Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

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R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, its torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once-prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved-out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre-defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters that consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy that just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly-regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature that comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings that are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game that’s already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up again like before, repeating the same cycle over and over. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

Metal Storm (NES)

My thumbs hurt. Also, my soul. Oh, Irem.

There are numerous NES games from the console’s twilight years in the early 1990s that were poor sellers in their day, but have since attained an ironic sort of fame within the classic gaming community as “hidden gems.” Some of the most ambitious and lavishly-produced titles for the system debuted around this time only to flounder in the face of stiff competition from the flashy new 16-bit systems. Such a title is 1991’s Metal Storm, the cult classic sci-fi run-and-gun published by Irem and developed by their subsidiary Tamtex. Not even a 12-page cover story in Nintendo Power was enough to put Metal Storm over with the public when the fabled Super Nintendo was just around the corner.

While it’s heartening to see these long-neglected classics finally find the audiences they’ve always deserved, there’s a corresponding downside rooted in that most bastardly of sciences, economics. Simply put, games with small production runs that are known to be of high quality are destined to become prohibitively expensive sooner or later. Though a far cry cost-wise from Taito’s Little Samson (which madmen are currently paying close to $1100 for in loose cartridge form at the time of this writing), Metal Storm is still the single most expensive video game I own. I shelled-out $100 for my copy at a convention and, though I don’t really regret it per se, I also don’t see myself spending that much on any one game again in an era of affordable flash carts.

However you end up playing Metal Storm, you’re in for a unique experience on the system. Side-scrolling NES action games were a dime a dozen, so Irem wisely chose to give this one a twist to set it apart from the pack: Your character can control gravity at will! Far from being just a superficial or situational gimmick as it was in Shatterhand or Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage, every aspect of the level layout and enemy placement here is is painstakingly planned around the fact that you can swap between walking along the floor and the ceiling at a moment’s notice. As in Capcom’s Bionic Commando with its grapple arm platforming, it’s this total commitment to an innovative core mechanic that elevates the game above the majority of its peers and makes it well worth playing today.

Metal Storm places you in the cockpit of the M-308 Gunner, a rifle-toting humanoid robot that looks just about as close as it legally can to something out of Gundam or Macross. It’s the year 2501 and Pluto has been fitted with a humongous Death Star-like laser cannon intended to protect the solar system from invasion by hostile aliens. Predictably, the computer system controlling the laser has gone haywire. Neptune has already been vaporized and it’s only a matter of time before Earth gets the axe. With the laser’s self-destruct mechanism jammed, all of humanity is counting on you to fight your way past the Pluto base’s copious defenses and initiate the self-destruct sequence manually. Welcome to old-school gaming, soldier, where every princess needs rescuing and every computer is the HAL 9000.

While the story here may not be anything to write home about, the graphics sure are. You may not be inclined to think much of them at first based just on screenshots. The backgrounds can arguably be somewhat garish at times due to how many of them consist of abstract, vaguely mechanical patterns rendered with just a few bright colors in what I can only call a patchwork quilt style. I was occasionally unsure if I was supposed to be blasting my way across a space station or an oversized sofa from the 1970s. Once you actually see the game in motion, however, you’ll quickly realize that the draw here is the fluid character animation and liberal use of parallax scrolling. This latter technique (in which multiple layers of background graphics appear to scroll by at varying speeds in order to simulate depth) is not a default capability of the NES hardware. Regardless, Metal Storm utilizes a mapper expansion chip inside the cartridge working in tandem with memory bank switching techniques to showcase convincing parallax effects on virtually every stage. It really is eye-catching for anyone accustomed to the look of other games on the console.

Things aren’t quite so striking as that on the audio front, unfortunately. The soundtrack is middling at best, suffering from overly short music loops and a shortage of really standout songs, apart from perhaps the first level theme. Sound effects fare better, with some great explosions and an absolutely perfect “bwoop” when you execute a gravity flip. I couldn’t tell you why that action should bwoop specifically, but trust me, it should.

There are twelve total stages to tackle and a boss fight after every even-numbered one. Clear all that and you’re treated to a standard “boss rush” where you must defeat the previous six guardians again back-to-back before you can finally engage the self-destruct device and roll the credits. The stages themselves are actually all fairly short. This is balanced out by the fact that they leave you very little room for error. Similar to the player ships in most auto-scrolling shooters, your mech doesn’t have a health bar and will explode instantly upon contact with an enemy, projectile, or stage hazard. Additionally, you won’t be revived on the spot if this occurs like you would in other run-and-gun games like Contra. Instead, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. If you’ve ever played Irem’s Super Nintendo debut from later in 1991, Super R-Type, you know this rather strict system all too well.

If all this has you concerned that Metal Storm might be too punishing to be enjoyable, you needn’t worry. While it’s true that the stages require some memorization and tight execution, you’re given unlimited continues with which to practice them, as well as passwords after every boss fight. There’s also a very useful selection of power-ups available. The most common and important of these is the armor, which allows you to withstand one additional hit before exploding. Beyond that, there’s an energy shield that blocks bullets and damages any foes that touch it, a gun upgrade that makes your laser rifle shots more powerful and able to penetrate walls, and a “Gravity Fireball” that renders you invincible mid-gravity shift. You can only benefit from one of these last three abilities at any given time, however, so picking up a gun icon while you already have the shield active, for example, will cause your shield to vanish. Thankfully, the armor upgrade isn’t exclusive in this way. I suppose a greater variety of power-ups might have been nice, but I do have to give the designers credit for making each one we do get both functionally unique and powerful.

With these tools to level the playing field, experienced run-and-gun players should be able to clear Metal Storm in a handful of hours…on its normal setting. Do this and you’ll be given a special password and instructed to “Try a game for experts.” Hoo-boy. Lemme tell you, they had a real master of understatement on staff there at Tamtex. I was looking forward to a little more difficulty after the relatively forgiving main game. What I got was the Ninth Circle of NES Hell. The majority of life-saving power-ups have disappeared, the bosses have all-new dirty tricks, and the regular enemy placement is so outright fiendish that it evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and lack of checkpoints that were manageable before are now the very bane of your existence and level memorization graduates from useful to strictly mandatory on a second-to-second basis. If I wasn’t the sort of obstinate bastard that can’t let go of a self-imposed challenge, I’d have certainly quit in disgust around the midway point. Metal Storm on the expert setting is what people who’ve only heard of Ninja Gaiden imagine that game to be. It is doable, barely, but I didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to. Maybe you will.

Expert mode aside, I can unreservedly recommend this one to 8-bit action fans. The control is spot-on, the level design is inventive, and no two enemies test your maneuvering and shooting skills in quite the same way. Above all else, the gravity shift mechanic elegantly and unobtrusively informs every move you make. Mastering it over the course of the journey genuinely feels like fun rather than work. This, latter day game designers, is how you do a tutorial.

Oh, what a feeling when we’re blasting on the ceiling!

Holy Diver (Famicom)

“Holy Diver
Sole survivor
You’re the one who’s clean”

Wait, didn’t I already review Holy Diver? Well, kind of. I jotted down a few quick paragraphs to commemorate the occasion when I first completed it a year ago, but I’ve really wanted to go back and give it the more detailed treatment it deserves ever since I started collecting my game writing together in blog form this past July. What better time than now?

This is a very special game for me. See, it was around this time last year that it hit me: I had several hundred games filling my shelves that I hadn’t really played. Such a waste! What was even the point? Was I a real gamer or just a misguided hoarder of dead plastic? Enough! I made a resolution then and there to play through at least one game a week for the next year. But where to start? My mind immediately fixed itself on a little cartridge I picked up at the 2016 Portland Retro Gaming Expo a few months prior….

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some ’80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a Famicom released called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or perhaps a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

I’d also heard that the game was a tough one, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I was all fired-up to attack my game backlog head-on, so I popped Holy Diver into my console, hit that power button, and never looked back. True to its reputation, it wasn’t easy. Not at all. I spent one entire evening trying and failing to get past the utterly fiendish level four boss. I refused to give up, however, and my devotion to the cause of Holy Magic Justice eventually saw me through. In the year since, I’ve completed a total of 75 additional games, 60 of them for the first time ever. I’ve also written what collectively feels like a novel’s worth of reviews and reflections on each and every one. So much for a game a week! It’s been the single best gaming year of my life so far and it all started with Holy Diver.

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side-scrolling action-platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world. The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

This story is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing. And I love it. So much. An epic high fantasy saga starring Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, King Crimson, and Slayer? Yeah, sign me up for that and do it yesterday, please. Naturally, Irem was careful not to make direct use of the likenesses or songs of any real world musicians, but the game still manages to wear its influences on its sleeve with this backstory. When reviewing a Famicom exclusive release, I’ll often express some regret over the fact that players outside Japan never got to experience it back in the day. In Holy Diver’s case, though, I’m glad. There’s simply no chance that any of its ludicrous heavy metal name dropping and warped religious imagery would have survived the transition to the NES intact in 1989. It’s far better, I think, to experience this one as its creators intended. Luckily for us, the use of English for all the game’s text (apart from the rōmaji level titles) makes it extremely approachable for non-Japanese players.

You’ll often see the gameplay in Holy Diver likened to that of a Castlevania title. At a glance, it’s easy to see why. They’re both side scrollers with an overarching horror theme and Randy looks an awful lot like Simon Belmont with long hair and a cape. Superficials aside, it won’t take Castlevania veterans long to realize that Holy Diver is a whole other beast at heart. The classic Castlevanias were balanced around the characteristic short, fixed Belmont jump arc and the whip with its relatively slow attack speed and lengthy startup time. Randy’s jump is much higher and floatier, not to mention steerable in the air. He’s also much quicker on the draw with the fireballs he shoots as his primary attack, although they still only reach about a third of the way across the screen. The action as a whole is faster and more fluid, resembling Konami’s Getsu Fūma Den more than any other single game I can recall, albeit with more of a focus on ranged combat thanks to Randy’s arsenal of spells.

There are five of these spells in total and each one costs between two and twenty magic points per use. Magic is selected via a pause menu similar to Zelda II’s and you toggle between the currently equipped spell and Randy’s standard shot with the Select button, echoing the way you deploy your missiles in the original Metroid. Randy starts the game with Twin Fire, which doubles the power of his normal attack and extends its range to full screen. Defeating the bosses at the end of each of the first four stages will grant Randy a new power. Blizzard freezes streams of lava solid to allow for progress through some stages and also immobilizes weak enemies temporarily. Breaker fires a single piercing beam of magic that’s slow, but devastatingly powerful. Overdrive summons a pair of spinning orbs that will orbit Randy for a time and shield him from enemies and their projectiles. Finally, Thunder deals heavy damage to every enemy on the screen in exchange for a ton of magic points. All of these abilities are extremely useful and they remain so right up until the end of the game. In terms of design, this is no small feat. Just ask any Mega Man fan about all the pointless weapons they never get around to using.

Be sure to also keep your eyes peeled for important items in each of the six stages that can enhance Randy’s abilities even further. There are containers to extend maximum health and magic points, 1-Ups, a bracelet for breaking certain blocks, high jump boots, a vitally important staff that will cut the cost of most spells in half, and even a power-up that will briefly morph Randy into a flying, fire breathing dragon.

You’ll need all the help you can get, because the enemies in this game do not mess around. Almost without exception they’re tougher, faster, and less predictable than their counterparts in most other platformers. Take the flying skulls that are Holy Diver’s equivalent of the medusa heads from Castlevania. They’re not only swifter and more numerous, they’ll actually reverse direction after they pass by Randy and make a beeline straight for his back. Then there are the bouncing critters that fire a constant stream of damaging projectiles across the screen at semi-random altitudes, require a dozen hits to destroy, and will retreat as Randy advances in order to stay just outside of his standard fireball range. Or the golems in the later stages, common enemies almost as tough as bosses that are better avoided altogether if at all possible. Proficiency at Holy Diver is mainly a matter of figuring out all the ways each enemy can wreck you and which spells are best at wrecking them first. That, and not running out of magic points. At least continues are unlimited!

As relentless as it is, I really do love the sense of character progression that’s built into the game. The early stages can be tough going, since Randy’s health and magical abilities are at their weakest. Around the second half of stage four, the balance starts to tip a bit more in his favor and it continues to do so right up to the very end. By the time Randy reaches the sixth and final stage, he not only has his full complement of spells, but effectively about four times the health and eight times the magic points he started with. You go from feeling like a harried underdog to a battle-hardened wizard king that can go toe-to-toe with the very worst of the demon horde. It’s an interesting approach that seeks to combine the permanent character growth of an open-ended game like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda with the strictly linear level structure of a Contra or Ninja Gaiden and it works well here. In addition to making the player feel like a badass, it also allows the designers to go wild in the later levels and subject Randy to a torrent of the toughest foes the game has to offer while still keeping the nature of the challenge fair.

The visuals and audio in Holy Diver are both a real treat. Where Castlevania was a horror platformer with a style inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, Holy Diver stays true to its heavy metal roots by doubling down on the demonic. The first stage is a sinister cathedral dominated by a large cross with a skull and serpent mounted on it. Stage two’s name translates as “Hell of Entrails” and it certainly looks the part, with the fetuses encased in the walls being a particularly gross touch. There’s also a crucifixion scene later and even a pentagram on the menu screen. The level of detail on the sprites and backgrounds is excellent by 1989 standards, resulting in a very strong and cohesive dark fantasy atmosphere. The score is as heavy and driving as you would expect, though the enjoyment is hampered a bit by the fact that several of the stages share background tracks. What we get sounds good, but a unique song for each stage would have been nice. You’ll likely be spending a good amount of time on each one, after all. The sound effects used for Randy’s spells are also worth singling out for praise. Each magic has a distinct and full-bodied sound that lends it a real sense of power.

It should be obvious by now that Holy Diver is an extremely well-designed and presented action-platformer worthy of its pedigree. In fact, it’s one of my personal favorite Famicom games. If it has any real flaw apart from its limited soundtrack, it’s a highly subjective one: The level of difficulty is high from start to finish and not every player will want to invest the time needed to overcome it. It’s not the most fearsome game out there by any means. Both Battletoads and Blaster Master took me more time to learn. I still had to put in multiple lengthy practice sessions before I was able to fight my way all the way to the Black Slayer, though. I’d say that if you’re determined, patient, and have a good amount of action-platforming experience under your belt already, Holy Diver is a tiger you need to ride. If not, it may just leave you feeling like you’ve gotta get away.

Holy Diver has earned itself a permanent spot in my gaming rotation. As an unapologetic love letter to all things classic metal and one hell of an 8-bit thrill ride, it inspired me to get off my ass (metaphorically speaking) and make with the playing and writing about games already. Since then, I’ve blown my New Year’s resolution out of the water and I’m just getting started. Thanks, Irem.

Now bring on year two of that backlog!