Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

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Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

I wonder if I can get away with listing “flying away from big explosions” on my resume at this point?

Off to the PC Engine I go for another bout of alien ass whupping in 1990’s Super Star Soldier. To understand the origins of the Star Soldier series, we need to start back in 1984, when Tecmo (then called Tehkan) developed the fast-paced vertical shooter Star Force for arcades. The subsequent home release of Star Force on the Famicom proved so wildly popular that its publisher, Hudson Soft, made it the centerpiece of their first annual All-Japan Caravan Festival in 1985.

This nationwide high score contest generated considerable publicity and Hudson was understandably eager to make it an annual event. Problem was, they needed a new game to center Caravan ’86 around. Preferably one very similar to Star Force…. In other words, Star Soldier was a bit of a copycat. It was a worthy shooter in its own right by the standards of the time, however, and all three of its PC Engine follow-ups (Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade) would headline their own Caravans from 1990-1992.

Before I move on to discussing Super Star Soldier proper, here’s one last Caravan fun fact I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: We have these early competitions to thank for the rise of none other than Toshiyuki “16 Shot” Takahashi, the gaming prodigy named and famed for his rapid-firing skills in Star Soldier who later served as the real life model for Adventure Island’s Master Higgins. Yes, without these space shooter festivals taking place on the other side of the world, we would never have known the serene majesty of a portly gent in animal skins and baseball cap hurling stone axes at snails while riding a skateboard. What a bleak existence that would be.

Though developed for Hudson by Kaneko, Super Star Soldier will remind PCE/TurboGrafx fans of another, better-known shooter for the platform, Compile’s Blazing Lazers. In much the same way Star Soldier was “inspired” by Star Force, its sequel feels like an unofficial extension of Blazing Lazers. Many of the weapons feel familiar and your ship controls much the same, right down to having variable speed settings toggled with the Select button. Enemy and stage designs have a very Compile/Aleste look and flow to them, as well, although the settings you fly through are slightly less wild here. There are no deadly rainbow bubbles awaiting you this time out, for example. Even the quirky “special lives” mechanic introduced in Blazing Lazers, which has you repeatedly shooting certain power-up icons until they turn into flashing orbs and then collecting those so you can respawn in place when destroyed instead of being sent back to a checkpoint, is carried over. Considering Compile’s towering reputation among shooter fans, the same principle that exonerated the first Star Soldier holds true here: If you’re going to crib, crib from the best.

The plot, if you can call it that, is like so: Earth is under attack by a pack of evil space brains and their leader, Mother Brain. I tell you, it’s always brains in these old Japanese sci-fi games. So far this year alone, I’ve already killed one at the end of Gradius, another (also named Mother Brain) in Metroid, and a third in Section Z. That’ll teach those squishy bastards to think so much, I guess. Anyway, there’s still hope for us humans because an improved version of the Caesar craft from the lady game, dubbed Neo Caesar, has been engineered for just such an emergency. The player assumes the role of the Neo Caesar’s pilot, referred to in the manual as “Starbuck.” Dirk Benedict’s character from Battlestar Galactica, then? Excuse me, but if I have to play as an A-Team alumnus, I’d much prefer Mr. T.

Starbuck’s mission encompasses eight stages. Most are variations on the outer space theme with only a couple taking place planetside. Each is fairly long and has its own unique final boss. The exception is, of course, the final stage, which is a punishing five boss gauntlet with a generous compliment of standard enemies sprinkled in for good measure. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes, assuming highly skilled play. That’s a respectable amount of play time for the genre, albeit also less than Blazing Lazers.

The Neo Caesar has four primary weapons at its disposal, accessed via colored-coded orbs dropped by enemies. These include the default multi-shot machine gun, the wide-angle ring laser, the more focused spread laser, and the powerful, short range swing fire. You can upgrade each weapon multiple times, increasing its area of effect considerably in the process. Taking damage will lower your weapon’s power, so these enhanced armaments also double as your armor in classic Aleste fashion. In general, I found the multi-shot and ring laser to be the best at taking out swarms of regular enemies, while the piercing spread laser was ideal for dealing heavy damage to single targets (i.e. bosses). I actively avoided swing fire for the majority of the game, since its flame jets share the same bright orange color scheme as the enemy’s bullets, which resulted in far too much accidental damage. Too bad. Double flamethrowers should equal pure bliss in any game.

Rounding out your arsenal are a couple of useful supplementary items. The Starbuck Defense System is a very fancy name for a very basic pair of “option” satellites that hang out near your ship blocking enemies and their shots. While these will damage foes on contact, they don’t actually multiply your firepower like the options from Gradius. Your other choice, the homing missiles, are entirely self-explanatory. You can only have one primary and one secondary weapon equipped at a given time. Thankfully, power-up drops are quite frequent, so you’ll never have to wait too long for your favorites to show up in the rotation.

Super Star Soldier poses a respectable challenge without being too overwhelming. For the most part, anyway. It’s definitely tougher than Blazing Lazers thanks to denser enemy patterns, trickier bosses, and no shield pickup or stock of super bombs. At the same time, it’s not totally lacking in clemency. You have weapons-as-armor to prevent those one-hit deaths and unlimited continues to boot. The biggest hurdle by far is the final stage. Defeating five tricky bosses in a row, the last of which has four distinct forms, is no joke. Worst of all is the three minutes or so of regular enemy waves you have to fight your way past before the boss rush even starts. It doesn’t sound like much, but having to wade through these guys over and over each time you continue can really start to wear on you after a while. This is another of those games where I spent significantly more time on the last level than on all the rest combined.

Oh, and I can neither forget nor forgive the hellish glitch that put an ugly end to my first full playthrough. See, crashing into enemies in Super Star Soldier damages both parties. The first time I managed to defeat the final boss, it was by accidentally colliding with it, destroying us both in the same instant. I had a ship in reserve, so I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was respawn and watch those credits roll, right? Wrong. I came back like normal, but the game just hung there. The boss music kept on looping as I sat there alone on an endlessly scrolling starfield. With nothing left to kill me and no time limit, all I could was give up and reset the machine. Did I eventually start fresh and beat the boss the normal way so I could have that true ending? I did. Was I happy about it? I was not.

That freak occurrence aside, there’s very little in Super Star Soldier that’s objectionable and much to appreciate. The audiovisuals meet the usual high Hudson standard and the shooting action is fast, precise, and, above all, satisfying. It’s true that the difficulty curve is a tad lopsided due to that crazy brutal eighth stage and the weapon selection, while adequate, could stand to be broadened. The three other games on the system that share this exact style of play, Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade all have a little more going on mechanically and can be considered slightly better overall. Fortunately, being the weakest of these four still allows Super Star Soldier ample room to stand tall as one of the best shooters on a console synonymous with them. Just don’t try to kamikaze its bosses. Let my pain be your gain.

Mega Man 4 (NES)

Come on, ride the train! Hey, ride it!

I’ve been getting pretty esoteric with the import stuff these past couple weeks. Time to head back to the well and draw up some more classic Mega Man goodness! 1991’s Mega Man 4 is the first NES entry in the series to debut after the introduction of the Super Nintendo, yet it still only marks the mid-point of the Blue Bomber’s adventures on the old gray box. When other established franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania hastened to join the 16-bit revolution, Mega Man was, in a sense, the system’s last veteran hero standing by the time Mega Man 6 dropped in 1993. I’m not sure if any current or former Capcom staff are on record detailing why the company waited so long to migrate their flagship character to the new hardware. If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the established 8-bit Mega Man formula was so robust and cost-effective to iterate on by that point that annual releases on mature hardware were seen as low risk/high reward endeavors by management.

This dependence on a formula established the decade prior hasn’t done Mega Man 4-6’s reputations any favors. You’ve probably heard the standard spiel before: The first three games are timeless classics that each blazed new trails by introducing revolutionary new gameplay features, fan favorite characters like Rush and Proto Man, or both. After that came the “me, too” entries; lazy paint-by-numbers cash grabs that shamelessly rode the coattails of their illustrious forebears.

With a setup like that, you’re probably expecting me to swoop in now and eviscerate this narrow-minded drivel. That’s what I foresaw myself doing all the while I was playing and enjoying Mega Man 4. Now that the time has come to commit my thoughts to writing, though, I’m just not feeling it. Truth is, the detractors have a point. The latter three NES sequels collectively do very little to expand on the gameplay or fictional universe of Mega Man. They’re really just spinning their wheels, creatively speaking. Anyone who remembers the triumphant launch of Mega Man X on Super Nintendo can attest to what a breath of fresh air it was with its faster, more dynamic movement and brand new cast of characters. It’s a great game that seemed even greater in its day precisely because we were so primed for a change.

Then again, these are games. Despite how much I’m able to nitpick after I’ve set the controller down, that core Mega Man loop (“kill eight robot masters, take their special weapons, storm Dr. Wily’s castle”) flows so well that I find it damn near impossible to hold their repetitiveness against them while I’m actually along for the ride. So it’s not so much that the common critique of these titles is inaccurate or unfair in any way, simply that it’s moot for all practical gaming purposes and, consequently, easy to forgive.

In terms of specifics, the one new thing of note Mega Man 4 brings to the series is the Mega Buster charge shot. You can now hold the B button down for a few seconds in order to ready a more powerful blast from Mega Man’s default weapon. This a classic example of a risk/reward mechanic, as missing your target when you finally do release the shot effectively wastes the extra time you spent charging it.

Some players adore this added layer of strategy. Others maintain that the charge shot was a mistake, since it deals so much damage that it renders the robot master weapons redundant. Put me down somewhere in the middle, albeit leaning slightly toward the anti-charge camp. I don’t think the robot master weapons are useless at all. In fact, this might be the best assortment we’d ever see in a NES Mega Man outing. Certainly, there’s nothing anywhere near as comically bad as Mega Man 3’s Top Spin. The real problem is the time needed to switch between weapons. Accessing the menu takes a couple seconds. It’s not much, but it does break the flow of the action each and every time, whereas just using the charged Buster instead doesn’t. I also get the impression that the designers upped the health of many common enemies in order to encourage players to use the new charging feature as much as possible. Everything seems to take one or two more uncharged shots to die than it would have in the earlier games. Maximizing your combat effectiveness therefore means holding that B button down (and tolerating the high-pitched noise it makes) for the majority of the game. I don’t consider this an improvement.

Fortunately, this installment has more than just a great selection of boss weapons going for it. The robot masters themselves are also fun and challenging to fight. Except for Toad Man. He’s just silly. The theming of these characters is getting ever more abstract, too, which can make guessing their weaknesses trickier. What’s Pharoah Man weak to? The Flash Stopper that you got from Bright Man, naturally. Everyone knows pharoahs hate flashing lights. Duh.

Mega Man 4 also continues to experiment with lengthening play time by adding more levels between the initial eight and Dr. Wily’s castle. Here, you have to face off against a Russian fellow named Dr. Cossack, who’s initially presented as the new mad scientist on the block. He’s actually a good guy being blackmailed by Wily, of course, because this is still a Mega Man game and tradition reigns. The important thing is that the Cossack stages represent unique experiences, as opposed to the cut-and-paste asset recycling of Mega Man 3’s Doc Robot levels. Another big plus: Both Cossack and Wily’s strongholds feel more complete than the rushed afterthought that was Mega Man 3’s Wily castle.

So, yes, Mega Man 4 is merely more run-of-the-mill NES Mega Mega and I don’t much care for its charge shot mechanic. It still looks, sounds, and plays better than at least 90% of its contemporaries, however, including sacred cow Mega Man 3. The robot masters, their weapons, and the game’s extended climax are all handled better here than in the last game, resulting in a more cohesive and satisfying experience overall. It doesn’t strike me as a true labor of love or a game for the ages like Mega Man 2 does, but I found myself appreciating it much more than I thought I would just for how well it nailed the fundamentals. Mega Man 4 doesn’t need to be great art. It’s a supremely competent action-platformer and that’s enough.

Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy romp it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Section Z (NES)

Time to go commando!

I’ve been putting Section Z off for a long time now. I knew three things about this 1987 shooter going in: First, its 1985 arcade forerunner was the start of Capcom’s loose “jetpack trilogy,” which also includes Side Arms and Forgotten Worlds. Second, this home adaptation was radically redesigned à la Tecmo’s Rygar, ballooning from 26 linear stages (designated A through Z, naturally) to a full 60 arranged in a maze-like fashion. Finally, there’s no way to record your progress. The Famicom release utilized the Disk System add-on and allowed for saving directly to the floppy. Unfortunately, Capcom opted not to follow the example set by other North American FDS-to-cartridge conversions like Metroid and Castlevania II, which replaced the disk saves with passwords. The entirety of NES Section Z has to be finished in one go.

In other words, I needed to wait until I had both a big chunk of free time and nothing better to do with it than sit around playing Nintendo and mapping out a tangle of alien-infested corridors on paper. Home sick with a nasty cold? Perfect!

The main reason I was so keen to give this one a try is the groundbreaking role it plays in Capcom’s early NES history. Like all their pre-Mega Man output for the console, Section Z got its start in arcades. Unlike 1942, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the rest of their relatively faithful ports, however, this Section Z makes no attempt to replicate the design specifics of its predecessor. Apart from the core conceit of a man with a jetpack zipping around vaporizing space aliens, it’s an entirely new game. This same approach would grace us with the all-time classic NES interpretation of Bionic Commando the following year.

Your ultimate goal in Section Z is to guide a lone Earth soldier on his journey to destroy the evil Balangool empire and its leader, L-Brain, before they overrun humanity. Your gun-toting astronaut hero goes unnamed in the arcade, but on the NES he was dubbed Captain Commando as part of an ongoing attempt to create a mascot character based on the Capcom name itself (in reality a portmanteau of Japan Capsule Computers Co., Ltd). This effort peaked in 1991 with the release of the side-scrolling beat-’em-up Captain Commando, although it’s highly doubtful the hero of that game is really intended to be the same Boba Fett-looking fellow you control here.

Hunting down L-Brain is no mean feat thanks to the complex arrangement of the game’s 60 numbered sections. The bulk of these short (one to two minute) stages terminate in multiple exits, each of which will send the good Captain to a different destination. Barring the distinctly cheaty option of using a pre-made map, there’s no way to tell which section an exit connects to short of trying it out. It could just as easily warp you back to an area you’ve already visited as take you someplace new. Section 8, for example, has exits leading to sections 5 and 11. Your trial and error exploration (which ideally includes careful note taking) will eventually uncover a few exits that are colored red instead of the usual green. These lead to the game’s major boss fights, but they’ll be sealed and deadly to the touch until you can find and destroy a power generator mini-boss.

Thankfully, this all isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. Section Z is really more like three mazes comprising 20 stages each than one colossal 60 stage labyrinth. The bosses at the end of sections 19 and 39 function as points of no return. Once you defeat them, you’ll never have to worry about being sent back to an earlier section again if you die and continue. Continues are also unlimited, so you won’t lose out on any progress made as long as you don’t switch off the game entirely. You’ll need all the developer leniency you can get toward the end, where the correct path can even include invisible secret rooms that are revealed by firing at seemingly empty areas of the screen.

The shooting action itself is pretty typical horizontal auto-scrolling fare. Captain Commando’s primary distinction is his ability to fire his gun right or left as needed using the A and B buttons, respectively. It may not seem like much, but it’s a nice change of pace from the planes and spaceships common to this style of game, which are usually limited to aiming in whatever direction the screen happens to be scrolling. Enemy placement takes the Captain’s offensive flexibility into account, so be prepared for foes to enter from either side of the screen at any time. While things can get pretty hectic, there are no one one-hit deaths in Section Z. The Captain comes equipped with a generous energy counter which starts out at 20 and can be permanently increased by defeating bosses. Most enemy shots only deduct one point of energy. Physical contact is much more dangerous, resulting in a loss of five energy and a trip back to the start of the current section.

There’s a handful of power-ups available: A laser, an upgradable triple shot, and a temporary shield. What’s great about these is you can keep them in your inventory and equip them as needed with the Select button. Saving a shield for the boss fights obviously works wonders. There are also powerful super attacks the manual calls missiles. These are clumsy to use and rarely worth the trouble. You activate them by pressing A and B simultaneously, which will cause the missile to appear in the center of the screen. You then need to fly over and touch the missile to actually trigger it. This costs four of your energy points and can be difficult to manage at all when you’re being swarmed by bad guys (i.e. when you need it the most). I ignored these for the most part and don’t regret it.

Section Z looks better than average for a 1987 release. The backgrounds are colorful and the enemy sprites are competent takes on the usual random assortment of tiny killer robots. Captain Commando himself is the real standout with his oversize spiky rifle and Star Wars-inspired armored space suit. Très badass. The music is high quality, too. Strangely, though, the tracks recall something you’d hear in a ’60s spy movie. It sounds more like Captain Commando should be smuggling classified documents out of the Soviet embassy than blowing away alien invaders. I kinda dig it.  The only real downside to this soundtrack is there’s not much to it. You’ll be listening to the same three loops for more than 90% of the adventure.

Was Section Z for the NES worth the four hours or so it took me to puzzle my way through? Well, I reckon it wasn’t the worst way to spend a sick day. It’s a mechanically solid shooter with a unique pseudo-adventure game structure and pleasing presentation. That said, its length clearly works against it on a blind playthrough. You’ll see the same modest selection of backgrounds and enemies over and over, listen to the same three songs for ages, and do a metric ton of button tapping due to the regrettable lack of a thumb-friendly auto-fire feature, all without the ability to divide the quest up into multiple play sessions for convenience. While there’s certainly some satisfaction to be found in making your own map and taking L-Brain down for the first time, I can see this version of the game being much more fun to revisit with prior knowledge of its convoluted layout. The presence of a save feature alone makes the Famicom Disk System edition a better starting point, provided you have the means to run it.

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemented these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well-thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?