The Legendary Axe (TurboGrafx-16)

Love those diegetic credits!

A point of endless debate among TurboGrafx-16 fans is whether or not a better pack-in game would have bolstered the system’s lackluster performance in the North American market to any significant degree. Though I’m skeptical (to say the least) that any one game could have “saved” the TG-16, there’s no denying that the day one launch lineup in 1989 was exceptionally strong and included such heavyweights as Blazing Lazers, R-Type, and Dungeon Explorer. Regardless, NEC chose Keith Courage in Alpha Zones as the pack-in. I’ll give Keith Courage the more detailed look it deserves in due time, but suffice to say that it suffers from severe pacing issues that hold it back from being a top tier action-platformer.

The most popular candidate for an alternate pack-in is probably The Legendary Axe. Originally published by Victor Interactive Software in 1988 as Makyō Densetsu (“Demon Legend”), Legendary Axe is a no-nonsense hack-and-slash fantasy side-scroller reminiscent of Taito’s Rastan with a Castlevania twist. I recently reviewed a very similar game: Astyanax for the NES. This is no coincidence, as both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori of Aicom. In the modern parlance, we might call Astyanax a “spiritual sequel” to Legendary Axe.

The star of the show here is Gogan, a stock barbarian type who resembles a ginger-haired Tarzan in his fur loincloth. His quest is to rescue his childhood friend and love interest Flare, who’s been spirited away by the diabolic cult leader Jagu for use as a sacrifice. Gogan wields the magical axe Sting as his sole weapon across the game’s six stages. Fortunately for him, he can power-up Sting along the way, making it more than a match for the most vicious of opponents.

The game’s English title really is the more fitting one, since the proper use of Gogan’s axe is its defining mechanic. Just like in Astyanax, a power bar at the top of the screen determines the strength of each of your attacks. It resets to zero after every attack (successful or not) and then automatically begins recharging. Thus, there’s a classic “risk versus reward” setup in place where biding your time for a few extra seconds between strikes results in more damage to Gogan’s foes. Of course, this is often easier said than done and there are times when you’ll be swarmed from all sides and forced to rely instead on unleashing a quick flurry of weaker blows to survive.

Mastering Legendary Axe is a matter of learning each enemy’s behavior and placement in a given stage so that you can respond to its appearance with the correct attack. Some, like the bears and gorillas, are powerful, slow-moving, and take forever to kill with weak strikes, so instead keep your distance while you charge up fully. Others, like the fragile bats and butterflies, require no charging at all, so just mash away!

There are three types of axe upgrade available. These are obtained either by destroying stationary idols you come across or, less commonly, from a defeated mini-boss. One type allows Gogan to swing his axe faster, another increases the rate at which the power bar recharges, and the final, most import one actually lengthens the power bar itself by one level, to a maximum of four. Very few enemies in the game can withstand a level four axe strike. Be careful, however, as losing a life will lower your axe power by one level. There’s usually an idol not too far from your last checkpoint where you can regain it, but dying twice in quick succession can really set you back and hurt your chances in the later stages.

While the barbaric fantasy theme and combat invoke Rastan, it’s the platforming in Legendary Axe that betrays its Castlevania influence. Gogan is susceptible to some severe knockback each time he’s damaged and the placement of enemies and instant death pits is cunningly calculated to exploit this weakness. Lives and continues are limited, so falling deaths are the thing most likely to send you back to the title screen. Always look before you leap. Running out of health is also a concern, naturally, but health refills appear in every stage, so you have much more room for error in this regard.

The gameplay here is a real treat. The controls are tight, the stages are well-designed, and every enemy type represents a unique challenge. Most importantly, the power meter management keeps your head in the game and prevents the action from stagnating, all while not being overly complicated in itself. Though you almost certainly won’t make it to the end on your first attempt, the overall brilliance of the design lends it an addictive quality that offsets the agony of defeat. The only potential stumbling block for some players is the emphasis on stage memorization. Don’t come expecting to play Legendary Axe “fast and loose” and still do well.

Much was made of the game’s graphics back around its release, particularly its large, detailed sprites. The colossal final boss Jagu specifically was held up as quite the revelation in a time when the NES was still top dog. The art and animation remain pleasing, but the visual element that holds up best these days is the striking use of color. The sprites and backgrounds are positively vibrant and really showcase the console’s impressive palette. The music by Jun Chikuma (best known for her work on the Bomberman series) is just as delightful as the visuals. She managed to seamlessly merge her typical jazzy style with grandiose, blood-pumping melodies suited to the game’s savage sword & sorcery aesthetic. It almost shouldn’t work, yet every single track here is a real earworm.

So is Legendary Axe the rightful TurboGrafx pack-in title, robbed of its birthright by corporate incompetence? Critics at the time sure seemed to think so. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine declared it to be their game of the year across all platforms. Although I wouldn’t go so far to call it the game of 1989, I can’t deny that it’s a much more appealing and consistent action-platforming package than Keith Courage. It’s earned its status as one of the cornerstones of the system’s library, even selling well enough that an unrelated game, Ankoku Densetsu (“Dark Legend”), was retitled The Legendary Axe II in North America in an attempt to piggyback on its success. Could Legendary Axe have given the Turbo the boost it would have needed to surpass the Sega Genesis in North America like its counterpart the PC Engine did in Japan? Hell, no. There were far too many factors in play at the time for any one title to accomplish that. Still, I can’t exactly fault a game for not being magic, and this one is a class act that easily stands the test of time.

So go play it, okay? Don’t make me axe you again.

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Darkwing Duck (NES)

Get dangerous all you want, kids. Just remember to buckle up.

I don’t have many clear memories of the Darkwing Duck tv show. A spin-off from the more popular DuckTales (the two shared a supporting character in Launchpad McQuack), it was part of the Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block for three seasons during 1991 and 1992. I watched a ton of the Disney shows put out in the years leading up to Darkwing and I recall that the 1987 prime time premier of DuckTales in particular was a huge deal. By the time 1991 rolled around, though, I was in that obnoxious early teen phase where I was keen to distance myself from anything as childish and uncool as Disney duck cartoons. In retrospect, it seems likely that I missed out, since a lot of my slightly younger peers have very fond memories of the series.

The cartoon was essentially a slapstick send-up of the masked mystery man crimefighter genre, as exemplified by The Shadow, The Phantom, and, of course, Batman. The title character’s distinctive tando hat/scarf ensemble and his civilian name, Drake Mallard, are both direct callbacks to Kent “The Shadow” Allard. Unlike his inspirations, Drake/Darkwing is less “fabulously wealthy suave genius” and more “feathered Inspector Gadget from the suburbs.” He means well, but his bumbling and egotistical nature often gets the best of him, leaving his sidekicks to take up the slack. If people tend to remember one thing about the show, it would have to be Darkwing’s catchphrase (“I am the terror that flaps in the night!”) and the many wacky variants thereof. “I am the weirdo who sits next to you on the bus!” is my favorite.

This 1992 NES title by Capcom is one of the later entries in their critically-acclaimed series of Disney adaptations for the system. Unfortunately, competition from the still-new Super Nintendo meant that it never managed to draw the same attention and sales as predecessors like DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Darkwing Duck has also been noted for its striking resemblance to the Mega Man games in terms of its overall structure, play control, and level/enemy design. These comparisons aren’t always favorable, as DD features fewer stages and weapons than any proper Mega Man game, as well as a noticeably reduced difficulty. So is it a woefully underappreciated Capcom classic or does this “baby’s first Mega Man” just suck gas? Let’s review the evidence.

The premise is simplicity itself. The sinister F.O.W.L. (Fiendish Organization for World Larceny) has sent a half-dozen of Darkwing Duck’s greatest foes on a massive crime spree across the city of St. Canard. It’s DW’s job to take down all six crooks before heading off to F.O.W.L.’s Floating Fortress for the final battle against their top agent Steelbeak.

There’s a stage select feature implemented, albeit a limited one. Players are presented with an initial set of three stages that can be completed in any order. Overcome these and a second, slightly more difficult set of three becomes available to choose between. After that comes the seventh and last level. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing doesn’t gain new weapons and abilities in specific stages, so the choice of which to tackle first is really only a minor novelty. A standard linear progression would have worked out just as well.

The levels themselves are nicely varied. Each has its own theme (bridge, forest, sewer, etc) and there’s a good mix of horizontal and vertical layouts. It should be noted that the vertical areas here feature smooth scrolling, an arguable improvement on the flip-screen style of the 8-bit Mega Man entries. Capcom did a good job in calibrating the length of each stage so that they never seem to drag or end prematurely and every one also has at least a few unique regular enemies that reinforce its specific theming.

Controlling Darkwing will be second nature to any Mega Man veteran. The two heroes’ running and jumping feels virtually identical and the tiny yellow puffs emitted by Drake’s gas gun have similar properties to the Blue Bomber’s standard Buster shots. That covers the bare essentials, but DW is no one-trick waterfowl. He can duck, fittingly enough, and he can also hang from the underside of some platforms, hooks, and other bits of stage dressing. This latter skill (also seen in Shadow of the Ninja, Ninja Gaiden III, and Kabuki Quantum Fighter) is required to progress through many of the stages and useful in getting the drop on enemies. One final maneuver is the cape guard, activated by holding up on the control pad. By shielding himself with his cape, Darkwing can deflect many enemy projectiles, even ones like the massive cannonballs in the final stage that you wouldn’t expect to be thwarted by a piece of purple cloth. While this is kind of cute, I didn’t end up using it much. Simply getting out of the way of shots also works just fine and is my first instinct anyway after playing so many other action-platformers.

There are a handful of alternate weapons available, though they don’t amount to much in my opinion. Drake can pick up three types of special gas that all draw on the same limited pool of secondary weapon ammunition. Heavy Gas blasts travel along the ground, Thunder Gas emits a twin shot diagonally above and below Darkwing, and Arrow Gas sticks to walls in order to form temporary platforms useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible shortcuts filled with extra lives and other bonus items. Given their awkward firing angles and lack of a secondary use, I found myself avoiding the Heavy and Thunder Gases and sticking to the Arrow whenever possible. You will have to be choosy, since you can only carry one special gas type at a time. Being able to cycle between the various weapons using the select button (or even a pause menu) would have been a simple way to add depth to the action. It’s definitely a missed opportunity, as the majority of your options are far too situational for their own good under the current setup.

Like the better-known Capcom Disney games on the NES, Darkwing Duck was clearly designed with kids in mind and won’t put up much of a fight for seasoned gamers. It’s fairly short, continues are unlimited, and the bosses all have simple patterns that you should be able to nail down after a minute or two. Darkwing’s four hit health bar is less generous than Mega Man’s, but defeated enemies drop regular refills and these can be farmed as needed. Some love these games for their no-pressure accessibility while others just find them dull. In any case, it’s worth knowing what you’re in for. Personally, I can forgive a lack of challenge if the game is charming enough.

That brings me to Darkwing Duck’s ace in the hole: Its presentation. From the title screen on, it’s obvious that this is a late period release from a powerhouse developer. The graphics represent their source material brilliantly in light of the formidable hardware limitations. In particular, I can’t praise the character animation enough. Darkwing’s wannabe menacing walk cycle alone manages to convey that he’s a silly character who takes himself entirely too seriously. That’s how you know you’re looking at some masterful 8-bit sprite work. The enemies look just as good and a fair amount of thought went into furnishing them all with distinct movement patterns, attacks, and vulnerabilities. Plus, you’ve gotta applaud any game that includes Terminator ducks. Terminator. Ducks. Entertainment should be giving me opportunities to use those words together all the time, dammit.

Yasuaki Fujita’s music is also solid, although it doesn’t pack the same punch as his Mega Man 3 score. I detect a bit of blues and jazz influence throughout, which I suppose makes sense in light of the cartoon’s pulp parody sensibilities. Even if I might have preferred some more frenetic tracks to drive the action on-screen, the expected Capcom quality is still present.

So what’s my final verdict on Darkwing Duck? I think its a pretty good time for the short while it lasts. The controls are tight, the levels and enemies are well-designed, and it excels at translating the madcap humor of the cartoon into playable form. For all that, however, it still disappoints. There was a real potential for greatness here when you consider the talent involved. Instead, this is easily the least original of Capcom’s non-sequel Disney titles and the one that feels the most like the quickie contract work it is. It lacks any sort of creative gameplay hook like Scrooge McDuck’s pogo cane or Chip and Dale’s co-op platforming that would set it apart from the side-scrolling crowd. You’ve seen everything here before in a more fleshed-out form, mostly in Mega Man games. The result of all this is a sort of junk food action title: Tasty, yet insubstantial.

Unless you have a personal nostalgic attachment to it or are a hardcore fan of the show, Capcom’s Darkwing Duck isn’t so much “the terror that flaps in the night” as it is “the cartridge that doesn’t see heavy rotation.”

Magical Doropie (Famicom)

Woo hoo witchy woman.

Magical Doropie (known in North America as The Krion Conquest) is a game that lives in infamy. This 1990 action-platformer from Vic Tokai didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire on either side of the Pacific and lingers on today almost entirely as a punchline thanks to its shameful status as a blatant copy of the first two Mega Man games.

And it’s true! Even the most generous (or downright contrary) of critics can’t deny that Magical Doropie is a complete and total rip-off of Capcom’s classic series. Your heroic witch character looks and animates just like the Blue Bomber, her enemies consist of the same wacky robots with expressive Disney cartoon eyes, she has a menu of special weapons to choose from (each of which changes her outfit to a different color when equipped), and even her death animation is identical to Mega Man’s. It might be a blessing in disguise that the game flew under the radar in its day, since the level of outright idea theft on display here verges on the legally actionable.

Still, I’ve always wanted to give the game a try. Maybe I’m just perversely attracted to the sheer audacity of it all. Price was a mitigating factor for quite a while, however. I was curious, but not quite $60 curious, you know? Fortunately, I was able to snag a reproduction cartridge at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo for much less. As an added bonus, it’s actually an English language fan translation of the original Japanese release. This matters for a couple reasons. First, the original release of Magical Doropie had a complete in-game story told through a series of Ninja Gaiden style cinematic cut scenes. These were cut from The Krion Conquest, presumably to save money on an official translation. Not even the ending was spared! Also left out was the original’s continue feature and players were instead forced to start the entire game over every time they exhausted their initial stock of lives. Now, I would not only be able to experience this most infamous of NES clone games, I’d get to play the version its designers intended. As a special added bonus, the label on my cartridge showcases a very DeviantArt-esque cheesecake shot of Doropie flashing her bare ass at the viewer. Classy.

So just how is Magical Doropie? Surprisingly decent, given its checkered reputation. The game opens in the far-flung future of 1999. Earth is under attack by the mysterious Akudama Empire and its legions of robots. Conventional weapons are useless against the invaders, leaving only one hope: Magic. Fortunately, a mercenary named Kagemaru has successfully stolen an enchanted rod from the enemy forces. Sealed inside the rod is the witch Doropie (Francesca in the North American version), who alone is capable of combating the Akudama with her magic wand. A strange and slightly silly setup to be sure, though not exceptionally so for the era. Supposedly, the designers had wanted to do a game based on a contemporary anime adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but couldn’t secure the rights. The only element remaining here that hints at this history is the main character’s name being a variation of Dorothy. As these things go, Magical Doropie’s story is no towering achievement, but it’s still one of the game’s highlights. The main character is cute and the cut scenes are well-drawn. There’s also a bit of development by the end, as you eventually get to find out what the deal is with the Akudama Empire and its leader Empress Elysia. Doropie even gets to rescue the kidnapped Kagemaru at one point in a welcome inversion of the terminally overused “save the girl” plot. Not bad for 1990.

The gameplay…is Mega Man. I could go to great effort to detail exactly what that means, but I don’t think that would be a very productive use of your time or mine. If you’re reading reviews of decades-old 8-bit video games, I feel pretty comfortable assuming certain things about you. That you more or less know how a Mega Man game functions is one of them. That being said, there are some differences worth mentioning.

Foremost among these is the lack of a stage select feature. There are a total of thirteen stages in Magical Doropie. These are presented in a fixed order and are further sub-divided into four main levels with three stages each and a fifth level that consists entirely of a multi-phase final boss fight. Running out of lives and continuing will always set you back to the start of the level, regardless of the specific sub-stage you died on. Wipe out on stage 2-3, for example, and you’ll continue back at the beginning of 2-1.

Doropie is also a bit more agile than Mega Man himself was around this same time. Unlike her robotic counterpart, she can crouch to avoid attacks and fire her wand upward in addition to straight ahead. She can even charge up her primary weapon to deal extra damage by holding down the fire button, an ability that Mega Man wouldn’t gain until his fourth outing the following year.

The third major departure from formula is the weapon system. Mega Man has to earn each of his special powers individually by defeating bosses, but Doropie has all of her magic spells available from the very start. There are five total in additional to the normal shot: Fire, Freeze, Ball, Shield, and Broom. Furthermore, there’s no finite weapon energy enforced here, so you’re free to use any magic you want any time you want. The one exception to this is Fire, which damages all enemies on screen in exchange for a sizable chunk of Doropie’s health and is generally not worth the cost. Out of the remaining four weapons, Freeze and Shield have a few narrow, specialized uses while Ball and Broom are absolutely indispensable. Ball shoots at a 45-degree angle and can ricochet off walls, making it useful against many of the more cunningly-placed enemies. Broom creates a flying platform reminiscent of Mega Man’s Rush Jet that is required to cross the multitude of spike-filled pits that litter the levels. Just remember not to jump when riding on the broom or you’ll plummet to an untimely end as it speeds away without you.

All this said, Magical Doropie still lacks that special touch that would make it as good as any given real Mega Man game. For starters, the levels aren’t as thematically distinct or imaginative, although the underwater stages where Doropie has to fight her way between air pockets before her oxygen runs out are an interesting twist on the formula. The rest of the stages look and play generically. Similarly, the majority of Doropie’s foes are forgettable and prove that there’s more to the art of designing a great Mega Man enemy than just sticking googly eyes on any old hunk of scrap metal. The weapon system is also lacking in depth and overall utility. Most of Doropie’s special weapons are quite pointless and the two that you’ll be relying on most often are merely useful, not cool or fun. Bosses don’t take extra damage from specific weapons like they do in Mega Man, either, so that’s another layer of design complexity gone.

Graphics are comparable to the first Mega Man, even if they are wasted on bland levels and enemies. Sound is another story. The tunes we get in Magical Doropie are average at best. I know because I just went back and listened to them again. The fact that I needed to should give you an idea of how very average they are. I’ll probably have forgotten them again by this time tomorrow. This is obviously not on par with Capcom’s legendary “put down that controller and dance” brand of 8-bit techo-rock. That level of talent just isn’t present here.

So if Magical Doropie is mediocre, why did I call it “surprisingly decent” above? Well, it turns out that aping one of the greatest sagas in all of gaming buys you a long, long way to fall before you end up with something unplayable. Magical Doropie is no Mega Man, but it’s sure as hell no Super Pitfall or Fist of the North Star, either. The gameplay is solid, the plot and characters are enjoyable, and it presents a decent challenge. All-in-all, a playthrough makes for a pleasant evening’s gaming. The Krion Conquest version is another story. Ripping out the cute story bits and the continue feature results in a far less charming game that will take you much, much more than a breezy couple hours to complete. I have no reservations about recommending that you spend a few hours with this one, but devoting dozens of hours to a game that never rises above “not bad?” Forget it. Your time could be much better spent. If you really want to dedicate that much of your life to a tough NES game, try Battletoads or Blaster Master.

Sometimes it really does matter which witch is which.

8 Eyes (NES)

Believe me, if I knew why this game’s ending revolves around a purple cave gargoyle with a cross on its forehead dispensing passwords, I’d tell you.

For some gamers, there’s no more damning epithet than “clone.” If, for example, you hear a fantasy action-adventure game described as a “Zelda clone,” the commenter more often than not means to dismiss it altogether as something so derivative as to be beneath notice, let alone analysis. This isn’t a very useful approach in my opinion. I’m not referring here to any abstract concerns like fairness to a work’s creators, the true value of innovation versus iteration, or the virtues of open-mindedness. Those are all discussions worth having. First and foremost, however, simply disregarding a clone game sidesteps the most fundamental question of them all: Is it fun enough to spend time with?

Why the preamble? Well, I’ll be looking at several games this month that are, shall we say, heavily indebted to one or more of the classics. Let’s start with 8 Eyes, the 1988 action-platformer from developer Thinking Rabbit that’s a lot like Castlevania except instead of a whip you have…a bird.

According to the backstory we’re given in the instruction manual, it’s the post-apocalyptic future and civilization is just starting to rebuild itself under the guidance of the Great King, who relies on the titular Eyes to do his work. The Eyes themselves are gemstones with mysterious powers that miraculously formed at the centers of eight great nuclear explosions that devastated the planet. Unfortunately, they also have the potential to cause “untold destruction” if misused and the King’s eight traitorous dukes have each made off with one of them, leaving humanity’s future in doubt. It falls on the King’s most accomplished guardsman, Orin the Falconer, to venture to each of the dukes’ heavily-defended castles, retrieve the Eyes, and return them to their rightful places on Altar of Peace.

Of course, they don’t just call him “the Falconer” because he roots for Atlanta. Orin is accompanied by his trained falcon Cutrus, who can be used both as a weapon and a tool to access out-of-reach items and switches. Cutrus even has his own separate health meter and can be controlled independently by a second player, making 8 Eyes a very rare example from this period of a two-player cooperative action game where the playable characters each have radically different capabilities and control schemes.

If you think this whole setup sounds a little nutty, you’re not alone. Why would exploding nuclear bombs create magical gemstones? How are you fighting ghosts and walking skeletons? Radiation explains away a lot of crazy stuff in fiction, but this is really pushing it. I did a little digging online and it turns out that up the original Famicom version is set in the 19th century and centers on a cult of Satanists that want to use the power of the Eyes to resurrect the devil. Orin himself is a baronet and secret agent named Lord Julian James Bond (yes, really) dispatched by a predecessor to the British intelligence agency MI5 to stop the ritual and save the world. This definitely explains the action unfolding onscreen a lot better, particularly all the religious imagery, but it’s not hard to see why publisher Taxan wanted to go with something more suitable for the family-friendly NES market.

Starting up 8 Eyes, the first thing you’re confronted with is a level selection screen à la Mega Man. This allows you to tackle the first seven stages in any order you like. Just like Mega Man, however, there’s an ideal order that will make progress through the game much easier. Starting out, Orin’s sword will deal double the damage to one particular stage’s boss. But which one? In Mega Man games, a boss’ weakness is often made apparent by its theming. Fire guys are weak to ice or water, and so on. Here, the stages are based on different countries, so that sort of logic just doesn’t apply. Is Italy weak to Egypt? Is Egypt vulnerable to Germany? The correct order to play through the stages is essentially a riddle that can be solved through careful study of the instruction manual. Unfortunately, I overlooked the clues completely, which made most of the game’s boss fights much more frustrating than they needed to be. More on this later.

Upon selecting a stage, the resemblance to Castlevania is immediately obvious. The blocky level architecture is here (ditto the helpful items hidden inside some of said blocks) and the infamous Castlevania stairs are in full effect. Orin combats similar skeletons, ghosts, bats, and armored knights with the help of collectable sub-weapons, many of which are virtually identical to ones from Castlevania. He even moves and attacks in a very slow, stiff manner reminiscent of a Belmont clan member. There are some differences, of course. Orin can carry more than one sub-weapon at a time and cycle through them with the select button. He also uses a sword as his primary weapon. It has a very short reach, shorter than even the most basic leather whip from Castlevania. Many of the enemies also have weapons, and these invariably have more reach than Orin’s sword. This fosters a reliance on hit-and-run tactics, as most fights involve baiting the enemy into a swing, quickly backing away, then landing a counter blow after the enemy whiffs. Since most weapon-wielding foes can withstand multiple hits, this demands a lot of precise execution and slows the overall pace of the action quite a bit. The level design in 8 Eyes also places much less emphasis on platforming than Castlevania does. Stages feature no bottomless pits or other instant death hazards, so you’ll rarely find yourself sweating over a tricky series of jumps. The challenge here comes exclusively from the grueling combat, the puzzle elements, and the maze-like nature of two stages in particular, Africa and Germany.

Puzzle elements? That’s right. I already mentioned that you’re intended to deduce the ideal stage progression from clues in the instruction manual, but there’s also the matter of the final challenge at the Altar of Peace. After you defeat the last boss at the “House of Ruth” (no relation, I assume, to the domestic violence charity of the same name) and recover the last of the Eyes, you’ll need to arrange them on the Alter from left to right in the correct order to trigger the ending scene. Determining this order requires you to locate the seven hidden scrolls hidden in walls over the course of the game. Each one holds a tip like “Purple is next to Red.” With all the clues, it’s a very basic logic puzzle, easily worked out on a piece of scratch paper. If you’re missing clues, you’ll have to do some guessing. Thankfully, you’re provided with a password for this segment, so it’s not like you’ll be set back if you guess wrong.

So far, you might have the impression that 8 Eyes is an interesting (if rather odd) blend of ideas from the Castlevania and Mega Man series. That it is! The bad news is that there are a lot of nagging issues that prevent it from reaching the heights its inspirations did. The rigid boss order is definitely one. Orin receives a new sword every time he defeats a boss, and this sword is intended to be used to inflict double damage against the next boss in the sequence. Unlike Mega Man, however, Orin doesn’t carry all these swords around with him to switch between at any time in an inventory menu. Instead, each new sword replaces the last. So if you defeat a boss out of sequence, you’ll permanently lose out on being able to use your current weapon to its best effect. Given that the bosses can take 40+ hits to kill without this advantage, failure to stick to the correct sequence is more heavily penalized here that it is in any Mega Man game. You can still defeat a boss with the wrong sword if you’re willing to memorize his attack pattern, but this sometimes requires multiple failed attempts and you only have one life to work with at a time. If you die at any point, you’re sent back to the level select screen and have to repeat the entire stage. As the manual puts it: “No free men are awarded. This is reality!” Indeed. It’s a great idea implemented so clumsily that it makes the stage select feature into more of a classic “beginner’s trap” than a potential source of fun.

Cutrus the falcon will be another sticking point for some. He can be very annoying to manage without a second player to direct his movements and attacks. In a single player game, you’re limited to one command to activate and recall Cutrus and another to trigger his diving attack. His movement is limited to leisurely flapping his way back and forth across the screen, turning around whenever he hits the edges. If you’re relying on him to attack an enemy (there are some only he can damage) or retrieve an item for you, it’s no fun to have to stand there and wait as he slowly circles back around for a pass.

If you’re holding out hope for your arsenal of sub-weapons to take up the slack for your puny sword and easily-distracted avian ally, forget about it. Unlike in Castlevania where ammunition is relatively plentiful, the sub-weapons in 8 Eyes drain Orin’s weapon power at an alarming rate and the tiny glowing crosses dropped by defeated enemies don’t restore enough of it to make any of them viable for long. In addition, the most dangerous enemies of all, the bosses, seem to be immune to most of them. The one big exception is the all-important ice balls, which will freeze bosses in place temporary and allow you to pile on some free hits unopposed. In fact, the utility of the ice ball against bosses is so great that all other sub-weapons and their potential uses fade into irrelevance. Just grab the ice ball, ignore everything else, and save all your weapon energy for the boss. Any other approach is pointless.

Now, by no means is 8 Eyes all bad. I love the music, which aims to envoke a classical feel very different from the standard 8-bit rock that most NES action games are known for. There are a lot of songs here, with three unique themes per stage. While they’re not all winners, the soundtrack as a whole has really grown on me. The graphics have their high points, too. Orin, Cutrus, and many of the enemies are well-animated for the time and the backgrounds are packed with detail, almost as if the artist was going for a sort of arabesque style at points. Some may find it a tad busy, but I think it suits the Old World palaces that Orin spends the majority of his time traversing.

The game also has a strangeness about it that I find very endearing. After you defeat each of the dukes in combat, for example, you’re treated to a little scene where the two of you sit down together and have a nice cup of tea, as served by a grinning skeleton waiter! These post-fight tea parties are so surreal that they’ve become one of my favorite little touches from any game. Can you imagine Simon Belmont whipping the undead crap out of Dracula, immediately followed by the two of them downing beers together at the bar? Amazing.

Hell, I even enjoyed the designer’s attempt to inject some mystery into the game by making you figure out the correct stage progression and order to arrange the Eyes in yourself. I may have failed completely at the former task, but it was fun to hunt down all the clue scrolls and get the Altar of Peace puzzle right on my first try. It was satisfying enough to make me glad I did it the intended way instead of just checking the Internet.

All of this leaves me in an awkward position where I like everything about this game except for its “gamey” bits. Can I recommend it? Not as a general thing, no. Most players won’t have the stomach for its cryptic airs, half-baked mechanics, and plodding combat. If you happen to be a very patient and determined wierdo like myself, though, you may be able to eke some enjoyment out of it. For better or worse, there’s no other game that feels like 8 Eyes. Quite the feat for a shameless copycat.

Fancy a cuppa?

Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Take that, stupid purple guy!

Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“Darkness Worker Shadow”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.

Right off the bat, one thing that Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.

You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished that you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.

Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.

Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.

Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move that damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.

The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to respawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t respawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.

There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. That’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint is that several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last boss in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point that I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out that 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.

With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.

The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers that NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.

Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity that it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988 and the following year on the TurboGrafx-16.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah…I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.

Power Blade (NES)

You’re totes welcome, bruh.

Now this is more like it! After the numbing grind of Dragon Warrior, I was craving some classic side-scrolling action. Power Blade did not disappoint.

It easily could have. The original build of the game, titled Power Blazer, was developed by Natsume and published for the Famicom by Taito in 1990. The game starred a dumpy little fellow named Steve Treiber. Armed only with a boomerang and a permanent scowl, Steve’s mission was to shut down the Brain Master, a supercomputer in charge of running everything on 22nd century earth that has, of course, turned rogue. With its robots run amok scenario, stage select feature, and even Steve’s bright blue helmet, Power Blazer reveals itself as a shameless Mega Man cash-in. Only without the lovable protagonist. Or all the cool weapons to collect. Or the brilliant level design. In fact, the only thing in all of Power Blazer actually worthy of its inspiration is the kickass musical score by Kinuyo Yamashita, who’s best known to NES fans for her work on the original Castlevania under the alias “James Banana.”

All considered, it’s amazing that anyone at Taito was even considering Power Blazer for localization. At least one person saw some potential in it, however: A former Nintendo employee at Taito’s U.S. branch named Randy Studdard, best known to gamers at the time as the author of the Captain Nintendo stories that appeared in several early issues of Nintendo Power magazine and went on to inspire the well (if not always fondly) remembered cartoon series Captain N: The Game Master. He took it upon himself to effectively redesign Power Blazer from the ground up in order to create Power Blade. The NES version released in 1991 has new stages, new gameplay objectives, and a new hero, Nova, that’s much more than just a simple sprite swap. The end result of all these changes is a vastly superior release that’s as much Randy Studdard’s as it is Natsume’s. Power Blade wasn’t just altered by the localization process, it was saved by it.

Of course, the most famous bit of Power Blade trivia involves its cover art. Artist Michael Winterbauer was contacted by lawyers representing none other than Arnold Schwartzenegger, who believed that their client’s likeness had been illegally appropriated for the portrait of Nova that appears on the box and cartridge label. Fortunately, Winterbauer was able to provide reference photos proving that he had used himself as a model instead. I was also surprised to learn the origin of the name Nova. According to Randy Studdard, he named the character after his brother! Somewhere out there in the real world there’s a dude named Nova Studdard that lent his name to a boomerang tossing Nintendo hero. That’s pretty dang great.

Power Blade retains Power Blazer’s basic “shut down the rampaging computer” plotline, but adds another sci-fi cliché to the mix: Aliens, who hijacked said computer in an effort to conquer humanity. In the year 2191, only one man has what it takes to fight his way through six different enemy-occupied sectors and recover the data tapes necessary to access the Master Computer Control Center and put an end to the alien menace. That man is Nova. He’s sporting a flattop, shades indoors, and muscles for miles. Also, the most hilarious fist-pumping running animation ever, which I adore, even if it does undercut his icy action hero image a little. Nova’s weapon is the boomerang. Why on earth would you want to fight off an army of killer robots with a boomerang? According to the manual, no other weapons exist “because war has been abolished.” Hmm. Interesting choice of a holdover. Maybe old-school kangaroo hunting is big in the future?

Fortunately, Nova’s boomerang is more than a match for the challenges ahead. He can fire in eight directions, similar to the heroes in Contra. This represents a major upgrade over Steve from Power Blazer, who was limited to just left and right. There is one limitation to bear in mind, though: The power bar. This empties each time you shoot and automatically refills when you lay off the button for a second. Since the boomerang will only be able to travel its maximum distance if the power meter is full, tapping the fire button as fast as you can is only effective against point-blank targets. This creates an interesting dynamic where the further away you want to engage your enemies from, the longer you’ll have to wait between shots. What’s more important to you: Safety or damage output?

There are also several power-ups to enhance the boomerang’s damage, maximum range, and fire rate. The coolest of these by far is the metal suit that allows Nova to survive three extra hits and transforms his boomerang into the titular Power Blade: A deadly energy blast that can shoot through walls. The metal suit will disappear once those three extra hits have been sustained, but it’s a big help (not to mention a lot of fun) while it lasts.

The first six stages of Power Blade can be completed in any order. The goal of each is to locate a friendly agent that will provide Nova with the key needed to access the boss’ room, then actually find and defeat that boss, all before time runs out. The friendly agents and their keys are yet another new addition not present in the more straightforward Power Blazer. The redesigned stage layouts themselves feature a number of branching paths intended to facilitate this exploration aspect of the game. Anyone wary of getting lost can rest assured that none of the areas in Power Blade are anywhere near as complicated as Metroid or the like. Rather, there are just enough side passages to intrigue players and reward their curiosity with some extra power-ups without turning navigation into a chore or forcing use of a map. It’s a tricky balancing act that Power Blade pulls off admirably.

There you have it. Complete all six sectors and you’re off to kick alien ass in the final stage, which isn’t really much more challenging than the ones before it. Which brings me to my one major disappointment with Power Blade: The lack of difficulty. Of course, not every game needs to be a major struggle to beat. It’s a big world out there. There’s a place for easy titles just as there’s one for soul-crushingly punishing ones. Power Blade may have taken this a step too far, though, and again it all comes back to that redesign during localization. Nova was given a fancy new metal suit power-up and the ability to fire boomerangs in any direction, but he’s still up against the same old enemies from Power Blazer that were created to challenge the much wimpier Steve Treiber character. Nova’s foes literally aren’t designed to be a match for him and it shows. Unless you’re a complete newcomer to the genre, I’d recommend at least playing on the Expert setting. This shortens your time limits and adds a knockback effect to enemy attacks. Nova’s still a total beast, but it’s better than nothing.

Power Blade isn’t the most original game by any means. It mostly just does a lot of the same things that earlier NES action platformers did. Don’t mistake that as a condemnation, however. While it may not be novel in the least, it is as rock solid as our boy Nova’s pecs. Even if none of the individual elements represented here are “best in class,” all are above average for the system. The graphics are bright and colorful, the soundtrack is packed with epic earworms (we have a Castlevania alum to thank for it, after all), the control is tight and responsive, and the level design is well thought out. Sure, Power Blade will feel uncannily familiar if you come to it after playing all the more famous NES classics first, but I’d argue that’s actually a good thing given the game’s high level of polish overall. This is 8-bit comfort food, pure and simple.

Like a boomerang, I’ll be coming back.