Guerilla War (NES)

I destroyed capitalism forever! Yay!

The most interesting thing to me about politics in video games (or anyplace, really) isn’t what we see, but what we don’t. Whose viewpoints and experiences are absent? Who doesn’t get to be the hero? Take Taito’s 1985 arcade shooter Sky Destroyer, in which the player assumes the role of a Japanese pilot during World War II tasked with scuttling the dastardly United States Navy in his A6M Zero fighter. Sky Destroyer was ported to the Famicom later that same year. The NES? Yeah, not so much. Turns out way more people over here still remembered Pearl Harbor 32 years ago. Contrast this with Capcom’s 194X series, which presented the exact same scenario with the nationalities reversed and received numerous Western releases over the years.

That brings me to today’s game: Guevara by SNK, an arcade overhead run-and-gun from 1987 in which the player guides none other than Cuban Revolution poster boy Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself on his 100% historically accurate mission to singlehandedly storm Havana and overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Baptista. Well, not really singlehandedly. That would be ridiculous. Ideally, you also have a second player kicking ass as Fidel Castro. You can safely ignore any bourgeoisie so-called “history” book that claims the Revolution was brought to fruition over a span of two years through the combined struggle of thousands. I can personally attest that it only takes about forty minutes tops for two fired-up Marxist supermen rocking infinite hand grenades and even more infinite facial hair.

Guevara was, simply put, a gung-ho commie take on the company’s better-known Ikari Warriors series. SNK even used photographer Alberto Korda’s famous portrait of Che in promotional materials for the game. This was far too spicy for Cold War America. It would be like having Ivan Drago KO Rocky at the end of the third act! It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that the 1989 NES port was altered, barely, to become Guerilla War. The protagonists are now unnamed, as is the island nation they’re liberating, though the bearded fellow in the introduction still resembles a young Castro and the map shown between stages obviously depicts Cuba.

The changes to the home version also extend to the gameplay and here they’re much more substantial. The arcade original used the same custom rotating joystick that the Ikari games did, which allowed players to move and aim their weapons independently. With no way to implement this feature on a NES controller, the heroes in Guerilla War are limited to firing in whichever direction they’re currently facing. While this sounds like a major downgrade, the developer’s smartly chose to compensate for it by boosting the speed of the action overall. Factor in the smaller character sprites necessitated by the hardware shift and the player is much better equipped to dodge enemy fire here than they were in the arcade, which correlates to a reduced dependency on the precise aiming afforded by the rotating joystick. Savvy decisions like this were what really elevated an arcade port over its peers back in the era when perfect 1:1 conversions weren’t an option.

Guerilla War’s gameplay is best summarized as “NES Ikari Warriors done right.” The Ikari trilogy is often derided as the worst of the worst in terms of run-and-gun action for the platform. They’re slow, stiff, poorly-coded, and ugly as sin to boot. Somebody must have flipped a switch at SNK headquarters around 1989 because that was when their 8-bit home releases started to see a major uptick in quality that would result in less borderline unplayable trash like Athena and Ikari Warriors and more gems like Baseball Stars and the masterful Crystalis. Guerilla War is no Crystalis, but it still represents a humongous leap forward for the publisher. The gameplay is not revolutionary by any means (how’s that for irony?), but it is the anti-Ikari: Fast, fluid, and fun.

Anyone who’s played Capcom’s Commando or any number of similar military-themed bloodbaths from the 1980s before will know what to expect: You control a soldier that’s been dispatched to the jungle (always the jungle) to square off against an entire enemy army. Your default tools of the trade are a rather sad “pea shooter” machine gun with bullets that can only travel about half the length of the screen before vanishing and hand grenades that you can toss in an arcing trajectory to take out enemies behind cover. Killing special red-clad enemy soldiers and blowing up specific bits of the scenery will reveal power-up icons that upgrade your machine gun to something more powerful when collected, like a rocket launcher, spread gun, or flamethrower. These upgrades are lost if you die, though, and it only takes one hit from an enemy to make that happen. Making a guest appearance from the Ikari series are the teeny, tiny tanks that your character can commandeer for some extra firepower. Seriously, they’re like the size of shopping carts. They’re also about as durable, since it will only take a couple of enemy bullets to wreck your ride and leave you hoofing it like a chump again. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One aspect that is fairly unique to this game are the hostages. It seems your capitalist pig-dog foes have captured tons of your fellow patriots and left them tied-up on the battlefield in strategic locations. Touching hostages will rescue them and net you a cool 1000 points apiece, while accidentally (or “accidentally”) shooting them will reduce your score by 500. It’s a good thing that the points don’t matter that much, since I ended up blasting a lot of hostages due to the way they’re often cunningly placed to lure the player into the enemy’s ambushes. Sorry, comrades.

Guerilla War is a simple game, then, and fairly mindless. There are ten stages in total before the climax, a gloriously absurd battle against Baptista himself as he dances back and forth across the roof of El Capitolio chucking explosives at you. Simple shouldn’t be conflated with bad, however. The programmers really pushed the NES as hard as they could in order to put as much chaos on the screen as possible throughout. It’s not unusual for eight or more enemy soldiers to be blasting away at you simultaneously. The downside to this is that sprite flicker is rampant, so it can be tricky to keep tabs on everything during the really crowded engagements. At least slowdown is not nearly as prevalent. The pixel art itself didn’t wow me. Sprites are small and show only minimal detail. In fairness to the creators, it should be noted that this seems like more of a deliberate choice to keep the emphasis on packing as much action as possible onto the screen rather than evidence of a lack of skill or effort. The music has the right tempo and energy to support the game’s constant action, though I didn’t find any of the melodies to be memorable standouts. It’s competent, but definitely no match for the same composers’ later contributions to Crystalis.

If there’s one aspect of Guerilla War that might bring it down in the eyes of some gamers, it’s the complete and total lack of challenge. Although enemies are everywhere and you die in one hit, you’re provided with unlimited continues that start your right back on the spot you died with no break in the action. It’s just like playing the arcade machine with an unlimited supply of quarters. You’re guaranteed to see the ending as long as you just keep plugging away, even if Che and Fidel are taking a dirt nap every other step. Love it or hate it, this is definitely a “kick back and chill” sort of run-and-gun. If you’re looking for more of a “grit your teeth and focus” one, I’d recommend Konami’s Jackal with its limited continues. Given that other games offer a similar experience with more demanding requirements, I’m fine with Guerilla War doing its own thing.

As long as this lack of challenge doesn’t irk you, you really can’t do better than Guevara/Guerilla War for a casual pick-up-and-play Rambo simulator on the NES. The fact that you also get to witness such a topsy-turvy Leftist take on the jingoistic “one many army” trope is just a bonus.

Viva la retrolución!

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Operation Logic Bomb (Super Nintendo)

What, no big explosion? I feel so…empty somehow.

Today, I’m looking at inveterate also-ran Jaleco’s obscure overhead run-and-gun Operation Logic Bomb: The Ultimate Search & Destroy. While the name may be unfamiliar to most, this 1993 release (known as Ikari no Yōsai, “Fortress of Fury,” in Japan) is actually the third in a trilogy that started out on the Game Boy back in 1991. The first Ikari no Yōsai even saw a Western release under the new title Fortified Zone. Why they didn’t simply call this one “Super Fortified Zone” or the like is beyond me, as its revamped moniker not only fails at drawing the attention of any Game Boy owners that may have enjoyed the original, it’s also generally clunky and fosters the false assumption that this is some sort of puzzle game thanks to its misguided emphasis on “logic.” No bueno, Jaleco.

Of course, this would be no great loss if Operation Logic Bomb wasn’t a game worth playing. Players step into the boots of cyborg super soldier Agent Logan, who looks like the Terminator by way of Dolph Lundgren. His mission: To blast his way into a top secret research facility that’s been overrun by alien crabs and send the pinchy interlopers packing. It turns out the scientists there were performing some sort of experiment involving other dimensions and things got out of hand. If only they’d seen a horror movie before, they might have known the First Law of Dimensional Physics: Monsters gonna eatcha. Silly scientists. The story is mostly conveyed via dialog-free security camera recordings accessed from computer terminals scattered about the lab, which is an effective and immersive choice on the designers’ part. It’s quite cool to watch the doom that befell the complex’s inhabitants play out this way. You can actually get some important clues on how to handle one of the game’s bosses by reviewing footage of the lab security guards getting wrecked by it. Nice touch.

The action plays out in a perspective similar to the overhead-view stages from the previous year’s Konami blockbuster Contra III. Several of the weapons Agent Logan wields, like the spread gun and flamethrower, are also very Contra-esque. Ditto the music and sound effects, even!

This is where the similarities end, however, and where Operation Logic Bomb’s own personality begins to assert itself. This is a much more deliberately-paced, tactical experience, in keeping with the “search and destroy” promised by its subtitle. Instead of a frantic sprint from left to right, levels are large and sprawling, with branching paths that you’ll need to carefully explore in order to locate the new weapons and equipment needed to reach each level’s boss. Thankfully, you’ll be able to download in-game maps along the way that make navigation a cinch.

Naturally, you’re not alone in this maze of corridors. Your crustacean challengers have constructed a series of devices that are slowly transforming the base and its environs into an extension of their home dimension (as indicated by weird glowing geometric designs on the walls and floors) and filled these corrupted areas with their robot minions. The general flow of each new area you come to is something like this: Inch your way through the halls destroying any enemies as they appear (they won’t respawn) and looking out for new items until you reach the dimension warping device and destroy it, which purges the area of alien influence and allows you to move forward. There’s also the occasional roadblock that I hesitate to call a “puzzle.” These usually take the form of an out-of-reach door lock that you need a specific gun to destroy.

Combat is particularly interesting in that it’s mostly a war of attrition. Individual enemies aren’t very dangerous and Agent Logan can withstand a ton of hits, but the special computer terminals that restore health are few and far-between. In addition, you only have a grand total of three extra lives to work with. Die a fourth time and you’ll start the game over from the beginning. Although it sounds daunting, it’s really quite doable. I found that the ideal method is to creep forward slowly until an enemy scrolls on screen, then retreat while shooting/dodging until it’s destroyed. You can hold down the shoulder buttons to lock your aim and strafe, so it’s relatively easy to fire while retreating. As long as you go slow and keep your distance, you can usually avoid taking too much damage on the way to the stage boss.

As for the bosses themselves, each is a massive and appropriately intimidating robotic juggernaut with its own unique (if fairly basic) attack pattern. They’re not too difficult to take down with the correct gun after a little observation, provided you’re not already near death at the start of the fight. Oddly enough, the second boss is the trickiest of the lot by far and both the deaths I experienced during my playthrough came courtesy of it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this title. For coming out when it did, smack dab in the middle of that awkward period where Jaleco was struggling desperately to hitch itself to the Capcom cash train with painfully mediocre copies of hits like Final Fight (Rival Turf!) and Street Fighter II (Tuff E Nuff), it’s a great deal more interesting and enjoyable than its Contra clone exterior lets on. The focus on approaching enemies cautiously and trying not to take too many hits in the process recalls the tense on-foot portions of Blaster Master. I’m even vaguely reminded of Quintet’s Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia with the way defeating all the enemies in one section of a stage opens the path to the next, though that’s admittedly more of a stretch on my part.

As fun as it is, there are a few things that hold it back from true greatness. The graphics and sound are both decidedly average, apart from some excellent mechanical design on the bosses. There also isn’t much variety in the regular enemy types, with the same half-dozen or so baddies cropping up again and again between the first stage and the last. The biggest problem by far, though, is the shockingly short length of the adventure. My first playthrough took me about 90 minutes, including all the fumbling around and backtracking. If I’d already known what to do and where to go, I could have easily wrapped up in under an hour. For a fast-paced roller coaster of a run-and-gun like Contra III, an hour is plenty. For a title that’s paced more like Super Metroid, an hour is nothing. I suspect that the development team had a grander vision at one point that was sharply curtailed by a budget or time crunch. There are only three bosses in the entire game, for example, and the third one hardly feels like final boss material. You also don’t get your hands on several very nifty items (the land mine and hologram decoy) until the very end of the game, leaving you with little time to make satisfying use of them. These things and more all point to a project that wasn’t nurtured to its full potential.

Still, given a choice between quantity and quality, I’m always going to lean toward the latter. As long as you’re willing to let its absurd brevity slide, Operation Logic Bomb remains a well-designed and unjustly forgotten action title that plays like nothing else on the Super Nintendo. It also functions as a worthy finale to the Ikari no Yōsai trilogy.

Now, pass me the drawn butter, would you?

Pop’n TwinBee (Super Famicom)

Yowza! Somebody get Dr. Wily there to an orthodontist, stat!

Last August, I covered Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, the unique platforming spin-off from Konami’s fondly-remembered TwinBee series of shooters. Despite its sumptuous presentation and some genuinely fun ideas, I ultimately found Rainbow Bell Adventures to be a mediocre product dragged down by its uninspired level design. A real pity. I still enjoyed the art style and characters quite a bit, though, so I figured it was about time to give the series another chance. What better place to start than with Rainbow Bell’s “sister game” on the Super Famicom, 1993’s Pop’n TwinBee? Is it a better shooter than its counterpart is a platformer? I’m pleased to report that it most certainly is, as well as being the Super Nintendo enthusiast’s single best choice for a two-player shooter experience.

First, though, a brief refresher on TwinBee as a whole. Debuting in Japanese arcades in 1985, the series primarily consists of vertically-scrolling shooters that see the player facing off against a mixture of air and ground-based enemies. The core gameplay is clearly patterned on Namco’s iconic Xevious, with the primary differences being TwinBee’s lighthearted tone, soft pastel art style, focus on simultaneous two-player action, and bell juggling power-up system. Depending on who you ask, TwinBee may or may not have been the first of the so-called “cute-‘em-ups.” Some point to Namco’s King and Balloon from 1980 instead, for example. In any case, it was indisputably one of the early pioneers of the style and would prove to be a major success for Konami domestically over the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, branching out to include toys, manga, and even a radio drama before fizzling out (along with the shooter genre as a whole) around the turn of the century. Overseas markets were another story. Only one TwinBee game was ever officially released In North America. This was the second game, Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue! (“Burn TwinBee: To the Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon!”), which made an unimpressive showing on the NES under the new title Stinger in 1987. Europe fared slightly better with four additional releases for various systems. Still, TwinBee never exactly became a household name outside its homeland. Was it too cute? Too Japanese? Too poorly/weakly marketed? I’ll leave that debate for another day.

Pop’n TwinBee opens with a cut scene in which Light and Pastel (the interpid pilots of the blue TwinBee and pink WinBee ships, respectively) receive a distress call while patrolling the skies of Donburi Island. The caller, a girl named Madoka, tells the pair that her normally kind grandfather Dr. Mardock was driven insane by a bonk on the head (yes, really) and has since dedicated himself to conquering the world with his army of acorn robots. Pastel and Light swiftly blast off to repel the acorn invasion and knock some sense back into the mad doctor in the process. It’s a slight and silly justification for the mayhem to come, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish sensibilities of the franchise. No complaints here.

The adventure ahead consists of seven stages. This isn’t a ton by genre standards. Thankfully, most of them are fairly long, so an average playthrough should take you around 40-60 minutes (depending on how often you die), which is a near ideal length for the sort of simple “pick up and play” experience that shooters are known for. It’s a fairly smooth ride, too, with much less in the way of slowdown and other performance issues than most other SNES shooters.

As mentioned above, players are tasked with defeating both air and ground enemies on the way to each stage’s end boss. Airborne targets are dispatched with your standard shot, while grounded foes are only vulnerable to the short range bombs that your anthropomorphic ship hurls down at them with its noodley Mickey Mouse arms.

That’s not all, though. When things get desperate, you can also opt to unleash a chibi attack, which functions like the screen clearing bombs from other shooters. Dozens of miniature “chibi” versions of your ship flood the screen, destroying most standard enemies outright and dealing hefty damage to bosses while also rendering you invincible for a few seconds. The downside, of course, is that your chibi attacks have a limited number of uses.

Finally, your ship can punch with its gloved fists. This attack has a very short range (naturally) and requires you to charge it up for a couple seconds by holding down the bomb button. Although risky, the punch deals heavy damage and can actually destroy some incoming enemy bullets if timed properly.

Even with all these offensive options, your craft is still quite slow and weak by default, and that’s where the (in)famous bells come in. Shooting any of the smiling clouds you fly past will dislodge a golden bell that drops down toward the bottom of the screen. You can catch these right away and be rewarded with some bonus points, but it’s almost always a better idea to “juggle” the bells by shooting them repeatedly. This will cause them to bounce back up toward the top of the screen and, after several successive shots, start to cycle through six additional colors, each one of which grants you access to a different power-up. You have blue (speed boost), green (satellite helper ships that boost your firepower), silver (a bigger, stronger main shot), purple (a triple spread shot), pink (shield), and flashing (extra chibi ammo). Like in most games of this kind, the majority of these powers are lost if you die. The silver and purple bells remain in effect even then, however, which is uncommonly forgiving for a shooter.

In fact, if there’s one phrase that describes the Pop’n TwinBee experience generally, it’s “uncommonly forgiving.” This is no arcade port, but an original title created with the Super Famicom in mind. As such, the designers opted to move away from a lot of the quarter-munching (or yen-munching) qualities that define other entries in the series. Your ship can no longer have its arms destroyed and bomb attacks disabled, for example. More dramatically, one-hit deaths have given way to a health bar and enemies drop health refilling hearts with fair frequency. Couple this with ready access to the shields provided via pink bell pickups (each of which adds another four extra hits on top of your standard health bar) and your cute little robot bee is a real juggernaut that puts the fragile spaceships from most other shooters to shame. Even the bell juggling is more forgiving in this installment, since it takes multiple shots to change a bell’s color and this means you’re less likely to do so by mistake and lose out on the specific power-up you’ve been waiting for. Experienced shooter players will find that the combination of refillable health and shields on demand makes them feel just about invincible, at least on the standard difficulty setting. Higher difficulties render things a bit more hectic, but the action never approachs arcade shooter levels of brutality. Not even close. The only potential hurdle to overcome is the fact that you don’t have extra lives. Die and you’ll have to spend one of your limited continues to restart the level from the beginning. Still, dying ain’t exactly easy.

Whether this lack of difficulty is a pro or a con is going to vary by individual. If you’re the type that plays these games strictly for the teeth-grinding challenge and bragging rights, you’ll likely get bored quick. If you’re a shooter novice looking for an entry point to the genre, you’re just as likely to be enraptured. Personally, I found myself occupying the middle ground: I never struggled with the game at any point, but I had a pleasant time just kicking back with it for a bit and basking in its loopy atmosphere.

So far, we have what amounts to a cute, colorful, rather easy vertical shooter. Not bad by any means, but what’s the big deal? Well, the real reason I was so emphatic about this being the better of the two SNES TwinBee titles is its amazing multiplayer implementation. Shooters with two-player simultaneous options are already rare enough on the system. Offhand, Taito’s Darius Twin is the only other one that comes to mind. Pop’n TwinBee easily eclipses Darius in this department thanks to no less than three meaningful gameplay enhancements exclusive to its two-player mode. By maneuvering their ships close to each other, players can swap health back and forth, allowing a stronger player to “heal” a weakened one and keep them in the fight longer. Players can also grab and toss each other around the screen in order in order to dish out heavy damage to foes. Don’t worry, though: Players that get tossed around this way are invincible until they recover.

The final multiplayer-only option, “couple mode,” might just be the best of them. While couple mode is activated, enemies will focus the majority of their attacks on player one. This allows for a less skilled player to keep pace with a more adept partner. It’s such a simple, profound gameplay tweak that I’m amazed it never caught on.

On the graphics and sound front, it’s old school Konami glitz all the way. The armada of killer acorns, walking pineapples, pandas, and baby dolls you do battle with are all packed with personality, the backgrounds are intricately detailed and work in some lovely transparency and line scrolling effects, and there are even short animated cut scenes between stages that add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel by depicting the characters engaged in various wacky situations. The soundtrack (contributed by eight separate composers!) strikes just the right balance between whimsy and intensity.

If Pop’n TwinBee has any true flaw other than the debatably lacking difficulty, it would have to be the scoring. Simply put: The points don’t matter. Most shooters will award the player extra lives or other perks upon reaching certain scoring milestones. Here, the only reason to chase those high scores is to compete, either with yourself or rival players. It’s a missed opportunity, albeit far from a deal breaking one like Rainbow Bell Adventures’ meandering, repetitive stage layouts. If you’re partial to vertical shooters, aggressively cute pixilated romps, superb multiplayer experiences, or any combination of the above, Pop’n TwinBee is a no-brainer. As an added bonus, both the Japanese version I have and the European PAL format releases are quite inexpensive at the time of this writing.

Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…and a lucky friend on controller two.

RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

Konami really were miracle workers back in the day. Case in point: 1990’s RollerGames, in which they managed to take a short-lived cross between roller derby and pro wrestling that also included dance numbers and a pit of live alligators and somehow turn it into an even stupider NES game. That takes vision.

I have no recollection at all of the RollerGames television show that debuted back in 1989. Looking up clips in preparation for this review, it’s clear that I was missing out. It’s a prime slice of vintage cheese that certainly couldn’t exist as it did in our present jaded age. If you’re looking for an old school “sports entertainment” companion piece to G.L.O.W. and the golden age WWF, look no further. It also drew big ratings. Despite this, several of the producers still managed to go bankrupt and the show abruptly vanished from the airwaves after only one season.

RollerGames’ brief moment in the sun was somehow still enough to inspire not just one, but three game adaptations, all of which were doomed to reach the general public after the tv show itself had already been consigned to the pop culture memory hole. Williams put out a pinball table and Konami released two completely distinct video games. The arcade RollerGames was a straightforward attempt to replicate the roller derby action of the show. Since it relied heavily on powerful arcade hardware to dynamically shift the player’s view of the track around during play, however, it was clearly unsuitable for conversion to the humble NES. Instead, Konami (in the paper-thin guise of their front company Ultra Games) took things in an entirely different, much less sane direction and gave us this off-kilter platformer/beat-’em-up hybrid where your favorite prime time derby heroes strap on their skates to do battle with terrorists.

Yes, it seems that the sinister criminal organization V.I.P.E.R. (Vicious International Punks and Eternal Renegades) has joined forces with three “evil” derby teams and abducted RollerGames league commissioner Emerson “Skeeter” Bankhead. Oh no! Not Skeeter! Only members of the three remaining “good” teams have what it takes to rescue their boss. Why? According to the manual, “the CIA and FBI lack the speed, cunning, and sheer brute force for this job.” Huh. Well, I suppose I never have seen them do much in the way of skating, so…fair enough.

Naturally, I love this premise. It’s stupid in the best possible way and one of the high points of the whole package. RollerGames isn’t a top tier NES title by any means, but everything it does well stems directly from this decision to not even attempt to be a proper roller derby game. While I’m on the subject, just imagine how much more fun all those terrible WWF games for the NES could have been if they’d abandoned all pretense of delivering a realistic ringside experience and just had Andre the Giant fight an attack helicopter. Alas.

You’ll start out in RollerGames by choosing one of three teams, which functions as a character select. The three available characters are based on the Holy Trinity of beat-’em-ups: Ice Box of the T-Birds is the strong and slow one, Rolling Thunder of Hot Flash is the weak and fast one, and California Kid of the Rockers is the balanced one. In theory, the game’s mixture of platforming and hand-to-hand combat should mean that all the characters are viable, but do yourself a favor and avoid Ice Box. The jumps in this game are far deadlier than the brawling and he really struggles to clear some of the tricker obstacles. Thankfully, you’re able to change characters any time you lose all your lives and use a continue, so you’ll never be stuck using a character you don’t like all the way through the game.

RollerGames has a total of twelve stages, with the action unfolding in the sort of 3/4 view typical of post-Renegade brawlers. Most of the time, however, you’re not engaging in fisticuffs, but instead skating over, around, and through a bevy of environmental hazards that function as sadistic obstacle courses. The threats placed in your path can be divided up into two broad categories: Stuff that kills you outright (pits, bodies of water, spikes) and stuff that will just knock you down and deplete a small chunk of your health on contact (barrels, oil slicks, flamethrowers). Your character’s health bar is quite large, so you’re able to make quite a few missteps around lesser dangers before the cumulative damage does you in. It’s the instant kill stuff that you really need to worry about, since none of the stages in RollerGames have checkpoints. Fall in a hole and you start the whole stage over from the beginning. At least the stages themselves are fairly short and the continues unlimited.

Every now and then, usually around twice per stage, you’ll reach a point where the scrolling halts for a time and you transition into a “fight scene.” Here, the movement controls that you use in the rest of the stage are temporarily replaced by new ones that handle more like a standard beat-’em-up and you’ll have to fight off several waves of enemy skaters before you’ll be allowed to move on. Combat is fairly basic, with typical punches and kicks, a jumping kick, and a “hair pull into throw” attack straight out of Double Dragon. You also have a lunging super attack activated by pressing A and B simultaneously that deals extra damage, but can only be used three times in a given stage. Most of the game’s boss fights also take place in this mode.

Just to add a little more variety, the game also includes two highway stages, which are auto-scrolling affairs where your character has to navigate a hazard-strewn roadway on the way to the next main stage. Other than not being able to set the place yourself, these don’t really play that differently from the normal platforming segments. They do end with some rather odd boss fights, though: A huge vehicle shows up and hurls projectiles at your character until it just sort of gets bored and leaves. You can’t actually attack these guys. You just dodge the crap they chuck your way for an arbitrary amount of time and then you win. That’s a new one on me!

Like I mentioned above, RollerGames is far from a perfect action game. The biggest issue by far is that the gameplay is wildly unbalanced. The designers clearly went out of their way to throw many different types of challenge at the player, but only one type (the insta-kill pits and spikes) ultimately matters and ends up defining the experience. The non-lethal obstacles in the platforming sections are nuisances at worst and the beat-’em-up combat is extremely simple and easy, with brain dead enemies all too happy to repeatedly march face first into your hero’s waiting fists.

Another aspect of the gameplay that seems to annoy many (at least based on other reviews I’ve seen) is the control. Specifically, the loose, slippery movement. Your character can’t really stop or turn on a dime, nor can they accelerate to full speed instantly. Many jumps also require just the right amount of momentum, otherwise you’ll over or under-shoot your landing and pay for it with a life. Basically, every stage here feels like the ice level from most other platformers. While I understand the frustration stemming from this, I also recognize that it’s what sets RollerGames apart from the crowd and hesitate to call it an outright flaw. Your characters are supposed to be zipping around on skates, after all, so it’s only fitting that the movement reflects that. Even if it is defensible as a design choice, the resulting learning curve is steep and you can expect to die a lot at first.

As unbalanced and awkward as it can be, RollerGames still packs a lot of charm into one dirt cheap cartridge. Beyond just the glorious absurdity of roller skating through a jungle dodging giant piranhas, the visuals and audio both demostrate a level of quality befitting a world class developer. There’s some very good use of color and the character sprites are large and detailed, with the exception of the distinctive blank faces seen in many other 8-bit Konami titles like Castlevania and Contra. The music is also above average thanks to some catchy melodies and punchy drum samples. If you don’t mind putting in the time needed to master its finicky controls, this one is more than worth its current Starbucks latte asking price.

Besides, why just skate or die when you can do both?

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent MUSHA last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.