Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I thought I’d left Transylvania behind with the Halloween season. Wrong. I’ve arrived back here on business: To destroy forever the curse of the evil count, Dracula. For some reason, I just feel like now is the time to revisit what may be the single most divisive game in the entire NES library. Maybe it’s because I finally feel like my game review chops are up to tackling a title that’s been called a masterpiece, an all-time classic, a pioneering action RPG, a mindless grindfest, a needlessly cryptic waste of time, and the black sheep of the entire Castlevania series. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Either/or.

Welcome to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest or Dracula II: Noroi no Fūin (“Dracula II: Seal of the Curse”) as it was called upon its initial 1987 release for the Famicom Disk System. It was converted to cartridge for export to North America the following year and the two versions are largely the same, the exceptions being some seriously dodgy translation work, the loss of the disk format’s built-in save functionality (adequately replaced by 16-character passwords), and some very welcome improvements to the soundtrack made possible by the NES cartridge’s larger memory capacity.

I’ll be reviewing the North American version here, since it’s the one I grew up with. Yes, not only did I have this one as a kid, it was actually the first Castlevania game I ever played. Ironic, considering that it’s also the sole entry from the franchise’s first decade that attempted to deliver anything other than a relatively straightforward action-platforming experience. While not representative of what the series as a whole was about at the time, it was very much the sort of game I was looking for in 1988. Other non-linear action titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II ate up a disproportionate amount of my gaming time during those bygone elementary school years and turn-based RPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy would soon join the rotation. While I’m all about the fast-paced, high stakes action romps these days, the less patient person I was thirty years back appreciated that games like Simon’s Quest rarely imposed any sort of final game over or other significant penalties for failure. Another key consideration was that I didn’t have anywhere near the staggering variety of software to choose from that I do today. A new game I can complete in single evening is a boon to me now, but it would have been a disaster back when birthdays and Christmases were the only guaranteed opportunities to expand my meager library of cartridges.

Simon’s Quest put players back in the boots of Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire and hero of the original Castlevania and its many retellings. In fact, this is the only one out of the five total sequels starring Simon to actually continue his story rather than being a remake or reimagining of his debut outing. Talk about an influential release! Anyway, the story this time goes that Dracula has been destroyed, but the vanquished vamp has somehow managed to lay a potent curse on our boy Simon from beyond the grave. Unless he can gather five parts of the count’s body (each of which is hidden in a different monster-infested mansion somewhere in the Transylvanian countryside), return the pieces to the ruins of the castle where the first battle took place, and use them to resurrect his arch-enemy and defeat him a second time, Simon is doomed to weaken and die in short order.

So does this one still hold up all these years later? Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls, because the truth of the matter of far from that simple. Simon’s Quest is one hauntingly beautiful, sublimely atmospheric cluster of dull design decisions.

First, the good. Noriyasu Togakushi’s pixel art and Kenichi Matsubara’s music are both superb and I consider Simon’s Quest to be right up there with Nintendo’s own Metroid as a successful early attempt to convey a real sense of isolation and dread through savvy use of limited hardware. Of course, no Castlevania is a true horror game in the sense of being out to disturb players on a deep emotional level or even frighten them out of their wits. Konami wouldn’t explore that option until 1999 with Silent Hill. Instead, Simon’s Quest is a delightfully spooky experience, much like the classic Universal and Hammer monster movies that inspired it. An oppressive gloom lingers over the blasted moors, tangled forests, dank swamps, and crumbling graveyards that make up Belmont’s Transylvania. The addition of a day and night cycle to the game world adds to this eerie ambiance and also impacts the gameplay. Enemies are more durable by night and the shops and other buildings in town are all shuttered. After all these years, the world of Castlevania II remains one hell of a mesmerizing place to get yourself lost for a few hours.

It’s only when you start to dig into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll actually be doing during that time that the many cracks in the game’s foundation become apparent. For starters, it doesn’t seem to value its players’ time very highly. You’ll need to make sure to collect plenty of the hearts dropped by defeated enemies, as these function as both experience points that go toward boosting Simon’s maximum health and currency for buying items from merchants. Unlike in Metroid or Rygar, for example, where all key items and upgrades are acquired through exploration alone, Simon is also required to pay out at regular intervals if he wants to advance. A primary example of this are the oak stakes that you need to purchase inside the mansions in order to retrieve Dracula’s body parts from the otherwise unbreakable orbs encasing them. These stakes are single-use items, so that’s a mandatory fifty heart expenditure per mansion. By the time you reach the stake merchant, you’ll either have the necessary cash or you’ll be forced to spend a few minutes walking back and forth whipping the same respawning skeletons over and over to earn it. Neither of these two alternatives is fun or even interesting in any way and this entire business of grinding hearts to buy gear is pure busywork; a sort of time tax artificially imposed on the player in an effort to pad the gameplay time out. Even the day/night cycle I praised above contributes to this at times. Imagine you’ve been patiently saving up 200 hearts for a whip upgrade only to have night fall just when you’re about to reach the town. Hope you enjoy camping out waiting for a shop to open like an unemployed game console fanboy on launch day. The Legend of Zelda handled this aspect much better by allowing Link to visit shops to purchase helpful items while never actually requiring him to do so in order to complete his quest.

We also have to consider the infamously cryptic puzzles and poor quality translation. There are a few instances where the player is expected to perform some very specific, very non-intuitive actions to progress and the in-game advice provided in these instances is simply too mangled to serve its intended purpose. This means that players who haven’t been tipped off about these potential bottlenecks in advance will almost certainly be stymied. I used good old Nintendo Power magazine back in the day. Thankfully, ready Internet access means that you don’t need a magazine subscription to enjoy the game anymore. You can even download fan-made re-translation hacks if you’re serious about not cheating by consulting a walkthrough. Still, no game should ever require outside assistance to make progress and the official English language release of Simon’s Quest absolutely does.

All of these tedious and confusing elements could be forgiven if only the core gameplay was up to par with the other Castlevania titles. It never comes closes, however, and this is Castlevania II’s fatal flaw for me: It’s an action RPG built around some truly pathetic action. Simon himself controls much like he did in his first outing, barring a few minor tweaks like a slightly faster attack speed and the tendency to fall off staircases if he takes a hit while climbing. Fair enough. The problem is that shockingly little care seems to have been taken to insure that level layouts and enemy placement provide a fitting challenge for our whip-cracking hero. In the first game and most of the sequels that take their cues from it, every platform, every pitfall, and every monster that appears feels meticulously planned to pose a specific challenge to the player. The level design here consists primarily of flat stretches of ground sparsely-populated with listless enemies that rarely pose much of a threat due to their slow movement and simple patterns. The classic medusa head baddies, for example, don’t even fly in their characteristic sine wave formations and instead drift ever so slowly toward Simon in a straight line, practically begging to be swatted out of the sky. The levels also rarely bother to combine the combat and platforming together to build richer composite challenges for the player. Leaping over a hole or two with nothing else around to complicate matters isn’t exactly compelling stuff. The jokes that Simon’s Quest has the nerve to serve up as bosses merit particular scorn, too. There are only three of them in the entire game, including Dracula himself, and all can be easily defeated on the first try with a bare minimum of thought or effort. Most mansions don’t have any boss to fight at all! That whole routine with the oak stakes I mentioned above? That’s the climax waiting for you at the end of most of them. Thrilling.

Advocates for Simon’s Quest frequently claim that it’s similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in that it gets picked on merely for being different from its more successful predecessor. Nonsense. What betrays this false equivalence is that Zelda II’s action is some of the most exciting and addictive to be found anywhere in the NES library and its level and enemy design actually help rather than hinder it. Link’s movement and swordplay are both exhilarating and the areas he traverses are formulated to constantly push players to focus and hone their skills as they explore. Although it still has its share of cryptic riddles, it’s overall an 8-bit action RPG done right and the difference between the two games is, fittingly enough, day and night. So while it may be easiest to illustrate some of Castlevania II’s more glaring faults by comparing it to the original, simply using something like Zelda II instead is sufficient to show that those faults are still present in any case.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a brooding, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action RPG that I can’t really recommend to anyone who isn’t a compulsive Castlevania completionist or looking to relive a cherished part of their childhood. If you really love the promise it represents, it did serve as the inspiration for at least eight future Castlevania releases with RPG elements (starting with 1997’s Symphony of the Night) and any one of them would make for a much better time. On the NES specifically, I’d direct you toward either of the Zelda titles, Crystalis, Rygar, Metroid, The Battle of Olympus, or Willow. As much as I wanted to play my beloved contrarian card on this one, I’d honestly rather hit Deborah Cliff with my head to make a hole than slog through this quest again.

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Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest that includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible that Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes that render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses that will reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.

 

Kato-chan & Ken-chan (PC Engine)

Dear Lord.

Who are these abominations? Why, they’re Cha Katō and Ken Shimura, two well-known Japanese celebrities who started their careers as members of the storied rock band/comedy troupe The Drifters. They went on to host the Kato-chan Ken-chan Gokigen TV (“Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan”) variety show from 1986 through 1992 and this program was popular enough to warrant its own game on the PC Engine starring the pair. In fact, Kato-chan & Ken-chan was the very first platformer released for the system, just one month after its launch in late 1987.

Developer Hudson Soft understandably chose to pattern Kato-chan & Ken-chan on their biggest platforming success to date: Adventure Island. Both games share the same overall structure as well as very similar play control and level design. Even Adventure Island’s iconic continuously depleting health meter that the player must collect fruit to refill makes an appearance here. If you’re wondering what separates KC&KC from a standard Adventure Island title, the answer is poop.

You see, Fun TV wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated series. The comparison that seems to crop up most often when attempting to explain its widespread appeal in its home territory to Westerners is The Benny Hill Show. On the PC Engine side, this translates to toilet humor and lots of it. Piles of coiled brown feces are a recurring hazard, the heroes engage in regular bouts of public urination and defecation during their quest, and one of their primary attacks is a fart cloud triggered by facing away from the target and crouching. Delightful.

The game’s plot is patterned on Detective Story, Fun TV’s most popular recurring sketch, in which Katō and Ken portrayed a pair of bumbling private eyes that managed to screw up a new case every week. The opening cut scene depicts one of the two detectives (as chosen by the player on the title screen) answering the office phone and being informed that a very rich man has been kidnapped and that there’s a huge reward being offered for his safe return. The chosen character promptly accepts the case and departs, while his partner, fuming over being left out, decides to tag along anyway and make trouble.

This setup was essentially unchanged when the game was localized for release on the North American TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as J.J. & Jeff. Instead of being based on real people that the target audience wouldn’t have been familiar with, the title characters were changed to a pair of generic detectives and most (but not all) of the toilet humor was omitted. Apart from these cosmetic differences, however, the two releases are identical.

There are a total of 24 individual stages in Kato-chan & Ken-chan, divided up into six “fields” that function like the worlds in Super Mario Bros. Gameplay consists of making your way from left to right in each stage, avoiding pits and enemies until you reach the goal. You can periodically enter public restrooms along the way where you’ll encounter your partner dressed up in a variety of bizarre outfits based on other Fun TV characters. He’ll refill your health and often provide some helpful gameplay advice as a bonus. There’s also a boss at the end of each field in the form of a big guy that tosses boulders, although these fights are similar to the Witch Doctor battles in Adventure Island in that the boss is always the same each time, just with a different head.

Regular enemies are primarily animals like birds, dogs, giant flies, and crabs with the occasional dinosaur or Yakuza gangster mixed in. In addition, the player character you didn’t select at the start of the game will show up as an enemy in most stages, throwing a torrent of damaging soda cans at you until you can get close enough to pummel him into submission. Kato and Ken have a few different ways of dealing with the opposition. The most generally useful is a Mario style head stomp. For the few enemies that can’t be jumped on, there’s also the aforementioned fart attack and a short range kick.

Despite its pathetic reach, the kick is one of the most important moves in your arsenal, as it’s how you uncover hidden items and other secrets. Kicking different background elements in each stage (trees, signs, posts, etc) can potentially reveal energy restoring fruit, bonus stages, french fries to enhance your fart attack, coins that can be used in slot machines for a chance to win health boosts and extra lives, and even deadly piles of poo if you’re unlucky. These are all optional, but the one hidden item that you absolutely must find is the key that’s secreted away in the third stage of each field. If you fail to grab this key, you’ll be unable to fight the boss at the end of the field and have no choice but to warp back and repeat the previous stage until you finally locate it. If there’s one golden rule in KC&KC, it’s “always be kicking.”

The groundwork is certainly in place here for an excellent old school platformer, and Kato-chan & Ken-chan mostly succeeds as the twisted take on Adventure Island that it sets out to be. Unfortunately, it also has its share of shortcomings and annoyances. I just mentioned the need to find a hidden key in the third stage of each field before you’ll be allowed to fight the boss. Since the screen only scrolls to the right and you can’t backtrack, these keys can be easier to miss than they should be. Reaching the end of a key stage empty handed, it’s often better to simply run down the timer and kill yourself rather than crossing the finish line, since you’d need to play all the way through the next stage before being allowed to warp back and try again. Encouraging players to search for hidden goodies everywhere is one thing, but the penalty of potentially being forced to repeat earlier stages is too much hassle for no real payoff and smacks of padding.

Another questionable design choice was making KC&KC a one player game exclusively. Why bother to produce a game about two of the biggest stars in Japan at the time and then not even include so much as the most bare bones of alternating two player modes? Some care went into making the duo each control slightly different (Ken moves a bit faster at the expense of some troublesome extra momentum), so it’s a real shame that they can’t be used side-by-side if you have a friend on hand.

To modern eyes, Kato-chan & Ken-chan can also seem quite repetitive. Like most other platformers of the mid-1980s, there really aren’t a lot of unique enemies, backgrounds, or music tracks to go around. Rather than surprising the player with a parade of novel threats, the game’s escalating challenge is based around remixing the same small set of foes and hazards in increasingly complex and devious ways. On the plus side, the clean, colorful artwork and the catchy score by Takeaki Kunimoto make up in quality what they lack in diversity. Kato and Ken’s oversized heads are a little creepy at first, but their extra expressiveness pays off during the numerous pratfalls and sight gags.

None of these flaws are all that damning in light of the game’s age and status as an early release on the console. What’s borderline unforgivable is the tendency for its sense of humor to turn nasty on occasion. Just like in the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels), Kato-chan & Ken-chan features hidden “reverse” warp zones that send you backward in the game when you stumble on them. After I accidentally fell down a pit midway through stage 3-4, I was floored when, instead of just losing a life like normal, I landed on a hidden spring that catapulted me back to 2-1! Not cool, Hudson Soft. Not cool at all. Tempted as I was to shelve the game in disgust then and there, I persevered and eventually made it to the end without falling prey to any more of these tricks. It could have been a lot worse. The final stage, 6-4, supposely has a pit that sends you all the way back to 1-1. That’s just sick.

If you can look past this infuriating sadistic streak, KC&KC is still worth a look for fans of simple 80s hop-and-bop platformers and wacky, stereotypically Japanese humor. Cha Katō and Ken Shimura are both still alive and kicking around television today, over thirty years after their PC Engine debut. Though not the superstars they used to be, they’re hanging in there. Not bad for careers built on oogling young women and passing gas. Plus, I guess Katō opened for The Beatles once or something. Whatever.

The Magic of Scheherazade (NES)

Ladies! Ladies! If you could please form an orderly line, that’d be great.

What would you say if I told you that Square’s legendary Chrono Trigger wasn’t the first Japanese RPG to feature an epic time travel storyline and a cast of colorful characters that could pool their abilities in battle to unleash devastating combination attacks? Welcome to The Magic of Scheherazade from oddball developer Culture Brain! It may be the most ambitious 8-bit console RPG ever made. Whether this ultimately works to its benefit or not depends on your point of view.

Arabian Dorīmu Sherazādo (“Arabian Dream Scheherazade”) was initially released for the Famicom in 1987 and then altered significantly for its 1989 debut in North America. The simple music of the original was expanded into something more on par with other releases from the latter half of the NES’s life cycle and many of the character sprites were re-drawn with smaller eyes, presumably to de-anime them some for us gaijin. We definitely got the better game over here. The score is a clear upgrade and I greatly prefer the new character designs. Your turban-clad hero looks rather cool in the North American version, whereas his Japanese counterpart’s manic grin and bulging eyes came across less “cute and cuddly” and more “I’ll swallow your soul!”

As the game opens, we’re informed that the peaceful land of Arabia has been attacked by demons commanded by the evil wizard Sabaron. A brave descendent of the legendary magician Isfa steps up to challenge Sabaron, but he is defeated and his sweetheart Princess Scheherazade is abducted, as are her father and three sisters. Now nearly powerless and suffering from amnesia, the hero (whom you name) must journey across the land and rebuild his strength by vanquishing demons, recruiting allies, and traveling back and forth between multiple time periods with the aid of an adorable blue cat creature named Coronya the time spirit.

Even though the action is supposedly set in a real place, don’t come expecting any sort of geographical, historical, or cultural accuracy. Setting the game in “Arabia” is strictly an excuse to bring in some of the trappings of the classic Arabian Nights stories like genies, scimitars, and flying carpets in place of the usual Western European fantasy iconography. Apart from that, the world and characters are as divorced from reality as they are in any JRPG.

Arabia isn’t a single large, open world as per most games in the genre. Instead, it’s divided into five chapters. Each chapter plays out like a little self-contained mini-RPG, complete with its own towns, overworld, dungeons, and big boss demon at the end. One feature I found quite cool is the way that character progression is tied into this chapter system. Your hero can only gain a maximum of five levels per chapter, which helps insure that the challenge of defeating each boss can’t be completely negated through grinding. Beat the boss and the next chapter starts automatically. There’s no way to backtrack to previous chapters, so it’s technically possible to miss out on some items and spells. Nothing necessary to complete the game is skippable, however, so there’s no need to stress out too much.

Speaking of decisions not worth stressing over, you’ll also have to pick one of three character classes for your hero at the start. The fighter is best at dealing close range damage with swords, the magician is better at ranged attacks with magic rods, and the saint is pretty much terrible at both and should only be considered if you want to render the game extra challenging. Thankfully, you can change your class at any time by visiting the mosque in town and paying a small monetary fee. You’ll actually need to do this at least once in order to complete the game, since several quests require you to be a particular class.

Every chapter of your quest includes at least one mandatory trip through time to the area’s past or future. The time travel element doesn’t come off quite as awesome here as it does in the later Chrono Trigger, mainly due to the fact that MoS’s graphics are quite limited by comparison and every era you visit tends to look about the same as a result. There are no dinosaurs or space ships awaiting you here. Instead, Arabia retains its medieval look even across thousands of years. The game does still use the premise to interesting effect on occasion, though. At one point, I recieved an important clue about what to do next by an NPC who presented it as something I’d already done in the past. Since my character then needed to travel back in time to actually do it, that means that he had, in a sense, already done it. Weird, man.

Including Coronya, there are a total of eleven other characters that will join your party over the course of the adventure. Collectively, they have to be the biggest collection of freaks and weirdos you’ll encounter outside of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. There’s a robot, a shrimp, a glass bottle with arms and legs, a jack o’ lantern, a flying squirrel, and so on, with nary a single regular human being in the lot. Unfortunately, none of them are really all that interesting apart from their visual designs and conceptual gimmicks. MoS is still an early JRPG, after all, and doesn’t go out of its way to provide reams of dialog and rich characterization. You’ll usually just recruit a given character in order to progress past a specific obstacle to your quest that only they can bypass and then forget about them as they spend the rest of the game just filling out a menu slot in battle and not saying or doing much of anything. In this sense, they almost function more like “key items” than characters in a story.

The gameplay represents an attempt to combine two of the biggest Famicom sensations of the time: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. This means that we get overhead view real time action RPG combat existing side-by-side with menu-driven turn-based fighting. This is what I was alluding to above when I said that the game’s extreme ambition can be both its greatest strength and weakness. Most of your playing time is spent in the overhead “Zelda mode.” This is where you’ll be exploring the world, talking to NPCs, and doing the bulk of your fighting with sword and magic rod. In contrast, the “Dragon Quest mode” only crops up for occasional random battles, the frequency of which varies from uncommon on the overworld to fairly regular inside caves and dungeons.

This highlights my biggest problem with the game: The turn-based battles are really not essential to your progression in any way and come off as an afterthought at best and a pace killer at worst. I realized pretty early on that you never actually need to bother with them at all. In fact, you’ll be better off in the long run if you don’t. See, the real time combat is a relatively simple and safe way to harvest experience points and money since most enemies are easy to mow down quickly with minimal loss of health. The enemies in turn-based mode take much longer to fight due to all the menu navigation and will often use poweful magic attacks to deal out large amounts of damage and nasty status effects to your party members, requiring you to expend more magic points and healing items to recover your strength. Since defeating enemies in both modes provides you with the exact same rewards (experience and money), there’s no practical reason to not immediately run from every turn-based fight, as they’re just a much slower, more resource-intensive way to accomplish the exact same thing. It’s a real pity, too, since the designers obviously put a lot of work into these battles. There are a ton of characters in your party to experiment with and using specific combinations enables the use of those special team-up attacks I mentioned. You can even hire mercenary troops in town to fight alongside your main party members. It’s deep and interesting and yet still totally pointless in the end. Too bad.

You know what, though? That’s not going to stop me from recommending this game in a big way. It has so much going on for such an early console RPG that it’s almost unbelievable at times. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the universities where you can take classes to learn about proper magic use and combat tactics, the casinos, the pre-Dragon Quest III inclusion of a sort of day/night cycle with the solar eclipses, haggling with merchants, the ins and outs of the magic system, etc. I would be here writing all day if I really wanted to detail every little nuance of this sprawling title. It even has a great sense of humor, though some of the jokes can verge into trollish territory. For example, a character in one town asks you if you’re ever afraid of monsters. If you answer yes, he basically says “I suppose you’d better call it quits then, huh?” and you get an instant game over on the spot! Good thing you have unlimited continues and passwords.

The Magic of Scheherazade is another example of a game like ActRaiser that’s considerably better than the sum of its parts by virtue of its unique blend of seemingly incongruous gameplay elements, its overarching charm, and its sheer verve. It’s not a great action RPG or a great turn-based RPG, just a great experience that no NES enthusiast should miss out on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing princess business to take care of. Truly a hero’s work is never done.

Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

Rygar (NES)

Always leave ‘em smiling!

Ah, good old Rygar! I actually owned this one growing up, so it feels great to finally give it another look. Like catching up with an old friend. Originally released as Arugosu no Senshi: Hachamecha Daishingeki (“Warrior of Argus: Extreme Great Charge”) in 1987, the game we know in the West as Rygar is a radical reworking by Tecmo of their own 1986 arcade title.

The arcade Rygar was a straightforward “run from left to right” action-platformer and a great one by the standards of the time. This was mainly due to the lead character’s unusual weapon: Some sort of serrated shield on a chain called the diskarmor that lashed out to smite enemies before returning to Rygar yo-yo style. It didn’t make much sense, but it was just so cool. To this day, I’ll always drop a few quarters into a Rygar machine given the chance.

The Rygar I’m looking at today is a whole other story. The main character and his cool weapon are still present, except now it’s in the context of an exploration-based action adventure seemingly inspired by Metroid that also includes some light RPG elements.

Rygar takes place in the fantasy realm of Argool, described as “prosperous” and “holy” in the instruction manual. One day, a monster king named Ligar attacks Argool with his minions (the manual calls them “animalized men wriggling eerily,” which is just amazing) and swiftly subjugates everyone, including the “five legendary Indora Gods.” Yeesh. Some gods they turned out to be. In desperation, the people pray for the savior that prophecy states will appear “when the peaceful land is covered with EVIL SPIRITS.” Their prayers are answered when the great warrior Rygar of Argus rises from the dead and sets out to save the day.

In this case, saving the day means wandering Argool searching out the five sacred treasures needed to access Ligar’s flying castle, each of which is guarded by a different boss monster. This is mostly done in a side-scrolling style reminiscent of the arcade original, though there are also three areas of the game that employ an overhead view of the action where Rygar can move and attack in four directions as well as jump in eight.

Regardless of the perspective, you can expect to be under attack from various monsters the majority of the time. At first, your inclination might be to avoid as many baddies as possible, but fighting everything you can really is the way to go. Killing monsters earns you experience points that go toward improving two important statistics: Tone and last. I can only assume that these odd names are the result of awkward translation, as “attack” and “defense” would have been much better choices. Higher tone means enemies die in fewer hits and increasing last earns you a longer health bar.

The pause screen also displays a third value: Mind. This is the equivalent of magic points and is boosted by collecting star icons dropped by defeated foes. Mind points can then be spent as needed on three different spells that either improve Rygar’s offensive abilities temporarily (Power Up, Attack & Assail) or restore lost health (Recover).

Similar to other open world action games of the time, much of Rygar consists of locating doors to new areas and then exploring those areas as thoroughly as possible. Whenever an obstacle is encountered that halts your progress, you’ll need to backtrack after making a note of it (mental or otherwise) so that you can return once you’ve acquired the inventory item needed to proceed. These progression items include a grappling hook, a pulley, and a crossbow.

Borrowing a page from The Legend of Zelda, hints are provided by old hermits found tucked away in remote locations. Unlike in Zelda, these old beardy dudes are shirtless and super buff. Their dialog ranges from fairly useful to completely pointless (“Fight! Fight! Fight!”), but at least it generally makes sense, giving Rygar a leg up over some of its less coherent peers. It’s the visuals here that always stuck with me, though. These cavernous chambers with their lime green brick walls, unexplained angular shadows, and giant, half-naked old men squatting atop narrow pillars that tower over Rygar’s tiny sprite have to be one of the more surreal sights the NES library has to offer, and that’s saying a lot.

While I’m on the subject, the artwork in Rygar is generally good for a 1987 game, if a little inconsistent. The character sprites are the clear highlight. They’re very detailed and the designs of the numerous grotesque monsters do not disappoint. The big exception is poor Rygar himself, who would have really benefitted from some actual facial features. Backgrounds include some nice details, particularly on the stonework, but several areas suffer from drab coloration, including one stage that seems to utilize gray and black exclusively. I’m playing this on an NES, Tecmo, not a Tiger LCD handheld. The soundtrack by Michiharu Hasuya similarly has its ups and down. I found some of the tunes a bit on the droning side and others, like the stirring cave theme, to be real gems.

Rygar is not a long game, nor is it a difficult one once a fair amount of experience points have been gathered. Players with an understanding of the stage layouts can easily reach the end in an hour or two, depending on whether they want to take the time to level Rygar up to maximum power along the way or not. New players learning the game as they go, on the other hand, will require considerably more time and may consequently experience some frustration due to the game’s lack of a battery save or password feature. This is one of those games like Blaster Master that was responsible for a lot of parental nagging back in the day over consoles being left on overnight.

Putting my own personal nostalgia aside as much as possible, I still find Rygar to be an excellent example of an early non-linear platformer on the NES. This is primarily due to two factors: How well the Rygar character himself controls and how the designers smartly avoided shoehorning in tedious gimmicks. Rygar’s movements are smooth and precise. His jump is a bit on the floaty side, but his ability to bounce on top of enemies to stun them and gain some extra height in the process is pretty neat. The diskarmor is also as awesome as ever here, with satisfying sound effects and real sense of weight behind it due to the way most enemies are pushed backward on contact. The difference in handling between the agile Rygar and the stiff, awkward hero of Clash at Demonhead really makes the latter game seem amateurish. Best of all, you won’t find anything blatantly extraneous here like the wretched first-person segments from The Goonies II or Castlevania II’s currency grinding. Rygar wisely keeps the focus exclusively on the platforming, combat, and exploration, making it a stronger game overall than any of these three. I suppose if you’re going to take inspiration from Metroid, it pays to do it right.

As far as problems go, I already touched on the lack of a save function and the way the challenge suffers once Rygar himself levels up enough to become an unstoppable force that his enemies just can’t compete with. Another missed opportunity is the rather weak boss encounters. Only one of them even moves around to any significant degree. The rest, including final boss Ligar, either stand in one place lobbing shots at you or shuffle around the arena so slowly that they may as well just stay put, too. Levels are much more about the journey than the destination thanks to these disappointing fights. I don’t think these flaws come close to dooming the game. Just be prepared for a slightly odd downward difficulty curve as things get easier the further you progress.

Sadly, the Rygar series never really went anywhere from here, unless you count the barely remembered attempt at a reboot on the PlayStation 2 in 2002. At the very least, the reimagined Rygar’s success on the NES served as an auspicious precident for Tecmo and they would go on to pursue a similarly comprehensive redesign of their mediocre arcade beat-’em-up Ninja Gaiden, transforming it into an all-time classic action-platformer in the process.

Quibbles aside, I recommend Rygar highly to anyone with an interest in early console action-adventure games and/or wriggling eerily.

Zanac (NES)

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

And to think I didn’t even know I was playing a Christmas game this whole time. This Yuletide miracle is Zanac, the very first shooter designed by the legendary Compile. The original versions of Zanac were published by Pony Canyon for the MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System in 1986, with this NES edition from FCI hitting shelves the following year.

Like almost all of Compile’s shooters, Zanac’s gameplay is of the vertically scrolling (overhead) variety. If you’ve played any of their later efforts in the same vein, like The Guardian Legend or the Aleste series, you know exactly what to expect: Lengthy, super fast scrolling stages packed with a non-stop stream of enemy ships and a wide variety of upgradable weaponry to blow them all away with. It’s actually quite remarkable how much of the Compile shooter formula that would remain recognizable right up until the company’s dissolution in 2002 was in place here from the very beginning.

You play as the unnamed pilot of the AFX-6502 Zanac fighter on a mission to save Earth from a rampaging techno-organic supercomputer called the System. According to the terribly translated instruction manual, the human race apparent got itself into this mess by improperly operating a mysterious alien artifact, the Icon, which was designed to bestow wisdom to the worthy and “punishment of ruin” to the unworthy. Whoops.

Penetrating the System’s defenses to take out its core requires you to fight your way through twelve stages, each of which contains between one and four bosses to fight. These take the form of massive ground-based fortresses bristling with hatches and ports that open and close to disgorge a constant stream of bullets and missiles. These encounters are very similar to the first boss battle from The Guardian Legend, except here you’ll also be harassed by swarms of standard enemies swooping in to add to the already considerable chaos. Strangely, if you fail to destroy all the weapon ports comprising the enemy base before a timer at the top of the screen runs down, you’ll actually be allowed to continue on your way. You’ll forfeit a rather large point bonus in this case, but I can’t think of any other shooter where beating most of the bosses is technically optional.

Between boss fortresses, you’ll naturally have to reckon with waves of standard enemies. This is where Zanac really sets itself apart from other shooters with its trademark feature: Dynamic artificial intelligence programming that reacts to how you play and changes up enemy types, numbers, and placement on the fly. Called the ALC (Automatic Level of Difficulty Control) in the manual, this is supposed to represent the System’s machine intelligence analyzing your ship’s threat level and reacting accordingly. Factors that can affect difficulty include, but are not limited to: The frequency with which you fire your weapons, the particular special weapon you have equipped, how frequently you lose lives, and how many of the blue enemy reconnaissance drones you’re able to shoot down.

This organically shifting difficulty makes a Zanac session a very intense experience. Even as you’re getting better at the game, the game is getting better at you. The more successful you are, the more the System throws at you, until the screen is so awash with enemy ships and projectiles that safely maneuvering your craft feels like trying to thread a needle in a windstorm. It also foils the strategies based on pure rote level memorization that work in so many other games. Since it’s nearly impossible to be certain which enemies will appear at a given place and time, there’s no substitute for fast, accurate reactions.

Thankfully, you are given the tools needed to succeed. The controls are flawless. The Zanac fighter itself is zippy enough to weave between enemy bullets as needed, but not so fast that it ever feels twitchy. You’ll need all that maneuverability, since one hit will destroy your ship, stripping away all your special weapons and upgrades in the process.

Speaking of those, you also have a whole catalogue of offensive and defensive options to choose from. In addition to your standard shot, which can be enhanced up to six times by collecting “power chips” found in destructable boxes, there are also eight different special weapons to find and use, represented by icons numbered 0 through 7. Special weapons include lasers, a versatile eight-way shot, defensive shields, screen clearing bombs, and more. These can also be upgraded multiple times by collecting the same numbered icon repeatedly. It’s a staggering arsenal for a 1986 shooter, dwarfing even its contemporary Gradius, itself no slouch in this department. Some weapons are clearly more useful than others, but they’re all viable in the right hands. Even the standard shot is a beast once fully powered up.

One final factor that really works in the player’s favor is the nearly superhuman programming chops that Compile was so revered for. Even with ludicrously fast scrolling and dozens of enemies and bullets filling the screen, the smoothness of the action in Zanac never, ever falters. No matter how crazy the situation, I never noted any instances of lag, slowdown, dropped frames, or the like. Sprite flicker was also kept to an absolute minimum. It really is a tremendous technical accomplishment. If you ever want to experience what a difference programming proficiency can make, just put Zanac side-by-side with the atrocious port of Capcom’s 1942 that Micronics cranked out for the system the year prior.

It shouldn’t shock anyone at this point when I say that I found Zanac to be very impressive indeed. The action is smooth, frantic, and surprisingly deep due to the numerous weapon options and the unpredictability of the enemy A.I. This latter feature would go on to inspire many similar “rank” mechanics in later generations of shooters. The primary flaw to be found, if you can call it that, would be the graphics. While colorful, they’re very much on the plain side. Everything you encounter looks like a generic tiny spaceship or sci-fi building. Given that you’re fighting a computer, this makes sense, but don’t expect the sort of personality you get from The Guardian Legend’s freaky giant eyeball monsters or M.U.S.H.A.’s capital ships wearing creepy Noh masks. Zanac’s music, at least, is much more memorable, packed with heroic crescendos perfectly suited to the white-knuckle action.

A final potentially irksome thing to be aware of going in is that while you are given unlimited continues with which to finish the game, continuing in stages eleven or twelve will send you back to the start of stage ten. These final two stages are pretty manageable if you’ve built up a large stock of extra lives and power-ups over the course of the game. If you do find yourself having to start over in level ten with just three lives, however, it can be a bit of an uphill climb to make it all the way to the end. It’s possible, just a right pain in the ass.

These are really very minor gripes, though. In the end, Zanac is downright incredible for a 1986 vintage title and its unique take on an adaptive difficulty system makes it a must play for fans of the genre even today. If you like overhead shooters, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed other ones by Compile, it’s a must play.

Until next year, Merry Christmas to one and all! If you’re in a giving mood, this Messiah is currently accepting gifts of gold, frankincense, and fully upgraded High Speed blasters.