the bad monsters (“I have a few bad habits and we all lose our temper sometimes. But all in all, I must say, I’m a pretty nice guy.”) by saying that he comes from the Ye Olde Nasty Dimensions where all monsters, good and bad come from. Yes, it’s really called that. In Castlevania, he adds, Dracula is ‘big stuff’, but back there he’s just ‘another creep’ taking orders from The Master of Death, Thanatos.

Freddie the Monster shivered. “Gazookas! It gives me the willies just to think about him!”

Unfortunately, not all the monsters are so cheery, and it’s not long before Dracula summons an army of skeletons. “Dracula’s making no bones about the fact he doesn’t like us,” Tim inevitably mutters, before dispatching his spirit by telling him he should go to New York and visit the Vampire State Building. The sad thing is that, as said, he’s not that much harder to defeat in the actual game, unless you sit on your laurels.

Now that was a Castlevania 2 pun.

So if there’s no death, what are these guys skeletons OF?

Not a whole lot happens for a while, with the two simply collecting the crystals needed to unlock the later mansions, and at one point Dracula doing some product placement for no apparent reason while trying to tempt Tim with Godiva chocolate - “some of the best chocolates there were.” Somewhat oddly, they then manage to defeat the swamp monster Slimy BarSinister… the game’s name, so that’s okay I guess… by telling it that they taste of chocolate and that therefore they totally wouldn’t want to eat it. The book also decides to skip over a couple of the mansions, just saying “Brahm’s Mansion had been much the same as Rover Mansion, which had also been quite like the other grand decaying houses. Right up to the skeletons in the dungeon!”

Uh. Book, you do know that games have to reuse assets because of things like cartridge space and make things look similar due to palette/resolution limitations and all that kind of stuff? It’s not really a problem when you’re writing a book, unless you’re trying to be true to the original story and hahahahahaha, I can’t even finish that sentence. It’s not as if-

It was then that Thanatos (the Master of Death, remember?) showed up.

Wow. Final Fantasy’s Ultros didn’t show up that unannounced.

Thanatos looked like a hood straight out of Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the 1950s who had made a time stop in the current heavy metal era for some jewellery. He wore black leather pants with a black shirt, littered with chains and spangles and other cheap jewellery. He war the classic black leather motorcycle jacket. On his wrists were leather braces with studs. His face was a cross between something out of a fifties horror movie and someone out of a forties’ gangster film. His entire face was broad. His hair was cut flattop style. There was a ring in his nose, making him look much like a bull who’d just stepped off a motorcycle after a high speed dust up with the cops.

He looked, in short, ****ing ridiculous.

And he’s a complete pansy, of course, threatening to merely send Tim home like a certain Witch I could name, and then being taken out with a splash of holy water. A weapon typically used in Castlevania 2, I should add, to defeat bricks. Somewhat weirdly, the end of this chapter, like a few others, has a hint for the actual game, in this case “You must kill Thanatos. Don’t leave the room when you’re in the middle of the fight or you’ll have to start over.”

Book, I know this is decades late and you can’t hear me anyway, but… what the hell are you talking about? There’s no Thanatos in Castlevania 2. Aside from Dracula, the only bosses are Death, in Grim Reaper form, which I guess could be what this is referring to, and Carmilla, and you don’t have to kill either of them. I mean, the game expected you to, but there was no real point to it, and it’s not like it was particularly bothered either way.

Hey, boss. Bye boss. Left your door open there…

But hey, you can’t expect too much from this adventure, not when this is its idea of drama:

Hours later, after Tim had recovered from his faint, after other adventures and other creatures, after a great deal of whip work (for he could now wield a whip in reality as well as he could on a game machine), after recovering the final part of Dracula (a foot, as it turned out), both Tim Bradley and Simon Belmont were very tired.

So it was no surprise at all to Tim Bradley when Simon Belmont sat down near a tree stump near the town of Alder and said “I am so tired, Tim Bradley. We must rest for a while.”

Uh-huh. Did they do anything else off-screen? Find the cure for cancer? Join Samus to fight some Metroids? May as well double-down! It’s not like show-don’t-tell isn’t already whimpering in the corner after lines like “The way you leapt those mystical blocks! And especially without your help we would not have been able to get that boat across the river and procure this magical diamond!”

Well, if it can skip stuff, so can I. So let’s jump to the final confrontation, in which Dracula somehow takes Simon’s girlfriend, Linda Entwhistle, hostage despite his only physical form having been in a sack over Simon’s shoulder for the whole game (sigh) and Tim realises the true gravity of the situation.

Tim found himself incapable of coming up with any jokes or puns. In the presence of Dracula, it was difficult to imagine a world with anything funny in it at all.

Yeah, vampires suck. But Tim isn’t completely out for the Count! Behold, his defiant speech:

“Go somewhere else then.”

“What? Earth? I didn’t fare very well there. Not well at all. That is why I came to Castlevania. It’s much more hospitable here. Why should I leave?”

“Because,” said Tim. “You’re such a jerk.”

Oooh, burn! And indeed, soon Dracula does, when Tim distracts him with a video game console and pretends it’s “A VAMPIRE ZAPPER!” and then Simon takes the more practical step of dumping oil over him and setting him on fire with a match. But of course, this being a world with no death, unless you count its bloody personification, this doesn’t kill him, merely sends him back to his own dimension. The Legend of Zelda cartoon would do something very similar, with Ganon having a big jar of monsters which Link’s sword would simply send them back to.

But I can’t be too harsh on the book for its finale. Not after this epic battle…

Anyway, having defeated Dracula, it’s time for Tim to go home, having learned pretty much nothing except how to use a whip, and freeing himself from an addiction to chocolate by dint of at one point not accepting a bar of it from Dracula. That’s a hell of a one-step program, proving that while Simon Belmont may be able to strike down Dracula, Dracula is now the sworn enemy of a far greater threat… diabetes.

“Oh, one little matter,” said Tim. “As long as you seem to be able to shift dimensional time and space, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to ship me back to someplace other than that boys’ room where you found me? There’s this huge guy named Burt outside the door waiting for me to come out.”

Linda Entwhistle looked at Tim with less respect than Tim had hoped for. “Now, Tim. You have faced far scarier things than your junior high school rival here in Castlevania!”

Well, at least he’s armed and dangerous now, as well as an expert with the-

Tim took a deep breath and headed for the door.

“Tim,” said Simon, “You really won’t need the whip.”

“Rats!” said Tim. He took his weapons and handed them back to Simon. “I guess you’re right though. I’m going to have to face Burt with my bare fists.”

Simon shook his head. “Tim, I realise that we have experienced much violence here in Castlevania. But that was a sad necessity. From what I can tell, back in your home world there is far too much violence. Perhaps you should try and deal with your rival in a different way.”

“And you will be none the less a man for it,” promised Linda.

Okay. At this point, I’m calling it. These people want to see Tim hanging from the flagpole in his underpants, hair still sticking to his head from a spin in an unflushed toilet. There’s just no other explanation.

“Oh, well,” said Tim Bradley. “At least he’s not Dracula.”

“They are all Draculas,” said Simon Belmont.

Words to live by.

And then the book just ends with him going through the portal back to his school, declaring “Castlevania had been pretty rough, true. But there really was nothing scarier or more challenging than junior high school!”

Yeah, no. Call me when it has vampires and werewolves and medusa heads.

Except if you mean Gravedale High, obviously.

Wait, this is Fester’s Quest. My mistake…

This is a truly amazing book, managing to tell the story of Castlevania 2 in the most boring, slapdash way possible, while still managing to be off its face on three kinds of illegal dust. I was sure reading through it that it was going to be a dream of some description, which Tim would use to learn a valuable lesson to defeat the bully and get the girl, and I suppose that yes, you could read it like that. To all appearances though, it’s not. He’s literally pulled into Castlevania 2, where he learns a ton of useless lessons, splurts a lot of puns, and then goes home to get the living shit beaten out of him in a way that honestly I have to approve of. He really does have it coming.

The mere existence of Tim though just feels odd. Was Simon Belmont, whip-swinging vampire hunter, not enough to carry a book? Did nobody get the memo that kids pretty much universally hate kid audience identification figures, from the Wonder Twins to Wesley Crusher? The idea that someone would play a game where you fight the Grim Reaper in a horror themed setting full of references to movies wouldn’t be able to handle the idea that killing things mean that those things die also seems very weird, though not quite as weird as editing game box art to remove weapons. Especially in a book in which the characters get stronger by absorbing the souls of defeated enemies, as unfortunately described early on in the book like this:

It felt as though he’d stuck both hands into an electrical outlet. Energy coursed through him but without a buzz and it felt like his hair was standing on end. He also felt as though he’d been jolted awake.

“Goodness!” he said, blinking as he turned to Simon. “I feel like somebody just charged my batteries!”

“Yes, you see. Now we have sufficient energy to deal with the next part of our mission!”

Hmm. I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m feeling tired. I don’t have a ghoul around to not-kill, but I have plenty of electrical sockets! So I see no reason why they won’t be just as good. I think I’ll finish typing this and go stick both hands in one. Check back tomorrow for our next book, unless something mysteriously goes wrong in the next few seconds. I can’t imagine what. But whatever it is, it can’t be as shocking as the quality of Worlds of Power: Castlevania 2: Simons Quest. Dear god, am I glad I didn’t accidentally buy this back in the day.

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Hello, I'm Richard! I'm a freelance writer, journalist, narrative designer and veteran producer of many other exciting things with words. Interested in hiring me to write things for you, or just saying hello? Drop me a line here.