ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared that we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the truly dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the fast action, tight controls, and grand audio and visuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst action games ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of that. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category that I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, send a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order that will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend that first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means that the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand that your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware that you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing that even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told that it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies that made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced that I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all that much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that being said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers that feeling of exhilarating accomplishment that only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.

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ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)

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You don’t step to the big G.

Here we have the legendary ActRaiser from developer Quintet and publisher Enix. This idiosyncratic hybrid action platformer/simulation outing from 1990 was the first of six Quintet releases for the Super Nintendo and still seems to be the best known of the bunch by far. It made quite a splash back at the time of its release due to its innovative gameplay structure and some amazing graphics and music for an early 16-bit title. Since I picked up a copy of the very different ActRaiser 2 recently, I wanted to go back and experience the original again before I tackled its more obscure sequel.

The premise of ActRaiser is straightforward: You’re God and you have to save the world from Satan. Old Scratch has been wreaking havoc all across the land ever since he wounded you in a great battle and forced you to retreat to your heavenly palace and sleep for several centuries to heal your wounds. Now you’re finally awake again and it’s time to clean house. Of course, we’re talking about an old Nintendo game here, so the publisher was compelled to change God to “the Master” and Satan to “Tanzra” for the international release in order to avoid any controversy. Make no mistake, though: You are absolutely a sword swinging, ass kicking Yahweh in this game. It’s not often that you get to say that.

As mentioned, ActRaiser sports an unusual gameplay structure that I have yet to see replicated anywhere else, including in its own sequel. You start out controlling the Master (technically a stone statue animated by the Master’s spirit, but close enough) in a very traditional side view action platforming style. The Master’s moveset in this mode is limited. He can run, jump, and swing his sword. Later on, he’ll gain the ability to perform some limited use magical attacks that can deal heavy damage and are best saved for boss fights. Defeating the first boss will transition you into the game’s other mode: Simulation.

ActRaiser’s simulation mode presents you with an overhead view of the planet below your hovering sky palace and tasks you with guiding your tiny human followers in six different regions and protecting them from rampaging monsters while they rebuild their civilization. It’s important that they spread and multiply, since a bigger population nets you a bigger health bar for the action stages. You don’t control the Master himself during these segments, but rather one of his servants: A tiny, cherubic angel with a bow. This portion of the game is often compared to SimCity, Civilization, and other such “god games,” but I’m not convinced that these comparison are very accurate or useful. Unlike in those games, you have very little control over what your people build and how they develop. Instead, your responsibilities are mainly limited to using your various acts of god (lightning, earthquakes, and so on) to clear away obstructions and indicating which section of empty map your followers should colonize next. The rest is basically automated. This wouldn’t be very engaging on its own, so each of the six simulation maps also includes several monster lairs that will constantly disgorge a stream of flying baddies to harass your followers and smash up their newly built real estate unless you keep your little angel buddy busy zipping around the map and shooting them down as they spawn. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this indefinitely. Once you can direct your people to build over a monster lair, they’ll seal it up and stop the flow of enemies from that lair permanently. Seal up all the lairs and you can then take on a second side-scrolling action level before returning to your sky palace and moving on to the next region.

Once you’ve pacified all six regions, it’s off to hell (aka “Death Heim”) to confront Satan/Tanzra himself. After you re-fight enhanced versions of the six main bosses back-to-back in a classic boss rush, that is.

That’s pretty much all there is to ActRaiser. It may sound like I’m selling it a bit short, but it’s just not a very deep game for the most part. Both gameplay modes would be hard to recommend to anyone if they were standalone games. The action segments are short, simplistic, and devoid of any real challenge. They were actually made considerably easier here than they were in the original Japanese release. The simulation mode allows for little in the way of choice or customization, outside of the option to use natural disasters to raze older structures so that your followers can rebuild higher capacity ones in their places and increase your total population. You couldn’t even lose the game in simulation mode if you wanted to. Your angel avatar can’t die and even allowing the monsters to kill off your entire population (or doing it yourself with lightning and earthquakes) will only set you back a bit temporarily until it rebounds.

So why then is this game considered to be such a timeless classic by so many 16-bit gamers, myself included? Why would I want to revisit it at all? The real brilliance of ActRaiser and the secret of its lasting appeal is the unique synergy between its two halves. It’s all a matter of pacing. Switching back and forth between a frantic hack-and-slash combat stage and a slow, methodical town building exercise doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but somehow it just does. The result is a game that’s deeply relaxing to sit down and play without ever becoming boring.

The grand faux-orchestral score by Yuzo Koshiro reflects this dynamic perfectly, lending epic bombast to the action scenes and calm serenity to the simulation mode. Koshiro is a game music legend and is on record as saying that ActRaiser represents some of his best work. I’m not included to argue.

There’s one more excellent reason to play ActRaiser, though it’s a little less tangible than the genius pacing and stellar presentation. It’s that certain special touch that Quintet also brought to several of their other Super Nintendo classics like Soul Blazer and Terranigma: Profound ideas presented in a beautiful, understated way. ActRaiser is by no means as densely written and story driven as Illusion of Gaea or Terranigma, but there are still some lovely little moments scattered throughout. Ask anyone who’s played this game about the dying man in the desert and they’ll know just what you mean. Nintendo of America’s heavy-handed alterations also couldn’t completely erase ActRaiser’s explorations of spiritual and religious themes, as in the game’s ending, which offers up the notion that the best god of all might just be the one that nobody needs. Oh, and you get to stab the devil right in his big stupid face.

Amen.

Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.

For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.

What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.

Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.

Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.

Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.

Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class, but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first, but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.

One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.

You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages, but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.

While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching and scaling effects used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.

Sound effects are solid, but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.

Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?

All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages, but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.

So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.

Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo)

You can ring my beeeeeeell. Ring my bell.

In 1985, Konami released the first TwinBee game to arcades. As far back as the first entry in the genre, 1962’s Space War, shooter video games almost invariably featured science fiction or military themes and tended to be presented in as realistic a fashion as the hardware would allow. TwinBee broke with convention by opting for a cartoon aesthetic, embracing bright pastel colors, adorable little spaceships with white-gloved Mickey Mouse arms, and a whimsical power-up system that involved juggling and collecting colored bells. The game was a huge hit, mainly in Japan, and would inspire numerous direct sequels as well as its own sub-genre of lighthearted shooters (“cute-’em-ups”) that includes Sega’s Fantasy Zone and Success’ Cotton.

By 1994, though, the arcade style shooter’s mainstream popularity was on the decline. What was hot? Mascot platformers! Mario and Sonic were raking in cash at an astonishing rate and it seems like everyone wanted in on that action. Since the robot bee ships from TwinBee already had tons of personality, a colorful world to inhabit, and even the requisite limbs needed for platforming, it must have seemed like a natural fit to someone at Konami because they released Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures that same year in Japan and Europe.

I played the Japanese version, since I don’t have the necessary equipment to run European PAL video format games properly. I understand that the publisher opted to remove all the game’s dialog rather than translating it from Japanese for the international release, however, so at least I’m not missing out on anything in that department.

The story of Rainbow Bell Adventures may leave you with a bit of deja vu. The maniacal Dr. Warumon is attacking with his army of EvilBee robots. His good guy counterpart Dr. Cinnamon must fight off the invasion with his own TwinBee ships, piloted by his youthful assistants Light, Pastel, and Mint. So yeah, it’s pretty much Mega Man. Dr. Warumon even looks just like Dr. Wily in a Halloween vampire cape. But it’s just an excuse to zip around collecting bells, so I’ll give it a pass.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it represents the colorful TwinBee style well. The graphics are crisp and bright, the music is bouncy, and everything is just as cute as can be. There are even high-pitched anime style voice clips for your ship. Everything has that impeccable polish you would expect from 1990s Konami. Rainbow Bell Adventures is not a perfect game overall by any means, but I can find no real flaws at all in the art and music.

You start out by picking between three characters. You have TwinBee (the blue one), WinBee (the pink one), and GwinBee (the green one). They’re differentiated by two factors: Rocket charge time and punch charge time. Your rocket will launch you forward when fully charged, a mechanic which seems to have been lifted directly from Konami’s own Rocket Knight Adventures, and your charged punch takes the form of a projectile attack that will deal huge damage to enemies and is mostly useful against bosses, since common enemies just don’t require that much damage to take out. WinBee has a fast rocket charge and a slow punch charge, GwinBee has the inverse, and WinBee is the default character with equal charge times for both. In practice, I found that WinBee’s quick rocket boosts made her the best character for traversing standard stages and GwinBee’s fast punches made him a natural boss wrecker. I didn’t end up using poor TwinBee much, since he fell into the common “jack of all trades, master of none” category. You’re able to change characters each time you die and lives are unlimited, so there’s no need to worry about being stuck with a setup that doesn’t suit you.

The platforming itself is fairly standard, aside from the rocket dynamic. You can kill most enemies by jumping on them or by punching them. Being a TwinBee game, you still power up by collecting colored bells from defeated foes. These will grant abilities like melee weapons to extend your punch range, a gun for attacking distant targets, temporary invincibility, and more. Your collected bells fly up into the air and scatter whenever you take a hit but you’re able to re-collect a few of them if you’re quick about it, similar to how you can recover some of your dropped rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. Bosses are large and impressive looking but not too tough to deal with. Just dodging their simple attack patterns and landing four or five charge punches will send even the final boss packing in short order. They’re a bit tougher than your standard Mario or Sonic opponents, but not by much at all.

One interesting option is two-player simultaneous play. The bad news here is that it’s kind of a mess. The game’s camera will only track player one, so player two has to stick close by or do their best to fumble around until they finally find their way back onto the screen or die trying. More fun is the battle mode, which is certainly no replacement for Street Fighter II or Mario Kart in terms of competitive play on the Super Nintendo but is amusing enough in short bursts.

The goal in each of the main game’s 35 stages is either to reach the exit or to defeat a boss. Taking a cue from Super Mario World, many of the levels have multiple exits, each leading to a different stage. Unlike in Mario World, all exits are shown on the map screen that you can access by pausing the game, so these branching paths don’t constitute secrets in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels is really Rainbow Bell Adventures’ fatal flaw. They’re sprawling, frequently labyrinthine, and wrap around themselves in Pac-Man fashion, so reaching any side of the level boundary will bring you back around to the opposite side. Rather than conveying any true sense of place, they come off as bland abstract mazes composed of the same few background tiles repeated over and over in arbitrary fashion. They’re also lacking the big “set piece” moments that levels in other Konami platformers of the period were known for, like the swinging chandeliers and rotating rooms of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III’s insane missile riding sequence. There are a few different stage themes (ice, cave, water, and so on) but only a few and each repeats often. To make matters worse, enemy variety is pretty lacking and most enemy types appear in most levels. The end result of all this is that the stages in Rainbow Bell Adventures just sort of blur together into a single inchoate mass with all the flavor of a bowl of cold oatmeal. It looks great and controls acceptably but it’s really tough to recommend a platformer with such weak level design. That’s the linchpin of the whole genre, after all!

Rainbow Bell Adventures isn’t a truly awful title. Rather, it’s a lot like another Super Famicom platformer I played recently that never came out here in North America: Super Back to the Future Part II. Plenty of surface charm masking a thoroughly average game. Konami made a good call by not bringing this one over, since Rainbow Bell Adventures simply isn’t up to the nearly superhuman standards of their other 16-bit releases on the Super Nintendo around this time. Or the Sega Genesis, for that matter. If you can get it cheap or you’re an obsessive TwinBee superfan, you might as well give Rainbow Bell Adventures a try. General audiences can do much better.

Terranigma (Super Nintendo)

*sniff*

I haven’t played an RPG in quite a long time and I’m glad I chose this one to ease back into the genre. One of the things I like most about the majority of 8 and 16-bit console games is that I can usually complete them fairly quickly and then move on to something else before things get too stale. This is not so much the case with a lot of traditional RPG titles that emphasize constant slow-paced menu-driven battles. Thankfully, 1995’s Terranigma is a breezy action RPG that only took me about 19 hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. The combat is stimulating and the game doesn’t spread itself too thin or take up fifty hours of your life just because it can. I really appreciate that.

Also known as Tenchi Sōzō (“The Creation of Heaven and Earth”) in Japan, Terranigma is the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo action RPGs from developer Quintet that also includes 1992’s Soul Blazer and 1994’s Illusion of Gaia. The three games don’t share any specific characters or plot elements but they do all include many of the same gameplay elements and narrative themes.

Terranigma had the misfortune to release just as publisher Enix was closing down its North American operations, which makes it one of the relatively few Super Nintendo games to see official release in Japan, Europe, and Australia but not over here. It’s a damn shame because this game is a triumph and deserves more than the dubious honor (along with Seiken Densetsu 3) of being remembered as one of the North American SNES’s fabled “lost” RPGs. Luckily, it’s easy these days to track down a ROM file (or a reproduction cartridge, if you’re an unrepentant physical media snob like me) and experience this gem for yourself.

In Terranigma, you play as a mischievous teenage boy named Ark (although you can change his default name to whatever you like) who lives in the peaceful village of Crysta, along with his adorable purple-haired love interest Elle. Life is pretty peaceful until one fateful day when Ark breaks his way into a forbidden room in the village elder’s house and discovers a literal Pandora’s Box that he (of course) promptly opens. This causes everyone in the village to be frozen in place by a magic spell of some kind except for the elder, who tells Ark that he must leave the village to seek out five mysterious towers and conquer their various challenges in order to restore the cursed villagers to life. Things escalate quickly as Ark soon discovers the shocking truth that the subterranean Crysta appears to be the last surviving human settlement following some sort of cataclysm that laid waste to the surface of the planet. Each of the five eldritch towers he visits causes one of the planet’s sunken continents to be restored to its former place. These revived continents turn out to be very familiar indeed: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia! Ark soon finds himself in the surface world, where he must serve as the catalyst for the resurrection of life and human civilization as he journeys far and wide across this devastated Earth.

Right away it’s clear that you can’t accuse Terranigma of having a rehashed stock JRPG plot. There’s no evil empire to fight and there isn’t even anything resembling a true villain on the scene until well past hour twelve. Ark’s quest is a slow burn driven by the player’s own desire to piece together the enigmatic plot and is really more about the journey and the plethora of memorable people and places you’ll encounter along the way than the purposefully nebulous destination. It’s very similar to Dragon Quest VII in that sense, although it wisely avoids that game’s glacial pace and extensive backtracking. Ark is also not the standard “silent protagonist” that you’ll find in RPGs from this era and his wisecracking, devil-may-care attitude adds a lot to the game’s charm. As a whole, Terranigma’s story is completely delightful and I won’t be spoiling it here. If you’re in the mood for a complex, unorthodox narrative laden with challenging themes and a blend of sparkling humor and touching warmth, Terranigma is for you.

The gameplay also doesn’t disappoint, as this game features some of the most nuanced and well thought-out combat mechanics seen in an action RPG of its generation. Ark can walk and run in eight directions, unleash five different attacks with his weapon (a spear), block projectiles, and, most crucially, jump. The variety of distinct attacks available is uncommon enough, but the ability to jump is what really sets Terranigma’s combat apart from that seen in other action RPGs like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Quintet’s own earlier efforts like Illusion of Gaia. You’ll also unlock additional movement options like swimming and cliff scaling through the acquisition of key items during the course of the game, but these are mainly useful for exploration and don’t impact the combat. Overall, fighting enemies in Terranigma feels faster, richer, and generally more fun than it does in most other games of this kind.

Being an RPG, there’s also the requisite magic system, but I can’t say I cared all that much for it. Terranigma’s magic is effective, no doubt, and the various spell animations look and sound awesome. The main issue I had is that you simply don’t need any of it! The game’s difficulty is such that just beating down everything in your way with your weapons is both quicker and more enjoyable. Here’s a basic rundown: You find crystals called “magirocks” scattered throughout the game world. They work sort of like bottles for holding the spells of your choice until you decide to use them. You need to go to a magic shop, pay money to have them filled with magic, and then bring them back for recharging as they’re used. See the issue here? You can either trek back to the magic store over and over to spend money refilling your magirocks or you can just…not, since beating on the bad guys is more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system, however. Balancing the magic system in an action RPG seems to be one of the trickier aspects of the design process. Look no further than Square’s Secret of Mana, where the most effective combat strategy involves repeatedly pausing the game to select attack magic from the menu over and over again until whatever you’re fighting explodes. Not exactly the pinnacle of great action. It’s far better for the magic in a game like this to be unnecessary than overpowering.

Terranigma’s final distinctive gameplay element is a bit of a distant callback to Quintet’s own ActRaiser: Town building. Doing sidequests for villagers will actually alter the game world by facilitating technological advancement and international trade. Villages can become towns and towns cities. It’s a fairly minor aspect of the game in that it won’t alter the main storyline or ending, but it’s a lot of fun to see the results of your actions and choices take such a tangible form on the world map.

When it comes to presentation, Terranigma is practically unrivalled on the system. Sprites are larger and animations are smoother than they were in most earlier action RPGs, the backgrounds are lushly detailed, and the cinematic cut scenes accompanying the gradual resurrection of the world are easily some of the most elaborate and beautiful ever executed on a console up to that time. The breathtaking score belongs in the pantheon of all-time 16-bit greats like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. It really is that good. The music has that chunky synth orchestra sound that SNES RPGs are famous for and the compositions are soulful and inspired.

There are a couple flaws worth mentioning. As I alluded to earlier, Terranigma is a pretty easy game. That might sound like a plus for some players, but I really do think the enemies could have been made just a bit tougher, as it would have bolstered the game’s underwhelming magic system by rendering it a tad more needful. It also seemed to me that the game’s best levels were concentrated in its first half, with later dungeons feeling markedly less detailed and innovative.

This is really minor stuff, though. Terranigma is a resounding masterpiece and a must play title. Quintet’s games always had great artwork and music paired with rock solid gameplay, but that’s not why I think they’re remembered. No, I think it’s because Quintet was never afraid to introduce big ideas into their games in small ways. Death, rebirth, religion, the nature of good and evil, the paradoxical fragility and resilience of life, the dangers of pride and greed: Quintet didn’t just lecture us about these things, they actually showed us different aspects of them through meetings with unforgettable characters and then left us to draw our own conclusions. They didn’t hold back, but they still somehow managed to do it with restraint. They gave their audience credit at a time when games were considered child’s play.

Nothing illustrates this better that Terranigma’s absolutely heartrending ending. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here, but I will say that it’s the most pitch-perfect bittersweet coda I’ve ever experienced in a game. I actually shed a tear or two and no game has ever made me do that before in my 3.5 decades of play. It’s easily my favorite game ending ever.

This is why Quintet’s body of work will never be forgotten.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES/Super Nintendo)

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Despite being on vacation, I still got a little road trip gaming in this last weekend. It’s been a long time since I really gave this one a go but it’s amazing how fresh in my memory it remains and how quickly I’m still able to zip through it.

I’m not really going to do a whole review on Super Mario 2, since it is one of the best selling and most ubiquitous games ever made. I also won’t go into its full history: How it started out as an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic and was modified to include Mario and friends because Nintendo was concerned that the original Super Mario 2 released in Japan was too hard for non-Japanese gamers, and so forth. All this has been covered in so much detail so many times before.

What I will say is that I love this game. It was the subject of a lavish writeup in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine. I received that first issue in the mail for free back in 1988 on account of previously subscribing to the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, which NP was intended to replace. I poured over every page of this issue for months before I actually played the game, so I guess I was just programmed to love it. Yay, corporate propaganda!

Brainwashing aside, SMB2 is just a fabulous game. The vibrant colors, surreal landscapes, bouncy music, and well-rendered character sprites all put the original to shame, and while it clearly played differently, with an emphasis on picking up and throwing objects and enemies instead of stomping and shooting fireballs, I was used to different. I first controlled Mario back in Donkey Kong, which was nothing like the next game he was playable in, 1983’s Mario Bros., which was in turn nothing like 1985’s Super Mario Bros., and so on. The way you defeated enemies was completely different each time in those games, so why not again here? Shades of my Zelda 2 review here but I really miss the Nintendo that wasn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board for each new game in a series. And no, controller gimmicks don’t count.

Perhaps most ingenious of all, SMB2 gave you four playable characters to experiment with, each with their own unique style of jumping, running, and lifting objects. Not that I ever wanted to be anyone other than Luigi. Once I got a handle on the sort of insane mobility his superpowered jumps allowed for, the other three just felt hobbled. Princess Toadstool (yes, Toadstool not Peach; I’m a rebel) gets talked up a lot, but she doesn’t come close to matching the green machine’s jump distances horizontally or vertically and she’s slower to pick stuff up, too. Make mine Weegee.

At the end of the day, the SMB2 we got over here is a superior game to the Japanese original in virtually every way. It’s got more polish, more charm, and way more variety. The only thing that the Japanese sequel (known as The Lost Levels) can offer is a high degree of difficulty. Other than that, it barely qualifies as a sequel at all and is more like a lazily-made expansion pack of new levels for the first SMB.

So it seems that cynically targeting ads at children works and sometimes a little bit of condescending cultural chauvinism can be a good thing.

Wow. Those are actually pretty terrible lessons for me to end on. Let me try that again…

…Uh, yay, Luigi!

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (Super Nintendo)

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Ooh. Pretty colors.

This ends my first playthrough of Donkey Kong Country 2. I really enjoyed the game but I’ll probably ruffle some feathers when I say that I still prefer the original overall.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The original Donkey Kong Country was a breakout smash hit for publisher Nintendo and developer Rare in 1994. The combination of masterful platforming action, the return of a fondly remembered character to gaming after a decade long absence, and striking CGI graphics that seemed impossibly futuristic at the time managed to sell over nine million copies of DKC, making it the third best-selling game for the system. A sequel was inevitable, but an interesting one was not. To their credit, Rare opted not to rest on their laurels and 1995’s DKC2 is a wildly ambitious game that changes things up considerably.

First and foremost, Donkey Kong himself is missing from the action here. He’s been kidnapped and his sidekick Diddy Kong and new character Dixie Kong must launch a rescue mission. Believe it or not, this is actually what put me off from getting into the game back around the time it came out. I was a child of the 80s arcade golden age and I’ve had a huge amount of affection for Donkey Kong ever since I can remember. These days, it doesn’t bother me so much, although if I could hop in a time machine and make this game star Donkey and Dixie instead, I still probably would.

Aside from the lead character switch, the level design saw some major diversification. DKC was primarily a horizontally scrolling left-to-right affair, barring the underwater levels. DKC2 has some levels like this, but introduces tons of verticality to the mix. The variety is appreciated, but it sometimes becomes apparent that the game’s camera really isn’t optimized for vertical panning and you can sometimes be taken by surprise by hazards you should have been able to see coming.

Another big change is the increased emphasis on the “animal buddy” characters that assist Diddy and Dixie on their quest. You’ll alternate between controlling a rhino, parrot, snake, spider, and swordfish and some levels can only be played as a specific animal. Each animal has their own unique controls and special abilities. This aspect of the game can be very enjoyable, but I feel that the designers leaned on it a little too hard and the end result sometimes feels gimmicky and obnoxious as a result. As fun as these guys are to control occasionally, I find that their gameplay is still not as fleshed-out and enjoyable as the Kongs’ is overall and the back half of the game in particular feels packed to the gills with mandatory animal buddy levels. By the end of this game, I almost felt like I was playing a Squawks the Parrot Country game where Diddy and Dixie were the sidekicks! And don’t even get me started on the spider, who moves so incredibly slowly compared to every other character in the game that his segments are just torture to sit through. It’s a pity they tried to make the spice into the main course with the animal buddies this time. It’s just too much of a good thing.

Finally, DKC2 is the start of a divisive trend in Rare games that would continue through the N64 era and beyond: “Gating” game content behind collectables. The game’s final five levels and true last boss and ending require you to unlock them by spending “Kremcoins” that you find inside the hidden bonus barrels scattered throughout the rest of the game. This means either replaying already finished levels over and over to find every barrel yourself or grabbing a walkthrough and going through it checklist style. Yes, it’s Rare’s first so-called “collect-a-thon.” Let me say up front that I’m well aware that some people really adore this sort of thing. I’m happy for these people. Really. That being said, I don’t get it. At all. Never have, never will. When I play a platformer, I just want to finish all the levels, kill all the bosses, watch the ending, and move on with my life. Having to collect all 974 of the super-rare hidden brass monkey butt coins to see the true ending or whatever is pretty much a surefire way to prejudice me against your game. It always seemed like a transparent attempt to sell more strategy guides. It definitely alienated me from Rare’s N64 era platformers in a big way, that’s for sure.

Wow! I sure do hate DKC2, huh? Except I totally don’t! Not at all. In fact, this game rules! When it’s focusing on what it does right, platforming with the Kongs, it’s one of the most stimulating and addictive gaming experiences going. I literally could not put this game down last night as I worked my way through the final levels. Controls are absolutely perfect and the two main Kongs both have interesting abilities: Diddy can run and climb faster, while Dixie can spin her ponytail to hover in the air. Levels are long, varied, and extremely challenging. This game is not just “Nintendo hard,” it’s “Rare hard” and I love it. In fact, it’s easy to see the Battletoads influence on some of these levels. DKC2’s “Screech’s Sprint” reminds me of a mashup of Battletoads’ “Rat Race” and “Clinger Winger” in the best possible way. In addition, boss battles have been radically improved over DKC’s super basic and easy encounters. Every boss fight has multiple distinct phases with new movement and attack patterns to deal with. If DKC2 had added these improved boss mechanics and nothing else, they’d be enough on their own to make a case for it over the original.

In terms of graphics and sound, this game improves on the original DKC in every way, and that’s saying quite a lot, since a lot of people were amazed that the original game was even possible on a 16-bit console. The graphic resolution seems higher and colors used are more striking and varied. The soundscape incorporates tons of crystal clear ambient sound samples, like the creaking ropes on the pirate ship levels and the bubbling lava in the caves, and these really set the mood and demonstrate the things that the Super Nintendo sound chip could do that just weren’t possible on older consoles. These are in addition to David Wise’s legendary score, which incorporates jaunty sea shanties for the pirate ship, soothing New Age synths in the otherwise tense bramble mazes, clanking mechanical percussion for the mine levels, and more. You really, really don’t want to play this one with the volume down.

So, yes, I loved DKC2! As much as the original? Maybe not quite, but while I still miss playing as Donkey, might have preferred fewer animal buddy levels, hated the coin collecting, and so on, I still recognize that a lot of these gripes are personal in nature and that this is in truth a masterpiece and very close indeed to being a perfect platforming video game on every level.

I’ll be back, for sure, trying my best to focus on that soothing, serene “Stickerbrush Symphony” track as I fly headlong into pointy spikes again and again. Good times.

(Originally written 7/2/2017)