Little Samson (NES)

Happy anniversary to me!

Three years ago to the day now, I began writing reviews for every game I completed. This proved so enjoyable that I soon committed to producing at least one per week going forward, a goal I’ve handily exceeded. An achievement such as this calls for something extraordinary. I’ve chosen a game that fills NES aficionados everywhere with a heady mix of wonder and dread: The deceptively humble-sounding Little Samson.

This 1992 action-platformer was the third and final game to come out of the short-lived studio Takeru/Sur Dé Wave. I covered their debut, the quirky Famicom exclusive Cocoron, last year. Takeru’s roster consisted largely of former Capcom staff. Their years spent churning out hits like Mega Man and Strider made them highly adept at side-scrolling action. Sadly, Little Samson’s excellence in this capacity is often eclipsed by its monstrous price tag. How bad are we talking here? Try $1200 to $8800 as of this writing, depending on condition and completeness. This makes it the single most expensive regular licensed retail release for the system by a wide margin. The current runner-up, The Flintstones – Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, goes for slightly more than half what Little Samson does on average. This game’s reputation as an ultra-rare prestige piece is so well established that even playing it for free via EverDrive, as I did, felt like being down in the classic gaming equivalent of a world-class wine cellar, reverently dusting off some priceless vintage.

What makes Little Samson specifically the crown jewel of so many licensed NES collections? We’ll likely never be 100% sure. It’s universally agreed that its North American publisher, Taito, didn’t produce very many copies. There may have been as few as 10,000 manufactured, although the precise number is unknown and possibly lost to history. This relative scarcity is also evident with other Taito games of the era, like Panic Restaurant and the aforementioned Surprise at Dinosaur Peak. Then there’s the matter of its oddly Biblical name. The game itself, known as Seirei Densetsu Lickle (“Holy Bell Legend Lickle”) in the original Japanese, has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s been speculated American NES owners shunned Little Samson at point of sale based on a general aversion to “Bible games,” which, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, do tend to be pretty dang terrible. Finally, let’s consider that human psychology can be a lot messier than any rarified laws of supply and demand would have you believe. Hardcore collectors of anything have a tendency to be highly competitive. In light of this, the NES collecting ecosystem practically demands there be something situated right where Little Samson is in the pricing hierarchy. The jump in dollar value from three digits to four is more than enough to turn heads and demonstrate a high degree of personal commitment to the hobby, yet Little Samsom remains far more attainable than, say, the five-digit beast that is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If Little Samson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

So how’s the gameplay, already? Glad you asked! At its core, Little Samson is an archetypal NES action game in which a team of four diverse heroes must overcome a series of side-scrolling stages filled with enemies and death-defying leaps in order to save their fantasy kingdom from an evil overlord. The twist is you’re able to swap between the four protagonists at any time in order to draw on their various special abilities. Or at least you are after you’ve completed the four short opening levels, each of which is intended to serve as an introduction to a specific hero.

Samson (aka Lickle) is the de facto leader of the bunch. He has decent health and movement speed, can climb walls and ceilings, and attacks by tossing bells straight ahead. He functions as your jack-of-all-trades and is best used any time none of his comrades would be significantly more effective.

Kikira the dragon’s mediocre health is offset by several potent assets. She’s able to fly for short periods, has steady footing on icy surfaces, and can charge up her fire breath for extra damage.

Gamm the golem is a huge, slow target who can barely jump. To compensate, he has a massive health pool, takes no damage from spikes, and can aim his powerful short range punches vertically as well as horizontally.

K.O. the mouse is tiny and fragile, the polar opposite of Gamm in many ways. Despite this, he’s anything but useless. His Metroid style bomb attack is the most powerful in the game, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to exploit it. On top of this, he moves fast, jumps high, clings to walls, fits into the narrowest of passages, and can walk on water. Walk on water? Maybe this is a Bible game after all….

All four members of your team have separate health bars. As in Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, swapping out a badly wounded hero before he or she bites the dust is always best practice. One caveat: If anyone beside Samson does die, they’ll stay dead until you run out of lives completely and use a continue. The one exception is if the character died with a healing potion in their inventory, in which case it can be used from the pause menu to revive them. This does unfortunately lead to situations where it’s easier to burn through the rest of your lives on purpose so you can continue with a full party than it is to struggle on with a diminished roster.

In less skilled hands, the teamwork mechanic that defines Little Samson could have amounted to a mere gimmick. The developers’ genius lies in the way every aspect of the level and enemy design synergizes with it. As you play, you’re constantly prompted to consider the ideal way to tackle the obstacles in your path. For spikes on the floor, is it better to fly over them with Kikira, walk across them with Gamm, or use K.O. or Samson to scamper across the ceiling? While there’s often more than one solution, determining which is your safest bet hinges not just on the placement of the spikes themselves, but on which foes are lurking nearby and whether a given party member is worth risking now versus saving for the upcoming boss fight. Speaking of the boss encounters, this same intriguing dynamic is present there, too. Do you want to try to keep your distance and wear them down with Kikira and Samson, brawl with Gamm, or engage in the high risk, high reward venture of getting in close enough to deploy K.O.’s bombs without taking damage? This is quality game design, pure and simple.

Not only is the content here finely crafted, there’s a good amount of it. Twenty-two stages to be exact, although you won’t find all of them on your first go due to their branching structure. Just be aware that Little Samson is one of those games that terminates your playthrough prematurely and denies you the true ending if you opt for the easy difficulty mode. Thankfully, unlimited continues and a password system keep the normal setting quite reasonable.

Little Samson’s graphics and sound form a interesting dichotomy. Its sprites and backgrounds are truly sumptuous by NES standards. Seeing this degree of fine detail realized under the strict color and resolution limitations of a machine engineered in 1983 to run Donkey Kong is downright inspiring. I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never seen another Famicom or NES game that looks better than this one. Approximately as good in its own right, sure, but never flat-out superior. Then there’s the music, which is…fine, I guess. That is, the songs themselves are well done. How they’re used is the issue. Instead of having the music selections tied to the levels themselves as in most games, the individual heroes have their own themes which play whenever they’re active. The problem inherent in having just four main background tracks in a lengthy game is exacerbated by some characters being less suited for general use than others. I hope you like Samson’s theme in particular, because you’re likely to be listening to it around half the time. On the plus side, the endgame areas do eventually break free of this rut with some distinct tunes of their own.

To my delight, Little Samson proved itself a prime example of a hyped-up trophy title that also happens to rank among the better games available on its native platform. The limited soundtrack is the only remotely disappointing thing about it. Charming characters, lush visuals, and masterfully designed action make it worth seeking out by any means necessary. If emulation or flash cartridges aren’t your bag and you’d prefer a more affordable “real” copy, consider Seirei Densetsu Lickle. It’s the same game at 1/8th the cost.

Disappointing sales notwithstanding, this was one hell of a swan song from Takeru. If a little sticker shock is what it takes to attract the audience it always deserved, that’s fine by me.

Mitsume ga Tooru (Famicom)

Last summer, I examined Konami’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken, a 1987 Famicom action-platformer based on the work of manga titan Osamu Tezuka. Hi no Tori is nowhere near the company’s best effort and its faithfulness to the source material is highly questionable. It’s a passable, if unexceptional, product. Let’s skip ahead to 1992 now and see if Natsume was able to do better with their spin on another Tezuka property, Mitsume ga Tooru (“The Three-Eyed One”).

The original print version of Mitsume ga Tooru ran in Weekly Shōnen Magazine between 1974 and 1978. It was revived in animated series form starting in 1990, which likely explains the timing of this Famicom adaptation. The title character is one Hosuke Sharaku, a bald boy who resembles Charlie Brown by way of Dr. Evil and happens to be one of the last survivors of an ancient race of three-eyed people with powerful psychic abilities. These abilities are tied directly to his extra eye, leading to him having a split personality of sorts. When his third eye is covered with a bandage, he’s a typical good-natured, dopey kid. Expose the eye and he instantly transforms into a selfish, megalomaniacal super-genius. His sidekick/love interest is plucky schoolgirl Wato Chiyoko. The names of these two are supposedly intended to reference Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, though the association seems tenuous at best to me. The game’s plot sees Sharaku out to rescue the kidnapped Wato from another three-eyed fellow, Prince Godaru.

To accomplish this, he’ll need to traverse a total of just five side-scrolling stages. Mitsume ga Tooru’s short run time is a common focus of criticism in some of the other reviews I’ve seen. In truth, it’s no different than classics like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden in this respect. Not every 8-bit platformer can reasonably be expected to take the form of a multi-hour epic like Super Mario Bros. 3, after all. On the plus side, Mitsume ga Tooru does introduce new enemies and environmental hazards in each and every area, so at least I can’t accuse it of padding.

Sharaku’s himself controls conspicuously like Capcom’s Mega Man. This applies to his running and jumping, his standard attack (he can rapid fire up to three small projectiles at a time from his third eye), and his inability to duck. Not really surprising, I suppose, given Natsume’s noted fondness for loosely patterning its 8-bit action games on hits from bigger studios. He does have one signature move of his own: The Red Condor. This is a magic spear Sharaku can summon by holding down the fire button for a few seconds. Releasing the button will then cause him to hurl it forward. It’ll travel about half the length of the screen, damaging any foes it touches, before turning around and heading back the way it came. This is when things get interesting. If you time a jump right and manage to land Skaraku on top of the rebounding Condor, it’ll stop and hover in mid-air, acting as a springy platform. Initially just a curiosity, this function is required to progress later on. Basically, any time you need to reach a spot that’s beyond Sharaku’s regular jumping ability, that’s your cue to try bouncing off the Red Condor. Unfortunately, these are probably the only times you’ll feel compelled to use it. Its long charge time and limited range make it a poor choice as an offensive weapon.

A small selection of power-ups are available for both your primary shot and the Red Condor. These are accessed through a shop run by a friendly flag-waving NPC who appears one or twice per level. These shops are also where you’ll purchase extra lives and refills for Sharaku’s six-hit health bar. Consequently, the only pickups obtained directly from enemies are bouncing coins of various denominations. The game is pretty generous with its currency drops and you’ll usually have enough to purchase some healing and a weapon whenever the opportunity presents itself. If you find yourself wanting more funds on top of that, you can try juggling the coins in the air repeatedly with your shots. Do this enough times and they’ll actually increase in value somehow. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s helpful.

That’s all you really need to know to enjoy this one. Mitsume ga Tooru isn’t exactly deep or novel. You run, jump, shoot, hoard coins, and very occasionally call on the Red Condor for help with a tricky platforming section. What it lacks in complexity and innovation, however, it makes up for with the rock solid design fundamentals of a late period Famicom release by Natsume. Stages and mechanics are well considered, well implemented, and served up with panache. The boss fights in particular are highlights. These guys are all appropriately imposing and mastering their various attack patterns is a must. Simply standing toe-to-toe and brute forcing them is never an option, which I always appreciate. If this sounds daunting, take heart: Unlimited continues and frequent checkpoints keep frustration to a minimum, even on the higher of the two difficulty settings.

Mitsume ga Tooru’s art and music both live up to the high standard set by the gameplay. Its spritework and animation are head and shoulders above most of its peers and do an admirable job of capturing Tezuka’s distinctive style. The backgrounds are no slouches, either, incorporating parallax scrolling and transparency effects rarely seen on the hardware. Only a handful of other contemporary offerings like Gimmick and Kirby’s Adventure can be said to look better overall. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns) is yet another example of fantastic in-house audio from Natsume. It starts out strong and only gets better as it goes on, climaxing in the one-two punch of a stirring final level theme and a sweet, wistful end credits roll.

Impressive as it is, Mitsume ga Tooru was ultimately doomed to suffer the same sad fate as so many other pre-Harvest Moon Natsume titles: Being a one-off. Hosuke Sharaku hasn’t starred in another video game to date, although he has featured as an antagonist in several headlined by his fellow Tezuka creation, Astro Boy. At least his sole turn in the spotlight stands as a sterling example of a licensed game done right. If you’re on the hunt for awesome Famicom exclusives that don’t require any Japanese language skills, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye or three out for this one.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis)

You know what’s pretty great? After nearly three years of regular game reviewing, I’m not even close to running out of personal milestones. Today, I get to tackle my first compilation in the form of Mega Man: The Wily Wars (aka Rockman Mega World in Japan), a 1994 Genesis remake of the first three NES Mega Man titles with some interesting bonus content thrown in. ‎Wily Wars was essentially Capcom’s take on Nintendo’s Super Mario All-Stars from the year prior, which similarly crammed four spruced-up 8-bit Mario outings onto a single SNES cartridge. Believe it or not, there was a point in history when enhanced reissues of hit games from the previous console generation were considered novel and exciting rather than lazy cash grabs. We all sent telegrams and had polio back then, too. Good times.

Wily Wars is famous (or perhaps infamous) for being an early example of a digital-only game release. While Japan and the PAL regions got it on a standard cartridge, North Americans were out of luck unless they happened to be subscribed to the Sega Channel download service. It wouldn’t be sold here again in any official form until 2019, when it appeared as one of the 42 pre-installed titles on the Sega Genesis Mini plug-and-play system. This didn’t stop hardcore American Mega Man fans from importing, bootlegging, and emulating it like crazy in the intervening decades, of course.

Since I’ve already covered the NES incarnations of Mega ManMega Man 2, and Mega Man 3 in full detail, you may expect me to gloss over the fine points of Wily Wars. Alas, I’m not off the hook that easy. Sure, everything in those reviews still holds true and I encourage you to check them out if you’re curious about the individual development histories, plots, or strengths and weaknesses of these games. Be that as it may, frequent Capcom sub-contractor Minakuchi Engineering did the actual porting work on Wily Wars and the result isn’t a perfect one-for-one recreation. Many of the differences are insignificant, such as some weapon damage values or ammunition counts being tweaked ever so slightly, but there are major ones which fall into four broad categories: Graphics, sound, play control, and performance.

The new graphics are adequate. They’re much in the same mode as the ones seen in Super Mario All-Stars. That is, they occupy a middle ground somewhere between the 8-bit source material and what you’d typically see in a game designed from the ground up for 16-bit hardware. The level of detail is well beyond the humble NES, yet you wouldn’t mistake these assets for something out of Mega Man 7 or Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo. The standout element by far is the new background art, particularly in Wily Wars’ interpretation of the first Mega Man, which originally utilized stark single color backdrops because of the minimal cartridge memory available circa 1987. The extra visual data goes a long way toward making it appear the action is unfolding in real locations rather than on chaotic assemblages of ladders and platforms floating in endless void.

Things are rougher on the audio side. Sound effects are underwhelming, with many of the most common and visceral ones from the NES games (giving and taking damage, the Mega Buster firing) coming through weak and muffled here. Most of the music is also a tragic downgrade. The bulk of Wily Wars’ expansive soundtrack is, naturally, rearranged versions of established tunes. Unfortunately, these tracks are too often twangy and abrasive, wallowing in all the excesses of stereotypical bad Genesis music. All those great old beats and melodies remain, they’re merely stifled by insipid production. The exception is some of the new stuff by composer Kinuyo Yamashita, which at the very least gives the impression of being written with the Genesis in mind.

A more severe sticking point for me is the handling on Mega Man himself. He feels heavier somehow, his movements ever so slightly less responsive. The rapid firing capability of his default Mega Buster weapon has also been toned down for some reason. It’s not enough to make Wily Wars unplayable, just enough to serve as a constant low grade distraction for those accustomed to the originals. When you’re talking about a series renowned for its fast action and fluid, precise controls, the slightest blemish is going to stand out all the more.

Compounding the problem of a less agile and quick shooting hero, Wily Wars is plagued by regular bouts of severe and frankly inexcusable slowdown. On paper, the CPU in the Genesis is several times more capable than its NES counterpart. If we only had Wily Wars and the NES games it’s based on to judge by, however, we’d have to conclude the opposite was true! This actually alters some of the gameplay drastically. The normally fearsome Yellow Devil boss, for example, is a pushover in Wily Wars due to the way the game limps along at half speed for the duration of the encounter.

With the majority of its meaningful alterations being for the worse, I can’t in good faith recommend Wily Wars as anyone’s introduction to these three legendary games. Nifty as some of the new artwork is, the NES renditions sound and, more importantly, play much better. Seek them out first and foremost.

That said, Wily Wars does manage to get a couple things right. First, it provides experienced players with a fresh perspective on three all-time classic action-platformers. I clearly didn’t love all of the audiovisual updates, but they kept me playing regardless, curious to see how the next new take on a familiar area would look and sound.

Then there’s the mini-game known as Wily Tower, which is unlocked by completing all three of the primary games on a single save file. It consists of seven new stages, each populated by its own unique boss on top of an intriguing mix of regular enemies and platforming hazards from Mega Man 1-3. These Wily Tower levels also allow for an unparalleled degree of flexibility when it comes to Mega Man’s inventory. You assemble your own custom arsenal from a pool of 22 special weapons and seven utility items! Want to be absurdly overpowered? Load up on brutally effective gear like the Thunder Beam, Metal Blade, and Rush Jet. Fancy a challenge instead? Try the trashy Bubble Lead, Spark Shot, and Top Spin. Wily Tower is fan service done right. I only wish it was around twice as long, which would effectively make it a full-fledged Genesis-exclusive Mega Man adventure unto itself.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is an odd duck; simultaneously a poor starting point for newcomers and a one-of-a-kind curiosity every established fan of the Blue Bomber should experience at least once. Thus, though I wish I could love it a lot more than I do, it still warrants a qualified recommendation.

Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16)

Now that’s what I call a relatable ending.

After losing myself in the intricate turn-based RPG Live A Live last week, I wanted something nice and basic to ease me back into the action groove. What could be more straightforward than a military-themed overhead run-and-gun?

Though relatively rare today, these games were inescapable throughout the ’80s and early ’90, their popularity fueled by the big screen bloodbaths of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and countless other uber-macho action icons. Key titles such as Taito’s Front Line (1982), Capcom’s Commando (1985), and SNK’s Ikari Warriors (1986) codified the template: A hardass super soldier (or possibly two, if you have a buddy with a second quarter to spend) stomping through the jungle, ruthlessly gunning down legions of hapless mooks. Sometimes he’s out to liberate P.O.W.s or take out a world threatening megaweapon. Other times he’s taking on the enemy because, hey, what else are enemies for?

In 1988, developer Data East threw their green beret into the ring with yet another take on this crowded subgenre: Bloody Wolf, also known as Narazumono Sentō Butai Bloody Wolf (“Rogue Combat Squad: Bloody Wolf”) in Japan and Battle Rangers in Europe. I’m thinking this original arcade release must be pretty scarce here in the U.S., since I’ve never actually encountered the cabinet in the wild. That’s why I’m reviewing the much more common TurboGrafx-16 port from 1990 instead.

TG-16 Bloody Wolf adds an extra stage and expands most of the others, albeit at the cost of the arcade’s two-player functionality. That’s a tradeoff I can live with. The real loss, however, is the new English translation. Arcade Bloody Wolf’s script is a sublime catastrophe which includes perhaps my favorite mangled video game line of all time: “Get you the hot bullets of shotgun to die!” Mmm. That is some primo stuff right there. The home version swaps it out for “You’ll make a nice target for this gun!” Weak.

Bloody Wolf tasks you with rescuing your kidnapped president from behind enemy lines. There’s no hint anywhere as to who your antagonists are supposed to be. The instructions simply refer to them as a “berzerk military unit” led by a “crazed General.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a coup attempt of some kind? All that really matters is there’s two of you and hundreds of them, so you’d best get shooting!

Wait, two? Didn’t I say this was a one-player game? I did and it is. At the outset, you’re expected to choose one of the two strapping commandos shown on the title screen. He’ll then serve as your primary character, although you’ll still end up controlling both heroes as the story plays out. You even get to name these guys. Their default handles are Snake and Eagle, but that’s no fun. I named the one with hair Will after myself and the bald one…Baldo. Guess I wasn’t feeling very creative that night.

Gameplay-wise, Bloody Wolf doesn’t break the mold in any major way. Your primary weapon is a pea shooter rifle with endless ammo that can be temporarily upgraded to a shotgun or bazooka via pickups obtained from crates and rescued prisoners. In addition, you start with a secondary attack in the form of grenades. These can later be powered-up or swapped out entirely in favor of a flamethrower or flash bombs. Finally, there’s your trusty combat knife, which is automatically used in place of your main gun whenever a bad guy is within shanking range. Redundant as this last option seems, some armored foes are bulletproof, so getting in close to stab them may be your best bet.

Taking a page from Ikari Warriors, Bloody Wolf also allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles in order to create even more carnage. Bizarrely, these aren’t tanks or other common weapons of war. Rather, they’re Harley-Davidson style motorcycles you use to run your adversaries down. It’s as effective as it is hilarious. Sadly, these have a very limited supply of fuel. Enjoy them while they last.

The one slightly unorthodox thing here is your characters’ ability to jump, a feature more closely associated with Contra and other side-view run-and-guns. Hell, even the Harleys can jump! They don’t need ramps to do it, either. They just spontaneously levitate when you tap the button. I love it. A few levels and boss fights incorporate rudimentary platforming, though this aspect of the game comes across as a mere novelty, by no means co-equal with the combat.

In light of its arcade roots and hardcore two-man army premise, you might expect Bloody Wolf to offer up a fierce challenge. If so, you’d be wrong. Your characters enjoy the mercy of a health bar rather than the usual one-hit kills. Body armor, medicine, and sketchy sounding “muscle emphasis tablets” can all either restore lost health or lengthen the bar itself. On top of this, the eight short stages include frequent checkpoints and continues are unlimited. This makes for a smooth, low pressure play experience from start to finish. I can see this being a point of contention for those who bought the game at full price and weren’t expecting to race through it in a couple of hours. Me, I found it pretty fun to be able to kick back and casually exterminate the opposing force on my mystical leaping motorbike.

While neither a historically important work like Commando nor a must-play masterpiece like Jackal or Shock Troopers, Bloody Wolf is a successful arcade conversation and a thoroughly competent example of its kind. It looks fine, sounds fine, and delivers precisely the sort of no frills testosterone-drenched thrill ride you’d expect. If all you’re looking for an excuse to switch off your brain and take in the interactive equivalent of a vintage Chuck Norris flick, you can do a whole lot worse.

Will and Baldo, I salute you!

Live A Live (Super Famicom)

Happy New Year, classic gaming fans!

I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely get around to playing turn-based RPGs anymore. The amount of hours they require is too great for me to fit more than one or two a year into my schedule. Back when systems like the SNES were new, I was living carefree enough that all that play time felt like a selling point rather than a millstone round my neck. Ah, memories.

As soon as I learned about the 1994 Super Famicom exclusive Live A Live (that’s “live” as in “live streaming”) a couple years back, however, I knew it warranted a spot on my short list. Live A Live’s defining gimmick was too fascinating to ignore: Eight chapters, each with its own setting and characters, presented in anthology style and capped off with a final chapter that ties everything together. Not to mention it’s the product of Square at the very height of their creative prowess, as exemplified by fellow 1994 alumnus Final Fantasy VI. Yeah, that sounds like something worth kicking off a new decade with.

Live A Live strikes out bold with a cold open. You’re ushered straight from the title screen to the chapter select menu without a shred of explanation. Highlighting the seven characters on offer reveals one-word labels like “Cowboy,” “Ninja,” or “Caveman.” It’s clear you’re not intended to be thinking about which of them is the best or right choice. You’re supposed to follow your gut and pick whoever you think is the coolest or most intriguing. These first seven chapters can be played in any order and will likely take you anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours apiece to complete. They’re set in diverse time periods, from the prehistoric to the far future, and all have their own self-contained game worlds, casts, and even title screens and end credit rolls. Think of it like an RPG sampler platter.

There are gameplay tweaks unique to every chapter, as well. The ninja’s adventure sees you infiltrating an enemy castle and includes a stealth element. Depending on how patient and adept you are with your invisibility cloak, you can finish with a body count anywhere between zero and a hundred. The shortest chapter, set in the modern day, has you controlling a contestant in a Street Fighter style martial arts tournament. It’s literally all combat. There’s no game world to explore whatsoever, only an opponent select screen. It’s polar opposite is the far future chapter. Here, you control a newly-built sentient robot aboard a starship carrying a dangerous alien cargo. Dialog and character interaction are pushed to the forefront, as the only combat takes places through the medium of a video game machine in the ship’s lounge, making battles technically a game within a game.

If bits and pieces of this game’s premise are starting to sound oddly familiar to you, then congratulations: You’re on to something. Yes, Live A Live’s focus on jumping between time periods while controlling a robot, a caveman, and a medieval knight, among others, is more than a little suggestive of Square’s much better-known 1995 masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. It should come as no surprise, then, that Takashi Tokita served as Live A Live’s director and one of its two writers, roles he would reprise the following year for Chrono Trigger. A few of the latter’s callbacks are downright blatant, such as when a magic sword is used to cut a path through a cliffside to a villain’s stronghold. Interesting as these parallels are to the JRPG veteran, I wouldn’t venture to say Live A Live is merely a dry run for something grander. The way its first eight chapters are fully compartmentalized gives it a stop-and-go narrative flow completely unlike the traditional unified quest line that defines Chrono Trigger.

It defies other key genre conventions, too, mostly in the interest of keeping the pace brisk. No currency to accumulate or shops to spend it in means you’ll find all your equipment upgrades through basic exploration of the compact game worlds. There’s also no limit placed on how many times you can use your special techniques in battle, and any damage your party sustains is automatically repaired after each fight. In other words, you have no need to make periodic trips to inns and temples in order to restore health and magic points or resurrect dead characters. In fact, the usual RPG towns only appear when a given chapter’s story calls for one as a backdrop. While some players may miss the perceived depth conferred by elements like this, I reckon it’s nice to have your time respected. There’s nothing so special about gold grinding or backtracking to heal up that would justify padding a two hour chapter out to four in my book. The battle system itself (a chess-like affair based around movement on a 7×7 overhead grid) is functional and easy to grasp. Although it won’t win any awards, its simplicity compliments the rest of these streamlined mechanics.

On balance, Live A Live’s avant-garde approach pays off in a big way. The highlight by far is the story. Most of the first eight chapters are just long enough to get you emotionally invested in the leads and satisfied at the climaxes of their individual journeys. Factor in a finale that furnishes your dream team of heroes from across time with a worthy adversary to face off against and you have one resounding success on the storytelling front. This dramatic heft is expertly bolstered by a rich and expansive soundtrack courtesy of industry legend Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some of this praise on the Aeon Genesis group’s extraordinary fan translation effort. Unofficial as it obviously is, they went above and beyond the call of duty here, including unique fonts and text box designs for the various chapters which weren’t in the Japanese original.

About the only flaw preventing Live A Live from joining its sibling Chrono Trigger in the pantheon of peerless 16-bit greats is a predictable one: For all its strengths, it’s quite uneven. When I stated above that “most” of its nine segments made for satisfying journeys, I meant around 2/3 of them. Both the cowboy and wrestler chapters are incredibly bare bones, clocking in at half an hour or less. What’s there is quality material, there simply isn’t enough of it for me to get cozy and start feeling invested. At least I can’t say I actively despised these chapters, unlike the godawful mecha one. Apparently intended as a parody/homage to Akira and other near future sci-fi anime, it’s the only part of Live A Live that drags due to its vague, repetitive, and overly specific progression requirements. As if that somehow wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a non-stop cavalcade of unlikable characters, cringe-worthy humor, and nonsense technobabble plot contrivances. The idea of having to slog through it again someday if I want the undeniable pleasure of re-experiencing Live A Live as a whole is a genuine bummer.

Whatever you do, though, don’t let that dollop of negativity dissuade you from giving Live A Live a shot. Its reputation as a lost classic in Western gaming circles is well-founded. Structurally, it’s one of most experimental JPRGs of the ’90s, and it achieves this without coming off pretentious or intimidating in the slightest. Why settle for one fresh start this year when you can have nine?

Gun-Nac (NES)

Pulverizing your enemies: The true reason for the season.

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Compilemas! Time for another present to myself in the form of a “new” offering from one of my most appreciated developers. I had so much fun with Compile’s formative classic Zanac back in December of 2017 that I decided to make returning to this particular well a Christmas tradition for as long as possible. This year, I’m unwrapping 1990’s Gun-Nac for the NES. It’s yet another vertically-scrolling shooter in the time-tested Zanac/Aleste mold. There’s one key difference this time, though: Gun-Nac is a “cute-’em-up” that sees you repelling an invasion of adorable animals and prosaic household objects instead of the usual alien armada.

If you’re inclined to believe the English instruction manual, Gun-Nac takes place in a faraway “synthetic solar system” called IOTA Synthetica, where a mysterious cosmic force is causing all sorts of  unlikely things to spring to life and attack the populace. You control maverick space ace Commander Gun-Nac in his bid to to save the day. Given that you never see Commander Gun-Nac himself, you may suspect something was lost in translation. Sure enough, the extended cutscenes in the Japanese original reveal the story was meant to be set in our own solar system and star a lady magician who summons her high tech spaceship with a spell. I’m not sure why this rather charming element was removed. It reminds me of how my last Compile Christmas selection, Space Megaforce, also ditched its pilot characters, Raz and Thi, in favor of another unseen protagonist. It’s almost like whoever was in charge of localizing these titles was actively striving to keep them as bland as possible for some reason.

Oh, well. On to the blasting! Gun-Nac is made up of eight stages. Nine, if you count the hidden “area zero” accessible by setting the sound test in the option menu to five, which enables the level select function. Per usual for Compile, they’re all quite lengthy and most include at least one mid-boss in addition to a final boss. The wacky theming starts off strong with a cratered lunar surface where killer bunny robots deploy heat-seeking carrots against you. Weird as that is, there is context for it. In China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, the “face” on the moon is thought to resemble a rabbit, an association that’s influenced mythology and art for centuries. The more you know. Later stages pit you against paper products, money, and other absurd threats.

The action itself is pure Aleste. Your ship can cycle between four speed settings at will, equip five primary shot types represented by numbered icons, and carry four flavors of limited use elemental super bomb for emergencies. Gathering power chips will enhance your primary gun and the wing item bulks up your ship, allowing it to withstand an extra hit before it’s destroyed. One entirely new addition is money bag pickups, which you can exchange for various ship upgrades at between-level shops. These resemble fast food establishments, except they vend death rays and explosive ordinance instead of burgers and fries. Gotta love that smiling girl at the counter with her paper hat and name tag.

When it comes to this tried-and-true formula, I essentially have no complaints. Gun-Nac is a prime example of the Compile house style. It and its fellows are among my most treasured gaming memories for good reason. They’re invariably fast-paced and hectic, with pinpoint-accurate controls and little, if any, slowdown. On top of this, you get a plethora of exciting weapons to wield and a relatively forgiving design that allows for a much less punishing play experience than is typical for the genre. Some critics have claimed these games are too easy, too samey, or that their levels drag on too long. Allowing for personal preference, this is all fair enough. Certainly, Gun-Nac is notably easy on its default difficulty setting. I was able to complete it on my very first attempt without needing to continue even once. Good luck pulling that off in Gradius or R-Type! For me, however, auto-scrolling shooters just don’t get any better. If you’ve enjoyed any of the studio’s similar works (Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, Blazing Lazers, Space Megaforce, etc), I can virtually guarantee you’ll like this one, too.

There is one thing that disappointed me about Gun-Nac, although it’s unrelated to the gameplay proper. Despite being billed as Compile’s take on the cute-’em-up subgenre, it doesn’t seem the design team was prepared to fully embrace the unbridled insanity that usually implies. Comparing Gun-Nac’s art and sound direction to that of cutsey staples like TwinBee, Parodius, and Fantasy Zone reveals it to occupy an awkward middle ground between them and the typical “straight” shooter. Some stages (like the previously mentioned rabbit-infested moon) are as kooky as can be. Others are decidedly restrained. In fact, the further you progress, the more things start to resemble an average Aleste game. The final stage is a stock metallic techno-fortress that features no oddball enemies at all, only common spaceships and gun turrets. It’s as if Gun-Nac’s creators couldn’t agree on what sort of tone to aim for. That, or they happened to have a bunch of leftover sprites and background tiles laying around from other projects and opted to cobble together another game out of them.

Gun-Nac may be a tad disjointed aesthetically, but its familiar, masterful action still succeeded in making my already blissful holiday season that little bit brighter. I can’t think of a better note to close out another amazing year of gaming goodness on. It’s been a true blessing to have had the opportunity to explore another 59 vintage games with you all over the past twelve months. I have some important milestones coming up in 2020, including the biggie: Review #200, which will focus on my all-time most beloved game for my favorite console. Until then, Merry Christmas and a sincere thanks to each and every one of you.

Beyond Oasis (Genesis)

What happens when key contributors to the legendary Streets of Rage beat-’em-up series try their battle-scarred hands at fantasy adventure? Perhaps unsurprisingly, you end up with 1994’s Beyond Oasis, or The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light, as it’s known outside North America. Legend of Zelda infused with combo attacks and fighting game style special moves? I can go for that.

Beyond Oasis is the product of Ancient, the development house founded by game music virtuoso Yuzo Koshiro and his mother Tomo Koshiro. Ayano Koshiro, a prolific graphic designer and Yuzo’s sister, worked on the art. Talk about a family affair! I’ve previously covered games made by newlyweds (The Battle of Olympus) and a pair of brothers (Plok), but this takes the dynamic to a whole new level. Unlike so many of the smaller studios I touch on, Ancient still exists as of 2019, with its most recent output being some music tracks for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Whoever coined that company name sure nailed it.

In Beyond Oasis, you play as Prince…Ali. I wish I could say Prince Thor, like I could for the Japanese or PAL releases. Alas, someone on the North American side must have just adored a certain animated blockbuster, so say hello to your precious Prince Ali. I suppose he does wear baggy white pants and use a magic item to command helpful spirits, so I get the thought process. It’s still dumb. Anyway, Ali is treasure hunting one day when he comes across a golden armlet. When he dons it, the ghost of the wizard who created it appears and begins furiously dumping exposition. Turns out there’s a matching silver armlet made in ancient times by the ghost wizard’s evil counterpart and prophecy states that if one armlet is unearthed, the other will be, too. The wizard implores Ali to use the gold armlet’s power to seek out and defeat the bearer of the silver one before the kingdom of Oasis comes to ruin.

This obviously entails wandering the land, slaying monsters, and exploring puzzle-filled dungeons, all from a 3/4 overhead perspective. There’s nothing wrong with a game utilizing a familiar template for accessibility’s sake, of course, so long as it’s able to stake out a claim on its own identity. Beyond Oasis manages this on two fronts with its visceral take on combat and its inventive spirit companion system.

The fighting has a robust, “chunky” feel to it compared to most other adventure titles. Ali’s strikes are impactful. They stun lock enemies in place and continuing to mash the attack button after that will automatically turn them into flashy multi-hit combos. There are also special attack commands. One example: Quickly tapping the directional pad toward an enemy, then away, then back again before pressing the button will produce a flip attack. This move is great because it can hit targets at all altitudes. Since the game takes the enemy’s height relative to Ali into account, he might otherwise need to crouch to hit low profile foes like snakes or jump to reach flying ones. It’s unusual for an overhead action game to incorporate realistic positioning to this extent. Sadly, it doesn’t always pay off. Hitting airborne enemies remained a total crapshoot throughout my playthrough. Needless to say, they had no such trouble against me.

The weapon system is also offbeat for the time. Ali uses a basic dagger by default and picks up various swords, bows, and bombs along the way. In contrast to the dagger, the vast majority of these supplemental weapons are limited to a set number of uses before they break and disappear. This results in a constant inventory turnover as old gear falls apart and is replaced by fresh finds. Fans of 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be right at home. While weapon deterioration in games has its detractors, I didn’t mind it in this case. Ali’s dagger is perfectly adequate most of the time, so it hardly feels like the end of the world whenever one of your swords breaks.

Satisfying as the brawling generally is, it’s the four spirit companions who join you along the way that truly define Beyond Oasis for me. Their many special powers have applications both in and out of combat. Take the fire spirit Efreet, who can incinerate the opposition with punches and explosive blasts as well as melt ice blocks and light torches to open up new paths. In other words, these guys double as potent weapons and mandatory puzzle solving tools. Progression in the later dungeons often requires you to swap back and forth between different helpers in quick succession.

Two factors complicate this process. The first is Ali’s magic meter, which will gradually deplete as long as a spirit is active. Second, summoning a given spirit to begin with isn’t as easy as picking a name or icon off a menu. Instead, you need to use the armlet on some appropriate portion of the environment. For Efreet, that might mean a bonfire or lava pool. For Dytto the water spirit, you obviously want to keep your eyes peeled for water. I was continually surprised by how much ingenuity went into implementing this mechanic. I didn’t discover until quite late in the game that you could call Dytto by using the armlet on slime enemies, presumably because they’re wet. You can even synchronize your armlet activation with the fiery explosion of one of your bombs to summon Efreet. Clever stuff!

The art and music are a baffling mixed bag. This is one of the best looking Genesis games I’ve seen overall, bursting with bright, bold colors and large, well-animated character sprites. The one downside to all this detail is that many non-boss enemies appear over and over in color-swapped variants throughout, again echoing beat-’em-ups of the period. As in those games, it represents an acceptable (if unfortunate) memory saving compromise. The music, of all places, is actually where Beyond Oasis falls flat. This soundtrack, while extensive for a cartridge game, is universally low energy and devoid of memorable hooks. It simply doesn’t fit with the swashbuckling tone established by the graphics and gameplay. Who would have guessed the great Yuzo Koshiro would underperform like this on a project so close to home? Certainly not I! The score was the one thing I came expecting to heap the most praise on. A rare misfire indeed.

Despite drab tunes and a few recurring gameplay snags (imprecise collision detection, the occasional awkward platform jumping section), Beyond Oasis makes for an easy recommendation. It introduces several welcome new ideas to the standard console dungeon crawling formula and looks great doing so. I also appreciate that the main quest isn’t padded out merely for the sake of extending total play time. It took me about seven hours to complete on my first go-around and I gather experience can bring that down significantly; a perfect length for a game of this kind. It’s right up there with Westone’s Monster World IV in my book when it comes to superlative action-adventure romps on Sega’s 16-bit machine. Too bad it’s only ever received one sequel in the form of 1996’s The Legend of Oasis for the Saturn.

Final score: Seventy-five golden camels out of a hundred. Strong as ten regular games, definitely!