Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Game Boy)

So that’s why they call him Kid Icarus! It finally makes sense!

I’ve always been partial to Nintendo’s Kid Icarus. Rough around the edges and quirky to a fault, it’s clearly the odd man out alongside its fellow 1986 alumni Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Regardless, its satisfying challenge and screwball take on Greek mythology are enough to keep me coming back for another playthrough at least every other year or so. A flawed NES classic, but a classic nonetheless.

Nintendo themselves don’t seem to share my enthusiasm for the property. They were in no rush to continue the saga, and when they finally did, in the form of 1991’s Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, they seemingly sunk the bare minimum of effort and resources into it. OMaM is a Game Boy exclusive that never saw a physical release in Japan. What’s more, much of the work on it was farmed out to Tose, a prolific “ghost developer” with a spotty at best track record. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, OMaM is anything but. It’s a worthy follow-up, albeit one which adds so little to the formula that it feels more like a handheld expansion pack for the ’86 game than a true sequel.

Winged warrior Pit returns to defend Angel Land at the behest of the goddess Palutena. The threat this time is a demon named Orcos, and stopping him will require recovering the same three sacred treasures as last time in essentially the same manner. Like the original, OMaM is a side-view action-platformer with very light exploration and RPG elements. Pit’s odyssey is divided up into an underworld, a surface world, and a sky world. Each world consists of three linear stages capped off by a maze-like fortress where a boss guards ones of the treasures. Once he’s gathered all three, all that remains is for Pit to equip them for a major power boost before heading off to the final confrontation.

What about those RPG elements? Well, the points gained by killing enemies function as experience, increasing Pit’s maximum health at certain preset thresholds. Every level also contains numerous doors. These can lead to strength upgrades for Pit’s primary weapon (a bow), new weapons entirely, shops where he can spend in-game currency on various goods, health-restoring hot springs, and more. It’s no Final Fantasy, just enough to allow for a pleasing sense of discovery and character growth throughout.

Everything I’ve described so far is a carbon copy of the NES game. Does OMaM bring anything new to the table? Yes. A couple things, actually. Too bad I came away largely indifferent to one of them and let down by the other.

The secret doors are fairly innocuous. Pit can uncover these by striking at suspicious walls with hammers and will usually be rewarded for it with some extra goodies or healing. Nothing in these chambers is required to finish the game, however, so there’s no need to fret if you miss a few.

More questionable in my view is the decision to remove falling deaths entirely. The first Kid Icarus is renowned for its high stakes platforming, particularly in vertically scrolling areas, where touching the bottom of the screen at any point spells Pit’s doom. A lot of players understandably loathe this design choice, since one missed jump is all it takes to force a restart of the current stage. Not me, though. One man’s unwelcome stress is another’s thrilling suspense, after all. Climbing higher and higher, making death-defying leaps between minuscule platforms as I fend off a constant stream of flying enemies is my idea of a great time. By contrast, falling in OMaM is a non-event. Pit will simply land on a slightly lower platform and you’ll have the opportunity to try the same section again right away. While I do understand why some prefer this more forgiving approach, give me the added tension any day.

Apart from the handful of hidden doors and the reduced difficulty, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is effectively pure retread. Fine by me! I’m a simple man, and more of a game I already love is an easy sell, especially when it looks and sounds fantastic by Game Boy standards. So long as I can still get transformed into a sentient eggplant with legs, I’m down.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even…a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience, and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Final Fantasy (NES)

Christmas 1990 was my season of Final Fantasy. Enix’s Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) had served as my introduction to turn-based RPGs the year before and I was chomping at the bit for more of that same monster bashing, treasure hunting, level grinding fun. Nintendo Power magazine had been pushing the game like nobody’s business over the lead-up to the holidays, going so far as to make their October issue a dedicated 80-page strategy guide. I suppose they were still banking on RPGs blossoming into a national craze here the way they had in Japan. Sorry, guys. Between my own recent gaming experiences and this unrelenting press hype, I couldn’t shut up about Final Fantasy. There was no doubt in my mind it’d be waiting for me under the tree, although that might just be because I made it a point to discover where the presents were secreted away beforehand so I could check.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. In any case, it’s tough to blame me. Square’s little Dragon Quest killer that could represented a major leap forward for Famicom RPGs when it debuted in Japan in December of 1987 and that impression carried over to its eventual American release. To understand why, it’s useful to compare it to its most prominent Japanese competitor, Dragon Quest II. Not only did the much flashier Final Fantasy clean up in the graphics department, its RPG mechanics were exponentially deeper. Dragon Quest II’s party of three predefined characters was child’s play next to Final Fantasy’s four member team built from the player’s choice of six distinct character classes. Combat also received a shot in the arm. Dragon Quest’s static first-person view was replaced by a revolutionary battle screen that showcased both the monsters and animated versions of the player’s party. Even the methods used to navigate Final Fantasy’s sprawling world felt like a step up. Both games give the party a sailing ship for ocean voyages, but Final Fantasy threw in a canoe for rivers and that almighty franchise staple, the Airship. In short, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team really threw down the gauntlet with this one. Final Fantasy is a bold, swaggering title that’s better than the first two Dragon Quests combined and knows it. In retrospect, it had “flagship” written all over it. It’s no wonder Square swiftly abandoned its eclectic roots to become a highly focused purveyor of RPGs thereafter.

What does one actually do in Final Fantasy? Well, in terms of story and overall gameplay structure, it’s an archetypal late ’80s console RPG. Four heroes known as the Light Warriors are prophesied to appear when the world is in peril, each bearing a darkened orb representing one of the elements. Their mission is to restore light to these orbs by defeating the four Fiends, an alliance of evil magical beings responsible for turning said elements against humanity. This is accomplished via the usual mix of open-ended wilderness exploration and dungeon delving fetch quests, during which thousands of randomly appearing monsters will be slaughtered for their precious gold and experience points.

Like virtually all other RPGs of its era, Final Fantasy lacks the extensive characterization and constantly evolving plot lines that would become synonymous with the genre in the decades to come. NPCs express themselves with the most concise of declarations and none of the Light Warriors are given a single line of dialog. It’s a basic “save the world” errand with no elaboration furnished or required. The primary reason anyone would want to experience it, then and now, is the wealth of meaningful choices baked into in its core mechanics.

The main attraction is that character class system I mentioned. I can’t say enough good things about the six options on offer here. Three of them (the Fighter, Black Belt, and Thief) are primarily physical combatants, two (the Black and White Mages) are useful only for spellcasting, and one (the Red Mage) attempts to split the difference. Within these broad categories, care was taken to ensure every class shines in its own way. The Fighter, for example, is a rock. He can use any weapon or armor and is a steady, reliable source of melee damage throughout the game. The Black Belt, on the other hand, starts incredibly weak and the few items of equipment he can use only tend to make him weaker. By the late game, however, the Black Belt’s bare hands will drastically out-damage the Fighter’s best weapons. The Red Mage works much the same, except in reverse. His combination of magic with decent weapons and armor makes him the strongest class by far early on, yet he ultimately can’t keep pace with all the high-end spells and gear of his more focused counterparts. On top of all this, some classes can gain all new abilities partway through the game as part of an optional quest. This system of trade-offs makes Final Fantasy exceptionally replayable. Want to try an all physical or all magical team? Go for it! Four White Mages? You’re insane, but the game won’t stop you!

Another facet of Final Fantasy I enjoy is the combat. This is mainly due to one very controversial quirk of the battle system: Specific enemy targeting. Unlike in most turn-based RPGs, you don’t target whole enemy formations with your characters’ physical attacks, only single baddies. This feature is often perceived as a flaw or annoyance, since if two Light Warriors are going after the same monster and the first one kills it, the second hero’s strike will whiff for lack of a valid target. Most later revisions of the game remove this penalty in favor of a more forgiving automatic re-targeting. That’s a pity, as I think the older method is great. It forces you to plan each and every turn carefully in order to avoid wasting valuable moves. You need to consider the average damage output of your characters, the hit point totals and defenses of their opponents, etc. All these mandatory mental calculations are a perfect antidote to the mindless “mash the attack button to win” default of many other RPGs. If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider the classic NES version of Final Fantasy over its many remakes, this more involved and challenging take on combat is it.

On the flip side, the best argument for those remakes is the ludicrously buggy nature of the original. Final Fantasy shipped with an extremely ambitious magic system for the time and most of it either doesn’t function as intended or doesn’t function at all. The intelligence statistic is supposed to govern the strength of spells. In reality, it’s meaningless and this greatly hampers the effectiveness of late game attack magic. Some spells, such as TMPR, SABR, and LOCK, do nothing. LOK2 has the opposite of its intended effect, making the foe you cast it on harder to hit rather than easier. There’s also a whole cycle of enchanted swords meant to deal increased damage to particular enemy types. None of this bonus damage was actually implemented, resulting in a bunch of mediocre “non-magic magic” weapons you’re better off simply selling. I’m only scratching the surface here, believe it or not. While not quite game breaking, this avalanche of cumulative programming blunders serves as an unfortunate beginner’s trap for anyone not already well-versed in playing around them. If you have the ability to run patched game ROMs from a flash cartridge or in an emulator, do consider loading up AstralEsper’s Final Fantasy Restored or a similar fan-produced bug fix.

Looking past its bare bones narrative and litany of baffling bugs, I’m still in love with the first Final Fantasy. I love its timeless Nobuo Uematsu score, highlights of which were destined to be reverently repackaged into every subsequent series entry. I love its eldritch and intimidating Dungeons & Dragons-inspired monster designs by master illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Above all, I love its anything goes class system. Case in point: Halfway through writing this review, I got the urge to see how a group of two Black Belts and two Red Mages would fare. Just like that, I’ve started my next playthrough! So here’s to my first thirty years with Final Fantasy. Maybe I’ll finally be bored of it when 2050 rolls around. I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, though.

Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)

As 1993 drew to a close, Super Nintendo owners everywhere were wondering one thing: Where was Mega Man? The previous two years had seen Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and numerous other high-profile gaming properties with 8-bit roots make the leap to Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse. The absence of Capcom’s super fighting cash cow, already a six-time headliner on the NES, was positively glaring. Finally, December brought with it the Japanese release of Rockman X, predictably retitled Mega Man X for its North American rollout the following month. Whatever Capcom had been waiting for, it was worth it. This spin-off was destined to become one of the system’s most revered games, not to mention one of the brightest stars in the galaxy that is the extended Mega Man franchise.

But why? At first glance, it may not be obvious what the big deal is. The broad strokes of Mega Man X’s storyline and structure seem entirely in keeping with the blueprint established by the NES hexalogy. Robots are running amok at the behest of an evil mastermind? Check. Stopping them involves defeating eight boss robots in the order of your choice, followed by an assault on the mastermind’s lair? Check. Overcoming each of the initial eight bosses equips you with a new special weapon that one of the others is weak to? Check. In truth, Mega Man X’s overwhelming success is a rare testament to the power of just a few carefully chosen artistic and mechanical tweaks to radically reinvigorate a stale formula.

Set around a century after the events of the main series (or classic series, as it subsequently became known), Mega Man X follows the exploits of its eponymous robot hero. Archeologists stumble upon X, the final and greatest creation of the late Dr. Light, sealed in a capsule and use his design as the basis for a new breed of fully sentient robots, the Reploids. Unfortunately, some Reploids turn against humanity and are dubbed Mavericks. The newly-reactivated X now works as a Maverick Hunter, mentored by his more experienced partner, a too-cool-for-school brooding loner type by the name of Zero. The duo’s latest assignment is to locate and defeat Sigma, leader of the Mavericks and a former Maverick Hunter himself.

The new setting and characters are the first crucial things the developers nailed. Mega Man X clearly set out to be a more mature take on the googly-eye cartoon robot bashing of the mainline titles. You need look no further than the design of X himself for proof of that. He’s noticeably taller, leaner, and more chiseled than his childlike NES ancestor. By story’s end, he’ll also experience more in the way of loss than classic Mega Man ever did. Despite this trend, Capcom wisely refrained from going overboard. X’s journey is still one defined by bright colors, driving rock music, and brisk jump-and-shoot violence of the 100% robot-on-robot variety. Nothing about it comes across gratuitously angsty or overwrought. To put it one way, it’s a tad too serious for X to have a cute robo-dog sidekick like Rush, yet not so serious that he can’t do battle with a mechanized penguin who belly flops around the arena. A fine line indeed.

On the gameplay front, a pair of inspired additions to X’s movement are responsible for much of the improved feel. He can cling to walls as well as execute a speedy forward dash that effectively replaces the ground slide from older games. The importance of the dash in particular can’t be overstated. It can be canceled into a forward jump at any time, even coming off a wall, and these mighty lunges cover more space more quickly than standard running jumps. Dash-jumping through a stage at breakneck pace is a real thrill and the maneuver also has no end of utility in the boss fights.

Complimenting this faster movement is the game engine’s ability to smoothly scroll the screen in all directions. Screens in classic Mega Man games always scrolled horizontally or vertically, never both at once (i.e. diagonally). Furthermore, vertical advancement was strictly of the all-or-nothing flip-screen variety. Combining this newly unrestricted scrolling with the wide open layouts of Launch Octopus or Storm Eagle’s stages and the aforementioned dash-jump, X can literally soar. It’s another exhilarating experience with no parallel in prior entries.

A final key strength of Mega Man X is its stunning presentation. I’m not merely referring to the usual high quality Capcom audiovisuals here, although the sprites, backgrounds, and energetic synth guitar-driven soundtrack are all rightfully iconic. I’m talking about the extraordinary amount of care that went into making the game’s world feel more like one concrete, interconnected place than a chain of isolated stages. Defeat Chill Penguin and the perilous lava which normally fills Flame Mammoth’s lair with be extinguished. Taking down Storm Eagle interrupts the power supply to Spark Mandrill’s level, subjecting it to periodic blackouts and weakening its mid-boss. These nifty interactions aren’t limited to the locations, either. The Boomerang Cutter can actually sever Flame Mammoth’s trunk, depriving him of one of his primary attacks. This uncommon attention to detail is simply a joy to behold throughout. Heck, I didn’t even notice until my most recent playthrough that one solitary bat enemy out of the dozens haunting Armored Armadillo’s mine is based on the original NES design. It’s the little things, you know?

Much as I endeavor to avoid total puff piece reviews, I struggle to dredge up anything meaningfully negative to say about Mega Man X. You’ll run into plenty of the old Super Nintendo slowdown when things get hectic, sure, but beyond that I’d really have to force it. This first X game is an all-around masterpiece, one of the best of its generation. By starting with a tried-and-tested action-platforming template and infusing it with memorable new characters, snappier movement, and a presentation to die for, Capcom produced the first true creative landmark in the saga since 1988’s Mega Man 2. As with the classic series, later X sequels would squander some of this initial goodwill with their rote repetition. Sigma always comes back à la Dr. Wily, he always has eight new Mavericks in tow, etc. Mega Man X itself, though? It’s one for the ages; a thoroughly lovable, endlessly replayable, damn near perfect video game. Bravo.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Nintendo)

Prevailing circumstances as of late have me feeling the urge for steady, reliable gaming comfort food. The way I see it, there’s no better mental refuge than the blistering run-‘n-gun action of Konami’s Contra. So escape with me now to a simpler time when “see alien, blast alien” was I needed to know and all I wanted to do.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Contra Spirits in Japan) is actually the fourth entry in the long-running saga. Its immediate predecessor, Operation C for Game Boy, apparently doesn’t count for numbering purposes. More proof that handhelds are the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of the game industry; no respect at all. Misleading title aside, Contra III is noteworthy for being the franchise’s first appearance on a 16-bit home console and boy, did its developers not want you to forget it. This was one of those hyperactive early SNES releases that pulled out every newfangled hardware trick in the book as it practically screamed, “Look at me! Bet your NES or Genesis can’t do this!” Transparencies? You bet! Scaling effects? Hell, yeah! Dizzying background rotation? You know it! The shock and awe were very real back in 1992, I assure you. But has its nature as a technical showpiece for a thirty year-old machine badly dated it or does the timeless Contra gameplay shine through strong as ever? That’s what I’ll be looking to determine.

Story-wise, we get a basic rehash of the previous three games. 27th century Earth is again besieged by the extraterrestrial menace known as Red Falcon and it falls on strapping commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean to save humanity’s collective bacon for a fourth time. Curiously, the North American version’s instructions would have you believe you’re playing as Jimbo and Sully, two distant descendants of Bill and Lance. This stems from a misguided attempt to keep continuity with NES Contra’s botched English manual, which inexplicably shifted the action from the year 2633 to 1987. Best to ignore this whole timeline debacle, I say. They’re Bill and Lance.

That’s enough said about plot. At the end of the day, these games are about blowing away alien scum with cool guns. The classic machine gun, laser, flamethrower, and spread shot all make a return here, as does the homing weapon from Operation C. There’s also an entirely new option in the form of crush missiles, which are devastating at short range. Skilled use of the crush gun is vital if you hope to wreck bosses quickly. Finally, you start each life with a single super bomb in your possession that will deal heavy damage to every foe on the screen when triggered. Although you can potentially accumulate up to nine of these, I wouldn’t count it if I were you. The traditional one-hit Contra deaths are in full effect, after all.

At least you’re no longer guaranteed to lose everything when you inevitably bite the dust. Contra III introduces the ability to carry two weapons at once and toggle between them at will. Your death will only result in the loss of whichever gun is currently in use. This allows for a neat little bit of extra strategy without bogging things down. You could opt to carry a spread gun for use against widely spaced groups of weak enemies along with crush missiles for more durable single targets. Or you might choose to limit yourself to the default machine gun for the majority of a stage in order to preserve a stronger backup weapon for the boss at the end. Good stuff.

Hit start on the title screen and you’re immediately taking the fight to Red Falcon, dashing through a grimly gorgeous ruined cityscape as you gun down waves of enemy foot soldiers. After a few screens of this, you’ll encounter the first of Contra III’s many direct callbacks: A reprise of the iconic boss fight against the jungle base from the original Contra. Destroy it, though, and the level simply continues without fanfare, revealing it to have been a lowly speed bump of a mini-boss this time. The statement is clear: This isn’t last generation’s Contra. Before the stage concludes for real, you’ll have also commandeered a tank and used it to destroy a second well-defended base, defeated another minor boss, platformed your way through the fiery aftermath of a bombing raid, and finally faced off against a colossal turtle alien that sends a torrent of flying insects at you and can discharge laser beams from its maw.

This opening act establishes the pattern for all of Contra III’s side-scrolling sections: A chain of constantly shifting dynamic action set pieces and escalating mid-boss encounters culminating in a jaw-dropping clash with a larger-than-life ultimate antagonist. Each is almost an interactive Hollywood blockbuster unto itself, an impression only bolstered by the sumptuous art and bombastic musical score. Without a doubt, these levels are marvels and really must be played to be believed. All four of them.

You heard right. Contra III contains a paltry four of the very best stages the series would ever see, supplemented by two of the very worst. The latter utilize an overhead view and it’s here where the game’s emphasis on pushing Super Nintendo hardware gimmicks whips around and bites it square in the ass. These overhead levels rely heavily on the system’s famous Mode 7 graphics feature, which allows for the smooth scaling and rotation of a background layer. Mode 7 was used to brilliant effect in F-Zero and Pilotwings, where it enabled the close approximation of true 3-D environments without the need to render polygons. That’s not what we get here. Instead, we’re stuck maneuvering sluggish, tank-like versions of Bill and Lance over downright ugly pixelated terrain. The directional pad is used exclusively to move straight forward and back in this perspective, with all lateral movement accomplished via the roundabout method of rotating the background itself with the two shoulder buttons. If this sounds goofy and awkward and not particularly fun, that’s because it is. While previous Contra games also experimented with alternate viewpoints for some of their stages, it was always to better effect than this.

Contra III’s overhead portions were sufficiently eye-catching in an era when a low-res spinning background could pass for high-tech wizardry. Playing through them now, they’re positively abominable, the absolute inverse of their sublime side-scrolling counterparts. They’re not even passable filler, as stripping them out and replaced with nothing whatsoever would result would in a stronger product. Their relative brevity is the closest thing they have to a saving grace.

Does this make this Contra III a bad game? God, no. It is a maddeningly inconsistent one, however. It’s all peaks and valleys, melting your face off with its unbridled awesomeness one minute and then giving you ample cause to wish you were playing almost anything else the next. There are more peaks than valleys to be sure, but four legendary levels still aren’t a lot to hang an entire game on. I love it, just not quite as much as I love the original and Super C on the NES or Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, all of which benefit from a healthier ratio of quality content to dross. Contra III is tantalizingly close to perfection. If only its creators had doubled down on its strengths as opposed to diluting them with Mode 7 mediocrity….