R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, that game’s torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once-prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved-out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre-defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters that consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy that just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly-regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature that comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings that are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game that’s already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up again like before, repeating the same cycle over and over. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

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Guerilla War (NES)

I destroyed capitalism forever! Yay!

The most interesting thing to me about politics in video games (or anyplace, really) isn’t what we see, but what we don’t. Whose viewpoints and experiences are absent? Who doesn’t get to be the hero? Take Taito’s 1985 arcade shooter Sky Destroyer, in which the player assumes the role of a Japanese pilot during World War II tasked with scuttling the dastardly United States Navy in his A6M Zero fighter. Sky Destroyer was ported to the Famicom later that same year. The NES? Yeah, not so much. Turns out way more people over here still remembered Pearl Harbor 32 years ago. Contrast this with Capcom’s 194X series, which presented the exact same scenario with the nationalities reversed and received numerous Western releases over the years.

That brings me to today’s game: Guevara by SNK, an arcade overhead run-and-gun from 1987 in which the player guides none other than Cuban Revolution poster boy Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself on his 100% historically accurate mission to singlehandedly storm Havana and overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Baptista. Well, not really singlehandedly. That would be ridiculous. Ideally, you also have a second player kicking ass as Fidel Castro. You can safely ignore any bourgeoisie so-called “history” book that claims the Revolution was brought to fruition over a span of two years through the combined struggle of thousands. I can personally attest that it only takes about forty minutes tops for two fired-up Marxist supermen rocking infinite hand grenades and even more infinite facial hair.

Guevara was, simply put, a gung-ho commie take on the company’s better-known Ikari Warriors series. SNK even used photographer Alberto Korda’s famous portrait of Che in promotional materials for the game. This was far too spicy for Cold War America. It would be like having Ivan Drago KO Rocky at the end of the third act! It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that the 1989 NES port was altered, barely, to become Guerilla War. The protagonists are now unnamed, as is the island nation they’re liberating, though the bearded fellow in the introduction still resembles a young Castro and the map shown between stages obviously depicts Cuba.

The changes to the home version also extend to the gameplay and here they’re much more substantial. The arcade original used the same custom rotating joystick that the Ikari games did, which allowed players to move and aim their weapons independently. With no way to implement this feature on a NES controller, the heroes in Guerilla War are limited to firing in whichever direction they’re currently facing. While this sounds like a major downgrade, the developer’s smartly chose to compensate for it by boosting the speed of the action overall. Factor in the smaller character sprites necessitated by the hardware shift and the player is much better equipped to dodge enemy fire here than they were in the arcade, which correlates to a reduced dependency on the precise aiming afforded by the rotating joystick. Savvy decisions like this were what really elevated an arcade port over its peers back in the era when perfect 1:1 conversions weren’t an option.

Guerilla War’s gameplay is best summarized as “NES Ikari Warriors done right.” The Ikari trilogy is often derided as the worst of the worst in terms of run-and-gun action for the platform. They’re slow, stiff, poorly-coded, and ugly as sin to boot. Somebody must have flipped a switch at SNK headquarters around 1989 because that was when their 8-bit home releases started to see a major uptick in quality that would result in less borderline unplayable trash like Athena and Ikari Warriors and more gems like Baseball Stars and the masterful Crystalis. Guerilla War is no Crystalis, but it still represents a humongous leap forward for the publisher. The gameplay is not revolutionary by any means (how’s that for irony?), but it is the anti-Ikari: Fast, fluid, and fun.

Anyone who’s played Capcom’s Commando or any number of similar military-themed bloodbaths from the 1980s before will know what to expect: You control a soldier that’s been dispatched to the jungle (always the jungle) to square off against an entire enemy army. Your default tools of the trade are a rather sad “pea shooter” machine gun with bullets that can only travel about half the length of the screen before vanishing and hand grenades that you can toss in an arcing trajectory to take out enemies behind cover. Killing special red-clad enemy soldiers and blowing up specific bits of the scenery will reveal power-up icons that upgrade your machine gun to something more powerful when collected, like a rocket launcher, spread gun, or flamethrower. These upgrades are lost if you die, though, and it only takes one hit from an enemy to make that happen. Making a guest appearance from the Ikari series are the teeny, tiny tanks that your character can commandeer for some extra firepower. Seriously, they’re like the size of shopping carts. They’re also about as durable, since it will only take a couple of enemy bullets to wreck your ride and leave you hoofing it like a chump again. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One aspect that is fairly unique to this game are the hostages. It seems your capitalist pig-dog foes have captured tons of your fellow patriots and left them tied-up on the battlefield in strategic locations. Touching hostages will rescue them and net you a cool 1000 points apiece, while accidentally (or “accidentally”) shooting them will reduce your score by 500. It’s a good thing that the points don’t matter that much, since I ended up blasting a lot of hostages due to the way they’re often cunningly placed to lure the player into the enemy’s ambushes. Sorry, comrades.

Guerilla War is a simple game, then, and fairly mindless. There are ten stages in total before the climax, a gloriously absurd battle against Baptista himself as he dances back and forth across the roof of El Capitolio chucking explosives at you. Simple shouldn’t be conflated with bad, however. The programmers really pushed the NES as hard as they could in order to put as much chaos on the screen as possible throughout. It’s not unusual for eight or more enemy soldiers to be blasting away at you simultaneously. The downside to this is that sprite flicker is rampant, so it can be tricky to keep tabs on everything during the really crowded engagements. At least slowdown is not nearly as prevalent. The pixel art itself didn’t wow me. Sprites are small and show only minimal detail. In fairness to the creators, it should be noted that this seems like more of a deliberate choice to keep the emphasis on packing as much action as possible onto the screen rather than evidence of a lack of skill or effort. The music has the right tempo and energy to support the game’s constant action, though I didn’t find any of the melodies to be memorable standouts. It’s competent, but definitely no match for the same composers’ later contributions to Crystalis.

If there’s one aspect of Guerilla War that might bring it down in the eyes of some gamers, it’s the complete and total lack of challenge. Although enemies are everywhere and you die in one hit, you’re provided with unlimited continues that start your right back on the spot you died with no break in the action. It’s just like playing the arcade machine with an unlimited supply of quarters. You’re guaranteed to see the ending as long as you just keep plugging away, even if Che and Fidel are taking a dirt nap every other step. Love it or hate it, this is definitely a “kick back and chill” sort of run-and-gun. If you’re looking for more of a “grit your teeth and focus” one, I’d recommend Konami’s Jackal with its limited continues. Given that other games offer a similar experience with more demanding requirements, I’m fine with Guerilla War doing its own thing.

As long as this lack of challenge doesn’t irk you, you really can’t do better than Guevara/Guerilla War for a casual pick-up-and-play Rambo simulator on the NES. The fact that you also get to witness such a topsy-turvy Leftist take on the jingoistic “one many army” trope is just a bonus.

Viva la retrolución!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend (NES)

Derp Dragon to the rescue!

Dragon Spirit: The New Legend has the potential to be a pretty confusing game. If you’ve never played the original 1987 Dragon Spirit arcade game by Namco, the sword-wielding fantasy hero on the cover of this 1989 NES release might have you thinking it’s an RPG or action platforming affair. If you are familiar with the arcade game, you’ll know that it’s actually an overhead scrolling shooter similar to Xevious, but you still might be unsure whether New Legend is supposed to be a port or a sequel, since the gameplay and levels are mostly the same, while the storyline is new and set after the events of Dragon Spirit. Because of this hazy in-between space it occupies, New Legend is most often described as a “remixed” or “enhanced” port of the original rather than a true sequel.

Dragon Spirit was about a warrior named Amru who possessed a magical sword with the power to transform him into a flying, firebreathing blue dragon and used it to rescue Princess Alicia from the serpent demon Zawel. Not exactly revolutionary stuff, even by 1987 standards, but the game itself was a well-made and challenging shooter boasting nine stages packed with unique enemies, environmental hazards, and bosses. Getting to control anything other than an airplane or spaceship in a game of this kind was very uncommon at that time, and the power-up system that involved your dragon sprouting extra heads is still one of the coolest justifications for improved firepower ever. Who wouldn’t want to play as King Ghidorah from the Godzilla movies?

New Legend tells the story of Amru and Alicia’s son Lace, who must take up his father’s magic sword and assume the role of the blue dragon when another villain named Galda makes off with his twin sister Iris. Unexpectedly, however, the game starts off by throwing you into a playable flashback of sorts where you relive Zawel’s defeat at the hands of Amul years before. That’s right: New Legend did the whole “re-fight the final boss from the last game at the start of this one” thing a full eight years before Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Mind = blown.

What’s more, this opening fight is not just a storytelling device, since it also doubles as the game’s difficulty selection mechanism! If you defeat Zawel, you’ll go on to play the main game on the normal “blue dragon” difficulty. Die here, though, and you’ll continue on in “gold dragon” mode, where your dragon has better defense and more powerful attacks. The gold dragon playthrough has fewer stages to complete and a different, “bad” ending, however.

Beyond this very cool intro, the game itself proves to be a very competent interpretation of the arcade Dragon Spirit experience. There’s a new final boss in the form of Galda, but arcade veterans should recognize most everything else. Every stage is here and mostly intact, although there are some differences owing to hardware limitations. For example, the darkened eighth stage turns the lights on and off in set intervals instead of having a spotlight effect that follows your dragon around. New Legend’s stages start out fairly open with only standard enemy patterns to contend with. Later ones gradually work in more environmental hazards and obstacles, all building up to Galda’s castle, which is full of traps and narrow corridors. With nine total stages to work with, it’s a very smooth difficulty curve overall.

In true Xevious fashion, enemies come in two basic forms: Air and ground. Airborne foes can damage you by touch or with their projectiles and can be destroyed by your dragon’s standard fire shot. Ground enemies can be flown over safely, leaving just their bullets to worry about. The bad news is that you can only destroy them with a bomb attack, and bombs have a much shorter range than your regular fire. Since you’ll need to get in closer to take ground targets out, their attacks become that much trickier to dodge as a result. Some of the more cunning enemies can even change their states by jumping up to transition between the ground and the air.

Fortunately, you’re more than adequately equipped to handle Galda’s forces. Destroying flashing enemies and colored eggs releases power-ups for you to collect. You have the expected firepower boosts in the form of extra heads, rapid fire, a spread shot, an earthquake that devastates ground targets, and even a pair of smaller dragons that will fly alongside you and mirror each of your shots. There are also defensive goodies to grab like speed increases, temporary invincibility, and an item that shrinks your dragon down, rendering you a smaller target. New Legend has a great selection of power-ups overall, even if it is missing the homing shot and force field items from the arcade version. Taking a hit will cause you to lose power-ups, but it won’t take you out of the fight straightaway. Instead, the one-hit deaths from most shooters are replaced by a health bar and your dragon can withstand three hits before you lose a life. This is doubled to an absurdly generous six hits for the gold dragon.

A final element working in your favor are the maidens that you can rescue at the end of each stage. It seems that the pervy Galda’s been on quite the kidnapping spree, as these adorable anime girl characters sometimes show up after you defeat a boss in order to thank you and dispense healing or extra lives. Some appear at random, while others require specific conditions such having a firepower rating below a certain threshold or having less than three heads on your dragon.

In terms of overall presentation, New Legend looks and sounds excellent. About as well as could be expected, really, considering the platform. Dragon Spirit was a very attractive game for its time, so an overall loss of visual detail when converting it from the Namco System 1 arcade board to the NES was unavoidable. This is mainly evident in some of the smaller enemies you encounter, which tend to have a bit of an indistinct, blobby appearance. The use of color is excellent, however, and your dragon animates very well. Dragon Spirit’s most iconic moment of all, the Masters of the Universe style introductory cut scene where your hero raises his magic sword overhead to assume dragon form is also present here and looks very awesome indeed. Even the otherwise visually superior PC Engine version omitted this bit. Masakatsu Maekawa (Adventure Island, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung-Fu) did an admirable job adapting Shinji Hosoe’s original score to the new hardware. The tunes pack all the driving intensity a great shooter needs while still emphasizing through their melodies and instrumentation that this is a fantasy adventure and not a sci-fi saga. On their own terms, they’re arguably on-par with the arcade arrangements.

I had a great time with Dragon Spirit: The New Legend. It’s a superb rendition of a classic overhead shooter from the masters at Namco and easily one of the better Bandai-published titles for the system. Its very best feature, though, might just be its accessibility. The original Dragon Spirit was real quarter muncher of a title, mainly because your dragon’s large size made it difficult to dodge all the hazards placed in your path. Well, it turns out that another consequence of the move to NES hardware was a smaller player character. Factor in the numerous power-ups, the ability to withstand multiple hits, the end level bonuses provided by the maidens you can rescue, and the ability to continue twice when your run out of lives, and you have yourself one extremely forgiving vertical shooter. If all that’s still not enough, the gold dragon difficulty option is there to strengthen your safety net even more. I was able to “1CC” the game (beat it without continuing) on the higher difficulty setting on my very first playthrough, and my command of the genre is average at best. If you’re new to shooters or have had trouble making progress with them in the past, New Legend is a great starter title to be on the lookout for, especially in light of its less than $10 price point as of the time of this writing.

Of course, the downside of all this is that shooter gods looking for a new challenge may want to look elsewhere. Everyone else: Get out there and burninate the countryside!

Shinobi (Master System)

Only a ninja can stop a ninja!

I never had a Sega Master System growing up. I never knew a single person who did. Not one. Poor Sega never had a chance in the mid-1980s console market, at least in North America and Japan, where the god-king Nintendo lorded over all it surveyed. Although the Master System (also known as the Mark III) sold like crazy in South America and portions of Europe well into the 21st century, it was virtually invisible outside those far-flung markets. It’s a shame. The system hardware was quite advanced for the time and it was capable of displaying significantly more colorful and detailed graphics than the NES.

While technical superiority is nice, even the most powerful console is ultimately dependent on its software library. This turned out to be the Master System’s Achilles’ heel. Nintendo’s strict exclusivity policies meant that best and brightest game companies of the time were essentially forbidden to venture anywhere near it if they wanted a ride on that sweet NES money train. Superstar developers like Capcom, Konami, Enix, and Rare knew which side their bread was buttered on. Many of these same parties would later grow disgruntled with Nintendo’s anti-competitive, control freak ways, which was great news for Sega’s follow-up console, the Mega Drive/Genesis, but by then it was far too late to salvage the Master System in any market that had not yet fully embraced it.

This lack of third party support meant that Sega themselves had to do the lion’s share of the work propping the Master System up in the U.S., primarily with conversions of their own popular arcade games. It’s only fitting, then, that the first Master System game I’d ever play would turn out to be Sega’s own port of their 1987 arcade smash Shinobi.

Applied to a person, the Japanese “shinobi” essentially means “one who sneaks” and is used synonymously with the better-known term ninja. Deadly masked ninja warriors were everywhere in the 1980s. Well, everywhere in the media, that is. We had ninja movies, ninja tv shows, ninja action figures, ninja comics, and, of course, ninja video games. A side scrolling action platformer, Shinobi was one of the first games to put you in the shoes of one of these relentless shadow warriors. It was essentially a variation on (or, less charitably, a clone of) Namco’s Rolling Thunder from 1986, just with the pistol-packing James Bond style superspy replaced with a shuriken tossing ninja master named Joe Musashi.

Joe is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped children of his ninja clan from their abductors, the sinister terrorist organization Zeed and its leaders, the Ring of Five. At least in the arcade version. The Master System manual identifies the kidnap victims as the children of unspecified “world leaders.” Either way: Bad guys stole the kiddos, so go ninja the hell out of stuff until that’s all sorted out. Works for me.

The game includes fourteen regular stages filled with hostages to rescue and generic thugs to mow down, interspersed with boss battles against the Zeed head honchos and culminating in a final showdown with the imposing Masked Ninja. Joe starts out able to throw an unlimited amount of shuriken and take out close range targets with his punches and kicks. Rescuing specific hostages in each stage will upgrade his arsenal to a gun and sword for long and short range engagements, respectively. There’s also the matter of Joe’s ninja magic, which is essentially a “panic button” usable only once per level that will clear the screen of all regular enemies and deal heavy damage to bosses. Most stages feature a dual level battlefield with enemies and hostages placed both along the ground and atop walls and other high structures. Joe is able to freely transition between the two levels by holding up or down on the directional controls in conjunction with the jump button, and picking the right moment to do this in order to get the drop on enemies is a key part of the strategy. Between stages, there’s a short bonus game where Joe must fend off waves of enemy ninjas from a first person view and is rewarded with an extra life if successful.

Shinobi is a rather deliberately paced affair, which helps to set it apart from many other ninja action games. Experienced players can rush through it very quickly, but it often pays to stop for a second and think through the ideal way to approach a specific cluster of waiting enemies. The Master System version sticks very closely to the arcade blueprint for the most part, but there are a few drastic changes worth mentioning.

A health meter replaces the one-hit kills that Joe was subject to in the arcade. This cuts down on the difficulty somewhat, though not as much as you might expect, as it was balanced out by removing the ability to continue after a game over. Like the NES version of Double Dragon, this is a game you have to complete in one go or not at all. Luckily, your health gauge can be extended to allow Joe to absorb more damage, which brings me to the next major change: The hostage rescue system.

Unlike in the arcade, you don’t need to rescue all the child hostages in a stage in order to move on. You should still grab as many as possible, though, because there are many more potential rewards for doing so in the Master System port, including the previously mentioned maximum health increases, healing, and cool new weapon upgrades like bombs, knives, nunchaku, and a spiked chain. While these power-ups persist from stage to stage, they’re all stripped away the instant you die even once and rescued hostages never reappear to be collected again. This can be downright brutal late in the game. Making it all the way through the final stage on the puny default health bar can be done, but I don’t envy anyone making the attempt. I managed it…once.

Finally, the ninja magic has been heavily downgraded on the Master System. So much so that it’s almost worthless. It still functions as before, but you’re unable to access it by default like in the arcade. Here it replaces extra lives as your reward for winning the bonus stages. If you do manage to obtain some, there’s also a new and highly obnoxious restriction to deal with: You must defeat ten enemies in a given stage before you’ll be permitted to actually use any ninja magic you may have earned. I honestly cannot fathom the reasoning behind this change. By the time you’ve killed enough enemies to activate your magic, you’re likely nearing the end of the stage anyway. The game also treats boss fights as their own separate stages, so there doesn’t seem to be any way to use magic against them at all. At least stockpiled ninja magic doesn’t go away when you die like all the other power-ups. Blah.

Shinobi looks pretty good on the Master System. At least when it’s standing still. The sprites are large and detailed and there’s some great use of those bright colors the console is known for in the various stage backgrounds. Animation does suffer quite a bit, however. This is particularly noticeable when defeated enemies simply blink right out of existence because there are no frames included of them crumpling to the ground like they do in the arcade. This may seem like a small thing, but the visual feedback on your attacks really contributed to the original version’s satisfying feel. Just imagine Super Mario Bros. with the goombas Mario stomps vanishing on contact without being comically flattened first. It just ain’t right. The vertical scrolling whenever Joe leaps up or down between the different levels of a stage is also jarringly choppy for some reason. A game really shouldn’t look like it’s glitching out every time you just want to jump up to a platform. Even though a dip in overall quality coming from the System 16 arcade hardware was inevitable, I’m still inclined to expect better than this from Sega. They didn’t even include an ending! Instead, winning the game nets you the exact same game over screen that losing it does. Huh?

As for the audio…well, there’s no nice way to say it: The original Shinobi’s catchy soundtrack is essentially butchered here. You get a single short music loop that plays over every regular stage. The bonus rounds and boss fights each get their own track for a grand total of three songs, but that’s still 95% of the game during which you’re expected to sit there and listen to the same tinny tune. It’s borderline torturous. For what it’s worth, there are supposedly also higher quality versions of these same three songs included on the cartridge, though they can’t be played back unless you have the special FM sound expansion board that was produced exclusively for the Japanese version of the console.

Shinobi on the Master System has some real flaws. It doesn’t look or sound as great as it should and the super cool ninja magic has been watered-down to the point of total superfluousness. On the plus side, the addition of a health bar and persistent power-ups makes the gameplay a lot more forgiving from moment to moment, while the lack of continues and potentially massive disempowerment that each death brings tends to makes the player more cautious and focused on surviving over the long term. Ideally, you want to be able to make it all the way to the end of the game on your first life so that you never have to deal with losing your health and weapon upgrades. It makes the whole experience a lot more “consoley,” if that makes any sense, without requiring any major changes to the stage layouts and enemy placement that fans were already familiar with from the arcade. Though not perfect, it still stands head and shoulders over any other home port and remains the best way outside of an arcade to experience Joe Musashi’s first adventure.

Now that I’ve finally toppled the Zeed syndicate, I’m really looking forward to seeing where my exploration of the Master System library will take me next. Hiyaa!

Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to advance the genre again while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer, but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game, but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack, but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily, but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade, but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there, but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)

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Translation level: Godlike.

Sometimes I feel compelled to complete a game out of an odd sense of duty. These are games that are so foundational to the hobby that experiencing them firsthand arguably falls under the cultural literacy rubric. I generally draw the line at subjecting myself to truly terrible games, at least for a prolonged periods, but I will occasionally take on a game I’m not super enthusiastic about just so that I can check it off my bucket list.

That’s why I made time yesterday afternoon for a playthrough of the NES version of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins. First released in the arcades as Makaimura (“Demon World Village”) in 1985, Ghosts ‘n Goblins is an early action platformer from prolific producer/director Tokuro Fujiwara that’s famous for its spooky-cute character designs and equally infamous for its steep challenge. This home release from 1986 was a strong seller and is arguably the best-known version of the game. I myself had a copy as a kid, though I never got all that far in it. Now that I’m a whole lot older and a whole lot better at games in general, I figured it was time to finish what I started.

In Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you play as bearded knight Sir Arthur on a mission to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin (yes, really) from none other than Satan, who swoops in at the start of the game to abduct her because…well, that’s just what video game baddies did back then. Maybe I should just come up with some kind of shorthand abbreviation that I can use for this in game reviews from now on? KGP for “kidnapped girl plot?” This is also the third game in a row for me where the goal is to beat up on Satan. I didn’t actually plan it that way, but I suppose you can’t really do much better for a villain.

To reach Prin Prin, Sir Arthur has to run, jump, and shoot his way through six short levels, which doesn’t sound too tricky at all. The rub is that these levels are packed with the titular ghosts and goblins, who will stop at nothing to keep your hero from his goal. Some of these foes take many hits to destroy, while other might appear from thin air suddenly and make a swift beeline for Arthur or move about in chaotic patterns that make them difficult to target. The game’s most famous enemies, the gargoyle-like Red Arremer demons, combine most of these qualities into one very intimidating package. Arthur also has a strict time limit and some rather stiff controls to contend with, not to mention the fact that his shiny suit of armor can only absorb a single hit before shattering to pieces and leaving him to fend off the demon hoards in his underwear. One more hit after that and he’s down for the count.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You have unlimited lives in this version and most of the levels have checkpoints at the halfway mark. This means that you’re free to make all the mistakes you need while learning the stage layouts and enemy patterns and can experiment with different strategies at your leisure until you hit on something that works for you. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen.

That’s not to say that Ghosts ‘n Goblins plays things totally straight. Challenging action is one thing, but the outright tricks the game plays on its audience are the stuff of gaming legend. The sixth level can only be completed if the player uses a specific weapon, the cross. Reaching the end without the cross equipped will ship Arthur all the way back to the start of the previous level, and there’s no advance warning of this in the game itself or even in the instruction manual. If you think that’s rough, getting past that roadblock and beating the final boss will only earn you a message stating that you’ve fallen victim to “a trap devisut by Satan” and you’ll then be sent all the way back to the beginning of the first stage. You’ll have to complete the entire game again on a second, more difficult loop if you want to finally reunite Arthur and Prin Prin for real. Now imagine that happening in the arcade, when you’ve already pumped a small fortune in quarters into the machine hoping for that ending scene. Ow.

Nowadays, it’s a bit easier to laugh off these dirty tricks and even to admire the game a bit for its trollish chutzpah; its willingness to push boundries and toy with player expectations. False endings and mandatory repeat playthroughs would become a series tradition, much to the chagrin of many. For me, though, they would never pack the same punch again. Love it or hate it, the first game went there. The sequels just sort of give you a wink and a nudge as if to say “Hey, remember when I went there?”

If this version of the game has a weakness, it’s the fact that it was programmed for Capcom by Micronics, the same sub-par contract developer that cranked out such 8-bit atrocities as Athena, Ikari Warriors, and Super Pitfall. While Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a masterpiece compared to the rest of their NES output, the usual Micronics hallmarks are still all present and accounted for. Expect choppy scrolling, a jittery framerate, heavy sprite flicker, and random glitches like the occasional bit of damage from an invisible enemy. Despite its questionable pedigree, however, this is a still a very solid conversion of a then-recent coin-op. There are a few non-essential elements omitted, like the boss battle music, but otherwise every stage, every weapon, and every enemy from the arcade is re-created faithfully. They even managed to maintain some of the wacky charm of the original character sprites and animations, like Arthur’s exaggerated run cycle and the Red Arremer’s sassy dance moves. It’s a very respectable effort for a 1986 release, even if the patented Micronics reverse Midas touch holds it back from achieving the same level of polish that Konami’s NES port of Gradius did around the same time.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is far from being one of my favorite games for the system. It had the misfortune of coming out right when action platformers were in the midst of a sort of accelerated awkward adolescence and it has the limited mechanics and stiff controls to prove it. Just a few more short years of tinkering with the formula would usher in a renaissance via the likes of Mega Man, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden. Sir Arthur’s inaugural outing was an important step in the right direction, but its immediate successors were all too happy to make it eat their dust.

Still, if you fancy yourself an NES nut, it’s a pilgrimage you just have to make at least once. Don’t let the difficulty scare you off: Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progres!

Strider (Genesis)

Huh. I was expecting a bigger boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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