Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

It’s well documented by now that I adore Konami’s Ganbare Goemon cycle of adventure-tinged action games. It all started back in 1992 with the previously Japan-exclusive franchise’s international debut as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo. I was instantly captivated by Mystical Ninja’s quality gameplay and irreverent take on traditional Japanese folklore. But what about all the other Goemon titles I didn’t even suspect existed back in those hazy pre-Internet days? Talk about a goldmine! Thus, I’ve recently branched out and began exploring the frizzy-haired bandit’s more obscure outings. Well, obscure to us Americans, anyway.

Next up is 1989’s Ganbare Goemon 2, the third entry in the saga and the follow-up to the wildly successful Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū from 1986. Note that this game is not to be conflated with its own Super Famicom sequel, 1993’s Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu, which I already reviewed a while back. Confusing, I know. Special thanks to Stardust Crusaders for the unofficial English translation. The game would have still been beatable without it, but a good portion of the jokes would have been lost on me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 doesn’t stray far from the template Karakuri Dōchū established. It functions in most respects as a direct extension of its forebear, albeit with fewer rough edges and a handful of non-trivial upgrades. Your general goal is still to guide Goemon on a slapstick odyssey across medieval Japan while fending off its many hostile denizens with swings of his mighty kiseru pipe. The trip is still structured as a succession of massive overhead perspective stages, most of which require you to find three hidden gate passes before a time limit expires in order to move on. You still collect money and patronize various inns, shops, and mini-games along the way.

The most significant new addition by far is Goemon’s literal partner in crime, the chubby weirdo Ebisumaru. Finally! If you ask me, it’s barely a Ganbare Goemon game without Ebi. He’s the yin to Goemon’s yang. The chocolate to his peanut butter. The Luigi to his Mario. His inclusion here allows for the two-player simultaneous play that would be present in almost every future main series installment. He also provides what little Ganbare Goemon 2 has in the way of plot. The opening depicts the two thieves sitting in jail and Ebisumaru mentions to Goemon that there’s supposedly a great treasure hidden inside the remote Karakuri Castle. Determined to claim it, they promptly break out of their cell and the first level begins.

As nice as the two-player support is, I might just appreciate the boss fights more. One of Karakuri Dōchū’s few major letdowns was its total lack of such climactic encounters. It feels wrong somehow for an action game to end with the player simply strolling through a doorway unopposed. There’s no shortage of bosses here. In addition to providing extra challenge and drama, they’re an ideal showcase for the developers’ strange and anachronistic sense of humor. Expect a sumo robot, a giant peach, and more to come between Goemon and his prize.

A third key improvement over Karakuri Dōchū, at least in my eyes, is Ganbare Goemon 2’s markedly less brutal difficulty. You get continues this time! More specifically, you get a rather novel interactive continue screen where you must mash a button in order to prevent Goemon from being lowered into a boiling cauldron. Pretty amusing when you consider that the historical Ishikawa Goemon actually did meet his end this way. I’ve always been of the mind that funny games shouldn’t impose overly strict penalties for failure. If the player is forced to repeat the same sections too frequently, the relaxed anticipation of the next gag or crazy scenario soon gives way to annoyance. That never bodes well for comedy.

What does benefit the mood is all the extra personality on display here. Karakuri Dōchū was surprisingly down-to-earth in light of how madcap these games would become in the 16-bit era and beyond. Ganbare Goemon 2 is where the lunacy starts to ramp up in earnest. For example, the last game’s simple interstitial cut scenes of Goemon distributing his stolen gains to the poor à la Robin Hood are replaced by a sequence of increasingly unhinged comic vignettes. My favorite sees Goemon and Ebisumaru donning frilly dresses and doing their best saucy cabaret dance, complete with gratuitous double pantie flash at the end. Gee, thanks, guys. Keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky spin on Super Mario Bros.’s “your princess is in another castle” schtick, too.

Personally, I wouldn’t rank Ganbare Goemon 2 among its powerhouse publisher’s all-time best. At least not so far as general audiences are concerned. The sound and visuals are merely adequate. The combat and platforming are similarly serviceable at best, with the noteworthy drawbacks of iffy hit detection and some borderline unreactable enemy spawns along the screen edges. Strictly as a standalone game, it’s alright; a pleasant enough diversion, if not an instant classic akin to Castlevania or Contra. It is a nigh indisputable improvement on its immediate predecessor, however, and a must-play for dedicated Ganbare Goemon fans. Two-player mayhem, proper boss fights, an overall less stressful journey, and a greater emphasis on the absurd are nothing to sneeze at. All these enhancements were important building blocks for the ever grander and more manic escapades to come. Though not quite there yet, Konami was very much on the right track with this one.

Ufouria: The Saga (NES)

NES owners in the so-called PAL regions (Europe and Australia) missed out on scores of amazing games back in the day. Final Fantasy, Mega Man 6, Ninja Gaiden III, all four Dragon Quests, the list goes on. All this wanton deprivation did have its silver lining, though, since there was also a small selection of excellent PAL releases which never made it here to North America. Among them was Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga, a refreshingly wacky take on the Metroid-inspired exploratory platformer.

Originally published in Japan as Hebereke (a term denoting slapstick drunkenness), 1991’s Ufouria served as the public’s introduction to a group of cutesy mascot characters who would go on to star in a total of ten games. A few of these characters received name changes or visual alterations in the PAL version. The penguin-like lead hero Hebe became a snowman named Bop-Louie, for example. Most of the wider Hebereke series is exclusive to Japan and consists of puzzle games. Despite debuting as a side-scrolling action-adventure, no further entries were ever made in this same vein.

The plot here is a simple yet strange one about four friends who fall into a mysterious crater and find themselves separated and lost in a surreal world, questing for a way home. The localized title Ufouria seems to be based on these four playable characters, whom you swap between regularly over the course of the adventure. As in virtually all games of this kind, exploration is periodically rewarded with new abilities, most of which allow you to access previously unreachable sections of the world. In Ufouria, many of these abilities take the form of new characters rather than equipment.

At the outset, you control Bop-Louie, who has a fast walk speed and an aversion to water. Before long, you stumble on his orange lizard buddy, Freeon-Leon. Leon’s been stricken with amnesia and actually attacks Bop-Louie but, after a short battle, snaps out of it and joins your team. While a slow walker, he’s a much better swimmer and won’t slip on ice. This same process is later repeated when you encounter the long-jumping ghost Shades and underwater specialist Gil. In addition to their innate advantages, each character can also learn a new move or two from items. Bop-Louie can climbs walls once he acquires suction cups, Gil can spit out bombs, and so on. They’ll need all the help they can get to gather the three far-flung keys needed to open the way home.

All their scavenger hunting won’t go unopposed, of course. Both common mooks and tougher bosses show up to harass the four friends. Combat in Ufouria feels very much inspired by the Super Mario games in that your two main modes of attack are jumping on top of foes and hurling stuff at them. These methods compliment each other, as some baddies will leave behind throwable items when stomped. This is how the majority of boss fights play out: The boss itself will be stomp-proof, requiring you to pelt it with objects dropped by its minions. Annoyingly, you need to remember to hold down on the directional pad whenever you land on an enemy, otherwise you’ll take damage instead of dealing it. I’m not sure why this isn’t automatic, but at least it doesn’t take too long to become habit.

One noteworthy feature of Ufouria is its extremely forgiving design. NES action-adventure games are known for their convoluted layouts, cryptic puzzles, and a general lack of in-game guidance. That’s not a condemnation, merely an observation. I love me some opaque head-scratchers like Legacy of the Wizard, after all. Sunsoft, on the other hand, practically bends over backwards here to make sure you’re never without some sort of clear direction. The auto-map highlights the locations of every key item. When in doubt, head for the colored dots. Couple this with the fact that the majority of enemies aren’t particularly fast or aggressive and Ufouria makes a good starting point for players new to the genre. The one glaring exception to this user friendly approach is the health system, which sadly borrows the most tedious trick from Metroid’s playbook. Whenever you continue your game, be it after a death or by inputting a password, you start with a bare minimum amount of energy and must either mindlessly grind out dozens of kills for small healing pickups or expend a precious limited-use healing potion to recover. It’s as needlessly cruel as ever, even if Bop-Louie and crew will probably bite the dust a lot less often than Samus Aran.

What makes Ufouria worth experiencing regardless of your skill level or any minor gripes like the ones mentioned above is its killer combination of kooky art direction and rocking Naoki Kodaka chiptunes. Befitting its Japanese title, the visuals have an anarchic, off-kilter sensibility. Think “Hello Kitty on a week-long bender” and you won’t be far off. This is hammered home as early as the first screen transition, which sees Bop-Louie climbing up what appears to be a rope or vine. His means of ascent is then quickly revealed to be a tendril of drool emitting from the slack mouth of an hovering disembodied purple face. Welcome to Ufouria! If you harbor any fondness at all for games in the Monster Party mold that keep you guessing throughout with their madcap creative choices, Ufouria is a must-play. As far as the soundtrack goes, it’s prime Kodaka. Not only are the compositions themselves top-notch, the Sunsoft sound team’s characteristic use of meaty bass samples lends them a full, rich tone you simply couldn’t get from any other company’s 8-bit offerings. Unless special audio expansion chips were employed, that is. I loved this approach in Journey to Silius, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Batman: Return of the Joker and I love it just as much here.

I really dig Ufouria. Its endearing style, easygoing action, and quality Sunsoft production make it a prime example of a comfy, rainy day afternoon sort of adventure; one you can throw whenever you have a few hours to spare and don’t feel up to anything too demanding. Our oft-neglected pals across the pond hit the jackpot for once with this one. Good on them.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

For a simple PC Engine shoot-’em-up, 1991’s Final Soldier is a surprisingly tricky game to write about. Produced by Hudson Soft and developed by Now Production, it’s the third entry in Hudson’s flagship Star Soldier line of vertical shooters. Upholding series tradition, it served as the centerpiece of that year’s Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, a long-running (1985-2006) annual high score contest the company used to promote its latest games. It’s well-designed, attractively presented alien blasting. It’s…well, it’s more Star Soldier. See what I mean? Only one paragraph into this review and I’m already running short of material.

When dealing with a franchise this consistent, I’m probably best off adopting a Mega Man approach. That is, getting the boilerplate stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so I can focus instead on the subtle tweaks that make a specific installment ever so slightly different from what came before. Here goes!

Final Soldier has a classic space shooter plot, in that it’s short, sweet, and confined entirely to the instruction booklet. Time travelling aliens called the Gader’el are attacking 23rd century Earth and the experimental Dryad fighter craft is humanity’s last line of defense. Its mission encompasses seven lengthy stages set in a variety of conventional video game locales, such as outer space, the ocean, and a futuristic city. Each zone has a pushover mid-boss and a tougher end boss, except the final one, which is an extended running battle against the ultimate baddie and its swarm of minions. Nothing special, but kudos to the developers for not padding the finale out with a lazy boss rush like so many other shooters of the era.

The weapon system is where things get interesting. The Dryad has a machine gun type main shot by default and this can be swapped out for energy waves, lasers, or a flamethrower by picking up icons of the appropriate color dropped by defeated enemies. Grabbing multiple same colored icons in a row will level-up your current weapon, increasing its area of effect and damage. Upgraded weapons also double as armor, since getting hit while wielding one results in a loss of firepower in lieu of instant death. Missiles and Gradius style option pods round out your arsenal, which is a pretty typical one by genre standards. Final Soldier’s ace in the hole is the Set-Up menu accessed from the title screen. Here, you can change the properties of the energy wave, laser, flamethrower, and missiles (though not the machine gun for some reason). The three modes available for a given weapon have a profound effect on its operation. For example, the normal straight laser shot can be swapped out for a chaotic torrent of blue bubbles. This effectively ups the number of unique weapons in the game from a modest five to a generous thirteen. Even the option pods have a nifty secondary function: You can sacrifice them as needed to trigger a full-screen super attack.

Another factor that differentiates Final Soldier from earlier Star Soldier outings is its relative ease. Super Star Soldier pushed my patience to the limit with its grueling, glitchy last area. Someone behind the scenes must have felt the same way, because there’s nothing remotely comparable here. Final Soldier’s default difficulty setting will be a cakewalk for any experienced player. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a more casual “kick back and blaze away” experience and reminds me of some of my favorite Compile-developed shooters in this regard. If you’re a fellow Gun-Nac or Space Megaforce fan, you’ll be right at home. Besides, I can always throw Super Star Soldier back on if I want an ass kicking.

So there you have it: Final Soldier is the same tried-and-true Star Soldier formula with a deeper than average weapon system and a relaxed approach to challenge. Between its crisp graphics, high energy music, silky smooth control, and viscerally satisfying shooting action, you really can’t go wrong with this one. While I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the PCE heap with Air Zonk and Blazing Lazers, it’s still a highly competent work with no outstanding flaws. Pity it was destined to be the “lost” Star Soldier game back in the day, having never been ported to the North American TurboGrafx-16 like its predecessor, Super Star Soldier, or its sequel, Soldier Blade. Sequel? Why, of course! You didn’t think this was the final one, did you?

Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

The developers at Chunsoft had their work cut out for them when it came time to craft a follow-up to their 1988 smash hit RPG, Dragon Quest III. The pioneering series had been a phenomenon across Japan from day one, but the public’s response to the third installment in particular bordered on frenzy. Widespread school and work truancy on its Wednesday launch date prompted rumors the Japanese legislature had drafted a law forbidding Dragon Quest’s publisher, Enix, from releasing future installments on weekdays. Like the supposed Space Invaders yen coin shortage a decade prior, this was just an urban legend. The fact that it seemed plausible to so many, however, speaks volumes to the game’s cultural impact. To this day, it routinely shows up at or near the top of many Japanese “best games ever” lists. It wasn’t just a tough act to follow, it was arguably the toughest.

The safe, obvious route would have been to double down on III’s most iconic gameplay feature: Its character class system. A fully customizable adventuring party had made for an exponential increase in strategy and replay value over the previous two entries, after all. Cut to 1990 and Dragon Quest IV finally ships with no character creation component whatsoever! Rather than staying the course and praying for lightning to strike twice, lead designer Yuji Horii and company opted to further their burgeoning saga through more thoughtful writing and an unorthodox story structure. A bold stroke indeed for the minds behind a franchise long noted for its hidebound conservative bent in relation to its contemporaries. Let’s see how it panned out for them.

Not being fluent in Japanese, I’m reviewing Dragon Quest IV’s official North American NES localization, Dragon Warrior IV, which suffered the misfortune of being delayed until late 1992. The 16-bit consoles were in their prime by then and relatively few were interested in shelling out a hefty chunk of change for a primitive looking 8-bit RPG in a post-Final Fantasy IV world. If you caught this one in its prime, you were likely a weirdo who got hooked on the series early and wouldn’t have missed an installment for the world. So, yeah, I played the hell out of it.

Admittedly, the broad strokes of Dragon Warrior IV don’t make it seem like much of a departure. A stock medieval fantasy world is threatened by an evil overlord and only a hero of prophecy and his/her loyal companions can stop him. This entails wandering the land in search of magic MacGuffins while vanquishing hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in menu-driven combat. Killing these monsters (all of which benefit greatly from adorable designs by famed manga artist Akira Toriyama) nets you the money and experience points needed to power-up your party. This in turn allows you to keep the Pavlovian cycle going when you inevitably encounter tougher baddies in the next area. Doing fetch quests to make numbers go up; such is the way of Dragon Quest. The fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is where story structure and writing come to the fore. Dragon Warrior IV takes JRPG clichés which were already growing long in the tooth by the end of the ’80s and sort of inverts them. The result feels both fresh and familiar. Most notably, you don’t start out controlling the chosen one. The narrative unfolds across five distinct chapters, with the main protagonist not appearing at all until the start of the final one, many hours into the game. Before then, you’re introduced to all seven of the hero’s eventual allies. First up is Ragnar, a stalwart soldier tasked by the king of Burland with investigating an epidemic of missing children. Next is Alena, tomboy princess of Santeem, who escapes her castle with two helpful retainers in tow and sets out prove her strength to the world at large. After that is Taloon, the portly, middle-aged merchant and family man who takes up adventuring in order to get rich enough to buy his own shop and build a commercial empire. Finally, there’s Mara and Nara, sisters and powerful magicians hunting for revenge on the man who murdered their alchemist father. Only after you’ve completed all four of these preliminary adventures, some of which are virtually mini-RPGs unto themselves, does the world truly open up and the full scope of the quest reveal itself.

Similarly, the identity of the antagonist and the nature of his schemes isn’t immediately spelled out to you as it was in the previous three games. Vague whispers and portents are all you have to go on until much later, when he eventually does appear in the flesh to make his motivation clear. Yes, the villain has a real motivation this time. The writers didn’t just decide to make him an “archfiend” and call it day. That’s progress.

I definitely don’t want to oversell the storytelling here. This remains a terse NES RPG and there aren’t exactly reams of sparkling dialog provided to bolster its ambitions. Your party members only speak a handful of lines each over the course of the game and much of their personalities are merely implied. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving a few blank spaces for the player’s imagination to fill in, and walking a mile in each party member’s shoes can’t help but endear them to you at least a little. Moreover, a game doesn’t necessary need to be wordy to be clever. Take the opening to chapter three, in which you play through weapon merchant Taloon’s typical work day. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually be the poor schlub who gets to stand behind a counter all day, waiting patiently for random fantasy heroes to drop in and sell you the extra copper swords they looted from dead slimes? Talk about role playing! This sequence is hilarious and blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game unmistakably poking fun at itself by lampooning a common genre trope. These so-called fourth wall breaks are commonplace in media today, to the point where they’re as trite as anything they ostensibly call out. This wasn’t the case at all thirty years ago, making Taloon’s introduction one of gaming’s most memorable. It’s no wonder he became the breakout star of the cast and went on to star in the the first three installments of the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series.

Visually, there’s not much to distinguish Dragon Warrior IV from its predecessors. Crude, squat sprites waddling over unnaturally gridded terrain is the rule, interspersed with detailed close-ups of Toriyama’s wacky monsters during battle. The final boss fight is, fittingly, the highlight. Your adversary’s form contorts and mutates in various hideous ways throughout, the animation of which seems lavish in the extreme after so many hours spent staring at static portraits of foes. Much more impressive as a whole is Koichi Sugiyama’s sprawling soundtrack, which clocks in at nearly an hour. Sugiyama is a classically trained composer who had been working on major television and film productions for years before adding video games to his portfolio in 1985 at the tender age of 54. His unusual background (the average game composer circa 1990 was a twentysomething rock fan who’d played in a band or two in college) makes his chiptune work wholly unique. Consider the gobsmacking end theme, a ten minute magnum opus that seamlessly weaves melodies from every chapter together into a veritable NES symphony. It’s the most grandiose piece ever written for the system’s humble five voice sound chip, and I don’t consider that debatable.

Before this devolves into a total puff piece, I should probably mention Dragon Warrior IV’s most divisive element: Diminished player control during the game’s second half. See, the first four chapters play out like they would in any other RPG: You issue battle commands for each party member and they dutifully execute those commands. This goes out the window in chapter five, where you’re suddenly restricted to commanding the legendary hero alone and the other seven members of your team operate at the behest of the game’s A.I. Your influence over them is limited to selecting from a few broad tactical paradigms (Offensive, Defensive, Use No MP, etc). No matter what, the majority of your moves will be chosen for you from here on out. I’m torn on this feature. It’s offputting at first, no doubt, and you’re bound to taste defeat at least once or twice due to boneheaded calls by the CPU. On the plus side, removing a good 75% of the decision making and button pressing speeds things along and keeps time spent mindlessly grinding money and experience to a minimum. I suppose if this is a dealbreaker for you, you could try the 2008 Nintendo DS remake. It allows you full control from start to finish, though it also tacks a sixth chapter onto the main story which isn’t nearly as well-designed or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Make mine the original.

Correcting for my middle school nostalgia as much as possible, I still love Dragon Warrior IV. By taking the usual “save the world” plot fans were accustomed to and rearranging it in a less front-loaded manner, Chunsoft carved out breathing room for mystery and allowed for a gradual raising of the stakes, all without alienating the faithful. Better still, the decision to focus on a playable ensemble with their own distinct backstories and goals added a much-needed human element to the proceedings and paved the way for even more fully-realized Dragon Quest characters to come. The loss of the mute, contextless custom heroes from the last game is a small price to pay for all that. Many, myself included, consider this the best turn-based RPG available for the NES. As for its fate at retail, the delayed American version predictably flopped hard. So hard, in fact, that Enix took an eight year hiatus from exporting Dragon Quest titles. The Japanese edition fared much better, to the tune of three million copies. This makes it the fourth best-selling Famicom game of all time, coming in right behind, you guessed it, Dragon Quest III.