Space Megaforce (Super Nintendo)

Deeds not words.

First, the bad news: Space Megaforce for the Super Nintendo is not an adaptation of the cult classic 1982 action schlockfest Megaforce, in which a bearded Barry Bostwick battles terrorists on his flying motorcycle. You’ll need to hit up the Atari 2600 for that game.

Oof! How can poor Space Megaforce possibly bounce back from that degree of crushing disappointment? How about by being another brilliant shooter by Compile, the legendary studio behind MUSHA, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend? Yeah, that’ll do nicely. Compile made my favorite shooters of all time, including the superb Zanac for NES. I reviewed Zanac last Christmas, so it seems this is becoming another holiday gaming tradition for me; a little present to myself. Fine by me.

Oddly enough, I started the introduction to this review with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then I noticed something strange: Space Megaforce (known as Super Aleste outside North America) was published by none other than Toho, the same monolithic film company that distributed Megaforce to Japanese theaters a decade earlier! Could it be that whoever was in charge of the game’s localization really did mean to reference the infamous box office turkey with this change? That seems insane. Then again, the game we know as Blazing Lazers originally shipped as Gunhed in Japan, a reference to Toho’s wholly unrelated cyberpunk action movie of the same name, so I suppose anything’s possible.

If you have any amount of prior experience with Compile shooters, you’ll know that while each has its distinctive quirks, they all tend to share very similar core design elements. Most prominent among these are notably lengthy vertical scrolling stages, a wide variety of different weapons to choose from, the ability to upgrade each weapon multiple times by collecting glowing “power chips,” and a forgiving damage system where hits from enemies cause your weapon power to degrade before they destroy you outright. Space Megaforce fits squarely into this familiar mold, for better or worse. It most closely resembles the TurboGrafx-16’s Blazing Lazers from three years previous with its surreal backgrounds, jazzy tunes, and selection of armaments that includes the iconic Field Thunder (called simply Laser here). The “special lives” mechanic from Blazing Lazers also makes a comeback, allowing you to shoot certain power-ups until they transform into glowing orbs, then collect those orbs in order to gain the ability to have your ship re-spawn in place one time when you lose a life instead of being sent back to a checkpoint like normal. If you’re already a fan of Blazing Lazers, I’ve told you everything you need to know at this point. This is essentially twelve more levels of that game, so have at it!

Since Space Megaforce technically isn’t an official Blazing Lazers sequel, however, it does have its own story. It centers on a mysterious alien sphere that arrives on earth one day, positions itself over the jungles of South America, and begins etching huge designs into the ground similar to the famous Nazca Lines (again with the ancient aliens motif!) as it siphons energy from its surroundings and rapidly expands. Conventional attacks on the sphere are easily repelled, so it falls on the pilot of the experimental Super Aleste fighter to penetrate the its defenses and save the planet from assimilation. This is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basic setup of an enigmatic alien artifact threatening humanity is actually quite similar to Zanac’s. The Japanese release does include some welcome additional details, though. The pilot of the Super Aleste is given a face and a name, Raz. He’s also accompanied on his mission by a helpful female alien named Thi, who was formerly a prisoner inside the sphere and now wants to help destroy it. Why these two were cut out of the international releases is beyond me. They make a cute couple and lend the game some much-needed personality. This, along with its substantially lower price, makes the Japanese version the one to get in my opinion.

Ultimately, there are two key elements that set Space Megaforce apart from the rest of the Aleste series. The first is the initially overwhelming choice of eight different weapons, each of which has seven possible power levels and at least one alternate firing mode to toggle between. You also have the requisite limited supply of super bombs to bust out in emergencies, of course. Enemies drop a near-constant stream of weapon pickups, so you’re able to swap back and forth among the different options relatively easily. This embarrassment of riches makes for some substantial replay value. Individual stages can be much easier or harder depending not just on the current weapon equipped, but its power level and active firing mode. The amount of freedom the player has to shape the experience as a whole is rare and refreshing for a shooter of this period.

Space Megaforce’s other claim to fame has to be its strangely laid-back feel. For a game about zipping around in a high-tech space jet blowing up swarms of vicious aliens with one of the most varied and impressive arsenals in all of gaming, it sure does have a chill vibe to it. Most levels scroll by at a leisurely pace, the music is downright loungy, and the visuals tend toward the hypnotic with loads of trippy, undulating background effects. The game is also long. A perfect no-death run still clocks in at a full hour, which is a bloody eternity by 16-bit spaceship shooter standards. This has led some to claim that the game is simply too long and too slow for its own good. Playing it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor, 1990’s MUSHA (aka Musha Aleste) for Sega Genesis, I can definitely see where these critics are coming from. Musha’s swift scrolling, relentless speed metal soundtrack, and punchier forty minute runtime all make it the polar opposite of Space Megaforce, at least superficially. For what it’s worth, I never found myself bored playing Space Megaforce. In fact, the first thing I did after I beat it was to play through it again on the hard difficulty setting. Then I went on to finish the Japanese version twice. The gameplay here may not always be hyper-intense, but it’s far from boring. There’s always something to shoot, something to dodge, and something to grab. That I get to do all this while kicking back and rocking a mellow groove is fine by me.

Is Space Megaforce truly the best shooter on the Super Nintendo, as the rampant hype online would have you believe? Maybe. With twelve stages, eight weapons, and five difficulty modes, it’s a remarkably complete package. It also looks and sounds gorgeous and runs flawlessly with no slowdown to speak of, owing to Compile’s famously efficient programming. If we limit the field to its fellow vertical shooters, only Firepower 2000 and Pop’n TwinBee stand out as worthy rivals with their two-player simultaneous play options. Factor in the better horizontal scrollers like R-Type III and U.N. Squadron and the choice becomes a lot less clear-cut. In any case, it’s yet another masterpiece that every fan of the genre should check out. The only thing I can’t recommend is paying the triple-digit prices the American cartridges command when the Japanese version is superior to begin with. Shop smart, boys and girls.

On that note, Merry Christmas to you all! Today caps off another thrilling, educational, and all-around rewarding year of gaming for me. With another 63 titles completed and reviewed, I still feel I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of everything the 8 and 16-bit era has to offer. I’ll see you again in 2019, when I’ll be checking another item off my bucket list with my first foray onto a new hardware platform. Kind of.

Now it’s time to go check under the tree for that flying motorcycle I wrote Santa about. Fingers crossed!

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Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Ninja beats giant purple lobster every time. It’s called science, people.

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about Ninja Gaiden yet. It’s only one of the definitive action-platformers on a system renowned for them and one of my personal favorite games of all time. I did cover its two direct NES sequels last year, but I never played either of them back when they came out. No, this original entry (which just turned thirty years old this past week) is the one I grew up with. I recently played through the entire trilogy over Thanksgiving, so I figured this is as good an opportunity as any to remedy my oversight. What do ninja have to do with Thanksgiving? Nothing, of course. It’s just an odd little tradition I’ve stumbled into to fill the downtime while I’m getting dinner ready. I’ll make up some bread dough, play through a few acts of a Ninja Gaiden game while it rises, pop the dough in the oven and play a few more acts while it bakes, then finish off the last boss as the loaf is cooling on the rack. Beats the hell out of the Macy’s parade, that’s for sure.

Contrary to what one might assume, the Ninja Gaiden series was conceived with an American audience in mind. Word had reached the management at Tecmo that ninja were a massive fad over on our side of the Pacific, thanks to cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and action movies like…well, everything Sho Kosugi ever appeared in. They tasked a pair of internal development teams with creating two distinct games: A beat-’em-up for the arcades and a Castlevania-inspired action-platformer for the NES. Despite having little in common other than a general ninja action theme, both games would bear the title Ninja Ryūkenden (“Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword”). During localization, this moniker was deemed too much of a mouthful for us gaijin and became Ninja Gaiden instead. Supposedly, this new name was chosen just because it sounded cool. It certainly makes no literal sense. “Gaiden” means something along the lines of “side story,” yet the games themselves aren’t actually spun off from any previous work. Hence, there’s no “main story” for them to refer back to.

The titular ninja here is young Ryu Hayabusa, who receives a letter from his father Ken during the game’s opening prologue. In the letter, Ken states that he’s about to fight a duel to the death against an unknown opponent. In the event he should fail to return, he instructs his son to take up the family’s sacred Dragon Sword and travel to America in order to meet with an archaeologist named Walter Smith. Vowing to discover the reason for his father’s demise and avenge it, Ryu sets off for America.

Ninja Gaiden makes a powerful statement right out of the gate with this opening scene. The very first screen of the game, depicting Ken Hayabusa and his unknown assailant squaring off under a full moon, is presented as a cinematic panning shot, complete with flashy parallax scrolling of the ground tiles to sell the illusion of a moving camera. This transitions to a series of quick cuts between close-ups of the masked combatants’ faces and running legs, then finally another long shot as the two ninja leap skyward and clash swords in mid-air. All this visual pizzazz is expertly bolstered by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta’s intense score coupled with some very impactful sound effects. The development team christened the nearly twenty minutes of anime style interludes crammed into Ninja Gaiden “Tecmo Theater,” and the inclusion of such an elaborate extra on a minuscule NES cartridge impresses even today.

Tecmo certainly didn’t invent the so-called cutscene here. Pac-Man had cutscenes and Dragon’s Lair effectively was one. Rather, Ninja Gaiden’s triumph was one of scope and ambition. In an era when many games didn’t include proper openings at all and “Congratulations!” over a black screen was still an acceptable ending, Ninja Gaiden had lavish, dynamic story sequences both before and after every one of its six acts. With new characters being constantly introduced, plot twists aplenty, and tons of dialog, these scenes actually had players setting their controllers down for minutes at a time just to watch the game do its thing. We may take chatty games for granted now and even have cause to rue their excesses on occasion, but the very idea would have seemed absurd before Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Ninja Gaiden released in North America around the same time as the first wave of Japanese console RPGs and none of the latter came close to matching its dramatic flair. The fact that a simple “run to the end of the stage and slash dudes” ninja platformer featured all-around better storytelling than the first Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy installments really demonstrates how far the JRPG genre has come. It’s no wonder Square later hired Ninja Gaiden alum Masato Kato to work on the script for their classic Chrono Trigger.

So how about that platforming? I mentioned above that Ninja Gaiden takes inspiration from Konami’s Castlevania and a quick glance at the screen layout makes this very apparent. The status display along the top that holds the health bars for Ryu and the stage boss, the current score, and other key information is a carbon copy of the one from Castlevania. Also directly lifted from that game are the countless torches, candles, and other floating targets in each stage that Ryu can attack to reveal ammunition, health refills, and power-ups. Some of the special weapons Ryu obtains in this manner bear a strong resemblance to ones from Castlevania, such as the two varieties of shuriken with properties similar to the dagger and boomerang cross. Despite all this, Ninja Gaiden is never really dismissed as a Castlevania clone the same way titles like 8 Eyes and Master of Darkness are. Why is this? In a word: Speed. Castlevania’s Simon Belmont was defined by his deliberate, almost plodding stride and weighty jump physics. By contrast, tapping left or right in Ninja Gaiden will take Ryu Hayabusa from a standstill to a headlong sprint in an instant and his Dragon Sword is lightning fast. He can also jump much higher and farther than Simon and he isn’t limited to realistic fixed arcs when doing so. He is a ninja, after all.

Furthermore, Ninja Gaiden’s designers tailored the opposition so as to make Ryu’s blinding speed not just a useful tool, but a necessary one. Almost every standard enemy in the game can be obliterated by a single well-timed Dragon Sword slash. The catch is that each foe so destroyed will re-spawn immediately and endlessly if Ryu should backtrack or even pause to catch his breath. If you’re not rushing ahead and making constant headway in a given stage, chances are that you’re getting swarmed and overwhelmed instead. Ninja Gaiden lights a fire under its players’ asses and essentially forces them to tackle it like speed runners. That it pulled this off years before speed running proper was a recognized practice is well worth noting.

Ryu’s zippy moveset and the game’s fundamental intolerance for any degree of player hesitation are what lend Ninja Gaiden its characteristic intensity. On the downside, they also cement its reputation as one of the more difficult NES games. The notion that it’s almost always better to just keep moving rather than take a moment to slow down and think things through every now and again feels counter-intuitive and intimidating at first. Now, I’m not about to tell you that this game isn’t challenging. I’ll simply add that some reckless abandon and a “fake it till you make it” attitude can make the learning process a good deal less stressful. You have unlimited continues to work with, so there’s no need to sweat the small stuff.

As much as there is to love here, the game is not without its rough patches. Foremost among them for me are the boss encounters. The bosses of the first five acts have very simple patterns and generally pose little threat. They’re especially underwhelming in light of how fast-paced and thrilling the stages leading up to them are. Though the gauntlet of three bosses that caps off the final act represents a step in the right direction, it’s also a prime example of too little, too late.

Ryu’s signature wall clinging ability is also at its least refined in this first installment. While he can grab onto any wall, he can only move up and down once he’s attached if the wall in question features a ladder. There is a workaround for this that involves holding the directional pad diagonally up and away from a wall, jumping off it, and then immediately pressing back toward the same wall again in order to inch your way up it in fits and starts. It’s awkward, to say the least. Thankfully, future games would allow Ryu to climb around freely on any type of wall.

Finally, I can’t leave out the infamous “act six bug.” If you lose a life when fighting any of the three final bosses, the game ships you back to stage 6-1 at the very start of the act instead of 6-3 like normal. While unintentional, this does make practicing the game’s final battles much more of a hassle than it should be.

Blemishes aside, there’s still no other game that plays quite like this one. Even its immediate sequels dialed the breakneck pace and relentless enemy onslaught down a few notches. Ninja Gaiden II introduced stage hazards that served to slow Ryu’s advance and Ninja Gaiden III made it so that defeated enemies don’t re-spawn at all. They’re both still great experiences on their own terms, but this debut entry remains my favorite for its unparalleled sense of flow. The adrenaline rush of flying through a stage exploding hostile eagles with your sword in mid-leap like the true ninja master you are is intoxicating and what keeps Ninja Gaiden a perennial top ten NES side-scroller alongside Castlevania III, Contra, and whatever your personal favorite Mega Man happens to be.

Just don’t get caught pronouncing it “Ninja Gay-den” or you forfeit all those baddass points on the spot. Them’s the ninja rules.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful that didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now that I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), an adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since then, I’ve known that I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early ’80s computing and bring it to Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor that was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine that Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the reader in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past.

This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations that implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice that it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established that Portopia is a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill that goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is that I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say that the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game that involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say that the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd that one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible in 2018. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.

Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice, thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-’80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet, but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place of honor in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but, it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight, but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of Peru’s Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught, but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it, but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16)

Bang your head!

By the tail end of the ’80s, console gaming was all about the mascots. Super Mario games were the single richest goldmine the industry had stumbled on to date, with three of the top five best-selling games of the decade being Mario titles. Hell, if you remove Duck Hunt from consideration on the basis that it owes the majority of its popularity to having been bundled with the first Super Mario Bros., fully 80% of that top five list is taken up by Nintendo’s mustachioed Mickey Mouse of gaming. Hudson Soft and NEC, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the Japanese market, wanted in. Their search for a profitably appealing face for their PC Engine system eventually led to them partnering with developers Red Company and Atlus to release the first PC Genjin game in 1989.

The name they picked for their new big-headed caveman character was actually quite clever. “Genjin” means something along the lines of “primitive man” and the “PC” supposedly stood for his fictitious species name: “Pithecanthropus Computerus.” It’s mostly meant to serve as a not-so-subtle plug for the console itself, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Here in North America, where the PC Engine is called the TurboGrafx-16, all this wordplay would have been lost in translation, so we instead know the character as Bonk and his debut outing as Bonk’s Adventure.

Why a caveman? Beats me, but while it may seem like a strange choice in isolation, the gaming scene was actually teeming with troglodytes around this time. In addition to the many licensed Flintstones games, we had Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, Big Nose the Caveman, Congo’s Caper, Caveman Games, Prehistorik, Adventures of Dino Riki, Toki, and more. Next time you think of a stereotypical old school video game hero, remember that club-swinging dudes draped in animal skins were almost as common as ninja and Rambo clones. It was just one of those things.

As expected, Bonk’s Adventure is a side-view platformer in the Mario mold. They’re not subtle about it, either: Bonk is out to rescue a princess named Za from the hulking reptilian monarch, King Drool. At least the princess here is some kind of plesiosaur-like dragon creature and not a buxom blond lady. I guess I can award partial credit for that. The game consists of five rounds and each round is further sub-divided into anywhere between one and seven distinct levels, making for a grand total of 22 stages. While the majority of these only require Bonk to survive a gauntlet of enemies and environmental hazards in order to reach the exit, each full round concludes with a memorable battle against a large boss character.

Fittingly, Bonk’s major contribution to the platforming genre is the way he uses his oversized Charlie Brown noggin to smash through every obstacle in his path. Simply jumping onto enemies like Mario or Sonic do will only result in Bonk himself taking damage. The preferred method is to either jump up into foes from below, nail them with a standing head butt when grounded, or press the attack button in mid-air to perform a headlong diving attack. The dive attack is my favorite of the three because each successful hit will automatically propel Bonk back up into the air, allowing accurate players to chain together a series of consecutive strikes without needing to touch ground in-between. It’s very satisfying and makes many of the boss encounters much easier. Beyond just bashing hostile critters, Bonk can also use his freak dome to aid in stage traversal. He scales walls by using his huge teeth of all things, which makes mine hurt just thinking about it. Additionally, tapping the attack button repeatedly while airborne will make Bonk spin, slowing his descent and effectively allowing him to glide right over long stretches of hostile territory. This last ability is just as useful as it sounds, possibly too much so. The option to skip huge sections of many levels in this way can really hobble the game’s challenge if you let it, similar to the cape power-up from Super Mario World.

Speaking of power-ups, the offerings here are pretty slim, which is one of the game’s few significant missteps. Bonk can find fruit and hearts to restore lost health, but meat is the only item that really changes up the gameplay. Chowing down on a hunk of tasty meat will boost the power of Bonk’s dive attack, allowing it to stun any nearby enemies when his head impacts the ground. Eating a second piece (or a single giant piece) will render Bonk invincible and able to charge straight through the opposition. The bad news here is that all abilities derived from meat consumption are temporary. There are no persistent power-ups present in the game other than the occasional health bar extension. This feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gaining new abilities in a game like this feels rewarding and the player’s innate desire to hold onto them for as long as possible encourages skillful play in a very elegant, natural way.

My final gripe with Bonk’s Adventure involves the lack of a run feature. With the way efficient movement in so many post-Super Mario platformers is predicated on managing your character’s momentum from moment to moment, this is the sort of thing that you don’t really appreciate until it’s gone. Here, the fact that Bonk is limited to a leisurely walk when traveling along the ground only serves as more incentive to abuse the glide ability in hopes of reaching the level exit just a little more quickly. I eventually got used to the fact that I couldn’t run, but it never stopped feeling like I should be able to.

Although its sequels would provide much in the way of expansion and fine-tuning, Bonk’s Adventure is still an excellent platformer in its own right. The action is as fun as it is unique and the TG-16’s famously colorful graphics allowed the artists to bring their hyperactive cartoon take on prehistory to life in grand style. The level design both rewards player curiosity with its abundance of hidden bonus rooms and makes use of some truly unique settings and scenarios. Midway through the first round, for example, Bonk gets swallowed by a humongous dinosaur and has to navigate its innards by swimming through the beast’s stomach bile and avoiding its surly (but oddly cute) intestinal parasites. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. At the same time, the game is also a case study in how to handle a mascot launch right. Bonk himself is as likable as his creators were banking on. It should come as no surprise that he would go on to star in multiple direct Bonk’s Adventure follow-ups and a shooter spin-off series (Air Zonk) on the TurboGrafx as well as cross over to the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Amiga.

Unfortunately, Hudson Soft is no more and NEC has long since exited the gaming sphere. This leaves Bonk in limbo. He hasn’t starred in a new game since 1995, unless you count the horrid looking 2006 mobile phone release Bonk’s Return, which, frankly, you shouldn’t. It remains to be seen if Konami (who owns the rights to the Hudson back catalog at the time of this writing) will ever see fit to resurrect everyone’s favorite headbanging hominid hero.

Here’s hoping you really can’t keep a good (cave)man down.