Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest that includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible that Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes that render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses that will reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.

 

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Gun.Smoke (NES)

What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes.

The year is 1849 and the remote Gold Rush town of Hicksville (yes, really) is straining under the yoke of the Wingates, a heartless band of desperados intent on taking the beleaguered miners for all they’re worth. Until their savior rides into town with the sun as his back, that is. He’s the fearless bounty hunter Billy Bob and he’s determined to liberate Hicksville the only way he knows how: By doing his very best impression of a spaceship.

Yes, Capcom’s 1985 arcade game Gun.Smoke was a vertical scrolling shooter. One of the first to see the player controlling something other than a spacecraft or military vehicle. The strange period in the title was presumably intended to appease the lawyers over at CBS Television. Their Gunsmoke series was a mainstay of American pop culture for the duration of its staggering twenty year run. In fact, its former record of 635 scripted episodes was only just recently surpassed by The Simpsons. It may not look like much, but that little dot apparently did the trick.

The game’s Wild West trappings were fundamentally skin-deep. Replace the dusty streets of Hicksville with an ocean or a starfield and the human players with airplanes or robots and the action would remain fully coherent. Its ace in the hole was the impeccable polish that Capcom built its arcade reputation on. The art and music did such a stellar job of drawing players in that it was hard to hold some familiar mechanics against it. Play centered on the mastery of three dedicated fire buttons that allowed Billy Bob to fire to his left, right, or straight ahead as needed as he strode through a total of ten stages collecting power-ups and administering lead poisoning to a small army of Wingate flunkies.

Predictably, some compromises were necessary when Gun.Smoke was ported to the NES in 1988. The graphics took the inevitable hit and the firing controls were simplified for a two-button controller, with both buttons now needing to be pressed simultaneously to fire straight ahead. A slightly awkward maneuver, to be sure. Most crucially, the number of stages was cut down to six.

Not every change was for the worse, however. The arcade Gun.Smoke was a ruthlessly difficult game; a true quarter muncher. Things are much more reasonable here, with fewer, less aggressive enemy characters and more options for dealing with them. NES Gun.Smoke isn’t really an easy game by most standards, but it’s a far cry from the unapologetic savagery of the original.

We also have some new music by chiptune virtuoso Junko Tamiya. As usual, her work is elegantly tailored to the game’s setting and action. Like the militaristic staccato percussion of Bionic Commando and the dainty music box melodies of Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Gun.Smoke’s twangy strings meld seamlessly with its pulp Western landscapes.

I particularly appreciate what they’ve done with the scoring system in the NES version. I’m a sucker for games where something as typically abstract as the player’s score is re-framed as a tangible resource of some kind. Here, as Billy Bob is a bounty hunter, the points he earns from blowing away baddies take the form of dollars that can be spent at shops run by friendly NPC characters in each stage. This introduces a high stakes “risk versus reward” dynamic to the game, since players serious about racking up high scores will be hesitant to utilize the shops at all. On the other hand, those that just want to maximize their chances for survival can trade a chunks of score in for more powerful weapons like the shotgun and magnum, defensive items like the horse and smart bomb, and even the elusive wanted posters.

What use is a wanted poster? Oddly enough, you’re required to either find or buy one in every stage. If you don’t, the boss won’t show his face and the terrain will instead loop endlessly. This is the most commonly criticized change to the arcade game’s formula and seems to have been intended as a way to lengthen the overall experience by adding a scavenger hunt element. Assuming you’re not willing to surrender large sums of points for them, the posters must be uncovered by repeatedly shooting at a specific, seemingly empty portion of each stage’s background. The only clue that you’ve stumbled on the correct spot is the unusual sound that your bullets make when striking the invisible poster. On the plus side, you can exploit this mechanic if you like by deliberately looping some of the easier early levels in order to rack up tons of points, gear, and extra lives.

One thing I take unequivocal issue with is the lack of a built-on autofire feature for Billy Bob’s standard pistols. Having to tap for every bullet is a big no-no in any shooter. You can purchase a machine gun from the shops that will remedy this, but it’s is a temporary solution most of the time, as any special weapon equipped is lost upon death. The fact that you’ll automatically lose your horse at the end of a stage comes off as an equally inconsiderate design choice. You’re potentially able to keep the rest of your power-ups between stages, so why not your faithful mount?

Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that the NES Gun.Smoke sacrifices breadth for depth. The loss of four entire levels is certainly felt, but the introduction of an in-game economy and an arsenal of new weapons renders the six that remain more fun to plow through than ever before. The wanted poster system adds still more to do, though I’m divided on whether it’s rewarding or just plain busywork. Actually finding a hidden poster is indeed satisfying. Less so the preceding period of wandering around in circles. Individual temperament will be the deciding factor there, I suppose.

Personally, I prefer this version of the game over the arcade original by a great margin. The reigned-in difficulty strikes a better balance between excitement and frustration and the presentation gains more from the addition of the new music than it loses with the dip in graphical detail. It stands tall in the pantheon of simple, well-crafted NES action staples, right alongside titles like Contra and Jackal. Perfect to pull down off the shelf anytime you’re feeling the urge for a quick burst of steely-eyed gunslinging against the nastiest bandits, rustlers, and ninja that 19th century California can muster.

Huh? Well, of course there were ninja in the Old West. The place was practically swarming with them. It’s not like video games would just lie to me, you know. Yeesh.

Darkwing Duck (NES)

Get dangerous all you want, kids. Just remember to buckle up.

I don’t have many clear memories of the Darkwing Duck tv show. A spin-off from the more popular DuckTales (the two shared a supporting character in Launchpad McQuack), it was part of the Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block for three seasons during 1991 and 1992. I watched a ton of the Disney shows put out in the years leading up to Darkwing and I recall that the 1987 prime time premier of DuckTales in particular was a huge deal. By the time 1991 rolled around, though, I was in that obnoxious early teen phase where I was keen to distance myself from anything as childish and uncool as Disney duck cartoons. In retrospect, it seems likely that I missed out, since a lot of my slightly younger peers have very fond memories of the series.

The cartoon was essentially a slapstick send-up of the masked mystery man crimefighter genre, as exemplified by The Shadow, The Phantom, and, of course, Batman. The title character’s distinctive tando hat/scarf ensemble and his civilian name, Drake Mallard, are both direct callbacks to Kent “The Shadow” Allard. Unlike his inspirations, Drake/Darkwing is less “fabulously wealthy suave genius” and more “feathered Inspector Gadget from the suburbs.” He means well, but his bumbling and egotistical nature often gets the best of him, leaving his sidekicks to take up the slack. If people tend to remember one thing about the show, it would have to be Darkwing’s catchphrase (“I am the terror that flaps in the night!”) and the many wacky variants thereof. “I am the weirdo who sits next to you on the bus!” is my favorite.

This 1992 NES title by Capcom is one of the later entries in their critically-acclaimed series of Disney adaptations for the system. Unfortunately, competition from the still-new Super Nintendo meant that it never managed to draw the same attention and sales as predecessors like DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Darkwing Duck has also been noted for its striking resemblance to the Mega Man games in terms of its overall structure, play control, and level/enemy design. These comparisons aren’t always favorable, as DD features fewer stages and weapons than any proper Mega Man game, as well as a noticeably reduced difficulty. So is it a woefully underappreciated Capcom classic or does this “baby’s first Mega Man” just suck gas? Let’s review the evidence.

The premise is simplicity itself. The sinister F.O.W.L. (Fiendish Organization for World Larceny) has sent a half-dozen of Darkwing Duck’s greatest foes on a massive crime spree across the city of St. Canard. It’s DW’s job to take down all six crooks before heading off to F.O.W.L.’s Floating Fortress for the final battle against their top agent Steelbeak.

There’s a stage select feature implemented, albeit a limited one. Players are presented with an initial set of three stages that can be completed in any order. Overcome these and a second, slightly more difficult set of three becomes available to choose between. After that comes the seventh and last level. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing doesn’t gain new weapons and abilities in specific stages, so the choice of which to tackle first is really only a minor novelty. A standard linear progression would have worked out just as well.

The levels themselves are nicely varied. Each has its own theme (bridge, forest, sewer, etc) and there’s a good mix of horizontal and vertical layouts. It should be noted that the vertical areas here feature smooth scrolling, an arguable improvement on the flip-screen style of the 8-bit Mega Man entries. Capcom did a good job in calibrating the length of each stage so that they never seem to drag or end prematurely and every one also has at least a few unique regular enemies that reinforce its specific theming.

Controlling Darkwing will be second nature to any Mega Man veteran. The two heroes’ running and jumping feels virtually identical and the tiny yellow puffs emitted by Drake’s gas gun have similar properties to the Blue Bomber’s standard Buster shots. That covers the bare essentials, but DW is no one-trick waterfowl. He can duck, fittingly enough, and he can also hang from the underside of some platforms, hooks, and other bits of stage dressing. This latter skill (also seen in Shadow of the Ninja, Ninja Gaiden III, and Kabuki Quantum Fighter) is required to progress through many of the stages and useful in getting the drop on enemies. One final maneuver is the cape guard, activated by holding up on the control pad. By shielding himself with his cape, Darkwing can deflect many enemy projectiles, even ones like the massive cannonballs in the final stage that you wouldn’t expect to be thwarted by a piece of purple cloth. While this is kind of cute, I didn’t end up using it much. Simply getting out of the way of shots also works just fine and is my first instinct anyway after playing so many other action-platformers.

There are a handful of alternate weapons available, though they don’t amount to much in my opinion. Drake can pick up three types of special gas that all draw on the same limited pool of secondary weapon ammunition. Heavy Gas blasts travel along the ground, Thunder Gas emits a twin shot diagonally above and below Darkwing, and Arrow Gas sticks to walls in order to form temporary platforms useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible shortcuts filled with extra lives and other bonus items. Given their awkward firing angles and lack of a secondary use, I found myself avoiding the Heavy and Thunder Gases and sticking to the Arrow whenever possible. You will have to be choosy, since you can only carry one special gas type at a time. Being able to cycle between the various weapons using the select button (or even a pause menu) would have been a simple way to add depth to the action. It’s definitely a missed opportunity, as the majority of your options are far too situational for their own good under the current setup.

Like the better-known Capcom Disney games on the NES, Darkwing Duck was clearly designed with kids in mind and won’t put up much of a fight for seasoned gamers. It’s fairly short, continues are unlimited, and the bosses all have simple patterns that you should be able to nail down after a minute or two. Darkwing’s four hit health bar is less generous than Mega Man’s, but defeated enemies drop regular refills and these can be farmed as needed. Some love these games for their no-pressure accessibility while others just find them dull. In any case, it’s worth knowing what you’re in for. Personally, I can forgive a lack of challenge if the game is charming enough.

That brings me to Darkwing Duck’s ace in the hole: Its presentation. From the title screen on, it’s obvious that this is a late period release from a powerhouse developer. The graphics represent their source material brilliantly in light of the formidable hardware limitations. In particular, I can’t praise the character animation enough. Darkwing’s wannabe menacing walk cycle alone manages to convey that he’s a silly character who takes himself entirely too seriously. That’s how you know you’re looking at some masterful 8-bit sprite work. The enemies look just as good and a fair amount of thought went into furnishing them all with distinct movement patterns, attacks, and vulnerabilities. Plus, you’ve gotta applaud any game that includes Terminator ducks. Terminator. Ducks. Entertainment should be giving me opportunities to use those words together all the time, dammit.

Yasuaki Fujita’s music is also solid, although it doesn’t pack the same punch as his Mega Man 3 score. I detect a bit of blues and jazz influence throughout, which I suppose makes sense in light of the cartoon’s pulp parody sensibilities. Even if I might have preferred some more frenetic tracks to drive the action on-screen, the expected Capcom quality is still present.

So what’s my final verdict on Darkwing Duck? I think its a pretty good time for the short while it lasts. The controls are tight, the levels and enemies are well-designed, and it excels at translating the madcap humor of the cartoon into playable form. For all that, however, it still disappoints. There was a real potential for greatness here when you consider the talent involved. Instead, this is easily the least original of Capcom’s non-sequel Disney titles and the one that feels the most like the quickie contract work it is. It lacks any sort of creative gameplay hook like Scrooge McDuck’s pogo cane or Chip and Dale’s co-op platforming that would set it apart from the side-scrolling crowd. You’ve seen everything here before in a more fleshed-out form, mostly in Mega Man games. The result of all this is a sort of junk food action title: Tasty, yet insubstantial.

Unless you have a personal nostalgic attachment to it or are a hardcore fan of the show, Capcom’s Darkwing Duck isn’t so much “the terror that flaps in the night” as it is “the cartridge that doesn’t see heavy rotation.”

Metal Storm (NES)

My thumbs hurt. Also, my soul. Oh, Irem.

There are numerous NES games from the console’s twilight years in the early 1990s that were poor sellers in their day, but have since attained an ironic sort of fame within the classic gaming community as “hidden gems.” Some of the most ambitious and lavishly-produced titles for the system debuted around this time only to flounder in the face of stiff competition from the flashy new 16-bit systems. Such a title is 1991’s Metal Storm, the cult classic sci-fi run-and-gun published by Irem and developed by their subsidiary Tamtex. Not even a 12-page cover story in Nintendo Power was enough to put Metal Storm over with the public when the fabled Super Nintendo was just around the corner.

While it’s heartening to see these long-neglected classics finally find the audiences they’ve always deserved, there’s a corresponding downside rooted in that most bastardly of sciences, economics. Simply put, games with small production runs that are known to be of high quality are destined to become prohibitively expensive sooner or later. Though a far cry cost-wise from Taito’s Little Samson (which madmen are currently paying close to $1100 for in loose cartridge form at the time of this writing), Metal Storm is still the single most expensive video game I own. I shelled-out $100 for my copy at a convention and, though I don’t really regret it per se, I also don’t see myself spending that much on any one game again in an era of affordable flash carts.

However you end up playing Metal Storm, you’re in for a unique experience on the system. Side-scrolling NES action games were a dime a dozen, so Irem wisely chose to give this one a twist to set it apart from the pack: Your character can control gravity at will! Far from being just a superficial or situational gimmick as it was in Shatterhand or Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage, every aspect of the level layout and enemy placement here is is painstakingly planned around the fact that you can swap between walking along the floor and the ceiling at a moment’s notice. As in Capcom’s Bionic Commando with its grapple arm platforming, it’s this total commitment to an innovative core mechanic that elevates the game above the majority of its peers and makes it well worth playing today.

Metal Storm places you in the cockpit of the M-308 Gunner, a rifle-toting humanoid robot that looks just about as close as it legally can to something out of Gundam or Macross. It’s the year 2501 and Pluto has been fitted with a humongous Death Star-like laser cannon intended to protect the solar system from invasion by hostile aliens. Predictably, the computer system controlling the laser has gone haywire. Neptune has already been vaporized and it’s only a matter of time before Earth gets the axe. With the laser’s self-destruct mechanism jammed, all of humanity is counting on you to fight your way past the Pluto base’s copious defenses and initiate the self-destruct sequence manually. Welcome to old-school gaming, soldier, where every princess needs rescuing and every computer is the HAL 9000.

While the story here may not be anything to write home about, the graphics sure are. You may not be inclined to think much of them at first based just on screenshots. The backgrounds can arguably be somewhat garish at times due to how many of them consist of abstract, vaguely mechanical patterns rendered with just a few bright colors in what I can only call a patchwork quilt style. I was occasionally unsure if I was supposed to be blasting my way across a space station or an oversized sofa from the 1970s. Once you actually see the game in motion, however, you’ll quickly realize that the draw here is the fluid character animation and liberal use of parallax scrolling. This latter technique (in which multiple layers of background graphics appear to scroll by at varying speeds in order to simulate depth) is not a default capability of the NES hardware. Regardless, Metal Storm utilizes a mapper expansion chip inside the cartridge working in tandem with memory bank switching techniques to showcase convincing parallax effects on virtually every stage. It really is eye-catching for anyone accustomed to the look of other games on the console.

Things aren’t quite so striking as that on the audio front, unfortunately. The soundtrack is middling at best, suffering from overly short music loops and a shortage of really standout songs, apart from perhaps the first level theme. Sound effects fare better, with some great explosions and an absolutely perfect “bwoop” when you execute a gravity flip. I couldn’t tell you why that action should bwoop specifically, but trust me, it should.

There are twelve total stages to tackle and a boss fight after every even-numbered one. Clear all that and you’re treated to a standard “boss rush” where you must defeat the previous six guardians again back-to-back before you can finally engage the self-destruct device and roll the credits. The stages themselves are actually all fairly short. This is balanced out by the fact that they leave you very little room for error. Similar to the player ships in most auto-scrolling shooters, your mech doesn’t have a health bar and will explode instantly upon contact with an enemy, projectile, or stage hazard. Additionally, you won’t be revived on the spot if this occurs like you would in other run-and-gun games like Contra. Instead, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. If you’ve ever played Irem’s Super Nintendo debut from later in 1991, Super R-Type, you know this rather strict system all too well.

If all this has you concerned that Metal Storm might be too punishing to be enjoyable, you needn’t worry. While it’s true that the stages require some memorization and tight execution, you’re given unlimited continues with which to practice them, as well as passwords after every boss fight. There’s also a very useful selection of power-ups available. The most common and important of these is the armor, which allows you to withstand one additional hit before exploding. Beyond that, there’s an energy shield that blocks bullets and damages any foes that touch it, a gun upgrade that makes your laser rifle shots more powerful and able to penetrate walls, and a “Gravity Fireball” that renders you invincible mid-gravity shift. You can only benefit from one of these last three abilities at any given time, however, so picking up a gun icon while you already have the shield active, for example, will cause your shield to vanish. Thankfully, the armor upgrade isn’t exclusive in this way. I suppose a greater variety of power-ups might have been nice, but I do have to give the designers credit for making each one we do get both functionally unique and powerful.

With these tools to level the playing field, experienced run-and-gun players should be able to clear Metal Storm in a handful of hours…on its normal setting. Do this and you’ll be given a special password and instructed to “Try a game for experts.” Hoo-boy. Lemme tell you, they had a real master of understatement on staff there at Tamtex. I was looking forward to a little more difficulty after the relatively forgiving main game. What I got was the Ninth Circle of NES Hell. The majority of life-saving power-ups have disappeared, the bosses have all-new dirty tricks, and the regular enemy placement is so outright fiendish that it evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and lack of checkpoints that were manageable before are now the very bane of your existence and level memorization graduates from useful to strictly mandatory on a second-to-second basis. If I wasn’t the sort of obstinate bastard that can’t let go of a self-imposed challenge, I’d have certainly quit in disgust around the midway point. Metal Storm on the expert setting is what people who’ve only heard of Ninja Gaiden imagine that game to be. It is doable, barely, but I didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to. Maybe you will.

Expert mode aside, I can unreservedly recommend this one to 8-bit action fans. The control is spot-on, the level design is inventive, and no two enemies test your maneuvering and shooting skills in quite the same way. Above all else, the gravity shift mechanic elegantly and unobtrusively informs every move you make. Mastering it over the course of the journey genuinely feels like fun rather than work. This, latter day game designers, is how you do a tutorial.

Oh, what a feeling when we’re blasting on the ceiling!

8 Eyes (NES)

Believe me, if I knew why this game’s ending revolves around a purple cave gargoyle with a cross on its forehead dispensing passwords, I’d tell you.

For some gamers, there’s no more damning epithet than “clone.” If, for example, you hear a fantasy action-adventure game described as a “Zelda clone,” the commenter more often than not means to dismiss it altogether as something so derivative as to be beneath notice, let alone analysis. This isn’t a very useful approach in my opinion. I’m not referring here to any abstract concerns like fairness to a work’s creators, the true value of innovation versus iteration, or the virtues of open-mindedness. Those are all discussions worth having. First and foremost, however, simply disregarding a clone game sidesteps the most fundamental question of them all: Is it fun enough to spend time with?

Why the preamble? Well, I’ll be looking at several games this month that are, shall we say, heavily indebted to one or more of the classics. Let’s start with 8 Eyes, the 1988 action-platformer from developer Thinking Rabbit that’s a lot like Castlevania except instead of a whip you have…a bird.

According to the backstory we’re given in the instruction manual, it’s the post-apocalyptic future and civilization is just starting to rebuild itself under the guidance of the Great King, who relies on the titular Eyes to do his work. The Eyes themselves are gemstones with mysterious powers that miraculously formed at the centers of eight great nuclear explosions that devastated the planet. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to cause “untold destruction” if misused and the King’s eight traitorous dukes have each made off with one of them, leaving humanity’s future in doubt. It falls on the King’s most accomplished guardsman, Orin the Falconer, to venture to each of the dukes’ heavily-defended castles, retrieve the Eyes, and return them to their rightful places on Altar of Peace.

Of course, they don’t just call him “the Falconer” because he roots for Atlanta. Orin is accompanied by his trained falcon Cutrus, who can be used both as a weapon and a tool to access out-of-reach items and switches. Cutrus even has his own separate health meter and can be controlled independently by a second player, making 8 Eyes a very rare example from this period of a two-player cooperative action game where the playable characters each have radically different capabilities and control schemes.

If you think this whole setup sounds a little nutty, you’re not alone. Why would exploding nuclear bombs create magical gemstones? How are you fighting ghosts and walking skeletons? Radiation explains away a lot of crazy stuff in fiction, but this is really pushing it. I did a little digging online and it turns out that up the original Famicom version is set in the 19th century and centers on a cult of Satanists that want to use the power of the Eyes to resurrect the devil. Orin himself is a baronet and secret agent named Lord Julian James Bond (yes, really) dispatched by a predecessor to the British intelligence agency MI5 to stop the ritual and save the world. This definitely explains the action unfolding onscreen a lot better, particularly all the religious imagery, but it’s not hard to see why publisher Taxan wanted to go with something more suitable for the family-friendly NES market.

Starting up 8 Eyes, the first thing you’re confronted with is a level selection screen à la Mega Man. This allows you to tackle the first seven stages in any order you like. Just like Mega Man, however, there’s an ideal order that will make progress through the game much easier. Starting out, Orin’s sword will deal double the damage to one particular stage’s boss. But which one? In Mega Man games, a boss’ weakness is often made apparent by its theming. Fire guys are weak to ice or water, and so on. Here, the stages are based on different countries, so that sort of logic just doesn’t apply. Is Italy weak to Egypt? Is Egypt vulnerable to Germany? The correct order to play through the stages is essentially a riddle that can be solved through careful study of the instruction manual. Unfortunately, I overlooked the clues completely, which made most of the game’s boss fights much more frustrating than they needed to be. More on this later.

Upon selecting a stage, the resemblance to Castlevania is immediately obvious. The blocky level architecture is here (ditto the helpful items hidden inside some of said blocks) and the infamous Castlevania stairs are in full effect. Orin combats similar skeletons, ghosts, bats, and armored knights with the help of collectable sub-weapons, many of which are virtually identical to ones from Castlevania. He even moves and attacks in a very slow, stiff manner reminiscent of a Belmont clan member. There are some differences, of course. Orin can carry more than one sub-weapon at a time and cycle through them with the select button. He also uses a sword as his primary weapon. It has a very short reach, shorter than even the most basic leather whip from Castlevania. Many of the enemies also have weapons, and these invariably have more reach than Orin’s sword. This fosters a reliance on hit-and-run tactics, as most fights involve baiting the enemy into a swing, quickly backing away, then landing a counter blow after the enemy whiffs. Since most weapon-wielding foes can withstand multiple hits, this demands a lot of precise execution and slows the overall pace of the action quite a bit. The level design in 8 Eyes also places much less emphasis on platforming than Castlevania does. Stages feature no bottomless pits or other instant death hazards, so you’ll rarely find yourself sweating over a tricky series of jumps. The challenge here comes exclusively from the grueling combat, the puzzle elements, and the maze-like nature of two stages in particular, Africa and Germany.

Puzzle elements? That’s right. I already mentioned that you’re intended to deduce the ideal stage progression from clues in the instruction manual, but there’s also the matter of the final challenge at the Altar of Peace. After you defeat the last boss at the “House of Ruth” (no relation, I assume, to the domestic violence charity of the same name) and recover the last of the Eyes, you’ll need to arrange them on the Alter from left to right in the correct order to trigger the ending scene. Determining this order requires you to locate the seven hidden scrolls hidden in walls over the course of the game. Each one holds a tip like “Purple is next to Red.” With all the clues, it’s a very basic logic puzzle, easily worked out on a piece of scratch paper. If you’re missing clues, you’ll have to do some guessing. Thankfully, you’re provided with a password for this segment, so it’s not like you’ll be set back if you guess wrong.

So far, you might have the impression that 8 Eyes is an interesting (if rather odd) blend of ideas from the Castlevania and Mega Man series. That it is! The bad news is that there are a lot of nagging issues that prevent it from reaching the heights its inspirations did. The rigid boss order is definitely one. Orin receives a new sword every time he defeats a boss, and this sword is intended to be used to inflict double damage against the next boss in the sequence. Unlike Mega Man, however, Orin doesn’t carry all these swords around with him to switch between at any time in an inventory menu. Instead, each new sword replaces the last. So if you defeat a boss out of sequence, you’ll permanently lose out on being able to use your current weapon to its best effect. Given that the bosses can take 40+ hits to kill without this advantage, failure to stick to the correct sequence is more heavily penalized here that it is in any Mega Man game. You can still defeat a boss with the wrong sword if you’re willing to memorize his attack pattern, but this sometimes requires multiple failed attempts and you only have one life to work with at a time. If you die at any point, you’re sent back to the level select screen and have to repeat the entire stage. As the manual puts it: “No free men are awarded. This is reality!” Indeed. It’s a great idea implemented so clumsily that it makes the stage select feature into more of a classic “beginner’s trap” than a potential source of fun.

Cutrus the falcon will be another sticking point for some. He can be very annoying to manage without a second player to direct his movements and attacks. In a single player game, you’re limited to one command to activate and recall Cutrus and another to trigger his diving attack. His movement is limited to leisurely flapping his way back and forth across the screen, turning around whenever he hits the edges. If you’re relying on him to attack an enemy (there are some only he can damage) or retrieve an item for you, it’s no fun to have to stand there and wait as he slowly circles back around for a pass.

If you’re holding out hope for your arsenal of sub-weapons to take up the slack for your puny sword and easily-distracted avian ally, forget about it. Unlike in Castlevania where ammunition is relatively plentiful, the sub-weapons in 8 Eyes drain Orin’s weapon power at an alarming rate and the tiny glowing crosses dropped by defeated enemies don’t restore enough of it to make any of them viable for long. In addition, the most dangerous enemies of all, the bosses, seem to be immune to most of them. The one big exception is the all-important ice balls, which will freeze bosses in place temporary and allow you to pile on some free hits unopposed. In fact, the utility of the ice ball against bosses is so great that all other sub-weapons and their potential uses fade into irrelevance. Just grab the ice ball, ignore everything else, and save all your weapon energy for the boss. Any other approach is pointless.

Now, by no means is 8 Eyes all bad. I love the music, which aims to envoke a classical feel very different from the standard 8-bit rock that most NES action games are known for. There are a lot of songs here, with three unique themes per stage. While they’re not all winners, the soundtrack as a whole has really grown on me. The graphics have their high points, too. Orin, Cutrus, and many of the enemies are well-animated for the time and the backgrounds are packed with detail, almost as if the artist was going for a sort of arabesque style at points. Some may find it a tad busy, but I think it suits the Old World palaces that Orin spends the majority of his time traversing.

The game also has a strangeness about it that I find very endearing. After you defeat each of the dukes in combat, for example, you’re treated to a little scene where the two of you sit down together and have a nice cup of tea, as served by a grinning skeleton waiter! These post-fight tea parties are so surreal that they’ve become one of my favorite little touches from any game. Can you imagine Simon Belmont whipping the undead crap out of Dracula, immediately followed by the two of them downing beers together at the bar? Amazing.

Hell, I even enjoyed the designer’s attempt to inject some mystery into the game by making you figure out the correct stage progression and order to arrange the Eyes in yourself. I may have failed completely at the former task, but it was fun to hunt down all the clue scrolls and get the Altar of Peace puzzle right on my first try. It was satisfying enough to make me glad I did it the intended way instead of just checking the Internet.

All of this leaves me in an awkward position where I like everything about this game except for its “gamey” bits. Can I recommend it? Not as a general thing, no. Most players won’t have the stomach for its cryptic airs, half-baked mechanics, and plodding combat. If you happen to be a very patient and determined wierdo like myself, though, you may be able to eke some enjoyment out of it. For better or worse, there’s no other game that feels like 8 Eyes. Quite the feat for a shameless copycat.

Fancy a cuppa?

Guerilla War (NES)

I destroyed capitalism forever! Yay!

The most interesting thing to me about politics in video games (or anyplace, really) isn’t what we see, but what we don’t. Whose viewpoints and experiences are absent? Who doesn’t get to be the hero? Take Taito’s 1985 arcade shooter Sky Destroyer, in which the player assumes the role of a Japanese pilot during World War II tasked with scuttling the dastardly United States Navy in his A6M Zero fighter. Sky Destroyer was ported to the Famicom later that same year. The NES? Yeah, not so much. Turns out way more people over here still remembered Pearl Harbor 32 years ago. Contrast this with Capcom’s 194X series, which presented the exact same scenario with the nationalities reversed and received numerous Western releases over the years.

That brings me to today’s game: Guevara by SNK, an arcade overhead run-and-gun from 1987 in which the player guides none other than Cuban Revolution poster boy Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself on his 100% historically accurate mission to singlehandedly storm Havana and overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Baptista. Well, not really singlehandedly. That would be ridiculous. Ideally, you also have a second player kicking ass as Fidel Castro. You can safely ignore any bourgeoisie so-called “history” book that claims the Revolution was brought to fruition over a span of two years through the combined struggle of thousands. I can personally attest that it only takes about forty minutes tops for two fired-up Marxist supermen rocking infinite hand grenades and even more infinite facial hair.

Guevara was, simply put, a gung-ho commie take on the company’s better-known Ikari Warriors series. SNK even used photographer Alberto Korda’s famous portrait of Che in promotional materials for the game. This was far too spicy for Cold War America. It would be like having Ivan Drago KO Rocky at the end of the third act! It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that the 1989 NES port was altered, barely, to become Guerilla War. The protagonists are now unnamed, as is the island nation they’re liberating, though the bearded fellow in the introduction still resembles a young Castro and the map shown between stages obviously depicts Cuba.

The changes to the home version also extend to the gameplay and here they’re much more substantial. The arcade original used the same custom rotating joystick that the Ikari games did, which allowed players to move and aim their weapons independently. With no way to implement this feature on a NES controller, the heroes in Guerilla War are limited to firing in whichever direction they’re currently facing. While this sounds like a major downgrade, the developer’s smartly chose to compensate for it by boosting the speed of the action overall. Factor in the smaller character sprites necessitated by the hardware shift and the player is much better equipped to dodge enemy fire here than they were in the arcade, which correlates to a reduced dependency on the precise aiming afforded by the rotating joystick. Savvy decisions like this were what really elevated an arcade port over its peers back in the era when perfect 1:1 conversions weren’t an option.

Guerilla War’s gameplay is best summarized as “NES Ikari Warriors done right.” The Ikari trilogy is often derided as the worst of the worst in terms of run-and-gun action for the platform. They’re slow, stiff, poorly-coded, and ugly as sin to boot. Somebody must have flipped a switch at SNK headquarters around 1989 because that was when their 8-bit home releases started to see a major uptick in quality that would result in less borderline unplayable trash like Athena and Ikari Warriors and more gems like Baseball Stars and the masterful Crystalis. Guerilla War is no Crystalis, but it still represents a humongous leap forward for the publisher. The gameplay is not revolutionary by any means (how’s that for irony?), but it is the anti-Ikari: Fast, fluid, and fun.

Anyone who’s played Capcom’s Commando or any number of similar military-themed bloodbaths from the 1980s before will know what to expect: You control a soldier that’s been dispatched to the jungle (always the jungle) to square off against an entire enemy army. Your default tools of the trade are a rather sad “pea shooter” machine gun with bullets that can only travel about half the length of the screen before vanishing and hand grenades that you can toss in an arcing trajectory to take out enemies behind cover. Killing special red-clad enemy soldiers and blowing up specific bits of the scenery will reveal power-up icons that upgrade your machine gun to something more powerful when collected, like a rocket launcher, spread gun, or flamethrower. These upgrades are lost if you die, though, and it only takes one hit from an enemy to make that happen. Making a guest appearance from the Ikari series are the teeny, tiny tanks that your character can commandeer for some extra firepower. Seriously, they’re like the size of shopping carts. They’re also about as durable, since it will only take a couple of enemy bullets to wreck your ride and leave you hoofing it like a chump again. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One aspect that is fairly unique to this game are the hostages. It seems your capitalist pig-dog foes have captured tons of your fellow patriots and left them tied-up on the battlefield in strategic locations. Touching hostages will rescue them and net you a cool 1000 points apiece, while accidentally (or “accidentally”) shooting them will reduce your score by 500. It’s a good thing that the points don’t matter that much, since I ended up blasting a lot of hostages due to the way they’re often cunningly placed to lure the player into the enemy’s ambushes. Sorry, comrades.

Guerilla War is a simple game, then, and fairly mindless. There are ten stages in total before the climax, a gloriously absurd battle against Baptista himself as he dances back and forth across the roof of El Capitolio chucking explosives at you. Simple shouldn’t be conflated with bad, however. The programmers really pushed the NES as hard as they could in order to put as much chaos on the screen as possible throughout. It’s not unusual for eight or more enemy soldiers to be blasting away at you simultaneously. The downside to this is that sprite flicker is rampant, so it can be tricky to keep tabs on everything during the really crowded engagements. At least slowdown is not nearly as prevalent. The pixel art itself didn’t wow me. Sprites are small and show only minimal detail. In fairness to the creators, it should be noted that this seems like more of a deliberate choice to keep the emphasis on packing as much action as possible onto the screen rather than evidence of a lack of skill or effort. The music has the right tempo and energy to support the game’s constant action, though I didn’t find any of the melodies to be memorable standouts. It’s competent, but definitely no match for the same composers’ later contributions to Crystalis.

If there’s one aspect of Guerilla War that might bring it down in the eyes of some gamers, it’s the complete and total lack of challenge. Although enemies are everywhere and you die in one hit, you’re provided with unlimited continues that start your right back on the spot you died with no break in the action. It’s just like playing the arcade machine with an unlimited supply of quarters. You’re guaranteed to see the ending as long as you just keep plugging away, even if Che and Fidel are taking a dirt nap every other step. Love it or hate it, this is definitely a “kick back and chill” sort of run-and-gun. If you’re looking for more of a “grit your teeth and focus” one, I’d recommend Konami’s Jackal with its limited continues. Given that other games offer a similar experience with more demanding requirements, I’m fine with Guerilla War doing its own thing.

As long as this lack of challenge doesn’t irk you, you really can’t do better than Guevara/Guerilla War for a casual pick-up-and-play Rambo simulator on the NES. The fact that you also get to witness such a topsy-turvy Leftist take on the jingoistic “one many army” trope is just a bonus.

Viva la retrolución!

RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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