Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

It’s been a while since I checked with my favorite follicly challenged cave boy, Bonk. I’m also overdue for my classic shooter fix. Air Zonk to the rescue! This 1992 release (also known as the downright unpronounceable “PC Denjin Punkic Cyborg!/PC Denjin/Completion○/Clear×” in Japan) is Red Company and Hudson Soft’s attempt to reimagine their successful mascot platformers as a side-scrolling “cute-’em-up.” Whereas Bonk strolled around his prehistoric world wrecking uppity dinosaurs with his massive cranium, his futuristic counterpart Zonk is a cyborg who flies around shooting them.

Zonk’s most important upgrade wasn’t his rocket thrusters or bombs, but his cocky Sonicesque swagger. He was famously part of a last-ditch effort by NEC and Hudson Soft (under the joint Turbo Technologies banner) to rescue their struggling TurboGrafx-16 in North America, where the Genesis and Super Nintendo were eating its lunch. He became the sass-infused mascot for the then-new TurboDuo revision of the console. Realistically speaking, no amount of radical ’90s ‘tude was going to undo years of major missteps in a cutthroat market. This shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against Air Zonk, however, which is one of the most enjoyable and technically impressive shooters on the system.

The story supplied in the manual is serviceable. Perennial series antagonist King Drool is out to conquer the world with his robot army. The only thing standing in his way? “Cool, sunglass-wearing warriors lead (sic) by Zonk.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the original King Drool, still alive somehow in the far future, or one of his descendants. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. The important thing is that Zonk and company have five very long, very strange stages of slapstick aerial combat ahead of them.

Yes, them. Air Zonk’s most interesting gameplay feature is easily its friend system. Destroyed enemies will leave behind smiley face icons. Collect enough of these and a big smiley will appear that summons one of Zonk’s buddies to fly alongside him and provide some extra firepower. If you can manage to collect a second big smiley in that same level, Zonk and his pal will merge together into a hybrid form with a unique attack and gain temporary invincibility. Ten different friend characters effectively means ten additional special weapons above and beyond the eight Zonk can equip by himself. Truly a staggering arsenal by genre standards. You get to decide at the beginning of each playthrough whether to let the game choose your friend character for each round or if you’d prefer to do it yourself. You can even opt to go solo, in which case Zonk will employ automated helper drones instead.

Between all these offensive tools and each stage containing multiple discrete segments and bosses, there’s more to Air Zonk’s gameplay than you might expect. Better still, it’s all exquisitely presented. Its soundtrack is a contender for the best to ever grace a HuCard format game, so much so that it arguably beats out the CD music in its own sequel, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. These tunes are upbeat, driving, and as densely packed with memorable hooks as any of their era. The visuals are no slouch, either. Artwork is crisp, bold, and makes striking use of the TG-16’s vibrant color palette. It also needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Many of the backgrounds showcase multi-layered parallax scrolling, despite the fact that it isn’t a built-in feature of the hardware and no doubt required much hard work on the programming side to implement this well.

I could praise Air Zonk’s audiovisual excellence all day. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make some effort to convey how bloody weird it is, though. While it’s bright colors and cartoon style do recall cutesy shooters like Fantasy Zone and TwinBee, the game’s whole aesthetic really skews more bizarre with a side of the grotesque than it does conventionally sweet and adorable. Take one enemy you counter early on in level five. It appears to be a hovering elephant skeleton with glowing red eyes. In a moderately eccentric game, that would be odd enough. Not here. The artists went ahead and added some sort of deformed green head with bulging bloodshot eyes to the top of the skeleton. Still not satisfied, they gave that head a tumor-like cluster of tinier heads sprouting from it! I had to pause and stare at this thing for a good minute or so the first time I encountered it, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be looking at. That’s just one example of the insanity on display, too. Zonk fought alongside a sentient baseball, got transformed into a milk squirting man-cow creature, and more. Hell, the Japanese version has him producing exploding turds (each wearing its own pair of matching Zonk shades!) by holding the fire down button long enough. Alas, these are replaced by bombs overseas.

So far, what I’ve been describing is a 16-bit shooter fan’s dream come true. Wildly varied action? Spectacular graphics and sound? A sense of humor that’s unhinged in the best possible way? Sign me up for all that! Sadly, Air Zonk does stumble in one important area: Difficulty balancing. Relatively chill for the majority of its run time, its fifth and final stage is a real bastard, with five waves of regular enemies broken up by no less than nine boss fights. Nine! Getting blindsided with this near R-Type degree of brutality is off-putting for sure. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a game’s final level should be its toughest, but making it far and away tougher than the rest of the lot combined is pushing the principle entirely too far. A more reasonable idea would have been to break this marathon finale up into two separate stages with a checkpoint in-between. Thank heavens for unlimited continues, eh?

Unfortunate as it is, Air Zonk’s last minute Jekyll and Hyde turn wasn’t enough to put me off it altogether. It still earns a hearty recommendation on the strength of its unbridled creativity, technical prowess, and bounty of meaningful play options. My only true regret is that we never got the Bonk/Zonk crossover we deserve. Imagine these two joining forces across time, with Bonk handling the platforming duties and Zonk the shoot-’em-up mayhem. It’s only the most obvious collaboration since chocolate and peanut butter, guys. Yeesh!

Splatterhouse (PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

Burning down the house!

Of all the bone-chilling titles in this year’s October roundup, Namco’s Splatterhouse holds the strongest claim to true historical significance as mainstream gaming’s introduction to gore. Suspect I might oversimplifying there? That’s fair. 1988 does seem awfully late for such a milestone. I don’t maintain that Splatterhouse was the first gory game, however, only the first to enjoy a number of advantages that collectively gave it the edge in breaking through to the public consciousness. Unlike Exidy’s 1986 light gun oddity Chiller, it received a massive marketing push from its A-list developer/publisher. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for much more in the way of shocking detail than Wizard Video’s blocky 1983 renditions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600. Finally, being an arcade and console release, it had a much wider built-in audience than home computer offerings like 1987’s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

Eschewing the ancient Universal homages of many other early horror games, Splatterhouse gleefully leaned into edgier contemporary influences. Its musclebound hero, Rick Taylor, donned a Jason-esque “Terror Mask” and blue jumpsuit ensemble, simultaneously paying tribute to two of the period’s most iconic big screen slashers. And he splattered things. Loads of things. Zombies, bloodsucking worms, flying severed heads, misshapen killer fetuses, you name it, all in his frenzied rush to rescue his love Jennifer from the unholy depths of West Mansion. No wonder this 1989 port to the TurboGrafx-16 became the first game to bear a violence warning, which declared it “inappropriate for young children…and cowards.” From the makers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug came the blood-drenched beat-’em-up Evil Dead and Reanimator fans had been waiting for. Go figure.

So, having established Splatterhouse as very important and very cool, how does it play? Well, what you see really is what you get with this one. Even by 1988 standards, the gameplay here is basic. At a point in arcade history when Double Dragon’s eight-directional movement represented the cutting edge in beat-’em-up design, Splatterhouse confines Rick to a single horizontal plane and thus more closely resembles Irem’s Kung-Fu Master from 1984. Simply walk to the right, hop over the occasional spike or other ground hazard, and smack down every twisted monstrosity that gets in your way. Persevere through seven stages of this of this without running out of lives and you win. A couple stages do offer short branching paths to the boss room, but this idea is sadly underutilized.

Rick’s rampage is as brief as it is straightforward. After you’ve come to grips with the level layouts and enemy behaviors, an entire playthrough can be wrapped up in under twenty minutes. This makes Splatterhouse a rare example of a “hot tea game” for me. See, I’ve unintentionally developed a tradition over the years of brewing up a piping hot mug of tea at the start of a gaming session. I then immediately get lost in the flow, forgetting all about my poor beverage until hours have passed, by which time it’s ice cold. Imagine my surprise when I cleared the TurboGrafx Splatterhouse for the first time and had a nice, warm mug awaiting me for a change! I had so much play time to spare that I threw on the Japanese PC Engine version and ran all the way through it, too. Turns out the two are almost identical. The North American edition merely changed Rick’s mask from white to red (presumably to head off any Paramount Pictures lawsuits) and took out all the crosses. Because shredding zombies in twain with a wooden plank is fine, provided you leave Jesus out of it.

Pointing out that these home editions of Splatterhouse are dead simple and light on content shouldn’t be construed as condemnation. On the contrary. As they’re intended to be faithful adaptations of the arcade original, they must be reckoned great successes. Every key location and play element is present and accounted for. The graphics, particularly the backgrounds, are scaled back somewhat, yet still convey the same hellish effect. The eerie music holds up equally well. This series in general has a reputation for style over substance, which is both technically true and frequently unfair. The entirety of Splatterhouse is positively bursting with ghoulish ambience and diabolic verve, resulting in an unforgettable experience for any classic gaming or classic horror enthusiast. What’s the sense in glossing over that as if it’s some small thing that comes standard with any random game?

Splatterhouse made enough of a splash to warrant two direct sequels on the Sega Genesis and a delightfully silly Famicom spin-off (Wanpaku Graffiti). As of this writing, an ill-fated 2010 reboot attempt is the last we’ve heard from Rick, Jennifer, and the eldritch Terror Mask. Perhaps that’s for the best. Splatterhouse’s once transgressive grue factor comes across almost naive in an age of fully-voiced interactive torture scenes (Grand Theft Auto V) and near photorealistic dismemberment (Mortal Kombat 11). Shifts in popular culture and the inexorable march of technology have rendered this former controversy magnet quaint as a caped Bela Lugosi in its own way. Its infectiously likable pick-up-and-play action, on the other hand? That’s timeless.

Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson projects. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

I wonder if I can get away with listing “flying away from big explosions” on my resume at this point?

Off to the PC Engine I go for another bout of alien ass whupping in 1990’s Super Star Soldier. To understand the origins of the Star Soldier series, we need to start back in 1984, when Tecmo (then called Tehkan) developed the fast-paced vertical shooter Star Force for arcades. The subsequent home release of Star Force on the Famicom proved so wildly popular that its publisher, Hudson Soft, made it the centerpiece of their first annual All-Japan Caravan Festival in 1985.

This nationwide high score contest generated considerable publicity and Hudson was understandably eager to make it an annual event. Problem was, they needed a new game to center Caravan ’86 around. Preferably one very similar to Star Force…. In other words, Star Soldier was a bit of a copycat. It was a worthy shooter in its own right by the standards of the time, however, and all three of its PC Engine follow-ups (Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade) would headline their own Caravans from 1990-1992.

Before I move on to discussing Super Star Soldier proper, here’s one last Caravan fun fact I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: We have these early competitions to thank for the rise of none other than Toshiyuki “16 Shot” Takahashi, the gaming prodigy named and famed for his rapid-firing skills in Star Soldier who later served as the real life model for Adventure Island’s Master Higgins. Yes, without these space shooter festivals taking place on the other side of the world, we would never have known the serene majesty of a portly gent in animal skins and baseball cap hurling stone axes at snails while riding a skateboard. What a bleak existence that would be.

Though developed for Hudson by Kaneko, Super Star Soldier will remind PCE/TurboGrafx fans of another, better-known shooter for the platform, Compile’s Blazing Lazers. In much the same way Star Soldier was “inspired” by Star Force, its sequel feels like an unofficial extension of Blazing Lazers. Many of the weapons feel familiar and your ship controls much the same, right down to having variable speed settings toggled with the Select button. Enemy and stage designs have a very Compile/Aleste look and flow to them, as well, although the settings you fly through are slightly less wild here. There are no deadly rainbow bubbles awaiting you this time out, for example. Even the quirky “special lives” mechanic introduced in Blazing Lazers, which has you repeatedly shooting certain power-up icons until they turn into flashing orbs and then collecting those so you can respawn in place when destroyed instead of being sent back to a checkpoint, is carried over. Considering Compile’s towering reputation among shooter fans, the same principle that exonerated the first Star Soldier holds true here: If you’re going to crib, crib from the best.

The plot, if you can call it that, is like so: Earth is under attack by a pack of evil space brains and their leader, Mother Brain. I tell you, it’s always brains in these old Japanese sci-fi games. So far this year alone, I’ve already killed one at the end of Gradius, another (also named Mother Brain) in Metroid, and a third in Section Z. That’ll teach those squishy bastards to think so much, I guess. Anyway, there’s still hope for us humans because an improved version of the Caesar craft from the last game, dubbed Neo Caesar, has been engineered for just such an emergency. The player assumes the role of the Neo Caesar’s pilot, referred to in the manual as “Starbuck.” Dirk Benedict’s character from Battlestar Galactica, then? Excuse me, but if I have to play as an A-Team alumnus, I’d much prefer Mr. T.

Starbuck’s mission encompasses eight stages. Most are variations on the outer space theme with only a couple taking place planetside. Each is fairly long and has its own unique final boss. The exception is, of course, the final stage, which is a punishing five boss gauntlet with a generous compliment of standard enemies sprinkled in for good measure. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes, assuming highly skilled play. That’s a respectable amount of play time for the genre, albeit also less than Blazing Lazers.

The Neo Caesar has four primary weapons at its disposal, accessed via colored-coded orbs dropped by enemies. These include the default multi-shot machine gun, the wide-angle ring laser, the more focused spread laser, and the powerful, short range swing fire. You can upgrade each weapon multiple times, increasing its area of effect considerably in the process. Taking damage will lower your weapon’s power, so these enhanced armaments also double as your armor in classic Aleste fashion. In general, I found the multi-shot and ring laser to be the best at taking out swarms of regular enemies, while the piercing spread laser was ideal for dealing heavy damage to single targets (i.e. bosses). I actively avoided swing fire for the majority of the game, since its flame jets share the same bright orange color scheme as the enemy’s bullets, which resulted in far too much accidental damage. Too bad. Double flamethrowers should equal pure bliss in any game.

Rounding out your arsenal are a couple of useful supplementary items. The Starbuck Defense System is a very fancy name for a very basic pair of “option” satellites that hang out near your ship blocking enemies and their shots. While these will damage foes on contact, they don’t actually multiply your firepower like the options from Gradius. Your other choice, the homing missiles, are entirely self-explanatory. You can only have one primary and one secondary weapon equipped at a given time. Thankfully, power-up drops are quite frequent, so you’ll never have to wait too long for your favorites to show up in the rotation.

Super Star Soldier poses a respectable challenge without being too overwhelming. For the most part, anyway. It’s definitely tougher than Blazing Lazers thanks to denser enemy patterns, trickier bosses, and no shield pickup or stock of super bombs. At the same time, it’s not totally lacking in clemency. You have weapons-as-armor to prevent those one-hit deaths and unlimited continues to boot. The biggest hurdle by far is the final stage. Defeating five tricky bosses in a row, the last of which has four distinct forms, is no joke. Worst of all is the three minutes or so of regular enemy waves you have to fight your way past before the boss rush even starts. It doesn’t sound like much, but having to wade through these guys over and over each time you continue can really start to wear on you after a while. This is another of those games where I spent significantly more time on the last level than on all the rest combined.

Oh, and I can neither forget nor forgive the hellish glitch that put an ugly end to my first full playthrough. See, crashing into enemies in Super Star Soldier damages both parties. The first time I managed to defeat the final boss, it was by accidentally colliding with it, destroying us both in the same instant. I had a ship in reserve, so I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was respawn and watch those credits roll, right? Wrong. I came back like normal, but the game just hung there. The boss music kept on looping as I sat there alone on an endlessly scrolling starfield. With nothing left to kill me and no time limit, all I could was give up and reset the machine. Did I eventually start fresh and beat the boss the normal way so I could have that true ending? I did. Was I happy about it? I was not.

That freak occurrence aside, there’s very little in Super Star Soldier that’s objectionable and much to appreciate. The audiovisuals meet the usual high Hudson standard and the shooting action is fast, precise, and, above all, satisfying. It’s true that the difficulty curve is a tad lopsided due to that crazy brutal eighth stage and the weapon selection, while adequate, could stand to be broadened. The three other games on the system that share this exact style of play, Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade all have a little more going on mechanically and can be considered slightly better overall. Fortunately, being the weakest of these four still allows Super Star Soldier ample room to stand tall as one of the best shooters on a console synonymous with them. Just don’t try to kamikaze its bosses. Let my pain be your gain.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (TurboGrafx-16)

Ah, Keith Courage. There’s likely no more despised whipping boy in all of classic gaming than this nondescript sword wielding pre-teen. Bubsy the Bobcat, perennial punchline that he is, still hasn’t been the target of as much heartfelt vitriol over the past three decades. Why is that? At first glance, the original PC Engine version of Keith’s one and only adventure, 1988’s Mashin Eiyūden Wataru (“Spirit Hero Wataru”), is that most ubiquitous of things: A mediocre anime-based platformer from a C-list developer. Japanese gamers were practically downing in quickie contract work like this during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were the equivalent of the ever-present Hollywood movie cash-in games that littered my own childhood. Pretty worthless for the most part, sure, but nothing worth holding a grudge over.

That’s how it was in Japan and would have been here, too, if it hadn’t been for one fateful decision by NEC, the electronics giant that co-created the PC Engine itself in conjunction with Hudson Soft. In early 1989, they were gearing up for the system’s big summer launch in North America as the TurboGrafx-16. It must have been clear to everyone involved that they had their work cut out for them. Sega was on track to roll out their 16-bit Genesis the very same month. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s NES still maintained its iron grip on the hearts and minds of America’s children. NEC needed to pair their new machine with a true killer app in order to have any real chance of breaking through. I’m talking a stone cold instant classic. A Mario slayer. What they ultimately bet the farm on was our boy Keith. Yikes. It’s like if the NES had shipped with Karate Kid or Total Recall.

Yes, most gamers who picked up a TurboGrafx-16 during the first two thirds of its three year run were introduced to their expensive next gen console by an utterly unremarkable throwaway title by Advance Communication Company of all people. Not the arcade quality spaceship shooting of Compile’s Blazing Lazers. Not the four-player fantasy epic that was Atlus’ Dungeon Explorer. Not even Hudson’s own established mascot Bomberman. When the system predictably failed to take off, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was condemned to go down in history as not just a bad game, but the game so bad it sank the TurboGrafx. Say what you will about Bubsy, at least he never had the weight of an entire gaming platform’s future resting on his furry shoulders.

That’s the boilerplate version of the tale, anyway. Now for the fun part! Is this really so wretched a game? Did it bury the machine it was bundled with? And before we can tackle those big questions, just who is Keith Courage and what the hell is an Alpha Zone?

Well, the instruction manual informs me that Keith Courage is an agent of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and he’s out to save the world from B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes), the invading force of evil aliens that killed his scientist dad. Ugh. Could the middle-aged marketing geniuses behind this localization have possibly been further off the mark with this dreck? Kids in the ’80 were into awesome heroes like the Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats fighting against the likes of the Decepticons and Cobra. N.I.C.E. and B.A.D. would have stood out as corny and patronizing to a first grader. The buff, lantern-jawed adult version of Keith created for the manual and cover is equally laughable when you consider that he’s still represented in-game by the same exact sprite of nine year-old Wataru. In fact, nothing about the whimsical cartoon fantasy world of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru was altered to fit the new story and character designs given in the manual. Yeah, I totally buy this goofy smirking kid as a badass warrior on a mission to avenge his slain loved one. Seamless.

As for the Alpha Zones, that’s just what the manual calls the game’s seven side-scrolling stages. While nominally distinguished by simple themes (Fire Zone, Glacier Zone, etc), these all play very similarly in that each one is split up into two distinct halves. First comes a rather drab and empty Overworld area, where an achingly slow-moving Keith marches from left to right and swats puny basic enemies to earn the money needed to purchase power-ups in shops. You then transition to an Underworld section that sees Keith hopping into a giant robot called the Nova Suit for a spate of faster-paced, more challenging combat that culminates in a boss fight.

In other words, what we have here is a much hated platformer from Advance Communication Company that alternates between two jarringly different gameplay modes. One is slow and boring while the other focuses on constant combat against trippy monsters. Oh, and it features music by Michiharu Hasuya. Hmm. Maybe they should have just gone all the way and called this one Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Courage.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. The similarities between Keith Courage and ACC’s infamous NES stinker are interesting for sure (the two were released a mere four months apart), but the former is admittedly much less of a confusing mess overall. Keith Courage presents a more traditional action gaming experience and benefits from a far greater share of nostalgic defenders willing to stand up and declare it an underrated gem. That said, both halves of the game are still plagued by some egregious design flaws in my eyes.

The Overworld areas are devoid of anything resembling thrills or challenge and seem to exist exclusively to lengthen the play time through cash grinding. Adding insult to that injury, the shops themselves aren’t exactly filled with exciting gear. The sword upgrades for the Nova Suit are a must for sure. Apart from them, the only other items on offer are limited use projectile weapons called Bolt Bombs and these are largely underwhelming. You’ll quickly learn not to waste your money on them. Playing as Keith here may not be anywhere near as frustrating as navigating the streets and parks of Henry Jekyll’s London, but it’s just as tedious in its own special way.

The Underworld is a bit better than that, at least. The Nova Suit can run fast and jump high, while the enemies you face off against are a lot bigger and showcase some pretty outlandish designs at times. You’ve gotta love the dudes that are giant revolvers with faces or the Frankenstein monster heads with no bodies, just limbs sprouting directly from their humongous craniums. Once the novelty of these critters and the initial exhilaration of simply being able to move around at an acceptable speed wears off, however, it’ll dawn on you that these Underworld areas repeat themselves quite a bit. You get the same couple of alternating music tracks, the same background tiles (recolored occasionally, at least), and the same baddies and insta-death spike hazards over and over. Leaps of faith are also a regular annoyance, since Keith is tasked with making his way downward to the boss waiting at the lowest point of each level. You’ll frequently have to cross your fingers and hope there’s not a bed of spikes lurking just out of view as you drop from a ledge. Your chances are about 50/50 in my experience. Hooray for unlimited continues, I guess.

The mushy cherry atop this failure sundae is the lackluster presentation. Keith Courage’s Overworld graphics are closer to an NES game’s than what Sega brought to the table in their own debut Genesis pack-in, Altered Beast, and the Underworld’s are no great shakes, either, with their overreliance on recycled assets and plain black backgrounds. At least the music’s alright. Not exceptional in any way, mind you, merely competent.

Having now laid out all the evidence, is Keith Courage in Alpha Zones truly a bad game? Yes. Yes, it is. I wouldn’t single it out as excruciatingly awful or anything like that. It’s not even close to being the worst thing I’ve played on my PC Engine in the past year. I’d rather run through Keith Courage another ten times over than touch War of the Dead again, for example. Even so, there’s nothing about it I can actively recommend over the dozens, if not hundreds of more polished and exciting 16-bit action-platformers. The localization is absurd, the pace drags, the combat is shallow, the level design is barely there, and it can’t even bring the eye candy. Keep in mind that all this is coming the guy who did end up recommending Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to fans of crazy experimental fare.

Did Keith single-handedly throttle the nascent TurboGrafx-16 in its crib, though? Hardly. NEC’s management missteps were legion throughout the life of the system. They failed to beat Sega to market, refused to bring over many of the PC Engine’s best releases, hesitated to match their competitors’ marketing budgets…the list goes on. They were consistently their own worst enemies and that extended far beyond the choice of a resoundingly weak pack-in game.

So leave poor Keith alone. He didn’t kill your favorite console. He’s not a bad boy, really, just a touch slow.

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 poorly. 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.

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.