Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.
Meet Jake. He’s a most excellent early 90s California skater dude with a righteous babe of a girlfriend named Allison. Like most teenagers back then, he spends his spare time hanging out at the circus learning sorcery from a freaky-looking leprechaun man named Zebediah. Good thing, too, because he’ll need all his gnarly magic skills if wants to rescue Allison and her dad from the evil warlord Edogy and his army of subterranean monster people. Just another day in Nintendo Land.
Welcome to Totally Rad! This 1990 action-platformer was brought to us by Aicom and Jaleco. I really enjoyed the last Aicom NES game I played through, Vice: Project Doom, so I was pretty excited to give this one a go.
The game published internationally as Totally Rad started out as Magic John in Japan. The two releases are virtually identical except for one thing: The mass quantities of bodacious period ‘tude packed into Totally Rad’s every in-game cut scene and square inch of instruction manual text. Doe-eyed anime hero John became Keanu Reeves clone Jake and John’s girlfriend Yuu got a full Valley Girl makeover to become Allison. Only the magician Zebediah’s appearance was left untouched, resulting a very odd (and slightly creepy) clash of art styles. Many commenters have come down pretty hard on the game over the years due to what they perceive as the desperate unhipness of it all. I’m not entirely convinced that this is warranted. Just look at this excerpt from the introduction booklet:
“Edogy decides that he wants to kidnap Allison’s dad, a professor and the smartest guy on the West Coast – except that Allison’s dad lives near the Hollywood Freeway, takes the Hollywood Freeway to work, works near the Hollywood Freeway, and basically hardly ever leaves the Hollywood Freeway and, as it happens, Edogy has this major public transportation advocacy thing and there’s no way he’ll get anywhere near the Hollywood Freeway. So he kidnaps Allison instead, figuring that Allison’s dad will be lured away from the Hollywood Freeway long enough to save his daughter. Turns out he was right.”
There’s four whole pages of this. Four! Someone at Jaleco was clearly taking the piss in a big way when they localized this one. Once you realize that all the cowabunga corniness on display here was likely a deliberate skewering of pop culture trends of the time as opposed to a misguided and patronizing attempt to appeal to “the kids,” it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable in my opinion.
Firing Totally Rad up, you’ll notice right away that it’s an extremely colorful, borderline garish game. Hot pink and lime green are everywhere, and the later levels verge on psychedelia with their pulsing rainbow hues. These acres and acres of bright primary color make for quite the change of pace if you’re coming from more muted NES offerings like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. I don’t even think the Super Mario Bros. games on the system take it this far. I can see this game’s art style being a bit “love it or hate it,” but I’m leaning toward the love camp. The sprites and animations are high quality, befitting a late release on the system. The backgrounds are appealing, as well, with some good use of parallax scrolling here and there. The true graphical highlights, though, are the humongous boss monsters you’ll encounter at the end of every other stage. Not only are they well-drawn and animated, the designs themselves are strikingly outrageous and grotesque. Level two builds to a confrontation with what appears to be a thirty foot tall humanoid reptile sporting a pink mohawk, tight leather pants, and platform heels. Yowza.
The audio is decent, if not quite on the same level as the flashy visuals. The score by Kazuo Sawa (River City Ransom, The Battle of Olympus) is not exactly Wyld Stallyns worthy. It’s not awful and sets the tone well enough, I suppose. I just don’t find the majority of it to be particularly catchy or memorable. At least the song that plays over the opening cut scene sounds suspiciously like the famous saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” That always gives me a chuckle.
On to the gameplay. As Jake, you run and jump from left to right through a total of ten side-scrolling stages. Your primary attack is a rapid fire magic blast from Jake’s hand. Holding down the attack button for a few seconds instead of tapping it will charge up your shot to deal some extra damage. Every stage has a boss of some kind at the end, with every even-numbered one culminating in a conflict with an especially massive screen-filling baddie.
It seems pretty bare bones until you pause the game. Doing so brings up a menu containing a dozen different magical abilities that you can activate at any time. Each one costs a variable number of magic points from the gauge located at the top of the screen, next to Jake’s health bar. There are healing spells, elemental attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, a time stopper, a shield for temporary invincibility, and, most interestingly of all, spells that will transform Jake into three different animal forms. These alternate forms allow the player to tackle the stages in several different ways. The eagle can fly by tapping the jump button, the lion can jump 50% higher and is immune to all damage while jumping, and the fish allows for swimming in the game’s requisite water level. The only downside to the animal transformations is that Jake can’t cast any other magic (such as healing) until he returns to human form. You can change him back to normal for free at any time, but reassuming animal form will then require a fresh expenditure of magic.
You’ll need to manage your magic intelligently if you want to do well, since there are no power-ups of any kind in the stages themselves. The only way to restore lost health is with magic and the only way to refill your magic is to either die or complete the current stage. Jake can usually manage five or six castings before running dry, so choose wisely.
It’s an interesting take on a power-up system, that’s for sure. The closest comparison would probably be Mega Man, if you started the game with all the robot master powers and they all shared a single power meter. Every stage hazard and boss fight can be made much easier with the application of the correct magic, but limited castings force the player to prioritize each threat in order to determine which ones are spell-worthy and which are better handled the old-fashioned way with Jake’s basic run-and-gun abilities.
On the downside, there are some glaring balance issues with the magic that become apparent as you play. The lion form damn near breaks the whole game with its combination of high damage output and invincibility on demand and the eagle also has the potential to trivialize many of the stages with its flight capability. Despite these hiccups, Totally Rad’s magic system succeeds in adding enough depth and replay value to elevate it above the bog standard NES action title. It earns a recommendation, even if you don’t get as big a kick out of the absurd plot and dialog as I do. The fact that cartridge copies are still dirt cheap at the time of this writing is also a plus.