Conquest of the Crystal Palace (NES)

Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!

It’s time to get obscure again. Here’s Conquest of the Crystal Palace from 1990. Published by Asmik, this one was actually one of the first titles developed by Quest, who would later garner much more critical and commercial attention with their work on the Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle games. Don’t come expecting any sort of strategy RPG experience here, though, because Conquest is yet another NES side scrolling action platformer.

This one casts the player in the role of a teenage boy named Farron. One day, Farron’s trusty dog Zap starts talking to him! Sadly, this doesn’t kick off the chilling 8-bit adaptation of the Son of Sam murders that we’ve all been waiting for. Instead, Zap explains that Farron is really an exiled prince who’s been living in hiding since infancy from the demon Zaras, who took over his kingdom and killed his parents. Now that Farron has come of age, it’s time for him to liberate the Crystal Palace from Zaras and reclaim his birthright by walking from left to right through a total of five stages and slicing up every monster along the way with his trusty sword.

Before he sets off, Farron is offered the choice of one of three different magic crystals that will alter his standard abilities in various ways. One increases maximum health, another boosts jump height, and the third allows for a projectile fireball attack. The two powers you don’t choose are available for purchase later on in shops, though, so don’t agonize too much over this bit.

Farron also isn’t alone on his quest. Zap will accompany him throughout the game and, when activated, will dash back and forth across the screen attacking any enemies in sight. This can be useful, particularly during battles against the bosses laying in wait at the end of each stage, but the player must use Zap sparingly, since he has his own separate health gauge that tends to deplete fairly quickly due to the kamikaze nature of his attacks. Make sure to hit up the shops for some healing dog chow as needed. This “boy and his dog” angle is Conquest’s central gameplay gimmick and arguably its most noteworthy feature overall.

The other standout element is the game’s art style. Ignoring the feeble attempts at Westernized character portraits in the instruction manual, this is a distinctly Japanese take on a fantasy world. It’s really quite remarkable how little the original release, Matendōji (“Demon Heaven Boy”), was altered during the localization phase. The character designs, level decor, and even music are all unmistakably East Asian. They even left the kanji text on the weapon select menu and map screen intact! Many games on the Famicom went for this sort of style, but few among them saw release in North America for obvious reasons.

Apart from this, Conquest comes off as a fairly average entry in its field. Pass through a gauntlet of enemies, pits, and other hazards until you reach the big boss. If you still have enough lives and health remaining to kick his ass, it’s on to the next stage. If not, there are unlimited continues. Each stage also features a couple appearances by the shopkeeper Kim, who seemingly spends her time just standing around monster infested hellholes waiting for little samurai boys to happen by so she can try to sell them dog food. Hey, it’s a living! Silly as the old “suspiciously convenient magical merchant” setup is, I like Kim. She’s probably the closest thing this game has to a real character. She’ll get irate if you try to buy items you can’t afford, elated if you buy a ton of stuff at once, and even dons glasses and a suit and tie to dispense hints in the form of an anachronistic “QNN” tv news report. Her overall design and facial expressions are also super cute. Yay, Kim!

There are a few disappointing aspects of the game that I feel are worth mentioning, too. The control is a bit weird as it relates to jumping attacks, since attacking in mid-air will abruptly cancel your jump and cause you to drop prematurely. This can be a killer if you’re trying to leap across a gap and cut down an airborne enemy simultaneously. That sort of manuver might be your bread and butter in Ninja Gaiden, but Farron is clearly no Ryu Hayabusa.

Attacks in general also feel a bit weak. That’s not to say that they are weak. They definitely get the job done. There’s even an undocumented super sword move for Farron triggered by mashing left and right on the D-pad while attacking that can destroy bosses in seconds once mastered. At the same time, they lack a certain oomph that would make them really satisfying to land. Though this is likely a very subjective response to certain aspects of the animation and sound effects, I rarely felt like I was truly kicking monster ass no matter how well I was doing.

Finally, I didn’t much care for the pacing of Conquest’s final stage. The entire level is filled with dozens of identical falling lava hazards that force the player to halt and wait for an opening in their pattern before proceeding. They’re not hard to spot, the pattern is always the same, and the lava doesn’t even do very much damage. It really seems like the designers are forcing you to stop moving every few steps just to artificially lengthen a very short game. Not cool.

On balance, Conquest of the Crystal Palace’s charms do outweigh its annoyances. It’s absolutely worth a look for anyone that enjoys NES action titles enough to be digging deep into the library for these sorts of second and third string oddballs. It’s just too bad that breakout star Kim never got the spinoff adventure she deserved.

Woof.

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Mega Man (NES)

Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace…and at least a hundred sequels!

Everyone’s favorite childlike robot warrior for justice that isn’t Astro Boy is turning thirty this month. Damn, I feel old.

That’s right: On December 17th, 1987, Capcom released the original Rockman for the Famicom. The game’s NES release and lead character were famously rechristened Mega Man by one of the company’s U.S. executives, Joseph Maric, just because he thought Rockman sounded “horrible.”

The story of Mega Man is set in the far off year “200X” and revolves around two scientists, Dr. Thomas Light and Dr. Albert Wily, who are colleagues working in the field of advanced robotics. After Light invents revolutionary humanoid robots with near-human intelligence, Wily, tired of being upstaged, snaps and reprograms six of his rival’s most powerful creations to aid him in a scheme for world domination. Dr. Wily overlooks Dr. Light’s humble lab assistant robot Rock, however, who is imbued with a strong sense of justice and volunteers to help put things right. Knowing that the authorities are ill-prepared to stand up to Wily, Dr. Light reluctantly modifies Rock for combat, equipping him with a “mega buster” arm cannon and the unique ability to assimilate and use the special weapons of other robots he defeats. Thus super fighting robot Mega Man is born!

By any name, this is one of the single most influential game releases of all time and a cornerstone of the action platforming genre. Like a lot of other players, I was introduced to the series via its best-selling entry, Mega Man 2, and never actually played through the original until now. Because of this, I can only imagine what a revelation it must have been to a 1987 audience. You have the ability to play the first six levels of the game in any order, you can absorb the special powers of defeated bosses as a form of permanent character progression, and there’s a “rock, paper, scissors” system of boss weaknesses that can be exploited using those very powers. The one megabit cartridge memory limitation on this first game may have resulted in only six of these “robot masters” to pick from instead of the eight that would become the series standard, but the sense of openness and possibility must have still been intoxicating for gamers accustomed to strictly linear level progressions and heroes that had all their abilities set in stone at the start or relied on inconsistent temporary power-ups to access them. The freedom to complete stages and acquire weapons in any order empowered the player through a sort of organic difficulty selection. Newcomers looking to ease into the action could go through the stages in the “correct” order, using each new weapon to take down the boss weak to it in sequence, like pushing over so many dominoes. Veterans could opt to change up the order up any way they saw fit, knowing full well that the robot masters would be much harder to defeat with Mega Man’s standard gun.

Looking beyond the core gameplay, there’s a level of audiovisual polish and charm on display here that was unmatched on the system up to that time. Mega Man himself has a standout design with his instantly iconic silhouette and dynamic facial expressions. Little things like the way he blinks his eyes when standing idle and grimaces when hit by an enemy attack don’t seem like much now, but you need look no further than other high profile NES heroes of the time to see that the ante was really being upped here. Simon Belmont didn’t have even eyes to blink! This extraordinary level of characterization extends all the way down to the most common enemy robots, which are set apart from their cannon fodder counterparts in other games with little touches like their googly, old-timey cartoon eyes. If there’s one shortcoming that stands out in Mega Man’s graphics retrospectively, it’s the relative sparse (often solid color) stage backgrounds in this entry when compared to future games in the series. Again, it’s likely that we can chalk this up to memory constraints.

The music was also made a much higher priority here than in most other contemporary games. Early NES releases often made due with a couple of short loops stretched out to cover an entire game. While some of those loops (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda) may have been so well executed that the player didn’t mind most of the time, Mega Man stands out alongside Konami’s Castlevania as one of the first games for the platform that really tried to put a fuller soundtrack front and center by providing a unique background song for each and every stage. It’s no accident that Mega Man is known as Rockman in Japan or that he has a robot “sister” named Roll. The first Mega Man’s tunes aren’t the best of the franchise on average, but the standouts like “Cut Man,” “Dr. Wily’s Castle,” and the ending theme can still go toe-to-toe with the very best the console has to offer.

So I’ve covered who Mega Man is and why his first outing was such a game changer. How does it hold up today? Very well, I’m pleased to say. Certainly, it has a few nagging issues. A couple of the stages (like Guts Man’s) are simply too short and seem to peter out right when they’re getting started. Others (like Elec Man’s) are artificially lengthened with recycled sections used in a cut-and-paste fashion. Mega Man’s movement feels just a little slippery to me, as well, and it’s clear that they dialed back the momentum on his running in future installments to correct for this. The weapons could have used a bit more fine tuning, too. The items you’ll get range from overwhelmingly powerful (Thunder Beam) to moderately useful (Ice Slasher, Rolling Cutter, Fire Storm), to outright trash (Hyper Bomb, Super Arm). In all fairness, though, weapon balance would remain all over the map in most of the sequels, too. Finally, many fans also consider this first game in the series to be one of the most difficult to complete. I can see where they’re coming from, since this is the only installment that has no password or save feature and also lacks the “E-tank” items that allow the player to refill Mega Man’s health on demand. Difficulty is tempered somewhat by the overall shortness of the individual stages and the game as a whole, as well as the fact that continues are unlimited. For anyone with prior Mega Man experience, the challenge is best described as moderate. New players may want to start with Mega Man 2’s easy mode (the traditional entry point for the series) before giving this one a go.

The cynical take on all this would be that we’re dealing with an outdated relic here; that the original Mega Man doesn’t do anything its many sequels don’t also do and do better. That’s fair enough. It’s certainly not a judgement I can dispute objectively. On the flip side, Mega Man is also a scrappy little game that manages to pull off everything its bigger, more refined sequels did with a fraction of the resources to draw on. Like a debut album from a favorite band, it may be a bit raw and rough around the edges, but the key ingredients are all present and there’s a real sense of unbridled enthusiasm and experimentation on the part of the creators that still comes through after all these years. This is a not just a franchise entry, it’s an ambitious passion project that a tight-knit group of very gifted people was really, really excited about, and it shows.

Mega Man was not a strong seller for Capcom. Many over the years have speculated that this had something to do with its infamously hideous cover art. You can count me as a skeptic there. After all, “bad box art Mega Man” was strictly a North American phenomenon, and the game apparently didn’t perform all that great in Japan, either, where it was much less of an eyesore on store shelves. I think another explanation proposed by series co-creator Keiji Inafune in interviews is the more plausable one: Prior to 1987, Capcom was known to the gaming public entirely for its arcade titles and home ports of the same. The Mega Man project was intended to be the company’s first go at creating a native console game, and it represented a bit of an unknown quantity to prospective buyers as a result. Thankfully, ecstatic word of mouth from the few who did take the plunge was enough to get a sequel approved, then another, and another, and another…all the way up to yesterday as of this writing, when the upcoming Mega Man 11 was officially announced. Although I’m a little leery about the move away from pixel art to 3D models for the main series, I still can’t wait to see how the Blue Bomber’s 130-something’th outing pans out.

Until then, here’s to Mega Man: The most prolific character in video game history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer robot.

Totally Rad (NES)

Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.

Meet Jake. He’s a most excellent early 90s California skater dude with a righteous babe of a girlfriend named Allison. Like most teenagers back then, he spends his spare time hanging out at the circus learning sorcery from a freaky-looking leprechaun man named Zebediah. Good thing, too, because he’ll need all his gnarly magic skills if wants to rescue Allison and her dad from the evil warlord Edogy and his army of subterranean monster people. Just another day in Nintendo Land.

Welcome to Totally Rad! This 1990 action platformer was brought to us by Aicom and Jaleco. I really enjoyed the last Aicom NES game I played through, Vice: Project Doom, so I was pretty excited to give this one a go.

The game published internationally as Totally Rad started out as Magic John in Japan. The two releases are virtually identical except for one thing: The mass quantities of bodacious period ‘tude packed into Totally Rad’s every in-game cut scene and square inch of instruction manual text. Doe-eyed anime hero John became Keanu Reeves clone Jake and John’s girlfriend Yuu got a full Valley Girl makeover to become Allison. Only the magician Zebediah’s appearance was left untouched, resulting a very odd (and slightly creepy) clash of art styles. Many commenters have come down pretty hard on the game over the years due to what they perceive as the desperate unhipness of it all. I’m not entirely convinced that this is warranted. Just look at this excerpt from the introduction booklet:

“Edogy decides that he wants to kidnap Allison’s dad, a professor and the smartest guy on the West Coast – except that Allison’s dad lives near the Hollywood Freeway, takes the Hollywood Freeway to work, works near the Hollywood Freeway, and basically hardly ever leaves the Hollywood Freeway and, as it happens, Edogy has this major public transportation advocacy thing and there’s no way he’ll get anywhere near the Hollywood Freeway. So he kidnaps Allison instead, figuring that Allison’s dad will be lured away from the Hollywood Freeway long enough to save his daughter. Turns out he was right.”

There’s four whole pages of this. Four! Someone at Jaleco was clearly taking the piss in a big way when they localized this one. Once you realize that all the cowabunga corniness on display here was likely a deliberate skewering of pop culture trends of the time as opposed to a misguided and patronizing attempt to appeal to “the kids,” it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable in my opinion.

Firing Totally Rad up, you’ll notice right away that it’s an extremely colorful, borderline garish game. Hot pink and lime green are everywhere, and the later levels verge on psychedelia with their pulsing rainbow hues. These acres and acres of bright primary color make for quite the change of pace if you’re coming from more muted NES offerings like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. I don’t even think the Super Mario Bros. games on the system take it this far. I can see this game’s art style being a bit “love it or hate it,” but I’m leaning toward the love camp. The sprites and animations are high quality, befitting a late release on the system. The backgrounds are appealing, as well, with some good use of parallax scrolling here and there. The true graphical highlights, though, are the humongous boss monsters you’ll encounter at the end of every other stage. Not only are they well-drawn and animated, the designs themselves are strikingly outrageous and grotesque. Level two builds to a confrontation with what appears to be a thirty foot tall humanoid reptile sporting a pink mohawk, tight leather pants, and platform heels. Yowza.

The audio is decent, if not quite on the same level as the flashy visuals. The score by Kazuo Sawa (River City Ransom, The Battle of Olympus) is not exactly Wyld Stallyns worthy. It’s not awful and sets the tone well enough, I suppose. I just don’t find the majority of it to be particularly catchy or memorable. At least the song that plays over the opening cut scene sounds suspiciously like the famous saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” That always gives me a chuckle.

On to the gameplay. As Jake, you run and jump from left to right through a total of ten side-scrolling stages. Your primary attack is a rapid fire magic blast from Jake’s hand. Holding down the attack button for a few seconds instead of tapping it will charge up your shot to deal some extra damage. Every stage has a boss of some kind at the end, with every even-numbered one culminating in a conflict with an especially massive screen-filling baddie.

It seems pretty bare bones until you pause the game. Doing so brings up a menu containing a dozen different magical abilities that you can activate at any time. Each one costs a variable number of magic points from the gauge located at the top of the screen, next to Jake’s health bar. There are healing spells, elemental attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, a time stopper, a shield for temporary invincibility, and, most interestingly of all: Spells that will transform Jake into three different animal forms. These alternate forms allow the player to tackle the stages in several different ways. The eagle can fly by tapping the jump button, the lion can jump 50% higher and is immune to all damage while jumping, and the fish allows for swimming in the game’s requisite water level. The only downside to the animal transformations is that Jake can’t cast any other magic (such as healing) until he returns to human form. You can change him back to normal for free at any time, but reassuming animal form will then require a fresh expenditure of magic.

You’ll need to manage your magic intelligently if you want to do well, since there are no power-ups of any kind in the stages themselves. The only way to restore lost health is with magic and the only way to refill your magic is to either die or complete the current stage. Jake can usually manage five or six castings before running dry, so choose wisely.

It’s an interesting take on a power-up system, that’s for sure. The closest comparison would probably be Mega Man, if you started the game with all the robot master powers and they all shared a single power meter. Every stage hazard and boss fight can be made much easier with the application of the correct magic, but limited castings force the player to prioritize each threat in order to determine which ones are spell-worthy and which are better handled the old-fashioned way with Jake’s basic run-and-gun abilities.

On the downside, there are some glaring balance issues with the magic that become apparent as you play. The lion form damn near breaks the whole game with its combination of high damage output and invincibility on demand, and the eagle also has the potential to trivialize many of the stages with its flight capability. Despite these hiccups, Totally Rad’s magic system succeeds in adding enough depth and replay value to elevate it above the bog standard NES action title. It earns a recommendation, even if you don’t get as big a kick out of the absurd plot and dialog as I do. The fact that cartridge copies are still dirt cheap at the time of this writing is also a plus.

Copacetic.

Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to push the genre even further while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer, but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game, but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack, but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily, but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade, but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there, but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

Shatterhand (NES)

I came; I saw; I shattered.

Now that the (thoroughly disappointing) Adventures of Bayou Billy have come to an end, it’s time for me to treat myself a little. I’ve earned it. Luckily, I have something special I’ve been saving for just such an occasion.

I have fond memories of Natsume’s 1991 action platformer Shatterhand. I was one of the relatively few who played it back around the time of its release, and it impressed me enough back then that I just had to grab a copy when I spotted it at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo last month.

Shatterhand started out as Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein (“Super Rescue Solbrain”) in Japan. This was a licensed game based on an action tv series of the same name that centered on masked sci-fi superheroes fighting crime. Power Rangers type stuff, basically. Since the game came out several years before Power Rangers mania swept the West, however, there was no way that publisher Jaleco was going to stick with the Solbrain characters for the international release.

Instead, Shatterhand is the story of Steve Hermann. A decorated cop from the Bronx in the not-so-distant future of 2030, Steve loses both his hands in a violent clash with cyborg terrorists working for the nefarious organization Metal Command. While recuperating in the hospital, Steve is approached by a representative of the top secret government agency L.O.R.D. (Law and Order Regulatory Division) and offered a brand new pair of cybernetic hands, the strongest in the world, in exchange for his help taking down Metal Command and its leader, General Gus Grover. Steve naturally agrees and is given the codename Shatterhand to protect his identity as he sets off to save the world with his bare hands.

Wow. That whole spiel is so early 90s direct-to-video action movie that I can practically see the weathered VHS cover in my mind’s eye. Steve even sports a lime green vest and some sweet wraparound shades in-game. The whole package is like a little pop culture time capsule, and I absolutely love this sort of thing.

As for the game itself: You punch all the things and all the things explode.

You want more? Oh, fine. There are a total of seven stages in Shatterhand. The first is a basic introductory level where you’re encouraged to experiment with the controls and get accustomed to the general feel of the game. After that, you’re taken to a level select screen where you can play through the next five stages in any order you like before the final confrontation with General Grover in stage seven.

Steve has all the standard NES action game moves. He can run, jump, crouch, and deal out rapid fire punches both on the ground and while airborne. The way the punching is handled is quite slick, actually. Tapping the attack button will produce three quick jabs, perfect for dispatching weak enemies, before Steve will automatically switch over to throwing haymakers that are a bit slower, but deal twice the damage and are better suited to taking down anything still standing after the initial jab flurry. It’s a great way to elegantly map both attacks to a single button without the need for directional inputs or the like. Oh, and you can punch enemy bullets and missiles right out of the air harmlessly if your timing is good enough. Rad.

In addition, Steve has the ability to cling to the chain link fences that appear in the backgrounds of most levels and use them to boost himself up to higher platforms or as perches from which to attack hard-to-reach enemies. Get used to taking advantage of this because it’s Shatterhand’s take on the “special movement ability” that most every platformer has, similar to the Ninja Gaiden wall grab or the DuckTales pogo jump, and you’ll be expected to scale fences under increasingly precarious conditions as the game progresses.

As it is, this setup doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t sound particularly amazing, either. Until you consider the satellite robot system, that is. Scattered throughout each level are icons with Greek alpha and beta letters on them. Collecting three of these will summon a flying robot companion that will fight at Steve’s side by mirroring each of his attacks with one of its own. These guys can be damaged by enemy attacks and eventually destroyed, but they can potentially stick around for quite a while if you manage their movements and attacks skillfully. Each of the eight possible letter combinations will result in a different robot. For example, the alpha/alpha/beta bot fires a poweful laser beam while the beta/beta/alpha one has a built-in flamethrower. Other helpers bring swords, boomerangs, grenades, and more to the party. What’s more, collecting the same combination of letters again while your first bot is still active will cause Steve and his satellite helper to merge temporarily, granting Steve invincibility and superpowered fireball punch attacks until the timer runs out. If you can manage to transform right before you reach a stage’s boss, you can usually wreck your hapless opponent in seconds flat.

This power-up system is really what secures Shatterhand’s place as a top ten NES action game for me. The variety it presents to the player is deep without ever becoming overwhelming. You can stick to a single favorite companion for the whole game, try to determine which of the eight is best-suited for each of the stage layouts, or even opt for a hardcore no bot run with just your fists. The choice is yours.

Shatterhand has a pitch-perfect “Goldilocks” level of difficulty coupled with a managable length. This combination lends the game a superb sense of flow that drives the player forward at all times. Steve can withstand eight hits before losing a life, which is enough to encourage a bit of risk taking without allowing the player to slack off completely and cruise along on auto-pilot. Each level features its own unique environments and hazards and is just long enough to provide a decent challenge without wearing out its welcome. Losing all your lives will send you back to the start of a level, but continues are unlimited.

I really can’t heap enough praise on this one. It has the crisp, detailed graphics and advanced sound design you’d expect from a late period release, solid level design, pinpoint accurate controls, a brillant power-up system, and a way cool (if also way dated) premise and hero. If Shatterhand has one major flaw, it’s that you’ll likely find yourself wishing there was a lot more of it to appreciate. It didn’t garner the attention it deserved at the time of its release due to most Nintendo fans being hypnotized by their shiny new Super Mario Worlds and F-Zeros, but its appearances on countless “NES hidden gem” lists in the years since have at least given it a new lease on life here in the far-flung, killer cyborg ravaged 21st century.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (NES)

Love, Cajun style. Tastes like crawdaddies!

In 1988, Konami released an ambitious multi-genre action title for the Famicom called Mad City. The game followed ragin’ Cajun vigilante Billy West on a mission to rescue his absurdly buxom girl Annabelle from the ruthless New Orleans crime boss Godfather Gordon. While he may incidentally share a name with the famous Futurama voice actor, it’s obvious that Billy’s appearance was deliberately modeled on the title character from the then-popular Crocodile Dundee movies. They just relocated the main character from Australia to Louisiana, swapped out the crocodiles for alligators, and threw in tons of that good old 8-bit violence.

It worked. Mad City was a pretty fun experience, if also a bit on the short and easy side. When it came time to release the game in North America the following year, things had…changed. Rumors persist that this was due at least in part to the booming video game rental market in America. Nintendo and other game companies had lobbied Japanese lawmakers to effectively make the practice of game renting illegal there, while U.S. courts had decisively rejected their efforts to do the same on our side of the Pacific. Owing to this, it’s thought that some developers made the international releases of their games more difficult specifically so that gamers would be unlikely to be able to finish them as a weekend rental and would therefore be more likely to purchase the game outright.

Whatever the truth of this little conspiracy theory, there’s no doubt that numerous NES releases were altered so as to be significantly more difficult than their Famicom counterparts, none moreso than our version of Mad City: The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

As stated, Bayou Billy is a multi-genre game. The tv commercial featured a rubber alligator wrestling doofus portraying Billy who promised “hand-to-hand combat with drivin’, shootin’, and, of course, zappin’.” Of course. It was sold as a Konami caliber combination of Double Dragon, RoadBlasters, and Operation Wolf. In other words, a sure thing. Right?

Let’s start with the beat-’em-up action, since it comprises five out of the game’s nine stages. You start out in the bayou, naturally, and must plow through waves of Gordon’s men and the occasional pissed-off gator. Billy has a basic punch, kick, and jumping kick at the beginning. He can also pick up and use weapons if he can manage to disarm certain foes. It won’t take you long to realize that these levels really don’t play much at all like they do in other games. Enemies recover very quickly from being hit and are able to retaliate almost immediately, so you can’t just mash the attack buttons to lock a baddie in place and repeatedly pummel him until he goes down. What will happen instead if you go toe-to-toe is that Billy and the enemy will take turns trading hits. This is a problem because most enemies require a good seven or eight hits to put down, and so does Billy! The bottom line is that trying to play Bayou Billy like a “normal” beat-’em-up will invariably get you killed off on the first or second screen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? The best option I found was a very patient, methodical hit-and-run strategy. Typically for this style of game, enemies won’t initiate attacks unless they’re lined up with Billy on a horizontal axis. If you approach them on the vertical, fire off a quick punch or kick as you pass, and keep on going, they either won’t have time to retaliate or their counterattack will whiff. Just keep moving, pick your moments, and slowly grind them down. Fortunately, you don’t have a time limit. Later brawling stages introduce different enemy types and new weapons (like the almighty whip that lets you strike rapidly from a distance), but this basic strategy still applies through the end of the game. It’s kind of a drag, honestly.

How about the next mode, the first-person gallery shooting? Well, it’s actually quite cool. You’re able to use the Zapper light gun or aim with the controller and everything is smooth, precise, and decently challenging. Enemies rush onto the screen and you do your best to gun them all down before they can pop a shot off at you. Eventually, you’ll get to battle a big bullet sponge boss before moving on to the next stage. There are even power-ups like health packs, screen clearing bombs, and temporary invincibility. You have limited ammunition, but your stock of bullets will only decrease when you miss a target. As odd as that is, it does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about running out of bullets as long as you exercise some minimal trigger discipline and don’t just try to spray the whole screen. Everything here looks, sounds, and plays just fine. These shooting sections, all two of them, are the high point of Billy’s adventures.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the game’s two back-to-back driving levels. If Billy wants to save Annabelle, he has to ride his rickety jeep all the way from the swamps to Gordon’s mansion in New Orleans, and he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride. The basic gameplay is similar to Mach Rider, minus all the freedom of movement and fun. The biggest issue by far is that the roadways in the NES version of the game are only about half as wide as they are in the Famicom original, giving you almost no space to maneuver your vehicle and leaving you stuck in what amounts to a narrow corridor the whole time. Almost as detrimental is the fact that Billy’s health bar has now gone AWOL, making these driving sections the only part of the game where you’re subject to one hit deaths from hazards. Both levels are long, and between the time limit, the various hostile air and ground vehicles attacking you, and the static obstacles in the form of rocks and poles, you can expect to die early and often. Repetition and memorization will eventually see you through to Bourbon Street, but I exhausted my limited lives and continues several times over here before I was finally able to squeak past. These two stages are easily the most difficult and obnoxious stretch of the entire game.

I was very disappointed by The Adventures of Bayou Billy, and not just because the game was made more difficult than Mad City. I firmly believe that no respectable game reviewer will ever hold a game’s challenge level against it as such. Konami also altered one of my favorite games of all time, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with the same goal in mind and I’ll defend that one anytime. It’s perfectly fine for a game to be demanding as long as it’s also rewarding. Bayou Billy is not rewarding. Other tough titles I’ve enjoyed recently (Silver Surfer, ActRaiser 2) present a steep learning curve, but really open up to the player once that initial hurdle is overcome to reveal a fair amount of satisfying gameplay under the surface. Not so with Bayou Billy. You can adapt to the boring moveset and repetitive, time-consuming avoidance tactics of the brawling stages and even to the white-knuckle gauntlet that is the driving section, but there are no hidden depths waiting to reveal themselves to you at that point. It’s simply a superficial experience that gets easier without ever getting good. The shooting gallery portions are solid enough for what they are, but they can’t carry the whole game. Not even close. Mad City made the right call by keeping the challenge low and the pace brisk, insuring that the player would be too occupied with the spectacle to dwell on the lack of substance.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll add that the graphics and music are pretty sweet for the hardware and definitely up to the high Konami standard. Beyond that, the most enjoyable things about Bayou Billy are probably the game manual and box, which is never a good sign. Whoever was in charge of writing the instructions really gave it their all in terms of selling the whole cornball Cajun bayou theme. Damsel in distress Annabelle is described as “a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May Clampett” and “a three time cover girl for the glamour magazine – Swamp Digest.” Even the common thugs you fight are given punny names like Tolouse L’attack and the murderous scuba diver Jacques Killstow. My favorite of all is the cover art, which depicts Billy with the body of a super buff Crocodile Dundee and the head of…Jim Varney!? That’s right, there’s a ripped Ernest P. Worrell brandishing a giant knife right on the front of this game. Now that’s my idea of an awesome action hero! Know what I mean, Vern?

Whomp ‘Em (NES)

This would probably be pretty offensive if the game actually had a plot.

This oddity is 1991’s Whomp ‘Em by Jaleco, and it has to be a serious contender for the “stupidest NES game title ever” award. Originally released for the Famicom the previous year as Saiyūki World 2: Tenjōkai no Majin (“Genie of the Heavenly World”), it was yet another game based on the classic Chinese historical fantasy novel Journey to the West. Saiyūki World 2 starred Sun Wukong the Monkey King, a mischievous trickster hero from Chinese myth and a prominent character in the novel. He’s best-known outside of East Asia as the inspiration for the character Goku in the Dragonball manga and anime, but this wasn’t the case at all back in 1991, so Jaleco opted to modify the game for international release. They swapped out Sun Wukong for Soaring Eagle, a (non-specifically) Native American lad on a quest to gather magic totems from the game’s various bosses. Because magic totems are cool, I guess. Like I said, there’s really nothing resembling a story to be found in Whomp ‘Em. What you see is what you get. The publisher also didn’t see fit to alter anything other than the main character’s sprite and the title and ending screens, so your totally American for reals hero still has to battle panda bears in a bamboo forest and scrap with what’s obviously a demon cast from the Buddhist mold in the game’s final stage. Nice.

Lazy localization aside, Whomp ‘Em is a solid NES action platformer that takes structural cues from the Mega Man series and combines them with play control reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. After a short introductory level, the player can then choose to complete the next six stages (which are based on common platforming themes like fire, water, ice, and forest) in any order they like before moving on to the final one. Defeating the bosses in each of these six main levels will net Soaring Eagle a totem that confers a new special ability or attack. Unlike in Mega Man, these powers don’t eat up ammunition and can be used at will without restriction once acquired. It’s too bad that most of them are pretty underwhelming and don’t offer much of an offensive advantage over your standard spear weapon. With the exception of the throwing spear that allows for a much-needed ranged attack, you probably won’t find yourself bothering much with these totems much except when one is needed to smash or burn away a barrier in one of the stages.

Soaring Eagle himself is a pretty competent hero. As mentioned, he handles a lot like Link in Zelda II, except with a spear for a primary weapon instead of a sword. This even extends to having the same downward and upward weapon thrust maneuvers available while in the air. He can also deflect some attacks from above by holding his spear up over his head while standing still, though this ability is never really necessary to progress in the game. In a fashion that recalls Bionic Commando, you can increase Soaring Eagle’s health meter from its initial four hearts all the way up to twelve by collecting enough of the gourd items dropped by enemies. Taking the time to do this early on will greatly offset the game’s difficulty. Finally, there are several power-ups that drop from defeated enemies: The spearhead temporarily boosts attack power, the headdress does the same for defense, the spear will improve weapon reach, the deerskin shirt confers brief invincibility, and the magic potions work like the energy tanks in a Mega Man game and automatically restore some of Soaring Eagle’s health when it runs out.

Whomp ‘Em isn’t very difficult when compared to many other games of its kind. Once you have a full health meter and a magic potion or two, Soaring Eagle can absorb a ton of punishment. Enemies in your way will drop life replenishing hearts on a fairly regular basis, too. The usual bottomless pits and instant death spikes are also nowhere to be found in this game. Instead, hazards like these will only cost you a small amount of heath. Platforming veterans will be able to practically sprint through Whomp ‘Em in no time flat and even newcomers should be able to make steady progress. The final stage is the toughest by far, due to some tricky elements like a zero-gravity corridor and pits that can send you back to an earlier section of the level. Continues are unlimited, though, so even this final stretch can be mastered with relative ease.

Whomp ‘Em was never destined for greatness. It was in no way original, the name was awful, the cover art was ugly as sin, and it was released fairly late in the system’s lifespan by a smallish publisher. While it was true enough that few Americans had ever heard of Sun Wukong, none of them had heard of Soaring Eagle or seemingly wanted to. Despite having gone nowhere fast and being virtually forgotten today, it still makes for a pleasant enough afternoon or evening of completely by-the-book NES action platforming. The control is solid, the graphic are colorful, and the stages flow well. I can’t imagine this being anyone’s favorite game ever, but if you’ve already played all the higher profile classics or you’re specifically on the lookout for a less challenging take on the genre, you might as well whomp them. They probably have it coming to them, the bastards.