Ninja Gaiden (Master System)

Thanksgiving season is here again. For me, that means baking, quality time with friends, and savage ninja mayhem. Yes, this is the time of year when I inevitably find myself scaling walls and hurling deadly shuriken at evildoers of all stripes, usually in a video gaming context. I’m especially partial to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden saga for this, having already covered the NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden Shadow on Game Boy.

As far as I knew back in the ’90s, these four home titles and the arcade beat-’em-up were the full extent of the franchise. I had no idea that a sixth game, also dubbed simply Ninja Gaiden, was produced exclusively for Master System owners in Europe and Australia. This was the second entry (after the Natsume-helmed Shadow) to be developed by a party other than Tecmo themselves. Master System Ninja Gaiden is the work of SIMS (Soft development Innovation Multi Success), a joint enterprise spun off from Sega and the more obscure Sanritsu Denki. Regular readers of mine may recall them as the creators of the Castlevania-inspired Master of Darkness. The two works are quite similar in that they’re respectable action-platformers which capture the broad strokes of their source material, yet neglect many of the finer points that made the originals true greats.

Like its predecessors, this Ninja Gaiden stars blue-clad killing machine Ryu Hayabusa. He returns home to his village one day, only to discover it’s been attacked and razed by a mysterious enemy force that slaughtered everyone present and made off with a sacred scroll detailing the clan’s ninjitsu techniques. This scroll must be recovered, since the secrets it contains could endanger the entire world if misused. There’s also the matter of revenge. You really don’t want to cross a guy who slays building-sized demons for a living.

It’s a promising setup that SIMS ultimately doesn’t deliver on. The NES games were famed for their lavishly animated and scored story interludes, dubbed “Tecmo theater.” The cutscenes here are paltry in comparison, consisting of static images with the same short music loop accompanying every one. The storytelling itself also fails to engage. It’s a straightforward trek from location to location fighting assorted villains in pursuit of the missing scroll. There are no twists and no familiar characters other than Ryu himself. The new characters that appear make no impact and aren’t even given proper names, as if the writers knew you probably wouldn’t remember them anyway with a plot this perfunctory.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. Although there are some important caveats I’ll get to shortly, much of the Ninja Gaiden gameplay formula comes through loud and clear in the seven diverse stages presented. Ryu’s movement feels correct and he fights with his customary Dragon Sword and array of mystical sub-weapons. His core moveset sees some some interesting tweaks in this installment. While he retains his Ninja Gaiden III ability to hang from the undersides of certain ledges, his signature wall climbing has been replaced with a Super Metroid style rebounding wall jump. The most dramatic new addition is a super attack performed by pressing both buttons at once. This will instantly destroy all regular enemies on screen in exchange for a hefty chunk of health. Finally, he can now move while crouched, which is occasionally useful in tight quarters, if less flashy than these other maneuvers. All this allowed SIMS to include new movement-based challenges not seen in previous games and they made the most of the opportunity. There’s a bigger emphasis on pure platforming here than in any other classic Ninja Gaiden.

I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the combat. The enemies in this game are routinely designed and placed in ways that make me suspect the SIMS team didn’t really understand what made the action on the NES so compelling. It was, in a word, flow. The opposition was oppressive, with swift baddies constantly swarming Ryu from all angles. The only way out was to cut a path through as efficiently as possible. The mechanics supported this. Ryu could eliminate almost any foe with a single swing of his sword. Assuming a perfectly-timed sequence of jumps and attacks, it was possible to literally sprint through the game. It made for an unparalleled 8-bit adrenaline rush. This isn’t what you get on the Master System. There are far fewer opponents to dispatch and they tend to be either slow-moving or stationary damage sponges when compared to their NES counterparts. Taking that constant pressure off players while simultaneously forcing them to stop moving over and over to dole out multiple hits to the same enemy really blurs the line between Ninja Gaiden at its blistering best and watered-down Castlevania with a ninja.

I don’t want to come off too negative here. MS Ninja Gaiden has a lot going for it. Most prominent are its bright, clean graphics, solid soundtrack, and intricate platforming scenarios. It controls well and its dialed down intensity may actually appeal to those who find the NES games overwhelming. Not only do you enjoy the unlimited continues common to most Ninja Gaidens, you don’t even lose your sub-weapon and its ammunition when you die. This led to me discover a strange quirk of the sub-weapon system that effectively breaks the game wide open. If you can manage to raise your ammo count to the maximum of 999, it will never again decrease, effectively granting you unlimited shots thereafter. I’m not sure if this is intentional or a bug. In either case, it makes an already relaxed ride pure child’s play if you choose to exploit it.

SIMS’ interpretation of Ninja Gaiden may not represent the series at its slick, brutal apex, but it makes for a satisfying playthrough nonetheless. It’s easily one of the better action-platformers to grace the Master System. Pity it happened to debut in 1992, after the console had already been discontinued in North America and Japan. So give it a go sometime. Turkey Day or no, you’ll be thankful you did.

Alex Kidd in Shinobi World (Master System)

Ending by Credits Я Us!

I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but to reiterate: I’ve never been a fan of Sega’s Alex Kidd. I didn’t grow up playing his games and he always struck me as some sort of icky simian…thing. Like one of those old Monchichi dolls. I’m not the one who remembers those, am I? Actually, I’m hope I am.

Not everyone shares my ambivalence, of course. Alex did serve as Sega’s primary mascot from 1986 through 1991, when his reign was abruptly and unceremoniously terminated by the literal runaway success of a certain sassy hedgehog. This gave him ample opportunity to endear himself to that one kid everybody knew in elementary school who didn’t own an NES in the late ’80s. His debut outing, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, is hailed by many as the quintessential Master System platformer and came built into later revisions of the console. Boot one of these suckers up with no cartridge inserted and presto, you’re playing some Alex Kidd.

While by no means the Mario killer Sega had been praying for, Miracle World was generally well-received by gamers and critics. Unfortunately, the company was never quite able to capitalize on its initial success and produce a worthy follow-up. Instead, they floundered with strange, half-baked sequels like Alex Kidd BMX Trial and Alex Kidd: High-Tech World. Before he finally fizzled out for good, Alex turned in a sixth and final star performance in 1990’s Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Did he save his best for last or clinch the case for his own euthanasia? Let’s find out!

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Shinobi? As in Sega’s legendary ninja action franchise? What is this, some kind of wild crossover where Alex Kidd teams up with ninja master Joe Musashi to combat the Zeed organization? Sadly, no. What it means is that this wasn’t originally intended to be an Alex Kidd game at all. Rather, it was Shinobi Kid, a cute, semi-parodic version of the standard Shinobi experience aimed at a younger audience. You might already be familiar with Capcom’s Mighty Final Fight or Namco’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. Same idea. Late in development, Sega decided to throw their ailing mascot a bone by pasting his sprite into the game and altering the title.

The unplanned nature of this arrangement is made clear by the story. Alex Kidd is chilling in a field one day with his girlfriend when the dark ninja Hanzo swoops in out of nowhere and abducts her. Alex despairs, but is soon visited by the spirit of a good ninja, who merges with him, giving him the power needed to save his girl and the world from Hanzo. Since when did Alex have a nameless girlfriend who looks exactly like him in a blonde wig? Why does he need a ghost ninja to teach him how to fight when being a martial arts master is his whole gimmick in games like Miracle World? Now you know why there are no answers to these questions.

Pressing start immediately plunges you into into a bright, bouncy take on the iconic opening stage of Shinobi. The music, the urban setting, the little chibi versions of the shirtless guys that toss boomerang swords at you, it’s all here. Well, not quite all of it. This is definitely a pared down take on the original’s gameplay. There are only eight levels and four bosses here versus Shinobi’s fourteen and five. There are also no child hostages to rescue, fewer weapons upgrades (Alex only has his sword and optional throwing knives), no shuriken chucking bonus game between rounds, and the various types of magic wielded by ninja Joe have been replaced with a simple pickup that turns Alex into a deadly tornado for a brief period when collected.

In addition to broadly simplifying play, Shinobi World throttles back the series’ notoriously fierce difficulty. Alex begins with a reasonable three-hit health bar that can be increased to a hefty six via the hearts scattered liberally about the stages. If he’s already at full health, every heart he collects becomes an extra life! He doesn’t need to fear falling into pits and the like, either, as these only re-route him along alternate subterranean paths instead of killing him outright. Continues are limited in order to prevent the game from devolving into a total cakewalk, but it’s still drastically easier than anything else bearing the Shinobi name.

All these changes are in line with the goal of crafting a lighter, more forgiving experience for new players. To their credit, however, Shinobi World’s creators weren’t content just softening and streamlining an established design. They took a stab at incorporating some brand new game mechanics not seen in other Shinobi or Alex Kidd games, albeit to mixed results. Alex can grab onto specific bits of the scenery and then twirl around in place before letting go and being transformed into an invincible flying fireball that can smash through bricks. He can also rebound off walls and skip across the surface of water. Cool, right? Sure, if by “cool,” you mean “woefully underutilized.” None of Alex’s special movement skills are required to progress. At most, they’re useful for reaching the occasional out-of-the-way item box. It’s a pity the designers didn’t commit to some real platforming challenges based on these abilities.

That squandered potential aside, there’s still a lot to like about Shinobi World. It controls well. The artwork and animation are brimming with color and personality. The music is fine, considering the limitations of the Master System’s crude PSG sound chip. Best of all, it nails its desired tone, being both a spoof of and tribute to the first Shinobi. For example, the red-armored samurai boss codenamed Lobster appears in Shinobi World as an actual lobster, complete with hot buttery death animation. The first level boss Kabuto is a hybrid of Shinobi’s Ken-oh and Nintendo’s own Super Mario! Pre-release builds of the game went all out and dubbed him Mari-oh. I guess that name proved a touch too spicy for Sega’s legal department in the end.

How good is Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, really? I reckon that depends in part on how you categorize it. As a Shinobi installment, it can’t hope to stand to-to-toe with its big brothers. It’s simply too short and basic for that. Practiced players are also likely to find its challenge insufficient. They’ll giggle at a few of the jokes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, it’s bloody brilliant by Alex Kidd standards! It’s not uncommon for fans to tout this as the much maligned monkey’s finest hour, surpassing even Miracle World. A cruel irony in light of his status as a last minute addition. Put me down smack dab in the middle. Shinobi World is my idea of a perfectly alright 8-bit platformer; a brief, vaguely pleasant afternoon’s diversion. It didn’t blow my mind. It didn’t offend my sensibilities. It just stole in quietly and left without a fuss. Kind of like…a ninja.

Huh. Nice one, Alex. Have a banana.

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

I’ve covered several noteworthy clone games over the years, going so far as to label some of them (Master of Darkness, Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest) particularly shameless copycats. Being brazen is one thing, but Sega’s 1991 Master System release Golden Axe Warrior is the first such game I’ve encountered that takes things a step further. Its makers were seemingly so intent on proving anything Nintendo could do, they could do better that their work reads as downright defiant. The way Sega painstakingly duplicates even the most peripheral elements of The Legend of Zelda here has all the earmarks of a rebel stance.

Now, I realize that throwing around loaded terms like “clone” and “copycat” can raise some red flags. Just to be clear, I’m don’t believe that a lack of originality is some sort of mortal design sin. Innovation is praiseworthy as a general thing, sure, but I’m here for a good time and Golden Axe Warrior is a decently fun take on the Zelda formula. I can even find it in my heart to cut Sega some slack in light of their circumstances at the time. Nintendo had spent the better part of the past decade leading up to this game’s release using every dirty trick and strong-arm tactic in the book to push third party game developers and retailers away from the Sega brand. This resulted in the Master System being all but frozen out of the two biggest game markets in the world at time: North America and Japan. I’d have a golden axe to grind under such conditions, too.

Most classic gaming devotees will rightly surmise that Golden Axe Warrior is based on the Golden Axe series of fantasy beat-’em-ups that started in the arcades back in 1989. The basic scenario presented here is overall quite faithful to the first arcade game’s: The wicked giant Death Adder has overrun the land. You assume control of (and name) a young hero orphaned by Death Adder on a quest to vanquish the tyrant. Oddly, while all three iconic protagonists from the arcade title make brief cameos in Golden Axe Warrior, none of them are playable.

So, how exactly does Golden Axe Warrior mirror Zelda? You have the overhead view, of course. The flip-screen scrolling. Similar sword and shield-based combat. A health meter represented by tiny red hearts. A sprawling overworld dotted with trees and rock formations, many of which conceal cave entrances. Nine magic crystals that must be gathered from nine separate underground dungeons filled with locked doors and simple puzzles before you can enter the tenth and final dungeon to face Death Adder himself. Upgrades within each dungeon that allow you do things like illuminate dark areas and travel over water. Did I miss anything? Yup! Golden Axe Warrior actually goes so far as to knock off specific oddball Zelda enemies. It includes its own take on the tube-shaped Like Like critters that gobble up your character and steal his items, for example. Hell, even the money making game and those obnoxious door repair jerks make appearances! I never thought I’d see the day a Zelda-inspired game would bother porting over the friggin’ door repair guy, but here we are. It’s this whole added layer of unnecessary copying that makes me think Sega was hoisting a big virtual middle finger at their arch-rivals.

Again, I’m not trying to imply that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t worthy of your time. It handles the majority of these familiar elements with grace and even exceeds Zelda itself on a couple fronts. It looks much nicer for one thing, owing to the Master System’s superior color capabilities. The world building and storytelling are also much improved. Hyrule, as presented in the first Legend of Zelda, came off much more like trackless wilderness than a proper kingdom. The lands you visit in Golden Axe Warrior are dotted with actual settlements and the NPCs dwelling in them generally have more copious and useful dialogue to dispense than their NES counterparts. A few towns you’ll discover will be ruined and strewn with corpses; a rather elegant way to reinforce the threat of Death Adder and his minions.

Slick as the majority of Golden Axe Warrior is, the combat constitutes a major stumbling block in my book. While the swordplay is superficially very similar to Zelda’s, the devil is in the details. Your weapons all seem to have a shorter reach than Link’s sword and they also cause less pushback to enemies. Consequently, I found it much more of a pain to get close enough to deal my damage without taking any in return. This is exacerbated by the fact that your ranged attack options are limited to magic spells and you can’t really afford to waste your limited magic power on cannon fodder baddies when it’s your only means of opening many locked doors and secret passages. The fighting in Golden Axe Warrior was mostly just an annoyance for me. The precise spacing and timing required is simply way too finicky for a game in this style. Either more sword range or some extra projectile weapons like the boomerang, bow, and wand from Zelda would have smoothed things out significantly.

Once you do eventually adapt to this exacting combat, Golden Axe Warrior reveals itself to be one of the more accomplished Master System releases of its kind. I’ll certainly take it over Compile’s Golvellius any day. At the same time, though, it could have been so much more. Its developers placed such a high premium on replicating Nintendo’s seminal effort that they essentially forgot to make a Golden Axe game! Virtually none of the memorable scenes or mechanics from the beloved beat-’em-ups are represented here. Imagine if you could play as Ax Battler, Tyris Flare, or Gilius Thunderhead instead of some blank slate nobody. Perhaps you’d be able to switch between all three heroes as needed to make use of their unique weapons and spells. What about getting to kick ass mounted on some of the fantastic beasts you can saddle up and ride in the arcade? Even booting around those weird little gnome thief dudes to refill your health and magic would have been something. An adventure game that made a bona fide attempt to hybridize Golden Axe and Zelda could have been a real knockout entry in the genre with a far more wide-reaching legacy.

Alas, poor Golden Axe Warrior. Scion of a proud line, it got so carried away trying to beat the enemy at their own game that it lost its very identity in the process.

Master of Darkness (Master System)

Another bloodsucker bites the dust!

Picture this: It’s 1992 and the Castlevania series is already a well-loved action gaming mainstay, with six successful installments released for the NES, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy in as many years. The only problem? You’re Sega and Castlevania developer Konami won’t touch your Game Gear handheld system with a ten-foot enchanted whip due to being locked into a restrictive (and dubiously legal) exclusivity deal with Nintendo. What do you do? You make your own Castlevania…with blackjack and hookers!

Well, almost. There’s technically no blackjack in Master of Darkness, but since the game is set in 1890s London and references the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, the hookers are at least strongly implied. I’m playing the 1993 European Master System port here, since I don’t own a Game Gear. These consoles share very similar hardware and most sources agree that the two versions of Master of Darkness are largely identical, apart from the smaller field of view in the portable version. Also known as In the Wake of the Vampire and Vampire: Master of Darkness in Japan and North America, respectively, the game was developed by SIMS, who also delivered competent Master System takes on Ninja Gaiden and Disney’s Aladdin. So far, so good.

Our hero for this outing is one Dr. Ferdinand Social, psychologist and early Ouija board adopter. He’s just kicking back and channeling the spirits of the dead one night (as you do) when the board issues a dire warning: “Killer…vampire…go to Thames…caution…in the wake of…D R A C U L A.” Not being one to question his parlor games, Social grabs his trusty knife and heads to the waterfront to begin his hunt for the Ripper. Right out the gate here, I’m struck by the fact that not only did Sega produce an undeniable Castlevania clone, they even elected to retain Dracula as the main villain! That points to either a complete lack of creatively or some great big brass balls. I’m going to be charitable here and assume the latter.

Although I kid, the opening cut scene really does do a fine job of selling the eerie atmosphere and Victorian setting, with the moving Ouija planchet and animated blood dripping from the vampire’s fangs being particularly nice touches. Master of Darkness makes excellent use of the Master System’s expanded color palette (relative to the NES) and is a great looking 8-bit game generally. I immediately took a liking to Dr. Social as a protagonist. Not only does he have a pretty sweet name, he resembles Austin Powers with his shaggy haircut and powder blue suit. Groovy, baby! The music is also high quality and suits the mood, though the melodies themselves aren’t all that memorable and perhaps loop a bit too often due to the game’s penchant for lengthy stages.

Regrettably, a pleasing presentation is really all Master of Darkness brings to the table. In terms of overall design, it’s as pure a knock-off as they come. Social fights exactly the sorts of zombies, skeletons, bats, and hopping hunchbacks you’d expect him to, all leading up to a climactic battle against a teleporting, fireball chucking version of the Count. He collects some very familiar feeling sub-weapons by attacking the floating objects that dot almost every screen (masks here instead of candles, at least). He smashes trick walls to find healing items. He visits a clock tower, where he leaps around on giant swinging pendulums. And you just know he climbs a ton of stairs. So many stairs. All games take inspiration from what came before, but Master of Darkness rivals The Krion Conquest with the sheer scope and shamelessness of its borrowing. It’s practically a tracing of a Castlevania game. The only Belmont-ish thing the good doctor doesn’t attempt is wielding a whip. Instead, he starts out with a nearly useless pocket knife that he can (and should) swap out for a sword, cane, or axe. Each of these offers either more reach, more power, or both and all are viable options. For some sick reason, however, the designers seem to delight in hiding at least one copy of the puny default pocket knife in every stage, often in spots where it’s very easy to grab it by accident as you’re going about your monster slaying business. Rude.

Still, a copy of a great game still has the potential to play great, right? Isn’t that what really matters? Sure. It’s just a pity that Master of Darkness doesn’t duplicate the expert level design or thrilling challenge of Konami’s offerings. It’s as if SIMS managed to capture the broad strokes while omitting the fine details that draw everything together into a pleasing whole. Take Dr. Social’s ungodly durability, for example. He may look the part of the frail academic, but he soaks up punishment like the Terminator. Social has an eight unit health bar and most enemies take off less than a full unit on contact. That’s sixteen hits or so right off the bat, between 2-4 times as many as Castlevania typically allows for. Healing items are also far more common in Master of Darkness, so much so that it often seems there’s a handy potion served up to you after every couple of screens. This obviously makes combat a cinch and the logical thing to do in this case would have been to focus on making the platforming aspect of the game more intricate and risky to compensate, right? Apparently not. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and made legitimate stage hazards like bottomless pits quite scarce. We end up with what feels like an invincible hero numbly hacking his way through a series of thoroughly safe (albeit spooky) locales on the way to his inevitable victory.

It’s not so much that every game should be so demanding that it makes you want to tear your hair out. More that single-handedly challenging the Prince of Darkness and his armies of the night should feel at least a little daunting. Not once during my playthrough did I get the impression that the odds were against me. No, I actually felt sorry for Dracula! That chump did not know who he was messing with when he pissed off Dr. Ferdinand Social. I died a few times due to botched jumps, but always managed to rack up enough extra lives to keep me going all the way to the end. I actually had to restart the game after finishing it and kill off Dr. Social on purpose just to see if it even offered continues (it does, unlimited ones). Master of Darkness is a game that lot of players are going to complete in a single short session without having to try much and that would have been a bummer for anyone that payed full price for it back when it came out. Hell, it remains a potential bummer for anyone paying the prices it still commands today.

Master of Darkness is by no means an unpleasant time. It’s plenty stylish and it controls just fine. There’s simply no dynamic tension here. It’s a walk in the park. Or a stroll along the Thames, I suppose. A sequel really had the potential to tighten things up and add a sense of urgency to the proceedings while also breaking away from the source material more to establish its own identity. Unfortunately for Dr. Social, growing discontent in the game developer community led to the rapid deterioration of Nintendo’s once ironclad exclusivity policies as the 1990s wore on. Sega would get their first official Castlevania game in 1994 with Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, robbing Master of Darkness of its raison d’être and relegating it to obscure oddity status forevermore.

Stay tuned, boys and ghouls, for the chilling finale of my October gaming frightfest: A game so fearsome, so maligned, that its mere mention strikes terror into the hearts of man and monster alike. Also, uh…I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Or something. You get the idea.

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 which 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 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 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 who dispense clues or passwords, sassy old women who 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 who 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 progresses. 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 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. 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 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’s 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 the 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 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 dialogue, 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 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.

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 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 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 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 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 the 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 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 which 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 which 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 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 be 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 portions of South America and Europe, it was virtually invisible outside those far-flung territories. It’s a shame, as its graphics hardware was quite advanced for the time, capable of displaying significantly more colorful and detailed visuals 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, 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 widely popular 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 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 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 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 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!