Bucky O’Hare (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.

Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Make it rain!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darkwing Duck (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a 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.