Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action-platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know that it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same, while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time and the power-up system that involved your dragon sprouting extra heads is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal “blue dragon” difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in “gold dragon” mode, where your dragon has better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is that you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons that will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens that you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems that the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form, is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out that another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

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Fester’s Quest (NES)

Hey, you were expecting maybe Jason Frudnick?

Richard Robbins had a dream. Literally. One night, circa 1989, he dreamed that he was playing a video game called “Uncle Fester’s Playhouse” based on the Addams Family characters. Instead of laughing this off come morning like a normal person, Robbins reacted as if he’d been the recipient of some divine inspiration and promptly dedicated himself to making this Uncle Fester game a reality. His day job as a producer for the U.S. arm of game publisher Sunsoft helped just a bit, I imagine.

Created by cartoonist Charles Addams for the New Yorker magazine all the way back in 1938, the Addams Family was conceived as a clan of macabre eccentrics satirizing popular notions of the wholesome, all-American nuclear family. A 1964 tv sitcom adaptation brought the Family to mainstream prominence, but their cultural relevance may well have been at an all-time low around 1989. This was still two years before the first big screen movie would come along to reinvigorate the franchise.

Regardless, Robbins pushed ahead and managed to convince the late Charles Addams’ widow to give her blessing to his little passion project through a protracted series of long distance phone calls to France. His higher-ups at Sunsoft Japan were even harder sells. He later recounted in an interview that they “were extremely skeptical and gave me a real hard time. They really questioned who would care about this really old weird TV show.” It’s a fair enough question. The proposed game wouldn’t even star either of the main characters from the show, Gomez and Morticia, and the bald, rotund creepy uncle character Fester was hardly traditional action hero material.

Finally, and against all odds, funding and an extremely short development window were approved. Another Sunsoft U.S. employee, Michael Mendheim, would serve as lead designer in addition to providing the game’s cover art in the form of an excellent likeness of actor Jackie Coogan, who portrayed Fester in the tv series. The finished release, titled Fester’s Quest, would go on to sell just over one million copies. This was quite a remarkable showing for a third party NES game, especially one that was never released in Japan.

It all sounds like a picture perfect lovable underdog success story, except for one little detail: Fester’s Quest is widely reviled by gamers. This is one of those rare titles like Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game that’s treated as a pariah online despite being popular in its day. To find out why, let’s delve into the actual game.

Fester’s Quest is an overhead view run-and-gun action game that takes numerous design cues from the similar segments in Sunsoft’s earlier NES title Blaster Master. This is no accident, as the same development team worked on both games. Robbins himself was even the one responsible for Blaster Master’s famously absurd mutant frog storyline.

The plot here is almost as strange as that. As seen in a rather cute opening cut scene, it involves an alien spaceship that descends on New York City one night and promptly begins abducting its inhabitants. Now it’s up to Fester to take up his musket and spearhead a rescue mission while the rest of his kin provide material support along the way in the form of various weapons and power-ups. Uncle Fester versus space aliens. That’s really what they went with.

Most of the action takes place in what appears to be a suburban neighborhood that’s been overrun with aliens. There are two types of buildings to be found here: Smaller brown houses that each contain an Addams Family member with a helpful item to dispense and larger gray structures that each hold one of the game’s boss monsters. You can’t just visit these locations in any order you want, however. Hedges, fences, and other obstructions effectively partition this “overworld” into discreet sections, imposing a strict linear progression on the player. In order to travel between different sections of the map, Fester has to descend into the sewers at various points and negotiate a series of narrow underground tunnels before reemerging in the next part of town. Eventually, you’ll reach the final stage inside the alien mothership itself.

Fester’s primary means of combatting the aliens is his gun, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one from Blaster Master. It can be upgraded multiple times by collecting blue power-up icons from enemies and fires in a variety of patterns determined by its current power level. Because most of these shot patterns involve bullets that move in awkward wave-like or circular fashions that make it difficult to actually hit foes, it’s advisable to upgrade to the maximum power level at the very start of the game and to stay that way indefinitely. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, since enemies will also drop red power-down icons that will lower gun power one level if touched. Avoiding these red icons certainly doesn’t add any fun to the game, though it is a whole lot less punishing than Blaster Master’s habit of downgrading your weapon automatically each and every time you took damage. Later on, Fester can acquire a secondary weapon in the form of a whip provided by Morticia (uh, kinky?) and this also has its own upgrades and downgrades to fuss over. The whip is much more powerful than the gun on a per-hit basis, balanced by a limited range and slower attack speed.

Aside from his two main weapons, there are numerous other items to collect. Keys open doors, light bulbs illuminate the dark sewers, money buys health restoring franks from hot dog stands, and vise grips cure the annoying slowing effect of certain enemy attacks. The really important items are the potions, homing missiles, and nooses. Potions come in healing and invincibility varieties (the utility of each being obvious), homing missiles automatically seek out and deal heavy damage to enemies, and nooses summon the family butler Lurch to instantly obliterate all non-boss enemies on the screen. The intelligent use of these four key items will make Fester’s adventure much more manageable. Each is only available in a limited quantity, but defeating a boss will replenish Fester’s stock completely. In a pinch, revisiting the house where you received your initial batch of a given item will also top off your supply.

Nothing here sounds all that bad so far, apart from maybe the weapon downgrades. So where do the real problems start?

Let’s start with the health bar. At the very beginning of the game, Fester can only withstand two hits before dying. He’s also a very slow-moving character and has a tough time escaping from any enemies that manage to get too close to him. To make matters worse still, many aliens require a ton of shots to kill unless Fester’s gun is fully powered and they tend to respawn almost immediately when destroyed. You can locate a pair of hidden health bar extension later in the game, thankfully. The instruction manual will even tip you off as to where to look for one of them. Until you get your mitts on at least one of these bonus hit points and some healing potions, though, it’s going to be tough going for your pasty protagonist.

The second major issue involves what happens when you eventually do run out of health. Fester’s Quest has a continue feature and the game keeps tabs on inventory items, weapon upgrades, and bosses defeated. As long as you don’t power off the console, that is. The bad news is that continuing places Fester back at the first screen of the game. Since everything is arranged along one winding path, this can mean having to spend a considerable amount of time slowly marching through the exact same series of streets and sewers again just to take another shot at clearing the bit that actually killed you. After being defeated by the fourth boss, I was not exactly thrilled to spend upward of twenty minutes just trekking back to his door for a rematch.

Speaking of the bosses, Fester’s Quest forces you to trudge through an out-of-place and completely pointless first-person maze before you battle each of them. These mazes feature no hidden loot to find (with one key exception), no enemies to fight or traps to avoid, and not even a time limit. At least they’re easy to solve using the classic “all left turns” or “all right turns” methods. These mazes have to be one of the most baffling vestigial elements I’ve ever encountered in a game. I can only assume that the designer intended to do something with them, but ultimately ran out of time.

One final thing that holds Fester’s Quest back from greatness is its lackluster and repetitive environments. I hope you like endless interchangeable suburbs and sewers, because that’s a good 90% of what you’re in for here. By the time you reach the final level inside the alien ship, it’ll hit you that this is the first new set of background tiles you’ve seen since you first started out.

So, yes, this is one flawed game. Largely owing, I suspect, to its rushed development cycle. Even so, there remains much good be found in Fester’s Quest. It was brought to us by many of the same people behind Batman, Blaster Master, and Journey to Silius, after all.

For one thing, the boss battles are quite cool. Just like in Blaster Master, each boss looks intimidating and has a ton of health, but also follows a fairly simple pattern that lets you take it down with ease once you’ve mastered it. The initial sense of panic experienced when facing each new boss sets the stage for some exhilarating victories and increased confidence as the game progresses.

The presentation has its high points, too. While the environments are indeed bland, the design and animation of the aliens was handled much better. I also thought the portraits of the various Addams Family members looked quite nice. The soundtrack was provided by by Naoki Kodaka, the genius responsible for the driving, bass sample-heavy “Sunsoft sound” that characterized most of the company’s output at the time. There aren’t a lot of tracks here, but what we do get is superb. I particularly love the cheesy digitized orchestra hit included in the game’s rendition of the the classic tv theme song.

Best of all, Fester’s Quest as a whole presents a very satisfying challenge to the player. The difficulty is rather front-loaded due to the lack of health and items at the start, but persevere past that speed bump and the mid-to-late game turns out to be much more enjoyable. With a bit of extra health and some smart application of your inventory, Fester’s Quest is very much beatable with a minimum of frustration.

Is Fester’s Quest some kind of misunderstood masterpiece or NES hidden gem? Absolutely not. Often, when the term “underrated” is thrown around, it’s in the context of wanting to champion something. That isn’t my intention at all. Much like Silver Surfer, this is a merely an okay-ish NES game that I managed to enjoy. It has the baseline level of Sunsoft production quality that would have almost certainly been lacking in an LJN or THQ joint. It’s also unrepentantly weird as hell in every aspect of its concept and execution, which might just make it the most authentic Addams Family game adaptation ever in light of all the thoroughly pedestrian platformers that followed in the wake of the films. If you enjoyed the overhead stages from Blaster Master, it’s worth checking out. Only in the context of the ludicrous amount of vitriol spewed at it online does it make sense to call it underrated.

Me, I’ll only go so far as to say that it’s not altogether ooky.

Holy Diver (Famicom)

“Holy Diver
Sole survivor
You’re the one who’s clean”

Wait, didn’t I already review Holy Diver? Well, kind of. I jotted down a few quick paragraphs to commemorate the occasion when I first completed it a year ago, but I’ve really wanted to go back and give it the more detailed treatment it deserves ever since I started collecting my game writing together in blog form this past July. What better time than now?

This is a very special game for me. See, it was around this time last year that it hit me: I had several hundred games filling my shelves that I hadn’t really played. Such a waste! What was even the point? Was I a real gamer or just a misguided hoarder of dead plastic? Enough! I made a resolution then and there to play through at least one game a week for the next year. But where to start? My mind immediately fixed itself on a little cartridge I picked up at the 2016 Portland Retro Gaming Expo a few months prior….

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some ’80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a Famicom released called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or perhaps a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

I’d also heard that the game was a tough one, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I was all fired-up to attack my game backlog head-on, so I popped Holy Diver into my console, hit that power button, and never looked back. True to its reputation, it wasn’t easy. Not at all. I spent one entire evening trying and failing to get past the utterly fiendish level four boss. I refused to give up, however, and my devotion to the cause of Holy Magic Justice eventually saw me through. In the year since, I’ve completed a total of 75 additional games, 60 of them for the first time ever. I’ve also written what collectively feels like a novel’s worth of reviews and reflections on each and every one. So much for a game a week! It’s been the single best gaming year of my life so far and it all started with Holy Diver.

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side-scrolling action-platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world. The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

This story is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing. And I love it. So much. An epic high fantasy saga starring Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, King Crimson, and Slayer? Yeah, sign me up for that and do it yesterday, please. Naturally, Irem was careful not to make direct use of the likenesses or songs of any real world musicians, but the game still manages to wear its influences on its sleeve with this backstory. When reviewing a Famicom exclusive release, I’ll often express some regret over the fact that players outside Japan never got to experience it back in the day. In Holy Diver’s case, though, I’m glad. There’s simply no chance that any of its ludicrous heavy metal name dropping and warped religious imagery would have survived the transition to the NES intact in 1989. It’s far better, I think, to experience this one as its creators intended. Luckily for us, the use of English for all the game’s text (apart from the rōmaji level titles) makes it extremely approachable for non-Japanese players.

You’ll often see the gameplay in Holy Diver likened to that of a Castlevania title. At a glance, it’s easy to see why. They’re both side scrollers with an overarching horror theme and Randy looks an awful lot like Simon Belmont with long hair and a cape. Superficials aside, it won’t take Castlevania veterans long to realize that Holy Diver is a whole other beast at heart. The classic Castlevanias were balanced around the characteristic short, fixed Belmont jump arc and the whip with its relatively slow attack speed and lengthy startup time. Randy’s jump is much higher and floatier, not to mention steerable in the air. He’s also much quicker on the draw with the fireballs he shoots as his primary attack, although they still only reach about a third of the way across the screen. The action as a whole is faster and more fluid, resembling Konami’s Getsu Fūma Den more than any other single game I can recall, albeit with more of a focus on ranged combat thanks to Randy’s arsenal of spells.

There are five of these spells in total and each one costs between two and twenty magic points per use. Magic is selected via a pause menu similar to Zelda II’s and you toggle between the currently equipped spell and Randy’s standard shot with the Select button, echoing the way you deploy your missiles in the original Metroid. Randy starts the game with Twin Fire, which doubles the power of his normal attack and extends its range to full screen. Defeating the bosses at the end of each of the first four stages will grant Randy a new power. Blizzard freezes streams of lava solid to allow for progress through some stages and also immobilizes weak enemies temporarily. Breaker fires a single piercing beam of magic that’s slow, but devastatingly powerful. Overdrive summons a pair of spinning orbs that will orbit Randy for a time and shield him from enemies and their projectiles. Finally, Thunder deals heavy damage to every enemy on the screen in exchange for a ton of magic points. All of these abilities are extremely useful and they remain so right up until the end of the game. In terms of design, this is no small feat. Just ask any Mega Man fan about all the pointless weapons they never get around to using.

Be sure to also keep your eyes peeled for important items in each of the six stages that can enhance Randy’s abilities even further. There are containers to extend maximum health and magic points, 1-Ups, a bracelet for breaking certain blocks, high jump boots, a vitally important staff that will cut the cost of most spells in half, and even a power-up that will briefly morph Randy into a flying, fire breathing dragon.

You’ll need all the help you can get, because the enemies in this game do not mess around. Almost without exception they’re tougher, faster, and less predictable than their counterparts in most other platformers. Take the flying skulls that are Holy Diver’s equivalent of the medusa heads from Castlevania. They’re not only swifter and more numerous, they’ll actually reverse direction after they pass by Randy and make a beeline straight for his back. Then there are the bouncing critters that fire a constant stream of damaging projectiles across the screen at semi-random altitudes, require a dozen hits to destroy, and will retreat as Randy advances in order to stay just outside of his standard fireball range. Or the golems in the later stages, common enemies almost as tough as bosses that are better avoided altogether if at all possible. Proficiency at Holy Diver is mainly a matter of figuring out all the ways each enemy can wreck you and which spells are best at wrecking them first. That, and not running out of magic points. At least continues are unlimited!

As relentless as it is, I really do love the sense of character progression that’s built into the game. The early stages can be tough going, since Randy’s health and magical abilities are at their weakest. Around the second half of stage four, the balance starts to tip a bit more in his favor and it continues to do so right up to the very end. By the time Randy reaches the sixth and final stage, he not only has his full complement of spells, but effectively about four times the health and eight times the magic points he started with. You go from feeling like a harried underdog to a battle-hardened wizard king that can go toe-to-toe with the very worst of the demon horde. It’s an interesting approach that seeks to combine the permanent character growth of an open-ended game like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda with the strictly linear level structure of a Contra or Ninja Gaiden and it works well here. In addition to making the player feel like a badass, it also allows the designers to go wild in the later levels and subject Randy to a torrent of the toughest foes the game has to offer while still keeping the nature of the challenge fair.

The visuals and audio in Holy Diver are both a real treat. Where Castlevania was a horror platformer with a style inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, Holy Diver stays true to its heavy metal roots by doubling down on the demonic. The first stage is a sinister cathedral dominated by a large cross with a skull and serpent mounted on it. Stage two’s name translates as “Hell of Entrails” and it certainly looks the part, with the fetuses encased in the walls being a particularly gross touch. There’s also a crucifixion scene later and even a pentagram on the menu screen. The level of detail on the sprites and backgrounds is excellent by 1989 standards, resulting in a very strong and cohesive dark fantasy atmosphere. The score is as heavy and driving as you would expect, though the enjoyment is hampered a bit by the fact that several of the stages share background tracks. What we get sounds good, but a unique song for each stage would have been nice. You’ll likely be spending a good amount of time on each one, after all. The sound effects used for Randy’s spells are also worth singling out for praise. Each magic has a distinct and full-bodied sound that lends it a real sense of power.

It should be obvious by now that Holy Diver is an extremely well-designed and presented action-platformer worthy of its pedigree. In fact, it’s one of my personal favorite Famicom games. If it has any real flaw apart from its limited soundtrack, it’s a highly subjective one: The level of difficulty is high from start to finish and not every player will want to invest the time needed to overcome it. It’s not the most fearsome game out there by any means. Both Battletoads and Blaster Master took me more time to learn. I still had to put in multiple lengthy practice sessions before I was able to fight my way all the way to the Black Slayer, though. I’d say that if you’re determined, patient, and have a good amount of action-platforming experience under your belt already, Holy Diver is a tiger you need to ride. If not, it may just leave you feeling like you’ve gotta get away.

Holy Diver has earned itself a permanent spot in my gaming rotation. As an unapologetic love letter to all things classic metal and one hell of an 8-bit thrill ride, it inspired me to get off my ass (metaphorically speaking) and make with the playing and writing about games already. Since then, I’ve blown my New Year’s resolution out of the water and I’m just getting started. Thanks, Irem.

Now bring on year two of that backlog!

Abadox: The Deadly Inner War (NES)

Another day, another big explosion to fly away from.

This time, it’s courtesy of Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. It may not be a horror game, but at least it’s still really gross. This 1989 shooter comes to us from developer Natsume (before they struck gold with their Harvest Moon series of cutesy farming simulators) and publisher Milton Bradley.

Though mainly remembered today for its classic board games, defunct toy giant Milton Bradley played an interesting bit part in early video game history. Most notably, they released the Microvision in 1979. A full decade before the Game Boy, this black-and-white handheld system was the first of its class to play games on interchangeable cartridges. It did not sell well.

But I digress. Abadox has a bit of a mixed reputation among NES fans, mostly due to being seen as a blatant clone of Konami’s excellent Life Force. If you think I’m here now to defend it from these unjust charges, you’re way off. In fact, Abadox mirrors Life Force pretty shamelessly. Flying into a colossal planet-eating alien to save the galaxy? Check. Six stages that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling? Check. Climactic escape sequence after defeating the last boss where you have to weave between gaps in the walls at high speed? Check yet again. Even some of the background elements like the giant teeth that jut out of the walls at you in the first stage are lifted straight from Life Force.

While there isn’t a lot about Abadox that’s original, it does have its strengths. The core shooting mechanics are solid and the positively disgusting enemy designs and detailed sprites and backgrounds do a much better job actually conveying the premise of flying through the innards of a giant alien than Life Force’s ever did.

Here’s the setup: the year is 5012 and the planet of Abadox has just been attacked and devoured by an alien menace known as Parasitis. The Abadox space fleet mounts an attack on Parasitis, but is wiped out. The sole survivor is Second Lieutenant Nazal, who was late to the battle thanks to spaceship engine trouble. To save the galaxy and avenge his fallen comrades, Nazal must don his armored spacesuit and attempt to fly inside Parasitis and destroy it from the inside. Oh, and also Princess Maria of Abadox was on board a hospital ship swallowed by the alien, so you need to rescue her, too. Thank goodness! I was running pretty low on motivation with that saving the universe and avenging the loss of my entire home planet angle, but now that there’s a total space babe involved, sign me up!

The game opens on the surface of Parasitis and you even fly by the gore-soaked wreckage of your defeated space fleet on the background. On the way through this stage, you’ll pass by teeth and a creepy animated tongue with deadly drool dripping onto it before reaching level two: The throat. This is the first of the vertical scrolling stages, but unlike in almost every other overhead shooter ever made, Abadox starts you off at the top of the screen and has you proceeding downward. While it’s handled well and reinforces the “diving into the belly of the beast” scenario, this downward progression is unfortunately the only unique twist to the gameplay found here.

The rest of the action consists of bog standard 8-bit shooter stuff. You start out slow and almost defenseless, with a puny “pea shooter” gun. Certain enemies will drop power-ups when defeated. These include speed boosts, weapon upgrades, rotating satellites that surround you and block enemy attacks, and a shield that lets you survive contact with a bullet or two. One touch from an enemy or wall will blow you up, which strips away all your power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint immediately after the last boss you defeated. Thankfully, each stage has a mid-boss halfway through that doubles as a checkpoint. Once you beat it, you won’t get sent back all the way to the start of the level upon death. You’ve probably seen all this before. It’s Gradius 101.

Unlike a lot of shooters for the system, Abadox does provide unlimited continues, so you’ll never have to start over from the beginning of the game when you die unless you choose to. This makes it a good choice for those that really hate forced restarts, although it does come at a price: Some of the stage layouts and enemy placement can be claustrophobic and chaotic to a downright fiendish degree. If you thought building your strength back up after being sent back to a checkpoint in Gradius was hard, Abadox takes it to a whole other level. The game does technically give you the power-ups necessary to squeak by in these cases, but much memorization and messy trial and error will be needed to figure out the ideal path.

At least the end level bosses are all pretty easy once you do finally reach them. They tend to be stationary and fire only in fixed patterns that leave obvious safe spots in which you can park yourself while you blaze away at them. At least they look really icky and cool, just like the rest of the game. Ironically, the mid-bosses are much more fun and challenging to fight. They move around a lot more and their shots often track your position, forcing you to do the same.

Ultimately, Abadox is no classic. It brings all the typical space shooter stuff to the table and handles it adaquately, but the balancing could use some work. The unlimited lives thing seems more like a workaround than anything else, intended to cover for a lack of experience planning out stages and enemy patterns in a harmonious fashion. Even with limited credits, a well-balanced shooter is just more fun because you don’t need to get yourself blown up dozens of times before you figure out exactly how to limp to the next checkpoint. Abadox also suffers from some technical hiccups. There’s slowdown at times, which is to be expected, but the sprite flicker is more problematic. I was occasionally blown up for no apparent reason because the screen was so crowded with sprites that an enemy bullet glitched out and went invisible. That’s always a bummer.

The game’s real saving grace is its spectacularly grotesque pixel art. Strictly speaking, this might be the goriest game for the NES and it’s all very well drawn. The fact that all the blood and guts belong to killer aliens and not any human characters is probably the only thing that got it past Nintendo of America’s notoriously strict content guidelines. The music (by Kiyohiro Sada of Contra fame) is also praiseworthy, but only to the degree that it’s present. Abadox’s soundtrack is extremely short for a 1989 release and three of the game’s six stages share the same background music.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly out of a space monster’s colon with a princess in tow…well, you’re one freaky individual. I guess you could try Abadox, though.

Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (Famicom)

Aww! Impending doom has never been so adorable!

I wanted to keep the October spook train rolling, but needed a bit of a palate cleanser after the complex, innovative, and seriously intense Sweet Home. Splatterhouse to the rescue!

Namco introduced the original Splatterhouse to Japanese arcades right around Halloween time in 1988. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up with light platforming elements, its primary claim to fame was being one of the first truly gory releases by a major publisher. In the game, college student Rick, aided by a possessed “terror mask” that grants him superhuman strength (and bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the one worn by cinema’s most famous homicidal ice hockey enthusiast), must rescue his missing girlfriend Jennifer from the army of bloodthirsty ghouls inhabiting a creepy old mansion. He accomplishes this by walking to the right and…splattering things. In a house. Who says there’s no such thing as truth in advertising?

The first Splatterhouse was an incredibly basic game, even for the time. More or less Irem’s Kung-Fu Master by way of a Cannibal Corpse album cover, it was the (figuratively) eye-popping 16-bit graphics and (literally) eye-popping carnage that put it over the top and made it a fondly-remembered hit.

A console game was inevitable. The only problem? A faithful recreation of the arcade smash was all but impossible on the most popular home system of the time, Nintendo’s aging 8-bit Famicom. The solution? Cuteness. Tons and tons of cuteness. Rather than attempting to copy the arcade Splatterhouse’s gruesome and gritty look, Namco instead embraced what the Famicom did best: Bright colors and squat “super deformed” characters. The result was 1989’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. It was not just the only original Splatterhouse game ever produced for a Nintendo system, but also the first in the series to come out for any home console, predating the better-known arcade port for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 by some eight months.

In the Japanese language, “wanpaku” is a word indicating naughtiness, particularly of a childlike and innocent nature. Think Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson and you’ve got the gist of it. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as the game exudes a charming irreverence that perfectly complements its wacky art style.

As the game begins, we see a short establishing scene of Jennifer mourning at Rick’s graveside. How he ended up dead despite surviving the first game is a bit puzzling at first, but it all makes sense by the end. Next thing you know, a bolt of lightning strikes Rick’s grave and he pops out good as new, terror mask and all! Jennifer rejoices, but only briefly as a second bolt hits the adjacent grave and resurrects the Pumpkin King, who is (unfortunately) not Jack Skellington, but rather a giant flying jack-o-lantern. The Pumpkin King grabs Jennifer and flies off, leaving Rick to grab his trusty axe and give chase through seven levels of side-scrolling mayhem.

Like its predecessor, Wanpaku Graffiti is a very simple game. One button makes Rick jump and the other swings his cleaver. There’s also a shotgun weapon with limited ammunition that appears as an occasional pick-up and candy and hamburgers that restore health, but that’s all. All you need to worry about is running to the right, whacking any enemies that get in your way, and jumping over pits, spikes, and other hazards.

One new element here is the experience system. The game keeps track of the enemies you kill, and hitting a certain threshold (displayed in the upper left of the screen) will extend Rick’s health meter by one bar. It’s a nice addition that encourages aggressive play by rewarding you for engaging with the enemies instead of just sprinting past them.

Speaking of sprinting, in most Splatterhouse games, Rick is a very slow, lumbering sort of character to control. The first thing series veterans will notice is how zippy he is here by comparison. The little dude can really move! He doesn’t even need to stop running to swing his weapon. Since almost every enemy that isn’t a boss can be defeated in one hit, this means that you can slice through a whole line of foes while dashing forward at full speed if your timing is right. This feels really awesome and nimble Rick is one of the best aspects of Wanpaku Graffiti’s gameplay. The only downside is that he can be a bit slippery and tough to stop on a dime once he gets going, so you will need to slow down on occasion for some of the more platforming-heavy sections.

The levels are based on classic horror locales, starting with the graveyard where our story opens and moving on to a demonic church, a lakeside camp, a haunted mansion, and more. They’re filled with jokey references to famous horror movies, and these are another of the game’s strongest aspects. There are parodies of a lot of the iconic things you might expect, like Alien, The Exorcist, and The Fly, but there’s also a couple that are less obvious. Take the Diamond Lake level, for example. It’s clearly a reference to Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th series, but our hero already looks like Jason Voorhees, so who are they going to get to fight him? Imagine my delight when the end level boss turned out to be Cropsey, the killer from the 1981 cult classic summer camp slasher The Burning! That is some next level horror nerd shit right there. Just about made my night.

Wanpaku Graffiti is a quick and relatively painless experience. You only get five lives before it’s game over, but you’re given a four digit password at the end of each stage, so being forced backwards is never an issue. Levels are short and easy, making it a title that the average player can blow through in an hour or two without much fuss. There are a couple brief hidden levels that you can access via secret doors and beating both will unlock a special extended ending, but these don’t add much to the overall length. Personally, I think this was a great call. Like Monster Party for the NES, Wanpaku Graffiti is more about basking in the off-kilter humor and getting to see what crazy thing the designers have in store for you next than it is mastering finicky mechanics and memorizing challenging level layouts. Getting stuck for hours on a tough bit only to finally make it through might be satisfying in some action titles, but here it would only kill the momentum and give the jokes time to wear out their welcome.

Wanpaku Graffiti might not be the best platformer for the Famicom, or even its best horror-themed one, but I do think it’s the most…Halloweeny. The breezy gameplay and spooky-cute art and music perfectly nail the intoxicating mixture of morbid imagery and unapologetic silliness that makes this my favorite time of year. It’s the gaming equivalent of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash or Linus van Pelt waiting up all night for the Great Pumpkin. The enemies will even disgorge candy like piñatas when you bash them. It’s also a great choice for anyone looking to get into Japanese imports, since almost all the game’s text is already in English. It’s short, simple, and the controls are a tad loose, but I can just about guarantee you’ll be too busy eagerly anticipating the game’s next trick or treat to mind one bit.

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and rpublished by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive.

Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game that’s front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize that Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure that the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times from the first screen of the game onward.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescoes, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only time where you can potentially control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures that everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations that would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by ’80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. It’s always fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience that somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that the high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its most interesting titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….

Strider (NES)

Keep on stridin’.

I’m on vacation in the magical land of poutine and polite people at the moment. Being me, I just had to pack along at least one game. Since I just finished up Strider for the Genesis, I thought I’d go with the NES Strider game that I mentioned in passing in that review.

NES Strider came out the same year as the arcade game, but it’s not a port like the Genesis version. This is a completely different game developed simultaneously by a separate team at Capcom. A smart choice when you consider just how badly compromised a straight attempt at a port for the 8-bit console would have been.

Instead of the arcade’s non-stop linear action, NES owners got a more restrained side-scrolling action platformer with some very light exploration and RPG elements. Strider plus Metroid sounds like a dream come true. If only it were so.

We begin the adventure with everyone’s favorite ninja of the future, Hiryu, being contacted by Matic, vice-director of the Striders. Hilariously, the game’s intro describes the Striders as “the toughest group of people who execute acts such as infiltration, abduction, explosion, instigation, etc.” Matic informs Hiryu that their comrade Kain has been captured by the enemy and that Hiryu must assassinate him, as he’s now become a liability. Hiryu can’t bring himself to kill his old friend and vows to find and rescue him instead.

Right away, this highlights one major difference between the arcade and NES Striders: There’s a story beyond “go kill this evil wizard guy.” Sure, it may be a terrible story filled with unclear motivation, nonexistent characterization, and dialog courtesy of a tornado striking a fortune cookie factory, but it sure does exist! Supposedly, it’s based pretty closely on the original Strider manga series from 1988, though I can’t help but assume that it must have been handled a lot better there. Still, other games of the time with similar structures like Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II kept their plots confined to instruction manuals, so I do give Strider credit for trying at least.

The gameplay involves Hiryu visiting various parts of the globe searching for clues to the true nature of the threat to the Striders: A mysterious secret project called “ZAIN.” Along the way, he’ll also acquire keys and other special items that will allow him to backtrack and explore previously inaccessable parts of earlier levels. Different levels are accessed via the Blue Dragon, a rather cool looking spaceship that serves as a central hub of sorts.

Gameplay is sound in theory. One button jumps, one attacks. Hiryu also gains additional abilities by leveling up as he reaches inportant points in the story. These include a ground slide and a “plasma arrow” projectile attack that’s slow to charge up but vital for defeating certain bosses. Leveling up will also increase maximum health and the energy points needed to use what the game calls “tricks.” These work a lot like the magic spells in Zelda II and can be used to heal damage, boost jump height, warp back to the Blue Dragon instantly, and unleash different supplementary attacks. The extra attacks are kind of neat sometimes, but I mostly found myself saving my energy for healing and warping.

While Strider does have a solid structure on paper, it stumbles badly in its execution. Jumping controls and hit detection are quite shockingly bad, especially considering that this was the developer that gave us Mega Man. Hiryu’s jumps are jerky and prone to being halted abruptly by the mere proximity of a wall or platform. There are no bottomless instant death pits to stumble into, thankfully, but expect to have your patience seriously tested by the need to retrace your steps through the same section of a level over and over just to take repeated shots at what would be an incredibly basic jump in any other game.

It doesn’t help that the enemies and stages don’t stand out that much, either. You’ll rarely face more than one or two baddies at a time and they’re generally unimpressive and easy to dispatch, although they can still get in their share of shots due to the odd hit detection. If you’re even in the same postal code as an enemy bullet, kiss your health points goodbye.

A couple stages are decent. I liked Egypt, which features a nice (if all too short) segment on a moving train as well as action both atop and underneath a desert pyramid. Most levels, though, are generic and in no way resemble the real world locations they’re named for. Show anyone the Australia or Los Angeles stages from this game and see if they can guess what they’re supposed to be. I don’t fancy their chances.

Strider is also no winner in the graphics department. Most backgrounds are either a solid color or fairly plain. Sprites are not too bad but not very good either and sprite flicker is rife, despite the low enemy count. On the plus side, the introductory cut scene is marvelous and the character portraits are well drawn.

At least there’s the score by Harumi Fujita, the one element of Strider that’s unequivocally strong. The second you power on the system your ears are graced by one of the best title screen themes ever, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the session.

I found Strider for Genesis to be a good game that lacked only in comparison to later top tier action platformers for the system, but NES Strider really is a whole other story. It’s honestly tough to recommend this one at all. The way the action is programmed feels sloppy, bordering on glitchy at times, the story is a mess, and the presentation is average at best, despite a really solid soundtrack.

It is a very inexpensive game, however, and makes for a quick playthrough due to being less mazelike and convoluted than some of the titles that inspired it. If you’re a fan of Strider Hiryu himself or of Metroid type games in general, you might find this one to be worth spending a few dollars and hours on.

I just wish the designers at Capcom had focused less on the act of explosion and more on the act of quality control.