Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries (NES)

Where’s Christopher Bee when you need him?

What if your favorite games never had to end? This is the promise of ROM hacking. Taking a proven classic as a template, dedicated hobbyists of a technical bent are able to serve up an endless series of new challenges for the likes of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man. At their very best, these hacks are barely recognizable as variants of the games they’re based on, showcasing not just new level layouts, but new storylines, settings, items, enemies, and even soundtracks. At their worst, they’re some bored 12 year-old’s take on Super KKK Boner Bros. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be focusing on a competent effort this time.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s examine Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a 2007 hack of the original NES Castlevania by Optomon (Chris Lincoln) and Dr. Mario. Ever since I had the opportunity to try out an early version of an even more advanced Optomon Castlevania hack (The Holy Relics) at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I knew that I wanted to discuss his work at some point. Chorus of Mysteries is one of the best known and most ambitious of the many fan-made takes on the series’ inaugural release. For better or worse, almost everything about the base game has been tweaked in some significant way and the end result feels more like a true lost sequel than a level pack.

The hero of Chorus of Mysteries is not Simon Belmont, but Armund Danasty, a long-lost descendant of Grant Danasty, the acrobatic rogue who aided Trevor Belmont in his 1476 battle against Dracula. Chorus is set in 1800, three years after the events of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Armund, an orphan and a sailor by trade, has journeyed to the castle of Count Olrox, a vampire and associate of Dracula that Armund believes may hold clues to his own past. It should be noted that despite being a Danasty, there’s no Spiderman style wall climbing action to be found here. Armund still moves and controls exactly like Simon Belmont and his weapon (a barbed rope) handles exactly like Simon’s whip.

By the time the quick introductory cut scene of Armund arriving at the castle gate concludes, it’s clear that the art and music have received a complete overhaul. Before then, actually, as there’s also a new tune that plays over the normally silent title screen. The revamped (I had to drag that one out at least once) presentation is probably the hack’s most divisive element. The original Castlevania is not the darkest game out there, and I’m not referring to its creepy subject matter, but rather its color palette, which relies heavily on bright oranges, blues, and reds. Chorus uses a lot more stark black in its backgrounds and also elevates greens, purples, and grays to much more prominent roles. On one hand, seeing vivid purple and green elements highlighted against a pure black background occasionally lends the game a sort of “neon Castlevania” look that’s interesting in its own way. Just as often, however, the environments are simply a touch drab. For what it is, I enjoy the new art, particularly the detailed sprites.

The music is a tougher sell. Including an original soundtrack in a ROM hack at all represents a major effort of a kind I would never want to discourage as a general thing. This one, though? Apart from the fifth stage theme, which is a well-made 8-bit cover of “Dance of Pales” from Symphony of the Night, it just isn’t ear pleasing in the least. The unifying idea seems to have been to go all-in on a dainty, refined chamber music style, not unlike the one Michiru Yamane chose for “Dance of Pales” itself. Although not a terrible idea on paper, the original songs are shrill, far loop too frequently, and lack the driving percussion that underlies most great Castlevania music. If proper drum sounds are utilized anywhere in this soundtrack, I missed it. Even if I liked these tracks, they still wouldn’t be very appropriate for whipping monster ass to.

The good news is that the addictive gameplay is obviously the primary reason anyone seeks out Castlevania ROM hacks and it’s here that Chorus of Mysteries excels without qualification. The first of its six stages is patterned closely on the original game’s, but after you dispatch that familiar giant bat boss and move on to stage two, all bets are off. Be on the lookout for new level themes and layouts, new enemies to contend with, and even a new sub-weapon in the form of the laurel herb from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The laurel replaces the stopwatch and is considerably more useful. It retains its original function, conferring roughly ten seconds of complete invincibility to Armund on demand in exchange for a hefty eight hearts per activation. If you can manage to hold onto the laurel and a decent supply of hearts long enough to reach a stage boss, the ensuing “battle” is a joke.

Armed with anything except the laurel, though, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands. The stages in Chorus of Mysteries are only moderately difficult by ROM hack standards. That is to say, just slightly more intense than the ones from the back half of the original Castlevania. The new bosses are where the true horror lies. These guys all tend to be more mobile, more aggressive, and more eager to lob annoying projectiles at you than the game’s original stage guardians. If that wasn’t scary enough, the famous trick of using the holy water to freeze a boss in place while dealing constant damage no longer works in Chorus of Mysteries! At least you get the honor of being annihilated by some really cool baddies. Most of them are actually fan favorites from later Castlevania games faithfully re-created in the original’s engine. Being able to square off against a familiar foe from Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the Night on the NES really is a trip and the battles you have with them are as well-realized as they are brutal. My one real complaint is that the lengthiest and most challenging boss encounter is placed at the end of stage five. The final boss is no pushover, but you’ll have vanquished worse by the time you reach him.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries does have a handful of noteworthy flaws that prevent it from being any sort of true improvement on its source material. There are those questionable tunes, a slightly anticlimactic boss order, and an odd hit detection glitch that can sometimes make it tough to attack things with the weakest version of Armund’s whip-rope. Despite these hiccups, the fascinating new elements judiciously woven into a proven action-platforming formula make it a treat that any fan of the first Castlevania should have the opportunity to savor. Like all great hacks, this one rarely receives the attention and respect it deserves. This is tragically inevitable for the most part. These are unofficial modern games for ancient consoles with nothing resembling proper promotion behind them, after all. They’re not part of anyone’s nostalgic memories and playing them at all requires futzing around with emulators, flash cartridges, or reproductions. Realistically, most gamers aren’t going to bother. For the few of you out there that are so inclined, my hope is that this review can draw some much-needed attention to a truly worthy title. Chorus is not just a superb ROM hack, it’s a quality NES action game by any measure.

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Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings that fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so that they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that has recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements that defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers that hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level that players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads that appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level that contains no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes that appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell that some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish that all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

One side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above which some players may actually see as a positive is that Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form, so if you’re careful it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it that way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.

Mega Man 2 (NES)

Sweet ending! Too bad this is the last we’ll ever hear of this little blue robot boy. I rather liked the cut of his jib.

I never dreamed I’d find myself defending Mega Man 2. Why would I need to? It’s still the best-selling entry in the entire 100+ chapter series and widely hailed as not just one of the best games available for the NES, but one of the best ever made. It’s a pure triumph of the form, an unimpeachable masterpiece. Right? Look around online, though, you may well get the impression that any aspiring gaming hipster worth his artisanal beard wax is practically required to cite a Mega Man other than this one as the series high point. All the better if he can throw some shade Mega Man 2’s way for being “too easy” or “unbalanced” while he’s at it.

As it turns out, being the franchise’s golden boy has its dangers in a social media saturated world where everybody seems to be striving to deliver the next attention-getting hot take. Whatever it is you happen to love, there’s someone ready, willing, and able to explain to you in great detail how it’s both overhyped and overrated. Welcome to the future! No refunds.

Okay, okay. No more hyperbole from me. I know full well that not everyone who hesitates to kneel at the altar of Mega Man 2 is some cynical troll or vacuous poser stereotype. Even so, the pushback against it is very real and that’s what inspired me to give it another look. It’s been several years since my last playthrough, after all. Over that period, I’ve experienced a great many other games (including other Mega Man ones) for the first time. Looking at Mega Man 2 with fresh eyes here on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary, does it still hold up or do its detractors have stronger arguments than I anticipated?

What’s most amazing to me in hindsight is that there very nearly wasn’t a Mega Man 2 at all. Director Akira Kitamura and his team very much wanted to do a sequel, but the original hadn’t sold well enough for the producers at Capcom to approve any funding for such a project. They eventually agreed that they’d release the game only if Kitamura and company worked on it pro bono in their free time. Four months of twenty hour days later and Rockman 2: Dr. Wily no Nazo (“The Mystery of Dr. Wily”) was complete. Despite this insane and largely uncompensated workload, artist and character designer Keiji Inafune recalls it as the best time he spent with the company. No matter your opinion on the final result, it’s certainly remarkable that a team of around eight people working in their spare time were able to deliver one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time in a mere four months.

Like every other main series installment, Mega Man 2 centers on mad scientist Dr. Wily attempting to take over the world with an army of destructive robots. In response, his good counterpart Dr. Light dispatches his own creation, Mega Man, to put a stop to Wily’s schemes. Later sequels would often throw in bit of token misdirection at the onset meant to imply that Dr. Wily wasn’t the one responsible for the conflict that time around, but long-time fans know better. It’s always Wily. Apart from that, the first game’s ending really said it all: “Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace!”

The gameplay formula over the course of the series is as simple and dependable as the plots. The child-like Mega Man doesn’t seem like much at the outset, with just a basic arm cannon weapon available. He doesn’t stay this limited for long, however, as every time he defeats one of Wily’s lieutenants (which typically number eight in total and are dubbed “robot masters”), he permanently gains access to that robot master’s special weapon. Crucially, players are free to choose the order in which they take on the robot masters and their corresponding stages. This choice is more than just a minor novelty because each master has a crippling weakness to one specific special weapon. This means that players have a sort of ad hoc difficulty selection at their fingertips predicated on whether or not they choose to play through the stages in the optimal order dictated by the boss weakness chain or not. Once all the robot masters are defeated and Mega Man himself is fully powered-up, it’s a time for the climactic final assault on Wily’s stronghold.

Anyone that comes to Mega Man 2 after experiencing the first game will notice some striking differences right away. The art style itself remains very much the same, as it would in all six Mega Man NES releases and the much later, deliberately retro styled Mega Man 9 and 10. Even so, the doubling in cartridge memory allows for numerous enhancements to the overall presentation. These include a fancy intro sequence, detailed and frequently animated backgrounds that put the original’s solid color ones to shame, and the first appearance of the colorful map screens displayed between Wily fortress stages.

Beyond the purely cosmetic, Mega Man 2 introduces the now-standard compliment of eight robot masters in place of the original’s six, as well as a handy password feature that complements this added length. Its platforming mechanics have been tweaked, too. Mega Man feels a bit less slippery here and new physics have been implemented that affect how he controls in underwater sections. The stages themselves are more varied and complex, with many sporting elaborate hazards like the gauntlet of fatal laser beams that rapidly close in from off-screen in Quick Man’s lair. Mega Man 2 also marks the first appearance of fan favorite item the energy tank. These can be hard to come by, but allow for full health refills on demand, making them invaluable for tough boss fights. You know they have to be good when they have their own line of real world energy drinks named after them.

Of course, no discussion of the advancements Mega Man 2 brought to the series would be complete without a mention of Takashi Tateishi’s immortal score; a Murderers’ Row of funky, driving techno-rock earworms which some have collectively dubbed the greatest 8-bit soundtrack ever created. Is it? Quite possibly, after a fashion. For one thing, it’s remarkably consistent. Other favorite composers of mine like Naoki Kodaka, Junko Tamiya, and Tim Follin have certainly crafted equally superb tunes for the same hardware, but virtually every single beat and melody in Mega Man 2 is a beast. It really is all killer, no filler here. Another point in its favor would be that most of these other amazing chiptunes I alluded to above date from after 1988. Timing matters, and for an entire generation of NES kids, the ubiquitous Mega Man 2 was probably more likely than any other single title to be their first exposure to genuinely great video game music. In terms of quality, consistency, and impact on both gaming fans and the industry itself, it’s tough to point to any other soundtrack on the system that can outshine this one. Damn tough.

So far, what I’ve outlined is an all-around bigger, shinier, more complete take on an already groundbreaking action classic. What could there possibly be to complain about? Well, it all seems to boil down to three primarily factors: The lack of difficulty, the supposedly poor balancing of the robot master weapons, and the relative simplicity of Mega Man’s core move set when compared to some of the later series entries.

This is certainly not a particularly punishing game by the standards of the time period and genre. When compared to the first Mega Man, for example, Mega Man 2’s platforming hazards and boss encounters have been toned down significantly. This is true even before you factor in the presence of the new energy tank items and, in the international release, the addition of a new, easier difficulty mode (somewhat misleadingly termed “Normal”) accessible from the title screen.

Closely tied to the difficulty issue is the question of weapon balance. Mention Mega Man 2 to almost any current or former NES enthusiast and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the almighty Metal Blade. No other weapon in the series’ long history has made so strong an impression on players, for better or worse. It can be rapid fired in every direction, inflicts massive damage on almost all targets, pierces multiple enemies with a single shot, and has effectively unlimited ammunition. The rest of your arsenal just can’t compete. Metal Blade is essentially an additional easy mode on top of the already existing one in a game that really needed neither. Plus, how ironic is it that the ultimate destructive force in a world of futuristic laser-shooting sentient robots would be a hand-tossed circular saw blade straight out of Home Depot?

Finally, some fans of later Mega Man releases love to point out that the titular hero here lacks some default abilities present in those installments. Specifically, he can’t slide along the ground or hold down the fire button to charge his arm cannon for extra damage. With much of the stage design and enemy encounters in those sequels being designed around the new abilities, it can understandably be jarring to revisit Mega Man 2’s simpler movement and combat.

These are substantial, well-reasoned critiques to be sure and I wanted to do my best to acknowledge them in a fair and respectful manner. Having hopefully accomplished that, I’m now going to explain why none of them amount to much.

Yes, Mega Man 2 is easy, even on the so-called Difficult setting. That is to say, it’s easy for me as a die-hard that’s been playing these games since they debuted. I’m so steeped in 2D action-platforming at this point that there’s no Mega Man game I can’t waltz through in single play session if I buckle down and focus, not even one completely new to me. But is it reasonable for me to come down on Capcom for not designing this game around my skill set? Hardly. I can sleepwalk through Mega Man 2 now. Thirty years ago, not so much. Everyone has to start somewhere and Mega Man 2 is (and likely always will be) the ideal entry point to the series for players new to the character or to the genre in general. That’s a vitally important niche to fill, despite what some über hardcore types would have you believe. Besides, if the game really is too easy for you, this is where the modular nature of a Mega Man game’s difficulty can be put to best use. Try playing through the game without using energy tanks, or without the Metal Blade, or with only the default buster cannon, or even with limited lives. There’s likely more potential challenge lurking here than you might think.

How about the Metal Blade? Is it unbalanced? Potentially game-breaking, even? Hell, yeah, it is! Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on, though: Balance, in non-competitive gaming at least, isn’t necessarily all that important and can sometimes even be a detriment when it results in an generally unexciting assortment of options. Know what else isn’t at all balanced? The spread gun in Contra. Not to mention the sword (also known as the dagger or knife) in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. These are famously the only weapons you want in their respective games and are inseparable in the minds of gamers from the series that introduced them. In that respect, they’re legitimately iconic. People have the Contra spread gun icon hanging on their walls! This gambit doesn’t always pay off, naturally. I criticized the otherwise excellent NES Bionic Commando for having only one great gun. The difference is that nobody starts raving about how awesome the rocket launcher in Bionic Commando was the second the game comes up in conversation. It’s overpowered, but not unforgettably so. The Metal Blade, like the spread gun, is both. It’s the definitive special weapon of the series and Mega Man 2 is more memorable, indeed better for its inclusion. Oh, and using it is completely optional. Almost forgot that bit.

The preference for the slide and charge shot maneuvers is understandable, as these mechanics can be a lot of fun in the games in which they’re present. That said, there’s also a certain elegant simplicity to Mega Man in his original “jump and shoot man” form, particularly for those same new players I mentioned above. In any case, the fact that this game wasn’t designed with these abilities in mind obviously means that they’re in no way necessary to tackle the challenges here and their absence detracts not one bit from enjoying what’s present. In a game built around them, they’re fine. In Mega Man 2, they’re frankly neither here nor there.

Whew! Enough apologetics, already! Look, whether or not this is the best Mega Man game ever made is ultimately down to the individual player. With virtually every main line entry being a world class action-platformer in its own right, there just aren’t many wrong opinions to go around. What I do maintain is that Mega Man 2 is the greatest Mega Man game ever made, both from an artistic standpoint (befitting its status as a passion project) and in terms of the sheer magnitude of its influence on the hobby. The original was laden with potential, if also rough around the edges. As the first fully-fledged entry in the franchise, Mega Man 2 is pure promise fulfilled; a landmark release that can never be truly replicated. The remainder of the series is fundamentally iterative. If Mega Man 1 is the video game equivalent of John Glenn orbiting the earth, Mega Man 2 is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon: One small step for a (Mega) Man, one giant leap for gamerkind. The later titles? Well, they’re more along the lines of Alan Shepard golfing on the moon: Still remarkable achievements and well worth your attention, but you can’t convince me the same degree of magic is still present.

So, while the whole “everlasting peace” thing may not have panned-out, Mega Man 2 has achieved something almost as impressive: Everlasting relevance.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (NES)

Unfortunately for Phoebe Cates fans, there would be no Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the NES.

I fell in love with director Joe Dante’s Gremlins back when it came out in 1984. I read the storybooks, fiended for the sugary breakfast cereal (that I can still sing you the commercial jingle for), and, of course, played the mediocre Atari 2600 game. Who doesn’t enjoy this deranged mishmash of holiday movie, family comedy, and creature feature? Small town loser Billy Peltzer recieves a fuzzy little critter called a mogwai for Christmas. His new pet, Gizmo, comes with some strange stipulations. Most importantly, he can’t get it wet and must never feed it after midnight. Seeing as it is a movie and plot needs to happen, it’s not long before every rule is broken, resulting in a hoard of green, scaly monsters overrunning the town.

Gremlins had a profound influence on me. More than any other single film, it nudged me toward a lifelong fascination with horror. It may have only been rated PG, but so were Jaws and Poltergeist. Standards for this sort of thing were very different before the MPAA introduced the controversial PG-13 rating later that same year, largely in direct response to parental complaints about movies like Gremlins.

Six long years later, Dante made Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a drastically different sequel that few were asking for and fewer still appreciated. This time, Billy and Gizmo must contain a gremlin outbreak in a New York City skyscraper owned by an eccentric billionaire. The horror elements were gone entirely, replaced with amped-up slapstick comedy reminiscent of a Zucker Brothers production. While the first Gremlins had its silly side, a sequel where Hulk Hogan appears as himself to break the fourth wall by yelling at the projectionist’s booth is just not scary. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. These days, Gremlins 2 is often cited as a cult classic and, while it’s not an important film to me personally like the original, I can certainly appreciate it for the ridiculous live action cartoon it is.

Which brings me at last to this little-appreciated 1990 NES adaptation by Sunsoft. Gremlins 2 follows it’s source material fairly closely by placing players in the metaphoric shoes of Gizmo himself as he battles his monstrous kin over nine action-platforming levels inside Clamp Center. What sets Gremlins 2 apart from most other platformers of the era is that the action is depicted from an overhead perspective rather than the more typical side-scrolling viewpoint.

Right away, that may set off some alarm bells. Pinpoint jumping through sprawling obstacle courses packed with pits, moving platforms, conveyor belts, and electrified spikes…from an overhead view? Gizmo’s pathetic starting weapons, tiny thrown tomatoes of all things, also don’t inspire much confidence in the new player. Fortunately, the team at Sunsoft made a series of smart choices that keep the experience fair and fun. Most crucially, there are no instant kill hazards in the game. Even falling into a pit will only cost Gizmo a portion of his health bar. He also starts out with a balloon item in his inventory that will automatically negate one pitfall completely. More balloons (as well as health refills, extra lives, and weapon power-ups) can be obtained by visiting the shops in each stage. Confusingly, these are operated by Gizmo’s former owner Mr. Wing, who’s supposed to be deceased at this point in the story. Oh, well. At least he’s helpful for a dead guy.

The jumping mechanics themselves are tailored to be as forgiving as possible. Momentum is never needed to make any jump in the game, as Gizmo covers the exact same distance in the air when leaping from a standstill as he does with a running start. Because of this, it’s often best to simply jump in place and then use the directional pad to steer Gizmo to his landing site. It isn’t necessarily intuitive to anyone accustomed to Super Mario style physics, but it does come in handy once you get used to it.

You’re not stuck hucking tomatoes for long, either. Gizmo receives regular attack upgrades every few stages, usually after defeating a big boss gremlin. The equally innocuous seeming matches, paper clips, and pencils all turn out to be formidable weapons in the hands of your fearless mogwai ninja.

Finally, Gremlins 2 includes unlimited continues and a password system. The result of all this is a great example of the “tough, but fair” design philosophy in action. Making it through some of the lengthier stages on a single health bar is no joke, yet the player is always given the tools needed to make it as long as they don’t throw in the towel. Many other Sunsoft games on the system (Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, Fester’s Quest) are much less generous and impose stiff penalties for failure, so anyone who isn’t a fan of those efforts will be glad that Gremlins 2 takes its cues from their less harsh NES version of Batman instead.

On top of these gameplay basics, Gremlins 2 looks and sounds superb. Gizmo and the variety of evil gremlins he goes up against are all recognizable from the source material. The same goes for the locations you’ll visit, such as the spooky set of Grandpa Fred’s House of Horrors. There’s even a handful of cut scenes thrown in that recreate key moments from the film. These are beautifully drawn and animated, although they’re also worldless and far too disjointed to tell a coherent version of the movie’s story on their own.

Naoki Kodaka’s famous “Sunsoft sound” makes a welcome appearance here. His NES soundtracks are celebrated for their funky melodies and liberal use of sampled bass notes to produce a much richer, more full-bodied sound than we typically hear out of the hardware. After reviewing four other Kodaka NES scores in the last year or so, I’m running out of ways to say they rule. I will add that the insane slap bass breakdown in Gremlins 2’s stage three theme is totally unprecedented on the system and really demands to be heard by chiptune enthusiasts.

The bottom line is that this is not just the rare old movie license game that’s worth a damn, it’s also a unique and inventive action-platformer on a system overflowing with them. True, it makes for a short, relatively simple playthrough. So do Sunsoft’s better-known Batman and Journey to Silius, however, and Gremlins 2 is easily their equal. Like the movie that inspired it, it’s currently enjoying a well-deserved second life with modern audiences after going overlooked and underappreciated in its day.

Whatever you do, though, never, ever play it after midnight.

Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest that includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible that Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes that render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses that will reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.

 

Gun.Smoke (NES)

What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes.

The year is 1849 and the remote Gold Rush town of Hicksville (yes, really) is straining under the yoke of the Wingates, a heartless band of desperados intent on taking the beleaguered miners for all they’re worth. Until their savior rides into town with the sun as his back, that is. He’s the fearless bounty hunter Billy Bob and he’s determined to liberate Hicksville the only way he knows how: By doing his very best impression of a spaceship.

Yes, Capcom’s 1985 arcade game Gun.Smoke was a vertical scrolling shooter. One of the first to see the player controlling something other than a spacecraft or military vehicle. The strange period in the title was presumably intended to appease the lawyers over at CBS Television. Their Gunsmoke series was a mainstay of American pop culture for the duration of its staggering twenty year run. In fact, its former record of 635 scripted episodes was only just recently surpassed by The Simpsons. It may not look like much, but that little dot apparently did the trick.

The game’s Wild West trappings were fundamentally skin-deep. Replace the dusty streets of Hicksville with an ocean or a starfield and the human players with airplanes or robots and the action would remain fully coherent. Its ace in the hole was the impeccable polish that Capcom built its arcade reputation on. The art and music did such a stellar job of drawing players in that it was hard to hold some familiar mechanics against it. Play centered on the mastery of three dedicated fire buttons that allowed Billy Bob to fire to his left, right, or straight ahead as needed as he strode through a total of ten stages collecting power-ups and administering lead poisoning to a small army of Wingate flunkies.

Predictably, some compromises were necessary when Gun.Smoke was ported to the NES in 1988. The graphics took the inevitable hit and the firing controls were simplified for a two-button controller, with both buttons now needing to be pressed simultaneously to fire straight ahead. A slightly awkward maneuver, to be sure. Most crucially, the number of stages was cut down to six.

Not every change was for the worse, however. The arcade Gun.Smoke was a ruthlessly difficult game; a true quarter muncher. Things are much more reasonable here, with fewer, less aggressive enemy characters and more options for dealing with them. NES Gun.Smoke isn’t really an easy game by most standards, but it’s a far cry from the unapologetic savagery of the original.

We also have some new music by chiptune virtuoso Junko Tamiya. As usual, her work is elegantly tailored to the game’s setting and action. Like the militaristic staccato percussion of Bionic Commando and the dainty music box melodies of Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Gun.Smoke’s twangy strings meld seamlessly with its pulp Western landscapes.

I particularly appreciate what they’ve done with the scoring system in the NES version. I’m a sucker for games where something as typically abstract as the player’s score is re-framed as a tangible resource of some kind. Here, as Billy Bob is a bounty hunter, the points he earns from blowing away baddies take the form of dollars that can be spent at shops run by friendly NPC characters in each stage. This introduces a high stakes “risk versus reward” dynamic to the game, since players serious about racking up high scores will be hesitant to utilize the shops at all. On the other hand, those that just want to maximize their chances for survival can trade a chunks of score in for more powerful weapons like the shotgun and magnum, defensive items like the horse and smart bomb, and even the elusive wanted posters.

What use is a wanted poster? Oddly enough, you’re required to either find or buy one in every stage. If you don’t, the boss won’t show his face and the terrain will instead loop endlessly. This is the most commonly criticized change to the arcade game’s formula and seems to have been intended as a way to lengthen the overall experience by adding a scavenger hunt element. Assuming you’re not willing to surrender large sums of points for them, the posters must be uncovered by repeatedly shooting at a specific, seemingly empty portion of each stage’s background. The only clue that you’ve stumbled on the correct spot is the unusual sound that your bullets make when striking the invisible poster. On the plus side, you can exploit this mechanic if you like by deliberately looping some of the easier early levels in order to rack up tons of points, gear, and extra lives.

One thing I take unequivocal issue with is the lack of a built-on autofire feature for Billy Bob’s standard pistols. Having to tap for every bullet is a big no-no in any shooter. You can purchase a machine gun from the shops that will remedy this, but it’s is a temporary solution most of the time, as any special weapon equipped is lost upon death. The fact that you’ll automatically lose your horse at the end of a stage comes off as an equally inconsiderate design choice. You’re potentially able to keep the rest of your power-ups between stages, so why not your faithful mount?

Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that the NES Gun.Smoke sacrifices breadth for depth. The loss of four entire levels is certainly felt, but the introduction of an in-game economy and an arsenal of new weapons renders the six that remain more fun to plow through than ever before. The wanted poster system adds still more to do, though I’m divided on whether it’s rewarding or just plain busywork. Actually finding a hidden poster is indeed satisfying. Less so the preceding period of wandering around in circles. Individual temperament will be the deciding factor there, I suppose.

Personally, I prefer this version of the game over the arcade original by a great margin. The reigned-in difficulty strikes a better balance between excitement and frustration and the presentation gains more from the addition of the new music than it loses with the dip in graphical detail. It stands tall in the pantheon of simple, well-crafted NES action staples, right alongside titles like Contra and Jackal. Perfect to pull down off the shelf anytime you’re feeling the urge for a quick burst of steely-eyed gunslinging against the nastiest bandits, rustlers, and ninja that 19th century California can muster.

Huh? Well, of course there were ninja in the Old West. The place was practically swarming with them. It’s not like video games would just lie to me, you know. Yeesh.