Master of Darkness (Master System)

Another bloodsucker bites the dust!

Picture this: It’s 1992 and the Castlevania series is already a well-loved action gaming mainstay, with six successful installments released for the NES, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy in as many years. The only problem? You’re Sega and Castlevania developer Konami won’t touch your Game Gear handheld system with a ten-foot enchanted whip due to being locked into a restrictive (and dubiously legal) exclusivity deal with Nintendo. What do you do? You make your own Castlevania…with blackjack and hookers!

Well, almost. There’s technically no blackjack in Master of Darkness, but since the game is set in 1890s London and references the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, the hookers are at least strongly implied. I’m playing the 1993 European Master System port here, since I don’t own a Game Gear. These consoles share very similar hardware and most sources agree that the two versions of Master of Darkness are largely identical, apart from the smaller field of view in the portable version. Also known as In the Wake of the Vampire and Vampire: Master of Darkness in Japan and North America, respectively, the game was developed by SIMS, who also delivered competent Master System takes on Ninja Gaiden and Disney’s Aladdin. So far, so good.

Our hero for this outing is one Dr. Ferdinand Social, psychologist and early Ouija board adopter. He’s just kicking back and channeling the spirits of the dead one night (as you do) when the board issues a dire warning: “Killer…vampire…go to Thames…caution…in the wake of…D R A C U L A.” Not being one to question his parlor games, Social grabs his trusty knife and heads to the waterfront to begin his hunt for the Ripper. Right out the gate here, I’m struck by the fact that not only did Sega produce an undeniable Castlevania clone, they even elected to retain Dracula as the main villain! That points to either a complete lack of creatively or some great big brass balls. I’m going to be charitable here and assume the latter.

Although I kid, the opening cut scene really does do a fine job of selling the eerie atmosphere and Victorian setting, with the moving Ouija planchet and animated blood dripping from the vampire’s fangs being particularly nice touches. Master of Darkness makes excellent use of the Master System’s expanded color palette (relative to the NES) and is a great looking 8-bit game generally. I immediately took a liking to Dr. Social as a protagonist. Not only does he have a pretty sweet name, he resembles Austin Powers with his shaggy haircut and powder blue suit. Groovy, baby! The music is also high quality and suits the mood, though the melodies themselves aren’t all that memorable and perhaps loop a bit too often due to the game’s penchant for lengthy stages.

Regrettably, a pleasing presentation is really all Master of Darkness brings to the table. In terms of overall design, it’s as pure a knock-off as they come. Social fights exactly the sorts of zombies, skeletons, bats, and hopping hunchbacks you’d expect him to, all leading up to a climactic battle against a teleporting, fireball chucking version of the Count. He collects some very familiar feeling sub-weapons by attacking the floating objects that dot almost every screen (masks here instead of candles, at least). He smashes trick walls to find healing items. He visits a clock tower, where he leaps around on giant swinging pendulums. And you just know he climbs a ton of stairs. So many stairs. All games take inspiration from what came before, but Master of Darkness rivals The Krion Conquest with the sheer scope and shamelessness of its borrowing. It’s practically a tracing of a Castlevania game. The only Belmont-ish thing the good doctor doesn’t attempt is wielding a whip. Instead, he starts out with a nearly useless pocket knife that he can (and should) swap out for a sword, cane, or axe. Each of these offers either more reach, more power, or both and all are viable options. For some sick reason, however, the designers seem to delight in hiding at least one copy of the puny default pocket knife in every stage, often in spots where it’s very easy to grab it by accident as you’re going about your monster slaying business. Rude.

Still, a copy of a great game still has the potential to play great, right? Isn’t that what really matters? Sure. It’s just a pity that Master of Darkness doesn’t duplicate the expert level design or thrilling challenge of Konami’s offerings. It’s as if SIMS managed to capture the broad strokes while omitting the fine details that draw everything together into a pleasing whole. Take Dr. Social’s ungodly durability, for example. He may look the part of the frail academic, but he soaks up punishment like the Terminator. Social has an eight unit health bar and most enemies take off less than a full unit on contact. That’s sixteen hits or so right off the bat, between 2-4 times as many as Castlevania typically allows for. Healing items are also far more common in Master of Darkness, so much so that it often seems there’s a handy potion served up to you after every couple of screens. This obviously makes combat a cinch and the logical thing to do in this case would have been to focus on making the platforming aspect of the game more intricate and risky to compensate, right? Apparently not. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and made legitimate stage hazards like bottomless pits quite scarce. We end up with what feels like an invincible hero numbly hacking his way through a series of thoroughly safe (albeit spooky) locales on the way to his inevitable victory.

It’s not so much that every game should be so demanding that it makes you want to tear your hair out. More that single-handedly challenging the Prince of Darkness and his armies of the night should feel at least a little daunting. Not once during my playthrough did I get the impression that the odds were against me. No, I actually felt sorry for Dracula! That chump did not know who he was messing with when he pissed off Dr. Ferdinand Social. I died a few times due to botched jumps, but always managed to rack up enough extra lives to keep me going all the way to the end. I actually had to restart the game after finishing it and kill off Dr. Social on purpose just to see if it even offered continues (it does, unlimited ones). Master of Darkness is a game that lot of players are going to complete in a single short session without having to try much and that would have been a bummer for anyone that payed full price for it back when it came out. Hell, it remains a potential bummer for anyone paying the prices it still commands today.

Master of Darkness is by no means an unpleasant time. It’s plenty stylish and it controls just fine. There’s simply no dynamic tension here. It’s a walk in the park. Or a stroll along the Thames, I suppose. A sequel really had the potential to tighten things up and add a sense of urgency to the proceedings while also breaking away from the source material more to establish its own identity. Unfortunately for Dr. Social, growing discontent in the game developer community led to the rapid deterioration of Nintendo’s once ironclad exclusivity policies as the 1990s wore on. Sega would get their first official Castlevania game in 1994 with Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, robbing Master of Darkness of its raison d’être and relegating it to obscure oddity status forevermore.

Stay tuned, boys and ghouls, for the chilling finale of my October gaming frightfest: A game so fearsome, so maligned, that its mere mention strikes terror into the hearts of man and monster alike. Also, uh…I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Or something. You get the idea.

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Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (Super Famicom)

Eh. Save the city. Trash it with an out-of-control giant robot. Those are basically the same, right?

I couldn’t find enough good things to say after my most recent playthrough of Konami’s Super Nintendo cult classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja last summer. This colorful multiplayer platformer remains one of the crown jewels of the system, as fresh and funny now as it was back in 1992. Without rehashing too much from that review, Mystical Ninja was the fifth installment of a long-running series of humorous action games based on the exploits of Japanese bandit folk hero Ishikawa Goemon. It was also the first to be released in North America. We wouldn’t see another Ganbare Goemon adventure until 1998 on the Nintendo 64. In the meantime, we missed out on all three of Mystical Ninja’s Super Famicom sequels.

When I got the urge to revisit the series recently, I decided to pick up right where I left off with Mystical Ninja’s immediate follow-up, Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (“Let’s Go Goemon 2: Very Strange General McGuinness”). It was a great choice, as GG2 is a textbook example of a successful sequel. It takes the already proven core gameplay of the previous title and smooths over its few rough spots while packing in still more in the way of depth and variety. Most important of all for a Goemon game, the irreverent Saturday morning cartoon take on Japanese myth that made the last installment stand out so much to Western audiences remains in full effect.

As our story begins, Goemon and his loyal parter Ebisumaru are enjoying some well-earned vacation time on the sandy beaches of Okinawa. Their repose is soon interrupted by a former foe, the clockwork ninja Sasuke. He’s not here to fight the heroes this time, however, but rather to deliver a warning: The eccentric foreigner General McGuinness has invaded Goemon’s home town of Edo with his army of equal parts ruthless and adorable bunny men. McGuinness is determined to Westernize the country and, adding insult to injury, he’s also taken a shine to Goemon’s main squeeze Omitsu and spirited her away to his flying fortress. This outrage clearly cannot stand, so the trio set off on a cross-country journey to give the barbarians the boot.

After this opening cut scene, you’re presented with a welcome sight: A character select screen! Prior games had the first player automatically controlling Goemon and the second player controlling Ebisumaru when applicable. Here, you can choose freely between Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke. In addition, they each have their own unique abilities based on a system of tradeoffs common in action-platformers: Goemon is the average, well-rounded fighter with no particular strengths or weaknesses, portly Ebisumaru boasts great attack power at the expense of jumping ability, and petite Sasuke is the comparatively weak high-jumper of the group.

Of course, I went with my main man Ebisumaru! Loosely modeled on another celebrated outlaw from history, Nakamura Jirokichi (also known as Nezumi Kozō; “Rat Boy”), he’s long been my favorite Gonbare Goemon character. What’s not to love about a flamboyant, gluttonous wannabe ladies’ man that sends his enemies flying over the horizon with a single swipe of a paper fan? Anyone who manages to stand out as the comic relief in a 100% comedy-oriented game series has to be doing something right in my book.

There have been a few key changes to the level structure, as well. Ganbare Goemon 2 is still primarily a side-scrolling platformer, except now it’s no longer divided up into distinct chapters that the player must tackle in a set order. Instead, each level appears as a colored dot on a stylized map of Japan that functions just like the world map from Super Mario World. As in that game, this means that the player is frequently offered a choice of which stage to visit next and not every stage necessarily needs to be cleared in order to reach the end. Furthermore, most levels can be freely revisited after completion and some contain hidden alternate exits that open up new paths on the world map when found.

Although the 3/4 view town segments from Mystical Ninja are still present here, they’ve been reimagined so as to be a much less prominent part of the gameplay overall. You’ll still want to visit towns often in order to chat up the locals (keep your eyes peeled for cameos from other Konami heroes), buy power-ups from the shops, and play some of the seemingly endless selection of mini-games, but you’ll no longer have to worry about fighting for your life while you’re at it. Other than the odd pickpocket looking to make off with a chunk of your cash, the kill-crazed pedestrians that swarmed you in the last game are nowhere to be found here. I’ll take less stressful shopping over that any day.

The biggest change by far comes via the introduction of fan favorite Goemon Impact. Apparently, the gang over at Konami must have figured that this series just wasn’t quite Japanese enough yet, because they gave Goemon and crew their very own skyscraper-sized sentai robo to ride around in. One that looks like a humongous version of Goemon himself and cruises around on roller skates shooting exploding coins from its nostrils. Naturally.

Each of the game’s three giant robot sections are divided into two distinct phases. The first sees you piloting Impact from a side-view perspective through an auto-scrolling obstacle course of enemy buildings and vehicles. You don’t really have to worry about dying here. The point is more to smash up as much of the scenery as possible in order to earn bonus health and ammo for the real fight to come against one of McGuinness’ mechs, which is presented from a first-person cockpit view.

These first-person battles are, unfortunately, one of the game’s few low points for me. They play out a bit like the boxing matches in a Punch-Out!! game, with each enemy robot having its own pattern of attacks to learn and counter. That seems promising until you factor in the sluggish controls. You can raise Impact’s arms with the L and R buttons to block attacks, but this action is quite delayed. So much so, in fact, that fast reactions are largely removed from the equation. If you don’t know exactly what’s coming and when, you’re in for a bad time. Impact’s punch attacks also rarely seem to come out as quickly as you might prefer. I think I see what the designers were going for with this setup. Impact is a huge machine, so making him somewhat unwieldy conveys that organically through the controls themselves. The problem is that the resulting focus on trial-and-error memorization over split-second judgement calls isn’t very engaging. You’re extremely unlikely to defeat any of these guys on your first try, no matter how good you are. At least the game’s unlimited continues and battery save feature mean you can practice all you want without fear of losing any progress.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this if I were you, though. Sure, they didn’t quite hit this aspect of the game out of the park on their first try, but it is only three levels we’re talking about and Impact still makes for some awesome 16-bit spectacle. Any first-person action on the system that predates the Super FX chip and isn’t a complete train wreck has to count for something.

Besides, the primary focus of the game is still right where it belongs: On the platforming. Ganbare Goemon 2 showcases both more and more diverse platforming stages than its predecessor. There aren’t as many here as there are in Super Mario World, for example, but there’s more than twice as many as in Mystical Ninja and each one seems to have a unique gimmick of some kind. These include vehicles the heroes can pilot (similar to the ride armors from Mega Man X), an auto-scrolling stage on the back of a flying dragon, and crossing a sea of hot cooking oil on the backs of oversized tempura shrimp. It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re under no obligation to make sense. Two player simultaneous play also makes a comeback, along with the welcome ability for one player to literally carry the other in order to make the trickier jumps more manageable.

Mystical Ninja was one of the best looking early releases on the platform and this sequel ups the ante even more with larger character sprites and more detailed backgrounds. The results are phenomenal. I’m more divided on the soundtrack, some of which strays a bit from the classical Japanese shamisen and bamboo flute style of the last game by incorporating more rock, swing, and the like. On one hand, this can be seen as a direct reflection of the game’s central theme of Western influences forcing their way into a traditional Japanese setting. That’s neat. On the other hand, these more modern sounding tracks simply aren’t as distinctive when compared to others on the system. In either case, the compositions and instruments remain consistently great, so it’s not exactly the end of the world.

In short, Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu is yet another tour de force from the creative powerhouse that was Konami. It manages to correctly key in on the mixture of offbeat humor and thrilling platforming that made Mystical Ninja tick and serve up more of the same while simultaneously moving the series forward through the introduction of a playable Sasuke and the mighty Impact. A few of its more experimental elements would benefit from fine tuning down the line, but this installment of the Gonbare Goemon saga still holds up today as an eminently satisfying action romp that you don’t need to be able to understand the Japanese language to enjoy.

Just tell ’em Rat Boy sent you.

Strip Fighter II (PC Engine)

Witness the world’s saddest high score!

Since I’m still diving into my brand new PC Engine console, I figure I may as well reach even further outside my comfort zone by simultaneously reviewing my first unlicensed title and my first adult game in the infamous Strip Fighter II.

Strange as it seems, the notion of a somewhat shady “unofficial” game release for a console wasn’t always with us. The first widely-adopted home system on the market, Atari’s VCS/2600, came with no specific licensing requirements or other checks placed on third party publishers. Anyone willing to pony up the dough to manufacture and market cartridges could put out their own Atari games. This policy led to such a glut of low quality software that the resulting damage to consumer confidence is often cited as a major contributing factor to the precipitous decline in Atari’s fortunes after 1982. It fell on Nintendo as the next major player in the gaming sphere to institute the more rigid top-down content control measures that have defined console libraries ever since.

This new order spawned its share of resisters who were willing to risk potential legal consequences in order to release games without paying the requisite fealty (and fees) to the console manufacturers. Many NES aficionados have at least a passing familiarity with the prolific Color Dreams and their Christian-themed incarnation Wisdom Tree, for example. What was left of poor Atari’s home games division went so far as to steal the patent information for the NES console’s 10NES security lockout chip and use it to publish several unlicensed titled under the Tengen name.

Another industry tradition with deeper roots than one might expect is the adult (that is, pornographic) video game. These, too, date back to the golden age of the VCS and the earliest mass market home computers. The fact that developers and consumers alike were so intent to realize sexually explicit content on hardware that was literally incapable of displaying realistic human forms says a lot about us. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Porn, uh, finds a way.

Since mainstream console manufacturers generally don’t like to be associated with outright spank material, unlicensed and adult games go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Though not all unlicensed games showcase racy content, a large proportion of adult titles produced for the console market have been unlicensed.

The undisputed kings of video game sleaze in early 90s Japan were Hacker International. Founded by former music producer Satoru Hagiwara, Hacker distributed dozens of adult titles for Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine under a host of brand names, including Games Express and Panesian. A handful of their games even made it to the North American NES, albeit in very limited quantities.

The formula was a simple, efficient one: Churn out a barely competent effort in a popular genre as cheaply as possible and then “reward” players for sticking with its sub-par gameplay by periodically flashing a set of cartoon breasts at them. Whether the subject matter is gambling (AV Poker/Peek-A-Boo Poker), puzzles (Soap Panic/Bubble Bath Babes), or fantasy adventure (Lady Sword), you always know what you’re in for. As Hagiwara himself stated in a 2011 interview: “None of the games were all that interesting content-wise…Because they were weak games, a lot of them went down the adult track — we called them ‘semi-adult.'” I appreciate the candor. Regardless of your opinion on Hacker, you certainly can’t call them deluded or pretentious.

Bearing the Games Express name like all of their PC Engine output, 1993’s Strip Fighter II was, obviously, Hacker International’s stab at a head-to-head fighting game. No genre was bigger in the years following Capcom’s worldwide sensation Street Fighter II, so it was really only a matter of time. How is it? Well, you just heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, didn’t you? It’s terrible. Probably the single worst game I’ve reviewed to date, though in fairness, I’m not really the masochistic type and typically stick to material with a stronger pedigree and some measure of positive buzz about it.

I hardly know where to begin sketching out the problems with this one. Let’s start with the playable fighters themselves. There are a paltry six of them in total and, as you might expect, they’re all scantily-clad women. As difficult as that should be to bungle, none of them demonstrate much in the way of personality and their visual designs skew more buffoonish than sexy. One dons an oversized bird headdress and fires off inexplicable energy blasts from her backside, another is a stocky wrestler with a rainbow afro that assaults the opponent with her giant breasts, and so on. The “best” of the lot (like bland Chun-Li clone Yuki) are really only so by virtue of not being notably grotesque.

Choose a fighter from this sorry lot and you’ll soon realize that the combat mechanics leave just as much to be desired as the roster. Jumps are floaty, executing special moves feels highly inconsistent, and there are times when I swear the game just starts dropping controller inputs left and right, leaving me standing there defenseless. By no means am I the sort of fighting game pro that’s going to sweep any tournaments, but I’ve picked up enough in the way of fundamentals over the years to know what’s on me and what’s a matter of shoddy programming, so I can say with confidence that Strip Fighter II’s controls and core gameplay lack anything in the way of care or refinement. The result is choppy, slow, and painfully awkward. It almost goes without saying that amateurish stuff like inescapable re-dizzy attacks are also present. Just a sad mess, really.

In theory, the game supports the six-button controllers that were released in conjunction with the PC Engine port of Street Fighter II. This would be a cool selling point, except for the fact that, in yet another hilarious feat of self-sabotaging laziness, the characters’ weak, medium, and strong attacks all use the same animations, just displayed faster or slower as needed. Quality, thy name is Games Express.

The closest we get to a redeeming feature is the fact that the art and music aren’t the worst on a purely technical level. More frames of character animation, some moving backgrounds, and a wider variety of sound effects might even have nudged this one into average territory. No such luck, however.

“But what about the porn?” I hear you asking. Actually, I take that back. Why not give my audience some credit, right? I’m still going to tell you, though. Winning a match in single player mode will result in the game displaying one of six topless lady pictures. Yes, again just six. I suppose they are fairly well-rendered for the time, especially when compared to their Famicom counterparts, although they only show up on screen for a little less than ten seconds, which it seems to me would make it awfully difficult to put them to their…intended use. Oddly, these nude women seem to be unrelated to any of the game’s selectable fighters. A dirty Street Fighter clone where your defeated opponent has to strip down does seem like the obvious angle to run with, but who am I to question the pixilated titty virtuosos at Hacker International? Note that you’ll only be “treated” to these naughty interludes when playing in single player mode. If you actually want to challenge a friend like the fighting game gods intended, then it’s no boobs for you. It does feel weird to be earnestly criticizing a game for being stingy with the porno, but I’m finding that everyday standards break down fast in the world of unlicensed schlock.

The bottom line is that there’s no pressing reason to bother with Strip Fighter II, especially not for the triple digit prices that physical copies are going for these days. Devoid of any fun factor, it’s a minor curiosity at best. The trashy characters and their questionable special moves are amusing for around ten minutes, tops, which is also about as long as it will take you to triumph over the brain dead A.I. and see all the “goodies” on offer. There’s not even a final boss or a proper ending scene. Nothing ages worse than early generation adult games and this tepid cash-in was no great shakes even in its prime. Some sources online insist on referring to it as a Street Fighter parody, but that’s giving it entirely too much credit.

As for Hacker International, they eventually shed their bad boy image in 1995 when they changed their name to Map Japan and began releasing officially licensed games for the Japanese PlayStation to no great success. They finally folded in 2001, with Hagiwara citing stiff competition and his own waning interest in games as reasons why. Their catalog of 8-bit smut endures today as one of the gaudier footnotes to console gaming history; a kitsch monument to a unique chapter in the complex interwoven sagas of technology, industry, and human sexuality. For better or worse, we’ll never see its like again.

Just kidding. It’s totally for the better.

Plok (Super Nintendo)

Thanks, you odd little whatever-you-are.

Everyone and his brother was making video games in the U.K. back during the 1980s. I’m not just speaking metaphorically of the “bedroom coder” boom touched off by affordable domestic microcomputers like the Spectrum and the BBC Micro. I’m talking literally. You had the Stamper brothers (Tim and Chris) founding Rare, the Darlings (David and Richard) over at Codemasters, the Follins (Tim, Geoff, and Mike) composing some of the best chiptune music of the era, and the Bitmap Brothers churning out massive hits like Speedball and The Chaos Engine. Okay, so the Bitmaps weren’t actual brothers. I’m still counting it because this is my review and you’re not the boss of me.

Ahem. Anyway, Ste and John Pickford are yet another set of British brothers with a passion for gaming. Fresh out of secondary school in the early 80s, they took jobs in the industry as an artist and programmer (respectively) and soon added game design to their portfolios. They’re probably best-known on this side of the pond for their work with Rare, particularly Solar Jetman and the two Wizards & Warriors sequels on the NES. Around 1990, the Pickfords were hard at work on an arcade game called Fleapit that was intended to run on Rare’s upcoming Razz hardware. Unfortunately, plans for the Razz board ended up being scrapped and the mostly finished Fleapit followed suit. Not being ones to let a good idea go to waste, Ste and John moved on to Mancunian studio Software Creations and reimagined Fleapit as the 1993 Super Nintendo platformer Plok.

Who is Plok the Exploding Man? The instruction manual informs us that he is, among many, many other things: “The king of the beautiful island called Akrillic, part of the archipelago Poly-Esta…a true hero, with a heart of gold and joints of the highest quality Velcro…a grade-A, first class prime cut.” What is Plok? That’s tougher to say. Whatever he’s supposed to be, he’s got a set of cute cartoon eyes peering out from what looks to be a red executioner’s hood and he’s able to fire off all four of his detachable limbs as deadly missiles. Yes, Plok is a European mascot platformer starring a hero that attacks with his floating projectile limbs two years before Ubisoft’s Rayman. I reckon someone across the Channel has some explaining to do.

Being the (wholly self-proclaimed) king of Akrillic, our boy Plok has quite the healthy ego. You can just imagine the outrage that ensues when he steps out his front door one morning only to discover that the giant flag with his face on it that he flies from his rooftop has been snatched away in the night by parties unknown. All fired-up by this affront, Plok sets off by boat to nearby Cotton Island to retrieve his flag. There’s no world to save, no princess to rescue, no fallen comrades to avenge, just this absurd, pompous weirdo rambling around the countryside seeking to assuage his wounded pride by any means necessary. Did I mention that this game’s humor is very, very British?

The early stages on Cotton Island are no-frills affairs that have you making your way from left to right on the way to a goal, Super Mario style. They function as an elegant tutorial on Plok’s unusual movement and attack capabilities. He has two different jumps, for example, a short hop that allows for shooting in mid-aid if needed and a spinning leap similar to Sonic the Hedgehog’s that offers greater height and distance at the cost of offensive flexibility. The limb shooting mechanic also has its quirks. Successfully striking an enemy will return the limb to Plok’s body instantly, but miss and you’ll have to wait for it to boomerang back on its own. It’s possible to have all four limbs detached at once if you’re too quick on the trigger, leaving poor Plok a sitting duck. Some of the later stages are filled with shifting walls and other obstacles that require you to temporarily relinquish one or more limbs to bypass them. One stage even forces you to play through the majority of it sans legs, which severely compromises Plok’s platforming ability, as you might expect. This adds a bit of a light puzzle element to some portions of the game, as you need to make sure you don’t run out of “keys” (limbs) before you reach the goal.

Beyond these basics, you also have an abundance of power-up items to find. There are seashells that provide extra lives when collected in bunches (think the coins from Mario), gems that grant temporary invincibility, hornet nests that give Plok a supply of enemy-seeking “buddy hornets” that he can release on command, and a magic amulet that turns his spinning jump into a buzz saw move that can damage enemies. The really exciting power-ups, however, are the various special costumes. Each one temporarily transforms Plok into an alternate form with its own unique attack. Some of my favorites include Squire Plok’s Contra-like spread shot blunderbuss, Vigilante Plok’s flamethrower, and Plocky’s superpowered boxing gloves.

After the first boss battle, the victorious Plok returns to Akrillic with flag in tow, only to discover that the entire island has been overrun by a pack of giant fleas. Plok hates fleas. At this point, the gameplay shifts gears dramatically. These much larger, more open levels see Plok going into “search and destroy” mode to eliminate every flea in each area before he can move on to the next. This switch-up made me a little apprehensive at first, as it had the potential to slow the game down to a crawl with needless backtracking to find fleas secreted away in cryptic locations. Thankfully, the designers went out of their way to make Plok’s pest control rampage as hassle-free as possible. All of the fleas are in plain sight along the main stage paths, there’s a counter at the bottom of the screen displaying the number remaining, and you even get helpful on-screen arrows pointing you toward your next target. Nice!

Once you beat back the insect invasion, the game takes another sharp turn as Plok descends into the Fleapit to take the fight to the Flea Queen herself. Each of the final eight stages within the Fleapit has Plok piloting a different vehicle. There’s a unicycle, a monster truck, a helicopter, a tank, a flying saucer, and more. Every vehicle has its own control scheme to master and most are too something. Too fast, too slow, too slippery, you name it. It’s going to take you a lot of practice to make it through this final stretch.

In case you hadn’t picked up on it by now, I took a liking to this game straightaway. It’s packed to the gills with clever ideas and throws you a steady stream of curveballs throughout. The novelty of managing Plok’s wayward limbs to strike a balance between mobility and offense would have been more than sufficient on its own to support a typical title, but the Pickfords really went above and beyond the call of duty here. Their commitment to keeping their audience guessing even extends to the aesthetic. At one point, Plok flashes back to the olden days in the form of a playable dream sequence where the player controls the mustachioed Grandpappy Plok. The game adopts a silent movie style for this portion, complete with sepia tone visuals, “old-timey” music, and flickering title cards at the opening of each stage. Flourishes like this really drive home that you’re being treated to an extraordinary effort and not just another cookie cutter platformer.

In fact, Plok’s art and music are fantastic generally. The setting of Poly-Esta is defined by its bright colors, thick black outlines, and psychedelic landscapes, which all give the impression that they may have served (at least in part) as inspiration for Nintendo’s own Yoshi’s Island a few years later. I also appreciate the care put into the animation, particularly for Plok himself over all of his many permutations.

Then there’s the music. Oh, the music. I scarcely know where to begin. From the instant Plok greets you on the title screen, whips out a harmonica, and launches into a bluesy opening theme, you know you’re in for something phenomenal. Given that the score was created by two of those fabled Follin brothers I mentioned above (Tim and Geoff), I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. Many of the instruments used here sound so realistic that Nintendo’s own Shigeru Miyamoto reportedly had trouble believing that the songs were being generated by an unmodified Super Nintendo console. Plok certainly doesn’t sound at all like I expected it to. Instead of the thin, bouncy tunes of a typical lighthearted platformer, we get a lot of rich, heavy prog rock-inspired numbers that sound like they could be from the Genesis or Rush catalogs. If 7/8 time signatures, spacey arpeggios, and Neil Peart drum fills are your jam, then Plok is the game for you, friend. This is all on top of the other eclectic influences I already mentioned (blues, silent film orchestration). Hell, the boss theme even breaks out the theremin to evoke a 1950s monster movie and every one of Plok’s special costumes has its own musical theme. There were times playing through Plok where the music would segue into some new riff or movement and I just had to set the controller down and go “What!?” It’s that good. It may sound crazy, but Plok’s soundtrack is one of the very finest for the system and belongs on any top ten list right alongside heavyweights like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. Such a surprise from a relatively unknown title.

Ah. Now, it’s time for me to come back down to earth long enough to actually criticize for a bit. As much as I loved my time with Plok, it can be tricky to actually make progress in. This isn’t due to the individual stages being overly difficult in the traditional sense, though most are certainly challenging. Plok can usually withstand a good five hits or so before losing a life and there are no instant death hazards that bypass his health bar, so the levels themselves are generally of the tough, but fair variety. No, the true difficulty comes courtesy of the continue system. The game has what it calls “permanent continue points” after the first, second, and fifth boss battles. In other words, at roughly the 20%, 50%, and 80% marks. Plok’s quest is a fairly long one, so the amount of play time between these checkpoints can be considerable. The stretch between the second and fifth bosses, for example, can take up the better part of an hour. Dying right on the cusp of a new permanent continue point and having to repeat a half dozen or more very tricky and involved stages can be disheartening. You do have a limited ability to earn special continues (or “Plokontinues,” as the game calls them) by collecting four special red tokens to spell out “P-L-O-K.” Doing this will allow you to continue one additional time between the normal checkpoints, but only from the stage where you actually earned the Plokontinue. For example, if you collect your fourth red token in stage seven and then run out of lives in stage ten, you’ll be allowed to continue once…back at stage seven. Even the game’s hidden warp zones come with strings attached. Just finding them isn’t enough and you’re forced to complete some sort of difficult challenge like a timed vehicle race before you’ll actually be allowed to skip ahead. I tried a few of these without success and eventually gave up on the idea and just played through all the stages in order. Most daunting of all, there are no saves or passwords, meaning that Plok must be completed in a single play session. Trust me, once you finally do reach a new permanent continue point after hours of playing and re-playing the same long run of stages, the last thing you’ll want to do is switch off your console and retire for the evening. My secret to beating Plok? I left my system switched on for a week between play sessions! The designers had supposedly intended to include a save battery in the cartridge, but publisher Tradewest balked at the extra manufacturing cost. Alas.

Although these progression woes do mar the experience somewhat, by no means should they deter you from giving Plok a try. It’s an inspired, criminally under-recognized platformer. Leading up to its release, Miyamoto is said to have told the Pickfords that only Mario and Sonic were in its same league. In spite of this high praise from Nintendo’s shining star, Plok sold poorly and would never receive a sequel. Some blame this on the glut of Sonic cash-in mascot platformers that were flooding the marketplace around the time of its debut, something the Pickfords could never have anticipated back when they initially conceived of the project as Fleapit. I suspect the fact that the first generation of kids to grow up with video game consoles were teenagers by 1993 and gravitating toward more “mature” titles like Doom and Mortal Kombat was also a contributing factor. Fortunately, Ste and John have managed to retain the IP rights for Plok and friends. They revived their Exploding Man in 2013 for a series of Web and print comics that’s still running today. I visited their site intending to check it out briefly before starting on this review and wound up binging all 127 pages they’ve put out to date. The Plok comics are thoroughly entertaining and serve as both a satisfying continuation of the game’s loopy story and a running satiric commentary on the state of modern gaming. It sure is nice being able to end one of these “forgotten game character” retrospectives on a high note for once. Good on ya, lads.

If you have any interest in 16-bit platformers, you need Plok in your life. It plays like a dream, surprises and delights from start to finish, and its presentation is singularly unforgettable. Perhaps best of all, it somehow remains affordable. In an era of hyperinflated SNES prices, this is one cartridge that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Plok himself should be so lucky.

Operation Logic Bomb (Super Nintendo)

What, no big explosion? I feel so…empty somehow.

Today, I’m looking at inveterate also-ran Jaleco’s obscure overhead run-and-gun Operation Logic Bomb: The Ultimate Search & Destroy. While the name may be unfamiliar to most, this 1993 release (known as Ikari no Yōsai, “Fortress of Fury,” in Japan) is actually the third in a trilogy that started out on the Game Boy back in 1991. The first Ikari no Yōsai even saw a Western release under the new title Fortified Zone. Why they didn’t simply call this one “Super Fortified Zone” or the like is beyond me, as its revamped moniker not only fails at drawing the attention of any Game Boy owners that may have enjoyed the original, it’s also generally clunky and fosters the false assumption that this is some sort of puzzle game thanks to its misguided emphasis on “logic.” No bueno, Jaleco.

Of course, this would be no great loss if Operation Logic Bomb wasn’t a game worth playing. Players step into the boots of cyborg super soldier Agent Logan, who looks like the Terminator by way of Dolph Lundgren. His mission: To blast his way into a top secret research facility that’s been overrun by alien crabs and send the pinchy interlopers packing. It turns out the scientists there were performing some sort of experiment involving other dimensions and things got out of hand. If only they’d seen a horror movie before, they might have known the First Law of Dimensional Physics: Monsters gonna eatcha. Silly scientists. The story is mostly conveyed via dialog-free security camera recordings accessed from computer terminals scattered about the lab, which is an effective and immersive choice on the designers’ part. It’s quite cool to watch the doom that befell the complex’s inhabitants play out this way. You can actually get some important clues on how to handle one of the game’s bosses by reviewing footage of the lab security guards getting wrecked by it. Nice touch.

The action plays out in a perspective similar to the overhead-view stages from the previous year’s Konami blockbuster Contra III. Several of the weapons Agent Logan wields, like the spread gun and flamethrower, are also very “Contraesque.” Ditto the music and sound effects, even!

This is where the similarities end, however, and where Operation Logic Bomb’s own personality begins to assert itself. This is a much more deliberately-paced, tactical experience, in keeping with the “search and destroy” promised by its subtitle. Instead of a frantic sprint from left to right, levels are large and sprawling, with branching paths that you’ll need to carefully explore in order to locate the new weapons and equipment needed to reach each level’s boss. Thankfully, you’ll be able to download in-game maps along the way that make navigation a cinch.

Naturally, you’re not alone in this maze of corridors. Your crustacean challengers have constructed a series of devices that are slowly transforming the base and its environs into an extension of their home dimension (as indicated by weird glowy geometric designs on the walls and floors) and filled these corrupted areas with their robot minions. The general flow of each new area you come to is something like this: Inch your way through the halls destroying any enemies as they appear (they won’t respawn) and looking out for new items until you reach the dimension warping device and destroy it, which purges the area of alien influence and allows you to move forward. There’s also the occasional roadblock that I hesitate to call a “puzzle.” These usually take the form of an out-of-reach door lock that you need a specific gun to destroy.

Combat is particularly interesting in that it’s mostly a war of attrition. Individual enemies aren’t very dangerous and Agent Logan can withstand a ton of hits, but the special computer terminals that restore health are few and far-between. In addition, you only have a grand total of three extra lives to work with. Die a fourth time and you’ll start the game over from the beginning. Although it sounds daunting, it’s really quite doable. I found that the ideal method is to creep forward slowly until an enemy scrolls on screen, then retreat while shooting/dodging until it’s destroyed. You can hold down the shoulder buttons to lock your aim and strafe, so it’s relatively easy to fire while retreating. As long as you go slow and keep your distance, you can usually avoid taking too much damage on the way to the stage boss.

As for the bosses themselves, each is a massive and appropriately intimidating robotic juggernaut with its own unique (if fairly basic) attack pattern. They’re not too difficult to take down with the correct gun after a little observation, provided you’re not already near death at the start of the fight. Oddly enough, the second boss is the trickiest of the lot by far and both the deaths I experienced during my playthrough came courtesy of it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this title. For coming out when it did, smack dab in the middle of that awkward period where Jaleco was struggling desperately to hitch itself to the Capcom cash train with painfully mediocre copies of hits like Final Fight (Rival Turf!) and Street Fighter II (Tuff E Nuff), it’s a great deal more interesting and enjoyable than its Contra clone exterior lets on. The focus on approaching enemies cautiously and trying not to take too many hits in the process recalls the tense on-foot portions of Blaster Master. I’m even vaguely reminded of Quintet’s Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia with the way defeating all the enemies in one section of a stage opens the path to the next, though that’s admittedly more of a stretch on my part.

As fun as it is, there are a few things that hold it back from true greatness. The graphics and sound are both decidedly average, apart from some excellent mechanical design on the bosses. There also isn’t much variety in the regular enemy types, with the same half-dozen or so baddies cropping up again and again between the first stage and the last. The biggest problem by far, though, is the shockingly short length of the adventure. My first playthrough took me about 90 minutes, including all the fumbling around and backtracking. If I’d already known what to do and where to go, I could have easily wrapped up in under an hour. For a fast-paced roller coaster of a run-and-gun like Contra III, an hour is plenty. For a title that’s paced more like Super Metroid, an hour is nothing. I suspect that the development team had a grander vision at one point that was sharply curtailed by a budget or time crunch. There are only three bosses in the entire game, for example, and the third one hardly feels like final boss material. You also don’t get your hands on several very nifty items (the land mine and hologram decoy) until the very end of the game, leaving you with little time to make satisfying use of them. These things and more all point to a project that wasn’t nurtured to its full potential.

Still, given a choice between quantity and quality, I’m always going to lean toward the latter. As long as you’re willing to let its absurd brevity slide, Operation Logic Bomb remains a well-designed and unjustly forgotten action title that plays like nothing else on the Super Nintendo. It also functions as a worthy finale to the Ikari no Yōsai trilogy.

Now, pass me the drawn butter, would you?

Pop’n TwinBee (Super Famicom)

Yowza! Somebody get Dr. Wily there to an orthodontist, stat!

Last August, I covered Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, the unique platforming spin-off from Konami’s fondly-remembered TwinBee series of shooters. Despite its sumptuous presentation and some genuinely fun ideas, I ultimately found Rainbow Bell Adventures to be a mediocre product dragged down by its uninspired level design. A real pity. I still enjoyed the art style and characters quite a bit, though, so I figured it was about time to give the series another chance. What better place to start than with Rainbow Bell’s “sister game” on the Super Famicom, 1993’s Pop’n TwinBee? Is it a better shooter than its counterpart is a platformer? I’m pleased to report that it most certainly is, as well as being the Super Nintendo enthusiast’s single best choice for a two-player shooter experience.

First, though, a brief refresher on TwinBee as a whole. Debuting in Japanese arcades in 1985, the series primarily consists of vertically-scrolling shooters that see the player facing off against a mixture of air and ground-based enemies. The core gameplay is clearly patterned on Namco’s iconic Xevious, with the primary differences being TwinBee’s lighthearted tone, soft pastel art style, focus on simultaneous two-player action, and bell juggling power-up system. Depending on who you ask, TwinBee may or may not have been the first of the so-called “cute-‘em-ups.” Some point to Namco’s King and Balloon from 1980 instead, for example. In any case, it was indisputably one of the early pioneers of the style and would prove to be a major success for Konami domestically over the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, branching out to include toys, manga, and even a radio drama before fizzling out (along with the shooter genre as a whole) around the turn of the century. Overseas markets were another story. Only one TwinBee game was ever officially released In North America. This was the second game, Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue! (“Burn TwinBee: To the Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon!”), which made an unimpressive showing on the NES under the new title Stinger in 1987. Europe fared slightly better with four additional releases for various systems. Still, TwinBee never exactly became a household name outside its homeland. Was it too cute? Too Japanese? Too poorly/weakly marketed? I’ll leave that debate for another day.

Pop’n TwinBee opens with a cut scene in which Light and Pastel (the interpid pilots of the blue TwinBee and pink WinBee ships, respectively) receive a distress call while patrolling the skies of Donburi Island. The caller, a girl named Madoka, tells the pair that her normally kind grandfather Dr. Mardock was driven insane by a bonk on the head (yes, really) and has since dedicated himself to conquering the world with his army of acorn robots. Pastel and Light swiftly blast off to repel the acorn invasion and knock some sense back into the mad doctor in the process. It’s a slight and silly justification for the mayhem to come, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish sensibilities of the franchise. No complaints here.

The adventure ahead consists of seven stages. This isn’t a ton by genre standards. Thankfully, most of them are fairly long, so an average playthrough should take you around 40-60 minutes (depending on how often you die), which is a near ideal length for the sort of simple “pick up and play” experience that shooters are known for. It’s a fairly smooth ride, too, with much less in the way of slowdown and other performance issues than most other SNES shooters.

As mentioned above, players are tasked with defeating both air and ground enemies on the way to each stage’s end boss. Airborne targets are dispatched with your standard shot, while grounded foes are only vulnerable to the short range bombs that your anthropomorphic ship hurls down at them with its noodley Mickey Mouse arms.

That’s not all, though. When things get desperate, you can also opt to unleash a chibi attack, which functions like the screen clearing bombs from other shooters. Dozens of miniature “chibi” versions of your ship flood the screen, destroying most standard enemies outright and dealing hefty damage to bosses while also rendering you invincible for a few seconds. The downside, of course, is that your chibi attacks have a limited number of uses.

Finally, your ship can punch with its gloved fists. This attack has a very short range (naturally) and requires you to charge it up for a couple seconds by holding down the bomb button. Although risky, the punch deals heavy damage and can actually destroy some incoming enemy bullets if timed properly.

Even with all these offensive options, your craft is still quite slow and weak by default, and that’s where the (in)famous bells come in. Shooting any of the smiling clouds you fly past will dislodge a golden bell that drops down toward the bottom of the screen. You can catch these right away and be rewarded with some bonus points, but it’s almost always a better idea to “juggle” the bells by shooting them repeatedly. This will cause them to bounce back up toward the top of the screen and, after several successive shots, start to cycle through six additional colors, each one of which grants you access to a different power-up. You have blue (speed boost), green (satellite helper ships that boost your firepower), silver (a bigger, stronger main shot), purple (a triple spread shot), pink (shield), and flashing (extra chibi ammo). Like in most games of this kind, the majority of these powers are lost if you die. The silver and purple bells remain in effect even then, however, which is uncommonly forgiving for a shooter.

In fact, if there’s one phrase that describes the Pop’n TwinBee experience generally, it’s “uncommonly forgiving.” This is no arcade port, but an original title created with the Super Famicom in mind. As such, the designers opted to move away from a lot of the quarter-munching (or yen-munching) qualities that define other entries in the series. Your ship can no longer have its arms destroyed and bomb attacks disabled, for example. More dramatically, one-hit deaths have given way to a health bar and enemies drop health refilling hearts with fair frequency. Couple this with ready access to the shields provided via pink bell pickups (each of which adds another four extra hits on top of your standard health bar) and your cute little robot bee is a real juggernaut that puts the fragile spaceships from most other shooters to shame. Even the bell juggling is more forgiving in this installment, since it takes multiple shots to change a bell’s color and this means you’re less likely to do so by mistake and lose out on the specific power-up you’ve been waiting for. Experienced shooter players will find that the combination of refillable health and shields on demand makes them feel just about invincible, at least on the standard difficulty setting. Higher difficulties render things a bit more hectic, but the action never approachs arcade shooter levels of brutality. Not even close. The only potential hurdle to overcome is the fact that you don’t have extra lives. Die and you’ll have to spend one of your limited continues to restart the level from the beginning. Still, dying ain’t exactly easy.

Whether this lack of difficulty is a pro or a con is going to vary by individual. If you’re the type that plays these games strictly for the teeth-grinding challenge and bragging rights, you’ll likely get bored quick. If you’re a shooter novice looking for an entry point to the genre, you’re just as likely to be enraptured. Personally, I found myself occupying the middle ground: I never struggled with the game at any point, but I had a pleasant time just kicking back with it for a bit and basking in its loopy atmosphere.

So far, we have what amounts to a cute, colorful, rather easy vertical shooter. Not bad by any means, but what’s the big deal? Well, the real reason I was so emphatic about this being the better of the two SNES TwinBee titles is its amazing multiplayer implementation. Shooters with two-player simultaneous options are already rare enough on the system. Offhand, Taito’s Darius Twin is the only other one that comes to mind. Pop’n TwinBee easily eclipses Darius in this department thanks to no less than three meaningful gameplay enhancements exclusive to its two-player mode. By maneuvering their ships close to each other, players can swap health back and forth, allowing a stronger player to “heal” a weakened one and keep them in the fight longer. Players can also grab and toss each other around the screen in order in order to dish out heavy damage to foes. Don’t worry, though: Players that get tossed around this way are invincible until they recover.

The final multiplayer-only option, “couple mode,” might just be the best of them. While couple mode is activated, enemies will focus the majority of their attacks on player one. This allows for a less skilled player to keep pace with a more adept partner. It’s such a simple, profound gameplay tweak that I’m amazed it never caught on.

On the graphics and sound front, it’s old school Konami glitz all the way. The armada of killer acorns, walking pineapples, pandas, and baby dolls you do battle with are all packed with personality, the backgrounds are intricately detailed and work in some lovely transparency and line scrolling effects, and there are even short animated cut scenes between stages that add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel by depicting the characters engaged in various wacky situations. The soundtrack (contributed by eight separate composers!) strikes just the right balance between whimsy and intensity.

If Pop’n TwinBee has any true flaw other than the debatably lacking difficulty, it would have to be the scoring. Simply put: The points don’t matter. Most shooters will award the player extra lives or other perks upon reaching certain scoring milestones. Here, the only reason to chase those high scores is to compete, either with yourself or rival players. It’s a missed opportunity, albeit far from a deal breaking one like Rainbow Bell Adventures’ meandering, repetitive stage layouts. If you’re partial to vertical shooters, aggressively cute pixilated romps, superb multiplayer experiences, or any combination of the above, Pop’n TwinBee is a no-brainer. As an added bonus, both the Japanese version I have and the European PAL format releases are quite inexpensive at the time of this writing.

Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…and a lucky friend on controller two.

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared that we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action-platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the truly dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the fast action, tight controls, and grand audio and visuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst action games ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of that. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category that I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order that will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend that first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means that the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand that your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware that you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing that even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told that it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies that made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced that I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all that much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that being said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action-platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers that feeling of exhilarating accomplishment that only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.