Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (PC Engine)

The PC Engine was a machine well ahead of its time. Not only was it the first home console to employ 16-bit graphics, its CD-ROM drive add-on served as gaming’s introduction to the format in the absurdly early year of 1988. If anything, you’d expect the world of high end home computing to have brought us that particular innovation. Nope. The PCE’s initial crop of CD games are widely acknowledged to be the earliest ever produced.

Until just recently, I’d been limited to running cartridge games on own PC Engine. As much as I wanted to dive into its expansive CD library, I didn’t feel like bothering with the upkeep a finicky decades-old disk drive usually requires. This changed when I got my hands on the Super SD System 3, a nifty aftermarket accessory that uses flash memory to replicate the function of a CD unit without all those troublesome moving parts. That’s what I call an upgrade!

Now where to start? As a die-hard Castlevania lover, I can’t help but opt for 1993’s Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (“Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood”). It’s the most famous Japan-exclusive title for the system, after all. Konami wouldn’t deliver an official international release of Rondo until 2007, when it was finally ported to the Sony PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.  The years in-between saw the rise of the Internet and game emulation, so it should come as no surprise that this fabled lost epic has built up quite the cult following here in the West. Is it truly the greatest old-school Castlevania of them all, as many of its admirers maintain? Well….

First off, this is my kind of Castlevania game: A pure 2-D action-platformer with no experience points, no backtracking, no menus to futz with, just your wits and reflexes pitted against Dracula’s army of the night. It’s a damn attractive one, too. The PC Engine’s broad color palette was put to masterful use rendering these vibrant backgrounds and richly detailed sprites. The enemy sprites in particular are so good that many of them were reused wholesale in 1997’s Symphony of the Night for PlayStation. Rarely is in-game art able to bridge a hardware generation gap in this way.

The soundtrack is equally stellar. We do get the predictable nostalgic reprises of mainstays like “Vampire Killer,” “Bloody Tears,” and “Beginning,” but it’s not all golden oldies. Original tracks such as “Divine Bloodlines,” “Opus 13,” and “Den” can stand toe-to-toe with anything that came before. The CD medium also means we get to enjoy the historic debut of real instruments in a Castlevania score. I can’t imagine this material disappointing anyone with a fondness for the saga’s signature brand of Baroque-tinged prog rock.

Rondo’s central figure is Richter Belmont, descendant of Simon and heir to his family’s warrior legacy. The year is 1792, and a group of cultists led by the corrupt priest, Shaft, have used blood sacrifice to resurrect Count Dracula once again. Dracula abducts Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and three other young girls, intending to use them as bait to lure the young vampire hunter to his castle. It works, of course, as Richter promptly rides off to the rescue with his ancestors’ enchanted whip in tow. It’s a plain, functional, business-as-usual plot, albeit one bolstered somewhat by periodic voiced cutscenes. Not that I can understand a word of them in the Japanese, mind you.

Richter handles in the traditional Belmont manner, with a leisurely walk speed, stiff jump, and slightly delayed whip attack. The whip can be supplemented by a selection of sub-weapons that draw on a limited supply of hearts for ammunition. Sub-weapons include the long-established dagger, cross, axe, holy water, and stopwatch, as well as a newcomer: The Bible. I’ve never really found a good use for the Bible, myself. Its weird spiraling trajectory renders it awkward to deploy. Oh, well.

Also introduced here is the concept of Item Crashes. These are more powerful versions of each sub-weapon’s regular attack that’ll run you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hearts per use. While not all Item Crashes are created equal, the more punishing ones can easily lay waste to most bosses. I’m looking at you, cross and holy water. I’m a fan of this mechanic. It leads to interesting scenarios wherein you have to weight the immediate benefits of using your sub-weapons on regular enemies against the long-term goal of saving as many hearts as possible to Crash bosses. A solid risk/reward dynamic.

All these capabilities make for a formidable protagonist indeed. Richter doesn’t have to go it alone, though. There’s a second playable character in the form of one of the kidnapped girls, Maria Renard. If you’ve ever wanted to beat down the undead as a little kid in a pink dress, she’s your chance. Maria is more agile than the plodding Richter and has her own separate set of animal-themed weapons. She’s actually a much stronger character on the whole, despite having less health to work with. She’s such a force of nature, in fact, that I found playing as her to be rather boring. The novelty of carelessly plowing through the opposition as a silly joke character didn’t last nearly as long as I’d hoped. John Morris and Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines serve as a far better example of how to implement two distinct, relatively balanced heroes in a Castlevania game.

In addition to Maria, Rondo’s other defining feature has to be its abundance of secrets. Every area is teeming with hidden power-ups, cute visual gags, and even passages leading to entire alternate stages with their own unique bosses. This effectively encourages you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, lest you miss out on some cool piece of bonus content. The game automatically saves your progress, too, so you can easily revisit conquered stages in order to scour them more thoroughly in pursuit of that elusive 100% completion rating.

All of this raises the question: If Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, plays great, and includes all this great stuff to discover, why is it not my favorite 16-bit Castlevania? I certainly like Rondo. I have ever since I first encountered it on the PSP over a decade ago. Now that I can play it on my PC Engine, I expect it to become a staple of my action gaming rotation. Still, when it comes to this period in the franchise’s history, I generally prefer both Castlevania: Bloodlines and Akumajō Dracula (aka Castlevania Chronicles) for a couple of reasons.

An overall lack of difficulty is one. Super Castlevania IV catches its share of flack for being too easy, yet I tend to lose more lives to random platforming flubs there than I do to anything in Rondo. While playing as Maria is a cakewalk by design, taking down the same levels as Richter is only marginally more taxing. A couple of the late game bosses, specifically Death and Shaft, put up a respectable fight, but that’s about it. This is obviously a highly subjective critique on my part. As a hardened veteran of the series, I can see how less experienced players might view this “failing” as a major plus. I just happen to favor a Castlevania experience with more bite.

More crucially, I’ve always gotten the impression that much of the tremendous creativity that went into making Rondo could have been better directed. Sure, the locations you visit are packed with wacky Easter eggs, secret passages, and the like, but how do they stack up as Castlevania stages? I find you mostly leap over some pits, climb a few staircases, swat at knights and skeletons, and collect hearts on your way to the boss room. In other words, it’s fundamentally nothing we hadn’t seen before on the NES. This game features no equivalent to the rotating rooms and whip swinging of Super Castlevania IV or the many elaborate set piece platforming challenges of Bloodlines (the rising water in Greece, the swaying tower in Italy, the hall of mirrors in England, etc). Instead, the lion’s share of the work on Rondo seems to have been devoted to polishing its presentation to a mirror sheen and cramming in as many quirky peripheral elements as possible. I’d gladly trade a little of that for some more ambitious level design.

I’m not about to declare Rondo of Blood overrated or imply that anyone who’s head-over-heels in love with it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it’s an impeccably charming adventure fully worthy of its pedigree. I dig it. That said, I do think its grandiose reputation stems more from its history as a rare and expensive import item than from any sort of inherent superiority to similar games in the series. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t need to be some mythic über-Castlevania that towers head-and-shoulders above its peers. It’s plenty good, and that’s good enough for me.

Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Are video games art?

It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.

As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.

Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.

With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.

To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.

Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.

Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:

“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”

This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.

Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.

The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.

April fools! This game is shit, y’all.

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

For a simple PC Engine shoot-’em-up, 1991’s Final Soldier is a surprisingly tricky game to write about. Produced by Hudson Soft and developed by Now Production, it’s the third entry in Hudson’s flagship Star Soldier line of vertical shooters. Upholding series tradition, it served as the centerpiece of that year’s Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, a long-running (1985-2006) annual high score contest the company used to promote its latest games. It’s well-designed, attractively presented alien blasting. It’s…well, it’s more Star Soldier. See what I mean? Only one paragraph into this review and I’m already running short of material.

When dealing with a franchise this consistent, I’m probably best off adopting a Mega Man approach. That is, getting the boilerplate stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so I can focus instead on the subtle tweaks that make a specific installment ever so slightly different from what came before. Here goes!

Final Soldier has a classic space shooter plot, in that it’s short, sweet, and confined entirely to the instruction booklet. Time travelling aliens called the Gader’el are attacking 23rd century Earth and the experimental Dryad fighter craft is humanity’s last line of defense. Its mission encompasses seven lengthy stages set in a variety of conventional video game locales, such as outer space, the ocean, and a futuristic city. Each zone has a pushover mid-boss and a tougher end boss, except the final one, which is an extended running battle against the ultimate baddie and its swarm of minions. Nothing special, but kudos to the developers for not padding the finale out with a lazy boss rush like so many other shooters of the era.

The weapon system is where things get interesting. The Dryad has a machine gun type main shot by default and this can be swapped out for energy waves, lasers, or a flamethrower by picking up icons of the appropriate color dropped by defeated enemies. Grabbing multiple same colored icons in a row will level-up your current weapon, increasing its area of effect and damage. Upgraded weapons also double as armor, since getting hit while wielding one results in a loss of firepower in lieu of instant death. Missiles and Gradius style option pods round out your arsenal, which is a pretty typical one by genre standards. Final Soldier’s ace in the hole is the Set-Up menu accessed from the title screen. Here, you can change the properties of the energy wave, laser, flamethrower, and missiles (though not the machine gun for some reason). The three modes available for a given weapon have a profound effect on its operation. For example, the normal straight laser shot can be swapped out for a chaotic torrent of blue bubbles. This effectively ups the number of unique weapons in the game from a modest five to a generous thirteen. Even the option pods have a nifty secondary function: You can sacrifice them as needed to trigger a full-screen super attack.

Another factor that differentiates Final Soldier from earlier Star Soldier outings is its relative ease. Super Star Soldier pushed my patience to the limit with its grueling, glitchy last area. Someone behind the scenes must have felt the same way, because there’s nothing remotely comparable here. Final Soldier’s default difficulty setting will be a cakewalk for any experienced player. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a more casual “kick back and blaze away” experience and reminds me of some of my favorite Compile-developed shooters in this regard. If you’re a fellow Gun-Nac or Space Megaforce fan, you’ll be right at home. Besides, I can always throw Super Star Soldier back on if I want an ass kicking.

So there you have it: Final Soldier is the same tried-and-true Star Soldier formula with a deeper than average weapon system and a relaxed approach to challenge. Between its crisp graphics, high energy music, silky smooth control, and viscerally satisfying shooting action, you really can’t go wrong with this one. While I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the PCE heap with Air Zonk and Blazing Lazers, it’s still a highly competent work with no outstanding flaws. Pity it was destined to be the “lost” Star Soldier game back in the day, having never been ported to the North American TurboGrafx-16 like its predecessor, Super Star Soldier, or its sequel, Soldier Blade. Sequel? Why, of course! You didn’t think this was the final one, did you?

Splatterhouse (PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

Burning down the house!

Of all the bone-chilling titles in this year’s October roundup, Namco’s Splatterhouse holds the strongest claim to true historical significance as mainstream gaming’s introduction to gore. Suspect I might oversimplifying there? That’s fair. 1988 does seem awfully late for such a milestone. I don’t maintain that Splatterhouse was the first gory game, however, only the first to enjoy a number of advantages that collectively gave it the edge in breaking through to the public consciousness. Unlike Exidy’s 1986 light gun oddity Chiller, it received a massive marketing push from its A-list developer/publisher. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for much more in the way of shocking detail than Wizard Video’s blocky 1983 renditions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600. Finally, being an arcade and console release, it had a much wider built-in audience than home computer offerings like 1987’s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

Eschewing the ancient Universal homages of many other early horror games, Splatterhouse gleefully leaned into edgier contemporary influences. Its musclebound hero, Rick Taylor, donned a Jason-esque “Terror Mask” and blue jumpsuit ensemble, simultaneously paying tribute to two of the period’s most iconic big screen slashers. And he splattered things. Loads of things. Zombies, bloodsucking worms, flying severed heads, misshapen killer fetuses, you name it, all in his frenzied rush to rescue his love Jennifer from the unholy depths of West Mansion. No wonder this 1989 port to the TurboGrafx-16 became the first game to bear a violence warning, which declared it “inappropriate for young children…and cowards.” From the makers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug came the blood-drenched beat-’em-up Evil Dead and Reanimator fans had been waiting for. Go figure.

So, having established Splatterhouse as very important and very cool, how does it play? Well, what you see really is what you get with this one. Even by 1988 standards, the gameplay here is basic. At a point in arcade history when Double Dragon’s eight-directional movement represented the cutting edge in beat-’em-up design, Splatterhouse confines Rick to a single horizontal plane and thus more closely resembles Irem’s Kung-Fu Master from 1984. Simply walk to the right, hop over the occasional spike or other ground hazard, and smack down every twisted monstrosity that gets in your way. Persevere through seven stages of this of this without running out of lives and you win. A couple stages do offer short branching paths to the boss room, but this idea is sadly underutilized.

Rick’s rampage is as brief as it is straightforward. After you’ve come to grips with the level layouts and enemy behaviors, an entire playthrough can be wrapped up in under twenty minutes. This makes Splatterhouse a rare example of a “hot tea game” for me. See, I’ve unintentionally developed a tradition over the years of brewing up a piping hot mug of tea at the start of a gaming session. I then immediately get lost in the flow, forgetting all about my poor beverage until hours have passed, by which time it’s ice cold. Imagine my surprise when I cleared the TurboGrafx Splatterhouse for the first time and had a nice, warm mug awaiting me for a change! I had so much play time to spare that I threw on the Japanese PC Engine version and ran all the way through it, too. Turns out the two are almost identical. The North American edition merely changed Rick’s mask from white to red (presumably to head off any Paramount Pictures lawsuits) and took out all the crosses. Because shredding zombies in twain with a wooden plank is fine, provided you leave Jesus out of it.

Pointing out that these home editions of Splatterhouse are dead simple and light on content shouldn’t be construed as condemnation. On the contrary. As they’re intended to be faithful adaptations of the arcade original, they must be reckoned great successes. Every key location and play element is present and accounted for. The graphics, particularly the backgrounds, are scaled back somewhat, yet still convey the same hellish effect. The eerie music holds up equally well. This series in general has a reputation for style over substance, which is both technically true and frequently unfair. The entirety of Splatterhouse is positively bursting with ghoulish ambience and diabolic verve, resulting in an unforgettable experience for any classic gaming or classic horror enthusiast. What’s the sense in glossing over that as if it’s some small thing that comes standard with any random game?

Splatterhouse made enough of a splash to warrant two direct sequels on the Sega Genesis and a delightfully silly Famicom spin-off (Wanpaku Graffiti). As of this writing, an ill-fated 2010 reboot attempt is the last we’ve heard from Rick, Jennifer, and the eldritch Terror Mask. Perhaps that’s for the best. Splatterhouse’s once transgressive grue factor comes across almost naive in an age of fully-voiced interactive torture scenes (Grand Theft Auto V) and near photorealistic dismemberment (Mortal Kombat 11). Shifts in popular culture and the inexorable march of technology have rendered this former controversy magnet quaint as a caped Bela Lugosi in its own way. Its infectiously likable pick-up-and-play action, on the other hand? That’s timeless.

Down Load (PC Engine)

First things first: Do you have any idea how much of a pain it is to research a game called Down Load? I suppose I can’t really blame the staff at Alfa System and NEC Avenue for not psychically anticipating the online emulation scene when they produced this obscure 1990 shooter, but yeah, it’s an issue.

As a Japanese exclusive with a search-resistant name, I may well have never given Down Load a look if it hadn’t been for Clyde Mandelin and Tony Kuchar’s book, “This be book bad translation, video games!” The authors devote a full two-page spread to shots of its ridiculous game over screens, in which the main character, Syd, unleashes expletive-laden tirades over being defeated by the enemy. It’s hard not to love gems like “I can not fuck up for this” and “Shit. Is not this a great beginning.” Odds are that if you’ve been exposed to the game at all, it’s through images of these very quotable screens.

Don’t be too quick to write this one off as a joke, though. Legendary studios like SNK routinely proved that some shoddy English does not a bad ’90s game make. Indeed, Down Load is a fast-paced, exciting shooter with some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a HuCard release. It also showcases a surprisingly robust cyberpunk anime storyline told through Ninja Gaiden style cutscenes. It’s a prime example of the sort of quality PC Engine titles that NEC should have been busy porting over to their struggling TurboGrafx-16 at the time, even if it would have likely meant losing out on all those hilarious swears.

Our story begins in the Kabukichō red light district of Tokyo in the year 2099. Syd, an expert “cyber-diver” is contacted by his friend Deva. She’s been arrested while investigating the mysterious disappearance of another cyber-diver named Ohala, so our boy Syd promptly hops on his flying motorcycle thingy and jets off to rescue her from the cops. Unfortunately, that’s all I can really tell you for sure. Unlike those wacky game over screens, all of the cutscene text is in Japanese and there’s currently no fan translation patch available. I do know that a bad guy named Nero eventually shows up, but I can’t discern who he’s supposed to be or what his deadly plot entails. Pity, because these sequences look great and I can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of this much dialogue in a shooter. Someday perhaps.

Gameplay consists of traditional horizontally scrolling shoot-’em-up action encompassing a total of six main stages. Most of these are further sub-divided into multiple visually distinct segments (1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc). I think we all know the drill: Fly from left to right, grab floating power-ups, shoot down or dodge an onslaught of minor foes, and then blow up the big boss at the end of the level in order to move on. This established, Down Load’s interpretation of the formula does differ from the norm in one important way: It’s remarkably forgiving. You’re provided with unlimited continues and a password system, either one of which would have been generous enough on its own by genre standards. Additionally, Syd’s ride is extremely durable. It comes with a health bar that can withstand a total of four hits and even be replenished via healing items. If all this still isn’t enough insurance for you, you can opt to equip a shield capable of absorbing up to fifteen (!) additional attacks. Down Load’s relaxed approach may not satisfy the most rabid of Gradius or R-Type fans, but it’s a great starting point for novices who would rather dip their toes into the PC Engine shooter pool than plunge head-first into the deep end.

The array of weaponry at your disposal in Down Load is serviceable, if undistinguished. At the start of each stage, you’re given the opportunity to select one of two main shots and one of three secondary items. Your main weapon can be fired indefinitely and takes the form of either a blue piercing laser or a wider orange spread of bullets. It’s that perennial shooter trade-off: Focused power versus increased screen coverage. You can upgrade this primary shot from its starting level of one all the way up to five, increasing its damage and area of effect each time. You’ll be docked a level of weapon power with each bit of  damage you sustain, however, so don’t get too cocky. Secondary items have a limited number of uses and consist of either 96 homing missiles, 6 super bombs, or the aforementioned energy shield that can block up to 15 bullets. You can find power-ups in most stages that will completely refill your secondary weapon reserves, so there’s usually no need to be too concerned about hoarding ammo.

What really makes Down Load more than just a generic shooter with adequate options and a soft touch is its fantastic art direction. From the expressive character portraits in the cutscenes to the many-layered parallax scrolling backgrounds, the game is a joy to behold. There’s a healthy amount of variety on display, too. Syd’s mission sees him visiting a futuristic city, the ocean, a cave, outer space, and the obligatory creepy biological level with organs for walls. Most interesting of all are the virtual reality levels. Being a cyber-diver (with the plugs in his head to prove it), Syd is capable of jacking into computer systems, meaning that several stages are set in these kaleidoscopic abstract spaces that really stand out from the rest of the game’s environments. They don’t actually play any differently, mind you, they just look cool. The music is also catchy and will appeal to most fans of that characteristic gritty, funky PCE chiptune sound. The only thing that comes close to detracting from an otherwise sublime presentation is the very noticeable flicker that can occur when larger sprites, particularly bosses, share the screen with upgraded weapons fire. At its most severe, this can lead to unnecessary damage as some enemy projectiles become partly or wholly obscured.

Down Load proved popular enough in its native land to warrant a CD-ROM sequel in 1991 and an animated film adaptation that’s even more difficult to find details on than the games that spawned it. Although I don’t think it has the depth required to place in the top tier of PC Engine shooters, it’s still a competent work that’s immensely stylish and approachable by gamers of all skill levels. I’m glad I gave it a chance. I came for the laughs, I stayed for the thrills.

Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. This…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers which require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowning irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests which require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways in which it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history.

Sometimes dead is better.

R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, its torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters which consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy which just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature which comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings who are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and then devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up yet again. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

Kato-chan & Ken-chan (PC Engine)

Dear Lord.

Who are these abominations? Why, they’re Cha Katō and Ken Shimura, two well-known Japanese celebrities who started their careers as members of the storied rock band/comedy troupe The Drifters. They went on to host the Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV (“Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan”) variety show from 1986 through 1992, and this program was popular enough to warrant its own game on the PC Engine starring the pair. In fact, Kato-chan & Ken-chan was the very first platformer released for the system, just one month after its launch in late 1987.

Developer Hudson Soft understandably chose to pattern Kato-chan & Ken-chan on their biggest platforming success to date: Adventure Island. Both games share the same overall structure as well as very similar play control and level design. Even Adventure Island’s iconic continuously depleting health meter that the player must collect fruit to refill makes an appearance here. If you’re wondering what separates KC&KC from a standard Adventure Island title, the answer is poop.

You see, Fun TV wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated series. The comparison that seems to crop up most often when attempting to explain its widespread appeal in its home territory to Westerners is The Benny Hill Show. On the PC Engine side, this translates to toilet humor and lots of it. Piles of coiled brown feces are a recurring hazard, the heroes engage in regular bouts of public urination and defecation during their quest, and one of their primary attacks is a fart cloud triggered by facing away from the target and crouching. Delightful.

The game’s plot is patterned on Detective Story, Fun TV’s most popular recurring sketch, in which Katō and Ken portrayed a pair of bumbling private eyes who managed to screw up a new case every week. The opening cut scene depicts one of the two detectives (as chosen by the player on the title screen) answering the office phone and being informed that a very rich man has been kidnapped and there’s a huge reward being offered for his safe return. The chosen character promptly accepts the case and departs, while his partner, fuming over being left out, decides to tag along anyway and make trouble.

This setup was essentially unchanged when the game was localized for release on the North American TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as J.J. & Jeff. Instead of being based on real people the target audience wouldn’t have been familiar with, the title characters were changed to a pair of generic detectives and most (but not all) of the toilet humor was omitted. Apart from these cosmetic differences, however, the two releases are identical.

There are a total of 24 individual stages in Kato-chan & Ken-chan, divided up into six “fields” which function like the worlds in Super Mario Bros. Gameplay consists of making your way from left to right in each stage, avoiding pits and enemies until you reach the goal. You can periodically enter public restrooms along the way where you’ll encounter your partner dressed up in a variety of bizarre outfits based on other Fun TV characters. He’ll refill your health and often provide some helpful gameplay advice as a bonus. There’s also a boss at the end of each field in the form of a big guy who tosses boulders, although these fights are similar to the Witch Doctor battles in Adventure Island in that the boss is always the same each time, just with a different head.

Regular enemies are primarily animals like birds, dogs, giant flies, and crabs, with the occasional dinosaur or Yakuza gangster mixed in. In addition, the player character you didn’t select at the start of the game will show up as an enemy in most stages, throwing a torrent of damaging soda cans at you until you can get close enough to pummel him into submission. Kato and Ken have a few different ways of dealing with the opposition. The most generally useful is a Mario style head stomp. For the few enemies who can’t be jumped on, there’s also the aforementioned fart attack and a short range kick.

Despite its pathetic reach, the kick is one of the most important moves in your arsenal, as it’s how you uncover hidden items and other secrets. Kicking different background elements in each stage (trees, signs, posts, etc.) can potentially reveal energy restoring fruit, bonus stages, french fries to enhance your fart attack, coins used in slot machines for a chance to win health boosts and extra lives, and even deadly piles of poo if you’re unlucky. These are all optional, but the one hidden item you absolutely must find is the key secreted away in the third stage of each field. If you fail to grab this key, you’ll be unable to fight the boss at the end of the field and have no choice but to warp back and repeat the previous stage until you finally locate it. If there’s one golden rule in KC&KC, it’s “always be kicking.”

The groundwork is certainly in place here for an excellent old school platformer, and Kato-chan & Ken-chan mostly succeeds as the twisted take on Adventure Island it sets out to be. Unfortunately, it also has its share of shortcomings and annoyances. I just mentioned the need to find a hidden key in the third stage of each field before you’ll be allowed to fight the boss. Since the screen only scrolls to the right and you can’t backtrack, these keys can be easier to miss than they should be. Reaching the end of a key stage empty handed, it’s often better to simply run down the timer and kill yourself rather than crossing the finish line, since you’d need to play all the way through the next stage before being allowed to warp back and try again. Encouraging players to search for hidden goodies everywhere is one thing, but the penalty of potentially being forced to repeat earlier stages is too much hassle for no real payoff and smacks of padding.

Another questionable design choice was making KC&KC a one-player game exclusively. Why bother to produce a game about two of the biggest stars in Japan at the time and then not even include so much as the most bare bones of alternating two-player modes? Some care went into making the duo each control slightly different (Ken moves a bit faster at the expense of some troublesome extra momentum), so it’s a real shame they can’t be used side-by-side if you have a friend on hand.

To modern eyes, Kato-chan & Ken-chan can also seem quite repetitive. Like most other platformers of the mid-1980s, there really aren’t a lot of unique enemies, backgrounds, or music tracks to go around. Rather than surprising the player with a parade of novel threats, the game’s escalating challenge is based around remixing the same small set of foes and hazards in increasingly complex and devious ways. On the plus side, the clean, colorful artwork and the catchy score by Takeaki Kunimoto make up in quality what they lack in diversity. Kato and Ken’s oversized heads are a little creepy at first, but their extra expressiveness pays off during the numerous pratfalls and sight gags.

None of these flaws are all that damning in light of the game’s age and status as an early release on the console. What’s borderline unforgivable is the tendency for its sense of humor to turn nasty on occasion. Just like in the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels), Kato-chan & Ken-chan features hidden “reverse” warp zones which send you backward in the game when you stumble on them. After I accidentally fell down a pit midway through stage 3-4, I was floored when, instead of just losing a life like normal, I landed on a hidden spring that catapulted me back to 2-1! Not cool, Hudson Soft. Not cool at all. Tempted as I was to shelve the game in disgust then and there, I persevered and eventually made it to the end without falling prey to any more of these tricks. It could have been a lot worse. The final stage, 6-4, supposedly has a pit that sends you all the way back to 1-1. That’s just sick.

If you can look past this infuriating sadistic streak, KC&KC is still worth a look for fans of simple ’80s hop-and-bop platformers and wacky, stereotypically Japanese humor. Cha Katō and Ken Shimura are both still alive and kicking around television today, over thirty years after their PC Engine debut. Though not the superstars they used to be, they’re hanging in there. Not bad for careers built on oogling young women and passing gas. Plus, I guess Katō opened for The Beatles once or something. Whatever.

Strip Fighter II (PC Engine)

Witness the world’s saddest high score!

Since I’m still diving into my brand new PC Engine console, I figure I may as well reach even further outside my comfort zone by simultaneously reviewing my first unlicensed title and my first adult game in the infamous Strip Fighter II.

Strange as it seems, the notion of a somewhat shady “unofficial” game release for a console wasn’t always with us. The first widely-adopted home system on the market, Atari’s VCS/2600, came with no specific licensing requirements or other checks placed on third party publishers. Anyone willing to pony up the dough to manufacture and market cartridges could put out their own Atari games. This policy led to such a glut of low quality software that the resulting damage to consumer confidence is often cited as a major contributing factor to the precipitous decline in Atari’s fortunes after 1982. It fell on Nintendo as the next major player in the gaming sphere to institute the more rigid top-down content control measures which have defined console libraries ever since.

This new order spawned its share of resisters who were willing to risk potential legal consequences in order to release games without paying the requisite fealty (and fees) to the console manufacturers. Many NES aficionados have at least a passing familiarity with the prolific Color Dreams and their Christian-themed incarnation Wisdom Tree, for example. What was left of poor Atari’s home games division went so far as to steal the patent information for the NES console’s 10NES security lockout chip and use it to publish several unlicensed titled under the Tengen name.

Another industry tradition with deeper roots than one might expect is the adult (that is, pornographic) video game. These, too, date back to the golden age of the VCS and the earliest mass market home computers. The fact developers and consumers alike were so intent to realize sexually explicit content on hardware literally incapable of displaying realistic human forms says a lot about us. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Porn, uh, finds a way.

Since mainstream console manufacturers generally don’t like to be associated with outright spank material, unlicensed and adult games go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Though not all unlicensed games showcase racy content, a large proportion of adult titles produced for the console market have been unlicensed.

The undisputed kings of video game sleaze in early ’90s Japan were Hacker International. Founded by former music producer Satoru Hagiwara, Hacker distributed dozens of adult titles for Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine under a host of brand names, including Games Express and Panesian. A handful of their games even made it to the North American NES, albeit in very limited quantities.

The formula was a simple, efficient one: Churn out a barely competent effort in a popular genre as cheaply as possible and then “reward” players for sticking with its sub-par gameplay by periodically flashing a set of cartoon breasts at them. Whether the subject matter is gambling (AV Poker/Peek-A-Boo Poker), puzzles (Soap Panic/Bubble Bath Babes), or fantasy adventure (Lady Sword), you always know what you’re in for. As Hagiwara himself stated in a 2011 interview: “None of the games were all that interesting content-wise…Because they were weak games, a lot of them went down the adult track — we called them ‘semi-adult.'” I appreciate the candor. Regardless of your opinion on Hacker, you certainly can’t call them deluded or pretentious.

Bearing the Games Express name like all of their PC Engine output, 1993’s Strip Fighter II was, obviously, Hacker International’s stab at a head-to-head fighting game. No genre was bigger in the years following Capcom’s worldwide sensation Street Fighter II, so it was really only a matter of time. How is it? Well, you just heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, didn’t you? It’s terrible. Probably the single worst game I’ve reviewed to date, though in fairness, I’m not really the masochistic type and typically stick to material with a stronger pedigree and some measure of positive buzz about it.

I hardly know where to begin sketching out the problems with this one. Let’s start with the playable fighters themselves. There are a paltry six of them in total and, as you might expect, they’re all scantily-clad women. As difficult as this should be to bungle, none of them demonstrate much in the way of personality and their visual designs skew more buffoonish than sexy. One dons an oversized bird headdress and fires off inexplicable energy blasts from her backside, another is a stocky wrestler with a rainbow afro who assaults the opponent with her giant breasts, and so on. The “best” of the lot (like bland Chun-Li clone Yuki) are really only so by virtue of not being notably grotesque.

Choose a fighter from this sorry lot and you’ll soon realize the combat mechanics leave just as much to be desired as the roster. Jumps are floaty, executing special moves feels highly inconsistent, and there are times when I swear the game just starts dropping controller inputs left and right, leaving me standing there defenseless. By no means am I the sort of fighting game pro who’s going to sweep any tournaments, but I’ve picked up enough in the way of fundamentals over the years to know what’s on me and what’s a matter of shoddy programming, so I can say with confidence that Strip Fighter II’s controls and core gameplay lack anything in the way of care or refinement. The result is choppy, slow, and painfully awkward. It almost goes without saying that amateurish stuff like inescapable re-dizzy attacks are also present. Just a sad mess, really.

In theory, the game supports the six-button controllers released in conjunction with the PC Engine port of Street Fighter II. This would be a cool selling point, except for the fact that, in yet another hilarious feat of self-sabotaging laziness, the characters’ weak, medium, and strong attacks all use the same animations, just displayed faster or slower as needed. Quality, thy name is Games Express.

The closest we get to redeeming features are the art and music, which aren’t the worst on a purely technical level. More frames of character animation, some moving backgrounds, and a wider variety of sound effects might even have nudged this one into average territory. No such luck, however.

“But what about the porn?” I hear you asking. Actually, I take that back. Why not give my audience some credit, right? I’m still going to tell you, though. Winning a match in single player mode will result in the game displaying one of six topless lady pictures. Yes, again just six. I suppose they are fairly well-rendered for the time, especially when compared to their Famicom counterparts, although they only show up on screen for a little less than ten seconds, which it seems to me would make it awfully difficult to put them to their…intended use. Oddly, these nude women seem to be unrelated to any of the game’s selectable fighters. A dirty Street Fighter clone where your defeated opponent has to strip down does seem like the obvious angle to run with, but who am I to question the pixilated titty virtuosos at Hacker International? Note that you’ll only be “treated” to these naughty interludes when playing in single player mode. If you actually want to challenge a friend like the fighting game gods intended, then it’s no boobs for you. It does feel weird to be earnestly criticizing a game for being stingy with the porno, but I’m finding everyday standards break down fast in the world of unlicensed schlock.

The bottom line is there’s no pressing reason to bother with Strip Fighter II, especially not for the triple digit prices physical copies are going for these days. Devoid of any fun factor, it’s a minor curiosity at best. The trashy characters and their questionable special moves are amusing for around ten minutes, tops, which is also about as long as it will take you to triumph over the brain dead A.I. and see all the “goodies” on offer. There’s not even a final boss or a proper ending scene. Nothing ages worse than early generation adult games and this tepid cash-in was no great shakes even in its prime. Some sources online insist on referring to it as a Street Fighter parody, but that’s giving it entirely too much credit.

As for Hacker International, they eventually shed their bad boy image in 1995 when they changed their name to Map Japan and began releasing officially licensed games for the Japanese PlayStation to no great success. They finally folded in 2001, with Hagiwara citing stiff competition and his own waning interest in games as reasons why. Their catalog of 8-bit smut endures today as one of the gaudier footnotes to console gaming history; a kitsch monument to a unique chapter in the complex interwoven sagas of technology, industry, and human sexuality. For better or worse, we’ll never see its like again.

Just kidding. It’s totally for the better.