Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

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Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy romp it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Section Z (NES)

Time to go commando!

I’ve been putting Section Z off for a long time now. I knew three things about this 1987 shooter going in: First, its 1985 arcade forerunner was the start of Capcom’s loose “jetpack trilogy,” which also includes Side Arms and Forgotten Worlds. Second, this home adaptation was radically redesigned à la Tecmo’s Rygar, ballooning from 26 linear stages (designated A through Z, naturally) to a full 60 arranged in a maze-like fashion. Finally, there’s no way to record your progress. The Famicom release utilized the Disk System add-on and allowed for saving directly to the floppy. Unfortunately, Capcom opted not to follow the example set by other North American FDS-to-cartridge conversions like Metroid and Castlevania II, which replaced the disk saves with passwords. The entirety of NES Section Z has to be finished in one go.

In other words, I needed to wait until I had both a big chunk of free time and nothing better to do with it than sit around playing Nintendo and mapping out a tangle of alien-infested corridors on paper. Home sick with a nasty cold? Perfect!

The main reason I was so keen to give this one a try is the groundbreaking role it plays in Capcom’s early NES history. Like all their pre-Mega Man output for the console, Section Z got its start in arcades. Unlike 1942, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the rest of their relatively faithful ports, however, this Section Z makes no attempt to replicate the design specifics of its predecessor. Apart from the core conceit of a man with a jetpack zipping around vaporizing space aliens, it’s an entirely new game. This same approach would grace us with the all-time classic NES interpretation of Bionic Commando the following year.

Your ultimate goal in Section Z is to guide a lone Earth soldier on his journey to destroy the evil Balangool empire and its leader, L-Brain, before they overrun humanity. Your gun-toting astronaut hero goes unnamed in the arcade, but on the NES he was dubbed Captain Commando as part of an ongoing attempt to create a mascot character based on the Capcom name itself (in reality a portmanteau of Japan Capsule Computers Co., Ltd). This effort peaked in 1991 with the release of the side-scrolling beat-’em-up Captain Commando, although it’s highly doubtful the hero of that game is really intended to be the same Boba Fett-looking fellow you control here.

Hunting down L-Brain is no mean feat thanks to the complex arrangement of the game’s 60 numbered sections. The bulk of these short (one to two minute) stages terminate in multiple exits, each of which will send the good Captain to a different destination. Barring the distinctly cheaty option of using a pre-made map, there’s no way to tell which section an exit connects to short of trying it out. It could just as easily warp you back to an area you’ve already visited as take you someplace new. Section 8, for example, has exits leading to sections 5 and 11. Your trial and error exploration (which ideally includes careful note taking) will eventually uncover a few exits that are colored red instead of the usual green. These lead to the game’s major boss fights, but they’ll be sealed and deadly to the touch until you can find and destroy a power generator mini-boss.

Thankfully, this all isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. Section Z is really more like three mazes comprising 20 stages each than one colossal 60 stage labyrinth. The bosses at the end of sections 19 and 39 function as points of no return. Once you defeat them, you’ll never have to worry about being sent back to an earlier section again if you die and continue. Continues are also unlimited, so you won’t lose out on any progress made as long as you don’t switch off the game entirely. You’ll need all the developer leniency you can get toward the end, where the correct path can even include invisible secret rooms that are revealed by firing at seemingly empty areas of the screen.

The shooting action itself is pretty typical horizontal auto-scrolling fare. Captain Commando’s primary distinction is his ability to fire his gun right or left as needed using the A and B buttons, respectively. It may not seem like much, but it’s a nice change of pace from the planes and spaceships common to this style of game, which are usually limited to aiming in whatever direction the screen happens to be scrolling. Enemy placement takes the Captain’s offensive flexibility into account, so be prepared for foes to enter from either side of the screen at any time. While things can get pretty hectic, there are no one one-hit deaths in Section Z. The Captain comes equipped with a generous energy counter which starts out at 20 and can be permanently increased by defeating bosses. Most enemy shots only deduct one point of energy. Physical contact is much more dangerous, resulting in a loss of five energy and a trip back to the start of the current section.

There’s a handful of power-ups available: A laser, an upgradable triple shot, and a temporary shield. What’s great about these is you can keep them in your inventory and equip them as needed with the Select button. Saving a shield for the boss fights obviously works wonders. There are also powerful super attacks the manual calls missiles. These are clumsy to use and rarely worth the trouble. You activate them by pressing A and B simultaneously, which will cause the missile to appear in the center of the screen. You then need to fly over and touch the missile to actually trigger it. This costs four of your energy points and can be difficult to manage at all when you’re being swarmed by bad guys (i.e. when you need it the most). I ignored these for the most part and don’t regret it.

Section Z looks better than average for a 1987 release. The backgrounds are colorful and the enemy sprites are competent takes on the usual random assortment of tiny killer robots. Captain Commando himself is the real standout with his oversize spiky rifle and Star Wars-inspired armored space suit. Très badass. The music is high quality, too. Strangely, though, the tracks recall something you’d hear in a ’60s spy movie. It sounds more like Captain Commando should be smuggling classified documents out of the Soviet embassy than blowing away alien invaders. I kinda dig it.  The only real downside to this soundtrack is there’s not much to it. You’ll be listening to the same three loops for more than 90% of the adventure.

Was Section Z for the NES worth the four hours or so it took me to puzzle my way through? Well, I reckon it wasn’t the worst way to spend a sick day. It’s a mechanically solid shooter with a unique pseudo-adventure game structure and pleasing presentation. That said, its length clearly works against it on a blind playthrough. You’ll see the same modest selection of backgrounds and enemies over and over, listen to the same three songs for ages, and do a metric ton of button tapping due to the regrettable lack of a thumb-friendly auto-fire feature, all without the ability to divide the quest up into multiple play sessions for convenience. While there’s certainly some satisfaction to be found in making your own map and taking L-Brain down for the first time, I can see this version of the game being much more fun to revisit with prior knowledge of its convoluted layout. The presence of a save feature alone makes the Famicom Disk System edition a better starting point, provided you have the means to run it.

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemented these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well-thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total 8-bit train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one. Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

Aero Fighters (Super Nintendo)

Covering a controversial game or one of major historic significance can be intense. Considering that the subject of my last review, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, is both those things, I can definitely use a breather right about now. It’s times like this when nothing satisfies like a straightforward arcade shoot-’em-up.

The 1993 Super Nintendo port of Aero Fighters (also known as Sonic Wings in Japan) is every bit the archetypal early ’90s vertical shooter. If you’ve ever plunked a quarter into something like Toaplan’s Fire Shark or Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden, you’ll recognize this style of play immediately. Taking control of a very agile, very fragile airplane, you blow away as many enemy vehicles as you can on the way to the level boss. You start out with a pea shooter of a primary gun and a limited stock of screen clearing super bombs that can save your bacon when things get hectic. Destroying some of the larger enemy craft will release floating power-ups that either enhance the spread and damage of your main gun or increase your stock of super bombs. And…that’s pretty much it. Clear six to eight stages of this and you win! Games like this are true staples in my book; accessible, addictive, and something no classic arcade is complete without.

Sadly, you’re almost better off buying the arcade cabinet itself if you’re looking to bring Aero Fighters home. The game’s developer, Video System, opted to published the Super Nintendo version themselves under the banner of their North American branch, McO’River. McO’River? Seriously? Did they pull that one out of a random leprechaun name generator or something? Anyway, if you don’t recall hearing about all the great McO’River branded gems that came out over the years, there’s a reason for that: They only ever published four titles and none of them sold well. This makes Aero Fighters one of the most expensive Super Nintendo releases, with loose cartridges routinely going for $600 and up at auction. If, like me, you didn’t have the foresight to load up on Apple stock back in the ’80s, it’s flash carts and emulators to the rescue again.

Two things set the Aero Fighters series as a whole apart from other games in its class and make it seem like more than Raiden with the serial numbers filed off. The first is the large roster of playable characters, each of which pilots a different plane with its own unique weapons. The second, closely related element is the offbeat sense of humor that defines these characters and their interactions. The ten member cast includes a ninja, a prince, a teenage pop idol, a viking berserker, and a little robot who resembles a cross between Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movies and Nintendo’s own R.O.B.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the humor in Aero Fighters is how well compartmentalized it is. Most attempts over the years to inject comedy into the genre have resulted in typical “cute-’em-ups” like Fantasy Zone, TwinBee, or Parodius. The player flies over outlandish pastel landscapes battling swarms of weird and often seemingly harmless foes. Not so in Aero Fighters. The level and enemy designs here are as straight-laced as they come. Only the between stage dialogue and ending sequences hint at the insanity underlying it all. Aero Fighters is the mullet of wacky shooters: Business in the front, party in the back.

There are a total of eight stages on offer here. They’re based on a handful of standard terrestrial themes (city, ocean, desert, etc) with the exception of the final one, which sees your fighter jet inexplicably venturing into outer space. A given playthrough will only ever feature seven of them, however, as each character has a home country and is exempt from fighting in the stage associated with it. Choose Hien or Mao Mao, for example, and you’ll be guaranteed to skip their native Japan. None of the levels are very long and a perfect run of Aero Fighters clocks in at around twenty minutes. The only thing that will prevent most players from completing it so quickly is the difficulty. You’ll have to contend with one-hit kills, limited continues, and an extremely punishing final stage if you’re serious about viewing your chosen character’s ending. It’s not R-Type hard by any means, but it’ll still put your bullet dodging skills to the test. Teaming up with a buddy to double your firepower is a great way to even the odds, of course, and Aero Fighters does support two players simultaneously. This limits your choice of characters somewhat, though, since both players are required to represent the same country.

Fans of simple pick-up-and-play action should be quite pleased with this iteration of Aero Fighters. The abundance of quirky and mechanically distinct characters give it more replay value than most of the games that inspired it. The graphics and sound are both high quality, if never jaw-droppingly so. It even runs better than average for a SNES game, with only the slightest touch of slowdown on occasion. The transition from a vertically-oriented monitor to a standard tv does make the action feel slightly more cramped at home than it did in the arcade, but this compromise was common to many other conversions of similar titles. My one major complaint is that this is yet another example of an old school shooter that doesn’t have an automatic fire option for your main gun, so prepare to tap your thumb numb unless you own a turbo controller. So rude. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Unless your game is built around shot charging, there’s no good reason for it to lack auto-fire.

Aero Fighters is one of the better Super Nintendo shooters, particularly among the minority that include two-player simultaneous modes. That said, if you’re still dead set on spending a small fortune to own it, I’d pick up a Neo-Geo console and one of its superior sequels instead. You get to play as a talking dolphin in those. Spanky rules.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (TurboGrafx-16)

Ah, Keith Courage. There’s likely no more despised whipping boy in all of classic gaming than this nondescript sword wielding pre-teen. Bubsy the Bobcat, perennial punchline that he is, still hasn’t been the target of as much heartfelt vitriol over the past three decades. Why is that? At first glance, the original PC Engine version of Keith’s one and only adventure, 1988’s Mashin Eiyūden Wataru (“Spirit Hero Wataru”), is that most ubiquitous of things: A mediocre anime-based platformer from a C-list developer. Japanese gamers were practically downing in quickie contract works like this during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were the equivalent of the ever-present Hollywood movie cash-in games that littered my own childhood. Pretty worthless for the most part, sure, but nothing worth holding a grudge over.

That’s how it was in Japan and would have been here, too, if it hadn’t been for one fateful decision by NEC, the electronics giant that co-created the PC Engine itself in conjunction with Hudson Soft. In early 1989, they were gearing up for the system’s big summer launch in North America as the TurboGrafx-16. It must have been clear to everyone involved that they had their work cut out for them. Sega was on track to roll out their 16-bit Genesis the very same month. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s NES still maintained its iron grip on the hearts and minds of America’s children. NEC needed to pair their new machine with a true killer app in order to have any real chance of breaking through. I’m talking a stone cold instant classic. A Mario slayer. What they ultimately bet the farm on was our boy Keith. Yikes. It’s like the NES had shipped with Karate Kid or Total Recall.

Yes, most gamers who picked up a TurboGrafx-16 during the first two thirds of its three year run were introduced to their expensive next gen console by an utterly unremarkable throwaway title by Advance Communication Company of all people. Not the arcade quality spaceship shooting of Compile’s Blazing Lazers. Not the four-player fantasy epic that was Atlus’ Dungeon Explorer. Not even Hudson’s own established mascot Bomberman. When the system predictably failed to take off, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was condemned to go down in history as not just a bad game, but the game so bad it sank the TurboGrafx. Say what you will about Bubsy, at least he never had the weight of an entire gaming platform’s future resting on his furry shoulders.

That’s the boilerplate version of the tale, anyway. Now for the fun part! Is this really so wretched a game? Did it bury the machine it was bundled with? And before we can tackle those big questions, just who is Keith Courage and what the hell is an Alpha Zone?

Well, the instruction manual informs me that Keith Courage is an agent of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and he’s out to save the world from B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes), the invading force of evil aliens that killed his scientist dad. Ugh. Could the middle-aged marketing geniuses behind this localization have possibly been further off the mark with this dreck? Kids in the ’80 were into awesome heroes like the Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats fighting against the likes of the Decepticons and Cobra. N.I.C.E. and B.A.D. would have stood out as corny and patronizing to a first grader. The buff, lantern-jawed adult version of Keith created for the manual and cover is equally laughable when you consider that he’s still represented in-game by the same exact sprite of nine year-old Wataru. In fact, nothing about the whimsical cartoon fantasy world of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru was altered to fit the new story and character designs given in the manual. Yeah, I totally buy this goofy smirking kid as a badass warrior on a mission to avenge his slain loved one. Seamless.

As for the Alpha Zones, that’s just what the manual calls the game’s seven side-scrolling stages. While nominally distinguished by simple themes (Fire Zone, Glacier Zone, etc), these all play very similarly in that each one is split up into two distinct halves. First comes a rather drab and empty Overworld area, where an achingly slow-moving Keith marches from left to right and swats puny basic enemies to earn the money needed to purchase power-ups in shops. You then transition to an Underworld section that sees Keith hopping into a giant robot called the Nova Suit for a spate of faster-paced, more challenging combat that culminates in a boss fight.

In other words, what we have here is a much hated platformer from Advance Communication Company that alternates between two jarringly different gameplay modes. One is slow and boring while the other focuses on constant combat against trippy monsters. Oh, and it features music by Michiharu Hasuya. Hmm. Maybe they should have just gone all the way and called this one Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Courage.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. The similarities between Keith Courage and ACC’s infamous NES stinker are interesting for sure (the two were released a mere four months apart), but the former is admittedly much less of a confusing mess overall. Keith Courage presents a more traditional action gaming experience and benefits from a far greater share of nostalgic defenders willing to stand up and declare it an underrated gem. That said, both halves of the game are still plagued by some egregious design flaws in my eyes.

The Overworld areas are devoid of anything resembling thrills or challenge and seem to exist exclusively to lengthen the play time through cash grinding. Adding insult to that injury, the shops themselves aren’t exactly filled with exciting gear. The sword upgrades for the Nova Suit are a must for sure. Apart from them, the only other items on offer are limited use projectile weapons called Bolt Bombs and these are largely underwhelming. You’ll quickly learn not to waste your money on them. Playing as Keith here may not be anywhere near as frustrating as navigating the streets and parks of Henry Jekyll’s London, but it’s just as tedious in its own special way.

The Underworld is a bit better than that, at least. The Nova Suit can run fast and jump high, while the enemies you face off against are a lot bigger and showcase some pretty outlandish designs at times. You’ve gotta love the dudes that are giant revolvers with faces or the Frankenstein monster heads with no bodies, just limbs sprouting directly from their humongous craniums. Once the novelty of these critters and the initial exhilaration of simply being able to move around at an acceptable speed wears off, however, it’ll dawn on you that these Underworld areas repeat themselves quite a bit. You get the same couple of alternating music tracks, the same background tiles (recolored occasionally, at least), and the same baddies and insta-death spike hazards over and over. Leaps of faith are also a regular annoyance, since Keith is tasked with making his way downward to the boss waiting at the lowest point of each level. You’ll frequently have to cross your fingers and hope there’s not a bed of spikes lurking just out of view as you drop from a ledge. Your chances are about 50/50 in my experience. Hooray for unlimited continues, I guess.

The mushy cherry atop this failure sundae is the lackluster presentation. Keith Courage’s Overworld graphics are closer to an NES game’s than what Sega brought to the table in their own debut Genesis pack-in, Altered Beast, and the Underworld’s are no great shakes, either, with their overreliance on recycled assets and plain black backgrounds. At least the music’s alright. Not exceptional in any way, mind you, merely competent.

Having now laid out all the evidence, is Keith Courage in Alpha Zones truly a bad game? Yes. Yes, it is. I wouldn’t single it out as excruciatingly awful or anything like that. It’s not even close to being the worst thing I’ve played on my PC Engine in the past year. I’d rather run through Keith Courage another ten times over than touch War of the Dead again, for example. Even so, there’s nothing about it I can actively recommend over the dozens, if not hundreds of more polished and exciting 16-bit action-platformers. The localization is absurd, the pace drags, the combat is shallow, the level design is barely there, and it can’t even bring the eye candy. Keep in mind that all this is coming the guy who did end up recommending Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to fans of crazy experimental fare.

Did Keith single-handedly throttle the nascent TurboGrafx-16 in its crib, though? Hardly. NEC’s management missteps were legion throughout the life of the system. They failed to beat Sega to market, refused to bring over many of the PC Engine’s best releases, hesitated to match their competitors’ marketing budgets…the list goes on. They were consistently their own worst enemies and that extended far beyond the choice of a resoundingly weak pack-in game.

So leave poor Keith alone. He didn’t kill your favorite console. He’s not a bad boy, really, just a touch slow.