The Legendary Axe (TurboGrafx-16)

Love those diegetic credits!

A point of endless debate among TurboGrafx-16 fans is whether or not a better pack-in game would have bolstered the system’s lackluster performance in the North American market to any significant degree. Though I’m skeptical (to say the least) that any one game could have “saved” the TG-16, there’s no denying that the day one launch lineup in 1989 was exceptionally strong and included such heavyweights as Blazing Lazers, R-Type, and Dungeon Explorer. Regardless, NEC chose Keith Courage in Alpha Zones as the pack-in. I’ll give Keith Courage the more detailed look it deserves in due time, but suffice to say that it suffers from severe pacing issues that hold it back from being a top tier action-platformer.

The most popular candidate for an alternate pack-in is probably The Legendary Axe. Originally published by Victor Interactive Software in 1988 as Makyō Densetsu (“Demon Legend”), Legendary Axe is a no-nonsense hack-and-slash fantasy side-scroller reminiscent of Taito’s Rastan with a Castlevania twist. I recently reviewed a very similar game, Astyanax for the NES. This is no coincidence, as both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori of Aicom. In the modern parlance, we might call Astyanax a “spiritual sequel” to Legendary Axe.

The star of the show here is Gogan, a stock barbarian type who resembles a ginger-haired Tarzan in his fur loincloth. His quest is to rescue his childhood friend and love interest Flare, who’s been spirited away by the diabolic cult leader Jagu for use as a sacrifice. Gogan wields the magical axe Sting as his sole weapon across the game’s six stages. Fortunately for him, he can power-up Sting along the way, making it more than a match for the most vicious of opponents.

The game’s English title really is the more fitting one, since the proper use of Gogan’s axe is its defining mechanic. Just like in Astyanax, a power bar at the top of the screen determines the strength of each of your attacks. It resets to zero after every attack (successful or not) and then automatically begins recharging. Thus, there’s a classic “risk versus reward” setup in place where biding your time for a few extra seconds between strikes results in more damage to Gogan’s foes. Of course, this is often easier said than done and there are times when you’ll be swarmed from all sides and forced to rely instead on unleashing a quick flurry of weaker blows to survive.

Mastering Legendary Axe is a matter of learning each enemy’s behavior and placement in a given stage so that you can respond to its appearance with the correct attack. Some, like the bears and gorillas, are powerful, slow-moving, and take forever to kill with weak strikes, so instead keep your distance while you charge up fully. Others, like the fragile bats and butterflies, require no charging at all, so just mash away!

There are three types of axe upgrade available. These are obtained either by destroying stationary idols you come across or, less commonly, from a defeated mini-boss. One type allows Gogan to swing his axe faster, another increases the rate at which the power bar recharges, and the final, most import one actually lengthens the power bar itself by one level, to a maximum of four. Very few enemies in the game can withstand a level four axe strike. Be careful, however, as losing a life will lower your axe power by one level. There’s usually an idol not too far from your last checkpoint where you can regain it, but dying twice in quick succession can really set you back and hurt your chances in the later stages.

While the barbaric fantasy theme and combat invoke Rastan, it’s the platforming in Legendary Axe that betrays its Castlevania influence. Gogan is susceptible to some severe knockback each time he’s damaged and the placement of enemies and instant death pits is cunningly calculated to exploit this weakness. Lives and continues are limited, so falling deaths are the thing most likely to send you back to the title screen. Always look before you leap. Running out of health is also a concern, naturally, but health refills appear in every stage, so you have much more room for error in this regard.

The gameplay here is a real treat. The controls are tight, the stages are well-designed, and every enemy type represents a unique challenge. Most importantly, the power meter management keeps your head in the game and prevents the action from stagnating, all while not being overly complicated in itself. Though you almost certainly won’t make it to the end on your first attempt, the overall brilliance of the design lends it an addictive quality that offsets the agony of defeat. The only potential stumbling block for some players is the emphasis on stage memorization. Don’t come expecting to play Legendary Axe “fast and loose” and still do well.

Much was made of the game’s graphics back around its release, particularly its large, detailed sprites. The colossal final boss Jagu specifically was held up as quite the revelation in a time when the NES was still top dog. The art and animation remain pleasing, but the visual element that holds up best these days is the striking use of color. The sprites and backgrounds are positively vibrant and really showcase the console’s impressive palette. The music by Jun Chikuma (best known for her work on the Bomberman series) is just as delightful as the visuals. She managed to seamlessly merge her typical jazzy style with grandiose, blood-pumping melodies suited to the game’s savage sword & sorcery aesthetic. It almost shouldn’t work, yet every single track here is a real earworm.

So is Legendary Axe the rightful TurboGrafx pack-in title, robbed of its birthright by corporate incompetence? Critics at the time sure seemed to think so. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine declared it to be their game of the year across all platforms. Although I wouldn’t go so far to call it the game of 1989, I can’t deny that it’s a much more appealing and consistent action-platforming package than Keith Courage. It’s earned its status as one of the cornerstones of the system’s library, even selling well enough that an unrelated game, Ankoku Densetsu (“Dark Legend”), was retitled The Legendary Axe II in North America in an attempt to piggyback on its success. Could Legendary Axe have given the Turbo the boost it would have needed to surpass the Sega Genesis in North America like its counterpart the PC Engine did in Japan? Hell, no. There were far too many factors in play at the time for any one title to accomplish that. Still, I can’t exactly fault a game for not being magic, and this one is a class act that easily stands the test of time.

So go play it, okay? Don’t make me axe you again.

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Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988 and the following year on the TurboGrafx-16.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah, I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.

Totally Rad (NES)

Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.

Meet Jake. He’s a most excellent early 90s California skater dude with a righteous babe of a girlfriend named Allison. Like most teenagers back then, he spends his spare time hanging out at the circus learning sorcery from a freaky-looking leprechaun man named Zebediah. Good thing, too, because he’ll need all his gnarly magic skills if wants to rescue Allison and her dad from the evil warlord Edogy and his army of subterranean monster people. Just another day in Nintendo Land.

Welcome to Totally Rad! This 1990 action-platformer was brought to us by Aicom and Jaleco. I really enjoyed the last Aicom NES game I played through, Vice: Project Doom, so I was pretty excited to give this one a go.

The game published internationally as Totally Rad started out as Magic John in Japan. The two releases are virtually identical except for one thing: The mass quantities of bodacious period ‘tude packed into Totally Rad’s every in-game cut scene and square inch of instruction manual text. Doe-eyed anime hero John became Keanu Reeves clone Jake and John’s girlfriend Yuu got a full Valley Girl makeover to become Allison. Only the magician Zebediah’s appearance was left untouched, resulting a very odd (and slightly creepy) clash of art styles. Many commenters have come down pretty hard on the game over the years due to what they perceive as the desperate unhipness of it all. I’m not entirely convinced that this is warranted. Just look at this excerpt from the introduction booklet:

“Edogy decides that he wants to kidnap Allison’s dad, a professor and the smartest guy on the West Coast – except that Allison’s dad lives near the Hollywood Freeway, takes the Hollywood Freeway to work, works near the Hollywood Freeway, and basically hardly ever leaves the Hollywood Freeway and, as it happens, Edogy has this major public transportation advocacy thing and there’s no way he’ll get anywhere near the Hollywood Freeway. So he kidnaps Allison instead, figuring that Allison’s dad will be lured away from the Hollywood Freeway long enough to save his daughter. Turns out he was right.”

There’s four whole pages of this. Four! Someone at Jaleco was clearly taking the piss in a big way when they localized this one. Once you realize that all the cowabunga corniness on display here was likely a deliberate skewering of pop culture trends of the time as opposed to a misguided and patronizing attempt to appeal to “the kids,” it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable in my opinion.

Firing Totally Rad up, you’ll notice right away that it’s an extremely colorful, borderline garish game. Hot pink and lime green are everywhere, and the later levels verge on psychedelia with their pulsing rainbow hues. These acres and acres of bright primary color make for quite the change of pace if you’re coming from more muted NES offerings like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. I don’t even think the Super Mario Bros. games on the system take it this far. I can see this game’s art style being a bit “love it or hate it,” but I’m leaning toward the love camp. The sprites and animations are high quality, befitting a late release on the system. The backgrounds are appealing, as well, with some good use of parallax scrolling here and there. The true graphical highlights, though, are the humongous boss monsters you’ll encounter at the end of every other stage. Not only are they well-drawn and animated, the designs themselves are strikingly outrageous and grotesque. Level two builds to a confrontation with what appears to be a thirty foot tall humanoid reptile sporting a pink mohawk, tight leather pants, and platform heels. Yowza.

The audio is decent, if not quite on the same level as the flashy visuals. The score by Kazuo Sawa (River City Ransom, The Battle of Olympus) is not exactly Wyld Stallyns worthy. It’s not awful and sets the tone well enough, I suppose. I just don’t find the majority of it to be particularly catchy or memorable. At least the song that plays over the opening cut scene sounds suspiciously like the famous saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” That always gives me a chuckle.

On to the gameplay. As Jake, you run and jump from left to right through a total of ten side-scrolling stages. Your primary attack is a rapid fire magic blast from Jake’s hand. Holding down the attack button for a few seconds instead of tapping it will charge up your shot to deal some extra damage. Every stage has a boss of some kind at the end, with every even-numbered one culminating in a conflict with an especially massive screen-filling baddie.

It seems pretty bare bones until you pause the game. Doing so brings up a menu containing a dozen different magical abilities that you can activate at any time. Each one costs a variable number of magic points from the gauge located at the top of the screen, next to Jake’s health bar. There are healing spells, elemental attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, a time stopper, a shield for temporary invincibility, and, most interestingly of all, spells that will transform Jake into three different animal forms. These alternate forms allow the player to tackle the stages in several different ways. The eagle can fly by tapping the jump button, the lion can jump 50% higher and is immune to all damage while jumping, and the fish allows for swimming in the game’s requisite water level. The only downside to the animal transformations is that Jake can’t cast any other magic (such as healing) until he returns to human form. You can change him back to normal for free at any time, but reassuming animal form will then require a fresh expenditure of magic.

You’ll need to manage your magic intelligently if you want to do well, since there are no power-ups of any kind in the stages themselves. The only way to restore lost health is with magic and the only way to refill your magic is to either die or complete the current stage. Jake can usually manage five or six castings before running dry, so choose wisely.

It’s an interesting take on a power-up system, that’s for sure. The closest comparison would probably be Mega Man, if you started the game with all the robot master powers and they all shared a single power meter. Every stage hazard and boss fight can be made much easier with the application of the correct magic, but limited castings force the player to prioritize each threat in order to determine which ones are spell-worthy and which are better handled the old-fashioned way with Jake’s basic run-and-gun abilities.

On the downside, there are some glaring balance issues with the magic that become apparent as you play. The lion form damn near breaks the whole game with its combination of high damage output and invincibility on demand and the eagle also has the potential to trivialize many of the stages with its flight capability. Despite these hiccups, Totally Rad’s magic system succeeds in adding enough depth and replay value to elevate it above the bog standard NES action title. It earns a recommendation, even if you don’t get as big a kick out of the absurd plot and dialog as I do. The fact that cartridge copies are still dirt cheap at the time of this writing is also a plus.

Copacetic.

Vice: Project Doom (NES)

DSC_10182~01~01

With cool, dry wit like that, I could be an action hero!

I just got back last night from the 2017 Portland Retro Gaming Expo. It was a grand time, as always. It’s just a pity that it only comes along once a year. I even got to meet Q*Bert creator Warren Davis! I left the convention center with 21 new games in tow, including many I’ve wanted to try out for years. The current plan is to complete and review them all before PRGE 2018 rolls around. I’m off to a good start already, because I managed to complete Vice: Project Doom during the train ride back to Seattle.

Vice: Project Doom (Gun-Dec in Japan) was developed by Aicom and published by Sammy in 1991. It’s a side scrolling science fiction action platformer with some minor overhead driving and gallery shooting elements.

You control Detective Quinn Hart. He’s a square-jawed, hardboiled, tough-as-nails action movie cop through and through and he’s got the pithy one-liners to prove it. He even looks like Mel Gibson on the NES box cover and Bruce Willis on the Japanese one. In the actual game? Steven Seagal during his skinny years, slick black ponytail and all. Way to cover all your bases there, guys. Quinn’s task is to investigate and shut down a shadowy conspiracy by aliens posing as humans and using a front corporation to…get rich selling drugs. That’s right: It’s Steven Seagal versus alien drug dealers. There are also some side characters in the form of other cops helping Hart with his investigation, one of which is identified in the manual as his love interest Christy. You’ll have to take the manual’s word for it, though, since the game itself isn’t exactly long on romance. The plot unfolds in the form of cinematic cut scenes sandwiched between the levels and these do a serviceable enough job depicting the various twists and turns in the story, even if some of them might raise more questions than they answer.

At its core, Vice: Project Doom is an action platformer that owes a lot to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden and Sunsoft’s Batman. You wouldn’t know that from the opening level, though, which throws you a curve ball right out of the gate by starting you off with some overhead view driving action. It looks a bit like Spy Hunter, but plays more like a fast-paced vertical shooter in the vein of Zanac or The Guardian Legend. It’s not nearly as substantial or satisfying as those Compile classics, though. After blowing away a simple boss and watching the subsequent cut scene, Hart will leave his red Ferrari behind and set out on foot.

These side scrolling levels are where the game hits its stride in more ways than one. Hart proves to be quite the nimble fellow. He can jump high, run at a decent clip, and even run while crouching, which is a great ability that I wish more games like this had. Being able to continue advancing forward while ducking under enemy fire really helps to minimize stop-and-go and keep the pace up.

Hart’s default attack utilizes a “laser whip” that functions as the standard sword type weapon. It lacks range, but is fast, requires no ammunition, and can even hit things above and behind you on the backswing. You’ll likely find yourself using the whip the majority of the time. Pressing select will also let you cycle through two additional weapons: A magnum revolver and hand grenades. These extend your attack range, but have limited shots and don’t strike quite as fast as the whip. In practice, I found myself using the whip the majority of the time and saving the highly damaging grenades for tricky boss fights. The magnum proved to be surprisingly wimpy, doing no more damage than the whip and only reaching about halfway across the screen. Dirty Harry Callahan would not approve.

The stages themselves closely resemble ones from a Ninja Gaiden game, right down to the gritty, frequently gruesome backgrounds and the bizarre menagerie of enemies that sometimes detract a bit from the dark and serious tone that the rest of the game is aiming for. I mean, the first stage alone has you facing Chinese hopping vampires and pumpkin-headed ghosts that toss boomerangs. Stages are visually appealing and nicely varied, even if you’ve probably seen their like many times before. They’re also fairly challenging at times, though never overwhelmingly so. Detective Hart can absorb a lot of punishment and defeated foes will frequently drop health replenishing food and drink. Most of your deaths will likely be the result of falling (or being knocked) into bottomless pits. You have unlimited continues at your disposal, however, so even the trickiest section will yield to some trial and error before too long. Really, the best and most exciting option is to keep moving forward and powering through each stage whipping down everything in your path. There’s little need for caution or subtlety, but it’s plenty fun.

You’ll need to be a little more strategic with the bosses. As you might expect, they can do a lot more damage than the standard enemies and their health meters are just as long as Hart’s. Thankfully, each one (except for the final boss) only has a couple attacks at their disposal, so they shouldn’t be able to slap you around for too long before you pick up on their patterns. In terms of design, they’re pretty cool. The opening level’s mutant rat man that throws giant steel girders (that you can leap onto and run across) makes a strong first impression and the remainder are also quite memorable and fun to take down.

Just when you think you have Vice all figured out, it switches gears yet again and briefly becomes a first person auto-scrolling gallery style shooter reminiscent of the Taito arcade classic Operation Wolf. Enemies rush onto the screen from both sides and Hart must blast them with bullets and grenades before they can shoot or stab him. There’s no light gun support here, but your cursor handles reasonably well with the NES controller’s standard directional pad. Like the two driving levels, these two shooting stages are very short and very easy.

Aside from a few forgivable flaws, Vice: Project Doom is a very high quality action game. While the superb graphics showcase some sweet parallax scrolling effects and make great use of the NES color palette, the soundtrack is strictly mediocre. None of the tunes stand out in any way and they can even verge into droning territory at times. The story is also a bit of a mess, with stilted dialog and an ending twist that makes less sense the more you think about it. Finally, the driving and shooting levels, while competently programmed and quite playable, aren’t nearly as fleshed-out, challenging, or stimulating as the side scrolling main game. In fact, it helps if you just think of them as short mini-games or bonus rounds that act as palate cleansers between the real stages rather than as fully-fledged extra gameplay modes.

Even without these half-baked segments, Vice still packs in a full game’s worth of tight, fast-paced action platforming and pulls it off with a deliciously doofy 90s cyberpunk cop flourish. It’s too bad that it had the misfortune of being an 8-bit game released around the same time as the 16-bit Super Nintendo, and by a second string publisher to boot. It may not have set the gaming world on fire, but it’s never too late to say no to drugs by smacking the hell out of some no good space aliens with a laser whip. You have the right to remain exploded, punk.