Skyblazer (Super Nintendo)

Life’s not fair. Sometimes a game can look and sound great, commit no major design sins, and yet still be condemned to eternal obscurity. So it is with Skyblazer, a perfectly enjoyable, thoroughly forgotten action-platformer created by developer Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Perhaps a lack of advertising is to blame. I was all about the SNES back then and I never so much as heard of Skyblazer until just a couple years ago, when I started searching around online for little known games worth playing. It’s also a true standalone work with no preexisting fan base to draw on and no sequels. That rarely helps. There may well be some truth to both the above theories. Having now personally played through Skyblazer, though, a third possibility suggests itself: This game may just be too alright for its own good. Too decent. Too resoundingly okay. Sure, it doesn’t do anything to actively embarrass itself or make players stop what they’re doing to question how they’re spending their lives. At the same time, however, it lacks any sort of clever gameplay hook to make it stand out it in a crowded field of early ’90s side-scrollers.

Actually, I take that back. There is a hook of sorts to Skyblazer. Its hero, Sky, looks and controls suspiciously like the star of Ukiyotei’s previous Super Nintendo outing, an adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s Hook! It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a significant amount of code initially created for that project was reused here. Thankfully, Skyblazer turned out a lot more fast-paced and exciting than the languid Hook.

Skyblazer sees its title character heading off on a quest to rescue the sorceress Ariana, who’s been stolen away by Ashura, a powerful four-armed minion of the demonic Raglan. It’s your bog standard “save the girl by booting some big evil dude in the teeth” story, but observant players will notice a distinct Indian flavor to much of the proceedings. Beyond the name Ashura (Asura), you have statues of Ganesha in the background, loads of synth sitar (synthtar?) filling out the soundtrack, and so forth. What gives? The game’s original Japanese incarnation, Karuraō (“King Garuda”), makes the connection much more obvious. There, Sky is Garuda, Ariana is Vishnu, Raglan is Ravana, and the nameless old man who provides guidance to the player between levels is Brahma. In other words, the whole things’s intended to be a kind of action manga take on Hindu mythology. I’m guessing either Nintendo of America insisted most of these names be changed in order to avoid offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or Sony did it themselves preemptively. Even in watered-down form, this unique aesthetic is easily one of the coolest things about Skyblazer.

The seventeen stages on offer are pretty neat, too. They’re accessed via an overhead map that features a couple of branching paths. A few are technically skippable because of this, although the game as a whole is relatively short, so I don’t know why you’d want to pass over any of the content unless you’re aiming for a speedrun. Each area is patterned on one of the same stock archetypes you’ve seen countless times before. You’ll ride floating platforms over lava, swim through underwater currents, slide around on ice, and so on. The closest thing to a genuine novelty are a couple of flight stages that adopt an auto-scrolling shooter style. I could have done with more of these. At least the tight design and smooth flow of Skyblazer’s levels somewhat makes up for the lack of originality on display. Another plus is that their gimmicks don’t tend to repeat themselves, which keeps the journey stimulating throughout.

Roughly half the stages have boss battles and these guys were another highlight for me. They showcase some pretty crazy concepts, like the freaky giant face that spins the walls of the room around using Mode 7 rotation to attack you and can only be defeated by popping both its eyeballs like grapes. Yuck. It seems all the creativity that didn’t go into the level concepts must have been channeled here. Beating a boss will earn Sky a new magic power, similar to besting a robot master in Mega Man.

Sky is generally a satisfying character to control.  He runs fast, jumps high, and attacks with a flurry of punches and kicks. He can also cling to and scale walls. He even retains the ability to throw punches while he’s latched onto a wall, a feature I would kill for in Ninja Gaiden. These basic capabilities will get you by most obstacles. When the going gets tough, there’s that magic I mentioned. Sky starts off with a basic attack spell that fires an energy projectile at the cost of one of his eight magic points. The other abilities gained from bosses tend to have more powerful effects at the cost of more MP per use. These include a healing spell, a time stopper to freeze enemies in place, an invincible air dash, an eight-directional shot, and the ultimate power needed to beat the game: The fiery phoenix transformation. Again, this moveset will feel very familiar to platforming veterans, but it’s a blast to use and well suited to the challenge at hand.

That challenge is one final element with the potential to either help or hinder Skyblazer for you. This is a fairly easy game by genre standards. Extra lives and refills for Sky’s health and magic are common, continues are unlimited, and there’s a password system provided in case you need to take a break. If you’re a hardcore action nut looking for something to push you to your limit, Skyblazer isn’t going to scratch that itch. You’ll tear your way through it in no time flat without so much as breaking a sweat. On the other hand, if you’re a less experienced player or just in the mood for a brisk, low pressure fantasy action romp with some sweet graphics and music, you may welcome this relaxed approach.

Skyblazer is very model of a hidden gem on the Super Nintendo. It was a rock solid release that happened to lack the gilded pedigree of a Mario or Zelda, the stunning innovation of an ActRaiser, or even the ungodly aggressive ad campaign of a Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Today, it’s a dusty digital orphan, seemingly without a past or future to call its own. It deserves better. “Decades of sequels and spin-offs” better? Nah. But it’s absolutely worthy of being played and appreciated by a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s never too late for that.

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Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemented these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well-thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?

Hagane: The Final Conflict (Super Nintendo)

Famed satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it….” In the realm of classic gaming, I can think of no clearer example of this timeless truth in action than Hagane: The Final Conflict for the Super Nintendo. Around a decade ago now, a obscurely-sourced story began circulating online that this unassuming 1994 action-platformer was actually a rare Blockbuster Video rental exclusive title. Prices for Hagane cartridges rocketed from the $20 -$40 range to $500 and up.

You’ve likely already guessed where I’m going with this. That’s right: There’s no proof whatsoever that Hagane was ever associated with Blockbuster Video. What’s more, popular YouTuber SNESdrunk has presented plenty of evidence that it was, in fact, a normal retail release. Blockbuster exclusive games like ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut for the Nintendo 64 were a real thing. At this point in time, however, we can state with all confidence that Hagane was not one of them.

I’m not certain whether the Blockbuster myth originated as an innocent mistake or a despicable attempt to manipulate the secondary market, but I do know that ten years and counting of wide dissemination is likely to prevent those prices from correcting themselves anytime soon. The damage is done. It’s a shame, because the sticker shock tends to overshadow a quality ninja action game that’s often cited as the Super Nintendo’s answer to Sega’s Shinobi series.

The final conflict of the title is between two secretive ninja clans. The Fuma are mystical warriors charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Their foils are the evil Koma, who dream of using the Grail’s limitless power to destroy the world. A treacherous attack by the Koma results in them stealing the Grail, but they make the fateful mistake of leaving one Fuma clan warrior alive. This gravely-wounded ninja, Hagane (“steel”), has his brain transplanted into a cyborg body in order to seek revenge on the Koma and recover the Grail before it’s too late. Ninja RoboCop questing for the Holy Grail? God bless video games.

Hagane’s mission comprises nineteen  individual stages spread out over five chapters. These are primarily straightforward “run, jump, and fight your way to the exit” affairs that incorporate a satisfying blend of platforming and combat challenges, along with a handful of auto-scrolling sections for variety. Each chapter also has an end boss and at least one mini-boss. None of the individual stages here are exceptionally large or involved, but there’s enough of them that the journey as a whole feels neither too long nor too short.

Like Treasure’s Alien Soldier, which I reviewed just last week, this is another game where the title hero has an incredibly wide selection of moves and attacks at his disposal. Too many, to be honest. Hagane has four main weapons that he can cycle between at any time: A sword, shuriken, bombs, and a chain. Any ninja game connoisseurs reading this probably recognize this as the same array of weapons wielded by Tsukikage, the protagonist of Irem’s Ninja Spirit. I can only assume that someone on the development team was a fan of Irem’s effort. Hagane also comes equipped with a limited-use super bomb attack reminiscent of the one seen in Contra III that damages everything on-screen and is generally best saved for bosses.

That’s not all, though! The ever-versatile metal ninja can also lash out with jump kicks and ground slides, cling to ceilings, bounce off walls, execute a strange sort of rolling double jump that covers wide distances horizontally, and pull off a variety of charged-up power attacks in conjunction with both back and forward flips. Hey, at least they didn’t let that six-button controller go to waste, eh?

Step one here is to get a feel for which of these moves you’ll need to use constantly and which you can safely ignore. The sword and shuriken ended up being my go-to weapons (with bombs a distant third) and the double jump spin proved to be the most vital platforming tool by far. The chain, jump kick, slide, super flip attacks, and the rest all turned out to be either highly situational or completely unnecessary.

Mastering a small selection of your most efficient moves as quickly as possible goes a long way toward curbing the game’s formidable difficulty. Hagane has a reputation for being one of the most challenging SNES action games. While there are many that I would personally rank higher in that regard, it’s certainly no easier than the average Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden title. The biggest hurdle by far is Hagane’s unimpressive health bar. For a guy made of metal, you’d expect him to able to withstand more than three hits by default. Healing items and the occasional health bar extension help somewhat, but you still can’t count on being able to make many mistakes. You are given unlimited continues at least, although running out of lives and using one starts you back at the beginning of the chapter rather than the exact stage you died on.

Despite a somewhat over-engineered control scheme, Hagane largely succeeds in delivering the sort of fast-paced precision action-platforming experience its target audience craves. It weds level design and enemy placement that would be right at home in any of the 16-bit Shinobi games with the weapon system from Ninja Spirit, movement that recalls Capcom’s Strider, and an extra bit of flair all its own, as in the stage where Hagane must escape a crashing airship as it spins around him courtesy of the console’s iconic Mode 7 background rotation effect.

All this solid gameplay is further bolstered by some very strong art design. Every detail of the medieval Japanese cyberpunk future on display here is compelling, from the twin pistons carved into the shapes of Buddhas that are shown to power Hagane himself in the opening cut scene to the largest of the boss enemies with their hulking robot frames topped by elaborate Noh theater style masks. It’s basically the same aesthetic that made the classic Genesis shooter MUSHA so memorable, just on a more intimate scale. The soundtrack, unfortunately, can’t really keep pace. It takes the expected route of combining samples suggestive of classical Japanese instruments with more conventional video game action beats, but the tracks themselves don’t really bring it. They’re often far too restrained for the madness erupting across the screen at any given moment. I don’t think it’s bad music by any means, merely underwhelming.

Hagane is absurdly, senselessly overpriced. It also presents as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the bits and pieces of great ninja games past. It’s got it where it counts, though, and that makes me wish that developer CAProduction had tried their hands at a sequel. I suppose they’ve been too busy slaving away on every Mario Party game ever. It’s tough to argue with a sure thing like that.

Anyway, play Hagane. Just don’t pay $500 or more for the privilege. You’re smarter than that.

Monster World IV (Mega Drive)

Too real, genie. Too real.

Back in February, I played through the fifth game in Westone’s Wonder Boy series: Wonder Boy in Monster World. Regrettably, I was none too impressed by that game’s flat presentation, unexceptional level design, and achingly slow combat. Among the options I presented in passing for a more satisfying action-adventure experience on the Genesis/Mega Drive was WBiMW’s Japan-exclusive sequel, Monster World IV. I’ve since acquired a lovely English-translated reproduction copy of this superior sequel, so I figure this a fine opportunity to give it the detailed treatment it deserves.

Monster World IV is the sixth and final game in the series, though it forgoes the Wonder Boy name completely, owing to its new protagonist, the green-haired Asha. A simple switch to Wonder Girl in order to maintain brand recognition seems like the obvious way to go. I suppose marketing departments work in mysterious ways.

One day, Asha hears voices on the wind fortelling doom for Monster World. Being the hero type, she promptly takes up her sword, bids her family farewell, and sets out from her remote village to help however she can. Arriving at a monster infested tower in the wilderness, she defeats its guardians and discovers a magic lamp housing a sarcastic genie that swiftly whisks her away to the bustling capital city of Rapadagna. Here the true nature of the threat to Monster World is slowly revealed.

As in previous series entries, the focus here is firmly on side-scrolling dungeon exploration and amassing the ever-larger reserves of gold needed to upgrade your hero’s arms and armor along the way. That being said, I’m happy to report that Monster World IV brings with it significant play control enhancements that make this process more fun that ever before. Like Shion in the previous game, Asha can jump, climb ropes, swing her weapon, and block incoming attacks with her shield. New to this installment, she can also dash and execute upward and downward sword thrusts similar to the ones seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. These additions alone result in platforming and combat that’s faster and more strategic than ever before by series standards.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Asha’s pepelogoo to consider. Pepe who now? Well, it turns out that pet pepelogoos are are all the rage in Rapadagna. Asha encounters hers not long after arriving in the city and the two are inseparable after that. These insanely adorable rabbit/cat hybrid critters fly through the air by flapping their ears and are basically Pokémon before Pokémon was a thing. They may not look it, but they’re also the Swiss Army knife of dungeon exploration. Asha relies on hers to double jump, glide, flip switches, sniff out secret doors, act as an improvised platform, and much more.

Between Asha and her newfound friend, there’s so much to master that you’ll likely barely notice that the magic system from Wonder Boy in Monster World wasn’t carried forward. Really, it’s no great loss. You still have your magic lamp to return you to town instantly when you’re low on health in a dungeon and the remainder of the offensive spells from the last game are less necessary due to you having more attack options available by default this time around.

In other good news, the dungeons in Monster World IV have been reworked with an eye toward enhancing both their length and complexity. Some of the longer ones can easily require an hour or more to complete and proper puzzles (most of which revolve around creative pepelogoo use) play a much bigger role than before. This is a dramatic improvement over the short, simple dungeons of WBiMW, which derived most of their challege simply from being packed to the gills with tough enemies and high damage traps.

Of course, I have to mention Monster World IV’s stupendous graphics. These are some of the lushest backgrounds and best-animated sprites ever to grace Sega’s 16-bit machine. This might be the most Super Nintendo looking Mega Drive game I’ve ever encountered, if that makes any sense. The use of color is so sublime that the results seem almost too vivid for the hardware. There’s even one spellbinding sequence that appears to make use of a Mode 7 type background scaling effect! I’m guessing that it’s actually accomplished via sprite scaling, similar to the pseudo-3D objects in classic Sega arcade games like Space Harrier, but it still took me by surprise. Great stuff.

There’s some equally great art direction informing all this technical wizardry, too. Monster World IV makes use of a whimsical Arabian Nights fantasy setting, replete with flashing scimitars, flying carpets, and the aforementioned genie of the lamp. In this way, it recalls Culture Brain’s The Magic of Scheherazade and anticipates WayForward’s Shantae. While it’s a fairly standard hero’s journey tale at heart (albeit one with some genuinely amusing dialogue throughout and a nice twist toward the end), I appreciate the effort made to give it a unique visual identity when compared to the rest of the series.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, there’s a lot to love about this one and I throughly enjoyed my time spent in Asha’s pointy-toed shoes. There are a few caveats worth mentioning, however. Nothing dealbreaking, at least not for me, but certainly worth being aware of up front.

For one thing, I found the music by Jin Watanabe to be a uniquely frustrating case. The quality of the audio itself is impeccable. These are some of the best sounding instruments I’ve ever heard on the console. Again, they’re practically Super Nintendo caliber. Unfortunately, all this production is wasted on some very limited compositions. The choice was made to have most of the game’s music tracks be based on variations of the main theme. I’m not against musical leitmotif as such. Used judiciously, it can link two scenes together emotionally in a manner both subtle and powerful. Look (or rather listen) no further than Quintet’s Terranigma for proof of that. Here, though, It just comes off like the composer was too rushed or indifferent to come up with more melodies and that’s a shame. It’s not bad, mind you. They just could have done so much more with this pristine FM synth quality.

On the gameplay side, Monster World IV is just about as linear and streamlined as an adventure game can get before it ceases to be an adventure game entirely and falls instead under the action-platformer umbrella. There’s only one town, Rapadagna, and it contains the entrances to all of the game’s dungeons in one central hub room. Furthermore, you must visit each of these dungeons in a proscribed sequence and each becomes permanently inaccessible after you defeat its boss. In short, there’s no sequence breaking, no side questing, and no backtracking. The only difference between this and setup and, say, Super Mario Bros. is merely that you have the option to stroll through town between stages to hit up the shops for some new equipment or see if any NPC dialogue has changed. Still, as stated in rapturous detail above, Asha’s adventure is so well-designed and excuted that you probably won’t mind that it takes place entirely on rails. Probably.

For my money, Monster World IV is Westone’s masterpiece. It’s far and away the high point of the series, handily surpassing even the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Non-Japanese gamers got the short end of the stick yet again when we were denied this one back in 1994. If you’re not a physical media die hard like me, an official English language version is available as a download for the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360. At least it is at the time of this writing. Online game distribution being as fickle as it it, there may again come a time when the good old fan translation is the only game in town. In the grand scheme of things, that’s one of the best things about retro gaming: When the big publishers let you down, the fan community swoops in to save your butt like a true blue pepelogoo.

Super Adventure Island II (Super Nintendo)

Dang, Tina. That sure is a facial expression, alright.

I touched on Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island series for the first time back when played through Super Adventure Island last December. Originally a spin-off from Westone’s 1986 arcade platformer Wonder Boy, the Adventure Island titles stuck close to that game’s basic platforming roots while the proper Wonder Boy sequels rapidly mutated into an action-adventure saga more akin to The Legend of Zelda than Super Mario Bros. Until 1994 that is, when Hudson Soft abruptly switched gears and released both Master Takahashi’s Adventure Island IV (a Japanese exclusive and the final game ever officially released for the Famicom) and my subject today: Super Adventure Island II. Now, it’s no longer all about running from left to right while grabbing tasty fruit. Instead, our portly hero Master Higgins gets to have a go at equipping swords and armor, casting magic spells, and combing through a huge, mazelike game world for key items and hidden secrets. For such a sudden shift in focus, I was surprised by how well it paid off. I’ll probably ruffle some feathers by saying so, but I genuinely had a lot more fun with this one than I did with the similar Wonder Boy in Monster World earlier this month.

As our story opens, Master Higgins and his newlywed bride Tina are enjoying a honeymoon cruise on their raft when a sudden storm whips up and sends the pair tumbling into the sea. Higgins and Tina each wash up on different beaches, alive, but stricken with amnesia by their ordeal. Tina is taken in by the local monarch and soon becomes betrothed to him. Meanwhile, Higgins wanders the islands in search of clues to his identity and eventually comes across the castle just in time to witness Tina getting abducted from her royal wedding by a giant bird. Being a natural hero type, he volunteers to venture forth and save her, despite the fact that the two of them are now strangers to each other. Complicating matters even more, the island that Tina was whisked away to is protected by a mysterious magical barrier and Higgins needs to explore five other dangerous islands first in order to gather the spells needed to break this seal. Will Higgins be able to save Tina yet again? Will the lovebirds regain their memories in time to prevent the first ever instance of bigamy in a Nintendo game? Such suspense!

Genre savvy players will notice right away that Super Adventure Island II’s controls and combat mechanics are heavily influenced by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and its level design owes just as much to the Metroid series. The vast majority of the action is presented from a side view perspective with Higgins running, jumping, and climbing his way across each of the game’s six sprawling islands, which can be thought of as its “dungeons.” Every island has its own thematic identity, drawn from the usual suspects like forest, volcano, ice, and ancient ruins. Movement between islands takes place on a separate overhead view world map, again echoing Zelda II right down to the slightly tedious random monster encounters that crop up when you’re just trying to get from point A to point B.

The way Higgins himself handles is not all that different from past Adventure Island titles on the surface, though there are some important differences. No more one-hit deaths, for one. This time there’s a health meter represented by the usual heart icons and it can be extended by finding new heart pieces in treasure chests. The series staple hunger meter that acts as a stage timer has also been given the boot, so there’s no longer any need to dash around frantically gobbling up fruit just to keep from dropping dead in your tracks.

Just as radical is the addition of melee weapons, armor, and magic to the formula. Since Higgins is so much more durable in this outing, he can now afford to get closer to his enemies and that means that swords are likely to be your go-to offensive option much of the time. Projectile weapons like throwing axes and boomerangs are still available, but they tend to be weaker on a per-hit basis and that led me to mostly ignore them. The armor suits and shields are fairly self-explanatory in that they reduce damage and can block some enemy attacks, respectively. One thing to always keep in mind, however, is that a piece of gear can have elemental properties that make it more effective in certain situations, like a fire sword that deals more damage to ice enemies.

The magic system is pretty standard stuff. You can use spells to heal damage, attack enemies, warp out of dungeons, and so forth. Your magic gauge starts out small and is bolstered by finding upgrades in chests, just like your health. Every magic upgrade you find also adds a new spell to your repertoire, which is easy to overlook, since the game doesn’t announce this fact. It’s best to just check the spell menu manually each time to see what new power you’ve acquired.

While it’s obviously not very novel on paper, I really do like the way Super Adventure Island II’s gameplay panned out. Controlling Master Higgins feels fast and smooth due to the presence of a run button and the up and down sword thrust techniques from Zelda II. It’s a real breath of fresh air after the stiff, plodding movement that plagues Wonder Boy in Monster World. The level design is also well done, with plenty of goodies to discover, a good balance of platforming and combat challenges, and some very memorable boss fights. You can also save at any time via the pause menu, which is a rare convenience in an old console game.

Super Adventure Island II’s strongest asset has to be its humor. There’s not really a ton of dialogue or plot development, but everything we do get is a hoot. An NPC tells you a legend about a lost magical item only to add that he read about it in the Inquirer. Summoning a monster to smash open a gate blocking your path results in the game telling you that “The Ice Giant cometh and breaketh openeth the dooreth.” I love it. There’s also some cute banter between Higgins and Tina scattered throughout. I appreciated getting some characterization for the two of them. Especially Tina, who is usually nothing more than an abstract reward waiting for you after the final boss.

All this is not to say that the game is flawless. The overall presentation is a distinct step down from the first Super Adventure Island. Comparative speaking, character animation is less fluid and the backgrounds less detailed. The music is only average and pales next to Yuzo Koshiro’s infectious jams from the last game with two big exceptions: The themes for the ice island (Hiya-Hiya) and the final stage (Fuwa-Fuwa) are both worthy of inclusion in the epic SNES music hall of fame. They may even be too grand for the likes of an Adventure Island title!

The game world can also feel rather empty at times. There are no towns or other settlements to be found apart from the castle where you start out and a casino/shop that you reach around the midway point in your quest. As funny as the game’s dialogue can be, a lot more of it could have been included if there had been a larger cast of NPCs to draw on.

If the idea a lighthearted 16-bit successor to Zelda II sounds like a good time to you, you’ll almost certainly love Super Adventure Island II. It’s a thoroughly charming and satisfying way to spend six hours or so, even if it can’t boast any groundbreaking design elements or moments of envelope-pushing audiovisual wizardry. Just don’t show up expecting it to play anything like the previous entries in the series.

It took Hudson Soft the better part of a decade, but they finally let us force Master Higgins to put on a damn shirt for once. That’s what I call progress.

Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures (Super Famicom)

You can ring my beeeeeeell. Ring my bell.

In 1985, Konami released the first TwinBee game to arcades. As far back as the first entry in the genre, 1962’s Space War, shooter video games almost invariably featured science fiction or military themes and tended to be presented in as realistic a fashion as the hardware would allow. TwinBee broke with convention by opting for a cartoon aesthetic, embracing bright pastel colors, adorable little spaceships with white-gloved Mickey Mouse arms, and a whimsical power-up system that involved juggling and collecting colored bells. The game was a huge hit, mainly in Japan, and would inspire numerous direct sequels as well as its own sub-genre of lighthearted shooters (“cute-’em-ups”) that includes Sega’s Fantasy Zone and Success’ Cotton.

By 1994, though, the arcade style shooter’s mainstream popularity was on the decline. What was hot? Mascot platformers! Mario and Sonic were raking in cash at an astonishing rate and it seems like everyone wanted in on that action. Since the robot bee ships from TwinBee already had tons of personality, a colorful world to inhabit, and even the requisite limbs needed for platforming, it must have seemed like a natural fit to someone at Konami because they released Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures that same year in Japan and Europe.

I played the Japanese version, since I don’t have the necessary equipment to run European PAL video format games properly. I understand that the publisher opted to remove all the game’s dialogue rather than translating it from Japanese for the international release, however, so at least I’m not missing out on anything in that department.

The story of Rainbow Bell Adventures may leave you with a bit of deja vu. The maniacal Dr. Warumon is attacking with his army of EvilBee robots. His good guy counterpart Dr. Cinnamon must fight off the invasion with his own TwinBee ships, piloted by his youthful assistants Light, Pastel, and Mint. So yeah, it’s pretty much Mega Man. Dr. Warumon even looks just like Dr. Wily in a Halloween vampire cape. But it’s just an excuse to zip around collecting bells, so I’ll give it a pass.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it represents the colorful TwinBee style well. The graphics are crisp and bright, the music is bouncy, and everything is just as cute as can be. There are even high-pitched anime style voice clips for your ship. Everything has that impeccable polish you would expect from 1990s Konami. Rainbow Bell Adventures is not a perfect game overall by any means, but I can find no real flaws at all in the art and music.

You start out by picking between three characters. You have TwinBee (the blue one), WinBee (the pink one), and GwinBee (the green one). They’re differentiated by two factors: Rocket charge time and punch charge time. Your rocket will launch you forward when fully charged, a mechanic which seems to have been lifted directly from Konami’s own Rocket Knight Adventures, and your charged punch takes the form of a projectile attack that will deal huge damage to enemies and is mostly useful against bosses, since common enemies just don’t require that much damage to take out. WinBee has a fast rocket charge and a slow punch charge, GwinBee has the inverse, and TwinBee is the default character with equal charge times for both. In practice, I found that WinBee’s quick rocket boosts made her the best character for traversing standard stages and GwinBee’s fast punches made him a natural boss wrecker. I didn’t end up using poor TwinBee much, since he fell into the common “jack of all trades, master of none” category. You’re able to change characters each time you die and lives are unlimited, so there’s no need to worry about being stuck with a setup that doesn’t suit you.

The platforming itself is fairly standard, aside from the rocket dynamic. You can kill most enemies by jumping on them or by punching them. Being a TwinBee game, you still power up by collecting colored bells from defeated foes. These will grant abilities like melee weapons to extend your punch range, a gun for attacking distant targets, temporary invincibility, and more. Your collected bells fly up into the air and scatter whenever you take a hit, but you’re able to re-collect a few of them if you’re quick about it, similar to how you can recover some of your dropped rings in Sonic the Hedgehog.

Bosses are large and impressive looking, but not too tough to deal with. Just dodging their simple attack patterns and landing four or five charge punches will send even the final boss packing in short order. They’re a bit tougher than your standard Mario or Sonic opponents, but not by much at all.

One interesting option is two-player simultaneous play. The bad news here is that it’s kind of a mess. The game’s camera will only track player one, so player two has to stick close by or do their best to fumble around until they finally find their way back onto the screen or die trying. More fun is the battle mode, which is certainly no replacement for Street Fighter II or Mario Kart in terms of competitive play on the Super Nintendo, but is amusing enough in short bursts.

The goal in each of the main game’s 35 stages is either to reach the exit or to defeat a boss. Taking a cue from Super Mario World, many of the levels have multiple exits, each leading to a different stage. Unlike in Mario World, all exits are shown on the map screen that you can access by pausing the game, so these branching paths don’t constitute secrets in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels is really Rainbow Bell Adventures’ fatal flaw. They’re sprawling, frequently labyrinthine, and wrap around themselves in Pac-Man fashion, so reaching any side of the level boundary will bring you back around to the opposite side. Rather than conveying any true sense of place, they come off as bland abstract mazes composed of the same few background tiles repeated over and over in arbitrary fashion. They’re also lacking the big “set piece” moments that levels in other Konami platformers of the period were known for, like the swinging chandeliers and rotating rooms of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III’s insane missile riding sequence. There are a few different stage themes (ice, cave, water, and so on), but only a few and each repeats often. To make matters worse, enemy variety is pretty lacking and most enemy types appear in most levels. The end result of all this is that the stages in Rainbow Bell Adventures just sort of blur together into a single inchoate mass with all the flavor of a bowl of cold oatmeal. It looks great and controls acceptably, but it’s really tough to recommend a platformer with such weak level design. That’s the linchpin of the whole genre, after all!

Rainbow Bell Adventures isn’t a truly awful title. Rather, it’s a lot like another Super Famicom platformer I played recently that never came out here in North America: Super Back to the Future Part II. Plenty of surface charm masking a thoroughly average game. Konami made a good call by not bringing this one over, since Rainbow Bell Adventures simply isn’t up to the nearly superhuman standards of their other 16-bit releases on the Super Nintendo around this time. Or the Sega Genesis, for that matter. If you can get it cheap or you’re an obsessive TwinBee superfan, you might as well give Rainbow Bell Adventures a try. General audiences can do much better.

Castlevania mini-marathon (NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis)

Down for the Count again!

Well, that was quite a marathon: Four classic Castlevania games (the NES original, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines) completed for the first time in ten days! I had played them all before in years past and gotten quite far in some cases, but the only 8 or 16-bit Castlevania games I’d ever beaten before this month were Simon’s Quest and Rondo of Blood. Castlevania III is easily the most difficult of the series that I’ve experience so far, although the original has its moments, too.

Overall, I’ve developed a powerful affinity for these games. They really are tense thrill rides that keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Your characters are not as quick or maneuverable as they are in other action games (except perhaps in the relatively forgiving Super Castlevania IV) and you have to master their limited movesets completely and exercise good judgement before committing to each jump or attack.

On the other hand, it has made me somewhat disenchanted with the Metroid style of adventure game that dominated the series from 1997s Symphony of the Night to 2009’s Order of Ecclesia. Playing these titles today, I’m really just pretty bored most of the time. They look great and sound amazing and appeal to the collector mindset that likes to grind easy enemies for hours on end for rare loot drops, but replacing the high stakes action platforming where one false move means death with wandering long, mostly empty hallways filled with paper tiger enemies that look scary but act as annoying speed bumps at worst just doesn’t work for me anymore. Especially when the only incentive is making your overpowered avatar even more needlessly godly. Some of these installments were better than others (Order of Ecclesia does have one of coolest Dracula fights in the series), but for the most part I’m glad this era is over and I’m hoping that some future non-terrible iteration of Konami can bring Castlevania back to its roots and deliver another game like Dracula’s Curse someday.

I can dream, right?