Time Diver: Eon Man (NES)

What a cordial end screen. Good luck to you, too, Taito.

This week’s review marks another first for me. I’ve looked at various unlicensed and fan-made games before, but Time Diver: Eon Man was never formally released at all. Its planned 1993 launch was cancelled at the last minute by publisher Taito. I’m talking “after it got its own Nintendo Power feature” last minute, too. Apart from a bootleg version circulated in Asia in 1994 by a mysterious outfit (or individual) known only as Nitra, Time Diver would have been lost forever if a supposedly finished English language version hadn’t leaked to the Internet.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, most sources list Atlus as the developer behind this one. The available documentation actually supports crediting A.I, who originally intended it to serve as a sequel to their own Wrath of the Black Manta (Ninja Cop Saizou) from 1989. In an insightful interview with GDRI, former A.I artist/planner/producer Shouichi Yoshikawa described the project as “understaffed” and, frankly, it shows.

Of course, I’m getting a little ahead of myself with that last statement. It does bring me neatly to the ethical quandary that is reviewing any unreleased media, though. How fair can my critique be to the creators when their work was never properly presented to the public in the first place? At the same time, Time Diver: Eon Man is a game that exists. You can easily go play it right now if you wish. A review of it therefore serves a practical purpose for a classic gaming community hungry for insight into which lesser-known titles are worth their time. I suppose you should feel free to take what I say here for what it’s worth and try not to hold any negatives against the parties involved. Deal?

Time Diver: Eon Man is a side-scrolling action-platformer with a science fiction theme. Not exactly a revelation on the NES, I know. The titular Time Diver is Dan Nelson, an unassuming college student in 1993 Los Angeles. After a close call with a group of high-tech assailents, Dan learns that he and his ancestors are targets of the criminal organization Romedrux, who are sending assassins back in time from the year 2052 in hopes of erasing Dan’s unborn son Kane from history. Kane is destined to invent a miraculous device that predicts and prevents virtually all crime, so it makes sense that Romedrux would want him out of the way. In order that he might save the future, Dan is entrusted with another of Kane’s inventions: A suit that allows him to travel through time and harness a number of handy superpowers as…the Time Diver. It’s basically Terminator with a dash of Minority Report. I’ve heard worse.

While this time hopping plot is packed with potential, Time Diver ultimately doesn’t capitalize on it very well. What we get here is notably short and lacking in diversity; five average length stages, four of which are “peaceful” and “devastated” versions of 1993 and 2052. That leaves Dan’s excursion to 1882 as the sole stab at a historical setting, and he spends most of it in a non-descript cave area that could have been culled from any given 8-bit game. To their credit, A.I did attempt to inject some replay value by making the stage order random. With this little content to work with, however, the feature amounts to a trifle at best.

Core gameplay doesn’t stray far from the expected. Dan has to run, jump, and punch his way past a procession of thugs and environmental hazards on his way to each stage’s end boss. He controls well and can execute a useful rebounding jump kick that functions like the wall jump from Sunsoft’s NES Batman. He also acquires a selection of special powers that draw on the limited stock of “arts” points displayed on the lower right of the screen. These allow Dan to do things like shoot energy waves, freeze time briefly, and tunnel through the ground in some stages. Most of his foes are nothing special. They wander back and forth, shoot straight ahead every few seconds, and so on. The platforming gimmicks are more fun to deal with, even if they’re also well-worn genre staples for the most part. Spikes, moving platforms, flame jets, and Mega Man style disappearing blocks all make the rotation.

One area where Time Diver does manage to stand out is its deranged boss encounters. These guys are nothing if not memorable. Two of them are killer football players for no apparent reason. Another is a shapeshifting rock monster that attacks Dan by shouting out brightly colored text reading “Wow Wow” that travels across the screen as a deadly projectile. Still others lash out with screen-filling appendages so jagged and pixely I thought the game might have been glitching on me. I’m not sure what any of this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad it’s here to add some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Time Diver’s presentation is the epitome of a mixed bag. Its origin as a Black Manta sequel is reflected in its penchant for sparse backgrounds and hideous sprite art. This would have been nothing less than embarrassing alongside other late period NES releases like Kirby’s Adventure, Mighty Final Fight, and Taito’s very own Little Samson. Such underwhelming visuals may well have contributed to Time Diver getting the axe. It’s a real pity when you factor in the superb soundtrack by Tsukasa Masuko (Megami Tensei, Dungeon Explorer), which is by far the game’s most distinguished feature and deserves to be more widely heard than it ever will be wedded to a canceled product.

So, is Time Diver: Eon Man an unjustly quashed lost classic? Definitely not. Although much worse stuff did make it to retail over the course of the NES’ life, I still think Taito made the right call in terminating this one. They were regularly releasing much stronger material throughout the early ’90s and Time Diver would have been the odd man out. The version available for download isn’t despicable by any means. If you can forgive its brief runtime, shoddy graphics, and wholly derivative gameplay, what remains is adequate enough for a short play session. Difficulty is low and continues unlimited, so clearing it in a reasonable amount of time shouldn’t be an issue. Keep your expectations modest enough and you may even come away mildly pleased with its excellent music and outré boss designs.

As for me, I’m with Romedrux. Time Diver: Eon Man doesn’t belong in our timeline.

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Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Cocoron (Famicom)

 

It’s a tale almost as old as the business itself. Artistic types feeling stifled by the conservative corporate culture of the larger game studios strike out on their own to bring their unadulterated visions to the world and hopefully win more recognition and compensation in the process. Thus did Activision spring from Atari, Treasure from Konami, and so on. Around 1990, the newly-minted Takeru (aka Sur de Wave) similarly represented independence and creative freedom for Capcom alum Akira Kitamura, Irem’s Takashi Kogure, Tecmo’s Tsukasa Chibana, and more. They released their first game, the text-based adventure Nostalgia 1907, in April of 1991 and their last, none other than NES super rarity Little Samson, in June of 1992. In-between came the Kitamura-helmed Cocoron. That’s three games over fourteen months before the company eventually folded due to dire financial straits. I guess they can’t all be winners.

The tragedy of Takeru is fascinating and all, but the real reason I wanted to cover this particular 1991 action-platformer so badly is much simpler: Cocoron has a tapir in it! Anyone who knows me know I’m utterly obsessed with these adorable odd-toed ungulates. I love their twisty noses, their stubby tails, their incongruously high-pitched squeaking noises, everything! Best animal ever! They also happen to be closely associated with sleep and dreams in Japanese myth, as evidenced by Hypno and Drowzee from the Pokémon games. Accordingly, the tapir that appears here (who’s actually named Tapir, at least according to the fan translation by Akujin of Dynamic-Designs) is a dream wizard. He appears one night to the game’s unseen protagonist (presumably meant to represent you, the player), introduces himself, and offers to send you on a journey into the dream world to rescue a princess from mysterious “evil forces.” Hell, yeah! If it’s a cute tapir asking, sign me up!

Since you’re entering a dream world, Tapir informs you that you’re able to assume any form you choose. This allows you to start getting acquainted right off the bat with Cocoron’s main gimmick, its character creation system. You’ll need to construct your own custom avatar using pieces from a “toybox” containing 24 heads, 16 bodies, and 8 weapons. It doesn’t sound like that much, but that’s still 3072 possible player characters. Ambitious indeed for a Famicom game. In keeping with the established tone, most of your options are pretty wacky. You could opt for a clown with a giant spring for a body that shoots deadly pencils or a jack-‘o-lantern with dragon wings that hurls flower bombs. It’s all good.

The main thing to mind during this process is your character’s bulk. Every part has a specific weight associated with it and the final total will largely determine how your creation controls. Heavy heroes boast great durability at the cost of sharply limited walk speed and jump height. Light ones are quick, mobile, and extremely fragile. You can also aim for a balanced approach, of course, which is recommended for newcomers. Complicating matters is the fact that stronger weapons (like the shuriken) and parts that offer special movement abilities (wings, jetpacks, tank and boat bodies) tend to be heavier than average to offset their advantages.

Cool as it is, this system is far from perfectly balanced. Heavy characters seem to have a much easier time staying alive than light ones, flight abilities trivialize much of the game’s platforming, and the shuriken is by far the strongest weapon. Thankfully, you won’t suffer too much if your first draft isn’t all you’d hoped for, since you’ll have the opportunity to make a whole new dream warrior each time you finish one of the first five levels. Mega Man creator Kitamura clearly took inspiration from his prior work here, except instead of just gaining access to a new weapon when you beat a boss, you get to add a whole new custom character to your eventual stable of six. You’re given the option to switch out your active hero every time you complete a stage or return to your house at the center of the game world.

The layout of this world itself constitutes another new twist on an old formula. Although you can challenge the initial set of five stages in any order per standard Mega Man rules, they’re all interconnected here. Instead of just transitioning back to a stage select menu after you clear an area, you’ll actually have to walk to your next destination in real time and the terrain you’ll traverse will vary depending on where you start out and where you’re headed. There’s a unique stretch of level linking the Milk Sea and the Fairy Forest, another one entirely between the Milk Sea and Star Hill, etc. This doesn’t make Cocoron a true exploratory adventure game like Metroid, but it does manage to lend the progression a very different feel from Mega Man while still maintaining the same emphasis on player choice.

Cocoron’s core gameplay consists of  running, jumping, and shooting your way through a mix of horizontally and vertically-scrolling environments. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the most generally useful point of comparison is once again the director’s own Mega Man. While each custom character’s precise movement and attack parameters will vary, the game engine as whole still feels like you could insert the Blue Bomber himself into the action and not have it feel too out of place. That said, there’s one prominent aspect of Cocoron’s platforming that wasn’t present in any NES Mega Man installment: Sloped surfaces. Characters that lack tank treads are prone to slide down these inclines, which can be a hassle when bottomless pits are lurking nearby.

Between the flexible character creation and the complex, unorthodox level design, there’s more than enough going on mechanically to make Cocoron worth a look for old school action-platforming aficionados. What really puts it over the top, though, is its weird, whimsical atmosphere. Between this game, Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and Kirby’s Adventure, it seems Famicom developers could do no wrong when they went for this sort of child-like dreamland theme. Cocoron’s backgrounds are bright, colorful and packed with quirky details like the gigantic overturned milk cartons dotting the shores of the Milk Sea, the grinning pink whales hovering in the skies above Star Hill, and the furnished penguin houses of Ice-Fire Mountain.

The enemy designs are also interesting. Many of them are animals like penguins and armadillos, but there’s often more to them than meets the eye. Despite appearing identical, armadillos might toss their armored bits as projectiles in one stage, roll along the walls in another, and glide through the air in a third. You need to stay on your toes because can’t always be sure how a foe will behave based on appearance alone. Clever.

Finally, the music by Takashi Tateishi (Mega Man 2) and Yoshiji Yokoyama (Little Samson) doesn’t disappoint. It captures the peppy, playful tone of the adventure perfectly. It’s not Mega Man 2’s equal by a long shot, just an overall above average 8-bit soundtrack.

If there’s one thing that hinders Cocoron as a pure action game, it’s all the damn eggs. The experienced team at Takeru somehow made the rookie mistake of overthinking something as basic as grabbing items in an action-platformer. It should be a simple two step process. Step one: Dead enemy drops item. Step two: Player character touches item to pick it up. Cocoron adds a pace killing intermediate step by hiding all items inside speckled eggs which then have to be shot, sometimes three or four times in succession, before the goodies inside are revealed. Every enemy in the game drops an egg. Every egg has to be shot multiple times if you want to get at the health refills, weapon power-ups, and extra lives inside. Given that eggs aren’t known for fighting back, all this extra button mashing gets really old really fast.

As long as you can forgive this one its handful of character balance issues and pointless egg cracking fixation, I think you’ll find it to be a true highlight of the Famicom’s Japan-exclusive library. Its novel gameplay, ample charm, and unusually high replay value are all proof positive that Takeru’s failure to thrive was in no way owing to the quality of its output. Cocoron is a dream well worth pursuing. After all, if you can’t trust a friendly tapir, who can you trust?

Skyblazer (Super Nintendo)

Life’s not fair. Sometimes a game can look and sound great, commit no major design sins, and yet still be condemned to eternal obscurity. So it is with Skyblazer, a perfectly enjoyable, thoroughly forgotten action-platformer created by developer Ukiyotei and published by Sony Imagesoft for the Super Nintendo in 1994.

Perhaps a lack of advertising is to blame. I was all about the SNES back then and I never so much as heard of Skyblazer until just a couple years ago, when I started searching around online for little known games worth playing. It’s also a true standalone work with no preexisting fan base to draw on and no sequels. That rarely helps. There may well be some truth to both the above theories. Having now personally played through Skyblazer, though, a third possibility suggests itself: This game may just be too alright for its own good. Too decent. Too resoundingly okay. Sure, it doesn’t do anything to actively embarrass itself or make players stop what they’re doing to question how they’re spending their lives. At the same time, however, it lacks any sort of clever gameplay hook to make it stand out it in a crowded field of early ’90s side-scrollers.

Actually, I take that back. There is a hook of sorts to Skyblazer. Its hero, Sky, looks and controls suspiciously like the star of Ukiyotei’s previous Super Nintendo outing, an adaptation of Steven Spielberg’s Hook! It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a significant amount of code initially created for that project was reused here. Thankfully, Skyblazer turned out a lot more fast-paced and exciting than the languid Hook.

Skyblazer sees its title character heading off on a quest to rescue the sorceress Ariana, who’s been stolen away by Ashura, a powerful four-armed minion of the demonic Raglan. It’s your bog standard “save the girl by booting some big evil dude in the teeth” story, but observant players will notice a distinct Indian flavor to much of the proceedings. Beyond the name Ashura (Asura), you have statues of Ganesha in the background, loads of synth sitar (synthtar?) filling out the soundtrack, and so forth. What gives? The game’s original Japanese incarnation, Karuraō (“King Garuda”), makes the connection much more obvious. There, Sky is Garuda, Ariana is Vishnu, Raglan is Ravana, and the nameless old man who provides guidance to the player between levels is Brahma. In other words, the whole things’s intended to be a kind of action manga take on Hindu mythology. I’m guessing either Nintendo of America insisted most of these names be changed in order to avoid offending anyone’s religious sensibilities or Sony did it themselves preemptively. Even in watered-down form, this unique aesthetic is easily one of the coolest things about Skyblazer.

The seventeen stages on offer are pretty neat, too. They’re accessed via an overhead map that features a couple of branching paths. A few are technically skippable because of this, although the game as a whole is relatively short, so I don’t know why you’d want to pass over any of the content unless you’re aiming for a speedrun. Each area is patterned on one of the same stock archetypes you’ve seen countless times before. You’ll ride floating platforms over lava, swim through underwater currents, slide around on ice, and so on. The closest thing to a genuine novelty are a couple of flight stages that adopt an auto-scrolling shooter style. I could have done with more of these. At least the tight design and smooth flow of Skyblazer’s levels somewhat makes up for the lack of originality on display. Another plus is that their gimmicks don’t tend to repeat themselves, which keeps the journey stimulating throughout.

Roughly half the stages have boss battles and these guys were another highlight for me. They showcase some pretty crazy concepts, like the freaky giant face that spins the walls of the room around using Mode 7 rotation to attack you and can only be defeated by popping both its eyeballs like grapes. Yuck. It seems all the creativity that didn’t go into the level concepts must have been channeled here. Beating a boss will earn Sky a new magic power, similar to besting a robot master in Mega Man.

Sky is generally a satisfying character to control.  He runs fast, jumps high, and attacks with a flurry of punches and kicks. He can also cling to and scale walls. He even retains the ability to throw punches while he’s latched onto a wall, a feature I would kill for in Ninja Gaiden. These basic capabilities will get you by most obstacles. When the going gets tough, there’s that magic I mentioned. Sky starts off with a basic attack spell that fires an energy projectile at the cost of one of his eight magic points. The other abilities gained from bosses tend to have more powerful effects at the cost of more MP per use. These include a healing spell, a time stopper to freeze enemies in place, an invincible air dash, an eight-directional shot, and the ultimate power needed to beat the game: The fiery phoenix transformation. Again, this moveset will feel very familiar to platforming veterans, but it’s a blast to use and well suited to the challenge at hand.

That challenge is one final element with the potential to either help or hinder Skyblazer for you. This is a fairly easy game by genre standards. Extra lives and refills for Sky’s health and magic are common, continues are unlimited, and there’s a password system provided in case you need to take a break. If you’re a hardcore action nut looking for something to push you to your limit, Skyblazer isn’t going to scratch that itch. You’ll tear your way through it in no time flat without so much as breaking a sweat. On the other hand, if you’re a less experienced player or just in the mood for a brisk, low pressure fantasy action romp with some sweet graphics and music, you may welcome this relaxed approach.

Skyblazer is very model of a hidden gem on the Super Nintendo. It was a rock solid release that happened to lack the gilded pedigree of a Mario or Zelda, the stunning innovation of an ActRaiser, or even the ungodly aggressive ad campaign of a Bubsy: Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind. Today, it’s a dusty digital orphan, seemingly without a past or future to call its own. It deserves better. “Decades of sequels and spin-offs” better? Nah. But it’s absolutely worthy of being played and appreciated by a wider audience. Fortunately, it’s never too late for that.

Mega Man 4 (NES)

Come on, ride the train! Hey, ride it!

I’ve been getting pretty esoteric with the import stuff these past couple weeks. Time to head back to the well and draw up some more classic Mega Man goodness! 1991’s Mega Man 4 is the first NES entry in the series to debut after the introduction of the Super Nintendo, yet it still only marks the mid-point of the Blue Bomber’s adventures on the old gray box. When other established franchises like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Castlevania hastened to join the 16-bit revolution, Mega Man was, in a sense, the system’s last veteran hero standing by the time Mega Man 6 dropped in 1993. I’m not sure if any current or former Capcom staff are on record detailing why the company waited so long to migrate their flagship character to the new hardware. If I had to venture a guess, it would be that the established 8-bit Mega Man formula was so robust and cost-effective to iterate on by that point that annual releases on mature hardware were seen as low risk/high reward endeavors by management.

This dependence on a formula established the decade prior hasn’t done Mega Man 4-6’s reputations any favors. You’ve probably heard the standard spiel before: The first three games are timeless classics that each blazed new trails by introducing revolutionary new gameplay features, fan favorite characters like Rush and Proto Man, or both. After that came the “me, too” entries; lazy paint-by-numbers cash grabs that shamelessly rode the coattails of their illustrious forebears.

With a setup like that, you’re probably expecting me to swoop in now and eviscerate this narrow-minded drivel. That’s what I foresaw myself doing all the while I was playing and enjoying Mega Man 4. Now that the time has come to commit my thoughts to writing, though, I’m just not feeling it. Truth is, the detractors have a point. The latter three NES sequels collectively do very little to expand on the gameplay or fictional universe of Mega Man. They’re really just spinning their wheels, creatively speaking. Anyone who remembers the triumphant launch of Mega Man X on Super Nintendo can attest to what a breath of fresh air it was with its faster, more dynamic movement and brand new cast of characters. It’s a great game that seemed even greater in its day precisely because we were so primed for a change.

Then again, these are games. Despite how much I’m able to nitpick after I’ve set the controller down, that core Mega Man loop (“kill eight robot masters, take their special weapons, storm Dr. Wily’s castle”) flows so well that I find it damn near impossible to hold their repetitiveness against them while I’m actually along for the ride. So it’s not so much that the common critique of these titles is inaccurate or unfair in any way, simply that it’s moot for all practical gaming purposes and, consequently, easy to forgive.

In terms of specifics, the one new thing of note Mega Man 4 brings to the series is the Mega Buster charge shot. You can now hold the B button down for a few seconds in order to ready a more powerful blast from Mega Man’s default weapon. This a classic example of a risk/reward mechanic, as missing your target when you finally do release the shot effectively wastes the extra time you spent charging it.

Some players adore this added layer of strategy. Others maintain that the charge shot was a mistake, since it deals so much damage that it renders the robot master weapons redundant. Put me down somewhere in the middle, albeit leaning slightly toward the anti-charge camp. I don’t think the robot master weapons are useless at all. In fact, this might be the best assortment we’d ever see in a NES Mega Man outing. Certainly, there’s nothing anywhere near as comically bad as Mega Man 3’s Top Spin. The real problem is the time needed to switch between weapons. Accessing the menu takes a couple seconds. It’s not much, but it does break the flow of the action each and every time, whereas just using the charged Buster instead doesn’t. I also get the impression that the designers upped the health of many common enemies in order to encourage players to use the new charging feature as much as possible. Everything seems to take one or two more uncharged shots to die than it would have in the earlier games. Maximizing your combat effectiveness therefore means holding that B button down (and tolerating the high-pitched noise it makes) for the majority of the game. I don’t consider this an improvement.

Fortunately, this installment has more than just a great selection of boss weapons going for it. The robot masters themselves are also fun and challenging to fight. Except for Toad Man. He’s just silly. The theming of these characters is getting ever more abstract, too, which can make guessing their weaknesses trickier. What’s Pharoah Man weak to? The Flash Stopper that you got from Bright Man, naturally. Everyone knows pharoahs hate flashing lights. Duh.

Mega Man 4 also continues to experiment with lengthening play time by adding more levels between the initial eight and Dr. Wily’s castle. Here, you have to face off against a Russian fellow named Dr. Cossack, who’s initially presented as the new mad scientist on the block. He’s actually a good guy being blackmailed by Wily, of course, because this is still a Mega Man game and tradition reigns. The important thing is that the Cossack stages represent unique experiences, as opposed to the cut-and-paste asset recycling of Mega Man 3’s Doc Robot levels. Another big plus: Both Cossack and Wily’s strongholds feel more complete than the rushed afterthought that was Mega Man 3’s Wily castle.

So, yes, Mega Man 4 is merely more run-of-the-mill NES Mega Mega and I don’t much care for its charge shot mechanic. It still looks, sounds, and plays better than at least 90% of its contemporaries, however, including sacred cow Mega Man 3. The robot masters, their weapons, and the game’s extended climax are all handled better here than in the last game, resulting in a more cohesive and satisfying experience overall. It doesn’t strike me as a true labor of love or a game for the ages like Mega Man 2 does, but I found myself appreciating it much more than I thought I would just for how well it nailed the fundamentals. Mega Man 4 doesn’t need to be great art. It’s a supremely competent action-platformer and that’s enough.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy romp it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (TurboGrafx-16)

Ah, Keith Courage. There’s likely no more despised whipping boy in all of classic gaming than this nondescript sword wielding pre-teen. Bubsy the Bobcat, perennial punchline that he is, still hasn’t been the target of as much heartfelt vitriol over the past three decades. Why is that? At first glance, the original PC Engine version of Keith’s one and only adventure, 1988’s Mashin Eiyūden Wataru (“Spirit Hero Wataru”), is that most ubiquitous of things: A mediocre anime-based platformer from a C-list developer. Japanese gamers were practically downing in quickie contract works like this during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were the equivalent of the ever-present Hollywood movie cash-in games that littered my own childhood. Pretty worthless for the most part, sure, but nothing worth holding a grudge over.

That’s how it was in Japan and would have been here, too, if it hadn’t been for one fateful decision by NEC, the electronics giant that co-created the PC Engine itself in conjunction with Hudson Soft. In early 1989, they were gearing up for the system’s big summer launch in North America as the TurboGrafx-16. It must have been clear to everyone involved that they had their work cut out for them. Sega was on track to roll out their 16-bit Genesis the very same month. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s NES still maintained its iron grip on the hearts and minds of America’s children. NEC needed to pair their new machine with a true killer app in order to have any real chance of breaking through. I’m talking a stone cold instant classic. A Mario slayer. What they ultimately bet the farm on was our boy Keith. Yikes. It’s like if the NES had shipped with Karate Kid or Total Recall.

Yes, most gamers who picked up a TurboGrafx-16 during the first two thirds of its three year run were introduced to their expensive next gen console by an utterly unremarkable throwaway title by Advance Communication Company of all people. Not the arcade quality spaceship shooting of Compile’s Blazing Lazers. Not the four-player fantasy epic that was Atlus’ Dungeon Explorer. Not even Hudson’s own established mascot Bomberman. When the system predictably failed to take off, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was condemned to go down in history as not just a bad game, but the game so bad it sank the TurboGrafx. Say what you will about Bubsy, at least he never had the weight of an entire gaming platform’s future resting on his furry shoulders.

That’s the boilerplate version of the tale, anyway. Now for the fun part! Is this really so wretched a game? Did it bury the machine it was bundled with? And before we can tackle those big questions, just who is Keith Courage and what the hell is an Alpha Zone?

Well, the instruction manual informs me that Keith Courage is an agent of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and he’s out to save the world from B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes), the invading force of evil aliens that killed his scientist dad. Ugh. Could the middle-aged marketing geniuses behind this localization have possibly been further off the mark with this dreck? Kids in the ’80 were into awesome heroes like the Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats fighting against the likes of the Decepticons and Cobra. N.I.C.E. and B.A.D. would have stood out as corny and patronizing to a first grader. The buff, lantern-jawed adult version of Keith created for the manual and cover is equally laughable when you consider that he’s still represented in-game by the same exact sprite of nine year-old Wataru. In fact, nothing about the whimsical cartoon fantasy world of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru was altered to fit the new story and character designs given in the manual. Yeah, I totally buy this goofy smirking kid as a badass warrior on a mission to avenge his slain loved one. Seamless.

As for the Alpha Zones, that’s just what the manual calls the game’s seven side-scrolling stages. While nominally distinguished by simple themes (Fire Zone, Glacier Zone, etc), these all play very similarly in that each one is split up into two distinct halves. First comes a rather drab and empty Overworld area, where an achingly slow-moving Keith marches from left to right and swats puny basic enemies to earn the money needed to purchase power-ups in shops. You then transition to an Underworld section that sees Keith hopping into a giant robot called the Nova Suit for a spate of faster-paced, more challenging combat that culminates in a boss fight.

In other words, what we have here is a much hated platformer from Advance Communication Company that alternates between two jarringly different gameplay modes. One is slow and boring while the other focuses on constant combat against trippy monsters. Oh, and it features music by Michiharu Hasuya. Hmm. Maybe they should have just gone all the way and called this one Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Courage.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. The similarities between Keith Courage and ACC’s infamous NES stinker are interesting for sure (the two were released a mere four months apart), but the former is admittedly much less of a confusing mess overall. Keith Courage presents a more traditional action gaming experience and benefits from a far greater share of nostalgic defenders willing to stand up and declare it an underrated gem. That said, both halves of the game are still plagued by some egregious design flaws in my eyes.

The Overworld areas are devoid of anything resembling thrills or challenge and seem to exist exclusively to lengthen the play time through cash grinding. Adding insult to that injury, the shops themselves aren’t exactly filled with exciting gear. The sword upgrades for the Nova Suit are a must for sure. Apart from them, the only other items on offer are limited use projectile weapons called Bolt Bombs and these are largely underwhelming. You’ll quickly learn not to waste your money on them. Playing as Keith here may not be anywhere near as frustrating as navigating the streets and parks of Henry Jekyll’s London, but it’s just as tedious in its own special way.

The Underworld is a bit better than that, at least. The Nova Suit can run fast and jump high, while the enemies you face off against are a lot bigger and showcase some pretty outlandish designs at times. You’ve gotta love the dudes that are giant revolvers with faces or the Frankenstein monster heads with no bodies, just limbs sprouting directly from their humongous craniums. Once the novelty of these critters and the initial exhilaration of simply being able to move around at an acceptable speed wears off, however, it’ll dawn on you that these Underworld areas repeat themselves quite a bit. You get the same couple of alternating music tracks, the same background tiles (recolored occasionally, at least), and the same baddies and insta-death spike hazards over and over. Leaps of faith are also a regular annoyance, since Keith is tasked with making his way downward to the boss waiting at the lowest point of each level. You’ll frequently have to cross your fingers and hope there’s not a bed of spikes lurking just out of view as you drop from a ledge. Your chances are about 50/50 in my experience. Hooray for unlimited continues, I guess.

The mushy cherry atop this failure sundae is the lackluster presentation. Keith Courage’s Overworld graphics are closer to an NES game’s than what Sega brought to the table in their own debut Genesis pack-in, Altered Beast, and the Underworld’s are no great shakes, either, with their overreliance on recycled assets and plain black backgrounds. At least the music’s alright. Not exceptional in any way, mind you, merely competent.

Having now laid out all the evidence, is Keith Courage in Alpha Zones truly a bad game? Yes. Yes, it is. I wouldn’t single it out as excruciatingly awful or anything like that. It’s not even close to being the worst thing I’ve played on my PC Engine in the past year. I’d rather run through Keith Courage another ten times over than touch War of the Dead again, for example. Even so, there’s nothing about it I can actively recommend over the dozens, if not hundreds of more polished and exciting 16-bit action-platformers. The localization is absurd, the pace drags, the combat is shallow, the level design is barely there, and it can’t even bring the eye candy. Keep in mind that all this is coming the guy who did end up recommending Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to fans of crazy experimental fare.

Did Keith single-handedly throttle the nascent TurboGrafx-16 in its crib, though? Hardly. NEC’s management missteps were legion throughout the life of the system. They failed to beat Sega to market, refused to bring over many of the PC Engine’s best releases, hesitated to match their competitors’ marketing budgets…the list goes on. They were consistently their own worst enemies and that extended far beyond the choice of a resoundingly weak pack-in game.

So leave poor Keith alone. He didn’t kill your favorite console. He’s not a bad boy, really, just a touch slow.