Game Journal: Replaying Mega Man X and Simon's Quest

June 17th, 2024

I think I'm going to do it this time and actually keep it short, but I've been doing more replays of games I haven't played in like 10 years, so here we go.

Mega Man X

I'll be honest, I don't really like Mega Man? No fault of the games, but over time I've realized my taste for shooty games is more in the area of Contra or Metal Slug(much more high damage, low health, volatile games(Oh wait this is why I like Shmups even though I'm bad at them)), so I tend to go back to them less.

Some people might be like "IWBTG is basically megaman, you have like the same type of movement and shooting!" but let's be real, how much did that gun actually do?

Still, X1 is probably my favorite Mega Man. Like me saying "I don't really like Metroid Prime" it's one of those situations where I'm still playing the game like "Damn this is a well made game"(Insert Jeff Gerstmann asking 'But what does the Science say?'). It's fucking Mega Man X. It's great. Even if I don't love the style of game, it's still just so... rawly excellent. It's easier to enjoy a classic that's not exactly your thing when the commitment is basically that of a long movie.

One thing that stuck out to me is how hilarious sparse Zero is. His(Young me thought he was a girl and this gave me TONS of confusing thoughts) entire presence in the story is basically...

No Z-Saber, no walking animation, he just stands there looks cool, maybe dash shoots and... It works? It's funny because I think Protoman is an easier sell because he doesn't talk and you actually directly interact with him. Zero just bypasses all this weirdness by being so cool that none of us cared.

Anyways, the quick notes...

IDK it's fucking Mega Man X you dash and wall jump and it feels cool and good. I'm kinda tempted to give X2 and 3 a second try. I didn't like either when I played them years ago, and they've solidified themselves as solid classics since. Kinda interested in MMX4 and Zero's gameplay, as Mega Man's style might vibe for me more as a melee game. I enjoyed a few of the Zero and ZX games, so maybe??

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

Well, it was overdue. Part of it was coming off of Metroid II, one of the 8bit "Weird Sequel" triplets(The third being Zelda II). Part of it was a video essay defending the game(I'll be honest, while I think it's a good video, made in good faith and with a good methodology, I inherently disagree with Rag's premise that we're all just tainted by the opinions of video essayists. The discourse on these games goes much deeper than that, and many complaints are actually somewhat justifiable, if simply short sighted. Most peoples complaints, for example, with Metroid II are VALID, but they miss the forest for the trees. They fail to engage with the game's actual premise and goals. Not because the AVGN said a game was poopydoodoo, but because most people are just BAD at engaging with weird games. Also saying we didn't complain about these things when we were kids is a bad argument because oh god I would play LJN games and assume I was the one screwing up) and unfair preconceptions people have about it. The idea that the game is janky, confounding, and just poorly made. A shitty, frustrating game, filled with pointless grinding, stupid traps and impossible puzzles, needlessly throwing Holy Water everywhere...

Outside of issued emerging from the translation, I find most of these criticisms to be unfair, but instead of finding a maligned gem with great vibes and an engaging 8bit world, I found... a kinda dry, historically important, okay game.

Every problem with this game is largely overstated. You barely need to grind hearts. While the action and enemy layouts are much weaker than CV1, they're fine, still more competent than most NES games of the era. Competent and simple. With a translation patch, most of the puzzles are pretty clear cut! There are still red herrings, but that's fun! Breakable bricks and secret passages are pretty well telegraphed! About the only stupid thing in the game for me are the fake floor traps(I bet Sylvie likes these), which aren't really telegraphed and encourage really boring play. Even then, the punishment is usually mild. An annoyance, not something that ruins a game.

No, the real curse of Dracula is that the game is just... kinda boring. Even engaging the game under it's own terms, in its own era, it doesn't... really do anything exceptionally well. I can say it's a historically important game, and it is, especially for Castlevania as a franchise... but even just as a game, Faxanadu(They're not trying to do exactly the same thing but still come on) came out within a few months of Castlevania 2, and did similar things with a lot more ambition and with a lot more flaws. Faxanadu has vibes. Faxanadu has weirdness. Faxanadu has a map where you literally end up climbing the fucking world tree until the levels are visibly tunnels within its branches. Faxanadu is the flawed proto-metroidvania that is hard to love, but has a lot to give. Castlevania II on the other hand is a... competent expansion of Vampire Killer.

The biggest disservice to Castlevania II when going back to re-evaluate it is that the game is designed for its highpoints to be solving puzzles. If you already know to crouch by the cliff, or to crouch by the lake, or to drop garlic in the graveyard, then... the game is largely flat? You just keep repeating the same patterns. You have the same few types of zones, repeated over and over. Visit a town, find your items, continue on, enter a manor, get a stake, get a piece of Dracula, repeat. Mix this with a few overworld puzzles and the worst bosses in the series and... there isn't much to love. There aren't many points in the game where it is allowed to sing. It feels like one long, sustained note. If you find all your whips, it doesn't even get much harder. The enemy design, the opposite of jank, seems to be almost too fair, with only a few exceptions.

While you can't recreate that true, first time experience where a game like this would be it's strongest... that's kinda a negative in itself? That the games few high points are super expendable?

When you can't re-experience the mysteries of the game, the most interesting thing you're left with is the conceit. This proto-metroidvania with a melancholy plot and weird liars everywhere and a day night cycle. Collecting the pieces of your eternal enemy only to destroy him again, in the hopes of being free of his curse. It sounds wicked cool when you say it out loud, but ultimately you don't get much more from finishing the game then you do from doing two mansions and giving up(This might be the optimal way to enjoy the game).

It's not a problem that the overworld is simple and repetitive. There is a sense to how things are laid out. Of course there ares another set of woods, or another graveyard for another town. Bridges make great landmarks, and we even have some poison swamps to mix it up!(I know we wanna go 'Like Dark Souls! :)' but the laurels stuff sucks in practice, even if I don't totally hate the idea) It's okay the combat isn't the focus. It's okay that the bosses are nearly non-existent(I am so mad I, in story, died from my wounds finding Dracula when the dude couldn't even get a hit in). The repetitive nature of the manors could be a way to sorta focus in on one particular design pattern!

... But it does all of these things, at the same time. All parts of the game take a back to some puzzles that are either too hard or too easy, depending on which translation of the game you play. Puzzles that lose their impact past your first playthrough...

I hate to say it, but while this game has a reputation of being too weird and obtuse... I feel like it's not any of those things nearly enough?

To hit some extra points, positive and negative:

While I'm largely disappointed with this game, I think it's important to go back still. Not every retread of a weird blacksheep game is going to reveal a beautiful secret gem. Nor does my disappointment mean we were right, and this was a bad game designed by bad game designers. No, it was a cool, experimental game for its time that influenced games after it positively. I'm thankful to Castlevania II... but playing Metroid II, I was confronted with so many design choices that ruled, and so many vibey motions that games now fail to reach.

I just can't say that about Simon's Quest. It's okay.