Metroid (NES)

Space bikini is best bikini!

Sometimes I think I was made to chronicle the arcane oddities time forgot. When my task is to focus on one of the the all-time capital G Greats, I always seem to come down with a vicious amalgamation of stage fright and writer’s block. This is never more true than when tackling one of the Holy Trinity of world-shaking Nintendo titles that came out in that golden year between the Fall seasons of 1985 and 1986: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. There’s just no way I’m going to say something no one ever has before about a game that immediately became its very own genre upon release and is still spawning acclaimed imitators like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge more than three decades later. Still, my continuing mission is to review each and every game I complete and I recently wrapped up a couple playthroughs of Metroid, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

In the interest of accuracy, I should first qualify that statement about Metroid founding its own genre. I’m very much aware that space hunter Samus Aran didn’t emerge fully-formed from the Nintendo R&D1 design team’s collective brow like Athena (the goddess, not the terrible SNK game). Pitfall! had introduced the world to exploratory platforming in 1982 and games with shooting combat and persistent character upgrades are older still. Metroid’s genius was taking almost everything that was hot in gaming circa 1986 (running, jumping, shooting, exploration, character progression) and synthesizing it all into one exceptionally palatable dish served with a garnish of slick graphics and house composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s brooding score. It felt so fresh to so many that any retroactive quibbling over whether it really was or not is ultimately petty.

Metroid opens in the vague future year 20X5. A ruthless band of space pirates led by an entity known as Mother Brain have attacked a Galactic Federation research ship and stolen samples of a newly-discovered life form with powerful energy absorption abilities, the Metroids. Left to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time before the pirates succeed at weaponizing the Metroids and bring all of galactic civilization to its knees. In desperation, the Federation sends ace bounty hunter Samus on a last-ditch solo mission to infiltrate the subterranean fortress planet Zebes and neutralize the Metroid threat. It won’t be easy. Zebes is a sprawling maze teeming with hostile creatures and Samus starts out with very little in the way of equipment. Its deadly corridors must be scoured with care in order to acquire the many power suit upgrades necessary to eliminate the two space pirate lieutenants, Ridley and Kraid, which will, in turn, reveal the way to Mother Brain’s inner sanctum.

Of course, no discussion of Metroid’s story would be complete if it didn’t address the big twist. Reach the end in under five hours and the mysterious masked hero Samus is revealed to be…a woman! This is hardly big spoiler material 33 years on, but the most interesting thing about it for me personally is that I have no specific recollection of discovering it. I certainly owned the game back around the time of its North American release. I sank so much time into it, in fact, that I was still able to track down every item within a couple of hours during my most recent play session despite not having touched it in decades. Combing through all those detailed memories, however, there’s nothing remotely approximating the standard anecdote about being shocked or blown away by Samus’ gender reveal. Was I just some uncommonly open-minded ten year-old that didn’t see a lady video game hero as all that unlikely? Beats me.

As with the first Legend of Zelda, certain elements of Metroid have proven contentious for fans of its many sequels and imitators. To put it bluntly, this game doesn’t hold your hand. At all. From the instant you hit Start on the title screen, you’re plopped down into the Brinstar, the game’s main hub area, with nothing but a paltry amount of health, a weak gun that can’t hit anything more than a couple inches distant, and your wits. You get no built-in map feature, no helpful NPCs to point you in the right direction, no hints whatsoever really. The manual does an admirable job of detailing the controls as well as all the items you can find and enemies you’ll encounter, but that’s all. Your choices are to either march off and get yourself lost in a perilous environment or to get hold of somebody else’s pre-made map (i.e. cheat).

Compounding the potential bewilderment, level structure here is open to a downright anarchic degree. Most Metroid-likes, while proudly billing themselves as open and non-linear, actually prefer to subtly nudge the player around by gating large chunks of their worlds off behind conspicuous barriers that require specific upgrades to pass. Metroid doesn’t care. Once you acquire the bombs and at least a few missiles early on in Brinstar, you can technically go anywhere and do anything, with the lone exception of taking on Mother Brain herself. If you want to wander into an area filled with ultra-tough critters that can take you out in a few seconds flat, you won’t be stopped. You won’t even be warned.

It’s not hard to imagine how players accustomed to more in the way of so-called signposting could be frustrated to no end by these design choices. Resisting the urge to fly into full-on “kids these days” mode like the crotchety old man I am, I will say that Metroid is a product of its time, made by and for old-school adventure game players. From that vantage point, getting lost and confused, dying a lot, methodically probing each and every dead for secret passages, and creating your own maps by hand aren’t bugs, they’re features. If, like me, you’re the type that gets a major rush from finally finding the correct hidden route to a boss or power-up after what feels like an eternity of fruitless searching, Metroid’s a game for you. If you’d prefer a handy flashing arrow directing you to your next objective, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This isn’t to say that all of Metroid’s flaws are subjective. Replenishing Samus’ lost health is a major pain. She starts her adventure with a maximum health of 99 and can eventually increase that to almost 700 by collecting energy tanks. For whatever reason, though, every time you continue your game, be it after a death or via password save, you’re only given a measly 30 units of health, barely enough to a withstand a couple of hits. The only way to regain health, aside from locating another of the rare and finite energy tanks, is to farm weak enemies for healing pickups. These drop inconsistently and most only restore five points at a time. It requires the forbearance of an 8-bit saint to sit there and grind all the way back to full energy in the late game.

There are also some instances of cheap damage to contend with. Many areas of the game are linked by doors and Samus is unable to move during the panning screen transition that occurs whenever a doorway is entered. Her enemies have no such restrictions and will continue to move around and deal their damage during these brief interludes. Getting followed through a doorway by a strong baddie while your energy reserves are low is a virtual death sentence. It would have been a small thing to render Samus temporarily invulnerable while she’s immobilized in this way. As it is, it stands out as sloppy.

While these rough patches are very much real and worth noting, I don’t feel they detract in any meaningful way from what Metroid achieved back in the mid ’80s or what it still has to offer the most patient of modern day enthusiasts. Its stark environments, eerie soundtrack, and general lack of clemency foster a profound sense of player immersion. You really do feel like a lone warrior stranded deep behind enemy lines on an uncharted alien world. Every element of the design and presentation supports this singular vision of claustrophobic dread and isolation. This quality is what made Metroid one of the very first truly atmospheric console releases and the effect remains as potent as ever when the game is approached as intended today. It’s also what sets this debut entry in the franchise apart from its successors, all of which relied on more linear progression schemes, auto-maps, and NPC hints to soften that hardcore edge some. I can’t say there’s anything strictly wrong with such measures, though I do liken them to adding a net to a perfectly good trapeze act. Crotchety old man, remember?

If you take away one thing from all this, let it be that Metroid is an instant classic, an enduring design landmark, and a must-play video game, provided you have the correct temperament for it. Gamer, know thyself.

Advertisements

Nazo no Murasame Jō (Famicom)

It’s a new year! What better time than now to start exploring the Famicom Disk System?

Nintendo introduced the FDS add-on to Japanese gamers in 1986, billing it as the future of the then three year-old console. True to the name, Disk System games came on bright yellow proprietary floppy disks. The 112 KB storage capacity of these was a major step up from the ROM chips included in most cartridge games of the time. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, had to be crammed into a measly 40 KB. FDS disks were also considerably less expensive than cartridges and their rewritable nature gave players an easy way save their gameplay data. Nintendo even operated special store kiosks where used FDS disks could be overwritten with entirely different games for a fraction of the cost of a full retail release. Oh, and the disk drive itself also added some additional sound hardware. Can’t forget about that.

With all these cutting edge features, the Disk System was initially a significant success. Over four million units were sold and it would serve as the birthplace of some of the industry’s longest-running franchises, including Metroid and Castlevania. All good things must come to an end, however, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world never saw an NES disk unit. It became clear to Nintendo early on that the very same lower costs and rewritability that made floppy disks so appealing to consumers also made them downright irresistible to software pirates and bootleggers. Worse still, evolving ROM chip technology quickly turned the FDS disk’s much-vaunted 112 KB storage capacity into a liability. Consider a popular late period game like 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which would have required no fewer than seven disks to hold all 768 KB of its data. Major developers were soon eager to move their important projects back to cartridge and the FDS’s library after 1988 is predominantly low-effort shovelware and unlicensed softcore porn games.

Enough about the Disk System’s drawn-out demise, though. Let’s concentrate on the good times with a title from its heyday of 1986. It would make the most sense for me to start out with the first original title developed for the disk format, but it turns out that game happens to be some little-known oddity called The Legend of Zelda. Who wants to hear about a forgotten turd like that when I could be focusing on the FDS’s second original release, Nazo no Murasame Jō (“The Mysterious Murasame Castle”)? I’ll be playing it on an EverDrive N8 flash cartridge, which has the ability to boot up FDS games (loading screens and all) on a standard console with no need for the actual peripheral.

Nazo no Murasame Jō is an overhead view action game set in Edo period Japan and starring a young apprentice samurai named Takamaru, who’s been dispatched by the shogun to investigate reports of disturbing goings on in the region surrounding the eponymous castle. The trouble all stems from a malevolent alien creature that fell from the sky in the vicinity of Murasame Castle and has been gradually extending its influence over the neighboring lands, bringing the lords of four other nearby castles (Aosame, Akasame, Ryokusame, and Momosame) under its corrupting power in the process. Armed only with his sword and throwing knives, Takamaru must storm each of the five castles in turn before he can finally challenge the alien invader itself to a duel to the death in the heart of Murasame.

Kidding aside, the game that Nazo no Murasame Jō will remind most players of is indeed the first Legend of Zelda. The combination of the non-scrolling overhead perspective with Takamaru’s distinctly Link-ish movement and sword combat makes it quite obvious that Nintendo developed the two games concurrently. Whereas Zelda was an exploration-based adventure game with action elements, however, Nazo no Murasame Jō serves up a much more traditional pure action experience. There’s no open overworld here. Each of the five castles consists of two distinct stages: An outdoor one that has Takamaru fighting his way to the castle gate and an interior one where he must defeat that castle’s boss. There is the occasional branching path along the way, but these are mostly limited to small cul-de-sacs off the main route that can be braved in hopes of finding some handy power-ups or an extra life. While you won’t be wracking your brain over where to go next, you’ll hardly be bored. Takamaru is subject to near-constant attack from all sides and his assailants are far more numerous and aggressive than the ones in Zelda. He can only withstand three hits before losing a life and running out of lives means restarting the current stage from scratch.

These differences collectively make Nazo no Murasame Jō a much more challenging game than I anticipated. Certainly more so than the majority of first-party Nintendo games. It’s less Super Mario Bros. in spirit and more Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels). The assorted enemy samurai, demons, wizards, and tengu all show no mercy. And the ninja! So many ninja spawn in non-stop to harass Takamaru on nearly every screen. There are shuriken-throwing ones, fireball-throwing ones, invisible ones, exploding ones, invisible exploding ones, the works. The game isn’t impossible by any means due to its unlimited continues and save feature, but your thumbs are in for a quite the workout.

Thankfully, I can also report that the combat mechanics themselves keep all this chaos as enjoyable as it is unrelenting. Takamaru’s sword and knife attacks are both rather elegantly mapped to the A button. Pressing it while an enemy or a deflectable projectile is within melee range results in a sword swipe. Otherwise, he’ll toss a knife. This spares the player from having to second guess themselves over which attack to use in a given circumstance and frees up the B button for special techniques. These techniques consist of an invisibility cloak that renders Takamaru immune to damage for a brief period and a lighting attack that instantly destroys all non-boss enemies on the screen. Powerful as they are, special techniques have a limited number of uses and refills are scarce, so be sure to use them wisely.

Beyond this, the only real extra complexity comes in the form of the various power-ups scattered throughout the stages. These are usually not just laying around in plain sight, but instead only appear when their hiding spots are walked over. Some boost movement speed, confer temporary invincibility, or heal damage, but most improve Takamaru’s throwing knife attack in some way, either by upgrading the standard knives to more damaging pinwheels or fireballs or by allowing him to shoot in multiple directions at once. Just try not to grow too attached to a given power-up, as losing a life will reset Takamaru to his default capabilities.

The graphics share the same clean, colorful aesthetic that characterizes much of Nintendo’s early 8-bit work. Simple as it is, there’s obviously a real timelessness to it. If there’s a weakness here, I feel it has to be on a conceptual level as opposed to a technical one. The game simply doesn’t lean hard enough into its weird backstory. You’re supposed to be playing as a samurai hunting down a freaking space alien, yet every location you visit and enemy you encounter prior to the very last level reflects a fairly standard take on traditional Japanese history and mythology. Talk about an underdeveloped premise!

The soundtrack by Koji Kondo is above average by the standards of the time, but doesn’t really stand toe-to-toe with his more famous works from the Mario and Zelda series. The tunes have the expected ancient Japanese feel to them and suit the material just fine. I just don’t see myself humming any of these melodies in the shower. The track that plays over the ending feels pretty lazy, too. It’s just the “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maybe Kondo was crunched for time and decided to just say “screw it” and go public domain?

At its heart, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a simple pick-up-and-play hack-and-slasher with plenty of challenge and that distinctive Nintendo 8-bit house style. While surely the odd man out when sandwiched between two other Nintendo FDS releases (Zelda and Metroid) so ambitious that their influence is still being felt today, it proves that a well-designed game doesn’t need to kick off a revolution to be a lot of fun. It’s a pity that disappointing sales numbers prevented it from receiving any kind of follow-up and its medieval Japanese setting insured that it would remain unreleased outside its country of origin until 2014, when it was finally offered up as a downloadable title for the 3DS. Whether you play it there, on a flash cartridge or emulator, or even on a proper working FDS, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a thrilling way to spend a few hours.

Just watch out for those invisible exploding ninja. Well, not watch out. You know what I mean.

Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice, thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-’80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet, but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place of honor in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but, it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight, but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of Peru’s Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught, but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it, but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

The Goonies (Famicom)

Sloth love Konami!

Most arcade veterans are familiar with Nintendo’s PlayChoice-10 machines. Introduced in 1986 and based on modified NES hardware, the PlayChoice-10 was an influential early take on the same modular “multi-cade” concept later adopted by SNK for their iconic Neo-Geo MVS cabinets. Arcade operators were able to install up to ten separate games on a single machine which players could then freely select between on the fly, hence the name. The PlayChoice-10 proved to be an efficient quarter muncher as well as a highly effective advertising vector for Nintendo, since all 52 of the games released for the platform were also available for purchase as NES cartridges. Except for one, that is: Konami’s enigmatic Goonies.

Not that the game itself was at all unusual. It’s a fairly straightforward old school platforming adaptation of the 1985 kids’ adventure film that focuses on lead Goonie Mikey Walsh dodging traps and enemies as he scours a series of maze-like underground levels in search of pirate treasure and his kidnapped friends. No, what had me stumped was the fact that I’d never in my life laid eyes on the home version. None of my friends had a copy. It was nowhere to be seen in catalogs or on store shelves. There wasn’t even the briefest mention of it in Nintendo Power or any of the other gaming magazines of the time. Copies of Konami’s 1987 follow-up The Goonies II (which I reviewed last fall) were everywhere, but you’d have had better luck getting info on Jimmy Hoffa out of the Loch Ness monster than I did tracking down the original Goonies on the NES.

Of course, it’s common knowledge these days that Goonies did receive a cartridge release…in Japan. As an American kid in the 1980s, however, I didn’t know a Famicom from a rom-com. That’s why even today, with the mundane truth of the matter a search engine click away, holding this little hunk of plastic and silicon in my hands still feels special. It’s not just a game cartridge, it’s the key to a decades-old enigma. Kind of like old One-Eyed Willy’s treasure map, now that I think about it.

Now that I’m able to examine the game at my leisure with more experienced eyes, I think I understand why this one never came home here. Goonies very much looks and sounds like an early Famicom release, similar to the initial run of “black box” NES titles circa 1985. Sprites are small, backgrounds are plain, and the soundtrack is sparse. Considering that Nintendo typically limited its licensees to no more than five total NES releases per calendar year, it’s no surprise that Konami would choose to put its best foot forward in North America and lead with more viscerally impressive titles like the first Castlevania and ports of cutting edge arcade games like Gradius instead. If I’d been calling the shots at Konami back in 1986, I’d have given poor Goonies the shaft, too.

It’s a shame, because the game is undeniably great fun. There are a total of six stages beneath the Fratelli hideout for Mikey to explore. The first is only a couple screens wide, but subsequent ones are increasingly sprawling affairs with dozens of screens divided up into distinct sub-areas. Scattered throughout each stage are a number of a sealed doors that hold kidnapped Goonies, keys, healing potions, and slingshots that temporarily upgrade Mikey’s default kick attack to a handy projectile. How do you open these doors? With the bombs that you get from killing the giant mice, of course. Just like in the movie! In a nice touch, the exact contents of each door are randomized every time you play, so there’s no one ideal route that’s guaranteed to net you the Goonie and all three keys needed to move on to the next stage.

Naturally, you’re not just running around collecting all this stuff unopposed. In addition to the explosives-laden vermin mentioned above, Mikey needs to avoid bats, ghost pirates and a host of stage hazards like flamethrowers, waterfalls, and falling stalactites. Trickiest of all are the two Fratelli brothers, Jake and Francis. These gangsters can’t be permanently defeated, only stunned, and they chase Mikey through the levels tenaciously while attacking with their guns and…music. Yes, Konami actually found a way to turn actor Robert Davi’s penchant for opera singing into an attack in a Famicom game. Amazing.

These traps and enemies are formidable, but Mikey’s health bar leaves you with considerable room for error. What you’ll truly learn to dread is the stage timer. Lacking any way to predict with certainty where all the Goonies and keys are hidden, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough time to potentially canvass the entire stage and still reach the exit afterward. If you dawdle, backtrack, or get yourself lost even a little in one of the larger levels, the result is usually a slow death by the clock. This matters because Goonies does not include a continue feature and every one of your starting lives is a therefore a precious resource.

To help even the odds, there are a host of hidden inventory items that will permanently enhance Mikey’s abilities when collected. Among them are a raincoat that negates waterfall damage, a set of headphones that muffle Jake’s singing attack, and many more. In general, each item provides passive immunity to one type of hazard and the more you acquire, the more recklessly you can haul ass through the stages to maximize your available time. The only problem is that these treasures tend to be well-hidden indeed. I didn’t stumble across a single one over the course of my first few playthroughs. You need to stand in very specific, seemingly empty portions of each stage and then input equally specific button combinations that vary for each item in order to make that item appear. For whatever reason, Japanese game designers around this time were quite enamored with this “do precise yet inexplicable things to make invisible loot appear” mechanic. Namco essentially built an entire game around it with their Tower of Druaga. Me, I’m not a fan and as nice as these goodies can be to have, I’m glad they’re not required to beat the game.

That’s really all there is to The Goonies. It’s a short, relatively basic little action title with a presentation that’s clean and appealing, if minimalistic. With only six stages, most players will be able to reach the ending screen for the first time after an hour or two. The game does loop in true arcade style at that point and start to throw faster and more numerous enemies into the mix, but the core experience remains the same. Although it doesn’t seem like much on paper, I actually prefer this one over its more complex and famous NES sequel. Famicom Goonies doesn’t waste your time with tedious first-person wall hammering marathons or an unnecessarily confusing level layout. Better still, the limited lives available here mean that precise platforming actually matters, unlike in Goonies II where Mikey can resurrect himself on the spot indefinitely and it often makes more sense to run right through the tougher enemies instead of standing around trying to kill them. I don’t deny the sequel’s more compelling aesthetics or sense of whimsical mystery. I simply prefer the original’s higher stakes and the constant driving tension the timer imparts.

No matter which of the two you favor, though, I think I speak for us all when I express how grateful I am that Konami was given the Goonies license in the first place. In their capable hands, mild-mannered asthmatic preteen Mikey Walsh got to kick bipedal mice to death, pilot the Vic Viper into outer space, meet King Kong, go to hell, and rescue a mermaid. Let me tell you, people, they do not make movie adaptations like they used to.

Dragon Warrior (NES)

Forsooth, thou art most rad!

Now this takes me back. What can I even say about 1986’s Dragon Quest, better known here as Dragon Warrior? It was the first turn-based RPG for the Famicom/NES and consequently the first that many gamers of my generation, myself included, were ever exposed to. It’s ground zero for an entire genre in the minds of millions. The wilds of Alefgard are where I scored my first experience point, achieved my first level-up, and cast my first healing spell. This is primal stuff, man. Archetypal.

I can start by dispelling a few common misconceptions about the game. For starters, it was neither the first console RPG (1982’s Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 is the best candidate for that honor) nor the first Japanese RPG (domestic creations like The Black Onyx and Dragon Slayer were staples on Japanese home computers as early as 1984). It also wasn’t designer Yuji Horii’s first major success. 1985 had seen the Famicom release of Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Incident”), Horii’s port of his own “visual novel” style detective adventure game originally released for home computers in 1983. In converting Portopia for Nintendo’s machine, Horii wisely avoided limiting the game’s appeal by forgoing use of the Famicom keyboard accessory and instead replacing the text parser of the computer versions with a menu of fourteen standardized commands that could be easily managed with the default controller. As the first adventure game released for the Famicom, Portopia moved over 700,000 units and ignited a passion for visual novels that persists in Japanese gaming circles to this day.

As a follow-up effort, Dragon Quest can be seen as a return to form for Horii: Start with a complex and potentially intimidating game type that’s popular on niche computers and then streamline and simplify it for introduction to the much wider and more lucrative console market. He took a cup of Ultima, added a dash of Wizardry, and then garnished with a user friendly interface straight out of Portopia. Two millions copies later, it was clear that lightning had indeed struck twice.

Well, two million copies in Japan, that is. Enix had equally high hopes for the North American release in 1989, for which Nintendo themselves would take over publishing duty. They went all-out by springing for enhanced graphics, a top notch localization of the game’s script, a battery save option to replace the original’s cumbersome passwords, and a detailed 64-page strategy guide bundled with every copy. It was a resounding flop.

What went wrong? Well, it turns out that much of the game’s initial success in Japan was due to its artwork by superstar illustrator Akira Toriyama and its heavy promotion in the pages of the popular action manga magazine Shōnen Jump. Over here, however, it was a totally unknown quantity to consumers and the result was warehouses full of unsellable Dragon Warrior cartridges. The solution? Another, more desperate stab at a magazine cross-promotion: Readers of Nintendo Power were actually sent a free copy of Dragon Warrior with every $20 subscription! An estimated 500,000 copies were distributed in this way. The hope was that, once they were exposed to the game one way or another, players in North America would be just as hooked as their counterparts across the Pacific and turn out in droves for the sequels.

Again, things didn’t quite work out as intended. Sales of Dragon Warrior II, III, and IV on the NES were all lukewarm at best. By the time Dragon Quest made the jump to 16-bit, Enix had given up entirely and the West wouldn’t see another entry in the series until Dragon Warrior VII made it to the PlayStation in 2001. In the meantime, Pokemon and Final Fantasy VII would step in and become the long-awaited smash hit “gateway” RPGs for the North American market, finally succeeding were Dragon Warrior had failed.

Don’t feel too bad for Yuji Horii and friends, though. Dragon Quest may still only hold cult appeal in my neck of the woods, but the mania it kicked off in its homeland has never truly abated. Even now, new releases are virtually national holidays in Japan and the franchise’s grinning blue slime mascot is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse.

Geez, that’s a lot of background. What about the actual game? Well, it goes like this: You start out in a throne room talking to a king. The king tells you that an evil dude called the Dragonlord has stolen the magic artifact that safeguards the land of Alefgard and kidnapped its beautiful princess to boot. Since you’re the descendant of a legendary hero, it’s now your job to gather the tools needed to breach the Dragonlord’s stronghold, introduce him to the pointy end of your sword, and recover the missing magical thingy. Also, that princess, if it’s not too much bother.

In order to do this, you need to explore the game’s medieval fantasy world from an Ultima style top-down viewpoint searching for important items and interrogating friendly villagers for hints on where to head next. Random encounters with monsters will shift the perspective to a first person combat display similar to Wizardry’s where you can choose your commands from a basic menu that includes options to fight, flee, cast magic spells, and use helpful items like medicinal herbs. These battles are very frequent and you’ll need to win hundreds of them in order to garner the thousands of experience points and gold pieces necessary to power your initially wimpy character up enough to stand a chance against the Dragonlord.

What’s that, you say? This sounds like every console RPG ever made? Bingo!  When I called it archetypal, I wasn’t exaggerating. Dragon Warrior is the very mold, the template, the plain cheese pizza of JRPGs. This is what makes it so tricky to pin down three decades later. Even so, I’ll do my best to cover the highs and lows.

One thing that still stands out today are Toriyama’s stellar monster designs. Though I’ve never been able to find any enjoyment in his most famous creation, the Dragonball series, I’ve always been drawn to his “40% menacing, 60% adorable” take on traditional fantasy critters. Even when I was finally face-to-face with the fearsome Dragonlord himself, part of me wished I could rub his cute scaly belly instead of dueling to the death. The detail and charm packed into every foe’s portrait single-handedly justifies the choice of a first person view for the combat.

I’m also impressed by the sheer scope and quality of Dragon Warrior’s English translation and localization, which are credited to Toshiko Watson and Scott Pelland, respectively. Their work is years ahead of its time when you consider that the 1980s were the Wild West of game localization and many publishers couldn’t manage to produce so much as a single screen of translated text that didn’t read like drunken Mad Libs. Here, all the dialog makes sense and the faux Elizabethan dialect the characters speak with is profoundly corny, but endearingly so. I’ll even admit to finding it pretty epic as a kid. There’s also a sweet extended in-joke included in the form of some character cameos that will be very familiar to former Nintendo Power readers.

If there’s one undeniable downside to playing through Dragon Warrior, it’s the extraordinary amount of mindless grinding required. While almost all RPGs expect the player to engage in endless random battles for money and experience, the best of them also give you plenty of places to go and things to do along the way. That way, you never have a chance to dwell on how repetitive these frequent combats can be on their own. Unfortunately, there are no side quests or diversions to be found here. Dragon Warrior has exactly two goals for the player: Kill the Dragonlord and rescue the princess. The game world is also quite small, which makes gathering the three key items needed to enter the Dragonlord’s castle is a simple task if you know where to look. The end result? About two hours of worthwhile exploration and excitement aggressively padded out into an excruciating 10+ hour slog. The late game in particular is a mess. By level 15, I had tracked down every key item, acquired all the best equipment, and even rescued the princess. There was literally nothing left in the entire game for me to do except kill the Dragonlord…which requires you to be around level 20. Reaching level 20 requires a total of 26,000 experience points, well over twice what I’d accumulated up to that point. So, stubborn fool that I am, I spent hours pacing back and forth over the same stretch of map, robotically striking down hundreds of generic enemies and pausing only to trek back to the inn when I ran low on healing spells. Then I killed the Dragonlord. Such fun.

Don’t get me wrong: As an introductory RPG circa 1986, Dragon Warrior’s approach is nothing short of genius. Horii managed to pare away every non-essential element from the popular computer RPGs of the time while still retaining the core appeal of a grand fantasy adventure where the player’s avatar continually grows in power and sharp wits and sound decisions matter more than quick reflexes. There’s no character customization to be found here, no class system, no multiple character party to manage, and the story is the most basic “princess and dragon” setup imaginable. This not only insured that the game had the broadest possible appeal, it perfectly set up Dragon Quest as an ongoing series, since follow-up releases could be predicated on gradually reintroducing these very same advanced mechanics in modular fashion. Thus, the second game included multiple player characters, the third added character creation and a robust class system, and so on. In this way, the series both birthed and raised a generation of Japanese RPG fans.

Dragon Warrior captivated me back in 1989. I played it day and night and even wandered its perilous fields and dungeons in my dreams. Next came Final Fantasy, tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, and so many more. Revisiting it now, though, I’m reminded why I mainly play action games these days. While the presentation still has its charms, it’s clear that my elementary schooler self didn’t value his time very highly. Simple and repetitive as it is, Dragon Warrior is best approached today as either a nostalgia trip or an interactive history lesson. In either case, patience is a must. RPG fans in general are much better off seeking out the later re-releases for the Game Boy Color and Super Famicom, which both cut down on the grinding significantly. That, or skipping straight to the brilliant Dragon Warrior III.

Thou hast been warned!

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)

103536.png

Translation level: Godlike.

Sometimes I feel compelled to complete a game out of an odd sense of duty. These are titles so foundational for the hobby that experiencing them firsthand arguably falls under the cultural literacy rubric. I generally draw the line at subjecting myself to truly terrible games, at least for a prolonged periods, but I will occasionally take on a game I’m not super enthusiastic about just so that I can check it off my bucket list.

That’s why I made time yesterday afternoon for a playthrough of the NES version of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins. First released in the arcades in 1985 as Makaimura (“Demon World Village”), Ghosts ‘n Goblins is an early run-and-gun type action-platformer from prolific producer/director Tokuro Fujiwara that’s famous for its spooky-cute character designs and equally infamous for its steep challenge. This home release from 1986 was a strong seller and is arguably the best-known version of the game. I myself had a copy as a kid, though I never got all that far in it. Now that I’m a whole lot older and a whole lot better at games in general, I figured it was time to finish what I started.

In Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you play as bearded knight Sir Arthur on a mission to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin (yes, really) from none other than Satan, who swoops in at the start of the game to abduct her because…well, that’s just what video game baddies did back then. Maybe I should just come up with some kind of shorthand abbreviation that I can use for this in game reviews from now on? KGP for “kidnapped girl plot?” This is also the third game in a row for me where the goal is to beat up on Satan. I didn’t actually plan it that way, but I suppose you can’t really do much better for a villain.

To reach Prin Prin, Sir Arthur has to run, jump, and shoot his way through six short levels, which doesn’t sound too tricky at all. The rub is that these levels are packed with the titular ghosts and goblins, who will stop at nothing to keep your hero from his goal. Some of these foes take many hits to destroy, while other might appear from thin air suddenly and make a swift beeline for Arthur or move about in chaotic patterns that make them difficult to target. The game’s most famous enemies, the gargoyle-like Red Arremer demons, combine most of these qualities into one very intimidating package. Arthur also has a strict time limit and some rather stiff controls to contend with, not to mention the fact that his shiny suit of armor can only absorb a single hit before shattering to pieces and leaving him to fend off the demon hoards in his underwear. One more hit after that and he’s down for the count.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You have unlimited lives in this version and most of the levels have checkpoints at the halfway mark. This means that you’re free to make all the mistakes you need while learning the stage layouts and enemy patterns and can experiment with different strategies at your leisure until you hit on something that works for you. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen.

That’s not to say that Ghosts ‘n Goblins plays things totally straight. Challenging action is one thing, but the outright tricks the game plays on its audience are the stuff of gaming legend. The sixth level can only be completed if the player uses a specific weapon, the cross. Reaching the end without the cross equipped will ship Arthur all the way back to the start of the previous level, and there’s no advance warning of this in the game itself or even in the instruction manual. If you think that’s rough, getting past that roadblock and beating the final boss will only earn you a message stating that you’ve fallen victim to “a trap devisut by Satan” and you’ll then be sent all the way back to the beginning of the first stage. You’ll have to complete the entire game again on a second, more difficult loop if you want to finally reunite Arthur and Prin Prin for real. Now imagine that happening in the arcade, when you’ve already pumped a small fortune in quarters into the machine hoping for that ending scene. Ow.

Nowadays, it’s a bit easier to laugh off these dirty tricks and even to admire the game a bit for its trollish chutzpah; its willingness to push boundries and toy with player expectations. False endings and mandatory repeat playthroughs would become a series tradition, much to the chagrin of many. For me, though, they would never pack the same punch again. Love it or hate it, the first game went there. The sequels just sort of give you a wink and a nudge as if to say “Hey, remember when I went there?”

If this version of the game has a weakness, it’s the fact that it was programmed for Capcom by Micronics, the same sub-par contract developer that cranked out such 8-bit atrocities as Athena, Ikari Warriors, and Super Pitfall. While Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a masterpiece compared to the rest of their NES output, the usual Micronics hallmarks are still all present and accounted for. Expect choppy scrolling, a jittery framerate, heavy sprite flicker, and random glitches like the occasional bit of damage from an invisible enemy. Despite its questionable parentage, however, this is a still a very solid conversion of a then-recent coin-op. There are a few non-essential elements omitted, like the boss battle music, but otherwise every stage, every weapon, and every enemy from the arcade is re-created faithfully. They even managed to maintain some of the wacky charm of the original character sprites and animations, like Arthur’s exaggerated run cycle and the Red Arremer’s sassy dance moves. It’s a very respectable effort for a 1986 release, even if the patented Micronics reverse Midas touch holds it back from achieving the same level of polish that Konami’s NES port of Gradius did around the same time.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is far from being one of my favorite games for the system. It had the misfortune of coming out right when action platformers were in the midst of a sort of accelerated awkward adolescence and it has the limited mechanics and stiff controls to prove it. Just a few more short years of tinkering with the formula would usher in a renaissance via the likes of Mega Man, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden. Sir Arthur’s inaugural outing was an important step in the right direction, but its immediate successors were all too happy to make it eat their dust.

Still, if you fancy yourself an NES nut, it’s a pilgrimage you just have to make at least once. Don’t let the difficulty scare you off: Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progres!

King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (Famicom)

Next up: Ping pong in Hong Kong!

What do you get when you combine the worst King Kong film with the best Famicom developer? Konami’s King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (“Megaton Punch of Fury”) from 1986. Based on the critically panned film King Kong Lives, this is an overhead view action game where the player guides Kong through nine interconnected levels in an effort to rescue his mate Lady Kong, who’s been kidnapped by the military.

Popular culture as a whole has seemingly agreed to just forget about the 1976 King Kong remake from Paramount, but it was a pretty big hit at the time. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, later founded his own short-lived film studio and was clearly banking on lightning striking twice when he put out the much lower budget King Kong Lives (also known as King Kong 2) a decade later. Did it pay off? Roger Ebert probably said it best: “The problem with everyone in King Kong Lives is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”

While this is right on the nose for the most part, I can say that the scene where the injured Kong gets an artificial heart implanted via crane was memorably strange. How exactly does one sterilize a crane? Kong’s also pursuing a lady gorilla this time around, having learned the important lesson that bestiality is not the solution to any of life’s problems. Some real positive character development for our hero there.

Ikari no Megaton Punch makes the best of a bad situation by smartly jettisoning all the tedious human characters from the movie and focusing on what audiences wanted in the first place: Non-stop giant ape mayhem. After a short cut scene where a distraught Kong breaks out of his prison and heads off to rescue his girl, it’s smashing time.

While the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective might remind NES vets of Jackal, King Kong 2 is a slower-paced and much less linear experience. The goal of each stage (“world”) is simple: Survive enemy attacks long enough to find the room containing the boss monster and defeat it. This will give you one of the eight keys needed to open the final door in world nine and rescue Lady Kong. The door to the boss room usually won’t be sitting out in plain sight, however, and that’s where the destructible scenery comes into play. Every screen is cluttered with buildings, rocks, trees, and other objects that Kong can destroy with his punches or by jumping on them. You’ll want to pulverize everything you can, even if you’ve already beaten the current world’s boss, since the many hidden rooms revealed this way are also where you find important power-ups and the doors leading to the other worlds. World two, for example, has doors leading to worlds one, three, four, and five. This complex and occasionally confusing network of warps between worlds means that you can effectively explore them and gather the eight keys in any order you wish, although the higher numbered worlds do have more difficult enemies and are probably best saved until after you’ve collected some health and ammo upgrades.

Ammo? Well, before you get too excited over the idea of King Kong brandishing a machine gun, I should clarify that your projectile attack in this game is rocks. These fly in a grenade-like arc and explode upon hitting the ground. Kong can carry a maximum of twenty at the start of his journey and each upgrade you collect will increase that by ten. You switch between your standard punch attack and rocks by pressing select. My advice would be to save these for the bosses, since a rapid fire stream of rocks will take out any of them very quickly.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay here. You smash everything in sight to find secret doors and occasionally fight a boss. It’s simple, but fairly satisfying. The sound effects help out a lot by lending a distinct sense of power to Kong’s punches and stomps. Seeing the screen shake and hearing a nice robust crunch as you level an office building really makes you feel that much more like an unstoppable beast. Not bad for a fairly early Famicom title.

Another mechanic that reflects the source material pretty well is how tough Kong is. You’re under constant attack by hoards of enemies on almost every screen, but Kong can soak up so much punishment that the tiny tanks, helicopters, and other foes feel so many gnats to him. As a giant movie monster simulator, Ikari no Megaton Punch is miles ahead of poor Godzilla’s sorry 8-bit outings.

You don’t just fight military vehicles in this game, though, and that’s where things get downright odd. Many of the enemies you’ll encounter have absolutely nothing to do with the King Kong mythos and are just there because video game adaptations in the 1980s could get away with anything as long we the end result was playable. World three looks like it was ripped straight out of The Guardian Legend, complete with alien blobs and fanged mouths pursuing you. Then there’s the vicious attack ducks from world eight and the flying scallop boss. Yes, this is a game where King Kong punches a scallop. I’m not about to hold any of this against Konami, though. The film was stupefyingly dull and I’ll take killer bivalves over a bored Linda Hamilton just staring at you for half the game any day.

Although you’re given limited lives and no continues with which to complete King Kong 2, I didn’t find the difficulty level to be particularly high overall. As mentioned, Kong has so much health that the common enemies will have a hard time bringing him down and the bosses aren’t too bad as long as you have enough rocks to pelt them with. In addition, collecting keys and certain power-ups will fully heal you and grinding health drops from the easier enemies when you start to get low is yet another survival option. The biggest threats to your progress by far are bottomless pits (which kill instantly) and getting lost when you forget which doors lead to which worlds. Thankfully, not every world has pits. Just be extra careful in the ones that do.

Ikari no Megaton Punch isn’t a spectacular game by any means. As a vintage Konami title, it’s competent enough to dump a couple hours into with no regrets, but it’s a bit too cryptic, unfocused, and repetitive to join the ranks of their many timeless classics. The movie’s fate as a box office bomb was also sealed well before the localization process would have wrapped on the game, likely explaining why it never left Japan.

If you’re on the lookout for solid English-friendly Famicom titles or you’re a Konami fanatic hunting for deep cuts to sample, King Kong 2 definitely beats a nosedive off a skyscraper. The movie? Eh. Flip a coin, maybe.