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.

Advertisements

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 romp 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!

Nazo no Murasame Jō (Famicom)

It’s a new year! What better time than now to start exploring the Famicom Disk System?

Nintendo introduced the FDS add-on to Japanese gamers in 1986, billing it as the future of the then three year-old console. True to the name, Disk System games came on bright yellow proprietary floppy disks. The 112 KB storage capacity of these was a major step up from the ROM chips included in most cartridge games of the time. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, had to be crammed into a measly 40 KB. FDS disks were also considerably less expensive than cartridges and their rewritable nature gave players an easy way save their gameplay data. Nintendo even operated special store kiosks where used FDS disks could be overwritten with entirely different games for a fraction of the cost of a full retail release. Oh, and the disk drive itself also added some additional sound hardware. Can’t forget about that.

With all these cutting edge features, the Disk System was initially a significant success. Over four million units were sold and it would serve as the birthplace of some of the industry’s longest-running franchises, including Metroid and Castlevania. All good things must come to an end, however, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world never saw an NES disk unit. It became clear to Nintendo early on that the very same lower costs and rewritability that made floppy disks so appealing to consumers also made them downright irresistible to software pirates and bootleggers. Worse still, evolving ROM chip technology quickly turned the FDS disk’s much-vaunted 112 KB storage capacity into a liability. Consider a popular late period game like 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which would have required no fewer than seven disks to hold all 768 KB of its data. Major developers were soon eager to move their important projects back to cartridge and the FDS’s library after 1988 is predominantly low-effort shovelware and unlicensed softcore porn games.

Enough about the Disk System’s drawn-out demise, though. Let’s concentrate on the good times with a title from its heyday of 1986. It would make the most sense for me to start out with the first original title developed for the disk format, but it turns out that game happens to be some little-known oddity called The Legend of Zelda. Who wants to hear about a forgotten turd like that when I could be focusing on the FDS’s second original release, Nazo no Murasame Jō (“The Mysterious Murasame Castle”)? I’ll be playing it on an EverDrive N8 flash cartridge, which has the ability to boot up FDS games (loading screens and all) on a standard console with no need for the actual peripheral.

Nazo no Murasame Jō is an overhead view action game set in Edo period Japan and starring a young apprentice samurai named Takamaru, who’s been dispatched by the shogun to investigate reports of disturbing goings on in the region surrounding the eponymous castle. The trouble all stems from a malevolent alien creature that fell from the sky in the vicinity of Murasame Castle and has been gradually extending its influence over the neighboring lands, bringing the lords of four other nearby castles (Aosame, Akasame, Ryokusame, and Momosame) under its corrupting power in the process. Armed only with his sword and throwing knives, Takamaru must storm each of the five castles in turn before he can finally challenge the alien invader itself to a duel to the death in the heart of Murasame.

Kidding aside, the game that Nazo no Murasame Jō will remind most players of is indeed the first Legend of Zelda. The combination of the non-scrolling overhead perspective with Takamaru’s distinctly Link-ish movement and sword combat makes it quite obvious that Nintendo developed the two games concurrently. Whereas Zelda was an exploration-based adventure game with action elements, however, Nazo no Murasame Jō serves up a much more traditional pure action experience. There’s no open overworld here. Each of the five castles consists of two distinct stages: An outdoor one that has Takamaru fighting his way to the castle gate and an interior one where he must defeat that castle’s boss. There is the occasional branching path along the way, but these are mostly limited to small cul-de-sacs off the main route that can be braved in hopes of finding some handy power-ups or an extra life. While you won’t be wracking your brain over where to go next, you’ll hardly be bored. Takamaru is subject to near-constant attack from all sides and his assailants are far more numerous and aggressive than the ones in Zelda. He can only withstand three hits before losing a life and running out of lives means restarting the current stage from scratch.

These differences collectively make Nazo no Murasame Jō a much more challenging game than I anticipated. Certainly more so than the majority of first-party Nintendo games. It’s less Super Mario Bros. in spirit and more Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels). The assorted enemy samurai, demons, wizards, and tengu all show no mercy. And the ninja! So many ninja spawn in non-stop to harass Takamaru on nearly every screen. There are shuriken-throwing ones, fireball-throwing ones, invisible ones, exploding ones, invisible exploding ones, the works. The game isn’t impossible by any means due to its unlimited continues and save feature, but your thumbs are in for a quite the workout.

Thankfully, I can also report that the combat mechanics themselves keep all this chaos as enjoyable as it is unrelenting. Takamaru’s sword and knife attacks are both rather elegantly mapped to the A button. Pressing it while an enemy or a deflectable projectile is within melee range results in a sword swipe. Otherwise, he’ll toss a knife. This spares the player from having to second guess themselves over which attack to use in a given circumstance and frees up the B button for special techniques. These techniques consist of an invisibility cloak that renders Takamaru immune to damage for a brief period and a lighting attack that instantly destroys all non-boss enemies on the screen. Powerful as they are, special techniques have a limited number of uses and refills are scarce, so be sure to use them wisely.

Beyond this, the only real extra complexity comes in the form of the various power-ups scattered throughout the stages. These are usually not just laying around in plain sight, but instead only appear when their hiding spots are walked over. Some boost movement speed, confer temporary invincibility, or heal damage, but most improve Takamaru’s throwing knife attack in some way, either by upgrading the standard knives to more damaging pinwheels or fireballs or by allowing him to shoot in multiple directions at once. Just try not to grow too attached to a given power-up, as losing a life will reset Takamaru to his default capabilities.

The graphics share the same clean, colorful aesthetic that characterizes much of Nintendo’s early 8-bit work. Simple as it is, there’s obviously a real timelessness to it. If there’s a weakness here, I feel it has to be on a conceptual level as opposed to a technical one. The game simply doesn’t lean hard enough into its weird backstory. You’re supposed to be playing as a samurai hunting down a freaking space alien, yet every location you visit and enemy you encounter prior to the very last level reflects a fairly standard take on traditional Japanese history and mythology. Talk about an underdeveloped premise!

The soundtrack by Koji Kondo is above average by the standards of the time, but doesn’t really stand toe-to-toe with his more famous works from the Mario and Zelda series. The tunes have the expected ancient Japanese feel to them and suit the material just fine. I just don’t see myself humming any of these melodies in the shower. The track that plays over the ending feels pretty lazy, too. It’s just the “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maybe Kondo was crunched for time and decided to just say “screw it” and go public domain?

At its heart, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a simple pick-up-and-play hack-and-slasher with plenty of challenge and that distinctive Nintendo 8-bit house style. While surely the odd man out when sandwiched between two other Nintendo FDS releases (Zelda and Metroid) so ambitious that their influence is still being felt today, it proves that a well-designed game doesn’t need to kick off a revolution to be a lot of fun. It’s a pity that disappointing sales numbers prevented it from receiving any kind of follow-up and its medieval Japanese setting insured that it would remain unreleased outside its country of origin until 2014, when it was finally offered up as a downloadable title for the 3DS. Whether you play it there, on a flash cartridge or emulator, or even on a proper working FDS, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a thrilling way to spend a few hours.

Just watch out for those invisible exploding ninja. Well, not watch out. You know what I mean.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful that didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now that I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), an adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since then, I’ve known that I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early ’80s computing and bring it to Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor that was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine that Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the reader in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past.

This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations that implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice that it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established that Portopia is a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill that goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is that I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say that the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game that involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say that the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd that one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible in 2018. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.