Esper Dream (Famicom)

I’ve devoted considerable time over the years to working my way through the bevy of console adventure and RPG titles published by Konami in 1987 alone. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest had all come out the year prior and collectively hooked millions of Famicom owners on the sort of exploration and stat-heavy games which had previously been exclusive to much pricier home computers. Realizing the public’s appetite for such works was virtually endless, Konami pumped out a good half-dozen over the next calendar year. Some of these (Castlevania II, The Goonies II) would later make their ways overseas, while others (Dragon Scroll, Getsu Fūma Den, Majou Densetsu II) would never see release outside their native Japan. Another in this latter category is Esper Dream, a whimsical and surprisingly tough overhead action RPG for the Famicom Disk System. Special thanks to Mute for the English fan translation that allowed me to make sense of this one.

Your player character in Esper Dream is a young boy with a name of your choice who happens to be an esper. That is, an individual with psychic powers, aka ESP. He’s sitting at home reading one night when a girl materializes from the open storybook and introduces herself as Lottie. She’s a resident of Brick Village, part of the magical world inside the book, and was sent by its mayor to enlist the boy’s help. Seems monsters are running amok and have abducted the mayor’s daughter, Alice. Naturally, our silent protagonist agrees and follows Lottie into the book. A psychic kid and a fantasy quest to rescue a girl? It’s two classic Japanese media clichés for the price of one!

Upon arrival in Brick Village, the mayor hands you a suit of flimsy armor and your first weapon, a water pistol. It’s about as effective as you’d think. He also gives you an important hint about which of the game’s main areas you should explore first. Though you can technically access them all from the very start via doors scattered around town, you’re only asking for trouble if you ignore the intended order. This may be a pastel fairy tale wonderland, but the enemies won’t hesitate to curb stomp an underleveled pre-teen.

The five interconnected regions you must conquer all have their own themes, ranging from mundane fields and swamps to crystal palaces and gigantic chessboards. Each has multiple maze-like indoor dungeons which hold important treasures and your primary targets: The five boss monsters who are causing all the trouble. Keep an eye out for more villages along the way, too. They contain shops and helpful NPCs you can’t afford to skip.

Being an RPG, Esper Dream requires plenty of repetitive combat in order to accumulate the cash and experience points needed to see your hero to the end. Clashes with monsters all take place in claustrophobic single screen arenas where your character’s options are fairly limited. He can walk and shoot his gun in the four cardinal directions as well as activate whichever psychic power he has equipped. Fights typically end when one side or the other is wiped out. However, it is possible to flee the arena early if you can locate and destroy the one randomly determined exit tile along the screen edge. The most interesting thing by far about this whole system is how battles are initiated in the first place. Esper Dream is an early example of an RPG where all potential enemy encounters are visible to the player beforehand, here in the form of footprint icons. Similar to the more famous Earthbound, you’ll never be surprised by an enemy and can avoid many unwanted scraps by bobbing and weaving around them.

Now’s as good a time as any to address those psychic powers the game is named for. Turns out they’re fundamentally no different from stock RPG magic. The first you’ll gain is the damaging Psi Beam projectile, which remains your most useful tool throughout. As you level-up, you’ll unlock six other abilities which let you do things like boost your defense, heal damage, and teleport back to town. They all draw on a limited pool of EP (Esper Points?) which function like common Magic Points. As with the game’s combat, it’s an oddball peripheral element of this psi system that actually manages to stand out. Certain shops give you the option of buying new powers early instead of waiting until you reach the appropriate experience level. It’s unique, albeit also expensive and largely pointless.

Esper Dream has a lot going for it aesthetically. On top of a quality Kinuyo Yamashita score, it shares the same kooky art direction as Ai Senshi Nicol, King Kong 2, and other overhead view Konami games from this period. It eschews the grit of a Castlevania or Contra in favor of bold primary colors, surreal landscapes, and a motley grab bag of cartoon enemies. Pelicans, ladybugs, chess pieces, and moai statue refugees from Gradius routinely show up to run your day. If they weren’t so good at it, you’d almost think this was a game for little kids.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now in passing, Esper Dream is hard. Opponents frequently outnumber you and love to rush you down relentlessly or hang back lobbing projectiles at your slow-moving boy hero. Some even abuse an unavoidable full-screen “flash” attack that automatically removes a large chunk of your health if you don’t kill them fast enough. That’s extra bad news because killing anything fast is no mean feat. Your guns are some of the most feeble weapons I’ve had the misfortune to wield in a game. The strongest of the available three, the bazooka, still requires dozens upon dozens of shots to take down a single late game baddie. That’s no exaggeration; feel free to count them if you like. This is why the Psi Beam is so important. It’s the only attack worth a damn in the back half of the game! Your armor options, with the exception of the Barrier Suit found in the depths of the final area, are similarly inadequate given the amount of punishment you’re subject to. Adding insult to injury, HP and MP recovery items are costly and are only sold in one shop. Said shop isn’t located in Brick Village, either, which is the one town you’re able to warp to easily. The game obviously isn’t impossible. Once you know to stock up on recovery items, save often, and put your trust in Psi Beams rather than your puny guns, you can indeed finish it. I can’t help but feel, though, that the opposition you’ll face in last few area is just too oppressive for the game’s own good. It sucks much of the fun out of things and conflicts with the setting’s cheery tone.

Despite this frustration, I didn’t wind up hating Esper Dream. In fact, I’d say it merits a qualified recommendation. The presention is appealing, progression isn’t overly cryptic by the standards of the day, and the first half is exactly the lighthearted romp you’re primed for at the outset. If you’re an experienced, patient gamer, you should be able to weather the oddly intense turn it takes in the final stretch and come away mostly satisfied. While it’s not about to dethrone Getsu Fūma Den as my favorite of Konami’s ’87 RPG bumper crop, it is ultimately more dream than nightmare.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (Master System)

I’ve had quite the run of pure action games lately. Think I’ll pump the brakes over the few weeks with some more thoughtful adventure and RPG fare. First up is one of the Master System’s most acclaimed titles, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.

This 1989 Westone production is a direct sequel to 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. In the event you weren’t already aware of this, the game is keen to remind you. It commences with a playable prologue in which you reenact the climax of Monster Land. As Tom-Tom the Wonder Boy, you once again storm the castle of the MEKA Dragon and slay the beast. This time, however, it manages to curse you upon its death, transforming you into a lowly Lizard-Man and simultaneously stripping away all your cool equipment and health upgrades. In other words, it’s back to square one as you’re forced to scour the land rebuilding your power and hunting for the legendary Salamander Cross, the sole artifact capable of restoring your human form.

Dragon’s Trap would hardly be a true Wonder Boy game without a convoluted release history. It made it to the TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as Dragon’s Curse, the PC Engine in 1991 as Adventure Island (not to be confused with the Hudson Soft series of the same name that was itself a Wonder Boy spin-off), the handheld Game Gear in 1992, and the Brazilian Master System in 1993 as the comic-licensed Turma da Mônica em o Resgate (“Monica’s Gang in the Rescue”). Most recently, a 2017 remake for multiple platforms was widely praised for modernizing the art and music without altering the classic gameplay.

I chose the Master System original as my introduction because I’m the kind of guy who likes to go right to the source when possible. If you do the same, take my advice and keep a second controller plugged in and close by. One of the Master System’s most unfortunate hardware limitations is a pause button situated on the main unit rather than the controller. Thankfully, Dragon’s Trap includes a workaround for this: You can use controller two to access the in-game menu instead of having to get up and walk across the room every time. Why this godsend of a workaround goes undocumented by the game’s official manual is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, after vanquishing the MEKA Dragon, the newly-cursed Wonder Boy is free to start his odyssey in earnest. This entails venturing off from a central hub town in order to locate the game’s five main dungeons and defeat the five boss dragons who make their homes therein. It’s side-scrolling exporatory platforming in the usual Metroid mold. As in most such games, the journey isn’t 100% non-linear. Some areas of the world can only be reached using specific special movement abilities gained in other areas. No matter how good a player you are, you can’t just march to the final dragon’s castle and retrieve the Salamander Cross first thing.

What makes Dragon’s Trap stand out some is the way its central dilemma, the shape-changing curse affecting Wonder Boy, doubles as character progression. The hero gains most of his new abilities not from equipment found or purchased, but from unlocking new monster forms. The starting Lizard-Man has a ranged fire breath attack. After you defeat the next boss dragon in the sequence, you become the tiny Mouse-Man and can now cling to certain walls and ceilings. Next comes underwater specialist Piranha-Man, followed by master swordsman Lion-Man, and finally aerial ace Hawk-Man. Early on, you’ll be stuck in whichever form you happen to have been cursed with most recently. Later, you’ll discover specific rooms where you can swap between them as needed.

This isn’t to say there’s any shortage of equipment to acquire, only that most of it provides basic boosts to Wonder Boy’s attack and defense stats rather than wholly new abilities. Interestingly, the game also implements a third stat called charm, which exists as a safeguard to prevent you from simply grinding out a ton of gold up front and buying all the best gear straightway. Charm is based primarily on your current items equipped and merchants won’t sell you their best stuff if it isn’t high enough. It essentially means you’re forced to go through several intermediate grades of weapon and armor before you can invest in the top of the line.

The action in Dragon’s Trap will feel familiar to anyone who’s played its predecessor or its Genesis sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster World. Walking has a slightly slippery “ice level” feel to it at all times and combat consists primary of short range short thrusts supplemented by a handful of limited use spells. This combination of loose movement and precise attack timing definitely qualifies as an acquired taste. While healing potions and extra heart containers help, the last few dungeons are still brutal. I actually found the final third of this one tougher than the dreaded Zelda II, mostly due to the lack of extra lives. One death in a dungeon is all it takes to ship you all the way back to town.

Although it nails most of the adventure fundamentals admirably, there are a handful of areas where Dragon’s Trap isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Underwater terrain is uncommon, so Piranha-Man doesn’t enjoy the same prominence as the other animal forms. While I’m on the subject, Lion-Man’s gimmick (an improved sword attack) also feels like a missed opportunity. He is a lion, after all. Were fangs, claws, roaring, and pouncing not inspiration enough? Lastly, a wider selection of friendly NPCs would have gone a long way toward making this iteration of the Monster Land/World setting feel more lived in. Apart from the cute nurse at the hospital, everyone else you encounter is either an enemy or a cigarette smoking pig that runs a weapon shop.

Provided you’re up for a challenge and can learn to love its finicky combat, Dragon’s Trap will delight. The shapeshifting mechanics are genuinely clever, as is the level design, and it features some of the best graphics and sound on the system. I’ve played a couple other Master System games in the genre (Golden Axe Warrior, Golvellius) and this is far and away the best of the three. It’s close to being the best of its series, too, only being edged out by the phenomenal Monster World IV. If you’ve been searching for a Master System fantasy quest on par with the best the NES has to offer, look no further. This here’s the real deal, and I ain’t lion, man.

Oof. That last one was bad even for me.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.

On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

Before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.

Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit that was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series that began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.

Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.

While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct  follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.

The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells that can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.

With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.

It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap and causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, that adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.

Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right?

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.

As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (the manual humorously dubs them “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.

To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.

Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.

U.N. Squadron (Super Nintendo)

Hey, Super Nintendo fans: Are you ready for the sort of pulse pounding, face melting action that could only come from the most extreme intergovernmental organization on the planet? That’s right, I’m talking about the United goddamn Nations! So strap in, punks, because they’re coming at you with all 193 member states and at least as many ways to kick your ass in their official video game adaptation, U.N. Squadron!

Yeah, so Capcom’s 1991 horizontal shooter U.N. Squadron has nothing at all to do with its real world namesake. It’s based on the manga Area 88, about mercenary jet pilots operating out of the war-torn and wholly fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom of Arslan. Given Area 88’s obscurity outside Japan, a new name for the international editions made sense. I only wish they’d arrived at a more viscerally appealing one. The name is all that’s been changed, too. This isn’t one of those cases where licensed elements were stripped out of a game wholesale. The Area 88 characters and the eponymous air base itself are still present in U.N. Squadron.

In most games of this type, such details wouldn’t really matter. U.N. Squadron, however, uses its license to justify a number of clever design choices which set it apart from its contemporaries. For example, the first thing you’re expected to do is pick your character. Each of the three playable pilots has his own special ability. Shin Kazama is able to power-up his plane’s main gun the fastest. Mickey Scymon can carry the most missiles, bombs, and other limited use sub-weapons. Last, and definitely not least, my main man Greg Gates recovers from damage twice as fast as the rest. Be advised that once you choose, you’re committed for the duration of your current playthrough. In general, the durable Greg is ideal for beginners, Shin shines at the intermediate level, and Mickey is hard mode.

After you’ve settled on a pilot, you next need to choose your plane and its special weapon loadout. The manga’s mercenary premise is represented brilliantly here by an in-game economy based on your performance in battle. Every target you destroy and mission you complete earns you cold, hard cash in addition to the standard points and extra lives. You’ll want to scrape together all the blood money you can in order to afford better planes and more powerful weapons over the course of your campaign. I love the thorny strategic tradeoffs baked into this shop system. Loading your jet up with as many added weapons as possible will increase your odds of survival, but you’ll lose every penny sunk into them if you’re shot down anyway. Similarly, upgrading your ride from the default Crusader, which has no particular strengths to speak of, to a more capable craft like the Tomcat or Thunderbolt can be helpful in the mid-game. At the same time, doing so may prevent you from ever being able to afford the very best plane, the million dollar Efreet.

You now have a pilot, a plane, and an arsenal. Would you believe you’re not making decisions yet? U.N. Squadron also works in a tactical map screen that doubles as a mission select menu. You’re given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to which order you want to tacked the game’s ten stages in, apart from the first and last ones, which are fixed. Complicating things further, a few map markers represent mobile air or sea units advancing on Area 88. If they make it there, you’ll be forced to fight them off regardless of your personal preference.

All this player choice cropping up in what’s typically an extremely straightforward style of game is emblematic of a Capcom tradition that dates back to the 1986 NES port of Commando: Heavily retooling an arcade title with an eye toward bolstering the home version’s replayability. U.N. Squadron’s arcade iteration from 1989 had traditional linear stage progression and restricted each pilot to his own signature aircraft. If it wasn’t for the loss of arcade’s two-player feature, this deeper Super Nintendo release would be superior in every way.

Of course, these fancy options need to be in service of some quality shooting action or the whole production would be in vain. I’m happy to report that U.N. Squadron doesn’t disappoint, delivering some truly remarkable gameplay and level design. Controls are precise and responsive. The six planes and eleven special weapons are all effective in their own ways and fun to experiment with. The various areas you battle in have distinct visual identities and their unique topographies actually inform your tactics. Enemy patterns are diverse. Bosses are huge, deadly, and immensely satisfying to take down. As if this all wasn’t enough, it also boasts audiovisual pizzazz to spare and runs significantly better than much of its early Super Nintendo competition, putting the likes of Gradius III and Super R-Type to shame in the framerate department. Simply put, this was Capcom at their peak, doing what they did best. Cracking stuff.

Difficulty-wise, U.N. Squadron is simultaneously fierce and forgiving. You’re quite unlikely to finish it on your first try, as considerable trial-and-error is required and you’re limited to just three continues. Your saving grace is the damage system. Unlike in most shooters, you won’t be blown out of the sky by a single stray bullet. Rather, you have a sort of conditional health bar. Taking a hit will put you into a special danger state for a few seconds. If you get hit again while in danger, you’re toast. Survive the danger period, though, and your health will recover to slightly less than what it was before you took that hit. You can’t repeat this cycle forever, sadly, since four or five consecutive hits will deplete the bar fully and leave you in danger indefinitely. Still, that’s four or five more hits than I’m used to being able to brush off in these games. It helps.

Any way you slice it, this is a top shelf shoot-’em-up, one of the best ever made for the SNES. Even the most strident of genre snobs, who never hesitate to give the console grief for its pokey CPU, generally hail U.N. Squadron as a masterpiece. In a perfect world, it would have been the start of a magnificent series. Instead, its legacy is limited to a lone arcade pseudo-sequel, the obscure Carrier Air Wing. About the only complaint I can muster is that it’s yet another case of a vintage shooter with no true built-in autofire for your main gun. Either game developers back then were all in bed with the turbo controller manufacturers or they vastly overestimated their audience’s fondness for incessant tapping. Oh, well. I suppose if any game is worth a little finger pain, it’s this one.