It always comes back to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.
Let me explain.
Growing up in the mid to late eighties (born In the Year of Our Lord 1984) there was always a healthy bit of Nintendo around the neighborhood. It wasn’t exactly the gaming renaissance people remember when it’s described today (as in, everyone was obsessed), but I can assure you young suburban boys definitely were the target market of the Nintendo corporation. Yes, there were arcades you could go to, but it’s not like your parents would be keen on giving you double digits worth of cash in quarters. Yes there were the odd machine at pizza parlors, but you could only get in a game or two before you had to go sit at your table. Home life was no different – you could play, but in our household there were limits to the amount of time you could play.
And most importantly, limits to the amount of games our parents would LET us own.
I think it was on purpose. I was often jealous of my friends growing up who seemingly would get every new game as they came out. We would go to their castles to drink as much soda as we wanted, eat Cheetos, and play games like they were going out of style. Many of which actually were to our friends, but Sean and I had a different relationship with games. Because of our limited access to games, we REALLY would play our games. We would sit there and play the same games over and over, even if we did not enjoy them (looking at you, Star Voyager, you suck). I do feel like this did lead us to actually investing in the things we loved, rather than having flavors of the week. I guess I’m trying to say all of my friends growing up were spoiled and we appreciated it. I’m not biased…or jealous. Clearly.
All of this to say there was a game that I believe influenced the path of my life due to the amount we enjoyed it as children. It always comes back to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Why that entry in to the series? Simply put – that was the one we had. But fortune would favor us in that respect, because in my opinion it might be the greatest game in the original franchise (that or Symphony of the Night, and I’m not going to count the Lords Of Shadow series which is awesome). It started the Metroidvania style of play (the first Castlevania was linear, Metroid was more like Simon’s Quest), where you wouldn’t go through levels in a linear fashion but have a large map in 2D to go back and forth through. The subject matter was dark – Dracula had been defeated in the first entry to the series only to have left our hero Simon with a curse. His ghosts, goblins, demons, werewolves, and other horror inspired baddies were ravaging the land and the only way to save the world was to fight Death itself and revive Dracula by collecting pieces of him and resurrecting him to with hopes to defeat him a second time to end your curse. The game operated in daytime and nighttime, which the famous text “what a horrible night to have a curse” would roll across the screen much to the chagrin of the player which made you half as powerful and twice as weak. Coupled by the fact the puzzles are way too intense (kneeling at the side of the mountain with the crystal? How could you know that?!) the NPC’s were creepy ("Heh!! Heh!! Heh!!”) and the music was absolutely incredible.
Here, we reach the crux of my argument: It always comes back to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. I began my musical journey at age 14 with the electric guitar. Heavy metal was the game, with a specific interest in being a Kirk Hammett from Metallica clone. Flash forward to now, I am a classically trained musician who generally plays classical guitar for a living, teach at two colleges, play in a world renowned (not at all) guitar duo, have a private studio for lessons, and make music theory videos on Youtube for fun. Whether it’s heavy metal, classical music, or any other genre I enjoy, there is a pervasive, undying love for when something reminds me of Castlevania II’s music. And if I am being honest, it’s not a hard thing to do considering my personal confirmation bias. When I hear something cool in a solo? It reminds me of Castlevania maybe. Or when I hear a deep, dark, rich Bach toccata? Castlevania. Jason Becker, Marty Friedman, Alexi Laiho, Jeff Loomis? Castlevania. Fellow Music Joynt member Russ shows me Mors Principium Est? Castlevania. Handel Passacaglia played by David Russell? Castlevania. Anything that incorporates the use of minor scales (natural, harmonic, or melodic). Pedal tones, functional harmony of the baroque period, widdly widdly guitar solos, diminished arpeggios, and rides the line between dissonant and consonant while maintaining a richly melodic theme usually hits me right in the Castlevania feels.
I wish I were kidding, but I think Castlevania really did shape how I hear music I enjoy. The seminal tune “Bloody Tears” from the Castlevania II: Simon’s quest soundtrack has it all. If you have heard the song (especially prior to puberty) you love it. The prior mentioned pedal tones set up for a launch into an infectious melody that most Hollywood or pop composers wish they wrote. The often overlooked “Dwelling of Doom” from the mansions in the game have a frantic dizzying ascending sequence of arpeggios that would make Yngwie Malmsteen’s feel formulaic. And finally, the somber ending “A Requiem” sees our hero’s journey completed, with the option of 2 bad endings resulting in Simon’s death and one good ending, which as a kid you never even knew about because you were never good enough to get it (I got it in my 20’s). It plays like a wonderful baroque piece that incorporates the use of the ear-candy Circle of Fifths progression. Even my own tastes in music regarding improvisation vs composition I think were shaped by these pieces of music. I can improvise, some people thing I can quite well. But I’ve always been more interested in the parts of music where the melodies sit firm in the seat of harmony, just like they do in the traditional writing style of the Simon’s Quest soundtrack. Improvisation is great, but I love composed sections where the arpeggio fits over the harmony correctly fulfilling that puzzle for your ear that functional harmony provides. In college I was faced with a choice: Jazz or Classical. Academically, that’s pretty much your option as a guitar player at most institutions. For me there was no choice at all. Despite being more proficient with a pick and having little to no experience with Classical guitar technique, my choice was to choose music that reminded me of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. No contest – Classical. Especially the minor pieces!
These days, I am on my own quest. I seek to find the pieces of Dracula’s melodies and bring them back from my childhood so I may slay (or rather…play) them once again. A slight difference from my childhood idol Simon, I don’t wish to destroy my connection to Castlevania II, but rather I wish to reinforce it. By acknowledging the curse I was stricken with the first time I defeated the monster and accepting my fate, I will face it again with new ears and training. Will I get the good ending? Or the two bad endings?
Only time will tell. But if Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is my muse, perhaps all I need to do is listen to the message it provides…
“Sure, I’ll take you to a good place. Heh!! Heh!! Heh!!”
-Castlevania II Simon’s Quest Ferryman
Dwelling of Doom
Composer: Kenichi Matsubara, S . Terishima