Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)

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Never piss off a ninja, chump.

Just got done playing through Ninja Gaiden Shadow on my lunch break. This one was developed by Natsume as a Game Boy follow-up to their decent NES title Shadow of the Ninja, but Tecmo bought the publishing rights at the last minute and released it under the Ninja Gaiden name in 1991 instead. Anyone who’s played Shadow of the Ninja will note the similarities here, as your character uses a grappling hook to hang from ceilings as he did in that game instead of clinging to and jumping off of walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden is better known for.

The cut-and-paste nature of the switch is also made apparent through the lack of another Ninja Gaiden staple: Plot twists and cinematic cut scenes during play. All you get is a brief pre-game intro stating that an evil dude in a cape (named Emperor Garuda) is wreaking havoc and Ryu the ninja needs to stop him. That’s it.

Thankfully, the action is pretty good. Ryu can run, jump, duck, slash with his sword, use his grappling hook to latch onto the underside of certain platforms, and fire off a limited-use diagonal fire attack. The fire attack is the only secondary weapon you can employ in this game, unfortunately. Due to the motion blur that obscured fast moving objects on the original Game Boy’s screen, moving and attacking is much slower here than in any of the main series games and you will sometimes feel like you’re playing underwater Ninja Gaiden. That being said, the control is solid and the stage layouts are pretty nice, incorporating both horizontal and vertical scrolling and sporting a few nifty set pieces like dark areas and a sequence where you must outrun a rising tide of lava.

Graphics look good for the system, with some nicely-drawn backgrounds and sprites. The sprites are a decent size without falling into the common Game Boy trap of being too large to allow for a decent field of view around your character. The music is fantastic and perhaps the best aspect of the game’s presentation overall. There are several remixes of classic Ninja Gaiden tracks and they sound excellent on the Game Boy. In fact, they ironically sound much better than the godawful versions Tecmo blighted the world’s ears with in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for Super Nintendo. Ugh.

There are only five levels and five bosses in the game and the difficulty is very forgiving due to the combination of short levels, unlimited continues, and the relatively small number of enemies and tricky jumps when compared to the NES titles. Even players relatively unskilled at action platformers will probably be able to complete this one in an hour or less. Replay value is minimal. If I had purchased the game for full price back in the day, I might have been a bit disappointed at this, but if you can pick it up for significantly less today, it’s not a bad time killer on a bus commute, plane ride, or the like. Just don’t expect it to play like the NES Ninja Gaiden titles or add anything to the greater storyline of that series.

Ninja vanish! *poof*

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Batman: The Video Game (NES)

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This is easily the most satisfying clown murder I’ve had all week.

Continuing this week’s trend of games based on ’80s movies, I played through Sunsoft’s (very loose) 1989 adaptation of Tim Burton’s Batman for the first time. Well, I suppose technically it’s called “Batman: The Video Game,” but nobody calls it that. That would just be silly.

I’ve heard a lot over the years about how this is one of the best games ever made for the NES. Is it true? Well, while I liked it, I wouldn’t go quite that far….

There’s undoubtedly a lot to like about Batman. The music is amazing and matches the offbeat brooding action vibe of the film, the graphics are well-drawn, characters animate extremely well for a console game of this era, and the play control is superb.

Batman is an action platform game and is divided into five stages. Each stage has multiple platforming sections and a boss fight, with the exception of the final stage, which has only one platforming section, but two bosses.

Batman’s move set consists of a jump, a punch attack, and three ranged weapons with differing attack properties: The batarang is short range and powerful, the spear gun’s less powerful shots can travel across the entire screen, and the oddly-named dirk splits into three projectiles when fired. Each ranged weapon consumes a different amount of your ammunition per shot. You can carry up to 99 bullets at once and they’re replenished fairly regularly by enemy drops, so you’ll rarely run out. As cool as these ranged weapons are, most enemies are easily dispatched with your fists, so while they make make some sections of the game a little easier, your guns are rarely necessary.

Batman’s most important technique is the wall jump. Similar to other games like Ninja Gaiden, you can rebound off walls to reach higher sections of the level. This is far from an optional mechanic. In fact, it’s arguably the game’s central gimmick, with the last level serving as a wall jumping final exam of sorts. If you haven’t perfected the technique by then, you’ll never even get a chance to lay eyes on the Joker.

It all sound great, but there are a few problems. Primarily, the game makes very poor use of the source material. The few cut scenes present between levels are a waste, as they don’t come close to telling a coherent version of the film’s story and most are only a few seconds long. None of the game’s locations are recognizable and neither are any of its enemy characters other than the Joker himself. If I had to describe the overall feel of the stages, I’d say they’re like leftover layouts from Ninja Gaiden were populated with leftover enemies from Contra. It feels very much like a generic NES sci-fi action game with a Batman sprite pasted in.

The difficulty curve is also awkward. Batman took me about four hours to complete for the first time and nearly three of those were spent in the last level. The first 80% of the game really is a breeze, but the final clock tower level feels about as hard as all the previous ones combined. To cap it off, the Joker can deal a lot more damage than any other boss. Most hazards in the game will deplete 1/8th of Batman’s health bar on contact, but the Joker’s gun will shave off 3/8th. A relatively easy game with a solitary super tough level just feels lopsided. At least continues are unlimited.

Leaving aside the generic trappings that largely waste the license and the strange difficulty balancing, Batman really is a fun ride and reminds me of a successful cross between Shatterhand and Ninja Gaiden. It’s absolutely the best game for the NES…where you play as Michael Keaton.

Alisia Dragoon (Genesis)

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Gee, thanks. I’ll, uh, wear it with pride, I guess.

So ends my first play session with Alisa Dragoon, but definitely not my last. It took me about seven hours of practice to get my first full run, which is just about the perfect amount of time to pass a lazy afternoon.

All I can say is: Wow! It’s been a while since a game has really impressed me this much. For me, Alisia Dragoon is an absolute masterpiece, right up there with Castlevania: Bloodlines and Streets of Rage 2 on my list of all-time great Genesis games. It’s that good.

The artwork and animation are some of the best on the system, the music is some of the catchiest fantasy action tunes I’ve ever heard in a game (it sort of has a Golden Axe vibe, but more complex and varied), and the control is perfect. Levels are all unique in terms of theming and visuals and each has its own roster of enemies, so nothing feels recycled here. The game’s art direction and animation was provided by the anime studio Gainax, which likely explains the high quality of the overall presentation.

The plot of the game involves the sorceress Alisa and her four magical pets questing to stop some evil wizards from resurrecting an ancient evil power of tremendous magnitude. Pretty straightforward stuff but there is a nice twist toward the end that elevates it a bit in my eyes.

Alisia’s primary weapon is lightning that she shoots from her hands, but the way this attack handles is very unique and is what gives the game its own feel when compared to other action-platforming games for the Genesis. Basically, Alisia doesn’t need to worry about aiming. Holding down the attack button causes a stream of homing lightning to automatically lock onto enemies in front of Alisia. This lock-on shooting mechanic, actually a refined version of the one from Game Arts’ earlier sci-fi action game Thexder, sounds like it would make the combat too simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since sustained attacking drains your magic meter, you can’t just shoot all the enemies all the time and you’ll need to take strategic pauses in combat where you focus on dodging while your meter recharges.

Even with an empty magic meter, you’re not defenseless. You have four extremely cute and deadly magical beasts along for the ride and each of them has unique attacks and strategic uses. You can only have one pet active at a time but you can switch between them instantly at will. They each have their own life meters and are able to be damaged and even killed by enemies, however, so you’ll have to keep them healthy by finding meat power-ups. Each pet can also be leveled-up two times by collecting other power-ups, which will grant them more health and attack power. Needless to say, picking the right pet for a particular stage or boss fight can make Alisia’s life a whole lot easier.

The game’s difficulty is tough but fair, as typical for the era. You only have one life at the start of the game, which seems daunting, but Alisia can absorb quite a bit of damage before dying and health restoration pickups are fairly numerous. You can also find health bar extensions and extra lives inside the power-up capsules you’ll discover along the way. You’ll still probably end up replaying the early stages of the game several times as you learn the stage layouts and boss enemy patterns, but you’ll soon be blazing through them quite quickly and effortlessly once you’ve properly memorized them.

Alisia Dragoon is a wonder. Unfortunately, it seems that it didn’t sell very well upon its release in 1992, so the gaming world was never graced with any sequels or even ports to other systems. It’s a damn shame, really, but at least we can still appreciate one of the true lost treasures of the 16-bit era.

Now, I think I’m going to go feed my pet electric chicken dragon thingy. Trust me, you wouldn’t like him when he’s hangry.

Xexyz (NES)

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Well, that was Xexyz. Time to completion: About three hours. I must say, that was just the breezy change of pace I needed after sinking nearly forty into Battletoads!

I’d played this one a bit in the early ’90s, but I really only remembered two things: Your hero’s snazzy helmet and that the bosses tended to resemble giant robotic sea life, which alway made me wonder if there was any connection to the Darius series of games, which has the same odd enemy theme. Apparently, there isn’t. Thanks, Internet.

This one is an odd duck for sure. It somewhat resembles The Guardian Legend in structure, since gameplay is split between on-foot sections, where your character explores the game world and collects power-ups, and more straightforward spaceship shooting sections. The main difference is that Xexyz’s on-foot levels imitate a side-scrolling platform game like Mega Man rather than an overhead view adventure game like The Legend of Zelda and its shooter sections scroll horizontally rather than vertically.

The game is set on post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2777 and the planet is now inhabited by an odd mix of human, robots, mutant animal people, and winged fairies. It’s…strange. Anyway, one day alien robots led by some dude named Goruza attack the land of Xexyz and kidnaps all its queens. There’s apparently like six of them. That’s gotta be some kind of record. You play as the techno-warrior dude Apollo and set out to save the world.

The game has a very odd structure: Platform level, platform/shooter hybrid level, boss, shooter level, boss. This cycle is repeated six times in total. In another Guardian Legend parallel, I find the shooter gameplay to be the much more engaging mode overall. Not that the platforming is bad as such. Rather, it’s mediocre, with an overall lack of challenge and some stiff controls holding it back a bit. The shooter sections aren’t perfect: Your hit box is perhaps too large, there’s no auto-fire for your weapons (always a pain in any shooter), and more weapon options than the five or six on offer would have been very welcome. Still, the shooting is where it’s at here.

Graphics and sound are serviceable but uneven. Some musical tracks and stage backgrounds are excellent, while others are just passable. The graphical highlight is definitely the boss sprites. They’re huge and extremely well-drawn.

Xexyz was originally published in Japan by Hudson Soft in 1988 and entitled Turtle’s Gratitude: Legend of Urashima. So while the undescriptive and difficult-to-pronounce international title Xexyz (“zex-iss”) is often blamed in part for the game’s obscurity, I guess I can’t blame them for wanting sometime a little shorter.

Despite the issues mentioned above, Xexyz is still worth a look. It doesn’t quite have the length, breadth, or polish of a Guardian Legend, but it’s a solid B-list title for the NES. If nothing else, the world and characters are just so damn weird and it’s probably my favorite game where you get to ride a flying lobster. Probably. Top three for sure.

Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialogue for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.

Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight (NES)

Tonight’s game was Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, Capcom’s weird-as-hell 1990 sci-fi action platformer for the NES. I picked this one up just three days ago on vacation at an antique store in Medford, Oregon. Price: $12.00.

First of all: Holy crap, I beat this game the first time playing it tonight! Now granted, I’ve been on an almost non-stop action-platforming rampage lately, starting back with Holy Diver in December and continuing through the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy, four Castlevanias, and two Contras, so I might just be really steeped in the genre right now, but I’m still surprised. I first heard about the game in an Angry Video Game Nerd episode years back (one of the few where the Nerd character ends up liking the game he’s playing) and much was made about the challenge. I found, though, that the levels were very short (some as few as one screen) and continues were unlimited, so while each level was tough, I had endless tries to scrape past each the one and only time I needed in order to move on. I did spend about an hour just on the final level (a four boss fight rush on a single timer) but nowhere near that long on any previous level. Is it just me, or did anyone else not find this game as impossible as they thought it would be?

Since it’s the first question most people have: No, this isn’t a true Street Fighter or Final Fight game. Capcom took a Japanese game about a cyborg space cop named Kevin Straker fighting aliens and changed the story in the overseas versions so that it stated that this character was supposed to be Ken from Street Fighter. It was silly.

This was a really odd duck and I can kind of see how it never found a wide audience. The story, characters, and artwork are really weird, even for an old NES game, and it has a highly unconventional structure in that it mostly consists of boss fights rather than conventional platforming stages, of which there are only a handful.

Ken/Kevin also controls pretty oddly. He can shoot rapid fire shots forward and straight up, but he can only shoot one time in the air per jump and can only shoot down (again, just one time) after executing a backflip maneuver. He can also fire upward at a 45-degree angle by holding down. This takes some getting used to, but once mastered the action actually feels really great. Ken/Kevin is quite acrobatic. In addition to standard jumps and the backflip, he can also wall climb, wall jump, and grab onto some platforms. It’s like NES Hagane, you have so many options.

Unfortunately, the story is real bad. Ken become a scientist and invents something called “cyboplasm” along with his best friend Troy. Then some mysterious party attacks his lab, kills Troy, and steals the cyboplasm to create a mutant army. Naturally, Ken becomes a cyborg to kill them all and get it back. Riiiiiiiight.

Awful story aside, if you like oddball sci-fi, super rocking tunes (by ‎Junko Tamiya, who also worked on Little Nemo: The Dream Master and Bionic Commando!), and crazy boss rushes and you can deal with learning some unusual controls, you really should play this game. It’s cheap and worth every penny, as long as you don’t go in expecting to do any hadoukens or shoryukens.

Castlevania mini-marathon (NES, Super Nintendo, Genesis)

Down for the Count again!

Well, that was quite a marathon: Four classic Castlevania games (the NES original, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines) completed for the first time in ten days! I had played them all before in years past and gotten quite far in some cases, but the only 8 or 16-bit Castlevania games I’d ever beaten before this month were Simon’s Quest and Rondo of Blood. Castlevania III is easily the most difficult of the series that I’ve experience so far, although the original has its moments, too.

Overall, I’ve developed a powerful affinity for these games. They really are tense thrill rides that keep you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Your characters are not as quick or maneuverable as they are in other action games (except perhaps in the relatively forgiving Super Castlevania IV) and you have to master their limited movesets completely and exercise good judgement before committing to each jump or attack.

On the other hand, it has made me somewhat disenchanted with the Metroid style of adventure game that dominated the series from 1997s Symphony of the Night to 2009’s Order of Ecclesia. Playing these titles today, I’m really just pretty bored most of the time. They look great and sound amazing and appeal to the collector mindset that likes to grind easy enemies for hours on end for rare loot drops, but replacing the high stakes action platforming where one false move means death with wandering long, mostly empty hallways filled with paper tiger enemies that look scary but act as annoying speed bumps at worst just doesn’t work for me anymore. Especially when the only incentive is making your overpowered avatar even more needlessly godly. Some of these installments were better than others (Order of Ecclesia does have one of coolest Dracula fights in the series), but for the most part I’m glad this era is over and I’m hoping that some future non-terrible iteration of Konami can bring Castlevania back to its roots and deliver another game like Dracula’s Curse someday.

I can dream, right?