Zero Wing (Mega Drive)

Dancing space raisins? Can’t say I expected that.

Welcome to my first ever re-review! My initial published take on meme-famous shooter Zero Wing appeared on the defunct ClassicGaming.com all the way back in March of 2001. Holy hell, does that make me ancient. Just think: This Mega Drive edition of the game wasn’t even ten years old at that time. People born the day my original review went up are eligible to vote now. Jesus.

My decision to examine Zero Wing in depth back then was based on the fact that “all your base” references were rampant online, yet discussion of its origin and merits as a video game were much harder to come by. Sliding my middle-aged angst over to the back burner for the time being, I see no reason why I can’t chart a similar course this time around. Jokes about its botched translation may be as outdated as Flash animation, but it’s not like the game itself become any more of a household name over the years.

This lack of familiarity with the game proper makes sense from a North American perspective. While the 1989 arcade original did show up here courtesy of manufacturer Williams, it was hardly a common sight in the wild. There were no home versions available, either. That mangled English intro scene that took the world by storm last decade? Exclusive to the 1992 European Mega Drive release. Zero Wing is the brainchild of the late lamented Toaplan, who forged themselves a solid reputation on the backs of many popular overhead shoot-’em-ups of the ’80s and ’90s (Tiger Heli, Fire Shark, Truxton, Batsugun, etc). It’s one of only two side-scrolling shooters the studio ever produced, the other being Hellfire from that same year.

At least its laughing stock of an opening makes Zero Wing’s plot better known than most. The year is 2101 and a United Nations space vessel is suddenly attacked (“Somebody set up us the bomb”) by the alien overlord CATS, who appears on the ship’s view screen and gloats that he’s seized control of all the U.N.’s bases in his bid to conquer Earth (“All your base are belong to us”). Fortunately, a lone ZIG fighter makes it out of the doomed ship in the nick of time and promptly heads off to put an end to CATS. “Move ‘ZIG’. For great justice.” And yes, both CATS and ZIG are rendered that way in the official material. Are they supposed to be acronyms or something? Beats me.

In keeping with genre convention, all movement for great justice is of the left-to-right variety and split up between eight stages, each with its own end boss. There’s nothing too special here conceptually. You get a couple of space-themed areas, an H.R. Giger-inspired fleshy one, and a lot of abstract techno-fortresses that honestly start to blend together after a while. The scrolling itself is definitely on the slow side and this, in conjunction with the cramped layouts and moving stage elements, makes comparison with a certain seminal Irem shooter inevitable. Yes, Zero Wing very much resembles an “R-Type lite” with a couple key differences.

One plus for many will be Zero Wing’s lesser difficulty. Skillful movement and some degree of memorization are still required to do well, but the progression is far less rigid overall than the fearsome R-Type’s, with fewer instances of needing to be in the exact right place at the exact right time or else. The designers are also pretty generous with the continues. They’re unlimited on the default setting and the hardest mode available still allows for a hefty fifteen. That’s 48 lives, not counting any extras you manage to rack up by scoring well. Downright cushy!

On the downside, there really isn’t that much to sink your teeth into here. Horizontal shooters have a reputation for being slower and more technical than their vertically-scrolling cousins, which traditionally favor fast, no-frills action with a looser flow. Zero Wing somewhat awkwardly combines the measured pace and finicky maneuvering of a horizontal shooter with the simplistic mechanics of a vertical one. You get a choice of three basic weapons (spread shot, straight laser, homing), a couple of firepower multiplying drones, and not much else. There’s no power-up menu to juggle as in Gradius, no charge shot to manage or Force pod to direct around the screen as in R-Type, not even an inventory of specialized weapons to cycle though on the fly as in Thunder Force or Zero Wing’s own sister game Hellfire. Zero Wing does sport one unique gameplay feature in the form of your ZIG’s short range tractor beam, which can grab onto smaller enemies and suspend them helplessly in front of your craft, where they can then double as shields or extra projectiles as needed. It’s a cute touch and fun to use. I hesitate to call it deep, however.

At its heart, this is a prime example of a “me, too” title that comes off rather shallow next to the true greats that inspired it. It looks alright and the music genuinely cooks, but its own pacing betrays it by giving you all the time in the world to notice the lack of meat on its bones. The loss of the two-player simultaneous option from the arcade is a bummer, too. Once you get past that glorious train wreck of an opening sequence, Zero Wing becomes a contender for the plainest space shooting exercise available on Sega’s 16-bit platform. That’s not to say it’s objectionable, mind you. It’s just not the sort of first water gem that sinks its hooks into players and makes new shooter fans of them on the spot. Toaplan was clearly operating outside their comfort zone here and the result is best enjoyed as a light palate cleanser between other, more substantial works in the same vein.

Anyway, time for me to sit here feeling old and wistful some more. The CATS in the cradle and the silver spoon….

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Aero Fighters (Super Nintendo)

Covering a controversial game or one of major historic significance can be intense. Considering that the subject of my last review, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, is both those things, I can definitely use a breather right about now. It’s times like this when nothing satisfies like a straightforward arcade shoot-’em-up.

The 1993 Super Nintendo port of Aero Fighters (also known as Sonic Wings in Japan) is every bit the archetypal early ’90s vertical shooter. If you’ve ever plunked a quarter into something like Toaplan’s Fire Shark or Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden, you’ll recognize this style of play immediately. Taking control of a very agile, very fragile airplane, you blow away as many enemy vehicles as you can on the way to the level boss. You start out with a pea shooter of a primary gun and a limited stock of screen clearing super bombs that can save your bacon when things get hectic. Destroying some of the larger enemy craft will release floating power-ups that either enhance the spread and damage of your main gun or increase your stock of super bombs. And…that’s pretty much it. Clear six to eight stages of this and you win! Games like this are true staples in my book; accessible, addictive, and something no classic arcade is complete without.

Sadly, you’re almost better off buying the arcade cabinet itself if you’re looking to bring Aero Fighters home. The game’s developer, Video System, opted to published the Super Nintendo version themselves under the banner of their North American branch, McO’River. McO’River? Seriously? Did they pull that one out of a random leprechaun name generator or something? Anyway, if you don’t recall hearing about all the great McO’River branded gems that came out over the years, there’s a reason for that: They only ever published four titles and none of them sold well. This makes Aero Fighters one of the most expensive Super Nintendo releases, with loose cartridges routinely going for $600 and up at auction. If, like me, you didn’t have the foresight to load up on Apple stock back in the ’80s, it’s flash carts and emulators to the rescue again.

Two things set the Aero Fighters series as a whole apart from other games in its class and make it seem like more than Raiden with the serial numbers filed off. The first is the large roster of playable characters, each of which pilots a different plane with its own unique weapons. The second, closely related element is the offbeat sense of humor that defines these characters and their interactions. The ten member cast includes a ninja, a prince, a teenage pop idol, a viking berserker, and a little robot who resembles a cross between Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movies and Nintendo’s own R.O.B.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the humor in Aero Fighters is how well compartmentalized it is. Most attempts over the years to inject comedy into the genre have resulted in typical “cute-’em-ups” like Fantasy Zone, TwinBee, or Parodius. The player flies over outlandish pastel landscapes battling swarms of weird and often seemingly harmless foes. Not so in Aero Fighters. The level and enemy designs here are as straight-laced as they come. Only the between stage dialogue and ending sequences hint at the insanity underlying it all. Aero Fighters is the mullet of wacky shooters: Business in the front, party in the back.

There are a total of eight stages on offer here. They’re based on a handful of standard terrestrial themes (city, ocean, desert, etc) with the exception of the final one, which sees your fighter jet inexplicably venturing into outer space. A given playthrough will only ever feature seven of them, however, as each character has a home country and is exempt from fighting in the stage associated with it. Choose Hien or Mao Mao, for example, and you’ll be guaranteed to skip their native Japan. None of the levels are very long and a perfect run of Aero Fighters clocks in at around twenty minutes. The only thing that will prevent most players from completing it so quickly is the difficulty. You’ll have to contend with one-hit kills, limited continues, and an extremely punishing final stage if you’re serious about viewing your chosen character’s ending. It’s not R-Type hard by any means, but it’ll still put your bullet dodging skills to the test. Teaming up with a buddy to double your firepower is a great way to even the odds, of course, and Aero Fighters does support two players simultaneously. This limits your choice of characters somewhat, though, since both players are required to represent the same country.

Fans of simple pick-up-and-play action should be quite pleased with this iteration of Aero Fighters. The abundance of quirky and mechanically distinct characters give it more replay value than most of the games that inspired it. The graphics and sound are both high quality, if never jaw-droppingly so. It even runs better than average for a SNES game, with only the slightest touch of slowdown on occasion. The transition from a vertically-oriented monitor to a standard tv does make the action feel slightly more cramped at home than it did in the arcade, but this compromise was common to many other conversions of similar titles. My one major complaint is that this is yet another example of an old school shooter that doesn’t have an automatic fire option for your main gun, so prepare to tap your thumb numb unless you own a turbo controller. So rude. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Unless your game is built around shot charging, there’s no good reason for it to lack auto-fire.

Aero Fighters is one of the better Super Nintendo shooters, particularly among the minority that include two-player simultaneous modes. That said, if you’re still dead set on spending a small fortune to own it, I’d pick up a Neo-Geo console and one of its superior sequels instead. You get to play as a talking dolphin in those. Spanky rules.

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis)

I feel strongth welling in my body. That can only mean I’m ready to challenge another entry in a certain famously ferocious run-and-gun platforming series. It’s been almost a year and a half since I last stepped into the steel shoes of stalwart medieval beardo Sir Arthur and set out to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin from her demonic captors in the NES version of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It only makes sense to now move on to the best-known home port of that game’s direct arcade sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (aka Daimakaimura, “Great Demon World Village”). I’m referring, of course, to the celebrated Sega Genesis conversion.

Genesis Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, much like its contemporary Strider, was merely licensed from Capcom. The hard work of developing and publishing it was shouldered entirely by Sega themselves. Although it may seem like Capcom got the better of this arrangement, both games turned out to be flagship system sellers for the Genesis in its primordial pre-Sonic days. The ability to deliver credible home translations of cutting edge 1988 arcade titles to gamers in 1989 was the crux of the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign, after all. One look was all it took to know that nothing like this would be coming to your NES. It certainly didn’t hurt that this iteration of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was programmed by future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka and not the same trash tier contract developer (Micronics) that “blessed” NES Ghosts ‘n Goblins with its stiff controls and jerky scrolling.

This franchise has never been known for its radical re-invention, meaning that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ gameplay will feel immediately familiar to veterans of other installments. Knight Arthur must run, jump, and shoot his way through a total of five side-scrolling stages. He’ll then be told to go back and do it all over again on a slightly higher difficulty and using the one special weapon that the final boss is vulnerable to before finally being treated to a proper ending. As stated in my Ghosts ‘n Goblins review, this notion of forcing the player to complete every stage twice in order to truly finish the game was arguably funny in a sadistic way the first time around. Strip away the nasty surprise angle, though, and all that remains is some rather blatant padding.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing in the way of innovation here. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts marks the first appearance of the golden armor power-up, which allows Arthur to charge up and unleash devastating magical attacks that vary in effect based on the specific weapon he has equipped. It’s important to not let this awesome new power go to your head, however, since the golden armor itself doesn’t provide any more protection from damage than its mundane counterpart. One hit will still strip it away entirely, leaving poor Arthur to carry on fighting in his undies until he either happens across a new suit of plate or takes a second hit and crumbles into a pile of bones. Probably that last one.

Additionally, Arthur has gained the ability to lob his weapons up and down instead of just left and right. As a default move, this has an even greater impact on the flow of the action than the sporadically available magic attacks and tends to be the one feature that advocates for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as the high point of the saga cite most often when justifying their preferences. My own heart may belong to Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo and its double jump mechanic, but I can’t deny that Arthur’s extra offensive coverage here makes the vertically scrolling portions considerably less harrowing than usual.

Lower difficulty is actually a running theme throughout Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Not only do you have added angles of attack and magic on your side, there are also fewer stages and more checkpoints than in Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. With unlimited continues to work with as well, this is an ideal starting point for players new to Sir Arthur’s exploits. Just remember that this reduced challenge is strictly relative to those other two games mentioned above. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is still a vicious meat grinder of an action-platformer and countless ignoble deaths are inevitable as you painstakingly put in the practice needed to memorize and master each segment of the quest.

Presentation-wise, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the Genesis conveys the essence of its source material well, but not flawlessly. The most obvious visual downgrade comes courtesy of the console’s smaller color palette when compared to Capcom’s CPS1 arcade board. Fair enough. There’s also a general loss of graphical detail on the Genesis, particularly in the backgrounds. This is likely a consequence of the limited space available on the home version’s modest five megabit ROM chip. The arcade release had around three times the memory to work with. It’s still an attractive game, as Naka and company clearly made excellent use of the resources available to them in 1989. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better this one could have looked if they’d been able to take advantage of the more advanced chips that would become commonplace in Genesis cartridges later on in the ’90s. We probably wouldn’t have had to lose out on the arcade’s snazzy intro sequence depicting the minions of main antagonist Loki (Lucifer in Japan) harvesting the souls of Princess Prin Prin and the rest of the kingdom’s hapless citizens, for example. Things are rosier on the audio front, thankfully. The Genesis’ FM synth sound chip is fairly similar to what Capcom was using in the arcades at the time and little, if any, of the original’s spooky ambiance is lost.

Whether at home or in the arcade, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a class act of a sequel that stays true to its pedigree while improving on its predecessor in virtually every way. Expanded attack options bring new depth and flexibility to the combat, platforming is enhanced by more varied and creative stages with dynamic hazards unique to each, and the higher fidelity art and music are bursting with added charm. Its primary flaws are the same two subjective ones that dog every GnG title: The fierce difficulty and the need to loop the game in order to see the true ending.  Given that I’m largely reconciled to those, my only major beef with the game is its length. Fun as they are, five stages make for pretty slim pickings. Just one or two extra would have gone a long way toward making this one a viable contender for series MVP in my eyes. Lacking this, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts would itself be improved on in turn, but remains a must-play for fans of the Genesis and vintage Capcom action fare alike.

Gradius II (Famicom)

Shot the core, back for more.

I’ve grown into a huge Gradius fan over the last couple of years. Much to my surprise, as a frustrating adolescent experience with the arcade original put me off the series for decades. Ever since I set my reservations aside and ended up having a blast with the Gradius spin-off Life Force in the summer of 2017, however, I’ve been hooked on laying waste to those Bacterian scum in my trusty Vic Viper starship. I’ve gone back to finish the original Gradius and even took a delightful detour into the Parodius sub-series of comedic shooters. Now it’s finally time to move on to the first true numbered sequel with Gradius II. As a nice little bonus, I get to play this Famicom port, which is famous for being both one of the most technically impressive games for the system and one of its highest profile Japanese exclusives.

The Famicom Gradius II is the epitome of the bigger, louder, faster, harder approach to sequel design. Experienced players will recognize many of the same level concepts, power-ups, and enemies from Gradius and Life Force, just presented with a greater degree of intensity and audiovisual polish than ever before. It’s not a perfect re-creation of the arcade game, which was one of the most cutting edge cabinets out at the time, but it’s a sight to behold nonetheless. Konami relied on a custom memory mapper chip called the VRC4 to push the Famicom beyond its normal limits for Gradius II. Spectacular as the end result is, the VRC4 itself may have also limited the game’s distribution. In stark contrast to the “anything goes” Famicom scene, Nintendo prohibited third party developers from manufacturing their own cartridges and custom mappers for the NES. Whether this technical limitation was the sole reason Gradius II never saw an international release is an open question, though it seems likely to have been a significant factor at the very least.

That’s the real world backstory. What’s going on in the game? About what you’d expect. Planet Gradius is in peril once more and you’re the only pilot that has what it takes to save your world from the bloodthirsty Bacterians and their new leader, Gofer. Yes, the villain here is actually called Gofer, which has to be one of the least fortunate evil alien overlord names in sci-fi history. I like to picture him down at the local space bar crying into his space beer about how nobody respects him. Meanwhile, across the table, an equally inebriated Doh from Taito’s Arkanoid nods morosely.

The conflict plays out over a total of seven stages. Even though this is only one more than Gradius featured, the stages here are considerably longer on average. A “perfect” playthrough clocks in at around 26 minutes, versus the original’s 16 or so. Many of the individual areas you’ll visit are clearly meant to be amped-up takes on ones seen in previous entries. Gradius II’s opening stage has you dodging between colossal solar flares straight out of Life Force, for example, and level four is a murderous moai head gauntlet patterned on the first game’s. Thankfully, the level roster isn’t made up entirely of callbacks. I particularly enjoyed Gradius II’s Alien-inspired second stage, which is sporting phallic bio-mechanical skulls straight out of an H.R. Giger airbrush painting and “facehugger” baddies that spring from their eggs to assault the Vic Viper.

The classic Gradius power-up system is in full effect here. Certain enemies drop orange orbs that you can collect and then cash in to purchase upgrades for the Vic Viper. New to this entry is the ability to customize the upgrade menu itself at the beginning of each playthrough. Every weapon from Gradius and Life Force is available, along with some new ones, but the catch is that you can’t take them all with you. Four different sets of armaments are available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Do you prefer the more damaging straight laser from Gradius or the extra screen coverage of Life Force’s wider ripple laser? How about missiles that travel along the ground, double missiles, or exploding bombs that deal heavy splash damage to anything nearby? Double shot or tail gun? No one weapon set imbues the Vic Viper with flawless 360 degree firepower, so choose wisely. I really loved this addition. It allows for multiple play styles and encourages players to re-play the game in order to experiment with new ways to tackle old challenges. It’s no wonder that this weapon selection mechanic was retained and deepened in later sequels.

Not only are there more weapons to choose from, some of the returning ones have also been enhanced. The laser weapons can both be strengthened by purchasing them twice and the iconic option satellites are even more formidable here. Not only can you finally have up to four options at once just like in the arcade (NES Gradius and Life Force limited you to two), but picking option on the menu again after attaining all four will cause your entire complement of satellites to rapidly rotate around the Vic Viper, granting you even more effective protection and concentrated firepower for a limited time. Right on!

I have to mention how much Gradius II’s bosses impressed me. There are a ton of them (you fight a grueling five in a row during a tense and memorable “boss rush” segment in stage five), they all look fantastic, and each one is wholly unique in terms of its behavior. I didn’t find Gradius or Life Force to be all that impressive in this regard, so this represents another huge leap forward for the series. Oh, and if the idea of squaring off against five bosses back-to-back sounds intimidating, you can rest easy knowing that this is the first home port of a Gradius game to allow for unlimited continues to balance out its longer, more challenging stages. It’s a welcome change for me after just recently reckoning with NES Gradius’ ruthless zero continues policy.

As much as it pains me to say, Gradius II does have a lone non-trivial flaw: The slowdown. The copious weapon fire emitting from the Viper itself (especially when multiple options are involved) combines with the large number of enemy sprites to lag some portions of the game significantly. I found myself mentally nicknaming the second half of stage three “the purple crystal slowdown zone” due to the way the plethora of fragmenting space rocks in your path cause the hardware to chug as you blaze a path through them. It’s not a constant issue by any means and some players may even appreciate the occasional bit of extra “help” dodging all those enemy bullets. Still,  it does have the potential to bog down some otherwise top-notch action.

With its jaw-dropping VRC4-enhanced presentation, varied stages, expanded power-up scheme, thrilling boss encounters, and generous continue system, Gradius II is undeniably a triumph and is a top contender for the single best side-scrolling shooter on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. About the only thing it doesn’t have going for it is the two-player simultaneous play from Life Force, but this is understandable in light of the processing strain a single Gradius II player imposes on the humble Famicom. It’s a genuine treat, right up there with Sweet Home and Holy Diver on my personal short list of the greatest Japan-only releases for the platform. I definitely plan on revisiting this one in the future. Unless the Bacterians vaporize us all first because I dared to insult the mighty Gofer. In which case, my bad.

Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice, thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-’80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet, but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place of honor in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but, it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight, but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of Peru’s Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught, but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it, but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest which includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that best describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes which render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses to reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-’80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.