Gargoyle’s Quest: Ghosts ‘n Goblins (Game Boy)

I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly engaged in heroics. I play through a different classic game every week, after all. Selflessly fighting to save princesses, planets, and the occasional whole universe is par for the course. Sometimes, though, it feels pretty dang good to be bad. Arcade manufacturer Exidy had this figured out as early as 1976. That was the year they debuted Death Race, which touched off what some have called the first video game moral panic by encouraging its players to run down helpless humanoid figures with their cars for points. Here we are over four decades later and the vehicular homicide-happy Grand Theft Auto V is currently the second best-selling game of all time, much to the chagrin of those very same reactionary watchdog types. There’s a beautiful continuity to it all.

It’s in that subversive spirit that I now turn to Gargoyle’s Quest: Ghosts ‘n Goblins. This 1990 action-platformer represents the first Game Boy work from powerhouse publisher Capcom. As its oft-omitted subtitle indicates, it’s a spin-off from their Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise. If you don’t recall encountering any gargoyles there, you’re not alone. In truth, Gargoyle’s Quest sees you playing as Firebrand, one of the deadly winged Red Arremer demons that have so vexed knight Arthur over the years. The game’s Japanese name, Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden (“Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story”), makes no secret of this. We almost certainly have Nintendo’s long established reluctance to risk offending religious special interest groups overseas to blame for the misleading title change and the goofy lime green rendition of Firebrand on the cover. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that you control a thoroughly wicked demon in this one. You’re even gifted a handy power-up by Lucifer himself at one point, although it’s easy to miss due to the way his name was altered to the bizarre Rushifell during localization.

As the story opens, Firebrand is busy doing what he does best: Sacking and burning a town in the human world. His conquest is then cut short by an urgent distress call. It seems his hellish home, the Ghoul Realm, is itself under attack by an army of Destroyers from another dimension. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. It falls on Firebrand to return to the Ghoul Realm and repel the invaders by embracing his destiny as a champion of underworld prophecy, the Red Blaze.

What follows is thirteen stages of clever, compelling side-view action unlike anything seen previously in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Firebrand can walk, jump, and breathe fire at foes, but his wings and claws are what really make Gargoyle’s Quest a distinct experience. Using them, he can glide horizontally for a limited time (as represented by a stamina meter) and cling to walls. Simple as this sounds, all the considerable level design acumen on display here is laser focused on testing your ability to manage these two actions under ever more demanding conditions.

Firebrand’s jump height and wing strength gradually grow as he acquires specific key items. He similarly gains additional health and new breath attacks that can break certain blocks or create temporary claw anchor points on spiked surfaces. Every new power boost is neatly balanced by an overall increase in the intricacy of the enemy placement and stage layouts, however, preventing you from resting on your laurels. The going’s not easy. Thankfully, a password system is in place to maintain your progress between sessions.

I’ve been describing Gargoyle’s Quest purely in action game terms thus far because that’s what I believe it to be at heart. That said, it does also include a Dragon Quest style overworld complete with towns. Before you adventure and RPG fans get too excited, I should add that its implementation is bare bones in the extreme. Firebrand’s journey is a strictly linear one, meaning that the Ghoul Realm never opens up and permits you to visit multiple locations in the order of your choosing. NPCs are terse and devoid of personality, their dialogue functional at best. The only optional items to be found are extra lives. This isn’t a fantasy world you explore so much as elaborate set dressing intended to add some gloomy atmosphere and a sense of epic scope to the core action-platforming.

Speaking of atmosphere, I can’t overstate how superb Gargoyle’s Quest looks and sounds for an early Game Boy release. Backgrounds are richly detailed and often feature moving elements as well, putting the static voids seen in the likes of Super Mario Land to shame. Firebrand and the majority of his opponents animate well and there’s loads of sinister charm packed into their tiny sprites. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura, two industry greats still at it to this day, and is a remarkable achievement all-around. Listening to it, you can genuinely feel the grim desolation of the Ghoul Realm wash over you.

In short, Gargoyle’s Quest is a class act. Is it perfect? I should say not. It’s prone to slowing down when the screen gets crowded, the milquetoast localization does substantial violence to its intended demonic theme, and the paper-thin adventure mechanics could have been deepened at least a little without bogging down the action. Regardless, it’s been one of my most loved Game Boy exclusives ever since its release. It strikes me as a companion piece of sorts to another of my favorite old school Capcom offerings, the NES Bionic Commando. They each use the contrivance of a rudimentary overhead world map to present a smoothly escalating series of obstacle course-like challenges built to test your mastery of the main character’s unorthodox platforming abilities. I reckon this is probably no coincidence, given that Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Bionic Commando are both creations of star Capcom director/producer Tokuro Fujiwara.

So, is it truly better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven? I’ll leave that one to the theologians. My boy Firebrand sure seems to be enjoying himself, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dungeon Explorer II (TurboGrafx-16)

Sometimes a nice, cozy retread is just what the doctor ordered. Case in point: 1993’s Dungeon Explorer II for the TurboGrafx-16. The original’s slick Gauntlet-inspired multiplayer action made it stand out among the system’s 1989 launch lineup. Dungeon Explorer II made the leap from cartridge to CD-ROM, using all that extra memory to realize what’s effectively an extended take on its predecessor with amped-up music and a few voiced cut scenes. If it wasn’t for the huge logos situated front and center on the main display, you’d be hard-pressed to tell screenshots of the two apart. Good thing I found Dungeon Explorer such a joy, especially with friends, that roughly 150% more of it feels like a sweet deal rather than a missed opportunity.

The evil King Natas has returned and once again seeks the all-powerful artifact known as the Ora so that he can dominate the world. Natas has a right-hand man this time, the dark magician Phades, who roams the land doing his master’s dirty work and seems to have a hidden agenda of his own. While this plot is basic and ostensibly similar to what came before, I can at least applaud the designers at Hudson Soft for presenting it in a more interesting manner. Cut scenes afford the villains the screen time they need to actually be villains. Their roles aren’t limited to sitting around in the last room of the last dungeon waiting for you to show up and slaughter them. That sort of passive off-screen opposition was a bane of far too many otherwise excellent old games. It also helps that the English localization and voice casting by Working Designs is above average for the period.

As per the previous game, you and up to four other players begin your journey with the choice of eight main heroes. Each has his or her own pros and cons rooted in the starting values of four primary stats: Attack, Agility, Strength, and Intelligence. In addition, every character wields two magic spells, one white (defensive) and the other black (offensive). Magic use is dependent on your current stock of white and black potions. Run out of a given potion color and you’ll be unable to cast that spell until you replenish your supply. Hidden characters make their return as well. There are six to recruit, upping the roster to a robust fourteen. I’m a fan of the warrior princess and the machine gunning robot, myself.

New to this installment are a handful of optional locations and short sidequests scattered throughout the game world that can only be accessed by specific classes. You might come across a locked door that can only be opened by a thief, for example, or a village of xenophobic elves. The reward for finishing one of these is often a permanent upgrade to the hero in question, making them tempting indeed. Fortunately for all you completionists out there, you’re no longer restricted to a single character per playthrough. Instead, you’re free to swap between the entire cast at will by visiting a tavern and talking to the barmaid. This ability to try out different options without having to restart the whole game every time is another welcome refinement, as is the “fast travel” mechanic that makes revisiting previously off-limits areas a cinch.

Apart from these tertiary tweaks, the heart of the Dungeon Explorer experience remains frantic overhead-view action. Move and fire in eight directions, keep an eye out for power-ups, and be sure to take out those pesky enemy generators as quickly as possible on your way to the boss. Kill the boss to obtain a crystal that will permanently raise your maximum hit points and increase the stat of your choice. Then it’s on to next dungeon to do it all over. Even with those added story sequences and side missions, the more cerebral elements of the adventure and RPGs genres are still downplayed here in favor of arcade style pick-up-and-play combat.

As a near carbon copy of a game that already took considerable inspiration from a certain Atari classic, Dungeon Explorer II won’t win any awards for originality. If you loved the first as much as I did, however, it’s virtually guaranteed to win you over. You get a lengthier quest with more dungeons to delve, more monsters to bash, more playable characters to experiment with, and a more compelling story tying it all together. It represents a purely iterative approach to sequel design, sure, but one that works for me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

It’s well documented by now that I adore Konami’s Ganbare Goemon cycle of adventure-tinged action games. It all started back in 1992 with the previously Japan-exclusive franchise’s international debut as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo. I was instantly captivated by Mystical Ninja’s quality gameplay and irreverent take on traditional Japanese folklore. But what about all the other Goemon titles I didn’t even suspect existed back in those hazy pre-Internet days? Talk about a goldmine! Thus, I’ve recently branched out and began exploring the frizzy-haired bandit’s more obscure outings. Well, obscure to us Americans, anyway.

Next up is 1989’s Ganbare Goemon 2, the third entry in the saga and the follow-up to the wildly successful Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū from 1986. Note that this game is not to be conflated with its own Super Famicom sequel, 1993’s Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu, which I already reviewed a while back. Confusing, I know. Special thanks to Stardust Crusaders for the unofficial English translation. The game would have still been beatable without it, but a good portion of the jokes would have been lost on me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 doesn’t stray far from the template Karakuri Dōchū established. It functions in most respects as a direct extension of its forebear, albeit with fewer rough edges and a handful of non-trivial upgrades. Your general goal is still to guide Goemon on a slapstick odyssey across medieval Japan while fending off its many hostile denizens with swings of his mighty kiseru pipe. The trip is still structured as a succession of massive overhead perspective stages, most of which require you to find three hidden gate passes before a time limit expires in order to move on. You still collect money and patronize various inns, shops, and mini-games along the way.

The most significant new addition by far is Goemon’s literal partner in crime, the chubby weirdo Ebisumaru. Finally! If you ask me, it’s barely a Ganbare Goemon game without Ebi. He’s the yin to Goemon’s yang. The chocolate to his peanut butter. The Luigi to his Mario. His inclusion here allows for the two-player simultaneous play that would be present in almost every future main series installment. He also provides what little Ganbare Goemon 2 has in the way of plot. The opening depicts the two thieves sitting in jail and Ebisumaru mentions to Goemon that there’s supposedly a great treasure hidden inside the remote Karakuri Castle. Determined to claim it, they promptly break out of their cell and the first level begins.

As nice as the two-player support is, I might just appreciate the boss fights more. One of Karakuri Dōchū’s few major letdowns was its total lack of such climactic encounters. It feels wrong somehow for an action game to end with the player simply strolling through a doorway unopposed. There’s no shortage of bosses here. In addition to providing extra challenge and drama, they’re an ideal showcase for the developers’ strange and anachronistic sense of humor. Expect a sumo robot, a giant peach, and more to come between Goemon and his prize.

A third key improvement over Karakuri Dōchū, at least in my eyes, is Ganbare Goemon 2’s markedly less brutal difficulty. You get continues this time! More specifically, you get a rather novel interactive continue screen where you must mash a button in order to prevent Goemon from being lowered into a boiling cauldron. Pretty amusing when you consider that the historical Ishikawa Goemon actually did meet his end this way. I’ve always been of the mind that funny games shouldn’t impose overly strict penalties for failure. If the player is forced to repeat the same sections too frequently, the relaxed anticipation of the next gag or crazy scenario soon gives way to annoyance. That never bodes well for comedy.

What does benefit the mood is all the extra personality on display here. Karakuri Dōchū was surprisingly down-to-earth in light of how madcap these games would become in the 16-bit era and beyond. Ganbare Goemon 2 is where the lunacy starts to ramp up in earnest. For example, the last game’s simple interstitial cut scenes of Goemon distributing his stolen gains to the poor à la Robin Hood are replaced by a sequence of increasingly unhinged comic vignettes. My favorite sees Goemon and Ebisumaru donning frilly dresses and doing their best saucy cabaret dance, complete with gratuitous double pantie flash at the end. Gee, thanks, guys. Keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky spin on Super Mario Bros.’s “your princess is in another castle” schtick, too.

Personally, I wouldn’t rank Ganbare Goemon 2 among its powerhouse publisher’s all-time best. At least not so far as general audiences are concerned. The sound and visuals are merely adequate. The combat and platforming are similarly serviceable at best, with the noteworthy drawbacks of iffy hit detection and some borderline unreactable enemy spawns along the screen edges. Strictly as a standalone game, it’s alright; a pleasant enough diversion, if not an instant classic akin to Castlevania or Contra. It is a nigh indisputable improvement on its immediate predecessor, however, and a must-play for dedicated Ganbare Goemon fans. Two-player mayhem, proper boss fights, an overall less stressful journey, and a greater emphasis on the absurd are nothing to sneeze at. All these enhancements were important building blocks for the ever grander and more manic escapades to come. Though not quite there yet, Konami was very much on the right track with this one.

Ufouria: The Saga (NES)

NES owners in the so-called PAL regions (Europe and Australia) missed out on scores of amazing games back in the day. Final Fantasy, Mega Man 6, Ninja Gaiden III, all four Dragon Quests, the list goes on. All this wanton deprivation did have its silver lining, though, since there was also a small selection of excellent PAL releases which never made it here to North America. Among them was Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga, a refreshingly wacky take on the Metroid-inspired exploratory platformer.

Originally published in Japan as Hebereke (a term denoting slapstick drunkenness), 1991’s Ufouria served as the public’s introduction to a group of cutesy mascot characters who would go on to star in a total of ten games. A few of these characters received name changes or visual alterations in the PAL version. The penguin-like lead hero Hebe became a snowman named Bop-Louie, for example. Most of the wider Hebereke series is exclusive to Japan and consists of puzzle games. Despite debuting as a side-scrolling action-adventure, no further entries were ever made in this same vein.

The plot here is a simple yet strange one about four friends who fall into a mysterious crater and find themselves separated and lost in a surreal world, questing for a way home. The localized title Ufouria seems to be based on these four playable characters, whom you swap between regularly over the course of the adventure. As in virtually all games of this kind, exploration is periodically rewarded with new abilities, most of which allow you to access previously unreachable sections of the world. In Ufouria, many of these abilities take the form of new characters rather than equipment.

At the outset, you control Bop-Louie, who has a fast walk speed and an aversion to water. Before long, you stumble on his orange lizard buddy, Freeon-Leon. Leon’s been stricken with amnesia and actually attacks Bop-Louie but, after a short battle, snaps out of it and joins your team. While a slow walker, he’s a much better swimmer and won’t slip on ice. This same process is later repeated when you encounter the long-jumping ghost Shades and underwater specialist Gil. In addition to their innate advantages, each character can also learn a new move or two from items. Bop-Louie can climbs walls once he acquires suction cups, Gil can spit out bombs, and so on. They’ll need all the help they can get to gather the three far-flung keys needed to open the way home.

All their scavenger hunting won’t go unopposed, of course. Both common mooks and tougher bosses show up to harass the four friends. Combat in Ufouria feels very much inspired by the Super Mario games in that your two main modes of attack are jumping on top of foes and hurling stuff at them. These methods compliment each other, as some baddies will leave behind throwable items when stomped. This is how the majority of boss fights play out: The boss itself will be stomp-proof, requiring you to pelt it with objects dropped by its minions. Annoyingly, you need to remember to hold down on the directional pad whenever you land on an enemy, otherwise you’ll take damage instead of dealing it. I’m not sure why this isn’t automatic, but at least it doesn’t take too long to become habit.

One noteworthy feature of Ufouria is its extremely forgiving design. NES action-adventure games are known for their convoluted layouts, cryptic puzzles, and a general lack of in-game guidance. That’s not a condemnation, merely an observation. I love me some opaque head-scratchers like Legacy of the Wizard, after all. Sunsoft, on the other hand, practically bends over backwards here to make sure you’re never without some sort of clear direction. The auto-map highlights the locations of every key item. When in doubt, head for the colored dots. Couple this with the fact that the majority of enemies aren’t particularly fast or aggressive and Ufouria makes a good starting point for players new to the genre. The one glaring exception to this user friendly approach is the health system, which sadly borrows the most tedious trick from Metroid’s playbook. Whenever you continue your game, be it after a death or by inputting a password, you start with a bare minimum amount of energy and must either mindlessly grind out dozens of kills for small healing pickups or expend a precious limited-use healing potion to recover. It’s as needlessly cruel as ever, even if Bop-Louie and crew will probably bite the dust a lot less often than Samus Aran.

What makes Ufouria worth experiencing regardless of your skill level or any minor gripes like the ones mentioned above is its killer combination of kooky art direction and rocking Naoki Kodaka chiptunes. Befitting its Japanese title, the visuals have an anarchic, off-kilter sensibility. Think “Hello Kitty on a week-long bender” and you won’t be far off. This is hammered home as early as the first screen transition, which sees Bop-Louie climbing up what appears to be a rope or vine. His means of ascent is then quickly revealed to be a tendril of drool emitting from the slack mouth of an hovering disembodied purple face. Welcome to Ufouria! If you harbor any fondness at all for games in the Monster Party mold that keep you guessing throughout with their madcap creative choices, Ufouria is a must-play. As far as the soundtrack goes, it’s prime Kodaka. Not only are the compositions themselves top-notch, the Sunsoft sound team’s characteristic use of meaty bass samples lends them a full, rich tone you simply couldn’t get from any other company’s 8-bit offerings. Unless special audio expansion chips were employed, that is. I loved this approach in Journey to Silius, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Batman: Return of the Joker and I love it just as much here.

I really dig Ufouria. Its endearing style, easygoing action, and quality Sunsoft production make it a prime example of a comfy, rainy day afternoon sort of adventure; one you can throw whenever you have a few hours to spare and don’t feel up to anything too demanding. Our oft-neglected pals across the pond hit the jackpot for once with this one. Good on them.

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (Master System)

I’ve had quite the run of pure action games lately. Think I’ll pump the brakes over the few weeks with some more thoughtful adventure and RPG fare. First up is one of the Master System’s most acclaimed titles, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.

This 1989 Westone production is a direct sequel to 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. In the event you weren’t already aware of this, the game is keen to remind you. It commences with a playable prologue in which you reenact the climax of Monster Land. As Tom-Tom the Wonder Boy, you once again storm the castle of the MEKA Dragon and slay the beast. This time, however, it manages to curse you upon its death, transforming you into a lowly Lizard-Man and simultaneously stripping away all your cool equipment and health upgrades. In other words, it’s back to square one as you’re forced to scour the land rebuilding your power and hunting for the legendary Salamander Cross, the sole artifact capable of restoring your human form.

Dragon’s Trap would hardly be a true Wonder Boy game without a convoluted release history. It made it to the TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as Dragon’s Curse, the PC Engine in 1991 as Adventure Island (not to be confused with the Hudson Soft series of the same name that was itself a Wonder Boy spin-off), the handheld Game Gear in 1992, and the Brazilian Master System in 1993 as the comic-licensed Turma da Mônica em o Resgate (“Monica’s Gang in the Rescue”). Most recently, a 2017 remake for multiple platforms was widely praised for modernizing the art and music without altering the classic gameplay.

I chose the Master System original as my introduction because I’m the kind of guy who likes to go right to the source when possible. If you do the same, take my advice and keep a second controller plugged in and close by. One of the Master System’s most unfortunate hardware limitations is a pause button situated on the main unit rather than the controller. Thankfully, Dragon’s Trap includes a workaround for this: You can use controller two to access the in-game menu instead of having to get up and walk across the room every time. Why this godsend of a workaround goes undocumented by the game’s official manual is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, after vanquishing the MEKA Dragon, the newly-cursed Wonder Boy is free to start his odyssey in earnest. This entails venturing off from a central hub town in order to locate the game’s five main dungeons and defeat the five boss dragons who make their homes therein. It’s side-scrolling exporatory platforming in the usual Metroid mold. As in most such games, the journey isn’t 100% non-linear. Some areas of the world can only be reached using specific special movement abilities gained in other areas. No matter how good a player you are, you can’t just march to the final dragon’s castle and retrieve the Salamander Cross first thing.

What makes Dragon’s Trap stand out some is the way its central dilemma, the shape-changing curse affecting Wonder Boy, doubles as character progression. The hero gains most of his new abilities not from equipment found or purchased, but from unlocking new monster forms. The starting Lizard-Man has a ranged fire breath attack. After you defeat the next boss dragon in the sequence, you become the tiny Mouse-Man and can now cling to certain walls and ceilings. Next comes underwater specialist Piranha-Man, followed by master swordsman Lion-Man, and finally aerial ace Hawk-Man. Early on, you’ll be stuck in whichever form you happen to have been cursed with most recently. Later, you’ll discover specific rooms where you can swap between them as needed.

This isn’t to say there’s any shortage of equipment to acquire, only that most of it provides basic boosts to Wonder Boy’s attack and defense stats rather than wholly new abilities. Interestingly, the game also implements a third stat called charm, which exists as a safeguard to prevent you from simply grinding out a ton of gold up front and buying all the best gear straightway. Charm is based primarily on your current items equipped and merchants won’t sell you their best stuff if it isn’t high enough. It essentially means you’re forced to go through several intermediate grades of weapon and armor before you can invest in the top of the line.

The action in Dragon’s Trap will feel familiar to anyone who’s played its predecessor or its Genesis sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster World. Walking has a slightly slippery “ice level” feel to it at all times and combat consists primary of short range short thrusts supplemented by a handful of limited use spells. This combination of loose movement and precise attack timing definitely qualifies as an acquired taste. While healing potions and extra heart containers help, the last few dungeons are still brutal. I actually found the final third of this one tougher than the dreaded Zelda II, mostly due to the lack of extra lives. One death in a dungeon is all it takes to ship you all the way back to town.

Although it nails most of the adventure fundamentals admirably, there are a handful of areas where Dragon’s Trap isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Underwater terrain is uncommon, so Piranha-Man doesn’t enjoy the same prominence as the other animal forms. While I’m on the subject, Lion-Man’s gimmick (an improved sword attack) also feels like a missed opportunity. He is a lion, after all. Were fangs, claws, roaring, and pouncing not inspiration enough? Lastly, a wider selection of friendly NPCs would have gone a long way toward making this iteration of the Monster Land/World setting feel more lived in. Apart from the cute nurse at the hospital, everyone else you encounter is either an enemy or a cigarette smoking pig that runs a weapon shop.

Provided you’re up for a challenge and can learn to love its finicky combat, Dragon’s Trap will delight. The shapeshifting mechanics are genuinely clever, as is the level design, and it features some of the best graphics and sound on the system. I’ve played a couple other Master System games in the genre (Golden Axe Warrior, Golvellius) and this is far and away the best of the three. It’s close to being the best of its series, too, only being edged out by the phenomenal Monster World IV. If you’ve been searching for a Master System fantasy quest on par with the best the NES has to offer, look no further. This here’s the real deal, and I ain’t lion, man.

Oof. That last one was bad even for me.

Beyond Oasis (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy of the Wizard (NES)

Long ago, the wicked dragon Keela terrorized the land. His reign ended when a mighty wizard sealed him away in a magical painting. Now, that seal has weakened and Keela is about to be revived. Luckily, the wizard left a legacy in the form of his descendants, the Worzen family. Musclebound Xemn, sorceress Meyna, their children Lyll and Roas, and the adorable pet monster Pochi have joined forces to do gramps proud. Only by scouring the seemingly endless dungeon beneath their homestead and gathering four hidden crowns can they obtain the mythic Dragon Slayer sword, the sole weapon capable of destroying Keela permanently.

It won’t be easy. Nihon Falcom’s Legacy of the Wizard (aka Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family in Japan) has a well-deserved reputation as the Mount Everest of NES action-adventure games. If you’ve already conquered both Zeldas, Metroid, Castlevania II, Rygar, and the rest of the usual suspects, then congratulations: You’ve completed your basic training for Legacy of the Wizard. Welcome to the big leagues.

If it sounds like I’m trying to scare you away from this one, I’m really not. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legacy’s tough-as-nails nature isn’t the result of sketchy design. Rather, it’s the logical result of presenting the player with a labyrinthine 256 screen game world and five very different characters to canvass it with. Is a work of this scope a good starting point if you’re new to exploratory action games? Hell, no. If you’re a seasoned veteran, however, it’ll strain your brain in the best possible way. I found myself positively mesmerized as it siphoned away hour after hour of my free time.

You start your quest in the Worzen living room, where you’re free to select any one of the playable family members to venture forth with. This screen is also where you receive and input the passwords used to continue between sessions. You can return here any time to switch characters or simply to record your progress, as dying in the dungeon will revert everything to the way it was the last time you visited home.

The Worzens are a diverse lot indeed. Burly woodcutter Zemn has tremendous strength at the cost of abysmal attack range and jump height. His signature ability is moving heavy blocks with a magic glove. His wife Meyna relies on a variety of magic items to do things like fly and pass theough locked doors without using keys. Daughter Lyll is arguably the superstar of the bunch, with superb jumping ability and solid attacks. You’ll probably find yourself wishing you could use her all the time. Pochi isn’t very good at combat or platforming. He is a monster, though, which means other monsters (with the exception of bosses) don’t see him as a threat and deal no damage whatsoever to him. Son Roas has no particular merits apart from his ability to acquire the Dragon Slayer late in the game and wield it against Keela.

The biggest hurdle most players will encounter in Legacy of the Wizard is getting the ball rolling in the first place. Which character is best to use at the outset? How do you know where to begin hunting for the crowns? The best advice I can give is to think of the dungeon as four distinct zone arranged around a central hub. In this case, the hub is the large room near the beginning that holds the imprisoned dragon. Each of the four areas branching off from it is intended to be tackled by a specific family member. You’ll know you’ve transitioned to a new one when the background music changes. Pochi is great to start out with. He’s immune to most damage and that makes his crown (located in the lower right quadrant) one of the least stressful to track down. Another reason to choose Pochi first is that he’s pretty poor at combat. Every time you find one of the crowns, you have to defeat a boss to actually claim it. You always confront this increasingly tough sequence of bosses in the same order, regardless of which order you pick up the crowns in. Thus, it’s in your best interest to have Pochi take on the easiest of the four and leave later ones to powerhouses like Zemn and Meyna.

Make it through Pochi’s area and you should have a pretty good grasp of how the game works. The remaining 3/4 of the quest will still be a fierce struggle, of course, just a slightly less overwhelming one. Almost all of Legacy’s challenge stems from the convoluted maze layouts themselves. They represent the very apex of the “probe every square inch for hidden passages” design philosophy. Finding any of the four crowns requires you to be observant, clever, and, above all, thorough.

What about those monsters? Well, baddies are everywhere and can eventually end you if you’re not careful. That said, their threat is undercut by your ample health bar and by the abundance of inns and healing items throughout the dungeon. In the grand scheme of things, figuring out where to go in the first place is almost always a much taller order than making it there in one piece.

I found Legacy of the Wizard a joy to complete for the most part. Coming to grips with each character’s strengths and weaknesses as I slowly puzzled my way through one of the most complex environments in any NES game was consistently absorbing. The graphics are simple, yet clean, with small sprites well-suited to negotiating the intricate level layouts. The music by industry legends Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Streets of Rage) and Mieko Ishikawa (Ys) is as a catchy as you’d expect. This really is a total package for the experienced adventure gamer.

I did take issue with a few things here and there. I didn’t like how your regular attacks always requires an expenditure of magic points. It’s possible it run out of the magic needed to power key items like Meyna’s wings and Lyll’s jump shoes merely because you opted to fight too many enemies. Your character is helpless in these situations and you usually have no choice but to retreat to the nearest inn. There’s also the poison problem. In addition to helpful things like health and and magic refills, defeated enemies frequently drop bottles of poison which remove a decent chunk of your life when collected. Assuming you can avoid picking them up by accident as soon as they appear, poison vials have the potential to block narrow corridors and take far too long to vanish on their own. Even in more open areas, some characters like Xemn and Pochi can’t jump well enough to clear a poison pickup without touching it, and that means either more damage or more waiting. This poison mechanic adds nothing worthwhile to the game and should have been omitted. Oh, and I have to call out the finicky controls for Xemn’s glove. You can use it to shove blocks in eight directions and usually need to be precise when doing so. Good luck with that. The blocks seem more inclined to treat your directional inputs as polite suggestions than commands.

Bothersome as they are, these are hardly fatal flaws. Legacy of the Wizard may be a little rough around the edges and aimed squarely at hardcore adventure nuts, but I feel its long-established status as an NES cult classic is entirely warranted. After all, the family that slays together stays together.

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 40 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!

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 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 need 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?