Metal Storm (NES)

My thumbs hurt. Also, my soul. Oh, Irem.

There are numerous NES games from the console’s twilight years in the early 1990s that were poor sellers in their day, but have since attained an ironic sort of fame within the classic gaming community as “hidden gems.” Some of the most ambitious and lavishly-produced titles for the system debuted around this time only to flounder in the face of stiff competition from the flashy new 16-bit systems. Such a title is 1991’s Metal Storm, the cult classic sci-fi run-and-gun published by Irem and developed by their subsidiary Tamtex. Not even a 12-page cover story in Nintendo Power was enough to put Metal Storm over with the public when the fabled Super Nintendo was just around the corner.

While it’s heartening to see these long-neglected classics finally find the audiences they’ve always deserved, there’s a corresponding downside rooted in that most bastardly of sciences, economics. Simply put, games with small production runs that are known to be of high quality are destined to become prohibitively expensive sooner or later. Though a far cry cost-wise from Taito’s Little Samson (which madmen are currently paying close to $1100 for in loose cartridge form at the time of this writing), Metal Storm is still the single most expensive video game I own. I shelled-out $100 for my copy at a convention and, though I don’t really regret it per se, I also don’t see myself spending that much on any one game again in an era of affordable flash carts.

However you end up playing Metal Storm, you’re in for a unique experience on the system. Side-scrolling NES action games were a dime a dozen, so Irem wisely chose to give this one a twist to set it apart from the pack: Your character can control gravity at will! Far from being just a superficial or situational gimmick as it was in Shatterhand or Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage, every aspect of the level layout and enemy placement here is is painstakingly planned around the fact that you can swap between walking along the floor and the ceiling at a moment’s notice. As in Capcom’s Bionic Commando with its grapple arm platforming, it’s this total commitment to an innovative core mechanic that elevates the game above the majority of its peers and makes it well worth playing today.

Metal Storm places you in the cockpit of the M-308 Gunner, a rifle-toting humanoid robot that looks just about as close as it legally can to something out of Gundam or Macross. It’s the year 2501 and Pluto has been fitted with a humongous Death Star-like laser cannon intended to protect the solar system from invasion by hostile aliens. Predictably, the computer system controlling the laser has gone haywire. Neptune has already been vaporized and it’s only a matter of time before Earth gets the axe. With the laser’s self-destruct mechanism jammed, all of humanity is counting on you to fight your way past the Pluto base’s copious defenses and initiate the self-destruct sequence manually. Welcome to old-school gaming, soldier, where every princess needs rescuing and every computer is the HAL 9000.

While the story here may not be anything to write home about, the graphics sure are. You may not be inclined to think much of them at first based just on screenshots. The backgrounds can arguably be somewhat garish at times due to how many of them consist of abstract, vaguely mechanical patterns rendered with just a few bright colors in what I can only call a patchwork quilt style. I was occasionally unsure if I was supposed to be blasting my way across a space station or an oversized sofa from the 1970s. Once you actually see the game in motion, however, you’ll quickly realize that the draw here is the fluid character animation and liberal use of parallax scrolling. This latter technique (in which multiple layers of background graphics appear to scroll by at varying speeds in order to simulate depth) is not a default capability of the NES hardware. Regardless, Metal Storm utilizes a mapper expansion chip inside the cartridge working in tandem with memory bank switching techniques to showcase convincing parallax effects on virtually every stage. It really is eye-catching for anyone accustomed to the look of other games on the console.

Things aren’t quite so striking as that on the audio front, unfortunately. The soundtrack is middling at best, suffering from overly short music loops and a shortage of really standout songs, apart from perhaps the first level theme. Sound effects fare better, with some great explosions and an absolutely perfect “bwoop” when you execute a gravity flip. I couldn’t tell you why that action should bwoop specifically, but trust me, it should.

There are twelve total stages to tackle and a boss fight after every even-numbered one. Clear all that and you’re treated to a standard “boss rush” where you must defeat the previous six guardians again back-to-back before you can finally engage the self-destruct device and roll the credits. The stages themselves are actually all fairly short. This is balanced out by the fact that they leave you very little room for error. Similar to the player ships in most auto-scrolling shooters, your mech doesn’t have a health bar and will explode instantly upon contact with an enemy, projectile, or stage hazard. Additionally, you won’t be revived on the spot if this occurs like you would in other run-and-gun games like Contra. Instead, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. If you’ve ever played Irem’s Super Nintendo debut from later in 1991, Super R-Type, you know this rather strict system all too well.

If all this has you concerned that Metal Storm might be too punishing to be enjoyable, you needn’t worry. While it’s true that the stages require some memorization and tight execution, you’re given unlimited continues with which to practice them, as well as passwords after every boss fight. There’s also a very useful selection of power-ups available. The most common and important of these is the armor, which allows you to withstand one additional hit before exploding. Beyond that, there’s an energy shield that blocks bullets and damages any foes that touch it, a gun upgrade that makes your laser rifle shots more powerful and able to penetrate walls, and a “Gravity Fireball” that renders you invincible mid-gravity shift. You can only benefit from one of these last three abilities at any given time, however, so picking up a gun icon while you already have the shield active, for example, will cause your shield to vanish. Thankfully, the armor upgrade isn’t exclusive in this way. I suppose a greater variety of power-ups might have been nice, but I do have to give the designers credit for making each one we do get both functionally unique and powerful.

With these tools to level the playing field, experienced run-and-gun players should be able to clear Metal Storm in a handful of hours…on its normal setting. Do this and you’ll be given a special password and instructed to “Try a game for experts.” Hoo-boy. Lemme tell you, they had a real master of understatement on staff there at Tamtex. I was looking forward to a little more difficulty after the relatively forgiving main game. What I got was the Ninth Circle of NES Hell. The majority of life-saving power-ups have disappeared, the bosses have all-new dirty tricks, and the regular enemy placement is so outright fiendish that it evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and lack of checkpoints that were manageable before are now the very bane of your existence and level memorization graduates from useful to strictly mandatory on a second-to-second basis. If I wasn’t the sort of obstinate bastard that can’t let go of a self-imposed challenge, I’d have certainly quit in disgust around the midway point. Metal Storm on the expert setting is what people who’ve only heard of Ninja Gaiden imagine that game to be. It is doable, barely, but I didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to. Maybe you will.

Expert mode aside, I can unreservedly recommend this one to 8-bit action fans. The control is spot-on, the level design is inventive, and no two enemies test your maneuvering and shooting skills in quite the same way. Above all else, the gravity shift mechanic elegantly and unobtrusively informs every move you make. Mastering it over the course of the journey genuinely feels like fun rather than work. This, latter day game designers, is how you do a tutorial.

Oh, what a feeling when we’re blasting on the ceiling!

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Golvellius: Valley of Doom (Master System)

Yeah, don’t hold your breath there, guys.

I was so excited to finally try out Golvellius: Valley of Doom. It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to get into the Master System in the first place. Can you blame me? Just like The Guardian Legend on the NES, a stone cold masterpiece that just blew me away when I first experienced it last March, Golvellius is an action-adventure game from the revered studio Compile that takes numerous design cues from The Legend of Zelda. If that’s not a foolproof recipe for success, I don’t know what is. Spoilers: I don’t know what is.

This 1988 Sega release of Golvellius is actually an enhanced port of the original 1987 version for MSX home computers, Maou Golvellius (“Devil Golvellius”). Console gamers caught a break this time around, as the port seems to be superior to the original in every way, boasting improved sound and visuals, smoother scrolling, and a greater variety of enemies to fight. Indeed, the Master System Golvellius is a very attractive game on the surface. The graphics are crisp and colorful and the character art is packed with personality in a way that recalls the Wonder Boy series at its best. The soundtrack by Masatomo Miyamoto and Takeshi Santo is superb and will instantly bring to mind their subsequent work on The Guardian Legend. So much so, in fact, that it’s a bit uncanny. The instrumentation is so similar that you could make a playlist of tracks from both games and easily find yourself forgetting which song originated where. Still, it’s great to encounter a truly remarkable score on the system after enduring the shrill, repetitive aural garbage that detracts from titles like Ghostbusters and Shinobi. It all makes for a strong first impression.

An equally slick opening cut scene fills you in on the story: The kingdom of Aleid is under siege by monsters under the command of the demon Golvellius. The king of Aleid becomes so distraught by his people’s suffering that he falls gravely ill. The brave Princess Rena departs for the heart of the enemy’s territory in the Valley of Doom, which is the only place that the magic herb needed to heal her father can be found. When she fails to return, it falls on a wandering green-haired hero named Kelesis, as controlled by the player, to venture into the valley and set things right.

This primarily entails wandering around a sprawling overworld from a top-down viewpoint putting monsters to the sword, accumulating money and magical artifacts, and hunting for the entrances to a series of eight dungeons. Never heard that one before! There are some differences worth noting, though. For one, the overworld in Golvellius isn’t quite as open as the first Legend of Zelda’s, so there’s more of a linear Zelda II-style flow to the exploration. Each area is technically connected to the others and can be revisited at any time, but there’s usually some sort of roadblock preventing you from moving on to the next chunk of the map until the local dungeon boss is defeated or you’ve acquired some specific bit of equipment. Golvellius also does its best to one-up Zelda by placing a secret passage on virtually every screen. These are typically revealed by either stabbing a specific tree or rock with your sword or by defeating a set number of monsters on that screen. Some contain the aforementioned dungeons, but most house an NPC character of some sort. There are chatty fairies that dispense clues or passwords, sassy old women that sell you items, Compile’s cheerful blue blob mascot (who would later show up in Guardian Legend in a similar support role), and more. If you ever find yourself unsure how to progress, the best way to get back on track is to revisit any screens you haven’t discovered secret passages on yet and poke around some more.

So far, so good. As solid as the overworld portions of the game are, however, the dungeons are a colossal letdown. The Guardian Legend achieved greatness by replacing the typical mysterious labyrinths of Zelda with action-packed shooting sections taken straight from Zanac or Aleste. These had everything you could want in an 8-bit vertical shooter: Fast movement, tight controls, a bewildering variety of weapons and enemies, huge boss monsters, the works! Golvellius also gets pretty experimental with its dungeons, but stumbles badly in terms of execution.

Dungeons are divided into two basic types: Side-scrolling action-platforming stages and auto-scrolling overhead view corridors. Both are quite wretched. The side-scrolling sections suffer from floaty jumps and the odd inability to turn Kelesis around. Although he can “moonwalk” backward, he always faces to the right. This makes attacking any enemy that manages to get behind him needlessly annoying. Lacking even a dodgy platforming element, the overhead dungeons are even less fun and consist entirely of slowly marching forward in a straight line and swatting down the occasional defenseless bat. In fact, the enemies in every dungeon are drawn from the same small pool of unimpressive vermin that never seem to grow any stronger as the game progesses. This is in stark contrast to the overworld enemies, who start to get really vicious after the first few introductory areas. As a result, the game as a whole feels more and more wildly unbalanced the further you progress. The only aspect of these dungeon levels that might slow you down some are the dead ends. You’ll often find yourself at an intersection and be forced to choose between a high/low or left/right path. It all comes down to a guess, really, but guess wrong and you’ll be forced to exit the level and start over due to the fact that the screen only scrolls in one direction and there’s no way to simply turn around and march back to the last intersection. It’s not challenging, interesting, or fun, but it sure will waste some of your time. Yay.

Speaking of disrespecting your time, Golvellius is also a relentless grindfest due to the fact that you’re forced to pay out the nose to merchants for everything you need. And when I say “everything,” I mean it. Health increases, weapon and armor upgrades, key items needed to navigate the game world, everything. Naturally, you’ll also need to purchase the ability to carry more money on you at once just so you can afford all this other crap! There’s not a single item anywhere in the game that you’re simply allowed to find and pick up in the course of your adventure. Even the seven crystals that you need to gather in order to access the final dungeon (this game’s equivalent of the Triforce pieces) aren’t recovered from defeated bosses. Instead, defeating each boss will just convince a nearby shopkeeper to quit holding out and sell you one of the crystals for some arbitrarily huge sum of gold. Madness!

The final major problem with Golvellius is its combat. Considering how many monsters you’re expected to slay in order to pile up these endless stacks of cash, it’s completely one-dimensional and boring. I hope you love jabbing away at baddies with Kelesis’ sword because that is all you’ll be doing from the very first screen of the game to the very last. No bow and arrows, no boomerangs, no bombs, no magic spells, just that puny sword. Even primitive pre-Zelda action-RPGs like Hydlide gave you something other than your sword to clean house with. The shallowness of Golvellius’ combat is downright laughable for its time and it really started to wear on me after hours of throwing out the exact same mediocre attack over and over.

I never imagined that I would dislike Golvellius (or any Compile release) as much as I did. Part of me still doesn’t want to come down against it in spite of the overwhelming weight of the evidence. I mean, the presentation is still top notch. I also got a real kick out of the weird NPC dialog, particularly the oddly abusive old women. “Thou art but a moron of the first class! Hit the road!” Dang, lady. The boss battles are decent fun, too, even if your opponents are limited to some very basic attack patterns. Despite all this, the lion’s share of the actual gameplay remains equal parts clunky, tedious, and dull. It’s no wonder the promised sequel never materialized. The closest thing we ever got was a very obscure cooking-themed parody game based on Golvellius called Super Cooks that was included in a 1989 edition of Compile Disc Station, which was a sort of digital magazine on floppy disk that was distributed to Japanese computer owners from 1988 through 1992.

If there’s a silver lining here, it would have to be that Golvellius seems to have served as a crash course of sorts in how not to make a Zelda clone. Certainly none of its irritating missteps would be carried over to The Guardian Legend a year later, so that game may well owe its status as one of the most brilliant console titles of its generation to the various design blunders of its immediate predecessor.

An acceptable price to pay for greatness, I suppose.

Magical Doropie (Famicom)

Woo hoo witchy woman.

Magical Doropie (known in North America as The Krion Conquest) is a game that lives in infamy. This 1990 action-platformer from Vic Tokai didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire on either side of the Pacific and lingers on today almost entirely as a punchline thanks to its shameful status as a blatant copy of the first two Mega Man games.

And it’s true! Even the most generous (or downright contrary) of critics can’t deny that Magical Doropie is a complete and total rip-off of Capcom’s classic series. Your heroic witch character looks and animates just like the Blue Bomber, her enemies consist of the same wacky robots with expressive Disney cartoon eyes, she has a menu of special weapons to choose from (each of which changes her outfit to a different color when equipped), and even her death animation is identical to Mega Man’s. It might be a blessing in disguise that the game flew under the radar in its day, since the level of outright idea theft on display here verges on the legally actionable.

Still, I’ve always wanted to give the game a try. Maybe I’m just perversely attracted to the sheer audacity of it all. Price was a mitigating factor for quite a while, however. I was curious, but not quite $60 curious, you know? Fortunately, I was able to snag a reproduction cartridge at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo for much less. As an added bonus, it’s actually an English language fan translation of the original Japanese release. This matters for a couple reasons. First, the original release of Magical Doropie had a complete in-game story told through a series of Ninja Gaiden style cinematic cut scenes. These were cut from The Krion Conquest, presumably to save money on an official translation. Not even the ending was spared! Also left out was the original’s continue feature and players were instead forced to start the entire game over every time they exhausted their initial stock of lives. Now, I would not only be able to experience this most infamous of NES clone games, I’d get to play the version its designers intended. As a special added bonus, the label on my cartridge showcases a very DeviantArt-esque cheesecake shot of Doropie flashing her bare ass at the viewer. Classy.

So just how is Magical Doropie? Surprisingly decent, given its checkered reputation. The game opens in the far-flung future of 1999. Earth is under attack by the mysterious Akudama Empire and its legions of robots. Conventional weapons are useless against the invaders, leaving only one hope: Magic. Fortunately, a mercenary named Kagemaru has successfully stolen an enchanted rod from the enemy forces. Sealed inside the rod is the witch Doropie (Francesca in the North American version), who alone is capable of combating the Akudama with her magic wand. A strange and slightly silly setup to be sure, though not exceptionally so for the era. Supposedly, the designers had wanted to do a game based on a contemporary anime adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but couldn’t secure the rights. The only element remaining here that hints at this history is the main character’s name being a variation of Dorothy. As these things go, Magical Doropie’s story is no towering achievement, but it’s still one of the game’s highlights. The main character is cute and the cut scenes are well-drawn. There’s also a bit of development by the end, as you eventually get to find out what the deal is with the Akudama Empire and its leader Empress Elysia. Doropie even gets to rescue the kidnapped Kagemaru at one point in a welcome inversion of the terminally overused “save the girl” plot. Not bad for 1990.

The gameplay…is Mega Man. I could go to great effort to detail exactly what that means, but I don’t think that would be a very productive use of your time or mine. If you’re reading reviews of decades-old 8-bit video games, I feel pretty comfortable assuming certain things about you. That you more or less know how a Mega Man game functions is one of them. If by some chance you don’t, my review of the first Mega Man is here to help. All this being said, there are some differences worth mentioning.

Foremost among these is the lack of a stage select feature. There are a total of thirteen stages in Magical Doropie. These are presented in a fixed order and are further sub-divided into four main levels with three stages each and a fifth level that consists entirely of a multi-phase final boss fight. Running out of lives and continuing will always set you back to the start of the level, regardless of the specific sub-stage you died on. Wipe out on stage 2-3, for example, and you’ll continue back at the beginning of 2-1.

Doropie is also a bit more agile than Mega Man himself was around this same time. Unlike her robotic counterpart, she can crouch to avoid attacks and fire her wand upward in addition to straight ahead. She can even charge up her primary weapon to deal extra damage by holding down the fire button, an ability that Mega Man wouldn’t gain until his fourth outing the following year.

The third major departure from formula is the weapon system. Mega Man has to earn each of his special powers individually by defeating bosses, but Doropie has all of her magic spells available from the very start. There are five total in additional to the normal shot: Fire, Freeze, Ball, Shield, and Broom. Furthermore, there’s no finite weapon energy enforced here, so you’re free to use any magic you want any time you want. The one exception to this is Fire, which damages all enemies on screen in exchange for a sizable chunk of Doropie’s health and is generally not worth the cost. Out of the remaining four weapons, Freeze and Shield have a few narrow, specialized uses while Ball and Broom are absolutely indispensable. Ball shoots at a 45-degree angle and can ricochet off walls, making it useful against many of the more cunningly-placed enemies. Broom creates a flying platform reminiscent of Mega Man’s Rush Jet that is required to cross the multitude of spike-filled pits that litter the levels. Just remember not to jump when riding on the broom or you’ll plummet to an untimely end as it speeds away without you.

All this said, Magical Doropie still lacks that special touch that would make it as good as any given real Mega Man game. For starters, the levels aren’t as thematically distinct or imaginative, although the underwater stages where Doropie has to fight her way between air pockets before her oxygen runs out are an interesting twist on the formula. The rest of the stages look and play generically. Similarly, the majority of Doropie’s foes are forgettable and prove that there’s more to the art of designing a great Mega Man enemy than just sticking googly eyes on any old hunk of scrap metal. The weapon system is also lacking in depth and overall utility. Most of Doropie’s special weapons are quite pointless and the two that you’ll be relying on most often are merely useful, not cool or fun. Bosses don’t take extra damage from specific weapons like they do in Mega Man, either, so that’s another layer of design complexity gone.

Graphics are comparable to the first Mega Man, even if they are wasted on bland levels and enemies. Sound is another story. The tunes we get in Magical Doropie are average at best. I know because I just went back and listened to them again. The fact that I needed to should give you an idea of how very average they are. I’ll probably have forgotten them again by this time tomorrow. This is obviously not on par with Capcom’s legendary “put down that controller and dance” brand of 8-bit techo-rock. That level of talent just isn’t present here.

So if Magical Doropie is mediocre, why did I call it “surprisingly decent” above? Well, it turns out that aping one of the greatest sagas in all of gaming buys you a long, long way to fall before you end up with something unplayable. Magical Doropie is no Mega Man, but it’s sure as hell no Super Pitfall or Fist of the North Star, either. The gameplay is solid, the plot and characters are enjoyable, and it presents a decent challenge. All-in-all, a playthrough makes for a pleasant evening’s gaming. The Krion Conquest version is another story. Ripping out the cute story bits and the continue feature results in a far less charming game that will take you much, much more than a breezy couple hours to complete. I have no reservations about recommending that you spend a few hours with this one, but devoting dozens of hours to a game that never rises above “not bad?” Forget it. Your time could be much better spent. If you really want to dedicate that much of your life to a tough NES game, try Battletoads or Blaster Master.

Sometimes it really does matter which witch is which.

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa (Arcade)

Wait, how do these guys get their shirts on over their horns? Suspension of disbelief shattered! 0/10! Worst game ever!

Like countless others in my age group, I spent an ungodly amount of time and quarters at arcades in the 80s and 90s. These days, I’m pleased to say that not much has changed. I’m fortunate in that the greater Seattle area has an abundance of retro arcades (or “barcades”) packed with the same classic video and pinball machines I remember. The usual suspects like Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter are a given at establishments like these, of course, but it’s not often (at least outside of a large gaming expo) that I encounter an entirely unfamiliar arcade title. When I do, it’s just as rare for that obscure game to leave a strong impression. A lot of them never got much traction for a reason, you know?

The stars must have been in perfect alignment when I walked into Coindexter’s on Greenwood a couple weeks back, because I had no idea that Konami’s 1992 run-and-gun Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa existed and it turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve had with a new machine in years. It didn’t take me long to realize why, either: C.O.W.-Boys is Sunset Riders 2!

Well, not technically. C.O.W.-Boys is based on the short-lived children’s cartoon/toy line that debuted earlier that same year. I never watched the show myself, writing it off as yet another attempt to cash-in on the “crimefighting anthropomorphic animals” craze at the height of Turtlemania. They’re cowboys that are literally cows! So clever, guys. Apologies if I’m dumping all over anyone’s cherished childhood memories here, but I was so over this formula at the time.

Fortunately, there’s an actual game lurking beneath the derpy license and it’s a blast. If you’ve played the 1991 cult classic Sunset Riders before, the resemblance is unmistakable. What else would you expect with Konami being contracted to develop a second four-player action game for arcades set in a cartoon version of the Wild West so hot on the heels of the first? C.O.W.-Boys is more than just a re-skin, however, and improves on Sunset Riders in a number of major ways.

Each player assumes the role of one of four lawmen, er, lawbulls, I guess: Cowlorado Kid, Dakota Dude, Marshall Moo Montana, and Buffalo Bull. Their mission: Rescue stock damsel in distress Lily Bovine from the Masked Bull and his gang of crooks. This requires you to complete a total of seven stages scattered across Moo Mesa. Unusually for the genre, you can choose your next destination on a between-stage map screen. The first and last stages are always fixed, but you can tackle 2-6 in any order you like.

The basic gameplay here will be instantly familiar to veterans of the more famous horizontal run-and-gun institutions like Contra and Metal Slug: One button jumps, the other shoots in any of eight directions, and the joystick handles the aiming and character movement. The one unique maneuver in your arsenal is the stampede charge, activated by pressing both buttons at once. Charging across the screen horns-first is useful for clearing some obstacles from your path and stunning many enemies. Just be careful not to run headlong into a bullet or other hazardous object by mistake. There are also the requisite power-ups, acquired by blasting flying chickens as they pass overhead in each stage. Why these unfortunate fowl are so well-armed is beyond me. It clearly doesn’t pay off for them. Items dropped include more powerful shots, single-use screen clear attacks, a horseshoe that orbits your character for a time and damages any enemies it touches, and even health refills and the occasional 1-up.

These last two items should be your first clue that C.O.W.-Boys is a quite the soft touch compared to most of its peers. One-hit deaths, virtually a given in given in titles like this, are replaced by a health bar. With three hits per life, three lives per credit, and the possibility of healing and 1-ups, this might be the least “quarter munchey” arcade run-and-gun of all time. I was able to complete several of the stages without dying at all on my first go and the difficulty really didn’t escalate at all until the final stage. I can’t rightly complain about saving so many quarters on my way to the end, though I do have to wonder if this extremely generous design was the best choice from an arcade owner’s standpoint.

C.O.W.-Boys may be easy, but that certainty doesn’t make it dull. The levels are all unique and inventive, with no shortage of engaging “set piece” moments like the bouncing railcar ride in the Mine and the dynamite-rigged buildings you can detonate in Cow Town. There are even occasional interludes where what have to be the world’s strongest eagles swoop down to lift your characters into the air and the nature of the action shifts entirely to resemble an auto-scrolling spaceship shooter. The boss fights are another highlight. Every boss has a robust pattern with multiple ways of moving and attacking and these patterns are readily sussed out with a bit of observation. This allows these battles to fall comfortably into the “tough, but fair” bracket. Each is hectic and stimulating in a way that satisfies rather than frustrates. The bosses even have their own health bars! This certainly would have been a welcome addition to Sunset Riders.

Graphics and sound are top-tier Konami all the way. The cartoon show’s creator supposedly worked very closely with the game development team and it’s evident in the detail and overall polish lavished on the art and animation. Despite only coming out a year after Sunset Riders, C.O.W.-Boys took advantage of upgraded hardware to really push its visuals to a noticeably higher level. I might not care for any of these absurd characters, but there’s no denying that they look amazing here. The music is by Michiru Yamane, best known for her work on the Castlevania series. While the tunes here are nowhere near her best, they’re perfectly servicable Western-inspired numbers that fit the setting like a glove. Also worth mentioning are the large number of high quality speech samples throughout. Every boss seems to have something silly to say and it’s all very clear for the time.

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa was a case of love at first sight for me. It’s easily as colorful and charming as Sunset Riders with the same tight and addictive core gameplay. What’s more, C.O.W.-Boys has more power-ups, better boss fights, and more interesting levels than its predecessor. Lower difficulty also makes it more appealing to newcomers, though this may come at the expense of lasting appeal to the hardcore crowd.

It’s a damn shame that C.O.W.-Boys was never ported to any home console or computer. Was this due to the terms of the license? The cartoon’s cancellation? A perceived lack of appeal outside the U.S.? Beats me. I just know that this game is currently the second best reason to visit Coindexter’s, after their grilled Nutella, marshmallow, and graham cracker sandwiches. Mmm.

8 Eyes (NES)

Believe me, if I knew why this game’s ending revolves around a purple cave gargoyle with a cross on its forehead dispensing passwords, I’d tell you.

For some gamers, there’s no more damning epithet than “clone.” If, for example, you hear a fantasy action-adventure game described as a “Zelda clone,” the commenter more often than not means to dismiss it altogether as something so derivative as to be beneath notice, let alone analysis. This isn’t a very useful approach in my opinion. I’m not referring here to any abstract concerns like fairness to a work’s creators, the true value of innovation versus iteration, or the virtues of open-mindedness. Those are all discussions worth having. First and foremost, however, simply disregarding a clone game sidesteps the most fundamental question of them all: Is it fun enough to spend time with?

Why the preamble? Well, I’ll be looking at several games this month that are, shall we say, heavily indebted to one or more of the classics. Let’s start with 8 Eyes, the 1988 action-platformer from developer Thinking Rabbit that’s a lot like Castlevania except instead of a whip you have…a bird.

According to the backstory we’re given in the instruction manual, it’s the post-apocalyptic future and civilization is just starting to rebuild itself under the guidance of the Great King, who relies on the titular Eyes to do his work. The Eyes themselves are gemstones with mysterious powers that miraculously formed at the centers of eight great nuclear explosions that devastated the planet. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to cause “untold destruction” if misused and the King’s eight traitorous dukes have each made off with one of them, leaving humanity’s future in doubt. It falls on the King’s most accomplished guardsman, Orin the Falconer, to venture to each of the dukes’ heavily-defended castles, retrieve the Eyes, and return them to their rightful places on Altar of Peace.

Of course, they don’t just call him “the Falconer” because he roots for Atlanta. Orin is accompanied by his trained falcon Cutrus, who can be used both as a weapon and a tool to access out-of-reach items and switches. Cutrus even has his own separate health meter and can be controlled independently by a second player, making 8 Eyes a very rare example from this period of a two-player cooperative action game where the playable characters each have radically different capabilities and control schemes.

If you think this whole setup sounds a little nutty, you’re not alone. Why would exploding nuclear bombs create magical gemstones? How are you fighting ghosts and walking skeletons? Radiation explains away a lot of crazy stuff in fiction, but this is really pushing it. I did a little digging online and it turns out that up the original Famicom version is set in the 19th century and centers on a cult of Satanists that want to use the power of the Eyes to resurrect the devil. Orin himself is a baronet and secret agent named Lord Julian James Bond (yes, really) dispatched by a predecessor to the British intelligence agency MI5 to stop the ritual and save the world. This definitely explains the action unfolding onscreen a lot better, particularly all the religious imagery, but it’s not hard to see why publisher Taxan wanted to go with something more suitable for the family-friendly NES market.

Starting up 8 Eyes, the first thing you’re confronted with is a level selection screen à la Mega Man. This allows you to tackle the first seven stages in any order you like. Just like Mega Man, however, there’s an ideal order that will make progress through the game much easier. Starting out, Orin’s sword will deal double the damage to one particular stage’s boss. But which one? In Mega Man games, a boss’ weakness is often made apparent by its theming. Fire guys are weak to ice or water, and so on. Here, the stages are based on different countries, so that sort of logic just doesn’t apply. Is Italy weak to Egypt? Is Egypt vulnerable to Germany? The correct order to play through the stages is essentially a riddle that can be solved through careful study of the instruction manual. Unfortunately, I overlooked the clues completely, which made most of the game’s boss fights much more frustrating than they needed to be. More on this later.

Upon selecting a stage, the resemblance to Castlevania is immediately obvious. The blocky level architecture is here (ditto the helpful items hidden inside some of said blocks) and the infamous Castlevania stairs are in full effect. Orin combats similar skeletons, ghosts, bats, and armored knights with the help of collectable sub-weapons, many of which are virtually identical to ones from Castlevania. He even moves and attacks in a very slow, stiff manner reminiscent of a Belmont clan member. There are some differences, of course. Orin can carry more than one sub-weapon at a time and cycle through them with the select button. He also uses a sword as his primary weapon. It has a very short reach, shorter than even the most basic leather whip from Castlevania. Many of the enemies also have weapons, and these invariably have more reach than Orin’s sword. This fosters a reliance on hit-and-run tactics, as most fights involve baiting the enemy into a swing, quickly backing away, then landing a counter blow after the enemy whiffs. Since most weapon-wielding foes can withstand multiple hits, this demands a lot of precise execution and slows the overall pace of the action quite a bit. The level design in 8 Eyes also places much less emphasis on platforming than Castlevania does. Stages feature no bottomless pits or other instant death hazards, so you’ll rarely find yourself sweating over a tricky series of jumps. The challenge here comes exclusively from the grueling combat, the puzzle elements, and the maze-like nature of two stages in particular, Africa and Germany.

Puzzle elements? That’s right. I already mentioned that you’re intended to deduce the ideal stage progression from clues in the instruction manual, but there’s also the matter of the final challenge at the Altar of Peace. After you defeat the last boss at the “House of Ruth” (no relation, I assume, to the domestic violence charity of the same name) and recover the last of the Eyes, you’ll need to arrange them on the Alter from left to right in the correct order to trigger the ending scene. Determining this order requires you to locate the seven hidden scrolls hidden in walls over the course of the game. Each one holds a tip like “Purple is next to Red.” With all the clues, it’s a very basic logic puzzle, easily worked out on a piece of scratch paper. If you’re missing clues, you’ll have to do some guessing. Thankfully, you’re provided with a password for this segment, so it’s not like you’ll be set back if you guess wrong.

So far, you might have the impression that 8 Eyes is an interesting (if rather odd) blend of ideas from the Castlevania and Mega Man series. That it is! The bad news is that there are a lot of nagging issues that prevent it from reaching the heights its inspirations did. The rigid boss order is definitely one. Orin receives a new sword every time he defeats a boss, and this sword is intended to be used to inflict double damage against the next boss in the sequence. Unlike Mega Man, however, Orin doesn’t carry all these swords around with him to switch between at any time in an inventory menu. Instead, each new sword replaces the last. So if you defeat a boss out of sequence, you’ll permanently lose out on being able to use your current weapon to its best effect. Given that the bosses can take 40+ hits to kill without this advantage, failure to stick to the correct sequence is more heavily penalized here that it is in any Mega Man game. You can still defeat a boss with the wrong sword if you’re willing to memorize his attack pattern, but this sometimes requires multiple failed attempts and you only have one life to work with at a time. If you die at any point, you’re sent back to the level select screen and have to repeat the entire stage. As the manual puts it: “No free men are awarded. This is reality!” Indeed. It’s a great idea implemented so clumsily that it makes the stage select feature into more of a classic “beginner’s trap” than a potential source of fun.

Cutrus the falcon will be another sticking point for some. He can be very annoying to manage without a second player to direct his movements and attacks. In a single player game, you’re limited to one command to activate and recall Cutrus and another to trigger his diving attack. His movement is limited to leisurely flapping his way back and forth across the screen, turning around whenever he hits the edges. If you’re relying on him to attack an enemy (there are some only he can damage) or retrieve an item for you, it’s no fun to have to stand there and wait as he slowly circles back around for a pass.

If you’re holding out hope for your arsenal of sub-weapons to take up the slack for your puny sword and easily-distracted avian ally, forget about it. Unlike in Castlevania where ammunition is relatively plentiful, the sub-weapons in 8 Eyes drain Orin’s weapon power at an alarming rate and the tiny glowing crosses dropped by defeated enemies don’t restore enough of it to make any of them viable for long. In addition, the most dangerous enemies of all, the bosses, seem to be immune to most of them. The one big exception is the all-important ice balls, which will freeze bosses in place temporary and allow you to pile on some free hits unopposed. In fact, the utility of the ice ball against bosses is so great that all other sub-weapons and their potential uses fade into irrelevance. Just grab the ice ball, ignore everything else, and save all your weapon energy for the boss. Any other approach is pointless.

Now, by no means is 8 Eyes all bad. I love the music, which aims to envoke a classical feel very different from the standard 8-bit rock that most NES action games are known for. There are a lot of songs here, with three unique themes per stage. While they’re not all winners, the soundtrack as a whole has really grown on me. The graphics have their high points, too. Orin, Cutrus, and many of the enemies are well-animated for the time and the backgrounds are packed with detail, almost as if the artist was going for a sort of arabesque style at points. Some may find it a tad busy, but I think it suits the Old World palaces that Orin spends the majority of his time traversing.

The game also has a strangeness about it that I find very endearing. After you defeat each of the dukes in combat, for example, you’re treated to a little scene where the two of you sit down together and have a nice cup of tea, as served by a grinning skeleton waiter! These post-fight tea parties are so surreal that they’ve become one of my favorite little touches from any game. Can you imagine Simon Belmont whipping the undead crap out of Dracula, immediately followed by the two of them downing beers together at the bar? Amazing.

Hell, I even enjoyed the designer’s attempt to inject some mystery into the game by making you figure out the correct stage progression and order to arrange the Eyes in yourself. I may have failed completely at the former task, but it was fun to hunt down all the clue scrolls and get the Altar of Peace puzzle right on my first try. It was satisfying enough to make me glad I did it the intended way instead of just checking the Internet.

All of this leaves me in an awkward position where I like everything about this game except for its “gamey” bits. Can I recommend it? Not as a general thing, no. Most players won’t have the stomach for its cryptic airs, half-baked mechanics, and plodding combat. If you happen to be a very patient and determined wierdo like myself, though, you may be able to eke some enjoyment out of it. For better or worse, there’s no other game that feels like 8 Eyes. Quite the feat for a shameless copycat.

Fancy a cuppa?