Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (Famicom)

A few years back, I took at look at the NES classic River City Ransom. This comical 1989 beat-’em-up/RPG hybrid by Technōs Japan is a singular experience on the system and a favorite of many. Despite this, gamers outside Japan wouldn’t be treated to a direct sequel until River City: Tokyo Rumble arrived on the 3DS in 2016. Famicom owners got a much better deal. They only needed to wait two years for Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (“Downtown Special: It’s Kunio’s Period Piece, Assemble Everyone!”). As its mouthful of a title implies, this is the Kunio-kun franchise’s wacky take on a jidaigeki, or Japanese historical drama. If you’ve ever wondered how River City Ransom would have played out in the 17th century, here’s your chance to find out.

I played the original Famicom version of Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki in conjunction with the unofficial English translation patch by Technōs Samurai Translation Project. There is another option in the form of the Double Dragon & Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle, which went up for sale on the PlayStation 4 and Switch download services in February of this year. It includes official English versions of this and many other older Technōs games. Digital storefronts are notoriously fickle, so here’s hoping it’s still available by the time you read this.

There’s a plot going on in this one, although it’s mostly a paper thin excuse to dash around the countryside punching and kicking everyone you meet. Our tale begins with tough guy hero Kunio and his dorky brother responding to a request for aid from the head of the friendly Bunzō clan, who’s taken ill and requires a rare medicinal herb. The brothers set off to find it and this leads to betrayal, kidnapping, and other assorted intrigue courtesy of rival clans. While this clearly wasn’t a major focus and none of it stuck with me, I do appreciate that there’s a bit more in the way of ongoing storytelling here than there was in River City Ransom.

This game’s interpretation of ancient Japan comprises ten interconnected zones. Each is relatively compact, consisting of a couple dozen screens at most. There’s a lot more variety to these than we saw in River City’s various neighborhoods, both in terms of visuals and gameplay. Some are urban, others mountainous, icy, water filled, etc. This allows for a number of environmental conditions which can affect combat. Having to worry about falling into lava or getting pushed around by powerful river currents is an oddly welcome addition to the conventional brawling.

As for that brawling, it’s where Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki really shines. This will come as no surprise to lovers of the series, but it still bears mentioning because of how much its predecessor’s already impressive martial arts mayhem was refined and expanded upon. Kunio’s standard compliment of kicks, punches, throws, and ground attacks can be supplemented by up to 25 additional special techniques and a host of melee weapons. In short, you’re constantly gaining new ways to kick ass. Some of these special moves are pretty dang wild, too. I’m especially fond of the lethal fart that knocks down every enemy on the screen. If you’re looking for a game that pushes the console’s two-button controller to its limits, look no further.

The RPG mechanics underlying the fisticuffs have received an overhaul as well. Characters have the same set of ten statistics as before. These govern health, defense, how much damage they deal with specific attacks, and so on. Unlike in River City Ransom, stat growth isn’t predicated on purchasing food items in shops. Rather, it’s tied directly the experience points obtained from defeated enemies. This distinction is important, since the in-game menu lets you manually tweak what percentage of a character’s total earned experience is allocated to a given stat. If you’re in a hurry to boost your dude’s kick damage, for example, you can re-direct as many points as you wish from the other nine stats to make it happen. Most “serious” RPGs don’t even allow for this much fine-tuning of character progression. Oh, and the last game’s lengthy password saves have been replaced with a battery backup this time. Very cool.

Inasmuch as Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki lives up to its billing as an enhanced River City Ransom in period garb, I can’t say enough good things about it. Regrettably, however, a few of its stabs at innovation turned out to be mixed blessings at best. The biggest offender has to be the partner system. Remember how I mentioned that Kunio was accompanied on the journey by his brother? Well, that’s not just for story purposes. If you’re playing alone, you’ll have a computer-controlled ally fighting alongside you at all times, whether you like it or not. You’ll recruit a whole stable of them over the course of the adventure, in fact, and can switch them out as desired back at your home base. What sounds like a very neat mechanic is ultimately more of a pain than anything. Your “helpers” are as dumb as can be, continually swooping in at the least opportune moments to get in your way, pelt you with objects, and steal your hard-earned cash drops. There’s no way to ditch them, either. Believe me, I tried. Let the bad guys kill them off and they’ll simply reappear after the next screen transition. If a second player is present, he or she will control the other character, which naturally works out much better. This arguably makes Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki more fun than River City Ransom for two players and less so for one. An option to fight solo and devote the extra system memory to enabling a third enemy on screen instead would have been amazing. Alas.

Slowdown is another sore point. The action slows to crawl on a fairly regular basis. The prevalence of this seems to be at least partly dependent on your location in the game world. One area in particular has a very attractive orange sunset in the background and virtually every fight that takes place in it runs at around 50% speed. This is where I ended up facing off against the game’s two final bosses and the choppy nature of the exchange greatly undermined what should have been a satisfying climax.

Though these are significant, pervasive flaws, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them fatal ones. Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki largely succeeds at its mission to deepen both the beat-’em-up and RPG aspects of River City Ransom. It also stays true to the goofy tone the saga is so beloved for. Seeing Kunio, Riki, and the rest of these familiar characters transported into an entirely new setting is a treat for fans like myself. I even spotted a couple of the team captains from Super Dodge Ball rounding out the cast. This is a quality work and certainly deserved better than to be condemned to obscurity in the West over some old-timey Japanese set dressing. Barf!

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esper Dream (Famicom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genres, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen, a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (Famicom)

 

I know I’m not going to make many new fans by saying so, but I don’t really care much for babies. They’re loud, frequently smelly, and terrible conversationalists to boot. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. Konami’s intrepid superbaby Upa is a major exception. Ever since I first encountered him as one of the playable “ships” in the comedy shooter Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, I’ve admired the little guy’s can-do spirit. Taking down a hostile alien armada with a barrage of pacifiers and milk bottle missiles? That’s my kind of infant. Take notes, slackers.

After an introduction like that, it was only a matter of time before I checked out the character’s 1988 debut, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (“Bio Miracle – I’m Upa.”) This bright, bouncy, deceptively tough platformer was originally designed for the Famicom Disk System accessory. Konami also re-released it in 1993 as a regular Famicom cartridge with remixed music and a new easy mode option. This was all strictly in Japan, of course. Perhaps decision makers of the time thought us gaijin would shun a literal baby game and that more overtly macho Konami offerings like Contra and Castlevania were the way to succeed on the NES? If so, they may well have been right. It’s still our loss, however. Upa kicks as much ass over the course of his adventure as the musclebound Bill and Lance or Simon Belmont and he doesn’t even need to walk to do it!

As the story goes, Upa is the young prince of a fantasy kingdom. One day, the goat demon Zai escapes the jar in which he’d been imprisoned and kidnaps all the kingdom’s inhabitants, except for Upa. All seems lost until Upa is given a magical rattle by a fairy and crawls off to save the day. This requires braving the hazards of seven worlds, each of which is sub-divided into three stages. It’s thus a fairly lengthy quest that sees Upa traversing a whole host of bizarre landscapes, including ones made up entirely of candy, school supplies, computer circuitry, and dairy products.

The core gameplay is relatively simple. One button makes Upa jump (no mean feat when you haven’t figured out how to stand upright yet!) and the other shakes his rattle. Any regular enemy touched by the rattle instantly inflates like a balloon and begins to drift toward the top of the screen. It’s at this point that things get interesting. Once a baddie has been rattled, Upa can use it as a floating platform to reach higher elevations or to cross gaps wider than his regular jump permits. He can also shove the foe in any of five directions. This is essentially a more versatile take on the weaponized Koopa shells from Super Mario Bros. Shoved enemies can be used as weapons against their fellows, though they can also damage Upa if they happen to rebound off a surface and strike him instead. Mastering both applications of the rattle is required if you want to make any significant progress in Bio Miracle.

As I alluded to above, this simplicity doesn’t equate to ease. For a game with such an adorable premise and hero, it sure isn’t afraid to test your platforming mettle. Upa can’t withstand much damage and his path forward features no shortage of precarious pits. Moreover, continuing the game after you’ve run out of lives places you back at the beginning of the current world, not necessarily the specific stage you died on. This degree of difficulty isn’t exceptional by the standards of the platform, mind you. It just goes to show that not every baby game is actually for babies.

Roughly once every world or two, the regular platforming action is broken up by a novelty stage of sorts. This will be either an underwater section with the kind of “tap the jump button to paddle” controls you’d expect or a free-roaming zone where Upa must dig (or, more accurately, munch) a path for himself through the layers of a gigantic cake. These not only do a fine job of adding variety, they simultaneously relieve some player tension, as the lack of falling hazards makes them significantly easier than the usual levels.

Regardless of type, most stages conclude with a boss battle. All of these, including the final scrap with Zai, function more or less the same: Upa will need to rattle the steady flow of regular enemies entering the arena and then use them as weapons against the boss. The late game relies on increasingly cramped or treacherous screen layouts to make this a taller order than before, similar to how Super Mario Bros. 2 tweaks the fights against Birdo as it goes on.

Now that I think about it, numerous other elements of Bio Miracle make me suspect its creators were big fans of SMB2’s original 1987 incarnation, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Both share a pastel color scheme, cheery carnival style music, a fanciful setting free from the constraints of realism, an emphasis on defeating enemies by hurling them at one another, those digging stages, and more. Not that I’m complaining here. Bio Miracle is certainly no mere clone, seeing as how Upa controls nothing like a Mario or Doki Doki Panic character. It’s more akin to the burst of quirky action-adventure/RPG titles Konami put forth in the wake of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda and Metroid. The influence is clear, yet it never lacks for its own personality or creative spark.

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa is a winner; another of the seemingly endless jewels in the crown of mid-’80s Konami. Its only conspicuous omission is any sort of save feature, which you’d think would be a given on the Famicom Disk System. Sadly, Upa himself would never enjoy top billing again. He was a playable part of the ensemble cast in 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō and a couple of those Parodius games I already mentioned. Beyond that, he’s effectively joined Penta the penguin in defunct Konami mascot limbo. At least his first and only turn in the spotlight endures and should appeal to anyone who appreciates lighthearted platformers in the Super Mario tradition. Assuming they’re not bothered by the sight of a baby falling to his death on a bed of spikes, that is. Hmm. Maybe there was more than one reason this never came out over here….

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 40 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!