Majyūō (Super Famicom)

October is here at last! All hail the triumphant return of long nights, creeping fog, and, best of all, horror gaming! As is my custom during this most morbid of months, I’ll be taking on five spooktastic titles for a variety of systems. There’s a malevolent mix of obscure oddities and well-loved standards headed your way, all united in their shared fixation on ghosts, demons, zombies, and other manic manifestations of the macabre. Let the terror commence!

First up is Majyūō (aka Majyuuou, “King of Demons”), a 1995 Super Famicom action-platformer by KSS. Who’s KSS? No one could blame you for asking. Primarily an anime production company, they also managed to turn out a half-dozen Japan-exclusive games to no great success before their 2005 bankruptcy. Majyūō has acquired a reputation as the standout KSS effort and presumably had a limited print run in its day. Accordingly, you can expect to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning a vintage copy. A saner option as of this writing is the authorized 2018 re-release by Columbus Circle at around $60.

The central figure in Majyūō is pistol-packing family man Abel. One Bayer, a former friend of our hero, sold his soul to demons, murdered Abel’s wife, and then kidnapped his daughter to serve as a sacrifice to revive the demon king, Lucifer. What an ass. Now Abel, with a weird assist from the spirit of his dead wife in nude pixie form, is out to storm the very gates of Hell and get his daughter back before it’s too late.

Not a bad setup, honestly. Bonus points for going darker than usual in a Nintendo game with the whole murdered spouse/human sacrifice angle. I would have preferred a little more mid-game development, however. All the plot elements here are concentrated at the beginning and end. Even when Abel comes face-to-face with the traitorous Bayer for the last time, no words are exchanged. I suppose this terseness does keep Majyūō accessable to a non-Japanese audience. I made use of the Aeon Genesis fan translation patch because I could, not because it was necessary.

Abel’s demon slaying odyssey is a compact one, made up of six modestly sized stages. In truth, it’s closer to five capped off by a low effort boss rush. This is undoubted the game’s biggest sticking point for me. Platforming fans in the mid-’90s had already grown accustomed to much longer adventures. Super Castlevania IV, for example, had over three times this amount of content to plow through and didn’t have to skimp on the quality to get there. Poor Majyūō is nearer to the original NES Castlevania in this respect.

Apparently aware that length was going to be an issue, Majyūō’s designers settled on another method of extending play time: Demonic transformations. Taking a page from Go Nagai’s Devilman manga, Abel can merge with the souls of vanquished boss monsters (represented by colored gems) in order to assume three different human-demon hybrid forms. Utilizing all three before reaching the fifth stage of a given playthrough will unlock a superpowered fourth transformation required to see the better of the game’s two endings.

Note that you don’t need to transform if you don’t want to. Beating the whole game as a puny human is definitely possible. Abel’s default health and damage output leave a lot to be desired, as do his stiff, plodding movements. On the plus side, he does have a robust moveset which includes a double jump, evasive roll, charged super attack, and descending jump kick. The various demon forms just happen to do all these same things better, making them a difficulty select of sorts. In light of this, it’s a bit odd that the best ending is reserved for Abel’s most powerful incarnation rather than his least.

Try as they might, I don’t think these alternate forms succeed in making up for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time and often clunky action. That leaves the presentation to hopefully take up the slack and earn Majyūō a mild recommendation. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. The vision of Hell the artists conjured up here is a memorable one, sometimes for unexpectedly silly reasons. Take my favorite level, the speeding demon train. As if the very idea of Hell having its own rail system wasn’t strange enough, this particular train is loaded with explosive crates marked “danger.” Who’s in charge of that? The Abyssal Safety and Health Administration? Oh, and some infernal joker spray-painted “fuck” onto the side of one of the rail cars, so the underworld has its own population of cheeky graffiti taggers, too. I don’t know if the creators intended their implied world building to be this absurd and I don’t care. I’m too busy being delighted. The remainder of the stages skew more normal. Well, normal for Hell, anyway, with plenty of fire, ice, fleshy organic corridors, etc. They’re complimented by some suitably deranged enemy designs and up-tempo action tunes. The weakest links are the sprites for Abel, which are small and lack detail. He looks more like an NES protagonist than a SNES one.

As an action-platformer in the Castlevania mold, Majyūō never rises above average and occasionally struggles to get there. It’s criminally short and the combat isn’t as fluid or fun as it could have been, major flaws that are scarcely mitigated by the cool premise, trippy artwork, and ability to transform Abel himself. If I’d paid full price for this one back in 1995, I’d have regretted it. If I’d paid a king’s ransom in the present day, I’d have really regretted it. Fortunately, getting to play it for free is another story altogether. This is a prime example of a game that had to wait patiently for the age of flash cartridges and emulators to finally come into its own. You may end up damned to Hell for your brazen software piracy, but at least you’ll know what to expect when you get there.

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DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Super Famicom)

Having just weathered the savage trials of Milon’s Secret Castle, I figured I may as well stick around and see what was next on the agenda for Hudson Soft’s bubble shooting wunderkind. Secret Castle had been a strong seller. The box cover of the North American version boasted “over 3/4 million sold in Japan.” It’s surprising, then, that Hudson allowed the character to lie dormant for an entire decade after his 1986 debut. He would finally re-emerge on the Super Famicom in 1996’s DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (roughly, “Milon’s Heart-Pounding Great Adventure”).

Much has changed. Beyond the drastic audiovisual upgrade that comes with the leap from early period Famicom to late period Super Famicom, our boy Milon is now operating in an entirely different genre! If you’re one of the many who loathed Secret Castle’s cryptic exploratory approach, you’ll be please to hear that DoReMi Fantasy is damn near its polar opposite: A simple hop-and-bop platformer in the the Super Mario tradition. I admit, I didn’t know what to make of this at first. I’m weird enough to have rather enjoyed Secret Castle for what it was, warts and all. Would this radical shift prove to be an overcorrection on Hudson’s part? Fortunately, any doubts I had dissolved on contact with the tidal wave of sheer charm that is DoReMi Fantasy.

The game opens with a lovely cut scene of Milon and his woodland pals frolicking on a sunny day. Next thing you know, some creepy horned demon guy named Amon appears and abducts Milon’s fairy friend Alis. Whatever Amon wants her for, Milon is having none of it. After a quick trip home to bid farewell to his parents, he’s off to rescue Alis with the help of his magic bubble blower. It’s a simple setup executed well, a tendency that really defines DoReMi Fantasy as a whole.

Milon has 43 linear stages to tackle, organized into eight distinct worlds based on a mix of common (forest, water, ice) and uncommon (food, toy) themes. The levels themselves are typically straight dashes to the exit, although you will occasionally come across a locked door that requires a key to open. Most also contain a star and Milon will need to collect all the stars in a given world before he can battle its end boss and move on. Fortunately, they’re usually either right out in plain sight or just slightly off the main path, so I never got hung up star hunting.

The action is pure pick up and play. Controlling Milon is responsive, accurate, and should feel instantly natural to anyone with 2-D platforming experience. As before, the endless supply of bubbles he blows are his sole method of defeating enemies. DoReMi Fantasy seemingly takes inspiration from Taito’s Bubble Bobble this time, however, as the bubbles merely trap the bad guys instead of destroying them outright. Milon will then need to touch the bubbled foes to defeat them for good. He can jump on most enemies without receiving damage, but this will only stun the opposition for a moment as he bounces off. This technique is occasionally useful for reaching higher platforms and crossing certain gaps. That’s about all you need to know. Milon does gain a handful of new abilities as the adventure progresses, such as swimming and creating ladders made of music notes at specific spots, but their usage tends to be highly situational. Running, jumping, and bubbling are your true bread and butter throughout.

While Secret Castle was deceptively intense beneath its cutesy façade, DoReMi Fantasy dials down the difficulty big-time. The common enemies never seem to grow too numerous or aggressive and the platforming hazards, though nicely varied, are far from deviously placed most of the time. Extra lives are plentiful and Milon is a durable little fellow to boot. He’s able to withstand three hits before losing a life, with his current health level cleverly indicated by the color of his clothes. Oh, and there’s a password system to record your progress this time. Thank God. The only real difficulty spikes are a couple of the later boss encounters. The anthropomorphic sun and moon you face at the end of world six both deploy some tricky attacks, for instance. Still, most will likely find DoReMi Fantasy to be a tad easier than Super Mario World and drastically less challenging than stuff like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy or Plok. I was able to finish my first playthrough without running out of lives and needing to continue at all, something I can almost never manage with an entirely new game.

I realize I haven’t made the strongest case for DoReMi Fantasy thus far. A dry rundown of its plot and rules paints a picture of a reasonably lengthy game with solid fundamentals and an easygoing approach to challenge. And that it is. Yet this isn’t actually why you should play it. Not in the main, anyway. Fact is, you’re much more likely to be won over by the designers’ supreme attention to detail in bringing Milon’s world to life than by anything directly related to the level design or play mechanics.

Just look at Milon himself. Every move he makes is smoothly animated and packed with personality. He teeters on the edge of platforms, bugs his eyes out during long falls, grits his teeth as he charges his super bubble attack, and does his best to hold onto his hat in windstorms. His enemies are nearly as lovable. The all have unique shocked or dismayed expressions for when they’re stunned or trapped in a bubble. Half the fun of the game for me was seeing what sort of hilarious face each new baddie would pull when I stomped or bubbled it. Even the platforms themselves are memorable here. Milon trods colossal cakes (ideally avoiding the equally colossal silverware carving them up), the growing noses of Pinocchio lookalike puppets, and my personal favorite, adorable mice that poke their heads out of holes in the walls. Aww. All this is accompanied by a lush, diverse score courtesy of Bomberman composer Jun Chikuma.

I’m not about to tell you that DoReMi Fantasy is the ultimate 16-bit platformer. The gameplay here is highly competent from top to bottom, but only just. It doesn’t showcase anything on par with the cool power-ups and hidden levels of a Super Mario World or the speedrun-friendly movement physics of a Sonic the Hedgehog. What I will tell you is that fans of cute games specifically are pretty much guaranteed to be delighted by its top notch presentation. It’s also a great choice for genre neophytes, younger gamers, and anyone else interested in a brisk, low pressure experience to unwind with. It’s plain to see why so many have praised it as the redemptive sequel to the opaque and grueling Secret Castle.

Sadly, Hudson never would follow up on this bold new direction for the character. Milon’s next outing, which doubles as his last to date, was the obscure 2006 puzzle game Milon no Hoshizora Shabon: Puzzle Kumikyoku for the Nintendo DS. The company’s eventual extinction in 2012 and the subsequent transfer of its intellectual properties to Konami would seem to render any future Milon releases extraordinary unlikely.

Farewell, brave bubble boy. There’s a spot at Gaming Valhalla’s kiddie table with your name on it, I’m sure.

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.

Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (Super Famicom)

Eh. Save the city. Trash it with an out-of-control giant robot. Those are basically the same, right?

I couldn’t find enough good things to say after my most recent playthrough of Konami’s Super Nintendo cult classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja last summer. This colorful multiplayer platformer remains one of the crown jewels of the system, as fresh and funny now as it was back in 1992. Without rehashing too much from that review, Mystical Ninja was the fifth installment of a long-running series of humorous action games based on the exploits of Japanese bandit folk hero Ishikawa Goemon. It was also the first to be released in North America. We wouldn’t see another Ganbare Goemon adventure until 1998 on the Nintendo 64. In the meantime, we missed out on all three of Mystical Ninja’s Super Famicom sequels.

When I got the urge to revisit the series recently, I decided to pick up right where I left off with Mystical Ninja’s immediate follow-up, Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (“Let’s Go Goemon 2: Very Strange General McGuinness”). It was a great choice, as GG2 is a textbook example of a successful sequel. It takes the already proven core gameplay of the previous title and smooths over its few rough spots while packing in still more in the way of depth and variety. Most important of all for a Goemon game, the irreverent Saturday morning cartoon take on Japanese myth that made the last installment stand out so much to Western audiences remains in full effect.

As our story begins, Goemon and his loyal parter Ebisumaru are enjoying some well-earned vacation time on the sandy beaches of Okinawa. Their repose is soon interrupted by a former foe, the clockwork ninja Sasuke. He’s not here to fight the heroes this time, however, but rather to deliver a warning: The eccentric foreigner General McGuinness has invaded Goemon’s home town of Edo with his army of equal parts ruthless and adorable bunny men. McGuinness is determined to Westernize the country and, adding insult to injury, he’s also taken a shine to Goemon’s main squeeze Omitsu and spirited her away to his flying fortress. This outrage clearly cannot stand, so the trio set off on a cross-country journey to give the barbarians the boot.

After this opening cut scene, you’re presented with a welcome sight: A character select screen! Prior games had the first player automatically controlling Goemon and the second player controlling Ebisumaru when applicable. Here, you can choose freely between Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke. In addition, they each have their own unique abilities based on a system of tradeoffs common in action-platformers: Goemon is the average, well-rounded fighter with no particular strengths or weaknesses, portly Ebisumaru boasts great attack power at the expense of jumping ability, and petite Sasuke is the comparatively weak high-jumper of the group.

Of course, I went with my main man Ebisumaru! Loosely modeled on another celebrated outlaw from history, Nakamura Jirokichi (also known as Nezumi Kozō; “Rat Boy”), he’s long been my favorite Ganbare Goemon character. What’s not to love about a flamboyant, gluttonous wannabe ladies’ man that sends his enemies flying over the horizon with a single swipe of a paper fan? Anyone who manages to stand out as the comic relief in a 100% comedy-oriented game series has to be doing something right in my book.

There have been a few key changes to the level structure, as well. Ganbare Goemon 2 is still primarily a side-scrolling platformer, except now it’s no longer divided up into distinct chapters that the player must tackle in a set order. Instead, each level appears as a colored dot on a stylized map of Japan that functions just like the world map from Super Mario World. As in that game, this means that the player is frequently offered a choice of which stage to visit next and not every stage necessarily needs to be cleared in order to reach the end. Furthermore, most levels can be freely revisited after completion and some contain hidden alternate exits that open up new paths on the world map when found.

Although the 3/4 view town segments from Mystical Ninja are still present here, they’ve been reimagined so as to be a much less prominent part of the gameplay overall. You’ll still want to visit towns often in order to chat up the locals (keep your eyes peeled for cameos from other Konami heroes), buy power-ups from the shops, and play some of the seemingly endless selection of mini-games, but you’ll no longer have to worry about fighting for your life while you’re at it. Other than the odd pickpocket looking to make off with a chunk of your cash, the kill-crazed pedestrians that swarmed you in the last game are nowhere to be found here. I’ll take less stressful shopping over that any day.

The biggest change by far comes via the introduction of fan favorite Goemon Impact. Apparently, the gang over at Konami must have figured that this series just wasn’t quite Japanese enough yet, because they gave Goemon and crew their very own skyscraper-sized sentai robo to ride around in. One that looks like a humongous version of Goemon himself and cruises around on roller skates shooting exploding coins from its nostrils. Naturally.

Each of the game’s three giant robot sections are divided into two distinct phases. The first sees you piloting Impact from a side-view perspective through an auto-scrolling obstacle course of enemy buildings and vehicles. You don’t really have to worry about dying here. The point is more to smash up as much of the scenery as possible in order to earn bonus health and ammo for the real fight to come against one of McGuinness’ mechs, which is presented from a first-person cockpit view.

These first-person battles are, unfortunately, one of the game’s few low points for me. They play out a bit like the boxing matches in a Punch-Out!! game, with each enemy robot having its own pattern of attacks to learn and counter. That seems promising until you factor in the sluggish controls. You can raise Impact’s arms with the L and R buttons to block attacks, but this action is quite delayed. So much so, in fact, that fast reactions are largely removed from the equation. If you don’t know exactly what’s coming and when, you’re in for a bad time. Impact’s punch attacks also rarely seem to come out as quickly as you might prefer. I think I see what the designers were going for with this setup. Impact is a huge machine, so making him somewhat unwieldy conveys that organically through the controls themselves. The problem is that the resulting focus on trial-and-error memorization over split-second judgement calls isn’t very engaging. You’re extremely unlikely to defeat any of these guys on your first try, no matter how good you are. At least the game’s unlimited continues and battery save feature mean you can practice all you want without fear of losing any progress.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this if I were you, though. Sure, they didn’t quite hit this aspect of the game out of the park on their first try, but it is only three levels we’re talking about and Impact still makes for some awesome 16-bit spectacle. Any first-person action on the system that predates the Super FX chip and isn’t a complete train wreck has to count for something.

Besides, the primary focus of the game is still right where it belongs: On the platforming. Ganbare Goemon 2 showcases both more and more diverse platforming stages than its predecessor. There aren’t as many here as there are in Super Mario World, for example, but there’s more than twice as many as in Mystical Ninja and each one seems to have a unique gimmick of some kind. These include vehicles the heroes can pilot (similar to the ride armors from Mega Man X), an auto-scrolling stage on the back of a flying dragon, and crossing a sea of hot cooking oil on the backs of oversize tempura shrimp. It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re under no obligation to make sense. Two-player simultaneous play also makes a comeback, along with the welcome ability for one player to literally carry the other in order to make the trickier jumps more manageable.

Mystical Ninja was one of the best looking early releases on the platform and this sequel ups the ante even more with larger character sprites and more detailed backgrounds. The results are phenomenal. I’m more divided on the soundtrack, some of which strays a bit from the classical Japanese shamisen and bamboo flute style of the last game by incorporating more rock, swing, and the like. On one hand, this can be seen as a direct reflection of the game’s central theme of Western influences forcing their way into a traditional Japanese setting. That’s neat. On the other hand, these more modern sounding tracks simply aren’t as distinctive when compared to others on the system. In either case, the compositions and instruments remain consistently great, so it’s not exactly the end of the world.

In short, Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu is yet another tour de force from the creative powerhouse that was Konami. It manages to correctly key in on the mixture of offbeat humor and thrilling platforming that made Mystical Ninja tick and serve up more of the same while simultaneously moving the series forward through the introduction of a playable Sasuke and the mighty Impact. A few of its more experimental elements would benefit from fine-tuning down the line, but this installment of the Ganbare Goemon saga still holds up today as an eminently satisfying action romp that you don’t need to be able to understand the Japanese language to enjoy.

Just tell ’em Rat Boy sent you.

Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof (Super Famicom)

Some people call me the space cowboy.

Ever wonder what would happen if you mashed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Earthbound together and plunked the result down in the Wild West? I’m guessing not. Well, maybe you should have, because you’d end up with Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof. Despite not quite living up to its inspirations (and really, how could it?), this comical 1997 action-adventure is a one-of-kind experience which deserved a much better reception than it was destined for as a strange no-name release on a 16-bit console the same month as Final Fantasy VII of all things. Gunman’s Proof went so unnoticed, in fact, that it would serve as an ironically jolly epitaph for developer Lenar, who closed up shop for good later the same year. Bit of a buzz kill there, even if you’re still holding a grudge over Deadly Towers.

This game is also frequently referred to online as Gunple: Gunman’s Proof. I haven’t been able to determine exactly why or which title is the more correct of the two. The katakana characters ガンプル sound out as “ganpuru,” which is not a proper word, but more likely a portmanteau similar to Famicom or Pokémon derived from the game’s subtitle. Due to this, I’m going with Ganpuru. Feel free to reach out and enlighten me if I’m missing something there.

Gunman’s Proof opens in the 1880s on a small island off the coast of the southwestern United States. Two strange “meteorites” crash into the countryside. One contains extraterrestrial arch-criminal Demi, who promptly begins transforming the local human and animal inhabitants of the land into his monsterous servants, called Demiseeds. The other craft is piloted by heroic Space Sheriff Zero and his sidekick Goro, two intergalactic lawmen hot on the fugitive Demi’s trail. Unfortunately, Zero’s ship is disabled and his spaceman physiology won’t allow him to survive for long in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s where the young boy character (who you get to name) comes in. Investigating the crash site of Zero and Goro’s ship, your character stumbles upon the pair and selflessly agrees to allow Zero to commandeer his body and use it to put a stop to Demi’s rampage. That’s right: It’s the classic Western tale of the mysterious gunslinger on a one-man crusade to take down a gang of vicious outlaws…except he’s also an alien who’s body-snatched a small child and he battles robots, ghosts, and ninja while riding around on a talking horse dressed up like Sailor Moon. Gunman’s Proof is the sort of irrepressibly quirky game which could only have come out of Japan and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Seeing as this is an unlocalized title with a focus on humorous dialogue, most of you reading this would be advised to seek out the excellent English fan translation patch by Aeon Genesis. I played Gunman’s Proof on a reproduction cartridge I picked up at a local gaming expo last month, but there are other, more cost-conscious options available online. Although I can’t speak to the literal accuracy of this translation (it includes a reference to the Star Wars prequel movies that couldn’t have been present in the 1997 original, for example), it is well-written and very amusing. It’s possible I could have fumbled through the game without it, but I’d certainly have had much less fun.

Diving into the game proper, you can’t help, but be acutely aware of the huge artistic debt Gunman’s Proof owes to Link to the Past. Now, it’s admittedly a tired review cliché to automatically relate every overhead adventure game ever made to Zelda. I get that. Here, though, the resemblance is so strong there’s no sense tiptoeing around it. Both the wilderness and indoor areas look so similar to the ones from Nintendo’s game that they may as well have been traced from the originals in many cases. Lenar’s “homaging” even extends to aspects of the play control. The way Zero handles as he climbs staircases, swims in open water, and drops off ledges feels suspiciously similar to a certain green-clad Hyrulean.

Thankfully, the game also incorporates some delightful character designs by manga artist Isami Nakagawa. These lend Gunman’s Proof just enough of a unique visual identity to pass as more than an above-average Zelda ROM hack. The bright colors and vaguely childish flat look of the characters have drawn many comparisons to the Mother (Earthbound) series, particularly 2006’s Mother 3, which also features some Western elements. Though there are some superficial similarities, the sprites here have their own charm and never come off outright imitative like the backgrounds do.

If you’re worried thus far that Gunman’s Proof might not be packing enough in the way of originality to be worth your time, fear not. As it happens, the gameplay itself is where it really breaks away from the crowd. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the cryptic puzzles of other adventure games and just wanted to grab a bazooka and go to town on the opposition, this is the title for you. Gunman’s Proof is almost 100% overhead shooting action. There’s nothing standing between you and the bosses of its eight dungeons except a hoard of Demi’s mutant lackeys practically begging for a heaping helping of frontier justice. No switches to toggle, no blocks to push, no keys to find. Just gun all the bastards down.

This non-stop combat feels great, too. Zero’s trusty six-shooter has unlimited ammo and can also be upgraded several times over the course of the game to deal more damage. Holding down the shoulder buttons allows for strafing (the most vital technique to master by far) and you can also crouch and crawl along the ground to avoid enemy fire. Blasting away at the opposition feels much more satisfying to me than the basic short-range sword combat found in most games of this kind, even before I take into account unlockable special abilities like the charge shot and the abundant special weapons which drop from defeated foes. These consist of just a basic shotgun and machine gun at first, but talking to the weapon master in town after you clear each dungeon will gradually add more (and more powerful) guns to the rotation. I’m a fan of the flamethrower, myself. You can only carry one special weapon at a time and shots are limited, but the pickups drop so frequently you’ll never really feel the need to hold back.

Another important tool in your arsenal is the bombs you’ll find in certain treasure chests. These don’t blow open new paths like the ones from Zelda. Rather, they function more like the “super bomb” attacks featured in so many shooters, dealing heavy damage to everything on-screen when triggered. They’re an extremely useful, non-renewable resource, so be sure to save them for boss fights.

Zero also has an upgradable punch attack. Honestly, though, its implementation is pretty underwhelming. The gun combat is so effective and enjoyable I tended to forget the punch was even an option outside of the one time I needed to use it to destroy some rocks on the overworld. I suppose it might be have been included to allow for self-imposed “no gun” challenge runs and the like. As fun as it is, Gunman’s Proof is an extremely easy game from start to finish, so it makes sense to include a way to handicap yourself. If you’re not actively taking care to slow down, you’re liable to find yourself staring at the end credits in no time.

This nearly nonexistent challenge may not be a big deal for some. Sometimes a low-pressure game is just what the doctor ordered. Fair enough. A more substantial criticism I can level at Gunman’s Proof would be that some of its peripheral elements feel poorly implemented or even unfinished. There’s an out-of-place arcade style scoring system, for example, which really adds nothing at all to the overall experience. Most (though not all) of the treasure you find in the dungeons has no practical use and instead merely contributes to a score bonus tallied up after you defeat each dungeon’s boss. I had accumulated nearly 40,000,000 points this way by the time I finished the game. Yet, since there seems to be no in-game rewards of any kind for hitting score milestones, it’s tough to care. Forty million? Four hundred million? A trillion? So what! There’s also a monetary system in place, complete with sizable cash rewards doled out by the town sheriff for taking down each of the Demiseed bosses, despite the fact that there’s very little available to buy other than cheap, rarely needed health refill items. I ended the game with maxed-out cash simply because the designers neglected to include anything to spend it on.

It’s tempting to say Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof should have been given just a bit more time in the oven so the development team could fine-tune the difficulty and flesh-out the ancillary mechanics some. Realistically, though, it was late enough to the party already. While the Super Famicom remained a viable platform for new releases slightly longer than the Super Nintendo did, 1997 was still pushing it. As it is, I’m amply pleased by its crazy cowboys-and-aliens plot and exuberant, trigger-happy twist on a sometimes overly familiar gameplay formula. It’s not really deep or refined enough to rate as a true lost classic for the system like Seiken Densetsu 3 or Terranigma, but players who prefer their adventure games on the wacky side will relish any time spent with this one.

As for me, well, let’s just say I’m not quite ready to ride off into the sunset just yet. Seems there’s another Old West town in dire need of my services. See you again soon, pardner.

Super Bomberman 5 (Super Famicom)

Boom goes the dynamite!

Some say that if you’ve played one Bomberman game, you’ve played them all. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I agree the series has been nothing if not consistent over the course of its last 35 years and nearly 100 iterations. Sure, there’s been the odd experiment here and there, like 1987’s more exploration-focused Bomber King (aka RoboWarrior) and the much maligned “grim and gritty” reboot Act Zero from 2006, but the overwhelming majority of Bomberman’s outings have stuck close to the cartoony single-screen action of the original.

One thing I was surprised to learn while researching the history of Bomberman is that the very first versions Hudson Soft released for Japanese home computers in 1983 actually starred a proper bomber man (complete with suspenders and pork pie hat) rather than the iconic chibi robot fans know and love. Human Bomberman got the boot in 1985 when Shinichi Nakamoto was converting the game for release on Nintendo’s Famicom and replaced the main character with a recycled enemy sprite from Hudson’s 1984 Famicom port of Lode Runner: A squat white robot with a single pink antenna sprouting from its head. Whether this was a deliberate creative choice or just a handy shortcut (the Famicom Bomberman was supposedly programmed in one marathon 72 hour work session), it marks the true start of the franchise as we know it and the birth of a mascot character who would remain synonymous with Hudson Soft all the way up until their sad dissolution in 2012.

For those few uninitiated, here’s the drill: Bomberman is plunked down onto a screen densely packed with blocks and enemies. The goal is to use his bombs to eliminate all the enemies and reach the level exit before a timer runs out. Bomberman starts out quite weak. He moves slowly and is limited to laying down one minimally powerful bomb at a time. Fortunately, some of the blocks (designated “soft blocks”) can be destroyed in order to reveal a host of power-ups which will speed Bomberman up, give him more bombs and bigger explosions to work with, and confer a variety of other useful abilities (such as repositioning bombs after they’ve already been planted). Players will need to careful how they deploy their arsenal, however, since Bomberman is just as vulnerable to his own ordinance as the bad guys are and it’s easy to get carried away and become your own worst enemy as his destructive potential mounts. One misplaced bomb or touch from an enemy is all it takes to cost you a life. Simple stuff, really. Later games added more enemy types (including proper bosses), more power-ups, and a variety of stage gimmicks like springs, conveyor belts, and teleporters, but it all still comes down to killing the baddies and reaching the exit before time is up.

Of course, any Bomberman fan (Bomberfan?) will tell you that the single player game is just the beginning. For a vocal contingent, the multiplayer Battle Modes included in most installments are the only game in town. While I personally adore blasting my way through screen after screen of computer-controlled opponents, there’s no denying that Bomberman with friends is one of the great competitive gaming experiences of all time. The desperate struggle to out-fox and out-maneuver your buddies as ever more massive columns of roaring flame fill the screen is virtually guaranteed to eat up hours of your life in what feels like mere minutes. It’s so good that Hudson themselves leaned heavily on the appeal of massive Bomberman brawls to market their multitap accessories for systems like the PC Engine and Super Nintendo.

Which brings me, finally, to 1997’s Super Bomberman 5. This final Bomberman release for Nintendo’s 16-bit system is presented as the grand finale to the Super Bomberman sub-series. Despite the fact that only the first two were released in North America, five games in four years on a single platform still drives home what a huge deal these titles were in their prime. SB5 shoulders a rather large burden when it sets out to pay extensive tribute to its predecessors while still bringing enough new elements to the table to justify its own existence.

The story here is pretty lightweight. A mysterious villain with a clock for a face named Terrorin has busted a gang of notorious criminals called the Fiendish Bombers out of prison and recruited them to lead an assault on Planet Bomber. Only our hero (and an optional second player in co-op mode) can repel it. “A group of evil Bombers is up to no good” is Bomberman’s equivalent of “Mario must save the Princess.” As a minimalist justification for some silly fun, it does the trick.

The regular campaign includes a whopping 108 stages divided up into five worlds. The first four world are each based on one of the previous Super Bomberman titles and feature enemies, stage gimmicks, and remixed music specific to that game. The fifth (which is twice the size of any of the prior ones) is home to all new challenges and to Terrorin himself.

Debuting in this installment is the concept of branching paths between stages. Most stages have more than one exit, with a few featuring as many as five. It’s therefore possible to progress from one world to the next and only visit a fraction of the individual stages in-between. You can even find yourself finishing the game with a “bad” ending if you follow one of the easier paths to the final boss. This non-linear layout means you’ll need to play through the campaign several times if you want to experience every stage and attain a 100% completion rating. Doing this unlocks a superpowered Golden Bomberman character for use in Battle Mode. Thankfully, the cartridge includes a save battery to record your progress, so you’re not required to 100% it in one go.

As for Battle Mode itself, it’s phenominal per usual. Up to five players at once are supported via the Super Multitap, there’s an abundance of arenas to pick from (including some old favorites like the snowy igloo map from Super Bomberman 3), and you have access to more power-ups than ever before. The kangaroo-like steeds called Louies also make a welcome return after sitting out Super Bomberman 4. These guys are Bomberman’s answer to Yoshi and come in six different varieties, each with their own helpful special abilities like leaping over hazards or laying down multiple bombs at once with a single button press. “Bad Bomber” mode is back, too. This allows defeated players to hang out along the edge of the screen and lob the occasional bomb down at the remaining combatants. This is useful for more than just petty revenge, as eliminating another player in this way will allow you to take their place back on the arena floor, effectively granting you a second chance to win the round.

The most significant new addition to SB5’s Battle Mode would have to be the ability to create and save custom characters. Drawing on a limited pool of points, you can purchase upgrades to your speed and bomb power as well as choose from a wide seletion of special powers to start the match with. If you’ve ever wanted to begin a battle with remote controlled bombs, homing bombs, or other awesome gear, now you can! You can also choose your custom Bomber’s sprite and color scheme. I made a speedy green pirate Bomber who can walk through walls. He’s quite the force to be reckoned with early on in the match when most of the other combatants are boxed-in with little room to dodge.

So does Super Bomberman 5 succeed at innovating while still paying ample homage to its predecessors? Is it the best in its class on the Super Nintendo? Yes and probably. As a sampler platter of everything the earlier Super Bomberman releases had to offer, it’s delightful. In terms of original features, the branching paths between stages in single player add a lot of replay value and Battle Mode is greatly enhanced by the new character customization options.

The game’s execution isn’t quite flawless, however. For starters, those same branching paths can also be a right pain if you’re trying for 100% completion. Since there’s no in-game map showing how every stage is connected, you’ll either have to create one yourself as you go or check a guide. If you don’t, you can easily find yourself in situations where you have every stage in a given world completed except for one or two, but you have no idea which path you need to take to actually reach those last few stages. The trial-and-error backtracking necessary to resolve these questions can get obnoxious.

In addition, the way boss fights are implemented here felt a step back to me in terms of presentation. Most are against rival Bombers who are also on foot and play out similarly to standard multiplayer battles. As a result, the screen-filling death machines you frequently had to take down in the earlier games are absent here, except in the case of the final battle against Terrorin. These boss characters are still fun to fight. They have their own unique personalities, special powers, and so on. They’re just a lot less impressive visually.

Finally, the game gates off some of its content in what I consider to be a rather sleazy fashion. There are thirteen total combat arenas included in Battle Mode, but three of them are only available if you unlock them first using a cheat code. A cheat code that can only be successfully executed on a Hudson Joy Card controller! That’s right: The standard Super Famicom/Super Nintendo pad just won’t work! Alternatively, you can seek out a special gold cartridge edition of the game which comes with these extra stages unlocked by default, as long as you don’t mind that these are incredibly rare collector’s items which sell for hundreds of dollars on the odd occasion they’re available for sale at all. This was some ultra tacky nonsense on Hudson’s part either way. Boo.

Even with these blemishes, Super Bomberman 5 remains my pick for the best Bomberman experience on the system. Though all five deliver the same timeless blend of addictive gameplay, adorable art, and seriously funky music, this final entry holds the edge over its peers thanks to the sheer volume of the content on offer. It has more levels, more enemies, more power-ups, and really just more of everything that makes Bomberman so great.

The fact Konami chose to revive the Super Bomberman moniker specifically after a 20-year hiatus when they published the most recent main series entry (2017’s Super Bomberman R for the Nintendo Switch) is a fitting testimony to just how superb and fondly-remembered these games are. Hudson Soft is no more, but that very first bomb they set off back in 1983 still echos across the gaming landscape.

Jerry Boy (Super Famicom)

Yeah, you’d best bow down, punk. That’s a 1CC right there.

When you nail that perfect home run in the bottom of the ninth with the based loaded, the crowd tends to forget all about your previous two strikes. Similarly, when a game company’s flagship series happens to be the second most popular of all time (with over 300,000,000 copies sold to date), it’s all too easy for its less successful efforts to fade into obscurity. That’s why I’d wager that a great many gamers would be hard-pressed to name a single non-Pokémon game by superstar developers Game Freak.

Game Freak got its start in 1983 as a gaming fanzine put out by writer/editor Satoshi Tajiri and a handful of friends, including future Pokemon illustrator Ken Sugimori. By 1987, the staff was convinced that they could design games themselves that would be just as good as the ones they covered in their publication. They successfully made the dramatic leap from game journalists to game creators in 1989 when they partnered with Namco to produce the arcade action/puzzle romp Quinty (later known as Mendel Palace on the NES). Seven additional games for various Nintendo and Sega platforms would be released between Quinty and the debut of Pokémon in 1996.

One of these “lost” Game Freak titles is the 1991 Super Famicom platformer Jerry Boy. Co-developed with System Sacom, this sophomore effort stars a young prince named Jerry who, in a clear nod to Dragon Quest, gets transformed into a grinning blue blob by an evil wizard in the employ of his jealous younger brother. The brother is, of course, named Tom. It turns out that Tom covets both the kingdom that Jerry stands to inherit and his beautiful fiancée Emi, who he promptly whisks away to marry against her will. Since this fantasy world apparently has a grossly bigoted “no slimes on the throne” policy, Jerry must chase his backstabbing brother across the land (all sixteen stages of it) if he wants to reclaim his kingdom, his girl, and his handsome human form.

At first blush, Jerry Boy comes off as a straightforward “hop and bop your way to the goal” exercise of the sort that consoles were neck-deep in at the time. What saves it from complete mediocrity is the combination of the title character’s creative moveset and some delightful art direction.

Being a sticky lump of amorphous goo, Jerry can cling to and crawl across walls and ceilings as well as squeeze through the networks of narrow pipes that criss-cross many of the stages. This helps to keep the platforming and level design consistently interesting. His means of dispatching enemies are also novel. Close range strikes are triggered by pressing up and down on the directional pad, which prompts Jerry to momentarily stretch out his body either above him or to either side, damaging anything adjacent to him. The downside is that the reach on these attacks is very short, so it can be tricky to time them in such a way that Jerry himself doesn’t also take damage. Ranged attacks in the form of red balls that travel in an arcing trajectory are a safer option, though shots are limited to the number of balls that Jerry can collect in a given stage. There are also two other special items you can pick up and carry: A jump booster to enhance mobility and a heavy iron ball that can be fired and re-collected indefinitely at the cost of hindering Jerry’s movement.

As fun as it is to control Jerry generally, there is one rather annoying quirk that takes some getting used to. Despite the fact that there are three key gameplay functions mapped to the buttons (running, jumping, and shooting), the game only uses only two of the six buttons on the controller for some strange reason. Since running and shooting are both mapped to the same button, you can’t break into a run (something you’ll need to do almost constantly) without also firing off a ball or dropping whatever special item you’re carrying, and doing so frequently wastes that item. It’s a bit like when you’re playing Super Mario Bros. as Fire Mario and you find yourself tossing out a fireball every time you hold down the button to run, except Mario’s firepower is unlimited and Jerry’s is not. You can adapt and work around this, true, but it’s ridiculous that you have to when there are four unused buttons sitting right there.

Even with the odd bit of frustration arising from the weird button mapping, Jerry Boy is a notably forgiving game that seem to have been crafted with younger players in mind. Jerry can withstand multiple hits from enemies and pick up healing items and health bar extenders within the stages themselves. 1-Up icons are also fairly common and players have the opportunity to earn even more by collecting a set of five red letters in each stage to spell out “J-E-R-R-Y.” When all else fails, continues are unlimited.

If the platforming is the heart of Jerry Boy, Ken Sugimori’s artwork is its soul. This isn’t to say that the graphics are at all impressive from a technical standpoint. In fact, I often got the impression that the development team didn’t have a particularly strong grasp of what the new hardware was capable of. The water in the ocean stage, for example, is rendered using a mesh-like effect similar to what you’d see in many Genesis games rather than with the Super Nintendo’s native transparencies. What the visuals lack in polish, however, they make up for with that unmistakable Game Freak charm. This is most prominent in the towns that you pass through every couple of stages. These settlements start out relatively prosaic, but Jerry’s journey will eventually have him visiting a desert oasis, the interior of a giant whale, and other surreal locales I won’t spoil for you here. There are no enemies to fight in these areas, just an assortment of friendly NPCs to chat with and the occasional extra life. These little breaks for the action work wonders for the game’s pacing and whimsical tone, even if you can’t read any of the dialogue.

The character designs for Jerry and his foes are all as adorable as you’d expect and several of them will be familiar to Pokémon fans. The first boss resembles a giant Pidgey and early iterations of Moltres and Zapdos show up in several stages to rain fire and lightning down on our squishy hero. Other enemies are less recognizable and a few of them are actually quite bizarre. In particular, I can’t say I’m sorry that the creepy nude men brandishing torches never made it into the Pokédex.

The game was originally published in Japan under Sony’s Epic music label, so it should come as no surprise that the score is solid. It draws on the talents of Bomberman stalwart Yasuhiko Fukuda, a pre-Silent Hill, Akira Yamaoka, and Manabu Saito, a promising rookie composer who tragically passed away in 1992 at the age of 22. None of the tracks here really blew me away or anything, but they hit all the lighthearted fantasy notes they should and sync-up perfectly with the game’s setting.

Jerry Boy did make it to North America in 1992 under the comparatively bland title Smart Ball. This version tweaked the control a bit in order to fix the running and shooting issue mentioned above. Unfortunately, it also stripped away much of the game’s personality by removing the cut scenes and town segments entirely. A clear case of “one step forward and two steps back.” I’d highly recommend you stick to the Japanese release if possible. A planned 1994 sequel that would have featured improved graphics and multiple player characters was ultimately cancelled, likely due to Sony not seeing the point in further supporting the Super Famicom while they were busy gearing up for the release of their original PlayStation. While not every cancelled game represents some great loss to humanity, I do think it’s a real shame in this case. At least the unreleased Jerry Boy 2 ROM did eventually leak onto the Internet and is playable these days if you’re so inclined. As for the original, it isn’t much to look at and it’s often a tad too simple and easy for its own good. Regardless, it brings some fun mechanics to the table along with boatloads of charisma and is well worth a playthrough.

Game Freak used Talent. It just wasn’t super effective.