Golvellius: Valley of Doom (Master System)

Yeah, don’t hold your breath there, guys.

I was so excited to finally try out Golvellius: Valley of Doom. It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to get into the Master System in the first place. Can you blame me? Just like The Guardian Legend on the NES, a stone cold masterpiece that just blew me away when I first experienced it last March, Golvellius is an action-adventure game from the revered studio Compile that takes numerous design cues from The Legend of Zelda. If that’s not a foolproof recipe for success, I don’t know what is. Spoilers: I don’t know what is.

This 1988 Sega release of Golvellius is actually an enhanced port of the original 1987 version for MSX home computers, Maou Golvellius (“Devil Golvellius”). Console gamers caught a break this time around, as the port seems to be superior to the original in every way, boasting improved sound and visuals, smoother scrolling, and a greater variety of enemies to fight. Indeed, the Master System Golvellius is a very attractive game on the surface. The graphics are crisp and colorful and the character art is packed with personality in a way that recalls the Wonder Boy series at its best. The soundtrack by Masatomo Miyamoto and Takeshi Santo is superb and will instantly bring to mind their subsequent work on The Guardian Legend. So much so, in fact, that it’s a bit uncanny. The instrumentation is so similar that you could make a playlist of tracks from both games and easily find yourself forgetting which song originated where. Still, it’s great to encounter a truly remarkable score on the system after enduring the shrill, repetitive aural garbage that detracts from titles like Ghostbusters and Shinobi. It all makes for a strong first impression.

An equally slick opening cut scene fills you in on the story: The kingdom of Aleid is under siege by monsters under the command of the demon Golvellius. The king of Aleid becomes so distraught by his people’s suffering that he falls gravely ill. The brave Princess Rena departs for the heart of the enemy’s territory in the Valley of Doom, which is the only place that the magic herb needed to heal her father can be found. When she fails to return, it falls on a wandering green-haired hero named Kelesis, as controlled by the player, to venture into the valley and set things right.

This primarily entails wandering around a sprawling overworld from a top-down viewpoint putting monsters to the sword, accumulating money and magical artifacts, and hunting for the entrances to a series of eight dungeons. Never heard that one before! There are some differences worth noting, though. For one, the overworld in Golvellius isn’t quite as open as the first Legend of Zelda’s, so there’s more of a linear Zelda II-style flow to the exploration. Each area is technically connected to the others and can be revisited at any time, but there’s usually some sort of roadblock preventing you from moving on to the next chunk of the map until the local dungeon boss is defeated or you’ve acquired some specific bit of equipment. Golvellius also does its best to one-up Zelda by placing a secret passage on virtually every screen. These are typically revealed by either stabbing a specific tree or rock with your sword or by defeating a set number of monsters on that screen. Some contain the aforementioned dungeons, but most house an NPC character of some sort. There are chatty fairies that dispense clues or passwords, sassy old women that sell you items, Compile’s cheerful blue blob mascot (who would later show up in Guardian Legend in a similar support role), and more. If you ever find yourself unsure how to progress, the best way to get back on track is to revisit any screens you haven’t discovered secret passages on yet and poke around some more.

So far, so good. As solid as the overworld portions of the game are, however, the dungeons are a colossal letdown. The Guardian Legend achieved greatness by replacing the typical mysterious labyrinths of Zelda with action-packed shooting sections taken straight from Zanac or Aleste. These had everything you could want in an 8-bit vertical shooter: Fast movement, tight controls, a bewildering variety of weapons and enemies, huge boss monsters, the works! Golvellius also gets pretty experimental with its dungeons, but stumbles badly in terms of execution.

Dungeons are divided into two basic types: Side-scrolling action-platforming stages and auto-scrolling overhead view corridors. Both are quite wretched. The side-scrolling sections suffer from floaty jumps and the odd inability to turn Kelesis around. Although he can “moonwalk” backward, he always faces to the right. This makes attacking any enemy that manages to get behind him needlessly annoying. Lacking even a dodgy platforming element, the overhead dungeons are even less fun and consist entirely of slowly marching forward in a straight line and swatting down the occasional defenseless bat. In fact, the enemies in every dungeon are drawn from the same small pool of unimpressive vermin that never seem to grow any stronger as the game progesses. This is in stark contrast to the overworld enemies, who start to get really vicious after the first few introductory areas. As a result, the game as a whole feels more and more wildly unbalanced the further you progress. The only aspect of these dungeon levels that might slow you down some are the dead ends. You’ll often find yourself at an intersection and be forced to choose between a high/low or left/right path. It all comes down to a guess, really, but guess wrong and you’ll be forced to exit the level and start over due to the fact that the screen only scrolls in one direction and there’s no way to simply turn around and march back to the last intersection. It’s not challenging, interesting, or fun, but it sure will waste some of your time. Yay.

Speaking of disrespecting your time, Golvellius is also a relentless grindfest due to the fact that you’re forced to pay out the nose to merchants for everything you need. And when I say “everything,” I mean it. Health increases, weapon and armor upgrades, key items needed to navigate the game world, everything. Naturally, you’ll also need to purchase the ability to carry more money on you at once just so you can afford all this other crap! There’s not a single item anywhere in the game that you’re simply allowed to find and pick up in the course of your adventure. Even the seven crystals that you need to gather in order to access the final dungeon (this game’s equivalent of the Triforce pieces) aren’t recovered from defeated bosses. Instead, defeating each boss will just convince a nearby shopkeeper to quit holding out and sell you one of the crystals for some arbitrarily huge sum of gold. Madness!

The final major problem with Golvellius is its combat. Considering how many monsters you’re expected to slay in order to pile up these endless stacks of cash, it’s completely one-dimensional and boring. I hope you love jabbing away at baddies with Kelesis’ sword because that is all you’ll be doing from the very first screen of the game to the very last. No bow and arrows, no boomerangs, no bombs, no magic spells, just that puny sword. Even primitive pre-Zelda action-RPGs like Hydlide gave you something other than your sword to clean house with. The shallowness of Golvellius’ combat is downright laughable for its time and it really started to wear on me after hours of throwing out the exact same mediocre attack over and over.

I never imagined that I would dislike Golvellius (or any Compile release) as much as I did. Part of me still doesn’t want to come down against it in spite of the overwhelming weight of the evidence. I mean, the presentation is still top notch. I also got a real kick out of the weird NPC dialog, particularly the oddly abusive old women. “Thou art but a moron of the first class! Hit the road!” Dang, lady. The boss battles are decent fun, too, even if your opponents are limited to some very basic attack patterns. Despite all this, the lion’s share of the actual gameplay remains equal parts clunky, tedious, and dull. It’s no wonder the promised sequel never materialized. The closest thing we ever got was a very obscure cooking-themed parody game based on Golvellius called Super Cooks that was included in a 1989 edition of Compile Disc Station, which was a sort of digital magazine on floppy disk that was distributed to Japanese computer owners from 1988 through 1992.

If there’s a silver lining here, it would have to be that Golvellius seems to have served as a crash course of sorts in how not to make a Zelda clone. Certainly none of its irritating missteps would be carried over to The Guardian Legend a year later, so that game may well owe its status as one of the most brilliant console titles of its generation to the various design blunders of its immediate predecessor.

An acceptable price to pay for greatness, I suppose.

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Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

Shinobi (Master System)

Only a ninja can stop a ninja!

I never had a Sega Master System growing up. I never knew a single person who did. Not one. Poor Sega never had a chance in the mid-1980s console market, at least in North America and Japan, where the god-king Nintendo lorded over all it surveyed. Although the Master System (also known as the Mark III) sold like crazy in South America and portions of Europe well into the 21st century, it was virtually invisible outside those far-flung markets. It’s a shame. The system hardware was quite advanced for the time and it was capable of displaying significantly more colorful and detailed graphics than the NES.

While technical superiority is nice, even the most powerful console is ultimately dependent on its software library. This turned out to be the Master System’s Achilles’ heel. Nintendo’s strict exclusivity policies meant that best and brightest game companies of the time were essentially forbidden to venture anywhere near it if they wanted a ride on that sweet NES money train. Superstar developers like Capcom, Konami, Enix, and Rare knew which side their bread was buttered on. Many of these same parties would later grow disgruntled with Nintendo’s anti-competitive, control freak ways, which was great news for Sega’s follow-up console, the Mega Drive/Genesis, but by then it was far too late to salvage the Master System in any market that had not yet fully embraced it.

This lack of third party support meant that Sega themselves had to do the lion’s share of the work propping the Master System up in the U.S., primarily with conversions of their own popular arcade games. It’s only fitting, then, that the first Master System game I’d ever play would turn out to be Sega’s own port of their 1987 arcade smash Shinobi.

Applied to a person, the Japanese “shinobi” essentially means “one who sneaks” and is used synonymously with the better-known term ninja. Deadly masked ninja warriors were everywhere in the 1980s. Well, everywhere in the media, that is. We had ninja movies, ninja tv shows, ninja action figures, ninja comics, and, of course, ninja video games. A side scrolling action platformer, Shinobi was one of the first games to put you in the shoes of one of these relentless shadow warriors. It was essentially a variation on (or, less charitably, a clone of) Namco’s Rolling Thunder from 1986, just with the pistol-packing James Bond style superspy replaced with a shuriken tossing ninja master named Joe Musashi.

Joe is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped children of his ninja clan from their abductors, the sinister terrorist organization Zeed and its leaders, the Ring of Five. At least in the arcade version. The Master System manual identifies the kidnap victims as the children of unspecified “world leaders.” Either way: Bad guys stole the kiddos, so go ninja the hell out of stuff until that’s all sorted out. Works for me.

The game includes fourteen regular stages filled with hostages to rescue and generic thugs to mow down, interspersed with boss battles against the Zeed head honchos and culminating in a final showdown with the imposing Masked Ninja. Joe starts out able to throw an unlimited amount of shuriken and take out close range targets with his punches and kicks. Rescuing specific hostages in each stage will upgrade his arsenal to a gun and sword for long and short range engagements, respectively. There’s also the matter of Joe’s ninja magic, which is essentially a “panic button” usable only once per level that will clear the screen of all regular enemies and deal heavy damage to bosses. Most stages feature a dual level battlefield with enemies and hostages placed both along the ground and atop walls and other high structures. Joe is able to freely transition between the two levels by holding up or down on the directional controls in conjunction with the jump button, and picking the right moment to do this in order to get the drop on enemies is a key part of the strategy. Between stages, there’s a short bonus game where Joe must fend off waves of enemy ninjas from a first person view and is rewarded with an extra life if successful.

Shinobi is a rather deliberately paced affair, which helps to set it apart from many other ninja action games. Experienced players can rush through it very quickly, but it often pays to stop for a second and think through the ideal way to approach a specific cluster of waiting enemies. The Master System version sticks very closely to the arcade blueprint for the most part, but there are a few drastic changes worth mentioning.

A health meter replaces the one-hit kills that Joe was subject to in the arcade. This cuts down on the difficulty somewhat, though not as much as you might expect, as it was balanced out by removing the ability to continue after a game over. Like the NES version of Double Dragon, this is a game you have to complete in one go or not at all. Luckily, your health gauge can be extended to allow Joe to absorb more damage, which brings me to the next major change: The hostage rescue system.

Unlike in the arcade, you don’t need to rescue all the child hostages in a stage in order to move on. You should still grab as many as possible, though, because there are many more potential rewards for doing so in the Master System port, including the previously mentioned maximum health increases, healing, and cool new weapon upgrades like bombs, knives, nunchaku, and a spiked chain. While these power-ups persist from stage to stage, they’re all stripped away the instant you die even once and rescued hostages never reappear to be collected again. This can be downright brutal late in the game. Making it all the way through the final stage on the puny default health bar can be done, but I don’t envy anyone making the attempt. I managed it…once.

Finally, the ninja magic has been heavily downgraded on the Master System. So much so that it’s almost worthless. It still functions as before, but you’re unable to access it by default like in the arcade. Here it replaces extra lives as your reward for winning the bonus stages. If you do manage to obtain some, there’s also a new and highly obnoxious restriction to deal with: You must defeat ten enemies in a given stage before you’ll be permitted to actually use any ninja magic you may have earned. I honestly cannot fathom the reasoning behind this change. By the time you’ve killed enough enemies to activate your magic, you’re likely nearing the end of the stage anyway. The game also treats boss fights as their own separate stages, so there doesn’t seem to be any way to use magic against them at all. At least stockpiled ninja magic doesn’t go away when you die like all the other power-ups. Blah.

Shinobi looks pretty good on the Master System. At least when it’s standing still. The sprites are large and detailed and there’s some great use of those bright colors the console is known for in the various stage backgrounds. Animation does suffer quite a bit, however. This is particularly noticeable when defeated enemies simply blink right out of existence because there are no frames included of them crumpling to the ground like they do in the arcade. This may seem like a small thing, but the visual feedback on your attacks really contributed to the original version’s satisfying feel. Just imagine Super Mario Bros. with the goombas Mario stomps vanishing on contact without being comically flattened first. It just ain’t right. The vertical scrolling whenever Joe leaps up or down between the different levels of a stage is also jarringly choppy for some reason. A game really shouldn’t look like it’s glitching out every time you just want to jump up to a platform. Even though a dip in overall quality coming from the System 16 arcade hardware was inevitable, I’m still inclined to expect better than this from Sega. They didn’t even include an ending! Instead, winning the game nets you the exact same game over screen that losing it does. Huh?

As for the audio…well, there’s no nice way to say it: The original Shinobi’s catchy soundtrack is essentially butchered here. You get a single short music loop that plays over every regular stage. The bonus rounds and boss fights each get their own track for a grand total of three songs, but that’s still 95% of the game during which you’re expected to sit there and listen to the same tinny tune. It’s borderline torturous. For what it’s worth, there are supposedly also higher quality versions of these same three songs included on the cartridge, though they can’t be played back unless you have the special FM sound expansion board that was produced exclusively for the Japanese version of the console.

Shinobi on the Master System has some real flaws. It doesn’t look or sound as great as it should and the super cool ninja magic has been watered-down to the point of total superfluousness. On the plus side, the addition of a health bar and persistent power-ups makes the gameplay a lot more forgiving from moment to moment, while the lack of continues and potentially massive disempowerment that each death brings tends to makes the player more cautious and focused on surviving over the long term. Ideally, you want to be able to make it all the way to the end of the game on your first life so that you never have to deal with losing your health and weapon upgrades. It makes the whole experience a lot more “consoley,” if that makes any sense, without requiring any major changes to the stage layouts and enemy placement that fans were already familiar with from the arcade. Though not perfect, it still stands head and shoulders over any other home port and remains the best way outside of an arcade to experience Joe Musashi’s first adventure.

Now that I’ve finally toppled the Zeed syndicate, I’m really looking forward to seeing where my exploration of the Master System library will take me next. Hiyaa!