Gun.Smoke (NES)

What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes.

The year is 1849 and the remote Gold Rush town of Hicksville (yes, really) is straining under the yoke of the Wingates, a heartless band of desperados intent on taking the beleaguered miners for all they’re worth. Until their savior rides into town with the sun as his back, that is. He’s the fearless bounty hunter Billy Bob and he’s determined to liberate Hicksville the only way he knows how: By doing his very best impression of a spaceship.

Yes, Capcom’s 1985 arcade game Gun.Smoke was a vertical scrolling shooter. One of the first to see the player controlling something other than a spacecraft or military vehicle. The strange period in the title was presumably intended to appease the lawyers over at CBS Television. Their Gunsmoke series was a mainstay of American pop culture for the duration of its staggering twenty year run. In fact, its former record of 635 scripted episodes was only just recently surpassed by The Simpsons. It may not look like much, but that little dot apparently did the trick.

The game’s Wild West trappings were fundamentally skin-deep. Replace the dusty streets of Hicksville with an ocean or a starfield and the human players with airplanes or robots and the action would remain fully coherent. Its ace in the hole was the impeccable polish that Capcom built its arcade reputation on. The art and music did such a stellar job of drawing players in that it was hard to hold some familiar mechanics against it. Play centered on the mastery of three dedicated fire buttons that allowed Billy Bob to fire to his left, right, or straight ahead as needed as he strode through a total of ten stages collecting power-ups and administering lead poisoning to a small army of Wingate flunkies.

Predictably, some compromises were necessary when Gun.Smoke was ported to the NES in 1988. The graphics took the inevitable hit and the firing controls were simplified for a two-button controller, with both buttons now needing to be pressed simultaneously to fire straight ahead. A slightly awkward maneuver, to be sure. Most crucially, the number of stages was cut down to six.

Not every change was for the worse, however. The arcade Gun.Smoke was a ruthlessly difficult game; a true quarter muncher. Things are much more reasonable here, with fewer, less aggressive enemy characters and more options for dealing with them. NES Gun.Smoke isn’t really an easy game by most standards, but it’s a far cry from the unapologetic savagery of the original.

We also have some new music by chiptune virtuoso Junko Tamiya. As usual, her work is elegantly tailored to the game’s setting and action. Like the militaristic staccato percussion of Bionic Commando and the dainty music box melodies of Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Gun.Smoke’s twangy strings meld seamlessly with its pulp Western landscapes.

I particularly appreciate what they’ve done with the scoring system in the NES version. I’m a sucker for games where something as typically abstract as the player’s score is re-framed as a tangible resource of some kind. Here, as Billy Bob is a bounty hunter, the points he earns from blowing away baddies take the form of dollars that can be spent at shops run by friendly NPC characters in each stage. This introduces a high stakes “risk versus reward” dynamic to the game, since players serious about racking up high scores will be hesitant to utilize the shops at all. On the other hand, those that just want to maximize their chances for survival can trade a chunks of score in for more powerful weapons like the shotgun and magnum, defensive items like the horse and smart bomb, and even the elusive wanted posters.

What use is a wanted poster? Oddly enough, you’re required to either find or buy one in every stage. If you don’t, the boss won’t show his face and the terrain will instead loop endlessly. This is the most commonly criticized change to the arcade game’s formula and seems to have been intended as a way to lengthen the overall experience by adding a scavenger hunt element. Assuming you’re not willing to surrender large sums of points for them, the posters must be uncovered by repeatedly shooting at a specific, seemingly empty portion of each stage’s background. The only clue that you’ve stumbled on the correct spot is the unusual sound that your bullets make when striking the invisible poster. On the plus side, you can exploit this mechanic if you like by deliberately looping some of the easier early levels in order to rack up tons of points, gear, and extra lives.

One thing I take unequivocal issue with is the lack of a built-on autofire feature for Billy Bob’s standard pistols. Having to tap for every bullet is a big no-no in any shooter. You can purchase a machine gun from the shops that will remedy this, but it’s is a temporary solution most of the time, as any special weapon equipped is lost upon death. The fact that you’ll automatically lose your horse at the end of a stage comes off as an equally inconsiderate design choice. You’re potentially able to keep the rest of your power-ups between stages, so why not your faithful mount?

Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that the NES Gun.Smoke sacrifices breadth for depth. The loss of four entire levels is certainly felt, but the introduction of an in-game economy and an arsenal of new weapons renders the six that remain more fun to plow through than ever before. The wanted poster system adds still more to do, though I’m divided on whether it’s rewarding or just plain busywork. Actually finding a hidden poster is indeed satisfying. Less so the preceding period of wandering around in circles. Individual temperament will be the deciding factor there, I suppose.

Personally, I prefer this version of the game over the arcade original by a great margin. The reigned-in difficulty strikes a better balance between excitement and frustration and the presentation gains more from the addition of the new music than it loses with the dip in graphical detail. It stands tall in the pantheon of simple, well-crafted NES action staples, right alongside titles like Contra and Jackal. Perfect to pull down off the shelf anytime you’re feeling the urge for a quick burst of steely-eyed gunslinging against the nastiest bandits, rustlers, and ninja that 19th century California can muster.

Huh? Well, of course there were ninja in the Old West. The place was practically swarming with them. It’s not like video games would just lie to me, you know. Yeesh.

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Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof (Super Famicom)

Some people call me the space cowboy.

Ever wonder what would happen if you mashed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Earthbound together and plunked the result down in the Wild West? I’m guessing not. Well, maybe you should have, because you’d end up with Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof. Despite not quite living up to its inspirations (and really, how could it?), this comical 1997 action-adventure is a one-of-kind experience that deserved a much better reception than it was destined for as a strange no-name release on a 16-bit console the same month as Final Fantasy VII of all things. Gunman’s Proof went so unnoticed, in fact, that it would serve as an ironically jolly epitaph for developer Lenar, who closed up shop for good later that same year. Bit of a buzz kill there, even if you’re still holding a grudge over their Deadly Towers.

This game is also frequently referred to online as Gunple: Gunman’s Proof. I haven’t been able to determine exactly why or which title is the more correct of the two. The katakana characters ガンプル sound out as “ganpuru,” which is not a proper word, but more likely a portmanteau similar to Famicom or Pokémon derived from the game’s subtitle. Due to this, I’m going with Ganpuru. Feel free to reach out and enlighten me if I’m missing something there.

Gunman’s Proof opens in the 1880s on a small island off the coast of the southwestern United States. Two strange “meteorites” crash into the countryside. One contains extraterrestrial arch-criminal Demi, who promptly begins transforming the local human and animal inhabitants of the land into his monsterous servants, called Demiseeds. The other craft is piloted by heroic Space Sheriff Zero and his sidekick Goro, two intergalactic lawmen hot on the fugitive Demi’s trail. Unfortunately, Zero’s ship is disabled and his spaceman physiology won’t allow him to survive for long in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s where the young boy character (that you get to name) comes in. Investigating the crash site of Zero and Goro’s ship, your character stumbles upon the pair and selflessly agrees to allow Zero to commandeer his body and use it to put a stop to Demi’s rampage. That’s right: It’s the classic Western tale of the mysterious gunslinger on a one-man crusade to take down a gang of vicious outlaws…except he’s also an alien who’s body-snatched a small child and he battles robots, ghosts, and ninja while riding around on a talking horse that dresses up like Sailor Moon. Gunman’s Proof is the sort of irrepressibly quirky game that could only have come out of Japan and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Seeing as this is an unlocalized title with a focus on humorous dialog, most of you reading this would be advised to seek out the excellent English fan translation patch by Aeon Genesis. I played Gunman’s Proof on a reproduction cartridge that I picked up at a local gaming expo last month, but there are other, more cost-conscious options available online. Although I can’t speak to the literal accuracy of this translation (it includes a reference to the Star Wars prequel movies that couldn’t have been present in the 1997 original, for example), it is well-written and very amusing. It’s possible that I could have fumbled through the game without it, but I’d certainly have had much less fun in that case.

Diving into the game proper, you can’t help, but be acutely aware of the huge artistic debt Gunman’s Proof owes to Link to the Past. Now, it’s admittedly a tired review cliché to automatically relate every overhead adventure game ever made to Zelda. I get that. Here, though, the resemblance is so strong that there’s no sense tiptoeing around it. Both the wilderness and indoor areas look so similar to the ones from Nintendo’s game that they may as well have been traced from the originals in many cases. Lenar’s “homaging” even extends to aspects of the play control. The way Zero handles as he climbs staircases, swims in open water, and drops off ledges feels suspiciously similar to a certain green-clad Hyrulean.

Thankfully, the game also incorporates some delightful character designs by manga artist Isami Nakagawa. These lend Gunman’s Proof just enough of a unique visual identity to pass as more than an above-average Zelda ROM hack. The bright colors and vaguely childish flat look of the characters have drawn many comparisons to the Mother (Earthbound) series, particularly 2006’s Mother 3, which also features some Western elements. Though there are some superficial similarities, the sprites here have their own charm and never come off outright imitative like the backgrounds do.

If you’re worried thus far that Gunman’s Proof might not be packing enough in the way of originality to be worth your time, fear not. As it happens, the gameplay itself is where it really breaks away from the crowd. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the cryptic puzzles of other adventure games and just wanted to grab a bazooka and go to town on the opposition, this is the title for you. Gunman’s Proof is almost 100% overhead shooting action. There’s nothing standing between you and the bosses of its eight dungeons except a hoard of Demi’s mutant lackeys practically begging for a heaping helping of frontier justice. No switches to toggle, no blocks to push, no keys to find. Just gun all the bastards down.

This non-stop combat feels great, too. Zero’s trusty six-shooter has unlimited ammo and can also be upgraded several times over the course of the game to deal more damage. Holding down the shoulder buttons allows for strafing (the most vital technique to master by far) and you can also crouch and crawl along the ground to avoid enemy fire. Blasting away at the opposition feels much more satisfying to me than the basic short-range sword combat found in most games of this kind, even before I take into account unlockable special abilities like the charge shot and the abundant special weapons that drop from defeated foes. These consist of just a basic shotgun and machine gun at first, but talking to the weapon master in town after you clear each dungeon will gradually add more (and more powerful) guns to the rotation. I’m a fan of the flamethrower, myself. You can only carry one special weapon at a time and shots are limited, but the pickups drop so frequently that you’ll never really feel the need to hold back.

Another important tool in your arsenal is the bombs you’ll find in certain treasure chests. These don’t blow open new paths like the ones from Zelda. Rather, they function more like the “super bomb” attacks that feature in so many shooters, dealing heavy damage to everything on-screen when triggered. They’re an extremely useful, non-renewable resource, so be sure to save them for boss fights.

Zero also has an upgradable punch attack. Honestly, though, its implementation is pretty underwhelming. The gun combat is so effective and enjoyable that I tended to forget that the punch was even an option outside of the one time I needed to use it to destroy some rocks on the overworld. I suppose it might be have been included to allow for self-imposed “no gun” challenge runs and the like. As fun as it is, Gunman’s Proof is an extremely easy game from start to finish, so it makes sense to include a way to handicap yourself. If you’re not actively taking care to slow down, you’re liable to find yourself staring at the end credits in no time.

This nearly nonexistent challenge may not be a big deal for some. Sometimes a low-pressure game is just what the doctor ordered. Fair enough. A more substantial criticism that I can level at Gunman’s Proof would be that some of its peripheral elements feel poorly implemented or even unfinished. There’s an out-of-place arcade style scoring system, for example, that really adds nothing at all to the overall experience. Most (though not all) of the treasure you find in the dungeons has no practical use and instead merely contributes to a score bonus that’s tallied up after you defeat that dungeon’s boss. I had accumulated nearly 40,000,000 points this way by the time I finished the game. Yet, since there seems to be no in-game rewards of any kind for hitting score milestones, it’s tough to care. Forty million? Four hundred million? A trillion? So what! There’s also a monetary system in place, complete with sizable cash rewards doled out by the town sheriff for taking down each of the Demiseed bosses, despite the fact that there’s very little available to buy other than cheap, rarely needed health refill items. I ended the game with maxed-out cash simply because the designers neglected to include anything to spend it on.

It’s tempting to say that Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof should have been given just a bit more time in the oven so that the development team could fine-tune the difficulty and flesh-out the ancillary mechanics some. Realistically, however, it was late enough to the party already. While the Super Famicom remained a viable platform for new releases slightly longer than the Super Nintendo did, 1997 was still pushing it. As it is, I’m amply pleased by its crazy cowboys-and-aliens plot and exuberant, trigger-happy twist on a sometimes overly familiar gameplay formula. It’s not really deep or refined enough to rate as a true lost classic for the system like Seiken Densetsu 3 or Terranigma, but players who prefer their adventure games on the wacky side will relish any time spent with this one.

As for me, well, let’s just say that I’m not quite ready to ride off into the sunset just yet. Seems there’s another Old West town in dire need of my services. See you again soon, pardner.

R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, that game’s torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once-prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved-out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre-defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters that consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy that just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly-regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature that comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings that are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game that’s already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up again like before, repeating the same cycle over and over. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Atari 2600)

Still hangin’!

It occurred to me recently that I take a lot of pictures of video games. Screenshots, that is, not shots of the cartridges themselves. And why not? It adds a fun scrapbook element to my little reviews and it’s the easiest thing in the world to do now that digital cameras never seem to be out of arm’s reach. It did get me thinking, though, about the very first time I took a picture of a game screen. The year was 1984 and the game was Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Like most of Activision’s early releases, Pitfall II had a nifty promotional gimmick in the form a high score club that players could join. According to the instruction manual, all I needed to do was accumulate at least 99,000 points and mail photographic evidence of the feat to Activision and I’d be inducted into the Cliffhangers. Sure enough, a few weeks after sending in my picture, I was the proud owner of an iron-on Cliffhanger patch and a congratulatory form letter from Pitfall Harry himself! As a six year-old, it was just about the coolest thing ever. I’ve been fascinated by video games since I can remember, but this was my first real gaming accomplishment and it still means much more to me than most. I wish I’d been able to hold onto that little patch, as they’ve become stupidly expensive collectors’ items in the years since. Oh, well. At least I can still pop the game itself into my 2600 and relive my kindergarten glory days.

Designer David Crane’s 1982 original hardly needs an introduction. Pitfall’s 255 interconnected screens of hostile jungle added exploration and player choice to the platforming toolkit and were instrumental in pushing the genre beyond its single-screen arcade origins. In so doing, it became just the second game of its kind (after Nintendo’s Donkey Kong) to really matter. It’s also the second best-selling 2600 game of all time, a fact that really must have irked Atari’s management, considering that Activision was a “rogue” third party founded by their own disgruntled ex-employees.

Crane wanted to push the boundaries even further for this 1984 sequel. So much so that the unaided 2600 hardware just wasn’t going to cut it. To this end, he engineered and patented the Display Processor Chip, a device that would piggyback on the cartridge’s circuit board and work in tandem with the console to provide extra memory management and audio capabilities. That the DPC also shares initials with its creator is mere coincidence, I’m sure.

All this extra oomph was not wasted. Pitfall II is a radically ambitious game that builds on its predecessor’s strengths as an exploration-based platformer by adding a vertical dimension to the gameplay. Instead of simply running to the left or right, Harry must also descend into the depths of the earth in search of treasure and his lost adventuring companions. While the horizontal movement still uses a flip-screen style reminiscent of the first game, the vertical areas employ smooth scrolling. This is no small feat for the primitive hardware, and neither is the soundtrack, which not only plays continuously over the course of the game, but also shifts tempo contextually depending on how well you’re doing. Pick up some loot? The music becomes more chipper and upbeat for a few bars. Run into an enemy? The theme slows down, resembling a dirge as you’re dragged back to the last checkpoint.

Yes, checkpoint! Pitfall II’s most experimental and forward-thinking aspect by far is its total rejection of the limited lives and game overs that define the overwhelming majority of 20th century action games. Instead, the floors of the Lost Caverns are dotted with red cross insignia and taking a hit from an enemy will cause Harry to flash and float back to the last cross he touched. Even though this doesn’t count as a death in the traditional sense, there is a downside: Your score will rapidly decrease during the entirety of the trip back to the checkpoint. The further away you are from it when you slip up, more points you’ll lose. Since the treasures that Harry can collect for points are finite, this means that even one mistake will prevent you from attaining a perfect score on that playthrough. Still, no amount of missteps will ever end your game prematurely, even if your point total reaches zero. There’s also no time limit to worry about. Players are given total freedom to explore the Caverns for as long as they wish and make as many mistakes as they need to along the way. The scoring system is still present to encourage careful, precise play, but nothing in the game’s design requires it. Tracing the through line of unlimited trial and error gameplay from Pitfall II to something like 2010’s Super Meat Boy is quite fascinating and Crane deserves much credit for his early willingness to embrace design elements that simply wouldn’t work in an arcade environment.

The story of Pitfall II sees globetrotting fortune seeker Pitfall Harry on the hunt for the missing Raj diamond. Harry’s search leads him to a network of underground caverns in Peru, accompanied by his niece Rhonda and cowardly pet mountain lion Quickclaw. Unfortunately, the party soon becomes separated and now Harry needs to rescue his friends while still recovering the diamond. Grabbing as many other treasures as possible along the way can’t hurt, either.

Although it seemed natural to me as a kid, the inclusion of Rhonda and Quickclaw in the game is very unusual. These two weren’t in the original Pitfall. Rather, they were created for the Saturday Supercade cartoon show that aired on CBS Saturday mornings in 1983 and 1984. The show was my absolute favorite at the time and included segments based on many popular games, including Pitfall, Donkey Kong, and Frogger. Since these games all had such bare bones storylines, the writers were forced to invent all sorts of new supporting characters, most of which are long forgotten. Remember Donkey Kong Junior’s teenage greaser sidekick Bones? Probably not. Yet here we have Saturday Supercade characters in an actual game! It’s always surreal to me when material from a spin-off property makes its way back “upstream” to the main product line like this. The Blaster Master novelization from the Worlds of Power series being adopted as canon in the sequel games is another prime example. So weird.

Anyway, in order to win the game, Harry must locate Rhonda, Quickclaw, and the Raj diamond. These can be collected in any order and play will end immediately upon touching the last of the three, leaving the player with a final score of between 10,000 and 199,000 points. In Harry’s way are a host of animal antagonists, including the white scorpions from the first Pitfall, as well as bats, condors, frogs, and electric eels. Harry has no means of attack, so avoidance is key. The scorpions can simply be jumped over. Bats and condors must be carefully dashed under when they’re at the apex of their wave-like flight patterns. Frogs test your climbing skills by hopping back and forth in front of ladders. Finally, the eels must, of course, be swam around. Harry’s ability to swim is novel for the time, but it’s not his only new means of travel. He can also grab onto floating balloons to ascend to higher portions of the caverns (to the tune of Juventino Rosas’ “Sobre las Olas,” no less). If there’s a downside to Harry’s expanded movement options, it would be that the iconic vine swinging mechanic from the first Pitfall is nowhere to be found here. Apart from this and the relatively low number of distinct enemy types, however, the gameplay is superb.

To put it mildly, Pitfall II is a trumph. A game years ahead of its time, it pushed the aging 2600 to its limit and beyond. Some have hailed it as the single greatest release for the system and it’s easily my personal favorite. Most gamers have a story about the first game they found themselves truly immersed in; the title that swept in out of nowhere and blew away all their previous preconceptions about what a game could be. For others, that game may have been a Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy installment. For me, it was Pitfall II with its wide open world that I was free to run, jump, swim, climb, and even fly through for as long as I wanted in search of glittering treasures. It was a true revelation that will forever hold a special place in my heart and was well worth bugging my parents to break out the camera for.

So the next time someone brags to you about their collection of platinum PlayStation trophies, feel free to remind them that all the best achievements are iron-on.

Dungeon Explorer (TurboGrafx-16)

I’m attacking the darkness!

When the TurboGrafx-16 had its North American debut in October of 1989, it made sense for NEC to include at least one fantasy adventure title in the launch lineup. Since the system’s first true “Zelda clone” (Neutopia) wouldn’t see release in Japan until the following month, the honor went to Dungeon Explorer, a slick variation on Atari’s multiplayer arcade classic Gauntlet from developer Atlus. Launching with a game that supports up to five players simultaneously also gave NEC an opportunity to promote their TurboTap accessory. One of the TG-16’s most panned features was its single controller port and the TurboTap added four more, provided you were willing to shell out for it. It was the $20 solution to a wholly self-made problem.

Dungeon Explorer takes place in Oddesia, a medieval kingdom under siege by what the game refers to as aliens. I’m honestly not sure if these monsters are supposed to be actual extraterrestrials or if the whole “aliens” thing is just a translation quirk, but I do know that their leader has the most metal name ever: Natas, King Satan. Hardcore. To stop the aliens, the king dispatches your hero(es) to hunt down the Ora Stone, a off-the-rack magic MacGuffin with the vaguely-defined power to either save or doom the kingdom, depending on which side gets hold of it first. Where’s the Stone? In one of the land’s many monster and trap-filled underground dungeons, of course, so you’d best start exploring!

As you may have surmised, Dungeon Explorer doesn’t devote a lot of time to deep lore and complex characterization. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on simple pick-up-and-play monster blasting. Once each player has selected a character class at the tavern where the game begins (or entered their ten letter password to continue a previous play session), the entrance to the first dungeon is just one screen away. The few NPCs you encounter have little to say and, with no monetary system in place, the town areas are reduced to mere backdrops in the absence of the inns and shops that genre fans are accustomed to.

While the plot, characters, and setting are bland indeed, Atlus’ decision to emphasize action paid off with a total of ten unique playable character classes (eight available from the start and two special ones unlocked through play). Each has their own strengths and weaknesses that are based on the starting distribution of four key stats: Attack (the power of your main shot), Agility (movement speed), Strength (hit points), and Intelligence (magic power). The Elf, for example, is a bit of a glass cannon with his combination of high Agility and low Strength. These abilities aren’t set in stone, either. Every dungeon boss you defeat drops a crystal that will raise your hero’s level and permanently increase one stat of your choice when collected. This enables some interesting strategic decisions over the course of the quest. Do you double down on your chosen hero’s strengths or try to mold him or her into a more well-balanced character by shoring up a weakness? Giving the player total control over character progression in this way was a smart choice, as it allows for multiple playthroughs with the same class to potentially feel quite different.

Beyond the four primary stats, each character class also has two magic spells available, one designated white (defensive) and the other black (offensive). These spells are fueled by single-use potions of the corresponding color that appear at preset spots in the dungeons or as random drops from enemies. This mention of potion-based magic is yet another little detail that will have the Gauntlet fans out there nodding their heads. There are twelve spells in total, meaning that most are usable by more than one class. That said, no one class shares both of its spells with another.

That’s really all you need to know to jump in and start clearing out some dungeons. The rest is pure overhead run-and-gun mayhem. You can fire rapidly in eight directions and you’ll need to, since enemies by the score pour out continuously from destructible “generators” in each area. Fight your way past them all, grab any power-ups you come across, and defeat the dungeon boss to level up. The king or another helpful NPC will then point you in the direction of the next dungeon so you can do it all over again. It’s an appealing formula and it’s very easy to fall into that same “just one more level…” groove that’s funneled so many quarters into Gauntlet cabinets over the years. Adding more players to the mix definitely ups the fun factor, though I ironically find it slightly easier to make progress solo. Players can block one other’s movement and attacks, so unless you and your partners have some rock solid communication and teamwork skills, you may end up unintentionally making your collective job harder.

Things are a tad uneven on the presentation side. The graphics are nothing to write home about and Dungeon Explorer is easily the least visually striking of the TG-16 launch games. This was somewhat unavoidable considering its design. You can’t very well expect huge characters and loads of detail when you need to accommodate up to five players on a single screen. Beyond that, however, there’s a general overreliance on muted earth tones that downplays the console’s vivid famously color palette to no real benefit. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Tsukasa Masuko’s incredible chiptunes. Every song is great, but standouts like Cherry Tower and the title theme manage to be equal parts regal, serene, and downright eerie. This is hands down some of the best non-CD music that would ever grace the system. Fans of Masuko’s work on the Megami Tensei series will not be disappointed.

Although its drab artwork won’t turn any heads and it’s not at all original in terms of its gameplay or storytelling, Dungeon Explorer as a whole is a smartly-designed, compelling fantasy action title. Mowing down wave after wave of baddies while that majestic soundtrack blares never seems to get old and the huge selection of playable heroes combined with the flexible character advancement makes for tremendous replay value. It’s a must-have for TurboGrafx fans and also represents a huge milestone for Atlus in North America, being their first indisputably high quality release here. The company’s earlier Karate Kid and Friday the 13th adaptations for the NES were…less well-received, to say the least. I still question NEC’s decision to go with a lone controller port, but at least they gave TurboTap owners something worth getting excited over with this one.

Hail Natas!