Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (Famicom)

Goe Goe!

It’s high time I checked in with that one and only shaggy-haired Japanese Robin Hood, Goemon! I was introduced to this venerable folk hero (or at least Konami’s decidedly silly take on him) back in 1992 via the superb Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo.  As much as I love that game, it wasn’t until last year that I finally took a proper look at its immediate sequel, the equally excellent Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu. These are far from the first entries in their long running series, however, so I thought I’d travel back a bit further this time and see where the wackiness all began.

Well, maybe not quite that far. The saga technically opened with 1986’s Mr. Goemon, a simple side-scrolling action game for Japanese arcades that I don’t have any way of properly playing at the moment. Instead, I went with Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū (“Go For It, Goemon! A Tricky Journey”) on the Famicom. Arriving later in 1986, this was the first game to bear the Ganbare Goemon name and is much more representative of how the series as a whole would ultimately progress. I played it with the English fan translation by Spinner 8 and friends. Although this isn’t strictly necessary to comprehend or complete the game, it did allow me to enjoy a few extra chuckles courtesy of the goofy NPC dialog.

Karakuri Dōchū was a huge release for Konami in more ways than one. The cartridge was built around a massive two megabit (250 kilobyte) ROM chip. Puny as that obviously is now, it dwarfed the previous year’s biggest Famicom smash, the 31 KB Super Mario Bros. It also moved over a million copies, making it one of the best-selling Konami titles for the system domestically. It was popular enough that Nintendo released a version for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 as part of their Famicom Mini Series (better known as the Classic NES or NES Classics Series in other markets). Karakuri Dōchū may be obscure to you and me, but it was a cornerstone of Nintendo’s 8-bit library for an entire generation of Japanese gamers; easily on par with a Mega Man or Castlevania in that respect.

Our story takes place in the Edo period of feudal Japan. The noble class has grown insular and selfish, ruthlessly taxing the common folk to the very brink of destitution in order to fund their own decadent lifestyle. Goemon, kind-hearted outlaw and hero of the people, can stand it no longer. He sets off on a journey across the province to confront the lords face-to-face in their own palace and convince them to repent their wicked ways and govern more humanely.

As you can gather from that relatively down-to-earth synopsis, there are no bunnyman armies, flying peach battleships, or Goemon-shaped mecha this early on in the franchise. The wild surrealism that would come to define the later Ganbare games required a few more goes to really ramp up. Everything is depicted in cartoon style and you do get the occasional anachronistic reference in the form of townspeople proclaiming their love for Konami games, for example, but that’s it for now. Also absent are the gang of supporting characters Goemon accrued over subsequent outings. Ebisumaru, Yae, Sasuke, and the Wise Old Man were all still waiting in the wings at this point.

Goemon’s odyssey spans fourteen individual stages. True to the game’s subtitle, the majority of them are anything but straight dashes to the goal. Most require Goemon to scour a sprawling environment for secret underground passages and collect the three passes needed to open the gate to the next area before a timer runs down. How does Goemon go about discovering this hidden stuff? By jumping around like a madman! Leaping over the baskets and pots that litter the landscape will produce money and power-ups. Hopping in the vicinity of a secret passage will cause it to become visible. None of this makes any sense, of course, but you’ll still be tapping that A button like mad throughout your playthrough if you want to have any hope of finding those all-important passes. It’s the Karakuri Dōchū equivalent of bombing every wall and floor in Metroid or shooting bubbles everywhere in Milon’s Secret Castle.

In other words, this is yet another early Famicom action-adventure with a heavy emphasis on ferreting out invisible secrets through repetitive means. This, in conjunction with its overhead perspective, leads to frequent Legend of Zelda comparisons. These aren’t very useful, in my opinion. Karakuri Dōchū certainly has exploratory elements and a large game world for its time. At its heart, though, it’s more of a traditional action experience than anything else. It offers limited lives, no continues, no passwords or other way to record progress, and a linear level structure rather than one huge, continuous play space. Come expecting Zelda with old-timey Japanese trappings and you’re only setting yourself up for frustration.

If you’re familiar with the town gameplay from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Karakuri Dōchū is probably best understood as an entire game built around the concept. Most levels are set in a city or village, complete with numerous shops, inns, and other buildings that Goemon can hit up for items and health replenishment. When he’s not doing that, he’ll be wandering the streets fending off a never ending supply of police, pickpockets, and other pushy types with his iconic kisiru pipe and throwing coins. Whatever you do, don’t forget to stop in and play the 3-D maze games. For a modest fee, Goemon can explore a first-person dungeon straight out of Wizardry and plunder its many treasures. Not only does the timer halt when Goemon is in a maze, there are no enemies or other threats to hassle him there. He’s effectively free to poke around at his leisure for cash, extra lives, and gate passes. Each maze invariably has more cash stashed inside than it costs to enter in the first place, making me wonder how the people running them manage to stay in business.

The flipside to the towns are the handful of wilderness zones that see Goemon traversing rugged mountain ranges and island chains. These are far and away the most difficult sections of the game, since fatal plunges off cliffs or into the sea are a constant threat and facilities where Goemon can replenish his health and defensive gear are few and far between. Treat yourself to a well-earned pat on the back anytime you manage to squeak by a wilderness stage without losing a life.

After twelve levels of this, Karakuri Dōchū wraps up with a pair of climactic stages set in and around the daimyō’s palace. There are no gate passes to worry about here, just a gauntlet of the game’s strongest enemies standing between Goemon and his quarry. There’s no final boss, either. Reaching the lord’s inner chamber simply triggers the ending cut scene and then ships Goemon back to the very first stage with his score, lives, and items intact. Looping the game like this a total of eight times in a row supposedly rewards the player with an extended ending. Considering that beating it once takes the better part of an hour even when you know what you’re doing…Yeah, I’m good, thanks.

So what did I make of Karakuri Dōchū? I’ll say that if you’re a Goemon fan hoping for more of the familiar characters and absurd situations so common to later games in the series, you’re likely come away disappointed. Similarly, you may find its sheer difficulty jarring if you’re accustomed to saves and continues. The ideal audience for this is someone with an open-minded interest in the history of the Goemon series paired with an established fondness for rough, challenging mid-’80s action-adventure games. That is to say, me. Yes, I had myself a fine time on this tricky journey. While some boss battles would have been nice and the need to jump everywhere or risk missing out on important items is indeed obnoxious, Goemon and his world are still appealing, even in embryonic form. Above all, I found scrambling to survive and gather everything I needed in each stage before time ran out stimulating and satisfying.

Karakuri Dōchū is a classic in its native land for good reason and things only get better, and weirder, from here. Bring it on!

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Milon’s Secret Castle (NES)

I was braced for some serious punishment when I stepped through the gates of Milon’s Secret Castle. There’s certainly no shortage of other commentators out there eager to denounce this 1986 side-scrolling action-adventure from Hudson Soft as one of the most agonizing times you can have with your NES short of cramming your unmentionables into the cartridge slot. Its bad reputation didn’t start with the Angry Video Game Nerd series this time, either. Early Internet semi-celebrity “Seanbaby” Reiley was dumping on Milon as far back as the late ’90s. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself reflecting on what blessed lives these folks must lead if something like this is anywhere near the bottom of their digital shit lists. I’m reminded of the naifs who’ll tell you very matter-of-factly that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made when it’s not even within spitting distance of being Wood’s worst, nevermind the worst. Have these sheltered souls even heard of Monster a Go-Go!? Psyched by the 4-D Witch? Things? I doubt it.

That’s not to say Milon’s Secret Castle (aka Meikyū Kumikyoku: Milon no Daibōken, “The Maze Suite: Milon’s Great Adventure”) is any sort of misunderstood masterpiece, only that it falls into the same class as stuff like Silver Surfer and Fester’s Quest. These are all indisputably flawed games, perhaps even clunky ones, that are still worth learning if you’re patient and relish a challenge. Are they underrated? Sure, but only in light of the absurd amount of abuse hurled at them. In a less hyperbolic climate, they’d be considered pretty okay-ish. I suppose there’s comparatively little entertainment value in an assessment like that, though.

So who’s Milon? He’s a young boy from the modestly-named land of Hudson. All of his countrymen rely on music to express themselves, but poor Milon is apparently tone deaf or something, since he alone lacks this ability. Despondent, he sets out on a journey to find others like himself. He soon comes across Castle Gardland, which has been invaded by the warlord Maharito. This fiend has stolen the people’s musical instruments and imprisoned Queen Eliza within the depths of her own castle. Milon volunteers to save her and is given an enchanted bubble blower by the castle’s magician to use as a weapon against Maharito’s demons.

With “secret” right there in the title, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Milon’s quest revolves around discovering the many hidden passageways and items tucked away throughout the castle. Doing this will gradually reveal the lairs of seven boss monsters. Defeating them and obtaining the crystals they leave behind will power-up Milon and, eventually, open the way to Maharito’s inner sanctum.

Virtually everything in this game is presented as a secret, regardless of how illogical that can be at times. Whenever Milon enters one of the castle’s sprawling multi-screen rooms, for example, he won’t be allowed to leave until he discovers the hidden exit. You’d naturally expect him to be able to exit at any time via the same doorway he just entered through. Silly you with your common sense. The go-to method for revealing all these secrets is to shoot up as much of the scenery as possible with Milon’s bubbles. This will uncover hidden doors, money needed to acquire items in shops, honeycombs that expand Milon’s health bar, and more. The instruction manual tells you this much.

What the instructions don’t see fit to mention is that Milon can also shove certain blocks aside in order to discover doors hidden behind them. In fact, you can’t progress past the very first section of the game without doing this. Worse yet, Milon has no dedicated pushing animation, so it’s possible a player may actually attempt this out of desperation only to give up after not holding the D-pad down quite long enough. It took me nearly an hour to get past this classic beginner’s trap, which is easily more time than I spent on any of the game’s later puzzles. This total failure on Hudson’s part to provide basic information on a key gameplay feature is what led to the infamous “Getting Started” feature in Nintendo Power’s Classified Information column, a space typically reserved for advanced strategies and esoteric codes.

Whether you chalk it up to ignorance or malice, I believe this single egregious blunder is responsible for countless bad first impressions of the game over the years. Once I finally figured it out (and roundly cursed the team at Hudson’s mothers when I confirmed the problem wasn’t on my end), the rest of the journey was relatively smooth sailing. I quickly fell into a rhythm of scouring each new room for hidden stuff, finding items, and taking down bosses. I still died a ton, of course, as the enemies infesting this castle don’t mess around. They attack relentlessly and respawn almost instantly when destroyed. Milon also doesn’t enjoy any significant post-hit invincibility window, so baddies can quickly pile on loads of damage if they manage to make contact. You have unlimited continues, thankfully, although they don’t kick in until after you defeat the first boss for some odd reason. This keeps the game beatable in spite of its non-stop brutal combat. Alas, no save or password system is provided. You’ll nèed to tackle this one in a single sitting.

Setting its cryptic structure and formidable difficulty aside for the moment, Secret Castle’s dismal reputation among NES enthusiasts is also likely due in part to the quirks of its release schedule. Its Famicom debut in late 1986 came a mere handful of months after The Legend of Zelda and Metroid put console action-adventure/RPG games on the map. It thus predates Tecmo’s Rygar, Konami’s Castlevania II, and most other third party efforts in that vein. Its release on the NES nearly two full years later effectively robbed it of its head start and left it looking somewhat primitive next to the competition at a time in gaming history when the state of the art was advancing at lightning speed. Call it the Hydlide Effect.

I’m not about to tell you that Milon’s Secret Castle is as great as its first party predecessors or the majority of those more sophisticated post-1986 takes on the same concepts I just mentioned. The fierce challenge and need to constantly probe every square inch of the environment for secrets simply won’t appeal to everyone. Its lack of a save feature can also represent a daunting time commitment to newcomers, a gaffe that was remedied by the welcome addition of passwords to the 1993 Japanese Game Boy port. What it does have to offer is cute, colorful graphics in that timeless flat early NES style, a catchy (if limited) soundtrack, and a lovable protagonist with a whimsical and intriguing world to explore.

I guess I can’t help but root for this plucky, bubble blasting kid. He’s an outsider and an underdog, both in his own native fantasy world and NES fandom at large, but he never lets it bring him down. It doesn’t matter if he’s getting dissed and dismissed for his musical incompetence or his supposedly crappy first game; that happy-go-lucky grin of his can weather any storm. Why hate when you can be like Milon?

Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

Metroid: Rogue Dawn (NES)

As I made abundantly clear last week, I quite enjoyed my most recent playthroughs of Nintendo’s immortal Metroid. So much so that I was left craving more NES Metroid goodness. The only problem? There isn’t any! Unlike fellow iconic heroes Link, Mega Man, and Simon Belmont, sci-fi badass Samus Aran never saw another outing on the system of her “birth.” The second and third Metroid adventures were reserved for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, respectively, leaving NES fans to wonder for decades what might have been.

Until 2017, that is, when a large team of talented collaborators (Grimlock, Optomon, snarfblam, Parasyte, Kenta Kurodani, DemickXII, M-Tee, MrRichard999, RealRed) released Metroid: Rogue Dawn, by far the most ambitious ROM hack of the original game to date. The bullet points here should pique the interest of any veteran space hunter: Entirely new art, sound, and story elements, added power-ups, a save feature, a Super Metroid style auto-map, and more. I’m pleased to say that while it’s not without its minor hiccups, the end result is tremendous fun and does indeed feel like a genuine lost sequel.

I say sequel, but Rogue Dawn actually goes the prequel route and bases its events on the backstory detailed in the first Metroid’s instruction manual. The player controls the mysterious Dawn Aran, a figure the developers hint has some close connection to Samus. Whether she’s supposed to be a long-lost relative, a clone, or something else entirely is left deliberately obscure. A good call, if I do say so myself. Ambiguity is highly underrated. What we do know for sure about Dawn is that she’s no angel. She’s a space pirate operative acting on orders from none other than recurring series antagonist Ridley. Her mission: To acquire a Metroid specimen from the Galactic Federation research team on planet SR388 by any means necessary. This “play as the villain” angle holds much appeal for me. It goes places no official release from Nintendo ever would while still remaining true to the established narrative.

Experienced players should be able to dive right in and start plumbing the depths of SR388 with ease, as Dawn runs, jumps, and shoots just like Samus. Mostly. One notable difference is that she starts out equipped with the Maru Mari (Morph Ball) and Long Beam. No more having to make due with a pathetic stream of gunfire that hardly extends more than an arm’s length in front of you. The total number of additional power-ups you can eventually attain through exploration remains the same, however, as the Morph Ball and Long Beam pickups have been replaced by Metroid II’s Spring Ball and Super Metroid’s Wall Jump! These two new movement abilities alone have massive implications for the overall flow of the action. Being able to rebound off any wall in particular makes negotiating vertical passages a cinch. A final inventory tweak I really love: You’re no longer forced to choose between the Ice Beam and Wave Beam. You can now equip both simultaneously and their effects stack.

Rogue Dawn’s level design has also been infused with fresh ideas. There’s a much larger number of unique screens here than in Metroid proper and they tend to connect in more intricate ways. It’s common for a given screen to be divided up by walls, creating two or more distinct routes through the same section of map, a technique almost never seen in the original. SR388’s environments aren’t all cramped underground tunnels linked by doors, either. You’ll traverse portions of the planet’s surface (some of which sport gorgeous weather effects), underwater areas with modified movement physics, the interiors of your own pirate spaceship and the Federation research vessel, a Metroid hive, and possibly even some downright strange hidden zones if you’re fortunate enough to stumble onto them.

In profiling Metroid, I repeatedly stressed that, for better or worse, the game has a rather stern 1986 vintage mindset and eschews any sort of overt player guidance. Rogue Dawn opts for a more modern approach. Your general goal is still the same: Defeat two sub-bosses in order to open the way to the final area and boss. The difference is that the presence of an in-game map with major equipment upgrades and boss encounters already pre-marked makes it borderline impossible to get yourself lost for any significant period of time. I’m already on record as being no fan of developer hand-holding like this. I prefer to figure things out on my own. That said, even I can’t claim to have found all of Rogue Dawn’s “quality of life” updates so unwelcome. Being able to save your game at any time through a menu is much less cumbersome than relying on a password system, for example. Better still, you start each new play session here with full energy and the recharging stations seen in most official sequels that top off your health and missile supply are scattered liberally about the map. Endless enemy farming to refill your reserves is now a thing of the past.

I found the new graphics and music to  be superb across the board. The high degree of visual detail reminds me more of Super Metroid than its 8-bit ancestor and the neon-like effect produced when splashes of bright color pop out out from the stark black backdrops recalls Sunsoft’s first NES Batman game. High praise indeed. The score by Optomon really took me by surprise in the best possible way. I came down against his compositions in Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, judging them too dainty for the furious on-screen action, but there’s no denying that he gets what makes a Metroid game tick. These tracks are tense, eerie, and, above all, atmospheric. Eat your heart out, “Hip” Tanaka!

What about those “hiccups” I mentioned above? Well, I have two primary issues with Rogue Dawn. One relates to an especially quirky aspect of its level design and the other to its boss battles. While I adore the layout of the game world in general and even consider it an improvement on the source material in some respects (like the larger, more exciting final area), there are several locations where passages inexplicably wrap around themselves in an endless loop if you don’t pass through them in just the right way. The effect is similar to The Legend of Zelda’s Lost Woods or the escape tunnels on either side of a Pac-Man maze. While this sort of surreal navigation gimmick can work just fine in the context of a fantasy world with magic or an abstract single-screen arcade game, it’s fundamentally at odds with the more grounded feel and sense of place vital to a Metroid title. It’s so jarringly video gamey, in fact, that it instantly shatters any sense of immersion I’ve managed to cultivate each and every time it crops up.

My disappointment with the boss fights stems simply from the realization that they’re same as they ever were, for the most part. Sprites have been re-drawn, of course, but the distinctive attacks and behaviors of Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain are unmistakable. There is a fourth boss unique to Rogue Dawn and I certainly commend the team for that. It’s just a shame that the enemies you face are the one aspect of the base game that’s seen the fewest changes.

Leaving aside those few out-of-place warp corridors and recyled bosses, it should be clear by now that Rogue Dawn is a most extraordinary fan game. It’s easily the current high water mark for NES Metroid hacks in general and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. If you’re the type that considers the game it’s based on to be too difficult or confusing, you may well find it superior to Nintendo’s own work. While I wouldn’t go that far, I can’t deny that this is one case where going rogue paid off big. Make like Dawn Aran and pirate yourself a copy today.

Metroid (NES)

Space bikini is best bikini!

Sometimes I think I was made to chronicle the arcane oddities time forgot. When my task is to focus on one of the the all-time capital G Greats, I always seem to come down with a vicious amalgamation of stage fright and writer’s block. This is never more true than when tackling one of the Holy Trinity of world-shaking Nintendo titles that came out in that golden year between the Fall seasons of 1985 and 1986: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. There’s just no way I’m going to say something no one ever has before about a game that immediately became its very own genre upon release and is still spawning acclaimed imitators like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge more than three decades later. Still, my continuing mission is to review each and every game I complete and I recently wrapped up a couple playthroughs of Metroid, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

In the interest of accuracy, I should first qualify that statement about Metroid founding its own genre. I’m very much aware that space hunter Samus Aran didn’t emerge fully-formed from the Nintendo R&D1 design team’s collective brow like Athena (the goddess, not the terrible SNK game). Pitfall! had introduced the world to exploratory platforming in 1982 and games with shooting combat and persistent character upgrades are older still. Metroid’s genius was taking almost everything that was hot in gaming circa 1986 (running, jumping, shooting, exploration, character progression) and synthesizing it all into one exceptionally palatable dish served with a garnish of slick graphics and house composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s brooding score. It felt so fresh to so many that any retroactive quibbling over whether it really was or not is ultimately petty.

Metroid opens in the vague future year 20X5. A ruthless band of space pirates led by an entity known as Mother Brain have attacked a Galactic Federation research ship and stolen samples of a newly-discovered life form with powerful energy absorption abilities, the Metroids. Left to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time before the pirates succeed at weaponizing the Metroids and bring all of galactic civilization to its knees. In desperation, the Federation sends ace bounty hunter Samus on a last-ditch solo mission to infiltrate the subterranean fortress planet Zebes and neutralize the Metroid threat. It won’t be easy. Zebes is a sprawling maze teeming with hostile creatures and Samus starts out with very little in the way of equipment. Its deadly corridors must be scoured with care in order to acquire the many power suit upgrades necessary to eliminate the two space pirate lieutenants, Ridley and Kraid, which will, in turn, reveal the way to Mother Brain’s inner sanctum.

Of course, no discussion of Metroid’s story would be complete if it didn’t address the big twist. Reach the end in under five hours and the mysterious masked hero Samus is revealed to be…a woman! This is hardly big spoiler material 33 years on, but the most interesting thing about it for me personally is that I have no specific recollection of discovering it. I certainly owned the game back around the time of its North American release. I sank so much time into it, in fact, that I was still able to track down every item within a couple of hours during my most recent play session despite not having touched it in decades. Combing through all those detailed memories, however, there’s nothing remotely approximating the standard anecdote about being shocked or blown away by Samus’ gender reveal. Was I just some uncommonly open-minded ten year-old that didn’t see a lady video game hero as all that unlikely? Beats me.

As with the first Legend of Zelda, certain elements of Metroid have proven contentious for fans of its many sequels and imitators. To put it bluntly, this game doesn’t hold your hand. At all. From the instant you hit Start on the title screen, you’re plopped down into the Brinstar, the game’s main hub area, with nothing but a paltry amount of health, a weak gun that can’t hit anything more than a couple inches distant, and your wits. You get no built-in map feature, no helpful NPCs to point you in the right direction, no hints whatsoever really. The manual does an admirable job of detailing the controls as well as all the items you can find and enemies you’ll encounter, but that’s all. Your choices are to either march off and get yourself lost in a perilous environment or to get hold of somebody else’s pre-made map (i.e. cheat).

Compounding the potential bewilderment, level structure here is open to a downright anarchic degree. Most Metroid-likes, while proudly billing themselves as open and non-linear, actually prefer to subtly nudge the player around by gating large chunks of their worlds off behind conspicuous barriers that require specific upgrades to pass. Metroid doesn’t care. Once you acquire the bombs and at least a few missiles early on in Brinstar, you can technically go anywhere and do anything, with the lone exception of taking on Mother Brain herself. If you want to wander into an area filled with ultra-tough critters that can take you out in a few seconds flat, you won’t be stopped. You won’t even be warned.

It’s not hard to imagine how players accustomed to more in the way of so-called signposting could be frustrated to no end by these design choices. Resisting the urge to fly into full-on “kids these days” mode like the crotchety old man I am, I will say that Metroid is a product of its time, made by and for old-school adventure game players. From that vantage point, getting lost and confused, dying a lot, methodically probing each and every dead for secret passages, and creating your own maps by hand aren’t bugs, they’re features. If, like me, you’re the type that gets a major rush from finally finding the correct hidden route to a boss or power-up after what feels like an eternity of fruitless searching, Metroid’s a game for you. If you’d prefer a handy flashing arrow directing you to your next objective, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This isn’t to say that all of Metroid’s flaws are subjective. Replenishing Samus’ lost health is a major pain. She starts her adventure with a maximum health of 99 and can eventually increase that to almost 700 by collecting energy tanks. For whatever reason, though, every time you continue your game, be it after a death or via password save, you’re only given a measly 30 units of health, barely enough to a withstand a couple of hits. The only way to regain health, aside from locating another of the rare and finite energy tanks, is to farm weak enemies for healing pickups. These drop inconsistently and most only restore five points at a time. It requires the forbearance of an 8-bit saint to sit there and grind all the way back to full energy in the late game.

There are also some instances of cheap damage to contend with. Many areas of the game are linked by doors and Samus is unable to move during the panning screen transition that occurs whenever a doorway is entered. Her enemies have no such restrictions and will continue to move around and deal their damage during these brief interludes. Getting followed through a doorway by a strong baddie while your energy reserves are low is a virtual death sentence. It would have been a small thing to render Samus temporarily invulnerable while she’s immobilized in this way. As it is, it stands out as sloppy.

While these rough patches are very much real and worth noting, I don’t feel they detract in any meaningful way from what Metroid achieved back in the mid ’80s or what it still has to offer the most patient of modern day enthusiasts. Its stark environments, eerie soundtrack, and general lack of clemency foster a profound sense of player immersion. You really do feel like a lone warrior stranded deep behind enemy lines on an uncharted alien world. Every element of the design and presentation supports this singular vision of claustrophobic dread and isolation. This quality is what made Metroid one of the very first truly atmospheric console releases and the effect remains as potent as ever when the game is approached as intended today. It’s also what sets this debut entry in the franchise apart from its successors, all of which relied on more linear progression schemes, auto-maps, and NPC hints to soften that hardcore edge some. I can’t say there’s anything strictly wrong with such measures, though I do liken them to adding a net to a perfectly good trapeze act. Crotchety old man, remember?

If you take away one thing from all this, let it be that Metroid is an instant classic, an enduring design landmark, and a must-play video game, provided you have the correct temperament for it. Gamer, know thyself.

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

I’ve covered several noteworthy clone games over the years, going so far as to label some of them (Master of Darkness, Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest) particularly shameless copycats. Being brazen is one thing, but Sega’s 1991 Master System release Golden Axe Warrior is the first such game I’ve encountered that takes things a step further. Its makers were seemingly so intent on proving anything Nintendo could do, they could do better that their work reads as downright defiant. The way Sega painstakingly duplicates even the most peripheral elements of The Legend of Zelda here has all the earmarks of a rebel stance.

Now, I realize that throwing around loaded terms like “clone” and “copycat” can raise some red flags. Just to be clear, I’m don’t believe that a lack of originality is some sort of mortal design sin. Innovation is praiseworthy as a general thing, sure, but I’m here for a good time and Golden Axe Warrior is a decently fun take on the Zelda formula. I can even find it in my heart to cut Sega some slack in light of their circumstances at the time. Nintendo had spent the better part of the past decade leading up to this game’s release using every dirty trick and strong-arm tactic in the book to push third party game developers and retailers away from the Sega brand. This resulted in the Master System being all but frozen out of the two biggest game markets in the world at time: North America and Japan. I’d have a golden axe to grind under such conditions, too.

Most classic gaming devotees will rightly surmise that Golden Axe Warrior is based on the Golden Axe series of fantasy beat-’em-ups that started in the arcades back in 1989. The basic scenario presented here is overall quite faithful to the first arcade game’s: The wicked giant Death Adder has overrun the land. You assume control of (and name) a young hero orphaned by Death Adder on a quest to vanquish the tyrant. Oddly, while all three iconic protagonists from the arcade title make brief cameos in Golden Axe Warrior, none of them are playable.

So, how exactly does Golden Axe Warrior mirror Zelda? You have the overhead view, of course. The flip-screen scrolling. Similar sword and shield-based combat. A health meter represented by tiny red hearts. A sprawling overworld dotted with trees and rock formations, many of which conceal cave entrances. Nine magic crystals that must be gathered from nine separate underground dungeons filled with locked doors and simple puzzles before you can enter the tenth and final dungeon to face Death Adder himself. Upgrades within each dungeon that allow you do things like illuminate dark areas and travel over water. Did I miss anything? Yup! Golden Axe Warrior actually goes so far as to knock off specific oddball Zelda enemies. It includes its own take on the tube-shaped Like Like critters that gobble up your character and steal his items, for example. Hell, even the money making game and those obnoxious door repair jerks make appearances! I never thought I’d see the day a Zelda-inspired game would bother porting over the friggin’ door repair guy, but here we are. It’s this whole added layer of unnecessary copying that makes me think Sega was hoisting a big virtual middle finger at their arch-rivals.

Again, I’m not trying to imply that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t worthy of your time. It handles the majority of these familiar elements with grace and even exceeds Zelda itself on a couple fronts. It looks much nicer for one thing, owing to the Master System’s superior color capabilities. The world building and storytelling are also much improved. Hyrule, as presented in the first Legend of Zelda, came off much more like trackless wilderness than a proper kingdom. The lands you visit in Golden Axe Warrior are dotted with actual settlements and the NPCs dwelling in them generally have more copious and useful dialogue to dispense than their NES counterparts. A few towns you’ll discover will be ruined and strewn with corpses; a rather elegant way to reinforce the threat of Death Adder and his minions.

Slick as the majority of Golden Axe Warrior is, the combat constitutes a major stumbling block in my book. While the swordplay is superficially very similar to Zelda’s, the devil is in the details. Your weapons all seem to have a shorter reach than Link’s sword and they also cause less pushback to enemies. Consequently, I found it much more of a pain to get close enough to deal my damage without taking any in return. This is exacerbated by the fact that your ranged attack options are limited to magic spells and you can’t really afford to waste your limited magic power on cannon fodder baddies when it’s your only means of opening many locked doors and secret passages. The fighting in Golden Axe Warrior was mostly just an annoyance for me. The precise spacing and timing required is simply way too finicky for a game in this style. Either more sword range or some extra projectile weapons like the boomerang, bow, and wand from Zelda would have smoothed things out significantly.

Once you do eventually adapt to this exacting combat, Golden Axe Warrior reveals itself to be one of the more accomplished Master System releases of its kind. I’ll certainly take it over Compile’s Golvellius any day. At the same time, though, it could have been so much more. Its developers placed such a high premium on replicating Nintendo’s seminal effort that they essentially forgot to make a Golden Axe game! Virtually none of the memorable scenes or mechanics from the beloved beat-’em-ups are represented here. Imagine if you could play as Ax Battler, Tyris Flare, or Gilius Thunderhead instead of some blank slate nobody. Perhaps you’d be able to switch between all three heroes as needed to make use of their unique weapons and spells. What about getting to kick ass mounted on some of the fantastic beasts you can saddle up and ride in the arcade? Even booting around those weird little gnome thief dudes to refill your health and magic would have been something. An adventure game that made a bona fide attempt to hybridize Golden Axe and Zelda could have been a real knockout entry in the genre with a far more wide-reaching legacy.

Alas, poor Golden Axe Warrior. Scion of a proud line, it got so carried away trying to beat the enemy at their own game that it lost its very identity in the process.

Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!