Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

I finished but I’ve only just begun!

It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!

I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.

Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. This music is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.

This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.

The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is to select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.

Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialog for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.

As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me but the option’s there if you really want it.

It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.

The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.

I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.

Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.

Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.

Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with cliche JRPG plots, characters, and dialog. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.

I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.

I just feel sorry for all those little rabites.

Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo)

You can ring my beeeeeeell. Ring my bell.

In 1985, Konami released the first TwinBee game to arcades. As far back as the first entry in the genre, 1962’s Space War, shooter video games almost invariably featured science fiction or military themes and tended to be presented in as realistic a fashion as the hardware would allow. TwinBee broke with convention by opting for a cartoon aesthetic, embracing bright pastel colors, adorable little spaceships with white-gloved Mickey Mouse arms, and a whimsical power-up system that involved juggling and collecting colored bells. The game was a huge hit, mainly in Japan, and would inspire numerous direct sequels as well as its own sub-genre of lighthearted shooters (“cute-’em-ups”) that includes Sega’s Fantasy Zone and Success’ Cotton.

By 1994, though, the arcade style shooter’s mainstream popularity was on the decline. What was hot? Mascot platformers! Mario and Sonic were raking in cash at an astonishing rate and it seems like everyone wanted in on that action. Since the robot bee ships from TwinBee already had tons of personality, a colorful world to inhabit, and even the requisite limbs needed for platforming, it must have seemed like a natural fit to someone at Konami because they released Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures that same year in Japan and Europe.

I played the Japanese version, since I don’t have the necessary equipment to run European PAL video format games properly. I understand that the publisher opted to remove all the game’s dialog rather than translating it from Japanese for the international release, however, so at least I’m not missing out on anything in that department.

The story of Rainbow Bell Adventures may leave you with a bit of deja vu. The maniacal Dr. Warumon is attacking with his army of EvilBee robots. His good guy counterpart Dr. Cinnamon must fight off the invasion with his own TwinBee ships, piloted by his youthful assistants Light, Pastel, and Mint. So yeah, it’s pretty much Mega Man. Dr. Warumon even looks just like Dr. Wily in a Halloween vampire cape. But it’s just an excuse to zip around collecting bells, so I’ll give it a pass.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it represents the colorful TwinBee style well. The graphics are crisp and bright, the music is bouncy, and everything is just as cute as can be. There are even high-pitched anime style voice clips for your ship. Everything has that impeccable polish you would expect from 1990s Konami. Rainbow Bell Adventures is not a perfect game overall by any means but I can find no real flaws at all in the art and music.

You start out by picking between three characters. You have TwinBee (the blue one), WinBee (the pink one), and GwinBee (the green one). They’re differentiated by two factors: Rocket charge time and punch charge time. Your rocket will launch you forward when fully charged, a mechanic which seems to have been lifted directly from Konami’s own Rocket Knight Adventures, and your charged punch takes the form of a projectile attack that will deal huge damage to enemies and is mostly useful against bosses, since common enemies just don’t require that much damage to take out. WinBee has a fast rocket charge but a slow punch charge, GwinBee has the inverse, and WinBee is the default character with equal charge times for both. In practice, I found that WinBee’s quick rocket boosts made her the best character for traversing standard stages and GwinBee’s fast punches made him a natural boss wrecker. I didn’t end up using poor TwinBee much, since he fell into the common “jack of all trades, master of none” category. You’re able to change characters each time you die and lives are unlimited, so there’s no need to worry about being stuck with a setup that doesn’t suit you.

The platforming itself is fairly standard, aside from the rocket dynamic. You can kill most enemies by jumping on them or by punching them. Being a TwinBee game, you still power up by collecting colored bells from defeated foes. These will grant abilities like melee weapons to extend your punch range, a gun for attacking distant targets, temporary invincibility, and more. Your collected bells fly up into the air and scatter whenever you take a hit but you’re able to re-collect a few of them if you’re quick about it, similar to how you can recover some of your dropped rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. Bosses are large and impressive looking but not too tough to deal with. Just dodging their simple attack patterns and landing four or five charge punches will send even the final boss packing in short order. They’re a bit tougher than your standard Mario or Sonic opponents but not by much at all.

One interesting option is two-player simultaneous play. The bad news here is that it’s kind of a mess. The game’s camera will only track player one, so player two has to stick close by or do their best to fumble around until they finally find their way back onto the screen or die trying. More fun is the battle mode, which is certainly no replacement for Street Fighter II or Mario Kart in terms of competitive play on the Super Nintendo but is amusing enough in short bursts.

The goal in each of the main game’s 35 stages is either to reach the exit or to defeat a boss. Taking a cue from Super Mario World, many stages have multiple exits, each leading to a different stage. Unlike in Mario World, all exits are shown on the map screen that you can access by pausing the game, so these branching paths don’t constitute secrets in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels is really Rainbow Bell Adventures’ fatal flaw. They’re sprawling, frequently labyrinthine, and wrap around themselves in Pac-Man fashion, so reaching any side of the level boundary will bring you back around to the opposite side. Rather than conveying any true sense of place, they come off as bland abstract mazes composed of the same few background tiles repeated over and over in arbitrary fashion. They’re also lacking the big “set piece” moments that levels in other Konami platformers of the period were known for, like the swinging chandeliers and rotating rooms of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III’s insane missile riding sequence. There are a few different stage themes (ice, cave, water, and so on) but only a few and each repeats often. To make matters worse, enemy variety is pretty lacking and most enemy types appear in most levels. The end result of all this is that the stages in Rainbow Bell Adventures just sort of blur together into a single inchoate mass with all the flavor of a bowl of room temperature oatmeal. It looks great and controls acceptably but it’s really tough to recommend a platformer with such weak level design. That’s the linchpin of the whole genre, after all!

Rainbow Bell Adventures isn’t a truly awful title. Rather, it’s a lot like another Super Famicom platformer I played recently that never came out here in North America, Super Back to the Future Part II: Plenty of surface charm masking a thoroughly average game. Konami made a good call by not bringing this one over, since Rainbow Bell Adventures simply isn’t up to the nearly superhuman standards of their other 16-bit releases on the Super Nintendo around this time. Or the Sega Genesis, for that matter. If you can get it cheap or you’re an obsessive TwinBee superfan, you might as well give Rainbow Bell Adventures a try. General audiences can do much better.

Willow (NES)

Not bad, except for that 8-bit Kevin Pollack. *shudder*

Looking back on the NES library, it’s kind of remarkable how few games really attempted to copy the formula of Nintendo’s 1986’s smash hit The Legend of Zelda. There were no shortage of games riding Super Mario’s platforming coattails but overhead fantasy action-RPG titles never took the console as a whole by storm. SNK’s brilliant 1990 release Crystalis is probably the system’s best-known Zelda protégé and FCI’s 1986 port of Hydlide is sometimes considered to be a “Zelda clone” but this assessment is very much in error, as Hydlide was originally a 1984 release for Japanese computers and likely a Zelda inspiration itself.

One company that did take up the challenge was Capcom, who unleased their NES version of Willow into the world in 1989. Capcom actually released two games based on Ron Howard and George Lucas’ cinematic collaboration, the other being an arcade exclusive action game that played like a more colorful iteration of their Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. I remember that this NES release was pretty well hyped over the course of several issues of Nintendo Power magazine at the time but I never actually played it before this week. It was definitely a pleasant experience and I now count this one right alongside Sunsoft’s Batman in the elite class of licensed NES games worth a damn.

I always enjoyed Willow as a film. It wasn’t until years later that I picked up on the fact that it wasn’t exactly a critical darling at the time of its release. The screenplay was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (a mock prize awarded to “the worst in film”) and it was even compared to the infamous Lucas-produced stinker Howard the Duck. Freaking Howard the Duck? Really? That’s just low, man. In reality, it’s a very fun ride featuring likable leads (Warwick Davis is the man), stellar production, thrilling action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects. It also had those goddamn brownies. Those two were just wretched. Still, it’s far from the worst thing going. Oh, well.

The first thing you need to do to enjoy Willow the NES game is forget about all that stuff I just said, because it has basically nothing in common with the movie. Oh, all the main characters are here and your overall goal is still to overthrow the wicked Queen Bavmorda but the plot as a whole is completely new. It’s actually a little surreal if you’re familiar with the source material to see all these elements seemingly mixed-up Mad Libs style. I’ve seen some speculation that Capcom simply took the Willow license and slapped it onto another, unrelated fantasy game that they were already planning or working on. I haven’t seen any concrete confirmation of this but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. At least they did make the effort of recreating a couple key scenes from the film, such as Willow’s multiple failed attempts to transform the sorceress Fin Raziel back into a human from animal form and the bit where Madmartigan is accidentally dosed with a love potion and falls for the villainous Sorsha.

If you’ve played any overhead action-RPG game before, you’ll be able to hit the ground running here. You move Willow around in eight directions with the directional pad, swing your sword with the B button, and activate whatever magic spell you currently have selected with the A button. You also have a shield which works passively to block frontal attacks as long as you’re not in the middle of swinging your sword. You’ll also find a host of other items that you need to progress the plot but these work automatically from your inventory and don’t need to be manually selected or equipped. Starting out in your home village of Nelwyn, you’re given your first sword and spell along with some basic advice and instructed to head north to the next town.

Willow is not a particularly complex game. In fact, I already pretty much covered everything you need to know above. The forests, mountains, and caves of the world have some twisty maze-like sections that might take some wandering to find your way through but the progression as a whole is very linear, lacking the open world exploration, puzzle solving, and secret finding elements of Zelda. Being told by one NPC that you need to go speak to another in order to get the item you need to move on is about as deep as it goes.

You’ll discover new swords and shields to equip along the way but, with the exception of one sword that has the special power of being able to harm ghost enemies, the only thing that’s different about these is that some have better attack and defense ratings than others. The game does make an interesting attempt at an encumbrance system with its weapons, as each sword has a minimum strength rating needed to use it properly and Willow will attack very slowly if he uses a sword that he’s too weak for. What this really amounts to is that each sword has minimum character level associated with it. If your new weapon is too slow, just put it away until you gain a level or two and then try it again. I don’t know that this adds any actual fun to the proceedings but it is different at least.

The magic system is pretty well handled. You have the usual handful of utility spells for things like healing, exiting dungeons instantly, and “fast travelling” between towns you’ve previously visited as well as attack spells that will freeze, damage, or even destroy enemies outright. There’s also a couple oddball spells in the mix, including one that transforms Willow into a slime monster for disguise purposes and another that will change strong enemies into weaker ones. Since most enemies can be dispatched by Willow’s sword fairly easily, I found myself saving most of my magic points for healing and travel. It is nice to have options, though.

Willow shows off some very impressive graphics and music. The color palette makes fine use of greens and earth tones without becoming too dark or muddy, sprites for Willow and his foes have a lot of detail, and there’s even a pretty fabulous effect when fighting enemies outdoors where every tile of the map will “come alive” and start to animate as if everything is blowing around in a windstorm. Very unique. Another visual highlight are the well-drawn facial portraits displayed for every speaking character in the game. Songs loop a lot and more of them would have been nice but the ones we get are all composed and executed very well, as you would expect from Capcom. The theme from the final dungeon, Nockmaar Castle, is particularly awesome.

In terms of criticism, I do wish that Willow had just a little more going on in it. There are no real branching paths, secrets to discover, or puzzles to unravel during your quest. It’s just a linear trek from point A to point Z. It’s a fun enough trek but it could have been so much more. There’s also a lot of repetition in terms of scenery, almost as if the developers tried to pad out the game some by just sort of “stretching” the game world as a whole. You’ll see a lot of identical screens copied and pasted over and over. There are even occasional instances of the exact same empty screens placed right next to each other. There’s no proper justification for something like that.

Willow might not have depth on its side but it does have accessibility and personality to spare. The mechanics here are very solid and there are no glaring gameplay flaws to speak of. It’s a worthy entry in the genre and very much worth playing for action-RPG fans, even if it does play third fiddle to Zelda and Crystalis on the NES. Best of all, you can’t actually hear the brownies talk this time.

Life Force (NES)

It’s 2017 and I figure it’s about damn time I complete a Gradius game for once. Luckily, I snagged a copy of Life Force at a local game store a couple weeks back, so I can finally make it happen!

Life Force (sadly unrelated to the completely gonzo film of the same name about nude space vampires ravaging Britain) is the NES port of the arcade game Salamander. Salamander was conceived as a spin-off of the established Gradius series of horizontal scrolling shooters that would incorporate a number of new features: Faster gameplay, a new power-up system, simultaneous two-player gameplay, and a mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling.

As a port, Life Force retains some of these features (like the multi-directional scrolling and two-player action) but its slower speed and traditional Gradius power-up system make it feel less like a spin-off and more like a sequel. It might seem like a strange choice to “Gradius-ify” Salamander like this but I think it makes sense on a few levels. First off, getting a two-player simultaneous shooter with so many things going on at once running on the NES at all in 1987 was likely something of a programming marvel, so having it also scroll at the same speed as the arcade original may have been a near technical impossiblity. In addition, the original Gradius was also one of Konami’s best-selling titles to date on the system, which would make emphasizing the resemblance between Life Force and it seem quite sound from a business perspective. But I’m just speculating.

In terms of story, it’s about what you would expect. A gigantic planet devouring alien named Zelos is headed for the world of Gradius and only you, piloting your super cool Vic Viper space fighter, can infiltrate the hungry colossus and administer some impromptu laser surgery to save the day. Also, in a nifty Ultima reference, player two gets to fly the “Lord British space destroyer.” Cool.

Basic stuff but at least whatever weirdo they enlisted to write the English manual text had fun with their version, which begins: “In a remote quadrant of the universe there was hatched a hideous creature. His proud parents, Ma and Pa Deltoid, named their only son Zelos, which in alien lingo means ‘one mean son of a gun.'” Wow.

Gameplay is classic Gradius. Shoot baddies to rack up power-up capsules and points to earn extra lives. Each capsule you collect will highlight one of the choices on your power-up menu. These include speed boosts, missiles, “option” satellites to double your firepower, a force field, and more. When the power-up of your choice is highlighted, simply press the button to cash in your stash of capsules and activate it. Try not to die or you can kiss all those awesome power-ups goodbye and it turns out that being slow and nearly defenseless is not a particularly great strategy. This is easier said than done, though, since one touch from any enemy or part of the stage background will do you in.

It’s a very careful and exacting style of play that demands a mix of steady hands, quick reactions, and lots and lots of stage memorization. This is further emphasized by the limited lives and continues available. This is definitely not for everyone since you really do need to approach a Gradius game “right” and there’s not a lot of room to just mess around and play things fast and loose. Due to its nature as a two-player game, though, most of the stages in Life Force do have forks and branching paths, so there is some variation in how you can approach these stages.

Life Force has six stages in total, which was sort of the magic number for Konami back then (see Castlevania and Contra) and they are impressively varied. Several are in keeping with the giant space monster theme previously established and feature cool icky details like living flesh walls that “grow” in at you and killer blood cells. Other stages are completely different and vary things up with asteroid fields, walls of erupting fire, and even an inexplicable Egyptian temple. Each level is capped off by a boss. These guys look amazing but are honestly real pushovers in that they utilize only very basic attack patterns that never vary. After making your way through a brutally difficult stage, fighting these slow, ineffectual bullet sponges will feel like a vacation.

Life Force looks and sounds just as great as its pedigree would imply. Visual highlights include the third level with its towering columns of rushing flame that will wipe out anything in their path, friend or foe, and the huge boss characters. The high-energy music sets the mood perfectly, although it can occasionally cut out a bit when there’s a lot of weapons fire going on. Life Force’s greatest accomplish is probably how smoothly it manages to run. There is some occasional slowdown but not nearly as much as you might expect when the screen is filled with animated backgrounds and two player’s worth of missiles, lasers, and option satellites even before you factor the enemy ships in!

The game isn’t totally perfect. I already mentioned the slowdown and the feeble bosses. However, if you have the patience to come to grips with the demanding playstyle that the series is known for, there might be no better way to spend a half hour of gaming time that blasting your way through Life Force. It’s a short game but another triumph of quality over quantity from Konami’s Golden Age. Like Contra and Castlevania, it’s a finely polished, exquisitely cut gem of a game. And one mean son of a gun.

Contra (NES)

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My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. The ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action platformers left their mark but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the 80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.

(Originally written 3/8/2017)

Getsu Fūma Den (Famicom)

Yup. Whatever that says, it sure is satisfying.

Getsu Fūma Den (literally “Legend of the Lunar Wind Demon”) is a very interesting 1987 game by Konami for the Nintendo Famicom. As a side-scrolling action-adventure game with some first-person 3D elements, Getsu Fūma Den shares a lot of the same very ambitious design goals as two other Konami releases for the console that same year: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II. Each of these three games are flawed but still quite enjoyable attempts to take the action-platforming gameplay common in Famicom titles up to that time as a basis and then work in elements from the RPG and adventure game genres in the form of permanent character progression and large open worlds filled with mazes, puzzles, and inventory items to gather. Unlike Castlevania II and Goonies II, however, Getsu Fūma Den never saw release outside of Japan, probably due to its heavy use of cultural references that would have been lost on a Western audience.

As its title states, Getsu Fūma Den is the story of Getsu Fūma, a determined young samurai who must recover his clan’s three lost magical wave swords (hadouken), which were captured when his older brothers fell in battle against the forces of the demon lord Ryūkotsuki (“dragon bone demon”), and use them to vanquish the villain once and for all and avenge his fallen kin. Interestingly, Fūma is based (extremely loosely) on Fūma Kotarō, a famous historical ninja clan leader who rose to prominence in 16th century Japan. This makes him a sort of counterpart to another historically inspired Konami hero: Goemon from the Gonbare Goemon series.

I played Getsu Fūma Den using the original Famicom cartridge and a pin adaptor that I ripped out of a copy of Gyromite, so there was a bit of a language barrier to deal with. There is a fan translated version of the game ROM available online if you prefer to play that way but thankfully there’s no need. All you really need to complete the game is an understanding of your overall goal and a good breakdown of what the various items in the game do. Thorough exploration will take care of the rest.

The game starts you out on an overhead view world map very reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s, although it doesn’t feature the constant random monster encounters that Zelda II does during map exploration. Various icons on the map represent action stages, shops, dungeons, and houses where NPCs will dispense healing and advice. The goal of the game is to locate the three dungeons that house the missing hadouken and pass through them to defeat the bosses therein. Once you have all three swords, a bridge will appear on the main island that you can cross to reach Ryūkotsuki’s castle and finish him off. To enter each dungeon, though, you’ll need to acquire passes in the form of demon masks. These are dispensed by specific skeleton NPCs that you’ll find inside houses. You’ll need to fight the first two in order to get their passes but you can rather amusingly acquire the third one just by repeatedly visiting the skeleton and pestering him for it until he finally relents and hands it over so you’ll leave him be. Also, keep in mind that a few of the items sold in the shops (like the rock sword and candle) are actually required to complete the game, so make sure to check out all the ones you find.

The world map is merely functional but the side-view action stages are where Getsu Fūma Den really shines. These look fantastic and feature a large selection of enemies and background tiles for a 1987 title. Fūma has a very floaty jump and an interesting way of attacking with his sword. He swings it in a sort of wide forward arc that can also hit enemies immediately above and below him. It took me a little while to realize why Fūma’s controls felt so familiar but then it hit me: He handles a lot like Leonardo from Konami’s very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES, just with a faster running speed. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of Getsu Fūma Den’s staff later worked on TMNT. You have a health meter at the top of the screen and right above it is an experience meter that will slowly fill as you kill enemies. The more experience you accumulate, the more damage you’ll deal with your sword and the less you’ll take from enemies. I was able to max out the experience meter fairly quickly during my playthrough, between the first and second dungeons, and it definitely made the journey much easier. The most fun part of these stages is probably using the various extra weapons that you can pick up and use in place of your sword for a little variety. You can find a magic war drum that shoots the Japanese work for “power” at foes to damage them, shuriken throwing blades, a devil top that gives you an invincible jumping spin attack similar to Metroid’s Samus Aran, and more. The top spin attack in particular is super strong against bosses.

Once you finally reach one of the three dungeons, you’ll enter the final gameplay mode: 3D maze exploration. Unfortunately, this is where Getsu Fūma Den flounders somewhat. Like almost all 3D maze sections in 8-bit console games, these sections are slow, unengaging, and confusing to boot due to every part of the maze looking exactly the same. Prepare to either draw yourself some maps Dungeons & Dragons style or wing it and accept that you’ll be getting turned around and unintentionally backtracking at some points. At least these mazes are better than the positively torturous ones in Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13 games. No multiple floors and trap doors to send you back here. There are non-essential bonus items and money stashes to find as well as enemies to fight but the combat here is pretty lacking. Enemy sprites will bob up and down to simulate being closer or further from Fūma but there’s no sprite scaling like there is in games like Sega’s Space Harrier, so judging depth can be difficult. In general, just try to avoid enemies when they’re at the bottom of the screen and jump up to slash them in the head as many times as possible when they’re at the top. Thankfully, you’ll switch back to the side-view perspective when you reach the end of the maze and it’s finally time to fight the boss. These guys are another highlight. They’re big, freaky looking, and fun to combat. I especially loved the giant cyclops demon head in a samurai helmet that flies around spitting flames at you.

Getsu Fūma Den isn’t a particularly difficult game. The trickiest elements are honestly learning your way around the overhead map and navigating the dungeon mazes. Fūma can take a lot of hits before dying and continues are unlimited. Losing all your lives and continuing will cost you half of your accumulated money but this is no real hardship. You’re practically drowning in cash in this game and most items for sale aren’t even that expensive. A couple of the later bosses can put up a decent struggle but once you find the devil top, you can spin them into oblivion easily enough. My first playthrough last night took me about 5-6 hours in total but none of that was spent stuck on difficult action bits. There are passwords available to resume your game if you want to take a break. Just select the second option on the continue screen to receive one. These aren’t too long but they are in Japanese, so I would recommend taking a photo rather than trying to transcribe them by hand unless you’re familiar with the language.

Getsu Fūma Den is yet another awesome 8-bit title from Konami. It has some great side-scrolling action coupled with a very surreal and striking ancient Japanese fantasy-horror aesthetic. There are games for the system that look better but none that could be mistaken for this one. The music is also a treat, particularly the epic overworld theme. It’s a pity that Fūma himself never found the same success that many of their other characters did. This game never received a sequel, even in its native land. Fūma would be playable in both the Konami Wai Wai World games for Famicom (along with numerous other Konami heroes) and he was also a downloadable bonus character in 2010’s Castlevania: Harmony of Despair but he would never again be a headliner.

At least he went out with honor.

Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)

I met an opossum wearing goggles once. No rocket, though.

1993’s Rocket Knight Adventures from Konami is a celebrated game that won’t be much of a revelation to anyone who grew up playing the Genesis/Mega Drive. For someone like me, though, who stuck with Nintendo hardware all through the 80s and 90s due to a combination of established love for the NES and what I saw as Sega’s obnoxious “extreme” marketing, discovering that I missed out on titles like this is both slightly disappointing and highly exhilarating.

RKA is the story of Sparkster, a brave young Rocket Knight who must defend the opossum kingdom of Zebulos from attack by the pig Emperor Devligus of the Devotindos Empire. Aided by the rogue rocket knight Axel Gear, the Empire has kidnapped Princess Sherry because only she knows the way to open the seal to the Pig Star (pretty much the Death Star from Star Wars with a pig snout on it), which was captured centuries ago following a destructive war and sealed away by the first king of Zebulos. Axel also gravely wounded Sparkster’s mentor and father figure Mifune during his treacherous turn, so our hero has a personal stake in the fight as well. All of this information comes from the manual, as there’s no backstory presented in the game. There are some rather adorable cut scenes between levels that advance the plot to its conclusion, though.

As I aside, I do find myself wondering why pigs almost always have to be the bad guys in these cartoon animal worlds. I think they’re pretty cool. Maybe it’s an Animal Farm thing? At least Konami also gave us a pig hero in their 1982 arcade shooter Pooyan, so hooray for equal time. Hmm. I wonder if anyone’s come up with a fan theory that Rocket Knight Adventures and Pooyan take place in the same fictional universe? If not, I’m totally calling dibs on that one right now.

Ahem. Anyway, like a lot of Konami’s flagship titles at the time, Rocket Knight Adventures is a side-scrolling action-platform game. Mostly. As a nice change of place, Sparkster will occasionally take to the skies with his rocket pack to engage in some shooting action reminiscent of Gradius. Controls are simple but still nuanced, which is always a key to success in any game of this kind. One button makes Sparkster jump and the other will attack with his sword. The sword attack has more range to it than you might expect, as each swing will also fire off an energy blast that can travel about 2/3 the length of the screen.

Sparkster’s rocket pack is what really takes the action to a whole other level, though, since it enhances both your attacks and movement in a variety of ways. Holding the attack button down for a couple seconds will charge it up and releasing the button will unleash it. If Sparkster is standing still, he’ll spin rapidly in place and deal heavy damage to anything nearby. If you’re holding down a directional button, he’ll blast off at high speed in that same direction with his sword held out in front of him. You can use this to attack foes, reach high platforms and items, and even ricochet off walls like a bullet to attack from unexpected angles. Sparkster is mostly invincible while executing a charged rocket attack but that doesn’t mean that you can get away with abusing them. Each level has its share of pits, spikes, traps, and other environmental hazards, so if you’re just rocketing around recklessly, you will regret it. Learning exactly how and when to unleash Sparkster’s charge attacks is the key to doing well and the process is so, so fun.

There are seven levels total for Sparkster to traverse. This may not seem like a lot but each one is fairly long and is broken up into several unique locations and action set pieces. There are also around sixteen bosses battles spread throughout the game. These are all unique, too, and have multiple phases and attack patterns to deal with. In fact, RKA doesn’t rely on padding or asset recycling of any kind, which is really unusual for an older game. Instead, every stage utilizes 100% original enemies, obstacles, backgrounds, and music. To cap it all off, the stage designs are masterful thrill rides brimming with invention and represent one-time superdeveloper Konami at its very best.

This game looks gorgeous and a big part of that is the art direction. The choice to depict a whimsical world populated by cute animals reminiscent of Golden Age Disney cartoons means that the designers were able to focus on big, bold primary colors and didn’t need to stretch the system’s limited palette too thin by struggling to depict more realistic characters and settings. The characters are drawn full of personality and their animations are smooth. To pick just one example, Sparkster looks so, so adorable fighting off enemies while hanging upside down from his tail in true possum style. The music follows suit by perfectly complimenting the blend of cute visuals and intense action. You know you’re in for some unforgettable tunes when both Michiru Yamane, famed for her work in the Castlevania games, and Mr. Silent Hill himself, Akira Yamaoka, both contributed to Rocket Knight’s score.

Rocket Knight Adventures is not terribly difficult, though it does require some practice and knowledge of the level layouts to complete. The game has four difficulty levels to choose from. The first three are all very managable and seem to vary mainly in the amount of damage that Sparkster takes from enemies and hazards. The fourth (Very Hard) starts you out with only one life and kills you after one hit from anything. Definitely not my cup of tea but it’s nice that they included a mode for those players who enjoy playing a game over and over and over (and over!) until they’ve completely mastered it.

This is the part of the review where I try to find something negative to say about the game in the interest of fairness and objectivity. I’m normally pretty good at this but here I’m kind of stumped! Rocket Knight Adventures is one of the very finest action games I’ve ever played and it has no noteworthy flaws to speak of. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the best of Konami’s 16-bit action-platformers. Yes, even better than stuff like Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars. With those games, great as they are, I can still find a few non-trivial faults if I look, such as the overpowered nature of Simon Belmont relative to his enemies in Castlevania IV or Contra III’s mediocre overhead view levels. Rocket Knight Adventures has no such weak points. It’s about as close to perfection as a game realistically gets and it’s a bit of a bummer that I haven’t been playing it ever since it came out.

I guess sometimes it is worth doing what Nintendon’t.