Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks to Kelsey Lewin over at my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. The movie’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the ’80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.

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Super Bomberman 5 (Super Famicom)

Boom goes the dynamite!

Some say that if you’ve played one Bomberman game, you’ve played them all. Although I wouldn’t go quite that far, I agree that the series has been nothing if not consistent over the course of its last 35 years and nearly 100 iterations. Sure, there’s been the odd experiment here and there, like 1987’s more exploration-focused Bomber King (aka RoboWarrior) and the much maligned “grim and gritty” reboot Act Zero from 2006, but the overwhelming majority of Bomberman’s outings have stuck close to the cartoony single-screen action of the original.

One thing I was surprised to learn while researching the history of Bomberman is that the very first versions Hudson Soft released for Japanese home computers in 1983 actually starred a proper bomber man (complete with suspenders and pork pie hat) rather than the iconic chibi robot that fans know and love. Human Bomberman got the boot in 1985 when Shinichi Nakamoto was converting the game for release on Nintendo’s Famicom and replaced the main character with a recycled enemy sprite from Hudson’s 1984 Famicom port of Lode Runner: A squat white robot with a single pink antenna sprouting from its head. Whether this was a deliberate creative choice or just a handy shortcut (the Famicom Bomberman was supposedly programmed in one marathon 72 hour work session), it marks the true start of the franchise as we know it and the birth of a mascot character that would remain synonymous with Hudson Soft all the way up until their sad dissolution in 2012.

For those few uninitiated, here’s the drill: Bomberman is plunked down onto a screen densely packed with blocks and enemies. The goal is to use his bombs to eliminate all the enemies and reach the level exit before a timer runs out. Bomberman starts out quite weak. He moves slowly and is limited to laying down one minimally powerful bomb at a time. Fortunately, some of the blocks (designated “soft blocks”) can be destroyed in order to reveal a host of power-ups that will speed Bomberman up, give him more bombs and bigger explosions to work with, and confer a variety of other useful abilities (such as repositioning bombs after they’ve already been planted). Players will need to careful how they deploy their arsenal, however, since Bomberman is just as vulnerable to his own ordinance as the bad guys are and it’s easy to get carried away and become your own worst enemy as his destructive potential mounts. One misplaced bomb or touch from an enemy is all it takes to cost you a life. Simple stuff, really. Later games added more enemy types (including proper bosses), more power-ups, and a variety of stage gimmicks like springs, conveyor belts, and teleporters, but it all still comes down to killing the baddies and reaching the exit before time is up.

Of course, any Bomberman fan (Bomberfan?) will tell you that the single player game is just the beginning. For a vocal contingent, the multiplayer Battle Modes included in most installments are the only game in town. While I personally adore blasting my way through screen after screen of computer-controlled opponents, there’s no denying that Bomberman with friends is one of the great competitive gaming experiences of all time. The desperate struggle to out-fox and out-maneuver your buddies as ever more massive columns of roaring flame fill the screen is virtually guaranteed to eat up hours of your life in what feels like mere minutes. It’s so good that Hudson themselves leaned heavily on the appeal of massive Bomberman brawls to market their multitap accessories for systems like the PC Engine and Super Nintendo.

Which brings me, finally, to 1997’s Super Bomberman 5. This final Bomberman release for Nintendo’s 16-bit system is presented as the grand finale to the Super Bomberman sub-series that began back in 1993. Despite the fact that only the first two were released in North America, five games in four years on a single platform still drives home what a huge deal these titles were in their prime. SB5 shoulders a rather large burden when it sets out to pay extensive tribute to its predecessors while still bringing enough new elements to the table to justify its own existence.

The story here is pretty lightweight. A mysterious villain with a clock for a face named Terrorin has busted a gang of notorious criminals called the Fiendish Bombers out of prison and recruited them to lead an assault on Planet Bomber that only our hero (and an optional second player in co-op mode) can repel. “A group of evil Bombers is up to no good” is Bomberman’s equivalent of “Mario must save the Princess.” As a minimalist justification for some silly fun, it does the trick.

The regular campaign includes a whopping 108 stages divided up into five worlds. The first four world are each based on one of the previous Super Bomberman titles and feature enemies, stage gimmicks, and remixed music specific to that game. The fifth (which is twice the size of any of the prior ones) is home to all new challenges and to Terrorin himself.

Debuting in this installment is the concept of branching paths between stages. Most stages have more than one exit, with a few featuring as many as five. It’s therefore possible to progress from one world to the next and only visit a fraction of the individual stages in-between. You can even find yourself finishing the game with a “bad” ending if you follow one of the easier paths to the final boss. This non-linear layout means that you’ll need to play through the campaign several times if you want to experience every stage and attain a 100% completion rating. Doing this unlocks a superpowered Golden Bomberman character for use in Battle Mode. Thankfully, the cartridge includes a save battery to record your progress, so you’re not required to 100% it in one go.

As for Battle Mode itself, it’s phenominal per usual. Up to five players at once are supported via the Super Multitap, there’s an abundance of arenas to pick from (including some old favorites like the snowy igloo map from Super Bomberman 3), and you have access to more power-ups than ever before. The kangaroo-like steeds called Louies also make a welcome return after sitting out Super Bomberman 4. These guys are Bomberman’s answer to Yoshi and come in six different varieties, each with their own helpful special abilities like leaping over hazards or laying down multiple bombs at once with a single button press. “Bad Bomber” mode is back, too. This allows defeated players to hang out along the edge of the screen and lob the occasional bomb down at the remaining combatants. This is useful for more than just petty revenge, as eliminating another player in this way will allow you to take their place back on the arena floor, effectively granting you a second chance to win the round.

The most significant new addition to SB5’s Battle Mode would have to be the ability to create and save custom characters. Drawing on a limited pool of points, you can purchase upgrades to your speed and bomb power as well as choose from a wide seletion of special powers to start the match with. If you’ve ever wanted to begin a battle with remote controlled bombs, homing bombs, or other awesome gear, now you can! You can also choose your custom Bomber’s sprite and color scheme. I made a speedy green pirate Bomber that can walk through walls. He’s quite the force to be reckoned with early on in the match when most of the other combatants are boxed-in with little room to dodge.

So does Super Bomberman 5 succeed at innovating while still paying ample homage to its predecessors? Is it the best in its class on the Super Nintendo? Yes and probably. As a sampler platter of everything the earlier Super Bomberman releases had to offer, it’s delightful. In terms of original features, the branching paths between stages in single player add a lot of replay value and Battle Mode is greatly enhanced by the new character customization options.

The game’s execution isn’t quite flawless, however. For starters, those same branching paths can also be a right pain if you’re trying for 100% completion. Since there’s no in-game map showing how every stage is connected, you’ll either have to create one yourself as you go or check a guide. If you don’t, you can easily find yourself in situations where you have every stage in a given world completed except for one or two, but you have no idea which path you need to take to actually reach those last few stages. The trial-and-error backtracking necessary to resolve these questions can get obnoxious.

In addition, the way that the boss fight are implemented here felt a step back to me in terms of presentation. Most are against rival Bombers that are also on foot and play out similarly to standard multiplayer battles. As a result, the screen-filling death machines you frequently had to take down in the earlier games are absent here, except in the case of the final battle against Terrorin. These boss characters are still fun to fight. They have their own unique personalities, special powers, and so on. They’re just a lot less impressive visually.

Finally, the game gates off some of its content in what I consider to be a rather sleazy fashion. There are thirteen total combat arenas included in Battle Mode, but three of them are only available if you unlock them first using a cheat code. A cheat code that can only be successfully executed on a Hudson Joy Card controller! That’s right: The standard Super Famicom/Super Nintendo pad just won’t work! Alternatively, you can seek out a special gold cartridge edition of the game that comes with these extra stages unlocked by default, as long as you don’t mind that these are incredibly rare collector’s items that sell for hundreds of dollars on the odd occasion they’re available for sale at all. This was some ultra tacky nonsense on Hudson’s part either way. Boo.

Even with these blemishes, Super Bomberman 5 remains my pick for the best Bomberman experience on the system. Though all five deliver the same timeless blend of addictive gameplay, adorable art, and seriously funky music, this final entry holds the edge over its peers thanks to the sheer volume of the content on offer. It has more levels, more enemies, more power-ups, and really just more of everything that makes Bomberman so great.

The fact that Konami chose to revive the Super Bomberman moniker specifically after a 20-year hiatus when they published the most recent main series entry (2017’s Super Bomberman R for the Nintendo Switch) is a fitting testimony to just how superb and fondly-remembered these games are. Hudson Soft is no more, but that very first bomb they set off back in 1983 still echos across the gaming landscape.

Super Adventure Island II (Super Nintendo)

Dang, Tina. That sure is a facial expression, alright.

I touched on Hudson Soft’s Adventure Island series for the first time back when played through Super Adventure Island last December. Originally a spin-off from Westone’s 1986 arcade platformer Wonder Boy, the Adventure Island titles stuck close to that game’s basic platforming roots while the proper Wonder Boy sequels rapidly mutated into an action-adventure saga more akin to The Legend of Zelda than Super Mario Bros. Until 1994 that is, when Hudson Soft abruptly switched gears and released both Master Takahashi’s Adventure Island IV (a Japanese exclusive and the final game ever officially released for the Famicom) and my subject today: Super Adventure Island II. Now, it’s no longer all about running from left to right while grabbing tasty fruit. Instead, our portly hero Master Higgins gets to have a go at equipping swords and armor, casting magic spells, and combing through a huge, mazelike game world for key items and hidden secrets. For such a sudden shift in focus, I was surprised by how well it paid off. I’ll probably ruffle some feathers by saying so, but I genuinely had a lot more fun with this one than I did with the similar Wonder Boy in Monster World earlier this month.

As our story opens, Master Higgins and his newlywed bride Tina are enjoying a honeymoon cruise on their raft when a sudden storm whips up and sends the pair tumbling into the sea. Higgins and Tina each wash up on different beaches, alive, but stricken with amnesia by their ordeal. Tina is taken in by the local monarch and soon becomes betrothed to him. Meanwhile, Higgins wanders the islands in search of clues to his identity and eventually comes across the castle just in time to witness Tina getting abducted from her royal wedding by a giant bird. Being a natural hero type, he volunteers to venture forth and save her, despite the fact that the two of them are now strangers to each other. Complicating matters even more, the island that Tina was whisked away to is protected by a mysterious magical barrier and Higgins needs to explore five other dangerous islands first in order to gather the spells needed to break this seal. Will Higgins be able to save Tina yet again? Will the lovebirds regain their memories in time to prevent the first ever instance of bigamy in a Nintendo game? Such suspense!

Genre savvy players will notice right away that Super Adventure Island II’s controls and combat mechanics are heavily influenced by Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and its level design owes just as much to the Metroid series. The vast majority of the action is presented from a side view perspective with Higgins running, jumping, and climbing his way across each of the game’s six sprawling islands, which can be thought of as its “dungeons.” Every island has its own thematic identity, drawn from the usual suspects like forest, volcano, ice, and ancient ruins. Movement between islands takes place on a separate overhead view world map, again echoing Zelda II right down to the slightly tedious random monster encounters that crop up when you’re just trying to get from point A to point B.

The way Higgins himself handles is not all that different from past Adventure Island titles on the surface, though there are some important differences. No more one-hit deaths, for one. This time there’s a health meter represented by the usual heart icons and it can be extended by finding new heart pieces in treasure chests. The series staple hunger meter that acts as a stage timer has also been given the boot, so there’s no longer any need to dash around frantically gobbling up fruit just to keep from dropping dead in your tracks.

Just as radical is the addition of melee weapons, armor, and magic to the formula. Since Higgins is so much more durable in this outing, he can now afford to get closer to his enemies and that means that swords are likely to be your go-to offensive option much of the time. Projectile weapons like throwing axes and boomerangs are still available, but they tend to be weaker on a per-hit basis and that led me to mostly ignore them. The armor suits and shields are fairly self-explanatory in that they reduce damage and can block some enemy attacks, respectively. One thing to always keep in mind, however, is that a piece of gear can have elemental properties that make it more effective in certain situations, like a fire sword that deals more damage to ice enemies.

The magic system is pretty standard stuff. You can use spells to heal damage, attack enemies, warp out of dungeons, and so forth. Your magic gauge starts out small and is bolstered by finding upgrades in chests, just like your health. Every magic upgrade you find also adds a new spell to your repertoire, which is easy to overlook, since the game doesn’t announce this fact. It’s best to just check the spell menu manually each time to see what new power you’ve acquired.

While it’s obviously not very novel on paper, I really do like the way Super Adventure Island II’s gameplay panned out. Controlling Master Higgins feels fast and smooth due to the presence of a run button and the up and down sword thrust techniques from Zelda II. It’s a real breath of fresh air after the stiff, plodding movement that plagues Wonder Boy in Monster World. The level design is also well done, with plenty of goodies to discover, a good balance of platforming and combat challenges, and some very memorable boss fights. You can also save at any time via the pause menu, which is a rare convenience in an old console game.

Super Adventure Island II’s strongest asset has to be its humor. There’s not really a ton of dialogue or plot development, but everything we do get is a hoot. An NPC tells you a legend about a lost magical item only to add that he read about it in the Inquirer. Summoning a monster to smash open a gate blocking your path results in the game telling you that “The Ice Giant cometh and breaketh openeth the dooreth.” I love it. There’s also some cute banter between Higgins and Tina scattered throughout. I appreciated getting some characterization for the two of them. Especially Tina, who is usually nothing more than an abstract reward waiting for you after the final boss.

All this is not to say that the game is flawless. The overall presentation is a distinct step down from the first Super Adventure Island. Comparative speaking, character animation is less fluid and the backgrounds less detailed. The music is only average and pales next to Yuzo Koshiro’s infectious jams from the last game with two big exceptions: The themes for the ice island (Hiya-Hiya) and the final stage (Fuwa-Fuwa) are both worthy of inclusion in the epic SNES music hall of fame. They may even be too grand for the likes of an Adventure Island title!

The game world can also feel rather empty at times. There are no towns or other settlements to be found apart from the castle where you start out and a casino/shop that you reach around the midway point in your quest. As funny as the game’s dialogue can be, a lot more of it could have been included if there had been a larger cast of NPCs to draw on.

If the idea a lighthearted 16-bit successor to Zelda II sounds like a good time to you, you’ll almost certainly love Super Adventure Island II. It’s a thoroughly charming and satisfying way to spend six hours or so, even if it can’t boast any groundbreaking design elements or moments of envelope-pushing audiovisual wizardry. Just don’t show up expecting it to play anything like the previous entries in the series.

It took Hudson Soft the better part of a decade, but they finally let us force Master Higgins to put on a damn shirt for once. That’s what I call progress.

Super Adventure Island (Super Nintendo)

Oh, Higgins. You smug bastard.

The Adventure Island series is a very odd duck. It all began back in 1986 with the arcade platformer Wonder Boy. Developed by Escape (later known as Westone) and published by Sega, Wonder Boy starred a Tarzanesque lad named Tom-Tom who did battle with assorted jungle baddies on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Tina. Hudson Soft contracted with Escape to create a Wonder Boy port for the Nintendo Famicom that same year. Sega still retained the rights to the character names and likenesses, however, so it was decided to replace Tom-Tom with a new hero for Hudson’s Adventure Island.

Enter Takahashi Meijin (“Master Takahashi”), a rather portly gent rocking the unlikely ensemble of a grass skirt and baseball cap. Stranger still, Takahashi Meijin was modeled on a real person: Former Hudson Soft employee Toshiyuki Takahashi, famous in Japanese gaming circles for his ability to hammer controller buttons up to sixteen times per second. The cherry on top of this oddball sundae has to be the character’s name in the NES version: Master Higgins. Yup. A chubby, stone axe chucking caveman in a baseball cap named Master Higgins. I can’t help but love the guy, even if he looks like a redneck uncle’s idea of a funny racist Halloween costume.

The original Wonder Boy and its altered port Adventure Island were each the start of their own independent long-running series, with future Wonder Boy titles mostly being confined to Sega systems and the Adventure Island sequels being primarily Nintendo exclusives. This finally brings me to 1992’s Takahashi Meijin no Daibōken Jima (“Master Takahashi’s Great Adventure Island”), better known outside Japan as Super Adventure Island. This was the third game in its series and its first 16-bit entry.

This time, Master Higgins is stargazing in the treetops with his sweetie Tina one night when the evil magician Dark Cloak rides by on a broomstick and turns Tina to stone before flying off. Incensed, Higgins sets off to find the bad guy’s castle and set things right. This opening cut scene and the equally wordless ending screen are all the story we get here. Not that I mind in this instance. Brevity is a virtue if all you’re going to bring to the table is the standard kidnapped girl plot.

The action in Super Adventure Island will be second nature for series veterans, as it’s closely patterned on the first game’s. Master Higgins has to make his way through five worlds, each consisting of three platforming stages and a boss battle. Most stages involve running from right to left to reach the goal at the end, though a few mix this up by incorporating vertical sections to climb, water to swim through, ice to slide around on, and other gimmicks. In addition to his standard jump, Higgins also has a new super jump move activated by crouching before tapping the jump button. This allows him to reach greater heights and is useful at many points.

Attacking the enemy is accomplished using the two different weapons found in each stage. The stone axe is an Adventure Island staple and flies forward in a descending arc. New in this installment is the boomerang, which has a slower rate of fire than the axe, but can also be tossed above and below Higgins. Collecting multiple copies of the same weapon will increase the number of projectiles you can have on screen at once and will eventually upgrade your shots to a more powerful fireball version.

You’ll need to be cautious, since Higgin dies in one hit and losing a life removes all accumulated weapons and upgrades. The only extra defense available comes in the form of the classic skateboard power-up seen throughout the series. This allows Higgins to survive an extra hit, with the tradeoff being that he loses the ability to halt his forward movement as long as he remains on the board. Thankfully, the skateboards in this game don’t tend to appear in stages that have bottomless pits, so they’re much less of a double-edged sword than they are in other installments.

Of course, since this is an Adventure Island game, enemies and pits aren’t the full extent of your worries. You also have to feed Higgins’ face by constantly collecting fruit scattered about the stages. The hunger meter at the top of the screen acts as a timer and depletes very rapidly, so failure to secure a steady stream of pineapples and kiwis spells your ravenous hero’s doom, presumably due to some sort of catastrophic blood sugar crash. This is one of those archetypal love-it-or-hate-it game mechanics, but I think it works here. Since enemies don’t respawn when killed, the player needs some incentive to rush. Otherwise a slow, methodical approach would negate the challenge completely.

One noteworthy feature of the earlier games that wasn’t carried forward is Higgins’ ridable dinosaur pals. First introduced in Adventure Island II for the NES, these guys are the series’ take on Yoshi from Super Mario World. The many playable dinosaurs and their unique special abilities were a brilliant addition and would continue to appear in future sequels, so they’re sorely missed here. Strangely, there’s actually an illustration of Higgins riding one in the instruction manual, so perhaps it was part of the plan at some point? Oh, well.

With a grand total of fifteen stages, Super Adventure Island is a very short game. If the levels here were longer or more difficult than the series standard, there still might be a decent amount of gameplay on offer. Unfortunately, they aren’t. Each can be completed in around two minutes or so, and they’re all basic enough that they won’t put up too much of a fight for players with any amount of prior platforming experience. This is ultimately the game’s fundamental flaw. Even with a fragile hero and limited continues, most gamers will be able to cruise through Super Adventure Island in an afternoon. If I’d payed $50 in 1992 money to get this one new, I’d have been pretty disappointed.

Aside from being short, easy, and lacking the adorable dinosaur mounts, I have no real complaints about Super Adventure Island. While a slight step back for the series as a whole, it remains a quality platformer with loads of charm. The control is good, level design is solid, and the visuals and audio are delightful. Presumably reacting to the common criticism that the earlier games leaned too much on recycled scenery, every stage here has its own unique background graphics, and these are generally well drawn and colorful. The character animation is also excellent. Higgins himself might just have the best crouching animation ever. He looks like he’s either relieving himself or performing some sort of weird booty dance. Either way, I approve.

Super Adventure Island’s best feature by far is its musical score by the masterful Yuzo Koshiro. It’s mainly super mellow ’90s hop hop, reggae, and dub beats rendered as only the Super Nintendo sound chip can. The fanfare that plays when you defeat a boss even has record scratches included. Every track is pure bliss, and “Blue Blue Moon” rivals “Aquatic Ambience” from Donkey Kong Country for the best water level music of all time as far as I’m concerned.

If a breezy, low pressure platformer with simple mechanics and a great sense of style sounds good to you, you can’t go wrong with Super Adventure Island. If it’s challenge, depth, and replay value you’re looking for, look elsewhere. In any case, make sure you eat at least one pineapple every twenty seconds or so. Anything less would just be unhealthy.

Xexyz (NES)

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Well, that was Xexyz. Time to completion: About three hours. I must say, that was just the breezy change of pace I needed after sinking nearly forty into Battletoads!

I’d played this one a bit in the early ’90s, but I really only remembered two things: Your hero’s snazzy helmet and that the bosses tended to resemble giant robotic sea life, which alway made me wonder if there was any connection to the Darius series of games, which has the same odd enemy theme. Apparently, there isn’t. Thanks, Internet.

This one is an odd duck for sure. It somewhat resembles The Guardian Legend in structure, since gameplay is split between on-foot sections, where your character explores the game world and collects power-ups, and more straightforward spaceship shooting sections. The main difference is that Xexyz’s on-foot levels imitate a side-scrolling platform game like Mega Man rather than an overhead view adventure game like The Legend of Zelda and its shooter sections scroll horizontally rather than vertically.

The game is set on post-apocalyptic Earth in the year 2777 and the planet is now inhabited by an odd mix of human, robots, mutant animal people, and winged fairies. It’s…strange. Anyway, one day alien robots led by some dude named Goruza attack the land of Xexyz and kidnaps all its queens. There’s apparently like six of them. That’s gotta be some kind of record. You play as the techno-warrior dude Apollo and set out to save the world.

The game has a very odd structure: Platform level, platform/shooter hybrid level, boss, shooter level, boss. This cycle is repeated six times in total. In another Guardian Legend parallel, I find the shooter gameplay to be the much more engaging mode overall. Not that the platforming is bad as such. Rather, it’s mediocre, with an overall lack of challenge and some stiff controls holding it back a bit. The shooter sections aren’t perfect: Your hit box is perhaps too large, there’s no auto-fire for your weapons (always a pain in any shooter), and more weapon options than the five or six on offer would have been very welcome. Still, the shooting is where it’s at here.

Graphics and sound are serviceable but uneven. Some musical tracks and stage backgrounds are excellent, while others are just passable. The graphical highlight is definitely the boss sprites. They’re huge and extremely well-drawn.

Xexyz was originally published in Japan by Hudson Soft in 1988 and entitled Turtle’s Gratitude: Legend of Urashima. So while the undescriptive and difficult-to-pronounce international title Xexyz (“zex-iss”) is often blamed in part for the game’s obscurity, I guess I can’t blame them for wanting sometime a little shorter.

Despite the issues mentioned above, Xexyz is still worth a look. It doesn’t quite have the length, breadth, or polish of a Guardian Legend, but it’s a solid B-list title for the NES. If nothing else, the world and characters are just so damn weird and it’s probably my favorite game where you get to ride a flying lobster. Probably. Top three for sure.

Faxanadu (NES)

Whelp, saved the world. Time to strut off into the sunset like a boss, apparently.

I found Faxanadu to be great in some ways, but overall very uneven. You play as an unnamed Elf adventurer who returns to his home town at the base of the giant World Tree to discover that an ominous meteorite has poisoned the water and twisted the Elves’ neighbors, the Dwarves, into murderous mutants. Of course, only you can sort this mess out.

Right off, I have to say that this game looks and sounds fantastic. The art and music combine to give the game a very effective dark fantasy feel. Enemies look twisted and foul and the various areas inside the blighted World Tree appear run down and eerie. The mist level in particular looks fantastic, with lurid purple-grey fog obscuring everything while an off-kilter, disturbing tune plays. For an NES game, the atmosphere is sublime.

The gameplay could have used more fine-tuning, though. Enemy placement is problematic throughout, with some unavoidable hits when enemies literally spawn in on top of you as you switch screens as well as enemies that love to camp directly at the top or bottom of ladders that you need to navigate, resulting in more forced damage. There’s also the matter of the pendant that you’re tasked with locating in the Tower of Suffer dungeon. Despite what the NPCs and the manual say, this item appears to be bugged and noticeably decreases your offensive power instead of increasing it, and there’s no way to be rid of it once you pick it up! If I’d been playing with a walkthrough, I’d have known that I should have skipped it but as it was I had to go back and re-input an old password, losing quite a bit of progress. Do yourselves a favor and skip the Tower of Suffer completely.

These frustrations weren’t enough to ruin the game for me, although the pendant debacle came close. Faxanadu is still a very fun action RPG with awesome levels, enemies, and music. It’s very short and mostly linear, so don’t expect a lot of tricky puzzles, branching paths, or backtracking, just a good, weird time. Go climb a tree!