Magical Chase (TurboGrafx-16)

Let’s talk expensive games video games.

Not the classic titles you know and love. No, I mean really expensive games. Beyond the everyday gripes about those bloodsucking resellers with their $30 Contras and $200 Earthbounds, there lies another world entirely. I’m referring to the realm of the ultra-rarities, a bewildering alien landscape where single cartridges are priced like cars, minus the helpful financing options. For the majority of (relatively) level-headed, responsible enthusiasts, this is just a gaudy sideshow. For a select few, though, chasing these “holy grails” becomes an obsession.

Most true big ticket games never saw a conventional retail release. Rather, they’re unreleased prototypes, low production arcade boards, “competition cartridges” created for specific gaming events, and the like. The most famous is undoubtedly the 1990 Nintendo World Championships NES cartridge. Only 116 were ever produced and you can expect to pay between $15,000 and $19,000 to own one, depending on whether you opt for the grey or gold plastic shell variant. Yikes.

This got me thinking: What’s the most expensive game to have actually been given a proper release? No last-minute cancellations, abrupt product recalls, or anything like that. Just a regular old mass-produced game cartridge that you or I could have picked up for $50 back in the day if we’d had either amazing luck or the gift of foresight on our side. As of right now, a good candidate would be Quest’s 1991 PC Engine shooter Magical Chase. More specifically, the version of it released in North America in 1993 for the ailing TurboGrafx-16. Hard figures relating to the production and sale of older games are elusive as a rule, but all sources seem to agree that the TG-16 Magical Chase was released very late in the troubled console’s run and sold very poorly indeed. Authentic copies commonly fetch between $3000 and $5000 at auction today. Fortunately for me, you’re only required to shell out that kind of money to actually own Magical Chase. Playing it is another story.

As a side-scrolling shooter starring an adorable cartoon witch girl on a flying broomstick, Magical Chase is often compared to another 1991 release, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams by developer Success. Whether this is an example of convergent evolution or if Quest deliberately set out to copy Success’, well, success, I’m not rightly sure. The apprentice witch you control here is named Ripple and she’s managed to land herself in quite a bind by meddling with one of her master’s forbidden books and accidentally freeing the six fearsome demons imprisoned inside. If she can’t recapture them all in short order, she’ll surely be turned into a frog as punishment.

Thankfully, Ripple isn’t alone on her mission. Her two Elf-Star friends, Topsy and Turvy, are always by her side to contribute some extra firepower and protection from enemy attacks in classic Gradius option pod style. Each of the game’s six stages also includes at least one opportunity to visit a shop manned by the pumpkin-headed merchant Jack. Here, Ripple can use the shiny gems dropped by defeated foes as currency to purchase healing items and power-ups.

At first blush, Magical Chase delivers exactly what you’d expect from a “cute ’em up” on the system: Bright, colorful art, whimsical character designs, and a peppy soundtrack. Its primary gameplay hook is the Elf-Star satellites mentioned above, over which you’re given a remarkable degree of control. By default, they rotate freely around Ripple, moving and firing in the opposite of whichever direction she happens to be flying. You can lock them in place to serve as fixed shields by tapping the I button anytime Ripple isn’t shooting. Hitting I while Ripple is shooting will lock in the direction of the Elf-Stars’ fire instead. For example, you could fix the Elf-Stars into position in front of Ripple to block oncoming fire while simultaneously directing their shots backward to take out enemies sneaking up from behind.

It sounds extremely useful and it is. Eventually. There’s a surprisingly steep learning curve to it all, stemming from the fact that all the Elf-Stars’ many possible configurations are all achieved via a single button, the exact function of which is contextually dependent on the current status of another button. It’s not so bad when the screen around Ripple is relatively clear and you can take a second to think the necessary inputs through, but adjusting the Elf-Stars precisely in the midst of a heated battle can get dicey. Tricky as it is, I can appreciate that this was probably the best possible solution with only two main action buttons to work with.

On the plus side, a bit of fumbling around with the controls isn’t nearly as disastrous here as it would be in most other shooters. The usual one-hit deaths are out and Ripple starts the game with a sizable health bar made up of Zelda-esque hearts. Her heart count can be permanently boosted in the shops and lost health can be replenished in numerous ways, both during and between each of the stages. The game is uncommonly forgiving in other ways, too, as continues are unlimited and Ripple’s stock of power-ups and money remains intact even after death. Consequently, experienced shooter fans will make rapid progress with this one. I was able to finish the game without dying on the hard difficulty setting after just a couple hours of practice. This isn’t necessary a bad thing. Quite the opposite. If old school scrolling shooters as a whole had one overarching flaw, it was that there never seemed to be enough releases specifically tailored to draw inexperienced players into the fold. Magical Chase feels like a game designed from the ground up to fill that very role.

Does it do its job flawlessly? Absolutely not. I found the majority of the level design in Magical Chase to be lackluster at best and lazy at worst. Traditionally, horizontally scrolling shooters like this one feature more in the way of complex terrain features to negotiate and environmental hazards to avoid than their vertically scrolling counterparts. Magical Chase only really attempts this on two of its six stages, with the remainder being simple straight shots to the end boss with only the enemy patterns themselves to worry about along the way. The two levels that do seem to have had a decent amount of effort put into them are the most enjoyable of the lot by far. I particularly enjoyed the huge wooden airships that do their best to crush Ripple between their hulls in stage three. Fun as they are, these exceptions still can’t carry the whole game on their own.

The magic system was another sore spot for me. Ripple can buy single-use spells in Jack’s shop that do useful thinks like heal damage or clear the screen of enemy shots. She can carry up to six of these at once. What she can’t do is cycle through them as needed. Instead, spells must be used in the same order they’re purchased. This means that if, for example, you find yourself in urgent need of health and a healing spell isn’t the next one in Ripple’s lineup, you’ll need to burn through and waste any other spells occupying the slots in-between if you want to reach and activate the one you actually need. It’s a design choice as baffling as it is frustrating. Merely allowing the controller’s otherwise unused Select button to highlight the next spell to be activated would have rendered it a non-issue.

I did have fun with Magical Chase and don’t regret any of the time I spent soaring through Ripple’s lush, surreal world. As thoroughly charming as it all looks and sounds, however, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the gameplay. The Elf-Stars are a neat idea and allow for a lot of combat flexibility, but the level design is all but absent for much of the journey and the control quirks are persistently irksome. While it does warrant a special recommendation to genre newcomers, it’s ultimately a pretty average little adventure in the wider context of the console’s legendary shooter library. Admittedly, I may have been expecting more simply because I’ve come across so many glowing reviews of it elsewhere. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the very act of spending thousands of dollars on a single game might foster some degree of positive bias. In any case, it’s a pity that Magical Chase would never benefit from any further refinement by way of sequels and that its plucky protagonist, true to her name, amounted to little more than the briefest of ripples over the surface of gaming culture.

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Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16)

Bang your head!

By the tail end of the ’80s, console gaming was all about the mascots. Super Mario games were the single richest goldmine the industry had stumbled on to date, with three of the top five best-selling games of the decade being Mario titles. Hell, if you remove Duck Hunt from consideration on the basis that it owes the majority of its popularity to having been bundled with the first Super Mario Bros., fully 80% of that top five list is taken up by Nintendo’s mustachioed Mickey Mouse of gaming. Hudson Soft and NEC, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the Japanese market, wanted in. Their search for a profitably appealing face for their PC Engine system eventually led to them partnering with developers Red Company and Atlus to release the first PC Genjin game in 1989.

The name they picked for their new big-headed caveman character was actually quite clever. “Genjin” means something along the lines of “primitive man” and the “PC” supposedly stood for his fictitious species name: “Pithecanthropus Computerus.” It’s mostly meant to serve as a not-so-subtle plug for the console itself, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Here in North America, where the PC Engine is called the TurboGrafx-16, all this wordplay would have been lost in translation, so we instead know the character as Bonk and his debut outing as Bonk’s Adventure.

Why a caveman? Beats me, but while it may seem like a strange choice in isolation, the gaming scene was actually teeming with troglodytes around this time. In addition to the many licensed Flintstones games, we had Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, Big Nose the Caveman, Congo’s Caper, Caveman Games, Prehistorik, Adventures of Dino Riki, Toki, and more. Next time you think of a stereotypical old school video game hero, remember that club-swinging dudes draped in animal skins were almost as common as ninja and Rambo clones. It was just one of those things.

As expected, Bonk’s Adventure is a side-view platformer in the Mario mold. They’re not subtle about it, either: Bonk is out to rescue a princess named Za from the hulking reptilian monarch, King Drool. At least the princess here is some kind of plesiosaur-like dragon creature and not a buxom blond lady. I guess I can award partial credit for that. The game consists of five rounds and each round is further sub-divided into anywhere between one and seven distinct levels, making for a grand total of 22 stages. While the majority of these only require Bonk to survive a gauntlet of enemies and environmental hazards in order to reach the exit, each full round concludes with a memorable battle against a large boss character.

Fittingly, Bonk’s major contribution to the platforming genre is the way he uses his oversized Charlie Brown noggin to smash through every obstacle in his path. Simply jumping onto enemies like Mario or Sonic do will only result in Bonk himself taking damage. The preferred method is to either jump up into foes from below, nail them with a standing head butt when grounded, or press the attack button in mid-air to perform a headlong diving attack. The dive attack is my favorite of the three because each successful hit will automatically propel Bonk back up into the air, allowing accurate players to chain together a series of consecutive strikes without needing to touch ground in-between. It’s very satisfying and makes many of the boss encounters much easier. Beyond just bashing hostile critters, Bonk can also use his freak dome to aid in stage traversal. He scales walls by using his huge teeth of all things, which makes mine hurt just thinking about it. Additionally, tapping the attack button repeatedly while airborne will make Bonk spin, slowing his descent and effectively allowing him to glide right over long stretches of hostile territory. This last ability is just as useful as it sounds, possibly too much so. The option to skip huge sections of many levels in this way can really hobble the game’s challenge if you let it, similar to the cape power-up from Super Mario World.

Speaking of power-ups, the offerings here are pretty slim, which is one of the game’s few significant missteps. Bonk can find fruit and hearts to restore lost health, but meat is the only item that really changes up the gameplay. Chowing down on a hunk of tasty meat will boost the power of Bonk’s dive attack, allowing it to stun any nearby enemies when his head impacts the ground. Eating a second piece (or a single giant piece) will render Bonk invincible and able to charge straight through the opposition. The bad news here is that all abilities derived from meat consumption are temporary. There are no persistent power-ups present in the game other than the occasional health bar extension. This feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gaining new abilities in a game like this feels rewarding and the player’s innate desire to hold onto them for as long as possible encourages skillful play in a very elegant, natural way.

My final gripe with Bonk’s Adventure involves the lack of a run feature. With the way efficient movement in so many post-Super Mario platformers is predicated on managing your character’s momentum from moment to moment, this is the sort of thing that you don’t really appreciate until it’s gone. Here, the fact that Bonk is limited to a leisurely walk when traveling along the ground only serves as more incentive to abuse the glide ability in hopes of reaching the level exit just a little more quickly. I eventually got used to the fact that I couldn’t run, but it never stopped feeling like I should be able to.

Although its sequels would provide much in the way of expansion and fine-tuning, Bonk’s Adventure is still an excellent platformer in its own right. The action is as fun as it is unique and the TG-16’s famously colorful graphics allowed the artists to bring their hyperactive cartoon take on prehistory to life in grand style. The level design both rewards player curiosity with its abundance of hidden bonus rooms and makes use of some truly unique settings and scenarios. Midway through the first round, for example, Bonk gets swallowed by a humongous dinosaur and has to navigate its innards by swimming through the beast’s stomach bile and avoiding its surly (but oddly cute) intestinal parasites. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. At the same time, the game is also a case study in how to handle a mascot launch right. Bonk himself is as likable as his creators were banking on. It should come as no surprise that he would go on to star in multiple direct Bonk’s Adventure follow-ups and a shooter spin-off series (Air Zonk) on the TurboGrafx as well as cross over to the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Amiga.

Unfortunately, Hudson Soft is no more and NEC has long since exited the gaming sphere. This leaves Bonk in limbo. He hasn’t starred in a new game since 1995, unless you count the horrid looking 2006 mobile phone release Bonk’s Return, which, frankly, you shouldn’t. It remains to be seen if Konami (who owns the rights to the Hudson back catalog at the time of this writing) will ever see fit to resurrect everyone’s favorite headbanging hominid hero.

Here’s hoping you really can’t keep a good (cave)man down.

Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

Dungeon Explorer (TurboGrafx-16)

I’m attacking the darkness!

When the TurboGrafx-16 had its North American debut in October of 1989, it made sense for NEC to include at least one fantasy adventure title in the launch lineup. Since the system’s first true “Zelda clone” (Neutopia) wouldn’t see release in Japan until the following month, the honor went to Dungeon Explorer, a slick variation on Atari’s multiplayer arcade classic Gauntlet from developer Atlus. Launching with a game that supports up to five players simultaneously also gave NEC an opportunity to promote their TurboTap accessory. One of the TG-16’s most panned features was its single controller port and the TurboTap added four more, provided you were willing to shell out for it. It was the $20 solution to a wholly self-made problem.

Dungeon Explorer takes place in Oddesia, a medieval kingdom under siege by what the game refers to as aliens. I’m honestly not sure if these monsters are supposed to be actual extraterrestrials or if the whole “aliens” thing is just a translation quirk, but I do know that their leader has the most metal name ever: Natas, King Satan. Hardcore. To stop the aliens, the king dispatches your hero(es) to hunt down the Ora Stone, a off-the-rack magic MacGuffin with the vaguely-defined power to either save or doom the kingdom, depending on which side gets hold of it first. Where’s the Stone? In one of the land’s many monster and trap-filled underground dungeons, of course, so you’d best start exploring!

As you may have surmised, Dungeon Explorer doesn’t devote a lot of time to deep lore and complex characterization. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on simple pick-up-and-play monster blasting. Once each player has selected a character class at the tavern where the game begins (or entered their ten letter password to continue a previous play session), the entrance to the first dungeon is just one screen away. The few NPCs you encounter have little to say and, with no monetary system in place, the town areas are reduced to mere backdrops in the absence of the inns and shops that genre fans are accustomed to.

While the plot, characters, and setting are bland indeed, Atlus’ decision to emphasize action paid off with a total of ten unique playable character classes (eight available from the start and two special ones unlocked through play). Each has their own strengths and weaknesses that are based on the starting distribution of four key stats: Attack (the power of your main shot), Agility (movement speed), Strength (hit points), and Intelligence (magic power). The Elf, for example, is a bit of a glass cannon with his combination of high Agility and low Strength. These abilities aren’t set in stone, either. Every dungeon boss you defeat drops a crystal that will raise your hero’s level and permanently increase one stat of your choice when collected. This enables some interesting strategic decisions over the course of the quest. Do you double down on your chosen hero’s strengths or try to mold him or her into a more well-balanced character by shoring up a weakness? Giving the player total control over character progression in this way was a smart choice, as it allows for multiple playthroughs with the same class to potentially feel quite different.

Beyond the four primary stats, each character class also has two magic spells available, one designated white (defensive) and the other black (offensive). These spells are fueled by single-use potions of the corresponding color that appear at preset spots in the dungeons or as random drops from enemies. This mention of potion-based magic is yet another little detail that will have the Gauntlet fans out there nodding their heads. There are twelve spells in total, meaning that most are usable by more than one class. That said, no one class shares both of its spells with another.

That’s really all you need to know to jump in and start clearing out some dungeons. The rest is pure overhead run-and-gun mayhem. You can fire rapidly in eight directions and you’ll need to, since enemies by the score pour out continuously from destructible “generators” in each area. Fight your way past them all, grab any power-ups you come across, and defeat the dungeon boss to level up. The king or another helpful NPC will then point you in the direction of the next dungeon so you can do it all over again. It’s an appealing formula and it’s very easy to fall into that same “just one more level…” groove that’s funneled so many quarters into Gauntlet cabinets over the years. Adding more players to the mix definitely ups the fun factor, though I ironically find it slightly easier to make progress solo. Players can block one other’s movement and attacks, so unless you and your partners have some rock solid communication and teamwork skills, you may end up unintentionally making your collective job harder.

Things are a tad uneven on the presentation side. The graphics are nothing to write home about and Dungeon Explorer is easily the least visually striking of the TG-16 launch games. This was somewhat unavoidable considering its design. You can’t very well expect huge characters and loads of detail when you need to accommodate up to five players on a single screen. Beyond that, however, there’s a general overreliance on muted earth tones that downplays the console’s vivid famously color palette to no real benefit. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Tsukasa Masuko’s incredible chiptunes. Every song is great, but standouts like Cherry Tower and the title theme manage to be equal parts regal, serene, and downright eerie. This is hands down some of the best non-CD music that would ever grace the system. Fans of Masuko’s work on the Megami Tensei series will not be disappointed.

Although its drab artwork won’t turn any heads and it’s not at all original in terms of its gameplay or storytelling, Dungeon Explorer as a whole is a smartly-designed, compelling fantasy action title. Mowing down wave after wave of baddies while that majestic soundtrack blares never seems to get old and the huge selection of playable heroes combined with the flexible character advancement makes for tremendous replay value. It’s a must-have for TurboGrafx fans and also represents a huge milestone for Atlus in North America, being their first indisputably high quality release here. The company’s earlier Karate Kid and Friday the 13th adaptations for the NES were…less well-received, to say the least. I still question NEC’s decision to go with a lone controller port, but at least they gave TurboTap owners something worth getting excited over with this one.

Hail Natas!

The Legendary Axe (TurboGrafx-16)

Love those diegetic credits!

A point of endless debate among TurboGrafx-16 fans is whether or not a better pack-in game would have bolstered the system’s lackluster performance in the North American market to any significant degree. Though I’m skeptical (to say the least) that any one game could have “saved” the TG-16, there’s no denying that the day one launch lineup in 1989 was exceptionally strong and included such heavyweights as Blazing Lazers, R-Type, and Dungeon Explorer. Regardless, NEC chose Keith Courage in Alpha Zones as the pack-in. I’ll give Keith Courage the more detailed look it deserves in due time, but suffice to say that it suffers from severe pacing issues that hold it back from being a top tier action-platformer.

The most popular candidate for an alternate pack-in is probably The Legendary Axe. Originally published by Victor Interactive Software in 1988 as Makyō Densetsu (“Demon Legend”), Legendary Axe is a no-nonsense hack-and-slash fantasy side-scroller reminiscent of Taito’s Rastan with a Castlevania twist. I recently reviewed a very similar game, Astyanax for the NES. This is no coincidence, as both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori of Aicom. In the modern parlance, we might call Astyanax a “spiritual sequel” to Legendary Axe.

The star of the show here is Gogan, a stock barbarian type who resembles a ginger-haired Tarzan in his fur loincloth. His quest is to rescue his childhood friend and love interest Flare, who’s been spirited away by the diabolic cult leader Jagu for use as a sacrifice. Gogan wields the magical axe Sting as his sole weapon across the game’s six stages. Fortunately for him, he can power-up Sting along the way, making it more than a match for the most vicious of opponents.

The game’s English title really is the more fitting one, since the proper use of Gogan’s axe is its defining mechanic. Just like in Astyanax, a power bar at the top of the screen determines the strength of each of your attacks. It resets to zero after every attack (successful or not) and then automatically begins recharging. Thus, there’s a classic “risk versus reward” setup in place where biding your time for a few extra seconds between strikes results in more damage to Gogan’s foes. Of course, this is often easier said than done and there are times when you’ll be swarmed from all sides and forced to rely instead on unleashing a quick flurry of weaker blows to survive.

Mastering Legendary Axe is a matter of learning each enemy’s behavior and placement in a given stage so that you can respond to its appearance with the correct attack. Some, like the bears and gorillas, are powerful, slow-moving, and take forever to kill with weak strikes, so instead keep your distance while you charge up fully. Others, like the fragile bats and butterflies, require no charging at all, so just mash away!

There are three types of axe upgrade available. These are obtained either by destroying stationary idols you come across or, less commonly, from a defeated mini-boss. One type allows Gogan to swing his axe faster, another increases the rate at which the power bar recharges, and the final, most import one actually lengthens the power bar itself by one level, to a maximum of four. Very few enemies in the game can withstand a level four axe strike. Be careful, however, as losing a life will lower your axe power by one level. There’s usually an idol not too far from your last checkpoint where you can regain it, but dying twice in quick succession can really set you back and hurt your chances in the later stages.

While the barbaric fantasy theme and combat invoke Rastan, it’s the platforming in Legendary Axe that betrays its Castlevania influence. Gogan is susceptible to some severe knockback each time he’s damaged and the placement of enemies and instant death pits is cunningly calculated to exploit this weakness. Lives and continues are limited, so falling deaths are the thing most likely to send you back to the title screen. Always look before you leap. Running out of health is also a concern, naturally, but health refills appear in every stage, so you have much more room for error in this regard.

The gameplay here is a real treat. The controls are tight, the stages are well-designed, and every enemy type represents a unique challenge. Most importantly, the power meter management keeps your head in the game and prevents the action from stagnating, all while not being overly complicated in itself. Though you almost certainly won’t make it to the end on your first attempt, the overall brilliance of the design lends it an addictive quality that offsets the agony of defeat. The only potential stumbling block for some players is the emphasis on stage memorization. Don’t come expecting to play Legendary Axe “fast and loose” and still do well.

Much was made of the game’s graphics back around its release, particularly its large, detailed sprites. The colossal final boss Jagu specifically was held up as quite the revelation in a time when the NES was still top dog. The art and animation remain pleasing, but the visual element that holds up best these days is the striking use of color. The sprites and backgrounds are positively vibrant and really showcase the console’s impressive palette. The music by Jun Chikuma (best known for her work on the Bomberman series) is just as delightful as the visuals. She managed to seamlessly merge her typical jazzy style with grandiose, blood-pumping melodies suited to the game’s savage sword & sorcery aesthetic. It almost shouldn’t work, yet every single track here is a real earworm.

So is Legendary Axe the rightful TurboGrafx pack-in title, robbed of its birthright by corporate incompetence? Critics at the time sure seemed to think so. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine declared it to be their game of the year across all platforms. Although I wouldn’t go so far to call it the game of 1989, I can’t deny that it’s a much more appealing and consistent action-platforming package than Keith Courage. It’s earned its status as one of the cornerstones of the system’s library, even selling well enough that an unrelated game, Ankoku Densetsu (“Dark Legend”), was retitled The Legendary Axe II in North America in an attempt to piggyback on its success. Could Legendary Axe have given the Turbo the boost it would have needed to surpass the Sega Genesis in North America like its counterpart the PC Engine did in Japan? Hell, no. There were far too many factors in play at the time for any one title to accomplish that. Still, I can’t exactly fault a game for not being magic, and this one is a class act that easily stands the test of time.

So go play it, okay? Don’t make me axe you again.

Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks are due to the staff of my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. The movie’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the ’80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.