Metroid: Rogue Dawn (NES)

As I made abundantly clear last week, I quite enjoyed my most recent playthroughs of Nintendo’s immortal Metroid. So much so that I was left craving more NES Metroid goodness. The only problem? There isn’t any! Unlike fellow iconic heroes Link, Mega Man, and Simon Belmont, sci-fi badass Samus Aran never saw another outing on the system of her “birth.” The second and third Metroid adventures were reserved for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, respectively, leaving NES fans to wonder for decades what might have been.

Until 2017, that is, when a large team of talented collaborators (Grimlock, Optomon, snarfblam, Parasyte, Kenta Kurodani, DemickXII, M-Tee, MrRichard999, RealRed) released Metroid: Rogue Dawn, by far the most ambitious ROM hack of the original game to date. The bullet points here should pique the interest of any veteran space hunter: Entirely new art, sound, and story elements, added power-ups, a save feature, a Super Metroid style auto-map, and more. I’m pleased to say that while it’s not without its minor hiccups, the end result is tremendous fun and does indeed feel like a genuine lost sequel.

I say sequel, but Rogue Dawn actually goes the prequel route and bases its events on the backstory detailed in the first Metroid’s instruction manual. The player controls the mysterious Dawn Aran, a figure the developers hint has some close connection to Samus. Whether she’s supposed to be a long-lost relative, a clone, or something else entirely is left deliberately obscure. A good call, if I do say so myself. Ambiguity is highly underrated. What we do know for sure about Dawn is that she’s no angel. She’s a space pirate operative acting on orders from none other than recurring series antagonist Ridley. Her mission: To acquire a Metroid specimen from the Galactic Federation research team on planet SR388 by any means necessary. This “play as the villain” angle holds much appeal for me. It goes places no official release from Nintendo ever would while still remaining true to the established narrative.

Experienced players should be able to dive right in and start plumbing the depths of SR388 with ease, as Dawn runs, jumps, and shoots just like Samus. Mostly. One notable difference is that she starts out equipped with the Maru Mari (Morph Ball) and Long Beam. No more having to make due with a pathetic stream of gunfire that hardly extends more than an arm’s length in front of you. The total number of additional power-ups you can eventually attain through exploration remains the same, however, as the Morph Ball and Long Beam pickups have been replaced by Metroid II’s Spring Ball and Super Metroid’s Wall Jump! These two new movement abilities alone have massive implications for the overall flow of the action. Being able to rebound off any wall in particular makes negotiating vertical passages a cinch. A final inventory tweak I really love: You’re no longer forced to choose between the Ice Beam and Wave Beam. You can now equip both simultaneously and their effects stack.

Rogue Dawn’s level design has also been infused with fresh ideas. There’s a much larger number of unique screens here than in Metroid proper and they tend to connect in more intricate ways. It’s common for a given screen to be divided up by walls, creating two or more distinct routes through the same section of map, a technique almost never seen in the original. SR388’s environments aren’t all cramped underground tunnels linked by doors, either. You’ll traverse portions of the planet’s surface (some of which sport gorgeous weather effects), underwater areas with modified movement physics, the interiors of your own pirate spaceship and the Federation research vessel, a Metroid hive, and possibly even some downright strange hidden zones if you’re fortunate enough to stumble onto them.

In profiling Metroid, I repeatedly stressed that, for better or worse, the game has a rather stern 1986 vintage mindset and eschews any sort of overt player guidance. Rogue Dawn opts for a more modern approach. Your general goal is still the same: Defeat two sub-bosses in order to open the way to the final area and boss. The difference is that the presence of an in-game map with major equipment upgrades and boss encounters already pre-marked makes it borderline impossible to get yourself lost for any significant period of time. I’m already on record as being no fan of developer hand-holding like this. I prefer to figure things out on my own. That said, even I can’t claim to have found all of Rogue Dawn’s “quality of life” updates so unwelcome. Being able to save your game at any time through a menu is much less cumbersome than relying on a password system, for example. Better still, you start each new play session here with full energy and the recharging stations seen in most official sequels that top off your health and missile supply are scattered liberally about the map. Endless enemy farming to refill your reserves is now a thing of the past.

I found the new graphics and music to  be superb across the board. The high degree of visual detail reminds me more of Super Metroid than its 8-bit ancestor and the neon-like effect produced when splashes of bright color pop out out from the stark black backdrops recalls Sunsoft’s first NES Batman game. High praise indeed. The score by Optomon really took me by surprise in the best possible way. I came down against his compositions in Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, judging them too dainty for the furious on-screen action, but there’s no denying that he gets what makes a Metroid game tick. These tracks are tense, eerie, and, above all, atmospheric. Eat your heart out, “Hip” Tanaka!

What about those “hiccups” I mentioned above? Well, I have two primary issues with Rogue Dawn. One relates to an especially quirky aspect of its level design and the other to its boss battles. While I adore the layout of the game world in general and even consider it an improvement on the source material in some respects (like the larger, more exciting final area), there are several locations where passages inexplicably wrap around themselves in an endless loop if you don’t pass through them in just the right way. The effect is similar to The Legend of Zelda’s Lost Woods or the escape tunnels on either side of a Pac-Man maze. While this sort of surreal navigation gimmick can work just fine in the context of a fantasy world with magic or an abstract single-screen arcade game, it’s fundamentally at odds with the more grounded feel and sense of place vital to a Metroid title. It’s so jarringly video gamey, in fact, that it instantly shatters any sense of immersion I’ve managed to cultivate each and every time it crops up.

My disappointment with the boss fights stems simply from the realization that they’re same as they ever were, for the most part. Sprites have been re-drawn, of course, but the distinctive attacks and behaviors of Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain are unmistakable. There is a fourth boss unique to Rogue Dawn and I certainly commend the team for that. It’s just a shame that the enemies you face are the one aspect of the base game that’s seen the fewest changes.

Leaving aside those few out-of-place warp corridors and recyled bosses, it should be clear by now that Rogue Dawn is a most extraordinary fan game. It’s easily the current high water mark for NES Metroid hacks in general and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. If you’re the type that considers the game it’s based on to be too difficult or confusing, you may well find it superior to Nintendo’s own work. While I wouldn’t go that far, I can’t deny that this is one case where going rogue paid off big. Make like Dawn Aran and pirate yourself a copy today.

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Metroid (NES)

Space bikini is best bikini!

Sometimes I think I was made to chronicle the arcane oddities time forgot. When my task is to focus on one of the the all-time capital G Greats, I always seem to come down with a vicious amalgamation of stage fright and writer’s block. This is never more true than when tackling one of the Holy Trinity of world-shaking Nintendo titles that came out in that golden year between the Fall seasons of 1985 and 1986: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. There’s just no way I’m going to say something no one ever has before about a game that immediately became its very own genre upon release and is still spawning acclaimed imitators like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge more than three decades later. Still, my continuing mission is to review each and every game I complete and I recently wrapped up a couple playthroughs of Metroid, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

In the interest of accuracy, I should first qualify that statement about Metroid founding its own genre. I’m very much aware that space hunter Samus Aran didn’t emerge fully-formed from the Nintendo R&D1 design team’s collective brow like Athena (the goddess, not the terrible SNK game). Pitfall! had introduced the world to exploratory platforming in 1982 and games with shooting combat and persistent character upgrades are older still. Metroid’s genius was taking almost everything that was hot in gaming circa 1986 (running, jumping, shooting, exploration, character progression) and synthesizing it all into one exceptionally palatable dish served with a garnish of slick graphics and house composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s brooding score. It felt so fresh to so many that any retroactive quibbling over whether it really was or not is ultimately petty.

Metroid opens in the vague future year 20X5. A ruthless band of space pirates led by an entity known as Mother Brain have attacked a Galactic Federation research ship and stolen samples of a newly-discovered life form with powerful energy absorption abilities, the Metroids. Left to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time before the pirates succeed at weaponizing the Metroids and bring all of galactic civilization to its knees. In desperation, the Federation sends ace bounty hunter Samus on a last-ditch solo mission to infiltrate the subterranean fortress planet Zebes and neutralize the Metroid threat. It won’t be easy. Zebes is a sprawling maze teeming with hostile creatures and Samus starts out with very little in the way of equipment. Its deadly corridors must be scoured with care in order to acquire the many power suit upgrades necessary to eliminate the two space pirate lieutenants, Ridley and Kraid, which will, in turn, reveal the way to Mother Brain’s inner sanctum.

Of course, no discussion of Metroid’s story would be complete if it didn’t address the big twist. Reach the end in under five hours and the mysterious masked hero Samus is revealed to be…a woman! This is hardly big spoiler material 33 years on, but the most interesting thing about it for me personally is that I have no specific recollection of discovering it. I certainly owned the game back around the time of its North American release. I sank so much time into it, in fact, that I was still able to track down every item within a couple of hours during my most recent play session despite not having touched it in decades. Combing through all those detailed memories, however, there’s nothing remotely approximating the standard anecdote about being shocked or blown away by Samus’ gender reveal. Was I just some uncommonly open-minded ten year-old that didn’t see a lady video game hero as all that unlikely? Beats me.

As with the first Legend of Zelda, certain elements of Metroid have proven contentious for fans of its many sequels and imitators. To put it bluntly, this game doesn’t hold your hand. At all. From the instant you hit Start on the title screen, you’re plopped down into the Brinstar, the game’s main hub area, with nothing but a paltry amount of health, a weak gun that can’t hit anything more than a couple inches distant, and your wits. You get no built-in map feature, no helpful NPCs to point you in the right direction, no hints whatsoever really. The manual does an admirable job of detailing the controls as well as all the items you can find and enemies you’ll encounter, but that’s all. Your choices are to either march off and get yourself lost in a perilous environment or to get hold of somebody else’s pre-made map (i.e. cheat).

Compounding the potential bewilderment, level structure here is open to a downright anarchic degree. Most Metroid-likes, while proudly billing themselves as open and non-linear, actually prefer to subtly nudge the player around by gating large chunks of their worlds off behind conspicuous barriers that require specific upgrades to pass. Metroid doesn’t care. Once you acquire the bombs and at least a few missiles early on in Brinstar, you can technically go anywhere and do anything, with the lone exception of taking on Mother Brain herself. If you want to wander into an area filled with ultra-tough critters that can take you out in a few seconds flat, you won’t be stopped. You won’t even be warned.

It’s not hard to imagine how players accustomed to more in the way of so-called signposting could be frustrated to no end by these design choices. Resisting the urge to fly into full-on “kids these days” mode like the crotchety old man I am, I will say that Metroid is a product of its time, made by and for old-school adventure game players. From that vantage point, getting lost and confused, dying a lot, methodically probing each and every dead for secret passages, and creating your own maps by hand aren’t bugs, they’re features. If, like me, you’re the type that gets a major rush from finally finding the correct hidden route to a boss or power-up after what feels like an eternity of fruitless searching, Metroid’s a game for you. If you’d prefer a handy flashing arrow directing you to your next objective, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This isn’t to say that all of Metroid’s flaws are subjective. Replenishing Samus’ lost health is a major pain. She starts her adventure with a maximum health of 99 and can eventually increase that to almost 700 by collecting energy tanks. For whatever reason, though, every time you continue your game, be it after a death or via password save, you’re only given a measly 30 units of health, barely enough to a withstand a couple of hits. The only way to regain health, aside from locating another of the rare and finite energy tanks, is to farm weak enemies for healing pickups. These drop inconsistently and most only restore five points at a time. It requires the forbearance of an 8-bit saint to sit there and grind all the way back to full energy in the late game.

There are also some instances of cheap damage to contend with. Many areas of the game are linked by doors and Samus is unable to move during the panning screen transition that occurs whenever a doorway is entered. Her enemies have no such restrictions and will continue to move around and deal their damage during these brief interludes. Getting followed through a doorway by a strong baddie while your energy reserves are low is a virtual death sentence. It would have been a small thing to render Samus temporarily invulnerable while she’s immobilized in this way. As it is, it stands out as sloppy.

While these rough patches are very much real and worth noting, I don’t feel they detract in any meaningful way from what Metroid achieved back in the mid ’80s or what it still has to offer the most patient of modern day enthusiasts. Its stark environments, eerie soundtrack, and general lack of clemency foster a profound sense of player immersion. You really do feel like a lone warrior stranded deep behind enemy lines on an uncharted alien world. Every element of the design and presentation supports this singular vision of claustrophobic dread and isolation. This quality is what made Metroid one of the very first truly atmospheric console releases and the effect remains as potent as ever when the game is approached as intended today. It’s also what sets this debut entry in the franchise apart from its successors, all of which relied on more linear progression schemes, auto-maps, and NPC hints to soften that hardcore edge some. I can’t say there’s anything strictly wrong with such measures, though I do liken them to adding a net to a perfectly good trapeze act. Crotchety old man, remember?

If you take away one thing from all this, let it be that Metroid is an instant classic, an enduring design landmark, and a must-play video game, provided you have the correct temperament for it. Gamer, know thyself.

Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization of the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so Square opted to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations to date, including this one, have wisely left intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept this one a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially re-made multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

Down Load (PC Engine)

First things first: Do you have any idea how much of a pain it is to research a game called Down Load? I suppose I can’t really blame the staff at Alfa System and NEC Avenue for not psychically anticipating the online emulation scene when they produced this obscure 1990 shooter, but yeah, it’s an issue.

As a Japanese exclusive with a search-resistant name, I may well have never given Down Load a look if it hadn’t been for Clyde Mandelin and Tony Kuchar’s book, “This be book bad translation, video games!” The authors devote a full two-page spread to shots of its ridiculous game over screens, in which the main character, Syd, unleashes expletive-laden tirades over being defeated by the enemy. It’s hard not to love gems like “I can not fuck up for this” and “Shit. Is not this a great beginning.” Odds are that if you’ve been exposed to the game at all, it’s through images of these very quotable screens.

Don’t be too quick to write this one off as a joke, though. Legendary studios like SNK routinely proved that some shoddy English does not a bad ’90s game make. Indeed, Down Load is a fast-paced, exciting shooter with some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a HuCard release. It also showcases a surprisingly robust cyberpunk anime storyline told through Ninja Gaiden style cutscenes. It’s a prime example of the sort of quality PC Engine titles that NEC should have been busy porting over to their struggling TurboGrafx-16 at the time, even if it would have likely meant losing out on all those hilarious swears.

Our story begins in the Kabukichō red light district of Tokyo in the year 2099. Syd, an expert “cyber-diver” is contacted by his friend Deva. She’s been arrested while investigating the mysterious disappearance of another cyber-diver named Ohala, so our boy Syd promptly hops on his flying motorcycle thingy and jets off to rescue her from the cops. Unfortunately, that’s all I can really tell you for sure. Unlike those wacky game over screens, all of the cutscene text is in Japanese and there’s currently no fan translation patch available. I do know that a bad guy named Nero eventually shows up, but I can’t discern who he’s supposed to be or what his deadly plot entails. Pity, because these sequences look great and I can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of this much dialogue in a shooter. Someday perhaps.

Gameplay consists of traditional horizontally scrolling shoot-’em-up action encompassing a total of six main stages. Most of these are further sub-divided into multiple visually distinct segments (1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc). I think we all know the drill: Fly from left to right, grab floating power-ups, shoot down or dodge an onslaught of minor foes, and then blow up the big boss at the end of the level in order to move on. This established, Down Load’s interpretation of the formula does differ from the norm in one important way: It’s remarkably forgiving. You’re provided with unlimited continues and a password system, either one of which would have been generous enough on its own by genre standards. Additionally, Syd’s ride is extremely durable. It comes with a health bar that can withstand a total of four hits and even be replenished via healing items. If all this still isn’t enough insurance for you, you can opt to equip a shield capable of absorbing up to fifteen (!) additional attacks. Down Load’s relaxed approach may not satisfy the most rabid of Gradius or R-Type fans, but it’s a great starting point for novices who would rather dip their toes into the PC Engine shooter pool than plunge head-first into the deep end.

The array of weaponry at your disposal in Down Load is serviceable, if undistinguished. At the start of each stage, you’re given the opportunity to select one of two main shots and one of three secondary items. Your main weapon can be fired indefinitely and takes the form of either a blue piercing laser or a wider orange spread of bullets. It’s that perennial shooter trade-off: Focused power versus increased screen coverage. You can upgrade this primary shot from its starting level of one all the way up to five, increasing its damage and area of effect each time. You’ll be docked a level of weapon power with each bit of  damage you sustain, however, so don’t get too cocky. Secondary items have a limited number of uses and consist of either 96 homing missiles, 6 super bombs, or the aforementioned energy shield that can block up to 15 bullets. You can find power-ups in most stages that will completely refill your secondary weapon reserves, so there’s usually no need to be too concerned about hoarding ammo.

What really makes Down Load more than just a generic shooter with adequate options and a soft touch is its fantastic art direction. From the expressive character portraits in the cutscenes to the many-layered parallax scrolling backgrounds, the game is a joy to behold. There’s a healthy amount of variety on display, too. Syd’s mission sees him visiting a futuristic city, the ocean, a cave, outer space, and the obligatory creepy biological level with organs for walls. Most interesting of all are the virtual reality levels. Being a cyber-diver (with the plugs in his head to prove it), Syd is capable of jacking into computer systems, meaning that several stages are set in these kaleidoscopic abstract spaces that really stand out from the rest of the game’s environments. They don’t actually play any differently, mind you, they just look cool. The music is also catchy and will appeal to most fans of that characteristic gritty, funky PCE chiptune sound. The only thing that comes close to detracting from an otherwise sublime presentation is the very noticeable flicker that can occur when larger sprites, particularly bosses, share the screen with upgraded weapons fire. At its most severe, this can lead to unnecessary damage as some enemy projectiles become partly or wholly obscured.

Down Load proved popular enough in its native land to warrant a CD-ROM sequel in 1991 and an animated film adaptation that’s even more difficult to find details on than the games that spawned it. Although I don’t think it has the depth required to place in the top tier of PC Engine shooters, it’s still a competent work that’s immensely stylish and approachable by gamers of all skill levels. I’m glad I gave it a chance. I came for the laughs, I stayed for the thrills.

Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

 

Sometimes all you want is for a game to be mean to you again.

One of the very best things about classic gaming, at least from the perspective of the average busy adult, is just how concise these old titles can be. In most cases, game makers of the past had no other choice. From the primordial dawn of the hobby on 1960s university mainframes all the way up to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM technology roughly three decades later, every byte of precious memory counted. Skilled programmers were still able to realize RPGs and other intricate games featuring dozens or even hundreds of hours of play time, but this often meant embracing a more modest audiovisual presentation to save on disk or ROM space. For fans of these more cerebral offerings, the tradeoff was well worth it. Action gamers, on the other hand, had an insatiable fondness for spectacle that often placed the developers of their favorite releases in an unenviable position. How could they consistently dazzle their audiences with the most detailed backgrounds, the biggest characters, the smoothest animations, and the most adrenaline-pumping tunes, all while still leaving room for, well, a game?

The enduring legacy of all these thorny compromises is a pantheon of tight, polished 8 and 16-bit thrill rides that experienced players can blaze through in well under an hour. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Gradius, Mega Man, and many, many more, including my personal favorite, Castlevania. It’s only after you’ve played through one of these masterpieces countless times that their brevity begins to work against them. As pleasant as it invariably is to kick back and whip my way through Simon Belmont’s iconic 8-bit vampire hunt, I’ve long ago reached the point where the challenge, even on hard mode, is deader than Count Dracula himself. Who can you turn to when your favorite hardcore action game just isn’t beating you down like it used to? The ROM hacking community, of course!

Hacks dedicated to furnishing veteran players with ferociously difficult new takes on old favorites are a dime a dozen and the first Castlevania specifically is one of the most frequently remixed NES titles. So why am I focusing on Overflow Darkness? Because this 2011 effort by Luto Akino is more than just your typical “Castlevania on steroids” with some extra pits and enemies sprinkled in. It’s tricked out with gorgeous new artwork, level design as well thought-out as it is brutal, and some clever tweaks to core gameplay mechanics.

Unlike Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, which I reviewed last October, Overflow Darkness doesn’t attempt to add any new characters or lore to the series. The scenario here is exactly the same as in the base game: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and a whip-wielding warrior named Simon Belmont is out to destroy him. The only change is to Simon’s appearance. Instead of his original brunette locks, he’s sporting the long red hair from his 2001 Castlevania Chronicles redesign. While I’ve never been a fan of ginger Simon and was pleased when he reverted to a more traditional look for his most recent showing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I actually don’t mind it here. Chalk that one up to the relatively simplicity of NES sprites, I suppose.

Speaking of sprites, it’s not just Simon that’s been re-drawn. Several of his familiar enemies have also been given professional quality makeovers, including Medusa, Death, and Dracula. Surprisingly, these new sprites are improvements  in virtually every instance. Dracula’s demonic second form in particular is exponentially more menacing here than the bright blue “cookie monster” that confronts you at the end of vanilla ‘Vania. The new background tiles are just as impressive. The rather basic underground waterway at the start of level four, for example, has been re-imagined to great effect as a flooded catacomb packed with skeletal remains. None of the new art in Overflow Darkness stands out as the work of an amateur, which is just about the highest compliment ROM hack visuals can receive. Don’t expect anything so brilliant on the audio front, however. The track order has been swapped around, but it’s still the same Kinuyo Yamashita score we all know and love.

Pretty as Overflow Darkness is, it still wants you dead. Badly. The new stages here are all markedly more difficult than anything in the regular game, deluging the player with a near-constant stream of flying bats and medusa heads while placing durable enemies like bone pillars and axe knights in close proximity to death pits. It’s common to face off against several enemy types simultaneously on very precarious footing and some stages even open with Simon already under attack from multiple angles. Think fast!

Bosses have also been given a shot in the arm. The fight against the familiar giant bat at the end of stage one now takes place on uneven terrain with a hoard of smaller bats fluttering onto the screen from both sides. I lost several lives to this encounter, which is humbling to say the least. There are a couple of all-new bosses, too, and they have a habit of lurking at the top of the screen and showering Simon with projectiles, limiting the usefulness of the overpowered holy water sub-weapon in these battles.

Ruthless as these stages are, Overflow Darkness does play fair. Unlike T. Takemoto’s infamous Kaizo Mario World trilogy, the challenge isn’t predicated on tricking or teasing the player with deliberately absurd trial-and-error setups. It’s fundamentally the same precise combat and platforming as the “real” Castlevania, just with far less allowance for sloppy play. There’s considerable inventiveness packed into some of these new level layouts, too. The second stage contains a multi-tier “stair maze” that forces Simon to travel and up and down repeatedly across the same few screens in search of the door to the next section. Areas like this will push your reflexes and pattern recognition skills to their limits, especially since Simon loses a full quarter of his maximum health with every hit sustained from the very beginning of the game.

Yet another, more subtle layer of added difficulty is derived from the way item drops have been adjusted to be stingier than usual across the board. Remember how easy it was to score whip power-ups in the regular game? If you died and restarted with the weakest leather version of the whip, you always seemed to find a replacement upgrade an instant later from the very first candle you stumbled across. Well, forget about all that! According to Overflow Darkness, whip upgrades from candles are for the weak. Instead, you can only really count on obtaining them from random enemy drops and these can prove maddeningly elusive if luck isn’t on your side. The bottom line is that you’re going to become very adept with that puny starting whip, whether you like it or not. Sub-weapons and shot multipliers for them are also more scarce. Oh, and remember the large hearts that would increase your ammo count by five when collected? Overflow Darkness reduces this to two. The idea here seems to be to force players to rely more on deep mastery of Simon’s innate capabilities and less on exploiting power-ups. Although it can come off a bit heavy-handed and I certainly wouldn’t want to play this way all the time, it is a bracing change of pace from the default “melt everything’s face off with triple holy water” strategy most Castlevania players fall back on.

The takeaway here should be that Overflow Darkness is simply the best at what it does. Its stylish graphics, quality level design, and eye for fairness make it the current gold standard in extreme difficulty hacks of Castlevania 1986. There are other hacks available (Chorus of Mysteries, The Holy Relics) that are much more creatively ambitious, aiming to re-work the source material into something approximating a whole new entry in the series. These are well worth your time, but if all you’re really craving is a viable “super hard” mode for one of your favorite NES games, Castlevania: Overflow Darkness is the real deal. It’ll whip your ass and make you like it.