Castlevania: The Holy Relics (NES)

Whew! I’m back from another Portland Retro Gaming Expo! The biggest classic video gaming event on the planet makes for an intense weekend, to say the least. It’s always well worth it, though. I actually took the plunge this year and tried dressing up in costume for the first time as my favorite NES hero, Simon Belmont. I went with the grotesque, buffoonish interpretation of Simon from the Captain N: The Game Master cartoon because that’s just the way my sense of humor works. I’m only interested in embodying the most despised versions of beloved characters. Good times.

While the Expo is over, the show must go on. In my case, that means a weekly game review. What better choice under these circumstances than an underexposed gem starring my boy Simon? And one I played for the first time at a past PRGE, no less? I’m talking about Castlevania: The Holy Relics, a notably ambitious 2017 ROM hack of Castlevania by Optomon , with additional graphics work by Setz, Bit-Blade, Dr. Mario, and Boneless Ivar. You may recognize the Optomon name from other first class fan projects I’ve covered, such as Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries and Metroid: Rogue Dawn. If so, you already know this is going to be something special.

In order to to understand why Holy Relics is a such a fascinating take on the standard hack, it helps to think of it as some parallel universe’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. What if, rather than infusing open level design and RPG elements into Castlevania’s divisive 1987 sequel, Konami had kept it a traditional action-platformer and incorporated elements of their arch-rival Capcom’s Mega Man instead? The result is a style of Castlevania play which simply doesn’t exist in any official form. If that doesn’t do a better job piquing your curiosity than yet another set of super challenging remixed stages, I don’t know what would.

The events of Holy Relics are set in 1693, two years after Dracula’s defeat in the first Castlevania. A set of powerful relics looted from the Holy Land by avaricious crusaders four hundred years prior has fallen into the hands of a necromancer named Lord Ghulash, who’s used them to plunge the land into darkness once more. It falls on Simon Belmont, champion of Transylvania, to recover the relics from their demonic guardians and vanquish Ghulash.

There are a six stages on offer, as per normal. Before the action even begins, however, the game hits you with its first major alteration in the form of a level select screen! Yes, you’re free to play through the first five areas in any order you choose before moving on to the final confrontation. You’re also allowed to choose a single relic to take with you whenever you begin a stage. You start with the cross already in your possession and gain another option with every boss you defeat.

These relics are no mere plot MacGuffins or symbolic tokens of success like the glowing orbs bosses drop in the base game. On the contrary, they’re mighty tools that each break the fundamental rules of 8-bit Castlevania in their own way. The mug, for example, allows you to replenish Simon’s health on demand. The crown temporarily powers-up his whip to an absurd degree, enough to take out bosses with just three hits. The bag awards massive bonus points for killing enemies, making it easy to rack up loads of extra lives. Relic activation is mapped to the Select button and is limited by the number of special blue hearts you can manage to acquire in a given stage. Usage restrictions aside, the overwhelming power of the relics makes them as vital to Simon’s success as his familiar whip and sub-weapons. So many ROM hacks are about cranking the difficulty up so high that experienced players feel like newbies again. It’s rare to find one that’s more about upgrading the protagonist into a complete beast.

Speaking of the sub-weapons, a couple of them have received potent tweaks, too. The axe now travels at a shallower angle which covers more space horizontally at the expense of some arc height. This boosts its versatility greatly. The throwing dagger has also been given a huge shot in the arm. It’s now an oak stake that deals a hefty triple the damage with only the minor drawback of slower flight speed to compensate. The enhanced axe and stake so clearly outclass the other options for me that I found myself cursing whenever I accidentally picked up the boomerang or holy water. How’s that for a shakeup?

The levels themselves are completely divorced from anything seen in the source game. The vast majority of hacks still take place in recognizable remodels of Dracula’s castle. You have the familiar entryway, underground waterway, clock tower, etc. Holy Relics tosses this all out the window in favor of diverse outdoor and indoor locations populated with a blend of reskinned and functionally new enemies. It throws its players yet another curve ball by transplanting the idea of locked doors from Vampire Killer, the obscure Castlevania entry for Japanese MSX computers. Every stage has a pair of doors obstructing Simon’s progress which require keys to open. These keys are never too far away or tricky to find, though the search often forces you to take a slightly more circuitous route than you might otherwise have.

Collectively, such sweeping changes to the structure and mechanics of vanilla Castlevania are a lot to take in. The redrawn graphics and a soundtrack featuring a mix of original tunes and covers of songs from later games also adds to the surreality. Fortunately, for all its radical reinvention, Holy Relics still comes across as Castlevania through and through. Simon’s short, stiff jumps are unchanged, as is his whip’s characteristic delay. Skillful play remains a matter of patience, timing, and grace under pressure, so veteran players won’t be left floundering.

Of course, any experiment this daring is likely to have its rough edges. In terms of negatives, I’ve already touched on the obvious one: The insane strength of most of the relic powers. Although it’s fun to play Superman on occasion, you shouldn’t need me to tell you why the ability to hoard dozens of lives, turn invincible at a moment’s notice, or slay the most fearsome opponents with three whip cracks can be a tad much. Simply put, smart relic use breaks the game. It’s technically optional, sure, but that’s cold comfort when these items serve as the game’s namesake and primary draw. In addition, the locked doors add little to the experience. The levels here aren’t long or complex enough for key hunting to blossom into a proper puzzle solving exercise, so it’s really a trifle at best. Finally, the visual design of the final boss is quite goofy. He doesn’t look like he could successfully intimidate the average Animal Crossing resident, let alone a Belmont. Bit of an anticlimax there.

If you’re of a mind to forgive its glaring balance issues and the occasional strange aesthetic choice, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll agree with me that Castlevania: The Holy Relics is the single best fan-made twist on Konami’s legendary classic to date. Nothing else comes close to matching its scope, inventiveness, and replay value. Not even Optomon’s own excellent Chorus of Mysteries. It’s pure comfort food for the old school Castlevania lover’s soul; a digital holy relic that’s earned itself a permanent spot on my NES altar.

115910~01

 

Advertisements

A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

 

Hey! You forgot the Power Glove!

I had such a memorable time (for better and worse) taking down the NES incarnation of Jason Voorhees last month that I see no reason to let my killer killing streak end there. Next up in my crosshairs is everyone’s favorite extra crispy child murderer, Freddy Krueger!

This is typically the part of the review where I’d question the wisdom of adapting an R-rated horror franchise to a gaming platform pitched squarely at minors. The Springwood Slasher was well into the high camp Max Headroom phase of his career by 1990, however, and not even us kids were taking him all that seriously anymore. It’s tough to inspire real life nightmares after you’ve guest hosted MTV and covered “Wooly Bully” on your novelty record, you know? That said, this relatively tame action-platformer still had the potential to be much more controversial than it was. Early builds of the game saw the player controlling Freddy himself as he bumped off hapless teenagers. It’s easy to understand why developer Rare and publisher LJN ultimately changed course and reversed these roles.

Similar to LJN’s Jaws and Friday the 13th, Nightmare presents as a more-or-less genericized version of the basic scenario that defines the movie series. Ghostly psycho Freddy is butchering the children of Elm Street in their dreams as revenge against their parents for burning him to death years back. There are no specific supporting characters depicted who would tie this game to any of the five films released prior, although several key locations and concepts appear to have been lifted from the fan favorite third installment, Dream Warriors. The player assumes control of an unnamed teen who’s looking to end this reign of terror by gathering up Freddy’s bones, which are scattered all over the neighborhood for some unknown reason, and burning them in the furnace situated in the basement of the local high school. While I tackled it alone, Nightmare actually allows up to four players simultaneously via the Four Score and Satellite multitap accessories. If there’s any other platforming game from the period that attempted such a thing, I can’t name it. Four people trying to do pinpoint platforming all at once on the same low resolution screen? Sounds like a recipe for sheer chaos to me. I’d love to try it out someday.

If you’re one of the many who despised Friday the 13th for its arcane and often poorly-documented strategy gameplay, I have good news for you: A Nightmare on Elm Street is much closer to the conventional idea of what an NES game should be. It doesn’t get much simpler than seven linear stages of increasingly difficult pit jumping and enemy bashing. The only potentially confusing element is Elm Street itself, which acts as a hub area. Fortunately, there isn’t much to it. Finish one stage and you’ll need to trek down the road to the next one and press up to enter its front door. Since only one door is ever active at a time, there’s a minor trial and error element as you try out different buildings.

Levels are broken up into multiple side-scrolling segments, each of which tasks you with collecting a requisite number of bones in order to unseal the exit. You’ll eventually reach the boss room and face off with Freddy, who assumes a variety of strange and occasionally goofy guises to combat you. Beating him earns you access to the next level. It also grants you an extra life. Make the most of these, as this is the only way you can add to your initial stock of twenty. Run out and it’s back to the title screen.

In a nod to the cinematic Krueger’s oneiric onslaughts, Nightmare includes a sleep mechanic. The red “Zzz” meter at the top of the screen represents your hero’s wakefulness. It slowly decreases with time and allowing it to deplete fully shifts the action to the dream world. The artwork takes on a darker tone here and enemy health is doubled. Level layouts and monster spawn points don’t change, it just becomes harder to kill things.

You can avoid transitioning to the dream world by picking up the coffee cups present in most stages. You may want to pass on the caffeine, though. Counterintuitive as it seems, the benefits of being trapped in Freddy’s domain arguably outweigh the dangers. Only when sleeping is your rather pathetic default character able to utilize the three powered-up dream warrior forms. There’s an athlete, a ninja, and a wizard. They all offer superior jumping ability and projectiles to replace the puny punch that normally serves as your sole means of attack. Dream world baddies take more hits to kill, sure, but you no longer need to be within arm’s reach of them to deal your damage. The advantage is yours.

The designers must have realized this, so they threw in one final hazard unique to the dream world: Periodic mini-boss engagements with Freddy. These are always preceded by a chiptune interpretation of the spooky “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” song from the movies. They should function as potent incentives to stay awake. In practice, the fights are far too easy and hardly fit for their intended purpose. No, it’s still smarter and more interesting to remain asleep, if you ask me.

If this all sounds pretty decent, that’s because it is. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, especially considering that it’s long been dogged by the usual “crappy licensed LJN game” reputation. It’s nothing mind-blowing and it absolutely has its shortcomings. The collision detection leaves a lot to be desired at times, with some of your shots passing straight through enemies harmlessly. It punks big-time out at the end by falling back on a boss rush in place of a unique final boss. Above all, it isn’t remotely scary. If you look past the fact that it includes a few Freddy sprites, the experience isn’t any more unsettling than the average Castlevania outing. Friday the 13th, for all its clunkiness, baked some real tension into your high stakes cat-and-mouse game with Jason.

Still, this is a perfectly adequate second string contract work with a smooth difficult curve, a fun gimmick in the dream warrior abilities, and a sublime soundtrack by David Wise of Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads fame that’s almost certainly too good for the material it supports. A Nightmare on Elm Street likely won’t set your world on fire, or even your boiler room, but it won’t put you to sleep, either. I hope….

Crystalis (NES)

The sprawling NES library has no shortage of high quality entries that, for one reason or other, were destined to remain one-offs. Whether due to lackluster sales, expired licenses, or simple lack of developer interest, the fact we never received proper follow-ups to brilliant works like The Guardian Legend and Shatterhand adds an unwelcome bittersweet edge to the fun. As far as I’m concerned, no sequel-less NES gem got a rawer deal than the 1990 action RPG Crystalis, or God Slayer: Haruka Tenkū no Sonata (“God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky”), as it’s known in Japan. Man, what a spectacular title; poetic and badass. I suppose the localization team didn’t want concerned parents phoning in complaints about Little Jimmy’s deicidal Nintender tape. Killjoys.

Crystalis’ ironclad reputation as a cult classic is odd in light of its origin: Legendary action game studio SNK. It actually hit Japanese shelves two weeks before the launch of the company’s bleeding edge Neo Geo platform. Even if SNK was one of the true greats of the 8 and 16-bit era, RPGs were hardly in their wheelhouse. Or were they? For a first foray into a brand new genre, Crystalis’ sheer polish, ambition, and confidence are breathtaking. It’s not a flawless game, but it sure carries itself like one.

Despite what the sword-wielding dude on the cover may lead you to believe, Crystalis isn’t set in the ancient past or some made-up fantasy land. No, this is post-nuclear Earth, ravaged by a massive conflict that brought humanity to the very brink of extinction on that fateful day of October 1st, 1997. Setting doomsday less than a decade out? That takes either an extreme lack of foresight or an equally extreme pessimism. In either case, a century has passed, during which savage mutants have overrun the irradiated wilderness. What’s left of human civilization has regressed to a medieval state and rediscovered the lost art of magic.

The actual plot centers on a floating tower created by survivors of the nuclear war. Its on-board computer was supposed to watch over the remaining people and prevent them from making the same mistakes again. A despot named Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are on the verge of seizing control of the tower, which will allow them to rule the entire planet unopposed through the combined might of dark wizardry and pre-war technology. You control a nameless hero automatically awakened from a cryogenic freeze, apparently as a fail-safe in the event of just such a crisis. Unfortunately, the defrosting process seems to have left you an amnesiac with no clue how to accomplish your mission. No matter! You’re given a magic sword by the village elder right off the bat and basically told to go forth, kill monsters, and let the details sort themselves out.

It’s a sweet setup to be sure, especially for a time when “kill the Dark Lord,” “save the trophy girl,” or both were still the three default RPG plots. I only wish I could say Crystalis delivered on it more fully. Apart from the opening and closing segments, there’s nothing that evokes the post-apocalypse genre specifically or science fiction in general. This isn’t Wasteland or Fallout, in other words. From the time you leave your sleep chamber until you reach the floating tower itself for the rather abrupt climax, Crystalis is every bit a conventional swords & sorcery exercise.

Thankfully, that exercise is a superb one. Many have cited Crystalis as the best action RPG on the NES and, as much as I adore Zelda II, I’m inclined to agree. The graphics, while not the flashiest we’d ever see from the hardware, are colorful and well-detailed. The relatively large sprites for the hero and his many enemies do a fine job showcasing how far the state of NES art had advance in the four years since the original Zelda. The music is better still. Stirring, mysterious, and eerie by turns, this soundtrack sears itself into the player’s consciousness. It’d been decades since I last picked up the game and I still knew every note by heart.

Of course, great graphics and music alone do not a great game make. Exploration, combat, and character progression form the foundation of any action RPG. If they don’t work to draw you in from minute-to-minute, the game doesn’t work. Crystalis’ navigation and combat utilize the standard 3/4 overhead perspective, with your hero able to move about freely (and rather quickly) in eight directions, as well as jump by equipping a specific pair of enchanted boots. So far, so good. All battling revolves around use of the four magic swords you acquire throughout your travels, each associated with an element: Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder. You do get to combine all four swords at the end, not to form Captain Planet, but rather the super-sword Crystalis. Sadly, the Crystalis sword itself is made available  exclusively for the absurdly easy and unsatisfying final boss fight, so it’s merely a tease.

Beyond running up to baddies and mashing B to shank them repeatedly, every sword has three different ranged magic attacks achieved by holding down the button for a set amount of time and then releasing it when needed. You have access to a sword’s first level charge attack from the get-go, with the other two requiring accessory items to enable. These higher level sword powers have non-combat applications, too, blasting away some walls and otherwise creating paths to new areas.

This ready access to a wide selection of projectile attacks is cool. It also has the side benefit of partially mitigating the game’s biggest weakness: Wonky hit detection. Getting close enough to enemies to reliably take them out with regular sword thrusts is trickier than it should be, owing to the hero’s tendency to take hits from things you’ll swear weren’t anywhere near to touching him. You often can’t trust your eyes in this regard, making a series of long-distance potshots the safest bet in most cases. This approach is still not perfect. Certain enemy types are completely immune to one or more swords, which can lead to tons of tedious gear swapping or simply running straight past foes instead of engaging with them because you can’t be bothered to futz around with menu screens at the moment.

In addition to your swords, which are really the central hook here, you get an unremarkable selection of armor, shields, and healing consumables. Rounding things out are a handful of spells that allow you to recover health, cure negative status effects, fast travel between town, and so on. You’ll occasionally need to use your magic on NPC townsfolk in order to solve a puzzle and advance the story; a pretty thoughtful touch that didn’t factor into many other RPGs of the era.

So the story is interesting, the presentation lush, and the core gameplay generally fun, albeit with some non-trivial annoyances. What truly elevates Crystalis above and beyond its peers on the system, though, are its pitch-perfect pacing and ultra-smooth sense of progression. This game moves like nobody’s business. There’s no point during the compact eight hour run time when it feels like your hero or his journey is stagnating. You’re always zooming off to the next town or dungeon, always stumbling onto a nifty new sword attack or spell, always being pulled forward by the natural flow of the quest. If more RPGs could pull off this one elegant trick…well, I might not devote 90% of my gaming time to platformers and shooters. As it is, Crystalis and the almighty Chrono Trigger are among the precious few that make it look easy.

Inevitably, the dawn of the high end Neo Geo and its ability to bring the pure arcade experience home shifted SNK’s focus away from experimental RPGs and back to their coin-op roots. The debut of a little game called Street Fighter II in 1991 further cemented this change of direction, leading to Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and the legion of other competitive fighters that define their legacy to this day in the eyes of many. True to its lofty name, the Neo Geo ushered in a whole new world. If Crystalis taught us one thing, however, it’s that no new world, no matter how magical, is birthed without pain.

Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on archpsycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

Milon’s Secret Castle (NES)

I was braced for some serious punishment when I stepped through the gates of Milon’s Secret Castle. There’s certainly no shortage of other commentators out there eager to denounce this 1986 side-scrolling action-adventure from Hudson Soft as one of the most agonizing times you can have with your NES short of cramming your unmentionables into the cartridge slot. Its bad reputation didn’t start with the Angry Video Game Nerd series this time, either. Early Internet semi-celebrity “Seanbaby” Reiley was dumping on Milon as far back as the late ’90s. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself reflecting on what blessed lives these folks must lead if something like this is anywhere near the bottom of their digital shit lists. I’m reminded of the naifs who’ll tell you very matter-of-factly that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made when it’s not even within spitting distance of being Wood’s worst, nevermind the worst. Have these sheltered souls even heard of Monster a Go-Go!? Psyched by the 4-D Witch? Things? I doubt it.

That’s not to say Milon’s Secret Castle (aka Meikyū Kumikyoku: Milon no Daibōken, “The Maze Suite: Milon’s Great Adventure”) is any sort of misunderstood masterpiece, only that it falls into the same class as stuff like Silver Surfer and Fester’s Quest. These are all indisputably flawed games, perhaps even clunky ones, that are still worth learning if you’re patient and relish a challenge. Are they underrated? Sure, but only in light of the absurd amount of abuse hurled at them. In a less hyperbolic climate, they’d be considered pretty okay-ish. I suppose there’s comparatively little entertainment value in an assessment like that, though.

So who’s Milon? He’s a young boy from the modestly-named land of Hudson. All of his countrymen rely on music to express themselves, but poor Milon is apparently tone deaf or something, since he alone lacks this ability. Despondent, he sets out on a journey to find others like himself. He soon comes across Castle Gardland, which has been invaded by the warlord Maharito. This fiend has stolen the people’s musical instruments and imprisoned Queen Eliza within the depths of her own castle. Milon volunteers to save her and is given an enchanted bubble blower by the castle’s magician to use as a weapon against Maharito’s demons.

With “secret” right there in the title, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Milon’s quest revolves around discovering the many hidden passageways and items tucked away throughout the castle. Doing this will gradually reveal the lairs of seven boss monsters. Defeating them and obtaining the crystals they leave behind will power-up Milon and, eventually, open the way to Maharito’s inner sanctum.

Virtually everything in this game is presented as a secret, regardless of how illogical that can be at times. Whenever Milon enters one of the castle’s sprawling multi-screen rooms, for example, he won’t be allowed to leave until he discovers the hidden exit. You’d naturally expect him to be able to exit at any time via the same doorway he just entered through. Silly you with your common sense. The go-to method for revealing all these secrets is to shoot up as much of the scenery as possible with Milon’s bubbles. This will uncover hidden doors, money needed to acquire items in shops, honeycombs that expand Milon’s health bar, and more. The instruction manual tells you this much.

What the instructions don’t see fit to mention is that Milon can also shove certain blocks aside in order to discover doors hidden behind them. In fact, you can’t progress past the very first section of the game without doing this. Worse yet, Milon has no dedicated pushing animation, so it’s possible a player may actually attempt this out of desperation only to give up after not holding the D-pad down quite long enough. It took me nearly an hour to get past this classic beginner’s trap, which is easily more time than I spent on any of the game’s later puzzles. This total failure on Hudson’s part to provide basic information on a key gameplay feature is what led to the infamous “Getting Started” feature in Nintendo Power’s Classified Information column, a space typically reserved for advanced strategies and esoteric codes.

Whether you chalk it up to ignorance or malice, I believe this single egregious blunder is responsible for countless bad first impressions of the game over the years. Once I finally figured it out (and roundly cursed the team at Hudson’s mothers when I confirmed the problem wasn’t on my end), the rest of the journey was relatively smooth sailing. I quickly fell into a rhythm of scouring each new room for hidden stuff, finding items, and taking down bosses. I still died a ton, of course, as the enemies infesting this castle don’t mess around. They attack relentlessly and respawn almost instantly when destroyed. Milon also doesn’t enjoy any significant post-hit invincibility window, so baddies can quickly pile on loads of damage if they manage to make contact. You have unlimited continues, thankfully, although they don’t kick in until after you defeat the first boss for some odd reason. This keeps the game beatable in spite of its non-stop brutal combat. Alas, no save or password system is provided. You’ll nèed to tackle this one in a single sitting.

Setting its cryptic structure and formidable difficulty aside for the moment, Secret Castle’s dismal reputation among NES enthusiasts is also likely due in part to the quirks of its release schedule. Its Famicom debut in late 1986 came a mere handful of months after The Legend of Zelda and Metroid put console action-adventure/RPG games on the map. It thus predates Tecmo’s Rygar, Konami’s Castlevania II, and most other third party efforts in that vein. Its release on the NES nearly two full years later effectively robbed it of its head start and left it looking somewhat primitive next to the competition at a time in gaming history when the state of the art was advancing at lightning speed. Call it the Hydlide Effect.

I’m not about to tell you that Milon’s Secret Castle is as great as its first party predecessors or the majority of those more sophisticated post-1986 takes on the same concepts I just mentioned. The fierce challenge and need to constantly probe every square inch of the environment for secrets simply won’t appeal to everyone. Its lack of a save feature can also represent a daunting time commitment to newcomers, a gaffe that was remedied by the welcome addition of passwords to the 1993 Japanese Game Boy port. What it does have to offer is cute, colorful graphics in that timeless flat early NES style, a catchy (if limited) soundtrack, and a lovable protagonist with a whimsical and intriguing world to explore.

I guess I can’t help but root for this plucky, bubble blasting kid. He’s an outsider and an underdog, both in his own native fantasy world and NES fandom at large, but he never lets it bring him down. It doesn’t matter if he’s getting dissed and dismissed for his musical incompetence or his supposedly crappy first game; that happy-go-lucky grin of his can weather any storm. Why hate when you can be like Milon?

Time Diver: Eon Man (NES)

What a cordial end screen. Good luck to you, too, Taito.

This week’s review marks another first for me. I’ve looked at various unlicensed and fan-made games before, but Time Diver: Eon Man was never formally released at all. Its planned 1993 launch was cancelled at the last minute by publisher Taito. I’m talking “after it got its own Nintendo Power feature” last minute, too. Apart from a bootleg version circulated in Asia in 1994 by a mysterious outfit (or individual) known only as Nitra, Time Diver would have been lost forever if a supposedly finished English language version hadn’t leaked to the Internet.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, most sources list Atlus as the developer behind this one. The available documentation actually supports crediting A.I, who originally intended it to serve as a sequel to their own Wrath of the Black Manta (Ninja Cop Saizou) from 1989. In an insightful interview with GDRI, former A.I artist/planner/producer Shouichi Yoshikawa described the project as “understaffed” and, frankly, it shows.

Of course, I’m getting a little ahead of myself with that last statement. It does bring me neatly to the ethical quandary that is reviewing any unreleased media, though. How fair can my critique be to the creators when their work was never properly presented to the public in the first place? At the same time, Time Diver: Eon Man is a game that exists. You can easily go play it right now if you wish. A review of it therefore serves a practical purpose for a classic gaming community hungry for insight into which lesser known titles are worth their time. I suppose you should feel free to take what I say here for what it’s worth and try not to hold any negatives against the parties involved. Deal?

Time Diver: Eon Man is a side-scrolling action-platformer with a science fiction theme. Not exactly a revelation on the NES, I know. The titular Time Diver is Dan Nelson, an unassuming college student in 1993 Los Angeles. After a close call with a group of high-tech assailents, Dan learns that he and his ancestors are targets of the criminal organization Romedrux, who are sending assassins back in time from the year 2052 in hopes of erasing Dan’s unborn son Kane from history. Kane is destined to invent a miraculous device that predicts and prevents virtually all crime, so it makes sense that Romedrux would want him out of the way. In order that he might save the future, Dan is entrusted with another of Kane’s inventions: A suit that allows him to travel through time and harness a number of handy superpowers as…the Time Diver. It’s basically Terminator with a dash of Minority Report. I’ve heard worse.

While this time hopping plot is packed with potential, Time Diver ultimately doesn’t capitalize on it very well. What we get here is notably short and lacking in diversity; five average length stages, four of which are “peaceful” and “devastated” versions of 1993 and 2052. That leaves Dan’s excursion to 1882 as the sole stab at a historical setting, and he spends most of it in a nondescript cave area that could have been culled from any given 8-bit game. To their credit, A.I did attempt to inject some replay value by making the stage order random. With this little content to work with, however, the feature amounts to a trifle at best.

Core gameplay doesn’t stray far from the expected. Dan has to run, jump, and punch his way past a procession of thugs and environmental hazards on his way to each stage’s end boss. He controls well and can execute a useful rebounding jump kick that functions like the wall jump from Sunsoft’s NES Batman. He also acquires a selection of special powers that draw on the limited stock of “arts” points displayed on the lower right of the screen. These allow Dan to do things like shoot energy waves, freeze time briefly, and tunnel through the ground in some stages. Most of his foes are nothing special. They wander back and forth, shoot straight ahead every few seconds, and so on. The platforming gimmicks are more fun to deal with, even if they’re also well-worn genre staples for the most part. Spikes, moving platforms, flame jets, and Mega Man style disappearing blocks all make the rotation.

One area where Time Diver does manage to stand out is its deranged boss encounters. These guys are nothing if not memorable. Two of them are killer football players for no apparent reason. Another is a shapeshifting rock monster that attacks Dan by shouting out brightly colored text reading “Wow Wow” that travels across the screen as a deadly projectile. Still others lash out with screen-filling appendages so jagged and pixely I thought the game might have been glitching on me. I’m not sure what any of this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad it’s here to add some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Time Diver’s presentation is the epitome of a mixed bag. Its origin as a Black Manta sequel is reflected in its penchant for sparse backgrounds and hideous sprite art. This would have been nothing less than embarrassing alongside other late period NES releases like Kirby’s Adventure, Mighty Final Fight, and Taito’s very own Little Samson. Such underwhelming visuals may well have contributed to Time Diver getting the axe. It’s a real pity when you factor in the superb soundtrack by Tsukasa Masuko (Megami Tensei, Dungeon Explorer), which is by far the game’s most distinguished feature and deserves to be more widely heard than it ever will be wedded to a canceled product.

So, is Time Diver: Eon Man an unjustly quashed lost classic? Definitely not. Although much worse stuff did make it to retail over the course of the NES’ life, I still think Taito made the right call in terminating this one. They were regularly releasing much stronger material throughout the early ’90s and Time Diver would have been the odd man out. The version available for download isn’t despicable by any means. If you can forgive its brief runtime, shoddy graphics, and wholly derivative gameplay, what remains is adequate enough for a short play session. Difficulty is low and continues unlimited, so clearing it in a reasonable amount of time shouldn’t be an issue. Keep your expectations modest enough and you may even come away mildly pleased with its excellent music and outré boss designs.

As for me, I’m with Romedrux. Time Diver: Eon Man doesn’t belong in our timeline.

Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.