The Magic of Scheherazade (NES)

Ladies! Ladies! If you could please form an orderly line, that’d be great.

What would you say if I told you that Square’s legendary Chrono Trigger wasn’t the first Japanese RPG to feature an epic time travel storyline and a cast of colorful characters that could pool their abilities in battle to unleash devastating combination attacks? Welcome to The Magic of Scheherazade from oddball developer Culture Brain! It may be the most ambitious 8-bit console RPG ever made. Whether this ultimately works to its benefit or not depends on your point of view.

Arabian Dorīmu Sherazādo (“Arabian Dream Scheherazade”) was initially released for the Famicom in 1987 and then altered significantly for its 1989 debut in North America. The simple music of the original was expanded into something more on par with other releases from the latter half of the NES’s life cycle and many of the character sprites were re-drawn with smaller eyes, presumably to de-anime them some for us gaijin. We definitely got the better game over here. The score is a clear upgrade and I greatly prefer the new character designs. Your turban-clad hero looks rather cool in the North American version, whereas his Japanese counterpart’s manic grin and bulging eyes came across less “cute and cuddly” and more “I’ll swallow your soul!”

As the game opens, we’re informed that the peaceful land of Arabia has been attacked by demons commanded by the evil wizard Sabaron. A brave descendent of the legendary magician Isfa steps up to challenge Sabaron, but he is defeated and his sweetheart Princess Scheherazade is abducted, as are her father and three sisters. Now nearly powerless and suffering from amnesia, the hero (whom you name) must journey across the land and rebuild his strength by vanquishing demons, recruiting allies, and traveling back and forth between multiple time periods with the aid of an adorable blue cat creature named Coronya the time spirit.

Even though the action is supposedly set in a real place, don’t come expecting any sort of geographical, historical, or cultural accuracy. Setting the game in “Arabia” is strictly an excuse to bring in some of the trappings of the classic Arabian Nights stories like genies, scimitars, and flying carpets in place of the usual Western European fantasy iconography. Apart from that, the world and characters are as divorced from reality as they are in any JRPG.

Arabia isn’t a single large, open world as per most games in the genre. Instead, it’s divided into five chapters. Each chapter plays out like a little self-contained mini-RPG, complete with its own towns, overworld, dungeons, and big boss demon at the end. One feature I found quite cool is the way that character progression is tied into this chapter system. Your hero can only gain a maximum of five levels per chapter, which helps insure that the challenge of defeating each boss can’t be completely negated through grinding. Beat the boss and the next chapter starts automatically. There’s no way to backtrack to previous chapters, so it’s technically possible to miss out on some items and spells. Nothing necessary to complete the game is skippable, however, so there’s no need to stress out too much.

Speaking of decisions not worth stressing over, you’ll also have to pick one of three character classes for your hero at the start. The fighter is best at dealing close range damage with swords, the magician is better at ranged attacks with magic rods, and the saint is pretty much terrible at both and should only be considered if you want to render the game extra challenging. Thankfully, you can change your class at any time by visiting the mosque in town and paying a small monetary fee. You’ll actually need to do this at least once in order to complete the game, since several quests require you to be a particular class.

Every chapter of your quest includes at least one mandatory trip through time to the area’s past or future. The time travel element doesn’t come off quite as awesome here as it does in the later Chrono Trigger, mainly due to the fact that MoS’s graphics are quite limited by comparison and every era you visit tends to look about the same as a result. There are no dinosaurs or space ships awaiting you here. Instead, Arabia retains its medieval look even across thousands of years. The game does still use the premise to interesting effect on occasion, though. At one point, I recieved an important clue about what to do next by an NPC who presented it as something I’d already done in the past. Since my character then needed to travel back in time to actually do it, that means that he had, in a sense, already done it. Weird, man.

Including Coronya, there are a total of eleven other characters that will join your party over the course of the adventure. Collectively, they have to be the biggest collection of freaks and weirdos you’ll encounter outside of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. There’s a robot, a shrimp, a glass bottle with arms and legs, a jack o’ lantern, a flying squirrel, and so on, with nary a single regular human being in the lot. Unfortunately, none of them are really all that interesting apart from their visual designs and conceptual gimmicks. MoS is still an early JRPG, after all, and doesn’t go out of its way to provide reams of dialog and rich characterization. You’ll usually just recruit a given character in order to progress past a specific obstacle to your quest that only they can bypass and then forget about them as they spend the rest of the game just filling out a menu slot in battle and not saying or doing much of anything. In this sense, they almost function more like “key items” than characters in a story.

The gameplay represents an attempt to combine two of the biggest Famicom sensations of the time: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. This means that we get overhead view real time action RPG combat existing side-by-side with menu-driven turn-based fighting. This is what I was alluding to above when I said that the game’s extreme ambition can be both its greatest strength and weakness. Most of your playing time is spent in the overhead “Zelda mode.” This is where you’ll be exploring the world, talking to NPCs, and doing the bulk of your fighting with sword and magic rod. In contrast, the “Dragon Quest mode” only crops up for occasional random battles, the frequency of which varies from uncommon on the overworld to fairly regular inside caves and dungeons.

This highlights my biggest problem with the game: The turn-based battles are really not essential to your progression in any way and come off as an afterthought at best and a pace killer at worst. I realized pretty early on that you never actually need to bother with them at all. In fact, you’ll be better off in the long run if you don’t. See, the real time combat is a relatively simple and safe way to harvest experience points and money since most enemies are easy to mow down quickly with minimal loss of health. The enemies in turn-based mode take much longer to fight due to all the menu navigation and will often use poweful magic attacks to deal out large amounts of damage and nasty status effects to your party members, requiring you to expend more magic points and healing items to recover your strength. Since defeating enemies in both modes provides you with the exact same rewards (experience and money), there’s no practical reason to not immediately run from every turn-based fight, as they’re just a much slower, more resource-intensive way to accomplish the exact same thing. It’s a real pity, too, since the designers obviously put a lot of work into these battles. There are a ton of characters in your party to experiment with and using specific combinations enables the use of those special team-up attacks I mentioned. You can even hire mercenary troops in town to fight alongside your main party members. It’s deep and interesting and yet still totally pointless in the end. Too bad.

You know what, though? That’s not going to stop me from recommending this game in a big way. It has so much going on for such an early console RPG that it’s almost unbelievable at times. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the universities where you can take classes to learn about proper magic use and combat tactics, the casinos, the pre-Dragon Quest III inclusion of a sort of day/night cycle with the solar eclipses, haggling with merchants, the ins and outs of the magic system, etc. I would be here writing all day if I really wanted to detail every little nuance of this sprawling title. It even has a great sense of humor, though some of the jokes can verge into trollish territory. For example, a character in one town asks you if you’re ever afraid of monsters. If you answer yes, he basically says “I suppose you’d better call it quits then, huh?” and you get an instant game over on the spot! Good thing you have unlimited continues and passwords.

The Magic of Scheherazade is another example of a game like ActRaiser that’s considerably better than the sum of its parts by virtue of its unique blend of seemingly incongruous gameplay elements, its overarching charm, and its sheer verve. It’s not a great action RPG or a great turn-based RPG, just a great experience that no NES enthusiast should miss out on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing princess business to take care of. Truly a hero’s work is never done.

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Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Take that, stupid purple guy!

Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“Darkness Worker Shadow”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.

Right off the bat, one thing that Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.

You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished that you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.

Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.

Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.

Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move that damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.

The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to respawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t respawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.

There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. That’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint is that several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last boss in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point that I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out that 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.

With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.

The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers that NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.

Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity that it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Super Adventure Island II (Super Nintendo)

Dang, Tina. That sure is a facial expression, alright.

I touched on Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island series for the first time back when played through Super Adventure Island last December. Originally a spin-off from Westone’s 1986 arcade platformer Wonder Boy, the Adventure Island titles stuck close to that game’s basic platforming roots while the proper Wonder Boy sequels rapidly mutated into an action-adventure saga more akin to The Legend of Zelda than Super Mario Bros. Until 1994 that is, when Hudson Soft abruptly switched gears and released both Master Takahashi’s Adventure Island IV (a Japanese exclusive and the final game ever officially released for the Famicom) and my subject today: Super Adventure Island II. Now, it’s no longer all about running from left to right while grabbing tasty fruit. Instead, our portly hero Master Higgins gets to have a go at equipping swords and armor, casting magic spells, and combing through a huge, mazelike game world for key items and hidden secrets. For such a sudden shift in focus, I was surprised by how well it paid off. I’ll probably ruffle some feathers by saying so, but I genuinely had a lot more fun with this one than I did with the similar Wonder Boy in Monster World earlier this month.

As our story opens, Master Higgins and his newlywed bride Tina are enjoying a honeymoon cruise on their raft when a sudden storm whips up and sends the pair tumbling into the sea. Higgins and Tina each wash up on different beaches, alive, but stricken with amnesia by their ordeal. Tina is taken in by the local monarch and soon becomes betrothed to him. Meanwhile, Higgins wanders the islands in search of clues to his identity and eventually comes across the castle just in time to witness Tina getting abducted from her royal wedding by a giant bird. Being a natural hero type, he volunteers to venture forth and save her, despite the fact that the two of them are now strangers to each other. Complicating matters even more, the island that Tina was whisked away to is protected by a mysterious magical barrier and Higgins needs to explore five other dangerous islands first in order to gather the spells needed to break this seal. Will Higgins be able to save Tina yet again? Will the lovebirds regain their memories in time to prevent the first ever instance of bigamy in a Nintendo game? Such suspense!

Genre savvy players will notice right away that Super Adventure Island II’s controls and combat mechanics are heavily influenced by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and its level design owes just as much to the Metroid series. The vast majority of the action is presented from a side view perspective with Higgins running, jumping, and climbing his way across each of the game’s six sprawling islands, which can be thought of as its “dungeons.” Every island has its own thematic identity, drawn from the usual suspects like forest, volcano, ice, and ancient ruins. Movement between islands takes place on a separate overhead view world map, again echoing Zelda II right down to the slightly tedious random monster encounters that crop up when you’re just trying to get from point A to point B.

The way Higgins himself handles is not all that different from past Adventure Island titles on the surface, though there are some important differences. No more one-hit deaths, for one. This time there’s a health meter represented by the usual heart icons and it can be extended by finding new heart pieces in treasure chests. The series staple hunger meter that acts as a stage timer has also been given the boot, so there’s no longer any need to dash around frantically gobbling up fruit just to keep from dropping dead in your tracks.

Just as radical is the addition of melee weapons, armor, and magic to the formula. Since Higgins is so much more durable in this outing, he can now afford to get closer to his enemies and that means that swords are likely to be your go-to offensive option much of the time. Projectile weapons like throwing axes and boomerangs are still available, but they tend to be weaker on a per-hit basis and that led me to mostly ignore them. The armor suits and shields are fairly self-explanatory in that they reduce damage and can block some enemy attacks, respectively. One thing to always keep in mind, however, is that a piece of gear can have elemental properties that make it more effective in certain situations, like a fire sword that deals more damage to ice enemies.

The magic system is pretty standard stuff. You can use spells to heal damage, attack enemies, warp out of dungeons, and so forth. Your magic gauge starts out small and is bolstered by finding upgrades in chests, just like your health. Every magic upgrade you find also adds a new spell to your repertoire, which is easy to overlook, since the game doesn’t announce this fact. It’s best to just check the spell menu manually each time to see what new power you’ve acquired.

While it’s obviously not very novel on paper, I really do like the way Super Adventure Island II’s gameplay panned out. Controlling Master Higgins feels fast and smooth due to the presence of a run button and the up and down sword thrust techniques from Zelda II. It’s a real breath of fresh air after the stiff, plodding movement that plagues Wonder Boy in Monster World. The level design is also well done, with plenty of goodies to discover, a good balance of platforming and combat challenges, and some very memorable boss fights. You can also save at any time via the pause menu, which is a rare convenience in an old console game.

Super Adventure Island II’s strongest asset has to be its humor. There’s not really a ton of dialog or plot development, but everything we do get is a hoot. An NPC tells you a legend about a lost magical item only to add that he read about it in the Inquirer. Summoning a monster to smash open a gate blocking your path results in the game telling you that “The Ice Giant cometh and breaketh openeth the dooreth.” I love it. There’s also some cute banter between Higgins and Tina scattered throughout. I appreciated getting some characterization for the two of them. Especially Tina, who is usually nothing more than an abstract reward waiting for you after the final boss.

All this is not to say that the game is flawless. The overall presentation is a distinct step down from the first Super Adventure Island. Comparative speaking, character animation is less fluid and the backgrounds less detailed. The music is only average and pales next to Yuzo Koshiro’s infectious jams from the last game with two big exceptions: The themes for the ice island (Hiya-Hiya) and the final stage (Fuwa-Fuwa) are both worthy of inclusion in the epic SNES music hall of fame. They may even be too grand for the likes of an Adventure Island title!

The game world can also feel rather empty at times. There are no towns or other settlements to be found apart from the castle where you start out and a casino/shop that you reach around the midway point in your quest. As funny as the game’s dialog can be, a lot more of it could have been included if there had been a larger cast of NPCs to draw on.

If the idea a lighthearted 16-bit successor to Zelda II sounds like a good time to you, you’ll almost certainly love Super Adventure Island II. It’s a thoroughly charming and satisfying way to spend six hours or so, even if it can’t boast any groundbreaking design elements or moments of envelope-pushing audiovisual wizardry. Just don’t show up expecting it to play anything like the previous entries in the series.

It took Hudson Soft the better part of a decade, but they finally let us force Master Higgins to put on a damn shirt for once. That’s what I call progress.

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action-platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know that it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same, while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time and the power-up system that involved your dragon sprouting extra heads is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal “blue dragon” difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in “gold dragon” mode, where your dragon has better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is that you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons that will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens that you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems that the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form, is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out that another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

Wonder Boy in Monster World (Genesis)

I’ll never forget you, either, uh…Sherry? Shelly? Damn.

Ever since I looked into the origins of the Adventure Island series back in December, I’ve been meaning to give a Wonder Boy game a proper go. The history of Wonder Boy and its various offshoots is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but here are the basics: Both series had as their starting point the original Wonder Boy, a 1986 arcade platformer by Westone. After that first entry, the two diverged drastically. Wonder Boy’s official sequels adopted an exploration-based adventure style inspired by games like The Legend of Zelda, while Adventure Island’s mostly stuck closer to the simple run-and-jump action of the arcade original.

Complicating matters further, 1991’s Wonder Boy in Monster World is both the fifth game in its franchise overall and the third in the Monster World sub-series, which explains its ludicrous Japanese title: Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. There was also a version released for NEC’s PC Engine Duo/TurboDuo (The Dynastic Hero) and a super strange Brazilian Mega Drive edition (Monica’s Gang in the Monsters’ Land) that replaced key members of the game’s cast with licensed characters from a long-running Peanuts style comic strip. The rabbit hole is deep indeed.

Despite its convoluted release history, the game itself is actually quite straightforward and approachable. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a side-scrolling fantasy action adventure romp in which the player assumes the role of a blue-haired silent protagonist named Shion who sets out to defend Monster World from an invasion by…monsters. The bad kind, I suppose. That’s all you get in the way of story, so just grab your sword and get moving.

Monster World itself is divided up into a number of discreet regions surrounding the castle town of Purapril, which serves as a hub linking them all. There’s no zoomed-out map screen to navigate between locations like in Zelda II or the like. Rather, the entire game is one interconnected series of side-scrolling areas. There’s a forested land populated by elves and fairies, a jungle, a desert, an undersea realm, and so on. Each of the lands you visit is home to a town with the usual shops and chatty NPCs as well as a monster-filled dungeon you’ll need to fight your way through in order to further your quest. The different areas of Monster World have to be tackled in a prescribed order dictated by the designers, however, so you can’t just wander off anywhere you please from the get-go. For example, you’re not able to venture underwater without the magic trident found in the jungle dungeon and the heat of the desert will prove fatal unless you’re wearing the magic boots from the undersea dungeon. Progression is thus strictly linear, though you can backtrack and use new abilities to track down hidden treasure chests in previously unreachable corners of earlier levels. In fact, you’ll need to do this at one point before you’ll be allowed entry to the volcano dungeon.

Shion himself controls about as you’d expect. One button jumps, another swings his weapon, and a third activates any spells or items mapped to it through the pause menu. The weapons themselves come in two flavors. Swords are the better defensive option since they can be be paired with shields, while spears offer a bit more range at the cost of greater vulnerability. Movement is precise and responsive, although you may have some difficulty coming to grips with Shion’s pathetic walk speed. I honestly thought I was missing something at first when I noticed how slowly I was moving. Surely there had to be a run button or something, right? Wrong. You can eventually acquire new boots that will speed you up a little, but it never really felt like enough to me and I was annoyed by the slow pace all the way up to the end.

Once you’ve adapted to your “young man” protagonist’s crippling arthritis, the combat and light platforming and that make up the bulk of the game are actually pretty decent. There’s a good variety of enemy types and patterns to reckon with and the game generally rewards patience and precision over mashing the attack button and hoping for the best. If there’s one thing that I would add to the formula, it would be the ability to swing your weapon above and below you instead of just straight ahead, as engaging enemies from these angles is often a pain if you’re low on magic.

Speaking of which, your magic is mostly used to damage enemies through various means (fire, lighting, etc) without the need to get close. There are also spells to temporarily bolster your defense and weapon damage as well as a Return spell that warps you to the most recent inn you stayed at. Each spell has a set number of uses allocated to it rather than drawing from a shared pool of magic points, so you never have to worry about forgoing use of some magics just so that you don’t lose access to others. I appreciate systems like this because they encourage the player to find good uses for every spell instead of just focusing on a handful of optimal ones. That said, Return in particular is a godsend because you can only save your game at inns and dying forces you to re-load your last save, erasing all progress you’ve made since. If you find yourself at death’s door deep in a dungeon, it’s always better to cut your losses and warp out than to die and forfeit any items or gold acquired since you entered.

Rounding out the gameplay are the helper characters. Most towns you visit will include one brave resident that will volunteer to accompany Shion into the local dungeon. There’s a fairy, a dwarf, a baby dragon, and more. Each is useful in their own way. The dwarf, for example, helps you locate secret passages and the dragon attacks enemies with his fire breath. These guys remind me in many ways of the familiars from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s a pity that they’re just not implemented all that well here. Each is only available to use in a single dungeon and, though their abilities are nice to have, they’re in no way crucial to your success. In fact, you can complete dungeons solo with little to no extra trouble. Perhaps if it were possible to retain your stable of helpers throughout the game and switch between them at will or to have them gain new abilities over time, this could have been a really standout feature. As it is, it just feels like an afterthought that doesn’t really impact Shion’s journey all that much in the end.

Graphically, Wonder Boy in Monster World is no powerhouse. The visuals here are only a slight step up from those in the previous entry in the series, and even if Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was one of the best looking Master System releases ever, I still expect more than this out of the 16-bit Genesis. The bright colors and cartoony character designs are certainly not without their charms, however. Even the most imposing boss monster still has a doe-eyed cute factor that’s through the roof. The music by Shinichi Sakamoto is generally pleasing without approaching greatness. I found myself enjoying the more low-key numbers like the Purapril Castle and undersea themes quite a bit. Very soothing.

Can I recommend Wonder Boy in Monster World? Not really. Nothing about it (other than maybe your hero’s sloth-like stride) comes off as outright terrible, yet not a lot stands out as exceptional, either. If you’re in the market for action adventure games on the Genesis specifically, Beyond Oasis, Crusader of Centy, and Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole are all better places to start your search. This game’s more advanced Mega Drive sequel Monster World IV is also a great option, provided you can either read Japanese or track down one of the English language re-releases for the Wii, PlayStation 3, or Xbox 360.

Sorry, Shion. You’re no wonder, boy.

Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988 and the following year on the TurboGrafx-16.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah, I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.