Cadash (TurboGrafx-16)

Baarogue the Destroyer is ravaging the peaceful kingdom of Deezar. He’s kidnapped Princess Sarasa and spirited her off to his lair in Castle Cadash, where he plans to conduct a magic ritual to join with her and gain ultimate power. The king of Deerzar summons four heroes and implores them to rescue his daughter before all is lost. Fighter, mage, priestess, and ninja brace themselves for the trials ahead as they set off for Cadash.

If you think this sounds like the most generic setup for a fantasy epic imaginable, you’re not wrong. What made this 1989 release from Taito remarkable wasn’t its stock plot or equally conventional side-scrolling gameplay, but rather its format: Cadash was an action RPG for the arcades! Your adventurers explored dungeons, racked up experience points to level up, spent money at inns and shops, the works. Some dual screen cabinet configurations even allowed you to do all this with up to three friends at once. It stood out in a sea of spaceship shooters and Double Dragon style beat-’em-ups, that’s for sure.

This 1991 home conversion for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 was the game’s first. It’s also widely considered to be its best, seeing as the later Genesis edition omits two of the four playable characters for some reason. Commendable as this arcade accuracy is, however, it doesn’t quite make up for the TG-16 port’s lack of substance relative to most of its console native contemporaries. Cadash is ludicrously short by genre standards. Its five interconnected dungeons can be conquered in about a hour, give or take. For this reason, it’s a rare example of an RPG with no form of save feature. There’s simply no need.

What little longevity Cadash has is derived from its four mechanically distinct heroes. The fighter and ninja are your close and long-range physical combatants, respectively. The fighter’s heavy armor and shields theoretically compensate for all the extra hits he’ll be taking. Personally, I found the ninja’s “hang back and lob shuriken” approach much more pragmatic and fun. The mage and priestess are both given magic to offset their relative lack of weapon proficiency. In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, the priestess specializes in healing and protection spells while the mage prefers to wreck fools with fireballs and lightning bolts. Pity the controls make playing as the two spellcasters unnecessarily frustrating. You select a spell by holding the attack button down as a series of icons slowly cycle by. Releasing the button when the icon corresponding to the spell you want is displayed triggers that spell. Good luck managing this while a humongous boss monster is whaling on you! I can’t help but feel a more elegant approach was possible, especially since the Select button goes wholly unused.

A curious aspect of this iteration of Cadash is its total lack of extra lives or continues in single-player. If a lone hero runs out of hit points, the game is over. Contrast this with the co-op mode, where either player can spend gold to revive a fallen partner. This gave me considerable pause at first, since it seemed like it would make a solo playthrough one hellishly difficult ordeal. Imagine my surprise when the exact opposite turned out to be true. I completed Cadash twice with two different characters (the ninja and priestess) and never once died. My secret? Grinding, baby! The arcade Cadash forces you to cope with some very strict time limits. It makes sense there. What arcade owner wants some punk hogging a machine for hours on a single quarter? The home versions ditch the timer, so you’re free to cut down droves of easy enemies at the start of a dungeon and power your character up well beyond the point of common decency. Sporting? Not at all. Effective? Hell, yes.

As an undistinguished action RPG with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime better suited to the arcade than the home, Cadash doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. On the plus side, the graphics are crisp and colorful, the music is decent, and any kind of two-player simultaneous functionality is always a rare boon in a game like this. One final thing I enjoyed was the text by Working Designs. For those unacquainted with the company, they handled English language translation and localization duties on behalf of numerous Japanese game publishers between 1991 and 2004. Their work is controversial within the classic gaming community due to their tendency to insert absurd gags and anachronistic pop culture references into their scripts at every opportunity. Some find this relentless goofiness compromises authenticity and dulls the impact of serious moments. Others get a kick of out of filthy innuendo and fossilized O.J. Simpson jokes. Depending on the game, I could go either way. I think it works in this context. Cadash has so little story to begin with, and what is present is pure cliché. Having the villain name check Carl Sagan in his pre-fight monologue may be ridiculous, but you can’t accuse Working Designs of undermining great drama here.

Ultimately, I can recommend this one for a quick burst of casual monster bashing, particularly if you can rope a second player into it. It’s likely too brief and basic to hold your attention for long, though, and it’s hardly worth the mad sums authentic copies command on the secondary market these days. Keep those expectations in check and you should be fine. Cadash is here for a good time, not a long time.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

U.N. Squadron (Super Nintendo)

Hey, Super Nintendo fans: Are you ready for the sort of pulse pounding, face melting action that could only come from the most extreme intergovernmental organization on the planet? That’s right, I’m talking about the United goddamn Nations! So strap in, punks, because they’re coming at you with all 193 member states and at least as many ways to kick your ass in their official video game adaptation, U.N. Squadron!

Yeah, so Capcom’s 1991 horizontal shooter U.N. Squadron has nothing at all to do with its real world namesake. It’s based on the manga Area 88, about mercenary jet pilots operating out of the war-torn and wholly fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom of Arslan. Given Area 88’s obscurity outside Japan, a new name for the international editions made sense. I only wish they’d arrived at a more viscerally appealing one. The name is all that’s been changed, too. This isn’t one of those cases where licensed elements were stripped out of a game wholesale. The Area 88 characters and the eponymous air base itself are still present in U.N. Squadron.

In most games of this type, such details wouldn’t really matter. U.N. Squadron, however, uses its license to justify a number of clever design choices which set it apart from its contemporaries. For example, the first thing you’re expected to do is pick your character. Each of the three playable pilots has his own special ability. Shin Kazama is able to power-up his plane’s main gun the fastest. Mickey Scymon can carry the most missiles, bombs, and other limited use sub-weapons. Last, and definitely not least, my main man Greg Gates recovers from damage twice as fast as the rest. Be advised that once you choose, you’re committed for the duration of your current playthrough. In general, the durable Greg is ideal for beginners, Shin shines at the intermediate level, and Mickey is hard mode.

After you’ve settled on a pilot, you next need to choose your plane and its special weapon loadout. The manga’s mercenary premise is represented brilliantly here by an in-game economy based on your performance in battle. Every target you destroy and mission you complete earns you cold, hard cash in addition to the standard points and extra lives. You’ll want to scrape together all the blood money you can in order to afford better planes and more powerful weapons over the course of your campaign. I love the thorny strategic tradeoffs baked into this shop system. Loading your jet up with as many added weapons as possible will increase your odds of survival, but you’ll lose every penny sunk into them if you’re shot down anyway. Similarly, upgrading your ride from the default Crusader, which has no particular strengths to speak of, to a more capable craft like the Tomcat or Thunderbolt can be helpful in the mid-game. At the same time, doing so may prevent you from ever being able to afford the very best plane, the million dollar Efreet.

You now have a pilot, a plane, and an arsenal. Would you believe you’re not making decisions yet? U.N. Squadron also works in a tactical map screen that doubles as a mission select menu. You’re given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to which order you want to tacked the game’s ten stages in, apart from the first and last ones, which are fixed. Complicating things further, a few map markers represent mobile air or sea units advancing on Area 88. If they make it there, you’ll be forced to fight them off regardless of your personal preference.

All this player choice cropping up in what’s typically an extremely straightforward style of game is emblematic of a Capcom tradition that dates back to the 1986 NES port of Commando: Heavily retooling an arcade title with an eye toward bolstering the home version’s replayability. U.N. Squadron’s arcade iteration from 1989 had traditional linear stage progression and restricted each pilot to his own signature aircraft. If it wasn’t for the loss of arcade’s two-player feature, this deeper Super Nintendo release would be superior in every way.

Of course, these fancy options need to be in service of some quality shooting action or the whole production would be in vain. I’m happy to report that U.N. Squadron doesn’t disappoint, delivering some truly remarkable gameplay and level design. Controls are precise and responsive. The six planes and eleven special weapons are all effective in their own ways and fun to experiment with. The various areas you battle in have distinct visual identities and their unique topographies actually inform your tactics. Enemy patterns are diverse. Bosses are huge, deadly, and immensely satisfying to take down. As if this all wasn’t enough, it also boasts audiovisual pizzazz to spare and runs significantly better than much of its early Super Nintendo competition, putting the likes of Gradius III and Super R-Type to shame in the framerate department. Simply put, this was Capcom at their peak, doing what they did best. Cracking stuff.

Difficulty-wise, U.N. Squadron is simultaneously fierce and forgiving. You’re quite unlikely to finish it on your first try, as considerable trial-and-error is required and you’re limited to just three continues. Your saving grace is the damage system. Unlike in most shooters, you won’t be blown out of the sky by a single stray bullet. Rather, you have a sort of conditional health bar. Taking a hit will put you into a special danger state for a few seconds. If you get hit again while in danger, you’re toast. Survive the danger period, though, and your health will recover to slightly less than what it was before you took that hit. You can’t repeat this cycle forever, sadly, since four or five consecutive hits will deplete the bar fully and leave you in danger indefinitely. Still, that’s four or five more hits than I’m used to being able to brush off in these games. It helps.

Any way you slice it, this is a top shelf shoot-’em-up, one of the best ever made for the SNES. Even the most strident of genre snobs, who never hesitate to give the console grief for its pokey CPU, generally hail U.N. Squadron as a masterpiece. In a perfect world, it would have been the start of a magnificent series. Instead, its legacy is limited to a lone arcade pseudo-sequel, the obscure Carrier Air Wing. About the only complaint I can muster is that it’s yet another case of a vintage shooter with no true built-in autofire for your main gun. Either game developers back then were all in bed with the turbo controller manufacturers or they vastly overestimated their audience’s fondness for incessant tapping. Oh, well. I suppose if any game is worth a little finger pain, it’s this one.

Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16)

Now that’s what I call a relatable ending.

After losing myself in the intricate turn-based RPG Live A Live last week, I wanted something nice and basic to ease me back into the action groove. What could be more straightforward than a military-themed overhead run-and-gun?

Though relatively rare today, these games were inescapable throughout the ’80s and early ’90, their popularity fueled by the big screen bloodbaths of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and countless other uber-macho action icons. Key titles such as Taito’s Front Line (1982), Capcom’s Commando (1985), and SNK’s Ikari Warriors (1986) codified the template: A hardass super soldier (or possibly two, if you have a buddy with a second quarter to spend) stomping through the jungle, ruthlessly gunning down legions of hapless mooks. Sometimes he’s out to liberate P.O.W.s or take out a world threatening megaweapon. Other times he’s taking on the enemy because, hey, what else are enemies for?

In 1988, developer Data East threw their green beret into the ring with yet another take on this crowded subgenre: Bloody Wolf, also known as Narazumono Sentō Butai Bloody Wolf (“Rogue Combat Squad: Bloody Wolf”) in Japan and Battle Rangers in Europe. I’m thinking this original arcade release must be pretty scarce here in the U.S., since I’ve never actually encountered the cabinet in the wild. That’s why I’m reviewing the much more common TurboGrafx-16 port from 1990 instead.

TG-16 Bloody Wolf adds an extra stage and expands most of the others, albeit at the cost of the arcade’s two-player functionality. That’s a tradeoff I can live with. The real loss, however, is the new English translation. Arcade Bloody Wolf’s script is a sublime catastrophe which includes perhaps my favorite mangled video game line of all time: “Get you the hot bullets of shotgun to die!” Mmm. That is some primo stuff right there. The home version swaps it out for “You’ll make a nice target for this gun!” Weak.

Bloody Wolf tasks you with rescuing your kidnapped president from behind enemy lines. There’s no hint anywhere as to who your antagonists are supposed to be. The instructions simply refer to them as a “berzerk military unit” led by a “crazed General.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a coup attempt of some kind? All that really matters is there’s two of you and hundreds of them, so you’d best get shooting!

Wait, two? Didn’t I say this was a one-player game? I did and it is. At the outset, you’re expected to choose one of the two strapping commandos shown on the title screen. He’ll then serve as your primary character, although you’ll still end up controlling both heroes as the story plays out. You even get to name these guys. Their default handles are Snake and Eagle, but that’s no fun. I named the one with hair Will after myself and the bald one…Baldo. Guess I wasn’t feeling very creative that night.

Gameplay-wise, Bloody Wolf doesn’t break the mold in any major way. Your primary weapon is a pea shooter rifle with endless ammo that can be temporarily upgraded to a shotgun or bazooka via pickups obtained from crates and rescued prisoners. In addition, you start with a secondary attack in the form of grenades. These can later be powered-up or swapped out entirely in favor of a flamethrower or flash bombs. Finally, there’s your trusty combat knife, which is automatically used in place of your main gun whenever a bad guy is within shanking range. Redundant as this last option seems, some armored foes are bulletproof, so getting in close to stab them may be your best bet.

Taking a page from Ikari Warriors, Bloody Wolf also allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles in order to create even more carnage. Bizarrely, these aren’t tanks or other common weapons of war. Rather, they’re Harley-Davidson style motorcycles you use to run your adversaries down. It’s as effective as it is hilarious. Sadly, these have a very limited supply of fuel. Enjoy them while they last.

The one slightly unorthodox thing here is your characters’ ability to jump, a feature more closely associated with Contra and other side-view run-and-guns. Hell, even the Harleys can jump! They don’t need ramps to do it, either. They just spontaneously levitate when you tap the button. I love it. A few levels and boss fights incorporate rudimentary platforming, though this aspect of the game comes across as a mere novelty, by no means co-equal with the combat.

In light of its arcade roots and hardcore two-man army premise, you might expect Bloody Wolf to offer up a fierce challenge. If so, you’d be wrong. Your characters enjoy the mercy of a health bar rather than the usual one-hit kills. Body armor, medicine, and sketchy sounding “muscle emphasis tablets” can all either restore lost health or lengthen the bar itself. On top of this, the eight short stages include frequent checkpoints and continues are unlimited. This makes for a smooth, low pressure play experience from start to finish. I can see this being a point of contention for those who bought the game at full price and weren’t expecting to race through it in a couple of hours. Me, I found it pretty fun to be able to kick back and casually exterminate the opposing force on my mystical leaping motorbike.

While neither a historically important work like Commando nor a must-play masterpiece like Jackal or Shock Troopers, Bloody Wolf is a successful arcade conversation and a thoroughly competent example of its kind. It looks fine, sounds fine, and delivers precisely the sort of no frills testosterone-drenched thrill ride you’d expect. If all you’re looking for an excuse to switch off your brain and take in the interactive equivalent of a vintage Chuck Norris flick, you can do a whole lot worse.

Will and Baldo, I salute you!

Splatterhouse (PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16)

Burning down the house!

Of all the bone-chilling titles in this year’s October roundup, Namco’s Splatterhouse holds the strongest claim to true historical significance as mainstream gaming’s introduction to gore. Suspect I might oversimplifying there? That’s fair. 1988 does seem awfully late for such a milestone. I don’t maintain that Splatterhouse was the first gory game, however, only the first to enjoy a number of advantages that collectively gave it the edge in breaking through to the public consciousness. Unlike Exidy’s 1986 light gun oddity Chiller, it received a massive marketing push from its A-list developer/publisher. Its 16-bit graphics allowed for much more in the way of shocking detail than Wizard Video’s blocky 1983 renditions of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on the Atari 2600. Finally, being an arcade and console release, it had a much wider built-in audience than home computer offerings like 1987’s Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

Eschewing the ancient Universal homages of many other early horror games, Splatterhouse gleefully leaned into edgier contemporary influences. Its musclebound hero, Rick Taylor, donned a Jason-esque “Terror Mask” and blue jumpsuit ensemble, simultaneously paying tribute to two of the period’s most iconic big screen slashers. And he splattered things. Loads of things. Zombies, bloodsucking worms, flying severed heads, misshapen killer fetuses, you name it, all in his frenzied rush to rescue his love Jennifer from the unholy depths of West Mansion. No wonder this 1989 port to the TurboGrafx-16 became the first game to bear a violence warning, which declared it “inappropriate for young children…and cowards.” From the makers of Pac-Man and Dig Dug came the blood-drenched beat-’em-up Evil Dead and Reanimator fans had been waiting for. Go figure.

So, having established Splatterhouse as very important and very cool, how does it play? Well, what you see really is what you get with this one. Even by 1988 standards, the gameplay here is basic. At a point in arcade history when Double Dragon’s eight-directional movement represented the cutting edge in beat-’em-up design, Splatterhouse confines Rick to a single horizontal plane and thus more closely resembles Irem’s Kung-Fu Master from 1984. Simply walk to the right, hop over the occasional spike or other ground hazard, and smack down every twisted monstrosity that gets in your way. Persevere through seven stages of this of this without running out of lives and you win. A couple stages do offer short branching paths to the boss room, but this idea is sadly underutilized.

Rick’s rampage is as brief as it is straightforward. After you’ve come to grips with the level layouts and enemy behaviors, an entire playthrough can be wrapped up in under twenty minutes. This makes Splatterhouse a rare example of a “hot tea game” for me. See, I’ve unintentionally developed a tradition over the years of brewing up a piping hot mug of tea at the start of a gaming session. I then immediately get lost in the flow, forgetting all about my poor beverage until hours have passed, by which time it’s ice cold. Imagine my surprise when I cleared the TurboGrafx Splatterhouse for the first time and had a nice, warm mug awaiting me for a change! I had so much play time to spare that I threw on the Japanese PC Engine version and ran all the way through it, too. Turns out the two are almost identical. The North American edition merely changed Rick’s mask from white to red (presumably to head off any Paramount Pictures lawsuits) and took out all the crosses. Because shredding zombies in twain with a wooden plank is fine, provided you leave Jesus out of it.

Pointing out that these home editions of Splatterhouse are dead simple and light on content shouldn’t be construed as condemnation. On the contrary. As they’re intended to be faithful adaptations of the arcade original, they must be reckoned great successes. Every key location and play element is present and accounted for. The graphics, particularly the backgrounds, are scaled back somewhat, yet still convey the same hellish effect. The eerie music holds up equally well. This series in general has a reputation for style over substance, which is both technically true and frequently unfair. The entirety of Splatterhouse is positively bursting with ghoulish ambience and diabolic verve, resulting in an unforgettable experience for any classic gaming or classic horror enthusiast. What’s the sense in glossing over that as if it’s some small thing that comes standard with any random game?

Splatterhouse made enough of a splash to warrant two direct sequels on the Sega Genesis and a delightfully silly Famicom spin-off (Wanpaku Graffiti). As of this writing, an ill-fated 2010 reboot attempt is the last we’ve heard from Rick, Jennifer, and the eldritch Terror Mask. Perhaps that’s for the best. Splatterhouse’s once transgressive grue factor comes across almost naive in an age of fully-voiced interactive torture scenes (Grand Theft Auto V) and near photorealistic dismemberment (Mortal Kombat 11). Shifts in popular culture and the inexorable march of technology have rendered this former controversy magnet quaint as a caped Bela Lugosi in its own way. Its infectiously likable pick-up-and-play action, on the other hand? That’s timeless.

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….

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 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 which 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 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 which 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 which 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 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 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 when 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 designed with 1981’s Donkey Kong in mind 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. It looks and runs like a dream next to those earlier offerings. This was the platform as whole’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place of honor in its library as Strider does on the Genesis or R-Type does on the PC Engine.

If you guessed 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 this 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 helpful drone ships which assist 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. This is uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking the 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 it verges on the unsporting. This means 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.