Contra (NES)

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My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. The ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action platformers left their mark but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the 80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.

(Originally written 3/8/2017)

Getsu Fūma Den (Famicom)

Yup. Whatever that says, it sure is satisfying.

Getsu Fūma Den (literally “Legend of the Lunar Wind Demon”) is a very interesting 1987 game by Konami for the Nintendo Famicom. As a side-scrolling action-adventure game with some first-person 3D elements, Getsu Fūma Den shares a lot of the same very ambitious design goals as two other Konami releases for the console that same year: Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II. Each of these three games are flawed but still quite enjoyable attempts to take the action-platforming gameplay common in Famicom titles up to that time as a basis and then work in elements from the RPG and adventure game genres in the form of permanent character progression and large open worlds filled with mazes, puzzles, and inventory items to gather. Unlike Castlevania II and Goonies II, however, Getsu Fūma Den never saw release outside of Japan, probably due to its heavy use of cultural references that would have been lost on a Western audience.

As its title states, Getsu Fūma Den is the story of Getsu Fūma, a determined young samurai who must recover his clan’s three lost magical wave swords (hadouken), which were captured when his older brothers fell in battle against the forces of the demon lord Ryūkotsuki (“dragon bone demon”), and use them to vanquish the villain once and for all and avenge his fallen kin. Interestingly, Fūma is based (extremely loosely) on Fūma Kotarō, a famous historical ninja clan leader who rose to prominence in 16th century Japan. This makes him a sort of counterpart to another historically inspired Konami hero: Goemon from the Gonbare Goemon series.

I played Getsu Fūma Den using the original Famicom cartridge and a pin adaptor that I ripped out of a copy of Gyromite, so there was a bit of a language barrier to deal with. There is a fan translated version of the game ROM available online if you prefer to play that way but thankfully there’s no need. All you really need to complete the game is an understanding of your overall goal and a good breakdown of what the various items in the game do. Thorough exploration will take care of the rest.

The game starts you out on an overhead view world map very reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s, although it doesn’t feature the constant random monster encounters that Zelda II does during map exploration. Various icons on the map represent action stages, shops, dungeons, and houses where NPCs will dispense healing and advice. The goal of the game is to locate the three dungeons that house the missing hadouken and pass through them to defeat the bosses therein. Once you have all three swords, a bridge will appear on the main island that you can cross to reach Ryūkotsuki’s castle and finish him off. To enter each dungeon, though, you’ll need to acquire passes in the form of demon masks. These are dispensed by specific skeleton NPCs that you’ll find inside houses. You’ll need to fight the first two in order to get their passes but you can rather amusingly acquire the third one just by repeatedly visiting the skeleton and pestering him for it until he finally relents and hands it over so you’ll leave him be. Also, keep in mind that a few of the items sold in the shops (like the rock sword and candle) are actually required to complete the game, so make sure to check out all the ones you find.

The world map is merely functional but the side-view action stages are where Getsu Fūma Den really shines. These look fantastic and feature a large selection of enemies and background tiles for a 1987 title. Fūma has a very floaty jump and an interesting way of attacking with his sword. He swings it in a sort of wide forward arc that can also hit enemies immediately above and below him. It took me a little while to realize why Fūma’s controls felt so familiar but then it hit me: He handles a lot like Leonardo from Konami’s very first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES, just with a faster running speed. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of Getsu Fūma Den’s staff later worked on TMNT. You have a health meter at the top of the screen and right above it is an experience meter that will slowly fill as you kill enemies. The more experience you accumulate, the more damage you’ll deal with your sword and the less you’ll take from enemies. I was able to max out the experience meter fairly quickly during my playthrough, between the first and second dungeons, and it definitely made the journey much easier. The most fun part of these stages is probably using the various extra weapons that you can pick up and use in place of your sword for a little variety. You can find a magic war drum that shoots the Japanese work for “power” at foes to damage them, shuriken throwing blades, a devil top that gives you an invincible jumping spin attack similar to Metroid’s Samus Aran, and more. The top spin attack in particular is super strong against bosses.

Once you finally reach one of the three dungeons, you’ll enter the final gameplay mode: 3D maze exploration. Unfortunately, this is where Getsu Fūma Den flounders somewhat. Like almost all 3D maze sections in 8-bit console games, these sections are slow, unengaging, and confusing to boot due to every part of the maze looking exactly the same. Prepare to either draw yourself some maps Dungeons & Dragons style or wing it and accept that you’ll be getting turned around and unintentionally backtracking at some points. At least these mazes are better than the positively torturous ones in Vic Tokai’s Golgo 13 games. No multiple floors and trap doors to send you back here. There are non-essential bonus items and money stashes to find as well as enemies to fight but the combat here is pretty lacking. Enemy sprites will bob up and down to simulate being closer or further from Fūma but there’s no sprite scaling like there is in games like Sega’s Space Harrier, so judging depth can be difficult. In general, just try to avoid enemies when they’re at the bottom of the screen and jump up to slash them in the head as many times as possible when they’re at the top. Thankfully, you’ll switch back to the side-view perspective when you reach the end of the maze and it’s finally time to fight the boss. These guys are another highlight. They’re big, freaky looking, and fun to combat. I especially loved the giant cyclops demon head in a samurai helmet that flies around spitting flames at you.

Getsu Fūma Den isn’t a particularly difficult game. The trickiest elements are honestly learning your way around the overhead map and navigating the dungeon mazes. Fūma can take a lot of hits before dying and continues are unlimited. Losing all your lives and continuing will cost you half of your accumulated money but this is no real hardship. You’re practically drowning in cash in this game and most items for sale aren’t even that expensive. A couple of the later bosses can put up a decent struggle but once you find the devil top, you can spin them into oblivion easily enough. My first playthrough last night took me about 5-6 hours in total but none of that was spent stuck on difficult action bits. There are passwords available to resume your game if you want to take a break. Just select the second option on the continue screen to receive one. These aren’t too long but they are in Japanese, so I would recommend taking a photo rather than trying to transcribe them by hand unless you’re familiar with the language.

Getsu Fūma Den is yet another awesome 8-bit title from Konami. It has some great side-scrolling action coupled with a very surreal and striking ancient Japanese fantasy-horror aesthetic. There are games for the system that look better but none that could be mistaken for this one. The music is also a treat, particularly the epic overworld theme. It’s a pity that Fūma himself never found the same success that many of their other characters did. This game never received a sequel, even in its native land. Fūma would be playable in both the Konami Wai Wai World games for Famicom (along with numerous other Konami heroes) and he was also a downloadable bonus character in 2010’s Castlevania: Harmony of Despair but he would never again be a headliner.

At least he went out with honor.

Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)

I met an opossum wearing goggles once. No rocket, though.

1993’s Rocket Knight Adventures from Konami is a celebrated game that won’t be much of a revelation to anyone who grew up playing the Genesis/Mega Drive. For someone like me, though, who stuck with Nintendo hardware all through the 80s and 90s due to a combination of established love for the NES and what I saw as Sega’s obnoxious “extreme” marketing, discovering that I missed out on titles like this is both slightly disappointing and highly exhilarating.

RKA is the story of Sparkster, a brave young Rocket Knight who must defend the opossum kingdom of Zebulos from attack by the pig Emperor Devligus of the Devotindos Empire. Aided by the rogue rocket knight Axel Gear, the Empire has kidnapped Princess Sherry because only she knows the way to open the seal to the Pig Star (pretty much the Death Star from Star Wars with a pig snout on it), which was captured centuries ago following a destructive war and sealed away by the first king of Zebulos. Axel also gravely wounded Sparkster’s mentor and father figure Mifune during his treacherous turn, so our hero has a personal stake in the fight as well. All of this information comes from the manual, as there’s no backstory presented in the game. There are some rather adorable cut scenes between levels that advance the plot to its conclusion, though.

As I aside, I do find myself wondering why pigs almost always have to be the bad guys in these cartoon animal worlds. I think they’re pretty cool. Maybe it’s an Animal Farm thing? At least Konami also gave us a pig hero in their 1982 arcade shooter Pooyan, so hooray for equal time. Hmm. I wonder if anyone’s come up with a fan theory that Rocket Knight Adventures and Pooyan take place in the same fictional universe? If not, I’m totally calling dibs on that one right now.

Ahem. Anyway, like a lot of Konami’s flagship titles at the time, Rocket Knight Adventures is a side-scrolling action-platform game. Mostly. As a nice change of place, Sparkster will occasionally take to the skies with his rocket pack to engage in some shooting action reminiscent of Gradius. Controls are simple but still nuanced, which is always a key to success in any game of this kind. One button makes Sparkster jump and the other will attack with his sword. The sword attack has more range to it than you might expect, as each swing will also fire off an energy blast that can travel about 2/3 the length of the screen.

Sparkster’s rocket pack is what really takes the action to a whole other level, though, since it enhances both your attacks and movement in a variety of ways. Holding the attack button down for a couple seconds will charge it up and releasing the button will unleash it. If Sparkster is standing still, he’ll spin rapidly in place and deal heavy damage to anything nearby. If you’re holding down a directional button, he’ll blast off at high speed in that same direction with his sword held out in front of him. You can use this to attack foes, reach high platforms and items, and even ricochet off walls like a bullet to attack from unexpected angles. Sparkster is mostly invincible while executing a charged rocket attack but that doesn’t mean that you can get away with abusing them. Each level has its share of pits, spikes, traps, and other environmental hazards, so if you’re just rocketing around recklessly, you will regret it. Learning exactly how and when to unleash Sparkster’s charge attacks is the key to doing well and the process is so, so fun.

There are seven levels total for Sparkster to traverse. This may not seem like a lot but each one is fairly long and is broken up into several unique locations and action set pieces. There are also around sixteen bosses battles spread throughout the game. These are all unique, too, and have multiple phases and attack patterns to deal with. In fact, RKA doesn’t rely on padding or asset recycling of any kind, which is really unusual for an older game. Instead, every stage utilizes 100% original enemies, obstacles, backgrounds, and music. To cap it all off, the stage designs are masterful thrill rides brimming with invention and represent one-time superdeveloper Konami at its very best.

This game looks gorgeous and a big part of that is the art direction. The choice to depict a whimsical world populated by cute animals reminiscent of Golden Age Disney cartoons means that the designers were able to focus on big, bold primary colors and didn’t need to stretch the system’s limited palette too thin by struggling to depict more realistic characters and settings. The characters are drawn full of personality and their animations are smooth. To pick just one example, Sparkster looks so, so adorable fighting off enemies while hanging upside down from his tail in true possum style. The music follows suit by perfectly complimenting the blend of cute visuals and intense action. You know you’re in for some unforgettable tunes when both Michiru Yamane, famed for her work in the Castlevania games, and Mr. Silent Hill himself, Akira Yamaoka, both contributed to Rocket Knight’s score.

Rocket Knight Adventures is not terribly difficult, though it does require some practice and knowledge of the level layouts to complete. The game has four difficulty levels to choose from. The first three are all very managable and seem to vary mainly in the amount of damage that Sparkster takes from enemies and hazards. The fourth (Very Hard) starts you out with only one life and kills you after one hit from anything. Definitely not my cup of tea but it’s nice that they included a mode for those players who enjoy playing a game over and over and over (and over!) until they’ve completely mastered it.

This is the part of the review where I try to find something negative to say about the game in the interest of fairness and objectivity. I’m normally pretty good at this but here I’m kind of stumped! Rocket Knight Adventures is one of the very finest action games I’ve ever played and it has no noteworthy flaws to speak of. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the best of Konami’s 16-bit action-platformers. Yes, even better than stuff like Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars. With those games, great as they are, I can still find a few non-trivial faults if I look, such as the overpowered nature of Simon Belmont relative to his enemies in Castlevania IV or Contra III’s mediocre overhead view levels. Rocket Knight Adventures has no such weak points. It’s about as close to perfection as a game realistically gets and it’s a bit of a bummer that I haven’t been playing it ever since it came out.

I guess sometimes it is worth doing what Nintendon’t.

Clash at Demonhead (NES)

So meta!

I’m off to spend the a few days vacationing in Astoria, Oregon tomorrow (Goonies never say die!) but I still had time to play through one more game last night: Clash at Demonhead for the NES! Clash was developed and published by Vic Tokai and debuted in Japan in 1989 under the title Dengeki (“Blitz”) Big Bang! I feel like I’m super late to the party on this game since I can recall Clash being one of the earliest NES titles to develop a reputation as a cult classic for the system back in the early days of the retro gaming Internet, along with River City Ransom and a select few others. Better late than never? Not always….

Clash at Demonhead is a side-scrolling action-platform game with an open-ended level layout and exploration elements, similar to Nintendo’s celebrated Metroid and Tecmo’s NES version of Rygar. You guide secret agent Billy “Big Bang” Blitz (does he work in porn in his spare time?) through an utterly mad world of rejected googly-eyed Mega Man enemies and hostile cartoon animals in an attempt to stop a group of weirdo terrorists from blowing up the entire world with a “Doomsday Bomb” for reasons so ridiculous that I won’t spoil them for you here. In order to defuse the bomb, you’ll need a total of six medallions held by the game’s various bosses (“governors”) and that means scouring the game’s 42 interconnected levels (“routes”) in order to find them all. It’s a lengthy quest for a console game of the time but thankfully there are passwords (accessed through an item sold at the shop) to save your progress.

Bang has a pretty robust moveset to start out. He can walk, jump, crouch, and shoot straight ahead as well as being able to swim around in bodies of water and climb on certain walls. Various special consumable items you’ll be able to purchase from a shop as the game progresses will add new movement options, such as flying around on a jetpack or even swimming in lava thanks to an armored “super suit.” While the ability to shoot your gun upward would have been nice, the control options you get are not bad at all.

Oh, and there’s also a magic system.  That’s right: This game has robots, ray guns, doomsday bombs, and a bearded mountain hermit who teaches you magic. There are five abilities in total and they include shrinking to fit through narrow passages, levitation (which is honestly a little redundant when you consider that the jetpack is so easy to acquire), teleportation to warp instantly from level to level, and more. It’s just too bad that you’ll probably want to save all of your limited magic points (“force”) for teleporting. The other powers are kind of neat but nothing can compare with the massive convenience of being able to cross the entire map in an instant without needing to traverse a half-dozen stages or more in-between.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up Clash at Demonhead is that the game is bright, colorful, and very peculiar. The story, setting, and characters are clearly intended to be a simultaneous parody of and homage to a style of comedic action anime that was well-established in Japan at the time but was virtually unknown in the West prior to the international debut of key breakout series like Dragonball and Sailor Moon later on in the 1990s. Certainly, the game’s distinctly non-anime North American box art is a good indicator that the publisher was aware how little experience most of us had with this sort of thing. I get the feeling that a lot of people who first encountered this game around the time of its release would have been pretty intrigued by its wacky, characteristically Japanese style. Clash doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The game’s setting is pure lunacy and resembles the planet Eternia from He-Man and the Master of the Universe far more than it does earth as we know it, character designs and animations are exaggerated and slapstick, and dialog breaks the fourth wall. There are even some play elements that seem to subvert and mock video game clichés, like a boss battle you can’t win and a totally optional sidequest and boss that rewards you with…absolutely nothing. Combine all this with the fact that non-linear adventure style games like this were slim pickings on the NES at the time (despite the success of Metroid in 1986) and it’s easy to see why Clash’s nostalgia factor is so potent for a lot of people. It would have been very a very memorable title indeed.

Unfortunately, with me having no nostalgic ties to the game, Clash at Demonhead just comes off as sort of…well, bad. It’s bad. It’s a bad game. There, I said it. Now that you’re sufficiently incensed, I’ll explain. It all comes down to three things for me: The stiff controls, the wonky mechanics, and the subpar presentation. For starters, the core action-platform gameplay, the thing you spend the entire game doing, just doesn’t feel very good due to how Bang controls. His walking, jumping, and shooting feel awkward and occasionally unresponsive. His hit box also seems like it’s significantly larger than his actual sprite. In fact, many enemies and projectiles also seem to have strange hit boxes and you’ll often find yourself taking damage from things your eyes are telling you that you shouldn’t be. Water in this game is also surprisingly hazardous, despite Bang’s ability to swim. As in many games, being submerged in water will cause your health to slowly drain away to simulate drowning. So far, so good. Unlike in any other game I’ve ever played, however, this process starts the instant Bang’s head dips below the waterline, which happens automatically whenever you jump into a body of water unless you execute a rather tricky double jump off the surface, which is tough to pull off consistently. There’s no “breath holding” period, the damage just triggers instantly even if you immediately bob back up to the surface. You can get around this by wearing a diving suit but it seems strange and counterintuitive to require one just to negotiate the water’s surface safely.

It also should be noted that Clash at Demonhead looks and sounds pretty terrible for a 1989 release. The graphics are colorful to be sure and Bang himself has a ton of cute animations (like a panicked expression when slipping and sliding on ice) that add a lot to his character. I really like the way that wearing a diving suit or a jetpack will cause his sprite to actually change both in and out of cut scenes. Sprites on the whole, though, are on the crude and ugly side just like the simplistic and highly repetitive background graphics. Many enemies, especially flying ones for some reason, also suffer from choppy animation which can make attacking and avoiding airborne targets more iffy than it should be. While we’re on the subject of repetition, Clash at Demonhead’s shrill score is just godawful. When people complain about how the music in old video games was just a bunch of discordant blips and bleeps, it’s not Final Fantasy they’re talking about, it’s Clash at Demonhead. The track that plays in the final enemy stronghold as you’re on your way to defuse the Doomsday Bomb is one of the most atrocious attempts at music I’ve ever heard in my life. I actually stopped what I was doing for a bit just to marvel at the sheer incompetence on display, which is not what most composers are really aiming for, I think. Even if you think that comparing a smaller project from a third party developer like Vic Tokai to something like Metroid is unfair, Rygar by Tecmo, another game with a similar overall design that came out two years prior, looked, sounded, and played leagues better than Clash at Demonhead. It may be weird and it may be funny but under the hood, Clash is all flash.

I will credit Clash at Demonhead with one thing, though: It did inspire me to take my “retro gaming” to a whole other level. While playing, I first attempted to simply remember which of the game’s 42 routes was which, since the in-game map screen shows the overall layout but doesn’t display the route numbers, except for the routes that you’re immediately adjacent to at any given moment. So when I got to the point where a character told me that my next objective was on route 27…Well, let’s just say I spent entirely too much time wandering around trying to remember which one that was again. I consulted the manual only to find that there was no map at all there, just a suggestion that you draw your own and label the routes yourself. I almost hopped online to quickly search up a complete route map but then I found myself thinking: Back at the time this game came out, I probably would have just taken then manual’s advice and made my own. So that’s what I ended up doing instead. Now I have my very own hand-drawn, physical map of Clash at Demonhead on a piece of lined paper. It may be ugly but it works and it’s mine. I can barely remember the last time I drew my own map of a video game and I found the whole exercise to be oddly engaging. I suppose it made me feel a little more like an active participant in the exploration aspect of the game.

If you’re looking for game in the Metroid mold, Clash at Demonhead is still going to be very far down on my list of recommendations but I did manage to have some fun with the crazy setting and characters, the humor, and the process of exploring the game world. It’s very rough around the edges and by no means an essential experience but I’d say that if you like your games weird and you can get it cheap, you might as well give it a go.

As for me, I’ll be waiting for you in my desert fortress on route 33!

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth (NES)

You know, I think I love you, too, game.

Welcome to Wurm: Journey to Center of the Earth (also known as “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space” in Japan), that rarest of beasts: The game with four distinct modes of play and two terrible titles. What an overachiever! Wurm was brought to us in 1991 by lesser-known publisher Asmik and way lesser-known developer Cyclone System. It’s a crazy smorgasbord of vertical, horizontal, and first-person shooter with a dash of side-scrolling run-and-gun thrown in and cinematic cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden’s as the finishing touch. This places Wurm firmly in the quirky NES shooter hybrid camp with Xexyz and The Guardian Legend. While its gameplay doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardian Legend, I found myself charmed and a little taken aback by its somber and surprisingly mature story.

In Wurm, you play as Moby, a young woman with neon green hair almost as strange as her name, who captains the VZR-5, a super high-tech tank with a giant drill on the front that can dig through solid rock but also hover, use a variety of weapons, and even transform into a jet. According to the manual, this vehicle is also the titular “wurm,” but it’s never referred to as such in-game. Moby and the rest of the VZR-5 crew are burrowing deep into the earth’s crust in order to investigate the cause of a mysterious series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that are devastating the surface. She’s also searching for traces of the four earlier VZR ships that were dispatched on the same mission but never returned. Among the crew of these lost ships was her father, Professor Banda, and her love interest, Ziggy. Moby’s a pretty badass “Lady Protagonist” (as the instruction manual describes her) and she proudly sports the same ludicrous green hair/red swimsuit combo as Samus Aran in the first Metroid and the star of the obscure FVM game Time Gal, so she’s okay by me. She soon finds herself exploring a surreal underworld filled with hostile creatures and getting wrapped up in an ongoing war between rival subterranean races.

Wurm consists of five “acts” separated by major plot developments. Each act contains three to five distinct levels that add up to grand total of twenty levels for the entire game. You start the game in a horizontal shooting mode where you guide your tank from left to right, blasting enemies and using your drill to tunnel through walls that otherwise would block progress. Pressing up and the A button will engage hover mode and allow you to leave the ground and fly freely, but this will consume more of your limited fuel. Allow the fuel gauge to run out and you lose. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find additional fuel in the form of pickups from destroyed enemies, so I actually never ran out once during my playthrough. My advice: Engage hover mode right away at the start of each of these stages and never look back. The ground is for losers. You’ll later gain the ability to transform into a jet, which is faster and has its own distinct set of weapons to use but consumes even more fuel and doesn’t have a drill. I found the jet to not be worth the trouble despite looking cool and stuck with the tank in hover mode but it is nice to have options to keep things fresh. Unlike in most shooters, you can take multiple hits and you have a regenerating health bar in the form of your shield meter. If you find your shields getting low, you’ll want to slow down and let them recharge a bit before you’re stuck staring at the game over screen.

Eventually, the screen will start to shake and you’ll transition to a first-person boss fight against a single giant foe. You’ll need to dodge left and right to avoid the enemy’s attacks (or try to shoot its projectiles out of the air before they reach you) while also concentrating your return fire on its weak point. But that’s not all: You’ll also take breaks from the shooting periodically to access a menu where you can converse with the different VZR crew members, who will each offer their advice on how to defeat the boss. This reminds me of the back-and-forth between the different bridge crew members in an episode of Star Trek and really is a standout gameplay element in Wurm that I can’t recall seeing in any other action game of the time. You need talk to your crew in order to restore health points lost during the battle and to raise your possibility percentage. You can’t actually kill the boss and end the fight until your possibility rating reaches 100%, no matter how much you blast away at it prior to that. Talking to some crew members will increase your possibility percentage while speaking to others who might dispense bad or discouraging advice will leave it unaltered or even decrease it. In the end, it takes a combination of lots of accurate shooting and consulting with the right NPCs to bring the boss down. Very unique!

After defeating the boss, Moby will decide that it’s time to leave the VZR and explore some nearby caverns on foot. This leads to yet another gameplay mode where you control Moby directly as she walks and jumps around a side-scrolling level searching for clues to the mysteries of the underworld and lost crew members from the previous VZR missions. During these segments, she can defend herself with a pistol (that has limited shots, so be careful) and a mean roundhouse kick. Anyone who’s played 1988’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode for NES will recognize the similarities here right away. Moby animates and controls just like Golgo does in that game, which is no coincidence, as both projects involved a ton of input from designer and artist Shoichi Yoshikawa. Your robot sidekick in Wurm is even named G-13. Cute. In fact, Yoshikawa himself still maintains to this day a bilingual website devoted to chronicling the story, characters, and oddly elaborate philosophy of Wurm. Pretty cool, if not also a bit strange.

Just when you think there can’t possibly be more, Moby will return to the VZR and suddenly overhead shooting sections are added to the mix! These play out similar to the side-view ones in that you’ll fly around blasting enemies and drilling through walls until you reach a boss. You can still transform between your hover tank and jet forms in overhead mode but the VZR’s ground-based tank form is off-limits here.

So that’s how the game is structured, with the play style continually cycling through these four modes while you encounter new NPCs, plot twists, enemies, and weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. It’s a lot to describe and indeed a lot to take in for new players. Unfortunately, Wurm does fall a bit into the “jack of all trades, master of none” category, as none of these four gameplay styles is a truly extraordinary example of its kind. The horizontal and vertical shooting sections are the best of the lot but they’re really just adequate and a far cry from greats on the system like Life Force or Zanac. The on-foot sections with Moby are by far the weakest, as they feature only five total enemy types to encounter and none of them pose much of a threat or are particularly fun to fight. Wurm is a fairly easy game. I was able to complete it for the first time in about three hours and I was by no means rushing. The levels simply aren’t all that punishing when compared to similar ones in other games of the period. You also get unlimited continues and a password for each act in case you want to take a break and return to the game later.

Wurm looks great for the most part, especially in the anime cut scenes and first-person segments with their large, well-detailed boss monsters and animated backgrounds. Cut scene artwork is heavily recycled throughout but what we get is very well-drawn and expressive. I absolutely love the cheesy 80s/90s sci-fi anime look of everything. The game’s soundtrack is a real treat, too. It really drives home the strange and alien atmosphere of the game’s setting. It sounds exactly like what getting lost in a monster-filled ancient ruin 200 miles beneath the earth should sound like, if that makes any sense.

What really elevates Wurm for me, though, is the storyline. It’s high-minded, tragic, and nuanced in a way that I’ve never seen attempted on the console before. It’s also plenty corny, to be sure. This is anime people fighting against an empire of underground monster men, not Shakespeare. Without spoiling too much, however, I will say that Wurm’s gutsy plot twists and hauntingly ambiguous ending really stuck with me. By the end of this game, not all of your comrades have made it and you’re left to wonder if the surviving characters will be able to learn from the catastrophic mistakes of the past before it’s too late or if history is doomed to repeat itself. Wurm is a title with a message and with subtext that touches on the world outside the game. For all its bombastic sci-fi shenanigans and dodgy dialog, it’s earnestly trying to communicate something important to the player and, in my case, it succeeded. If anything, this is even more uncommon and more interesting than an NES game that combines four gameplay styles into one and it’s the ultimate reason why Wurm gets a high recommendation from me.

If you like shooters, games with brave big-haired Lady Protagonists, and stories that aspired to be more than the usual kid’s stuff before it was cool, you owe it to yourself to give Wurm a go. Just don’t judge it by its awful North American cover art. Jesus.

Monster Party (NES)

Nothing weird going on here. Nope.

That’s right, it’s Monster Party! If there’s one game for the NES that’s remembered today not for its gameplay, story, audiovisual excellence, or sequels (there were none) but purely for its almost overwhelming eccentricity, it’s this 1989 offering from publisher Bandai. I just wish it was as well-designed as it is insane.

Monster Party’s opening cut scene introduces us to Mark, a seemingly normal kid walking home after dark from a baseball game with his trusty bat in tow. Yes, kids really used to do stuff like this without anyone calling the authorities. It was grand. Anyway, Mark stops to admire the beauty of a shooting star in the night sky, only to be shocked when the “star” lands right in front of him and reveals itself to be a bird man from another planet. Named Bert. Of course, Mark is completely unfazed by all this and asks “What’s up?” Yeah. Bert explains that his planet has been overrun by evil monsters and a little kid with a baseball bat is exactly the sort of mighty warrior he needs at his side to retake it. Before Mark can get a word about this in edgewise, Bert grabs him and they merge together into one being (!?!?) before flying off to Bert’s homeworld.

So, uh, yeah. There’s your story.

Once the game proper begins, you’ll find that Monster Party is a side-scrolling action-platformer, which was sort of the default genre for games at the time. You start out controlling Mark, who can run, jump, crouch, and swing his bat. It’s a pretty typical moveset but there is one nice touch: With the proper timing, the bat can be use to deflect enemy projectiles back at them, which serves the dual purpose of defending Mark and dealing heavy damage to the enemy.

Picking up a pill icon dropped by defeated enemies will transform Mark into Bert for a limited time. Bert can fly and has a ranged laser attack but he seems to be a little slower than Mark and he can’t deflect enemy shots like Mark can with his bat. This makes some enemies easier or tougher to defeat based on what form you’re currently using. It should be noted in Bert’s favor, though, that his ability to fly can completely trivialize some levels of the game, as in the case of the seventh stage, which is the only one laid-out vertically.

One of the first things you’ll notice playing through Monster Party is that the levels and enemies really aren’t that complex or challenging. Layouts are straightforward, enemies follow very basic fixed patterns and aren’t really programmed to take your movements into account, and your health bar is absolutely massive, spanning the entire screen horizontally and potentially allowing you to survive dozens of hits when full. It all seems very easy. That’s because this game is really all about the bosses. Every level has doors scattered about that lead either to pointless empty rooms that just waste your time or to a boss fight. The average level has three bosses that must be defeated in order to acquire the key that opens the door to the next level.

Unfortunately, most of the bosses fit into two categories: Stationary ones that shoot at you and mobile ones that shoot at you while moving back and forth across the screen horizontally. Sure, they all look different, but once you’ve beaten one, you’ve kind of beaten them all.

The game also doesn’t seem to have been tested very thoroughly. There’s an annoying glitch in level seven that prevents you from completing it if you defeat all three of the bosses, which you’ll recall is the goal of each level! Instead, you’ll need to either leave one boss room of your choice unentered or die and restart the level. This is such an obvious error that even minimal playtesting should have quickly picked up on it.

Graphics and sound are all over the map. Sprites for Mark, Bert, and most standard enemies are average, while the more detailed boss sprites tend to look quite good. Some stage backgrounds look great (I especially like the pulsating purple lighting in the cavern stage) but the majority are on the generic and forgettable side, like the forest and sewer. A couple of the musical tracks stand out as very eerie and memorable but the score as a whole didn’t stick in my mind. Do yourself a favor and dial the volume down during the sixth level, though. Instead of music, you get an attempt at an ambient howling wind effect playing in the background of this stage and it’ll kind of make you want to claw your own eardrums out.

On the whole, it sounds like a rather flat and uninspired game without a lot to recommend it over the system’s many superior platformers. Honestly, if I’m being objective, this a completely fair and accurate assessment. Monster Party is a wholly mediocre game.

But it’s just so freakin’ weird, you guys! Like Super Back to the Future Part II, another average-at-best platformer I played recently, Monster Party is still worth your time just to get a look at the next crazy thing it has in store for you. Dogs with human heads, walking pairs of pants (maybe they’re supposed to be invisible men but I like my take better), a killer kitten, a severed Egyptian pharoah head with blood gushing from its neck stump, and so much more. The enemies in Monster Party are unlike those in any other NES game and have to be seen to be believed. Thankfully, the designers did a great job making it likely that you’ll be able to see them all in a reasonable amount of time, since this is a fairly quick and easy game to complete. The eight stages are short, continues are unlimited, and health is abundant. This makes Monster Party more of a light romp than a protracted struggle, which is great because the novelty and humor never gets a chance to grow stale and the player doesn’t have to invest hours mastering game mechanics and stages that really aren’t that great in the first place. With all this in mind, I recommend everyone play through this one at least once just to soak in the pure WTF-ness of it all.

One last thing I should mention involves Monster Party’s history. This is a rare example of a game that was made in Japan but never released there. A prototype for an unreleased Japanese version exists and studying it reveals that the game was originally intended to contain many more parody elements than it ultimately did, with bosses based on famous monsters from films such as Gremlins, Alien, Little Shop of Horrors, Planet of the Apes, and many more. In the end, these were all changed to original creations, probably due to fear of potential legal troubles. Personally, I’m glad this ended up happening, since recognizable movie references would have been amusing in their own right but they probably wouldn’t have left as strong an impression on players as the completely random and inexplicable crop of bosses that we actually got. It’s a rare case of last minute changes made under duress actually working out for the better.

So give Monster Party a shot sometime soon. You have nothing to lose but your sanity.

Batter up!

The Legend of the Mystical Ninja (Super Nintendo)

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Beats being boiled in oil, I guess!

So ends another awesome playthrough of Konami’s 1991 classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, originally known in Japan as Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki, which, very loosely translated, means something like “Hang In There Goemon: The Picture Scroll of Princess Yuki’s Rescue.”

I first played this one back around the time it came out and it made a huge impression on me for several reasons. First, as a teenager in the early 90s, I’d played a ton of games made in Japan but I’d never seen any piece of media that leaned this heavily on references to Japanese history and culture before. Every enemy, item, and location was drawn from medieval and Edo Period Japan. I had no idea what anything I was seeing was supposed to be, but it was all really colorful and cool and interesting. I felt like I was getting a glimpse into a whole other world. Beyond that, this game was really funny! Back then, you’d see absurd things in console video games routinely (a giant, fireball-shooting plumber jumping on turtles, for example) but not a lot of deliberate, sustained attempts at comedy as such. Computers had plenty of humorous games, which is why the NES port of LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion is famous for being perhaps the most comedy-laden title for that system but usually consoles were a different story. Mystical Ninja is packed with genuinely funny slapstick from start to finish. Finally, the game looks and plays like a dream. This is the legendary Konami operating at its prime and the graphics, sound, control, and level design are all of the highest caliber. I was, and still am, blown away.

Mystical Ninja is an action platform game and part of a venerable series (starting in the arcades with 1986’s Mr. Goemon) based on the famous 16th century Japanese outlaw Ishikawa Goemon. He was a celebrated thief famous for two things: Stealing tons of money from the wealthy samurai class of the time and being boiled to death in oil after a failed attempt to assassinate a local ruler. Ick. Despite his bad end, Goemon became a folk hero among the common people due to his Robin Hood-like antics and was further immortalized in numerous Kabuki plays and later on in film, television, and the like.

In Mystical Ninja, you control Goemon and his sidekick Ebisumaru in a rambling quest across Japan, fighting ghosts, ninjas, mythic beasts, and more on your way to rescue Princess Yuki from a gang of criminals. Or I guess I should say: You control Kid Ying and Dr. Yang. Yeah, Konami’s localization team made the unfortunate decision to tinker with the main characters’ names here and it really doesn’t work well. Thankfully, the Yin/Yang aliases were given the boot by the time the second entry in the series to debut outside Japan was released on the N64. Good riddence.

Mystical Ninja is a side-scroling action-platform game with nine levels and two gameplay modes. Each level starts with you in a sort of “town mode” where you explore a village to amass money, shop for useful items, get clues from NPCs, and play over a dozen different mini-games. The second mode is a straightforward, linear action-platforming level with a boss fight at the end. Goemon and Ebisumaru have two main attacks: A short range melee strike that can be upgraded twice via lucky cat pickups but loses a level each time you’re hit and a ranged attack the can travel across the entire screen but costs you money with each shot. You have a health meter that allows you to take multiple hits and this can be extended via pickups and enhanced with items like armor that absorbs damage and pizza that restores lost health. Each level is increasingly tough but you’ll find that the unlimited continues and password system will keep any real frustration to a minimum. Mystical Ninja’s action is challenging and stimulating without being stress-inducing, which compliments its lighthearted tone perfectly.

There are a few things I’d change if I could. Most glaring is the timer: You’re given 999 seconds to complete a level, which seems like a lot, but it encompasses both the town exploration and action portions of the level, and having a cap on the time you can spend wandering around town and playing mini-games is just annoying. There are also a couple levels that cannot be completed until you purchase a specific expensive item from a shop, requiring a short period of money grinding. Thankfully, this only halts your progress for a few minutes at a time, not hours. It’s still pointless, however. Finally, Mystical Ninja uses relatively long (31 character) passwords for saving, which I know some players hate. Personally, I don’t mind it all that much in the era of ubiquitous camera phones that eliminate transcription errors but I suppose you may.

Overall, any flaws in Mystical Ninja are incredibly minor and you shouldn’t let anything dissuade you from trying out this classic. It has more thrills, laughs, and sheer charm and any given dozen common SNES games. And tanooki nuts. Massive, saggy tanooki nuts.

(Originally written 6/28/2017)