Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

Sometimes all you want is for a game to be mean to you again.

One of the very best things about classic gaming, at least from the perspective of the average busy adult, is just how concise these old titles can be. In most cases, game makers of the past had no other choice. From the primordial dawn of the hobby on 1960s university mainframes all the way up to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM technology roughly three decades later, every byte of precious memory counted. Skilled programmers were still able to realize RPGs and other intricate games featuring dozens or even hundreds of hours of play time, but this often meant embracing a more modest audiovisual presentation to save on disk or ROM space. For fans of these more cerebral offerings, the tradeoff was well worth it. Action gamers, on the other hand, had an insatiable fondness for spectacle that often placed the developers of their favorite releases in an unenviable position. How could they consistently dazzle their audiences with the most detailed backgrounds, the biggest characters, the smoothest animations, and the most adrenaline-pumping tunes, all while still leaving room for, well, a game?

The enduring legacy of all these thorny compromises is a pantheon of tight, polished 8 and 16-bit thrill rides that experienced players can blaze through it under an hour. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Gradius, Mega Man, and many, many more, including my personal favorite, Castlevania. It’s only after you’ve played through one of these masterpieces countless times that their brevity begins to work against them. As pleasant as it invariably is to kick back and whip my way through Simon Belmont’s iconic 8-bit vampire hunt, I’ve long ago reached the point where the challenge, even on hard mode, is deader than Count Dracula himself. Who can you turn to when your favorite hardcore action game just isn’t beating you down like it used to? The ROM hacking community, of course!

Hacks dedicated to furnishing veteran players with ferociously difficult new takes on old favorites are a dime a dozen and the first Castlevania specifically is one of the most frequently remixed NES titles. So why am I focusing on Overflow Darkness? Because this 2011 effort by Luto Akino is more than just your typical “Castlevania on steroids” with some extra pits and enemies sprinkled in. It’s tricked out with gorgeous new artwork, level design as well thought-out as it is brutal, and some clever tweaks to core gameplay mechanics.

Unlike Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, which I reviewed last October, Overflow Darkness doesn’t attempt to add any new characters or lore to the series. The scenario here is exactly the same as in the base game: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and a whip-wielding warrior named Simon Belmont is out to destroy him. The only change is to Simon’s appearance. Instead of his original brunette locks, he’s sporting the long red hair from his 2001 Castlevania Chronicles redesign. While I’ve never been a fan of ginger Simon and was pleased when he reverted to a more traditional look for his most recent showing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I actually don’t mind it here. Chalk that one up to the relatively simplicity of NES sprites, I suppose.

Speaking of sprites, it’s not just Simon that’s been re-drawn. Several of his familiar enemies have also been given professional quality makeovers, including Medusa, Death, and Dracula. Surprisingly, these new sprites are improvements  in virtually every instance. Dracula’s demonic second form in particular is exponentially more menacing here than the bright blue “cookie monster” that confronts you at the end of vanilla ‘Vania. The new background tiles are just as impressive. The rather basic underground waterway at the start of level four, for example, has been re-imagined to great effect as a flooded catacomb packed with skeletal remains. None of the new art in Overflow Darkness stands out as the work of an amateur, which is just about the highest compliment ROM hack visuals can receive. Don’t expect anything so brilliant on the audio front, however. The track order has been swapped around, but it’s still the same Kinuyo Yamashita score we all know and love.

Pretty as Overflow Darkness is, it still wants you dead. Badly. The new stages here are all markedly more difficult than anything in the regular game, deluging the player with a near-constant stream of flying bats and medusa heads while placing durable enemies like bone pillars and axe knights in close proximity to death pits. It’s common to face off against several enemy types simultaneously on very precarious footing and some stages even open with Simon already under attack from multiple angles.

Bosses have also been given a shot in the arm. The fight against the familiar giant bat at the end of stage one now takes place on uneven terrain with a hoard of smaller bats fluttering onto the screen from both sides. I lost several lives to this encounter, which is humbling to say the least. There are a couple of all-new bosses, too, and they have a habit of lurking at the top of the screen and showering Simon with projectiles, limiting the usefulness of the overpowered holy water sub-weapon in these battles.

Ruthless as these stages are, Overflow Darkness does play fair. Unlike T. Takemoto’s infamous Kaizo Mario World trilogy, the challenge isn’t predicated on tricking or teasing the player with deliberately absurd trial-and-error setups. It’s fundamentally the same precise combat and platforming as the “real” Castlevania, just with far less allowance for sloppy play. There’s considerable inventiveness packed into some of these new level layouts, too. The second stage contains a multi-tier “stair maze” that forces Simon to travel and up and down repeatedly across the same few screens in search of the door to the next section. Areas like this will push your reflexes and pattern recognition skills to their limits, especially since Simon loses a full quarter of his maximum health with every hit sustained from the very beginning of the game.

Yet another, more subtle layer of added difficulty is derived from the way item drops have been adjusted to be stingier than usual across the board. Remember how easy it was to score whip power-ups in the regular game? If you died and restarted with the weakest leather version of the whip, you always seemed to find a replacement upgrade an instant later from the very first candle you stumbled across. Well, forget about all that! According to Overflow Darkness, whip upgrades from candles are for the weak. Instead, you can only really count on obtaining them from random enemy drops and these can prove maddeningly elusive if luck isn’t on your side. The bottom line is that you’re going to become very adept with that puny starting whip, whether you like it or not. Sub-weapons and shot multipliers for them are also more scarce. Oh, and remember the large hearts that would increase your ammo count by five when collected? Overflow Darkness reduces this to two. The idea here seems to be to force players to rely more on deep mastery of Simon’s innate capabilities and less on exploiting power-ups. Although it can come off a bit heavy-handed and I certainly wouldn’t want to play this way all the time, it is a bracing change of pace from the default “melt everything’s face off with triple holy water” strategy most Castlevania players fall back on.

The takeaway here should be that Overflow Darkness is simply the best at what it does. Its stylish graphics, quality level design, and eye for fairness make it the current gold standard in extreme difficulty hacks of Castlevania 1986. There are other hacks available (Chorus of Mysteries, The Holy Relics) that are much more creatively ambitious, aiming to re-work the source material into something approximating a whole new entry in the series. These are well worth your time, but if all you’re really craving is a viable “super hard” mode for one of your favorite NES games, Castlevania: Overflow Darkness is the real deal. It’ll whip your ass and make you like it.

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Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Back in 1983, Konami published a little arcade game called Roc’n Rope. Directed by a promising rookie designer named Tokuro Fujiwara, Roc’n Rope is a single screen “climb to the top” platformer in the Donkey Kong mold with a twist: The player’s avatar, a tiny explorer in a pith helmet, is unable to jump and instead has to ascend the playfield by using a grappling gun which fires a rope that can latch onto the undersides of platforms. I’ve been a fan of this one ever since it debuted. It’s clever, cute, and a lot of fun. It’s not at all a common cabinet, but I’ll always drop a few quarters in given the opportunity.

As for Fujiwara, he left Konami for Capcom later that same year, going on to become one of the industry’s most most influential designer/producers. His Ghosts ‘n Goblins series needs no introduction and he’s also been closely involved with almost every other major Capcom property. I’m talking Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, the works. In 1987, he revisted the “wire action” concept introduced in Roc’n Rope with the arcade Bionic Commando, better-known by most for its brilliant 1988 NES adaptation.

What many don’t know is that Konami took their own stab at a Roc’n Rope successor in 1987 with no input from Fujiwara. The result was Arumana no Kiseki (“Miracle of Arumana”) for the Famicom Disk System. While it’s not quite the must-play masterpiece NES Bionic Commando is, Arumana is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that will appeal to fans of other Konami side-scrollers.

A single glance at Arumana’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about its story. This is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not even remotely subtle about it, either. The game’s hero, one Kaito, is straight-up cosplaying in his khaki safari shirt and brown fedora. The plot sees him out to restore life to a vaguely Indian village by retrieving a stolen magical gem called the Sanka…er, the Arumana. Baddies included turbaned Thuggee lookalikes and snakes. There are booby-trapped ruins aplenty and even a minecart segment. It’s enough to make me wonder if all this “homaging” is the reason we never saw an NES conversion of Arumana. LucasArts’ lawyers would have had a field day.

Kaito’s quest for the Arumana unfolds over the course of six stages, which seems to have been the magic number for Konami around this time, going by Contra, Castlevania, Jackal, and others. Stages are moderately large and scroll in all directions, though they’re laid out in such a fashion that the way forward is generally pretty obvious. That said, be on the lookout for the occasional false wall or floor that can be broken with the spiked ball weapon to reveal power-ups and shortcuts. Breaking walls in this manner actually becomes necessary to progress in some of the later areas.

On the subject of weapons, Kaito has a generous six at his disposal. There are no hard choices to be made here, either, as he can potentially carry all six at once, cycling between them as needed with the Select button. Throwing knives and a pistol provide basic forward firepower, bombs and spiked balls arc downward, the bola travels diagonally upward, and the rare and precious red orb instantly damages every enemy on the screen. The most interesting thing to me about this system is that all these weapons have limited shots. This means that Kaito has no innate free attack option and a careless player could theoretically fire off everything and find themself completely defenseless. Though it’s unlikely to ever happen due to the frequency with which the game throws ammo of various types the player’s way, Arumana is one of the few action-platformers where such a thing is even possible.

Of course, as alluded to above, the real defining feature of Arumana no Kiseki is not a weapon at all, but Kaito’s grappling line. Pressing up and the B button simultaneously causes it to shoot out at a fixed upward angle and anchor itself to any solid surface. Kaito can then shimmy his way up or down the line as needed. You can only have one line in place at a given time, however. The previous one will disappear the instant you press up and B again. Although Kaito can jump, his puny Simon Belmont-esque hops are woefully inadequate for the great heights he’s expected to negotiate almost constantly. Simply put, the game is designed in such a way that the grappling line must be mastered completely in order to see Kaito through to the end.

There’s a lot to love about Arumana no Kiseki. Its swashbuckling Indiana Jones trappings, brazen and shameless as they are, work to set just the right adventuresome tone. The in-game artwork is great by 1987 standards, keeping with Konami’s early Famicom house style of realistically-proportioned faceless human characters. The level design is excellent throughout and each stage’s end boss presents a unique challenge that’s suitably intimidating and satisfying to conquer with the correct weapons and tactics. The difficulty also feels about right to me, similar to other tough-but-fair Konami hits like Contra. Kaito’s default five-hit life meter is neither too generous nor too stingy and he’s given three lives and three continues with which to tackle all six stages, with the possibility of earning extra lives through score and 1-Up pickups.

I’d be remiss I didn’t single out Kinuyo Yamashita’s music for special recognition. The Famicom Disk System add-on included an extra sound channel for wavetable synthesis. Support for this feature varied greatly from game to game, but few would ever use it as extensively and artfully as Yamashita did here. She programmed a total of ten distinct wavetable instruments for use in Arumana no Kiseki and the results speak for themselves. Heck, even before you take the expansion audio into consideration, the melodies here are every bit as good as the ones she created for Castlevania or Power Blade. My only regret is that there apparently wasn’t room on the disk for more of them, as the six stages share three background tracks between them.

Sadly, few things in life are truly perfect. Even Indy had his obnoxious  sidekick cross to bear on occasion. Arumana’s metaphoric Short Round is the awkward and occasionally glitchy implementation of its central platforming mechanic. Kaito’s grappling line deploys slowly in contrast to the zippy bionic arm of Rad Spencer, making it difficult to escape some of the faster enemies. What’s more, the physics of it are just plain strange. Here’s an example: If you wanted to anchor your line as high up on the screen as possible, you’d obviously want to fire it off at the apex of a jump, right? Wrong. The line will somehow move up and down the screen along with Kaito as it extends, so you instead want to fire it off a split second before you jump. That way, you can try to match up the instant the line actually attaches to the wall with the high point of the jump. That’s just bonkers. You can definitely get used to it, but the learning curve is steep and it never really feels right. It’s also possible to deploy your line in such a way that Kaito clips through the wall and dies instantly when he climbs up it. This doesn’t happen all the time, just often enough to be frustrating and make you wish that Konami had done a little more fine tuning before they shipped this one.

Play control angst aside, I’ll still recommend Arumana no Kiseki to any 8-bit action lover with the patience to adapt to its quirks. It’s a mostly successful attempt to infuse Rock’n Rope with elements of Castlevania and it makes excellent use of the FDS hardware. It deserves to be remembered as more than just Bionic Commando’s weird distant cousin. Ironically, it’s also miles above the godawful offical NES Temple of Doom adaptation put out by Tengen and Mindscape. That game should prepare to meet Kali…in hell!

Hagane: The Final Conflict (Super Nintendo)

Famed satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it….” In the realm of classic gaming, I can think of no clearer example of this timeless truth in action than Hagane: The Final Conflict for the Super Nintendo. Around a decade ago now, a obscurely-sourced story began circulating online that this unassuming 1994 action-platformer was actually a rare Blockbuster Video rental exclusive title. Prices for Hagane cartridges rocketed from the $20 -$40 range to $500 and up.

You’ve likely already guessed where I’m going with this. That’s right: There’s no proof whatsoever that Hagane was ever associated with Blockbuster Video. What’s more, popular YouTuber SNESdrunk has presented plenty of evidence that it was, in fact, a normal retail release. Blockbuster exclusive games like ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut for the Nintendo 64 were a real thing. At this point in time, however, we can state with all confidence that Hagane was not one of them.

I’m not certain whether the Blockbuster myth originated as an innocent mistake or a despicable attempt to manipulate the secondary market, but I do know that ten years and counting of wide dissemination is likely to prevent those prices from correcting themselves anytime soon. The damage is done. It’s a shame, because the sticker shock tends to overshadow a quality ninja action game that’s often cited as the Super Nintendo’s answer to Sega’s Shinobi series.

The final conflict of the title is between two secretive ninja clans. The Fuma are mystical warriors charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Their foils are the evil Koma, who dream of using the Grail’s limitless power to destroy the world. A treacherous attack by the Koma results in them stealing the Grail, but they make the fateful mistake of leaving one Fuma clan warrior alive. This gravely-wounded ninja, Hagane (“steel”), has his brain transplanted into a cyborg body in order to seek revenge on the Koma and recover the Grail before it’s too late. Ninja RoboCop questing for the Holy Grail? God bless video games.

Hagane’s mission comprises nineteen  individual stages spread out over five chapters. These are primarily straightforward “run, jump, and fight your way to the exit” affairs that incorporate a satisfying blend of platforming and combat challenges, along with a handful of auto-scrolling sections for variety. Each chapter also has an end boss and at least one mini-boss. None of the individual stages here are exceptionally large or involved, but there’s enough of them that the journey as a whole feels neither too long nor too short.

Like Treasure’s Alien Soldier, which I reviewed just last week, this is another game where the title hero has an incredibly wide selection of moves and attacks at his disposal. Too many, to be honest. Hagane has four main weapons that he can cycle between at any time: A sword, shuriken, bombs, and a chain. Any ninja game connoisseurs reading this probably recognize this as the same array of weapons wielded by Tsukikage, the protagonist of Irem’s Ninja Spirit. I can only assume that someone on the development team was a fan of Irem’s effort. Hagane also comes equipped with a limited-use super bomb attack reminiscent of the one seen in Contra III that damages everything on-screen and is generally best saved for bosses.

That’s not all, though! The ever-versatile metal ninja can also lash out with jump kicks and ground slides, cling to ceilings, bounce off walls, execute a strange sort of rolling double jump that covers wide distances horizontally, and pull off a variety of charged-up power attacks in conjunction with both back and forward flips. Hey, at least they didn’t let that six-button controller go to waste, eh?

Step one here is to get a feel for which of these moves you’ll need to use constantly and which you can safely ignore. The sword and shuriken ended up being my go-to weapons (with bombs a distant third) and the double jump spin proved to be the most vital platforming tool by far. The chain, jump kick, slide, super flip attacks, and the rest all turned out to be either highly situational or completely unnecessary.

Mastering a small selection of your most efficient moves as quickly as possible goes a long way toward curbing the game’s formidable difficulty. Hagane has a reputation for being one of the most challenging SNES action games. While there are many that I would personally rank higher in that regard, it’s certainly no easier than the average Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden title. The biggest hurdle by far is Hagane’s unimpressive health bar. For a guy made of metal, you’d expect him to able to withstand more than three hits by default. Healing items and the occasional health bar extension help somewhat, but you still can’t count on being able to make many mistakes. You are given unlimited continues at least, although running out of lives and using one starts you back at the beginning of the chapter rather than the exact stage you died on.

Despite a somewhat over-engineered control scheme, Hagane largely succeeds in delivering the sort of fast-paced precision action-platforming experience its target audience craves. It weds level design and enemy placement that would be right at home in any of the 16-bit Shinobi games with the weapon system from Ninja Spirit, movement that recalls Capcom’s Strider, and an extra bit of flair all its own, as in the stage where Hagane must escape a crashing airship as it spins around him courtesy of the console’s iconic Mode 7 background rotation effect.

All this solid gameplay is further bolstered by some very strong art design. Every detail of the medieval Japanese cyberpunk future on display here is compelling, from the twin pistons carved into the shapes of Buddhas that are shown to power Hagane himself in the opening cut scene to the largest of the boss enemies with their hulking robot frames topped by elaborate Noh theater style masks. It’s basically the same aesthetic that made the classic Genesis shooter M.U.S.H.A. so memorable, just on a more intimate scale. The soundtrack, unfortunately, can’t really keep pace. It takes the expected route of combining samples suggestive of classical Japanese instruments with more conventional video game action beats, but the tracks themselves don’t really bring it. They’re often far too restrained for the madness erupting across the screen at any given moment. I don’t think it’s bad music by any means, merely underwhelming.

Hagane is absurdly, senselessly overpriced. It also presents as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the bits and pieces of great ninja games past. It’s got it where it counts, though, and that makes me wish that developer CAProduction had tried their hands at a sequel. I suppose they’ve been too busy slaving away on every Mario Party game ever. It’s tough to argue with a sure thing like that.

Anyway, play Hagane. Just don’t pay $500 or more for the privilege. You’re smarter than that.

Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Ninja Gaiden (NES)

Ninja beats giant purple lobster every time. It’s called science, people.

I can’t believe I haven’t talked about Ninja Gaiden yet. It’s only one of the definitive action-platformers on a system renowned for them and one of my personal favorite games of all time. I did cover its two direct NES sequels last year, but I never played either of them back when they came out. No, this original entry (which just turned thirty years old this past week) is the one I grew up with. I recently played through the entire trilogy over Thanksgiving, so I figured this is as good an opportunity as any to remedy my oversight. What do ninja have to do with Thanksgiving? Nothing, of course. It’s just an odd little tradition I’ve stumbled into to fill the downtime while I’m getting dinner ready. I’ll make up some bread dough, play through a few acts of a Ninja Gaiden game while it rises, pop the dough in the oven and play a few more acts while it bakes, then finish off the last boss as the loaf is cooling on the rack. Beats the hell out of the Macy’s parade, that’s for sure.

Contrary to what one might assume, the Ninja Gaiden series was conceived with an American audience in mind. Word had reached the management at Tecmo that ninja were a massive fad over on our side of the Pacific, thanks to cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and action movies like…well, everything Sho Kosugi ever appeared in. They tasked a pair of internal development teams with creating two distinct games: A beat-’em-up for the arcades and a Castlevania-inspired action-platformer for the NES. Despite having little in common other than a general ninja action theme, both games would bear the title Ninja Ryūkenden (“Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword”). During localization, this moniker was deemed too much of a mouthful for us gaijin and became Ninja Gaiden instead. Supposedly, this new name was chosen just because it sounded cool. It certainly makes no literal sense. “Gaiden” means something along the lines of “side story,” yet the games themselves aren’t actually spun off from any previous work. Hence, there’s no “main story” for them to refer back to.

The titular ninja here is young Ryu Hayabusa, who receives a letter from his father Ken during the game’s opening prologue. In the letter, Ken states that he’s about to fight a duel to the death against an unknown opponent. In the event he should fail to return, he instructs his son to take up the family’s sacred Dragon Sword and travel to America in order to meet with an archaeologist named Walter Smith. Vowing to discover the reason for his father’s demise and avenge it, Ryu sets off for America.

Ninja Gaiden makes a powerful statement right out of the gate with this opening scene. The very first screen of the game, depicting Ken Hayabusa and his unknown assailant squaring off under a full moon, is presented as a cinematic panning shot, complete with flashy parallax scrolling of the ground tiles to sell the illusion of a moving camera. This transitions to a series of quick cuts between close-ups of the masked combatants’ faces and running legs, then finally another long shot as the two ninja leap skyward and clash swords in mid-air. All this visual pizzazz is expertly bolstered by Keiji Yamagishi and Ryuichi Nitta’s intense score coupled with some very impactful sound effects. The development team christened the nearly twenty minutes of anime style interludes crammed into Ninja Gaiden “Tecmo Theater,” and the inclusion of such an elaborate extra on a minuscule NES cartridge impresses even today.

Tecmo certainly didn’t invent the so-called cutscene here. Pac-Man had cutscenes and Dragon’s Lair effectively was one. Rather, Ninja Gaiden’s triumph was one of scope and ambition. In an era when many games didn’t include proper openings at all and “Congratulations!” over a black screen was still an acceptable ending, Ninja Gaiden had lavish, dynamic story sequences both before and after every one of its six acts. With new characters being constantly introduced, plot twists aplenty, and tons of dialog, these scenes actually had players setting their controllers down for minutes at a time just to watch the game do its thing. We may take chatty games for granted now and even have cause to rue their excesses on occasion, but the very idea would have seemed absurd before Ninja Gaiden. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Ninja Gaiden released in North America around the same time as the first wave of Japanese console RPGs and none of the latter came close to matching its dramatic flair. The fact that a simple “run to the end of the stage and slash dudes” ninja platformer featured all-around better storytelling than the first Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy installments really demonstrates how far the JRPG genre has come. It’s no wonder Square later hired Ninja Gaiden alum Masato Kato to work on the script for their classic Chrono Trigger.

So how about that platforming? I mentioned above that Ninja Gaiden takes inspiration from Konami’s Castlevania and a quick glance at the screen layout makes this very apparent. The status display along the top that holds the health bars for Ryu and the stage boss, the current score, and other key information is a carbon copy of the one from Castlevania. Also directly lifted from that game are the countless torches, candles, and other floating targets in each stage that Ryu can attack to reveal ammunition, health refills, and power-ups. Some of the special weapons Ryu obtains in this manner bear a strong resemblance to ones from Castlevania, such as the two varieties of shuriken with properties similar to the dagger and boomerang cross. Despite all this, Ninja Gaiden is never really dismissed as a Castlevania clone the same way titles like 8 Eyes and Master of Darkness are. Why is this? In a word: Speed. Castlevania’s Simon Belmont was defined by his deliberate, almost plodding stride and weighty jump physics. By contrast, tapping left or right in Ninja Gaiden will take Ryu Hayabusa from a standstill to a headlong sprint in an instant and his Dragon Sword is lightning fast. He can also jump much higher and farther than Simon and he isn’t limited to realistic fixed arcs when doing so. He is a ninja, after all.

Furthermore, Ninja Gaiden’s designers tailored the opposition so as to make Ryu’s blinding speed not just a useful tool, but a necessary one. Almost every standard enemy in the game can be obliterated by a single well-timed Dragon Sword slash. The catch is that each foe so destroyed will re-spawn immediately and endlessly if Ryu should backtrack or even pause to catch his breath. If you’re not rushing ahead and making constant headway in a given stage, chances are that you’re getting swarmed and overwhelmed instead. Ninja Gaiden lights a fire under its players’ asses and essentially forces them to tackle it like speed runners. That it pulled this off years before speed running proper was a recognized practice is well worth noting.

Ryu’s zippy moveset and the game’s fundamental intolerance for any degree of player hesitation are what lend Ninja Gaiden its characteristic intensity. On the downside, they also cement its reputation as one of the more difficult NES games. The notion that it’s almost always better to just keep moving rather than take a moment to slow down and think things through every now and again feels counter-intuitive and intimidating at first. Now, I’m not about to tell you that this game isn’t challenging. I’ll simply add that some reckless abandon and a “fake it till you make it” attitude can make the learning process a good deal less stressful. You have unlimited continues to work with, so there’s no need to sweat the small stuff.

As much as there is to love here, the game is not without its rough patches. Foremost among them for me are the boss encounters. The bosses of the first five acts have very simple patterns and generally pose little threat. They’re especially underwhelming in light of how fast-paced and thrilling the stages leading up to them are. Though the gauntlet of three bosses that caps off the final act represents a step in the right direction, it’s also a prime example of too little, too late.

Ryu’s signature wall clinging ability is also at its least refined in this first installment. While he can grab onto any wall, he can only move up and down once he’s attached if the wall in question features a ladder. There is a workaround for this that involves holding the directional pad diagonally up and away from a wall, jumping off it, and then immediately pressing back toward the same wall again in order to inch your way up it in fits and starts. It’s awkward, to say the least. Thankfully, future games would allow Ryu to climb around freely on any type of wall.

Finally, I can’t leave out the infamous “act six bug.” If you lose a life when fighting any of the three final bosses, the game ships you back to stage 6-1 at the very start of the act instead of 6-3 like normal. While unintentional, this does make practicing the game’s final battles much more of a hassle than it should be.

Blemishes aside, there’s still no other game that plays quite like this one. Even its immediate sequels dialed the breakneck pace and relentless enemy onslaught down a few notches. Ninja Gaiden II introduced stage hazards that served to slow Ryu’s advance and Ninja Gaiden III made it so that defeated enemies don’t re-spawn at all. They’re both still great experiences on their own terms, but this debut entry remains my favorite for its unparalleled sense of flow. The adrenaline rush of flying through a stage exploding hostile eagles with your sword in mid-leap like the true ninja master you are is intoxicating and what keeps Ninja Gaiden a perennial top ten NES side-scroller alongside Castlevania III, Contra, and whatever your personal favorite Mega Man happens to be.

Just don’t get caught pronouncing it “Ninja Gay-den” or you forfeit all those baddass points on the spot. Them’s the ninja rules.

Bucky O’Hare (NES)

I knew I should have taken that left turn at Space Albuquerque.

What’s this? An under-the-radar Konami action game based on a short-lived American anthropomorphic animal toy line? I’m getting major Moo Mesa flashbacks here, guys. Yes, Bucky O’Hare is another of the countless critter-themed media properties that made doomed attempts to hitch themselves to that sweet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cash train back in the early ’90s. In all fairness to its creators, Bucky isn’t a Turtles clone in the truest sense. Writer Larry Hama and artist Michael Golden first conceived of the title character in the late ’70s and he made his print debut in 1984 courtesy of the now defunct Continuity Comics. This first run of Bucky books was brief, however, and the series then went dormant until 1991, when producers seemed willing to roll the dice on anything that showcased talking animal characters in action roles. The syndicated cartoon Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars lasted a single season and Hasbro supported it with an equally brief run of vehicles and action figures. More importantly for me, Konami released two separate video game adaptations in 1992: An arcade-exclusive beat-‘em-up and the NES action-platformer I’m reviewing today. After this second burst of activity, Bucky and friends went silent again and haven’t been heard from since.

I’ve never read the comic books or watched the show, but I’ll sketch out the premise as best I can. Briefly, Captain Bucky O’Hare and the crew of his spaceship The Righteous Indignation are tasked with spearheading the resistance against a marauding interstellar empire of evil toads. It’s Looney Tunes meets Star Wars. Or perhaps a furry retelling of Blake’s 7, minus the downer ending. Bucky’s allies include Jenny the psionic cat, trigger-happy Deadeye Duck, AFC (Android First Class) Blinky, and a human boy genius from Earth named Willy DuWitt. The game’s simple plot opens with the four sidekicks mentioned above getting captured by the toads and Bucky on a mission to rescue them.

The NES Bucky O’Hare has a long-standing reputation as a “hidden gem” on the system and I was expecting quite a lot from it as a late period release from my favorite classic developer. It’s often described as Konami’s spin on their competitor Capcom’s Mega Man series and this comparison does hold true to a point. Similar to how most Mega Man titles begin by presenting you with a menu of eight stages that can be attempted in any order, Bucky’s level select screen allows you to choose between four planets (creatively dubbed Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow). Each planet has a distinct theme (fire for the Red planet, ice for the Blue, etc.) and a different ally imprisoned on it. Completing a planet unlocks the ability to switch to the newly rescued character at any time using the Select button. There’s a constant incentive to do this, as each member of the crew has his or her own primary attack and special power. Bucky, for example, fires straight ahead and his power is an appropriately hare-like super jump that allows him to reach high platforms the other characters can’t. Deadeye has a triple spread shot (with limited range, sadly) and can climb up walls using his special ability. On a mechanical level, this option to switch between any of the characters in your party on the fly functions much like the weapon switching in a Mega Man title. All your characters still share a common health meter, though, so don’t go thinking you switch them out just to absorb more hits in a pinch.

These first four opening levels didn’t just meet my high expectations, they blew them clear out of the water! The music is catchy, the graphics are among the best on the system, and the amount of sheer creativity packed into each and every screen practically beggars belief. Each planet is broken up into numerous distinct sub-areas with their own gameplay gimmicks. The Red Planet opens with a section where you leap over pits of fire while shooting at enemy toads and dodging bits of molten rock bursting from both the pits themselves and the volcanoes in the background. Next is a cave where boulders have to be pushed into magma floes to allow for safe passage. After that, a vertical segment where you have to outrace streams of fast-moving lava while descending a shaft. Then comes a series of leaps between tiny platforms over a fiery chasm while dodging the arcs of flame that periodically rush up from below (shades of the fire level from Life Force here). Survive that and there’s another vertical section of moving platforms and spiked walls. The final platforming section forces you to alternate between leaping over a giant rolling green sphere and riding that very same sphere to safety over a sea of deadly spikes. Only after all that do you reach one of the game’s excellent boss fights against…the green sphere, which opens up to reveal that it’s actually a laser-shooting vehicle piloted by one of the toads. This is all just one level! Long-time gaming aficionados will recognize the influence of the game’s director, Masato Maegawa, who left Konami to co-found Treasure just few months after finishing his work on Bucky O’Hare. The same sense of joyful experimentation and endless novelty that later informed classic Treasure releases like Dynamite Headdy and Gunstar Heroes is very much evident in the level design here.

The only real complaint I can muster about the first half of Bucky O’Hare involves the way that the various special powers of the heroes are utilized. You need to hold down the fire button in order to charge these abilities up first and then release it to trigger them. The downside to this is that your character is stuck standing in place during the entire process. Any experienced Mega Man player will be familiar with the way the Blue Bomber can freely charge up his Mega Buster while continuing to run, jump, and climb around the stage as normal. You don’t have that sort of flexibility here and it can be detrimental to the flow of platforming and combat alike to have to stop dead in your tracks for several seconds at a time whenever you want to use a special ability.

This control quirk is annoying, but hardly a deal breaker. If it was the only mark against the game, we might just have a top ten NES action contender on our hands here. Tragically, Bucky O’Hare has one other flaw that’s a bit tougher to gloss over: Its entire second half. It’s here where the Mega Man influence takes a back seat and the game reveals that it also pulls double duty as Konami’s take on Battletoads.

Immediately after clearing the fourth planet, The Righteous Indignation is captured by a colossal toad mother ship and Bucky is forced to gather his crew all over again so they can escape together. Obviously, this twist is purely repetitive from a story standpoint. You literally just got done saving these exact same good guys from these exact same villains. It also regresses the gameplay by stripping away most of the cool special abilities you spent the better part of the last hour unlocking and then expecting you to do it all over again. The remainder of the game takes place entirely within this toad ship, with no further allowance made for player choice when it comes to the stage order.

Most troubling of all, the art direction and level design both take a sharp turn for the worse at this point. The unique themes and colorful environments of the four planets give way to what feels like an endless expanse of drab industrial corridor studded with a downright silly amount of spikes and other instant death traps. It’s the old “Why doesn’t Dr. Wily just build his whole fortress out of those spikes?” gag made real. From here on out, it starts to feel increasingly redundant for Bucky and friends to have a health bar at all outside of the boss fights. You’ll either trial-and-error your way past all the insta-kill garbage littering a given portion of a stage or you won’t.

This isn’t to say that Bucky O’Hare is too difficult. It isn’t. In fact, it resembles a modern game in its reluctance to punish players in any way. You’re given unlimited continues, checkpoints every couple of screens, and even a password system. At no point will you ever be forced to repeat a section of level you’ve already completed. No, the real problem is that these later stages are entirely too rigid for their own good. There’s a general over-reliance on forcing the player to tackle each little obstacle course just so. This zero tolerance policy toward imperfect play means no real breathing room; no support for improvisation, close calls, and other happy byproducts of player spontaneity.

I don’t want to risk leaving you with the impression that Bucky O’Hare makes for a bad overall experience. If my disappointment reads as extreme over the last few paragraphs, it’s only because things started off so damn strong. Those first four levels are some of the coolest the NES would ever see, the five playable characters allow for varied approaches to many of the challenges, and the usual Konami glitz and polish is always a draw unto itself. It fumbles a bit in its second half, ultimately falling short of becoming one of my personal favorites, but I still recommend checking it out, especially if you have the means to do so without paying the heavy premiums it typically commands on the secondary market. It’s a fine game, just a couple hare-brained decisions away from being a masterpiece.