Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijūrokubē no Karakuri Manji Gatame (Super Famicom)

After eight releases in seven years, someone at Konami must have thought the Ganbare Goemon series needed shaking up. Apart from a pair of turn-based RPGs on the Famicom, previous installments had all been fairly simple run-and-jump action affairs. Enter 1994’s Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijūrokubē no Karakuri Manji Gatame, the first Legend of Zelda style action-adventure of the bunch.

I had to wait a while to tackle this one. Whereas the linear Japan-exclusive Goemon titles can be successfully navigated without knowing the language, you’d be hard pressed to do that here. Talking to NPCs and following up on the clues they dole out is vital. It wasn’t until February of this year that DDSTranslation, Tom, and FlashPV brought us their unofficial English translation patch, dubbed Go for it! Goemon 3: The Mecha Leg Hold of Jurokube Shishi. At last, I can continue the comedic odyssey of everyone’s favorite big-haired Robin Hood analog and his kooky cohorts.

The adventure kicks off in typically absurd Ganbare Goemon fashion, with the Wise Old Man debuting his latest invention: A time machine. Not too shabby for the 16th century. His plan? To use it to perv on young girls…in the future! I’ve never understood the appeal of ultrahorny senior citizens as comic relief, but it’s huge in Japan for whatever reason. Anyway, the Old Man’s skirt chasing rampage is cut short when he’s abducted by an evil nun named Sister Bismal, who just happens to be the spitting image of Goemon’s portly sidekick Ebisumaru. Watching all this transpire from the past via a monitor, Goemon and Ebisumaru decide they have to find a way to join their idiot friend in the future and save him and his potentially dangerous machine from whatever sinister fate Bismal has in store. Along the way, they’ll be joined by the robot ninja Sasuke and the, uh, non-robot ninja Yae, making for a total of four playable characters

The option to switch out your active hero at will with the press of a button is arguably Ganbare Goemon 3’s central gimmick, overshadowing even the change of scenery the time travel plot affords. Each party member has his or her own melee and ranged attacks on top of a miscellaneous special ability or two. Said abilities are often tied to progression. Yae’s mermaid transformation allows her to maneuver underwater, for example, and Goemon’s chain pipe works like Link’s hookshot. Everybody shares a single health bar, so simply switching heroes won’t save you if you’re at death’s door. My only complaint with this system is the way it passively discourages you from using the slower moving characters much of the time. As in most other adventures, there’s ample territory to cover and tons of mandatory backtracking. The zippy Sasuke and Yae get it all done faster, and that’s bad news for Goemon and Ebisumaru.

Beginning the quest proper, your first task is to explore the tranquil streets of Oedo Town from a top-down perspective. You can chat up villagers for advice and do a little shopping for the item you’ll need to reach the local dungeon. You’re also free to beat on the town guards to earn a little extra cash. Goemon is an outlaw, after all. There’s honestly not that much to say about the overworld exploration here. It’s divided up into two main maps: The past (that is, Goemon’s present) and the future. Both are densely packed with towns, dungeon entrances, and the occasional secret room housing bonus treasure. Unless you’re entirely new to the genre, you’ll have seen all this before.

Things pick up considerably in the dungeons. They’re presented as side-view platforming stages similar to the ones in Legend of the Mystical Ninja and other 16-bit Goemon games, albeit modified to work better in an adventure gaming context. Thus, layouts are complex and maze-like, there are far fewer instant death pits, and you’re usually required to perform some elementary puzzle solving exercise in order to open the way to the boss’ chamber. These sections are the high point of Ganbare Goemon 3 for me. Leaping around and swatting foes with Goemon and crew is always great fun, although I still prefer the more straightforward and challenging takes on the concept seen in those other games I mentioned.

Of course, no Ganbare Goemon outing after 1993 would be complete without the gang’s mighty mecha, Impact. This towering metal Goemon doppelganger pops in every few hours to add some spectacle in the form of a Godzilla-inspired mass destruction mini-game followed by a first-person boss fight against an enemy mech. Not much has changed in terms of how these battles play out. Impact can again punch, block, shoot coins from his nose as projectile weapons, and launch a limited number of bombs from his pipe. It’s worth noting that the enemies you face as Impact are significantly easier to defeat this time around. I burned many a continue on Ganbare Goemon 2’s Impact battles, yet had no such trouble here.

So far, we’ve established this as by-the-numbers action-adventure with some decent platforming and giant robot brawls thrown in. A little personality goes a long way, though, and Ganbare Goemon 3 has a lot more than most. Both the past and present are brimming with the quirky characters and irreverent dialogue fans have come to love. From a ninja who’s mastered the art of turning into a chicken to a pregnant Demi Moore, you never know who or what’s coming next. This anarchic sense of humor extends to the smallest details of the art and animation, too. If you don’t laugh out loud the first time you see Ebisumaru’s crawl, you should probably get yourself checked by a doctor. The soundtrack has all the quality and scope you’d expect out of ’90s Konami, offering a pleasing blend of classical Japanese instrumentation in past Oedo along with funk, techo, and industrial influences for its future incarnation. If you’re looking to understand the difference between a likable work and a lovable one, Ganbare Goemon 3 makes for an excellent object lesson.

There is one word of caution I should relay, however. Ganbare Goemon 3 has a secret final boss and extended ending scene that are only accessible if you’ve maxed out your health bar by collecting every hidden Maneki-neko (lucky cat) statue along the way. Pretty cool, huh? The downside is that once Goemon and friends journey to the future about a third of the way in, there’s no going back. That means that if you miss even one lucky cat in all of past Oedo, you’re permanently barred from achieving the best ending on that playthrough. The unnecessarily punishing execution of this feature is a real bummer. I actually ended up scrapping my whole save file once I realized I’d screwed myself and starting over. Hopefully you can learn from my mistake and be extra thorough in the early going. Assuming you care about achieving the best ending, that is.

Ganbare Goemon 3 isn’t my personal favorite of the saga. As stated, I tend to favor the faster-paced action-platformers. That said, it’s a well-crafted game with charm to spare and I’m glad I was finally able to experience it. It’s also an important one, given that it served as the template for several later action-adventure entries in the franchise, including the beloved Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64. If you’re a Link to the Past junkie looking to take a break from Hyrule, it’s worth a go. Just make sure that creepy Wise Man keeps his hands where you can see them.

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

Nintendo’s 1981 arcade smash Donkey Kong occupies a very special place in my heart. I was just old enough during the peak of its popularity for it to become one of my earliest and most enduring digital loves. I dutifully sacrificed my parents’ quarters to it whenever I could and made due with the wretched Atari 2600 version the rest of the time. I also devoured the breakfast cereal (Pac-Man’s was better), watched the Saturday morning cartoon religiously, and hoarded all manner of Kong-licensed tsotchkes.

The game’s appeal was two-fold. First, its trailblazing mechanics single-handedly popularized the side-view platformer, arguably the decade’s signature genre. It thus paved the way for literally thousands of imitators. On top of that, it gave us the most recognizable and relatable cast of characters we’d seen in any game to date. Granted, a mustachioed carpenter clambering up the scaffolding of a construction site to rescue his lady love from a ornery gorilla isn’t exactly Shakespeare, but this was a period when most games had you controlling spaceships or other vehicles with nary a human figure in sight.

Despite how important his debut outing was, both for Nintendo as a company and the hobby as a whole, Donkey Kong the character all but vanished in the wake of 1983’s Donkey Kong 3. Fans of the big ape had no choice during this DK Dark Age but to to subsist on the odd background cameo in the likes of Punch-Out!! or NES Tetris.

Everything changed over the course of 1994, as marketing hype for Rare’s upcoming Super Nintendo platformer Donkey Kong Country gradually built to a fever pitch. DKC is a classic in its own right, so few were disappointed when it finally released that November. It was not, however, the long-awaited return of Donkey Kong. No, that honor belongs to another superb game that quietly made its way to store shelves some five months previous. So quietly, in fact, that I missed it altogether. I’m talking about the portable masterpiece that is Donkey Kong for the Game Boy.

Donkey Kong ’94’s low profile may be due in part to some prospective buyers taking one look at the name and assuming it was a simple port of an ancient arcade title. The Game Boy library certainly doesn’t lack for such offerings. Nothing could be further from the truth. While it does open with nostalglic recreations of the original’s four stages, this is merely a prelude to the 97 new ones to come. Yes, there are a staggering 101 levels packed into this tiny cartridge. They’re no lazy copy-and-paste jobs, either. Locations, enemies, and platforming gimmicks change up constantly as Donkey Kong leads Mario on a merry chase through nine themed worlds.

Mario’s goal is once again to rescue the hapless Pauline, gaming’s original damsel in distress. Doing so this time will require much more than simply reaching the top of the screen in one piece, though. Donkey Kong ’94 introduces puzzling on top of the expected platforming. Most stages require Mario to pick up a key and carry it to the exit in order to move on. It’s straightforward enough the first few times. After that, it takes some serious strategizing, often under strict time constraints. You’ll be required to manage switches, conveyor belts, temporary platforms, enemies that double as transportation, the works. This puzzle element is a huge departure from the series’ arcade roots. Fortunately, it’s a wildly successful one. The challenge builds so gradually and gracefully that frustration is kept to an absolute minimum. There’s just enough complexity to keep you engaged throughout and you invariably feel brilliant each time you piece together a solution. A fine balancing act indeed.

Every fourth level or so, Mario will square off against Donkey Kong himself. These clashes hew closer to the arcade style, as there are no keys to worry about. Instead, you’re tasked with either dodging incoming hazards on the way to Pauline or using Kong’s own barrels against him in a fashion reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. 2’s Birdo. The oft-neglected Donkey Kong Jr. sometimes joins his dad in these boss fights, much to my delight. I love that little guy.

One thing to bear in mind is that this isn’t a Super Mario game. Running fast and leaping with reckless abandon are right out. Heck, falling too far onto a hard surface can prove fatal here. Nor are there any fire flowers or similar flashy power-ups to collect. The closest you get is the occasional barrel-busting mallet. This isn’t to say that Mario is short on options. On the contrary, he has a wide repertoire of moves at his disposal, including three different jumps. Still, the emphasis is firmly on devising winning strategies for each stage and carefully timing their executions. It’s a far cry from the twitchy daredevil escapades common in the Mushroom Kingdom.

I can’t say enough good things about Donkey Kong ’94. It’s easily one of the best Game Boy games ever made, a total puzzle-platforming package with all the gameplay polish and audiovisual pizzazz you’d expect from Nintendo. It even incorporates custom color palettes, an arcade-inspired screen border, and enhanced sound effects for use with the Super Game Boy accessory. Massive in scope, it never wears out its welcome and is playable in short bursts due to its built-in save feature. Best of all in my view, it comes across as a heartfelt tribute to, and natural continuation of, the golden age DK legacy. About the only thing missing is a Stanley the Bugman cameo. RIP, bro.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis)

You know what’s pretty great? After nearly three years of regular game reviewing, I’m not even close to running out of personal milestones. Today, I get to tackle my first compilation in the form of Mega Man: The Wily Wars (aka Rockman Mega World in Japan), a 1994 Genesis remake of the first three NES Mega Man titles with some interesting bonus content thrown in. ‎Wily Wars was essentially Capcom’s take on Nintendo’s Super Mario All-Stars from the year prior, which similarly crammed four spruced-up 8-bit Mario outings onto a single SNES cartridge. Believe it or not, there was a point in history when enhanced reissues of hit games from the previous console generation were considered novel and exciting rather than lazy cash grabs. We all sent telegrams and had polio back then, too. Good times.

Wily Wars is famous (or perhaps infamous) for being an early example of a digital-only game release. While Japan and the PAL regions got it on a standard cartridge, North Americans were out of luck unless they happened to be subscribed to the Sega Channel download service. It wouldn’t be sold here again in any official form until 2019, when it appeared as one of the 42 pre-installed titles on the Sega Genesis Mini plug-and-play system. This didn’t stop hardcore American Mega Man fans from importing, bootlegging, and emulating it like crazy in the intervening decades, of course.

Since I’ve already covered the NES incarnations of Mega ManMega Man 2, and Mega Man 3 in full detail, you may expect me to gloss over the fine points of Wily Wars. Alas, I’m not off the hook that easy. Sure, everything in those reviews still holds true and I encourage you to check them out if you’re curious about the individual development histories, plots, or strengths and weaknesses of these games. Be that as it may, frequent Capcom sub-contractor Minakuchi Engineering did the actual porting work on Wily Wars and the result isn’t a perfect one-for-one recreation. Many of the differences are insignificant, such as some weapon damage values or ammunition counts being tweaked ever so slightly, but there are major ones which fall into four broad categories: Graphics, sound, play control, and performance.

The new graphics are adequate. They’re much in the same mode as the ones seen in Super Mario All-Stars. That is, they occupy a middle ground somewhere between the 8-bit source material and what you’d typically see in a game designed from the ground up for 16-bit hardware. The level of detail is well beyond the humble NES, yet you wouldn’t mistake these assets for something out of Mega Man 7 or Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo. The standout element by far is the new background art, particularly in Wily Wars’ interpretation of the first Mega Man, which originally utilized stark single color backdrops because of the minimal cartridge memory available circa 1987. The extra visual data goes a long way toward making it appear the action is unfolding in real locations rather than on chaotic assemblages of ladders and platforms floating in endless void.

Things are rougher on the audio side. Sound effects are underwhelming, with many of the most common and visceral ones from the NES games (giving and taking damage, the Mega Buster firing) coming through weak and muffled here. Most of the music is also a tragic downgrade. The bulk of Wily Wars’ expansive soundtrack is, naturally, rearranged versions of established tunes. Unfortunately, these tracks are too often twangy and abrasive, wallowing in all the excesses of stereotypical bad Genesis music. All those great old beats and melodies remain, they’re merely stifled by insipid production. The exception is some of the new stuff by composer Kinuyo Yamashita, which at the very least gives the impression of being written with the Genesis in mind.

A more severe sticking point for me is the handling on Mega Man himself. He feels heavier somehow, his movements ever so slightly less responsive. The rapid firing capability of his default Mega Buster weapon has also been toned down for some reason. It’s not enough to make Wily Wars unplayable, just enough to serve as a constant low grade distraction for those accustomed to the originals. When you’re talking about a series renowned for its fast action and fluid, precise controls, the slightest blemish is going to stand out all the more.

Compounding the problem of a less agile and quick shooting hero, Wily Wars is plagued by regular bouts of severe and frankly inexcusable slowdown. On paper, the CPU in the Genesis is several times more capable than its NES counterpart. If we only had Wily Wars and the NES games it’s based on to judge by, however, we’d have to conclude the opposite was true! This actually alters some of the gameplay drastically. The normally fearsome Yellow Devil boss, for example, is a pushover in Wily Wars due to the way the game limps along at half speed for the duration of the encounter.

With the majority of its meaningful alterations being for the worse, I can’t in good faith recommend Wily Wars as anyone’s introduction to these three legendary games. Nifty as some of the new artwork is, the NES renditions sound and, more importantly, play much better. Seek them out first and foremost.

That said, Wily Wars does manage to get a couple things right. First, it provides experienced players with a fresh perspective on three all-time classic action-platformers. I clearly didn’t love all of the audiovisual updates, but they kept me playing regardless, curious to see how the next new take on a familiar area would look and sound.

Then there’s the mini-game known as Wily Tower, which is unlocked by completing all three of the primary games on a single save file. It consists of seven new stages, each populated by its own unique boss on top of an intriguing mix of regular enemies and platforming hazards from Mega Man 1-3. These Wily Tower levels also allow for an unparalleled degree of flexibility when it comes to Mega Man’s inventory. You assemble your own custom arsenal from a pool of 22 special weapons and seven utility items! Want to be absurdly overpowered? Load up on brutally effective gear like the Thunder Beam, Metal Blade, and Rush Jet. Fancy a challenge instead? Try the trashy Bubble Lead, Spark Shot, and Top Spin. Wily Tower is fan service done right. I only wish it was around twice as long, which would effectively make it a full-fledged Genesis-exclusive Mega Man adventure unto itself.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars is an odd duck, simultaneously a poor starting point for newcomers and a one-of-a-kind curiosity every established fan of the Blue Bomber should experience at least once. Thus, though I wish I could love it a lot more than I do, it still warrants a qualified recommendation.

Live A Live (Super Famicom)

Happy New Year, classic gaming fans!

I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely get around to playing turn-based RPGs anymore. The amount of hours they require is too great for me to fit more than one or two a year into my schedule. Back when systems like the SNES were new, I was living carefree enough that all that play time felt like a selling point rather than a millstone round my neck. Ah, memories.

As soon as I learned about the 1994 Super Famicom exclusive Live A Live (that’s “live” as in “live in concert”) a couple years back, however, I knew it warranted a spot on my short list. Live A Live’s defining gimmick was too fascinating to ignore: Eight chapters, each with its own setting and characters, presented in anthology style and capped off with a final chapter that ties everything together. Not to mention it’s the product of Square at the very height of their creative prowess, as exemplified by fellow 1994 alumnus Final Fantasy VI. Yeah, that sounds like something worth kicking off a new decade with.

Live A Live strikes out bold with a cold open. You’re ushered straight from the title screen to the chapter select menu without a shred of explanation. Highlighting the seven characters on offer reveals one-word labels like “Cowboy,” “Ninja,” or “Caveman.” It’s clear you’re not intended to be thinking about which of them is the best or right choice. You’re supposed to follow your gut and pick whoever you think is the coolest or most intriguing. These first seven chapters can be played in any order and will likely take you anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours apiece to complete. They’re set in diverse time periods, from the prehistoric to the far future, and all have their own self-contained game worlds, casts, and even title screens and end credit rolls. Think of it like an RPG sampler platter.

There are gameplay tweaks unique to every chapter, as well. The ninja’s adventure sees you infiltrating an enemy castle and includes a stealth element. Depending on how patient and adept you are with your invisibility cloak, you can finish with a body count anywhere between zero and a hundred. The shortest chapter, set in the modern day, has you controlling a contestant in a Street Fighter style martial arts tournament. It’s literally all combat. There’s no game world to explore whatsoever, only an opponent select screen. It’s polar opposite is the far future chapter. Here, you control a newly-built sentient robot aboard a starship carrying a dangerous alien cargo. Dialog and character interaction are pushed to the forefront, as the only combat takes places through the medium of a video game machine in the ship’s lounge, making battles technically a game within a game.

If bits and pieces of this game’s premise are starting to sound oddly familiar to you, then congratulations: You’re on to something. Yes, Live A Live’s focus on jumping between time periods while controlling a robot, a caveman, and a medieval knight, among others, is more than a little suggestive of Square’s much better-known 1995 masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. It should come as no surprise, then, that Takashi Tokita served as Live A Live’s director and one of its two writers, roles he would reprise the following year for Chrono Trigger. A few of the latter’s callbacks are downright blatant, such as when a magic sword is used to cut a path through a cliffside to a villain’s stronghold. Interesting as these parallels are to the JRPG veteran, I wouldn’t venture to say Live A Live is merely a dry run for something grander. The way its first eight chapters are fully compartmentalized gives it a stop-and-go narrative flow completely unlike the traditional unified quest line that defines Chrono Trigger.

It defies other key genre conventions, too, mostly in the interest of keeping the pace brisk. No currency to accumulate or shops to spend it in means you’ll find all your equipment upgrades through basic exploration of the compact game worlds. There’s also no limit placed on how many times you can use your special techniques in battle, and any damage your party sustains is automatically repaired after each fight. In other words, you have no need to make periodic trips to inns and temples in order to restore health and magic points or resurrect dead characters. In fact, the usual RPG towns only appear when a given chapter’s story calls for one as a backdrop. While some players may miss the perceived depth conferred by elements like this, I reckon it’s nice to have your time respected. There’s nothing so special about gold grinding or backtracking to heal up that would justify padding a two hour chapter out to four in my book. The battle system itself (a chess-like affair based around movement on a 7×7 overhead grid) is functional and easy to grasp. Although it won’t win any awards, its simplicity compliments the rest of these streamlined mechanics.

On balance, Live A Live’s avant-garde approach pays off in a big way. The highlight by far is the story. Most of the first eight chapters are just long enough to get you emotionally invested in the leads and satisfied at the climaxes of their individual journeys. Factor in a finale that furnishes your dream team of heroes from across time with a worthy adversary to face off against and you have one resounding success on the storytelling front. This dramatic heft is expertly bolstered by a rich and expansive soundtrack courtesy of industry legend Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some of this praise on the Aeon Genesis group’s extraordinary fan translation effort. Unofficial as it obviously is, they went above and beyond the call of duty here, including unique fonts and text box designs for the various chapters which weren’t in the Japanese original.

About the only flaw preventing Live A Live from joining its sibling Chrono Trigger in the pantheon of peerless 16-bit greats is a predictable one: For all its strengths, it’s quite uneven. When I stated above that “most” of its nine segments made for satisfying journeys, I meant around 2/3 of them. Both the cowboy and wrestler chapters are incredibly bare bones, clocking in at half an hour or less. What’s there is quality material, there simply isn’t enough of it for me to get cozy and start feeling invested. At least I can’t say I actively despised these chapters, unlike the godawful mecha one. Apparently intended as a parody/homage to Akira and other near future sci-fi anime, it’s the only part of Live A Live that drags due to its vague, repetitive, and overly specific progression requirements. As if that somehow wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a non-stop cavalcade of unlikable characters, cringe-worthy humor, and nonsense technobabble plot contrivances. The idea of having to slog through it again someday if I want the undeniable pleasure of re-experiencing Live A Live as a whole is a genuine bummer.

Whatever you do, though, don’t let that dollop of negativity dissuade you from giving Live A Live a shot. Its reputation as a lost classic in Western gaming circles is well-founded. Structurally, it’s one of most experimental JPRGs of the ’90s, and it achieves this without coming off pretentious or intimidating in the slightest. Why settle for one fresh start this year when you can have nine?

Beyond Oasis (Genesis)

What happens when key contributors to the legendary Streets of Rage beat-’em-up series try their battle-scarred hands at fantasy adventure? Perhaps unsurprisingly, you end up with 1994’s Beyond Oasis, or The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light, as it’s known outside North America. Legend of Zelda infused with combo attacks and fighting game style special moves? I can go for that.

Beyond Oasis is the product of Ancient, the development house founded by game music virtuoso Yuzo Koshiro and his mother Tomo Koshiro. Ayano Koshiro, a prolific graphic designer and Yuzo’s sister, worked on the art. Talk about a family affair! I’ve previously covered games made by newlyweds (The Battle of Olympus) and a pair of brothers (Plok), but this takes the dynamic to a whole new level. Unlike so many of the smaller studios I touch on, Ancient still exists as of 2019, with its most recent output being some music tracks for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Whoever coined that company name sure nailed it.

In Beyond Oasis, you play as Prince…Ali. I wish I could say Prince Thor, like I could for the Japanese or PAL releases. Alas, someone on the North American side must have just adored a certain animated blockbuster, so say hello to your precious Prince Ali. I suppose he does wear baggy white pants and use a magic item to command helpful spirits, so I get the thought process. It’s still dumb. Anyway, Ali is treasure hunting one day when he comes across a golden armlet. When he dons it, the ghost of the wizard who created it appears and begins furiously dumping exposition. Turns out there’s a matching silver armlet made in ancient times by the ghost wizard’s evil counterpart and prophecy states that if one armlet is unearthed, the other will be, too. The wizard implores Ali to use the gold armlet’s power to seek out and defeat the bearer of the silver one before the kingdom of Oasis comes to ruin.

This obviously entails wandering the land, slaying monsters, and exploring puzzle-filled dungeons, all from a 3/4 overhead perspective. There’s nothing wrong with a game utilizing a familiar template for accessibility’s sake, of course, so long as it’s able to stake out a claim on its own identity. Beyond Oasis manages this on two fronts with its visceral take on combat and its inventive spirit companion system.

The fighting has a robust, “chunky” feel to it compared to most other adventure titles. Ali’s strikes are impactful. They stun lock enemies in place and continuing to mash the attack button after that will automatically turn them into flashy multi-hit combos. There are also special attack commands. One example: Quickly tapping the directional pad toward an enemy, then away, then back again before pressing the button will produce a flip attack. This move is great because it can hit targets at all altitudes. Since the game takes the enemy’s height relative to Ali into account, he might otherwise need to crouch to hit low profile foes like snakes or jump to reach flying ones. It’s unusual for an overhead action game to incorporate realistic positioning to this extent. Sadly, it doesn’t always pay off. Hitting airborne enemies remained a total crapshoot throughout my playthrough. Needless to say, they had no such trouble against me.

The weapon system is also offbeat for the time. Ali uses a basic dagger by default and picks up various swords, bows, and bombs along the way. In contrast to the dagger, the vast majority of these supplemental weapons are limited to a set number of uses before they break and disappear. This results in a constant inventory turnover as old gear falls apart and is replaced by fresh finds. Fans of 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be right at home. While weapon deterioration in games has its detractors, I didn’t mind it in this case. Ali’s dagger is perfectly adequate most of the time, so it hardly feels like the end of the world whenever one of your swords breaks.

Satisfying as the brawling generally is, it’s the four spirit companions who join you along the way that truly define Beyond Oasis for me. Their many special powers have applications both in and out of combat. Take the fire spirit Efreet, who can incinerate the opposition with punches and explosive blasts as well as melt ice blocks and light torches to open up new paths. In other words, these guys double as potent weapons and mandatory puzzle solving tools. Progression in the later dungeons often requires you to swap back and forth between different helpers in quick succession.

Two factors complicate this process. The first is Ali’s magic meter, which will gradually deplete as long as a spirit is active. Second, summoning a given spirit to begin with isn’t as easy as picking a name or icon off a menu. Instead, you need to use the armlet on some appropriate portion of the environment. For Efreet, that might mean a bonfire or lava pool. For Dytto the water spirit, you obviously want to keep your eyes peeled for water. I was continually surprised by how much ingenuity went into implementing this mechanic. I didn’t discover until quite late in the game that you could call Dytto by using the armlet on slime enemies, presumably because they’re wet. You can even synchronize your armlet activation with the fiery explosion of one of your bombs to summon Efreet. Clever stuff!

The art and music are a baffling mixed bag. This is one of the best looking Genesis games I’ve seen overall, bursting with bright, bold colors and large, well-animated character sprites. The one downside to all this detail is that many non-boss enemies appear over and over in color-swapped variants throughout, again echoing beat-’em-ups of the period. As in those games, it represents an acceptable (if unfortunate) memory saving compromise. The music, of all places, is actually where Beyond Oasis falls flat. This soundtrack, while extensive for a cartridge game, is universally low energy and devoid of memorable hooks. It simply doesn’t fit with the swashbuckling tone established by the graphics and gameplay. Who would have guessed the great Yuzo Koshiro would underperform like this on a project so close to home? The score was the one thing I came expecting to heap the most praise on. A rare misfire indeed.

Despite drab tunes and a few recurring gameplay snags (imprecise collision detection, the occasional awkward platform jumping section), Beyond Oasis makes for an easy recommendation. It introduces several welcome new ideas to the standard console dungeon crawling formula and looks great doing so. I also appreciate that the main quest isn’t padded out merely for the sake of extending total play time. It took me about seven hours to complete on my first go-around and I gather experience can bring that down significantly; a perfect length for a game of this kind. It’s right up there with Westone’s Monster World IV in my book when it comes to superlative action-adventure romps on Sega’s 16-bit machine. Too bad it’s only ever received one sequel in the form of 1996’s The Legend of Oasis for the Saturn.

Final score: Seventy-five golden camels out of a hundred. Strong as ten regular games, definitely!

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 breezy 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.

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 implemets 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 maxim 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 who 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 said, I’m happy to report Monster World IV brings with it significant play control enhancements that make this process much more fun. 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 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 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 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 thoroughly enjoyed the time I 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. 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 executed 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 classic 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 and 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, maze-like 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 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 which 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 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 this 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 bear in mind, however, is that a piece of gear can have elemental properties which 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.

Another of Super Adventure Island II’s strongest assets is 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 Enquirer. Summoning a monster to smash open a gate blocking your path results in the game telling you “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 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.