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 (“The Darkness Worker Kage”) 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.

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 that 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.

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (NES)

Um, what’s with the centerfold poses, guys?

At first glance, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero might not seem like it has much in common with the last NES title I played through, Fester’s Quest. Consider this, though: Both are run-and-gun action games based on licensed properties, both were the product of an American lead designer heading up a Japanese team, and both never received a Famicom release.

Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Fester’s Quest was an obvious rush job and deeply flawed as a result, G.I. Joe benefits from all the polish one could hope for. Designed by Ken Lobb of Killer Instinct fame and the same Japanese team that would later be known as KID, G.I. Joe was published by Taxan in 1991.

The G.I. Joe toy line itself dates back to 1964. Joes were the original “action figures,” the term coined by their makers at Hasbro in an effort to avoid scaring off particularly insecure little boys with the dreaded “doll” label. The earlier generations of figures leaned heavily on realism as a selling point and featured weapons and uniforms modeled closely the ones used by actual U.S. military forces. This approach seemed quaint at best post-Vietnam, so the toys were relaunched in 1982 as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” with a large helping of comic book and science fiction elements added to the mix. Instead of regular servicemen, G.I. Joe became “America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” The cartoons produced by Sunbow between 1983 through 1986 stood tall alongside Master of the Universe and Transformers as one of the defining Saturday morning action staples of my generation.

Fans of those original cartoons will no doubt notice right away that this NES adaptation is actually based on the much less iconic follow-up series from DiC Entertainment that ran from 1989 through 1992. As a result, some character designs are radically different than the ones you may remember. Most of the Joes remain recognizable, but I wouldn’t have known who poor Cobra Commander was even supposed to be here if the cut scene dialog hadn’t told me first. Lacking his trademark blue hood or mirrored helmet, he looks more like a Power Rangers villain than anything resembling his more familiar self.

The game proper is a side-scrolling action platformer with a simple premise: General Hawk has ordered the G.I. Joe team to take the fight to the enemy by launching a series of seek and destroy missions against six hidden Cobra bases around the world. At the start of the game, there are a total of five playable heroes to choose from: Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘n Roll, Captain Grid-Iron, and Blizzard. Upon reaching the sixth and final mission, Hawk himself also becomes playable. Each mission has a designated team leader that’s automatically along for the ride, but players are otherwise free to choose any two of the remaining Joes from the roster to fill out their three man squad.

The choice of team members to bring along on a given mission isn’t just cosmetic, as every Joe has their own strengths and weaknesses. Duke is the typical all-rounder with average stats across the board. Snake Eyes can jump the highest and his ninja ki projectiles don’t consume any ammo. Rock ‘n Roll is packing the best gun. Captain Grid-Iron has the strongest melee attack. Blizzard can shoot through walls. General Hawk is a bona fide superhero that excels at everything and can even fly thanks to his jet pack.

Each character’s abilities can also be enhanced via the persistent power-up system in place throughout the game. Picking up gun and chevron icons scattered around the stages will upgrade the active Joe’s weapon power and stamina, respectively. These upgrades remain in effect indefinitely, provided the character doesn’t die. As in Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can switch between your three Joes at any time via the pause menu and each one has their own independent health bar, so swapping out a heavily injured teammate before they kick the bucket and lose all their power-ups to is an important technique to master if you hope to keep your party strong.

Every mission, with the exception of the final one, is divided into three distinct stages. The first is a standard run-and-gun affair that sees you infiltrating a Cobra base. The second is set inside the base itself and takes the form of a more free-roaming maze type area where your task is to plant a number of bombs at specific points (designated by large check marks on the walls) and then reach the exit before time runs out. Finally, there’s another run-and-gun stage in which your Joes must escape the base before the bombs detonate. This makes for grand total of sixteen stages in the entire game and each of them has a boss fight at the end. This is quite a lot of content for game of this sort, especially when you consider that none of the boss enemies are recycled. There are even passwords given out between missions in case the player needs to take a break and finish up later.

With six playable characters, the team management element, the strategic power-up system, and the large variety of levels and bosses, it’s clear that G.I. Joe has ambition to spare. It’s execution that puts it over the top, though. The music and graphics are both above average, the control is rock solid, and the cut scenes are even a little funny at times. I loved the boss who greets you with “O.K., so my men were not so hot, but I will blow you away, Joe!” What an optimist!

There are many great touches in the level design, too. Enemies lurking in the foreground of the jungle stage will leap into the screen to engage you, missiles firing from the distant base in the background of the Antarctic stage will eventually reach your character, and the bases themselves house three different types of Cobra vehicle that you can commandeer and wreak havoc in, each with their own unique on-board weapons and ways of maneuvering.

Many of the boss encounters also go above and beyond in terms of creativity. Take the battle against Cobra Commander’s right hand man Destro, for example. After you destroy his flying vehicle, he attempts to turn tail and run. The formerly single screen fight then transitions seamlessly into an auto-scrolling section where you must continuously attack the fleeing Destro while leaping over bottomless pits and dodging his return fire. It’s a real tour de force of an 8-bit showdown.

G.I. Joe even manages to include more in the way of replay value than you might expect. Beating it presents you with a password for a “second quest” where your three Joe team is reduced to two and the locations in the Cobra bases where you need to place your bombs have all been shuffled around. Beating that enables yet another playthrough where not only are you still limited to two Joes, but the enemies are all able to dish out and absorb twice the punishment as before.

As far as downsides go, there are a few. I already mentioned the fact that the game is based on G.I. Joe circa 1991 and not the more beloved 1980s version. Consequently, a lot of most popular heroes and villains from the original cartoon are missing in action. Don’t expect to see the likes of Scarlet, Roadblock, Major Bludd, the Baroness, Sgt. Slaughter, Zartan, Serpentor, or Storm Shadow here.

On the gameplay side, a constant annoyance is the way that item drops are handled. If a defeated enemy leaves behind a health or ammo refill, it immediately begins bouncing all over the screen in an erratic fashion. If the item happens to bounce away from your character, it can easily disappear off the edge of the screen or down a pit before you have a chance to grab it. Why such an obnoxious behavior was programmed into an otherwise excellent game is beyond me.

Then there’s Blizzard. Blizzard is terrible. His ability to fire his gun through walls doesn’t come in handy nearly as much as you might hope. There’s really no reason to add him to your team unless it’s the Antarctic mission and you have no choice due to his leader status.

Make no mistake, however: Any complaints I can muster against this game hardly begin to detract from all it accomplishes. With its slick presentation layered over a near-perfect union of quality, quantity, and variety, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is everything NES enthusiasts could ask for in an action platformer.

A lot of gamers missed the boat on this one back on 1991, but now you know. And knowing is half the battle!

Holy Diver (Famicom)

“Holy Diver
Sole survivor
You’re the one who’s clean”

Wait, didn’t I already review Holy Diver? Well, kind of. I jotted down a few quick paragraphs to commemorate the occasion when I first completed it a year ago, but I’ve really wanted to go back and give it the more detailed treatment it deserves ever since I started collecting my game writing together in blog form this past July. What better time than now?

This is a very special game for me. See, it was around this time last year that it hit me: I had several hundred games filling my shelves that I hadn’t really played. Such a waste! What was even the point? Was I a real gamer or just a misguided hoarder of dead plastic? Enough! I made a resolution then and there to play through at least one game a week for the next year. But where to start? My mind immediately fixed itself on a little cartridge I picked up at the 2016 Portland Retro Gaming Expo a few months prior….

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some 80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a 1989 Famicom release called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or, perhaps, a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

I’d also heard that the game was a tough one, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I was all fired-up to attack my game backlog head-on, so I popped Holy Diver into my console, hit that power button, and never looked back. True to its reputation, it wasn’t easy. Not at all. I spent one entire evening trying and failing to get past the utterly fiendish level four boss. I refused to give up, however, and my devotion to the cause of Holy Magic Justice eventually saw me through. In the year since, I’ve completed a total of 75 additional games, 60 of them for the first time ever. I’ve also written what collectively feels like a novel’s worth of reviews and reflections on each and every one. So much for a game a week! It’s been the single best gaming year of my life so far and it all started with Holy Diver.

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side-scrolling action platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world.

The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

This story is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing. And I love it. So much. An epic high fantasy saga starring Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, King Crimson, and Slayer? Yeah, sign me up for that and do it yesterday, please. Naturally, Irem was careful not to make direct use of the likenesses or songs of any real world musicians, but the game still manages to wear its influences on its sleeve with this backstory. When reviewing a Famicom exclusive release, I’ll often express some regret over the fact that players outside Japan never got to experience it back in the day. In Holy Diver’s case, though, I’m glad. There’s simply no chance that any of its ludicrous heavy metal name dropping and warped religious imagery would have survived the transition to the NES intact. It’s far better, I think, to experience this one as its creators intended. Luckily for us, the use of English for all the game’s text (apart from the rōmaji level titles) makes it extremely approachable for non-Japanese players.

You’ll often see the gameplay in Holy Diver likened to that of a Castlevania title. At a glance, it’s easy to see why. They’re both side scrollers with an overarching horror theme and Randy looks an awful lot like Simon Belmont with long hair and a cape. Superficials aside, it won’t take Castlevania veterans long to realize that Holy Diver is a whole other beast at heart. The classic Castlevanias were balanced around the characteristic short, fixed Belmont jump arc and the whip with its relatively slow attack speed and lengthy startup time. Randy’s jump is much higher and floatier, not to mention steerable in the air. He’s also much quicker on the draw with the fireballs he shoots as his primary attack, although they still only reach about a third of the way across the screen. The action as a whole is faster and more fluid, resembling Konami’s Getsu Fūma Den more than any other single game I can recall, albeit with more of a focus on ranged combat thanks to Randy’s arsenal of spells.

There are five of these spells in total and each one costs between two and twenty magic points per use. Magic is selected via a pause menu similar to Zelda II’s and you toggle between the currently equipped spell and Randy’s standard shot with the select button, echoing the way you deploy your missiles in the original Metroid. Randy starts the game with Twin Fire, which doubles the power of his normal attack and extends its range to full screen. Defeating the bosses at the end of each of the first four stages will grant Randy a new power. Blizzard freezes streams of lava solid to allow for progress through some stages and also immobilizes weak enemies temporarily. Breaker fires a single piercing beam of magic that’s slow, but devastatingly powerful. Overdrive summons a pair of spinning orbs that will orbit Randy for a time and shield him from enemies and their projectiles. Finally, Thunder deals heavy damage to every enemy on the screen in exchange for a ton of magic points. All of these abilities are extremely useful and they remain so right up until the end of the game. In terms of design, this is no small feat. Just ask any Mega Man fan about all the pointless weapons they never get around to using.

You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for important items in each of the six stages that can enhance Randy’s abilities even further. There are containers to extend maximum health and magic points, 1-Ups, a bracelet for breaking certain blocks, high jump boots, a vitally important staff that will cut the cost of most spells in half, and even a power-up that will briefly morph Randy into a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

You’ll need all the help you can get, because the enemies in this game do not mess around. Almost without exception they’re tougher, faster, and less predictable than their counterparts in most other platformers. Take the flying skulls that are Holy Diver’s equivalent of the medusa heads from Castlevania. They’re not only swifter and more numerous, they’ll actually reverse direction after they pass by Randy and make a beeline straight for his back. Then there are the bouncing critters that fire a constant stream of damaging projectiles across the screen at semi-random altitudes, require a dozen hits to destroy, and will retreat as Randy advances in order to stay just outside of his standard fireball range. Or the golems in the later stages, common enemies almost as tough as bosses that are better avoided altogether if at all possible. Proficiency at Holy Diver is mainly a matter of figuring out all the ways each enemy can wreck you and which spells are best at wrecking them first. That, and not running out of magic points. At least continues are unlimited!

As relentless as it is, I really do love the sense of character progression that’s built into the game. The early stages can be tough going, since Randy’s health and magical abilities are at their weakest. Around the second half of stage four, the balance starts to tip a bit more in his favor and it continues to do so right up to the very end. By the time Randy reaches the sixth and final stage, he not only has his full complement of spells, but effectively about four times the health and eight times the magic points he started with. You go from feeling like a harried underdog to a battle-hardened wizard king that can go toe-to-toe with the very worst of the demon horde. It’s an interesting approach that seeks to combine the permanent character growth of an open-ended game like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda with the strictly linear level structure of a Contra or Ninja Gaiden and it works well here. In addition to making the player feel like a badass, it also allows the designers to go wild in the later levels and subject Randy to a torrent of the toughest foes the game has to offer while still keeping the nature of the challenge fair.

The visuals and audio in Holy Diver are both a real treat. Where Castlevania was a horror platformer with a style inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, Holy Diver stays true to its heavy metal roots by doubling down on the demonic. The first stage is a sinister cathedral dominated by a large cross with a skull and serpent mounted on it. Stage two’s name translates as “Hell of Entrails” and it certainly looks the part, with the fetuses encased in the walls being a particularly gross touch. There’s also a crucifixion scene later and even a pentagram on the menu screen. The level of detail on the sprites and backgrounds is excellent by 1989 standards, resulting in a very strong and cohesive dark fantasy atmosphere. The score is as heavy and driving as you would expect, though the enjoyment is hampered a bit by the fact that several of the stages share background tracks. What we get sounds good, but a unique song for each stage would have been nice. You’ll likely be spending a good amount of time on each one, after all. The sound effects used for Randy’s spells are also worth singling out for praise. Each magic has a distinct and full-bodied sound that lends it a real sense of power.

It should be obvious by now that Holy Diver is an extremely well-designed and presented action platformer worthy of its pedigree. In fact, it’s one of my personal favorite Famicom games. If it has any real flaw apart from its limited soundtrack, it’s a highly subjective one: The level of difficulty is high from start to finish and not every player will want to invest the time needed to overcome it. It’s not the most fearsome game out there by any means. Both Battletoads and Blaster Master took me more time to learn. I still had to put in multiple lengthy practice sessions before I was able to fight my way all the way to the Black Slayer, though. I’d say that if you’re determined, patient, and have a good amount of action platforming experience under your belt already, Holy Diver is a tiger you need to ride. If not, it may just leave you feeling like you’ve gotta get away.

Holy Diver has earned itself a permanent spot in my gaming rotation. As an unapologetic love letter to all things classic metal and one hell of an 8-bit thrill ride, it inspired me to get off my ass (metaphorically speaking) and make with the playing and writing about games already. Since then, I’ve blown my New Year’s resolution out of the water and I’m just getting started. Thanks, Irem.

Now bring on year two of that backlog!

Conquest of the Crystal Palace (NES)

Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!

It’s time to get obscure again. Here’s Conquest of the Crystal Palace from 1990. Published by Asmik, this one was actually one of the first titles developed by Quest, who would later garner much more critical and commercial attention with their work on the Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle games. Don’t come expecting any sort of strategy RPG experience here, though, because Conquest is yet another NES side scrolling action platformer.

This one casts the player in the role of a teenage boy named Farron. One day, Farron’s trusty dog Zap starts talking to him! Sadly, this doesn’t kick off the chilling 8-bit adaptation of the Son of Sam murders that we’ve all been waiting for. Instead, Zap explains that Farron is really an exiled prince who’s been living in hiding since infancy from the demon Zaras, who took over his kingdom and killed his parents. Now that Farron has come of age, it’s time for him to liberate the Crystal Palace from Zaras and reclaim his birthright by walking from left to right through a total of five stages and slicing up every monster along the way with his trusty sword.

Before he sets off, Farron is offered the choice of one of three different magic crystals that will alter his standard abilities in various ways. One increases maximum health, another boosts jump height, and the third allows for a projectile fireball attack. The two powers you don’t choose are available for purchase later on in shops, though, so don’t agonize too much over this bit.

Farron also isn’t alone on his quest. Zap will accompany him throughout the game and, when activated, will dash back and forth across the screen attacking any enemies in sight. This can be useful, particularly during battles against the bosses laying in wait at the end of each stage, but the player must use Zap sparingly, since he has his own separate health gauge that tends to deplete fairly quickly due to the kamikaze nature of his attacks. Make sure to hit up the shops for some healing dog chow as needed. This “boy and his dog” angle is Conquest’s central gameplay gimmick and arguably its most noteworthy feature overall.

The other standout element is the game’s art style. Ignoring the feeble attempts at Westernized character portraits in the instruction manual, this is a distinctly Japanese take on a fantasy world. It’s really quite remarkable how little the original release, Matendōji (“Demon Heaven Boy”), was altered during the localization phase. The character designs, level decor, and even music are all unmistakably East Asian. They even left the kanji text on the weapon select menu and map screen intact! Many games on the Famicom went for this sort of style, but few among them saw release in North America for obvious reasons.

Apart from this, Conquest comes off as a fairly average entry in its field. Pass through a gauntlet of enemies, pits, and other hazards until you reach the big boss. If you still have enough lives and health remaining to kick his ass, it’s on to the next stage. If not, there are unlimited continues. Each stage also features a couple appearances by the shopkeeper Kim, who seemingly spends her time just standing around monster infested hellholes waiting for little samurai boys to happen by so she can try to sell them dog food. Hey, it’s a living! Silly as the old “suspiciously convenient magical merchant” setup is, I like Kim. She’s probably the closest thing this game has to a real character. She’ll get irate if you try to buy items you can’t afford, elated if you buy a ton of stuff at once, and even dons glasses and a suit and tie to dispense hints in the form of an anachronistic “QNN” tv news report. Her overall design and facial expressions are also super cute. Yay, Kim!

There are a few disappointing aspects of the game that I feel are worth mentioning, too. The control is a bit weird as it relates to jumping attacks, since attacking in mid-air will abruptly cancel your jump and cause you to drop prematurely. This can be a killer if you’re trying to leap across a gap and cut down an airborne enemy simultaneously. That sort of manuver might be your bread and butter in Ninja Gaiden, but Farron is clearly no Ryu Hayabusa.

Attacks in general also feel a bit weak. That’s not to say that they are weak. They definitely get the job done. There’s even an undocumented super sword move for Farron triggered by mashing left and right on the D-pad while attacking that can destroy bosses in seconds once mastered. At the same time, they lack a certain oomph that would make them really satisfying to land. Though this is likely a very subjective response to certain aspects of the animation and sound effects, I rarely felt like I was truly kicking monster ass no matter how well I was doing.

Finally, I didn’t much care for the pacing of Conquest’s final stage. The entire level is filled with dozens of identical falling lava hazards that force the player to halt and wait for an opening in their pattern before proceeding. They’re not hard to spot, the pattern is always the same, and the lava doesn’t even do very much damage. It really seems like the designers are forcing you to stop moving every few steps just to artificially lengthen a very short game. Not cool.

On balance, Conquest of the Crystal Palace’s charms do outweigh its annoyances. It’s absolutely worth a look for anyone that enjoys NES action titles enough to be digging deep into the library for these sorts of second and third string oddballs. It’s just too bad that breakout star Kim never got the spinoff adventure she deserved.


Shinobi (Master System)

Only a ninja can stop a ninja!

I never had a Sega Master System growing up. I never knew a single person who did. Not one. Poor Sega never had a chance in the mid-1980s console market, at least in North America and Japan, where the god-king Nintendo lorded over all it surveyed. Although the Master System (also known as the Mark III) sold like crazy in South America and portions of Europe well into the 21st century, it was virtually invisible outside those far-flung markets. It’s a shame. The system hardware was quite advanced for the time and it was capable of displaying significantly more colorful and detailed graphics than the NES.

While technical superiority is nice, even the most powerful console is ultimately dependent on its software library. This turned out to be the Master System’s Achilles’ heel. Nintendo’s strict exclusivity policies meant that best and brightest game companies of the time were essentially forbidden to venture anywhere near it if they wanted a ride on that sweet NES money train. Superstar developers like Capcom, Konami, Enix, and Rare knew which side their bread was buttered on. Many of these same parties would later grow disgruntled with Nintendo’s anti-competitive, control freak ways, which was great news for Sega’s follow-up console, the Mega Drive/Genesis, but by then it was far too late to salvage the Master System in any market that had not yet fully embraced it.

This lack of third party support meant that Sega themselves had to do the lion’s share of the work propping the Master System up in the U.S., primarily with conversions of their own popular arcade games. It’s only fitting, then, that the first Master System game I’d ever play would turn out to be Sega’s own port of their 1987 arcade smash Shinobi.

Applied to a person, the Japanese “shinobi” essentially means “one who sneaks” and is used synonymously with the better-known term ninja. Deadly masked ninja warriors were everywhere in the 1980s. Well, everywhere in the media, that is. We had ninja movies, ninja tv shows, ninja action figures, ninja comics, and, of course, ninja video games. A side scrolling action platformer, Shinobi was one of the first games to put you in the shoes of one of these relentless shadow warriors. It was essentially a variation on (or, less charitably, a clone of) Namco’s Rolling Thunder from 1986, just with the pistol-packing James Bond style superspy replaced with a shuriken tossing ninja master named Joe Musashi.

Joe is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped children of his ninja clan from their abductors, the sinister terrorist organization Zeed and its leaders, the Ring of Five. At least in the arcade version. The Master System manual identifies the kidnap victims as the children of unspecified “world leaders.” Either way: Bad guys stole the kiddos, so go ninja the hell out of stuff until that’s all sorted out. Works for me.

The game includes fourteen regular stages filled with hostages to rescue and generic thugs to mow down, interspersed with boss battles against the Zeed head honchos and culminating in a final showdown with the imposing Masked Ninja. Joe starts out able to throw an unlimited amount of shuriken and take out close range targets with his punches and kicks. Rescuing specific hostages in each stage will upgrade his arsenal to a gun and sword for long and short range engagements, respectively. There’s also the matter of Joe’s ninja magic, which is essentially a “panic button” usable only once per level that will clear the screen of all regular enemies and deal heavy damage to bosses. Most stages feature a dual level battlefield with enemies and hostages placed both along the ground and atop walls and other high structures. Joe is able to freely transition between the two levels by holding up or down on the directional controls in conjunction with the jump button, and picking the right moment to do this in order to get the drop on enemies is a key part of the strategy. Between stages, there’s a short bonus game where Joe must fend off waves of enemy ninjas from a first person view and is rewarded with an extra life if successful.

Shinobi is a rather deliberately paced affair, which helps to set it apart from many other ninja action games. Experienced players can rush through it very quickly, but it often pays to stop for a second and think through the ideal way to approach a specific cluster of waiting enemies. The Master System version sticks very closely to the arcade blueprint for the most part, but there are a few drastic changes worth mentioning.

A health meter replaces the one-hit kills that Joe was subject to in the arcade. This cuts down on the difficulty somewhat, though not as much as you might expect, as it was balanced out by removing the ability to continue after a game over. Like the NES version of Double Dragon, this is a game you have to complete in one go or not at all. Luckily, your health gauge can be extended to allow Joe to absorb more damage, which brings me to the next major change: The hostage rescue system.

Unlike in the arcade, you don’t need to rescue all the child hostages in a stage in order to move on. You should still grab as many as possible, though, because there are many more potential rewards for doing so in the Master System port, including the previously mentioned maximum health increases, healing, and cool new weapon upgrades like bombs, knives, nunchaku, and a spiked chain. While these power-ups persist from stage to stage, they’re all stripped away the instant you die even once and rescued hostages never reappear to be collected again. This can be downright brutal late in the game. Making it all the way through the final stage on the puny default health bar can be done, but I don’t envy anyone making the attempt. I managed it…once.

Finally, the ninja magic has been heavily downgraded on the Master System. So much so that it’s almost worthless. It still functions as before, but you’re unable to access it by default like in the arcade. Here it replaces extra lives as your reward for winning the bonus stages. If you do manage to obtain some, there’s also a new and highly obnoxious restriction to deal with: You must defeat ten enemies in a given stage before you’ll be permitted to actually use any ninja magic you may have earned. I honestly cannot fathom the reasoning behind this change. By the time you’ve killed enough enemies to activate your magic, you’re likely nearing the end of the stage anyway. The game also treats boss fights as their own separate stages, so there doesn’t seem to be any way to use magic against them at all. At least stockpiled ninja magic doesn’t go away when you die like all the other power-ups. Blah.

Shinobi looks pretty good on the Master System. At least when it’s standing still. The sprites are large and detailed and there’s some great use of those bright colors the console is known for in the various stage backgrounds. Animation does suffer quite a bit, however. This is particularly noticeable when defeated enemies simply blink right out of existence because there are no frames included of them crumpling to the ground like they do in the arcade. This may seem like a small thing, but the visual feedback on your attacks really contributed to the original version’s satisfying feel. Just imagine Super Mario Bros. with the goombas Mario stomps vanishing on contact without being comically flattened first. It just ain’t right. The vertical scrolling whenever Joe leaps up or down between the different levels of a stage is also jarringly choppy for some reason. A game really shouldn’t look like it’s glitching out every time you just want to jump up to a platform. Even though a dip in overall quality coming from the System 16 arcade hardware was inevitable, I’m still inclined to expect better than this from Sega. They didn’t even include an ending! Instead, winning the game nets you the exact same game over screen that losing it does. Huh?

As for the audio…well, there’s no nice way to say it: The original Shinobi’s catchy soundtrack is essentially butchered here. You get a single short music loop that plays over every regular stage. The bonus rounds and boss fights each get their own track for a grand total of three songs, but that’s still 95% of the game during which you’re expected to sit there and listen to the same tinny tune. It’s borderline torturous. For what it’s worth, there are supposedly also higher quality versions of these same three songs included on the cartridge, though they can’t be played back unless you have the special FM sound expansion board that was produced exclusively for the Japanese version of the console.

Shinobi on the Master System has some real flaws. It doesn’t look or sound as great as it should and the super cool ninja magic has been watered-down to the point of total superfluousness. On the plus side, the addition of a health bar and persistent power-ups makes the gameplay a lot more forgiving from moment to moment, while the lack of continues and potentially massive disempowerment that each death brings tends to makes the player more cautious and focused on surviving over the long term. Ideally, you want to be able to make it all the way to the end of the game on your first life so that you never have to deal with losing your health and weapon upgrades. It makes the whole experience a lot more “consoley,” if that makes any sense, without requiring any major changes to the stage layouts and enemy placement that fans were already familiar with from the arcade. Though not perfect, it still stands head and shoulders over any other home port and remains the best way outside of an arcade to experience Joe Musashi’s first adventure.

Now that I’ve finally toppled the Zeed syndicate, I’m really looking forward to seeing where my exploration of the Master System library will take me next. Hiyaa!