Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijūrokubē no Karakuri Manji Gatame (Super Famicom)

After eight releases in seven years, someone at Konami must have thought the Ganbare Goemon series needed shaking up. Apart from a pair of turn-based RPGs on the Famicom, previous installments had all been fairly simple run-and-jump action affairs. Enter 1994’s Ganbare Goemon 3: Shishijūrokubē no Karakuri Manji Gatame, the first Legend of Zelda style action-adventure of the bunch.

I had to wait a while to tackle this one. Whereas the linear Japan-exclusive Goemon titles can be successfully navigated without knowing the language, you’d be hard pressed to do that here. Talking to NPCs and following up on the clues they dole out is vital. It wasn’t until February of this year that DDSTranslation, Tom, and FlashPV brought us their unofficial English translation patch, dubbed Go for it! Goemon 3: The Mecha Leg Hold of Jurokube Shishi. At last, I can continue the comedic odyssey of everyone’s favorite big-haired Robin Hood analog and his kooky cohorts.

The adventure kicks off in typically absurd Ganbare Goemon fashion, with the Wise Old Man debuting his latest invention: A time machine. Not too shabby for the 16th century. His plan? To use it to perv on young girls…in the future! I’ve never understood the appeal of ultrahorny senior citizens as comic relief, but it’s huge in Japan for whatever reason. Anyway, the Old Man’s skirt chasing rampage is cut short when he’s abducted by an evil nun named Sister Bismal, who just happens to be the spitting image of Goemon’s portly sidekick Ebisumaru. Watching all this transpire from the past via a monitor, Goemon and Ebisumaru decide they have to find a way to join their idiot friend in the future and save him and his potentially dangerous machine from whatever sinister fate Bismal has in store. Along the way, they’ll be joined by the robot ninja Sasuke and the, uh, non-robot ninja Yae, making for a total of four playable characters

The option to switch out your active hero at will with the press of a button is arguably Ganbare Goemon 3’s central gimmick, overshadowing even the change of scenery the time travel plot affords. Each party member has his or her own melee and ranged attacks on top of a miscellaneous special ability or two. Said abilities are often tied to progression. Yae’s mermaid transformation allows her to maneuver underwater, for example, and Goemon’s chain pipe works like Link’s hookshot. Everybody shares a single health bar, so simply switching heroes won’t save you if you’re at death’s door. My only complaint with this system is the way it passively discourages you from using the slower moving characters much of the time. As in most other adventures, there’s ample territory to cover and tons of mandatory backtracking. The zippy Sasuke and Yae get it all done faster, and that’s bad news for Goemon and Ebisumaru.

Beginning the quest proper, your first task is to explore the tranquil streets of Oedo Town from a top-down perspective. You can chat up villagers for advice and do a little shopping for the item you’ll need to reach the local dungeon. You’re also free to beat on the town guards to earn a little extra cash. Goemon is an outlaw, after all. There’s honestly not that much to say about the overworld exploration here. It’s divided up into two main maps: The past (that is, Goemon’s present) and the future. Both are densely packed with towns, dungeon entrances, and the occasional secret room housing bonus treasure. Unless you’re entirely new to the genre, you’ll have seen all this before.

Things pick up considerably in the dungeons. They’re presented as side-view platforming stages similar to the ones in Legend of the Mystical Ninja and other 16-bit Goemon games, albeit modified to work better in an adventure gaming context. Thus, layouts are complex and maze-like, there are far fewer instant death pits, and you’re usually required to perform some elementary puzzle solving exercise in order to open the way to the boss’ chamber. These sections are the high point of Ganbare Goemon 3 for me. Leaping around and swatting foes with Goemon and crew is always great fun, although I still prefer the more straightforward and challenging takes on the concept seen in those other games I mentioned.

Of course, no Ganbare Goemon outing after 1993 would be complete without the gang’s mighty mecha, Impact. This towering metal Goemon doppelganger pops in every few hours to add some spectacle in the form of a Godzilla-inspired mass destruction mini-game followed by a first-person boss fight against an enemy mech. Not much has changed in terms of how these battles play out. Impact can again punch, block, shoot coins from his nose as projectile weapons, and launch a limited number of bombs from his pipe. It’s worth noting that the enemies you face as Impact are significantly easier to defeat this time around. I burned many a continue on Ganbare Goemon 2’s Impact battles, yet had no such trouble here.

So far, we’ve established this as by-the-numbers action-adventure with some decent platforming and giant robot brawls thrown in. A little personality goes a long way, though, and Ganbare Goemon 3 has a lot more than most. Both the past and present are brimming with the quirky characters and irreverent dialogue fans have come to love. From a ninja who’s mastered the art of turning into a chicken to a pregnant Demi Moore, you never know who or what’s coming next. This anarchic sense of humor extends to the smallest details of the art and animation, too. If you don’t laugh out loud the first time you see Ebisumaru’s crawl, you should probably get yourself checked by a doctor. The soundtrack has all the quality and scope you’d expect out of ’90s Konami, offering a pleasing blend of classical Japanese instrumentation in past Oedo along with funk, techo, and industrial influences for its future incarnation. If you’re looking to understand the difference between a likable work and a lovable one, Ganbare Goemon 3 makes for an excellent object lesson.

There is one word of caution I should relay, however. Ganbare Goemon 3 has a secret final boss and extended ending scene that are only accessible if you’ve maxed out your health bar by collecting every hidden Maneki-neko (lucky cat) statue along the way. Pretty cool, huh? The downside is that once Goemon and friends journey to the future about a third of the way in, there’s no going back. That means that if you miss even one lucky cat in all of past Oedo, you’re permanently barred from achieving the best ending on that playthrough. The unnecessarily punishing execution of this feature is a real bummer. I actually ended up scrapping my whole save file once I realized I’d screwed myself and starting over. Hopefully you can learn from my mistake and be extra thorough in the early going. Assuming you care about achieving the best ending, that is.

Ganbare Goemon 3 isn’t my personal favorite of the saga. As stated, I tend to favor the faster-paced action-platformers. That said, it’s a well-crafted game with charm to spare and I’m glad I was finally able to experience it. It’s also an important one, given that it served as the template for several later action-adventure entries in the franchise, including the beloved Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for the Nintendo 64. If you’re a Link to the Past junkie looking to take a break from Hyrule, it’s worth a go. Just make sure that creepy Wise Man keeps his hands where you can see them.

Laplace no Ma (Super Famicom)

You can’t swing a dead shoggoth these day without hitting a video game based on the misanthropic “cosmic horror” of American writer H.P. Lovecraft. This wasn’t the case at all back in the 1980s, when mainstream awareness of the late author’s work was comparatively low. The vast majority of horror-themed games from this period instead dealt in stock images lifted from decades of Hollywood chillers. Caped vampires, masked slashers, and flesh-eating zombies ruled the digital night, crowding out Lovecraft’s mad alien gods.

Kudos to Japanese developer HummingBirdSoft, then, for taking a chance with their heavily Lovecraftian RPG Laplace no Ma (“Laplace’s Demon”). Originally released in 1987 for NEC’s PC-88 and PC-98 home computer lines, it must have done well. I say that because the next eight years saw it ported to other computer platforms, the PC Engine, and finally, in 1995, the Super Famicom courtesy of Group SNE and Vic Tokai. I’m reviewing the Super Famicom version simply because it’s the only one to date with an English fan translation. An excellent one by the Aeon Genesis group, I might add.

In the interest of accuracy, it’s worth pointing out that Laplace no Ma is patterned less on Lovecraft’s fiction per se and more on how said fiction is represented in Chaosium’s venerable Call of Cthulhu. This Dungeons & Dragons-inspired 1981 tabletop game was the original horror roleplaying experience and is still going strong today. It was in Call of Cthulhu’s rulebook that staple cosmic horror concepts such as ever-dwindling protagonist sanity were first rendered as concrete game mechanics. While not an officially licensed adaptation, Laplace no Ma does carry over some of these mechanics as well as the general party-based adventuring format of its analog forebear.

Laplace no Ma casts the player as a paranormal investigator paying a visit to the fictional city of Newcam, Massachusetts (a play on Lovecraft’s Arkham) circa 1924. Your initial goal is to recruit allies at the local bar and then start probing the enigma of Weathertop Hall, an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of town that’s been the site of several gruesome murders and unexplained disappearances. What, if anything, does this have to do with French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827) and his famous “demon” thought experiment intended to explore the potential ramifications of causal determinism? I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own. I will say that the game’s story is easily its strongest aspect. For what seems at the outset to be a typical old dark house tale, it puts you through a number of truly bizarre twists and turns.

You can opt to have your main character belong to any one of five classes: Dabbler, Detective, Medium, Journalist, and Scientist. There’s ultimately no need to fret too much over your pick, as pre-made members of every class are available from the start to fill out the remaining three slots in your roster. I went with a Dabbler, as it allowed for an adequate mix of physical and magical ability. Detective and Medium are your dedicated fighter and magic-user, respectively. The Journalist and Scientist are where things get interesting, albeit not always in a good way. I’ll come back to them.

Given that it’s an RPG with roots in late ’80s Japan, it may surprise you to learn that Laplace no Ma doesn’t take the majority of its gameplay cues from Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy. Rather, it’s akin to Wizardry and similar antediluvian Western computer RPGs. In other words, there’s no overworld to explore, nor are there multiple towns teeming with NPCs to discover. The world here is a claustrophobic one starkly divided between Newcam and a single vast, continuous dungeon accessed through Weathertop Hall. You’re in for some laser-focused old school dungeon delving with this one. It’s one of those games that sees you launching expedition after expedition into the same convoluted maze, making just a little more progress each time before you’re compelled to return to town in order to heal up, resupply, and start the cycle again. Previous iterations of Laplace no Ma even used a Wizardry style first-person dungeon view, although the Super Famicom exchanges it for an overhead perspective, much to my relief. I’m really not in a graph paper mood these days.

Most of your time in the dungeon is spent managing a constant stream of random monster encounters. Combat is turn-based and largely of the routine “fight, magic, item, run” variety. If you enjoy (or can at least stomach) this sort of thing in Dragon Quest or Earthbound, for example, you should be fine with it here. The most satisfying option by far are the special attacks, which resemble the limit breaks later seen in Final Fantasy VII. That is, taking damage and performing actions gradually fills up a character’s special attack meter and once it’s full, he or she gains a single use of a powerful class-specific special ability. You can also attempt to talk to your opponents and dissuade them from attacking you altogether. Your success at this depends on having a party member with a high Fast Talk skill. Enemies rarely seem to have anything useful to say, however, so there’s usually no advantage in chatting as opposed to fleeing.

As an aside, many sources online describe Laplace no Ma as a survival horror game. I disagree with this assessment and feel that’s worth mentioning, since nothing sets a game up for failure quite like unwarranted expectations. Is it chock full of eerie locations and ghoulish baddies? Absolutely. Does that make your repeated forays into Weathertop Hall any more focused on survival than the magic MacGuffin hunts of the average fantasy RPG? Not at all. There’s no permadeath on the table ala Sweet Home, no strictly limited supply of key items to conserve, no emphasis on avoiding combat whenever feasible, etc. Laplace no Ma is, in all respects, just spooky Wizardry.

Anyway, it turned out I could tolerate Laplace no Ma’s archaic structure and ho-hum combat. What ultimately got under my skin were the poor class balancing and lackluster presentation. As stated above, the Dabbler, Detective, and Medium are fine. They’re standard, “what you see it what you get” RPG archetypes. The Journalist and Scientist…not so much. As far as I can tell, Journalists exist exclusively to solve a lone dilemma that itself only exists to justify having Journalists in the game. Holy walking tautology, Batman! Specifically, Journalists are your only reliable source of money, which isn’t won from monsters or found laying around in treasure chests like in almost every other RPG. By equipping a camera instead of a weapon, they can use combat actions to take snapshots of monsters and then sell the resulting photos for cash back in Newcam. The issue here is obvious: You now have 25% of your main party contributing 0% of what it actually takes to win a fight, all because getting loot directly from monsters wasn’t different enough. It reduces your team to three useful members and one spectator, yet it’s all but mandatory if you hope to finish the game in a smooth and timely manner.

The Scientists are a little better, I suppose. These guys are essentially off-brand Ghostbusters who use “spirit machines” to unleash a range of energy beams in combat. They’re not bad on paper. They’re not even bad very early and very late in the adventure. The problem is the other three quarters of the runtime. Spirit machines depend on new parts for upgrades and these are some of the least common items in the game. I didn’t come by any worthwhile new ones until I was nearing the final stretch. My Scientist become a veritable WMD at that point, sure, but his puny raygun was barely tickling the opposition for hours leading up to that.

Finally, this has got to be one of the plainest Super Famicom games ever made, with drab backgrounds and virtually no animation apart from a few mediocre spell effects and your party members’ choppy walk cycles. Some of the static monster portraits are alright and there are about a dozen brief cut scenes with detailed full-screen art. That’s as close as I can come to praising any of the visuals, though. The soundtrack is sparse, droning, and loops far too frequently for its own good. It’s genuinely hard to believe that a 16-bit game in this state was deemed suitable for store shelves in 1995. Tales of Phantasia it ain’t. Hell, it would have been sub-par in 1990.

After all that negativity, can I possibly still recommend Laplace no Ma to horror game aficionados on the prowl for deep cuts? Maybe, with the caveat that it is one profoundly qualified recommendation we’re talking here. If you’re into both bare bones dungeon crawls and weird Lovecraftian horror plots and you don’t need them to look or sound good, Laplace no Ma is your ticket. If the design fumbles I mentioned above sound like they would eat away at your real life sanity and leave you huddled in the corner muttering blasphemies from the pages of the dread Necronomicon, you may want to cross Newcam off your itinerary before it’s too late.

Crisis Force (Famicom)

When I want to really treat myself, nothing satisfies quite like new old Konami. It’s a testament to the studio’s once unrivaled prowess that they were able to captivate audiences worldwide throughout the ’80 and ’90s despite so many of their finest titles never making it to market outside Japan. It was a true embarrassment of riches.

Take Crisis Force here. This 1991 vertical shooter is one of the best of its kind on the Famicom…and only the Famicom. As a high-quality regional exclusive with a late release date and no requisite language skills, you can expect to pay upwards of U.S. $85 for a used copy today. That may not seem too outrageous. It’s slightly less than the inflation-adjusted price of an NES cartridge circa 1991, after all. The Famicom is generally an affordable system to collect for, however, and any game approaching the three-figure threshold is a major outlier.

In Crisis Force, one or two players assume control of teen siblings Asuka and Maya as they repel an Atlantean invasion force attacking Japan. Yes, this is the second game I’ve covered this year (the other being G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor) where the mythic lost continent rises from the sea to threaten humanity. You’d think getting sunk by the gods once would have taught these jerks better manners. Anyway, Asuka and Maya happen to be the last living descendants of Mu, another hokey made up civilization, meaning that they alone can pilot the powerful Aurawing craft and save the day.

Based on that description, it’s clear the developers drew from the same “ancient aliens” well that produced Gradius’ iconic moai head enemies. A better point of comparison might actually be stage five from the NES port of Life Force, as Crisis Force’s Atlanteans share a similar Egyptian flair. Some even fire hieroglyph-embossed laser beams at you! Big points for style there.

Attaining victory requires you to conquer seven levels of increasingly hectic aerial combat, a task that should take roughly forty minutes. Provided you don’t run out of lives and have to start burning through your three continues, that is. It’s a fairly average runtime for the genre. The difficulty, at least on the default setting, tends toward the forgiving. This is one of those shooters where your weapon power-ups double as ablative armor. Get hit while your main gun is upgraded and you’ll be docked firepower in lieu of a life. When you do die, the game is kind enough to respawn you on the spot with a fresh stock of super bombs rather than busting you back to a checkpoint empty-handed.

The highlight of Crisis Force is the mighty Aurawing itself. It can morph between three functionally distinct forms at will. These let you direct the lion’s share of your fire forward, backward, or to the sides as needed. Each of the three primary forms has it own bomb type, as well. Of course, the enemy and stage design are very much planned around your offensive flexibility. I like to think of it as a gentler take on Toaplan’s Hellfire.

There’s also a temporary fourth ship transformation triggered by collecting five of a specific power-up icon. If there’s a second player along for the ride when this occurs, both on-screen Aurawings will merge, leaving player one in the driver’s seat. This uber-Aurawing is invincible and dishes out massive damage, but the strict time limit makes it tough to maintain for more than thirty seconds or so. A key strategy is to collect four of the necessary transformation orbs and then hold off on grabbing the last one until it’s time to confront a boss.

Konami opted to use their custom VRC4 memory mapper chip to enhance Crisis Force’s visuals. The results speak for themselves, with the parallax scrolling backgrounds in particular standing out as some of the flashiest on the platform. About the only other Famicom shooter that can give it a run for its money in the graphics department is fellow VRC4 wunderkind Gradius II. The soundtrack is a not to be underestimated, either. My heart was pounding right out of the gate thanks to one of the most energetic opening level themes I’ve ever heard. That percussion!

If it wasn’t for the occasional patch of slowdown, especially in two-player mode, Crisis Force would be a virtually flawless example of the formula that made Konami such a juggernaut in the 8-bit era: Six or seven concise, action-packed stages polished to a mirror sheen and crowned with as lavish a presentation as the hardware will allow. In this regard, it rates right up there with the likes of Castlevania, Contra/Super C, Jackal, and Life Force. If you’re into that sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to step up and give those pushy Atlanteans what for. Soggy bastards have it coming.

Twinkle Tale (Mega Drive)

Twinkle, twinkle, little game,
Too bad your cost is a shame!

Much of the world recalls Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis console as a massive success. One of the few exceptions is the company’s own home turf, Japan, where is was vastly outsold by both the Super Famicom and PC Engine. A lingering side-effect of this domestic underperformance is the sky-high prices some of the more popular Japanese Mega Drive exclusives command decades later. Such a one is my subject today, the 1992 run-and-gun shooter Twinkle Tale. With original copies currently selling for $400 and up, this is yet another case where I’m content to thank heaven for flash cartridges.

Twinkle Tale is the product of ZAP Corporation, a relatively minor outfit that dealt primarily with the MSX and other Japanese home computer platforms. Their only work to see release here in North America was the decidedly average TurboGrafx-16 spaceship shooter Dead Moon. Twinkle Tale ended up being ZAP’s swan song. That’s unfortunate, as it’s an overall solid take on the genre. Fans of better-known titles like Mercs, Shock Troopers, and Pocky & Rocky will find much to appreciate here.

Set in the enchanted world of Alpherion, Twinkle Tales stars the apprentice wizard Saria. One day, her master Olof sends her on an errand to the fortune teller Raza. Upon Saria’s arrival, Raza delivers the alarming news that a fellow magician by the name of Gadou has raised an army of monsters and is already in the process of using it to abduct Olof and the rest of the masters in hopes of harnessing their combined power to summon an unstoppable demon from hell. This leaves the inexperienced Saria as Alpherion’s last hope. Fortunately, Raza gifts her three powerful pieces of magic jewelry to serve as weapons against Gadou’s minions.

She’ll need all that firepower and more. The nine stages ahead are no joke. They teem with opponents large and small, as well as falling rocks, flame geysers, and other environmental hazards. Avoiding all this nastiness and fighting back effectively requires you to manage Saria’s zippy movement, her three main weapons, and a limited inventory of screen-wide “super bomb” spell attacks simultaneously. Even with a health bar that gradually expands from three hits at the start to a full eight by journey’s end, it’s not easy. Continues are also limited, but at least the game is pretty generous when it comes to doling out extra lives.

Apart from just not getting hit, the key to success is choosing the right weapon to take on a given enemy type or formation. Saria’s arsenal consists of three tried-and-true shooter archetypes: A strong, narrow straight shot, a slightly weaker spread shot, and a homing shot that deals the lowest damage of all. Each can be enhanced a total of twice with power-up icons, although every hit from an enemy will then lower the current weapon’s power level a step, to a minimum of one. It’s a simple system that still allows for fair amount of strategy. For example, there’s the classic dilemma of whether to save a level three weapon for a boss battle or to risk using it to fend off lesser enemies on the way to said boss.

With its cartoon fantasy aesthetic and frantic overhead view action, Twinkle Tale is frequently likened to Natsume’s Pocky & Rocky. While superficially apt, this comparison ultimately does Twinkle Tale no favors. It suffers from a couple of significant drawbacks that prevent it from reaching the same heights as its Super Nintendo rival. For starters, it’s a single-player only experience. As any arcade veteran will tell you, run-and-guns like this are akin to beat-’em-ups and tournament fighters in that they tend to feel incomplete without a buddy battling away by your side. The lack of such a feature here is therefore baffling.

I also would have appreciated more depth to Saria’s moveset. Pocky & Rocky allowed for projectile deflecting melee swipes and evasive slides in addition to the basic running, shooting, and bombing. These sorts of extra maneuvers make for a more interesting playthrough by enabling the designers to include enemy patterns and attacks that wouldn’t be fair if the player’s defensive options were restricted to standard eight-way movement. Their omission is understandable in light of the Mega Drive’s default three-button controller, however.

These limitations don’t ruin Twinkle Tale by any stretch of the imagination, even if they do keep it out of the running for the title of best 16-bit run-and-gun. It looks and sounds wonderful, with the pulse-pounding FM synth music being a particular highlight. Saria controls well and mastering her three weapons is great fun. So long as don’t mind having to go it alone and can avoid paying a fortune for the privilege, the challenge of delivering Alpherion from evil should prove quite the welcome one.

Meikyū Jiin Dababa (Famicom)

There must have been something in the air at Konami HQ circa 1987. That summer saw them releasing two wholly distinct Famicom Disk System games themed around ersatz Indian mysticism of all things. I already covered one, the side-scrolling Temple of Doom homage Arumana no Kiseki, last year. Now it’s time to cap off this odd pseudo-duology with Meikyū Jiin Dababa (“Temple Labyrinth Dababa”).

First off, this is one odd duck. As a colorful top-down view action game with light puzzle elements, it bears a superficial resemblance to two other contemporary Konami titles: King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch and Ai Senshi Nicol. NES veterans like myself are far more likely to be reminded of Nintendo’s StarTropics, however. That game’s hero, Mike Jones, frequently needs to leap between square tiles suspended in water or lava in order to trigger hidden switches that unlock doors and reveal items. Dababa’s star, a bald lad named Shiva, does much the same. What’s more, he takes it to the extreme. Whereas Mike walks more or less normally over open ground, Shiva can only ever hop along the invisible grid that runs through the entirety of each level. I suppose this makes Meikyū Jiin Dababa a mirror image of Capcom’s Bionic Commando, which famously reinvented the platformer by subtracting the ability to jump. Here, it’s all jumping all the time!

Set in the ancient city of Pataliputra, Meikyū Jiin Dababa tells the story of brave apprentice monk Shiva’s attempt to rescue his master’s daughter Tanya from the clutches of the demon Dababa. This requires clearing out four temples comprising 23 small stages in total. Each temple has its own boss monster to defeat, of course, with Dababa himself waiting at the very end.

Most levels are straightforward affairs in which Shiva must dodge traps and fend off constantly respawning enemies with his projectile attacks long enough to find and activate the specific tiles that will open the exit door. If he takes too many hits, falls off the stage, or runs out of time, he’ll lose one of his limited stock of lives. Fortunately, you’re provided with unlimited continues and a save feature, so there no need to worry about losing progress.

There are a numerous items available to help Shiva on his way. Some are alternate weapons to replace his default throwing blade. These include fire, a triple spread shot, and a rolling sphere that functions like a bowling ball. You can also grab icons that will refill lost health, expand the health bar itself, halve incoming damage, freeze enemies in place, and more.

Once every temple or so, you’ll encounter a stage that changes things up by incorporating some very minor puzzle solving. For example, you might need to find a key, plan a route to complete the level as quickly as possible before it collapses beneath you, or keep your eyes peeled for a hidden exit. Though you’re bound to die a lot the first time you reach one of these sections, discovering their solutions naturally renders them no more challenging than the rest.

Another curveball comes in the form of the boss fights. The action suddenly shifts to a side-view perspective for these, although Shiva is still limited to hopping as he attempts to evade the boss’ attacks and return fire. This led to some pretty tense moments for me, especially during the two-phase final bout with Dababa.

Per usual, Konami didn’t skimp on the the audiovisual side of things. We’re treated to a spiffy introductory cutscene depicting Dababa’s abduction of Tanya. Beyond that, the sprites and backgrounds are all bright, clean, and full of personality. Composers Shinya Sakamoto, Satoe Terashima, and Kiyohiro Sada really leaned into the whole fantasy India angle. The results are broadly stereotypical and more than a little cheesy. That said, they’re still catchy and make good use of the FDS’ extra wavetable audio channel. It’s a step below Arumana no Kiseki’s stirring score, but still above average by the standards of the day.

On the whole, this is yet another high quality Disk System offering from Konami, further cementing their reputation as the peripheral’s undefeated third-party champion. Its compact, arcadey core design is fleshed out with just enough power-ups and puzzling to keep you on your toes throughout. The one major caveat to this is the relative severity of its learning curve. As you might expect, a lead character whose sole movement option is jumping takes some getting used to. Like the aforementioned Bionic Commando, it feels just plain weird right out of the gate. I can easily imagine some players firing this one up and then throwing in the towel after an awkward and frustrating first fifteen minutes. This is one of those cases where I can’t urge patience enough. If action puzzlers are your thing, you’ll find the rewards of getting to grips with Dababa’s strange controls more than worth the effort.

Strengths aside, Meikyū Jiin Dababa may have proven too quirky for its own good. Its legacy seems to be limited to a lone Shiva cameo in Jikkyou Power Pro Wrestling ’96 – Max Voltage for the Super Famicom. I guess that’s still more than Ai Senshi Nicol ever got. Great as Konami was at churning out these delightful FDS adventures, they were even better at forgetting them. That’s a mistake I don’t intend to make.

Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō (Famicom)

Who’s up for some more obscure Japan-exclusive Konami weirdness? 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō (“Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Castle”) for the Famicom is the one and only sequel to 1988’s Konami Wai Wai World. Wai Wai World 2 shares the same basic premise the original (which I covered back in 2017): Characters and settings from various Konami action hits of the ’80s collide in a decidedly wacky crossover event. Think of it like a platforming take on their better-known Parodius shooter series.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just more of the same, though. The first Wai Wai World was a fiercely challenging Metroid style exploratory platformer. Wai Wai World 2 takes things in an entirely different direction with its linear progression and greatly reduced difficulty. The game as a whole seems heavily inspired by the previous year’s Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun (aka Kid Dracula), a cutsey spin-off of the Castlevania series. Anyone’s who’s played Kid Dracula should recognize not just this art style, but also many of the fine details of moving and attacking.

The plot involves Konami World coming under threat from a villain called Warumon. Confusingly, he seems to be no relation to Dr. Warumon, the recurring antagonist from the TwinBee games. Anyway, Warumon captures Princess Herb and her home, Parsley Castle. In response, the benevolent scientist Dr. Cinnamon dispatches his latest android creation, Rikkuru, to save the day.

In addition to his short range energy blasts and jet-powered double jump, Rikkuru can use his transformation circuit to assume the forms and powers of five different Konami heroes. You’re prompted to choose three out of these five heroes at the start of your playthrough, which limits Rikkuru’s transformation ability somewhat. This, along with a couple of branching stage paths along the way, is presumably meant to enhance the game’s replay value.

Your five potential teammates are Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Bill Rizer from Contra, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon, Getsu Fūma from Getsu Fūma Den, and Upa from Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa. Each has his own signature attack. These generally either inflict more damage than Rikkuru’s regular shot, have better range, or sport some other miscellaneous special property. Upa’s magic rattle retains its ability to change enemies into helpful platforms, for example. The real standout here is Bill. His machine gun can be aimed in four directions and its bullets travel the full length of the screen. It’s clear the game as a whole was not balanced around this, as he makes mincemeat out of anything in his path, including the final boss.

The obvious power of these hero characters is limited by their temporary nature. Rikkuru must acquire a specific power-up icon before he’s able to transform. Once he does, he only has sixty seconds in which to enjoy his new abilities. Taking damage while transformed will shave five seconds off that. On the plus side, the timer can be extended by picking up the same health kits that would normally refill Rikkuru’s health meter. It’s also quite common to come across another transformation item before your first one has expired, meaning that you can simply change form again the very instant you revert. In practice, it’s easy to spend the majority of your time transformed if you so desire.

The majority of Wai Wai World 2 is made up of side-scrolling action-platforming with a heavy emphases on combat. There few surprisingly few instant death pits or other serious environmental hazards to negotiate. You mostly walk forward, blow away bad guys as they come into view, and grab any helpful goodies you can until you reach a stage boss. It’s a rudimentary take on the genre that never reaches a Mega Man, let alone Ninja Gaiden, degree of intensity. Ones gets the impression that this was made with younger gamers in mind, similar to many of Capcom’s Disney-licensed releases of the period.

Every area you visit is based on a specific Konami title, primarily the same ones the playable cast is drawn from. They all look great and really capture the essence of their source material. Much of the soundtrack consists of slightly tweaked versions of iconic tunes from these same games. A few levels break from the norm and adopt an entirely different mode of play. There are shooter segments based on Gradius and TwinBee, a Road Fighter-inspired overhead vehicular combat trial, some sliding block puzzles, and even an homage to arcade mainstay Frogger. Although brief, these interludes are well-made and serve their purpose by preventing the rather basic main gameplay from growing monotonous.

Wai Wai World 2 is fine for what it is: A short, simple, slight experience that pays duly gleeful homage to a host of Konami classics. It’s briskly paced, controls well, and supports two-player simultaneous play. There’s a lot to like about it. I can’t help but miss the last game’s open-ended design, however. Sure, it was rough around the edges and punishingly difficult in spots, but the player-driven progression and sprawling, secret-packed stages really made you feel like you were inhabiting all these eccentric video game realms. There was a genuine sense of adventure there, whereas the sequel comes across more like a guided tour or an on-rails amusement park thrill ride. A hypothetical third entry in the series that combined the best aspects of both its predecessors could have been an all-time Famicom great.

We never got that perfect Wai Wai World game. What we’re left with instead are two distinct, largely worthwhile takes on the same kooky concept that we’re free to enjoy on their own terms. I guess I can live with that.

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?