Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization of the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so it was decided to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations, including this one, wisely leave intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept this one a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially re-made multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

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Down Load (PC Engine)

First things first: Do you have any idea how much of a pain it is to research a game called Down Load? I suppose I can’t really blame the staff at Alfa System and NEC Avenue for not psychically anticipating the online emulation scene when they produced this obscure 1990 shooter, but yeah, it’s an issue.

As a Japanese exclusive with a search-resistant name, I may well have never given Down Load a look if it hadn’t been for Clyde Mandelin and Tony Kuchar’s book, “This be book bad translation, video games!” The authors devote a full two-page spread to shots of its ridiculous game over screens, in which the main character, Syd, unleashes expletive-laden tirades over being defeated by the enemy. It’s hard not to love gems like “I can not fuck up for this” and “Shit. Is not this a great beginning.” Odds are that if you’ve been exposed to the game at all, it’s through images of these very quotable screens.

Don’t be too quick to write this one off as a joke, though. Legendary studios like SNK routinely proved that some shoddy English does not a bad ’90s game make. Indeed, Down Load is a fast-paced, exciting shooter with some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a HuCard release. It also showcases a surprisingly robust cyberpunk anime storyline told through Ninja Gaiden style cutscenes. It’s a prime example of the sort of quality PC Engine titles that NEC should have been busy porting over to their struggling TurboGrafx-16 at the time, even if it would have likely meant losing out on all those hilarious swears.

Our story begins in the Kabukichō red light district of Tokyo in the year 2099. Syd, an expert “cyber-diver” is contacted by his friend Deva. She’s been arrested while investigating the mysterious disappearance of another cyber-diver named Ohala, so our boy Syd promptly hops on his flying motorcycle thingy and jets off to rescue her from the cops. Unfortunately, that’s all I can really tell you for sure. Unlike those wacky game over screens, all of the cutscene text is in Japanese and there’s currently no fan translation patch available. I do know that a bad guy named Nero eventually shows up, but I can’t discern who he’s supposed to be or what his deadly plot entails. Pity, because these sequences look great and I can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of this much dialog in a shooter. Someday perhaps.

Gameplay consists of traditional horizontally scrolling shoot-’em-up action encompassing a total of six main stages. Most of these are further sub-divided into multiple visually distinct segments (1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc). I think we all know the drill: Fly from left to right, grab floating power-ups, shoot down or dodge an onslaught of minor foes, and then blow up the big boss at the end of the level in order to move on. This established, Down Load’s interpretation of the formula does differ from the norm in one important way: It’s remarkably forgiving. You’re provided with unlimited continues and a password system, either one of which would have been generous enough on its own by genre standards. Additionally, Syd’s ride is extremely durable. It comes with a health bar that can withstand a total of four hits and even be replenished via healing items. If all this still isn’t enough insurance for you, you can opt to equip a shield capable of absorbing up to fifteen (!) additional attacks. Down Load’s relaxed approach may not satisfy the most rabid of Gradius or R-Type fans, but it’s a great starting point for novices who would rather dip their toes into the PC Engine shooter pool than plunge head-first into the deep end.

The array of weaponry at your disposal in Down Load is serviceable, if undistinguished. At the start of each stage, you’re given the opportunity to select one of two main shots and one of three secondary items. Your main weapon can be fired indefinitely and takes the form of either a blue piercing laser or a wider orange spread of bullets. It’s that perennial shooter trade-off: Focused power versus increased screen coverage. You can upgrade this primary shot from its starting level of one all the way up to five, increasing its damage and area of effect each time. You’ll be docked a level of weapon power with each bit of  damage you sustain, however, so don’t get too cocky. Secondary items have a limited number of uses and consist of either 96 homing missiles, 6 super bombs, or the aforementioned energy shield that can block up to 15 bullets. You can find power-ups in most stages that will completely refill your secondary weapon reserves, so there’s usually no need to be too concerned about hoarding ammo.

What really makes Down Load more than just a generic shooter with adequate options and a soft touch is its fantastic art direction. From the expressive character portraits in the cutscenes to the many-layered parallax scrolling backgrounds, the game is a joy to behold. There’s a healthy amount of variety on display, too. Syd’s mission sees him visiting a futuristic city, the ocean, a cave, outer space, and the obligatory creepy biological level with organs for walls. Most interesting of all are the virtual reality levels. Being a cyber-diver (with the plugs in his head to prove it), Syd is capable of jacking into computer systems, meaning that several stages are set in these kaleidoscopic abstract spaces that really stand out from the rest of the game’s environments. They don’t actually play any differently, mind you, they just look cool. The music is also catchy and will appeal to most fans of that characteristic gritty, funky PCE chiptune sound. The only thing that comes close to detracting from an otherwise sublime presentation is the very noticeable flicker that can occur when larger sprites, particularly bosses, share the screen with upgraded weapons fire. At its most severe, this can lead to unnecessary damage as some enemy projectiles become partly or wholly obscured.

Down Load proved popular enough in its native land to warrant a CD-ROM sequel in 1991 and an animated film adaptation that’s even more difficult to find details on than the games that spawned it. Although I don’t think it has the depth required to place in the top tier of PC Engine shooters, it’s still a competent work that’s immensely stylish and approachable by gamers of all skill levels. I’m glad I gave it a chance. I came for the laughs, I stayed for the thrills.

Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

Sometimes all you want is for a game to be mean to you again.

One of the very best things about classic gaming, at least from the perspective of the average busy adult, is just how concise these old titles can be. In most cases, game makers of the past had no other choice. From the primordial dawn of the hobby on 1960s university mainframes all the way up to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM technology roughly three decades later, every byte of precious memory counted. Skilled programmers were still able to realize RPGs and other intricate games featuring dozens or even hundreds of hours of play time, but this often meant embracing a more modest audiovisual presentation to save on disk or ROM space. For fans of these more cerebral offerings, the tradeoff was well worth it. Action gamers, on the other hand, had an insatiable fondness for spectacle that often placed the developers of their favorite releases in an unenviable position. How could they consistently dazzle their audiences with the most detailed backgrounds, the biggest characters, the smoothest animations, and the most adrenaline-pumping tunes, all while still leaving room for, well, a game?

The enduring legacy of all these thorny compromises is a pantheon of tight, polished 8 and 16-bit thrill rides that experienced players can blaze through it under an hour. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Gradius, Mega Man, and many, many more, including my personal favorite, Castlevania. It’s only after you’ve played through one of these masterpieces countless times that their brevity begins to work against them. As pleasant as it invariably is to kick back and whip my way through Simon Belmont’s iconic 8-bit vampire hunt, I’ve long ago reached the point where the challenge, even on hard mode, is deader than Count Dracula himself. Who can you turn to when your favorite hardcore action game just isn’t beating you down like it used to? The ROM hacking community, of course!

Hacks dedicated to furnishing veteran players with ferociously difficult new takes on old favorites are a dime a dozen and the first Castlevania specifically is one of the most frequently remixed NES titles. So why am I focusing on Overflow Darkness? Because this 2011 effort by Luto Akino is more than just your typical “Castlevania on steroids” with some extra pits and enemies sprinkled in. It’s tricked out with gorgeous new artwork, level design as well thought-out as it is brutal, and some clever tweaks to core gameplay mechanics.

Unlike Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, which I reviewed last October, Overflow Darkness doesn’t attempt to add any new characters or lore to the series. The scenario here is exactly the same as in the base game: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and a whip-wielding warrior named Simon Belmont is out to destroy him. The only change is to Simon’s appearance. Instead of his original brunette locks, he’s sporting the long red hair from his 2001 Castlevania Chronicles redesign. While I’ve never been a fan of ginger Simon and was pleased when he reverted to a more traditional look for his most recent showing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I actually don’t mind it here. Chalk that one up to the relatively simplicity of NES sprites, I suppose.

Speaking of sprites, it’s not just Simon that’s been re-drawn. Several of his familiar enemies have also been given professional quality makeovers, including Medusa, Death, and Dracula. Surprisingly, these new sprites are improvements  in virtually every instance. Dracula’s demonic second form in particular is exponentially more menacing here than the bright blue “cookie monster” that confronts you at the end of vanilla ‘Vania. The new background tiles are just as impressive. The rather basic underground waterway at the start of level four, for example, has been re-imagined to great effect as a flooded catacomb packed with skeletal remains. None of the new art in Overflow Darkness stands out as the work of an amateur, which is just about the highest compliment ROM hack visuals can receive. Don’t expect anything so brilliant on the audio front, however. The track order has been swapped around, but it’s still the same Kinuyo Yamashita score we all know and love.

Pretty as Overflow Darkness is, it still wants you dead. Badly. The new stages here are all markedly more difficult than anything in the regular game, deluging the player with a near-constant stream of flying bats and medusa heads while placing durable enemies like bone pillars and axe knights in close proximity to death pits. It’s common to face off against several enemy types simultaneously on very precarious footing and some stages even open with Simon already under attack from multiple angles.

Bosses have also been given a shot in the arm. The fight against the familiar giant bat at the end of stage one now takes place on uneven terrain with a hoard of smaller bats fluttering onto the screen from both sides. I lost several lives to this encounter, which is humbling to say the least. There are a couple of all-new bosses, too, and they have a habit of lurking at the top of the screen and showering Simon with projectiles, limiting the usefulness of the overpowered holy water sub-weapon in these battles.

Ruthless as these stages are, Overflow Darkness does play fair. Unlike T. Takemoto’s infamous Kaizo Mario World trilogy, the challenge isn’t predicated on tricking or teasing the player with deliberately absurd trial-and-error setups. It’s fundamentally the same precise combat and platforming as the “real” Castlevania, just with far less allowance for sloppy play. There’s considerable inventiveness packed into some of these new level layouts, too. The second stage contains a multi-tier “stair maze” that forces Simon to travel and up and down repeatedly across the same few screens in search of the door to the next section. Areas like this will push your reflexes and pattern recognition skills to their limits, especially since Simon loses a full quarter of his maximum health with every hit sustained from the very beginning of the game.

Yet another, more subtle layer of added difficulty is derived from the way item drops have been adjusted to be stingier than usual across the board. Remember how easy it was to score whip power-ups in the regular game? If you died and restarted with the weakest leather version of the whip, you always seemed to find a replacement upgrade an instant later from the very first candle you stumbled across. Well, forget about all that! According to Overflow Darkness, whip upgrades from candles are for the weak. Instead, you can only really count on obtaining them from random enemy drops and these can prove maddeningly elusive if luck isn’t on your side. The bottom line is that you’re going to become very adept with that puny starting whip, whether you like it or not. Sub-weapons and shot multipliers for them are also more scarce. Oh, and remember the large hearts that would increase your ammo count by five when collected? Overflow Darkness reduces this to two. The idea here seems to be to force players to rely more on deep mastery of Simon’s innate capabilities and less on exploiting power-ups. Although it can come off a bit heavy-handed and I certainly wouldn’t want to play this way all the time, it is a bracing change of pace from the default “melt everything’s face off with triple holy water” strategy most Castlevania players fall back on.

The takeaway here should be that Overflow Darkness is simply the best at what it does. Its stylish graphics, quality level design, and eye for fairness make it the current gold standard in extreme difficulty hacks of Castlevania 1986. There are other hacks available (Chorus of Mysteries, The Holy Relics) that are much more creatively ambitious, aiming to re-work the source material into something approximating a whole new entry in the series. These are well worth your time, but if all you’re really craving is a viable “super hard” mode for one of your favorite NES games, Castlevania: Overflow Darkness is the real deal. It’ll whip your ass and make you like it.

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

I’ve covered several noteworthy clone games over the years, going so far as to label some of them (Master of Darkness, Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest) particularly shameless copycats. Being brazen is one thing, but Sega’s 1991 Master System release Golden Axe Warrior is the first such game I’ve encountered that takes things a step further. Its makers were seemingly so intent on proving anything Nintendo could do, they could do better that their work reads as downright defiant. The way Sega painstakingly duplicates even the most peripheral elements of The Legend of Zelda here has all the earmarks of a rebel stance.

Now, I realize that throwing around loaded terms like “clone” and “copycat” can raise some red flags. Just to be clear, I’m don’t believe that a lack of originality is some sort of mortal design sin. Innovation is praiseworthy as a general thing, sure, but I’m here for a good time and Golden Axe Warrior is a decently fun take on the Zelda formula. I can even find it in my heart to cut Sega some slack in light of their circumstances at the time. Nintendo had spent the half-decade or so leading up to this game’s release using every dirty trick and strong-arm tactic in the book to push third party game developers and retailers away from the Sega brand. This resulted in the Master System being all but frozen out of the two biggest game markets in the world at time: North America and Japan. I’d have a golden axe to grind under such conditions, too.

Most classic gaming devotees will rightly surmise that Golden Axe Warrior is based on the Golden Axe series of fantasy beat-’em-ups that started in the arcades back in 1989. The basic scenario presented here is overall quite faithful to the first arcade game’s: The wicked giant Death Adder has overrun the land. You assume control of (and name) a young hero orphaned by Death Adder on a quest to vanquish the tyrant. Oddly, while all three iconic protagonists from the arcade title make brief cameos in Golden Axe Warrior, none of them are playable.

So, how exactly does Golden Axe Warrior mirror Zelda? You have the overhead view, of course. The flip-screen scrolling. Similar sword and shield-based combat. A health meter represented by tiny red hearts. A sprawling overworld dotted with trees and rock formations, many of which conceal cave entrances. Nine magic crystals that must be gathered from nine seperate underground dungeons filled with locked doors and simple puzzles before you can enter the tenth and final dungeon to face Death Adder himself. Upgrades within each dungeon that allow you do things like illuminate dark areas and travel over water. Did I miss anything? Yup! Golden Axe Warrior actually goes so far as to knock off specific oddball Zelda enemies. It includes its own take on the tube-shaped Like Like critters that gobble up your character and steal his items, for example. Hell, even the “money making game” and those obnoxious “door repair” jerks make appearances! I never thought I’d see the day a Zelda-inspired game would bother porting over the friggin’ door repair guy, but here we are. It’s this whole added layer of unnecessary copying that makes me think Sega was hoisting a big virtual middle finger at their arch-rivals.

Again, I’m not trying to imply that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t worthy of your time. It handles the majority of these familiar elements with grace and even exceeds Zelda itself on a couple fronts. It looks much nicer for one thing, owing to the Master System’s superior color capabilities. The world building and storytelling are also much improved. Hyrule, as presented in the first Legend of Zelda, came off much more like trackless wilderness than a proper kingdom. The lands you visit in Golden Axe Warrior are dotted with actual settlements and the NPCs dwelling in them generally have more copious and useful dialog to dispense than their NES counterparts. A few towns you’ll discover will be ruined and strewn with corpses; a rather elegant way to reinforce the threat of Death Adder and his minions.

Slick as the majority of Golden Axe Warrior is, the combat constitutes a major stumbling block in my book. While the swordplay is superficially very similar to Zelda’s, the devil is in the detail. Your weapons all seem to have a shorter reach than Link’s sword and they also cause less pushback to enemies. Consequently, I found it much more of a pain to get close enough to deal my damage without taking any in return. This is exacerbated by the fact that your ranged attack options are limited to magic spells and you can’t really afford to waste your limited magic power on cannon fodder baddies when it’s your only means of opening many locked doors and secret passages. The fighting in Golden Axe Warrior was mostly just an annoyance for me. The precise spacing and timing required is simply way too finicky for a game in this style. Either more sword range or some extra projectile weapons like the boomerang, bow, and wand from Zelda would have smoothed things out significantly.

Once you do eventually adapt to this exacting combat, Golden Axe Warrior reveals itself to be one of the more accomplished Master System releases of its kind. I’ll certainly take it over Compile’s Golvellius any day. At the same time, though, it could have been so much more. Its developers placed such a high premium on replicating Nintendo’s seminal effort that they essentially forgot to make a Golden Axe game! Virtually none of the memorable scenes or mechanics from the beloved beat-’em-ups are represented here. Imagine if you could play as Ax Battler, Tyris Flare, or Gilius Thunderhead instead of some blank slate nobody. Perhaps you’d be able to switch between all three heroes as needed to make use of their unique weapons and spells. What about getting to kick ass mounted on some of the fantastic beasts you can saddle up and ride in the arcade? Even booting around those weird little gnome thief dudes to refill your health and magic would have been something. An adventure game that made a bona fide attempt to hybridize Golden Axe and Zelda could have been a real knockout entry in the genre with a far more wide-reaching legacy.

Alas, poor Golden Axe Warrior. Scion of a proud line, it got so carried away trying to beat the enemy at their own game that it lost its very identity in the process.

Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

Mountain King (Atari 2600)

One thing I’m genuinely thankful for is being just old enough to remember the first half of the 1980s. I got to bask in the warm, mercenary glow of He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and the rest of the finest half hour toy commercials humankind has ever produced. And that’s not all! The Garbage Pail Kids? New Coke? Music on MTV? I was there, man. I was there.

Above all, I had the privilege of growing up more or less in tandem with video games as a medium of popular entertainment. My earliest memories are inextricably bound up with the height of Pac-Man Fever and the debut outing of a plucky little barrel jumping carpenter named Mario. I recall being quite disappointed when my parents rejected both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong as prospective names for my new little sister. Why even ask me then, guys?

It’s because I’ve been in love with games since the heyday of Atari that I feel I can fully appreciate what made Mountain King such a standout when it was released in 1983. Originally programmed by Robert Matson for a small startup company called E.F. Dreyer Inc., CBS Electronics acquired the rights to this quirky little platformer and published versions of it for most of the 8-bit consoles and home computers of the era. I’ll be looking at the Atari 2600 edition today because it’s the one I actually owned at the time.

Mountain King’s claim to fame was that it was a video game…with music. Really. Two short passages from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s 1875 work “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” to be specific. The game’s ad copy leaned hard into this, too. A portion of the sheet music is reproduced on the back of game’s box and the ridiculous commercial jingle proclaims “When you play Mountain King, music is everything.” In a little touch almost too quaint to be real, the commercial also displayed the text “actual game melody” on the screen as the tune played, as if to reassure a disbelieving tv audience that such a feat really was possible fourteen years after we landed a man on the friggin’ moon.

Ah, but I kid. While Mountain King is obviously not the first game in history to include music, it does more than just bleep out a simple public domain tune. In fact, the way its primitive soundtrack pulls double duty as a game mechanic proper was legitimately pioneering. I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start.

The star of Mountain King is an unnamed explorer character out to recover a priceless golden crown left behind by an ancient civilization from its resting place in the depths of a diamond mine situated beneath the titular mountain. Thanks in large part to Indiana Jones and David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, dashing explorers were the premier stock game heroes back then. It was khaki and pith helmets as far as the eye could see.

Not that you can make out any of your avatar’s wardrobe here. The graphics are basic even by 2600 standards, with a tiny stick figure hero traipsing around on a series of stark lines representing platforms and ladders. The nicest thing I can say about the visual presentation is that the game boasts smooth(ish) eight-directional scrolling. This sort of performance is quite rare on the limited hardware and likely only possible because of the additional 256 bytes of expansion RAM that came bundled inside the cartridge, a feature CBS Electronics billed as RAM Plus. Oh, and the animation on the explorer himself isn’t half bad. I enjoy how he (or is it she?) throws his arms up and shrugs his shoulders at you whenever you press up on the joystick and there’s no ladder nearby for him to climb. He’s giving you a little sass. It’s cute.

The quest for the crown is a timed exercise (between three and eight minutes total, depending on the difficulty setting) divided into three distinct phases. First, you must collect 1000 points worth of the diamonds that are scattered all about the mine. The small diamond piles are worth a mere 25 points apiece, so it’s far more efficient to focus on hunting down the hidden treasure chests instead. Each chest is good for a cool 260 points, but the catch is that they’re only visible when illuminated by your flashlight beam. The bottommost level of the mine is especially rich in treasure. Tread carefully, though, as it’s also home to a giant spider that will trap you in its web and then devour you if you’re unable to escape in time via joystick waggling.

After you’ve gathered the requisite diamonds, things get interesting. Your next task is to locate a magical flame spirit that’s needed to enter the temple where the crown is housed. The spirit is located at a random spot in the mine and, like the treasure chests, is invisible unless you happen to be shining your light on it. It’s here that the much-vaunted music kicks in to help you out. When the tune starts up, you know you’re on the right track. The closer you are to the flame spirit’s hiding place, the louder it becomes. When the volume peaks, that’s when you want to start using your flashlight. It’s this musical scavenger hunt aspect that really captured imaginations back in the day and ultimately justified all the promotional hype. The effect stood out as genuinely innovative and fascinating. For once, players had an incentive to do more than simply tolerate the noises emanating from their game machines. It still has the potential to be absorbing and a tad eerie if you’re willing to look past the crude graphics and embrace the proper mindset.

Mountain King saves its very best for last, however. Present the flame spirit to the ghostly skull that guards the temple at the bottom of the mine and you can finally enter and don the crown. At this point, the music kicks into high gear and the game becomes a frenzied sprint to the finish. You’re given a scant 60 to 90 seconds (depending on the difficulty level) to exit the temple and carry the crown to the perpetual flame that burns on the very top of the mountain. As if all the frantic running, jumping, and climbing this requires wasn’t challenge enough, the mine is also suddenly swarming with fast-moving cave bats out to snatch the crown away. If you fail to reach the peak before time runs out or if a bat manages to touch the crown, things are reset to square one and have to repeat the entire cycle of diamond gathering, spirit hunting, etc. On lower difficulties, you might have enough time left on the main clock to recover from this setback. If you only have three or four minutes in total to work with from the outset, however, good luck. This climactic race to the top is a real barn burner of a finale, artfully emphasized by the calmer gameplay preceding it. Every missed jump and close brush with a bat is enough to make your heart skip a beat. Losing the crown is agony. Actually making it all the way to the top with your prize in tow is downright cathartic. Of course, this is an old school score attack game, so there’s no true final victory. Your reward for winning the crown is starting a fresh loop on a higher difficulty ad infinitum.

That’s Mountain King. Very simple by modern standards, it’s nevertheless remarkably involved for a 2600 title. Alongside Pitfall 2, it was one of my first experiences with a video game that extended beyond the borders of a single screen. While not a true adventure game by any means, its intriguing scenario involving lost treasure, eldritch spirits, and a subterranean temple fired my nascent imagination and primed me for more elaborate exploratory games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, not to mention tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not quite the forward-thinking masterpiece that Pitfall 2 is. The diamond collecting interludes are pretty dull compared to the rest and smack of padding. Still, when Mountain King works, it really works. Following those faint notes in the dark and then scrambling like mad to reach the mountaintop before the clock or those damned bats can foil your run are both as fresh and compelling as they ever were. This is a thoroughly unique entry in the vast 2600 library and a must-play for anyone with an abiding interest in the system. You don’t have to be a fellow ’80s kid to appreciate it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Zombie Nation (NES)

What makes a video game weird? It’s a simple question, yet the answer is much harder to pin down than you might think. After all, it’s been noted countless times that the broad outlines of some of the most vanilla, near-universal gaming experiences (Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros.) would come across as something akin to fever dreams to someone completely ignorant of the form. Nevertheless, some developers still manage to go that extra mile and stagger those of us who don’t bat an eye at a man in overalls eating magic mushrooms to turn into a giant and soaring through the air by flapping his raccoon tail.

Broach the topic of weird games with any NES aficionado and two titles are bound to be rated at or near the pinnacle: Human Entertainment’s platformer Monster Party (which I already reviewed a few years back) and my subject today, the KAZe-developed horizontal shooter Zombie Nation. For my money, Zombie Nation is the stranger trip by far. Monster Party is offbeat, sure, but I actually get what Human was going for: Parodying various horror movies. Once you get the majority of the references and jokes, it skews much more charming than confusing. Contrast this with Zombie Nation, where every aspect of the final product; the scenario, the artwork, the music, and the even the play control are so far out of left field that I can scarcely imagine the creative process behind it all. What KAZe has unleashed here is so garish, so disorienting, so stridently awkward as to be the NES equivalent of a top-shelf “so bad, it’s good” movie. Think Plan 9 from Outer Space, Troll 2, or The Room. Zombie Nation is to Konami’s Gradius what Birdemic is to Hitchcock’s The Birds. It’s a terrible, stupid game and I’m afraid I’ve fallen in love with it.

Zombie Nation initially does its best to lull you into a false sense of security. The opening text crawl describes how an evil alien named Darc Seed lands in the Nevada desert in the year 1999 and uses his “strange magnetic rays” to turn the nation’s populace into mind-controlled zombie slaves. Darc Seed also uses these rays to bring the Statue of Liberty to life “to do his dirty work.” Whatever that means. I’m not sure I really want to know.

Okay, so it’s an alien invasion plot just like in every other shooter. That Statue of Liberty bit was a little random, but whatever. Just skip to the part where I’m the only pilot that has what it takes to take down Darc Seed in my experimental high tech super ship, right? Wrong. Because in Zombie Nation (or Samurai Zombie Nation, as the title screen alone insists on calling it), your “ship” is the house-sized severed head of a samurai and instead of laser guns and missiles, you fight with a unending supply of projectile vomit and eyeballs.

Behold our hero, Namakubi! His name translates to “severed head” and he single-handedly, er, zero-handedly makes me regret jumping the gun back when I called Data East’s mascot Karnov unappealing. As what appears to be the airborne DayGlo orange mug of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Namakubi makes Karnov look like GQ cover material. The Japanese Famicom edition of the game, which debuted only one month earlier, starred a tengu mask instead of a human head and was called Abarenbō Tengu (“Hooligan Tengu”). I suppose replacing the mask with a new character for the NES release made sense, given that tengu are mythical spirit creatures little-known outside Japan. I have to wonder, however: Why a samurai head when they could have just as easily swapped the sprite out for literally anything else more relatable to an American audience? Truly a mystery for the ages.

Thankfully, in addition to having one of the most gonzo premises of all time, Zombie Nation is also a remarkably competent shooter…is what I really wish I could tell you right now. No such luck, though. Top to bottom, this gameplay’s the proverbial hot garbage! Namakubi is far too large for his own good and avoiding all the fast-moving enemies and bullets would be a Herculean challenge even if he wasn’t also prone to sliding across the playfield like a hockey puck. That’s right, there’s momentum to correct for here, which is almost unheard of in a genre founded on the player’s ability to execute quick, precise movements. It’s bad enough on the easier of the game’s two difficulty settings, but it’s a “donkey on roller skates” magnitude catastrophe on the hard setting, which actually has the nerve to ratchet up Namakubi’s momentum significantly. Have you ever even heard of a shooter implementing a hard mode by making your already crappy controls worse? That’s so Zombie Nation!

The designers attempted to compensate for Namakubi’s sloppy handling by giving him a life bar made of multiple smaller versions of his head arranged along the bottom of the screen. The more damage you take, the more of these turn into skulls. Most enemies deal only a small amount of damage, with the exceptions being bosses and the environmental hazards (giant laser beams and such) that show up in the backgrounds of most stages. Run out of heads and you’re forced to use one of your limited continues to restart the current stage. You can earn health refills by scoring enough points and extra continues by finishing stages. Honestly, though, wouldn’t you rather just have a smaller, easier to steer character that didn’t need to soak up dozens of bullets in the first place?

By far the most interesting thing going on here gameplay-wise is the massive amount of destructible scenery filling each stage and way Namakubi powers himself up by laying waste to as much of his surroundings as possible. Demolishing the assorted skyscrapers, airstrips, and rock formations in your path will both score you points and cause what the instruction manual calls “zombie hostages” to be blown clear of the wrecked structures and slowly fall toward the ground, yelling for help all the while. Are they supposed to be hostages of the zombies? Hostages that are zombies? Both? Beats me. I just know that if Namakubi can manage to catch enough of these guys before they fall off the bottom of the screen, they’ll gradually increase the strength of his weapons. Unfortunately, all this really amounts to is a generic screen clearing bomb attack in addition to more of the same old barf and eyeballs. The extra firepower is undoubtedly useful, but it’s no substitute for the wide variety of weapon types available in most other 1990 vintage shooters. While this whole process is ultimately much more interesting than it is fun, I do have to admit that the programmers did a great job optimizing performance in light of the sheer amount of chaos filling the screen during Namakubi’s kaiju-esque rampages. I didn’t encounter nearly as much slowdown as I expected going in.

Zombie Nation isn’t very long, clocking in at around twenty minutes if you know what you’re doing. Its four stages are all thoroughly unrecognizable takes on iconic American locales like New York City and the Grand Canyon. Three of the four are further divided into two visually distinct sections each, so the game as a whole feels more like seven short stages than four long ones. One genuinely nice feature is a stage select similar to the one seen in Silver Surfer that allows you to choose which of the four areas you want to start on. This makes learning the game a lot easier than it would be otherwise, since you can practice a particular portion you’re having problems with exclusively until you get it down.

In the visual and audio departments, the game is all over the place. Some of the backgrounds, like the clouds and lightning in the Grand Canyon, are very well done and Namakubi’s sprite, grotesque as it is, is also quite detailed and expressive. On the downside, the scale of everything really detracts from whole zombie angle. The human characters are all just stick figures a few pixels tall and nothing about them suggests the undead. Zombie Nation promises a lot here with a cover that showcases some pretty gross-looking ghouls. The in-game graphics simply don’t deliver on any of it. Some of the music is excellently composed and technically impressive due to the way it makes extensive use of the system’s often overlooked DPCM sample channel. The theme from the second half of area one (“Exodus”) is a real standout in this regard. Then you have tracks that are shrill and obnoxious, as if the regular composer quit the project midway through and the team brought in a spider monkey humping a theremin to fill in the rest. Fun fact: Zombie Nation’s soundtrack includes the longest single piece of music found in any Famicom or NES game. It plays for just under seven minutes before looping and shows up on the stage select screen of all places. You know, where the player isn’t ever likely to spend more than about ten seconds or so. Genius.

The bad movie lover in me can’t help but treasure a specimen like Zombie Nation. Enough to eventually complete it without dying on both difficulties, even. It’s a total head-on train wreck of a shooter with its slippery controls, oversize hero, boring weapon progression, uneven presentation, and level design that never rises above the serviceable. It’s also a game where a flying samurai head saves the U.S.A. from aliens by reducing half of it to rubble and killing the Statue of Liberty with puke. No one will ever be able to take that away from you, KAZe. You may not have settled the issue of what makes a game weird once and for all, but you’ve given me a ton of new data to sift through. Thank you.