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 implemented 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?

Advertisements

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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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!

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

One entire class of video game that’s all but extinct these days is the celebrity vanity project. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go ahead and define this as any game that stars an idealized version of a real world celebrity and depicts its subject engaging in a variety of fantastical exploits unrelated to his or her day job. The celebrity in question is almost always a musician or athlete, as actors that appear in games are typically just lending their likenesses to various fictional characters as opposed to portraying themselves. I remember games like these serving as a constant source of befuddled amusement for my friends and I throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Who actually wanted to platform across alien planets as the members of the band Journey or punch mummies as Shaquille O’Neal? Even in a much less jaded age these titles were seen as punchlines rather than viable gaming options by most and usually proved to have much less of a built-in audience than their deluded creators anticipated. It certainly didn’t help that some prominent examples (looking at you, Shaq-Fu) were saddled with gameplay every bit as dire as their tortured premises.

This widespread consumer contempt combined with skyrocketing development costs neatly explains why the classic vanity project has become a thing of the past in recent years. Most gamers who experienced the trend in its heyday would agree that this is a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. If pressed, though, many of those same individuals would also agree that there’s one shining exception to almost every common criticism leveled above; one silly 16-bit ego trip that beat the odds and remains a well-loved part of countless childhoods: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Both of them, really, but I’ll be looking at the home console version for the Genesis today and not the completely distinct arcade release that it shares its name with.

What does this 1990 platformer with light beat-’em-up elements have going for it that its pilloried peers don’t? How about Michael freakin’ Jackson for starters? A ferociously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, music video pioneer, and occasional movie star, he was still holding fast to his position as the one and only King of Pop. While perhaps just beginning to see the slightest dip in stature compared to his peak in the mid-80s, it would be several more years before his many personal eccentricities and some shocking criminal allegations would truly begin to overshadow his musical accomplishments. Let’s be frank here: Shaq may be one of the best centers the NBA has ever seen, but you’d never mistake him for the coolest man on the planet. It anyone could present himself to the world as a nigh-omnipotent musical superhero with a straight face and get away with it, it was M.J.

There’s also the fact that game was made by Sega themselves. More specifically by a scrappy little internal development team then called AM8. You probably know them better by the moniker they adopted for their breakout release the following year and have stuck with ever since: Sonic Team. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackson was working with the very best in the field to bring Moonwalker to fruition, as no other group of developers had a better grasp of the Genesis hardware in the platform’s early days.

The game’s story is a straightforward adaptation of the one featured in the “Smooth Criminal” segment of the 1988 Moonwalker film. Michael must use his magic dance powers to rescue children that have been kidnapped by the evil drug kingpin Mr. Big (memorably portrayed in the movie by a frenzied Joe Pesci rocking shades and a topknot). Since this is a video game, the number of endangered kids has been upped from three to at least a hundred scattered across a total of fifteen stages. The stages themselves have fairly open layouts and scroll both vertically and horizontally, so there’s a bit of a scavenger hunt element involved in locating all the hostages tucked away in the countless hiding places that dot each map. After doing so, Michael is able to trigger a boss fight (with a little help from Bubbles the chimp!) and then move on to the next area. In essence, it’s a more free-roaming take on Sega’s own 1987 arcade title Shinobi.

Opposing Michael are Mr. Big’s gun-toting thugs as well as a few other baddies that are clear references to other Jackson projects. You have bandanna-clad street thugs right out of “Beat It” or “Bad” and some “Thriller” zombies. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery are a handful of ornery dogs, birds, and spiders. That’s about it. All considered, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety in Moonwalker. Even the boss encounters at the end of each stage tend to pit Michael against either a large number of standard foes attacking from all sides, a powered-up version of a regular enemy, or both. I’m not counting the final confrontation with Mr. Big himself, as it takes the form of a tacked-on and thoroughly awful first-person space shooting section for some reason. If you’ve ever wondered how Wing Commander would have turned out if it had been dropped on its head as a baby, here you go.

Although you’re not furnished with that great a variety of threats to smack down, the combat itself is still a lot of fun. Instead of normal punches and kicks, Michael’s attacks are made to resemble some of his most iconic dance moves. Every elegant wrist flick and high kick emits a shower of glittering pixie dust that looks harmless, but hits like a ton of bricks! The contrast between how feeble these assaults appear and the way they cause enemies to go blasting off into the sky or ricocheting between the floor and ceiling like human pinballs is absolutely hilarious and never seems to get old. Nailing an enemy while airborne is pretty wild, too. They shoot down to the ground in a split-second and land flat on their faces like they’ve just been whacked by a giant invisible mallet. Priceless.

Holding down the attack button will cause Michael to perform an invincible Spin Attack at the cost of some of his own health. The longer he spins, the more health is lost. Spinning in one place long enough to consume 50% of his maximum health will unleash Michael’s ultimate weapon: The Dance Attack, in which he launches into one of a variety of different dance routines and every enemy on-screen (including dogs and spiders!) is compelled to join in. Most regular enemies are killed instantly at the dance’s conclusion and bosses will sustain a large chunk of damage. A special move that costs this much energy to use would be useless in most games, but the makers of Moonwalker generously made it so that each child rescued restores up to 50% of Michael’s lost health, meaning that you can actually get away with using the Dance Attack fairly often if you like.

This is really about all there is to Moonwalker’s gameplay. It’s a short game with a single basic goal to accomplish and it boasts a relatively small number of unique enemies and ways of dispatching them. Michael does have one other special power in the ability to temporarily transform into a giant flying robot that shoots homing missile and laser beams. Yes, really. He accomplishes this by catching a shooting star that appears under certain special circumstances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t impact player progression as much as you’d think it would. Since Robo-Jackson can’t rescue hostages and any enemies he destroys will tend to re-spawn right away, there’s not much point to transforming in most levels except to rack up some extra points. High scores don’t seem to award any extra lives or other benefits that I could see, either, so it really doesn’t amount to much in the end. Looks cool, though. It would have been nice if some more permanent power-ups had been included, like hidden health bar extensions or extra weapons. Finding and holding onto these would have added a bit more intrigue and strategy to the proceedings.

Okay, so the gameplay isn’t really best in class. The upside is that it’s supported by some of the best graphics and music the early Genesis library had to offer. The character sprites for Michael and his enemies are large for the time and feature very smooth animation, befitting a game built around replicating flashy dance routines. The soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Jackson standards like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Another Part of Me,” and more, all rendered to the utmost quality the console’s FM synth sound chip is capable of. Every track is remarkably listenable in this format and just as likely to get stuck in your head for hours as the album versions. Moonwalker’s audio and visuals may not seem all that revelatory nearly three decades on, but it’s important to remember that the Genesis was the first 16-bit game console to hit the market outside of Japan and games like this one, Strider, and the pack-in Altered Beast were jaw-dropping to an audience primarily acclimated to the NES and Master System. Home games with such lush presentations simply weren’t an option before this unless you were willing and able to dive into comparatively expensive niche computing platforms like the Amiga. Even for kids like me who opted to stick it out for two more years waiting on the Super Nintendo, there was still some envy involved whenever one of those ubiquitous “Genesis does…” ads would pop up. It was a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moonwalker is strictly all style, no substance. It certainty does lean that way, however. As far as platformers go, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the length, breadth, or depth of a Sonic or Mario and there’s little incentive to keep playing after you’ve cleared it once. In retrospect, it’s easy enough to point out that it would have benefited greatly from the addition of more enemy types, better boss fights, more power-ups, and some hidden areas or other secrets to discover. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple arcadey punch-up and this one has far more charm than most, thanks to those amazing tunes and the goofy-cool crotch grabbing antics of its unlikely action star. If you come across anyone claiming it’s a bad game, just tell ’em I said that their hearts are full of greed and they have doo-doo in their souls.

Wings of Wor (Genesis)

Whoa! Now those are some rock-hard pecs, bro!

I was pumped to do a full-on Brian Blessed hawkman dive into Wings of Wor for the Genesis. Also known as Gynoug outside North America, it’s a shooter from Masaya Games, creators of the relentlessly campy Chō Aniki (“Super Big Brother”) series of homoerotic flying bodybuilder simulators, so I figured that I was probably in for some choice weirdness. Print ads from 1991 were even emblazoned with “WARNING: Avoid eating before playing this game.” It’s too bad for Masaya that I didn’t own a Genesis at the time. A game that promotes itself like a VHS release of Cannibal Holocaust would have been right up my alley as a kid. Happily, I can report that Wings of Wor delivers on its promise of a strange, icky time. It also happens to be quite the thrilling action game if you’re into that sort of thing. Freak.

According to the instruction manual, our story unfolds on the planet of Iccus, which is under attack by a being called the Destroyer. He’s used an “evil virus” to mutate the inhabitants of Iccus into “the grossest creatures ever to slime a tunnel.” Slime…a tunnel? Whatever you say, pal. The player controls a “winged battle master” by the name of Wor on his one man counter-offensive against the mutants. This is a perfectly acceptable no-frills justification for a sci-fi shooter. Frankly, though, I just don’t buy it. Wor himself appears to be a stone angel statue that’s come to life in order to confront the baddies (similar to God/The Master from the ActRaiser games), he picks up magical scrolls to use as weapons, and many of his foes are unambiguously supernatural beings like ghosts. I haven’t found any proof of it, but I’m betting that the original Japanese version was the “heaven versus hell” story that this all implies and has nothing to do to with viruses and alien planets. At least we got the better title over here. Gynoug sounds more like a candy bar filling than a high octane shooting game.

Wor has six horizontally-scrolling stages separating him from the end credits, although the last of them consists entirely of a standard boss rush against a total of seven opponents: Six recycled from previous stages and, finally, the Destroyer himself. While five true levels doesn’t sound like a lot, the ones we get here are at least half again as long as the genre standard, if not longer. A few of them may even be too lengthy for some players’ tastes. If you’re the type that likes to complain about the levels in Compile shooters dragging, Wings of Wor is likely to set you off in much the same way.

A major plus in any case is that each stage is wholly unique, both thematically and in terms of the enemies you’ll face. This density of design is always a welcome sight and would have done wonders for the subject of my last review, Legendary Wings. Apart from the aforementioned boss rush leading up to the finale, I can’t recall a single instance of the same monster re-appearing outside of its “home” level.

Complimenting all this enemy diversity, Wor has an above average selection of tools at his disposal for carving a path through the legions of hell. His standard weapon is a constant stream of small projectiles that fan out in a cone-shaped spread ahead of him. This can be modified to become a more concentrated straight ahead shot or a simultaneous forward and backward shot by picking up certain icons. Additionally, accumulating blue and red orbs will enhance the total number of projectiles fired and their damage, respectively.

There are also a variety of special magic abilities that appear as scrolls with letters displayed on them. Depending on the letter, these can represent powerful secondary weapons like thunderbolts and homing blasts or defensive shields that protect Wor. Abilities gained from scrolls are temporary (due to limited ammunition, time limits, or similar) and they also stop functioning when you lose a life. The really interesting thing about these scrolls, though, is that they don’t just automatically activate when touched. Instead, Wor has an inventory and can carry up to three at a time, activating them as needed. Inactive scrolls in the inventory aren’t lost upon death. Better still, collecting multiple copies of the same scroll in sequence will result in a more powerful version of the magic ability in question, creating an incentive to choose your pickups carefully.

It’s very robust and flexible system, which is good, as you’re going to need all the help you can get with this one. Wings of Wor is not an easy game by any means. The first couple of levels are fairly reasonable, but things ramp up quickly after that. The fifth stage in particular is a sadistic meat grinder, with fast-moving enemies swarming in from every side and firing off a variety of tricky bullet types for what feels like forever. Bosses can also put a lot of firepower on the screen at once, sometimes making things feel closer to a modern “bullet hell” shooter than most other games of the time. Deaths are of the one hit variety and continues are limited. Thankfully, there’s no harsh checkpoint system in place and Wor is able to respawn right where he died as long as he has lives in reserve. Even with that advantage and an impressive arsenal at your fingertips, it’s still going to require a good amount of practice to see this one to the end. One tip I can offer is to be sure not to pick up more than a couple of the speed boosting feather power-ups. The classic beginner’s trap of allowing the player character to become too fast and twitchy to accurately maneuver is in full effect here and it will get you killed if you’re not careful. This is one common element of old school shooters that I don’t miss.

Enough boring gameplay specifics, though, am I right? The ad copy promised twisted monstrosities, so make with the crazy, already! Fine, fine. Things actually start out pretty restrained, which I like. It makes the first moment of true insanity all the more effective. You’re just flying through a cave, fighting spiders and falling rocks and other nondescript video game cave stuff. All the sudden, a screen-filling locomotive with a twitching human face and arms literally drops out of the sky and begins showering you with bullets. Yikes! What is this even supposed to be? Did the artist make the mistake of scheduling his ayahuasca trip and Thomas the Tank Engine marathon for the same weekend? This trend holds true through most of the game. The stages are mostly filled with typical fantasy-horror beasties with the end boss being some sort of gigantic human/steampunk machine nightmare hybrid, usually with a big creepy face. Nothing, and I mean nothing, however, can truly prepare you for the dick from level five. I’m not just being crudely euphemistic here, either. You fight a penis. One covered in blood and twenty times the size of Wor. There’s no ambiguity in the art, either. It’s not phallic, it’s a phallus. This makes R-Type’s boss design look positively subtle and might just be the most extreme visual in the entire Genesis library. I know Sega was all about doing what Nintendidn’t around this time, but it’s still amazing that nobody vetoed this. After that madness, it’s just too bad that the Destroyer himself isn’t all that interesting from a visual or gameplay standpoint. He mostly just sits still on the screen and barely animates while you slowly whittle his health down. Insert your own joke about the game’s premature climax here.

Other than the bosses, which are as lushly rendered as they are foul, the rest of the art in Wings of Wor isn’t particularly great. This is mostly due to Wor and his opponents being quite small and sparsely detailed. The backgrounds aren’t exactly spectacular on their own, either, although several of them are enhanced considerably by some sweet parallax and line scrolling effects. The soundtrack packs more of a punch than the visuals, with some very stirring heroic melodies urging you on. I particularly like that each stage has two themes, with the second one kicking in after you dispatch a mid-stage mini-boss. With the levels being as a long as they are, it’s nice to not have listen to the same audio loop throughout. The presentation overall isn’t bad. I would rate it as slightly above average, in fact. Just don’t come expecting an audiovisual feast like MUSHA or Thunder Force IV.

It may not be the prettiest or the most famous of its kind, but I have no reservations about recommending Wings of Wor to any 16-bit shooter fan looking for a challenge that’s formidable while rarely ever feeling unfair. It has solid control, a wide assortment of weapons, a strategic inventory system, a diverse soundtrack, and murderous hell genitals the size of a city bus. Who could ask for anything more?

Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole (Genesis)

Yeah, boy! Make it rain!

After a long run of platformers and other simple action fare, I’m feeling overdue for a longer, more involved game. I also haven’t touched any Sega stuff lately, so I figured I’d cover all my bases with Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole. This 1992 action-adventure title for the Genesis is the brainchild of Climax Entertainment, a relatively minor (and now defunct) development house most noted for its collaborations with Camelot Software Planning on the earliest entries in the well-loved Shining series of RPGs. Rumor has it that Landstalker was initially conceived as Shining Rogue, a spin-off starring the hero Max from Shining Force, before Climax and Camelot formally parted ways mid-development. Even though no official connection between the two games remains, Shining fans are sure to notice and appreciate illustrator Yoshitaka Tamaki’s distinctive character designs.

The titular Landstalker is the player character Nigel, a swashbuckling elven treasure hunter. One day, just after collecting a big payout for his latest recovered artifact, Nigel runs into the pixie-like wood nymph Friday, who’s being pursued by a gang of bumbling thieves. It turns out that Friday knows (or at least claims to know…) the location of the fabled lost treasure of the ancient tyrant Nole and that’s why she’s being chased. In exchange for Nigel’s protection, Friday agrees to guide him to the treasure’s hiding spot on the remote island of Mercator and the duo’s mad dash for the score of a lifetime begins!

If you think these sound like some pretty low stakes for a game of this kind, you’re not wrong. This steadfast refusal to embrace tragic backstories, moody antiheroes, world saving quests, and other boilerplate fantasy melodrama in favor of what amounts to an extended tongue-in-cheek caper is one of Landstalker’s most appealing aspects and one that still feels refreshing a quarter century on. The game is filled with laugh out loud moments and never so much as flirts with the notion of taking itself seriously. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of console adventure games.

While we’re on the subject of unexpected directions, let’s consider the gameplay itself. Most genre entries from this period took their cues from The Legend of Zelda. This usually entailed a similar overhead view of the playfield, as seen in Crystalis, Golden Axe Warrior, Neutopia, and many others. Landstalker, on the other hand, is no “Zelda clone.” Instead, it looks back even further and adopts a pseudo-3D isometric perspective seemingly based on Knight Lore, the influential British computer title published by Ultimate Play the Game (later known as Rare) in 1984. North American console gamers familiar with this style of game are more likely to recognize it from two specific releases by another U.K. studio, Software Creations: Solstice for the NES and its SNES sequel Equinox. Isometric platforming gameplay tends to be a “love it or late it” kind of thing, and Landstalker goes all-in on it, for better or worse. More on that later.

The land of Mercator itself consists of the usual idyllic villages separated by tracts of monster-infested wilderness. The format for most of the adventure involves reaching a new town where you’ll be able to do some shopping and chat up the locals to determine what trouble is brewing thereabouts before heading to a nearby cave, ruin or other “dungeon” to sort it out (hopefully acquiring some fresh leads on Nole’s treasure in the process).

The challenges you’ll face outside of town can be broken down into two broad categories: Combat and puzzle-platforming. Bad news first: Landstalker’s weakest aspect by far, at least in my estimation, is its shallow combat system. Nigel’s sole attack has him sweeping his sword in a wide horizontal arc front of him. It’s possible to obtain a few magical swords throughout the game that will imbue his strikes with fire, lightning, and other elemental properties for extra damage, but these aren’t really game changers. The enemies themselves aren’t very interesting, either. Most merely rush straight at Nigel (making them easy to cut down with repeated sword swings) and vary only in the amount of damage they can dish out and withstand. It all feels very perfunctory and overly reliant on mindless button mashing. For all that, it can also be maddeningly imprecise. Trying to attack while standing anywhere near a wall, tree, or other barrier for example, often results in Nigel’s attack hitting the scenery instead of the enemy and being cancelled out entirely. When you consider how much of the fighting takes place in cramped dungeon corridors…Ugh.

At least the designer seems to have realized how sloppy the swordplay can be, since Nigel was made very durable to compensate. Hit points are at a premium early on, but healing herbs (called “EkeEke”) are plentiful. Nigel can carry up to nine of these at a time and each will be automatically used by Friday to restore half of his health whenever he runs out. Once you’ve acquire some improved armor and extra hit points (the latter by locating Zelda-esque heart-shaped tokens called “life stock” scattered around the world), game overs will largely become a thing of the past so long as you keep your herb supply maxed.

Now for the good news: Landstalker’s puzzles and platforming and are clearly where the lion’s share of the development work went and I found them to be extremely gratifying. For the most part, anyway. Remember that isometric perspective I mentioned? Well, it’s not exactly perfect, and the precise spatial relationships between objects and platforms and can sometimes be difficult to discern without a bit of trial and error. Two platforms might appear to be adjacent to each other and easily jumped between. Then you try it only to discover that one of them is supposed to be at a different elevation than the other. In a true 3D projection, the higher platform would appear slightly larger due to its closer proximity to the camera. Here, objects at differing heights share the exact same graphics and that means missed jumps. Missing a jump early on in the game is usually no big deal. Later on, it can result in landing on a trap and sustaining some damage or, even worse, falling all the way back down to a lower level of the dungeon and having to climb all the way back up just to attempt the same jump again.

Still, you can and will adapt to these visual quirks if you keep at it, and the effort required is well worth it. Landstalker’s puzzles start out simple; flip a switch here, stack some boxes there, that sort of thing. Before long, you’ll also be contending with time limits, switches that need to be toggled from a distance by tossing things at them, puzzles that require you to manipulate enemy movement patterns, and much, much more. There are some serious brainteasers in store for you here and in this sense Landstalker actually reminds me as much of the Adventures of Lolo games as it does Zelda. The process of entering a new dungeon room, working out exactly what steps I need to take to proceed, and then actually having to implement my plan while also fending off enemies and nailing all the required jumps is endlessly satisfying to me. It’s also not the sort of challenge that players can simply grind their way around by boosting some stats or buying stronger gear. Unless you refer to a walkthrough (which I highly discourage in this case), success or failure in the dungeons is all down to your own native wit and timing. It’s very compelling once you get into the groove of it.

The graphics in general look great, with the caveat that the requirements of the game engine lead to the environments looking distinctly blocky and artificial. All those geometrically perfect sharp angles work fine for the buildings and dungeons, but not so much for the wilderness areas. Shining series composer Motoaki Takenouchi contributes an expansive musical score that covers the game’s main themes (comic adventure, plumbing the depths of dark, spooky ruins) with aplomb. Landstalker’s overall presentation is right in line with its 16-bit contemporaries. It’s a product of its time in that it compares favorably with the previous year’s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, yet doesn’t quite measure up to the higher standard set by Secret of Mana the following year.

So…Great sense of humor? Lovable characters? Addictive gameplay? Landstalker must have received a ton of sequels, right? Not really. A handful of “spiritual successors” were produced with entirely new characters and settings. These range from the mediocre (Lady Stalker: Challenge from the Past) to the masterful (Alundra) to the just plain odd (Dark Savior, with its clunky one-on-one fighting game segments). Not even an extended cameo appearance in Time Stalkers for the Dreamcast manages to function as a proper continuation of Nigel’s story, however, leaving the intrepid elf and his winged sidekick lost in the gaming ether, likely forever.

This makes Landstalker itself a buried treasure well worth hunting down, and I’m honestly split on whether that’s ironic or wholly appropriate. All I know for sure is: It’s Friday, I’m in love!

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent MUSHA last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.