Faxanadu (NES)

Whelp, saved the world. Time to strut off into the sunset like a boss, apparently.

I found Faxanadu to be great in some ways, but overall very uneven. You play as an unnamed Elf adventurer who returns to his home town at the base of the giant World Tree to discover that an ominous meteorite has poisoned the water and twisted the Elves’ neighbors, the Dwarves, into murderous mutants. Of course, only you can sort this mess out.

Right off, I have to say that this game looks and sounds fantastic. The art and music combine to give the game a very effective dark fantasy feel. Enemies look twisted and foul and the various areas inside the blighted World Tree appear run down and eerie. The mist level in particular looks fantastic, with lurid purple-grey fog obscuring everything while an off-kilter, disturbing tune plays. For an NES game, the atmosphere is sublime.

The gameplay could have used more fine-tuning, though. Enemy placement is problematic throughout, with some unavoidable hits when enemies literally spawn in on top of you as you switch screens as well as enemies that love to camp directly at the top or bottom of ladders that you need to navigate, resulting in more forced damage. There’s also the matter of the pendant that you’re tasked with locating in the Tower of Suffer dungeon. Despite what the NPCs and the manual say, this item appears to be bugged and noticeably decreases your offensive power instead of increasing it, and there’s no way to be rid of it once you pick it up! If I’d been playing with a walkthrough, I’d have known that I should have skipped it but as it was I had to go back and re-input an old password, losing quite a bit of progress. Do yourselves a favor and skip the Tower of Suffer completely.

These frustrations weren’t enough to ruin the game for me, although the pendant debacle came close. Faxanadu is still a very fun action RPG with awesome levels, enemies, and music. It’s very short and mostly linear, so don’t expect a lot of tricky puzzles, branching paths, or backtracking, just a good, weird time. Go climb a tree!

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The Battle of Olympus (NES)

Talk about going to hell and back….

The Battle of Olympus is an action adventure game published by small Japanese developer Infinity in 1988. Subtitled Ai no Densetsu (“The Legend of Love”) on its initial release in Japan, the game was indeed a true labor of love. In fact, everything except its musical score was created by just two people: Then newlyweds Yukio Horimoto and Reiko Oshida. There definitely aren’t many games with this sort of adorable development history behind them.

The game’s premise is essentially a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, except that instead of traveling to the underworld to plead for his deceased lover’s life, Orpheus instead picks up his trusty wooden club and heads there to beat the immortal piss out of Hades himself until he cries uncle. Because video games make mythology way better. Along the way he also encounters a mixture of creatures and elements from nearly every other famous Greek myth: Hydras, minotaurs, cyclopes, the witch Circe, the pegasus, golden apples, winged sandals, you name it.

The first thing people notice is that the game plays a lot like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, except lacking the overhead sections and presented completely in a side-scrolling view. This is no coincidence, as the developers have admitted to being big fans. If you like Zelda II’s combat, you’ll probably enjoy Battle of Olympus’, although it can be a bit more difficult. Enemies are tougher to hit due to Orpheus being unable to stab up or down like Link learns to do in Zelda II and there seems to be more pits to worry about getting knocked into. A nice change from Zelda II is with the various other characters you’ll encounter, since all of them either say or do something useful. There are no pointless “Hello” or “I know nothing” NPCs here.

The game’s graphics are very beautiful for the system at the time and I love the colors used. There are a lot of bright pastel shades of pink, purple, blue and green. Some areas like the caves and forests are more subdued, but for the most part it really pops. The characters are large and well drawn, generally quite recognizable for what they represent. I liked the score a lot, too, although it doesn’t have the same epic polish as Zelda II’s.

If I have one major qualm with the game, it’s the currency grinding. When you encountered a character in Zelda II that had an item or spell for you, they usually just gave it to you outright and there was no need for a money system at all. In The Battle of Olympus, they usually want a certain amount of red gems dropped by enemies (bizarrely referred to as “olives” in-game) before they’ll fork over whatever you need to proceed. So expect to find yourself grinding out lots and lots of weak enemy kills until you amass the 50-80 olives that each character demands. It’s pure padding at its worst.

Despite the grind, The Battle of Olympus is a compelling and memorable adventure with a fascinating and romantic story behind its creation. It flew under the radar at the time of its release and continues to do so 29 years later, but it’s the very definition of a hidden gem. Or maybe a hidden olive?

The Legend of Zelda: Outlands (NES)

Finally! I just finished The Legend of Zelda: Outlands, another game I picked up at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October. This one is a fan-made hack of original Legend of Zelda’s gameplay engine by GameMakr24 with new levels, artwork, items, and story added. It’s definitely trickier, too. There’s none of that “getting your sword on the first screen” crap here. Expect to do some overworld and even dungeon exploring without it first! It really recaptures the magic of just diving in and getting lost in the original title, a feat which even its official sequels have never quite been able to replicate. Very good stuff.

I can’t emphasize enough that if you love the original Zelda and have mastered it, Outlands is the game for you. It’s more quality Zelda 1 gameplay and about as professionally made as NES fan games get. It’s fiendishly yet superbly designed in a way that reminds me of the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels). Of course, the challenge here isn’t fast-paced platforming, but rather the mental effort involved in searching out and solving some of the most devious Zelda dungeons ever. Make no mistake: You’ll need to focus in and bring along every brain cell you can muster if you want to stand a chance of not getting hopelessly lost

Like most ROM hacks, this one is a secret to everybody. If this little review can help change that, I’ll be all the more pleased.

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES)

Tonight’s game was Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, Capcom’s weird-as-hell 1990 sci-fi action platformer for the NES. I picked this one up just three days ago on vacation at an antique store in Medford, Oregon. Price: $12.00.

First of all: Holy crap, I beat this game the first time playing it tonight! Now granted, I’ve been on an almost non-stop action-platforming rampage lately, starting back with Holy Diver in December and continuing through the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, four Castlevanias, and two Contras, so I might just be really steeped in the genre right now, but I’m still surprised. I first heard about the game in an Angry Video Game Nerd episode years back (one of the few where the Nerd character ends up liking the game he’s playing) and much was made about the challenge. I found, though, that the levels were very short (some as few as one screen) and continues were unlimited, so while each level was tough, I had endless tries to scrape past each the one and only time I needed in order to move on. I did spend about an hour just on the final level (a four boss fight rush on a single timer) but nowhere near that long on any previous level. Is it just me, or did anyone else not find this game as impossible as they thought it would be?

Since it’s the first question most people have: No, this isn’t a true Street Fighter or Final Fight game. Capcom took a Japanese game about a cyborg space cop named Kevin Straker fighting aliens and changed the story in the overseas versions so that it stated that this character was supposed to be Ken from Street Fighter. It was silly.

This was a really odd duck and I can kind of see how it never found a wide audience. The story, characters, and artwork are really weird, even for an old NES game, and it has a highly unconventional structure in that it mostly consists of boss fights rather than conventional platforming stages, of which there are only a handful.

Ken/Kevin also controls pretty oddly. He can shoot rapid fire shots forward and straight up, but he can only shoot one time in the air per jump and can only shoot down (again, just one time) after executing a backflip maneuver. He can also fire upward at a 45-degree angle by holding down. This takes some getting used to, but once mastered the action actually feels really great. Ken/Kevin is quite acrobatic. In addition to standard jumps and the backflip, he can also wall climb, wall jump, and grab onto some platforms. It’s like NES Hagane, you have so many options.

Unfortunately, the story is real bad. Ken become a scientist and invents something called “cyboplasm” along with his best friend Troy. Then some mysterious party attacks his lab, kills Troy, and steals the cyboplasm to create a mutant army. Naturally, Ken becomes a cyborg to kill them all and get it back. Riiiiiiiight.

Awful story aside, if you like oddball sci-fi, super rocking tunes (by ‎Junko Tamiya, who also worked on Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Bionic Commando!), and crazy boss rushes and you can deal with learning some unusual controls, you really should play this game. It’s cheap and worth every penny, as long as you don’t go in expecting to do any hadoukens or shoryukens.