Thunder Force III (Genesis)

Thunder! Thunder! Thunder Force, hooooo!

I was so bowled over by Technosoft’s Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar) when I first encountered it last March that I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to revisit the saga. Hell, that was over ninety reviews ago now! I’m more than ready to strike another blow against the vile ORN Empire and Thunder Force III seems like the perfect way to do it. Destined to be overshadowed by its sequel in the years to come, it was nevertheless a huge point of pride for Genesis owners back in 1990. As perhaps the flashiest, most adrenaline pumping horizontal shooter ever to grace a home system at that point in history, it was well received indeed. So much so that it’s one of the few examples of a console original that was later adapted for arcades (as Thunder Force AC) rather than vice versa.

Don’t expect too elaborate a setup here.  Thunder Force games are about dazzling the player with explosive action. Those nerds deep lore and rich characterization weren’t cool enough to get invited to this party. All you need to know is that the evil ORN and their mad bio-computer leader Khaos are continuing their genocidal war on humanity. They’ve deployed a colossal battleship called Cerberus and set up cloaking devices on five planets in order to mask the location of their main base. In response, the Galaxy Federation sends out their most advanced ship, the Fire LEO-03 Styx, on a mission to take out the cloaking devices, Cerberus, and finally ORN HQ.

It’s a tall order. Fortunately, the Styx comes prepared for all eight stages ahead. Unlike the many side-scrolling shooters that take their cues from those grueling classics Gradius and R-Type, Thunder Force III doesn’t start you out slow and weak or take all your weapons away and push you back to a checkpoint every time you mess up. You always have access to four different speed settings and your two default weapons, the forward-facing Twin Shot and rear-facing Backfire, which are strong and versatile enough to take down anything in your path. The focus is on keeping the pace brisk and the player feeling empowered and in control of the situation; a defining feature of the series.

That’s not to say death carries no sting. There are a whole host of useful upgrades to the Styx which can be lost on defeat: Five special weapons that you can cycle between as needed, a shield, and a pair of shot multiplying helper satellites called Claws. Even in this regard, however, Thunder Force III is more merciful than the vast majority of its peers. Only your Claws and currently active special weapon are stripped away when you lose a ship. While some hardcore shooter fanatics may scoff at this degree of leniency, I think it adds a nice risk/reward dynamic. Equipping a powerful weapon like the heat-seeking Hunter makes you more likely to survive the trickier stretches of a level, yet you’ll lose both the weapon and a life if you still manage to slip up. Is it worth potentially not having access to the Hunter when you reach the boss? That’s your call.

The levels themselves make for great rides. Sure, they’re all based on stock archetypes like fire, water, ice, and caverns, but it’s the execution that excels. Each planet has its own menagerie of enemies and environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, all brought to life through spectacular graphics and masterful high energy music. As in Thunder Force IV, the soundtrack truly goes above and beyond the call of duty, with individual themes for each stage boss. Speaking of those bosses, they’re probably the only element here that could be described as underwhelming. Their attack routines are quite basic and they wither quickly under sustained firepower.

What else can I say about this one? It’s an utterly brilliant spaceship shooter and a perennial must play for enthusiasts of all stripes. I mentioned way back in my review of Thunder Force IV that the formula really does comes across as pure boilerplate on paper. These games are legendary for their blazing fast action, top notch audiovisuals, and general approachability. Their innovative structure and mechanics, though? Not so much. They really must be experienced firsthand for their appeal to be fully understood and appreciated. I’ll add that you ideally shouldn’t emulate me by checking out IV before III. Thunder Force IV is a prime example of the “bigger, badder, better” school of sequel design, triumphantly doubling down on everything its predecessor did right while simultaneously addressing its one true shortcoming by upping the complexity and challenge of the boss fights. It’s also a good deal tougher than III overall, with more levels and trickier enemy patterns, meaning that tackling the two in order results in a much more natural difficulty curve across games.

Oh, and one last thing: Under no circumstances should you play Thunder Spirits, the Super Nintendo port of Thunder Force AC, in place of Thunder Force III proper. It suffers from severe slowdown issues that render it drastically inferior to the real deal on the Genesis. This is one of those rare cases when Ninten just don’t.

So what are you waiting for? Climb aboard your starship and head for the skies. You owe it to yourself to come sail away with the Styx.

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Alex Kidd in Shinobi World (Master System)

Ending by Credits Я Us!

I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but to reiterate: I’ve never been a fan of Sega’s Alex Kidd. I didn’t grow up playing his games and he always struck me as some sort of icky simian…thing. Like one of those old Monchichi dolls. I’m not the one who remembers those, am I? Actually, I’m hope I am.

Not everyone shares my ambivalence, of course. Alex did serve as Sega’s primary mascot from 1986 through 1991, when his reign was abruptly and unceremoniously terminated by the literal runaway success of a certain sassy hedgehog. This gave him ample opportunity to endear himself to that one kid everybody knew in elementary school who didn’t own an NES in the late ’80s. His debut outing, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, is hailed by many as the quintessential Master System platformer and came built into later revisions of the console. Boot one of these suckers up with no cartridge inserted and presto, you’re playing some Alex Kidd.

While by no means the Mario killer Sega had been praying for, Miracle World was generally well-received by gamers and critics. Unfortunately, the company was never quite able to capitalize on its initial success and produce a worthy follow-up. Instead, they floundered with strange, half-baked sequels like Alex Kidd BMX Trial and Alex Kidd: High-Tech World. Before he finally fizzled out for good, Alex turned in a sixth and final star performance in 1990’s Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Did he save his best for last or clinch the case for his own euthanasia? Let’s find out!

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Shinobi? As in Sega’s legendary ninja action franchise? What is this, some kind of wild crossover where Alex Kidd teams up with ninja master Joe Musashi to combat the Zeed organization? Sadly, no. What it means is that this wasn’t originally intended to be an Alex Kidd game at all. Rather, it was Shinobi Kid, a cute, semi-parodic version of the standard Shinobi experience aimed at a younger audience. You might already be familiar with Capcom’s Mighty Final Fight or Namco’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. Same idea. Late in development, Sega decided to throw their ailing mascot a bone by pasting his sprite into the game and altering the title.

The unplanned nature of this arrangement is made clear by the story. Alex Kidd is chilling in a field one day with his girlfriend when the dark ninja Hanzo swoops in out of nowhere and abducts her. Alex despairs, but is soon visited by the spirit of a good ninja, who merges with him, giving him the power needed to save his girl and the world from Hanzo. Since when did Alex have a nameless girlfriend who looks exactly like him in a blonde wig? Why does he need a ghost ninja to teach him how to fight when being a martial arts master is his whole gimmick in games like Miracle World? Now you know why there are no answers to these questions.

Pressing start immediately plunges you into into a bright, bouncy take on the iconic opening stage of Shinobi. The music, the urban setting, the little chibi versions of the shirtless guys that toss boomerang swords at you, it’s all here. Well, not quite all of it. This is definitely a pared down take on the original’s gameplay. There are only eight levels and four bosses here versus Shinobi’s fourteen and five. There are also no child hostages to rescue, fewer weapons upgrades (Alex only has his sword and optional throwing knives), no shuriken chucking bonus game between rounds, and the various types of magic wielded by ninja Joe have been replaced with a simple pickup that turns Alex into a deadly tornado for a brief period when collected.

In addition to broadly simplifying play, Shinobi World throttles back the series’ notoriously fierce difficulty. Alex begins with a reasonable three-hit health bar that can be increased to a hefty six via the hearts scattered liberally about the stages. If he’s already at full health, every heart he collects becomes an extra life! He doesn’t need to fear falling into pits and the like, either, as these only re-route him along alternate subterranean paths instead of killing him outright. Continues are limited in order to prevent the game from devolving into a total cakewalk, but it’s still drastically easier than anything else bearing the Shinobi name.

All these changes are in line with the goal of crafting a lighter, more forgiving experience for new players. To their credit, however, Shinobi World’s creators weren’t content just softening and streamlining an established design. They took a stab at incorporating some brand new game mechanics not seen in other Shinobi or Alex Kidd games, albeit to mixed results. Alex can grab onto specific bits of the scenery and then twirl around in place before letting go and being transformed into an invincible flying fireball that can smash through bricks. He can also rebound off walls and skip across the surface of water. Cool, right? Sure, if by “cool,” you mean “woefully underutilized.” None of Alex’s special movement skills are required to progress. At most, they’re useful for reaching the occasional out-of-the-way item box. It’s a pity the designers didn’t commit to some real platforming challenges based on these abilities.

That squandered potential aside, there’s still a lot to like about Shinobi World. It controls well. The artwork and animation are brimming with color and personality. The music is fine, considering the limitations of the Master System’s crude PSG sound chip. Best of all, it nails its desired tone, being both a spoof of and tribute to the first Shinobi. For example, the red-armored samurai boss codenamed Lobster appears in Shinobi World as an actual lobster, complete with hot buttery death animation. The first level boss Kabuto is a hybrid of Shinobi’s Ken-oh and Nintendo’s own Super Mario! Pre-release builds of the game went all out and dubbed him Mari-oh. I guess that name proved a touch too spicy for Sega’s legal department in the end.

How good is Alex Kidd in Shinobi World, really? I reckon that depends in part on how you categorize it. As a Shinobi installment, it can’t hope to stand to-to-toe with its big brothers. It’s simply too short and basic for that. Practiced players are also likely to find its challenge insufficient. They’ll giggle at a few of the jokes, but that’s about it. On the other hand, it’s bloody brilliant by Alex Kidd standards! It’s not uncommon for fans to tout this as the much maligned monkey’s finest hour, surpassing even Miracle World. A cruel irony in light of his status as a last minute addition. Put me down smack dab in the middle. Shinobi World is my idea of a perfectly alright 8-bit platformer; a brief, vaguely pleasant afternoon’s diversion. It didn’t blow my mind. It didn’t offend my sensibilities. It just stole in quietly and left without a fuss. Kind of like…a ninja.

Huh. Nice one, Alex. Have a banana.

Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

I wonder if I can get away with listing “flying away from big explosions” on my resume at this point?

Off to the PC Engine I go for another bout of alien ass whupping in 1990’s Super Star Soldier. To understand the origins of the Star Soldier series, we need to start back in 1984, when Tecmo (then called Tehkan) developed the fast-paced vertical shooter Star Force for arcades. The subsequent home release of Star Force on the Famicom proved so wildly popular that its publisher, Hudson Soft, made it the centerpiece of their first annual All-Japan Caravan Festival in 1985.

This nationwide high score contest generated considerable publicity and Hudson was understandably eager to make it an annual event. Problem was, they needed a new game to center Caravan ’86 around. Preferably one very similar to Star Force…. In other words, Star Soldier was a bit of a copycat. It was a worthy shooter in its own right by the standards of the time, however, and all three of its PC Engine follow-ups (Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade) would headline their own Caravans from 1990-1992.

Before I move on to discussing Super Star Soldier proper, here’s one last Caravan fun fact I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: We have these early competitions to thank for the rise of none other than Toshiyuki “16 Shot” Takahashi, the gaming prodigy named and famed for his rapid-firing skills in Star Soldier who later served as the real life model for Adventure Island’s Master Higgins. Yes, without these space shooter festivals taking place on the other side of the world, we would never have known the serene majesty of a portly gent in animal skins and baseball cap hurling stone axes at snails while riding a skateboard. What a bleak existence that would be.

Though developed for Hudson by Kaneko, Super Star Soldier will remind PCE/TurboGrafx fans of another, better-known shooter for the platform, Compile’s Blazing Lazers. In much the same way Star Soldier was “inspired” by Star Force, its sequel feels like an unofficial extension of Blazing Lazers. Many of the weapons feel familiar and your ship controls much the same, right down to having variable speed settings toggled with the Select button. Enemy and stage designs have a very Compile/Aleste look and flow to them, as well, although the settings you fly through are slightly less wild here. There are no deadly rainbow bubbles awaiting you this time out, for example. Even the quirky “special lives” mechanic introduced in Blazing Lazers, which has you repeatedly shooting certain power-up icons until they turn into flashing orbs and then collecting those so you can respawn in place when destroyed instead of being sent back to a checkpoint, is carried over. Considering Compile’s towering reputation among shooter fans, the same principle that exonerated the first Star Soldier holds true here: If you’re going to crib, crib from the best.

The plot, if you can call it that, is like so: Earth is under attack by a pack of evil space brains and their leader, Mother Brain. I tell you, it’s always brains in these old Japanese sci-fi games. So far this year alone, I’ve already killed one at the end of Gradius, another (also named Mother Brain) in Metroid, and a third in Section Z. That’ll teach those squishy bastards to think so much, I guess. Anyway, there’s still hope for us humans because an improved version of the Caesar craft from the last game, dubbed Neo Caesar, has been engineered for just such an emergency. The player assumes the role of the Neo Caesar’s pilot, referred to in the manual as “Starbuck.” Dirk Benedict’s character from Battlestar Galactica, then? Excuse me, but if I have to play as an A-Team alumnus, I’d much prefer Mr. T.

Starbuck’s mission encompasses eight stages. Most are variations on the outer space theme with only a couple taking place planetside. Each is fairly long and has its own unique final boss. The exception is, of course, the final stage, which is a punishing five boss gauntlet with a generous compliment of standard enemies sprinkled in for good measure. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes, assuming highly skilled play. That’s a respectable amount of play time for the genre, albeit also less than Blazing Lazers.

The Neo Caesar has four primary weapons at its disposal, accessed via colored-coded orbs dropped by enemies. These include the default multi-shot machine gun, the wide-angle ring laser, the more focused spread laser, and the powerful, short range swing fire. You can upgrade each weapon multiple times, increasing its area of effect considerably in the process. Taking damage will lower your weapon’s power, so these enhanced armaments also double as your armor in classic Aleste fashion. In general, I found the multi-shot and ring laser to be the best at taking out swarms of regular enemies, while the piercing spread laser was ideal for dealing heavy damage to single targets (i.e. bosses). I actively avoided swing fire for the majority of the game, since its flame jets share the same bright orange color scheme as the enemy’s bullets, which resulted in far too much accidental damage. Too bad. Double flamethrowers should equal pure bliss in any game.

Rounding out your arsenal are a couple of useful supplementary items. The Starbuck Defense System is a very fancy name for a very basic pair of “option” satellites that hang out near your ship blocking enemies and their shots. While these will damage foes on contact, they don’t actually multiply your firepower like the options from Gradius. Your other choice, the homing missiles, are entirely self-explanatory. You can only have one primary and one secondary weapon equipped at a given time. Thankfully, power-up drops are quite frequent, so you’ll never have to wait too long for your favorites to show up in the rotation.

Super Star Soldier poses a respectable challenge without being too overwhelming. For the most part, anyway. It’s definitely tougher than Blazing Lazers thanks to denser enemy patterns, trickier bosses, and no shield pickup or stock of super bombs. At the same time, it’s not totally lacking in clemency. You have weapons-as-armor to prevent those one-hit deaths and unlimited continues to boot. The biggest hurdle by far is the final stage. Defeating five tricky bosses in a row, the last of which has four distinct forms, is no joke. Worst of all is the three minutes or so of regular enemy waves you have to fight your way past before the boss rush even starts. It doesn’t sound like much, but having to wade through these guys over and over each time you continue can really start to wear on you after a while. This is another of those games where I spent significantly more time on the last level than on all the rest combined.

Oh, and I can neither forget nor forgive the hellish glitch that put an ugly end to my first full playthrough. See, crashing into enemies in Super Star Soldier damages both parties. The first time I managed to defeat the final boss, it was by accidentally colliding with it, destroying us both in the same instant. I had a ship in reserve, so I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was respawn and watch those credits roll, right? Wrong. I came back like normal, but the game just hung there. The boss music kept on looping as I sat there alone on an endlessly scrolling starfield. With nothing left to kill me and no time limit, all I could was give up and reset the machine. Did I eventually start fresh and beat the boss the normal way so I could have that true ending? I did. Was I happy about it? I was not.

That freak occurrence aside, there’s very little in Super Star Soldier that’s objectionable and much to appreciate. The audiovisuals meet the usual high Hudson standard and the shooting action is fast, precise, and, above all, satisfying. It’s true that the difficulty curve is a tad lopsided due to that crazy brutal eighth stage and the weapon selection, while adequate, could stand to be broadened. The three other games on the system that share this exact style of play, Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade all have a little more going on mechanically and can be considered slightly better overall. Fortunately, being the weakest of these four still allows Super Star Soldier ample room to stand tall as one of the best shooters on a console synonymous with them. Just don’t try to kamikaze its bosses. Let my pain be your gain.

Down Load (PC Engine)

First things first: Do you have any idea how much of a pain it is to research a game called Down Load? I suppose I can’t really blame the staff at Alfa System and NEC Avenue for not psychically anticipating the online emulation scene when they produced this obscure 1990 shooter, but yeah, it’s an issue.

As a Japanese exclusive with a search-resistant name, I may well have never given Down Load a look if it hadn’t been for Clyde Mandelin and Tony Kuchar’s book, “This be book bad translation, video games!” The authors devote a full two-page spread to shots of its ridiculous game over screens, in which the main character, Syd, unleashes expletive-laden tirades over being defeated by the enemy. It’s hard not to love gems like “I can not fuck up for this” and “Shit. Is not this a great beginning.” Odds are that if you’ve been exposed to the game at all, it’s through images of these very quotable screens.

Don’t be too quick to write this one off as a joke, though. Legendary studios like SNK routinely proved that some shoddy English does not a bad ’90s game make. Indeed, Down Load is a fast-paced, exciting shooter with some of the best graphics I’ve ever seen in a HuCard release. It also showcases a surprisingly robust cyberpunk anime storyline told through Ninja Gaiden style cutscenes. It’s a prime example of the sort of quality PC Engine titles that NEC should have been busy porting over to their struggling TurboGrafx-16 at the time, even if it would have likely meant losing out on all those hilarious swears.

Our story begins in the Kabukichō red light district of Tokyo in the year 2099. Syd, an expert “cyber-diver” is contacted by his friend Deva. She’s been arrested while investigating the mysterious disappearance of another cyber-diver named Ohala, so our boy Syd promptly hops on his flying motorcycle thingy and jets off to rescue her from the cops. Unfortunately, that’s all I can really tell you for sure. Unlike those wacky game over screens, all of the cutscene text is in Japanese and there’s currently no fan translation patch available. I do know that a bad guy named Nero eventually shows up, but I can’t discern who he’s supposed to be or what his deadly plot entails. Pity, because these sequences look great and I can’t help but be intrigued at the prospect of this much dialogue in a shooter. Someday perhaps.

Gameplay consists of traditional horizontally scrolling shoot-’em-up action encompassing a total of six main stages. Most of these are further sub-divided into multiple visually distinct segments (1-1, 1-2, 1-3, etc). I think we all know the drill: Fly from left to right, grab floating power-ups, shoot down or dodge an onslaught of minor foes, and then blow up the big boss at the end of the level in order to move on. This established, Down Load’s interpretation of the formula does differ from the norm in one important way: It’s remarkably forgiving. You’re provided with unlimited continues and a password system, either one of which would have been generous enough on its own by genre standards. Additionally, Syd’s ride is extremely durable. It comes with a health bar that can withstand a total of four hits and even be replenished via healing items. If all this still isn’t enough insurance for you, you can opt to equip a shield capable of absorbing up to fifteen (!) additional attacks. Down Load’s relaxed approach may not satisfy the most rabid of Gradius or R-Type fans, but it’s a great starting point for novices who would rather dip their toes into the PC Engine shooter pool than plunge head-first into the deep end.

The array of weaponry at your disposal in Down Load is serviceable, if undistinguished. At the start of each stage, you’re given the opportunity to select one of two main shots and one of three secondary items. Your main weapon can be fired indefinitely and takes the form of either a blue piercing laser or a wider orange spread of bullets. It’s that perennial shooter trade-off: Focused power versus increased screen coverage. You can upgrade this primary shot from its starting level of one all the way up to five, increasing its damage and area of effect each time. You’ll be docked a level of weapon power with each bit of  damage you sustain, however, so don’t get too cocky. Secondary items have a limited number of uses and consist of either 96 homing missiles, 6 super bombs, or the aforementioned energy shield that can block up to 15 bullets. You can find power-ups in most stages that will completely refill your secondary weapon reserves, so there’s usually no need to be too concerned about hoarding ammo.

What really makes Down Load more than just a generic shooter with adequate options and a soft touch is its fantastic art direction. From the expressive character portraits in the cutscenes to the many-layered parallax scrolling backgrounds, the game is a joy to behold. There’s a healthy amount of variety on display, too. Syd’s mission sees him visiting a futuristic city, the ocean, a cave, outer space, and the obligatory creepy biological level with organs for walls. Most interesting of all are the virtual reality levels. Being a cyber-diver (with the plugs in his head to prove it), Syd is capable of jacking into computer systems, meaning that several stages are set in these kaleidoscopic abstract spaces that really stand out from the rest of the game’s environments. They don’t actually play any differently, mind you, they just look cool. The music is also catchy and will appeal to most fans of that characteristic gritty, funky PCE chiptune sound. The only thing that comes close to detracting from an otherwise sublime presentation is the very noticeable flicker that can occur when larger sprites, particularly bosses, share the screen with upgraded weapons fire. At its most severe, this can lead to unnecessary damage as some enemy projectiles become partly or wholly obscured.

Down Load proved popular enough in its native land to warrant a CD-ROM sequel in 1991 and an animated film adaptation that’s even more difficult to find details on than the games that spawned it. Although I don’t think it has the depth required to place in the top tier of PC Engine shooters, it’s still a competent work that’s immensely stylish and approachable by gamers of all skill levels. I’m glad I gave it a chance. I came for the laughs, I stayed for the thrills.

Zombie Nation (NES)

What makes a video game weird? It’s a simple question, yet the answer is much harder to pin down than you might think. After all, it’s been noted countless times that the broad outlines of some of the most vanilla, near-universal gaming experiences (Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros.) would come across as something akin to fever dreams to someone completely ignorant of the form. Nevertheless, some developers still manage to go that extra mile and stagger those of us who don’t bat an eye at a man in overalls eating magic mushrooms to turn into a giant and soaring through the air by flapping his raccoon tail.

Broach the topic of weird games with any NES aficionado and two titles are bound to be rated at or near the pinnacle: Human Entertainment’s platformer Monster Party (which I already reviewed a few years back) and my subject today, the KAZe-developed horizontal shooter Zombie Nation. For my money, Zombie Nation is the stranger trip by far. Monster Party is offbeat, sure, but I actually get what Human was going for: Parodying various horror movies. Once you get the majority of the references and jokes, it skews much more charming than confusing. Contrast this with Zombie Nation, where every aspect of the final product; the scenario, the artwork, the music, and the even the play control are so far out of left field that I can scarcely imagine the creative process behind it all. What KAZe has unleashed here is so garish, so disorienting, so stridently awkward as to be the NES equivalent of a top-shelf “so bad, it’s good” movie. Think Plan 9 from Outer Space, Troll 2, or The Room. Zombie Nation is to Konami’s Gradius what Birdemic is to Hitchcock’s The Birds. It’s a terrible, stupid game and I’m afraid I’ve fallen in love with it.

Zombie Nation initially does its best to lull you into a false sense of security. The opening text crawl describes how an evil alien named Darc Seed lands in the Nevada desert in the year 1999 and uses his “strange magnetic rays” to turn the nation’s populace into mind-controlled zombie slaves. Darc Seed also uses these rays to bring the Statue of Liberty to life “to do his dirty work.” Whatever that means. I’m not sure I really want to know.

Okay, so it’s an alien invasion plot just like in every other shooter. That Statue of Liberty bit was a little random, but whatever. Just skip to the part where I’m the only pilot that has what it takes to take down Darc Seed in my experimental high tech super ship, right? Wrong. Because in Zombie Nation (or Samurai Zombie Nation, as the title screen alone insists on calling it), your “ship” is the house-sized severed head of a samurai and instead of laser guns and missiles, you fight with a unending supply of projectile vomit and eyeballs.

Behold our hero, Namakubi! His name translates to “severed head” and he single-handedly, er, zero-handedly makes me regret jumping the gun back when I called Data East’s mascot Karnov unappealing. As what appears to be the airborne DayGlo orange mug of Carl from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Namakubi makes Karnov look like GQ cover material. The Japanese Famicom edition of the game, which debuted only one month earlier, starred a tengu mask instead of a human head and was called Abarenbō Tengu (“Hooligan Tengu”). I suppose replacing the mask with a new character for the NES release made sense, given that tengu are mythical spirit creatures little-known outside Japan. I have to wonder, however: Why a samurai head when they could have just as easily swapped the sprite out for literally anything else more relatable to an American audience? Truly a mystery for the ages.

Thankfully, in addition to having one of the most gonzo premises of all time, Zombie Nation is also a remarkably competent shooter…is what I really wish I could tell you right now. No such luck, though. Top to bottom, this gameplay’s the proverbial hot garbage! Namakubi is far too large for his own good and avoiding all the fast-moving enemies and bullets would be a Herculean challenge even if he wasn’t also prone to sliding across the playfield like a hockey puck. That’s right, there’s momentum to correct for here, which is almost unheard of in a genre founded on the player’s ability to execute quick, precise movements. It’s bad enough on the easier of the game’s two difficulty settings, but it’s a “donkey on roller skates” magnitude catastrophe on the hard setting, which actually has the nerve to ratchet up Namakubi’s momentum significantly. Have you ever even heard of a shooter implementing a hard mode by making your already crappy controls worse? That’s so Zombie Nation!

The designers attempted to compensate for Namakubi’s sloppy handling by giving him a life bar made of multiple smaller versions of his head arranged along the bottom of the screen. The more damage you take, the more of these turn into skulls. Most enemies deal only a small amount of damage, with the exceptions being bosses and the environmental hazards (giant laser beams and such) that show up in the backgrounds of most stages. Run out of heads and you’re forced to use one of your limited continues to restart the current stage. You can earn health refills by scoring enough points and extra continues by finishing stages. Honestly, though, wouldn’t you rather just have a smaller, easier to steer character that didn’t need to soak up dozens of bullets in the first place?

By far the most interesting thing going on here gameplay-wise is the massive amount of destructible scenery filling each stage and way Namakubi powers himself up by laying waste to as much of his surroundings as possible. Demolishing the assorted skyscrapers, airstrips, and rock formations in your path will both score you points and cause what the instruction manual calls “zombie hostages” to be blown clear of the wrecked structures and slowly fall toward the ground, yelling for help all the while. Are they supposed to be hostages of the zombies? Hostages that are zombies? Both? Beats me. I just know that if Namakubi can manage to catch enough of these guys before they fall off the bottom of the screen, they’ll gradually increase the strength of his weapons. Unfortunately, all this really amounts to is a generic screen clearing bomb attack in addition to more of the same old barf and eyeballs. The extra firepower is undoubtedly useful, but it’s no substitute for the wide variety of weapon types available in most other 1990 vintage shooters. While this whole process is ultimately much more interesting than it is fun, I do have to admit that the programmers did a great job optimizing performance in light of the sheer amount of chaos filling the screen during Namakubi’s kaiju-esque rampages. I didn’t encounter nearly as much slowdown as I expected going in.

Zombie Nation isn’t very long, clocking in at around twenty minutes if you know what you’re doing. Its four stages are all thoroughly unrecognizable takes on iconic American locales like New York City and the Grand Canyon. Three of the four are further divided into two visually distinct sections each, so the game as a whole feels more like seven short stages than four long ones. One genuinely nice feature is a stage select similar to the one seen in Silver Surfer that allows you to choose which of the four areas you want to start on. This makes learning the game a lot easier than it would be otherwise, since you can practice a particular portion you’re having problems with exclusively until you get it down.

In the visual and audio departments, the game is all over the place. Some of the backgrounds, like the clouds and lightning in the Grand Canyon, are very well done and Namakubi’s sprite, grotesque as it is, is also quite detailed and expressive. On the downside, the scale of everything really detracts from whole zombie angle. The human characters are all just stick figures a few pixels tall and nothing about them suggests the undead. Zombie Nation promises a lot here with a cover that showcases some pretty gross-looking ghouls. The in-game graphics simply don’t deliver on any of it. Some of the music is excellently composed and technically impressive due to the way it makes extensive use of the system’s often overlooked DPCM sample channel. The theme from the second half of area one (“Exodus”) is a real standout in this regard. Then you have tracks that are shrill and obnoxious, as if the regular composer quit the project midway through and the team brought in a spider monkey humping a theremin to fill in the rest. Fun fact: Zombie Nation’s soundtrack includes the longest single piece of music found in any Famicom or NES game. It plays for just under seven minutes before looping and shows up on the stage select screen of all places. You know, where the player isn’t ever likely to spend more than about ten seconds or so. Genius.

The bad movie lover in me can’t help but treasure a specimen like Zombie Nation. Enough to eventually complete it without dying on both difficulties, even. It’s a total head-on train wreck of a shooter with its slippery controls, oversize hero, boring weapon progression, uneven presentation, and level design that never rises above the serviceable. It’s also a game where a flying samurai head saves the U.S.A. from aliens by reducing half of it to rubble and killing the Statue of Liberty with puke. No one will ever be able to take that away from you, KAZe. You may not have settled the issue of what makes a game weird once and for all, but you’ve given me a ton of new data to sift through. Thank you.

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

One entire class of video game that’s all but extinct these days is the celebrity vanity project. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go ahead and define this as any game that stars an idealized version of a real world celebrity and depicts its subject engaging in a variety of fantastical exploits unrelated to his or her day job. The celebrity in question is almost always a musician or athlete, as actors that appear in games are typically just lending their likenesses to various fictional characters as opposed to portraying themselves. I remember games like these serving as a constant source of befuddled amusement for my friends and I throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Who actually wanted to platform across alien planets as the members of the band Journey or punch mummies as Shaquille O’Neal? Even in a much less jaded age these titles were seen as punchlines rather than viable gaming options by most and usually proved to have much less of a built-in audience than their deluded creators anticipated. It certainly didn’t help that some prominent examples (looking at you, Shaq-Fu) were saddled with gameplay every bit as dire as their tortured premises.

This widespread consumer contempt combined with skyrocketing development costs neatly explains why the classic vanity project has become a thing of the past in recent years. Most gamers who experienced the trend in its heyday would agree that this is a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. If pressed, though, many of those same individuals would also agree that there’s one shining exception to almost every common criticism leveled above; one silly 16-bit ego trip that beat the odds and remains a well-loved part of countless childhoods: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Both of them, really, but I’ll be looking at the home console version for the Genesis today and not the completely distinct arcade release that it shares its name with.

What does this 1990 platformer with light beat-’em-up elements have going for it that its pilloried peers don’t? How about Michael freakin’ Jackson for starters? A ferociously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, music video pioneer, and occasional movie star, he was still holding fast to his position as the one and only King of Pop. While perhaps just beginning to see the slightest dip in stature compared to his peak in the mid-80s, it would be several more years before his many personal eccentricities and some shocking criminal allegations would truly begin to overshadow his musical accomplishments. Let’s be frank here: Shaq may be one of the best centers the NBA has ever seen, but you’d never mistake him for the coolest man on the planet. It anyone could present himself to the world as a nigh-omnipotent musical superhero with a straight face and get away with it, it was M.J.

There’s also the fact that game was made by Sega themselves. More specifically by a scrappy little internal development team then called AM8. You probably know them better by the moniker they adopted for their breakout release the following year and have stuck with ever since: Sonic Team. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackson was working with the very best in the field to bring Moonwalker to fruition, as no other group of developers had a better grasp of the Genesis hardware in the platform’s early days.

The game’s story is a straightforward adaptation of the one featured in the “Smooth Criminal” segment of the 1988 Moonwalker film. Michael must use his magic dance powers to rescue children that have been kidnapped by the evil drug kingpin Mr. Big (memorably portrayed in the movie by a frenzied Joe Pesci rocking shades and a topknot). Since this is a video game, the number of endangered kids has been upped from three to at least a hundred scattered across a total of fifteen stages. The stages themselves have fairly open layouts and scroll both vertically and horizontally, so there’s a bit of a scavenger hunt element involved in locating all the hostages tucked away in the countless hiding places that dot each map. After doing so, Michael is able to trigger a boss fight (with a little help from Bubbles the chimp!) and then move on to the next area. In essence, it’s a more free-roaming take on Sega’s own 1987 arcade title Shinobi.

Opposing Michael are Mr. Big’s gun-toting thugs as well as a few other baddies that are clear references to other Jackson projects. You have bandanna-clad street thugs right out of “Beat It” or “Bad” and some “Thriller” zombies. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery are a handful of ornery dogs, birds, and spiders. That’s about it. All considered, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety in Moonwalker. Even the boss encounters at the end of each stage tend to pit Michael against either a large number of standard foes attacking from all sides, a powered-up version of a regular enemy, or both. I’m not counting the final confrontation with Mr. Big himself, as it takes the form of a tacked-on and thoroughly awful first-person space shooting section for some reason. If you’ve ever wondered how Wing Commander would have turned out if it had been dropped on its head as a baby, here you go.

Although you’re not furnished with that great a variety of threats to smack down, the combat itself is still a lot of fun. Instead of normal punches and kicks, Michael’s attacks are made to resemble some of his most iconic dance moves. Every elegant wrist flick and high kick emits a shower of glittering pixie dust that looks harmless, but hits like a ton of bricks! The contrast between how feeble these assaults appear and the way they cause enemies to go blasting off into the sky or ricocheting between the floor and ceiling like human pinballs is absolutely hilarious and never seems to get old. Nailing an enemy while airborne is pretty wild, too. They shoot down to the ground in a split-second and land flat on their faces like they’ve just been whacked by a giant invisible mallet. Priceless.

Holding down the attack button will cause Michael to perform an invincible Spin Attack at the cost of some of his own health. The longer he spins, the more health is lost. Spinning in one place long enough to consume 50% of his maximum health will unleash Michael’s ultimate weapon: The Dance Attack, in which he launches into one of a variety of different dance routines and every enemy on-screen (including dogs and spiders!) is compelled to join in. Most regular enemies are killed instantly at the dance’s conclusion and bosses will sustain a large chunk of damage. A special move that costs this much energy to use would be useless in most games, but the makers of Moonwalker generously made it so that each child rescued restores up to 50% of Michael’s lost health, meaning that you can actually get away with using the Dance Attack fairly often if you like.

This is really about all there is to Moonwalker’s gameplay. It’s a short game with a single basic goal to accomplish and it boasts a relatively small number of unique enemies and ways of dispatching them. Michael does have one other special power in the ability to temporarily transform into a giant flying robot that shoots homing missile and laser beams. Yes, really. He accomplishes this by catching a shooting star that appears under certain special circumstances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t impact player progression as much as you’d think it would. Since Robo-Jackson can’t rescue hostages and any enemies he destroys will tend to re-spawn right away, there’s not much point to transforming in most levels except to rack up some extra points. High scores don’t seem to award any extra lives or other benefits that I could see, either, so it really doesn’t amount to much in the end. Looks cool, though. It would have been nice if some more permanent power-ups had been included, like hidden health bar extensions or extra weapons. Finding and holding onto these would have added a bit more intrigue and strategy to the proceedings.

Okay, so the gameplay isn’t really best in class. The upside is that it’s supported by some of the best graphics and music the early Genesis library had to offer. The character sprites for Michael and his enemies are large for the time and feature very smooth animation, befitting a game built around replicating flashy dance routines. The soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Jackson standards like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Another Part of Me,” and more, all rendered to the utmost quality the console’s FM synth sound chip is capable of. Every track is remarkably listenable in this format and just as likely to get stuck in your head for hours as the album versions. Moonwalker’s audio and visuals may not seem all that revelatory nearly three decades on, but it’s important to remember that the Genesis was the first 16-bit game console to hit the market outside of Japan and games like this one, Strider, and the pack-in Altered Beast were jaw-dropping to an audience primarily acclimated to the NES and Master System. Home games with such lush presentations simply weren’t an option before this unless you were willing and able to dive into comparatively expensive niche computing platforms like the Amiga. Even for kids like me who opted to stick it out for two more years waiting on the Super Nintendo, there was still some envy involved whenever one of those ubiquitous “Genesis does…” ads would pop up. It was a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moonwalker is strictly all style, no substance. It certainty does lean that way, however. As far as platformers go, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the length, breadth, or depth of a Sonic or Mario and there’s little incentive to keep playing after you’ve cleared it once. In retrospect, it’s easy enough to point out that it would have benefited greatly from the addition of more enemy types, better boss fights, more power-ups, and some hidden areas or other secrets to discover. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple arcadey punch-up and this one has far more charm than most, thanks to those amazing tunes and the goofy-cool crotch grabbing antics of its unlikely action star. If you come across anyone claiming it’s a bad game, just tell ’em I said that their hearts are full of greed and they have doo-doo in their souls.