Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

One entire class of video game that’s all but extinct these days is the celebrity vanity project. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go ahead and define this as any game that stars an idealized version of a real world celebrity and depicts its subject engaging in a variety of fantastical exploits unrelated to his or her day job. The celebrity in question is almost always a musician or athlete, as actors that appear in games are typically just lending their likenesses to various fictional characters as opposed to portraying themselves. I remember games like these serving as a constant source of befuddled amusement for my friends and I throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Who actually wanted to platform across alien planets as the members of the band Journey or punch mummies as Shaquille O’Neal? Even in a much less jaded age these titles were seen as punchlines rather than viable gaming options by most and usually proved to have much less of a built-in audience than their deluded creators anticipated. It certainly didn’t help that some prominent examples (looking at you, Shaq-Fu) were saddled with gameplay every bit as dire as their tortured premises.

This widespread consumer contempt combined with skyrocketing development costs neatly explains why the classic vanity project has become a thing of the past in recent years. Most gamers who experienced the trend in its heyday would agree that this is a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. If pressed, though, many of those same individuals would also agree that there’s one shining exception to almost every common criticism leveled above; one silly 16-bit ego trip that beat the odds and remains a well-loved part of countless childhoods: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Both of them, really, but I’ll be looking at the home console version for the Genesis today and not the completely distinct arcade release that it shares its name with.

What does this 1990 platformer with light beat-’em-up elements have going for it that its pilloried peers don’t? How about Michael freakin’ Jackson for starters? A ferociously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, music video pioneer, and occasional movie star, he was still holding fast to his position as the one and only King of Pop. While perhaps just beginning to see the slightest dip in stature compared to his peak in the mid-80s, it would be several more years before his many personal eccentricities and some shocking criminal allegations would truly begin to overshadow his musical accomplishments. Let’s be frank here: Shaq may be one of the best centers the NBA has ever seen, but you’d never mistake him for the coolest man on the planet. It anyone could present himself to the world as a nigh-omnipotent musical superhero with a straight face and get away with it, it was M.J.

There’s also the fact that game was made by Sega themselves. More specifically by a scrappy little internal development team then called AM8. You probably know them better by the moniker they adopted for their breakout release the following year and have stuck with ever since: Sonic Team. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackson was working with the very best in the field to bring Moonwalker to fruition, as no other group of developers had a better grasp of the Genesis hardware in the platform’s early days.

The game’s story is a straightforward adaptation of the one featured in the “Smooth Criminal” segment of the 1988 Moonwalker film. Michael must use his magic dance powers to rescue children that have been kidnapped by the evil drug kingpin Mr. Big (memorably portrayed in the movie by a frenzied Joe Pesci rocking shades and a topknot). Since this is a video game, the number of endangered kids has been upped from three to at least a hundred scattered across a total of fifteen stages. The stages themselves have fairly open layouts and scroll both vertically and horizontally, so there’s a bit of a scavenger hunt element involved in locating all the hostages tucked away in the countless hiding places that dot each map. After doing so, Michael is able to trigger a boss fight (with a little help from Bubbles the chimp!) and then move on to the next area. In essence, it’s a more free-roaming take on Sega’s own 1987 arcade title Shinobi.

Opposing Michael are Mr. Big’s gun-toting thugs as well as a few other baddies that are clear references to other Jackson projects. You have bandanna-clad street thugs right out of “Beat It” or “Bad” and some “Thriller” zombies. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery are a handful of ornery dogs, birds, and spiders. That’s about it. All considered, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety in Moonwalker. Even the boss encounters at the end of each stage tend to pit Michael against either a large number of standard foes attacking from all sides, a powered-up version of a regular enemy, or both. I’m not counting the final confrontation with Mr. Big himself, as it takes the form of a tacked-on and thoroughly awful first-person space shooting section for some reason. If you’ve ever wondered how Wing Commander would have turned out if it had been dropped on its head as a baby, here you go.

Although you’re not furnished with that great a variety of threats to smack down, the combat itself is still a lot of fun. Instead of normal punches and kicks, Michael’s attacks are made to resemble some of his most iconic dance moves. Every elegant wrist flick and high kick emits a shower of glittering pixie dust that looks harmless, but hits like a ton of bricks! The contrast between how feeble these assaults appear and the way they cause enemies to go blasting off into the sky or ricocheting between the floor and ceiling like human pinballs is absolutely hilarious and never seems to get old. Nailing an enemy while airborne is pretty wild, too. They shoot down to the ground in a split-second and land flat on their faces like they’ve just been whacked by a giant invisible mallet. Priceless.

Holding down the attack button will cause Michael to perform an invincible Spin Attack at the cost of some of his own health. The longer he spins, the more health is lost. Spinning in one place long enough to consume 50% of his maximum health will unleash Michael’s ultimate weapon: The Dance Attack, in which he launches into one of a variety of different dance routines and every enemy on-screen (including dogs and spiders!) is compelled to join in. Most regular enemies are killed instantly at the dance’s conclusion and bosses will sustain a large chunk of damage. A special move that costs this much energy to use would be useless in most games, but the makers of Moonwalker generously made it so that each child rescued restores up to 50% of Michael’s lost health, meaning that you can actually get away with using the Dance Attack fairly often if you like.

This is really about all there is to Moonwalker’s gameplay. It’s a short game with a single basic goal to accomplish and it boasts a relatively small number of unique enemies and ways of dispatching them. Michael does have one other special power in the ability to temporarily transform into a giant flying robot that shoots homing missile and laser beams. Yes, really. He accomplishes this by catching a shooting star that appears under certain special circumstances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t impact player progression as much as you’d think it would. Since Robo-Jackson can’t rescue hostages and any enemies he destroys will tend to re-spawn right away, there’s not much point to transforming in most levels except to rack up some extra points. High scores don’t seem to award any extra lives or other benefits that I could see, either, so it really doesn’t amount to much in the end. Looks cool, though. It would have been nice if some more permanent power-ups had been included, like hidden health bar extensions or extra weapons. Finding and holding onto these would have added a bit more intrigue and strategy to the proceedings.

Okay, so the gameplay isn’t really best in class. The upside is that it’s supported by some of the best graphics and music the early Genesis library had to offer. The character sprites for Michael and his enemies are large for the time and feature very smooth animation, befitting a game built around replicating flashy dance routines. The soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Jackson standards like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Another Part of Me,” and more, all rendered to the utmost quality the console’s FM synth sound chip is capable of. Every track is remarkably listenable in this format and just as likely to get stuck in your head for hours as the album versions. Moonwalker’s audio and visuals may not seem all that revelatory nearly three decades on, but it’s important to remember that the Genesis was the first 16-bit game console to hit the market outside of Japan and games like this one, Strider, and the pack-in Altered Beast were jaw-dropping to an audience primarily acclimated to the NES and Master System. Home games with such lush presentations simply weren’t an option before this unless you were willing and able to dive into comparatively expensive niche computing platforms like the Amiga. Even for kids like me who opted to stick it out for two more years waiting on the Super Nintendo, there was still some envy involved whenever one of those ubiquitous “Genesis does…” ads would pop up. It was a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moonwalker is strictly all style, no substance. It certainty does lean that way, however. As far as platformers go, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the length, breadth, or depth of a Sonic or Mario and there’s little incentive to keep playing after you’ve cleared it once. In retrospect, it’s easy enough to point out that it would have benefited greatly from the addition of more enemy types, better boss fights, more power-ups, and some hidden areas or other secrets to discover. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple arcadey punch-up and this one has far more charm than most, thanks to those amazing tunes and the goofy-cool crotch grabbing antics of its unlikely action star. If you come across anyone claiming it’s a bad game, just tell ’em I said that their hearts are full of greed and they have doo-doo in their souls.

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RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

Konami really were miracle workers back in the day. Case in point: 1990’s RollerGames, in which they managed to take a short-lived cross between roller derby and pro wrestling that also included dance numbers and a pit of live alligators and somehow turn it into an even stupider NES game. That takes vision.

I have no recollection at all of the RollerGames television show that debuted back in 1989. Looking up clips in preparation for this review, it’s clear that I was missing out. It’s a prime slice of vintage cheese that certainly couldn’t exist as it did in our present jaded age. If you’re looking for an old school “sports entertainment” companion piece to G.L.O.W. and the golden age WWF, look no further. It also drew big ratings. Despite this, several of the producers still managed to go bankrupt and the show abruptly vanished from the airwaves after only one season.

RollerGames’ brief moment in the sun was somehow still enough to inspire not just one, but three game adaptations, all of which were doomed to reach the general public after the tv show itself had already been consigned to the pop culture memory hole. Williams put out a pinball table and Konami released two completely distinct video games. The arcade RollerGames was a straightforward attempt to replicate the roller derby action of the show. Since it relied heavily on powerful arcade hardware to dynamically shift the player’s view of the track around during play, however, it was clearly unsuitable for conversion to the humble NES. Instead, Konami (in the paper-thin guise of their front company Ultra Games) took things in an entirely different, much less sane direction and gave us this off-kilter platformer/beat-’em-up hybrid where your favorite prime time derby heroes strap on their skates to do battle with terrorists.

Yes, it seems that the sinister criminal organization V.I.P.E.R. (Vicious International Punks and Eternal Renegades) has joined forces with three “evil” derby teams and abducted RollerGames league commissioner Emerson “Skeeter” Bankhead. Oh no! Not Skeeter! Only members of the three remaining “good” teams have what it takes to rescue their boss. Why? According to the manual, “the CIA and FBI lack the speed, cunning, and sheer brute force for this job.” Huh. Well, I suppose I never have seen them do much in the way of skating, so…fair enough.

Naturally, I love this premise. It’s stupid in the best possible way and one of the high points of the whole package. RollerGames isn’t a top tier NES title by any means, but everything it does well stems directly from this decision to not even attempt to be a proper roller derby game. While I’m on the subject, just imagine how much more fun all those terrible WWF games for the NES could have been if they’d abandoned all pretense of delivering a realistic ringside experience and just had Andre the Giant fight an attack helicopter. Alas.

You’ll start out in RollerGames by choosing one of three teams, which functions as a character select. The three available characters are based on the Holy Trinity of beat-’em-ups: Ice Box of the T-Birds is the strong and slow one, Rolling Thunder of Hot Flash is the weak and fast one, and California Kid of the Rockers is the balanced one. In theory, the game’s mixture of platforming and hand-to-hand combat should mean that all the characters are viable, but do yourself a favor and avoid Ice Box. The jumps in this game are far deadlier than the brawling and he really struggles to clear some of the tricker obstacles. Thankfully, you’re able to change characters any time you lose all your lives and use a continue, so you’ll never be stuck using a character you don’t like all the way through the game.

RollerGames has a total of twelve stages, with the action unfolding in the sort of 3/4 view typical of post-Renegade brawlers. Most of the time, however, you’re not engaging in fisticuffs, but instead skating over, around, and through a bevy of environmental hazards that function as sadistic obstacle courses. The threats placed in your path can be divided up into two broad categories: Stuff that kills you outright (pits, bodies of water, spikes) and stuff that will just knock you down and deplete a small chunk of your health on contact (barrels, oil slicks, flamethrowers). Your character’s health bar is quite large, so you’re able to make quite a few missteps around lesser dangers before the cumulative damage does you in. It’s the instant kill stuff that you really need to worry about, since none of the stages in RollerGames have checkpoints. Fall in a hole and you start the whole stage over from the beginning. At least the stages themselves are fairly short and the continues unlimited.

Every now and then, usually around twice per stage, you’ll reach a point where the scrolling halts for a time and you transition into a “fight scene.” Here, the movement controls that you use in the rest of the stage are temporarily replaced by new ones that handle more like a standard beat-’em-up and you’ll have to fight off several waves of enemy skaters before you’ll be allowed to move on. Combat is fairly basic, with typical punches and kicks, a jumping kick, and a “hair pull into throw” attack straight out of Double Dragon. You also have a lunging super attack activated by pressing A and B simultaneously that deals extra damage, but can only be used three times in a given stage. Most of the game’s boss fights also take place in this mode.

Just to add a little more variety, the game also includes two highway stages, which are auto-scrolling affairs where your character has to navigate a hazard-strewn roadway on the way to the next main stage. Other than not being able to set the place yourself, these don’t really play that differently from the normal platforming segments. They do end with some rather odd boss fights, though: A huge vehicle shows up and hurls projectiles at your character until it just sort of gets bored and leaves. You can’t actually attack these guys. You just dodge the crap they chuck your way for an arbitrary amount of time and then you win. That’s a new one on me!

Like I mentioned above, RollerGames is far from a perfect action game. The biggest issue by far is that the gameplay is wildly unbalanced. The designers clearly went out of their way to throw many different types of challenge at the player, but only one type (the insta-kill pits and spikes) ultimately matters and ends up defining the experience. The non-lethal obstacles in the platforming sections are nuisances at worst and the beat-’em-up combat is extremely simple and easy, with brain dead enemies all too happy to repeatedly march face first into your hero’s waiting fists.

Another aspect of the gameplay that seems to annoy many (at least based on other reviews I’ve seen) is the control. Specifically, the loose, slippery movement. Your character can’t really stop or turn on a dime, nor can they accelerate to full speed instantly. Many jumps also require just the right amount of momentum, otherwise you’ll over or under-shoot your landing and pay for it with a life. Basically, every stage here feels like the ice level from most other platformers. While I understand the frustration stemming from this, I also recognize that it’s what sets RollerGames apart from the crowd and hesitate to call it an outright flaw. Your characters are supposed to be zipping around on skates, after all, so it’s only fitting that the movement reflects that. Even if it is defensible as a design choice, the resulting learning curve is steep and you can expect to die a lot at first.

As unbalanced and awkward as it can be, RollerGames still packs a lot of charm into one dirt cheap cartridge. Beyond just the glorious absurdity of roller skating through a jungle dodging giant piranhas, the visuals and audio both demostrate a level of quality befitting a world class developer. There’s some very good use of color and the character sprites are large and detailed, with the exception of the distinctive blank faces seen in many other 8-bit Konami titles like Castlevania and Contra. The music is also above average thanks to some catchy melodies and punchy drum samples. If you don’t mind putting in the time needed to master its finicky controls, this one is more than worth its current Starbucks latte asking price.

Besides, why just skate or die when you can do both?

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?

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (NES)

Love, Cajun style. Tastes like crawdaddies!

In 1988, Konami released an ambitious multi-genre action title for the Famicom called Mad City. The game followed ragin’ Cajun vigilante Billy West on a mission to rescue his absurdly buxom girl Annabelle from the ruthless New Orleans crime boss Godfather Gordon. While he may incidentally share a name with the famous Futurama voice actor, it’s obvious that Billy’s appearance was deliberately modeled on the title character from the then-popular Crocodile Dundee movies. They just relocated the main character from Australia to Louisiana, swapped out the crocodiles for alligators, and threw in tons of that good old 8-bit violence.

It worked. Mad City was a pretty fun experience, if also a bit on the short and easy side. When it came time to release the game in North America the following year, things had…changed. Rumors persist that this was due at least in part to the booming video game rental market in America. Nintendo and other game companies had lobbied Japanese lawmakers to effectively make the practice of game renting illegal there, while U.S. courts had decisively rejected their efforts to do the same on our side of the Pacific. Owing to this, it’s thought that some developers made the international releases of their games more difficult specifically so that gamers would be unlikely to be able to finish them as a weekend rental and would therefore be more likely to purchase the game outright.

Whatever the truth of this little conspiracy theory, there’s no doubt that numerous NES releases were altered so as to be significantly more difficult than their Famicom counterparts, none moreso than our version of Mad City: The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

As stated, Bayou Billy is a multi-genre game. The tv commercial featured a rubber alligator wrestling doofus portraying Billy who promised “hand-to-hand combat with drivin’, shootin’, and, of course, zappin’.” Of course. It was sold as a Konami caliber combination of Double Dragon, RoadBlasters, and Operation Wolf. In other words, a sure thing. Right?

Let’s start with the beat-’em-up action, since it comprises five out of the game’s nine stages. You start out in the bayou, naturally, and must plow through waves of Gordon’s men and the occasional pissed-off gator. Billy has a basic punch, kick, and jumping kick at the beginning. He can also pick up and use weapons if he can manage to disarm certain foes. It won’t take you long to realize that these levels really don’t play much at all like they do in other games. Enemies recover very quickly from being hit and are able to retaliate almost immediately, so you can’t just mash the attack buttons to lock a baddie in place and repeatedly pummel him until he goes down. What will happen instead if you go toe-to-toe is that Billy and the enemy will take turns trading hits. This is a problem because most enemies require a good seven or eight hits to put down and so does Billy! The bottom line is that trying to play Bayou Billy like a normal beat-’em-up will invariably get you killed off on the first or second screen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? The best option I found was a very patient, methodical hit-and-run strategy. Typically for this style of game, enemies won’t initiate attacks unless they’re lined up with Billy on a horizontal axis. If you approach them on the vertical, fire off a quick punch or kick as you pass, and keep on going, they either won’t have time to retaliate or their counterattack will whiff. Just keep moving, pick your moments, and slowly grind them down. Fortunately, you don’t have a time limit. Later brawling stages introduce different enemy types and new weapons (like the almighty whip that lets you strike rapidly from a distance), but this basic strategy still applies through the end of the game. It’s kind of a drag, honestly.

How about the next mode, the first-person gallery shooting? Well, it’s actually quite cool. You’re able to use the Zapper light gun or aim with the controller and everything is smooth, precise, and decently challenging. Enemies rush onto the screen and you do your best to gun them all down before they can pop a shot off at you. Eventually, you’ll get to battle a big bullet sponge boss before moving on to the next stage. There are even power-ups like health packs, screen clearing bombs, and temporary invincibility. You have limited ammunition, but your stock of bullets will only decrease when you miss a target. As odd as that is, it does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about running out of bullets as long as you exercise some minimal trigger discipline and don’t just try to spray the whole screen. Everything here looks, sounds, and plays just fine. These shooting sections, all two of them, are the high point of Billy’s adventures.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the game’s two back-to-back driving levels. If Billy wants to save Annabelle, he has to ride his rickety jeep all the way from the swamps to Gordon’s mansion in New Orleans and he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride. The basic gameplay is similar to Mach Rider, minus all the freedom of movement and fun. The biggest issue by far is that the roadways in the NES version of the game are only about half as wide as they are in the Famicom original, giving you almost no space to maneuver your vehicle and leaving you stuck in what amounts to a narrow corridor the whole time. Almost as detrimental is the fact that Billy’s health bar has now gone AWOL, making these driving sections the only part of the game where you’re subject to one hit deaths from hazards. Both levels are long, and between the time limit, the various hostile air and ground vehicles attacking you, and the static obstacles in the form of rocks and poles, you can expect to die early and often. Repetition and memorization will eventually see you through to Bourbon Street, but I exhausted my limited lives and continues several times over here before I was finally able to squeak past. These two stages are easily the most difficult and obnoxious stretch of the entire game.

I was very disappointed by The Adventures of Bayou Billy and not just because the game was made more difficult than Mad City. I firmly believe that no respectable game reviewer will ever hold a game’s challenge level against it as such. Konami also altered one of my favorite games of all time, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with the same goal in mind and I’ll defend that one anytime. It’s perfectly fine for a game to be demanding as long as it’s also rewarding. Bayou Billy is not rewarding. Other tough titles I’ve enjoyed recently (Silver Surfer, ActRaiser 2) present a steep learning curve, but really open up to the player once that initial hurdle is overcome to reveal a fair amount of satisfying gameplay under the surface. Not so with Bayou Billy. You can adapt to the boring moveset and repetitive, time-consuming avoidance tactics of the brawling stages and even to the white-knuckle gauntlet that is the driving section, but there are no hidden depths waiting to reveal themselves to you at that point. It’s simply a superficial experience that gets easier without ever getting good. The two shooting gallery portions are solid enough for what they are, but they can’t carry the whole game. Not even close. Mad City made the right call by keeping the challenge low and the pace brisk, insuring that the player would be too occupied with novelty and spectacle to dwell on the lack of substance.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll add that the graphics and music are pretty sweet for the hardware and definitely up to the high Konami standard. Beyond that, the most enjoyable things about Bayou Billy are probably the game manual and box, which is never a good sign. Whoever was in charge of writing the instructions really gave it their all in terms of selling the whole cornball Cajun bayou theme. Damsel in distress Annabelle is described as “a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May Clampett” and “a three time cover girl for the glamour magazine – Swamp Digest.” Even the common thugs you fight are given punny names like Tolouse L’attack and the murderous scuba diver Jacques Killstow. My favorite of all is the cover art, which depicts Billy with the body of a super buff Crocodile Dundee and the head of…Jim Varney!? That’s right, there’s a ripped Ernest P. Worrell brandishing a giant knife right on the front of this game. Now that’s my idea of an awesome action hero! Know what I mean, Vern?

River City Ransom (NES)

Dat pixelated azz, tho!

Kunio is the most important video game character that most people outside Japan have never heard of. He was created by game designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto to star in Technōs Japan’s 1986 arcade game Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (“Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio”) and has since gone on to appear in nearly fifty assorted sequels and remakes, collectively comprising the Kunio-kun series. Kun is an informal Japanese honorific usually applied to young men and it definitely suits Kunio, a teenage tough guy who protects Nekketsu High School from rival gangs with his legendary street brawling skills. Supposedly, Kunio was inspired by Kishimoto himself, who states in interviews that he went through a bit of a juvenile delinquent phase following a bad breakup in high school when was getting into schoolyard brawls daily.

Kunio’s debut outing, known outside Japan as Renegade, was a huge deal and earned itself a place in the pantheon of most influential games of all time. It was the first arcade beat-’em-up game to add eight-directional multi-plane movement to the mix. With fighters no longer limited to walking left or right, a host of new combat tactics opened up. For example, players could attempt to maneuver their fighters so as to attack the enemy’s flanks or rear. Renegade’s core gameplay served as the basis for Kishimoto’s follow-up, Double Dragon, which proved even more popular worldwide and inspired hundreds of imitators until 2D beat-’em-ups in general finally fell out of mainstream favor around the late 1990s.

But wait, aren’t I supposed to be reviewing River City Ransom here? What’s with all this Kunio crap? Well, as it happens, River City Ransom is a Kunio-kun game! Specifically, the third one: Dauntaun Nekketsu Monogatari (“Downtown Hot-Blooded Story”) from 1989. Since Japanese high school students in their characteristic uniforms wouldn’t connect as much with Western audiences, Kunio became an American high schooler named Alex and his arch-rival and occasional ally Riki became Ryan. The uniforms were replaced by jeans and t-shirts and this, combined with the black pompadour style haircuts on many of the characters, made them look more than a little like stereotypical 1950s greasers. It’s an interesting choice and gives River City Ransom a period piece feel that the original version lacks.

All other Kunio games released outside Japan during the 8-bit era, like Super Dodge Ball and Crash ‘n’ the Boys: Street Challenge, received similar changes. In fact, the characteristic Kunio-kun art style with its squat, big-headed characters is the only overt hint that these games are related at all.

In River City Ransom, players control Alex and Ryan as they roam across River City fighting off countless rival gang members on a mission to rescue Ryan’s kidnapped girlfriend Cyndi from a mysterious villain called Slick. Along the way, they’ll need to collect money from fallen foes in order to power themselves up by purchasing equipment, food, and other upgrades at the local malls.

That’s right: This is a beat-’em-up with those newfangled RPG elements that were worming their way into so many Japanese console games at the time. Items from the shops will enhance your strength, agility, stamina, and seven additional stats. Buying books can also teach you all new combat moves that will greatly enhance your standard punches and kicks.

Even on the harder of the game’s two difficulty settings, though, you won’t really need to worry about fully upgrading your character in order to complete the game. I did it anyway because I’m weird that way, but even just purchasing the rapid fire kick upgrade and the game’s best pair of boots will allow you to make mincemeat of the toughest bosses. I’ll come back to this later.

The gameplay fundamentals are handled well. Controls are tight and the punching and kicking feels just as good as it does in Double Dragon. A couple indoor sections have light platforming elements where you need to jump up on crates or ledges and these can be a little awkward. Thankfully, you’re not expected to jump over pits or other deadly hazards, so this doesn’t drag down the experience as a whole. A nice touch is how the specific gang members you’ll encounter on each screen are randomized. Since some gangs are tougher than others, this helps to keep things interesting on multiple trips through the same section of the city. There’s even an in-game help menu that explains how the game functions, which is really strange to see in a console game of this vintage.

River City Ransom’s graphics aren’t spectacular in the least. In fact, they’re pretty plain. Characters animate well, but that’s about the best you can say for the visuals on a purely technical level. One thing that this doesn’t take into account, though, is the charm factor. The cutesy characters are really endearing and the bug-eyed, slack-jawed looks on defeated enemies’ faces as you send then flying never get old. Neither do the wacky quotes they recite as they’re knocked out. “Is this fun yet?” and the classic “BARF!” are some of my favorites. The character designs themselves are pretty restrained for the genre. Your heroes and all of their opposition are supposed to be high schoolers and that’s exactly what they look like. Don’t go in expecting any of the wild enemy designs from other brawlers like Final Fight, where everyone tends to look like sideshow performers that just got out of a rave. The music is energetic and catchy with a bit of a rockabilly flair and doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly, which is good because there’s not a lot of it. If you enjoyed the music in the NES port of Double Dragon, you’ll be pleased with the tunes here.

So the game has a sterling pedigree, solid brawling action, RPG-like depth, and tons of charm. What’s not to like? Well, there are two significant flaws that hold River City Ransom back for me and prevent it from realizing its potential as a great game: A tiny game world and an overall lack of challenge.

For a game that offers ten different stats for your character, tons of shops and items, and an extensive password system, I would expect it to also have a bigger world with more to see and do in it than your typical beat-‘em-up, but it turns out that River City is one minuscule municipality. What you get in the way of a game world is a few dozen screens laid-out in a mostly straight line. There are a couple of small cul-de-sacs off the main path where you’ll encounter enemies and bosses, but they’re dead ends. The potential for branching paths and richer open world gameplay built into the design was not capitalized upon by the designers and the game is easily beaten in under an hour once you grasp its fundamentals. At least you won’t get lost, I suppose.

The lack of challenge comes from the way enemy encounters are programmed. For starters, you’ll only ever face off against a maximum of two enemies at once. While this does naturally help performance by minimizing slowdown and sprite flicker, beat-‘em-up veterans know that coping with one or two enemies at a time in these sorts of games is child’s play. Things get tricky (and interesting) when you’re fending off a whole mob of foes and that will never happen here. Adding a second player into the mix makes things even tamer, since the enemy count isn’t boosted to compensate.

If the enemies were tough to defeat, this still might be a workable system. Regrettably, though, this is where River City Ransom’s truly terrible enemy AI programming lets the game down even further. Enemies, even bosses, are quite content to walk or run straight into your attacks and once you knock a foe down the first time, you can simply stand over them and continuously mash the attack buttons as they attempt to regain their footing, insuring that they’ll never succeed. Additionally, many sections of the game have walls or fences in the background that Alex and Ryan can jump up onto and this simple maneuver is enough to literally stop enemies in their tracks. They’ll never attempt follow you up there and continue the fight, but you can assault them from the high ground with impunity. I’m not going to say that every game ever made has to be super hardcore and tough as nails, but the opposition you’ll encounter in River City Ransom is so feeble and dim that it almost doesn’t seem sporting. It certainly stops being very exciting once you’ve grasped the glaring weaknesses in the patterns.

River City Ransom is a very likable game. I’d even call it good. However, it’s the kind of good that’s so close to great that it just irks all the more. The potential was there for this to be an all-time classic and one of the top titles for the console, but the short quest and cramped game world thoroughly undermine the clever RPG elements and the underwhelming enemies do the same for the beat-‘em-up action. The humor and style are not to be missed, though, and every NES enthusiast should play through this one at least one just to spend a few hours savoring its exuberant silliness.

In its own way, River City Ransom was almost as influential as its progenitor Renegade. Every beat-‘em-up game since that has experimented with adding in statistics, character progression, and other RPG bits owes it a major debt, and titles like Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game all qualify as direct descendants. There were several sequels, most recently River City: Tokyo Rumble in 2013 and River City Ransom: Underground in 2017. Technōs itself may be no more, but Kunio and friends fight on.

Is this fun yet? Hell, yes.

Phantom Fighter (NES)

Qing of the hill, baby!

Phantom Fighter is a 1988 title from obscure developer Marionette and publishers Pony Canyon and FCI. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up action game based on the 1985 Hong Kong horror-comedy film Mr. Vampire. The movie, about a Taoist priest named Master Kau and his bumbling assistants battling a type of Chinese “hopping vampire” known as jiangshi or kyonchi, was a huge hit and touched off a bit of a hopping vampire craze throughout East Asia. Think of it as the Ghostbusters of its milieu. The game was retitled and Master Kau was renamed Kenchi for the North American release in 1990.

In Phantom Fighter, you guide Kenchi and his trusty assistant through eight stages, each representing a different town under siege by kyonshi. Each town contains a variety of buildings, parks, graveyards, and caves where you’ll battle the undead and be rewarded with scrolls (currency used to purchase new kung fu moves at training halls), special weapons such as a magic sword and mirror, and the three jade spheres that you must gather in order to open the way to each town’s final boss.

Fights against kyonshi are always one-on-one, reminiscent of those in games like Street Fighter, although Phantom Fighter is strictly a single player experience, so perhaps Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu is a better comparison. You and your foe each have a health bar on the side of the screen and whoever runs out of health first loses. Dying will result in the loss of all special weapons acquired and half of your total scrolls, but continues are unlimited and you’re given passwords whenever you run out of health or complete a level, so there’s no need to worry about losing your progress. Kenchi starts the game with only the most basic control options: Punch, kick, walk, jump, and crouch. All of these capabilities can be upgraded multiple times at the training halls, however, and it’s satisfying to see Kenchi’s feeble starting punch grow to take the form of a lightning-fast flurry of blows that can drain a kyonshi’s health bar in an instant by the game’s end.

Each building you enter will contain one or two kyonshi to defeat at the start of the game, but that increases to a maximum of five by the time you reach the final stage. You’ll need all the attack upgrades you can get because you can only restore lost health by leaving the building you’re in and visiting a temple. This means that you’ll need to defeat all of each building’s kyonshi occupants in one go to reach the end and claim your reward, since destroyed ones will respawn each time you exit and return.

Those are the basics but Phantom Fighter does have a couple very odd gameplay quirks. The strangest is the fact that you have to successfully answer a trivia question each and every time you want to enter one of the training halls to learn new moves. That’s right: This is a fighting game with quiz show elements. That’s got to be a first. Even the questions themselves are weird. Half of them are related to the game’s premise and involve the various strengths and weaknesses of kyonshi as derived from Chinese folklore. This makes some sense at least, but then the game starts asking you things like “What’s the name of George Bush’s dog?” All the questions are multiple choice and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, so if you pick the incorrect answer you’ll just have to try again until you get a question right and are allowed into the training hall. This element of the game is just baffling to me. I honestly have no idea what it was intended to add to the experience. It’s not challenging, interesting, or even funny. What were the designers thinking? Is it just pure padding? I suppose I’ll never know.

There’s also the matter of “Conshi the baby kyonshi.” This diminutive vampire is non-hostile and you can recruit him to join your fight by using a special item, the bell. Once you recruit him, Conshi will replace Kenchi as your playable character in the fighting scenes for as long as you can keep him alive. This sounds pretty promising until you realize that Conshi really, really sucks. Like every other kyonchi in the game, he can only hop around slowly and jab with his outstretched claws for very little damage. It’s awkward and ineffectual and seems more like a bad joke than anything else. I suppose if you find the game to be too easy and want an extreme challenge, you might appreciate the chance to try to win with Conshi. In any other circumstance, you should avoid this little dope. It’s just not worth the effort to get him on your side.

Phantom Fighter is a true mixed bag in terms of graphics and sound. Kenchi and his foes are large and animate very smoothly for an 8-bit game. The character sprites do suffer a bit from a lack of color and detail, however. This is likely due to the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and clearly where most of the NES’s limited on-screen colors were utilized. The music has a very stereotypically Chinese vibe and is decent while it lasts. That is to say that the tracks are short and there aren’t very many of them. You might enjoy them for a bit at first, but they’ll probably wear on you over time.

Control is mostly functional, but has some serious problems. Attacks seem to have a slight delay to them. Though can be adapted to, it remains consistently obnoxious throughout. Jumping and jump attacks in general are also poorly implemented. It’s tough to get off the ground when you want to and to get your air attacks to execute on cue. Thankfully, there are only two airborne enemies in the entire game, both bosses, so I suppose it makes sense that polishing the aerial combat wasn’t a big priority.

While had a little bit of fun with Phantom Fighter, I can’t recommend it very highly due to its one fatal flaw: The overwhelming monotony. When you get right down to it, there’s only one enemy in the entire game that you’ll be fighting over and over and over again. Although there are different flavors of kyonshi with varying degrees of speed, health, and damage output, they all fight the same way: They hop forward at you with their arms outstretched comically. That’s it. All you have to do is avoid their claws (the only parts that will damage you) and employ some basic hit and run tactics to take them down. Either anticipate the arc of their hop and let them jump right into your punches and kicks or run up to them as they land, smack them, and run back. Then do it a couple hundred more times. That’s the entire game right there. I understand that fighting kyonshi is game’s main draw, but surely the designers had no shortage of other creatures from Chinese myth that they could have used as inspiration to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, they didn’t make that effort and no amount of trivia questions or grinding for scrolls can disguise the sad fact that this title plays more like a proof of concept or a demo for a full game than a finished project. It’s also overly long given its lack of real content. Eight levels is far too many when you’re tasked with fighting the same foe the same way the entire time.

Much like mediocre Chinese takeout, Phantom Fighter will hold you over for a short while, but you’ll likely find yourself craving something more substantial very quickly.

Battletoads (NES)

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There is it: The sweetest 10,000 points I ever scored. So ends my first full playthrough of Battletoads: No cheats, no warps, no mercy. And I only needed one continue!

This was…a really difficult game, not just to complete, but to review. After all the hours logged practicing its twelve levels, I’m honestly torn over whether or not Battletoads is ultimately a “good” game. Overall, I really think it is, but I also think that it may not be a good experience for most people.

What can’t really be debated is that this is one of the most wildly ambitious and best presented games for the system. Battletoads came out in 1991, when the core Famicom/NES hardware was already eight years old and had been thoroughly mastered by skilled programmers. It was created by the legendary British development house Rare, who would shortly go on to debut Donkey Kong Country, GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, and numerous other instant classics later in the decade. The graphics and music (by celebrated Rare composer David Wise) are some of the best on the system, rivaled only by a select few similarly late releases like Kirby’s Adventure. The game also has a fantastic sense of humor, with Tex Avery-inspired cartoony animations and a ludicrous plot and characters. You do play as two toad men from outer space named Rash and Zitz fighting to save a third toad man named Pimple from what appears to be a dominatrix clad in leather fetish gear after all, so embracing the stupidity fully just makes sense. I especially love how your sultry antagonist the Dark Queen will show up between every level to taunt you with horrendous puns and goofy threats that would make Skeletor proud and that she seems to have multiple bits of dialog for her chosen at random each playthrough to keep this feature from getting too stale. There are so many nice flourishes like this.

The sheer scope of the game is also impressive. Twelve levels is quite a lot for an action-platforming game of the time and you’re literally never doing the same thing twice in any of them. You’ll fight a giant robot from the robot’s point of view, rappel down a cavernous shaft, speed through deadly obstacle courses on land, sea, and in the air, climb giant snakes, have snowball fights with living snowmen, race rats to defuse bombs, and more. The action seems to take every imaginable form and scroll in every possible direction. There’s such dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas at play here that it actually verges on overwhelming at times.

It sounds like a perfect game, but as almost everyone knows by now, it’s also a very difficult one to complete. There are a couple reasons for this. First and foremost, you don’t have unlimited continues here like you do in other difficult games like Mega Man, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins. You’re guaranteed sixteen lives (four to start and four more for each of your three continues) and you can just about double this if you’re good at scoring points and grabbing the 1-Ups scattered throughout the levels. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. At least not until you put in the time to get really, really good. Even though your toad has a six point health bar, most of your deaths in this game will come in the form of instant kills, whether from enemies (bosses and even many common foes can kill in one hit) or stage hazards like spikes, poison gas, or falls. Even the enemies that you can potentially survive hits from normally take 2-3 of your six health points per attack. Lose all your lives and it’s back to the title screen for you, and this hurts a lot more than it does in a game like Contra. A failed Contra run may cost you twenty minutes or so at most, while bombing out of a lengthy Battletoads session can easily consume the better part of an hour.

Unlike games with less variety in their action, the skills you’ll use to pass one stage in Battletoads often won’t carry over directly to the next. The core gameplay is actually so different for each stage that it often feels like a dozen games in one, each of which requires extensive memorization and perfect execution. All these factors combined impose a sort of psychological pressure on the player that most other game developers shied away from. You can laugh off a death in Ninja Gaiden and just try something different next time, but every death in Battletoads feels like a real catastrophe and it takes a lot of focus to not get rattled, lose your cool, and compound it with more sloppy deaths, ending the run. This pressure just keeps on mounting as you progress further and further, too, making Battletoads a very stressful, nerve-wracking game and setting it apart from other tricky titles like the ones mentioned above. Simply put, it’s very tough for me to relax and enjoy myself with Battletoads like I can with other difficult NES games. I certainly don’t think I’ll be playing it much again anytime soon.

But is this a flaw in the game or a flaw in me? That’s really what makes this review so hard to formulate. Few other games put players under the same kind of pressure that Battletoads does and that’s really what gives it its unique identity and why we still remember, play, and discuss it today. Would a less hardcore Battletoads be a better game? I don’t think so. Better for me? Maybe, although the sheer almighty satisfaction of finally conquering it makes even that verdict uncertain. The grim struggle/cathartic triumph cycle is arguably the engine that drives retro gaming as a hobby, after all. Battletoads may push this dynamic to its practical extreme, but hell, if somebody’s got to do it, it may as well be ’90s era Rare, right?

Until next time, stay mad, bad, and crazy! Ribbit.