Dragon Fighter (NES)

Well, last week’s review was a bit of a wash. Konami let me down for once with their dud of an RPG, Dragon Scroll. Fortunately, I can rely on another of my all-time favorite developers to deliver a dragon game worth playing. I’m talking about Natsume. Much of their early ’90s output flew under the radar initially, only to ascend to cult status years later within the classic gaming community. Most people with an abiding interest in the NES today hardly need to be told that Natsume greats like Power Blade and Shatterhand are worth seeking out. These gems are hidden no more.

Despite this, nobody ever seems to talk about my subject today, 1990’s Dragon Fighter. Why is that? It’s possible Dragon Fighter’s North American publisher, SOFEL, underproduced or undermarketed the game when they brought it out here in early 1992. Authentic copies command ridiculous prices at auction, which seems to lend credence to the notion that there just aren’t that many in circulation. Its cover art certainly didn’t do it any favors, either. The titular sword-swinging hero looks less like Conan and more like a musclebound version of David “Ross” Schwimmer from TV’s Friends. It’s pretty gross.

In all seriousness, I may never know for sure why Dragon Fighter appears destined to remain the forgotten Natsume NES title. I do know it’s a successful hybrid of two popular genres and a damn fine time overall, however. That’s good enough for me.

Your objective is to deliver the once peaceful land of Baljing from the oppression of the warlock Zabbaong. To this end, you assume the role of a warrior statue animated by the power of Baljing’s divine protector, the Dragon Spirit. Standard fantasy stuff, really. Kudos to Natsume for not trying to shoehorn a princess in there, though. There are a total of six stages the Fighter needs to survive before the final showdown with Zabbaong in the skies above Mount Gia. Each is wholly unique, with its own backgrounds, enemies, and music track. The designers resisted the obvious temptation to pad things out by recycling some of this content into “new” levels, leaving Dragon Fighter to stand as a fine example of a short game done right.

At first blush, Dragon Fighter presents as a typical hack-and-slash exercise. The first stage deposits you in an icy wasteland teeming with wolfmen and killer snowflakes. Naturally, you’ll start mowing them down with your primary weapon, a sword. As you do this, you’ll notice a gauge below your health bar gradually filling up. The manual dubs this the “metamorph meter” and once it’s at least 50% filled, it’ll start flashing. At any point thereafter, you can hold up on the directional pad while jumping to transform into a flying dragon. This not only powers you up, it instantly and seamlessly changes Dragon Fighter’s genre! Whereas before you were playing an action-platformer, you’re now operating in a Gradius style auto-scrolling shooter mode.

In addition to being unbound by gravity, your dragon will have one of three powerful breath attacks. These are a triple spread shot, a downward arcing fire bomb, and homing fireballs. The one you get depends on the current color of the Fighter’s armor. It starts out green (spread shot) and can be changed to red (bomb) or blue (homing) by picking up letter icons placed along your path. The Fighter’s human form can also fire off a charged projectile attack with a similar effect, although baddies defeated this way won’t count toward the metamorph meter. If you want my advice, stick to blue whenever possible. Your dragon’s one weakness is that it can only face (and shoot) to the right. Homing shots work wonders against anything that manages to get behind you.

Like all good things, your time as a dragon must end sooner or later. The metamorph meter steadily depletes with use and only kills with the sword can refill it. You’ll either be forced to revert to human form when you run out of meter or you’ll change back voluntarily before then (by pressing down and jump) in order to conserve it. The need to manage this precious resource adds a welcome degree of strategy to Dragon Fighter. Levels aren’t timed and they all feature endlessly respawning enemies. This means that if you want to progress slow and steady, always taking the time to keep your metamorph meter charged, you can. This is probably the best way for novices to approach the game, as you’re only given four lives with which to complete all six stages. More advanced players can skip the enemy farming and press ahead at a steadier pace. If you’re a real master, you can even try to tackle entire levels as a human. It’s always at least possible. This strategic cycling between the hero’s two forms allows Dragon Fighter to stand out some among the endless sea of 8-bit side-scrollers. The way each represents an entirely different play style without the game as a whole feeling disjointed is a testament to the quality design work Natsume was doing around this time.

Things are equally commendable on the audiovisual side. The starting area makes a great first impression with falling snow, glittering ice crystals, and a color-shifting aurora borealis in the background. Later ones showcase similarly impressive moving backdrops, such as waterfalls, massive machines, and the rushing clouds of Mount Gia. Sprites tend to be modest in size (in order to allow plenty of room for your dragon to fly around in), but make up for it by being quite well animated. Kouichi Yamanishi’s score utilizes the same superb in-house sound engine as his one for Shadow of the Ninja and the results are every bit as intense and memorable. Stage three’s theme, “Into the Depth,” ranks among the best ever composed for the hardware, in my opinion.

True to its pedigree, Dragon Fighter is a the epitome of a B-tier action game on the NES. It can’t quite match the intricate level design of a Castlevania, the blistering pace of a Ninja Gaiden, or the variety of a Mega Man, yet it commits no major design sins and has an identity and a charm all its own. While it hasn’t replaced Shatterhand as my personal favorite Natsume release, it’s very much on par with their Power Blade, Shadow of the Ninja, and S.C.A.T. for me. If you’re at all interested in exploring the system’s library beyond the realm of top ten lists, I encourage you to make time for Dragon Fighter. Provided you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege, that is. I’d better be getting a real dragon for that kind of money.

Mega Man 5 (NES)

Mega Man 5? Have I really reviewed five of these suckers already? That seems impressive somehow…until I remember it’s not even 4% of the sprawling extended franchise. Guess I won’t be finished with this little blue bugger anytime soon.

This installment represents uncharted territory for me. It’s the first of the six NES Mega Man outings I never played back around the time of its debut. Like most Nintendo kids in 1992, I was spending most of my time deep diving into everything the new Super Nintendo had to offer. Still, I have high hopes for this one. Revisiting Mega Man 4 proved to be a great time. I found it to be significantly more polished and better paced than the fan favorite third game. Let’s see if Capcom was able to maintain that same level of quality here.

Mega Man is, of course, the brave robot boy who protects the world of the future from the countless schemes of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wily. Most games after the third make a feeble stab at tricking players into believing a different villain is behind all the mayhem, only to reveal to the shock and awe of absolutely no one that it was really old Wily pulling the strings all along. This time, Mega Man’s own brother, Proto Man, goes rogue and kidnaps their mutual creator, Dr. Light. Uncovering the truth behind this apparent heel turn requires Mega Man to do the exact same thing he always does: Defeat eight robot masters in any order, take all their special weapons, and then storm Wily’s ridiculous skull-shaped headquarters with his new arsenal in tow.

By 1992, most players had a pretty good idea what they were in for with a new Mega Man title. This goes for the plot, the mechanics, the cartoony graphics, the rocking soundtrack, everything! These are incredibly consistent games, almost to a fault. That’s why when it comes to assessing Mega Man 5, I’m going to focus on the three key elements which are guaranteed to vary meaningfully between entries: The level design, the boss fights, and the various special weapons and tools Mega Man acquires.

The stages themselves are a real treat. Gravity Man’s has you fighting on the ceiling thanks to a gravity flipping gimmick similar to the ones seen in the previous year’s Metal Storm and Shatterhand. Charge Man’s deftly uses the visuals and sound to sell the idea that you’re in a moving train. Most compelling of all is Wave Man’s, which features the series’ first true vehicle segment. Mega Man pilots a jet ski here, a year before Mega Man X introduced ride armors. On the downside, Stone Man’s suffers from the same generic cave syndrome that’s plagued nearly all stone/rock-themed masters over the years and Crystal Man’s, pretty as it is, has too much stop and go for my taste. For the most part, though, these are some fun areas to blast through and a high point of Mega Man 5.

On the other hand, the robot masters themselves largely fail to impress. They do showcase some neat ideas here and there, such as Gyro Man’s tendency to hide in the billowing clouds filling his arena. Despite this, they were all simple to take down and I rarely felt like I needed to exploit their individual weapon weaknesses to come out on top. Comparatively basic patterns and modest damage output make them less of a threat than their Mega Man 3 or 4 counterparts. This is compounded by the increased availability of extra lives and energy tanks this time around. While difficulty preferences are obviously subjective, I think most gamers would expect and desire more than token resistance from these guys.

Speaking of wanting more, the special weapons in Mega Man 5 are a sorry lot. Only the steerable Gyro Blade and screen clearing Gravity Hold saw regular use during my playthrough. The rest are either too weak or too situational to bother with. This is doubly true since Mega Man retains his Mega Buster charge attack and it’s arguably stronger than ever. It ramps up to full power quicker and the shot itself has a larger area of effect. The designers attempted to balance this out somewhat by having the charge be lost whenever Mega Man sustains damage. In my experience, this doesn’t quite offset the improved fire rate. It was debatable whether or not the charge shot was the best weapon in Mega Man 4. Given the competition here, there can be no doubt.

Or can there? Although he’s presented as more of a side character than anything else, there is one optional weapon available in the form of Beat the robot bird. Unlocking him requires you to collect eight letter icons, one in each of the robot master levels. I recommend you put in the effort because Beat, well, beats ass. When active, he’ll automatically zip around the screen seeking out enemies and dealing heavy touch damage to them. He can make mincemeat of almost anything in his path, including the bosses in the final stretch of the game. Dr. Wily’s ultimate war machine? Easily reduced to scrap by a good pecking. Enjoy this avenging avian while you can. He’s toned down considerably in all his future appearances.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m reviewing Mega Man 5 the week after Thanksgiving, as it comes across like a plate of reheated digital leftovers. It features some creative stage designs and I did enjoy Beat the bird, both as a handy bonus item and an adorable addition to the greater Mega Man universe. Beyond that, it offers little in the way of new ideas and a mediocre at best selection of robot masters and special weapons. As with virtually  anything cast from the classic Mega Man mold, it’s a cut above the average action-platformer and remains well worth playing for fans of the genre. I certainly don’t regret giving it go. In the narrower context of its own legendary series, however, it’s simply a poor man’s Mega Man 4. You can really sense the developer fatigue setting in with this one. With a mere eleven months between the two releases, I reckon that should come as no surprise. These games may be all about tireless robots, but the teams behind them are all too human.

Legacy of the Wizard (NES)

Long ago, the wicked dragon Keela terrorized the land. His reign ended when a mighty wizard sealed him away in a magical painting. Now, that seal has weakened and Keela is about to be revived. Luckily, the wizard left a legacy in the form of his descendants, the Worzen family. Musclebound Xemn, sorceress Meyna, their children Lyll and Roas, and the adorable pet monster Pochi have joined forces to do gramps proud. Only by scouring the seemingly endless dungeon beneath their homestead and gathering four hidden crowns can they obtain the mythic Dragon Slayer sword, the sole weapon capable of destroying Keela permanently.

It won’t be easy. Nihon Falcom’s Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family in Japan) has a well-deserved reputation as the Mount Everest of NES action-adventure games. If you’ve already conquered both Zeldas, Metroid, Castlevania II, Rygar, and the rest of the usual suspects, then congratulations: You’ve completed your basic training for Legacy of the Wizard. Welcome to the big leagues.

If it sounds like I’m trying to scare you away from this one, I’m really not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legacy’s tough-as-nails nature isn’t the result of sketchy design. Rather, it’s the logical result of presenting the player with a labyrinthine 256 screen game world and five very different characters to canvass it with. Is a work of this scope a good starting point if you’re new to exploratory action games? Hell, no. If you’re a seasoned veteran, however, it’ll strain your brain in the best possible way. I found myself positively mesmerized as it siphoned away hour after hour of my free time.

You start your quest in the Worzen living room, where you’re free to select any one of the playable family members to venture forth with. This screen is also where you receive and input the passwords used to continue between sessions. You can return here any time to switch characters or simply to record your progress, as dying in the dungeon will revert everything to the way it was the last time you visited home.

The Worzens are a diverse lot indeed. Burly woodcutter Zemn has tremendous strength at the cost of abysmal attack range and jump height. His signature ability is moving heavy blocks with a magic glove. His wife Meyna relies on a variety of magic items to do things like fly and pass theough locked doors without using keys. Daughter Lyll is arguably the superstar of the bunch, with superb jumping ability and solid attacks. You’ll probably find yourself wishing you could use her all the time. Pochi isn’t very good at combat or platforming. He is a monster, though, which means other monsters (with the exception of bosses) don’t see him as a threat and deal no damage whatsoever to him. Son Roas has no particular merits apart from his ability to acquire the Dragon Slayer late in the game and wield it against Keela.

The biggest hurdle most players will encounter in Legacy of the Wizard is getting the ball rolling in the first place. Which character is best to use at the outset? How do you know where to begin hunting for the crowns? The best advice I can give is to think of the dungeon as four distinct zone arranged around a central hub. In this case, the hub is the large room near the beginning that holds the imprisoned dragon. Each of the four areas branching off from it is intended to be tackled by a specific family member. You’ll know you’ve transitioned to a new one when the background music changes. Pochi is great to start out with. He’s immune to most damage and that makes his crown (located in the lower right quadrant) one of the least stressful to track down. Another reason to choose Pochi first is that he’s pretty poor at combat. Every time you find one of the crowns, you have to defeat a boss to actually claim it. You always confront this increasingly tough sequence of bosses in the same order, regardless of which order you pick up the crowns in. Thus, it’s in your best interest to have Pochi take on the easiest of the four and leave later ones to powerhouses like Zemn and Meyna.

Make it through Pochi’s area and you should have a pretty good grasp of how the game works. The remaining 3/4 of the quest will still be a fierce struggle, of course, just a slightly less overwhelming one. Almost all of Legacy’s challenge stems from the convoluted maze layouts themselves. They represent the very apex of the “probe every square inch for hidden passages” design philosophy. Finding any of the four crowns requires you to be observant, clever, and, above all, thorough.

What about those monsters? Well, baddies are everywhere and can eventually end you if you’re not careful. That said, their threat is undercut by your ample health bar and by the abundance of inns and healing items throughout the dungeon. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out where to go in the first place is almost always a much taller order than making it there in one piece.

I found Legacy of the Wizard a joy to complete for the most part. Coming to grips with each character’s strengths and weaknesses as I slowly puzzled my way through one of the most complex environments in any NES game was consistently absorbing. The graphics are simple, yet clean, with small sprites well-suited to negotiating the intricate level layouts. The music by industry legends Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Streets of Rage) and Mieko Ishikawa (Ys) is as a catchy as you’d expect. This really is a total package for the experienced adventure gamer.

I did take issue with a few things here and there. I didn’t like how your regular attacks always requires an expenditure of magic points. It’s possible it run out of the magic needed to power key items like Meyna’s wings and Lyll’s jump shoes merely because you opted to fight too many enemies. Your character is helpless in these situations and you usually have no choice but to retreat to the nearest inn. There’s also the poison problem. In addition to helpful things like health and and magic refills, defeated enemies frequently drop bottles of poison which remove a decent chunk of your life when collected. Assuming you can avoid picking them up by accident as soon as they appear, poison vials have the potential to block narrow corridors and take far too long to vanish on their own. Even in more open areas, some characters like Xemn and Pochi can’t jump well enough to clear a poison pickup without touching it, and that means either more damage or more waiting. This poison mechanic adds nothing worthwhile to the game and should have been omitted. Oh, and I have to call out the finicky controls for Xemn’s glove. You can use it to shove blocks in eight directions and usually need to be precise when doing so. Good luck with that. The blocks seem more inclined to treat your directional inputs as polite suggestions than commands.

Bothersome as they are, these are hardly fatal flaws. Legacy of the Wizard may be a little rough around the edges and aimed squarely at hardcore adventure nuts, but I feel its long-established status as an NES cult classic is entirely warranted. After all, the family that slays together stays together.

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.

Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!
Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!

 

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 out big-time 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 difficulty 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 are 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 arch-psycho 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.