Journey to Silius (NES)

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You’re terminated, fucker!

I’ve been on a bit of a Sunsoft NES kick over the last couple weeks, playing through Batman, Blaster Master, and now 1990’s Journey to Silius, all for the first time. What a ride it’s been! I never completed any of these games back when they came out, but I did at least play Batman and Blaster Master briefly. Journey to Silius, however, I’d never tried at all before yesterday. That’s too bad, because while I don’t think it can match Blaster Master for sheer scope and creativity, it’s definitely on the same level as Batman in terms of being a short-but-intense action game with top-notch presentation.

It’s pretty well-known by now that Journey to Silius (also known as Raf World in Japan) was intended to be a licensed game based on the 1984 film The Terminator. It was even previewed in Nintendo Power magazine under the Terminator title. I don’t believe it’s known exactly why the license was pulled, but the financial costs to Sunsoft, the six year gap since the first film’s release, and the then-upcoming sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day often feature in speculation. It’s really too bad, as the official Terminator games that were released later in the 1990s were not well-received at all and better name recognition could have driven many more sales for the game we know as Journey to Silius, which remains to this day as obscure as it is excellent.

Forced to come up with a new story for the game, what Sunsoft gave us is this: In the future, the earth is so overpopulated that everyone is migrating to space colonies. Protagonist Jay McCray’s father, a scientist working to build a colony in the Silius star system, is killed in an explosion. The incident is ruled an accident, but Jay discovers a message from his father that reveals that he was actually murdered by terrorists intent on sabotaging the colony project for some reason. Jay vows to get revenge on the terrorists and complete his late father’s work. This is all presented in an opening scene when starting the game, but there is no further plot development or even a real epilogue, so it all seems very underdeveloped and forgettable. So just do what I do and pretend you’re Kyle Reese or John Connor fighting Skynet. It works a lot better.

Incidentally, my pet theory is that the setting of the game was supposed to be the Sirius star system, but that this was corrupted to “Silius” due to the sort of L/R confusion that crept in when many early Japanese games were translated into English. Other famous examples being “conglaturations,” “victoly,” etc. I can’t prove it, but it makes sense to me.

Journey to Silius is a side-scrolling run-and-gun style game that is often compared to Mega Man. Jay’s control options are fairly basic: He can run, shoot his gun forward, and crouch. There are five levels total and they are presented in a strictly linear fashion, with no stage select as in Mega Man. Defeating bosses in the first four levels will earn you a new special weapon to use. Jay starts out with a pistol and shotgun and then acquires a machine gun, homing missiles, laser, and grenade launcher as he progresses. Every weapon except the pistol has limited ammunition and they share a single ammunition gauge, unlike in Mega Man where each weapon has its own supply of energy. This makes special weapon shots very precious and best saved for bosses. Luckily, the pistol is sufficient to deal with most regular enemies.

One interesting quirk in Journey to Silius is the way that Jay jumps. He has momentum in the air, which means that he can’t completely negate his inertia and steer himself back the way he came if he’s jumping forward or backward. You have more control over his jumps than you do Simon Belmont’s in Castlevania, for example, but less than you do over Super Mario or Mega Man’s. He also can’t fall straight down off ledges, since he’ll drift in the direction he walked off the ledge as he falls. It takes some getting used to but you can eventually adapt to this more realistic jumping style.

Graphics and sound are above average across the board in this game. As befitting a game meant to evoke the dark future setting of the Terminator films, the art direction in general is very grim, with ruined cityscapes and labyrinths filled with killer robots. Indeed, all of your enemies are robots of various types, but there’s a great deal of variety among them. Bosses are huge and can fill the entire screen or even multiple screens in one memorable case. The Journey to Silius soundtrack is legendary for good reason, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many more people have heard these tunes than have played the game itself. The signature “Sunsoft sound” is in full effect here, with pumping bass samples and amazing percussion driving the very heavy score.

Journey to Silius can be pretty tough going. While the game is short and can be completed in about half an hour, you’re only given twelve lives with which to do so. You have three lives to start and three continues and there is no way to find or earn more, which seems to be a trend in Sunsoft NES games. These guys just hate the concept of the 1-Up. In addition, levels two, three, and four are very long indeed, easily twice the length of an average stage in most other games. The final level breaks with the standard established to that point by blindsiding you with an auto-scrolling gauntlet of traps and pits that demands you be both precise and rapid in your progress as opposed to the more cautious and deliberate pace that works best for the previous four stages. Don’t think you can count on health drops from enemies, either, as these are exceedingly rare and restore only a small amount when they do show themselves. They’re so scarce, in fact, that you can go several levels at a stretch without seeing a single one and they can’t be “farmed” from respawning enemies, as there are none to be found in this game. You’ll need to become very adept at memorizing the positions of the enemies and traps in each level and conserving your health and ammunition if you want to stand a chance.

There are some outright flaws to be found here, too. Vertical sections where Jay has to make leaps of faith onto lower platforms are pure trial-and-error, with no way to know what hazards are awaiting you or how to maneuver yourself to avoid them and this feels pointlessly unfair. There’s also an annoying quirk in the boss fights where you lose control of Jay the instant the boss is defeated but any projectile attacks headed your way at that instant stay active and can damage or even kill you while you’re stuck standing in place unable to dodge. I’ve had to re-fight several “dead” bosses because they’ve succeeded in killing me with these parting shots while I’m at very low health. It sucks.

Minor quibbles aside, Journey to Silius is a great action platformer. It doesn’t have the length or depth of a Mega Man, the frenetic multiplayer action of a Contra, or the epic storyline of a Ninja Gaiden, but it does have gorgeous art, responsive controls, incredible music, and substantial challenge going for it. Now go play it before I have to travel back in time and make you.

(Originally written 6/22/2017)

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