Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (Famicom)

Goe Goe!

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

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

Karakuri Dōchū was a huge release for Konami in more ways than one. The cartridge was built around a massive two megabit (250 kilobyte) ROM chip. Puny as that obviously is now, it dwarfed the previous year’s biggest Famicom smash, the 31 KB Super Mario Bros. It also moved over a million copies, making it one of the best-selling Konami titles for the system domestically. It was popular enough that Nintendo released a version for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 as part of their Famicom Mini Series (better known as the Classic NES or NES Classics Series in other markets). Karakuri Dōchū may be obscure to you and me, but it was a cornerstone of Nintendo’s 8-bit library for an entire generation of Japanese gamers; easily on par with a Mega Man or Castlevania in that respect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cocoron (Famicom)

 

It’s a tale almost as old as the business itself. Artistic types feeling stifled by the conservative corporate culture of the larger game studios strike out on their own to bring their unadulterated visions to the world and hopefully win more recognition and compensation in the process. Thus did Activision spring from Atari, Treasure from Konami, and so on. Around 1990, the newly-minted Takeru (aka Sur de Wave) similarly represented independence and creative freedom for Capcom alum Akira Kitamura, Irem’s Takashi Kogure, Tecmo’s Tsukasa Chibana, and more. They released their first game, the text-based adventure Nostalgia 1907, in April of 1991 and their last, none other than NES super rarity Little Samson, in June of 1992. In-between came the Kitamura-helmed Cocoron. That’s three games over fourteen months before the company eventually folded due to dire financial straits. I guess they can’t all be winners.

The tragedy of Takeru is fascinating and all, but the real reason I wanted to cover this particular 1991 action-platformer so badly is much simpler: Cocoron has a tapir in it! Anyone who knows me know I’m utterly obsessed with these adorable odd-toed ungulates. I love their twisty noses, their stubby tails, their incongruously high-pitched squeaking noises, everything! Best animal ever! They also happen to be closely associated with sleep and dreams in Japanese myth, as evidenced by Hypno and Drowzee from the Pokémon games. Accordingly, the tapir that appears here (who’s actually named Tapir, at least according to the fan translation by Akujin of Dynamic-Designs) is a dream wizard. He appears one night to the game’s unseen protagonist (presumably meant to represent you, the player), introduces himself, and offers to send you on a journey into the dream world to rescue a princess from mysterious “evil forces.” Hell, yeah! If it’s a cute tapir asking, sign me up!

Since you’re entering a dream world, Tapir informs you that you’re able to assume any form you choose. This allows you to start getting acquainted right off the bat with Cocoron’s main gimmick, its character creation system. You’ll need to construct your own custom avatar using pieces from a “toybox” containing 24 heads, 16 bodies, and 8 weapons. It doesn’t sound like that much, but that’s still 3072 possible player characters. Ambitious indeed for a Famicom game. In keeping with the established tone, most of your options are pretty wacky. You could opt for a clown with a giant spring for a body that shoots deadly pencils or a jack-‘o-lantern with dragon wings that hurls flower bombs. It’s all good.

The main thing to mind during this process is your character’s bulk. Every part has a specific weight associated with it and the final total will largely determine how your creation controls. Heavy heroes boast great durability at the cost of sharply limited walk speed and jump height. Light ones are quick, mobile, and extremely fragile. You can also aim for a balanced approach, of course, which is recommended for newcomers. Complicating matters is the fact that stronger weapons (like the shuriken) and parts that offer special movement abilities (wings, jetpacks, tank and boat bodies) tend to be heavier than average to offset their advantages.

Cool as it is, this system is far from perfectly balanced. Heavy characters seem to have a much easier time staying alive than light ones, flight abilities trivialize much of the game’s platforming, and the shuriken is by far the strongest weapon. Thankfully, you won’t suffer too much if your first draft isn’t all you’d hoped for, since you’ll have the opportunity to make a whole new dream warrior each time you finish one of the first five levels. Mega Man creator Kitamura clearly took inspiration from his prior work here, except instead of just gaining access to a new weapon when you beat a boss, you get to add a whole new custom character to your eventual stable of six. You’re given the option to switch out your active hero every time you complete a stage or return to your house at the center of the game world.

The layout of this world itself constitutes another new twist on an old formula. Although you can challenge the initial set of five stages in any order per standard Mega Man rules, they’re all interconnected here. Instead of just transitioning back to a stage select menu after you clear an area, you’ll actually have to walk to your next destination in real time and the terrain you’ll traverse will vary depending on where you start out and where you’re headed. There’s a unique stretch of level linking the Milk Sea and the Fairy Forest, another one entirely between the Milk Sea and Star Hill, etc. This doesn’t make Cocoron a true exploratory adventure game like Metroid, but it does manage to lend the progression a very different feel from Mega Man while still maintaining the same emphasis on player choice.

Cocoron’s core gameplay consists of  running, jumping, and shooting your way through a mix of horizontally and vertically-scrolling environments. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the most generally useful point of comparison is once again the director’s own Mega Man. While each custom character’s precise movement and attack parameters will vary, the game engine as whole still feels like you could insert the Blue Bomber himself into the action and not have it feel too out of place. That said, there’s one prominent aspect of Cocoron’s platforming that wasn’t present in any NES Mega Man installment: Sloped surfaces. Characters that lack tank treads are prone to slide down these inclines, which can be a hassle when bottomless pits are lurking nearby.

Between the flexible character creation and the complex, unorthodox level design, there’s more than enough going on mechanically to make Cocoron worth a look for old school action-platforming aficionados. What really puts it over the top, though, is its weird, whimsical atmosphere. Between this game, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and Kirby’s Adventure, it seems Famicom developers could do no wrong when they went for this sort of child-like dreamland theme. Cocoron’s backgrounds are bright, colorful and packed with quirky details like the gigantic overturned milk cartons dotting the shores of the Milk Sea, the grinning pink whales hovering in the skies above Star Hill, and the furnished penguin houses of Ice-Fire Mountain.

The enemy designs are also interesting. Many of them are animals like penguins and armadillos, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. Despite appearing identical, armadillos might toss their armored bits as projectiles in one stage, roll along the walls in another, and glide through the air in a third. You need to stay on your toes because can’t always be sure how a foe will behave based on appearance alone. Clever.

Finally, the music by Takashi Tateishi (Mega Man 2) and Yoshiji Yokoyama (Little Samson) doesn’t disappoint. It captures the peppy, playful tone of the adventure perfectly. It’s not Mega Man 2’s equal by a long shot, just an overall above average 8-bit soundtrack.

If there’s one thing that hinders Cocoron as a pure action game, it’s all the damn eggs. The experienced team at Takeru somehow made the rookie mistake of overthinking something as basic as grabbing items in an action-platformer. It should be a simple two step process. Step one: Dead enemy drops item. Step two: Player character touches item to pick it up. Cocoron adds a pace killing intermediate step by hiding all items inside speckled eggs which then have to be shot, sometimes three or four times in succession, before the goodies inside are revealed. Every enemy in the game drops an egg. Every egg has to be shot multiple times if you want to get at the health refills, weapon power-ups, and extra lives inside. Given that eggs aren’t known for fighting back, all this extra button mashing gets really old really fast.

As long as you can forgive this one its handful of character balance issues and pointless egg cracking fixation, I think you’ll find it to be a true highlight of the Famicom’s Japan-exclusive library. Its novel gameplay, ample charm, and unusually high replay value are all proof positive that Takeru’s failure to thrive was in no way owing to the quality of its output. Cocoron is a dream well worth pursuing. After all, if you can’t trust a friendly tapir, who can you trust?

Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy thrill ride it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

Gradius II (Famicom)

Shot the core, back for more.

I’ve grown into a huge Gradius fan over the last couple of years. Much to my surprise, as a frustrating adolescent experience with the arcade original put me off the series for decades. Ever since I set my reservations aside and ended up having a blast with the Gradius spin-off Life Force in the summer of 2017, however, I’ve been hooked on laying waste to those Bacterian scum in my trusty Vic Viper starship. I’ve gone back to finish the original Gradius and even took a delightful detour into the Parodius sub-series of comedic shooters. Now it’s finally time to move on to the first true numbered sequel with Gradius II. As a nice little bonus, I get to play this Famicom port, which is famous for being both one of the most technically impressive games for the system and one of its highest profile Japanese exclusives.

The Famicom Gradius II is the epitome of the bigger, louder, faster, harder approach to sequel design. Experienced players will recognize many of the same level concepts, power-ups, and enemies from Gradius and Life Force, just presented with a greater degree of intensity and audiovisual polish than ever before. It’s not a perfect re-creation of the arcade game, which was one of the most cutting edge cabinets out at the time, but it’s a sight to behold nonetheless. Konami relied on a custom memory mapper chip called the VRC4 to push the Famicom beyond its normal limits for Gradius II. Spectacular as the end result is, the VRC4 itself may have also limited the game’s distribution. In stark contrast to the “anything goes” Famicom scene, Nintendo prohibited third party developers from manufacturing their own cartridges and custom mappers for the NES. Whether this technical limitation was the sole reason Gradius II never saw an international release is an open question, though it seems likely to have been a significant factor at the very least.

That’s the real world backstory. What’s going on in the game? About what you’d expect. Planet Gradius is in peril once more and you’re the only pilot that has what it takes to save your world from the bloodthirsty Bacterians and their new leader, Gofer. Yes, the villain here is actually called Gofer, which has to be one of the least fortunate evil alien overlord names in sci-fi history. I like to picture him down at the local space bar crying into his space beer about how nobody respects him. Meanwhile, across the table, an equally inebriated Doh from Taito’s Arkanoid nods morosely.

The conflict plays out over a total of seven stages. Even though this is only one more than Gradius featured, the stages here are considerably longer on average. A “perfect” playthrough clocks in at around 26 minutes, versus the original’s 16 or so. Many of the individual areas you’ll visit are clearly meant to be amped-up takes on ones seen in previous entries. Gradius II’s opening stage has you dodging between colossal solar flares straight out of Life Force, for example, and level four is a murderous moai head gauntlet patterned on the first game’s. Thankfully, the level roster isn’t made up entirely of callbacks. I particularly enjoyed Gradius II’s Alien-inspired second stage, which is sporting phallic bio-mechanical skulls straight out of an H.R. Giger airbrush painting and “facehugger” baddies that spring from their eggs to assault the Vic Viper.

The classic Gradius power-up system is in full effect here. Certain enemies drop orange orbs that you can collect and then cash in to purchase upgrades for the Vic Viper. New to this entry is the ability to customize the upgrade menu itself at the beginning of each playthrough. Every weapon from Gradius and Life Force is available, along with some new ones, but the catch is that you can’t take them all with you. Four different sets of armaments are available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Do you prefer the more damaging straight laser from Gradius or the extra screen coverage of Life Force’s wider ripple laser? How about missiles that travel along the ground, double missiles, or exploding bombs that deal heavy splash damage to anything nearby? Double shot or tail gun? No one weapon set imbues the Vic Viper with flawless 360 degree firepower, so choose wisely. I really loved this addition. It allows for multiple play styles and encourages players to re-play the game in order to experiment with new ways to tackle old challenges. It’s no wonder that this weapon selection mechanic was retained and deepened in later sequels.

Not only are there more weapons to choose from, some of the returning ones have also been enhanced. The laser weapons can both be strengthened by purchasing them twice and the iconic option satellites are even more formidable here. Not only can you finally have up to four options at once just like in the arcade (NES Gradius and Life Force limited you to two), but picking option on the menu again after attaining all four will cause your entire complement of satellites to rapidly rotate around the Vic Viper, granting you even more effective protection and concentrated firepower for a limited time. Right on!

I have to mention how much Gradius II’s bosses impressed me. There are a ton of them (you fight a grueling five in a row during a tense and memorable “boss rush” segment in stage five), they all look fantastic, and each one is wholly unique in terms of its behavior. I didn’t find Gradius or Life Force to be all that impressive in this regard, so this represents another huge leap forward for the series. Oh, and if the idea of squaring off against five bosses back-to-back sounds intimidating, you can rest easy knowing that this is the first home port of a Gradius game to allow for unlimited continues to balance out its longer, more challenging stages. It’s a welcome change for me after just recently reckoning with NES Gradius’ ruthless zero continues policy.

As much as it pains me to say, Gradius II does have a lone non-trivial flaw: The slowdown. The copious weapon fire emitting from the Viper itself (especially when multiple options are involved) combines with the large number of enemy sprites to lag some portions of the game significantly. I found myself mentally nicknaming the second half of stage three “the purple crystal slowdown zone” due to the way the plethora of fragmenting space rocks in your path cause the hardware to chug as you blaze a path through them. It’s not a constant issue by any means and some players may even appreciate the occasional bit of extra “help” dodging all those enemy bullets. Still,  it does have the potential to bog down some otherwise top-notch action.

With its jaw-dropping VRC4-enhanced presentation, varied stages, expanded power-up scheme, thrilling boss encounters, and generous continue system, Gradius II is undeniably a triumph and is a top contender for the single best side-scrolling shooter on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. About the only thing it doesn’t have going for it is the two-player simultaneous play from Life Force, but this is understandable in light of the processing strain a single Gradius II player imposes on the humble Famicom. It’s a genuine treat, right up there with Sweet Home and Holy Diver on my personal short list of the greatest Japan-only releases for the platform. I definitely plan on revisiting this one in the future. Unless the Bacterians vaporize us all first because I dared to insult the mighty Gofer. In which case, my bad.

Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Back in 1983, Konami published a little arcade game called Roc’n Rope. Directed by a promising rookie designer named Tokuro Fujiwara, Roc’n Rope is a single screen “climb to the top” platformer in the Donkey Kong mold with a twist: The player’s avatar, a tiny explorer in a pith helmet, is unable to jump and instead has to ascend the playfield by using a grappling gun which fires a rope that can latch onto the undersides of platforms. I’ve been a fan of this one ever since it debuted. It’s clever, cute, and a lot of fun. It’s not at all a common cabinet, but I’ll always drop a few quarters in given the opportunity.

As for Fujiwara, he left Konami for Capcom later that same year, going on to become one of the industry’s most most influential designer/producers. His Ghosts ‘n Goblins series needs no introduction and he’s also been closely involved with almost every other major Capcom property. I’m talking Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, the works. In 1987, he revisted the “wire action” concept introduced in Roc’n Rope with the arcade Bionic Commando, better-known by most for its brilliant 1988 NES adaptation.

What many don’t know is that Konami took their own stab at a Roc’n Rope successor in 1987 with no input from Fujiwara. The result was Arumana no Kiseki (“Miracle of Arumana”) for the Famicom Disk System. While it’s not quite the must-play masterpiece NES Bionic Commando is, Arumana is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that will appeal to fans of other Konami side-scrollers.

A single glance at Arumana’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about its story. This is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not even remotely subtle about it, either. The game’s hero, one Kaito, is straight-up cosplaying in his khaki safari shirt and brown fedora. The plot sees him out to restore life to a vaguely Indian village by retrieving a stolen magical gem called the Sanka…er, the Arumana. Baddies included turbaned Thuggee lookalikes and snakes. There are booby-trapped ruins aplenty and even a minecart segment. It’s enough to make me wonder if all this “homaging” is the reason we never saw an NES conversion of Arumana. LucasArts’ lawyers would have had a field day.

Kaito’s quest for the Arumana unfolds over the course of six stages, which seems to have been the magic number for Konami around this time, going by Contra, Castlevania, Jackal, and others. Stages are moderately large and scroll in all directions, though they’re laid out in such a fashion that the way forward is generally pretty obvious. That said, be on the lookout for the occasional false wall or floor that can be broken with the spiked ball weapon to reveal power-ups and shortcuts. Breaking walls in this manner actually becomes necessary to progress in some of the later areas.

On the subject of weapons, Kaito has a generous six at his disposal. There are no hard choices to be made here, either, as he can potentially carry all six at once, cycling between them as needed with the Select button. Throwing knives and a pistol provide basic forward firepower, bombs and spiked balls arc downward, the bola travels diagonally upward, and the rare and precious red orb instantly damages every enemy on the screen. The most interesting thing to me about this system is that all these weapons have limited shots. This means that Kaito has no innate free attack option and a careless player could theoretically fire off everything and find themself completely defenseless. Though it’s unlikely to ever happen due to the frequency with which the game throws ammo of various types the player’s way, Arumana is one of the few action-platformers where such a thing is even possible.

Of course, as alluded to above, the real defining feature of Arumana no Kiseki is not a weapon at all, but Kaito’s grappling line. Pressing up and the B button simultaneously causes it to shoot out at a fixed upward angle and anchor itself to any solid surface. Kaito can then shimmy his way up or down the line as needed. You can only have one line in place at a given time, however. The previous one will disappear the instant you press up and B again. Although Kaito can jump, his puny Simon Belmont-esque hops are woefully inadequate for the great heights he’s expected to negotiate almost constantly. Simply put, the game is designed in such a way that the grappling line must be mastered completely in order to see Kaito through to the end.

There’s a lot to love about Arumana no Kiseki. Its swashbuckling Indiana Jones trappings, brazen and shameless as they are, work to set just the right adventuresome tone. The in-game artwork is great by 1987 standards, keeping with Konami’s early Famicom house style of realistically-proportioned faceless human characters. The level design is excellent throughout and each stage’s end boss presents a unique challenge that’s suitably intimidating and satisfying to conquer with the correct weapons and tactics. The difficulty also feels about right to me, similar to other tough-but-fair Konami hits like Contra. Kaito’s default five-hit life meter is neither too generous nor too stingy and he’s given three lives and three continues with which to tackle all six stages, with the possibility of earning extra lives through score and 1-Up pickups.

I’d be remiss I didn’t single out Kinuyo Yamashita’s music for special recognition. The Famicom Disk System add-on included an extra sound channel for wavetable synthesis. Support for this feature varied greatly from game to game, but few would ever use it as extensively and artfully as Yamashita did here. She programmed a total of ten distinct wavetable instruments for use in Arumana no Kiseki and the results speak for themselves. Heck, even before you take the expansion audio into consideration, the melodies here are every bit as good as the ones she created for Castlevania or Power Blade. My only regret is that there apparently wasn’t room on the disk for more of them, as the six stages share three background tracks between them.

Sadly, few things in life are truly perfect. Even Indy had his obnoxious  sidekick cross to bear on occasion. Arumana’s metaphoric Short Round is the awkward and occasionally glitchy implementation of its central platforming mechanic. Kaito’s grappling line deploys slowly in contrast to the zippy bionic arm of Rad Spencer, making it difficult to escape some of the faster enemies. What’s more, the physics of it are just plain strange. Here’s an example: If you wanted to anchor your line as high up on the screen as possible, you’d obviously want to fire it off at the apex of a jump, right? Wrong. The line will somehow move up and down the screen along with Kaito as it extends, so you instead want to fire it off a split second before you jump. That way, you can try to match up the instant the line actually attaches to the wall with the high point of the jump. That’s just bonkers. You can definitely get used to it, but the learning curve is steep and it never really feels right. It’s also possible to deploy your line in such a way that Kaito clips through the wall and dies instantly when he climbs up it. This doesn’t happen all the time, just often enough to be frustrating and make you wish that Konami had done a little more fine tuning before they shipped this one.

Play control angst aside, I’ll still recommend Arumana no Kiseki to any 8-bit action lover with the patience to adapt to its quirks. It’s a mostly successful attempt to infuse Rock’n Rope with elements of Castlevania and it makes excellent use of the FDS hardware. It deserves to be remembered as more than just Bionic Commando’s weird distant cousin. Ironically, it’s also miles above the godawful offical NES Temple of Doom adaptation put out by Tengen and Mindscape. That game should prepare to meet Kali…in hell!