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.”

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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.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)

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Translation level: Godlike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (Arcade)

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I still got it!

I happened to be out recently at Jupiter, one of the many local arcades the Seattle area is blessed with, and I couldn’t resist having a go at their original Street Fighter II machine. This is the very first iteration of the game from 1991, subtitled The World Warrior.

Street Fighter II is obviously one of the best-known and most important games ever made, so I won’t really be attempting to review it in full. There’s just no need. This is more of a personal retrospective than anything else.

It’s tough to overemphasize what an instantly memorable title this was at the time. The fact that I still recall exactly where I was when I first laid eyes on a cabinet and how my first game went attests to that. I was at the Aladdin’s Castle arcade inside the Redlands Mall in Redlands, California. I picked Blanka (he looked too weird not to) and promptly had my yellow ass handed to me by Ken since I had no idea what I was doing. That first quarter may not have gotten me very far, but the game had its hooks in me and there would be many more to follow.

Street Fighter II undoubtedly looked and sounded bleeding edge for the time. More importantly, though, no arcade game before it had ever offered players such a varied experience. The eight playable fighters each had dozens of unique moves to learn and the interactions between them all needed to be studied as well. It wasn’t enough to just learn all the attacks for your character, you also had to know what every other character could do and how to shut them down with the tools at your disposal. As the first modern fighting game, the sheer depth was intoxicating. It made the popular beat-’em-up games of the time like Final Fight and Golden Axe look like baby toys. Of course, it’s easy in retrospect to say that these are different types of game entirely, but we didn’t have much else to compare World Warrior to at the time. Like most of my peers, I had never played the original (rather terrible) Street Fighter from 1987. Lucky us.

Then there was the elusive boss characters: Balrog, Vega, Sagat, and M. Bison. These four were shrouded in mystery since they weren’t selectable by players in the original build of the game and didn’t even show their faces at all until you’d won seven consecutive fights in single player mode. We speculated endlessly about non-existent ways to play as the bosses, what the M in M. Bison stood for (“Major” was the prevailing opinion due to his military uniform), and whether or not this “Sheng Long” that Ryu talked about was a secret fifth boss. The Internet has long since demystified gaming and generations after my own will never know what it’s like to navigate a maze of schoolyard rumor, myth, and bullshit surrounding a popular title. It’s a pity. Without easy access to every cold, hard fact, anything was possible. The mystique made the game seem like more than a game. It also sold a ton of magazines and strategy guides.

The first home release for the Super Nintendo was the largest game released for the console up to that time (16 megabits!) and the very definition of a system seller. Its status as a console exclusive for over a year made it the equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike in the ongoing “Nintendo versus Sega” debate. When the discussion inevitably progressed to “Yeah, well Genesis doesn’t even have Street Fighter,” it was check and mate. I played the SNES version to death and spent almost as much time futilely attempting to play as the boss characters by experimenting with Game Genie codes. Sadly, this was beyond the power of simple hex editing and I would have to wait a year for the home port of the Turbo revision to come out. When it did, I gladly snapped it up, too. These days, the idea of paying full retail price just to have four extra characters in a fighting game would be absurd, but we were all lining up for the privilege at the time. These weren’t just any four characters, these were the bosses. Hell, I’d have probably shelled out the $60 just for my main man Bison.

World Warrior is by far the slowest, glitchiest, and least full-featured of all Street Fighter II’s many, many updates and revisions. It also remains a captivating game to this very day. The art is still gorgeous, the music is still catchy, and character roster is still varied and appealing. It even has that classic deep and booming original fight announcer voice, before they replaced it with the obnoxious higher-pitched one in Super Street Fighter II. For anyone who remembers arcade gaming in the early 90s, it’s ageless gaming comfort food. Money well spent, from that very first quarter to this most recent one.

Now go home and be a family man!

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and released by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive.

Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game that’s front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize that Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure that the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times from the first screen of the game onward.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescos, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only time where you can potentially control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures that everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations that would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by 80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. Without the dynamic action beats of something like Castlevania to support, it’s fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience that somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that the high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its strongest titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….

Strider (NES)

Keep on stridin’.

I’m on vacation in the magical land of poutine and polite people at the moment. Being me, I just had to pack along at least one game. Since I just finished up Strider for the Genesis, I thought I’d go with the NES Strider game that I mentioned in passing in that review.

NES Strider came out the same year as the arcade game, but it’s not a port like the Genesis version. This is a completely different game developed simultaneously by a separate team at Capcom. A smart choice when you consider just how badly compromised a straight attempt at a port for the 8-bit console would have been.

Instead of the arcade’s non-stop linear action, NES owners got a more restrained side-scrolling action platformer with some very light exploration and RPG elements. Strider plus Metroid sounds like a dream come true. If only it were so.

We begin the adventure with everyone’s favorite ninja of the future, Hiryū, being contacted by Matic, vice-director of the Striders. Hilariously, the game’s intro describes the Striders as “the toughest group of people who execute acts such as infiltration, abduction, explosion, instigation, etc.” Matic informs Hiryū that their comrade Kain has been captured by the enemy and that Hiryū must assassinate him, as he’s now become a liability. Hiryū can’t bring himself to kill his old friend and vows to find and rescue him instead.

Right away, this highlights one major difference between the arcade and NES Striders: There’s a story beyond “go kill this evil wizard guy.” Sure, it may be a terrible story filled with unclear motivation, nonexistent characterization, and dialog courtesy of a tornado striking a fortune cookie factory, but it sure does exist! Supposedly, it’s based pretty closely on the original Strider manga series from 1988, though I can’t help but assume that it must have been handled a lot better there. Still, other games of the time with similar structures like Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II kept their plots confined to instruction manuals, so I do give Strider credit for trying at least.

The gameplay involves Hiryū visiting various parts of the globe searching for clues to the true nature of the threat to the Striders: A mysterious secret project called “ZAIN.” Along the way, he’ll also acquire keys and other special items that will allow him to backtrack and explore previously inaccessable parts of earlier levels. Different levels are accessed via the Blue Dragon, a rather cool looking spaceship that serves as a central hub of sorts.

Gameplay is sound in theory. One button jumps, one attacks. Hiryū also gains additional abilities by leveling up as he reaches inportant points in the story. These include a ground slide and a “plasma arrow” projectile attack that’s slow to charge up but vital for defeating certain bosses. Leveling up will also increase maximum health and the energy points needed to use what the game calls “tricks.” These work a lot like the magic spells in Zelda II and can be used to heal damage, boost jump height, warp back to the Blue Dragon instantly, and unleash different supplementary attacks. The extra attacks are kind of neat sometimes, but I mostly found myself saving my energy for healing and warping.

While Strider does have a solid structure on paper, it stumbles badly in its execution. Jumping controls and hit detection are quite shockingly bad, especially considering that this was the developer that gave us Mega Man. Hiryū’s jumps are jerky and prone to being halted abruptly by the mere proximity of a wall or platform. There are no bottomless instant death pits to stumble into, thankfully, but expect to have your patience seriously tested by the need to retrace your steps through the same section of a level over and over just to take repeated shots at what would be an incredibly basic jump in any other game.

It doesn’t help that the enemies and stages don’t stand out that much, either. You’ll rarely face more than one or two baddies at a time and they’re generally unimpressive and easy to dispatch, although they can still get in their share of shots due to the odd hit detection. If you’re even in the same postal code as an enemy bullet, kiss your health points goodbye.

A couple stages are decent. I liked Egypt, which features a nice (if all too short) segment on a moving train as well as action both atop and underneath a desert pyramid. Most levels, though, are generic and in no way resemble the real world locations they’re named for. Show anyone the Australia or Los Angeles stages from this game and see if they can guess what they’re supposed to be. I don’t fancy their chances.

Strider is also no winner in the graphics department. Most backgrounds are either a solid color or fairly plain. Sprites are not too bad but not very good either and sprite flicker is rife, despite the low enemy count. On the plus side, the introductory cut scene is marvelous and the character portraits are well drawn.

At least there’s the score by Harumi Fujita, the one element of Strider that’s unequivocally strong. The second you power on the system your ears are graced by one of the best title screen themes ever, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the session.

I found Strider for Genesis to be a good game that lacked only in comparison to later top tier action platformers for the system, but NES Strider really is a whole other story. It’s honestly tough to recommend this one at all. The way the action is programmed feels sloppy, bordering on glitchy at times, the story is a mess, and the presentation is average at best, despite a really solid soundtrack.

It is a very inexpensive game, however, and makes for a quick playthrough due to being less mazelike and convoluted than some of the titles that inspired it. If you’re a fan of Strider Hiryū himself or of Metroid type games in general, you might find this one to be worth spending a few dollars and hours on.

I just wish the designers at Capcom had focused less on the act of explosion and more on the act of quality control.

Strider (Genesis)

Huh. I was expecting a bigger boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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