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.

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Run Saber (Super Nintendo)

The year is 2998 and Earth is on the verge of becoming too polluted to support life. Enter eminent scientist Dr. Gordon Bruford with a radical solution: The Earth Renaissance Project, which involves relocating the population to orbiting space stations and then bombarding the surface with a new kind of radiation to purify it. Little did the public know that Bruford had a hidden agenda all along. He used the radiation to transform himself into an ultra-powerful mutant in a bid to rule the world with his army of cloned monsters. Now needing a solution to their last solution, Earth’s leaders initiated Project Run Saber in a last ditch effort produce elite cyborg warriors that could counter Bruford. Disaster struck once again when first Saber produced, Kurtz, ended up going haywire and joining the enemy, but the remaining two test subjects, Allen and Sheena, remain determined to save humanity from the impending mutant apocalypse at any cost.

What a silly story, right? We all know our planet’s screwed well before 2998. Ah, but I kid. This is the ever-optimistic Run Saber, the action-platformer from developer Hori (of third party controller manufacturing fame) and publisher Atlus that’s mostly known for being “that one Super Nintendo Strider ripoff.” I know some of you out there are bristling already. Calling any game a ripoff or a clone, even in jest, invites accusations of bias and lazy critique. Really, though, it would require such strenuous rhetorical gymnastics to dodge that bullet that the payoff just isn’t worth it. It’s far better to concede straightaway that Run Saber is indeed an extended riff on Capcom’s 1989 classic. Allen and Sheena use flashy plasma swords to cut their way through five stages of garish creepazoids and they do it while leaping, sliding, and wall climbing in a decidedly Hiryu-esque fashion. It’s a fact, not a value judgement.

In that spirit, let’s focus on what Run Saber brings to the party that its inspiration didn’t. New moves, for example. I already mentioned the shared slashing, jumping, climbing, and sliding mechanics, but Allen and Sheena can also execute jump kicks and Metroid style spin attacks by holding down or up on the directional pad while airborne. Rounding out their repertoire is a limited use elemental super move that damages everything on the screen. Although these maneuvers are well-implemented and quite useful, the real standout tweak for me is the improved air control. I really wasn’t feeling the first Strider’s fixed jump arcs. They undermined the game’s otherwise solid attempts to sell Hiryu as this agile, ninja-like hero. Run Saber thankfully prioritizes fun over realism in this regard.

I certainly can’t overlook Run Saber’s main claim to fame: Co-op action. The designers didn’t just include two playable heroes for the hell of it. You and a friend are free to hack up mutants side-by-side. This makes it a relative rarity for the time, as most 16-bit action-platformers with a two-player simultaneous option were of the run-and-gun variety (e.g. Contra), while Run Saber emphasizes melee combat throughout. In this sense, it fills a similar niche on the Super Nintendo as Natsume’s Shadow of the Ninja does on the NES.

So let’s get down to brass tacks, then. Is Run Saber better than Strider? Creatively and artistically, hell no. There are plenty of cool/weird bits and some crazy action set pieces in Run Saber, no doubt. The boss fight at the end of the first stage that sees you battling a parasitic creature infesting a fighter jet while clinging to the outside of said jet in flight counts as all of the above. It’s all very colorful and decently rendered, but still feels like a bit of a disconnected mess; an arbitrary assortment of ’90s action game stuff. Strider’s setting, a now quaintly anachronistic dystopian future Eastern Bloc, stands out as vastly more cohesive and memorable. Run Saber’s music is nothing to get excited over, either. The short loops laden with excessive reverb and cheesy slap bass are mediocre at best, goofy at worst. They’re no match at all for Junko Tamiya’s regal, foreboding work on Strider. The only real joy I got out of Run Saber’s audio came from the little celebrations your characters do after defeating a boss. They pause for a second to twirl their swords overhead as a lo-fi sample proclaims “Run Saber!” It’s reminds me of those hilarious “I’m bad!” moments from Bad Dudes vs. DragonNinja. Beautiful.

Gameplay-wise, the victor is much less clear. Run Saber and Strider share the prominent flaw of being just a tad too short at five stages each. The biggest overarching difference between the two is the difficulty of those stages. Strider started its life as an arcade game and has the quarter munching ferocity to prove it. It took me multiple lengthy sessions over a period of several days to clear the Genesis port for the first time. I had the console exclusive Run Saber done and dusted in well under two hours and I was playing without a partner. With its more fluid movement, expanded moveset that includes full screen attacks, instant player respawns, and levels sporting far fewer bottomless pits, Run Saber was clearly made by people who knew they’d be getting all their money up front.  To summarize, if you prefer your sci-fi ninja action stylish, sadistic, and solo, Strider is the one for you. If you want to shred biomonsters with a buddy or just without worrying about getting knocked into a death pit for the hundredth time that evening, you’ll likely favor Run Saber instead.

Ultimately, I can recommend Run Saber for a quick, satisfying bout of futuristic hack and slash. It’s not at all original (apart from a couple of the wilder boss encounters) and rather weak in the audio department, but it controls well, the levels are varied, and you can bring a pal along for the ride. What I don’t recommend is paying the current $70+ asking price for an authentic Run Saber cartridge. That’s a lot to ask for a game you’re likely to be all finished with in less time than it takes to sit through the average feature film. Run to your nearest flash cart or emulator instead.

Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization of the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so Square opted to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations to date, including this one, have wisely left intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept this one a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially re-made multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

Soul Blazer (Super Nintendo)

The soul still burns!

I’m finally heading back to the Quintet well. It’s been far too long. I guess I had so much fun in 2017, playing through both ActRaiser games and the triumph that is Terranigma, that I instinctively hit the brakes before I could plow through their entire Super Nintendo catalog. There’s a sharply limited quantity of this stuff available, after all. Best to make it last.

My subject today is the studio’s second game, 1992’s Soul Blazer. Despite coming out hot on the heels of their highly successful action-platformer/God sim hybrid ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is not a sequel. Rather, it’s the first entry in a loose series that also includes Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. Fans have dubbed these the Gaia Trilogy. Or the Soul Blazer Trilogy. Or the Quintet Trilogy. As if all these names weren’t confusing enough, some also point to a fourth release, The Granstream Saga for PlayStation, as a “spiritual successor” and the final entry in what’s more properly regarded as a quadrology.

Each game casts the player as a divine intermediary in the latest chapter of an endless conflict between two Manichean deities representing light and darkness. Much of the appeal for fans is based on the distinctive scenario design and writing of Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. There’s a strong focus on religion, death, and rebirth throughout the series. Miyazaki’s overarching thesis, or at least my best good faith take on it, seems to be the need for us humans to reject hubris and greed in favor of humble compassion for our fellow living things before our unchecked ignorance drives us to destroy both ourselves and our world. It was the unflinching way Quintet presented this material; their willingness to confront their audience with somber notions clearly meant to resonate beyond the games’ surface melodrama, that was so electrifying nearly thirty years ago and has since secured all three titles perennial cult classic status.

All this isn’t to say that the Gaia Trilogy is dour or depressing. There’s no shortage of fast action and tongue-in-cheek moments. It’s not even all that preachy, as there’s a remarkable degree of subtlety and restraint on display in light of the simplistic writing and brute force localization practices characteristic of the period. What these games are, however, is affecting. Haunting, even. They get under your skin in the best possible way.

Soul Blazer casts the player as an angelic being known as Blazer (or Blader in the Japanese original). Don’t feel too wedded to this moniker, though. You’re free to re-name him whatever you like. Taking human form, Blazer is tasked by The Master (aka God) with nothing less than restoring life to the world. It seem that Magridd, power-hungry ruler of the Freil Empire, coerced a brilliant scientist named Dr. Leo into creating a machine capable of summoning Deathtoll, “the King of Evil.” Against all odds, this proved to be a poor decision and Deathtoll promptly imprisoned the souls of the empire’s inhabitants in monster lairs, leaving the land deserted. It’s almost like you can’t trust the King of Evil or something.

Blazer’s mission is presented as a mechanically basic overhead view action-RPG of the sort that will be instantly accessible to anyone who’s ever played an old school Legend of Zelda before. He can move about in the four cardinal directions, strafe with the shoulder buttons, swing his sword with B, and fire off whichever magic spell is currently equipped by pressing Y. It’s an adequate setup for the hours of hack-and-slash ahead, but only just. Those that end up playing the series out of order won’t find nearly as much to sink their teeth into here compared to Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. Soul Blazer’s solitary stab at innovation in the combat department largely falls flat. Spells don’t actually emanate from Blazer himself. Instead, they’re fired out of a glowing sphere that orbits him at all times. While this does look cool, it’s a right pain in the ass to aim sometimes, considering that the sphere is constantly spinning with no way to lock it in place. This is proof positive that different isn’t always good and I generally ignored the magic and stuck to the simple, effective sword for the majority of my playthrough.

So the action here isn’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, its consequences are. Soul Blazer has a simple, powerful core gameplay cycle wherein every Gauntlet-style monster generator destroyed actually grows the game world by freeing the soul of the NPC trapped inside. That soul could belong to a human, an animal, or even a plant and each one will typically advance your quest in some way, large or small. Being an angel with the ability to communicate with anything living means that Blazer has no problem chatting up dogs, goats, fish, and even the occasional tree or flower. Visiting a new area for the first time and finding it completely empty, only to then gradually build it back up into a thriving settlement one inhabitant at a time as you slash your way through the local dungeon is immensely satisfying. I’d even call it addictive. If you’re not careful, the drive to take out just a few more monster lairs in order to see what sort of character pops out of each can get the better of you. Then, before you know it, hours have passed and you’re rushing off to the next area to do it all over again!

This theme of your hero’s actions somehow resurrecting a ruined world echoes throughout the trilogy. It would also inspire other developers, as seen in Level-5’s Dark Cloud series. Even in its embryonic form here, it’s a potent example of the positive feedback loop in game design. The action drives the narrative in about the most literal sense possible. Simultaneously, that narrative urges the player to dive right back into the action at every turn. The result is an experience more like its predecessor ActRaiser than meets the eye. On paper, each contains no spectacular gameplay per se, but the almost uncannily graceful interactions of their disparate elements induces a flow state in players that renders both much more engaging than the sums of their parts.

It’s entirely fair to deem this inaugural entry the weakest of the Gaia Trilogy. It’s also a mistake to dismiss it as such. Sure, the graphics have that flat early Super Nintendo look to them, the sound effects were lifted directly from ActRaiser, and the characterization of Blazer and the rest of the cast is pretty minimal compared to what would come later. Illusion of Gaia and (especially) Terranigma manage to nail most of the same beats with the added benefits of deeper combat, more confident and ambitious storytelling, and glossier coats of paint. This is all to be expected, of course, as Miyazaki and the rest of Quintet continually honed their craft over the console’s run. Regardless, Soul Blazer is a brilliantly conceived and paced adventure with a brooding, apocalyptic atmosphere that will satisfy genre veterans craving something more than another “save the princess” errand. Play it before its sequels, if possible, but play it. It’s a fascinating game in its own right as well as an auspicious start to a saga like no other.

Hagane: The Final Conflict (Super Nintendo)

Famed satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it….” In the realm of classic gaming, I can think of no clearer example of this timeless truth in action than Hagane: The Final Conflict for the Super Nintendo. Around a decade ago now, a obscurely-sourced story began circulating online that this unassuming 1994 action-platformer was actually a rare Blockbuster Video rental exclusive title. Prices for Hagane cartridges rocketed from the $20 -$40 range to $500 and up.

You’ve likely already guessed where I’m going with this. That’s right: There’s no proof whatsoever that Hagane was ever associated with Blockbuster Video. What’s more, popular YouTuber SNESdrunk has presented plenty of evidence that it was, in fact, a normal retail release. Blockbuster exclusive games like ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut for the Nintendo 64 were a real thing. At this point in time, however, we can state with all confidence that Hagane was not one of them.

I’m not certain whether the Blockbuster myth originated as an innocent mistake or a despicable attempt to manipulate the secondary market, but I do know that ten years and counting of wide dissemination is likely to prevent those prices from correcting themselves anytime soon. The damage is done. It’s a shame, because the sticker shock tends to overshadow a quality ninja action game that’s often cited as the Super Nintendo’s answer to Sega’s Shinobi series.

The final conflict of the title is between two secretive ninja clans. The Fuma are mystical warriors charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Their foils are the evil Koma, who dream of using the Grail’s limitless power to destroy the world. A treacherous attack by the Koma results in them stealing the Grail, but they make the fateful mistake of leaving one Fuma clan warrior alive. This gravely-wounded ninja, Hagane (“steel”), has his brain transplanted into a cyborg body in order to seek revenge on the Koma and recover the Grail before it’s too late. Ninja RoboCop questing for the Holy Grail? God bless video games.

Hagane’s mission comprises nineteen  individual stages spread out over five chapters. These are primarily straightforward “run, jump, and fight your way to the exit” affairs that incorporate a satisfying blend of platforming and combat challenges, along with a handful of auto-scrolling sections for variety. Each chapter also has an end boss and at least one mini-boss. None of the individual stages here are exceptionally large or involved, but there’s enough of them that the journey as a whole feels neither too long nor too short.

Like Treasure’s Alien Soldier, which I reviewed just last week, this is another game where the title hero has an incredibly wide selection of moves and attacks at his disposal. Too many, to be honest. Hagane has four main weapons that he can cycle between at any time: A sword, shuriken, bombs, and a chain. Any ninja game connoisseurs reading this probably recognize this as the same array of weapons wielded by Tsukikage, the protagonist of Irem’s Ninja Spirit. I can only assume that someone on the development team was a fan of Irem’s effort. Hagane also comes equipped with a limited-use super bomb attack reminiscent of the one seen in Contra III that damages everything on-screen and is generally best saved for bosses.

That’s not all, though! The ever-versatile metal ninja can also lash out with jump kicks and ground slides, cling to ceilings, bounce off walls, execute a strange sort of rolling double jump that covers wide distances horizontally, and pull off a variety of charged-up power attacks in conjunction with both back and forward flips. Hey, at least they didn’t let that six-button controller go to waste, eh?

Step one here is to get a feel for which of these moves you’ll need to use constantly and which you can safely ignore. The sword and shuriken ended up being my go-to weapons (with bombs a distant third) and the double jump spin proved to be the most vital platforming tool by far. The chain, jump kick, slide, super flip attacks, and the rest all turned out to be either highly situational or completely unnecessary.

Mastering a small selection of your most efficient moves as quickly as possible goes a long way toward curbing the game’s formidable difficulty. Hagane has a reputation for being one of the most challenging SNES action games. While there are many that I would personally rank higher in that regard, it’s certainly no easier than the average Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden title. The biggest hurdle by far is Hagane’s unimpressive health bar. For a guy made of metal, you’d expect him to able to withstand more than three hits by default. Healing items and the occasional health bar extension help somewhat, but you still can’t count on being able to make many mistakes. You are given unlimited continues at least, although running out of lives and using one starts you back at the beginning of the chapter rather than the exact stage you died on.

Despite a somewhat over-engineered control scheme, Hagane largely succeeds in delivering the sort of fast-paced precision action-platforming experience its target audience craves. It weds level design and enemy placement that would be right at home in any of the 16-bit Shinobi games with the weapon system from Ninja Spirit, movement that recalls Capcom’s Strider, and an extra bit of flair all its own, as in the stage where Hagane must escape a crashing airship as it spins around him courtesy of the console’s iconic Mode 7 background rotation effect.

All this solid gameplay is further bolstered by some very strong art design. Every detail of the medieval Japanese cyberpunk future on display here is compelling, from the twin pistons carved into the shapes of Buddhas that are shown to power Hagane himself in the opening cut scene to the largest of the boss enemies with their hulking robot frames topped by elaborate Noh theater style masks. It’s basically the same aesthetic that made the classic Genesis shooter MUSHA so memorable, just on a more intimate scale. The soundtrack, unfortunately, can’t really keep pace. It takes the expected route of combining samples suggestive of classical Japanese instruments with more conventional video game action beats, but the tracks themselves don’t really bring it. They’re often far too restrained for the madness erupting across the screen at any given moment. I don’t think it’s bad music by any means, merely underwhelming.

Hagane is absurdly, senselessly overpriced. It also presents as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the bits and pieces of great ninja games past. It’s got it where it counts, though, and that makes me wish that developer CAProduction had tried their hands at a sequel. I suppose they’ve been too busy slaving away on every Mario Party game ever. It’s tough to argue with a sure thing like that.

Anyway, play Hagane. Just don’t pay $500 or more for the privilege. You’re smarter than that.

Space Megaforce (Super Nintendo)

Deeds not words.

First, the bad news: Space Megaforce for the Super Nintendo is not an adaptation of the cult classic 1982 action schlockfest Megaforce, in which a bearded Barry Bostwick battles terrorists on his flying motorcycle. You’ll need to hit up the Atari 2600 for that game.

Oof! How can poor Space Megaforce possibly bounce back from that degree of crushing disappointment? How about by being another brilliant shooter by Compile, the legendary studio behind MUSHA, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend? Yeah, that’ll do nicely. Compile made my favorite shooters of all time, including the superb Zanac for NES. I reviewed Zanac last Christmas, so it seems this is becoming another holiday gaming tradition for me; a little present to myself. Fine by me.

Oddly enough, I started the introduction to this review with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then I noticed something strange: Space Megaforce (known as Super Aleste outside North America) was published by none other than Toho, the same monolithic film company that distributed Megaforce to Japanese theaters a decade earlier! Could it be that whoever was in charge of the game’s localization really did mean to reference the infamous box office turkey with this change? That seems insane. Then again, the game we know as Blazing Lazers originally shipped as Gunhed in Japan, a reference to Toho’s wholly unrelated cyberpunk action movie of the same name, so I suppose anything’s possible.

If you have any amount of prior experience with Compile shooters, you’ll know that while each has its distinctive quirks, they all tend to share very similar core design elements. Most prominent among these are notably lengthy vertical scrolling stages, a wide variety of different weapons to choose from, the ability to upgrade each weapon multiple times by collecting glowing “power chips,” and a forgiving damage system where hits from enemies cause your weapon power to degrade before they destroy you outright. Space Megaforce fits squarely into this familiar mold, for better or worse. It most closely resembles the TurboGrafx-16’s Blazing Lazers from three years previous with its surreal backgrounds, jazzy tunes, and selection of armaments that includes the iconic Field Thunder (called simply Laser here). The “special lives” mechanic from Blazing Lazers also makes a comeback, allowing you to shoot certain power-ups until they transform into glowing orbs, then collect those orbs in order to gain the ability to have your ship re-spawn in place one time when you lose a life instead of being sent back to a checkpoint like normal. If you’re already a fan of Blazing Lazers, I’ve told you everything you need to know at this point. This is essentially twelve more levels of that game, so have at it!

Since Space Megaforce technically isn’t an official Blazing Lazers sequel, however, it does have its own story. It centers on a mysterious alien sphere that arrives on earth one day, positions itself over the jungles of South America, and begins etching huge designs into the ground similar to the famous Nazca Lines (again with the ancient aliens motif!) as it siphons energy from its surroundings and rapidly expands. Conventional attacks on the sphere are easily repelled, so it falls on the pilot of the experimental Super Aleste fighter to penetrate the its defenses and save the planet from assimilation. This is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basic setup of an enigmatic alien artifact threatening humanity is actually quite similar to Zanac’s. The Japanese release does include some welcome additional details, though. The pilot of the Super Aleste is given a face and a name, Raz. He’s also accompanied on his mission by a helpful female alien named Thi, who was formerly a prisoner inside the sphere and now wants to help destroy it. Why these two were cut out of the international releases is beyond me. They make a cute couple and lend the game some much-needed personality. This, along with its substantially lower price, makes the Japanese version the one to get in my opinion.

Ultimately, there are two key elements that set Space Megaforce apart from the rest of the Aleste series. The first is the initially overwhelming choice of eight different weapons, each of which has seven possible power levels and at least one alternate firing mode to toggle between. You also have the requisite limited supply of super bombs to bust out in emergencies, of course. Enemies drop a near-constant stream of weapon pickups, so you’re able to swap back and forth among the different options relatively easily. This embarrassment of riches makes for some substantial replay value. Individual stages can be much easier or harder depending not just on the current weapon equipped, but its power level and active firing mode. The amount of freedom the player has to shape the experience as a whole is rare and refreshing for a shooter of this period.

Space Megaforce’s other claim to fame has to be its strangely laid-back feel. For a game about zipping around in a high-tech space jet blowing up swarms of vicious aliens with one of the most varied and impressive arsenals in all of gaming, it sure does have a chill vibe to it. Most levels scroll by at a leisurely pace, the music is downright loungy, and the visuals tend toward the hypnotic with loads of trippy, undulating background effects. The game is also long. A perfect no-death run still clocks in at a full hour, which is a bloody eternity by 16-bit spaceship shooter standards. This has led some to claim that the game is simply too long and too slow for its own good. Playing it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor, 1990’s MUSHA (aka Musha Aleste) for Sega Genesis, I can definitely see where these critics are coming from. Musha’s swift scrolling, relentless speed metal soundtrack, and punchier forty minute runtime all make it the polar opposite of Space Megaforce, at least superficially. For what it’s worth, I never found myself bored playing Space Megaforce. In fact, the first thing I did after I beat it was to play through it again on the hard difficulty setting. Then I went on to finish the Japanese version twice. The gameplay here may not always be hyper-intense, but it’s far from boring. There’s always something to shoot, something to dodge, and something to grab. That I get to do all this while kicking back and rocking a mellow groove is fine by me.

Is Space Megaforce truly the best shooter on the Super Nintendo, as the rampant hype online would have you believe? Maybe. With twelve stages, eight weapons, and five difficulty modes, it’s a remarkably complete package. It also looks and sounds gorgeous and runs flawlessly with no slowdown to speak of, owing to Compile’s famously efficient programming. If we limit the field to its fellow vertical shooters, only Firepower 2000 and Pop’n TwinBee stand out as worthy rivals with their two-player simultaneous play options. Factor in the better horizontal scrollers like R-Type III and U.N. Squadron and the choice becomes a lot less clear-cut. In any case, it’s yet another masterpiece that every fan of the genre should check out. The only thing I can’t recommend is paying the triple-digit prices the American cartridges command when the Japanese version is superior to begin with. Shop smart, boys and girls.

On that note, Merry Christmas to you all! Today caps off another thrilling, educational, and all-around rewarding year of gaming for me. With another 63 titles completed and reviewed, I still feel I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of everything the 8 and 16-bit era has to offer. I’ll see you again in 2019, when I’ll be checking another item off my bucket list with my first foray onto a new hardware platform. Kind of.

Now it’s time to go check under the tree for that flying motorcycle I wrote Santa about. Fingers crossed!

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same action mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its black sheep reputation. Dracula X is a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy Vampire Killer whip in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case?

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Dracula X really steps out of its inspiration’s shadow and starts making a name for itself with its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.