Zombies Ate My Neighbors (Super Nintendo)

Egad! Is it the 31st already? Seems like only yesterday I was lighting up my jack-‘o-lantern at precisely 12:00 AM on October 1st. You know, like normal people. Well, if I have to let another spooky season pass, it’s going to be with a monster mash of truly epic proportions. LucasArts’ Zombies Ate My Neighbors should do nicely. Published by Konami for the Super Nintendo and Genesis in 1993, Zombies crams nearly sixty years of cinematic horror iconography into one intense run-and-gun escapade.

I mean it, too. The game’s suburban teen heroes, Zeke and Julie, have to contend with the usual vampires, mummies, and Frankenstein monsters of 1930s Universal fame. Unlike in Castlevania, however, that’s merely the beginning. Keen-eyed horror junkies will spot the giant ants from 1954’s Them!, the slimy star of 1958’s The Blob, invading aliens traced from Topps’ 1962 Mars Attacks trading cards, and even then contemporary terrors such as humongous burrowing worms modeled on the ones in 1990’s Tremors. There are killer dolls, pod people, chainsaw slashers, and, of course, an endless supply of good old Romero style cannibal zombies. What a concept! A couple of these selections are real deep cuts, too. Seeing the mushroom men from Matango pop up sure warmed my morbid little heart.

Despite a throwaway blurb in the manual about how all these baddies are supposed to be working for the final boss, one Dr. Tongue, Zombies isn’t exactly what you’d call a plot-driven experience. The emphasis is firmly on the gameplay as you struggle to survive 48 stages of this madness (plus hidden bonus areas) while simultaneously preventing too many of your witless neighbors from becoming monster chow. Yup, that title isn’t just for show. You begin the game with the goal of saving ten neighbors scattered around the opening level before the monsters slaughter them. If all the neighbors bite the dust, it’s an instant game over. In practice, you’re almost certain to lose a few along the way. They are stationary and completely helpless, after all. In this instance, they’ll stay dead until you can meet the sizable score threshold required to earn a “bonus victim.” Trying to tackle any of the already brutal later stages with only one or two squishy neighbors left between you and the end of your run can get quite tense.

Apart from this neighbor rescue dynamic, the action here broadly resembles an evolution of Atari’s Gauntlet. You have the overhead perspective, the multiplayer component (you and a friend can play at once), the labyrinthine layouts that often have you seeking out keys, potions, and such on your way to an exit door, the constant stream of tenacious foes, etc. Controls are dead simple, with eight-way movement/shooting and not much else. Most of the complexity comes from managing your massive inventory. You can wield over a dozen weapons, for example, which range from effectively useless (footballs) to absolutely vital (the bazooka). Ignoring the dross would be easy if you weren’t limited to cycling through your inventory one-way in real time. Trying to whip out your bazooka while a pack of giant ants is chasing you down? Hope you don’t accidentally tap that button an extra time in your haste and scroll right past it. That would be…unfortunate. On the plus side, many of the weirder weapons do have nifty situational uses against specific enemies. Hurling silverware at werewolves can dispatch them in one hit and cold-based attacks can kill the otherwise invincible blobs. You’ve gotta love those movie-accurate details.

It should be clear by now that there’s much to recommend Zombies Ate My Neighbors. It’s a work by horror fans, for horror fans and its lengthy quest packs in hours of pick-up-and-play thrills for one or two players. On top of that, it comes to us by way of LucasArts, a legendary studio that was in peak form back in the early ’90s. The Secret of Monkey Island. Day of the Tentacle. Sam & Max Hit the Road. Need I say more? Zombies has all the audiovisual flair you’d expect out of these folks, from its ghoulishly expressive pixel art to its theremin-infused score, which sounds like a dozen campy monster flicks at once. This is some good stuff.

Damn, did it piss me off, though. Yes, this is one of those rare occasions where I fell head-over-heels for a game early on, only to have my outlook shift dramatically over its second half. By the time I finally finished, I was as shocked as anyone to find myself glad I’d never have to bother with it again. I’m sure this sounds harsh, but I attribute my change of heart to two factors: Obnoxious boss design and a broken password system.

I don’t feel I’m being hyperbolic when I say that Zombies Ate My Neighbors has some of the worst boss encounters I’ve personally slogged through. The giant spider takes the cake. Its erratic high-speed movement, absurd durability, and tendency to blanket the entire arena in webs that hinder your movement as its mini-spider minions whittle away at your health bar make beating it is a largely a matter of having stocked up on specific powerful weapons and items beforehand. Skill alone is insufficient. Then there’s the colossal baby that spends most of its time off-screen. Except to randomly accelerate into view quicker than your character can react and deal free touch damage before leaving again, that is. That’s not challenging, it’s unsporting. The Tremors worms are probably the best of the lot, since their basic “pop out of the ground and lunge at you” behavior is at least something you can predict and react to. A low bar indeed.

I’d actually be able to forgive this garbage boss design if the passwords worked in a sensible manner. You’re given a four-letter password after every fourth level in lieu of standard continues. Fair enough, right? Wrong. For a game where success is so dependent on building up a huge stock of gear, you’d hope that a password would allow you to retain at least some of it. Joke’s on you, then, because all passwords, regardless of how far along they start you, equip you with the default water gun and a single health pack. In other words, the exact same loadout you started stage one with. Good luck! In light of the sheer chaos that is the majority of the late game, I struggle to see this “feature” as anything other than a cruel joke on the player. If the designers intended for you to spend hours grinding through all 48+ levels in one perfect go, why even dangle the false promise of functional password saves in front of you? Naturally, I felt obligated to shoot a middle finger back their way by finishing the game from my stage 45 password come hell or high water. No way was I starting this crazy long game over from scratch! I eventually did succeed by the skin of my teeth after hours spent learning those last four maps like the back of my hand. Hooray for superhuman stubbornness, I guess. It still left a bad taste in my mouth.

So where does that leave us? I haven’t covered a game with this pronounced a Jekyll & Hyde personality since, well, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde two Halloweens back. Zombie Ate My Neighbors is the ultimate 16-bit horror movie mashup and so very charming in this respect. It’s also a blast in the early going, before the busted bosses and infuriating continue scheme become factors. It’s only once you’ve put sustained effort into completing it that its woefully cruel and shoddy elements come to the fore. It certainly has its admirers and I do think it’s worth a try. Just don’t be surprised if you find it a lot more pleasing in short bursts than it is over the long haul.

Speaking of the long haul, you can rest assured I’ll be back next October, eager for another deep dive into digital diabolism. Until then, classic gaming fans, the happiest of Halloweens to you and all your as yet uneaten neighbors.

Illusion of Gaia (Super Nintendo)

It’s been a long, winding road to Quintet’s Illusion of Gaia. I covered Terranigma, the third entry in the late lamented studio’s so-called Gaia trilogy more than three years ago now and the first, Soul Blazer, last year. Perhaps I’ve been neglecting the saga’s middle entry simply because it’s the one I played the most back around the time of its initial release? In any case, I hope you enjoy the final chapter in my look at three of the most unique and compelling games of their kind.

“Gaia trilogy” is the unofficial name given by fans to three loosely related Super Nintendo action RPGs published between 1992 and 1995. While each has its own mechanics, setting, and cast of characters, they all share certain overarching preoccupations. The heroes are framed as the latest intermediaries in an endless war between twin deities of light and darkness. Their journeys often take them to fictionalized versions of real locations. Solemn rumination on human mortality is a recurring theme, as is the notion of reviving a dead or dying planet. As you can tell from this brief description alone, these are hardly your everyday swashbuckling fantasy romps. Players who encountered any of them during their formative years tend to recall the experience vividly and with reverence.

Illusion of Gaia (or Illusion of Time, as it’s known outside North America) is the story of a teenager named Will, whose father vanished on an expedition to the mysterious Tower of Babel. Will was also present on that expedition, but developed both amnesia and uncanny psychic powers in its wake. As if all that wasn’t enough, he soon stumbles into a trippy parallel dimension and is told by a being known as Gaia that he needs to somehow stop an oncoming comet before it devastates the Earth. The kid has a lot on his plate, in other words. And no, this isn’t one of those cases where I named the lead character in an RPG after myself. He’s actually called Will. I remember finding that pretty neat in 1994.

Tagging along is a sizable group that includes a few of Will’s schoolmates, local spoiled princess/love interest Kara, Kara’s pet pig Hamlet, and more. This motley crew doesn’t constitute an adventuring party in the typical RPG sense. None of them are playable. They’re just there to contribute to the ongoing drama and offer commentary on the many weird situations you encounter.

As mentioned, Will’s odyssey unfolds across a fantastical interpretation of the real world. It’s tough to pin down exactly what time period is being represented here. As Christopher Columbus is mentioned in dialog and one of the characters is an inventor responsible for devising an airplane, it reads as if the 16-19th centuries were heavily idealized and then compressed into a single moment. In addition, there’s a rather quaint ancient mysteries angle baked into most of the dungeon areas that recalls the ’70s heyday of Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods?” and Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of….” You know, back when anything relating to the Egyptians, Inca, Maya, etc, was fodder for spooky hokum, usually with some combination of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu thrown in for good measure.

Plumbing the depths of all these monster-filled ruins is handled from the traditional overhead view, with Will dashing about solving simple puzzles and vanquishing the opposition with his weapon of choice, a flute. Yes, a flute, albeit a magic one he acquired on his forgotten first visit to the Tower of Babel. Imagine the inventory space Link could save if he ditched his sword and starting pummeling octoroks with his ocarina!

For those tough boss fights where woodwind instruments won’t cut it, Gaia provides Will with the ability to assume two alternate forms: Freedan the sword-wielding knight and Shadow the glowing liquid alien dude. Both their attacks have considerably better reach and damage potential than Will’s, so you’ll probably want to play as them whenever possible. Will’s base form does gain several abilities needed to solve puzzles, however, so using him at least a portion of the time is mandatory. No matter who you’re controlling, the action here is fast, smooth, and generally high quality. Like Soul Blazer and Terranigma, it’s easy to pick up and hard to put down.

The RPG bits in Illusion of Gaia have been pared down to the barest of essentials. There’s no currency, no experience points, no magic system, no weapons or armor to equip, and only one rare consumable healing item. Instead of conventional leveling, we have a system where defeating every enemy in a dungeon room will grant an instant, permanent boost to one of Will’s few stats (hit points, attack strength, etc). Apart from receiving the occasional new move directly from Gaia, that’s it. Since the rewards for clearing out each room are set in advance and enemies never respawn, there’s no way to overlevel Will. Nor will he ever be underleveled, unless you make it a point to ignore enemies as part of a challenge run of the game. In terms of mechanics, Illusion is the “lightest” of the trilogy by a wide margin. It won’t please the character optimization junkies among us, but it’s thoroughly unobtrusive. I appreciate the creators’ desire to maintain focus on the adventure itself.

Said adventure is presented with a combination of charming pixel art and thrilling music. The character sprites and animations are a big step up from those seen in Soul Blaze a year prior. Backgrounds are also more detailed, which serves to emphasize the strangeness of the various exotic locales you visit. The music pulls its weight in this regard, too. It’s appropriately eerie when exploring some deserted tomb and suitably bombastic when it’s time to put some baddies to the flute. Composer Yasuhiro Kawasaki seems to have really loved his kettle drum samples. When you hear those suckers start rumbling, you know you’re in for a scrap.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, there are a couple of less glowing factors that likely contributed to my decision to review Illusion of Gaia after its prequel and sequel. Although a well-made action RPG on almost every front, its structure and storytelling don’t grab me the same way Soul Blazer and Terranigma’s do. One of those games’ most memorable aspects was getting to see the world grow and change based on your actions. By contrast, Illusion of Gaia is a purely linear affair. Once you complete an area, you’re typically not allowed to return to it later. On the rare occasion you are, your window in which to do so is limited. This isn’t merely less satisfying on a narrative level, it has profound negative consequences for the game’s sole sidequest. Throughout your playthrough, you’ll constantly stumble across red jewels. Some are found in treasure chests, others are rewards for talking to specific NPCs, and more than a few are invisible, requiring you to interact with nondescript background objects to obtain them. Your reward for finding all fifty is access to an extra dungeon and boss fight. The problem, as you may have already guessed, is that collecting them in one go when you’re prohibited from backtracking is virtually impossible unless you play with a guide by your side and consult it every few minutes. After all, one missed jewel is all it takes to bar you from the bonus dungeon permanently. Fun!

A more severe sticking point for me is the story. It’s tonally disjointed and delivered with all the grace of an Emo Philips routine. A major sub-plot revolves around the slave trade, for example, yet the localization team clearly wasn’t permitted to call it such. The result is a lot of ridiculous talk about “laborers” (in chains?) and their “labor trader” masters. It  detracts from the gravity of the material and insults the audience’s intelligence at the same time. Still, it’s at least understandable in a Nintendo-published product. What’s worse is the truly bizarre way the lead character is prone to behaving. If you’ll permit me one solitary spoiler, Will at one point engages in a bout of Russian roulette with a total stranger. There’s literally no reason supplied for this. He isn’t a silent protagonist, so it’s odd that he’d have nothing whatsoever to say about it before, during, or after. Winning conveniently furnishes the group with the means to progress, but not in a way that Will could have conceivably foreseen. The game even has the nerve to twist the knife by emphasizing how the loser was only playing because he was desperate for money to support his pregnant wife. Jesus. What was the thought process writing this? You may say it’s a just silly old video game and I shouldn’t think so deeply about it. Fine. Ask yourself how you’d be inclined to view a book or movie character who did something like this, though.

In the wider context of the SNES library, Illusion of Gaia is well above average. It packs in a ton of great action and atmosphere, along with a few genuinely effective story beats. I recommend it to anyone fond of the genre. That said, it remains the least of the Gaia trilogy in my eyes. While all three have glitz and gameplay chops to spare, Illusion’s siblings both manage to weave their tales in more elegant, cohesive, affecting fashion. About all they skimp on is the sweet flute violence.

Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy (Super Nintendo)

Despite covering Wai Wai World 2 just last week, my thirst for comical Konami mayhem is yet to be fully sated. Parodius to the rescue! These manic parodies of the developer’s own Gradius saga always make for a fun time. What’s not to love about blowing away cartoon penguins, scantily-clad ladies, and God only knows what else on your way to the final confrontation with the Great Octopus?

Today, I’ve chosen 1992’s Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy for the Super Nintendo. This is a port of the 1990 arcade shooter Parodiusu Da! Shinwa kara Owarai e (“It’s Parodius! From Myth to Laughter”), which is noteworthy for being the only Parodius game to score an official release outside Japan. In Europe, to be precise. It’s a real pity Konami didn’t take a chance on a North American version. It likely wouldn’t have sold all that great, but its characteristically Japanese sense of humor could well have led to it becoming another treasured cult classic here, similar to The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Oh, well.

As I detailed in-depth in my earlier review of one of Non-Sense Fantasy’s sequels, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, the concept here is as basic as it gets. Parodius games are auto-scrolling horizontal shooters functionally identical to Gradius. They differ from their parent only in their aggressively goofy tone and the addition of a few new temporary power-ups gained by collecting TwinBee style colored bells. The series as a whole is profoundly consistent in this regard; so much so that anyone who’s logged significant time with any other Gradius or Parodius title could dive right in and start enjoying this one without missing a beat. The exact level layouts and enemy patterns vary, but the core mechanics and control scheme are universal.

The primary thing separating one Parodius outing from another is the ship selection. Non-Sense Fantasy includes four protagonists: Tako the octopus (son of Takosuke from the very first Parodius), Pentarou the penguin (son of Penta from Antarctic Adventure), and the Vic Viper and TwinBee ships from Gradius and TwinBee, respectively. Each has their own unique set of weapons. Tako, for example, can equip the Ripple Laser from Life Force, Pentarou sports the Photon Torpedo and other gear from Gradius II, and so on.

While allowing for some extra replay value, these four definitely pale in comparison to the eight playable heroes provided in the next game, Gokujō Parodiusu – Kako no Eikō o Motomete, or the downright insane sixteen available in Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius. For this reason alone, I’d advise you to tackle the franchise in chronological order if at all possible. It’s far more satisfying to see your options expand in the sequels than it is to work backwards and feel like you’re losing out on all that variety.

Apart from their sturdy Gradius foundation, the other major reason to play any Parodius game is, of course, the gags. Non-Sense Fantasy delivers a steady stream of slapstick absurdity throughout its ten stages. Want to fly through a traditional Japanese bathhouse or a giant pachinko machine? Want to battle a pirate ship with a live kitten’s head mounted on it or a Godzilla-sized Las Vegas showgirl? This game has you covered. The soundtrack consists mainly of bizarrely orchestrated snippets from famous classical works. These compliment the crazy visuals surprisingly well, probably because I recall so many of the same pieces featuring in Looney Tunes shorts and the like back in the day.

Like its more straight-laced inspiration, Non-Sense Fantasy doesn’t hesitate to pose a stiff challenge. The slightest contact with an enemy, bullet, or environmental obstacle is usually enough to cost you a life and send you back to most recent checkpoint sans all your accumulated ship upgrades. Thankfully, those checkpoints are numerous and you benefit from unlimited continues. As long as you’re reasonably determined and patient, you should be able to squeak by any trouble spots sooner or later. It’s a fairer shake than you’ll get from most other 16-bit shooters, that’s for sure.

Simply put, Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy is a winner. In addition to being a well-designed action game with a pedigree that can’t be beat, it’s an accurate arcade port and a real charmer. Unless you happen to dislike Gradius specifically or shooters in general, I’d say you’re virtually guaranteed to get a kick out of it. The worst I can say is that it doesn’t offer nearly as much ship diversity as subsequent series entries, nor does it really do anything gameplay-wise they don’t. I suppose its English localization is also a tad rickety in spots, although seeing your character exclaim “All light now!” or “Lock me, baby!” when using the megaphone weapon is so funny in its own right that I can easily forgive this oversight.

Besides, how could I not recommend a game that lets me select an image of boobs or a crotch to accompany my initials on the high score table? Such class! How this never became the genre standard is beyond me.

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….

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Super Nintendo)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A blue-haired lass with the unlikely name of Princess Prin Prin has been kidnapped by demons. Only her knightly consort, Sir Arthur, is brave (or foolhardy) enough to attempt a rescue…and he’ll need to do it twice before it sticks.

Yes, welcome back to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, perhaps the most simultaneously loved and hated saga in all of classic gaming. The sterling quality of these games is undeniable, as is their mocking brutality. Difficult action-platformers from the outset due to fiendish enemy patterns and a two-hit health system, it’s dirty tricks like the aforementioned blindsiding of new players with the requirement to finish each stage twice in order to view the true ending that push them over the edge to infamy.

That brings me to my subject today, 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, aka Chōmakaimura (“Super Demon World Village”) in Japan. As the third game in the franchise and the first to be developed with a home console in mind as opposed to the arcades, players at the time may have expected Capcom to mellow out a tad with this one. Nope. If anything, they doubled down on the sadism with longer levels and something no home port of the previous two GnG games had: Limited continues. The result was far and away the most challenging installment to date. Good thing it was also the best.

I realize I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers with that last statement. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ immediate predecessor, titled simply Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, is quite excellent in its own right. It introduced a golden armor power-up that let Arthur charge up and release a different magic attack for each of the game’s many weapons. Additionally, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Arthur was able to lob shots up and down in addition to the usual left and right. There are many who swear by this enhanced shooting and consequently consider Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the best of the lot.

While it is unfortunate that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns to the more restrictive horizontal attacking of the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I feel it more than makes up for this with new additions of its own. The bronze armor has been included as an intermediate upgrade between the default steel suit and the potent gold one. It strengthens Arthur’s primary weapon somewhat without allowing for full magic use. There’s also a shield which offers some small amount of extra protection against projectiles. Best of all is the almighty double jump, my personal favorite mechanic in the series. The ability to trigger a second jump any point during the first works wonders for the chronically slow Arthur’s maneuverability and paved the way for the game’s creators to include more elaborate platforming scenarios. It feels so liberating that I often find it tough to go back to earlier GnG entries.

Another factor that endears Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to me is its level design. Capcom really upped the ante here with a host of dynamic environmental set pieces scattered throughout the first five areas. Arthur weathers surging tidal waves on a dinky raft, rides a fleshy moving platform through a maze of writhing, gas spewing innards, and risks being swept away by avalanches in the obligatory ice level, among other wild predicaments. Pity this approach is abandoned for the final two stages inside main villain Sardius’ castle, though. These contain nothing new or interesting to marvel at, just an abundance of imposing baddies coupled with some strict time limits.

Cap this overall strong package off with some of the best graphics and music to grace an early Super Nintendo release and what’s not to love? For starters, try some of the worst slowdown to grace an early Super Nintendo release! The action here starts chugging at the slightest provocation, a significant issue in a unforgiving game with a heavy emphasis on timing. This effectively adds another learning curve to an already demanding experience. There is a fan-made “restoration” hack available that removes much of this slowdown if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, your best bet is to simply wait for your brain to adjust to the inevitable speed inconsistencies. It’ll happen eventually.

A lone technical hiccup is one thing, but those limited continues constitute a proper design misstep in my eyes. There’s an immense amount of trial and error involved in any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game. The endless tries previous ones afforded you were essentially their lone concession to basic human decency. Earning extra continues by collecting money bag items is possible and indeed relatively easy in some stages. Still, the game as a whole can come to a premature end if the rate you gather these items is ever exceeded by the rate you mess up. This is most likely in the final stage, which is cunningly engineered to contain a bare minimum of money bags. Getting a game over here, especially in the second loop, is cruel even by GnG standards.

Maddening as these few flaws can be, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ many positive qualities far outstrip them. It’s considered a Capcom classic for good reason and if its reputation as a savage 16-bit struggle doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for one lush, thrilling trip to hell and back. If not, well, there are probably dozens of more easily rescued princesses out there. Sorry, Prin Prin. I’m just sayin’.

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.