Gun-Nac (NES)

Pulverizing your enemies: The true reason for the season.

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Compilemas! Time for another present to myself in the form of a “new” offering from one of my most appreciated developers. I had so much fun with Compile’s formative classic Zanac back in December of 2017 that I decided to make returning to this particular well a Christmas tradition for as long as possible. This year, I’m unwrapping 1990’s Gun-Nac for the NES. It’s yet another vertically-scrolling shooter in the time-tested Zanac/Aleste mold. There’s one key difference this time, though: Gun-Nac is a “cute-’em-up” that sees you repelling an invasion of adorable animals and prosaic household objects instead of the usual alien armada.

If you’re inclined to believe the English instruction manual, Gun-Nac takes place in a faraway “synthetic solar system” called IOTA Synthetica, where a mysterious cosmic force is causing all sorts of  unlikely things to spring to life and attack the populace. You control maverick space ace Commander Gun-Nac in his bid to to save the day. Given that you never see Commander Gun-Nac himself, you may suspect something was lost in translation. Sure enough, the extended cutscenes in the Japanese original reveal the story was meant to be set in our own solar system and star a lady magician who summons her high tech spaceship with a spell. I’m not sure why this rather charming element was removed. It reminds me of how my last Compile Christmas selection, Space Megaforce, also ditched its pilot characters, Raz and Thi, in favor of another unseen protagonist. It’s almost like whoever was in charge of localizing these titles was actively striving to keep them as bland as possible for some reason.

Oh, well. On to the blasting! Gun-Nac is made up of eight stages. Nine, if you count the hidden “area zero” accessible by setting the sound test in the option menu to five, which enables the level select function. Per usual for Compile, they’re all quite lengthy and most include at least one mid-boss in addition to a final boss. The wacky theming starts off strong with a cratered lunar surface where killer bunny robots deploy heat-seeking carrots against you. Weird as that is, there is context for it. In China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, the “face” on the moon is thought to resemble a rabbit, an association that’s influenced mythology and art for centuries. The more you know. Later stages pit you against paper products, money, and other absurd threats.

The action itself is pure Aleste. Your ship can cycle between four speed settings at will, equip five primary shot types represented by numbered icons, and carry four flavors of limited use elemental super bomb for emergencies. Gathering power chips will enhance your primary gun and the wing item bulks up your ship, allowing it to withstand an extra hit before it’s destroyed. One entirely new addition is money bag pickups, which you can exchange for various ship upgrades at between-level shops. These resemble fast food establishments, except they vend death rays and explosive ordinance instead of burgers and fries. Gotta love that smiling girl at the counter with her paper hat and name tag.

When it comes to this tried-and-true formula, I essentially have no complaints. Gun-Nac is a prime example of the Compile house style. It and its fellows are among my most treasured gaming memories for good reason. They’re invariably fast-paced and hectic, with pinpoint-accurate controls and little, if any, slowdown. On top of this, you get a plethora of exciting weapons to wield and a relatively forgiving design that allows for a much less punishing play experience than is typical for the genre. Some critics have claimed these games are too easy, too samey, or that their levels drag on too long. Allowing for personal preference, this is all fair enough. Certainly, Gun-Nac is notably easy on its default difficulty setting. I was able to complete it on my very first attempt without needing to continue even once. Good luck pulling that off in Gradius or R-Type! For me, however, auto-scrolling shooters just don’t get any better. If you’ve enjoyed any of the studio’s similar works (Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, Blazing Lazers, Space Megaforce, etc), I can virtually guarantee you’ll like this one, too.

There is one thing that disappointed me about Gun-Nac, although it’s unrelated to the gameplay proper. Despite being billed as Compile’s take on the cute-’em-up subgenre, it doesn’t seem the design team was prepared to fully embrace the unbridled insanity that usually implies. Comparing Gun-Nac’s art and sound direction to that of cutsey staples like TwinBee, Parodius, and Fantasy Zone reveals it to occupy an awkward middle ground between them and the typical “straight” shooter. Some stages (like the previously mentioned rabbit-infested moon) are as kooky as can be. Others are decidedly restrained. In fact, the further you progress, the more things start to resemble an average Aleste game. The final stage is a stock metallic techno-fortress that features no oddball enemies at all, only common spaceships and gun turrets. It’s as if Gun-Nac’s creators couldn’t agree on what sort of tone to aim for. That, or they happened to have a bunch of leftover sprites and background tiles laying around from other projects and opted to cobble together another game out of them.

Gun-Nac may be a tad disjointed aesthetically, but its familiar, masterful action still succeeded in making my already blissful holiday season that little bit brighter. I can’t think of a better note to close out another amazing year of gaming goodness on. It’s been a true blessing to have had the opportunity to explore another 59 vintage games with you all over the past twelve months. I have some important milestones coming up in 2020, including the biggie: Review #200, which will focus on my all-time most beloved game for my favorite console. Until then, Merry Christmas and a sincere thanks to each and every one of you.

Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

It’s been a while since I checked with my favorite follicly challenged cave boy, Bonk. I’m also overdue for my classic shooter fix. Air Zonk to the rescue! This 1992 release (also known as the downright unpronounceable “PC Denjin Punkic Cyborg!/PC Denjin/Completion○/Clear×” in Japan) is Red Company and Hudson Soft’s attempt to reimagine their successful mascot platformers as a side-scrolling “cute-’em-up.” Whereas Bonk strolled around his prehistoric world wrecking uppity dinosaurs with his massive cranium, his futuristic counterpart Zonk is a cyborg who flies around shooting them.

Zonk’s most important upgrade wasn’t his rocket thrusters or bombs, but his cocky Sonicesque swagger. He was famously part of a last-ditch effort by NEC and Hudson Soft (under the joint Turbo Technologies banner) to rescue their struggling TurboGrafx-16 in North America, where the Genesis and Super Nintendo were eating its lunch. He became the sass-infused mascot for the then-new TurboDuo revision of the console. Realistically speaking, no amount of radical ’90s ‘tude was going to undo years of major missteps in a cutthroat market. This shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against Air Zonk, however, which is one of the most enjoyable and technically impressive shooters on the system.

The story supplied in the manual is serviceable. Perennial series antagonist King Drool is out to conquer the world with his robot army. The only thing standing in his way? “Cool, sunglass-wearing warriors lead (sic) by Zonk.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the original King Drool, still alive somehow in the far future, or one of his descendants. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. The important thing is that Zonk and company have five very long, very strange stages of slapstick aerial combat ahead of them.

Yes, them. Air Zonk’s most interesting gameplay feature is easily its friend system. Destroyed enemies will leave behind smiley face icons. Collect enough of these and a big smiley will appear that summons one of Zonk’s buddies to fly alongside him and provide some extra firepower. If you can manage to collect a second big smiley in that same level, Zonk and his pal will merge together into a hybrid form with a unique attack and gain temporary invincibility. Ten different friend characters effectively means ten additional special weapons above and beyond the eight Zonk can equip by himself. Truly a staggering arsenal by genre standards. You get to decide at the beginning of each playthrough whether to let the game choose your friend character for each round or if you’d prefer to do it yourself. You can even opt to go solo, in which case Zonk will employ automated helper drones instead.

Between all these offensive tools and each stage containing multiple discrete segments and bosses, there’s more to Air Zonk’s gameplay than you might expect. Better still, it’s all exquisitely presented. Its soundtrack is a contender for the best to ever grace a HuCard format game, so much so that it arguably beats out the CD music in its own sequel, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. These tunes are upbeat, driving, and as densely packed with memorable hooks as any of their era. The visuals are no slouch, either. Artwork is crisp, bold, and makes striking use of the TG-16’s vibrant color palette. It also needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Many of the backgrounds showcase multi-layered parallax scrolling, despite the fact that it isn’t a built-in feature of the hardware and no doubt required much hard work on the programming side to implement this well.

I could praise Air Zonk’s audiovisual excellence all day. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make some effort to convey how bloody weird it is, though. While it’s bright colors and cartoon style do recall cutesy shooters like Fantasy Zone and TwinBee, the game’s whole aesthetic really skews more bizarre with a side of the grotesque than it does conventionally sweet and adorable. Take one enemy you counter early on in level five. It appears to be a hovering elephant skeleton with glowing red eyes. In a moderately eccentric game, that would be odd enough. Not here. The artists went ahead and added some sort of deformed green head with bulging bloodshot eyes to the top of the skeleton. Still not satisfied, they gave that head a tumor-like cluster of tinier heads sprouting from it! I had to pause and stare at this thing for a good minute or so the first time I encountered it, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be looking at. That’s just one example of the insanity on display, too. Zonk fought alongside a sentient baseball, got transformed into a milk squirting man-cow creature, and more. Hell, the Japanese version has him producing exploding turds (each wearing its own pair of matching Zonk shades!) by holding the fire down button long enough. Alas, these are replaced by bombs overseas.

So far, what I’ve been describing is a 16-bit shooter fan’s dream come true. Wildly varied action? Spectacular graphics and sound? A sense of humor that’s unhinged in the best possible way? Sign me up for all that! Sadly, Air Zonk does stumble in one important area: Difficulty balancing. Relatively chill for the majority of its run time, its fifth and final stage is a real bastard, with five waves of regular enemies broken up by no less than nine boss fights. Nine! Getting blindsided with this near R-Type degree of brutality is off-putting for sure. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a game’s final level should be its toughest, but making it far and away tougher than the rest of the lot combined is pushing the principle entirely too far. A more reasonable idea would have been to break this marathon finale up into two separate stages with a checkpoint in-between. Thank heavens for unlimited continues, eh?

Unfortunate as it is, Air Zonk’s last minute Jekyll and Hyde turn wasn’t enough to put me off it altogether. It still earns a hearty recommendation on the strength of its unbridled creativity, technical prowess, and bounty of meaningful play options. My only true regret is that we never got the Bonk/Zonk crossover we deserve. Imagine these two joining forces across time, with Bonk handling the platforming duties and Zonk the shoot-’em-up mayhem. It’s only the most obvious collaboration since chocolate and peanut butter, guys. Yeesh!

Magical Chase (TurboGrafx-16)

Let’s talk expensive games video games.

Not the classic titles you know and love. No, I mean really expensive games. Beyond the everyday gripes about those bloodsucking resellers with their $30 Contras and $200 Earthbounds, there lies another world entirely. I’m referring to the realm of the ultra-rarities, a bewildering alien landscape where single cartridges are priced like cars, minus the helpful financing options. For the majority of (relatively) level-headed, responsible enthusiasts, this is just a gaudy sideshow. For a select few, though, chasing these “holy grails” becomes an obsession.

Most true big ticket games never saw a conventional retail release. Rather, they’re unreleased prototypes, low production arcade boards, “competition cartridges” created for specific gaming events, and the like. The most famous is undoubtedly the 1990 Nintendo World Championships NES cartridge. Only 116 were ever produced and you can expect to pay between $15,000 and $19,000 to own one, depending on whether you opt for the grey or gold plastic shell variant. Yikes.

This got me thinking: What’s the most expensive game to have actually been given a proper release? No last-minute cancellations, abrupt product recalls, or anything like that. Just a regular old mass-produced game cartridge that you or I could have picked up for $50 back in the day if we’d had either amazing luck or the gift of foresight on our side. As of right now, a good candidate would be Quest’s 1991 PC Engine shooter Magical Chase. More specifically, the version of it released in North America in 1993 for the ailing TurboGrafx-16. Hard figures relating to the production and sale of older games are elusive as a rule, but all sources seem to agree that the TG-16 Magical Chase was released very late in the troubled console’s run and sold poorly. Authentic copies commonly fetch between $3000 and $5000 at auction today. Fortunately for me, you’re only required to shell out that kind of money to actually own Magical Chase. Playing it is another story.

As a side-scrolling shooter starring an adorable cartoon witch girl on a flying broomstick, Magical Chase is often compared to another 1991 release, Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams by developer Success. Whether this is an example of convergent evolution or if Quest deliberately set out to copy Success’, well, success, I’m not rightly sure. The apprentice witch you control here is named Ripple and she’s managed to land herself in quite a bind by meddling with one of her master’s forbidden books and accidentally freeing the six fearsome demons imprisoned inside. If she can’t recapture them all in short order, she’ll surely be turned into a frog as punishment.

Thankfully, Ripple isn’t alone on her mission. Her two Elf-Star friends, Topsy and Turvy, are always by her side to contribute some extra firepower and protection from enemy attacks in classic Gradius option pod style. Each of the game’s six stages also includes at least one opportunity to visit a shop manned by the pumpkin-headed merchant Jack. Here, Ripple can use the shiny gems dropped by defeated foes as currency to purchase healing items and power-ups.

At first blush, Magical Chase delivers exactly what you’d expect from a “cute ’em up” on the system: Bright, colorful art, whimsical character designs, and a peppy soundtrack. Its primary gameplay hook is the Elf-Star satellites mentioned above, over which you’re given a remarkable degree of control. By default, they rotate freely around Ripple, moving and firing in the opposite of whichever direction she happens to be flying. You can lock them in place to serve as fixed shields by tapping the I button anytime Ripple isn’t shooting. Hitting I while Ripple is shooting will lock in the direction of the Elf-Stars’ fire instead. For example, you could fix the Elf-Stars into position in front of Ripple to block oncoming fire while simultaneously directing their shots backward to take out enemies sneaking up from behind.

It sounds extremely useful and it is. Eventually. There’s a surprisingly steep learning curve to it all, stemming from the fact that all the Elf-Stars’ many possible configurations are all achieved via a single button, the exact function of which is contextually dependent on the current status of another button. It’s not so bad when the screen around Ripple is relatively clear and you can take a second to think the necessary inputs through, but adjusting the Elf-Stars precisely in the midst of a heated battle can get dicey. Tricky as it is, I can appreciate that this was probably the best possible solution with only two main action buttons to work with.

On the plus side, a bit of fumbling around with the controls isn’t nearly as disastrous here as it would be in most other shooters. The usual one-hit deaths are out and Ripple starts the game with a sizable health bar made up of Zelda-esque hearts. Her heart count can be permanently boosted in the shops and lost health can be replenished in numerous ways, both during and between each of the stages. The game is uncommonly forgiving in other ways, too, as continues are unlimited and Ripple’s stock of power-ups and money remains intact even after death. Consequently, experienced shooter fans will make rapid progress with this one. I was able to finish the game without dying on the hard difficulty setting after just a couple hours of practice. This isn’t necessary a bad thing. Quite the opposite. If old school scrolling shooters as a whole had one overarching flaw, it was that there never seemed to be enough releases specifically tailored to draw inexperienced players into the fold. Magical Chase feels like a game designed from the ground up to fill that very role.

Does it do its job flawlessly? Absolutely not. I found the majority of the level design in Magical Chase to be lackluster at best and lazy at worst. Traditionally, horizontally scrolling shooters like this one feature more in the way of complex terrain features to negotiate and environmental hazards to avoid than their vertically scrolling counterparts. Magical Chase only really attempts this on two of its six stages, with the remainder being simple straight shots to the end boss with only the enemy patterns themselves to worry about along the way. The two levels that do seem to have had a decent amount of effort put into them are the most enjoyable of the lot by far. I particularly enjoyed the huge wooden airships that do their best to crush Ripple between their hulls in stage three. Fun as they are, these exceptions still can’t carry the whole game on their own.

The magic system was another sore spot for me. Ripple can buy single-use spells in Jack’s shop that do useful thinks like heal damage or clear the screen of enemy shots. She can carry up to six of these at once. What she can’t do is cycle through them as needed. Instead, spells must be used in the same order they’re purchased. This means that if, for example, you find yourself in urgent need of health and a healing spell isn’t the next one in Ripple’s lineup, you’ll need to burn through and waste any other spells occupying the slots in-between if you want to reach and activate the one you actually need. It’s a design choice as baffling as it is frustrating. Merely allowing the controller’s otherwise unused Select button to highlight the next spell to be activated would have rendered it a non-issue.

I did have fun with Magical Chase and don’t regret any of the time I spent soaring through Ripple’s lush, surreal world. As thoroughly charming as it all looks and sounds, however, I wasn’t exactly blown away by the gameplay. The Elf-Stars are a neat idea and allow for a lot of combat flexibility, but the level design is all but absent for much of the journey and the control quirks are persistently irksome. While it does warrant a special recommendation to genre newcomers, it’s ultimately a pretty average little adventure in the wider context of the console’s legendary shooter library. Admittedly, I may have been expecting more simply because I’ve come across so many glowing reviews of it elsewhere. The cynic in me can’t help but wonder if the very act of spending thousands of dollars on a single game might foster some degree of positive bias. In any case, it’s a pity that Magical Chase would never benefit from any further refinement by way of sequels and that its plucky protagonist, true to her name, amounted to little more than the briefest of ripples over the surface of gaming culture.

Pop’n TwinBee (Super Famicom)

Yowza! Somebody get Dr. Wily there to an orthodontist, stat!

Last August, I covered Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures, the unique platforming spin-off from Konami’s fondly-remembered TwinBee series of shooters. Despite its sumptuous presentation and some genuinely fun ideas, I ultimately found Rainbow Bell Adventures to be a mediocre product dragged down by its uninspired level design. A real pity. I still enjoyed the art style and characters quite a bit, though, so I figured it was about time to give the series another chance. What better place to start than with Rainbow Bell’s “sister game” on the Super Famicom, 1993’s Pop’n TwinBee? Is it a better shooter than its counterpart is a platformer? I’m pleased to report that it most certainly is, as well as being the Super Nintendo enthusiast’s single best choice for a two-player shooter experience.

First, though, a brief refresher on TwinBee as a whole. Debuting in Japanese arcades in 1985, the series primarily consists of vertically-scrolling shooters that see the player facing off against a mixture of air and ground-based enemies. The core gameplay is clearly patterned on Namco’s iconic Xevious, with the primary differences being TwinBee’s lighthearted tone, soft pastel art style, focus on simultaneous two-player action, and bell juggling power-up system. Depending on who you ask, TwinBee may or may not have been the first of the so-called “cute-‘em-ups.” Some point to Namco’s King and Balloon from 1980 instead, for example. In any case, it was indisputably one of the early pioneers of the style and would prove to be a major success for Konami domestically over the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, branching out to include toys, manga, and even a radio drama before fizzling out (along with the shooter genre as a whole) around the turn of the century. Overseas markets were another story. Only one TwinBee game was ever officially released In North America. This was the second game, Moero TwinBee: Cinnamon-hakase o Sukue! (“Burn TwinBee: To the Rescue of Dr. Cinnamon!”), which made an unimpressive showing on the NES under the new title Stinger in 1987. Europe fared slightly better with four additional releases for various systems. Still, TwinBee never exactly became a household name outside its homeland. Was it too cute? Too Japanese? Too poorly/weakly marketed? I’ll leave that debate for another day.

Pop’n TwinBee opens with a cut scene in which Light and Pastel (the interpid pilots of the blue TwinBee and pink WinBee ships, respectively) receive a distress call while patrolling the skies of Donburi Island. The caller, a girl named Madoka, tells the pair that her normally kind grandfather Dr. Mardock was driven insane by a bonk on the head (yes, really) and has since dedicated himself to conquering the world with his army of acorn robots. Pastel and Light swiftly blast off to repel the acorn invasion and knock some sense back into the mad doctor in the process. It’s a slight and silly justification for the mayhem to come, but perfectly in keeping with the cartoonish sensibilities of the franchise. No complaints here.

The adventure ahead consists of seven stages. This isn’t a ton by genre standards. Thankfully, most of them are fairly long, so an average playthrough should take you around 40-60 minutes (depending on how often you die), which is a near ideal length for the sort of simple “pick up and play” experience that shooters are known for. It’s a fairly smooth ride, too, with much less in the way of slowdown and other performance issues than most other SNES shooters.

As mentioned above, players are tasked with defeating both air and ground enemies on the way to each stage’s end boss. Airborne targets are dispatched with your standard shot, while grounded foes are only vulnerable to the short range bombs that your anthropomorphic ship hurls down at them with its noodley Mickey Mouse arms.

That’s not all, though. When things get desperate, you can also opt to unleash a chibi attack, which functions like the screen clearing bombs from other shooters. Dozens of miniature “chibi” versions of your ship flood the screen, destroying most standard enemies outright and dealing hefty damage to bosses while also rendering you invincible for a few seconds. The downside, of course, is that your chibi attacks have a limited number of uses.

Finally, your ship can punch with its gloved fists. This attack has a very short range (naturally) and requires you to charge it up for a couple seconds by holding down the bomb button. Although risky, the punch deals heavy damage and can actually destroy some incoming enemy bullets if timed properly.

Even with all these offensive options, your craft is still quite slow and weak by default, and that’s where the (in)famous bells come in. Shooting any of the smiling clouds you fly past will dislodge a golden bell that drops down toward the bottom of the screen. You can catch these right away and be rewarded with some bonus points, but it’s almost always a better idea to “juggle” the bells by shooting them repeatedly. This will cause them to bounce back up toward the top of the screen and, after several successive shots, start to cycle through six additional colors, each one of which grants you access to a different power-up. You have blue (speed boost), green (satellite helper ships that boost your firepower), silver (a bigger, stronger main shot), purple (a triple spread shot), pink (shield), and flashing (extra chibi ammo). Like in most games of this kind, the majority of these powers are lost if you die. The silver and purple bells remain in effect even then, however, which is uncommonly forgiving for a shooter.

In fact, if there’s one phrase that describes the Pop’n TwinBee experience generally, it’s “uncommonly forgiving.” This is no arcade port, but an original title created with the Super Famicom in mind. As such, the designers opted to move away from a lot of the quarter-munching (or yen-munching) qualities that define other entries in the series. Your ship can no longer have its arms destroyed and bomb attacks disabled, for example. More dramatically, one-hit deaths have given way to a health bar and enemies drop health refilling hearts with fair frequency. Couple this with ready access to the shields provided via pink bell pickups (each of which adds another four extra hits on top of your standard health bar) and your cute little robot bee is a real juggernaut that puts the fragile spaceships from most other shooters to shame. Even the bell juggling is more forgiving in this installment, since it takes multiple shots to change a bell’s color and this means you’re less likely to do so by mistake and lose out on the specific power-up you’ve been waiting for. Experienced shooter players will find that the combination of refillable health and shields on demand makes them feel just about invincible, at least on the standard difficulty setting. Higher difficulties render things a bit more hectic, but the action never approachs arcade shooter levels of brutality. Not even close. The only potential hurdle to overcome is the fact that you don’t have extra lives. Die and you’ll have to spend one of your limited continues to restart the level from the beginning. Still, dying ain’t exactly easy.

Whether this lack of difficulty is a pro or a con is going to vary by individual. If you’re the type that plays these games strictly for the teeth-grinding challenge and bragging rights, you’ll likely get bored quick. If you’re a shooter novice looking for an entry point to the genre, you’re just as likely to be enraptured. Personally, I found myself occupying the middle ground: I never struggled with the game at any point, but I had a pleasant time just kicking back with it for a bit and basking in its loopy atmosphere.

So far, we have what amounts to a cute, colorful, rather easy vertical shooter. Not bad by any means, but what’s the big deal? Well, the real reason I was so emphatic about this being the better of the two SNES TwinBee titles is its amazing multiplayer implementation. Shooters with two-player simultaneous options are already rare enough on the system. Offhand, Taito’s Darius Twin is the only other one that comes to mind. Pop’n TwinBee easily eclipses Darius in this department thanks to no less than three meaningful gameplay enhancements exclusive to its two-player mode. By maneuvering their ships close to each other, players can swap health back and forth, allowing a stronger player to “heal” a weakened one and keep them in the fight longer. Players can also grab and toss each other around the screen in order in order to dish out heavy damage to foes. Don’t worry, though: Players that get tossed around this way are invincible until they recover.

The final multiplayer-only option, “couple mode,” might just be the best of them. While couple mode is activated, enemies will focus the majority of their attacks on player one. This allows for a less skilled player to keep pace with a more adept partner. It’s such a simple, profound gameplay tweak that I’m amazed it never caught on.

On the graphics and sound front, it’s old school Konami glitz all the way. The armada of killer acorns, walking pineapples, pandas, and baby dolls you do battle with are all packed with personality, the backgrounds are intricately detailed and work in some lovely transparency and line scrolling effects, and there are even short animated cut scenes between stages that add to the Saturday morning cartoon feel by depicting the characters engaged in various wacky situations. The soundtrack (contributed by eight separate composers!) strikes just the right balance between whimsy and intensity.

If Pop’n TwinBee has any true flaw other than the debatably lacking difficulty, it would have to be the scoring. Simply put: The points don’t matter. Most shooters will award the player extra lives or other perks upon reaching certain scoring milestones. Here, the only reason to chase those high scores is to compete, either with yourself or rival players. It’s a missed opportunity, albeit far from a deal breaking one like Rainbow Bell Adventures’ meandering, repetitive stage layouts. If you’re partial to vertical shooters, aggressively cute pixilated romps, superb multiplayer experiences, or any combination of the above, Pop’n TwinBee is a no-brainer. As an added bonus, both the Japanese version I have and the European PAL format releases are quite inexpensive at the time of this writing.

Therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee…and a lucky friend on controller two.

Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (Super Famicom)

Nothing to see here, folks. Just your average, everyday flying baby.

There are easily dozens of Japanese video game franchises which have never seen an entry published in North America. Many are based on obscure anime and manga licenses with zero overseas recognition factor. Others might be packed with the sort of adult content that tends to get American moral watchdog groups up in arms or be deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. If there’s a single such series the average retro gamer has probably at least heard of, it would have to be Konami’s Parodius line of surreal “cute-‘em’-ups.” Even as far back as the late 1990s, I can recall screenshots circulating online along with breathless descriptions of pitched battles against penguin armies, hostile corn on the cob, kitten-headed battleships, scantily clad showgirls, and more. Frankly, I’m amazed it’s taken me this long to dive into the series.

Parodius started its run on Japanese MSX home computers with Parodiusu: Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū (“Parodius: The Octopus Saves the Earth”) in 1988. As the name hints, Parodius is a parody of the legendary space shooter Gradius and its many sequels. This is neither the time nor the place to go into a ton of detail on the Gradius games. Suffice to say that the original Gradius from 1985 is probably the single most influential horizontally scrolling shooter ever made. Like Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Bros., or Doom, it wasn’t the first of its kind, but it had just the right combination of groundbreaking new features and fortuitous timing needed to become emblematic of an entire genre for decades to come.

A total of five proper Parodius titles were released before the series fizzled out in 1996. The one I’m looking at today is the fourth entry, 1995’s Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (“Chatting Parodius Live”) for the Super Famicom.

Parodius games aren’t known for their complex plots and this one is no exception. An introductory cut scene (presented in a super grave, melodramatic style right out of a Gundam anime) depicts a mob of angry chickens, moai heads, and other classic series baddies flying toward the earth while ominous music plays. In a nice touch, all the player characters from previous games that were omitted from the roster this time around have also joined up with the enemy fleet to get revenge for being snubbed by the developers. It’s up to your sixteen heroes to stop them.

You heard right: There are sixteen playable characters available here, each with their own unique suite of weapons and power-ups. In addition to series staples like the Vic Viper and Lord British ships from Gradius and the TwinBee and WinBee ships from TwinBee, you can also select from a motley crew of penguins, cats, fairies, babies, octopuses, and even dancing stick figures riding paper airplanes. Though the variety can be a tad bewildering at first, experimenting with all these different “ships” in order to suss out which best suit your personal playstyle is a big part of the fun. Genre savvy players will also notice that many of the characters have weapon loadouts intended to mimic those from other, non-Konami shooters. Mike the cat’s armaments are patterned on the ship from Taito’s Darius, for example, while infant Upa’s were inspired by Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden. It’s no wonder that the credits at the end of Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius enthusiastically declare “We love shooting games!”

A couple months back, I played through Konami Wai Wai World for the Famicom, a 1988 game that anticipated later crossover releases like Super Smash Bros. by combining a ton of different Konami characters and settings into a single fanservicey package. Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is essentially the same idea, except presented as a shooter instead of a platformer. This applies not just to the playable cast, but to the game’s eight stages as well. While the stage themes in other Parodius games tended to be based on whatever wacky concepts caught the developers’ fancies, the ones in this installment are different in that they’re mostly spoofs of other Konami games and franchises. You’ll find yourself blasting your way through levels based on Ganbare Goemon (aka Legend of the Mystical Ninja), TwinBee, Gradius III, Xexex, and even the light gun shooter Lethal Enforcers and the Tokimeki Memorial high school dating simulators. The sole level that doesn’t seem to be based on a specific Konami game is the first, which instead has a penguin disco theme, complete with a rousing remix of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” complimenting the action.

What’s the deal with the title, though? How does live chatting factor into all this? Well, the cartridge includes a special expansion chip, the SA1. Beyond boosting the console’s processing speed considerably, the SA1 also enables data compression. It’s this latter feature that allowed the developers to cram a massive amount of digitized speech samples into the game. These take the form of a running gameplay commentary by a very excited old Japanese man. In his opening speech at the start of the game, he identifies himself as Tako, the octopus hero of the first Parodius. I’ve heard that his dialogue is mostly a mixture of gameplay hints, corny jokes, and mocking you whenever you lose a life. Personally, I can’t understand a word of it and generally turn the commentary track off in the options.

Gameplay is mostly textbook Gradius. You’ll fly from left to right, shooting down waves of enemies on the way to the stage boss and keeping your eyes peeled for the all-important power-up capsules. Collecting these cycles through the various upgrades listed on your power-up bar in turn. Once the upgrade you want is highlighted, you can cash in your capsules to equip it, which then starts the whole process over again. Getting hit and losing a life removes all your active power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint earlier in the stage. Also present are the gold bell items from the TwinBee series. Picking these up gives you bonus points. If you shoot the bells repeatedly first, however, they’ll change to a number of different colors that each grant you a temporary boon instead. These include invincibility or a single-use screen clearing bomb attack. One last thing to watch out for are the hidden fairies, which are revealed by shooting at seemingly empty parts of each stage. There are 70 of these in total and collecting them all will unlock a stage select feature. A two player option is available, although it’s sadly not simultaneous and involves the players alternating turns whenever one of them loses a life.

These are the basics, but Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius goes above and beyond by providing the player with some very extensive option menus. In addition to customizing the button layout, you can choose how many lives you start with, whether you’ll respawn instantly when you die or be sent back to a checkpoint, and even whether you want to manage your power-up bar yourself or have the computer purchase upgrades for you automatically. Best of all are the many difficulty options. Play ranges all the way from childishly simple on the lowest settings to a downright hellish ordeal on the highest. I started out using the default settings and found it to be a very happy medium. The action was just hectic enough that I had to pay attention and focus, yet not so crazy that I had undue trouble making progress once I did. Unusually for a game of this kind, the cartridge even includes a save battery so that it can keep track of your option settings, high scores, and fairies collected between sessions. The combination of so many distinct player characters and so many meaningful ways to tweak the gameplay itself results in an unprecedented degree of replay value for a shooter of its time.

Between its sheer depth and breadth, the sterling audiovisual polish you’d expect from Konami, and the pure weirdness factor, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is easily the best shooter I’ve played to date on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine. The only thing that comes close to holding it back is the slowdown. Even with that SA1 chip working overtime, there’s often more action taking place on screen than the hardware can easily juggle. While the framerate doesn’t chug as often or as badly as it does in, say, Gradius III and Super R-Type, it’s still a far cry from silky smooth much of the time. Apart from that annoyance, this is a remarkable game that every classic shooter fan should experience, either in this original incarnation or via one of the later enhanced ports to the PlayStation, Saturn, or PSP.

With everything it has to offer, I know I’ll be revisiting Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius regularly to try out new characters, new strategies, and higher difficulties. Plus, it’s the only game where I can nuke a skyscraper-sized anime schoolgirl with homing missiles. So far.

Konami Wai Wai World (Famicom)

Getting high with a penguin? That’s our Goemon! *laugh track*

At long last, it’s time to take on Konami Wai Wai World! Before Marvel vs. Capcom, before Super Smash Bros., before…uh, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, I guess, there was this ambitious 1988 attempt to combine characters from no less than eight separate Konami properties into a single Famicom crossover extravaganza. The name turns out to be quite fitting when you’re dealing with so many playable characters, since “wai wai” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for the din of a loud, crowded area. I’ve been dying to play and review this one for a while, but I wanted to do the same for at least one game in each series represented here first.

Oddly enough, there was also a more obscure altered version of this game released for Japanese mobile phones in 2006 which replaced a few of the licensed characters (King Kong and Mikey) with ones actually owned by Konami. I’ll be reviewing the original Famicom release here.

As our journey begins, Dr. Cinnamon (creator of the ships from the TwinBee games) summons the superhero Konami Man and tells him Konami World is in crisis. An alien invader has kidnapped six of the land’s mightiest heroes and is holding them prisoner. Only by rescuing the six captives and joining forces with them can the day be saved. Dr. Cinnamon also sends his sexy gynoid robot creation Konami Lady along to help. Ew. Hope the old creep hosed her off real good first.

These two characters play identically, allowing for two player simultaneous action. This feature is quite rare in an open-ended game with exploration elements like this and is a big point in Wai Wai World’s favor if you happen to have a friend around who might want to join in. Your starting characters only have basic punch and kick attacks initially, but can gain the ability to shoot lasers and fly by locating special items later on in the game. If your entire party is ever wiped out, Konami Man and Konami Lady will both be revived back at the lab automatically in lieu of a game over.

Dr. Cinnamon’s lab serves as your main hub and contains three numbered doors. The doctor himself resides behind door number one. He can heal your party, dispense passwords which allow you to take a break and continue your game later, and give you tips about the various characters and their special abilities. His brother Saimon is also here and will revive your dead party members in exchange for 100 bullets each; bullets being the game’s combined currency and special weapon ammunition. If you’re playing the game in the original Japanese as I did, here’s a tip: The last two options on Dr. Cinnamon’s menu (character resurrection and password generation) are the only ones you really need to know.

The second door contains the main level select screen. Six stages are available at the start, one for each of the six kidnapped heroes. You’re not free to complete them in any order you want, though, as some stages require a specific character’s special ability to access. This seems at first like a bit of a missed opportunity for a more open, Mega Man type level structure, but the challenge does increase substantially in the latter half of the game, so it would seem to be the designers’ way of implementing a smooth difficulty curve. Fair enough. The third door leads to the final two levels. It can only be opened after you’ve rescued the entire main cast from their respective stages.

Except for the penultimate one, the various stages in Konami Wai Wai World are presented in standard side-scrolling action platforming style and each is based a different game series specific to the hero you’ll find there. The characters you’ll need to rescue (in the order I did it) are: Goemon (Ganbare Goemon), Simon Belmont (Castlevania), Mikey Walsh (The Goonies), King Kong (King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch), Getsu Fūma (Getsu Fūma Den), and Moai (Gradius). Every character except for Fūma is locked in a cage when you first encounter them, so your first task in most levels is to locate the key. These keys are usually guarded by bosses, although a couple are just laying out in the open ready to be collected.

Each character you rescue joins your party permanently, and you can switch over to controlling them at any time. They each have their own unique attacks and health meter, making this aspect of the game seem a bit like a dry run for Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game the following year. As mentioned, dead characters can be resurrected back at home base, but this is costly and you’re far better off keeping a close eye on the life gauge and switching out to a healthier hero before your current one kicks the bucket.

In addition to a primary melee attack and a ranged sub-weapon that must be found hidden elsewhere within their respective stages, the characters also have various special abilities and quirks. Mikey, for example, can fit through small passages the other characters can’t. Kong can jump higher than the others and destroy some breakable walls with his ranged attack, but he’s too large to fit through certain tight spaces. Picking the correct character for a given section of a level can go a long way in alleviating the game’s difficulty, so be sure to familiarize yourself with how each one handles. Each character even has their own theme song that plays whenever you have them selected, so the game’s background music is tied to the character you’re controlling rather than stage you’re currently on. Pretty cool.

Beyond the sub-weapons for the eight main characters, some levels also have other important items, like armor to boost your whole party’s defense or a cape that lets Konami Man and Konami Lady fly by holding down the jump button. Some of these appear in tantalizingly unreachable locations quite early on in the game. Be sure to make note of exactly where so you can return and collect them later when you have the necessary capabilities. You should also be on the lookout for doorways in a few of the stages which will take you to optional bonus games you can play in order to hopefully garner a few extra bullets. These take the form of various games of chance involving dice, cards, and a slot machine.

Once you’ve liberated all the kidnapped heroes, you can finally open the third door in Dr. Cinnamon’s lab and take on the final two stages. Level seven is, surprisingly, an overhead shooter stage that you can choose to play through as either TwinBee or the Vic Viper ship from Gradius (or both, if there are two players). This was actually my favorite part of the whole game. The amount of work that went into just this one level must have been tremendous. There are multiple backgrounds and enemy types, an awesome boss, and a complete power-up system with shields, options, shot upgrades, and even the bell juggling mechanics from TwinBee. In essence, the designers implemented the complete framework for a competent vertical shooter game just for this one stage. The sheer excess of it all is a sight to behold.

Survive the shooter portion and you’re off to the final platforming stage for a climactic showdown with the alien invaders. I won’t spoil it for you here, but one bit of advice: Try to make sure either Konami Man or Konami Lady is still alive after the final boss fight. Their flight ability may come in handy.

Konami Wai Wai World naturally sounds like a Konami fan’s dream come true. By and large, it delivers the non-stop action and fanservice it promises, although there are some regrettable design decisions you should be aware of going in. The biggest one is the scrolling. For whatever reason, the screen in the platforming sections refuses to start moving until your character is quite close to the edge. You need to be something like 4/5ths of the way over on a given side before the scrolling kicks in. Because of this, you’re constantly encountering enemies that pop up right in your face, giving you very little time to react. Expect to eat a lot of extra damage due to this.

Echoing the later TMNT yet again, there’s also very little in the way of balance within your party. Some characters are extremely useful. Goemon’s pipe attack is swift and can strike enemies above him, King Kong’s punches hit like a speeding truck, and Simon’s whip is slow, but has great reach and his boomerang crosses can damage enemies multiple times. Poor Mikey, on the other hand, has short range on his main attack and an unremarkable sub-weapon, too. You’d never actually want to use Mikey in combat unless you were desperate and had no other choice. It’s always a pity to discover a favorite character isn’t represented particularly well in a crossover like this.

Another major annoyance is the cost to resurrect dead characters. The price (100 bullets) is pretty manageable early on when you only have a few characters on your team. If you manage to get your party wiped out in the late game, though, you’ll find out the hard way that grinding out 400-600 bullets at a stretch drags the game to a screeching halt, since enemies only drop them in increments of five.

On the plus side, the game looks very nice. The stage backgrounds and bosses in particular are phenomenal in most cases. There are also a ton of different creative enemy designs, with each stage having its own unique assortment of baddies. The music is mostly lifted whole cloth from earlier Konami titles, but with stone cold classic tracks like Castlevania’s “Vampire Killer” and the overworld theme from Getsu Fūma Den, you’re not likely to mind all that much.

Konami Wai Wai world isn’t the most balanced game around and the shoddy scrolling and occasional bouts of forced currency grinding can try your patience at times. For old school Konami fans, though, it’s absolutely worth checking out. This is a game where Mikey Walsh can battle demons in hell and Simon Belmont can jump into the cockpit of the Vic Viper and blast off to fight aliens. I just can’t stay mad at a game like that, even if some of the more obnoxious bits do make me scratch my head and ask: Why? Why?