Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries (NES)

Where’s Christopher Bee when you need him?

What if your favorite games never had to end? This is the promise of ROM hacking. Taking a proven classic as a template, dedicated hobbyists of a technical bent are able to serve up an endless series of new challenges for the likes of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man. At their very best, these hacks are barely recognizable as variants of the games they’re based on, showcasing not just new level layouts, but new storylines, settings, items, enemies, and even soundtracks. At their worst, they’re some bored 12 year-old’s take on Super KKK Boner Bros. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be focusing on a competent effort this time.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s examine Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a 2007 hack of the original NES Castlevania by Optomon (Chris Lincoln) and Dr. Mario. Ever since I had the opportunity to try out an early version of an even more advanced Optomon Castlevania hack (The Holy Relics) at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I knew that I wanted to discuss his work at some point. Chorus of Mysteries is one of the best known and most ambitious of the many fan-made takes on the series’ inaugural release. For better or worse, almost everything about the base game has been tweaked in some significant way and the end result feels more like a true lost sequel than a level pack.

The hero of Chorus of Mysteries is not Simon Belmont, but Armund Danasty, a long-lost descendant of Grant Danasty, the acrobatic rogue who aided Trevor Belmont in his 1476 battle against Dracula. Chorus is set in 1800, three years after the events of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Armund, an orphan and a sailor by trade, has journeyed to the castle of Count Olrox, a vampire and associate of Dracula that Armund believes may hold clues to his own past. It should be noted that despite being a Danasty, there’s no Spiderman style wall climbing action to be found here. Armund still moves and controls exactly like Simon Belmont and his weapon (a barbed rope) handles exactly like Simon’s whip.

By the time the quick introductory cut scene of Armund arriving at the castle gate concludes, it’s clear that the art and music have received a complete overhaul. Before then, actually, as there’s also a new tune that plays over the normally silent title screen. The revamped (I had to drag that one out at least once) presentation is probably the hack’s most divisive element. The original Castlevania is not the darkest game out there, and I’m not referring to its creepy subject matter, but rather its color palette, which relies heavily on bright oranges, blues, and reds. Chorus uses a lot more stark black in its backgrounds and also elevates greens, purples, and grays to much more prominent roles. On one hand, seeing vivid purple and green elements highlighted against a pure black background occasionally lends the game a sort of “neon Castlevania” look that’s interesting in its own way. Just as often, however, the environments are simply a touch drab. For what it is, I enjoy the new art, particularly the detailed sprites.

The music is a tougher sell. Including an original soundtrack in a ROM hack at all represents a major effort of a kind I would never want to discourage as a general thing. This one, though? Apart from the fifth stage theme, which is a well-made 8-bit cover of “Dance of Pales” from Symphony of the Night, it just isn’t ear pleasing in the least. The unifying idea seems to have been to go all-in on a dainty, refined chamber music style, not unlike the one Michiru Yamane chose for “Dance of Pales” itself. Although not a terrible idea on paper, the original songs are shrill, far loop too frequently, and lack the driving percussion that underlies most great Castlevania music. If proper drum sounds are utilized anywhere in this soundtrack, I missed it. Even if I liked these tracks, they still wouldn’t be very appropriate for whipping monster ass to.

The good news is that the addictive gameplay is obviously the primary reason anyone seeks out Castlevania ROM hacks and it’s here that Chorus of Mysteries excels without qualification. The first of its six stages is patterned closely on the original game’s, but after you dispatch that familiar giant bat boss and move on to stage two, all bets are off. Be on the lookout for new level themes and layouts, new enemies to contend with, and even a new sub-weapon in the form of the laurel herb from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The laurel replaces the stopwatch and is considerably more useful. It retains its original function, conferring roughly ten seconds of complete invincibility to Armund on demand in exchange for a hefty eight hearts per activation. If you can manage to hold onto the laurel and a decent supply of hearts long enough to reach a stage boss, the ensuing “battle” is a joke.

Armed with anything except the laurel, though, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands. The stages in Chorus of Mysteries are only moderately difficult by ROM hack standards. That is to say, just slightly more intense than the ones from the back half of the original Castlevania. The new bosses are where the true horror lies. These guys all tend to be more mobile, more aggressive, and more eager to lob annoying projectiles at you than the game’s original stage guardians. If that wasn’t scary enough, the famous trick of using the holy water to freeze a boss in place while dealing constant damage no longer works in Chorus of Mysteries! At least you get the honor of being annihilated by some really cool baddies. Most of them are actually fan favorites from later Castlevania games faithfully re-created in the original’s engine. Being able to square off against a familiar foe from Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the Night on the NES really is a trip and the battles you have with them are as well-realized as they are brutal. My one real complaint is that the lengthiest and most challenging boss encounter is placed at the end of stage five. The final boss is no pushover, but you’ll have vanquished worse by the time you reach him.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries does have a handful of noteworthy flaws that prevent it from being any sort of true improvement on its source material. There are those questionable tunes, a slightly anticlimactic boss order, and an odd hit detection glitch that can sometimes make it tough to attack things with the weakest version of Armund’s whip-rope. Despite these hiccups, the fascinating new elements judiciously woven into a proven action-platforming formula make it a treat that any fan of the first Castlevania should have the opportunity to savor. Like all great hacks, this one rarely receives the attention and respect it deserves. This is tragically inevitable for the most part. These are unofficial modern games for ancient consoles with nothing resembling proper promotion behind them, after all. They’re not part of anyone’s nostalgic memories and playing them at all requires futzing around with emulators, flash cartridges, or reproductions. Realistically, most gamers aren’t going to bother. For the few of you out there that are so inclined, my hope is that this review can draw some much-needed attention to a truly worthy title. Chorus is not just a superb ROM hack, it’s a quality NES action game by any measure.

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Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe that its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single the greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. That…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution that most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers that require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowing irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests that require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking that you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways that it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history. A dead one.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its checkered “black sheep” reputation. Dracula X is very much a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy whip the Vampire Killer in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely, good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case.

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Where Dracula X really steps out of its predecessors’ shadows and starts making a name for itself is in its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.

Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

Wings of Wor (Genesis)

Whoa! Now those are some rock-hard pecs, bro!

I was pumped to do a full-on Brian Blessed hawkman dive into Wings of Wor for the Genesis. Also known as Gynoug outside North America, it’s a shooter from Masaya Games, creators of the relentlessly campy Chō Aniki (“Super Big Brother”) series of homoerotic flying bodybuilder simulators, so I figured that I was probably in for some choice weirdness. Print ads from 1991 were even emblazoned with “WARNING: Avoid eating before playing this game.” It’s too bad for Masaya that I didn’t own a Genesis at the time. A game that promotes itself like a VHS release of Cannibal Holocaust would have been right up my alley as a kid. Happily, I can report that Wings of Wor delivers on its promise of a strange, icky time. It also happens to be quite the thrilling action game if you’re into that sort of thing. Freak.

According to the instruction manual, our story unfolds on the planet of Iccus, which is under attack by a being called the Destroyer. He’s used an “evil virus” to mutate the inhabitants of Iccus into “the grossest creatures ever to slime a tunnel.” Slime…a tunnel? Whatever you say, pal. The player controls a “winged battle master” by the name of Wor on his one man counter-offensive against the mutants. This is a perfectly acceptable no-frills justification for a sci-fi shooter. Frankly, though, I just don’t buy it. Wor himself appears to be a stone angel statue that’s come to life in order to confront the baddies (similar to God/The Master from the ActRaiser games), he picks up magical scrolls to use as weapons, and many of his foes are unambiguously supernatural beings like ghosts. I haven’t found any proof of it, but I’m betting that the original Japanese version was the “heaven versus hell” story that this all implies and has nothing to do to with viruses and alien planets. At least we got the better title over here. Gynoug sounds more like a candy bar filling than a high octane shooting game.

Wor has six horizontally-scrolling stages separating him from the end credits, although the last of them consists entirely of a standard boss rush against a total of seven opponents: Six recycled from previous stages and, finally, the Destroyer himself. While five true levels doesn’t sound like a lot, the ones we get here are at least half again as long as the genre standard, if not longer. A few of them may even be too lengthy for some players’ tastes. If you’re the type that likes to complain about the levels in Compile shooters dragging, Wings of Wor is likely to set you off in much the same way.

A major plus in any case is that each stage is wholly unique, both thematically and in terms of the enemies you’ll face. This density of design is always a welcome sight and would have done wonders for the subject of my last review, Legendary Wings. Apart from the aforementioned boss rush leading up to the finale, I can’t recall a single instance of the same monster re-appearing outside of its “home” level.

Complimenting all this enemy diversity, Wor has an above average selection of tools at his disposal for carving a path through the legions of hell. His standard weapon is a constant stream of small projectiles that fan out in a cone-shaped spread ahead of him. This can be modified to become a more concentrated straight ahead shot or a simultaneous forward and backward shot by picking up certain icons. Additionally, accumulating blue and red orbs will enhance the total number of projectiles fired and their damage, respectively.

There are also a variety of special magic abilities that appear as scrolls with letters displayed on them. Depending on the letter, these can represent powerful secondary weapons like thunderbolts and homing blasts or defensive shields that protect Wor. Abilities gained from scrolls are temporary (due to limited ammunition, time limits, or similar) and they also stop functioning when you lose a life. The really interesting thing about these scrolls, though, is that they don’t just automatically activate when touched. Instead, Wor has an inventory and can carry up to three at a time, activating them as needed. Inactive scrolls in the inventory aren’t lost upon death. Better still, collecting multiple copies of the same scroll in sequence will result in a more powerful version of the magic ability in question, creating an incentive to choose your pickups carefully.

It’s very robust and flexible system, which is good, as you’re going to need all the help you can get with this one. Wings of Wor is not an easy game by any means. The first couple of levels are fairly reasonable, but things ramp up quickly after that. The fifth stage in particular is a sadistic meat grinder, with fast-moving enemies swarming in from every side and firing off a variety of tricky bullet types for what feels like forever. Bosses can also put a lot of firepower on the screen at once, sometimes making things feel closer to a modern “bullet hell” shooter than most other games of the time. Deaths are of the one hit variety and continues are limited. Thankfully, there’s no harsh checkpoint system in place and Wor is able to respawn right where he died as long as he has lives in reserve. Even with that advantage and an impressive arsenal at your fingertips, it’s still going to require a good amount of practice to see this one to the end. One tip I can offer is to be sure not to pick up more than a couple of the speed boosting feather power-ups. The classic beginner’s trap of allowing the player character to become too fast and twitchy to accurately maneuver is in full effect here and it will get you killed if you’re not careful. This is one common element of old school shooters that I don’t miss.

Enough boring gameplay specifics, though, am I right? The ad copy promised twisted monstrosities, so make with the crazy, already! Fine, fine. Things actually start out pretty restrained, which I like. It makes the first moment of true insanity all the more effective. You’re just flying through a cave, fighting spiders and falling rocks and other nondescript video game cave stuff. All the sudden, a screen-filling locomotive with a twitching human face and arms literally drops out of the sky and begins showering you with bullets. Yikes! What is this even supposed to be? Did the artist make the mistake of scheduling his ayahuasca trip and Thomas the Tank Engine marathon for the same weekend? This trend holds true through most of the game. The stages are mostly filled with typical fantasy-horror beasties with the end boss being some sort of gigantic human/steampunk machine nightmare hybrid, usually with a giant creepy face. Nothing, and I mean nothing, however, can truly prepare you for the dick from level five. I’m not just being crudely euphemistic here, either. You fight a penis. One covered in blood and twenty times the size of Wor. There’s no ambiguity in the art, either. It’s not phallic, it’s a phallus. This makes R-Type’s boss design look positively subtle and might just be the most extreme visual in the entire Genesis library. I know Sega was all about doing what Nintendidn’t around this time, but it’s still amazing that nobody vetoed this. After that madness, it’s just too bad that the Destroyer himself isn’t all that interesting from a visual or gameplay standpoint. He mostly just sits still on the screen and barely animates while you slowly whittle his health down. Insert your own joke about the game’s premature climax here.

Other than the bosses, which are as lushly rendered as they are foul, the rest of the art in Wings of Wor isn’t particularly great. This is mostly due to Wor and his opponents being quite small and sparsely detailed. The backgrounds aren’t exactly spectacular on their own, either, although several of them are enhanced considerably by some sweet parallax and line scrolling effects. The soundtrack packs more of a punch than the visuals, with some very stirring heroic melodies urging you on. I particularly like that each stage has two themes, with the second one kicking in after you dispatch a mid-stage mini-boss. With the levels being as a long as they are, it’s nice to not have listen to the same audio loop throughout. The presentation overall isn’t bad. I would rate it as slightly above average, in fact. Just don’t come expecting an audiovisual feast like M.U.S.H.A. or Thunder Force IV.

It may not be the prettiest or the most famous of its kind, but I have no reservations about recommending Wings of Wor to any 16-bit shooter fan looking for a challenge that’s formidable while rarely ever feeling unfair. It has solid control, a wide assortment of weapons, a strategic inventory system, a diverse soundtrack, and murderous hell genitals the size of a city bus. Who could ask for anything more?

Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings that fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so that they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that has recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements that defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers that hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level that players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads that appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level that contains no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes that appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell that some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish that all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

One side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above which some players may actually see as a positive is that Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form, so if you’re careful it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it that way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.