Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings that fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so that they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that has recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements that defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers that hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level that players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads that appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level that contains no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes that appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell that some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish that all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

One side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above which some players may actually see as a positive is that Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form, so if you’re careful it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it that way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.

Mega Man 2 (NES)

Sweet ending! Too bad this is the last we’ll ever hear of this little blue robot boy. I rather liked the cut of his jib.

I never dreamed I’d find myself defending Mega Man 2. Why would I need to? It’s still the best-selling entry in the entire 100+ chapter series and widely hailed as not just one of the best games available for the NES, but one of the best ever made. It’s a pure triumph of the form, an unimpeachable masterpiece. Right? Look around online, though, you may well get the impression that any aspiring gaming hipster worth his artisanal beard wax is practically required to cite a Mega Man other than this one as the series high point. All the better if he can throw some shade Mega Man 2’s way for being “too easy” or “unbalanced” while he’s at it.

As it turns out, being the franchise’s golden boy has its dangers in a social media saturated world where everybody seems to be striving to deliver the next attention-getting hot take. Whatever it is you happen to love, there’s someone ready, willing, and able to explain to you in great detail how it’s both overhyped and overrated. Welcome to the future! No refunds.

Okay, okay. No more hyperbole from me. I know full well that not everyone who hesitates to kneel at the altar of Mega Man 2 is some cynical troll or vacuous poser stereotype. Even so, the pushback against it is very real and that’s what inspired me to give it another look. It’s been several years since my last playthrough, after all. I’ve experienced a great many other games over that period (including other Mega Man ones) for the first time. Looking at Mega Man 2 with fresh eyes here on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary, does it still hold up or do its detractors have stronger arguments than I anticipated?

What’s most amazing to me in hindsight is that there very nearly wasn’t a Mega Man 2 at all. Director Akira Kitamura and his team very much wanted to do a sequel, but the original hadn’t sold well enough for the producers at Capcom to approve any funding for such a project. They eventually agreed that they’d release the game only if Kitamura and company worked on it pro bono in their free time. Four months of twenty hour days later and Rockman 2: Dr. Wily no Nazo (“The Mystery of Dr. Wily”) was complete. Despite this insane and largely uncompensated workload, artist and character designer Keiji Inafune recalls it as the best time he spent with the company. No matter your opinion on the final result, it’s certainly remarkable that a team of around eight people working in their spare time were able to deliver one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time in a mere four months.

Like every other main series installment, Mega Man 2 centers on mad scientist Dr. Wily attempting to take over the world with an army of destructive robots. In response, his good counterpart Dr. Light dispatches his own creation, Mega Man, to put a stop to Wily’s schemes. Later sequels would often throw in bit of token misdirection at the onset meant to imply that Dr. Wily wasn’t the one responsible for the conflict that time around, but long-time fans know better. It’s always Wily. Apart from that, the first game’s ending really said it all: “Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace!”

The gameplay formula over the course of the series is as simple and dependable as the plots. The child-like Mega Man doesn’t seem like much at the outset, with just a basic arm cannon weapon available. He doesn’t stay this limited for long, however, as every time he defeats one of Wily’s lieutenants (which typically number eight in total and are dubbed “robot masters”), he permanently gains access to that robot master’s special weapon. Crucially, players are free to choose the order in which they take on the robot masters and their corresponding stages. This choice is more than just a minor novelty because each master has a crippling weakness to one specific special weapon. This means that players have a sort of ad hoc difficulty selection at their fingertips predicated on whether or not they choose to play through the stages in the optimal order dictated by the boss weakness chain or not. Once all the robot masters are defeated and Mega Man himself is fully powered-up, it’s a time for the climactic final assault on Wily’s stronghold.

Anyone that comes to Mega Man 2 after experiencing the first game will notice some striking differences right away. The art style itself remains very much the same, as it would in all six Mega Man NES releases and the much later, deliberately retro styled Mega Man 9 and 10. Even so, the doubling in cartridge memory allows for numerous enhancements to the overall presentation. These include a fancy intro sequence, detailed and frequently animated backgrounds that put the original’s solid color ones to shame, and the first appearance of the colorful map screens displayed between Wily fortress stages.

Beyond the purely cosmetic, Mega Man 2 introduces the now-standard compliment of eight robot masters in place of the original’s six, as well as a handy password feature that complements this added length. Its platforming mechanics have been tweaked, too. Mega Man feels a bit less slippery here and new physics have been implemented that affect how he controls in underwater sections. The stages themselves are more varied and complex, with many sporting elaborate hazards like the gauntlet of fatal laser beams that rapidly close in from off-screen in Quick Man’s lair. Mega Man 2 also marks the first appearance of fan favorite item the energy tank. These can be hard to come by, but allow for full health refills on demand, making them invaluable for tough boss fights. You know they have to be good when they have their own line of real world energy drinks named after them.

Of course, no discussion of the advancements Mega Man 2 brought to the series would be complete without a mention of Takashi Tateishi’s immortal score; a Murderers’ Row of funky, driving techno-rock earworms which some have collectively dubbed the greatest 8-bit soundtrack ever created. Is it? Quite possibly, after a fashion. For one thing, it’s remarkably consistent. Other favorite composers of mine like Naoki Kodaka, Junko Tamiya, and Tim Follin have certainly crafted equally superb tunes for the same hardware, but virtually every single beat and melody in Mega Man 2 is a beast. It really is all killer, no filler here. Another point in its favor would be that most of these other amazing chiptunes I alluded to above date from after 1988. Timing matters, and for an entire generation of NES kids, the ubiquitous Mega Man 2 was probably more likely than any other single title to be their first exposure to genuinely great video game music. In terms of quality, consistency, and impact on both gaming fans and the industry itself, it’s tough to point to any other soundtrack on the system that can outshine this one. Damn tough.

So far, what I’ve outlined is an all-around bigger, shinier, more complete take on an already groundbreaking action classic. What could there possibly be to complain about? Well, it all seems to boil down to three primarily factors: The lack of difficulty, the supposedly poor balancing of the robot master weapons, and the relative simplicity of Mega Man’s core move set when compared to some of the later series entries.

This is certainly not a particularly punishing game by the standards of the time period and genre. When compared to the first Mega Man, for example, Mega Man 2’s platforming hazards and boss encounters have been toned down significantly. This is true even before you factor in the presence of the new energy tank items and, in the international release, the addition of a new, easier difficulty mode (somewhat misleadingly termed “Normal”) accessible from the title screen.

Closely tied to the difficulty issue is the question of weapon balance. Mention Mega Man 2 to almost any current or former NES enthusiast and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the almighty Metal Blade. No other weapon in the series’ long history has made so strong an impression on players, for better or worse. It can be rapid fired in every direction, inflicts massive damage on almost all targets, pierces multiple enemies with a single shot, and has effectively unlimited ammunition. The rest of your arsenal just can’t compete. Metal Blade is essentially an additional easy mode on top of the already existing one in a game that really needed neither. Plus, how ironic is it that the ultimate destructive force in a world of futuristic laser-shooting sentient robots would be a hand-tossed circular saw blade straight out of Home Depot?

Finally, some fans of later Mega Man releases love to point out that the titular hero here lacks some default abilities present in those installments. Specifically, he can’t slide along the ground or hold down the fire button to charge his arm cannon for extra damage. With much of the stage design and enemy encounters in those sequels being designed around the new abilities, it can understandably be jarring to revisit Mega Man 2’s simpler movement and combat.

These are substantial, well-reasoned critiques to be sure and I wanted to do my best to acknowledge them in a fair and respectful manner. Having hopefully accomplished that, I’m now going to explain why none of them amount to much.

Yes, Mega Man 2 is easy, even on the so-called Difficult setting. That is to say it’s easy for me as a die-hard that’s been playing these games since they debuted. I’m so steeped in 2D action-platforming at this point that there’s no Mega Man game I can’t waltz through in single play session if I buckle down and focus, not even one completely new to me. But is it reasonable for me to come down on Capcom for not designing this game around my skill set? Hardly. I can sleepwalk through Mega Man 2 now. Thirty years ago, not so much. Everyone has to start somewhere and Mega Man 2 is (and likely always will be) the ideal entry point to the series for players new to the character or to the genre in general. That’s a vitally important niche to fill, despite what some über hardcore types would have you believe. Besides, if the game really is too easy for you, this is where the modular nature of a Mega Man game’s difficulty can be put to best use. Try playing through the game without using energy tanks, or without the Metal Blade, or with only the default buster cannon, or even with limited lives. There’s likely more potential challenge lurking here than you might think.

How about the Metal Blade? Is it unbalanced? Potentially game-breaking, even? Hell, yeah, it is! Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on, though: Balance, in non-competitive gaming at least, isn’t necessarily all that important and can sometimes even be a detriment when it results in an generally unexciting assortment of options. Know what else isn’t at all balanced? The spread gun in Contra. Not to mention the sword (also known as the dagger or knife) in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. These are famously the only weapons you want in their respective games and are inseparable in the minds of gamers from the series that introduced them. In that respect, they’re legitimately iconic. People have the Contra spread gun icon hanging on their walls! This gambit doesn’t always pay off, naturally. I criticized the otherwise excellent NES Bionic Commando for having only one great gun. The difference is that nobody starts raving about how awesome the rocket launcher in Bionic Commando was the second the game comes up in conversation. It’s overpowered, but not unforgettably so. The Metal Blade, like the spread gun, is both. It’s the definitive special weapon of the series and Mega Man 2 is more memorable, indeed better for its inclusion. Oh, and using it is completely optional. Almost forgot that bit.

The preference for the slide and charge shot maneuvers is understandable, as these mechanics can be a lot of fun in the games in which they’re present. That said, there’s also a certain elegant simplicity to Mega Man in his original “jump and shoot man” form, particularly for those same new players I mentioned above. In any case, the fact that this game wasn’t designed with these abilities in mind obviously means that they’re in no way necessary to tackle the challenges here and their absence detracts not one bit from enjoying what’s present. In a game built around them, they’re fine. In Mega Man 2, they’re frankly neither here nor there.

Whew! Enough apologetics, already! Look, whether or not this is the best Mega Man game ever made is ultimately down to the individual player. With virtually every main line entry being a world class action-platformer in its own right, there just aren’t many wrong opinions to go around. What I do maintain is that Mega Man 2 is the greatest Mega Man game ever made, both from an artistic standpoint (befitting its status as a passion project) and in terms of the sheer magnitude of its influence on the hobby. The original was laden with potential, if also rough around the edges. As the first fully-fledged entry in the franchise, Mega Man 2 is pure promise fulfilled; a landmark release that can never be truly replicated. The remainder of the series is fundamentally iterative. If Mega Man 1 is the video game equivalent of John Glenn orbiting the earth, Mega Man 2 is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon: One small step for a (Mega) Man, one giant leap for gamerkind. The later titles? Well, they’re more along the lines of Alan Shepard golfing on the moon: Still remarkable achievements and well worth your attention, but you can’t convince me the same degree of magic is still present.

So, while the whole “everlasting peace” thing may not have panned-out, Mega Man 2 has achieved something almost as impressive: Everlasting relevance.

Gun.Smoke (NES)

What a difference a fresh coat of paint makes.

The year is 1849 and the remote Gold Rush town of Hicksville (yes, really) is straining under the yoke of the Wingates, a heartless band of desperados intent on taking the beleaguered miners for all they’re worth. Until their savior rides into town with the sun as his back, that is. He’s the fearless bounty hunter Billy Bob and he’s determined to liberate Hicksville the only way he knows how: By doing his very best impression of a spaceship.

Yes, Capcom’s 1985 arcade game Gun.Smoke was a vertical scrolling shooter. One of the first to see the player controlling something other than a spacecraft or military vehicle. The strange period in the title was presumably intended to appease the lawyers over at CBS Television. Their Gunsmoke series was a mainstay of American pop culture for the duration of its staggering twenty year run. In fact, its former record of 635 scripted episodes was only just recently surpassed by The Simpsons. It may not look like much, but that little dot apparently did the trick.

The game’s Wild West trappings were fundamentally skin-deep. Replace the dusty streets of Hicksville with an ocean or a starfield and the human players with airplanes or robots and the action would remain fully coherent. Its ace in the hole was the impeccable polish that Capcom built its arcade reputation on. The art and music did such a stellar job of drawing players in that it was hard to hold some familiar mechanics against it. Play centered on the mastery of three dedicated fire buttons that allowed Billy Bob to fire to his left, right, or straight ahead as needed as he strode through a total of ten stages collecting power-ups and administering lead poisoning to a small army of Wingate flunkies.

Predictably, some compromises were necessary when Gun.Smoke was ported to the NES in 1988. The graphics took the inevitable hit and the firing controls were simplified for a two-button controller, with both buttons now needing to be pressed simultaneously to fire straight ahead. A slightly awkward maneuver, to be sure. Most crucially, the number of stages was cut down to six.

Not every change was for the worse, however. The arcade Gun.Smoke was a ruthlessly difficult game; a true quarter muncher. Things are much more reasonable here, with fewer, less aggressive enemy characters and more options for dealing with them. NES Gun.Smoke isn’t really an easy game by most standards, but it’s a far cry from the unapologetic savagery of the original.

We also have some new music by chiptune virtuoso Junko Tamiya. As usual, her work is elegantly tailored to the game’s setting and action. Like the militaristic staccato percussion of Bionic Commando and the dainty music box melodies of Little Nemo: The Dream Master, Gun.Smoke’s twangy strings meld seamlessly with its pulp Western landscapes.

I particularly appreciate what they’ve done with the scoring system in the NES version. I’m a sucker for games where something as typically abstract as the player’s score is re-framed as a tangible resource of some kind. Here, as Billy Bob is a bounty hunter, the points he earns from blowing away baddies take the form of dollars that can be spent at shops run by friendly NPC characters in each stage. This introduces a high stakes “risk versus reward” dynamic to the game, since players serious about racking up high scores will be hesitant to utilize the shops at all. On the other hand, those that just want to maximize their chances for survival can trade a chunks of score in for more powerful weapons like the shotgun and magnum, defensive items like the horse and smart bomb, and even the elusive wanted posters.

What use is a wanted poster? Oddly enough, you’re required to either find or buy one in every stage. If you don’t, the boss won’t show his face and the terrain will instead loop endlessly. This is the most commonly criticized change to the arcade game’s formula and seems to have been intended as a way to lengthen the overall experience by adding a scavenger hunt element. Assuming you’re not willing to surrender large sums of points for them, the posters must be uncovered by repeatedly shooting at a specific, seemingly empty portion of each stage’s background. The only clue that you’ve stumbled on the correct spot is the unusual sound that your bullets make when striking the invisible poster. On the plus side, you can exploit this mechanic if you like by deliberately looping some of the easier early levels in order to rack up tons of points, gear, and extra lives.

One thing I take unequivocal issue with is the lack of a built-on autofire feature for Billy Bob’s standard pistols. Having to tap for every bullet is a big no-no in any shooter. You can purchase a machine gun from the shops that will remedy this, but it’s is a temporary solution most of the time, as any special weapon equipped is lost upon death. The fact that you’ll automatically lose your horse at the end of a stage comes off as an equally inconsiderate design choice. You’re potentially able to keep the rest of your power-ups between stages, so why not your faithful mount?

Taken as a whole, it’s fair to say that the NES Gun.Smoke sacrifices breadth for depth. The loss of four entire levels is certainly felt, but the introduction of an in-game economy and an arsenal of new weapons renders the six that remain more fun to plow through than ever before. The wanted poster system adds still more to do, though I’m divided on whether it’s rewarding or just plain busywork. Actually finding a hidden poster is indeed satisfying. Less so the preceding period of wandering around in circles. Individual temperament will be the deciding factor there, I suppose.

Personally, I prefer this version of the game over the arcade original by a great margin. The reigned-in difficulty strikes a better balance between excitement and frustration and the presentation gains more from the addition of the new music than it loses with the dip in graphical detail. It stands tall in the pantheon of simple, well-crafted NES action staples, right alongside titles like Contra and Jackal. Perfect to pull down off the shelf anytime you’re feeling the urge for a quick burst of steely-eyed gunslinging against the nastiest bandits, rustlers, and ninja that 19th century California can muster.

Huh? Well, of course there were ninja in the Old West. The place was practically swarming with them. It’s not like video games would just lie to me, you know. Yeesh.

Darkwing Duck (NES)

Get dangerous all you want, kids. Just remember to buckle up.

I don’t have many clear memories of the Darkwing Duck tv show. A spin-off from the more popular DuckTales (the two shared a supporting character in Launchpad McQuack), it was part of the Disney Afternoon syndicated programming block for three seasons during 1991 and 1992. I watched a ton of the Disney shows put out in the years leading up to Darkwing and I recall that the 1987 prime time premier of DuckTales in particular was a huge deal. By the time 1991 rolled around, though, I was in that obnoxious early teen phase where I was keen to distance myself from anything as childish and uncool as Disney duck cartoons. In retrospect, it seems likely that I missed out, since a lot of my slightly younger peers have very fond memories of the series.

The cartoon was essentially a slapstick send-up of the masked mystery man crimefighter genre, as exemplified by The Shadow, The Phantom, and, of course, Batman. The title character’s distinctive tando hat/scarf ensemble and his civilian name, Drake Mallard, are both direct callbacks to Kent “The Shadow” Allard. Unlike his inspirations, Drake/Darkwing is less “fabulously wealthy suave genius” and more “feathered Inspector Gadget from the suburbs.” He means well, but his bumbling and egotistical nature often gets the best of him, leaving his sidekicks to take up the slack. If people tend to remember one thing about the show, it would have to be Darkwing’s catchphrase (“I am the terror that flaps in the night!”) and the many wacky variants thereof. “I am the weirdo who sits next to you on the bus!” is my favorite.

This 1992 NES title by Capcom is one of the later entries in their critically-acclaimed series of Disney adaptations for the system. Unfortunately, competition from the still-new Super Nintendo meant that it never managed to draw the same attention and sales as predecessors like DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Darkwing Duck has also been noted for its striking resemblance to the Mega Man games in terms of its overall structure, play control, and level/enemy design. These comparisons aren’t always favorable, as DD features fewer stages and weapons than any proper Mega Man game, as well as a noticeably reduced difficulty. So is it a woefully underappreciated Capcom classic or does this “baby’s first Mega Man” just suck gas? Let’s review the evidence.

The premise is simplicity itself. The sinister F.O.W.L. (Fiendish Organization for World Larceny) has sent a half-dozen of Darkwing Duck’s greatest foes on a massive crime spree across the city of St. Canard. It’s DW’s job to take down all six crooks before heading off to F.O.W.L.’s Floating Fortress for the final battle against their top agent Steelbeak.

There’s a stage select feature implemented, albeit a limited one. Players are presented with an initial set of three stages that can be completed in any order. Overcome these and a second, slightly more difficult set of three becomes available to choose between. After that comes the seventh and last level. Unlike Mega Man, Darkwing doesn’t gain new weapons and abilities in specific stages, so the choice of which to tackle first is really only a minor novelty. A standard linear progression would have worked out just as well.

The levels themselves are nicely varied. Each has its own theme (bridge, forest, sewer, etc) and there’s a good mix of horizontal and vertical layouts. It should be noted that the vertical areas here feature smooth scrolling, an arguable improvement on the flip-screen style of the 8-bit Mega Man entries. Capcom did a good job in calibrating the length of each stage so that they never seem to drag or end prematurely and every one also has at least a few unique regular enemies that reinforce its specific theming.

Controlling Darkwing will be second nature to any Mega Man veteran. The two heroes’ running and jumping feels virtually identical and the tiny yellow puffs emitted by Drake’s gas gun have similar properties to the Blue Bomber’s standard Buster shots. That covers the bare essentials, but DW is no one-trick waterfowl. He can duck, fittingly enough, and he can also hang from the underside of some platforms, hooks, and other bits of stage dressing. This latter skill (also seen in Shadow of the Ninja, Ninja Gaiden III, and Kabuki Quantum Fighter) is required to progress through many of the stages and useful in getting the drop on enemies. One final maneuver is the cape guard, activated by holding up on the control pad. By shielding himself with his cape, Darkwing can deflect many enemy projectiles, even ones like the massive cannonballs in the final stage that you wouldn’t expect to be thwarted by a piece of purple cloth. While this is kind of cute, I didn’t end up using it much. Simply getting out of the way of shots also works just fine and is my first instinct anyway after playing so many other action-platformers.

There are a handful of alternate weapons available, though they don’t amount to much in my opinion. Drake can pick up three types of special gas that all draw on the same limited pool of secondary weapon ammunition. Heavy Gas blasts travel along the ground, Thunder Gas emits a twin shot diagonally above and below Darkwing, and Arrow Gas sticks to walls in order to form temporary platforms useful for reaching otherwise inaccessible shortcuts filled with extra lives and other bonus items. Given their awkward firing angles and lack of a secondary use, I found myself avoiding the Heavy and Thunder Gases and sticking to the Arrow whenever possible. You will have to be choosy, since you can only carry one special gas type at a time. Being able to cycle between the various weapons using the select button (or even a pause menu) would have been a simple way to add depth to the action. It’s definitely a missed opportunity, as the majority of your options are far too situational for their own good under the current setup.

Like the better-known Capcom Disney games on the NES, Darkwing Duck was clearly designed with kids in mind and won’t put up much of a fight for seasoned gamers. It’s fairly short, continues are unlimited, and the bosses all have simple patterns that you should be able to nail down after a minute or two. Darkwing’s four hit health bar is less generous than Mega Man’s, but defeated enemies drop regular refills and these can be farmed as needed. Some love these games for their no-pressure accessibility while others just find them dull. In any case, it’s worth knowing what you’re in for. Personally, I can forgive a lack of challenge if the game is charming enough.

That brings me to Darkwing Duck’s ace in the hole: Its presentation. From the title screen on, it’s obvious that this is a late period release from a powerhouse developer. The graphics represent their source material brilliantly in light of the formidable hardware limitations. In particular, I can’t praise the character animation enough. Darkwing’s wannabe menacing walk cycle alone manages to convey that he’s a silly character who takes himself entirely too seriously. That’s how you know you’re looking at some masterful 8-bit sprite work. The enemies look just as good and a fair amount of thought went into furnishing them all with distinct movement patterns, attacks, and vulnerabilities. Plus, you’ve gotta applaud any game that includes Terminator ducks. Terminator. Ducks. Entertainment should be giving me opportunities to use those words together all the time, dammit.

Yasuaki Fujita’s music is also solid, although it doesn’t pack the same punch as his Mega Man 3 score. I detect a bit of blues and jazz influence throughout, which I suppose makes sense in light of the cartoon’s pulp parody sensibilities. Even if I might have preferred some more frenetic tracks to drive the action on-screen, the expected Capcom quality is still present.

So what’s my final verdict on Darkwing Duck? I think its a pretty good time for the short while it lasts. The controls are tight, the levels and enemies are well-designed, and it excels at translating the madcap humor of the cartoon into playable form. For all that, however, it still disappoints. There was a real potential for greatness here when you consider the talent involved. Instead, this is easily the least original of Capcom’s non-sequel Disney titles and the one that feels the most like the quickie contract work it is. It lacks any sort of creative gameplay hook like Scrooge McDuck’s pogo cane or Chip and Dale’s co-op platforming that would set it apart from the side-scrolling crowd. You’ve seen everything here before in a more fleshed-out form, mostly in Mega Man games. The result of all this is a sort of junk food action title: Tasty, yet insubstantial.

Unless you have a personal nostalgic attachment to it or are a hardcore fan of the show, Capcom’s Darkwing Duck isn’t so much “the terror that flaps in the night” as it is “the cartridge that doesn’t see heavy rotation.”

Mega Man (NES)

Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace…and at least a hundred sequels!

Everyone’s favorite childlike robot warrior for justice that isn’t Astro Boy is turning thirty this month. Damn, I feel old.

That’s right: On December 17th, 1987, Capcom released the original Rockman for the Famicom. The game’s NES release and lead character were famously rechristened Mega Man by one of the company’s U.S. executives, Joseph Maric, just because he thought Rockman sounded “horrible.”

The story of Mega Man is set in the far off year “200X” and revolves around two scientists, Dr. Thomas Light and Dr. Albert Wily, who are colleagues working in the field of advanced robotics. After Light invents revolutionary humanoid robots with near-human intelligence, Wily, tired of being upstaged, snaps and reprograms six of his rival’s most powerful creations to aid him in a scheme for world domination. Dr. Wily overlooks Dr. Light’s humble lab assistant robot Rock, however, who is imbued with a strong sense of justice and volunteers to help put things right. Knowing that the authorities are ill-prepared to stand up to Wily, Dr. Light reluctantly modifies Rock for combat, equipping him with a “mega buster” arm cannon and the unique ability to assimilate and use the special weapons of other robots he defeats. Thus super fighting robot Mega Man is born!

By any name, this is one of the single most influential game releases of all time and a cornerstone of the action platforming genre. Like a lot of other players, I was introduced to the series via its best-selling entry, Mega Man 2, and never actually played through the original until now. Because of this, I can only imagine what a revelation it must have been to a 1987 audience. You have the ability to play the first six levels of the game in any order, you can absorb the special powers of defeated bosses as a form of permanent character progression, and there’s a “rock, paper, scissors” system of boss weaknesses that can be exploited using those very powers. The one megabit cartridge memory limitation on this first game may have resulted in only six of these “robot masters” to pick from instead of the eight that would become the series standard, but the sense of openness and possibility must have still been intoxicating for gamers accustomed to strictly linear level progressions and heroes that had all their abilities set in stone at the start or relied on inconsistent temporary power-ups to access them. The freedom to complete stages and acquire weapons in any order empowered the player through a sort of organic difficulty selection. Newcomers looking to ease into the action could go through the stages in the “correct” order, using each new weapon to take down the boss weak to it in sequence, like pushing over so many dominoes. Veterans could opt to change up the order up any way they saw fit, knowing full well that the robot masters would be much harder to defeat with Mega Man’s standard gun.

Looking beyond the core gameplay, there’s a level of audiovisual polish and charm on display here that was unmatched on the system up to that time. Mega Man himself has a standout design with his instantly iconic silhouette and dynamic facial expressions. Little things like the way he blinks his eyes when standing idle and grimaces when hit by an enemy attack don’t seem like much now, but you need look no further than other high profile NES heroes of the time to see that the ante was really being upped here. Simon Belmont didn’t have even eyes to blink! This extraordinary level of characterization extends all the way down to the most common enemy robots, which are set apart from their cannon fodder counterparts in other games with little touches like their googly, old-timey cartoon eyes. If there’s one shortcoming that stands out in Mega Man’s graphics retrospectively, it’s the relative sparse (often solid color) stage backgrounds in this entry when compared to future games in the series. Again, it’s likely that we can chalk this up to memory constraints.

The music was also made a much higher priority here than in most other contemporary games. Early NES releases often made due with a couple of short loops stretched out to cover an entire game. While some of those loops (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda) may have been so well executed that the player didn’t mind most of the time, Mega Man stands out alongside Konami’s Castlevania as one of the first games for the platform that really tried to put a fuller soundtrack front and center by providing a unique background song for each and every stage. It’s no accident that Mega Man is known as Rockman in Japan or that he has a robot “sister” named Roll. The first Mega Man’s tunes aren’t the best of the franchise on average, but the standouts like “Cut Man,” “Dr. Wily’s Castle,” and the ending theme can still go toe-to-toe with the very best the console has to offer.

So I’ve covered who Mega Man is and why his first outing was such a game changer. How does it hold up today? Very well, I’m pleased to say. Certainly, it has a few nagging issues. A couple of the stages (like Guts Man’s) are simply too short and seem to peter out right when they’re getting started. Others (like Elec Man’s) are artificially lengthened with recycled sections used in a cut-and-paste fashion. Mega Man’s movement feels just a little slippery to me, as well, and it’s clear that they dialed back the momentum on his running in future installments to correct for this. The weapons could have used a bit more fine tuning, too. The items you’ll get range from overwhelmingly powerful (Thunder Beam) to moderately useful (Ice Slasher, Rolling Cutter, Fire Storm), to outright trash (Hyper Bomb, Super Arm). In all fairness, though, weapon balance would remain all over the map in most of the sequels, too. Finally, many fans also consider this first game in the series to be one of the most difficult to complete. I can see where they’re coming from, since this is the only installment that has no password or save feature and also lacks the “E-tank” items that allow the player to refill Mega Man’s health on demand. Difficulty is tempered somewhat by the overall shortness of the individual stages and the game as a whole, as well as the fact that continues are unlimited. For anyone with prior Mega Man experience, the challenge is best described as moderate. New players may want to start with Mega Man 2’s easy mode (the traditional entry point for the series) before giving this one a go.

The cynical take on all this would be that we’re dealing with an outdated relic here; that the original Mega Man doesn’t do anything its many sequels don’t also do and do better. That’s fair enough. It’s certainly not a judgement I can dispute objectively. On the flip side, Mega Man is also a scrappy little game that manages to pull off everything its bigger, more refined sequels did with a fraction of the resources to draw on. Like a debut album from a favorite band, it may be a bit raw and rough around the edges, but the key ingredients are all present and there’s a real sense of unbridled enthusiasm and experimentation on the part of the creators that still comes through after all these years. This is a not just a franchise entry, it’s an ambitious passion project that a tight-knit group of very gifted people was really, really excited about and it shows.

Mega Man was not a strong seller for Capcom. Many over the years have speculated that this had something to do with its infamously hideous cover art. You can count me as a skeptic there. After all, “bad box art Mega Man” was strictly a North American phenomenon and the game apparently didn’t perform all that great in Japan, either, where it was much less of an eyesore on store shelves. I think another explanation proposed by series co-creator Keiji Inafune in interviews is the more plausable one: Prior to 1987, Capcom was known to the gaming public entirely for its arcade titles and home ports of the same. The Mega Man project was intended to be the company’s first go at creating a native console game and it represented a bit of an unknown quantity to prospective buyers as a result. Thankfully, ecstatic word of mouth from the few who did take the plunge was enough to get a sequel approved, then another, and another, and another…all the way up to yesterday as of this writing, when the upcoming Mega Man 11 was officially announced. Although I’m a little leery about the move away from pixel art to 3D models for the main series, I still can’t wait to see how the Blue Bomber’s 130-something’th outing pans out.

Until then, here’s to Mega Man: The most prolific character in video game history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer robot.