Strider (Genesis)

Huh. I was expecting a bigger boom.

Get those torches and pitchforks ready, because that pretty much sums up my impression of Strider as a whole. After hearing so many Genesis aficionados talk this one up as one of the greatest games of all time over the years…I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just on the off chance that anyone is still reading after my last paragraph, here’s a little background. Strider started out as an ambitious cross-media collaboration between Capcom and manga publishing house Moto Kikaku. The comic series launched in 1988 and the first Strider game reached arcades in early 1989. There was also a Strider game for the NES released later in 1989, although this was an independently developed title that emphasized Metroid-like exploration and has little in common with the better known arcade action game that we’re looking at now.

The arcade Strider was a visual marvel for its time, with huge, detailed character sprites and intricate backgrounds that took full advantage of Capcom’s cutting edge CP System arcade board. Breaking away from the more deliberately paced, grounded action of earlier arcade action-platformers like Rolling Thunder and Shinobi, Strider sported an acrobatic lead character and embraced spectacle and eye-popping “set piece” action sequences in a big way. It gobbled up a whole lot of quarters, and ports for home computers like the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum sold like crazy, compromised as they were. It was the 1990 port for the Sega Genesis that really stood out from the crowd, though. Packed into a massive (for the time) 8 megabit cartridge, Genesis Strider set the benchmark for home ports of arcade games. Everything you remembered from the arcade was here. Sure, there were a few missing frames of animation and the color palette was a tiny bit muted, but unless you were somehow looking at the two games running side-by-side, the effect was almost perfect.

In Strider, you take control of Hiryū, the youngest ever member of the Striders to attain the top “Special A-Class” ranking. The Striders are a shadowy paramilitary mercenary ninja group in the dystopian future of 2048 and they’ve sent Hiryū to Russia on a mission to assassinate a dude called the Grandmaster, who seems to be some sort of evil wizard in a cloak who wants to destroy the world. Simple, but it works.

That same simplicity extends to the core gameplay. One button jumps and the other swings Hiryū’s high-tech plasma sword, the “cypher.” Being a ninja, he can also cling to and climb along walls and platforms as well as perform a nifty ground slide maneuver that also doubles as a supplementary attack. Finally, there’s a selection of power-ups that can increase the range of Hiryū’s sword attacks, extend his health meter, grant temporary invincibility, and summon robot sidekicks to assist with taking out enemies.

There are a total of five levels of side-scrolling action platforming for you to tackle, each with its own boss at the end. Several stages also have mini-boss battles along the way. This is where the problems begin for me. While there are technically five levels, it’s really more like four levels followed by a “boss rush” where you re-fight all the previous bosses in sequence before taking on the Grandmaster himself. It was normal for games from the period to be fairly short, but this just seem egregious to me. A final boss rush after just four levels? A Mega Man game would have put you through eight robot masters and at least a couple Dr. Wily stages before you had to re-battle everybody again. You have to earn this kind of thing, man.

At least those first four levels are pretty damn great. In particular, Strider has one of most memorable opening stages in action gaming history. Hiryū soars in his hang glider over an onion-domed Russian city of the future before dropping down onto the rooftops to slice and dice his way through a hoard of fur hat-clad soldiers and flying attack robots and it just gets more and more bombastic from there, building to one of the kookiest boss battles ever conceived against what appears to be the entire Russian parliament. There are so many nice details on display in just this one stage. I love the way that some of the hapless enemy soldiers will even panic and try to run away as they see your bloodthirsty ninja killing machine rushing toward them. Simply inspired. This same level of quality and innovation also suffuses the next three stages, with upside-down anti-gravity combat, dinosaur riding, and more. The final challenge might be a copy/paste bore but I really can’t say enough good things about the first 80% of Strider.

The small number of stages is one thing, but the more pressing issues I had with Strider are focused on the controls and frequent performance hiccups. For a Special A-Class ninja, Hiryū isn’t really all that quick or manuverable. Rather than dashing, he trudges forward at a pretty relaxed pace and his extremely floaty jumps don’t quite work like you’d expect them to. You can’t actually steer Hiryū in the air and instead have to make due with a more “realistic” jumping system similar to Castlevania’s, where you’re limited to leaping straight up or in a fixed arc to the left or right. This type of movement works great with the less open level design and more deliberate pacing of a Castlevania game, but the Belmonts aren’t supposed to be ninjas. In Strider, I found myself constantly wishing that Hiryū’s movement was faster and more responsive than it actually is. At least the game’s long-awaited true sequel, 1999’s Strider 2 for the PlayStation, would address these control issues.

Performance is a whole other can of worms. There ain’t no Genesis “blast processing” in effect here. This game’s framerate chugs. Bad. Expect major slowdown and sprite flicker to rear their ugly heads anytime things get chaotic. In other words: Pretty much all the time. Sometimes the action will even pause itself entirely while the system struggles to keep up. The battle with the level four boss in particular is pretty much ruined by slideshow-like levels of slowdown. You know this stuff is bad when even someone like me that’s used to playing Super Nintendo is noticing it. Sound glitches exist as well, with the sound of your weapon attack seeming to cancel out most other effects entirely.

I did still enjoy Strider. The intriguing characters and setting, gorgeous in-game art, innovative level design, and iconic soundtrack (the third one by Junko Tamiya in as many weeks for me) are all as cool as they ever were. It’s also an important game on at least two fronts. The arcade original was one of the first examples of an over-the-top “extreme” action game, and later titles like Devil May Cry, God of War, and Bayonetta all share its creative DNA. This Genesis port in particular was a system seller when it came out early in the console’s life. Before Sonic the Hedgehog and even before the Super NES, Strider was the ultimate “you can’t do this on Nintendo” game that made 8-bit console owners sit up and take notice.

Buzzwords suck, so I won’t call Strider “overrated.” It may be that I’m simply spoiled by later Genesis action-platformers like Shinobi III and Rocket Knight Adventures. Without a personal nostalgic attachment, however, I do see it as a title with more historic import than great fun to offer.

It’s still the only way you can fight a tyrannosaurus and a robot King Kong at the same time, though. Don’t go underestimating that.

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Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)

I met an opossum wearing goggles once. No rocket, though.

1993’s Rocket Knight Adventures from Konami is a celebrated game that won’t be much of a revelation to anyone who grew up playing the Genesis/Mega Drive. For someone like me, though, who stuck with Nintendo hardware all through the 80s and 90s due to a combination of established love for the NES and what I saw as Sega’s obnoxious “extreme” marketing, discovering that I missed out on titles like this is both slightly disappointing and highly exhilarating.

RKA is the story of Sparkster, a brave young Rocket Knight who must defend the opossum kingdom of Zebulos from attack by the pig Emperor Devligus of the Devotindos Empire. Aided by the rogue rocket knight Axel Gear, the Empire has kidnapped Princess Sherry because only she knows the way to open the seal to the Pig Star (pretty much the Death Star from Star Wars with a pig snout on it), which was captured centuries ago following a destructive war and sealed away by the first king of Zebulos. Axel also gravely wounded Sparkster’s mentor and father figure Mifune during his treacherous turn, so our hero has a personal stake in the fight as well. All of this information comes from the manual, as there’s no backstory presented in the game. There are some rather adorable cut scenes between levels that advance the plot to its conclusion, though.

As I aside, I do find myself wondering why pigs almost always have to be the bad guys in these cartoon animal worlds. I think they’re pretty cool. Maybe it’s an Animal Farm thing? At least Konami also gave us a pig hero in their 1982 arcade shooter Pooyan, so hooray for equal time. Hmm. I wonder if anyone’s come up with a fan theory that Rocket Knight Adventures and Pooyan take place in the same fictional universe? If not, I’m totally calling dibs on that one right now.

Ahem. Anyway, like a lot of Konami’s flagship titles at the time, Rocket Knight Adventures is a side-scrolling action-platform game. Mostly. As a nice change of place, Sparkster will occasionally take to the skies with his rocket pack to engage in some shooting action reminiscent of Gradius. Controls are simple but still nuanced, which is always a key to success in any game of this kind. One button makes Sparkster jump and the other will attack with his sword. The sword attack has more range to it than you might expect, as each swing will also fire off an energy blast that can travel about 2/3 the length of the screen.

Sparkster’s rocket pack is what really takes the action to a whole other level, though, since it enhances both your attacks and movement in a variety of ways. Holding the attack button down for a couple seconds will charge it up and releasing the button will unleash it. If Sparkster is standing still, he’ll spin rapidly in place and deal heavy damage to anything nearby. If you’re holding down a directional button, he’ll blast off at high speed in that same direction with his sword held out in front of him. You can use this to attack foes, reach high platforms and items, and even ricochet off walls like a bullet to attack from unexpected angles. Sparkster is mostly invincible while executing a charged rocket attack but that doesn’t mean that you can get away with abusing them. Each level has its share of pits, spikes, traps, and other environmental hazards, so if you’re just rocketing around recklessly, you will regret it. Learning exactly how and when to unleash Sparkster’s charge attacks is the key to doing well and the process is so, so fun.

There are seven levels total for Sparkster to traverse. This may not seem like a lot but each one is fairly long and is broken up into several unique locations and action set pieces. There are also around sixteen bosses battles spread throughout the game. These are all unique, too, and have multiple phases and attack patterns to deal with. In fact, RKA doesn’t rely on padding or asset recycling of any kind, which is really unusual for an older game. Instead, every stage utilizes 100% original enemies, obstacles, backgrounds, and music. To cap it all off, the stage designs are masterful thrill rides brimming with invention and represent one-time superdeveloper Konami at its very best.

This game looks gorgeous and a big part of that is the art direction. The choice to depict a whimsical world populated by cute animals reminiscent of Golden Age Disney cartoons means that the designers were able to focus on big, bold primary colors and didn’t need to stretch the system’s limited palette too thin by struggling to depict more realistic characters and settings. The characters are drawn full of personality and their animations are smooth. To pick just one example, Sparkster looks so, so adorable fighting off enemies while hanging upside down from his tail in true possum style. The music follows suit by perfectly complimenting the blend of cute visuals and intense action. You know you’re in for some unforgettable tunes when both Michiru Yamane, famed for her work in the Castlevania games, and Mr. Silent Hill himself, Akira Yamaoka, both contributed to Rocket Knight’s score.

Rocket Knight Adventures is not terribly difficult, though it does require some practice and knowledge of the level layouts to complete. The game has four difficulty levels to choose from. The first three are all very managable and seem to vary mainly in the amount of damage that Sparkster takes from enemies and hazards. The fourth (Very Hard) starts you out with only one life and kills you after one hit from anything. Definitely not my cup of tea but it’s nice that they included a mode for those players who enjoy playing a game over and over and over (and over!) until they’ve completely mastered it.

This is the part of the review where I try to find something negative to say about the game in the interest of fairness and objectivity. I’m normally pretty good at this but here I’m kind of stumped! Rocket Knight Adventures is one of the very finest action games I’ve ever played and it has no noteworthy flaws to speak of. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the best of Konami’s 16-bit action-platformers. Yes, even better than stuff like Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars. With those games, great as they are, I can still find a few non-trivial faults if I look, such as the overpowered nature of Simon Belmont relative to his enemies in Castlevania IV or Contra III’s mediocre overhead view levels. Rocket Knight Adventures has no such weak points. It’s about as close to perfection as a game realistically gets and it’s a bit of a bummer that I haven’t been playing it ever since it came out.

I guess sometimes it is worth doing what Nintendon’t.

M.U.S.H.A. (Genesis)

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Oh, yeah. She just looks thrilled at the prospect.

I thought I’d take a little break from platformers this week, so I decided to give Compile’s acclaimed 1990 shooter M.U.S.H.A. a shot. It’s been a while since I played a shooter, with the most recent one being another Compile classic, The Guardian Legend, back in February. It’s no coincidence, since I just can’t get enough Compile goodness. For me, they made the absolute best overhead shooters of the 8 and 16-bit age and I’ve always had a preference for overhead (vertical) shooters over side view (horizontal) ones. I think they just feel more “open” somehow; like I have more space available on the screen to maneuver, even if I actually may not.

(By “shooter,” of course, I mean the classic “fly around in a little spaceship and blast all the other spaceships” experience, not a first person shooter, but you probably already knew that.)

Anyway, Musha is part of the long-running Aleste series, hence its Japanese title, Musha Aleste. In the West, M.U.S.H.A. was presented as the contrived acronym for “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor,” but it’s really just supposed to be the Japanese word for “warrior,” so I’m just referring to the game as Musha from here on out.

Plots aren’t the most important feature in an old school shooter by a long shot, and Musha’s is no exception. It’s the future and an evil supercomputer named “Dire 51” decides to go all Skynet and take over the galaxy. With a name like that, humanity really should have seen it coming. The last hope lies with the Musha team and all five of them set off to save the day. Hilariously, your four teammates get blown up immediately after the opening cut scene, leaving your character Terri (“valedictorian from Air & Space University”) to do all the actual fighting. I’m guessing she’s the only one who paid attention at giant robot pilot school. Hope all those keggers were worth it, guys.

There are seven levels of carnage on offer in Musha and each one is an archetypal Compile meatgrinder of high speed enemies punctuated by a mini-boss fight at around the halfway marker, except for the final level, which is a brutal gauntlet featuring a grand total of four bosses.

Luckily, you have some decent weaponry to take it all on with. Your primary shot travels straight forward and is pretty puny to start out. Thankfully, you can upgrade it to fire a spread of up to four projectiles at once if you can stay alive long enough. There are also three special weapons for you to pick up: Missiles that carpet bomb a wide swath of the screen in front of you, a laser that projects a constant stream of damage straight forward, and a rotating shield that can block enemy bullets and damage foes on contact. These special weapons can also be upgraded three times with additional pickups. Somewhat unusually for the genre, they also supplement your primary shot rather than replacing it. Special weapons also act as your armor, since you can survive one hit while equipped with one, but this will cause you to lose it, so you’d better scramble for a replacement fast!

Three special weapons doesn’t sound like a lot for a game of this kind but you also have a final means of attack: Options. These are tiny satellites that orbit your primary ship and fire in tandem with your main gun. You acquire options by shooting the “chip carriers” that you encounter in each level. These will then disgorge glowing chips that you’ll need to catch as they fall toward the bottom of the screen. Every three chips obtained will grant you an option. You can only have a maximum of two option satellites active at a time, but extra ones are stored away for later and will automatically deploy to replace any active ones destroyed by enemy fire. These options are very versatile weapons since they can be instructed to fire in six different patterns at any time. They can shoot ahead of you, behind you, in spread patterns, and more. You can even instruct them to break away from you and seek out enemies to attack but sending them out on their own and unprotected can result in them being destroyed at an increased rate. Choosing the right option formation for the right part of each level is key to success in Musha.

One final interesting control facet is a manual throttle. You can pause the game and press left or right to adjust your ship’s movement speed. This comes in handy in a variety of ways. You can slow down to maneuver accurately in tight quarters or speed up to better dodge enemy missiles. Since being either too slow or too fast is a perennial problem in shooter games, this unusual option really is one of those “Why doesn’t every game have this?” features.

So the gameplay is awesome and surprisingly deep but how about the rest of the package? The graphics are well-drawn and there’s a lot of awesome parallax scrolling effects going on in the stages that confer a spectacular sense of depth and speed but the real standout visual element is the wild stage and enemy design. Where else are you going to fight a giant space pagoda bristling with cannons or a flying battleship with a huge Japanese Noh theater mask face? As nice as this game looks, though, nothing can compare to Toshiaki Sakoda’s godlike soundtrack. The Sega Genesis catches a lot of flack for its older FM sound chip’s weakness relative to the Super Nintendo’s audio hardware and Musha definitely does have a lot of that twangy Genesis synth guitar that a lot of chiptune afficianados are so down on. Any weaknesses in the instrumentation are completely superseded, however, by the sheer epic radness of the thrash metal-inspired compositions. There are not a lot of Genesis soundtracks that I’d really want to pump up the volume on, but this is one of them. As of now, it’s my own personal favorite musical score for the system.

As far as downsides in Musha, there are a couple minor quirks but no serious flaws. There’s a little slowdown when the screen gets extremely crowded but it’s not that common or that severe. It would have also been nice to be able to change your option satellite configuration while the game is paused, similar to how you adjust your ship’s speed. Six potential configurations are a lot to cycle through during a hectic fight, especially if you’re trying to divide your attention between your ship at the bottom of the screen and the text at the top that shows your current option setting.

Now for the elephant in the room: Original Musha cartridges are expensive as hell. As a genre, only RPGs seem to rival shooters for hyper-inflated prices on the secondary market. If you’re not prepared to drop $200 or more, you’re probably out of luck. I played Musha on a $10 reproduction cartridge because 100% of the game for 5% of the price sounded like a great deal to me. I’m a player first and no serious collector by any means and as a general rule I’ll never pay more for an old game than I would for a new one. I figure that if I can’t get an original copy of the game for $60 or less, I’ll either find a cheaper way to play it on my console (like a repro or a flash cartridge) or just play something else instead. But that’s just me. If you want to shell out for a “real” Musha for your collection, more power to you. But the point I’m driving at here is: If you love quality shooters, you owe it to yourself to play Musha somehow. It may just be the best of its class on the Genesis, which is a system renowned for its abundance of great shooter titles.

Just do yourself a favor and take really good notes at Air & Space University.

Alisia Dragoon (Genesis)

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Gee, thanks. I’ll, uh, wear it with pride, I guess.

So ends my first play session with Alisa Dragoon, but definitely not my last. It took me about seven hours of practice to get my first full run, which is just about the perfect amount of time to pass a lazy afternoon.

All I can say is: Wow! It’s been a while since a game has really impressed me this much. For me, Alisia Dragoon is an absolute masterpiece, right up there with Castlevania: Bloodlines and Streets of Rage 2 on my list of all-time great Genesis games. It’s that good.

The artwork and animation are some of the best on the system, the music is some of the catchiest fantasy action tunes I’ve ever heard in a game (it sort of has a Golden Axe vibe, but more complex and varied), and the control is perfect. Levels are all unique in terms of theming and visuals and each has its own roster of enemies, so nothing feels recycled here. The game’s art direction and animation was provided by the anime studio Gainax, which likely explains the high quality of the overall presentation.

The plot of the game involves the sorceress Alisa and her four magical pets questing to stop some evil wizards from resurrecting an ancient evil power of tremendous magnitude. Pretty straightforward stuff but there is a nice twist toward the end that elevates it a bit in my eyes.

Alisia’s primary weapon is lightning that she shoots from her hands, but the way this attack handles is very unique and is what gives the game its own feel when compared to other action-platforming games for the Genesis. Basically, Alisia doesn’t need to worry about aiming. Holding down the attack button causes a stream of homing lightning to automatically lock onto enemies in front of Alisia. This lock-on shooting mechanic, actually a refined version of the one from Game Arts’ earlier sci-fi action game Thexder, sounds like it would make the combat too simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since sustained attacking drains your magic meter, you can’t just shoot all the enemies all the time and you’ll need to take strategic pauses in combat where you focus on dodging while your meter recharges.

Even with an empty magic meter, you’re not defenseless. You have four extremely cute and deadly magical beasts along for the ride and each of them has unique attacks and strategic uses. You can only have one pet active at a time but you can switch between them instantly at will. They each have their own life meters and are able to be damaged and even killed by enemies, however, so you’ll have to keep them healthy by finding meat power-ups. Each pet can also be leveled-up two times by collecting other power-ups, which will grant them more health and attack power. Needless to say, picking the right pet for a particular stage or boss fight can make Alisia’s life a whole lot easier.

The game’s difficulty is tough but fair, as typical for the era. You only have one life at the start of the game, which seems daunting, but Alisia can absorb quite a bit of damage before dying and health restoration pickups are fairly numerous. You can also find health bar extensions and extra lives inside the power-up capsules you’ll discover along the way. You’ll still probably end up replaying the early stages of the game several times as you learn the stage layouts and boss enemy patterns, but you’ll soon be blazing through them quite quickly and effortlessly once you’ve properly memorized them.

Alisia Dragoon is a wonder. Unfortunately, it seems that it didn’t sell very well upon its release in 1992, so the gaming world was never graced with any sequels or even ports to other systems. It’s a damn shame, really, but at least we can still appreciate one of the true lost treasures of the 16-bit era.

Now, I think I’m going to go feed my pet electric chicken dragon thingy. Trust me, you wouldn’t like him when he’s hangry.

(Originally written 5/29/2017)