RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

Konami really were miracle workers back in the day. Case in point: 1990’s RollerGames, in which they managed to take a short-lived cross between roller derby and pro wrestling that also included dance numbers and a pit of live alligators and somehow turn it into an even stupider NES game. That takes vision.

I have no recollection at all of the RollerGames television show that debuted back in 1989. Looking up clips in preparation for this review, it’s clear that I was missing out. It’s a prime slice of vintage cheese that certainly couldn’t exist as it did in our present jaded age. If you’re looking for an old school “sports entertainment” companion piece to G.L.O.W. and the golden age WWF, look no further. It also drew big ratings. Despite this, several of the producers still managed to go bankrupt and the show abruptly vanished from the airwaves after only one season.

RollerGames’ brief moment in the sun was somehow still enough to inspire not just one, but three game adaptations, all of which were doomed to reach the general public after the tv show itself had already been consigned to the pop culture memory hole. Williams put out a pinball table and Konami released two completely distinct video games. The arcade RollerGames was a straightforward attempt to replicate the roller derby action of the show. Since it relied heavily on powerful arcade hardware to dynamically shift the player’s view of the track around during play, however, it was clearly unsuitable for conversion to the humble NES. Instead, Konami (in the paper-thin guise of their front company Ultra Games) took things in an entirely different, much less sane direction and gave us this off-kilter platformer/beat-’em-up hybrid where your favorite prime time derby heroes strap on their skates to do battle with terrorists.

Yes, it seems that the sinister criminal organization V.I.P.E.R. (Vicious International Punks and Eternal Renegades) has joined forces with three “evil” derby teams and abducted RollerGames league commissioner Emerson “Skeeter” Bankhead. Oh no! Not Skeeter! Only members of the three remaining “good” teams have what it takes to rescue their boss. Why? According to the manual, “the CIA and FBI lack the speed, cunning, and sheer brute force for this job.” Huh. Well, I suppose I never have seen them do much in the way of skating, so…fair enough.

Naturally, I love this premise. It’s stupid in the best possible way and one of the high points of the whole package. RollerGames isn’t a top tier NES title by any means, but everything it does well stems directly from this decision to not even attempt to be a proper roller derby game. While I’m on the subject, just imagine how much more fun all those terrible WWF games for the NES could have been if they’d abandoned all pretense of delivering a realistic ringside experience and just had Andre the Giant fight an attack helicopter. Alas.

You’ll start out in RollerGames by choosing one of three teams, which functions as a character select. The three available characters are based on the Holy Trinity of beat-’em-ups: Ice Box of the T-Birds is the strong and slow one, Rolling Thunder of Hot Flash is the weak and fast one, and California Kid of the Rockers is the balanced one. In theory, the game’s mixture of platforming and hand-to-hand combat should mean that all the characters are viable, but do yourself a favor and avoid Ice Box. The jumps in this game are far deadlier than the brawling and he really struggles to clear some of the tricker obstacles. Thankfully, you’re able to change characters any time you lose all your lives and use a continue, so you’ll never be stuck using a character you don’t like all the way through the game.

RollerGames has a total of twelve stages, with the action unfolding in the sort of 3/4 view typical of post-Renegade brawlers. Most of the time, however, you’re not engaging in fisticuffs, but instead skating over, around, and through a bevy of environmental hazards that function as sadistic obstacle courses. The threats placed in your path can be divided up into two broad categories: Stuff that kills you outright (pits, bodies of water, spikes) and stuff that will just knock you down and deplete a small chunk of your health on contact (barrels, oil slicks, flamethrowers). Your character’s health bar is quite large, so you’re able to make quite a few missteps around lesser dangers before the cumulative damage does you in. It’s the instant kill stuff that you really need to worry about, since none of the stages in RollerGames have checkpoints. Fall in a hole and you start the whole stage over from the beginning. At least the stages themselves are fairly short and the continues unlimited.

Every now and then, usually around twice per stage, you’ll reach a point where the scrolling halts for a time and you transition into a “fight scene.” Here, the movement controls that you use in the rest of the stage are temporarily replaced by new ones that handle more like a standard beat-’em-up and you’ll have to fight off several waves of enemy skaters before you’ll be allowed to move on. Combat is fairly basic, with typical punches and kicks, a jumping kick, and a “hair pull into throw” attack straight out of Double Dragon. You also have a lunging super attack activated by pressing A and B simultaneously that deals extra damage, but can only be used three times in a given stage. Most of the game’s boss fights also take place in this mode.

Just to add a little more variety, the game also includes two highway stages, which are auto-scrolling affairs where your character has to navigate a hazard-strewn roadway on the way to the next main stage. Other than not being able to set the place yourself, these don’t really play that differently from the normal platforming segments. They do end with some rather odd boss fights, though: A huge vehicle shows up and hurls projectiles at your character until it just sort of gets bored and leaves. You can’t actually attack these guys. You just dodge the crap they chuck your way for an arbitrary amount of time and then you win. That’s a new one on me!

Like I mentioned above, RollerGames is far from a perfect action game. The biggest issue by far is that the gameplay is wildly unbalanced. The designers clearly went out of their way to throw many different types of challenge at the player, but only one type (the insta-kill pits and spikes) ultimately matters and ends up defining the experience. The non-lethal obstacles in the platforming sections are nuisances at worst and the beat-’em-up combat is extremely simple and easy, with brain dead enemies all too happy to repeatedly march face first into your hero’s waiting fists.

Another aspect of the gameplay that seems to annoy many (at least based on other reviews I’ve seen) is the control. Specifically, the loose, slippery movement. Your character can’t really stop or turn on a dime, nor can they accelerate to full speed instantly. Many jumps also require just the right amount of momentum, otherwise you’ll over or under-shoot your landing and pay for it with a life. Basically, every stage here feels like the ice level from most other platformers. While I understand the frustration stemming from this, I also recognize that it’s what sets RollerGames apart from the crowd and hesitate to call it an outright flaw. Your characters are supposed to be zipping around on skates, after all, so it’s only fitting that the movement reflects that. Even if it is defensible as a design choice, the resulting learning curve is steep and you can expect to die a lot at first.

As unbalanced and awkward as it can be, RollerGames still packs a lot of charm into one dirt cheap cartridge. Beyond just the glorious absurdity of roller skating through a jungle dodging giant piranhas, the visuals and audio both demostrate a level of quality befitting a world class developer. There’s some very good use of color and the character sprites are large and detailed, with the exception of the distinctive blank faces seen in many other 8-bit Konami titles like Castlevania and Contra. The music is also above average thanks to some catchy melodies and punchy drum samples. If you don’t mind putting in the time needed to master its finicky controls, this one is more than worth its current Starbucks latte asking price.

Besides, why just skate or die when you can do both?


The Magic of Scheherazade (NES)

Ladies! Ladies! If you could please form an orderly line, that’d be great.

What would you say if I told you that Square’s legendary Chrono Trigger wasn’t the first Japanese RPG to feature an epic time travel storyline and a cast of colorful characters that could pool their abilities in battle to unleash devastating combination attacks? Welcome to The Magic of Scheherazade from oddball developer Culture Brain! It may be the most ambitious 8-bit console RPG ever made. Whether this ultimately works to its benefit or not depends on your point of view.

Arabian Dorīmu Sherazādo (“Arabian Dream Scheherazade”) was initially released for the Famicom in 1987 and then altered significantly for its 1989 debut in North America. The simple music of the original was expanded into something more on par with other releases from the latter half of the NES’s life cycle and many of the character sprites were re-drawn with smaller eyes, presumably to de-anime them some for us gaijin. We definitely got the better game over here. The score is a clear upgrade and I greatly prefer the new character designs. Your turban-clad hero looks rather cool in the North American version, whereas his Japanese counterpart’s manic grin and bulging eyes came across less “cute and cuddly” and more “I’ll swallow your soul!”

As the game opens, we’re informed that the peaceful land of Arabia has been attacked by demons commanded by the evil wizard Sabaron. A brave descendent of the legendary magician Isfa steps up to challenge Sabaron, but he is defeated and his sweetheart Princess Scheherazade is abducted, as are her father and three sisters. Now nearly powerless and suffering from amnesia, the hero (whom you name) must journey across the land and rebuild his strength by vanquishing demons, recruiting allies, and traveling back and forth between multiple time periods with the aid of an adorable blue cat creature named Coronya the time spirit.

Even though the action is supposedly set in a real place, don’t come expecting any sort of geographical, historical, or cultural accuracy. Setting the game in “Arabia” is strictly an excuse to bring in some of the trappings of the classic Arabian Nights stories like genies, scimitars, and flying carpets in place of the usual Western European fantasy iconography. Apart from that, the world and characters are as divorced from reality as they are in any JRPG.

Arabia isn’t a single large, open world as per most games in the genre. Instead, it’s divided into five chapters. Each chapter plays out like a little self-contained mini-RPG, complete with its own towns, overworld, dungeons, and big boss demon at the end. One feature I found quite cool is the way that character progression is tied into this chapter system. Your hero can only gain a maximum of five levels per chapter, which helps insure that the challenge of defeating each boss can’t be completely negated through grinding. Beat the boss and the next chapter starts automatically. There’s no way to backtrack to previous chapters, so it’s technically possible to miss out on some items and spells. Nothing necessary to complete the game is skippable, however, so there’s no need to stress out too much.

Speaking of decisions not worth stressing over, you’ll also have to pick one of three character classes for your hero at the start. The fighter is best at dealing close range damage with swords, the magician is better at ranged attacks with magic rods, and the saint is pretty much terrible at both and should only be considered if you want to render the game extra challenging. Thankfully, you can change your class at any time by visiting the mosque in town and paying a small monetary fee. You’ll actually need to do this at least once in order to complete the game, since several quests require you to be a particular class.

Every chapter of your quest includes at least one mandatory trip through time to the area’s past or future. The time travel element doesn’t come off quite as awesome here as it does in the later Chrono Trigger, mainly due to the fact that MoS’s graphics are quite limited by comparison and every era you visit tends to look about the same as a result. There are no dinosaurs or space ships awaiting you here. Instead, Arabia retains its medieval look even across thousands of years. The game does still use the premise to interesting effect on occasion, though. At one point, I recieved an important clue about what to do next by an NPC who presented it as something I’d already done in the past. Since my character then needed to travel back in time to actually do it, that means that he had, in a sense, already done it. Weird, man.

Including Coronya, there are a total of eleven other characters that will join your party over the course of the adventure. Collectively, they have to be the biggest collection of freaks and weirdos you’ll encounter outside of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. There’s a robot, a shrimp, a glass bottle with arms and legs, a jack o’ lantern, a flying squirrel, and so on, with nary a single regular human being in the lot. Unfortunately, none of them are really all that interesting apart from their visual designs and conceptual gimmicks. MoS is still an early JRPG, after all, and doesn’t go out of its way to provide reams of dialog and rich characterization. You’ll usually just recruit a given character in order to progress past a specific obstacle to your quest that only they can bypass and then forget about them as they spend the rest of the game just filling out a menu slot in battle and not saying or doing much of anything. In this sense, they almost function more like “key items” than characters in a story.

The gameplay represents an attempt to combine two of the biggest Famicom sensations of the time: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. This means that we get overhead view real time action RPG combat existing side-by-side with menu-driven turn-based fighting. This is what I was alluding to above when I said that the game’s extreme ambition can be both its greatest strength and weakness. Most of your playing time is spent in the overhead “Zelda mode.” This is where you’ll be exploring the world, talking to NPCs, and doing the bulk of your fighting with sword and magic rod. In contrast, the “Dragon Quest mode” only crops up for occasional random battles, the frequency of which varies from uncommon on the overworld to fairly regular inside caves and dungeons.

This highlights my biggest problem with the game: The turn-based battles are really not essential to your progression in any way and come off as an afterthought at best and a pace killer at worst. I realized pretty early on that you never actually need to bother with them at all. In fact, you’ll be better off in the long run if you don’t. See, the real time combat is a relatively simple and safe way to harvest experience points and money since most enemies are easy to mow down quickly with minimal loss of health. The enemies in turn-based mode take much longer to fight due to all the menu navigation and will often use poweful magic attacks to deal out large amounts of damage and nasty status effects to your party members, requiring you to expend more magic points and healing items to recover your strength. Since defeating enemies in both modes provides you with the exact same rewards (experience and money), there’s no practical reason to not immediately run from every turn-based fight, as they’re just a much slower, more resource-intensive way to accomplish the exact same thing. It’s a real pity, too, since the designers obviously put a lot of work into these battles. There are a ton of characters in your party to experiment with and using specific combinations enables the use of those special team-up attacks I mentioned. You can even hire mercenary troops in town to fight alongside your main party members. It’s deep and interesting and yet still totally pointless in the end. Too bad.

You know what, though? That’s not going to stop me from recommending this game in a big way. It has so much going on for such an early console RPG that it’s almost unbelievable at times. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the universities where you can take classes to learn about proper magic use and combat tactics, the casinos, the pre-Dragon Quest III inclusion of a sort of day/night cycle with the solar eclipses, haggling with merchants, the ins and outs of the magic system, etc. I would be here writing all day if I really wanted to detail every little nuance of this sprawling title. It even has a great sense of humor, though some of the jokes can verge into trollish territory. For example, a character in one town asks you if you’re ever afraid of monsters. If you answer yes, he basically says “I suppose you’d better call it quits then, huh?” and you get an instant game over on the spot! Good thing you have unlimited continues and passwords.

The Magic of Scheherazade is another example of a game like ActRaiser that’s considerably better than the sum of its parts by virtue of its unique blend of seemingly incongruous gameplay elements, its overarching charm, and its sheer verve. It’s not a great action RPG or a great turn-based RPG, just a great experience that no NES enthusiast should miss out on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing princess business to take care of. Truly a hero’s work is never done.

Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Take that, stupid purple guy!

Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“The Darkness Worker Kage”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.

Right off the bat, one thing that Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.

You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished that you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.

Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.

Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.

Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move that damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.

The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to respawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t respawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.

There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. That’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint is that several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last boss in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point that I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out that 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.

With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.

The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers that NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.

Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity that it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know that it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same, while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time, and the power-up system that involved your dragon sprouting extra heads is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal “blue dragon” difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in “gold dragon” mode, where your dragon has better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is that you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons that will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens that you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems that the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out that another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah…I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.

Power Blade (NES)

You’re totes welcome, bruh.

Now this is more like it! After the numbing grind of Dragon Warrior, I was craving some classic side-scrolling action. Power Blade did not disappoint.

It easily could have. The original build of the game, titled Power Blazer, was developed by Natsume and published for the Famicom by Taito in 1990. The game starred a dumpy little fellow named Steve Treiber. Armed only with a boomerang and a permanent scowl, Steve’s mission was to shut down the Brain Master, a supercomputer in charge of running everything on 22nd century earth that has, of course, turned rogue. With its robots run amok scenario, stage select feature, and even Steve’s bright blue helmet, Power Blazer reveals itself as a shameless Mega Man cash-in. Only without the lovable protagonist. Or all the cool weapons to collect. Or the brilliant level design. In fact, the only thing in all of Power Blazer actually worthy of its inspiration is the kickass musical score by Kinuyo Yamashita, who’s best known to NES fans for her work on the original Castlevania under the alias “James Banana.”

All considered, it’s amazing that anyone at Taito was even considering Power Blazer for localization. At least one person saw some potential in it, however: A former Nintendo employee at Taito’s U.S. branch named Randy Studdard, best known to gamers at the time as the author of the Captain Nintendo stories that appeared in several early issues of Nintendo Power magazine and went on to inspire the well (if not always fondly) remembered cartoon series Captain N: The Game Master. He took it upon himself to effectively redesign Power Blazer from the ground up in order to create Power Blade. The NES version released in 1991 has new stages, new gameplay objectives, and a new hero, Nova, that’s much more than just a simple sprite swap. The end result of all these changes is a vastly superior release that’s as much Randy Studdard’s as it is Natsume’s. Power Blade wasn’t just altered by the localization process, it was saved by it.

Of course, the most famous bit of Power Blade trivia involves its cover art. Artist Michael Winterbauer was contacted by lawyers representing none other than Arnold Schwartzenegger, who believed that their client’s likeness had been illegally appropriated for the portrait of Nova that appears on the box and cartridge label. Fortunately, Winterbauer was able to provide reference photos proving that he had used himself as a model instead. I was also surprised to learn the origin of the name Nova. According to Randy Studdard, he named the character after his brother! Somewhere out there in the real world there’s a dude named Nova Studdard that lent his name to a boomerang tossing Nintendo hero. That’s pretty dang great.

Power Blade retains Power Blazer’s basic “shut down the rampaging computer” plotline, but adds another sci-fi cliché to the mix: Aliens, who hijacked said computer in an effort to conquer humanity. In the year 2191, only one man has what it takes to fight his way through six different enemy-occupied sectors and recover the data tapes necessary to access the Master Computer Control Center and put an end to the alien menace. That man is Nova. He’s sporting a flattop, shades indoors, and muscles for miles. Also, the most hilarious fist-pumping running animation ever, which I adore, even if it does undercut his icy action hero image a little. Nova’s weapon is the boomerang. Why on earth would you want to fight off an army of killer robots with a boomerang? According to the manual, no other weapons exist “because war has been abolished.” Hmm. Interesting choice of a holdover. Maybe old-school kangaroo hunting is big in the future?

Fortunately, Nova’s boomerang is more that a match for the challenges ahead. He can fire in eight directions, similar to the heroes in Contra. This represents a major upgrade over Steve from Power Blazer, who was limited to just left and right. There is one limitation to bear in mind, though: The power bar. This empties each time you shoot and automatically refills when you lay off the button for a second. Since the boomerang will only be able to travel its maximum distance if the power meter is full, tapping the fire button as fast as you can is only effective against point-blank targets. This creates an interesting dynamic where the further away you want to engage your enemies from, the longer you’ll have to wait between shots. What’s more important to you: Safety or damage output?

There are also several power-ups to enhance the boomerang’s damage, maximum range, and fire rate. The coolest of these by far is the metal suit that allows Nova to survive three extra hits and transforms his boomerang into the titular Power Blade: A deadly energy blast that can shoot through walls. The metal suit will disappear once those three extra hits have been sustained, but it’s a big help (not to mention a lot of fun) while it lasts.

The first six stages of Power Blade can be completed in any order. The goal of each is to locate a friendly agent that will provide Nova with the key needed to access the boss’ room, then actually find and defeat that boss, all before time runs out. The friendly agents and their keys are yet another new addition not present in the more straightforward Power Blazer. The redesigned stage layouts themselves feature a number of branching paths intended to facilitate this exploration aspect of the game. Anyone wary of getting lost can rest assured that none of the areas in Power Blade are anywhere near as complicated as Metroid or the like. Rather, there are just enough side passages to intrigue players and reward their curiosity with some extra power-ups without turning navigation into a chore or forcing use of a map. It’s a tricky balancing act that Power Blade pulls off admirably.

There you have it. Complete all six sectors and you’re off to kick alien ass in the final stage, which isn’t really much more challenging than the ones before it. Which brings me to my one major disappointment with Power Blade: The lack of difficulty. Of course, not every game needs to be a major struggle to beat. It’s a big world out there. There’s a place for easy titles just as there’s one for soul-crushingly punishing ones. Power Blade may have taken this a step too far, though, and again it all comes back to that redesign during localization. Nova was given a fancy new metal suit power-up and the ability to fire boomerangs in any direction, but he’s still up against the same old enemies from Power Blazer that were created to challenge the much wimpier Steve Treiber character. Nova’s foes literally aren’t designed to be a match for him and it shows. Unless you’re a complete newcomer to the genre, I’d recommend at least playing on the Expert setting. This shortens your time limits and adds a knockback effect to enemy attacks. Nova’s still a total beast, but it’s better than nothing.

Power Blade isn’t the most original game by any means. It mostly just does a lot of the same things that earlier NES action platformers did. Don’t mistake that as a condemnation, however. While it may not be novel in the least, it is as rock solid as our boy Nova’s pecs. Even if none of the individual elements represented here are “best in class,” all are above average for the system. The graphics are bright and colorful, the soundtrack is packed with epic earworms (we have a Castlevania alum to thank for it, after all), the control is tight and responsive, and the level design is well thought out. Sure, Power Blade will feel uncannily familiar if you come to it after playing all the more famous NES classics first, but I’d argue that’s actually a good thing given the game’s high level of polish overall. This is 8-bit comfort food, pure and simple.

Like a boomerang, I’ll be coming back.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a disaster.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this:

You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tell you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialog makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, and gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!