Phantasy Star (Master System)

I’ve long wanted to give the Phantasy Star series a go. And when I say “long,” I mean it. Gaming magazines of the early ’90s are how I first became aware of Sega’s premier take on the turn-based RPG. I was fascinated by their colorful blending of sword & sorcery iconography with the spaceships and laser guns of pulp science fiction. This same genre-bending approach is what kept my eyes glued to cartoons like He-Man and the Master of the Universe and Thundercats for much of the ’80s. Cool as the games looked, however, they were never quite enough to get me to defect to non-Nintendo hardware at a time when most young gamers were expected to settle on a single machine and stick with it for the long haul. No way was I rolling any dice when my Mario and Zelda were on the line.

That accounts for the lack of Phantasy Star goodness in my now depressingly distant childhood. What about the current century? Well, there’s no sense in sugar-coating it: I was avoiding having to map the original Phantasy Star’s dungeons. One thing I knew was that this game is packed with dozens of those old-school Wizardry style first-person mazes where everything looks alike and there’s no built-in map. Since my preferred approach to older games is to dive in with nothing but the original instruction booklet by my side and figure the rest out on my own, there was no way around having to meticulously fill a notebook with hand-drawn floor plans for these suckers. So I put it off, year after year.

No more! I finally took the plunge, and I must have fifty pages of twisted little corridors set down in ink to prove it. What I discovered was a technical marvel on the Master System and a respectable start to a legendary fantasy saga, albeit one with gameplay that’s best described as archaic, even by the standards of 1987.

Phantasy Star is a straightforward revenge story at heart. The opening cutscene introduces us to heroine Alis Landale, whose brother, Nero, is murdered in the streets by troops under the command of the tyrant Lassic. Alis swears on the spot to avenge Nero and overthrow Lassic. What follows is an extended multi-planet scavenger hunt for the allies and equipment needed to take down the most powerful man in the Algol star system, which I only learned today is a real place situated approximately 93 light years from Earth. I suppose this gives Phantasy Star the edge over its contemporaries in terms of realism. I defy you to point out Dragon Quest’s Alefgard on a star chart.

Any RPG fan will recognize the broad strokes of Phantasy Star. Town and wilderness exploration uses the customary zoomed-out overhead perspective, while the dungeons are depicted exclusively in first-person. Alis and friends are subject to a steady stream of random monster encounters whenever they venture outside town walls. These clashes serve as your primary source of the money and experience pointed needed to power-up the group. Leveling up, talking to NPCs, acquiring key items, and solving ever larger and more convoluted dungeons will eventually see the party ready to take on Lassic himself.

One thing this dry rundown doesn’t account for is just how utterly spectacular everything here looks relative to other 8-bit RPGs of the period. Sega assigned a virtual dream team of top talent to this project and it shows on each and every screen of the finished game. Some of this stuff could pass for early PC Engine graphics. The first time you approach one of the squat NPC sprites to initiate a conversation and the screen transitions into a detailed full-body portrait of the speaker instead of displaying a basic text box, you know you’re not playing Dragon Quest anymore. An even more striking effect for the time was the monsters having attack animations. Seeing a colossal squid-like enemy flailing its tentacles at the party or one of the dragons breathing fire would have been jaw-dropping to players on launch day. The crowning glory in this regard has to be the dungeons themselves, which feature stone corridors that appear to smoothy scroll around you as you traverse them. It took the programming genius of none other than future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka to pull off a 3-D effect of this caliber on the Master System. In its own way, Phantasy Star is part of the same flashy Sega tradition as Hang-On, Afterburner, and other high-octane “super scaler” arcade cabinets of its era. It may be slow and menu-driven, but it still manages to showboat like nobody’s business.

The game’s setting also does a lot to set it apart from its more traditional fantasy peers. There are swords here, yes, but also laser swords! The Star Wars influence is obvious from the opening sequence, which depicts Lassic’s soldiers clad in some very familiar white armor. One of the three inhabited planets you’ll visit, Motavia, is a desert teeming with hostile Jawa analogues (alongside some Dune sandworms for good measure). These little flourishes are largely cosmetic. You don’t actually get to pilot any spaceships, for example. They merely act as fixed warp points from one self-contained section of overworld (“planet”) to another. That said, strong visual design like this can do a lot to engage the player’s imagination and make the whole affair feel far less generic. Phantasy Star absolutely succeeds on that front.

I’m glad I love Phantasy Star’s aesthetics so much, because its moment-to-moment combat and exploration is honestly kind of a drag. Ironically, this seems to be a direct side effect of the design team’s overarching emphasis on visual flair. Those cool animated monsters I mentioned? There’s no way the Master System was going to be up to the task of rendering more than one of them at a time. Thus, every encounter consists of your party squaring off against a single enemy type. This one limitation hinders the game’s combat system tremendously. Phantasy Star’s most prominent competitors, Dragon Quest II and Final Fantasy, both allowed for countless enemy formations made up of multiple monster types. Some baddies had abilities specifically designed to compliment those of their allies, echoing your own party’s dynamics and giving you more to consider over the course of the average battle. Combat in Phantasy Star gets old fast. Once you’ve fought a given monster, you’ve fought it. Nothing new is going to come along to recontextualize that same fight the second, third, or fiftieth time.

Similarly, smooth-scrolling 3-D dungeons that looked better than anything the competition could muster were a great selling point. Are they any fun, though? I certainly didn’t think so, especially since I was expected to conquer dozens of them. Even as a D&D lover who enjoys drawing a map or two on occasion, that’s way too much to ask. If you’ve seen one of Phantasy Star’s bare stone corridors, you’ve seen them all. Unless you find altering the shade of the masonry from blue to green to be truly transformative, that is. With everything looking the same, getting hopelessly lost is inevitable unless you’re either mapping every square of every maze religiously or you’re content to cheat and use somebody else’s guide. The thing is, you wouldn’t need to resort to either of these unpleasant alternatives if only the game’s designers had gone with the plain old utilitarian overhead view for dungeons. They opted to turned heads rather than prevent headaches.

I can definitely see how Phantasy Star won so many Master System players’ hearts with its offbeat setting and sheer presentational pizzazz. Sega pushed the hardware big time with this one, producing one of the foundational Japanese console RPGs. As for me, I’d much rather play one of its higher tier NES rivals. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are dowdier, sure, but at least they don’t bore me to tears or give me hand cramps. Looks aren’t everything. Thankfully, I feel like I’ve gotten my series homework out of the way and am now fully equipped to one day move on to the trio of Phantasy Star sequels on the Genesis, all of which feature more robust combat mechanics and easier to navigate dungeons. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

Final Fantasy (NES)

Christmas 1990 was my season of Final Fantasy. Enix’s Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) had served as my introduction to turn-based RPGs the year before and I was chomping at the bit for more of that same monster bashing, treasure hunting, level grinding fun. Nintendo Power magazine had been pushing the game like nobody’s business over the lead-up to the holidays, going so far as to make their October issue a dedicated 80-page strategy guide. I suppose they were still banking on RPGs blossoming into a national craze here the way they had in Japan. Sorry, guys. Between my own recent gaming experiences and this unrelenting press hype, I couldn’t shut up about Final Fantasy. There was no doubt in my mind it’d be waiting for me under the tree, although that might just be because I made it a point to discover where the presents were secreted away beforehand so I could check.

Obsessed? Maybe a little. In any case, it’s tough to blame me. Square’s little Dragon Quest killer that could represented a major leap forward for Famicom RPGs when it debuted in Japan in December of 1987 and that impression carried over to its eventual American release. To understand why, it’s useful to compare it to its most prominent Japanese competitor, Dragon Quest II. Not only did the much flashier Final Fantasy clean up in the graphics department, its RPG mechanics were exponentially deeper. Dragon Quest II’s party of three predefined characters was child’s play next to Final Fantasy’s four member team built from the player’s choice of six distinct character classes. Combat also received a shot in the arm. Dragon Quest’s static first-person view was replaced by a revolutionary battle screen that showcased both the monsters and animated versions of the player’s party. Even the methods used to navigate Final Fantasy’s sprawling world felt like a step up. Both games give the party a sailing ship for ocean voyages, but Final Fantasy threw in a canoe for rivers and that almighty franchise staple, the Airship. In short, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team really threw down the gauntlet with this one. Final Fantasy is a bold, swaggering title that’s better than the first two Dragon Quests combined and knows it. In retrospect, it had “flagship” written all over it. It’s no wonder Square swiftly abandoned its eclectic roots to become a highly focused purveyor of RPGs thereafter.

What does one actually do in Final Fantasy? Well, in terms of story and overall gameplay structure, it’s an archetypal late ’80s console RPG. Four heroes known as the Light Warriors are prophesied to appear when the world is in peril, each bearing a darkened orb representing one of the elements. Their mission is to restore light to these orbs by defeating the four Fiends, an alliance of evil magical beings responsible for turning said elements against humanity. This is accomplished via the usual mix of open-ended wilderness exploration and dungeon delving fetch quests, during which thousands of randomly appearing monsters will be slaughtered for their precious gold and experience points.

Like virtually all other RPGs of its era, Final Fantasy lacks the extensive characterization and constantly evolving plot lines that would become synonymous with the genre in the decades to come. NPCs express themselves with the most concise of declarations and none of the Light Warriors are given a single line of dialog. It’s a basic “save the world” errand with no elaboration furnished or required. The primary reason anyone would want to experience it, then and now, is the wealth of meaningful choices baked into in its core mechanics.

The main attraction is that character class system I mentioned. I can’t say enough good things about the six options on offer here. Three of them (the Fighter, Black Belt, and Thief) are primarily physical combatants, two (the Black and White Mages) are useful only for spellcasting, and one (the Red Mage) attempts to split the difference. Within these broad categories, care was taken to ensure every class shines in its own way. The Fighter, for example, is a rock. He can use any weapon or armor and is a steady, reliable source of melee damage throughout the game. The Black Belt, on the other hand, starts incredibly weak and the few items of equipment he can use only tend to make him weaker. By the late game, however, the Black Belt’s bare hands will drastically out-damage the Fighter’s best weapons. The Red Mage works much the same, except in reverse. His combination of magic with decent weapons and armor makes him the strongest class by far early on, yet he ultimately can’t keep pace with all the high-end spells and gear of his more focused counterparts. On top of all this, some classes can gain all new abilities partway through the game as part of an optional quest. This system of trade-offs makes Final Fantasy exceptionally replayable. Want to try an all physical or all magical team? Go for it! Four White Mages? You’re insane, but the game won’t stop you!

Another facet of Final Fantasy I enjoy is the combat. This is mainly due to one very controversial quirk of the battle system: Specific enemy targeting. Unlike in most turn-based RPGs, you don’t target whole enemy formations with your characters’ physical attacks, only single baddies. This feature is often perceived as a flaw or annoyance, since if two Light Warriors are going after the same monster and the first one kills it, the second hero’s strike will whiff for lack of a valid target. Most later revisions of the game remove this penalty in favor of a more forgiving automatic re-targeting. That’s a pity, as I think the older method is great. It forces you to plan each and every turn carefully in order to avoid wasting valuable moves. You need to consider the average damage output of your characters, the hit point totals and defenses of their opponents, etc. All these mandatory mental calculations are a perfect antidote to the mindless “mash the attack button to win” default of many other RPGs. If you’re looking for a solid reason to consider the classic NES version of Final Fantasy over its many remakes, this more involved and challenging take on combat is it.

On the flip side, the best argument for those remakes is the ludicrously buggy nature of the original. Final Fantasy shipped with an extremely ambitious magic system for the time and most of it either doesn’t function as intended or doesn’t function at all. The intelligence statistic is supposed to govern the strength of spells. In reality, it’s meaningless and this greatly hampers the effectiveness of late game attack magic. Some spells, such as TMPR, SABR, and LOCK, do nothing. LOK2 has the opposite of its intended effect, making the foe you cast it on harder to hit rather than easier. There’s also a whole cycle of enchanted swords meant to deal increased damage to particular enemy types. None of this bonus damage was actually implemented, resulting in a bunch of mediocre “non-magic magic” weapons you’re better off simply selling. I’m only scratching the surface here, believe it or not. While not quite game breaking, this avalanche of cumulative programming blunders serves as an unfortunate beginner’s trap for anyone not already well-versed in playing around them. If you have the ability to run patched game ROMs from a flash cartridge or in an emulator, do consider loading up AstralEsper’s Final Fantasy Restored or a similar fan-produced bug fix.

Looking past its bare bones narrative and litany of baffling bugs, I’m still in love with the first Final Fantasy. I love its timeless Nobuo Uematsu score, highlights of which were destined to be reverently repackaged into every subsequent series entry. I love its eldritch and intimidating Dungeons & Dragons-inspired monster designs by master illustrator Yoshitaka Amano. Above all, I love its anything goes class system. Case in point: Halfway through writing this review, I got the urge to see how a group of two Black Belts and two Red Mages would fare. Just like that, I’ve started my next playthrough! So here’s to my first thirty years with Final Fantasy. Maybe I’ll finally be bored of it when 2050 rolls around. I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you, though.

Esper Dream (Famicom)

I’ve devoted considerable time over the years to working my way through the bevy of console adventure and RPG titles published by Konami in 1987 alone. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest had all come out the year prior and collectively hooked millions of Famicom owners on the sort of exploration and stat-heavy games which had previously been exclusive to much pricier home computers. Realizing the public’s appetite for such works was virtually endless, Konami pumped out a good half-dozen over the next calendar year. Some of these (Castlevania II, The Goonies II) would later make their ways overseas, while others (Dragon Scroll, Getsu Fūma Den, Majou Densetsu II) would never see release outside their native Japan. Another in this latter category is Esper Dream, a whimsical and surprisingly tough overhead action RPG for the Famicom Disk System. Special thanks to Mute for the English fan translation that allowed me to make sense of this one.

Your player character in Esper Dream is a young boy with a name of your choice who happens to be an esper. That is, an individual with psychic powers, aka ESP. He’s sitting at home reading one night when a girl materializes from the open storybook and introduces herself as Lottie. She’s a resident of Brick Village, part of the magical world inside the book, and was sent by its mayor to enlist the boy’s help. Seems monsters are running amok and have abducted the mayor’s daughter, Alice. Naturally, our silent protagonist agrees and follows Lottie into the book. A psychic kid and a fantasy quest to rescue a girl? It’s two classic Japanese media clichés for the price of one!

Upon arrival in Brick Village, the mayor hands you a suit of flimsy armor and your first weapon, a water pistol. It’s about as effective as you’d think. He also gives you an important hint about which of the game’s main areas you should explore first. Though you can technically access them all from the very start via doors scattered around town, you’re only asking for trouble if you ignore the intended order. This may be a pastel fairy tale wonderland, but the enemies won’t hesitate to curb stomp an underleveled pre-teen.

The five interconnected regions you must conquer all have their own themes, ranging from mundane fields and swamps to crystal palaces and gigantic chessboards. Each has multiple maze-like indoor dungeons which hold important treasures and your primary targets: The five boss monsters who are causing all the trouble. Keep an eye out for more villages along the way, too. They contain shops and helpful NPCs you can’t afford to skip.

Being an RPG, Esper Dream requires plenty of repetitive combat in order to accumulate the cash and experience points needed to see your hero to the end. Clashes with monsters all take place in claustrophobic single screen arenas where your character’s options are fairly limited. He can walk and shoot his gun in the four cardinal directions as well as activate whichever psychic power he has equipped. Fights typically end when one side or the other is wiped out. However, it is possible to flee the arena early if you can locate and destroy the one randomly determined exit tile along the screen edge. The most interesting thing by far about this whole system is how battles are initiated in the first place. Esper Dream is an early example of an RPG where all potential enemy encounters are visible to the player beforehand, here in the form of footprint icons. Similar to the more famous Earthbound, you’ll never be surprised by an enemy and can avoid many unwanted scraps by bobbing and weaving around them.

Now’s as good a time as any to address those psychic powers the game is named for. Turns out they’re fundamentally no different from stock RPG magic. The first you’ll gain is the damaging Psi Beam projectile, which remains your most useful tool throughout. As you level-up, you’ll unlock six other abilities which let you do things like boost your defense, heal damage, and teleport back to town. They all draw on a limited pool of EP (Esper Points?) which function like common Magic Points. As with the game’s combat, it’s an oddball peripheral element of this psi system that actually manages to stand out. Certain shops give you the option of buying new powers early instead of waiting until you reach the appropriate experience level. It’s unique, albeit also expensive and largely pointless.

Esper Dream has a lot going for it aesthetically. On top of a quality Kinuyo Yamashita score, it shares the same kooky art direction as Ai Senshi Nicol, King Kong 2, and other overhead view Konami games from this period. It eschews the grit of a Castlevania or Contra in favor of bold primary colors, surreal landscapes, and a motley grab bag of cartoon enemies. Pelicans, ladybugs, chess pieces, and moai statue refugees from Gradius routinely show up to run your day. If they weren’t so good at it, you’d almost think this was a game for little kids.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now in passing, Esper Dream is hard. Opponents frequently outnumber you and love to rush you down relentlessly or hang back lobbing projectiles at your slow-moving boy hero. Some even abuse an unavoidable full-screen “flash” attack that automatically removes a large chunk of your health if you don’t kill them fast enough. That’s extra bad news because killing anything fast is no mean feat. Your guns are some of the most feeble weapons I’ve had the misfortune to wield in a game. The strongest of the available three, the bazooka, still requires dozens upon dozens of shots to take down a single late game baddie. That’s no exaggeration; feel free to count them if you like. This is why the Psi Beam is so important. It’s the only attack worth a damn in the back half of the game! Your armor options, with the exception of the Barrier Suit found in the depths of the final area, are similarly inadequate given the amount of punishment you’re subject to. Adding insult to injury, HP and MP recovery items are costly and are only sold in one shop. Said shop isn’t located in Brick Village, either, which is the one town you’re able to warp to easily. The game obviously isn’t impossible. Once you know to stock up on recovery items, save often, and put your trust in Psi Beams rather than your puny guns, you can indeed finish it. I can’t help but feel, though, that the opposition you’ll face in last few area is just too oppressive for the game’s own good. It sucks much of the fun out of things and conflicts with the setting’s cheery tone.

Despite this frustration, I didn’t wind up hating Esper Dream. In fact, I’d say it merits a qualified recommendation. The presention is appealing, progression isn’t overly cryptic by the standards of the day, and the first half is exactly the lighthearted romp you’re primed for at the outset. If you’re an experienced, patient gamer, you should be able to weather the oddly intense turn it takes in the final stretch and come away mostly satisfied. While it’s not about to dethrone Getsu Fūma Den as my favorite of Konami’s ’87 RPG bumper crop, it is ultimately more dream than nightmare.

Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genres, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen, a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

Legacy of the Wizard (NES)

Long ago, the wicked dragon Keela terrorized the land. His reign ended when a mighty wizard sealed him away in a magical painting. Now, that seal has weakened and Keela is about to be revived. Luckily, the wizard left a legacy in the form of his descendants, the Worzen family. Musclebound Xemn, sorceress Meyna, their children Lyll and Roas, and the adorable pet monster Pochi have joined forces to do gramps proud. Only by scouring the seemingly endless dungeon beneath their homestead and gathering four hidden crowns can they obtain the mythic Dragon Slayer sword, the sole weapon capable of destroying Keela permanently.

It won’t be easy. Nihon Falcom’s Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family in Japan) has a well-deserved reputation as the Mount Everest of NES action-adventure games. If you’ve already conquered both Zeldas, Metroid, Castlevania II, Rygar, and the rest of the usual suspects, then congratulations: You’ve completed your basic training for Legacy of the Wizard. Welcome to the big leagues.

If it sounds like I’m trying to scare you away from this one, I’m really not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legacy’s tough-as-nails nature isn’t the result of sketchy design. Rather, it’s the logical result of presenting the player with a labyrinthine 256 screen game world and five very different characters to canvass it with. Is a work of this scope a good starting point if you’re new to exploratory action games? Hell, no. If you’re a seasoned veteran, however, it’ll strain your brain in the best possible way. I found myself positively mesmerized as it siphoned away hour after hour of my free time.

You start your quest in the Worzen living room, where you’re free to select any one of the playable family members to venture forth with. This screen is also where you receive and input the passwords used to continue between sessions. You can return here any time to switch characters or simply to record your progress, as dying in the dungeon will revert everything to the way it was the last time you visited home.

The Worzens are a diverse lot indeed. Burly woodcutter Zemn has tremendous strength at the cost of abysmal attack range and jump height. His signature ability is moving heavy blocks with a magic glove. His wife Meyna relies on a variety of magic items to do things like fly and pass theough locked doors without using keys. Daughter Lyll is arguably the superstar of the bunch, with superb jumping ability and solid attacks. You’ll probably find yourself wishing you could use her all the time. Pochi isn’t very good at combat or platforming. He is a monster, though, which means other monsters (with the exception of bosses) don’t see him as a threat and deal no damage whatsoever to him. Son Roas has no particular merits apart from his ability to acquire the Dragon Slayer late in the game and wield it against Keela.

The biggest hurdle most players will encounter in Legacy of the Wizard is getting the ball rolling in the first place. Which character is best to use at the outset? How do you know where to begin hunting for the crowns? The best advice I can give is to think of the dungeon as four distinct zone arranged around a central hub. In this case, the hub is the large room near the beginning that holds the imprisoned dragon. Each of the four areas branching off from it is intended to be tackled by a specific family member. You’ll know you’ve transitioned to a new one when the background music changes. Pochi is great to start out with. He’s immune to most damage and that makes his crown (located in the lower right quadrant) one of the least stressful to track down. Another reason to choose Pochi first is that he’s pretty poor at combat. Every time you find one of the crowns, you have to defeat a boss to actually claim it. You always confront this increasingly tough sequence of bosses in the same order, regardless of which order you pick up the crowns in. Thus, it’s in your best interest to have Pochi take on the easiest of the four and leave later ones to powerhouses like Zemn and Meyna.

Make it through Pochi’s area and you should have a pretty good grasp of how the game works. The remaining 3/4 of the quest will still be a fierce struggle, of course, just a slightly less overwhelming one. Almost all of Legacy’s challenge stems from the convoluted maze layouts themselves. They represent the very apex of the “probe every square inch for hidden passages” design philosophy. Finding any of the four crowns requires you to be observant, clever, and, above all, thorough.

What about those monsters? Well, baddies are everywhere and can eventually end you if you’re not careful. That said, their threat is undercut by your ample health bar and by the abundance of inns and healing items throughout the dungeon. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out where to go in the first place is almost always a much taller order than making it there in one piece.

I found Legacy of the Wizard a joy to complete for the most part. Coming to grips with each character’s strengths and weaknesses as I slowly puzzled my way through one of the most complex environments in any NES game was consistently absorbing. The graphics are simple, yet clean, with small sprites well-suited to negotiating the intricate level layouts. The music by industry legends Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Streets of Rage) and Mieko Ishikawa (Ys) is as a catchy as you’d expect. This really is a total package for the experienced adventure gamer.

I did take issue with a few things here and there. I didn’t like how your regular attacks always requires an expenditure of magic points. It’s possible it run out of the magic needed to power key items like Meyna’s wings and Lyll’s jump shoes merely because you opted to fight too many enemies. Your character is helpless in these situations and you usually have no choice but to retreat to the nearest inn. There’s also the poison problem. In addition to helpful things like health and and magic refills, defeated enemies frequently drop bottles of poison which remove a decent chunk of your life when collected. Assuming you can avoid picking them up by accident as soon as they appear, poison vials have the potential to block narrow corridors and take far too long to vanish on their own. Even in more open areas, some characters like Xemn and Pochi can’t jump well enough to clear a poison pickup without touching it, and that means either more damage or more waiting. This poison mechanic adds nothing worthwhile to the game and should have been omitted. Oh, and I have to call out the finicky controls for Xemn’s glove. You can use it to shove blocks in eight directions and usually need to be precise when doing so. Good luck with that. The blocks seem more inclined to treat your directional inputs as polite suggestions than commands.

Bothersome as they are, these are hardly fatal flaws. Legacy of the Wizard may be a little rough around the edges and aimed squarely at hardcore adventure nuts, but I feel its long-established status as an NES cult classic is entirely warranted. After all, the family that slays together stays together.

Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby who doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons which consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” which prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was a trip.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy thrill ride it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Section Z (NES)

Time to go commando!

I’ve been putting Section Z off for a long time now. I knew three things about this 1987 shooter going in: First, its 1985 arcade forerunner was the start of Capcom’s loose “jetpack trilogy,” which also includes Side Arms and Forgotten Worlds. Second, this home adaptation was radically redesigned à la Tecmo’s Rygar, ballooning from 26 linear stages (designated A through Z, naturally) to a full 60 arranged in a maze-like fashion. Finally, there’s no way to record your progress. The Famicom release utilized the Disk System add-on and allowed for saving directly to the floppy. Unfortunately, Capcom opted not to follow the example set by other North American FDS-to-cartridge conversions like Metroid and Castlevania II, which replaced the disk saves with passwords. The entirety of NES Section Z has to be finished in one go.

In other words, I needed to wait until I had both a big chunk of free time and nothing better to do with it than sit around playing Nintendo and mapping out a tangle of alien-infested corridors on paper. Home sick with a nasty cold? Perfect!

The main reason I was so keen to give this one a try is the groundbreaking role it plays in Capcom’s early NES history. Like all their pre-Mega Man output for the console, Section Z got its start in arcades. Unlike 1942, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the rest of their relatively faithful ports, however, this Section Z makes no attempt to replicate the design specifics of its predecessor. Apart from the core conceit of a man with a jetpack zipping around vaporizing space aliens, it’s an entirely new game. This same approach would grace us with the all-time classic NES interpretation of Bionic Commando the following year.

Your ultimate goal in Section Z is to guide a lone Earth soldier on his journey to destroy the evil Balangool empire and its leader, L-Brain, before they overrun humanity. Your gun-toting astronaut hero goes unnamed in the arcade, but on the NES he was dubbed Captain Commando as part of an ongoing attempt to create a mascot character based on the Capcom name itself (in reality a portmanteau of Japan Capsule Computers Co., Ltd). This effort peaked in 1991 with the release of the side-scrolling beat-’em-up Captain Commando, although it’s highly doubtful the hero of that game is really intended to be the same Boba Fett-looking fellow you control here.

Hunting down L-Brain is no mean feat thanks to the complex arrangement of the game’s 60 numbered sections. The bulk of these short (one to two minute) stages terminate in multiple exits, each of which will send the good Captain to a different destination. Barring the distinctly cheaty option of using a pre-made map, there’s no way to tell which section an exit connects to short of trying it out. It could just as easily warp you back to an area you’ve already visited as take you someplace new. Section 8, for example, has exits leading to sections 5 and 11. Your trial and error exploration (which ideally includes careful note taking) will eventually uncover a few exits that are colored red instead of the usual green. These lead to the game’s major boss fights, but they’ll be sealed and deadly to the touch until you can find and destroy a power generator mini-boss.

Thankfully, this all isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. Section Z is really more like three mazes comprising 20 stages each than one colossal 60 stage labyrinth. The bosses at the end of sections 19 and 39 function as points of no return. Once you defeat them, you’ll never have to worry about being sent back to an earlier section again if you die and continue. Continues are also unlimited, so you won’t lose out on any progress made as long as you don’t switch off the game entirely. You’ll need all the developer leniency you can get toward the end, where the correct path can even include invisible secret rooms that are revealed by firing at seemingly empty areas of the screen.

The shooting action itself is pretty typical horizontal auto-scrolling fare. Captain Commando’s primary distinction is his ability to fire his gun right or left as needed using the A and B buttons, respectively. It may not seem like much, but it’s a nice change of pace from the planes and spaceships common to this style of game, which are usually limited to aiming in whatever direction the screen happens to be scrolling. Enemy placement takes the Captain’s offensive flexibility into account, so be prepared for foes to enter from either side of the screen at any time. While things can get pretty hectic, there are no one one-hit deaths in Section Z. The Captain comes equipped with a generous energy counter which starts out at 20 and can be permanently increased by defeating bosses. Most enemy shots only deduct one point of energy. Physical contact is much more dangerous, resulting in a loss of five energy and a trip back to the start of the current section.

There’s a handful of power-ups available: A laser, an upgradable triple shot, and a temporary shield. What’s great about these is you can keep them in your inventory and equip them as needed with the Select button. Saving a shield for the boss fights obviously works wonders. There are also powerful super attacks the manual calls missiles. These are clumsy to use and rarely worth the trouble. You activate them by pressing A and B simultaneously, which will cause the missile to appear in the center of the screen. You then need to fly over and touch the missile to actually trigger it. This costs four of your energy points and can be difficult to manage at all when you’re being swarmed by bad guys (i.e. when you need it the most). I ignored these for the most part and don’t regret it.

Section Z looks better than average for a 1987 release. The backgrounds are colorful and the enemy sprites are competent takes on the usual random assortment of tiny killer robots. Captain Commando himself is the real standout with his oversize spiky rifle and Star Wars-inspired armored space suit. Très badass. The music is high quality, too. Strangely, though, the tracks recall something you’d hear in a ’60s spy movie. It sounds more like Captain Commando should be smuggling classified documents out of the Soviet embassy than blowing away alien invaders. I kinda dig it.  The only real downside to this soundtrack is there’s not much to it. You’ll be listening to the same three loops for more than 90% of the adventure.

Was Section Z for the NES worth the four hours or so it took me to puzzle my way through? Well, I reckon it wasn’t the worst way to spend a sick day. It’s a mechanically solid shooter with a unique pseudo-adventure game structure and pleasing presentation. That said, its length clearly works against it on a blind playthrough. You’ll see the same modest selection of backgrounds and enemies over and over, listen to the same three songs for ages, and do a metric ton of button tapping due to the regrettable lack of a thumb-friendly auto-fire feature, all without the ability to divide the quest up into multiple play sessions for convenience. While there’s certainly some satisfaction to be found in making your own map and taking L-Brain down for the first time, I can see this version of the game being much more fun to revisit with prior knowledge of its convoluted layout. The presence of a save feature alone makes the Famicom Disk System edition a better starting point, provided you have the means to run it.

Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everyday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Back in 1983, Konami published a little arcade game called Roc’n Rope. Directed by a promising rookie designer named Tokuro Fujiwara, Roc’n Rope is a single screen “climb to the top” platformer in the Donkey Kong mold with a twist: The player’s avatar, a tiny explorer in a pith helmet, is unable to jump and instead has to ascend the playfield by using a grappling gun which fires a rope that can latch onto the undersides of platforms. I’ve been a fan of this one ever since it debuted. It’s clever, cute, and a lot of fun. It’s not at all a common cabinet, but I’ll always drop a few quarters in given the opportunity.

As for Fujiwara, he left Konami for Capcom later that same year, going on to become one of the industry’s most most influential designer/producers. His Ghosts ‘n Goblins series needs no introduction and he’s also been closely involved with almost every other major Capcom property. I’m talking Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, the works. In 1987, he revisted the “wire action” concept introduced in Roc’n Rope with the arcade Bionic Commando, better known by most in its brilliant 1988 NES incarnation.

What many don’t know is that Konami took their own stab at a Roc’n Rope successor in 1987 with no input from Fujiwara. The result was Arumana no Kiseki (“Miracle of Arumana”) for the Famicom Disk System. While it’s not quite the must-play masterpiece NES Bionic Commando is, Arumana is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that will appeal to fans of other Konami side-scrollers.

A single glance at Arumana’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about its story. This is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not even remotely subtle about it, either. The game’s hero, one Kaito, is straight-up cosplaying in his khaki safari shirt and brown fedora. The plot sees him out to restore life to a vaguely Indian village by retrieving a stolen magical gem called the Sanka…er, the Arumana. Baddies included turbaned Thuggee lookalikes and snakes. There are booby-trapped ruins aplenty and even a minecart segment. It’s enough to make me wonder if all this “homaging” is the reason we never saw an NES conversion of Arumana. LucasFilm’ lawyers would have had a field day.

Kaito’s quest for the Arumana unfolds over the course of six stages, which seems to have been the magic number for Konami around this time, going by Contra, Castlevania, Jackal, and others. Stages are moderately large and scroll in all directions, though they’re laid out in such a fashion that the way forward is generally pretty obvious. That said, be on the lookout for the occasional false wall or floor that can be broken with the spiked ball weapon to reveal power-ups and shortcuts. Breaking walls in this manner actually becomes necessary to progress in some of the later areas.

On the subject of weapons, Kaito has a generous six at his disposal. There are no hard choices to be made here, either, as he can potentially carry all six at once, cycling between them as needed with the Select button. Throwing knives and a pistol provide basic forward firepower, bombs and spiked balls arc downward, the bola travels diagonally upward, and the rare and precious red orb instantly damages every enemy on the screen. The most interesting thing to me about this system is that all these weapons have limited shots. This means that Kaito has no innate free attack option and a careless player could theoretically fire off everything and find themself completely defenseless. Though it’s unlikely to ever happen due to the frequency at which the game throws ammo of various types the player’s way, Arumana is one of the few action-platformers where such a thing is even possible.

Of course, as alluded to above, the real defining feature of Arumana no Kiseki is not a weapon at all, but Kaito’s grappling line. Pressing up and the B button simultaneously causes it to shoot out at a fixed upward angle and anchor itself to any solid surface. Kaito can then shimmy his way up or down the line as needed. You can only have one line in place at a given time, however. The previous one will disappear the instant you press up and B again. Although Kaito can jump, his puny Simon Belmont-esque hops are woefully inadequate for the great heights he’s expected to negotiate almost constantly. Simply put, the game is designed in such a way that the grappling line must be mastered completely in order to see Kaito through to the end.

There’s a lot to love about Arumana no Kiseki. Its swashbuckling Indiana Jones trappings, brazen and shameless as they are, work to set just the right adventuresome tone. The in-game artwork is great by 1987 standards, keeping with Konami’s early Famicom house style of realistically-proportioned faceless human characters. The level design is excellent throughout and each stage’s end boss presents a unique challenge that’s suitably intimidating and satisfying to conquer with the correct weapons and tactics. The difficulty also feels about right to me, similar to other tough-but-fair Konami hits like Contra. Kaito’s default five-hit life meter is neither too generous nor too stingy and he’s given three lives and three continues with which to tackle all six stages, with the possibility of earning extra lives through score and 1-Up pickups.

I’d be remiss I didn’t single out Kinuyo Yamashita’s music for special recognition. The Famicom Disk System add-on included an extra sound channel for wavetable synthesis. Support for this feature varied greatly from game to game, but few would ever use it as extensively and artfully as Yamashita did here. She programmed a total of ten distinct wavetable instruments for use in Arumana no Kiseki and the results speak for themselves. Heck, even before you take the expansion audio into consideration, the melodies here are every bit as good as the ones she created for Castlevania or Power Blade. My only regret is that there apparently wasn’t room on the disk for more of them, as the six stages share three background tracks between them.

Sadly, few things in life are truly perfect. Even Indy had his obnoxious  sidekick cross to bear on occasion. Arumana’s metaphoric Short Round is the awkward and occasionally glitchy implementation of its central platforming mechanic. Kaito’s grappling line deploys slowly in contrast to the zippy bionic arm of Rad Spencer, making it difficult to escape some of the faster enemies. What’s more, the physics of it are just plain strange. Here’s an example: If you wanted to anchor your line as high up on the screen as possible, you’d obviously want to fire it off at the apex of a jump, right? Wrong. The line will somehow move up and down the screen along with Kaito as it extends, so you instead want to fire it off a split second before you jump. That way, you can try to sync up the instant the line actually attaches to the wall with the high point of the jump. That’s just bonkers. You can definitely get used to it, but the learning curve is steep and it never really feels right. It’s also possible to deploy your line in such a way that Kaito clips through the wall and dies instantly when he climbs up it. This doesn’t happen all the time, just often enough to be frustrating and make you wish that Konami had done a little more fine tuning before they shipped this one.

Play control angst aside, I’ll still recommend Arumana no Kiseki to any 8-bit action lover with the patience to adapt to its quirks. It’s a mostly successful attempt to infuse Rock’n Rope with elements of Castlevania and it makes excellent use of the FDS hardware. It deserves to be remembered as more than just Bionic Commando’s weird distant cousin. Ironically, it’s also miles above the godawful offical NES Temple of Doom adaptation put out by Tengen and Mindscape. That game should prepare to meet Kali…in hell!