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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

Dancing space raisins? Can’t say I expected that.

Welcome to my first ever re-review! My initial published take on meme-famous shooter Zero Wing appeared on the defunct ClassicGaming.com all the way back in March of 2001. Holy hell, does that make me ancient. Just think: This Mega Drive edition of the game wasn’t even ten years old at that time. People born the day my original review went up are eligible to vote now. Jesus.

My decision to examine Zero Wing in depth back then was based on the fact that “all your base” references were rampant online, yet discussion of its origin and merits as a video game were much harder to come by. Sliding my middle-aged angst over to the back burner for the time being, I see no reason why I can’t chart a similar course this time around. Jokes about its botched translation may be as outdated as Flash animation, but it’s not like the game itself become any more of a household name over the years.

This lack of familiarity with the game proper makes sense from a North American perspective. While the 1989 arcade original did show up here courtesy of manufacturer Williams, it was hardly a common sight in the wild. There were no home versions available, either. That mangled English intro scene that took the world by storm last decade? Exclusive to the 1992 European Mega Drive release. Zero Wing is the brainchild of the late lamented Toaplan, who forged themselves a solid reputation on the backs of many popular overhead shoot-’em-ups of the ’80s and ’90s (Tiger Heli, Fire Shark, Truxton, Batsugun, etc). It’s one of only two side-scrolling shooters the studio ever produced, the other being Hellfire from that same year.

At least its laughing stock of an opening makes Zero Wing’s plot better known than most. The year is 2101 and a United Nations space vessel is suddenly attacked (“Somebody set up us the bomb”) by the alien overlord CATS, who appears on the ship’s view screen and gloats that he’s seized control of all the U.N.’s bases in his bid to conquer Earth (“All your base are belong to us”). Fortunately, a lone ZIG fighter makes it out of the doomed ship in the nick of time and promptly heads off to put an end to CATS. “Move ‘ZIG’. For great justice.” And yes, both CATS and ZIG are rendered that way in the official material. Are they supposed to be acronyms or something? Beats me.

In keeping with genre convention, all movement for great justice is of the left-to-right variety and split up between eight stages, each with its own end boss. There’s nothing too special here conceptually. You get a couple of space-themed areas, an H.R. Giger-inspired fleshy one, and a lot of abstract techno-fortresses that honestly start to blend together after a while. The scrolling itself is definitely on the slow side and this, in conjunction with the cramped layouts and moving stage elements, makes comparison with a certain seminal Irem shooter inevitable. Yes, Zero Wing very much resembles an “R-Type lite” with a couple key differences.

One plus for many will be Zero Wing’s lesser difficulty. Skillful movement and some degree of memorization are still required to do well, but the progression is far less rigid overall than the fearsome R-Type’s, with fewer instances of needing to be in the exact right place at the exact right time or else. The designers are also pretty generous with the continues. They’re unlimited on the default setting and the hardest mode available still allows for a hefty fifteen. That’s 48 lives, not counting any extras you manage to rack up by scoring well. Downright cushy!

On the downside, there really isn’t that much to sink your teeth into here. Horizontal shooters have a reputation for being slower and more technical than their vertically-scrolling cousins, which traditionally favor fast, no-frills action with a looser flow. Zero Wing somewhat awkwardly combines the measured pace and finicky maneuvering of a horizontal shooter with the simplistic mechanics of a vertical one. You get a choice of three basic weapons (spread shot, straight laser, homing), a couple of firepower multiplying drones, and not much else. There’s no power-up menu to juggle as in Gradius, no charge shot to manage or Force pod to direct around the screen as in R-Type, not even an inventory of specialized weapons to cycle though on the fly as in Thunder Force or Zero Wing’s own sister game Hellfire. Zero Wing does sport one unique gameplay feature in the form of your ZIG’s short range tractor beam, which can grab onto smaller enemies and suspend them helplessly in front of your craft, where they can then double as shields or extra projectiles as needed. It’s a cute touch and fun to use. I hesitate to call it deep, however.

At its heart, this is a prime example of a “me, too” title that comes off rather shallow next to the true greats that inspired it. It looks alright and the music genuinely cooks, but its own pacing betrays it by giving you all the time in the world to notice the lack of meat on its bones. The loss of the two-player simultaneous option from the arcade is a bummer, too. Once you get past that glorious train wreck of an opening sequence, Zero Wing becomes a contender for the plainest space shooting exercise available on Sega’s 16-bit platform. That’s not to say it’s objectionable, mind you. It’s just not the sort of first water gem that sinks its hooks into players and makes new shooter fans of them on the spot. Toaplan was clearly operating outside their comfort zone here and the result is best enjoyed as a light palate cleanser between other, more substantial works in the same vein.

Anyway, time for me to sit here feeling old and wistful some more. The CATS in the cradle and the silver spoon….

Cocoron (Famicom)

 

It’s a tale almost as old as the business itself. Artistic types feeling stifled by the conservative corporate culture of the larger game studios strike out on their own to bring their unadulterated visions to the world and hopefully win more recognition and compensation in the process. Thus did Activision spring from Atari, Treasure from Konami, and so on. Around 1990, the newly-minted Takeru (aka Sur de Wave) similarly represented independence and creative freedom for Capcom alum Akira Kitamura, Irem’s Takashi Kogure, Tecmo’s Tsukasa Chibana, and more. They released their first game, the text-based adventure Nostalgia 1907, in April of 1991 and their last, none other than NES super rarity Little Samson, in June of 1992. In-between came the Kitamura-helmed Cocoron. That’s three games over fourteen months before the company eventually folded due to dire financial straits. I guess they can’t all be winners.

The tragedy of Takeru is fascinating and all, but the real reason I wanted to cover this particular 1991 action-platformer so badly is much simpler: Cocoron has a tapir in it! Anyone who knows me know I’m utterly obsessed with these adorable odd-toed ungulates. I love their twisty noses, their stubby tails, their incongruously high-pitched squeaking noises, everything! Best animal ever! They also happen to be closely associated with sleep and dreams in Japanese myth, as evidenced by Hypno and Drowzee from the Pokémon games. Accordingly, the tapir that appears here (who’s actually named Tapir, at least according to the fan translation by Akujin of Dynamic-Designs) is a dream wizard. He appears one night to the game’s unseen protagonist (presumably meant to represent you, the player), introduces himself, and offers to send you on a journey into the dream world to rescue a princess from mysterious “evil forces.” Hell, yeah! If it’s a cute tapir asking, sign me up!

Since you’re entering a dream world, Tapir informs you that you’re able to assume any form you choose. This allows you to start getting acquainted right off the bat with Cocoron’s main gimmick, its character creation system. You’ll need to construct your own custom avatar using pieces from a “toybox” containing 24 heads, 16 bodies, and 8 weapons. It doesn’t sound like that much, but that’s still 3072 possible player characters. Ambitious indeed for a Famicom game. In keeping with the established tone, most of your options are pretty wacky. You could opt for a clown with a giant spring for a body that shoots deadly pencils or a jack-‘o-lantern with dragon wings that hurls flower bombs. It’s all good.

The main thing to mind during this process is your character’s bulk. Every part has a specific weight associated with it and the final total will largely determine how your creation controls. Heavy heroes boast great durability at the cost of sharply limited walk speed and jump height. Light ones are quick, mobile, and extremely fragile. You can also aim for a balanced approach, of course, which is recommended for newcomers. Complicating matters is the fact that stronger weapons (like the shuriken) and parts that offer special movement abilities (wings, jetpacks, tank and boat bodies) tend to be heavier than average to offset their advantages.

Cool as it is, this system is far from perfectly balanced. Heavy characters seem to have a much easier time staying alive than light ones, flight abilities trivialize much of the game’s platforming, and the shuriken is by far the strongest weapon. Thankfully, you won’t suffer too much if your first draft isn’t all you’d hoped for, since you’ll have the opportunity to make a whole new dream warrior each time you finish one of the first five levels. Mega Man creator Kitamura clearly took inspiration from his prior work here, except instead of just gaining access to a new weapon when you beat a boss, you get to add a whole new custom character to your eventual stable of six. You’re given the option to switch out your active hero every time you complete a stage or return to your house at the center of the game world.

The layout of this world itself constitutes another new twist on an old formula. Although you can challenge the initial set of five stages in any order per standard Mega Man rules, they’re all interconnected here. Instead of just transitioning back to a stage select menu after you clear an area, you’ll actually have to walk to your next destination in real time and the terrain you’ll traverse will vary depending on where you start out and where you’re headed. There’s a unique stretch of level linking the Milk Sea and the Fairy Forest, another one entirely between the Milk Sea and Star Hill, etc. This doesn’t make Cocoron a true exploratory adventure game like Metroid, but it does manage to lend the progression a very different feel from Mega Man while still maintaining the same emphasis on player choice.

Cocoron’s core gameplay consists of  running, jumping, and shooting your way through a mix of horizontally and vertically-scrolling environments. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the most generally useful point of comparison is once again the director’s own Mega Man. While each custom character’s precise movement and attack parameters will vary, the game engine as whole still feels like you could insert the Blue Bomber himself into the action and not have it feel too out of place. That said, there’s one prominent aspect of Cocoron’s platforming that wasn’t present in any NES Mega Man installment: Sloped surfaces. Characters that lack tank treads are prone to slide down these inclines, which can be a hassle when bottomless pits are lurking nearby.

Between the flexible character creation and the complex, unorthodox level design, there’s more than enough going on mechanically to make Cocoron worth a look for old school action-platforming aficionados. What really puts it over the top, though, is its weird, whimsical atmosphere. Between this game, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and Kirby’s Adventure, it seems Famicom developers could do no wrong when they went for this sort of child-like dreamland theme. Cocoron’s backgrounds are bright, colorful and packed with quirky details like the gigantic overturned milk cartons dotting the shores of the Milk Sea, the grinning pink whales hovering in the skies above Star Hill, and the furnished penguin houses of Ice-Fire Mountain.

The enemy designs are also interesting. Many of them are animals like penguins and armadillos, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. Despite appearing identical, armadillos might toss their armored bits as projectiles in one stage, roll along the walls in another, and glide through the air in a third. You need to stay on your toes because can’t always be sure how a foe will behave based on appearance alone. Clever.

Finally, the music by Takashi Tateishi (Mega Man 2) and Yoshiji Yokoyama (Little Samson) doesn’t disappoint. It captures the peppy, playful tone of the adventure perfectly. It’s not Mega Man 2’s equal by a long shot, just an overall above average 8-bit soundtrack.

If there’s one thing that hinders Cocoron as a pure action game, it’s all the damn eggs. The experienced team at Takeru somehow made the rookie mistake of overthinking something as basic as grabbing items in an action-platformer. It should be a simple two step process. Step one: Dead enemy drops item. Step two: Player character touches item to pick it up. Cocoron adds a pace killing intermediate step by hiding all items inside speckled eggs which then have to be shot, sometimes three or four times in succession, before the goodies inside are revealed. Every enemy in the game drops an egg. Every egg has to be shot multiple times if you want to get at the health refills, weapon power-ups, and extra lives inside. Given that eggs aren’t known for fighting back, all this extra button mashing gets really old really fast.

As long as you can forgive this one its handful of character balance issues and pointless egg cracking fixation, I think you’ll find it to be a true highlight of the Famicom’s Japan-exclusive library. Its novel gameplay, ample charm, and unusually high replay value are all proof positive that Takeru’s failure to thrive was in no way owing to the quality of its output. Cocoron is a dream well worth pursuing. After all, if you can’t trust a friendly tapir, who can you trust?

Mega Man 4 (NES)

Come on, ride the train! Hey, ride it!

I’ve been getting pretty esoteric with the import stuff these past couple weeks. Time to head back to the well and draw up some more classic Mega Man goodness! 1991’s Mega Man 4 is the first NES entry in the series to debut after the introduction of the Super Nintendo, yet it still only marks the mid-point of the Blue Bomber’s adventures on the old gray box. When other established franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania hastened to join the 16-bit revolution, Mega Man was, in a sense, the system’s last veteran hero standing by the time Mega Man 6 dropped in 1993. I’m not sure if any current or former Capcom staff are on record detailing why the company waited so long to migrate their flagship character to the new hardware. If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the established 8-bit Mega Man formula was so robust and cost-effective to iterate on by that point that annual releases on mature hardware were seen as low risk/high reward endeavors by management.

This dependence on a formula established the decade prior hasn’t done Mega Man 4-6’s reputations any favors. You’ve probably heard the standard spiel before: The first three games are timeless classics that each blazed new trails by introducing revolutionary new gameplay features, fan favorite characters like Rush and Proto Man, or both. After that came the “me, too” entries; lazy paint-by-numbers cash grabs that shamelessly rode the coattails of their illustrious forebears.

With a setup like that, you’re probably expecting me to swoop in now and eviscerate this narrow-minded drivel. That’s what I foresaw myself doing all the while I was playing and enjoying Mega Man 4. Now that the time has come to commit my thoughts to writing, though, I’m just not feeling it. Truth is, the detractors have a point. The latter three NES sequels collectively do very little to expand on the gameplay or fictional universe of Mega Man. They’re really just spinning their wheels, creatively speaking. Anyone who remembers the triumphant launch of Mega Man X on Super Nintendo can attest to what a breath of fresh air it was with its faster, more dynamic movement and brand new cast of characters. It’s a great game that seemed even greater in its day precisely because we were so primed for a change.

Then again, these are games. Despite how much I’m able to nitpick after I’ve set the controller down, that core Mega Man loop (“kill eight robot masters, take their special weapons, storm Dr. Wily’s castle”) flows so well that I find it damn near impossible to hold their repetitiveness against them while I’m actually along for the ride. So it’s not so much that the common critique of these titles is inaccurate or unfair in any way, simply that it’s moot for all practical gaming purposes and, consequently, easy to forgive.

In terms of specifics, the one new thing of note Mega Man 4 brings to the series is the Mega Buster charge shot. You can now hold the B button down for a few seconds in order to ready a more powerful blast from Mega Man’s default weapon. This a classic example of a risk/reward mechanic, as missing your target when you finally do release the shot effectively wastes the extra time you spent charging it.

Some players adore this added layer of strategy. Others maintain that the charge shot was a mistake, since it deals so much damage that it renders the robot master weapons redundant. Put me down somewhere in the middle, albeit leaning slightly toward the anti-charge camp. I don’t think the robot master weapons are useless at all. In fact, this might be the best assortment we’d ever see in a NES Mega Man outing. Certainly, there’s nothing anywhere near as comically bad as Mega Man 3’s Top Spin. The real problem is the time needed to switch between weapons. Accessing the menu takes a couple seconds. It’s not much, but it does break the flow of the action each and every time, whereas just using the charged Buster instead doesn’t. I also get the impression that the designers upped the health of many common enemies in order to encourage players to use the new charging feature as much as possible. Everything seems to take one or two more uncharged shots to die than it would have in the earlier games. Maximizing your combat effectiveness therefore means holding that B button down (and tolerating the high-pitched noise it makes) for the majority of the game. I don’t consider this an improvement.

Fortunately, this installment has more than just a great selection of boss weapons going for it. The robot masters themselves are also fun and challenging to fight. Except for Toad Man. He’s just silly. The theming of these characters is getting ever more abstract, too, which can make guessing their weaknesses trickier. What’s Pharoah Man weak to? The Flash Stopper that you got from Bright Man, naturally. Everyone knows pharoahs hate flashing lights. Duh.

Mega Man 4 also continues to experiment with lengthening play time by adding more levels between the initial eight and Dr. Wily’s castle. Here, you have to face off against a Russian fellow named Dr. Cossack, who’s initially presented as the new mad scientist on the block. He’s actually a good guy being blackmailed by Wily, of course, because this is still a Mega Man game and tradition reigns. The important thing is that the Cossack stages represent unique experiences, as opposed to the cut-and-paste asset recycling of Mega Man 3’s Doc Robot levels. Another big plus: Both Cossack and Wily’s strongholds feel more complete than the rushed afterthought that was Mega Man 3’s Wily castle.

So, yes, Mega Man 4 is merely more run-of-the-mill NES Mega Mega and I don’t much care for its charge shot mechanic. It still looks, sounds, and plays better than at least 90% of its contemporaries, however, including sacred cow Mega Man 3. The robot masters, their weapons, and the game’s extended climax are all handled better here than in the last game, resulting in a more cohesive and satisfying experience overall. It doesn’t strike me as a true labor of love or a game for the ages like Mega Man 2 does, but I found myself appreciating it much more than I thought I would just for how well it nailed the fundamentals. Mega Man 4 doesn’t need to be great art. It’s a supremely competent action-platformer and that’s enough.

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total 8-bit train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one. Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization of the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so Square opted to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations to date, including this one, have wisely left intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept this one a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially re-made multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

I’ve covered several noteworthy clone games over the years, going so far as to label some of them (Master of Darkness, Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest) particularly shameless copycats. Being brazen is one thing, but Sega’s 1991 Master System release Golden Axe Warrior is the first such game I’ve encountered that takes things a step further. Its makers were seemingly so intent on proving anything Nintendo could do, they could do better that their work reads as downright defiant. The way Sega painstakingly duplicates even the most peripheral elements of The Legend of Zelda here has all the earmarks of a rebel stance.

Now, I realize that throwing around loaded terms like “clone” and “copycat” can raise some red flags. Just to be clear, I’m don’t believe that a lack of originality is some sort of mortal design sin. Innovation is praiseworthy as a general thing, sure, but I’m here for a good time and Golden Axe Warrior is a decently fun take on the Zelda formula. I can even find it in my heart to cut Sega some slack in light of their circumstances at the time. Nintendo had spent the better part of the past decade leading up to this game’s release using every dirty trick and strong-arm tactic in the book to push third party game developers and retailers away from the Sega brand. This resulted in the Master System being all but frozen out of the two biggest game markets in the world at time: North America and Japan. I’d have a golden axe to grind under such conditions, too.

Most classic gaming devotees will rightly surmise that Golden Axe Warrior is based on the Golden Axe series of fantasy beat-’em-ups that started in the arcades back in 1989. The basic scenario presented here is overall quite faithful to the first arcade game’s: The wicked giant Death Adder has overrun the land. You assume control of (and name) a young hero orphaned by Death Adder on a quest to vanquish the tyrant. Oddly, while all three iconic protagonists from the arcade title make brief cameos in Golden Axe Warrior, none of them are playable.

So, how exactly does Golden Axe Warrior mirror Zelda? You have the overhead view, of course. The flip-screen scrolling. Similar sword and shield-based combat. A health meter represented by tiny red hearts. A sprawling overworld dotted with trees and rock formations, many of which conceal cave entrances. Nine magic crystals that must be gathered from nine separate underground dungeons filled with locked doors and simple puzzles before you can enter the tenth and final dungeon to face Death Adder himself. Upgrades within each dungeon that allow you do things like illuminate dark areas and travel over water. Did I miss anything? Yup! Golden Axe Warrior actually goes so far as to knock off specific oddball Zelda enemies. It includes its own take on the tube-shaped Like Like critters that gobble up your character and steal his items, for example. Hell, even the money making game and those obnoxious door repair jerks make appearances! I never thought I’d see the day a Zelda-inspired game would bother porting over the friggin’ door repair guy, but here we are. It’s this whole added layer of unnecessary copying that makes me think Sega was hoisting a big virtual middle finger at their arch-rivals.

Again, I’m not trying to imply that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t worthy of your time. It handles the majority of these familiar elements with grace and even exceeds Zelda itself on a couple fronts. It looks much nicer for one thing, owing to the Master System’s superior color capabilities. The world building and storytelling are also much improved. Hyrule, as presented in the first Legend of Zelda, came off much more like trackless wilderness than a proper kingdom. The lands you visit in Golden Axe Warrior are dotted with actual settlements and the NPCs dwelling in them generally have more copious and useful dialogue to dispense than their NES counterparts. A few towns you’ll discover will be ruined and strewn with corpses; a rather elegant way to reinforce the threat of Death Adder and his minions.

Slick as the majority of Golden Axe Warrior is, the combat constitutes a major stumbling block in my book. While the swordplay is superficially very similar to Zelda’s, the devil is in the details. Your weapons all seem to have a shorter reach than Link’s sword and they also cause less pushback to enemies. Consequently, I found it much more of a pain to get close enough to deal my damage without taking any in return. This is exacerbated by the fact that your ranged attack options are limited to magic spells and you can’t really afford to waste your limited magic power on cannon fodder baddies when it’s your only means of opening many locked doors and secret passages. The fighting in Golden Axe Warrior was mostly just an annoyance for me. The precise spacing and timing required is simply way too finicky for a game in this style. Either more sword range or some extra projectile weapons like the boomerang, bow, and wand from Zelda would have smoothed things out significantly.

Once you do eventually adapt to this exacting combat, Golden Axe Warrior reveals itself to be one of the more accomplished Master System releases of its kind. I’ll certainly take it over Compile’s Golvellius any day. At the same time, though, it could have been so much more. Its developers placed such a high premium on replicating Nintendo’s seminal effort that they essentially forgot to make a Golden Axe game! Virtually none of the memorable scenes or mechanics from the beloved beat-’em-ups are represented here. Imagine if you could play as Ax Battler, Tyris Flare, or Gilius Thunderhead instead of some blank slate nobody. Perhaps you’d be able to switch between all three heroes as needed to make use of their unique weapons and spells. What about getting to kick ass mounted on some of the fantastic beasts you can saddle up and ride in the arcade? Even booting around those weird little gnome thief dudes to refill your health and magic would have been something. An adventure game that made a bona fide attempt to hybridize Golden Axe and Zelda could have been a real knockout entry in the genre with a far more wide-reaching legacy.

Alas, poor Golden Axe Warrior. Scion of a proud line, it got so carried away trying to beat the enemy at their own game that it lost its very identity in the process.