Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (Famicom)

Aww! Impending doom has never been so adorable!

I wanted to keep the October spook train rolling, but needed a bit of a palate cleanser after the complex, innovative, and seriously intense Sweet Home. Splatterhouse to the rescue!

Namco introduced the original Splatterhouse to Japanese arcades right around Halloween time in 1988. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up with light platforming elements, its primary claim to fame was being one of the first truly gory releases by a major publisher. In the game, college student Rick, aided by a possessed “terror mask” that grants him superhuman strength (and bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the one worn by cinema’s most famous homicidal ice hockey enthusiast), must rescue his missing girlfriend Jennifer from the army of bloodthirsty ghouls inhabiting a creepy old mansion. He accomplishes this by walking to the right and…splattering things. In a house. Who says there’s no such thing as truth in advertising?

The first Splatterhouse was an incredibly basic game, even for the time. More or less Irem’s Kung-Fu Master by way of a Cannibal Corpse album cover, it was the (figuratively) eye-popping 16-bit graphics and (literally) eye-popping carnage that put it over the top and made it a fondly-remembered hit.

A console game was inevitable. The only problem? A faithful recreation of the arcade smash was all but impossible on the most popular home system of the time, Nintendo’s aging 8-bit Famicom. The solution? Cuteness. Tons and tons of cuteness. Rather than attempting to copy the arcade Splatterhouse’s gruesome and gritty look, Namco instead embraced what the Famicom did best: Bright colors and squat “super deformed” characters. The result was 1989’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. It was not just the only original Splatterhouse game ever produced for a Nintendo system, but also the first in the series to come out for any home console, predating the better-known arcade port for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 by some eight months.

In the Japanese language, “wanpaku” is a word indicating naughtiness, particularly of a childlike and innocent nature. Think Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson and you’ve got the gist of it. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as the game exudes a charming irreverence that perfectly complements its wacky art style.

As the game begins, we see a short establishing scene of Jennifer mourning at Rick’s graveside. How he ended up dead despite surviving the first game is a bit puzzling at first, but it all makes sense by the end. Next thing you know, a bolt of lightning strikes Rick’s grave and he pops out good as new, terror mask and all! Jennifer rejoices, but only briefly as a second bolt hits the adjacent grave and resurrects the Pumpkin King, who is (unfortunately) not Jack Skellington, but rather a giant flying jack-o-lantern. The Pumpkin King grabs Jennifer and flies off, leaving Rick to grab his trusty meat cleaver and give chase through seven levels of side-scrolling mayhem.

Like its predecessor, Wanpaku Graffiti is a very simple game. One button makes Rick jump and the other swings his cleaver. There’s also a shotgun weapon with limited ammunition that appears as an occasional pick-up and candy and hamburgers that restore health, but that’s all. All you need to worry about is running to the right, whacking any enemies that get in your way, and jumping over pits, spikes, and other hazards.

One new element here is the experience system. The game keeps track of the enemies you kill, and hitting a certain threshold (displayed in the upper left of the screen) will extend Rick’s health meter by one bar. It’s a nice addition that encourages aggressive play by rewarding you for engaging with the enemies instead of just sprinting past them.

Speaking of sprinting, in most Splatterhouse games, Rick is a very slow, lumbering sort of character to control. The first thing series veterans will notice is how zippy he is here by comparison. The little dude can really move! He doesn’t even need to stop running to swing his weapon. Since almost every enemy that isn’t a boss can be defeated in one hit, this means that you can slice through a whole line of foes while dashing forward at full speed if your timing is right. This feels really awesome and nimble Rick is one of the best aspects of Wanpaku Graffiti’s gameplay. The only downside is that he can be a bit slippery and tough to stop on a dime once he gets going, so you will need to slow down on occasion for some of the more platforming-heavy sections.

The levels are based on classic horror locales, starting with the graveyard where our story opens and moving on to a demonic church, a lakeside camp, a haunted mansion, and more. They’re filled with jokey references to famous horror movies, and these are another of the game’s strongest aspects. There are parodies of a lot of the iconic things you might expect, like Alien, The Exorcist, and The Fly, but there’s also a couple that are less obvious. Take the Diamond Lake level, for example. It’s clearly a reference to Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th series, but our hero already looks like Jason Voorhees, so who are they going to get to fight him? Imagine my delight when the end level boss turned out to be Cropsey, the killer from the 1981 cult classic summer camp slasher The Burning! That is some next level horror nerd shit right there. Just about made my night.

Wanpaku Graffiti is a quick and relatively painless experience. You only get five lives before it’s game over, but you’re given a four digit password at the end of each stage, so being forced backwards is never an issue. Levels are short and easy, making it a title that the average player can blow through in an hour or two without much fuss. There are a couple brief hidden levels that you can access via secret doors and beating both will unlock a special extended ending, but these don’t add much to the overall length. Personally, I think this was a great call. Like Monster Party for the NES, Wanpaku Graffiti is more about basking in the off-kilter humor and getting to see what crazy thing the designers have in store for you next than it is mastering finicky mechanics and memorizing challenging level layouts. Getting stuck for hours on a tough bit only to finally make it through might be satisfying in some action titles, but here it would only kill the momentum and give the jokes time to wear out their welcome.

Wanpaku Graffiti might not be the best platformer for the Famicom, or even its best horror themed one, but I do think it’s the most…Halloweeny. The breezy gameplay and spooky-cute art and music perfectly nail the intoxicating mixture of morbid imagery and unapologetic silliness that makes this my favorite time of year. It’s the gaming equivalent of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash or Linus van Pelt waiting up all night for the Great Pumpkin. The enemies will even disgorge candy like piñatas when you bash them. It’s also a great choice for anyone looking to get into Japanese imports, since almost all the game’s text is already in English. It’s short, simple, and the controls are a tad loose, but I can just about guarantee you’ll be too busy eagerly anticipating the game’s next trick or treat to mind one bit.

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Kabuki Quantum Fighter (NES)

I’ll do whatever you say, man. Just quit looking at me like that.

This little oddity is 1990’s Kabuki Quantum Fighter. If you’re looking for a game that combines gameplay and visual elements from a good half-dozen of the greatest NES action platformers with one of the most forehead-slappingly stupid plots ever conceived, then you’ve come to the right place, my friend. Welcome.

The year is 2056 and some unknown party has inserted a super advanced virus into the world’s computer network. All conventional efforts to halt its spread have failed and it’s only a matter of time before the unknown invader gains control of the systems controlling all of earth’s nuclear weapons, dooming everyone. The last hope of humanity is 25 year-old badass soldier/computer expert Colonel Scott O’Connor. A colonel at 25? What is this, the Civil War?

Anyway, Scott volunteers to be hooked into an untested machine that will translate his mind into binary machine code so that he can battle the virus on its own turf. Nobody is sure whether the device will work or what form Scott might take in the computer world.

So far, you’re probably thinking that this just sounds like normal science fiction stuff. Sort of a cross between Tron and The Terminator. Well, as it turns out, our all-American soldier boy Scott’s disembodied mind coalesces into the virtual form of…a superhero kabuki dancer. That whips enemies to death with his waist length crimson hair and tosses computer chips like throwing stars. Supposedly, this is because his great grandfather was the famous kabuki Danjuro (O’Connor?) and the computer somehow keyed in on this.

It’s just so beautiful. Words can’t express how much I love this game’s mad storyline. The fact that it’s all played totally straight, with support characters glaring intently at computer monitors while the threat of imminent nuclear armageddon looms overhead, just renders it even funnier somehow. I’m not sure how much of this (if any) was intentional, but this is a game from Human Entertainment, makers of Monster Party and the Clock Tower series, so who the hell knows.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering if the story makes more sense in the original Japanese, the answer is “not particularly.” The game was originally called Jigoku Gokuraku Maru and was a very loose tie-in to the 1990 samurai fantasy adventure film Zipang. Instead of Scott O’Connor, the protagonist is a teenager named Bobby Yano and he takes on super kabuki form due to being a distant descendent of Jigoku, the hero of the film. Other than that, it’s just about equally crazy.

Once you start the game proper, Batman will probably be the first thing that comes to mind. The color palette and the designs and proportions of the character sprites are very similar to Sunsoft’s take on the Caped Crusader. Beyond the visuals, Kabuki Quantum Fighter’s subweapon system also mirrors Batman’s. Scott has a selection of projectile weapons that he can utilize in addition to his primary hair whip attack. You cycle between these using the select button and they all consume varying amounts of ammunition (“chips”) from a shared pool. One last similarity is in the nature of the platforming itself. Most of the challenge involves grabbing onto the underside of ledges and platforms scattered throughout each level and then deftly vaulting off of them to progress, similar to how Batman’s platforming was built around wall jumping.

Next, you’ll likely notice the Ninja Gaiden and Contra elements. Stage backgrounds feature giant beating hearts, pulsating lengths of intestinal tract, writhing deformed faces, alien fetuses, the whole H. R. Giger back catalog. Enemies are no picnic, either. You have detached heads shooting fire from their exposed brains, weird dog-frog hybrid critters, and more. While representing the computer virus you’re fighting with this kind of gruesome techno-horror imagery is rather cool, it’s also quite derivative of Capcom and Tecmo’s work.

Each boss you defeat earns you a new weapon to use? Mega Man. The whip-like reach and windup delay on your main attack? Castlevania. Notice enough of these similarities and you might start to think that Kabuki Quantum Fighter doesn’t bring anything new at all to the mix. In fact, there’s a couple little twists to the formula that I really like. For starters, your health and ammunition aren’t automatically refilled completely between levels. You do get some back, but if you just barely defeated the boss of the last stage with a tiny sliver of health left, you can look forward to starting the next one with 50% health at most. This means that precision really matters. The fewer mistakes you make in a given stage, the more you’ll be able to make in the subsequent, more challenging one. It’s a great way to reward mastery.

You also have the interesting ability to exchange health for ammunition (and vice-versa) when the game is paused. This only works during boss battles, but it can be a true lifesaver if you happen to find yourself sitting on a big stockpile of chips but down to your last bit of health. If there’s another action game that uses a similar mechanic, I’m not aware of it.

Despite this, though, Kabuki Quantum Fighter just isn’t a very original game. I am 100% okay with that, because when it’s running on all cylinders, it provides some of the best pure platforming moments on the system. There may be only five levels here, but each one is a gem. What this game really amounts to is a series of intricate obstacle courses where you’re vaulting from outcropping to outcropping through a gauntlet of hazards, including enemies, spikes, slippery ice, rushing water, treadmills, and a strict time limit. The controls are so precise and the flow of the game so smooth that you just naturally fall into a Zen-like groove as you get a feel for each level. Even when you have plenty of time, it still feels so good to keep up that forward momentum as you flip and climb all over the scenery on your way to the next boss. It’s all about that flow.

The bosses themselves are another highlight. They’re all completely distinct from one another and very exciting to fight, with relatively complex attack patterns for a game of this type and vintage. The plant monster from level three and the spider robot from level four are definitely highlights. Beating these guys, especially without using your special weapons, is extremely satisfying.

The graphics and animation are excellent overall. I already praised the bio-mechanical horror art style and humanoid characters like Scott himself and several of the bosses animate beautifully for an NES game. The music is interesting, although it might be more interesting than memorable in the end. It’s very experimental, with sharp, mechanical percussion over oddly-arranged blips and beeps. It’s suitably up-tempo for the action on screen and fits with the whole computer horror theme of the game, but you probably won’t still be humming it after you switch the console off.

If I have any complaints about Kabuki Quantum Fighter, they mainly come down to the length of the game. Five levels, even if they are five of the best, can’t help but leave me wanting more. The combination of poor sales on release and Human Entertainment’s eventual bankruptcy in 2000 pretty much guarantee that our favorite Irish-American cyberkabuki won’t be making his promised comeback. Kabuki Quantum Fighter may be doomed to permanent obscurity, but it’s still one hell of a sweet, trippy ride for the lucky few who find their way to it.

With October almost upon us, I somehow don’t think we’ve heard the last from the ghost of weird old Human Entertainment. Stay tuned to find out exactly why you never run with scissors….

Strider (NES)

Keep on stridin’.

I’m on vacation in the magical land of poutine and polite people at the moment. Being me, I just had to pack along at least one game. Since I just finished up Strider for the Genesis, I thought I’d go with the NES Strider game that I mentioned in passing in that review.

NES Strider came out the same year as the arcade game, but it’s not a port like the Genesis version. This is a completely different game developed simultaneously by a separate team at Capcom. A smart choice when you consider just how badly compromised a straight attempt at a port for the 8-bit console would have been.

Instead of the arcade’s non-stop linear action, NES owners got a more restrained side-scrolling action platformer with some very light exploration and RPG elements. Strider plus Metroid sounds like a dream come true. If only it were so.

We begin the adventure with everyone’s favorite ninja of the future Hiryū being contacted by Matic, vice-director of the Striders. Hilariously, the game’s intro describes the Striders as “the toughest group of people who execute acts such as infiltration, abduction, explosion, instigation, etc.” Matic informs Hiryū that their comrade Kain has been captured by the enemy and that Hiryū must assassinate him, as he’s now become a liability. Hiryū can’t bring himself to kill his old friend and vows to find and rescue him instead.

Right away, this highlights one major difference between the arcade and NES Striders: There’s a story beyond “go kill this evil wizard guy.” Sure, it may be a terrible story filled with unclear motivation, nonexistent characterization, and dialog courtesy of a tornado striking a fortune cookie factory, but it sure does exist! Supposedly, it’s based pretty closely on the original Strider manga series from 1988, though I can’t help but assume that it must have been handled a lot better there. Still, other games of the time with similar structures like Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II kept their plots confined to instruction manuals, so I do give Strider credit for trying at least.

The gameplay involves Hiryū visiting various parts of the globe searching for clues to the true nature of the threat to the Striders: A mysterious secret project called “ZAIN.” Along the way, he’ll also acquire keys and other special items that will allow him to backtrack and explore previously inaccessable parts of earlier levels. Different levels are accessed via the Blue Dragon, a rather cool looking spaceship that serves as a central hub of sorts.

Gameplay is sound in theory. One button jumps, one attacks. Hiryū also gains additional abilities by leveling up as he reaches inportant points in the story. These include a ground slide and a “plasma arrow” projectile attack that’s slow to charge up but vital for defeating certain bosses. Leveling up will also increase maximum health and the energy points needed to use what the game calls “tricks.” These work a lot like the magic spells in Zelda II and can be used to heal damage, boost jump height, warp back to the Blue Dragon instantly, and unleash different supplementary attacks. The extra attacks are kind of neat sometimes, but I mostly found myself saving my energy for healing and warping.

While Strider does have a solid structure on paper, it stumbles badly in its execution. Jumping controls and hit detection are quite shockingly bad, especially considering that this was the developer that gave us Mega Man. Hiryū’s jumps are jerky and prone to being halted abruptly by the mere proximity of a wall or platform. There are no bottomless instant death pits to stumble into, thankfully, but expect to have your patience seriously tested by the need to retrace your steps through the same section of a level over and over just to take repeated shots at what would be an incredibly basic jump in any other game.

It doesn’t help that the enemies and stages don’t stand out that much, either. You’ll rarely face more than one or two baddies at a time and they’re generally unimpressive and easy to dispatch, although they can still get in their share of shots due to the odd hit detection. If you’re even in the same postal code as an enemy bullet, kiss your health points goodbye.

A couple stages are decent. I liked Egypt, which features a nice (if all too short) segment on a moving train as well as action both atop and underneath a desert pyramid. Most levels, though, are generic and in no way resemble the real world locations they’re named for. Show anyone the Australia or Los Angeles stages from this game and see if they can guess what they’re supposed to be. I don’t fancy their chances.

Strider is also no winner in the graphics department. Most backgrounds are either a solid color or fairly plain. Sprites are not too bad but not very good either and sprite flicker is rife, despite the low enemy count. On the plus side, the introductory cut scene is marvelous and the character portraits are well drawn.

At least there’s the score by Harumi Fujita, the one element of Strider that’s unequivocally strong. The second you power on the system your ears are graced by one of the best title screen themes ever, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the session.

I found Strider for Genesis to be a good game that suffers mainly in the comparison to later top tier action platformers for the system, but NES Strider really is a whole other story. It’s honestly tough to recommend this one at all. The way the action is programmed feels sloppy, bordering on glitchy at times, the story is a mess, and the presentation is average at best, despite a really solid soundtrack.

It is a very inexpensive game, however, and makes for a quick playthrough due to being less mazelike and convoluted than some of the titles that inspired it. If you’re a fan of Strider Hiryū himself or of Metroid type games in general, you might find this one to be worth spending a few dollars and hours on.

I just wish the designers at Capcom had focused less on the act of explosion and more on the act of quality control.

Strider (Genesis)

Huh. I was expecting a bigger boom.

Get those torches and pitchforks ready, because that pretty much sums up my impression of Strider as a whole. After hearing so many Genesis aficionados talk this one up as one of the greatest games of all time over the years…I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just on the off chance that anyone is still reading after my last paragraph, here’s a little background. Strider started out as an ambitious cross-media collaboration between Capcom and manga publishing house Moto Kikaku. The comic series launched in 1988 and the first Strider game reached arcades in early 1989. There was also a Strider game for the NES released later in 1989, although this was an independently developed title that emphasized Metroid-like exploration and has little in common with the better known arcade action game that we’re looking at now.

The arcade Strider was a visual marvel for its time, with huge, detailed character sprites and intricate backgrounds that took full advantage of Capcom’s cutting edge CP System arcade board. Breaking away from the more deliberately paced, grounded action of earlier arcade action-platformers like Rolling Thunder and Shinobi, Strider sported an acrobatic lead character and embraced spectacle and eye-popping “set piece” action sequences in a big way. It gobbled up a whole lot of quarters, and ports for home computers like the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum sold like crazy, compromised as they were. It was the 1990 port for the Sega Genesis that really stood out from the crowd, though. Packed into a massive (for the time) 8 megabit cartridge, Genesis Strider set the benchmark for home ports of arcade games. Everything you remembered from the arcade was here. Sure, there were a few missing frames of animation and the color palette was a tiny bit muted, but unless you were somehow looking at the two games running side-by-side, the effect was almost perfect.

In Strider, you take control of Hiryū, the youngest ever member of the Striders to attain the top “Special A-Class” ranking. The Striders are a shadowy paramilitary mercenary ninja group in the dystopian future of 2048 and they’ve sent Hiryū to Russia on a mission to assassinate a dude called the Grandmaster, who seems to be some sort of evil wizard in a cloak who wants to destroy the world. Simple, but it works.

That same simplicity extends to the core gameplay. One button jumps and the other swings Hiryū’s high-tech plasma sword, the “cypher.” Being a ninja, he can also cling to and climb along walls and platforms as well as perform a nifty ground slide maneuver that also doubles as a supplementary attack. Finally, there’s a selection of power-ups that can increase the range of Hiryū’s sword attacks, extend his health meter, grant temporary invincibility, and summon robot sidekicks to assist with taking out enemies.

There are a total of five levels of side-scrolling action platforming for you to tackle, each with its own boss at the end. Several stages also have mini-boss battles along the way. This is where the problems begin for me. While there are technically five levels, it’s really more like four levels followed by a “boss rush” where you re-fight all the previous bosses in sequence before taking on the Grandmaster himself. It was normal for games from the period to be fairly short, but this just seem egregious to me. A final boss rush after just four levels? A Mega Man game would have put you through eight robot masters and at least a couple Dr. Wily stages before you had to re-battle everybody again. You have to earn this kind of thing, man.

At least those first four levels are pretty damn great. In particular, Strider has one of most memorable opening stages in action gaming history. Hiryū soars in his hang glider over an onion-domed Russian city of the future before dropping down onto the rooftops to slice and dice his way through a hoard of fur hat-clad soldiers and flying attack robots and it just gets more and more bombastic from there, building to one of the kookiest boss battles ever conceived against what appears to be the entire Russian parliament. There are so many nice details on display in just this one stage. I love the way that some of the hapless enemy soldiers will even panic and try to run away as they see your bloodthirsty ninja killing machine rushing toward them. Simply inspired. This same level of quality and innovation also suffuses the next three stages, with upside-down anti-gravity combat, dinosaur riding, and more. The final challenge might be a copy/paste bore but I really can’t say enough good things about the first 80% of Strider.

The small number of stages is one thing, but the more pressing issues I had with Strider are focused on the controls and frequent performance hiccups. For a Special A-Class ninja, Hiryū isn’t really all that quick or manuverable. Rather than dashing, he trudges forward at a pretty relaxed pace and his extremely floaty jumps don’t quite work like you’d expect them to. You can’t actually steer Hiryū in the air and instead have to make due with a more “realistic” jumping system similar to Castlevania’s, where you’re limited to leaping straight up or in a fixed arc to the left or right. This type of movement works great with the less open level design and more deliberate pacing of a Castlevania game, but the Belmonts aren’t supposed to be ninjas. In Strider, I found myself constantly wishing that Hiryū’s movement was faster and more responsive than it actually is. At least the game’s long-awaited true sequel, 1999’s Strider 2 for the PlayStation, would address these control issues.

Performance is a whole other can of worms. There ain’t no Genesis “blast processing” in effect here. This game’s framerate chugs. Bad. Expect major slowdown and sprite flicker to rear their ugly heads anytime things get chaotic. In other words: Pretty much all the time. Sometimes the action will even pause itself entirely while the system struggles to keep up. The battle with the level four boss in particular is pretty much ruined by slideshow-like levels of slowdown. You know this stuff is bad when even someone like me that’s used to playing Super Nintendo is noticing it. Sound glitches exist as well, with the sound of your weapon attack seeming to cancel out most other effects entirely.

I did still enjoy Strider. The intriguing characters and setting, gorgeous in-game art, innovative level design, and iconic soundtrack (the third one by Junko Tamiya in as many weeks for me) are all as cool as they ever were. It’s also an important game on at least two fronts. The arcade original was one of the first examples of an over-the-top “extreme” action game, and later titles like Devil May Cry, God of War, and Bayonetta all share its creative DNA. This Genesis port in particular was a system seller when it came out early in the console’s life. Before Sonic the Hedgehog and even before the Super NES, Strider was the ultimate “you can’t do this on Nintendo” game that made 8-bit console owners sit up and take notice.

Buzzwords suck, so I won’t call Strider “overrated.” It may be that I’m simply spoiled by later Genesis action-platformers like Shinobi III and Rocket Knight Adventures. Without a personal nostalgic attachment, however, I do see it as a title with more historic import than great fun to offer.

It’s still the only way you can fight a tyrannosaurus and a robot King Kong at the same time, though. Don’t go underestimating that.

Bionic Commando (NES)

How rude!

In 1985, Capcom released the original Commando into arcades. Known as Senjō no Ōkami (“Wolf of the Battlefield”) in Japan, this military-themed overhead run-and-gun title inspired a host of imitators over the years, such as SNK’s Ikari Warriors and Konami’s Jackal. Commando cast the player as “Super Joe” Gibson, a tough-as-nails soldier tasked with taking down an entire enemy army all by himself. Why? Because video games.

Later, in 1987, Capcom released another arcade title called Top Secret. With its side-view perspective and focus on using the nameless main character’s bionic grapple arm to swing and climb around the game’s levels, Top Secret seemingly had little in common with Commando apart from a general military action theme. When Top Secret made it to North America later that year, however, it had been retitled Bionic Commando and the lead character was rechristened as the latest incarnation of Super Joe.

These changes must have struck a chord with someone at the Capcom home office, because Top Secret’s own 1988 sequel for the Famicom would keep with the Commando continuity. Called Hittorā no Fukkatsu: Toppu Shīkuretto (“Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret”) in Japan, we here in the West also know it as Bionic Commando, despite being a sequel to the arcade game and not a direct conversion.

Whoa, wait. Hitler? In a Nintendo game? They didn’t even allow drinking or bare-breasted statuary in NES games but Der Fuhrer gets a pass? Well, not quite. By the time Hitler’s Resurrection: Top Secret made it through the localization process, the Nazis had become Badds and their leader Master-D. Swastikas and other Nazi symbols were removed, but nobody was fooled once they got a good look at “Master-D’s” mug. You’d know that moustache anywhere. So if you want an NES game where you get to blow up Hitler, and you know you do, Bionic Commando is your ticket.

According to the manual, our story takes place in the year 198X. An evil group called the Empire and their leader Generalissimo Killt are attempting to complete an unfinished Badd superweapon, codenamed “Albatros.” Only one man, Master-D, knew the full details of Albatros, so the Empire is working frantically to bring him back from the dead. The good guys, identified as the Federation, send good old Super Joe in to find out the details on the Albatros protect and shut it down. Unfortunately, Super Joe is captured by the enemy. Now it’s all up to Captain Nathan “Rad” Spencer to save Super Joe, put a stop to Albatros, and defeat the Empire once and for all.

Rad (also called Ladd due to inconsistent Japanese-English translation) is this game’s titular Bionic Commando. In addition to his cool shades and spikey ginger anime hair, our boy Rad relies on his extendable grapple arm to get around levels, just like in the arcade game. In fact, he can’t jump at all! The novelty of a platforming game with no jumping was, and still is, Bionic Commando’s main claim to fame. It could have easily been clunky and frustrating, but the finely-tuned, responsive controls and smart level design make swinging around the game’s stages some of the most fun you can have with any title in the genre. The sense of momentum and sheer badass factor of connecting a perfect series of grapples across a large portion of a stage is downright intoxicating. That the developers pulled something this different off so well in 1988, just three years after Super Mario Bros. set the standard for regular jumping-based platformers, is a real testament to how much great talent Capcom had on deck at the time.

The first impression that a new player might have of Bionic Commando is that it’s really, really hard. Not being able to jump takes getting used to, you die in one hit, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to continue once you’ve lost all your lives. The game is really quite forgiving, but it’s not immediately apparent how. First off, picking up the bullets that defeated enemies drop will eventually increase your character’s level and allow you to take up to eight additional hits before dying. Continues can be acquired by playing the short Commando style overhead combat sequences that start whenever you intercept an enemy convoy on the map screen. Some enemies in these sections will drop medals that award one continue each when defeated. Since these sections are very short, very easy, and endlessly repeatable, you can very quickly gather all the continues you need. The first order of business in Bionic Commando, then, is to get yourself a least a few extra health points and some continues. After that, you’re golden. It will still take you time to master all the tricky platforming with your bionic arm, but at least you’ll have all the tries you need to do it and won’t have to worry about having to start the whole adventure over.

The game is divided into twelve main levels that you can navigate between on a map screen, not unlike the one in Super Mario Bros. 3. In addition to these and to the roving enemy convoys mentioned above, there are also a number of “neutral zone” areas that you can visit to make contact with allies and acquire new items. Just be sure not to fire your gun in a neutral zone or you’ll be mobbed by respawning enemies non-stop until you leave the area. There’s a bit of non-linearity in how you can approach the main stages, though some require a specific item from another stage to complete. One example is the cavern level, which is pitch black unless you use the flares to illuminate the area. You can still play and finish this stage before you acquire the flares, but you’ll have a pretty rough time of it. When in doubt, just tackle the stages in numeric order and you’ll be fine.

The twelve main levels themselves are all wonderful. Each one is visually unique and ups the ante in terms of platforming, constantly requiring you to expand and refine your technique with the bionic arm until you’ve completely mastered it. Midway through each level is a communications room where you can call up your allies for help and information and even use wiretapping to eavesdrop on the enemy. These rooms also serve as checkpoints in case you die. The only lacking elements in most stages are the boss encounters. Each level except the last ends with you having to destroy a stationary machine core guarded by a boss enemy, but none of these guys are very threatening. In fact, you don’t even need to kill them at all and it’s often much quicker and easier to ignore the boss entirely and just unload your gun into the core, since once it goes boom, you’re on to the next stage. Weak.

Beating a level will usually net you a new piece of equipment and you can collect even more gear in the neutral zones. There are four special guns to find in addition to your starting one, defensive gear to stop bullets and restore health, miscellaneous items like the flares and iron boots, and more. You can only carry one item from each category into a given stage, but you’re given the opportunity to tweak your loadout at the start of each one. This ability to customize your equipment is pretty cool, although the guns are rather poorly balanced. Once you get access to the rocket launcher early on, you’ll never want to use anything else, since it can kill almost anything in the game (including bosses!) in one or two shots. A bit of a missed opportunity there.

Bionic Commando looks fairly good. It’s not the prettiest game around, but the character portraits in the dialog scenes and Rad’s silky smooth swinging animation are highlights. The music is by Junko Tamiya, who also scored Street Fighter 2010 and Little Nemo: The Dream Master. She may well be the NES’ most underrated composer and doesn’t disappoint one bit here. The songs are brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the gravity of being on a life or death mission deep behind enemy lines.

Bionic Commando might have a gleefully butchered translation/localization, some underwhelming bosses, and weapon balance issues, but it remains one of the all-time great action-platformers on the NES and a legitimate “must play” title. Gradually getting better and better at maneuvering around these brilliantly designed levels with your bionic arm really does feel that good. It’s a triumph of pure play control when just moving your character around the screen is this rich and satisfying. That you’re also on your way to blow up Hitler’s head the whole time is just the icing on the cake. Like, really gross icing. With bone fragments and stuff.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

April O’Neil’s mullet game is fierce indeed!

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Not since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Battletoads have I taken on such a divisive, “love it or hate it” title.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it’s background time. TMNT is a single player action platforming game with exploration elements that was released in 1989 by Konami. Outside Japan, the game was published by a pair of Konami front companies: Ultra and Palcom. This was done in order to get around Nintendo’s strict restrictions on the number of games a third party developer could release for the NES in a single year. Strangely enough, the relationship between the two companies was so good during this time that this arrangement had Nintendo’s tacit approval, which I’m sure must have sown some serious resentment among other, less favored NES developers.

The Turtles themselves were created in 1984 by independent comic book artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the new wave of grim and gritty urban superhero comics by the likes of Frank Miller. Eastman and Laird’s wry comics relied on the contrast between the forboding Gothic cityscapes, hardboiled dialog, and intense violence of those works and the most absurd set of protagonists the writers could imagine: Teenage mutant ninja turtles! The result was pretty great, but its appeal was largely limited to well-read comics fans savvy enough to appreciate the joke. In 1987, one of the defining (and least likely) moments in the history of children’s entertainment occured when this obscure niche property had its violent and satirical edges filed off and became a smash hit cartoon series, spawning the terrapin merchandising empire we’ve all come to know.

I never was much of a Turtles fan as a kid. I think it hit just a little too late for me, since my interest in toys and action figures peaked around ages 5-8 in the era of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Thundercats. By the late 80s, I was all about the video games.

This original TMNT title by Konami was not only their first ever appearance in a video game but also the first piece of Turtles-related media to ever hit Japan. They must have been very confused, because this is one strange game and most of the characters you encounter don’t seem to have been taken from the comics or the cartoon. In fact, the lack of recognizable enemies is a common point of criticism from dedicated Turtles fans. While I can sympathize to a degree, this “weird random enemies” factor is easy enough to justify as a product of the times; an NES thing. Certainly it didn’t prevent me from enjoying Sunsoft’s Batman or Capcom’s Willow and I’m more of a fan of those films than I am the TMNT cartoon.

The plot of TMNT is actually pretty dynamic for an action game of the time. In the first stage, you start out looking to rescue your extraordinarily kidnap-prone reporter friend April from mutant baddies Bebop and Rocksteady. After that, she tells you that the Foot Clan is going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Save the dam and you return home to discover that your ninja mentor Splinter has been kidnapped, and so on. It’s not exactly profound stuff, but it’s more than the single simple goal you’re given to last you through most 8-bit games.

Each of TMNT’s six stages except the final one consists of two gameplay modes: A overhead view of the city where you travel around on foot or by Turtle Van looking for buildings and sewers to explore and a side view action mode for indoor areas. You can switch between the four turtles at any time in both modes and each has his own supply of health. The golden rule here is that it’s always better to switch to a different turtle rather than allowing your current one to run out of health. “Dead” turtles aren’t gone forever, since the game states that they’ve actually been captured by the enemy. Most stages have spots where you can rescue a captured turtle, but it’s usually in a difficult part of the stage that’s off the main path, so you really want to avoid having to do this if at all possible.

The overhead segments aren’t particularly exciting, despite the presence of some simplified combat with a few basic enemy types (foot soldiers and steamroller type vehicles). They mostly exist to link together the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels where the real action takes place.

Once indoors, your turtles can jump, crouch, and swing their signature ninja weapons straight ahead, up, or down. You can also find various sub-weapons in the form of ninja stars, boomerangs, and the almighty magic scrolls. These will extend your attack range greatly but have limited shots. As a nice touch, however, your boomerang shots won’t decrease if you catch each one on the rebound. Since balance within your party is an issue (one I’ll address in more detail below), these sub-weapons are very important for the turtles with weaker primary weapon attacks. One final important pickup is the health restoring pizza. When you find a pizza, make sure to use it well by switching to a turtle with low health before grabbing it. Remember its location, too, since pizzas and other items will replenish when you exit and re-enter an area and “farming” these items as needed makes your quest much easier.

Overall, I really like the action in these side-view portions. They control a lot like those in an earlier Konami title I played recently: The 1987 Japan exclusive Getsu Fūma Den for Famicom. The Turtles walk slower and jump higher than Fūma does in that game, but the overall feel is very similar. This also extends to the large gallery of grotesque enemies that re-spawn readily and often take multiple hits to kill. In fact, you can think of TMNT as a whole as a bit of a spiritual sequel to Getsu Fūma Den, except without the clunky 3D mazes. It also has some striking visual similarities with yet another past Konami game: The Goonies II. Some of the building interiors resemble those in Goonies II, the map on the pause screen is similar, and the boomerang weapon handles almost identically.

One thing that takes some getting used to is the jumping controls. A light tap will make your turtle do a short hop and holding the button down will make them go into a somersault and gain much more height at the expense of precision. Once you’ve mastered doing the right jump in the right situation, the platforming becomes quite managable but if you somersault when you should be doing the hop (or vice versa), you’re going to have a bad time.

I also really liked the graphics and sound in TMNT. Instead of trying to make it look like the cartoon show, the artists opted for a grittier style that more closely resembles the comics. Nothing in this game in cute, that’s for sure. It’s quite a difference from the more colorful style adopted for later Turtles games like the well-known arcade beat-’em-ups. They even packed in a lot of nice little details, such as each turtle being a different shade of green. The music is all original, with the exception of a couple second riff on the cartoon’s main theme that plays when you defeat a boss. It’s excellent stuff and even has a bit of a funky side, much like the tracks in The Adventures of Bayou Billy, also by the same composer.

So why is this game so controversial? I already mentioned the lack of callbacks to the cartoon but the main gameplay related reason lies in its similarity to yet another earlier title: Blaster Master by Sunsoft. Yes, TMNT has a big world with branching paths and lots of exploration coupled with plenty of deadly enemies and limited lives and continues. Lose all your turtles and you can continue exactly twice from the start of the current stage before you have to start the game over. Thankfully, the same sort of approach that works well in Blaster Master also works in TMNT: Take it slow and methodical while keeping your strength up by farming health and weapons whenever you get low. It definitely works. I got kicked back to the title screen twice during my six hours with the game and I was only able to finally make it through the hell that is the final stretch of the Technodrome and defeat Shredder after spending a good chunk of time loading my whole party to the brim with magic scroll sub-weapons. Still, it’s a tough game and this sort of patient and cautious playstyle probably didn’t appeal to many young TMNT fans who picked up this game around the time of its release hoping for some lighthearted instant gratification.

I don’t believe in holding a game’s difficulty against it, however. Some games are harder than others and that’s okay. I do have a couple more serious issues with TMNT, though: The party balancing and the boss encounters.

To put it bluntly, Michaelangelo and Raphael are dreadful without a decent sub-weapon. They have almost no reach with their main attacks. Leonardo has more reach at least, though his power is mediocre. Leo’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum, Donatello is a veritable reptilian WMD with his bo staff. He has the best power and reach by far. His strikes are the slowest, but even this doesn’t matter all that much, since he still kills tough enemies faster overall due to all his power. I suppose in MMORPG terms, you’d say he has the best DPS (damage per second) combined with the best range. The only real question I have is why? What was the thinking behind designing Don this way and making Mike’s nunchaku both short range and weak? I just don’t understand how this could have been seen as good design, even in the abstract. Oh well. Bottom line: Always make sure Mike and Raph have plenty of sub-weapons on hand or you’ll regret it.

And the bosses? Well, they’re just not very intimidating or fun to fight, with the sole exception of the Technodrome in level five. Shredder himself is one of the easiest final bosses ever and even some of the common enemies in the later levels are significantly more dangerous than he is. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, though at least the stages themselves are long and difficult enough that you still get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing them.

For me, this just makes TMNT a flawed game, not a generally poor one. In fact, I think it’s quite good, with solid action and satisfying challenge coupled with very nice overall presentation. Sales figures and critical reception at the time of release support me on this. TMNT won Nintendo Power magazine’s “game of the year” award in 1989 and even became a pack-in game with the NES in Europe, effectively replacing Nintendo’s own Mario!

So where did all the hate come from? While I don’t doubt that not everyone loved TMNT back in the day, I largely credit one James Rolfe for its current pariah status. Rolfe is a filmmaker and YouTube personality best know for his series The Angry Video Game Nerd, in which he plays the title character. TMNT was the subject of the one of the earliest AVGN episodes back in 2006, in which the Nerd character railed against the game (particularly the second level, the dam, which is actually the shortest and perhaps easiest of them all) and coined the salty catchphrase “Cowabunga? Cowa-fucking piece of dog shit!”

Of course, the Angry Video Game Nerd is a fictional character and Rolfe clearly intends his work to be slapstick entertainment and not formal criticism but, with AVGN being one of the first big YouTube breakout series focusing on retro gaming content, it turns out that even a fictional angry nerd’s opinion can be highly influential. The end result of all this is a former game of the year condemned to infamous stinker status. Curse you, Internet Gaming Hive Mind! If only I had a proper flesh and blood archenemy I could shoot ninja scrolls at instead of you.

Contra (NES)

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

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

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

(Originally written 3/8/2017)