Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

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Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (Mega Drive)

Whoa, what’s this? A 16-bit action RPG? From Sega, no less? How have I never heard about this one until just recently? Probably because 1992’s Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (literally, and rather redundantly, “Fighting King: King Colossus”) is a text-heavy Japan-exclusive release. Not even the 2006 English fan translation by M.I.J.E.T., professional as it is, seems to have been able to drum up much awareness of it in the West. It’s our loss. King Colossus is good fun while it lasts with the caveat that its strict linear progression and single-minded action focus may leave some fans of the genre wanting more.

A major selling point for King Colossus in Japan was its director, manga artist Makoto Ogino. He’s best-known for his long-running Kujaku Ō (“Peacock King”) series. Dude’s all about the kings, I guess. Kujaku Ō has received multiple video game adaptations of its own over the years, some of which (SpellCaster, Mystic Defender) would see release outside Japan. Do actually you need to know anything about Kujaku Ō to understand King Colossus? No. The latter seems to have been a wholly original, self-contained project. I’m just dropping some trivia here for my fellow oddballs who enjoy following these little creative breadcrumb trails.

King Colossus casts the player as a strapping orphan lad (with no specific default name) who’s apparently been raised in a shack in the middle of the woods by a grumpy old hermit. A routine errand to retrieve a sword owned by said hermit from a nearby blacksmith brings our sheltered protagonist into conflict with the cult of the Dark God Gryuud, whose twisted servants have seized control of the land and are ruling it with the proverbial iron fist. Anyone remotely acquainted with basic fantasy clichés can see where this is going. Could it be that our hero has a special destiny related to his shrouded origins? One that makes him the only man capable of sorting out this whole Gryuud situation? The game doesn’t go out of its way to show fans of the genre anything they haven’t seem before and the broad strokes narrative feels perfunctory at best. One point in King Colossus’ favor, at least for me, is that its world has a gritty pulp swords and sorcery edge to it. We get dark gods, human sacrifice, pit fighting, and plenty of other trappings that would be right at home in a classic Conan yarn. You won’t find any cutesy monsters or wacky anime hijinks here.

If the storytelling favors style over substance, the gameplay goes to even greater extremes by remorselessly paring away every shred of the standard overhead action RPG formula that isn’t beating up on bad guys and leveling up. There’s no overworld to explore, no towns, no currency to collect or shops to spend it in, and the gear you’ll acquire is limited to weapons, armor, stat-boosting magic jewelry, and healing herbs. King Colossus teases you with glimpses of a world map on occasion, but this is more akin to the stylized level diagrams that appear between stages in Castlevania or Ghosts ‘n Goblins than a real navigation tool. Instead of gathering clues and forging your own path, you’ll be ushered directly from dungeon to dungeon with none of that pesky thinking required.

The dungeons themselves don’t offer much in the way of puzzles and are primarily “hack your way to the boss” affairs with a side of basic platforming. At least the combat itself is fairly well-realized. You’re able to bring the pain with an assortment of swords, spears, axes, chains, crossbows, and magic staves. Each weapon type has its own distinct feel and is quite useful against the enemy horde, with one glaring exception: Swords. The swords are bloody awful in this game. They have virtually no reach, which makes getting close enough to land a hit with one a significant, yet completely unnecessary risk. This flaw would be easier to overlook altogether if the game’s plot didn’t make such a big deal out of one specific magic sword with a special connection to the main character’s backstory. You go on a quest to get it, another quest to power it up, and you’re still likely to let it sit in your inventory unused. If I wanted to be a real highfalutin’ game critic for once, I could totally call ludonarrative dissonance on this one. In the interest of not asphyxiating on my own farts, however, I’ll stick with declaring it a missed opportunity.

There’s a small selection of magic at your command, too; five spells in all. You have a couple of direct damage dealers, an energy shield, a utilitarian warp back to the start of the current dungeon, and, most importantly, Time Stop. Time Stop makes for an auto-win against pretty much anything, allowing you to pile hit after hit on the defenseless opposition. It even works on bosses! Take it from me: Whenever you’re given access to a time stopping power that works in boss fights (Kick Master, Astyanax), you save all your magic points for that if you know what’s good for you. Strangely, you have access to all five of your powers from the very start of the game. While you do earn more magic points as you level-up, making it possible to cast spells more frequently, you’ll never learn an entirely new one. Instead, your character growth is purely numeric, which is another missed opportunity in my book. Fighting your way through dungeons feels about the same at level twenty as it does at level one.

Those last four paragraphs may read like one huge extended windup before I finally come down hard on King Colossus and tell you that it’s just not worth your time. Hardly! Sure, the story is trite and the RPG gameplay has been simplified to the utmost. Thankfully, though, the core hack and slash dungeon delving still makes for a decent enough ride on its own and the game’s breezy pacing suits it well. After all, the obvious upside to never having to wonder where to go or what to do next is that you’re effectively guaranteed to always be making steady progress. You can even save at any time, a rare luxury in a console game of the era. Basically, King Colossus knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t overstay its welcome. As previously stated, it also gets major bonus points from me for managing to look and sound every bit the part of a grim saga from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself. The soundtrack in particular strikes just the right balance of eldritch mystery and pulse-pounding danger, proving (as did Golden Axe, Alisia Dragoon, and Gauntlet IV) that the Mega Drive sound chip could be as effective a delivery vehicle for blood and thunder fantasy anthems as it was for the heavy metal of MUSHA or the techno of Streets of Rage 2.

So King Colossus earns a moderate recommendation. It won’t exactly strain your brain, but it is a game that knows what’s best in life: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their pixels!

Final Fantasy IV: Namingway Edition (Super Nintendo)

I’ve covered several fan-made hacks of existing games over the past few years. Not only do these labors of love by talented hobbyists fascinate me on a conceptual level, the best of them are just as fun to kick back and play through as the classics they’re built upon. The other hacks I’ve examined to date, such as The Legend of Zelda: Outlands and Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, have all sought to deliver entirely new adventures rooted in the time-tested core mechanics (the “engines,” if you will) of their source titles. The so-called Namingway Edition of Square’s celebrated 1991 RPG Final Fantasy IV is something else entirely. What we have here amounts to a complete fan re-localization of the game’s deeply flawed original English version.

The tumultuous saga of FFIV’s initial North American localization is widely known, so I’ll keep this as brief as I can. For starters, it wasn’t even called Final Fantasy IV here back in 1991, but rather Final Fantasy II. The second and third games in the series wouldn’t see official release outside Japan until 2002 and 2006, respectively, so Square opted to rename this fourth entry in order to avoid confusion. Ironically, it would have opposite effect once the Internet became commonplace later in the decade and Western gamers started trying to read up on all the Japanese exclusives they missed out on. Don’t even get me started on the decision to skip over the fifth game and then call the sixth Final Fantasy III. Oy.

This name change was only the beginning. The gameplay itself was simplified for the North American audience to an almost insulting degree. Nearly every character lost at least one unique special ability, numerous inventory items were omitted, and enemies were given weaker stats across the board, rendering combat a cinch. Square would eventually release this iteration of the game in Japan as Final Fantasy IV Easy Type.

Finally, the translation was mediocre at best. This isn’t lead translator Ted Woolsey’s fault per se. He had to contend with a perfect storm of insane deadlines, tight cartridge memory limits, and Nintendo of America’s Puritanical content restrictions. All considered, the work is commendable. It’s also awkward, dry, and corny by turns. While this occasionally led to iconic moments like sage Tellah’s immortal “spoony bard” diatribe (which all future re-translations to date, including this one, have wisely left intact), the naturalness and nuance of the source material largely failed to shine through.

The first question before us is simple: Has the six person team behind the Namingway Edition (Rodimus Primal, vivify93, chillyfeez, Grimoire LD, Justin3009, Bahamut Zero) succeeded in delivering the pristine, unbutchered English version of Final Fantasy IV that I and so many others were denied back in the day? In a word: Absolutely! The missing battle commands like Rosa’s Pray, Edward’s Salve, and Yang’s Brace and Focus are all present and fully functional, as are all the previously cut items. You’ll need them, too, as your enemies actually put up a fight here. The new translation is all-around more functional and pleasing. Even minor elements dummied out of the official release (the disrobing dancing girl in Baron town, the hidden developer room) are enabled once more. Hell, the team actually went above and beyond by adding one very welcome new feature: A run button for getting around towns and dungeons faster! There’s no doubt in my mind that the Namingway Edition is currently the definitive way to enjoy Final Fantasy IV on the Super Nintendo.

This raises a second, much thornier dilemma, however: Should you bother? In order to determine how well Final Fantasy IV proper has withstood the test of time, I’m going to focus on the trio of vital elements that really set it apart from its JRPG predecessors for me nearly three decades ago:  The innovative Active Time Battle combat system, composer Nobuo Uematsu’s lush score, and the dynamic story that drives the main quest.

The Active Time Battle (ATB) system introduced here will be familiar to any Final Fantasy fan, given that iterations of it comprise an integral part of no less than eight main series entries, including all-time critical and fan favorites like VI and VII. Designer Hiroyuki Ito derived the idea from Formula One racing, believe it or not, envisioning the combatants as cars of varying speeds completing laps around a track at different intervals. Instead of inputting commands for all of your party members at once, a speed statistic regulates how much downtime individual fighters have between their command prompts. More interesting still, when it is time to enter a command, you need to be quick about it. The computer-controlled combatants each have their own speed stats and will continue to execute their attacks regardless of whether or not you’re ready for them. In other words, simply having a command menu open doesn’t freeze time. The enemy design compliments this real time dynamic expertly. Some adversaries transition in and out of defensive postures as the battle progresses. Attacking these foes at an inopportune moment can result in reduced damage, devastating counterattacks, or both. Other fights effectively impose a time limit on the player, as in the case of the huge animated stone wall boss that slowly advances across the screen, threatening to crush the heroes if it should survive long enough to reach their side. I can’t emphasize enough what shot in the arm ATB was to traditional JRPG combat. The need to swiftly determine your optimal strategy and then punch in the necessary commands accurately and without hesitation adds an element of skillful execution that almost bridges the gap between a turn-based and action RPG at times. It’s as tense and exhilarating today as it ever was. So far, so good.

Uematsu’s soundtrack also hasn’t aged a day in 28 years. I can still remember my middle school self being blown away by just how real the instruments sounded. While this wasn’t my first exposure to the Super Nintendo’s unique sample-based audio chip, it was the first release I encountered for the system that went all-in on a grand pseudo-symphonic style. The very notion that these soaring strings and rumbling kettle drums were reaching my ears courtesy of a common cartridge and not one of those cutting edge CD-ROMs was just staggering. Although that sense of naive amazement is long gone, the compositions themselves are still marvelous. Final Fantasy IV’s main overworld theme in particular never fails to leave me enraptured, evoking a sense of intrigue, wonder, and a long, perilous journey ahead. In some cases, these tracks verge on being too good for the material they support. The famous love theme of Cecil and Rosa is easily the most compelling thing about their otherwise tepid on-screen romance.

Unfortunately, it’s on that last note that I have to start dialing back the effusive praise some. Final Fantasy IV’s epic, genre-redefining story is…way less cool than I remembered. Now, try not to bust out the pitchforks and torches just yet. I’m not saying the plot here is bad, just that it’s not nearly as substantial as it seemed to me at age thirteen. The quest of knight Cecil Harvey and his dozen or so colorful companions to stop some pretty underdeveloped evil dudes from collecting the many magic crystals they need to take over the world is akin to a Saturday morning cartoon or melodramatic anime/manga series aimed at adolescents. Motivations are simplistic, lone exaggerated personality traits stand in for characterization, the heroes routinely make maudlin gestures of self-sacrifice that most often have no long-term consequences at all. It’s all still charming and enjoyable in its superficial, pulpy way, but don’t come expecting any of the more somber or thoughtful beats that later entries in the series leaned so heavily on. There’s just very little in the way of dramatic weight being thrown around here.

Take Cecil’s famous transformation scene on Mt. Ordeals, for example, where he renounces his past as a dark knight to take up the holy mantle of a paladin. It should be a real turning point for him as character. The problem is that we’ve never really experienced Cecil as a villain prior to this. He wouldn’t have even qualified as an anti-hero. When we’re introduced to him in the game’s very first scene, he’s already wracked with guilt over obeying an immoral order from his king to steal one of the magic crystals from some innocent townsfolk. Almost immediately after that, he renounces his fealty to the wicked monarch and devotes himself entirely to protecting the victims of his former liege at any cost. From a dramatic standpoint, then, all he really does at Mt. Ordeals is transition from being a good guy in black armor to a good guy in gold armor. You never see him do anything thereafter that you couldn’t imagine the “old Cecil” doing. Square could have done so much more in terms of spinning a real arc out of material like this, as almost every subsequent Final Fantasy entry would prove.

One thing I can applaud Final Fantasy IV’s storyline for is its pacing. Like the best serialized adventure fiction, it knows how to sink its hooks into you and keep the stakes feeling high throughout as it ushers you briskly from crisis to crisis. Slight as it is, this sucker really moves. That, in conjunction with the gripping battle system and some truly majestic tunes have kept this one a cut above most of its genre peers to this day. It’s been officially re-made multiple times for the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and more, but if you’re like me and harbor a nostalgic attachment to the look, sound, and feel of the Super Nintendo original, you should strongly consider giving the Namingway Edition hack a go on your next playthrough. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the final Final Fantasy IV.

Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful that didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now that I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), an adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since then, I’ve known that I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early ’80s computing and bring it to Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor that was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine that Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the reader in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past.

This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations that implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice that it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established that Portopia is a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill that goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is that I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say that the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game that involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say that the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd that one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible in 2018. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.

Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe that its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. That…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution that most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers that require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowing irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests that require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking that you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways that it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history.

Sometimes dead is better.

Monster World IV (Mega Drive)

Too real, genie. Too real.

Back in February, I played through the fifth game in Westone’s Wonder Boy series: Wonder Boy in Monster World. Regrettably, I was none too impressed by that game’s flat presentation, unexceptional level design, and achingly slow combat. Among the options I presented in passing for a more satisfying action-adventure experience on the Genesis/Mega Drive was WBiMW’s Japan-exclusive sequel, Monster World IV. I’ve since acquired a lovely English-translated reproduction copy of this superior sequel, so I figure this a fine opportunity to give it the detailed treatment it deserves.

Monster World IV is the sixth and final game in the series, though it forgoes the Wonder Boy name completely, owing to its new protagonist, the green-haired Asha. A simple switch to Wonder Girl in order to maintain brand recognition seems like the obvious way to go. I suppose marketing departments work in mysterious ways.

One day, Asha hears voices on the wind fortelling doom for Monster World. Being the hero type, she promptly takes up her sword, bids her family farewell, and sets out from her remote village to help however she can. Arriving at a monster infested tower in the wilderness, she defeats its guardians and discovers a magic lamp housing a sarcastic genie that swiftly whisks her away to the bustling capital city of Rapadagna. Here the true nature of the threat to Monster World is slowly revealed.

As in previous series entries, the focus here is firmly on side-scrolling dungeon exploration and amassing the ever-larger reserves of gold needed to upgrade your hero’s arms and armor along the way. That being said, I’m happy to report that Monster World IV brings with it significant play control enhancements that make this process more fun that ever before. Like Shion in the previous game, Asha can jump, climb ropes, swing her weapon, and block incoming attacks with her shield. New to this installment, she can also dash and execute upward and downward sword thrusts similar to the ones seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. These additions alone result in platforming and combat that’s faster and more strategic than ever before by series standards.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Asha’s pepelogoo to consider. Pepe who now? Well, it turns out that pet pepelogoos are are all the rage in Rapadagna. Asha encounters hers not long after arriving in the city and the two are inseparable after that. These insanely adorable rabbit/cat hybrid critters fly through the air by flapping their ears and are basically Pokémon before Pokémon was a thing. They may not look it, but they’re also the Swiss Army knife of dungeon exploration. Asha relies on hers to double jump, glide, flip switches, sniff out secret doors, act as an improvised platform, and much more.

Between Asha and her newfound friend, there’s so much to master that you’ll likely barely notice that the magic system from Wonder Boy in Monster World wasn’t carried forward. Really, it’s no great loss. You still have your magic lamp to return you to town instantly when you’re low on health in a dungeon and the remainder of the offensive spells from the last game are less necessary due to you having more attack options available by default this time around.

In other good news, the dungeons in Monster World IV have been reworked with an eye toward enhancing both their length and complexity. Some of the longer ones can easily require an hour or more to complete and proper puzzles (most of which revolve around creative pepelogoo use) play a much bigger role than before. This is a dramatic improvement over the short, simple dungeons of WBiMW, which derived most of their challege simply from being packed to the gills with tough enemies and high damage traps.

Of course, I have to mention Monster World IV’s stupendous graphics. These are some of the lushest backgrounds and best-animated sprites ever to grace Sega’s 16-bit machine. This might be the most Super Nintendo looking Mega Drive game I’ve ever encountered, if that makes any sense. The use of color is so sublime that the results seem almost too vivid for the hardware. There’s even one spellbinding sequence that appears to make use of a Mode 7 type background scaling effect! I’m guessing that it’s actually accomplished via sprite scaling, similar to the pseudo-3D objects in classic Sega arcade games like Space Harrier, but it still took me by surprise. Great stuff.

There’s some equally great art direction informing all this technical wizardry, too. Monster World IV makes use of a whimsical Arabian Nights fantasy setting, replete with flashing scimitars, flying carpets, and the aforementioned genie of the lamp. In this way, it recalls Culture Brain’s The Magic of Scheherazade and anticipates WayForward’s Shantae. While it’s a fairly standard hero’s journey tale at heart (albeit one with some genuinely amusing dialogue throughout and a nice twist toward the end), I appreciate the effort made to give it a unique visual identity when compared to the rest of the series.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, there’s a lot to love about this one and I throughly enjoyed my time spent in Asha’s pointy-toed shoes. There are a few caveats worth mentioning, however. Nothing dealbreaking, at least not for me, but certainly worth being aware of up front.

For one thing, I found the music by Jin Watanabe to be a uniquely frustrating case. The quality of the audio itself is impeccable. These are some of the best sounding instruments I’ve ever heard on the console. Again, they’re practically Super Nintendo caliber. Unfortunately, all this production is wasted on some very limited compositions. The choice was made to have most of the game’s music tracks be based on variations of the main theme. I’m not against musical leitmotif as such. Used judiciously, it can link two scenes together emotionally in a manner both subtle and powerful. Look (or rather listen) no further than Quintet’s Terranigma for proof of that. Here, though, It just comes off like the composer was too rushed or indifferent to come up with more melodies and that’s a shame. It’s not bad, mind you. They just could have done so much more with this pristine FM synth quality.

On the gameplay side, Monster World IV is just about as linear and streamlined as an adventure game can get before it ceases to be an adventure game entirely and falls instead under the action-platformer umbrella. There’s only one town, Rapadagna, and it contains the entrances to all of the game’s dungeons in one central hub room. Furthermore, you must visit each of these dungeons in a proscribed sequence and each becomes permanently inaccessible after you defeat its boss. In short, there’s no sequence breaking, no side questing, and no backtracking. The only difference between this and setup and, say, Super Mario Bros. is merely that you have the option to stroll through town between stages to hit up the shops for some new equipment or see if any NPC dialogue has changed. Still, as stated in rapturous detail above, Asha’s adventure is so well-designed and excuted that you probably won’t mind that it takes place entirely on rails. Probably.

For my money, Monster World IV is Westone’s masterpiece. It’s far and away the high point of the series, handily surpassing even the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Non-Japanese gamers got the short end of the stick yet again when we were denied this one back in 1994. If you’re not a physical media die hard like me, an official English language version is available as a download for the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360. At least it is at the time of this writing. Online game distribution being as fickle as it it, there may again come a time when the good old fan translation is the only game in town. In the grand scheme of things, that’s one of the best things about retro gaming: When the big publishers let you down, the fan community swoops in to save your butt like a true blue pepelogoo.