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?

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