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 break the seal on 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.

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Terranigma (Super Nintendo)

Wow. Just…wow.

I haven’t played an RPG in quite a long time and I’m glad I chose this one to ease back into the genre. One of the things I like most about the majority of 8 and 16-bit console games is that I can usually complete them fairly quickly and then move on to something else before things get too stale. This is not so much the case with a lot of traditional RPG titles that emphasize constant slow-paced menu-driven battles. Thankfully, 1995’s Terranigma is a breezy action RPG that only took me about 19 hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. The combat is stimulating and the game doesn’t spread itself too thin or take up fifty hours of your life just because it can. I really appreciate that.

Also known as Tenchi Sōzō (“The Creation of Heaven and Earth”) in Japan, Terranigma is the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo action RPGs from developer Quintet that also includes 1992’s Soul Blazer and 1994’s Illusion of Gaia. The three games don’t share any specific characters or plot elements, but they do all include many of the same gameplay elements and narrative themes.

Terranigma had the misfortune to release just as publisher Enix was closing down its North American operations, which makes it one of the relatively few Super Nintendo games to see official release in Japan, Europe, and Australia, but not over here. It’s a damn shame. This game is a triumph and deserves more than the dubious honor (along with Seiken Densetsu 3) of being remembered as one of the North American SNES’s fabled “lost” RPGs. Luckily, it’s easy these days to track down a ROM file (or a reproduction cartridge, if you’re an unrepentant physical media snob like me) and experience this gem for yourself.

In Terranigma, you play as a mischievous teenage boy named Ark (although you can change his default name to whatever you like) who lives in the peaceful village of Crysta, along with his adorable purple-haired love interest Elle. Life is pretty peaceful until one fateful day when Ark breaks his way into a forbidden room in the village elder’s house and discovers a literal Pandora’s Box that he (of course) promptly opens. This causes everyone in the village to be frozen in place by a magic spell of some kind except for the elder, who tells Ark that he must leave the village to seek out five mysterious towers and conquer their various challenges in order to restore the cursed villagers to life. Things escalate quickly as Ark soon discovers the shocking truth that the subterranean Crysta appears to be the last surviving human settlement following some sort of cataclysm that laid waste to the surface of the planet. Each of the five eldritch towers he visits causes one of the planet’s sunken continents to be restored to its former place. These revived continents turn out to be very familiar indeed: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia! Ark soon finds himself in the surface world, where he must serve as the catalyst for the resurrection of life and human civilization as he journeys far and wide across this devastated Earth.

Right away it’s clear that you can’t accuse Terranigma of having a rehashed stock JRPG plot. There’s no evil empire to fight and there isn’t even anything resembling a true villain on the scene until well past hour twelve. Ark’s quest is a slow burn driven by the player’s own desire to piece together the enigmatic plot and is really more about the journey and the plethora of memorable people and places you’ll encounter along the way than the purposefully nebulous destination. It’s very similar to Dragon Quest VII in that sense, although it wisely avoids that game’s glacial pace and extensive backtracking. Ark is also not the standard “silent protagonist” that you’ll find in RPGs from this era and his wisecracking, devil-may-care attitude adds a lot to the game’s charm. As a whole, Terranigma’s story is completely delightful and I won’t be spoiling it here. If you’re in the mood for a complex, unorthodox narrative laden with challenging themes and a blend of sparkling humor and touching warmth, Terranigma is for you.

The gameplay also doesn’t disappoint, as this game features some of the most nuanced and well thought-out combat mechanics seen in an action RPG of its generation. Ark can walk and run in eight directions, unleash five different attacks with his weapon (a spear), block projectiles, and, most crucially, jump. The variety of distinct attacks available is uncommon enough, but the ability to jump is what really sets Terranigma’s combat apart from that seen in other action RPGs like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Quintet’s own earlier efforts like Illusion of Gaia. You’ll also unlock additional movement options like swimming and cliff scaling through the acquisition of key items during the course of the game, but these are mainly useful for exploration and don’t impact the combat. Overall, fighting enemies in Terranigma feels faster, richer, and generally more fun than it does in most other games of this kind.

Being an RPG, there’s also the requisite magic system, but I can’t say I cared all that much for it. Terranigma’s magic is effective, no doubt, and the various spell animations look and sound awesome. The main issue I had is that you simply don’t need any of it! The game’s difficulty is such that just beating down everything in your way with your weapons is both quicker and more enjoyable. Here’s a basic rundown: You find crystals called “magirocks” scattered throughout the game world. They work sort of like bottles for holding the spells of your choice until you decide to use them. You need to go to a magic shop, pay money to have them filled with magic, and then bring them back for recharging as they’re used. See the issue here? You can either trek back to the magic store over and over to spend money refilling your magirocks or you can just…not, since beating on the bad guys with your weapon is both more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system, though. Balancing the magic in an action RPG seems to be one of the trickier aspects of the design process. Look no further than Square’s Secret of Mana, where the most effective combat strategy involves repeatedly pausing the game to select attack magic from the menu over and over again until whatever you’re fighting explodes. Not exactly the pinnacle of great action gameplay. It’s far better for the magic in a game like this to be unnecessary than overpowering.

Terranigma’s final distinctive gameplay element is a bit of a distant callback to Quintet’s own ActRaiser: Town building. Doing sidequests for villagers will actually alter the game world by facilitating technological advancement and international trade. Villages can become towns and towns cities. It’s a fairly minor aspect of the game in that it won’t alter the main storyline or ending, but it’s a lot of fun to see the results of your actions and choices take such a tangible form on the world map.

When it comes to presentation, Terranigma is practically unrivalled on the system. Sprites are larger and animations smoother than they were in most earlier action RPGs, the backgrounds are lushly detailed, and the cinematic cut scenes accompanying the gradual resurrection of the world are easily some of the most elaborate and beautiful ever executed on a console up to that time. The breathtaking score belongs in the pantheon of all-time 16-bit greats like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. It really is that good. The music has that chunky synth orchestra sound that SNES RPGs are famous for and the compositions are soulful and inspired.

There are a couple flaws worth mentioning, too. As I alluded to earlier, Terranigma is a pretty easy game. That might sound like a plus for some players, but I really do think the enemies could have been made just a bit tougher, as it would have bolstered the game’s underwhelming magic system by rendering it a tad more needful. It also seemed to me that the game’s best levels were concentrated in its first half, with later dungeons feeling markedly less detailed and innovative.

This is really minor stuff, though. Terranigma is a resounding masterpiece and a must play title. Quintet’s games always had great artwork and music paired with rock solid gameplay, but that’s not why I think they’re remembered. No, I think it’s because Quintet was never afraid to introduce big ideas into their games in small ways. Death, rebirth, religion, the nature of good and evil, the paradoxical fragility and resilience of life, the dangers of pride and greed: Quintet didn’t just lecture us about these things, they actually showed us different aspects of them through meetings with unforgettable characters and then left us to draw our own conclusions. They didn’t hold back, yet still somehow managed to do it with restraint. They gave their audience credit at a time when games were considered child’s play.

Nothing illustrates this better that Terranigma’s absolutely heartrending ending. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here, but I will say that it’s the most pitch-perfect bittersweet coda I’ve ever experienced in a game. I actually shed a tear or two and no game has made me do that before in my 3.5 decades of play. It’s easily my favorite game ending ever.

This is why Quintet’s body of work will never be forgotten.

Phantom Fighter (NES)

Qing of the hill, baby!

Phantom Fighter is a 1988 title from obscure developer Marionette and publishers Pony Canyon and FCI. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up action game based on the 1985 Hong Kong horror-comedy film Mr. Vampire. The movie, about a Taoist priest named Master Kau and his bumbling assistants battling a type of Chinese “hopping vampire” known as jiangshi or kyonchi, was a huge hit and touched off a bit of a hopping vampire craze throughout East Asia. Think of it as the Ghostbusters of its milieu. The game was retitled and Master Kau was renamed Kenchi for the North American release in 1990.

In Phantom Fighter, you guide Kenchi and his trusty assistant through eight stages, each representing a different town under siege by kyonshi. Each town contains a variety of buildings, parks, graveyards, and caves where you’ll battle the undead and be rewarded with scrolls (currency used to purchase new kung fu moves at training halls), special weapons such as a magic sword and mirror, and the three jade spheres that you must gather in order to open the way to each town’s final boss.

Fights against kyonshi are always one-on-one, reminiscent of those in games like Street Fighter, although Phantom Fighter is strictly a single player experience, so perhaps Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu is a better comparison. You and your foe each have a health bar on the side of the screen and whoever runs out of health first loses. Dying will result in the loss of all special weapons acquired and half of your total scrolls, but continues are unlimited and you are given passwords whenever you run out of health or complete a level, so there’s no need to worry about losing your progress. Kenchi starts the game with only the most basic control options: Punch, kick, walk, jump, and crouch. All of these capabilities can be upgraded multiple times at the training halls, however, and it’s satisfying to see Kenchi’s feeble starting punch grow to take the form of a lightning-fast flurry of blows that can drain a kyonshi’s health bar in an instant by the game’s end.

Each building you enter will contain one or two kyonshi to defeat at the start of the game, but that increases to a maximum of five by the time you reach the final stage. You’ll need all the attack upgrades you can get because you can only restore lost health by leaving the building you’re in and visiting a temple. This means that you’ll need to defeat all of each building’s kyonshi occupants in one go to reach the end and claim your reward, since destroyed ones will respawn each time you exit and return.

Those are the basics but Phantom Fighter does have a couple very odd gameplay quirks. The strangest is the fact that you have to successfully answer a trivia question each and every time you want to enter one of the training halls to learn new moves. That’s right: This is a fighting game with quiz show elements. That’s got to be a first. Even the questions themselves are weird. Half of them are related to the game’s premise and involve the various strengths and weaknesses of kyonshi as derived from Chinese folklore. This makes some sense at least but then the game starts asking you things like “What’s the name of George Bush’s dog?” All the questions are multiple choice and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, so if you pick the incorrect answer you’ll just have to try again until you get a question right and are allowed into the training hall. This element of the game is just baffling to me. I honestly have no idea what it was intended to add to the experience. It’s not challenging, interesting, or even funny. What were the designers thinking? Is it just pure padding? I suppose I’ll never know.

There’s also the matter of “Conshi the baby kyonshi.” This diminutive vampire is non-hostile and you can recruit him to join your fight by using a special item, the bell. Once you recruit him, Conshi will replace Kenchi as your playable character in the fighting scenes for as long as you can keep him alive. This sounds pretty promising until you realize that Conshi really, really sucks. Like every other kyonchi in the game, he can only hop around slowly and jab with his outstretched claws for very little damage. It’s awkward and ineffectual and seems more like a bad joke than anything else. I suppose if you find the game to be too easy and want an extreme challenge, you might appreciate the chance to try to win with Conshi. In any other circumstance, you should avoid this little dope. It’s just not worth the effort to get him on your side.

Phantom Fighter is a true mixed bag in terms of graphics and sound. Kenchi and his foes are large and animate very smoothly for an 8-bit game. The character sprites do suffer a bit from a lack of color and detail, however. This is likely due to the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and clearly where most of the NES’s limited on-screen colors were utilized. The music has a very stereotypically Chinese vibe and is decent while it lasts. That is to say that the tracks are short and there aren’t very many of them. You might enjoy them for a bit at first but they’ll probably wear on you over time.

Control is mostly functional but has some serious problems. Attacks seem to have a slight delay to them. This can be adapted to but remains consistently obnoxious throughout. Jumping and jump attacks in general are also poorly implemented. It’s tough to get off the ground when you want to and to get your air attacks to execute on cue. Thankfully, there are only two airborne enemies in the entire game, both bosses, so I suppose it makes sense that polishing the aerial combat wasn’t a big priority.

I had a little bit of fun with Phantom Fighter but I can’t recommend it very highly due to its one fatal flaw: The overwhelming monotony. When you get right down to it, there’s only one enemy in the entire game that you’ll be fighting over and over and over again. There are different flavors of kyonshi with varying degrees of speed, health, and damage output but they all fight the same way: They hop forward at you with their arms outstretched comically. That’s it. All you have to do is avoid their claws (the only parts that will damage you) and employ some basic hit and run tactics to take them down. Either anticipate the arc of their hop and let them jump right into your punches and kicks or run up to them as they land, smack them, and run back. Then do it a couple hundred more times. That’s the entire game right there. I understand that fighting kyonshi is game’s main draw, but surely the designers had no shortage of other creatures from Chinese myth that they could have used as inspiration to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, they didn’t make that effort and no amount of trivia questions or grinding for scrolls can disguise the sad fact that this title plays more like a proof of concept or a demo for a full game than a finished project. It’s also overly long given its lack of real content. Eight levels is far too many when you’re tasked with fighting the same foe the same way the entire time.

Much like mediocre Chinese takeout, Phantom Fighter will hold you over for a short while, but you’ll likely find yourself craving something more substantial very quickly.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES/Super Nintendo)

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Despite being on vacation, I still got a little road trip gaming in this last weekend. It’s been a long time since I really gave this one a go but it’s amazing how fresh in my memory it remains and how quickly I’m still able to zip through it.

I’m not really going to do a whole review on Super Mario 2, since it is one of the best selling and most ubiquitous games ever made. I also won’t go into its full history: How it started out as an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic and was modified to include Mario and friends because Nintendo was concerned that the original Super Mario 2 released in Japan was too hard for non-Japanese gamers, and so forth. All this has been covered in so much detail so many times before.

What I will say is that I love this game. It was the subject of a lavish writeup in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine. I received that first issue in the mail for free back in 1988 on account of previously subscribing to the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, which NP was intended to replace. I poured over every page of this issue for months before I actually played the game, so I guess I was just programmed to love it. Yay, corporate propaganda!

Brainwashing aside, SMB2 is just a fabulous game. The vibrant colors, surreal landscapes, bouncy music, and well-rendered character sprites all put the original to shame, and while it clearly played differently, with an emphasis on picking up and throwing objects and enemies instead of stomping and shooting fireballs, I was used to different. I first controlled Mario back in Donkey Kong, which was nothing like the next game he was playable in, 1983’s Mario Bros., which was in turn nothing like 1985’s Super Mario Bros., and so on. The way you defeated enemies was completely different each time in those games, so why not again here? Shades of my Zelda 2 review here but I really miss the Nintendo that wasn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board for each new game in a series. And no, controller gimmicks don’t count.

Perhaps most ingenious of all, SMB2 gave you four playable characters to experiment with, each with their own unique style of jumping, running, and lifting objects. Not that I ever wanted to be anyone other than Luigi. Once I got a handle on the sort of insane mobility his superpowered jumps allowed for, the other three just felt hobbled. Princess Toadstool (yes, Toadstool not Peach; I’m a rebel) gets talked up a lot, but she doesn’t come close to matching the green machine’s jump distances horizontally or vertically and she’s slower to pick stuff up, too. Make mine Weegee.

At the end of the day, the SMB2 we got over here is a superior game to the Japanese original in virtually every way. It’s got more polish, more charm, and way more variety. The only thing that the Japanese sequel (known as The Lost Levels) can offer is a high degree of difficulty. Other than that, it barely qualifies as a sequel at all and is more like a lazily-made expansion pack of new levels for the first SMB.

So it seems that cynically targeting ads at children works and sometimes a little bit of condescending cultural chauvinism can be a good thing.

Wow. Those are actually pretty terrible lessons for me to end on. Let me try that again…

…Uh, yay, Luigi!

Clash at Demonhead (NES)

So meta!

I’m off to spend the a few days vacationing in Astoria, Oregon tomorrow (Goonies never say die!), but I still had time to play through one more game last night: Clash at Demonhead for the NES! Clash was developed and published by Vic Tokai and debuted in Japan in 1989 under the title Dengeki Big Bang! I feel like I’m super late to the party on this game, since I can recall Clash being one of the earliest NES titles to develop a reputation as a cult classic back in the early days of the retro gaming Internet, along with River City Ransom and a select few others. Better late than never? Not always….

Clash at Demonhead is a side scrolling action platforming game with an open-ended level layout and exploration elements, similar to Nintendo’s celebrated Metroid and Tecmo’s NES version of Rygar. You guide secret agent Billy “Big Bang” Blitz (does he work in porn in his spare time?) through an utterly mad world of rejected googly-eyed Mega Man enemies and hostile cartoon animals in an attempt to stop a group of weirdo terrorists from blowing up the entire world with a “Doomsday Bomb” for reasons so ridiculous that I won’t spoil them for you here. In order to defuse the bomb, you’ll need a total of six medallions held by the game’s various bosses (“governors”) and that means scouring the game’s 42 interconnected levels (“routes”) in order to find them all. It’s a lengthy quest for a console game of the time, but thankfully there are passwords (accessed through an item sold at the shop) to save your progress.

Bang has a pretty robust moveset to start out. He can walk, jump, crouch, and shoot straight ahead, as well as being able to swim around in bodies of water and climb on certain walls. Various special consumable items you’ll be able to purchase from a shop as the game progresses will add new movement options, such as flying around on a jetpack or even swimming in lava thanks to an armored “super suit.” While the ability to shoot your gun upward would have been nice, the control options you get are not bad at all.

Oh, and there’s also a magic system.  That’s right: This game has robots, ray guns, doomsday bombs, and a bearded mountain hermit who teaches you magic. There are five abilities in total and they include shrinking to fit through narrow passages, levitation (which is honestly a little redundant when you consider that the jetpack is so easy to acquire), teleportation to warp instantly from level to level, and more. It’s just too bad that you’ll probably want to save all of your limited magic points (“force”) for teleporting. The other powers are kind of neat, but nothing can compare with the massive convenience of being able to cross the entire map in an instant without needing to traverse a half-dozen stages or more in-between.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up Clash at Demonhead is that the game is bright, colorful, and very peculiar. The story, setting, and characters are clearly intended to be a simultaneous parody of and homage to a style of comedic action anime that was well-established in Japan at the time but was virtually unknown in the West prior to the international debut of key breakout series like Dragonball and Sailor Moon later on in the 1990s. Certainly, the game’s distinctly non-anime North American box art is a good indicator that the publisher was aware how little experience most of us had with this sort of thing. I get the feeling that a lot of people who first encountered this game around the time of its release would have been pretty intrigued by its wacky, characteristically Japanese style. Clash doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The game’s setting is pure lunacy and resembles the planet Eternia from He-Man and the Master of the Universe far more than it does earth as we know it. Character designs and animations are exaggerated and slapstick. Dialog breaks the fourth wall. There are even some play elements that seem to subvert and mock video game clichés, like a boss battle you can’t win and a totally optional sidequest and boss that rewards you with…absolutely nothing. Combine all this with the fact that non-linear adventure style games like this were slim pickings on the NES at the time (despite the success of Metroid in 1986) and it’s easy to see why Clash’s nostalgia factor is so potent for a lot of people. It would have been very a very memorable title indeed.

Unfortunately, with me having no nostalgic ties to the game, Clash at Demonhead just comes off as sort of…well, bad. It’s bad. It’s a bad game. There, I said it. Now that you’re sufficiently incensed, I’ll explain. It all comes down to three things for me: The stiff controls, the wonky mechanics, and the subpar presentation.

For starters, the core action platforming gameplay, the thing you spend the entire game doing, just doesn’t feel very good due to how Bang controls. His walking, jumping, and shooting feel awkward and occasionally unresponsive. His hit box also seems like it’s significantly larger than his actual sprite. Many enemies and projectiles also seem to have strange hit boxes, and you’ll often find yourself taking damage from things your eyes are telling you that you shouldn’t.

Water in this game is also surprisingly hazardous, despite Bang’s ability to swim. As in many games, being submerged in water will cause your health to slowly drain away to simulate drowning. So far, so good. Unlike in any other game I’ve ever played, however, this process starts the instant Bang’s head dips below the waterline, which happens automatically whenever you jump into a body of water unless you execute a rather tricky double jump off the surface, which is tough to pull off consistently. There’s no “breath holding” period, the damage just triggers instantly even if you immediately bob back up to the surface. You can get around this by wearing a diving suit but it seems strange and counter-intuitive to require one just to negotiate the water’s surface safely.

Clash at Demonhead largely looks and sounds terrible for a 1989 release. On the plus side, the graphics are colorful and Bang himself has a ton of cute animations (like a panicked expression when slipping and sliding on ice) that add a lot to his character. I really like the way that wearing a diving suit or a jetpack will cause his sprite to actually change both in and out of cut scenes. Sprites on the whole, though, are on the crude and ugly side, just like the simplistic and highly repetitive background graphics. Many enemies, especially flying ones for some reason, also suffer from choppy animation which can make attacking and avoiding airborne targets more iffy than it should be. While we’re on the subject of repetition, Clash at Demonhead’s shrill score is just godawful. When people complain about how the music in old video games was just a bunch of discordant blips and bleeps, it’s not Final Fantasy they’re talking about, it’s Clash at Demonhead. The track that plays in the final enemy stronghold as you’re on your way to defuse the Doomsday Bomb is one of the most atrocious attempts at music I’ve ever heard in my life. I actually stopped what I was doing for a bit just to marvel at the sheer incompetence on display, which is not what most composers are really aiming for, I think. Even if you think that comparing a smaller project from a third party developer like Vic Tokai to something like Metroid is unfair, Rygar by Tecmo, another game with a similar overall design that came out two years prior, looked, sounded, and played leagues better than Clash at Demonhead. It may be weird and it may be funny,  but under the hood Clash is all flash.

I will credit Clash at Demonhead with one thing, though: It did inspire me to take my “retro gaming” to a whole other level. While playing, I first attempted to simply remember which of the game’s 42 routes was which, since the in-game map screen shows the overall layout, but doesn’t display the route numbers. When I got to the point where a character told me that my next objective was on route 27, though…Well, let’s just say I spent entirely too much time wandering around trying to remember which one that was again. I consulted the manual only to find that there was no map at all there, just a suggestion that you draw your own and label the routes yourself. I almost hopped online to quickly search up a complete route map but then I found myself thinking: Back at the time this game came out, I probably would have just taken then manual’s advice and made my own. So that’s what I ended up doing instead. Now I have my very own hand-drawn, physical map of Clash at Demonhead on a piece of lined paper. It may be ugly, but it works and it’s mine. I can barely remember the last time I drew my own map of a video game, and I found the whole exercise to be oddly engaging. I suppose it made me feel a little more like an active participant in the exploration aspect of the game.

If you’re looking for game in the Metroid mold, Clash at Demonhead is still going to be very far down on my list of recommendations, but I did manage to have some fun with the crazy setting and characters, the humor, and the process of exploring the game world. It’s very rough around the edges and by no means an essential experience, but I’d say that if you like your games weird and you can get it cheap, you might as well give it a go.

As for me, I’ll be waiting for you in my desert fortress on route 33!

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth (NES)

You know, I think I love you, too, game.

Welcome to Wurm: Journey to Center of the Earth (also known as “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space” in Japan), that rarest of beasts: The game with four distinct modes of play and two terrible titles. What an overachiever! Wurm was brought to us in 1991 by lesser-known publisher Asmik and way lesser-known developer Cyclone System. It’s a crazy smorgasbord of vertical, horizontal, and first-person shooter with a dash of side scrolling run-and-gun thrown in and cinematic cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden’s as the finishing touch. This places Wurm firmly in the quirky NES shooter hybrid camp with Xexyz and The Guardian Legend. While its gameplay doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardian Legend, I found myself charmed and a little taken aback by its somber and surprisingly mature story.

In Wurm, you play as Moby, a young woman with neon green hair almost as strange as her name, who captains the VZR-5, a super high-tech tank with a giant drill on the front that can dig through solid rock. It can also hover, use a variety of weapons, and even transform into a jet. According to the manual, this vehicle is the titular “wurm,” but it’s never referred to as such in-game. Moby and the rest of the VZR-5 crew are burrowing deep into the earth’s crust in order to investigate the cause of a mysterious series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that are devastating the surface. She’s also searching for traces of the four earlier VZR ships that were dispatched on the same mission, but never returned. Among the crew of these lost ships was her father, Professor Banda, and her love interest, Ziggy. Moby’s a pretty badass “Lady Protagonist” (as the instruction manual describes her) and she proudly sports the same ludicrous green hair/red swimsuit combo as Samus Aran in the first Metroid and the star of the obscure FVM game Time Gal, so she’s okay by me. She soon finds herself exploring a surreal underworld filled with hostile creatures and getting wrapped up in an ongoing war between rival subterranean races.

Wurm consists of five “acts” separated by major plot developments. Each act contains three to five distinct levels that add up to grand total of twenty levels for the entire game. You start the game in a horizontal shooting mode where you guide your tank from left to right, blasting enemies and using your drill to tunnel through walls that otherwise would block progress. Pressing up and the A button will engage hover mode and allow you to leave the ground and fly freely, but this will consume more of your limited fuel. Allow the fuel gauge to run out and you lose. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find additional fuel in the form of pickups from destroyed enemies, so I actually never ran out once during my playthrough. My advice: Engage hover mode right away at the start of each of these stages and never look back. The ground is for losers. You’ll later gain the ability to transform into a jet, which is faster and has its own distinct set of weapons to use but consumes even more fuel and doesn’t have a drill. I found the jet to not be worth the trouble despite looking cool and stuck with the tank in hover mode, but it is nice to have options to keep things fresh. Unlike in most shooters, you can take multiple hits and you have a regenerating health bar in the form of your shield meter. If you find your shields getting low, you’ll want to slow down and let them recharge a bit before you’re stuck staring at the game over screen.

Eventually, the screen will start to shake and you’ll transition to a first-person boss fight against a single giant foe. You’ll need to dodge left and right to avoid the enemy’s attacks (or try to shoot its projectiles out of the air before they reach you) while also concentrating your return fire on its weak point. That’s not all, though: You’ll also take breaks from the shooting periodically to access a menu where you converse with the different VZR crew members, who will each offer their advice on how to defeat the boss. This reminds me of the back-and-forth between the different bridge crew members in an episode of Star Trek and really is a standout gameplay element in Wurm that I can’t recall seeing in any other action game of the time. You need talk to your crew in order to restore health points lost during the battle and to raise your possibility percentage. You can’t actually kill the boss until your possibility rating reaches 100%, no matter how much you blast away at it prior to that. Talking to some crew members will increase your possibility percentage, while speaking to others who might dispense bad or discouraging advice will leave it unaltered or even decrease it. In the end, it takes a combination of lots of accurate shooting and consulting with the right NPCs to bring the boss down. Very unique!

After defeating the boss, Moby will decide that it’s time to leave the VZR and explore some nearby caverns on foot. This leads to yet another gameplay mode where you control Moby directly as she walks and jumps around a side scrolling level searching for clues to the mysteries of the underworld and lost crew members from the previous VZR missions. During these segments, she can defend herself with a pistol (that has limited shots, so be careful) and a mean roundhouse kick. Anyone who’s played 1988’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode for NES will recognize the similarities here right away. Moby animates and controls just like Golgo does in that game, which is no coincidence, as both projects involved a ton of input from designer and artist Shoichi Yoshikawa. Your robot sidekick in Wurm is even named G-13. Cute. In fact, Yoshikawa himself still maintains to this day a bilingual website devoted to chronicling the story, characters, and oddly elaborate philosophy of Wurm. Pretty cool, if not also a bit strange.

Just when you think there can’t possibly be more, Moby will return to the VZR and suddenly overhead shooting sections are added to the mix! These play out similar to the side-view ones in that you’ll fly around blasting enemies and drilling through walls until you reach a boss. You can still transform between your hover tank and jet forms in overhead mode, but the VZR’s ground-based tank form is off-limits here.

So that’s how the game is structured, with the play style continually cycling through these four modes while you encounter new NPCs, plot twists, enemies, and weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. It’s a lot to describe and indeed a lot to take in for new players. Unfortunately, Wurm does fall a bit into the “jack of all trades, master of none” category, as none of these four gameplay styles is a truly extraordinary example of its kind. The horizontal and vertical shooting sections are the best of the lot, but they’re really just adequate and a far cry from greats on the system like Life Force or Zanac. The on-foot sections with Moby are by far the weakest, as they feature only five total enemy types to encounter and none of them pose much of a threat or are particularly fun to fight. Wurm is a fairly easy game. I was able to complete it for the first time in about three hours and I was by no means rushing. The levels simply aren’t all that punishing when compared to similar ones in other games of the period. You also get unlimited continues and a password for each act in case you want to take a break and return to the game later.

Wurm looks great for the most part, especially in the anime cut scenes and first-person segments with their large, well-detailed boss monsters and animated backgrounds. Cut scene artwork is heavily recycled throughout, though what we get is very well-drawn and expressive. I absolutely love the cheesy 80s/90s sci-fi anime look of everything. The game’s soundtrack is a real treat, too. It really drives home the strange and alien atmosphere of the game’s setting. It sounds exactly like what getting lost in a monster-filled ancient ruin 200 miles beneath the earth should sound like, if that makes any sense.

What really elevates Wurm for me, though, is the storyline. It’s high-minded, tragic, and nuanced in a way that I’ve never seen attempted on the console before. It’s also plenty corny, to be sure. This is anime people fighting against an empire of underground monster men, not Shakespeare. Without spoiling too much, however, I will say that Wurm’s gutsy plot twists and hauntingly ambiguous ending really stuck with me. By the end of this game, not all of your comrades have made it and you’re left to wonder if the surviving characters will be able to learn from the catastrophic mistakes of the past before it’s too late or if history is doomed to repeat itself. Wurm is a title with a message and with subtext that touches on the world outside the game. For all its bombastic sci-fi shenanigans and dodgy dialog, it’s earnestly trying to communicate something important to the player and, in my case, it succeeded. If anything, this is even more uncommon and more interesting than an NES game that combines four gameplay styles into one, and it’s the ultimate reason why Wurm gets a high recommendation from me.

If you like shooters, games with brave big-haired Lady Protagonists, and stories that aspired to be more than the usual kid’s stuff before it was cool, you owe it to yourself to give Wurm a go. Just don’t judge it by its awful North American cover art. Jesus.

Monster Party (NES)

Nothing weird going on here. Nope.

That’s right, it’s Monster Party! If there’s one game for the NES that’s remembered today not for its gameplay, story, audiovisual excellence, or sequels (there were none) but purely for its almost overwhelming eccentricity, it’s this 1989 offering from publisher Bandai. I just wish it was as well-designed as it is insane.

Monster Party’s opening cut scene introduces us to Mark, a seemingly normal kid walking home after dark from a baseball game with his trusty bat in tow. Yes, kids really used to do stuff like this without anyone calling the authorities. It was grand. Anyway, Mark stops to admire the beauty of a shooting star in the night sky, only to be shocked when the “star” lands right in front of him and reveals itself to be a bird man from another planet. Named Bert. Of course, Mark is completely unfazed by all this and asks “What’s up?” Yeah. Bert explains that his planet has been overrun by evil monsters and a little kid with a baseball bat is exactly the sort of mighty warrior he needs at his side to retake it. Before Mark can get a word about this in edgewise, Bert grabs him and they merge together into one being (!?!?) before flying off to Bert’s homeworld.

So, uh, yeah. There’s your story.

Once the game proper begins, you’ll find that Monster Party is a side-scrolling action-platformer, which was sort of the default genre for games at the time. You start out controlling Mark, who can run, jump, crouch, and swing his bat. It’s a pretty typical moveset but there is one nice touch: With the proper timing, the bat can be use to deflect enemy projectiles back at them, which serves the dual purpose of defending Mark and dealing heavy damage to the enemy.

Picking up a pill icon dropped by defeated enemies will transform Mark into Bert for a limited time. Bert can fly and has a ranged laser attack but he seems to be a little slower than Mark and he can’t deflect enemy shots like Mark can with his bat. This makes some enemies easier or tougher to defeat based on what form you’re currently using. It should be noted in Bert’s favor, though, that his ability to fly can completely trivialize some levels of the game, as in the case of the seventh stage, which is the only one laid-out vertically.

One of the first things you’ll notice playing through Monster Party is that the levels and enemies really aren’t that complex or challenging. Layouts are straightforward, enemies follow very basic fixed patterns and aren’t really programmed to take your movements into account, and your health bar is absolutely massive, spanning the entire screen horizontally and potentially allowing you to survive dozens of hits when full. It all seems very easy. That’s because this game is really all about the bosses. Every level has doors scattered about that lead either to pointless empty rooms that just waste your time or to a boss fight. The average level has three bosses that must be defeated in order to acquire the key that opens the door to the next level.

Unfortunately, most of the bosses fit into two categories: Stationary ones that shoot at you and mobile ones that shoot at you while moving back and forth across the screen horizontally. Sure, they all look different, but once you’ve beaten one, you’ve kind of beaten them all.

The game also doesn’t seem to have been tested very thoroughly. There’s an annoying glitch in level seven that prevents you from completing it if you defeat all three of the bosses, which you’ll recall is the goal of each level! Instead, you’ll need to either leave one boss room of your choice unentered or die and restart the level. This is such an obvious error that even minimal playtesting should have quickly picked up on it.

Graphics and sound are all over the map. Sprites for Mark, Bert, and most standard enemies are average, while the more detailed boss sprites tend to look quite good. Some stage backgrounds look great (I especially like the pulsating purple lighting in the cavern stage) but the majority are on the generic and forgettable side, like the forest and sewer. A couple of the musical tracks stand out as very eerie and memorable but the score as a whole didn’t stick in my mind. Do yourself a favor and dial the volume down during the sixth level, though. Instead of music, you get an attempt at an ambient howling wind effect playing in the background of this stage and it’ll kind of make you want to claw your own eardrums out.

On the whole, it sounds like a rather flat and uninspired game without a lot to recommend it over the system’s many superior platformers. Honestly, if I’m being objective, this a completely fair and accurate assessment. Monster Party is a wholly mediocre game.

But it’s just so freakin’ weird, you guys! Like Super Back to the Future Part II, another average-at-best platformer I played recently, Monster Party is still worth your time just to get a look at the next crazy thing it has in store for you. Dogs with human heads, walking pairs of pants (maybe they’re supposed to be invisible men but I like my take better), a killer kitten, a severed Egyptian pharoah head with blood gushing from its neck stump, and so much more. The enemies in Monster Party are unlike those in any other NES game and have to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, the designers did a great job making it likely that you’ll be able to see them all in a reasonable amount of time, since this is a fairly quick and easy game to complete. The eight stages are short, continues are unlimited, and health is abundant. This makes Monster Party more of a light romp than a protracted struggle, which is great because the novelty and humor never gets a chance to grow stale and the player doesn’t have to invest hours mastering game mechanics and stages that really aren’t that great in the first place. With all this in mind, I recommend everyone play through this one at least once just to soak in the pure WTF-ness of it all.

One last thing I should mention involves Monster Party’s history. This is a rare example of a game that was made in Japan but never released there. A prototype for an unreleased Japanese version exists and studying it reveals that the game was originally intended to contain many more parody elements than it ultimately did, with bosses based on famous monsters from films such as Gremlins, Alien, Little Shop of Horrors, Planet of the Apes, and many more. In the end, these were all changed to original creations, probably due to fear of potential legal troubles. Personally, I’m glad this ended up happening, since recognizable movie references would have been amusing in their own right but they probably wouldn’t have left as strong an impression on players as the completely random and inexplicable crop of bosses that we actually got. It’s a rare case of last minute changes made under duress actually working out for the better.

So give Monster Party a shot sometime soon. You have nothing to lose but your sanity.

Batter up!