Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players the maximum about of flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Advertisements

Space Megaforce (Super Nintendo)

Deeds not words.

First, the bad news: Space Megaforce for the Super Nintendo is not an adaptation of the cult classic 1982 action schlockfest Megaforce, in which a bearded Barry Bostwick battles terrorists on his flying motorcycle. You’ll need to hit up the Atari 2600 for that game.

Oof! How can poor Space Megaforce possibly bounce back from that degree of crushing disappointment? How about by being another brilliant shooter by Compile, the legendary studio behind M.U.S.H.A., Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend? Yeah, that’ll do nicely. Compile made my favorite shooters of all time, including the superb Zanac for NES. I reviewed Zanac last Christmas, so it seems this is becoming another holiday gaming tradition for me; a little present to myself. Fine by me.

Oddly enough, I started the introduction to this review with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then I noticed something strange: Space Megaforce (known as Super Aleste outside North America) was published by none other than Toho, the same monolithic film company that distributed Megaforce to Japanese theaters a decade earlier! Could it be that whoever was in charge of the game’s localization really did mean to reference the infamous box office turkey with this change? That seems insane. Then again, the game we know as Blazing Lazers originally shipped as Gunhed in Japan, a reference to Toho’s wholly unrelated cyberpunk action movie of the same name, so I suppose anything’s possible.

If you have any amount of prior experience with Compile shooters, you’ll know that while each has its distinctive quirks, they all tend to share very similar core design elements. Most prominent among these are notably lengthy vertical scrolling stages, a wide variety of different weapons to choose from, the ability to upgrade each weapon multiple times by collecting glowing “power chips,” and a forgiving damage system where hits from enemies cause your weapon power to degrade before they destroy you outright. Space Megaforce fits squarely into this familiar mold, for better or worse. It most closely resembles the TurboGrafx-16’s Blazing Lazers from three years previous with its surreal backgrounds, jazzy tunes, and selection of armaments that includes the iconic Field Thunder (called simply Laser here). The “special lives” mechanic from Blazing Lazers also makes a comeback, allowing you to shoot certain power-ups until they transform into glowing orbs, then collect those orbs in order to gain the ability to have your ship re-spawn in place one time when you lose a life instead of being sent back to a checkpoint like normal. If you’re already a fan of Blazing Lazers, I’ve told you everything you need to know at this point. This is essentially twelve more levels of that game, so have at it!

Since Space Megaforce technically isn’t an official Blazing Lazers sequel, however, it does have its own story. It centers on a mysterious alien sphere that arrives on earth one day, positions itself over the jungles of South America, and begins etching huge designs into the ground similar to the famous Nazca Lines (again with the ancient aliens motif!) as it siphons energy from its surroundings and rapidly expands. Conventional attacks on the sphere are easily repelled, so it falls on the pilot of the experimental Super Aleste fighter to penetrate the its defenses and save the planet from assimilation. This is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basic setup of an enigmatic alien artifact threatening humanity is actually quite similar to Zanac’s. The Japanese release does include some welcome additional details, though. The pilot of the Super Aleste is given a face and a name, Raz. He’s also accompanied on his mission by a helpful female alien named Thi, who was formerly a prisoner inside the sphere and now wants to help destroy it. Why these two were cut out of the international releases is beyond me. They make a cute couple and lend the game some much-needed personality. This, along with its substantially lower price, makes the Japanese version the one to get, in my opinion.

Ultimately, there are two key elements that set Space Megaforce apart from the rest of the Aleste series. The first is the initially overwhelming choice of eight different weapons, each of which has seven possible power levels and at least one alternate firing mode to toggle between. You also have the requisite limited supply of super bombs to bust out in emergencies, of course. Enemies drop a near-constant stream of weapon pickups, so you’re able to swap back and forth among the different options relatively easily. This embarrassment of riches makes for some substantial replay value. Individual stages can be much easier or harder depending not just on the current weapon equipped, but its power level and active firing mode. The amount of freedom the player has to shape the experience as a whole is rare and refreshing for a shooter of this period.

Space Megaforce’s other claim to fame has to be its strangely laid-back feel. For a game about zipping around in a high-tech space jet blowing up swarms of vicious aliens with one of the most varied and impressive arsenals in all of gaming, it sure does have a chill vibe to it. Most levels scroll by at a leisurely pace, the music is downright loungy, and the visuals tend toward the hypnotic with loads of trippy, undulating background effects. The game is also long. A perfect no-death run still clocks in at a full hour, which is a bloody eternity by 16-bit spaceship shooter standards. This has led some to claim that the game is simply too long and too slow for its own good. Playing it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor, 1990’s M.U.S.H.A. (aka Musha Aleste) for Sega Genesis, I can definitely see where these critics are coming from. Musha’s swift scrolling, relentless speed metal soundtrack, and punchier forty minute runtime all make it the polar opposite of Space Megaforce, at least superficially. For what it’s worth, I never found myself bored playing Space Megaforce. In fact, the first thing I did after I beat it was to play through it again on the hard difficulty setting. Then I went on to finish the Japanese version twice. The gameplay here may not always be hyper-intense, but it’s far from boring. There’s always something to shoot, something to dodge, and something to grab. That I get to do all this while kicking back and rocking a mellow groove is fine by me.

Is Space Megaforce truly the best shooter on the Super Nintendo, as the rampant hype online would have you believe? Maybe. With twelve stages, eight weapons, and five difficulty modes, it’s a remarkably complete package. It also looks and sounds gorgeous and runs flawlessly with no slowdown to speak of, owing to Compile’s famously efficient programming. If we limit the field to its fellow vertical shooters, only Firepower 2000 and Pop’n TwinBee stand out as worthy rivals with their two-player simultaneous play options. Factor in the better horizontal scrollers like R-Type III and U.N. Squadron and the choice becomes a lot less clear-cut. In any case, it’s yet another masterpiece that every fan of the genre should check out. The only thing I can’t recommend is paying the triple-digit prices the American cartridges command when the Japanese version is superior to begin with. Shop smart, boys and girls.

On that note, Merry Christmas to you all! Today caps off another thrilling, educational, and all-around rewarding year of gaming for me. With another 63 titles completed and reviewed, I still feel I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of everything the 8 and 16-bit era has to offer. I’ll see you again in 2019, when I’ll be checking another item off my bucket list with my first foray onto a new hardware platform. Kind of.

Now, it’s time to go check under the tree for that flying motorcycle I wrote Santa about. Fingers crossed!

Bucky O’Hare (NES)

I knew I should have taken that left turn at Space Albuquerque.

What’s this? An under-the-radar Konami action game based on a short-lived American anthropomorphic animal toy line? I’m getting major Moo Mesa flashbacks here, guys. Yes, Bucky O’Hare is another of the countless critter-themed media properties that made doomed attempts to hitch themselves to that sweet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cash train back in the early ’90s. In all fairness to its creators, Bucky isn’t a Turtles clone in the truest sense. Writer Larry Hama and artist Michael Golden first conceived of the title character in the late ’70s and he made his print debut in 1984 courtesy of the now defunct Continuity Comics. This first run of Bucky books was brief, however, and the series then went dormant until 1991, when producers seemed willing to roll the dice on anything that showcased talking animal characters in action roles. The syndicated cartoon Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars lasted a single season and Hasbro supported it with an equally brief run of vehicles and action figures. More importantly for me, Konami released two separate video game adaptations in 1992: An arcade-exclusive beat-‘em-up and the NES action-platformer I’m reviewing today. After this second burst of activity, Bucky and friends went silent again and haven’t been heard from since.

I’ve never read the comic books or watched the show, but I’ll sketch out the premise as best I can. Briefly, Captain Bucky O’Hare and the crew of his spaceship The Righteous Indignation are tasked with spearheading the resistance against a marauding interstellar empire of evil toads. It’s Looney Tunes meets Star Wars. Or perhaps a furry retelling of Blake’s 7, minus the downer ending. Bucky’s allies include Jenny the psionic cat, trigger-happy Deadeye Duck, AFC (Android First Class) Blinky, and a human boy genius from Earth named Willy DuWitt. The game’s simple plot opens with the four sidekicks mentioned above getting captured by the toads and Bucky on a mission to rescue them.

The NES Bucky O’Hare has a long-standing reputation as a “hidden gem” on the system and I was expecting quite a lot from it as a late period release from my favorite classic developer. It’s often described as Konami’s spin on their competitor Capcom’s Mega Man series and this comparison does hold true to a point. Similar to how most Mega Man titles begin by presenting you with a menu of eight stages that can be attempted in any order, Bucky’s level select screen allows you to choose between four planets (creatively dubbed Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow). Each planet has a distinct theme (fire for the Red planet, ice for the Blue, etc.) and a different ally imprisoned on it. Completing a planet unlocks the ability to switch to the newly rescued character at any time using the Select button. There’s a constant incentive to do this, as each member of the crew has his or her own primary attack and special power. Bucky, for example, fires straight ahead and his power is an appropriately hare-like super jump that allows him to reach high platforms the other characters can’t. Deadeye has a triple spread shot (with limited range, sadly) and can climb up walls using his special ability. On a mechanical level, this option to switch between any of the characters in your party on the fly functions much like the weapon switching in a Mega Man title. All your characters still share a common health meter, though, so don’t go thinking you switch them out just to absorb more hits in a pinch.

These first four opening levels didn’t just meet my high expectations, they blew them clear out of the water! The music is catchy, the graphics are among the best on the system, and the amount of sheer creativity packed into each and every screen practically beggars belief. Each planet is broken up into numerous distinct sub-areas with their own gameplay gimmicks. The Red Planet opens with a section where you leap over pits of fire while shooting at enemy toads and dodging bits of molten rock bursting from both the pits themselves and the volcanoes in the background. Next is a cave where boulders have to be pushed into magma floes to allow for safe passage. After that, a vertical segment where you have to outrace streams of fast-moving lava while descending a shaft. Then comes a series of leaps between tiny platforms over a fiery chasm while dodging the arcs of flame that periodically rush up from below (shades of the fire level from Life Force here). Survive that and there’s another vertical section of moving platforms and spiked walls. The final platforming section forces you to alternate between leaping over a giant rolling green sphere and riding that very same sphere to safety over a sea of deadly spikes. Only after all that do you reach one of the game’s excellent boss fights against…the green sphere, which opens up to reveal that it’s actually a laser-shooting vehicle piloted by one of the toads. This is all just one level! Long-time gaming aficionados will recognize the influence of the game’s director, Masato Maegawa, who left Konami to co-found Treasure just few months after finishing his work on Bucky O’Hare. The same sense of joyful experimentation and endless novelty that later informed classic Treasure releases like Dynamite Headdy and Gunstar Heroes is very much evident in the level design here.

The only real complaint I can muster about the first half of Bucky O’Hare involves the way that the various special powers of the heroes are utilized. You need to hold down the fire button in order to charge these abilities up first and then release it to trigger them. The downside to this is that your character is stuck standing in place during the entire process. Any experienced Mega Man player will be familiar with the way the Blue Bomber can freely charge up his Mega Buster while continuing to run, jump, and climb around the stage as normal. You don’t have that sort of flexibility here and it can be detrimental to the flow of platforming and combat alike to have to stop dead in your tracks for several seconds at a time whenever you want to use a special ability.

This control quirk is annoying, but hardly a deal breaker. If it was the only mark against the game, we might just have a top ten NES action contender on our hands here. Tragically, Bucky O’Hare has one other flaw that’s a bit tougher to gloss over: Its entire second half. It’s here where the Mega Man influence takes a back seat and the game reveals that it also pulls double duty as Konami’s take on Battletoads.

Immediately after clearing the fourth planet, The Righteous Indignation is captured by a colossal toad mother ship and Bucky is forced to gather his crew all over again so they can escape together. Obviously, this twist is purely repetitive from a story standpoint. You literally just got done saving these exact same good guys from these exact same villains. It also regresses the gameplay by stripping away most of the cool special abilities you spent the better part of the last hour unlocking and then expecting you to do it all over again. The remainder of the game takes place entirely within this toad ship, with no further allowance made for player choice when it comes to the stage order.

Most troubling of all, the art direction and level design both take a sharp turn for the worse at this point. The unique themes and colorful environments of the four planets give way to what feels like an endless expanse of drab industrial corridor studded with a downright silly amount of spikes and other instant death traps. It’s the old “Why doesn’t Dr. Wily just build his whole fortress out of those spikes?” gag made real. From here on out, it starts to feel increasingly redundant for Bucky and friends to have a health bar at all outside of the boss fights. You’ll either trial-and-error your way past all the insta-kill garbage littering a given portion of a stage or you won’t.

This isn’t to say that Bucky O’Hare is too difficult. It isn’t. In fact, it resembles a modern game in its reluctance to punish players in any way. You’re given unlimited continues, checkpoints every couple of screens, and even a password system. At no point will you ever be forced to repeat a section of level you’ve already completed. No, the real problem is that these later stages are entirely too rigid for their own good. There’s a general over-reliance on forcing the player to tackle each little obstacle course just so. This zero tolerance policy toward imperfect play means no real breathing room; no support for improvisation, close calls, and other happy byproducts of player spontaneity.

I don’t want to risk leaving you with the impression that Bucky O’Hare makes for a bad overall experience. If my disappointment reads as extreme over the last few paragraphs, it’s only because things started off so damn strong. Those first four levels are some of the coolest the NES would ever see, the five playable characters allow for varied approaches to many of the challenges, and the usual Konami glitz and polish is always a draw unto itself. It fumbles a bit in its second half, ultimately falling short of becoming one of my personal favorites, but I still recommend checking it out, especially if you have the means to do so without paying the heavy premiums it typically commands on the secondary market. It’s a fine game, just a couple hare-brained decisions away from being a masterpiece.

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying!

Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit is a game fraught with contradiction. It pairs a cutsey art style with one of most grim, depressing plots of its era. It’s a highly creative, even innovative release from a “me, too” publisher. It’s an expensive title for the Game Boy, a system renowned for being dirt cheap to collect for. Finally, and to its greatest detriment, it’s widely ignored despite being one of the most interesting and varied action-platformers available for Nintendo’s old gray brick.

Avenging Spirit began its (un)life as a 1991 release for Japanese arcades under the title Phantasm. This name was changed for the international versions, most likely in order to prevent confusion with director Don Coscarelli’s horror film series of the same name. It was the creation of CP.BRAiN, an obscure and long-extinct development studio founded by former Aicom designer Tokuhiro Takemori (The Legendary Axe, Astyanax). Strangely, this 1992 Game Boy conversion is the only home port it would ever receive, despite the arcade cabinet’s colorful visuals being much better-suited for the 16-bit systems of the time. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the game’s length (just six short stages) as the reason Jaleco went the handheld route instead of pitting Avenging Spirit against the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic 2. This is pure conjecture, however.

The adventure kicks off with a very well-rendered cut scene of a happy young couple strolling arm-in-arm. Their bliss doesn’t last long, as they’re quickly confronted by a pair of pistol-packing gangsters. The girl is abducted by the thugs and her boyfriend is shot dead on the spot when he tries to intervene. Yikes! I’m scratching my head here trying to think of another Game Boy title that goes from zero to cold blooded murder in about thirty seconds flat and coming up short. Jaleco certainly showed some nerve with this one. It turns out that we haven’t heard the last from this unnamed boy character. The game’s pervasive tonal whiplash kicks it right away as he regains consciousness in a laboratory only to discover that he’s taken on the form of a classic Halloween sheet ghost, doofy grin and all. As it happens, the girl’s father is a scientist specializing in “ghost energy” and the crooks that kidnapped his daughter are looking to extort him for his research. Rather than letting such dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands, the scientist has summoned the boy’s spirit in order to convince him to embark on a rescue/revenge mission. In order to do that, though, the harmless little ghost boy is going to need a new body. Or ten.

Yes, Avenging Spirit is the original game about creepily possessing the bodies of your enemies and using them as sacrificial pawns to further your own violent agenda. Eat your heart out, Super Mario! On his own, the ghost is limited to drifting around the stage slowly and he can’t even do that for very long. He has a spirit energy meter that depletes rapidly any time he’s not possessing a host. Run out of energy and it’s game over. Fortunately, you’re provided unlimited continues to work with, so exploring the levels and trying out different approaches is never penalized too harshly.

Every non-boss enemy in the game is playable and no two are exactly alike. Each has a unique way of attacking and a different distribution of standard variables like maximum health, walk speed, and jump height. An odd few even have miscellaneous special abilities like flight or invisibility. Most of the fun here comes from “test driving” as many different enemy characters as possible and discovering which ones best suit your play style. Of course, there will also be those times when you lack the energy reserves to be choosy and are forced to latch onto the closest available victim.

The design of all these foes is where the developers’ strange sense of humor was apparently given free reign. Beyond the typical gun-wielding mafioso types you’d expect, you also square off against ninja, robots, dragons, wizards, vampires (in boxer shorts!), and baseball players. Say what you will about these criminals, but they’ve got the workplace diversity thing down pat. Every level thrown new types into the mix, insuring that the core gameplay is never permitted to stagnate. While some hosts are very clearly stronger options than others, I’m not inclined to take this a flaw. Instead, I think it’s best viewed as an on-the-fly difficulty select for players. Playing through a given stage as a fast, durable, rocket-shooting robot certainly makes for a much easier time than controlling a standard flunkie, but a skilled player familiar with the ins and outs of that stage may still opt for the latter in the interest of maintaining challenge.

If the gameplay can be said to have a major weakness, it would be that the movement of the on-screen characters is a bit on the slow and floaty side. This is sadly a common issue shared by many Game Boy platformers and seems to be largely intentional. The LCD screens on most Game Boy models are famously prone to distracting motion blur whenever fast-moving objects are displayed. Smart game designers would typically compensate by slowing the action down a touch when compared to a similar game for a home console. At least it doesn’t come off any worse than usual here and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment much if you’re already accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Game Boy titles in general.

Other than that, Avenging Spirit is everything you could want in a portable 8-bit platformer. It looks great, sounds great, and packs an uncommon degree of depth and replay value courtesy of its huge roster of playable characters. It’s also one of the earliest examples I can cite of the “enemy ability hijacking” mechanic. Its most obvious forerunner is Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master from 1990, although the far gentler Nemo relied on befriending cute animals with candy rather than spectral body snatching. It would be another two years before HAL Laboratory took the disturbing imagery to a whole new level in Kirby’s Adventure. Eating your enemies alive to gain their powers? Now that’s brutal.

Personally, what fascinates me about this one is its chaotic mish-mash of tones. I was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect with the Kirby thing just now, but I was not at all kidding when I noted that Avenging Spirit’s storyline is resolutely bleak. The main character is effectively sent on a post-homicide suicide mission and there is no happily ever after for him. Whether he succeeds or fails, it’s made quite clear that his spirit is fated to fade away in a relatively short time. The best he can hope for is to save his girlfriend before that comes to pass and even this outcome is not a given. If you fail to find all three of the keys hidden in out-of-the-way rooms over the course of the game, you’ll be unable to open the door where the girlfriend character is imprisoned at the end and she’ll be killed when the enemy base explodes! There are therefore two possible endings, both of which are legitimate tearjerkers in their own ways. Outside of the cut scenes, though? 100% chibi style cartoon mayhem where vampires in their underwear battle killer baseball players. The game’s creators have essentially mashed up the script for The Crow with the visual design of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and I’m in awe of the result. The surreal dissonance of it all amounts to one of those truly singular gaming experiences for me. It lingers in the mind long after you’ve powered off your console.

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.

Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Make it rain!

After a long run of platformers and other simple action fare, I’m feeling overdue for a longer, more involved game. I also haven’t touched any Sega stuff lately, so I figured I’d cover all my bases with Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole. This 1992 action-adventure title for the Genesis is the brainchild of Climax Entertainment, a relatively minor (and now defunct) development house most noted for its collaborations with Camelot Software Planning on the earliest entries in the well-loved Shining series of RPGs. Rumor has it that Landstalker was initially conceived as Shining Rogue, a spin-off starring the hero Max from Shining Force, before Climax and Camelot formally parted ways mid-development. Even though no official connection between the two games remains, Shining fans are sure to notice and appreciate illustrator Yoshitaka Tamaki’s distinctive character designs.

The titular Landstalker is the player character Nigel, a swashbuckling elven treasure hunter. One day, just after collecting a big payout for his latest recovered artifact, Nigel runs into the pixie-like wood nymph Friday, who’s being pursued by a gang of bumbling thieves. It turns out that Friday knows (or at least claims to know…) the location of the fabled lost treasure of the ancient tyrant Nole and that’s why she’s being chased. In exchange for Nigel’s protection, Friday agrees to guide him to the treasure’s hiding spot on the remote island of Mercator and the duo’s mad dash for the score of a lifetime begins!

If you think these sound like some pretty low stakes for a game of this kind, you’re not wrong. This steadfast refusal to embrace tragic backstories, moody antiheroes, world saving quests, and other boilerplate fantasy melodrama in favor of what amounts to an extended tongue-in-cheek caper is one of Landstalker’s most appealing aspects and one that still feels refreshing a quarter century on. The game is filled with laugh out loud moments and never so much as flirts with the notion of taking itself seriously. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s like the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of console adventure games.

While we’re on the subject of unexpected directions, let’s consider the gameplay itself. Most genre entries from this period took their cues from The Legend of Zelda. This usually entailed a similar overhead view of the playfield, as seen in Crystalis, Golden Axe Warrior, Neutopia, and many others. Landstalker, on the other hand, is no “Zelda clone.” Instead, it looks back even further and adopts a pseudo-3D isometric perspective seemingly based on Knight Lore, the influential British computer title published by Ultimate Play the Game (later known as Rare) in 1984. North American console gamers familiar with this style of game are more likely to recognize it from two specific releases by another U.K. studio, Software Creations: Solstice for the NES and its SNES sequel Equinox. Isometric platforming gameplay tends to be a “love it or late it” kind of thing, and Landstalker goes all-in on it, for better or worse. More on that later.

The land of Mercator itself consists of the usual idyllic villages separated by tracts of monster-infested wilderness. The format for most of the adventure involves reaching a new town where you’ll be able to do some shopping and chat up the locals to determine what trouble is brewing thereabouts before heading to a nearby cave, ruin or other “dungeon” to sort it out (hopefully acquiring some fresh leads on Nole’s treasure in the process).

The challenges you’ll face outside of town can be broken down into two broad categories: Combat and puzzle-platforming. Bad news first: Landstalker’s weakest aspect by far, at least in my estimation, is its shallow combat system. Nigel’s sole attack has him sweeping his sword in a wide horizontal arc front of him. It’s possible to obtain a few magical swords throughout the game that will imbue his strikes with fire, lightning, and other elemental properties for extra damage, but these aren’t really game changers. The enemies themselves aren’t very interesting, either. Most merely rush straight at Nigel (making them easy to cut down with repeated sword swings) and vary only in the amount of damage they can dish out and withstand. It all feels very perfunctory and overly reliant on mindless button mashing. For all that, it can also be maddeningly imprecise. Trying to attack while standing anywhere near a wall, tree, or other barrier for example, often results in Nigel’s attack hitting the scenery instead of the enemy and being cancelled out entirely. When you consider how much of the fighting takes place in cramped dungeon corridors…Ugh.

At least the designer seems to have realized how sloppy the swordplay can be, since Nigel was made very durable to compensate. Hit points are at a premium early on, but healing herbs (called “EkeEke”) are plentiful. Nigel can carry up to nine of these at a time and each will be automatically used by Friday to restore half of his health whenever he runs out. Once you’ve acquire some improved armor and extra hit points (the latter by locating Zelda-esque heart-shaped tokens called “life stock” scattered around the world), game overs will largely become a thing of the past so long as you keep your herb supply maxed.

Now for the good news: Landstalker’s puzzles and platforming and are clearly where the lion’s share of the development work went and I found them to be extremely gratifying. For the most part, anyway. Remember that isometric perspective I mentioned? Well, it’s not exactly perfect, and the precise spatial relationships between objects and platforms and can sometimes be difficult to discern without a bit of trial and error. Two platforms might appear to be adjacent to each other and easily jumped between. Then you try it only to discover that one of them is supposed to be at a different elevation than the other. In a true 3D projection, the higher platform would appear slightly larger due to its closer proximity to the camera. Here, objects at differing heights share the exact same graphics and that means missed jumps. Missing a jump early on in the game is usually no big deal. Later on, it can result in landing on a trap and sustaining some damage or, even worse, falling all the way back down to a lower level of the dungeon and having to climb all the way back up just to attempt the same jump again.

Still, you can and will adapt to these visual quirks if you keep at it, and the effort required is well worth it. Landstalker’s puzzles start out simple; flip a switch here, stack some boxes there, that sort of thing. Before long, you’ll also be contending with time limits, switches that need to be toggled from a distance by tossing things at them, puzzles that require you to manipulate enemy movement patterns, and much, much more. There are some serious brainteasers in store for you here and in this sense Landstalker actually reminds me as much of the Adventures of Lolo games as it does Zelda. The process of entering a new dungeon room, working out exactly what steps I need to take to proceed, and then actually having to implement my plan while also fending off enemies and nailing all the required jumps is endlessly satisfying to me. It’s also not the sort of challenge that players can simply grind their way around by boosting some stats or buying stronger gear. Unless you refer to a walkthrough (which I highly discourage in this case), success or failure in the dungeons is all down to your own native wit and timing. It’s very compelling once you get into the groove of it.

The graphics in general look great, with the caveat that the requirements of the game engine lead to the environments looking distinctly blocky and artificial. All those geometrically perfect sharp angles work fine for the buildings and dungeons, but not so much for the wilderness areas. Shining series composer Motoaki Takenouchi contributes an expansive musical score that covers the game’s main themes (comic adventure, plumbing the depths of dark, spooky ruins) with aplomb. Landstalker’s overall presentation is right in line with its 16-bit contemporaries. It’s a product of its time in that it compares favorably with the previous year’s Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, yet doesn’t quite measure up to the higher standard set by Secret of Mana the following year.

So…Great sense of humor? Lovable characters? Addictive gameplay? Landstalker must have received a ton of sequels, right? Not really. A handful of “spiritual successors” were produced with entirely new characters and settings. These range from the mediocre (Lady Stalker: Challenge from the Past) to the masterful (Alundra) to the just plain odd (Dark Savior, with its clunky one-on-one fighting game segments). Not even an extended cameo appearance in Time Stalkers for the Dreamcast manages to function as a proper continuation of Nigel’s story, however, leaving the intrepid elf and his winged sidekick lost in the gaming ether, likely forever.

This makes Landstalker itself a buried treasure well worth hunting down, and I’m honestly split on whether that’s ironic or wholly appropriate. All I know for sure is: It’s Friday, I’m in love!

Darkwing Duck (NES)

Get dangerous all you want, kids. Just remember to buckle up.

I don’t have many clear memories of the Darkwing Duck tv show. A spin-off from the more popular DuckTales (the two shared a supporting character in Launchpad McQuack), it was part of the Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block for three seasons during 1991 and 1992. I watched a ton of the Disney shows put out in the years leading up to Darkwing and I recall that the 1987 prime time premier of DuckTales in particular was a huge deal. By the time 1991 rolled around, though, I was in that obnoxious early teen phase where I was keen to distance myself from anything as childish and uncool as Disney duck cartoons. In retrospect, it seems likely that I missed out, since a lot of my slightly younger peers have very fond memories of the series.

The cartoon was essentially a slapstick send-up of the masked mystery man crimefighter genre, as exemplified by The Shadow, The Phantom, and, of course, Batman. The title character’s distinctive tando hat/scarf ensemble and his civilian name, Drake Mallard, are both direct callbacks to Kent “The Shadow” Allard. Unlike his inspirations, Drake/Darkwing is less “fabulously wealthy suave genius” and more “feathered Inspector Gadget from the suburbs.” He means well, but his bumbling and egotistical nature often gets the best of him, leaving his sidekicks to take up the slack. If people tend to remember one thing about the show, it would have to be Darkwing’s catchphrase (“I am the terror that flaps in the night!”) and the many wacky variants thereof. “I am the weirdo who sits next to you on the bus!” is my favorite.

This 1992 NES title by Capcom is one of the later entries in their critically-acclaimed series of Disney adaptations for the system. Unfortunately, competition from the still-new Super Nintendo meant that it never managed to draw the same attention and sales as predecessors like DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Darkwing Duck has also been noted for its striking resemblance to the Mega Man games in terms of its overall structure, play control, and level/enemy design. These comparisons aren’t always favorable, as DD features fewer stages and weapons than any proper Mega Man game, as well as a noticeably reduced difficulty. So is it a woefully underappreciated Capcom classic or does this “baby’s first Mega Man” just suck gas? Let’s review the evidence.

The premise is simplicity itself. The sinister F.O.W.L. (Fiendish Organization for World Larceny) has sent a half-dozen of Darkwing Duck’s greatest foes on a massive crime spree across the city of St. Canard. It’s DW’s job to take down all six crooks before heading off to F.O.W.L.’s Floating Fortress for the final battle against their top agent Steelbeak.

There’s a stage select feature implemented, albeit a limited one. Players are presented with an initial set of three stages that can be completed in any order. Overcome these and a second, slightly more difficult set of three becomes available to choose between. After that comes the seventh and last level. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing doesn’t gain new weapons and abilities in specific stages, so the choice of which to tackle first is really only a minor novelty. A standard linear progression would have worked out just as well.

The levels themselves are nicely varied. Each has its own theme (bridge, forest, sewer, etc) and there’s a good mix of horizontal and vertical layouts. It should be noted that the vertical areas here feature smooth scrolling, an arguable improvement on the flip-screen style of the 8-bit Mega Man entries. Capcom did a good job in calibrating the length of each stage so that they never seem to drag or end prematurely and every one also has at least a few unique regular enemies that reinforce its specific theming.

Controlling Darkwing will be second nature to any Mega Man veteran. The two heroes’ running and jumping feels virtually identical and the tiny yellow puffs emitted by Drake’s gas gun have similar properties to the Blue Bomber’s standard Buster shots. That covers the bare essentials, but DW is no one-trick waterfowl. He can duck, fittingly enough, and he can also hang from the underside of some platforms, hooks, and other bits of stage dressing. This latter skill (also seen in Shadow of the Ninja, Ninja Gaiden III, and Kabuki Quantum Fighter) is required to progress through many of the stages and useful in getting the drop on enemies. One final maneuver is the cape guard, activated by holding up on the control pad. By shielding himself with his cape, Darkwing can deflect many enemy projectiles, even ones like the massive cannonballs in the final stage that you wouldn’t expect to be thwarted by a piece of purple cloth. While this is kind of cute, I didn’t end up using it much. Simply getting out of the way of shots also works just fine and is my first instinct anyway after playing so many other action-platformers.

There are a handful of alternate weapons available, though they don’t amount to much in my opinion. Drake can pick up three types of special gas that all draw on the same limited pool of secondary weapon ammunition. Heavy Gas blasts travel along the ground, Thunder Gas emits a twin shot diagonally above and below Darkwing, and Arrow Gas sticks to walls in order to form temporary platforms useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible shortcuts filled with extra lives and other bonus items. Given their awkward firing angles and lack of a secondary use, I found myself avoiding the Heavy and Thunder Gases and sticking to the Arrow whenever possible. You will have to be choosy, since you can only carry one special gas type at a time. Being able to cycle between the various weapons using the select button (or even a pause menu) would have been a simple way to add depth to the action. It’s definitely a missed opportunity, as the majority of your options are far too situational for their own good under the current setup.

Like the better-known Capcom Disney games on the NES, Darkwing Duck was clearly designed with kids in mind and won’t put up much of a fight for seasoned gamers. It’s fairly short, continues are unlimited, and the bosses all have simple patterns that you should be able to nail down after a minute or two. Darkwing’s four hit health bar is less generous than Mega Man’s, but defeated enemies drop regular refills and these can be farmed as needed. Some love these games for their no-pressure accessibility while others just find them dull. In any case, it’s worth knowing what you’re in for. Personally, I can forgive a lack of challenge if the game is charming enough.

That brings me to Darkwing Duck’s ace in the hole: Its presentation. From the title screen on, it’s obvious that this is a late period release from a powerhouse developer. The graphics represent their source material brilliantly in light of the formidable hardware limitations. In particular, I can’t praise the character animation enough. Darkwing’s wannabe menacing walk cycle alone manages to convey that he’s a silly character who takes himself entirely too seriously. That’s how you know you’re looking at some masterful 8-bit sprite work. The enemies look just as good and a fair amount of thought went into furnishing them all with distinct movement patterns, attacks, and vulnerabilities. Plus, you’ve gotta applaud any game that includes Terminator ducks. Terminator. Ducks. Entertainment should be giving me opportunities to use those words together all the time, dammit.

Yasuaki Fujita’s music is also solid, although it doesn’t pack the same punch as his Mega Man 3 score. I detect a bit of blues and jazz influence throughout, which I suppose makes sense in light of the cartoon’s pulp parody sensibilities. Even if I might have preferred some more frenetic tracks to drive the action on-screen, the expected Capcom quality is still present.

So what’s my final verdict on Darkwing Duck? I think its a pretty good time for the short while it lasts. The controls are tight, the levels and enemies are well-designed, and it excels at translating the madcap humor of the cartoon into playable form. For all that, however, it still disappoints. There was a real potential for greatness here when you consider the talent involved. Instead, this is easily the least original of Capcom’s non-sequel Disney titles and the one that feels the most like the quickie contract work it is. It lacks any sort of creative gameplay hook like Scrooge McDuck’s pogo cane or Chip and Dale’s co-op platforming that would set it apart from the side-scrolling crowd. You’ve seen everything here before in a more fleshed-out form, mostly in Mega Man games. The result of all this is a sort of junk food action title: Tasty, yet insubstantial.

Unless you have a personal nostalgic attachment to it or are a hardcore fan of the show, Capcom’s Darkwing Duck isn’t so much “the terror that flaps in the night” as it is “the cartridge that doesn’t see heavy rotation.”

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa (Arcade)

 

Wait, how do these guys get their shirts on over their horns? Suspension of disbelief shattered! 0/10! Worst game ever!

Like countless others in my age group, I spent an ungodly amount of time and quarters at arcades in the ’80s and ’90s. These days, I’m pleased to say that not much has changed. I’m fortunate in that the greater Seattle area has an abundance of retro arcades (or “barcades”) packed with the same classic video and pinball machines I remember. The usual suspects like Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter are a given at establishments like these, of course, but it’s not often (at least outside of a large gaming expo) that I encounter an entirely unfamiliar arcade title. When I do, it’s just as rare for that obscure game to leave a strong impression. A lot of them never got much traction for a reason, you know?

The stars must have been in perfect alignment when I walked into Coindexter’s on Greenwood a couple weeks back, because I had no idea that Konami’s 1992 run-and-gun Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa existed and it turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve had with a new machine in years. It didn’t take me long to realize why, either: C.O.W.-Boys is Sunset Riders 2!

Well, not technically. C.O.W.-Boys is based on the short-lived children’s cartoon/toy line that debuted earlier that same year. I never watched the show myself, writing it off as yet another attempt to cash-in on the “crimefighting anthropomorphic animals” craze at the height of Turtlemania. They’re cowboys that are literally cows! So clever, guys. Apologies if I’m dumping all over anyone’s cherished childhood memories here, but I was so over this formula at the time.

Fortunately, there’s an actual game lurking beneath the derpy license and it’s a blast. If you’ve played the 1991 cult classic Sunset Riders before, the resemblance is unmistakable. What else would you expect with Konami being contracted to develop a second four-player action game for arcades set in a cartoon version of the Wild West so hot on the heels of the first? C.O.W.-Boys is more than just a re-skin, however, and improves on Sunset Riders in a number of major ways.

Each player assumes the role of one of four lawmen, er, lawbulls, I guess: Cowlorado Kid, Dakota Dude, Marshall Moo Montana, and Buffalo Bull. Their mission: Rescue stock damsel in distress Lily Bovine from the Masked Bull and his gang of crooks. This requires you to complete a total of seven stages scattered across Moo Mesa. Unusually for the genre, you can choose your next destination on a between-stage map screen. The first and last stages are always fixed, but you can tackle 2-6 in any order you like.

The basic gameplay here will be instantly familiar to veterans of the more famous horizontal run-and-gun institutions like Contra and Metal Slug: One button jumps, the other shoots in any of eight directions, and the joystick handles the aiming and character movement. The one unique maneuver in your arsenal is the stampede charge, activated by pressing both buttons at once. Charging across the screen horns-first is useful for clearing some obstacles from your path and stunning many enemies. Just be careful not to run headlong into a bullet or other hazardous object by mistake. There are also the requisite power-ups, acquired by blasting flying chickens as they pass overhead in each stage. Why these unfortunate fowl are so well-armed is beyond me. It clearly doesn’t pay off for them. Items dropped include more powerful shots, single-use screen clear attacks, a horseshoe that orbits your character for a time and damages any enemies it touches, and even health refills and the occasional 1-up.

These last two items should be your first clue that C.O.W.-Boys is a quite the soft touch compared to most of its peers. One-hit deaths, virtually a given in given in titles like this, are replaced by a health bar. With three hits per life, three lives per credit, and the possibility of healing and 1-ups, this might be the least “quarter munchey” arcade run-and-gun of all time. I was able to complete several of the stages without dying at all on my first go and the difficulty really didn’t escalate at all until the final stage. I can’t rightly complain about saving so many quarters on my way to the end, though I do have to wonder if this extremely generous design was the best choice from an arcade owner’s standpoint.

C.O.W.-Boys may be easy, but that certainty doesn’t make it dull. The levels are all unique and inventive, with no shortage of engaging “set piece” moments like the bouncing railcar ride in the Mine and the dynamite-rigged buildings you can detonate in Cow Town. There are even occasional interludes where what have to be the world’s strongest eagles swoop down to lift your characters into the air and the nature of the action shifts entirely to resemble an auto-scrolling spaceship shooter. The boss fights are another highlight. Every boss has a robust pattern with multiple ways of moving and attacking and these patterns are readily sussed out with a bit of observation. This allows these battles to fall comfortably into the “tough, but fair” bracket. Each is hectic and stimulating in a way that satisfies rather than frustrates. The bosses even have their own health bars! This certainly would have been a welcome addition to Sunset Riders.

Graphics and sound are top-tier Konami all the way. The cartoon show’s creator supposedly worked very closely with the game development team and it’s evident in the detail and overall polish lavished on the art and animation. Despite only coming out a year after Sunset Riders, C.O.W.-Boys took advantage of upgraded hardware to really push its visuals to a noticeably higher level. I might not care for any of these absurd characters, but there’s no denying that they look amazing here. The music is by Michiru Yamane, best known for her work on the Castlevania series. While the tunes here are nowhere near her best, they’re perfectly servicable Western-inspired numbers that fit the setting like a glove. Also worth mentioning are the large number of high quality speech samples throughout. Every boss seems to have something silly to say and it’s all very clear for the time.

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa was a case of love at first sight for me. It’s easily as colorful and charming as Sunset Riders with the same tight and addictive core gameplay. What’s more, C.O.W.-Boys has more power-ups, better boss fights, and more interesting levels than its predecessor. Lower difficulty also makes it more appealing to newcomers, though this may come at the expense of lasting appeal to the hardcore crowd.

It’s a right shame that C.O.W.-Boys was never ported to any home console or computer. Was this due to the terms of the license? The cartoon’s cancellation? A perceived lack of appeal outside the U.S.? Beats me. I just know that this game is currently the second best reason to visit Coindexter’s, after their grilled Nutella, marshmallow, and graham cracker sandwiches. Mmm.