Gradius II (Famicom)

Shot the core, back for more.

I’ve grown into a huge Gradius fan over the last couple of years. Much to my surprise, as a frustrating adolescent experience with the arcade original put me off the series for decades. Ever since I set my reservations aside and ended up having a blast with the Gradius spin-off Life Force in the summer of 2017, however, I’ve been hooked on laying waste to those Bacterian scum in my trusty Vic Viper starship. I’ve gone back to finish the original Gradius and even took a delightful detour into the Parodius sub-series of comedic shooters. Now it’s finally time to move on to the first true numbered sequel with Gradius II. As a nice little bonus, I get to play this Famicom port, which is famous for being both one of the most technically impressive games for the system and one of its highest profile Japanese exclusives.

The Famicom Gradius II is the epitome of the bigger, louder, faster, harder approach to sequel design. Experienced players will recognize many of the same level concepts, power-ups, and enemies from Gradius and Life Force, just presented with a greater degree of intensity and audiovisual polish than ever before. It’s not a perfect re-creation of the arcade game, which was one of the most cutting edge cabinets out at the time, but it’s a sight to behold nonetheless. Konami relied on a custom memory mapper chip called the VRC4 to push the Famicom beyond its normal limits for Gradius II. Spectacular as the end result is, the VRC4 itself may have also limited the game’s distribution. In stark contrast to the “anything goes” Famicom scene, Nintendo prohibited third party developers from manufacturing their own cartridges and custom mappers for the NES. Whether this technical limitation was the sole reason Gradius II never saw an international release is an open question, though it seems likely to have been a significant factor at the very least.

That’s the real world backstory. What’s going on in the game? About what you’d expect. Planet Gradius is in peril once more and you’re the only pilot that has what it takes to save your world from the bloodthirsty Bacterians and their new leader, Gofer. Yes, the villain here is actually called Gofer, which has to be one of the least fortunate evil alien overlord names in sci-fi history. I like to picture him down at the local space bar crying into his space beer about how nobody respects him. Meanwhile, across the table, an equally inebriated Doh from Taito’s Arkanoid nods morosely.

The conflict plays out over a total of seven stages. Even though this is only one more than Gradius featured, the stages here are considerably longer on average. A “perfect” playthrough clocks in at around 26 minutes, versus the original’s 16 or so. Many of the individual areas you’ll visit are clearly meant to be amped-up takes on ones seen in previous entries. Gradius II’s opening stage has you dodging between colossal solar flares straight out of Life Force, for example, and level four is a murderous moai head gauntlet patterned on the first game’s. Thankfully, the level roster isn’t made up entirely of callbacks. I particularly enjoyed Gradius II’s Alien-inspired second stage, which is sporting phallic bio-mechanical skulls straight out of an H.R. Giger airbrush painting and “facehugger” baddies that spring from their eggs to assault the Vic Viper.

The classic Gradius power-up system is in full effect here. Certain enemies drop orange orbs that you can collect and then cash in to purchase upgrades for the Vic Viper. New to this entry is the ability to customize the upgrade menu itself at the beginning of each playthrough. Every weapon from Gradius and Life Force is available, along with some new ones, but the catch is that you can’t take them all with you. Four different sets of armaments are available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Do you prefer the more damaging straight laser from Gradius or the extra screen coverage of Life Force’s wider ripple laser? How about missiles that travel along the ground, double missiles, or exploding bombs that deal heavy splash damage to anything nearby? Double shot or tail gun? No one weapon set imbues the Vic Viper with flawless 360 degree firepower, so choose wisely. I really loved this addition. It allows for multiple play styles and encourages players to re-play the game in order to experiment with new ways to tackle old challenges. It’s no wonder that this weapon selection mechanic was retained and deepened in later sequels.

Not only are there more weapons to choose from, some of the returning ones have also been enhanced. The laser weapons can both be strengthened by purchasing them twice and the iconic option satellites are even more formidable here. Not only can you finally have up to four options at once just like in the arcade (NES Gradius and Life Force limited you to two), but picking option on the menu again after attaining all four will cause your entire complement of satellites to rapidly rotate around the Vic Viper, granting you even more effective protection and concentrated firepower for a limited time. Right on!

I have to mention how much Gradius II’s bosses impressed me. There are a ton of them (you fight a grueling five in a row during a tense and memorable “boss rush” segment in stage five), they all look fantastic, and each one is wholly unique in terms of its behavior. I didn’t find Gradius or Life Force to be all that impressive in this regard, so this represents another huge leap forward for the series. Oh, and if the idea of squaring off against five bosses back-to-back sounds intimidating, you can rest easy knowing that this is the first home port of a Gradius game to allow for unlimited continues to balance out its longer, more challenging stages. It’s a welcome change for me after just recently reckoning with NES Gradius’ ruthless zero continues policy.

As much as it pains me to say, Gradius II does have a lone non-trivial flaw: The slowdown. The copious weapon fire emitting from the Viper itself (especially when multiple options are involved) combines with the large number of enemy sprites to lag some portions of the game significantly. I found myself mentally nicknaming the second half of stage three “the purple crystal slowdown zone” due to the way the plethora of fragmenting space rocks in your path cause the hardware to chug as you blaze a path through them. It’s not a constant issue by any means and some players may even appreciate the occasional bit of extra “help” dodging all those enemy bullets. Still,  it does have the potential to bog down some otherwise top-notch action.

With its jaw-dropping VRC4-enhanced presentation, varied stages, expanded power-up scheme, thrilling boss encounters, and generous continue system, Gradius II is undeniably a triumph and is a top contender for the single best side-scrolling shooter on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. About the only thing it doesn’t have going for it is the two-player simultaneous play from Life Force, but this is understandable in light of the processing strain a single Gradius II player imposes on the humble Famicom. It’s a genuine treat, right up there with Sweet Home and Holy Diver on my personal short list of the greatest Japan-only releases for the platform. I definitely plan on revisiting this one in the future. Unless the Bacterians vaporize us all first because I dared to insult the mighty Gofer. In which case, my bad.

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Dragon Warrior III (NES)

Enough screwing around: It’s time to review the single greatest game of the entire twentieth century!

According to readers of Famitsu magazine, that is. In August of 2017, Japan’s most revered video gaming publication celebrated its 1500th issue by polling its readership to determine the 100 best games of all time. The number one slot went to 2016’s Persona 5. Number two was Dragon Quest III.

Surprised? I was, too. The game’s North American release, under the alternate title Dragon Warrior III, is remembered as a modest cult classic at best. Of course, it’s common knowledge that the RPG genre enjoys massively popularity in Japan and has ever since the very first Dragon Quest dropped in 1986. The remainder of Famitsu’s list is overwhelmingly stacked with Japanese-made console RPGs in the Dragon Quest mold, often called “JRPGs” by outsiders. In contrast, only a small handful of JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII and the main series Pokemon games have managed to attain comparable mainstream success in West over the years. But why is this specific entry in the long-running series held in such high regard? What does its country of origin see in it that the rest of us, for the most part, don’t?

One major factor is timing. There was a staggering four year delay between Dragon Quest III’s 1988 Famicom debut and Dragon Warrior III’s 1992 arrival on the NES. To put that into perspective, North American Super Nintendo owners had been gawking at Square’s flashy 16-bit epic Final Fantasy IV (under its misleading Final Fantasy II moniker) for three months at that point. That Enix bothered releasing Dragon Warrior III at all under these conditions is surprising. Most of its major innovations (a robust character class system, large world to explore, and dynamic day/night cycle) were either well established by 1992 or simply didn’t blow minds the same way 256-color graphics or faux orchestral soundtracks did. Dragon Warrior III’s party of silent protagonists undertaking routine fetch quests to slowly save the world from a motiveless evil overlord also came off downright quaint next to Final Fantasy IV’s flamboyant anime style melodrama.

On the other hand, as a 1988 release for the Famicom, Dragon Quest III was a massive leap forward for the series and for JRPGs as a whole. There was a greater increase in overall gameplay depth here than in any other single Dragon Quest sequel before or since. The original saw the player controlling a single, non-customizable hero. The second game upped the party size to three, with each character’s abilities still remaining fixed. Dragon Quest III expanded the maximum party size again to the now standard four and introduced custom character creation to the mix. While you’re still required to have the game’s main hero in your party at all times, the other three slots can be filled with any combination of male or female members of seven distinct character classes: Soldier, Fighter, Pilgrim, Wizard, Merchant, Goof-Off, and Sage.

The first Final Fantasy, released around the same time, also let you choose your party composition in this way, but DQIII did it one better by permitting characters to change their classes any time after reaching the 20th experience level. You could create a physically feeble Wizard, level him up to learn a variety of useful attack spells, and then change him into a heavily armed and armored Soldier without losing access to any of the magic he’d previously mastered. One class, the almighty Sage, isn’t even available at the start and can only be transitioned to later by meeting certain esoteric requirements.

Cultural context is another angle to consider. Veterans of old school Western RPGs are likely scratching their heads right now and asking, “What’s so amazing about getting to choose classes for your party members?” Absolutely nothing, if you cut your teeth on Wizardry, Ultima, and other Dungeons & Dragons-inspired computer games of the period. Bear in mind, however, that the JRPG sub-genre left most of that mechanical complexity behind at its inception in the interest of appealing to a mass audience of Famicom owners accustomed to the likes of Super Mario Bros. In this gaming milieu, the degree of unbridled freedom DQIII’s character creation system represented was nothing less than spellbinding. It sold over a million copies in Japan on release day alone. In an era before pre-orders and online shopping, that meant more than one million people flooding retail stores on the same day with cash in hand. This planted the seed of the long-standing myth that the Japanese government passed a law forbidding Enix from launching future Dragon Quest games on weekdays due to concerns over widespread truancy and lost productivity.

And…I’ve done it again. I’ve spent more time talking about the history of a Dragon Quest game than about the game itself. Like I said last year in my review of the first game, these early entries in the series play such a central role in defining what a JRPG is that they tend to come across as hopelessly generic when you actually start breaking down their stories and gameplay in detail. It’s a bit like trying to describe the flavor of unseasoned rice cakes.

Dragon Warrior III opens with the main hero waking up on his or her sixteenth birthday and being instructed to speak to the local king. The king explains that the young hero is the son of the legendary adventurer Ortega and consequently the only one who can save the world from an “archfiend” named Baramos. Strangely, even though you’re given the option of making the hero male or female, both versions of the character are represented by the same sprite and all of the dialog refers to you as Ortega’s son in any case. Is it an oversight? Is the girl hero supposed to be just that butch? Beats me. After this little info dump, the king forks over a ridiculously small sum of money and waves you off to the local inn to create the rest of your party.

Once you’ve gathered your companions, it’s time to venture out into the field and settle into the usual series routine: Finding the next town, figuring out what the problem there is, sorting it out at the local dungeon, and being rewarded with whatever key or other item you need to access the next chunk of the map. All the while, you’ll be chugging through the constant stream of random turn-based monster battles needed to raise your characters’ experience levels and gain the cash necessary to upgrade their gear at the shops.

Depending on your temperament, this core gameplay loop is either hypnotically soothing or a mind-numbing living death. In any case, I found that this installment at least does a much better job than the original Dragon Warrior of giving the player new goals to pursue on a fairly regular basis. You’ll still have to deal with just as many repetitive random encounters as before, but a larger game world and more quest objects to fetch means that you’re rarely ever forced to stop exploring completely just to grind experience or gold. This one improvement single-handedly negates my biggest criticism of the first game.

On the subject of improvements, and despite all the wisecracks I made above about its generic story, Dragon Warrior III does feature one major plot twist at around the the 3/4 mark that’s quite clever and well-presented for the time. Credit where it’s due, this really would have been quite the jaw-dropper for fans circa 1988 and likely constitutes another major reason the game is so fondly remembered in Japan.

Between the added flexibility of the class system, the more fleshed-out quest, and that nifty plot twist, Dragon Warrior III represents a massive upgrade from its predecessors and is my pick for the first truly great entry in the series. Is it game of the century material, though? Hardly. I wouldn’t even rank it among my top three Dragon Quest games. For all the refinement it brought to the nascent JRPG formula, it still suffers from some woefully aimless and anemic storytelling. Your party of heroes are mute ciphers from start to finish. Only one is given the slightest semblance of a backstory or motivation (being the son of the great Ortega) and this still manages to amount to a whole lot of nothing in the end. The villains seem content to exist entirely off-screen until you eventually stroll right into their throne rooms, whereupon they recite a couple short sentences about how very evil they are before getting themselves killed. If the stars of the piece are this dull, you just know the regular NPCs you interact with in town don’t stand a chance.

Beginning with Dragon Warrior IV, the series’ creators would endeavor to include much more in the way of characterization. Every party member in that game came complete with a compelling reason why they chose to spend their days wandering the world beating up on assorted goofy Akira Toriyama monsters, be it duty, revenge, youthful rebellion, or just wanting to get rich quick. The main antagonist also had a tragic past and a coherent motive underpinning his genocidal ambitions. For me, this previously lacking human element was the final ingredient needed to make later installments like V and VIII some of my most treasured gaming experiences. With all due respect to Famitsu and an entire generation of nostalgic Japanese gamers, I find Dragon Warrior III to be, at the utmost, the greatest JRPG of 1988.

On the plus side, this does mean that I can keep on reviewing games, confident that it’s not all downhill from here. I was worried there for a second.

Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Ninja beats giant purple lobster every time. It’s called science, people.

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about Ninja Gaiden yet. It’s only one of the definitive action-platformers on a system renowned for them and one of my personal favorite games of all time. I did cover its two direct NES sequels last year, but I never played either of them back when they came out. No, this original entry (which just turned thirty years old this past week) is the one I grew up with. I recently played through the entire trilogy over Thanksgiving, so I figured this is as good an opportunity as any to remedy my oversight. What do ninja have to do with Thanksgiving? Nothing, of course. It’s just an odd little tradition I’ve stumbled into to fill the downtime while I’m getting dinner ready. I’ll make up some bread dough, play through a few acts of a Ninja Gaiden game while it rises, pop the dough in the oven and play a few more acts while it bakes, then finish off the last boss as the loaf is cooling on the rack. Beats the hell out of the Macy’s parade, that’s for sure.

Contrary to what one might assume, the Ninja Gaiden series was conceived with an American audience in mind. Word had reached the management at Tecmo that ninja were a massive fad over on our side of the Pacific, thanks to cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and action movies like…well, everything Sho Kosugi ever appeared in. They tasked a pair of internal development teams with creating two distinct games: A beat-’em-up for the arcades and a Castlevania-inspired action-platformer for the NES. Despite having little in common other than a general ninja action theme, both games would bear the title Ninja Ryūkenden (“Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword”). During localization, this moniker was deemed too much of a mouthful for us gaijin and became Ninja Gaiden instead. Supposedly, this new name was chosen just because it sounded cool. It certainly makes no literal sense. “Gaiden” means something along the lines of “side story,” yet the games themselves aren’t actually spun off from any previous work. Hence, there’s no “main story” for them to refer back to.

The titular ninja here is young Ryu Hayabusa, who receives a letter from his father Ken during the game’s opening prologue. In the letter, Ken states that he’s about to fight a duel to the death against an unknown opponent. In the event he should fail to return, he instructs his son to take up the family’s sacred Dragon Sword and travel to America in order to meet with an archaeologist named Walter Smith. Vowing to discover the reason for his father’s demise and avenge it, Ryu sets off for America.

Ninja Gaiden makes a powerful statement right out of the gate with this opening scene. The very first screen of the game, depicting Ken Hayabusa and his unknown assailant squaring off under a full moon, is presented as a cinematic panning shot, complete with flashy parallax scrolling of the ground tiles to sell the illusion of a moving camera. This transitions to a series of quick cuts between close-ups of the masked combatants’ faces and running legs, then finally another long shot as the two ninja leap skyward and clash swords in mid-air. All this visual pizzazz is expertly bolstered by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta’s intense score coupled with some very impactful sound effects. The development team christened the nearly twenty minutes of anime style interludes crammed into Ninja Gaiden “Tecmo Theater,” and the inclusion of such an elaborate extra on a minuscule NES cartridge impresses even today.

Tecmo certainly didn’t invent the so-called cutscene here. Pac-Man had cutscenes and Dragon’s Lair effectively was one. Rather, Ninja Gaiden’s triumph was one of scope and ambition. In an era when many games didn’t include proper openings at all and “Congratulations!” over a black screen was still an acceptable ending, Ninja Gaiden had lavish, dynamic story sequences both before and after every one of its six acts. With new characters being constantly introduced, plot twists aplenty, and tons of dialog, these scenes actually had players setting their controllers down for minutes at a time just to watch the game do its thing. We may take chatty games for granted now and even have cause to rue their excesses on occasion, but the very idea would have seemed absurd before Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Ninja Gaiden released in North America around the same time as the first wave of Japanese console RPGs and none of the latter came close to matching its dramatic flair. The fact that a simple “run to the end of the stage and slash dudes” ninja platformer featured all-around better storytelling than the first Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy installments really demonstrates how far the JRPG genre has come. It’s no wonder Square later hired Ninja Gaiden alum Masato Kato to work on the script for their classic Chrono Trigger.

So how about that platforming? I mentioned above that Ninja Gaiden takes inspiration from Konami’s Castlevania and a quick glance at the screen layout makes this very apparent. The status display along the top that holds the health bars for Ryu and the stage boss, the current score, and other key information is a carbon copy of the one from Castlevania. Also directly lifted from that game are the countless torches, candles, and other floating targets in each stage that Ryu can attack to reveal ammunition, health refills, and power-ups. Some of the special weapons Ryu obtains in this manner bear a strong resemblance to ones from Castlevania, such as the two varieties of shuriken with properties similar to the dagger and boomerang cross. Despite all this, Ninja Gaiden is never really dismissed as a Castlevania clone the same way titles like 8 Eyes and Master of Darkness are. Why is this? In a word: Speed. Castlevania’s Simon Belmont was defined by his deliberate, almost plodding stride and weighty jump physics. By contrast, tapping left or right in Ninja Gaiden will take Ryu Hayabusa from a standstill to a headlong sprint in an instant and his Dragon Sword is lightning fast. He can also jump much higher and farther than Simon and he isn’t limited to realistic fixed arcs when doing so. He is a ninja, after all.

Furthermore, Ninja Gaiden’s designers tailored the opposition so as to make Ryu’s blinding speed not just a useful tool, but a necessary one. Almost every standard enemy in the game can be obliterated by a single well-timed Dragon Sword slash. The catch is that each foe so destroyed will re-spawn immediately and endlessly if Ryu should backtrack or even pause to catch his breath. If you’re not rushing ahead and making constant headway in a given stage, chances are that you’re getting swarmed and overwhelmed instead. Ninja Gaiden lights a fire under its players’ asses and essentially forces them to tackle it like speed runners. That it pulled this off years before speed running proper was a recognized practice is well worth noting.

Ryu’s zippy moveset and the game’s fundamental intolerance for any degree of player hesitation are what lend Ninja Gaiden its characteristic intensity. On the downside, they also cement its reputation as one of the more difficult NES games. The notion that it’s almost always better to just keep moving rather than take a moment to slow down and think things through every now and again feels counter-intuitive and intimidating at first. Now, I’m not about to tell you that this game isn’t challenging. I’ll simply add that some reckless abandon and a “fake it till you make it” attitude can make the learning process a good deal less stressful. You have unlimited continues to work with, so there’s no need to sweat the small stuff.

As much as there is to love here, the game is not without its rough patches. Foremost among them for me are the boss encounters. The bosses of the first five acts have very simple patterns and generally pose little threat. They’re especially underwhelming in light of how fast-paced and thrilling the stages leading up to them are. Though the gauntlet of three bosses that caps off the final act represents a step in the right direction, it’s also a prime example of too little, too late.

Ryu’s signature wall clinging ability is also at its least refined in this first installment. While he can grab onto any wall, he can only move up and down once he’s attached if the wall in question features a ladder. There is a workaround for this that involves holding the directional pad diagonally up and away from a wall, jumping off it, and then immediately pressing back toward the same wall again in order to inch your way up it in fits and starts. It’s awkward, to say the least. Thankfully, future games would allow Ryu to climb around freely on any type of wall.

Finally, I can’t leave out the infamous “act six bug.” If you lose a life when fighting any of the three final bosses, the game ships you back to stage 6-1 at the very start of the act instead of 6-3 like normal. While unintentional, this does make practicing the game’s final battles much more of a hassle than it should be.

Blemishes aside, there’s still no other game that plays quite like this one. Even its immediate sequels dialed the breakneck pace and relentless enemy onslaught down a few notches. Ninja Gaiden II introduced stage hazards that served to slow Ryu’s advance and Ninja Gaiden III made it so that defeated enemies don’t re-spawn at all. They’re both still great experiences on their own terms, but this debut entry remains my favorite for its unparalleled sense of flow. The adrenaline rush of flying through a stage exploding hostile eagles with your sword in mid-leap like the true ninja master you are is intoxicating and what keeps Ninja Gaiden a perennial top ten NES side-scroller alongside Castlevania III, Contra, and whatever your personal favorite Mega Man happens to be.

Just don’t get caught pronouncing it “Ninja Gay-den” or you forfeit all those baddass points on the spot. Them’s the ninja rules.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famicom)

The fools! They said I was mad! Mad! Well, I’ll show them! I’ll achieve both endings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Two full playthroughs! And it will be the more difficult Famicom version with its extra levels and enemies! Then we’ll see who’s mad! Ahahahahaha!

Whew! Sorry. I don’t know what came over me there. Just had to get that out of my system, I guess. I’m alright now. Really.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 work Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an awful lot going on in and around it for a short novella. This tragic tale of an upstanding London physician that seeks to free himself from his base, “evil” impulses through means of an experimental chemical concoction has seemingly attracted as many interpretations over the years as it has readers. There’s the classic psychological take, of course, which posits that Jekyll’s stubborn insistence on denying and suppressing his shadow side rather than healthily integrating it into his greater personality was his ultimate undoing. Many also cite it a condemnation of rigid Victorian social mores, where an outward façade of performative respectability frequently masked the messy reality of the human condition. It’s also been approached as an addiction allegory, a commentary on the British class system, a symbolic representation of the relationship between England and Stevenson’s native Scotland, and more.

It’s enough to make you wish you could reach back through time and interrogate the author himself in order to determine what he really had in mind. In that same vein, I’d love to be able to ask the uncredited development staff at Advance Communication Company what they were thinking when they birthed their 8-bit adaptation of Stevenson’s opus onto the Famicom over a century later in 1988. In its own bizarre way, their Jekyll Hakase no Houma ga Toki (“Dr. Jekyll’s Hour of the Wandering Monstrosity”) is almost as difficult to pin down as its literary inspiration. Houma ga Toki (which I’ll refer to using its North American title from this point on for simplicity’s sake) is a truly a game unlike any other for the system. This isn’t just because it’s a case of a 20th century Japanese video game developer drawing on 19th century English language literature for inspiration, either. That happened more often than you might think. Two completely unrelated games based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hit the Famicom in 1989 and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes also made multiple appearances on the platform. No, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is special because it’s the earliest example I can cite of a developer attempting to use the medium of gameplay itself to depict a conflict taking place within a fictional character’s psyche. Despite its very real flaws and horrendous reputation online, the mere fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all things pioneered techniques that would make critical darlings of titles like Silent Hill 2 and Celeste decades later is worthy of acknowledgement and, I dare say, respect.

As usual, though, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to be that most common of things: An 8-bit side-scrolling action-platformer. The plot focuses on Henry Jekyll’s attempt to make his way across town on foot from his laboratory to the church in order to attend his own wedding to his fiancée Millicent, an apparently mundane task that will still end up taxing the player’s skill and patience to a prodigious degree. Incidentally, this notion of Jekyll having a love interest named Millicent is a clear reference to the 1920 silent film version by Paramount Pictures. This is the only instance I spotted of a callback to any other specific prior adaptation of the tale.

To reach the church, Jekyll has only to walk from left to right across a total of six stages representing different parts of town. These include a village, parks, a graveyard, and several different street scenes. These stages themselves are the reason that I recommend you skip the 1989 North American version of the game altogether and stick to the Famicom original. For unknown reasons, publisher Bandai opted to remove two entire levels from the NES release and fell back on lazy repeats of the village and cemetery areas to pad the final product out to an acceptable length. That’s a full third of the game gone! Most speculation I’ve see about this change centers on a specific lady character that appeared in the cut levels and would beckon Jekyll into her home and restore his lost health off-screen. It’s thought that Bandai staff may have been concerned that this would be perceived as an illicit sexual encounter and consequently run afoul of Nintendo of America’s strict family friendly content guidelines. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. Why would this necessitate removing whole stages instead of just the offending character? Why would it be a problem at all when Nintendo had already famously included a virtually identical suggestive healing scenario in their own Zelda II: The Adventure of Link? We may never know for sure. In any case, avoid the butchered NES release at all costs.

No matter which version you’re playing, you’ll find Dr. Jekyll’s walk in the park to be, well, no walk in the park. There’s a veritable mob of relentless enemies standing between him and wedded bliss. In an amusing twist on the usual action game formula, the majority of them are not out to harm Jekyll per se. Instead, most of the threats he’ll encounter simply annoy the good doctor. He’ll be forced to confront obstacles like pushy pedestrians, bratty kids with slingshots, defecating birds, pesky insects, ill-tempered dogs and cats, a gravedigger carelessly tossing clots of dirt over his shoulder, and a terrible singer that fills the screen with hazardous musical notes. Most of these deal little to no damage to Jekyll’s health meter and instead fill up a second “stress” meter on contact. Maybe it’s because I use public transportation a lot in real life, but I find Jekyll’s struggling to keep his temper in the midst of his boorish neighbors to be extremely relatable. Play as Jekyll is completely defensive in nature, with the player striving to reach the end of the level while ducking or jumping over hazards and taking on as little stress as possible. There’s no fighting back, apart from the option to use the doctor’s cane to swat the occasional stinging bee out of the air. When the stress meter inevitably fills up completely, Jekyll will fall prone and assume the form of his alter-ego Hyde.

The Hyde half of the game bears much more resemblance to a conventional action title. That said, it remains deeply odd in its own way. The setting shifts from a sunny morning in jolly old England to a darkened wasteland of dilapidated ruins populated by vicious monsters. The instruction manual refers to this place as the World of Demons and careful observation reveals that it has the exact same layout as the normal London of Jekyll, just redrawn in a more menacing style and scrolling in reverse from left to right. Think of it as a twisted mirror image, not unlike Edward Hyde himself. I can’t help but wondered if this World of Demons and its inhabitants is intended to be a real place or if these levels are simply a symbolic representation of Jekyll’s “inner demons.” I lean toward the latter interpretation, but it will likely remain a mystery indefinitely unless one of the game’s anonymous creators steps out of the shadows for an interview someday. The screen scrolls automatically for Hyde, which is potentially quite dangerous. If he should ever reach the spot in the World of Demons that corresponds to where Jekyll transformed, he’ll be killed instantly by a bolt from heaven, as this apparently represents evil triumphing over good. Before that can happen, he’ll want to kill as many demons as possible. Each one destroyed will lower the stress meter and emptying it completely will trigger the return to Jekyll form and the world of daylight. Playing as Hyde is therefore all about killing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hyde has two attacks at his disposal: A basic short range punch and a boomeranging fireball attack called the Psycho Wave that can be tricky to aim at times, but is a much stronger option overall. You’ll also need to make sure you minimize contact with the enemy while you’re blasting away, since all damage in the World of Demons is deducted from the health meter and if it runs dry, the game is over.

This regular cycling between passive avoidance and furious aggression is what constitutes the core of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. You persevere the best you can as poor put-upon Jekyll, getting pestered, bullied, and literally shit on (in the case of those birds) at every turn until you just can’t take it anymore and unleash your raging id in the form of Hyde to rampage all that pent-up stress away. Just make sure Hyde never gains the upper hand for too long or you’ll regret it. All bets are off in the sixth and final stage, however. Here, the rule prohibiting Hyde from outpacing Jekyll is suspended and it becomes an all-out race to the finish. Whichever persona reaches the church in their version of reality first is the victor and the player then receives one of two different endings.

If you’ve never actually played the game before and don’t recognize it from its appearances on countless “worst of the NES” lists, you may well come away from my introduction and summary thinking that it sounds pretty fantastic. Unique and varied gameplay? Intriguing themes? Wicked sense of humor? Formidable challenge? These are all present, to be sure. Jekyll and Hyde even looks and sounds the part thanks to some highly detailed graphics and an atmospheric score by Michiharu Hasuya (the only individual confirmed to have contributed to the game) that lend both the light and dark versions of London considerable presence. It’s only when you sit down with controller in hand and attempt to actually enjoy all of this that cracks start show and the game gradually unveils its own hidden evil streak.

First, we have glaring control issues that leave each character hobbled in his own blatantly unnecessary way. Dr. Jekyll is undoubtedly one of the slowest characters in gaming history and far too much of the challenge stems from the fact that can never manage more than a stiff waddle regardless of how much mayhem there is to dodge in his immediate vicinity. Now, I do feel that I understand and appreciate the intent of the Jekyll gameplay. The developers are deliberately baiting you, trying to make you feel just as harried and irritated as your defenseless avatar. You “win” these sections by not taking that bait and remaining cool and calm as you patiently navigate the maze of enemies and hazards in your path. To excel as Jekyll, you have to think like Jekyll and retain your composure in the face of every setback. I get it, but it’s still no excuse. I’m confident that this idea could have still been effectively realized even if Jekyll were able to move around at an acceptable pace. His agonizing slowness smacks of padding and not an essential design element. On the other hand, Hyde’s weakness is not his speed, but the clunky way the game restricts him to moving about within a limited area. There’s a sort of invisible wall running down the center of the screen that confines Hyde to the right side at all times. This is not only arbitrarily constricting, it also leads to bad outcomes in the few areas where it’s necessary for Hyde to leap over holes in the ground. If he should bump into that invisible wall while in the air, it can funnel him straight down into the gap.

Terrible enemy placement is another constant problem. The Jekyll sections are guilty of overusing one specific baddie to the point of absurdity: The Bomb Maniacs. These jerks appear in droves in every single stage to plant bombs right in the doctor’s path. The bombs themselves deal by far the most health and stress damage of anything in the game and their blasts must be evaded at all costs. To do that, Jekyll will usually need to turn around immediately and trudge back the way he came. The result of all this is an already ludicrously slow protagonist being bogged down even more. It’s sometimes possible for minutes to go by with the screen not advancing so much as an inch as a fresh Bomb Maniac continually appears the instant the previous one’s bomb finishes exploding. Adding insult to injury, the explosions themselves are as deceptive as they are devastating due to having hit boxes massively larger than their on-screen graphics. Jekyll can be standing inches away from the blast and still receive damage. Again, the Hyde levels have their share of sloppiness, too. Fast moving flying enemies can sometimes spawn in right behind Hyde when he’s near the top of the screen, leaving him effectively no time to dodge them.

This all obviously comes off as highly inconsiderate and amateurish design, but the restrictive movement and nasty enemy placement aren’t even the game’s biggest flaws for me. No, what hurts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde more than anything else is simply that’s it’s terrible at communicating its own rules. Similar to Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this a game that’s impossible to pick up and enjoy without a thorough understanding of its many unorthodox mechanics and that, along with the bandwagon effect, are the primary reasons for its exaggerated infamy. This isn’t a Super Mario Bros. style experience where you can just shove that cartridge in, power on, and start having fun. No, you need to read the instructions first. This wouldn’t be so bad if the ones provided with the game were competently done. Unfortunately, even the official manual omits key information.

Take Jekyll’s cane, for example, which is often dismissed as being useless except for swatting bees. The cane’s actual use goes completely unremarked upon in the manual. In fact, you can whack pedestrians with it in order to increase Jekyll’s stress level. Why would you ever want to do this? Because there are times when it can actually be beneficial or even necessary to transform into Hyde, as successfully completing a Hyde section of the game refills the health meter and clears away all enemies and obstacles that were on the same screen as Jekyll when he initially transformed. Similar confusion surrounds Hyde’s punch. It seems at first like it’s simply a weak attack that’s completely superfluous in light of the Psycho Wave. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that the punch is primarily a defensive tool. It can deflect many enemy projectiles if timed properly. This application is so obscure and non-intuitive that I didn’t even stumble across it until after I’d already completed the entire game twice! Perhaps most negligent of all, there’s no indication anywhere in the North American instructions that the standard rule about Hyde not being able to progress further than Jekyll no longer applies in the final stage. There’s no logical reason that a player should expect this to be the case, so you would think it to be at be least be worth mentioning. Nope. Without knowing this, it’s unlikely that most players would ever encounter the final boss as Hyde and receive the better of the game’s two endings. Just awful. To its credit, the manual for the Famicom version does at least hint at how to achieve the Hyde ending, although it does an equally poor job of explaining the cane and punch.

Want to know the strangest fact of all regarding this case? I quite enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Enough to recommend it to any patient, open-minded gamer up for a challenge. Despite what you may have heard, the more complete Famicom version is a long way from being from the worst option available for the system. Sure, it’s needlessly opaque and it burdens its players with some profound balance and control issues. If you manage to make peace with that, though, you may just find yourself won over by its creepy mood, quirky humor, and groundbreaking take on the psychological themes of its source material. Imperfect as it is, somebody behind the scenes was working from a vision and it shows. After all, only Jekyll can reach the final stage of the game, yet he must ultimately accept the duality of his existence and enlist the help of Hyde in order to achieve the best ending. Carl Jung would be proud. If anything, I’d classify this one as an acquired taste and place it in the same “weird, maddening fun” box as Fester’s Quest and Silver Surfer. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying a sip.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is equal parts trick and treat, so on that note: Happy Halloween to one and all! It’s going to be a long next 364 days….

Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings that fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so that they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that has recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements that defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers that hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level that players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads that appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level that contains no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes that appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell that some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish that all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

One side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above which some players may actually see as a positive is that Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form, so if you’re careful it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it that way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

Mega Man 2 (NES)

Sweet ending! Too bad this is the last we’ll ever hear of this little blue robot boy. I rather liked the cut of his jib.

I never dreamed I’d find myself defending Mega Man 2. Why would I need to? It’s still the best-selling entry in the entire 100+ chapter series and widely hailed as not just one of the best games available for the NES, but one of the best ever made. It’s a pure triumph of the form, an unimpeachable masterpiece. Right? Look around online, though, you may well get the impression that any aspiring gaming hipster worth his artisanal beard wax is practically required to cite a Mega Man other than this one as the series high point. All the better if he can throw some shade Mega Man 2’s way for being “too easy” or “unbalanced” while he’s at it.

As it turns out, being the franchise’s golden boy has its dangers in a social media saturated world where everybody seems to be striving to deliver the next attention-getting hot take. Whatever it is you happen to love, there’s someone ready, willing, and able to explain to you in great detail how it’s both overhyped and overrated. Welcome to the future! No refunds.

Okay, okay. No more hyperbole from me. I know full well that not everyone who hesitates to kneel at the altar of Mega Man 2 is some cynical troll or vacuous poser stereotype. Even so, the pushback against it is very real and that’s what inspired me to give it another look. It’s been several years since my last playthrough, after all. I’ve experienced a great many other games over that period (including other Mega Man ones) for the first time. Looking at Mega Man 2 with fresh eyes here on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary, does it still hold up or do its detractors have stronger arguments than I anticipated?

What’s most amazing to me in hindsight is that there very nearly wasn’t a Mega Man 2 at all. Director Akira Kitamura and his team very much wanted to do a sequel, but the original hadn’t sold well enough for the producers at Capcom to approve any funding for such a project. They eventually agreed that they’d release the game only if Kitamura and company worked on it pro bono in their free time. Four months of twenty hour days later and Rockman 2: Dr. Wily no Nazo (“The Mystery of Dr. Wily”) was complete. Despite this insane and largely uncompensated workload, artist and character designer Keiji Inafune recalls it as the best time he spent with the company. No matter your opinion on the final result, it’s certainly remarkable that a team of around eight people working in their spare time were able to deliver one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time in a mere four months.

Like every other main series installment, Mega Man 2 centers on mad scientist Dr. Wily attempting to take over the world with an army of destructive robots. In response, his good counterpart Dr. Light dispatches his own creation, Mega Man, to put a stop to Wily’s schemes. Later sequels would often throw in bit of token misdirection at the onset meant to imply that Dr. Wily wasn’t the one responsible for the conflict that time around, but long-time fans know better. It’s always Wily. Apart from that, the first game’s ending really said it all: “Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace!”

The gameplay formula over the course of the series is as simple and dependable as the plots. The child-like Mega Man doesn’t seem like much at the outset, with just a basic arm cannon weapon available. He doesn’t stay this limited for long, however, as every time he defeats one of Wily’s lieutenants (which typically number eight in total and are dubbed “robot masters”), he permanently gains access to that robot master’s special weapon. Crucially, players are free to choose the order in which they take on the robot masters and their corresponding stages. This choice is more than just a minor novelty because each master has a crippling weakness to one specific special weapon. This means that players have a sort of ad hoc difficulty selection at their fingertips predicated on whether or not they choose to play through the stages in the optimal order dictated by the boss weakness chain or not. Once all the robot masters are defeated and Mega Man himself is fully powered-up, it’s a time for the climactic final assault on Wily’s stronghold.

Anyone that comes to Mega Man 2 after experiencing the first game will notice some striking differences right away. The art style itself remains very much the same, as it would in all six Mega Man NES releases and the much later, deliberately retro styled Mega Man 9 and 10. Even so, the doubling in cartridge memory allows for numerous enhancements to the overall presentation. These include a fancy intro sequence, detailed and frequently animated backgrounds that put the original’s solid color ones to shame, and the first appearance of the colorful map screens displayed between Wily fortress stages.

Beyond the purely cosmetic, Mega Man 2 introduces the now-standard compliment of eight robot masters in place of the original’s six, as well as a handy password feature that complements this added length. Its platforming mechanics have been tweaked, too. Mega Man feels a bit less slippery here and new physics have been implemented that affect how he controls in underwater sections. The stages themselves are more varied and complex, with many sporting elaborate hazards like the gauntlet of fatal laser beams that rapidly close in from off-screen in Quick Man’s lair. Mega Man 2 also marks the first appearance of fan favorite item the energy tank. These can be hard to come by, but allow for full health refills on demand, making them invaluable for tough boss fights. You know they have to be good when they have their own line of real world energy drinks named after them.

Of course, no discussion of the advancements Mega Man 2 brought to the series would be complete without a mention of Takashi Tateishi’s immortal score; a Murderers’ Row of funky, driving techno-rock earworms which some have collectively dubbed the greatest 8-bit soundtrack ever created. Is it? Quite possibly, after a fashion. For one thing, it’s remarkably consistent. Other favorite composers of mine like Naoki Kodaka, Junko Tamiya, and Tim Follin have certainly crafted equally superb tunes for the same hardware, but virtually every single beat and melody in Mega Man 2 is a beast. It really is all killer, no filler here. Another point in its favor would be that most of these other amazing chiptunes I alluded to above date from after 1988. Timing matters, and for an entire generation of NES kids, the ubiquitous Mega Man 2 was probably more likely than any other single title to be their first exposure to genuinely great video game music. In terms of quality, consistency, and impact on both gaming fans and the industry itself, it’s tough to point to any other soundtrack on the system that can outshine this one. Damn tough.

So far, what I’ve outlined is an all-around bigger, shinier, more complete take on an already groundbreaking action classic. What could there possibly be to complain about? Well, it all seems to boil down to three primarily factors: The lack of difficulty, the supposedly poor balancing of the robot master weapons, and the relative simplicity of Mega Man’s core move set when compared to some of the later series entries.

This is certainly not a particularly punishing game by the standards of the time period and genre. When compared to the first Mega Man, for example, Mega Man 2’s platforming hazards and boss encounters have been toned down significantly. This is true even before you factor in the presence of the new energy tank items and, in the international release, the addition of a new, easier difficulty mode (somewhat misleadingly termed “Normal”) accessible from the title screen.

Closely tied to the difficulty issue is the question of weapon balance. Mention Mega Man 2 to almost any current or former NES enthusiast and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the almighty Metal Blade. No other weapon in the series’ long history has made so strong an impression on players, for better or worse. It can be rapid fired in every direction, inflicts massive damage on almost all targets, pierces multiple enemies with a single shot, and has effectively unlimited ammunition. The rest of your arsenal just can’t compete. Metal Blade is essentially an additional easy mode on top of the already existing one in a game that really needed neither. Plus, how ironic is it that the ultimate destructive force in a world of futuristic laser-shooting sentient robots would be a hand-tossed circular saw blade straight out of Home Depot?

Finally, some fans of later Mega Man releases love to point out that the titular hero here lacks some default abilities present in those installments. Specifically, he can’t slide along the ground or hold down the fire button to charge his arm cannon for extra damage. With much of the stage design and enemy encounters in those sequels being designed around the new abilities, it can understandably be jarring to revisit Mega Man 2’s simpler movement and combat.

These are substantial, well-reasoned critiques to be sure and I wanted to do my best to acknowledge them in a fair and respectful manner. Having hopefully accomplished that, I’m now going to explain why none of them amount to much.

Yes, Mega Man 2 is easy, even on the so-called Difficult setting. That is to say it’s easy for me as a die-hard that’s been playing these games since they debuted. I’m so steeped in 2D action-platforming at this point that there’s no Mega Man game I can’t waltz through in single play session if I buckle down and focus, not even one completely new to me. But is it reasonable for me to come down on Capcom for not designing this game around my skill set? Hardly. I can sleepwalk through Mega Man 2 now. Thirty years ago, not so much. Everyone has to start somewhere and Mega Man 2 is (and likely always will be) the ideal entry point to the series for players new to the character or to the genre in general. That’s a vitally important niche to fill, despite what some über hardcore types would have you believe. Besides, if the game really is too easy for you, this is where the modular nature of a Mega Man game’s difficulty can be put to best use. Try playing through the game without using energy tanks, or without the Metal Blade, or with only the default buster cannon, or even with limited lives. There’s likely more potential challenge lurking here than you might think.

How about the Metal Blade? Is it unbalanced? Potentially game-breaking, even? Hell, yeah, it is! Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on, though: Balance, in non-competitive gaming at least, isn’t necessarily all that important and can sometimes even be a detriment when it results in an generally unexciting assortment of options. Know what else isn’t at all balanced? The spread gun in Contra. Not to mention the sword (also known as the dagger or knife) in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. These are famously the only weapons you want in their respective games and are inseparable in the minds of gamers from the series that introduced them. In that respect, they’re legitimately iconic. People have the Contra spread gun icon hanging on their walls! This gambit doesn’t always pay off, naturally. I criticized the otherwise excellent NES Bionic Commando for having only one great gun. The difference is that nobody starts raving about how awesome the rocket launcher in Bionic Commando was the second the game comes up in conversation. It’s overpowered, but not unforgettably so. The Metal Blade, like the spread gun, is both. It’s the definitive special weapon of the series and Mega Man 2 is more memorable, indeed better for its inclusion. Oh, and using it is completely optional. Almost forgot that bit.

The preference for the slide and charge shot maneuvers is understandable, as these mechanics can be a lot of fun in the games in which they’re present. That said, there’s also a certain elegant simplicity to Mega Man in his original “jump and shoot man” form, particularly for those same new players I mentioned above. In any case, the fact that this game wasn’t designed with these abilities in mind obviously means that they’re in no way necessary to tackle the challenges here and their absence detracts not one bit from enjoying what’s present. In a game built around them, they’re fine. In Mega Man 2, they’re frankly neither here nor there.

Whew! Enough apologetics, already! Look, whether or not this is the best Mega Man game ever made is ultimately down to the individual player. With virtually every main line entry being a world class action-platformer in its own right, there just aren’t many wrong opinions to go around. What I do maintain is that Mega Man 2 is the greatest Mega Man game ever made, both from an artistic standpoint (befitting its status as a passion project) and in terms of the sheer magnitude of its influence on the hobby. The original was laden with potential, if also rough around the edges. As the first fully-fledged entry in the franchise, Mega Man 2 is pure promise fulfilled; a landmark release that can never be truly replicated. The remainder of the series is fundamentally iterative. If Mega Man 1 is the video game equivalent of John Glenn orbiting the earth, Mega Man 2 is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon: One small step for a (Mega) Man, one giant leap for gamerkind. The later titles? Well, they’re more along the lines of Alan Shepard golfing on the moon: Still remarkable achievements and well worth your attention, but you can’t convince me the same degree of magic is still present.

So, while the whole “everlasting peace” thing may not have panned-out, Mega Man 2 has achieved something almost as impressive: Everlasting relevance.

Gun.Smoke (NES)

What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes.

The year is 1849 and the remote Gold Rush town of Hicksville (yes, really) is straining under the yoke of the Wingates, a heartless band of desperados intent on taking the beleaguered miners for all they’re worth. Until their savior rides into town with the sun as his back, that is. He’s the fearless bounty hunter Billy Bob and he’s determined to liberate Hicksville the only way he knows how: By doing his very best impression of a spaceship.

Yes, Capcom’s 1985 arcade game Gun.Smoke was a vertical scrolling shooter. One of the first to see the player controlling something other than a spacecraft or military vehicle. The strange period in the title was presumably intended to appease the lawyers over at CBS Television. Their Gunsmoke series was a mainstay of American pop culture for the duration of its staggering twenty year run. In fact, its former record of 635 scripted episodes was only just recently surpassed by The Simpsons. It may not look like much, but that little dot apparently did the trick.

The game’s Wild West trappings were fundamentally skin-deep. Replace the dusty streets of Hicksville with an ocean or a starfield and the human players with airplanes or robots and the action would remain fully coherent. Its ace in the hole was the impeccable polish that Capcom built its arcade reputation on. The art and music did such a stellar job of drawing players in that it was hard to hold some familiar mechanics against it. Play centered on the mastery of three dedicated fire buttons that allowed Billy Bob to fire to his left, right, or straight ahead as needed as he strode through a total of ten stages collecting power-ups and administering lead poisoning to a small army of Wingate flunkies.

Predictably, some compromises were necessary when Gun.Smoke was ported to the NES in 1988. The graphics took the inevitable hit and the firing controls were simplified for a two-button controller, with both buttons now needing to be pressed simultaneously to fire straight ahead. A slightly awkward maneuver, to be sure. Most crucially, the number of stages was cut down to six.

Not every change was for the worse, however. The arcade Gun.Smoke was a ruthlessly difficult game; a true quarter muncher. Things are much more reasonable here, with fewer, less aggressive enemy characters and more options for dealing with them. NES Gun.Smoke isn’t really an easy game by most standards, but it’s a far cry from the unapologetic savagery of the original.

We also have some new music by chiptune virtuoso Junko Tamiya. As usual, her work is elegantly tailored to the game’s setting and action. Like the militaristic staccato percussion of Bionic Commando and the dainty music box melodies of Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Gun.Smoke’s twangy strings meld seamlessly with its pulp Western landscapes.

I particularly appreciate what they’ve done with the scoring system in the NES version. I’m a sucker for games where something as typically abstract as the player’s score is re-framed as a tangible resource of some kind. Here, as Billy Bob is a bounty hunter, the points he earns from blowing away baddies take the form of dollars that can be spent at shops run by friendly NPC characters in each stage. This introduces a high stakes “risk versus reward” dynamic to the game, since players serious about racking up high scores will be hesitant to utilize the shops at all. On the other hand, those that just want to maximize their chances for survival can trade a chunks of score in for more powerful weapons like the shotgun and magnum, defensive items like the horse and smart bomb, and even the elusive wanted posters.

What use is a wanted poster? Oddly enough, you’re required to either find or buy one in every stage. If you don’t, the boss won’t show his face and the terrain will instead loop endlessly. This is the most commonly criticized change to the arcade game’s formula and seems to have been intended as a way to lengthen the overall experience by adding a scavenger hunt element. Assuming you’re not willing to surrender large sums of points for them, the posters must be uncovered by repeatedly shooting at a specific, seemingly empty portion of each stage’s background. The only clue that you’ve stumbled on the correct spot is the unusual sound that your bullets make when striking the invisible poster. On the plus side, you can exploit this mechanic if you like by deliberately looping some of the easier early levels in order to rack up tons of points, gear, and extra lives.

One thing I take unequivocal issue with is the lack of a built-on autofire feature for Billy Bob’s standard pistols. Having to tap for every bullet is a big no-no in any shooter. You can purchase a machine gun from the shops that will remedy this, but it’s is a temporary solution most of the time, as any special weapon equipped is lost upon death. The fact that you’ll automatically lose your horse at the end of a stage comes off as an equally inconsiderate design choice. You’re potentially able to keep the rest of your power-ups between stages, so why not your faithful mount?

Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that the NES Gun.Smoke sacrifices breadth for depth. The loss of four entire levels is certainly felt, but the introduction of an in-game economy and an arsenal of new weapons renders the six that remain more fun to plow through than ever before. The wanted poster system adds still more to do, though I’m divided on whether it’s rewarding or just plain busywork. Actually finding a hidden poster is indeed satisfying. Less so the preceding period of wandering around in circles. Individual temperament will be the deciding factor there, I suppose.

Personally, I prefer this version of the game over the arcade original by a great margin. The reigned-in difficulty strikes a better balance between excitement and frustration and the presentation gains more from the addition of the new music than it loses with the dip in graphical detail. It stands tall in the pantheon of simple, well-crafted NES action staples, right alongside titles like Contra and Jackal. Perfect to pull down off the shelf anytime you’re feeling the urge for a quick burst of steely-eyed gunslinging against the nastiest bandits, rustlers, and ninja that 19th century California can muster.

Huh? Well, of course there were ninja in the Old West. The place was practically swarming with them. It’s not like video games would just lie to me, you know. Yeesh.