E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)

As 1993 drew to a close, Super Nintendo owners everywhere were wondering one thing: Where was Mega Man? The previous two years had seen Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and numerous other high-profile gaming properties with 8-bit roots make the leap to Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse. The absence of Capcom’s super fighting cash cow, already a six-time headliner on the NES, was positively glaring. Finally, December brought with it the Japanese release of Rockman X, predictably retitled Mega Man X for its North American rollout the following month. Whatever Capcom had been waiting for, it was worth it. This spin-off was destined to become one of the system’s most revered games, not to mention one of the brightest stars in the galaxy that is the extended Mega Man franchise.

But why? At first glance, it may not be obvious what the big deal is. The broad strokes of Mega Man X’s storyline and structure seem entirely in keeping with the blueprint established by the NES hexalogy. Robots are running amok at the behest of an evil mastermind? Check. Stopping them involves defeating eight boss robots in the order of your choice, followed by an assault on the mastermind’s lair? Check. Overcoming each of the initial eight bosses equips you with a new special weapon that one of the others is weak to? Check. In truth, Mega Man X’s overwhelming success is a rare testament to the power of just a few carefully chosen artistic and mechanical tweaks to radically reinvigorate a stale formula.

Set around a century after the events of the main series (or classic series, as it subsequently became known), Mega Man X follows the exploits of its eponymous robot hero. Archeologists stumble upon X, the final and greatest creation of the late Dr. Light, sealed in a capsule and use his design as the basis for a new breed of fully sentient robots, the Reploids. Unfortunately, some Reploids turn against humanity and are dubbed Mavericks. The newly-reactivated X now works as a Maverick Hunter, mentored by his more experienced partner, a too-cool-for-school brooding loner type by the name of Zero. The duo’s latest assignment is to locate and defeat Sigma, leader of the Mavericks and a former Maverick Hunter himself.

The new setting and characters are the first crucial things the developers nailed. Mega Man X clearly set out to be a more mature take on the googly-eye cartoon robot bashing of the mainline titles. You need look no further than the design of X himself for proof of that. He’s noticeably taller, leaner, and more chiseled than his childlike NES ancestor. By story’s end, he’ll also experience more in the way of loss than classic Mega Man ever did. Despite this trend, Capcom wisely refrained from going overboard. X’s journey is still one defined by bright colors, driving rock music, and brisk jump-and-shoot violence of the 100% robot-on-robot variety. Nothing about it comes across gratuitously angsty or overwrought. To put it one way, it’s a tad too serious for X to have a cute robo-dog sidekick like Rush, yet not so serious that he can’t do battle with a mechanized penguin who belly flops around the arena. A fine line indeed.

On the gameplay front, a pair of inspired additions to X’s movement are responsible for much of the improved feel. He can cling to walls as well as execute a speedy forward dash that effectively replaces the ground slide from older games. The importance of the dash in particular can’t be overstated. It can be canceled into a forward jump at any time, even coming off a wall, and these mighty lunges cover more space more quickly than standard running jumps. Dash-jumping through a stage at breakneck pace is a real thrill and the maneuver also has no end of utility in the boss fights.

Complimenting this faster movement is the game engine’s ability to smoothly scroll the screen in all directions. Screens in classic Mega Man games always scrolled horizontally or vertically, never both at once (i.e. diagonally). Furthermore, vertical advancement was strictly of the all-or-nothing flip-screen variety. Combining this newly unrestricted scrolling with the wide open layouts of Launch Octopus or Storm Eagle’s stages and the aforementioned dash-jump, X can literally soar. It’s another exhilarating experience with no parallel in prior entries.

A final key strength of Mega Man X is its stunning presentation. I’m not merely referring to the usual high quality Capcom audiovisuals here, although the sprites, backgrounds, and energetic synth guitar-driven soundtrack are all rightfully iconic. I’m talking about the extraordinary amount of care that went into making the game’s world feel more like one concrete, interconnected place than a chain of isolated stages. Defeat Chill Penguin and the perilous lava which normally fills Flame Mammoth’s lair with be extinguished. Taking down Storm Eagle interrupts the power supply to Spark Mandrill’s level, subjecting it to periodic blackouts and weakening its mid-boss. These nifty interactions aren’t limited to the locations, either. The Boomerang Cutter can actually sever Flame Mammoth’s trunk, depriving him of one of his primary attacks. This uncommon attention to detail is simply a joy to behold throughout. Heck, I didn’t even notice until my most recent playthrough that one solitary bat enemy out of the dozens haunting Armored Armadillo’s mine is based on the original NES design. It’s the little things, you know?

Much as I endeavor to avoid total puff piece reviews, I struggle to dredge up anything meaningfully negative to say about Mega Man X. You’ll run into plenty of the old Super Nintendo slowdown when things get hectic, sure, but beyond that I’d really have to force it. This first X game is an all-around masterpiece, one of the best of its generation. By starting with a tried-and-tested action-platforming template and infusing it with memorable new characters, snappier movement, and a presentation to die for, Capcom produced the first true creative landmark in the saga since 1988’s Mega Man 2. As with the classic series, later X sequels would squander some of this initial goodwill with their rote repetition. Sigma always comes back à la Dr. Wily, he always has eight new Mavericks in tow, etc. Mega Man X itself, though? It’s one for the ages; a thoroughly lovable, endlessly replayable, damn near perfect video game. Bravo.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Nintendo)

Prevailing circumstances as of late have me feeling the urge for steady, reliable gaming comfort food. The way I see it, there’s no better mental refuge than the blistering run-‘n-gun action of Konami’s Contra. So escape with me now to a simpler time when “see alien, blast alien” was I needed to know and all I wanted to do.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Contra Spirits in Japan) is actually the fourth entry in the long-running saga. Its immediate predecessor, Operation C for Game Boy, apparently doesn’t count for numbering purposes. More proof that handhelds are the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of the game industry; no respect at all. Misleading title aside, Contra III is noteworthy for being the franchise’s first appearance on a 16-bit home console and boy, did its developers not want you to forget it. This was one of those hyperactive early SNES releases that pulled out every newfangled hardware trick in the book as it practically screamed, “Look at me! Bet your NES or Genesis can’t do this!” Transparencies? You bet! Scaling effects? Hell, yeah! Dizzying background rotation? You know it! The shock and awe were very real back in 1992, I assure you. But has its nature as a technical showpiece for a thirty year-old machine badly dated it or does the timeless Contra gameplay shine through strong as ever? That’s what I’ll be looking to determine.

Story-wise, we get a basic rehash of the previous three games. 27th century Earth is again besieged by the extraterrestrial menace known as Red Falcon and it falls on strapping commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean to save humanity’s collective bacon for a fourth time. Curiously, the North American version’s instructions would have you believe you’re playing as Jimbo and Sully, two distant descendants of Bill and Lance. This stems from a misguided attempt to keep continuity with NES Contra’s botched English manual, which inexplicably shifted the action from the year 2633 to 1987. Best to ignore this whole timeline debacle, I say. They’re Bill and Lance.

That’s enough said about plot. At the end of the day, these games are about blowing away alien scum with cool guns. The classic machine gun, laser, flamethrower, and spread shot all make a return here, as does the homing weapon from Operation C. There’s also an entirely new option in the form of crush missiles, which are devastating at short range. Skilled use of the crush gun is vital if you hope to wreck bosses quickly. Finally, you start each life with a single super bomb in your possession that will deal heavy damage to every foe on the screen when triggered. Although you can potentially accumulate up to nine of these, I wouldn’t count it if I were you. The traditional one-hit Contra deaths are in full effect, after all.

At least you’re no longer guaranteed to lose everything when you inevitably bite the dust. Contra III introduces the ability to carry two weapons at once and toggle between them at will. Your death will only result in the loss of whichever gun is currently in use. This allows for a neat little bit of extra strategy without bogging things down. You could opt to carry a spread gun for use against widely spaced groups of weak enemies along with crush missiles for more durable single targets. Or you might choose to limit yourself to the default machine gun for the majority of a stage in order to preserve a stronger backup weapon for the boss at the end. Good stuff.

Hit start on the title screen and you’re immediately taking the fight to Red Falcon, dashing through a grimly gorgeous ruined cityscape as you gun down waves of enemy foot soldiers. After a few screens of this, you’ll encounter the first of Contra III’s many direct callbacks: A reprise of the iconic boss fight against the jungle base from the original Contra. Destroy it, though, and the level simply continues without fanfare, revealing it to have been a lowly speed bump of a mini-boss this time. The statement is clear: This isn’t last generation’s Contra. Before the stage concludes for real, you’ll have also commandeered a tank and used it to destroy a second well-defended base, defeated another minor boss, platformed your way through the fiery aftermath of a bombing raid, and finally faced off against a colossal turtle alien that sends a torrent of flying insects at you and can discharge laser beams from its maw.

This opening act establishes the pattern for all of Contra III’s side-scrolling sections: A chain of constantly shifting dynamic action set pieces and escalating mid-boss encounters culminating in a jaw-dropping clash with a larger-than-life ultimate antagonist. Each is almost an interactive Hollywood blockbuster unto itself, an impression only bolstered by the sumptuous art and bombastic musical score. Without a doubt, these levels are marvels and really must be played to be believed. All four of them.

You heard right. Contra III contains a paltry four of the very best stages the series would ever see, supplemented by two of the very worst. The latter utilize an overhead view and it’s here where the game’s emphasis on pushing Super Nintendo hardware gimmicks whips around and bites it square in the ass. These overhead levels rely heavily on the system’s famous Mode 7 graphics feature, which allows for the smooth scaling and rotation of a background layer. Mode 7 was used to brilliant effect in F-Zero and Pilotwings, where it enabled the close approximation of true 3-D environments without the need to render polygons. That’s not what we get here. Instead, we’re stuck maneuvering sluggish, tank-like versions of Bill and Lance over downright ugly pixelated terrain. The directional pad is used exclusively to move straight forward and back in this perspective, with all lateral movement accomplished via the roundabout method of rotating the background itself with the two shoulder buttons. If this sounds goofy and awkward and not particularly fun, that’s because it is. While previous Contra games also experimented with alternate viewpoints for some of their stages, it was always to better effect than this.

Contra III’s overhead portions were sufficiently eye-catching in an era when a low-res spinning background could pass for high-tech wizardry. Playing through them now, they’re positively abominable, the absolute inverse of their sublime side-scrolling counterparts. They’re not even passable filler, as stripping them out and replaced with nothing whatsoever would result would in a stronger product. Their relative brevity is the closest thing they have to a saving grace.

Does this make this Contra III a bad game? God, no. It is a maddeningly inconsistent one, however. It’s all peaks and valleys, melting your face off with its unbridled awesomeness one minute and then giving you ample cause to wish you were playing almost anything else the next. There are more peaks than valleys to be sure, but four legendary levels still aren’t a lot to hang an entire game on. I love it, just not quite as much as I love the original and Super C on the NES or Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, all of which benefit from a healthier ratio of quality content to dross. Contra III is tantalizingly close to perfection. If only its creators had doubled down on its strengths as opposed to diluting them with Mode 7 mediocrity….

U.N. Squadron (Super Nintendo)

Hey, Super Nintendo fans: Are you ready for the sort of pulse pounding, face melting action that could only come from the most extreme intergovernmental organization on the planet? That’s right, I’m talking about the United goddamn Nations! So strap in, punks, because they’re coming at you with all 193 member states and at least as many ways to kick your ass in their official video game adaptation, U.N. Squadron!

Yeah, so Capcom’s 1991 horizontal shooter U.N. Squadron has nothing at all to do with its real world namesake. It’s based on the manga Area 88, about mercenary jet pilots operating out of the war-torn and wholly fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom of Arslan. Given Area 88’s obscurity outside Japan, a new name for the international editions made sense. I only wish they’d arrived at a more viscerally appealing one. The name is all that’s been changed, too. This isn’t one of those cases where licensed elements were stripped out of a game wholesale. The Area 88 characters and the eponymous air base itself are still present in U.N. Squadron.

In most games of this type, such details wouldn’t really matter. U.N. Squadron, however, uses its license to justify a number of clever design choices which set it apart from its contemporaries. For example, the first thing you’re expected to do is pick your character. Each of the three playable pilots has his own special ability. Shin Kazama is able to power-up his plane’s main gun the fastest. Mickey Scymon can carry the most missiles, bombs, and other limited use sub-weapons. Last, and definitely not least, my main man Greg Gates recovers from damage twice as fast as the rest. Be advised that once you choose, you’re committed for the duration of your current playthrough. In general, the durable Greg is ideal for beginners, Shin shines at the intermediate level, and Mickey is hard mode.

After you’ve settled on a pilot, you next need to choose your plane and its special weapon loadout. The manga’s mercenary premise is represented brilliantly here by an in-game economy based on your performance in battle. Every target you destroy and mission you complete earns you cold, hard cash in addition to the standard points and extra lives. You’ll want to scrape together all the blood money you can in order to afford better planes and more powerful weapons over the course of your campaign. I love the thorny strategic tradeoffs baked into this shop system. Loading your jet up with as many added weapons as possible will increase your odds of survival, but you’ll lose every penny sunk into them if you’re shot down anyway. Similarly, upgrading your ride from the default Crusader, which has no particular strengths to speak of, to a more capable craft like the Tomcat or Thunderbolt can be helpful in the mid-game. At the same time, doing so may prevent you from ever being able to afford the very best plane, the million dollar Efreet.

You now have a pilot, a plane, and an arsenal. Would you believe you’re not making decisions yet? U.N. Squadron also works in a tactical map screen that doubles as a mission select menu. You’re given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to which order you want to tacked the game’s ten stages in, apart from the first and last ones, which are fixed. Complicating things further, a few map markers represent mobile air or sea units advancing on Area 88. If they make it there, you’ll be forced to fight them off regardless of your personal preference.

All this player choice cropping up in what’s typically an extremely straightforward style of game is emblematic of a Capcom tradition that dates back to the 1986 NES port of Commando: Heavily retooling an arcade title with an eye toward bolstering the home version’s replayability. U.N. Squadron’s arcade iteration from 1989 had traditional linear stage progression and restricted each pilot to his own signature aircraft. If it wasn’t for the loss of arcade’s two-player feature, this deeper Super Nintendo release would be superior in every way.

Of course, these fancy options need to be in service of some quality shooting action or the whole production would be in vain. I’m happy to report that U.N. Squadron doesn’t disappoint, delivering some truly remarkable gameplay and level design. Controls are precise and responsive. The six planes and eleven special weapons are all effective in their own ways and fun to experiment with. The various areas you battle in have distinct visual identities and their unique topographies actually inform your tactics. Enemy patterns are diverse. Bosses are huge, deadly, and immensely satisfying to take down. As if this all wasn’t enough, it also boasts audiovisual pizzazz to spare and runs significantly better than much of its early Super Nintendo competition, putting the likes of Gradius III and Super R-Type to shame in the framerate department. Simply put, this was Capcom at their peak, doing what they did best. Cracking stuff.

Difficulty-wise, U.N. Squadron is simultaneously fierce and forgiving. You’re quite unlikely to finish it on your first try, as considerable trial-and-error is required and you’re limited to just three continues. Your saving grace is the damage system. Unlike in most shooters, you won’t be blown out of the sky by a single stray bullet. Rather, you have a sort of conditional health bar. Taking a hit will put you into a special danger state for a few seconds. If you get hit again while in danger, you’re toast. Survive the danger period, though, and your health will recover to slightly less than what it was before you took that hit. You can’t repeat this cycle forever, sadly, since four or five consecutive hits will deplete the bar fully and leave you in danger indefinitely. Still, that’s four or five more hits than I’m used to being able to brush off in these games. It helps.

Any way you slice it, this is a top shelf shoot-’em-up, one of the best ever made for the SNES. Even the most strident of genre snobs, who never hesitate to give the console grief for its pokey CPU, generally hail U.N. Squadron as a masterpiece. In a perfect world, it would have been the start of a magnificent series. Instead, its legacy is limited to a lone arcade pseudo-sequel, the obscure Carrier Air Wing. About the only complaint I can muster is that it’s yet another case of a vintage shooter with no true built-in autofire for your main gun. Either game developers back then were all in bed with the turbo controller manufacturers or they vastly overestimated their audience’s fondness for incessant tapping. Oh, well. I suppose if any game is worth a little finger pain, it’s this one.

Pocky & Rocky (Super Nintendo)

Yo, Adrian, I did it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skyblazer (Super Nintendo)

Life’s not fair. Sometimes a game can look and sound great, commit no major design sins, and yet still be condemned to eternal obscurity. So it is with Skyblazer, a perfectly enjoyable, thoroughly forgotten action-platformer created by developer Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Perhaps a lack of advertising is to blame. I was all about the SNES back then and I never so much as heard of Skyblazer until just a couple years ago, when I started searching around online for little known games worth playing. It’s also a true standalone work with no preexisting fan base to draw on and no sequels. That rarely helps. There may well be some truth to both the above theories. Having now personally played through Skyblazer, though, a third possibility suggests itself: This game may just be too alright for its own good. Too decent. Too resoundingly okay. Sure, it doesn’t do anything to actively embarrass itself or make players stop what they’re doing to question how they’re spending their lives. At the same time, however, it lacks any sort of clever gameplay hook to make it stand out it in a crowded field of early ’90s side-scrollers.

Actually, I take that back. There is a hook of sorts to Skyblazer. Its hero, Sky, looks and controls suspiciously like the star of Ukiyotei’s previous Super Nintendo outing, an adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s Hook! It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a significant amount of code initially created for that project was reused here. Thankfully, Skyblazer turned out a lot more fast-paced and exciting than the languid Hook.

Skyblazer sees its title character heading off on a quest to rescue the sorceress Ariana, who’s been stolen away by Ashura, a powerful four-armed minion of the demonic Raglan. It’s your bog standard “save the girl by booting some big evil dude in the teeth” story, but observant players will notice a distinct Indian flavor to much of the proceedings. Beyond the name Ashura (Asura), you have statues of Ganesha in the background, loads of synth sitar (synthtar?) filling out the soundtrack, and so forth. What gives? The game’s original Japanese incarnation, Karuraō (“King Garuda”), makes the connection much more obvious. There, Sky is Garuda, Ariana is Vishnu, Raglan is Ravana, and the nameless old man who provides guidance to the player between levels is Brahma. In other words, the whole things’s intended to be a kind of action manga take on Hindu mythology. I’m guessing either Nintendo of America insisted most of these names be changed in order to avoid offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or Sony did it themselves preemptively. Even in watered-down form, this unique aesthetic is easily one of the coolest things about Skyblazer.

The seventeen stages on offer are pretty neat, too. They’re accessed via an overhead map that features a couple of branching paths. A few are technically skippable because of this, although the game as a whole is relatively short, so I don’t know why you’d want to pass over any of the content unless you’re aiming for a speedrun. Each area is patterned on one of the same stock archetypes you’ve seen countless times before. You’ll ride floating platforms over lava, swim through underwater currents, slide around on ice, and so on. The closest thing to a genuine novelty are a couple of flight stages that adopt an auto-scrolling shooter style. I could have done with more of these. At least the tight design and smooth flow of Skyblazer’s levels somewhat makes up for the lack of originality on display. Another plus is that their gimmicks don’t tend to repeat themselves, which keeps the journey stimulating throughout.

Roughly half the stages have boss battles and these guys were another highlight for me. They showcase some pretty crazy concepts, like the freaky giant face that spins the walls of the room around using Mode 7 rotation to attack you and can only be defeated by popping both its eyeballs like grapes. Yuck. It seems all the creativity that didn’t go into the level concepts must have been channeled here. Beating a boss will earn Sky a new magic power, similar to besting a robot master in Mega Man.

Sky is generally a satisfying character to control.  He runs fast, jumps high, and attacks with a flurry of punches and kicks. He can also cling to and scale walls. He even retains the ability to throw punches while he’s latched onto a wall, a feature I would kill for in Ninja Gaiden. These basic capabilities will get you by most obstacles. When the going gets tough, there’s that magic I mentioned. Sky starts off with a basic attack spell that fires an energy projectile at the cost of one of his eight magic points. The other abilities gained from bosses tend to have more powerful effects at the cost of more MP per use. These include a healing spell, a time stopper to freeze enemies in place, an invincible air dash, an eight-directional shot, and the ultimate power needed to beat the game: The fiery phoenix transformation. Again, this moveset will feel very familiar to platforming veterans, but it’s a blast to use and well suited to the challenge at hand.

That challenge is one final element with the potential to either help or hinder Skyblazer for you. This is a fairly easy game by genre standards. Extra lives and refills for Sky’s health and magic are common, continues are unlimited, and there’s a password system provided in case you need to take a break. If you’re a hardcore action nut looking for something to push you to your limit, Skyblazer isn’t going to scratch that itch. You’ll tear your way through it in no time flat without so much as breaking a sweat. On the other hand, if you’re a less experienced player or just in the mood for a breezy fantasy action romp with some sweet graphics and music, you may welcome this relaxed approach.

Skyblazer is very model of a hidden gem on the Super Nintendo. It was a rock solid release that happened to lack the gilded pedigree of a Mario or Zelda, the stunning innovation of an ActRaiser, or even the ungodly aggressive ad campaign of a Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Today, it’s a dusty digital orphan, seemingly without a past or future to call its own. It deserves better. “Decades of sequels and spin-offs” better? Nah. But it’s absolutely worthy of being played and appreciated by a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s never too late for that.

Aero Fighters (Super Nintendo)

Covering a controversial game or one of major historic significance can be intense. Considering that the subject of my last review, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, is both those things, I can definitely use a breather right about now. It’s times like this when nothing satisfies like a straightforward arcade shoot-’em-up.

The 1993 Super Nintendo port of Aero Fighters (also known as Sonic Wings in Japan) is every bit the archetypal early ’90s vertical shooter. If you’ve ever plunked a quarter into something like Toaplan’s Fire Shark or Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden, you’ll recognize this style of play immediately. Taking control of a very agile, very fragile airplane, you blow away as many enemy vehicles as you can on the way to the level boss. You start out with a pea shooter of a primary gun and a limited stock of screen clearing super bombs that can save your bacon when things get hectic. Destroying some of the larger enemy craft will release floating power-ups that either enhance the spread and damage of your main gun or increase your stock of super bombs. And…that’s pretty much it. Clear six to eight stages of this and you win! Games like this are true staples in my book; accessible, addictive, and something no classic arcade is complete without.

Sadly, you’re almost better off buying the arcade cabinet itself if you’re looking to bring Aero Fighters home. The game’s developer, Video System, opted to published the Super Nintendo version themselves under the banner of their North American branch, McO’River. McO’River? Seriously? Did they pull that one out of a random leprechaun name generator or something? Anyway, if you don’t recall hearing about all the great McO’River branded gems that came out over the years, there’s a reason for that: They only ever published four titles and none of them sold well. This makes Aero Fighters one of the most expensive Super Nintendo releases, with loose cartridges routinely going for $600 and up at auction. If, like me, you didn’t have the foresight to load up on Apple stock back in the ’80s, it’s flash carts and emulators to the rescue again.

Two things set the Aero Fighters series as a whole apart from other games in its class and make it seem like more than Raiden with the serial numbers filed off. The first is the large roster of playable characters, each of which pilots a different plane with its own unique weapons. The second, closely related element is the offbeat sense of humor that defines these characters and their interactions. The ten member cast includes a ninja, a prince, a teenage pop idol, a viking berserker, and a little robot who resembles a cross between Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movies and Nintendo’s own R.O.B.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the humor in Aero Fighters is how well compartmentalized it is. Most attempts over the years to inject comedy into the genre have resulted in typical “cute-’em-ups” like Fantasy Zone, TwinBee, or Parodius. The player flies over outlandish pastel landscapes battling swarms of weird and often seemingly harmless foes. Not so in Aero Fighters. The level and enemy designs here are as straight-laced as they come. Only the between stage dialogue and ending sequences hint at the insanity underlying it all. Aero Fighters is the mullet of wacky shooters: Business in the front, party in the back.

There are a total of eight stages on offer here. They’re based on a handful of standard terrestrial themes (city, ocean, desert, etc) with the exception of the final one, which sees your fighter jet inexplicably venturing into outer space. A given playthrough will only ever feature seven of them, however, as each character has a home country and is exempt from fighting in the stage associated with it. Choose Hien or Mao Mao, for example, and you’ll be guaranteed to skip their native Japan. None of the levels are very long and a perfect run of Aero Fighters clocks in at around twenty minutes. The only thing that will prevent most players from completing it so quickly is the difficulty. You’ll have to contend with one-hit kills, limited continues, and an extremely punishing final stage if you’re serious about viewing your chosen character’s ending. It’s not R-Type hard by any means, but it’ll still put your bullet dodging skills to the test. Teaming up with a buddy to double your firepower is a great way to even the odds, of course, and Aero Fighters does support two players simultaneously. This limits your choice of characters somewhat, though, since both players are required to represent the same country.

Fans of simple pick-up-and-play action should be quite pleased with this iteration of Aero Fighters. The abundance of quirky and mechanically distinct characters give it more replay value than most of the games that inspired it. The graphics and sound are both high quality, if never jaw-droppingly so. It even runs better than average for a SNES game, with only the slightest touch of slowdown on occasion. The transition from a vertically-oriented monitor to a standard tv does make the action feel slightly more cramped at home than it did in the arcade, but this compromise was common to many other conversions of similar titles. My one major complaint is that this is yet another example of an old school shooter that doesn’t have an automatic fire option for your main gun, so prepare to tap your thumb numb unless you own a turbo controller. So rude. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Unless your game is built around shot charging, there’s no good reason for it to lack auto-fire.

Aero Fighters is one of the better Super Nintendo shooters, particularly among the minority that include two-player simultaneous modes. That said, if you’re still dead set on spending a small fortune to own it, I’d pick up a Neo-Geo console and one of its superior sequels instead. You get to play as a talking dolphin in those. Spanky rules.