Majyūō (Super Famicom)

October is here at last! All hail the triumphant return of long nights, creeping fog, and, best of all, horror gaming! As is my custom during this most morbid of months, I’ll be taking on five spooktastic titles for a variety of systems. There’s a malevolent mix of obscure oddities and well-loved standards headed your way, all united in their shared fixation on ghosts, demons, zombies, and other manic manifestations of the macabre. Let the terror commence!

First up is Majyūō (aka Majyuuou, “King of Demons”), a 1995 Super Famicom action-platformer by KSS. Who’s KSS? No one could blame you for asking. Primarily an anime production company, they also managed to turn out a half-dozen Japan-exclusive games to no great success before their 2005 bankruptcy. Majyūō has acquired a reputation as the standout KSS effort and presumably had a limited print run in its day. Accordingly, you can expect to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning a vintage copy. A saner option as of this writing is the authorized 2018 re-release by Columbus Circle at around $60.

The central figure in Majyūō is pistol-packing family man Abel. One Bayer, a former friend of our hero, sold his soul to demons, murdered Abel’s wife, and then kidnapped his daughter to serve as a sacrifice to revive the demon king, Lucifer. What an ass. Now Abel, with a weird assist from the spirit of his dead wife in nude pixie form, is out to storm the very gates of Hell and get his daughter back before it’s too late.

Not a bad setup, honestly. Bonus points for going darker than usual in a Nintendo game with the whole murdered spouse/human sacrifice angle. I would have preferred a little more mid-game development, however. All the plot elements here are concentrated at the beginning and end. Even when Abel comes face-to-face with the traitorous Bayer for the last time, no words are exchanged. I suppose this terseness does keep Majyūō accessable to a non-Japanese audience. I made use of the Aeon Genesis fan translation patch because I could, not because it was necessary.

Abel’s demon slaying odyssey is a compact one, made up of six modestly sized stages. In truth, it’s closer to five capped off by a low effort boss rush. This is undoubted the game’s biggest sticking point for me. Platforming fans in the mid-’90s had already grown accustomed to much longer adventures. Super Castlevania IV, for example, had over three times this amount of content to plow through and didn’t have to skimp on the quality to get there. Poor Majyūō is nearer to the original NES Castlevania in this respect.

Apparently aware that length was going to be an issue, Majyūō’s designers settled on another method of extending play time: Demonic transformations. Taking a page from Go Nagai’s Devilman manga, Abel can merge with the souls of vanquished boss monsters (represented by colored gems) in order to assume three different human-demon hybrid forms. Utilizing all three before reaching the fifth stage of a given playthrough will unlock a superpowered fourth transformation required to see the better of the game’s two endings.

Note that you don’t need to transform if you don’t want to. Beating the whole game as a puny human is definitely possible. Abel’s default health and damage output leave a lot to be desired, as do his stiff, plodding movements. On the plus side, he does have a robust moveset which includes a double jump, evasive roll, charged super attack, and descending jump kick. The various demon forms just happen to do all these same things better, making them a difficulty select of sorts. In light of this, it’s a bit odd that the best ending is reserved for Abel’s most powerful incarnation rather than his least.

Try as they might, I don’t think these alternate forms succeed in making up for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time and often clunky action. That leaves the presentation to hopefully take up the slack and earn Majyūō a mild recommendation. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. The vision of Hell the artists conjured up here is a memorable one, sometimes for unexpectedly silly reasons. Take my favorite level, the speeding demon train. As if the very idea of Hell having its own rail system wasn’t strange enough, this particular train is loaded with explosive crates marked “danger.” Who’s in charge of that? The Abyssal Safety and Health Administration? Oh, and some infernal joker spray-painted “fuck” onto the side of one of the rail cars, so the underworld has its own population of cheeky graffiti taggers, too. I don’t know if the creators intended their implied world building to be this absurd and I don’t care. I’m too busy being delighted. The remainder of the stages skew more normal. Well, normal for Hell, anyway, with plenty of fire, ice, fleshy organic corridors, etc. They’re complimented by some suitably deranged enemy designs and up-tempo action tunes. The weakest links are the sprites for Abel, which are small and lack detail. He looks more like an NES protagonist than a SNES one.

As an action-platformer in the Castlevania mold, Majyūō never rises above average and occasionally struggles to get there. It’s criminally short and the combat isn’t as fluid or fun as it could have been, major flaws that are scarcely mitigated by the cool premise, trippy artwork, and ability to transform Abel himself. If I’d paid full price for this one back in 1995, I’d have regretted it. If I’d paid a king’s ransom in the present day, I’d have really regretted it. Fortunately, getting to play it for free is another story altogether. This is a prime example of a game that had to wait patiently for the age of flash cartridges and emulators to finally come into its own. You may end up damned to Hell for your brazen software piracy, but at least you’ll know what to expect when you get there.

Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

Alien Soldier (Mega Drive)

Hmm. Ninety-two deaths. I might need just a little more practice with this one.

Can you believe it’s taken me this long to dive into a Treasure game? This celebrated development house was founded in 1992 by a group of frustrated former Konami employees tired of spending their time working on endless samey sequels to long-running franchises like Castlevania and Contra. Led by Masato Maegawa, they set out reinvent themselves as gaming auteurs with a focus on original scenarios and innovative, frequently idiosyncratic mechanics. The newly-minted Treasure made good on these aspirations right out of the gate with their 1993 debut release, the acclaimed Mega Drive/Genesis run-and-gun Gunstar Heroes. Numerous quirky hits like platformer Dynamite Headdy and spaceship shooter Ikaruga would follow in the years to come, cementing Treasure’s reputation as a veritable wellspring of cult classic action titles.

By 1994, Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis platform was on its last legs as a hot commercial prospect. The 32-bit Saturn and PlayStation would both be on the market by year’s end and the development community at large was shifting its focus accordingly. Treasure designer Hideyuki Suganami realized that this was his last chance to craft the ultimate Mega Drive run-and-gun game of his dreams. His goal was to push the system’s Motorola 68000 processor to its limits with massive sprites, blazing fast action, and bombastic pyrotechnics. The end result was 1995’s Alien Soldier, and the game’s goofy title screen tag line perfectly encapsulates Suganami’s design philosophy: “Visualshock! Speedshock! Soundshock! Now is the time to the 68000 heart on fire!”

Sounds badass, right? If you were a North American Genesis fan back in the day, you may be wondering why you never heard about this one. It’s probably because Alien Soldier wasn’t given a standard cartridge release here and was only available to play via the Sega Channel, a subscription-based game download service that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, leading to its unceremonious cancellation in 1998. This exclusivity  was apparently taken so seriously that Treasure added a region check function to the game’s code. Try to boot up an imported Japanese or European copy in your North American console and all you’ll be greeted with is a terse error message. ProTip: Use Game Genie code REBT-A6XN, REBT-A6XR, RECA-A60R to spoof your way past the region check in the Japanese NTSC version. You’re welcome.

In Alien Soldier, you play as Epsilon-Eagle, a hella fierce cyborg bird man who’s out to…do something. I think. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really make heads or tails of this game’s story. It’s supposedly set in the distant year 2015 on a planet called either A-Earth or Sierra, depending on whether you’re playing the Japanese or European release. There are these artificially created mutants with superpowers and the ability to exist as parasites within human and machine hosts. Some of these creatures unite to form a terrorist organization called Scarlet and devote themselves to the extermination of regular humans. The leader of Scarlet is Epsilon-Eagle, until he’s deposed in a violent coup led by another mutant named Xi-Tiger. During this conflict, Epsilon-Eagle is wounded and flees into “the time-space continuum” to preserve himself, leaving the even more ruthless Xi-Tiger in charge of Scarlet. This process also splits Epsilon-Eagle into two separate beings somehow, one good and one evil. The good half of Epsilon-Eagle hides itself inside the body of an unnamed boy being used as a test subject in a laboratory where children with exceptional abilities are experimented on. Xi-Tiger tracks Epsilon-Eagle down and ends up killing one of the boy’s friends in the process. This causes the boy to fly into a rage and morph himself into the form of Epsilon-Eagle in order to get revenge on Xi-Tiger and Scarlet. Got all that? Basically, add a splash of X-Men and a dash of Akira to a heaping helping of good old-fashioned mad gibberish and you have Alien Soldier.

Though obviously not a proper sequel to Gunstar Heroes by any stretch of the imagination, Alien Soldier does share some significant gameplay elements with it. A few of the weapons function similarly, players are able to toggle between two different control setups (one allows for firing while moving and the other offers eight-way stationary fire), and one particularly goofy enemy from Gunstar shows up for a rematch here. The creative influence of Gunstar’s memorable transforming robot boss Seven Force is also strongly felt in what I found to be Alien Soldier’s most lengthy and difficult segment.

What truly sets Alien Soldier apart from Gunstar Heroes (and most other action games) is its unconventional structure. What we have here is an extended “boss rush” pitting Epsilon-Eagle against more than thirty of the largest and most intimidating freaks ever seen in a 16-bit game virtually back-to-back. There are brief interludes between many of the boss encounters where the player can swat down some easy cannon fodder enemies in order to replenish Epsilon-Eagle’s health reserves and possibly nab a weapon upgrade or two, but these rarely last more than a minute or so and it’s a huge stretch to liken them to the fully fleshed-out stages you’d blast your way through in a Contra game. They’re more akin to breathers or palate cleansers, really. This format, coupled with the game’s overall gonzo sci-fi theme, suggests to me a much flashier take on Capcom’s misunderstood NES gem Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight.

Taking down each boss is a remarkably technical business, far from the mindless shoot and dodge affair you might expect. At the outset, the player must choose the starting equipment for Epsilon-Eagle. Only a maximum of four of the game’s six guns and be carried at any one time and each has its own balance of speed, power, range, and ammo capacity. Beyond that, some enemies are weak, resistant, or completely immune to one or more of your weapons. There’s no one ideal loadout with which to take on the whole game, so tough choices must be made. It’s a smartly designed system. My only complaint stems from the way weapon switching is handled. Opening the menu doesn’t pause the action, meaning that Epsilon-Eagle is always stuck standing in place for a minimum of a second or two every time he needs to switch guns. It’s obnoxious at best and fatal at worst in the midst of a pitched battle.

Epsilon-Eagle’s movement options are also notably complex. He can run and jump, of course, as well as swap between the free and fixed weapon firing schemes mentioned above at will, halt his jumps at any point to hover in place for as long as desired, reverse his gravity and run along the ceiling (a la Irem’s Metal Storm), transform enemy projectiles into health pickups with a melee attack called the Counter Force, and perform an invincible dash maneuver known as the Zero Teleport. Because both Epsilon-Eagle and his foes are so large, skillful use of the Counter Force and Zero Teleport in particular are vital for effective evasion. Oh, and don’t forget that the Zero Teleport also doubles as a fiery super attack that can wreck many bosses in an instant, but only as long as Epsilon-Eagle is at maximum health.

It’s a lot to get a handle on and Alien Soldier doesn’t go out of its way to ease the player in, starting out intense and only getting crazier as it rolls on. The saving grace here is the lower of the game’s two difficulty settings, which allows for unlimited continues and passwords for every stage. Newcomers are able to practice all they want here before they consider challenging the “Superhard” setting, where continues are strictly limited and there are no passwords.

Is it ultimately worth the time to learn the ins and outs of Alien Soldier’s intricate take on run-and-gun combat? Hell, yes! Between the huge character sprites, beautiful backgrounds, pulse-pounding soundtrack, and buttery smooth combat, it really is a technical marvel on the humble Mega Drive. While controlling its oddball avian protagonist effectively takes practice, the sense of accomplishment attainable by executing a flawless series of parries and teleports to annihilate a once-imposing boss monster without suffering so much as a scratch in return really does justify the effort.

Alien Soldier’s one glaring flaw in my eyes is simply that its plot is simultaneously over and under-written to ludicrous extremes. The rambling opening text crawl devotes an eternity to detailing a near-incomprehensible conflict between Epsilon-Eagle and Xi-Tiger, only to then have Xi-Tiger bite the dust in level nine and Epsilon-Eagle proceed to keep on kicking the asses of assorted crazy robots and monsters across sixteen additional stages with the player having no clue about the whys and wherefores of it all. This may seem like an odd thing to focus on when I’ve personally deployed so many variants on the “Nobody plays actions games for the story” excuse over the years. Bear in mind, however, that this line is usually used to hand-wave away simplistic or clichéd storytelling. “Rescue the princess,” “halt the alien invasion,” that sort of deal. These setups may be boring in and of themselves, but they at least get the job done. Here, the chaotic stew of half-baked and non-existent plotting just makes it next to impossible to cultivate any true understanding of what your chicken-headed hero is supposed to be doing or why after the one-third mark.

Still, I’ll concede that this likely won’t trouble you for long. You’ll be too busy wondering exactly two things: What sort of demented monstrosity the game can possibly throw at you next and what tactics you’ll need to kill said monstrosity. Puking insect man? Sure. Big-nosed phallus monster shooting wasps out of its butt? Okay. Werewolf cowboy on a robo-horse? Why not? Alien Soldier is far too focused on its slick, savage journey to spare much thought for the destination. Approach it with that same mindset and you’re in for some of the most stimulating hardcore action gameplay ever devised.

Now, would you mind passing me the Tums? My 68000 heart is killing me.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action RPG entries that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until recently, I was mostly acquainted with the RPG side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same action mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its black sheep reputation. Dracula X is a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives who were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, which made it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though: The differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy Vampire Killer whip in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than a distant relative of Richter as in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case?

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Dracula X really steps out of its inspiration’s shadow and starts making a name for itself with its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is among the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.

Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (Super Famicom)

Nothing to see here, folks. Just your average, everyday flying baby.

There are easily dozens of Japanese video game franchises which have never seen an entry published in North America. Many are based on obscure anime and manga licenses with zero overseas recognition factor. Others might be packed with the sort of adult content that tends to get American moral watchdog groups up in arms or be deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. If there’s a single such series the average retro gamer has probably at least heard of, it would have to be Konami’s Parodius line of surreal “cute-‘em’-ups.” Even as far back as the late 1990s, I can recall screenshots circulating online along with breathless descriptions of pitched battles against penguin armies, hostile corn on the cob, kitten-headed battleships, scantily clad showgirls, and more. Frankly, I’m amazed it’s taken me this long to dive into the series.

Parodius started its run on Japanese MSX home computers with Parodiusu: Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū (“Parodius: The Octopus Saves the Earth”) in 1988. As the name hints, Parodius is a parody of the legendary space shooter Gradius and its many sequels. This is neither the time nor the place to go into a ton of detail on the Gradius games. Suffice to say that the original Gradius from 1985 is probably the single most influential horizontally scrolling shooter ever made. Like Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Bros., or Doom, it wasn’t the first of its kind, but it had just the right combination of groundbreaking new features and fortuitous timing needed to become emblematic of an entire genre for decades to come.

A total of five proper Parodius titles were released before the series fizzled out in 1996. The one I’m looking at today is the fourth entry, 1995’s Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (“Chatting Parodius Live”) for the Super Famicom.

Parodius games aren’t known for their complex plots and this one is no exception. An introductory cut scene (presented in a super grave, melodramatic style right out of a Gundam anime) depicts a mob of angry chickens, moai heads, and other classic series baddies flying toward the earth while ominous music plays. In a nice touch, all the player characters from previous games that were omitted from the roster this time around have also joined up with the enemy fleet to get revenge for being snubbed by the developers. It’s up to your sixteen heroes to stop them.

You heard right: There are sixteen playable characters available here, each with their own unique suite of weapons and power-ups. In addition to series staples like the Vic Viper and Lord British ships from Gradius and the TwinBee and WinBee ships from TwinBee, you can also select from a motley crew of penguins, cats, fairies, babies, octopuses, and even dancing stick figures riding paper airplanes. Though the variety can be a tad bewildering at first, experimenting with all these different “ships” in order to suss out which best suit your personal playstyle is a big part of the fun. Genre savvy players will also notice that many of the characters have weapon loadouts intended to mimic those from other, non-Konami shooters. Mike the cat’s armaments are patterned on the ship from Taito’s Darius, for example, while infant Upa’s were inspired by Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden. It’s no wonder that the credits at the end of Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius enthusiastically declare “We love shooting games!”

A couple months back, I played through Konami Wai Wai World for the Famicom, a 1988 game that anticipated later crossover releases like Super Smash Bros. by combining a ton of different Konami characters and settings into a single fanservicey package. Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is essentially the same idea, except presented as a shooter instead of a platformer. This applies not just to the playable cast, but to the game’s eight stages as well. While the stage themes in other Parodius games tended to be based on whatever wacky concepts caught the developers’ fancies, the ones in this installment are different in that they’re mostly spoofs of other Konami games and franchises. You’ll find yourself blasting your way through levels based on Ganbare Goemon (aka Legend of the Mystical Ninja), TwinBee, Gradius III, Xexex, and even the light gun shooter Lethal Enforcers and the Tokimeki Memorial high school dating simulators. The sole level that doesn’t seem to be based on a specific Konami game is the first, which instead has a penguin disco theme, complete with a rousing remix of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” complimenting the action.

What’s the deal with the title, though? How does live chatting factor into all this? Well, the cartridge includes a special expansion chip, the SA1. Beyond boosting the console’s processing speed considerably, the SA1 also enables data compression. It’s this latter feature that allowed the developers to cram a massive amount of digitized speech samples into the game. These take the form of a running gameplay commentary by a very excited old Japanese man. In his opening speech at the start of the game, he identifies himself as Tako, the octopus hero of the first Parodius. I’ve heard that his dialogue is mostly a mixture of gameplay hints, corny jokes, and mocking you whenever you lose a life. Personally, I can’t understand a word of it and generally turn the commentary track off in the options.

Gameplay is mostly textbook Gradius. You’ll fly from left to right, shooting down waves of enemies on the way to the stage boss and keeping your eyes peeled for the all-important power-up capsules. Collecting these cycles through the various upgrades listed on your power-up bar in turn. Once the upgrade you want is highlighted, you can cash in your capsules to equip it, which then starts the whole process over again. Getting hit and losing a life removes all your active power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint earlier in the stage. Also present are the gold bell items from the TwinBee series. Picking these up gives you bonus points. If you shoot the bells repeatedly first, however, they’ll change to a number of different colors that each grant you a temporary boon instead. These include invincibility or a single-use screen clearing bomb attack. One last thing to watch out for are the hidden fairies, which are revealed by shooting at seemingly empty parts of each stage. There are 70 of these in total and collecting them all will unlock a stage select feature. A two player option is available, although it’s sadly not simultaneous and involves the players alternating turns whenever one of them loses a life.

These are the basics, but Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius goes above and beyond by providing the player with some very extensive option menus. In addition to customizing the button layout, you can choose how many lives you start with, whether you’ll respawn instantly when you die or be sent back to a checkpoint, and even whether you want to manage your power-up bar yourself or have the computer purchase upgrades for you automatically. Best of all are the many difficulty options. Play ranges all the way from childishly simple on the lowest settings to a downright hellish ordeal on the highest. I started out using the default settings and found it to be a very happy medium. The action was just hectic enough that I had to pay attention and focus, yet not so crazy that I had undue trouble making progress once I did. Unusually for a game of this kind, the cartridge even includes a save battery so that it can keep track of your option settings, high scores, and fairies collected between sessions. The combination of so many distinct player characters and so many meaningful ways to tweak the gameplay itself results in an unprecedented degree of replay value for a shooter of its time.

Between its sheer depth and breadth, the sterling audiovisual polish you’d expect from Konami, and the pure weirdness factor, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is easily the best shooter I’ve played to date on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine. The only thing that comes close to holding it back is the slowdown. Even with that SA1 chip working overtime, there’s often more action taking place on screen than the hardware can easily juggle. While the framerate doesn’t chug as often or as badly as it does in, say, Gradius III and Super R-Type, it’s still a far cry from silky smooth much of the time. Apart from that annoyance, this is a remarkable game that every classic shooter fan should experience, either in this original incarnation or via one of the later enhanced ports to the PlayStation, Saturn, or PSP.

With everything it has to offer, I know I’ll be revisiting Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius regularly to try out new characters, new strategies, and higher difficulties. Plus, it’s the only game where I can nuke a skyscraper-sized anime schoolgirl with homing missiles. So far.

Magical Pop’n (Super Famicom)

Pop’n and lock’n!

Dang. There are cute games, there are really cute games, and then there’s Magical Pop’n. This 1995 action platformer is bristling with weapons-grade preciousness and comes to us courtesy of developer Polestar and publisher Pack-In-Video. Neither of these defunct outfits are exactly household names and this might be part of the reason why Magical Pop’n was never officially released outside its native land. It’s a real pity, because I feel quite confident declaring that it would be remembered as a much-loved classic by Super Nintendo fans worldwide if it had been. Instead, it’s never seen any sort of re-release or sequel and original copies command insane prices in the hundreds or thousands of dollars on online auction sites. Thank the pixelated gods above for reproduction cartridges!

Magical Pop’n is the tale of an adorable little princess named…nothing, actually. Hey, it’s still better than Prin Prin. Anyway, the Princess sets off to retrieve a magic gem of supreme power that was stolen from her father’s castle by the wicked Demon King and his minions in the opening cut scene. Her journey takes her through six very large levels filled with branching paths and secrets.

For a little kid, the Princess has some serious moves. She can run, jump, crouch, crawl and slide along the ground, and perform a number of sword attacks from these different positions. She also starts out with the ability to shoot beams of light at her foes in exchange for a few magic points, which are represented by star icons. Along the way, she’ll find and learn five types of new magic, as well. Most magic spells serve a dual purpose, functioning as both supplementary attacks and as a means of bypassing specific stage obstacles. The magical chain, for example, can be used to strike enemies and as a grappling hook to swing from certain outcroppings in Bionic Commando style. There are even magical desperation attacks you can trigger with the Select button. These will usually damage all enemies on screen in exchange for consuming significantly more of your magic points than normal. All of these moves are easy to execute and flow together very naturally, so the combat and platforming both feel great.

Levels include a city, a forest, mountainous caverns, a castle in the clouds, and more. Each one allows for a good amount of exploration and falls somewhere between Super Mario and Metroid in terms of openness. Their structure is linear in that you can’t revisit a stage after you’ve defeated its final boss, but still open enough that using a new magic ability acquired in a given stage will often allow you go back and access areas of the same stage which were sealed off or out of reach when you passed by them the first time. Doing this is the key to finding hidden treasures which will refill your health and magic, grant you extra lives, and even expand your health meter permanently with extra hearts. There are at least two bosses to battle in every stage, and some of the later ones have three or more. These fights are pretty fun, and while each stage’s final boss is suitably large and impressive looking, some of the sub-bosses reappear (with minor upgrades) in later stages. This sort of enemy recycling is pretty common in these sorts of games, however.

As an action game, Magic Pop’n is sheer joy. It’s fast-paced, presents plenty to see and do, and gives the player a ton of options for varied approaches to the battles and other challenges at hand. Once you pick it up, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away until all six stages have been conquered.

There’s still one thing that manages to impress even more than the gameplay, though, and it’s the insanely adorable presentation. This is obviously a late release for the system. The animation on the Princess and her adversaries is silky smooth and rendered with tremendous attention to detail. I love the way she covers her face with her hat when crouching, bounces on her butt after a long fall, pinwheels her arms and looks panicked when perched over a ledge, the list goes on and it’s all so freakin’ cute. The number of distinct animation frames puts this one nearly on par with a 2D game on a 32-bit console. The brilliant use of color bears mentioning, too. Magical Pop’n almost has the look of a PC Engine game with its super bold and bright palette. This is a style I just adore.

Then there’s the game’s real claim to fame in its day: The Princess talks! Veterans of the 16-bit era might be recoiling at this prospect already, hellish memories of Bubsy the Bobcat or even (shudder!) Awesome Possum flooding their minds. Let’s just say that most early experiments with chatty protagonists in platforming games were wretched, nails-on-chalkboard failures. Against all odds, Magical Pop’n pulls this trick off, too! The Princess is voiced by Japanese media personality Ai Iijima, who provided a separate voice clip for just about every action the Princess takes and even speaks the name of the game on the title screen. The voice samples are all clear sounding, thoroughly charming, and somehow never grow tiresome or obnoxious. I particularly like the “Yatta!” (“I did it!”) when finding an important item and her “Majikaru Bomba!” super bomb attack. The music is also excellent, with memorable melodies which start out peppy and upbeat in the earlier stages and grow increasingly heavy and driving as you near the final conflict with the Demon King. It reminds me of Little Nemo: The Dream Master in that sense. I guess I’m just a sucker for soundtracks that have a progression of sorts which matches the game as a whole.

Magical Pop’n is by no means a very challenging game. There’s a generous health bar, plenty of life-replenishing candy and cakes be found, no instant death hazards in the stages, numerous chances to earn extra lives, and unlimited continues. Some might see this as a negative. Me, I’ve been playing so many tough games lately that I found it to be a breath of fresh air. Now, I enjoy the whole do-or-die, “eye of the tiger” hardcore gaming struggle routine as much as the next person…Oh, who am I kidding? The next person’s got nothing on me there. Still, I need look no further than classics like DuckTales or Super Castlevania IV to appreciate that there’s a place for relatively forgiving games you can just kick back and breeze your way through when you’re not feeling quite so intense. Magical Pop’n fits this bill nicely.

One final thing I can thank this game for is introducing me to the fascinating individual who was Ai Iijima, the voice of the Princess. Her journey took her from teenage runaway and abuse survivor, to adult video sensation, to bestselling author and mainstream media superstar, to an abrupt retirement and a lonely death by pneumonia as a recluse at the young age of 36. Her’s was a singular and remarkable life, encompassing more dizzying heights and desperate lows than most of us will never know. Along the way, she also breathed life into one of the most lovable little heroines to grace the world of gaming. Magical indeed. Rest in peace, Your Highness.

Clock Tower (Super Famicom)

 

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Three Japan-exclusive horror games in a row? Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all!

This is 1995’s Clock Tower from Human Entertainment, also known as Clock Tower: The First Fear when it was later re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation, PC, and the Bandai WonderSwan of all things. Like many of Human’s other non-sports titles (Monster Party, Kabuki Quantum Fighter), Clock Tower is an odd duck. To my knowledge, it’s the only point-and-click adventure game developed for the Super Famicom. These sorts of games were typically confined to home computers with native mouse support and while you would occasionally see one ported over to a game console, most famously the NES version of Manic Mansion, creating one from scratch for a Nintendo system must have been a hard sell indeed. Weirdest of all in my book: This isn’t one of the several dozen games which support the Super Famicom mouse accessory that came out in 1992. Huh.

While this original Clock Tower title has never been officially released outside Japan in any of its various incarnations, all of its sequels have. Clock Tower 2 for the PlayStation was rather confusingly retitled simply Clock Tower outside of Japan, but make no mistake: These are two distinct games. Thankfully, I’m able to enjoy the Super Famicom original thanks to a fan translated reproduction cartridge.

In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted from a Norwegian orphanage by wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, along with three of her fellow orphans, Anne, Laura, and Lotte. Soon after arriving at the Barrows mansion, Mary, the woman escorting them, leaves to go fetch the master of the house. Noticing that Mary is taking an unusually long time to return, Jennifer volunteers to go find her. Before she can travel far, however, Jennifer hears screams from behind her and rushes back to the foyer only to find it dark and empty, her three friends having seemingly vanished into thin air. Jennifer is now left all alone in the cavernous old house, mystified as to who or what is stalking her and her companions.

The first thing you’ll notice once you take control of Jennifer is that this is a true point-and-click game. You have no direct control over Jennifer’s movements with the directional pad and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to direct her what to walk or run toward and what objects to interact with. You can also press the X button to cancel your last issued command and bring her to a standstill if you change your mind once she’s underway. You’ll have plenty of time to think it over while en route, too, because the second thing you’ll notice is how absurdly slow Jennifer moves. Despite being under mortal threat at all times, she shuffles down long hallways like she’s leisurely perusing the exhibits at an art gallery. If you need to take a quick bathroom break while playing, just have her climb a flight of stairs, which takes the better part of a full minute on its own. You can double tap the button to make her run, but this will rather perversely deplete her color-coded stress meter, basically this game’s version of health, even if she’s not running away from any specific danger.

You’ll want to keep her stress level at a minimum because it directly affects her ability to survive attacks by the mansion’s hostile residents. If Jennifer is under assault, her portrait in the lower left corner of the screen will flash, indicating “panic mode.” When this happens, mashing the action button as fast as possible can save her, provided her stress is not already in the red. Once the immediate threat has passed, you can lower the stress level by resting, which is triggered by standing still in a safe area for a period of time. Make sure to do this as needed, as there are no weapons or attacks available in Clock Tower. Other than panic mode, Jennifer’s only other form of defense is hiding from a pursuer. There are several hiding spots scattered throughout the mansion, but they’re not always guaranteed to work. If you successfully hide, your attacker will wander off and Jennifer will be free to do more exploring. If it doesn’t, it’s game over. Rather generously, though, there are unlimited continues in Clock Tower and they automatically put you back in the room where you died, so progress is never lost. I suppose this is one less thing to worry about, although it can bleed away a little of the game’s all-important tension if you stop to think about it too much.

Most of your play time is spent exploring the various rooms of the Barrows estate, collecting inventory items, and using them to solve puzzles, which will allow you to progress to new areas and advance the story. Actually, calling them “puzzles” might be a bit of a stretch in most cases. I know this is a difficult balance to strike for any game like this. Too much abstruseness and you end up with the sort of “moon logic” scenarios many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of thing. I get that. I would argue Clock Tower swings the pendulum a bit too much in the opposite direction, though. Does a gap in the floor with a wooden plank standing right up against the wall alongside it really constitute a puzzle? Unfortunately, it’s par for the course here. There’s nothing in the way of thought demanded. If a door is locked, just keep looking around until you find the key in a box or sitting on a desk or what have you. Pesky insects in your way? Keep checking rooms until you happen on some bug spray. This is probably Clock Tower’s biggest missed opportunity for me. It has enough well-executed horror (pun very much intended) to still be worth your time, but some properly satisfying brainteasers would have made it much more of a total package as far as games in this genre go. Perhaps the designers were afraid of alienating a console audience who may not have had much exposure to similar titles?

Between the complaints about the gratuitously slow movement and shallow puzzles, it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on Clock Tower as a whole. Let’s correct for that a bit, because it really gets a lot of other things very right.

First and foremost, the sheer sense of atmosphere is practically unmatched on the system. It’s right up there with Super Metroid in its ability to pull you into its world with a one-two punch of sumptuous locations and brilliant sound design. Every room of the mansion is packed with eerie detail and has its own unique identity. Furthermore, all this detail is never allowed to get in the way of the gameplay due to the smart decision to have the cursor change shape from an arrow to a box whenever it passes over an object you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered they almost look like digitized photographs. Music is saved only for important locations and circumstances. Most of the time you’ll all alone with the sounds of creaking doors, distant screams, and Jennifer’s footsteps, which is great way to emphasize that looming threats can strike from anywhere at any time and to lend them even more impact when they finally do.

Then there’s your nemesis, the infamous “scissorman.” This deformed maniac has the uncanny ability to appear when and where you least expect him, eager to put an agonizing end to Jennifer’s exploration of the mansion courtesy of his giant pair of shears. He isn’t the only fiend you’re up against, but he’s easily the most persistent and memorable of them all. Evading this pint-sized unstoppable freak is half the fun of Clock Tower. Most of the remaining half is trying, usually in vain, to anticipate his next appearance. It really does feel like an interactive slasher movie.

Clock Tower also has a decent amount of replayability. This is welcome indeed, as it’s a very short experience. The first trip through will likely take you an hour or two, but once you know how the game is structured, you can get that down to a half hour easily on subsequent sessions. The game employs a few tricks to keep these replays interesting. Key items and even some rooms within the mansion will switch places randomly, the exact item you need to locate in order to open the way to the final part of the mansion can vary, and even some plot elements and story scenes might only appear on some playthroughs. There are also nine different endings to discover and the game will keep track of which ones you’ve already seen. It won’t tell you exactly which actions you’ll need to take and which events you’ll need to witness in order to achieve each ending, however, so experimentation is encouraged. These endings are short but fairly varied. Depending on what actions you take, Jennifer could meet an untimely end, wind up a sole survivor, or successfully save some of her friends.

Viewed strictly as a game, Clock Tower is extremely limited. As an interactive horror experience, it’s not to be missed. The game’s director, Hifume Kono, makes no secret of the fact that his goal was to make a game based on his favorite scary movies, particularly those of Italian auteur Dario Argento. The plot and characters of Clock Tower borrow extensively from Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, right down to the name and look of the lead character Jennifer. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores prog rock band Goblin contributed to several Argento films. Kono has also stated that the scissorman was inspired by the famous hedge clipper massacre scene in the 1981 slasher flick The Burning. This makes two references to The Burning in two consecutive game reviews for me. How weird is that?

If you have any love for slasher movies, adventure games, or gorgeous 16-bit pixel art, you need to make time for Clock Tower.