Dungeon Explorer (TurboGrafx-16)

I’m attacking the darkness!

When the TurboGrafx-16 had its North American debut in October of 1989, it made sense for NEC to include at least one fantasy adventure title in the launch lineup. Since the system’s first true “Zelda clone” (Neutopia) wouldn’t see release in Japan until the following month, the honor went to Dungeon Explorer, a slick variation on Atari’s multiplayer arcade classic Gauntlet from developer Atlus. Launching with a game that supports up to five players simultaneously also gave NEC an opportunity to promote their TurboTap accessory. One of the TG-16’s most panned features was its single controller port and the TurboTap added four more, provided you were willing to shell out for it. It was the $20 solution to a wholly self-made problem.

Dungeon Explorer takes place in Oddesia, a medieval kingdom under siege by what the game refers to as aliens. I’m honestly not sure if these monsters are supposed to be actual extraterrestrials or if the whole “aliens” thing is just a translation quirk, but I do know that their leader has the most metal name ever: Natas, King Satan. Hardcore. To stop the aliens, the king dispatches your hero(es) to hunt down the Ora Stone, a off-the-rack magic MacGuffin with the vaguely-defined power to either save or doom the kingdom, depending on which side gets hold of it first. Where’s the Stone? In one of the land’s many monster and trap-filled underground dungeons, of course, so you’d best start exploring!

As you may have surmised, Dungeon Explorer doesn’t devote a lot of time to deep lore and complex characterization. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on simple pick-up-and-play monster blasting. Once each player has selected a character class at the tavern where the game begins (or entered their ten letter password to continue a previous play session), the entrance to the first dungeon is just one screen away. The few NPCs you encounter have little to say and, with no monetary system in place, the town areas are reduced to mere backdrops in the absence of the inns and shops that genre fans are accustomed to.

While the plot, characters, and setting are bland indeed, Atlus’ decision to emphasize action paid off with a total of ten unique playable character classes (eight available from the start and two special ones unlocked through play). Each has their own strengths and weaknesses that are based on the starting distribution of four key stats: Attack (the power of your main shot), Agility (movement speed), Strength (hit points), and Intelligence (magic power). The Elf, for example, is a bit of a glass cannon with his combination of high Agility and low Strength. These abilities aren’t set in stone, either. Every dungeon boss you defeat drops a crystal that will raise your hero’s level and permanently increase one stat of your choice when collected. This enables some interesting strategic decisions over the course of the quest. Do you double down on your chosen hero’s strengths or try to mold him or her into a more well-balanced character by shoring up a weakness? Giving the player total control over character progression in this way was a smart choice, as it allows for multiple playthroughs with the same class to potentially feel quite different.

Beyond the four primary stats, each character class also has two magic spells available, one designated white (defensive) and the other black (offensive). These spells are fueled by single-use potions of the corresponding color that appear at preset spots in the dungeons or as random drops from enemies. This mention of potion-based magic is yet another little detail that will have the Gauntlet fans out there nodding their heads. There are twelve spells in total, meaning that most are usable by more than one class. That said, no one class shares both of its spells with another.

That’s really all you need to know to jump in and start clearing out some dungeons. The rest is pure overhead run-and-gun mayhem. You can fire rapidly in eight directions and you’ll need to, since enemies by the score pour out continuously from destructible “generators” in each area. Fight your way past them all, grab any power-ups you come across, and defeat the dungeon boss to level up. The king or another helpful NPC will then point you in the direction of the next dungeon so you can do it all over again. It’s an appealing formula and it’s very easy to fall into that same “just one more level…” groove that’s funneled so many quarters into Gauntlet cabinets over the years. Adding more players to the mix definitely ups the fun factor, though I ironically find it slightly easier to make progress solo. Players can block one other’s movement and attacks, so unless you and your partners have some rock solid communication and teamwork skills, you may end up unintentionally making your collective job harder.

Things are a tad uneven on the presentation side. The graphics are nothing to write home about and Dungeon Explorer is easily the least visually striking of the TG-16 launch games. This was somewhat unavoidable considering its design. You can’t very well expect huge characters and loads of detail when you need to accommodate up to five players on a single screen. Beyond that, however, there’s a general overreliance on muted earth tones that downplays the console’s vivid famously color palette to no real benefit. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Tsukasa Masuko’s incredible chiptunes. Every song is great, but standouts like Cherry Tower and the title theme manage to be equal parts regal, serene, and downright eerie. This is hands down some of the best non-CD music that would ever grace the system. Fans of Masuko’s work on the Megami Tensei series will not be disappointed.

Although its drab artwork won’t turn any heads and it’s not at all original in terms of its gameplay or storytelling, Dungeon Explorer as a whole is a smartly-designed, compelling fantasy action title. Mowing down wave after wave of baddies while that majestic soundtrack blares never seems to get old and the huge selection of playable heroes combined with the flexible character advancement makes for tremendous replay value. It’s a must-have for TurboGrafx fans and also represents a huge milestone for Atlus in North America, being their first indisputably high quality release here. The company’s earlier Karate Kid and Friday the 13th adaptations for the NES were…less well-received, to say the least. I still question NEC’s decision to go with a lone controller port, but at least they gave TurboTap owners something worth getting excited over with this one.

Hail Natas!

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Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (Famicom)

Why anyone would want this brat back always confused me.

I figured that after playing through Clock Tower, I might as well take on the other weird old Japanese game in my collection where you play as Jennifer Connelly. This is 1987’s Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (“Maze of the Goblin King”) from Tokuma Shoten. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s based on Jim Henson’s cult classic children’s fantasy film Labyrinth from the previous year.

Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl named Sarah Williams who makes the perfectly understandable mistake of wishing that her little brother Toby would disappear. Her wish is unexpectedly granted by Jareth the Goblin King, memorably portrayed by the late David Bowie and his rampaging crotch bulge. Jareth tells Sarah that she has thirteen hours to reach the center of his enchanted maze before Toby transforms into a goblin forever. For me, this movie has it all: Catchy musical numbers, the campy, vampy Bowie at his best, and magnificent production design based on the fantasy art of Brian Froud brought to life through stunning puppetry from Henson and company at the height of their powers. Unfortunately, critics and audiences at the time of Labyrinth’s release disagreed, and the film only made back half of its budget during its initial theatrical run. At least in the U.S.

An obscure act being “big in Japan” is a cliché in the music world. Tom Waits even did a whole song about it. Well, it turns out that it applies to movies, too, because Labyrinth attracted a rather large following across the Pacific. I’m glad it did, because this Famicom release is not only a fantastic game, it’s one of the best film-to-game adaptations of its era.

The gameplay in Labyrinth is difficult to pigeonhole. The closest direct inspiration is probably Atari’s arcade classic Gauntlet. Players guide Sarah through thirteen overhead view maze levels searching for pieces of the key needed to free Toby from his cell in the Goblin King’s castle, all while enduring attacks by an endless stream of respawning monsters. While getting hit by enemies will lower Sarah’s health, it will also slowly deplete on its own. This is because the thirteen hour time limit that Sarah has to rescue Toby also functions as her health and every hit sustained drains away precious seconds from the timer. There are certain items scattered throughout the labyrinth that can restore a bit of lost time, but if the clock runs down, it’s an instant game over. There are no extra lives and no continues. At least Sarah can throw rocks to defend herself from the goblin hordes. The enemies reappear as fast as you can defeat them, though, and the clock is always ticking, so it’s usually a better idea to just keep moving and avoid unnecessary battles as much as possible as you navigate the mazes.

These are some serious mazes, too. You have areas that wrap around on themselves, ones that scramble your directional controls around so that even basic movement becomes a challenge, teleporters, shifting scenery, one-way stairs, false exits that send you all the way back to the start of the level, and more. Labyrinth isn’t quite the hardcore headscratcher that something like Adventures of Lolo or Legacy of the Wizard is, but you’ll still need to bring some significant brain power to bear if you hope to make it to the end. This mixture of puzzling level layouts and non-stop frantic action, all under a strict time limit with no second chances, really makes for an intense, memorable gaming experience.

Thankfully, Sarah isn’t alone on her quest. The Wiseman provides encouragement and warps you between the game’s various stages. He’ll also dispense permanent upgrades to Sarah’s offense and defense in exchange for the special coins hidden around the labyrinth. The adorable Worm appears in most stages and sells useful items. Finally, there are Sarah’s three stalwart companions, Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus. Picking up hearts and music boxes will allow Sarah to call one of the trio to aid her in fending off the game’s many enemies for a time.

As much as I love the core gameplay, the most remarkable thing about Labyrinth to me is what a great job it does representing its cinematic source material. Old school gamers are no strangers to licensed games that happily ignore just about every detail of the property they’re supposedly based on. If the games in question turn out good enough, like Sunsoft’s 8-bit Batman releases, this doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw. It always represents a bit of a missed opportunity, though. Labyrinth gets this right. Every major character from the film serves an important role in the gameplay. The Wiseman and Worm provide advice and useful items, Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus help out in combat, and even Jareth himself will appear periodically to rapidly drain your all-important timer. This attention to detail even extends to little things like how the hot-blooded Sir Didymus will rush ahead of Sarah, eager to confront the enemy, while the slower and more cautious Hoggle will trail behind her. The various stages are based on locations from the movie, as well. You’ll visit the Oubliette, the Hedge Maze, the Bog of Eternal Stench, The Enchanted Forest, and more. Even the ballroom where Sarah and Jareth share a dance is represented here. The music follows suit, with almost every track being an excellent chiptune rendition of a song from the movie. Even if you don’t already know these melodies, you’ll still probably agree that the soundtrack is great by the system’s standards. This is still a Famicom game and various technical and practical limitations prevent it from faithfully re-creating every single scene from the film, but I can’t think of another contemporary licensed title that does a better job of capturing what made its inspiration worth adapting in the first place.

Simply put, Labyrinth is one hell of a game and there’s nothing else quite like it for the console. It challenges your reasoning and reflexes in equal measure and does it with style. I’d call it a certified lost classic. There is one potential stumbling block for some players, though. You see, this game is tough. Really tough. Even if you have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing and where to go, a full playthrough of Labyrinth will likely take you a good two hours or so. If you don’t already know the correct path through the game’s levels, you have virtually no chance to complete the game on your first run due to the strict time limit. It’s going to take multiple attempts before you get it all down. The enemies in this game are also utterly relentless and will attack you from all sides constantly. Even if you’re not moving around and scrolling the screen, they just keep pouring in at all times. Compounding this mess, Sarah has a lengthy stun period each time she’s hit. If she gets cornered by multiple strong enemies, they can easily lock her down in place and rapidly deplete your precious time. Did I mention you only get one life? Running out of time 90 minutes or more into a session can be pretty heartbreaking, so the best advice I can give is to figure out which enemies in each area are the most dangerous and take advantage of the game’s programming to get around them. Just walk away from the enemy until it’s off the screen and this will cause it to disappear and hopefully be replaced by a less dangerous foe. This doesn’t always work, especially against the faster enemies, but it’s usually better than the grisly alternative. Once you learn the levels and become proficient at evading the more powerful monsters, the game does get a lot more manageable. Just be patient and keep at it.

I played this one using the original Famicom cartridge, which did present some challenges. Learning which line in the shop menu corresponds to which item being one of them. It’s doable with a little experimentation, but there is a fan translation available online (and on reproduction cartridges) if you’d rather save yourself the slight hassle. As a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy the game’s dialog, which I imagine would be very helpful in understanding the plot if you’ve never seen the film.

If you enjoy puzzles, mazes, high stakes action games in general, or just the classic movie it’s based on, you owe it to yourself to check out Labyrinth for the Famicom. It reminds me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power. What power? Power of voodoo. Who do? You do. Do what? Remind me of the babe.