Holy Diver (Famicom)

“Holy Diver
Sole survivor
You’re the one who’s clean”

Wait, didn’t I already review Holy Diver? Well, kind of. I jotted down a few quick paragraphs to commemorate the occasion when I first completed it a year ago, but I’ve really wanted to go back and give it the more detailed treatment it deserves ever since I started collecting my game writing together in blog form this past July. What better time than now?

This is a very special game for me. See, it was around this time last year that it hit me: I had several hundred games filling my shelves that I hadn’t really played. Such a waste! What was even the point? Was I a real gamer or just a misguided hoarder of dead plastic? Enough! I made a resolution then and there to play through at least one game a week for the next year. But where to start? My mind immediately fixed itself on a little cartridge I picked up at the 2016 Portland Retro Gaming Expo a few months prior….

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some 80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a Famicom released called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or perhaps a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

I’d also heard that the game was a tough one, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I was all fired-up to attack my game backlog head-on, so I popped Holy Diver into my console, hit that power button, and never looked back. True to its reputation, it wasn’t easy. Not at all. I spent one entire evening trying and failing to get past the utterly fiendish level four boss. I refused to give up, however, and my devotion to the cause of Holy Magic Justice eventually saw me through. In the year since, I’ve completed a total of 75 additional games, 60 of them for the first time ever. I’ve also written what collectively feels like a novel’s worth of reviews and reflections on each and every one. So much for a game a week! It’s been the single best gaming year of my life so far and it all started with Holy Diver.

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side-scrolling action platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world. The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

This story is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing. And I love it. So much. An epic high fantasy saga starring Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, King Crimson, and Slayer? Yeah, sign me up for that and do it yesterday, please. Naturally, Irem was careful not to make direct use of the likenesses or songs of any real world musicians, but the game still manages to wear its influences on its sleeve with this backstory. When reviewing a Famicom exclusive release, I’ll often express some regret over the fact that players outside Japan never got to experience it back in the day. In Holy Diver’s case, though, I’m glad. There’s simply no chance that any of its ludicrous heavy metal name dropping and warped religious imagery would have survived the transition to the NES intact in 1989. It’s far better, I think, to experience this one as its creators intended. Luckily for us, the use of English for all the game’s text (apart from the rōmaji level titles) makes it extremely approachable for non-Japanese players.

You’ll often see the gameplay in Holy Diver likened to that of a Castlevania title. At a glance, it’s easy to see why. They’re both side scrollers with an overarching horror theme and Randy looks an awful lot like Simon Belmont with long hair and a cape. Superficials aside, it won’t take Castlevania veterans long to realize that Holy Diver is a whole other beast at heart. The classic Castlevanias were balanced around the characteristic short, fixed Belmont jump arc and the whip with its relatively slow attack speed and lengthy startup time. Randy’s jump is much higher and floatier, not to mention steerable in the air. He’s also much quicker on the draw with the fireballs he shoots as his primary attack, although they still only reach about a third of the way across the screen. The action as a whole is faster and more fluid, resembling Konami’s Getsu Fūma Den more than any other single game I can recall, albeit with more of a focus on ranged combat thanks to Randy’s arsenal of spells.

There are five of these spells in total and each one costs between two and twenty magic points per use. Magic is selected via a pause menu similar to Zelda II’s and you toggle between the currently equipped spell and Randy’s standard shot with the select button, echoing the way you deploy your missiles in the original Metroid. Randy starts the game with Twin Fire, which doubles the power of his normal attack and extends its range to full screen. Defeating the bosses at the end of each of the first four stages will grant Randy a new power. Blizzard freezes streams of lava solid to allow for progress through some stages and also immobilizes weak enemies temporarily. Breaker fires a single piercing beam of magic that’s slow, but devastatingly powerful. Overdrive summons a pair of spinning orbs that will orbit Randy for a time and shield him from enemies and their projectiles. Finally, Thunder deals heavy damage to every enemy on the screen in exchange for a ton of magic points. All of these abilities are extremely useful and they remain so right up until the end of the game. In terms of design, this is no small feat. Just ask any Mega Man fan about all the pointless weapons they never get around to using.

You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for important items in each of the six stages that can enhance Randy’s abilities even further. There are containers to extend maximum health and magic points, 1-Ups, a bracelet for breaking certain blocks, high jump boots, a vitally important staff that will cut the cost of most spells in half, and even a power-up that will briefly morph Randy into a flying, fire breathing dragon.

You’ll need all the help you can get, because the enemies in this game do not mess around. Almost without exception they’re tougher, faster, and less predictable than their counterparts in most other platformers. Take the flying skulls that are Holy Diver’s equivalent of the medusa heads from Castlevania. They’re not only swifter and more numerous, they’ll actually reverse direction after they pass by Randy and make a beeline straight for his back. Then there are the bouncing critters that fire a constant stream of damaging projectiles across the screen at semi-random altitudes, require a dozen hits to destroy, and will retreat as Randy advances in order to stay just outside of his standard fireball range. Or the golems in the later stages, common enemies almost as tough as bosses that are better avoided altogether if at all possible. Proficiency at Holy Diver is mainly a matter of figuring out all the ways each enemy can wreck you and which spells are best at wrecking them first. That, and not running out of magic points. At least continues are unlimited!

As relentless as it is, I really do love the sense of character progression that’s built into the game. The early stages can be tough going, since Randy’s health and magical abilities are at their weakest. Around the second half of stage four, the balance starts to tip a bit more in his favor and it continues to do so right up to the very end. By the time Randy reaches the sixth and final stage, he not only has his full complement of spells, but effectively about four times the health and eight times the magic points he started with. You go from feeling like a harried underdog to a battle-hardened wizard king that can go toe-to-toe with the very worst of the demon horde. It’s an interesting approach that seeks to combine the permanent character growth of an open-ended game like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda with the strictly linear level structure of a Contra or Ninja Gaiden and it works well here. In addition to making the player feel like a badass, it also allows the designers to go wild in the later levels and subject Randy to a torrent of the toughest foes the game has to offer while still keeping the nature of the challenge fair.

The visuals and audio in Holy Diver are both a real treat. Where Castlevania was a horror platformer with a style inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, Holy Diver stays true to its heavy metal roots by doubling down on the demonic. The first stage is a sinister cathedral dominated by a large cross with a skull and serpent mounted on it. Stage two’s name translates as “Hell of Entrails” and it certainly looks the part, with the fetuses encased in the walls being a particularly gross touch. There’s also a crucifixion scene later and even a pentagram on the menu screen. The level of detail on the sprites and backgrounds is excellent by 1989 standards, resulting in a very strong and cohesive dark fantasy atmosphere. The score is as heavy and driving as you would expect, though the enjoyment is hampered a bit by the fact that several of the stages share background tracks. What we get sounds good, but a unique song for each stage would have been nice. You’ll likely be spending a good amount of time on each one, after all. The sound effects used for Randy’s spells are also worth singling out for praise. Each magic has a distinct and full-bodied sound that lends it a real sense of power.

It should be obvious by now that Holy Diver is an extremely well-designed and presented action platformer worthy of its pedigree. In fact, it’s one of my personal favorite Famicom games. If it has any real flaw apart from its limited soundtrack, it’s a highly subjective one: The level of difficulty is high from start to finish and not every player will want to invest the time needed to overcome it. It’s not the most fearsome game out there by any means. Both Battletoads and Blaster Master took me more time to learn. I still had to put in multiple lengthy practice sessions before I was able to fight my way all the way to the Black Slayer, though. I’d say that if you’re determined, patient, and have a good amount of action-platforming experience under your belt already, Holy Diver is a tiger you need to ride. If not, it may just leave you feeling like you’ve gotta get away.

Holy Diver has earned itself a permanent spot in my gaming rotation. As an unapologetic love letter to all things classic metal and one hell of an 8-bit thrill ride, it inspired me to get off my ass (metaphorically speaking) and make with the playing and writing about games already. Since then, I’ve blown my New Year’s resolution out of the water and I’m just getting started. Thanks, Irem.

Now bring on year two of that backlog!

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