Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

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Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Back in 1983, Konami published a little arcade game called Roc’n Rope. Directed by a promising rookie designer named Tokuro Fujiwara, Roc’n Rope is a single screen “climb to the top” platformer in the Donkey Kong mold with a twist: The player’s avatar, a tiny explorer in a pith helmet, is unable to jump and instead has to ascend the playfield by using a grappling gun which fires a rope that can latch onto the undersides of platforms. I’ve been a fan of this one ever since it debuted. It’s clever, cute, and a lot of fun. It’s not at all a common cabinet, but I’ll always drop a few quarters in given the opportunity.

As for Fujiwara, he left Konami for Capcom later that same year, going on to become one of the industry’s most most influential designer/producers. His Ghosts ‘n Goblins series needs no introduction and he’s also been closely involved with almost every other major Capcom property. I’m talking Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, the works. In 1987, he revisted the “wire action” concept introduced in Roc’n Rope with the arcade Bionic Commando, better-known by most for its brilliant 1988 NES adaptation.

What many don’t know is that Konami took their own stab at a Roc’n Rope successor in 1987 with no input from Fujiwara. The result was Arumana no Kiseki (“Miracle of Arumana”) for the Famicom Disk System. While it’s not quite the must-play masterpiece NES Bionic Commando is, Arumana is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that will appeal to fans of other Konami side-scrollers.

A single glance at Arumana’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about its story. This is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not even remotely subtle about it, either. The game’s hero, one Kaito, is straight-up cosplaying in his khaki safari shirt and brown fedora. The plot sees him out to restore life to a vaguely Indian village by retrieving a stolen magical gem called the Sanka…er, the Arumana. Baddies included turbaned Thuggee lookalikes and snakes. There are booby-trapped ruins aplenty and even a minecart segment. It’s enough to make me wonder if all this “homaging” is the reason we never saw an NES conversion of Arumana. LucasArts’ lawyers would have had a field day.

Kaito’s quest for the Arumana unfolds over the course of six stages, which seems to have been the magic number for Konami around this time, going by Contra, Castlevania, Jackal, and others. Stages are moderately large and scroll in all directions, though they’re laid out in such a fashion that the way forward is generally pretty obvious. That said, be on the lookout for the occasional false wall or floor that can be broken with the spiked ball weapon to reveal power-ups and shortcuts. Breaking walls in this manner actually becomes necessary to progress in some of the later areas.

On the subject of weapons, Kaito has a generous six at his disposal. There are no hard choices to be made here, either, as he can potentially carry all six at once, cycling between them as needed with the Select button. Throwing knives and a pistol provide basic forward firepower, bombs and spiked balls arc downward, the bola travels diagonally upward, and the rare and precious red orb instantly damages every enemy on the screen. The most interesting thing to me about this system is that all these weapons have limited shots. This means that Kaito has no innate free attack option and a careless player could theoretically fire off everything and find themself completely defenseless. Though it’s unlikely to ever happen due to the frequency with which the game throws ammo of various types the player’s way, Arumana is one of the few action-platformers where such a thing is even possible.

Of course, as alluded to above, the real defining feature of Arumana no Kiseki is not a weapon at all, but Kaito’s grappling line. Pressing up and the B button simultaneously causes it to shoot out at a fixed upward angle and anchor itself to any solid surface. Kaito can then shimmy his way up or down the line as needed. You can only have one line in place at a given time, however. The previous one will disappear the instant you press up and B again. Although Kaito can jump, his puny Simon Belmont-esque hops are woefully inadequate for the great heights he’s expected to negotiate almost constantly. Simply put, the game is designed in such a way that the grappling line must be mastered completely in order to see Kaito through to the end.

There’s a lot to love about Arumana no Kiseki. Its swashbuckling Indiana Jones trappings, brazen and shameless as they are, work to set just the right adventuresome tone. The in-game artwork is great by 1987 standards, keeping with Konami’s early Famicom house style of realistically-proportioned faceless human characters. The level design is excellent throughout and each stage’s end boss presents a unique challenge that’s suitably intimidating and satisfying to conquer with the correct weapons and tactics. The difficulty also feels about right to me, similar to other tough-but-fair Konami hits like Contra. Kaito’s default five-hit life meter is neither too generous nor too stingy and he’s given three lives and three continues with which to tackle all six stages, with the possibility of earning extra lives through score and 1-Up pickups.

I’d be remiss I didn’t single out Kinuyo Yamashita’s music for special recognition. The Famicom Disk System add-on included an extra sound channel for wavetable synthesis. Support for this feature varied greatly from game to game, but few would ever use it as extensively and artfully as Yamashita did here. She programmed a total of ten distinct wavetable instruments for use in Arumana no Kiseki and the results speak for themselves. Heck, even before you take the expansion audio into consideration, the melodies here are every bit as good as the ones she created for Castlevania or Power Blade. My only regret is that there apparently wasn’t room on the disk for more of them, as the six stages share three background tracks between them.

Sadly, few things in life are truly perfect. Even Indy had his obnoxious  sidekick cross to bear on occasion. Arumana’s metaphoric Short Round is the awkward and occasionally glitchy implementation of its central platforming mechanic. Kaito’s grappling line deploys slowly in contrast to the zippy bionic arm of Rad Spencer, making it difficult to escape some of the faster enemies. What’s more, the physics of it are just plain strange. Here’s an example: If you wanted to anchor your line as high up on the screen as possible, you’d obviously want to fire it off at the apex of a jump, right? Wrong. The line will somehow move up and down the screen along with Kaito as it extends, so you instead want to fire it off a split second before you jump. That way, you can try to match up the instant the line actually attaches to the wall with the high point of the jump. That’s just bonkers. You can definitely get used to it, but the learning curve is steep and it never really feels right. It’s also possible to deploy your line in such a way that Kaito clips through the wall and dies instantly when he climbs up it. This doesn’t happen all the time, just often enough to be frustrating and make you wish that Konami had done a little more fine tuning before they shipped this one.

Play control angst aside, I’ll still recommend Arumana no Kiseki to any 8-bit action lover with the patience to adapt to its quirks. It’s a mostly successful attempt to infuse Rock’n Rope with elements of Castlevania and it makes excellent use of the FDS hardware. It deserves to be remembered as more than just Bionic Commando’s weird distant cousin. Ironically, it’s also miles above the godawful offical NES Temple of Doom adaptation put out by Tengen and Mindscape. That game should prepare to meet Kali…in hell!

Nazo no Murasame Jō (Famicom)

It’s a new year! What better time than now to start exploring the Famicom Disk System?

Nintendo introduced the FDS add-on to Japanese gamers in 1986, billing it as the future of the then three year-old console. True to the name, Disk System games came on bright yellow proprietary floppy disks. The 112 KB storage capacity of these was a major step up from the ROM chips included in most cartridge games of the time. The original Super Mario Bros., for example, had to be crammed into a measly 40 KB. FDS disks were also considerably less expensive than cartridges and their rewritable nature gave players an easy way save their gameplay data. Nintendo even operated special store kiosks where used FDS disks could be overwritten with entirely different games for a fraction of the cost of a full retail release. Oh, and the disk drive itself also added some additional sound hardware. Can’t forget about that.

With all these cutting edge features, the Disk System was initially a significant success. Over four million units were sold and it would serve as the birthplace of some of the industry’s longest-running franchises, including Metroid and Castlevania. All good things must come to an end, however, and it’s no accident that the rest of the world never saw an NES disk unit. It became clear to Nintendo early on that the very same lower costs and rewritability that made floppy disks so appealing to consumers also made them downright irresistible to software pirates and bootleggers. Worse still, evolving ROM chip technology quickly turned the FDS disk’s much-vaunted 112 KB storage capacity into a liability. Consider a popular late period game like 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure, which would have required no fewer than seven disks to hold all 768 KB of its data. Major developers were soon eager to move their important projects back to cartridge and the FDS’s library after 1988 is predominantly low-effort shovelware and unlicensed softcore porn games.

Enough about the Disk System’s drawn-out demise, though. Let’s concentrate on the good times with a title from its heyday of 1986. It would make the most sense for me to start out with the first original title developed for the disk format, but it turns out that game happens to be some little-known oddity called The Legend of Zelda. Who wants to hear about a forgotten turd like that when I could be focusing on the FDS’s second original release, Nazo no Murasame Jō (“The Mysterious Murasame Castle”)? I’ll be playing it on an EverDrive N8 flash cartridge, which has the ability to boot up FDS games (loading screens and all) on a standard console with no need for the actual peripheral.

Nazo no Murasame Jō is an overhead view action game set in Edo period Japan and starring a young apprentice samurai named Takamaru, who’s been dispatched by the shogun to investigate reports of disturbing goings on in the region surrounding the eponymous castle. The trouble all stems from a malevolent alien creature that fell from the sky in the vicinity of Murasame Castle and has been gradually extending its influence over the neighboring lands, bringing the lords of four other nearby castles (Aosame, Akasame, Ryokusame, and Momosame) under its corrupting power in the process. Armed only with his sword and throwing knives, Takamaru must storm each of the five castles in turn before he can finally challenge the alien invader itself to a duel to the death in the heart of Murasame.

Kidding aside, the game that Nazo no Murasame Jō will remind most players of is indeed the first Legend of Zelda. The combination of the non-scrolling overhead perspective with Takamaru’s distinctly Link-ish movement and sword combat makes it quite obvious that Nintendo developed the two games concurrently. Whereas Zelda was an exploration-based adventure game with action elements, however, Nazo no Murasame Jō serves up a much more traditional pure action experience. There’s no open overworld here. Each of the five castles consists of two distinct stages: An outdoor one that has Takamaru fighting his way to the castle gate and an interior one where he must defeat that castle’s boss. There is the occasional branching path along the way, but these are mostly limited to small cul-de-sacs off the main route that can be braved in hopes of finding some handy power-ups or an extra life. While you won’t be wracking your brain over where to go next, you’ll hardly be bored. Takamaru is subject to near-constant attack from all sides and his assailants are far more numerous and aggressive than the ones in Zelda. He can only withstand three hits before losing a life and running out of lives means restarting the current stage from scratch.

These differences collectively make Nazo no Murasame Jō a much more challenging game than I anticipated. Certainly more so than the majority of first-party Nintendo games. It’s less Super Mario Bros. in spirit and more Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (aka The Lost Levels). The assorted enemy samurai, demons, wizards, and tengu all show no mercy. And the ninja! So many ninja spawn in non-stop to harass Takamaru on nearly every screen. There are shuriken-throwing ones, fireball-throwing ones, invisible ones, exploding ones, invisible exploding ones, the works. The game isn’t impossible by any means due to its unlimited continues and save feature, but your thumbs are in for a quite the workout.

Thankfully, I can also report that the combat mechanics themselves keep all this chaos as enjoyable as it is unrelenting. Takamaru’s sword and knife attacks are both rather elegantly mapped to the A button. Pressing it while an enemy or a deflectable projectile is within melee range results in a sword swipe. Otherwise, he’ll toss a knife. This spares the player from having to second guess themselves over which attack to use in a given circumstance and frees up the B button for special techniques. These techniques consist of an invisibility cloak that renders Takamaru immune to damage for a brief period and a lighting attack that instantly destroys all non-boss enemies on the screen. Powerful as they are, special techniques have a limited number of uses and refills are scarce, so be sure to use them wisely.

Beyond this, the only real extra complexity comes in the form of the various power-ups scattered throughout the stages. These are usually not just laying around in plain sight, but instead only appear when their hiding spots are walked over. Some boost movement speed, confer temporary invincibility, or heal damage, but most improve Takamaru’s throwing knife attack in some way, either by upgrading the standard knives to more damaging pinwheels or fireballs or by allowing him to shoot in multiple directions at once. Just try not to grow too attached to a given power-up, as losing a life will reset Takamaru to his default capabilities.

The graphics share the same clean, colorful aesthetic that characterizes much of Nintendo’s early 8-bit work. Simple as it is, there’s obviously a real timelessness to it. If there’s a weakness here, I feel it has to be on a conceptual level as opposed to a technical one. The game simply doesn’t lean hard enough into its weird backstory. You’re supposed to be playing as a samurai hunting down a freaking space alien, yet every location you visit and enemy you encounter prior to the very last level reflects a fairly standard take on traditional Japanese history and mythology. Talk about an underdeveloped premise!

The soundtrack by Koji Kondo is above average by the standards of the time, but doesn’t really stand toe-to-toe with his more famous works from the Mario and Zelda series. The tunes have the expected ancient Japanese feel to them and suit the material just fine. I just don’t see myself humming any of these melodies in the shower. The track that plays over the ending feels pretty lazy, too. It’s just the “Ode to Joy” bit from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Maybe Kondo was crunched for time and decided to just say “screw it” and go public domain?

At its heart, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a simple pick-up-and-play hack-and-slasher with plenty of challenge and that distinctive Nintendo 8-bit house style. While surely the odd man out when sandwiched between two other Nintendo FDS releases (Zelda and Metroid) so ambitious that their influence is still being felt today, it proves that a well-designed game doesn’t need to kick off a revolution to be a lot of fun. It’s a pity that disappointing sales numbers prevented it from receiving any kind of follow-up and its medieval Japanese setting insured that it would remain unreleased outside its country of origin until 2014, when it was finally offered up as a downloadable title for the 3DS. Whether you play it there, on a flash cartridge or emulator, or even on a proper working FDS, Nazo no Murasame Jō is a thrilling way to spend a few hours.

Just watch out for those invisible exploding ninja. Well, not watch out. You know what I mean.