Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (Famicom)

A few years back, I took at look at the NES classic River City Ransom. This comical 1989 beat-’em-up/RPG hybrid by Technōs Japan is a singular experience on the system and a favorite of many. Despite this, gamers outside Japan wouldn’t be treated to a direct sequel until River City: Tokyo Rumble arrived on the 3DS in 2016. Famicom owners got a much better deal. They only needed to wait two years for Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (“Downtown Special: It’s Kunio’s Period Piece, Assemble Everyone!”). As its mouthful of a title implies, this is the Kunio-kun franchise’s wacky take on a jidaigeki, or Japanese historical drama. If you’ve ever wondered how River City Ransom would have played out in the 17th century, here’s your chance to find out.

I played the original Famicom version of Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki in conjunction with the unofficial English translation patch by Technōs Samurai Translation Project. There is another option in the form of the Double Dragon & Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle, which went up for sale on the PlayStation 4 and Switch download services in February of this year. It includes official English versions of this and many other older Technōs games. Digital storefronts are notoriously fickle, so here’s hoping it’s still available by the time you read this.

There’s a plot going on in this one, although it’s mostly a paper thin excuse to dash around the countryside punching and kicking everyone you meet. Our tale begins with tough guy hero Kunio and his dorky brother responding to a request for aid from the head of the friendly Bunzō clan, who’s taken ill and requires a rare medicinal herb. The brothers set off to find it and this leads to betrayal, kidnapping, and other assorted intrigue courtesy of rival clans. While this clearly wasn’t a major focus and none of it stuck with me, I do appreciate that there’s a bit more in the way of ongoing storytelling here than there was in River City Ransom.

This game’s interpretation of ancient Japan comprises ten interconnected zones. Each is relatively compact, consisting of a couple dozen screens at most. There’s a lot more variety to these than we saw in River City’s various neighborhoods, both in terms of visuals and gameplay. Some are urban, others mountainous, icy, water filled, etc. This allows for a number of environmental conditions which can affect combat. Having to worry about falling into lava or getting pushed around by powerful river currents is an oddly welcome addition to the conventional brawling.

As for that brawling, it’s where Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki really shines. This will come as no surprise to lovers of the series, but it still bears mentioning because of how much its predecessor’s already impressive martial arts mayhem was refined and expanded upon. Kunio’s standard compliment of kicks, punches, throws, and ground attacks can be supplemented by up to 25 additional special techniques and a host of melee weapons. In short, you’re constantly gaining new ways to kick ass. Some of these special moves are pretty dang wild, too. I’m especially fond of the lethal fart that knocks down every enemy on the screen. If you’re looking for a game that pushes the console’s two-button controller to its limits, look no further.

The RPG mechanics underlying the fisticuffs have received an overhaul as well. Characters have the same set of ten statistics as before. These govern health, defense, how much damage they deal with specific attacks, and so on. Unlike in River City Ransom, stat growth isn’t predicated on purchasing food items in shops. Rather, it’s tied directly the experience points obtained from defeated enemies. This distinction is important, since the in-game menu lets you manually tweak what percentage of a character’s total earned experience is allocated to a given stat. If you’re in a hurry to boost your dude’s kick damage, for example, you can re-direct as many points as you wish from the other nine stats to make it happen. Most “serious” RPGs don’t even allow for this much fine-tuning of character progression. Oh, and the last game’s lengthy password saves have been replaced with a battery backup this time. Very cool.

Inasmuch as Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki lives up to its billing as an enhanced River City Ransom in period garb, I can’t say enough good things about it. Regrettably, however, a few of its stabs at innovation turned out to be mixed blessings at best. The biggest offender has to be the partner system. Remember how I mentioned that Kunio was accompanied on the journey by his brother? Well, that’s not just for story purposes. If you’re playing alone, you’ll have a computer-controlled ally fighting alongside you at all times, whether you like it or not. You’ll recruit a whole stable of them over the course of the adventure, in fact, and can switch them out as desired back at your home base. What sounds like a very neat mechanic is ultimately more of a pain than anything. Your “helpers” are as dumb as can be, continually swooping in at the least opportune moments to get in your way, pelt you with objects, and steal your hard-earned cash drops. There’s no way to ditch them, either. Believe me, I tried. Let the bad guys kill them off and they’ll simply reappear after the next screen transition. If a second player is present, he or she will control the other character, which naturally works out much better. This arguably makes Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki more fun than River City Ransom for two players and less so for one. An option to fight solo and devote the extra system memory to enabling a third enemy on screen instead would have been amazing. Alas.

Slowdown is another sore point. The action slows to crawl on a fairly regular basis. The prevalence of this seems to be at least partly dependent on your location in the game world. One area in particular has a very attractive orange sunset in the background and virtually every fight that takes place in it runs at around 50% speed. This is where I ended up facing off against the game’s two final bosses and the choppy nature of the exchange greatly undermined what should have been a satisfying climax.

Though these are significant, pervasive flaws, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them fatal ones. Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki largely succeeds at its mission to deepen both the beat-’em-up and RPG aspects of River City Ransom. It also stays true to the goofy tone the saga is so beloved for. Seeing Kunio, Riki, and the rest of these familiar characters transported into an entirely new setting is a treat for fans like myself. I even spotted a couple of the team captains from Super Dodge Ball rounding out the cast. This is a quality work and certainly deserved better than to be condemned to obscurity in the West over some old-timey Japanese set dressing. Barf!

Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Are video games art?

It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.

As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.

Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.

With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.

To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.

Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.

Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:

“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”

This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.

Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.

The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.

April fools! This game is shit, y’all.

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

 

It’s well documented by now that I adore Konami’s Ganbare Goemon cycle of adventure-tinged action games. It all started back in 1992 with the previously Japan-exclusive franchise’s international debut as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo. I was instantly captivated by Mystical Ninja’s quality gameplay and irreverent take on traditional Japanese folklore. But what about all the other Goemon titles I didn’t even suspect existed back in those hazy pre-Internet days? Talk about a goldmine! Thus, I’ve recently branched out and began exploring the frizzy-haired bandit’s more obscure outings. Well, obscure to us Americans, anyway.

Next up is 1989’s Ganbare Goemon 2, the third entry in the saga and the follow-up to the wildly successful Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū from 1986. Note that this game is not to be conflated with its own Super Famicom sequel, 1993’s Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu, which I already reviewed a while back. Confusing, I know. Special thanks to Stardust Crusaders for the unofficial English translation. The game would have still been beatable without it, but a good portion of the jokes would have been lost on me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 doesn’t stray far from the template Karakuri Dōchū established. It functions in most respects as a direct extension of its forebear, albeit with fewer rough edges and a handful of non-trivial upgrades. Your general goal is still to guide Goemon on a slapstick odyssey across medieval Japan while fending off its many hostile denizens with swings of his mighty kiseru pipe. The trip is still structured as a succession of massive overhead perspective stages, most of which require you to find three hidden gate passes before a time limit expires in order to move on. You still collect money and patronize various inns, shops, and mini-games along the way.

The most significant new addition by far is Goemon’s literal partner in crime, the chubby weirdo Ebisumaru. Finally! If you ask me, it’s barely a Ganbare Goemon game without Ebi. He’s the yin to Goemon’s yang. The chocolate to his peanut butter. The Luigi to his Mario. His inclusion here allows for the two-player simultaneous play that would be present in almost every future main series installment. He also provides what little Ganbare Goemon 2 has in the way of plot. The opening depicts the two thieves sitting in jail and Ebisumaru mentions to Goemon that there’s supposedly a great treasure hidden inside the remote Karakuri Castle. Determined to claim it, they promptly break out of their cell and the first level begins.

As nice as the two-player support is, I might just appreciate the boss fights more. One of Karakuri Dōchū’s few major letdowns was its total lack of such climactic encounters. It feels wrong somehow for an action game to end with the player simply strolling through a doorway unopposed. There’s no shortage of bosses here. In addition to providing extra challenge and drama, they’re an ideal showcase for the developers’ strange and anachronistic sense of humor. Expect a sumo robot, a giant peach, and more to come between Goemon and his prize.

A third key improvement over Karakuri Dōchū, at least in my eyes, is Ganbare Goemon 2’s markedly less brutal difficulty. You get continues this time! More specifically, you get a rather novel interactive continue screen where you must mash a button in order to prevent Goemon from being lowered into a boiling cauldron. Pretty amusing when you consider that the historical Ishikawa Goemon actually did meet his end this way. I’ve always been of the mind that funny games shouldn’t impose overly strict penalties for failure. If the player is forced to repeat the same sections too frequently, the relaxed anticipation of the next gag or crazy scenario soon gives way to annoyance. That never bodes well for comedy.

What does benefit the mood is all the extra personality on display here. Karakuri Dōchū was surprisingly down-to-earth in light of how madcap these games would become in the 16-bit era and beyond. Ganbare Goemon 2 is where the lunacy starts to ramp up in earnest. For example, the last game’s simple interstitial cut scenes of Goemon distributing his stolen gains to the poor à la Robin Hood are replaced by a sequence of increasingly unhinged comic vignettes. My favorite sees Goemon and Ebisumaru donning frilly dresses and doing their best saucy cabaret dance, complete with gratuitous double pantie flash at the end. Gee, thanks, guys. Keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky spin on Super Mario Bros.’s “your princess is in another castle” schtick, too.

Personally, I wouldn’t rank Ganbare Goemon 2 among its powerhouse publisher’s all-time best. At least not so far as general audiences are concerned. The sound and visuals are merely adequate. The combat and platforming are similarly serviceable at best, with the noteworthy drawbacks of iffy hit detection and some borderline unreactable enemy spawns along the screen edges. Strictly as a standalone game, it’s alright; a pleasant enough diversion, if not an instant classic akin to Castlevania or Contra. It is a nigh indisputable improvement on its immediate predecessor, however, and a must-play for dedicated Ganbare Goemon fans. Two-player mayhem, proper boss fights, an overall less stressful journey, and a greater emphasis on the absurd are nothing to sneeze at. All these enhancements were important building blocks for the ever grander and more manic escapades to come. Though not quite there yet, Konami was very much on the right track with this one.

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Esper Dream (Famicom)

I’ve devoted considerable time over the years to working my way through the bevy of console adventure and RPG titles published by Konami in 1987 alone. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest had all come out the year prior and collectively hooked millions of Famicom owners on the sort of exploration and stat-heavy games which had previously been exclusive to much pricier home computers. Realizing the public’s appetite for such works was virtually endless, Konami pumped out a good half-dozen over the next calendar year. Some of these (Castlevania II, The Goonies II) would later make their ways overseas, while others (Dragon Scroll, Getsu Fūma Den, Majou Densetsu II) would never see release outside their native Japan. Another in this latter category is Esper Dream, a whimsical and surprisingly tough overhead action RPG for the Famicom Disk System. Special thanks to Mute for the English fan translation that allowed me to make sense of this one.

Your player character in Esper Dream is a young boy with a name of your choice who happens to be an esper. That is, an individual with psychic powers, aka ESP. He’s sitting at home reading one night when a girl materializes from the open storybook and introduces herself as Lottie. She’s a resident of Brick Village, part of the magical world inside the book, and was sent by its mayor to enlist the boy’s help. Seems monsters are running amok and have abducted the mayor’s daughter, Alice. Naturally, our silent protagonist agrees and follows Lottie into the book. A psychic kid and a fantasy quest to rescue a girl? It’s two classic Japanese media clichés for the price of one!

Upon arrival in Brick Village, the mayor hands you a suit of flimsy armor and your first weapon, a water pistol. It’s about as effective as you’d think. He also gives you an important hint about which of the game’s main areas you should explore first. Though you can technically access them all from the very start via doors scattered around town, you’re only asking for trouble if you ignore the intended order. This may be a pastel fairy tale wonderland, but the enemies won’t hesitate to curb stomp an underleveled pre-teen.

The five interconnected regions you must conquer all have their own themes, ranging from mundane fields and swamps to crystal palaces and gigantic chessboards. Each has multiple maze-like indoor dungeons which hold important treasures and your primary targets: The five boss monsters who are causing all the trouble. Keep an eye out for more villages along the way, too. They contain shops and helpful NPCs you can’t afford to skip.

Being an RPG, Esper Dream requires plenty of repetitive combat in order to accumulate the cash and experience points needed to see your hero to the end. Clashes with monsters all take place in claustrophobic single screen arenas where your character’s options are fairly limited. He can walk and shoot his gun in the four cardinal directions as well as activate whichever psychic power he has equipped. Fights typically end when one side or the other is wiped out. However, it is possible to flee the arena early if you can locate and destroy the one randomly determined exit tile along the screen edge. The most interesting thing by far about this whole system is how battles are initiated in the first place. Esper Dream is an early example of an RPG where all potential enemy encounters are visible to the player beforehand, here in the form of footprint icons. Similar to the more famous Earthbound, you’ll never be surprised by an enemy and can avoid many unwanted scraps by bobbing and weaving around them.

Now’s as good a time as any to address those psychic powers the game is named for. Turns out they’re fundamentally no different from stock RPG magic. The first you’ll gain is the damaging Psi Beam projectile, which remains your most useful tool throughout. As you level-up, you’ll unlock six other abilities which let you do things like boost your defense, heal damage, and teleport back to town. They all draw on a limited pool of EP (Esper Points?) which function like common Magic Points. As with the game’s combat, it’s an oddball peripheral element of this psi system that actually manages to stand out. Certain shops give you the option of buying new powers early instead of waiting until you reach the appropriate experience level. It’s unique, albeit also expensive and largely pointless.

Esper Dream has a lot going for it aesthetically. On top of a quality Kinuyo Yamashita score, it shares the same kooky art direction as Ai Senshi Nicol, King Kong 2, and other overhead view Konami games from this period. It eschews the grit of a Castlevania or Contra in favor of bold primary colors, surreal landscapes, and a motley grab bag of cartoon enemies. Pelicans, ladybugs, chess pieces, and moai statue refugees from Gradius routinely show up to run your day. If they weren’t so good at it, you’d almost think this was a game for little kids.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now in passing, Esper Dream is hard. Opponents frequently outnumber you and love to rush you down relentlessly or hang back lobbing projectiles at your slow-moving boy hero. Some even abuse an unavoidable full-screen “flash” attack that automatically removes a large chunk of your health if you don’t kill them fast enough. That’s extra bad news because killing anything fast is no mean feat. Your guns are some of the most feeble weapons I’ve had the misfortune to wield in a game. The strongest of the available three, the bazooka, still requires dozens upon dozens of shots to take down a single late game baddie. That’s no exaggeration; feel free to count them if you like. This is why the Psi Beam is so important. It’s the only attack worth a damn in the back half of the game! Your armor options, with the exception of the Barrier Suit found in the depths of the final area, are similarly inadequate given the amount of punishment you’re subject to. Adding insult to injury, HP and MP recovery items are costly and are only sold in one shop. Said shop isn’t located in Brick Village, either, which is the one town you’re able to warp to easily. The game obviously isn’t impossible. Once you know to stock up on recovery items, save often, and put your trust in Psi Beams rather than your puny guns, you can indeed finish it. I can’t help but feel, though, that the opposition you’ll face in last few area is just too oppressive for the game’s own good. It sucks much of the fun out of things and conflicts with the setting’s cheery tone.

Despite this frustration, I didn’t wind up hating Esper Dream. In fact, I’d say it merits a qualified recommendation. The presention is appealing, progression isn’t overly cryptic by the standards of the day, and the first half is exactly the lighthearted romp you’re primed for at the outset. If you’re an experienced, patient gamer, you should be able to weather the oddly intense turn it takes in the final stretch and come away mostly satisfied. While it’s not about to dethrone Getsu Fūma Den as my favorite of Konami’s ’87 RPG bumper crop, it is ultimately more dream than nightmare.

Mitsume ga Tooru (Famicom)

Last summer, I examined Konami’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken, a 1987 Famicom action-platformer based on the work of manga titan Osamu Tezuka. Hi no Tori is nowhere near the company’s best effort and its faithfulness to the source material is highly questionable. It’s a passable, if unexceptional product. Let’s skip ahead to 1992 now and see if Natsume was able to do better with their spin on another Tezuka property, Mitsume ga Tooru (“The Three-Eyed One”).

The original print version of Mitsume ga Tooru ran in Weekly Shōnen Magazine between 1974 and 1978. It was revived in animated series form starting in 1990, which likely explains the timing of this Famicom adaptation. The title character is one Hosuke Sharaku, a bald boy who resembles Charlie Brown by way of Dr. Evil and happens to be one of the last survivors of an ancient race of three-eyed people with powerful psychic abilities. These abilities are tied directly to his extra eye, leading to him having a split personality of sorts. When his third eye is covered with a bandage, he’s a typical good-natured, dopey kid. Expose the eye and he instantly transforms into a selfish, megalomaniacal super-genius. His sidekick/love interest is plucky schoolgirl Wato Chiyoko. The names of these two are supposedly intended to reference Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, though the association seems tenuous at best to me. The game’s plot sees Sharaku out to rescue the kidnapped Wato from another three-eyed fellow, Prince Godaru.

To accomplish this, he’ll need to traverse a total of just five side-scrolling stages. Mitsume ga Tooru’s short run time is a common focus of criticism in some of the other reviews I’ve seen. In truth, it’s no different than classics like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden in this respect. Not every 8-bit platformer can reasonably be expected to take the form of a multi-hour epic like Super Mario Bros. 3, after all. On the plus side, Mitsume ga Tooru does introduce new enemies and environmental hazards in each and every area, so at least I can’t accuse it of padding.

Sharaku controls conspicuously like Capcom’s Mega Man. This applies to his running and jumping, his standard attack (he can rapid fire up to three small projectiles at a time from his third eye), and his inability to duck. Not really surprising, I suppose, given Natsume’s noted fondness for loosely patterning its 8-bit action games on hits from bigger studios. He does have one signature move of his own: The Red Condor. This is a magic spear Sharaku can summon by holding down the fire button for a few seconds. Releasing the button will then cause him to hurl it forward. It’ll travel about half the length of the screen, damaging any foes it touches, before turning around and heading back the way it came. This is when things get interesting. If you time a jump right and manage to land Skaraku on top of the rebounding Condor, it’ll stop and hover in mid-air, acting as a springy platform. Initially just a curiosity, this function is required to progress later on. Basically, any time you need to reach a spot that’s beyond Sharaku’s regular jumping ability, that’s your cue to try bouncing off the Red Condor. Unfortunately, these are probably the only times you’ll feel compelled to use it. Its long charge time and limited range make it a poor choice as an offensive weapon.

A small selection of power-ups are available for both your primary shot and the Red Condor. These are accessed through a shop run by a friendly flag-waving NPC who appears one or twice per level. These shops are also where you’ll purchase extra lives and refills for Sharaku’s six-hit health bar. Consequently, the only pickups obtained directly from enemies are bouncing coins of various denominations. The game is pretty generous with its currency drops and you’ll usually have enough to purchase some healing and a weapon whenever the opportunity presents itself. If you find yourself wanting more funds on top of that, you can try juggling the coins in the air repeatedly with your shots. Do this enough times and they’ll actually increase in value somehow. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s helpful.

That’s all you really need to know to enjoy this one. Mitsume ga Tooru isn’t exactly deep or novel. You run, jump, shoot, hoard coins, and very occasionally call on the Red Condor for help with a tricky platforming section. What it lacks in complexity and innovation, however, it makes up for with the rock solid design fundamentals of a late period Famicom release by Natsume. Stages and mechanics are well considered, well implemented, and served up with panache. The boss fights in particular are highlights. These guys are all appropriately imposing and mastering their various attack patterns is a must. Simply standing toe-to-toe and brute forcing them is never an option, which I always appreciate. If this sounds daunting, take heart: Unlimited continues and frequent checkpoints keep frustration to a minimum, even on the higher of the two difficulty settings.

Mitsume ga Tooru’s art and music both live up to the high standard set by the gameplay. Its spritework and animation are head and shoulders above most of its peers and do an admirable job of capturing Tezuka’s distinctive style. The backgrounds are no slouches, either, incorporating parallax scrolling and transparency effects rarely seen on the hardware. Only a handful of other contemporary offerings like Gimmick and Kirby’s Adventure can be said to look better overall. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Iwatsuki (Pocky & Rocky, Wild Guns) is yet another example of fantastic in-house audio from Natsume. It starts out strong and only gets better as it goes on, climaxing in the one-two punch of a stirring final level theme and a sweet, wistful end credits roll.

Impressive as it is, Mitsume ga Tooru was ultimately doomed to suffer the same sad fate as so many other pre-Harvest Moon Natsume titles: Being a one-off. Hosuke Sharaku hasn’t starred in another video game to date, although he has featured as an antagonist in several headlined by his fellow Tezuka creation, Astro Boy. At least his sole turn in the spotlight stands as a sterling example of a licensed game done right. If you’re on the hunt for awesome Famicom exclusives that don’t require any Japanese language skills, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye or three out for this one.

Live A Live (Super Famicom)

Happy New Year, classic gaming fans!

I’ve mentioned it before, but I rarely get around to playing turn-based RPGs anymore. The amount of hours they require is too great for me to fit more than one or two a year into my schedule. Back when systems like the SNES were new, I was living carefree enough that all that play time felt like a selling point rather than a millstone round my neck. Ah, memories.

As soon as I learned about the 1994 Super Famicom exclusive Live A Live (that’s “live” as in “live streaming”) a couple years back, however, I knew it warranted a spot on my short list. Live A Live’s defining gimmick was too fascinating to ignore: Eight chapters, each with its own setting and characters, presented in anthology style and capped off with a final chapter that ties everything together. Not to mention it’s the product of Square at the very height of their creative prowess, as exemplified by fellow 1994 alumnus Final Fantasy VI. Yeah, that sounds like something worth kicking off a new decade with.

Live A Live strikes out bold with a cold open. You’re ushered straight from the title screen to the chapter select menu without a shred of explanation. Highlighting the seven characters on offer reveals one-word labels like “Cowboy,” “Ninja,” or “Caveman.” It’s clear you’re not intended to be thinking about which of them is the best or right choice. You’re supposed to follow your gut and pick whoever you think is the coolest or most intriguing. These first seven chapters can be played in any order and will likely take you anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours apiece to complete. They’re set in diverse time periods, from the prehistoric to the far future, and all have their own self-contained game worlds, casts, and even title screens and end credit rolls. Think of it like an RPG sampler platter.

There are gameplay tweaks unique to every chapter, as well. The ninja’s adventure sees you infiltrating an enemy castle and includes a stealth element. Depending on how patient and adept you are with your invisibility cloak, you can finish with a body count anywhere between zero and a hundred. The shortest chapter, set in the modern day, has you controlling a contestant in a Street Fighter style martial arts tournament. It’s literally all combat. There’s no game world to explore whatsoever, only an opponent select screen. It’s polar opposite is the far future chapter. Here, you control a newly-built sentient robot aboard a starship carrying a dangerous alien cargo. Dialog and character interaction are pushed to the forefront, as the only combat takes places through the medium of a video game machine in the ship’s lounge, making battles technically a game within a game.

If bits and pieces of this game’s premise are starting to sound oddly familiar to you, then congratulations: You’re on to something. Yes, Live A Live’s focus on jumping between time periods while controlling a robot, a caveman, and a medieval knight, among others, is more than a little suggestive of Square’s much better-known 1995 masterpiece, Chrono Trigger. It should come as no surprise, then, that Takashi Tokita served as Live A Live’s director and one of its two writers, roles he would reprise the following year for Chrono Trigger. A few of the latter’s callbacks are downright blatant, such as when a magic sword is used to cut a path through a cliffside to a villain’s stronghold. Interesting as these parallels are to the JRPG veteran, I wouldn’t venture to say Live A Live is merely a dry run for something grander. The way its first eight chapters are fully compartmentalized gives it a stop-and-go narrative flow completely unlike the traditional unified quest line that defines Chrono Trigger.

It defies other key genre conventions, too, mostly in the interest of keeping the pace brisk. No currency to accumulate or shops to spend it in means you’ll find all your equipment upgrades through basic exploration of the compact game worlds. There’s also no limit placed on how many times you can use your special techniques in battle, and any damage your party sustains is automatically repaired after each fight. In other words, you have no need to make periodic trips to inns and temples in order to restore health and magic points or resurrect dead characters. In fact, the usual RPG towns only appear when a given chapter’s story calls for one as a backdrop. While some players may miss the perceived depth conferred by elements like this, I reckon it’s nice to have your time respected. There’s nothing so special about gold grinding or backtracking to heal up that would justify padding a two hour chapter out to four in my book. The battle system itself (a chess-like affair based around movement on a 7×7 overhead grid) is functional and easy to grasp. Although it won’t win any awards, its simplicity compliments the rest of these streamlined mechanics.

On balance, Live A Live’s avant-garde approach pays off in a big way. The highlight by far is the story. Most of the first eight chapters are just long enough to get you emotionally invested in the leads and satisfied at the climaxes of their individual journeys. Factor in a finale that furnishes your dream team of heroes from across time with a worthy adversary to face off against and you have one resounding success on the storytelling front. This dramatic heft is expertly bolstered by a rich and expansive soundtrack courtesy of industry legend Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts). Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t heap some of this praise on the Aeon Genesis group’s extraordinary fan translation effort. Unofficial as it obviously is, they went above and beyond the call of duty here, including unique fonts and text box designs for the various chapters which weren’t in the Japanese original.

About the only flaw preventing Live A Live from joining its sibling Chrono Trigger in the pantheon of peerless 16-bit greats is a predictable one: For all its strengths, it’s quite uneven. When I stated above that “most” of its nine segments made for satisfying journeys, I meant around 2/3 of them. Both the cowboy and wrestler chapters are incredibly bare bones, clocking in at half an hour or less. What’s there is quality material, there simply isn’t enough of it for me to get cozy and start feeling invested. At least I can’t say I actively despised these chapters, unlike the godawful mecha one. Apparently intended as a parody/homage to Akira and other near future sci-fi anime, it’s the only part of Live A Live that drags due to its vague, repetitive, and overly specific progression requirements. As if that somehow wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a non-stop cavalcade of unlikable characters, cringe-worthy humor, and nonsense technobabble plot contrivances. The idea of having to slog through it again someday if I want the undeniable pleasure of re-experiencing Live A Live as a whole is a genuine bummer.

Whatever you do, though, don’t let that dollop of negativity dissuade you from giving Live A Live a shot. Its reputation as a lost classic in Western gaming circles is well-founded. Structurally, it’s one of most experimental JPRGs of the ’90s, and it achieves this without coming off pretentious or intimidating in the slightest. Why settle for one fresh start this year when you can have nine?