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 dialog 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 dialog 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.

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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 dialog 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 dialog 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 dialog 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 “Metroidvania” style of adventure game that dominated he 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 my favorite Dracula fight 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?

(Originally written 2/5/2017 through 2/15/2017)