The Battle of Olympus (NES)

Talk about going to hell and back….

The Battle of Olympus is an action adventure game published by small Japanese developer Infinity in 1988. Subtitled Ai no Densetsu (“The Legend of Love”) on its initial release in Japan, the game was indeed a true labor of love. In fact, everything except its musical score was created by just two people: Then newlyweds Yukio Horimoto and Reiko Oshida. There definitely aren’t many games with this sort of adorable development history behind them.

The game’s premise is essentially a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, except that instead of traveling to the underworld to plead for his deceased lover’s life, Orpheus instead picks up his trusty wooden club and heads there to beat the immortal piss out of Hades himself until he cries uncle. Because video games make mythology way better. Along the way he also encounters a mixture of creatures and elements from nearly every other famous Greek myth: Hydras, minotaurs, cyclopes, the witch Circe, the pegasus, golden apples, winged sandals, you name it.

The first thing people notice is that the game plays a lot like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, except lacking the overhead sections and presented completely in a side-scrolling view. This is no coincidence, as the developers have admitted to being big fans. If you like Zelda II’s combat, you’ll probably enjoy Battle of Olympus’, although it can be a bit more difficult. Enemies are tougher to hit due to Orpheus being unable to stab up or down like Link learns to do in Zelda II and there seems to be more pits to worry about getting knocked into. A nice change from Zelda II is with the various other characters you’ll encounter, since all of them either say or do something useful. There are no pointless “Hello” or “I know nothing” NPCs here.

The game’s graphics are very beautiful for the system at the time and I love the colors used. There are a lot of bright pastel shades of pink, purple, blue and green. Some areas like the caves and forests are more subdued, but for the most part it really pops. The characters are large and well drawn, generally quite recognizable for what they represent. I liked the score a lot, too, although it doesn’t have the same epic polish as Zelda II’s.

If I have one major qualm with the game, it’s the currency grinding. When you encountered a character in Zelda II that had an item or spell for you, they usually just gave it to you outright and there was no need for a money system at all. In The Battle of Olympus, they usually want a certain amount of red gems dropped by enemies (bizarrely referred to as “olives” in-game) before they’ll fork over whatever you need to proceed. So expect to find yourself grinding out lots and lots of weak enemy kills until you amass the 50-80 olives that each character demands. It’s pure padding at its worst.

Despite the grind, The Battle of Olympus is a compelling and memorable adventure with a fascinating and romantic story behind its creation. It flew under the radar at the time of its release and continues to do so 29 years later, but it’s the very definition of a hidden gem. Or maybe a hidden olive?

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The Legend of Zelda: Outlands (NES)

Finally! I just finished The Legend of Zelda: Outlands, another game I picked up at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October. This one is a fan-made hack of original Legend of Zelda’s gameplay engine by GameMakr24 with new levels, artwork, items, and story added. It’s definitely trickier, too. There’s none of that “getting your sword on the first screen” crap here. Expect to do some overworld and even dungeon exploring without it first! It really recaptures the magic of just diving in and getting lost in the original title, a feat which even its official sequels have never quite been able to replicate. Very good stuff.

I can’t emphasize enough that if you love the original Zelda and have mastered it, Outlands is the game for you. It’s more quality Zelda 1 gameplay and about as professionally made as NES fan games get. It’s fiendishly yet superbly designed in a way that reminds me of the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels). Of course, the challenge here isn’t fast-paced platforming, but rather the mental effort involved in searching out and solving some of the most devious Zelda dungeons ever. Make no mistake: You’ll need to focus in and bring along every brain cell you can muster if you want to stand a chance of not getting hopelessly lost

Like most ROM hacks, this one is a secret to everybody. If this little review can help change that, I’ll be all the more pleased.

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES)

Tonight’s game was Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, Capcom’s weird-as-hell 1990 sci-fi action platformer for the NES. I picked this one up just three days ago on vacation at an antique store in Medford, Oregon. Price: $12.00.

First of all: Holy crap, I beat this game the first time playing it tonight! Now granted, I’ve been on an almost non-stop action-platforming rampage lately, starting back with Holy Diver in December and continuing through the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, four Castlevanias, and two Contras, so I might just be really steeped in the genre right now, but I’m still surprised. I first heard about the game in an Angry Video Game Nerd episode years back (one of the few where the Nerd character ends up liking the game he’s playing) and much was made about the challenge. I found, though, that the levels were very short (some as few as one screen) and continues were unlimited, so while each level was tough, I had endless tries to scrape past each the one and only time I needed in order to move on. I did spend about an hour just on the final level (a four boss fight rush on a single timer) but nowhere near that long on any previous level. Is it just me, or did anyone else not find this game as impossible as they thought it would be?

Since it’s the first question most people have: No, this isn’t a true Street Fighter or Final Fight game. Capcom took a Japanese game about a cyborg space cop named Kevin Straker fighting aliens and changed the story in the overseas versions so that it stated that this character was supposed to be Ken from Street Fighter. It was silly.

This was a really odd duck and I can kind of see how it never found a wide audience. The story, characters, and artwork are really weird, even for an old NES game, and it has a highly unconventional structure in that it mostly consists of boss fights rather than conventional platforming stages, of which there are only a handful.

Ken/Kevin also controls pretty oddly. He can shoot rapid fire shots forward and straight up, but he can only shoot one time in the air per jump and can only shoot down (again, just one time) after executing a backflip maneuver. He can also fire upward at a 45-degree angle by holding down. This takes some getting used to, but once mastered the action actually feels really great. Ken/Kevin is quite acrobatic. In addition to standard jumps and the backflip, he can also wall climb, wall jump, and grab onto some platforms. It’s like NES Hagane, you have so many options.

Unfortunately, the story is real bad. Ken become a scientist and invents something called “cyboplasm” along with his best friend Troy. Then some mysterious party attacks his lab, kills Troy, and steals the cyboplasm to create a mutant army. Naturally, Ken becomes a cyborg to kill them all and get it back. Riiiiiiiight.

Awful story aside, if you like oddball sci-fi, super rocking tunes (by ‎Junko Tamiya, who also worked on Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Bionic Commando!), and crazy boss rushes and you can deal with learning some unusual controls, you really should play this game. It’s cheap and worth every penny, as long as you don’t go in expecting to do any hadoukens or shoryukens.

Kid Icarus (NES)

Hell, yes, Kid Icarus! I remember loving this one a lot as a kid, but I haven’t touched it since then. Considering that so much time has passed, it’s surprising just how quickly I was able to get comfortable with it again during my play session last night. I was able to complete the game in just a few hours and that’s allowing for being a bit of a perfectionist about getting all the extra items and upgrades. The game’s thirteen levels really aren’t that long.

To start off, I can confirm that Kid Icarus is still super lovable. From the unforgettable enemies like like the histrionic grim reapers and the infamous eggplant wizards, to the excellent sountrack by “Hip” Tanaka, to the adorably incoherent take on Greco-Roman mythology. It’s hard not to like all this.

The mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling platforming levels really holds up. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the three dungeon levels where you seek out and defeat the game’s bosses. The only difficult enemies here are the eggplant wizards and they’re really more annoying than they are tough, since they can force you to backtrack to find a cure if they manage to successfully transform you. This was also the era before Nintendo really nailed satisfying boss fights (Bowser in SMB1 being another example), so the ones here just kind of derp around slowly in super basic patterns until you put them out of their misery. Another downside is that the cool optional weapons that you can collect like the fire arrows don’t work in the dungeons, which seems arbitrary and not particularly fun.

I’ve seen this game described online as difficult (even “brutal”), but frankly, I don’t see it. You can take a good number of hits from enemies, even before health upgrades. The jumping controls are very precise and enemies don’t knock you around when they hit you, so the platforming bits are very managable. Puzzling out the correct path in the dungeons can take some time, but you’re never saddled with a time limit. All this combines to make the game challenging but in no way extreme.

Ultimately, I recommend Kid Icarus very highly. Although the dungeon levels and the final overly easy flying stage may not hold up that well, the platforming portions are awesome and the quirky factor is through the roof.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some eggplant parmesan to fry up….

StarTropics (NES)

StarTropics: Because sometimes you just need to shove bananas in your ears.

So, what do I think after beating it? Despite what some have said, I don’t think it’s any kind of unsung classic or one of the best games on the system or anything like that. Not by a long shot. It is, however, extremely charming in a goofy way, packs some decent challenge, and is a worthwhile experience overall.

To elaborate:

As far as pros go, this game is beautifully presented, with colorful graphics, catchy music, and a relentlessly goofy story. The ending is also much more elaborate than most other games from the era. It provides a healthy challenge and a real sense of accomplishment when you finally topple the final boss.

But then the problems set in. First of all, the elephant in the room has to be the controls. Jumping and attacking feels fine for the most part, but the one thing you do more than either of those, simply walking around, feels absolutely horrid. Merely turning while in motion involves your character stopping completely, then turning in place, then pausing again for a moment before finally starting off in the new direction. It’s absolutely inane and makes the movement feel sticky, choppy, and delayed. Your character always seems to be playing catch up, several steps behind your inputs at any given time. This is especially odd because Nintendo themselves had previously nailed responsive overhead action controls in The Legend of Zelda years before! Another strange design choice is that you’re limited to jumping straight up unless you’re leaping onto a block or switch, despite the fact that there seems to be no good reason not to allow for a forward jump on open ground. I’ve heard this control defended by saying that it’s intended to allow you to change your character’s facing to attack in different directions without moving much if needed, but a very quick tap on the directional pad is sufficient to do this most of the time in Zelda, so I don’t buy it. Maybe it’s all the games like Contra and Ninja Gaiden that I’ve played recently where just moving around the screen feels really good, but the movement here was such a drag for me.

Additionally, this game is very linear, much moreso than the Dragon Quest and Legend of Zelda games that clearly influenced it. The dungeons are where all the real gameplay lives and the overworld segments linking them provide no real challenge (other than one very clever musical puzzle, perhaps) and little in the way of secrets to uncover. They could almost be replaced by static cutscenes with little real change to the core gameplay experience. At least some branching paths or sidequests could have helped make the overworld sections more interesting and meaningful.

Finally, character progression feels very limited because your inventory of found items is cleared both every time you die and every time you clear a dungeon. With only the ability to permanently gain extra heart containers and primary weapon upgrades, it’s missing the variety and sense of growth that a game like Zelda offers with its bow, boomerang, magic wand, etc.

Overall, though, StarTropics is good enough for what it is: A charming, simple, but deceptively challenging puzzle platformer. It’s definitely worth your time, once you set your expectations accordingly and adapt to some flawed play control.

Radicola!

Super C (NES)

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Hahaha! Yes! Beat Super C for the first time ever and pulled it off without continuing! This feels amazing!

Unlike the original Contra, I’d never played Super C until last week. Unless you count the first level a couple times in the arcade growing up. Essentially, it’s a whole new game to me.

Overall, it was awesome! Do I like it better than the original? Hard to say. Correcting for nostalgia is hard, but Super C does have many advantages. The graphics are greatly improved, the guns have all been slightly redesigned to be better balanced and more fun, the bosses are generally more dynamic and varied, and levels are lengthier.

Other changes are more subject to personal taste. Some might appreciate that the slower-paced pseudo-3D base levels are replaced with zippier overhead ones that feel ripped from a game like Commando. The game is also harder: Contra allowed players to continue three times, Super C only allows it twice. Essentially, you get three fewer lives. The action in general also seems more intense to me, with tougher enemies and longer levels.

Cons? Level design is a bit simplifed here, I feel. Stages like the first and fifth in Contra had multiple platform levels to jump up to, drop down from, and battle on. Super C’s equivalent levels like one and three lack this verticality and are more straight sprints to the finish. Additionally, level seven has you descending a shaft and clearing away aliens rather slowly and methodically when compared to most other levels and I found it a bit of a bore.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, since it’s more NES Contra and that rules! Remember, no matter what anyone tells you, you don’t need a shirt to save the world.

Contra (NES)

My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. Although I don’t need to use it myself anymore, the ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action-platformers left their mark, but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the ’80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.