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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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Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures

With the success of the their Star Wars trilogy of games for the Super NES it only makes sense that Lucas Arts would turn to their second biggest property as the next to receive the all-star treatment.  While they had their share of flaws that series would still serve as an excellent template for Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures, a massive package encompassing all 3 of the games in one cartridge.  Even though development was handled by Factor 5 you’ll recognize most of the gameplay beats that were lifted from Super Star Wars but there are a number of elements that allow Indiana Jones to stand out on its own.

The best way to sum up the general gameplay would be to take Han Solo from the Star Wars games, give him a whip and you’ve basically created Indy.  Granted it’s the same actor and all but the game play similarities are borderline insane.  They both fire a gun the same, leap the same and even share the same roll maneuver.  Where Han Solo relied solely on his blaster Indy is usually equipped with a whip Castlevania style.  It’s an apt comparison since Indy exhibits nearly the same level of dexterity with the whip as Simon in Castlevania IV.   The whip can be swung in most directions and to swing across gaps.  Every so often you’ll come across a pistol with limited ammo that sacrifices power for range.

All 3 movies are present and accounted for but you won’t be selecting them individually from a menu but playing each sequentially.  Each movie has a clear beginning and ending in the game and are of varying lengths.  Raiders of the Lost Ark represents a significant chunk of the game at 11 or so levels and hits nearly all of the movie’s major plot points.  The Temple of Doom and the Last Crusade are shorter at seven levels each and as such feel glossed over.  I applaud the decision to make this one massive adventure but each individual movie has enough material to base an entire game around.  I suppose the late 1994 release played a part in that decision but as it is we can only wonder what could have been.

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As a whole the game does make the most of its source material with its variety in gameplay being its biggest strength.  All of your favorite moments have been recreated, such as the boulder chase, the gun vs. sword battle (still hilarious to this day) and even Indy’s fear of snakes rears its head.  With three movies to draw from you’ll visit numerous locales around the world such as Cairo, Shanghai, India, and Germany.  Not every level involves a straight path to the exit; sometimes you’ll have to avoid rising fire as you escape a burning building or navigate a maze within the Taj Mahal.  The only deviations made are for the few random boss battles but you can forgive the developers for being a little indulgent.

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A few of the levels use the SNES’s Mode 7 to more accurately recreate popular scenes from the movie and these are among the most difficult in the game.  The mine cart ride from Temple of Doom will throw enemies in your path as you skate down a linear path but it’s difficult to judge their distance and position relative to your own and unfortunately it only takes one hit to die.   The controls on the rubber raft aren’t as precise as they should be but at least you can take a few hits here.  The biplane segment proves the most difficult; there is no targeting reticule so you can’t tell if you’re hits is registering until enemy fighter’s crash.  An even bigger problem would be the inability to see their bullets, meaning you won’t know you’re being hit until your life bar dips and you die.

The high challenge from these segments is a result of the game’s design and extends to the rest of the game.  There are far too many small critters such as scorpions and rats that are too small to attack forcing you to try to avoid them however they have a tendency to pop up in the midst of attacking or avoiding something else (such as a stalactite or pit of spikes), resulting in cheap hits.  Whenever there are intense platforming sequences you can count on some form of bird or bats waiting to interrupt and knock you into a pit like a Medusa head.  Speaking of Castlevania the whip lacks the snap of that game.  There was a tangible feeling of impact whenever Simon’s whip hit an object but you won’t get that here, possibly due to the limp sound effects.  It’s hard to tell when your hits are registering as a result.  It’s apparent the developers were aware of the game’s flaws as the game is quite generous with health restoring hearts but better balancing would have been better.

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Factor 5 were some of the most technically accomplished creators in the industry and their 16-bit creations were just as impressive as their later 3d work.  The sprite work is superior to the Star Wars games and the backgrounds exhibit as many as 6-7 layers of parallax scrolling.  The vehicle levels run fairly smoothly and are still impressive to watch today.  In between levels digitized stills from the movie are used to drive the plot forward and through some smart compression they look fantastic.  The music is also amazing with proper renditions of John Williams epic score timed so that their looping does not feel repetitive.

When it’s all said and done Indiana Jones Greatest Adventures is an excellent companion piece to the three Star Wars games that preceded it.  With its amazing graphics and solid gameplay this is one of the better action adventure games from that era.

8-out-of-101

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Earnest Evans

Ah Earnest Evans you could have been a contender.  In 1991 the Sega Genesis had only just begun its surge in popularity on the back of Sonic the Hedgehog and at that point the major third parties like Capcom and Konami were still not on board.  An action game in the same vein as Castlevania would have gone over brilliantly with the console’s audience, especially with Super Castlevania IV dropping jaws around the planet (I know I’m exaggerating).  Earnest Evans tries valiantly to fill that gap but fails miserably in the process.

But at least Wolfteam tried.  Renovation clearly tried to avoid comparisons to the Castlevania series by blatantly (seriously, check out the box art) selling it as an Indiana Jones like adventure; you know, that other whip wielding adventurer. You can’t fault them for that; both carry a whip and other assorted items as they explore ancient tombs in search of treasure.  But despite what Renovation’s US box art would have you believe the similarities end there.  Whereas Indy has had a relatively decent video game history Earnest Evans has fell into obscurity as the butt of many jokes and with good reason.

On the surface Earnest Evans looks like a winner.  The graphics are pretty damn amazing but it was to be expected; Renovation and their partners had worked with the hardware for many years at this point.  The game as a whole has a very vibrant look to it and the backgrounds are very detailed and excellently drawn.  There are a few scaling effects later in the game that are impressive but for the most part the game relies on its good art direction.  But as soon as you touch the controller the illusion is shattered.

The best way to describe Earnest Evan’s animation is like watching a marionette.  Segmentation was a technique used extensively during the 16-bit era almost exclusively for boss encounters.  By breaking up a large sprite into multiple individual parts you could sidestep a console’s limitations and create massive beasts or contraptions to fight.  It worked within the confines of a boss character because they weren’t designed to be jumping around like a Mario or Sonic.   By trying to use that same technology on a main character its limits were exposed.

While the animation itself is smooth the various moving parts of Earnest’s body are highly exaggerated in motion.  And even worse it affects the play control.  Anytime you perform an action you have to manipulate Earnest like a puppet.  The best example I can give is crawling or kneeling down; if you don’t first move Earnest back into a sitting position before trying to stand up he’ll roll uncontrollably, leaving you stuck waiting for the animation cycle to complete.  If you’ve played any game 3-d game with Havok physics this is the 16-bit equivalent and the results are just as hilarious.

If it were just the controls that were borked you could at least adjust to it but every other facet of the game has issues.  Collision detection is iffy at best.  There are the obvious hit sparks whenever you attack but since there is no tangible sense of feedback you can never tell if your attacks are effective.  There are many segments that require you to latch on to a hook and swing with the whip but getting this to work is frustrating to say the least.

Whenever you are hit there is no knock back or moment of invincibility, meaning your life bar is constantly drained as long as you remain in contact with an enemy or obstacle.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a bed of spikes or a simple bug, that life bar is sapped fast.  Each level is a maze of sorts with no clear direction; sometimes you’ll simply have to explore and stumble onto the exit, other times you’ll run across a boss unexpectedly, signaling the end of the level.  To me it seems as though Wolf Team spent all of their time on animating Earnest Evans and threw the rest of the game together haphazardly.

Which is a shame as it could have been decent with a few small tweaks.  The graphics are amazing with some beautiful backdrops at times and the soundtrack is especially good; Motoi Sakuraba once again is on sound duty.  While the animation is annoying you quickly learn to adapt but the flaws apparent in the rest of the game drag it down.  As much as I tried to like Earnest Evans I can’t recommend it to any sane human being.

4-out-of-101

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