Abadox (NES)

Another day, another big explosion to fly away from.

This time it’s courtesy of Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. It may not be a horror game, but at least it’s still really gross. This 1989 shooter comes to us from developer Natsume (before they struck gold with their Harvest Moon series of cutesy farming simulators) and publisher Milton Bradley.

Though mainly remembered today for its classic board games, defunct toy giant Milton Bradley played a small but interesting role in early video game history. Most notably, they released the Microvision in 1979. A full decade before the Game Boy, this black-and-white handheld system was the first of its class to play games on interchangeable cartridges. It did not sell well at all.

But I digress. Abadox has a bit of a mixed reputation among NES fans, mostly due to being seen as a shameless clone of Konami’s excellent Life Force. If you think I’m here now to defend it from these unjust charges, you’re way off. In fact, Abadox mirrors Life Force pretty shamelessly. Flying into a colossal planet-eating alien to save the galaxy? Check. Six stages that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling? Check. Climactic escape sequence after defeating the last boss where you have to weave between gaps in the walls at high speed? Check again. Even some of the background elements like the giant teeth that jut out of the walls at you in the first stage are taken straight from Life Force.

While there isn’t a lot about Abadox that’s original, it does have its strengths. It’s a solid shooter and the positively disgusting enemy designs and detailed sprites and backgrounds do a much better job conveying the premise of flying through the innards of a giant alien than Life Force ever did.

Here’s the setup: In the year 5012, the planet of Abadox is attacked and devoured by an alien menace known as Parasitis. The Abadox space fleet mounts an attack on Parasitis, but is wiped out. The sole survivor is Second Lieutenant Nazal, who was late to the battle thanks to spaceship engine trouble. To save the galaxy and avenge his fallen comrades, Nazal must don his armored spacesuit and attempt to fly inside Parasitis and destroy it from the inside. Oh, and also Princess Maria of Abadox was on board a hospital ship swallowed by the alien, so you need to rescue her, too. Thank goodness! I was running pretty low on motivation with that saving the entire universe angle, but now that there’s a total space babe involved, sign me up!

The game opens on the surface of Parasitis, and you even fly by the gore-soaked wreckage of your defeated space fleet on the background. On the way through this stage, you’ll pass by teeth and a super creepy animated tongue with deadly drool dripping onto it before reaching level two: The throat. This is the first of the vertical scrolling stages, but unlike in almost every other overhead shooter ever made, Abadox starts you off at the top of the screen and has you proceeding downward. While it’s handled well and reinforces the “diving into the belly of the beast” scenario, this downward progression is unfortunately the only unique twist to the gameplay found here.

The rest of the action consists of bog standard 8-bit shooter stuff. You start out slow and almost defenseless, with a puny “pea shooter” gun. Certain enemies will drop power-ups when defeated. These include speed boosts, weapon upgrades, rotating satellites that surround you and block enemy attacks, and a shield that lets you survive contact with a bullet or two. One touch from an enemy or wall will blow you up, which strips away all your power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint immediately after the last boss you defeated. Thankfully, each stage has a mid-boss halfway through, so once you beat it, you won’t get sent back all the way to the start of the level upon death. You’ve probably seen all this before. It’s Gradius 101.

Unlike a lot of shooters for the system, Abadox does provide unlimited continues, so you’ll never have to start over from the beginning of the game when you die unless you choose to. This makes it a good choice for those that really hate forced restarts, although it does come at a price: Some of the stage layouts and enemy placement can be claustrophobic and chaotic to a downright fiendish degree. If you thought building your strength back up after being sent back to a checkpoint in Gradius was hard, Abadox takes it to a whole other level. The game does technically give you the power-ups necessary to squeak by in these cases, but much memorization and messy trial and error will be needed to figure out the ideal path.

At least the end level bosses are all pretty easy once you do finally reach them. They tend to be stationary and fire only in fixed patterns that leave obvious safe spots in which you can park yourself while you blaze away at them. At least they look really icky and cool, just like the rest of the game. Ironically, the mid-bosses are much more fun and challenging to fight. They move around a lot more and their shots often track your position, forcing you to do the same.

Ultimately, Abadox is no classic. It brings all the typical space shooter stuff to the table and handles it adaquately, but the balancing could use some work. The unlimited lives thing seems more like a workaround than anything else, intended to cover for a lack of experience planning out stages and enemy patterns in a harmonious fashion. Even with limited credits, a well-balanced shooter is just more fun because you don’t need to get yourself blown up dozens of times before you figure out exactly how to limp to the next checkpoint. Abadox also suffers from some technical hiccups. There’s slowdown at times, which is to be expected, but the sprite flicker is more problematic. I was occasionally blown up for no apparent reason because the screen was so crowded with sprites that an enemy bullet glitched out and went invisible. That’s always a bummer.

The game’s real saving grace is its spectacularly grotesque pixel art. Strictly speaking, this might be the goriest game for the NES and it’s all very well-drawn. The fact that all the blood and guts belong to killer aliens and not any human characters is probably the only thing that got it past Nintendo of America’s notoriously strict content guidelines. The music (by Kiyohiro Sada of Contra fame) is also praiseworthy, but only to the degree that it’s present. Abadox’s soundtrack is extremely short for a 1989 release and three of the game’s six stages share the same background music.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly out of a space monster’s colon with a princess in tow…well, you’re one freaky individual. I guess you could try Abadox, though.

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Kabuki Quantum Fighter (NES)

I’ll do whatever you say, man. Just quit looking at me like that.

This little oddity is 1990’s Kabuki Quantum Fighter. If you’re looking for a game that combines gameplay and visual elements from a good half-dozen of the greatest NES action platformers with one of the most forehead-slappingly stupid plots ever conceived, then you’ve come to the right place, my friend. Welcome.

The year is 2056 and some unknown party has inserted a super advanced virus into the world’s computer network. All conventional efforts to halt its spread have failed and it’s only a matter of time before the unknown invader gains control of the systems controlling all of earth’s nuclear weapons, dooming everyone. The last hope of humanity is 25 year-old badass soldier/computer expert Colonel Scott O’Connor. A colonel at 25? What is this, the Civil War?

Anyway, Scott volunteers to be hooked into an untested machine that will translate his mind into binary machine code so that he can battle the virus on its own turf. Nobody is sure whether the device will work or what form Scott might take in the computer world.

So far, you’re probably thinking that this just sounds like normal science fiction stuff. Sort of a cross between Tron and The Terminator. Well, as it turns out, our all-American soldier boy Scott’s disembodied mind coalesces into the virtual form of…a superhero kabuki dancer. That whips enemies to death with his waist length crimson hair and tosses computer chips like throwing stars. Supposedly, this is because his great grandfather was the famous kabuki Danjuro (O’Connor?) and the computer somehow keyed in on this.

It’s just so beautiful. Words can’t express how much I love this game’s mad storyline. The fact that it’s all played totally straight, with support characters glaring intently at computer monitors while the threat of imminent nuclear armageddon looms overhead, just renders it even funnier somehow. I’m not sure how much of this (if any) was intentional, but this is a game from Human Entertainment, makers of Monster Party and the Clock Tower series, so who the hell knows.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering if the story makes more sense in the original Japanese, the answer is “not particularly.” The game was originally called Jigoku Gokuraku Maru and was a very loose tie-in to the 1990 samurai fantasy adventure film Zipang. Instead of Scott O’Connor, the protagonist is a teenager named Bobby Yano and he takes on super kabuki form due to being a distant descendent of Jigoku, the hero of the film. Other than that, it’s just about equally crazy.

Once you start the game proper, Batman will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. The color palette and the designs and proportions of the character sprites are very similar to Sunsoft’s take on the Caped Crusader. Beyond the visuals, Kabuki Quantum Fighter’s subweapon system also mirrors Batman’s. Scott has a selection of projectile weapons that he can utilize in addition to his primary hair whip attack. You cycle between these using the select button and they all consume varying amounts of ammunition (“chips”) from a shared pool. One last similarity is in the nature of the platforming itself. Most of the challenge involves grabbing onto the underside of ledges and platforms scattered throughout each level and then deftly vaulting off of them to progress, similar to how Batman’s platforming was built around wall jumping.

Next, you’ll likely notice the Ninja Gaiden and Contra elements. Stage backgrounds feature giant beating hearts, pulsating lengths of intestinal tract, writhing deformed faces, alien fetuses, the whole H. R. Giger back catalog. Enemies are no picnic, either. You have detached heads shooting fire from their exposed brains, weird dog-frog hybrid critters, and more. While representing the computer virus you’re fighting with this kind of gruesome techno-horror imagery is rather cool, it’s also quite derivative of Capcom and Tecmo’s work.

Each boss you defeat earns you a new weapon to use? Mega Man. The whip-like reach and windup delay on your main attack? Castlevania. Notice enough of these similarities and you might start to think that Kabuki Quantum Fighter doesn’t bring anything new at all to the mix. In fact, there’s a couple little twists to the formula that I really like. For starters, your health and ammunition aren’t automatically refilled completely between levels. You do get some back, but if you just barely defeated the boss of the last stage with a tiny sliver of health left, you can look forward to starting the next one with 50% health at most. This means that precision really matters. The fewer mistakes you make in a given stage, the more you’ll be able to make in the subsequent, more challenging one. It’s a great way to reward mastery.

You also have the interesting ability to exchange health for ammunition (and vice-versa) when the game is paused. This only works during boss battles, but it can be a true lifesaver if you happen to find yourself sitting on a big stockpile of chips but down to your last bit of health. If there’s another action game that uses a similar mechanic, I’m not aware of it.

Despite this, though, Kabuki Quantum Fighter just isn’t a very original game. I am 100% okay with that, because when it’s running on all cylinders, it provides some of the best pure platforming moments on the system. There may be only five levels here, but each one is a gem. What this game really amounts to is a series of intricate obstacle courses where you’re vaulting from outcropping to outcropping through a gauntlet of hazards, including enemies, spikes, slippery ice, rushing water, treadmills, and a strict time limit. The controls are so precise and the flow of the game so smooth that you just naturally fall into a Zen-like groove as you get a feel for each level. Even when you have plenty of time, it still feels so good to keep up that forward momentum as you flip and climb all over the scenery on your way to the next boss. It’s all about that flow.

The bosses themselves are another highlight. They’re all completely distinct from one another and very exciting to fight, with relatively complex attack patterns for a game of this type and vintage. The plant monster from level three and the spider robot from level four are definitely highlights. Beating these guys, especially without using your special weapons, is extremely satisfying.

The graphics and animation are excellent overall. I already praised the bio-mechanical horror art style and humanoid characters like Scott himself and several of the bosses animate beautifully for an NES game. The music is interesting, although it might be more interesting than memorable in the end. It’s very experimental, with sharp, mechanical percussion over oddly-arranged blips and beeps. It’s suitably up-tempo for the action on screen and fits with the whole computer horror theme of the game, but you probably won’t still be humming it after you switch the console off.

If I have any complaints about Kabuki Quantum Fighter, they mainly come down to the length of the game. Five levels, even if they are five of the best, can’t help but leave me wanting more. The combination of poor sales on release and Human Entertainment’s eventual bankruptcy in 2000 pretty much guarantee that our favorite Irish-American cyberkabuki won’t be making his promised comeback. Kabuki Quantum Fighter may be doomed to permanent obscurity, but it’s still one hell of a sweet, trippy ride for the lucky few who find their way to it.

With October almost upon us, I somehow don’t think we’ve heard the last from the ghost of weird old Human Entertainment. Stay tuned to find out exactly why you never run with scissors….

Strider (NES)

Keep on stridin’.

I’m on vacation in the magical land of poutine and polite people at the moment. Being me, I just had to pack along at least one game. Since I just finished up Strider for the Genesis, I thought I’d go with the NES Strider game that I mentioned in passing in that review.

NES Strider came out the same year as the arcade game, but it’s not a port like the Genesis version. This is a completely different game developed simultaneously by a separate team at Capcom. A smart choice when you consider just how badly compromised a straight attempt at a port for the 8-bit console would have been.

Instead of the arcade’s non-stop linear action, NES owners got a more restrained side-scrolling action platformer with some very light exploration and RPG elements. Strider plus Metroid sounds like a dream come true. If only it were so.

We begin the adventure with everyone’s favorite ninja of the future Hiryū being contacted by Matic, vice-director of the Striders. Hilariously, the game’s intro describes the Striders as “the toughest group of people who execute acts such as infiltration, abduction, explosion, instigation, etc.” Matic informs Hiryū that their comrade Kain has been captured by the enemy and that Hiryū must assassinate him, as he’s now become a liability. Hiryū can’t bring himself to kill his old friend and vows to find and rescue him instead.

Right away, this highlights one major difference between the arcade and NES Striders: There’s a story beyond “go kill this evil wizard guy.” Sure, it may be a terrible story filled with unclear motivation, nonexistent characterization, and dialog courtesy of a tornado striking a fortune cookie factory, but it sure does exist! Supposedly, it’s based pretty closely on the original Strider manga series from 1988, though I can’t help but assume that it must have been handled a lot better there. Still, other games of the time with similar structures like Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II kept their plots confined to instruction manuals, so I do give Strider credit for trying at least.

The gameplay involves Hiryū visiting various parts of the globe searching for clues to the true nature of the threat to the Striders: A mysterious secret project called “ZAIN.” Along the way, he’ll also acquire keys and other special items that will allow him to backtrack and explore previously inaccessable parts of earlier levels. Different levels are accessed via the Blue Dragon, a rather cool looking spaceship that serves as a central hub of sorts.

Gameplay is sound in theory. One button jumps, one attacks. Hiryū also gains additional abilities by leveling up as he reaches inportant points in the story. These include a ground slide and a “plasma arrow” projectile attack that’s slow to charge up but vital for defeating certain bosses. Leveling up will also increase maximum health and the energy points needed to use what the game calls “tricks.” These work a lot like the magic spells in Zelda II and can be used to heal damage, boost jump height, warp back to the Blue Dragon instantly, and unleash different supplementary attacks. The extra attacks are kind of neat sometimes, but I mostly found myself saving my energy for healing and warping.

While Strider does have a solid structure on paper, it stumbles badly in its execution. Jumping controls and hit detection are quite shockingly bad, especially considering that this was the developer that gave us Mega Man. Hiryū’s jumps are jerky and prone to being halted abruptly by the mere proximity of a wall or platform. There are no bottomless instant death pits to stumble into, thankfully, but expect to have your patience seriously tested by the need to retrace your steps through the same section of a level over and over just to take repeated shots at what would be an incredibly basic jump in any other game.

It doesn’t help that the enemies and stages don’t stand out that much, either. You’ll rarely face more than one or two baddies at a time and they’re generally unimpressive and easy to dispatch, although they can still get in their share of shots due to the odd hit detection. If you’re even in the same postal code as an enemy bullet, kiss your health points goodbye.

A couple stages are decent. I liked Egypt, which features a nice (if all too short) segment on a moving train as well as action both atop and underneath a desert pyramid. Most levels, though, are generic and in no way resemble the real world locations they’re named for. Show anyone the Australia or Los Angeles stages from this game and see if they can guess what they’re supposed to be. I don’t fancy their chances.

Strider is also no winner in the graphics department. Most backgrounds are either a solid color or fairly plain. Sprites are not too bad but not very good either and sprite flicker is rife, despite the low enemy count. On the plus side, the introductory cut scene is marvelous and the character portraits are well drawn.

At least there’s the score by Harumi Fujita, the one element of Strider that’s unequivocally strong. The second you power on the system your ears are graced by one of the best title screen themes ever, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the session.

I found Strider for Genesis to be a good game that suffers mainly in the comparison to later top tier action platformers for the system, but NES Strider really is a whole other story. It’s honestly tough to recommend this one at all. The way the action is programmed feels sloppy, bordering on glitchy at times, the story is a mess, and the presentation is average at best, despite a really solid soundtrack.

It is a very inexpensive game, however, and makes for a quick playthrough due to being less mazelike and convoluted than some of the titles that inspired it. If you’re a fan of Strider Hiryū himself or of Metroid type games in general, you might find this one to be worth spending a few dollars and hours on.

I just wish the designers at Capcom had focused less on the act of explosion and more on the act of quality control.

Bionic Commando (NES)

How rude!

In 1985, Capcom released the original Commando into arcades. Known as Senjō no Ōkami (“Wolf of the Battlefield”) in Japan, this military-themed overhead run-and-gun title inspired a host of imitators over the years, such as SNK’s Ikari Warriors and Konami’s Jackal. Commando cast the player as “Super Joe” Gibson, a tough-as-nails soldier tasked with taking down an entire enemy army all by himself. Why? Because video games.

Later, in 1987, Capcom released another arcade title called Top Secret. With its side-view perspective and focus on using the nameless main character’s bionic grapple arm to swing and climb around the game’s levels, Top Secret seemingly had little in common with Commando apart from a general military action theme. When Top Secret made it to North America later that year, however, it had been retitled Bionic Commando and the lead character was rechristened as the latest incarnation of Super Joe.

These changes must have struck a chord with someone at the Capcom home office, because Top Secret’s own 1988 sequel for the Famicom would keep with the Commando continuity. Called Hittorā no Fukkatsu: Toppu Shīkuretto (“Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret”) in Japan, we here in the West also know it as Bionic Commando, despite being a sequel to the arcade game and not a direct conversion.

Whoa, wait. Hitler? In a Nintendo game? They didn’t even allow drinking or bare-breasted statuary in NES games but Der Fuhrer gets a pass? Well, not quite. By the time Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret made it through the localization process, the Nazis had become Badds and their leader Master-D. Swastikas and other Nazi symbols were removed, but nobody was fooled once they got a good look at “Master-D’s” mug. You’d know that moustache anywhere. So if you want an NES game where you get to blow up Hitler, and you know you do, Bionic Commando is your ticket.

According to the manual, our story takes place in the year 198X. An evil group called the Empire and their leader Generalissimo Killt are attempting to complete an unfinished Badd superweapon, codenamed “Albatros.” Only one man, Master-D, knew the full details of Albatros, so the Empire is working frantically to bring him back from the dead. The good guys, identified as the Federation, send good old Super Joe in to find out the details on the Albatros protect and shut it down. Unfortunately, Super Joe is captured by the enemy. Now it’s all up to Captain Nathan “Rad” Spencer to save Super Joe, put a stop to Albatros, and defeat the Empire once and for all.

Rad (also called Ladd due to inconsistent Japanese-English translation) is this game’s titular Bionic Commando. In addition to his cool shades and spikey ginger anime hair, our boy Rad relies on his extendable grapple arm to get around levels, just like in the arcade game. In fact, he can’t jump at all! The novelty of a platforming game with no jumping was, and still is, Bionic Commando’s main claim to fame. It could have easily been clunky and frustrating, but the finely-tuned, responsive controls and smart level design make swinging around the game’s stages some of the most fun you can have with any title in the genre. The sense of momentum and sheer badass factor of connecting a perfect series of grapples across a large portion of a stage is downright intoxicating. That the developers pulled something this different off so well in 1988, just three years after Super Mario Bros. set the standard for regular jumping-based platformers, is a real testament to how much great talent Capcom had on deck at the time.

The first impression that a new player might have of Bionic Commando is that it’s really, really hard. Not being able to jump takes getting used to, you die in one hit, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to continue once you’ve lost all your lives. The game is really quite forgiving, but it’s not immediately apparent how. First off, picking up the bullets that defeated enemies drop will eventually increase your character’s level and allow you to take up to eight additional hits before dying. Continues can be acquired by playing the short Commando style overhead combat sequences that start whenever you intercept an enemy convoy on the map screen. Some enemies in these sections will drop medals that award one continue each when defeated. Since these sections are very short, very easy, and endlessly repeatable, you can very quickly gather all the continues you need. The first order of business in Bionic Commando, then, is to get yourself a least a few extra health points and some continues. After that, you’re golden. It will still take you time to master all the tricky platforming with your bionic arm, but at least you’ll have all the tries you need to do it and won’t have to worry about having to start the whole adventure over.

The game is divided into twelve main levels that you can navigate between on a map screen, not unlike the one in Super Mario Bros. 3. In addition to these and to the roving enemy convoys mentioned above, there are also a number of “neutral zone” areas that you can visit to make contact with allies and acquire new items. Just be sure not to fire your gun in a neutral zone or you’ll be mobbed by respawning enemies non-stop until you leave the area. There’s a bit of non-linearity in how you can approach the main stages, though some require a specific item from another stage to complete. One example is the cavern level, which is pitch black unless you use the flares to illuminate the area. You can still play and finish this stage before you acquire the flares, but you’ll have a pretty rough time of it. When in doubt, just tackle the stages in numeric order and you’ll be fine.

The twelve main levels themselves are all wonderful. Each one is visually unique and ups the ante in terms of platforming, constantly requiring you to expand and refine your technique with the bionic arm until you’ve completely mastered it. Midway through each level is a communications room where you can call up your allies for help and information and even use wiretapping to eavesdrop on the enemy. These rooms also serve as checkpoints in case you die. The only lacking elements in most stages are the boss encounters. Each level except the last ends with you having to destroy a stationary machine core guarded by a boss enemy, but none of these guys are very threatening. In fact, you don’t even need to kill them at all and it’s often much quicker and easier to ignore the boss entirely and just unload your gun into the core, since once it goes boom, you’re on to the next stage. Weak.

Beating a level will usually net you a new piece of equipment and you can collect even more gear in the neutral zones. There are four special guns to find in addition to your starting one, defensive gear to stop bullets and restore health, miscellaneous items like the flares and iron boots, and more. You can only carry one item from each category into a given stage, but you’re given the opportunity to tweak your loadout at the start of each one. This ability to customize your equipment is pretty cool, although the guns are rather poorly balanced. Once you get access to the rocket launcher early on, you’ll never want to use anything else, since it can kill almost anything in the game (including bosses!) in one or two shots. A bit of a missed opportunity there.

Bionic Commando looks fairly good. It’s not the prettiest game around, but the character portraits in the dialog scenes and Rad’s silky smooth swinging animation are highlights. The music is by Junko Tamiya, who also scored Street Fighter 2010 and Little Nemo: The Dream Master. She may well be the NES’ most underrated composer and doesn’t disappoint one bit here. The songs are brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the gravity of being on a life or death mission deep behind enemy lines.

Bionic Commando might have a gleefully butchered translation/localization, some underwhelming bosses, and weapon balance issues, but it remains one of the all-time great action-platformers on the NES and a legitimate “must play” title. Gradually getting better and better at maneuvering around these brilliantly designed levels with your bionic arm really does feel that good. It’s a triumph of pure play control when just moving your character around the screen is this rich and satisfying. That you’re also on your way to blow up Hitler’s head the whole time is just the icing on the cake. Like, really gross icing. With bone fragments and stuff.

Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (NES)

It about time.

Inspired by the fact that next month marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, I finally decided to put this one to bed. Iron Mike was going down. By TKO at 1:51 in the third round, as it turned out. Not perfect, but I’ll take it.

The history of this game has been told and re-told so many times by this point that yet another rehashing has the potential to just be tedious, so I promise keep it short. Short for me, anyway. The Punch-Out!! series started life in the arcades in 1983. Lead designer Genyo Takeda and character designer Shigeru Miyamoto created a whole new type of boxing video game, wholly different from what had come before. Punch Out!! eschewed any sort of realistic simulation elements and instead played more like an early puzzle or rhythm game. From a fixed point in the ring, the player had to learn and react to each opponent’s unique pattern of attacks and deliver precisely-timed counter punches in order to succeed. The player’s green haired character was rendered using a transparent wire-frame style that was very impressive for the time and allowed the player an unobstructed view of the opponent so that they would have all the visual cues necessary to react to each attack. The enemy fighters themselves were presented as larger-than-life cartoon characters (literally, in the case of some particularly hulking specimens) and tended to be based on exaggerated national stereotypes, like the Italian boxer Pizza Pasta and the Canadian lumberjack Bear Hugger.

Punch-Out!!’s innovative mechanics and stellar visuals made it a hit, and it was followed by an arcade sequel, Super Punch-Out!!, the following year.

The decision to create a version of Punch-Out!! for Nintendo’s home console that incorporated characters and gameplay elements from both arcade titles was made well before Mike Tyson was involved. In fact, an edition of the game with Super Macho Man serving as the final boss instead actually received a limited release in Japan in September of 1987. The course of gaming history changed when Nintendo’s president, Minoru Arakawa, attended a Tyson match and became so enamored of the young heavyweight’s “power and skill” that he made the unorthodox but retrospectively brilliant decision to add him into the finished game at the very last minute in order to increase sales. The resulting contract was a steal for Nintendo, as Tyson was not yet the heavyweight champion at that time: A measly $50,000 for three full years of selling the game with the boxer’s likeness. One month after the rare Tyson-less “gold cartridge” edition hit Japan, North America received the version we all know and love.

Fundamentally, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! is not all that different from the arcade games that came before. There is one major difference, though. Since a transparent player character was beyond the technical capabilities of the NES, the new hero Little Mac was created instead. This puny but plucky teenager from New York is ridiculously tiny compared to his opponents. This not only allowed for the enemy to be clearly visible from the waist up at all times, but it also made the player feel like a real underdog that had to embody Mac’s can-do spirit on every trip to the ring in order to succeed. It’s a great example of a game made better by clever reckoning with hardware limitations.

Mac is tasked with winning fourteen increasingly difficult matches in order to overthrow Mike Tyson and claim the WVBA (World Video Boxing Association) title for himself. These fights are divided into three “circuits” (Minor, Major, and World) and completing each circuit will reward you with a password that can be used to continue your game from that point in the future.

Matches take place from an over-the-shoulder perspective and consist of up to three rounds of three minutes length each (although the in-game timer runs fast, so each round actually takes up closer to two minutes of real time). Mac can win by TKO if he knocks an opponent out three times in a single round, by KO if a downed opponent fails to stand back up before the referee (Mario!) counts to ten, or by decision if he’s reached a certain score by the end of the final round.

Mac’s standard arsenal is fairly robust, considering the simplicity of the NES controller. The A and B buttons control his right and left hands, respectively, and he can deal both high and low punches when these are combined with the directional pad. His right deals slightly more damage, but his left comes out just a little faster, which can make all the difference when split-second timing is needed. He can also avoid attacks in three different ways using the directional pad: Blocking, ducking, and dodging to either side.

Each opponent, starting out with the feeble Frenchman Glass Joe and ending with Tyson himself, has their own unique set of attacks and particular patterns in which they’re used. They also have various visual tells that can clue the player in on when to attack and when to dodge. Piston Honda wiggles his eyebrows, the jewel in Great Tiger’s turban flashes, Mike Tyson blinks one eye before throwing a hook from that side, and so on. Keying in on these tells can give you the time you need to get out of harm’s way before launching your own counterattack. Each opponent also has specific short windows of time in which you can interrupt their patterns with a quick hit if you’re fast enough. Doing so will earn you a star and each star can be used to perform a devastating uppercut attack for huge damage.

These mechanics, coupled with the brilliantly absurd character designs, elevate Punch-Out!! above and beyond what a realistic simulation of the sport of boxing could have achieved with the technology of the time and the result is a timeless series of tense, dynamic, and downright unforgettable encounters. Each fight is a puzzle to be studied, analyzed, and, eventually, solved to tremendous satisfaction. From exposing King Hippo’s weak point, to defending against Great Tiger’s magic punches, to stopping Bald Bull’s charge, Punch-Out!! is one iconic gaming moment after another from start to finish.

The overall experience is aided greatly by the graphics, which feature gigantic character sprites for an NES game. This was made possible through the addition of a custom MMC2 (“memory management controller”) chip to the cartridge. This co-processor allowed for larger animated characters than the basic console hardware could display on its own. Beyond the visceral wow factor of huge combatants that took up half the screen, there was also a ton of personality packed into each fighter. Granted, a lot of it is very corny, like the flamboyant Spanish fighter Don Flamenco who dances his way into the ring clenching a rose in his teeth and the drunk Russian (Vodka Drunkenski, who had his name changed to Soda Popinski for the NES release), but this level of detail was not at all common at the time. Opponents would even trash talk you from their corners between rounds; Piston Honda promising to give you “a TKO from Tokyo,” for example.

For all its refined gameplay and lovable characters, though, Punch-Out!! does have one flaw that stands out in my mind: It can sometimes be a bit too mysterious for its own good. I outlined above the different ways in which you can win fights: TKO, KO, and decision. However, some opponents are immune to one or more of these win conditions and the game never gets around to telling you so. For a fighter like Mr. Sandman that can’t be beaten by decision, the player may not pick up on this at all, simply assuming that their failure to do so is based on having not scored enough points by the end of the fight. Even when a win by decision is possible, the game doesn’t actually tell you the number of points required. Want to beat Great Tiger with a KO? You could try all day, but it’s completely impossible. Again, there’s no clue in the game itself or even the manual that this is so. Even such things as how much health an opponent regains after getting up from a knockout or whether they get up at all are based on hidden variables that vary from fight to fight, such as Little Mac’s remaining health. Because of all these hidden mechanics, the outcomes of knockdowns and split decisions can seem completely random to a player who hasn’t completed years of careful firsthand observation of the game or studied an online guide written by those who have. Can you still beat the game without knowing every “under the hood” detail of how your victories are accomplished? Sure. It still seems needlessly cryptic to me, though.

On the whole, though, Punch-Out!! deserves every bit of the adulation it receives. It’s an essential title for the NES, the quintessential “sports game for people who hate sports games,” and its crowning achievement is the Mike Tyson fight itself.

When I think of challenging NES games, I don’t often think about fighting boss characters. Instead, it’s the brutal meatgrinder stages that you have to survive on your way to the boss that cause me the most stress. Especially early in the system’s life, when jumping over Bowser and touching the little glowing axe thingy on the other side of the bridge in Super Mario Bros. was about as complex as things got. You’d hear people bragging about rescuing Princess Toadstool, but not about beating Bowser. You didn’t beat Punch-Out!!, though, you beat Mike Tyson. His was the most complex and intimidating enemy encounter in any console game up to that time and an important landmark in the ongoing development of the “boss fight” across video gaming as a whole. To stand a chance, you needed consistent split-second reaction time coupled with the ability to suss out punching patterns that were completely different from round to round. Capping it all off was the fact that the real life Tyson was an international phenomenon around the time of the game’s release, a seemingly unstoppable engine of destruction in the ring and likely the most recognizable figure to emerge from the world of boxing since the heyday of Muhammad Ali. He may be have fully transitioned from puncher to punchline these days, but to anyone who remembers the tail end of the 1980s, stepping into the ring with Kid Dynamite is somehow still scarier than facing down Dracula or Dr. Wily, as silly as that sounds.

Of course, that three year contract eventually would expire. By the time it did, the once-invincible Tyson had already lost his title to James “Buster” Douglas and Nintendo didn’t pursue a renewal. Even if they had, Tyson’s revolting 1992 conviction for rape would have certainly put an end to his relationship with the Big N for good. One way or another, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was never meant to last. This is why every re-release of Punch-Out!! since 1990 has featured Tyson’s infinitely blander Caucasian doppelganger Mr. Dream instead. KOing Mr. Dream is still a worthy gaming accomplishment, no doubt, but it will never be the real deal.

With or without Mike Tyson, Punch-Out!! is still as great right now as it ever was. Join the Nintendo Fun Club today, Mac!

The Goonies II (NES)

The Goonies ‘r’ good enough for the NES…barely.

Most everyone who was a kid at the time would agree that 1985’s The Goonies is a pretty great movie. It combined slick production design, a classic adventure storyline about hidden pirate treasure that would make Robert Louis Stevenson proud, and that rarest of things: An ensemble cast of child actors that didn’t suck. And Sloth. Sloth is the man. Considering that I just recently got back from a vacation to Astoria, Oregon where I toured the shooting locations and even went out to the Cannon Beach overlook with a replica of the doubloon coin from the film to reenact one of the scenes…well, I guess you could say I’m a fan.

So when Konami released their game The Goonies II in 1987, I was all over it. Unlike a lot of others who played this one back when it came out, I wasn’t confused by the name. Many thought that the game was supposed to be based on an upcoming sequel to the movie, but I had actually played Konami’s earlier Goonies game in arcades before, and the resemblance between the two is unmistakable. These days, the existence of this original Goonies game for the Famicom and its limited arcade release in North America is common knowledge, but it was easy enough to overlook at the time. Of course, Konami had also released a third Goonies game for the MSX computer system in Japan, so I guess we should be thankful that they didn’t call this one The Goonies III and really mess with our heads.

Coming off The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, I was primed for more games that combined action with exploration and secret hunting. Goonies II fit the bill, and I spent countless hours bombing and hammering every nook and cranny of the Fratellis’ hideout looking for hidden passages and items.

That’s why it’s really tough for me to overcome my nostalgic attachment to this game long enough to admit that it’s actually pretty bad.

This time, the Fratellis (the family of crooks that pursued our heroes in the movie) are back and they’ve kidnapped all your fellow Goonies as well as Annie! Who’s Annie? The mermaid, of course. You remember her, right? Yeah, even before you’ve made it past the title screen, you’ve already been given your first hint of how downright weird this game can be. Brace yourself, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Starting up the game, things seem fairly promising. A nifty chiptune version of the beloved “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” song by Cyndi Lauper kicks in and you find yourself controlling Mikey Walsh in traditional side-scrolling platformer style. Your task is to explore the Fratellis’ maze-like hideout and rescue all six of your missing Goonie pals plus the inexplicable Annie. Everything looks and sounds decent by 1987 standards, Mikey controls pretty well, and his main weapon, a yo-yo, is fun to use. These action scenes aren’t exactly great, but you’re probably having an okay time battling snakes, spiders, and the occasional gangster.

It’s only when you step inside one of the numerous doors scattered around the hideout that things start to go south fast. Surprise! Goonies II is also a first person point-and-click adventure game like Déjà Vu or Shadowgate! A really half-baked and boring one. Using a menu of basic commands, you can move between screens, punch walls to reveal hidden items, and use a small selection of tools that you find during your quest (a hammer to uncover secret doors, a candle to light up dark areas, and so on). This had the potential to be interesting stuff but, unlike in the similarly-structured games mentioned above, there are no true puzzles to solve, cool locations to see, or even entertaining text descriptions of your actions to read. Just the exact same plain square rooms, where you’ll be expected to robotically run down your list of commands trying each one before moving on. There’s nothing whatsoever challenging or stimulating to be found in these portions of the game. It’s just doing every possible action in a given room before moving on to the next. See a blank wall? Try the glasses. No result? Punch the wall. Still nothing? Try the hammer. Now do the exact same thing with every other wall in the game. Every. Other. Wall. Even when this repetitive and agonizingly slow process does actually result in finding a hidden passage or item, you don’t get the satisfaction of feeling clever or accomplished. What else were you going to do? Not hammer that wall?

You’ll occasionally meet with an NPC character in one of these rooms, and they’re simultaneously one of the best and worst things about Goonies II. The best because they’re usually utter weirdos spouting hilarious badly-translated gibberish and the worst because they almost never do or say anything useful. There’s a surprising number of generic old people, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an Eskimo, and a superhero called Konamiman (who starred in two Wai Wai World games on the Famicom), among others. At least Konamiman will heal you when you visit him, so he’s okay by me. The others will mostly do stuff like tell you that the room you’re currently in that warps you to another part of the map is a warp zone (really!?) or declare “It’s fun to play The Goonies 2!” Brilliant.

So the first person segments are a wretched slog, but even the platforming segments have issues that become apparent as you play on. For starters, there’s absolutely no challenge to be found. Oh, there are plenty of ways to die. Enemies, bottomless pits, lava, all that stuff. There’s simply no incentive not to die a lot, since you can instantly continue from the same screen you lost your last life on as many times as you want. You lose any expendable items like keys and bombs that you might be carrying, but these drop all the time from random enemies, so you’re constantly picking up more. Combine this with the fact that some of the late game foes can take a dozen or more yo-yo hits before they finally go down and you have a game where you’ll be sorely tempted to just plow right through enemies heedless of the damage sustained just to save time getting from point A to point B. Not exactly riveting stuff.

How about the fact that the map system is just plain bizarre? There’s actually two maps of the hideout, labeled as “front” and “back.” You transition between the two sides by passing through certain doors and reaching a given destination usually requires taking a specific series of doors, going back and forth between the two sides multiple times in the process. If all this sounds stupidly baffling and unintuitive in the abstract, I can assure that it’s just as bad in practice. I played Goonies II so damn much as a kid that I can still complete it without a map or a walkthrough by my side to this day, but unless you did the same, count on getting very lost very fast.

Did I mention there are no bosses? Because there aren’t. Not one.

And the last straw? The very worst thing of all? No Sloth.

Sigh. Despite it all, I still can’t make myself hate The Goonies II. It filled a void at a time when complex adventure style games were still few and far between on the NES. It’s got some great music and it’s very, very strange. It may even qualify as an influential title. I’ve always suspected that Mike Jones, the hero of Nintendo’s later StarTropics games, was inspired by Konami’s take on Mikey Walsh. The names, the red hair/blue shirt combo, the yo-yos. Both of them even hail from right here in the great Pacific Northwest. If it’s some of kind of coincidence, it’s a wild one.

Konami was doing a lot of experimenting with integrating RPG and adventure game elements into its platformers around this time. If you’re interested in what happened when they (mostly) succeeded at it, I’d say to check out Getsu Fūma Den. It’s pretty great. If you want a good Goonies game specifically, check out the original one for the Famicom. It has all the strengths of Goonies II’s action bits while also being much more accessible and challenging.

But The Goonies II? I feel like I’m babysitting, except I’m not getting paid.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master (NES)

Dang. I will never, ever be that perky first thing in the morning.

Little Nemo: The Dream Master, also known as Pajama Hīrō Nīmō (“Pajama Hero Nemo”) in Japan, is a 1990 NES platformer by Capcom with a most unusual origin. It’s based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by American cartoonist Windsor McCay. While largely forgotten by the public today, McCay’s comic was groundbreaking when it first hit newspapers all the way back in 1905. The strip chronicled the nocturnal adventures of a young boy named Nemo (modeled on McCay’s own son Robert) who traversed a bewildering array of surreal and colorful dreamscapes each night, all from the comfort of his bed. Each story invariably ended with Nemo waking up and often he would tumble out of bed and make a ruckus in the process, much to the frustration of his parents. The original Nemo comics ended in 1926, but McCay’s wildly imaginative artistic stylings would prove to be a major source of inspiration for future generations of cartoonists.

Why was a newspaper comic strip that had then been defunct for over sixty years chosen as the subject of an NES game? And by such a major player as Capcom, no less? As it turns out, Japan had just seen the long-delayed release of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an animated film adaptation of the comic strip. The movie was a U.S.-Japan co-production with an extremely long and troubled history. Work on the film started all the way back in the early 1980s and numerous scripts were commissioned and thrown out as the years passed. At some point or another, George Lucas, Chris Columbus, Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, Ray Bradbury, and Hayao Miyazaki were all attached to the project. Miyazaki later described the ordeal as the worst experience of his career. Ouch.

The film finally did come out and met with highly mixed reviews. The animation was considered quite lovely, but critics savaged the plot and characters. Audiences simply stayed away and the Nemo movie was considered to be a box office bomb, both on its initial 1989 release in Japan and its eventual U.S. release in 1992.

What did all this mean for the average kid playing this game back in 1990? In my case, not much! I’d never heard of the comic or the film (which wouldn’t even be out here for two years yet) and had no idea that this was a licensed game at all. I doubt I was alone.

It’s really a pity that this game’s subject matter is so obscure, because I consider Little Nemo: The Dream Master to be not only a great game, but also the very best of Capcom’s licensed platformers. Yes, that includes the Disney ones. Sorry, DuckTales.

The story of Little Nemo the game roughly follows that of the movie. One night in New York, circa 1905, Nemo is approached in his bedroom by emissaries of the kingdom of Slumberland and invited to come be the new playmate (insert your own filthy innuendo here) of its princess, Camille. At first reluctant to play with an icky girl, Nemo finally agrees after being bribed with candy and takes off on an enchanted airship bound for Slumberland, where he eventually discovers that not everything is as peaceful and idyllic as he’d been led to believe and only he can save the land from the fearsome Nightmare King.

Once you start playing, Little Nemo seems like a typical post-Mario platformer. Nemo can run, jump, crouch, and throw candy at enemies. The one thing he can’t do, though, is kill anything. Trying to jump on foes will result in damage and hitting them with candy will only stun them for a brief time. Quickly, though, you’ll discover the game’s central hook: Some enemies, when fed candy, can be tamed. This will allow Nemo to utilize that enemy’s special abilities, either by riding on their backs or by transforming himself into a new form resembling the enemy in question. Each tamable enemy has its own special movement abilities and attacks. For example, Nemo can climb up walls while riding on the lizard, climb trees and punch enemies while riding the gorilla, and fly and shoot stingers in hornet form. Many of the animals are also tougher than Nemo and can withstand more than the three hits that he can before dying. Finding the right enemy to commandeer at the right time is vital to acquiring all the hidden keys scattered throughout each level. These are needed to open the locked door at the end and progress in the game. This “hijacking enemy abilities” mechanic marks Little Nemo as a clear precursor to Kirby’s Adventure and also seems like it might have influenced the ghost possession ability that Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit would feature in 1991.

A few of the game’s eight stages give you something to do other than collect keys. The House of Toys is a hectic auto-scrolling stage where Nemo must dodge bombs, spikes, and dive-bombing miniature planes while riding on the top of a giant toy train. The final stage, Nightmare Land, changes up the core gameplay drastically by getting rid of the keys altogether and giving a Nemo a weapon and three tough bosses to fight with it.

I really can’t say enough good things about Little Nemo’s platforming action and level design. Controls are precise and responsive, the wide variety of different abilities and attacks are fun to use, and the stages themselves are all unique and inventive. The only potential annoyance is the constant enemy respawning. Like in many 8-bit platformers, leaving a screen and then returning will result in all defeated enemies reappearing in their original positions. If you’re already used to how this works in Ninja Gaiden and many other scrolling action games of the period, though, you might not find it all that objectionable. The game’s difficulty curve is quite smooth overall, but don’t let the cute characters fool you: None of these levels are easy enough to be flat-out dull and each is just a little bit trickier than the last, all building up to the very satisfying boss gauntlet in Nightmare Land.

All of this amazing gameplay is accompanied by some of the most striking and colorful visuals the NES has to offer. Nemo, his enemies, and Slumberland itself are all packed with no end of charm. I absolutely adore the character animation, particularly how Nemo and his animal friends seem to prance and bop along in time with the music as they make their way across the landscapes. And what landscapes they are! Mushroom forests, fields of giant flowers, an upside-down house, a ruined city in the clouds, and more. The soundtrack by Junko Tamiya is perfectly in synch with the game’s tone throughout. Most of the tracks are serene and, well, dreamy, befitting the whimsical scenarios unfolding on screen. They call to mind lullabies, circus tunes, and even chamber music. Once you get to Nightmare Land, though, the gloves come off and the score starts to rock, sounding a lot like Tamiya’s other work on the high octane Street Fighter 2010. Within the technical limitations of the console, the combined presentation just about perfectly conveys the sense of childlike wonder that characterized the old Nemo comics. Capcom really did know how to do the very best with what they had.

Revisiting Little Nemo after so long has only left me more impressed than ever. This really is a top tier platformer that can hold its own alongside Capcom’s best. It brings together sublime atmosphere, an abundance of gameplay variety, innovative mechanics, perfect controls, and masterful level design. A couple of the design elements, like the endlessly respawning enemies and the auto-scrolling train level, might not suit every player’s tastes, but there’s no aspect of Little Nemo that stands out as lazy or downright bad. Even the cut scenes and ending are above average for the time.

So remember, kids: Always accept gifts of candy from oddly-dressed strangers in exchange for being their “playmates.” An unforgettable time is guaranteed!