Dragon Warrior IV (NES)

The developers at Chunsoft had their work cut out for them when it came time to craft a follow-up to their 1988 smash hit RPG, Dragon Quest III. The pioneering series had been a phenomenon across Japan from day one, but the public’s response to the third installment in particular bordered on frenzy. Widespread school and work truancy on its Wednesday launch date prompted rumors the Japanese legislature had drafted a law forbidding Dragon Quest’s publisher, Enix, from releasing future installments on weekdays. Like the supposed Space Invaders yen coin shortage a decade prior, this was just an urban legend. The fact that it seemed plausible to so many, however, speaks volumes to the game’s cultural impact. To this day, it routinely shows up at or near the top of many Japanese “best games ever” lists. It wasn’t just a tough act to follow, it was arguably the toughest.

The safe, obvious route would have been to double down on III’s most iconic gameplay feature: Its character class system. A fully customizable adventuring party had made for an exponential increase in strategy and replay value over the previous two entries, after all. Cut to 1990 and Dragon Quest IV finally ships with no character creation component whatsoever! Rather than staying the course and praying for lightning to strike twice, lead designer Yuji Horii and company opted to further their burgeoning saga through more thoughtful writing and an unorthodox story structure. A bold stroke indeed for the minds behind a franchise long noted for its hidebound conservative bent in relation to its contemporaries. Let’s see how it panned out for them.

Not being fluent in Japanese, I’m reviewing Dragon Quest IV’s official North American NES localization, Dragon Warrior IV, which suffered the misfortune of being delayed until late 1992. The 16-bit consoles were in their prime by then and relatively few were interested in shelling out a hefty chunk of change for a primitive looking 8-bit RPG in a post-Final Fantasy IV world. If you caught this one in its prime, you were likely a weirdo who got hooked on the series early and wouldn’t have missed an installment for the world. So, yeah, I played the hell out of it.

Admittedly, the broad strokes of Dragon Warrior IV don’t make it seem like much of a departure. A stock medieval fantasy world is threatened by an evil overlord and only a hero of prophecy and his/her loyal companions can stop him. This entails wandering the land in search of magic MacGuffins while vanquishing hundreds upon hundreds of monsters in menu-driven combat. Killing these monsters (all of which benefit greatly from adorable designs by famed manga artist Akira Toriyama) nets you the money and experience points needed to power-up your party. This in turn allows you to keep the Pavlovian cycle going when you inevitably encounter tougher baddies in the next area. Doing fetch quests to make numbers go up; such is the way of Dragon Quest. The fan base wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is where story structure and writing come to the fore. Dragon Warrior IV takes JRPG clichés which were already growing long in the tooth by the end of the ’80s and sort of inverts them. The result feels both fresh and familiar. Most notably, you don’t start out controlling the chosen one. The narrative unfolds across five distinct chapters, with the main protagonist not appearing at all until the start of the final one, many hours into the game. Before then, you’re introduced to all seven of the hero’s eventual allies. First up is Ragnar, a stalwart soldier tasked by the king of Burland with investigating an epidemic of missing children. Next is Alena, tomboy princess of Santeem, who escapes her castle with two helpful retainers in tow and sets out prove her strength to the world at large. After that is Taloon, the portly, middle-aged merchant and family man who takes up adventuring in order to get rich enough to buy his own shop and build a commercial empire. Finally, there’s Mara and Nara, sisters and powerful magicians hunting for revenge on the man who murdered their alchemist father. Only after you’ve completed all four of these preliminary adventures, some of which are virtually mini-RPGs unto themselves, does the world truly open up and the full scope of the quest reveal itself.

Similarly, the identity of the antagonist and the nature of his schemes isn’t immediately spelled out to you as it was in the previous three games. Vague whispers and portents are all you have to go on until much later, when he eventually does appear in the flesh to make his motivation clear. Yes, the villain has a real motivation this time. The writers didn’t just decide to make him an “archfiend” and call it day. That’s progress.

I definitely don’t want to oversell the storytelling here. This remains a terse NES RPG and there aren’t exactly reams of sparkling dialog provided to bolster its ambitions. Your party members only speak a handful of lines each over the course of the game and much of their personalities are merely implied. Still, there’s something to be said for leaving a few blank spaces for the player’s imagination to fill in, and walking a mile in each party member’s shoes can’t help but endear them to you at least a little. Moreover, a game doesn’t necessary need to be wordy to be clever. Take the opening to chapter three, in which you play through weapon merchant Taloon’s typical work day. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to actually be the poor schlub who gets to stand behind a counter all day, waiting patiently for random fantasy heroes to drop in and sell you the extra copper swords they looted from dead slimes? Talk about role playing! This sequence is hilarious and blew my mind as a kid. Here was a game unmistakably poking fun at itself by lampooning a common genre trope. These so-called fourth wall breaks are commonplace in media today, to the point where they’re as trite as anything they ostensibly call out. This wasn’t the case at all thirty years ago, making Taloon’s introduction one of gaming’s most memorable. It’s no wonder he became the breakout star of the cast and went on to star in the the first three installments of the Mystery Dungeon spin-off series.

Visually, there’s not much to distinguish Dragon Warrior IV from its predecessors. Crude, squat sprites waddling over unnaturally gridded terrain is the rule, interspersed with detailed close-ups of Toriyama’s wacky monsters during battle. The final boss fight is, fittingly, the highlight. Your adversary’s form contorts and mutates in various hideous ways throughout, the animation of which seems lavish in the extreme after so many hours spent staring at static portraits of foes. Much more impressive as a whole is Koichi Sugiyama’s sprawling soundtrack, which clocks in at nearly an hour. Sugiyama is a classically trained composer who had been working on major television and film productions for years before adding video games to his portfolio in 1985 at the tender age of 54. His unusual background (the average game composer circa 1990 was a twentysomething rock fan who’d played in a band or two in college) makes his chiptune work wholly unique. Consider the gobsmacking end theme, a ten minute magnum opus that seamlessly weaves melodies from every chapter together into a veritable NES symphony. It’s the most grandiose piece ever written for the system’s humble five voice sound chip, and I don’t consider that debatable.

Before this devolves into a total puff piece, I should probably mention Dragon Warrior IV’s most divisive element: Diminished player control during the game’s second half. See, the first four chapters play out like they would in any other RPG: You issue battle commands for each party member and they dutifully execute those commands. This goes out the window in chapter five, where you’re suddenly restricted to commanding the legendary hero alone and the other seven members of your team operate at the behest of the game’s A.I. Your influence over them is limited to selecting from a few broad tactical paradigms (Offensive, Defensive, Use No MP, etc). No matter what, the majority of your moves will be chosen for you from here on out. I’m torn on this feature. It’s offputting at first, no doubt, and you’re bound to taste defeat at least once or twice due to boneheaded calls by the CPU. On the plus side, removing a good 75% of the decision making and button pressing speeds things along and keeps time spent mindlessly grinding money and experience to a minimum. I suppose if this is a dealbreaker for you, you could try the 2008 Nintendo DS remake. It allows you full control from start to finish, though it also tacks a sixth chapter onto the main story which isn’t nearly as well-designed or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Make mine the original.

Correcting for my middle school nostalgia as much as possible, I still love Dragon Warrior IV. By taking the usual “save the world” plot fans were accustomed to and rearranging it in a less front-loaded manner, Chunsoft carved out breathing room for mystery and allowed for a gradual raising of the stakes, all without alienating the faithful. Better still, the decision to focus on a playable ensemble with their own distinct backstories and goals added a much-needed human element to the proceedings and paved the way for even more fully-realized Dragon Quest characters to come. The loss of the mute, contextless custom heroes from the last game is a small price to pay for all that. Many, myself included, consider this the best turn-based RPG available for the NES. As for its fate at retail, the delayed American version predictably flopped hard. So hard, in fact, that Enix took an eight year hiatus from exporting Dragon Quest titles. The Japanese edition fared much better, to the tune of three million copies. This makes it the fourth best-selling Famicom game of all time, coming in right behind, you guessed it, Dragon Quest III.

Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16)

Now that’s what I call a relatable ending.

After losing myself in the intricate turn-based RPG Live A Live last week, I wanted something nice and basic to ease me back into the action groove. What could be more straightforward than a military-themed overhead run-and-gun?

Though relatively rare today, these games were inescapable throughout the ’80s and early ’90, their popularity fueled by the big screen bloodbaths of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and countless other uber-macho action icons. Key titles such as Taito’s Front Line (1982), Capcom’s Commando (1985), and SNK’s Ikari Warriors (1986) codified the template: A hardass super soldier (or possibly two, if you have a buddy with a second quarter to spend) stomping through the jungle, ruthlessly gunning down legions of hapless mooks. Sometimes he’s out to liberate P.O.W.s or take out a world threatening megaweapon. Other times he’s taking on the enemy because, hey, what else are enemies for?

In 1988, developer Data East threw their green beret into the ring with yet another take on this crowded subgenre: Bloody Wolf, also known as Narazumono Sentō Butai Bloody Wolf (“Rogue Combat Squad: Bloody Wolf”) in Japan and Battle Rangers in Europe. I’m thinking this original arcade release must be pretty scarce here in the U.S., since I’ve never actually encountered the cabinet in the wild. That’s why I’m reviewing the much more common TurboGrafx-16 port from 1990 instead.

TG-16 Bloody Wolf adds an extra stage and expands most of the others, albeit at the cost of the arcade’s two-player functionality. That’s a tradeoff I can live with. The real loss, however, is the new English translation. Arcade Bloody Wolf’s script is a sublime catastrophe which includes perhaps my favorite mangled video game line of all time: “Get you the hot bullets of shotgun to die!” Mmm. That is some primo stuff right there. The home version swaps it out for “You’ll make a nice target for this gun!” Weak.

Bloody Wolf tasks you with rescuing your kidnapped president from behind enemy lines. There’s no hint anywhere as to who your antagonists are supposed to be. The instructions simply refer to them as a “berzerk military unit” led by a “crazed General.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a coup attempt of some kind? All that really matters is there’s two of you and hundreds of them, so you’d best get shooting!

Wait, two? Didn’t I say this was a one-player game? I did and it is. At the outset, you’re expected to choose one of the two strapping commandos shown on the title screen. He’ll then serve as your primary character, although you’ll still end up controlling both heroes as the story plays out. You even get to name these guys. Their default handles are Snake and Eagle, but that’s no fun. I named the one with hair Will after myself and the bald one…Baldo. Guess I wasn’t feeling very creative that night.

Gameplay-wise, Bloody Wolf doesn’t break the mold in any major way. Your primary weapon is a pea shooter rifle with endless ammo that can be temporarily upgraded to a shotgun or bazooka via pickups obtained from crates and rescued prisoners. In addition, you start with a secondary attack in the form of grenades. These can later be powered-up or swapped out entirely in favor of a flamethrower or flash bombs. Finally, there’s your trusty combat knife, which is automatically used in place of your main gun whenever a bad guy is within shanking range. Redundant as this last option seems, some armored foes are bulletproof, so getting in close to stab them may be your best bet.

Taking a page from Ikari Warriors, Bloody Wolf also allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles in order to create even more carnage. Bizarrely, these aren’t tanks or other common weapons of war. Rather, they’re Harley-Davidson style motorcycles you use to run your adversaries down. It’s as effective as it is hilarious. Sadly, these have a very limited supply of fuel. Enjoy them while they last.

The one slightly unorthodox thing here is your characters’ ability to jump, a feature more closely associated with Contra and other side-view run-and-guns. Hell, even the Harleys can jump! They don’t need ramps to do it, either. They just spontaneously levitate when you tap the button. I love it. A few levels and boss fights incorporate rudimentary platforming, though this aspect of the game comes across as a mere novelty, by no means co-equal with the combat.

In light of its arcade roots and hardcore two-man army premise, you might expect Bloody Wolf to offer up a fierce challenge. If so, you’d be wrong. Your characters enjoy the mercy of a health bar rather than the usual one-hit kills. Body armor, medicine, and sketchy sounding “muscle emphasis tablets” can all either restore lost health or lengthen the bar itself. On top of this, the eight short stages include frequent checkpoints and continues are unlimited. This makes for a smooth, low pressure play experience from start to finish. I can see this being a point of contention for those who bought the game at full price and weren’t expecting to race through it in a couple of hours. Me, I found it pretty fun to be able to kick back and casually exterminate the opposing force on my mystical leaping motorbike.

While neither a historically important work like Commando nor a must-play masterpiece like Jackal or Shock Troopers, Bloody Wolf is a successful arcade conversation and a thoroughly competent example of its kind. It looks fine, sounds fine, and delivers precisely the sort of no frills testosterone-drenched thrill ride you’d expect. If all you’re looking for an excuse to switch off your brain and take in the interactive equivalent of a vintage Chuck Norris flick, you can do a whole lot worse.

Will and Baldo, I salute you!

Gun-Nac (NES)

Pulverizing your enemies: The true reason for the season.

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Compilemas! Time for another present to myself in the form of a “new” offering from one of my most appreciated developers. I had so much fun with Compile’s formative classic Zanac back in December of 2017 that I decided to make returning to this particular well a Christmas tradition for as long as possible. This year, I’m unwrapping 1990’s Gun-Nac for the NES. It’s yet another vertically-scrolling shooter in the time-tested Zanac/Aleste mold. There’s one key difference this time, though: Gun-Nac is a “cute-’em-up” that sees you repelling an invasion of adorable animals and prosaic household objects instead of the usual alien armada.

If you’re inclined to believe the English instruction manual, Gun-Nac takes place in a faraway “synthetic solar system” called IOTA Synthetica, where a mysterious cosmic force is causing all sorts of  unlikely things to spring to life and attack the populace. You control maverick space ace Commander Gun-Nac in his bid to to save the day. Given that you never see Commander Gun-Nac himself, you may suspect something was lost in translation. Sure enough, the extended cutscenes in the Japanese original reveal the story was meant to be set in our own solar system and star a lady magician in the garb of a Shinto shrine maiden who summons her high tech spaceship with a spell. I’m not sure why this rather charming element was removed. It reminds me of how my last Compile Christmas selection, Space Megaforce, also ditched its pilot characters, Raz and Thi, in favor of another unseen protagonist. It’s almost like whoever was in charge of localizing these titles was actively striving to keep them as bland as possible for some reason.

Oh, well. On to the blasting! Gun-Nac is made up of eight stages. Nine, if you count the hidden “area zero” accessible by setting the sound test in the option menu to five, which enables the level select function. Per usual for Compile, they’re all quite lengthy and most include at least one mid-boss in addition to a final boss. The wacky theming starts off strong with a cratered lunar surface where killer bunny robots deploy heat-seeking carrots against you. Weird as that is, there is context for it. In China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, the “face” on the moon is thought to resemble a rabbit, an association that’s influenced mythology and art for centuries. The more you know. Later stages pit you against paper products, money, and other absurd threats.

The action itself is pure Aleste. Your ship can cycle between four speed settings at will, equip five primary shot types represented by numbered icons, and carry four flavors of limited use elemental super bomb for emergencies. Gathering power chips will enhance your primary gun and the wing item bulks up your ship, allowing it to withstand an extra hit before it’s destroyed. One entirely new addition is money bag pickups, which you can exchange for various ship upgrades at between-level shops. These resemble fast food establishments, except they vend death rays and explosive ordinance instead of burgers and fries. Gotta love that smiling girl at the counter with her paper hat and name tag.

When it comes to this tried-and-true formula, I essentially have no complaints. Gun-Nac is a prime example of the Compile house style. It and its fellows are among my most treasured gaming memories for good reason. They’re invariably fast-paced and hectic, with pinpoint-accurate controls and little, if any, slowdown. On top of this, you get a plethora of exciting weapons to wield and a relatively forgiving design that allows for a much less punishing play experience than is typical for the genre. Some critics have claimed these games are too easy, too samey, or that their levels drag on too long. Allowing for personal preference, this is all fair enough. Certainly, Gun-Nac is notably easy on its default difficulty setting. I was able to complete it on my very first attempt without needing to continue even once. Good luck pulling that off in Gradius or R-Type! For me, however, auto-scrolling shooters just don’t get any better. If you’ve enjoyed any of the studio’s similar works (Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, Blazing Lazers, Space Megaforce, etc), I can virtually guarantee you’ll like this one, too.

There is one thing that disappointed me about Gun-Nac, although it’s unrelated to the gameplay proper. Despite being billed as Compile’s take on the cute-’em-up subgenre, it doesn’t seem the design team was prepared to fully embrace the unbridled insanity that usually implies. Comparing Gun-Nac’s art and sound direction to that of cutsey staples like TwinBee, Parodius, and Fantasy Zone reveals it to occupy an awkward middle ground between them and the typical “straight” shooter. Some stages (like the previously mentioned rabbit-infested moon) are as kooky as can be. Others are decidedly restrained. In fact, the further you progress, the more things start to resemble an average Aleste game. The final stage is a stock metallic techno-fortress that features no oddball enemies at all, only common spaceships and gun turrets. It’s as if Gun-Nac’s creators couldn’t agree on what sort of tone to aim for. That, or they happened to have a bunch of leftover sprites and background tiles laying around from other projects and opted to cobble together another game out of them.

Gun-Nac may be aesthetically disjointed, but its familiar, masterful action still succeeded in making my already blissful holiday season that little bit brighter. I can’t think of a better note to close out another amazing year of gaming goodness on. It’s been a true blessing to have had the opportunity to explore another 59 vintage games with you all over the past twelve months. I have some important milestones coming up in 2020, including the biggie: Review #200, which will focus on my all-time most beloved game for my favorite console. Until then, Merry Christmas and a sincere thanks to each and every one of you.

Dragon Fighter (NES)

Well, last week’s review was a bit of a wash. Konami let me down for once with their dud of an RPG, Dragon Scroll. Fortunately, I can rely on another of my all-time favorite developers to deliver a dragon game worth playing. I’m talking about Natsume. Much of their early ’90s output flew under the radar initially, only to ascend to cult status years later within the classic gaming community. Most people with an abiding interest in the NES today hardly need to be told that Natsume greats like Power Blade and Shatterhand are worth seeking out. These gems are hidden no more.

Despite this, nobody ever seems to talk about my subject today, 1990’s Dragon Fighter. Why is that? It’s possible Dragon Fighter’s North American publisher, SOFEL, underproduced or undermarketed the game when they brought it out here in early 1992. Authentic copies command ridiculous prices at auction, which seems to lend credence to the notion that there just aren’t that many in circulation. Its cover art certainly didn’t do it any favors, either. The titular sword-swinging hero looks less like Conan and more like a musclebound version of David “Ross” Schwimmer from TV’s Friends. It’s pretty gross.

In all seriousness, I may never know for sure why Dragon Fighter appears destined to remain the forgotten Natsume NES title. I do know it’s a successful hybrid of two popular genres and a damn fine time overall, however. That’s good enough for me.

Your objective is to deliver the once peaceful land of Baljing from the oppression of the warlock Zabbaong. To this end, you assume the role of a warrior statue animated by the power of Baljing’s divine protector, the Dragon Spirit. Standard fantasy stuff, really. Kudos to Natsume for not trying to shoehorn a princess in there, though. There are a total of six stages the Fighter needs to survive before the final showdown with Zabbaong in the skies above Mount Gia. Each is wholly unique, with its own backgrounds, enemies, and music track. The designers resisted the obvious temptation to pad things out by recycling some of this content into “new” levels, leaving Dragon Fighter to stand as a fine example of a short game done right.

At first blush, Dragon Fighter presents as a typical hack-and-slash exercise. The first stage deposits you in an icy wasteland teeming with wolfmen and killer snowflakes. Naturally, you’ll start mowing them down with your primary weapon, a sword. As you do this, you’ll notice a gauge below your health bar gradually filling up. The manual dubs this the “metamorph meter” and once it’s at least 50% filled, it’ll start flashing. At any point thereafter, you can hold up on the directional pad while jumping to transform into a flying dragon. This not only powers you up, it instantly and seamlessly changes Dragon Fighter’s genre! Whereas before you were playing an action-platformer, you’re now operating in a Gradius style auto-scrolling shooter mode.

In addition to being unbound by gravity, your dragon will have one of three powerful breath attacks. These are a triple spread shot, a downward arcing fire bomb, and homing fireballs. The one you get depends on the current color of the Fighter’s armor. It starts out green (spread shot) and can be changed to red (bomb) or blue (homing) by picking up letter icons placed along your path. The Fighter’s human form can also fire off a charged projectile attack with a similar effect, although baddies defeated this way won’t count toward the metamorph meter. If you want my advice, stick to blue whenever possible. Your dragon’s one weakness is that it can only face (and shoot) to the right. Homing shots work wonders against anything that manages to get behind you.

Like all good things, your time as a dragon must end sooner or later. The metamorph meter steadily depletes with use and only kills with the sword can refill it. You’ll either be forced to revert to human form when you run out of meter or you’ll change back voluntarily before then (by pressing down and jump) in order to conserve it. The need to manage this precious resource adds a welcome degree of strategy to Dragon Fighter. Levels aren’t timed and they all feature endlessly respawning enemies. This means that if you want to progress slow and steady, always taking the time to keep your metamorph meter charged, you can. This is probably the best way for novices to approach the game, as you’re only given four lives with which to complete all six stages. More advanced players can skip the enemy farming and press ahead at a steadier pace. If you’re a real master, you can even try to tackle entire levels as a human. It’s always at least possible. This strategic cycling between the hero’s two forms allows Dragon Fighter to stand out some among the endless sea of 8-bit side-scrollers. The way each represents an entirely different play style without the game as a whole feeling disjointed is a testament to the quality design work Natsume was doing around this time.

Things are equally commendable on the audiovisual side. The starting area makes a great first impression with falling snow, glittering ice crystals, and a color-shifting aurora borealis in the background. Later ones showcase similarly impressive moving backdrops, such as waterfalls, massive machines, and the rushing clouds of Mount Gia. Sprites tend to be modest in size (in order to allow plenty of room for your dragon to fly around in), but make up for it by being quite well animated. Kouichi Yamanishi’s score utilizes the same superb in-house sound engine as his one for Shadow of the Ninja and the results are every bit as intense and memorable. Stage three’s theme, “Into the Depth,” ranks among the best ever composed for the hardware, in my opinion.

True to its pedigree, Dragon Fighter is a the epitome of a B-tier action game on the NES. It can’t quite match the intricate level design of a Castlevania, the blistering pace of a Ninja Gaiden, or the variety of a Mega Man, yet it commits no major design sins and has an identity and a charm all its own. While it hasn’t replaced Shatterhand as my personal favorite Natsume release, it’s very much on par with their Power Blade, Shadow of the Ninja, and S.C.A.T. for me. If you’re at all interested in exploring the system’s library beyond the realm of top ten lists, I encourage you to make time for Dragon Fighter. Provided you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege, that is. I’d better be getting a real dragon for that kind of money.

Ghostbusters (Genesis)

Another enchanted Halloween season is drawing to an end and I’m already preemptively sad. At least I’ve made the most of it. My last four weeks have been packed with costumes, haunted houses, and horror flicks. Go big or go home, as they say. And I still have time for one more ghoulish game review. This one is a special request from reader Mike Payne, who wanted me to tackle Ghostbusters on the Sega Genesis. Considering that my last reader request was Ghostbusters for the Master System, I’m noticing a odd trend here.

Genesis Ghostbusters is a very different beast than its 8-bit predecessors. It’s a wholly original work by Sega and Compile, as opposed to yet another port of David Crane’s 1984 Commodore 64 game. Great news if you’d rather gargle broken glass than drive around town dodging traffic and struggling to save up enough money to enter the “Zule building” again. Your task is to guide the Ghostbuster of your choice through an original plot that’s implied to take place between the first and second films. Paranormal activity is spiking around New York City and it seems to be linked to the pieces of a mysterious stone tablet the Ghostbusters have been discovering at various job sites. As the true meaning of the tablet becomes clear, the initially elated Ghostbusters learn that what’s good for business may not always bode well for life on earth.

Don’t expect too much from this story. While I appreciate the effort on the developers’ part, it’s rather predictable and overly reminiscent of the first movie’s. The dialog is also a missed opportunity. It’s dry and utilitarian with none of the witty banter one would hope for. It’s a serviceable justification for six stages of side-scrolling action-platforming, but only just.

Three of the four original Ghostbusters are playable here: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler. They’re all represented by instantly recognizable big-headed caricatures of the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. The lovingly-rendered receeding hairline on bobblehead Bill Murray is hilarious to me for some reason. Unfortunately, Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore isn’t seen or referenced anywhere. I’m not sure what the deal is with that. Winston appeared in the other two Ghostbusters games released around this same time on competing platforms. These were adaptations of Ghostbusters II specifically, however, so perhaps it all comes down to some arcane quirk of the license?

Each of the three characters is mechanically distinct, being built around a specific distribution of speed and durability. Peter is the balanced one, Ray the plodding tank, and Egon the swift, fragile glass cannon. You’re locked into your initial pick for the duration of a given playthrough, so make sure you like the way your guy handles before you progress too far. I inadvertently made the journey harder on myself by going with Egon straightway. His low health makes him better suited for experts. Newcomers are advised to use Ray instead. No regrets, though. I wanted to pay my respects to the late, criminally underrated Harold Ramis. Not to mention Egon is such a great character. It’s not often you see a total nerd presented as a strong, confident hero. He was very much written against type, especially by the standards of the day. Go, Egon!

Progression is fairly open, with the initial set of four stages able to be completed in any order. These range from a small suburban house to a downtown high-rise under attack by the famous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The goal of each level is to defeat (and ideally trap) a set number of mini-boss ghosts in order to unlock the door to the big boss’ room. Larger levels like the high-rise contain more boss encounters and reward your efforts with a correspondingly bigger cash payout.

Insuring a healthy cash flow is paramount because of the shops you’re able to visit between levels, which are stocked with a bevy of healing items and equipment upgrades. Using the shields and weapons you acquire in this fashion eats away at a limited pool of energy. Try not to get so carried away buying fancy new gear that you forget about upgrading the energy bar itself or you’ll constantly be running low on juice when you need it most. Be sure to zap any helpful green Slimers you encounter, since they drop health and energy refills.

This is a sound enough outline on paper and Ghostbusters nails the execution fairly well. The controls are fluid and well-suited to the run-and-gun style action. Your character can fire his unlicensed nuclear accelerator in any of six directions. He can even move and fire while crouched; always appreciated in a hectic game like this. My only real gripe with the engine involves some instances of dodgy collision detection here and there. Clearing the flame columns in the burning house without taking damage is way tougher than it looks.

The wide variety of boss monsters is a major highlight. They all have unique attack patterns and can get pretty wild conceptually, often resembling things you might see in the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show more so than the films. If there’s one downside to this approach, it’s that a few of them don’t seem like they belong to any version of this particular fictional universe. Take the fire dragon straight out of Life Force or the Little Shop of Horrors-inspired carnivorous plant, for example. The game insists these are ghosts. Color me skeptical.

Level design manages to deliver the satisfaction of exploring open layouts without going overboard and forcing confused players to resort to mapping or checking guides. Every environment has its own theme and obstacles, most of which make for a good time. I especially loved trying (and mostly failing) to dodge the Marshmallow Man’s giant fists as he punched through the walls of the high-rise. I was finally able to reach the top and blast him square in his dumb face. Revenge sweeter than s’mores! The big exception to this is that burning house level. It utilizes a darkness mechanic, meaning you’re forced to use night vision goggles to see your surroundings. Problem is, the goggles are consumable items and each pair only lasts a couple minutes. If you make the mistake of venturing deep into the level with only one or two pairs of goggles in your inventory, you’re as good as dead. You’re free to exit and return to the shop to buy more goggles…provided you can find your way back to the front door in the pitch dark with enemies all around. It’s a pity, as the actual contents of the stage are fine. It’s strictly the tedious visibility gimmick that torpedoes it.

Ultimately, this take on Ghostbusters is in the same boat as Daft’s Super Back to the Future Part II for me. Here we have a beloved blockbuster movie series finally being graced with a decent video game adaptation after years of ignoble misfires. Is it truly great? Nah. It didn’t need to be. A competent side-scroller elevated ever so slightly above par by charming depictions of familiar characters and situations still felt great to beleaguered fans. It was the first Ghostbusters game they could simply like and enjoy for what it was without tacking on a whole laundry list of qualifiers and regrets. It doesn’t need to go toe-to-toe with Genesis titans like Revenge of Shinobi, Gunstar Heroes, and Rocket Knight Adventures to be worth acknowledging and it remains a largely pleasant experience for lovers of the franchise.

Thus concludes another spooky game roundup. Rest assured I’ll be back again in eleven short months with a fresh batch of classic gaming tricks and treats. As for you, dear readers, may all your Halloweens be as much fun as collecting spores, molds, and fungus.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (NES)

Hey! You forgot the Power Glove!

I had such a memorable time (for better and worse) taking down the NES incarnation of Jason Voorhees last month that I see no reason to let my killer killing streak end there. Next up in my crosshairs is everyone’s favorite extra crispy child murderer, Freddy Krueger!

This is typically the part of the review where I’d question the wisdom of adapting an R-rated horror franchise to a gaming platform pitched squarely at minors. The Springwood Slasher was well into the high camp Max Headroom phase of his career by 1990, however, and not even us kids were taking him all that seriously anymore. It’s tough to inspire real life nightmares after you’ve guest hosted MTV and covered “Wooly Bully” on your novelty record, you know? That said, this relatively tame action-platformer still had the potential to be much more controversial than it was. Early builds of the game saw the player controlling Freddy himself as he bumped off hapless teenagers. It’s easy to understand why developer Rare and publisher LJN ultimately changed course and reversed these roles.

Similar to LJN’s Jaws and Friday the 13th, Nightmare presents as a more-or-less genericized version of the basic scenario that defines the movie series. Ghostly psycho Freddy is butchering the children of Elm Street in their dreams as revenge against their parents for burning him to death years back. There are no specific supporting characters depicted who would tie this game to any of the five films released prior, although several key locations and concepts appear to have been lifted from the fan favorite third installment, Dream Warriors. The player assumes control of an unnamed teen who’s looking to end this reign of terror by gathering up Freddy’s bones, which are scattered all over the neighborhood for some unknown reason, and burning them in the furnace situated in the basement of the local high school. While I tackled it alone, Nightmare actually allows up to four players simultaneously via the Four Score and Satellite multitap accessories. If there’s any other platforming game from the period that attempted such a thing, I can’t name it. Four people trying to do pinpoint platforming all at once on the same low resolution screen? Sounds like a recipe for sheer chaos to me. I’d love to try it out someday.

If you’re one of the many who despised Friday the 13th for its arcane and often poorly-documented strategy gameplay, I have good news for you: A Nightmare on Elm Street is much closer to the conventional idea of what an NES game should be. It doesn’t get much simpler than seven linear stages of increasingly difficult pit jumping and enemy bashing. The only potentially confusing element is Elm Street itself, which acts as a hub area. Fortunately, there isn’t much to it. Finish one stage and you’ll need to trek down the road to the next one and press up to enter its front door. Since only one door is ever active at a time, there’s a minor trial and error element as you try out different buildings.

Levels are broken up into multiple side-scrolling segments, each of which tasks you with collecting a requisite number of bones in order to unseal the exit. You’ll eventually reach the boss room and face off with Freddy, who assumes a variety of strange and occasionally goofy guises to combat you. Beating him earns you access to the next level. It also grants you an extra life. Make the most of these, as this is the only way you can add to your initial stock of twenty. Run out and it’s back to the title screen.

In a nod to the cinematic Krueger’s oneiric onslaughts, Nightmare includes a sleep mechanic. The red “Zzz” meter at the top of the screen represents your hero’s wakefulness. It slowly decreases with time and allowing it to deplete fully shifts the action to the dream world. The artwork takes on a darker tone here and enemy health is doubled. Level layouts and monster spawn points don’t change, it just becomes harder to kill things.

You can avoid transitioning to the dream world by picking up the coffee cups present in most stages. You may want to pass on the caffeine, though. Counterintuitive as it seems, the benefits of being trapped in Freddy’s domain arguably outweigh the dangers. Only when sleeping is your rather pathetic default character able to utilize the three powered-up dream warrior forms. There’s an athlete, a ninja, and a wizard. They all offer superior jumping ability and projectiles to replace the puny punch that normally serves as your sole means of attack. Dream world baddies take more hits to kill, sure, but you no longer need to be within arm’s reach of them to deal your damage. The advantage is yours.

The designers must have realized this, so they threw in one final hazard unique to the dream world: Periodic mini-boss engagements with Freddy. These are always preceded by a chiptune interpretation of the spooky “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” song from the movies. They should function as potent incentives to stay awake. In practice, the fights are far too easy and hardly fit for their intended purpose. No, it’s still smarter and more interesting to remain asleep, if you ask me.

If this all sounds pretty decent, that’s because it is. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, especially considering that it’s long been dogged by the usual “crappy licensed LJN game” reputation. It’s nothing mind-blowing and it absolutely has its shortcomings. The collision detection leaves a lot to be desired at times, with some of your shots passing straight through enemies harmlessly. It punks out big-time at the end by falling back on a boss rush in place of a unique final boss. Above all, it isn’t remotely scary. If you look past the fact that it includes a few Freddy sprites, the experience isn’t any more unsettling than the average Castlevania outing. Friday the 13th, for all its clunkiness, baked some real tension into your high stakes cat-and-mouse game with Jason.

Still, this is a perfectly adequate second string contract work with a smooth difficulty curve, a fun gimmick in the dream warrior abilities, and a sublime soundtrack by David Wise of Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads fame that’s almost certainly too good for the material it supports. A Nightmare on Elm Street likely won’t set your world on fire, or even your boiler room, but it won’t put you to sleep, either. I hope….

Splatterhouse (PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

Burning down the house!

Of all the bone-chilling titles in this year’s October roundup, Namco’s Splatterhouse holds the strongest claim to true historical significance as mainstream gaming’s introduction to gore. Suspect I might oversimplifying there? That’s fair. 1988 does seem awfully late for such a milestone. I don’t maintain that Splatterhouse was the first gory game, however, only the first to enjoy a number of advantages that collectively gave it the edge in breaking through to the public consciousness. Unlike Exidy’s 1986 light gun oddity Chiller, it received a massive marketing push from its A-list developer/publisher. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for much more in the way of shocking detail than Wizard Video’s blocky 1983 renditions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600. Finally, being an arcade and console release, it had a much wider built-in audience than home computer offerings like 1987’s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

Eschewing the ancient Universal homages of many other early horror games, Splatterhouse gleefully leaned into edgier contemporary influences. Its musclebound hero, Rick Taylor, donned a Jason-esque “Terror Mask” and blue jumpsuit ensemble, simultaneously paying tribute to two of the period’s most iconic big screen slashers. And he splattered things. Loads of things. Zombies, bloodsucking worms, flying severed heads, misshapen killer fetuses, you name it, all in his frenzied rush to rescue his love Jennifer from the unholy depths of West Mansion. No wonder this 1989 port to the TurboGrafx-16 became the first game to bear a violence warning, which declared it “inappropriate for young children…and cowards.” From the makers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug came the blood-drenched beat-’em-up Evil Dead and Reanimator fans had been waiting for. Go figure.

So, having established Splatterhouse as very important and very cool, how does it play? Well, what you see really is what you get with this one. Even by 1988 standards, the gameplay here is basic. At a point in arcade history when Double Dragon’s eight-directional movement represented the cutting edge in beat-’em-up design, Splatterhouse confines Rick to a single horizontal plane and thus more closely resembles Irem’s Kung-Fu Master from 1984. Simply walk to the right, hop over the occasional spike or other ground hazard, and smack down every twisted monstrosity that gets in your way. Persevere through seven stages of this of this without running out of lives and you win. A couple stages do offer short branching paths to the boss room, but this idea is sadly underutilized.

Rick’s rampage is as brief as it is straightforward. After you’ve come to grips with the level layouts and enemy behaviors, an entire playthrough can be wrapped up in under twenty minutes. This makes Splatterhouse a rare example of a “hot tea game” for me. See, I’ve unintentionally developed a tradition over the years of brewing up a piping hot mug of tea at the start of a gaming session. I then immediately get lost in the flow, forgetting all about my poor beverage until hours have passed, by which time it’s ice cold. Imagine my surprise when I cleared the TurboGrafx Splatterhouse for the first time and had a nice, warm mug awaiting me for a change! I had so much play time to spare that I threw on the Japanese PC Engine version and ran all the way through it, too. Turns out the two are almost identical. The North American edition merely changed Rick’s mask from white to red (presumably to head off any Paramount Pictures lawsuits) and took out all the crosses. Because shredding zombies in twain with a wooden plank is fine, provided you leave Jesus out of it.

Pointing out that these home editions of Splatterhouse are dead simple and light on content shouldn’t be construed as condemnation. On the contrary. As they’re intended to be faithful adaptations of the arcade original, they must be reckoned great successes. Every key location and play element is present and accounted for. The graphics, particularly the backgrounds, are scaled back somewhat, yet still convey the same hellish effect. The eerie music holds up equally well. This series in general has a reputation for style over substance, which is both technically true and frequently unfair. The entirety of Splatterhouse is positively bursting with ghoulish ambience and diabolic verve, resulting in an unforgettable experience for any classic gaming or classic horror enthusiast. What’s the sense in glossing over that as if it’s some small thing that comes standard with any random game?

Splatterhouse made enough of a splash to warrant two direct sequels on the Sega Genesis and a delightfully silly Famicom spin-off (Wanpaku Graffiti). As of this writing, an ill-fated 2010 reboot attempt is the last we’ve heard from Rick, Jennifer, and the eldritch Terror Mask. Perhaps that’s for the best. Splatterhouse’s once transgressive grue factor comes across almost naive in an age of fully-voiced interactive torture scenes (Grand Theft Auto V) and near photorealistic dismemberment (Mortal Kombat 11). Shifts in popular culture and the inexorable march of technology have rendered this former controversy magnet quaint as a caped Bela Lugosi in its own way. Its infectiously likable pick-up-and-play action, on the other hand? That’s timeless.

Crystalis (NES)

The sprawling NES library has no shortage of high quality entries that, for one reason or other, were destined to remain one-offs. Whether due to lackluster sales, expired licenses, or simple lack of developer interest, the fact we never received proper follow-ups to brilliant works like The Guardian Legend and Shatterhand adds an unwelcome bittersweet edge to the fun. As far as I’m concerned, no sequel-less NES gem got a rawer deal than the 1990 action RPG Crystalis, or God Slayer: Haruka Tenkū no Sonata (“God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky”), as it’s known in Japan. Man, what a spectacular title; poetic and badass. I suppose the localization team didn’t want concerned parents phoning in complaints about Little Jimmy’s deicidal Nintender tape. Killjoys.

Crystalis’ ironclad reputation as a cult classic is odd in light of its origin: Legendary action game studio SNK. It actually hit Japanese shelves two weeks before the launch of the company’s bleeding edge Neo Geo platform. Even if SNK was one of the true greats of the 8 and 16-bit era, RPGs were hardly in their wheelhouse. Or were they? For a first foray into a brand new genre, Crystalis’ sheer polish, ambition, and confidence are breathtaking. It’s not a flawless game, but it sure carries itself like one.

Despite what the sword-wielding dude on the cover may lead you to believe, Crystalis isn’t set in the ancient past or some made-up fantasy land. No, this is post-nuclear Earth, ravaged by a massive conflict that brought humanity to the very brink of extinction on that fateful day of October 1st, 1997. Setting doomsday less than a decade out? That takes either an extreme lack of foresight or an equally extreme pessimism. In either case, a century has passed, during which savage mutants have overrun the irradiated wilderness. What’s left of human civilization has regressed to a medieval state and rediscovered the lost art of magic.

The actual plot centers on a floating tower created by survivors of the nuclear war. Its on-board computer was supposed to watch over the remaining people and prevent them from making the same mistakes again. A despot named Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are on the verge of seizing control of the tower, which will allow them to rule the entire planet unopposed through the combined might of dark wizardry and pre-war technology. You control a nameless hero automatically awakened from a cryogenic freeze, apparently as a fail-safe in the event of just such a crisis. Unfortunately, the defrosting process seems to have left you an amnesiac with no clue how to accomplish your mission. No matter! You’re given a magic sword by the village elder right off the bat and basically told to go forth, kill monsters, and let the details sort themselves out.

It’s a sweet setup to be sure, especially for a time when “kill the Dark Lord,” “save the trophy girl,” or both were still the three default RPG plots. I only wish I could say Crystalis delivered on it more fully. Apart from the opening and closing segments, there’s nothing that evokes the post-apocalypse genre specifically or science fiction in general. This isn’t Wasteland or Fallout, in other words. From the time you leave your sleep chamber until you reach the floating tower itself for the rather abrupt climax, Crystalis is every bit a conventional swords & sorcery exercise.

Thankfully, that exercise is a superb one. Many have cited Crystalis as the best action RPG on the NES and, as much as I adore Zelda II, I’m inclined to agree. The graphics, while not the flashiest we’d ever see from the hardware, are colorful and well-detailed. The relatively large sprites for the hero and his many enemies do a fine job showcasing how far the state of NES art had advance in the four years since the original Zelda. The music is better still. Stirring, mysterious, and eerie by turns, this soundtrack sears itself into the player’s consciousness. It’d been decades since I last picked up the game and I still knew every note by heart.

Of course, great graphics and music alone do not a great game make. Exploration, combat, and character progression form the foundation of any action RPG. If they don’t work to draw you in from minute-to-minute, the game doesn’t work. Crystalis’ navigation and combat utilize the standard 3/4 overhead perspective, with your hero able to move about freely (and rather quickly) in eight directions, as well as jump by equipping a specific pair of enchanted boots. So far, so good. All battling revolves around use of the four magic swords you acquire throughout your travels, each associated with an element: Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder. You do get to combine all four swords at the end, not to form Captain Planet, but rather the super-sword, Crystalis. Sadly, the Crystalis sword itself is made available  exclusively for the absurdly easy and unsatisfying final boss fight, so it’s merely a tease.

Beyond running up to baddies and mashing B to shank them repeatedly, every sword has three different ranged magic attacks achieved by holding down the button for a set amount of time and then releasing it when needed. You have access to a sword’s first level charge attack from the get-go, with the other two requiring accessory items to enable. These higher level sword powers have non-combat applications, too, blasting away some walls and otherwise creating paths to new areas.

This ready access to a wide selection of projectile attacks is cool. It also has the side benefit of partially mitigating the game’s biggest weakness: Wonky hit detection. Getting close enough to enemies to reliably take them out with regular sword thrusts is trickier than it should be, owing to the hero’s tendency to take hits from things you’ll swear weren’t anywhere near to touching him. You often can’t trust your eyes in this regard, making a series of long-distance potshots the safest bet in most cases. This approach is still not perfect. Certain enemy types are completely immune to one or more swords, which can lead to tons of tedious gear swapping or simply running straight past foes instead of engaging with them because you can’t be bothered to futz around with menu screens at the moment.

In addition to your swords, which are really the central hook here, you get an unremarkable selection of armor, shields, and healing consumables. Rounding things out are a handful of spells that allow you to recover health, cure negative status effects, fast travel between town, and so on. You’ll occasionally need to use your magic on NPC townsfolk in order to solve a puzzle and advance the story; a pretty thoughtful touch that didn’t factor into many other RPGs of the era.

So the story is interesting, the presentation lush, and the core gameplay generally fun, albeit with some non-trivial annoyances. What truly elevates Crystalis above and beyond its peers on the system, though, are its pitch-perfect pacing and ultra-smooth sense of progression. This game moves like nobody’s business. There’s no point during the compact eight hour run time when it feels like your hero or his journey are stagnating. You’re always zooming off to the next town or dungeon, always stumbling onto a nifty new sword attack or spell, always being pulled forward by the natural flow of the quest. If more RPGs could pull off this one elegant trick…well, I might not devote 90% of my gaming time to platformers and shooters. As it is, Crystalis and the almighty Chrono Trigger are among the precious few that make it look easy.

Inevitably, the dawn of the high end Neo Geo and its ability to bring the pure arcade experience home shifted SNK’s focus away from experimental RPGs and back to their coin-op roots. The debut of a little game called Street Fighter II in 1991 further cemented this change of direction, leading to Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and the legion of other competitive SNK fighters that define their legacy to this day in the eyes of many. True to its lofty name, the Neo Geo ushered in a whole new world. If Crystalis taught us one thing, however, it’s that no new world, no matter how magical, is birthed without pain.

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.

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.