Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying!

Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit is a game fraught with contradiction. It pairs a cutsey art style with one of most grim, depressing plots of its era. It’s a highly creative, even innovative release from a “me, too” publisher. It’s an expensive title for the Game Boy, a system renowned for being dirt cheap to collect for. Finally, and to its greatest detriment, it’s widely ignored despite being one of the most interesting and varied action-platformers available for Nintendo’s old gray brick.

Avenging Spirit began its (un)life as a 1991 release for Japanese arcades under the title Phantasm. This name was changed for the international versions, most likely in order to prevent confusion with director Don Coscarelli’s horror film series of the same name. It was the creation of CP.BRAiN, an obscure and long-extinct development studio founded by former Aicom designer Tokuhiro Takemori (The Legendary Axe, Astyanax). Strangely, this 1992 Game Boy conversion is the only home port it would ever receive, despite the arcade cabinet’s colorful visuals being much better-suited for the 16-bit systems of the time. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the game’s length (just six short stages) as the reason Jaleco went the handheld route instead of pitting Avenging Spirit against the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic 2. This is pure conjecture, however.

The adventure kicks off with a very well-rendered cut scene of a happy young couple strolling arm-in-arm. Their bliss doesn’t last long, as they’re quickly confronted by a pair of pistol-packing gangsters. The girl is abducted by the thugs and her boyfriend is shot dead on the spot when he tries to intervene. Yikes! I’m scratching my head here trying to think of another Game Boy title that goes from zero to cold blooded murder in about thirty seconds flat and coming up short. Jaleco certainly showed some nerve with this one. It turns out that we haven’t heard the last from this unnamed boy character. The game’s pervasive tonal whiplash kicks it right away as he regains consciousness in a laboratory only to discover that he’s taken on the form of a classic Halloween sheet ghost, doofy grin and all. As it happens, the girl’s father is a scientist specializing in “ghost energy” and the crooks that kidnapped his daughter are looking to extort him for his research. Rather than letting such dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands, the scientist has summoned the boy’s spirit in order to convince him to embark on a rescue/revenge mission. In order to do that, though, the harmless little ghost boy is going to need a new body. Or ten.

Yes, Avenging Spirit is the original game about creepily possessing the bodies of your enemies and using them as sacrificial pawns to further your own violent agenda. Eat your heart out, Super Mario! On his own, the ghost is limited to drifting around the stage slowly and he can’t even do that for very long. He has a spirit energy meter that depletes rapidly any time he’s not possessing a host. Run out of energy and it’s game over. Fortunately, you’re provided unlimited continues to work with, so exploring the levels and trying out different approaches is never penalized too harshly.

Every non-boss enemy in the game is playable and no two are exactly alike. Each has a unique way of attacking and a different distribution of standard variables like maximum health, walk speed, and jump height. An odd few even have miscellaneous special abilities like flight or invisibility. Most of the fun here comes from “test driving” as many different enemy characters as possible and discovering which ones best suit your play style. Of course, there will also be those times when you lack the energy reserves to be choosy and are forced to latch onto the closest available victim.

The design of all these foes is where the developers’ strange sense of humor was apparently given free reign. Beyond the typical gun-wielding mafioso types you’d expect, you also square off against ninja, robots, dragons, wizards, vampires (in boxer shorts!), and baseball players. Say what you will about these criminals, but they’ve got the workplace diversity thing down pat. Every level throws new enemy types into the mix, insuring that the core gameplay is never permitted to stagnate. While some hosts are very clearly stronger options than others, I’m not inclined to take this a flaw. Instead, I think it’s best viewed as an on-the-fly difficulty select for players. Playing through a given stage as a fast, durable, rocket-shooting robot certainly makes for a much easier time than controlling a standard flunkie, but a skilled player familiar with the ins and outs of that stage may still opt for the latter in the interest of maintaining challenge.

If the gameplay can be said to have a major weakness, it would be that the movement of the on-screen characters is a bit on the slow and floaty side. This is sadly a common issue shared by many Game Boy platformers and seems to be largely intentional. The LCD screens on most Game Boy models are famously prone to distracting motion blur whenever fast-moving objects are displayed. Smart game designers would typically compensate by slowing the action down a touch when compared to a similar game for a home console. At least it doesn’t come off any worse than usual here and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment much if you’re already accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Game Boy titles in general.

Other than that, Avenging Spirit is everything you could want in a portable 8-bit platformer. It looks great, sounds great, and packs an uncommon degree of depth and replay value courtesy of its huge roster of playable characters. It’s also one of the earliest examples I can cite of the “enemy ability hijacking” mechanic. Its most obvious forerunner is Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master from 1990, although the far gentler Nemo relied on befriending cute animals with candy rather than spectral body snatching. It would be another two years before HAL Laboratory took the disturbing implications to a whole new level in Kirby’s Adventure. Eating your enemies alive to gain their powers? Now that’s brutal.

Personally, what fascinates me about this one is its chaotic mish-mash of tones. I was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect with the Kirby thing just now, but I was not at all kidding when I noted that Avenging Spirit’s storyline is resolutely bleak. The main character is effectively sent on a post-homicide suicide mission and there is no happily ever after for him. Whether he succeeds or fails, it’s made quite clear that his spirit is fated to fade away in a relatively short time. The best he can hope for is to save his girlfriend before that comes to pass and even this outcome is not a given. If you fail to find all three of the keys hidden in out-of-the-way rooms over the course of the game, you’ll be unable to open the door where the girlfriend character is imprisoned at the end and she’ll be killed when the enemy base explodes! There are therefore two possible endings, both of which are legitimate tearjerkers in their own ways. Outside of the cut scenes, though? 100% chibi style cartoon mayhem where vampires in their underwear battle killer baseball players. The game’s creators have essentially mashed up the script for The Crow with the visual design of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and I’m in awe of the result. The surreal dissonance of it all amounts to one of those truly singular gaming experiences for me. It lingers in the mind long after you’ve powered off your console.

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.

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Operation Logic Bomb (Super Nintendo)

What, no big explosion? I feel so…empty somehow.

Today, I’m looking at inveterate also-ran Jaleco’s obscure overhead run-and-gun Operation Logic Bomb: The Ultimate Search & Destroy. While the name may be unfamiliar to most, this 1993 release (known as Ikari no Yōsai, “Fortress of Fury,” in Japan) is actually the third in a trilogy that started out on the Game Boy back in 1991. The first Ikari no Yōsai even saw a Western release under the new title Fortified Zone. Why they didn’t simply call this one “Super Fortified Zone” or the like is beyond me, as its revamped moniker not only fails at drawing the attention of any Game Boy owners that may have enjoyed the original, it’s also generally clunky and fosters the false assumption that this is some sort of puzzle game thanks to its misguided emphasis on “logic.” No bueno, Jaleco.

Of course, this would be no great loss if Operation Logic Bomb wasn’t a game worth playing. Players step into the boots of cyborg super soldier Agent Logan, who looks like the Terminator by way of Dolph Lundgren. His mission: To blast his way into a top secret research facility that’s been overrun by alien crabs and send the pinchy interlopers packing. It turns out the scientists there were performing some sort of experiment involving other dimensions and things got out of hand. If only they’d seen a horror movie before, they might have known the First Law of Dimensional Physics: Monsters gonna eatcha. Silly scientists. The story is mostly conveyed via dialog-free security camera recordings accessed from computer terminals scattered about the lab, which is an effective and immersive choice on the designers’ part. It’s quite cool to watch the doom that befell the complex’s inhabitants play out this way. You can actually get some important clues on how to handle one of the game’s bosses by reviewing footage of the lab security guards getting wrecked by it. Nice touch.

The action plays out in a perspective similar to the overhead-view stages from the previous year’s Konami blockbuster Contra III. Several of the weapons Agent Logan wields, like the spread gun and flamethrower, are also very Contra-esque. Ditto the music and sound effects, even!

This is where the similarities end, however, and where Operation Logic Bomb’s own personality begins to assert itself. This is a much more deliberately-paced, tactical experience, in keeping with the “search and destroy” promised by its subtitle. Instead of a frantic sprint from left to right, levels are large and sprawling, with branching paths that you’ll need to carefully explore in order to locate the new weapons and equipment needed to reach each level’s boss. Thankfully, you’ll be able to download in-game maps along the way that make navigation a cinch.

Naturally, you’re not alone in this maze of corridors. Your crustacean challengers have constructed a series of devices that are slowly transforming the base and its environs into an extension of their home dimension (as indicated by weird glowing geometric designs on the walls and floors) and filled these corrupted areas with their robot minions. The general flow of each new area you come to is something like this: Inch your way through the halls destroying any enemies as they appear (they won’t respawn) and looking out for new items until you reach the dimension warping device and destroy it, which purges the area of alien influence and allows you to move forward. There’s also the occasional roadblock that I hesitate to call a “puzzle.” These usually take the form of an out-of-reach door lock that you need a specific gun to destroy.

Combat is particularly interesting in that it’s mostly a war of attrition. Individual enemies aren’t very dangerous and Agent Logan can withstand a ton of hits, but the special computer terminals that restore health are few and far-between. In addition, you only have a grand total of three extra lives to work with. Die a fourth time and you’ll start the game over from the beginning. Although it sounds daunting, it’s really quite doable. I found that the ideal method is to creep forward slowly until an enemy scrolls on screen, then retreat while shooting/dodging until it’s destroyed. You can hold down the shoulder buttons to lock your aim and strafe, so it’s relatively easy to fire while retreating. As long as you go slow and keep your distance, you can usually avoid taking too much damage on the way to the stage boss.

As for the bosses themselves, each is a massive and appropriately intimidating robotic juggernaut with its own unique (if fairly basic) attack pattern. They’re not too difficult to take down with the correct gun after a little observation, provided you’re not already near death at the start of the fight. Oddly enough, the second boss is the trickiest of the lot by far and both the deaths I experienced during my playthrough came courtesy of it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this title. For coming out when it did, smack dab in the middle of that awkward period where Jaleco was struggling desperately to hitch itself to the Capcom cash train with painfully mediocre copies of hits like Final Fight (Rival Turf!) and Street Fighter II (Tuff E Nuff), it’s a great deal more interesting and enjoyable than its Contra clone exterior lets on. The focus on approaching enemies cautiously and trying not to take too many hits in the process recalls the tense on-foot portions of Blaster Master. I’m even vaguely reminded of Quintet’s Soul Blazer and Illusion of Gaia with the way defeating all the enemies in one section of a stage opens the path to the next, though that’s admittedly more of a stretch on my part.

As fun as it is, there are a few things that hold it back from true greatness. The graphics and sound are both decidedly average, apart from some excellent mechanical design on the bosses. There also isn’t much variety in the regular enemy types, with the same half-dozen or so baddies cropping up again and again between the first stage and the last. The biggest problem by far, though, is the shockingly short length of the adventure. My first playthrough took me about 90 minutes, including all the fumbling around and backtracking. If I’d already known what to do and where to go, I could have easily wrapped up in under an hour. For a fast-paced roller coaster of a run-and-gun like Contra III, an hour is plenty. For a title that’s paced more like Super Metroid, an hour is nothing. I suspect that the development team had a grander vision at one point that was sharply curtailed by a budget or time crunch. There are only three bosses in the entire game, for example, and the third one hardly feels like final boss material. You also don’t get your hands on several very nifty items (the land mine and hologram decoy) until the very end of the game, leaving you with little time to make satisfying use of them. These things and more all point to a project that wasn’t nurtured to its full potential.

Still, given a choice between quantity and quality, I’m always going to lean toward the latter. As long as you’re willing to let its absurd brevity slide, Operation Logic Bomb remains a well-designed and unjustly forgotten action title that plays like nothing else on the Super Nintendo. It also functions as a worthy finale to the Ikari no Yōsai trilogy.

Now, pass me the drawn butter, would you?

Astyanax (NES)

Ack! Creepy sun face! Kill it!

Astyanax (“The name is from Greek mythology, I think,” the opening cut scene helpfully informs us) is a 16 year-old freshman at Greenview High. He’s been having recurring dreams lately about a girl with purple hair trapped inside a bubble and calling out his name. Then he’s magically transported to the fantastic world of Remlia while walking home from school one day by a fairy named Cutie, who hands him a magic axe and tells him that he can only return to his own world if he can rescue Princess Rosebud (the bubble girl) from the evil wizard Blackhorn and his skeleton lackey Thorndog. So, typical teenager problems, basically.

Good thing they chose the most freakishly ripped freshman imaginable for the job! Astyanax looks like He-Man’s big brother. At this rate, I fully expect his muscle mass to collapse into itself and form a black hole by senior year. Someone take away this kid’s protein power before he dooms us all.

That’s your introduction to Astyanax (or “The Lord of King” if you’re Japanese), Aicom’s 1990 reimagining of their arcade release from the year prior. The arcade Astyanax starred a more traditional fantasy hero named Roche, so the whole dimension-hopping high schooler angle with Cutie and the gang is all new for this iteration. Lucky us. No matter what version of the game you pick up, it’s clear that Astyanax is a spiritual sequel of sorts to The Legendary Axe, yet another Aicom-developed action title starring a buff warrior dude that debuted on the PC Engine in 1988 and the following year on the TurboGrafx-16.

Like its predecessors, Astyanax on the NES is a basic hack-and-slash exercise at heart. There are eleven stages full of monsters for our hero to cut his way through, each of which has at a boss or two waiting at the end. There are no branching paths to explore (apart from one simple maze section in the tenth stage) and no secrets to find. Just kill, kill, and kill some more.

Thankfully, the designers put some real thought into Astyanax’s combat mechanics, and this keeps the non-stop action from growing stale. Use of your main weapon (which comes with its own silly name: Bash!) is governed by a power meter along the bottom of the screen. When it’s full, you’ll deal out maximum damage with your next strike. Every attack you perform empties the power meter, however, and if you attack again before it refills completely (which takes several seconds), the amount of damage you’ll deal is correspondingly less than the maximum amount possible.

This weapon charging mechanic, a direct holdover from Legendary Axe, is the most interesting component of the gameplay here by far. Getting good at Astyanax is largely a matter of learning which enemies are susceptible to a flurry of fast, weak attacks and which are better handled by biding your time and playing defensively while you build up strength to deliver more powerful blows. It’s a classic risk/reward dynamic very similar to the one present in the last game I played, Power Blade (though the power meter determined the range of the hero’s attack in that game, not the damage).

The other strategic element in play is magic use. There are a total of three spells to choose between on the pause menu, each of which costs you a number of magic points from your limited pool of twenty every time it’s used. You have Bind (which freezes all enemies in place for a limited time), Blast (which deals heavy damage to foes), and Bolt (which deals even more damage than Blast in exchange for more MP). The exact amount of MP needed to use a given spell varies depending on the current strength of your weapon. Astyanax can upgrade Bash up to two times by collecting power-ups, and the stronger it becomes, the more MP your spells cost. Bolt, for example, only costs five MP per use when you have the weakest version of Bash equipped, but all twenty if you’ve upgraded to the most powerful version. It’s another series of carefully calculated tradeoffs and I approve. I also couldn’t help but notice that Astyanax’s magic system clearly formed the basis for the more elaborate one in Aicom’s Totally Rad, released nine months later. Yeah, I play way too many games.

I really do appreciate the way the combat flows in Astyanax. There are always meaningful moment-to-moment decisions to be made. Should I jam on the attack button as fast as I can or conserve my strength? Should I use magic to get past a mob of standard enemies or save it up for use against the stage boss? Should I upgrade my weapon knowing that it will reduce the amount of magic power available to me? These are the sorts of dilemmas that elevate great action games above the pack.

I also must say that the graphics here are amazing when you consider the limits of the NES hardware. I can remember seeing screenshots of Astyanax in magazines as a kid and actually wondering if they were from one of those new 16-bit games I’d been hearing about. Characters are massive and the backgrounds are both richly-detailed and varied. The music is decent fantasy action fare, even if the soundtrack as a whole peaks rather early with its stirring stage one theme.

All is not rosy in the regal realm of Remlia, regrettably. Those gorgeous graphics I just mentioned come at a price. At around twice the size of a typical NES avatar, Astyanax moves sluggishly and his huge sprite makes him an equally huge target. The action in general can often feel a bit claustrophobic simply due to your hero and his opponents taking up so much of the on-screen real estate.

Certain aspects of the level design are another sticking point for me. Though mostly a side-scroller, Astyanax also features a handful of much less compelling vertical stages. The problem with these is two-fold. First, the greatest threat to your progress over the majority of the game, bottomless pits, are entirely absent. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but since the pits aren’t replaced with new hazards, there’s just not much for the player to get concerned over in these sections and the challenge takes a nosedive. In addition, enemies will sometimes spawn in right on top of you as you ascend or descend, an issue that’s not present when they enter the screen from the sides in the horizontal levels. This can result in the occasional bit of cheap damage. Simply put, these stages are boring when they’re not annoying and I’m glad there’s not too many of them.

On balance, I can absolutely recommend Astyanax, especially to anyone who’s already played and enjoyed Legendary Axe. The combat is engaging, the fancy graphics still hold up, and the loopy Saturday morning cartoon plot packed into the cut scenes is corny in the best possible way. It’s short and the unlimited continues make it relatively easy, but it’s also one of the cheapest NES games worth playing and shouldn’t set you back more than $10 at the very most. That’s still one hell of a bargain, even with a handful of dud levels and the occasional awkwardness of Astyanax’s oversized sprite to contend with.

Tell my boy Thorndog I said hi.

Totally Rad (NES)

 

Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.

Meet Jake. He’s a most excellent early ’90s California skater dude with a righteous babe of a girlfriend named Allison. Like most teenagers back then, he spends his spare time hanging out at the circus learning sorcery from a freaky-looking leprechaun man named Zebediah. Good thing, too, because he’ll need all his gnarly magic skills if wants to rescue Allison and her dad from the evil warlord Edogy and his army of subterranean monster people. Just another day in Nintendo Land.

Welcome to Totally Rad! This 1990 action-platformer was brought to us by Aicom and Jaleco. I really enjoyed the last Aicom NES game I played through, Vice: Project Doom, so I was pretty excited to give this one a go.

The game published internationally as Totally Rad started out as Magic John in Japan. The two releases are virtually identical except for one thing: The mass quantities of bodacious period ‘tude packed into Totally Rad’s every in-game cut scene and square inch of instruction manual text. Doe-eyed anime hero John became Keanu Reeves clone Jake and John’s girlfriend Yuu got a full Valley Girl makeover to become Allison. Only the magician Zebediah’s appearance was left untouched, resulting a very odd (and slightly creepy) clash of art styles. Many commenters have come down pretty hard on the game over the years due to what they perceive as the desperate unhipness of it all. I’m not entirely convinced that this is warranted. Just look at this excerpt from the introduction booklet:

“Edogy decides that he wants to kidnap Allison’s dad, a professor and the smartest guy on the West Coast – except that Allison’s dad lives near the Hollywood Freeway, takes the Hollywood Freeway to work, works near the Hollywood Freeway, and basically hardly ever leaves the Hollywood Freeway and, as it happens, Edogy has this major public transportation advocacy thing and there’s no way he’ll get anywhere near the Hollywood Freeway. So he kidnaps Allison instead, figuring that Allison’s dad will be lured away from the Hollywood Freeway long enough to save his daughter. Turns out he was right.”

There’s four whole pages of this. Four! Someone at Jaleco was clearly taking the piss in a big way when they localized this one. Once you realize that all the cowabunga corniness on display here was likely a deliberate skewering of pop culture trends of the time as opposed to a misguided and patronizing attempt to appeal to “the kids,” it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable in my opinion.

Firing Totally Rad up, you’ll notice right away that it’s an extremely colorful, borderline garish game. Hot pink and lime green are everywhere, and the later levels verge on psychedelia with their pulsing rainbow hues. These acres and acres of bright primary color make for quite the change of pace if you’re coming from more muted NES offerings like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. I don’t even think the Super Mario Bros. games on the system take it this far. I can see this game’s art style being a bit “love it or hate it,” but I’m leaning toward the love camp. The sprites and animations are high quality, befitting a late release on the system. The backgrounds are appealing, as well, with some good use of parallax scrolling here and there. The true graphical highlights, though, are the humongous boss monsters you’ll encounter at the end of every other stage. Not only are they well-drawn and animated, the designs themselves are strikingly outrageous and grotesque. Level two builds to a confrontation with what appears to be a thirty foot tall humanoid corn cob sporting a pink mohawk, tight leather pants, and platform heels. Yowza.

The audio is decent, if not quite on the same level as the flashy visuals. The score by Kazuo Sawa (River City Ransom, The Battle of Olympus) is not exactly Wyld Stallyns worthy. It’s not awful and sets the tone well enough, I suppose. I just don’t find the majority of it to be particularly catchy or memorable. At least the song that plays over the opening cut scene sounds suspiciously like the famous saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” That always gives me a chuckle.

On to the gameplay. As Jake, you run and jump from left to right through a total of ten side-scrolling stages. Your primary attack is a rapid fire magic blast from Jake’s hand. Holding down the attack button for a few seconds instead of tapping it will charge up your shot to deal some extra damage. Every stage has a boss of some kind at the end, with every even-numbered one culminating in a conflict with an especially massive screen-filling baddie.

It seems pretty bare bones until you pause the game. Doing so brings up a menu containing a dozen different magical abilities that you can activate at any time. Each one costs a variable number of magic points from the gauge located at the top of the screen, next to Jake’s health bar. There are healing spells, elemental attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, a time stopper, a shield for temporary invincibility, and, most interestingly of all, spells that will transform Jake into three different animal forms. These alternate forms allow the player to tackle the stages in several different ways. The eagle can fly by tapping the jump button, the lion can jump 50% higher and is immune to all damage while jumping, and the fish allows for swimming in the game’s requisite water level. The only downside to the animal transformations is that Jake can’t cast any other magic (such as healing) until he returns to human form. You can change him back to normal for free at any time, but reassuming animal form will then require a fresh expenditure of magic.

You’ll need to manage your magic intelligently if you want to do well, since there are no power-ups of any kind in the stages themselves. The only way to restore lost health is with magic and the only way to refill your magic is to either die or complete the current stage. Jake can usually manage five or six castings before running dry, so choose wisely.

It’s an interesting take on a power-up system, that’s for sure. The closest comparison would probably be Mega Man, if you started the game with all the robot master powers and they all shared a single power meter. Every stage hazard and boss fight can be made much easier with the application of the correct magic, but limited castings force the player to prioritize each threat in order to determine which ones are spell-worthy and which are better handled the old-fashioned way with Jake’s basic run-and-gun abilities.

On the downside, there are some glaring balance issues with the magic that become apparent as you play. The lion form damn near breaks the whole game with its combination of high damage output and invincibility on demand and the eagle also has the potential to trivialize many of the stages with its flight capability. Despite these hiccups, Totally Rad’s magic system succeeds in adding enough depth and replay value to elevate it above the bog standard NES action title. It earns a recommendation, even if you don’t get as big a kick out of the absurd plot and dialog as I do. The fact that cartridge copies are still dirt cheap at the time of this writing is also a plus.

Copacetic.

Shatterhand (NES)

I came; I saw; I shattered.

Now that the (thoroughly disappointing) Adventures of Bayou Billy have come to an end, it’s time for me to treat myself a little. I’ve earned it. Luckily, I have something special I’ve been saving for just such an occasion.

I have fond memories of Natsume’s 1991 action platformer Shatterhand. I was one of the relatively few who played it back around the time of its release and it impressed me enough back then that I just had to grab a copy when I spotted it at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo last month.

Shatterhand started out as Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein (“Super Rescue Solbrain”) in Japan. This was a licensed game based on an action tv series of the same name that centered on masked sci-fi superheroes fighting crime. Power Rangers type stuff, basically. Since the game came out several years before Power Rangers mania swept the West, however, there was no way that publisher Jaleco was going to stick with the Solbrain characters for the international release.

Instead, Shatterhand is the story of Steve Hermann. A decorated cop from the Bronx in the not-so-distant future of 2030, Steve loses both his hands in a violent clash with cyborg terrorists working for the nefarious organization Metal Command. While recuperating in the hospital, Steve is approached by a representative of the top secret government agency L.O.R.D. (Law and Order Regulatory Division) and offered a brand new pair of cybernetic hands, the strongest in the world, in exchange for his help taking down Metal Command and its leader, General Gus Grover. Steve naturally agrees and is given the codename Shatterhand to protect his identity as he sets off to save the world with his bare hands.

Wow. That whole spiel is so early ’90s direct-to-video action movie that I can practically see the weathered VHS cover in my mind’s eye. Steve even sports a lime green vest and some sweet wraparound shades in-game. The whole package is like a little pop culture time capsule and I absolutely love that sort of thing.

As for the game itself: You punch all the things and all the things explode.

You want more? Oh, fine. There are a total of seven stages in Shatterhand. The first is a basic introductory level where you’re encouraged to experiment with the controls and get accustomed to the general feel of the game. After that, you’re taken to a level select screen where you can play through the next five stages in any order you like before the final confrontation with General Grover in stage seven.

Steve has all the standard NES action game moves. He can run, jump, crouch, and deal out rapid fire punches both on the ground and while airborne. The way the punching is handled is quite slick, actually. Tapping the attack button will produce three quick jabs, perfect for dispatching weak enemies, before Steve will automatically switch over to throwing haymakers that are a bit slower, but deal twice the damage and are better suited to taking down anything still standing after the initial jab flurry. It’s a great way to elegantly map both attacks to a single button without the need for directional inputs or the like. Oh, and you can punch enemy bullets and missiles right out of the air harmlessly if your timing is good enough. Rad.

In addition, Steve has the ability to cling to the chain link fences that appear in the backgrounds of most levels and use them to boost himself up to higher platforms or as perches from which to attack hard-to-reach enemies. Get used to taking advantage of this because it’s Shatterhand’s take on the “special movement ability” that most every platformer has, similar to the Ninja Gaiden wall grab or the DuckTales pogo jump, and you’ll be expected to scale fences under increasingly precarious conditions as the game progresses.

As it is, this setup doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t sound particularly amazing, either. Until you consider the satellite robot system, that is. Scattered throughout each level are icons with Greek alpha and beta letters on them. Collecting three of these will summon a flying robot companion that will fight at Steve’s side by mirroring each of his attacks with one of its own. These guys can be damaged by enemy attacks and eventually destroyed, but they can potentially stick around for quite a while if you manage their movements and attacks skillfully. Each of the eight possible letter combinations will result in a different robot. For example, the alpha/alpha/beta bot fires a poweful laser beam while the beta/beta/alpha one has a built-in flamethrower. Other helpers bring swords, boomerangs, grenades, and more to the party. What’s more, collecting the same combination of letters again while your first bot is still active will cause Steve and his satellite helper to merge temporarily, granting Steve invincibility and superpowered fireball punch attacks until a timer runs out. If you can manage to transform right before you reach a stage’s boss, you can usually wreck your hapless opponent in seconds flat.

This power-up system is really what secures Shatterhand’s place as a top ten NES action game for me. The variety it presents to the player is deep without ever becoming overwhelming. You can stick to a single favorite companion for the whole game, try to determine which of the eight is best-suited for each of the stage layouts, or even opt for a hardcore no bot run with just your fists. The choice is yours.

Shatterhand has a pitch-perfect “Goldilocks” level of difficulty coupled with a managable length. This combination lends the game a superb sense of flow that drives the player forward at all times. Steve can withstand eight hits before losing a life, which is enough to encourage a bit of risk taking without allowing the player to slack off completely and cruise along on auto-pilot. Each level features its own unique environments and hazards and is just long enough to provide a decent challenge without wearing out its welcome. Losing all your lives will send you back to the start of a level, but continues are unlimited.

I really can’t heap enough praise on this one. It has the crisp, detailed graphics and advanced sound design you’d expect from a late period release, solid level design, pinpoint accurate controls, a brillant power-up system, and a way cool (if also way dated) premise and hero. If Shatterhand has one major flaw, it’s that you’ll likely find yourself wishing there was a lot more of it to appreciate. It didn’t garner the attention it deserved at the time of its release due to most Nintendo fans being hypnotized by their shiny new Super Mario Worlds and F-Zeros, but its appearances on countless “NES hidden gem” lists in the years since have at least given it a new lease on life here in the far-flung, killer cyborg ravaged 21st century.

Whomp ‘Em (NES)

This would probably be pretty offensive if the game actually had a plot.

This oddity is 1991’s Whomp ‘Em by Jaleco and it has to be a serious contender for the “stupidest NES game title ever” award. Originally released for the Famicom the previous year as Saiyūki World 2: Tenjōkai no Majin (“Genie of the Heavenly World”), it was yet another game based on the classic Chinese historical fantasy novel Journey to the West. Saiyūki World 2 starred Sun Wukong the Monkey King, a mischievous trickster hero from Chinese myth and a prominent character in the novel. He’s best-known outside of East Asia as the inspiration for the character Goku in the Dragonball manga and anime, but this wasn’t the case at all back in 1991, so Jaleco opted to modify the game for international release. They swapped out Sun Wukong for Soaring Eagle, a (non-specifically) Native American lad on a quest to gather magic totems from the game’s various bosses. Because magic totems are cool, I guess. Like I said, there’s really nothing resembling a story to be found in Whomp ‘Em. What you see is what you get. The publisher also didn’t see fit to alter anything other than the main character’s sprite and the title and ending screens, so your totally American for reals hero still has to battle panda bears in a bamboo forest and scrap with what’s obviously a demon cast from the Buddhist mold in the game’s final stage. Nice.

Lazy localization aside, Whomp ‘Em is a solid NES action platformer that takes structural cues from the Mega Man series and combines them with play control reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. After a short introductory level, the player can then choose to complete the next six stages (which are based on common platforming themes like fire, water, ice, and forest) in any order they like before moving on to the final one. Defeating the bosses in each of these six main levels will net Soaring Eagle a totem that confers a new special ability or attack. Unlike in Mega Man, these powers don’t eat up ammunition and can be used at will without restriction once acquired. It’s too bad that most of them are pretty underwhelming and don’t offer much of an offensive advantage over your standard spear weapon. With the exception of the throwing spear that allows for a much-needed ranged attack, you probably won’t find yourself bothering much with these totems much except when one is needed to smash or burn away a barrier in one of the stages.

Soaring Eagle himself is a pretty competent hero. As mentioned, he handles a lot like Link in Zelda II, except with a spear for a primary weapon instead of a sword. This even extends to having the same downward and upward weapon thrust maneuvers available while in the air. He can also deflect some attacks from above by holding his spear up over his head while standing still, though this ability is never really necessary to progress in the game. In a fashion that recalls Bionic Commando, you can increase Soaring Eagle’s health meter from its initial four hearts all the way up to twelve by collecting enough of the gourd items dropped by enemies. Taking the time to do this early on will greatly offset the game’s difficulty. Finally, there are several power-ups that drop from defeated enemies: The spearhead temporarily boosts attack power, the headdress does the same for defense, the spear will improve weapon reach, the deerskin shirt confers brief invincibility, and the magic potions work like the energy tanks in a Mega Man game and automatically restore some of Soaring Eagle’s health when it runs out.

Whomp ‘Em isn’t very difficult when compared to many other games of its kind. Once you have a full health meter and a magic potion or two, Soaring Eagle can absorb a ton of punishment. Enemies in your way will drop life replenishing hearts on a fairly regular basis, too. The usual bottomless pits and instant death spikes are also nowhere to be found in this game. Instead, hazards like these will only cost you a small amount of heath. Platforming veterans will be able to practically sprint through Whomp ‘Em in no time flat and even newcomers should be able to make steady progress. The final stage is the toughest by far, due to some tricky elements like a zero-gravity corridor and pits that can send you back to an earlier section of the level. Continues are unlimited, though, so even this final stretch can be mastered with relative ease.

Whomp ‘Em was never destined for greatness. It was in no way original, the name was awful, the cover art was ugly as sin, and it was released fairly late in the system’s lifespan by a smallish publisher. While it was true enough that few Americans had ever heard of Sun Wukong, none of them had heard of Soaring Eagle or seemingly wanted to. Despite having gone nowhere fast and being virtually forgotten today, it still makes for a pleasant enough afternoon or evening of completely by-the-book NES action platforming. The control is solid, the graphic are colorful, and the stages flow well. I can’t imagine this being anyone’s favorite game ever, but if you’ve already played all the higher profile classics or you’re specifically on the lookout for a less challenging take on the genre, you may as well whomp them. They probably have it coming to them, the bastards.