Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.

For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.

What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.

Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.

Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.

Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.

Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class, but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first, but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.

One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.

You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages, but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.

While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching and scaling effects used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.

Sound effects are solid, but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.

Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?

All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages, but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.

So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

April O’Neil’s mullet game is fierce indeed!

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Not since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Battletoads have I taken on such a divisive “love it or hate it” title.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it’s background time. TMNT is a single player action platforming game with exploration elements that was released in 1989 by Konami. Outside Japan, the game was published by a pair of Konami front companies: Ultra and Palcom. This was done in order to get around Nintendo’s strict restrictions on the number of games a third party developer could release for the NES in a single year. Strangely enough, the relationship between the two companies was so good during this time that this arrangement had Nintendo’s tacit approval, which I’m sure must have sown some serious resentment among other, less favored NES developers.

The Turtles themselves were created in 1984 by independent comic book artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the new wave of grim and gritty urban superhero comics by the likes of Frank Miller. Eastman and Laird’s wry comics relied on the contrast between the forboding Gothic cityscapes, hardboiled dialog, and intense violence of those works and the most absurd set of protagonists the writers could imagine: Teenage mutant ninja turtles! The result was pretty great, but its appeal was largely limited to well-read comics fans savvy enough to appreciate the joke. In 1987, one of the defining (and least likely) moments in the history of children’s entertainment occured when this obscure niche property had its violent and satirical edges filed off and became a smash hit cartoon series, spawning the terrapin merchandising empire we’ve all come to know.

I never was much of a Turtles fan as a kid. I think it hit just a little too late for me, since my interest in toys and action figures peaked around ages 5-8 in the era of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Thundercats. By the late 80s, I was all about the video games.

This original TMNT title by Konami was not only their first ever appearance in a video game but also the first piece of Turtles-related media to ever hit Japan. They must have been very confused, because this is one strange game and most of the characters you encounter don’t seem to have been taken from the comics or the cartoon. In fact, the lack of recognizable enemies is a common point of criticism from dedicated Turtles fans. While I can sympathize to a degree, this “weird random enemies” factor is easy enough to justify as a product of the times; an NES thing. Certainly it didn’t prevent me from enjoying Sunsoft’s Batman or Capcom’s Willow and I’m more of a fan of those films than I am the TMNT cartoon.

The plot of TMNT is actually pretty dynamic for an action game of the time. In the first stage, you start out looking to rescue your extraordinarily kidnap-prone reporter friend April from mutant baddies Bebop and Rocksteady. After that, she tells you that the Foot Clan is going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Save the dam and you return home to discover that your ninja mentor Splinter has been kidnapped, and so on. It’s not exactly profound stuff, but it’s more than the single simple goal you’re given to last you through most 8-bit games.

Each of TMNT’s six stages except the final one consists of two gameplay modes: A overhead view of the city where you travel around on foot or by Turtle Van looking for buildings and sewers to explore and a side view action mode for indoor areas. You can switch between the four turtles at any time in both modes and each has his own supply of health. The golden rule here is that it’s always better to switch to a different turtle rather than allowing your current one to run out of health. “Dead” turtles aren’t gone forever, since the game states that they’ve actually been captured by the enemy. Most stages have spots where you can rescue a captured turtle, but it’s usually in a difficult part of the stage that’s off the main path, so you really want to avoid having to do this if at all possible.

The overhead segments aren’t particularly exciting, despite the presence of some simplified combat with a few basic enemy types. They mostly exist to link together the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels where the real action takes place.

Once indoors, your turtles can jump, crouch, and swing their signature ninja weapons straight ahead, up, or down. You can also find various sub-weapons in the form of ninja stars, boomerangs, and the almighty magic scrolls. These will extend your attack range greatly, but have limited shots. As a nice touch, however, your boomerang shots won’t decrease if you catch each one on the rebound. Since balance within your party is an issue (one I’ll address in more detail below), these sub-weapons are very important for the turtles with weaker primary weapon attacks. One final important pickup is the health restoring pizza. When you find a pizza, make sure to use it well by switching to a turtle with low health before grabbing it. Remember its location, too, since pizzas and other items will replenish when you exit and re-enter an area and “farming” these items as needed makes your quest much easier.

Overall, I really like the action in these side-view portions. They control a lot like those in an earlier Konami title I played recently: The 1987 Japan exclusive Getsu Fūma Den for Famicom. The Turtles walk slower and jump higher than Fūma does in that game, but the overall feel is very similar. This also extends to the large gallery of grotesque enemies that re-spawn readily and often take multiple hits to kill. In fact, you can think of TMNT as a whole as a bit of a spiritual sequel to Getsu Fūma Den, except without the clunky 3D mazes. It also has some striking visual similarities with yet another past Konami game: The Goonies II. Some of the building interiors resemble those in Goonies II, the map on the pause screen is similar, and the boomerang weapon handles almost identically.

One thing that takes some getting used to is the jumping controls. A light tap will make your turtle do a short hop and holding the button down will make them go into a somersault and gain much more height at the expense of precision. Once you’ve mastered doing the right jump in the right situation, the platforming becomes quite managable but if you somersault when you should be doing the hop (or vice versa), you’re going to have a bad time.

I also really liked the graphics and sound in TMNT. Instead of trying to make it look like the cartoon show, the artists opted for a grittier style that more closely resembles the comics. Nothing in this game in cute, that’s for sure. It’s quite a difference from the more colorful style adopted for later Turtles games like the well-known arcade beat-’em-ups. They even packed in a lot of nice little details, such as each turtle being a different shade of green. The music is all original, with the exception of a couple second riff on the cartoon’s main theme that plays when you defeat a boss. It’s excellent stuff and even has a bit of a funky side, much like the tracks in The Adventures of Bayou Billy, also by the same composer.

So why is this game so controversial? I already mentioned the lack of callbacks to the cartoon but the main gameplay related reason lies in its similarity to yet another earlier title: Blaster Master by Sunsoft. Yes, TMNT has a big world with branching paths and lots of exploration coupled with plenty of deadly enemies and limited lives and continues. Lose all your turtles and you can continue exactly twice from the start of the current stage before you have to start the game over. Thankfully, the same sort of approach that works well in Blaster Master also works in TMNT: Take it slow and methodical while keeping your strength up by farming health and weapons whenever you get low. It definitely works. I got kicked back to the title screen twice during my six hours with the game and I was only able to finally make it through the hell that is the final stretch of the Technodrome and defeat Shredder after spending a good chunk of time loading my whole party to the brim with magic scroll sub-weapons. Still, it’s a tough game and this sort of patient and cautious playstyle probably didn’t appeal to many young TMNT fans who picked up this game around the time of its release hoping for some lighthearted instant gratification.

I don’t believe in holding a game’s difficulty against it, however. Some games are harder than others and that’s okay. I do have a couple more serious issues with TMNT, though: The party balancing and the boss encounters.

To put it bluntly, Michaelangelo and Raphael are dreadful without a decent sub-weapon. They have almost no reach with their main attacks. Leonardo has more reach at least, though his power is mediocre. Leo’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum, Donatello is a veritable reptilian WMD with his bo staff. He has the best power and reach by far. His strikes are the slowest, but even this doesn’t matter all that much, since he still kills tough enemies faster overall due to his sheer power. I suppose in MMORPG terms, you’d say he has the best DPS (damage per second) combined with the best range. The only real question I have is why? What was the thinking behind designing Don this way and making Mike’s nunchaku both short range and weak? I just don’t understand how this could have been seen as good design, even in the abstract. Oh well. Bottom line: Always make sure Mike and Raph have plenty of sub-weapons on hand or you’ll regret it.

And the bosses? Well, they’re just not very intimidating or fun to fight, with the sole exception of the Technodrome in level five. Shredder himself is one of the easiest final bosses ever and even some of the common enemies in the later levels are significantly more dangerous than he is. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, though at least the stages themselves are long and difficult enough that you still get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing them.

For me, this just makes TMNT a flawed game, not a generally poor one. In fact, I think it’s quite good, with solid action and satisfying challenge coupled with very nice overall presentation. Sales figures and critical reception at the time of release support me on this. TMNT won Nintendo Power magazine’s “game of the year” award in 1989 and even became a pack-in game with the NES in Europe, effectively replacing Nintendo’s own Mario!

So where did all the hate come from? While I don’t doubt that not everyone loved TMNT back in the day, I largely credit one James Rolfe for its current pariah status. Rolfe is a filmmaker and YouTube personality best know for his series The Angry Video Game Nerd, in which he plays the title character. TMNT was the subject of the one of the earliest AVGN episodes back in 2006, in which the Nerd character railed against the game (particularly the second level, the dam, which is actually the shortest and perhaps easiest of them all) and coined the salty catchphrase “Cowabunga? Cowa-fucking piece of dog shit!”

Of course, the Angry Video Game Nerd is a fictional character and Rolfe clearly intends his work to be slapstick entertainment and not formal criticism but, with AVGN being one of the first big YouTube breakout series focusing on retro gaming content, it turns out that even a fictional angry nerd’s opinion can be highly influential. The end result of all this is a former game of the year condemned to infamous stinker status. Curse you, Internet Gaming Hive Mind! If only I had a proper flesh and blood archenemy I could shoot ninja scrolls at instead of you.

Jackal (NES)

Smoke ’em if you got ’em, kiddos!

After pouring almost thirty hours into a sprawling epic like Seiken Densetsu 3, I needed to unwind with something a little more…straightforward. So I figured why not go back to the Konami NES well for another short-but-sweet action romp? This time, it’s the 1988 port of Jackal.

Jackal started out as a 1986 arcade release called Tokushu Butai Jakkaru (“Special Forces Jackal”) in Japan and Top Gunner in North America. In this overhead run-and-gun action title, players control an elite group of Green Berets (including the hilariously named Lieutenant Bob) driving heavily-armed jeeps on a POW rescue mission deep behind enemy lines. Who’s the enemy exactly? Beats me. Now move out, soldier!

Just like in Contra, Life Force, Castlevania, and almost every other Konami action game of the period, you’ll fight your way through exactly six levels of tenacious enemies, each culminating in a unique and challenging boss battle.

Fortunately, your vehicle is up to the task. One hit from the enemy will do you in but your ride is remarkably quick and responsive, so any deaths feel like your fault and not the programmer’s. You have two weapons at your disposal, both with unlimited ammunition. Pressing B will fire your machine gun straight up toward the top of the screen and the A button launches slower but more powerful hand grenades in whichever direction your jeep is currently pointing. At first, the limitation of only being able to shoot your machine gun upward in a game with eight-directional movement may seem strange or annoying but it’s actually quite helpful, since it allows for a limited form of strafing and lets you fire at foes while moving away from them. You also have have one final offensive option: You can run over foot soldiers with your jeep, smooshing them like bugs. It’s pretty awesome, but make sure not to ram into enemy vehicles or you’ll lose a life.

But what about those POWs? Each level contains numerous small buildings and targeting them with grenades will allow the prisoners inside to rush out through the hole created. Stop your jeep next to the building long enough for them to climb on board before continuing on your way. You’ll eventually reach a helipad area where a chopper is waiting to evacuate your extra passengers. Each POW you successfully extract will earn you major bonus points and you’ll want all the points you can get, since they’re how you earn those all-important extra lives. You can also rescue special “officer” prisoners that will upgrade your grenade attack to a faster rocket. The rockets can then be upgraded twice by rescuing more officers, increasing their blast radius drastically. At least until you die and go back to the standard grenades. Try not to do that.

Jackal is a challenging game, but not overwhelmingly so, at least not until its real meatgrinder of a final stage. Lives and continues are limited but I had an easier time with this one than I did with most of the other big Konami NES titles like Contra and Castlevania. You probably won’t beat it on your first go, but it should yield with a few hours of dedicated practice. It’s a short game and can be finished in thirty minutes or so once mastered. The game will loop after the last level, though, so you can play on to try for a high score if desired.

The music in Jackal supports the bombastic 1980s military action movie theme perfectly with rousing heroic melodies over punchy martial percussion. It reminds me of The A-Team and that’s a very good thing. Graphics are clean and functional, but definitely not as detailed as they are in other games of the period. This is mainly due to the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective combined with the fact that your on-screen avatar represents a vehicle and not a person. In fact, the POWs and enemy infantry fighters you see on the battlefield are only a few pixels tall. Background also don’t stand out much and tend to consist of monotonous repeated ground tiles much of the time. On the plus side, everything runs well and slowdown is very limited, even during two-player simultaneous play.

I had a ton of fun with this one. I’d never actually played Jackal before this week, but I already love it. It’s not my favorite overhead run-and-gun game, that honor goes to SNK’s amazing Shock Troopers for the Neo-Geo, but it’s likely the best on the NES. Certainly it’s miles above the hot garbage that was the NES Ikari Warriors releases. It’s too bad we never saw a sequel for any platform. Maybe the standard military theme didn’t pack the same wow factor that Contra’s military versus aliens one did. Maybe it’s because Chuck Norris style “rescue the POWs” movies were starting to become passe right around the time Jackal hit homes.

In any case, I salute you, Jackal. Especially Lieutenant Bob.

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 sweet 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 and 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 of the levels 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 cold 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’d 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 remixed with such reckless abandon. 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. With the exception of one sword that has the special power of being able to harm ghost enemies, though, 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.

While Willow might not have depth on its side, 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.