Operation Logic Bomb (Super Nintendo)

What, no big explosion? I feel so…empty somehow.

Today, I’m looking at inveterate also-ran Jaleco’s obscure overhead run-and-gun Operation Logic Bomb: The Ultimate Search & Destroy. While the name may be unfamiliar to most, this 1993 release (known as Ikari no Yōsai, “Fortress of Fury,” in Japan) is actually the third in a trilogy that started out on the Game Boy back in 1991. The first Ikari no Yōsai even saw a Western release under the new title Fortified Zone. Why they didn’t simply call this one “Super Fortified Zone” or the like is beyond me, as its revamped moniker not only fails at drawing the attention of any Game Boy owners that may have enjoyed the original, it’s also generally clunky and fosters the false assumption that this is some sort of puzzle game thanks to its misguided emphasis on “logic.” No bueno, Jaleco.

Of course, this would be no great loss if Operation Logic Bomb wasn’t a game worth playing. Players step into the boots of cyborg super soldier Agent Logan, who looks like the Terminator by way of Dolph Lundgren. His mission: To blast his way into a top secret research facility that’s been overrun by alien crabs and send the pinchy interlopers packing. It turns out the scientists there were performing some sort of experiment involving other dimensions and things got out of hand. If only they’d seen a horror movie before, they might have known the First Law of Dimensional Physics: Monsters gonna eatcha. Silly scientists. The story is mostly conveyed via dialog-free security camera recordings accessed from computer terminals scattered about the lab, which is an effective and immersive choice on the designers’ part. It’s quite cool to watch the doom that befell the complex’s inhabitants play out this way. You can actually get some important clues on how to handle one of the game’s bosses by reviewing footage of the lab security guards getting wrecked by it. Nice touch.

The action plays out in a perspective similar to the overhead-view stages from the previous year’s Konami blockbuster Contra III. Several of the weapons Agent Logan wields, like the spread gun and flamethrower, are also very “Contraesque.” Ditto the music and sound effects, even!

This is where the similarities end, however, and where Operation Logic Bomb’s own personality begins to assert itself. This is a much more deliberately-paced, tactical experience, in keeping with the “search and destroy” promised by its subtitle. Instead of a frantic sprint from left to right, levels are large and sprawling, with branching paths that you’ll need to carefully explore in order to locate the new weapons and equipment needed to reach each level’s boss. Thankfully, you’ll be able to download in-game maps along the way that make navigation a cinch.

Naturally, you’re not alone in this maze of corridors. Your crustacean challengers have constructed a series of devices that are slowly transforming the base and its environs into an extension of their home dimension (as indicated by weird glowy geometric designs on the walls and floors) and filled these corrupted areas with their robot minions. The general flow of each new area you come to is something like this: Inch your way through the halls destroying any enemies as they appear (they won’t respawn) and looking out for new items until you reach the dimension warping device and destroy it, which purges the area of alien influence and allows you to move forward. There’s also the occasional roadblock that I hesitate to call a “puzzle.” These usually take the form of an out-of-reach door lock that you need a specific gun to destroy.

Combat is particularly interesting in that it’s mostly a war of attrition. Individual enemies aren’t very dangerous and Agent Logan can withstand a ton of hits, but the special computer terminals that restore health are few and far-between. In addition, you only have a grand total of three extra lives to work with. Die a fourth time and you’ll start the game over from the beginning. Although it sounds daunting, it’s really quite doable. I found that the ideal method is to creep forward slowly until an enemy scrolls on screen, then retreat while shooting/dodging until it’s destroyed. You can hold down the shoulder buttons to lock your aim and strafe, so it’s relatively easy to fire while retreating. As long as you go slow and keep your distance, you can usually avoid taking too much damage on the way to the stage boss.

As for the bosses themselves, each is a massive and appropriately intimidating robotic juggernaut with its own unique (if fairly basic) attack pattern. They’re not too difficult to take down with the correct gun after a little observation, provided you’re not already near death at the start of the fight. Oddly enough, the second boss is the trickiest of the lot by far and both the deaths I experienced during my playthrough came courtesy of it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this title. For coming out when it did, smack dab in the middle of that awkward period where Jaleco was struggling desperately to hitch itself to the Capcom cash train with painfully mediocre copies of hits like Final Fight (Rival Turf!) and Street Fighter II (Tuff E Nuff), it’s a great deal more interesting and enjoyable than its Contra clone exterior lets on. The focus on approaching enemies cautiously and trying not to take too many hits in the process recalls the tense on-foot portions of Blaster Master. I’m even vaguely reminded of Quintet’s Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia with the way defeating all the enemies in one section of a stage opens the path to the next, though that’s admittedly more of a stretch on my part.

As fun as it is, there are a few things that hold it back from true greatness. The graphics and sound are both decidedly average, apart from some excellent mechanical design on the bosses. There also isn’t much variety in the regular enemy types, with the same half-dozen or so baddies cropping up again and again between the first stage and the last. The biggest problem by far, though, is the shockingly short length of the adventure. My first playthrough took me about 90 minutes, including all the fumbling around and backtracking. If I’d already known what to do and where to go, I could have easily wrapped up in under an hour. For a fast-paced roller coaster of a run-and-gun like Contra III, an hour is plenty. For a title that’s paced more like Super Metroid, an hour is nothing. I suspect that the development team had a grander vision at one point that was sharply curtailed by a budget or time crunch. There are only three bosses in the entire game, for example, and the third one hardly feels like final boss material. You also don’t get your hands on several very nifty items (the land mine and hologram decoy) until the very end of the game, leaving you with little time to make satisfying use of them. These things and more all point to a project that wasn’t nurtured to its full potential.

Still, given a choice between quantity and quality, I’m always going to lean toward the latter. As long as you’re willing to let its absurd brevity slide, Operation Logic Bomb remains a well-designed and unjustly forgotten action title that plays like nothing else on the Super Nintendo. It also functions as a worthy finale to the Ikari no Yōsai trilogy.

Now, pass me the drawn butter, would you?

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Super Adventure Island II (Super Nintendo)

Dang, Tina. That sure is a facial expression, alright.

I touched on Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island series for the first time back when played through Super Adventure Island last December. Originally a spin-off from Westone’s 1986 arcade platformer Wonder Boy, the Adventure Island titles stuck close to that game’s basic platforming roots while the proper Wonder Boy sequels rapidly mutated into an action-adventure saga more akin to The Legend of Zelda than Super Mario Bros. Until 1994 that is, when Hudson Soft abruptly switched gears and released both Master Takahashi’s Adventure Island IV (a Japanese exclusive and the final game ever officially released for the Famicom) and my subject today: Super Adventure Island II. Now it’s no longer all about running from left to right while grabbing tasty fruit. Instead, our portly hero Master Higgins gets to have a go at equipping swords and armor, casting magic spells, and combing through a huge, mazelike game world for key items and hidden secrets. For such a sudden shift in focus, I was surprised by how well it paid off. I’ll probably ruffle some feathers by saying so, but I genuinely had a lot more fun with this one than I did with the similar Wonder Boy in Monster World earlier this month.

As our story opens, Master Higgins and his newlywed bride Tina are enjoying a honeymoon cruise on their raft when a sudden storm whips up and sends the pair tumbling into the sea. Higgins and Tina each wash up on different beaches, alive, but stricken with amnesia by their ordeal. Tina is taken in by the local monarch and soon becomes betrothed to him. Meanwhile, Higgins wanders the islands in search of clues to his identity and eventually comes across the castle just in time to witness Tina getting abducted from her royal wedding by a giant bird. Being a natural hero type, he volunteers to venture forth and save her, despite the fact that the two of them are now strangers to each other. Complicating matters even more, the island that Tina was whisked away to is protected by a mysterious magical barrier and Higgins needs to explore five other dangerous islands first in order to gather the spells needed to break this seal. Will Higgins be able to save Tina yet again? Will the lovebirds regain their memories in time to prevent the first ever instance of bigamy in a Nintendo game? Such suspense!

Genre savvy players will notice right away that Super Adventure Island II’s controls and combat mechanics are heavily influenced by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and its level design owes just as much to the Metroid series. The vast majority of the action is presented from a side view perspective with Higgins running, jumping, and climbing his way across each of the game’s six sprawling islands, which can be thought of as its “dungeons.” Every island has its own thematic identity, drawn from the usual suspects like forest, volcano, ice, and ancient ruins. Movement between islands takes place on a separate overhead view world map, again echoing Zelda II right down to the slightly tedious random monster encounters that crop up when you’re just trying to get from point A to point B.

The way Higgins himself handles is not all that different from past Adventure Island titles on the surface, though there are some important differences. No more one-hit deaths, for one. This time there’s a health meter represented by the usual heart icons and it can be extended by finding new heart pieces in treasure chests. The series staple hunger meter that acts as a stage timer has also been given the boot, so there’s no longer any need to dash around frantically gobbling up fruit just to keep from dropping dead in your tracks.

Just as radical is the addition of melee weapons, armor, and magic to the formula. Since Higgins is so much more durable in this outing, he can now afford to get closer to his enemies and that means that swords are likely to be your go-to offensive option much of the time. Projectile weapons like throwing axes and boomerangs are still available, but they tend to be weaker on a per-hit basis and that led me to mostly ignore them. The armor suits and shields are fairly self-explanatory in that they reduce damage and can block some enemy attacks, respectively. One thing to always keep in mind, however, is that a piece of gear can have elemental properties that make it more effective in certain situations, like a fire sword that deals more damage to ice enemies.

The magic system is pretty standard stuff. You can use spells to heal damage, attack enemies, warp out of dungeons, and so forth. Your magic gauge starts out small and is bolstered by finding upgrades in chests, just like your health. Every magic upgrade you find also adds a new spell to your repertoire, which is easy to overlook, since the game doesn’t announce this fact. It’s best to just check the spell menu manually each time to see what new power you’ve acquired.

While it’s obviously not very novel on paper, I really do like the way Super Adventure Island II’s gameplay panned out. Controlling Master Higgins feels fast and smooth due to the presence of a run button and the up and down sword thrust techniques from Zelda II. It’s a real breath of fresh air after the stiff, plodding movement that plagues Wonder Boy in Monster World. The level design is also well done, with plenty of goodies to discover, a good balance of platforming and combat challenges, and some very memorable boss fights. You can also save at any time via the pause menu, which is a rare convenience in an old console game.

Super Adventure Island II’s strongest asset has to be its humor. There’s not really a ton of dialog or plot development, but everything we do get is a hoot. An NPC tells you a legend about a lost magical item only to add that he read about it in the Inquirer. Summoning a monster to smash open a gate blocking your path results in the game telling you that “The Ice Giant cometh and breaketh openeth the dooreth.” I love it. There’s also some cute banter between Higgins and Tina scattered throughout. I appreciated getting some characterization for the two of them. Especially Tina, who is usually nothing more than an abstract reward waiting for you after the final boss.

All this is not to say that the game is flawless. The overall presentation is a distinct step down from the first Super Adventure Island. Comparative speaking, character animation is less fluid and the backgrounds less detailed. The music is only average and pales next to Yuzo Koshiro’s infectious jams from the last game with two big exceptions: The themes for the ice island (Hiya-Hiya) and the final stage (Fuwa-Fuwa) are both worthy of inclusion in the epic SNES music hall of fame. They may even be too grand for the likes of an Adventure Island title!

The game world can also feel rather empty at times. There are no towns or other settlements to be found apart from the castle where you start out and a casino/shop that you reach around the midway point in your quest. As funny as the game’s dialog can be, a lot more of it could have been included if there had been a larger cast of NPCs to draw on.

If the idea a lighthearted 16-bit successor to Zelda II sounds like a good time to you, you’ll almost certainly love Super Adventure Island II. It’s a thoroughly charming and satisfying way to spend six hours or so, even if it can’t boast any groundbreaking design elements or moments of envelope-pushing audiovisual wizardry. Just don’t show up expecting it to play anything like the previous entries in the series.

It took Hudson Soft the better part of a decade, but they finally let us force Master Higgins to put on a damn shirt for once. That’s what I call progress.

Super Adventure Island (Super Nintendo)

Oh, Higgins. You smug bastard.

The Adventure Island series is a very odd duck. It all began back in 1986 with the arcade platformer Wonder Boy. Developed by Escape (later known as Westone) and published by Sega, Wonder Boy starred a Tarzanesque lad named Tom-Tom who did battle with assorted jungle baddies on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Tina. Hudson Soft contracted with Escape to create a Wonder Boy port for the Nintendo Famicom that same year. Sega still retained the rights to the character names and likenesses, however, so it was decided to replace Tom-Tom with a new hero for Hudson’s Adventure Island.

Enter Takahashi Meijin (“Master Takahashi”), a rather portly gent rocking the unlikely ensemble of a grass skirt and baseball cap. Stranger still, Takahashi Meijin was modeled on a real person: Former Hudson Soft employee Toshiyuki Takahashi, famous in Japanese gaming circles for his ability to hammer controller buttons up to sixteen times per second. The cherry on top of this oddball sundae has to be the character’s name in the NES version: Master Higgins. Yup. A chubby, stone axe chucking caveman in a baseball cap named Master Higgins. I can’t help but love the guy, even if he looks like a redneck uncle’s idea of a funny racist Halloween costume.

The original Wonder Boy and its altered port Adventure Island were each the start of their own independent long-running series, with future Wonder Boy titles mostly being confined to Sega systems and the Adventure Island sequels being primarily Nintendo exclusives. This finally brings me to 1992’s Takahashi Meijin no Daibōken Jima (“Master Takahashi’s Great Adventure Island”), better known outside Japan as Super Adventure Island. This was the third game in its series and its first 16-bit entry.

This time, Master Higgins is stargazing in the treetops with his sweetie Tina one night when the evil magician Dark Cloak rides by on a broomstick and turns Tina to stone before flying off. Incensed, Higgins sets off to find the bad guy’s castle and set things right. This opening cut scene and the equally wordless ending screen are all the story we get here. Not that I mind in this instance. Brevity is a virtue if all you’re going to bring to the table is the standard kidnapped girl plot.

The action in Super Adventure Island will be second nature for series veterans, as it’s closely patterned on the first game’s. Master Higgins has to make his way through five worlds, each consisting of three platforming stages and a boss battle. Most stages involve running from right to left to reach the goal at the end, though a few mix this up by incorporating vertical sections to climb, water to swim through, ice to slide around on, and other gimmicks. In addition to his standard jump, Higgins also has a new super jump move activated by crouching before tapping the jump button. This allows him to reach greater heights and is useful at many points.

Attacking the enemy is accomplished using the two different weapons found in each stage. The stone axe is an Adventure Island staple and flies forward in a descending arc. New in this installment is the boomerang, which has a slower rate of fire than the axe, but can also be tossed above and below Higgins. Collecting multiple copies of the same weapon will increase the number of projectiles you can have on screen at once and will eventually upgrade your shots to a more powerful fireball version.

You’ll need to be cautious, since Higgin dies in one hit and losing a life removes all accumulated weapons and upgrades. The only extra defense available comes in the form of the classic skateboard power-up seen throughout the series. This allows Higgins to survive an extra hit, with the tradeoff being that he loses the ability to halt his forward movement as long as he remains on the board. Thankfully, the skateboards in this game don’t tend to appear in stages that have bottomless pits, so they’re much less of a double-edged sword than they are in other installments.

Of course, since this is an Adventure Island game, enemies and pits aren’t the full extent of your worries. You also have to feed Higgins’ face by constantly collecting fruit scattered about the stages. The hunger meter at the top of the screen acts as a timer and depletes very rapidly, so failure to secure a steady stream of pineapples and kiwis spells your ravenous hero’s doom, presumably due to some sort of catastrophic blood sugar crash. This is one of those archetypal love-it-or-hate-it game mechanics, but I think it works here. Since enemies don’t respawn when killed, the player needs some incentive to rush. Otherwise a slow, methodical approach would negate the challenge completely.

One noteworthy feature of the earlier games that wasn’t carried forward is Higgins’ ridable dinosaur pals. First introduced in Adventure Island II for the NES, these guys are the series’ take on Yoshi from Super Mario World. The many playable dinosaurs and their unique special abilities were a brilliant addition and would continue to appear in future sequels, so they’re sorely missed here. Strangely, there’s actually an illustration of Higgins riding one in the instruction manual, so perhaps it was part of the plan at some point? Oh, well.

With a grand total of fifteen stages, Super Adventure Island is a very short game. If the levels here were longer or more difficult than the series standard, there still might be a decent amount of gameplay on offer. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Each can be completed in around two minutes or so, and they’re all basic enough that they won’t put up too much of a fight for players with any amount of prior platforming experience. This is ultimately the game’s fundamental flaw. Even with a fragile hero and limited continues, most gamers will be able to cruise through Super Adventure Island in an afternoon. If I’d payed $50 in 1992 money to get this one new, I’d have been pretty disappointed.

Aside from being short, easy, and lacking the adorable dinosaur mounts, I have no real complaints about Super Adventure Island. While a slight step back for the series as a whole, it remains a quality platformer with loads of charm. The control is good, level design is solid, and the visuals and audio are delightful. Presumably reacting to the common criticism that the earlier games leaned too much on recycled scenery, every stage here has its own unique background graphics, and these are generally well drawn and colorful. The character animation is also excellent. Higgins himself might just have the best crouching animation ever. He looks like he’s either relieving himself or performing some sort of weird booty dance. Either way, I approve.

Super Adventure Island’s best feature by far is its musical score by the masterful Yuzo Koshiro. It’s mainly super mellow, chilled out 90s hop hop, reggae, and dub beats rendered as only the Super Nintendo sound chip can. The fanfare that plays when you defeat a boss even has record scratches included. Every track is pure bliss, and “Blue Blue Moon” rivals “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country for the best water level music of all time as far as I’m concerned.

If a breezy, low pressure platformer with simple mechanics and a great sense of style sounds good to you, you can’t go wrong with Super Adventure Island. If it’s challenge, depth, and replay value you’re looking for, look elsewhere. In any case, make sure you eat at least one pineapple every twenty seconds or so. Anything less would just be unhealthy.

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, sends 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.

ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)

20171103_172151~01~01

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.

Terranigma (Super Nintendo)

Wow. Just…wow.

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. 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 with your weapon is both more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system, though. Balancing the magic 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 gameplay. 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 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, too. 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, yet 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 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.