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 dialog 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.

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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.

Final Mission (Famicom)

This lousy game may have kicked my ass eight ways from Sunday, but that is still one stunning end screen.

I was pouring through the vendor booths at last June’s Seattle Retro Gaming Expo when I came across a boxed copy of Natsume’s 1990 Famicom shooter Final Mission being sold by none other than local convention mainstay and YouTube personality John Riggs. Looking at the screenshots on the back of the box, I recognized it right away as none other than S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team! I remembered quite enjoying this one back around the time of its 1991 North American NES release and the price was right indeed, so I happily snatched it up. I thought I was setting myself up for a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Alas, what I actually received was a swift kick to the gaming gonads.

And yes, they actually called this one S.C.A.T. over here for some reason. As in animal feces. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at that localization meeting. They must have known how childishly absurd this title was, since the 1992 PAL release went by Action in New York.

Final Mission is essentially Natsume’s take on the “flying man” side-scrolling shooters that Capcom popularized over the late ’80s with their loose trilogy of Section Z, Side Arms, and Forgotten Worlds. Instead of controlling a spaceship or other vehicle that always faces (and shoots) in the fixed direction it’s travelling, players assume the role of an airborne commando with a rifle that can also turn around and fire backward as needed. The arcade version of Forgotten Worlds went so far as to incorporate a rotary dial control that added full 360 degree aiming to the mix. This sort of functionality is out of the question on the Famicom, of course, but Natsume did equip the heroes of Final Mission with a pair of orbiting satellite guns that can be locked into position as needed, allowing for a similar degree of versatility at the expense of a little added complexity.

The story centers on…wait for it…evil aliens attacking the Earth and two super soldier types named Sergei and Frederick being the only dudes bad enough to strap on rocket packs and take the fight to the enemy. Being a straightforward shooter, the plot wasn’t anywhere near top priority here, although the cut scenes supporting it are home to by far the best graphics the game has to offer. Seeing the aliens obliterate New York City Independence Day style in the opening is as spectacular as it is discomforting in hindsight. On a lighter note, the heroes in S.C.A.T. were changed to Arnold and Sigourney, complete with new character portraits clearly modeled on their Hollywood inspirations. How I pine for the days when video games were still considered silly children’s toys and were small enough potatoes that designers could conceivably get away with this sort of thing. Remember when Spiderman, Batman, and Godzilla all made unauthorized cameos in Revenge of Shinobi? Good times.

Not that it really matters, I thought. I came here for that familiar action. Diving in, however, I quickly discovered that Final Mission is not the same breezy thrill ride that S.C.A.T. is. No, this original iteration of the game is a brutal taskmaster packing more than twice the challenge factor of its non-Japanese counterparts. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult Famicom or NES games I’ve ever played! Your characters start out with a mere three units of health, half as much as in S.C.A.T., and the health restoring power-ups that appeared in each one of S.C.A.T.’s stages don’t exist anywhere in this version. Final Mission’s protagonists suffer on the offensive front, too. All weapons seem to deal less damage and taking even a single hit will cause you to lose any equipped special weapon and be downgraded to the pathetic default pea-shooter. Oh, and I hope you have strong thumbs because only one special weapon (the laser) has any kind of auto-fire capability in Final Mission, whereas all guns benefited from this kindness in S.C.A.T. With each of the game’s five levels being exceptionally long by genre standards and lacking any sort of checkpoints, scraping through one under these conditions always feels like a miracle. At least you have unlimited continues that start you back at the beginning of the current stage. Final Mission would verge on being legitimately unplayable without them.

Still, I’ve made it through a lot of shooters over the past couple years, including some fairly challenging ones. So what if Final Mission wasn’t the low-pressure nostalgia trip I was hoping for? Fair enough. I was still hanging in there and enjoying it alright for the ultra-hardcore experience it is. Until level four, that is, when any goodwill it had built up with me was abruptly and irreparably dashed. Never in all my years has a single horrible stage so completely soured me on a game. Most of this level consists of a lengthy trip up the aliens’ space elevator on the way to the climactic assault on their orbiting home base. What this means for the player is around four solid minutes of being swarmed from all sides in front of a very busy, very fast-scrolling background. Throughout this ordeal there’s frequently so many enemies and obstacles filling the screen at once that heavy sprite flicker kicks in, hiding some hazardous projectiles from view completely and combining with the rushing background to form a hellish vortex of headache-inducing visual chaos. I mean it, too. My head was throbbing after just a few minutes of staring at this mess and that agony, combined with the hardware-pushing glitchiness of it all, kept me stuck here for the better part of two hours losing countless lives and power-ups to barely visible bullets. By the time I finally clawed my way to the top and overcame the level’s marathon three phase boss battle, I had long since resolved to never touch Final Mission again. The design of this stage is so bad it borders on the abusive and I would have quit long before actually seeing it through if being a stubborn bastard didn’t have its drawbacks. In case you were wondering, this same level does exist in S.C.A.T., but with extra health, more powerful weapons, and fewer enemies to contend with, the player is much more likely to make it through either on or not long after their first try.

The fifth and final level mercifully backs off on the eye-straining visuals and veers back into saner territory. It remains utterly savage, of course, just not for all the wrong reasons. By that point, however, it was far too late to win me back. I genuinely wanted to like Final Mission. It looks good, the heavy rock and funk-infused score is Contra composer Kiyohiro Sada’s personal favorite out of all his works, and most levels feature a nice mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling sections with seamless transitions between the two. It even allows for two-player simultaneous play. If it wasn’t for that one intolerable elevator stage, it would be an easy recommendation to experienced shooter fans looking to test their limits on the Famicom. As it stands, though, S.C.A.T. is where it’s at.

Just don’t quote me on that out-of-context. Please.

Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (NES)

Unfortunately for Phoebe Cates fans, there would be no Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the NES.

I fell in love with director Joe Dante’s Gremlins back when it came out in 1984. I read the storybooks, fiended for the sugary breakfast cereal (that I can still sing you the commercial jingle for), and, of course, played the mediocre Atari 2600 game. Who doesn’t enjoy this deranged mishmash of holiday movie, family comedy, and creature feature? Small town loser Billy Peltzer recieves a fuzzy little critter called a mogwai for Christmas. His new pet, Gizmo, comes with some strange stipulations. Most importantly, he can’t get it wet and must never feed it after midnight. Seeing as it is a movie and plot needs to happen, it’s not long before every rule is broken, resulting in a hoard of green, scaly monsters overrunning the town.

Gremlins had a profound influence on me. More than any other single film, it nudged me toward a lifelong fascination with horror. It may have only been rated PG, but so were Jaws and Poltergeist. Standards for this sort of thing were very different before the MPAA introduced the controversial PG-13 rating later that same year, largely in direct response to parental complaints about movies like Gremlins.

Six long years later, Dante made Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a drastically different sequel that few were asking for and fewer still appreciated. This time, Billy and Gizmo must contain a gremlin outbreak in a New York City skyscraper owned by an eccentric billionaire. The horror elements were gone entirely, replaced with amped-up slapstick comedy reminiscent of a Zucker Brothers production. While the first Gremlins had its silly side, a sequel where Hulk Hogan appears as himself to break the fourth wall by yelling at the projectionist’s booth is just not scary. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. These days, Gremlins 2 is often cited as a cult classic and, while it’s not an important film to me personally like the original, I can certainly appreciate it for the ridiculous live action cartoon it is.

Which brings me at last to this little-appreciated 1990 NES adaptation by Sunsoft. Gremlins 2 follows it’s source material fairly closely by placing players in the metaphoric shoes of Gizmo himself as he battles his monstrous kin over nine action-platforming levels inside Clamp Center. What sets Gremlins 2 apart from most other platformers of the era is that the action is depicted from an overhead perspective rather than the more typical side-scrolling viewpoint.

Right away, that may set off some alarm bells. Pinpoint jumping through sprawling obstacle courses packed with pits, moving platforms, conveyor belts, and electrified spikes…from an overhead view? Gizmo’s pathetic starting weapons, tiny thrown tomatoes of all things, also don’t inspire much confidence in the new player. Fortunately, the team at Sunsoft made a series of smart choices that keep the experience fair and fun. Most crucially, there are no instant kill hazards in the game. Even falling into a pit will only cost Gizmo a portion of his health bar. He also starts out with a balloon item in his inventory that will automatically negate one pitfall completely. More balloons (as well as health refills, extra lives, and weapon power-ups) can be obtained by visiting the shops in each stage. Confusingly, these are operated by Gizmo’s former owner Mr. Wing, who’s supposed to be deceased at this point in the story. Oh, well. At least he’s helpful for a dead guy.

The jumping mechanics themselves are tailored to be as forgiving as possible. Momentum is never needed to make any jump in the game, as Gizmo covers the exact same distance in the air when leaping from a standstill as he does with a running start. Because of this, it’s often best to simply jump in place and then use the directional pad to steer Gizmo to his landing site. It isn’t necessarily intuitive to anyone accustomed to Super Mario style physics, but it does come in handy once you get used to it.

You’re not stuck hucking tomatoes for long, either. Gizmo receives regular attack upgrades every few stages, usually after defeating a big boss gremlin. The equally innocuous seeming matches, paper clips, and pencils all turn out to be formidable weapons in the hands of your fearless mogwai ninja.

Finally, Gremlins 2 includes unlimited continues and a password system. The result of all this is a great example of the “tough, but fair” design philosophy in action. Making it through some of the lengthier stages on a single health bar is no joke, yet the player is always given the tools needed to make it as long as they don’t throw in the towel. Many other Sunsoft games on the system (Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, Fester’s Quest) are much less generous and impose stiff penalties for failure, so anyone who isn’t a fan of those efforts will be glad that Gremlins 2 takes its cues from their less harsh NES version of Batman instead.

On top of these gameplay basics, Gremlins 2 looks and sounds superb. Gizmo and the variety of evil gremlins he goes up against are all recognizable from the source material. The same goes for the locations you’ll visit, such as the spooky set of Grandpa Fred’s House of Horrors. There’s even a handful of cut scenes thrown in that recreate key moments from the film. These are beautifully drawn and animated, although they’re also worldless and far too disjointed to tell a coherent version of the movie’s story on their own.

Naoki Kodaka’s famous “Sunsoft sound” makes a welcome appearance here. His NES soundtracks are celebrated for their funky melodies and liberal use of sampled bass notes to produce a much richer, more full-bodied sound than we typically hear out of the hardware. After reviewing four other Kodaka NES scores in the last year or so, I’m running out of ways to say they rule. I will add that the insane slap bass breakdown in Gremlins 2’s stage three theme is totally unprecedented on the system and really demands to be heard by chiptune enthusiasts.

The bottom line is that this is not just the rare old movie license game that’s worth a damn, it’s also a unique and inventive action-platformer on a system overflowing with them. True, it makes for a short, relatively simple playthrough. So do Sunsoft’s better-known Batman and Journey to Silius, however, and Gremlins 2 is easily their equal. Like the movie that inspired it, it’s currently enjoying a well-deserved second life with modern audiences after going overlooked and underappreciated in its day.

Whatever you do, though, never, ever play it after midnight.