Space Megaforce (Super Nintendo)

Deeds not words.

First, the bad news: Space Megaforce for the Super Nintendo is not an adaptation of the cult classic 1982 action schlockfest Megaforce, in which a bearded Barry Bostwick battles terrorists on his flying motorcycle. You’ll need to hit up the Atari 2600 for that game.

Oof! How can poor Space Megaforce possibly bounce back from that degree of crushing disappointment? How about by being another brilliant shooter by Compile, the legendary studio behind MUSHA, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend? Yeah, that’ll do nicely. Compile made my favorite shooters of all time, including the superb Zanac for NES. I reviewed Zanac last Christmas, so it seems this is becoming another holiday gaming tradition for me; a little present to myself. Fine by me.

Oddly enough, I started the introduction to this review with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then I noticed something strange: Space Megaforce (known as Super Aleste outside North America) was published by none other than Toho, the same monolithic film company that distributed Megaforce to Japanese theaters a decade earlier! Could it be that whoever was in charge of the game’s localization really did mean to reference the infamous box office turkey with this change? That seems insane. Then again, the game we know as Blazing Lazers originally shipped as Gunhed in Japan, a reference to Toho’s wholly unrelated cyberpunk action movie of the same name, so I suppose anything’s possible.

If you have any amount of prior experience with Compile shooters, you’ll know that while each has its distinctive quirks, they all tend to share very similar core design elements. Most prominent among these are notably lengthy vertical scrolling stages, a wide variety of different weapons to choose from, the ability to upgrade each weapon multiple times by collecting glowing “power chips,” and a forgiving damage system where hits from enemies cause your weapon power to degrade before they destroy you outright. Space Megaforce fits squarely into this familiar mold, for better or worse. It most closely resembles the TurboGrafx-16’s Blazing Lazers from three years previous with its surreal backgrounds, jazzy tunes, and selection of armaments that includes the iconic Field Thunder (called simply Laser here). The “special lives” mechanic from Blazing Lazers also makes a comeback, allowing you to shoot certain power-ups until they transform into glowing orbs, then collect those orbs in order to gain the ability to have your ship re-spawn in place one time when you lose a life instead of being sent back to a checkpoint like normal. If you’re already a fan of Blazing Lazers, I’ve told you everything you need to know at this point. This is essentially twelve more levels of that game, so have at it!

Since Space Megaforce technically isn’t an official Blazing Lazers sequel, however, it does have its own story. It centers on a mysterious alien sphere that arrives on earth one day, positions itself over the jungles of South America, and begins etching huge designs into the ground similar to the famous Nazca Lines (again with the ancient aliens motif!) as it siphons energy from its surroundings and rapidly expands. Conventional attacks on the sphere are easily repelled, so it falls on the pilot of the experimental Super Aleste fighter to penetrate the its defenses and save the planet from assimilation. This is nothing we haven’t seen before. The basic setup of an enigmatic alien artifact threatening humanity is actually quite similar to Zanac’s. The Japanese release does include some welcome additional details, though. The pilot of the Super Aleste is given a face and a name, Raz. He’s also accompanied on his mission by a helpful female alien named Thi, who was formerly a prisoner inside the sphere and now wants to help destroy it. Why these two were cut out of the international releases is beyond me. They make a cute couple and lend the game some much-needed personality. This, along with its substantially lower price, makes the Japanese version the one to get in my opinion.

Ultimately, there are two key elements that set Space Megaforce apart from the rest of the Aleste series. The first is the initially overwhelming choice of eight different weapons, each of which has seven possible power levels and at least one alternate firing mode to toggle between. You also have the requisite limited supply of super bombs to bust out in emergencies, of course. Enemies drop a near-constant stream of weapon pickups, so you’re able to swap back and forth among the different options relatively easily. This embarrassment of riches makes for some substantial replay value. Individual stages can be much easier or harder depending not just on the current weapon equipped, but its power level and active firing mode. The amount of freedom the player has to shape the experience as a whole is rare and refreshing for a shooter of this period.

Space Megaforce’s other claim to fame has to be its strangely laid-back feel. For a game about zipping around in a high-tech space jet blowing up swarms of vicious aliens with one of the most varied and impressive arsenals in all of gaming, it sure does have a chill vibe to it. Most levels scroll by at a leisurely pace, the music is downright loungy, and the visuals tend toward the hypnotic with loads of trippy, undulating background effects. The game is also long. A perfect no-death run still clocks in at a full hour, which is a bloody eternity by 16-bit spaceship shooter standards. This has led some to claim that the game is simply too long and too slow for its own good. Playing it back-to-back with its immediate predecessor, 1990’s MUSHA (aka Musha Aleste) for Sega Genesis, I can definitely see where these critics are coming from. Musha’s swift scrolling, relentless speed metal soundtrack, and punchier forty minute runtime all make it the polar opposite of Space Megaforce, at least superficially. For what it’s worth, I never found myself bored playing Space Megaforce. In fact, the first thing I did after I beat it was to play through it again on the hard difficulty setting. Then I went on to finish the Japanese version twice. The gameplay here may not always be hyper-intense, but it’s far from boring. There’s always something to shoot, something to dodge, and something to grab. That I get to do all this while kicking back and rocking a mellow groove is fine by me.

Is Space Megaforce truly the best shooter on the Super Nintendo, as the rampant hype online would have you believe? Maybe. With twelve stages, eight weapons, and five difficulty modes, it’s a remarkably complete package. It also looks and sounds gorgeous and runs flawlessly with no slowdown to speak of, owing to Compile’s famously efficient programming. If we limit the field to its fellow vertical shooters, only Firepower 2000 and Pop’n TwinBee stand out as worthy rivals with their two-player simultaneous play options. Factor in the better horizontal scrollers like R-Type III and U.N. Squadron and the choice becomes a lot less clear-cut. In any case, it’s yet another masterpiece that every fan of the genre should check out. The only thing I can’t recommend is paying the triple-digit prices the American cartridges command when the Japanese version is superior to begin with. Shop smart, boys and girls.

On that note, Merry Christmas to you all! Today caps off another thrilling, educational, and all-around rewarding year of gaming for me. With another 63 titles completed and reviewed, I still feel I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of everything the 8 and 16-bit era has to offer. I’ll see you again in 2019, when I’ll be checking another item off my bucket list with my first foray onto a new hardware platform. Kind of.

Now it’s time to go check under the tree for that flying motorcycle I wrote Santa about. Fingers crossed!

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Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks to Kelsey Lewin over at my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. The movie’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the ’80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.

Golvellius: Valley of Doom (Master System)

Yeah, don’t hold your breath there, guys.

I was so excited to finally try out Golvellius: Valley of Doom. It’s actually one of the reasons I wanted to get into the Master System in the first place. Can you blame me? Just like The Guardian Legend on the NES, a stone cold masterpiece that just blew me away when I first experienced it last March, Golvellius is an action-adventure game from the revered studio Compile that takes numerous design cues from The Legend of Zelda. If that’s not a foolproof recipe for success, I don’t know what is. Spoilers: I don’t know what is.

This 1988 Sega release of Golvellius is actually an enhanced port of the original 1987 version for MSX home computers, Maou Golvellius (“Devil Golvellius”). Console gamers caught a break this time around, as the port seems to be superior to the original in every way, boasting improved sound and visuals, smoother scrolling, and a greater variety of enemies to fight. Indeed, the Master System Golvellius is a very attractive game on the surface. The graphics are crisp and colorful and the character art is packed with personality in a way that recalls the Wonder Boy series at its best. The soundtrack by Masatomo Miyamoto and Takeshi Santo is superb and will instantly bring to mind their subsequent work on The Guardian Legend. So much so, in fact, that it’s a bit uncanny. The instrumentation is so similar that you could make a playlist of tracks from both games and easily find yourself forgetting which song originated where. Still, it’s great to encounter a truly remarkable score on the system after enduring the shrill, repetitive aural garbage that detracts from titles like Ghostbusters and Shinobi. It all makes for a strong first impression.

An equally slick opening cut scene fills you in on the story: The kingdom of Aleid is under siege by monsters under the command of the demon Golvellius. The king of Aleid becomes so distraught by his people’s suffering that he falls gravely ill. The brave Princess Rena departs for the heart of the enemy’s territory in the Valley of Doom, which is the only place that the magic herb needed to heal her father can be found. When she fails to return, it falls on a wandering green-haired hero named Kelesis, as controlled by the player, to venture into the valley and set things right.

This primarily entails wandering around a sprawling overworld from a top-down viewpoint putting monsters to the sword, accumulating money and magical artifacts, and hunting for the entrances to a series of eight dungeons. Never heard that one before! There are some differences worth noting, though. For one, the overworld in Golvellius isn’t quite as open as the first Legend of Zelda’s, so there’s more of a linear Zelda II-style flow to the exploration. Each area is technically connected to the others and can be revisited at any time, but there’s usually some sort of roadblock preventing you from moving on to the next chunk of the map until the local dungeon boss is defeated or you’ve acquired some specific bit of equipment. Golvellius also does its best to one-up Zelda by placing a secret passage on virtually every screen. These are typically revealed by either stabbing a specific tree or rock with your sword or by defeating a set number of monsters on that screen. Some contain the aforementioned dungeons, but most house an NPC character of some sort. There are chatty fairies that dispense clues or passwords, sassy old women that sell you items, Compile’s cheerful blue blob mascot (who would later show up in Guardian Legend in a similar support role), and more. If you ever find yourself unsure how to progress, the best way to get back on track is to revisit any screens you haven’t discovered secret passages on yet and poke around some more.

So far, so good. As solid as the overworld portions of the game are, however, the dungeons are a colossal letdown. The Guardian Legend achieved greatness by replacing the typical mysterious labyrinths of Zelda with action-packed shooting sections taken straight from Zanac or Aleste. These had everything you could want in an 8-bit vertical shooter: Fast movement, tight controls, a bewildering variety of weapons and enemies, huge boss monsters, the works! Golvellius also gets pretty experimental with its dungeons, but stumbles badly in terms of execution.

Dungeons are divided into two basic types: Side-scrolling action-platforming stages and auto-scrolling overhead view corridors. Both are quite wretched. The side-scrolling sections suffer from floaty jumps and the odd inability to turn Kelesis around. Although he can “moonwalk” backward, he always faces to the right. This makes attacking any enemy that manages to get behind him needlessly annoying. Lacking even a dodgy platforming element, the overhead dungeons are even less fun and consist entirely of slowly marching forward in a straight line and swatting down the occasional defenseless bat. In fact, the enemies in every dungeon are drawn from the same small pool of unimpressive vermin that never seem to grow any stronger as the game progesses. This is in stark contrast to the overworld enemies, who start to get really vicious after the first few introductory areas. As a result, the game as a whole feels more and more wildly unbalanced the further you progress. The only aspect of these dungeon levels that might slow you down some are the dead ends. You’ll often find yourself at an intersection and be forced to choose between a high/low or left/right path. It all comes down to a guess, really, but guess wrong and you’ll be forced to exit the level and start over due to the fact that the screen only scrolls in one direction and there’s no way to simply turn around and march back to the last intersection. It’s not challenging, interesting, or fun, but it sure will waste some of your time. Yay.

Speaking of disrespecting your time, Golvellius is also a relentless grindfest due to the fact that you’re forced to pay out the nose to merchants for everything you need. And when I say “everything,” I mean it. Health increases, weapon and armor upgrades, key items needed to navigate the game world, everything. Naturally, you’ll also need to purchase the ability to carry more money on you at once just so you can afford all this other crap! There’s not a single item anywhere in the game that you’re simply allowed to find and pick up in the course of your adventure. Even the seven crystals that you need to gather in order to access the final dungeon (this game’s equivalent of the Triforce pieces) aren’t recovered from defeated bosses. Instead, defeating each boss will just convince a nearby shopkeeper to quit holding out and sell you one of the crystals for some arbitrarily huge sum of gold. Madness!

The final major problem with Golvellius is its combat. Considering how many monsters you’re expected to slay in order to pile up these endless stacks of cash, it’s completely one-dimensional and boring. I hope you love jabbing away at baddies with Kelesis’ sword because that is all you’ll be doing from the very first screen of the game to the very last. No bow and arrows, no boomerangs, no bombs, no magic spells, just that puny sword. Even primitive pre-Zelda action-RPGs like Hydlide gave you something other than your sword to clean house with. The shallowness of Golvellius’ combat is downright laughable for its time and it really started to wear on me after hours of throwing out the exact same mediocre attack over and over.

I never imagined that I would dislike Golvellius (or any Compile release) as much as I did. Part of me still doesn’t want to come down against it in spite of the overwhelming weight of the evidence. I mean, the presentation is still top notch. I also got a real kick out of the weird NPC dialogue, particularly the oddly abusive old women. “Thou art but a moron of the first class! Hit the road!” Dang, lady. The boss battles are decent fun, too, even if your opponents are limited to some very basic attack patterns. Despite all this, the lion’s share of the actual gameplay remains equal parts clunky, tedious, and dull. It’s no wonder the promised sequel never materialized. The closest thing we ever got was a very obscure cooking-themed parody game based on Golvellius called Super Cooks that was included in a 1989 edition of Compile Disc Station, which was a sort of digital magazine on floppy disk that was distributed to Japanese computer owners from 1988 through 1992.

If there’s a silver lining here, it would have to be that Golvellius seems to have served as a crash course of sorts in how not to make a Zelda clone. Certainly none of its irritating missteps would be carried over to The Guardian Legend a year later, so that game may well owe its status as one of the most brilliant console titles of its generation to the various design blunders of its immediate predecessor.

An acceptable price to pay for greatness, I suppose.

Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

Zanac (NES)

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

And to think I didn’t even know I was playing a Christmas game this whole time. This Yuletide miracle is Zanac, the first original shooter released by the legendary Compile. The initial versions of Zanac were published by Pony Canyon for the MSX computer and Nintendo’s Famicom Disk System in 1986, with this NES edition from FCI hitting shelves the following year.

Like almost all of Compile’s shooters, Zanac’s gameplay is of the vertically scrolling (overhead) variety. If you’ve played any of their later efforts in the same vein, like The Guardian Legend or the Aleste series, you know exactly what to expect: Lengthy, super fast scrolling stages packed with a non-stop stream of enemy ships and a wide variety of upgradable weaponry to blow them all away with. It’s actually quite remarkable how much of the Compile shooter formula that would remain recognizable right up until the company’s dissolution in 2002 was in place here from the very beginning.

You play as the unnamed pilot of the AFX-6502 Zanac fighter on a mission to save Earth from a rampaging techno-organic supercomputer called the System. According to the terribly translated instruction manual, the human race apparent got itself into this mess by improperly operating a mysterious alien artifact, the Icon, which was designed to bestow wisdom to the worthy and “punishment of ruin” to the unworthy. Whoops.

Penetrating the System’s defenses to take out its core requires you to fight your way through twelve stages, each of which contains between one and four bosses to fight. These take the form of massive ground-based fortresses bristling with hatches and ports that open and close to disgorge a constant stream of bullets and missiles. These encounters are very similar to the first boss battle from The Guardian Legend, except here you’ll also be harassed by swarms of standard enemies swooping in to add to the already considerable chaos. Strangely, if you fail to destroy all the weapon ports comprising the enemy base before a timer at the top of the screen runs down, you’ll actually be allowed to continue on your way. You’ll forfeit a rather large point bonus in this case, but I can’t think of any other shooter where beating most of the bosses is technically optional.

Between boss fortresses, you’ll naturally have to reckon with waves of standard enemies. This is where Zanac really sets itself apart from other shooters with its trademark feature: Dynamic artificial intelligence programming that reacts to how you play and changes up enemy types, numbers, and placement on the fly. Called the ALC (Automatic Level of Difficulty Control) in the manual, this is supposed to represent the System’s machine intelligence analyzing your ship’s threat level and reacting accordingly. Factors that can affect difficulty include, but are not limited to: The frequency with which you fire your weapons, the particular special weapon you have equipped, how frequently you lose lives, and how many of the blue enemy reconnaissance drones you’re able to shoot down.

This organically shifting difficulty makes a Zanac session a very intense experience. Even as you’re getting better at the game, the game is getting better at you. The more successful you are, the more the System throws at you, until the screen is so awash with enemy ships and projectiles that safely maneuvering your craft feels like trying to thread a needle in a windstorm. It also foils the strategies based on pure rote level memorization that work in so many other games. Since it’s nearly impossible to be certain which enemies will appear at a given place and time, there’s no substitute for fast, accurate reactions.

Thankfully, you are given the tools needed to succeed. The controls are flawless. The Zanac fighter itself is zippy enough to weave between enemy bullets as needed, but not so fast that it ever feels twitchy. You’ll need all that maneuverability, since one hit will destroy your ship, stripping away all your special weapons and upgrades in the process.

Speaking of those, you also have a whole catalog of offensive and defensive options to choose from. In addition to your standard shot, which can be enhanced up to six times by collecting “power chips” found in destructable boxes, there are also eight different special weapons to find and use, represented by icons numbered 0 through 7. Special weapons include lasers, a versatile eight-way shot, defensive shields, screen clearing bombs, and more. These can also be upgraded multiple times by collecting the same numbered icon repeatedly. It’s a staggering arsenal for a 1986 shooter, dwarfing even its contemporary Gradius, itself no slouch in this department. Some weapons are clearly more useful than others, but they’re all viable in the right hands. Even the standard shot is a beast once fully powered up.

One final factor that really works in the player’s favor is the nearly superhuman programming chops that Compile was so revered for. Even with ludicrously fast scrolling and dozens of enemies and bullets filling the screen, the smoothness of the action in Zanac never, ever falters. No matter how crazy the situation, I never noted any instances of lag, slowdown, dropped frames, or the like. Sprite flicker was also kept to an absolute minimum. It really is a tremendous technical accomplishment. If you ever want to experience what a difference programming proficiency can make, just put Zanac side-by-side with the atrocious port of Capcom’s 1942 that Micronics cranked out for the system the year prior.

It shouldn’t shock anyone at this point when I say that I found Zanac to be very impressive indeed. The action is smooth, frantic, and surprisingly deep due to the numerous weapon options and the unpredictability of the enemy A.I. This latter feature would go on to inspire many similar “rank” mechanics in later generations of shooters. The primary flaw to be found, if you can call it that, would be the graphics. While colorful, they’re very much on the plain side. Everything you encounter looks like a generic tiny spaceship or sci-fi building. Given that you’re fighting a computer, this makes sense, but don’t expect the sort of personality you get from The Guardian Legend’s freaky giant eyeball monsters or MUSHA’s capital ships wearing creepy Noh masks. Zanac’s music, at least, is much more memorable, packed with heroic crescendos perfectly suited to the white-knuckle action.

A final potentially irksome thing to be aware of going in is that while you are given unlimited continues with which to finish the game, continuing in stages eleven or twelve will send you back to the start of stage ten. These final two stages are pretty manageable if you’ve built up a large stock of extra lives and power-ups over the course of the game. If you do find yourself having to start over in level ten with just three lives, however, it can be a bit of an uphill climb to make it all the way to the end. It’s possible, just a right pain in the ass.

These are really very minor gripes, though. In the end, Zanac is downright incredible for a 1986 vintage title and its unique take on an adaptive difficulty system makes it a must play for fans of the genre even today. If you like overhead shooters, and particularly if you’ve enjoyed other ones by Compile, it’s a must play.

Until next year, Merry Christmas to one and all! If you’re in a giving mood, this Messiah is currently accepting gifts of gold, frankincense, and fully upgraded High Speed blasters.

MUSHA (Genesis)

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Oh, yeah. She just looks thrilled at the prospect.

I thought I’d take a little break from platformers this week, so I decided to give Compile’s acclaimed 1990 shooter MUSHA a shot. It’s been a while since I played a shooter, with the most recent one being another Compile classic, The Guardian Legend, back in February. It’s no coincidence, since I just can’t get enough Compile goodness. For me, they made the absolute best overhead shooters of the 8 and 16-bit age and I’ve always had a preference for overhead (vertical) shooters over side view (horizontal) ones. I think they just feel more “open” somehow; like I have more space available on the screen to maneuver, even if I actually may not.

(By “shooter,” of course, I mean the classic “fly around in a little spaceship and blast all the other spaceships” experience, not a first person shooter, but you probably already knew that.)

Anyway, Musha is part of the long-running Aleste series, hence its Japanese title, Musha Aleste. In the West, MUSHA was presented as the contrived acronym for “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor,” but it’s really just supposed to be the Japanese word for “warrior,” so I’m just referring to the game as Musha from here on out.

Plots aren’t the most important feature in an old school shooter by a long shot, and Musha’s is no exception. It’s the future and an evil supercomputer named “Dire 51” decides to go all Skynet and take over the galaxy. With a name like that, humanity really should have seen it coming. The last hope lies with the Musha team and all five of them set off to save the day. Hilariously, your four teammates get blown up immediately after the opening cut scene, leaving your character Terri (“valedictorian from Air & Space University”) to do all the actual fighting. I’m guessing she’s the only one who paid attention at giant robot pilot school. Hope all those keggers were worth it, guys.

There are seven levels of carnage on offer in Musha and each one is an archetypal Compile meatgrinder of high speed enemies punctuated by a mini-boss fight at around the halfway marker, except for the final level, which is a brutal gauntlet featuring a grand total of four bosses.

Luckily, you have some decent weaponry to take it all on with. Your primary shot travels straight forward and is pretty puny to start out. Thankfully, you can upgrade it to fire a spread of up to four projectiles at once if you can stay alive long enough. There are also three special weapons for you to pick up: Missiles that carpet bomb a wide swath of the screen in front of you, a laser that projects a constant stream of damage straight forward, and a rotating shield that can block enemy bullets and damage foes on contact. These special weapons can also be upgraded three times with additional pickups. Somewhat unusually for the genre, they also supplement your primary shot rather than replacing it. Special weapons also act as your armor, since you can survive one hit while equipped with one, but this will cause you to lose it, so you’d better scramble for a replacement fast!

Three special weapons doesn’t sound like a lot for a game of this kind but you also have a final means of attack: Options. These are tiny satellites that orbit your primary ship and fire in tandem with your main gun. You acquire options by shooting the “chip carriers” that you encounter in each level. These will then disgorge glowing chips that you’ll need to catch as they fall toward the bottom of the screen. Every three chips obtained will grant you an option. You can only have a maximum of two option satellites active at a time, but extra ones are stored away for later and will automatically deploy to replace any active ones destroyed by enemy fire. These options are very versatile weapons since they can be instructed to fire in six different patterns at any time. They can shoot ahead of you, behind you, in spread patterns, and more. You can even instruct them to break away from you and seek out enemies to attack but sending them out on their own and unprotected can result in them being destroyed at an increased rate. Choosing the right option formation for the right part of each level is key to success in Musha.

One final interesting control facet is a manual throttle. You can pause the game and press left or right to adjust your ship’s movement speed. This comes in handy in a variety of ways. You can slow down to maneuver accurately in tight quarters or speed up to better dodge enemy missiles. Since being either too slow or too fast is a perennial problem in shooter games, this unusual option really is one of those “Why doesn’t every game have this?” features.

So the gameplay is awesome and surprisingly deep but how about the rest of the package? The graphics are well drawn and there’s a lot of awesome parallax scrolling effects going on in the stages that confer a spectacular sense of depth and speed, but the real standout visual element is the wild stage and enemy design. Where else are you going to fight a giant space pagoda bristling with cannons or a flying battleship with a huge Japanese Noh theater mask face? As nice as this game looks, though, nothing can compare to Toshiaki Sakoda’s godlike soundtrack. The Sega Genesis catches a lot of flack for its older FM sound chip’s weakness relative to the Super Nintendo’s audio hardware and Musha definitely does have a lot of that twangy Genesis synth guitar that a lot of chiptune afficianados are so down on. Any weaknesses in the instrumentation are completely superseded, however, by the sheer epic radness of the thrash metal-inspired compositions. There are not a lot of Genesis soundtracks that I’d really want to pump up the volume on, but this is one of them. As of now, it’s my own personal favorite musical score for the system.

As far as downsides in Musha, there are a couple minor quirks, but no serious flaws. There’s a little slowdown when the screen gets extremely crowded, though it’s not that common or that severe. It would have also been nice to be able to change your option satellite configuration while the game is paused, similar to how you adjust your ship’s speed. Six potential configurations are a lot to cycle through during a hectic fight, especially if you’re trying to divide your attention between your ship at the bottom of the screen and the text at the top that shows your current option setting.

Now for the elephant in the room: Original Musha cartridges are expensive as hell. As a genre, only RPGs seem to rival shooters for hyper-inflated prices on the secondary market. If you’re not prepared to drop $200 or more, you’re probably out of luck. I played Musha on a $10 reproduction cartridge because 100% of the game for 5% of the price sounded like a great deal to me. I’m a player first and no serious collector by any means. As a general rule I’ll never pay more for an old game than I would for a new one. I figure that if I can’t get an original copy of the game for $60 or less, I’ll either find a cheaper way to play it on my console (like a repro or a flash cartridge) or just play something else instead. But that’s just me. If you want to shell out for a “real” Musha for your collection, more power to you. The point I’m driving at here is: If you love quality vertical shooters, you owe it to yourself to play Musha somehow. It may just be the best of its class on the Genesis, which is a system renowned for its abundance of great shooter titles.

Just do yourself a favor and take really good notes at Air & Space University.

The Guardian Legend (NES)

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Aww! You’re so sweet, game!

After playing it for the first time, I can report that The Guardian Legend is really, really damn good. The sheer scope of the game is amazing for the NES: 23 space shooting sections linked by hundreds of screens of overhead dungeon levels, ten different weapons that can be upgraded three times each and utilized in both gameplay modes, RPG-like character improvement, moody and memorable music, and stylish graphics.

If you like fast-paced vertical shooters with tons of enemies to blow away and a huge selection of upgradable weapons that you can switch between on the fly, you’ll love this. It’s made by Compile, after all. If you love overhead action-adventure games in the Zelda mold, you’ll…like this.

Yeah, if the game has one flaw, it’s that the adventure segments aren’t as fully realized as they could be. The enemies don’t have much personality and don’t pose much of a threat. More importantly, there aren’t really any cool secret areas or items to be discovered. Everything’s pretty much right out in the open, as far as I can tell, since I was able to get all the weapons and upgrades without uncovering anything resembling a hidden area. Definitely some missed opportunities there. Still, these sections still work fine as a change of pace after the frantic shooting sections. When your heart is pounding after just barely overcoming a tough boss, it feels good to get shuttled back to the labyrinth to chill out and hunt some upgrades at a relaxed pace for a bit. And for what it’s worth, the overhead section are definitely better than Blaster Master’s.

In terms of challenge, it’s only average if you explore the labyrinth throughly for power-ups, but since seeking these out is largely optional, you can also increase your difficulty level (to a potentially extreme degree) just by deliberately avoiding these pickups.

So, in conclusion: The world needs more Guardian cosplay and I need an adorable plush lander.