Crystalis (NES)

The sprawling NES library has no shortage of high quality entries that, for one reason or other, were destined to remain one-offs. Whether due to lackluster sales, expired licenses, or simple lack of developer interest, the fact we never received proper follow-ups to brilliant works like The Guardian Legend and Shatterhand adds an unwelcome bittersweet edge to the fun. As far as I’m concerned, no sequel-less NES gem got a rawer deal than the 1990 action RPG Crystalis, or God Slayer: Haruka Tenkū no Sonata (“God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky”), as it’s known in Japan. Man, what a spectacular title; poetic and badass. I suppose the localization team didn’t want concerned parents phoning in complaints about Little Jimmy’s deicidal Nintender tape. Killjoys.

Crystalis’ ironclad reputation as a cult classic is odd in light of its origin: Legendary action game studio SNK. It actually hit Japanese shelves two weeks before the launch of the company’s bleeding edge Neo Geo platform. Even if SNK was one of the true greats of the 8 and 16-bit era, RPGs were hardly in their wheelhouse. Or were they? For a first foray into a brand new genre, Crystalis’ sheer polish, ambition, and confidence are breathtaking. It’s not a flawless game, but it sure carries itself like one.

Despite what the sword-wielding dude on the cover may lead you to believe, Crystalis isn’t set in the ancient past or some made-up fantasy land. No, this is post-nuclear Earth, ravaged by a massive conflict that brought humanity to the very brink of extinction on that fateful day of October 1st, 1997. Setting doomsday less than a decade out? That takes either an extreme lack of foresight or an equally extreme pessimism. In either case, a century has passed, during which savage mutants have overrun the irradiated wilderness. What’s left of human civilization has regressed to a medieval state and rediscovered the lost art of magic.

The actual plot centers on a floating tower created by survivors of the nuclear war. Its on-board computer was supposed to watch over the remaining people and prevent them from making the same mistakes again. A despot named Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are on the verge of seizing control of the tower, which will allow them to rule the entire planet unopposed through the combined might of dark wizardry and pre-war technology. You control a nameless hero automatically awakened from a cryogenic freeze, apparently as a fail-safe in the event of just such a crisis. Unfortunately, the defrosting process seems to have left you an amnesiac with no clue how to accomplish your mission. No matter! You’re given a magic sword by the village elder right off the bat and basically told to go forth, kill monsters, and let the details sort themselves out.

It’s a sweet setup to be sure, especially for a time when “kill the Dark Lord,” “save the trophy girl,” or both were still the three default RPG plots. I only wish I could say Crystalis delivered on it more fully. Apart from the opening and closing segments, there’s nothing that evokes the post-apocalypse genre specifically or science fiction in general. This isn’t Wasteland or Fallout, in other words. From the time you leave your sleep chamber until you reach the floating tower itself for the rather abrupt climax, Crystalis is every bit a conventional swords & sorcery exercise.

Thankfully, that exercise is a superb one. Many have cited Crystalis as the best action RPG on the NES and, as much as I adore Zelda II, I’m inclined to agree. The graphics, while not the flashiest we’d ever see from the hardware, are colorful and well-detailed. The relatively large sprites for the hero and his many enemies do a fine job showcasing how far the state of NES art had advance in the four years since the original Zelda. The music is better still. Stirring, mysterious, and eerie by turns, this soundtrack sears itself into the player’s consciousness. It’d been decades since I last picked up the game and I still knew every note by heart.

Of course, great graphics and music alone do not a great game make. Exploration, combat, and character progression form the foundation of any action RPG. If they don’t work to draw you in from minute-to-minute, the game doesn’t work. Crystalis’ navigation and combat utilize the standard 3/4 overhead perspective, with your hero able to move about freely (and rather quickly) in eight directions, as well as jump by equipping a specific pair of enchanted boots. So far, so good. All battling revolves around use of the four magic swords you acquire throughout your travels, each associated with an element: Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder. You do get to combine all four swords at the end, not to form Captain Planet, but rather the super-sword Crystalis. Sadly, the Crystalis sword itself is made available  exclusively for the absurdly easy and unsatisfying final boss fight, so it’s merely a tease.

Beyond running up to baddies and mashing B to shank them repeatedly, every sword has three different ranged magic attacks achieved by holding down the button for a set amount of time and then releasing it when needed. You have access to a sword’s first level charge attack from the get-go, with the other two requiring accessory items to enable. These higher level sword powers have non-combat applications, too, blasting away some walls and otherwise creating paths to new areas.

This ready access to a wide selection of projectile attacks is cool. It also has the side benefit of partially mitigating the game’s biggest weakness: Wonky hit detection. Getting close enough to enemies to reliably take them out with regular sword thrusts is trickier than it should be, owing to the hero’s tendency to take hits from things you’ll swear weren’t anywhere near to touching him. You often can’t trust your eyes in this regard, making a series of long-distance potshots the safest bet in most cases. This approach is still not perfect. Certain enemy types are completely immune to one or more swords, which can lead to tons of tedious gear swapping or simply running straight past foes instead of engaging with them because you can’t be bothered to futz around with menu screens at the moment.

In addition to your swords, which are really the central hook here, you get an unremarkable selection of armor, shields, and healing consumables. Rounding things out are a handful of spells that allow you to recover health, cure negative status effects, fast travel between town, and so on. You’ll occasionally need to use your magic on NPC townsfolk in order to solve a puzzle and advance the story; a pretty thoughtful touch that didn’t factor into many other RPGs of the era.

So the story is interesting, the presentation lush, and the core gameplay generally fun, albeit with some non-trivial annoyances. What truly elevates Crystalis above and beyond its peers on the system, though, are its pitch-perfect pacing and ultra-smooth sense of progression. This game moves like nobody’s business. There’s no point during the compact eight hour run time when it feels like your hero or his journey is stagnating. You’re always zooming off to the next town or dungeon, always stumbling onto a nifty new sword attack or spell, always being pulled forward by the natural flow of the quest. If more RPGs could pull off this one elegant trick…well, I might not devote 90% of my gaming time to platformers and shooters. As it is, Crystalis and the almighty Chrono Trigger are among the precious few that make it look easy.

Inevitably, the dawn of the high end Neo Geo and its ability to bring the pure arcade experience home shifted SNK’s focus away from experimental RPGs and back to their coin-op roots. The debut of a little game called Street Fighter II in 1991 further cemented this change of direction, leading to Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and the legion of other competitive fighters that define their legacy to this day in the eyes of many. True to its lofty name, the Neo Geo ushered in a whole new world. If Crystalis taught us one thing, however, it’s that no new world, no matter how magical, is birthed without pain.

Thunder Force III (Genesis)

Thunder! Thunder! Thunder Force, hooooo!

I was so bowled over by Technosoft’s Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar) when I first encountered it last March that I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to revisit the saga. Hell, that was over ninety reviews ago now! I’m more than ready to strike another blow against the vile ORN Empire and Thunder Force III seems like the perfect way to do it. Destined to be overshadowed by its sequel in the years to come, it was nevertheless a huge point of pride for Genesis owners back in 1990. As perhaps the flashiest, most adrenaline pumping horizontal shooter ever to grace a home system at that point in history, it was well received indeed. So much so that it’s one of the few examples of a console original that was later adapted for arcades (as Thunder Force AC) rather than vice versa.

Don’t expect too elaborate a setup here.  Thunder Force games are about dazzling the player with explosive action. Those nerds deep lore and rich characterization weren’t cool enough to get invited to this party. All you need to know is that the evil ORN and their mad bio-computer leader Khaos are continuing their genocidal war on humanity. They’ve deployed a colossal battleship called Cerberus and set up cloaking devices on five planets in order to mask the location of their main base. In response, the Galaxy Federation sends out their most advanced ship, the Fire LEO-03 Styx, on a mission to take out the cloaking devices, Cerberus, and finally ORN HQ.

It’s a tall order. Fortunately, the Styx comes prepared for all eight stages ahead. Unlike the many side-scrolling shooters that take their cues from those grueling classics Gradius and R-Type, Thunder Force III doesn’t start you out slow and weak or take all your weapons away and push you back to a checkpoint every time you mess up. You always have access to four different speed settings and your two default weapons, the forward-facing Twin Shot and rear-facing Backfire, which are strong and versatile enough to take down anything in your path. The focus is on keeping the pace brisk and the player feeling empowered and in control of the situation; a defining feature of the series.

That’s not to say death carries no sting. There are a whole host of useful upgrades to the Styx which can be lost on defeat: Five special weapons that you can cycle between as needed, a shield, and a pair of shot multiplying helper satellites called Claws. Even in this regard, however, Thunder Force III is more merciful than the vast majority of its peers. Only your Claws and currently active special weapon are stripped away when you lose a ship. While some hardcore shooter fanatics may scoff at this degree of leniency, I think it adds a nice risk/reward dynamic. Equipping a powerful weapon like the heat-seeking Hunter makes you more likely to survive the trickier stretches of a level, yet you’ll lose both the weapon and a life if you still manage to slip up. Is it worth potentially not having access to the Hunter when you reach the boss? That’s your call.

The levels themselves make for great rides. Sure, they’re all based on stock archetypes like fire, water, ice, and caverns, but it’s the execution that excels. Each planet has its own menagerie of enemies and environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, all brought to life through spectacular graphics and masterful high energy music. As in Thunder Force IV, the soundtrack truly goes above and beyond the call of duty, with individual themes for each stage boss. Speaking of those bosses, they’re probably the only element here that could be described as underwhelming. Their attack routines are quite basic and they wither quickly under sustained firepower.

What else can I say about this one? It’s an utterly brilliant spaceship shooter and a perennial must play for enthusiasts of all stripes. I mentioned way back in my review of Thunder Force IV that the formula really does comes across as pure boilerplate on paper. These games are legendary for their blazing fast action, top notch audiovisuals, and general approachability. Their innovative structure and mechanics, though? Not so much. They really must be experienced firsthand for their appeal to be fully understood and appreciated. I’ll add that you ideally shouldn’t emulate me by checking out IV before III. Thunder Force IV is a prime example of the “bigger, badder, better” school of sequel design, triumphantly doubling down on everything its predecessor did right while simultaneously addressing its one true shortcoming by upping the complexity and challenge of the boss fights. It’s also a good deal tougher than III overall, with more levels and trickier enemy patterns, meaning that tackling the two in order results in a much more natural difficulty curve across games.

Oh, and one last thing: Under no circumstances should you play Thunder Spirits, the Super Nintendo port of Thunder Force AC, in place of Thunder Force III proper. It suffers from severe slowdown issues that render it drastically inferior to the real deal on the Genesis. This is one of those rare cases when Ninten just don’t.

So what are you waiting for? Climb aboard your starship and head for the skies. You owe it to yourself to come sail away with the Styx.

Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on arch-psycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

Alex Kidd in Shinobi World (Master System)

Ending by Credits Я Us!

I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but to reiterate: I’ve never been a fan of Sega’s Alex Kidd. I didn’t grow up playing his games and he always struck me as some sort of icky simian…thing. Like one of those old Monchichi dolls. I’m not the one who remembers those, am I? Actually, I’m hope I am.

Not everyone shares my ambivalence, of course. Alex did serve as Sega’s primary mascot from 1986 through 1991, when his reign was abruptly and unceremoniously terminated by the literal runaway success of a certain sassy hedgehog. This gave him ample opportunity to endear himself to that one kid everybody knew in elementary school who didn’t own an NES in the late ’80s. His debut outing, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, is hailed by many as the quintessential Master System platformer and came built into later revisions of the console. Boot one of these suckers up with no cartridge inserted and presto, you’re playing some Alex Kidd.

While by no means the Mario killer Sega had been praying for, Miracle World was generally well-received by gamers and critics. Unfortunately, the company was never quite able to capitalize on its initial success and produce a worthy follow-up. Instead, they floundered with strange, half-baked sequels like Alex Kidd BMX Trial and Alex Kidd: High-Tech World. Before he finally fizzled out for good, Alex turned in a sixth and final star performance in 1990’s Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Did he save his best for last or clinch the case for his own euthanasia? Let’s find out!

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Shinobi? As in Sega’s legendary ninja action franchise? What is this, some kind of wild crossover where Alex Kidd teams up with ninja master Joe Musashi to combat the Zeed organization? Sadly, no. What it means is that this wasn’t originally intended to be an Alex Kidd game at all. Rather, it was Shinobi Kid, a cute, semi-parodic version of the standard Shinobi experience aimed at a younger audience. You might already be familiar with Capcom’s Mighty Final Fight or Namco’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. Same idea. Late in development, Sega decided to throw their ailing mascot a bone by pasting his sprite into the game and altering the title.

The unplanned nature of this arrangement is made clear by the story. Alex Kidd is chilling in a field one day with his girlfriend when the dark ninja Hanzo swoops in out of nowhere and abducts her. Alex despairs, but is soon visited by the spirit of a good ninja, who merges with him, giving him the power needed to save his girl and the world from Hanzo. Since when did Alex have a nameless girlfriend who looks exactly like him in a blonde wig? Why does he need a ghost ninja to teach him how to fight when being a martial arts master is his whole gimmick in games like Miracle World? Now you know why there are no answers to these questions.

Pressing start immediately plunges you into into a bright, bouncy take on the iconic opening stage of Shinobi. The music, the urban setting, the little chibi versions of the shirtless guys that toss boomerang swords at you, it’s all here. Well, not quite all of it. This is definitely a pared down take on the original’s gameplay. There are only eight levels and four bosses here versus Shinobi’s fourteen and five. There are also no child hostages to rescue, fewer weapons upgrades (Alex only has his sword and optional throwing knives), no shuriken chucking bonus game between rounds, and the various types of magic wielded by ninja Joe have been replaced with a simple pickup that turns Alex into a deadly tornado for a brief period when collected.

In addition to broadly simplifying play, Shinobi World throttles back the series’ notoriously fierce difficulty. Alex begins with a reasonable three-hit health bar that can be increased to a hefty six via the hearts scattered liberally about the stages. If he’s already at full health, every heart he collects becomes an extra life! He doesn’t need to fear falling into pits and the like, either, as these only re-route him along alternate subterranean paths instead of killing him outright. Continues are limited in order to prevent the game from devolving into a total cakewalk, but it’s still drastically easier than anything else bearing the Shinobi name.

All these changes are in line with the goal of crafting a lighter, more forgiving experience for new players. To their credit, however, Shinobi World’s creators weren’t content just softening and streamlining an established design. They took a stab at incorporating some brand new game mechanics not seen in other Shinobi or Alex Kidd games, albeit to mixed results. Alex can grab onto specific bits of the scenery and then twirl around in place before letting go and being transformed into an invincible flying fireball that can smash through bricks. He can also rebound off walls and skip across the surface of water. Cool, right? Sure, if by “cool,” you mean “woefully underutilized.” None of Alex’s special movement skills are required to progress. At most, they’re useful for reaching the occasional out-of-the-way item box. It’s a pity the designers didn’t commit to some real platforming challenges based on these abilities.

That squandered potential aside, there’s still a lot to like about Shinobi World. It controls well. The artwork and animation are brimming with color and personality. The music is fine, considering the limitations of the Master System’s crude PSG sound chip. Best of all, it nails its desired tone, being both a spoof of and tribute to the first Shinobi. For example, the red-armored samurai boss codenamed Lobster appears in Shinobi World as an actual lobster, complete with hot buttery death animation. The first level boss Kabuto is a hybrid of Shinobi’s Ken-oh and Nintendo’s own Super Mario! Pre-release builds of the game went all out and dubbed him Mari-oh. I guess that name proved a touch too spicy for Sega’s legal department in the end.

How good is Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, really? I reckon that depends in part on how you categorize it. As a Shinobi installment, it can’t hope to stand to-to-toe with its big brothers. It’s simply too short and basic for that. Practiced players are also likely to find its challenge insufficient. They’ll giggle at a few of the jokes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, it’s bloody brilliant by Alex Kidd standards! It’s not uncommon for fans to tout this as the much maligned monkey’s finest hour, surpassing even Miracle World. A cruel irony in light of his status as a last minute addition. Put me down smack dab in the middle. Shinobi World is my idea of a perfectly alright 8-bit platformer; a brief, vaguely pleasant afternoon’s diversion. It didn’t blow my mind. It didn’t offend my sensibilities. It just stole in quietly and left without a fuss. Kind of like…a ninja.

Huh. Nice one, Alex. Have a banana.

Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (Famicom)

Goe Goe!

It’s high time I checked in with that one and only shaggy-haired Japanese Robin Hood, Goemon! I was introduced to this venerable folk hero (or at least Konami’s decidedly silly take on him) back in 1992 via the superb Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo.  As much as I love that game, it wasn’t until last year that I finally took a proper look at its immediate sequel, the equally excellent Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu. These are far from the first entries in their long running series, however, so I thought I’d travel back a bit further this time and see where the wackiness all began.

Well, maybe not quite that far. The saga technically opened with 1986’s Mr. Goemon, a simple side-scrolling action game for Japanese arcades that I don’t have any way of properly playing at the moment. Instead, I went with Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (“Go For It, Goemon! A Tricky Journey”) on the Famicom. Arriving later in 1986, this was the first game to bear the Ganbare Goemon name and is much more representative of how the series as a whole would ultimately progress. I played it with the English fan translation by Spinner 8 and friends. Although this isn’t strictly necessary to comprehend or complete the game, it did allow me to enjoy a few extra chuckles courtesy of the goofy NPC dialog.

Karakuri Dōchū was a huge release for Konami in more ways than one. The cartridge was built around a massive two megabit (250 kilobyte) ROM chip. Puny as that obviously is now, it dwarfed the previous year’s biggest Famicom smash, the 32 KB Super Mario Bros. It also moved over a million copies, making it one of the best-selling Konami titles for the system domestically. It was popular enough that Nintendo released a version for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 as part of their Famicom Mini Series (better known as the Classic NES or NES Classics Series in other markets). Karakuri Dōchū may be obscure to you and me, but it was a cornerstone of Nintendo’s 8-bit library for an entire generation of Japanese gamers; easily on par with a Mega Man or Castlevania in that respect.

Our story takes place in the Edo period of feudal Japan. The noble class has grown insular and selfish, ruthlessly taxing the common folk to the very brink of destitution in order to fund their own decadent lifestyle. Goemon, kind-hearted outlaw and hero of the people, can stand it no longer. He sets off on a journey across the province to confront the lords face-to-face in their own palace and convince them to repent their wicked ways and govern more humanely.

As you can gather from that relatively down-to-earth synopsis, there are no bunnyman armies, flying peach battleships, or Goemon-shaped mecha this early on in the franchise. The wild surrealism that would come to define the later Ganbare games required a few more goes to really ramp up. Everything is depicted in cartoon style and you do get the occasional anachronistic reference in the form of townspeople proclaiming their love for Konami games, for example, but that’s it for now. Also absent are the gang of supporting characters Goemon accrued over subsequent outings. Ebisumaru, Yae, Sasuke, and the Wise Old Man were all still waiting in the wings at this point.

Goemon’s odyssey spans fourteen individual stages. True to the game’s subtitle, the majority of them are anything but straight dashes to the goal. Most require Goemon to scour a sprawling environment for secret underground passages and collect the three passes needed to open the gate to the next area before a timer runs down. How does Goemon go about discovering this hidden stuff? By jumping around like a madman! Leaping over the baskets and pots that litter the landscape will produce money and power-ups. Hopping in the vicinity of a secret passage will cause it to become visible. None of this makes any sense, of course, but you’ll still be tapping that A button like mad throughout your playthrough if you want to have any hope of finding those all-important passes. It’s the Karakuri Dōchū equivalent of bombing every wall and floor in Metroid or shooting bubbles everywhere in Milon’s Secret Castle.

In other words, this is yet another early Famicom action-adventure with a heavy emphasis on ferreting out invisible secrets through repetitive means. This, in conjunction with its overhead perspective, leads to frequent Legend of Zelda comparisons. These aren’t very useful, in my opinion. Karakuri Dōchū certainly has exploratory elements and a large game world for its time. At its heart, though, it’s more of a traditional action experience than anything else. It offers limited lives, no continues, no passwords or other way to record progress, and a linear level structure rather than one huge, continuous play space. Come expecting Zelda with old-timey Japanese trappings and you’re only setting yourself up for frustration.

If you’re familiar with the town gameplay from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Karakuri Dōchū is probably best understood as an entire game built around the concept. Most levels are set in a city or village, complete with numerous shops, inns, and other buildings that Goemon can hit up for items and health replenishment. When he’s not doing that, he’ll be wandering the streets fending off a never ending supply of police, pickpockets, and other pushy types with his iconic kisiru pipe and throwing coins. Whatever you do, don’t forget to stop in and play the 3-D maze games. For a modest fee, Goemon can explore a first-person dungeon straight out of Wizardry and plunder its many treasures. Not only does the timer halt when Goemon is in a maze, there are no enemies or other threats to hassle him there. He’s effectively free to poke around at his leisure for cash, extra lives, and gate passes. Each maze invariably has more cash stashed inside than it costs to enter in the first place, making me wonder how the people running them manage to stay in business.

The flipside to the towns are the handful of wilderness zones that see Goemon traversing rugged mountain ranges and island chains. These are far and away the most difficult sections of the game, since fatal plunges off cliffs or into the sea are a constant threat and facilities where Goemon can replenish his health and defensive gear are few and far between. Treat yourself to a well-earned pat on the back anytime you manage to squeak by a wilderness stage without losing a life.

After twelve levels of this, Karakuri Dōchū wraps up with a pair of climactic stages set in and around the daimyō’s palace. There are no gate passes to worry about here, just a gauntlet of the game’s strongest enemies standing between Goemon and his quarry. There’s no final boss, either. Reaching the lord’s inner chamber simply triggers the ending cut scene and then ships Goemon back to the very first stage with his score, lives, and items intact. Looping the game like this a total of eight times in a row supposedly rewards the player with an extended ending. Considering that beating it once takes the better part of an hour even when you know what you’re doing…Yeah, I’m good, thanks.

So what did I make of Karakuri Dōchū? I’ll say that if you’re a Goemon fan hoping for more of the familiar characters and absurd situations so common to later games in the series, you’re likely come away disappointed. Similarly, you may find its sheer difficulty jarring if you’re accustomed to saves and continues. The ideal audience for this is someone with an open-minded interest in the history of the Goemon series paired with an established fondness for rough, challenging mid-’80s action-adventure games. That is to say, me. Yes, I had myself a fine time on this tricky journey. While some boss battles would have been nice and the need to jump everywhere or risk missing out on important items is indeed obnoxious, Goemon and his world are still appealing, even in embryonic form. Above all, I found scrambling to survive and gather everything I needed in each stage before time ran out stimulating and satisfying.

Karakuri Dōchū is a classic in its native land for good reason and things only get better, and weirder, from here. Bring it on!