The Revenge of Shinobi (Genesis)

Can you believe it’s been over two-and-a-half years now since I’ve treated myself to a Shinobi outing? I did take a look at the tongue-in-cheek spin-off Alex Kidd in Shinobi World last Fall, but that game, while not without its charms, hardly counts. Time to remedy this with 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi.

Revenge is the third entry in the series and the first to be developed specifically for a home console, as opposed to the arcades. Although not a launch title for the Genesis in North America, it’s remembered as a highlight of the system’s critical first year. Before the Super Nintendo hit the scene, it served as a vivid demonstration of Sega’s cutting edge 16-bit technology. This was no accident. Director Noriyoshi Ohba has stated in interviews that The Revenge of Shinobi (or The Super Shinobi, as it’s known in Japan) was intended from the start to showcase the new hardware’s strengths. Large sprites, multi-layered backgrounds, and Yuzo Koshiro’s sublime FM synth soundtrack collectively achieved their intended effect. One look at a commercial or even a magazine ad was all you needed to know that this one wouldn’t be coming to your humble NES.

Historical context is nice. A ninja game that’s a blast to play in the here and now is nicer. Since I was never a “Sega kid” growing up, it’ll be interesting to dive in and see if Revenge fits the bill.

Ninja master Joe Musashi is back. Unfortunately, so are his arch-foes in the Zeed crime syndicate. Now going by Neo Zeed, their agents have mortally wounded Joe’s master and kidnapped his lover, Naoko. This calls for one thing and one thing only: Revenge. Can Joe take down Neo Zeed and save Naoko before it’s too late? With two possible endings, that depends entirely on you.

Clever? Hardly. It’s clear what kind of guilty pleasure ninja movie vibe Ohba and company were aiming for, however, and I can’t fault them on that account. This is a game that proudly wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, often to an absurd degree. Joe’s in-game resemblance to martial arts star Sonny Chiba is undeniable, for example. He also squares off against such luminaries as Batman, Spiderman, The Terminator, John Rambo, and Godzilla! Shockingly, Sega had no legal right to use any of these famous characters. The very idea of one of the world’s largest game publishers including this much stolen intellectual property in a marquee release is unfathomable today. It’s truly a testament to the Wild West nature of the ’80s game biz. Most of this offending character art was altered in subsequent revisions, so be sure to seek out the original for the most brazen, over-the-top boss fights possible.

Joe’s journey has been streamlined somewhat this time. There are no kidnapped children, time bombs, or other secondary objectives strung along the way, just eight stages of rock hard action-platforming to survive and eight bosses to kill. You get a solid lineup of level themes, encompassing an old-fashioned Japanese village, an airship interior, a busy freeway, various urban and industrial locales, and more. Many of these areas have their own environmental hazards to negotiate, such as the freeway’s speeding sports cars and the airship’s doors, which have a bad habit of popping open as Joe draws near and sucking him out mid-flight for an instant death. The only stage I didn’t end up enjoying was the very last one, a trite trial-and-error maze composed of countless identical doors. I know sewer and water levels get a bad rap, but does anyone out there actually like door mazes? I can’t imagine so.

The flow of the action here should be familiar to fans of arcade Shinobi. Joe Musashi isn’t exactly the swiftest ninja around with his measured walk and floaty moon jump. In other words, the breakneck “dash-and-slash” approach of a Ninja Gaiden is right out. Instead, it’s all about adopting a precise, methodical approach to threats.

All attacks are mapped to a single context-sensitive button. If an enemy is in melee range, pressing it will prompt Joe to lash out with sword swipes and kicks. If not, he’ll toss one of his shuriken blades. Unlike in the arcade, his shuriken supply is finite. Running out of ammo when facing a boss is something to avoid at all costs. Try to kill as many regular enemies as possible with melee strikes and keep an eye out for breakable crates containing bonus shuriken and other goodies.

Another new twist is the double jump. If you’ve played other platforming games, you’re likely already acquainted with the concept. Tap the button a second time during a jump to miraculously rebound off thin air and gain some added hang time. Might as well hoist a middle finger or two at physics while you’re at it. This technique is absolutely vital for success in Revenge of Shinobi. Too bad it’s a pain to pull off. There’s seemingly only a split-second near the apex of Joe’s first jump during which the command to initiate the second one will be accepted. Many of the game’s most frustrating moments are the result of just barely missing this strict input window and having to watch Joe plummet to his doom. It would almost be funny if your opportunities to continue after game over weren’t limited. A welcome addition on the whole, this feature really should have been made more user-friendly.

Your saving grace against the finicky controls and overall steep challenge is Joe’s potent ninja magic. There are four spells to choose from, each useful in its own right. You’re encouraged to choose wisely, since magic can only be used once per life. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across the rare hidden pickups that grant extra charges, that is. Your options are a fiery blaze that damages all on-screen opponents, a lightning shield that temporarily nullifies damage and prevents knockback, a jump booster, and my personal favorite: A suicide attack. Yup, you can cause Joe to explode and lose a life. Why would you do such a thing? Well, it deals heavy damage to foes. More importantly, it allows Joe to start his next life on the spot with a full health bar. There’s no break in the action and no getting sent back to the last checkpoint like usual. If you’re at death’s door near the end of a tough section, the sacrifice can be worth it to seal the deal and guarantee progression. It’s not often you see such a grim idea molded into a compelling game mechanic. I approve.

In fact, I approve of The Revenge of Shinobi in general. Its final stage is a bit of a letdown and its double jump one of gaming’s roughest, but these missteps don’t come close to torpedoing this slick, stylish Sega classic. The later years of the Genesis would see it exceeded by faster, glitzier, more full-featured action-platformers, including its own direct sequel, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. Are those games going to let you huck shuriken at Batman and Godzilla, though? I think not.

Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to fire up Gunstar Heroes. Granted, I never owned Sega systems growing up and have only been seriously exploring their libraries for the past three years or so. Still, this frenetic side-scrolling run-and-gun has been a mainstay on virtually every “best of the Genesis” list drafted since its release. In addition to being a masterpiece in its own right, it led to a long string of further cult classics by the developers at Treasure. After all, it was the management at Konami’s refusal to greenlight Gunstar Heroes which prompted the small team there who would become Treasure to strike out on their own in the first place. Thankfully, the project eventually attained the backing of no less than Sega themselves, who published it in 1993.

Any gaming history buff would be hard pressed to cite a more confident debut effort. Giving free reign to a group who’d previously worked on the likes of Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Castlevania IV resulted in an explosion of unbridled creativity with plenty of experience and discipline to back it up. Gunstar Heroes is the rare action game that’s all things to all players: Approachable by those of practically any skill level, simple to pick up yet nuanced enough to reward repeat playthroughs, badass and cute. It’s no exaggeration to say Treasure set a new high water mark for an entire genre here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot of Gunstar Heroes involves a group of elite warriors, the Gunstars, who once saved the planet from a rampaging super robot known as Golden Silver. Unable to destroy Golden Silver permanently, they took the four gems that powered it and hid them throughout the world, leaving the robot’s inert body sealed away on the moon. Years later, an evil empire has set out to gather the gems and revive Golden Silver. These villains have also managed to brainwash one of the Gunstars, Green, to use a pawn against his former comrades. It now falls on the Gunstar twins, Red and Blue, to stave off Armageddon once more with the support of their sister, Yellow, and scientist mentor, Dr. Brown. Why is everyone in this world named after colors? Beats me.

One or both of the twins (depending on whether you’re utilizing the two-player simultaneous mode) will need to blast through seven stages to overthrow the Empire. The first four can be taken in any order you wish, while the final three function as an extended linear finale that sees the Gunstars pursuing the baddies into space. The levels themselves are a healthy mix of traditional run-and-gun platforming and more experimental fare. One of the latter is an auto-scroller where you speed through a series of underground tunnels on a moving platform that can alternate between clinging to the floor or ceiling as needed in a manner reminiscent of the gravity flip mechanic from Irem’s Metal Storm. Another is structured like a board game. Tossing a die on each of your turns moves you a random number of spaces toward the end boss, with each space along the way representing a different mini-boss or opportunity to score some healing and weapon power-ups. The only dud in the bunch is stage six, which is presented as a spaceship shooter with eight-directional movement. It’s far from a great one, however, and drags on far too long. Gradius or Thunder Force this is not.

Complimenting a largely fantastic crop of levels is one of the more interesting weapon systems in any game of the era. At the outset, you’re prompted to select your default shot from a total of four: Force is the typical machine gun type with average power, Lightning is the deadly but slow-firing laser, Chaser is the homing shot with reduced damage, and Fire is the short range, high power option. Fortunately for those of us who hate hard choices, this only affects which one you start the game with. The other three are still obtainable via colored icons scattered throughout the stages.

Four guns based on common shooter archetypes doesn’t seem too impressive…until you begin experimenting with their various combinations. See, you can carry two guns at a time. Swapping between them is possible, but the more interesting option is usually to equip both at once! Want a homing flame shot? Try Chaser with Fire. Machine gun laser? Force and Lightning. You can even combine a weapon with a duplicate of itself to get an enhanced version of its standard shot. If you don’t feel like doing the math yourself, that’s sixteen additional guns to play around with. They’re all effective in their own ways, too. There’s no need to worry about screwing yourself over by picking up the “wrong” weapon.

And there’s more! The Gunstars come with their own repertoire of hand-to-hand combat moves. They can grab and toss foes, block attacks, deliver sliding kicks and flying tackles, you name it. It all makes for one mind-boggling arsenal. The sheer number of meaningful choices open to you from moment to moment is exhilarating.

Boss battles in Treasure games are the stuff of legend. Gunstar Heroes is where that legend took root. Here they began to popularized their signature technique of using multiple small sprites moving in unison to convey the impressive of one massive enemy with silky smooth animation. There are over two dozen of these guys to take down and no two behave remotely alike. Many have multiple distinct phases or forms for you to deal with. The most famous by far (and rightfully so) is Seven Force, the transforming robot piloted by Gunstar Green. True to its name, it can assume seven distinct forms over the course of one marathon battle. My sole regret when it comes to the Seven Force fight is that it happens relatively early on. They should have saved such a tour de force for the final act. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable opponent in Treasure’s later Mega Drive release Alien Soldier was a similar shapeshifting menace called Valkyrie Force.

Perhaps my very favorite part of this formidable package is just how approachable it all is. Gunstar Heroes forsakes the arcade roots of Contra and other pioneering run-and-gun titles by giving its protagonists rather generous health pools to rely on in place of the more common one-hit kills. Factor in the unlimited continues and difficulty modes ranging from Easy to Expert and you have yourself a game that can be enjoyed by almost anyone. As much as I adore Contra, its unforgiving nature means I need to occupy a certain highly focused headspace to get the most out of it. Not so with the casual-friendly Gunstar Heroes. I can throw it on whenever and have a grand time.

Is there anything about it I would change? Well, I already mentioned the mediocre space shooting section. There’s also one slightly disappointing facet of the game’s otherwise flawless control scheme. Whenever you start a new session, you’re required to pick between a free shooting style that lets you literally run and gun and a fixed one that locks you in place while firing, allowing you to better deliver sustained damage to enemy weak points. Ideally, of course, you would be able to toggle between these two settings on the fly. You’re able to do so in the 16-bit Contra games as well as the aforementioned Alien Soldier. As presented here, though, it’s a one time exclusive choice. Bummer.

Apart from that, Gunstar Heroes is a bona fide game for the ages. An interactive master class in 2-D action design, it proved to the world at large that the name Treasure was no idle boast. It’s packed with lighthearted charm, slick visuals, and one of the finest soundtracks ever composed for the system. Is it the best run-and-gun on the Genesis? That’s a toughie. If I were somehow forced to pick one and only one to play for the rest of my life, the shorter, more intense Contra: Hard Corps would probably win out. Barely. Good thing I don’t foresee that happening. So if you’re like me and have been dragging your feet on this one, consider fixing that soon.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Oasis (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghostbusters (Genesis)

Another enchanted Halloween season is drawing to an end and I’m already preemptively sad. At least I’ve made the most of it. My last four weeks have been packed with costumes, haunted houses, and horror flicks. Go big or go home, as they say. And I still have time for one more ghoulish game review. This one is a special request from reader Mike Payne, who wanted me to tackle Ghostbusters on the Sega Genesis. Considering that my last reader request was Ghostbusters for the Master System, I’m noticing a odd trend here.

Genesis Ghostbusters is a very different beast than its 8-bit predecessors. It’s a wholly original work by Sega and Compile, as opposed to yet another port of David Crane’s 1984 Commodore 64 game. Great news if you’d rather gargle broken glass than drive around town dodging traffic and struggling to save up enough money to enter the “Zule building” again. Your task is to guide the Ghostbuster of your choice through an original plot that’s implied to take place between the first and second films. Paranormal activity is spiking around New York City and it seems to be linked to the pieces of a mysterious stone tablet the Ghostbusters have been discovering at various job sites. As the true meaning of the tablet becomes clear, the initially elated Ghostbusters learn that what’s good for business may not always bode well for life on earth.

Don’t expect too much from this story. While I appreciate the effort on the developers’ part, it’s rather predictable and overly reminiscent of the first movie’s. The dialog is also a missed opportunity. It’s dry and utilitarian with none of the witty banter one would hope for. It’s a serviceable justification for six stages of side-scrolling action-platforming, but only just.

Three of the four original Ghostbusters are playable here: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler. They’re all represented by instantly recognizable big-headed caricatures of the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. The lovingly-rendered receeding hairline on bobblehead Bill Murray is hilarious to me for some reason. Unfortunately, Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore isn’t seen or referenced anywhere. I’m not sure what the deal is with that. Winston appeared in the other two Ghostbusters games released around this same time on competing platforms. These were adaptations of Ghostbusters II specifically, however, so perhaps it all comes down to some arcane quirk of the license?

Each of the three characters is mechanically distinct, being built around a specific distribution of speed and durability. Peter is the balanced one, Ray the plodding tank, and Egon the swift, fragile glass cannon. You’re locked into your initial pick for the duration of a given playthrough, so make sure you like the way your guy handles before you progress too far. I inadvertently made the journey harder on myself by going with Egon straightway. His low health makes him better suited for experts. Newcomers are advised to use Ray instead. No regrets, though. I wanted to pay my respects to the late, criminally underrated Harold Ramis. Not to mention Egon is such a great character. It’s not often you see a total nerd presented as a strong, confident hero. He was very much written against type, especially by the standards of the day. Go, Egon!

Progression is fairly open, with the initial set of four stages able to be completed in any order. These range from a small suburban house to a downtown high-rise under attack by the famous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The goal of each level is to defeat (and ideally trap) a set number of mini-boss ghosts in order to unlock the door to the big boss’ room. Larger levels like the high-rise contain more boss encounters and reward your efforts with a correspondingly bigger cash payout.

Insuring a healthy cash flow is paramount because of the shops you’re able to visit between levels, which are stocked with a bevy of healing items and equipment upgrades. Using the shields and weapons you acquire in this fashion eats away at a limited pool of energy. Try not to get so carried away buying fancy new gear that you forget about upgrading the energy bar itself or you’ll constantly be running low on juice when you need it most. Be sure to zap any helpful green Slimers you encounter, since they drop health and energy refills.

This is a sound enough outline on paper and Ghostbusters nails the execution fairly well. The controls are fluid and well-suited to the run-and-gun style action. Your character can fire his unlicensed nuclear accelerator in any of six directions. He can even move and fire while crouched; always appreciated in a hectic game like this. My only real gripe with the engine involves some instances of dodgy collision detection here and there. Clearing the flame columns in the burning house without taking damage is way tougher than it looks.

The wide variety of boss monsters is a major highlight. They all have unique attack patterns and can get pretty wild conceptually, often resembling things you might see in the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show more so than the films. If there’s one downside to this approach, it’s that a few of them don’t seem like they belong to any version of this particular fictional universe. Take the fire dragon straight out of Life Force or the Little Shop of Horrors-inspired carnivorous plant, for example. The game insists these are ghosts. Color me skeptical.

Level design manages to deliver the satisfaction of exploring open layouts without going overboard and forcing confused players to resort to mapping or checking guides. Every environment has its own theme and obstacles, most of which make for a good time. I especially loved trying (and mostly failing) to dodge the Marshmallow Man’s giant fists as he punched through the walls of the high-rise. I was finally able to reach the top and blast him square in his dumb face. Revenge sweeter than s’mores! The big exception to this is that burning house level. It utilizes a darkness mechanic, meaning you’re forced to use night vision goggles to see your surroundings. Problem is, the goggles are consumable items and each pair only lasts a couple minutes. If you make the mistake of venturing deep into the level with only one or two pairs of goggles in your inventory, you’re as good as dead. You’re free to exit and return to the shop to buy more goggles…provided you can find your way back to the front door in the pitch dark with enemies all around. It’s a pity, as the actual contents of the stage are fine. It’s strictly the tedious visibility gimmick that torpedoes it.

Ultimately, this take on Ghostbusters is in the same boat as Daft’s Super Back to the Future Part II for me. Here we have a beloved blockbuster movie series finally being graced with a decent video game adaptation after years of ignoble misfires. Is it truly great? Nah. It didn’t need to be. A competent side-scroller elevated ever so slightly above par by charming depictions of familiar characters and situations still felt great to beleaguered fans. It was the first Ghostbusters game they could simply like and enjoy for what it was without tacking on a whole laundry list of qualifiers and regrets. It doesn’t need to go toe-to-toe with Genesis titans like Revenge of Shinobi, Gunstar Heroes, and Rocket Knight Adventures to be worth acknowledging and it remains a largely pleasant experience for lovers of the franchise.

Thus concludes another spooky game roundup. Rest assured I’ll be back again in eleven short months with a fresh batch of classic gaming tricks and treats. As for you, dear readers, may all your Halloweens be as much fun as collecting spores, molds, and fungus.

Thunder Force III (Genesis)

Thunder! Thunder! Thunder Force, hooooo!

I was so bowled over by Technosoft’s Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar) when I first encountered it last March that I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to revisit the saga. Hell, that was over ninety reviews ago now! I’m more than ready to strike another blow against the vile ORN Empire and Thunder Force III seems like the perfect way to do it. Destined to be overshadowed by its sequel in the years to come, it was nevertheless a huge point of pride for Genesis owners back in 1990. As perhaps the flashiest, most adrenaline pumping horizontal shooter ever to grace a home system at that point in history, it was well received indeed. So much so that it’s one of the few examples of a console original that was later adapted for arcades (as Thunder Force AC) rather than vice versa.

Don’t expect too elaborate a setup here.  Thunder Force games are about dazzling the player with explosive action. Those nerds deep lore and rich characterization weren’t cool enough to get invited to this party. All you need to know is that the evil ORN and their mad bio-computer leader Khaos are continuing their genocidal war on humanity. They’ve deployed a colossal battleship called Cerberus and set up cloaking devices on five planets in order to mask the location of their main base. In response, the Galaxy Federation sends out their most advanced ship, the Fire LEO-03 Styx, on a mission to take out the cloaking devices, Cerberus, and finally ORN HQ.

It’s a tall order. Fortunately, the Styx comes prepared for all eight stages ahead. Unlike the many side-scrolling shooters that take their cues from those grueling classics Gradius and R-Type, Thunder Force III doesn’t start you out slow and weak or take all your weapons away and push you back to a checkpoint every time you mess up. You always have access to four different speed settings and your two default weapons, the forward-facing Twin Shot and rear-facing Backfire, which are strong and versatile enough to take down anything in your path. The focus is on keeping the pace brisk and the player feeling empowered and in control of the situation; a defining feature of the series.

That’s not to say death carries no sting. There are a whole host of useful upgrades to the Styx which can be lost on defeat: Five special weapons that you can cycle between as needed, a shield, and a pair of shot multiplying helper satellites called Claws. Even in this regard, however, Thunder Force III is more merciful than the vast majority of its peers. Only your Claws and currently active special weapon are stripped away when you lose a ship. While some hardcore shooter fanatics may scoff at this degree of leniency, I think it adds a nice risk/reward dynamic. Equipping a powerful weapon like the heat-seeking Hunter makes you more likely to survive the trickier stretches of a level, yet you’ll lose both the weapon and a life if you still manage to slip up. Is it worth potentially not having access to the Hunter when you reach the boss? That’s your call.

The levels themselves make for great rides. Sure, they’re all based on stock archetypes like fire, water, ice, and caverns, but it’s the execution that excels. Each planet has its own menagerie of enemies and environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, all brought to life through spectacular graphics and masterful high energy music. As in Thunder Force IV, the soundtrack truly goes above and beyond the call of duty, with individual themes for each stage boss. Speaking of those bosses, they’re probably the only element here that could be described as underwhelming. Their attack routines are quite basic and they wither quickly under sustained firepower.

What else can I say about this one? It’s an utterly brilliant spaceship shooter and a perennial must play for enthusiasts of all stripes. I mentioned way back in my review of Thunder Force IV that the formula really does comes across as pure boilerplate on paper. These games are legendary for their blazing fast action, top notch audiovisuals, and general approachability. Their innovative structure and mechanics, though? Not so much. They really must be experienced firsthand for their appeal to be fully understood and appreciated. I’ll add that you ideally shouldn’t emulate me by checking out IV before III. Thunder Force IV is a prime example of the “bigger, badder, better” school of sequel design, triumphantly doubling down on everything its predecessor did right while simultaneously addressing its one true shortcoming by upping the complexity and challenge of the boss fights. It’s also a good deal tougher than III overall, with more levels and trickier enemy patterns, meaning that tackling the two in order results in a much more natural difficulty curve across games.

Oh, and one last thing: Under no circumstances should you play Thunder Spirits, the Super Nintendo port of Thunder Force AC, in place of Thunder Force III proper. It suffers from severe slowdown issues that render it drastically inferior to the real deal on the Genesis. This is one of those rare cases when Ninten just don’t.

So what are you waiting for? Climb aboard your starship and head for the skies. You owe it to yourself to come sail away with the Styx.

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemets these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis)

I feel strongth welling in my body. That can only mean I’m ready to challenge another entry in a certain famously ferocious run-and-gun platforming series. It’s been almost a year and a half since I last stepped into the steel shoes of stalwart medieval beardo Sir Arthur and set out to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin from her demonic captors in the NES version of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It only makes sense to now move on to the best-known home port of that game’s direct arcade sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (aka Daimakaimura, “Great Demon World Village”). I’m referring, of course, to the celebrated Sega Genesis conversion.

Genesis Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, much like its contemporary Strider, was merely licensed from Capcom. The hard work of developing and publishing it was shouldered entirely by Sega themselves. Although it may seem like Capcom got the better of this arrangement, both games turned out to be flagship system sellers for the Genesis in its primordial pre-Sonic days. The ability to deliver credible home translations of cutting edge 1988 arcade titles to gamers in 1989 was the crux of the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign, after all. One look was all it took to know that nothing like this would be coming to your NES. It certainly didn’t hurt that this iteration of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was programmed by future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka and not the same trash tier contract developer (Micronics) that “blessed” NES Ghosts ‘n Goblins with its stiff controls and jerky scrolling.

This franchise has never been known for its radical re-invention, meaning that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ gameplay will feel immediately familiar to veterans of other installments. Knight Arthur must run, jump, and shoot his way through a total of five side-scrolling stages. He’ll then be told to go back and do it all over again on a slightly higher difficulty and using the one special weapon the final boss is vulnerable to before finally being treated to a proper ending. As stated in my Ghosts ‘n Goblins review, this notion of forcing the player to complete every stage twice in order to truly finish the game was arguably funny in a sadistic way the first time around. Strip away the nasty surprise angle, though, and all that remains is some rather blatant padding.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing in the way of innovation here. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts marks the first appearance of the golden armor power-up, which allows Arthur to charge up and unleash devastating magical attacks which vary in effect based on the specific weapon he has equipped. It’s important to not let this awesome new power go to your head, however, since the golden armor itself doesn’t provide any more protection from damage than its mundane counterpart. One hit will still strip it away entirely, leaving poor Arthur to carry on fighting in his undies until he either happens across a new suit of plate or takes a second hit and crumbles into a pile of bones. Probably that last one.

Additionally, Arthur has gained the ability to lob his weapons up and down instead of just left and right. As a default move, this has an even greater impact on the flow of the action than the sporadically available magic attacks and tends to be the one feature advocates for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as the high point of the saga cite most often when justifying their preferences. My own heart may belong to Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo and its double jump mechanic, but I can’t deny that Arthur’s extra offensive coverage here makes the vertically scrolling portions considerably less harrowing than usual.

Lower difficulty is actually a running theme throughout Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Not only do you have added angles of attack and magic on your side, there are also fewer stages and more checkpoints than in Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. With unlimited continues to work with as well, this is an ideal starting point for players new to Sir Arthur’s exploits. Just remember that this reduced challenge is strictly relative to those other two games mentioned above. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is still a vicious meat grinder of an action-platformer and countless ignoble deaths are inevitable as you painstakingly put in the practice needed to memorize and master each segment of the quest.

Presentation-wise, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the Genesis conveys the essence of its source material well, but not flawlessly. The most obvious visual downgrade comes courtesy of the console’s smaller color palette when compared to Capcom’s CPS1 arcade board. Fair enough. There’s also a general loss of graphical detail on the Genesis, particularly in the backgrounds. This is likely a consequence of the limited space available on the home version’s modest five megabit ROM chip. The arcade release had around three times the memory to work with. It’s still an attractive game, as Naka and company clearly made excellent use of the resources available to them in 1989. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better this one could have looked if they’d been able to take advantage of the more advanced chips which would become commonplace in Genesis cartridges later on in the ’90s. We probably wouldn’t have had to lose out on the arcade’s snazzy intro sequence depicting the minions of main antagonist Loki (Lucifer in Japan) harvesting the souls of Princess Prin Prin and the rest of the kingdom’s hapless citizens, for example. Things are rosier on the audio front, thankfully. The Genesis’ FM synth sound chip is fairly similar to what Capcom was using in the arcades at the time and little, if any, of the original’s spooky ambiance is lost.

Whether at home or in the arcade, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a class act of a sequel that stays true to its pedigree while improving on its predecessor in virtually every way. Expanded attack options bring new depth and flexibility to the combat, platforming is enhanced by more varied and creative stages with dynamic hazards unique to each, and the higher fidelity art and music are bursting with added charm. Its primary flaws are the same two subjective ones which dog every GnG title: The fierce difficulty and the need to loop the game in order to see the true ending.  Given that I’m largely reconciled to those, my only major beef with the game is its length. Fun as they are, five stages make for pretty slim pickings. Just one or two extra would have gone a long way toward making this one a viable contender for series MVP in my eyes. Lacking this, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts would itself be improved on in turn, but remains a must-play for fans of the Genesis and vintage Capcom action fare alike.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Shocking confession time: I’m a lifelong video gamer that’s never played a Sonic the Hedgehog title.

Well, that’s not technically true. I obviously played through this debut entry just recently, as I’m reviewing it right now. I can also very clearly remembering trying it out at department store demo kiosks back around the time of its release in 1991. It’s really more accurate to say that my experience with the Sonic games before present was limited to the very first area (Green Hill Zone) of the very first game. For all intents and purposes, Sega’s Blue Blur passed me by.

My ignorance stems from a combination of past circumstance and personal prejudice. Owning multiple current generation game consoles and a steady supply of games for them was considered quite the extravagance for a kid in the early ’90s. Most of us were forced to pick a side in the 16-bit wars and stick with it through thick and thin. I chose the Super Nintendo over the Genesis, as did most of my friends at the time. Familiarity with the NES had a lot to do with my decision. The other major factor was, believe it or not, the abrasive tone Sega adopted in most of its Genesis marketing material. Even when I was in middle school, all that in-your-face ’90s ‘tude and “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” rhetoric seemed so desperate and insecure to me. A real winner doesn’t need to talk trash, right? I never would own a Sega console and it wasn’t until 2017 that I would begin my long-overdue reassessment of the Genesis library in earnest and discover that I’d been missing out on a treasure trove of fantastic software. Much better late than never!

But where to even begin with a game this high profile? The development of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most storied of all time and if you told me an entire book had been written on the subject, I’d be inclined to believe you. Most of my audience has certainly already played it themselves and formed their own opinions. This isn’t some deep cut or one-off experiment, it’s a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. I might as well review pizza or sex while I’m at it. All I can really do is keep things simple and relate my own personal experience as one man very late to a very crowded party.

In terms of backstory, Sonic came about precisely the way you’d expect him to. Sega wanted to increase their share of the console market and the most obvious way to do that was to create a mascot character to rival their competitor Nintendo’s star system seller, Mario. Sega’s reigning mascot since the Master System days was a Monchhichi-looking jug-eared creeper named Alex Kidd that had proven himself incapable of moving ice cream in the Sahara, so they literally went back to the drawing board with a company-wide art contest. Naoto Ohshima was the winner with his contribution: An anthropomorphic hedgehog that drew inspiration from Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and Michael Jackson. Initially dubbed Mr. Needlemouse (yes, really), he was eventually rechristened Sonic based on the game design team’s expressed desire for an extremely speedy hero that would set their work apart from the Mario titles. Another of Ohshima’s submissions, a rotund human character based on Teddy Roosevelt, was adapted into the hedgehog’s arch-enemy, the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman). All that was left were a few last minute design tweaks at the insistence of Sega’s American branch that cost Sonic his prominent fangs and rather disturbing scantily-clad human girlfriend and voilà: A superstar was born!

All Sonic needed now was an actual game to headline. The project was entrusted to the newly-minted Sonic Team, made up of seasoned developers with prior experience on Sega classics like Altered Beast and Phantasy Star. It would be a platformer, of course, and focus on the conflict with the evil Dr. Robotnik, who’s been rounding up Sonic’s animal buddies and transforming them into robot minions to expand his twisted machine empire. This sort of saccharine “save the nature” setup may seem trite today, but it still felt fresher than yet another princess and was very in keeping with the environmentalist themes in contemporary children’s entertainment, as exemplified by Captain Planet, FernGully, and the like.

The game features a total of eighteen stages divided up evenly into six differently-themed Zones. Right from the start of the first Zone, the unique approach to level design that defines the classic Sonic series is apparent. The landscape is packed with ramps, loops, and spring-loaded bumpers that Sonic can use to build up speed. Picking up and maintaining speed obviously helps him reach the end of the stage quicker. It’s also useful for accessing higher portions of the map, as the playfields in Sonic games tend to feature a lot of verticality, with high, low, and sometimes middle routes to them. Higher paths require more momentum and skill to reach and stay on, but reward the player with more bonus items and fewer obstacles on the way to the goal. Every Zone culminates in a fight against Robotnik, piloting one of his attack machines. While none of these battles are very involved or challenging, they are all at least completely unique, which is more than I can say for the Koopa Kid encounters in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, for example.

The interesting (and divisive) thing about the Zones in this first game is that only the odd-numbered ones (Green Hill, Spring Yard, and Star Light) follow this iconic template. The even-numbered Zones (Marble, Labyrinth, and Scrap Brain) are all laid-out in a much more linear fashion with few branching paths or opportunities to build up speed. Labyrinth Zone in particular is infamous for actively bogging Sonic down by setting most of the action underwater. Many fans consider these slower-paces Zones to be Sonic 1’s Achilles’ heel, as they don’t play to Sonic’s strengths as a character and feel like they could have been lifted from another, more traditional platforming game entirely. I won’t dispute this, but I will add that they’re still some pretty fine levels by genre standards. I even enjoyed the much-maligned breath holding mechanics the underwater sections, which force Sonic to negotiate corridors filled with traps and enemies to reach air bubbles before he suffocates. What can I say? I’m weird.

Controlling Sonic himself is deceptively easy. By that, I mean that although the game only uses the directional pad and a single button for jumping, it has a physics engine of sorts that makes knowing exactly what will happen when Sonic jumps off a curved surface at particular angle with a specific amount of momentum behind him something that only comes with time and much practice. The level design is great about placing tantalizing shortcuts and helpful items seemingly just out of reach in order to encourage players to think outside the box and continually experiment with new ways of navigating the same terrain. These prizes are all attainable with enough inventiveness and persistence. The end result of all this is a platformer that, while outwardly downright simplistic when compared to most of its contemporaries, is actually so far advanced over the majority of them that it isn’t funny. It’s honestly brilliant.

These movement physics are so robust that you probably won’t mind that you don’t get much in the way of power-ups. There’s temporary invincibility, an energy shield that grants Sonic an extra hit, and “speed shoes” that make the already zippy hedgehog haul even more ass. That’s it. These are all useful for the obvious reasons, but they’re a far cry from the radical transformations that Mario was pulling off left and right. What you’ll be picking up more of than anything else are the gold rings littering every stage. Collecting 100 of them will result in the expected extra life, but their more immediate purpose is safeguarding Sonic from death. As long as Sonic is carrying at least one, contact with an enemy or stage hazard will cause him to drop all the rings he’s carrying instead of dying on the spot. At that point, he’ll have a brief window of invincibility during which he can try to re-collect as many dropped rings as possibility before they bounce off the screen and vanish. If this sounds overly forgiving, keep in mind that the designers want you to feel confident pushing your luck and experimenting with the lead character’s speed

Which brings me to what surprised me most about the game: You’re never really required to go fast. Contrary to every stereotype and bit of marketing hype, it’s not only possible to play a slow, methodical game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s advisable for newcomers unfamiliar with where each Zone’s hazards are placed. Going fast isn’t the object of the game as much as it’s an added reward for long-term mastery. The levels themselves impose no time limits. There is still a timer, but it’s an ascending one with no purpose other than log how long it takes you to finish a given level and subtly encourage you to strive for ever lower personal bests. There’s no tangible reward for fast clear times, either, only the thrill and satisfaction of performing well. This approach makes Sonic, along with Doom a couple years later, one of the earliest popular precursors to modern online speedrunning culture.

The graphics and sound here are delightful. The cartoony art style plays well with the system’s strict color limitations while the large sprites and smooth animations are packed with detail and personality. Sonic reacts to events in the game, whether he’s expressing boredom through his finger-wagging idle pose, balancing himself precariously on the very edge of a platform, or flailing his limbs in alarm as he zooms down a water slide. These may seem like small details, yet they were much more than we were used to from our stoic pre-Sonic platforming heroes and made a sassy, too-cool-for-school demeanor the new norm for years to come, for better or worse. And by worse, I mean Bubsy.

Masato Nakamura’s score is proof positive that the poor Genesis catches way too much flak for sounding like broken-down robot farts. This is some of the smoothest, grooviest, most instantly lovable 16-bit music ever made. The theme from Green Hill Zone somehow manages to flood me with nostalgia despite the fact that I’ve barely touched the game before. That’s what I call inspired.

If I had to name something about Sonic the Hedgehog that left me completely cold, it’d be the bonus stages. Finishing a level with more than fifty rings in your inventory plunges Sonic into…I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be. Some kind of alternate hell dimension filled with giant fish and birds where he’s bounced around like a ball bearing inside a spinning candy-colored pachinko machine? The point of this madness is to last long enough to obtain one of the six Chaos Emeralds floating at the center of the stage without touching an exit tile and ending the bonus round prematurely. What do these Chaos Emerald do? What’s your incentive to repeat this process six times in a single playthrough? Just a slightly modified ending scene. Yeah, I’m good, thanks. At least the bonus areas serve one other, genuinely useful purpose, however: Picking up fifty rings inside one will earn you a continue. By default, the game ends for good when you run out of lives, so you’d be advised to at least try racking up one or two continues even if you don’t care about the Emeralds. I just wish these sections could have even half as been as fun to play as they are trippy looking.

After nearly 28 long years, I can finally state with confidence that I was wrong to dismiss this series just because of some tacky commercials and my own unquestioned biases. Though a little rough around the edges, Sonic 1 is a remarkable achievement for its time, mechanically and aesthetically. It remains its ability to charm and captivate to this day and deserves every bit of its overwhelming success. Future installments would iron out the level design kinks, introduce new fan favorite characters, and implement a Spin Dash maneuver to allow for even speedier movement, among other improvements, but if someone tries to tell you that Sonic’s first outing is overrated or doesn’t hold up, that’s no good!