Time Diver: Eon Man (NES)

What a cordial end screen. Good luck to you, too, Taito.

This week’s review marks another first for me. I’ve looked at various unlicensed and fan-made games before, but Time Diver: Eon Man was never formally released at all. Its planned 1993 launch was cancelled at the last minute by publisher Taito. I’m talking “after it got its own Nintendo Power feature” last minute, too. Apart from a bootleg version circulated in Asia in 1994 by a mysterious outfit (or individual) known only as Nitra, Time Diver would have been lost forever if a supposedly finished English language version hadn’t leaked to the Internet.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, most sources list Atlus as the developer behind this one. The available documentation actually supports crediting A.I, who originally intended it to serve as a sequel to their own Wrath of the Black Manta (Ninja Cop Saizou) from 1989. In an insightful interview with GDRI, former A.I artist/planner/producer Shouichi Yoshikawa described the project as “understaffed” and, frankly, it shows.

Of course, I’m getting a little ahead of myself with that last statement. It does bring me neatly to the ethical quandary that is reviewing any unreleased media, though. How fair can my critique be to the creators when their work was never properly presented to the public in the first place? At the same time, Time Diver: Eon Man is a game that exists. You can easily go play it right now if you wish. A review of it therefore serves a practical purpose for a classic gaming community hungry for insight into which lesser-known titles are worth their time. I suppose you should feel free to take what I say here for what it’s worth and try not to hold any negatives against the parties involved. Deal?

Time Diver: Eon Man is a side-scrolling action-platformer with a science fiction theme. Not exactly a revelation on the NES, I know. The titular Time Diver is Dan Nelson, an unassuming college student in 1993 Los Angeles. After a close call with a group of high-tech assailents, Dan learns that he and his ancestors are targets of the criminal organization Romedrux, who are sending assassins back in time from the year 2052 in hopes of erasing Dan’s unborn son Kane from history. Kane is destined to invent a miraculous device that predicts and prevents virtually all crime, so it makes sense that Romedrux would want him out of the way. In order that he might save the future, Dan is entrusted with another of Kane’s inventions: A suit that allows him to travel through time and harness a number of handy superpowers as…the Time Diver. It’s basically Terminator with a dash of Minority Report. I’ve heard worse.

While this time hopping plot is packed with potential, Time Diver ultimately doesn’t capitalize on it very well. What we get here is notably short and lacking in diversity; five average length stages, four of which are “peaceful” and “devastated” versions of 1993 and 2052. That leaves Dan’s excursion to 1882 as the sole stab at a historical setting, and he spends most of it in a non-descript cave area that could have been culled from any given 8-bit game. To their credit, A.I did attempt to inject some replay value by making the stage order random. With this little content to work with, however, the feature amounts to a trifle at best.

Core gameplay doesn’t stray far from the expected. Dan has to run, jump, and punch his way past a procession of thugs and environmental hazards on his way to each stage’s end boss. He controls well and can execute a useful rebounding jump kick that functions like the wall jump from Sunsoft’s NES Batman. He also acquires a selection of special powers that draw on the limited stock of “arts” points displayed on the lower right of the screen. These allow Dan to do things like shoot energy waves, freeze time briefly, and tunnel through the ground in some stages. Most of his foes are nothing special. They wander back and forth, shoot straight ahead every few seconds, and so on. The platforming gimmicks are more fun to deal with, even if they’re also well-worn genre staples for the most part. Spikes, moving platforms, flame jets, and Mega Man style disappearing blocks all make the rotation.

One area where Time Diver does manage to stand out is its deranged boss encounters. These guys are nothing if not memorable. Two of them are killer football players for no apparent reason. Another is a shapeshifting rock monster that attacks Dan by shouting out brightly colored text reading “Wow Wow” that travels across the screen as a deadly projectile. Still others lash out with screen-filling appendages so jagged and pixely I thought the game might have been glitching on me. I’m not sure what any of this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad it’s here to add some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Time Diver’s presentation is the epitome of a mixed bag. Its origin as a Black Manta sequel is reflected in its penchant for sparse backgrounds and hideous sprite art. This would have been nothing less than embarrassing alongside other late period NES releases like Kirby’s Adventure, Mighty Final Fight, and Taito’s very own Little Samson. Such underwhelming visuals may well have contributed to Time Diver getting the axe. It’s a real pity when you factor in the superb soundtrack by Tsukasa Masuko (Megami Tensei, Dungeon Explorer), which is by far the game’s most distinguished feature and deserves to be more widely heard than it ever will be wedded to a canceled product.

So, is Time Diver: Eon Man an unjustly quashed lost classic? Definitely not. Although much worse stuff did make it to retail over the course of the NES’ life, I still think Taito made the right call in terminating this one. They were regularly releasing much stronger material throughout the early ’90s and Time Diver would have been the odd man out. The version available for download isn’t despicable by any means. If you can forgive its brief runtime, shoddy graphics, and wholly derivative gameplay, what remains is adequate enough for a short play session. Difficulty is low and continues unlimited, so clearing it in a reasonable amount of time shouldn’t be an issue. Keep your expectations modest enough and you may even come away mildly pleased with its excellent music and outré boss designs.

As for me, I’m with Romedrux. Time Diver: Eon Man doesn’t belong in our timeline.

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Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

Dancing space raisins? Can’t say I expected that.

Welcome to my first ever re-review! My initial published take on meme-famous shooter Zero Wing appeared on the defunct ClassicGaming.com all the way back in March of 2001. Holy hell, does that make me ancient. Just think: This Mega Drive edition of the game wasn’t even ten years old at that time. People born the day my original review went up are eligible to vote now. Jesus.

My decision to examine Zero Wing in depth back then was based on the fact that “all your base” references were rampant online, yet discussion of its origin and merits as a video game were much harder to come by. Sliding my middle-aged angst over to the back burner for the time being, I see no reason why I can’t chart a similar course this time around. Jokes about its botched translation may be as outdated as Flash animation, but it’s not like the game itself become any more of a household name over the years.

This lack of familiarity with the game proper makes sense from a North American perspective. While the 1989 arcade original did show up here courtesy of manufacturer Williams, it was hardly a common sight in the wild. There were no home versions available, either. That mangled English intro scene that took the world by storm last decade? Exclusive to the 1992 European Mega Drive release. Zero Wing is the brainchild of the late lamented Toaplan, who forged themselves a solid reputation on the backs of many popular overhead shoot-’em-ups of the ’80s and ’90s (Tiger Heli, Fire Shark, Truxton, Batsugun, etc). It’s one of only two side-scrolling shooters the studio ever produced, the other being Hellfire from that same year.

At least its laughing stock of an opening makes Zero Wing’s plot better known than most. The year is 2101 and a United Nations space vessel is suddenly attacked (“Somebody set up us the bomb”) by the alien overlord CATS, who appears on the ship’s view screen and gloats that he’s seized control of all the U.N.’s bases in his bid to conquer Earth (“All your base are belong to us”). Fortunately, a lone ZIG fighter makes it out of the doomed ship in the nick of time and promptly heads off to put an end to CATS. “Move ‘ZIG’. For great justice.” And yes, both CATS and ZIG are rendered that way in the official material. Are they supposed to be acronyms or something? Beats me.

In keeping with genre convention, all movement for great justice is of the left-to-right variety and split up between eight stages, each with its own end boss. There’s nothing too special here conceptually. You get a couple of space-themed areas, an H.R. Giger-inspired fleshy one, and a lot of abstract techno-fortresses that honestly start to blend together after a while. The scrolling itself is definitely on the slow side and this, in conjunction with the cramped layouts and moving stage elements, makes comparison with a certain seminal Irem shooter inevitable. Yes, Zero Wing very much resembles an “R-Type lite” with a couple key differences.

One plus for many will be Zero Wing’s lesser difficulty. Skillful movement and some degree of memorization are still required to do well, but the progression is far less rigid overall than the fearsome R-Type’s, with fewer instances of needing to be in the exact right place at the exact right time or else. The designers are also pretty generous with the continues. They’re unlimited on the default setting and the hardest mode available still allows for a hefty fifteen. That’s 48 lives, not counting any extras you manage to rack up by scoring well. Downright cushy!

On the downside, there really isn’t that much to sink your teeth into here. Horizontal shooters have a reputation for being slower and more technical than their vertically-scrolling cousins, which traditionally favor fast, no-frills action with a looser flow. Zero Wing somewhat awkwardly combines the measured pace and finicky maneuvering of a horizontal shooter with the simplistic mechanics of a vertical one. You get a choice of three basic weapons (spread shot, straight laser, homing), a couple of firepower multiplying drones, and not much else. There’s no power-up menu to juggle as in Gradius, no charge shot to manage or Force pod to direct around the screen as in R-Type, not even an inventory of specialized weapons to cycle though on the fly as in Thunder Force or Zero Wing’s own sister game Hellfire. Zero Wing does sport one unique gameplay feature in the form of your ZIG’s short range tractor beam, which can grab onto smaller enemies and suspend them helplessly in front of your craft, where they can then double as shields or extra projectiles as needed. It’s a cute touch and fun to use. I hesitate to call it deep, however.

At its heart, this is a prime example of a “me, too” title that comes off rather shallow next to the true greats that inspired it. It looks alright and the music genuinely cooks, but its own pacing betrays it by giving you all the time in the world to notice the lack of meat on its bones. The loss of the two-player simultaneous option from the arcade is a bummer, too. Once you get past that glorious train wreck of an opening sequence, Zero Wing becomes a contender for the plainest space shooting exercise available on Sega’s 16-bit platform. That’s not to say it’s objectionable, mind you. It’s just not the sort of first water gem that sinks its hooks into players and makes new shooter fans of them on the spot. Toaplan was clearly operating outside their comfort zone here and the result is best enjoyed as a light palate cleanser between other, more substantial works in the same vein.

Anyway, time for me to sit here feeling old and wistful some more. The CATS in the cradle and the silver spoon….

Cocoron (Famicom)

 

It’s a tale almost as old as the business itself. Artistic types feeling stifled by the conservative corporate culture of the larger game studios strike out on their own to bring their unadulterated visions to the world and hopefully win more recognition and compensation in the process. Thus did Activision spring from Atari, Treasure from Konami, and so on. Around 1990, the newly-minted Takeru (aka Sur de Wave) similarly represented independence and creative freedom for Capcom alum Akira Kitamura, Irem’s Takashi Kogure, Tecmo’s Tsukasa Chibana, and more. They released their first game, the text-based adventure Nostalgia 1907, in April of 1991 and their last, none other than NES super rarity Little Samson, in June of 1992. In-between came the Kitamura-helmed Cocoron. That’s three games over fourteen months before the company eventually folded due to dire financial straits. I guess they can’t all be winners.

The tragedy of Takeru is fascinating and all, but the real reason I wanted to cover this particular 1991 action-platformer so badly is much simpler: Cocoron has a tapir in it! Anyone who knows me know I’m utterly obsessed with these adorable odd-toed ungulates. I love their twisty noses, their stubby tails, their incongruously high-pitched squeaking noises, everything! Best animal ever! They also happen to be closely associated with sleep and dreams in Japanese myth, as evidenced by Hypno and Drowzee from the Pokémon games. Accordingly, the tapir that appears here (who’s actually named Tapir, at least according to the fan translation by Akujin of Dynamic-Designs) is a dream wizard. He appears one night to the game’s unseen protagonist (presumably meant to represent you, the player), introduces himself, and offers to send you on a journey into the dream world to rescue a princess from mysterious “evil forces.” Hell, yeah! If it’s a cute tapir asking, sign me up!

Since you’re entering a dream world, Tapir informs you that you’re able to assume any form you choose. This allows you to start getting acquainted right off the bat with Cocoron’s main gimmick, its character creation system. You’ll need to construct your own custom avatar using pieces from a “toybox” containing 24 heads, 16 bodies, and 8 weapons. It doesn’t sound like that much, but that’s still 3072 possible player characters. Ambitious indeed for a Famicom game. In keeping with the established tone, most of your options are pretty wacky. You could opt for a clown with a giant spring for a body that shoots deadly pencils or a jack-‘o-lantern with dragon wings that hurls flower bombs. It’s all good.

The main thing to mind during this process is your character’s bulk. Every part has a specific weight associated with it and the final total will largely determine how your creation controls. Heavy heroes boast great durability at the cost of sharply limited walk speed and jump height. Light ones are quick, mobile, and extremely fragile. You can also aim for a balanced approach, of course, which is recommended for newcomers. Complicating matters is the fact that stronger weapons (like the shuriken) and parts that offer special movement abilities (wings, jetpacks, tank and boat bodies) tend to be heavier than average to offset their advantages.

Cool as it is, this system is far from perfectly balanced. Heavy characters seem to have a much easier time staying alive than light ones, flight abilities trivialize much of the game’s platforming, and the shuriken is by far the strongest weapon. Thankfully, you won’t suffer too much if your first draft isn’t all you’d hoped for, since you’ll have the opportunity to make a whole new dream warrior each time you finish one of the first five levels. Mega Man creator Kitamura clearly took inspiration from his prior work here, except instead of just gaining access to a new weapon when you beat a boss, you get to add a whole new custom character to your eventual stable of six. You’re given the option to switch out your active hero every time you complete a stage or return to your house at the center of the game world.

The layout of this world itself constitutes another new twist on an old formula. Although you can challenge the initial set of five stages in any order per standard Mega Man rules, they’re all interconnected here. Instead of just transitioning back to a stage select menu after you clear an area, you’ll actually have to walk to your next destination in real time and the terrain you’ll traverse will vary depending on where you start out and where you’re headed. There’s a unique stretch of level linking the Milk Sea and the Fairy Forest, another one entirely between the Milk Sea and Star Hill, etc. This doesn’t make Cocoron a true exploratory adventure game like Metroid, but it does manage to lend the progression a very different feel from Mega Man while still maintaining the same emphasis on player choice.

Cocoron’s core gameplay consists of  running, jumping, and shooting your way through a mix of horizontally and vertically-scrolling environments. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the most generally useful point of comparison is once again the director’s own Mega Man. While each custom character’s precise movement and attack parameters will vary, the game engine as whole still feels like you could insert the Blue Bomber himself into the action and not have it feel too out of place. That said, there’s one prominent aspect of Cocoron’s platforming that wasn’t present in any NES Mega Man installment: Sloped surfaces. Characters that lack tank treads are prone to slide down these inclines, which can be a hassle when bottomless pits are lurking nearby.

Between the flexible character creation and the complex, unorthodox level design, there’s more than enough going on mechanically to make Cocoron worth a look for old school action-platforming aficionados. What really puts it over the top, though, is its weird, whimsical atmosphere. Between this game, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and Kirby’s Adventure, it seems Famicom developers could do no wrong when they went for this sort of child-like dreamland theme. Cocoron’s backgrounds are bright, colorful and packed with quirky details like the gigantic overturned milk cartons dotting the shores of the Milk Sea, the grinning pink whales hovering in the skies above Star Hill, and the furnished penguin houses of Ice-Fire Mountain.

The enemy designs are also interesting. Many of them are animals like penguins and armadillos, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. Despite appearing identical, armadillos might toss their armored bits as projectiles in one stage, roll along the walls in another, and glide through the air in a third. You need to stay on your toes because can’t always be sure how a foe will behave based on appearance alone. Clever.

Finally, the music by Takashi Tateishi (Mega Man 2) and Yoshiji Yokoyama (Little Samson) doesn’t disappoint. It captures the peppy, playful tone of the adventure perfectly. It’s not Mega Man 2’s equal by a long shot, just an overall above average 8-bit soundtrack.

If there’s one thing that hinders Cocoron as a pure action game, it’s all the damn eggs. The experienced team at Takeru somehow made the rookie mistake of overthinking something as basic as grabbing items in an action-platformer. It should be a simple two step process. Step one: Dead enemy drops item. Step two: Player character touches item to pick it up. Cocoron adds a pace killing intermediate step by hiding all items inside speckled eggs which then have to be shot, sometimes three or four times in succession, before the goodies inside are revealed. Every enemy in the game drops an egg. Every egg has to be shot multiple times if you want to get at the health refills, weapon power-ups, and extra lives inside. Given that eggs aren’t known for fighting back, all this extra button mashing gets really old really fast.

As long as you can forgive this one its handful of character balance issues and pointless egg cracking fixation, I think you’ll find it to be a true highlight of the Famicom’s Japan-exclusive library. Its novel gameplay, ample charm, and unusually high replay value are all proof positive that Takeru’s failure to thrive was in no way owing to the quality of its output. Cocoron is a dream well worth pursuing. After all, if you can’t trust a friendly tapir, who can you trust?

Skyblazer (Super Nintendo)

Life’s not fair. Sometimes a game can look and sound great, commit no major design sins, and yet still be condemned to eternal obscurity. So it is with Skyblazer, a perfectly enjoyable, thoroughly forgotten action-platformer created by developer Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Perhaps a lack of advertising is to blame. I was all about the SNES back then and I never so much as heard of Skyblazer until just a couple years ago, when I started searching around online for little known games worth playing. It’s also a true standalone work with no preexisting fan base to draw on and no sequels. That rarely helps. There may well be some truth to both the above theories. Having now personally played through Skyblazer, though, a third possibility suggests itself: This game may just be too alright for its own good. Too decent. Too resoundingly okay. Sure, it doesn’t do anything to actively embarrass itself or make players stop what they’re doing to question how they’re spending their lives. At the same time, however, it lacks any sort of clever gameplay hook to make it stand out it in a crowded field of early ’90s side-scrollers.

Actually, I take that back. There is a hook of sorts to Skyblazer. Its hero, Sky, looks and controls suspiciously like the star of Ukiyotei’s previous Super Nintendo outing, an adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s Hook! It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a significant amount of code initially created for that project was reused here. Thankfully, Skyblazer turned out a lot more fast-paced and exciting than the languid Hook.

Skyblazer sees its title character heading off on a quest to rescue the sorceress Ariana, who’s been stolen away by Ashura, a powerful four-armed minion of the demonic Raglan. It’s your bog standard “save the girl by booting some big evil dude in the teeth” story, but observant players will notice a distinct Indian flavor to much of the proceedings. Beyond the name Ashura (Asura), you have statues of Ganesha in the background, loads of synth sitar (synthtar?) filling out the soundtrack, and so forth. What gives? The game’s original Japanese incarnation, Karuraō (“King Garuda”), makes the connection much more obvious. There, Sky is Garuda, Ariana is Vishnu, Raglan is Ravana, and the nameless old man who provides guidance to the player between levels is Brahma. In other words, the whole things’s intended to be a kind of action manga take on Hindu mythology. I’m guessing either Nintendo of America insisted most of these names be changed in order to avoid offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or Sony did it themselves preemptively. Even in watered-down form, this unique aesthetic is easily one of the coolest things about Skyblazer.

The seventeen stages on offer are pretty neat, too. They’re accessed via an overhead map that features a couple of branching paths. A few are technically skippable because of this, although the game as a whole is relatively short, so I don’t know why you’d want to pass over any of the content unless you’re aiming for a speedrun. Each area is patterned on one of the same stock archetypes you’ve seen countless times before. You’ll ride floating platforms over lava, swim through underwater currents, slide around on ice, and so on. The closest thing to a genuine novelty are a couple of flight stages that adopt an auto-scrolling shooter style. I could have done with more of these. At least the tight design and smooth flow of Skyblazer’s levels somewhat makes up for the lack of originality on display. Another plus is that their gimmicks don’t tend to repeat themselves, which keeps the journey stimulating throughout.

Roughly half the stages have boss battles and these guys were another highlight for me. They showcase some pretty crazy concepts, like the freaky giant face that spins the walls of the room around using Mode 7 rotation to attack you and can only be defeated by popping both its eyeballs like grapes. Yuck. It seems all the creativity that didn’t go into the level concepts must have been channeled here. Beating a boss will earn Sky a new magic power, similar to besting a robot master in Mega Man.

Sky is generally a satisfying character to control.  He runs fast, jumps high, and attacks with a flurry of punches and kicks. He can also cling to and scale walls. He even retains the ability to throw punches while he’s latched onto a wall, a feature I would kill for in Ninja Gaiden. These basic capabilities will get you by most obstacles. When the going gets tough, there’s that magic I mentioned. Sky starts off with a basic attack spell that fires an energy projectile at the cost of one of his eight magic points. The other abilities gained from bosses tend to have more powerful effects at the cost of more MP per use. These include a healing spell, a time stopper to freeze enemies in place, an invincible air dash, an eight-directional shot, and the ultimate power needed to beat the game: The fiery phoenix transformation. Again, this moveset will feel very familiar to platforming veterans, but it’s a blast to use and well suited to the challenge at hand.

That challenge is one final element with the potential to either help or hinder Skyblazer for you. This is a fairly easy game by genre standards. Extra lives and refills for Sky’s health and magic are common, continues are unlimited, and there’s a password system provided in case you need to take a break. If you’re a hardcore action nut looking for something to push you to your limit, Skyblazer isn’t going to scratch that itch. You’ll tear your way through it in no time flat without so much as breaking a sweat. On the other hand, if you’re a less experienced player or just in the mood for a brisk, low pressure fantasy action romp with some sweet graphics and music, you may welcome this relaxed approach.

Skyblazer is very model of a hidden gem on the Super Nintendo. It was a rock solid release that happened to lack the gilded pedigree of a Mario or Zelda, the stunning innovation of an ActRaiser, or even the ungodly aggressive ad campaign of a Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Today, it’s a dusty digital orphan, seemingly without a past or future to call its own. It deserves better. “Decades of sequels and spin-offs” better? Nah. But it’s absolutely worthy of being played and appreciated by a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s never too late for that.

Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

I wonder if I can get away with listing “flying away from big explosions” on my resume at this point?

Off to the PC Engine I go for another bout of alien ass whupping in 1990’s Super Star Soldier. To understand the origins of the Star Soldier series, we need to start back in 1984, when Tecmo (then called Tehkan) developed the fast-paced vertical shooter Star Force for arcades. The subsequent home release of Star Force on the Famicom proved so wildly popular that its publisher, Hudson Soft, made it the centerpiece of their first annual All-Japan Caravan Festival in 1985.

This nationwide high score contest generated considerable publicity and Hudson was understandably eager to make it an annual event. Problem was, they needed a new game to center Caravan ’86 around. Preferably one very similar to Star Force…. In other words, Star Soldier was a bit of a copycat. It was a worthy shooter in its own right by the standards of the time, however, and all three of its PC Engine follow-ups (Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade) would headline their own Caravans from 1990-1992.

Before I move on to discussing Super Star Soldier proper, here’s one last Caravan fun fact I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: We have these early competitions to thank for the rise of none other than Toshiyuki “16 Shot” Takahashi, the gaming prodigy named and famed for his rapid-firing skills in Star Soldier who later served as the real life model for Adventure Island’s Master Higgins. Yes, without these space shooter festivals taking place on the other side of the world, we would never have known the serene majesty of a portly gent in animal skins and baseball cap hurling stone axes at snails while riding a skateboard. What a bleak existence that would be.

Though developed for Hudson by Kaneko, Super Star Soldier will remind PCE/TurboGrafx fans of another, better-known shooter for the platform, Compile’s Blazing Lazers. In much the same way Star Soldier was “inspired” by Star Force, its sequel feels like an unofficial extension of Blazing Lazers. Many of the weapons feel familiar and your ship controls much the same, right down to having variable speed settings toggled with the Select button. Enemy and stage designs have a very Compile/Aleste look and flow to them, as well, although the settings you fly through are slightly less wild here. There are no deadly rainbow bubbles awaiting you this time out, for example. Even the quirky “special lives” mechanic introduced in Blazing Lazers, which has you repeatedly shooting certain power-up icons until they turn into flashing orbs and then collecting those so you can respawn in place when destroyed instead of being sent back to a checkpoint, is carried over. Considering Compile’s towering reputation among shooter fans, the same principle that exonerated the first Star Soldier holds true here: If you’re going to crib, crib from the best.

The plot, if you can call it that, is like so: Earth is under attack by a pack of evil space brains and their leader, Mother Brain. I tell you, it’s always brains in these old Japanese sci-fi games. So far this year alone, I’ve already killed one at the end of Gradius, another (also named Mother Brain) in Metroid, and a third in Section Z. That’ll teach those squishy bastards to think so much, I guess. Anyway, there’s still hope for us humans because an improved version of the Caesar craft from the last game, dubbed Neo Caesar, has been engineered for just such an emergency. The player assumes the role of the Neo Caesar’s pilot, referred to in the manual as “Starbuck.” Dirk Benedict’s character from Battlestar Galactica, then? Excuse me, but if I have to play as an A-Team alumnus, I’d much prefer Mr. T.

Starbuck’s mission encompasses eight stages. Most are variations on the outer space theme with only a couple taking place planetside. Each is fairly long and has its own unique final boss. The exception is, of course, the final stage, which is a punishing five boss gauntlet with a generous compliment of standard enemies sprinkled in for good measure. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes, assuming highly skilled play. That’s a respectable amount of play time for the genre, albeit also less than Blazing Lazers.

The Neo Caesar has four primary weapons at its disposal, accessed via colored-coded orbs dropped by enemies. These include the default multi-shot machine gun, the wide-angle ring laser, the more focused spread laser, and the powerful, short range swing fire. You can upgrade each weapon multiple times, increasing its area of effect considerably in the process. Taking damage will lower your weapon’s power, so these enhanced armaments also double as your armor in classic Aleste fashion. In general, I found the multi-shot and ring laser to be the best at taking out swarms of regular enemies, while the piercing spread laser was ideal for dealing heavy damage to single targets (i.e. bosses). I actively avoided swing fire for the majority of the game, since its flame jets share the same bright orange color scheme as the enemy’s bullets, which resulted in far too much accidental damage. Too bad. Double flamethrowers should equal pure bliss in any game.

Rounding out your arsenal are a couple of useful supplementary items. The Starbuck Defense System is a very fancy name for a very basic pair of “option” satellites that hang out near your ship blocking enemies and their shots. While these will damage foes on contact, they don’t actually multiply your firepower like the options from Gradius. Your other choice, the homing missiles, are entirely self-explanatory. You can only have one primary and one secondary weapon equipped at a given time. Thankfully, power-up drops are quite frequent, so you’ll never have to wait too long for your favorites to show up in the rotation.

Super Star Soldier poses a respectable challenge without being too overwhelming. For the most part, anyway. It’s definitely tougher than Blazing Lazers thanks to denser enemy patterns, trickier bosses, and no shield pickup or stock of super bombs. At the same time, it’s not totally lacking in clemency. You have weapons-as-armor to prevent those one-hit deaths and unlimited continues to boot. The biggest hurdle by far is the final stage. Defeating five tricky bosses in a row, the last of which has four distinct forms, is no joke. Worst of all is the three minutes or so of regular enemy waves you have to fight your way past before the boss rush even starts. It doesn’t sound like much, but having to wade through these guys over and over each time you continue can really start to wear on you after a while. This is another of those games where I spent significantly more time on the last level than on all the rest combined.

Oh, and I can neither forget nor forgive the hellish glitch that put an ugly end to my first full playthrough. See, crashing into enemies in Super Star Soldier damages both parties. The first time I managed to defeat the final boss, it was by accidentally colliding with it, destroying us both in the same instant. I had a ship in reserve, so I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was respawn and watch those credits roll, right? Wrong. I came back like normal, but the game just hung there. The boss music kept on looping as I sat there alone on an endlessly scrolling starfield. With nothing left to kill me and no time limit, all I could was give up and reset the machine. Did I eventually start fresh and beat the boss the normal way so I could have that true ending? I did. Was I happy about it? I was not.

That freak occurrence aside, there’s very little in Super Star Soldier that’s objectionable and much to appreciate. The audiovisuals meet the usual high Hudson standard and the shooting action is fast, precise, and, above all, satisfying. It’s true that the difficulty curve is a tad lopsided due to that crazy brutal eighth stage and the weapon selection, while adequate, could stand to be broadened. The three other games on the system that share this exact style of play, Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade all have a little more going on mechanically and can be considered slightly better overall. Fortunately, being the weakest of these four still allows Super Star Soldier ample room to stand tall as one of the best shooters on a console synonymous with them. Just don’t try to kamikaze its bosses. Let my pain be your gain.