My parents didn’t buy me a lot of videogames. This is no slight against them at all, since I know they both would have loved to be able to. Though money just wasn’t always around, when it was, they were good at letting me decide what I wanted to get.
Sometimes this worked out really well. I got Ducktales and Mega Man 2 on the same day. I bought both of them because the Capcom box convinced me that while the cover art of Megaman 2 looked stupid, the company that made it loved Ducktales so they were doing something right1. Other times, this didn’t work out as well. I wouldn’t say it backfired, but it led to some otherwise problematic situations. My mom letting me pick out Castlevania II:Simon’s Quest is probably the best/worst example of this2.
I was excited about this game. It had a guy with a whip on the cover. It had some vague castle in the background. Dracula was there, but I had no clue about vampires as a whole, aside from the blood-sucking/creatures-of-the-night thing. As a kid who loved Indiana Jones movies3, and who had a plastic castle full of die cast knights and working catapults4, this game looked like the honest-to-God shit.
Fuck, I was so wrong.
No, I wasn’t. Castlevania II is a good game. The problem was, as a nine year old kid, I was not ready to handle any of it.
Perhaps I should rewind a bit5. The first game with any sort of in-depth “story”6 per se had been Dragon Warrior, right after it was released in America. Yeah, I paid full price for that, and I loved it. My parents loved it. They both beat the game before me.
That game was a minor family event. The kind of event where I can ask either of my parents about it, and while neither of them remembers what it was called, they both remember it when I feed a little bit of the story to them.
The thing about Dragon Warrior is that the game loves you, or maybe it just wants you to love it. Sure, it can be hostile. If you cross that bridge a bit too early, you are going to get smacked back to town. But you are going to get smacked by something cute, something even your mom won’t mind seeing on a TV. And the game is going to give you some clear boundaries, and once you figure those out, it’s smooth sailing.
At its little blue, slimy heart, it always seemed to me like Dragon Warrior was a game celebrating the feeling of exploring as you growing up. As you grow up each little bit in the game, you get to explore a bit more. Go too far and you get in trouble, but it’s never the end, just a bit further. That all this exploring and growing was burried under a (for the time) thick layer of numbers and garbled English only made it speak more to the introverted nerd that I was when I played it7.
And there are lands of safety. The town is always safe. Head there and rest up and recover and when you feel like it, go fight some more blue Hershey’s kisses.
When the dragon lord (and by extension the game) pulls the love and safety rug out from under you, it’s a little shocking. Dragon Warrior earned it by then, though, you just redo the dungeon and tell the evil dude to fuck off. It’s a little quirk in the game, but even it ties into the game wanting you to grow. The game trusts you to have grown enough to say “No, the evil dude has got to die” and to do just that.
Everyone doesn’t do this, at least once, just to see though.
Castlevania II didn’t try to earn a thing. Maybe it had, with Castlevania I, but I didn’t know that at the time. Now I know that it didn’t, of course, but please, allow my childhood self the potential for safety in his ignorance. Castlevania II didn’t try to convince me I was ever safe, that I was ever comfortable. The game made me feel like a stranger in a world that made no sense, trying to complete a quest that made sense to the character I was playing as, but not to me.
The basic “story” in Castlevania II is that Simon Belmont, after killing Dracula in the first game, got a curse. This curse makes the sun going down an occasion of general shittiness. Everything around Simon gets stronger, and he can’t do a thing about it. Should he try to go hide in a town and sleep, he will find the people of the towns have become zombies, and there is no inn for a bit of respite.
Or maybe the townspeople don’t turn into zombies. Maybe they all lock themselves away and the zombies invade. It’s not really clear, though the lack of zombies outside of the towns seems to lend credence to the first version.
The thing I find myself stumbling over, when thinking about this game now8, is the subjectivity of the curse. Is this all in Simon’s head? Is the whole “shit gets fucked in the dark” mechanic just an outgrowth of some paranoia that has festered in Simon since he killed the father of all vamps, and the world is actually just fine? Or has this curse somehow, though only placed on Simon’s head, actually affected the entire world of Castlevania? Or, alternately, has the world always been this horrible a place, where people have always either become zombies or had to hide from them, and Simon’s curse has only just now realized this?9
The only way to get rid of this curse is to wander the land, finding 4 mansions, each with a piece of Dracula. Not the pieces anyone expects, either. An eyeball, a fingernail, and some other random bits of vamp lie inside these houses, and if they are all put together on some magic pedestal together, Drac comes back, and the fight is back on. That each of these bits of undead lord resembles a Middle Ages relic of a holy man only makes me think the world of this game is more fucked up.
The thing is, if I was being a good reviewer, I would go back, pop that game in my NES or download it for the Virtual Console, and play it. I would figure out what the game was saying. Hell, at the very least I would read the manual in an attempt to resolve any of my issues.
However, I can’t do that. To this day, as a 31 year-old man, I am still terrified of what is in this game.
This fear in inherited from myself as a kid. As an adult, I watch too many horror movies. I read books about horrific acts of men commited upon each other in the name of nothing10. Yet I still can’t play this game.
I used to hide this game when I was a kid. When I was 11 or so, my parents and I renovated the attic of our house, turning it into a room for me. Actually, two rooms, one with a desk and eventually a computer, the other larger room with my bed, TV, NES, and dresser. It was heaven.
As long as Castlevania II remained hidden from view when I went to sleep.
I would take the game out of the black metal wire rack that stored all of my NES games and hide it from myself. I would put papers over it, put it under a book, anything so that the label of that game could not be seen by my eyes, and (more importantly) couldn’t see me.
I didn’t know why the physical cartidge of that game scared me so much. I think subconsiously I worried about the world of that game emerging from the game, infecting either my world or the world of my dreams. And I slept with a light on, so I couldn’t just imagine it wasn’t there11.
Right now, though, I think I have it figured out. It’s because nothing in Castlevania was safe. There were pits in towns that could kill you. The world outside the towns was not an idyllic countryside, but a hellish forest, filled with caves and abandoned homes, haunted by the spectres of what had maybe been before Simon got there, or haunted by whatever Simon’s brain was providing to fill in the gaps. Whereas in Dragon Warrior, when things got rough, I could run back to town, save my game, heal up, SURVIVE, Castlevania offered no such luxury. When nightfall came, the towns actually got worse. Instead of saving my game, the towns let me go to a church and get a cryptic string of letters and numbers, which actually only kept my items, but not whatever experience I’d gained since then.
It was all a cruel joke, played on kid-me. And I was not ready to get the punchline12.
This fear should be gone, though, shouldn’t it? I figured it out, that means it goes away, right? IF there is one lesson taht the Harry Potter world (and the Scooby Doo world before it) have taught us, it’s that once we figure out the details of that which we fear, it goes away. But Castlevania still scares me.
Maybe it’s the very illogical nature of the fear. Maybe because the fear of the physical cartridge itself makes absolutely no sense at all (outside of random movies where ‘The GAME is REAL!!!”), it persists in my mind. It ties into some deep-seated fear that maybe the worlds of games are real, somewhere, and maybe that ‘somewhere’ can become ‘here’. Nevermind how abstract that is.
Or maybe I hold onto this fear for its own sake.
I still own the cartridge. It sits with the rest of my games in a dresser in my apartment. My NES is there too, but it doesn’t work, and maybe that is why I can let the game continue to exist. I don’t know.
1: That I bought these games on sale at a local store called Silverman’s whose mascot used to be a guy dressed up as the Silver Surfer sans board/licensing is completely incidental to the story. Also, yes, the wonders of branding can even work on the minds of the young. Hell, they mostly work on the minds of the young.
2: That I bought this game at Value City, a store with maybe the perfect name, is also completely incidental. Value City had no funny mascot that I can remember, but did spawn a still extant furniture store that owns the namign rights to the Arena the Ohio State Basketball teams call home.
3: At least when the thought of people melting wasn’t scaring the shit out of me.
4: Though, honestly, the best knights were plastic jousters, who had little rev-up engines in their horses and could be made to joust for the…well, at this point I really had no idea why knights jousted, aside from that it seemed a knightly thing to do. And, you know, cool.
5: A lot.
6: Mostly here meaning lots of shit to read and figure out what was going on, as opposed to just looking in the book and finding it.
7: To this day, the first game is the only one I have ever beaten in the Dragon Quest series, which I would like to think says something about my growth in relation to introversion, but I doubt that.
8: Post Silent Hill 2, a game that makes me question the reliability of avatars too much sometimes.
9: Any way that this turns out, to kid-me and adult-me both, the conclusion is terrifying.
10: Blood Meridian.
11: Yeah, I was a bit of a wuss.
12: The modern equivalent to this might be making a ten-year-old play Killer7, but only if he hasn’t played too many games before that. All the jokes of that game that riff on the conventions of games would actually seem horrifying to the poor kid, I imagine.