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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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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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The Adventures of Bayou Billy

The Adventures of Bayou Billy should have been a great game. And in fact it is in its original Japanese form as Mad City. But someone decided to screw with the game’s balance for…..reasons and ruined what should have been another feather in Konami’s cap. Bayou Billy is an aggravating game not just because it is insanely difficult but because above all the frustration you can see the awesome game underneath. However it isn’t worth pursuing unless you have a cheat device on hand or just buy the Japanese version.

“Bayou” Billy Lane’s girlfriend Annabelle has been kidnapped by Godfather Gordon and now he has to brave the numerous traps put in his path to reach Gordon’s and save his girl. Let’s not dance around it, Bayou Billy is Crocodile Dundee. And for those of you too young to know who that is look it up. Whether it was done to avoid buying the official license we’ll never know but I don’t blame Konami. The character of Crocodile Dundee and the film were ripe for a video game with numerous set pieces and kind of beat em up gameplay Konami would become famous for. But the increased difficulty for the international versions of the game ruin it.

For the vast majority of the game this is a beat em up in the style of Double Dragon. Billy is armed with a punch, kick, and a jump kick and that’s about it. Small range of moves aside once you encounter your first generic enemy the problems are immediately apparent. These bastards take far too many hits to go down, have an insanely fast recovery time and will counterattack before you can move. More than likely you won’t walk away from any encounter without losing some health and unfortunately they attack in groups of two or three. Defeated enemies drop life restoring chicken regularly but trust me, it doesn’t help. If you come across a weapon hold on to it for dear life, especially the whip. It isn’t just the side scrolling sections of the game that have been touched however.

While mostly a brawler Bayou Billy spans two other genres, driving and shooting. The driving portions puts you behind the wheel of Billy’s jeep as you race to the finish before time runs out. You have less time than in the Japanese version so you have to stay at full speed to reach the exit but that isn’t realistically possible. Unfortunately the slightest touch from anything causes the car to blow up, other cars, the posts in the road and the bombs constantly dropped by fighter jets. Once again, Mad City gave you a full life bar which made it manageable. Considering you only have a few continues they’ll disappear pretty fast.

Possibly the worst of all three styles are the shooter segments. Using the NES zapper the game more or less becomes Operation Wolf as you take out enemies while the screen scrolls. The odds are stacked against you from the get go: you only have fifty bullets with ammo drops being scarce. If you run out at any point you die. These levels are long with multiple stops that unleash a wave of enemies before you can move on. Every single shot has to count if you want to reach the end level bosses with enough ammo to last. I don’t get why they decided to reduce the starting bullet count from 150 to 50 but it was just flat out stupid.

It can’t be stated enough how ridiculously hard the game is but it wasn’t always like this. Konami raised the difficulty considerably in favor of the AI for no apparent reason and it hurts the game overall. I find it hilarious that there is a practice mode that has shorter versions of each play style as if that actually helps. If you play Mad City you’ll find a far more balanced game that is in line with Konami’s other NES titles which will allow you to appreciate the craftsmanship in the game.

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All of the game’s flaws are compounded by the fact that the rest of the package is still vintage Konami. The graphics are great; the sprites are large and well detailed and the backgrounds are spectacular. The game supposedly takes place in Louisiana but outside of the token swamps this could be anywhere. There is some sprite flickering at times but it is rare. Even the music is pretty catchy but the likelihood of anyone outside of those equipped with game genie’s bothering to see all of this stuff is small.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy is a rare misstep from Konami during a period where they were almost untouchable. Had the game came over in its original form we would all be singing its praises instead of tossing it in worst NES game of all time lists.

4-out-of-101

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Rollergames

For the longest time I ignored Rollergames. In my mind I associated it with that corny TV show from 1989 that my mom probably watched and assumed that the game would be more of the same tripe. Well to a certain extent it is. But! Leave it to Konami to take such a simple premise and make a pretty decent platformer out of it. Unlike the arcade game (which they also produced) that was true to the show Rollergames is a brawler/platformer but it doesn’t do either exceptionally well. The execution of its constituent parts is not good enough to make the game enjoyable over the long haul.

Rollergames is based on the TV show from 1989 which saw 6 teams of three competitors battle it out inside a figure 8 track. There was definitely some wrestling style face/heel action going on as the teams were split into the Western Alliance and the Eastern Empire with ongoing story lines played out over the season. That carries over to the game as the Eastern Empire (consisting of the Maniacs, Violators, and Bad Attitude, you know these are the bad guys) kidnap the Rollergames commissioner and for some god forsaken reason only the “good teams’ can save him. Not the cops, dudes on roller skates.

The three selectable teams have their differences but honestly they aren’t as pronounced during gameplay. With three teams you just know they’re going to hit all of the clichés. The T-Birds put you behind a big, slow, and powerful truck of a man, able to knock out most enemies with two combos. The Rockers don’t seem to occupy any one niche and is just…there. Hot Flash puts you in the skates of a leggy model who is equal parts fast and powerful and is my go to. Aside from their physical characteristics they each have a special move that is really hard to pull off consistently, to the point where I didn’t even bother. You aren’t locked in to any one choice as each level lets you switch it up, not that it was necessary.

Calling this a brawler is a bit disingenuous. The majority of enemies you’ll encounter, from the rollerblading Guile lookalikes to bats and hawks will go down in one hit. The end of each section will usually throw 5 or six bad guys in pairs that take a little more time to go down. These are usually followed up with a boss battle of some kind and are the only parts of the game where you’ll really notice the differences between characters.

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With less combat a large part of the focus is on platforming and that’s where the problems begin. Because you are gliding around on skates momentum plays a part in how far you move. The physics governing your speed and such are less than ideal however and with the viewpoint comes many frustrating deaths. Games like Konami’s own Ninja Turtles brawlers use the same viewpoint but wisely shy away from the type of precision platforming present here. In some ways it’s similar to Double Dragon with the added element of imprecise movement due to the skates on your feet. There’s some strong level design present that is vintage Konami but unfortunately you’ll have to deal with some jank to see it all.

It really shouldn’t come as any surprise then that Rollergames is incredibly difficult and not always for the right reasons. The game leans heavily on memorization like Battletoads and fortunately it isn’t as punishing as that title but it does come close. The forced scrolling levels are especially guilty of this as you’ll only have a second or two to either jump or move to the appropriate location or die. What should have been a welcome challenge of pace comes across as really cheap as a result.

Outside of that probably the main issue is the clock: because the clock ticks pretty fast it urges you to always stay on the move which unfortunately leads to many mistakes and cheap deaths. You can’t rush any of the platforming sections; at least not until you’ve learned the layouts which will take some time. The physics aren’t perfect and combined with the viewpoint and wonky momentum prepared to die a lot. These issues are pretty severe but not game breaking in my opinion. It’s just that these are the types of problems that really stick out when the rest of the game is so damn good.

Rollergames surprised me. I went into it not expecting much beyond a cheesy licensed cash-in and found a cool brawler instead. With just a few small tweaks this could have been really great instead of frustrating and I applaud Konami for trying something different but that still doesn’t mean it will be to everyone’s liking.

6-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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Mission Impossible

My view of Mission Impossible is incredibly skewed for some reason and I’ve never been able to tell why. The game is every bit as good as the rest of Konami’s classic NES lineup yet it seems to fly under the radar. That fact is doubly strange considering just how popular the movies starring Tom Cruise have been worldwide. It seems natural that Konami would make a game that features stealth elements considering their work with Metal Gear yet Mission Impossible doesn’t feel the slightest bit derivative. Though incredibly frustrating at times MI is a good game that worth tracking down.

The game is based on the short lived second series from the 80s and sends your team of agents on a mission to rescue Dr. O and fellow agent Shannon Reed from the clutches of an organization known as the Sinister 7. The globetrotting adventure will take your team to a variety of locales not often seen in video game at the time such as the Swiss Alps and Venice. Interestingly the game was developed in the US by Konami’s Ultra Games division yet still has the same quality we came to expect from their Japanese efforts.

Since the game shares the same overhead view and espionage theme as Metal Gear they do play similarly however it also borrows a page from TMNT’s handbook. Your team of three agents differ in their abilities and equipment and can be switched between at any time. Mad Harte is equipped with a rifle that can attack from long range and a set number of explosives. He is also wearing body armor and as a result moves the slowest. Grant Collier is the strongest and uses his fists plus sleeping gas to get out of a pinch. With no weapons he is the fastest and can also disable security locks and doors. Last but not least the Aussie Nicholas Black is a balance of the three: not the fastest but pretty quick and his boomerangs travel a medium distance. They can inflict damage on the way back and by moving around you can take out enemies behind cover. His temporary disguises will keep enemies from attacking but they aren’t as useful as you would expect.

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The small distinctions between characters is incredibly important as each will be imperative for progress as some point. As previously mentioned this is a team effort as you must make use of each character’s abilities to navigate the massive levels. While there is a greater emphasis on action there is just as much stealth involved with a great many situations that will go smoother if you remain unseen. The goal of each mission generally boils down to flipping switches that open doors or shut off hazards such as conveyor belts in order to find the informant who will forge IDs for the team. These IDs are needed to access the end of the level, be it saving a hostage or facing a boss. Stages 2 and 5 are fast paced vehicle based levels that are a nice reprieve from the more methodical pace of the rest of the game.

The game’s size works against it in a few ways. Each stage is huge and there is no map provided. You have the freedom to complete the “objectives” in each level however you like but that’s because the game gives you little direction. There are NPCs who give vague clues but they aren’t very helpful. Memorizing the stage layouts will come naturally but chances are you’ll die at which point the game kicks you back to the beginning of each level. It’s a harsh punishment and one you’ll face regularly as the game is pretty brutal in its challenge.

This is not an easy game by any stretch, some of it due to challenging yet rewarding gameplay but others because of bad design decisions. Losing any member of the team is practically devastating to the point where you might want to consider restarting the mission. There are numerous areas that feature a gauntlet of enemies that borders on insanity that you’ll be lucky to escape with just one person alive. Though boss battles are few in number they are a nightmare. The stage three boss in particular takes place in a room with blocks that crumble if you stand still too long, effectively placing a time limit on the battle. It sounds cool in theory but in practice is a giant pain in the ass; what were they thinking? Unlike say Battletoads there are unlimited continues and passwords so it is at least doable I wager you might break a controller in anger, especially towards the end when shit hits the fan.

In spite of the maddening difficulty Mission Impossible is another in the long line of quality Konami titles. Though it may seem to borrow elements from Metal Gear it doesn’t matter as the game still has an identity uniquely its own. Stealth action games in 8-bit were rare so it is nice to see another that is truly excellent.

8-out-of-101

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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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Pop’n Twinbee

The Twinbee style of shooters never really appealed to me, although I must admit that my disdain comes from playing Stinger on the NES. After spending the better part of two hours going to and from the department store to buy a new game only to be greeted by…..that I’m pretty sure soured me on the series’ mechanics. Turns out all I needed was to play the right games. Detana Twinbee really changed my opinion and this excellent gem made me a fan. Pop’n Twinbee is a truly excellent game and one of the SNES’s finest, which makes it that much more frustrating that it was only released in Japan and Europe.

Pop’n Twinbee loses the side scrolling stages and completely focuses on its vertical action and in my opinion is a much better game for it. Juggling the bells for power-ups, one of the main tenets of the series, is now much easier. At times I was able to juggle up to eight bells at once with no trouble, not that I recommend it. The bombs have also been improved for the better. Now the bombs will automatically target the closest enemy but aren’t completely perfect and will sometimes miss. There’s also a nice tradeoff in that you need to cease using your main weapon to use them.

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A few changes were made to the power-up system that bring it closer to Gradius while still keeping the flavor of Twinbee. Your options hew closer to Gradius and you can pick up a trio to supplement your fire. You also have three choices as to how they function depending on the character. Sadly you’re only other weapon upgrades are a more powerful single shot and a three-way shot although they are both pretty effective. Aside from bombs you can also wind up a punch to smack enemies in close range and even bullets if you can get the timing right.

Since this is an SNES exclusive it was designed around the system’s strengths and as such this is a slower paced shooter than most are probably used to. The game’s leisurely pace should not be taken lightly however as it is just as intense as the twitch action games popular in the genre. The game cleverly mixes in ground based targets among its more straightforward enemies, forcing you to prioritize since you can’t target both at once. While I do feel the game could have used a few more primary weapons aside from the two available the few on offer are more than adequate to complete the game.

Although the game is only 7 levels long it will still take most about 2 hours or so to complete as each stage is pretty long with some stretching up to 15 minutes. You’ll never get bored however as the visual design of the world will keep you interested as well as the pacing of the game’s action. The boss battles are the game’s true highlight as each goes through multiple phases like a raid boss. Just be grateful they aren’t as difficult.

Speaking of difficulty overall the game is balanced pretty well. On the default setting the challenge is about medium. For the most part the game is fairly easy with the occasional spike here and there. Towards the end it picks up considerably like it should and for those that want a real challenge crank the setting up to 8 and cry. Part of what makes Pop’n Twinbee so accessible would be its use of a life bar instead of lives. Although you have a single life and limited continues health can be replenished regularly, plus you can tank an absurd number of hits before death. Power-up clouds almost always arrive in clusters so unless you are absolutely terrible at the game you can maintain a set of options and a shield at all times. Yet somehow in spite of all this the game still manages to put up a fight. Like I said, perfect balance.

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The visual evolution the series underwent with the release of Detana Twinbee continued here as the game looks like an anime come to life. Pop’n Twinbee looks absolutely fantastic, full of bright, vivid colors, and a level of detail in its world that wouldn’t look out of place in the arcade. The backgrounds depict a beautifully stylized steampunk world full of industrial machinery and giant sized mechs. The closest comparison would be Atlus’s PS2 gem Skygunner. The game is light on special effects with transparency used pretty frequently yet the game does not suffer in the slightest because of it. In many ways I wish more developers would show this level of restraint. All of this visual splendor is done with only the barest minimum of slowdown, a miraculous feat.

I fully expected the soundtrack to be full of bright and chirpy music that would grate on my ears after one session but instead was greeted by a symphonic score that is just excellent. The music is appropriately happy and adventurous when setting out but can also become dark and menacing at a moment’s notice.

It’s a bit curious that the best shooters for the SNES never came to the US. With the likes of the Parodius games and Twin Bee maybe the system wouldn’t have such a bad reputation (although partially true) when it came to the genre. Pop’n Twinbee is Konami firing on all cylinders and a game you absolutely need to play.

9-out-of-10

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TwinBee 3: Poko Poko Daimaō

Well they certainly tried with the Twinbee series on NES. For all of their faults the Famicom editions of the games had good ideas buried under average production values. My experience with the series for the longest time came from Stinger, and I was not impressed to say the least. After spending a few hours with family on the bus and walking to buy a new game that was what we came home to. Yeah. Eventually Konami would find their grove with Detana Twinbee but Twinbee 3 was on the right track at least. This is not a great game by any stretch but is a significant improvement over its lackluster predecessors.

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What is immediately apparent is the significant graphical overhaul the game has received. The game is a lot faster and smoother and exhibits a much wider color palette that is put to good use throughout the game’s imaginative worlds. The game still has a weird assortment of random enemies that don’t look like they belong in this world yet you still go along with it because the series in general is strange. This is exhibited by the just plain weird bosses. The dragon with a mouth full of little demons that needed to be excised from its teeth is certainly original. But then there’s the ghostly music trio who are putting on a show with deadly musical notes as part of the ensemble. While it is an improvement it does pale in comparison to similar titles released around the same period even from Konami; you can’t help but feel this was a redheaded stepchild with no budget compared to Gradius II and Salamander.

Konami wisely decided to completely focus on vertical scrolling action and its impact immediately apparent. Juggling the bells in a side scrolling view was problematic since lining up your shots was far more difficult as well as dealing with a smaller playing field. While bell carrying clouds aren’t as plentiful as in the later games there are enough that you shouldn’t go too long without being able to collect a potential power-up. There aren’t as many ground targets to deal with unfortunately which sucks but that element of the series has never been shown a great deal of love.

In terms of weapons there are slightly less this time around and the ones that remain have seen their utility dampened. The standard options of speed-up, double shot, and lasers are present and accounted for. Collecting flashing bells awards two options that mimic your actions but here they move and shoot slower which almost defeats the purpose of having them. Not that the game needed new weapons as what is here is more than adequate but something new to show that this wasn’t a cheap sequel would have been appreciated. Unfortunately the lone new addition does more harm than good.

The Soul Recovery system nearly breaks the game as it completely trivializes and possibly makes it impossible for you to die. Whenever you take a hit an ambulance will appear and if you grab it you can avoid dying and also regain any power-ups collected. There’s no limit to how many times you can keep doing this meaning sloppy play has few penalties. Heavier attacks will insta gib you generally you can see those coming from a mile away. Couple this with a too few levels and you are left with a game with little staying power.

As much as I like Twinbee 3 however it can’t overcome the fact that it is so short. With a meager five stages everyone will blow through this in half an hour or less. Not that most shooters are long but that is damn near criminal in this case. The option to tackle the levels in any order you choose would be better appreciated if there were more of them. The challenge is pretty low which makes it even worse and while there is a hard difficulty it isn’t that much worse. At least there’s a different ending for beating that mode. With a few more levels this could have been a more solid release.

Twinbee 3 is a far better game than Stinger but still comes up short in a few key areas. There are far too many great shooters available for the NES to bother seeking out a slightly above average game.

6-out-of-10-1

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Gradius Gaiden

I’ll always lament the death of the shmup in the transition to 3d. There were still a few released in the US thanks to Working Designs and their Spaz label but the truly exceptional games in the genre were left to become high priced imports. Honestly I could see it coming; dear god were the Genesis,Turbo Grafx-16 and especially the arcade overrun with these games and as much as I like a nice shooter I doubt they were that popular. You know things are bad when Konami decides it isn’t worth it to bring a Gradius game to the US when no localization is required. We missed out on one of the best shooters of all time however as Gradius Gaiden is brilliant and I’m here to tell you why.

The traditional power-up system of the series returns with some smaller tweaks added such as powering up all offensive weapons twice, giving you a reason to collect those extra power capsules. You also have a choice between four different shields although some (Limit) sound cooler than they are in practice. What has changed is that rather than the full on Edit Mode of the prior game Gradius Gaiden instead offers four ships with preset weapon configurations. It’s a large blow to be sure as the wealth of options the Edit Mode presented was part of what made Gradius III so fun however the differences in each of the ships makes up for it slightly.

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The Vic Viper retains the classic weapon lineup of missiles, and a double shot. The Lord British represents Salamander and comes equipped with two-way missiles, the Ripple, and a piercing laser called the Disruptor. The new kids on the block come with a few weapons brand new to the series that in some cases will change your approach. My personal favorite the Jade Knight is well rounded and comes decked out with a spread bomb, twin laser, and the Round Laser. The round laser pulses like an echo around the ship which is different but extremely effective in tight spaces. The Falchion β is not for beginners as its weapons take some getting used to. The rolling missiles split in two directions when they hit the ground, the Auto Aiming weapon actually doesn’t home in on its targets but instead fires a second shot anywhere between its 90 degree radius. The gravity bullet creates miniature black holes and is awesome.

While the Edit Mode from Gradius III is missed what is literally a game changer is the gauge edit. After selecting your ship and shield you can rearrange the order of the power-up bar as you see fit which is huge. You can make the shield and options the first two in the gauge and only cost one or two power capsules which is nuts. With this you can power-up relatively quickly if you are smart about it but the real benefit of editing the gauge is being able to mount a comeback after death. You will die frequently in this game with checkpoints located in really bad spots. It’s not uncommon for the series and is usually a hopeless situation as it takes too long to amass a decent amount of power. Now however dying against a boss isn’t so disheartening since you can actually fight back.

The game’s nine stages avoid the standard video game tropes with some truly original levels thrown in the mix. The giant crystals of stage three will reflect certain lasers which can be used to your advantage. The organic fortress of stage 5 pulses and changes shape as you progress like a living organism. My favorite level is stage 7 which is slowly being pulled into a black hole. Background elements are constantly pulled in and spit out and it makes excellent use of scaling effects to make it all the more convincing. There are recurring elements thrown in with a twist such as the boss rush and requisite Moai head level but you’ll be shocked to see them spit massive beams of destruction, sometimes even as they crumble!

The game is still just as difficult as its arcade brethren however I found it more manageable than in prior installments. Now it could just be the fact that I’m a Gradius veteran but in actuality I feel the game is simply better balanced. Power-up capsules are in greater supply and if you are smart about editing the weapon gauge you can reach near full power in less than a minute. Its power you’ll need as there is simply more of everything, more enemies, more indestructible objects, and especially more bullets. The bullet patterns don’t come anywhere near the insanity of later shooters of that era but it does become pretty manic every few seconds. Where the bullets are easy to see many bosses also release little bits of shrapnel that blend into the space dust in the background which will lead to many a cheap death but that is about the only negative I can think of when it comes to the game’s challenge.

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Gradius Gaiden combines intricate sprite work with the occasional polygonal element to create a look not too far removed from the rest of the series. The artwork in the game is top notch with beautiful backdrops and larger enemies than before. The game manages to avoid all of the typical video game clichés when it comes to thematic levels and the few that are reminiscent of the past still feel unique. The game’s 3d elements are kept minimal thankfully, mostly reserved for scaling enemies and the occasional background element. The one negative I guess I can point out is that certain larger enemies tend to be pixelated, as if they were drawn smaller and scaled up. The rest of the visual package is so spectacular that this is almost irrelevant in my opinion.

Next to Gradius V this is the best game in the series and one of my favorite shooters of all time. The only US release came as part of the Gradius Collection for PSP which might be hard to find now but well worth the investment. Shooters rarely are better than this.

9-out-of-10

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Sparkster (SNES)

Konami’s Rocket Knight Adventures was one of the few mascot platformers to truly bring something new to the table back in 1993 and was able to rise above the sheer overload of terrible, generic platformers to achieve greatness. In a year filled with numerous excellent Genesis titles such as Ecco the Dolphin, Gunstar Heroes, and Shinobi III it still managed to stand out so it should come as no surprise that a sequel would appear the following year.

However this time both the SNES and Genesis would get a piece of the action in two completely separate games. While his Sega outing would carry the moniker Rocket Knight Adventures 2 the SNES game is actually closer in style to the splendid first outing. While the Super Nintendo game is accepted as the superior game both are great titles and you won’t lose out either way.

The kingdom of Eginasem has enjoyed a period of peace but is now beset by Generalisissmo Lioness and her wolf brigade. As if this threat weren’t enough Sparkster’s rival Axle Gear is working with them and kidnapped the Princess Flora as well. Now Sparkster must singlehandedly fight these forces to save Eginasem from a potential nuclear (!) attack.

Sparkster returns largely unchanged from his last outing. The sword can fire long range beams of fire and the sole addition to your offense comes in the form of a spinning slash that can be chained together multiple times. It seems trivial at first but is a game changer in a few ways. With careful timing you can completely slash through an enemy and avoid a hit but more importantly it can be used to change direction in the middle of a rocket burst or slow your descent. Veterans of the first game will remember that after a rocket burst Sparkster would drop like a flailing mess; not so here.

Of course the rocket pack is the real star of the show and remains just as fun a mechanic as the first time around. It only takes a second or so to build up a full charge at which point it can be utilized in a number of ways. Whether it’s flying through the air or as a means of attack next to Super Joe’s arm in Bionic Commando this might be one of my favorite play mechanics. There was some trepidation as to whether or not the SNES could keep up with the fast paced action that was established in the first game but those fears can be put to rest. At times the game seems to move too fast but that is hardly a complaint.

The best gameplay “hook” in the world is nothing without excellent levels to support it and in that regard Sparkster has it in spades. The levels are a lot more open with large vertical spaces to give you more room to play around with the jet pack. When you do find yourself in a tight space it’s usually because the game is about to throw in some hazard that you must avoid or face instant death such as crushing water or a collapsing ceiling.

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There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next. Stage three takes place on the back of a bird like robot who hauls ass at neck breaking speed, leaving you to try to keep up with the constant flow of enemies that appear. The pyramid features shifting walls underground and a big open desert on its surface with both featuring their own set of problems. You’ll even take to the skies in a shooting level reminiscent of Pop n Twinbee which ends in a duel with Axle Gear. Though there are less auto scrolling segments than in the prior installment this single level is more refined.

This is a fairly balanced game on normal and this time around there are passwords to chart your progress. But just like the original to see the true ending you’ll have to finish the game on hard as it unlocks the true final level. Trust me this is no small task as continues are extremely limited. At nine levels long you definitely have your work cut out but the game remains fun regardless of the difficulty level.

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Konami were at the top of their game towards the end of the 16-bit era so it should come as no surprise that Sparkster is a beautiful piece of work. The SNES’s larger color palette has done wonders for giving the world a richer look with some breathtaking backdrops that grab your attention. To a certain extent I do kind of miss the dark and harsher look of the first game but when you see a level like the pyramids that has up to eight layers of scrolling it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. The sprites are noticeably larger than in its Sega counterpart making the intricate animation work stand out that much more.

It’s a god damn shame that Sparkster went unnoticed as it was one of the few bright stars during a dark period in platforming history. Because of its lack of success the series would lay dormant until 2010 when it received a next generation remake. Decent game, but it lacked the heart and soul of this truly excellent slice of gaming nirvana. Sparkster has more depth than many of its competitors combined and will provide many hours of entertainment for those gracious enough to pick it up.

8-out-of-101

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Sparkster (Genesis)

It will forever remain a mystery to me as to why Konami’s Sparkster became a forgotten relic of a time long past. Rocket Knight Adventures was fantastic, both highly original and just an all-around great game. Sequels followed a year later but then nothing for close to 16 years until the decent 3d game. While it isn’t up to the level of its extraordinary predecessor Sparkster is still a good game and worthy follow-up.

After the defeat of the Devotindos empire peace returned to the kingdom of Zephyrus. However it wouldn’t last as the Gedol Empire has invaded, kidnapping Princess Cherry with the help of Axl Gear. Sparkster is once again called into action. The enemies this time around are lizards rather than the pigs and wolves of the other games which is pretty interesting. It would have been interesting to see other kingdoms based on different animals if the series had continued but oh well.

There have been a number of significant gameplay changes made that result in a faster paced game. The most vital is the rocket pack. Rather than holding down a button to charge it now does so automatically with the A button activating it. The meter fills quickly and can be used in rapid succession to stay airborne almost indefinitely or for split second rocket attacks. It also fixes one of the few flaws of RKA where you were left flailing in the air after a boost.

One change that isn’t welcome is the sword. Sparkster’s sword is now melee only and is effectively useless. The attack is achingly slow and the hit detection is suspect. Because of this you’ll rely on the spinning sword attack far more or the weaker boost attack. It also makes the flaming sword power-up worthless since you’ll lose it in seconds. This all sounds damning but the automatic boost makes using it for offense much more palatable but not ideal.

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The level are more wide open to allow you to more freely rocket around each stage but not to the same extent as the SNES game. With the change to the boost this is more of a straight action title than one of exploration, with the game constantly shuffling you from one set piece to the next. There is notably less of the slower paced, almost puzzle like stages of RKA and the game suffers for it. Don’t get me wrong there is still plenty of fun to be had ping ponging through tight corridors and such but the sheer variety of Rocket Knight is what made it special. The one new addition comes in using the rocket pack to function like a screwdriver. The game makes excellent and extensive use of it, from loosening pieces of the environment to unraveling bosses piece by piece. If they had shown this much ingenuity throughout the game would be much stronger.

There is some incentive to explore the levels in the form of the golden swords. On each level is a golden sword that will change you into golden Sparkster once all six have been assembled much like Super Sonic. To see the true ending you must collect them on normal or hard; easy mode ends early and even cuts out chunks of its few levels.   Overall this is a shorter game with about the same difficulty as the original so most will complete it in an afternoon. But you’ll have a hell of a time doing so.

Of the two Sparkster games the Genesis version is the only one to be branded with the Rocket Knight Adventures 2 moniker (at least in Japan), implying that this is a direct sequel. From a story standpoint that is true but funny enough it is the SNES game that stays true to the gameplay of the original. The changes made in the Sega game are interesting but come at the expense of the creative level design that made RKA so damn amazing. However even in spite of that the core concept of an anthropomorphic critter with a rocket pack is still there and you would have to actively try to make a terrible game with that premise.

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Graphically this is both a step forward and back. Sparkster himself has been redrawn and is less bulky; he looks more aerodynamic. The sprites overall have been reduced in size but exhibit a greater range of detail and animation. The backgrounds however have suffered the most. For every six layered slice of heaven there are an equal number of completely flat backdrops that really seem out of place. Special effects are kept to a minimum so luckily the game’s strong art picks up the slack but the game does seem a bit lacking compared to other 1994 releases.

The soundtrack once again is generally excellent, both in quality and range. A few of the tracks are shared with the SNES game which makes for an interesting comparison. Depending on where you fall in the FM synth vs orchestrated argument your preferences are being catered to. This is one of the few cases where I actually like both interpretations and can’t really say one is better than the other, which I attribute to the strong composition.

It doesn’t quite measure up to its legendary predecessor but at the end of the day Sparkster is still worth a purchase. While I personally prefer the SNES game that doesn’t diminish the quality of its Sega counterpart.

7-out-of-10-1

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Batman Returns (NES)

 

With the onslaught of Batman Returns video games I found it surprising that they bothered to create an NES edition although looking back it should have been common sense. One of the biggest movies of the previous year would of course hit the biggest platform of the time (in terms of install base) even if it was in its twilight years. With Sunsoft resigning itself to an endless parade of Looney Tunes games Konami picked up the slack. If it weren’t for a few glaring flaws there is no question this would be the best brawler for the system however the solid foundation underneath still means it is worth your time.

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The game follows the plot of the movie pretty closely meaning you’ll have to take on the Red Triangle Circus gang as well as Catwoman before the finale against the Penguin. Like its SNES big brother this is a beat em up and in many ways seems like a shrunken version of that game. However there are enough differences that make the two games unique. The one area that I wish both games were identical is in their balance; the SNES game is perfect while this game is unfairly punishing. There is still plenty of fun to be had but I doubt most will have the fortitude to see it through to the end.

It would be natural to compare the game to Konami’s TMNT brawlers but in truth Batman is armed with a few more moves than the bros. Aside from the standard punch and jump kick he can also perform a sliding attack and the rare ability to block in a beat em up. Seriously why do so many of these games exclude this? Anyway in addition there’s the life draining spinning cap attack which looks really cool. The grappling hook sees little use unfortunately unlike the 16-bit versions of the game. A limited supply of batarangs are your only other offensive weapon which is uncommon for the genre.

In following the movie so closely the game is limited in a few ways. The Red Triangle gang comprise the entirety of the enemies you’ll face and there are only a few types. Even worse you only fight one type at a time, unlike every other brawler. Once you know how to deal with each enemy it becomes a matter of going through the motions. That’s not to say it is easy; these guys know when to back off, block attacks, and even wait for a cheap shot. But it does rob the game of the variety that comes from different matchups. There are two levels that put you in the seat of the batmobile and bat ski boat (that will never sound cool) for a change of pace. These levels almost feel like bonus rounds than a real challenge but you take what you can get.

Somewhere along the way it seems the game was never balanced. Although you are primarily attacked in groups of two most enemies take an absurd amount of time to die. Since you are dealing with waves of enemies it becomes incredibly repetitive, especially in the late stages of the game when you are dealing with 6 or seven waves before moving on. Boss battles are even crueler since they take even more damage and can dish it out as well. There are some like the circus strongman and the penguin’s….duck where it isn’t immediately apparent when they are vulnerable to hit without receiving damage as well.

What makes the game so difficult aside from these design decisions is the way it handles lives. Technically you only have one life. If you manage to find a heart or have full health and receive more (this will rarely happen) then you receive a “box”, which is basically an extra life. You can have a maximum of two and with hearts occasionally hidden in the environment it is possible to hit that point. But that would require a near perfect run which would take a miracle. There are passwords and unlimited continues to record progress but both throw you back at the beginning of each level. As grueling as each level is starting over is not an enticing prospect.

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Batman Returns certainly looks the business. Sunsoft’s Return of the Joker set a high bar with its borderline 16-bit graphics and Konami’s turn at bat nearly meets it. The sprites are larger than in most NES titles with very good animation for the time. I would imagine the fact that you’ll rarely fight more than two enemies at once is part of the reason but whatever. The system’s color limitations actually benefit the game as the darker atmosphere of the movie is really conveyed well here. You’ll recognize stylized versions of the film’s locations with a degree of detail not common for the NES. There are even cut scenes in between each stage that while brief move the story along. This was a top class production from top to bottom.

It’s just too bad that along the way the game wasn’t balanced properly. With a few adjustments this could easily have been the top beat em up for the system, even above games like River City Ransom and TMNT III. As it is I recommend it only if you have a high tolerance for frustration.

7-out-of-10

 

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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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Tiny Toon Adventures – Buster’s Hidden Treasure

I’ve never envied developers who have to create games based on licenses. Some like DuckTales practically lend themselves to an epic adventure due to the nature of the show. But then there are the likes of the Little Mermaid and Chicken Little; how the hell do you make those compelling? Tiny Toons could easily have fallen into that same category however Konami turned out a few gems with the property. I found the NES game fairly generic but Buster Busts Loose was excellent. For Sega fans Konami produced Buster’s Hidden Treasure, a fun romp that takes more than a few cues from Sega.

Buster Bunny finds a treasure map in Acme Looniversity but is sideswiped by Montana Max, who enlists the aid of Dr. Gene Splicer to hold him off. Splicer has brainwashed all of Buster’s friends to aid him in this endeavor but that won’t stop Buster from saving his friends and finding the treasure before his arch nemesis.

Whereas Buster Busts Loose could almost pass for a lost episode of the cartoon Konami went in a different direction for its Sega counterpart. It’s not a stretch to say that Buster’s Hidden Treasure borrows heavily from Sonic the Hedgehog except it stars a blue rabbit. While normally such derivative titles pale in comparison to their source material (Socket) there are enough unique elements here that help the game stand on its own two feet. Buster’s Hidden Treasure doesn’t reinvent the platforming wheel but greases it enough to entertain for you for a good few hours as it is pretty long.

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As much as I want to avoid the comparisons to Sonic it can’t be helped. Buster Bunny builds up speed as he runs like a certain blue Hedgehog although not as fast and can execute a slide attack at full speed. In some ways I wonder why the slide was included as I almost never used it. While blazing through the stages at a brisk clip sounds nice the level design was not built with that in mind, to the point where I question why you even have the option. At almost every turn there is a shovel, can of soda or some enemy to trip you up, as if the designers are wagging their fingers and saying “this is not that type of game.” The end level bosses see Gene Splicer controlling one of the other Tiny Toons and piloting some new contraption; sound familiar?

Luckily the level design is where the game really shines. The 33 or so stages cover a wide spectrum with each new area presenting some new obstacle to deal with, be it lava, ice or spikes. The carrots strewn about don’t grant extra lives but instead an extra use for your helper character not that is ever necessary. There are a ton of secrets at every turn and if need be you can revisit prior levels to stock up on extra lives or life extending hearts. The tight controls mean if you die it was your own fault although I noticed later in the game there are more leaps of faith than should be normal.

For the most part the game is of median difficulty as there are frequent hearts to restore health and a decent amount of checkpoints. At the halfway point the difficulty is stepped up as enemies appear in greater numbers and are more aggressive. The level design becomes far trickier with more instant death spikes and such and the boss battles feature more involved mechanics. Some of the later areas such as Montana Max’s factory tend to run a little too long for my taste but I suppose it does succeed in creating the sense that it is leading to an epic finale. Between the game’s length and increasing challenge you’ll certainly get your money’s worth.

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The game does an excellent job of recreating the look of the show despite being set outside of Acme Acres. The sprites are large and expressive with Buster shamelessly stealing a few of Sonic’s animations. Most of the principle cast from the show make cameo appearances as bosses or can be called in for an assist which is pretty cool. Too bad most of the enemies you’ll face are generic fodder. While the environments run through most of the standard platforming clichés they are at least backed up by Konami’s awesome art. Even the music is pretty cool; Konami was on fire at this point and as Rocket Knight Adventure and Castlevania Bloodlines showed they had the Genesis hardware dialed in.

Buster’s Hidden Treasure is a solid platformer that while derivative is fun above all else. It brings nothing new to the genre but hits all the right notes to create a game that even those who have never watched the cartoon can enjoy.

7-out-of-10-1

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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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Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius

I really love examining the later games released during any console generation. Once the technology has matured and tool chains have been mastered its nothing short of miraculous what is pulled from aging hardware. Look at Vectorman and the Adventures of Batman & Robin for Genesis. Or Seiken Densetsu 3 and Donkey Kong Country 2 for SNES. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius can count itself among that crowd. As the last Parodius title developed for the Super Famicom it pushes the system pretty hard in numerous ways, especially in terms of speech.

The name of the game loosely translates to Live Chatting Parodius, a name in which it lives up to. A large portion of the game’s memory is dedicated to sampled speech to enable running commentary throughout the entire game. It gives the game the feel of a talk show such as Game Center CX and the like. Sadly this feature is lost on those of us that can’t speak Japanese. The commentary, while pretty cool in concept isn’t exactly crucial to the proceedings. The few phrases and such that I picked up on usually amounted to commenting on how dangerous the current situation is, warnings about the upcoming boss, and common stuff like “Watch Out”, “It’s Dangerous” or even berating you on your bad performance.

Luckily the game is still excellent regardless of whether you can understand the strange old man talking over your progress. The number of playable characters has tripled in size from its last installment to a record breaking (at the time) 16 pulled from nearly every Konami series you can think of. The majority of the new faces are Parodius originals for those that want something different. While there is some obvious doubling up of characters, such as the similarities between the Vic Viper and Lord British there are some slight differences that make a large impact such as forgoing options for a chargeable laser.

Rather than original themed stages Jikkyou Parodius instead parodies other Konami properties. Some of these are surprising and will be foreign to most; stage 2 is themed after Tokimeki Memorial, an inhumanly popular dating sim from the mid-90s. It’s certainly strange subject matter for a shooter yet somehow they make it work. The concept of fighting a pair of school girls stacked on top of each other as an end level boss fits right in with the series’ ridiculous tone.

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The fun continues as even Lethal Enforcers is ripe for parody. Yes the deadly serious light gun (emphasis on gun) shooter serves as the basis for a level that combines moving targets and obstacles with the fast pace of the speed zone from Gradius II and III. While you might expect an end level boss in some way related to the series (I don’t know, a giant pistol or something?) instead you’ll face a Kabuki actor in one of the game’s more difficult encounters.

Other levels draw from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Twinbee, disco and cooking. At only eight levels this is shorter than prior games in the series but you won’t finish it one, two, or even three sittings. There’s a battery back-up option which seems strange to include in a shooter but is literally a god send here. The only caveat is your score is reset to zero, not that most will even care. Aside from playing through the game with different characters there are 70 fairies strewn throughout the game. They are hidden pretty damn thoroughly and will take dedication to acquire them all but sadly your only reward is a stage select option.

While the main focus of the game may have changed slightly one thing that hasn’t is the difficulty. Jikkyou Parodius is absolutely brutal and unrelenting to an insane degree. This is slightly faster paced than the previous games and with that comes more aggressive enemies to match. Even the relatively brief space intermissions before each new level starts are pretty deadly. It’s definitely unexpected and with the increase in bullets and just junk littering the screen comes slowdown. Prior games were pretty good about restraining their chaos to reduce it as much as possible but here slowdown is a regular occurrence. Honestly I’m pretty sure they had the SNES ready to tap out at any moment and it sucks that the system can’t keep up. It isn’t game breaking but is notable enough to warrant mentioning.

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This installment of Parodius was released in late 1995 and so benefits from years of dedicated work on the hardware. The game simply looks fantastic, with large sprites, excellent animation, and beautiful backgrounds at every turn. The series wacky sense of humor has been taken to the extreme and if you thought some of the enemies and bosses in prior games were ridiculous before its nothing compared to what Konami has cooked up here.  The SA-1 chip was included, which enables some polygonal effects here and there but is mainly used to speed up the system’s slow processor and data compression.

That compression is what allowed the game to have so many voice samples and music. There are very few games from that era that come anywhere close to this game in that regard; maybe some of the later sports games. Aside from the commentary the soundtrack is otherwise excellent, combining original compositions with funky remixes of public domain songs and other Konami hits. The sound is of a higher quality than most SNES games and doesn’t suffer from the typical muffling associated with many of its best efforts.

As one final outing for the series before it moved to the 32-bit consoles Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius is an all-around excellent game. While its signature feature is lost to non-Japanese speakers it has little impact on the rest of this phenomenal package.

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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Gokujō Parodius

By 1994 the American arcade was dominated by countless fighting games, light gun shooters and some truly awesome 3d racing games.  This left the once popular shooter clearly on the outs, which sucked as that was about the point when some of the most unique games in the genre would hit the market.  Fans were left hoping for home ports as these games stayed in Japan, with Gokujo Parodius being one of them.  Take everything that made Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy great and add 2-player coop (at least in the arcade) and you have this excellent port that America would be denied.

While it never saw an official arcade release in the US Gokujō Parodius! Was released on console in Europe under the name Fantastic Journey.  Well that’s one way to put it.  I don’t know how or why the name was changed to that as the official title loosely translates to Fantastic Parodius – Pursue the Glory of the Past but the fact that once again Europe got a cool exclusive over America still remains.  The Parodius games are the best Gradius games that never were, and at least on the SNES turned out even better than Gradius III.

Since the last Parodius title the roster has nearly tripled in size with new characters debuting from a few more series.  Actually to a certain extent you could say it’s tripled; in coop player two has access to a further eleven characters that are palette swaps/counterparts to player one.  With an increase in roster comes new weapon options and Konami really went to town in giving everyone some interesting weapon combinations.  While the returning cast members are still using gear from their respective series the newcomers draw from some really obscure Konami arcade games such as Thunder Cross and Xexex.  You’ve to respect that respects their lineage while at the same time lampooning it.

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Gameplay is near identical to Non-Sense Fantasy although you do have a few more options like turning off the annoying weapon roulette.  The focus instead is on the zany hijinks at every turn and in this respect the game is literally insane.  The first level sets the tone as it takes place inside one of those crane machines that ate your money rather than doled out prizes.  Stage two is one long battle against a cat faced submarine; it’s an R-Type style assault against one huge battleship except this one makes cute noises and adorable faces.  The Speed up level takes its theme to heart as it takes place on a rural street with signs and hazard warnings all over the place.  Silly, but when you think about it it makes sense.

Other levels are cartoony takes on popular Gradius staples but the biggest source of the game’s weirdness comes from its bosses.  How do you fancy a battle against a panda ballerina, complete with tutu?  Or a mermaid with a pirate ship on her head?  The big core from Gradius makes an appearance but not in the way you expect.  Possibly my favorite boss is the capsule monster of stage five.  Shaped like an overgrown power-up it feels less like a battle for survival and more like a loot piñata as it shoots tons of power-ups in random patterns.  The only real danger of death comes from the occasional spike ball mixed in and its pathetic attempts to ram you.  If you take too long he simply flies away in disgust; how’s that?

Unlike the other games in the series the difficulty here is a bit more lenient and totally dependent on the character chosen.  The Vic Viper is well rounded and adaptable to any situation.  Hikaru/Akane’s weapons are very powerful, especially their boomerang shot which will rebound off destroyed enemies and take out others.  However their options are static and their shield only protects your face; shots from other directions can easily take you out.  I found I died a lot less to stray bullets than in the other games and that the game doesn’t reach the insane heights of its brethren.  It makes for a much more relaxing experience in that regard.

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As a late 1994 release Gojkujou Parodius is a pretty damn good looking game.  In the arcade it ran on proprietary hardware and the SNES does a near perfect replicating its look, only suffering in terms of slowdown and the missing coop.  The levels are teeming with activity with many moving parts in its backgrounds.  There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next and it overall has a more vibrant look compared to its predecessor.  They do recycle certain enemies and bosses such as the galactic dancer and the American eagle but that can be excused as plenty of other games do the same.

Once again the soundtrack borrows from classical music in the public domain.  The likes of Strauss, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky present and accounted.  The songs themselves are done justice through the SNES sound chip but I like the way that the game isn’t afraid to slow down or speed up the pitch to match the on screen action.  There are just as many original themes as well as clever remixes of music from Gradius to round out the aural package.

The only area that Gokujou Parodius comes up short compared to its predecessor is length: 8 levels versus ten.  But when you are having so much fun it won’t make a difference.  This is a bigger and better game than Non-Sense Fantasy in almost every way and one of the best SNES shooters of all time.  You don’t need to be a fan of parodies or Gradius to enjoy the fine shooting action on display here as it is simply a great game overall.

9-out-of-10

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Wai Wai World

I know I can’t be the only who has thought of how awesome it would be if Nintendo or Sega were to create a game starring all of their mascot characters.  Of course Smash Bros. came along and wasn’t what I was expecting but still turned out pretty damn awesome.  Late in the NES era Konami picked my brain and decided my idea of the ultimate platformer was too good to pass up and so created Wai Wai World.  All right that’s not true but Wai Wai World does exist.  Never released in the US the game was fan translated and despite its faults is still a pretty awesome crossover.

Dr. Cinnamon has tasked Konami Man with saving six captured heroes and restoring order to Konami World.  To aid him in this endeavor he has created Konami Lady to be his female counterpart.  The story isn’t going to win any awards but it does provide impetus for the adventure ahead.  This is simply an excuse to create one big fan service adventure and in that regard Wai Wai World succeeds.

The cast of characters is a rundown of many Konami favorites with a few unexpected surprises thrown in that will be unfamiliar to US gamers.  Konami Man made many infamous cameos throughout the 8-bit era however it is here where he is actually playable along with his cyborg counterpart Konami Lady.  Simon Belmont makes an appearance along with Goemon from Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Mikey from the Goonies.  King Kong may seem a dubious addition to the cast however Konami did put out a Famicom only game based on the failed sequel to King Kong so it counts.  The one the majority will have no awareness of is Fuma from Getsu Fuma Den, a Famicom only action adventure that is awesome.  They’ve even tossed in a Moai head with legs who only carries his weight with the rest of the heroes.

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Once you’ve rescued each hero you can switch between your assembled party members at any time like TMNT.  Everyone has their own life bar, weapons, and differences in terms of strength and reach making them optimal for certain situations.  Once you’ve gathered everyone it’s off to the final confrontation.  Though Wai Wai World is level based it has more in common with Metroid.  You are free to tackle the levels in any order and can leave when you feel like it.  Each world is massive in size and has optional sub weapons to collect that are sometimes mandatory to reaching the other heroes.  Don’t let the initial stage select fool you; this is one lengthy quest and with all the back tracking necessary to find items it will last close to 10 hours or more before you see the end.

Despite the ability to choose your own path through the game in reality you are only presented with the illusion of choice.  The game never outright states it but there is a set order to completing the levels by their design.  Konami Man/Girl are both limited in their abilities and so certain stages like the Pirate Ship are pretty much impossible to complete initially (the tentacle monsters on the platforms require ranged attacks).  Because you can’t rescue Mikey from said level you also can’t progress past the first segment of New York City.  Had both of the Konami pair been equipped with their guns from the start their versatility would allow them to overcome this.

One aspect that most will find hard to adjust to is the need to be at the outer edge of the screen to let the levels scroll.  Considering the high volume of enemies that come rocketing in off screen you won’t have much time to react and will suffer far too many cheap hits. The hit detection is also suspect with many of the enemies that require multiple hits before death completely ignoring your attacks.  To the game’s credit life restoring hearts drop frequently but this kind of bad balance seems a bit odd coming from Konami.

With these flaws in mind it isn’t a stretch to say that this might be one of Konami’s most difficult titles for the NES.  The price of death is pretty steep; if a character dies it costs one hundred bullets to revive them.  If everyone dies you’ll only have the Konami twins and half of your remaining bullets left to try and pick up the pieces.  At that point it is better to simply reenter your last password than try to grind out bullets to revive your party.  Each hero has a separate life bar like TMNT which you will definitely make extensive use of in order to survive.

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The presentation in Wai Wai World is simply stellar, drawing upon elements from each of the game’s characters while avoiding being a simple retread.  Despite being released in 1988 this could easily pass for a late generation title with its large sprites and highly detailed backgrounds.  The game’s premise allows it to cover a swath of video gaming classics while still feeling like a cohesive whole and all of the individual characters have been redrawn rather than lifted wholesale from their respective games.  It’s a fan service overload and I like it.

The music and sound effects follow along the same lines with each hero sporting their own theme music when selected.  It’s actually pretty cool and the tunes have been recreated perfectly if not taken directly from each title though it does suck that it resets when you switch.  The sound effects have been taken straight from Castlevania II and it is a bit weird to shoot enemies with Mikey’s slingshot or Goemon’s pipe and hear the sound of Simon whipping skeletons.

Regardless of its flaws Wai Wai World is still a solid title that is entertaining and will last quite a while before you see the end credits.  It isn’t the crossover we dreamed of but it doesn’t have to be to provide many hours of fun.

7-out-of-10-1

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Parodius

I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese games that were released in Europe and not the US.  Cultural differences are usually the culprit most of the time however there are many cases that are baffling upon closer inspection.  The Parodius series is one of these; a good number of the games were released by Konami in the UK however the series completely skipped the US.  To be fair there is some questionable content in some of the games yet in the case of Parodius Da! Most of it was edited out.  I’d hate to assume Stinger didn’t light the sales charts on fire and was the reason we missed out, especially as this NES port, released as simply Parodius in Europe is one of the best NES shooters America missed out on.

Parodiusu Da! Shinwa kara Owarai e was ported to a number of platforms, from the Famicom, SNES, PC Engine and even the PlayStation and Saturn.  All of these ports were fantastic, with some, especially the Super Famicom version being almost perfect.  Obviously both 32-bit editions are arcade perfect but that is to be expected.

The NES edition is the most interesting.  Clearly any fool would know that a perfect match to the arcade machine isn’t possible but despite the technological gap it turned out much better than should have been expected.  And as a bonus it has a number of exclusive and hidden levels that make it worthwhile for fans of the game to seek out.  There are definitely flaws but those only slightly hamper what is otherwise an excellent shmup.

Though Parodius is primarily a parody of Gradius and its ilk it also serves as a celebration of the various spin offs Konami has created over the years.  Of the four available weapon sets each is representative of a Konami IP.  The Vic Viper is from Gradius and uses the basic weapon set from that series and probably the go to for those unfamiliar with the rest.  The Octopus represents Salamander, with its incredibly useful two-way missiles and expanding Ripple laser.  This is my personal favorite but you’ll have to adjust to playing as an octopi.  Pentarou’s weapons come from Gradius III with a different laser.  The photon torpedoes are powerful but only travel below you.  Its lasers are actually spread shots that expand on impact but are slower to fire.  Twin Bee is from Twin Bee minus the bell juggling non-sense.

Speaking of the bells they are here but easier to manage due to the side scrolling viewpoint.  The number of effects has been reduced somewhat but the few that made the jump are potentially game breaking.  The red bell’s laser wall can be a quick last minute life saver however the flashing bell’s enlarging invincibility can make any boss encounter trivial provided you can juggle a bell long enough to reach that point.  It’s easier said than done due to the shifting environment but worth it as it lasts longer than it reasonably should.

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Parodius is a slower paced game than most shooters but its lackadaisical pace shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Its tight hallways and corridors are densely packed making it easy to get lost in the ensuing chaos.  It’s amusing that a game that tries so hard to be lighthearted is in actuality pretty vicious but I prefer it that way.  While the game’s slow pace works for the most part there are a few annoying areas where it slows to a crawl, mostly involving invincible bosses that are more about surviving for a few minutes rather than getting into a heated exchange.  The game does pick up towards the end where I’m sure many will probably fling the controller in rage at the number of deaths they’ll experience as the challenge ramps up significantly.

At seven levels this is shorter than the arcade game but makes up for it in a few ways.  There’s an all new level that takes place in a circus during the main quest; it fits in with the game’s overall wacky vibe perfectly and is probably the best looking in the entire game with unique art and bosses.  For the more astute gamers there are two hidden levels, one of which actually takes place inside a Moai head’s mouth!  This can be a pretty difficult game so the seven main levels will probably last most gamers quite a while before they see the end.  The hidden levels add some incentive to go through it all over again on top of it just being a fun game overall.

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Konami did an excellent job squeezing the majority of the arcade game’s fantastic art into the NES’s confines and I daresay this is easily one of the best looking shooters for the platform.  The absurd art design and wacky enemies made the jump nearly fully intact.  The background detail is pretty amazing all things considered; I can probably count on one hand the number of shooters that looked better on the platform.  There is some light censorship, with the Vegas dancer being replaced by a fully clothed galactic dancer and the female Moai head that shot out questionable smaller Moai in a manner resembling a blowjob blowing hearts instead.  Thematically I think they did a good job replacing those elements in a sensible manner.

As much as I like the graphics it is immediately apparent that the game is pushing the system especially hard with the rampant slowdown.  Much like Gradius II once you have a full complement of options and unleash a spread of weapons fire the game slows to a crawl.  Unlike that game Parodius is full of tight corridors with plenty of turrets and bullets which makes this even worse.  It’s egregiously bad in the fourth level, which might as well be a slide show at times.  Honestly this is the only flaw in the game and one that I feel can be adjusted to considering how much fun you’ll have overall.

I have nothing more to say other than why the hell did this not come out in America?  Parodius in any form is a rocking good time and the NES version is just as amazing as its more advanced cousins and worth a purchase.

9-out-of-10

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Gradius II (TG-16)

Of all the publisher’s that supported the PC Engine CD in Japan Konami was the most surprising.  Even though their output was sparse their PC Engine efforts were simply incredible but sadly stayed in Japan, which sucks as they were one of the few developers that really made that hardware sing.  Dracula X – Rondo of Blood is quite possibly the best overall game in the series and you could make a strong case for best overall PC Engine game.  Snatcher was the first enhanced port of the PC-88 original and served as the basis for the Sega CD port.  Which brings us to the phenomenal port of Gradius II we never received.  Had the Turbo CD performed better in the US (or maybe just in general) there’s no doubt in my mind someone would have brought it over as the system was a haven for shooters.  As is it’s easily one of the best on a platform that isn’t suffering from a shortage.

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It has to be said that the graphics in this port are truly outstanding and compare favorably to the coin op.  The gratuitous opening launch sequence sets the tone as this is nearly identical to the arcade outside of the difference in resolution.  Gradius II was visually spectacular for its time and to see all of its graphical splendor recreated at home is still amazing even today.  The opening level with its massive flaming suns that spawn fiery dragons is still creatively incredible to this day.  The numerous bosses that made their debut here would go on to make repeat appearances in nearly every iteration of the series from this point onward.  Even the soundtrack has made it over intact but now in redbook audio thanks to the magic of CDs.

There are many flourishes that the Famicom simply couldn’t handle but the one aspect both versions share is slowdown.  Though it isn’t anywhere near as bad it does pop up here and there, primarily when you have four options and are in a zone with many destructible elements such as the Crystal World.  On a few bosses that produce heavy weapons fire it does start to crawl however it’s a far cry from the perpetual slow motion of the Famicom version.

Though this is the sequel to Gradius it borrows liberally from the Salamander series and MSX Nemesis in terms of weapons.  Of the four available weapon configurations two taken are straight from that game.  The popular Ripple laser and two-way missiles make the fourth option the all-around best choice but I’ll admit sometimes I go with number three because I like the Photon Torpedoes.  The standard Gradius laser and missiles just seem so plain in comparison.  The beyond awesome Force Shield makes an appearance and anyone without a hole in their head would do well to pick it immediately.

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The arcade’s levels and stage progression have been recreated perfectly which is a bonus for the lucky fans that played the coin op.  I will say that although the Famicom game moved the levels around and even ditched a few in favor of new ones it flowed pretty well and the new levels were actually well done.  You only get one new stage here, a trip through a decaying temple partially submerged in the desert.  It kind of resembles a mix of the sand desert of Gradius III crossed with the Egyptian themed level of Lifeforce.  It is perhaps the one level where the stupid double shot actually shines due to the sheer number of enemies on the ceiling.

The difficulty has been toned down from the brutal coin op but the game still puts up a worthy challenge.  It’s tempting to grab four options for maximum firepower as soon as possible however between the four options trailing your ship and their own fire it’s very easy to lose track and fly into a wall or bullets.  Speaking of bullets although it doesn’t approach the insanity of its arcade brethren the screen can still become pretty cluttered at times. It’s possibly one of the few times where the excessive slowdown of the Famicom game was a help and not a hindrance, especially since you could actually initiate it on your own.

One change that was actually a benefit to gamers was continuing.  Plunking another quarter in the machine would start you off at the closest checkpoint which sounds convenient but also meant you were dropped into a warzone with no power-ups.  Here you start at the beginning of the level which is much better.  Weird I know.

Gradius II is one of my favorite shooters for the Turbo CD, ahead of the Star Soldier series and on the same level as Blazing Lazers.  It’s a damn shame that it was never officially released here until its Virtual Console release a few years ago but it doesn’t matter.  It’s a shooter, what little text is in English anyway meaning you can import if it’s cheaper with no setbacks.

9-out-of-10

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Contra (Japan)

In the early days of the video game industry when most games came from Japan it wasn’t uncommon for them to see massive changes before release.  It’s only natural; what might fly over there certainly doesn’t always apply in the good old USA.  Nintendo of America were notoriously bad with the edits and to an extent deservedly so; the market had just come back and they were cautious about ruffling any feathers.

Sometimes the changes made were for technical reasons, others due to a license.  Contra falls into the first category.  At its heart the NES is simple platform that was enhanced by Memory mapper chips embedded in the cartridges.  Since Nintendo allowed publishers in Japan to print their own cartridges (only Acclaim and Konami had that privilege in the US) nearly all publishers created their own specialized mappers.  One of the most notable would be Castlevania III; its Japanese counterpart (Akumajou Densetsu) had a special mapper called the VRC6 that added 3 sound channels to the NES for better music.

On that side of the world it was all gravy but for America everyone was forced to use Nintendo of America’s own MMC chips (MMC 1-5, fun fact, PunchOut! is the only game to use the MMC2).  As you can imagine this presented problems when bringing games overseas since the Japanese side would have to reprogram them, resulting in the months long delays between the Japanese and US debut of many games.

Which brings us to Contra, which is one of the many unfortunate victims of said policy.  Konami’s VRC2 mapper allowed more animation to be displayed during the game that had to be cut.   In the grand scheme of things it’s fairly minor but a curiosity that I felt was worth pointing out.  No one should feel as though we were gipped as Contra is an excellent game, graphical enhancements or not.

From a gameplay perspective both versions of the game are near identical.  All of the levels and weapons are present, the placement of enemies are the same and if it worked in the US version then it applies here.  There’s a reason Contra is one of the most beloved classics of the NES era.  The mix of awesome weapons and excellent level design enthralled gamers in single or coop multiplayer.  Hell it made me a fan of coop gaming even though I was the scrubby little brother that kept dying due to my lack of skills.  Now that I think about it it might have scared me away from multiplayer too.

If there is a discernible difference in gameplay it would be the challenge.  This version feels easier than its US counterpart overall which to anyone that was there for its original release will remember.  It could just be that my skills as a gamer have improved over the course of the last 20 some odd years but there are minor differences that are easy to spot.  Enemies seem less apt to attack; by stage six they would frequently take pot shots but here it’s rare to see them ever use their guns.  The bosses are also less aggressive.  The god damn swinging arms of the Waterfall boss cost many gamers a few lives but here they hardly move.  The stage six boss follows a set pattern in this version while in the US game he followed you around aggressively.  For those who needed the Konami code to finish the game I imagine this all sounds like a godsend.

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If the gameplay is the same the graphics aren’t.  It becomes apparent almost immediately after pressing start that this is in another league.  There’s a brief intro followed by a map that charts your progress.  Upon entering the first level you’ll notice the animated trees swaying in the wind.  There are more environmental details like this such as the snowstorm in area 5; details like these really make the world feel alive.  Once you’ve completed a level there are animated stills of your soldier notifying command of his progress.  And the ending is certainly better than what we got.  On their own these details are small but added up it makes the game seem like more of a complete package.

Not that I’m saying you should rush out and buy the Japanese Contra because we were robbed.  We’ve enjoyed the game just fine as is, I simply thought it would be interesting to take note of the differences between the two as there are dozens (maybe even hundreds?) of examples out there.  US, Japanese,……..maybe even Probotector, Contra is an awesome game all around.

9-out-of-10

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Tiny Toons Adventures 2: Trouble in Wackyland


While there were many truly spectacular NES titles released in its waning days not every game was a lost classic.  The original Tiny Toons Adventures was a fun if average platformer that could just as easily have been any other game outside of its license.  Whether they were trying to squeeze as much as possible out of their license or genuinely wanted to create a sequel Konami took a different tact for this game, turning it into a series of minigames rather than a straight platformer.  If the game were a little meatier it could have been special but as is it is too brief to warrant a purchase.

Buster and his friends receive an invitation to the newly opened Fun House at Acme Acres theme park from a “secret” admirer.  But things aren’t as easy as they seem.  Before they can get in they must collect 4 golden tickets to gain entrance and find out who has been watching them from afar.

The object of the game this time around is to collect tickets, both normal and gold.  Regular tickets are used to play each “ride” at the park with different amounts necessary for each.  Gold tickets are awarded after you’ve completed each of the four main attractions or accrue fifty normal tickets.  Although each game costs tickets you can earn more by trading in your points at the ticket booth.  In a sense the game you are free to play the game however you like; if you find the bumper cars easier to deal with you can simply do that over and over, especially as it’s the cheapest.

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More of the Tiny Toons cast has been brought in as active participants rather than side characters or in adversarial roles.  Hampton, Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Furball each have their own individual game to complete at the park with Buster taking over for the finale in the Fun House.  This is not a straight platformer like the original; in fact only Hampton’s train ride and the Fun House qualify.  Aside from the train ride Babs has to survive a roller coaster ride from hell, Furball must endure a log ride, and Plucky must knock the rats from Perfecto Prep (watch the episode the Acme Bowl, it’s awesome) in a game of Bumper Cars.

For the most part the controls are solid all-around which you’ll need as the challenge varies wildly from game to the next.    The most difficult is the roller coaster.  For a game that seems to be aimed at children this segment is far too heavy on rote memorization like Battletoads for success.  There’s nothing wrong with that type of approach so long as you are given the tools to succeed, in this case time.  The coaster varies its pace randomly with the most perilous sections moving so fast that you have literally a second to decide if you should jump, duck, or flip it upside down to avoid damage.   It’s a pretty long level that you’ll have to try multiple times to complete and unfortunately you’re better off spending your tickets elsewhere.  This in stark contrast with Furball’s log ride which follows the same basic premise but is far more measured in its pacing and therefore more fun.

The bumper cars are equal parts fun and frustrating.  Its split into three rounds with the layout changing each time with the object being to send your opponent hurtling into the hole.  You can brake to reduce speed and charge up to go rocketing forward.  Due to the placement of the various bumpers and springs the enclosed spaces it takes place in will leave you rebounding uncontrollably most of the time.  Usually sending your opponents into the hole feels random, not that I would complain about success.  It isn’t outright terrible, just weird.

The sole platforming stages of the game are the most solid.  It really shouldn’t come as a surprise as they follow the framework of the first game.  But as fun as they are it’s not enough to salvage the game’s major critical flaw, its brevity.  With just five “levels” in total it’s possible to complete the game in under an hour with no reason to bother to go back.  It’s fun but it isn’t that fun.

Tiny Toons Adventures 2: Trouble in Wackyland made strides to use its license to separate it from the glut of platformers available for the NES and in that regard it is successful.  However it isn’t compelling with enough content to warrant tracking down.

6-out-of-10-1

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Parodius – Non Sense Fantasy

The Gradius style power-up system is one of the most versatile and creative in the history of the shooter genre, so good in fact that many games have cribbed it.  Konami themselves have used a variation of it in a variety of spin offs, most notably Salamander and Twin Bee.  2 obviously wasn’t enough so they created a third that parodies the serious tone of Gradius, Parodius (clever play on words there).  Usually parodies are done by a third party but in this case Parodius is both parody and celebration of the success of the series and has enough unique elements to stand on its own.

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I think I can see why Konami shied away from bringing Parodius to the US.

It’s a mystery as to why the Parodius series was never given a shot in the US.  Well maybe not so much considering some of the, uh, weird shit in the game.  Maybe Stinger failed so hard Konami came to the conclusion that Americans like their shooters full of grit?  In Europe it was a different story as most of the series has been released there in one form or another.  This Super NES installment is a conversion of the second arcade game with the sub title Non Sense Fantasy in Europe which is a pretty apt description. Nothing is too outlandish for this series and in spite of the wacky hijinks the game never forgets that it is supposed to be entertaining above all else.

Like Gradius you can select different weapon combinations but here they’re also tied to different “ships”.  The Vic Viper returns with a full complement of weapons from the original Gradius.  Now the other ships if you can even call them that are where things get strange.  Twinbee from the series of the same name plays identically to those familiar with that series.  The Octopus is the equivalent of the Salamander series with its Ripple laser and two way missiles. A pair of penguins named Pentarou play exactly like the VV from Gradius III for those who find the standard Vic Viper’s weaponry too pedantic.  I won’t lie, it’s pretty damn weird to pilot a string of octopi or as a penguin but once you get over the absurdity of it all Parodius is just as challenging and entertaining as its more straightforward brethren.

You’re still collecting glowing pods to select which weapons you want to equip however Parodius has even more offer than just that.  The random item roulette causes the weapon bar to cycle and can help or hinder you depending on luck.  If it lands on a weapon it will give you a fully powered-up version of it such as four options.  Hit a blank space and you’re stripped of all power-ups.  The more power-ups you’ve collected the worse this actually turns out.  In your greed to collect em all like Pokemon more than likely you’ll pick this up at the worst moment; good luck with the results!

For anyone that has imported a Twinbee game or had the misfortune of playing Stinger the bells make an appearance here with hilarious results.  The bells only move left to right now making it easier to juggle them and cycle through the colors.  You’ll want to do so as the powers they bestow are a bit overpowered.  The Green Bell triples your size but makes you invulnerable to everything, so feel free to plow through walls and enemies.  Red enables the use of the Kiku Beam, which is a long vertical beam that will destroy anything in its path.  My personal favorite is the White Bell which gives you a megaphone which will cause your ship to spout various nonsensical phrases such as “Got a Stinkfoot!” and “Shaving is Boring!” that actually inflict massive damage on impact.

Beyond the campy exterior is a game that isn’t afraid to challenge the conventions of the series it openly mocks.  The levels closely resemble Gradius down to the brief space intermissions at the start of every level except with a comical bent.  For every familiar element the game brings in from Gradius or Twinbee they’ve applied a Monty Pythonesque slant to it.  The ever present volcanoes sport happy faces when dormant but quickly become angry and spout eggplants in a matter of seconds.  Most enemies consist of anthropomorphic animals, especially the bosses.  The Vegas Go Go dancer moves in the exact same pattern as the   from Gradius II but is invincible, meaning you’ll have to……uh “navigate” the safe spots around her body.  As if that wasn’t surreal enough it’s quickly followed up by an eagle decked out in an American flag.  Draw your own conclusions.  It never lets up as it gets even stranger the further you progress with a sumo wrestler, a moai head attached to a ship, and a near nude woman draped in a robe.  What does any of this have to do with shooters?  Nothing!  But it’s pure, unadulterated madness is more fun than ten games put together.

While it makes fun of the serious tone of most shooters from that era Parodius does share one trait with them; the difficulty.  It’s very easy to underestimate the stakes involved during each level since the game is trying to kill you in the nicest way possible.  There are frequent dead ends and other situations that have little margin for error.  The item roulette is the equivalent of a girlfriend slipping a little tongue then kneeing you in the nuts as it pops up at the worst moments.  This is a fairly long game at 9 levels plus the SNES exclusive bath house (by this point it doesn’t even sound strange anymore) so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of the game.

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The SNES version of Parodius is an excellent port of the arcade game missing very few details.  Outside of the resolution you could easily mistake it for the coin op.  Parodius goes in the complete opposite direction of Gradius with its explosion of color and vibrant backgrounds.  There are some truly large sprites uncharacteristic of your typical SNES game so it’s a bit of a surprise that there is little to no slowdown at all.  It helps that this is a slower paced game but coming off the slowdown ridden Gradius III a year prior this is a miracle.  There’s even a bubble level like that game except here the game doesn’t slow to a crawl, almost as if Konami were throwing shade on their previous work.  Parodius also has a fantastic soundtrack and with good reason, most of it is classical and folk music available in the public domain.  The reason being the composer did not have enough time to complete an original score for the whole game so had to make do with what was available.  In my eyes it adds to the game’s mystique and fits the tone of the game well.

It seems strange that to this day Konami has never given the series a chance in the US but thanks to its European releases those that want to import can at least enjoy a full localization, not that there’s any text to begin with.  Forget about the cartoon exterior and you’re left with a challenging yet fair game that is truly phenomenal.

9-out-of-10

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Snatcher

In Japan Visual Novels are the equivalent of our point and click adventure games, although they are released more frequently overseas than their US counterparts.  Focusing more on story than gathering items and solving puzzles visual novels are usually dense story wise and have branching paths such as Fate/Stay Night and Steins Gate.  As you can imagine the vast majority never make the trip overseas.  In 1994 Konami took a chance localizing one of Hideo Kojima’s finest productions and in the process created one of the best Sega CD games of all time.

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June 6, 1996.  A biological weapon under development in Russia named Lucifer Alpha is accidentally released, killing 80% of Europe/Asia’s population and in turn half the world.  A decade later Lucifer Alpha mutates and becomes harmless but still leaves Chernotown inhospitable.  50 years later and a new menace threatens the population: cyborgs.  Dubbed Snatchers due to their penchant for kidnapping members of society and taking their place no one knows their origin or what their ultimate goal is.  As Gillian Seed, the newest member of the J.U.N.K.E.R task force it is up to you to solve the mystery and recover your lost memories.

From a gameplay standpoint toss aside all preconceived notions.  This is not a Lucas Arts adventure game; as a visual novel the game is more focused on telling its story.  All actions are performed using simple menu based commands.  There are both benefits and frustrations present in this system.  One of the worst aspects of PC adventure games (and everyone will agree) are the repetitious pixel hunts you were forced to engage in to find items.  It was very easy to miss crucial story items in most games of this ilk, forcing you to back track or in some cases completely start from the beginning.  Here Metal Gear will generally clue you in as to what action you should take and won’t let you leave an area until you’ve thoroughly explored it.  As a result it’s impossible to ever get stuck.  The downside is the menus are often 5-6 levels deep and there are far too many points in the game where you are forced to engage in the same repetitive action until the next plot point is triggered.  Overall it’s only a minor complaint since it frees you to enjoy the game’s plot.

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What will immediately grab you with Snatcher is the world itself.  Heavily inspired by Blade Runner and the Terminator the cyberpunk atmosphere is tangible right from the start.  The city of Neo Kobe features a dazzling array of neon architecture and futuristic vehicles straight out of a science fiction novel.  Kojima has never been one to hide his Hollywood influences and they are immediately obvious. In this case however there are enough unique elements in Snatcher that make it it’s own beast.  There are also a ton of Easter eggs all over the place that are shot outs to other Konami series; the bar Outer Heaven is host to a masquerade night where its patrons cosplay as familiar Konami heroes.  Your navigator Metal Gear Mk II is a miniature version of his namesake which is extremely cool.

Since Snatcher isn’t focused on puzzles its plot takes center stage and luckily it’s a strong one.  There are plenty of unanswered questions right from the start with the mystery surrounding the Snatchers being the most compelling; why do they only appear at night time and in the winter?  Why do they hate dogs?  And why do they only snatch particular individuals?  Once you find the answers it elevates these blatant Terminator clones into more than just a loose movie homage.  The game does a very good job of providing answers to these questions and more at a reasonable clip, keeping you engaged in the plot at all times. The game’s conclusion is around an hour long and answers every lingering question you might have, dropping so many bombshells that it’s worth viewing more than once.  It’s a satisfying end to an extraordinary tale.

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This was a surprisingly adult game for its time, earning a mature rating which might have led to its low sales.  It’s a rating that’s well earned as the game pulls no punches; within the first ten minutes you’ll come across a decapitated body and must examine the remains.  There are a ton of instances of bloody violence and even some slight nudity.  The conversations respect the player’s intelligence and never devolve into the juvenile hijinks so prevalent in most games of the early 90s.

Not to say that it doesn’t have its funnier moments.  Gillian is a lecher even though he is technically still married (though separated) and many of the responses available will produce comedic results.  The interplay between Gillian and Metal Gear is at the heart of the story and their relationship grows naturally as the story progresses.  Metal Gear is initially hyper critical of Gillian’s lackadaisical lifestyle but comes to respect him as he spends time with the actual human being and not just the data he was programmed with.  Gillian’s playful attitude masks a man who is hurt by the separation from his wife and the distance their lack of memories has caused in their relationship.  The cast of characters in the game is kept pretty small with nearly all of the most important figures receiving some sort of growth.

Aiding in this growth is the excellent voice work.  There isn’t as much voiced dialogue as you would expect but Konami still did an ace job hiring professionals to bring the cast to life.  The best voice acting in the world would mean nothing if the actual text their reading is shit (Castlevania: Lords of Shadow I’m looking at you!) and once again the localization crew created one of the best scripts of that era, keeping the game’s mature edge.  The game’s oppressive atmosphere is also shepherded by its dark and foreboding soundtrack.  The music gives off a constant feeling of dread, as if a Snatcher could attack at any moment.  It’s a feeling that will bristle the back of your neck when it’s time to explore any abandoned environment.  If there is one weak element to the game it would be the first person shooter segments.  The occasional moment where you’ll have to manually eliminate a target is welcome but the forced waves of enemies are out of place in a game that revels in its atmosphere.  Luckily there are only 3 or 4 of them in total.

There’s no question that Snatcher is one of the all-around best Sega CD games ever.  Unfortunately it’ll cost an exorbitant amount to play it.  Snatcher was released on a large variety of platforms however this version is the only official English edition.  While I would never advise someone to pay hundreds of dollars for a game but if you do you’re are in for one hell of a ride.

9-out-of-10

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Crisis Force

The last two years of the NES’ reign in the US saw a number of technically outstanding games that took the aging hardware places no one ever dreamed.  Games like Shatterhand, Ninja Gaiden 3, Castlevania 3 and Kirby’s Adventure made waiting for the 16-bit consoles to drop in price bearable.  But in spite of their technical prowess there were still plenty of games left in Japan that were literally jaw dropping in comparison.  Konami’s Crisis Force would be their last shooter for the NES and you could make a strong case that it is the best all-around shooter for the system.

Asuka and Maya are two teens living a dull life in Japan when their shared dream comes true.  The seven demons that sunk Atlantis and ravaged mankind have returned and plan on doing the same thing to Tokyo.  The pair takes to the sky in their Aura Wing fighters to save the world.

When most think of Konami and shooters the Gradius series will of course come to mind.  Even some of their other spinoffs use some variant of the power-up system pioneered in that series.  However Konami created more than just Gradius “knockoffs” for the arcade and home consoles such as Axelay, Xexex (oh my god so pretty!), Gyruss and Thunder Cross.  Crisis Force takes all of those years of expertise and pours it into one final graphical tour de force that also has the gameplay to back up its insane visuals.  Due to its late release and apparently lackluster sales it was passed over for a US release but can be enjoyed in spite of that as there is no text to worry about.

There’s a considerable amount of firepower at your disposal; in fact you aren’t necessarily collecting new weapons as you go along.  Instead you are powering up the ships existing cannons.  At the touch of a button your ship can assume three configurations: Front offense, which concentrates fire directly ahead of you, Side Offense, which covers your left and right flank, and Rear Offense, which is self-explanatory.  Each form has its own main cannon that evolves as you collect blue and red orbs that will power up your standard shot or give you a wave beam.  You can’t use both at once so caution is advised as you collect power-ups.  They also as well as its own bomb (which is cumbersome to use as the A button is also used to change form).

Perhaps the most important are the special orbs which will transform you into a seemingly invincible engine of destruction only limited by a timer which is constantly ticking down.  Any hits will only subtract from the timer, which can be extended by collecting further orbs.  In coop both players will control some aspect of the ship.  Considering my history with coop (I was the scrubby little brother that got everyone killed) that seems like it would be a nightmare to coordinate.

Thanks to the weapons system the Crisis Wing is a sturdy beast and rather than exploding when colliding with bullets or objects will only degrade one weapon level.  At most you’ll be able to withstand 3-4 hits before death which will come rapidly after the first since your weaponry won’t be able to keep up with the chaos surrounding you.

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You’ll be leaning on that pretty heavily.  I can probably count on one hand with extra fingers the number of NES shooters that are as chaotic as Crisis Force.    The game shows little restraint as enemies come from all corners and gives you an excellent reason to try out each individual formation.  That element is the game’s greatest strength outside of its graphics; setting up numerous scenarios that make all of the Aura Wing’s forms useful.

The level design is absolutely killer as the game’s technical muscle is used for some creative gameplay settings.   The crumbling streets of Tokyo give way to gaping chasms that enemies scale in and out of to attack.  The canyon left in the wake of the earthquake is one of the most impressive effects of the 8-bit generation.  As you fly over the ocean numerous Egyptian style battleships aim to end your pursuit of their leaders as everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in your path.

As you can imagine Crisis Force is pushing the NES hard, probably too hard.  The little grey box is forced to tap out as the number of enemies per level seems to increase the deeper you progress.  Slowdown and flicker are ever present and if you’re playing coop the game will descend into a slideshow fairly often.  In single player it isn’t as bad and can be taken advantage of although you can’t trigger it on your own like in Gradius II.

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If it weren’t for the 16 color limit of the NES you could easily mistake Crisis Force for an early 16-bit title. In fact it’s more visually appealing than some vertical shooters of that era (Phelios I’m looking at you).  There’s a level of detail to the backdrops that was rarely seen on the NES, a combo of great art and tech.  Everyone who has played this game will mention it but the multiple layers of parallax scrolling in the open canyon of the first level truly has to be seen to be believed.  The bosses are some of the largest on the console and are animated extremely well; none of that background tiling trickery here.  Outside of the slowdown there are no negatives in the visual package.

Crisis Force is the NES firing on all cylinders to deliver the best shooting package possible for the system.  With its phenomenal graphics and excellent gameplay you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better.  It’s truly a shame it never saw a domestic release but considering it’s a shmup that should hardly be a deterrent to fans of the genre or anyone looking to see just how hard the NES can be pushed.

9-out-of-10

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Goonies II

The Goonies was something of a cultural touchstone for many of us who are children of the 80s.  A group of teenagers on the adventure of a lifetime searching for a long lost buried treasure is something most kids dream of in one fashion or another.  Personally while I liked the movie I can’t say that I have any great fondness for it after all this time but back then?  When I found out there was a Goonies II video game I lost my shit.  While I found it strange there was a Goonies II without a Goonies I (it was only released in Japan, the US saw limited distribution through the PlayChoice 10 arcade units) it didn’t stop me from putting an insane amount of hours into the game despite its best attempts to deter me.

Ma Fratelli and her thugs have returned, kidnapping all of the Goonies except Mikey and a mermaid named Annie (what the f*ck?).  I sure as hell don’t remember any mermaids in the movie but whatever.  It’s up to Mikey to save his friends from certain doom in one of the most expansive games released at the time.

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Structurally this is similar to Metroid and Zelda II.  You are dropped into the world armed only with a yo-yo and no objective beyond what the instruction manual states.  The ultimate goal of the game is to save the 6 Goonies before you’ll be allowed to rescue Annie.  How you go about that process and the order you do so is largely in your hands.  The game doesn’t give many hints as to what you should be doing but magic locator devices will at least mark where the closest Goonie is stashed away.  If you’re lost at the very least they’ll guide you to the next objective.

Somehow the Fratelli’s have turned the once innocent caves under their house into a labyrinthine death trap full of molten lava, ice structures, and waterfalls.  Add in demons and other mystical creatures and it becomes apparent Konami have strayed far from the source material for gameplay reasons.

This was a fairly ambitious game for the time.  Outside of the various items you’ll collect the world map is divided into a front and back side.  They don’t line up perfectly when flipped so it’s pointless to try to use it as a guide.  The warp zones will teleport you to different areas as well; it’s better to identify each region by its graphic design.  There are minor RPG elements as you’ll collect keys to unlock safes, bombs that can reveal doors and your health will increase with every Goonie rescued.

The initial yo-yo will eventually give way to an inventory full of items.  A boomerang and slingshot will be your ranged weaponry while different bombs in limited supply can reveal hidden entrances.  There are different shoes that increase your speed and jumping distance but the majority of the items you’ll find offer passive effects, such as the helmet protecting you from falling objects or a bulletproof vest that cuts damage in half.  A secondary set of items can only be used in the “adventure” portion of the game and it’s here where the game stumbles.

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You’re going to be doing a lot of this.  It gets old really quick.

Throughout every area of the map there are numerous doors that lead to first person segments where you explore a set of room for items and most importantly Goonies.  Most of these areas are fairly small at only a few screens but they make up for it by being the most frustrating element of the game.  The most important items needed to progress in the game are hidden in these rooms but rarely in plain sight.  You’ll have to use every option in your small set of commands in each room to make sure you aren’t missing something.  That means punching all 4 walls plus the ceiling and floor, hitting them with the hammer or using the glasses to reveal invisible objects.  Every time.  There are very few dead end rooms that won’t at least yield some form of item, be it a extra keys or bomb boxes.  You’ll just have to pound every inch of the room to find them.

The random NPCs only espouse nonsensical dialogue, leaving you to your own devices.  There are a few hints provided in safes but there are less than ten of those in the game.  Some of the items are hidden a bit too cleverly.  To find the candle you must punch (!) an old woman five times.  One of the most important, the transceiver is found by punching one of the doors.  Who the hell would actually try that without prior knowledge?  If they removed this portion of the game or replaced it with something better executed it would have been fantastic.  As it is it reminds me of Dr. Chaos too much, a game I absolutely despise.

In spite of the game’s first person adventure mode I still like it, I just wouldn’t recommend tackling it without a guide.  This was released in 1987, a year after Zelda so some of its transgressions such as the lack of any immediate direction can still be forgiven.   The graphics don’t hold up but the soundtrack is still classic Konami all the way, with a surprisingly accurate rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Goonies theme taking the lead.  The Goonies II is in a middle ground between Zelda’s excellence and Dr. Chaos’ level of frustration.

7-out-of-10

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Gradius II

I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t Life Force Gradius 2”?  And the answer is no.  While the two series share similarities Life Force is actually a part of the Salamander series.  The real Gradius II never saw a release in the US in the arcade or on consoles.  As to why I sure as hell don’t know; Gradius was released in that early period in the NES’s life where there really wasn’t much available and was fairly popular as well.  Gradius II is a far superior game in every single way and outside of the slowdown is one of the best shooters available for the system.

The elaborate power-up system of the original has returned but has seen a massive upgrade in every possible way.  Many of the series tenets were laid down here and further expanded on in subsequent games such as the Power-Up menu.  At the start you are presented with a choice of 4 different weapon configurations.  It isn’t the outright weapons bonanza that Gradius III would later bring to the table but the customization is welcome.  Not everyone will want to tackle the game in the same manner and now you have some say in the matter.  In addition you can switch when you continue if a particular weapon set doesn’t strike your fancy.

Honestly they’re not so different; the only changes are in the type of missiles, double shot, and laser available although that might be doing it a disservice.  Missiles especially play a large factor in whether or not you’ll have to risk getting in close to cover an area that they won’t reach.  Photon Torpedoes are powerful but only hit the ground, not the area above you.  The different double shots I can’t comment on since I never bother with that shit, they’re too weak compared to the lasers and a bit of fancy flying is more convenient than a weapon dedicated to covering your tail that isn’t optimal.

If you thought two options were enough now you can have up to 4, which is totally insane.  With 4 options you can cover nearly half of the screen although it brings some performance issues along with it (to your benefit if you want to exploit it!).  As a bonus if you select another option once you’ve hit the maximum they become a rotating shield for a brief period.  Granted the two shield available do an admirable job protecting you as is but every little bit helps as this is one tough nut to crack.

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Right off the bat its apparent Gradius II is in a totally separate class altogether from the original.  The first level has you navigating around fiery suns that spawn dragons before giving way to massive solar flares a la Life Force.  The requisite Moai level takes a sinister turn at the halfway point when the Easter Island statues turn red and not only double their rate of fire but turn around for one last shot at you.  The speed zone of level six forces you to gather more speed-ups than you’re comfortable with in order to stand a sliver of a chance at navigating the increasingly speedier corridors.

It’s amazing just how much of Gradius II’s content was recycled in its third installment.  Take the sand dragons in Gradius III’s first level.  Give them a red aura and you have the dragons in Gradius II.  Replace the breakable crystals of stage 3 with Bubbles and you have the bubble zone of Gradius III.  Both games share near identical speed zones Moai stages and even have similar boss rushes.  Of course none of us were aware of any of this but it’s insane just how much was lifted wholesale from Gradius II.

Speaking of bosses you won’t fight the same mother ship at the end of every level this time around and for that I say thank god.  Gradius II is armed with a suite of unique bosses at the end of every level, some more difficult than others.  There’s even a boss rush toward the end of the game featuring nearly every boss from Gradius and Life Force which is trippy.  The final boss although excellent in design is disappointing to face but I suppose it’s a nice respite from the brutal journey to reach him.

Aside from the boss fights few will see the end of this game in reasonable span of time due to the challenge.  Konami show little restraint in chucking every possible damn enemy in your path.  There are mid-level checkpoints but if it comes down to that you might as well start over, you ain’t making any progress with the standard pea shooter.  For those to weak sauce to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds there is a 30 man cheat code but it’s entirely possible that it won’t be enough.

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Insanely pretty but the game’s performance suffers as a result.

While Gradius II is on a different level technically compared to the first game it suffers heavily due to slowdown.  Once you have 4 options and lasers anytime you press the fire button the game will slow to a crawl.  Seriously, give it a try.  You can use this to your benefit to escape some tricky situations since you can initiate it on your own.  I guess it’s an unintended advantage but you know what?  Every little bit helps.

I suppose Konami felt Life Force had the shooter market covered in the US and didn’t see any reason to release Gradius II.  We’ll never know but it doesn’t change the fact that we missed out on a really great game.

9-out-of-10

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Stinger

In creating the Gradius series Konami made one of the most durable and beloved shooter franchises in console history.  With its unique power-up system countless other games have been “inspired” by Gradius with some degree of success.  The Gradius formula is so well defined in fact that a separate series created as a parody of Gradius named Parodius has spawned its own line of sequels.  One splinter series that is little known in the US is Twinbee of which North America has only seen two installments, one for the Nintendo DS and this game which was renamed Stinger.

Since the first game in the series stayed in Japan certain……liberties were taken with the American localization.  Alien beings from the planet Attackon have kidnapped Dr. Cinnamon to learn the secrets of his bio nuclear sweetener.  The Attackons want to use this “weapon” to turn Earth into a giant ball of cotton candy.

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While Twinbee started out as a series of vertical shooters it would eventually grow and encompass a range of genres, from platformers to RPGs.  The focus shifted from the shooting action to the characters as the series has a long running plot full of wacky characters.  Like Parodius the Twinbee series doesn’t take itself too seriously and has enough unique features to forge an identity of its own.  While Twinbee was insanely popular in Japan and Europe it didn’t leave much of an impression in the US, where Stinger was the lone entrant to reach our shores until 2007.

The unique hook of Twinbee is its power-up system.  Rather than collect items the bells that spawn from clouds can be juggled with your shots to change its color, bestowing a number of different weapons.  These cover a number of typical shmup tropes such as the twin cannon, laser, speed-up, options, and a shield.  Changing the color of the bells for new weapons takes practice and skill and the game is more than generous enough to supply a ton of clouds in case you mess up.

While most of the Twinbee games are vertical shooters Stinger bucks this trend. Like Life Force the levels alternate between side scrolling and vertical shooting.  The change in viewpoint affects the gameplay significantly as it’s easier to keep track of bells in the vertical levels.  There is a heart shaped shot added to the side scrolling that makes bell blasting easier but it’s still annoying.  Since the heart shots would be useless you have the option to bomb the ground in the vertical levels for power-ups.  Here you can take a glancing blow that only removes your bombing ability which can only be restored by a medical power-up.

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The overall tone of Stinger is a bit wacky.  It isn’t strictly because of the fruity US story either, all of that weirdness existed in the Japanese version, and the American story merely contextualizes it.  You have angry coat hangers, mad sneakers, and TV sets screaming for your blood.  And don’t get me started on the bosses.  The quirkiness is dialed up to 11 as you battle a boom box, a seed spitting watermelon and other assorted food and household items.

For all of its unique features Stinger is a bit weak overall.  The horizontal levels all feel and look identical since they share similar environmental detail.  In my opinion these levels are a clear indication that Twinbee was always intended to be a vertical scrolling shooter.  Speaking of which, the vertical levels are the most intense with a seemingly never ending wave of enemies coming at you.  I’ve never been fond of juggling the bells for power-ups and my issues with it are apparent from the start.  It takes entirely too many shots to cycle through the different weapons; in most cases you’ll only see the blue bell for speed or white for twin cannons.  I realize juggling the bells and dealing with enemies is the whole point of the game but it could have been balanced better in this regard.

While the later Twinbee games are excellent and borderline phenomenal Stinger is not the strongest entry.  While it’s better than most of the early NES shooter lineup there are far too many classics to work through before Stinger would warrant purchasing.  At least if they would have kept the 3-player coop it would have merited look from coop fans.

6-out-of-10-1

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Castlevania – Legacy of Darkness

Konami had lofty plans for Castlevania 64, setting out to create one of the most ambitious 3d adventures of the time.  However between their developmental inexperience and the reality of the monster they were trying to create Castlevania 64’s initial release was a scaled back version of what they originally planned.  Less than a year later they would return with Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness their original vision fully realized.  Despite more content it can’t be helped that this feels more of an expansion pack than a fully realized sequel.

Cornell has spent the last few years training to control the beast inside himself and is unaware of the attack on his home village by Dracula’s minions.  Upon seeing the massacre he also learns that his sister Ada is to be used as a sacrifice to resurrect Dracula and sets out to save her.

Legacy of Darkness is literally composed of the leftover assets and art created during Castlevania 64’s development.  Art for both Cornell and Henry were both shown as well as different outfits for Reinhardt and Carrie.  They’ve managed to make sense of all this material by setting the game up as a prequel.  Despite its status as the complete version of what the designers intended Legacy of Darkness still suffers from many of the same issues as the first game and as such is not for everyone.

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As a protagonist Cornell rests between Reinhardt and Carrie power wise.  His primary attack is a long range projectile that will automatically lock onto the nearest target.  The close range claw swipe is weak and more or less useless.  Speaking of useless although he has access to the same sub weapons as Reinhardt they are completely unnecessary.  The projectile attack is so strong and more convenient that they aren’t needed.  You’re better off saving red jewels for his Werewolf form, which boosts attack power but consumes gems with no way to turn it off.

While Cornell’s story is new he trends most of the same ground as the two prior protagonists.  Although the general level may be the same his path is different, with its own unique enemies and cut scenes.  Most of your time will be spent killing enemies and flipping switches to progress through each chapter.  There’s less of a focus on timed events this time around, which might be a boon to those that hated it.

Although Cornell is the main focus of the game his quest unlocks the other characters and also has story ties to the others.  Henry is only a child when Cornell escorts him out of the mansion.  Years later he returns as an adult in a mission to save other lost children from the same fate that he nearly encountered.  While his quest is an interesting diversion it’s also short and not as fully fleshed out.

Both Carrie and Reinhardt’s stories are also available but in altered form.  Obviously it would have been too expensive to include both of their original level layouts so they recycle Cornells. The new bosses included are also reused as well which at least makes them feel new.  But you have to take the good with the bad, in this case all of the voice acting and almost all of their cut scenes are gone. I suppose we should be grateful that Konami even bothered to include them at all, albeit in an abridged form.

Legacy of Darkness is certainly not light on content with 4 (more like 3.5) quests, alternate costumes and multiple endings.  But the one area Konami really needed to overhaul remains unchanged, and that is the camera.  The atrocious camera from Castlevania 64 returns and is just as infuriating as before.  For the amount of platforming this game has its unforgivable that the game shipped with a camera system so bad.  We might have been able to slightly overlook it the first time they get no grace period this time around.  The annoying camera is bad enough that it severely detracts the enjoyment of the rest of the game.

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For the most part Legacy of Darkness looks identical to the first game.  Around 75% of the assets are recycled.  The new levels and monsters are a breath of fresh air and some of the special effects have been spruced up but not to the point you would notice.  Expansion pack support has been added for a high resolution mode that is ultimately pointless.  The dip in frame rate is so large that the game is near unplayable and certainly not worth it for slightly sharper textures and draw distance.  I can appreciate the gesture but not the results.

If Castlevania 64 did not exist I might look back on Legacy of Darkness more fondly.  There are some good ideas buried underneath shoddy execution and while the thought of a feature rich package such as this is enticing it frankly cannot rise above its myriad issues.

6-out-of-101

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Tiny Toon Adventures

For the publishers that hung in there toward the end of the NES life it might as well have been a license to print money.  With an audience in the millions and years of platformers under their belts most publishers probably had plenty of engines they could use to spit out a game in record time.  This is probably the route Konami chose in creating Tiny Toon Adventures, an otherwise solid game that makes very little use of its license and is therefore indistinguishable from the majority of similar games on the platform.

Babs Bunny has been kidnapped by Montana Max and it’s up to Buster and pals to save her.  Spread out across six worlds with 3 sub levels each (with one exception) the game supposedly takes place in and around Acme acres but you wouldn’t necessarily know that.  The levels are the stock platformer tropes personified, which speaks to a larger problem with the game.

Outside of a few cameos from the show you could easily drop Kirby or any other character in this game without batting an eye.  Overall the game is solid but could have made better use of the Tiny Toons world like its 16-bit cousins to elevate it above the dregs it shared shelf space with.

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At the beginning of each world you have a choice of 3 partner characters: Plucky, Dizzy Devil and Furball.  Each has a special ability that comes in handy to find secrets or even shortcuts through each level.  Plucky can glide, Dizzy Devil can become a whirling tornado to smash enemies and obstacles and Furball can climb nearly any surface.  Once selected you’re stuck with them until the next world so choose wisely.

The levels are constructed in such a way that it isn’t mandatory to use one particular character, which makes sense since you can’t switch freely.  Collecting a star ball will change characters, a change that lasts until you pick up another to switch back.  Overall the level design is fairly strong, with multiple paths available depending on your partner.  Despite the large number of levels the game is short; most levels are only a minute or two long with each world ending in a forgettable boss battle.

As solid as the game’s mechanics are it can’t help but feel familiar.  You collect carrots which award extra lives from Hampton at the end of each level.  Regardless of the protagonist your main form of attack is the tried and true butt bounce.  You travel through forests, underwater levels, and the desert.  You see where this is going?

The game’s challenge is on the light side during the first half of the game then becomes cheap for the latter portion.  The enemy placement becomes devious and there are a large number of unseen traps waiting to get you, such as the garbage cans in world 4.  Without a heart you can only sustain one hit before death, which comes frequently towards the end.  Montana’s mansion takes the cheap mechanics to a new level and quickly becomes hair (heh) pulling hard in an effort to stretch out the game.

There’s nothing here that necessitates the appearance of the Tiny Toons characters, leaving little more than a generic platformer in a Looney Tunes skin.  There are far better games to spend time with than to bother with an average Mario clone.

5-out-of-101

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Gyruss

I remember playing Gyruss in the arcade back in the mid-80s and liking it well enough.  Of course I didn’t have enough money to complete it back then so the presence of an NES port should have been cause for celebration.  However some of the additions made to the game exacerbate its problems instead of creating a richer experience.

What little semblance of a plot is laughably bad.  Evil exists in the universe and so mankind embarks on a quest to rid the galaxy of it.  What this amounts to is a lone ship being sent on a tour of the galaxy from Pluto and finally the Sun.  Think about that.  One ship against all the evil in the universe.  Even by shooter standards that is ridiculous.

The most unique aspect of Gyruss would have to be the viewpoint.  Gyruss was a tube shooter that tried to simulate the illusion of flying into the screen.  At first it resembles a normal vertical shooter however in actuality it is closer to Tempest and Galaga.  The viewpoint is behind the ship and you have a full range of movement around the screen in a circle.  The Galaga comparison comes by way of the enemy patterns.  Enemies attack in set formations however now they come from all sides.  Your ship moves pretty fast so in most cases you can react quickly enough to attack before they disappear.  Well disappear isn’t the right word, any enemies that manage to get by you will reside in the background and come back at the end of the level for one last shot at your hide, sometimes mutating in the process.

Unlike most shooters there are very few weapons in the game.  You have missiles that can destroy most targets in one shot and a twin shot, that’s it.  If you’re good enough you can build up a large stock of missiles to end boss fights quickly.  Other items are rare, a smart bomb and extra lives.  It isn’t much but the game’s structure means you won’t need more than that.

Altogether there are 39 levels, with 3 for each planet and a bonus level after each one.  Most levels are incredibly short, sometimes less than a minute.  The difficulty curve gives you enough time to get used to navigating around the screen to dodge enemy fire.  In the initial stages most enemies don’t bother to fight back, allowing you to study enemy patterns.  All enemies move in a particular pattern that becomes more erratic the deeper you get.  Allowing them to get by will come back to bite you in the ass later once all the waves have passed since they’ll usually evolve and become harder to kill.

As enjoyable as Gyruss can be at times it is incredibly repetitive.  In the arcade there were only 24 stages and the game would loop once you reached Earth.  For the NES port you travel the entire solar system + bonus levels for 39 in total.  That’s a lot but every planet follows the same formula; 3 warps to the next planet broken down as such: one level with a few waves of enemies, the second adds 4 satellites, and the last is the same as the first and ends in a boss fight.  The only thing that changes are the enemy patterns and the occasional piece of debris.  By the midpoint the repetition is overbearing.  Less levels or more variation would have gone a long way toward fixing this.

Even with the enhancements added to the NES version (better graphics, new music, a few power-ups) Gyruss is too repetitive for its own good.  There are far too many shooters good shooters on the NES for me to recommend this despite its unique viewpoint.

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Monster in my Pocket

Long before Pokemon a different monster collecting craze swept the world:  Monster in my Pocket.  Oh you’ve never heard of them?  Truth be told neither had I at the time.  Not to make it sound as though I was in tune with all the hot trends of the early 90s but Monster in my Pocket had no recognition among my circle of friends, like pogs.   But for its time it was huge, spanning most media, including video games.  Capcom and Konami had a proven track record with licensed properties at this time and Monster in my Pocket represents Konami at the top of their game.

The Monster in my Pocket videogame released in 1991 followed the plot of the comic book miniseries, in which Warlock, the big bad of the MIMP universe sends a cadre of his henchman to the Miles home to destroy the good monsters, led by Vampire and (Frankenstein’s) Monster.  The journey will span a range of environments from the Miles home to a construction site before the final confrontation with Warlock.

The Monster in my Pocket franchise held many similarities to Pokemon, so many in fact that they unsuccessfully tried to sue Nintendo.  But you can’t really blame them.  The over 200 monsters were broken up into categories like Dinosaurs, Space Aliens, etc.  They were released in 11 series and graded on a scale of 1-30 in terms of rarity and value.  Remember the fist fights that occurred over Pokemon cards and such, many I personally witnessed between grown adults?  This was the precursor to that.  Although Pokemon has definitely stolen its thunder in some ways it left the door open for MIMP to come back as the property has seen another revival as late as 2006.

While the monsters spanned the typical genre conventions such as Werewolves, Vampires, skeletons and such they were not afraid to draw from mythology as well, with the likes of Baba Yaga, Kali, Hanuman (look it up) represented.  What this means is that the game had a gigantic well to draw from, which it does and makes full use of its license to create one of the better licensed video games for the NES, no small feat considering the competition.

The choice between the Vampire and the Monster is purely cosmetic.  I guess it makes two-player coop a lot simpler as they don’t have to balance the game around two different skill sets.  They both share the same powers, which consist of a double jump and a forward energy attack.  The energy attack flows in an arc and lingers in the air for a brief second, useful for taking out multiple enemies in a row or any flying bad ass that tries to swoop in for the attack.  Occasionally there are objects scattered around that you can pick up and throw; usually keys.  The cool thing is you can carry them into the boss fights, which makes some of these battles trivial.

Not that it’s even necessary.  MIMP is like Castlevania if Simon Belmont weren’t a gimp.   Thanks to the pitch perfect controls as well as the double jump the game is simply enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s perfectly balanced and features a linear difficulty curve but never descends to the cheap bullshit of the Castlevania games.  Health power-ups are spaced after every clump of enemies and in most cases you’ll need them.  That kind of tuning comes from years of experience; I guess the fan outrage over some of Castlevania’s more frustrating elements didn’t fall on deaf ears.

Thanks to the toy line the game has a large well of enemies to draw from, with new ones debuting on every stage.  The enemy variety and there ever changing attack patterns keep the game fresh at every level.  Speaking of stages, the level design is superb and makes excellent use of its premise of shrunken monsters in a world full of giants (from their perspective at least).  The environmental hazards such as flaming stove tops, bouncing balls of yarn and even sewage drains make clever use of everyday objects for gameplay purposes and only escalate as the game progresses.

Graphically Monster in my Pocket is a more mature version of Rescue Rangers, a game with a similar premise.  The character sprites are large and detailed and the enemies span the whole monster gamut, all in part because of the toy line.  The bosses feature some of the more popular toys, such as Spring Heeled Jack, Bigfoot, and even Satan (!).  The music is quite catchy and while it isn’t as memorable as that other Konami series it holds up well.

I love to be surprised by little known gems such as this.  Monster in my Pocket is definitely a hidden gem among the NES library of classics and is deserving of any platform fans attention.  The only things holding it back from classic status are its length and slight ease but considering it’ll probably set you back a few bucks at most there’s no reason not to dive in.

 

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Bucky O’Hare

Show of hands, how many of you remember or have even heard of Bucky O’Hare?  I thought as much.  Bucky O’Hare was a short lived comic book series published in the mid-80s by future G.I. Joe scribe Larry Hama and Michael Golden.   Apparently someone believed in it enough to spawn a cartoon series, toy line, and in this case a few videogames.  The NES game sees Konami taking a page from Capcom’s book and adapts the Mega Man formula with excellent results.

On a routine trip through the Aniverse (short for anti-matter universe) the Toad Air Marshall ambushes the crew of the Righteous Indignation, leaving Captain Bucky O’Hare as the lone escapee.  With his crew scattered across different planets it’s up to Bucky to reassemble his posse and lay the smack down on the Toad Empire.  While I never read the comics I was a big fan of the cartoon and looked forward to it every Sunday.  Bucky O’Hare as a whole has been forgotten (was it ever really popular?  The cartoon only lasted one season) but that doesn’t mean the ancillary products, like the NES and arcade game should share the same fate.

In my addled 12-year old brain Capcom and Konami were eternal rivals like Ken and Ryu, releasing a consistent stream of the best 8-bit games of all time in a bid to see who was better.  Don’t ask why, I can’t make sense of it either.  So it was a bit of a shock to see Konami ape Mega Man.  That was practically sacrilege in my book!  But that quickly disappeared in the face of just how awesome the game turned out and in many respects Bucky O’Hare is a more enjoyable experience than the last few NES Mega Man games.

With the crew scattered across 4 planets you are free to tackle them in any order with the exception of the Blue Planet, which requires Blinky.  And that is due to everyone’s special ability.  While everyone is equipped with different variations of the standard blaster they each possess a unique power.   Bucky has a super jump, Blinky can fly for short periods and destroy ice blocks and stone, Dead Eye can climb walls, Willy has a Mega Buster (Capcom ®) and Jenny has a controlled shot.   For the most part these abilities aren’t necessary until the second half of the game to give players the right to tackle the game as they see fit.  Once a crew member has been saved you can switch characters at any time, which comes in handy during the game’s fiendish levels.

The greatest strength of Bucky O’Hare is its level design.  Each level is broken down into many Acts of varying lengths.  Some are brief lasting a few short seconds while others are longer and pit you against different stage hazards.  Each planet in the first half is themed, such as the ice of the Blue planet, the lava and fire of the Red planet, etc. with traps based around them.  Due to the ever changing nature of each Act the levels never get stale and feature an assortment of challenges, such as the careful timing required to land on the balls that protect you from the spikes of the red planet.

The second half of the game features a drastic jump in difficulty.  The game will force you to partner up with a specific character at times, one that is mandatory to complete each level.  The time spent learning each member’s abilities is put to the test in some of the most challenging and creative platform levels on the NES.  The Dark Areas of stage 6 and the furious platforming segments of stage 7 come to mind.  Even the boss battles are challenging and will take a few tries to learn their patterns.  Allegedly some future members of Treasure worked on the game and the polish is evident.  For fans of platformers Bucky O’Hare was a heavily refined version of everything you loved about the 8-bit era; fitting for a game released in 1992.

Bucky O’Hare is a strong contender in the best NES graphics category.  There is a stunning amount of background detail at times and excellent animation.  Most levels feature copious amounts of parallax scrolling, often 2 layers deep.  There is a ton of details going on in the backgrounds, such as fleets of ships flying by or erupting volcanoes, the type of stuff that wasn’t too common during the NES’s reign.  Bucky and his crew are well animated sprites and the bosses are on the same level.  While the music isn’t exceptional it’s very well composed and fits the game nicely.

While the game is a bit challenging the password feature makes it more than bearable.  Perhaps its late release doomed it to obscurity or just the lack of brand awareness; either way Bucky O’Hare is an excellent NES platformer that I recommend to any fan of the genre.

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Little Samson

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Tiny Toon Adventures – Buster Busts Loose!

It’s hard to believe kids today have no knowledge of or exposure to the Tiny Toons Adventure characters.  I mean back in the early 90s this was huge.  After well over a decade of simply showing reruns of the classic Looney Tunes characters Warner Brothers, in collaboration with Steven Spielberg created a new batch of younger characters to carry on the Looney Tunes legacy.  And it was received exceedingly well.   With success in hand it was only a matter of time before the multimedia sensation hit the video game landscape, with Buster Busts Loose ranked as one of the best spinoffs.

The driving concept of the Tiny Toons series is that all of the characters are students at Acme University and training to be the next generation of Looney Tunes.  With frequent appearances by classic Looney Tunes such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian devil among others it was the ultimate co-sign if you will.  This created a ripe formula for many games, and Buster Busts Loose plays out as a best of series of episodes.  With a solid set of mechanics and varied play mechanics BBL is one of the best Tiny Toons games produced and another notch in Konami’s belt.

In practice Buster has the normal set of platform moves with his primary form of attack being a weird drop kick.  You have to see it in motion but the actual animation is strange but it is effective; it’s just in most cases you’re not sure how the hell it landed.  The main mechanic that is given the most use is the Dash.  By dashing Buster is given a cartoon like burst of speed which also has side benefits like running up walls using your momentum.  The dash bar automatically refills so it’s a wise choice to go nuts as there are tons of secrets waiting to be discovered.

Each level plays out as if it were an episode of the cartoon.  With one exception 5 of the 6 levels are broken up into 3 parts.  Because of this the entire game features a large variety of set pieces filled with cameos from the show.  From the more popular down to obscure characters I barely even remember such as Lil Sneezer (I had to look that one up just to remember!).  Most of these cameos are not superfluous either; while most are enemies some serve a gameplay purpose as well.

The first level set in Acme University eases you into the gameplay as you get the chance to explore the Dash mechanic.  Dashing plays a large role in the game as there are long stretches that require you to use it to clear obstacles cross large gaps.  These segments are some of the most fun in the game, especially when there are multiple power-ups in your path to keep the chain going.  Not that it completely takes over the game; in fact each new level introduces some new wrinkle to keep you occupied.  In Acme University there are multiple stealth segments followed by a non-traditional boss fight against Dizzy Devil as you force feed him to stop his rampage.  Or Stage 4’s simulated 4th quarter football game (a spoof on the popular episode the Acme Bowl).  The variety in the game is kept up all the way to the end which can come quickly depending on the difficulty.

Buster Busts Loose is one of the few games that changes depending on the difficulty selected.  While normal is the base game Children eliminates multiple sections of each level for a truncated experience.  Challenge mode gives you one heart at the start of every level; extra hearts are few and far.  While I applaud the decision to make the game accessible to everyone it’s not as if this is hard.  I mean Christ I was playing through Contra and Ninja Gaiden when I was 9 and 10 (maybe that’s why I’m a monster at video games), this is a cake walk in comparison.

Regardless of how easy or (not) hard you find the proceedings Buster Busts Loose is an insanely fun game that has good graphics that mimic the look of the show and a large array of play mechanics.  Although it is on the easy side I have no trouble recommending it to platforming fans.

8-out-of-101

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Rush ‘N Attack

What a clever title.  I was perhaps a little too young to realize what the title of the game implied at the time but even then I thought it was awesome.  About the only thing I knew of the Cold War came from Rocky IV, where Sylvester Stallone, armed only with his 2 fists and slurred speech single-handedly repaired the relationship between Russia and the US with boxing.   You could almost view Rush ‘N Attack as Cold War propaganda but somehow I’d like to believe Konami were above that sort of thing. Originally released as an arcade game the NES port was enhanced and makes for a good and challenging experience.

You are a serial killer dropped in Russia and tasked with killing your way across the Kremlin with nothing but a knife and terrifying Russia into world peace.  Alright I made that up but can you imagine how much more awesome the game would be if that were the premise? You are dropped behind enemy lines but the mission is to destroy their special weapon.  I still prefer my version of events, its totally makes the premise of 1 man against an army more palatable.  With knife in tow the game begins.

I’m so bad ass I stabbed like 4 guys in 1 thrust!  You see that last screenshot?  That was taken seconds before the sniper was stabbed in the EYE.

Get used to the knife as it’s the only weapon available for 90% of the game.   But boy is it effective!   If you can see it you can stab it.  Wolves?  Stab.  Snipers?  Stab.  All must fall before your superior knifing technique.  Stabbing is your business and business is good.  And the game throws an ample supply of enemies to make with the stabbing.  Certain enemies on every level will either drop a rocket launcher with finite ammo or a hand gun with an unlimited supply that only lasts brief periods.  Very rarely will the Star drop, which grants invincibility and is your cue to go buck wild on the enemy forces in one of the few times the game lives up to its title.

For a game that suggests you rush in and stab people in the face that course of action is ill advised.  Enemy soldiers come in 3 or 4 types: the standard brainless soldiers that rush (heh) you, the jump kicking bad asses, the sissy soldiers with a gun who take one shot and run away, and the occasional sniper and such.  It’s relatively simple but the odd combinations thrown at you do serve to up the tension.  Because you have to rely on your knife’s short range most of the time every encounter is potentially fatal.  The end of every level features a gauntlet against a new type of foe such as wolves or men with rocket packs.  The controls are pretty tight but do take some getting used to.  For some reason you press up to jump, with button A unused unless you have a secondary weapon.  I’ve never gotten used to that in the almost 30 years I’ve been gaming and I’m glad that it’s a relic of the past.

The NES version features a number of improvements over the arcade game.  First of all it actually has music.  The drums that were used in the arcade machine were far too subtle and dare I say it ambient for such a violent game.  The focus on rescuing hostages was completely scrapped in favor of simply reaching the end of each level and surviving.  The flame thrower was removed in favor of the handgun and star which I find strange; why not keep all of it?  Most importantly 2 more levels were added along with 2-player coop.  I have terrible memories of trying to complete the game coop; back then I was the scrubby little brother that kept screwing up.  At least you respawn immediately, unlike in single player where you are thrown back to a checkpoint.

Rush ‘N Attack is a moderately challenging game that will keep you occupied for a decent amount of time and is also one of the earliest NES games that has held up today. It doesn’t reinvent the action genre but doesn’t have to; it succeeds by being an enjoyable game.

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Cybernator

As big as the Gundam craze is in Japan it took nearly 20 years before the mega franchise would hit US shores, meaning there are an army of related video games that we missed as a result.  Now, in all fairness most of them suck but it would have been nice to get the few gems here in English.   That didn’t stop others from using it as inspiration to create their own mech games, and thus the Assault Suits series of games was born.

Cybernator, also known as Assault Suit Valken in Japan, was released by Konami in 1992.  In the future the Earth’s fossil fuels have dried up, spurring humanity into space.  Two factions lead the charge, the Axis and Federation, and are at war with each other to control what few resources are left.  Jake is a Federation soldier tasked with using his Assault Suit to destroy the Axis super weapon Bildvorg.  Inspired by the Gundam series but still wholly original in its approach, Cybernator was a drastic improvement on its predecessor, Target Earth (those of you that have played it are probably punching your monitor at its mere mention)and provides the requisite mech action US gamers had missed out on for so many years.

Unlike the gimpy suit you pilot in Target Earth your Assault Suit is nimble and possesses a wide assortment of abilities.  You can dash for greater speed, hover over short distances, block most attacks with your shield, and punch close range enemies and the environment.  Your suit is heavy and moves with weight so it’s obvious these abilities were added to offset that.  There were many instances in Target Earth where you had no choice but to take a ridiculous number of hits with no means to fight back.  Adding a certain amount of heft to your actions is more realistic while at the same time doesn’t make the game disheartening.  Like any good mech game you have a wide arsenal of weapons at your disposal.  The standard Vulcan cannon is fairly powerful and also reflects off walls.  Secondary weapons such as missiles, homing rockets, and lasers are found in each level and can be powered up further.

The strongest aspect of Cybernator would be the varied mission objectives.  Every level has a set goal that needs to be accomplished as well as secondary objectives that are optional but can influence the ending.  The levels have no set path to follow and are as close to open world as you can get.  With a few exceptions there is no time limit so it’s in your benefit to explore and power up.  The scenario for some of the missions get the adrenaline pumping, such as the Attack on Arc Nova, which begins with you in Zero Gravity as you attack the ship, navigate its vast corridors that steadily ramp up its defenses and reach the Core.  But that’s just the first half of the level!  Now you have to battle a giant enemy mech and annihilate him in time to destroy the core before the space station crashes into Earth.  It’s these situations that raise Cybernator above your standard action fare.

The beautifully detailed backdrops don’t hurt either.  While Target Earth was flat and drab Cybernator is bursting with life and color.  The entire experience visits a wide variety of terrain, all expertly rendered using the SNES color palette to its fullest.  The animation is also flawless as well.  Your Assault suit is comprised of multiple sprites that all animate in conjunction with each other, driving home that this is a mech built for war.

The US version featured some unnecessary cuts and censoring.  Many of the portraits that accompany the in game text were removed, a large portion of the story was excised, and a scene featuring a corporate official committing suicide when confronted by your suit is gone.  Let’s be honest, if a 50 foot robot busted in your office you’d probably either a. shit yourself, or b. end it all too.

For those that want to experience the game completely there is a fan translation patch but truthfully you’re not missing much.  If anything, removing the in game chatter that interrupts the action frequently is a bonus in my book.  Either way, whether it’s Cybernator or Assault Suits Valken this is a game that deserves to be played by any fan of twitch action games.

 

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Suikoden

What makes Suikoden unique?  On the surface is a game that could just as easily have been created for the SNES.  Outside of the quality of the music and color depth, there was nothing about the game that screamed 32-bit on the still new Playstation.  Loosely based on the Chinese novel Shui Hu Zuan, inspiration is drawn from that storyto create the framework for the entire series.  What elevates the game, and the whole series itself to top tier status is its numerous successful attempts to avoid most cliches of the genre and introduce its own unique spin on what a Japanese RPG entails.

My initial exposure would come from the numerous articles Gamefan ran about the import.  Prior to their coverage no other publication even had the game on their radar.  I would even go as far as saying their repeat coverage might have played a part in Konami giving it a chance in the US market.  Whether that is actually true or not is irrelevant; in the end the US received one of the best RPGs created for the console and thankfully it sold well enough for the series to continue.

Story

Suikoden stars Tir Mcdohl (you can change the name), the son of one of Emperor Barbarosa’s five generals.  As the son of a general you live a life of luxury with all of your friends living at home with you and an over eager manservant at your beck and call.  With your father sent away on business you are called into the empire’s service and are slowly exposed to the dirtier side of what you thought was a prosperous kingdom.  The townspeople mention it everywhere you go, but it isn’t until you see it with your own eyes that you realize something is wrong with the king.  Through a series of unfortunate events, you are branded a traitor, forced to run away from home, and eventually become the leader of the Liberation army.  It is here with the unique identity of the series is formed.

Forget any notion of saving the world from an all encompassing evil.  All Suikoden games focus on a singular conflict and has you raise an army to fight a corrupt military or government.  That’s it.  There isn’t any typical save the world plot here.  Just a simple clash of ideologies.  To the characters of the story, the struggle against their ruling body is equivalent to saving their world.  No Suikoden game has yet to allow you to explore the entire world.

Each game in the series focuses on a specific region and conflict.  In addition, your main character will also come into possession of one of the 27 true runes that govern all magic in the world, whether they like it or not.  The runes are the source of all magic and for the most part the conflicts in each game arise because of 1 or more of these runes.  With absolute power over the elements, life, death, etc. these True runes also grant immortality. The struggles caused over possession of these runes is what involves the general populace.

While there are thousands of nameless peons who join you in the tactical battles (more on that later), your primary concern is to unite all 108 stars of destiny.  As the Tenkai Star, you are marked from birth with a destiny that will change the world, and finding the other 107 stars is crucial to fulfilling that role.  This is one of the biggest departures from standard RPG conventions, as a significant portion of those 107 stars are playable characters you can form a party with to explore the world.

Characters

One of the most exciting parts of any Suikoden game is stumbling upon one of your eventual comrades and figuring out how to recruit them.  When you see someone who definitely looks different from the norm and has their own character portrait you know they can join you; you just have to figure out how.  As the first game, most of these are fairly straightforward and will join you automatically when met or at certain story junctures.

It’s the one that don’t that are the most fun to deduce.  With a wide range of personalities its natural that everyone will form their individual dream team; with so many to choose from learn ing their quirks is extremely fun.  Not everyone that joins is a fighter.  Some will create the shops that you will make extensive use of, some for the tactical battles, but most are used in the random battles.

Battle System

Most RPGs give you a 3-4 character battle system.  Suikoden gives you six.  The enemies can also attack in groups of 6-9.  Despite these large numbers, battles move extremely quick.  After giving orders to everyone sit back and watch the ensuing carnage.  Both characters and enemies execute their orders at the same time which keeps battles moving at a brisk pace.  The battle camera zooms in randomly for critical hits or heavy spells which I guess is supposed to be cinematic but in practice is quite ugly.  All characters have a set range for their attacks, with ranged able to attack any enemy in the front or back row, medium range can attack anyone if their placed in the front line but only the front row of enemies if placed in the back, and short range is obvious.  Range also determines attack power, with long range characters sacrificing power for distance.

Managing your party is key;  if you don’t pay attention you can end up with 6 short range members leaving 3 of them useless in every battle.  With the right combo of characters you can unite attacks or magic, sometimes up to 5 characters for one large death dealing blow.  Adding elements typical of strategy RPGs and integrating them so effortlessly was a stroke of genius on Konami’s part.

The other types of battle are the duels and the strategic war battles.  Duels are one on one and follow a rock, paper, scissors format using attack, defense, or special attack.  Your only hint as to their next action are their comments in between rounds.  If you pay attention, even a weak character can destroy a brute in terms of strength and walk away unscathed.  The tactical battles are where the army you’ve nurtured come into play.  Those 107 stars you’ve gathered?  They are your generals.  The more you’ve recruited when the battles start, the larger your attacking force will be.  To some degree this is balanced, there are enough characters who join automatically that you can somewhat fight on even ground if you are somehow lax in recruitment.  These battles also follow the rock, paper, scissors set-up except you are largely left to trust your instincts in terms of attacks.

Castle Greyskull

All of your characters are housed in your fortress which you name.  Your fort starts out as a dingy hovel but as more characters fill the ranks it upgrades.  The shops will get bigger and have more stock and the various mini-games start to pile up.  It becomes a virtual mall, all for your benefit.  No more tedious traveling to some backwoods town just to buy the strongest armor or weapons.  Some of the best moments come from wandering around the castle and speaking with your army.  These are their character development moments, as their feelings change as the story progresses.  It’s also nice to see which characters are mingling and forming bonds which you get to see the fruits of in future sequels.  These interactions definitely give you the sense that this really is war; these people are putting their lives on the line for you.  You owe it to them to win so that they can go back to their lives or even accomplish the goals they might mention while speaking with you.

There are multiple endings depending on whether you have collected everyone or not.  The big payoff comes from seeing what everyone gets up to in the end as they leave the castle one by one.  The impact the war you lead changes many of their lives, mostly for the better.

In Closing

Any new RPG series has its work cut out differentiating it from the more established franchises we know and love.  By using outside sources of inspiration rather than its contemporaries Konami forged their own path to success.  I didn’t even mention the outstanding Celtic soundtrack, a style you don’t see too often (if at all) in gaming.  Every element of the game eschews genre conventions and I love it for that reason.  The game isn’t very long so any casual player can complete it without setting aside a large amount of time but you’ll do so anyway because its that good.  Classic.

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Gradius III

The early days of the SNES saw many arcade ports, most of which were somewhat designed to show off the power of the new console.  Gradius III was one of those early games that managed to do just that while also falling flat on its face.  Despite that it still manages to be a good game with some major and minor differences from the arcade to make it worth a look for fans of the series.

Gradius III was released for the SNES in Japan in 1990 and the fall of 1991 for the US.  The Vic Viper returns to battle the forces of the Bacterion Empire.   Featuring a number of improvements over Gradius II in many ways it still borrowed or recycled elements from that game, disappointing some.  The SNES port was largely the same as the arcade game but better balanced for home play making it a better game in my opinion.  The arcade game was never released in the US until its inclusion as part of Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the Gradius Collection on PSP.  This would be our first taste of the game.

The first things you’ll see upon booting up the game are your weapon selections.  Split between Type Select and Edit Mode, there are exclusive weapons for each making the choice not as clear cut as it would seem.  Edit Mode is something fans long wished for and lives up to its name, with decisions broken down into six categories with plenty of choices. It definitely lives up to its promise with an insane amount of choices to mix and match.

Honestly, Edit Mode is the way to go. You have access to the overpowered Energy Laser and probably the single greatest weapon, Reduce, which reduces the size of the Vic Viper and acts as a life bar of sorts; each hit received only brings you closer to your original size.  Between the rotating options, the crusher laser that can act as a functional shield while charging, and reduce you are practically invincible.  At least that’s how I play.  The unbridled freedom to mix and match is a Gradius fan’s dream come true. Regardless of your choice of armaments, you’ll need them for the brutal journey ahead.

Comprised of 10 levels, the trip to fight the Bacterion leader will take you through all manner of environments, from the Sand dunes of the first planet to the underground portions of level 3.  Each level has some form of gimmick or environmental hazard to contend with, be it the multiplying bubbles of stage 2 or the break neck pace of the Speed Zone of stage 8.  Despite your vast array of weapons it’s very easy to develop tunnel vision and only focus on what’s directly in front of you and die by an otherwise easy to dodge projectile or enemy.  The variety of the levels is the game’s greatest strength as you jet from one set piece to the next.  The Moai level, the Plant zone, even the boss rush towards the end, no two levels are the same.

While it has been rebalanced Gradius III still puts up a decent challenge.  You only have a few continues and the game is long by shooter standards.  If you die on a boss or an unfortunate section of a level you are all but screwed since you’ll have nothing but the standard pea shooter and maybe one or two power-ups to defeat the bosses.

Some of the flashier elements of the arcade game were excised when bringing the game home.  The third person bonus stage is gone although to tell you the truth it wasn’t all that great to begin with.  What does suck are the enemies removed from the game, such as an enormous fire dragon on the fire level that acts as a mid boss.   The SNES port does feature better graphics than the arcade game in many respects, with additional background scrolling absent from the arcade’s levels and many stages increasing in length.  Many of the bosses truly show off the SNES’s increased power over its younger brother; bottom line if you wanted to showcase just what your new console could do this was one of its stronger games at launch.

The one major dent in the game’s presentation would be the slowdown.  There’s no sugar coating it, it’s bad, man.  The game will slow to a crawl at least once per stage which you could see as a bane or boon, depending on the situation.   This was a frequent problem in early SNES software, something that would largely disappear in the years that would follow.  The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, with an orchestral arrangement rather than the standard pseudo rock tunes that accompany many shooters.

I’m not even the biggest fan of the shmup genre and I still love this game.  If the slowdown bothers you Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the PSP collection might be your cup of tea although it is a straight port of the arcade game and lacks many of the changes here.  Regardless every shooter fan should play this and those that aren’t might find something they like.

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Gradius

In the grand sea of shooters the Gradius series stands near the top due to its many distinguishing characteristics.  Whether it’s the innovative power up system, the Vic Viper, or just the curious fascination with Moai statues, even if you’ve never played a game in the series you’ve heard of it.  Despite a number of spinoffs, the grand daddy of them all, Gradius, remains the originator.

Gradius was released in arcades in 1986 and later ported to a large number of consoles, the most popular being the NES version.  The people of the planet Gradius are under attack by the Bacterian Empire and pour all of their resources into creating the Vic Viper, a state of the art starship that is their last hope.  Another in the long line of shooters that pit one lone ship against a fucking armada, the story isn’t important, what matters is the gameplay and Gradius has that in spades.  The power-up system is the defining trait of the series and would go on to inspire legions of imitators.

A horizontal shooter, Gradius was one of, if not the first scrolling shooters for the system and would create a foundation of gameplay elements that would be built upon in later installments.  The first distinguishing characteristic is the powerup system.  Unlike most games with their instant and one shot abilities, collecting the energy icons highlighted one of six available options: speed up, missile, double, laser, option and shield.  Your choice and rate of acquisition is largely in your own hands and will influence just how easy or hard the coming challenges are.  Everyone prioritizes different weapons and that choice of “play style” is what would draw and continues to draw many gamers to the franchise.

Despite its classic status Gradius is a bit Spartan compared to other shooters.   There are only 6 levels, with each lasting only a few minutes at most.  Once fully powered up you will blow through the game, which at most lasts about 20-30 minutes.  That isn’t to say the game doesn’t put up a fight; later levels such as the Moai stage shower the playfield with bullets and the only boss in the game, the Mothership becomes faster and harder to hit.  One stray bullet is all it takes to die, and due to the checkpoints will leave you in the middle of a level with nothing but the standard pea shooter, a recipe for disaster.  But the strengths of the game’s design are such that Konami has been able to use the same system for subsequent Gradius games and the Salamander series with very little updating since it largely isn’t necessary.

While some facets of the game’s design have not stood the test of time Gradius still remains a retro gaming classic.  The NES version is a very good recreation of the arcade game and even offers the Konami code if the challenge is too much.  There are numerous ways to play the game nowadays so there is no excuse not to relive a little bit of gaming history.

7-out-of-10


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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: the Hyperstone Heist

 

I never really thought about it but Sega owners back in the day must have been envious of Nintendo players when it came to Turtlemania.  Konami wasted no time exploiting that license in a wide range of products, exclusively for Nintendo.  This was a bitter pill to swallow, as the TMNT arcade games especially were stellar and were not ported to Sega consoles.  That drought would end in 1992.

TMNT: the Hyperstone Heist was released in the fall of 1992.  This was shortly after Turtles in Time had ended its arcade run and was ported to SNES.  April is reporting the news when suddenly everyone in attendance bears witness to the Statue of Liberty and the entire island of Manhattan disappear, the handiwork of Shredder.  Armed with the Hyperstones he challenges the Ninja Turtles to top him.

Although a somewhat original creation the gameplay is based heavily on Turtles in Time with some odd quirks.  All of the moves have been lifted wholesale with the exception of throwing enemies into the screen.  Dashing is now relegated to its own button which is a bit retarded compared to automatically sprinting after a few steps.  Body slamming enemies is noticeably more difficult to pull off, which is a bummer as the number of enemies can be a bit insane at times.  If you are at all familiar with any of the arcade games you can jump right in but it’s a shame that there were no original elements added to the game.

Look familiar?

That last tidbit extends to the rest of the game.   There are 5 levels divided into 3 sections each which seems shorter than Turtles in Time but ends up being about the same length.   The stages are longer to make up for the reduced number.  That would be well and good if not for the fact that 50-60% of the game is recycled material from previous games.  I mean literally exact.  Every level, with the exception of Shredder’s hideout are comprised of mostly recycled stages from Turtles in Time, resulting in disjointed transitions between segments.  For instance the second level begins with a surfing segment that moves onto a ghost ship taken from Turtles in Time, then ending in the caves from the Prehistoric level from that same game minus the dinosaurs.  Even the bosses with the exception of Tatsu fight exactly the same.  If they were just going to recycle so much content why not just simply port over the games they’re ripping from?  The game would have been much better served with new content to go along with the few original levels it has.

The game tries to mimic the aesthetic of Turtles in Time and largely succeeds. The only downgrades are the special effects and the reduced color palette.  The game is noticeably darker, and I think Konami were aware of that going in as the artwork in the cutscenes has a harder edge to it.  The music, sound effects, and voices on the other hand don’t fare as well.  You’ll notice a number of instruments missing in the recycled tracks but for the most part the tunes are recognizable.  The sound effects are horrible and very tinny, lacking the clarity of the SNES game.  The voices suffer the same way speech in most Genesis games did, that is to say very raspy, sounding like it was recorded underwater.

It’s disappointing that Konami didn’t create more new content to fully flesh out the game but strange segways aside it’s still good.  If you were a fan of the Ninja Turtles (honestly who isn’t?) this will float your boat.  You could certainly do worse, such as the Genesis version of Tournament Fighters.  Yikes.

7-out-of-10-1

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Castlevania Chronicles

In the last days of the PlayStation Sony more or less stopped giving a damn about what was released and as such many publishers used it as an opportunity to release terrible games at budget prices.  It’s downright fascinating just how much of this cheap crap went on to become record best sellers.  Spec Ops is the epitome of this as it went on to sell well over a million copies despite being a buggy mess.  However there were a few curiosities released in this crop, and one of those was Castlevania Chronicles.

Castlevania Chronicles was released in late 2001 for the US.  Dracula has been revived by his followers and it’s up to Simon Belmont to put him down once again.  Originally released for the Sharp X68000 PC in Japan this installment was never released in the US but will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the series.  The first NES game took many of its level design cues from this “lost” chapter in the series.  While it isn’t the best game in the franchise it is still worthwhile to fans craving more traditional Castlevania action rather than the “Metroidvania” formula the series has since adapted.

There are 2 modes available.  Original mode presents the game exactly as it existed on the X68000.  If you’ve played any game in the series you know what to expect.  You wield the Vampire Killer whip against an assortment of undead foes and collect items that drop from candles.  Structurally this is similar to the first NES game, with similar level layouts and bosses.  Even more so than just that game it seems certain levels from later games in the series were either directly inspired or patterned after this game.  It does mean that those who have followed these games for any length of time will more than likely breeze through this mode as it will have an air of familiarity.  For new fans it will seem unforgivingly punishing as the difficulty spikes midway through the game.

The Arranged Mode is an alternate version of the game and features the bulk of the additions to the game.  The CG intro is just the beginning.  Simon has been redrawn in the style of series artist Ayame Kojima, and some background elements have seen a slight facelift.  The music also follows suit with a rearranged soundtrack.  But most importantly the difficulty has been balanced to be fair; the original game was quite hard in that NES way.  Now it’s actually doable without banging your head against the wall.  The Arranged Mode is more about balance than radically changing the game and it succeeds at that goal.

For all of the additions though it still can’t overcome the fact that this is a port of an old game.  It isn’t very long and although the challenge is steep you’ll still finish it one sitting.  The same can be said for the arranged mode.  Once you’ve finished the game there’s no reason to replay it again as the journey isn’t so mindblowing that you’ll want to experience it more than once.  There are some unlockables for completing the game such as artwork and an interview with series producer Koji Igarashi but that’s about it.  Replay value is not a priority.

While Konami did at least attempt to spruce up the graphics and sound it doesn’t hide the fact that this is an old game and looks the part.  Coming years after the resplendent Symphony of the Night has done this game’s staid presentation no favors.  This is a throwback in every sense of the word and while I can appreciate the effort to preserve the game as is it pales in comparison to the 2d efforts released even in the same year.

You can’t fault Konami for not doing more since this was a budget release and they could just as easily have passed it over considering the time of its release.  For fans of old school Castlevania this will scratch that itch but it doesn’t touch the finest in the series.  It is a bit hard to find so be prepared to pay a decent amount to get your hand on it.

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Jackal

I have a confession to make: I never liked Jackal growing up.   Maybe it was because I always played it multiplayer and back then I was the scrub that held back the team.  But I thought the game sucked.  Looking back at it now and divorcing myself from my childhood memories I can see it for the excellent top down shooter it is.

Jackal was released for the NES in 1988.  Originally released in the arcade as Top Gunner, the Jackal squad is comprised of 4 members tasked with rescuing POWs behind enemy lines.  At the time of its release most top down shooters universally saw you as a lone figure on foot, so Jackal’s relatively speedy jeep was a welcome change of pace.  Whether it’s the home port or arcade original Jackal provides visceral action and in a rare treat the NES version is superior in many ways.

In one or two player simultaneous action the name of the game is the same: destroy buildings to rescue hostages and bring them to designated drop off points in each level to be escorted to safety.  This is easier said than done however as the enemies are out in force.  One hit will destroy you and scatter your hostages, leading to a scramble to pick them back up.  Luckily your jeep is armed to the teeth.  You start out with a machine gun and grenades which can be upgraded to rockets.  The action can get pretty chaotic at times and will force you to exercise caution as you proceed.  You lose all but 4 prisoners upon death, and this will cause you to miss out on many bonuses, such as points for extra lives or better weaponry.  It can be easy to get caught slipping because you move so fast but patience is paramount since there isn’t a time limit.  I would place the difficulty on the same level as Contra but Jackal is more forgiving with its continues and stock of lives thankfully.

For its home debut a number of changes were made that elevate the game above its graphically superior big brother.  Now your jeep only fires north regardless of direction; this sounds like a step back but in actually is a huge boon as it allows you to get to safety and return fire at the same time.  While Top Runner was one long continuous map Jackal has been divided into six stages each with their own theme and boss battle.  It’s a lot more effective at conveying a sense of progress rather than the long straight road full of seemingly random elements that Top Runner provided.

The weapon “system” has also seen some upgrades.  The rockets can be upgraded twice, the first time increases the range of the explosion, the second time it creates a cross shaped bomb of death.  The ability to hold unlimited hostages is another addition; in the arcade you were limited to just 8.  When you really think about it a lot of this stuff should have been in the game to begin with but I guess it’s the type of thing you can only see post mortem.

I recommend Jackal wholeheartedly to any fans of the overhead genre.  It’s been over 20 years but its lost none of its luster.  Excellently paced and with copious amounts of frenetic action, there’s something for any fan of action games in Jackal.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV – Turtles in Time

Ah Turtles in Time. It’s a bit of an understatement when I say I spent illegal amounts of time playing it back in the day. The original Turtles arcade game was awesome, and in my mind that meant this would be too. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have an arcade or mom and pop store close by that had it, so my only chance to play the game came whenever my middle school would have a field trip to the roller skating rink. I spent more time playing the arcade machine than trying to hold hands skating with girls. Is that sad or embarrassing? Nah, I was enjoying myself and in the end that’s all that matters. My limited funds meant I never finished the game, at least not until the glorious SNES version was released the following year.

Shredder and Krang have stolen the Statue of Liberty, causing the Turtles to spring into action. What should have been a simple retrieval turns into a time hopping trip home.  Released in the summer of 1992 the home port was everything you could dream of and then some.  Arcade ports were nothing new, going as far back as the Atari 2600 but the 16-bit systems were very much at the point where you could in a lot of cases make an exact 100% arcade port.  While that isn’t the case here Turtles in Time had many additions that made the game a fuller experience.

Turtles in Time is largely similar to the original game in terms of graphics and gameplay. All 4 turtles had minor differences in terms of speed, strength, and reach although not to the extent where it makes much of a difference like in the original NES game. The game comprises 10 levels in the home version with 2 considered bonus stages. The journey through the game at first comprises the standard levels you would expect to see in a turtles game, but after level 4 (the Technodrome), you are sent hurtling through time. This allows the game to take you through a variety of set pieces, and avoid what I feel is one of the major banes of the beat em up genre: lack of enemy variety.  To a large degree the enemies consist of different colored foot soldiers, but each type has different forms of attack which you’ll be keen to recognize.  Most of the time periods introduce specific enemies for that era or environmental hazards that add to each stage’s unique feel.

Bucking the other trend in beat em ups, you have a large arsenal of moves at your disposal, something a bit uncommon in the genre. The two biggest additions to the game are the ability to throw enemies into the screen and to body slam them left and right, excellent for fighting multiple enemies at a time. A lot of the moves come across as fluff, but through trial and error you’ll find certain moves are more effective against enemy types. The dash covers ground faster and can lead into combos. These moves make you think about what is best in a given situation and also serve as a gameplay variant. Throwing an enemy into the screen gives you 3 points, while body slamming only gives two but can clear the screen when timed right. Every 200 points nets an extra life so decisions, decisions.

Graphically, the game is fantastic. The SNES color palette is put to full use and mimics the arcade admirably. New to the home version is the option to choose different color palettes for the turtles as well as an additional boss fight against Shredder in the Technodrome. Frames of animation are missing here and there but not to the extent where you’ll notice. The animation is otherwise excellent, especially the Turtles.  Literally every stage has some new effect that will have you in stitches. The soundtrack is very catchy and stacks up against the arcade machine pretty well. Some of the voice samples as well as the title theme song are missing though.

What we have here is not only an excellent arcade port but just an excellent game.  Konami, along with Capcom, made excellent licensed games during that era, with Turtles in Time continuing that trend. Even to this day I still bust it out and do a quick play through, which is truly the mark of quality.


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Axelay

Shooters on the SNES were usually painful affairs, full of unnecessary slowdown in a genre known for its twitch action and break neck pacing.  That isn’t to say the system wasn’t capable; on the contrary, many exclusives designed specifically for it were stellar.  The arcade ports were usually the games that suffered the most.  Play Thunderforce 3 on Genesis and then take Thunder Spirits for a spin to see what I’m talking about.  One such exclusive would go on to become not only one of the best shmups for the SNES but one of the greatest shooters of all time.

Axelay was released in 1992 by Konami.  An alien force known as the Armada of Annihilation has invaded the Illis system.  The citizens of the Earth like Corliss launch the D117B Axelay in a last ditch attempt to fight back.  Released early on in the console’s lifespan Axelay would become one of the definitive shmups of the era with its mix of fast paced action and interesting weaponry.  As an original effort it fully utilized all of the SNES’s advanced features and shamed many of the sub par shooters that stank up the system’s library at the same time.  Among the pantheon of classic shooters Axelay is always ranked pretty highly, cementing its legendary status among fans.

Like Life Force, Axelay alternates between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages and is equally at home on both fronts.  You get the best of both worlds in all in one complete package.  The distinction between this and other shooters does not end there.   The 6 levels alternate between both styles and encompasses a variety of terrain.  From the overflowing lava of the Lava Planet to the neon lights of Urbanite city, for what is a modest game length wise it does a very good job of conveying a sprawling adventure.  Despite the game’s length you won’t Axelay puts up a considerable challenge but at least you are suitably armed for the task at hand.

Axelay bucks the shooter trend by featuring no power-ups whatsoever.  Instead you begin with all of your weapons and receive more after completing every stage.  Prior to the start of any level you can choose your load out in 3 categories: Standard, special, and the type of missile.  The weapon system also plays into character death.  Eschewing the one hit kills of most shooters, direct hits from bullets will only disable the currently selected weapon, in essence giving you a 4 hit life bar.  Collisions with enemies or the environment will still result in instant death.  These welcome changes bring the at times brutal difficulty down to a more manageable level.

Regardless of the viewpoint, both the side scrolling and vertical levels have had an equal amount of attention lavished upon them.  Mode 7 is used to simulate a rolling playing field on the vertical stages; at first the effect is disorienting but as you adjust it’s very effective at conveying a trek across the surface of a planet.  The effects on the surface are not the only impressive elements on these levels, the bosses, gigantic mechanical monstrosities that could serve as the final boss in a number of lesser games are just as incredible.   The mechanical spider of the first level sets the bar and it only escalates from there, culminating with the fight against the lava lord that also adorns the box art.

The horizontal levels aren’t as visually impressive and instead go for scale in terms of number of enemies and size of bosses.  The Ed-209 boss utilizes segmented animation much like many of Treasure’s games; I wonder if any of their staff worked on this?  There’s a level set against the backdrop of an advancing armada of ships, highly reminiscent of R-Type.   This was released in 1992 and even towards the end of the SNES’s life there weren’t many shooters that were on the same level visually.

If there’s any one failing it’s the game’s length.  At only 6 levels the more determined fans of the genre will complete this in one very long afternoon.  But with effects that are still impressive today and a considerable challenge you’ll undoubtedly play through it again and again.   The SNES was not home to the large varieties of shooter the Genesis and PC Engine were showered with so any game that stands out is cause for celebration and Axelay is certainly one of them.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: the Arcade Game

 

 

After the crushing disappointment of the first Ninja Turtles game for NES Konami had to make it up to gamer’s big time.  What made it even worse: the first arcade game had been released around the same time, giving gamers the exact gameplay they were expecting.  So it makes sense that for the follow-up they would port said game and fulfills everyone’s wishes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: the Arcade Game was released in 1990 to the delight of gamers everywhere.  A beat em up like Final Fight and Double Dragon, the arcade game was everything we expected and then some, featuring a never ending supply of cameos from the cartoon, 4 player co-op and your choice of Turtle, each with subtle differences.  I can remember spending illegal amounts of money playing the game every week with friends and strangers alike as I was fully entrenched in Turtle mania.  The NES port, while not arcade perfect is well done and succeeded in washing away any lingering memories the first game had left.

You’ll fight an endless supply of Foot Soldiers and other nemeses from the Ninja Turtles fiction as you make your way through each of the levels as your favorite Turtle.  The arcade game was better able to depict the differences between each character, with Donatello slow but powerful with insane range, Leonardo perfectly in the middle, etc. The home port makes all of the characters virtually all the same with the only object of note being their bandana color and signature weapon.

Aside from the enemies the world is littered with objects you can use to your advantage, such as fire hydrants, street signs, traffic cones, etc.  Normally fighting the same enemies over and over would quickly become boring but there are enough varieties of Foot Soldier that you never feel like you are going through the motions, with each type forcing you to switch up your tactics.  The bosses are exactly what you would expect: powerful, cheap, and true to the cartoon.  In every way the game was a treat for the fans.

Some changes had to be made to fit the game into the limits of the NES.  The – player coop is missing, limiting you to 2 players.   That comes as a mild blessing all things considered, I would hate to see what the game would look like if they even tried.  The levels have undergone surgery, removing some elements and extending their length for a longer lasting experience.  Obviously the graphics and voices have not come over fully intact, but the game is still a very nice approximation of the arcade game.  Most importantly it is a drastic leap in quality over its predecessor.  I really miss the speech from the arcade game; even though it was a bit sparse it added to the overall atmosphere.

As compensation for these changes are 2 original levels created specifically for this port.  Both are excellent and match the quality of the rest of the game and in my opinion even exceed it as they were designed around the NES’ limitations with excellent graphics and unique challenges that would have fit in perfectly with the arcade game.  The arcade game was a bit challenging which comes as no surprise since it was designed to suck quarters.  The home port evens the odds by offering more lives when you start, limited continues, and extra lives for every 200 points scored.  While it is still taxing it remains manageable.

So in the end would I recommend it?  With some reservations, yes.  Back in the day when the thought of owning the arcade cabinet was ludicrous this home port was everything you could ask for.  With the advent of more powerful hardware now you can buy an arcade perfect port for numerous digital download services and cheaply too.  The only thing on offer here are the original stages and as good as they are they aren’t worth the price of admission.  That’s not to say it isn’t worth playing, just that if you really feel like experiencing the arcade game in all its glory the option is there.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

In the 80s the Ninja Turtles were ……the shit.  From the comics to the cartoons to the action figures Turtle mania was in full effect.   The apex of it all came with the movie in 1989, introducing the “fad” to everyone in the nation.  At the crest of all this anticipation of the NES game was extremely high; it’s Ninja Turtles, how could they screw it up?  Somehow Konami found a way, breaking the hearts of millions of innocent kids like me back in the day.  This version of TMNT remains one of my biggest gaming disappointments of all time.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was released in 1989 for the NES through Konami’s Ultra games imprint.  A weird amalgamation of the comic book and cartoon series the game starts out as a simple rescue mission for April O’ Neil but then eventually dovetails into fighting Shredder in the Technodrome to restore Splinter to his human form.  Honestly they could have had the Turtles on a mission to save a McDonald’s bathroom from corruption and we would have happily ate it up.  Although this is primarily an action game it’s hard to pigeonhole the game into one genre since nearly every level features a different gameplay element.

Gameplay is broken down into two parts.  The overworld sections are top down as you explore each hub and its various sub-levels.  Until chapter 3 these only serve as bridges as you search the sub-levels for items and pizza.  You have your choice of any of the 4 turtles and can switch between them at any time.  Aside from their individual weapons they all have separate life bars, an important distinction. Your turtles function as your lives as once they are all gone its game over.  The strength and range of their weapons are the determining factor as to who you’ll use the majority of the time.  Sub weapons such as boomerangs and throwing stars can be found and are extremely powerful but have limited use.  You’ll be saving these for the bosses I assure you.

The game’s greatest strength comes in the variety in gameplay.   Every chapter features a hub but then offers something unique, such as the bomb defusing under the dam in chapter 2 or navigating the turtle van in chapter 3.  But despite all of this the game just wasn’t what everyone was expecting or looking for.

What the hell are some of these enemies?  Jesus Christ the source material had plenty of enemies ripe for inclusion.

The look of the game feels like it was a completely different product with the Turtles shoehorned in to sell extra copies.   The foot clan are barely recognizable and the regular enemies consist of a weird assortment of……I don’t know what the hell to call them.   You’ve got men on fire, frog men, jumping eyeballs, and mechanical contraptions that defy logic.  These all feel like something out of a Castlevania game.  There are cameos from characters from the cartoon, such as Bebop, Rocksteady, and the Mousers but those feel like token gestures to appease the fans.  The turtles license comes across as an afterthought.  But the biggest offender is the difficulty.

This game is hard.  Unbearably hard.  Right from the beginning you’ll see the signs.  Enemy placement is beyond retarded, with many situations forcing you to take a hit to proceed.  You have 4 Turtles but two of them are f*cking useless.  Save Donatello as he is the best character with the longest reach and destructive power.  If you find yourself stuck with Michaelangelo and Raphael you might as well quit.  There are very few opportunities to “rescue” a Turtle once they die and the game has limited continues.  Every chapter is gargantuan by NES standards with far too many sub-levels that serve no purpose other than to waste your time and resources.

You are given no direction, leaving you at the mercy of trial and error with each chapter a featuring a veritable maze of stages.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that a legion of gamers have never gotten past the dam and that’s only chapter 2!  That’s how hard the game can be.  Think of almost any frustrating gameplay element of the 8-bit era, it’s here.  Enemies respawn as soon as you scroll even inches off screen, most jumps have enemies waiting to knock you off a platform forcing you to backtrack, it’s borderline ridiculous at times.  There is nothing wrong with a decent challenge so long as it is fair.   I can’t say that about this game.

I bet 90% of you reading this are looking at the screenshots and saying “I didn’t know that was in the game!”  You’ll have to be a ninja or a savant like me  to reach these parts.

Don’t play this game and have your memories of the Ninja Turtles sullied.  Millions of us fell for it back in the day and suffered through the game just to play as the Turtles.  Sad but true.  You don’t need to do the same.  Konami wisely made better use of the license starting with the first arcade game, play that or its NES port instead.

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Castlevania 64

 

During the 32-bit era there was a disturbing trend of taking beloved franchises and slapping them in 3d, as if that were enough to instantly make them better.  Once you take into account 90% of the developers in the industry had no experience working with 3d you can see how the results were usually disastrous.  Fighting and racing games benefited the most from the move to 3d while platformers and action games would go through an extended period of growing pains to get them right.  After Symphony of the Night, all eyes were on Konami to see what they would do next with the Castlevania series.  We would quickly come to regret anticipating Castlevania 64’s release however.

Castlevania 64 was finally released in 1999 after many delays, most stemming from overly ambitious plans.  After chopping the number of playable characters in half and scaling back the game’s scope they were able to get the project back on track.  You control one of two characters, Reinhardt Shneider, heir to the Belmont clan or Carrie Fernandez, who has her own reasons for wanting to kill Dracula.  Each character plays differently and has some of their own unique levels and story events, making it worthwhile to play as both of them.

The best description of Castlevania 64 I can give is a 3d version of Simon’s Quest.  Although level based, you have free reign to explore each one to your heart’s content as you work your way to the exit.  Although there isn’t a time limit, the real time clock governs many factors in the game.  Story events occur at different times during the day, characters will ask you to meet them at specific times and locations, etc.  You can choose to wait or use Sun and Moon cards to advance the clock.  It’s never explicitly stated but finishing the game within a certain amount of days leads to multiple endings.  The day/night cycle determines how weak or strong certain enemies are and also when particular doors will open although that last bit is underdeveloped.  There is a merchant available to buy items from although you really should watch how much you spend (heh).

The games levels are one of its strongest elements with many deviations from the norm.  The hedge maze is a harrowing chase sequence as you lead Malus to safety from a chainsaw wielding Frankenstein.  You will literally shit your pants during this segment, but not always for good reasons.  The Castle Center will force you to carry Nitro with the caveat that you can’t jump.  Studying the levels and determining the best path to avoid being blown up is awesome.  At a time when most 3d action games only did the bare minimum because of their creators lack of experience these were a breath of fresh air.  Unfortunately Konami’s inexperience does rear its head in the worst way: the camera.

The camera is atrocious.  This is one of the worst cameras I’ve ever wrestled with.  Something as simple as walking in a straight line will result in the camera spazzing out in an epileptic fit.  Since the enemies spawn in random locations around you trying to get the camera to focus on whoever you are targeting is an exercise in frustration.  There is a lock-on but that usually causes the camera to wig out even more.  Later levels feature extensive platforming and in conjunction with the dreadful camera this quickly becomes a nightmare.

The controls similarly are slippery.   You move far too fast which would normally be a boon but instead causes headaches when you are trying to inch forward on a narrow ledge to properly position yourself, something that occurs frequently.  You’ll never really feel as though you are in direct control when making jumps and grabbing ledges; it’s a roll of the dice most times whether you succeed or fail. It’s a shame that the most important elements turned out so bad as the rest of the game is solid if not spectacular.  Back in 1999 we were able to overlook these problems because there wasn’t exactly much else to point to as a perfect example to follow.  Now with the 3d action genre nearly perfected this is intolerable.

If you can somehow overlook the bad camera and loose controls the game can be fun.  But in this day and age it would take the patience of a saint to do so.  Damn shame, as the music is excellent despite the console’s limitations in that department and the game is sufficiently long.  Decent for its time but does not hold up.

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Castlevania – Symphony of the Night

It isn’t very often that a game comes along that is so great it transcends genre.  Super Metroid is considered one of the greatest games of all time and is deserving of that status.  Not too many games follow that same gameplay structure, which is a shame but I imagine its a nightmare to design and balance.   When Castlevania was originally announced for the PlayStation few could possibly have imagined that not only would it be mentioned in the same breath as that classic but would become one of the greatest games in the PlayStation library.  This remains the absolute peak of the franchise.

A direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, the events of the story take place 4 years later.  Richter Belmont has disappeared, with a now grown up Maria searching for him in Dracula’s newly emerged Castle.  Alucard also awakens from his eternal rest to traverse Castle Dracula and defeat his father once and for all.  Like Metroid and to some extent Simon’s Curse you have free reign to go wherever you want as you accrue a massive inventory of weapons, armor, and relics to lay Dracula to rest.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was released in 1997 worldwide for the PlayStation and later ported (shoddily) to the Saturn.  If you can believe it there was some concern whether SCEA would allow it’s release in the US as they were against 2d games because they didn’t show off the system’s prowess.  At a time when everyone made a mad rush to 3d despite their lack of experience using it Konami should be applauded for sticking to the series 2d roots.

Let’s start with Alucard.  Erase any memories of past Castlevania protagonists.  Alucard is a joy to control, as nimble as Mario but as tough as Mega man.  You have a large repertoire of moves right from the start which expands considerably over the course of the game as you gain more powers from the relics you find.  The developers were so confident in the controls they even added Street Fighter style button combinations to use Magic spells, although these are never necessary.  Beyond the controls the animation is breathtaking: you’ll stop and marvel at what you are seeing many times I can assure you.  Using Alucard as the main character rather than a Belmont is an interesting choice as his motivations for wanting to eliminate Dracula while similar are for different reasons than your typical Belmont.

You can explore nearly any area of Dracula’s castle provided you have the necessary items.  Progress is non linear since you aren’t given any direction; you simply follow whatever path is in front of you until you see an opportunity to deviate.  Weapons and armor are in abundance creating a loot whore’s dream.  Becoming attached to a particular piece of equipment is never an option as you’ll more than likely replace it soon enough.  All of these also have a visible change on your appearance.  The relics found in secret areas or after defeating bosses expand your set of powers or power up existing ones allowing you to delve deeper into the castle.  These are ultimately necessary to reach inaccessible areas of the castle and the castle is so expansive you’ll have to make mental notes to come back to particular areas later.

That aspect has always been one of the greatest strengths of the Metroidvania formula: it’s always worth it to go back as the rewards are suitable for the lengths necessary to seek them out.  Killing enemies will cause you to level up and make you a virtual powerhouse in short order as your stats increase.   Despite all of these new features the game never loses sight of its roots, with candles, hearts, and an even larger arsenal of sub weapons at your disposal.  The game has so many options available that it can be overwhelming but at the same time accommodates nearly every play style.

The Castlevania games have built up a reputation for legendary boss battles and these are some of the most classic for the franchise.  Familiar faces make a return with makeovers such as Death, Medusa, or little known enemies such as Slogra.  As great as those fights are it’s the legion of new bosses that will make your hands tremble with excitement.  Granfaloon, a mass of thousands of dead bodies attached to a core shows off the console’s processing power as the bodies drop by the dozens (or hundreds) while you cleave your way to its core with not a hint of slowdown.  Beelzebub is a rotting corpse on the verge of collapse that summons insects to keep you away from picking his body apart.  Galamoth is now legendary because of the drastic jump in difficulty compared to the rest of the game and is so large he takes up 3 screens.  Its amazing that Konami kept upping the ante on themselves in this regard however the lucky gamers that play this are the ones who benefit.

The pictures speak for themselves.

The graphics are some of the finest 2d sprite art created.  That’s a high bar but there is no doubt in my mind that it is true.  All of the enemies exhibit the same level of detail as Alucard, from the pathetic skeletons to the massive bosses.  What made it so striking was the common belief that the PlayStation was underpowered for 2d games versus its 3d capabilities.  This put to rest any doubts that the PS One was more than capable in that regard.  It was also a bold move: 3d was considered the future, and rightly so, with every franchise receiving a 3d facelift.  You could argue that by keeping it in the realm of 2d Konami was able to draw additional attention to the game.

The soundtrack might even surpass the graphics if that is even possible.  Series composer Michiru Yamane made her full debut with a soundtrack that blends everything from techno and rock to classical music.  Remixes of previous tracks also make an appearance, with some of the best renditions of Bloody Tears and Dance of Illusions coming from this game.  The only blemishes would be the voice acting; it’s laughably bad at its attempts to be dramatic.  This could also be a symptom of the game’s questionable localization.  It isn’t that the game doesn’t make sense; the wording of many phrases is just off and sounds ridiculous.  It doesn’t ruin the game or anything; you could even say it adds to the game’s charm as many of the lines are memorable and quotable in their absurdity.

This is not only one of the greatest games in the Castlevania series it’s also one of the best games ever made.  Even if you don’t like the Metroid formula I believe you’ll still love this game.  There is a reason why this is still being ported to future consoles long after its release.

10-out-of-10

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Castlevania – Dracula X

It was a crying shame when Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was passed over for US release.  The TG-16 had floundered in North America but still everyone hoped that the series high profile would afford it a bit of leeway.  We all should have known better: if Street Fighter Championship Edition wasn’t brought over no way in hell was Castlevania going to avoid the same fate.  The sting of being denied the game’s greatness was alleviated somewhat 2 years later when Konami created Dracula X for the SNES.

Castlevania: Dracula x was released worldwide in 1995.  Dracula has risen again and captured Richter’s girlfriend and her little sister Maria.  The story is identical to Rondo of Blood, more or less.  There is some confusion as to whether the game is intended to be a port of Rondo of Blood or a loose sequel based on the same events.  Regardless the game comes across as a truncated version of that game’s events.

You travel across 7 levels on your way to Dracula’s castle.  If you’ve played Rondo of Blood this plays identically.  You have 6 sub weapons and the use of item crash for increased power.   The back flip is still just as useless here as it was then.  Something that doesn’t get enough attention but is a god send is the ability to avoid being knocked back when hit by crouching.  Trust me, when you fight Dracula you’ll thank the lord for it.  While the general gameplay is the same the elements that were needlessly removed are what make this game inferior.

Although it doesn’t share any of its level designs with Rondo of Blood some are loosely based on the original just not as strong, coming across as very dull.  For example, the ghost ship from Rondo of Blood is replaced by a level that takes inspiration from Atlantis.  The alternate stages from Rondo of Blood have been reduced to just 2 producing a much shorter quest.   Although you can still rescue Maria and Annette, Maria is not playable, which is a huge blow to the game’s longevity.  The only reason to save them is for a slightly different ending.  What creates some of the disappointment is that this is coming 4 years after the seminal Castlevania IV, and the loss of many of that game’s innovations flat out sucks.  The dexterity given to the main character in that game should have become standard but sadly the designers went a bit too retro in terms of the game’s feel.

Pretty at times but ultimately does not reach the heights of Rondo of Blood.

Going from CD to cartridge resulted in serious surgery to the game’s graphics.  Rondo of Blood had fantastic set pieces and artwork; you won’t find much of that here.  Despite being on a more powerful console the presentation was designed almost with the TG-16’s limitations in mind.  Backgrounds are flat and dreary in color and look.  Of course the cut scenes were also put on the chopping block.   Coming off of Castlevania IV and Bloodlines this was a tremendous step backward.  What doesn’t disappoint is the soundtrack, with excellent renditions of the original CD soundtrack.  Many are a pretty close approximation and I actually prefer some of the arrangements here.  Blasphemous I know.

Even with its faults the game is still fun.  It’s Castlevania, short of the Gameboy games almost all of them are excellent.  It’s when you compare it to past games in the series that it does not hold up.  Even looking at this as an original game in its own right doesn’t do much.  Many of the criticisms could also be levied at Rondo of Blood but there were enough unique elements that you could overlook some of its faults.  But 4 years is a long time.  Especially now that there are numerous ways to play its inspiration without breaking the bank.

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Castlevania: Rondo of Blood

We all have them.  Objects of desire.   Those things that for whatever reason have reached such near mythical status in our minds that we feel we absolutely must have them.  In the gaming world these usually take the form of limited editions of games, imports, or unreleased games.  In this case, long time fans of the Castlevania series were left out in the cold when Rondo of Blood never left Japan.  It didn’t help that plenty of the magazines of the day bombarded us broke teenagers with many tantalizing screenshots.  Importing to sample the game’s greatness for years would run you in the hundreds of dollars leaving that out as an option.   With so few having played it its status as one of the best games in the series became legendary.  But does it live up to the hype?

Castlevania: Rondo of Blood was released in 1993 for the PC Engine CD in Japan.  Considering the console’s less than stellar performance in the US it came as no surprise that it was not released for English speaking audiences.  Set during the tail end of the 18th century, you star as possibly the coolest Belmont in the franchise, Richter.  Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her younger sister Maria have been kidnapped by Dracula.  The chase is on as you work your way to Dracula’s castle to settle the score.

This is very much a perfect synthesis of past games in the series while also bringing in elements that would later be used in Symphony of the Night.  Like the original and Castlevania 3 you work your way through the 9 levels and defeat a boss to move on.  Your six sub-weapons are complimented by the item crash ability that would become a staple of the series.  You also possess the ability to back flip although I never really found a good use for it.  It looks cool though.  Sounds like a typical game in the series but that’s where the similarities end.

In a nod to Castlevania 3 there are 4 alternate stages, accessible by finding them during the levels.  In addition to these some levels possess alternate routes that lead to different boss encounters.  The time limit has been removed allowing you all the time in the world to explore the levels for secrets.  Aside from the alternate levels, you can rescue 4 maidens in addition to Annette and Maria.  These aren’t just fluff; finding them influences the ending and bosses you fight and as an added bonus Maria becomes playable once rescued.  Unlike Richter she does not crack a whip, instead attacking with doves and rather than the standard axe, holy water, boomerang, etc. sub-weapons summons animal familiars.  You wouldn’t think of it as she is only a 12 year old girl but using Maria is game breaking as her attacks are massively overpowered.  For those that want to play the game as straightforward as possible you can; anyone seeking added depth has a wealth of content to discover, blending the best elements of traditional Castlevania with some elements from Simon’s Quest.

Over the years much ado was made of the PC Engine/Turbo Grafx-16’s status as a16-bit powerhouse.  This game lays all those arguments to rest.  This is one of the most beautiful games of that era, with hardware defying art and sprite work on display.  No fancy special effects or special chips, just skilled 2d artists given a large canvas with which to ply their trade..  The Turbografx-16 was known for lacking the ability to do parallax scrolling in hardware but that weakness does not show with scrolling 4 or 5 layers deep at times.  A significant number of new enemies were created for this game with a  large volume of the enemies recycled for numerous later games, a testament to the game’s craftsmanship.

The CD soundtrack has an even mix of new tunes and remixes, all masterfully crafted.  This or Symphony of the Night, I can’t decide which has the better soundtrack.  While Dracula X does an admirable job mimicking this version’s music nothing can beat the original.  The CD sound does the game’s compositions justice and any fan of video game music in for a treat.

Luckily anyone who wants to partake in this game’s greatness is no longer forced to pay upwards of $1-200 dollars as it has been re-released on a variety of platforms and downloadable services.   The Wii virtual console version is only $10 and is the Japanese release, untranslated and untarnished.  A port was included as part of the PSP Dracula X Chronicles and as an added bonus translated into English along with a 2.5d remake that although decent does not touch its source material.  However that version has a few graphical issues that blemish the overall product.  Regardless of the version you play you are in for one of the greatest action games of all time.

10-out-of-10

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Castlevania Bloodlines

It’s strange that Konami was one of the last major publishers to come to the Genesis.  While most third parties did not hesitate to run screaming from Nintendo’s strong arm tactics of the 80s they held fast.  Granted, their SNES output was more than enough to sustain them but why not chase the dollars of a whole new audience? When they did come they dove in head first with all of their major brands of the time, including Castlevania.

Castlevania: Bloodlines was released almost simultaneously worldwide in 1994.  Perhaps to set it apart from the main games in the series in case the fans hated it (which I would find hard to believe was possible) the heroes are not the Belmont clan this time; instead you control Jonathan Morris, a descendant of the family or his friend Eric Lecarde.  In stark contrast to previous games in the series this takes place in 1917 rather than the middle ages.  You are on a worldwide hunt for Elizabeth Bartley, Dracula’s niece who is trying to resurrect her uncle.  Each of our heroes has their own reasons for wanting her dead but in the end stopping the Count from coming back is paramount.

Unlike prior games you can choose your hero at the start.  John Morris is the traditional whip wielder and if you’ve played any Castlevania before you know what to expect.   Eric Lecarde uses a spear rather than the Vampire Killer making for some interesting contrasts in terms of gameplay.  The choice isn’t purely cosmetic; each character has their own route through the levels that only they can access.  Only 3 sub weapons make an appearance; the boomerang, axe and holy water.  To supplement this the item crash from Rondo of Blood returns at the cost of extra hearts.  Collecting green orbs will power up your spear or whip for extra damage that lasts until you’ve taken a hit.

Although there are only 6 levels each one is divided into as many as 8 or 9 sections, all providing a decent challenge.  The move sets for the characters are very different, giving a reason to play through as each character to experience their different paths.   John Morris can swing across gaps and is generally stronger while Eric is more agile, able to super jump and move a lot faster.  As a whole playing as Eric is easier since you can attack enemies above or below and also take advantage of his temporary invincibility while super jumping to make most encounters trivial.  It’s almost game breaking how overpowered it is. I completely cheesed my way through the final encounter with Dracula by super jumping through all of his attacks until I had an opening then repeated until the deed was done.

That’s not to say the game isn’t challenging; far from it.  There are frequent gauntlets of two or three bosses back to back with little or no chance to replenish health.  The end of the game features an 8 man boss rush which is insane.  For those who want more of the traditional ball breaking difficulty the series is known for there is an expert mode; good luck with that.

This might sound strange but this plays very much like a Treasure game although they had long since left Konami at that point.  Every level has a plethora of mid bosses, all multi-jointed monstrosities that animate like something out of Gunstar Heroes or Alien Soldier.  The game is absolutely brimming with unique special effects for the hardware.   The reflection effect that Konami was in love with in their Sega games makes an appearance but that is just a drop in the bucket compared to later levels.  The leaning Tower of Pisa features impressive scaling effects reminiscent of Mode 7.  The final level features a segment where the screen is chopped up into lines that scroll independently of one another, leaving you to navigate the beautiful mess.  The game is very bloody compared to Castlevania 4’s squeaky clean veneer.  Series composer Michiru Yamane made her debut here and despite having a very short amount of time to craft the music does an excellent job of upholding the series reputation for aural excellence.

Beautiful stuff.  Konami never lost a step even after the members of Treasure left.

This is an excellent action game that does the series proud and plays to the system’s strengths.  It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Castlevania IV but don’t let that stop you.  Fantastic graphics, inventive levels design and a decent length all combine to provide you with many hours of entertainment.

8-out-of-101

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Super Castlevania IV

The early years of the SNES life were a pretty magical time.   Many beloved franchises received new installments, usually with the Super moniker to remind you that now you’re playing with power.  Super power.  While the vast majority of those games were good, one game that was truly exceptional and deserving of the Super moniker was Castlevania IV.

Super Castlevania IV was released in 1991, not too long after the console’s launch.  There is some debate as to whether it is a remake of the original game or not.  The only things they have in common are the protagonist and the setting and truth be told it doesn’t matter.  Dracula is back for the umpteenth time and Simon returns to deal with his eternal foe once again.  Comprised of eleven levels, the journey begins as you make your way to Dracula’s castle rather than starting at the castle gates as usual.  If you think about it why the hell would Dracula wait until the Belmont clan was knocking on his door to try and take them out?

The multiple paths and optional characters of the third installment do not make a return for this game unfortunately.  Although a slight regression what you do get instead is a much more nimble protagonist.  It seems Konami took the criticism of the series to heart as Simon is just as athletic as the best platform stars.  You have free movement when you jump and can even jump on stairs; two additions fans prayed would be added for years.  Simon moves a lot faster in general thankfully, erasing all memories of the rigid pacing of the original 3 games.  The whip is far more versatile, allowing you to swing in 8 directions, use it as a grappling hook, and even as a shield.  In truth the whip mechanics weren’t necessary and can even be game breaking as you’ll kill enemies above or below long before meeting them face to face.  That’s not to say the game is devoid of challenge as the levels will definitely test your skills toward the end.

The stages run the gamut from forests to misty caves to the various floors of Dracula’s castle.  While some levels are reminiscent of prior installments there are a wide assortment of new enemies and contraptions to contend with.  Stages such as level 4’s rotating room or the constant swinging of level 9 are fine exhibits of the new whip mechanics.  Although the multiple paths are sorely missed by focusing on a linear adventure the levels are much stronger for it.  Though Castlevania IV starts off easy by the end it definitely starts to veer in the direction of prior installments in terms of challenge. I distinctly remember spending the better portion of a few days working on the last few levels; for those of you seeking a challenge its there.

Every graphical trick in the book is exploited with nearly every level featuring some manner of graphical spectacle.  Beyond the quality of the art judicious use of Mode 7 is sprinkled throughout the game.  The fourth stage alone serves as a carnival of tricks the SNES can produce from the rotating room to the shrinking boss himself.  It is a bit gratuitous at times but can you blame them?  It was new hardware, everyone showed off.  Large sprites, monstrous bosses and a cornucopia of special effects combine to create a visual feast for the eyes.  Despite being an early entrant in the system’s library it still holds up admirably today.

The Castlevania series is well known for having some of the finest soundtracks in the industry and this sits near the top.  Going beyond their work on the NES the soundtrack featured a rich amount of ambiance when called for but can switch to a symphonic arrangement at the drop of a dime.  The breadth of instruments used also increased with organs, drums, pianos, and flutes all making an appearance. There are a fair amount of remixes of popular tracks from previous games, most notably Bloody Tears and Vampire Killer.  I distinctly remember my first time seeing the game on the Gamepro TV show (remember that?).  Beyond just the graphics the music floored me, and even the sound effects were excellent.  I would easily place this in the top 5 best Castlevania soundtracks of all time.

Remake or not, this is one of the finest action games ever made and one of the best games in the traditional Castlevania mold.  The fact that it was released early in the console’s life and still bests later games released in 1996 or 1997 is a testament to its gameplay.  Games this good do not come along very often. Don’t miss this.

 

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Castlevania III – Dracula’s Curse

They say the third time is the charm and on the NES that definitely seemed to be the case.  A very weird trend emerged on the system where the second game in each series was a departure from what made the first game popular.  You can see this in Super Mario Brothers 2, Zelda 2, and even Castlevania 2.  Some games benefited from this but while they were appreciated fans still clamored for a return to what made them fall in love with the franchise to begin.  In each case the resulting games were absolutely stellar and Castlevania 3 is among that crowd.

Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse was released in 1990.  Ditching the action RPG style of Simon’s Quest it harkens back to the slow paced gameplay of the series roots.  Set in the 1400s this is actually a prequel to the original Castlevania.  Dracula is on the loose with no one to stop him.  Although the people fear them they call upon the Belmont family to help rid them of this menace.   This task falls on Trevor Belmont and with Vampire Killer in hand the journey begins.

Those familiar with the first game can jump right in.  Trevor plays exactly like Simon, hell he even looks just like him.  You still collect various sub weapons and hearts to power them.  The level designs have undergone an overhaul, with many more featuring vertical scrolling sections along with the traditional left to right gameplay.  The years working on the hardware definitely show as the game as a whole is more adventurous in terms of design.  That manifests itself in its non linearity.

At the end of most levels you are presented with a choice of 2 paths.  There are a grand total of 15 stages overall and it’s impossible to play through all of them in a single run, assuring that no two gamers will take the same route all the time.  The choices are more than just cosmetic; the levels vary in difficulty and lead to 1 of the 3 assistant characters you can partner up with.  That’s right, Trevor is not facing Dracula alone although you have that option if you’re stupid.

Grant, Sypha, and Alucard can join you after defeating them with each possessing a different power that can sometimes make the more challenging sections of the game trivial.  Grant can climb on walls and in a weird twist control his jump in midair, something that doesn’t seem mind blowing at first but when taken in context is damn near revolutionary within this series.  Do you know how badly everyone on planet Earth wished all of the Belmont’s controlled like him? Alucard is weak but can change into a bat and completely bypass almost everything provided you have enough hearts.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say nearly everyone goes for Alucard.  Why waste time lining up your jumps only to have a fucking Medusa head knock you into a pit when you can fly over it?  Yeah, exactly.  Sypha has elemental spells that can also affect the environment to supplement her weak physical attacks.  The spells are powerful but to counterbalance that she takes extra damage when hit and her path also leads to some of the hardest levels in the game.

The series legendary difficulty is here in full swing.  You still move at a leisurely pace and have to stop and line up your jumps properly but now there are far more enemies nipping at your heels, forcing you to take action sooner.  The pace is a bit more frantic; well as frantic as the game can be considering how slow you move.  The bosses are crushingly hard, sometimes forcing you into a gauntlet of 3 in a row with no breaks.  Pray to god you reach them with full health; otherwise you’ll have to be a gaming ninja to beat them.  Tempering this are passwords to record progress.

The art style is simply impeccable.

And the production values don’t hurt either.  Without a doubt Castlevania 3 is among the top 10 NES games in terms of graphics and sound, no question.  Konami stretched the NES color limitations to the breaking point with insane detail in the backgrounds.  The bosses as well exhibit the same attention to detail.  The soundtrack likewise is fantastic, with many of the familiar themes from the series remixed for the better.  It should be noted that the US version is slightly gimped compared to the Japanese version.  In Japan the game made use of a custom chip that added two sound channels to the console’s five as well as allowing for smoother animation.   But even despite that this is indicative of the heights developers were able to eventually reach on the platform after so many years.

What more needs to be said?  This is one of the best games for the system and one of the greatest in the series.  It rarely gets much better than this.

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Castlevania II – Simon’s Quest

Though it was popularized by Symphony of the Night that wasn’t the first time the Castlevania series had flirted with RPG mechanics.  That distinction belongs to Castlevania II, a game with a very storied history among gamers for a variety of reasons.  It would continue the streak among NES games in which the 2nd game in the series is a radical departure from its predecessor.  While it is enjoyable at times Simon’s Quest buckles under the weight of its flaws.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest was released in 1987 for the Famicom disk system in Japan and as a cartridge in America the following year.  There are some differences between the two: the disk version had battery backup while we were saddled with passwords.  On the other hand the music was improved thanks to the increased cartridge size.  The game takes place a number of years after the original game with Simon now suffering from a curse placed on him by Dracula before dying.  After being informed of this Simon sets out to recover the 5 scattered pieces of Dracula to resurrect him in order to undo the curse.  Time is of the essence as he does not have long to live; that element plays out during the course of the game in numerous ways.

This would be the first game to experiment with the now famous “Metroidvania” formula.  Rather than a linear set of stages capped off with a boss fight you are free to explore the entire world as you hunt down Dracula’s parts.  There are numerous towns to visit and people to speak to for varying obtuse clues (more on that later) as you build up an inventory of items you’ll need to progress.   Not every item you find is absolutely necessary for progression but they do have benefits you can exploit.  Experience is gained from the hearts you collect which also double as currency.  Your secondary weapons can be used an infinite number of times now with a few exceptions but have to be found first.

As you travel from point to point your journey will be interrupted as the curse will take effect at night.  During night fall all enemies become stronger and the towns are occupied by monsters.  Any business you had is put on hold until the sun comes up which takes awhile.  There probably is a set period of time that needs to pass for these changes to occur but I’ve never been able to confirm what that is.  Your gameplay time is tracked in game and depending on how long it took to kill Dracula you’ll receive one of 3 endings, the worst of which has Simon dying after the final battle.

Seriously WTF?  Prossess?  You mean to tell me no one noticed that?

This sure as hell isn’t English

All of the pieces are there but the execution is flawed due in large part to the shoddy localization.  I mentioned the “clues” you are given throughout the course of the game but that is being generous.  Calling them clues is being polite.  The translation was completely botched and worse you are often given false information on purpose.  Areas of the game are name dropped but with the exception of the towns are never named in game.  This is confusing as you’ll be told to go to a graveyard to meet someone but its never specified which one.  The information that you absolutely do need for progress is often never given within the game.  As an example: to find the second mansion you need to equip the blue crystal and kneel before the lake for a few seconds, revealing the passageway.  Who the hell would have thought to do that?  If it were not for my next door neighbor’s hint book I would have been screwed when I played this in 1989.  While the curse makes for interesting gameplay moments in reality it’s just infuriating.  There’s nothing worse than rushing to meet a particular person in town only to be cock blocked for 10 minutes when the curse rears its ugly head.

The mansions where Dracula’s body parts reside are where a large chunk of the game takes place.  Here the objective is the same every time: find the merchant selling an oak stake somewhere in the building and then locate the orb it’s encased in.  The stake is necessary to smash it for your prize so it can’t be avoided.  In a clever move if you buy another stake and bring it to another mansion there is usually a path that will take you to the body part right away.

Unfortunately these parts have their own problems on top of the rest of the game.  There are an endless supply of false floors and walls, most of which are necessary to pass through. These are never obvious and as a result see you throwing holy water at every step and wall to uncover them.  This becomes incredibly tedious and honestly is dumb.  Oftentimes you’ll have to make blind leaps of faith at a wall and hope you can walk through it.  It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t mandatory or at least communicated to you in some shape or form.  When you buy a stake, it can be very easy to screw up and use it by accident, forcing you to backtrack to buy another one.  Castlevania was known for its punishing bosses but disappointingly ( or maybe thankfully) there are only 3 in this game.  The game ends with the most anticlimactic Dracula fight ever, which is pitiful considering the amount of trouble you go through to just to reach him.  It is entirely possible to kill Dracula before he ever has a chance to fully spawn and move which is lame.

Yet somehow the game is still fun; I know hard to believe.  Graphically this is a step up from the first game and even though it’s more in the style of Metroid still retains its Castlevania roots.  If ever there were a game that needed a remake Simon’s Quest is a prime candidate.  Play the game with a walk through to save yourself the inevitable headache.  While not as great as it could have been it did lay the groundwork for the direction the series would later take.

6-out-of-101

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Castlevania

 

It’s funny how some of the most legendary franchises in gaming got their start.  Werewolves, mummies, vampires, these are all classic movie monsters that people are familiar with.  Basing a game on fighting these creatures doesn’t seem all that exciting at first; plenty of games by that point had at least dabbled with with the idea.  But the Castlevania series thrived on that classic horror vibe and thanks to the power of the NES over prior consoles like the Atari 2600 and Colecovision was able to deliver the level of horror necessary to make these classic monsters a credible threat.

Castlevania was released in 1987 by Konami.  You are Simon Belmont, the latest in a long line of vampire hunters tasked with destroying Dracula.  Whipping Dracula’s ass is the family business you see, and business is good.  Armed with the trusty family whip you begin the journey to Dracula’s castle for the fated battle.  Up until this point most NES games had been noticeably light and cheery with very few adapting a dark atmosphere.  Castlevania is seeped in it, from the graphics to the music.   This wasn’t Super Mario Brothers, and Konami got that point across perfectly.

A platformer like many of its contemporaries, Castlevania is definitely its own beast.  Unlike Mario and Mega Man Simon moves at a very slow pace; the control is overall very rigid in the sense that once you perform an action you are locked into it.  You start out with a basic leather whip that can be upgraded twice to a Morning star with considerable length.  This is your primary weapon and thankfully it’s very powerful, giving you the ability to take out most foes long before they reach you.  Every level is littered with candles or some variant that contain hearts, bags of money for points, and the numerous sub weapons that complement your whip.  These range from holy water to the cross and each require a set number of hearts to use.  Learning which weapon to carry in each stage and when becomes key as one of the defining traits of the game, and maybe even the series is the difficulty.

There’s no sugar coating it, this game is fucking hard.  I cannot stress that enough.  I mentioned that this is its own monster and that fact is absolutely true.  You either adapt to the game’s pacing or play something else.  Any attempt to treat this like Contra or Mario will result in abject failure.  Because of the enemy placement you had better be damn sure you can make that jump as once you start there’s no turning back, success or failure.  There are a considerable number of platform jumps to be made and you can be sure that a fucking Medusa head or random bat is waiting to knock you back into a pit.  The knock back is the most infuriating aspect of the game in that you can only pray there aren’t any spikes or bottomless pits behind you when it happens.

And it will.  Repeatedly.  The difficulty jumps very quickly early on, to the point where by stage 4 or 5 you can only sustain 4 hits before death.  The bosses are absolutely brutal in this game with very little margin for error.  Bringing the wrong sub weapon will make these fights impossible.  You either play the way the designers intended or get to enjoy frequent visits to the game over screen.

If you can make it far enough to see these bosses you are a God among men.

But the amazing thing is it still remains fun.  Even when you fail you’ll generally see exactly why it happened and can work to correct that mistake.  There are a large amount of secrets hidden behind random blocks to track down for those with OCD.  The presentation doesn’t hurt either.  The graphics capture the macabre vibe perfectly and for its time this game was definitely a notch above everything else.   The soundtrack is creepy and atmospheric, complimenting the graphics.  The Castlevania series is renowned for having some of the best OSTs in gaming; that legacy started here.

Age hasn’t been kind to the Castlevania’s blemishes.  It was released at a unique period in gaming where most developers were still finding their legs, so to speak.  We were willing to overlook the flaws to get to the creamy filling underneath.  If you were to release a game like this now it would get savaged, and rightfully so.  Play this with that mindset and you’ll be able to enjoy it for what it gets right.

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Batman Returns (Snes)

Love them or hate them, licensed videogames are a permanent part of the industry.  Anyone can see the attraction of a popular license: a built in fan base that will (hopefully) carry over to the videogame landscape and give its publisher massive amounts of money.  The majority of the time this never works as planned, but when it does (Enter the Matrix) that 1 game will finance a shitload of lesser games.  The Batman movies were huge in the early 90s so when Batman Returns opened to big numbers the rush was on to release games to capitalize on it.  No console was left untouched, with even the god damn Atari Lynx getting a game.

Batman Returns was part of the massive media blitz that accompanied the movie of the same name.  There were scores of games based on the movie for every console and handheld known to man by various publishers.  Konami made the majority of those and this SNES version turned out the best of all of them.  It follows the plot of the movie loosely in which millionaire Max Shreck teams up with the Penguin to have him replace the current mayor of Gotham City with a side of Catwoman thrown in.  You know thinking about that plot has made me realize just how dumb it is.  The SNES version is a beat ‘em up like Final Fight and Streets of Rage before it, and a damn fine one at that.

Some seriously brutal moves here.  Batman does not play around.

The game takes place across 7 levels ripped straight from the movie.  You control Batman as he pummels everything in his way to the end of each stage.  If you’ve played any game in the genre you know what to expect.  What sets Batman Returns apart is your rather large assortment of moves.  Most of them are brutal as hell and are uncharacteristic of the genre.  One hand slams, grabbing two mooks and smashing their heads together, it’s what you would expect of Batman.  My personal favorite is throwing them into the background scenery; such an awesome move that should have been added to these types of games long before this.  The ability to block also comes in handy, another one that has never made sense when it’s left out.  But those aren’t your only moves.

Aside from your fists you have batarangs to momentarily stun enemies, a grappling hook to traverse sparse terrain and screen clearing test tubes that are in limited supply.  The grappling hook is underused unfortunately but is still a welcome addition for its few uses.  The levels switch up the gameplay constantly.  Nearly every level has segments where your standard attack is replaced with unlimited batarangs, almost turning the game into a shooting gallery.  Whether it is a slow trek up the side of a building or riding escalators these parts were clearly designed to break up the monotony of the standard punch, punch, kick levels and are on the same level as the rest of the game.  The fifth stage is a ride down the highways of Gotham in the Batmobile and makes full use of mode 7 scaling to give a sense of 3d.

Everything is tightly balanced: you’ll never be overwhelmed by an unfairly high amount of enemies at once, none of the levels run too long, and the game will switch things up at the right moments.  The game does still adhere to some of the tropes of the brawler genre in that bosses still deal unfairly large amounts of health but extra lives are awarded at a decent clip and offset this.  By this point Konami had made numerous arcade games of this type and that heritage and experience carries over to this game.

The only negatives would be the lack of enemy variety and overly cheap bosses.  These are problems most games of this type face but it still sucks that nothing was done about this.  Though the game changes constantly you will get tired of facing the same fat and thin clowns.  But those points don’t bring down an otherwise excellent game.  It isn’t everyday that you can say a licensed product is good but Konami definitely did the license justice here.

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C: the Contra Adventure

Sometimes I’m left speechless.  As bad as Legacy of War turned out you’d think Konami would have gone in a completely different direction to get away from that abomination.  But less than 2 years later we have another terrible Contra game that has many of the same flaws as the original.

C: the Contra Adventure was released in 1998, with development once again handed to Appaloosa.  For the life of me I don’t know who made that decision but whatever.  This was only released in the US which should immediately set off warning flags.  The story continues on from the end of Legacy of War.  The alien that survived by stowing away on a meteorite eventually crash lands on Earth.  After occupying a Mayan temple it begins its assault on the planet.  Tasha is sent in to investigate but goes missing, leaving Ray Powered to rescue her and destroy the invaders.  No multiple characters here, this is a solo mission.

Gameplay now consists of many different viewpoints in an attempt to alleviate criticisms lobbied at the first game.  Throughout the 10 levels you’ll play through side scrolling stages reminiscent of the original games, third person segments, an overhead level like Legacy of War and even a throwback to the base assaults in the first Contra.  The whole game tries to ride on nostalgia to make you forget about the missteps taken with the last game.  A nice thought, but they almost completely fail at doing so.

They hit the nostalgia button haaaaaard on these levels but it doesn’t work.

Things start off with a side scrolling level just like Contra III.  Like the games of old, you scroll left to right blowing up everything in sight.  Although constricted to a 2-d plane everything is made of polygons.  The 3-d is used to great effect in the backgrounds as they shift in real time as you progress.  Even considering the game’s age the effect is slightly impressive.  These parts may at first seem the game’s strongest suit but then the issues creep in and ruin the experience.  The jumping is floaty as hell and not very precise.   Because there is no sense of weight to your body you’ll easily misjudge how far you’ll travel and miss many of your jumps.  The platforming never feels precise and a lot of  ledges seem a touch too far, forcing you to inch your way to the very edges of a precipice before jumping.

There’s a generous auto aim that can help with targeting but many times the background shifts will throw it off, leaving you to get in close to make your shots.  The weapons never feel like they have any punch to them; bosses have long life bars that drain slowly and none of your weapons seem to do any significant damage, a criticism that extends to entire game.  These levels drag on far too long with no checkpoints,  making them a chore to slog through.  The overall sloppiness is what hurts these levels.  They never feel as tight as they should.

Ugh, these screenshots encapsulate everything wrong with these segments.

The third person levels are absolutely terrible and make up over 60% of the game.  Where do I even start?  The camera is far too close leaving large chunks of the playing field concealed.  The draw distance is abysmal, and combined with the infinitely re-spawning enemies is a nightmare.  Because the camera is so close, you won’t see enemies that are literally 2 feet above you.  Far too many cheap hits come from corners of the screen you can’t see.  There is no map and these levels are large with many sections looking identical.

Navigating these levels with all of these problems is hellish and I haven’t mentioned the worst part.  Tank controls.  Tank controls have no place in third person games whatsoever unless they are named Resident Evil and I barely tolerate it in those games.  Bad enough you can’t see where 90% of the attacks are coming from, now you have to turn like a robot in hopes of counterattacking.  I want to shoot whoever invented tank controls, just so you know.

Amazingly enough the overhead levels are the strongest.  These are true overhead with a camera zoomed out to a comfortable distance so you can see as far as the draw distance will allow.  Platforming is kept to a minimum and even then only in a straight line, none of that weird circular shit from Legacy of War.  The tank controls don’t get in the way as all enemies are on the same plane and the auto aim will adjust accordingly.  Oddly enough, boss fights give full range of movement like every other third person shooter.  Had the game been made up of just these stages it would have been a much better product.

There you have it.  As bad as the last game was this is worse in some ways.  The sentiment was there with the throwback levels but unfortunately they failed in the execution.  After the failure of the last game you would think they would have made absolutely sure to avoid any comparisons to that travesty of a game but that isn’t the case.  Replay any of the old games and pretend this game doesn’t exist like the rest of the world.

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Contra Legacy of War

Oh lord where do I even begin.  I don’t go into a game expecting to absolutely detest its existence but sometimes its unavoidable.  This is one of those cases.  I just don’t understand how a developer can create such a flawed experience that shows its cracks right from the start, let alone a publisher of Konami’s caliber signing off on it.  But here we are with Legacy of War literally shitting the bed.

Contra Legacy of War represented a few firsts.  The first multi platform Contra, in this case PlayStation and Saturn.  The first 3-d Contra title, actually in 2 ways.  But the optional 3-d mode that requires the glasses that are packaged with the game is so stupid it’s not worth mentioning.  And the first to be developed by an external developer, Appaloosa Interactive, creators of the Ecco the Dolphin series for Sega.  With those lofty expectations in front of it I guess you could say it was destined for failure.

Colonel Bassad has allied himself with aliens and started to amass an army to take over the world.  Ray Powered returns from Contra Hard Corps with a new team of soldiers to take down this combined threat.  Spread across 7 levels, the game is played from an overhead isometric perspective, a throwback to select stages from previous Contra installments.

God even the character art is amateurish.

Like Contra Force and Hard Corps, each member of the team has 4 weapons with 2 shared and 2 distinct.  Each member also varies slightly in terms of movement speed and jumping ability.  So far so good.  The now legendary difficulty of the series is here in full force, not always for the right reasons.  The hectic pace of the series is maintained as enemies swarm from all directions and will keep you on your toes.  The fundamentals are in place for a good action romp, but the basic gameplay mechanics are where the game completely falls apart.

Just a few minutes into the game and you’ll start to see the problems surface.

Because everything is in 3-d, enemies come from all directions.  You have no targeting options, just a strafe that locks your fire in one direction.  This doesn’t always work however, leaving you firing in random directions when it craps out.  You have no control over the camera so the doors and such that can be destroyed to reveal items are obscured the majority of the time.  I guess this is so they are “hidden” but it also creates issues where enemy fire can’t be seen and it happens far too frequently.

The biggest issue in my opinion would be the airborne enemies.  In prior games with overhead stages all enemies were on the same plane to keep it simple.  Here they come from every direction, even above.  Without the ability to specifically target them you have to jump and pray to god your bullets hit.  This becomes an even bigger problem when you have to hit particular weak points that require you to jump and fire.  Literally 5 seconds into the game you’ll see this exact problem rear its head.  Prior games gave you visual indicators that you were damaging enemies or bosses like hit sparks or flashes when you connect.  There’s little of that here.  You might face a boss with a weak spot that flashes when hit only to run into another that has no indication whether you’re damaging it until they die.  Sounds minor but the inconsistency is infuriating.  Another thing:  the weapon falcons also fly overhead, and you guessed it, you’ll have to jump and shoot at them too.

Look at that.  I can’t believe I even bothered to play through this.

The floaty jumping makes the already bad decision to include platforming even worse and the second half of the game focuses on that aspect of the game heavily.  The issue with the platforming is a matter of depth perception.  Ledges are arranged in wildly varying sequences and because you can’t move the camera it becomes a hassle to line up.  The last 3 stages require precision jumping to proceed, and taking into account everything I just mentioned are a nightmare.  The final level in particular is near incomprehensible to navigate because of this.  Its bad enough the ground is near transparent, some genius decided to add a large face in the background that obscures the playing field even more.  Why the hell would you include platforming in an overhead shooter anyway?  I just can’t fathom how so many of these issues were overlooked, most of which you get to experience within 30 seconds.  I’m fully aware that that generation of consoles were most developer’s first stab at 3-d, but it isn’t fair to charge money so you can shed your training wheels.

A pretty decent soundtrack does not make up for the crippling faults in the rest of the game.  This was just the first misstep Konami would make with the series and wouldn’t be the last. The downward spiral would not take long to continue and forced the series to hibernate for a few years.  Absolutely do not play this game and tarnish whatever good memories of the franchise you have.

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They actually had the nerve to leave the ending open for a sequel.  And you know what?  They did!  That means a group of dumb assholes bought this game in large enough quantities to warrant a sequel.  I hope you’re proud of yourselves!

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Contra Hard Corps

This should have been the ultimate Contra experience.  In many ways it still is.  But god damn it, if it were not for one stupid change this would undoubtedly be the greatest Contra ever.  Contra Hard Corps lives up to that name in more ways than one, some good, some bad.

Contra: Hard Corps was released for the Sega Genesis in 1994.  By this point Konami had a solid Sega team cranking out Genesis versions of their popular franchises, all with a distinct look in terms of graphics and special effects.  Set 5 years after the Alien Wars, the Hard Corps in the title refers to the crack team of commandos assembled to fight crime.  The game starts off with rampaging robots running amok in the city streets due to a hacker attack and from there goes through many twists and turns, many of which you decide.  Your first choice will be which character to control.

Unlike previous entries with the exception of Contra Force you have your pick from 4 soldiers, each with their own weapon load out and abilities. Ray and Sheena are the closest to past heroes Bill & Lance, Brad Fang is a wolf man with a machine gun arm and Browny is a squat Robot.  The looks aren’t just for show: Browny can take advantage of his size to avoid attacks everyone else would have to duck under and can double jump.  Brad has the strongest weapons but most require you to be in close range.  All of them have access to a slide that makes you invincible temporarily which is a life saver.

Learning how to beat the bosses while overcoming a given character’s weaknesses is one of the game’s strongest points.  With 4 characters comes a host of new weapons that are awesome in practice to figure out their best use.  The Axe Laser is like a spread gun combined with homing missiles, Gemini Scatter can flood the screen with powerful bullets that return to you.    You’ll need this impressive firepower as you plow through the 10 overall levels.

The levels take you through a range of locales, some evoking Contra III.  Battling through the city streets while the landscape is torn down around you by Gundam sized mechs gets the blood pumping right off the bat.  Your motorcycle ride starts off like the Alien Wars but quickly deviates into a trippy boss fight on a helicopter as the view point constantly changes.  The level designs are its strongest suit and will have you constantly guessing as to what will come next.  The bosses are very Treasure like in their design and attack pattern which is always good thing.  Nearly every one is memorable, and the scenarios in which you fight them will leave a deep impressions, such as the forward scrolling fight down the highway against a mech or the multi-stage encounter against your nemesis Dead Eye Joe.

Another welcome addition: multiple routes.  On many stages you’ll be asked how to proceed which will determine the levels you’ll see.  Not only limited to being a stage select, they also affect the story and lead to one of 5 endings.  How’s that for replay value?  These aren’t just pure fluff either, they go as far as you even joining the enemy to take over the world!

How could it all go wrong?  Because of a change made for the US version.  See in the Japanese version you had a life bar and could take 3 hits as well as unlimited continues.  For the US, you die after 1 hit and only have 3 continues to beat the game.  That wouldn’t be so bad on its own but the difficulty wasn’t adjusted to compensate.  The game still plays out as if you can survive multiple hits with an honestly overdone amount of attacks and enemies that appear out of the blue.  All games involve a certain amount of trial and error, but here it’s frustrating as hell when the consequences of failing are so dire.  Far too many bosses pull out “oh shit” attacks at random, depleting your stock of lives rapidly.  I’m not opposed to a good challenge, but only when it’s fair.  Here that isn’t the case.

Even in spite of the damage the changes in difficulty has wrought this is still a phenomenal installment of the series and is absolutely worth playing.  I feel the change made is worth mentioning so you know what to expect beforehand.  With fantastic graphics, an amazing soundtrack and multiple endings, you will get your money’s worth and then some.  Too bad it could have been the undisputed king of the franchise.

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Contra Force

I hope all of you appreciate this.  It’s not just any day that a game legitimately makes me mad just by being terrible.  But this is Contra man!  I love this series and have many fond memories of playing each installment for weeks long after I had finished them because the gameplay is so good.  How could it go so wrong?

Contra Force was released for the NES in late 1992, well after Contra III.  This was supposed to be the third in the series before it made the jump to SNES but delays changed that.  I distinctly remember seeing the Alien Wars labeled as Super Contra IV in the February ’92 issue of Gamepro (respect my gaming knowledge son).  In fact it wasn’t even a Contra game originally but an original product that was cancelled in Japan and retooled as a spinoff for the US.  Right there you know something is wrong.  Set in modern day the Contra Force is an elite unit tasked with taking down a terrorist cell In 1 or 2-player coop gameplay.  The game spans 5 levels, 3 side scrolling and 2 top down much like Super C.

There is very little that connects this game to the others in the series.  I’m scratching my brain trying to think of some.  Well you curl in a ball when you jump like Contra.  I think that’s it.  Oh yeah, you die after 1-hit.  Rather than Bill & Lance you have your choice from the 4 members of the Force team: Burns, Smith, Iron, & Beans (really?).  Each has 4 weapons selected by powering them up Gradius style.  In truth, 2 of them are the same for every character which is disappointing.

What is pretty cool is the ability to change members at any time.  There is a second function to this in that they have their own separate life count, and switching before losing all of them will prevent a game over.  In addition you can set 1 up to be controlled by computer AI in one of 6 formations and they’ll assist you for about 5 or 6 seconds.  There’s no limit to this and if you feel like it you can spam it over and over.  There are slight differences like run speed but not to the point you’ll notice.  So why is it so bad?

The basic action is terrible.  Everything moves at a ridiculously slow pace, a far cry from the action established in prior installments.  When you think of Contra, you picture fast action, bullets flying everywhere from a large array of enemies and bad ass weapons to destroy them with.  You get none of that here outside of the bosses.  You rarely face more than 2 foes at a time and the enemy variety is lacking, with about 6 or 7 comprising the roster.  Because you need to collect briefcases to change weapons you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time with your basic rifle.  A large portion of the environments are destructible which is where you’ll find these cases but to find even one you’ll need to blast everything in sight repeatedly like you have OCD.  It’s just not fun.

The different weapons each player has sound nice in theory but most of them are useless.  Smith’s homing missiles are the most useful but you’ll rage at the screen as they slowly circle around you before heading toward a target.  Beans timed bombs are absolutely stupid in a game where you want to shoot the enemy long before they can reach you.  The overhead stages are vintage Contra and are one of its highlights with excellent graphics and tricky enemy placement.  The bosses also echo classic Contra with the only down side being they take entirely too many hits to kill.  Too bad those bright spots don’t save the game.

Don’t play this game and have your precious memories of the series tarnished.  Even divorcing it of the Contra name, it is still a sub par action game.  There are far better games out there, like Bucky O’ Hare, conveniently from Konami too.  Play one of those.

Bunch of lamers.

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Contra III – the Alien Wars

A Hollywood blockbuster in video game form.  That’s the simplest way to describe Contra III.  Take everything from summer action movies, the explosions, the booming soundtrack, and distill it down to its essence and you have the Alien Wars.  By this point the Contra series had achieved iconic status so the game was highly anticipated, and it managed to blow away all expectations upon release.

Contra III: the Alien Wars was released in 1992 for all regions and finds our heroes once again battling Red Falcon and his alien forces, who have since regrouped and initiated a full on war against Earth.  Just like a summer action movie the story is non-existent.  You battle the alien forces across six diverse levels which does not sound like much but trust me, you will be grateful there are only that many.  Luckily your arsenal of weapons has been vastly expanded to combat this menace.

New to the series are the Homing Missiles, Flamethrower and the Crusher Missiles as well as the ability to stockpile screen clearing bombs.  Each new weapon has its pluses and minuses: Homing Missiles are extremely handy but very weak, the Flamethrower is powerful but has a short range, and the Crusher Missiles are your strongest weapon but cannot be fired as rapidly as everything else.  They are best saved for the bosses.  You now can carry two weapons at once and only lose whichever is active upon dying.  You can also fire both at the same time which, while looking cool I never really found a use for.  It also carries causes you to lose both weapons if you die.  Lastly, you can climb on nearly any surface including ceilings.  Sounds like you have the makings of a walking terminator but all of these abilities are needed to survive the excellent levels.

The level design is in a word, outstanding.  Every level is a departure from the last and the game takes you on a roller coaster ride of action set pieces.  Level 3 is a nonstop parade of boss fights, with each one upping the ante until the level’s climax.  Level 4 sees you speeding down the highway on your motorbike only to ascend to the sky for the level’s culmination.  Levels 2 and 5 are overhead levels that allow you to choose your starting position and plot your route as you destroy 5 cores to unlock the boss.  The mode 7 effects are really put to use in these levels as you constantly rotate the screen to navigate.  These mark the biggest exodus from the traditional gameplay and honestly while some people hate them I think they break up the flow of the action nicely.  That flow is the game’s chief asset; when the action is heavy you barely have time to breath as you move from point to point.  But when the game slows it down you can take things at your own pace.  It’s all very measured.

The challenge is tuned perfectly depending on the difficulty selected.  Easy will allow you to adapt to the game’s nuances. Normal presents a decent challenge but remains doable.  Hard is exactly what the name implies, and as an added bonus is the only w;ay to see the true ending, which I’ll add is more than worth the hassle.  Oh yeah, no Konami code to save your ass this time around either.  You’re going to have to earn your ninja gaming stripes the old fashioned way.

This is one of the few games where the Hard difficulty is a legitimately new experience.  Bosses have new attacks, increased immunities to certain strategies, and as insane as it sounds, everything moves faster.  The bosses steal the show in every scene, with some incredibly creative scenarios.  The moment the final boss of Area 3 rips open the walls to fight is one of the greatest scenes in video game history. Likewise the final boss of Area 4 is one of the most awesome encounters from that era.  How many other games have you jumping from missile to missile while fighting a massive mother ship?  On hard the final boss even has one more form to contend with just when you think it’s over.  You’ll need the reflexes of a cat to overcome these odds, but if you are willing it’s a war worth winning.

Almost 20 years later and this still remains the pinnacle of the series.  That right there is a testament to its quality.  Not many games can withstand the test of time so well and Contra III definitely stands proud among that elite class.


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Super C

When I first played Super C I didn’t think much of it.  Maybe it was due to my extremely limited amount of time with it or I just didn’t feel like playing a Contra game at the time.  My first real sit down with it came in Christmas of 1991when my cousins received it as a present and proceeded to berate my NES library, saying that it was better than every game I had.  Mind you, this wasn’t exactly a high bar to beat when your competition is Mystery Quest, Wizards & Warriors, and Milon’s Secret Castle.  Anyway now that I had the chance to soak in the game’s details I could finally see it for the excellent action tit;e that it is.

Forget the story; it’s not important.  All you need to know: the aliens have returned, Bill and Lance are back to kick some ass, go.  A port of the arcade game, Super C is Contra on steroids.  The bosses are bigger, the enemies more dangerous, and everything looks and sounds so much better.  The NES game might not look as good as its arcade counterpart however it is a more substantial roduct with numerous additions that help increase the longevity of the game.  Super C is one of the best pure action titles for the NES and upholds the Contra legacy beautifully and is still a blast to run through today.

All of the original weapons return with no new additions which sounds bad at first but considering how effective they all were to begin with it has little bearing.  The lone change would be the fire gun which has been redesigned so it isn’t the most useless of the bunch anymore.  Now you can charge it and let off a larger fireball that passes through enemies and explodes on impact.  The home version has 3 more levels than the arcade for a total of 8 with longer stages to boot.  Missing from the arcade is the ability to control the height of your jumps and the ability to carry a screen clearing smart bomb.  The main upgrade over Contra would be the level designs themselves.

For the most part Contra was a strictly left to right affair, with stage 3 and the 2 forward scrolling levels as the exceptions.  Now in Super C, the terrain is far more varied with inclines and more vertical movement.  Levels 2 and 6 are played from an overhead perspective as you face an onslaught of enemies similar to the later Contra III.  Level 5 sees you advancing up a mountain like the waterfall in the first game, and just like that level the designers have cleverly placed numerous boulders and enemies that will punish you for trying to rush too fast.  Level 7 switches things up as you progress downward through an alien hive with monsters practically blinking into existence as you scroll down.

There are numerous traps that lie in wait aside from the previously mentioned boulders; in level 4 advancing to fast will activate the collapsing ceiling before you can react. The lead up to the final boss of stage 3 is epic, with crumpling floors and its numerous bosses.  These don’t sound like major additions, and truthfully they’re not.  What they do is break up the flow of the game and make you pay attention.  The game consistently alters the flow of the action, giving you brief moments of peace before the mayhem is renewed but at no point does it ever get boring.  The entire game is loaded with many “oh shit I didn’t see that” moments with soldiers popping out from cover behind you or even underground.

There is no Konami code to save your ass this time around.  Rather than the overly generous thirty lives of the first game you only get this time with a different code which is a fair amount.  Those 10 will disappear quickly as the difficulty is right up there with its predecessor.  The bosses while sporting awesome designs will definitely kick your ass and combined with snap enemy placement will make all but the sturdiest gamers tap out.  Despite that I would say it’s a fair challenge that can be overcome with perseverance, as it should be.

It’s Contra. That should give you an idea of what to expect.  It’s bigger, badder, and better than ever.  That’s all you need to know.  You either love it for its ball busting challenge and tight gameplay or hate it because you lack the skills needed to rise to the occasion.  I know what side of that fence I’m on, what about you?

 

9-out-of-10

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Contra Week

For my second feature I’ll be examining the Contra series.  Once the very definition of action games the series would eventually fade into obscurity for a number of years before seeing a resurgence with its PS2 installment.  From the highs to the lows you’ll see a franchise born then die in a fire.  How could such a thing have happened? I’ll be studying just that. Regardless, it should be a fun ride.

Contra the 8-bit Years: Contra

Contra the 8-Bit Years: Super C

Contra the 16-bit Age: Contra III – the Alien Wars

Contra the 8-bit Years: Contra Force

Contra the 16-Bit Age: Contra Hard Corps

Contra the 32-bit Era: Contra Legacy of War

Contra the 32-Bit Era: C: the Contra Adventure

 

 

 

 

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Contra

In the 80s there weren’t really any dedicated videogame stores like GameStop or Electronic Boutique.  You went to your local Sears, K-Mart, or if you were really lucky, Toys R Us for the latest games.  Since they didn’t know any better, they were very lax when it came to returns.  You didn’t even need a real reason, so long as you had the box and a receipt you were good.  My family and I abused the hell out of this system, buying a game finishing it a day later than trading it for something else.  Even better, if you bought a turd you weren’t stuck with it like now.  This particular time we traded in Star Voyager (oh lord what a load that game was) for Contra without knowing the slightest detail about it.  Oh man what an awesome decision that was.

Contra stars Bill and Lance as they journey through 8 stages to defeat Red Falcon and his alien hordes in 1 or 2 player coop action.  Konami’s US offices were on a US movie kick, and the cover art is very obviously Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sly Stallone as our titular heroes.  Originally an arcade game Contra was ported to the NES in 1988 by Konami themselves.  The home version differed from the arcade in a few ways.  All of the levels are far longer than the coin op and there is no time limit.  Levels 2 and 4 are no longer mazes that you work through; instead they feature one linear path.  A few of the bosses were also changed.  I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time.  I wasn’t even aware of the arcade machine’s existence until about 2 years later when I was finally able to play it.  While it looked better I definitely feel the home version was an upgrade.

For most of us Contra is all about the weapons.  The soon to be familiar Falcon icons appear a few seconds after you start and give you a taste of the armaments available.  Rapid Fire, Machine gun, Laser, Fire, Spread Gun, all the weapons in the game are present on the very first level with the exception of the Barrier and the……..I guess I’ll call it a Bomb that destroys all enemies.  You get to sample each one right away and decide which is your favorite.  All of them have their strengths and weaknesses but it’s entirely possible to play through the game with any one, even your ordinary pea shooter.  For my money it’s got to be the spread gun man.  I mean come on, you can cover a good chunk of the screen with it!  Your choice will largely determine how much harder the game is, and make no mistake, it is hard.

One shot and you’re dead, losing any weapon you had.  This was soul crushing if you had managed to keep the same weapon for numerous stages and boom, now you’re screwed.   The standard pistol is workable but not ideal, and you’ll face numerous machines and even enemies that require multiple shots to kill.  Pray to god you don’t die on a boss, you might as well kill yourself and do it over.  In 2-player, scrubby players can get left behind or caught in the scrolling of the stage, such as the Waterfall in level 3.  You can even unintentionally make your partner miss a jump by going too far ahead at the wrong moment.  I’m not sure if it was intentional but in coop if one person uses all of their lives they can borrow one to rejoin the action.  I’m pretty sure it was meant as a way to keep both players in the game but from experience I can tell you in my circle of friends it was used in order to be a douche bag.  Unfortunately I was the scrubby little brother that would end up killing both players and using up all of our lives back in the day; what can I say multiplayer was not my forte.

The Konami code wasn’t started here, that distinction belongs to Gradius but this game popularized it.   With it you have 30 lives to recklessly spend working your way to the end.  This is pathetic but I know some people who still can’t beat the game with the code.  I mentioned the difficulty but in my case I never really noticed it.  I was able to finish the game just fine the same day I bought it, even in coop.  And I’m terrible at multiplayer.  Your mileage might vary of course but christ turn in your gamer credentials if you still fail with 30 lives.

For its time this was THE coop game.  Even now it’s still fun to do a quick run through.  This was the start of a beloved franchise in gaming, and it’s easy to see why.

8-out-of-101

No I haven’t turned this into a porno blog, this is from the last level.  We all know what it looks like.

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Legend of the Mystical Ninja

It’s not very often that a company will take a chance on a game as far out as this.  The only way I can describe it is just so very….Japanese.  From the setting, the enemies, the locations, everything is 100% raw Japanese.  And pure awesome.

Legend of the Mystical Ninja was released for the SNES around summer 1992.  The first game in the series to come to America, prior installments on the NES were never localized, more than likely because of the reasons mentioned above.  You control Kid Yang (Goemon) & Dr. Yang (Ebisumaru) as they journey to rescue Princess Yuki from the Otafu Army in 2-player co-op.  The trip spans 9 levels (referred to as Warlock Zones) as you gather clues and bash bad guys from one end of Japan to the other.

Each level is split into 2 parts.  Town exploration almost plays out like an RPG. You have free reign to wander around and enter people’s houses to speak to them, buy food or items, etc.  There are enemies that roam back and forth, although for the most part they don’t seem particularly interested in you.  Defeated enemies drop gold or scrolls, and every eighth enemy drops a kitten that will upgrade your standard weapon, up to 2 times.  You also have the ability to toss your gold and bombs once bought.

The platforming sections of the game are exactly what you would expect as you work your way to the end and defeat bosses to complete a stage. Both of these sections of the game are timed, but the timer is a non factor.  You are given a judicious amount of time to wander around and do whatever you like, and this is where the true meat of the game lies.

Mini-games aplenty.  Do they serve a purpose? No.  They’re just there to be awesome.

The amount of side content is staggering.  You can do everything from play mini-games, having your fortune told, explore a first person maze for treasure, hell even play games to make money!  The mini-games in particular stand out.  You can play an Arkanoid clone, air hockey, the lottery, participate in a game show and famously enough, a recreation of the first level of Gradius.  Level 3, the Amusement Park is solely devoted to every mini-game.  Most of these are diversions created just for fun, but some can earn you money that you will start to need later on in the game.  Training with a judo instructor will net you an additional technique that can only be used in that zone; from an animal companion you ride on to the ability to fly.  Additionally, the items you buy better prepare you for the platforming sections that cap each zone.

The platformer parts of the game draw enemies from Japanese folklore for you to fight and at times get downright weird.  One moment you’ll be facing geisha girls carrying drinking trays then the next you’ll face 2 sumo warriors and a giant face.  This off the wall approach is what gives the game its character.  The levels run the gamut from a haunted forest to a trap infested castle.  The platforming never becomes too complicated and as a whole the game is balanced very well.

2-player cooperative livens the levels as 2 partners work to complete them without getting in each other’s way.  A neat feature is the ability to piggyback on each other, with one player controlling movement and the other attacking.  This also solves the problem of missing jumps and holding each other back.  The boss fights share in the strangeness; a ghost meiko? A Kabuki Samurai who hides inside the box strapped to his back? A clockwork ninja you fight on a giant kite?  They just don’t make them like this anymore.  It revels in its oddity.

It’s such a shame that the SNES sequels were never released in the US.  Legend of the Mystical Ninja does so many things right that its a crime we wouldn’t see more of the franchise until the N64.  Bottom line: buy this game.


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Sunset Riders (SNES)

Once upon a time the arcade played host to a large variety of games.  From shooters to platform games, you could find them in the arcade, and with the superior technology of the arcade machines you were also treated to a visual and aural spectacle.  But as the age of the fighting game began, games like this became more and more rare. Which is a shame as games like Sunset Riders were always a treat to pop a quarter in.

Sunset Riders was released in 1991 in the arcade and for home consoles in 1993.  This was a highly anticipated port for me; like most I never had enough quarters to finish it in the arcade.  A side scrolling action game set in the old west, the setting immediately endeared me to the game as even today the setting is not too common.  You have a choice of 4 characters, 2 who use pistols for quicker shots and 2 who use shotguns for a wider spread.

Billy and Steve use pistols, Bob & Cormano use shotguns.  The choice is yours.  Gotta go with the shotguns man, its like the western version of the Spread Gun.

You’re job is to reach the end of each level, beat the boss and collect the bounty that you are shown at the beginning of every stage.  I wonder why the Wild West setting isn’t used in games more often: here the game absolutely drips it from head to toe and I love it.  With the success of Red Dead Redemption maybe we’ll see a revival?

The game consists of 8 levels that culminate in a boss fight with 2 bonus stages sandwiched in between.  All of the Wild West clichés are here: Bandits with the stereotypical face mask make up the primary enemies you face, saloons for you to drink in, etc.  You are introduced to the boss of every level at the start with their wanted poster and I love that they all say Wanted Dead or Alive as if that is even an option.

Dead or Alive my ass.  We know how this story is going to end.

In multiplayer whoever does the most damage to the boss receives the bounty.  A number of the levels see you navigating around various hazards such as burning hay, stampeding buffalo, and even foreground objects.  Levels 2 and 7 are on horseback as you dodge fire from bandits on a train and incoming stagecoaches.  The bonus levels are a first person shooting gallery that will award you extra points and are a nice change of pace.  I liken this game to a Wild West version of the Turtles arcade games which is a compliment as those games were fantastic.

Your only power-ups come in the form of a silver badge that gives you a second gun that allows you to fire in 2 directions and a gold badge that gives you rapid fire.  Both can be combined to make you a walking death machine.  You find these by entering random buildings that dot the backgrounds.  You also find chicken or gold that gives you points.  Random bandits will throw dynamite and if you’re quick enough you can throw it back at them.  There is no life bar so one hit and you’re dead and any power-ups you’ve collected are also gone.  It’s funny that in most games you look forward to fully powering up your character so you can march through the levels like a horseman of the apocalypse but most times it has the opposite effect: you’re so terrified of dying you become an overpowered sissy.  To offset your cowboy is agile as hell.  You have a slide that can avoid most enemy bullets, and can jump between higher levels platforms which will sometimes make bullets pass through you.

The SNES version of Sunset Riders is amazingly faithful to the arcade.  All of the levels are intact along with all 4 characters.  The game is limited to 2-players simultaneously unlike the 4-player arcade cab.  Almost all of the voice samples are in the game and the graphics are surprisingly close.  There is some censorship: the dancers in the saloon in stage 4 have been toned down, all of the enemies in stage 6 have been changed into standard bandits rather than the Indians they originally were, and that stage’s boss had his named to Chief Wigwam instead of Scalpem.

Sunset Riders remains a fun romp that still presents some challenge to get through and is just as fun to play now as it was almost 20 years ago.  The levels are the perfect size and the bosses are never cheap although their patterns will test your reflexes.  Definitely worth the nostalgia trip.

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Rocket Knight Adventures

The great mascot platformer rush of the early 90s was really a sight to behold.  Mario and Sonic were king of the roost, and still are (well one of them is) and like sharks that smell blood in the water every publisher wanted in.  This led to a really horrible glut of generic platformers starring animals you didn’t even know existed.  No animal was safe as developers tried anything they could to get a piece of that pie.  The vast majority of these games were truly terrible but there were some that managed to rise above the sea of crap, with this Rocket Knight Adventure arguably being one of the best.

I remember seeing ads for the game in Gamepro and wrote it off, lumping it in the same category as Awesome Possum, that other game that starred an opossum who was anything but what his name suggested.

Fuck you Awesome Possum.

Anyway I finally did get around to it when out of boredom I perused a friend’s Genesis collection and after being disappointed that he had a Battletoads case with no game inside, settled on RKA.  God’s honest truth I really wish I could go back in time and slap myself for dismissing it so casually.

Rocket Knight Adventure like Bionic Commando is built entirely on a gameplay “gimmick”, in this case your rocket pack.  After a short charge it can be used for a variety of purposes, the main one being to blast off in nearly any direction or rebound off walls.  The levels are filled to the brim with secrets that the designers almost dare you to try and find many involving creative use of your rocket pack.  Rocket boost is also used to enhance your attack, with a full charge granting a spinning attack or a straight thrust attack to take out a line of enemies.  There’s equal parts risk and reward involved in using it to attack; it’s safer to boost and attack, but the damage is weaker than a full sword slash.  Half the fun in the game is seeing what crazy shit you can do while flying around the levels, and Konami were very much aware of that with items to collect at every turn.

The level design is absolutely phenomenal and introduces new mechanics routinely.  A lot of developers would shoot their load (so to speak) in the first few levels to wow you initially and then cruise control the last few stages.  But here there’s a very tangible feeling of building up to the final confrontation with every level raising the scale.   Some levels will are free flying like a shooter and then the game will change to a game of rock ‘em sock ‘em robots as you pilot a mech in a battle against your rival Axel Gear.  I like to use the term a festival of play mechanics to describe the game and it fits.

Visually the game stands out for a number of reasons.   Beyond just the depth and breadth of backgrounds the game takes you through, everything is animated exceptionally.  All of the world’s inhabitants are imbued with a sense of character down to the minor enemies that you face.  Standard pigs lose their armor when hit, mechanical bosses break down into individual parts when defeated and there are tons of background activity you could easily miss.  Konami even threw in that reflection effect they seemed so fond of in their Genesis games but at least it serves a gameplay purpose here.

Bosses are made up of multiple sprites for even more impressive animation, well for the time at least.  There are no cut-scenes or dialogue but just through character actions and facial expressions, especially from Sparkster himself you “get” the characters.  Rather than a random set of the typical themed levels most platformers are cursed with Konami built a plausible world for the characters to inhabit.  The game even shines in the music department but not to the same level as the graphics.

The many faces of Sparkster.  Such a well animated character, right up there with Sonic.

Rocket Knight Adventures is decently long and provides a slight challenge on normal, but to see the true ending you’ll need to finish it on hard which only gives you 1 life and no continues.  And the game is worth it.  Not only one of the Genesis’ best but also one of the finest 2-d platformers ever conceived.


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