Alisia Dragoon (Genesis)

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Gee, thanks. I’ll, uh, wear it with pride, I guess.

So ends my first play session with Alisa Dragoon, but definitely not my last. It took me about seven hours of practice to get my first full run, which is just about the perfect amount of time to pass a lazy afternoon.

All I can say is: Wow! It’s been a while since a game has really impressed me this much. For me, Alisia Dragoon is an absolute masterpiece, right up there with Castlevania: Bloodlines and Streets of Rage 2 on my list of all-time great Genesis games. It’s that good.

The artwork and animation are some of the best on the system, the music is some of the catchiest fantasy action tunes I’ve ever heard in a game (it sort of has a Golden Axe vibe, but more complex and varied), and the control is perfect. Levels are all unique in terms of theme and visuals. Each also has its own roster of enemies, so nothing feels recycled here. The game’s art direction and animation was provided by the anime studio Gainax, which likely explains the high quality of the overall presentation.

The plot of the game involves the sorceress Alisa and her four magical pets questing to stop some evil wizards from resurrecting an ancient evil power of tremendous magnitude. Pretty straightforward stuff, but there is a nice twist toward the end that elevates it a bit in my eyes.

Alisia’s primary weapon is the lightning she shoots from her hands, but the way this attack handles is very unique and is what gives the game its own feel when compared to other action-platforming games for the Genesis. Basically, Alisia doesn’t need to worry about aiming. Holding down the attack button causes a stream of homing lightning to automatically lock onto enemies in front of Alisia. This lock-on shooting mechanic, actually a refined version of the one from Game Arts’ earlier sci-fi action game Thexder, sounds like it would make the combat too simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since sustained attacking drains your magic meter, you can’t just shoot all the enemies all the time and you’ll need to take strategic pauses in combat where you focus on dodging while your meter recharges.

Even with an empty magic meter, you’re not defenseless. You have four extremely cute and deadly magical beasts along for the ride and each of them has unique attacks and strategic uses. You can only have one pet active at a time but you can switch between them instantly at will. They each have their own life meters and are able to be damaged and even killed by enemies, however, so you’ll have to keep them healthy by finding meat power-ups. Each pet can also be leveled-up two times by collecting other power-ups, which will grant them more health and attack power. Needless to say, picking the right pet for a particular stage or boss fight can make Alisia’s life a whole lot easier.

The game’s difficulty is tough but fair, as typical for the era. You only have one life at the start of the game, which seems daunting, but Alisia can absorb quite a bit of damage before dying and health restoration pickups are fairly numerous. You can also find health bar extensions and extra lives inside the power-up capsules you’ll discover along the way. You’ll still probably end up replaying the early stages of the game several times as you learn the stage layouts and boss enemy patterns, but you’ll soon be blazing through them quite quickly and effortlessly once you’ve properly memorized them.

Alisia Dragoon is a wonder. Unfortunately, it seems it didn’t sell very well upon its release in 1992, so the gaming world was never graced with any sequels or even ports to other systems. It’s a damn shame, really, but at least we can still appreciate one of the true lost treasures of the 16-bit era.

Now, I think I’m going to go feed my pet electric chicken dragon thingy. Trust me, you wouldn’t like him when he’s hungry.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

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“Your head is, like, freaking gigantic, though. You should probably see a doctor. Still, good job with the whole hero thing.”

What a wonderful time it’s been re-playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link! I’ve been playing a ton of NES in the past six months or so, but I’ve mostly focusing on titles that are new to me. While I haven’t played all the way through Zelda II in a few decades, it’s amazing how familiar it still feels. I wish I could be half this good at remembering other things like names, faces, people in general….

Anyway, Zelda II has developed a reputation for being a highly polarizing game that people either love or hate. This is weird to me because back when it came out, I recall encountering exactly zero players who claimed it was a “bad game” or not a “real Zelda game.” The game was just awesome and that was that. I suppose it might be because safe, iterative franchise culture was much less of a hunched gargoyle squatting on the game industry at that point. In fact, I’d wager that even trying to toss out the word franchise in conjunction with video games in 1987 would have drawn uncomprehending stares. Fewer games, even successful ones, got sequels at all and there were fewer preconceptions about what a sequel had to do. It was a new frontier and we were more open to novelty. Certainly, there were no “fandoms” yet. Ick. The original Zelda game has overhead view action? Cool! Zelda II has side view action? Cool!

So, yes, Zelda II ruled in 1987 and it still rules thirty years later.

In Zelda II, Link must track down the Triforce of Courage to awaken Zelda from a sleeping spell. He also has to avoid the literally bloodthirsty minions of the deceased Ganon who want to use him as a sacrifice to resurrect their vanquished leader. Link’s quest involves traversing the land and completing seven dungeons, each with its own boss. Along the way, Link visits several towns where he learns magic spells and new sword techniques to help out in the dungeons, usually by completing a short fetch quest for the townsfolk. The structure of the game as a whole is definitely a lot more linear than the first Legend of Zelda, which might be a sticking point for some. Exploration isn’t much of a priority here, but combing the overworld won’t go completely unrewarded, either, since there are still health and magic upgrades scattered around to find.

I already mentioned that the action is presented in a side view format this time, with Link gaining the ability to crouch and jump. What I didn’t mention is that this feels amazing! Link’s movement and attack controls are buttery smooth here and just so awesome to master. I genuinely feel that the combat in this game is one of the greatest pure play control experiences available in the NES library and that the addictive feel of the swordplay is the game’s greatest strength by far. It’s definitely what keeps me coming back.

Another plus is the score, which is phenomenal from title screen to end credits. I dare say it’s even better than than the original’s! It’s a pity these themes have been so neglected over the years while other games in the series have seen more musical callbacks in later installments. These are badass sword and sorcery adventure tunes at their finest.

There are light RPG elements in Zelda II, but they don’t ultimately do much to help or hinder the game for me. They’re sort of just there. Kill enough enemies and the game will prompt you to increase your attack strength, magic power, or health. It happens at a natural enough pace that you shouldn’t need to invest a lot of time just grinding levels, unless you want to try to offset the difficulty a little.

Which brings me to the other major gripe people have with the game other than the perspective shift: It’s more difficult to complete than other Zelda titles. This is true to a degree. The game never approaches a truly extreme level of challenge, but it does require a lot of practice and focus. Tougher enemies like the shield-toting Iron Knuckles and the axe-wielding Daira are tough, aggressive, and can deal a lot of damage unless you memorize and exploit their patterns. Link can also fall or be knocked into pits, which will instantly deplete one of his lives. That’s right: Lives. You start with three. Lose them all and you’ll continue back at the first screen of the game. Items collected, levels gained, and other progress is retained, but you lose all experience points accumulated toward your next level. If you die in a dungeon, you’ll need to trek back to the entrance to try again and non-boss enemies will have respawned. It’s not the most punishing system in the world, though it can be annoying to progress far into a dungeon only to perish and have to retrace your steps and re-kill everyone. If you’re patient and willing to work on learning your enemies’ weaknesses, however, the game is very much beatable in a reasonable amount of time.

Again I implore you: Don’t believe the negative buzz you’ll find online about this game. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most stimulating and well-polished action-adventure experiences the NES has to offer, and that would be…an Error.

Get it? Like the guy in the game who’s named Error? Eh?

I’ll show myself out.

Xexyz (NES)

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Well, that was Xexyz. Time to completion: About three hours. I must say, iy was just the breezy change of pace I needed after sinking nearly forty into Battletoads!

I’d played this one a bit in the early ’90s, but I really only remembered two things: Your hero’s snazzy helmet and that the bosses tended to resemble giant robotic sea life, which always made me wonder if there was any connection to the Darius games, which have the same odd enemy theme. Apparently, there isn’t. Thanks, Internet.

This one is an odd duck for sure. It somewhat resembles The Guardian Legend in structure, since gameplay is split between on-foot sections, where your character explores the game world and collects power-ups, and more straightforward spaceship shooting sections. The main difference is that Xexyz’s on-foot levels imitate a side-scrolling platform game like Mega Man rather than an overhead view adventure game like The Legend of Zelda and its shooter sections scroll horizontally rather than vertically.

The game is set on post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2777 and the planet is now inhabited by an odd mix of human, robots, mutant animal people, and winged fairies. It’s…strange. Anyway, one day alien robots led by some dude named Goruza attack the land of Xexyz and kidnaps all its queens. There’s apparently like six of them. That’s gotta be some kind of record. You play as the techno-warrior dude Apollo and set out to save the world.

The game has a very odd structure: Platform level, platform/shooter hybrid level, boss, shooter level, boss. This cycle is repeated six times in total. In another Guardian Legend parallel, I find the shooter gameplay to be the much more engaging mode overall. Not that the platforming is bad as such. Rather, it’s mediocre, with an overall lack of challenge and some stiff controls holding it back a bit. The shooter sections aren’t perfect: Your hit box is perhaps too large, there’s no auto-fire for your weapons (always a pain in any shooter), and more weapon options than the five or six on offer would have been very welcome. Still, the shooting is where it’s at here.

Graphics and sound are serviceable but uneven. Some musical tracks and stage backgrounds are excellent, while others are just passable. The graphical highlight is definitely the boss sprites. They’re huge and extremely well-drawn.

Xexyz was originally published in Japan by Hudson Soft in 1988 and entitled Turtle’s Gratitude: Legend of Urashima. So while the undescriptive and difficult-to-pronounce international title Xexyz (“zex-iss”) is often blamed in part for the game’s obscurity, I guess I can’t blame them for wanting sometime a little shorter.

Despite the issues mentioned above, Xexyz is still worth a look. It doesn’t quite have the length, breadth, or polish of a Guardian Legend, but it’s a solid B-list title for the NES. If nothing else, the world and characters are just so damn weird and it’s probably my favorite game where you get to ride a flying lobster. Probably. Top three for sure.

Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialogue for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

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Decided to play through Batman for Game Boy real quick this morning before checking out of the hotel for the final day of Crypticon. It’s still a pretty fun little platform/shooter hybrid, but I had forgotten in the 25 years or so since last playing it what a steep difficulty jump the last level and boss are. The auto-scrolling platform navigation is stressful (as intended, of course) and the damn Joker takes like a billion hits.

I’m really glad they used small sprites that work well in the Game Boy’s native resolution instead of making the common mistake of going with NES-like proportions that make the action appear too zoomed-in. It’s a short experience, with only four levels, and I would have particularly loved at least one more Batwing flying level, although I understand why they only included the one, since they were trying to follow the rough plot outline of the movie for the most part.

Still pretty enjoyable, though. Especially for coming out so early in the system’s life. Go, Sunsoft!