Final Fantasy (NES)

Christmas 1990 was my season of Final Fantasy. Enix’s Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) had served as my introduction to turn-based RPGs the year before and I was chomping at the bit for more of that same monster bashing, treasure hunting, level grinding fun. Nintendo Power magazine had been pushing the game like nobody’s business over the lead-up to the holidays, going so far as to make their October issue a dedicated 80-page strategy guide. I suppose they were still banking on RPGs blossoming into a national craze here the way they had in Japan. Sorry, guys. Between my own recent gaming experiences and this unrelenting press hype, I couldn’t shut up about Final Fantasy. There was no doubt in my mind it’d be waiting for me under the tree, although that might just be because I made it a point to discover where the presents were secreted away beforehand so I could check.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. In any case, it’s tough to blame me. Square’s little Dragon Quest killer that could represented a major leap forward for Famicom RPGs when it debuted in Japan in December of 1987 and that impression carried over to its eventual American release. To understand why, it’s useful to compare it to its most prominent Japanese competitor, Dragon Quest II. Not only did the much flashier Final Fantasy clean up in the graphics department, its RPG mechanics were exponentially deeper. Dragon Quest II’s party of three predefined characters was child’s play next to Final Fantasy’s four member team built from the player’s choice of six distinct character classes. Combat also received a shot in the arm. Dragon Quest’s static first-person view was replaced by a revolutionary battle screen that showcased both the monsters and animated versions of the player’s party. Even the methods used to navigate Final Fantasy’s sprawling world felt like a step up. Both games give the party a sailing ship for ocean voyages, but Final Fantasy threw in a canoe for rivers and that almighty franchise staple, the Airship. In short, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team really threw down the gauntlet with this one. Final Fantasy is a bold, swaggering title that’s better than the first two Dragon Quests combined and knows it. In retrospect, it had “flagship” written all over it and it’s no wonder Square swiftly abandoned its eclectic roots to become a highly focused purveyor of RPGs thereafter.

What does one actually do in Final Fantasy? Well, in terms of story and overall gameplay structure, it’s an archetypal late ’80s console RPG. Four heroes known as the Light Warriors are prophesied to appear when the world is in peril, each bearing a darkened orb representing one of the elements. Their mission is to restore light to these orbs by defeating the four Fiends, an alliance of evil magical beings responsible for turning said elements against humanity. This is accomplished via the usual mix of open-ended wilderness exploration and dungeon delving fetch quests, during which thousands of randomly appearing monsters will be slaughtered for their precious gold and experience points.

Like virtually all other RPGs of its era, Final Fantasy lacks the extensive characterization and constantly evolving plot lines that would become synonymous with the genre in the decades to come. NPCs express themselves with the most concise of declarations and none of the Light Warriors are given a single line of dialog. It’s a basic “save the world” errand with no elaboration furnished or required. The primary reason anyone would want to experience it, then and now, is the wealth of meaningful choices baked into in its core mechanics.

The main attraction is that character class system I mentioned. I can’t say enough good things about the six options on offer here. Three of them (the Fighter, Black Belt, and Thief) are primarily physical combatants, two (the Black and White Mages) are useful only for spellcasting, and one (the Red Mage) attempts to split the difference. Within these broad categories, care was taken to ensure every class shines in its own way. The Fighter, for example, is a rock. He can use any weapon or armor and is a steady, reliable source of melee damage throughout the game. The Black Belt, on the other hand, starts incredibly weak and the few items of equipment he can use only tend to make him weaker. By the late game, however, the Black Belt’s bare hands will drastically out-damage the Fighter’s best weapons. The Red Mage works much the same, except in reverse. His combination of magic with decent weapons and armor makes him the strongest class by far early on, yet he ultimately can’t keep pace with all the high-end spells and gear of his more focused counterparts. On top of all this, some classes can gain all new abilities partway through the game as part of an optional quest. This system of trade-offs makes Final Fantasy exceptionally replayable. Want to try an all physical or all magical team? Go for it! Four White Mages? You’re insane, but the game won’t stop you!

Another facet of Final Fantasy I enjoy is the combat. This is mainly due to one very controversial quirk of the battle system: Specific enemy targeting. Unlike in most turn-based RPGs, you don’t target whole enemy formations with your characters’ physical attacks, only single baddies. This feature is often perceived as a flaw or annoyance, since if two Light Warriors are going after the same monster and the first one kills it, the second hero’s strike will whiff for lack of a valid target. Most later revisions of the game remove this penalty in favor of a more forgiving automatic re-targeting. That’s a pity, as I think the older method is great. It forces you to plan each and every turn carefully in order to avoid wasting valuable moves. You need to consider the average damage output of your characters, the hit point totals and defenses of their opponents, etc. All these mandatory mental calculations are a perfect antidote to the mindless “mash the attack button to win” default of many other RPGs. If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider the classic NES version of Final Fantasy over its many remakes, this more involved and challenging take on combat is it.

On the flip side, the best argument for those remakes is the ludicrously buggy nature of the original. Final Fantasy shipped with an extremely ambitious magic system for the time and most of it either doesn’t function as intended or doesn’t function at all. The intelligence statistic is supposed to govern the strength of spells. In reality, it’s meaningless and this greatly hampers the effectiveness of late game attack magic. Some spells, such as TMPR, SABR, and LOCK, do nothing. LOK2 has the opposite of its intended effect, making the foe you cast it on harder to hit rather than easier. There’s also a whole cycle of enchanted swords meant to deal increased damage to particular enemy types. None of this bonus damage was actually implemented, resulting in a bunch of mediocre “non-magic magic” weapons you’re better off simply selling. I’m only scratching the surface here, believe it or not. While not quite game breaking, this avalanche of cumulative programming blunders serves as an unfortunate beginner’s trap for anyone not already well-versed in playing around them. If you have the ability to run patched game ROMs from a flash cartridge or in an emulator, do consider loading up AstralEsper’s Final Fantasy Restored or a similar fan-produced bug fix.

Looking past its bare bones narrative and litany of baffling bugs, I’m still in love with the first Final Fantasy. I love its timeless Nobuo Uematsu score, highlights of which were destined to be reverently repackaged into every subsequent series entry. I love its eldritch and intimidating Dungeons & Dragons-inspired monster designs by master illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Above all, I love its anything goes class system. Case in point: Halfway through writing this review, I got the urge to see how a group of two Black Belts and two Red Mages would fare. Just like that, I’ve started my next playthrough! So here’s to my first thirty years with Final Fantasy. Maybe I’ll finally be bored of it when 2050 rolls around. I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, though.

Mega Man 6 (NES)

Is it just me or does Wily look like he might be enjoying that? Awkward.

Mega Man 6 made its Japanese debut in November of 1993, a mere month before the franchise’s shiny new spinoff, Mega Man X, hit the Super Famicom. We North Americans didn’t get a crack at it until March of 1994, two months after our version of X. Talk about late to the party! Seemingly content with being yet another slight twist on the formula established by the first two NES Mega Man entries, it was destined for a minute fraction of the critical acclaim and commercial success its more innovative 16-bit cousin enjoyed. It’s long been regarded as the one of the most redundant of Mega Man’s many sequels. Even more so than the fourth and fifth games, if that’s possible.

Like all the main line titles after the fourth, I missed out on this one back around the time of its release. That’s a shame, because while I do understand the audience burnout six highly similar games in seven years can engender, I had a blast with Mega Man 6. It’s an improvement on the lackluster 5 in virtually every way and at times comes close to rivaling 2 and 4, my personal favorites of the NES hexalogy.

The evil Dr. Wily is back and he’s brought another eight robot masters for you to take down and gain new weaponry from. There is some pretext of a new story, of course: A fellow named Mr. X who runs an international robot fighting tournament has seized control of its contestants in a bid to take over the world. Oh, and he just happens to look exactly like Wily wearing shades and a vampire cape. This setup is so transparent and hokey that I honestly can’t tell if the developers didn’t give a damn anymore or if they were aiming for self-parody. I suppose I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter.

Flimsy as the Mr. X conceit is, it does allow for some interesting new boss and level theming. Each robot master is associated with a particular region of the world this time. Knight Man calls a European castle home, for example, and Blizzard Man hails from snowy Canada. A couple of these characterizations are less than flattering. Ersatz Native American Tomahawk Man comes to mind. Regardless, his Wild West stage (complete with dramatic sunset and six-shooter packing cowboy bots) is a memorable one. My favorite of the bunch in terms of visual design is Centaur Man, the first non-humanoid robot master.

Not only are these bosses a striking lot, the special weapons Mega Man earns from them are quite useful. Although they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by this point, they cover the usual bases well. You have the rotating shield, costly full screen attack, ascending and descending shots to compliment the straight ahead Mega Buster, etc. They’re relatively balanced this time, too. You won’t find anything as overwhelming as Mega Man 2’s Metal Blade here, but neither will you be forced to make due with hot garbage like Mega Man 5’s Charge Kick or Power Stone.

Beat the bird also makes his return. As before, you’ll need to collect an assortment of letter icons (four this time) in order to unlock him. Finding these letters requires the odd measure of locating hidden alternate routes to the robot masters’ rooms and defeating them there rather than in their regular digs. Unfortunately, Beat has been greatly toned-down from the cutesy superweapon he was in the last game, so this involved process isn’t ultimately worth it in my book. One hidden gadget you will want to acquire is the Energy Balancer. Found in a well hidden room, this sucker automatically distributes weapon energy pickups to inactive items in your inventory, ensuring you never waste an ammo drop again. Truly a godsend.

Equipment-wise, however, the real MVPs are the two Rush Adaptors. As their name implies, these are a new take on Mega Man’s helpful canine companion, Rush. Instead of manifesting as various helpful utility items like the Rush Jet or Rush Coil, he now merges directly with Mega Man’s body, resulting in two additional forms for our hero with their own innate advantages. The Power Adaptor adds a chargeable punch attack that deals heavy damage and can smash through some walls to reveal goodies and pathways. Better still is the spectacular Jet Adaptor, which allows Mega Man to fly at will, albeit for no more than a few seconds at a time. Minor as that sounds, this added freedom of movement totally alters the feel of the game. Once I gained access to it via defeating Plant Man, I never wanted to take it off. No wonder it features so prominently in the game’s cover art!

As I said, this one really surprised me. I was fully expecting it to come across as tired and perfunctory as Mega Man 5 did. What I actually got was one of the more creative takes on the classic series. It’s certainly not perfect. The plot is daft and veterans may well find it a tad too easy for it own good. It’s neither as iconic as the second installment nor as fine-tuned as the fourth. Despite this, the new enemies and settings are packed with personality, while the Rush Adaptors offer fresh takes on controlling the Blue Bomber himself. Factor in Capcom’s generally high audiovisual standards and the proven strength of the core Mega Man gameplay loop and you have a winner on your hands; one that deserves far more recognition than it gets. Mega Man 6 serves as a worthy capstone to its legendary star’s exploits on the platform of his birth.

Ufouria: The Saga (NES)

NES owners in the so-called PAL regions (Europe and Australia) missed out on scores of amazing games back in the day. Final Fantasy, Mega Man 6, Ninja Gaiden III, all four Dragon Quests, the list goes on. All this wanton deprivation did have its silver lining, though, since there was also a small selection of excellent PAL releases which never made it here to North America. Among them was Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga, a refreshingly wacky take on the Metroid-inspired exploratory platformer.

Originally published in Japan as Hebereke (a term denoting slapstick drunkenness), 1991’s Ufouria served as the public’s introduction to a group of cutesy mascot characters who would go on to star in a total of ten games. A few of these characters received name changes or visual alterations in the PAL version. The penguin-like lead hero Hebe became a snowman named Bop-Louie, for example. Most of the wider Hebereke series is exclusive to Japan and consists of puzzle games. Despite debuting as a side-scrolling action-adventure, no further entries were ever made in this same vein.

The plot here is a simple yet strange one about four friends who fall into a mysterious crater and find themselves separated and lost in a surreal world, questing for a way home. The localized title Ufouria seems to be based on these four playable characters, whom you swap between regularly over the course of the adventure. As in virtually all games of this kind, exploration is periodically rewarded with new abilities, most of which allow you to access previously unreachable sections of the world. In Ufouria, many of these abilities take the form of new characters rather than equipment.

At the outset, you control Bop-Louie, who has a fast walk speed and an aversion to water. Before long, you stumble on his orange lizard buddy, Freeon-Leon. Leon’s been stricken with amnesia and actually attacks Bop-Louie but, after a short battle, snaps out of it and joins your team. While a slow walker, he’s a much better swimmer and won’t slip on ice. This same process is later repeated when you encounter the long-jumping ghost Shades and underwater specialist Gil. In addition to their innate advantages, each character can also learn a new move or two from items. Bop-Louie can climbs walls once he acquires suction cups, Gil can spit out bombs, and so on. They’ll need all the help they can get to gather the three far-flung keys needed to open the way home.

All their scavenger hunting won’t go unopposed, of course. Both common mooks and tougher bosses show up to harass the four friends. Combat in Ufouria feels very much inspired by the Super Mario games in that your two main modes of attack are jumping on top of foes and hurling stuff at them. These methods compliment each other, as some baddies will leave behind throwable items when stomped. This is how the majority of boss fights play out: The boss itself will be stomp-proof, requiring you to pelt it with objects dropped by its minions. Annoyingly, you need to remember to hold down on the directional pad whenever you land on an enemy, otherwise you’ll take damage instead of dealing it. I’m not sure why this isn’t automatic, but at least it doesn’t take too long to become habit.

One noteworthy feature of Ufouria is its extremely forgiving design. NES action-adventure games are known for their convoluted layouts, cryptic puzzles, and a general lack of in-game guidance. That’s not a condemnation, merely an observation. I love me some opaque head-scratchers like Legacy of the Wizard, after all. Sunsoft, on the other hand, practically bends over backwards here to make sure you’re never without some sort of clear direction. The auto-map highlights the locations of every key item. When in doubt, head for the colored dots. Couple this with the fact that the majority of enemies aren’t particularly fast or aggressive and Ufouria makes a good starting point for players new to the genre. The one glaring exception to this user friendly approach is the health system, which sadly borrows the most tedious trick from Metroid’s playbook. Whenever you continue your game, be it after a death or by inputting a password, you start with a bare minimum amount of energy and must either mindlessly grind out dozens of kills for small healing pickups or expend a precious limited-use healing potion to recover. It’s as needlessly cruel as ever, even if Bop-Louie and crew will probably bite the dust a lot less often than Samus Aran.

What makes Ufouria worth experiencing regardless of your skill level or any minor gripes like the ones mentioned above is its killer combination of kooky art direction and rocking Naoki Kodaka chiptunes. Befitting its Japanese title, the visuals have an anarchic, off-kilter sensibility. Think “Hello Kitty on a week-long bender” and you won’t be far off. This is hammered home as early as the first screen transition, which sees Bop-Louie climbing up what appears to be a rope or vine. His means of ascent is then quickly revealed to be a tendril of drool emitting from the slack mouth of an hovering disembodied purple face. Welcome to Ufouria! If you harbor any fondness at all for games in the Monster Party mold that keep you guessing throughout with their madcap creative choices, Ufouria is a must-play. As far as the soundtrack goes, it’s prime Kodaka. Not only are the compositions themselves top-notch, the Sunsoft sound team’s characteristic use of meaty bass samples lends them a full, rich tone you simply couldn’t get from any other company’s 8-bit offerings. Unless special audio expansion chips were employed, that is. I loved this approach in Journey to Silius, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Batman: Return of the Joker and I love it just as much here.

I really dig Ufouria. Its endearing style, easygoing action, and quality Sunsoft production make it a prime example of a comfy, rainy day afternoon sort of adventure; one you can throw whenever you have a few hours to spare and don’t feel up to anything too demanding. Our oft-neglected pals across the pond hit the jackpot for once with this one. Good on them.

Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

The developers at Chunsoft had their work cut out for them when it came time to craft a follow-up to their 1988 smash hit RPG, Dragon Quest III. The pioneering series had been a phenomenon across Japan from day one, but the public’s response to the third installment in particular bordered on frenzy. Widespread school and work truancy on its Wednesday launch date prompted rumors the Japanese legislature had drafted a law forbidding Dragon Quest’s publisher, Enix, from releasing future installments on weekdays. Like the supposed Space Invaders yen coin shortage a decade prior, this was just an urban legend. The fact that it seemed plausible to so many, however, speaks volumes to the game’s cultural impact. To this day, it routinely shows up at or near the top of many Japanese “best games ever” lists. It wasn’t just a tough act to follow, it was arguably the toughest.

The safe, obvious route would have been to double down on III’s most iconic gameplay feature: Its character class system. A fully customizable adventuring party had made for an exponential increase in strategy and replay value over the previous two entries, after all. Cut to 1990 and Dragon Quest IV finally ships with no character creation component whatsoever! Rather than staying the course and praying for lightning to strike twice, lead designer Yuji Horii and company opted to further their burgeoning saga through more thoughtful writing and an unorthodox story structure. A bold stroke indeed for the minds behind a franchise long noted for its hidebound conservative bent in relation to its contemporaries. Let’s see how it panned out for them.

Not being fluent in Japanese, I’m reviewing Dragon Quest IV’s official North American NES localization, Dragon Warrior IV, which suffered the misfortune of being delayed until late 1992. The 16-bit consoles were in their prime by then and relatively few were interested in shelling out a hefty chunk of change for a primitive looking 8-bit RPG in a post-Final Fantasy IV world. If you caught this one in its prime, you were likely a weirdo who got hooked on the series early and wouldn’t have missed an installment for the world. So, yeah, I played the hell out of it.

Admittedly, the broad strokes of Dragon Warrior IV don’t make it seem like much of a departure. A stock medieval fantasy world is threatened by an evil overlord and only a hero of prophecy and his/her loyal companions can stop him. This entails wandering the land in search of magic MacGuffins while vanquishing hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in menu-driven combat. Killing these monsters (all of which benefit greatly from adorable designs by famed manga artist Akira Toriyama) nets you the money and experience points needed to power-up your party. This in turn allows you to keep the Pavlovian cycle going when you inevitably encounter tougher baddies in the next area. Doing fetch quests to make numbers go up; such is the way of Dragon Quest. The fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is where story structure and writing come to the fore. Dragon Warrior IV takes JRPG clichés which were already growing long in the tooth by the end of the ’80s and sort of inverts them. The result feels both fresh and familiar. Most notably, you don’t start out controlling the chosen one. The narrative unfolds across five distinct chapters, with the main protagonist not appearing at all until the start of the final one, many hours into the game. Before then, you’re introduced to all seven of the hero’s eventual allies. First up is Ragnar, a stalwart soldier tasked by the king of Burland with investigating an epidemic of missing children. Next is Alena, tomboy princess of Santeem, who escapes her castle with two helpful retainers in tow and sets out prove her strength to the world at large. After that is Taloon, the portly, middle-aged merchant and family man who takes up adventuring in order to get rich enough to buy his own shop and build a commercial empire. Finally, there’s Mara and Nara, sisters and powerful magicians hunting for revenge on the man who murdered their alchemist father. Only after you’ve completed all four of these preliminary adventures, some of which are virtually mini-RPGs unto themselves, does the world truly open up and the full scope of the quest reveal itself.

Similarly, the identity of the antagonist and the nature of his schemes isn’t immediately spelled out to you as it was in the previous three games. Vague whispers and portents are all you have to go on until much later, when he eventually does appear in the flesh to make his motivation clear. Yes, the villain has a real motivation this time. The writers didn’t just decide to make him an “archfiend” and call it day. That’s progress.

I definitely don’t want to oversell the storytelling here. This remains a terse NES RPG and there aren’t exactly reams of sparkling dialog provided to bolster its ambitions. Your party members only speak a handful of lines each over the course of the game and much of their personalities are merely implied. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving a few blank spaces for the player’s imagination to fill in, and walking a mile in each party member’s shoes can’t help but endear them to you at least a little. Moreover, a game doesn’t necessary need to be wordy to be clever. Take the opening to chapter three, in which you play through weapon merchant Taloon’s typical work day. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually be the poor schlub who gets to stand behind a counter all day, waiting patiently for random fantasy heroes to drop in and sell you the extra copper swords they looted from dead slimes? Talk about role playing! This sequence is hilarious and blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game unmistakably poking fun at itself by lampooning a common genre trope. These so-called fourth wall breaks are commonplace in media today, to the point where they’re as trite as anything they ostensibly call out. This wasn’t the case at all thirty years ago, making Taloon’s introduction one of gaming’s most memorable. It’s no wonder he became the breakout star of the cast and went on to star in the the first three installments of the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series.

Visually, there’s not much to distinguish Dragon Warrior IV from its predecessors. Crude, squat sprites waddling over unnaturally gridded terrain is the rule, interspersed with detailed close-ups of Toriyama’s wacky monsters during battle. The final boss fight is, fittingly, the highlight. Your adversary’s form contorts and mutates in various hideous ways throughout, the animation of which seems lavish in the extreme after so many hours spent staring at static portraits of foes. Much more impressive as a whole is Koichi Sugiyama’s sprawling soundtrack, which clocks in at nearly an hour. Sugiyama is a classically trained composer who had been working on major television and film productions for years before adding video games to his portfolio in 1985 at the tender age of 54. His unusual background (the average game composer circa 1990 was a twentysomething rock fan who’d played in a band or two in college) makes his chiptune work wholly unique. Consider the gobsmacking end theme, a ten minute magnum opus that seamlessly weaves melodies from every chapter together into a veritable NES symphony. It’s the most grandiose piece ever written for the system’s humble five voice sound chip, and I don’t consider that debatable.

Before this devolves into a total puff piece, I should probably mention Dragon Warrior IV’s most divisive element: Diminished player control during the game’s second half. See, the first four chapters play out like they would in any other RPG: You issue battle commands for each party member and they dutifully execute those commands. This goes out the window in chapter five, where you’re suddenly restricted to commanding the legendary hero alone and the other seven members of your team operate at the behest of the game’s A.I. Your influence over them is limited to selecting from a few broad tactical paradigms (Offensive, Defensive, Use No MP, etc). No matter what, the majority of your moves will be chosen for you from here on out. I’m torn on this feature. It’s offputting at first, no doubt, and you’re bound to taste defeat at least once or twice due to boneheaded calls by the CPU. On the plus side, removing a good 75% of the decision making and button pressing speeds things along and keeps time spent mindlessly grinding money and experience to a minimum. I suppose if this is a dealbreaker for you, you could try the 2008 Nintendo DS remake. It allows you full control from start to finish, though it also tacks a sixth chapter onto the main story which isn’t nearly as well-designed or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Make mine the original.

Correcting for my middle school nostalgia as much as possible, I still love Dragon Warrior IV. By taking the usual “save the world” plot fans were accustomed to and rearranging it in a less front-loaded manner, Chunsoft carved out breathing room for mystery and allowed for a gradual raising of the stakes, all without alienating the faithful. Better still, the decision to focus on a playable ensemble with their own distinct backstories and goals added a much-needed human element to the proceedings and paved the way for even more fully-realized Dragon Quest characters to come. The loss of the mute, contextless custom heroes from the last game is a small price to pay for all that. Many, myself included, consider this the best turn-based RPG available for the NES. As for its fate at retail, the delayed American version predictably flopped hard. So hard, in fact, that Enix took an eight year hiatus from exporting Dragon Quest titles. The Japanese edition fared much better, to the tune of three million copies. This makes it the fourth best-selling Famicom game of all time, coming in right behind, you guessed it, Dragon Quest III.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.

On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Now, before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.

Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit which was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series which began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.

Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.

While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct  follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.

The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells which can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.

With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.

It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap which causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, which adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.

Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.

As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (which the manual humorously dubs “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.

To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.

Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.

Little Samson (NES)

Happy anniversary to me!

Three years ago to the day now, I began writing reviews for every game I completed. This proved so enjoyable that I soon committed to producing at least one per week going forward, a goal I’ve handily exceeded. An achievement such as this calls for something extraordinary. I’ve chosen a game that fills NES aficionados everywhere with a heady mix of wonder and dread: The deceptively humble-sounding Little Samson.

This 1992 action-platformer was the third and final game to come out of the short-lived studio Takeru/Sur Dé Wave. I covered their debut, the quirky Famicom exclusive Cocoron, last year. Takeru’s roster consisted largely of former Capcom staff. Their years spent churning out hits like Mega Man and Strider made them highly adept at side-scrolling action. Sadly, Little Samson’s excellence in this capacity is often eclipsed by its monstrous price tag. How bad are we talking here? Try $1200 to $8800 as of this writing, depending on condition and completeness. This makes it the single most expensive regular licensed retail release for the system by a wide margin. The current runner-up, The Flintstones – Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, goes for slightly more than half what Little Samson does on average. This game’s reputation as an ultra-rare prestige piece is so well established that even playing it for free via EverDrive, as I did, felt like being down in the classic gaming equivalent of a world-class wine cellar, reverently dusting off some priceless vintage.

What makes Little Samson specifically the crown jewel of so many licensed NES collections? We’ll likely never be 100% sure. It’s universally agreed that its publisher, Taito, didn’t produce very many copies. There may have been as few as 10,000 manufactured, although the precise number is unknown and possibly lost to history. This relative scarcity is also evident with other Taito games of the era, like Panic Restaurant and the aforementioned Surprise at Dinosaur Peak. Then there’s the matter of its oddly Biblical name. The game itself, known as Seirei Densetsu Lickle (“Holy Bell Legend Lickle”) in the original Japanese, has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s been speculated American NES owners shunned Little Samson at point of sale based on a general aversion to “Bible games,” which, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, do tend to be pretty dang terrible. Finally, let’s consider that human psychology can be a lot messier than any rarified laws of supply and demand would have you believe. Hardcore collectors of anything have a tendency to be highly competitive. In light of this, the NES collecting ecosystem practically demands there be something situated right where Little Samson is in the pricing hierarchy. The jump in dollar value from three digits to four is more than enough to turn heads and demonstrate a high degree of personal commitment to the hobby, yet Little Samsom remains far more attainable than, say, the five-digit beast that is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If Little Samson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

So how’s the gameplay, already? Glad you asked! At its core, Little Samson is an archetypal NES action game in which a team of four diverse heroes must overcome a series of side-scrolling stages filled with enemies and death-defying leaps in order to save their fantasy kingdom from an evil overlord. The twist is you’re able to swap between the four protagonists at any time in order to draw on their various special abilities. Or at least you are after you’ve completed the four short opening levels, each of which is intended to serve as an introduction to a specific hero.

Samson (aka Lickle) is the de facto leader of the bunch. He has decent health and movement speed, can climb walls and ceilings, and attacks by tossing bells straight ahead. He functions as your jack-of-all-trades and is best used any time none of his comrades would be significantly more effective.

Kikira the dragon’s mediocre health is offset by several potent assets. She’s able to fly for short periods, has steady footing on icy surfaces, and can charge up her fire breath for extra damage.

Gamm the golem is a huge, slow target who can barely jump. To compensate, he has a massive health pool, takes no damage from spikes, and can aim his powerful short range punches vertically as well as horizontally.

K.O. the mouse is tiny and fragile, the polar opposite of Gamm in many ways. Despite this, he’s anything but useless. His Metroid style bomb attack is the most powerful in the game, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to exploit it. On top of this, he moves fast, jumps high, clings to walls, fits into the narrowest of passages, and can walk on water. Walk on water? Maybe this is a Bible game after all….

All four members of your team have separate health bars. As in Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, swapping out a badly wounded hero before he or she bites the dust is always best practice. One caveat: If anyone beside Samson does die, they’ll stay dead until you run out of lives completely and use a continue. The one exception is if the character died with a healing potion in their inventory, in which case it can be used from the pause menu to revive them. This does unfortunately lead to situations where it’s easier to burn through the rest of your lives on purpose so you can continue with a full party than it is to struggle on with a diminished roster.

In less skilled hands, the teamwork mechanic that defines Little Samson could have amounted to a mere gimmick. The developers’ genius lies in the way every aspect of the level and enemy design synergizes with it. As you play, you’re constantly prompted to consider the ideal way to tackle the obstacles in your path. For spikes on the floor, is it better to fly over them with Kikira, walk across them with Gamm, or use K.O. or Samson to scamper across the ceiling? While there’s often more than one solution, determining which is your safest bet hinges not just on the placement of the spikes themselves, but on which foes are lurking nearby and whether a given party member is worth risking now versus saving for the upcoming boss fight. Speaking of the boss encounters, this same intriguing dynamic is present there, too. Do you want to try to keep your distance and wear them down with Kikira and Samson, brawl with Gamm, or engage in the high risk, high reward venture of getting in close enough to deploy K.O.’s bombs without taking damage? This is quality game design, pure and simple.

Not only is the content here finely crafted, there’s a good amount of it. Twenty-two stages to be exact, although you won’t find all of them on your first go due to their branching structure. Just be aware that Little Samson is one of those games that terminates your playthrough prematurely and denies you the true ending if you opt for the easy difficulty mode. Thankfully, unlimited continues and a password system keep the normal setting quite reasonable.

Little Samson’s graphics and sound form a interesting dichotomy. Its sprites and backgrounds are truly sumptuous by NES standards. Seeing this degree of fine detail realized under the strict color and resolution limitations of a machine engineered in 1983 to run Donkey Kong is downright inspiring. I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never seen another Famicom or NES game that looks better than this one. Approximately as good in its own right, sure, but never flat-out superior. Then there’s the music, which is…fine, I guess. That is, the songs themselves are well done. How they’re used is the issue. Instead of having the music selections tied to the levels themselves as in most games, the individual heroes have their own themes which play whenever they’re active. The problem inherent in having just four main background tracks in a lengthy game is exacerbated by some characters being less suited for general use than others. I hope you like Samson’s theme in particular, because you’re likely to be listening to it around half the time. On the plus side, the endgame areas do eventually break free of this rut with some distinct tunes of their own.

To my delight, Little Samson proved itself a prime example of a hyped-up trophy title that also happens to rank among the better games available on its native platform. The limited soundtrack is the only remotely disappointing thing about it. Charming characters, lush visuals, and masterfully designed action make it worth seeking out by any means necessary. If emulation or flash cartridges aren’t your bag and you’d prefer a more affordable “real” copy, consider Seirei Densetsu Lickle. It’s the same game at 1/8th the cost.

Disappointing sales notwithstanding, this was one hell of a swan song from Takeru. If a little sticker shock is what it takes to attract the audience it always deserved, that’s fine by me.

Gun-Nac (NES)

Pulverizing your enemies: The true reason for the season.

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Compilemas! Time for another present to myself in the form of a “new” offering from one of my most appreciated developers. I had so much fun with Compile’s formative classic Zanac back in December of 2017 that I decided to make returning to this particular well a Christmas tradition for as long as possible. This year, I’m unwrapping 1990’s Gun-Nac for the NES. It’s yet another vertically-scrolling shooter in the time-tested Zanac/Aleste mold. There’s one key difference this time, though: Gun-Nac is a “cute-’em-up” that sees you repelling an invasion of adorable animals and prosaic household objects instead of the usual alien armada.

If you’re inclined to believe the English instruction manual, Gun-Nac takes place in a faraway “synthetic solar system” called IOTA Synthetica, where a mysterious cosmic force is causing all sorts of  unlikely things to spring to life and attack the populace. You control maverick space ace Commander Gun-Nac in his bid to to save the day. Given that you never see Commander Gun-Nac himself, you may suspect something was lost in translation. Sure enough, the extended cutscenes in the Japanese original reveal the story was meant to be set in our own solar system and star a lady magician in the garb of a Shinto shrine maiden who summons her high tech spaceship with a spell. I’m not sure why this rather charming element was removed. It reminds me of how my last Compile Christmas selection, Space Megaforce, also ditched its pilot characters, Raz and Thi, in favor of another unseen protagonist. It’s almost like whoever was in charge of localizing these titles was actively striving to keep them as bland as possible for some reason.

Oh, well. On to the blasting! Gun-Nac is made up of eight stages. Nine, if you count the hidden “area zero” accessible by setting the sound test in the option menu to five, which enables the level select function. Per usual for Compile, they’re all quite lengthy and most include at least one mid-boss in addition to a final boss. The wacky theming starts off strong with a cratered lunar surface where killer bunny robots deploy heat-seeking carrots against you. Weird as that is, there is context for it. In China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, the “face” on the moon is thought to resemble a rabbit, an association that’s influenced mythology and art for centuries. The more you know. Later stages pit you against paper products, money, and other absurd threats.

The action itself is pure Aleste. Your ship can cycle between four speed settings at will, equip five primary shot types represented by numbered icons, and carry four flavors of limited use elemental super bomb for emergencies. Gathering power chips will enhance your primary gun and the wing item bulks up your ship, allowing it to withstand an extra hit before it’s destroyed. One entirely new addition is money bag pickups, which you can exchange for various ship upgrades at between-level shops. These resemble fast food establishments, except they vend death rays and explosive ordinance instead of burgers and fries. Gotta love that smiling girl at the counter with her paper hat and name tag.

When it comes to this tried-and-true formula, I essentially have no complaints. Gun-Nac is a prime example of the Compile house style. It and its fellows are among my most treasured gaming memories for good reason. They’re invariably fast-paced and hectic, with pinpoint-accurate controls and little, if any, slowdown. On top of this, you get a plethora of exciting weapons to wield and a relatively forgiving design that allows for a much less punishing play experience than is typical for the genre. Some critics have claimed these games are too easy, too samey, or that their levels drag on too long. Allowing for personal preference, this is all fair enough. Certainly, Gun-Nac is notably easy on its default difficulty setting. I was able to complete it on my very first attempt without needing to continue even once. Good luck pulling that off in Gradius or R-Type! For me, however, auto-scrolling shooters just don’t get any better. If you’ve enjoyed any of the studio’s similar works (Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, Blazing Lazers, Space Megaforce, etc), I can virtually guarantee you’ll like this one, too.

There is one thing that disappointed me about Gun-Nac, although it’s unrelated to the gameplay proper. Despite being billed as Compile’s take on the cute-’em-up subgenre, it doesn’t seem the design team was prepared to fully embrace the unbridled insanity that usually implies. Comparing Gun-Nac’s art and sound direction to that of cutsey staples like TwinBee, Parodius, and Fantasy Zone reveals it to occupy an awkward middle ground between them and the typical “straight” shooter. Some stages (like the previously mentioned rabbit-infested moon) are as kooky as can be. Others are decidedly restrained. In fact, the further you progress, the more things start to resemble an average Aleste game. The final stage is a stock metallic techno-fortress that features no oddball enemies at all, only common spaceships and gun turrets. It’s as if Gun-Nac’s creators couldn’t agree on what sort of tone to aim for. That, or they happened to have a bunch of leftover sprites and background tiles laying around from other projects and opted to cobble together another game out of them.

Gun-Nac may be aesthetically disjointed, but its familiar, masterful action still succeeded in making my already blissful holiday season that little bit brighter. I can’t think of a better note to close out another amazing year of gaming goodness on. It’s been a true blessing to have had the opportunity to explore another 59 vintage games with you all over the past twelve months. I have some important milestones coming up in 2020, including the biggie: Review #200, which will focus on my all-time most beloved game for my favorite console. Until then, Merry Christmas and a sincere thanks to each and every one of you.