Magical Chase (TurboGrafx-16)

Let’s talk expensive games video games.

Not the classic titles you know and love. No, I mean really expensive games. Beyond the everyday gripes about those bloodsucking resellers with their $30 Contras and $200 Earthbounds, there lies another world entirely. I’m referring to the realm of the ultra-rarities, a bewildering alien landscape where single cartridges are priced like cars, minus the helpful financing options. For the majority of (relatively) level-headed, responsible enthusiasts, this is just a gaudy sideshow. For a select few, though, chasing these “holy grails” becomes an obsession.

Most true big ticket games never saw a conventional retail release. Rather, they’re unreleased prototypes, low production arcade boards, “competition cartridges” created for specific gaming events, and the like. The most famous is undoubtedly the 1990 Nintendo World Championships NES cartridge. Only 116 were ever produced and you can expect to pay between $15,000 and $19,000 to own one, depending on whether you opt for the grey or gold plastic shell variant. Yikes.

This got me thinking: What’s the most expensive game to have actually been given a proper release? No last-minute cancellations, abrupt product recalls, or anything like that. Just a regular old mass-produced game cartridge that you or I could have picked up for $50 back in the day if we’d had either amazing luck or the gift of foresight on our side. As of right now, a good candidate would be Quest’s 1991 PC Engine shooter Magical Chase. More specifically, the version of it released in North America in 1993 for the ailing TurboGrafx-16. Hard figures relating to the production and sale of older games are elusive as a rule, but all sources seem to agree that the TG-16 Magical Chase was released very late in the troubled console’s run and sold very poorly indeed. Authentic copies commonly fetch between $3000 and $5000 at auction today. Fortunately for me, you’re only required to shell out that kind of money to actually own Magical Chase. Playing it is another story.

As a side-scrolling shooter starring an adorable cartoon witch girl on a flying broomstick, Magical Chase is often compared to another 1991 release, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams by developer Success. Whether this is an example of convergent evolution or if Quest deliberately set out to copy Success’, well, success, I’m not rightly sure. The apprentice witch you control here is named Ripple and she’s managed to land herself in quite a bind by meddling with one of her master’s forbidden books and accidentally freeing the six fearsome demons imprisoned inside. If she can’t recapture them all in short order, she’ll surely be turned into a frog as punishment.

Thankfully, Ripple isn’t alone on her mission. Her two Elf-Star friends, Topsy and Turvy, are always by her side to contribute some extra firepower and protection from enemy attacks in classic Gradius option pod style. Each of the game’s six stages also includes at least one opportunity to visit a shop manned by the pumpkin-headed merchant Jack. Here, Ripple can use the shiny gems dropped by defeated foes as currency to purchase healing items and power-ups.

At first blush, Magical Chase delivers exactly what you’d expect from a “cute ’em up” on the system: Bright, colorful art, whimsical character designs, and a peppy soundtrack. Its primary gameplay hook is the Elf-Star satellites mentioned above, over which you’re given a remarkable degree of control. By default, they rotate freely around Ripple, moving and firing in the opposite of whichever direction she happens to be flying. You can lock them in place to serve as fixed shields by tapping the I button anytime Ripple isn’t shooting. Hitting I while Ripple is shooting will lock in the direction of the Elf-Stars’ fire instead. For example, you could fix the Elf-Stars into position in front of Ripple to block oncoming fire while simultaneously directing their shots backward to take out enemies sneaking up from behind.

It sounds extremely useful and it is. Eventually. There’s a surprisingly steep learning curve to it all, stemming from the fact that all the Elf-Stars’ many possible configurations are all achieved via a single button, the exact function of which is contextually dependent on the current status of another button. It’s not so bad when the screen around Ripple is relatively clear and you can take a second to think the necessary inputs through, but adjusting the Elf-Stars precisely in the midst of a heated battle can get dicey. Tricky as it is, I can appreciate that this was probably the best possible solution with only two main action buttons to work with.

On the plus side, a bit of fumbling around with the controls isn’t nearly as disastrous here as it would be in most other shooters. The usual one-hit deaths are out and Ripple starts the game with a sizable health bar made up of Zelda-esque hearts. Her heart count can be permanently boosted in the shops and lost health can be replenished in numerous ways, both during and between each of the stages. The game is uncommonly forgiving in other ways, too, as continues are unlimited and Ripple’s stock of power-ups and money remains intact even after death. Consequently, experienced shooter fans will make rapid progress with this one. I was able to finish the game without dying on the hard difficulty setting after just a couple hours of practice. This isn’t necessary a bad thing. Quite the opposite. If old school scrolling shooters as a whole had one overarching flaw, it was that there never seemed to be enough releases specifically tailored to draw inexperienced players into the fold. Magical Chase feels like a game designed from the ground up to fill that very role.

Does it do its job flawlessly? Absolutely not. I found the majority of the level design in Magical Chase to be lackluster at best and lazy at worst. Traditionally, horizontally scrolling shooters like this one feature more in the way of complex terrain features to negotiate and environmental hazards to avoid than their vertically scrolling counterparts. Magical Chase only really attempts this on two of its six stages, with the remainder being simple straight shots to the end boss with only the enemy patterns themselves to worry about along the way. The two levels that do seem to have had a decent amount of effort put into them are the most enjoyable of the lot by far. I particularly enjoyed the huge wooden airships that do their best to crush Ripple between their hulls in stage three. Fun as they are, these exceptions still can’t carry the whole game on their own.

The magic system was another sore spot for me. Ripple can buy single-use spells in Jack’s shop that do useful thinks like heal damage or clear the screen of enemy shots. She can carry up to six of these at once. What she can’t do is cycle through them as needed. Instead, spells must be used in the same order they’re purchased. This means that if, for example, you find yourself in urgent need of health and a healing spell isn’t the next one in Ripple’s lineup, you’ll need to burn through and waste any other spells occupying the slots in-between if you want to reach and activate the one you actually need. It’s a design choice as baffling as it is frustrating. Merely allowing the controller’s otherwise unused Select button to highlight the next spell to be activated would have rendered it a non-issue.

I did have fun with Magical Chase and don’t regret any of the time I spent soaring through Ripple’s lush, surreal world. As thoroughly charming as it all looks and sounds, however, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the gameplay. The Elf-Stars are a neat idea and allow for a lot of combat flexibility, but the level design is all but absent for much of the journey and the control quirks are persistently irksome. While it does warrant a special recommendation to genre newcomers, it’s ultimately a pretty average little adventure in the wider context of the console’s legendary shooter library. Admittedly, I may have been expecting more simply because I’ve come across so many glowing reviews of it elsewhere. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the very act of spending thousands of dollars on a single game might foster some degree of positive bias. In any case, it’s a pity that Magical Chase would never benefit from any further refinement by way of sequels and that its plucky protagonist, true to her name, amounted to little more than the briefest of ripples over the surface of gaming culture.

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Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Enough screwing around: It’s time to review the single greatest game of the entire twentieth century!

According to readers of Famitsu magazine, that is. In August of 2017, Japan’s most revered video gaming publication celebrated its 1500th issue by polling its readership to determine the 100 best games of all time. The number one slot went to 2016’s Persona 5. Number two was Dragon Quest III.

Surprised? I was, too. The game’s North American release, under the alternate title Dragon Warrior III, is remembered as a modest cult classic at best. Of course, it’s common knowledge that the RPG genre enjoys massively popularity in Japan and has ever since the very first Dragon Quest dropped in 1986. The remainder of Famitsu’s list is overwhelmingly stacked with Japanese-made console RPGs in the Dragon Quest mold, often called “JRPGs” by outsiders. In contrast, only a small handful of JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII and the main series Pokemon games have managed to attain comparable mainstream success in West over the years. But why is this specific entry in the long-running series held in such high regard? What does its country of origin see in it that the rest of us, for the most part, don’t?

One major factor is timing. There was a staggering four year delay between Dragon Quest III’s 1988 Famicom debut and Dragon Warrior III’s 1992 arrival on the NES. To put that into perspective, North American Super Nintendo owners had been gawking at Square’s flashy 16-bit epic Final Fantasy IV (under its misleading Final Fantasy II moniker) for three months at that point. That Enix bothered releasing Dragon Warrior III at all under these conditions is surprising. Most of its major innovations (a robust character class system, large world to explore, and dynamic day/night cycle) were either well established by 1992 or simply didn’t blow minds the same way 256-color graphics or faux orchestral soundtracks did. Dragon Warrior III’s party of silent protagonists undertaking routine fetch quests to slowly save the world from a motiveless evil overlord also came off downright quaint next to Final Fantasy IV’s flamboyant anime style melodrama.

On the other hand, as a 1988 release for the Famicom, Dragon Quest III was a massive leap forward for the series and for JRPGs as a whole. There was a greater increase in overall gameplay depth here than in any other single Dragon Quest sequel before or since. The original saw the player controlling a single, non-customizable hero. The second game upped the party size to three, with each character’s abilities still remaining fixed. Dragon Quest III expanded the maximum party size again to the now standard four and introduced custom character creation to the mix. While you’re still required to have the game’s main hero in your party at all times, the other three slots can be filled with any combination of male or female members of seven distinct character classes: Soldier, Fighter, Pilgrim, Wizard, Merchant, Goof-Off, and Sage.

The first Final Fantasy, released around the same time, also let you choose your party composition in this way, but DQIII did it one better by permitting characters to change their classes any time after reaching the 20th experience level. You could create a physically feeble Wizard, level him up to learn a variety of useful attack spells, and then change him into a heavily armed and armored Soldier without losing access to any of the magic he’d previously mastered. One class, the almighty Sage, isn’t even available at the start and can only be transitioned to later by meeting certain esoteric requirements.

Cultural context is another angle to consider. Veterans of old school Western RPGs are likely scratching their heads right now and asking, “What’s so amazing about getting to choose classes for your party members?” Absolutely nothing, if you cut your teeth on Wizardry, Ultima, and other Dungeons & Dragons-inspired computer games of the period. Bear in mind, however, that the JRPG sub-genre left most of that mechanical complexity behind at its inception in the interest of appealing to a mass audience of Famicom owners accustomed to the likes of Super Mario Bros. In this gaming milieu, the degree of unbridled freedom DQIII’s character creation system represented was nothing less than spellbinding. It sold over a million copies in Japan on release day alone. In an era before pre-orders and online shopping, that meant more than one million people flooding retail stores on the same day with cash in hand. This planted the seed of the long-standing myth that the Japanese government passed a law forbidding Enix from launching future Dragon Quest games on weekdays due to concerns over widespread truancy and lost productivity.

And…I’ve done it again. I’ve spent more time talking about the history of a Dragon Quest game than about the game itself. Like I said last year in my review of the first game, these early entries in the series play such a central role in defining what a JRPG is that they tend to come across as hopelessly generic when you actually start breaking down their stories and gameplay in detail. It’s a bit like trying to describe the flavor of unseasoned rice cakes.

Dragon Warrior III opens with the main hero waking up on his or her sixteenth birthday and being instructed to speak to the local king. The king explains that the young hero is the son of the legendary adventurer Ortega and consequently the only one who can save the world from an “archfiend” named Baramos. Strangely, even though you’re given the option of making the hero male or female, both versions of the character are represented by the same sprite and all of the dialogue refers to you as Ortega’s son in any case. Is it an oversight? Is the girl hero supposed to be just that butch? Beats me. After this little info dump, the king forks over a ridiculously small sum of money and waves you off to the local inn to create the rest of your party.

Once you’ve gathered your companions, it’s time to venture out into the field and settle into the usual series routine: Finding the next town, figuring out what the problem there is, sorting it out at the local dungeon, and being rewarded with whatever key or other item you need to access the next chunk of the map. All the while, you’ll be chugging through the constant stream of random turn-based monster battles needed to raise your characters’ experience levels and gain the cash necessary to upgrade their gear at the shops.

Depending on your temperament, this core gameplay loop is either hypnotically soothing or a mind-numbing living death. In any case, I found that this installment at least does a much better job than the original Dragon Warrior of giving the player new goals to pursue on a fairly regular basis. You’ll still have to deal with just as many repetitive random encounters as before, but a larger game world and more quest objects to fetch means that you’re rarely ever forced to stop exploring completely just to grind experience or gold. This one improvement single-handedly negates my biggest criticism of the first game.

On the subject of improvements, and despite all the wisecracks I made above about its generic story, Dragon Warrior III does feature one major plot twist at around the the 3/4 mark that’s quite clever and well-presented for the time. Credit where it’s due, this really would have been quite the jaw-dropper for fans circa 1988 and likely constitutes another major reason the game is so fondly remembered in Japan.

Between the added flexibility of the class system, the more fleshed-out quest, and that nifty plot twist, Dragon Warrior III represents a massive upgrade from its predecessors and is my pick for the first truly great entry in the series. Is it game of the century material, though? Hardly. I wouldn’t even rank it among my top three Dragon Quest games. For all the refinement it brought to the nascent JRPG formula, it still suffers from some woefully aimless and anemic storytelling. Your party of heroes are mute ciphers from start to finish. Only one is given the slightest semblance of a backstory or motivation (being the son of the great Ortega) and this still manages to amount to a whole lot of nothing in the end. The villains seem content to exist entirely off-screen until you eventually stroll right into their throne rooms, whereupon they recite a couple short sentences about how very evil they are before getting themselves killed. If the stars of the piece are this dull, you just know the regular NPCs you interact with in town don’t stand a chance.

Beginning with Dragon Warrior IV, the series’ creators would endeavor to include much more in the way of characterization. Every party member in that game came complete with a compelling reason why they chose to spend their days wandering the world beating up on assorted goofy Akira Toriyama monsters, be it duty, revenge, youthful rebellion, or just wanting to get rich quick. The main antagonist also had a tragic past and a coherent motive underpinning his genocidal ambitions. For me, this previously lacking human element was the final ingredient needed to make later installments like V and VIII some of my most treasured gaming experiences. With all due respect to Famitsu and an entire generation of nostalgic Japanese gamers, I find Dragon Warrior III to be, at the utmost, the greatest JRPG of 1988.

On the plus side, this does mean that I can keep on reviewing games, confident that it’s not all downhill from here. I was worried there for a second.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Shocking confession time: I’m a lifelong video gamer that’s never played a Sonic the Hedgehog title.

Well, that’s not technically true. I obviously played through this debut entry just recently, as I’m reviewing it right now. I can also very clearly remembering trying it out at department store demo kiosks back around the time of its release in 1991. It’s really more accurate to say that my experience with the Sonic games before present was limited to the very first area (Green Hill Zone) of the very first game. For all intents and purposes, Sega’s Blue Blur passed me by.

My ignorance stems from a combination of past circumstance and personal prejudice. Owning multiple current generation game consoles and a steady supply of games for them was considered quite the extravagance for a kid in the early ’90s. Most of us were forced to pick a side in the 16-bit wars and stick with it through thick and thin. I chose the Super Nintendo over the Genesis, as did most of my friends at the time. Familiarity with the NES had a lot to do with my decision. The other major factor was, believe it or not, the abrasive tone Sega adopted in most of its Genesis marketing material. Even when I was in middle school, all that in-your-face ’90s ‘tude and “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” rhetoric seemed so desperate and insecure to me. A real winner doesn’t need to talk trash, right? I never would own a Sega console and it wasn’t until 2017 that I would begin my long-overdue reassessment of the Genesis library in earnest and discover that I’d been missing out on a treasure trove of fantastic software. Much better late than never!

But where to even begin with a game this high profile? The development of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most storied of all time and if you told me an entire book had been written on the subject, I’d be inclined to believe you. Most of my audience has certainly already played it themselves and formed their own opinions. This isn’t some deep cut or one-off experiment, it’s a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. I might as well review pizza or sex while I’m at it. All I can really do is keep things simple and relate my own personal experience as one man very late to a very crowded party.

In terms of backstory, Sonic came about precisely the way you’d expect him to. Sega wanted to increase their share of the console market and the most obvious way to do that was to create a mascot character to rival their competitor Nintendo’s star system seller, Mario. Sega’s reigning mascot since the Master System days was a Monchhichi-looking jug-eared creeper named Alex Kidd that had proven himself incapable of moving ice cream in the Sahara, so they literally went back to the drawing board with a company-wide art contest. Naoto Ohshima was the winner with his contribution: An anthropomorphic hedgehog that drew inspiration from Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and Michael Jackson. Initially dubbed Mr. Needlemouse (yes, really), he was eventually rechristened Sonic based on the game design team’s expressed desire for an extremely speedy hero that would set their work apart from the Mario titles. Another of Ohshima’s submissions, a rotund human character based on Teddy Roosevelt, was adapted into the hedgehog’s arch-enemy, the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman). All that was left were a few last minute design tweaks at the insistence of Sega’s American branch that cost Sonic his prominent fangs and rather disturbing scantily-clad human girlfriend and voilà: A superstar was born!

All Sonic needed now was an actual game to headline. The project was entrusted to the newly-minted Sonic Team, made up of seasoned developers with prior experience on Sega classics like Altered Beast and Phantasy Star. It would be a platformer, of course, and focus on the conflict with the evil Dr. Robotnik, who’s been rounding up Sonic’s animal buddies and transforming them into robot minions to expand his twisted machine empire. This sort of saccharine “save the nature” setup may seem trite today, but it still felt fresher than yet another princess and was very in keeping with the environmentalist themes in contemporary children’s entertainment, as exemplified by Captain Planet, FernGully, and the like.

The game features a total of eighteen stages divided up evenly into six differently-themed Zones. Right from the start of the first Zone, the unique approach to level design that defines the classic Sonic series is apparent. The landscape is packed with ramps, loops, and spring-loaded bumpers that Sonic can use to build up speed. Picking up and maintaining speed obviously helps him reach the end of the stage quicker. It’s also useful for accessing higher portions of the map, as the playfields in Sonic games tend to feature a lot of verticality, with high, low, and sometimes middle routes to them. Higher paths require more momentum and skill to reach and stay on, but reward the player with more bonus items and fewer obstacles on the way to the goal. Every Zone culminates in a fight against Robotnik, piloting one of his attack machines. While none of these battles are very involved or challenging, they are all at least completely unique, which is more than I can say for the Koopa Kid encounters in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, for example.

The interesting (and divisive) thing about the Zones in this first game is that only the odd-numbered ones (Green Hill, Spring Yard, and Star Light) follow this iconic template. The even-numbered Zones (Marble, Labyrinth, and Scrap Brain) are all laid-out in a much more linear fashion with few branching paths or opportunities to build up speed. Labyrinth Zone in particular is infamous for actively bogging Sonic down by setting most of the action underwater. Many fans consider these slower-paces Zones to be Sonic 1’s Achilles’ heel, as they don’t play to Sonic’s strengths as a character and feel like they could have been lifted from another, more traditional platforming game entirely. I won’t dispute this, but I will add that they’re still some pretty fine levels by genre standards. I even enjoyed the much-maligned breath holding mechanics the underwater sections, which force Sonic to negotiate corridors filled with traps and enemies to reach air bubbles before he suffocates. What can I say? I’m weird.

Controlling Sonic himself is deceptively easy. By that, I mean that although the game only uses the directional pad and a single button for jumping, it has a physics engine of sorts that makes knowing exactly what will happen when Sonic jumps off a curved surface at particular angle with a specific amount of momentum behind him something that only comes with time and much practice. The level design is great about placing tantalizing shortcuts and helpful items seemingly just out of reach in order to encourage players to think outside the box and continually experiment with new ways of navigating the same terrain. These prizes are all attainable with enough inventiveness and persistence. The end result of all this is a platformer that, while outwardly downright simplistic when compared to most of its contemporaries, is actually so far advanced over the majority of them that it isn’t funny. It’s honestly brilliant.

These movement physics are so robust that you probably won’t mind that you don’t get much in the way of power-ups. There’s temporary invincibility, an energy shield that grants Sonic an extra hit, and “speed shoes” that make the already zippy hedgehog haul even more ass. That’s it. These are all useful for the obvious reasons, but they’re a far cry from the radical transformations that Mario was pulling off left and right. What you’ll be picking up more of than anything else are the gold rings littering every stage. Collecting 100 of them will result in the expected extra life, but their more immediate purpose is safeguarding Sonic from death. As long as Sonic is carrying at least one, contact with an enemy or stage hazard will cause him to drop all the rings he’s carrying instead of dying on the spot. At that point, he’ll have a brief window of invincibility during which he can try to re-collect as many dropped rings as possibility before they bounce off the screen and vanish. If this sounds overly forgiving, keep in mind that the designers want you to feel confident pushing your luck and experimenting with the lead character’s speed

Which brings me to what surprised me most about the game: You’re never really required to go fast. Contrary to every stereotype and bit of marketing hype, it’s not only possible to play a slow, methodical game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s advisable for newcomers unfamiliar with where each Zone’s hazards are placed. Going fast isn’t the object of the game as much as it’s an added reward for long-term mastery. The levels themselves impose no time limits. There is still a timer, but it’s an ascending one with no purpose other than log how long it takes you to finish a given level and subtly encourage you to strive for ever lower personal bests. There’s no tangible reward for fast clear times, either, only the thrill and satisfaction of performing well. This approach makes Sonic, along with Doom a couple years later, one of the earliest popular precursors to modern online speedrunning culture.

The graphics and sound here are delightful. The cartoony art style plays well with the system’s strict color limitations while the large sprites and smooth animations are packed with detail and personality. Sonic reacts to events in the game, whether he’s expressing boredom through his finger-wagging idle pose, balancing himself precariously on the very edge of a platform, or flailing his limbs in alarm as he zooms down a water slide. These may seem like small details, yet they were much more than we were used to from our stoic pre-Sonic platforming heroes and made a sassy, too-cool-for-school demeanor the new norm for years to come, for better or worse. And by worse, I mean Bubsy.

Masato Nakamura’s score is proof positive that the poor Genesis catches way too much flak for sounding like broken-down robot farts. This is some of the smoothest, grooviest, most instantly lovable 16-bit music ever made. The theme from Green Hill Zone somehow manages to flood me with nostalgia despite the fact that I’ve barely touched the game before. That’s what I call inspired.

If I had to name something about Sonic the Hedgehog that left me completely cold, it’d be the bonus stages. Finishing a level with more than fifty rings in your inventory plunges Sonic into…I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be. Some kind of alternate hell dimension filled with giant fish and birds where he’s bounced around like a ball bearing inside a spinning candy-colored pachinko machine? The point of this madness is to last long enough to obtain one of the six Chaos Emeralds floating at the center of the stage without touching an exit tile and ending the bonus round prematurely. What do these Chaos Emerald do? What’s your incentive to repeat this process six times in a single playthrough? Just a slightly modified ending scene. Yeah, I’m good, thanks. At least the bonus areas serve one other, genuinely useful purpose, however: Picking up fifty rings inside one will earn you a continue. By default, the game ends for good when you run out of lives, so you’d be advised to at least try racking up one or two continues even if you don’t care about the Emeralds. I just wish these sections could have even half as been as fun to play as they are trippy looking.

After nearly 28 long years, I can finally state with confidence that I was wrong to dismiss this series just because of some tacky commercials and my own unquestioned biases. Though a little rough around the edges, Sonic 1 is a remarkable achievement for its time, mechanically and aesthetically. It remains its ability to charm and captivate to this day and deserves every bit of its overwhelming success. Future installments would iron out the level design kinks, introduce new fan favorite characters, and implement a Spin Dash maneuver to allow for even speedier movement, among other improvements, but if someone tries to tell you that Sonic’s first outing is overrated or doesn’t hold up, that’s no good!

Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Nazo no Murasame Jō (Famicom)

It’s a new year! What better time than now to start exploring the Famicom Disk System?

Nintendo introduced the FDS add-on to Japanese gamers in 1986, billing it as the future of the then three year-old console. True to the name, Disk System games came on bright yellow proprietary floppy disks. The 112 KB storage capacity of these was a major step up from the ROM chips included in most cartridge games of the time. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, had to be crammed into a measly 40 KB. FDS disks were also considerably less expensive than cartridges and their rewritable nature gave players an easy way save their gameplay data. Nintendo even operated special store kiosks where used FDS disks could be overwritten with entirely different games for a fraction of the cost of a full retail release. Oh, and the disk drive itself also added some additional sound hardware. Can’t forget about that.

With all these cutting edge features, the Disk System was initially a significant success. Over four million units were sold and it would serve as the birthplace of some of the industry’s longest-running franchises, including Metroid and Castlevania. All good things must come to an end, however, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world never saw an NES disk unit. It became clear to Nintendo early on that the very same lower costs and rewritability that made floppy disks so appealing to consumers also made them downright irresistible to software pirates and bootleggers. Worse still, evolving ROM chip technology quickly turned the FDS disk’s much-vaunted 112 KB storage capacity into a liability. Consider a popular late period game like 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which would have required no fewer than seven disks to hold all 768 KB of its data. Major developers were soon eager to move their important projects back to cartridge and the FDS’s library after 1988 is predominantly low-effort shovelware and unlicensed softcore porn games.

Enough about the Disk System’s drawn-out demise, though. Let’s concentrate on the good times with a title from its heyday of 1986. It would make the most sense for me to start out with the first original title developed for the disk format, but it turns out that game happens to be some little-known oddity called The Legend of Zelda. Who wants to hear about a forgotten turd like that when I could be focusing on the FDS’s second original release, Nazo no Murasame Jō (“The Mysterious Murasame Castle”)? I’ll be playing it on an EverDrive N8 flash cartridge, which has the ability to boot up FDS games (loading screens and all) on a standard console with no need for the actual peripheral.

Nazo no Murasame Jō is an overhead view action game set in Edo period Japan and starring a young apprentice samurai named Takamaru, who’s been dispatched by the shogun to investigate reports of disturbing goings on in the region surrounding the eponymous castle. The trouble all stems from a malevolent alien creature that fell from the sky in the vicinity of Murasame Castle and has been gradually extending its influence over the neighboring lands, bringing the lords of four other nearby castles (Aosame, Akasame, Ryokusame, and Momosame) under its corrupting power in the process. Armed only with his sword and throwing knives, Takamaru must storm each of the five castles in turn before he can finally challenge the alien invader itself to a duel to the death in the heart of Murasame.

Kidding aside, the game that Nazo no Murasame Jō will remind most players of is indeed the first Legend of Zelda. The combination of the non-scrolling overhead perspective with Takamaru’s distinctly Link-ish movement and sword combat makes it quite obvious that Nintendo developed the two games concurrently. Whereas Zelda was an exploration-based adventure game with action elements, however, Nazo no Murasame Jō serves up a much more traditional pure action experience. There’s no open overworld here. Each of the five castles consists of two distinct stages: An outdoor one that has Takamaru fighting his way to the castle gate and an interior one where he must defeat that castle’s boss. There is the occasional branching path along the way, but these are mostly limited to small cul-de-sacs off the main route that can be braved in hopes of finding some handy power-ups or an extra life. While you won’t be wracking your brain over where to go next, you’ll hardly be bored. Takamaru is subject to near-constant attack from all sides and his assailants are far more numerous and aggressive than the ones in Zelda. He can only withstand three hits before losing a life and running out of lives means restarting the current stage from scratch.

These differences collectively make Nazo no Murasame Jō a much more challenging game than I anticipated. Certainly more so than the majority of first-party Nintendo games. It’s less Super Mario Bros. in spirit and more Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels). The assorted enemy samurai, demons, wizards, and tengu all show no mercy. And the ninja! So many ninja spawn in non-stop to harass Takamaru on nearly every screen. There are shuriken-throwing ones, fireball-throwing ones, invisible ones, exploding ones, invisible exploding ones, the works. The game isn’t impossible by any means due to its unlimited continues and save feature, but your thumbs are in for a quite the workout.

Thankfully, I can also report that the combat mechanics themselves keep all this chaos as enjoyable as it is unrelenting. Takamaru’s sword and knife attacks are both rather elegantly mapped to the A button. Pressing it while an enemy or a deflectable projectile is within melee range results in a sword swipe. Otherwise, he’ll toss a knife. This spares the player from having to second guess themselves over which attack to use in a given circumstance and frees up the B button for special techniques. These techniques consist of an invisibility cloak that renders Takamaru immune to damage for a brief period and a lighting attack that instantly destroys all non-boss enemies on the screen. Powerful as they are, special techniques have a limited number of uses and refills are scarce, so be sure to use them wisely.

Beyond this, the only real extra complexity comes in the form of the various power-ups scattered throughout the stages. These are usually not just laying around in plain sight, but instead only appear when their hiding spots are walked over. Some boost movement speed, confer temporary invincibility, or heal damage, but most improve Takamaru’s throwing knife attack in some way, either by upgrading the standard knives to more damaging pinwheels or fireballs or by allowing him to shoot in multiple directions at once. Just try not to grow too attached to a given power-up, as losing a life will reset Takamaru to his default capabilities.

The graphics share the same clean, colorful aesthetic that characterizes much of Nintendo’s early 8-bit work. Simple as it is, there’s obviously a real timelessness to it. If there’s a weakness here, I feel it has to be on a conceptual level as opposed to a technical one. The game simply doesn’t lean hard enough into its weird backstory. You’re supposed to be playing as a samurai hunting down a freaking space alien, yet every location you visit and enemy you encounter prior to the very last level reflects a fairly standard take on traditional Japanese history and mythology. Talk about an underdeveloped premise!

The soundtrack by Koji Kondo is above average by the standards of the time, but doesn’t really stand toe-to-toe with his more famous works from the Mario and Zelda series. The tunes have the expected ancient Japanese feel to them and suit the material just fine. I just don’t see myself humming any of these melodies in the shower. The track that plays over the ending feels pretty lazy, too. It’s just the “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maybe Kondo was crunched for time and decided to just say “screw it” and go public domain?

At its heart, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a simple pick-up-and-play hack-and-slasher with plenty of challenge and that distinctive Nintendo 8-bit house style. While surely the odd man out when sandwiched between two other Nintendo FDS releases (Zelda and Metroid) so ambitious that their influence is still being felt today, it proves that a well-designed game doesn’t need to kick off a revolution to be a lot of fun. It’s a pity that disappointing sales numbers prevented it from receiving any kind of follow-up and its medieval Japanese setting insured that it would remain unreleased outside its country of origin until 2014, when it was finally offered up as a downloadable title for the 3DS. Whether you play it there, on a flash cartridge or emulator, or even on a proper working FDS, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a thrilling way to spend a few hours.

Just watch out for those invisible exploding ninja. Well, not watch out. You know what I mean.