Gate of Thunder (TurboGrafx-16)

Having recently experienced an excellent action-platformer (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and an iconic RPG (Ys Book I & II), I’m understandably eager to continue my exploration of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 CD-ROM library. Given the system’s reputation as a shooter fan’s paradise, 1992’s Gate of Thunder seems like a natural choice. It was, after all, a pack-in title for the deluxe TurboDuo version of the hardware here in North America, sharing a disc with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and Bomberman. If that’s not the best selection of software ever bundled with a game console, I couldn’t tell you what is. It was certainly a long-delayed step in the right direction. Sure, the TurboDuo was far too late and too pricey to salvage the TurboGrafx brand in this part of the world, but at least anyone who did buy in at that point got more to show for it than a measly copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.

Gate of Thunder comes to us from developer Red Company, makers of the beloved Bonk series of mascot platformers and its spin-off, Air Zonk, which I consider to be one of the finest horizontal shooters available for the TurboGrafx. In other words, I had every reason to look forward to this one, and I’m pleased to report that Gate did not disappoint. It delivers just about everything you could want in a 16-bit shoot-’em-up: Blistering action, powerful weapons, intimidating bosses, exotic backdrops, flashy pyrotechnics, and a driving soundtrack. It’s also a shameless copycat so desperate to associate itself with Technosoft’s Thunder Force III that Red couldn’t be bothered to leave “Thunder” out of the title. Bit of a bad look there.

You play as space cop Hawk, captain of the Hunting Dog space fighter, out to defend planet Aries from the private armada of interstellar crime boss General Don Jingi. It’s hinted in the cutscenes that Hawk might have some sort of personal vendetta against the baddies, since he’s prone to brooding over a locket containing a picture of his (dead?) family. I’m sure the nameless hero of Konami’s Axelay can relate. Hawk is aided throughout his seven stage crusade by his partner, Esty, who periodically swoops down in her own Wild Cat ship to dispense power-ups. This is strictly a one-player game, so you never get to control Esty directly. I guess it’s still nice that they put some thought into to where all these helpful icons actually come from. Most other games don’t bother.

Like its Technosoft namesake, Gate of Thunder is a fast-paced affair. This is no cautious checkpoint shooter in the R-Type mold. Aggression is your best friend here, a fact emphasized by your ability to respawn in place after a death and continue the fight uninterrupted. The overall flow of the action is exhilarating and seems to effortlessly straddle that thin line separating challenge and frustration.

The Hunting Dog’s default attack is a simple straight-firing blue laser. Collecting those color-coded power-up orbs I mentioned grants access to two additional primary weapons: Green waves that fan out to deal slightly less damage over a wider area and the red earthquake, which deals immense damage to targets situated above and below you. Your ability to toggle between these three shots at any time forms the basis for much of the game’s strategy beyond the usual bullet dodging and enemy pattern memorization common to virtually all shooters. In general, the laser is best against most bosses, waves are for swarms of weak foes, and the earthquake makes short work of those pesky ceiling and floor targets.

Grabbing a second power-up corresponding to a particular weapon will upgrade it to a more powerful form. After that, every subsequent icon of that color will instead cause a huge energy wave to sweep across the screen in classic super bomb style. You do need to exercise some caution, however, as a death will strip you of your currently equipped weapon, with the exception of the laser, which can only be downgraded.

Rounding out your arsenal are an incredibly important shield that allows you to withstand three extra hits, a secondary homing missile weapon, and a pair of Gradius-inspired “option” satellites that flank your ship and mirror your primary shot. You’re able to manually pivot your options around to fire behind you when necessary, although rear assaults aren’t terribly common.

The blazing speed of the gameplay is complimented by Nick Wood’s relentless score. One could argue that the Red Book audio is the only thing here that truly required the CD medium. That’d be missing the mark in terms of criticism, though, as this sort of early ’90s instrumental hard rock is simply ideal to wreck aliens to.

There’s no mistake about it—from its visual design to its controls and weapon system, Gate of Thunder really is just Thunder Force III with real wailing guitars replacing the synthesized ones. If you were somehow able to swap entire levels around between the two games, I reckon the effect would be seamless enough that a player unfamiliar with the originals wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. That said, I’m not complaining! Ripping off an all-time great pretty much perfectly is a win in my book. In the context of a genre as traditionally no-nonsense and gameplay-driven as the auto-scrolling shooter, imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. Love Thunder Force III? Well, here come Red Company and Hudson Soft to essentially double its length while introducing no real flaws of note. I’ll take it, thanks.

If you must insist on something with more in the way of creative vision, you could skip over Gate in favor of its fantasy-themed pseudo-sequel, Lords of Thunder. Me, I’m not so hung up on innovation that I can’t recognize the entertainment potential in accurately recreating a masterpiece, even one that isn’t technically your own.

G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor (NES)

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was one of my most pleasant NES discoveries of recent years. This feature-packed 1991 action-platformer is easily one of the better licensed releases for the system. Since I’ve been watching a ton of the classic Sunbow era G.I. Joe cartoon lately to unwind, I figure there’s no time like the present to check out Real American Hero’s Capcom-published 1992 follow-up, The Atlantis Factor. Is it another home run from developer KID? No, Joe!

Okay, okay. So I couldn’t resist a line like that. Truth is, this is far from the worst NES title I’ve come across. KID was a talented outfit and they seemingly made a good faith effort here to build on the team mechanics and persistent power-ups of Real American Hero while adding a touch of non-linearity to the stage progression. These flourishes don’t amount to much without the first game’s quality level design and general playability, however.

As you may expect, our story involves the ruthless terrorist organization Cobra raising the ruins of Atlantis from the ocean floor and harnessing some of sort of strange Atlantean energy source to threaten world domination. It falls on G.I. Joe, America’s most elite fighting force, to infiltrate the lost continent and foil Cobra’s villainous ambitions. Routine Saturday morning silliness, all told.

The mission is headed up by the Joe head honcho himself, General Hawk, who functions as a baseline character with no special skills. He must have forgot his jet pack back at home base. Completing specific stages will allow you to add new Joes to your team, and each of them does have some sort of unique advantage. Duke can fire his gun upward (previously a universal ability in Real American Hero), Roadblock can crawl through low passages, Wet Suit can operate underwater, and both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have access to ninja sword attacks.

Teamwork is the name of the game, as you’re able to choose up to three Joes to take into a given level. They all have their own separate health bars and weapon skill ratings that can be permanently enhanced by collecting power-up icons. You’ll constantly be swapping characters via the pause menu in order to ensure none of them kick the bucket on you or hog all the precious upgrades. If you’ve played Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game before, you know the drill.

One excellent new addition is the concept of support Joes. Your reward for finishing most stages is a single-use radio. When activated, the radio will put you in touch with your choice of Gung-Ho, Spirit, or Big Bear. Gung-Ho replenishes your ammo supply on the spot. Spirit does the same for your health. Big Bear can instantly revive a “dead” Joe, something that normally involves a long wait and a stat penalty for the returning character. Whatever you do, try not to let these valuable items go to waste. Continues are thankfully unlimited, but unused radios are lost on game over and can’t be recollected.

Atlantis itself is depicted as a Bionic Commando style map screen containing six main Cobra bases (labelled A-F) connected by a series of sixteen numbered outdoor routes. Because there are multiple paths to the final confrontation with Cobra Commander in area F, you don’t need to visit every location to reach the end. Although the game rewards thoroughness with an expanded character roster, new weapons, and extra radios, a good amount of its content is technically optional. In theory, that’s fine. I just wish more of it was interesting. The outdoor levels in particular are defined by their dull layouts and repetitive enemy placement. Every one of Real American Hero’s sixteen stages had its own unique boss, not to mention a lot of cool touches like multiple types of Cobra vehicle you could commandeer and pilot. There are no vehicles to be found this time. Worse, only the six bases have proper bosses, a huge loss when you consider what a highlight these battles were in the last installment.

The character upgrade system has its flaws, too. You can’t revisit areas you’ve already completed, nor can you “farm” stat boosts from enemies. The enemies will respawn, their item drops won’t. This means that any Joes unlucky enough to join your team late in the game will be pathetically underpowered with few good opportunities to catch up. When I recruited my last character, Snake Eyes, he came with a measly two health. Two! Compare that to eleven for my fully upgraded Hawk. Taking Snakes Eyes into a level at that point meant he was more likely to get himself killed trying to snag power-ups than he was to see any real gain. So I didn’t bother. I did the sensible thing and kept using the same team of experienced Joes I had for ages all the way up to the end. What a waste of a fan favorite character. I suppose I could make it a point to seek out Snake Eyes sooner on a repeat playthrough. There would still be somebody who ended up joining last, though, and leveling him up would be still be a waste of time.

Again, G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. Despite being a step down from its older brother in virtually every way that counts, it has its strong points. It makes decent use of the license, with plenty of familiar heroes and villains. The music is catchy.  Some of the new weapons, such as the laser rifle, are cool.  The radio support mechanic offers utility and flexibility. I especially like how increasing a character’s unarmed combat rating adds new attacks to his repertoire rather than simply increasing damage. Kick Master, anyone? Bottom line: Real American Hero’s blend of strategic team management and furious run-and-gun action is present here, it’s just a muted shadow of its former self. Not unlike the DIC run of the cartoon, now that I think about it.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even…a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience, and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Nintendo)

Prevailing circumstances as of late have me feeling the urge for steady, reliable gaming comfort food. The way I see it, there’s no better mental refuge than the blistering run-‘n-gun action of Konami’s Contra. So escape with me now to a simpler time when “see alien, blast alien” was I needed to know and all I wanted to do.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Contra Spirits in Japan) is actually the fourth entry in the long-running saga. Its immediate predecessor, Operation C for Game Boy, apparently doesn’t count for numbering purposes. More proof that handhelds are the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of the game industry; no respect at all. Misleading title aside, Contra III is noteworthy for being the franchise’s first appearance on a 16-bit home console and boy, did its developers not want you to forget it. This was one of those hyperactive early SNES releases that pulled out every newfangled hardware trick in the book as it practically screamed, “Look at me! Bet your NES or Genesis can’t do this!” Transparencies? You bet! Scaling effects? Hell, yeah! Dizzying background rotation? You know it! The shock and awe were very real back in 1992, I assure you. But has its nature as a technical showpiece for a thirty year-old machine badly dated it or does the timeless Contra gameplay shine through strong as ever? That’s what I’ll be looking to determine.

Story-wise, we get a basic rehash of the previous three games. 27th century Earth is again besieged by the extraterrestrial menace known as Red Falcon and it falls on strapping commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean to save humanity’s collective bacon for a fourth time. Curiously, the North American version’s instructions would have you believe you’re playing as Jimbo and Sully, two distant descendants of Bill and Lance. This stems from a misguided attempt to keep continuity with NES Contra’s botched English manual, which inexplicably shifted the action from the year 2633 to 1987. Best to ignore this whole timeline debacle, I say. They’re Bill and Lance.

That’s enough said about plot. At the end of the day, these games are about blowing away alien scum with cool guns. The classic machine gun, laser, flamethrower, and spread shot all make a return here, as does the homing weapon from Operation C. There’s also an entirely new option in the form of crush missiles, which are devastating at short range. Skilled use of the crush gun is vital if you hope to wreck bosses quickly. Finally, you start each life with a single super bomb in your possession that will deal heavy damage to every foe on the screen when triggered. Although you can potentially accumulate up to nine of these, I wouldn’t count it if I were you. The traditional one-hit Contra deaths are in full effect, after all.

At least you’re no longer guaranteed to lose everything when you inevitably bite the dust. Contra III introduces the ability to carry two weapons at once and toggle between them at will. Your death will only result in the loss of whichever gun is currently in use. This allows for a neat little bit of extra strategy without bogging things down. You could opt to carry a spread gun for use against widely spaced groups of weak enemies along with crush missiles for more durable single targets. Or you might choose to limit yourself to the default machine gun for the majority of a stage in order to preserve a stronger backup weapon for the boss at the end. Good stuff.

Hit start on the title screen and you’re immediately taking the fight to Red Falcon, dashing through a grimly gorgeous ruined cityscape as you gun down waves of enemy foot soldiers. After a few screens of this, you’ll encounter the first of Contra III’s many direct callbacks: A reprise of the iconic boss fight against the jungle base from the original Contra. Destroy it, though, and the level simply continues without fanfare, revealing it to have been a lowly speed bump of a mini-boss this time. The statement is clear: This isn’t last generation’s Contra. Before the stage concludes for real, you’ll have also commandeered a tank and used it to destroy a second well-defended base, defeated another minor boss, platformed your way through the fiery aftermath of a bombing raid, and finally faced off against a colossal turtle alien that sends a torrent of flying insects at you and can discharge laser beams from its maw.

This opening act establishes the pattern for all of Contra III’s side-scrolling sections: A chain of constantly shifting dynamic action set pieces and escalating mid-boss encounters culminating in a jaw-dropping clash with a larger-than-life ultimate antagonist. Each is almost an interactive Hollywood blockbuster unto itself, an impression only bolstered by the sumptuous art and bombastic musical score. Without a doubt, these levels are marvels and really must be played to be believed. All four of them.

You heard right. Contra III contains a paltry four of the very best stages the series would ever see, supplemented by two of the very worst. The latter utilize an overhead view and it’s here where the game’s emphasis on pushing Super Nintendo hardware gimmicks whips around and bites it square in the ass. These overhead levels rely heavily on the system’s famous Mode 7 graphics feature, which allows for the smooth scaling and rotation of a background layer. Mode 7 was used to brilliant effect in F-Zero and Pilotwings, where it enabled the close approximation of true 3-D environments without the need to render polygons. That’s not what we get here. Instead, we’re stuck maneuvering sluggish, tank-like versions of Bill and Lance over downright ugly pixelated terrain. The directional pad is used exclusively to move straight forward and back in this perspective, with all lateral movement accomplished via the roundabout method of rotating the background itself with the two shoulder buttons. If this sounds goofy and awkward and not particularly fun, that’s because it is. While previous Contra games also experimented with alternate viewpoints for some of their stages, it was always to better effect than this.

Contra III’s overhead portions were sufficiently eye-catching in an era when a low-res spinning background could pass for high-tech wizardry. Playing through them now, they’re positively abominable, the absolute inverse of their sublime side-scrolling counterparts. They’re not even passable filler, as stripping them out and replaced with nothing whatsoever would result would in a stronger product. Their relative brevity is the closest thing they have to a saving grace.

Does this make this Contra III a bad game? God, no. It is a maddeningly inconsistent one, however. It’s all peaks and valleys, melting your face off with its unbridled awesomeness one minute and then giving you ample cause to wish you were playing almost anything else the next. There are more peaks than valleys to be sure, but four legendary levels still aren’t a lot to hang an entire game on. I love it, just not quite as much as I love the original and Super C on the NES or Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, all of which benefit from a healthier ratio of quality content to dross. Contra III is tantalizingly close to perfection. If only its creators had doubled down on its strengths as opposed to diluting them with Mode 7 mediocrity….

Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Are video games art?

It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.

As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.

Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.

With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.

To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.

Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.

Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:

“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”

This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.

Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.

The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.

April fools! This game is shit, y’all.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Little Samson (NES)

Happy anniversary to me!

Three years ago to the day now, I began writing reviews for every game I completed. This proved so enjoyable that I soon committed to producing at least one per week going forward, a goal I’ve handily exceeded. An achievement such as this calls for something extraordinary. I’ve chosen a game that fills NES aficionados everywhere with a heady mix of wonder and dread: The deceptively humble-sounding Little Samson.

This 1992 action-platformer was the third and final game to come out of the short-lived studio Takeru/Sur Dé Wave. I covered their debut, the quirky Famicom exclusive Cocoron, last year. Takeru’s roster consisted largely of former Capcom staff, and their years spent churning out hits like Mega Man and Strider made them highly adept at side-scrolling action. Sadly, Little Samson’s excellence in this capacity is often eclipsed by its monstrous price tag. How bad are we talking here? Try $1200 to $8800 as of this writing, depending on condition and completeness. This makes it the single most expensive regular licensed retail release for the system by a wide margin. The current runner-up, The Flintstones – Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, goes for slightly more than half what Little Samson does on average. This game’s reputation as an ultra-rare prestige piece is so well established that even playing it for free via EverDrive, as I did, felt like being down in the classic gaming equivalent of a world-class wine cellar, reverently dusting off some priceless vintage.

What makes Little Samson specifically the crown jewel of so many licensed NES collections? We’ll likely never be 100% sure. It’s universally agreed that its publisher, Taito, didn’t produce very many copies. There may have been as few as 10,000 manufactured, although the precise number is unknown and possibly lost to history. This relative scarcity is also evident with other Taito games of the era, like Panic Restaurant and the aforementioned Surprise at Dinosaur Peak. Then there’s the matter of its oddly Biblical name. The game itself, known as Seirei Densetsu Lickle (“Holy Bell Legend Lickle”) in the original Japanese, has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s been speculated American NES owners shunned Little Samson at point of sale based on a general aversion to “Bible games,” which, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, do tend to be pretty dang terrible. Finally, let’s consider that human psychology can be a lot messier than any rarified laws of supply and demand would have you believe. Hardcore collectors of anything have a tendency to be highly competitive. In light of this, the NES collecting ecosystem practically demands there be something situated right where Little Samson is in the pricing hierarchy. The jump in dollar value from three digits to four is more than enough to turn heads and demonstrate a high degree of personal commitment to the hobby, yet Little Samsom remains far more attainable than, say, the five-digit beast that is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If Little Samson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

So how’s the gameplay, already? Glad you asked! At its core, Little Samson is an archetypal NES action game in which a team of four diverse heroes must overcome a series of side-scrolling stages filled with enemies and death-defying leaps in order to save their fantasy kingdom from an evil overlord. The twist is you’re able to swap between the four protagonists at any time in order to draw on their various special abilities. Or at least you are after you’ve completed the four short opening levels, each of which is intended to serve as an introduction to a specific hero.

Samson (aka Lickle) is the de facto leader of the bunch. He has decent health and movement speed, can climb walls and ceilings, and attacks by tossing bells straight ahead. He functions as your jack-of-all-trades, best used when none of his comrades would be significantly more effective.

Kikira the dragon’s mediocre health is offset by several potent assets. She’s able to fly for short periods, has steady footing on icy surfaces, and can charge up her fire breath for extra damage.

Gamm the golem is a huge, slow target who can barely jump. To compensate, he has a massive health pool, takes no damage from spikes, and can aim his powerful short range punches vertically as well as horizontally.

K.O. the mouse is tiny and fragile, the polar opposite of Gamm in many ways. Despite this, he’s anything but useless. His Metroid style bomb attack is the most powerful in the game, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to exploit it. On top of this, he moves fast, jumps high, clings to walls, fits into the narrowest of passages, and can walk on water. Walk on water? Maybe this is a Bible game after all….

All four members of your team have separate health bars. As in Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, swapping out a badly wounded hero before he or she bites the dust is always best practice. One caveat: If anyone beside Samson does die, they’ll stay dead until you run out of lives completely and use a continue. The one exception is if the character died with a healing potion in their inventory, in which case it can be used from the pause menu to revive them. This does unfortunately lead to situations where it’s easier to burn through the rest of your lives on purpose so you can continue with a full party than it is to struggle on with a diminished roster.

In less skilled hands, the teamwork mechanic that defines Little Samson could have amounted to a mere gimmick. The developers’ genius lies in the way every aspect of the level and enemy design synergizes with it. As you play, you’re constantly prompted to consider the ideal way to tackle the obstacles in your path. For spikes on the floor, is it better to fly over them with Kikira, walk across them with Gamm, or use K.O. or Samson to scamper across the ceiling? While there’s often more than one solution, determining which is your safest bet hinges not just on the placement of the spikes themselves, but on which foes are lurking nearby and whether a given party member is worth risking now versus saving for the upcoming boss fight.

Speaking of the boss encounters, this same intriguing dynamic is present there, too. Do you want to try to keep your distance and wear them down with Kikira and Samson, brawl with Gamm, or engage in the high risk, high reward venture of getting in close enough to deploy K.O.’s bombs without taking damage? This is quality game design, pure and simple.

Not only is the content here finely crafted, there’s a good amount of it. Twenty-two stages to be exact, although you won’t find all of them on your first go due to their branching structure. Just be aware that Little Samson is one of those games that terminates your playthrough prematurely and denies you the true ending if you opt for the easy difficulty mode. Thankfully, unlimited continues and a password system keep the normal setting quite reasonable.

Little Samson’s graphics and sound form a interesting dichotomy. Its sprites and backgrounds are truly sumptuous by NES standards. Seeing this degree of fine detail realized under the strict color and resolution limitations of a machine engineered in 1983 to run Donkey Kong is downright inspiring. I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never seen another Famicom or NES game that looks better than this one. Approximately as good in its own right, sure, but never flat-out superior. Then there’s the music, which is…fine, I guess. That is, the songs themselves are well done. How they’re used is the issue. Instead of having the music selections tied to the levels themselves as in most games, the individual heroes have their own themes which play whenever they’re active. The problem inherent in having just four main background tracks in a lengthy game is exacerbated by some characters being less suited for general use than others. I hope you like Samson’s theme in particular, because you’re likely to be listening to it around half the time. On the plus side, the endgame areas do eventually break free of this rut with some distinct tunes of their own.

To my delight, Little Samson proved itself a prime example of a hyped-up trophy title that also happens to rank among the better games available on its native platform. The limited soundtrack is the only remotely disappointing thing about it. Charming characters, lush visuals, and masterfully designed action make it worth seeking out by any means necessary. If emulation or flash cartridges aren’t your bag and you’d prefer a more affordable “real” copy, consider Seirei Densetsu Lickle. It’s the same game at 1/8th the cost.

Disappointing sales notwithstanding, this was one hell of a swan song from Takeru. If a little sticker shock is what it takes to attract the audience it always deserved, that’s fine by me.

Mitsume ga Tooru (Famicom)

Last summer, I examined Konami’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken, a 1987 Famicom action-platformer based on the work of manga titan Osamu Tezuka. Hi no Tori is nowhere near the company’s best effort and its faithfulness to the source material is highly questionable. It’s a passable, if unexceptional product. Let’s skip ahead to 1992 now and see if Natsume was able to do better with their spin on another Tezuka property, Mitsume ga Tooru (“The Three-Eyed One”).

The original print version of Mitsume ga Tooru ran in Weekly Shōnen Magazine between 1974 and 1978. It was revived in animated series form starting in 1990, which likely explains the timing of this Famicom adaptation. The title character is one Hosuke Sharaku, a bald boy who resembles Charlie Brown by way of Dr. Evil and happens to be one of the last survivors of an ancient race of three-eyed people with powerful psychic abilities. These abilities are tied directly to his extra eye, leading to him having a split personality of sorts. When his third eye is covered with a bandage, he’s a typical good-natured, dopey kid. Expose the eye and he instantly transforms into a selfish, megalomaniacal super-genius. His sidekick/love interest is plucky schoolgirl Wato Chiyoko. The names of these two are supposedly intended to reference Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, though the association seems tenuous at best to me. The game’s plot sees Sharaku out to rescue the kidnapped Wato from another three-eyed fellow, Prince Godaru.

To accomplish this, he’ll need to traverse a total of just five side-scrolling stages. Mitsume ga Tooru’s short run time is a common focus of criticism in some of the other reviews I’ve seen. In truth, it’s no different than classics like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden in this respect. Not every 8-bit platformer can reasonably be expected to take the form of a multi-hour epic like Super Mario Bros. 3, after all. On the plus side, Mitsume ga Tooru does introduce new enemies and environmental hazards in each and every area, so at least I can’t accuse it of padding.

Sharaku controls conspicuously like Capcom’s Mega Man. This applies to his running and jumping, his standard attack (he can rapid fire up to three small projectiles at a time from his third eye), and his inability to duck. Not really surprising, I suppose, given Natsume’s noted fondness for loosely patterning its 8-bit action games on hits from bigger studios. He does have one signature move of his own: The Red Condor. This is a magic spear Sharaku can summon by holding down the fire button for a few seconds. Releasing the button will then cause him to hurl it forward. It’ll travel about half the length of the screen, damaging any foes it touches, before turning around and heading back the way it came. This is when things get interesting. If you time a jump right and manage to land Skaraku on top of the rebounding Condor, it’ll stop and hover in mid-air, acting as a springy platform. Initially just a curiosity, this function is required to progress later on. Basically, any time you need to reach a spot that’s beyond Sharaku’s regular jumping ability, that’s your cue to try bouncing off the Red Condor. Unfortunately, these are probably the only times you’ll feel compelled to use it. Its long charge time and limited range make it a poor choice as an offensive weapon.

A small selection of power-ups are available for both your primary shot and the Red Condor. These are accessed through a shop run by a friendly flag-waving NPC who appears one or twice per level. These shops are also where you’ll purchase extra lives and refills for Sharaku’s six-hit health bar. Consequently, the only pickups obtained directly from enemies are bouncing coins of various denominations. The game is pretty generous with its currency drops and you’ll usually have enough to purchase some healing and a weapon whenever the opportunity presents itself. If you find yourself wanting more funds on top of that, you can try juggling the coins in the air repeatedly with your shots. Do this enough times and they’ll actually increase in value somehow. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s helpful.

That’s all you really need to know to enjoy this one. Mitsume ga Tooru isn’t exactly deep or novel. You run, jump, shoot, hoard coins, and very occasionally call on the Red Condor for help with a tricky platforming section. What it lacks in complexity and innovation, however, it makes up for with the rock solid design fundamentals of a late period Famicom release by Natsume. Stages and mechanics are well considered, well implemented, and served up with panache. The boss fights in particular are highlights. These guys are all appropriately imposing and mastering their various attack patterns is a must. Simply standing toe-to-toe and brute forcing them is never an option, which I always appreciate. If this sounds daunting, take heart: Unlimited continues and frequent checkpoints keep frustration to a minimum, even on the higher of the two difficulty settings.

Mitsume ga Tooru’s art and music both live up to the high standard set by the gameplay. Its spritework and animation are head and shoulders above most of its peers and do an admirable job of capturing Tezuka’s distinctive style. The backgrounds are no slouches, either, incorporating parallax scrolling and transparency effects rarely seen on the hardware. Only a handful of other contemporary offerings like Gimmick and Kirby’s Adventure can be said to look better overall. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns) is yet another example of fantastic in-house audio from Natsume. It starts out strong and only gets better as it goes on, climaxing in the one-two punch of a stirring final level theme and a sweet, wistful end credits roll.

Impressive as it is, Mitsume ga Tooru was ultimately doomed to suffer the same sad fate as so many other pre-Harvest Moon Natsume titles: Being a one-off. Hosuke Sharaku hasn’t starred in another video game to date, although he has featured as an antagonist in several headlined by his fellow Tezuka creation, Astro Boy. At least his sole turn in the spotlight stands as a sterling example of a licensed game done right. If you’re on the hunt for awesome Famicom exclusives that don’t require any Japanese language skills, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye or three out for this one.

Mega Man 5 (NES)

Mega Man 5? Have I really reviewed five of these suckers already? That seems impressive somehow…until I remember it’s not even 4% of the sprawling extended franchise. Guess I won’t be finished with this little blue bugger anytime soon.

This installment represents uncharted territory for me. It’s the first of the six NES Mega Man outings I never played back around the time of its debut. Like most Nintendo kids in 1992, I was spending most of my time deep diving into everything the new Super Nintendo had to offer. Still, I have high hopes for this one. Revisiting Mega Man 4 proved to be a great time. I found it to be significantly more polished and better paced than the fan favorite third game. Let’s see if Capcom was able to maintain that same level of quality here.

Mega Man is, of course, the brave robot boy who protects the world of the future from the countless schemes of the megalomaniacal Dr. Wily. Most games after the third make a feeble stab at tricking players into believing a different villain is behind all the mayhem, only to reveal to the shock and awe of absolutely no one that it was really old Wily pulling the strings all along. This time, Mega Man’s own brother, Proto Man, goes rogue and kidnaps their mutual creator, Dr. Light. Uncovering the truth behind this apparent heel turn requires Mega Man to do the exact same thing he always does: Defeat eight robot masters in any order, take all their special weapons, and then storm Wily’s ridiculous skull-shaped headquarters with his new arsenal in tow.

By 1992, most players had a pretty good idea what they were in for with a new Mega Man title. This goes for the plot, the mechanics, the cartoony graphics, the rocking soundtrack, everything! These are incredibly consistent games, almost to a fault. That’s why when it comes to assessing Mega Man 5, I’m going to focus on the three key elements which are guaranteed to vary meaningfully between entries: The level design, the boss fights, and the various special weapons and tools Mega Man acquires.

The stages themselves are a real treat. Gravity Man’s has you fighting on the ceiling thanks to a gravity flipping gimmick similar to the ones seen in the previous year’s Metal Storm and Shatterhand. Charge Man’s deftly uses the visuals and sound to sell the idea that you’re in a moving train. Most compelling of all is Wave Man’s, which features the series’ first true vehicle segment. Mega Man pilots a jet ski here, a year before Mega Man X introduced ride armors. On the downside, Stone Man’s suffers from the same generic cave syndrome that’s plagued nearly all stone/rock-themed masters over the years and Crystal Man’s, pretty as it is, has too much stop and go for my taste. For the most part, though, these are some fun areas to blast through and a high point of Mega Man 5.

On the other hand, the robot masters themselves largely fail to impress. They do showcase some neat ideas here and there, such as Gyro Man’s tendency to hide in the billowing clouds filling his arena. Despite this, they were all simple to take down and I rarely felt like I needed to exploit their individual weapon weaknesses to come out on top. Comparatively basic patterns and modest damage output make them less of a threat than their Mega Man 3 or 4 counterparts. This is compounded by the increased availability of extra lives and energy tanks this time around. While difficulty preferences are obviously subjective, I think most gamers would expect and desire more than token resistance from these guys.

Speaking of wanting more, the special weapons in Mega Man 5 are a sorry lot. Only the steerable Gyro Blade and screen clearing Gravity Hold saw regular use during my playthrough. The rest are either too weak or too situational to bother with. This is doubly true since Mega Man retains his Mega Buster charge attack and it’s arguably stronger than ever. It ramps up to full power quicker and the shot itself has a larger area of effect. The designers attempted to balance this out somewhat by having the charge be lost whenever Mega Man sustains damage. In my experience, this doesn’t quite offset the improved fire rate. It was debatable whether or not the charge shot was the best weapon in Mega Man 4. Given the competition here, there can be no doubt.

Or can there? Although he’s presented as more of a side character than anything else, there is one optional weapon available in the form of Beat the robot bird. Unlocking him requires you to collect eight letter icons, one in each of the robot master levels. I recommend you put in the effort because Beat, well, beats ass. When active, he’ll automatically zip around the screen seeking out enemies and dealing heavy touch damage to them. He can make mincemeat of almost anything in his path, including the bosses in the final stretch of the game. Dr. Wily’s ultimate war machine? Easily reduced to scrap by a good pecking. Enjoy this avenging avian while you can. He’s toned down considerably in all his future appearances.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m reviewing Mega Man 5 the week after Thanksgiving, as it comes across like a plate of reheated digital leftovers. It features some creative stage designs and I did enjoy Beat the bird, both as a handy bonus item and an adorable addition to the greater Mega Man universe. Beyond that, it offers little in the way of new ideas and a mediocre at best selection of robot masters and special weapons. As with virtually  anything cast from the classic Mega Man mold, it’s a cut above the average action-platformer and remains well worth playing for fans of the genre. I certainly don’t regret giving it go. In the narrower context of its own legendary series, however, it’s simply a poor man’s Mega Man 4. You can really sense the developer fatigue setting in with this one. With a mere eleven months between the two releases, I reckon that should come as no surprise. These games may be all about tireless robots, but the teams behind them are all too human.

Ninja Gaiden (Master System)

Thanksgiving season is here again. For me, that means baking, quality time with friends, and savage ninja mayhem. Yes, this is the time of year when I inevitably find myself scaling walls and hurling deadly shuriken at evildoers of all stripes, usually in a video gaming context. I’m especially partial to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden saga for this, having already covered the NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden Shadow on Game Boy.

As far as I knew back in the ’90s, these four home titles and the arcade beat-’em-up were the full extent of the franchise. I had no idea that a sixth game, also dubbed simply Ninja Gaiden, was produced exclusively for Master System owners in Europe and Australia. This was the second entry (after the Natsume-helmed Shadow) to be developed by a party other than Tecmo themselves. Master System Ninja Gaiden is the work of SIMS (Soft development Innovation Multi Success), a joint enterprise spun off from Sega and the more obscure Sanritsu Denki. Regular readers of mine may recall them as the creators of the Castlevania-inspired Master of Darkness. The two works are quite similar in that they’re respectable action-platformers which capture the broad strokes of their source material, yet neglect many of the finer points that made the originals true greats.

Like its predecessors, this Ninja Gaiden stars blue-clad killing machine Ryu Hayabusa. He returns home to his village one day, only to discover it’s been attacked and razed by a mysterious enemy force that slaughtered everyone present and made off with a sacred scroll detailing the clan’s ninjitsu techniques. This scroll must be recovered, since the secrets it contains could endanger the entire world if misused. There’s also the matter of revenge. You really don’t want to cross a guy who slays building-sized demons for a living.

It’s a promising setup that SIMS ultimately doesn’t deliver on. The NES games were famed for their lavishly animated and scored story interludes, dubbed “Tecmo theater.” The cutscenes here are paltry in comparison, consisting of static images with the same short music loop accompanying every one. The storytelling itself also fails to engage. It’s a straightforward trek from location to location fighting assorted villains in pursuit of the missing scroll. There are no twists and no familiar characters other than Ryu himself. The new characters that appear make no impact and aren’t even given proper names, as if the writers knew you probably wouldn’t remember them anyway with a plot this perfunctory.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. Although there are some important caveats I’ll get to shortly, much of the Ninja Gaiden gameplay formula comes through loud and clear in the seven diverse stages presented. Ryu’s movement feels correct and he fights with his customary Dragon Sword and array of mystical sub-weapons. His core moveset sees some some interesting tweaks in this installment. While he retains his Ninja Gaiden III ability to hang from the undersides of certain ledges, his signature wall climbing has been replaced with a Super Metroid style rebounding wall jump. The most dramatic new addition is a super attack performed by pressing both buttons at once. This will instantly destroy all regular enemies on screen in exchange for a hefty chunk of health. Finally, he can now move while crouched, which is occasionally useful in tight quarters, if less flashy than these other maneuvers. All this allowed SIMS to include new movement-based challenges not seen in previous games and they made the most of the opportunity. There’s a bigger emphasis on pure platforming here than in any other classic Ninja Gaiden.

I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the combat. The enemies in this game are routinely designed and placed in ways that make me suspect the SIMS team didn’t really understand what made the action on the NES so compelling. It was, in a word, flow. The opposition was oppressive, with swift baddies constantly swarming Ryu from all angles. The only way out was to cut a path through as efficiently as possible. The mechanics supported this. Ryu could eliminate almost any foe with a single swing of his sword. Assuming a perfectly-timed sequence of jumps and attacks, it was possible to literally sprint through the game. It made for an unparalleled 8-bit adrenaline rush. This isn’t what you get on the Master System. There are far fewer opponents to dispatch and they tend to be either slow-moving or stationary damage sponges when compared to their NES counterparts. Taking that constant pressure off players while simultaneously forcing them to stop moving over and over to dole out multiple hits to the same enemy really blurs the line between Ninja Gaiden at its blistering best and watered-down Castlevania with a ninja.

I don’t want to come off too negative here. MS Ninja Gaiden has a lot going for it. Most prominent are its bright, clean graphics, solid soundtrack, and intricate platforming scenarios. It controls well and its dialed down intensity may actually appeal to those who find the NES games overwhelming. Not only do you enjoy the unlimited continues common to most Ninja Gaidens, you don’t even lose your sub-weapon and its ammunition when you die. This led to me discover a strange quirk of the sub-weapon system that effectively breaks the game wide open. If you can manage to raise your ammo count to the maximum of 999, it will never again decrease, effectively granting you unlimited shots thereafter. I’m not sure if this is intentional or a bug. In either case, it makes an already relaxed ride pure child’s play if you choose to exploit it.

SIMS’ interpretation of Ninja Gaiden may not represent the series at its slick, brutal apex, but it makes for a satisfying playthrough nonetheless. It’s easily one of the better action-platformers to grace the Master System. Pity it happened to debut in 1992, after the console had already been discontinued in North America and Japan. So give it a go sometime. Turkey Day or no, you’ll be thankful you did.