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.

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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.

Magical Chase (TurboGrafx-16)

Let’s talk expensive games video games.

Not the classic titles you know and love. No, I mean really expensive games. Beyond the everyday gripes about those bloodsucking resellers with their $30 Contras and $200 Earthbounds, there lies another world entirely. I’m referring to the realm of the ultra-rarities, a bewildering alien landscape where single cartridges are priced like cars, minus the helpful financing options. For the majority of (relatively) level-headed, responsible enthusiasts, this is just a gaudy sideshow. For a select few, though, chasing these “holy grails” becomes an obsession.

Most true big ticket games never saw a conventional retail release. Rather, they’re unreleased prototypes, low production arcade boards, “competition cartridges” created for specific gaming events, and the like. The most famous is undoubtedly the 1990 Nintendo World Championships NES cartridge. Only 116 were ever produced and you can expect to pay between $15,000 and $19,000 to own one, depending on whether you opt for the grey or gold plastic shell variant. Yikes.

This got me thinking: What’s the most expensive game to have actually been given a proper release? No last-minute cancellations, abrupt product recalls, or anything like that. Just a regular old mass-produced game cartridge that you or I could have picked up for $50 back in the day if we’d had either amazing luck or the gift of foresight on our side. As of right now, a good candidate would be Quest’s 1991 PC Engine shooter Magical Chase. More specifically, the version of it released in North America in 1993 for the ailing TurboGrafx-16. Hard figures relating to the production and sale of older games are elusive as a rule, but all sources seem to agree that the TG-16 Magical Chase was released very late in the troubled console’s run and sold very poorly indeed. Authentic copies commonly fetch between $3000 and $5000 at auction today. Fortunately for me, you’re only required to shell out that kind of money to actually own Magical Chase. Playing it is another story.

As a side-scrolling shooter starring an adorable cartoon witch girl on a flying broomstick, Magical Chase is often compared to another 1991 release, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams by developer Success. Whether this is an example of convergent evolution or if Quest deliberately set out to copy Success’, well, success, I’m not rightly sure. The apprentice witch you control here is named Ripple and she’s managed to land herself in quite a bind by meddling with one of her master’s forbidden books and accidentally freeing the six fearsome demons imprisoned inside. If she can’t recapture them all in short order, she’ll surely be turned into a frog as punishment.

Thankfully, Ripple isn’t alone on her mission. Her two Elf-Star friends, Topsy and Turvy, are always by her side to contribute some extra firepower and protection from enemy attacks in classic Gradius option pod style. Each of the game’s six stages also includes at least one opportunity to visit a shop manned by the pumpkin-headed merchant Jack. Here, Ripple can use the shiny gems dropped by defeated foes as currency to purchase healing items and power-ups.

At first blush, Magical Chase delivers exactly what you’d expect from a “cute ’em up” on the system: Bright, colorful art, whimsical character designs, and a peppy soundtrack. Its primary gameplay hook is the Elf-Star satellites mentioned above, over which you’re given a remarkable degree of control. By default, they rotate freely around Ripple, moving and firing in the opposite of whichever direction she happens to be flying. You can lock them in place to serve as fixed shields by tapping the I button anytime Ripple isn’t shooting. Hitting I while Ripple is shooting will lock in the direction of the Elf-Stars’ fire instead. For example, you could fix the Elf-Stars into position in front of Ripple to block oncoming fire while simultaneously directing their shots backward to take out enemies sneaking up from behind.

It sounds extremely useful and it is. Eventually. There’s a surprisingly steep learning curve to it all, stemming from the fact that all the Elf-Stars’ many possible configurations are all achieved via a single button, the exact function of which is contextually dependent on the current status of another button. It’s not so bad when the screen around Ripple is relatively clear and you can take a second to think the necessary inputs through, but adjusting the Elf-Stars precisely in the midst of a heated battle can get dicey. Tricky as it is, I can appreciate that this was probably the best possible solution with only two main action buttons to work with.

On the plus side, a bit of fumbling around with the controls isn’t nearly as disastrous here as it would be in most other shooters. The usual one-hit deaths are out and Ripple starts the game with a sizable health bar made up of Zelda-esque hearts. Her heart count can be permanently boosted in the shops and lost health can be replenished in numerous ways, both during and between each of the stages. The game is uncommonly forgiving in other ways, too, as continues are unlimited and Ripple’s stock of power-ups and money remains intact even after death. Consequently, experienced shooter fans will make rapid progress with this one. I was able to finish the game without dying on the hard difficulty setting after just a couple hours of practice. This isn’t necessary a bad thing. Quite the opposite. If old school scrolling shooters as a whole had one overarching flaw, it was that there never seemed to be enough releases specifically tailored to draw inexperienced players into the fold. Magical Chase feels like a game designed from the ground up to fill that very role.

Does it do its job flawlessly? Absolutely not. I found the majority of the level design in Magical Chase to be lackluster at best and lazy at worst. Traditionally, horizontally scrolling shooters like this one feature more in the way of complex terrain features to negotiate and environmental hazards to avoid than their vertically scrolling counterparts. Magical Chase only really attempts this on two of its six stages, with the remainder being simple straight shots to the end boss with only the enemy patterns themselves to worry about along the way. The two levels that do seem to have had a decent amount of effort put into them are the most enjoyable of the lot by far. I particularly enjoyed the huge wooden airships that do their best to crush Ripple between their hulls in stage three. Fun as they are, these exceptions still can’t carry the whole game on their own.

The magic system was another sore spot for me. Ripple can buy single-use spells in Jack’s shop that do useful thinks like heal damage or clear the screen of enemy shots. She can carry up to six of these at once. What she can’t do is cycle through them as needed. Instead, spells must be used in the same order they’re purchased. This means that if, for example, you find yourself in urgent need of health and a healing spell isn’t the next one in Ripple’s lineup, you’ll need to burn through and waste any other spells occupying the slots in-between if you want to reach and activate the one you actually need. It’s a design choice as baffling as it is frustrating. Merely allowing the controller’s otherwise unused Select button to highlight the next spell to be activated would have rendered it a non-issue.

I did have fun with Magical Chase and don’t regret any of the time I spent soaring through Ripple’s lush, surreal world. As thoroughly charming as it all looks and sounds, however, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the gameplay. The Elf-Stars are a neat idea and allow for a lot of combat flexibility, but the level design is all but absent for much of the journey and the control quirks are persistently irksome. While it does warrant a special recommendation to genre newcomers, it’s ultimately a pretty average little adventure in the wider context of the console’s legendary shooter library. Admittedly, I may have been expecting more simply because I’ve come across so many glowing reviews of it elsewhere. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the very act of spending thousands of dollars on a single game might foster some degree of positive bias. In any case, it’s a pity that Magical Chase would never benefit from any further refinement by way of sequels and that its plucky protagonist, true to her name, amounted to little more than the briefest of ripples over the surface of gaming culture.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Shocking confession time: I’m a lifelong video gamer that’s never played a Sonic the Hedgehog title.

Well, that’s not technically true. I obviously played through this debut entry just recently, as I’m reviewing it right now. I can also very clearly remembering trying it out at department store demo kiosks back around the time of its release in 1991. It’s really more accurate to say that my experience with the Sonic games before present was limited to the very first area (Green Hill Zone) of the very first game. For all intents and purposes, Sega’s Blue Blur passed me by.

My ignorance stems from a combination of past circumstance and personal prejudice. Owning multiple current generation game consoles and a steady supply of games for them was considered quite the extravagance for a kid in the early ’90s. Most of us were forced to pick a side in the 16-bit wars and stick with it through thick and thin. I chose the Super Nintendo over the Genesis, as did most of my friends at the time. Familiarity with the NES had a lot to do with my decision. The other major factor was, believe it or not, the abrasive tone Sega adopted in most of its Genesis marketing material. Even when I was in middle school, all that in-your-face ’90s ‘tude and “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” rhetoric seemed so desperate and insecure to me. A real winner doesn’t need to talk trash, right? I never would own a Sega console and it wasn’t until 2017 that I would begin my long-overdue reassessment of the Genesis library in earnest and discover that I’d been missing out on a treasure trove of fantastic software. Much better late than never!

But where to even begin with a game this high profile? The development of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most storied of all time and if you told me an entire book had been written on the subject, I’d be inclined to believe you. Most of my audience has certainly already played it themselves and formed their own opinions. This isn’t some deep cut or one-off experiment, it’s a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. I might as well review pizza or sex while I’m at it. All I can really do is keep things simple and relate my own personal experience as one man very late to a very crowded party.

In terms of backstory, Sonic came about precisely the way you’d expect him to. Sega wanted to increase their share of the console market and the most obvious way to do that was to create a mascot character to rival their competitor Nintendo’s star system seller, Mario. Sega’s reigning mascot since the Master System days was a Monchhichi-looking jug-eared creeper named Alex Kidd that had proven himself incapable of moving ice cream in the Sahara, so they literally went back to the drawing board with a company-wide art contest. Naoto Ohshima was the winner with his contribution: An anthropomorphic hedgehog that drew inspiration from Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and Michael Jackson. Initially dubbed Mr. Needlemouse (yes, really), he was eventually rechristened Sonic based on the game design team’s expressed desire for an extremely speedy hero that would set their work apart from the Mario titles. Another of Ohshima’s submissions, a rotund human character based on Teddy Roosevelt, was adapted into the hedgehog’s arch-enemy, the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman). All that was left were a few last minute design tweaks at the insistence of Sega’s American branch that cost Sonic his prominent fangs and rather disturbing scantily-clad human girlfriend and voilà: A superstar was born!

All Sonic needed now was an actual game to headline. The project was entrusted to the newly-minted Sonic Team, made up of seasoned developers with prior experience on Sega classics like Altered Beast and Phantasy Star. It would be a platformer, of course, and focus on the conflict with the evil Dr. Robotnik, who’s been rounding up Sonic’s animal buddies and transforming them into robot minions to expand his twisted machine empire. This sort of saccharine “save the nature” setup may seem trite today, but it still felt fresher than yet another princess and was very in keeping with the environmentalist themes in contemporary children’s entertainment, as exemplified by Captain Planet, FernGully, and the like.

The game features a total of eighteen stages divided up evenly into six differently-themed Zones. Right from the start of the first Zone, the unique approach to level design that defines the classic Sonic series is apparent. The landscape is packed with ramps, loops, and spring-loaded bumpers that Sonic can use to build up speed. Picking up and maintaining speed obviously helps him reach the end of the stage quicker. It’s also useful for accessing higher portions of the map, as the playfields in Sonic games tend to feature a lot of verticality, with high, low, and sometimes middle routes to them. Higher paths require more momentum and skill to reach and stay on, but reward the player with more bonus items and fewer obstacles on the way to the goal. Every Zone culminates in a fight against Robotnik, piloting one of his attack machines. While none of these battles are very involved or challenging, they are all at least completely unique, which is more than I can say for the Koopa Kid encounters in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, for example.

The interesting (and divisive) thing about the Zones in this first game is that only the odd-numbered ones (Green Hill, Spring Yard, and Star Light) follow this iconic template. The even-numbered Zones (Marble, Labyrinth, and Scrap Brain) are all laid-out in a much more linear fashion with few branching paths or opportunities to build up speed. Labyrinth Zone in particular is infamous for actively bogging Sonic down by setting most of the action underwater. Many fans consider these slower-paces Zones to be Sonic 1’s Achilles’ heel, as they don’t play to Sonic’s strengths as a character and feel like they could have been lifted from another, more traditional platforming game entirely. I won’t dispute this, but I will add that they’re still some pretty fine levels by genre standards. I even enjoyed the much-maligned breath holding mechanics the underwater sections, which force Sonic to negotiate corridors filled with traps and enemies to reach air bubbles before he suffocates. What can I say? I’m weird.

Controlling Sonic himself is deceptively easy. By that, I mean that although the game only uses the directional pad and a single button for jumping, it has a physics engine of sorts that makes knowing exactly what will happen when Sonic jumps off a curved surface at particular angle with a specific amount of momentum behind him something that only comes with time and much practice. The level design is great about placing tantalizing shortcuts and helpful items seemingly just out of reach in order to encourage players to think outside the box and continually experiment with new ways of navigating the same terrain. These prizes are all attainable with enough inventiveness and persistence. The end result of all this is a platformer that, while outwardly downright simplistic when compared to most of its contemporaries, is actually so far advanced over the majority of them that it isn’t funny. It’s honestly brilliant.

These movement physics are so robust that you probably won’t mind that you don’t get much in the way of power-ups. There’s temporary invincibility, an energy shield that grants Sonic an extra hit, and “speed shoes” that make the already zippy hedgehog haul even more ass. That’s it. These are all useful for the obvious reasons, but they’re a far cry from the radical transformations that Mario was pulling off left and right. What you’ll be picking up more of than anything else are the gold rings littering every stage. Collecting 100 of them will result in the expected extra life, but their more immediate purpose is safeguarding Sonic from death. As long as Sonic is carrying at least one, contact with an enemy or stage hazard will cause him to drop all the rings he’s carrying instead of dying on the spot. At that point, he’ll have a brief window of invincibility during which he can try to re-collect as many dropped rings as possibility before they bounce off the screen and vanish. If this sounds overly forgiving, keep in mind that the designers want you to feel confident pushing your luck and experimenting with the lead character’s speed

Which brings me to what surprised me most about the game: You’re never really required to go fast. Contrary to every stereotype and bit of marketing hype, it’s not only possible to play a slow, methodical game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s advisable for newcomers unfamiliar with where each Zone’s hazards are placed. Going fast isn’t the object of the game as much as it’s an added reward for long-term mastery. The levels themselves impose no time limits. There is still a timer, but it’s an ascending one with no purpose other than log how long it takes you to finish a given level and subtly encourage you to strive for ever lower personal bests. There’s no tangible reward for fast clear times, either, only the thrill and satisfaction of performing well. This approach makes Sonic, along with Doom a couple years later, one of the earliest popular precursors to modern online speedrunning culture.

The graphics and sound here are delightful. The cartoony art style plays well with the system’s strict color limitations while the large sprites and smooth animations are packed with detail and personality. Sonic reacts to events in the game, whether he’s expressing boredom through his finger-wagging idle pose, balancing himself precariously on the very edge of a platform, or flailing his limbs in alarm as he zooms down a water slide. These may seem like small details, yet they were much more than we were used to from our stoic pre-Sonic platforming heroes and made a sassy, too-cool-for-school demeanor the new norm for years to come, for better or worse. And by worse, I mean Bubsy.

Masato Nakamura’s score is proof positive that the poor Genesis catches way too much flak for sounding like broken-down robot farts. This is some of the smoothest, grooviest, most instantly lovable 16-bit music ever made. The theme from Green Hill Zone somehow manages to flood me with nostalgia despite the fact that I’ve barely touched the game before. That’s what I call inspired.

If I had to name something about Sonic the Hedgehog that left me completely cold, it’d be the bonus stages. Finishing a level with more than fifty rings in your inventory plunges Sonic into…I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be. Some kind of alternate hell dimension filled with giant fish and birds where he’s bounced around like a ball bearing inside a spinning candy-colored pachinko machine? The point of this madness is to last long enough to obtain one of the six Chaos Emeralds floating at the center of the stage without touching an exit tile and ending the bonus round prematurely. What do these Chaos Emerald do? What’s your incentive to repeat this process six times in a single playthrough? Just a slightly modified ending scene. Yeah, I’m good, thanks. At least the bonus areas serve one other, genuinely useful purpose, however: Picking up fifty rings inside one will earn you a continue. By default, the game ends for good when you run out of lives, so you’d be advised to at least try racking up one or two continues even if you don’t care about the Emeralds. I just wish these sections could have even half as been as fun to play as they are trippy looking.

After nearly 28 long years, I can finally state with confidence that I was wrong to dismiss this series just because of some tacky commercials and my own unquestioned biases. Though a little rough around the edges, Sonic 1 is a remarkable achievement for its time, mechanically and aesthetically. It remains its ability to charm and captivate to this day and deserves every bit of its overwhelming success. Future installments would iron out the level design kinks, introduce new fan favorite characters, and implement a Spin Dash maneuver to allow for even speedier movement, among other improvements, but if someone tries to tell you that Sonic’s first outing is overrated or doesn’t hold up, that’s no good!

Wings of Wor (Genesis)

Whoa! Now those are some rock-hard pecs, bro!

I was pumped to do a full-on Brian Blessed hawkman dive into Wings of Wor for the Genesis. Also known as Gynoug outside North America, it’s a shooter from Masaya Games, creators of the relentlessly campy Chō Aniki (“Super Big Brother”) series of homoerotic flying bodybuilder simulators, so I figured that I was probably in for some choice weirdness. Print ads from 1991 were even emblazoned with “WARNING: Avoid eating before playing this game.” It’s too bad for Masaya that I didn’t own a Genesis at the time. A game that promotes itself like a VHS release of Cannibal Holocaust would have been right up my alley as a kid. Happily, I can report that Wings of Wor delivers on its promise of a strange, icky time. It also happens to be quite the thrilling action game if you’re into that sort of thing. Freak.

According to the instruction manual, our story unfolds on the planet of Iccus, which is under attack by a being called the Destroyer. He’s used an “evil virus” to mutate the inhabitants of Iccus into “the grossest creatures ever to slime a tunnel.” Slime…a tunnel? Whatever you say, pal. The player controls a “winged battle master” by the name of Wor on his one man counter-offensive against the mutants. This is a perfectly acceptable no-frills justification for a sci-fi shooter. Frankly, though, I just don’t buy it. Wor himself appears to be a stone angel statue that’s come to life in order to confront the baddies (similar to God/The Master from the ActRaiser games), he picks up magical scrolls to use as weapons, and many of his foes are unambiguously supernatural beings like ghosts. I haven’t found any proof of it, but I’m betting that the original Japanese version was the “heaven versus hell” story that this all implies and has nothing to do to with viruses and alien planets. At least we got the better title over here. Gynoug sounds more like a candy bar filling than a high octane shooting game.

Wor has six horizontally-scrolling stages separating him from the end credits, although the last of them consists entirely of a standard boss rush against a total of seven opponents: Six recycled from previous stages and, finally, the Destroyer himself. While five true levels doesn’t sound like a lot, the ones we get here are at least half again as long as the genre standard, if not longer. A few of them may even be too lengthy for some players’ tastes. If you’re the type that likes to complain about the levels in Compile shooters dragging, Wings of Wor is likely to set you off in much the same way.

A major plus in any case is that each stage is wholly unique, both thematically and in terms of the enemies you’ll face. This density of design is always a welcome sight and would have done wonders for the subject of my last review, Legendary Wings. Apart from the aforementioned boss rush leading up to the finale, I can’t recall a single instance of the same monster re-appearing outside of its “home” level.

Complimenting all this enemy diversity, Wor has an above average selection of tools at his disposal for carving a path through the legions of hell. His standard weapon is a constant stream of small projectiles that fan out in a cone-shaped spread ahead of him. This can be modified to become a more concentrated straight ahead shot or a simultaneous forward and backward shot by picking up certain icons. Additionally, accumulating blue and red orbs will enhance the total number of projectiles fired and their damage, respectively.

There are also a variety of special magic abilities that appear as scrolls with letters displayed on them. Depending on the letter, these can represent powerful secondary weapons like thunderbolts and homing blasts or defensive shields that protect Wor. Abilities gained from scrolls are temporary (due to limited ammunition, time limits, or similar) and they also stop functioning when you lose a life. The really interesting thing about these scrolls, though, is that they don’t just automatically activate when touched. Instead, Wor has an inventory and can carry up to three at a time, activating them as needed. Inactive scrolls in the inventory aren’t lost upon death. Better still, collecting multiple copies of the same scroll in sequence will result in a more powerful version of the magic ability in question, creating an incentive to choose your pickups carefully.

It’s very robust and flexible system, which is good, as you’re going to need all the help you can get with this one. Wings of Wor is not an easy game by any means. The first couple of levels are fairly reasonable, but things ramp up quickly after that. The fifth stage in particular is a sadistic meat grinder, with fast-moving enemies swarming in from every side and firing off a variety of tricky bullet types for what feels like forever. Bosses can also put a lot of firepower on the screen at once, sometimes making things feel closer to a modern “bullet hell” shooter than most other games of the time. Deaths are of the one hit variety and continues are limited. Thankfully, there’s no harsh checkpoint system in place and Wor is able to respawn right where he died as long as he has lives in reserve. Even with that advantage and an impressive arsenal at your fingertips, it’s still going to require a good amount of practice to see this one to the end. One tip I can offer is to be sure not to pick up more than a couple of the speed boosting feather power-ups. The classic beginner’s trap of allowing the player character to become too fast and twitchy to accurately maneuver is in full effect here and it will get you killed if you’re not careful. This is one common element of old school shooters that I don’t miss.

Enough boring gameplay specifics, though, am I right? The ad copy promised twisted monstrosities, so make with the crazy, already! Fine, fine. Things actually start out pretty restrained, which I like. It makes the first moment of true insanity all the more effective. You’re just flying through a cave, fighting spiders and falling rocks and other nondescript video game cave stuff. All the sudden, a screen-filling locomotive with a twitching human face and arms literally drops out of the sky and begins showering you with bullets. Yikes! What is this even supposed to be? Did the artist make the mistake of scheduling his ayahuasca trip and Thomas the Tank Engine marathon for the same weekend? This trend holds true through most of the game. The stages are mostly filled with typical fantasy-horror beasties with the end boss being some sort of gigantic human/steampunk machine nightmare hybrid, usually with a big creepy face. Nothing, and I mean nothing, however, can truly prepare you for the dick from level five. I’m not just being crudely euphemistic here, either. You fight a penis. One covered in blood and twenty times the size of Wor. There’s no ambiguity in the art, either. It’s not phallic, it’s a phallus. This makes R-Type’s boss design look positively subtle and might just be the most extreme visual in the entire Genesis library. I know Sega was all about doing what Nintendidn’t around this time, but it’s still amazing that nobody vetoed this. After that madness, it’s just too bad that the Destroyer himself isn’t all that interesting from a visual or gameplay standpoint. He mostly just sits still on the screen and barely animates while you slowly whittle his health down. Insert your own joke about the game’s premature climax here.

Other than the bosses, which are as lushly rendered as they are foul, the rest of the art in Wings of Wor isn’t particularly great. This is mostly due to Wor and his opponents being quite small and sparsely detailed. The backgrounds aren’t exactly spectacular on their own, either, although several of them are enhanced considerably by some sweet parallax and line scrolling effects. The soundtrack packs more of a punch than the visuals, with some very stirring heroic melodies urging you on. I particularly like that each stage has two themes, with the second one kicking in after you dispatch a mid-stage mini-boss. With the levels being as a long as they are, it’s nice to not have listen to the same audio loop throughout. The presentation overall isn’t bad. I would rate it as slightly above average, in fact. Just don’t come expecting an audiovisual feast like MUSHA or Thunder Force IV.

It may not be the prettiest or the most famous of its kind, but I have no reservations about recommending Wings of Wor to any 16-bit shooter fan looking for a challenge that’s formidable while rarely ever feeling unfair. It has solid control, a wide assortment of weapons, a strategic inventory system, a diverse soundtrack, and murderous hell genitals the size of a city bus. Who could ask for anything more?