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 that 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 that 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 that 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” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

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.

Advertisements

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 everday 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 for its brilliant 1988 NES adaptation.

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. LucasArts’ 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 with 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 match 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!

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 reviewing 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 localization 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. Adventure games like Simon’s Quest had legs.

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 re-imagining of his debut outing. 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 spooky 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 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 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 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 interesting in any way. 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 non-intuitive actions to progress and the in-game advice related to them is simply too mangled to serve its intended purpose. This means 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 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 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 close, 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 the 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 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 often claim 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 Zelda II’s action, which is some of the most exciting and addictive to be found anywhere in the NES library. Zelda II’s 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 eerie, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action game 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 than slog through this quest again.

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 which 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 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 best 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 which 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 to 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.