Gargoyle’s Quest: Ghosts ‘n Goblins (Game Boy)

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly engaged in heroics. I play through a different classic game every week, after all. Selflessly fighting to save princesses, planets, and the occasional whole universe is par for the course. Sometimes, though, it feels pretty dang good to be bad. Arcade manufacturer Exidy had this figured out as early as 1976. That was the year they debuted Death Race, which touched off what some have called the first video game moral panic by encouraging its players to run down helpless humanoid figures with their cars for points. Here we are over four decades later and the vehicular homicide-happy Grand Theft Auto V is currently the second best-selling game of all time, much to the chagrin of those very same reactionary watchdog types. There’s a beautiful continuity to it all.

It’s in that subversive spirit that I now turn to Gargoyle’s Quest: Ghosts ‘n Goblins. This 1990 action-platformer represents the first Game Boy work from powerhouse publisher Capcom. As its oft-omitted subtitle indicates, it’s a spin-off from their Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise. If you don’t recall encountering any gargoyles there, you’re not alone. In truth, Gargoyle’s Quest sees you playing as Firebrand, one of the deadly winged Red Arremer demons that have so vexed knight Arthur over the years. The game’s Japanese name, Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden (“Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story”), makes no secret of this. We almost certainly have Nintendo’s long established reluctance to risk offending religious special interest groups overseas to blame for the misleading title change and the goofy lime green rendition of Firebrand on the cover. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that you control a thoroughly wicked demon in this one. You’re even gifted a handy power-up by Lucifer himself at one point, although it’s easy to miss due to the way his name was altered to the bizarre Rushifell during localization.

As the story opens, Firebrand is busy doing what he does best: Sacking and burning a town in the human world. His conquest is then cut short by an urgent distress call. It seems his hellish home, the Ghoul Realm, is itself under attack by an army of Destroyers from another dimension. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. It falls on Firebrand to return to the Ghoul Realm and repel the invaders by embracing his destiny as a champion of underworld prophecy, the Red Blaze.

What follows is thirteen stages of clever, compelling side-view action unlike anything seen previously in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Firebrand can walk, jump, and breathe fire at foes, but his wings and claws are what really make Gargoyle’s Quest a distinct experience. Using them, he can glide horizontally for a limited time (as represented by a stamina meter) and cling to walls. Simple as this sounds, all the considerable level design acumen on display here is laser focused on testing your ability to manage these two actions under ever more demanding conditions.

Firebrand’s jump height and wing strength gradually grow as he acquires specific key items. He similarly gains additional health and new breath attacks that can break certain blocks or create temporary claw anchor points on spiked surfaces. Every new power boost is neatly balanced by an overall increase in the intricacy of the enemy placement and stage layouts, however, preventing you from resting on your laurels. The going’s not easy. Thankfully, a password system is in place to maintain your progress between sessions.

I’ve been describing Gargoyle’s Quest purely in action game terms thus far because that’s what I believe it to be at heart. That said, it does also include a Dragon Quest style overworld complete with towns. Before you adventure and RPG fans get too excited, I should add that its implementation is bare bones in the extreme. Firebrand’s journey is a strictly linear one, meaning that the Ghoul Realm never opens up and permits you to visit multiple locations in the order of your choosing. NPCs are terse and devoid of personality, their dialogue functional at best. The only optional items to be found are extra lives. This isn’t a fantasy world you explore so much as elaborate set dressing intended to add some gloomy atmosphere and a sense of epic scope to the core action-platforming.

Speaking of atmosphere, I can’t overstate how superb Gargoyle’s Quest looks and sounds for an early Game Boy release. Backgrounds are richly detailed and often feature moving elements as well, putting the static voids seen in the likes of Super Mario Land to shame. Firebrand and the majority of his opponents animate well and there’s loads of sinister charm packed into their tiny sprites. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura, two industry greats still at it to this day, and is a remarkable achievement all-around. Listening to it, you can genuinely feel the grim desolation of the Ghoul Realm wash over you.

In short, Gargoyle’s Quest is a class act. Is it perfect? I should say not. It’s prone to slowing down when the screen gets crowded, the milquetoast localization does substantial violence to its intended demonic theme, and the paper-thin adventure mechanics could have been deepened at least a little without bogging down the action. Regardless, it’s been one of my most loved Game Boy exclusives ever since its release. It strikes me as a companion piece of sorts to another of my favorite old school Capcom offerings, the NES Bionic Commando. They each use the contrivance of a rudimentary overhead world map to present a smoothly escalating series of obstacle course-like challenges built to test your mastery of the main character’s unorthodox platforming abilities. I reckon this is probably no coincidence, given that Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Bionic Commando are both creations of star Capcom director/producer Tokuro Fujiwara.

So, is it truly better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven? I’ll leave that one to the theologians. My boy Firebrand sure seems to be enjoying himself, though.

Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge (Game Boy)

It’s the Halloween season at last, and I bloody well need it! I’m guessing you do, too. Who would have dreamed that demons and the restless dead could be such a breath of fresh air after six months trapped at home watching the world burn? Time to relieve a bit of that tension with another spread of five spooky games for five classic systems. I’ve hit on quite the diverse selection this time around. Ghoulish games good and bad, famous and obscure, cerebral and schlocky await you. Never let it be said I don’t have your back, Dear Reader.

Before I plunge headlong into the really weird stuff, allow me to dish up some wholesome side-scrolling comfort food in the form of 1991’s Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge for the Game Boy. As the name implies, this is the sequel to the first portable Castlevania release, 1989’s Castlevania: The Adventure. I typically make a good faith effort to tackle a series in chronological order, but I’m going to level with you here: I do not care for Castlevania: The Adventure. It’s crudely designed, missing key features (most notably sub-weapons), and hero Christopher Belmont controls like he made an ill-advised stop at an all-night Transylvanian liquor store on his way to Dracula’s abode.

In other words, Belmont’s Revenge is where handheld Castlevania became worthwhile. Set fifteen years after the previous entry, it follows an aging Christopher as he embarks on a mission to save his possessed son Soleiyu from the clutches of a resurrected Dracula. He has his work cut out for him, seeing as he’s forced to brave a total of five haunted castles this time instead of just the one. Hitting start on the title screen ushers you to a Mega Man style menu that prompts you to choose between the Cloud, Crystal, Plant, and Rock castles. Only after these four are purged of their evil will Castlevania proper be available to storm.

Based on this setup alone, you might expect Chris’ quest to be gigantic in scope. Alas, no. The first four castles consist of a single stage apiece and Dracula’s digs add two more. Belmont’s Revenge is thus just slightly longer than the NES original. That’s still an acceptable length for an old school action-platformer, however, and every area is reasonably unique in terms of its audiovisual presentation and obstacles. Short as it is, Belmont’s Revenge still includes a helpful password option in case you’re playing it on the go and either get interrupted or run low on battery power.

The action here is exactly what you’d expect from 8-bit Castlevania. Christopher is once again a tad slower than his home console counterparts, presumably to offset the motion blur inherent to ancient LCD screens. That said, the game speed as a whole is much improved over Adventure. In addition to his Vampire Killer whip, he also has access to two of the traditional Belmont sub-weapons: The axe and holy water. These restore the all-important ability to engage targets too high or low to whip. The continued absence of the throwing dagger and boomerang cross is justified by the return of Adventure’s fireball whip upgrade. These flaming missiles are even better than before, since taking hits from most enemies no longer causes the whip to downgrade. Thank God.

Level design is similarly miles above the barren Adventure. Literally, in the case of the Cloud Castle. There’s always some new booby trap or environmental hazard to contend with. Crystal Castle has flowing water and breakaway blocks (no Bentley Bear, though), Plant Castle has spongy terrain to hinder your movement, and so on. My favorite is the section of Rock Castle where destroying the wall-mounted candles causes the room to go dark. You then need to rely the flames produced by your holy water to temporarily re-illuminate your surroundings. Fire actually functioning as a light source in a Castlevania game? How have I never seen that before? It’s such a basic idea, yet so clever in context.

Both the spritework and background art in Belmont’s Revenge are standouts on the hardware. From little details like the undulating tendrils sprouting out of Plant Castle to the titanic Giger-esque monstrosity that rules over Cloud Castle, it all looks fantastic. And the music? Don’t get me started! Tracks like “New Messiah,” “Praying Hands,” and “Original Sin” are easily some of the best ever composed for the series. Considering how good they sound coming out of the humble Game Boy, I’m genuinely surprised that they haven’t been referenced more in subsequent installments. I’d gladly take that over the fiftieth tired remix of “Bloody Tears.”

Belmont’s Revenge would be a practically perfect vintage ‘Vania outing if it wasn’t for one grave misstep: The final fight against Dracula himself. It’s perhaps the worst of the fifteen I’ve experienced to date. And yes, I went and counted just now. His lone weak spot is his head and he constantly teleports around the room hurling projectiles. Par for the course, right? Wrong. The difference is that these projectiles are arranged into a massive spinning ring that expands outward from the Count and covers most of the screen. The only way to survive long enough to deal your damage is to painstakingly memorize safe spots corresponding to each of eight perches he can appear on and then make damn sure you’re in the appropriate one whenever he unleashes a shot. It’s repetitive trial-and-error rather than a true test of your reactions and timing. Know the safe spots and you win. Don’t know them and you lose. What a sorry way to cap off a great game.

While it does end on a sour note, the other 95% of Belmont’s Revenge is the real deal. It’s bound to please anyone with an appreciation for the tight, challenging gameplay and wicked Gothic styling of early Castlevania. The saga didn’t exactly hit the ground running on Nintendo’s old gray brick, but Konami’s second try brought the fun back with a vengeance. Seems fitting.

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

Nintendo’s 1981 arcade smash Donkey Kong occupies a very special place in my heart. I was just old enough during the peak of its popularity for it to become one of my earliest and most enduring digital loves. I dutifully sacrificed my parents’ quarters to it whenever I could and made due with the wretched Atari 2600 version the rest of the time. I also devoured the breakfast cereal (Pac-Man’s was better), watched the Saturday morning cartoon religiously, and hoarded all manner of Kong-licensed tsotchkes.

The game’s appeal was two-fold. First, its trailblazing mechanics single-handedly popularized the side-view platformer, arguably the decade’s signature genre. It thus paved the way for literally thousands of imitators. On top of that, it gave us the most recognizable and relatable cast of characters we’d seen in any game to date. Granted, a mustachioed carpenter clambering up the scaffolding of a construction site to rescue his lady love from a ornery gorilla isn’t exactly Shakespeare, but this was a period when most games had you controlling spaceships or other vehicles with nary a human figure in sight.

Despite how important his debut outing was, both for Nintendo as a company and the hobby as a whole, Donkey Kong the character all but vanished in the wake of 1983’s Donkey Kong 3. Fans of the big ape had no choice during this DK Dark Age but to to subsist on the odd background cameo in the likes of Punch-Out!! or NES Tetris.

Everything changed over the course of 1994, as marketing hype for Rare’s upcoming Super Nintendo platformer Donkey Kong Country gradually built to a fever pitch. DKC is a classic in its own right, so few were disappointed when it finally released that November. It was not, however, the long-awaited return of Donkey Kong. No, that honor belongs to another superb game that quietly made its way to store shelves some five months previous. So quietly, in fact, that I missed it altogether. I’m talking about the portable masterpiece that is Donkey Kong for the Game Boy.

Donkey Kong ’94’s low profile may be due in part to some prospective buyers taking one look at the name and assuming it was a simple port of an ancient arcade title. The Game Boy library certainly doesn’t lack for such offerings. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it does open with nostalglic recreations of the original’s four stages, this is merely a prelude to the 97 new ones to come. Yes, there are a staggering 101 levels packed into this tiny cartridge. They’re no lazy copy-and-paste jobs, either. Locations, enemies, and platforming gimmicks change up constantly as Donkey Kong leads Mario on a merry chase through nine themed worlds.

Mario’s goal is once again to rescue the hapless Pauline, gaming’s original damsel in distress. Doing so this time will require much more than simply reaching the top of the screen in one piece, though. Donkey Kong ’94 introduces puzzling on top of the expected platforming. Most stages require Mario to pick up a key and carry it to the exit in order to move on. It’s straightforward enough the first few times. After that, it takes some serious strategizing, often under strict time constraints. You’ll be required to manage switches, conveyor belts, temporary platforms, enemies that double as transportation, the works. This puzzle element is a huge departure from the series’ arcade roots. Fortunately, it’s a wildly successful one. The challenge builds so gradually and gracefully that frustration is kept to an absolute minimum. There’s just enough complexity to keep you engaged throughout and you invariably feel brilliant each time you piece together a solution. A fine balancing act indeed.

Every fourth level or so, Mario will square off against Donkey Kong himself. These clashes hew closer to the arcade style, as there are no keys to worry about. Instead, you’re tasked with either dodging incoming hazards on the way to Pauline or using Kong’s own barrels against him in a fashion reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Birdo. The oft-neglected Donkey Kong Jr. sometimes joins his dad in these boss fights, much to my delight. I love that little guy.

One thing to bear in mind is that this isn’t a Super Mario game. Running fast and leaping with reckless abandon are right out. Heck, falling too far onto a hard surface can prove fatal here. Nor are there any fire flowers or similar flashy power-ups to collect. The closest you get is the occasional barrel-busting mallet. This isn’t to say that Mario is short on options. On the contrary, he has a wide repertoire of moves at his disposal, including three different jumps. Still, the emphasis is firmly on devising winning strategies for each stage and carefully timing their executions. It’s a far cry from the twitchy daredevil escapades common in the Mushroom Kingdom.

I can’t say enough good things about Donkey Kong ’94. It’s easily one of the best Game Boy games ever made, a total puzzle-platforming package with all the gameplay polish and audiovisual pizzazz you’d expect from Nintendo. It even incorporates custom color palettes, an arcade-inspired screen border, and enhanced sound effects for use with the Super Game Boy accessory. Massive in scope, it never wears out its welcome and is playable in short bursts due to its built-in save feature. Best of all in my view, it comes across as a heartfelt tribute to, and natural continuation of, the golden age DK legacy. About the only thing missing is a Stanley the Bugman cameo. RIP, bro.

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Game Boy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

 

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying!

Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit is a game fraught with contradiction. It pairs a cutsey art style with one of most grim, depressing plots of its era. It’s a highly creative, even innovative release from a “me, too” publisher. It’s a relatively expensive title for the Game Boy, a system renowned for being dirt cheap to collect for. Finally, and to its greatest detriment, it’s widely ignored despite being one of the most interesting and varied action-platformers available for Nintendo’s old gray brick.

Avenging Spirit began its (un)life as a 1991 release for Japanese arcades. It’s also known in some markets by the title Phantasm, not to be confused with director Don Coscarelli’s horror film series of the same name. It was the creation of CP.BRAiN, an obscure and long-extinct development studio founded by former Aicom designer Tokuhiro Takemori (The Legendary Axe, Astyanax). Strangely, this 1992 Game Boy conversion is the only home port it would ever receive, despite the arcade cabinet’s colorful visuals being much better-suited for the 16-bit systems of the time. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the game’s length (just six short stages) as the reason Jaleco went the handheld route instead of pitting Avenging Spirit against the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic 2. This is pure conjecture, however.

The adventure kicks off with a very well-rendered cut scene of a happy young couple strolling arm-in-arm. Their bliss doesn’t last long, as they’re quickly confronted by a pair of pistol-packing gangsters. The girl is abducted by the thugs and her boyfriend is shot dead on the spot when he tries to intervene. Yikes! I’m scratching my head here trying to think of another Game Boy title that goes from zero to cold blooded murder in about thirty seconds flat and coming up short. Jaleco certainly showed some nerve with this one. It turns out we haven’t heard the last from this unnamed boy character. The game’s pervasive tonal whiplash kicks it right away as he regains consciousness in a laboratory only to discover he’s taken on the form of a classic Halloween sheet ghost, doofy grin and all. As it happens, the girl’s father is a scientist specializing in “ghost energy” and the crooks who kidnapped his daughter are looking to extort him for his research. Rather than letting such dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands, the scientist has summoned the boy’s spirit in order to convince him to embark on a rescue/revenge mission. In order to do that, though, the harmless little ghost boy is going to need a new body. Or ten.

Yes, Avenging Spirit is the original game about creepily possessing the bodies of your enemies and using them as sacrificial pawns to further your own violent agenda. Eat your heart out, Super Mario! On his own, the ghost is limited to drifting around the stage slowly and he can’t even do that for very long. He has a spirit energy meter which depletes rapidly any time he’s not possessing a host. Run out of energy and it’s game over. Fortunately, you’re provided unlimited continues to work with, so exploring the levels and trying out different approaches is never penalized too harshly.

Every non-boss enemy in the game is playable and no two are exactly alike. Each has a unique way of attacking and a different distribution of standard variables like maximum health, walk speed, and jump height. An odd few even have miscellaneous special abilities like flight or invisibility. Most of the fun here comes from “test driving” as many different enemy characters as possible and discovering which ones best suit your play style. Of course, there will also be those times when you lack the energy reserves to be choosy and are forced to latch onto the closest available victim.

The design of all these foes is where the developers’ strange sense of humor was apparently given free reign. Beyond the typical gun-wielding mafioso types you’d expect, you also square off against ninja, robots, dragons, wizards, vampires (in boxer shorts!), and baseball players. Say what you will about these criminals, but they’ve got the workplace diversity thing down pat. Every level throws new enemy types into the mix, insuring the core gameplay is never permitted to stagnate. While some hosts are very clearly stronger options than others, I’m not inclined to take this a flaw. Instead, I think it’s best viewed as an on-the-fly difficulty select for players. Playing through a given stage as a fast, durable, rocket-shooting robot certainly makes for a much easier time than controlling a standard flunkie, but a skilled player familiar with the ins and outs of that stage may still opt for the latter in the interest of maintaining challenge.

If the gameplay can be said to have a major weakness, it would be that the movement of the on-screen characters is a bit on the slow and floaty side. This is a common issue shared by many Game Boy platformers and seems to be largely intentional. The LCD screens on most Game Boy models are famously prone to distracting motion blur whenever fast-moving objects are displayed. Smart game designers would typically compensate by slowing the action down a touch when compared to a similar game for a home console. At least it doesn’t come off any worse than usual here and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment much if you’re already accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Game Boy titles in general.

Other than that, Avenging Spirit is everything you could want in a portable 8-bit platformer. It looks great, sounds great, and packs an uncommon degree of depth and replay value courtesy of its huge roster of playable characters. It’s also one of the earliest examples I can cite of the “enemy ability hijacking” mechanic. Its most obvious forerunner is Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master from 1990, although the far gentler Nemo relied on befriending cute animals with candy rather than spectral body snatching. It would be another two years before HAL Laboratory took the disturbing implications to a whole new level in Kirby’s Adventure. Eating your enemies alive to gain their powers? Now that’s brutal.

Personally, what fascinates me about this one is its chaotic mish-mash of tones. I was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect with the Kirby thing just now, but I was not at all kidding when I noted Avenging Spirit’s plot is resolutely bleak. The main character is effectively sent on a post-homicide suicide mission and there is no happily ever after for him. Whether he succeeds or fails, it’s made quite clear that his spirit is fated to fade away in a relatively short time. The best he can hope for is to save his girlfriend before this comes to pass and even this outcome is not a given. If you fail to find all three of the keys hidden in out-of-the-way rooms over the course of the game, you’ll be unable to open the door where the girlfriend character is imprisoned at the end and she’ll be killed when the enemy base explodes! There are therefore two possible endings, both of which are legitimate tearjerkers in their own ways. Outside of the cutscenes, though? 100% chibi style cartoon mayhem where vampires in their underwear battle killer baseball players. The game’s creators have essentially mashed up the script for The Crow with the visual design of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and I’m in awe of the result. The surreal dissonance of it all amounts to one of those truly singular gaming experiences for me. It lingers in the mind long after you’ve powered off your console.

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)

19055614_10158866329370416_6041810411538105490_o

Never piss off a ninja, chump.

Just got done playing through Ninja Gaiden Shadow on my lunch break. This one was developed by Natsume as a Game Boy follow-up to their decent NES title Shadow of the Ninja, but Tecmo bought the publishing rights at the last minute and released it under the Ninja Gaiden name in 1991 instead. Anyone who’s played Shadow of the Ninja will note the similarities here, as your character uses a grappling hook to hang from ceilings as he did in that game instead of clinging to and jumping off of walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden is better known for.

The cut-and-paste nature of the switch is also made apparent through the lack of another Ninja Gaiden staple: Plot twists and cinematic cut scenes during play. All you get is a brief pre-game intro stating an evil dude in a cape (named Emperor Garuda) is wreaking havoc and Ryu the ninja needs to stop him. That’s it.

Thankfully, the action is pretty good. Ryu can run, jump, duck, slash with his sword, use his grappling hook to latch onto the underside of certain platforms, and fire off a limited-use diagonal fire attack. The fire attack is the only secondary weapon you can employ in this game, unfortunately. Due to the motion blur that obscured fast moving objects on the original Game Boy’s screen, moving and attacking is much slower here than in any of the main series games and you will sometimes feel like you’re playing underwater Ninja Gaiden. That said, the control is solid and the stage layouts are pretty nice, incorporating both horizontal and vertical scrolling and sporting a few nifty set pieces like dark areas and a sequence where you must outrun a rising tide of lava.

Graphics look good for the system, with some nicely-drawn backgrounds and sprites. The sprites are a decent size without falling into the common Game Boy trap of being too large to allow for a decent field of view around your character. The music is fantastic and perhaps the best aspect of the game’s presentation overall. There are several remixes of classic Ninja Gaiden tracks and they sound excellent on the Game Boy. In fact, they ironically sound much better than the godawful versions Tecmo blighted the world’s ears with in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for Super Nintendo. Ugh.

There are only five levels and five bosses in the game and the difficulty is very forgiving due to the combination of short levels, unlimited continues, and the relatively small number of enemies and tricky jumps when compared to the NES titles. Even players relatively unskilled at action platformers will probably be able to complete this one in an hour or less. Replay value is minimal. If I had purchased the game for full price back in the day, I might have been a bit disappointed at this, but if you can pick it up for significantly less today, it’s not a bad time killer on a bus commute, plane ride, or the like. Just don’t expect it to play like the NES Ninja Gaiden titles or add anything to the greater storyline of the series.

Ninja vanish! *poof*

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

18278902_10158658561080416_2560151027506262420_o

Decided to play through Batman for Game Boy real quick this morning before checking out of the hotel for the final day of Crypticon. It’s still a pretty fun little platform/shooter hybrid, but I had forgotten in the 25 years or so since last playing it what a steep difficulty jump the last level and boss are. The auto-scrolling platform navigation is stressful (as intended, of course) and the damn Joker takes like a billion hits.

I’m really glad they used small sprites that work well in the Game Boy’s native resolution instead of making the common mistake of going with NES-like proportions that make the action appear too zoomed-in. It’s a short experience, with only four levels, and I would have particularly loved at least one more Batwing flying level, although I understand why they only included the one, since they were trying to follow the rough plot outline of the movie for the most part.

Still pretty enjoyable, though. Especially for coming out so early in the system’s life. Go, Sunsoft!