The Revenge of Shinobi (Genesis)

Can you believe it’s been over two-and-a-half years now since I’ve treated myself to a Shinobi outing? I did take a look at the tongue-in-cheek spin-off Alex Kidd in Shinobi World last Fall, but that game, while not without its charms, hardly counts. Time to remedy this with 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi.

Revenge is the third entry in the series and the first to be developed specifically for a home console, as opposed to the arcades. Although not a launch title for the Genesis in North America, it’s remembered as a highlight of the system’s critical first year. Before the Super Nintendo hit the scene, it served as a vivid demonstration of Sega’s cutting edge 16-bit technology. This was no accident. Director Noriyoshi Ohba has stated in interviews that The Revenge of Shinobi (or The Super Shinobi, as it’s known in Japan) was intended from the start to showcase the new hardware’s strengths. Large sprites, multi-layered backgrounds, and Yuzo Koshiro’s sublime FM synth soundtrack collectively achieved their intended effect. One look at a commercial or even a magazine ad was all you needed to know that this one wouldn’t be coming to your humble NES.

Historical context is nice. A ninja game that’s a blast to play in the here and now is nicer. Since I was never a “Sega kid” growing up, it’ll be interesting to dive in and see if Revenge fits the bill.

Ninja master Joe Musashi is back. Unfortunately, so are his arch-foes in the Zeed crime syndicate. Now going by Neo Zeed, their agents have mortally wounded Joe’s master and kidnapped his lover, Naoko. This calls for one thing and one thing only: Revenge. Can Joe take down Neo Zeed and save Naoko before it’s too late? With two possible endings, that depends entirely on you.

Clever? Hardly. It’s clear what kind of guilty pleasure ninja movie vibe Ohba and company were aiming for, however, and I can’t fault them on that account. This is a game that proudly wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, often to an absurd degree. Joe’s in-game resemblance to martial arts star Sonny Chiba is undeniable, for example. He also squares off against such luminaries as Batman, Spiderman, The Terminator, John Rambo, and Godzilla! Shockingly, Sega had no legal right to use any of these famous characters. The very idea of one of the world’s largest game publishers including this much stolen intellectual property in a marquee release is unfathomable today. It’s truly a testament to the Wild West nature of the ’80s game biz. Most of this offending character art was altered in subsequent revisions, so be sure to seek out the original for the most brazen, over-the-top boss fights possible.

Joe’s journey has been streamlined somewhat this time. There are no kidnapped children, time bombs, or other secondary objectives strung along the way, just eight stages of rock hard action-platforming to survive and eight bosses to kill. You get a solid lineup of level themes, encompassing an old-fashioned Japanese village, an airship interior, a busy freeway, various urban and industrial locales, and more. Many of these areas have their own environmental hazards to negotiate, such as the freeway’s speeding sports cars and the airship’s doors, which have a bad habit of popping open as Joe draws near and sucking him out mid-flight for an instant death. The only stage I didn’t end up enjoying was the very last one, a trite trial-and-error maze composed of countless identical doors. I know sewer and water levels get a bad rap, but does anyone out there actually like door mazes? I can’t imagine so.

The flow of the action here should be familiar to fans of arcade Shinobi. Joe Musashi isn’t exactly the swiftest ninja around with his measured walk and floaty moon jump. In other words, the breakneck “dash-and-slash” approach of a Ninja Gaiden is right out. Instead, it’s all about adopting a precise, methodical approach to threats.

All attacks are mapped to a single context-sensitive button. If an enemy is in melee range, pressing it will prompt Joe to lash out with sword swipes and kicks. If not, he’ll toss one of his shuriken blades. Unlike in the arcade, his shuriken supply is finite. Running out of ammo when facing a boss is something to avoid at all costs. Try to kill as many regular enemies as possible with melee strikes and keep an eye out for breakable crates containing bonus shuriken and other goodies.

Another new twist is the double jump. If you’ve played other platforming games, you’re likely already acquainted with the concept. Tap the button a second time during a jump to miraculously rebound off thin air and gain some added hang time. Might as well hoist a middle finger or two at physics while you’re at it. This technique is absolutely vital for success in Revenge of Shinobi. Too bad it’s a pain to pull off. There’s seemingly only a split-second near the apex of Joe’s first jump during which the command to initiate the second one will be accepted. Many of the game’s most frustrating moments are the result of just barely missing this strict input window and having to watch Joe plummet to his doom. It would almost be funny if your opportunities to continue after game over weren’t limited. A welcome addition on the whole, this feature really should have been made more user-friendly.

Your saving grace against the finicky controls and overall steep challenge is Joe’s potent ninja magic. There are four spells to choose from, each useful in its own right. You’re encouraged to choose wisely, since magic can only be used once per life. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across the rare hidden pickups that grant extra charges, that is. Your options are a fiery blaze that damages all on-screen opponents, a lightning shield that temporarily nullifies damage and prevents knockback, a jump booster, and my personal favorite: A suicide attack. Yup, you can cause Joe to explode and lose a life. Why would you do such a thing? Well, it deals heavy damage to foes. More importantly, it allows Joe to start his next life on the spot with a full health bar. There’s no break in the action and no getting sent back to the last checkpoint like usual. If you’re at death’s door near the end of a tough section, the sacrifice can be worth it to seal the deal and guarantee progression. It’s not often you see such a grim idea molded into a compelling game mechanic. I approve.

In fact, I approve of The Revenge of Shinobi in general. Its final stage is a bit of a letdown and its double jump one of gaming’s roughest, but these missteps don’t come close to torpedoing this slick, stylish Sega classic. The later years of the Genesis would see it exceeded by faster, glitzier, more full-featured action-platformers, including its own direct sequel, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. Are those games going to let you huck shuriken at Batman and Godzilla, though? I think not.

G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor (NES)

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was one of my most pleasant NES discoveries of recent years. This feature-packed 1991 action-platformer is easily one of the better licensed releases for the system. Since I’ve been watching a ton of the classic Sunbow era G.I. Joe cartoon lately to unwind, I figure there’s no time like the present to check out Real American Hero’s Capcom-published 1992 follow-up, The Atlantis Factor. Is it another home run from developer KID? No, Joe!

Okay, okay. So I couldn’t resist a line like that. Truth is, this is far from the worst NES title I’ve come across. KID was a talented outfit and they seemingly made a good faith effort here to build on the team mechanics and persistent power-ups of Real American Hero while adding a touch of non-linearity to the stage progression. These flourishes don’t amount to much without the first game’s quality level design and general playability, however.

As you may expect, our story involves the ruthless terrorist organization Cobra raising the ruins of Atlantis from the ocean floor and harnessing some of sort of strange Atlantean energy source to threaten world domination. It falls on G.I. Joe, America’s most elite fighting force, to infiltrate the lost continent and foil Cobra’s villainous ambitions. Routine Saturday morning silliness, all told.

The mission is headed up by the Joe head honcho himself, General Hawk, who functions as a baseline character with no special skills. He must have forgot his jet pack back at home base. Completing specific stages will allow you to add new Joes to your team, and each of them does have some sort of unique advantage. Duke can fire his gun upward (previously a universal ability in Real American Hero), Roadblock can crawl through low passages, Wet Suit can operate underwater, and both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have access to ninja sword attacks.

Teamwork is the name of the game, as you’re able to choose up to three Joes to take into a given level. They all have their own separate health bars and weapon skill ratings that can be permanently enhanced by collecting power-up icons. You’ll constantly be swapping characters via the pause menu in order to ensure none of them kick the bucket on you or hog all the precious upgrades. If you’ve played Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game before, you know the drill.

One excellent new addition is the concept of support Joes. Your reward for finishing most stages is a single-use radio. When activated, the radio will put you in touch with your choice of Gung-Ho, Spirit, or Big Bear. Gung-Ho replenishes your ammo supply on the spot. Spirit does the same for your health. Big Bear can instantly revive a “dead” Joe, something that normally involves a long wait and a stat penalty for the returning character. Whatever you do, try not to let these valuable items go to waste. Continues are thankfully unlimited, but unused radios are lost on game over and can’t be recollected.

Atlantis itself is depicted as a Bionic Commando style map screen containing six main Cobra bases (labelled A-F) connected by a series of sixteen numbered outdoor routes. Because there are multiple paths to the final confrontation with Cobra Commander in area F, you don’t need to visit every location to reach the end. Although the game rewards thoroughness with an expanded character roster, new weapons, and extra radios, a good amount of its content is technically optional. In theory, that’s fine. I just wish more of it was interesting. The outdoor levels in particular are defined by their dull layouts and repetitive enemy placement. Every one of Real American Hero’s sixteen stages had its own unique boss, not to mention a lot of cool touches like multiple types of Cobra vehicle you could commandeer and pilot. There are no vehicles to be found this time. Worse, only the six bases have proper bosses, a huge loss when you consider what a highlight these battles were in the last installment.

The character upgrade system has its flaws, too. You can’t revisit areas you’ve already completed, nor can you “farm” stat boosts from enemies. The enemies will respawn, their item drops won’t. This means that any Joes unlucky enough to join your team late in the game will be pathetically underpowered with few good opportunities to catch up. When I recruited my last character, Snake Eyes, he came with a measly two health. Two! Compare that to eleven for my fully upgraded Hawk. Taking Snakes Eyes into a level at that point meant he was more likely to get himself killed trying to snag power-ups than he was to see any real gain. So I didn’t bother. I did the sensible thing and kept using the same team of experienced Joes I had for ages all the way up to the end. What a waste of a fan favorite character. I suppose I could make it a point to seek out Snake Eyes sooner on a repeat playthrough. There would still be somebody who ended up joining last, though, and leveling him up would be still be a waste of time.

Again, G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor isn’t a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. Despite being a step down from its older brother in virtually every way that counts, it has its strong points. It makes decent use of the license, with plenty of familiar heroes and villains. The music is catchy.  Some of the new weapons, such as the laser rifle, are cool.  The radio support mechanic offers utility and flexibility. I especially like how increasing a character’s unarmed combat rating adds new attacks to his repertoire rather than simply increasing damage. Kick Master, anyone? Bottom line: Real American Hero’s blend of strategic team management and furious run-and-gun action is present here, it’s just a muted shadow of its former self. Not unlike the DIC run of the cartoon, now that I think about it.

Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (PC Engine)

The PC Engine was a machine well ahead of its time. Not only was it the first home console to employ 16-bit graphics, its CD-ROM drive add-on served as gaming’s introduction to the format in the absurdly early year of 1988. If anything, you’d expect the world of high end home computing to have brought us that particular innovation. Nope. The PCE’s initial crop of CD games are widely acknowledged to be the earliest ever produced.

Until just recently, I’d been limited to running cartridge games on own PC Engine. As much as I wanted to dive into its expansive CD library, I didn’t feel like bothering with the upkeep a finicky decades-old disk drive usually requires. This changed when I got my hands on the Super SD System 3, a nifty aftermarket accessory that uses flash memory to replicate the function of a CD unit without all those troublesome moving parts. That’s what I call an upgrade!

Now where to start? As a die-hard Castlevania lover, I can’t help but opt for 1993’s Akumajō Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (“Demon Castle Dracula X: Rondo of Blood”). It’s the most famous Japan-exclusive title for the system, after all. Konami wouldn’t deliver an official international release of Rondo until 2007, when it was finally ported to the Sony PSP as Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles.  The years in-between saw the rise of the Internet and game emulation, so it should come as no surprise that this fabled lost epic has built up quite the cult following here in the West. Is it truly the greatest old-school Castlevania of them all, as many of its admirers maintain? Well….

First off, this is my kind of Castlevania game: A pure 2-D action-platformer with no experience points, no backtracking, no menus to futz with, just your wits and reflexes pitted against Dracula’s army of the night. It’s a damn attractive one, too. The PC Engine’s broad color palette was put to masterful use rendering these vibrant backgrounds and richly detailed sprites. The enemy sprites in particular are so good that many of them were reused wholesale in 1997’s Symphony of the Night for PlayStation. Rarely is in-game art able to bridge a hardware generation gap in this way.

The soundtrack is equally stellar. We do get the predictable nostalgic reprises of mainstays like “Vampire Killer,” “Bloody Tears,” and “Beginning,” but it’s not all golden oldies. Original tracks such as “Divine Bloodlines,” “Opus 13,” and “Den” can stand toe-to-toe with anything that came before. The CD medium also means we get to enjoy the historic debut of real instruments in a Castlevania score. I can’t imagine this material disappointing anyone with a fondness for the saga’s signature brand of Baroque-tinged prog rock.

Rondo’s central figure is Richter Belmont, descendant of Simon and heir to his family’s warrior legacy. The year is 1792, and a group of cultists led by the corrupt priest, Shaft, have used blood sacrifice to resurrect Count Dracula once again. Dracula abducts Richter’s girlfriend, Annette, and three other young girls, intending to use them as bait to lure the young vampire hunter to his castle. It works, of course, as Richter promptly rides off to the rescue with his ancestors’ enchanted whip in tow. It’s a plain, functional, business-as-usual plot, albeit one bolstered somewhat by periodic voiced cutscenes. Not that I can understand a word of them in the Japanese, mind you.

Richter handles in the traditional Belmont manner, with a leisurely walk speed, stiff jump, and slightly delayed whip attack. The whip can be supplemented by a selection of sub-weapons that draw on a limited supply of hearts for ammunition. Sub-weapons include the long-established dagger, cross, axe, holy water, and stopwatch, as well as a newcomer: The Bible. I’ve never really found a good use for the Bible, myself. Its weird spiraling trajectory renders it awkward to deploy. Oh, well.

Also introduced here is the concept of Item Crashes. These are more powerful versions of each sub-weapon’s regular attack that’ll run you somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hearts per use. While not all Item Crashes are created equal, the more punishing ones can easily lay waste to most bosses. I’m looking at you, cross and holy water. I’m a fan of this mechanic. It leads to interesting scenarios wherein you have to weight the immediate benefits of using your sub-weapons on regular enemies against the long-term goal of saving as many hearts as possible to Crash bosses. A solid risk/reward dynamic.

All these capabilities make for a formidable protagonist indeed. Richter doesn’t have to go it alone, though. There’s a second playable character in the form of one of the kidnapped girls, Maria Renard. If you’ve ever wanted to beat down the undead as a little kid in a pink dress, she’s your chance. Maria is more agile than the plodding Richter and has her own separate set of animal-themed weapons. She’s actually a much stronger character on the whole, despite having less health to work with. She’s such a force of nature, in fact, that I found playing as her to be rather boring. The novelty of carelessly plowing through the opposition as a silly joke character didn’t last nearly as long as I’d hoped. John Morris and Eric Lecarde from Bloodlines serve as a far better example of how to implement two distinct, relatively balanced heroes in a Castlevania game.

In addition to Maria, Rondo’s other defining feature has to be its abundance of secrets. Every area is teeming with hidden power-ups, cute visual gags, and even passages leading to entire alternate stages with their own unique bosses. This effectively encourages you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, lest you miss out on some cool piece of bonus content. The game automatically saves your progress, too, so you can easily revisit conquered stages in order to scour them more thoroughly in pursuit of that elusive 100% completion rating.

All of this raises the question: If Rondo of Blood looks and sounds great, plays great, and includes all this great stuff to discover, why is it not my favorite 16-bit Castlevania? I certainly like Rondo. I have ever since I first encountered it on the PSP over a decade ago. Now that I can play it on my PC Engine, I expect it to become a staple of my action gaming rotation. Still, when it comes to this period in the franchise’s history, I generally prefer both Castlevania: Bloodlines and Akumajō Dracula (aka Castlevania Chronicles) for a couple of reasons.

An overall lack of difficulty is one. Super Castlevania IV catches its share of flack for being too easy, yet I tend to lose more lives to random platforming flubs there than I do to anything in Rondo. While playing as Maria is a cakewalk by design, taking down the same levels as Richter is only marginally more taxing. A couple of the late game bosses, specifically Death and Shaft, put up a respectable fight, but that’s about it. This is obviously a highly subjective critique on my part. As a hardened veteran of the series, I can see how less experienced players might view this “failing” as a major plus. I just happen to favor a Castlevania experience with more bite.

More crucially, I’ve always gotten the impression that much of the tremendous creativity that went into making Rondo could have been better directed. Sure, the locations you visit are packed with wacky Easter eggs, secret passages, and the like, but how do they stack up as Castlevania stages? I find you mostly leap over some pits, climb a few staircases, swat at knights and skeletons, and collect hearts on your way to the boss room. In other words, it’s fundamentally nothing we hadn’t seen before on the NES. This game features no equivalent to the rotating rooms and whip swinging of Super Castlevania IV or the many elaborate set piece platforming challenges of Bloodlines (the rising water in Greece, the swaying tower in Italy, the hall of mirrors in England, etc). Instead, the lion’s share of the work on Rondo seems to have been devoted to polishing its presentation to a mirror sheen and cramming in as many quirky peripheral elements as possible. I’d gladly trade a little of that for some more ambitious level design.

I’m not about to declare Rondo of Blood overrated or imply that anyone who’s head-over-heels in love with it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it’s an impeccably charming adventure fully worthy of its pedigree. I dig it. That said, I do think its grandiose reputation stems more from its history as a rare and expensive import item than from any sort of inherent superiority to similar games in the series. At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t need to be some mythic über-Castlevania that towers head-and-shoulders above its peers. It’s plenty good, and that’s good enough for me.

Mega Man X (Super Nintendo)

As 1993 drew to a close, Super Nintendo owners everywhere were wondering one thing: Where was Mega Man? The previous two years had seen Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, and numerous other high-profile gaming properties with 8-bit roots make the leap to Nintendo’s 16-bit powerhouse. The absence of Capcom’s super fighting cash cow, already a six-time headliner on the NES, was positively glaring. Finally, December brought with it the Japanese release of Rockman X, predictably retitled Mega Man X for its North American rollout the following month. Whatever Capcom had been waiting for, it was worth it. This spin-off was destined to become one of the system’s most revered games, not to mention one of the brightest stars in the galaxy that is the extended Mega Man franchise.

But why? At first glance, it may not be obvious what the big deal is. The broad strokes of Mega Man X’s storyline and structure seem entirely in keeping with the blueprint established by the NES hexalogy. Robots are running amok at the behest of an evil mastermind? Check. Stopping them involves defeating eight boss robots in the order of your choice, followed by an assault on the mastermind’s lair? Check. Overcoming each of the initial eight bosses equips you with a new special weapon that one of the others is weak to? Check. In truth, Mega Man X’s overwhelming success is a rare testament to the power of just a few carefully chosen artistic and mechanical tweaks to radically reinvigorate a stale formula.

Set around a century after the events of the main series (or classic series, as it subsequently became known), Mega Man X follows the exploits of its eponymous robot hero. Archeologists stumble upon X, the final and greatest creation of the late Dr. Light, sealed in a capsule and use his design as the basis for a new breed of fully sentient robots, the Reploids. Unfortunately, some Reploids turn against humanity and are dubbed Mavericks. The newly-reactivated X now works as a Maverick Hunter, mentored by his more experienced partner, a too-cool-for-school brooding loner type by the name of Zero. The duo’s latest assignment is to locate and defeat Sigma, leader of the Mavericks and a former Maverick Hunter himself.

The new setting and characters are the first crucial things the developers nailed. Mega Man X clearly set out to be a more mature take on the googly-eye cartoon robot bashing of the mainline titles. You need look no further than the design of X himself for proof of that. He’s noticeably taller, leaner, and more chiseled than his childlike NES ancestor. By story’s end, he’ll also experience more in the way of loss than classic Mega Man ever did. Despite this trend, Capcom wisely refrained from going overboard. X’s journey is still one defined by bright colors, driving rock music, and brisk jump-and-shoot violence of the 100% robot-on-robot variety. Nothing about it comes across gratuitously angsty or overwrought. To put it one way, it’s a tad too serious for X to have a cute robo-dog sidekick like Rush, yet not so serious that he can’t do battle with a mechanized penguin who belly flops around the arena. A fine line indeed.

On the gameplay front, a pair of inspired additions to X’s movement are responsible for much of the improved feel. He can cling to walls as well as execute a speedy forward dash that effectively replaces the ground slide from older games. The importance of the dash in particular can’t be overstated. It can be canceled into a forward jump at any time, even coming off a wall, and these mighty lunges cover more space more quickly than standard running jumps. Dash-jumping through a stage at breakneck pace is a real thrill and the maneuver also has no end of utility in the boss fights.

Complimenting this faster movement is the game engine’s ability to smoothly scroll the screen in all directions. Screens in classic Mega Man games always scrolled horizontally or vertically, never both at once (i.e. diagonally). Furthermore, vertical advancement was strictly of the all-or-nothing flip-screen variety. Combining this newly unrestricted scrolling with the wide open layouts of Launch Octopus or Storm Eagle’s stages and the aforementioned dash-jump, X can literally soar. It’s another exhilarating experience with no parallel in prior entries.

A final key strength of Mega Man X is its stunning presentation. I’m not merely referring to the usual high quality Capcom audiovisuals here, although the sprites, backgrounds, and energetic synth guitar-driven soundtrack are all rightfully iconic. I’m talking about the extraordinary amount of care that went into making the game’s world feel more like one concrete, interconnected place than a chain of isolated stages. Defeat Chill Penguin and the perilous lava which normally fills Flame Mammoth’s lair with be extinguished. Taking down Storm Eagle interrupts the power supply to Spark Mandrill’s level, subjecting it to periodic blackouts and weakening its mid-boss. These nifty interactions aren’t limited to the locations, either. The Boomerang Cutter can actually sever Flame Mammoth’s trunk, depriving him of one of his primary attacks. This uncommon attention to detail is simply a joy to behold throughout. Heck, I didn’t even notice until my most recent playthrough that one solitary bat enemy out of the dozens haunting Armored Armadillo’s mine is based on the original NES design. It’s the little things, you know?

Much as I endeavor to avoid total puff piece reviews, I struggle to dredge up anything meaningfully negative to say about Mega Man X. You’ll run into plenty of the old Super Nintendo slowdown when things get hectic, sure, but beyond that I’d really have to force it. This first X game is an all-around masterpiece, one of the best of its generation. By starting with a tried-and-tested action-platforming template and infusing it with memorable new characters, snappier movement, and a presentation to die for, Capcom produced the first true creative landmark in the saga since 1988’s Mega Man 2. As with the classic series, later X sequels would squander some of this initial goodwill with their rote repetition. Sigma always comes back à la Dr. Wily, he always has eight new Mavericks in tow, etc. Mega Man X itself, though? It’s one for the ages; a thoroughly lovable, endlessly replayable, damn near perfect video game. Bravo.

Mega Man 6 (NES)

Is it just me or does Wily look like he might be enjoying that? Awkward.

Mega Man 6 made its Japanese debut in November of 1993, a mere month before the franchise’s shiny new spinoff, Mega Man X, hit the Super Famicom. We North Americans didn’t get a crack at it until March of 1994, two months after our version of X. Talk about late to the party! Seemingly content with being yet another slight twist on the formula established by the first two NES Mega Man entries, it was destined for a minute fraction of the critical acclaim and commercial success its more innovative 16-bit cousin enjoyed. It’s long been regarded as the one of the most redundant of Mega Man’s many sequels. Even more so than the fourth and fifth games, if that’s possible.

Like all the main line titles after the fourth, I missed out on this one back around the time of its release. That’s a shame, because while I do understand the audience burnout six highly similar games in seven years can engender, I had a blast with Mega Man 6. It’s an improvement on the lackluster 5 in virtually every way and at times comes close to rivaling 2 and 4, my personal favorites of the NES hexalogy.

The evil Dr. Wily is back and he’s brought another eight robot masters for you to take down and gain new weaponry from. There is some pretext of a new story, of course: A fellow named Mr. X who runs an international robot fighting tournament has seized control of its contestants in a bid to take over the world. Oh, and he just happens to look exactly like Wily wearing shades and a vampire cape. This setup is so transparent and hokey that I honestly can’t tell if the developers didn’t give a damn anymore or if they were aiming for self-parody. I suppose I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter.

Flimsy as the Mr. X conceit is, it does allow for some interesting new boss and level theming. Each robot master is associated with a particular region of the world this time. Knight Man calls a European castle home, for example, and Blizzard Man hails from snowy Canada. A couple of these characterizations are less than flattering. Ersatz Native American Tomahawk Man comes to mind. Regardless, his Wild West stage (complete with dramatic sunset and six-shooter packing cowboy bots) is a memorable one. My favorite of the bunch in terms of visual design is Centaur Man, the first non-humanoid robot master.

Not only are these bosses a striking lot, the special weapons Mega Man earns from them are quite useful. Although they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by this point, they cover the usual bases well. You have the rotating shield, costly full screen attack, ascending and descending shots to compliment the straight ahead Mega Buster, etc. They’re relatively balanced this time, too. You won’t find anything as overwhelming as Mega Man 2’s Metal Blade here, but neither will you be forced to make due with hot garbage like Mega Man 5’s Charge Kick or Power Stone.

Beat the bird also makes his return. As before, you’ll need to collect an assortment of letter icons (four this time) in order to unlock him. Finding these letters requires the odd measure of locating hidden alternate routes to the robot masters’ rooms and defeating them there rather than in their regular digs. Unfortunately, Beat has been greatly toned-down from the cutesy superweapon he was in the last game, so this involved process isn’t ultimately worth it in my book. One hidden gadget you will want to acquire is the Energy Balancer. Found in a well hidden room, this sucker automatically distributes weapon energy pickups to inactive items in your inventory, ensuring you never waste an ammo drop again. Truly a godsend.

Equipment-wise, however, the real MVPs are the two Rush Adaptors. As their name implies, these are a new take on Mega Man’s helpful canine companion, Rush. Instead of manifesting as various helpful utility items like the Rush Jet or Rush Coil, he now merges directly with Mega Man’s body, resulting in two additional forms for our hero with their own innate advantages. The Power Adaptor adds a chargeable punch attack that deals heavy damage and can smash through some walls to reveal goodies and pathways. Better still is the spectacular Jet Adaptor, which allows Mega Man to fly at will, albeit for no more than a few seconds at a time. Minor as that sounds, this added freedom of movement totally alters the feel of the game. Once I gained access to it via defeating Plant Man, I never wanted to take it off. No wonder it features so prominently in the game’s cover art!

As I said, this one really surprised me. I was fully expecting it to come across as tired and perfunctory as Mega Man 5 did. What I actually got was one of the more creative takes on the classic series. It’s certainly not perfect. The plot is daft and veterans may well find it a tad too easy for it own good. It’s neither as iconic as the second installment nor as fine-tuned as the fourth. Despite this, the new enemies and settings are packed with personality, while the Rush Adaptors offer fresh takes on controlling the Blue Bomber himself. Factor in Capcom’s generally high audiovisual standards and the proven strength of the core Mega Man gameplay loop and you have a winner on your hands; one that deserves far more recognition than it gets. Mega Man 6 serves as a worthy capstone to its legendary star’s exploits on the platform of his birth.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Super Nintendo)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A blue-haired lass with the unlikely name of Princess Prin Prin has been kidnapped by demons. Only her knightly consort, Sir Arthur, is brave (or foolhardy) enough to attempt a rescue…and he’ll need to do it twice before it sticks.

Yes, welcome back to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, perhaps the most simultaneously loved and hated saga in all of classic gaming. The sterling quality of these games is undeniable, as is their mocking brutality. Difficult action-platformers from the outset due to fiendish enemy patterns and a two-hit health system, it’s dirty tricks like the aforementioned blindsiding of new players with the requirement to finish each stage twice in order to view the true ending that push them over the edge to infamy.

That brings me to my subject today, 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, aka Chōmakaimura (“Super Demon World Village”) in Japan. As the third game in the franchise and the first to be developed with a home console in mind as opposed to the arcades, players at the time may have expected Capcom to mellow out a tad with this one. Nope. If anything, they doubled down on the sadism with longer levels and something no home port of the previous two GnG games had: Limited continues. The result was far and away the most challenging installment to date. Good thing it was also the best.

I realize I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers with that last statement. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ immediate predecessor, titled simply Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, is quite excellent in its own right. It introduced a golden armor power-up that let Arthur charge up and release a different magic attack for each of the game’s many weapons. Additionally, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Arthur was able to lob shots up and down in addition to the usual left and right. There are many who swear by this enhanced shooting and consequently consider Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the best of the lot.

While it is unfortunate that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns to the more restrictive horizontal attacking of the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I feel it more than makes up for this with new additions of its own. The bronze armor has been included as an intermediate upgrade between the default steel suit and the potent gold one. It strengthens Arthur’s primary weapon somewhat without allowing for full magic use. There’s also a shield which offers some small amount of extra protection against projectiles. Best of all is the almighty double jump, my personal favorite mechanic in the series. The ability to trigger a second jump any point during the first works wonders for the chronically slow Arthur’s maneuverability and paved the way for the game’s creators to include more elaborate platforming scenarios. It feels so liberating that I often find it tough to go back to earlier GnG entries.

Another factor that endears Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to me is its level design. Capcom really upped the ante here with a host of dynamic environmental set pieces scattered throughout the first five areas. Arthur weathers surging tidal waves on a dinky raft, rides a fleshy moving platform through a maze of writhing, gas spewing innards, and risks being swept away by avalanches in the obligatory ice level, among other wild predicaments. Pity this approach is abandoned for the final two stages inside main villain Sardius’ castle, though. These contain nothing new or interesting to marvel at, just an abundance of imposing baddies coupled with some strict time limits.

Cap this overall strong package off with some of the best graphics and music to grace an early Super Nintendo release and what’s not to love? For starters, try some of the worst slowdown to grace an early Super Nintendo release! The action here starts chugging at the slightest provocation, a significant issue in a unforgiving game with a heavy emphasis on timing. This effectively adds another learning curve to an already demanding experience. There is a fan-made “restoration” hack available that removes much of this slowdown if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, your best bet is to simply wait for your brain to adjust to the inevitable speed inconsistencies. It’ll happen eventually.

A lone technical hiccup is one thing, but those limited continues constitute a proper design misstep in my eyes. There’s an immense amount of trial and error involved in any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game. The endless tries previous ones afforded you were essentially their lone concession to basic human decency. Earning extra continues by collecting money bag items is possible and indeed relatively easy in some stages. Still, the game as a whole can come to a premature end if the rate you gather these items is ever exceeded by the rate you mess up. This is most likely in the final stage, which is cunningly engineered to contain a bare minimum of money bags. Getting a game over here, especially in the second loop, is cruel even by GnG standards.

Maddening as these few flaws can be, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ many positive qualities far outstrip them. It’s considered a Capcom classic for good reason and if its reputation as a savage 16-bit struggle doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for one lush, thrilling trip to hell and back. If not, well, there are probably dozens of more easily rescued princesses out there. Sorry, Prin Prin. I’m just sayin’.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.

On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.

Before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.

Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit that was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series that began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.

Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.

While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct  follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.

The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells that can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.

With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.

It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap and causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, that adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.

Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right?

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.

As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (the manual humorously dubs them “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.

To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.

Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.

Little Samson (NES)

Happy anniversary to me!

Three years ago to the day now, I began writing reviews for every game I completed. This proved so enjoyable that I soon committed to producing at least one per week going forward, a goal I’ve handily exceeded. An achievement such as this calls for something extraordinary. I’ve chosen a game that fills NES aficionados everywhere with a heady mix of wonder and dread: The deceptively humble-sounding Little Samson.

This 1992 action-platformer was the third and final game to come out of the short-lived studio Takeru/Sur Dé Wave. I covered their debut, the quirky Famicom exclusive Cocoron, last year. Takeru’s roster consisted largely of former Capcom staff, and their years spent churning out hits like Mega Man and Strider made them highly adept at side-scrolling action. Sadly, Little Samson’s excellence in this capacity is often eclipsed by its monstrous price tag. How bad are we talking here? Try $1200 to $8800 as of this writing, depending on condition and completeness. This makes it the single most expensive regular licensed retail release for the system by a wide margin. The current runner-up, The Flintstones – Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, goes for slightly more than half what Little Samson does on average. This game’s reputation as an ultra-rare prestige piece is so well established that even playing it for free via EverDrive, as I did, felt like being down in the classic gaming equivalent of a world-class wine cellar, reverently dusting off some priceless vintage.

What makes Little Samson specifically the crown jewel of so many licensed NES collections? We’ll likely never be 100% sure. It’s universally agreed that its publisher, Taito, didn’t produce very many copies. There may have been as few as 10,000 manufactured, although the precise number is unknown and possibly lost to history. This relative scarcity is also evident with other Taito games of the era, like Panic Restaurant and the aforementioned Surprise at Dinosaur Peak. Then there’s the matter of its oddly Biblical name. The game itself, known as Seirei Densetsu Lickle (“Holy Bell Legend Lickle”) in the original Japanese, has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s been speculated American NES owners shunned Little Samson at point of sale based on a general aversion to “Bible games,” which, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, do tend to be pretty dang terrible. Finally, let’s consider that human psychology can be a lot messier than any rarified laws of supply and demand would have you believe. Hardcore collectors of anything have a tendency to be highly competitive. In light of this, the NES collecting ecosystem practically demands there be something situated right where Little Samson is in the pricing hierarchy. The jump in dollar value from three digits to four is more than enough to turn heads and demonstrate a high degree of personal commitment to the hobby, yet Little Samsom remains far more attainable than, say, the five-digit beast that is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If Little Samson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

So how’s the gameplay, already? Glad you asked! At its core, Little Samson is an archetypal NES action game in which a team of four diverse heroes must overcome a series of side-scrolling stages filled with enemies and death-defying leaps in order to save their fantasy kingdom from an evil overlord. The twist is you’re able to swap between the four protagonists at any time in order to draw on their various special abilities. Or at least you are after you’ve completed the four short opening levels, each of which is intended to serve as an introduction to a specific hero.

Samson (aka Lickle) is the de facto leader of the bunch. He has decent health and movement speed, can climb walls and ceilings, and attacks by tossing bells straight ahead. He functions as your jack-of-all-trades, best used when none of his comrades would be significantly more effective.

Kikira the dragon’s mediocre health is offset by several potent assets. She’s able to fly for short periods, has steady footing on icy surfaces, and can charge up her fire breath for extra damage.

Gamm the golem is a huge, slow target who can barely jump. To compensate, he has a massive health pool, takes no damage from spikes, and can aim his powerful short range punches vertically as well as horizontally.

K.O. the mouse is tiny and fragile, the polar opposite of Gamm in many ways. Despite this, he’s anything but useless. His Metroid style bomb attack is the most powerful in the game, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to exploit it. On top of this, he moves fast, jumps high, clings to walls, fits into the narrowest of passages, and can walk on water. Walk on water? Maybe this is a Bible game after all….

All four members of your team have separate health bars. As in Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, swapping out a badly wounded hero before he or she bites the dust is always best practice. One caveat: If anyone beside Samson does die, they’ll stay dead until you run out of lives completely and use a continue. The one exception is if the character died with a healing potion in their inventory, in which case it can be used from the pause menu to revive them. This does unfortunately lead to situations where it’s easier to burn through the rest of your lives on purpose so you can continue with a full party than it is to struggle on with a diminished roster.

In less skilled hands, the teamwork mechanic that defines Little Samson could have amounted to a mere gimmick. The developers’ genius lies in the way every aspect of the level and enemy design synergizes with it. As you play, you’re constantly prompted to consider the ideal way to tackle the obstacles in your path. For spikes on the floor, is it better to fly over them with Kikira, walk across them with Gamm, or use K.O. or Samson to scamper across the ceiling? While there’s often more than one solution, determining which is your safest bet hinges not just on the placement of the spikes themselves, but on which foes are lurking nearby and whether a given party member is worth risking now versus saving for the upcoming boss fight.

Speaking of the boss encounters, this same intriguing dynamic is present there, too. Do you want to try to keep your distance and wear them down with Kikira and Samson, brawl with Gamm, or engage in the high risk, high reward venture of getting in close enough to deploy K.O.’s bombs without taking damage? This is quality game design, pure and simple.

Not only is the content here finely crafted, there’s a good amount of it. Twenty-two stages to be exact, although you won’t find all of them on your first go due to their branching structure. Just be aware that Little Samson is one of those games that terminates your playthrough prematurely and denies you the true ending if you opt for the easy difficulty mode. Thankfully, unlimited continues and a password system keep the normal setting quite reasonable.

Little Samson’s graphics and sound form a interesting dichotomy. Its sprites and backgrounds are truly sumptuous by NES standards. Seeing this degree of fine detail realized under the strict color and resolution limitations of a machine engineered in 1983 to run Donkey Kong is downright inspiring. I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never seen another Famicom or NES game that looks better than this one. Approximately as good in its own right, sure, but never flat-out superior. Then there’s the music, which is…fine, I guess. That is, the songs themselves are well done. How they’re used is the issue. Instead of having the music selections tied to the levels themselves as in most games, the individual heroes have their own themes which play whenever they’re active. The problem inherent in having just four main background tracks in a lengthy game is exacerbated by some characters being less suited for general use than others. I hope you like Samson’s theme in particular, because you’re likely to be listening to it around half the time. On the plus side, the endgame areas do eventually break free of this rut with some distinct tunes of their own.

To my delight, Little Samson proved itself a prime example of a hyped-up trophy title that also happens to rank among the better games available on its native platform. The limited soundtrack is the only remotely disappointing thing about it. Charming characters, lush visuals, and masterfully designed action make it worth seeking out by any means necessary. If emulation or flash cartridges aren’t your bag and you’d prefer a more affordable “real” copy, consider Seirei Densetsu Lickle. It’s the same game at 1/8th the cost.

Disappointing sales notwithstanding, this was one hell of a swan song from Takeru. If a little sticker shock is what it takes to attract the audience it always deserved, that’s fine by me.

Mitsume ga Tooru (Famicom)

Last summer, I examined Konami’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken, a 1987 Famicom action-platformer based on the work of manga titan Osamu Tezuka. Hi no Tori is nowhere near the company’s best effort and its faithfulness to the source material is highly questionable. It’s a passable, if unexceptional product. Let’s skip ahead to 1992 now and see if Natsume was able to do better with their spin on another Tezuka property, Mitsume ga Tooru (“The Three-Eyed One”).

The original print version of Mitsume ga Tooru ran in Weekly Shōnen Magazine between 1974 and 1978. It was revived in animated series form starting in 1990, which likely explains the timing of this Famicom adaptation. The title character is one Hosuke Sharaku, a bald boy who resembles Charlie Brown by way of Dr. Evil and happens to be one of the last survivors of an ancient race of three-eyed people with powerful psychic abilities. These abilities are tied directly to his extra eye, leading to him having a split personality of sorts. When his third eye is covered with a bandage, he’s a typical good-natured, dopey kid. Expose the eye and he instantly transforms into a selfish, megalomaniacal super-genius. His sidekick/love interest is plucky schoolgirl Wato Chiyoko. The names of these two are supposedly intended to reference Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, though the association seems tenuous at best to me. The game’s plot sees Sharaku out to rescue the kidnapped Wato from another three-eyed fellow, Prince Godaru.

To accomplish this, he’ll need to traverse a total of just five side-scrolling stages. Mitsume ga Tooru’s short run time is a common focus of criticism in some of the other reviews I’ve seen. In truth, it’s no different than classics like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden in this respect. Not every 8-bit platformer can reasonably be expected to take the form of a multi-hour epic like Super Mario Bros. 3, after all. On the plus side, Mitsume ga Tooru does introduce new enemies and environmental hazards in each and every area, so at least I can’t accuse it of padding.

Sharaku controls conspicuously like Capcom’s Mega Man. This applies to his running and jumping, his standard attack (he can rapid fire up to three small projectiles at a time from his third eye), and his inability to duck. Not really surprising, I suppose, given Natsume’s noted fondness for loosely patterning its 8-bit action games on hits from bigger studios. He does have one signature move of his own: The Red Condor. This is a magic spear Sharaku can summon by holding down the fire button for a few seconds. Releasing the button will then cause him to hurl it forward. It’ll travel about half the length of the screen, damaging any foes it touches, before turning around and heading back the way it came. This is when things get interesting. If you time a jump right and manage to land Skaraku on top of the rebounding Condor, it’ll stop and hover in mid-air, acting as a springy platform. Initially just a curiosity, this function is required to progress later on. Basically, any time you need to reach a spot that’s beyond Sharaku’s regular jumping ability, that’s your cue to try bouncing off the Red Condor. Unfortunately, these are probably the only times you’ll feel compelled to use it. Its long charge time and limited range make it a poor choice as an offensive weapon.

A small selection of power-ups are available for both your primary shot and the Red Condor. These are accessed through a shop run by a friendly flag-waving NPC who appears one or twice per level. These shops are also where you’ll purchase extra lives and refills for Sharaku’s six-hit health bar. Consequently, the only pickups obtained directly from enemies are bouncing coins of various denominations. The game is pretty generous with its currency drops and you’ll usually have enough to purchase some healing and a weapon whenever the opportunity presents itself. If you find yourself wanting more funds on top of that, you can try juggling the coins in the air repeatedly with your shots. Do this enough times and they’ll actually increase in value somehow. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s helpful.

That’s all you really need to know to enjoy this one. Mitsume ga Tooru isn’t exactly deep or novel. You run, jump, shoot, hoard coins, and very occasionally call on the Red Condor for help with a tricky platforming section. What it lacks in complexity and innovation, however, it makes up for with the rock solid design fundamentals of a late period Famicom release by Natsume. Stages and mechanics are well considered, well implemented, and served up with panache. The boss fights in particular are highlights. These guys are all appropriately imposing and mastering their various attack patterns is a must. Simply standing toe-to-toe and brute forcing them is never an option, which I always appreciate. If this sounds daunting, take heart: Unlimited continues and frequent checkpoints keep frustration to a minimum, even on the higher of the two difficulty settings.

Mitsume ga Tooru’s art and music both live up to the high standard set by the gameplay. Its spritework and animation are head and shoulders above most of its peers and do an admirable job of capturing Tezuka’s distinctive style. The backgrounds are no slouches, either, incorporating parallax scrolling and transparency effects rarely seen on the hardware. Only a handful of other contemporary offerings like Gimmick and Kirby’s Adventure can be said to look better overall. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns) is yet another example of fantastic in-house audio from Natsume. It starts out strong and only gets better as it goes on, climaxing in the one-two punch of a stirring final level theme and a sweet, wistful end credits roll.

Impressive as it is, Mitsume ga Tooru was ultimately doomed to suffer the same sad fate as so many other pre-Harvest Moon Natsume titles: Being a one-off. Hosuke Sharaku hasn’t starred in another video game to date, although he has featured as an antagonist in several headlined by his fellow Tezuka creation, Astro Boy. At least his sole turn in the spotlight stands as a sterling example of a licensed game done right. If you’re on the hunt for awesome Famicom exclusives that don’t require any Japanese language skills, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye or three out for this one.

Mega Man: The Wily Wars (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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