DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Super Famicom)

Having just weathered the savage trials of Milon’s Secret Castle, I figured I may as well stick around and see what was next on the agenda for Hudson Soft’s bubble shooting wunderkind. Secret Castle had been a strong seller. The box cover of the North American version boasted “over 3/4 million sold in Japan.” It’s surprising, then, that Hudson allowed the character to lie dormant for an entire decade after his 1986 debut. He would finally re-emerge on the Super Famicom in 1996’s DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (roughly, “Milon’s Heart-Pounding Great Adventure”).

Much has changed. Beyond the drastic audiovisual upgrade that comes with the leap from early period Famicom to late period Super Famicom, our boy Milon is now operating in an entirely different genre! If you’re one of the many who loathed Secret Castle’s cryptic exploratory approach, you’ll be please to hear that DoReMi Fantasy is damn near its polar opposite: A simple hop-and-bop platformer in the the Super Mario tradition. I admit, I didn’t know what to make of this at first. I’m weird enough to have rather enjoyed Secret Castle for what it was, warts and all. Would this radical shift prove to be an overcorrection on Hudson’s part? Fortunately, any doubts I had dissolved on contact with the tidal wave of sheer charm that is DoReMi Fantasy.

The game opens with a lovely cut scene of Milon and his woodland pals frolicking on a sunny day. Next thing you know, some creepy horned demon guy named Amon appears and abducts Milon’s fairy friend Alis. Whatever Amon wants her for, Milon is having none of it. After a quick trip home to bid farewell to his parents, he’s off to rescue Alis with the help of his magic bubble blower. It’s a simple setup executed well, a tendency that really defines DoReMi Fantasy as a whole.

Milon has 43 linear stages to tackle, organized into eight distinct worlds based on a mix of common (forest, water, ice) and uncommon (food, toy) themes. The levels themselves are typically straight dashes to the exit, although you will occasionally come across a locked door that requires a key to open. Most also contain a star and Milon will need to collect all the stars in a given world before he can battle its end boss and move on. Fortunately, they’re usually either right out in plain sight or just slightly off the main path, so I never got hung up star hunting.

The action is pure pick up and play. Controlling Milon is responsive, accurate, and should feel instantly natural to anyone with 2-D platforming experience. As before, the endless supply of bubbles he blows are his sole method of defeating enemies. DoReMi Fantasy seemingly takes inspiration from Taito’s Bubble Bobble this time, however, as the bubbles merely trap the bad guys instead of destroying them outright. Milon will then need to touch the bubbled foes to defeat them for good. He can jump on most enemies without receiving damage, but this will only stun the opposition for a moment as he bounces off. This technique is occasionally useful for reaching higher platforms and crossing certain gaps. That’s about all you need to know. Milon does gain a handful of new abilities as the adventure progresses, such as swimming and creating ladders made of music notes at specific spots, but their usage tends to be highly situational. Running, jumping, and bubbling are your true bread and butter throughout.

While Secret Castle was deceptively intense beneath its cutesy façade, DoReMi Fantasy dials down the difficulty big-time. The common enemies never seem to grow too numerous or aggressive and the platforming hazards, though nicely varied, are far from deviously placed most of the time. Extra lives are plentiful and Milon is a durable little fellow to boot. He’s able to withstand three hits before losing a life, with his current health level cleverly indicated by the color of his clothes. Oh, and there’s a password system to record your progress this time. Thank God. The only real difficulty spikes are a couple of the later boss encounters. The anthropomorphic sun and moon you face at the end of world six both deploy some tricky attacks, for instance. Still, most will likely find DoReMi Fantasy to be a tad easier than Super Mario World and drastically less challenging than stuff like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy or Plok. I was able to finish my first playthrough without running out of lives and needing to continue at all, something I can almost never manage with an entirely new game.

I realize I haven’t made the strongest case for DoReMi Fantasy thus far. A dry rundown of its plot and rules paints a picture of a reasonably lengthy game with solid fundamentals and an easygoing approach to challenge. And that it is. Yet this isn’t actually why you should play it. Not in the main, anyway. Fact is, you’re much more likely to be won over by the designers’ supreme attention to detail in bringing Milon’s world to life than by anything directly related to the level design or play mechanics.

Just look at Milon himself. Every move he makes is smoothly animated and packed with personality. He teeters on the edge of platforms, bugs his eyes out during long falls, grits his teeth as he charges his super bubble attack, and does his best to hold onto his hat in windstorms. His enemies are nearly as lovable. The all have unique shocked or dismayed expressions for when they’re stunned or trapped in a bubble. Half the fun of the game for me was seeing what sort of hilarious face each new baddie would pull when I stomped or bubbled it. Even the platforms themselves are memorable here. Milon trods colossal cakes (ideally avoiding the equally colossal silverware carving them up), the growing noses of Pinocchio lookalike puppets, and my personal favorite, adorable mice that poke their heads out of holes in the walls. Aww. All this is accompanied by a lush, diverse score courtesy of Bomberman composer Jun Chikuma.

I’m not about to tell you that DoReMi Fantasy is the ultimate 16-bit platformer. The gameplay here is highly competent from top to bottom, but only just. It doesn’t showcase anything on par with the cool power-ups and hidden levels of a Super Mario World or the speedrun-friendly movement physics of a Sonic the Hedgehog. What I will tell you is that fans of cute games specifically are pretty much guaranteed to be delighted by its top notch presentation. It’s also a great choice for genre neophytes, younger gamers, and anyone else interested in a brisk, low pressure experience to unwind with. It’s plain to see why so many have praised it as the redemptive sequel to the opaque and grueling Secret Castle.

Sadly, Hudson never would follow up on this bold new direction for the character. Milon’s next outing, which doubles as his last to date, was the obscure 2006 puzzle game Milon no Hoshizora Shabon: Puzzle Kumikyoku for the Nintendo DS. The company’s eventual extinction in 2012 and the subsequent transfer of its intellectual properties to Konami would seem to render any future Milon releases extraordinary unlikely.

Farewell, brave bubble boy. There’s a spot at Gaming Valhalla’s kiddie table with your name on it, I’m sure.

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Milon’s Secret Castle (NES)

I was braced for some serious punishment when I stepped through the gates of Milon’s Secret Castle. There’s certainly no shortage of other commentators out there eager to denounce this 1986 side-scrolling action-adventure from Hudson Soft as one of the most agonizing times you can have with your NES short of cramming your unmentionables into the cartridge slot. Its bad reputation didn’t start with the Angry Video Game Nerd series this time, either. Early Internet semi-celebrity “Seanbaby” Reiley was dumping on Milon as far back as the late ’90s. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself reflecting on what blessed lives these folks must lead if something like this is anywhere near the bottom of their digital shit lists. I’m reminded of the naifs who’ll tell you very matter-of-factly that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made when it’s not even within spitting distance of being Wood’s worst, nevermind the worst. Have these sheltered souls even heard of Monster a Go-Go!? Psyched by the 4-D Witch? Things? I doubt it.

That’s not to say Milon’s Secret Castle (aka Meikyū Kumikyoku: Milon no Daibōken, “The Maze Suite: Milon’s Great Adventure”) is any sort of misunderstood masterpiece, only that it falls into the same class as stuff like Silver Surfer and Fester’s Quest. These are all indisputably flawed games, perhaps even clunky ones, that are still worth learning if you’re patient and relish a challenge. Are they underrated? Sure, but only in light of the absurd amount of abuse hurled at them. In a less hyperbolic climate, they’d be considered pretty okay-ish. I suppose there’s comparatively little entertainment value in an assessment like that, though.

So who’s Milon? He’s a young boy from the modestly-named land of Hudson. All of his countrymen rely on music to express themselves, but poor Milon is apparently tone deaf or something, since he alone lacks this ability. Despondent, he sets out on a journey to find others like himself. He soon comes across Castle Gardland, which has been invaded by the warlord Maharito. This fiend has stolen the people’s musical instruments and imprisoned Queen Eliza within the depths of her own castle. Milon volunteers to save her and is given an enchanted bubble blower by the castle’s magician to use as a weapon against Maharito’s demons.

With “secret” right there in the title, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Milon’s quest revolves around discovering the many hidden passageways and items tucked away throughout the castle. Doing this will gradually reveal the lairs of seven boss monsters. Defeating them and obtaining the crystals they leave behind will power-up Milon and, eventually, open the way to Maharito’s inner sanctum.

Virtually everything in this game is presented as a secret, regardless of how illogical that can be at times. Whenever Milon enters one of the castle’s sprawling multi-screen rooms, for example, he won’t be allowed to leave until he discovers the hidden exit. You’d naturally expect him to be able to exit at any time via the same doorway he just entered through. Silly you with your common sense. The go-to method for revealing all these secrets is to shoot up as much of the scenery as possible with Milon’s bubbles. This will uncover hidden doors, money needed to acquire items in shops, honeycombs that expand Milon’s health bar, and more. The instruction manual tells you this much.

What the instructions don’t see fit to mention is that Milon can also shove certain blocks aside in order to discover doors hidden behind them. In fact, you can’t progress past the very first section of the game without doing this. Worse yet, Milon has no dedicated pushing animation, so it’s possible a player may actually attempt this out of desperation only to give up after not holding the D-pad down quite long enough. It took me nearly an hour to get past this classic beginner’s trap, which is easily more time than I spent on any of the game’s later puzzles. This total failure on Hudson’s part to provide basic information on a key gameplay feature is what led to the infamous “Getting Started” feature in Nintendo Power’s Classified Information column, a space typically reserved for advanced strategies and esoteric codes.

Whether you chalk it up to ignorance or malice, I believe this single egregious blunder is responsible for countless bad first impressions of the game over the years. Once I finally figured it out (and roundly cursed the team at Hudson’s mothers when I confirmed the problem wasn’t on my end), the rest of the journey was relatively smooth sailing. I quickly fell into a rhythm of scouring each new room for hidden stuff, finding items, and taking down bosses. I still died a ton, of course, as the enemies infesting this castle don’t mess around. They attack relentlessly and respawn almost instantly when destroyed. Milon also doesn’t enjoy any significant post-hit invincibility window, so baddies can quickly pile on loads of damage if they manage to make contact. You have unlimited continues, thankfully, although they don’t kick in until after you defeat the first boss for some odd reason. This keeps the game beatable in spite of its non-stop brutal combat. Alas, no save or password system is provided. You’ll nèed to tackle this one in a single sitting.

Setting its cryptic structure and formidable difficulty aside for the moment, Secret Castle’s dismal reputation among NES enthusiasts is also likely due in part to the quirks of its release schedule. Its Famicom debut in late 1986 came a mere handful of months after The Legend of Zelda and Metroid put console action-adventure/RPG games on the map. It thus predates Tecmo’s Rygar, Konami’s Castlevania II, and most other third party efforts in that vein. Its release on the NES nearly two full years later effectively robbed it of its head start and left it looking somewhat primitive next to the competition at a time in gaming history when the state of the art was advancing at lightning speed. Call it the Hydlide Effect.

I’m not about to tell you that Milon’s Secret Castle is as great as its first party predecessors or the majority of those more sophisticated post-1986 takes on the same concepts I just mentioned. The fierce challenge and need to constantly probe every square inch of the environment for secrets simply won’t appeal to everyone. Its lack of a save feature can also represent a daunting time commitment to newcomers, a gaffe that was remedied by the welcome addition of passwords to the 1993 Japanese Game Boy port. What it does have to offer is cute, colorful graphics in that timeless flat early NES style, a catchy (if limited) soundtrack, and a lovable protagonist with a whimsical and intriguing world to explore.

I guess I can’t help but root for this plucky, bubble blasting kid. He’s an outsider and an underdog, both in his own native fantasy world and NES fandom at large, but he never lets it bring him down. It doesn’t matter if he’s getting dissed and dismissed for his musical incompetence or his supposedly crappy first game; that happy-go-lucky grin of his can weather any storm. Why hate when you can be like Milon?

Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Super Star Soldier (TurboGrafx-16)

I wonder if I can get away with listing “flying away from big explosions” on my resume at this point?

Off to the PC Engine I go for another bout of alien ass whupping in 1990’s Super Star Soldier. To understand the origins of the Star Soldier series, we need to start back in 1984, when Tecmo (then called Tehkan) developed the fast-paced vertical shooter Star Force for arcades. The subsequent home release of Star Force on the Famicom proved so wildly popular that its publisher, Hudson Soft, made it the centerpiece of their first annual All-Japan Caravan Festival in 1985.

This nationwide high score contest generated considerable publicity and Hudson was understandably eager to make it an annual event. Problem was, they needed a new game to center Caravan ’86 around. Preferably one very similar to Star Force…. In other words, Star Soldier was a bit of a copycat. It was a worthy shooter in its own right by the standards of the time, however, and all three of its PC Engine follow-ups (Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade) would headline their own Caravans from 1990-1992.

Before I move on to discussing Super Star Soldier proper, here’s one last Caravan fun fact I couldn’t resist sharing with you all: We have these early competitions to thank for the rise of none other than Toshiyuki “16 Shot” Takahashi, the gaming prodigy named and famed for his rapid-firing skills in Star Soldier who later served as the real life model for Adventure Island’s Master Higgins. Yes, without these space shooter festivals taking place on the other side of the world, we would never have known the serene majesty of a portly gent in animal skins and baseball cap hurling stone axes at snails while riding a skateboard. What a bleak existence that would be.

Though developed for Hudson by Kaneko, Super Star Soldier will remind PCE/TurboGrafx fans of another, better-known shooter for the platform, Compile’s Blazing Lazers. In much the same way Star Soldier was “inspired” by Star Force, its sequel feels like an unofficial extension of Blazing Lazers. Many of the weapons feel familiar and your ship controls much the same, right down to having variable speed settings toggled with the Select button. Enemy and stage designs have a very Compile/Aleste look and flow to them, as well, although the settings you fly through are slightly less wild here. There are no deadly rainbow bubbles awaiting you this time out, for example. Even the quirky “special lives” mechanic introduced in Blazing Lazers, which has you repeatedly shooting certain power-up icons until they turn into flashing orbs and then collecting those so you can respawn in place when destroyed instead of being sent back to a checkpoint, is carried over. Considering Compile’s towering reputation among shooter fans, the same principle that exonerated the first Star Soldier holds true here: If you’re going to crib, crib from the best.

The plot, if you can call it that, is like so: Earth is under attack by a pack of evil space brains and their leader, Mother Brain. I tell you, it’s always brains in these old Japanese sci-fi games. So far this year alone, I’ve already killed one at the end of Gradius, another (also named Mother Brain) in Metroid, and a third in Section Z. That’ll teach those squishy bastards to think so much, I guess. Anyway, there’s still hope for us humans because an improved version of the Caesar craft from the last game, dubbed Neo Caesar, has been engineered for just such an emergency. The player assumes the role of the Neo Caesar’s pilot, referred to in the manual as “Starbuck.” Dirk Benedict’s character from Battlestar Galactica, then? Excuse me, but if I have to play as an A-Team alumnus, I’d much prefer Mr. T.

Starbuck’s mission encompasses eight stages. Most are variations on the outer space theme with only a couple taking place planetside. Each is fairly long and has its own unique final boss. The exception is, of course, the final stage, which is a punishing five boss gauntlet with a generous compliment of standard enemies sprinkled in for good measure. The entire journey takes around 35 minutes, assuming highly skilled play. That’s a respectable amount of play time for the genre, albeit also less than Blazing Lazers.

The Neo Caesar has four primary weapons at its disposal, accessed via colored-coded orbs dropped by enemies. These include the default multi-shot machine gun, the wide-angle ring laser, the more focused spread laser, and the powerful, short range swing fire. You can upgrade each weapon multiple times, increasing its area of effect considerably in the process. Taking damage will lower your weapon’s power, so these enhanced armaments also double as your armor in classic Aleste fashion. In general, I found the multi-shot and ring laser to be the best at taking out swarms of regular enemies, while the piercing spread laser was ideal for dealing heavy damage to single targets (i.e. bosses). I actively avoided swing fire for the majority of the game, since its flame jets share the same bright orange color scheme as the enemy’s bullets, which resulted in far too much accidental damage. Too bad. Double flamethrowers should equal pure bliss in any game.

Rounding out your arsenal are a couple of useful supplementary items. The Starbuck Defense System is a very fancy name for a very basic pair of “option” satellites that hang out near your ship blocking enemies and their shots. While these will damage foes on contact, they don’t actually multiply your firepower like the options from Gradius. Your other choice, the homing missiles, are entirely self-explanatory. You can only have one primary and one secondary weapon equipped at a given time. Thankfully, power-up drops are quite frequent, so you’ll never have to wait too long for your favorites to show up in the rotation.

Super Star Soldier poses a respectable challenge without being too overwhelming. For the most part, anyway. It’s definitely tougher than Blazing Lazers thanks to denser enemy patterns, trickier bosses, and no shield pickup or stock of super bombs. At the same time, it’s not totally lacking in clemency. You have weapons-as-armor to prevent those one-hit deaths and unlimited continues to boot. The biggest hurdle by far is the final stage. Defeating five tricky bosses in a row, the last of which has four distinct forms, is no joke. Worst of all is the three minutes or so of regular enemy waves you have to fight your way past before the boss rush even starts. It doesn’t sound like much, but having to wade through these guys over and over each time you continue can really start to wear on you after a while. This is another of those games where I spent significantly more time on the last level than on all the rest combined.

Oh, and I can neither forget nor forgive the hellish glitch that put an ugly end to my first full playthrough. See, crashing into enemies in Super Star Soldier damages both parties. The first time I managed to defeat the final boss, it was by accidentally colliding with it, destroying us both in the same instant. I had a ship in reserve, so I wasn’t worried. All I had to do was respawn and watch those credits roll, right? Wrong. I came back like normal, but the game just hung there. The boss music kept on looping as I sat there alone on an endlessly scrolling starfield. With nothing left to kill me and no time limit, all I could was give up and reset the machine. Did I eventually start fresh and beat the boss the normal way so I could have that true ending? I did. Was I happy about it? I was not.

That freak occurrence aside, there’s very little in Super Star Soldier that’s objectionable and much to appreciate. The audiovisuals meet the usual high Hudson standard and the shooting action is fast, precise, and, above all, satisfying. It’s true that the difficulty curve is a tad lopsided due to that crazy brutal eighth stage and the weapon selection, while adequate, could stand to be broadened. The three other games on the system that share this exact style of play, Blazing Lazers, Final Soldier, and Soldier Blade all have a little more going on mechanically and can be considered slightly better overall. Fortunately, being the weakest of these four still allows Super Star Soldier ample room to stand tall as one of the best shooters on a console synonymous with them. Just don’t try to kamikaze its bosses. Let my pain be your gain.

Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (TurboGrafx-16)

Ah, Keith Courage. There’s likely no more despised whipping boy in all of classic gaming than this nondescript sword wielding pre-teen. Bubsy the Bobcat, perennial punchline that he is, still hasn’t been the target of as much heartfelt vitriol over the past three decades. Why is that? At first glance, the original PC Engine version of Keith’s one and only adventure, 1988’s Mashin Eiyūden Wataru (“Spirit Hero Wataru”), is that most ubiquitous of things: A mediocre anime-based platformer from a C-list developer. Japanese gamers were practically downing in quickie contract work like this during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were the equivalent of the ever-present Hollywood movie cash-in games that littered my own childhood. Pretty worthless for the most part, sure, but nothing worth holding a grudge over.

That’s how it was in Japan and would have been here, too, if it hadn’t been for one fateful decision by NEC, the electronics giant that co-created the PC Engine itself in conjunction with Hudson Soft. In early 1989, they were gearing up for the system’s big summer launch in North America as the TurboGrafx-16. It must have been clear to everyone involved that they had their work cut out for them. Sega was on track to roll out their 16-bit Genesis the very same month. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s NES still maintained its iron grip on the hearts and minds of America’s children. NEC needed to pair their new machine with a true killer app in order to have any real chance of breaking through. I’m talking a stone cold instant classic. A Mario slayer. What they ultimately bet the farm on was our boy Keith. Yikes. It’s like if the NES had shipped with Karate Kid or Total Recall.

Yes, most gamers who picked up a TurboGrafx-16 during the first two thirds of its three year run were introduced to their expensive next gen console by an utterly unremarkable throwaway title by Advance Communication Company of all people. Not the arcade quality spaceship shooting of Compile’s Blazing Lazers. Not the four-player fantasy epic that was Atlus’ Dungeon Explorer. Not even Hudson’s own established mascot Bomberman. When the system predictably failed to take off, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was condemned to go down in history as not just a bad game, but the game so bad it sank the TurboGrafx. Say what you will about Bubsy, at least he never had the weight of an entire gaming platform’s future resting on his furry shoulders.

That’s the boilerplate version of the tale, anyway. Now for the fun part! Is this really so wretched a game? Did it bury the machine it was bundled with? And before we can tackle those big questions, just who is Keith Courage and what the hell is an Alpha Zone?

Well, the instruction manual informs me that Keith Courage is an agent of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and he’s out to save the world from B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes), the invading force of evil aliens that killed his scientist dad. Ugh. Could the middle-aged marketing geniuses behind this localization have possibly been further off the mark with this dreck? Kids in the ’80 were into awesome heroes like the Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats fighting against the likes of the Decepticons and Cobra. N.I.C.E. and B.A.D. would have stood out as corny and patronizing to a first grader. The buff, lantern-jawed adult version of Keith created for the manual and cover is equally laughable when you consider that he’s still represented in-game by the same exact sprite of nine year-old Wataru. In fact, nothing about the whimsical cartoon fantasy world of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru was altered to fit the new story and character designs given in the manual. Yeah, I totally buy this goofy smirking kid as a badass warrior on a mission to avenge his slain loved one. Seamless.

As for the Alpha Zones, that’s just what the manual calls the game’s seven side-scrolling stages. While nominally distinguished by simple themes (Fire Zone, Glacier Zone, etc), these all play very similarly in that each one is split up into two distinct halves. First comes a rather drab and empty Overworld area, where an achingly slow-moving Keith marches from left to right and swats puny basic enemies to earn the money needed to purchase power-ups in shops. You then transition to an Underworld section that sees Keith hopping into a giant robot called the Nova Suit for a spate of faster-paced, more challenging combat that culminates in a boss fight.

In other words, what we have here is a much hated platformer from Advance Communication Company that alternates between two jarringly different gameplay modes. One is slow and boring while the other focuses on constant combat against trippy monsters. Oh, and it features music by Michiharu Hasuya. Hmm. Maybe they should have just gone all the way and called this one Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Courage.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. The similarities between Keith Courage and ACC’s infamous NES stinker are interesting for sure (the two were released a mere four months apart), but the former is admittedly much less of a confusing mess overall. Keith Courage presents a more traditional action gaming experience and benefits from a far greater share of nostalgic defenders willing to stand up and declare it an underrated gem. That said, both halves of the game are still plagued by some egregious design flaws in my eyes.

The Overworld areas are devoid of anything resembling thrills or challenge and seem to exist exclusively to lengthen the play time through cash grinding. Adding insult to that injury, the shops themselves aren’t exactly filled with exciting gear. The sword upgrades for the Nova Suit are a must for sure. Apart from them, the only other items on offer are limited use projectile weapons called Bolt Bombs and these are largely underwhelming. You’ll quickly learn not to waste your money on them. Playing as Keith here may not be anywhere near as frustrating as navigating the streets and parks of Henry Jekyll’s London, but it’s just as tedious in its own special way.

The Underworld is a bit better than that, at least. The Nova Suit can run fast and jump high, while the enemies you face off against are a lot bigger and showcase some pretty outlandish designs at times. You’ve gotta love the dudes that are giant revolvers with faces or the Frankenstein monster heads with no bodies, just limbs sprouting directly from their humongous craniums. Once the novelty of these critters and the initial exhilaration of simply being able to move around at an acceptable speed wears off, however, it’ll dawn on you that these Underworld areas repeat themselves quite a bit. You get the same couple of alternating music tracks, the same background tiles (recolored occasionally, at least), and the same baddies and insta-death spike hazards over and over. Leaps of faith are also a regular annoyance, since Keith is tasked with making his way downward to the boss waiting at the lowest point of each level. You’ll frequently have to cross your fingers and hope there’s not a bed of spikes lurking just out of view as you drop from a ledge. Your chances are about 50/50 in my experience. Hooray for unlimited continues, I guess.

The mushy cherry atop this failure sundae is the lackluster presentation. Keith Courage’s Overworld graphics are closer to an NES game’s than what Sega brought to the table in their own debut Genesis pack-in, Altered Beast, and the Underworld’s are no great shakes, either, with their overreliance on recycled assets and plain black backgrounds. At least the music’s alright. Not exceptional in any way, mind you, merely competent.

Having now laid out all the evidence, is Keith Courage in Alpha Zones truly a bad game? Yes. Yes, it is. I wouldn’t single it out as excruciatingly awful or anything like that. It’s not even close to being the worst thing I’ve played on my PC Engine in the past year. I’d rather run through Keith Courage another ten times over than touch War of the Dead again, for example. Even so, there’s nothing about it I can actively recommend over the dozens, if not hundreds of more polished and exciting 16-bit action-platformers. The localization is absurd, the pace drags, the combat is shallow, the level design is barely there, and it can’t even bring the eye candy. Keep in mind that all this is coming the guy who did end up recommending Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to fans of crazy experimental fare.

Did Keith single-handedly throttle the nascent TurboGrafx-16 in its crib, though? Hardly. NEC’s management missteps were legion throughout the life of the system. They failed to beat Sega to market, refused to bring over many of the PC Engine’s best releases, hesitated to match their competitors’ marketing budgets…the list goes on. They were consistently their own worst enemies and that extended far beyond the choice of a resoundingly weak pack-in game.

So leave poor Keith alone. He didn’t kill your favorite console. He’s not a bad boy, really, just a touch slow.

Hagane: The Final Conflict (Super Nintendo)

Famed satirist Jonathan Swift once observed, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it….” In the realm of classic gaming, I can think of no clearer example of this timeless truth in action than Hagane: The Final Conflict for the Super Nintendo. Around a decade ago now, a obscurely-sourced story began circulating online that this unassuming 1994 action-platformer was actually a rare Blockbuster Video rental exclusive title. Prices for Hagane cartridges rocketed from the $20 -$40 range to $500 and up.

You’ve likely already guessed where I’m going with this. That’s right: There’s no proof whatsoever that Hagane was ever associated with Blockbuster Video. What’s more, popular YouTuber SNESdrunk has presented plenty of evidence that it was, in fact, a normal retail release. Blockbuster exclusive games like ClayFighter: Sculptor’s Cut for the Nintendo 64 were a real thing. At this point in time, however, we can state with all confidence that Hagane was not one of them.

I’m not certain whether the Blockbuster myth originated as an innocent mistake or a despicable attempt to manipulate the secondary market, but I do know that ten years and counting of wide dissemination is likely to prevent those prices from correcting themselves anytime soon. The damage is done. It’s a shame, because the sticker shock tends to overshadow a quality ninja action game that’s often cited as the Super Nintendo’s answer to Sega’s Shinobi series.

The final conflict of the title is between two secretive ninja clans. The Fuma are mystical warriors charged with safeguarding the Holy Grail. Their foils are the evil Koma, who dream of using the Grail’s limitless power to destroy the world. A treacherous attack by the Koma results in them stealing the Grail, but they make the fateful mistake of leaving one Fuma clan warrior alive. This gravely-wounded ninja, Hagane (“steel”), has his brain transplanted into a cyborg body in order to seek revenge on the Koma and recover the Grail before it’s too late. Ninja RoboCop questing for the Holy Grail? God bless video games.

Hagane’s mission comprises nineteen  individual stages spread out over five chapters. These are primarily straightforward “run, jump, and fight your way to the exit” affairs that incorporate a satisfying blend of platforming and combat challenges, along with a handful of auto-scrolling sections for variety. Each chapter also has an end boss and at least one mini-boss. None of the individual stages here are exceptionally large or involved, but there’s enough of them that the journey as a whole feels neither too long nor too short.

Like Treasure’s Alien Soldier, which I reviewed just last week, this is another game where the title hero has an incredibly wide selection of moves and attacks at his disposal. Too many, to be honest. Hagane has four main weapons that he can cycle between at any time: A sword, shuriken, bombs, and a chain. Any ninja game connoisseurs reading this probably recognize this as the same array of weapons wielded by Tsukikage, the protagonist of Irem’s Ninja Spirit. I can only assume that someone on the development team was a fan of Irem’s effort. Hagane also comes equipped with a limited-use super bomb attack reminiscent of the one seen in Contra III that damages everything on-screen and is generally best saved for bosses.

That’s not all, though! The ever-versatile metal ninja can also lash out with jump kicks and ground slides, cling to ceilings, bounce off walls, execute a strange sort of rolling double jump that covers wide distances horizontally, and pull off a variety of charged-up power attacks in conjunction with both back and forward flips. Hey, at least they didn’t let that six-button controller go to waste, eh?

Step one here is to get a feel for which of these moves you’ll need to use constantly and which you can safely ignore. The sword and shuriken ended up being my go-to weapons (with bombs a distant third) and the double jump spin proved to be the most vital platforming tool by far. The chain, jump kick, slide, super flip attacks, and the rest all turned out to be either highly situational or completely unnecessary.

Mastering a small selection of your most efficient moves as quickly as possible goes a long way toward curbing the game’s formidable difficulty. Hagane has a reputation for being one of the most challenging SNES action games. While there are many that I would personally rank higher in that regard, it’s certainly no easier than the average Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden title. The biggest hurdle by far is Hagane’s unimpressive health bar. For a guy made of metal, you’d expect him to able to withstand more than three hits by default. Healing items and the occasional health bar extension help somewhat, but you still can’t count on being able to make many mistakes. You are given unlimited continues at least, although running out of lives and using one starts you back at the beginning of the chapter rather than the exact stage you died on.

Despite a somewhat over-engineered control scheme, Hagane largely succeeds in delivering the sort of fast-paced precision action-platforming experience its target audience craves. It weds level design and enemy placement that would be right at home in any of the 16-bit Shinobi games with the weapon system from Ninja Spirit, movement that recalls Capcom’s Strider, and an extra bit of flair all its own, as in the stage where Hagane must escape a crashing airship as it spins around him courtesy of the console’s iconic Mode 7 background rotation effect.

All this solid gameplay is further bolstered by some very strong art design. Every detail of the medieval Japanese cyberpunk future on display here is compelling, from the twin pistons carved into the shapes of Buddhas that are shown to power Hagane himself in the opening cut scene to the largest of the boss enemies with their hulking robot frames topped by elaborate Noh theater style masks. It’s basically the same aesthetic that made the classic Genesis shooter MUSHA so memorable, just on a more intimate scale. The soundtrack, unfortunately, can’t really keep pace. It takes the expected route of combining samples suggestive of classical Japanese instruments with more conventional video game action beats, but the tracks themselves don’t really bring it. They’re often far too restrained for the madness erupting across the screen at any given moment. I don’t think it’s bad music by any means, merely underwhelming.

Hagane is absurdly, senselessly overpriced. It also presents as a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from the bits and pieces of great ninja games past. It’s got it where it counts, though, and that makes me wish that developer CAProduction had tried their hands at a sequel. I suppose they’ve been too busy slaving away on every Mario Party game ever. It’s tough to argue with a sure thing like that.

Anyway, play Hagane. Just don’t pay $500 or more for the privilege. You’re smarter than that.

Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16)

Bang your head!

By the tail end of the ’80s, console gaming was all about the mascots. Super Mario games were the single richest goldmine the industry had stumbled on to date, with three of the top five best-selling games of the decade being Mario titles. Hell, if you remove Duck Hunt from consideration on the basis that it owes the majority of its popularity to having been bundled with the first Super Mario Bros., fully 80% of that top five list is taken up by Nintendo’s mustachioed Mickey Mouse of gaming. Hudson Soft and NEC, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the Japanese market, wanted in. Their search for a profitably appealing face for their PC Engine system eventually led to them partnering with developers Red Company and Atlus to release the first PC Genjin game in 1989.

The name they picked for their new big-headed caveman character was actually quite clever. “Genjin” means something along the lines of “primitive man” and the “PC” supposedly stood for his fictitious species name: “Pithecanthropus Computerus.” It’s mostly meant to serve as a not-so-subtle plug for the console itself, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Here in North America, where the PC Engine is called the TurboGrafx-16, all this wordplay would have been lost in translation, so we instead know the character as Bonk and his debut outing as Bonk’s Adventure.

Why a caveman? Beats me, but while it may seem like a strange choice in isolation, the gaming scene was actually teeming with troglodytes around this time. In addition to the many licensed Flintstones games, we had Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, Big Nose the Caveman, Congo’s Caper, Caveman Games, Prehistorik, Adventures of Dino Riki, Toki, and more. Next time you think of a stereotypical old school video game hero, remember that club-swinging dudes draped in animal skins were almost as common as ninja and Rambo clones. It was just one of those things.

As expected, Bonk’s Adventure is a side-view platformer in the Mario mold. They’re not subtle about it, either: Bonk is out to rescue a princess named Za from the hulking reptilian monarch, King Drool. At least the princess here is some kind of plesiosaur-like dragon creature and not a buxom blond lady. I guess I can award partial credit for that. The game consists of five rounds and each round is further sub-divided into anywhere between one and seven distinct levels, making for a grand total of 22 stages. While the majority of these only require Bonk to survive a gauntlet of enemies and environmental hazards in order to reach the exit, each full round concludes with a memorable battle against a large boss character.

Fittingly, Bonk’s major contribution to the platforming genre is the way he uses his oversized Charlie Brown noggin to smash through every obstacle in his path. Simply jumping onto enemies like Mario or Sonic do will only result in Bonk himself taking damage. The preferred method is to either jump up into foes from below, nail them with a standing head butt when grounded, or press the attack button in mid-air to perform a headlong diving attack. The dive attack is my favorite of the three because each successful hit will automatically propel Bonk back up into the air, allowing accurate players to chain together a series of consecutive strikes without needing to touch ground in-between. It’s very satisfying and makes many of the boss encounters much easier. Beyond just bashing hostile critters, Bonk can also use his freak dome to aid in stage traversal. He scales walls by using his huge teeth of all things, which makes mine hurt just thinking about it. Additionally, tapping the attack button repeatedly while airborne will make Bonk spin, slowing his descent and effectively allowing him to glide right over long stretches of hostile territory. This last ability is just as useful as it sounds, possibly too much so. The option to skip huge sections of many levels in this way can really hobble the game’s challenge if you let it, similar to the cape power-up from Super Mario World.

Speaking of power-ups, the offerings here are pretty slim, which is one of the game’s few significant missteps. Bonk can find fruit and hearts to restore lost health, but meat is the only item that really changes up the gameplay. Chowing down on a hunk of tasty meat will boost the power of Bonk’s dive attack, allowing it to stun any nearby enemies when his head impacts the ground. Eating a second piece (or a single giant piece) will render Bonk invincible and able to charge straight through the opposition. The bad news here is that all abilities derived from meat consumption are temporary. There are no persistent power-ups present in the game other than the occasional health bar extension. This feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gaining new abilities in a game like this feels rewarding and the player’s innate desire to hold onto them for as long as possible encourages skillful play in a very elegant, natural way.

My final gripe with Bonk’s Adventure involves the lack of a run feature. With the way efficient movement in so many post-Super Mario platformers is predicated on managing your character’s momentum from moment to moment, this is the sort of thing that you don’t really appreciate until it’s gone. Here, the fact that Bonk is limited to a leisurely walk when traveling along the ground only serves as more incentive to abuse the glide ability in hopes of reaching the level exit just a little more quickly. I eventually got used to the fact that I couldn’t run, but it never stopped feeling like I should be able to.

Although its sequels would provide much in the way of expansion and fine-tuning, Bonk’s Adventure is still an excellent platformer in its own right. The action is as fun as it is unique and the TG-16’s famously colorful graphics allowed the artists to bring their hyperactive cartoon take on prehistory to life in grand style. The level design both rewards player curiosity with its abundance of hidden bonus rooms and makes use of some truly unique settings and scenarios. Midway through the first round, for example, Bonk gets swallowed by a humongous dinosaur and has to navigate its innards by swimming through the beast’s stomach bile and avoiding its surly (but oddly cute) intestinal parasites. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. At the same time, the game is also a case study in how to handle a mascot launch right. Bonk himself is as likable as his creators were banking on. It should come as no surprise that he would go on to star in multiple direct Bonk’s Adventure follow-ups and a shooter spin-off series (Air Zonk) on the TurboGrafx as well as cross over to the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Amiga.

Unfortunately, Hudson Soft is no more and NEC has long since exited the gaming sphere. This leaves Bonk in limbo. He hasn’t starred in a new game since 1995, unless you count the horrid looking 2006 mobile phone release Bonk’s Return, which, frankly, you shouldn’t. It remains to be seen if Konami (who owns the rights to the Hudson back catalog at the time of this writing) will ever see fit to resurrect everyone’s favorite headbanging hominid hero.

Here’s hoping you really can’t keep a good (cave)man down.