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!

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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 damn 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.

Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent M.U.S.H.A. last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.

Super Adventure Island (Super Nintendo)

Oh, Higgins. You smug bastard.

The Adventure Island series is a very odd duck. It all began back in 1986 with the arcade platformer Wonder Boy. Developed by Escape (later known as Westone) and published by Sega, Wonder Boy starred a Tarzanesque lad named Tom-Tom who did battle with assorted jungle baddies on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Tina. Hudson Soft contracted with Escape to create a Wonder Boy port for the Nintendo Famicom that same year. Sega still retained the rights to the character names and likenesses, however, so it was decided to replace Tom-Tom with a new hero for Hudson’s Adventure Island.

Enter Takahashi Meijin (“Master Takahashi”), a rather portly gent rocking the unlikely ensemble of a grass skirt and baseball cap. Stranger still, Takahashi Meijin was modeled on a real person: Former Hudson Soft employee Toshiyuki Takahashi, famous in Japanese gaming circles for his ability to hammer controller buttons up to sixteen times per second. The cherry on top of this oddball sundae has to be the character’s name in the NES version: Master Higgins. Yup. A chubby, stone axe chucking caveman in a baseball cap named Master Higgins. I can’t help but love the guy, even if he looks like a redneck uncle’s idea of a funny racist Halloween costume.

The original Wonder Boy and its altered port Adventure Island were each the start of their own independent long-running series, with future Wonder Boy titles mostly being confined to Sega systems and the Adventure Island sequels being primarily Nintendo exclusives. This finally brings me to 1992’s Takahashi Meijin no Daibōken Jima (“Master Takahashi’s Great Adventure Island”), better known outside Japan as Super Adventure Island. This was the third game in its series and its first 16-bit entry.

This time, Master Higgins is stargazing in the treetops with his sweetie Tina one night when the evil magician Dark Cloak rides by on a broomstick and turns Tina to stone before flying off. Incensed, Higgins sets off to find the bad guy’s castle and set things right. This opening cut scene and the equally wordless ending screen are all the story we get here. Not that I mind in this instance. Brevity is a virtue if all you’re going to bring to the table is the standard kidnapped girl plot.

The action in Super Adventure Island will be second nature for series veterans, as it’s closely patterned on the first game’s. Master Higgins has to make his way through five worlds, each consisting of three platforming stages and a boss battle. Most stages involve running from right to left to reach the goal at the end, though a few mix this up by incorporating vertical sections to climb, water to swim through, ice to slide around on, and other gimmicks. In addition to his standard jump, Higgins also has a new super jump move activated by crouching before tapping the jump button. This allows him to reach greater heights and is useful at many points.

Attacking the enemy is accomplished using the two different weapons found in each stage. The stone axe is an Adventure Island staple and flies forward in a descending arc. New in this installment is the boomerang, which has a slower rate of fire than the axe, but can also be tossed above and below Higgins. Collecting multiple copies of the same weapon will increase the number of projectiles you can have on screen at once and will eventually upgrade your shots to a more powerful fireball version.

You’ll need to be cautious, since Higgin dies in one hit and losing a life removes all accumulated weapons and upgrades. The only extra defense available comes in the form of the classic skateboard power-up seen throughout the series. This allows Higgins to survive an extra hit, with the tradeoff being that he loses the ability to halt his forward movement as long as he remains on the board. Thankfully, the skateboards in this game don’t tend to appear in stages that have bottomless pits, so they’re much less of a double-edged sword than they are in other installments.

Of course, since this is an Adventure Island game, enemies and pits aren’t the full extent of your worries. You also have to feed Higgins’ face by constantly collecting fruit scattered about the stages. The hunger meter at the top of the screen acts as a timer and depletes very rapidly, so failure to secure a steady stream of pineapples and kiwis spells your ravenous hero’s doom, presumably due to some sort of catastrophic blood sugar crash. This is one of those archetypal love-it-or-hate-it game mechanics, but I think it works here. Since enemies don’t respawn when killed, the player needs some incentive to rush. Otherwise a slow, methodical approach would negate the challenge completely.

One noteworthy feature of the earlier games that wasn’t carried forward is Higgins’ ridable dinosaur pals. First introduced in Adventure Island II for the NES, these guys are the series’ take on Yoshi from Super Mario World. The many playable dinosaurs and their unique special abilities were a brilliant addition and would continue to appear in future sequels, so they’re sorely missed here. Strangely, there’s actually an illustration of Higgins riding one in the instruction manual, so perhaps it was part of the plan at some point? Oh, well.

With a grand total of fifteen stages, Super Adventure Island is a very short game. If the levels here were longer or more difficult than the series standard, there still might be a decent amount of gameplay on offer. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Each can be completed in around two minutes or so, and they’re all basic enough that they won’t put up too much of a fight for players with any amount of prior platforming experience. This is ultimately the game’s fundamental flaw. Even with a fragile hero and limited continues, most gamers will be able to cruise through Super Adventure Island in an afternoon. If I’d payed $50 in 1992 money to get this one new, I’d have been pretty disappointed.

Aside from being short, easy, and lacking the adorable dinosaur mounts, I have no real complaints about Super Adventure Island. While a slight step back for the series as a whole, it remains a quality platformer with loads of charm. The control is good, level design is solid, and the visuals and audio are delightful. Presumably reacting to the common criticism that the earlier games leaned too much on recycled scenery, every stage here has its own unique background graphics, and these are generally well drawn and colorful. The character animation is also excellent. Higgins himself might just have the best crouching animation ever. He looks like he’s either relieving himself or performing some sort of weird booty dance. Either way, I approve.

Super Adventure Island’s best feature by far is its musical score by the masterful Yuzo Koshiro. It’s mainly super mellow, chilled out 90s hop hop, reggae, and dub beats rendered as only the Super Nintendo sound chip can. The fanfare that plays when you defeat a boss even has record scratches included. Every track is pure bliss, and “Blue Blue Moon” rivals “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country for the best water level music of all time as far as I’m concerned.

If a breezy, low pressure platformer with simple mechanics and a great sense of style sounds good to you, you can’t go wrong with Super Adventure Island. If it’s challenge, depth, and replay value you’re looking for, look elsewhere. In any case, make sure you eat at least one pineapple every twenty seconds or so. Anything less would just be unhealthy.

Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.

For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.

What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.

Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.

Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.

Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.

Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class, but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first, but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.

One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.

You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages, but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.

While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching and scaling effects used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.

Sound effects are solid, but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.

Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?

All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages, but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.

So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.

Alisia Dragoon (Genesis)

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Gee, thanks. I’ll, uh, wear it with pride, I guess.

So ends my first play session with Alisa Dragoon, but definitely not my last. It took me about seven hours of practice to get my first full run, which is just about the perfect amount of time to pass a lazy afternoon.

All I can say is: Wow! It’s been a while since a game has really impressed me this much. For me, Alisia Dragoon is an absolute masterpiece, right up there with Castlevania: Bloodlines and Streets of Rage 2 on my list of all-time great Genesis games. It’s that good.

The artwork and animation are some of the best on the system, the music is some of the catchiest fantasy action tunes I’ve ever heard in a game (it sort of has a Golden Axe vibe, but more complex and varied), and the control is perfect. Levels are all unique in terms of theming and visuals and each has its own roster of enemies, so nothing feels recycled here. The game’s art direction and animation was provided by the anime studio Gainax, which likely explains the high quality of the overall presentation.

The plot of the game involves the sorceress Alisa and her four magical pets questing to stop some evil wizards from resurrecting an ancient evil power of tremendous magnitude. Pretty straightforward stuff but there is a nice twist toward the end that elevates it a bit in my eyes.

Alisia’s primary weapon is lightning that she shoots from her hands, but the way this attack handles is very unique and is what gives the game its own feel when compared to other action-platforming games for the Genesis. Basically, Alisia doesn’t need to worry about aiming. Holding down the attack button causes a stream of homing lightning to automatically lock onto enemies in front of Alisia. This lock-on shooting mechanic, actually a refined version of the one from Game Arts’ earlier sci-fi action game Thexder, sounds like it would make the combat too simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since sustained attacking drains your magic meter, you can’t just shoot all the enemies all the time and you’ll need to take strategic pauses in combat where you focus on dodging while your meter recharges.

Even with an empty magic meter, you’re not defenseless. You have four extremely cute and deadly magical beasts along for the ride and each of them has unique attacks and strategic uses. You can only have one pet active at a time but you can switch between them instantly at will. They each have their own life meters and are able to be damaged and even killed by enemies, however, so you’ll have to keep them healthy by finding meat power-ups. Each pet can also be leveled-up two times by collecting other power-ups, which will grant them more health and attack power. Needless to say, picking the right pet for a particular stage or boss fight can make Alisia’s life a whole lot easier.

The game’s difficulty is tough but fair, as typical for the era. You only have one life at the start of the game, which seems daunting, but Alisia can absorb quite a bit of damage before dying and health restoration pickups are fairly numerous. You can also find health bar extensions and extra lives inside the power-up capsules you’ll discover along the way. You’ll still probably end up replaying the early stages of the game several times as you learn the stage layouts and boss enemy patterns, but you’ll soon be blazing through them quite quickly and effortlessly once you’ve properly memorized them.

Alisia Dragoon is a wonder. Unfortunately, it seems that it didn’t sell very well upon its release in 1992, so the gaming world was never graced with any sequels or even ports to other systems. It’s a damn shame, really, but at least we can still appreciate one of the true lost treasures of the 16-bit era.

Now, I think I’m going to go feed my pet electric chicken dragon thingy. Trust me, you wouldn’t like him when he’s hangry.

(Originally written 5/29/2017)