Magical Pop’n (Super Famicom)

Pop’n and lock’n!

Dang. There are cute games, there are really cute games, and then there’s Magical Pop’n. This 1995 action platformer is bristling with weapons-grade preciousness and comes to us courtesy of developer Polestar and publisher Pack-In-Video. Neither of these defunct outfits are exactly household names, and that might be part of the reason why Magical Pop’n was never officially released outside its native land. It’s a real pity, because I feel quite confident declaring that it would be remembered as a much-loved classic by Super Nintendo fans worldwide if it had been. Instead, it’s never seen any sort of re-release or sequel and original copies command insane prices in the hundreds or thousands of dollars on online auction sites. Thank the pixilated gods above for reproduction cartridges!

Magical Pop’n is the tale of an adorable little princess named…nothing, actually. Hey, it’s still better than Prin Prin. Anyway, the Princess sets off to retrieve a magic gem of supreme power that’s stolen from her father’s castle by the wicked Demon King and his minions in the opening cut scene. Her journey takes her through six very large levels filled with branching paths and secrets.

For a little kid, the Princess has some serious moves. She can run, jump, crouch, crawl and slide along the ground, and perform a number of sword attacks from these different positions. She also starts out with the ability to shoot beams of light at her foes in exchange for a few magic points, which are represented by star icons. Along the way, she’ll find and learn five types of new magic, as well. Most magic spells serve a dual purpose, functioning as both supplementary attacks and as a means of bypassing specific stage obstacles. The magical chain, for example, can be used to strike enemies and as a grappling hook to swing from certain outcroppings in Bionic Commando style. There are even magical desperation attacks that you can trigger with the select button. These will usually damage all enemies on screen in exchange for consuming significantly more of your magic points than normal. All of these moves are easy to execute and flow together very naturally, so the combat and platforming both feel great.

Levels include a city, a forest, mountainous caverns, a castle in the clouds, and more. Each one allows for a good amount of exploration and falls somewhere between Super Mario and Metroid in terms of openness. Their structure is linear in that you can’t revisit a stage after you’ve defeated its final boss, but still open enough that using a new magic ability acquired in a given stage will often allow you go back and access areas of that same stage that were sealed off or out of reach when you passed by them the first time. Doing this is the key to finding hidden treasure chests that will refill your health and magic, grant you extra lives, and even expand your health meter permanently with extra hearts. There are at least two bosses to battle in every stage, and some of the later ones have three or more. These fights are pretty fun, and while each stage’s final boss is suitably large and impressive looking, some of the sub-bosses reappear (with minor upgrades) in later stages. This sort of enemy recycling is pretty common in these sorts of games, however.

As an action game, Magic Pop’n is sheer joy. It’s fast-paced, presents plenty to see and do, and gives the player a ton of options for varied approaches to the battles and other challenges at hand. Once you pick it up, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away until all six stages have been conquered.

There’s still one thing that manages to impress even more than the gameplay, though, and it’s the insanely adorable presentation. This is obviously a late release for the system. The animation on the Princess and her adversaries is silky smooth and rendered with tremendous attention to detail. I love the way she covers her face with her hat when crouching, bounces on her butt after a long fall, pinwheels her arms and looks panicked when perched over a ledge, the list goes on and it’s all so freakin’ cute. The number of distinct animation frames puts this one nearly on par with a 2D game on a 32-bit console. The brilliant use of color bears mentioning, too. Magical Pop’n almost has the look of a PC Engine game with its super bold and bright palette. That’s a style I just adore.

Then there’s the game’s real claim to fame in its day: The Princess talks! Veterans of the 16-bit era might be recoiling at this prospect already, hellish memories of Bubsy the Bobcat or even (shudder!) Awesome Possum flooding their minds. Let’s just say that most early experiments with chatty protagonists in platforming games were wretched, nails-on-chalkboard failures. Against all odds, Magical Pop’n pulls this trick off, too! The Princess is voiced by Japanese media personality Ai Iijima, who provided a separate voice clip for just about every action the Princess takes and even speaks the name of the game on the title screen. The voice samples are all clear sounding, thoroughly charming, and somehow never grow tiresome or obnoxious. I particularly like the “Yatta!” (“I did it!”) when finding an important item and her “Majikaru Bomba!” super bomb attack. The music is also excellent, with memorable melodies that start out peppy and upbeat in the earlier stages and grow increasingly heavy and driving as you near the final conflict with the Demon King. It reminds me of Little Nemo: The Dream Master in that sense. I guess I’m just a sucker for soundtracks that have a progression of sorts that mirrors that of the game as a whole.

Magical Pop’n is by no means a very challenging game. There’s a generous health bar, plenty of life-replenishing candy and cakes be found, no instant death hazards in the stages, numerous chances to earn extra lives, and unlimited continues. Some might see this as a negative. Me, I’ve been playing so many tough games lately that I found it to be a breath of fresh air. Now, I enjoy the whole do-or-die, “eye of the tiger” hardcore gaming struggle routine as much as the next person…Oh, who am I kidding? The next person’s got nothing on me there. Still, I need look no further than classics like DuckTales or Super Castlevania IV to appreciate that there’s a place for relatively forgiving games that you can just kick back and breeze your way through when you’re not feeling quite so intense. Magical Pop’n fits that bill nicely.

One final thing I can thank this game for is introducing me to the fascinating individual that was Ai Iijima, the voice of the Princess. Her journey took her from teenage runaway and abuse survivor, to adult video sensation, to bestselling author and mainstream media superstar, to an abrupt retirement and a lonely death by pneumonia as a recluse at the young age of 36. Her’s was a singular and remarkable life, encompassing more dizzying heights and desperate lows than most of us will never know. Along the way, she also breathed life into one of the most lovable little heroines to grace the world of gaming. Magical indeed. Rest in peace, Your Highness.

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Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to advance the genre again while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

Shatterhand (NES)

I came; I saw; I shattered.

Now that the (thoroughly disappointing) Adventures of Bayou Billy have come to an end, it’s time for me to treat myself a little. I’ve earned it. Luckily, I have something special I’ve been saving for just such an occasion.

I have fond memories of Natsume’s 1991 action platformer Shatterhand. I was one of the relatively few who played it back around the time of its release and it impressed me enough back then that I just had to grab a copy when I spotted it at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo last month.

Shatterhand started out as Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein (“Super Rescue Solbrain”) in Japan. This was a licensed game based on an action tv series of the same name that centered on masked sci-fi superheroes fighting crime. Power Rangers type stuff, basically. Since the game came out several years before Power Rangers mania swept the West, however, there was no way that publisher Jaleco was going to stick with the Solbrain characters for the international release.

Instead, Shatterhand is the story of Steve Hermann. A decorated cop from the Bronx in the not-so-distant future of 2030, Steve loses both his hands in a violent clash with cyborg terrorists working for the nefarious organization Metal Command. While recuperating in the hospital, Steve is approached by a representative of the top secret government agency L.O.R.D. (Law and Order Regulatory Division) and offered a brand new pair of cybernetic hands, the strongest in the world, in exchange for his help taking down Metal Command and its leader, General Gus Grover. Steve naturally agrees and is given the codename Shatterhand to protect his identity as he sets off to save the world with his bare hands.

Wow. That whole spiel is so early 90s direct-to-video action movie that I can practically see the weathered VHS cover in my mind’s eye. Steve even sports a lime green vest and some sweet wraparound shades in-game. The whole package is like a little pop culture time capsule and I absolutely love that sort of thing.

As for the game itself: You punch all the things and all the things explode.

You want more? Oh, fine. There are a total of seven stages in Shatterhand. The first is a basic introductory level where you’re encouraged to experiment with the controls and get accustomed to the general feel of the game. After that, you’re taken to a level select screen where you can play through the next five stages in any order you like before the final confrontation with General Grover in stage seven.

Steve has all the standard NES action game moves. He can run, jump, crouch, and deal out rapid fire punches both on the ground and while airborne. The way the punching is handled is quite slick, actually. Tapping the attack button will produce three quick jabs, perfect for dispatching weak enemies, before Steve will automatically switch over to throwing haymakers that are a bit slower, but deal twice the damage and are better suited to taking down anything still standing after the initial jab flurry. It’s a great way to elegantly map both attacks to a single button without the need for directional inputs or the like. Oh, and you can punch enemy bullets and missiles right out of the air harmlessly if your timing is good enough. Rad.

In addition, Steve has the ability to cling to the chain link fences that appear in the backgrounds of most levels and use them to boost himself up to higher platforms or as perches from which to attack hard-to-reach enemies. Get used to taking advantage of this because it’s Shatterhand’s take on the “special movement ability” that most every platformer has, similar to the Ninja Gaiden wall grab or the DuckTales pogo jump, and you’ll be expected to scale fences under increasingly precarious conditions as the game progresses.

As it is, this setup doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t sound particularly amazing, either. Until you consider the satellite robot system, that is. Scattered throughout each level are icons with Greek alpha and beta letters on them. Collecting three of these will summon a flying robot companion that will fight at Steve’s side by mirroring each of his attacks with one of its own. These guys can be damaged by enemy attacks and eventually destroyed, but they can potentially stick around for quite a while if you manage their movements and attacks skillfully. Each of the eight possible letter combinations will result in a different robot. For example, the alpha/alpha/beta bot fires a poweful laser beam while the beta/beta/alpha one has a built-in flamethrower. Other helpers bring swords, boomerangs, grenades, and more to the party. What’s more, collecting the same combination of letters again while your first bot is still active will cause Steve and his satellite helper to merge temporarily, granting Steve invincibility and superpowered fireball punch attacks until a timer runs out. If you can manage to transform right before you reach a stage’s boss, you can usually wreck your hapless opponent in seconds flat.

This power-up system is really what secures Shatterhand’s place as a top ten NES action game for me. The variety it presents to the player is deep without ever becoming overwhelming. You can stick to a single favorite companion for the whole game, try to determine which of the eight is best-suited for each of the stage layouts, or even opt for a hardcore no bot run with just your fists. The choice is yours.

Shatterhand has a pitch-perfect “Goldilocks” level of difficulty coupled with a managable length. This combination lends the game a superb sense of flow that drives the player forward at all times. Steve can withstand eight hits before losing a life, which is enough to encourage a bit of risk taking without allowing the player to slack off completely and cruise along on auto-pilot. Each level features its own unique environments and hazards and is just long enough to provide a decent challenge without wearing out its welcome. Losing all your lives will send you back to the start of a level, but continues are unlimited.

I really can’t heap enough praise on this one. It has the crisp, detailed graphics and advanced sound design you’d expect from a late period release, solid level design, pinpoint accurate controls, a brillant power-up system, and a way cool (if also way dated) premise and hero. If Shatterhand has one major flaw, it’s that you’ll likely find yourself wishing there was a lot more of it to appreciate. It didn’t garner the attention it deserved at the time of its release due to most Nintendo fans being hypnotized by their shiny new Super Mario Worlds and F-Zeros, but its appearances on countless “NES hidden gem” lists in the years since have at least given it a new lease on life here in the far-flung, killer cyborg ravaged 21st century.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (NES)

Love, Cajun style. Tastes like crawdaddies!

In 1988, Konami released an ambitious multi-genre action title for the Famicom called Mad City. The game followed ragin’ Cajun vigilante Billy West on a mission to rescue his absurdly buxom girl Annabelle from the ruthless New Orleans crime boss Godfather Gordon. While he may incidentally share a name with the famous Futurama voice actor, it’s obvious that Billy’s appearance was deliberately modeled on the title character from the then-popular Crocodile Dundee movies. They just relocated the main character from Australia to Louisiana, swapped out the crocodiles for alligators, and threw in tons of that good old 8-bit violence.

It worked. Mad City was a pretty fun experience, if also a bit on the short and easy side. When it came time to release the game in North America the following year, things had…changed. Rumors persist that this was due at least in part to the booming video game rental market in America. Nintendo and other game companies had lobbied Japanese lawmakers to effectively make the practice of game renting illegal there, while U.S. courts had decisively rejected their efforts to do the same on our side of the Pacific. Owing to this, it’s thought that some developers made the international releases of their games more difficult specifically so that gamers would be unlikely to be able to finish them as a weekend rental and would therefore be more likely to purchase the game outright.

Whatever the truth of this little conspiracy theory, there’s no doubt that numerous NES releases were altered so as to be significantly more difficult than their Famicom counterparts, none moreso than our version of Mad City: The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

As stated, Bayou Billy is a multi-genre game. The tv commercial featured a rubber alligator wrestling doofus portraying Billy who promised “hand-to-hand combat with drivin’, shootin’, and, of course, zappin’.” Of course. It was sold as a Konami caliber combination of Double Dragon, RoadBlasters, and Operation Wolf. In other words, a sure thing. Right?

Let’s start with the beat-’em-up action, since it comprises five out of the game’s nine stages. You start out in the bayou, naturally, and must plow through waves of Gordon’s men and the occasional pissed-off gator. Billy has a basic punch, kick, and jumping kick at the beginning. He can also pick up and use weapons if he can manage to disarm certain foes. It won’t take you long to realize that these levels really don’t play much at all like they do in other games. Enemies recover very quickly from being hit and are able to retaliate almost immediately, so you can’t just mash the attack buttons to lock a baddie in place and repeatedly pummel him until he goes down. What will happen instead if you go toe-to-toe is that Billy and the enemy will take turns trading hits. This is a problem because most enemies require a good seven or eight hits to put down and so does Billy! The bottom line is that trying to play Bayou Billy like a normal beat-’em-up will invariably get you killed off on the first or second screen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? The best option I found was a very patient, methodical hit-and-run strategy. Typically for this style of game, enemies won’t initiate attacks unless they’re lined up with Billy on a horizontal axis. If you approach them on the vertical, fire off a quick punch or kick as you pass, and keep on going, they either won’t have time to retaliate or their counterattack will whiff. Just keep moving, pick your moments, and slowly grind them down. Fortunately, you don’t have a time limit. Later brawling stages introduce different enemy types and new weapons (like the almighty whip that lets you strike rapidly from a distance), but this basic strategy still applies through the end of the game. It’s kind of a drag, honestly.

How about the next mode, the first-person gallery shooting? Well, it’s actually quite cool. You’re able to use the Zapper light gun or aim with the controller and everything is smooth, precise, and decently challenging. Enemies rush onto the screen and you do your best to gun them all down before they can pop a shot off at you. Eventually, you’ll get to battle a big bullet sponge boss before moving on to the next stage. There are even power-ups like health packs, screen clearing bombs, and temporary invincibility. You have limited ammunition, but your stock of bullets will only decrease when you miss a target. As odd as that is, it does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about running out of bullets as long as you exercise some minimal trigger discipline and don’t just try to spray the whole screen. Everything here looks, sounds, and plays just fine. These shooting sections, all two of them, are the high point of Billy’s adventures.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the game’s two back-to-back driving levels. If Billy wants to save Annabelle, he has to ride his rickety jeep all the way from the swamps to Gordon’s mansion in New Orleans and he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride. The basic gameplay is similar to Mach Rider, minus all the freedom of movement and fun. The biggest issue by far is that the roadways in the NES version of the game are only about half as wide as they are in the Famicom original, giving you almost no space to maneuver your vehicle and leaving you stuck in what amounts to a narrow corridor the whole time. Almost as detrimental is the fact that Billy’s health bar has now gone AWOL, making these driving sections the only part of the game where you’re subject to one hit deaths from hazards. Both levels are long, and between the time limit, the various hostile air and ground vehicles attacking you, and the static obstacles in the form of rocks and poles, you can expect to die early and often. Repetition and memorization will eventually see you through to Bourbon Street, but I exhausted my limited lives and continues several times over here before I was finally able to squeak past. These two stages are easily the most difficult and obnoxious stretch of the entire game.

I was very disappointed by The Adventures of Bayou Billy and not just because the game was made more difficult than Mad City. I firmly believe that no respectable game reviewer will ever hold a game’s challenge level against it as such. Konami also altered one of my favorite games of all time, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with the same goal in mind and I’ll defend that one anytime. It’s perfectly fine for a game to be demanding as long as it’s also rewarding. Bayou Billy is not rewarding. Other tough titles I’ve enjoyed recently (Silver Surfer, ActRaiser 2) present a steep learning curve, but really open up to the player once that initial hurdle is overcome to reveal a fair amount of satisfying gameplay under the surface. Not so with Bayou Billy. You can adapt to the boring moveset and repetitive, time-consuming avoidance tactics of the brawling stages and even to the white-knuckle gauntlet that is the driving section, but there are no hidden depths waiting to reveal themselves to you at that point. It’s simply a superficial experience that gets easier without ever getting good. The two shooting gallery portions are solid enough for what they are, but they can’t carry the whole game. Not even close. Mad City made the right call by keeping the challenge low and the pace brisk, insuring that the player would be too occupied with novelty and spectacle to dwell on the lack of substance.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll add that the graphics and music are pretty sweet for the hardware and definitely up to the high Konami standard. Beyond that, the most enjoyable things about Bayou Billy are probably the game manual and box, which is never a good sign. Whoever was in charge of writing the instructions really gave it their all in terms of selling the whole cornball Cajun bayou theme. Damsel in distress Annabelle is described as “a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May Clampett” and “a three time cover girl for the glamour magazine – Swamp Digest.” Even the common thugs you fight are given punny names like Tolouse L’attack and the murderous scuba diver Jacques Killstow. My favorite of all is the cover art, which depicts Billy with the body of a super buff Crocodile Dundee and the head of…Jim Varney!? That’s right, there’s a ripped Ernest P. Worrell brandishing a giant knife right on the front of this game. Now that’s my idea of an awesome action hero! Know what I mean, Vern?

Whomp ‘Em (NES)

This would probably be pretty offensive if the game actually had a plot.

This oddity is 1991’s Whomp ‘Em by Jaleco and it has to be a serious contender for the “stupidest NES game title ever” award. Originally released for the Famicom the previous year as Saiyūki World 2: Tenjōkai no Majin (“Genie of the Heavenly World”), it was yet another game based on the classic Chinese historical fantasy novel Journey to the West. Saiyūki World 2 starred Sun Wukong the Monkey King, a mischievous trickster hero from Chinese myth and a prominent character in the novel. He’s best-known outside of East Asia as the inspiration for the character Goku in the Dragonball manga and anime, but this wasn’t the case at all back in 1991, so Jaleco opted to modify the game for international release. They swapped out Sun Wukong for Soaring Eagle, a (non-specifically) Native American lad on a quest to gather magic totems from the game’s various bosses. Because magic totems are cool, I guess. Like I said, there’s really nothing resembling a story to be found in Whomp ‘Em. What you see is what you get. The publisher also didn’t see fit to alter anything other than the main character’s sprite and the title and ending screens, so your totally American for reals hero still has to battle panda bears in a bamboo forest and scrap with what’s obviously a demon cast from the Buddhist mold in the game’s final stage. Nice.

Lazy localization aside, Whomp ‘Em is a solid NES action platformer that takes structural cues from the Mega Man series and combines them with play control reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. After a short introductory level, the player can then choose to complete the next six stages (which are based on common platforming themes like fire, water, ice, and forest) in any order they like before moving on to the final one. Defeating the bosses in each of these six main levels will net Soaring Eagle a totem that confers a new special ability or attack. Unlike in Mega Man, these powers don’t eat up ammunition and can be used at will without restriction once acquired. It’s too bad that most of them are pretty underwhelming and don’t offer much of an offensive advantage over your standard spear weapon. With the exception of the throwing spear that allows for a much-needed ranged attack, you probably won’t find yourself bothering much with these totems much except when one is needed to smash or burn away a barrier in one of the stages.

Soaring Eagle himself is a pretty competent hero. As mentioned, he handles a lot like Link in Zelda II, except with a spear for a primary weapon instead of a sword. This even extends to having the same downward and upward weapon thrust maneuvers available while in the air. He can also deflect some attacks from above by holding his spear up over his head while standing still, though this ability is never really necessary to progress in the game. In a fashion that recalls Bionic Commando, you can increase Soaring Eagle’s health meter from its initial four hearts all the way up to twelve by collecting enough of the gourd items dropped by enemies. Taking the time to do this early on will greatly offset the game’s difficulty. Finally, there are several power-ups that drop from defeated enemies: The spearhead temporarily boosts attack power, the headdress does the same for defense, the spear will improve weapon reach, the deerskin shirt confers brief invincibility, and the magic potions work like the energy tanks in a Mega Man game and automatically restore some of Soaring Eagle’s health when it runs out.

Whomp ‘Em isn’t very difficult when compared to many other games of its kind. Once you have a full health meter and a magic potion or two, Soaring Eagle can absorb a ton of punishment. Enemies in your way will drop life replenishing hearts on a fairly regular basis, too. The usual bottomless pits and instant death spikes are also nowhere to be found in this game. Instead, hazards like these will only cost you a small amount of heath. Platforming veterans will be able to practically sprint through Whomp ‘Em in no time flat and even newcomers should be able to make steady progress. The final stage is the toughest by far, due to some tricky elements like a zero-gravity corridor and pits that can send you back to an earlier section of the level. Continues are unlimited, though, so even this final stretch can be mastered with relative ease.

Whomp ‘Em was never destined for greatness. It was in no way original, the name was awful, the cover art was ugly as sin, and it was released fairly late in the system’s lifespan by a smallish publisher. While it was true enough that few Americans had ever heard of Sun Wukong, none of them had heard of Soaring Eagle or seemingly wanted to. Despite having gone nowhere fast and being virtually forgotten today, it still makes for a pleasant enough afternoon or evening of completely by-the-book NES action platforming. The control is solid, the graphic are colorful, and the stages flow well. I can’t imagine this being anyone’s favorite game ever, but if you’ve already played all the higher profile classics or you’re specifically on the lookout for a less challenging take on the genre, you might as well whomp them. They probably have it coming to them, the bastards.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)

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Translation level: Godlike.

Sometimes I feel compelled to complete a game out of an odd sense of duty. These are titles so foundational for the hobby that experiencing them firsthand arguably falls under the cultural literacy rubric. I generally draw the line at subjecting myself to truly terrible games, at least for a prolonged periods, but I will occasionally take on a game I’m not super enthusiastic about just so that I can check it off my bucket list.

That’s why I made time yesterday afternoon for a playthrough of the NES version of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins. First released in the arcades in 1985 as Makaimura (“Demon World Village”), Ghosts ‘n Goblins is an early run-and-gun type action-platformer from prolific producer/director Tokuro Fujiwara that’s famous for its spooky-cute character designs and equally infamous for its steep challenge. This home release from 1986 was a strong seller and is arguably the best-known version of the game. I myself had a copy as a kid, though I never got all that far in it. Now that I’m a whole lot older and a whole lot better at games in general, I figured it was time to finish what I started.

In Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you play as bearded knight Sir Arthur on a mission to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin (yes, really) from none other than Satan, who swoops in at the start of the game to abduct her because…well, that’s just what video game baddies did back then. Maybe I should just come up with some kind of shorthand abbreviation that I can use for this in game reviews from now on? KGP for “kidnapped girl plot?” This is also the third game in a row for me where the goal is to beat up on Satan. I didn’t actually plan it that way, but I suppose you can’t really do much better for a villain.

To reach Prin Prin, Sir Arthur has to run, jump, and shoot his way through six short levels, which doesn’t sound too tricky at all. The rub is that these levels are packed with the titular ghosts and goblins, who will stop at nothing to keep your hero from his goal. Some of these foes take many hits to destroy, while other might appear from thin air suddenly and make a swift beeline for Arthur or move about in chaotic patterns that make them difficult to target. The game’s most famous enemies, the gargoyle-like Red Arremer demons, combine most of these qualities into one very intimidating package. Arthur also has a strict time limit and some rather stiff controls to contend with, not to mention the fact that his shiny suit of armor can only absorb a single hit before shattering to pieces and leaving him to fend off the demon hoards in his underwear. One more hit after that and he’s down for the count.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You have unlimited lives in this version and most of the levels have checkpoints at the halfway mark. This means that you’re free to make all the mistakes you need while learning the stage layouts and enemy patterns and can experiment with different strategies at your leisure until you hit on something that works for you. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen.

That’s not to say that Ghosts ‘n Goblins plays things totally straight. Challenging action is one thing, but the outright tricks the game plays on its audience are the stuff of gaming legend. The sixth level can only be completed if the player uses a specific weapon, the cross. Reaching the end without the cross equipped will ship Arthur all the way back to the start of the previous level, and there’s no advance warning of this in the game itself or even in the instruction manual. If you think that’s rough, getting past that roadblock and beating the final boss will only earn you a message stating that you’ve fallen victim to “a trap devisut by Satan” and you’ll then be sent all the way back to the beginning of the first stage. You’ll have to complete the entire game again on a second, more difficult loop if you want to finally reunite Arthur and Prin Prin for real. Now imagine that happening in the arcade, when you’ve already pumped a small fortune in quarters into the machine hoping for that ending scene. Ow.

Nowadays, it’s a bit easier to laugh off these dirty tricks and even to admire the game a bit for its trollish chutzpah; its willingness to push boundries and toy with player expectations. False endings and mandatory repeat playthroughs would become a series tradition, much to the chagrin of many. For me, though, they would never pack the same punch again. Love it or hate it, the first game went there. The sequels just sort of give you a wink and a nudge as if to say “Hey, remember when I went there?”

If this version of the game has a weakness, it’s the fact that it was programmed for Capcom by Micronics, the same sub-par contract developer that cranked out such 8-bit atrocities as Athena, Ikari Warriors, and Super Pitfall. While Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a masterpiece compared to the rest of their NES output, the usual Micronics hallmarks are still all present and accounted for. Expect choppy scrolling, a jittery framerate, heavy sprite flicker, and random glitches like the occasional bit of damage from an invisible enemy. Despite its questionable pedigree, however, this is a still a very solid conversion of a then-recent coin-op. There are a few non-essential elements omitted, like the boss battle music, but otherwise every stage, every weapon, and every enemy from the arcade is re-created faithfully. They even managed to maintain some of the wacky charm of the original character sprites and animations, like Arthur’s exaggerated run cycle and the Red Arremer’s sassy dance moves. It’s a very respectable effort for a 1986 release, even if the patented Micronics reverse Midas touch holds it back from achieving the same level of polish that Konami’s NES port of Gradius did around the same time.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is far from being one of my favorite games for the system. It had the misfortune of coming out right when action platformers were in the midst of a sort of accelerated awkward adolescence and it has the limited mechanics and stiff controls to prove it. Just a few more short years of tinkering with the formula would usher in a renaissance via the likes of Mega Man, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden. Sir Arthur’s inaugural outing was an important step in the right direction, but its immediate successors were all too happy to make it eat their dust.

Still, if you fancy yourself an NES nut, it’s a pilgrimage you just have to make at least once. Don’t let the difficulty scare you off: Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progres!

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared that we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action-platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the truly dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the fast action, tight controls, and grand audio and visuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst action games ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of that. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category that I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order that will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend that first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means that the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand that your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware that you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing that even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told that it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies that made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced that I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all that much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that being said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action-platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers that feeling of exhilarating accomplishment that only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.