Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genre, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen; a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

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.

Ninja Gaiden (Master System)

Thanksgiving season is here again. For me, that means baking, quality time with friends, and savage ninja mayhem. Yes, this is the time of year when I inevitably find myself scaling walls and hurling deadly shuriken at evildoers of all stripes, usually in a video gaming context. I’m especially partial to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden saga for this, having already covered the NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden Shadow on Game Boy.

As far as I knew back in the ’90s, these four home titles and the arcade beat-’em-up were the full extent of the franchise. I had no idea that a sixth game, also dubbed simply Ninja Gaiden, was produced exclusively for Master System owners in Europe and Australia. This was the second entry (after the Natsume-helmed Shadow) to be developed by a party other than Tecmo themselves. Master System Ninja Gaiden is the work of SIMS (Soft development Innovation Multi Success), a joint enterprise spun off from Sega and the more obscure Sanritsu Denki. Regular readers of mine may recall them as the creators of the Castlevania-inspired Master of Darkness. The two works are quite similar in that they’re respectable action-platformers which capture the broad strokes of their source material, yet neglect many of the finer points that made the originals true greats.

Like its predecessors, this Ninja Gaiden stars blue-clad killing machine Ryu Hayabusa. He returns home to his village one day, only to discover it’s been attacked and razed by a mysterious enemy force that slaughtered everyone present and made off with a sacred scroll detailing the clan’s ninjitsu techniques. This scroll must be recovered, since the secrets it contains could endanger the entire world if misused. There’s also the matter of revenge. You really don’t want to cross a guy who slays building-sized demons for a living.

It’s a promising setup that SIMS ultimately doesn’t deliver on. The NES games were famed for their lavishly animated and scored story interludes, dubbed “Tecmo theater.” The cutscenes here are paltry in comparison, consisting of static images with the same short music loop accompanying every one. The storytelling itself also fails to engage. It’s a straightforward trek from location to location fighting assorted villains in pursuit of the missing scroll. There are no twists and no familiar characters other than Ryu himself. The new characters that appear make no impact and aren’t even given proper names, as if the writers knew you probably wouldn’t remember them anyway with a plot this perfunctory.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. Although there are some important caveats I’ll get to shortly, much of the Ninja Gaiden gameplay formula comes through loud and clear in the seven diverse stages presented. Ryu’s movement feels correct and he fights with his customary Dragon Sword and array of mystical sub-weapons. His core moveset sees some some interesting tweaks in this installment. While he retains his Ninja Gaiden III ability to hang from the undersides of certain ledges, his signature wall climbing has been replaced with a Super Metroid style rebounding wall jump. The most dramatic new addition is a super attack performed by pressing both buttons at once. This will instantly destroy all regular enemies on screen in exchange for a hefty chunk of health. Finally, he can now move while crouched, which is occasionally useful in tight quarters, if less flashy than these other maneuvers. All this allowed SIMS to include new movement-based challenges not seen in previous games and they made the most of the opportunity. There’s a bigger emphasis on pure platforming here than in any other classic Ninja Gaiden.

I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the combat. The enemies in this game are routinely designed and placed in ways that make me suspect the SIMS team didn’t really understand what made the action on the NES so compelling. It was, in a word, flow. The opposition was oppressive, with swift baddies constantly swarming Ryu from all angles. The only way out was to cut a path through as efficiently as possible. The mechanics supported this. Ryu could eliminate almost any foe with a single swing of his sword. Assuming a perfectly-timed sequence of jumps and attacks, it was possible to literally sprint through the game. It made for an unparalleled 8-bit adrenaline rush. This isn’t what you get on the Master System. There are far fewer opponents to dispatch and they tend to be either slow-moving or stationary damage sponges when compared to their NES counterparts. Taking that constant pressure off players while simultaneously forcing them to stop moving over and over to dole out multiple hits to the same enemy really blurs the line between Ninja Gaiden at its blistering best and watered-down Castlevania with a ninja.

I don’t want to come off too negative here. MS Ninja Gaiden has a lot going for it. Most prominent are its bright, clean graphics, solid soundtrack, and intricate platforming scenarios. It controls well and its dialed down intensity may actually appeal to those who find the NES games overwhelming. Not only do you enjoy the unlimited continues common to most Ninja Gaidens, you don’t even lose your sub-weapon and its ammunition when you die. This led to me discover a strange quirk of the sub-weapon system that effectively breaks the game wide open. If you can manage to raise your ammo count to the maximum of 999, it will never again decrease, effectively granting you unlimited shots thereafter. I’m not sure if this is intentional or a bug. In either case, it makes an already relaxed ride pure child’s play if you choose to exploit it.

SIMS’ interpretation of Ninja Gaiden may not represent the series at its slick, brutal apex, but it makes for a satisfying playthrough nonetheless. It’s easily one of the better action-platformers to grace the Master System. Pity it happened to debut in 1992, after the console had already been discontinued in North America and Japan. So give it a go sometime. Turkey Day or no, you’ll be thankful you did.

Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

It’s been a while since I checked with my favorite follicly challenged cave boy, Bonk. I’m also overdue for my classic shooter fix. Air Zonk to the rescue! This 1992 release (also known as the downright unpronounceable “PC Denjin Punkic Cyborg!/PC Denjin/Completion○/Clear×” in Japan) is Red Company and Hudson Soft’s attempt to reimagine their successful mascot platformers as a side-scrolling “cute-’em-up.” Whereas Bonk strolled around his prehistoric world wrecking uppity dinosaurs with his massive cranium, his futuristic counterpart Zonk is a cyborg who flies around shooting them.

Zonk’s most important upgrade wasn’t his rocket thrusters or bombs, but his cocky Sonicesque swagger. He was famously part of a last-ditch effort by NEC and Hudson Soft (under the joint Turbo Technologies banner) to rescue their struggling TurboGrafx-16 in North America, where the Genesis and Super Nintendo were eating its lunch. He became the sass-infused mascot for the then-new TurboDuo revision of the console. Realistically speaking, no amount of radical ’90s ‘tude was going to undo years of major missteps in a cutthroat market. This shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against Air Zonk, however, which is one of the most enjoyable and technically impressive shooters on the system.

The story supplied in the manual is serviceable. Perennial series antagonist King Drool is out to conquer the world with his robot army. The only thing standing in his way? “Cool, sunglass-wearing warriors lead (sic) by Zonk.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the original King Drool, still alive somehow in the far future, or one of his descendants. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. The important thing is that Zonk and company have five very long, very strange stages of slapstick aerial combat ahead of them.

Yes, them. Air Zonk’s most interesting gameplay feature is easily its friend system. Destroyed enemies will leave behind smiley face icons. Collect enough of these and a big smiley will appear that summons one of Zonk’s buddies to fly alongside him and provide some extra firepower. If you can manage to collect a second big smiley in that same level, Zonk and his pal will merge together into a hybrid form with a unique attack and gain temporary invincibility. Ten different friend characters effectively means ten additional special weapons above and beyond the eight Zonk can equip by himself. Truly a staggering arsenal by genre standards. You get to decide at the beginning of each playthrough whether to let the game choose your friend character for each round or if you’d prefer to do it yourself. You can even opt to go solo, in which case Zonk will employ automated helper drones instead.

Between all these offensive tools and each stage containing multiple discrete segments and bosses, there’s more to Air Zonk’s gameplay than you might expect. Better still, it’s all exquisitely presented. Its soundtrack is a contender for the best to ever grace a HuCard format game, so much so that it arguably beats out the CD music in its own sequel, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. These tunes are upbeat, driving, and as densely packed with memorable hooks as any of their era. The visuals are no slouch, either. Artwork is crisp, bold, and makes striking use of the TG-16’s vibrant color palette. It also needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Many of the backgrounds showcase multi-layered parallax scrolling, despite the fact that it isn’t a built-in feature of the hardware and no doubt required much hard work on the programming side to implement this well.

I could praise Air Zonk’s audiovisual excellence all day. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make some effort to convey how bloody weird it is, though. While it’s bright colors and cartoon style do recall cutesy shooters like Fantasy Zone and TwinBee, the game’s whole aesthetic really skews more bizarre with a side of the grotesque than it does conventionally sweet and adorable. Take one enemy you counter early on in level five. It appears to be a hovering elephant skeleton with glowing red eyes. In a moderately eccentric game, that would be odd enough. Not here. The artists went ahead and added some sort of deformed green head with bulging bloodshot eyes to the top of the skeleton. Still not satisfied, they gave that head a tumor-like cluster of tinier heads sprouting from it! I had to pause and stare at this thing for a good minute or so the first time I encountered it, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be looking at. That’s just one example of the insanity on display, too. Zonk fought alongside a sentient baseball, got transformed into a milk squirting man-cow creature, and more. Hell, the Japanese version has him producing exploding turds (each wearing its own pair of matching Zonk shades!) by holding the fire down button long enough. Alas, these are replaced by bombs overseas.

So far, what I’ve been describing is a 16-bit shooter fan’s dream come true. Wildly varied action? Spectacular graphics and sound? A sense of humor that’s unhinged in the best possible way? Sign me up for all that! Sadly, Air Zonk does stumble in one important area: Difficulty balancing. Relatively chill for the majority of its run time, its fifth and final stage is a real bastard, with five waves of regular enemies broken up by no less than nine boss fights. Nine! Getting blindsided with this near R-Type degree of brutality is off-putting for sure. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a game’s final level should be its toughest, but making it far and away tougher than the rest of the lot combined is pushing the principle entirely too far. A more reasonable idea would have been to break this marathon finale up into two separate stages with a checkpoint in-between. Thank heavens for unlimited continues, eh?

Unfortunate as it is, Air Zonk’s last minute Jekyll and Hyde turn wasn’t enough to put me off it altogether. It still earns a hearty recommendation on the strength of its unbridled creativity, technical prowess, and bounty of meaningful play options. My only true regret is that we never got the Bonk/Zonk crossover we deserve. Imagine these two joining forces across time, with Bonk handling the platforming duties and Zonk the shoot-’em-up mayhem. It’s only the most obvious collaboration since chocolate and peanut butter, guys. Yeesh!

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (Famicom)

 

I know I’m not going to make many new fans by saying so, but I don’t really care much for babies. They’re loud, frequently smelly, and terrible conversationalists to boot. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. Konami’s intrepid superbaby Upa is a major exception. Ever since I first encountered him as one of the playable “ships” in the comedy shooter Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, I’ve admired the little guy’s can-do spirit. Taking down a hostile alien armada with a barrage of pacifiers and milk bottle missiles? That’s my kind of infant. Take notes, slackers.

After an introduction like that, it was only a matter of time before I checked out the character’s 1988 debut, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (“Bio Miracle – I’m Upa.”) This bright, bouncy, deceptively tough platformer was originally designed for the Famicom Disk System accessory. Konami also re-released it in 1993 as a regular Famicom cartridge with remixed music and a new easy mode option. This was all strictly in Japan, of course. Perhaps decision makers of the time thought us gaijin would shun a literal baby game and that more overtly macho Konami offerings like Contra and Castlevania were the way to succeed on the NES? If so, they may well have been right. It’s still our loss, however. Upa kicks as much ass over the course of his adventure as the musclebound Bill and Lance or Simon Belmont, and he doesn’t even need to walk to do it!

As the story goes, Upa is the young prince of a fantasy kingdom. One day, the goat demon Zai escapes the jar in which he’d been imprisoned and kidnaps all the kingdom’s inhabitants, except for Upa. All seems lost until Upa is given a magical rattle by a fairy and crawls off to save the day. This requires braving the hazards of seven worlds, each of which is sub-divided into three stages. It’s thus a fairly lengthy quest that sees Upa traversing a whole host of bizarre landscapes, including ones made up entirely of candy, school supplies, computer circuitry, and dairy products.

The core gameplay is relatively simple. One button makes Upa jump (no mean feat when you haven’t figured out how to stand upright yet!) and the other shakes his rattle. Any regular enemy touched by the rattle instantly inflates like a balloon and begins to drift toward the top of the screen. It’s at this point that things get interesting. Once a baddie has been rattled, Upa can use it as a floating platform to reach higher elevations or to cross gaps wider than his regular jump permits. He can also shove the foe in any of five directions. This is essentially a more versatile take on the weaponized Koopa shells from Super Mario Bros. Shoved enemies can be used as weapons against their fellows, though they can also damage Upa if they happen to rebound off a surface and strike him instead. Mastering both applications of the rattle is required if you want to make any significant progress in Bio Miracle.

As I alluded to above, this simplicity doesn’t equate to ease. For a game with such an adorable premise and hero, it sure isn’t afraid to test your platforming mettle. Upa can’t withstand much damage and his path forward features no shortage of precarious pits. Moreover, continuing the game after you’ve run out of lives places you back at the beginning of the current world, not necessarily the specific stage you died on. This degree of difficulty isn’t exceptional by the standards of the platform, mind you. It just goes to show that not every baby game is actually for babies.

Roughly once every world or two, the regular platforming action is broken up by a novelty stage of sorts. This will be either an underwater section with the kind of “tap the jump button to paddle” controls you’d expect or a free-roaming zone where Upa must dig (or, more accurately, munch) a path for himself through the layers of a gigantic cake. These not only do a fine job of adding variety, they simultaneously relieve some player tension, as the lack of falling hazards makes them significantly easier than the usual levels.

Regardless of type, most stages conclude with a boss battle. All of these, including the final scrap with Zai, function more or less the same: Upa will need to rattle the steady flow of regular enemies entering the arena and then use them as weapons against the boss. The late game relies on increasingly cramped or treacherous screen layouts to make this a taller order than before, similar to how Super Mario Bros. 2 tweaks the fights against Birdo as it goes on.

Now that I think about it, numerous other elements of Bio Miracle make me suspect its creators were big fans of SMB2’s original 1987 incarnation, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Both share a pastel color scheme, cheery carnival style music, a fanciful setting free from the constraints of realism, an emphasis on defeating enemies by hurling them at one another, those digging stages, and more. Not that I’m complaining here. Bio Miracle is certainly no mere clone, seeing as how Upa controls nothing like a Mario or Doki Doki Panic character. It’s more akin to the burst of quirky action-adventure/RPG titles Konami put forth in the wake of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda and Metroid. The influence is clear, yet it never lacks for its own personality or creative spark.

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa is a winner; another of the seemingly endless jewels in the crown of mid-’80s Konami. Its only conspicuous omission is any sort of save feature, which you’d think would be a given on the Famicom Disk System. Sadly, Upa himself would never enjoy top billing again. He was a playable part of the ensemble cast in 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō and a couple of those Parodius games I already mentioned. Beyond that, he’s effectively joined Penta the penguin in defunct Konami mascot limbo. At least his first and only turn in the spotlight endures and should appeal to anyone who appreciates lighthearted platformers in the Super Mario tradition. Assuming they’re not bothered by the sight of a baby falling to his death on a bed of spikes, that is. Hmm. Maybe there was more than one reason this never came out over here….

Pocky & Rocky (Super Nintendo)

Yo, Adrian, I did it!

Natsume’s 1992 overhead run-and-gun Pocky & Rocky (or KiKi KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto“Mysterious Ghost World: The Riddle of the Black Mantle”) is a most unlikely entry in the Super Nintendo library. Other than Konami’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja, it’s tough to cite any other games on the system so thoroughly steeped in Japanese culture and mythology. It has all the earmarks of a Super Famicom exclusive, yet Natsume insisted on bring it to the world at large anyway.

Now that I think about, Pocky & Rocky’s existence on any platform seems like a long shot. It’s a follow-up to Taito’s 1986 arcade game KiKi KaiKai, which doesn’t seem to have made too great an impact on launch. Obligatory Famicom and PC Engine ports aside, Taito themselves mostly allowed the property to lie fallow for the next five years or so before handing it off to Natsume. However this arrangement came to be, it worked out great for gamers. Pocky & Rocky is a high quality title in virtually every way. It’s a must-play for shooter enthusiasts generally, as well as anyone who appreciates cute characters and snappy two-player simultaneous action.

The story centers on Shinto shrine maiden Pocky. She’s approached one day by her friend Rocky the tanuki, who tells her the local yōkai (spirit creatures, translated here as goblins) are running amok for no apparent reason. The two promptly set out to discover the cause of the chaos and put a stop to it.

With a setup so heavily steeped in Japanese religion and spirit lore, it’s remarkable how little of Pocky & Rocky was altered for foreign audiences. The lead characters had their names changed (from Sayo-chan and Manuke, respectively) and Rocky is described as a raccoon in the English instruction manual rather than a tanuki. I suppose Natsume didn’t want to get sidetracked into a full description of these fox-like East Asian canids and their role in regional folklore. I can’t say I blame them. Beyond that, what you see is what you get. As with the aforementioned Legend of the Mystical Ninja, the vast majority of non-native players back in the ’90s had no idea what kappa, tengu, or tsukumogami were and just had to take all this weirdness at face value. That sense of whimsical befuddlement largely persists today, despite the West’s increased exposure to yōkai-related media over the intervening decades.

The titular duo’s journey to the stronghold of the sinister Black Mantle is split up into six stages. While this may not seem like much, most of them are fairly lengthy, consisting of several visually and mechanically distinct areas. For example, the second level starts out with a relatively open bamboo forest and later confines the heroes to a tiny river raft, forcing you to adapt your play style accordingly. Most stages also have two bosses to contend with. Although Pocky & Rocky is still a short game by objective measure, it never comes across as deficient due to its hectic pace and the wide variety of enemies and environments on display.

Both player characters handle similarly, though there are a handful of minor differences. As either Pocky or Rocky, you can run and shoot in eight directions, execute an evasive slide, and perform a short range melee attack that primarily serves to deflect weaker enemy projectiles. You also have a limited number of super bombs for when the going gets rough. Pocky’s bombs deal more damage, albeit to a concentrated area, making them ideal for boss fights. By contrast, Rocky’s less powerful blasts are better against enemy groups, as they always cover the entire screen. One final tool in your arsenal is the special defensive abilities activated by holding down the melee attack button for a few seconds. Pocky will spin around and Rocky will transform into an invulnerable stone statue, just like Tanuki Mario in Super Mario Bros. 3. I never did find a reliable use for either of these moves and tended to forget they existed during my playthrough. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with them.

Two power-ups are available to enhance the heroes’ standard shots. One is a fireball that travels straight ahead and deals extra damage. The other is a spread shot. Both can be upgraded by collecting the same color orb multiple times. You’ll lose shot power as you sustain damage, however, so don’t get too cocky. Other helpful items to look out for include an energy shield, extra bombs, health replenishing sushi rolls, and the rare temporary invincibility pickup.

As far as nitpicks go, I can only muster a couple. You’ll recall I mentioned how melee attacks can be used to swat away some enemy projectiles. This is actually a core move in your repertoire and damn near required at many points. The catch? It’s not at all obvious which of the many projectile types can be deflected and which will pass right through your swipes and damage you. It’s pure trial and error with your character’s life on the line. This could have been easily fixed by giving all deflectable objects a bright outline of a specific color. I also view the limited shot power-ups as a missed opportunity. The fireball and spread shot both work fine and it’s nice they can be upgraded. Still, we could have also had a piercing weapon, a homing one, a boomerang, a charge shot, etc. The more ways to mow down baddies in a game like this, the better, right?

Regardless, Pocky & Rocky is a delight. The arcade style shooting is brisk and accessible, the setting and characters overflow with personality, the artwork and music are superb, and it shines brighter still with a second player along for the ride. It’s not easy by any means, especially solo, but unlimited continues keep the frustration in check. Heck, when it comes to multiplayer run-and-guns on the Super Nintendo, I’d even give it the edge over the more celebrated, less consistent Contra III: The Alien Wars. Unfortunately, authentic cartridges are tough to come by for less than $100 these days. Think that’s bad? Its 1994 sequel, Pocky & Rocky 2, commands around three times as much! This is another of those cases when I’m forced to recommend you play these games via…well, let’s just say “thriftier” methods, if possible.

We haven’t seen a new Pocky & Rocky adventure since 2001’s Pocky & Rocky with Becky for the Game Boy Advance. Natsume has opted instead to focus primarily on its popular Harvest Moon series of farming simulators. Understandable as that is, I still hold out hope that a resurgent interest in classic gaming can one day lure the plucky priestess and her furry friend out of retirement for another bout of frenzied yōkai thrashing.

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.