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Seirei Senshi Spriggan

Games like Seirei Senshi Spriggan are the reason I wish the Turbo Grafx-16 were more popular in the US. Even taking into account the glut of shooters released in the 16-bit era Spriggan would have stood out. With the masters of the genre Compile behind the wheel that should be expected but even still Spriggan is still amazing even by their high standards. If you are both a fan of the genre and don’t mind imports (it’s not as though you are missing an award winning story) you should seek this out if you can somehow avoid the high price it commands.

As an offshoot of the Aleste series Spriggan should be familiar to anyone who has played M.U.S.H.A or Robo Aleste. For the less fortunate expect large giant robots juxtaposed against a Japanese setting although in this case the Japanese influenced design is traded for a high fantasy. You’ll spend more time fighting sorcerers and other fantastical demons rather than massive mechanized ships although those are still present. While it does share a similar look to that series Spriggan differs considerably in terms of gameplay.

In terms of weapons the list is kept short at only four. Each of the four colored orbs (red, blue, green, and yellow) correspond to a different elemental alignment and a unique power such as an extremely powerful spiraling ball of wind or a water shield. Aside from the elements the occasional smart bomb is dropped and you can also sacrifice your current weapon to use as a bomb as well. The game is extremely generous with power-ups with new drops appearing every 10-15 seconds. The frequent weapon drops will allow you to take advantage of the game’s greatest asset.

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On their own each weapon is adequate and will provide a secondary shield that will protect you from one hit. What truly puts it over the top is the ability to mix and match weapons and combine their effects. Like Soldier Blade you can hold up to three weapons at a time however all three are activated simultaneously and depending on the combination will produce wildly varied effects. My favorite combination is red, blue, and green which provides a circular shield, and multiple large bursts of fire in a zig zag formation that covers over 50% of the screen. Some of the effects produced are actually pretty surprising and the system encourages experimentation. While the cut scenes depict the mission as a two-man team your partner will only occasionally fly in to assist in dealing with enemies but it isn’t long before she is shot down.

In stark contrast to most Compile shooters Spriggan is surprisingly easy. The game’s hit detection is extremely generous allowing you to brush up against the largest demons without taking a hit. All of the game’s weapons are overpowered and while some enemies can soak up damage most will go down in a few hits. Weapon drops are so frequent you can even spam bombs continuously since another item will appear in less than 10 seconds to replace it. Coming from someone who more or less expects shooters to crank up the difficulty this is a welcome surprise although it does mean even the worst gamers will complete this is one or two runs.

As this was part of Japan’s Summer Carnival competition it also comes with a two-minute score attack mode. More so than some of the other entrants in the competition Spriggan truly manages to pack its two minutes with intensity as the opposition is relentless in order to build up as high a score as possible. It is in this mode that your choice of weapon will truly matter since you need to concentrate more on destruction rather than staying alive. Normally I don’t bother with the score attack in shooters but the game is so compelling I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised.

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Spriggan bears many surface similarities to its predecessor M.U.S.H.A. but differs in a number of ways visually. The medieval setting means you’ll spend more of your time flying around castles and dungeons rather than mechanized Japanese temples and such. But seeing as they are both loosely part of the same series the mech designs are still relatively the same. The beautiful parallax scrolling so present in that game is largely absent here but the game more than makes up for it with large sprites at every turn and a generally crowded screen that rarely slows down. The cutscenes are kept to a minimum compared to something like Macross 2036 but are still pretty cool as a reward for completing a level. The pulsing techno soundtrack benefits from CD audio as the sound quality is high, allowing you to enjoy the excellent soundtrack.

When stacked up against the more than plentiful shooters that fill the system’s library Spriggan still manages to stand out due to its setting, pacing, and awesome weapons system. Even though you will complete the game in short order it still remains fun and replayable since the challenge isn’t so high. I would still recommend this to those who have experienced shooter fatigue as it is just plain awesome.

9-out-of-10

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Robocco Wars

I really miss Taito as a publisher. I realize that technically they still exist as a part of Square Enix but between their arcade output and console games they were once a known quantity worldwide and that has been lost. They were somewhat underrated back in the day too; everyone knows Capcom and Konami but Taito were right there releasing classics like Bubble Bobble, Shadow of the Ninja, and Little Samson. One cool little game we didn’t get was Robocco Wars, an action game starring a transforming robot and its human pilot. The premise sounds reminiscent of Mega Man but gameplay wise it is anything but. Despite its Japanese exclusivity there is very little text so anyone can enjoy this little gem.

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The best way to describe Robocco Wars is a platformer/shooter hybrid. Of the games nine worlds the focus is clearly on platforming as you control your mech as this comprises the majority of the game but you also take flight in ship form, and travel by sea as a submarine. Unlike most titles that span multiple genres equal attention has been given to all three parts making this an enjoyable ride from start to finish. While there is no standout feature Robocco Wars is still worth tracking down.

When in robot form the game is a standard platformer, albeit one on wheels. Since you have treads instead of wheels the physics are a little different with momentum playing a factor. Once you adjust you’ll find great level design along the lines of mega man. There aren’t many power ups to make things more interesting however your default weapon is plenty powerful as is and only gets stronger as you progress. It should be noted that they had to get a bit creative in terms of enemy designs considering these levels are comprised of land with train tracks. The level design is varied and creative, with multiple routes to the exit, vertical drops, and tunnels. It gives off a similar feel to Kirby’s Adventure although this was released a year or two before that game. Even the stage names such as Sweet Castle, Selena Island, Rainbow Syrup, Starlight Smile, and Mysterious Dream are evocative of that series. In my opinion that’s good company to be in although this isn’t nearly as varied.

When it’s time to move on to the next island you’ll transform into an airplane or submarine for some quick shooting action. These sections are nice diversions if a bit simple. Mechanically they are sound but compared to other shooters on the market they are a bit simple, especially the submarine. Granted the only thing to compare it to is Sqoon but they could have jazzed up the underwater portion of the game a little bit. Perhaps that is why there are only two sub levels compared to three plane sections.

Partially because of its excellent pacing but mostly by design, Robocco Wars is pretty easy overall. Your life bar starts at three hearts but every platforming stage will increase it by at least one and up to a maximum of eight. That is overkill in my opinion. Generally life restoring hearts drop regularly and the few tough bosses still have easy to recognize patterns. Not even limited continues poses much of a deterrent to most reaching the end in short order. The easy difficulty will make the game’s nine stages fly by, making you wish there more.

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The simple visual style is bright and colorful along the same lines as Kirby’s Adventure but obviously not as great as that title. The presentation seems heavily tilted towards the shooter segments as it seems the artists really put a lot of work into making these levels look great. The backgrounds here are highly detailed and sometimes abstract and just look great. The lone outlier would be the submarine portions which are a bit bland. You can’t even use the excuse that it is underwater; Capcom’s the Little Mermaid did an awesome job of providing visual variety in the same environment. I found the music to simply be decent; there are a few catchy tunes but for the most part the soundtrack is simply unmemorable.

Robocco Wars would have been a cool addition to the NES library had it been released worldwide. Granted in 1991 some truly standout games in the action genre were released so it might have been lost in the shuffle but at least it would have been exposed to a wider audience. There is no language barrier to overcome so for those plumbing the system’s library this is an easy sell.

7-out-of-10-1

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Don Doko Don

You know I’ve never stopped to really examine just how much I really like single screen platformers. In my mind it is easy to dismiss the “genre” since I got more than my fill of it during the Atari 2600 days. But later games such as Bubble Bobble, Snow Bros. and even Joe & Mac Returns really brought the genre into the modern era kicking and screaming. Where these games largely disappeared on consoles they still flourished in the arcade with the occasional console port. Taito’s Don Doko Don is a game I only learned of in recent years and have grown to love since then. Don’t let the similarities to Bubble Bobble fool you, Don Doko Don can stand on its own and is excellent.

You can’t really blame Taito for using their Bubble Bobble blueprint when creating Don Doko Don. The two games are near identical in gameplay with a few exceptions. Bob and Jim don’t blow bubbles but instead use mallets to flatten enemies. Once pancaked you can pick them up and toss them at a wall or their friends to take them out. It’s actually kind of funny in that you can pick up three or four at once and chuck them simultaneously. If you wait too long flattened enemies will get regain consciousness which is similar to the bubbles bursting in BB. Although the mallet is your only weapon it can also be used to destroy parts of the environment which will topple and crush anything below (hint, hint).

Defeated enemies drop fruit for points while random power-ups spawn in the center of the screen. The list is far smaller than Bubble Bobble unfortunately but no less potent. Potions will increase your movement speed and power. Power is actually a useful stat as it allows you to throw enemies through walls and multiple objects in one toss. The different hammers don’t show up until later, which kill enemies in one hit or allow you to toss them for some ranged attacks. The Book of death stops time and kills all enemies and surprisingly crops up often. The book of Smash will flatten everything on screen for a short while. One last element from Bubble Bobble has carried over; there is an invisible timer and if you take too long a winged imp arrives and seeks you out. It’s easier to avoid him here since he moves in a figure eight pattern but is no less nerve wracking once you hear that sound.

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Since the brothers don’t have the power set of their contemporaries or the variety in power-ups the game has to impress through strong level design, which it has in spades. The game has a rich cast of enemies that changes every few stages. That’s long enough to introduce their special attacks than place them in uniquely laid out rooms that will see you rubbing up against the invisible clock frequently before moving on. That it managed to keep up this pace on excellent fashion right up to its conclusion is a rare sight. As much as I wish there were a few more items s o you weren’t stuck with the stock hammer the varied level design made it a non factor since I was still having fun.

Because the levels are less gimmicky than in similar titles Don Doko Don is easier and moves at a faster clip. There are many levels that provide the all powerful book from the start that eliminates all enemies in one swipe. It’s not uncommon to wipe out every enemy with a well placed throw either. Not that I’m complaining; I’ll take this over bullshit like stage 58 in bubble bobble any day. The boss battles are the only real source of frustration in my opinion. You would not expect such large and stationary creatures to pose much of a threat but the time limit is short and the game isn’t very forthcoming with extra lives. You can still zerg it but what self respecting gamer enjoys doing that?

Don Doko Don follows a similar structure to Capcom’s Snow Bros with 5 worlds consisting of 9 single screen levels followed by a boss battle. While I do somewhat miss the content overload of having 100 levels 50 is more than adequate and from a pacing perspective better. Sometimes less is better as the game does not overstay its welcome. For those that want more there is an alternate path after the first world that leads to the Reverse World, another set of 50 levels. Not that I want to get your hopes up to much but these are simply arrangements of the main game but at least there is an alternate ending for your trouble.

Don Doko Don turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that if I had seen that box art in Toys R Us back in the day I wouldn’t have given it the time of the day. I probably also ate glue back then so that shows what I know. I had never even heard of the original arcade game so I came to this blind. What I found was a game similar to many beloved classics yet unique enough to stand on its own. Platforming fans have another one to add to the list.

8-out-of-101

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Mamono Hunter Yohko: Makai Kara no Tenkosei

Mamono Hunter Yohko: Makai Kara no Tenkosei (Devil Hunter Yohko: the Seven Balls) is a game that has managed to slip under the radar for quite some time which is surprising considering how loyal the Sega fan base has been over the years. I’m surprised the game was never localized, especially as Sega of America and the game’s publisher NCS were not so discerning in the Genesis’s early years. After playing the game however I can kind of see why. This isn’t necessarily a bad game but we didn’t miss out on a long lost classic either.

Loosely based on the OVA series of the same name Devil Hunter Yohko: the Seven Balls sees the titular heroine as she takes up the sword as the 108th devil hunter in her family line. It’s been decades since I’ve watched the show but I have vague memories of it being a little bit silly as Yohko swooned over boys as much as she fought monsters. However the game plays it dead seriously and considering the game’s ridiculous level of challenge I can see why. I can appreciate a difficult game when done properly but unfortunately this is not one of them. The comparisons to Valis can be made but I found that series to be far more engaging than the frustrating design of this game.

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I made the comparison to Valis and to a certain extent it can’t be helped. Yohko only has one weapon, a short range melee sword that if you’re smart you will never rely on. Your primary attack will be the shield erected once you hold the attack button. This shield serves two functions: obviously it will protect you from projectiles but it can also be tossed in any direction. The barrier isn’t infallible; it isn’t strong enough to guard against head on collisions and too many bullets in a row will cause it to weaken and break. It’s an interesting mechanic, having to choose between attack and defense and one that serves the game well.

The primary thrust of the game is platforming and unfortunately this is where it stumbles. Imagine playing Super Mario Brothers with the rigid controls and physics of Castlevania. The thought alone almost made me punch my monitor and that is regrettably what you get here. Yohko isn’t as stiff in her movements and runs at a nice clip but once airborne you are locked into that action. The level design calls for precise timing and placement which you can manage as enemies swarm constantly. The collision is also spotty and so you’ll fall through ledges that you have clearly landed on. The late stages of the game place a heavier emphasis on this which makes it all the more frustrating that it isn’t as tightly designed as it should be.

Devil Hunter Yohko is brutally difficult, not just through its design but because it feels as though you are ill equipped to deal with the amount of crap thrown your way. Using the shield as a projectile is a double edged sword in that it will deal with distant enemies but they attack in packs and the melee sword is pathetic in comparison. For the stronger enemies it is nearly impossible to get away without taking a hit which feels cheap. The lack of any power-ups aside from health beads is dubious considering in the OVA Yohko was equipped with numerous weapons to exorcise demons. Their absence is pretty glaring and makes an already difficult game that much harder.

At just five stages the game is pretty short but you won’t be seeing the end of it any time soon. Despite what may seem like a generous amount of time in most cases you’ll reach the bosses minimal time to spare. It’s not that the levels are a maze or have many nooks and crannies to explore but the fact that it is optimal to move slowly and deal with enemies one at a time. Surprisingly I found the bosses to be pushovers provided you can actually 1. Reach them and 2. Have enough time. But that last stage is a summation of nearly everything wrong with the game and can eat my ass. Seriously.

In a strange way I put Devil Hunter Yohko in the same category as Earnest Evans; a game that had potential but falls flat in the end. This is certainly not as dire a train wreck as that game but playing it to appreciate its finer points will just end in frustration. You are better off with Valis III or Castlevania which are both cheaper and far better in every way.

6-out-of-101

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Aldynes

While the PC Engine was a solid number two in Japan its aging hardware was starting to fall behind the Genesis and SNES. Clever programming tricks allowed its games to shine but it was only a matter of time before consumers moved on. The Supergrafx was supposed to be its successor, boasting true 16-bit hardware to allow it to better compete alongside those titans but in the end it would go on to become one of the industry’s biggest failures alongside the 64DD and Virtual Boy. The system failed so badly that only seven games in total were created for it with two of these also being backwards compatible; even the Virtual Boy eventually had a library of almost 50 games in Japan.

Of its seven total games Aldynes is one of its highest profile. At its core Aldynes is a standard shooter of which the PC Engine had plenty but the added grunt allowed it to show off many tricks not possible on the older system and served as an excellent showcase of what the Supergrafx was capable of. It also doesn’t hurt that the game itself is fantastic.

The number of weapons is kept small but all three have their uses throughout the game. The typical laser is the most powerful but starts out thin but with further power-ups will increase in size dramatically. The rebounding laser travels along the floor and ceiling in an arc making it perfect for enclosed spaces, less so for boss battles. Lastly the spread gun fires in a wide arc that covers a good portion of the screen but lacks power. Curiously if you hold the shot button you’ll power up a shield that will absorb bullets but can also destroy smaller enemies on contact, not that it’s a safe option.

Speaking of options you can have up to four which isn’t impressive on its own but they are bigger and more versatile than in most other shmups. They can be set up in 3 different formations: the standard focused fire option where they supplement your attacks, a rotating shield by holding down button I and to follow your ship. The last option is the most useful. Here they move up and down and will aggressively attack any enemies within their range. Having up to four options simultaneously is almost game breaking yet the game still manages to balance them out. Even though Seek mode is the best option it isn’t completely infallible. The game throws so many targets once that they are easily confused and with the bigger ships they are more or less useless unless you switch to focus fire mode. Also changes in terrain can potentially leave them separated from you and vulnerable.

You’ll still need expert flying skills to dodge the hordes of bullets that pepper the screen let alone survive against some of the tougher bosses. You won’t have an easy ride to see the end credits as the game picks up significantly after the first few levels. The singe hit deaths are soul crushing since they send you back to a checkpoint with no weapons and any shooter veteran knows this is usually an impossible situation to recover from. Somehow in spite of that the game is still fair in its challenge.

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Visually the game is spectacular, far beyond almost any shooter released for the stock Turbo Grafx. Despite lasting a scant seven levels the game manages to avoid the typical gaming clichés of an ice level, fire level, etc. with most of the game taking place in industrial environments. The scrolling is often seven or eight layers deep which is truly amazing to see in action. Stage three in particular is insane as its background layers stretch back as far as the eye can see with multiple screen filling warships and bullets flying everywhere. Sights like these aren’t uncommon and there is no trace of slowdown whatsoever.

The bosses are all gigantic mechanical monstrosities that leave little room to maneuver; at this point the designers are basically showing off. There are even gratuitous scaling effects present throughout the game. The game has the look of a late era Genesis shooter like Lightening Force except with more color (at times) yet it was released in 1991. If the intent were to sell gamers with its production values the developers definitely succeeded.

Even the music is pretty catchy; the sound hardware is the one area the Supergrafx did not really improve on the Turbo Grafx yet the composers have graced the game with a great soundtrack. Unfortunately the sound effects lack any impact which dulls the overall aural component.

Aldynes is a great game but unfortunately it is hard to track down let alone play. Because the Supergrafx never left Japan and was a flop it sells for large sums of money on Ebay (usually over $300). The game itself it cheap in comparison but your best bet is to buy it on the Japanese PSN. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but does offer a glimpse of what could have been if the system were actually successful.

8-out-of-101

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The Adventures of Little Ralph

The Adventures of Little Ralph is the type of platformer those of us naive as to where the industry was headed expected to see more of. As 16-bit waned we as gamers were treated to a feast of future classics such as Donkey Kong Country 2, Yoshi’s Island 2, Sonic & Knuckles and many others. It isn’t far fetched to say that most expected a healthy amount of beautiful 2d stuff alongside the new 3d games and when we saw titles like Astal and Gunner’s Heaven the future looked bright. But publishers had other plans in mind and nearly abandoned 2d altogether. This wouldn’t have stung so much if so much if that early period of 3d gaming wasn’t so bad. We went from tight mechanics to publishers charging us $50 for whatever aborted fetus of an idea they managed to cobble together in 3d as they learned the ropes.

However! As damning as that sounds it didn’t take long for things to get better. While they floundered at first they eventually got it right and I would say by 1998 3d games came into their own. That makes Little Ralph’s release a bit of an anomaly in 1999. This accomplished little gem would not have stood out against titles like Metal Gear Solid or Soul Reaver but that doesn’t make it any less great. As a reminder of what made games like Actraiser classic and just on its own merits the adventures of little Ralph is an amazing adventure for anyone that loves platformers.

The story is a little bit interesting. A village is under attack and Ralph, an unknown warrior, is doing his best to protect the townsfolk. Unfortunately the leader of the monsters casts a spell that turns Ralph into a child. Before they can finish off Ralph a woman steps in to save his life. The demons don’t care however and pull a Double Dragon, leaving little Ralph to find some clothes and rescue his savior.

At its core the mechanics are as simple as can be. You have a standard sword slash but can also charge it up to send enemies flying to bowl over their compatriots. Even the few power-ups keep it simple. You can collect two kinds of sword upgrades, one to increase its range and another to shoot fireballs. You also get a little white……I don’t know what the hell it is but the little bastard supplements your attacks with bombs of his own.

Little Ralph doesn’t try to wow you with revolutionary gameplay but instead through tight level design that makes excellent use of your skills. The game is filled with all sorts of clever platforming challenges along the lines of the Donkey Kong Country series with trap filled mine cart chases, collapsing platforms, and nailing multiple enemies in sequence to progress. You’ll visit a wide variety of locations like British castles, Egyptian pyramids, sewers, and even take to the sky. Almost every stage has multiple paths, an easier higher path that takes skill to reach or the low road which has more enemies and tougher platforming challenges. It’s nice to be able to somewhat tailor the game to your level of skill.

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Just when you think the game has shown you all of its cards about halfway through a new element is introduced as it becomes a full fledged fighting game during boss battles. Ralph returns to his normal form temporarily and gains a full complement of special moves executed by Capcom style button combos. These are a nice distraction and change of pace although you shouldn’t go into it expecting a deep combo system.

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Don’t let the beautiful aesthetics fool you as this is probably more difficult than many of the games we grew up on. This is the kind of game where every jump is measured and enemy placement is meticulously planned out. Ralph moves at a brisk clip and it is tempting to stay on the move but guarantees a swift death as enemies spawn everywhere. This is the type of game that will place items within reach to entice you into jumping early or forgetting to keep your hand on the attack button only to die because a shark hit you in midair and I Iove it. That being said I do think single hit deaths are a bit harsh. The optional shield that will absorb one hit doesn’t start to show up until the game’s midpoint which makes the early stages a brutal game of trial and error. Even a simple three hit life bar would have done wonders to ease the difficulty but that is just my personal gripe. Infinite continues make this more than manageable if frustrating.

I would have loved to have seen this get a worldwide release but I’m sure Punky Skunk failing to light up the charts scared publishers off. It doesn’t matter though as the game is import friendly. The only problem will be finding it as the game is rare but worth it. To that I say good luck.

8-out-of-101

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Rendering Ranger: R2

Whenever Rendering Ranger: R2 is mentioned the first topic of discussion is its exorbitant price. With a low print run due to its late release in Japan the game can sometimes run well over a thousand dollars. It’s insane that any game can ever sell for that much but the mystique surrounding RR is something else. With Manfred Trenz, one of the designers behind Turrican at the helm its pedigree can’t be denied. But I don’t think anyone expected the game to be such a graphical tour de force. Rendering Ranger backs up its ridiculous technical accomplishments with excellent gameplay and if you can find it for a decent price buy it as soon as possible.

Make no mistake Rendering Ranger is a Turrican game in almost everything but name. The protagonist is different but those who are familiar with the later action oriented games in the series will find the side scrolling segments here to be very similar. However the levels are strictly action focused, ditching the wide open exploratory nature of those games. In that regard Rendering Ranger most resembles Super Turrican 2 but on steroids if you can believe it. The split between Contra style action and shooter segments does make the game feel wholly separate in my opinion.

This is a game of two halves with both sides given equal billing. The side scrolling levels are just like Contra. The four weapons cover the usual staples: red spread, Blue spear, green rebound, and the yellow pulse. The names are self-explanatory with the exception of the yellow pulse which fires in almost every direction at once. Unlike most action games you keep all of your weapons when picked up and can switch at any time. In fact knowing when to switch is absolutely crucial to making any headway in the game. Certain weapons perform better against different bosses to say nothing about taking out enemies from a distance. You’ll also need to abuse the game’s bomb system as boss battles run a bit too long. Bombs regenerate after use and differ by weapon. Hoarding them is flat out stupid as the system is devised for constant use.

Once you take to the sky things change. The weapons carry over and are also joined by satellites (or options). Although this isn’t a dedicated shooter it’s still probably some of the most intense shooting action on the system. At its most frantic the game will throw 20-30 enemies at once with no break in between and it never slows down. Ever. This isn’t a nonstop thrill however as the levels vary their pacing consistently. I like that the levels scroll in every direction as it presents unique challenges for the genre. It does get a bit cheap once the game asks you to navigate tight corridors and mazes at far too great a speed. Sequences like this feel like they were designed specifically to sap your extra lives but maybe that’s just me.

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Throughout all of these trials and tribulations prepare to see your SNES do things you never thought possible. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most technically accomplished games of that era. This really could pass for a Saturn game. The pre-rendered graphics are simply amazing, calling to mind Donkey Kong Country but with even more detail as the sprites are higher resolution. Nearly every level is filled with jaw dropping moments that will have you scrambling to replay the game just to experience it all over again. Stage 7 features a dizzying city raid that scrolls both left and right at a rapid fire pace as an innumerable fleet of ships attack at every turn. The use of Mode 7 and rotating sprites can seem a bit gratuitous at times but when the experience is this incredible I wouldn’t blame the developers for going even more over the top.

A lavish amount of attention was garnished on both sides of the game with the shooter levels coming across as even more impressive since there is never a hint of slowdown no matter how hectic the game gets. And trust me it borders on insanity at times. There are maybe 2 or three times you’ll see some flicker and all things considered I’m flabbergasted that it isn’t worse. The soundtrack is suitably excellent; Manfred Trenz pulls out a score that is reminiscent of Turrican yet still unique. There’s some deep bass going on that you don’t normally hear out of the SNES while still managing to sound symphonic.

To see all of the game’s visual splendor however you are going to have to work for it or cheat as the game is brutally difficult. You only have 3,5, or 7 lives to see the game through to its conclusion and they drain pretty fast. Even with passwords you’ll be hard pressed to make it a few levels in without running out of lives. As much as I like the weapons they feel woefully underpowered in the face of the massive bullet sponge bosses. This is the type of game where dying removes any enhancements to your currently selected weapon and it is very possible to lose everything, at which point you might as well start over. The later levels are especially cheap as they descend into navigating mazes with little margin for error and multiple boss rushes. The difficulty is a massive impediment but not a deal breaker; far from it. But if the game were more balanced it would have been classic.

Even if you were to judge the game by its individual parts it would still be fantastic. When taken as a whole Rendering Ranger is a phenomenal game and one of the best action titles of the 16-bit era. The only problem is finding it; the game was severely undershipped with few copies in circulation. The few times it does show up for sale the game runs in the hundreds or sometimes well over a thousand dollars. Your best bet is to buy a reproduction cart as paying that much for a game is simply retarded. If you love action games than you absolutely will not regret buying Rendering Ranger: R2.

9-out-of-10

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Renny Blaster

When Rondo of Blood was passed over for a US release I was dismayed to say the least. As one of the lone Turbo Grafx owners in my neighborhood it was supposed to be the game that justified owning the damn system in the first place (at least in my mind) but it simply wasn’t meant to be. Let’s ignore the fact that I sure as hell didn’t have the three or four hundred dollars needed to play it if Konami did release it here at the time. Action titles like Dracula X weren’t in great supply on the Duo so any game in that vein got my attention and Renny Blaster seemed set to scratch the itch Rondo had left many years ago. But ultimately the game is an expensive letdown and only slightly above average.

As a late PC Engine CD release in 1995 Renny Blaster commands a high price as it is difficult to find due to a low print run. Unfortunately it is definitely not worth the hundreds of dollars it commands on the aftermarket. Despite its slick cut scenes and at times enjoyable gameplay the game suffers from a bit of an identity crisis as it can’t decide whether it wants to be a straight up brawler or the Castlevania inspired action game its art and graphics would suggest. While decent overall you can spend the exorbitant amounts of money the game goes for buying multiple similar and better titles on the same platform.

Renny Blaster initially gives off the impression of a Castlevania style adventure but is in fact more of a beat em up in the vein of Double Dragon or Streets of Rage. The two protagonists differ wildly in terms of their move set and abilities, to the point where playing as each is a radically different experience. Fujiro utilizes hand to hand techniques to dispatch enemies while Seishiro has numerous spells for long range combat. To sort of balance it out Seishiro is physically weaker but his ranged attacks still manage to make the game far easier for beginners.

You’ll have to get used to the controls as the buttons are reversed but once you’ve gotten over that bit of stupidity its fairly easy to pull off the numerous attacks at your disposal. Using simple button combinations will enable different moves and spells and the variety is pretty large for a brawler. In addition by holding down the attack button you can charge up one of three elemental attacks that are pretty devastating. The cool thing is aside from the charge time you can spam them as much as you want! New spells are learned through scrolls found throughout the game with the option to switch them around between levels; some trial and error is required here due to the language barrier.

While Renny Blaster starts out as a well accomplished brawler there is a sudden shift in tone and design about a quarter of the way through that is unnecessary and hurts the game overall. The city streets and airports of its early stages give way to gothic cathedrals, clock towers and castles that wouldn’t look out of place in a certain Konami series. The ill-advised swerve in that direction also means the enemies change to follow suit and the combat system is clearly not set up for you to deal with enemies brandishing weapons. If you are using Fujiro be prepared for much aggravation since you’ll have to take damage to get in range to deal punishment. As Seishiro your attacks deal little damage and have such a long wind up that most enemies will simply block. There’s usually one attack that each enemy is susceptible to but be prepared to chip away at these bastards for a while towards the end. There’s also some light platforming that, while inoffensive, seems really out of place in the game.

I don’t know why the tonal shift happened but it leaves the game feeling like the generic clone its art suggests rather than the inspired beat em up it starts out as. The game would have turned out far better if it stayed the course with an even difficulty curve as stronger enemies are introduced. As it is it will remind you of the far better games that it obviously drew inspiration from.

Regardless of my frustration with the reversed controls the game overall is insanely easy. Most enemies barely inflict any damage with their hits allowing you to ascertain the best attack to take them out easily. Most levels aren’t heavily populated so combat is minimal. Health restoring food is usually placed after the challenging bouts with the more troublesome enemies, not that you’ll need it. The game conveniently refills your life bar after moving on to the next level segment. The mid and end level boss battles are the only areas that put up a fight but can be brute forced provided you have extra lives as you respawn immediately. The whole game can be completed in a little over an hour but with four endings decided by your choice of characters through the game there is some slight replay value but not much.

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Visually the game is uneven and definitely does not seem like a late era release for the platform. The art itself is well done with incredibly detailed backgrounds although the lack of any scrolling is really inexcusable considering the system was in its twilight years. There’s a noted shift in the game’s tone as the environments become more gothic and derivative of Castlevania with the enemies following suit. The sprite work leaves something to be desired as the animation on enemies is stilted. The lengthy cut scenes feature exquisite art that looks fantastic although there is no animation aside from slow pans of the camera. The soundtrack is also excellent, full of creepy macabre tunes that set the appropriate mood. There’s an extensive amount of voiced dialogue that unfortunately is lost on non-Japanese speakers.

Good production values however do not make a good game however. Renny Blaster has some interesting gameplay ideas that are executed well but unfortunately the game itself is not good enough to support them. If the game were significantly cheaper maybe I could recommend it but the exorbitant price you’ll need to pay to own it means you are better off playing something else like Kaze Kiri or Rondo of Blood.

6-out-of-10-1

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Dragon Scroll

I’m always kind of amazed that with the popularity of the Legend of Zelda the US and Europe received very few of the games that were inspired by it in Japan. Over in Japan there is quite a large volume of action RPGs that have almost the exact same structure (as well as more Dragon Quest clones than should be legally allowed) with some of them being actually really good games. Konami’s Dragon Scroll sits somewhere in the middle; there’s a lot to like about the game but like Simon’s Quest there is also a shit ton of frustration to deal with as well. The game’s vague story and hints aren’t a result of a bad fan translation but were always there to begin with. Only those who can tolerate a ton of janky design decisions need apply sadly.

Long ago the factions representing the three headed Chrome Dragon and the Gold Dragon were at war with one another. To stop the fighting the god Narume put the Chrome Dragon to sleep using eight magic books. Centuries later after a period of peace three thieves steal the magic books, awakening the dragon and plunging the world into darkness. The god Narume sends the hero Feram to retrieve the eight books and hopefully stop the Chrome Dragon before all is lost.

This would not be Konami’s first attempt at infusing RPG elements into an action game. I made the comparison to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest earlier for a good reason as the two games share so much in common. Both games drop you into the world with no direction but where Castlevania more or less has some order in which you can accomplish your goal Dragon Scroll is completely nonlinear. There is very little keeping you from visiting late game areas early on aside from the fact you’ll die in seconds. The two games unfortunately share the same penchant for only providing obtuse clues as to where you should go or what certain items can do. I would even go so far as to say this might be even worse in that regard! Yet I still liked Dragon Scroll to an extent but unless you plan on using a guide don’t bother since you will never figure out some of the cryptic bullshit in this game otherwise.

At the start you are armed with a simple staff with a short attack range and your wits. Defeating enemies gains experience which will increase your life bar, magic meter, or attack power at set intervals. Unlike most 8-bit Rpgs the leveling curve is actually pretty fair and if you spend about 10 minutes grinding in the desert you’ll stay ahead of the curve for the rest of the game. There are only 2 other staves earned for the rest of the game but an assortment of secondary items that all serve some purpose in the game but you’ll be hard pressed to figure them out on your own.

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I can appreciate a nonlinear adventure as much as the next guy but at the very least they provide some guidance. Dragon Scroll doesn’t even give you that much. The only stated goal is to find the eight magic books and stop the Chrome Dragon but as for how you go about that task, good luck. In the Legend of Zelda the game kind of guides you to the first dungeon but here all you can do is walk around, kill random enemies and listen to the vague bullshit they have to say. I wish I were joking on that last point but I’m not. Constant references to landmarks and other zones are dropped but the game does not explicitly tell you where they are.

The various items grant spells that serve specific functions in the game that you’ll have to learn on your own. Some are obvious; the silver ring increases your walking speed and the crystal ball provides an auto map. The most important is the Yunke Fruit which will reveal hidden items and this is where the game really jumps the shark. Almost every crucial item is hidden within a stone pillar or part of the environment that you must hit with the Yunke fruit to reveal. The problem is you are never told where and when to use it and have to exercise trial and error. Occasionally it is fairly obvious; if you come to a dead end with a lone statue chances are its hiding something. But when there are rows of stone formations and such you don’t have enough magic to try all of them.

And it gets even worse. Remember in Simon’s Quest, having to crouch on Deborah’s Cliff with the Red Crystal equipped for a few seconds to gain transport to another region of the world? Sometimes you’ll have to stand between two statues for a few seconds to reveal hidden chests or teleport to a remote door here. The worst is the Illusion Tower. To access it first you must use the Rain Bell at a set point. Then you’ll need to use the Yunke Fruit to make the door appear. Guess what? There are no clues as to these steps within the game. Yeah.

God I could keep going on but you get the point. It’s as though Konami saw what Nintendo did with Zelda and did the bare minimum to replicate it but ignored all of the subtleties that made it great. The audible clues whenever you have successfully completed a puzzle, the direct hints and clues given out by citizens in dungeons and the world. It was a challenge but one that was doable because the game gave you enough hints to figure things out on your own and was at least obvious enough that you could guess if need be. Dragon Scroll is inscrutable by comparison.

This was a valiant attempt at an ambitious action RPG but is ultimately bogged down by being too open ended for its own good. Unless you plan on playing the game with a guide nearby don’t bother. While I wish I could say we missed out on a cool game in the end I think Konami made the right choice leaving it in Japan.

6-out-of-101

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Castlevania III (Japan)

I’ve wanted to do a thorough review on this one for quite some time. For years I’ve read about the differences between Castlevania III and its Japanese counterpart, Akumajou Densetsu. Most of that information was concerning the music but rarely ever went into the gameplay changes between the two versions of the game. Some of the alterations are significant and worth noting and I will admit if given the choice I would definitely pick Akumajou Densetsu. But like Contra it’s not as though we received a broken version of the game. But the little differences do make it that much better.

Structurally this is no different than the game we received. As Trevor (or Ralph in this version) Belmont it is your job to stop Count Dracula and forces around the country of Wallachia. As the last game in the series for the NES this featured a host of improvements to the series standard formula and is commonly held up as one of the best games for the NES and the notable differences between the western and eastern versions are pretty striking, starting with the music.

Dracula’s Curse had an amazing soundtrack, one of the best on the NES. It’s hard to believe but its Japanese counterpart has even better music thanks to Konami’s custom VRC6 mapper. This custom chip added 3 additional sound channels to the system, two square wave channels and a pulse wave. What this means to the common man is a much richer sound filled with digital instrument samples and percussion. The difference is immediately apparent and worth checking out just to compare the two. Once you’ve heard the music in AD the missing instruments really do stand out. I will say though that Konami’s composers did an excellent job of recreating the music for the NES and even without chip it is still the compositions are fantastic.

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Compared to the sound there aren’t as many graphical changes. The most prominent are slight bits of animation here and there such as in the intro and backgrounds. There are some small bits of scenery that were censored in the US release, mostly naked statues and the harpy sprites. I’ve always been amazed that the series has been able to get its religious imagery past Nintendo’s strict censors back then but then again Konami was no ordinary third party at the time either. Some of the enemies are slightly different like the flea men but are no less annoying. I’m actually kind of surprised there aren’t more differences but I suppose the game was already pushing the system pretty hard as is.

Next to the music the one key area that Akumajou Densetsu differs from Castlevania III is in its challenge. The series is known for its crushing difficulty and this third installment was no exception. However passwords made it more manageable (and it should be noted the original Castlevania came on an FDS disc and allowed saving). Here all enemies inflict a set amount of damage from start to finish which evens out the difficulty curve considerably. For its worldwide release Konami made it so that enemies started off weak but became incredibly strong by the end making the final levels particularly nightmarish. Now however you can predict how tough a section might be. It also makes your supporters more viable; they all take more damage when hit and in US release would die in 3 or 4 hits near the finale. I’m not saying you’ll use Grant to fight Dracula but it’s actually a possibility.

Speaking of Grant, wow what a difference. In this version Grant’s default attack is a throwing dagger which is infinitely more practical than his weak melee dagger in the US version. For whatever reason Konami changed it and made using Grant for anything other than shortcuts not feasible. You still have to accurately target enemies and it is still weak but attacking from long range at no extra cost really is a god send at times. I actually kept him as my partner for the entire game rather than swapping him out for Alucard and it was probably my favorite run through the game.

I should note that this review was mostly to pique my curiosity. In no way shape or form did we get hosed; Castlevania III is still a great game and like our version of Contra worth whatever cheap price you’ll pay. But situations like these were rampant in the 8-bit era and are worth examining. Now if you had the choice of course I would say go for the Japanese version but you can’t go wrong either way.

9-out-of-10

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Crystal Beans from Dungeon Explorer

The SNES and Genesis shared many multiplatform games both stateside and abroad yet that wasn’t the case with the Turbo Grafx. The system’s shooter library shared many arcade conversions with the Genesis but none of its games saw a Super Nintendo release, at least in the US. In Japan it was the opposite with many Rpgs such as Emerald Dragon and Popful Mail (all three versions of that game are pretty awesome) hitting both formats. Dungeon Explorer II would receive a remixed port to the Super Famicom with mixed results. This isn’t a case of stuffing a CD game on a cartridge backfiring but more a series of baffling decisions that hurt the game overall.

The game’s plot differs pretty significantly. All ties and references to the original Dungeon Explorer are gone and we are left with a generic plot. The land of Grandol enjoyed a time of peace thanks to the power of the Miracle Gems, which were used to save the world once before. 100 years pass and an ominous cloud appears, spawning demon portals around the world and worse resurrecting the 15 demons sealed by the Miracle Gems. With no other choice the Heroes of Light are summoned to save the world.

The main area that the game has been improved is in its controls. With six action buttons rather than a mere two a variety of functions have been mapped to their own button. Both white and black magic are relegated to the shoulder buttons which is smart and snappy. New to the game is a melee attack that differs depending on your class. It’s useful to deal with enemies that are too close but is useless during boss battles. The better D-pad also makes aiming and movement a smoother experience. These are really simple additions but as a whole are one of the game’s few positives.

Calling Crystal Beans a port of Dungeon Explorer II isn’t entirely accurate.   This comes across more as a cliff notes version of that game rather than a simple conversion. The overall story is largely the same as well as many of the locations but there have been significant cuts during the porting process. The number of playable heroes is the same but the class upgrades have been removed as well as a number of hidden characters. Other than controls in terms of mechanics the two are identical.

One of the principal differences in this version is the removal of the overworld; you simply pick locations on a map. The absence of the overworld and any kind of exploration makes an already straightforward game that much simpler. Selecting your destination from the world map does wonders for the game’s pacing but also feels completely hollow. Although there were no weapon and armor upgrades there were many special items you could find by wandering off the beaten path but now all of that is gone. Those side quests added some much needed depth to the game as the level design is lacking. Most dungeons rarely offer anything more than one path to the boss which makes the game really feel like a heavily guided tour instead of a massive adventure.

In spite of all of the numerous subtractions I still found the game to be pretty easy. Potions drop frequently and monster generators are few in number. The only rough points are the bosses but that is due more to their cheap attacks. Many can either teleport or move so fast it’s easy to get trapped in a corner and smushed. Regardless most dungeons are only a few rooms or floors long so you’ll breeze through the game pretty quickly. I was able to finish the game in five or six hours whereas the CD version I clocked double that number easily.

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The one area that you would expect to see the biggest upgrade, the graphics, are ultimately unsatisfying. The sprites have been redesigned and are larger and sport a much brighter color palette. That also extends to the many towns throughout the game. However everywhere else uses the exact same graphics as its PC Engine counterpart only slightly brighter and the juxtaposition is jarring. The Dungeon Explorer games were pretty ugly but at least were consistent in their ugliness. I feel if they went to the trouble of creating new art for towns and such they should have gone all the way. Some of the more impressive bosses have been replaced with less ambitious creatures, probably because all of these encounters are in closes rooms now. This really should turned out better.

I will say the redbook audio soundtrack has been faithfully recreated which is amazing considering the gap in hardware. Usually synth rock doesn’t fare as well on the SNES and is the Genesis’ forte but the sound programmers have done a wonderful job adapting the tunes. The extensive and well-acted intro had to be sacrificed but that was to be expected.

When it gets down to it Crystal Beans from Dungeon Explorer is not an outright bad game but one that suffers from a few crucial flaws. This easily could have and should have turned out better. While it would have been nice to see it released worldwide honestly the better version of the game was localized.

6-out-of-101

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Great Battle Cyber

Trying to parse out which titles in the long line of super robot and sentai games that Bandai has put out are actually good is harder than you can possibly imagine. There are innumerable Gundam, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman games under strange names that I dare you to try and figure out. The Compati Hero series is a crossover between these three brands and on paper it should be awesome. However the reality is the games did not really find their stride until they hit the SNES. The Great Battle Cyber is evidence of these growing pains; for every element it gets right it also completely fumbles another. Unfortunately it has serious flaws that ruin what could have been a truly great game.

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What immediately stands out are the production values. The backgrounds are expertly drawn and though they repeat a bit towards the end are still fantastic. Great Battle Cyber has a unique look, not quite SD but not full sized characters either. The sprites are larger than in most NES titles and incredibly detailed but what is more impressive is the animation. The protagonists possess a nice range of extremely well animated attacks to a degree not common on the platform. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise as developer Arc System Works are extremely talented as evidenced by their work with the Blaz Blue and Guilty Gear series.   This shows that that talent was always there.

The playable roster consists of Kamen Rider Black, Victory Gundam, and Ultraman Taro. The differences between each character aren’t as pronounced as you would think: Kamen Rider actually has the longest reach despite fighting with his bare hands. The Victory Gundam’s sword attacks in an arc which allows it to deflect airborne attacks and hit flying enemies from the ground. Ultraman…..you know what there’s nothing unique about him. To some extent he occupies a middle ground between the others but that leaves little reason to ever use him.

Combat is probably the game’s greatest asset. All battles in the game are one on one affairs involving a nice variety of opponents. Each character is equipped with a small arsenal of attacks and the back and forth nature of deflecting attacks and trying to find an opening is what keeps it interesting for the length of the game. Once you’ve defeated a particular enemy it becomes easy once you encounter them again however the game introduces new opponents drawn from all three respective universes right up to its conclusion. There are very few power-ups unfortunately; aside from various health items and extra lives the only weapon you’ll acquire infrequently is a gun that will allow you to breeze through fights. Abuse the hell out of it!

As much as I like combat the game’s controls are an issue. The largest problem is the delay between pressing a button and the game responding. Since some of the animation cycles are so long along with the delay you can’t make quick movements which results in cheap hits. Your movements are a slippery and imprecise which absolutely ruins the game when it comes to platforming. Where combat seems to take precedence early on halfway through the game platforming becomes the focus and it flat out barely works. By stage 7 the game ask a level of precision from you that the controls simply cannot deliver. Hopping from one hand rail to the next requires you to slap the jump button well in advance to hope that it will execute in time. Landing on a falling series of blocks and having to perform a rolling dash immediately after is just….no. I can honestly say that the second half of Great Battle Cyber is some of the most frustrating times I’ve ever spent with a game.

Because of the control issues what would have been a moderately challenging game is a Castlevania level nightmare. Once you have learned each enemy’s attack pattern running through a gauntlet of bad guys isn’t so hard even with the scarcity of health pickups. But anything to do with the jump button undermines that. Unlimited continues and passwords alleviate this somewhat but considering the game is 15 stages long you’ll feel frustration more than elation. The sad thing is there is some awesome level design toward the end of the game but I seriously doubt most will have the patience and dedication to ever reach that point.

I’m torn on this one. I like certain aspects of the game however the heavier emphasis on platforming in the second half almost completely ruins it. I wish I could say that those that stick with it will find some measure of reward but in truth it gets even more frustrating the deeper you progress. There are some good ideas in here but they are buried under shoddy execution.

6-out-of-101

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Faussete Amour

Faussete Amour is a game that I coveted for many long years. A random screenshot in a magazine is all I had to go on but it looked so awesome. As a fan of the Valis series (while at the same time acknowledging that they were OK at best) it looked set to scratch that action game itch missing on the US Turbo Grafx. But alas, it stayed in Japan like the majority of titles that would have made the CD add-on worthwhile. It would be many years before I landed a copy and after all of that anticipation the game is average at best.

Despite its surface similarity to Valis Faussete Amour has the pacing of a Castlevania game. Coruk’s baton is analogous to Simon’s whip though a bit faster. It can also be used to swing from ledges like a certain Capcom game. Taking another page from Capcom when hit Coruk loses her armor and is reduced to her bathing suit with one more hit spelling death. There are a few magic spells available although the homing thunder is so overpowered the rest can’t compete.

With all of these mechanics in place Faussete Amour would seem to be a mutant hybrid between Valis, Castlevania, and Bionic Commando. In other words the dream game I never knew I wanted. But in practice it is anything but. The controls surprisingly aren’t the greatest which makes no sense as this is a two button game. Pressing jump twice will extend your baton to latch on to a surface and swing. You have no control over the arc but can make a launching flip at any time (as a bonus you are invincible during it, abuse it!). This method is not the least bit intuitive. Even worse to activate magic you must first jump and then press down and attack which is just stupid. In spite of this setup you do get used to the controls even if they are less than ideal. One more button on the controller would have alleviated these issues but what can you do?

The level design is boring as it doesn’t present any meaningful use of your baton until the end game. The goal of each scene is to gather three crystals in order to face the boss, a feat that is never a problem. The early levels are incredibly straightforward with only a few higher platforms to explore for items. Speaking of higher ground there are far too many instances where you’ll need to make blind leaps and hope for the best. The lone instance where the swinging mechanic is used extensively is scene five which sees you climbing a tower to avoid rising lava. It comes as no surprise that this is the single best level in the game as all of the mechanics come together beautifully and will make you wish the rest of the game were put together so well.

There is an almost complete absence of any challenge despite the fact that you can only sustain two hits. Armor replacements are spaced within a few feet of each other at times which means you can be reckless and suffer little penalty. Extra lives are given out like candy; by the end of the first stage I had seven lives with barely any effort. Aside from stage five with its treacherous tower ascent and battle royal style boss battle you’ll be hard pressed to break a sweat. And I’m taking into consideration the odd boss fight and the random leaps of faith. As absurd as it sounds the lack of any difficulty is disheartening since you’ll breeze through the game so fast.

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The graphics are both pretty great for the system while also disappointing at the same time. The rich color palette makes the game pop like very few from that generation and almost gives it a distinct look. The sprites are large, well designed and decently animated with the bosses being the most impressive. The backgrounds are lush with detail but are also the presentation’s weak spot. With backdrops this gorgeous though it’s a shame that they are completely static.

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There are a number of cut scenes in between levels they are poorly animated, if you can even call it that. They seem to exist only to provide a ridiculous amount of fan service I guess to motivate you to press onward because let’s face it, the gameplay isn’t doing it. The camera angles frequently focus on Coruk’s ass and all of the female bosses can be seen in submissive poses once beaten. There’s a bit of nudity here and there as Coruk falls completely naked upon death and the end game boss seems to grow a pair of breasts during your final encounter. While I’m certainly not complaining it does seem out of place and completely unnecessary.

There are some good ideas buried under the lacking execution but even with that in mind Faussete Amour is not worth tracking down. Especially since the game is in the $150-200 range. Your time and money is better spent on better games like Valis IV or Rondo of Blood.

6-out-of-101

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Rockman & Forte

Up until recently a large number of current generation games were still seeing a release on prior platforms, one to leverage the large install base of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 but also because not many had moved on to the newer platforms. This phenomena is not unprecedented however as Capcom began work on a SNES version of Mega Man 8 for the same reasons. However it eventually became an original title and one of the few games in the series to remain in Japan until years later. With plenty of new features and much tighter gameplay than Mega Man 7 Rockman & Forte was an excellent swan song for the series on the SNES.

A year has passed since Mega Man defeated Dr. Wily at the end of Mega Man 8. The peace his victory achieved is interrupted when a new robot named King steals data from the Robot museum to create an army to rule the world. Mega Man is not the only one after King however as his rival Bass decides to destroy him in a bid to prove he is the most powerful robot of all.

You have a choice between Mega Man and Bass this time around and the two have wildly divergent abilities. The Blue Bomber remains unchanged from prior installments meaning the charge shot and slide make their return. Sadly this time around there is no Rush outside of an optional upgrade you can buy. Playing as Bass is a breath of fresh air as he has a number of powers Mega Man can’t compete with. Though he lacks a charge shot Bass can fire in seven directions. He can also dash and double jump.

The game seems heavily in favor of Bass as his double jump in particular sees plenty of use. Once you make it to King/Dr. Wily’s castle you won’t have to futz around with the special weapons to reach certain ladders or clear spiked pits as his dash jump is more than adequate. However he has enough weaknesses that offset his advantages. Bass takes more damage from hits; this is already a pretty tough game and the extra damage means bosses will tear him apart in seconds. He also can’t move and shoot and has a weaker mega buster. Essentially the choice comes down to easier levels (Bass) or easier bosses (Mega Man).

The structure of the game is different this time as all eight robot masters are not available from the start. After the intro stage you only have access to Cold Man, Astro Man, and Dynamo Man with more bosses opening up in pairs of two after each is defeated. It cuts down one of the best elements of the series, figuring out the best order to beat the bosses. It also means you’ll be stuck using the default mega buster to defeat a few of these bad asses since your options are so limited.

It’s an additional layer of challenge the game definitely didn’t need as it is hard enough as is. This is possibly the most difficult game in the series. As I mentioned before the level design leans heavily in Bass’s favor with Mega Man having a much more difficult road to each boss. There are more puzzle elements to certain stages that require a bit of trial and error that keep the levels from being a stale left to right affair as well as interactive background elements that require certain powers. Even if you have the weapon that a boss is weak against it still comes down to execution. Dynamo Man is weak against the Copy Vision yet the only advantage that gives you is that his attacks will focus on your clone. You still have to do all the work. Burner Man is incredibly mobile and you have to force the ice to push him into the spikes to do damage.

The item shop from Mega Man 7 makes a return and can slightly tip the odds in your favor. There are a large range of items and abilities to purchase with bolts such as extra lives, and character specific powers. These are awesome, such as an auto charging mega buster, super armor, or even regaining health when standing still. Also nestled throughout the entire game are 100 data CDs that offer profiles of all the robot masters and characters throughout the series. Some of the discs are cleverly hidden and will require the Rush search while a healthy number can only be collected by a particular character. The shop in addition to the data CDs is a huge incentive to replay past levels and go through the game twice, something the series has struggled with in the past.

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Although it was released after Mega Man 8 Rockman & Forte does an excellent job of mimicking that game’s graphical style despite being produced on weaker hardware. In fact many of the game’s sprites and background elements were lifted wholesale from that game which makes sense considering this started as a port of that game. Mega Man isn’t as large as he was in part 7 making precision jumps and such easier. The animation has seen a significant upgrade, especially the bosses. Tagging them with their weakness produces special animations, with some absolutely hilarious. Push Burner Man into the spikes and he comes flying out holding his bottom! The music is generally excellent as in all installments of the series although the lack of any voice acting as in part 8 is missed. Or maybe it’s better that way considering how it turned out in that game.

Rockman & Forte adds just enough to the series familiar formula to feel fresh and is an all-around excellent game. This is the game Mega Man 7 should have been but that is neither here nor there. The SNES game was fan translated years ago however the game was ported to the Gameboy Advance in 2003 and released in the US as Mega Man & Bass, either is a viable option for those wanting to experience one of the better games in the series.

8-out-of-101

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Contra Spirits

It’s interesting just how many unlicensed and bootleg variants of Contra are out there. There are enough for it to be its own subgenre at this point. I can see why: even though it was released early in the system’s lifespan Contra remains one of the NES’s best action games. Hell it is one of the few games that I actually enjoy playing in coop. While many of these unlicensed games are terrible Contra Spirits is actually pretty good for what it is and manages to capture a lot of what made the SNES game a classic. There are some pretty glaring flaws but I’d certainly rather play this than Contra Force.

You can forget about the extensive weapon list of the original as that is the first element that had to be cut back. Here you only have access to the spread gun and the laser. This is a huge blow and a step back from even the first Contra. In terms of their functionality the laser is the same but the spread gun has been neutered. Its radius is smaller at 3 waves of bullets rather than five. The rate of fire has been reduced and is inconsistent; sometimes you can fire a consistent wave of shots and others there is a slight delay. It’s still far and away the better choice but lost what made it so special. Contra veterans know that satisfying sound when you get up close and every individual bullet hits a target all at once. That has been lost. You can only hold one weapon at a time and the bombs are still present but are reduced in power.

Even with the reduction in power-ups the game is still playable. I’m actually surprised just how much they were able to keep from the original. Of the six levels only the fifth stage from the original has been cut and the level order has been rearranged. The third level is now the second and stage four’s motorbike sequence is now the third. The overhead view of stage 2 is the game’s midpoint and the final level is still the same. Jumping from missile to missile, the weird turtle beehive creature, even the rematch against Red Falcon’s new form from Super C is present. A few of the minibosses have been excised which does kind of give this version of the game a greatest hits feel to it.

For all of the praise that I’ve delivered you can clearly see where they cut corners. Levels 2 and five are identical aside from a mere palette swap and one new enemy. Obviously the heavily Mode 7 based overhead stages needed to be changed but from a technical standpoint they fare better than the rest of the game. You just can’t rotate the camera willy nilly. While it looks the same the layout has been so simplified you can simply run through it. The final level is severely cut short and gets right to the point as it tosses you into the final boss battles within seconds. Some criticized the original for being short but I think it was the perfect length. I can’t say the same here although the difficulty makes up for it.

The Alien Wars was noted for putting up a fight even on normal difficulty and this features the same it not greater level of challenge. However that comes from a few unfortunate factors. Some levels feature no weapon drops at all and it is painful to try to soldier on with the standard machine gun. Bosses take way too many hits to kill, to the point where I started to wonder if the game were broken. But possibly the biggest crime is the fact that you get no extra lives and there are no continues. Depending on the version of the game you can set your starting lives to 9 or 30 but that’s it. Don’t expect the satisfying ending you got for completing the game on hard either; what you get is actually pretty hilarious instead (for the wrong reasons).

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This remains incredibly faithful to the source material in terms of presentation. Obviously the Mode 7 effects are gone but you’ll hardly miss them. The backgrounds sport an incredibly high level of detail and a layer or two of scrolling. The enemies have been redesigned to fit within the NES limits and sadly barely resemble their counterparts. Nearly all of the boss battles are in, even the crazy creature at the end of Area 3 that rips through the wall in gripping fashion. It loses its visual impact but they at least tried. It isn’t completely positive though. The game suffers from heavy sprite flickering and the reduced color palette is pretty ugly in spots. Worst of all is the music; they’ve made some pathetic attempts to replicate the classic soundtrack of the Alien Wars but the music is so soft and subdued it might as well not exist.

Considering how drastically different most 8-bit versions of 16-bit games are Contra Spirits turned out surprisingly well. While it mimics the look though the “feel” is off. The many tiny details it gets wrong demonstrate why Konami were so beloved in that era. I give them a C for their effort.

7-out-of-10

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Macross 2036

Macross 2036 was one of my first imports when I finally had enough disposable income to indulge my video gaming habit back in the early 2000s. An obscure PC Engine title might seem like an odd choice in light of the innumerable PlayStation games that should have come overseas. But I had just seen Macross Plus on DVD and it reignited my love for the series. While the game itself is solid it does have a few gameplay flaws that make it fall short of its wonderful production values.

The developers went all out on the game’s production as evidenced by the vast number of animated cut scenes in between levels and the fact that they hired original character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto for the project. Set in the period between Macross: Do You Remember Love and Macross II 2036 follows pilot Maria Jenius in her battles against a renegade faction of Zentraedi. The plot advances in between each level in fully voiced cut scenes that stretch for minutes at a time. Sadly it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese but you can at least appreciate the effort spent on what is essentially just another shooter. Outside of its animation this almost comes across as a lost OVA episode of the series rather than just a game.

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Visually the game itself is pretty amazing. Like the rest of the game things start out pretty staid and become more spectacular as you progress. The backgrounds feature multiple levels of scrolling and become more daring, such as Mission three’s line scrolling water that features a reflection of your ship on its surface or the all-out war taking place in the background of Mission four. Boss fights often feature large screen filling mechs ripped straight from the series that really add a sense of awe to these battles.

The soundtrack is similarly incredible as it features perfect recreations of the show’s signature tracks, all in red book audio. The music is also dynamic and will adjust to the onscreen action. The game’s measured pace allows plenty of opportunity to build tension or to rally your forces. Even the sound effects pack an audio punch as explosions are incredibly loud if you have suitable speakers.

Where the production values are top class the rest of the package does fall a bit short. Macross does not make the greatest first impression going by its first stage. Armed with nothing but the standard cannon and missiles there is little excitement to be found as you go through the motions. Your only power-ups slightly increase the size and power of your shots. To an extent you could say this is to acclimate you to the games mechanics but there isn’t much to learn outside of boss battles.

The true breadth of the weapons system does not become obvious until the next mission. In between missions your experience grants access to a burgeoning arsenal of weapons that run the gamut of shooter staples with a few unique ones thrown in. Like Super Earth Defense Force you can only choose one and while some are more optimal for certain stages with skill you can make any of them work. All weapons are governed by a power meter that fills with use; at its max they overheat and become unavailable briefly. Each differs in terms of how fast they burn out and recharge with some like the laser having nearly unlimited use. But that is balanced by its lacking power.

While the game features a robust set of weapons overall it is a bit bland. This is as routine a shooter as they come as enemies pour in through their preassigned formations at set intervals with little in between to mix things up. The only seemingly random element would be the occasional fighter jets that rocket by and the game (wisely) telegraphs them in advance. Until the games final few levels there is very little reason to bother using your special weapons as what little opposition you face does not warrant it.

While you can’t freely transform into Battroid mode the game does make the switch during boss battles. Here the controls are different and require some adjustment. Auto fire is permanent with both buttons controlling your rotation as you freely fly about the screen. Once you’ve grown accustomed to the setup it does a fine job of recreating the space battles seen within the anime, albeit within a confined space. My only issue is that the bosses are massive bullet sponges that present little challenge which does kill some of the enjoyment of these segments.

It almost feels as though the games shooting portion is an unnecessary distraction needed to bridge the next extensive cutscene. That isn’t to say the game is bad but it is clear where the majority of the focus was spent. By the midpoint of the game it picks up considerably with more aggressive enemies, more elaborate level design and actually challenging boss battles. It’s just a shame that that amount of care wasn’t lavished on the entire production.

I would rate the difficulty as medium overall. The later weapons trivialize the game a great deal but luckily it’s balanced so that no matter how skilled you are you still won’t have enough experience until close to the end. Death holds little penalty since you keep your basic weapon upgrades and respawn in the same spot.   Despite the limited continues I doubt most will have trouble seeing the climax within an hour or two.

My thoughts about Macross 2036 are all over the place. On the one hand its bland opening stages paint the picture of a middling shooter designed to impress you more with its lavish cinemas than its game play. But midway through there is a spark that elevates it above mediocrity. That unevenness is what is so disappointing. There are better shooters available for the system but that doesn’t mean Macross 2036 is completely worthless; you’ll just have to temper your expectations, especially in light of its asking price.

7-out-of-10

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Metal Force

If one were to peruse the unlicensed and pirate game market you’d be surprised at the stuff you’ll find. Usually bootleg games show up long after a hardware manufacturer stops supporting a given platform which is how you end up with stuff like Somari and even an NES version of Final Fantasy 7.   These games 90% of the time originate from numerous Asian countries other than Japan and usually suck. Anyone who perused the shelves at Blockbuster video during the NES era more than likely came across Master Chu and the Drunkard Hu. If you were smart you avoided it but for those who were too curious and wondered how bad could it be, they learned: really bad.

But the rare pirate game turns out truly exceptional and Metal Force is one of those titles. Sporting production values that rival later games on the system and actual gameplay and graphics not ripped from some other title it is a bit of an anomaly but a good one. Metal Force will appeal to action platforming fans of all stripes and the only real negative I can mention is that you can’t readily find a copy of the game online. But that is little deterrent in this day and age as emulation exists.

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At first glance Metal Force practically begs to be compared to Mega Man. In actuality however the two games have nothing in common aside from a slightly similar graphical style. There is no stage select, colorful cast of bosses, or even a wide variety of weapons to choose from. What Metal Force does have however is a simple yet solid set of mechanics backed up with excellent level design. In fact I would go so far as to say Metal Force is far better than a large number of the games we consider NES classics now. It’s just too bad it was only released in Korea. That makes no difference though as the few lines of text are all in English anyway.

Your only weapons are a long range wave and a shorter boomerang that will follow you in a weird arc once thrown. Both weapons can be powered up two times although you won’t really notice an immediate difference. It is disappointing that there aren’t more options to play around with but both weapons are extremely powerful and worth using. Short range boomerangs don’t sound too great but the damage they inflict as they come back will save you from many a cheap hit. The wave only suffers in that it fires in a straight line and you’ll often have to be on the same plane as an enemy for it to hit.

The level design is generally excellent, with multiple paths to the end of each of its seven missions. You’ll recognize many of the same pitfalls and hazards from Mega Man such as corridors full of spikes as well as enemies that wouldn’t look out of place in a Capcom title. The game wears its influence well and is far better designed than something like the Krion Conquest. This is a much slower paced romp than the all-out action of Mega Man’s adventures with levels that are about the perfect length. If there is one criticism to make it’s that the game deserved a wider variety of mechanical foes as you’ll see the same five or six recycled throughout.

The difficulty is just about perfect which is surprising considering how few health items you’ll find. Enemies inflict varying amounts of damage yet it always seems fair. Both weapons are amazingly effective considering the difference in their range so it all comes down to a choice in play style. I hate to make the comparison again but like Mega Man checkpoints and health pills are usually placed right after particularly difficult sections of the game. It makes for a game that is very easy for anyone to jump into while still providing a suitable challenge for action platform veterans.

You wouldn’t normally expect it but the boss battles are actually the easiest parts of the game. Each boss has an incredibly simple pattern that anyone will discern in seconds and if you possess even a modicum of skill at video games it is possible to walk away from each unscathed. I can’t really count it as a negative against the game but it was unexpected. I’m used to bosses in these games kicking my teeth in and calling me a pussy for crying; this was a welcome reprieve in that regard.

Metal Force is a great game that easily stands beside the best in the genre on the platform despite its non-existent profile. With great graphics, a good soundtrack and tight controls more unlicensed games should have followed the example this game set rather than being cheap cash-ins. Finding a copy of the game is nearly impossible at this point so more than likely you’ll have to turn to emulation or a reproduction cartridge. No matter how you procure it this is an excellent hidden gem.

8-out-of-101

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Go Go Ackman 2

Go Go Ackman was something of a surprise for me. Much like in the rest of the world licensed manga and anime games are usually garbage in Japan yet GGA bucked that trend and was a surprisingly well done platformer. Especially considering the manga is only about 60 pages long and mostly consisted of disparate short stories. So imagine my disappointment when the sequel turned out bad. While it appears to be more of the same great platforming you loved originally there are plenty of small flaws that make Go Go Ackman 2 fail to live up to the modest standard of the first game.

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Just like its predecessor Go Go Ackman 2 has the same silly sense of humor. After his humiliating defeat at the hands of Ackman the angel Tenshi enlists the aid of the Metal Angels, an angelic rock band. That doesn’t sound so out of the ordinary except the band contains Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix as their members! The ridiculous story is one of the game’s best aspects as the antagonists are incredibly funny in their look and attacks. The Metal Angels definitely fit the tone established by the manga and are indicative of just how sound the manga’s premise is. Now if only they were in a better game.

The first was an enjoyable romp if a bit simple and the sequel aims to rectify that by adding some depth. Someone recognized the absurdity of having a sword strapped to your back that you can only use sometimes as you can now use it anytime with its own dedicated button. This leaves melee attacks on a separate button and the distinction is important for reasons I’ll get into shortly. The boomerang and gun return but are far too weak and limited in their actions to be worth using. Weapons can be temporarily upgraded to a second and third level but items are so sparse you’ll rarely get the chance to see these in action.

Where it succeeds in some ways it largely fails in others. A number of hand to hand moves have been added but they are largely irrelevant because they don’t work. There’s a melee rush attack that I still don’t know how to activate consistently. You can catch enemies in midair and throw them but outside of one boss battle it is never needed. Besides why risk taking a hit when a simple sword slash can do the same? Luckily you can completely ignore all of these additions and play the game exactly like the first.

For all of the game’s similarities to its predecessor there’s been a step back in its controls. The controls are not as responsive this time around which makes no damn sense in my opinion. Most of the issues lie with using weapons. There’s a delay when using weapons and sometimes your actions won’t perform at all. I would say 80% of the time it works fine but it’s that 20% that is incredibly annoying, to the point where you’ll simply use your fists and feet during boss battles.

The level design is less interesting this time around which is honestly a shame. The stages are much shorter and seem designed to herd you toward the next boss battle rather than provide nooks and crannies for you to explore for items. In fact there are far less items lying around in general which defeats the purpose of the expanded weapon system. The boss battles themselves have become a bit more elaborate and complex with a few that might actually make you sweat this time. Despite that however this is an incredibly easy game.

Possibly the game’s biggest crime though is that it is way too short. I hate to constantly compare it to the first game but it can’t be helped. The original was a good length at seven levels with multiple sub stages that made it feel like a complete experience. But at five measly levels the game is over far too quickly. All of the new additions to the game have no time to be fully explored as a result leaving the game feeling as though it was put out as quickly as possible to capitalize on the first game’s popularity. If true it shows as the game seems to lack the free spirit of that game and seems like a by the numbers sequel.

Out of the three Go Go Ackman games this second installment is definitely the weakest. With its short length, wonky controls, and lacking content there is no reason to bother with this game and I say that as someone who actually likes certain aspects of it. The fact that the third game was released a mere 5 months later also shows that the developers were disappointed with it as well. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

6-out-of-10-1

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Pulseman

I really love seeing the period at the end of a console generation when developers have more or less fully tapped each system’s potential and can produce truly phenomenal games. Donkey Kong Country 2 is one of my favorite platformers of all time; Resident Evil 4 might be in my personal top 10 games list and who could ever have imagined God of War 2 could be squeezed out of the PS2? Pulseman like Ristar and Vectorman was both creative and technically brilliant, the type of game that comes from years of working with the same hardware. While it only came to the states in a limited fashion that is no longer a barrier to anyone seeking one of the best 16-bit platformers ever made.

The story certainly is something else. In the future Doc Yoshiyama created the world’s most advanced AI, dubbing it C-Life. The C-Life was so advanced the good doctor fell in love with it and uploaded himself unto the internet so they could be together. Through unknown means the two combine their DNA and Pulseman is born. Unfortunately Yoshiyama becomes corrupted after so many years in the digital world and comes back to Earth as the evil Waruyama, ready to conquer the world with his Galaxy Gang. As the only being who can travel between both worlds freely it is up to Pulseman to stop his father.

As much as I love Pokémon I have to admit I miss seeing developer Game Freak put their unique spin on the platforming genre. Nearly every time they have stepped outside that monster brilliance has followed; HarmoKnight is excellent and 2005’s Drill Dozer might be the most underrated Gameboy Advance game ever. Pulseman was only released through the Sega Channel meaning very few had the chance to sample its innovative gameplay. There is a fan translation but that is completely unnecessary as the game was completely in English anyway. With its Virtual Console release now is the time to discover why Game Freak is a force to be reckoned with.

Obviously the game is all about manipulating electricity and as such Pulseman is armed with a wide array of abilities. Your basic punches and kicks are lightning infused but that is not all. By building up a little speed you will create a static charge which can be discharged as a pulse arrow. The distance needed for this is incredibly small and if need be double tapping left or right will accomplish the same. More importantly however that charge is used to power your Volteccer ability.

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The Volteccer forms a large crux of the game. Jumping into the air while holding a charge and pressing A will change you into a bolt of lightning that will fly through the air briefly. More importantly however smacking a wall will see you bounce around like a pinball, able to smash through walls and blocks. Tapping A next to a power line will also transform you into a bolt of lightning and allow you to “ride” it across distances. Needless to say the Volteccer is used heavily throughout the game in a large variety of ways that are insanely fun. I would say it is akin to Sonic’s speed or Ristar’s arms.

In many ways Pulseman does remind me of Sonic the Hedgehog. Not the speed aspect but the way in which the game delights in coming up with new ways for you to use your abilities. Almost every level introduces some new mechanic, whether it is zipping along a massive network of power lines, using your momentum in Volteccer form to smash bricks and squeeze through tight spaces or figuring out how to clear simple platforming challenges amidst a level of electricity cancelling water. That variety is the life blood of the game and never stops all the way up to the game’s conclusion. Sometimes the creative level design can be a bit too clever for its own good as you struggle to squeeze into a small gap or have to make blind leaps of faith yet the designers have kept these instances to a minimum. At seven stages with multiple sub levels the game is the perfect length but is so good you’ll still want more.

And the difficulty curve is perfect! Since you can only take 3 hits you have to be a bit careful as life restoring hearts aren’t in great supply. As a whole the worlds aren’t full of fodder enemies as the game would rather challenge you to apply your powers in navigating the levels instead. Yet it is still easy to run headlong into enemies or spikes if you try to treat this like Sega’s other IP. The boss battles are highly creative and offer up their own unique twists on the standard platforming formula. By the end of the game you’ll probably start to blow through the stock of extra lives you will have no doubt built up yet it always seems fair.

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The production values here are absolutely stellar. Ken Sugimori’s art direction has created a world bubbling with personality, whether it is the real world or cyberspace. All of the characters have very likable designs and Pokemon fans will notice all kinds of references to this game. Character sprites are large and have a more “grown” up appearance than most of Sugimori’s other work yet still remain appealing. This is an incredibly colorful title, more so than most games on the system and while it doesn’t make a push for out there special effects the art design, especially of the virtual worlds is fantastic. The electronica soundtrack makes excellent use of the system’s FM synth to deliver a score that is mechanical in feel and matches the half real world/half internet action. There’s even a decent amount of voice clips, surprisingly all in English with subtitles!

This truly has it all. Pulseman is not just a great game but one of the best platformers of that era. We truly missed out on an exceptional title. At least initially. Thanks to its re-release on the Virtual Console in 2009 gamers around the world can see that Game Freak are more than just a Pokémon factory. Buy this game.

9-out-of-10

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Space Harrier (Famicom)

While I found it strange growing up to see bootleg cartridges of Sega arcade games for the NES I will admit there was something pretty cool about playing the “other” guys games on your platform of choice. Alien Syndrome turned out pretty cool and Fantasy Zone was decent. It wasn’t all gravy however; the less said about Afterburner the better. Of all of Sega’s arcade games from the 80s I certainly never thought they would even try to port Space Harrier but they did! At least in Japan. The even bigger shock is that it’s actually pretty good all things considered. Why couldn’t this have been released here instead of that awful, awful version of Shinobi?

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The most important question is how does it look? The scaling tech Sega used in the arcade machine was pretty advanced for its time and there is no reasonable way the NES/Famicom could reproduce that faithfully. However that being said Takara has done an admirable job of simulating the game’s look. The checkerboard pattern of the floor has been simplified and all of the sprites have been shrunken dramatically. Otherwise the scrolling is some of the smoothest I’ve seen on the system and far better than something like 3D World Runner. It also beats the pants off the choppy mess that is the Sega Master System version which comes as quite a surprise.

There are some drawbacks to the presentation however. The game is prone to some truly awful slowdown and flicker which can be game breaking at times. The Harrier moves noticeably slower than the arcade which has an impact on playability. None of the voice samples have made it intact and the music isn’t the greatest either. In the grand scheme of things some of these problems are unavoidable while others are reasonable sacrifices to even get the game on the system.

Space Harrier was known for its blazing fast speed in the arcade and that element has been significantly toned down here. This is downright leisurely compared to the coin op and that is both a blessing and a curse. Since the game is slower you can actually react to bullets and avoid the random pieces of the environment that come speeding by. Unfortunately you also move a lot slower and I can almost guarantee will die to some not so random bullet far too often.

This was already a pretty difficult game due to the viewpoint and lack of any power-ups but this Famicom version takes it a step further. The slowdown and flicker really are pretty terrible and has a significant impact on the game. Although the game is less populated (be it enemies, bushes and stone columns) it still manages to be pretty intense which is a testament to its design that even when the elements that practically define it have been compromised it still turns out good. While I can appreciate the diversity in the game’s environments it does start to repeat itself by the halfway point. There are only a few bosses and standard enemies and the game simply shuffles them around the deeper you progress. Sometimes less is more.

For a rail shooter this is pretty long and I doubt most will see the end of this version of the game for a myriad number of reasons. Aside from the reasons outlined above you only have three lives to complete the game and that’s it. There are no continues, passwords, or battery back-up. The chance of getting any extra lives throughout the course of the game is practically non-existent; on my best run I received one extra life. One. Considering they managed to cram all eighteen levels into the game every stray bullet is terrifying; imagine reaching the 15th level only to die because a bullet that looked like it should fly by you hits you square in the face. I don’t because that’s exactly what happened to me. Its soul crushing on a level only old 8-bit video games can achieve but also makes this slightly less attractive as a package.

Considering the gap in technology this version of Space Harrier shouldn’t even exist. Yet it does and for what it is it’s actually pretty good. I’d have certainly played it had it left Japan.

7-out-of-10

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Sengoku

Sengoku was one of those Neo Geo games I always wanted to play in the arcade but because it occupied a spot in a four slot MVS unit that had Samurai Shodown it almost never happened. The one or two times I finally did get to play it I found a pretty good brawler that didn’t set the genre on fire but offered a few nice features that set it apart. I looked forward to the SNES port by Data East but it mysteriously never came out. It was probably for the best as this mostly only shares the same name and theme as SNK’s quarter muncher and is not as good.

Centuries ago two samurai defeated a tyrannical warlord but not before he vows to return in the future. In the present day that time has come and the task falls Dan and Bill, descendants of the two samurai to stop this ancient invasion. The story may be the same but in terms of content the Super Nintendo version of Sengoku only shares a loose theme. That doesn’t mean the game couldn’t be good; to be fair Sengoku wasn’t exactly a notable Neo Geo release in the first place. But the developers could certainly have done a much better job creating an “original” title using its framework.

Is a bit odd to take note of but there are some significant changes made to the gameplay to bring it more in line with beat em up standards. The majority of enemies in the coin op died in a single hit which is why they didn’t bother with life bars. It also meant you couldn’t unleash the standard punch, punch, punch combos or even take advantage of some of your other techniques. That has been changed so that the game more closely resembles Final Fight. With tougher enemies the various weapons have a greater emphasis. Unlike your typical brawler weapons aren’t lost if you are hit and last a decent amount of time. Not only are they strong but the can be upgraded to unleash various devastating projectiles. These power-ups also work in concert with your various forms.

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Sengoku’s sole defining feature are its transformations. Due to the samurai invasion our protagonists can invoke the spirits of the past. You can assume the form of a samurai with a long range sword, a spry ninja or for some god forsaken reason a wolf/dog hybrid that is useless. Seriously, why would you want to nip at an opponent’s ankles and get kicked in the face repeatedly? In the arcade these transformation could be triggered at will so long as you collected the corresponding orb but here it is immediate. The transformation lasts a brief period and is almost game breaking considering how quickly you can mop the floor with bad guys. Despite the change the orbs drop frequently enough that you’ll spend a considerable amount of each stage in a different form.

The level setup is both different and strange. After clearing a few round of enemies you will be teleported to a rift where the ancient samurai forces come from. These are long successions of enemies usually capped off with a mini boss battle before you are teleported back. This happens a few times per level and while it is different it isn’t particularly notable. That is because it is boring; regardless of setting you are still fighting the same groups of thugs in different arrangements and numbers. If unique enemies existed in these spaces it would have gone a long way toward making the game stand out.

While I won’t go so far as to say the game is easy it isn’t nearly as brutal as some titles in the genre. Although the game throws waves of 3-4 enemies at once it rarely feels overwhelming. That is mainly because power-ups are doled out regularly and you won’t spend as much time without a weapon or transformation. Despite lasting a brief moment with a weapon in hand or any form aside from the stupid dog you’ll clear the screen in seconds. Scoring is pretty generous and you’ll gain at least one extra life per level. I was almost able to clear this on one credit without putting in a real effort.

That being said however no matter how easy I found it the game is heavily repetitive, more so than is usual for the genre. Enemy variety is limited per level and so you’ll fight the same 3 types in 4 waves at a time. They try to keep things fresh by introducing at least one new opponent per level but that simply means they are cycled in to the rotation along with 2 other clowns. Combine that with your limited move set and it becomes tiresome by the third level. This isn’t the longest game in the world at six levels but with the number of enemies thrown at you in rapid succession it certainly feels like it.

While I was disappointed to find that this isn’t a direct port of the arcade game I was also willing to accept it for what it is if it were good. Between the repetition and subpar graphics however this version of Sengoku is strictly average and not worth your time when there are better games in the genre to buy.

5-out-of-101

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Hammerin Harry

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese games that manage to retain their heavily localized flavor when brought to the US. There was a silly notion in the early days of the industry that gamers would be turned off by anything too foreign which is why publishers went out of their way to hide the fact that the games came from Japan. It was really stupid; you could have told children of the 80s that Super Mario Bros. was made by aliens and they wouldn’t have given a damn. That aside certain series like Konami’s Goemon would skip the 8-bit era in the US entirely for that reason. Then you have titles like Hammerin Harry, an innocuous arcade release from Irem in 1990. One look at the game and you can see that it is steeped in Japanese culture and apparently it didn’t do well enough for them to bother publishing the NES port in America. It did see a release in Europe however and is an enjoyable little romp that won’t set your world on fire but is still solid.

The story is so unmistakably eighties it hurts. The Rusty Nail Construction Company bulldozes Harry’s house. Why? Because fuck you that’s why. In response Harry takes up his only possession, a large hammer, to get some civilian justice. Originally released in the arcade in 1990 while Hammerin Harry’s “theme” of a disgruntled construction worker is universal the game is heavily Japanese flavored in its presentation similar to Konami’s Mystical Ninja series. I would imagine that is why the series has largely stayed in Japan.

The NES port of Hammerin Harry isn’t an exact match to the arcade game as some stages have been shifted or outright removed while new ones take their place. Aside from a few gameplay tweaks this maintains the same spirit as the original and is an enjoyable if short-lived platformer that somehow was released everywhere but the US. Speaking of which, dear god what were they thinking with that European box art? It’s nearly up there with the original Mega Man in terms of being a ghastly misrepresentation of the game inside.

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For a simple construction worker Harry is pretty bad ass. The hammer is a pretty effective weapon as it has decent reach and is large enough that hit detection isn’t a problem. It also doubles as a shield and can pound the ground to stun enemies. New to this version of the game is a life bar; no single hit deaths here although I don’t know if that is a good thing but more on that later. The one element that didn’t carry over is the ability to smack objects into enemies which sucks. There are still boxes and such lying around but they only carry the occasional power-up.

Items are few in number but incredibly strong. Chili peppers allow you to swing the hammer in a circle which is almost game breaking. The rare POW icon grants a massive hammer (seriously its comically huge!). The hard hit will absorb one hit and another new addition is a medicine bottle that restores health. If you have OCD and smash everything in sight you’ll rarely go without at least one item which does have an effect on the game’s balance.

While the power-ups are few they are extremely strong and unfortunately make the game incredibly easy. The 360 hammer means you’ll no longer have to time your swings or even aim properly. It is the most frequent and rarely will you ever be without it. The giant hammer is really cool but grossly overpowered but luckily it only appears in a one or two stages. Regular enemies are easy to deal with but even the bosses have simple patterns that you can outright ignore and spam attacks. The three hit life bar is probably the biggest contributor to the game’s ease though. The arcade game was designed around single hit deaths and while this isn’t a 1:1 conversion it still follows some of the same sensibilities.

The ease of difficulty wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the game were not so short. The game diverges from the coin op the most in terms of its levels. There are only five levels instead of six with two of them being completely original. They come at the expense of two of the arcade game’s levels which have been excised unfortunately and had they all been included this would have been a much stronger title. With 2 or 3 more levels it would have been the perfect length. It’s a lot like Panic Restaurant in that regard, another game with excellent gameplay that was also over far too soon. As it is you’ll blow through it in less than half an hour; you’ll enjoy that time but it is brief.

While the journey to take down the Rusty Nail Construction Company is brief you’ll enjoy every step of that process. Hammerin Harry is a good “loose” port of the unconventional arcade game and a solid title in its own right and makes a good second tier release once you are done with the classics of the genre.

 

7-out-of-10-1

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Panorama Cotton

It was commonly accepted as fact that the Genesis simply was no good at scaling sprites without the Sega CD. Early titles such as Super Thunder Blade and the sad port of Galaxy Force 2 were choppy disasters while later games such as Dick Vitale’s Awesome Baby Basketball and Red Zone showed that it could be done competently. Meanwhile Mode 7 was used in SNES games like it was going out of style. Fitting then that probably the most impressive example of that entire generation would be a little known Genesis game in Japan known as Panorama Cotton. PC belongs in the same conversation as Vectorman and Sonic 3d Blast as games that nearly broke the system. All of the technical wizardry in this case is backed up with a game that is awesome but really expensive.

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Beyond anything else Panorama Cotton is technically brilliant, to a degree that I would say makes it one of the best achievements of the 16-bit era. The game makes excellent use of scaling sprites like Space Harrier but is far smoother than that game could dream of. The backgrounds suffer from pixelization but are still clear enough that it barely matters. All of the technical finesse is married with beautiful art direction that brings the magical world of Cotton alive in a way we’d never imagined as the levels twist and turn in ways most games of this type avoided. This truly pushed the system to its limits and really showed what the hardware was capable of.

Cotton’s primary weapon is her magic shot which starts out weak but is upgraded through experience up to five levels. At each level it becomes more powerful and covers a wider arc however taking hits actually decreases your xp and can potentially downgrade your power. There is some nuance when it comes to rapid fire; holding down the button will produce a consistent stream but also makes Silk rotate around Cotton for a magic attack and stop your stream. Learning the timing of how long to hold the button and doing a quick release to keep the momentum going is key, especially in the later stages of the game where absolute chaos reigns from the start.

Shooting down groups of enemies will release gold bars that represent one of the three different elemental spells you can keep in stock. By shooting these bars three times you can change the color to gain a different spell, all of which have unique ranges and effects. To take it a step further by holding the attack button Silky will orbit Cotton, at which point using a spell will modify it for a new effect. Tricky to perform in the heat of battle but devastating when used correctly.

From a design standpoint this is the antithesis to every other game in the series. Whereas every other Cotton title moves at a measured pace Panorama Cotton is a blindingly fast epic journey. This is probably one of the fastest paced shooters for the system, with enemies and obstacles all streaming in at fast clip. At times the game might be a little too fast as there are times when walls and such open or close too quickly for you to react. But having said that I can’t picture the game any other way. The game’s breakneck pace never lets up as it moves from one set piece to the next and the visual variety as well as the new sets of enemies on every level go a long way towards keeping the game fresh throughout. Moments of calm where you can actually take your hand off the attack button are fleeting and brief and while that should be overbearing over a length of time it seems appropriate here.

Maximizing your point bonuses, be it through shooting parts of the environment or going ape shit during the tea time bonus after boss battles is key since there is no other way to restore health than score. Occasionally Cotton will roll after taking a hit when low on health; this negates any damage but is only randomly triggered. You only have one life and limited continues to complete the game but the game’s checkpoints are evenly spaced and the game even retains your attack level, experience, and magic! The viewpoint makes judging the angle of bullets and enemies troublesome but most will not have a problem completing the game in short order, ironically because the game itself is short.

The one big negative would be the game’s length. At only five chapters the game can be completed in about an hour and a half which is standard for most shooters. However as much as I don’t like to factor in a game’s price it can’t be avoided here. For the $1-200 you’ll most likely pay you’ll certainly enjoy the experience while it lasts and play through the game more than once just to ogle the graphics and amazing art direction. There’s also a cool bonus mode where you can play through the game as Silk with Cotton as your support “fairy”. It’s interesting since she has a smaller hit box but not a significantly different experience. One or two more levels would really have made this phenomenal.

Unfortunately this is one of the most expensive Genesis games ever as it suffered from a small print run. Shooter fans will more than get their money’s worth if they manage to track it down; to that all I can say is good luck! The game is excellent but not worth the potentially hundreds (yes, hundreds) it goes for; to that I say get a reproduction cart. This desperately needs to be re-released somehow.

9-out-of-10

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Psychic Storm

Psychic Storm was a game I bought blindly years ago after only seeing a few sparse screenshots and thinking the name was cool. Once upon a time I had more money than common sense but in this case it didn’t bite me in the ass. This is a pretty good game that only suffers due to the heavy competition in its genre on the system. Considering Psychic Storm is cheaper than the majority of those better titles it serves as a worthy substitute if you don’t like pricey imports and is a good game in its own right.

In the distant future Earth is under attack by a race of insectoid aliens who devour the planets in their path and integrate them into their bodies. The planet’s last hope of survival lies in the hands of four brave pilots, each with their own unique ship patterned after the very same aliens destroying the planet. It is up to you to guide Alex, Charr, Joe, and Nastasia with their Stormbringer ships and save the world.

Each character comes with their own unique set of weapons with half the fun coming from choosing the right hero for each level. Alex is your basic shooter hero with a standard Vulcan cannon and missiles. Joe is my favorite; his hellfire is strong plus his nuclear spread missiles explode on impact and linger for a second or two. Charr is the most disappointing which sucks as his weapons look cool. The psycho shell is the strongest but has the shortest range plus his missiles suck. Nastasia doesn’t fit into any particular niche. The ion laser is similar to the hellfire but smaller but her missiles aren’t as good. A separate bar automatically charges and allows you to also unleash a special attack when full.

What makes each ship special is its ability to transform. Each Stormbringer has a unique insect form that features massively increased firepower and a unique form of attack. Alex’s ship turns into a giant butterfly that releases waves of fire from its wings. Joe turns into a scorpion that can grab enemies and charge up energy in its claws for a massive burst of force. This form lasts a short time which can be replenished by picking up special icons. It is a bit of a double edged sword since your body becomes huge but is worth it since it’s so overpowered. You only get three of these per stage but trust me it’s more than enough.

Psychic Storm tries its hardest to be an intense shooter but overall the game is pretty easy. With your life bar you can sustain 7 or 8 hits which is pretty uncommon in the genre. Technically you don’t have lives but your 3 special weapons serve the same function. When your life dips too low one is automatically used which doesn’t seem like much of a punishment considering in your powered up form you can blaze through the levels and bosses while it lasts. While I can see how someone who decided to use them early on could be screwed there isn’t much reason to until a boss fight. Even playing half seriously I still managed to breeze through half the game before I died because I chose a bad character for a particular level. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve played through my share of cruel shmups so any game that is fair in comparison is welcome in my opinion.

With the game’s laid back pace and ease of difficulty it helps that it is pretty long. Each of the seven levels is split into two halves with each running close to 10 minutes or longer. After the second round you can choose your path through the game not that it has any real bearing. The long stage length is mostly due to the pacing which is a bit slow for my tastes. Enemy waves are slow to spawn and sometimes you’ll fly for close to a minute without being attacked. Not every game needs to be a bullet hell shooter but the game could certainly use a shot of adrenaline at times.

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Visually Psychic Storm has its moments but they are fleeting. The game begins on a high note with a beautiful flight over Tokyo at night, full of glittering lights and detail. But from there it’s a significant drop off with each subsequent planet featuring less exciting environments. It picks up again towards the end but still never manages to match its opening level. The one area that never disappoints would be the bosses. The antagonists are a weird assortment of insectoid creatures with the game’s mayors being the strangest of the bunch. Large, impeccably detailed and well animated these are the game’s visual highpoint. The soundtrack is a bit strange. The music is a series of symphonic arrangements that seem a bit out of place in a scrolling shooter and don’t match the action. It’s good but out of place.

Psychic Storm isn’t the greatest shooter for the Turbo Grafx but it doesn’t need to be. This is far better than some of the crap that was actually released here like Dead Moon and Deep Blue. Due to its low profile it’s also cheap by import standards. A worthwhile addition to any gamer’s library.

8-out-of-101

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Aladdin

It’s always amazed me how widespread bootleg and unlicensed video games are. Even as far back as the mid to late 80s I can distinctly recall seeing one or two Chinese NES carts that somehow crammed 50 shitty games in one package. The vast majority of these games are absolutely terrible but every so often you’ll come across one that is pretty great. Virgin Games released an official version of Aladdin for the NES in Europe but it was awful. However Hummer Team, a group in China, created their own version of the game that is actually one of the most impressive for the system and absolutely shames the official release.

Unlike Virgin’s ill-advised port of the Genesis version this is actually a port of Capcom’s SNES game. The Sega game was famous for its exquisite animation that I’ll admit they valiantly tried to recreate within the NES’s limits but it was disastrous and ruined the game. The SNES game wasn’t at the same level but I’m sure presented just as much of a challenge and yet Hummer Team have done a spectacular job producing a slightly stripped down version of the game. In my opinion it’s up there with the rest of Capcom’s licensed Disney titles (for obvious reasons of course) which is high praise and well deserved.

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The most striking aspect of the game is the look. Capcom did a wonderful job recreating the locations of the movie and the game has the same distinct vibrant look. The NES version is just as colorful, or as colorful as the system will allow. Much more impressive than that however are the sprites and character animation. The character sprites are some of the largest on the system and have most of the same animations that made the Super Nintendo game so great. In the latter parts of the game there is some heavy sprite flickering that gets pretty bad but that is limited to a specific level. That this level of quality came from an unlicensed game is pretty shocking as the vast majority are simple rom hacks or cheaply made.

The majority of the play mechanics have been brought over unchanged as well. Aladdin can still throw apples to stun enemies and perform a flipping toss to take them out. The timing on it is tricky and will be the cause of much frustration unfortunately. What is even more frustrating than that however is the cardinal sin of reversing the buttons; B jumps and A throws apples. Unlike say Bart vs the Space Mutants it isn’t that big of a deal here but whenever developers do this I question why. Sadly the parachute mechanic is gone but at least the levels have been redesigned so they aren’t as vertical so that its absence wouldn’t be missed.

The game follows the plot of the movie faithfully with some slight deviations just like its 16-bit big brother. The game is comprised of six levels that will take you from the streets of Aggrabah to the Cave of Wonders and finally Jaffar’s palace. The focus is on platforming and acrobatics rather than action and for the most part it nails it. Aladdin is incredibly spry even without the blanket to act as a cushion should you fail. As far as how this stacks up against the original the levels are less populated than before and have undergone some slight alterations, mostly to make up for the loss of the blanket. Only one sequence from the original has been removed, the second battle against Jaffar but it’s no great loss all things considered.

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The original was noted for being incredibly easy and that carries over to this version to an extent. The game showers you in extra lives but that is mostly because you’ll need them. Most of your deaths will come from the finicky jumping controls when springing off objects. Once you’ve leapt on an object you can execute a short or high jump off it but performing either consistently is hard. By the midpoint you’ll be called on to execute these in rapid succession so it sucks that you’ll suffer some cheap deaths in what are some of the game’s high points. Aside from that however you can avoid most enemies and there are only two boss battles so combat is not an issue.

Hummer Team has done an excellent porting over Capcom’s classic nearly wholly intact. Virgin should be ashamed of that piece of crap they put their official stamp on. It’s too bad the game was unlicensed and released far too late to be marketable worldwide as it is a really cool version of a great game.

7-out-of-10-1

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Granzort

Keith Courage in the Alpha Zones was a middling experience at best, only remembered because it was the pack-in game with the Turbo Grafx-16. Let’s be honest, most of us would never have bought the game separately as it was just so bland. Despite outward appearances Granzort is not a sequel to that game but is just as disappointing. It isn’t unreasonable to expect games for a new platform to impress right out of the gate and Granzort fails spectacularly in that regard. The Supergrafx was doomed to failure before it launched and that exact reasoning more than anything is the only reason Granzort is even remembered at all.

Granzort is a licensed tie-in to the animated series Madō King Granzort and doesn’t so much follow the plot of the series as it uses its heroes to star in a side scrolling action game. In the series the Moon develops air that allows humanity to populate it and turn it into a tourist attraction. Soon however mankind realizes they are not alone and find themselves caught up in a war between two sides. 3 young boys are given weapons that allow them to summon mecha with special powers to help them fight.

The armored robots are the only interesting item from that premise and so the developers wisely chose to leave out their human counterparts. At any time you can switch between the three robots; red Granzort, with his sword and earthquake powers, green Winzart, with his bow and flight, and blue Aquabeat, equipped with a flail and the power to create a force field. The levels are pretty large with the path to the exit rarely being a straight line. Between the three robots the stages encourage exploration to look for power-ups or extra lives, especially since one hit equals death. If you’re looking for additional weapons aside from what each bot is equipped with you can forget it. The only things you’ll find most of the time are a shield to soak up one hit, invincibility and copious amounts of extra lives.

With their varying weapons and powers you would think the game would be set up to make you constantly switch characters but that isn’t the case. Winzart is just so much more useful than everyone else that I spent 95% of my time using him. Being able to snipe enemies from long distance is invaluable plus he can fire diagonally. If you manage your boost you can fly almost indefinitely and butt bounce enemies. The game is just heavily stacked in his favor. His attack power is weak which I guess is supposed to be his drawback but it doesn’t even factor. With turbo fire you can lock down enemies before they can move. Outside of one particular boss battle Aquabeat is completely useless and as much as I like using a sword it can’t compete.

It can’t be stated enough just how easy Granzort is despite the one hit deaths. The game literally throws extra lives at your feet if you do even the bare minimum of exploration. You’re not finding individual 1-ups but clusters of 3-6. It’s ridiculous. By the end of the second level I had 13 lives just as an example and toward the end of the game I had accrued 35. I suppose this is to make up for the lack of a life bar but anyone with some measure of skill will breeze through the game, especially if you rely on Winzart. Even the majority of the boss battles fail to provide any sort of challenge until the last few stages. You’ll have the game licked in 30 minutes and will never want to touch it again.

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The game’s production values are lacking in comparison to the best Hucard games and are barely any better than first generation Genesis or Super NES titles. The extra grunt provided by the Supergrafx is used to produce more colorful visuals and backgrounds with a layer of scrolling which is laughable considering games like Aero Blasters or Sinistron achieved the same feat. The game is noticeably dark with little enemy variety and the environments start to blend together in the game’s latter half. I’m struggling to find something positive to say but really this comes across as a halfhearted effort.

A middling quest, extremely low difficulty, and bare bones gameplay is pretty damning as the game is a little expensive due to its rarity. That’s not even taking into account that you’ll have to buy a Super Grafx as well, which I’ll just say good luck with that. As the flagship title for the Super Grafx Granzort disappoints on almost every level. Whether it is its sub par graphics, lacking gameplay or an overall combination of both there are many Hucard titles that put this to shame. At that point why even bother with the system upgrade in the first place? Like Keith Courage Granzort is merely a footnote in gaming history.

5-out-of-101

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Uchuu Keibitai SDF

I’d say we received a pretty solid spectrum of shoot em up choices in the US when it comes to the NES. There are some dogs but the classics outweigh them. But even with that in mind there were still plenty of classics from big publishers that slipped through the cracks. How bizarre is it that Konami passed on Gradius 2 and Parodius? Hal Labs was no stranger to the NES with nearly all of their games hitting our shores but one curious exception would be Uchuu Keibitai SDF, a really cool shooter that shames most of the genre on the system. This hidden gem backs up its exorbitant price with good design and is one of the better games for the NES if you can find it.

Collecting any weapon pod will attach two satellites to the front of your ship. These fire your weapons and can act as a shield to absorb a hit but can also be destroyed. At the touch of a button they can be sent to the sides where they will fire homing missiles rather than the current option. The weapon selection is pretty light and while serviceable I do wish there were a few more options. The laser is obviously the most powerful but suffers from a narrow attack radius. The wide beam fires in three directions but will also change to the opposite of your movements. It sounds confusing and it is which is why I don’t really like it. The spread shot is my personal favorite as it covers a nice arc but lacks power.   Honestly while all of them have their uses there is no overwhelming favorite that is ideal in every situation which can be attributed to the level design.

The game uses a wider playing field than normal which does take some getting used to. Generally the game does a good job of making sure off screen enemies will not attack you unless you are herded in their particular direction. The level design is a bit odd in that sometimes there are entire chunks that can be avoided if you stick to one side of the screen but more often than not you will be ushered in whatever direction the designers want you to go. Each stage tends to vacillate between open areas and tight corridors that forces encounters which is necessary as the more methodical pace can be a bit boring at times.

I’ve frequently mentioned stages but in this case that isn’t so clear. There are no traditional level breaks outside of the few times the screen fades to black and you are in an all new area. After defeating what are very clearly supposed to be end level bosses the game will simply continue on its merry way. Its odd and few games do this like Truxton. Uchuu Keibitai is decently long by shooter standards and if I were to hazard a guess I would say there are about 8 or 9 “levels”, plenty to keep you busy for a while by genre standards.

In terms of difficulty the game puts up a fight but is also fair. The slow pace doesn’t hide the fact that the enemies are pretty aggressive and attack in large numbers. Despite large swaths of the game taking place in open spaces there are just as many tight corridors filled with turrets which make your choice of weapon all the more important. Weapon drops are frequent enough that even if you die it will only take seconds before another power-up appears. Unlike most games I found the journey to each boss more challenging than the actual battles themselves; despite their imposing appearance the bosses are pushovers in my opinion. All in all the balance is about perfect outside of the incredibly cheap closing gates that give no indication that you will die if you are on the wrong side. Overall though I wish more shooters were more along the lines of this rather than being soul crushingly hard.

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Although it doesn’t look it at first glance Uchuu Keibitai SDF is a technically accomplished game. No matter how hectic the game gets (which is often) it rarely if ever suffers any slowdown. While it primarily takes place against an empty space background the times where you fly through enemy bases or planet side are filled with extremely detailed backdrops and even layers of scrolling on the same level as Crisis Force. The frequent bosses pit you against large motherships that are creatively designed and quite unlike any other shooter for the system. This is one of the better looking titles for the system let alone one of its best in terms of graphics.

Seeing as nearly every other Hal Labs game was released worldwide I’m surprised this never came to the US. It required no localization and was certainly better than similar titles such as Starship Hector and Image Fight. Without question this is one of the better shooters on the platform unfortunately its low profile also means it is also expensive.

8-out-of-101

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Kidou Butoden G-Gundam

I have mixed feelings about the various Mobile Suit Gundam series but the one thing I can say for sure is that I hate Gundam Seed. And that I kind of like G-Gundam. G-Gundam absolutely embraces its stupidity and whether I actually like it or not I can at least respect that. The entire premise behind this particular edition of the series was definitely inspired by the fighting game craze (namely Street Fighter) so of course a game would accompany it. Yet despite its foundations Kidou Butoden G-Gundam is only a slightly above average fighting game and one that cannot hold your attention for long. This should have turned out so much better.

In the world of G-Gundam there is no war. Instead a tournament is held every four years called the Gundam Fight in which each nation sends there representative Gundam to compete for sovereignty over all countries until the next tournament. Clearly this setup was inspired by a certain series about fighting in the streets and plays out just like an animated version of that game, complete with over the top attacks and ridiculously stereotyped mechs from each country.

The very concept of G-Gundam is practically made for a fighting game so the fact that it turned out so tepid is disappointing. Part of what makes this so average isn’t that it borrows so much from Street Fighter but that it doesn’t execute on those elements as well. From its imprecise recognition of button inputs to its small roster this really should have turned out better. What content is present is decent but you’ll quickly end up going back to far superior fighting games in short order.

The roster is small but manages to include the most of the popular characters from the show. The characters are mostly substitutes for your favorite Street Fighter personalities, with the Dragon Gundam functioning as your Dhalsim stand-in and the Bolt Gundam playing like a slightly faster Zangief. You’ll be surprised to learn that main hero Domon does not in fact play like Ryu. However! The game has that niche covered with God Gundam, his alternate which fulfills that role. With that in mind Gundam Maxter and the Master Gundam are the Ken to its Ryu. The rest of the cast are more unique with the fast moving and awesome Gundam Spiegel being my favorite. I just wish there were more of them.

The roster is my largest issue with the game. There’s no getting around the fact that nearly all of the Mobile Suits representing the various countries are offensive and borderline racist, taking numerous stereotypes to the extreme. Gundam Maxter of the US is an amalgamation of various sports equipment and that’s a tame example, don’t get me started on the Tequila and Zebra Gundam. That being said they would have made excellent fodder for an expanded roster. Unfortunately the game has a paltry list of 10 with 4 of those being clones of each other. I realize clones save time and resources but this is a bit extreme. Christ there were well over 50 Gundams in the show they could have tossed in, how cheap can you be?

Despite the surface similarities to Capcom’s classic the fighting engine here doesn’t quite come together. Hit detection is all over the place with moves that clearly should not connect registering a hit while others have insane priority. Because your moves don’t flow together combos are nearly non-existent; you’ll be lucky to pull off a two-in-one at most. Many of the special moves look pretty cool but suffer from such short range that they are next to useless. The timing of your button inputs has to be near perfect for certain special moves to execute as well. Because of all these flaws the game plays more like a brawler which is ultimately unsatisfying.

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In terms of presentation the game is in line with other similar games released in 1994. The Mobile Suits are larger than your average fighting game sprite with some decent animation. The show produced all manner of flashy special moves for each mech that have been faithfully recreated here. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed and go through a day time cycle with each round. Had the game been released a year before it would have been more impressive; by late 1994 the stellar ports of Super Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat 2 were on the market, making this less notable in comparison.

Overall G-Gundam is decent for what it is but the fact that there isn’t as much content and that the SNES has so many better fighting games makes it a less than attractive proposition. The broken fighting engine means there isn’t much depth to the game and you’ll be done with it in just a few hours, if that. There are far too many better options to bother.

6-out-of-10-1

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Spartan X2

Looking back I have fond memories of Kung-Fu for NES. If you were there when the NES launched it was slim pickings for the first year so more than likely many played it and were done with it in an hour or so. At the time I was not aware it was not only an arcade port but also loosely based on the Jackie Chan movie Meals on Wheels. That last point is important as Kung-Fu received a Japan only sequel titled Spartan X2. I’m curious as to why no one picked it up for worldwide release; for God sake Master Chu and the Drunken Hu left China somehow! Anyway while Spartan X2 is improved in many categories it is simply above average when compared to many of the later brawlers released at the same time in 1991.

Like many Kung-Fu was one of the first NES games I ever played and while I might not have realized it back then its design had a huge impact on how I would approach games in general. Kung-Fu was a simple game but its use of enemies with different attacks, bosses with specific patterns and such was the first time I had ever encountered such design elements. The skills I built plowing through the game in record time have continued to serve me well in my gaming career (that sounds so corny.) as I can pick up on these elements in seconds in any game.

To an extent all of that still exists in Spartan X2 however it has been simplified even more. Thomas returns with all of his moves from the previous game with a few additions. By crouching you can build up a charge to unleash a mean uppercut that is strong enough to send even bosses flying back. The over the shoulder throw however is useless. It requires precise positioning and timing to execute and isn’t worth it when a simple kick or uppercut will suffice. Unfortunately there is little reason to use any other move than kicks as the brain dead enemies will simply rush you every time. Every now and again you’ll get some brave soul who will swing by on a chain but for the majority of the game this is what you’ll “deal” with. The subtlety of different enemy combinations is gone and with that the game is simply a mindless brawler.

Aside from the zombie like enemies the game is insanely easy. Your life bar is overly generous to an extent rarely seen in an action game let alone a side scrolling brawler. Getting hit or grabbed has little danger since you have so much health and you can get away with a lot of sloppy play. Part of what made Kung-Fu so challenging was the fact that if you screwed up and used the wrong attack on an enemy your life bar could be sapped in seconds. Prioritizing enemies played a large role as the knife throwing bastards or the midgets would get in cheap hits. Almost none of that is present as nearly every enemy walks into your fists in a straight line.

It isn’t until the latter half of the game that it picks up slightly. Here you’ll deal with soldiers that will attempt to tackle you, jet pack wielding bad asses, and even ninjas. They still go down in one hit but their placement and numbers might make you sweat. A little. The boss battles are just as easy as the rest of the game as it is pretty simple to trap them in the corner and wail away. That is with the exception of Murder Lin. This knife tossing bad ass was legitimately hard and almost made me slam my controller in frustration. I haven’t done that since the early 90s!

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I have my issues with the gameplay but the game’s presentation has seen a considerable upgrade. Your adventure is no longer confined to a single pagoda but instead is a worldwide drug busting tour. The frequent change in scenery does wonders to keep you interested in progressing as there is a suitable amount of detail in the backgrounds. The sprites are smaller but are far more detailed and better animated with the only black mark being some slowdown in a few spots. Even the music is excellent but repetitive as there are only a few songs.

Spartan X2 is not a bad game but also is simply unremarkable. Like its predecessor it is very short and can be completed in less than 30 minutes. Unfortunately it also cannot fall back on the excuse that there isn’t anything else out on the market to warrant replaying it multiple times. I will say however that I enjoyed the brief time I spent with it. For those interested in its story there is a fan translation although you can probably guess the plot either way as it is pretty standard police stuff.

7-out-of-10-1

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Nexzr

When you have a genre that is as saturated as shooters on a console it is only a matter of time before the games start to blend together. I like a good outer space romp as much as the next man but good god was it run into the ground in the early to mid-90s. Nexzr bears more than a passing resemblance to Hudson’s Star Soldier series and while that would be damning in most cases the game is at least different to stand on its own. While not wholly original it is still a damn good game that is better than most similar titles for the platform.

In the year 2012 Earth comes under attack by a large invading space armada. As the pilot of the Slasher, the most advanced ship on Earth this is not just a matter of saving the world but a mission of revenge. Your female partner was killed by an unknown armored assailant who is part of the alien fleet. The extensive intro might lead you into believing this is a heavily story driven game like Macross 2036 but that isn’t the case. While the introduction is nice don’t expect to see any more cutscenes until the end of the game.

Surprisingly Nexzr is light on weapons and is disappointing in that regard. Your only option with regards to primary fire is a three-way shot that is less powerful than the standard cannon but its wide firing range leaves huge gaps. There’s no sugar coating it, it sucks. Fortunately your secondary options are far more interesting. There are a variety of bombs and missiles that are all effective in their own right. There are homing lasers, crawl missiles which are basically the same as Gradius that explode on impact and my personal favorite, satellites that aggressively seek out enemies and stick to them like glue. Sadly the shooter staple bombs do not make an appearance which makes the game seem a bit simple but this is anything but. While I have my issues with the paltry weapon selection which partly adds to it but at least they are serviceable.

I found this to be a bit different from your average shmup in that smaller cannon fodder enemies don’t appear in great numbers with a greater emphasis placed on larger mecha and capital ships. Nexzr can be a pretty difficult game due to a number of factors. One hit equals death and you’ll only occasionally receive a shield that can absorb one hit. The game isn’t fast paced however there is rarely a moment where something isn’t shooting at you. Most of your deaths will come from some random bullet that you didn’t keep track of. Death means you’re sent back to a checkpoint and sometimes you’ll have to retrace a significant amount of ground. Oddly enough the end level bosses are incredibly easy to the point I was surprised they were over in less than thirty seconds. The mid-level bosses put up more of a fight if you can believe it.

Although the difficulty curve is a bit steep it isn’t insurmountable. The game is challenging but never comes across cheap however which is the ideal. The generous scoring system means you can rack up extra lives pretty quickly so long as you aren’t a scrub. More than likely you’ll blow threw them by stage four at which point the game becomes vicious. I do find it odd how much I enjoyed the game in spite of some of its flaws but I chalk that up to how engaging the game is in the end despite its simplicity.

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This is a pretty spectacular looking game which is odd considering how little variety there is in settings. Aside from stage six the game takes place completely in space. Without the diversity that comes from visiting different planets the game’s visuals rely completely on its mechanical designs, which it does in spectacular form. The numerous imperial class ships and enemies bear a strong resemblance to Soldier Blade yet still seem unique. The graphics are bright and almost never slow down which is an accomplishment considering how busy the game gets at times. There are only a few cutscenes but they are long and filled with spoken dialogue that even someone like me with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese can follow. The CD soundtrack is fantastic, full of hard rock tunes that ebb and flow with the action.

Nexzr is a great addition to the TG-16’s shooter library and while it bears some similarities to a few titles still feels unique. There are two versions of the game that are both expensive; the original release and Nexzr Special, which included a few time attack modes as part of the summer carnival of 1993 competition. You’ll be paying a hefty sum either way but I guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth out of it.

8-out-of-101

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Curse

 

I remember seeing Curse in old issues of EGM in their import coverage. The trippy pictures of the box art with its exposed brain inside a mannequin’s head was certainly eye catching. It obviously did not give off the impression that this was a shooter but I’m sure plenty would have looked at it all the same just out of sheer curiosity. The game was scheduled for an US release but mysteriously disappeared. Back in 1989 it would have stood out among the meager offerings of the system but going back and playing it shows that an early release is all it would have had going for it as the game is strictly average.

Curse is what I consider a “safe” game. The type of game that is created early in a system’s life and doesn’t push any boundaries. It does just enough to get by and isn’t exceptional because it needs to get in that early rush when gamers will purchase anything for their shiny new console (see Toshinden). It does everything competently but never crosses over into awesome territory. Many of its best moments will simply remind you of the better games it copies rather than a unique experience unto itself. That being said there is something oddly compelling about the game that I can’t quite put my finger on. While I am a shooter fan I can ignore average games in the genre yet for some strange reason I wanted to see the game all the way through to its conclusion. While it sounds like an endorsement it isn’t enough for me to recommend the game however.

Curse bears a heavy resemblance to R-Type but then again how many shooters don’t? There’s a nice selection of weapons available and the game does a good job providing item drops frequently should you want to switch or if you die. The V-laser and Wide beam are your typical shmup weapons however the Crash shot could have been unique. This weapon fires what looks like a disco ball that explodes on contact and shatters into pieces for splash damage. However it is far too slow to prove effective in most situations.

As in most games of this type there are options that can be attached to your ship and placed either on top or the front and back. It sounds cool but honestly you won’t be making much use of that feature. Atypical of most games in the genre your ship is armed with a shield that can sustain three hits before imploding. Between your shield and the frequent power-ups that replenish it nearly all tension is sapped out of the game. I feel if the game removed the shields it would have been much better for it since you might actually sweat during the levels.

I was thoroughly surprised at the ease with which I blew through the game. None of your weapons are especially strong yet most enemies and bosses go down extremely fast. Occasionally the game will try and pull a fast one with enemies who come from behind or spawn really fast but the generous respawn system means there is little penalty for death. At least until the last level, where you are thrown back to the beginning upon death. That poses little threat however as you will have more than likely racked up extra lives on your way to the finale. With little challenge everyone will tear through the game’s five levels in short order. With little thrills to be had on this half hour tour there is no reason to go back once you’ve seen the credits.

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For the longest time I conflated Micronet with Micronics and went into this expecting the worst but found a game that was technically on the same level as other shooters released in that period such as Whip Rush and Thunder Force 2. It does still share certain lackluster elements of their work however; the backgrounds feature many lines of scrolling but it is jerky with evidence of flicker and slowdown. The game’s color palette is heavily dithered and is distracting. There are some creative creature designs buried underneath the average presentation, most notably the bosses with the game’s box art appearing in game. The music is the standard techno tripe that most shooters resorted to except in this case it is forgettable.

Overall Curse is inoffensive; it doesn’t have any real high points but also doesn’t botch its core gameplay. However that leaves it as an unremarkable game and when you are surrounded by some of the most legendary titles in the genre that simply doesn’t cut it. We missed nothing when its worldwide release fell through.

5-out-of-101

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Gungage

I wonder why Gungage was released only in Europe and Japan. There was definitely a shortage of arcade style action games and it wasn’t as if the two Contra games were filling that void. Games like One and Apocalypse were good but flawed, a trait that Gungage also shares. While this is not most accomplished game within the genre there were certainly far worse games shitting up store shelves that would have made this C-tier release stand out. If you can put up with its warts the game is an enjoyable if short romp.

Initially you control Wakle Skade, the stereotypical well rounder. Wakle is a bit nimble and comes equipped with a shield and paralyzing shot which freezes enemies in place. Once you meet certain criteria you can unlock a further three characters, each with their own special items, moves, and story path. I can tell you right now that Steyr seemed to be the creator’s favorite as she has four special moves compared to everyone else’s one or two. Her playstyle is faster paced as she can dash and duck in addition to sidestepping and strafing. Plus she has three weapons although they are weak. Kard is the strong but slow man of the group although that is a plus in my opinion as you can plow through the game with ease. Dee is harder to classify as his physical attributes aren’t anything special but his weapons are awesome.

Gungage uses tank controls which are my kryptonite. However in this particular instance they are at least functional although less than ideal. Unlike most games that employ this ridiculous control scheme you are adventuring in wide open areas rather than tight corridors. This isn’t the fastest action game on the planet so quick movements and such are rarely called upon. And even in that instance there are a number of additions that make up for it. You can strafe with the L1 and R1 buttons and in combination with the D-pad can keep your current target in view a good portion of the time. A double tap will execute a side step and you can center the camera and sort of lock-on although it is rather poor.

All of these amenities are nice but they can’t cover up all of the flaws with this setup. Character movement is incredibly stiff leaving maneuvering in a narrow space frustrating much like the Resident Evil games. Trying to line up your jumps to leap on platforms is far more frustrating than it should be although to the game’s credit it is rarely called upon. Turning is incredibly slow which is the biggest detriment; boss battles are usually against much faster opponents who will literally run circles around you; combined with the spastic camera this will lead to many cheap hits and deaths. This was released too early to adapt the lock-on method both Ocarina of Time and Mega Man Legends employed which sucks as the game would really have benefited from it like nearly all action games since.

The nine missions cover a lot of ground although there is very little plot connecting the locations you’ll visit. While the levels can sometimes be large they are mostly a series of small arenas mashed together. It keeps up the frame rate and tends to keep the action focused although camera issues do crop up. The few enemies you’ll face tend to appear right in front of you or conveniently are hiding out of sight which makes the slow turn speed a real hassle. Generally speaking I like the mission variety overall with only one (the Desert) being a conceptual nightmare. While the earlier missions are short and bereft of interesting enemies the late game picks up considerably although it’s over a bit too fast depending on your choice of character.

Since this is more or less an arcade style action game on a console it comes as no surprise that it is a bit short. There are nine missions total and those with a modicum of skill should be able to complete the game in a little over an hour. True, you can unlock a further three characters who each play differently but at the end of the day you are still going through the same levels in a different order with a few alternate paths. If the mission available were longer or if the additional characters had exclusive levels it would have greatly extended the life of the game.

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As a 1999 release Gungage competed against games like Konami’s own Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VIII, and Soul Reaver visually and in that regard it comes up short. The boxy environments suffer from low resolution textures, warping textures, and really bad draw distance. The art direction carries the game somewhat but in terms of the enemy designs but it is ultimately let down by this shoddy engine.

The one saving grace of the presentation would be the music. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and honestly sounds completely out of place here. Castlevania series composer Michiru Yamane contributed to the score and the orchestral sound incorporates a ton of rock, jazz, and techno that accentuates the atmosphere. Because of the composers involved the music wouldn’t seem out of place in a Castlevania title however it does fit here, even if the style is unusual for an action game of this type.

Gungage is far from the greatest run and gun action game for the PlayStation but still would have helped to fill an underserved genre had it been released in the US. Despite my misgivings with the controls I still enjoyed it and have no problem recommending it, especially since it is usually dirt cheap.

7-out-of-10

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Gunple: Gunman’s Proof

 

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not only one of the most influential action RPGs of all time but also one of the best in gaming history. With that in mind it is a bit odd that it inspired so few clones during the 16-bit era. While most would point to Crusade of Centy as the most egregious copycat Gunple: Gunman’s Proof takes that title in my opinion. Its late release in 1997 is the main reason it has such a low profile but its Japan only status is also a factor. That doesn’t matter now however thanks to a fan translation, allowing more to experience this hidden gem. Though flawed Gunman’s Proof is still a pretty great game.

Gunman’s Proof shifts the setting a few hundred years to the old west. In 1880 two meteorites crash on Earth and immediately begin to cause the appearance of creatures dubbed Demiseeds. One day a boy from Bronco village happens upon a UFO whose two inhabitants inform him that they are space sheriffs on the trail of a criminal named Demi they believe came to Earth. One of the aliens, Zero, inhabits the boy’s body to search for Demi thus beginning the quest.

The tone is definitely wacky and if the goofy title screen and music did not give that away then the interactions with the town’s inhabitants will drive it home. This is a world where no one bats an eye at a 10-year running around with a machine gun cocked and loaded. The gun shop owner gleefully teaches you how to use even more outlandish weapons such as flamethrowers, shotguns, and even a bazooka. There are even martial arts masters who will teach you new combat techniques such as a charged shot and a shoryuken (I’m not joking!).

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The humorous tone is carried on in the game’s graphics. The art style is even cartoonier than its inspiration with extremely bright colors being the rule of the day. The enemy sprites are well animated and extremely detailed, especially the bosses. These massive contraptions are the game’s visual highlight as they are quite unlike anything you have seen before. That being said there is no denying that once you enter a dungeon Nintendo could have sued for plagiarism as they look near identical to a Link to the Past. Not just a little. A lot.

Those similarities begin to disappear the further you progress but the HUD is a constant reminder of the game’s source material. Luckily the game’s setting allows for some gameplay differences. You have a separate button for ranged and melee combat with various weapons that will augment both. Admittedly your fists can’t match up to the infinite ammo gun since you can shoot in 8 directions and can perform a stronger charged shot. It’s clear the game was designed around gunplay as you can strafe and crouch and crawl to dodge bullets.

Combat is the primary focus and the game provides plenty of options in that regard. You won’t be carrying around an inventory of items; all sub weapons drop from enemies and are temporary. It sounds limiting but weapon drops are so frequent you’ll rarely have to rely on your default items. To an extent this almost feels more like a typical action game since you have lives, ammo, a limited stock of smart bombs, and even a score. That these elements were adapted to this style of game so well makes it feel unique.

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Gunman’s Proof goes to great lengths to replicate A Link to the Past in both its looks and gameplay so it is disheartening to see it fail in the most crucial area: its dungeons. The absence of any puzzles or special items needed for progression means you can simply head directly toward the boss if you know the exact route. In fact the game rewards you for clearing the dungeons as fast as possible. Not to say that those elements are absolutely necessary in an adventure game but their absence leaves exploring the dungeons a hollow experience. The few treasure chests you’ll find merely contain treasures used to obtain a higher score in order to earn extra lives. Very rarely will you find a permanent weapon upgrade.

The lackluster dungeons wouldn’t stand out so much if they were not the main thrust of the game. There is very little impetus to explore the overworld as any items such as life increasing red coins will be found on the way to the next dungeon anyway. There are a few hidden skills to learn but they serve little practical use in combat. Despite the size of the map the world is actually quite small. With dungeons that can be cleared in 10 minutes or less the game falls on the short side.

Yet in spite of all these faults it still nails its core gameplay. The game is worth checking out just to see what Zelda would be like in a different setting. You’ll pick up an interesting combination of weapons and skills that cater to those who like hand to hand combat (so to speak) or to fight from a distance. The frequent weapon drops mean you’ll never have to worry about ammo and can freely change almost whenever you want. While it is true that you can blitz each dungeon at the very least you’ll have fun doing so.

Between the number of extra lives you’ll amass and the constant food drops Gunple falls on the easy side. The game is a bit too generous with food; there were times I was on the verge of death and within seconds almost refilled my life bar. Midway through the game weaker enemies are replaced with more active demiseeds that aggressively fight back but that does little to ramp up the challenge. A good bit into the game and you can find the red bandana, which cuts damage in half while doubling your attack power. Insane. The only real test comes from the game’s bosses. Their patterns are simple but your hit box is large which makes dodging fire in tight spaces a nuisance but it doesn’t matter. If you have spare lives you are revived on the spot much like fairies in Zelda. At least they look cool.

Gunman’s Proof is a good stab at replicating the Zelda formula but misses a few of the essential elements that make that series truly special. The areas in which it differs are where it shines brightest, i.e. its story and combat. It has its flaws but is still more than worthwhile for any fan of adventure games. Unfortunately some Japanese is required as you are given specific instructions and need to complete certain objectives in a given order. However there is a fan translation for those willing to emulate and I say it’s worth it.

7-out-of-10

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Sylphia

And now something different from the shmup masters at Compile. With the exception of the Aleste series nearly all of Compile’s shooter output were of the space variety. As much as I like a good space shooter they don’t offer as much diversity as you would expect. With its fantasy theme Sylphia is like Phelios’ prettier big sister. With its intense action, high production values and excellent pace this is one of the best shooters for the system. Too bad you’ll have a hard time finding it.

An Ancient City in Greece is invaded by demons who slaughter its inhabitants. One of these citizens is a warrior maiden struck down protecting the innocent. The gods reward her bravery by transforming her into a fairy with vast mystical powers, powers that will now be used for revenge. As a late 1993 release Sylphia was one of the last PC Engine CD games released in Japan. The game is much more reserved in its use of the CD when compared to a game like Renny Blaster which was released around the same time. The only cutscenes are the intro and ending and aside from the music this could have been a Hucard title. That isn’t a knock against the game as the lucky few with enough money to buy it will be well rewarded.

Sylphia makes excellent use of its fantasy setting, more so than any other shooter with the same theme. The areas you visit look and feel unique and as an added bonus you’ll face a different set of enemies on every level. That much variety is absolutely staggering and unheard of plus keeps the game feeling fresh for the length of the quest. The creature designs are both familiar and original; they really dug deep into Greek myth to come up with such a diverse list of monsters. I made the comparison to Phelios earlier but that game has nothing on this. Some of the enemies wouldn’t look out of place in some of Atlus’s RPGs; the skeleton gladiator riding a chariot driven by flying manticores is a particular favorite of mine and resembles one of the 8 fiends in Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne. That’s a compliment by the way.

Like other Compile shooters the game makes use of color coded weapons that correspond to the elements. The Red fire travels and Blue reverse fire possess some homing capability although it is hard to determine which is stronger. The green ring blades are pretty devastating as they linger in one spot and cover a wide arc but are a little weak. That leaves the earth rocks which are terrible. The boulders produced distract from enemy bullets and obstacles and only drop straight downward. Supplementing this is a giga attack that has limited uses but an experience bar that can be increased by collecting mirrors and gems will award more. As much as I like the weapons I wouldn’t have minded a few more since one of them is essentially useless.

I found the difficulty about perfect for both novices and diehard shooter fans. The game’s pace varies between bouts of all out chaos and slower moments that allow you to catch your breath before the mayhem starts again. With different enemies on every level the game provides plenty of reasons to switch weapons rather than sticking with a favorite. While one hit deaths would have made the game more intense providing a life bar was a smart choice as the game would have been impossible otherwise. In an odd twist I found the bosses to be absolute pushovers compared to the journey just to reach them which is strange as it is usually the other way around. The difficulty means it will probably take a few hours to beat the game despite unlimited continues which is pretty good value for a shooter.

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Visually Sylphia is spectacular and just shy of being one of the best showcases of the hardware. There’s a generous smattering of scrolling backgrounds that are simply beautiful. On the other hand there are an equal number of flat and drab backdrops that are just ugly in comparison due to some hideous color choices. The fantasy theme is heavily Greek inspired, from both its scenery to most of its bosses. The bosses are the games’ true visual highlight. You’ll recognize Medusa, Cerberus, the Minotaur and the Titans but you’ve certainly never seen them like this. Medusa in particular is pretty stacked. Actually there’s a surprising amount of bare breasts although it isn’t salacious.

I was pretty surprised to hear a heavily techno influenced soundtrack rather than symphonic score. The music is excellent, heavy on the drum and bass yet still melodic. My only wish is that the music were louder as it tends to get drowned out by the punchy sound effects.

I approached Sylphia with no expectations and was absolutely surprised. This has quickly become one of my favorite shooters of all time alongside Harmful Park and Gradius Gaiden. The only problem is its price; since this was one of the last PC Engine games released in Japan not too many copies were printed making it rare. If you see it at a decent price buy that shit, you will not regret it.

9-out-of-10

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Bio Senshi Dan

Bio Senshi Dan was once scheduled for a US release under the title Bashi Bazook: Morphoid Masher. Honestly they should have stuck with its original title as Bashi Bazook is flat out stupid. And this is coming from someone who liked Kabuki Quantum Fighter in spite of its dumb name. While I won’t go so far as to say that BSD would have put Jaleco in the same breath as Capcom or Konami it would have done wonders for their reputation as more than just a Bases Loaded factory. Originally released in 1987 Bio Senshi Dan ranks among that second wave of NES games that really pushed boundaries and while it has its flaws is still an incredibly solid game.

In the year 2081 Earth is in ruins. Aliens have overrun the planet, leaving destruction in their wake. Their actions are guided by the hand of a mysterious entity known as the Increaser. The last hope of the planet lies in the warrior Dan who is sent back in time to the year 1999 before the aliens invaded and defeat the Increaser before he rises to power.

At first glance Bio Senshi Dan looks like a typical action game when in fact it is actually much more than that. Each of the game’s five levels is actually one large world which you can freely explore. There are plenty of rooms scattered about with the denizens of each world offering information, weapons for sale, or other services. The levels aren’t so large that you’ll end up hopelessly lost but a map of some kind would have come in handy, especially considering there are multiple teleporters in each stage and some corridors look identical. There is no time limit in the normal sense however there is a meter (QV for Queen’s Vitality) that tracks the boss’s health; the longer you take the more it increases.

Although you’ve been sent into the past with nothing but a funky green jump suit and a weak sword there are plenty of upgrades waiting to be bought. Defeated enemies drop energy that functions as currency which the numerous vendors are all too happy exchange for weapons. The default knife is quickly upgraded to a throwable variety that returns and inflicts additional damage on the way back. The rest comprise a wide spectrum from the psycho blossom, the rolling shield to the powerful thunder sword. These side weapons use energy but the game is so balanced that it is rarely a factor.

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All of the exploring will remind you of Metroid but it seems Dan has graduated from the Simon Belmont school of platforming. The game features the same rigid sense of control where once you perform an action you are locked into it. For the most part it isn’t a problem in the strictest sense; while you are climbing ledges and such there is only one small section in Area 4 that has a few instant death pits flanked by respawning enemies like the Medusa heads. The controls as a whole are very stiff which is frustrating. Dan is slow to turn around crouch and as such you will suffer a number of cheap hits. Luckily you are equipped with a generously long life bar and can refill health at inns.

Even taking the stiff controls into account and the large number of cheap hits this is still a pretty easy game. While each level is decently sized you can stumble your way to the end level boss relatively quickly although you will miss health upgrades and optional weapons. Unless you go out of your way to waste time the boss’s health should be within an average range and if you have done even a modicum of exploring chances are you’ve purchased a weapon that will decimate them in seconds. Hell you can buy everything at the beginning of the last stage for a cheap 250 energy. Speaking of which it is only in the last two stages where the difficulty jumps significantly but even that isn’t saying much. All told I estimate most will finish the game in about 2 hours which is a bit disappointing but seems appropriate.

A bit rough around the edges but still entertaining nonetheless, Bio Senshi Dan is a good game that I’m sure would have found an audience if its US release would have went through. There is a fan translation available as well as a complete American prototype but no Japanese is required to enjoy the game.

7-out-of-10

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Gaiapolis

As shallow as many of them were I do genuinely miss the beat em up genre. Games like Final Fight showed just how amazing the genre could be but unfortunately it was run into the ground during the 16-bit era by games that didn’t aspire to be more than simple clones. It sucked because the brawlers at the tail end of that era were actually evolving and really turning into something special thanks to more powerful hardware. Games like Alien vs. Predator, Armored Warriors, and Dungeons & Dragons (huh, all Capcom games) were amazing examples of where the genre was headed.

Gaiapolis was one of the last arcade titles that wasn’t a fighting or racing game I got to play before my local arcade closed. This was the type of game I hoped would receive a Saturn or PlayStation port but it was very clear where the industry was headed and 2d wasn’t part of it. However in China an unlicensed port was made for the Famicom. Obviously it isn’t anywhere near the quality of Konami’s coin op but is decent for what it is.

The prince of Avalon is still out for revenge against Zar Harc Empire for destroying his homeland and is joined by two companions. The characters have all been renamed with the Prince, Dragon, and Fairy now being named Ken, Lin, and Amy. I suppose it helps give them an identity rather than just a generic descriptor. For the most part the game follows the arcade game’s plot although the few cut scenes don’t exactly create a coherent narrative. Gaiapolis was story heavy for an arcade game so it is sad to see most of that lost in translation.

This is an interesting release to say the least. The vast majority of Sachen’s games are complete crap yet Gaiapolis seems to have been made with some care. It more or less follows the arcade game’s plot and surprisingly is completely in English. The levels aren’t the same but are at least thematically similar. While most of the same features are present there are still a few problems that really bring the game down. However all things considered this turned out far better than you would expect given the disparity in hardware.

The game is played from an overhead perspective rather than the typical side scrolling format of most brawlers. That isn’t the only difference however as there are some RPG elements. Experience points are gained from killing enemies or picking up items and while it adds a little depth the addition is superfluous. Enemies spawn in set locations and groups and you must kill them before moving on making everyone’s character growth the same. The differences between characters aren’t as pronounced here which makes your choice irrelevant.

By brawler standards this is a pretty simple game since your only means of offense is a simple three hit combo and an occasional magic spell. The bad hit detection and the viewpoint make attacking enemies more of a hassle than it should be as swings that are clearly connecting simply don’t register. This is especially bad during boss battles where despite their size it isn’t clear where to attack. It makes these already long battles even more frustrating. This was a decently long game in the arcade but this is thankfully shorter; I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate this if it had all 17 (!) of the arcade’s stages.

As frustrating as the game can be there really is no challenge due to the fact that you have 99 credits shared between two players. Even if one or both players is an incredible moron there is no possible way that you won’t finish the game with that much of a buffer. There are a large amount of cheap hits due to the perspective but the game throws life restoring food at you after every group of enemies. Leveling up also refills health and you’ll level up every few minutes. Whether this was done as an acknowledgement of the game’s problems we’ll never know but at least you’ll definitely see it through to its non-ending.

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The graphics are pretty damn good for an unlicensed game. While it doesn’t have the same stage layout as the arcade the level themes are the same. There is a decent variety in the settings with the backgrounds being pretty detailed. The sprites are very large, larger than in most NES games, especially the bosses which are screen filling behemoths. The animation isn’t the greatest and the developer’s technical ambition gets the best of them as there is some very bad sprite flickering and slowdown. Where the visuals excel the music does not however. The music is grating and honestly is so bad I muted the sound which is something I rarely do.

It’s sad that this is the only home port of a truly amazing game. If you were lucky enough to play Gaiapolis back in the day you are better off sticking with your memories as this version only captures a slice of the game’s majesty.   Honestly this review really isn’t about recommending the game or not since the chances of actually finding the cartridge are next to impossible and it isn’t worth it. This was simply a means of examining a curiosity in game history.

6-out-of-10-1

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Rayxanber II

For some inexplicable reason I was obsessed with Rayxanber II & III. I’ve already described how being a Turbo Grafx owner was a lonely experience so if I wanted new games I had to buy them. It was just another shooter among a sea of the things but the screenshots in EGM looked really cool. Sadly the series never came to the US. Or maybe it isn’t so sad in the case of Rayxanber II. I can safely this is one of the most frustrating and difficult games I have ever paid and I will never play it again.

The Rayxanber series is one of the few that never left Japan and I can see why. The first game was released for the FM Towns Marty, one of the most obscure platforms in existence. From all accounts it was a vicious game and it seems developer Data West did not learn from their mistakes as this second installment is just as grating. Even with an emulator and save states I still found myself frustrated at just how badly designed the game is. Literally any good idea is trumped by bad decisions all around that make me question who the game was even targeting. Stay away from this one folks.

Weapon selection is light at only three choices. The flame laser, multi-shot, and explosion gun are all you get. Depending on the direction the icon is facing when picked up the weapon will only fire in that direction, good for very specific situations but stupid otherwise. Charging up the weapon briefly will supposedly unleash a more powerful blast but it is so small and weak you would be a fool to even bother. Activating turbo fire on the controller is not only better but I would even say mandatory as you won’t last more than seconds otherwise.

See the thing about the weapons is no matter which one you pick they are all woefully underpowered. Literally every enemy is a bullet sponge to an absurd degree and they always attack in groups. The opening seconds of the game demonstrate this beautifully as you will encounter moving turrets before receiving your first powerful that will not die no matter how hard you pound on them. I’m sure the explosion gun is more powerful than the multi-shot but they are all so weak they might as well be cosmetic choices. The weapons at the very least needed to be twice as strong to not be an absolute joke.

And even then it still would not make much of a difference. It isn’t just weak weapons that make the game so hard. Enemy placement is completely unfair and the number one cause of death. The game delights in having enemy waves sneak up from behind with no warning. Staying in the middle of the screen isn’t always viable so you’ll have to risk being blindsided at any time until you memorize the exact enemy spawn points. That kind of trial and error level design doesn’t work in a shooter, especially one with no checkpoints aside from boss battles.   Speaking of, if you die during a boss fight you might as well reset the game. Trying to destroy these monsters with the standard pea shooter is just flat out stupid.

I mentioned that the game’s few good ideas are sabotaged by some flaw at every turn and it’s true. The third level is sees you flying underneath a massive mecha crab and avoiding its legs. It would actually be pretty cool if you didn’t have to random enemy waves from the left and right, tanks on the ground, and the occasional turret from above. Try to process all of that. Just no. I love the premise of stage 4; the entire level is encased in ice that your ship can break. You can carefully carve your own path and avoid enemies but the nearly game breaking slowdown ruins it. The last level is a maze of tunnels with plenty of cover to avoid walls and bullets but runs way too long, which makes the lack of checkpoints even more pronounced.

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What makes the fucked up game balance and difficulty so sad is that it is obvious that money was put into this production. The graphics are pretty damn amazing despite the derivative nature of the game’s theme. There’s a healthy amount of parallax in every level with some of the backgrounds, especially stage 2 being especially bright. The bio-mechanical enemies aren’t all too different from similar titles but are large, varied, and impressive nonetheless. The similarities to R-Type are definitely there but the exceptional quality of the sprites really sets it apart. Unfortunately all of this spectacle is ruined by crippling slowdown that reduces the game to a slideshow at times. Stage four is especially bad about this; nearly the entire level moves in slow motion.

The soundtrack is fantastic and really puts the CD to good use. There’s a nice selection of techno tunes and symphonic arrangement that almost seem out of place in a shooter. Most of the music however is recycled from the first game. The overpowering music tends to either drown out the sound effects or make them disappear completely which can screw up your timing.

It’s just too bad the ridiculous difficulty will hinder your enjoyment of the game’s production values. I’ll be honest, even if the game were balanced this would simply be a decent game and not a true standout like Lords of Thunder or Soldier Blade. You are better off listening to the soundtrack on youtube than buying the game and punching the wall in aggravation. At least they got it right next time.

5-out-of-101

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Cross Fire

Looking back it is surprising that there weren’t more games released in the style of Contra for the NES. There is no question that Contra is one of the most popular games for the system and while there were plenty of character action games such as Mega Man and Shatterhand most run and gun action titles were of the top down variety. In Japan there were a number of action games just as good as Contra and Journey to Silius that never left the country. Cross Fire is one such game whose worldwide release was cancelled at the last second. Once you get past the undoubtedly bad first impression the game leaves this is a solid action romp.

I imagine the game gets its name from the fact that you have to deal with enemies in the foreground and the background at the same time. It’s cheesy but the name fits. There is rarely a moment where you aren’t dealing with enemies who want to fill you with lead or stab you and some form of attack from the background, be it a turret, grenades, or even random lasers from seemingly nowhere. It isn’t the most original feature but it certainly makes the game far more intense and distinct from similar titles. Dealing with these dual threats is a bit of an issue however, at least initially.

Cross Fire unfortunately starts off on a bad note that will leave a negative impression on everyone who boots it up. You are dropped in with nothing but your bare fists and grenades to deal with turrets, tanks, and armed soldiers and it flat out does not work. Closing the gap to punch someone in the face means you’ll almost always take a hit or two. Aiming at background enemies with the grenades is frustrating since they move in an arc and you need to be precise to register a hit. Once you find the machine gun (or die at which point it is given to you) thankfully it becomes the game it should have always been at that point.

I call it a run and gun when in actuality you’ll slowly work your way towards the exit if you are smart. There is simply too much going on at times to try and blitz your way through. Your weapon selection is light with only a three way shot and spread like missiles as upgrades. Luckily they are all you need as they work extremely well. The three way shot leaves wide gaps between its bullets but is perfect for hitting targets behind cover. The missiles are a little slow but you can send out a large batch in a few quick shots to make up for it.

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This is a worldwide journey as you are dropped off at hotspots all around the world such as Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Vladivo (more than likely Vladivostok). There’s a decent amount of variety from one level to the next as you move from the jungle to a shipyard in Russia and even a moving train. While the game has its feet firmly planted in reality it does make one very strange detour in Afghanistan. Here you’ll face bullet shooting Buddhist statues among the halls of a mosque and the end level boss is a floating god like deity. Not that it isn’t cool but it comes out of left field with no explanation. At least in Contra you know it is an alien invasion so when you see the dick monster in stage eight there is some context.

Despite the strength of your weapons this is a pretty daunting game. Bullets are flying everywhere at all times it seems and you can’t even linger in one spot too long without barrels falling on top of you, as if to force you to move on. Your life bar will drop pretty fast, regrettably due to bullets that blend into the backgrounds. The boss battles present an imposing challenge if you are not appropriately equipped. Oddly enough most of these encounters take place in the middle of the levels, making that last sprint to the level’s end pretty harrowing. I found this a lot more difficult than beating Contra with the 30 man code honestly but it isn’t impossible as long as you take your time.

In a day and age where we expect instant gratification Cross Fire, with its stupid hand to hand combat will turn many off. However if you stick with it you’ll see the good game underneath. This is a solid action game that would have fit in with the rest of the NES library worldwide. The game is entirely in English anyway so its lack of a US release doesn’t matter. Cross Fire can be found for under five bucks, at that price I say go for it.

7-out-of-10

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Dahna: Megami Tanjō

One thing I absolutely love about the Sega Genesis library is the fact that the vast majority of worthwhile games released in Japan were brought overseas. Thanks to Sega of America’s aggressive support of the system future classics like Gunstar Heroes, Landstalker, and Beyond Oasis all found homes in a smart gamer’s system. It does however make you wonder about the games that were left behind. While games like Alien Soldier and Battlemania were released late there were others like Dahna: Megami Tanjō that were curiously left stranded. After playing I can see why. There’s good gameplay buried underneath a bunch of flaws that unfortunately ruin the game.

From its protagonist to its use of magic Dahna reminds me of Golden Axe. Dahna could very easily have been Tyris Flare as she is quick with a sword and can also use magic. There are only 3 spells and depending on how much MP you have a different spell is used. Unlike Golden Axe however the strongest magic doesn’t use up all of your MP. There aren’t any enemy steeds to commandeer but at various points in the game you’ll ride a horse, a dragon or even the back of an ogre. That last one sounds pretty cool but the slow bastard will die in short order.

For all of its similarities to Golden Axe though you’ll immediately notice the janky controls. Your sword slashes come out pretty rapidly but anytime you switch from performing one action to another there is an annoying delay. Turning around to swipe quick footed enemies isn’t as easy as it should be which leads to many cheap hits. Even ducking down has to be done and getting up has to be done in a three step process. This isn’t a fast paced game but the enemies do move pretty fast and in groups so the chances of dealing with them without taking a hit is slim. The platforming has its share of frustrations as the high jump doesn’t always execute on command. Considering you’ll spend a good portion of your time doing just that it sucks that you can’t even rely on the controls to get that part right.

Of the game’s many faults though the most egregious is the insane difficulty. You have one life and five continues to complete this short quest and I’ll tell you right now it isn’t enough. Bottomless pits are everywhere and the stiff controls mean you’ll fall into them more than once. Life restoring items are incredibly rare and are dropped in such paltry amounts it is insulting. And to further insult you they don’t even refill your life bar after every level! Every 100,000 experience points will refill your health but that only applies the first few times. What more could they possibly do to screw you over?

The sad point of all this is that with a few simple tweaks this could have been a decent game. It sure as hell wouldn’t make any best of lists but for those who really liked Golden Axe (like me) it could have been a worthwhile alternative. There’s a decent amount of variety to the game such as the times you ride on the back of a dragon or horseback but at every turn the shoddy execution undermines that. It’s these titles that frustrate me the most. The ones that have good ideas or even just a setting you like and are on the precipice of being good but needed a little more play testing to iron out the kinks.

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From a visual standpoint the game definitely has the look of an early Genesis title. The color palette is very dark which fits the tone of the game but does nothing for the game’s visual variety. The sprites are about medium sized but are blurred and sometimes lack detail. This is an incredibly bloody game for the period with enemies leaking blood when cut. One boss in particular losses his extra arms as the fight progresses and returns later in the game sans limbs with blood gushing where they should be. Occasionally there is a pretty background but it can’t make up for the rest of the lackluster presentation or weak music.

I really wanted to like Dahna but the insane difficulty completely ruins the game. I like a good challenge as much as the next man but not when it is done so cheaply. I guess you can see why no one bothered to release it worldwide, which is notable because the Genesis wasn’t exactly overflowing with software in 1991. The game is cheap for a reason and even with that in mind I can’t recommend it.

6-out-of-101

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Cyberbots

With the advent of the Saturn and PlayStation in the mid-90s the chances of seeing home ports of all the big budget arcade games increased dramatically. While the 3d games like Tekken and Ridge Racer were exciting I looked forward to the 2d stuff more, specifically Capcom and SNK’s fighting games.   I was still too young to know the ins and outs of game development but knew games like Darkstalkers and King of Fighters were too much for my SNES and Genesis. Cyberbots would also join that list and while I had only seen it in magazines I desperately wanted to play it. It would be many years before I finally picked up the import and in the end I was left disappointed. This is a decent game but I expected more.

Cyberbots is a spinoff from Armored Warriors, a little known beat em up that is absolutely gorgeous. Both games were not popular which is probably why the home ports never came to the US. I would imagine that for most their only familiarity with the series comes from Jin Saotomi’s appearances in Marvel vs. Capcom. I remember anticipating the game’s release and was disappointed when it never manifested. However playing it years after the fact shows that I didn’t miss much. While I like the game the bare bones package means it has a short shelf life.

There’s a colorful cast of characters but you don’t simply pick a fighter and jump in here. Once you’ve chosen a character you also select a mech which determines your special moves. The 12 mechs are divided into four categories: Reptos for high speed, Fordy for high mobility, Guldin for high attack output, and Blodia as your well rounder. While this does create some homogenization mechs in the same group still have different arms and legs that vary their attacks. Your choice of character determines how the story plays out although it is lost on those of us who don’t speak Japanese.

As in most Capcom fighting games special moves are executed using quarter circle motions allowing most fighting game fans to jump right in. Although button inputs are shared the game uses a simplified button setup with two attack buttons, a dash, and a weapon button to fire projectiles. Ammo is infinite but you have to wait for the gauge to recharge which balances it out. Obviously the dash button is a gap closer but it will also modify some of your special moves. Depending on the mech you can air dash multiple times and even hover! As an added bonus you can even rip your opponent’s limbs off to further cripple them although it’s random as to when this occurs.

There is definitely a lot of familiar aspects within the game but this is still its own beast. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these aren’t the speediest combatants and the game has a slower, lumbering pace appropriate for giant robots. You won’t be executing long strings of attacks and in fact most multi hit combos are more a result of a special move hitting multiple times rather than your ability to link attacks. The simple button setup makes this easier to pick up and play and while there is some depth you’ll have to dig for it.

As a port of the arcade game Capcom have done an exceptional job. However as an all-around package Cyberbots is as dry as they come. You get two modes, arcade and versus and that’s it. There are no extensive customization options and aside from Zero Akuma + the three bosses there are no other unlockables. The bar had been raised in terms of what was expected from a fighting game conversion not just by Namco with the Tekken games but also by Capcom themselves with the various Street Fighter Alpha ports. Seeing the lackluster job they’ve done here is surprising as a result and hurts the game’s longevity. They really should have added more content such as a practice mode or even an art gallery. As is if you don’t have a consistent group of friends the game will lose its appeal quickly.

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Even in this day and age of high resolution 2d fighting games such as Blaz Blue Cyberbots is still ridiculously pretty. Since these are giant mechs the sprites are huge with a ridiculous attention to detail paid to all of their individual parts. The animation is extremely fluid and the game never slows down no matter how many large pyrotechnic blasts are being unleashed. It’s similar to Darkstalkers in that regard but even more impressive in my opinion. The backgrounds are beautiful with levels of detail stretching off into the distance, to the point where it’s almost distracting. This version uses SNK’s RAM cartridge for faster load times and smoother animation but even without the conversion is solid.

Considering the game never achieved much popularity in US arcades the home ports are more than likely most gamer’s exposure to it. While Capcom has done a bang up job of cramming all of the insanity of the arcade game to the Saturn the lack of content also means this is a lacking choice compared to the bustling fighting game library for the system. It’s good for what it is but not much more.

6-out-of-10-1

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Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3

Looking back it sucks that Capcom took such a huge bath on the console ports of Super Street Fighter 2 and as such began to cut back on their cartridge based titles as we missed out on a few cool games. If you would have told me at any point in the 90s that a Mega Man would not be released worldwide I’d have called you crazy. Yet Rockman & Forte would take 7 years and a new platform to come to the US. The Magical Quest series was hugely popular and excellent even though they targeted the younger set. Unbeknownst to most a third game in the series hit Japan exclusively in 1995 and while it isn’t as refined as the first two is still a pretty damn good game.

It seems Donald Duck’s legendary bad temper has caused more trouble than necessary this time around. After losing his composure over falling to one of Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s pranks the boys hide in the attic to get away from him. However there they find a magical book and are sucked in to Storybook land by King Pete. When Mickey and Donald come looking for the boys they are informed by the fairy of Storybook land that they will need to overthrow King Pete to get the boys back.

Either Mickey or Donald are selectable and this time around the choice is more than cosmetic. Both characters can grab and throw objects in their base form as well as butt bounce but their costumes differ in functionality. Mickey dons a full suit of armor, complete with a shield to block attacks and a lance that can attack in multiple directions. Donald’s large ass (the game’s words not mine) means he can’t wear armor. Instead he dons a cheap barrel with a hammer. However the barrel is pretty awesome as it can float in water and be used as protection from most hits. The magic suit has the same differences: as Mickey’s magic birds fly instantly whereas Donald has to charge his magic first.

With their unique abilities comes a slight change in level design as both characters will at times take different paths. Since Mickey will drop like a stone in water when armored the bottom half of the Harvest Festival is not a good choice for him. This aspect of the game isn’t taken as far as it could have been however. If every level had separate paths for Mickey and Donald it would have been a good reason to play through the game twice. In coop you can throw each other around, perfect for finding hidden items. But once you’ve played World of Illusion, which has entire levels designed exclusively for two players you’ll want more from this.

While the game largely has the same feel as the two previous games the controls are not as responsive and the costumes are a bit of a retread. The frustrating controls are most prominent with the climbing suit. For the most part they’ll automatically grab any tree or pillar than can be ascended however performing an accelerated jump to another pole or ledge seems to randomly work and unfortunately this skill is mandatory in the final levels. As far as the costumes go the climbing suit is a slower and less responsive version of the Mountaineer costume from Magical Quest and the magic suit is a less versatile version of the magic turban.

Where the general gameplay is largely the same as its predecessors some of the same criticism can also be lobbied at this game. Once again the quest is incredibly easy, with life restoring hearts and extra lives in ready supply. If you find one of the bonus rooms you can potentially stay there and accumulate items as long as you don’t pick a Pete card that throws you out. The majority of your deaths will come from dealing with the odd control quirks surrounding some of the suits. Boss battles can be tough but by the midpoint of the game they are literally tossing out extra lives in pairs. Despite being one level longer than the prior entries this still feels just as short which sucks as it is still enjoyable game regardless of its few flaws.

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The Magical Quest series has always featured exceptional artwork and this installment is no less impressive. The backgrounds are gorgeous and the game still features the same wide range of animations for literally every enemy. This is not a huge leap over its predecessors as it is obvious that Capcom are reusing the same engine however the art direction and variety in environments are what carries it. The soundtrack this time around is sadly not as memorable as new composers were brought in. The music isn’t bad, it kind of just lingers in the background.

Mickey to Donald: Magical Adventure 3 is not as well-honed as its predecessors but will still provide a few hours of entertainment for those that seek it out. Honestly this should have been released in 1995 but what can you do? The Super Famicom game received a fan translation by RPG One however the Gameboy Advance port was released here and is dirt cheap for those who need more Disney in their life.

7-out-of-10

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Salamander

Any fan of NES shooters is undoubtedly familiar with Life Force. As the sequel to Gradius we all thought the game was excellent, building on what we loved about Gradius and more. However what nearly all of us were not aware of is that Life Force was actually a loose port of Salamander, an entirely different series from Konami. Salamander would see many ports and sadly the excellent PC Engine version never came to the US. This is an excellent addition to the system’s shmup library and one worth seeking out.

Those who have played Life Force will be pretty surprised at just how different Salamander really is from that game. For one there is no power-up bar; all weapons are dropped randomly from enemies. I can see why Konami adapted the Gradius weapon bar when bringing the game to the US as it drew an automatic connection to Gradius but the Salamander method is actually pretty quick. Item drops are a regular occurrence although you’ll have to remember what each weapon looks like to avoid ditching the laser for the ripple for example.

As a shooter Salamander mixes both horizontal and vertical scrolling much like some of the Twinbee games. This could have been a recipe for disaster but the game is equally adept at both. It’s interesting to note some of the other differences between this and Life Force. Where Life Force adapted a biological theme Salamander is more straightforward (although all of these changes would be incorporated into a new version of the arcade game too). The fourth stage of Salamander was moved up to become the second level of Life Force. Sadly the original stages of Life Force aren’t present, which sucks. While they definitely seemed out of place (seriously an Egyptian themed level?) their presence would have increased the length of the game and made you feel like you got your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is quite low compared to the typical entries in the series. Due to the frequent weapon drops you can reach full power pretty quickly at which point you will blitz through the levels easily. There is still a ton going on with stray bullets and enemies blending into the background but nothing so intense that would be considered unfair. This home port adapts the checkpoint system of Gradius but isn’t as punishing since the game is so generous with weapons. There is no Konami code and continues are limited but that is little deterrent. The lacking challenge does however highlight the one crucial flaw with the game however.

The only major flaw with the game is its length. With just six stages shooter veterans can complete the game in under thirty minutes. Those less skilled will probably average an hour or so and while I like the game there is still something to be said about its value proposition. On the plus side the game is relatively cheap by import standards and I’m sure most will run through the game a few times as it is pretty awesome.

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Salamander was a significant leap forward in terms of presentation over Gradius which is surprising considering both games were released a year apart. The generic star fields of old have been replaced with more varied terrain such as fortified enemy bases, asteroid fields, and fiery planets. There is also a unique boss for every level which sounds minor but goes a long way toward keeping you from getting bored. I’m pretty confident no one wanted to spend another game blowing up the same mothership over and over again. This version of the game is near identical outside of differences in resolution and some minor loss of background detail. The FM synthesized music has been improved over the arcade game but the voices announcing the names of weapons and levels have been removed.

The one flaw with the game’s presentation is the slowdown. Much like the NES version of Gradius II with four options and a weapon like the Ripple filling up the majority of the screen the game can and will slow to a crawl frequently. This is especially egregious during boss battles but at least there it is welcome as the game can move too fast otherwise. How’s that for a problem? It isn’t game breaking but is pretty annoying as it really stands out amid the rest of this fantastic package.

Outside of the Salamander Deluxe Packs for the PlayStation and Saturn this is the best port of Salamander and one that should have made it overseas. If the game’s length is not an issue for you I see no reason not jump in unless you have access to the previously mentioned Deluxe Packs.

8-out-of-101

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Astro Fang

While I have a great deal of nostalgia for 8-bit games of all stripes racing games are the hardest to go back to. The march of technology has left the vast majority of these games lacking and while I can still appreciate Excitebike I’d just as soon rather play something more modern. Square’s Rad Racer is one of the few games from that period I can revisit and there were a few other games in that style. Astro Fang is dangerously similar to Rad Racer but adds a few cool twists that at least makes it somewhat unique. It won’t win any points for originality but it remains a solid game that never left Japan.

If you can actually believe there is something of a plot. A series of natural disasters has left the planet RS-121 a devastated wasteland. However amidst the destruction lies a singular path, the Black Line. An unsolved legend lies at the end of the Black Line and Raiba has decided to put the legend to the test in his souped up Astro Fang. I never said it was a good plot.

Upon first glance you can’t help but note the eerie similarity to Rad Racer. Whether it was intentional or not the two games would look near identical were it not for Astro Fang’s intergalactic setting. While the two games share a graphical style gameplay wise there are some distinct differences. The controls aren’t as tight as this doesn’t have the same level of physics (I can’t believe I’m saying that about an 8-bit game) but at least they are serviceable. By pressing down you can compact your car ideally to squeeze between tight spaces but I can honestly say anytime I’ve successfully done so was a happy accident.

Racing is less of a focus as this more of a battle racer in the style of Chase HQ. There are numerous weapons available from the shops in each track to destroy drone cars and the end level bosses. Missiles, tire spikes, and even invincibility will send these hapless idiots up in a blaze of smoke. Aside from missiles these power-ups last until your first wreck of if you bump into a few too many enemies. Most of these weapons are so powerful they would be game breaking if the tracks weren’t so long which balances it out. Using weapons is not to beat any sort of strict time limit but mainly to avoid running out of gas.

Unlike most arcade style racing games there is no timer winding down as you drive however fuel is limited and more or less serves the same function. Occasionally you’ll find a quick refill along the track but for the most part you’ll need to duck into the shop at every opportunity to buy some more. Study the pre-level map since you don’t want to miss a shop by choosing the wrong branching path. As you progress deeper into the game shops are spaced out even further which forces you to make as few mistakes as possible or else its game over. At least there are unlimited continues.

Despite that slight change the game is no less punishing. Totaling your car as in Rad Racer will cost a unit of fuel and it quickly adds up. Just like that game towards the end there is very little room for error and it is soul crushing to have to start over right at the tail end of a course. The game follows along the same lines as Square’s classic as there frequently three rival cars occupying each lane and it is easy to get thrown into trackside objects. While you can (and should) blast them you do have to conserve missiles otherwise you can’t defeat the end level boss. The game can be incredibly difficult and unfair with its propensity to place objects at random points in the road with no prior warning. Although there are only 6 levels they are incredibly long and some will probably take a few tries to complete.

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With its alien worlds and abstract car design Astro Fang is a long ways from the coastal beaches and city lights of Rad Racer and is better for it. The various extraterrestrial planets allow the designers to go wild and create truly weird and abstract backdrops to race against. My only gripe visually is that some of the best vistas are only seen for a second or two as you transition along your chosen path. The music is not as good however. There are a few catchy tunes but anytime you buy a weapon of some sort they come with their own theme song that is just, meh.

All in all while Astro Fang is a bit derivative for its time there was very little else like it. All of its features do not come together properly but what is left is a solid yet repetitive game.

7-out-of-10

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Melfand Stories

Side scrolling beat em ups were at the height of their popularity in the early 90s with every console not named the Turbo Grafx-16 receiving their fair share. While the SNES had a solid lineup of brawlers some of its best were left behind in Japan such as Undercover Cops and Iron Commando. Melfand Stories is not as good as the previously mentioned games but certainly has its merits. Ascii could certainly have done worse than bringing this out worldwide but as it is no Japanese knowledge is required to enjoy this solid romp.

In the land of Melfand the King was kind and fair to all. However his subordinate Nomolwa decides he should rule instead and makes a bargain with the demon Beril to usurp the King. With this Nomolwa overthrows both the King and Queen and terror reigns. All hope of restoring peace lies with four warriors, each wanting to take down Nomolwa for their own reasons.

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Each hero has their specialty and falls neatly within established tropes. The young El is the typical well rounder, jack of all trades but master of none. Corse is physically the strongest and has the highest defense but is also the slowest. Lemin has the longest range with her fireballs but is also the weakest. Technically her magic is the most powerful but I would be hard pressed to note any differences between her spells and the rest of the crew. Nora is the most interesting. With her long whip and high jump if played correctly she is game breaking since you can use hit and run tactics against even the toughest bosses.

The game confines its action to a single plane which might seem strange as it goes against genre standards but largely works here. These aren’t so much levels as they are short vignettes that have a few enemies and a boss encounter before moving on to the next set piece. It certainly works to keep up the visual variety but doesn’t exactly make for a fulfilling experience. After almost every stage you have a choice between two levels, usually designated as easy or hard. It’s actually pretty cool and is incentive to play the game more than once.

Overall however the game is incredibly simple which is to its detriment. It has nothing to do with its single plane; the Ninja Warriors is similar and that game is awesome. In terms of attacks you are limited to a simple three hit combo, a defensive maneuver or shield, and magic. Even by beat em standards that is pathetic. To some degree it almost seems like the designers were aware of this as the game moves at a brisk pace, never lingering in one area too long before moving on to a new change of scenery. That is a point in the game’s favor but it also highlights its crucial flaw.

Like most brawlers Melfand Stories is short however like Star Fox has more than one path to its conclusion. There are nine levels in total but on any given run you’ll only see five. There are three paths to the end and in addition each character has their own individual ending. While it sounds like a lot of content a single play through of the game ranges from thirty to forty five minutes depending on whether you suck at videogames. Disappointing for sure but at least in this regard it fares better than most games in the genre.

This is a pretty easy game overall due largely in part to how short the levels are. Despite each stage being split into multiple smaller segments they are brief with only a few enemy encounters before facing a midlevel boss. Health power-ups as well as magic are also plentiful which I found odd; usually these are spaced out better. You only get one life and limited credits but it is easy to gain more through points. Since you respawn when continuing and can even change characters bum rushing a boss is a valid strategy. Having said that for some reason it “feels” just right although I do wish the levels were longer.

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Melfand Stories is a pretty attractive game for a title that has very little notoriety. The sprites are medium sized and stylized; not quite super deformed but also not chasing realism. The game’s vibrant color palette and world design is just incredibly charming. It’s definitely unique and an acquired taste. The levels run the typical fantasy tropes but even so are still unique even compared to something like King of Dragons. The one area that is lacking would be the animation; for such oddly proportioned sprites the animation can look robotic at times. But that is a minor point when viewed as a whole.

While it isn’t the greatest beat em up there’s still plenty to like about Melfand Stories. This really should have had a western release but even so you are only missing out on minor story bits here and there. Fans of brawlers and Super Famicom imports will find a solid game behind the simplicity of its gameplay.

7-out-of-10

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Go Go Ackman

Next to shooters platformers are some of the easiest games to import as any semblance of a story is merely window dressing to get you into the game. With platformers being the de facto genre of choice during the early 90s it’s hard to believe a few slipped through the cracks. The Go Go Ackman series range from really good to excellent and I’m sure if the manga had been localized these games would have come over too. That doesn’t matter however as the games are easily enjoyable with no Japanese knowledge and the first is a perfect introduction.

Anyone familiar with Dragon Ball will recognize the similarity to Trunks. Remove his nose and give him elf ears and you have a new character. Their personalities are pretty close too as both characters are mischievous except Ackman takes it a step further by actually killing people for their souls. That plot point forms the basis for the game’s story. The angel Tenshi has hatched another plot to kill his rival Ackman and enlists the aid of a higher angel to stop him once and for all. The interplay between Ackman and Tenshi is a bit looney tunes and despite the dark undertone the adventure is still pretty comical. It’s pretty hilarious to see Tenshi try his hardest and fail all the while Ackman is either oblivious or too stupid to notice. That tone helps an already pretty good game stand out.

It’s actually pretty surprising how much mileage Banpresto got out of Go Go Ackman. There are three Super Famicom games loosely based on what is essentially a one volume manga. That isn’t a slight against them and more of a testament to how good the premise for the series is. Collecting souls for the devil is some pretty dark stuff but here it is played for laughs. That cheeky tone is kept in this first video game adaptation as it sticks closer to the manga. While it’s understandable why it wasn’t released worldwide it doesn’t matter as no Japanese is required to enjoy this solid platformer.

Ackman is a pretty nimble protagonist and relies on fisticuffs to get through tight situations. Aside from punches and kicks he can wind up a punch and throw a mean sonic boom. Even the staple butt bounce makes an appearance except here it dazes enemies, allowing you to kick them into others. What’s funny to me about all this is that he has a sword strapped to his back but can’t use it or any other weapons until collecting an item. Part of that would be just how overpowered they are. Most enemies die in a single hit but the reach the boomerang, sword, and gun give will allow you to breeze through the game. I can understand limiting it in that regard but it still feels pretty cheap.

The game has all the trappings of your typical platformer such as collecting 100 coins for extra lives except here you have a little demon helper that will pick them up for you. The level design is great all around with a great deal of variety throughout. There are frequent forced scrolling segments that are actually fun as most hazards are telegraphed well in advance. Boss battles are frequent and unique if a bit simple. Their goofy designs make up for it however as this skews closer to the Dr. Slump side of Toriyama rather than Dragon Ball.

Overall the game is not too challenging and is a bit too easy. Despite beginning with a small life bar you’ll find hearts all around and will rarely be close to death. The bosses have easily recognizable patterns and if you manage to hold onto a weapon when you reach them the encounter is trivial. There is a slight ramp up toward the end but nothing too notable. The game is of medium length but the alternate paths do provide some impetus for playing through it twice at least.

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Go Go Ackman is a great looking game, fitting as it was released in late 1994. Akira Toriyama’s distinctive art style easily translates to video games and is replicated here in the sprite design. The game’s colorful cast of characters are pulled from everywhere; since the game doesn’t take place in any set period they can throw in everything. There are demons, robots, hitmen, and the undead and yet it all makes sense. The backgrounds are especially pretty with up to 3 or 4 layers of scrolling giving them some depth. The music is good but not noteworthy; there were only one or two songs that caught my attention but I’d rather that than generic rock that tries too hard.

For its first video game outing Go Go Ackman is solidly entertaining. It hits all the right beats and provides a decent challenge for any level of platforming fan. The story is completely inconsequential so you shouldn’t fear importing. For those that want to experience the game in whole there is an English translation patch. Either way this is one of the better import only platformers for the system and it only got better as the series progressed.

7-out-of-10-1

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the Firemen

Years before Sega would bless the world with Burning Rangers and Brave Firefighters the SNES was gifted with a pair of really awesome games about firefighting. The Ignition Factor is heavily underrated and worth tracking down but the true gem is Human Entertainment’s the Firemen. With its almost action RPG structure the Firemen is better than most dedicated top down shooters, While the US narrowly missed out the game was released everywhere else meaning if you are even the slightest bit interested in the game buy it now!

A large fire breaks out during a Christmas party at the company Microtech. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge deal but a number of highly explosive chemicals located in the building’s basement threaten to turn the situation into an even bigger disaster than normal. Fireman Pete and his team are called in to rescue civilians and get the blaze under control before things become critical.

That eerily sounds like the premise of Die Hard if you switch out terrorists with chemical fires. You even have a navigator and team members who communicate over radio. The game stays realistic although it does start to get a bit ridiculous when you have living flames that follow you around and actually fight bosses such as an out of control repair bot and various fire creatures. One could make the argument that things are different since the game takes place in 2010 and the game was made in 1994 but it does strain your suspension of disbelief. It can be easily ignored however as the rest of the package is so well done.

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Honestly I am surprised at just how amazing a game that is simply about putting out fires really is. Running around with a hose and dousing flames sounds like it would get repetitive fast but the game is endowed with smart level design and a good set of mechanics that stave off boredom. You have two separate water bursts; a long range but weak spout and a more powerful short blast to handle the smaller flames on the ground. To avoid backdrafts, sudden explosions and flying enemies (!) you can crawl. Fire extinguishing bombs are in limited supply and better saved for boss battles.

Luckily you aren’t putting out these fires alone. Danny is your second in command/sidekick and is by your side for the length of the game, activating switches, doors and the like. But he is more than just a glorified butler as he will also douse flames too. Unlike most games that have AI controlled party members Danny is actually indispensable here; I would even say he is the best use of such from that era. With his axe Danny will beat down any flames that stray too close and isn’t afraid to venture off a bit and be proactive. He’ll also back you up when you go on the offensive. Since he is invincible you can use that avoid sticky situations when low on health. It really is incredible how well programmed Danny is; modern 3d games that saddle you with a useless partner take note.

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Even though the game is confined to the single high rise there is a large degree of variety and creativity at play at every turn. Flames come in numerous forms, with some leaving a trail in their wake and others flaring back up if you fail to douse them long enough. Walls of fire need to be ducked and even exploding barrels make an appearance! The variety in flames require you to use both of your hose shots and it isn’t long before you’ll have to switch between the two in rapid succession. Each floor has a time limit that leaves just enough time to explore, whether it is to extinguish every flame (which isn’t necessary) or to save civilians, which is the only way to restore health.

The difficulty curve is about perfect in my opinion. Each successive floor introduces new hazards you’ll have to deal with and a much stricter time limit. Later in the game you’ll have to be careful not to break every window or open ever door as you never know when a backdraft will occur, leaving you with seconds to react. There is usually only one person to rescue per level which means you can’t afford to be sloppy, especially as continues are limited.

Honestly the only thing missing that would have made the game near perfect is 2-player coop. The mechanics work so well and even though Danny works better than expected nothing beats running through the game with a live human. Not that the game is too short but it also would have extended the game’s life. Overall I suspect most will complete the game in a few hours which seems about the right length although I would have loved extras like being able to play as Danny with Pete as your back up. God that would have been so cool.

The Firemen is a truly unique game even to this day and one well worth tracking down. If you want to enjoy the game’s story (such as it is) this was released in Europe and isn’t too expensive. With excellent graphics and a very good soundtrack the Firemen is one of the best top down action games of the 16-bit era.

8-out-of-101

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Mystic Formula

Top down shooters were pretty rough affairs on the Turbo Grafx. Final Zone 2 is just a bad game overall, Last Alert is decent but has some of the worst voice acting in history and as much as I want to like Kiki Kaikai Pocky & Rocky simply outclasses it. Mystic Formula is one of the rarer titles for the system and while certainly better than the previously mentioned games it feels like the developers were more interested in telling a fun story through cutscenes than making a good game. The levels feel more like necessary busywork to get to the next cinema. Even in spite of that the game is decent but not worth its hefty asking price.

With its fantasy setting and similar overhead view Mystic Formula resembles Elemental Master but has more in common with Capcom’s Mercs. All four heroes differ in terms of their range, strength and means of attack. In the end however they are all viable since the game is so easy, meaning it comes down to who you think looks cool. The game makes use of a charging mechanic that determines the power of your shots. Spamming the attack button will produce weaker bullets that only travel a short distance while letting the meter charge fully creates a bigger long distance projectile. Since the meter charges automatically and quickly at that you will most likely rely solely on the larger blasts. Power-ups aren’t too common and are few, with the most useful summoning one of your allies to fight beside you until death.

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It’s pretty obvious where the bulk of the game’s budget went and it wasn’t in the gameplay. The game’s frequent cutscenes are long but not fully animated. Despite that I will say that the game’s cast of characters are a likable bunch and exuberate a ton of personality that is easy to discern despite the language barrier. The in-game graphics however are lackluster. The first level is pretty interesting with its cool armored midboss and dual end level gargoyles. But from there it drops off considerably. The following levels look like they were cobbled together from one repetitive tile set which is incredibly lame.   The soundtrack on the other hand is fantastic. Micro Cabin has a long history of excellent music in their titles and MF is no exception. The hard rock tracks suit the game well although I wish they were longer as they tend to stop and repeat quickly.

Average graphics aside the pacing in Mystic Formula is the only thing keeping it from being truly great. There are long gaps in between enemy attacks and when they do occur most of the time they are so slow there is very little excitement. The last two levels do ratchet up the intensity somewhat and if the game had that same enthusiasm throughout the length of the quest this would have been excellent. Not that every game needs to be a nonstop thrill ride like Smash TV but the game can seem a bit too laid back. My dudes are armed with exotic weapons, give me a reason to use them!

With sparse enemy waves and overpowered weapons the games falls on the easy side. Part of this of course comes down to your choice of character; Raiden is simply too well rounded. The other characters vary things up a bit but you will never feel any pressure since you are fighting little bats and such instead of aggressive soldiers. About midway through the game when the real villain makes his appearance the game steps it up a bit as you’ll fight larger mecha but they come in prearranged groups and still fall in a single shot. Even the bosses are pushovers in spite of their menacing looks. I finished the game without continuing and I’m sure most will be able to accomplish the same with no trouble. Aside from playing around with the other characters there isn’t any reason to run through the game a second time as the experience is ok at best.

Adequate about sums it up. Mystic Formula nails the fundamentals but does little to surround them with an exciting game that has you itching to pick up the controller. I really wanted to like the game more as the cast are a fun bunch and the bosses are extremely cool but it simply isn’t enough. The game is pretty pricey unfortunately and is simply not worth the prices it commands. As a $10 downloadable title maybe and that’s the best praise I can give it.

6-out-of-10-1

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Spriggan Powered

Spriggan Powered is a game I discovered years after having seen the anime Spriggan. As much as I try to associate the two in my brain they have nothing in common aside from the name. As an offshoot of Compile’s incredible PC Engine CD series the game has a lot to live up to. And while it is solid it can’t match up to its legendary predecessors. This is still far better than most of the shooter library on the SNES but its exorbitant price will keep it out of the hands of most.

The weapon selection is kept pretty light and personally I found it a bit weak. The colored orbs correspond to an individual weapon but outside of the orange…flamethrower none feel especially powerful. The homing orbs are useful against smaller trash but are incredibly weak, not to mention they also cause the game to slowdown (seriously!). The blue back laser doesn’t have a niche it excels in and is just….there. The red machine gun lets out a spread of bullets in rapid succession and is only hampered by a narrow radius.

The most interesting mechanic is the game’s shield. At any moment you can bring up a shield that protects you from all damage, even head on collisions and the occasional trip through scenery. The longer you hold it the more energy it drains but you can replenish the meter consistently. It can also be charged to unleash a more powerful version of your current weapon. Two of these super weapons in particular are pretty overpowered; the lasers actually slow time while the homing orbs produce four larger orbs that remain on screen and damage everything they touch. You can decimate bosses in seconds if you time it right! These are pretty draining but well worth the time they save.

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The overly dark intro and box art are in stark contrast to the game’s actual level presentation. Overall this is a pretty bright game as you fly over sparkling waterfalls (complete with rainbows), rolling forests, and a bout among the clouds at sunset. Compared to the dull metal cityscapes of most games in the genre this is a breath of fresh air, even more so since most pre-rendered games of that era were incredibly dark due to the limited color palettes of the 16-bit consoles.

Overall this is not the most fast paced shooter on the system but it does have its moments. Most enemies are small in size but pepper the screen with bullets, mostly so you can take advantage of the tech bonus received from flying one step too close to fire. It’s a mechanics used in a few import only shooters like Psyvariar (love that game!) and is a nice reward for cheating death. At six levels this is a short but memorable excursion that could have done with one or two more levels, especially as it isn’t too difficult.

Despite limiting you to two credits this is about average in terms of difficulty for shooters. You can make liberal use of your shield as power-ups to refill the meter are pretty frequent. For those that are truly terrible at the game weapons drops are also a constant and even if you die there is still a brief window to collect your weapon again. The more skilled pilots can totally abuse the tech bonus to rack up point bonuses that award extra lives. There are definitely points where the challenge steps up, most notably stage four with its limited field of view and it has its fair share of bullshit enemy placement. But overall it’s pretty refreshing to play a shooter that isn’t trying to kick sand in your face at every turn.

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Visually Spriggan Powered has its moments but is a product of its time. The pre-rendered sprites are both impressive and disappointing; most normal enemies are small, low resolution, and not so impressive in their design. The larger capital ships and mechs impress with all kinds of smaller details like specular highlighting that for the time looked great. The true star of the graphics are the backgrounds which are absolutely spectacular.

The pre-rendered graphics do come with a cost however as there is some truly awful first generation slowdown present. For the most part the game runs fine but in tight spaces and especially when using the homing weapon it slows to a crawl. We’re talking single digit frame rate. Seeing as it was developed by Micronics (the butcher of many fine arcade ports on the NES) I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. In this case though it doesn’t completely ruin the game. For a game released in 1996 it is pretty bad especially since other shooters such as Pop n Twinbee and Scrambled Valkyrie are largely free of such constraints.

Slowdown aside however Spriggan Powered is a still a solid shooter but not the world class shmup its production values would suggest. Unfortunately it has never been rereleased and so it fetches a high price on the aftermarket. As much as I like the game I would recommend the Parodius games first as they are much cheaper and better.

7-out-of-10

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Coryoon

Once it became obvious that the Turbo Duo was not going to save the Turbo Grafx in the US I turned my attention towards the game’s released only in Japan with envy. There were so many cool Rpgs and legions of shooters we would never receive (although shooters were a bit saturated over here at the time) that it was downright criminal. Of course it would be almost 10 years before I would ever play most of those games I once ogled and I discovered some true gems. Coryoon is a game that has a low profile as it was released after the PC Engine CD and so went unnoticed. That is a shame as the game is simply amazing and much better than many of its later CD counterparts.

If Coryoon bears more than a passing resemblance to Air Zonk it is with good reason. Many of the same staff worked on both titles and while it might feel derivative it also means the game has a solid base. Air Zonk is one of my favorite shooters but even taking that into account I’m surprised just how much I like the game. Overly cute games are usually not a part of my gaming diet (The Twinbee games are as far as I go, you can keep your Otomedius) but I’ll be damned if Coryoon didn’t win me over. If the game were a little more challenging it could have been a classic.

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The game is visually fantastic and one of the most impressive traditional Hucard titles. Like Air Zonk the game uses very large sprites set against multi scrolling backgrounds that are incredibly detailed and full of life. Unlike that game Coryoon is decently long and so it covers far more varied terrain. The settings cover most of the traditional video game staples such as a fire zone, underwater level and forest but the cartoon presentation means they certainly don’t resemble any other game you’ve seen before. The boss designs are similarly excellent and imaginative which is appropriate as they are the visual highlight of the game. The soundtrack, while bright and chirpy, doesn’t rise to the same level unfortunately. The music isn’t bad per se but unremarkable.

Coryoon keeps its primary weapon selection small at just three that can be upgraded a further two times. Red orbs change your fire into a flamethrower which is powerful but has short range. Blue produces a wave attack that increases in size at higher levels. Yellow is the thunder orb, which shoots lightning bolts in a spread formation that covers nearly the whole screen at its highest level. When you aren’t firing Coryoon will charge a powerful breath attack which can decimate bosses quickly. There are an number of secondary support items based on playing cards that grant additional powers such as a smart bomb, fairies that will aggressively seek out enemies and absorb bullets and mini dragons whose function changes based on your weapon, really cool. Weapon storks are always present so you can freely experiment to find the best fit for the current situation.

The games cute exterior belies the fact that it has some teeth. This is one of the most frenetic shooters for the system which is saying a lot. There is rarely a moment where the screen isn’t filled with bullets, fruit, enemies, and even power-ups that is hard to process at first. It is very easy to fly straight into a random bullet since they are so small in comparison to the large sprites. Yet somehow throughout all the chaos it still becomes easy to follow after a level or so. This is a much more active shooter as enemies attack from all sides meaning you’ll have to actually fly around the screen to avoid taking hits rather than simply hanging back and waiting for them to come to you. The game does a nice job of varying up its enemy waves with level hazards such as exploding crystals, maze like blocks, and other such items that will actually test your flight skills.

The only area in which Coryoon falls short is its challenge. Despite the games pace and onscreen chaos it is ridiculously easy. Provided you have a power-up you’ll never die since taking a hit will only take it away. The game is extremely generous with items so it’s rare to be caught without one; during boss battles the item stork will fly by every twenty seconds or so or immediately after you die. With all the fruit thrown around your score will shoot through the roof and extra lives are rewarded like candy. With all that in mind anyone can brute force their way through the game. It makes the game very accessible but at the same time it is disappointing in the sense that the game is so fun that it is a shame its over so fast.

I wouldn’t let that stop you however. If you are even a slight fan of shooters coryoon is an excellent purchase and well worth tracking down.

8-out-of-101

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Captain Silver

Captain Silver was released for the Sega Master System at a time where I wasn’t even aware Sega were still supporting the thing in the US. While a decent game it had its fair share of problems, many of them endemic to the arcade game it was based on. With just a few more tweaks it could have been great. In Japan a Famicom port of the game was also released and like its Master System cousin could have been a good game if the developers tweaked a few of its elements.

Of the many changes that occurred during the porting process the most disappointing is your standard attack. Jim no longer slashes his sword but sticks it out straight like a fork. It looks just as stupid as it sounds and makes dealing with many enemies frustrating. Oddly enough when you jump he’ll hold the sword at an angle which does help but is only a slight salve. While the direct means of attack is limited it is effective; once it hits you can hold the button to keep inflicting damage. This is extremely effective against bosses.

In this version of the game Jim is actually armed with a life bar as someone finally realized one hit deaths simply weren’t fair considering the way the game is designed. Although most enemies take a few hits to kill simply jamming your sword in them and waiting will freeze them in place and kill them. A bit unfair but take whatever advantages you can. The weapons you buy in the shops are overpowered and aren’t used up until you switch or die which means you can blitz through a level pretty easily.

That being said it doesn’t mean the game is completely easy. The clock counts down extremely fast, leaving you little time to dawdle. The game’s lousy hit detection means you are going to suffer from many cheap hits although I will say that extra health drops evenly. One curious bit about the hit detection that I noticed and can be equal parts helpful and frustrating deals with the bosses. Only certain parts of the bosses can actually damage you; if you crouch the massive peg legged pirate of stage two will walk right by you. It isn’t always clear however which is what makes it annoying. Towards the end of the game there is some forced platforming and like any game not focused around that it is pretty bad here. Prepare to lose a few lives to the swinging ropes.

The various incarnations of the game (the US and European Master System versions have different levels) take liberties with adapting the arcade game’s levels and the same applies here. All of the levels are present but a few have been expanded such as the caves beneath the pirate ship. Two more stages and a slew of exclusive bosses were added to make for a more well-rounded game but it doesn’t change the fact that were it not for its flaws you could finish the game in less than twenty minutes.

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Though nowhere near as detailed and colorful as its arcade and Sega counterpart the Famicom edition of Captain Silver still manages to impress in a few ways. The game is notably darker than the arcade game but it seems a good fit for the direction they’ve taken with its art. In some respects I’m glad they didn’t try to replicate the arcade game’s use of color; that thing was garish and looked like an old EGA PC game. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed and feature minor bits of animation here and there that make them pop.   Speaking of animation, oh man is it bad. The way Jim just sticks his sword out to attack instead of giving it a mighty swing is just sad. The large bosses look like something straight out of Castlevania but then they start to move and you notice they only have 3 frames of animation. Overall however I would say the presentation is one of the game’s few good points.

This should have been a great game but unfortunately there are far too many elements that drag it down. While I was able to overlook some of its flaws I doubt most will and I simply can’t recommend it. I really wanted to like Captain Silver but I think I’ll stick with the Sega version or Donkey Kong Country 2 for my pirate themed platforming fix.

6-out-of-10-1

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Ushio to Tora

Darker themed SNES games were not as plentiful as on the Genesis but generally speaking for the most part they were all good. There are many import gems waiting to be discovered such as King of Demons and Jaki Crush but not everything can rise to that level. Ushio to Tora is based on the shonen manga of the same name and does a good job of using the events of the series as the basis for the game’s levels. That would be well and good if the game were not flawed on a basic level. While I’m sure some will be able to overlook its problems ultimately the game can be a frustrating experience that is on the cusp of greatness.

Ushio unknowingly released the demon Tora when he pulled the Beast Spear from its resting place. Unfortunately Tora’s awakening begins to attract more and more wandering demons, forcing the two into an uneasy alliance. The game does not follow the overall plot of the manga but does incorporate many of its more popular battles as boss battles. That faithfulness is both the game’s strength and weakness; adapting some of the best moments from the manga allows for epic encounters but there is little outside of that to make this a fulfilling experience.

Both Ushio and Tora are selectable as playable characters and have their own individual quirks. Ushio is armed with the Beast spear and as such has an extremely long range. He also has a useful double jump; technically both characters can reach the same height but being able to delay that second ascent is extremely useful. Sadly while I wish I could say Tora is awesome (I mean he’s a giant tiger demon for god’s sake!) he is simply not as well rounded as Ushio. Tora’s claws have a very short range which, when tied in with the game’s bad hit detection, makes using him aggravating. By crouching you can charge up a bolt of lightning but the range is also short and trying to time it to hit any target is just, no.

While I wish I could say the game is much simpler using Ushio that simply isn’t true. The hit detection is spotty which can lead to some of the more aggressive lesser enemies decimating your life bar quickly as you flail about helpless. Trying to line up attacks is not easy; the overhead slash has the best range but can be finicky to activate. The arc of Tora’s slashes helps but you still have to be within melee range for it to work.

However ultimately what kind of saves the game is the fact that this is more of an extended boss rush rather than a standard platformer and as such you won’t have to deal with the bad hit detection so much. Much like Treasure’s Alien Soldier the game simply moves from one boss battle to the next with only a few stages featuring fodder enemies to destroy before moving on to the next outlandish creature. In fact more than a few levels consist of only a single encounter!

With such a large focus on battling greater demons one would hope that the game would have an assortment of epic encounters to test your skills and to an extent it delivers. You’ll face an interesting assortment of yōkai, from a large green demon riding on the back of an airliner to one that even inhabits a painting. The human monks and priests you face are an aggressive bunch with a variety of attacks that make them more dangerous than the larger beasts you’ll face. If you were armed with a better arsenal of attacks you could actually look forward to these encounters and form actual strategies rather than simply trading blows.

This is not an easy game by any stretch but you can cheese your way through it in a couple of ways. Since you instantly respawn upon death you can zerg rush your way through most encounters. More importantly a few bosses have projectiles that you can destroy for life restoring food, strength boosting potions and best of all extra lives. Since there is no time limit you can stack items provided you survive that long of course. Unfortunately it makes an already short game breeze by even quicker.

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From a graphics standpoint there is plenty to like. Although the “levels” are brief each background is incredibly detailed. The game makes only slight use of special effects such as Mode 7 and relies more on its art direction to impress. The bosses are all large and sport creative designs although they are not the best animated. It is interesting to note that Ushio resembles Yuusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho after a certain point in that series (I’m avoiding spoilers) although to be fair this series came first.  To be fair this was an early SNES release and so it does not compare to later games on the system but still looks decent.  The soundtrack unfortunately is completely forgettable although the fact that the levels are so short means any given track would have to be quick and to the point.

Ushio to Tora has its problems but I can say I at least enjoyed the time I spent with it. Honestly I don’t know if everyone can overlook its issues like I can which is what makes it so frustrating. With a few simple tweaks this could have been a great game instead of one that I have some trepidation recommending.

7-out-of-10

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Chuuka Taisen

Cloudmaster was one of the last Sega Master System games I ever played and it was kind of a bittersweet send off for the little system that could. It wasn’t an especially good game but it certainly stood out due to its setting. While it isn’t based on Journey to the West it certainly has that vibe. While it was released in the US for Sega’s console its Famicom port was left behind. Honestly with the wealth of quality shooters available in America we weren’t missing anything as it shares the same flaws as its arcade parent; it’s boring.

While Chuuka Taisen isn’t based on any particular story its influences are pretty clear to see. You control Michael Chen (right), a Monkey King style character who rides a flying cloud through ancient China defeating ever so racist enemies such as flying ramen bowls and a few bucktoothed, slanted eyed enemies that are a callback to the types of propaganda used to demonize China during World War II.

There are a few sparse power-ups dropped by enemies that will increase your speed and change your shots to a double shot or a wider shot. Neither one pack any real punch so you’ll end up relying on the secondary weapons more. Every level has two shops that offer your choice of four weapons that have a variety of effects, from bombs to bouncing grenades, wave beams, and even a four way shot. These all have unlimited ammo so you can spam them infinitely however they are slower than your default shots. Each shop also has a rotating set of weapons making it worthwhile to check out each one regardless of how much you like your current selection.

Chuuka Taisen’s problem is pacing and the lack of any real excitement. It never becomes as bad as something like Blaze On but there are periods where little to nothing is happening before suddenly exploding into a ballet of bullets. Each level follows the same general flow, with a few waves of enemies and ground targets and at about the 50% and 75% mark a stronger demon will appear who will grant access to the shop once defeated. The level design does very little to make use of its setting with the same background elements repeated ad nauseam to stretch out each stage. They don’t even try to hide it cleverly either; if it weren’t for the different enemies you’d think something was wrong and the levels repeated infinitely.

Despite the odd pacing this is a pretty tough shooter. When the enemies do attack its always in packs that move in odd formations that are hard to judge. Power-ups drop pretty frequently but it is easy to develop tunnel vision and fly head first into a group of bullets. Your standard shots are weak and even when powered up still don’t feel as though they pack the necessary punch they should. The bosses have easily identifiable patterns yet you’ll probably still die in the execution of their demise. Death kicks you back to a checkpoint sans power-ups but your chances of survival aren’t as dire as something like R-Type.

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Whether it was intentional or not the Famicom version of Chuuka Taisen is interesting. While the Master System version is definitely superior it still holds its own visually. Due to the console’s limitations the overall color palette has been reduced. Most of the background details are still there but a bit washed out and it gives the graphic direction a Sumi-E vibe that is fairly distinct. While it does give the graphics a unique flair they are also let down by repetitive architecture. The bosses are all fairly large sprites that look impressive but are barely animated, which is disappointing.

This is pretty short even by shooter standards and even though it puts up a fight most will have it beat in one afternoon. At the end of the day Chuuka Taisen isn’t so much a bad game as it is disappointing and just average. But considering its arcade counterpart was the same you could make the argument that they were aiming for accuracy when porting it but that still doesn’t make it worth playing. Regardless it was popular enough to end up ported to numerous platforms and while I find this Famicom edition mediocre its PC Engine counterpart is a legitimately good game. Go for that if you are genuinely interested in this game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Detana!! Twinbee

I love Detana!! Twinbee. Even I can’t believe I just typed those words. For the longest time I abhorred the Twinbee series but that was based solely on my dislike of the NES/Famicom games. Their hearts were in the right place but it was obvious the tech was holding the games back from truly being great. But with the release of the second arcade game that became a thing of the past as the visual evolution of the series gave it a new lease on life that would continue on down to the numerous games that would follow, from the beyond awesome Pop’n Twinbee to the weird RPGs. This PC engine port is another in a long line of exclusives that should have come to the US but with the advent of digital download services it is easier for fans of the genre to get ahold of this excellent classic

Twinbee and Winbee are on vacation when they receive a distress signal from the planet Meru. It seems the evil alien Iva has invaded and the Queen Melora needs their help. Detana!! Marks the debut of the actual pilots of both bee suits, Pastel and Light as well as the cast of characters that would eventually come to populate this universe. With the addition of artist Shuzilow Ha (a pseudonym) the series would finally adapt a visual identity of its own that would elevate it above the typical shooters of its day.

Detana!! Twinbee is commonly credited as the game that truly made the series explode and it’s easy to see why. With its distinctly anime inspired style the twin bee series would eventually go on to spawn a multimedia empire, spanning everything from a cartoon series, radio drama, and a boatload of merchandise. But all of that probably would not have happened if Detana Twinbee were a terrible game.

From a gameplay standpoint there are only a few slight additions. The multiple bell colors return and provide the same power-ups such as options, extra speed, a shield, and a wide shot. Two new bells have been added which will decrease your speed and provide new tail shield which will follow your ship. As in R-Type and Dragon Saber a powerful charged shot is available that is seriously overpowered. It takes less than two seconds to fully charge and is incredibly destructive, able to wreck bosses in as little as five hits. If you can find him Gwinbee will merge with your ship to provide even more firepower although you will really have to search to find him. Bombs also return and will auto target the closest enemy.

Playing Detana is more like going on a fantastical adventure than a random collection of levels. The cheery visual style is really unlike anything else out there as you fly over alien cities, mountains, and fortresses. There are far more moving parts in every level, be it mechanical devices or enemies that emerge from the ground. The game manages to almost perfectly balance its action between aerial enemies and ground based targets that can’t be ignored without dire consequences. Bombing enemies plays a much bigger role here as the fruit they drop awards extra points or you can even find extra lives or hidden weapons.

The difficulty is about perfect with a gradually climbing curve as you progress. The early Stages are flush with bells to juggle for power-ups. Enemies are less aggressive so that you can actually fully power up and pose little threat. At about the midpoint there is a noticeable shift as clouds become scarce and the screen becomes so chaotic juggling bells becomes an afterthought. While difficult the generous respawn system allows you to brute force your way through the game. Although only seven levels long you’ll enjoy every spent with the game.

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While it isn’t perfect the PC engine conversion does an admirable job of duplicating the arcades visuals. Aside from the difference in resolution you would need both games side by side to notice the difference. 16-bit technology allows the artists vision to come to life as the game’s pastel visuals are a feast for the eyes. There is far more detail in the background and multiple layers of scrolling creating depth. The cast of bosses are all screen filling contraptions that often feature multiple phases before death. If you pay close attention there are many small details and animations that bring the world to life.

The soundtrack is fantastic, featuring a full range of happy tunes to match the cute visuals. This would mark the debut of future Castlevania composer Michiru Yamane and even here her range is apparent. It seems only fair that top class visuals should also be accompanied by an ace score and Konami delivered.

Detana!! Twinbee has been rereleased for a variety of platforms and for the small price you’ll pay an excellent shooter awaits. Even if you are tired of the genre Twinbee is unique enough to ensure that does not matter.

8-out-of-101

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Ninja Gaiden (PC Engine)

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite games of all time. If you were to do an examination of just how much time I’ve spent playing the game it would border on illegal. Of course it helps that the game is pure awesome but it’s also balls out hard.   Of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent most of that was spent on stages 6-2 and 6-3; those who have played the game know why. The Turbo Grafx-16 remake/port never came to the US and normally I would be sad but after playing the game my feelings are mixed. On the one hand it is still the same awesome game I loved but on the other there are many small aspects that have been changed that make it even more frustrating. At its core it is still a good game but not what it could have been.

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For the most part things are still the same from a gameplay perspective. The levels are still laid out the same and aside from different item and enemy placement every now and then veterans of the 8-bit Gaiden will be right at home. The controls aren’t as tight but that has little impact thankfully. Some small UI adjustments have been made, some I like and others I question. You keep your current weapon after completing a level and can also use the fire wheel while keeping a sub weapon at the same time. One change that I’m sure will not be liked is the overpowered spin slash which moves slower now and doesn’t decimate bosses in seconds. Now it is possible to be knocked out of it, diminishing its use. The life bar is no longer divided into sixteen digits which sounds petty however it is harder to know how close to death you are as it is now one long bar.

Peer deeper and you’ll notice gameplay quirks that when added up make the game inferior to the original. The collision detection is highly suspect; this is most notable when dealing with bosses as your hits won’t register. It might just be me but ground based enemies seemed even lower to the floor making them harder to slash. When hit you no longer have a moment of invincibility which makes it easier to bounce between enemies and die in seconds. Pray you are never caught up against a wall during a boss battle. On the other hand some of the more aggressive enemies have been toned down significantly.

These changes make the game a lot fairer in some parts but on the other hand some aspects of the game are even harder. If you thought the Jacquio was impossible before your jaw will drop when you see six fireballs following you. The demon statue was a nice reprieve for those that had the fortitude to beat the Jacquio but now it might be even worse than him. Respawning enemies are definitely a bigger problem here; that hallway still nearly made me slam the controller in frustration, something I haven’t done since the 90s. I was still able to finish the game but I owe that more to the many, many hours spent memorizing every particular detail of the game.   I doubt anyone would have the patience to do that now nor should you.

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And now we come to the visuals, the main reason for creating this port. In this category the game almost completely fails. The game runs at a higher resolution with a much more vivid color palette that is nice in spots but I feel ruins the grittiness of the NES game’s visuals. This is most evident in the sprites which despite the increased power are lacking in detail and are the same size. The cutscenes have similarly been redrawn and fare better in this regard, with arguably better art and direction.

The biggest letdown comes from the games backgrounds. The backgrounds have been redone in a more realistic style that is honestly not to my liking. When it’s good it looks fantastic such as stage 2-2 and 4-2 however the rest look cheaply made. What really mars the presentation even more than the questionable art is some of the most horrendous parallax scrolling I’ve ever been witness to. The backgrounds scroll at a faster rate than the foreground producing a choppy effect you have to see to believe. It’s so distracting that the game would seriously have been better without it.

The soundtrack is completely different and terrible. The few tracks that it has in common with its NES little brother sound like garbled approximations. The new music tracks lack any distinctive flavor and don’t match the action either. Sad as the NES game had a fantastic score that should have been easy to replicate and enhance.

This version of Ninja Gaiden isn’t an outright bad game however the main reasons for it to exist, i.e. the presentational upgrade simply fall flat. Considering its high price you would be better off picking up an NES cart cheap, especially since it is vastly superior.

7-out-of-10

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Battle Mania Daiginjou

In the rush leading up to the Saturn’s surprise US launch Sega of Japan effectively killed support for the Genesis worldwide. It made sense for Japan as the system tanked there but it was still thriving in every other market. With little support from Sega third parties also followed suit with some of the most brilliant games for the platform being left in Japan. One such gem that has become highly sought after due to its price and low profile is Battle Mania Daiginjou, the sequel to what we know as Trouble Shooter. This low profile classic is one of the single best games for the system regardless of genre and one that I recommend to any Sega Genesis fan.

After the defeat of Don Morgstein Maria forces Prince Eden to hold a parade in her honor and gets drunk in the process. A few days later however Morgstein has been brought back to life and issues a challenge to the pair. However only Mania (surprisingly) is sober enough to answer the call at first and find out who is behind Don Morgstein’s resurrection.

In terms of gameplay not much has changed because there was very little wrong with Trouble Shooter’s mechanics. You still control Mania and can reposition Maria when needed. Your designated special weapon now follows close behind and functions like an satellite, with a few options governing its own movement. Speaking of movement there are three targeting choices this time: the default in which Mania will always face right, two-way which allows you to shoot left or right and the best option in my opinion, 8-way. Holding down the fire button will lock your firing direction in place. Otherwise you can freely move around as needed. It’s confusing at first but becomes intuitive in seconds and is the all-around best choice.

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The Kikokukyou cult responsible for the game’s troubles are just as insane as Anagran and will toss everything possible in your direction to deter you. How many other games see you fighting flying fish and meteors while scaling a massive tower? The Demon Train rockets down the streets of Tokyo, tossing aside the police with our heroines in hot pursuit in a car. The kikokukyou temple is probably my favorite, both aesthetically and mechanically. Here the environment is constantly changing and will box you in or even cut off your fire as you are being assaulted from all sides, even from above by a giant Godzilla sized foot.

Behind the craziness of the game’s story and action lies a game with some of the strongest pacing and level design among 16-bit shooters. There is rarely a dull moment as there are always enemies waiting to accost you at a moment’s notice yet it never feels overwhelming. Each individual stage is wholly unique, offering its own set of enemies and traps to contend with. Although this is primarily a horizontal shooter the game scrolls in every direction for a nice change of pace such as stage four’s descent into the Kikokukyou base or exploring the inside of the demon train. It is in situations like these that you’ll appreciate the expanded targeting options, especially the 8-way option. The game’s basic concept hasn’t changed much but it didn’t need to, as evidenced by just how much fun the game is while retaining nearly the exact same mechanics.

Most important of all the game is challenging yet always fair. Because Mania and Maria are so large dodging bullets is much tougher. Plus it is easy to lose track of both characters and forget that only Mania can take hits. The game does a good job of forcing you to reposition Maria to survive and for maximum effectiveness. It is also generous with life restoring hearts but not as much as its prequel. Considering how overpowered your special weapons are it’s a wonder that the game isn’t a breeze but that is evidence of its strong design. Plus with nine levels rather than six this time you more than get your money’s worth.

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Trouble Shooter was already an exceptionally pretty game and yet Daiginjou surpasses it in every way. I dare say this is one of the best looking titles ever produces for the system. Battle Mania doesn’t rely on special effects of any kind but rather brilliant art direction. The game’s anime style plot allows it to produce an array of wacky yet clever scenarios that lead to some of the prettiest backdrops in a shooter. There is up to six layers of scrolling in the backgrounds with an insane attention to detail. The sprites are large and animate wonderfully with nary a hint of slowdown to be found. It’s funny, the fodder enemies are the size of the bosses in lesser shooters, with the game’s actual mayors becoming screen filling bad asses who change forms multiple times.

The music has seen a similar upgrade and is simply fantastic. The FM synthesizer is given a thorough work out as the selection of music is much richer with better use of guitars and drums. There’s a greater variety to the songs as well and it shows just how rich the Genesis’s sound chip could be in the right hands.

There is no question in my mind that Battle Mania Daiginjou is one of the best games released for the system it is just too bad that most will never have a chance to experience it. The game had an extremely low print run and is exorbitantly expensive. For those that want to play it in English a translation patch has been released but it’s not as if you’ll miss much if you play it in Japanese. It’s a god damn crime that more than likely this will never be re-released digitally.

9-out-of-10

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Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%

Like platformers starring Cavemen shooters starring witches at one point had their time in the spotlight, at least in Japan. A few would trickle over to the US like Magical Quest yet the granddaddy of them all, the Cotton series, has only seen one lone installment reach the US. Fantastic Night Dreams: Cotton had a limited release on the Turbo CD and is one of the rarest games of all time, which sucks as I’m sure its failure here kept the series exclusively in Japan. That meant we were denied brilliant games such as Marchen Adventure Cotton 100%. This remake of the arcade and Turbo CD game is fantastic and one of the best shooters for the SNES. Plus it requires no Japanese knowledge to enjoy.

The witch Cotton is a bit of a moron. The fairies of the forest have come seeking her help to save the country. Somehow Cotton mistakes their plea for help as a mission to gather as much of her favorite candy Willow possible. Yeah.

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The story is silly and the game’s art design was changed to match. The overly dark art direction of the original Cotton has given way to a fantastic visual makeover that is simply put phenomenal. The game is a literal explosion of color as the SNES color palette is given a workout giving life to the vivid backdrops of each stage. You would think the at times pastel art would clash with the darker themed enemies however the two blend together brilliantly to create something even better. This is still technically a remake so all of the familiar sights and sounds of the PC Engine and arcade game are here but overhauled with many layers of gorgeous parallax scrolling. The level of detail is nearly unmatched on the SNES and the game only slows down during its most hectic moments. This is a first class production all around.

While there are some surface similarities to Gradius Cotton is its own beast. Cotton differs from other shooters in the sense that you aren’t collecting any special weapons but instead upgrading your current one. Crystals dropped by enemies grant experience that will power up your primary shot and bombs for ground targets and thankfully they only come in two colors here. Your powers can be leveled up to three times with death setting you back one level. That sounds minor at first but can quickly spiral into an unwinnable scenario during protracted boss battles.

At the start you have a choice of 4 groupings of 3 magic spells which also affects the movement of your fairies. These spells range in effectiveness from the focused fire dragon, thunder, barrier, to the situationally useful twinkle stars. The magic spells in the game are grossly overpowered, able to bring any boss close to death in a single hit. I suppose the designer’s way of managing this was to make spell power-ups incredibly rare until late in the game but it’s easy to hold on to at least one charge to make the end level bosses simple. Up to three fairies can fight by your side with their orientation at your command although they blend into the backgrounds so much that it is easy to get lost in the chaos.

Aside from the graphical makeover the biggest change to the game comes in its controls. Thanks to the SNES controller’s six buttons everything has been mapped separately adding extra options and making the game far more intuitive. You can now freely select which of your spells to use as well as reposition your fairies. Autofire and bombing also have their own buttons this time as well. It sounds minor but for anyone who has had to fidget with games like Forgotten Worlds on both the Turbo CD and Genesis it is a huge boon.

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The game’s pace is laid back and slow, akin to an amusement park ride with highs and lows in terms of moments of tension. The first few levels are admittedly a bit too laid back, asking very little of the player other than occasionally moving up and down to avoid enemy fire. Even the mid and end level bosses pose little threat. At about the halfway point it is like the game has received a shot of adrenaline as a seemingly endless line of enemies close in for the attack. While normally ground targets and their weapons can be easily avoided later in the game they actually pose the largest threat. The environment also becomes a factor as gusts of water threaten to push you into stray bullets or you accidently fly into spewing molten rocks. If the early stages of the game were even slightly as intense as its back half this would have been phenomenal as the mechanics are incredibly fun to play around with.

Overall in spite of the more densely packed second half the challenge is fairly moderate. Although you die from a single hit you instantly respawn and the game is generous with extra lives. The game’s slower pace allows you to see danger coming ahead of time and aside from the times you might get greedy and rush after coins you probably won’t die often. Even the bosses aren’t as big a threat as they should be considering their size. Their attacks are telegraphed well in advance and provided you’ve kept magic in stock you can almost defeat them with a single spell. I’m certainly not complaining despite how this sounds; I’m used to shooters kicking my ass thoroughly so the more laid back pacing here is a welcome change and is more inviting to novices of the genre.

This is one of the strongest shooters for the SNES and one well worth your time if you have an even a passing interest in the genre. With fantastic art direction, good music and an even challenge there’s plenty to love about Cotton 100%.

8-out-of-101

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Psycho Dream

When Sega bought publisher Renovation they inadvertently screwed many SNES gamers out of some pretty cool imports. Arcus Odyssey was cancelled (but the full game still exists online), The Journey Home’s localization went kaput, and the subject of this review was also canned. Psycho Dream should have been released here as Dream Probe but sadly wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t matter though as it can still be enjoyed regardless; the only text is in the intro and is inconsequential. Similar in style to Valis and El Viento (all developed by the same company) it is just as good if not better than those titles and worth tracking down for fans of action games.

While the game does not have cut scenes to drive along its plot the story is fairly in depth. Sayaka Kaori has fallen into a coma, with the only means of reaching her being a machine that can peer into dreams. The National Public Safety Commission are the only ones authorized to enter people’s minds and sends two of their best officers, Ryo and Maria, to hopefully save Sayaka’s life.

The fairly in depth plot provides a perfect backdrop for the proceedings that follow. Because the game takes place in Sayaka’s mind there’s a dream like haze to the action that is surreal. The game takes place in a mix between modern day locations that have been overrun by dream demons like something out of a Megaten game. Both Ryo and Maria take on alternate forms to better deal with the chaos in Sayaka’s mind and how you approach the action is slightly different depending on who you’ve chosen.

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Both heroes have their own individual weapons and gameplay differences that make playing with each a unique experience. Ryo is a cyborg who starts out with a sword but gains a sickle that increases in size and the arc it covers as it levels up. The sickles annoyingly don’t cover the same length as the default sword however at its max level it becomes a whirlwind of lasers that rebound off nearly every surface. Maria starts out with a Belmont style whip but trades it for a mean pair of claws. They are powerful but also force you into close range which doesn’t make sense in my book; it should have been the other way around. In her ultimate form she gains butterfly wings that slow her descent after jumping.

Collecting blue crystals rather than yellow will send your weapon down a different evolutionary path. Blue crystals grant a laser gun that is exceedingly weak at first but becomes better as it levels. For Ryo it will eventually become a more focused three way laser; for Maria it gains homing capabilities but is weak. While I found it useful in spots having to wait until it is fully powered before it becomes useful means you’re better off sticking with upgrading your standard weapon.

This is a slower paced action game, one that is more focused on combat than platforming. Each level is comprised of multiple segments and fairly long with plenty of enemies to kill along the way. It bears a heavy resemblance to Valis, another Riot/Telenet game. Unlike those games however Psycho Dream comes up short in enemy variety and interesting creatures to kill. You’re mostly fighting slugs, snakes, and gelatinous creations that seem indifferent to your presence. There are occasional flashes of inspiration, such as stage 5’s high speed run up to the final stage but these moments are fleeting. You’re given a lot of powerful weapons but outside of the boss battles you’ll be hard pressed to find interesting enemies to use them against.

Overall Psycho Dream is a bit easy and worst of all short. You have infinite continues and although you are kicked back to the beginning of the current stage that is a minor impediment. The 300 second time limit I guess is supposed to instill a sense of urgency however it resets whenever you enter the next block of a level. With that in mind you can very easily sit and kill fodder enemies to refill your life bar in most spots with little fear. The only real challenge comes from the boss battles and that has more to do with the spotty hit detection than any complicated patterns of attack. These bastards are extremely cheap, inflict massive damage with every strike and are near impossible if you aren’t decently powered up. However it is never so bad that you won’t feel like giving up out of frustration. With only six levels it can be completed in a short afternoon which sucks as it is a solid game.

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Graphically Psycho Dream is carried by its art design. The creatures you’ll encounter among the various landscapes don’t resemble any of the typical demons you find in most games. The enemy list mostly consists of what appear to be floating amoeba and various demon world insects. While it eschews gimmicky special effects the game leans heavily on transparency effects. It’s pretty cool if a bit overused. The standard enemies aren’t anything to write home about but the large bosses certainly make up for them. These mayors are huge, screen filling monstrosities that every bit as terrifying to look at as fight. The only area the game comes up lacking is in its music, which isn’t terribly exciting. Surprising as I’ve enjoyed Michiko Naruke’s work on the Wild Arms series tremendously.

With greater enemy variety and another stage or two this could have been excellent but instead is merely solid. Although it stayed in Japan the only text is in the intro making the game extremely import friendly. It’s probably dirt cheap too and worth tracking down.

7-out-of-10-1

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Dragon Saber

I loved Dragon Spirit in the arcade and at home in both of its ports. So when Dragon Saber hit the arcade I was ecstatic but also anticipated a home port like before. Sadly it never came, at least not in the US. Dragon Saber’s PC Engine port would remain a Japanese exclusive and while there were no shortage of shooters for the system in America I’m sure they could have made room for one more, especially a quality title like this. While it lacks the arcade game’s visual splendor this is still a solid title worth checking out for fans of the genre.

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At first glance Dragon Saber doesn’t seem or look all too different from its predecessor. In fact the first stage of both games is eerily similar thematically and to serve as an introductory to the game’s mechanics. However many small tweaks have been added make the sum greater than the whole. You can now sustain three hits before death rather than two which is huge boost to your survival. The standard fiery breath is joined by a power shot which charges automatically when you aren’t firing. It’s a huge risk to take but always worth it in my opinion. The largest gain comes with two-player coop which not only doubles the fun but improves your chances of survival.

Dragon Spirit had a host of power-ups that altered your dragon’s form with most going underutilized for the length of the game. Not so here. There are a slew of new dragon power-ups with nearly every one making at least one appearance in each of the game’s nine levels. So many in fact that it becomes hard to remember which does what as the icons aren’t the most telling in some cases. As an added bonus each has their own special charged shot with some being particularly devastating. The Thunder dragon’s charged attack is essentially a smart bomb meanwhile the blue trident will unleash a massive blue dragon that covers nearly the entire screen. You’ll end up choosing a given weapon more for its special properties than its immediate effects and thankfully the game gives you plenty of opportunities to switch and play around.

Dragon Saber is slower and more deliberately paced than most shooters but that doesn’t have any effect on the intensity of its action. In the arcade each stage was actually pretty short but for the home port they have been extended, some to a grueling extent. The game does a much better job of forcing you to prioritize either ground or air targets and the environment is just as deadly as the enemies you’ll face. I will say some stages tend to drag on far too long such as stage 3 and the ice caverns of stage 6. It is in these instances that the game’s punishing difficulty becomes more apparent.

 

Dragon Spirit was especially hard and in this area Dragon saber isn’t all too different. This is still a pretty brutal game but to some extent it isn’t as bad as the first one. That’s not saying much however. The charge shot helps a bit and power-ups are far more frequent yet you’ll still end up seeing the game over screen pretty frequently. Decreasing your life bar from the arcade’s five hits certainly didn’t help either. The last three or four levels in particular are a nightmare; if you can finish the game on one credit I tip my hat to you because you are a god among men. The game is actually a lot easier in coop not just because two heads are better than one (heh) but because so long as one of you is still alive you aren’t sent back to a checkpoint on death.

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Visually Namco has done a good job of converting the arcade’s pretty spectacular visuals home but the loss in detail is very noticeable. The gorgeous parallax backdrops are completely gone; this is a huge blow as what is left is completely flat and lifeless. While the change in resolution is to be expected the smaller sprites and loss of detail in the game’s amazing boss designs can’t be ignored. Some of the more impressive visual effects had to be removed due to the system’s lack of scaling such as stage five’s canyon dive. It isn’t all negative however. The game’s varied art direction still shines through as the more subdued beginning levels quickly give way to more fantastical environments such as the inside of a demon and an oddly out of place futuristic castle filled with mechanical contraptions and automatons. The sound track is similarly excellent with a rousing and heroic score that completely fits the action.

While Dragon Saber doesn’t seem to add much to the series formula there are enough little additions here and there that alter the game’s “feel” and avoid seeming like a rehash. It also helps that it is a solid game as well. Although it is far from one of the best shooters for the system it also well above average tripe like Ordyne and Dead Moon. This is a journey well worth your time.

7-out-of-10-1

 

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Akumajou Special – Boku Dracula-Kun

As one of the biggest supporters of the NES in America Konami released a host of titles in nearly every genre. They had so many games in fact that they created a second label (Ultra Games) to get around Nintendo’s 5 games a year limit. But even that wasn’t enough and many of their best titles remained overseas. Like they did with Gradius Konami created a parody of their ultra-serious Castlevania series titled Boku no Dracula which was scheduled for release here but ultimately cancelled. And just like Parodius Boku no Dracula manages to surpass its status as a spoof to become an excellent game in its own right. For some reason I confuse it with Drac’s Nite Out, another game starring Dracula except he was wearing Reebok Pumps for some god forsaken reason that was cancelled. I obviously never played that game but I’m pretty damn sure this turned out better.

The Demon King Kid Dracula has awoken after 10,000 years of sleep only to find a challenger to his rule. The Demon King Galamoth has taken over his kingdom and now Kid Dracula has to get it back. Those who have played Symphony of the Night will remember Galamoth as the lightning wielder bastard who was the most difficult boss in the entire game, with this marking his first appearance (albeit in cutesy form).

Calling the game a parody of Castlevania is a bit of a misnomer as they share almost nothing in common. This is a more light hearted action game starring an exuberantly happy young Dracula who looks more likely to have a sleepover than bite your neck. The first stage is clearly an homage to that series, mixing in elements from almost every level of the first adventure to give you a feeling of nostalgia before veering off into unknown territory.

Dracula’s offense is at first limited to a single multi-directional fireball that can be charged up for a bigger blast, inviting comparisons to Mega Man. While you aren’t stealing weapons from your fallen foes you do gain a new power after every level. These new abilities are pretty varied, from the homing shot that sacrifices power for tracking, the explosion which detonates on impact (and is a bit redundant as most enemies die in one shot) or the freezing shot which does exactly what the name suggests. Not every ability is offensive; you’ll gain the power to change into a bat for brief periods and to walk on ceilings as well.

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You’ll get the chance to use everything in your arsenal thanks to the excellent level design. It should come as no surprise the game excels in this area as Konami are pros. You won’t explicitly need to use whatever new power you’ve gained in each successive level outside of a few outliers but they certainly make things easier. The difficulty is near perfect as the game isn’t so challenging that you’ll get frustrated but also isn’t a total cakewalk. The last level in particular is a bit insane considering you’ll have to face no less than three bosses before fighting Galamoth himself, all with a maximum of five hearts if you are lucky.

Though most of its gameplay elements have little to do with its (loose) Castlevania roots this does share some of that series’ traits. Getting hit will cause you to recoil which can lead to many a frustrating death. You still maintain some control when you jump but many of the game’s platforming sequences require expert timing.

There’s a certain charm to the game that just makes it so enjoyable that it’s hard to describe. The journey to fight Galamoth covers nearly every platforming trope and you would think Dracula underwater or fighting headless mummies in Egyptian pyramids would be ridiculous but somehow it works. There’s a certain whimsy to the proceedings as you ride a hellish roller coaster, fight Ku Klux Klan ghosts (!), and even travel to space for the final showdown.

The entire New York City level is a giant what the fuck moment. The primary antagonists are UFOs that spawn power ranger looking aliens. As you combat them you’ll also deal with random gorillas and other aliens that do their best to imitate Spider-Man. This is followed up by a train ride from hell and culminates with game show style quiz from the Statue of Liberty. I swear I did not make any of that up.

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The presentation is solid if a bit simple. Everything has been given a cheery veneer despite the danger they pose with big sprites compensating for the lacking background detail. The animation is the real star of the game with exaggerated reactions from hits and smooth moves. The music features is generally pleasant with some remixed tunes from Castlevania making it over however the rest of the soundtrack stands on its own.

We’ll never know why Boku no Dracula was cancelled but its absence overseas is definitely missed. It’s a sight better than crap like Top Gun and Bayou Billy; I would have trashed those games long before this if it were up to me.

8-out-of-101

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Eliminate Down

I’ve always been amazed by video game developers who only create a single title and then disappear overnight. It’s tempting to call them a one hit wonder but in most cases the games weren’t hits regardless of their quality. Clockwork Tortoise created the Sega version of the Adventures of Batman & Robin, a game so technically incredible I still can’t believe it’s a Genesis game. While there were many shooters for the system created by some of the best in the business you’ll never hear the name Aprinet. That’s because their only title, Eliminate Down only saw release in Japan and South Korea. However in one fell swoop they made one of the top 10 games in the genre for a platform buckling under its sheer numbers. Not bad for a company no one has ever heard of.

Eliminate Down only has a few weapons unlike most shooters. You are always equipped with the game’s three weapons: the forward firing blaster, the rear firing laser, and the four way bombs. The forward blaster covers a wider area when upgraded. The rear laser actually isn’t a laser but instead spits out Zs (I know, it’s weird) at a 45 degree angle. The four way bombs travel along the surface of whatever they touch until they hit a target. All three weapons can be upgraded three times by collecting five power chips each. Leveling your weapons is a painless process as the items drop frequently and as a bonus they all increase in power simultaneously. The only other power-ups are a barrier that protects you from damage and an upgrade for your standard shot.

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Three weapons isn’t much however the game was designed around this. The level design is generally excellent, encouraging frequent weapon swapping at every turn. The levels scroll in every direction and trying to rely on one given weapon simply does not work. By the end of the game each will have had its moment to shine regardless of how weak they seem. The mid boss of Round 5 will force you to use the rear laser exclusively while the four way bombs are essential to completing its latter half. I will admit though that as much as I like the way the designers made each weapon essential I would have appreciated at least one option that was more powerful and had a more focused shot. None of the three options available have the necessary punch to them, leading to drawn out boss fights.

Unlike the vast majority of shooters on the market Eliminate Down is fairly median in terms of difficulty, at least its first half. Death doesn’t carry as big a penalty here as your weapons are only downgraded one level and you respawn instantly, avoiding the frustration of being thrown back to a checkpoint. This leaves you with a fighting chance although if you were in the zone it’s hard to get back to that state. The mid-level bosses are actually more terrifying than some of the end level mayors at this point in an odd twist but I feel the difficulty is near perfect, to the point where it is fun to experiment and see which weapon is the best suited for your current situation.

The second half of the game picks up significantly with more enemies than before and showers of bullets with barrier power-ups becoming increasingly rare. While I welcome a challenge I found it starts to veer into unfair territory. The beginning of Round 6 features a debris field that has rocks that are near impossible to distinguish from the ones that can actually hit you. Round 7 is one long series of traps and sudden shifts that seem to exist to kill you abruptly with prior warning. The learning curve is pretty steep and you’ll have to replay the last levels numerous times to memorize every element in order to survive.

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Eliminate Down is utterly fantastic in the art department, able to match some of the system’s best with ease. While a lot of the creature designs (especially the bosses) are reminiscent of similar titles such as Mega Turrican and R-Type the game has a level of detail that few can match. A good chunk of space was reserved for sprite animation and in this regard the game is fantastic. There are many larger enemies and bosses composed of multiple sprites that all animate in a way that is exquisite. There are even rotational effects along the lines of Gunstar Heroes and other Treasure games, all from an unknown developer. Pretty incredible isn’t it? The backgrounds themselves can be underwhelming at times; there are some static backdrops that just scream for some scrolling but on the whole it nearly reaches the level of Lightening Force. The one negative would be the heavy amounts of flicker which I’m surprised isn’t worse all things considered.

There’s no question Eliminate Down is one of the best shooters of the 16-bit era but unfortunately it will cost you. The original Japanese release was printed in low quantities however the game is readily available in Korean and much cheaper. All of the game’s text is already in English so there is no reason not to experience one of the genre’s best representatives. It rarely got better than this.

9-out-of-10

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Power Blazer

A long time ago Japan would get the better versions of most games simply by virtue of the fact that the games originally came from there. Many things can and will change during localization however back in the 80s that undeniable fact was taken to the extreme. Sometimes a license has to be stripped (Tokkyū Shirei Solbrain became Shatterhand) or sometimes what are supposed to be innocent changes completely ruin a game, epitomized by the changes made to Mad City when it became the Adventures of Bayou Billy. Very rarely did the opposite ever apply.

But when it did boy was it sweet. Such was the case with Power Blazer. Power Blazer was a blatant Mega Man rip-off except instead of the Mega Buster you had a fairly useless boomerang. It’s kind of surprising just how bad the game is considering it came from Natsume, who were on fire with their NES action titles. Taito wisely salvaged the few good ideas the game had and drastically redesigned it when it was released as Power Blade over here. It is almost an entirely different game and is all the better for it. Power Blazer shows what a lack of polish and tuning at the end of development results in as the game is full of many smaller flaws that completely ruin the game altogether.

There’s really no getting around it; Power Blazer wants to be Mega Man so bad. Your hero resembles a squatter version of the Blue Bomber and even comes equipped with a similar helmet. There’s a stage select although the order you tackle the levels does not matter since you aren’t collecting new powers. Some of the enemies even look as though they were ripped straight from Capcom’s archives.

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The crucial difference comes in the manner of attack with a boomerang as the weapon of choice. The game uses a charging system like Astyanax where the power and range of your attack is determined by a meter. By default the range on your boomerang is incredibly short and it can’t pierce through enemies but there are power-ups to fix both of these flaws. Unlike Power Blade there is no time limit so you can farm items in one area until you are fully powered up but that is a laborious process as the game is stingy with items drops.

Similar games have used this exact system of charging attacks however they nailed the execution and it is here that Power Blazer fails. The enemies are simply too strong, requiring multiple full power hits to destroy. Since you are mostly fighting in cramped corridors they are often right in your face where you don’t have the luxury of waiting for the power meter to fill. Since the boomerang reflects off enemies after a single hit unless you’ve gained a specific item attacking from a distance isn’t as effective as it should be. This is an area Taito definitely improved on when they brought the game to the US as item drops are more frequent and you can throw multiple boomerangs at once and in multiple directions.

The controls aren’t as responsive as they need to be with the game ignoring your button inputs left. Simply jumping and grabbing a ladder should not be this frustrating. Collision detection is all over the place and the areas in which you need to jump on disappearing blocks (like a certain other game) are an exercise in frustration.   The platforming involves precise timing, to the point where you need to be at the very end of a ledge and about to fall off to make the jumps. These are the types of flaws that are ironed out by expert directors which this game clearly lacked.

All of the game’s flaws combined make the game unfairly difficult. The boomerang’s mechanics mean you’ll take many unavoidable cheap shots. I also found some of the enemy placement suspect. Energy tanks make this somewhat bearable but these are in short supply. Trying to farm items can often take close to 10 minutes before anything drops at which point I’m sure most will give up. Oddly enough if you can actually survive and reach the end level bosses they are a cakewalk. Their patterns are deductible in seconds and they never deviate. Plus there are passwords to record progress.

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Graphically Power Blazer is incredibly detailed and looks far better than many similar titles for the system. The game employs a cartoonier aesthetic than the more serious tone introduced in Power Blade as evidenced by the squat, goofy looking protagonist. There are an even mix of highly technological environments mixed with the organic that all wouldn’t look out of place in a Mega Man game. The MM connection doesn’t just stop there however as there are enemies that are near identical as well. This is just as blatant as Krion Conquest although that game at least had the witch theme going for it. About half of the stages here were heavily redesigned in Power Blade but the bosses are exactly the same. The game’s music is similarly fantastic which makes the gameplay flaws all the more tragic since the production values are so top notch.

Power Blazer could have and should have been a much better game than what was released. With a few minor tweaks it could have been something special as Power Blade has shown. It isn’t completely worthless but it is more of a chore to play than it should be.

5-out-of-101

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Almana no Kiseki

Anyone else remember looking at the bottom of your NES and wondering what that expansion port was for? I did and it wasn’t until years later that I would discover it was for the Famicom Disk System, which would never leave Japan. While that is unfortunate we did receive a sizable chunk of its more noteworthy games on cartridge such as Zelda 2, Metroid, and for some god forsaken reason Dr. Chaos. That being said there are still plenty of classics that were left behind and Almana no Kiseki is one of them. As the mutant lovechild of Bionic Commando and Indiana Jones few games of that era were anything like it and even today it still stands out.

The magical red jewel of Almana is stolen from a village by a thief, turning its inhabitants to stone. As the explorer Kaito it is up to you to recover the jewel and restore the village. Let’s get it out of the way right now, the entire premise is stolen wholesale from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Kaito even resembles Indy (or as much as he can on the NES) with his fedora and outfit. Even the numerous caves and mines you’ll explore wouldn’t look out of place in an Indy title.

But that is about the point where the similarities end. You start off with thirty throwing knives as your default weapon but will eventually pick up five more: spiked balls which can also break certain walls and floors, gems which damage everything on screen, bombs, bolas, and a pistol. While ammo is limited you can take advantage of the infinitely respawning enemies and lack of a timer to stock up.

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The game’s big hook comes from its grappling hook. The grappling hook can be used at any time and is tossed at a 45 degree angle. It’s important to master its use as the default jump is too gimpy to accomplish much of anything. Once it is in place you can climb on it or jump on and off, with the only limitation being only one hook can be active at a time. While comparisons to Bionic Commando can be made the mechanic actually comes from Konami’s Roc n Rope, a 1983 arcade game that predates Capcom’s classic.

The wide open levels encourage you to experiment with grappling all over the environment to find hidden items and such. For those that don’t want to stand next to a door and potentially waste ammo trying to get more there usually are weapons lying about as well as all important extensions to your life bar. While there is only one exit in every level you can usually create your own path to it with a little ingenuity. The game’s six levels cover the tropes associated with Indiana Jones and provide plenty of opportunities to relive the best moments of his films in a different form.

The grappling hook’s implementation isn’t perfect however. To latch onto the more distant platforms you’ll have to leap and toss it but the timing needed to pull this off is frustrating to deal with. The game heavily leans on this and doesn’t have a gradual curve to ease you into grappling around the levels. I also found the default jump to be so useless that it is better to use the hook than to try and actually jump on a platform. Because the levels are so large it is often difficult to know where to go, with seemingly impossible to reach ledges ending up being the path you must follow.

When combined with the grappling hook’s quirks the game is bit more difficult than most. Although there isn’t a clock you’ll want to spend as little time as possible in a given area as enemies will respawn infinitely. Aside from the dagger and pistol the other weapons are near useless; the bombs suffer from spotty collision detection and the bolas are thrown diagonally. It’s usually more advantageous to simply run from most enemies as supplies are limited and you can never be sure when you’ll get more. Boss battles are actually significantly easier, with the only real challenge coming from actually reaching them. Their patterns are simple to figure out and they don’t take too many hits to go down.

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Graphically the game is indicative of many other Konami releases from that period such as Rush n Attack and Jackal, both originally FDS releases too. The color palette is subdued and dark which is perfect since you’ll spend the majority of your time in caves, mines, and other dank passages. While the enemies are fairly generic the bosses and the backgrounds themselves are highly animated, if a bit repetitive. The soundtrack is excellent and uses the Disk System’s extra sound channels to give it a richer feel than a stock NES. My only gripe is that there are only a few songs which are recycled in later levels.

While the learning curve is a bit steep once you’ve gained a handle on the grappling hooks mechanics you’ll start to cruise through levels like a ninja. I would have preferred tighter level design to the open expanses presented but that comes down to personal preference. Almana no Kiseki would have fit right in with the rest of Konami’s US lineup and is a lost classic fans would do well to track down.

8-out-of-101

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Cocoron

Cocoron is the type of game that was desperately needed in the US. Platform games were a dime a dozen in the US by 1991 and many of the established series were starting to churn out formulaic sequels. Meanwhile awesome new titles such as Shatterhand and Vice: Project Doom were flying under the radar. Cocoron would have immediately distinguished itself due to its lack of the one defining trait of any platformer: a main character. Rather you get to create your own and the absence of a Mario is not missed as the game is still phenomenal regardless.

The Dream World has been taken over by a mysterious assailant and the Princess Rua has been kidnapped. Tapir, a wizard from the Dream World enlists the aid of the player to help save the kingdom. Since this is the world of dreams you can be anything you want and so the game gives you the tools to envision your own hero.

The decision to forego a readymade hero and leave it in the hands of the player is Cocoron’s biggest innovation, especially for the platformer genre. The create-a-player feature allows you to build your hero in three categories: head, body, and arms (weapons). Each has eight different parts for you to choose from enabling you to assemble a wide range of just plain strange creations. You can stick the head of a Gundam on winged dragon’s body and arm him with pencils just as an example. Or give an alien the body of a sail boat with umbrellas as weapons. The choices in each category aren’t purely cosmetic as they affect a few statistics such as starting attack power, jumping ability, and your life bar. What’s cool is that you can see how your creation will perform in a mini test environment and make changes before you begin. You aren’t tied to one creation either as you have the option to make another after each boss battle however previously chosen parts become unavailable except for weapons.

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What makes this feature work above all else is that no matter what weird creation you conjure up there is a base that will allow them to at the very least complete each level. How easy or hard that task becomes is entirely in your hands. While it is tempting to become attached to a particularly versatile hero there are later levels that are infinitely easier when you can say fly for a few seconds. My go to hero used a ninja head with a cyborg body and shuriken which produced a nimble badass with a lengthy life bar and high attack power. But even then I still found use for a slow moving tank with the longest life bar to who could deal with some of the tougher bosses as the shuriken are a bit limited.

The weapons are the most interesting. The eight weapons can be leveled up to five times and change considerably plus as a bonus any upgrades earned are permanent. Some I found too frustrating to use such as the crystals while others are only situationally useful. The umbrellas arcing attack is hard to time but there are one or two bosses that it makes trivial. The pencils seem like smaller and weaker throwing stars but at level three really shows its worth. The decision to allow you to still freely choose when building another character is smart as the weapons are too cool to be as restrictive as the rest of the body parts.

The world map might at first remind you of Mega Man however it works differently here. Each individual location is actually pretty short but that is because there is both an entrance and exit. Once you’ve beaten the boss at the end and choose another stage you must progress through a short exit level leading up to it. You are free to explore the map in any order and eventually will have to revisit certain areas to progress. It’s weird but extremely fluid; the exits are always tailored to your current destination with extra segments so that you aren’t necessarily treading the same ground. Despite the brevity of the stages this is not a short game. Once you’ve beaten all of the bosses there are still a few more linear stages to cap it off at the end. I would say the game is about the same length as the later Mega Man games so you get your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is about average. Even if you somehow manage to create a monstrosity seemingly unsuited to a given level it is still possible to manage. Although you start off weak the permanent weapon upgrades make the game exceedingly easy by the end. Every enemy drops eggs that when broken will produce life restoring hearts. You would have to really go out of your way to find a challenge in the game. Only during boss battles did I ever die and that was rare.

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Developer Takeru would later go on to create Little Samson, one of the absolute best looking titles to ever hit the system. You can see traces of that technical expertise here as Cocoron is ridiculously beautiful at times. Since the entire game takes place in a world of dreams you’ll visit a range of environments with no connection to one another. The random nature of the graphical design is both a strength and a weakness; the more realistic environments such as castle interiors, forests, and a star filled sky look fantastic. The more cutesy levels such as the milk sea and the final levels seem out of place in comparison. But what they all share is a fantastic attention to detail, one that is surprising at times. The bosses especially are up there with the system’s best in my opinion. The music sadly doesn’t rise to the same level and is a mixed bag with a few stand out tracks but is mostly forgettable.

Cocoron is one of the best platformers for the NES and has been fan translated although it requires no knowledge of Japanese to enjoy. There’s no reason for any fan of platforming games to miss out on one of the most unique entries in the genre even by today’s standards.

8-out-of-101

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Summer Carnival ’92 Recca

Wow, that’s all I can say. Prepare to see your NES do things you never thought possible. Recca is the fastest shooter available for the NES and moves with the speed of a Genesis title but has almost no slowdown whatsoever. I don’t know what feat of technical programming Naxat Soft used to accomplish this but it is simply incredible to see in action. And it was done without the help of extra processors or specialized mappers. When you compare it to many of those early SNES shooters such as Super R-Type and Gradius III it’s embarrassing. Summer Carnival ’92 Recca is the greatest NES shooter released, one that stretches the system’s practical boundaries and backs it up with fantastic gameplay.

The Summer Carnival in the title refers to the shooting competition Naxat held in 1992 with Recca as its entrant. Much like Hudson Soft and their Star Soldier series these competitions were based all around scoring and the game comes equipped with two and five minute scoring challenges. Score attack challenges you to earn as many points as possible in two minutes but it is Time Attack that is more interesting. Here the challenge is to score one million points as soon as possible; there’s a five minute limit that adds to the pressure. I don’t normally bother with these modes but they are incredibly fun to play around with, especially due to the game’s mechanics.

There are a wealth of weapons available; five primary and five secondary that can be powered up multiple times. These run the shmup gamut, from a five-way shot, homing shot, and laser to the standard forward Vulcan cannon. Weapon drops are frequent with every 16th enemy destroyed dropping a new one. The secondary items are pods that either circle the ship or orbit it at various angles and repeat your fire. They provide minimal protection considering the biggest concern are head on collisions rather than random fire.

The most crucial defensive move you have is actually your smart bomb. When not firing your ship will begin to charge, indicated by a growing sphere. Even at its smallest size it can absorb bullets and many larger projectiles before release. Its equal parts risk and reward as it takes 5-6 seconds to fully charge but is absolutely crucial to surviving every boss battle. The bomb itself isn’t all that powerful but will provide the time needed to charge up another, making some of the most difficult fights trivial.

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It goes without saying that Recca is one of the most difficult games for the NES, let alone shooters and is up there with Battletoads and Castlevania III. It isn’t just the speed of the game that makes it so tough as it is the near relentless assault of enemies in between each boss battle. You really have to question whether it’s worth trying to snag that power-up as another wave of enemies can appear at any given moment. While the bosses might seem near impossible at times it only takes a minute of casual observation to identify their pattern. That being said it will still take quite some time before even the most seasoned gamers will see the end, especially as there are no continues which is a gigantic slap in the face.

If you somehow manage to finish the main game there is still plenty of content to be mined. Though the main “quest” is only four levels long Recca has plenty of extra modes that double the length of the game and are extremely fun in their own regard. By resetting the system you’ll gain access to essentially a Zelda style second quest which is seven levels long and is a remix of the first four areas. However these are done so well you can barely tell. Not only are the graphics suitably altered but bosses are switched around and there are even some new ones thrown in the mix.

This is the game’s hard mode, which, considering the difficulty on normal, is an understatement. If you thought normal mode was fast the pace is kicked up another notch, to the point where taking your finger off the trigger button will almost always equal instant death. The sheer number of enemies that are thrown at you is so ridiculous that on more than one occasion I could only say “are you serious?” I feel no shame in admitting that I had to tap out and cheat my way to the end. A man has to know his limits and Recca showed me mine.

But there’s more! If for some god forsaken reason you crave an even bigger challenge there’s Zanki mode. It’s the same as normal with two exceptions. You are given fifty lives, which sounds like a lot but will shrink in record time due to the enemies’ new suicide function. Every enemy destroyed will erupt in a shower of bullets, blanketing the screen in a manner befitting a bullet hell shooter except 8-bit style. This is one of the few areas slowdown will rear its head which is a bit of a reprieve all things considered. I’m not hardcore enough to soldier through this mode but anyone who likes their shooters on this side of impossible will be in heaven.

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Next to Kirby’s Adventure and Gimmick Summer Carnival Recca is the most technically accomplished game for the system. There really is no comparison as it puts many 16-bit games to shame and I’m not exaggerating. No matter how manic the action gets there is no flicker and only the briefest moments of slowdown. There’s a strict sprite limit in the NES hardware yet somehow Naxat managed to get around it, creating a visual spectacle I never thought possible on this aging hardware. Artistically the game is sound and even features plenty of parallax scrolling and screen filling bosses. Aside from the limited color palette you won’t find a better looking 8-bit title. The techno soundtrack is well done despite the lacking sound channels and was actually so popular that a separate OST was released.

For the longest time Recca was exorbitantly expensive as it was released in limited quantities in Japan. Last year however it finally saw a domestic release on the 3DS virtual console for a mere $5. At that price you’d be a fool to pass up one of the greatest shooters of all time.

9-out-of-10

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Harmful Park

 

I don’t know when the American videogame industry decided that the shmup genres time had passed but I mourned its loss. I guess most of the games being 2d arcade ports of some truly brilliant games wasn’t good for the new 32-bit platforms. True, every so often a gem or two would escape Japan such as Thunder Force 5 or R-Type Delta but compared to Japan we only received scraps. We missed out on some truly exceptional games; the likes of Radiant Silvergun, Soukyugurentai, and Dodonpachi are an importer’s wet dream. One such game you’ll rarely hear about is Harmful Park, not only one of the best PlayStation shooters but possibly my favorite game in the genre. That’s no small praise either. I’ve probably played a few hundred of these games in my 34 years and so for a game like Harmful Park to leave such a strong impression speaks to its quality. The only negative I can think of is that the game isn’t more widely available.

The game’s premise is hilarious. Heartful Park was a simple amusement park until Dr. Tequila took it over to use for his nefarious ends. One of his associates wants to stop him but is too old so instead sends her two daughters to save the now Harmful Park.

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While it isn’t as overt Harmful Park shares many similarities with Parodius. Both games are on the wacky side of the spectrum and nothing is sacred. Where Parodius made fun of Gradius and later other Konami games Harmful Park manages to somehow lambast anything the designers felt could be mocked; everything is fair game. Even if shooters had stayed popular in the late 90s chances are it wouldn’t have been released domestically as most publishers didn’t know what to do with these games. Its small print run makes it all the more special and whatever amount you end up paying will be rewarded.

The game equips you with its four weapons right from the start. The potato gun is your standard machine gun, rapid fire equipped and versatile. The ice cream cannon is the game’s laser equivalent, slow and piercing. The pie tosser is slower but the most powerful as the pies explode on impact. Meanwhile the jelly weapon fires homing jelly beans that are weak. Each weapon can be leveled up four times with some changing more than others. Getting up to full power is a bit of a task as power-ups are scarce.

In addition each has a secondary smart bomb function that is incredibly useful in a pinch. The ice cream cannon produces a sundae that emits a massive beam of destruction. The homing jelly beans produce a protective mold of jello for a close to 10 second bout of invincibility. Surprisingly the potato gun’s is the least useful; it creates a giant potato that explodes but has a narrow radius. Oddly enough you’ll probably find more special weapon power-ups than the normal ones.

This is a slower paced shooter despite the seeming chaos every second yet despite that it is still engaging. This would have made a perfect entry level shooter for anyone new to the genre thanks to its balanced difficulty. Regardless of whatever difficulty selected the game is highly accessible; you respawn upon death up until the final two stages, weapons are only downgraded one level if you die, and taking advantage of the simple scoring system (killing multiple enemies in one shot yields higher score multipliers) will earn extra lives at a decent clip. Completing the game on hard is a task in itself with a few changes thrown in here and there to make it worthwhile.

At six levels the game isn’t too long, luckily there are a variety of minigames to partake in. Punch ball is a combination of air hockey and Pong, a strange combination but one that works. Sky Circuit is a horizontal racing game with six levels, pretty impressive. Tank battle seems out of place comparatively, as it is an overhead tank battle (duh) that used exclusive graphics but I didn’t find it very entertaining.

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2d games were not all too common on the PlayStation and so every game was scrutinized. Even when compared to titles on the Saturn, the reigning 2d champion of that generation, Harmful Park looks exceptional. The game is full of gorgeous artwork that will have you pausing the game just to take it all in. The menagerie of enemies you face come in shapes and are downright bizarre, such as a doggie helicopter, flying squirrels, and even beer guzzling, fire breathing…..I don’t know what the hell they are. The bosses are even more off the wall. The first boss you face is an inflatable fire breathing dinosaur, which sets the nutty tone. There’s a Frankenstein with finger lasers being controlled by a cat inside his brain (I can’t believe I just typed that). Stage four pits you against a teenager at a drive-in theater who is only viewed from the neck down. For a reason. My personal favorite would be the heart shaped demon who entices a bride to wed another man in the wedding procession, prompting the would be groom to cry tears of death.

More impressive than the sprite work are the game’s intricate backgrounds. The amusement park setting allows the game to cover a range of locations, from a haunted house, drive-in theater, to the final level set inside a beer tavern, all immaculately drawn. Blink and you’ll miss a ton of small details such as a cow being abducted by aliens, a fairy princess being swallowed by a hippo, and the more ridiculous like pandas riding pandas, bats wielding baseball bats, and pretty funny gorilla riding a cow train. The game is also graced with some of the best hand drawn explosions I’ve ever seen.

What I wouldn’t give to see this rereleased so everyone can experience its great gameplay and some of the best 2d art I’ve ever seen. For shooting veterans and novices Harmful Park has something to offer everyone.

9-out-of-10

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Wai Wai World 2

Konami’s Wai Wai World was one of the most interesting imports that never made it to the US. As a crossover starring their most famous intellectual properties it had many good ideas buried under some slight missteps. Though flawed it was still a solid game with fantastic graphics. Wai Wai World 2 came three years later and completely tossed aside everything that made its prequel unique. But in its place is a more focused quest that is truly excellent and, thanks to the work of fan translators can be enjoyed by everyone (not that it was necessary).

Wai Wai land is finally at peace after the brave Konami heroes saved the world. One day however the evil sorcerer Warumon steals the Parsley Castle along with the Princess Herb. Dr. Cinnamon escapes and does his best Dr. Light impression and creates an android named Rikkuru, who can transform into several Konami characters, to save the day.

With Rikkuru as the protagonist the Konami twins are relegated to a cameo role. Rikkuru is a far more capable protagonist since his default attack is a mid-range sonic boom. Along with his double jump there is very little that he isn’t equipped to handle. There are very few power-ups to pick up, one for invincibility, extra power bombs, and health kits. The most important are the C icons that will allow you to transform into one of your chosen heroes.

Unlike the first game the selection of heroes has been cut down to just five: Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon, Bill Raizer from Contra, Fuma from Getsu Fūma Den, and newcomer Upa from Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa. The returning heroes are mostly unchanged with the exception of Goemon, whose pipe now functions as a boomerang. Upa is a baby whose rattle transforms enemies into clouds that can be ridden but suffers from short range. Bill is possibly the all around best character as he can shoot in four directions which breaks the game.

You have a choice of 4 groupings of three characters that you’re stuck with until the end. Curiously Upa is featured in three of them which sucks as he is the worst character. He has the shortest range and riding clouds isn’t as useful as you would think. Personally my go to team would have been Goemon, Simon, and Bill but alas, I have to work with what I’m given. You can’t freely change whenever you want; whenever you collect the C power-up it cycles between your chosen trio until you hit Up + A . The transformation lasts sixty seconds and you are functionally invincible, with any hits taken subtracting five seconds from the clock. It comes around often enough that if you choose you can stay changed indefinitely. It’s different but the restrictions imposed make sense and are so trivial that they don’t even matter.

The Metroid style adventure element of the original is gone and in its place is a straightforward platformer. While I do miss the freedom to futz around in the levels as I please the move to a dedicated action game has certainly done wonders for the game’s action. You won’t get that impression from the game’s first level though as it is an overly long forward scrolling stage that will at least introduce you to the game’s mechanics. After this initial stage however it picks up considerably and at various points you are given a choice between two stages with wildly different gameplay styles. As far as variety this might even have the original beat despite featuring less characters.

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Each subsequent level after the first is a trip down memory lane as they revisit popular levels from each protagonist’s respective series. The familiar jungle from Contra makes an appearance as well as Dracula’s castle, an Edo era village, a land made of candy (from Bio Miracle Upa) and Hell itself. Some of these references are lost on US gamers as those games never made it to our shores but they can be enjoyed just as easily as the rest. What makes these tributes/mashups work so well is that they’re still just as fun regardless of the hero you’ve currently chosen. Can you imagine trying to play Super Mario Brothers using Simon Belmont as he is in Castlevania? Yeah.

Stages 3 and 6 are both different from the rest in that you have a choice at both points. Both levels are homages to Twinbee and while I’m not too fond of most of the games in that series it’s actually a pretty nice recreation of that game’s action. Stage six offers you a choice between a weird ass sliding puzzle and a terrible bump n jump clone. It’s the only weak level in the game and unfortunately you can waste a good number of lives on either one. Stage 8 is a send up of Parodius except you control the Vic Viper, not that it’s too far-fetched.

The original Wai Wai World was unfairly difficult due to some bad design decisions and it is apparent Konami set out to rectify that. This is a far more balanced game but I think they leaned a bit too far left as it is very easy to cheese your way through the entire game outside of its shooter segments. Since you are technically invincible when transformed you can keep another roulette going to change once again as soon as your current one ends. Certain heroes are literally game breaking; Bill Raizer and his ability to shoot in four directions makes most boss encounters trivial. Watch as the final boss goes down in less than 15 seconds without needing to move around.

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As much as I liked the graphics in the original Wai Wai World I think the sequel is even better. All of the sprites are larger and have been stylized for a more uniform look and the consistency elevates the game tremendously. The backgrounds are insanely detailed and extremely colorful and yet somehow maintain a serious tone. The music is also better with cleverly remixed tunes from each game it draws from alongside nicely composed original selections.

Any way you slice it Wai Wai World 2 is a much better and more focused game than its prequel. Aside from its ease it is easily one of the best action games for the platform and very easy to muddle through without knowledge of Japanese.

9-out-of-10

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Over Horizon

In the pantheon of great NES shooters you’ll generally see names like Gradius, Life Force, and maybe Zanac thrown around. For the import savvy Crisis Force and Recca: Summer Carnival 92 will undoubtedly make the cut. But you’ll rarely hear about Over Horizon. This Japanese and European exclusive has maintained a low profile throughout the years but is easily one of the greatest shooters for the system. Once scheduled for a US release it was unfortunately cancelled; I guess Hot-B figured fishing games were a hotter commodity. Publishing screw ups aside Over Horizon is another in a long line of games that should have been released here. The US market missed out on a truly great game that is only let down by its brevity.

At first glance Over Horizon doesn’t seem to be any different than the majority of shooters on the market. The weapons are fairly standard for the genre, a homing shot, bombs that explode on impact and powerful but thin lasers. These can all be upgraded to increase their power though nothing too dramatic. Options are available and can be slightly repositioned by pressing both buttons at once. The control scheme enables you to fire both in front and behind which is needed as enemies stream in from both sides frequently.

While the weapons are fairly unimpressive on their own the game puts the tools in your hand to tailor them how you want. The Edit mode is one of the most innovative features in the genre and gives you the power to tweak each weapon as you see fit using a simple interface. You are given five points to allocate per weapon and imbue them with characteristics of the other two. The more points put into a choice the more it will favor it. For example when editing the laser if you put four points into homing and one into bombs the new laser will aggressively track enemies with a small explosion on impact. Putting points into the laser can increase the power of the weaker homing shots, shoring up its weaknesses. There’s a large amount of choices and the game even provides a brief test level so you can see how your edits will play out in practice.

Options can also be changed up, allowing you to place them literally anywhere on the screen. You can even place them on the extreme edges on the screen but you would have to be pretty damn stupid to try that. Depending on their placement it does have a profound effect on your immediate firepower and in certain positions they are useless; since they fire in whatever direction you are placing one immediately behind you is ill advised. You can even customize the direction your options will rotate when both buttons are pressed although managing this one is trickier in the heat of the moment.

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The level design is Over Horizon’s second best trait. Each of the six world’s you’ll visit is wildly different and presents new obstacles to deal with on top of the fodder enemies. It makes flying through each stage far more enjoyable then normal as a result and adds to the challenge. Stage 5 has multiple waterfalls that slow your movements and constantly push you down. The ice fields in stage 2 have to be manually pushed in order to build pathways to survive, oftentimes leading to nail biting last minute saves. Throughout all of this your weapons are never overpowered to the point the game feels trivial; up until the game’s closing moments it is easily possible to be shot down.

The one area that Over Horizon comes up short in is its length. The game is only six levels long which is absolutely criminal when the mechanics are this accomplished. Thanks to the game’s generous respawn system it’s possible to blitz through its tougher moments, especially when extra lives are awarded at a decent clip. One or two more levels to allow you to fully experiment with its weapon editing mode would have given it a shot at being the best overall shooter for the system. It’s that good.

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The production values of Over Horizon are no slouch but aren’t in the same league as technical beasts such as Recca. The game’s graphics are carried by its phenomenal artwork. Most ship and enemy sprites are small, leaving plenty of room for the game’s exotic worlds to be fully realized. There’s a high degree of detail in each level, from the giant vines and plants of stage 1 to the massive ice flows of stage 3. Speaking of massive the bosses are often screen filling monstrosities that often try to use their size to box you in. You can tell the majority of the game’s budget was lavished on them and it pays off. There is some slowdown in the late stages of the game but surprisingly it has been kept to a minimum.

Even with its short length Over Horizon is one of the NES’s best shooters. The edit mode is a feature that I wish more games would have explored, not only just shooters. It is thanks to this element that you’ll more than likely play through the game a few times just to see how creative you can be. With one or two more stages this would have been a classic.

8-out-of-101

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Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie

It really is shame that due to licensing issues Macross hasn’t been able to develop a presence in America despite being one of the major series that introduced anime to the US.  The series has seen many installments over the years, from Macross 7 to the semi recent Macross Frontier with none of it reaching our shores.  And yet in spite of that the fandom is still tremendous.  Too bad we aren’t given the opportunity to show just how much we love it.

That said we really aren’t missing anything on the video game front.  There have been a long line of Macross video games spanning multiple console generations and almost all of them have been terrible.  Which makes Macross Scrambled Valkyrie such an anomaly.  I don’t know who the developers are but they work wonders with the hardware with Scrambled Valkyrie being not just an excellent technical showpiece but one of the best shooters available for the SNES.  And since it’s a shooter no knowledge of Japanese is necessary to enjoy all it has to offer.

The VF-1 has three different modes that can be switched at any time, each with their own form of attack.  The weapons for each form can be powered up three times individually, with any hits setting it back one level.  Your choice of the three heroes at the start will affect your approach to the game as their weapons are also individually tailored.  Hikaru Ichijou (Rick Hunter to us) is well rounded with his weapons skewing close to a typical Gradius style.  The Gerwalk form is near useless for him.  Maximilian Jenius is faster than Rick but suffers from a low life bar and only displaying his true worth when his weapons are maxed out. If you can adjust to his speed he is easily the best choice.  Millia Fallyna has the strongest weapons but they come with the caveat that they are hard to use due to only firing straight forward.

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Probably the coolest “weapon” in the game is the Minmay cannon.  If you avoid firing any shots your Veritech fighter will glow.  Nearly any of the fodder enemies you touch will immediately join your side as an invincible drone.  The extra firepower is more than welcome and although you don’t directly control their actions you can still position them to abuse their invulnerability.  The completely random gunship I converted on stage 2 valiantly fought by my side until I ultimately died two levels later.  The game is frustratingly selective in terms of the enemies that you can alter but the fact that this feature is even in the game is awesome to begin with.

The controls are kept simple at just two buttons, one for shooting and another to change forms.  Switching fighter modes plays heavily into the gameplay as each has their own individual quirks beside their weapon.  Fighter mode is the smallest and fastest, GERWALK kind of occupies the middle ground while Battroid offers the heaviest firepower but makes you a larger target.  The game is designed such that you can’t simply stay in one form and call it a day.  There are many situations where a given form is more suited such as the black holes in stage one; the fighter is fast enough to escape their gravitational pull while the Battroid would get sucked in.  That’s not to say that it is mandatory.  With some skill I’m sure the best pilots can manage but you’ll be hard pressed to convince me that it’s possible to beat the stage four boss in Battroid form.

The game covers a lot of ground despite only having seven levels.  This is a slower paced shooter outside of stage four, not that it diminishes the game’s intensity one bit.  The initial asteroid field filled with space debris, black holes and corpses is fairly impressive and the game continues to ramp up from there.  You’ll eventually invade an enemy base, fly around the rings of Saturn and even navigate the insides of the UN Spacey.  As each stage is pretty long the game does a pretty good job of varying up the layouts right up until each boss.  Another cool touch, with a few exceptions each level has completely unique enemies.

Even in light of the fact that you have a life bar and frequent power-ups this is still one tough beast.  One life and seven continues isn’t all that much to work with, especially since you are kicked back to the beginning of the level when continuing.  The levels are a bit long so having to retrace your steps, especially on some of the more brutal arenas might kill your motivation to continue.  But the game is so accomplished in every other facet that you will, if only to see the next set piece.

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Visually Scrambled Valkyrie has few peers within the shooter genre on SNES or even during the 16-bit generation.  There is a ridiculous attention to detail spent on nearly every sprite and background, so much so that you’ll probably pause the game just to marvel at your surroundings.  The debris filled space graveyard of the first level sets the tone for the rest of the adventure with some levels such as stage six’s cloud filled moon featuring layers of scrolling as far as the eye can see.  The show’s various mecha provide ample material for the various enemies you’ll face in the game with some of the larger ships and bosses bearing an almost pre-rendered look.

The game is heavy on the special effects, transparencies in particular.  The numerous black holes and teleporting ships never cease to amaze as they make a smooth transition from a complete void.  There is some slowdown in some of the more hectic parts of the game but these moments are very few.  The soundtrack features remixes of some of the show’s more popular songs and while they are good they are still cheesy in that 80s anime way.

Too bad this never saw an official release in America.  But that doesn’t matter in the slightest as no knowledge of Japanese is required and what little text is in the game is already in English (very bad English).  This is one of the finest shooters of the era regardless of platform and one fans of the genre should track down.

9-out-of-10

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Gleylancer

On its face Gleylancer shouldn’t be so great.  It has many features in common with the vast majority of shooters such as its weapons and even the look of its stages.  But through its clever gameplay additions and actual plot it manages to become greater than the sum of its parts.  Released in 1992 it is one of the few shooters that didn’t see an American release until recently and is one of the best shmups for the console based solely on its gameplay.

Gleylancer unlike most shmups is a shooter with a plot.  In the year 2025 an unknown alien race declares war on the human race.  Ken, a high ranking officer in the Federation Navy is teleported to a far corner of the galaxy by an enemy weapon.  This prompts his daughter Lucia to hijack a prototype fighter to mount a rescue.

The story is told through frequent cut scenes reminiscent of Phantasy Star IV (although Gleylancer came first) and while it isn’t going to win any awards the added presentation is certainly welcome.  It has that late 80s anime aesthetic that I miss so much.  Of course the story is lost on those who can’t speak Japanese unless you play the fan translated rom, which will provide the context for your actions.  There are two possible endings depending on your actions, not that they are all that different but the effort is at least appreciated.

From a gameplay standpoint Gleylancer takes many of the standard weapons present in nearly all shooters and skews a little too closely to Thunder Force at first glance.  But what truly sets it apart is the amount of control you have over your gunners.  Much like options the gunners add to your firepower when you collect any of the special weapons and can attack independent of your target.  Plus you can lock them in place when necessary.

This control is further enhanced by the numerous formations you can choose from at the start.  The option to stick with standard gunners is there but the game becomes far more interesting when you begin to play around with the other six.  Some are the basics that you would expect such as the reverse formation.  Shadow essentially turns them into Gradius style options with the caveat that they can only fire forward.  Roll turns them into a rotating shield.  It gets more interesting with the Multi formations.  These restrict their movements within a 180 arc along the top and bottom of the ship but essentially creates three-way fire.

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The most useful and game breaking is the search option.  Although the game tries to warn you that it isn’t very accurate in reality it is the most versatile and aggressive.  Not only do they actively target every enemy that appears on the screen they can also be set up to seek out their own individual targets.  It’s like a combination of almost every other option combined in one.  When combined with a strong weapon like the laser you won’t even see most enemies until the second half of the game.

The level design tends to run hot and cold.  When the game is at its best it will challenge you to make the most of your gunners, switching between focused fire and setting them at fixed angles for maximum impact.  But in its lazier moments you can sit in the middle of the screen and barely move if you have a particularly strong form.  Normally this would be disastrous but because the game is so long it evens out.  You learn to appreciate the game’s quieter moments and test out different positioning without fear of heavy consequences.

I found the game’s challenge to be at the perfect level.   The first few levels are simple enough and present enough situations that you’ll want to experiment with the different formations and their behavior for maximum effect.  The second half picks up considerably, with larger capital ships attacking in groups as well as more elaborate stage designs that will box you into a corner.  Once you’ve mastered the intricacies of controlling the gunners it becomes easier to escape the most dangerous situations unscathed.  Despite working off a checkpoint system weapon drops are frequent enough that you won’t be powerless for long and can get back up to speed in less than a minute, a far cry from most shooters where death means you might as well reset.

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Graphically because the game resembles Thunder Force so closely comparisons can’t help but be made and in this regard it comes up short.  Lightening Force was released the same year and looks almost a generation ahead of this despite the similarities in stage themes and such.  That isn’t to say Gleylancer doesn’t have its moments but the presentation is definitely uneven.  Some of the outdoor backdrops such as the fiery planet and the battle among the clouds are truly impressive, with layer upon layer of scrolling creating the illusion of depth in its backdrops.  But for every level such as this there are many that are flat, drab, and bring out the worst in the game’s low color palette.

The sound production also suffers from this same rough design.  The music is nice and catchy but the sound effects are weak and lack sufficient punch.  Plus there only seem to be four or five sound effects that are repeated too much.  There’s some sampled speech thrown in here and there with the announcer offering little bits of commentary on what’s coming ahead and giving quick advice to survive.

Gleylancer is a triumph of gameplay over graphics, with plenty of options to entice any shooter fan to play through it three or four times.  With eleven levels you won’t finish it in an hour and will get plenty of bang for your buck.  If the graphics and sound were of a higher standard this could have been the best all around shooter for the system.

8-out-of-101

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Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti

Namco’s Splatterhouse was a significant arcade release for a few reasons.  The protagonist with his vaguely Friday the 13thesque mask was an imposing figure and the gobs of gore spilled left and right was definitely unheard of at the time.  But forget about the violence, it was an arcade beat em up that didn’t focus on bashing street thugs or mutants.  It doesn’t sound particularly exciting now but back then?  It was a god damn revelation.

While most are familiar with its Turbo Grafx port or Genesis sequels the first actual home game in the series was a Famicom exclusive.  Obviously a straight port would never have worked (and considering Nintendo’s strictness would never have been approved) so Namco instead took a page out of Konami’s handbook and created a parody of it.  Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti took the gory arcade game and instead turned it into a parody of Hollywood cinema and it actually works.  Not only is Wanpaku Graffiti pretty damn hilarious it actually might be the best game in the series from a gameplay standpoint.

Rick is dead, with Jennifer in mourning beside his grave.  Suddenly a lightning bolt strikes the grave and brings Rick back to life.  Curiously he was buried with the mask on but that detail is glossed over.  Jennifer’s elation is cut short when a second bolt of lightning reanimates the Pumpkin King who takes her away and sets Rick on his quest.

Forget about fisticuffs as Rick is always equipped with a meat cleaver, a strange choice considering the wacky nature of the proceedings.  While the variety of melee attacks is missed let’s be honest, up until the series third installment they were largely ineffective.  The game has been balanced around this as most enemies will explode in a shower of goo in one hit.  The number of weapons has also been stripped down to just the shotgun, which doesn’t make an appearance until the second half of the game.

What evens the odds in your favor is the level up system.  There’s a counter that keeps track of the enemies killed and at set intervals your life bar will increase in size.  It makes killing enemies completely worthwhile, to the point that you should probably spend some time cheesing the system, especially in the first boss encounter.  There probably is a limit to how much the life bar can grow however right until the end of the game there were still new plateaus to hit.

It’s a far cry from the relative stinginess of the arcade game and makes the game much more balanced.  Health power-ups are also far more abundant, with hamburgers and sodas dropped by enemies and also hiding in the environments.  To a degree it does make the game a lot easier but I’ll gladly take this over the artificial constraints the series would eventually adopt.

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Each level is a thinly veiled parody of a Hollywood movie with many references blatantly on display.  The first boss you face doesn’t even engage you directly; he first performs a dance ensemble right out of Thriller before sending his zombie hordes after you.  There’s even a girl who has an alien bursting out of her chest, an obvious reference.  In a self-referential nod there are two levels based on Friday the 13th, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering how closely Rick resembles Jason Voorhees.  The parodies aren’t reserved for only popular films as even obscure films like Evil Dead are a target.

While the game is funny it definitely doesn’t lean on the comedy to save it.  This is more of a platformer than a beat em up as evidenced by Rick’s permanent possession of an axe.  It’s definitely a weird shift but welcome as the first two games became repetitive in short order.  There are very few bottomless pits to worry about as most will simply take you to an alternate path.  Speaking of which nearly every level has multiple routes with some far easier than others.

The seven levels take you to a variety of locales from the traditional Splatterhouse graveyards and haunted houses to Diamond Lake, and for some god forsaken reason it all ends in an Egyptian pyramid.  Well there IS a reason but I won’t spoil it.  Suffice it to say that it all makes sense within the context of the game.  Due to the leveling system the game is a bit easy and with passwords most will complete it in one or two sittings.  But I guarantee you’ll have an awesome time while it lasts.

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Though presented in the super deformed format Wanpaku Graffiti is a powerhouse in terms of graphics.  Most levels feature one or two layers of scrolling which was practically unheard of at the time of the game’s release.  The sprites are extremely large and detailed with suitable animation to match.  Despite its cute exterior there’s still a decent amount of gore in the game; this is still called Splatterhouse of course.

Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti is one of the best Famicom games of all time and one well worth tracking down.  Even if you aren’t a fan of parodies there’s enough good gameplay here to keep you interested.

8-out-of-101

 

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Twinkle Tale

Much like platformers starring cavemen (RIP Chuck Rock, Bonk, Bignose the Caveman, Dino Riki, etc.) shooters starring witches seemed to undergo their own renaissance in the 16-bit era and would last up until the PlayStation 2’s release.  Gamers in America were completely oblivious to this as 90% of these games never came over with the rare exception such as Magical Chase and Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams.  It’s too bad as many of these games were simply fantastic such as Twinkle Tale, a Genesis shooter that was oddly never picked up for release.  It’s an amazing game in an underserved genre and one that definitely would have stood out had someone released it here.

Though it bears a strong resemblance to Phelios and Elemental Master Twinkle Tale has more in common with Mercs as an overhead shooter.  Think of it as the Sega equivalent of Pocky & Rocky.  This is not an auto scrolling shooter however and in fact you move at your own pace although there is no backwards movement.  While the general gameplay is different the fantasy theme is the same as the aforementioned games, which was not typical of this genre.  It definitely helps the game stand out from the likes of Red Zone and Skeleton Krew (whew, that’s a lot of name dropping).

Saria is armed with 3 interchangeable spells that all have their uses throughout the game.  The Diamond Arrow is your wide beam; the Shooting Star is the most powerful but only fires straight forward, and the Silver Comet is the weakest but homes in on enemies.  Aside from the three spells are 2 bombs, a weaker homing projectile and a more powerful fire dragon that has gaps in its offense, ensuring that they aren’t too overpowered.  Even using a full stock of all three the bosses were still able to smile in my face (figuratively) and keep coming back for more.

Each spell can be leveled up three times and as an added bonus any potions collected while using a max level spell will go toward another one.  Maxing out your spells can be done within minutes of starting any level but keeping them that way is the challenge.  Any hits will knock them back a level which is terrifying in the most hectic moments.  It’s never a good idea to try and rely on just one particular spell as they all have their drawbacks.  In fact I would even say the game is near impossible if you try to play it that way.

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There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next as you explore a fantastical array of settings.  You’ll visit an icy temple, the inside of a living tree, ancient ruins and even the underworld, all while being accosted by magical beasts.  The level design is never straightforward and makes the game feel like an adventure title as you’ll explore the numerous rooms in a castle or stop to converse with the few locals.  Later in the game there are a few shooting segments that are a nice change of pace and are well executed.

Speaking of, the pacing is perfect; for every large group of enemies you’ll encounter there is usually a brief period of rest before the next set, allowing you time to pick up a few items if necessary to press on.  Nearly every level has branching paths that ultimately lead to the same end goal but do provide a nice degree of choice as you plod along.

Twinkle Tale can be tough at times but above all else it is fair.  Early on when you are limited by your three hit life bar any mistakes can be devastating.  There are frequent life restoring potions at every turn early on to balance this out.  But after the second level your hit points will increase by one after each stage up to an eventual max of 9.  It is at this point that the difficulty curve gradually increases and the game holds your hand less.  Still, one life and only three continues is a bit of a steep mountain to climb with extra credits through scoring being crucial.  The game is so fun thought that it actually works.

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Although it was released in 1992 Twinkle Tale still compares favorably to many late era Genesis titles based purely on its strong art direction.  The entire world takes place on a floating island and the frequent outdoor areas give a beautiful glimpse at the world below.  The darker color palette places a heavy emphasis on lighting and shadows and produces some pretty striking areas, most notably exploring the insides of the World Tree of stage four.  It’s a fantasy thrill ride that looks progressively better with every level right up until the game’s final moments.  The massive bosses are insanely detailed and are a joy to watch in motion as they are to fight.  The music doesn’t reach the same heights unfortunately but I found it unobtrusive in the grand scheme; that’s about the only compliment I can give.

Unfortunately Twinkle Tale only had a small print run leaving it incredibly rare.  It was never ported to any other system or re-released digitally so chances are you’re going to pay out the nose for it.  There is a little bit of story and the game has received a fan translation which is sadly the only way to play it in English.  Despite its likely high price the game is truly fantastic and arguably the best overhead action game for the system.

9-out-of-10

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Undeadline

As varied as the Sega Genesis shooter library is the vertical shooter is strangely underrepresented.  There were a few stand out titles such as M.U.S.H.A, Zenon 2, and the infamous Zero Wing but nothing on the level of Lightening Force or Gaiares.  Oddly enough the vast majority of its vertical catalog never left Japan.  Undeadline is one such endeavor, a game that would have immediately stood out from its shmup contemporaries thanks to its undead theme.  It’s also one of the most difficult games for the platform.

Before the dawn of man the world was inhabited by gods and giants who vied for complete rule over the planet.  The giants created four living weapons too powerful to control that in the end wiped them out and were lost.  Now a new war is brewing between demons, led by Count Brahzen and humans under the rule of King Fahrenheit.  With rumors of Brahzen attempting to revive one of the weapons it falls to a fighter named Leon to awaken an equal power and stop him.

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Originally created for the MSX2 and then remade for the X68000 PC before finally landing on the Megadrive something was lost and gained in each incarnation.  The cool intro of the original is missing from both ports but they also have an extra level as compensation.  The biggest blow to the Genesis version is the loss of the wizard and ninja, leaving only the fighter as the playable character.  Each class specialized in a specific category and also were better with certain weapons.  By raising your stats the effectiveness of those weapons increased; it was good strategy to use a particular character on a given level and the game suffers because of it.  At least the fighter is somewhat well rounded to make up for it.

There are a host of weapons and items in the game with treasure chests at every turn that allow you to cycle through each one.  Each weapon can be powered up to three times with some changing dramatically at their peak.  I’m not even going to bullshit, of the seven weapons the spread shot is the absolute best choice.  Once fully powered it covers a wide spread in front and even covers your backside.  The others have their situational uses such as the fire but come with far too many drawbacks to be effective.  The axe only increases in speed and power, the sickle’s arcing attack is too unpredictable and the bombs just plain suck.  In any other game having options is mandatory; here they default you back to the dagger.  Three extra drones throwing daggers is still a bunch of crummy daggers.

There are a few defensive measures at your disposal to mitigate damage and brother you’ll need em.  At any time you can put up your shield to block most projectiles in the game.  You’ll be amazed at some of the attacks your shield can deflect and on certain bosses (such as the cemeteries’ Grim Reaper) it is an absolute must.  You have a rotating shield that will protect you from most forms of damage, the only caveat being you can only use it three times.  Other optional items exist such as a force field and invincibility but these only last a short duration.  If you truly want to make any progress in the game you need to use everything at your disposal.

You have the option to complete the six initial stages in any order before the finale but it doesn’t matter where you start; you are going to die frequently.  I’ve played many a hard game and Undeadline ranks near the top.  New enemies pop in at a never ending pace from all corners from the opening moments right up to the end level boss.  It’s so bad that you’ll rarely have a chance to cycle through the weapons and items in each chest at your leisure before taking a hit.  The right weapon (spread shot) can alleviate this somewhat but the attacks are still relentless.  Until you’ve played each level a few times (and you will) and memorize enemy placement and where chests are located it will seem impossible but the chaos can be managed.  They just could have been more reasonable about it.  I mean Christ there are even items that take away health and default you back to the stupid dagger.

Part of what makes the difficulty so extreme were the changes made from the MSX original.  In that game you had a lengthy life bar and could take many hits.  Here you can only sustain three hits which is woefully inadequate.  You could also hold three items at any given time which would have been a god send.  That game was much slower paced so I can see how the developers might have wanted to create some tension but I feel they went a bit too far.  2 continues and no checkpoints during each level (meaning you start from the beginning every time) is a tough pill to swallow.

My feelings concerning Undeadline vary wildly.  During its best moments Undead Line is as enjoyable as Pocky & Rocky, a game that it shares a few gameplay similarities with.  But those are all too brief as the game seemingly tries to suck all the fun out of the proceedings in an effort to send you to the game over screen.  If you can stomach some of the most vicious shooting action from that era than there is a solid game underneath its flaws.

6-out-of-101

 

 

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King of Demons

I’ve never been much of an import guy for the simple reason that it is frustrating to play a game without the slightest clue about what’s going on.  But there are legions of games where the language barrier is non-existent and these I enjoy.  Majuu Ou (or King of Demons) was a late Super Famicom release in Japan that could have made the trip overseas with little effort as there is only about a page of text.  It’s a damn shame too as it is an excellent game with beautiful graphics and thoroughly engaging gameplay.

Abel is on a journey to Hell to rescue his daughter after his best friend Bayer betrayed him.  It seems Bayer sacrificed Abel’s wife and child for power in order to resurrect the King of Demons.  A sacrifice from his wife gives him the power needed to reach the lower depths of hell to save their daughter.

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There are many ways to describe King of Demons.  Castlevania with a gun, Altered Beast done right and they are all accurate to some degree.  Initially Abel is only armed with a pistol and looks a bit dorky in his t-shirt, jeans, and bandana.  After getting his ass handed to him by Bayer the pistol becomes more powerful and Abel more agile.  Ammo is not a concern and you don’t have to aim; anything in your path will get hit.  The platforming staple double jump is present as well as a roll to avoid damage.  Aside from the gun you can perform a downward kick attack that’s hard to land but fairly powerful.  You can also charge up your gun for a Force attack, a short range hadoken-esque burst.

These abilities are serviceable for the first few levels but after you defeat your first major boss the Altered Beast connection comes in.  Bosses drop a jewel whose color (red, blue, green) corresponds to a different demon form with significantly enhanced abilities.  The red jewel changes you into a harpy with a boomerang attack and a larger charged fireball.  Green is a sort of lizard hybrid with wings who shoots laser beams from his palms.  Blue is a dragon with the most powerful basic attack that suffers from short range.  The power comes at a price as he is also the largest, making it an easier target.

It’s extremely cool and has plenty of depth.  There are a wide variety of demon forms in the game to play around with; choosing the same form three times will upgrade it with vastly superior abilities. I’m not the biggest fan of the Green Centurion however once upgraded its thin laser is three times thicker and its Force attack more destructive.  If you try out each form at least once than you are gifted with an ultimate demon form that makes the game considerably easier.  The game is long enough that you can play around with each form at least once and its great incentive to at least replay it a few times.

Aside from their slight differences in terms of attack and damage received the form you’ve chosen will have a significant impact on the level of difficulty for each proceeding stage.  There is no one specific choice that excels per se however certain attacks can make a huge difference.  The harpy’s boomerangs make the demon train easier to handle since they cover a wide range and if they miss they’ll catch the floating demons on the way back just as an example.  Overall however the game is a bit on the easy side outside of the at times brutal boss battles.  Technically you can avoid the gems and stay human for a challenge but you’d have to be out of your god damn mind to try and complete the game with the pistol.

The world in which the game takes place in suitably darker in tone than most of the game’s released in North America.  Like something out of Shin Megami Tensei there are an equal mix of real world cities and demonic environs to explore and the designers have come up with some pretty imaginative demons to face.  This can be a pretty gory adventure at times as zombie’s heads explode, pulsating hearts bleed when struck, and in one disturbing instance, two Minotaur take turns beating a crucified woman in the stomach with giant bones.  By 1995 when this was released Nintendo of America had long since become lax about explicit content but I can see how even this may have been too much for them.

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As a late release King of Demons is an exquisitely beautiful game and holds its own against the likes of Demon’s Crest and Donkey Kong Country.  The small character sprites are disappointing however they allow the developers to pour lavish amounts of detail into the backgrounds.  The backdrops are insanely detailed with many flourishes that add that master touch.  The city overrun with plants is probably my favorite in terms of design, with foreground objects and a really pretty distant locale.  While the fodder enemies aren’t so impressive the bosses are large and in charge, often screen filling.  Mode 7 and other transparency effects are kept to a minimum so the game relies strictly on its art which is more than up to the task.

It really is a shame that King of Demons was never released in America as it would have been an excellent addition to the system’s library.  Thanks to the work of Aeon Genesis it can be enjoyed in English but there is so little text that it doesn’t matter.

8-out-of-101