Kato-chan & Ken-chan (PC Engine)

Dear Lord.

Who are these abominations? Why, they’re Cha Katō and Ken Shimura, two well-known Japanese celebrities who started their careers as members of the storied rock band/comedy troupe The Drifters. They went on to host the Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV (“Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan”) variety show from 1986 through 1992 and this program was popular enough to warrant its own game on the PC Engine starring the pair. In fact, Kato-chan & Ken-chan was the very first platformer released for the system, just one month after its launch in late 1987.

Developer Hudson Soft understandably chose to pattern Kato-chan & Ken-chan on their biggest platforming success to date: Adventure Island. Both games share the same overall structure as well as very similar play control and level design. Even Adventure Island’s iconic continuously depleting health meter that the player must collect fruit to refill makes an appearance here. If you’re wondering what separates KC&KC from a standard Adventure Island title, the answer is poop.

You see, Fun TV wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated series. The comparison that seems to crop up most often when attempting to explain its widespread appeal in its home territory to Westerners is The Benny Hill Show. On the PC Engine side, this translates to toilet humor and lots of it. Piles of coiled brown feces are a recurring hazard, the heroes engage in regular bouts of public urination and defecation during their quest, and one of their primary attacks is a fart cloud triggered by facing away from the target and crouching. Delightful.

The game’s plot is patterned on Detective Story, Fun TV’s most popular recurring sketch, in which Katō and Ken portrayed a pair of bumbling private eyes that managed to screw up a new case every week. The opening cut scene depicts one of the two detectives (as chosen by the player on the title screen) answering the office phone and being informed that a very rich man has been kidnapped and that there’s a huge reward being offered for his safe return. The chosen character promptly accepts the case and departs, while his partner, fuming over being left out, decides to tag along anyway and make trouble.

This setup was essentially unchanged when the game was localized for release on the North American TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as J.J. & Jeff. Instead of being based on real people that the target audience wouldn’t have been familiar with, the title characters were changed to a pair of generic detectives and most (but not all) of the toilet humor was omitted. Apart from these cosmetic differences, however, the two releases are identical.

There are a total of 24 individual stages in Kato-chan & Ken-chan, divided up into six “fields” that function like the worlds in Super Mario Bros. Gameplay consists of making your way from left to right in each stage, avoiding pits and enemies until you reach the goal. You can periodically enter public restrooms along the way where you’ll encounter your partner dressed up in a variety of bizarre outfits based on other Fun TV characters. He’ll refill your health and often provide some helpful gameplay advice as a bonus. There’s also a boss at the end of each field in the form of a big guy that tosses boulders, although these fights are similar to the Witch Doctor battles in Adventure Island in that the boss is always the same each time, just with a different head.

Regular enemies are primarily animals like birds, dogs, giant flies, and crabs with the occasional dinosaur or Yakuza gangster mixed in. In addition, the player character you didn’t select at the start of the game will show up as an enemy in most stages, throwing a torrent of damaging soda cans at you until you can get close enough to pummel him into submission. Kato and Ken have a few different ways of dealing with the opposition. The most generally useful is a Mario style head stomp. For the few enemies that can’t be jumped on, there’s also the aforementioned fart attack and a short range kick.

Despite its pathetic reach, the kick is one of the most important moves in your arsenal, as it’s how you uncover hidden items and other secrets. Kicking different background elements in each stage (trees, signs, posts, etc) can potentially reveal energy restoring fruit, bonus stages, french fries to enhance your fart attack, coins that can be used in slot machines for a chance to win health boosts and extra lives, and even deadly piles of poo if you’re unlucky. These are all optional, but the one hidden item that you absolutely must find is the key that’s secreted away in the third stage of each field. If you fail to grab this key, you’ll be unable to fight the boss at the end of the field and have no choice but to warp back and repeat the previous stage until you finally locate it. If there’s one golden rule in KC&KC, it’s “always be kicking.”

The groundwork is certainly in place here for an excellent old school platformer, and Kato-chan & Ken-chan mostly succeeds as the twisted take on Adventure Island that it sets out to be. Unfortunately, it also has its share of shortcomings and annoyances. I just mentioned the need to find a hidden key in the third stage of each field before you’ll be allowed to fight the boss. Since the screen only scrolls to the right and you can’t backtrack, these keys can be easier to miss than they should be. Reaching the end of a key stage empty handed, it’s often better to simply run down the timer and kill yourself rather than crossing the finish line, since you’d need to play all the way through the next stage before being allowed to warp back and try again. Encouraging players to search for hidden goodies everywhere is one thing, but the penalty of potentially being forced to repeat earlier stages is too much hassle for no real payoff and smacks of padding.

Another questionable design choice was making KC&KC a one player game exclusively. Why bother to produce a game about two of the biggest stars in Japan at the time and then not even include so much as the most bare bones of alternating two player modes? Some care went into making the duo each control slightly different (Ken moves a bit faster at the expense of some troublesome extra momentum), so it’s a real shame that they can’t be used side-by-side if you have a friend on hand.

To modern eyes, Kato-chan & Ken-chan can also seem quite repetitive. Like most other platformers of the mid-1980s, there really aren’t a lot of unique enemies, backgrounds, or music tracks to go around. Rather than surprising the player with a parade of novel threats, the game’s escalating challenge is based around remixing the same small set of foes and hazards in increasingly complex and devious ways. On the plus side, the clean, colorful artwork and the catchy score by Takeaki Kunimoto make up in quality what they lack in diversity. Kato and Ken’s oversized heads are a little creepy at first, but their extra expressiveness pays off during the numerous pratfalls and sight gags.

None of these flaws are all that damning in light of the game’s age and status as an early release on the console. What’s borderline unforgivable is the tendency for its sense of humor to turn nasty on occasion. Just like in the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels), Kato-chan & Ken-chan features hidden “reverse” warp zones that send you backward in the game when you stumble on them. After I accidentally fell down a pit midway through stage 3-4, I was floored when, instead of just losing a life like normal, I landed on a hidden spring that catapulted me back to 2-1! Not cool, Hudson Soft. Not cool at all. Tempted as I was to shelve the game in disgust then and there, I persevered and eventually made it to the end without falling prey to any more of these tricks. It could have been a lot worse. The final stage, 6-4, supposely has a pit that sends you all the way back to 1-1. That’s just sick.

If you can look past this infuriating sadistic streak, KC&KC is still worth a look for fans of simple 80s hop-and-bop platformers and wacky, stereotypically Japanese humor. Cha Katō and Ken Shimura are both still alive and kicking around television today, over thirty years after their PC Engine debut. Though not the superstars they used to be, they’re hanging in there. Not bad for careers built on oogling young women and passing gas. Plus, I guess Katō opened for The Beatles once or something. Whatever.

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The Legendary Axe (TurboGrafx-16)

Love those diegetic credits!

A point of endless debate among TurboGrafx-16 fans is whether or not a better pack-in game would have bolstered the system’s lackluster performance in the North American market to any significant degree. Though I’m skeptical (to say the least) that any one game could have “saved” the TG-16, there’s no denying that the day one launch lineup in 1989 was exceptionally strong and included such heavyweights as Blazing Lazers, R-Type, and Dungeon Explorer. Regardless, NEC chose Keith Courage in Alpha Zones as the pack-in. I’ll give Keith Courage the more detailed look it deserves in due time, but suffice to say that it suffers from severe pacing issues that hold it back from being a top tier action-platformer.

The most popular candidate for an alternate pack-in is probably The Legendary Axe. Originally published by Victor Interactive Software in 1988 as Makyō Densetsu (“Demon Legend”), Legendary Axe is a no-nonsense hack-and-slash fantasy side-scroller reminiscent of Taito’s Rastan with a Castlevania twist. I recently reviewed a very similar game, Astyanax for the NES. This is no coincidence, as both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori of Aicom. In the modern parlance, we might call Astyanax a “spiritual sequel” to Legendary Axe.

The star of the show here is Gogan, a stock barbarian type who resembles a ginger-haired Tarzan in his fur loincloth. His quest is to rescue his childhood friend and love interest Flare, who’s been spirited away by the diabolic cult leader Jagu for use as a sacrifice. Gogan wields the magical axe Sting as his sole weapon across the game’s six stages. Fortunately for him, he can power-up Sting along the way, making it more than a match for the most vicious of opponents.

The game’s English title really is the more fitting one, since the proper use of Gogan’s axe is its defining mechanic. Just like in Astyanax, a power bar at the top of the screen determines the strength of each of your attacks. It resets to zero after every attack (successful or not) and then automatically begins recharging. Thus, there’s a classic “risk versus reward” setup in place where biding your time for a few extra seconds between strikes results in more damage to Gogan’s foes. Of course, this is often easier said than done and there are times when you’ll be swarmed from all sides and forced to rely instead on unleashing a quick flurry of weaker blows to survive.

Mastering Legendary Axe is a matter of learning each enemy’s behavior and placement in a given stage so that you can respond to its appearance with the correct attack. Some, like the bears and gorillas, are powerful, slow-moving, and take forever to kill with weak strikes, so instead keep your distance while you charge up fully. Others, like the fragile bats and butterflies, require no charging at all, so just mash away!

There are three types of axe upgrade available. These are obtained either by destroying stationary idols you come across or, less commonly, from a defeated mini-boss. One type allows Gogan to swing his axe faster, another increases the rate at which the power bar recharges, and the final, most import one actually lengthens the power bar itself by one level, to a maximum of four. Very few enemies in the game can withstand a level four axe strike. Be careful, however, as losing a life will lower your axe power by one level. There’s usually an idol not too far from your last checkpoint where you can regain it, but dying twice in quick succession can really set you back and hurt your chances in the later stages.

While the barbaric fantasy theme and combat invoke Rastan, it’s the platforming in Legendary Axe that betrays its Castlevania influence. Gogan is susceptible to some severe knockback each time he’s damaged and the placement of enemies and instant death pits is cunningly calculated to exploit this weakness. Lives and continues are limited, so falling deaths are the thing most likely to send you back to the title screen. Always look before you leap. Running out of health is also a concern, naturally, but health refills appear in every stage, so you have much more room for error in this regard.

The gameplay here is a real treat. The controls are tight, the stages are well-designed, and every enemy type represents a unique challenge. Most importantly, the power meter management keeps your head in the game and prevents the action from stagnating, all while not being overly complicated in itself. Though you almost certainly won’t make it to the end on your first attempt, the overall brilliance of the design lends it an addictive quality that offsets the agony of defeat. The only potential stumbling block for some players is the emphasis on stage memorization. Don’t come expecting to play Legendary Axe “fast and loose” and still do well.

Much was made of the game’s graphics back around its release, particularly its large, detailed sprites. The colossal final boss Jagu specifically was held up as quite the revelation in a time when the NES was still top dog. The art and animation remain pleasing, but the visual element that holds up best these days is the striking use of color. The sprites and backgrounds are positively vibrant and really showcase the console’s impressive palette. The music by Jun Chikuma (best known for her work on the Bomberman series) is just as delightful as the visuals. She managed to seamlessly merge her typical jazzy style with grandiose, blood-pumping melodies suited to the game’s savage sword & sorcery aesthetic. It almost shouldn’t work, yet every single track here is a real earworm.

So is Legendary Axe the rightful TurboGrafx pack-in title, robbed of its birthright by corporate incompetence? Critics at the time sure seemed to think so. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine declared it to be their game of the year across all platforms. Although I wouldn’t go so far to call it the game of 1989, I can’t deny that it’s a much more appealing and consistent action-platforming package than Keith Courage. It’s earned its status as one of the cornerstones of the system’s library, even selling well enough that an unrelated game, Ankoku Densetsu (“Dark Legend”), was retitled The Legendary Axe II in North America in an attempt to piggyback on its success. Could Legendary Axe have given the Turbo the boost it would have needed to surpass the Sega Genesis in North America like its counterpart the PC Engine did in Japan? Hell, no. There were far too many factors in play at the time for any one title to accomplish that. Still, I can’t exactly fault a game for not being magic, and this one is a class act that easily stands the test of time.

So go play it, okay? Don’t make me axe you again.

Strip Fighter II (PC Engine)

Witness the world’s saddest high score!

Since I’m still diving into my brand new PC Engine console, I figure I may as well reach even further outside my comfort zone by simultaneously reviewing my first unlicensed title and my first adult game in the infamous Strip Fighter II.

Strange as it seems, the notion of a somewhat shady “unofficial” game release for a console wasn’t always with us. The first widely-adopted home system on the market, Atari’s VCS/2600, came with no specific licensing requirements or other checks placed on third party publishers. Anyone willing to pony up the dough to manufacture and market cartridges could put out their own Atari games. This policy led to such a glut of low quality software that the resulting damage to consumer confidence is often cited as a major contributing factor to the precipitous decline in Atari’s fortunes after 1982. It fell on Nintendo as the next major player in the gaming sphere to institute the more rigid top-down content control measures that have defined console libraries ever since.

This new order spawned its share of resisters who were willing to risk potential legal consequences in order to release games without paying the requisite fealty (and fees) to the console manufacturers. Many NES aficionados have at least a passing familiarity with the prolific Color Dreams and their Christian-themed incarnation Wisdom Tree, for example. What was left of poor Atari’s home games division went so far as to steal the patent information for the NES console’s 10NES security lockout chip and use it to publish several unlicensed titled under the Tengen name.

Another industry tradition with deeper roots than one might expect is the adult (that is, pornographic) video game. These, too, date back to the golden age of the VCS and the earliest mass market home computers. The fact that developers and consumers alike were so intent to realize sexually explicit content on hardware that was literally incapable of displaying realistic human forms says a lot about us. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Porn, uh, finds a way.

Since mainstream console manufacturers generally don’t like to be associated with outright spank material, unlicensed and adult games go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Though not all unlicensed games showcase racy content, a large proportion of adult titles produced for the console market have been unlicensed.

The undisputed kings of video game sleaze in early 90s Japan were Hacker International. Founded by former music producer Satoru Hagiwara, Hacker distributed dozens of adult titles for Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine under a host of brand names, including Games Express and Panesian. A handful of their games even made it to the North American NES, albeit in very limited quantities.

The formula was a simple, efficient one: Churn out a barely competent effort in a popular genre as cheaply as possible and then “reward” players for sticking with its sub-par gameplay by periodically flashing a set of cartoon breasts at them. Whether the subject matter is gambling (AV Poker/Peek-A-Boo Poker), puzzles (Soap Panic/Bubble Bath Babes), or fantasy adventure (Lady Sword), you always know what you’re in for. As Hagiwara himself stated in a 2011 interview: “None of the games were all that interesting content-wise…Because they were weak games, a lot of them went down the adult track — we called them ‘semi-adult.'” I appreciate the candor. Regardless of your opinion on Hacker, you certainly can’t call them deluded or pretentious.

Bearing the Games Express name like all of their PC Engine output, 1993’s Strip Fighter II was, obviously, Hacker International’s stab at a head-to-head fighting game. No genre was bigger in the years following Capcom’s worldwide sensation Street Fighter II, so it was really only a matter of time. How is it? Well, you just heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, didn’t you? It’s terrible. Probably the single worst game I’ve reviewed to date, though in fairness, I’m not really the masochistic type and typically stick to material with a stronger pedigree and some measure of positive buzz about it.

I hardly know where to begin sketching out the problems with this one. Let’s start with the playable fighters themselves. There are a paltry six of them in total and, as you might expect, they’re all scantily-clad women. As difficult as that should be to bungle, none of them demonstrate much in the way of personality and their visual designs skew more buffoonish than sexy. One dons an oversized bird headdress and fires off inexplicable energy blasts from her backside, another is a stocky wrestler with a rainbow afro that assaults the opponent with her giant breasts, and so on. The “best” of the lot (like bland Chun-Li clone Yuki) are really only so by virtue of not being notably grotesque.

Choose a fighter from this sorry lot and you’ll soon realize that the combat mechanics leave just as much to be desired as the roster. Jumps are floaty, executing special moves feels highly inconsistent, and there are times when I swear the game just starts dropping controller inputs left and right, leaving me standing there defenseless. By no means am I the sort of fighting game pro that’s going to sweep any tournaments, but I’ve picked up enough in the way of fundamentals over the years to know what’s on me and what’s a matter of shoddy programming, so I can say with confidence that Strip Fighter II’s controls and core gameplay lack anything in the way of care or refinement. The result is choppy, slow, and painfully awkward. It almost goes without saying that amateurish stuff like inescapable re-dizzy attacks are also present. Just a sad mess, really.

In theory, the game supports the six-button controllers that were released in conjunction with the PC Engine port of Street Fighter II. This would be a cool selling point, except for the fact that, in yet another hilarious feat of self-sabotaging laziness, the characters’ weak, medium, and strong attacks all use the same animations, just displayed faster or slower as needed. Quality, thy name is Games Express.

The closest we get to a redeeming feature is the fact that the art and music aren’t the worst on a purely technical level. More frames of character animation, some moving backgrounds, and a wider variety of sound effects might even have nudged this one into average territory. No such luck, however.

“But what about the porn?” I hear you asking. Actually, I take that back. Why not give my audience some credit, right? I’m still going to tell you, though. Winning a match in single player mode will result in the game displaying one of six topless lady pictures. Yes, again just six. I suppose they are fairly well-rendered for the time, especially when compared to their Famicom counterparts, although they only show up on screen for a little less than ten seconds, which it seems to me would make it awfully difficult to put them to their…intended use. Oddly, these nude women seem to be unrelated to any of the game’s selectable fighters. A dirty Street Fighter clone where your defeated opponent has to strip down does seem like the obvious angle to run with, but who am I to question the pixilated titty virtuosos at Hacker International? Note that you’ll only be “treated” to these naughty interludes when playing in single player mode. If you actually want to challenge a friend like the fighting game gods intended, then it’s no boobs for you. It does feel weird to be earnestly criticizing a game for being stingy with the porno, but I’m finding that everyday standards break down fast in the world of unlicensed schlock.

The bottom line is that there’s no pressing reason to bother with Strip Fighter II, especially not for the triple digit prices that physical copies are going for these days. Devoid of any fun factor, it’s a minor curiosity at best. The trashy characters and their questionable special moves are amusing for around ten minutes, tops, which is also about as long as it will take you to triumph over the brain dead A.I. and see all the “goodies” on offer. There’s not even a final boss or a proper ending scene. Nothing ages worse than early generation adult games and this tepid cash-in was no great shakes even in its prime. Some sources online insist on referring to it as a Street Fighter parody, but that’s giving it entirely too much credit.

As for Hacker International, they eventually shed their bad boy image in 1995 when they changed their name to Map Japan and began releasing officially licensed games for the Japanese PlayStation to no great success. They finally folded in 2001, with Hagiwara citing stiff competition and his own waning interest in games as reasons why. Their catalog of 8-bit smut endures today as one of the gaudier footnotes to console gaming history; a kitsch monument to a unique chapter in the complex interwoven sagas of technology, industry, and human sexuality. For better or worse, we’ll never see its like again.

Just kidding. It’s totally for the better.

Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks are due to the staff of my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. The movie’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the 80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.

Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Make it rain!

After a long run of platformers and other simple action fare, I’m feeling overdue for a longer, more involved game. I also haven’t touched any Sega stuff lately, so I figured I’d cover all my bases with Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole. This 1992 action-adventure title for the Genesis is the brainchild of Climax Entertainment, a relatively minor (and now defunct) development house most noted for its collaborations with Camelot Software Planning on the earliest entries in the well-loved Shining series of RPGs. Rumor has it that Landstalker was initially conceived as Shining Rogue, a spin-off starring the hero Max from Shining Force, before Climax and Camelot formally parted ways mid-development. Even though no official connection between the two games remains, Shining fans are sure to notice and appreciate illustrator Yoshitaka Tamaki’s distinctive character designs.

The titular Landstalker is the player character Nigel, a swashbuckling elven treasure hunter. One day, just after collecting a big payout for his latest recovered artifact, Nigel runs into the pixie-like wood nymph Friday, who’s being pursued by a gang of bumbling thieves. It turns out that Friday knows (or at least claims to know…) the location of the fabled lost treasure of the ancient tyrant Nole and that’s why she’s being chased. In exchange for Nigel’s protection, Friday agrees to guide him to the treasure’s hiding spot on the remote island of Mercator and the duo’s mad dash for the score of a lifetime begins!

If you think these sound like some pretty low stakes for a game of this kind, you’re not wrong. This steadfast refusal to embrace tragic backstories, moody antiheroes, world saving quests, and other boilerplate fantasy melodrama in favor of what amounts to an extended tongue-in-cheek caper is one of Landstalker’s most appealing aspects and one that still feels refreshing a quarter century on. The game is filled with laugh out loud moments and never so much as flirts with the notion of taking itself seriously. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of console adventure games.

While we’re on the subject of unexpected directions, let’s consider the gameplay itself. Most genre entries from this period took their cues from The Legend of Zelda. This usually entailed a similar overhead view of the playfield, as seen in Crystalis, Golden Axe Warrior, Neutopia, and many others. Landstalker, on the other hand, is no “Zelda clone.” Instead, it looks back even further and adopts a pseudo-3D isometric perspective seemingly based on Knight Lore, the influential British computer title published by Ultimate Play the Game (later known as Rare) in 1984. North American console gamers familiar with this style of game are more likely to recognize it from two specific releases by another U.K. studio, Software Creations: Solstice for the NES and its SNES sequel Equinox. Isometric platforming gameplay tends to be a “love it or late it” kind of thing, and Landstalker goes all-in on it, for better or worse. More on that later.

The land of Mercator itself consists of the usual idyllic villages separated by tracts of monster-infested wilderness. The format for most of the adventure involves reaching a new town where you’ll be able to do some shopping and chat up the locals to determine what trouble is brewing thereabouts before heading to a nearby cave, ruin or other “dungeon” to sort it out (hopefully acquiring some fresh leads on Nole’s treasure in the process).

The challenges you’ll face outside of town can be broken down into two broad categories: Combat and puzzle-platforming. Bad news first: Landstalker’s weakest aspect by far, at least in my estimation, is its shallow combat system. Nigel’s sole attack has him sweeping his sword in a wide horizontal arc front of him. It’s possible to obtain a few magical swords throughout the game that will imbue his strikes with fire, lightning, and other elemental properties for extra damage, but these aren’t really game changers. The enemies themselves aren’t very interesting, either. Most merely rush straight at Nigel (making them easy to cut down with repeated sword swings) and vary only in the amount of damage they can dish out and withstand. It all feels very perfunctory and overly reliant on mindless button mashing. For all that, it can also be maddeningly imprecise. Trying to attack while standing anywhere near a wall, tree, or other barrier for example, often results in Nigel’s attack hitting the scenery instead of the enemy and being cancelled out entirely. When you consider how much of the fighting takes place in cramped dungeon corridors…Ugh.

At least the designer seems to have realized how sloppy the swordplay can be, since Nigel was made very durable to compensate. Hit points are at a premium early on, but healing herbs (called “EkeEke”) are plentiful. Nigel can carry up to nine of these at a time and each will be automatically used by Friday to restore half of his health whenever he runs out. Once you’ve acquire some improved armor and extra hit points (the latter by locating Zelda-esque heart-shaped tokens called “life stock” scattered around the world), game overs will largely become a thing of the past so long as you keep your herb supply maxed.

Now for the good news: Landstalker’s puzzles and platforming and are clearly where the lion’s share of the development work went and I found them to be extremely gratifying. For the most part, anyway. Remember that isometric perspective I mentioned? Well, it’s not exactly perfect, and the precise spatial relationships between objects and platforms and can sometimes be difficult to discern without a bit of trial and error. Two platforms might appear to be adjacent to each other and easily jumped between. Then you try it only to discover that one of them is supposed to be at a different elevation than the other. In a true 3D projection, the higher platform would appear slightly larger due to its closer proximity to the camera. Here, objects at differing heights share the exact same graphics and that means missed jumps. Missing a jump early on in the game is usually no big deal. Later on, it can result in landing on a trap and sustaining some damage or, even worse, falling all the way back down to a lower level of the dungeon and having to climb all the way back up just to attempt the same jump again.

Still, you can and will adapt to these visual quirks if you keep at it, and the effort required is well worth it. Landstalker’s puzzles start out simple; flip a switch here, stack some boxes there, that sort of thing. Before long, you’ll also be contending with time limits, switches that need to be toggled from a distance by tossing things at them, puzzles that require you to manipulate enemy movement patterns, and much, much more. There are some serious brainteasers in store for you here and in this sense Landstalker actually reminds me as much of the Adventures of Lolo games as it does Zelda. The process of entering a new dungeon room, working out exactly what steps I need to take to proceed, and then actually having to implement my plan while also fending off enemies and nailing all the required jumps is endlessly satisfying to me. It’s also not the sort of challenge that players can simply grind their way around by boosting some stats or buying stronger gear. Unless you refer to a walkthrough (which I highly discourage in this case), success or failure in the dungeons is all down to your own native wit and timing. It’s very compelling once you get into the groove of it.

The graphics in general look great, with the caveat that the requirements of the game engine lead to the environments looking distinctly blocky and artificial. All those geometrically perfect sharp angles work fine for the buildings and dungeons, but not so much for the wilderness areas. Shining series composer Motoaki Takenouchi contributes an expansive musical score that covers the game’s main themes (comic adventure, plumbing the depths of dark, spooky ruins) with aplomb. Landstalker’s overall presentation is right in line with its 16-bit contemporaries. It’s a product of its time in that it compares favorably with the previous year’s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, yet doesn’t quite measure up to the higher standard set by Secret of Mana the following year.

So…Great sense of humor? Lovable characters? Addictive gameplay? Landstalker must have received a ton of sequels, right? Not really. A handful of “spiritual successors” were produced with entirely new characters and settings. These range from the mediocre (Lady Stalker: Challenge from the Past) to the masterful (Alundra) to the just plain odd (Dark Savior, with its clunky one-on-one fighting game segments). Not even an extended cameo appearance in Time Stalkers for the Dreamcast manages to function as a proper continuation of Nigel’s story, however, leaving the intrepid elf and his winged sidekick lost in the gaming ether, likely forever.

This makes Landstalker itself a buried treasure well worth hunting down, and I’m honestly split on whether that’s ironic or wholly appropriate. All I know for sure is: It’s Friday, I’m in love!