Gate of Thunder (TurboGrafx-16)

Having recently experienced an excellent action-platformer (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and an iconic RPG (Ys Book I & II), I’m understandably eager to continue my exploration of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 CD-ROM library. Given the system’s reputation as a shooter fan’s paradise, 1992’s Gate of Thunder seems like a natural choice. It was, after all, a pack-in title for the deluxe TurboDuo version of the hardware here in North America, sharing a disc with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and Bomberman. If that’s not the best selection of software ever bundled with a game console, I couldn’t tell you what is. It was certainly a long-delayed step in the right direction. Sure, the TurboDuo was far too late and too pricey to salvage the TurboGrafx brand in this part of the world, but at least anyone who did buy in at that point got more to show for it than a measly copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.

Gate of Thunder comes to us from developer Red Company, makers of the beloved Bonk series of mascot platformers and its spin-off, Air Zonk, which I consider to be one of the finest horizontal shooters available for the TurboGrafx. In other words, I had every reason to look forward to this one, and I’m pleased to report that Gate did not disappoint. It delivers just about everything you could want in a 16-bit shoot-’em-up: Blistering action, powerful weapons, intimidating bosses, exotic backdrops, flashy pyrotechnics, and a driving soundtrack. It’s also a shameless copycat so desperate to associate itself with Technosoft’s Thunder Force III that Red couldn’t be bothered to leave “Thunder” out of the title. Bit of a bad look there.

You play as space cop Hawk, captain of the Hunting Dog space fighter, out to defend planet Aries from the private armada of interstellar crime boss General Don Jingi. It’s hinted in the cutscenes that Hawk might have some sort of personal vendetta against the baddies, since he’s prone to brooding over a locket containing a picture of his (dead?) family. I’m sure the nameless hero of Konami’s Axelay can relate. Hawk is aided throughout his seven stage crusade by his partner, Esty, who periodically swoops down in her own Wild Cat ship to dispense power-ups. This is strictly a one-player game, so you never get to control Esty directly. I guess it’s still nice that they put some thought into to where all these helpful icons actually come from. Most other games don’t bother.

Like its Technosoft namesake, Gate of Thunder is a fast-paced affair. This is no cautious checkpoint shooter in the R-Type mold. Aggression is your best friend here, a fact emphasized by your ability to respawn in place after a death and continue the fight uninterrupted. The overall flow of the action is exhilarating and seems to effortlessly straddle that thin line separating challenge and frustration.

The Hunting Dog’s default attack is a simple straight-firing blue laser. Collecting those color-coded power-up orbs I mentioned grants access to two additional primary weapons: Green waves that fan out to deal slightly less damage over a wider area and the red earthquake, which deals immense damage to targets situated above and below you. Your ability to toggle between these three shots at any time forms the basis for much of the game’s strategy beyond the usual bullet dodging and enemy pattern memorization common to virtually all shooters. In general, the laser is best against most bosses, waves are for swarms of weak foes, and the earthquake makes short work of those pesky ceiling and floor targets.

Grabbing a second power-up corresponding to a particular weapon will upgrade it to a more powerful form. After that, every subsequent icon of that color will instead cause a huge energy wave to sweep across the screen in classic super bomb style. You do need to exercise some caution, however, as a death will strip you of your currently equipped weapon, with the exception of the laser, which can only be downgraded.

Rounding out your arsenal are an incredibly important shield that allows you to withstand three extra hits, a secondary homing missile weapon, and a pair of Gradius-inspired “option” satellites that flank your ship and mirror your primary shot. You’re able to manually pivot your options around to fire behind you when necessary, although rear assaults aren’t terribly common.

The blazing speed of the gameplay is complimented by Nick Wood’s relentless score. One could argue that the Red Book audio is the only thing here that truly required the CD medium. That’d be missing the mark in terms of criticism, though, as this sort of early ’90s instrumental hard rock is simply ideal to wreck aliens to.

There’s no mistake about it—from its visual design to its controls and weapon system, Gate of Thunder really is just Thunder Force III with real wailing guitars replacing the synthesized ones. If you were somehow able to swap entire levels around between the two games, I reckon the effect would be seamless enough that a player unfamiliar with the originals wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. That said, I’m not complaining! Ripping off an all-time great pretty much perfectly is a win in my book. In the context of a genre as traditionally no-nonsense and gameplay-driven as the auto-scrolling shooter, imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. Love Thunder Force III? Well, here come Red Company and Hudson Soft to essentially double its length while introducing no real flaws of note. I’ll take it, thanks.

If you must insist on something with more in the way of creative vision, you could skip over Gate in favor of its fantasy-themed pseudo-sequel, Lords of Thunder. Me, I’m not so hung up on innovation that I can’t recognize the entertainment potential in accurately recreating a masterpiece, even one that isn’t technically your own.

Ys Book I & II (TurboGrafx-16)

I hear boob orbs are going to be all the rage this summer.

Precious few entries in the role playing canon are as revered as Nihon Falcom’s Ys I and II. Originally released for NEC PC-8801 computer systems in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter kicked off a series that’s still going strong and have been ported and remade enough times to give the makers of Doom and Street Fighter II pause.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why. The early Ys titles were a major step up from previous Japanese computer action RPGs. Their thrilling combat and stunning presentation made them must-plays for anyone gaming on one of these platforms. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, given that Ys was the creation of Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who would end up leaving Nihon Falcom in the wake of the franchise’s runaway success to make some of my favorite Super Nintendo games under the Quintet banner.

According to its creators, Ys I and II were initially designed as a single game. This conjoined 1989 remake of the two from Hudson Soft is thus less a compilation and more an enhanced restoration. Hudson’s Ys Book I & II is also historically important in its own right, being the second RPG published on CD (after their Tengai Makyo: Ziria) and the first to be given a North American release in 1990. For many players in both regions, it would have served as an introduction to recorded music and voiced cutscenes in video games. That’s bound to leave an impression.

Ys Book I & II focuses on Adol Christin, a wandering swordsman looking the solve the mystery of the fabled lost kingdom of Ys. Interestingly, Ys (pronounced “ease”) is a real place. Or a real mythic place, anyway. It’s supposedly an Atlantis-like sunken city somewhere off the coast of France. Like its Gallic counterpart, Adol’s Ys was a peaceful, prosperous land until a sudden catastrophe caused it to vanish from the world at large. Nothing a dozen hours of fetch questing and monster slaying can’t fix!

The storytelling here can come off a tad threadbare to those more accustomed to post-’80 RPGs. Sure, discovering the fate of Ys and its people should be enough of a hook to get you going and there are a couple of effective twists along the way. Don’t expect much in the way of characterization, though. Adol is the very model of a silent protagonist and his villains are “evil for evil’s sake” types mostly content to wait patiently at home until it’s their turn to eat sword. Hudson Soft was clearly banking on the bleeding edge CD soundtrack and anime cinematics to lend some gravitas to this material. Fortunately, it worked.

The impact of the audio in particular can’t be overstated. Ryo Yonemitsu’s soaring arrangements of tracks composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Mieko Ishikawa, and Hideya Nagata are strong contenders for the finest music heard in any game up to this point. They’re about 50% serene, atmosphere pieces you’d expect from a fantasy game and 50% energetic ’80s synth rock punctuated by frenzied Yngwie Malmsteen style guitar shredding. Legendary.

Similar care care went into the story sequences and their English localization. Voice work in early TurboGrafx-CD games tended to range from slightly amateurish and goofy (Valis II) to brain-meltingly absurd (Last Alert). The Ys team wisely hired professional actors like Alan Oppenheimer and Thomas Haden Church, resulting in line readings that largely hold up today. If there’s one major weakness of the English dialogue, it’s the way every enemy character in the game is referred to as a “goon” by NPCs. It doesn’t matter if they’re talking about evil wizards, slime monsters, or the walking dead, they’re all a bunch of goons, apparently. Such an odd scripting choice.

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that Ys is all flash, however. This is one exciting action RPG, primarily due to the one thing I expected to dislike most going in: The bump combat. That’s right, using Adol’s sword requires no button presses. Instead, he simply rams into foes to deal damage. There is a degree of skill involved, as touching monsters from the side or from behind will result in more damage for them and less (or none) for Adol. This was a common mechanic in old Japanese computer RPGs, although Western audiences mostly know and loathe it from the ill-fated NES port of T&E Soft’s Hydlide. The key difference is that while Hydlide is a slow, generally clunky little game, the fighting in Ys is impressively fast and smooth. Adol can really haul ass, and mowing down an entire line of baddies without missing a step feels amazing.

Ys’ take on bump combat is so superb, in fact, that it indirectly gives rise to the first of my two major complaints. The opening act of Book II introduces a magic system and grants Adol a projectile fireball attack with practically unlimited shots. Enemies in Book II tend to inflict huge damage if you misjudge the timing of your bump attacks. In effect, this heavily incentivizes you to forsake the awesome swordplay in favor of less satisfying fireball lobbing from that point on. Why would the designers want this? Beats me.

I was also let down by the final dungeons. They’re not bad per se, just ungodly long. The last dungeon in any RPG is almost always the longest and most challenging, of course, but Nihon Falcom really took it to the extreme here. You reach these areas (Darm Tower and Solomon Shrine) at around the halfway mark in each game. After that, you’re effectively done exploring the world. There are no new environments or towns awaiting you and little new art or music. Tracking and backtracking through the same set of corridors is all you have to look forward to for the next few hours. Perhaps this structure is a relic of the limited floppy disk space on ancient computers? In any case, it makes for some seriously lopsided pacing. It may even lower the replay value, depending on your tolerance for monotony.

Despite these few rough patches, I came away from Ys Book I & II with a profound appreciation for what makes it so beloved by fans on both sides of the Pacific. By setting a new audiovisual high water mark for home gaming as a whole, it managed to feel more like a bona fide fantasy epic than anything that came before. Thirty years on, it stands tall as a good-looking game filled with incredible music and brisk, addicting action. It was, is, and shall remain a highlight of the TurboGrafx-CD library.

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

For a simple PC Engine shoot-’em-up, 1991’s Final Soldier is a surprisingly tricky game to write about. Produced by Hudson Soft and developed by Now Production, it’s the third entry in Hudson’s flagship Star Soldier line of vertical shooters. Upholding series tradition, it served as the centerpiece of that year’s Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, a long-running (1985-2006) annual high score contest the company used to promote its latest games. It’s well-designed, attractively presented alien blasting. It’s…well, it’s more Star Soldier. See what I mean? Only one paragraph into this review and I’m already running short of material.

When dealing with a franchise this consistent, I’m probably best off adopting a Mega Man approach. That is, getting the boilerplate stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so I can focus instead on the subtle tweaks that make a specific installment ever so slightly different from what came before. Here goes!

Final Soldier has a classic space shooter plot, in that it’s short, sweet, and confined entirely to the instruction booklet. Time travelling aliens called the Gader’el are attacking 23rd century Earth and the experimental Dryad fighter craft is humanity’s last line of defense. Its mission encompasses seven lengthy stages set in a variety of conventional video game locales, such as outer space, the ocean, and a futuristic city. Each zone has a pushover mid-boss and a tougher end boss, except the final one, which is an extended running battle against the ultimate baddie and its swarm of minions. Nothing special, but kudos to the developers for not padding the finale out with a lazy boss rush like so many other shooters of the era.

The weapon system is where things get interesting. The Dryad has a machine gun type main shot by default and this can be swapped out for energy waves, lasers, or a flamethrower by picking up icons of the appropriate color dropped by defeated enemies. Grabbing multiple same colored icons in a row will level-up your current weapon, increasing its area of effect and damage. Upgraded weapons also double as armor, since getting hit while wielding one results in a loss of firepower in lieu of instant death. Missiles and Gradius style option pods round out your arsenal, which is a pretty typical one by genre standards. Final Soldier’s ace in the hole is the Set-Up menu accessed from the title screen. Here, you can change the properties of the energy wave, laser, flamethrower, and missiles (though not the machine gun for some reason). The three modes available for a given weapon have a profound effect on its operation. For example, the normal straight laser shot can be swapped out for a chaotic torrent of blue bubbles. This effectively ups the number of unique weapons in the game from a modest five to a generous thirteen. Even the option pods have a nifty secondary function: You can sacrifice them as needed to trigger a full-screen super attack.

Another factor that differentiates Final Soldier from earlier Star Soldier outings is its relative ease. Super Star Soldier pushed my patience to the limit with its grueling, glitchy last area. Someone behind the scenes must have felt the same way, because there’s nothing remotely comparable here. Final Soldier’s default difficulty setting will be a cakewalk for any experienced player. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a more casual “kick back and blaze away” experience and reminds me of some of my favorite Compile-developed shooters in this regard. If you’re a fellow Gun-Nac or Space Megaforce fan, you’ll be right at home. Besides, I can always throw Super Star Soldier back on if I want an ass kicking.

So there you have it: Final Soldier is the same tried-and-true Star Soldier formula with a deeper than average weapon system and a relaxed approach to challenge. Between its crisp graphics, high energy music, silky smooth control, and viscerally satisfying shooting action, you really can’t go wrong with this one. While I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the PCE heap with Air Zonk and Blazing Lazers, it’s still a highly competent work with no outstanding flaws. Pity it was destined to be the “lost” Star Soldier game back in the day, having never been ported to the North American TurboGrafx-16 like its predecessor, Super Star Soldier, or its sequel, Soldier Blade. Sequel? Why, of course! You didn’t think this was the final one, did you?

Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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 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 projects. 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 consists of 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 maxim 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.