Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof (Super Famicom)

Some people call me the space cowboy.

Ever wonder what would happen if you mashed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Earthbound together and plunked the result down in the Wild West? I’m guessing not. Well, maybe you should have, because you’d end up with Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof. Despite not quite living up to its inspirations (and really, how could it?), this comical 1997 action-adventure is a one-of-kind experience that deserved a much better reception than it was destined for as a strange no-name release on a 16-bit console the same month as Final Fantasy VII of all things. Gunman’s Proof went so unnoticed, in fact, that it would serve as an ironically jolly epitaph for developer Lenar, who closed up shop for good later that same year. Bit of a buzz kill there, even if you’re still holding a grudge over their Deadly Towers.

This game is also frequently referred to online as Gunple: Gunman’s Proof. I haven’t been able to determine exactly why or which title is the more correct of the two. The katakana characters ガンプル sound out as “ganpuru,” which is not a proper word, but more likely a portmanteau similar to Famicom or Pokémon derived from the game’s subtitle. Due to this, I’m going with Ganpuru. Feel free to reach out and enlighten me if I’m missing something there.

Gunman’s Proof opens in the 1880s on a small island off the coast of the southwestern United States. Two strange “meteorites” crash into the countryside. One contains extraterrestrial arch-criminal Demi, who promptly begins transforming the local human and animal inhabitants of the land into his monsterous servants, called Demiseeds. The other craft is pilioted by heroic Space Sheriff Zero and his sidekick Goro, two intergalactic lawmen hot on the fugitive Demi’s trail. Unfortunately, Zero’s ship is disabled and his spaceman physiology won’t allow him to survive for long in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s where the young boy character (that you get to name) comes in. Investigating the crash site of Zero and Goro’s ship, your character stumbles upon the pair and selflessly agrees to allow Zero to commandeer his body and use it to put a stop to Demi’s rampage. That’s right: It’s the classic Western tale of the mysterious gunslinger on a one-man crusade to take down a gang of vicious outlaws…except he’s also an alien who’s body-snatched a small child and he battles robots, ghosts, and ninja while riding around on a talking horse that dresses up like Sailor Moon. Gunman’s Proof is the sort of irrepressibly quirky game that could only have come out of Japan and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Seeing as this is an unlocalized title with a focus on humorous dialog, most of you reading this would be advised to seek out the excellent English fan translation patch by Aeon Genesis. I played Gunman’s Proof on a reproduction cartridge that I picked up at a local gaming expo last month, but there are other, more cost-conscious options available online. Although I can’t speak to the literal accuracy of this translation (it includes a reference to the Star Wars prequel movies that couldn’t have been present in the 1997 original, for example), it is well-written and very amusing. It’s possible that I could have fumbled through the game without it, but I’d certainly have had much less fun in that case.

Diving into the game proper, you can’t help but be acutely aware of the huge artistic debt Gunman’s Proof owes to Link to the Past. Now, it’s admittedly a tired review cliché to automatically relate every overhead adventure game ever made to Zelda. I get that. Here, though, the resemblance is so strong that there’s no sense tiptoeing around it. Both the wilderness and indoor areas look so similar to the ones from Nintendo’s game that they may as well have been traced from the originals in many cases. Lenar’s “homaging” even extends to aspects of the play control. The way Zero handles as he climbs staircases, swims in open water, and drops off ledges feels suspiciously similar to a certain green-clad Hyrulean.

Thankfully, the game also incorporates some delightful character designs by manga artist Isami Nakagawa. These lend Gunman’s Proof just enough of a unique visual identity to pass as more than an above-average Zelda ROM hack. The bright colors and vaguely childish “flat” look of the characters have drawn many comparisons to the Mother (Earthbound) series, particularly 2006’s Mother 3, which also features some Western elements. Though there are some superficial similarities, the sprites here have their own charm and never come off outright imitative like the backgrounds do.

If you’re worried thus far that Gunman’s Proof might not be packing enough in the way of originality to be worth your time, fear not. As it happens, the gameplay itself is where it really breaks away from the crowd. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the cryptic puzzles of other adventure games and just wanted to grab a bazooka and go to town on the opposition, this is the title for you. Gunman’s Proof is almost 100% overhead shooting action. There’s nothing standing between you and the bosses of its eight dungeons except a hoard of Demi’s mutant lackeys practically begging for a heaping helping of frontier justice. No switches to toggle, no blocks to push, no keys to find. Just gun all the bastards down.

This non-stop combat feels great, too. Zero’s trusty six-shooter has unlimited ammo and can also be upgraded several times over the course of the game to deal more damage. Holding down the shoulder buttons allows for strafing (the most vital technique to master by far) and you can also crouch and crawl along the ground to avoid enemy fire. Blasting away at the opposition feels much more satisfying to me than the basic short-range sword combat found in most games of this kind, even before I take into account unlockable special abilities like the charge shot and the abundant special weapons that drop from defeated foes. These consist of just a basic shotgun and machine gun at first, but talking to the weapon master in town after you clear each dungeon will gradually add more (and more powerful) guns to the rotation. I’m a fan of the flamethrower, myself. You can only carry one special weapon at a time and shots are limited, but the pickups drop so frequently that you’ll never really feel the need to hold back.

Another important tool in your arsenal is the bombs you’ll find in certain treasure chests. These don’t blow open new paths like the ones from Zelda. Rather, they function more like the “super bomb” attacks that feature in so many shooters, dealing heavy damage to everything on-screen when triggered. They’re an extremely useful, non-renewable resource, so be sure to save them for boss fights.

Zero also has an upgradable punch attack. Honestly, though, its implementation is pretty underwhelming. The gun combat is so effective and enjoyable that I tended to forget that the punch was even an option outside of the one time I needed to use it to destroy some rocks on the overworld. I suppose it might be have been included to allow for self-imposed “no gun” challenge runs and the like. As fun as it is, Gunman’s Proof is an extremely easy game from start to finish, so it makes sense to include a way to handicap yourself. If you’re not actively taking care to slow down, you’re liable to find yourself staring at the end credits in no time.

This nearly nonexistent challenge may not be a big deal for some. Sometimes a low-pressure game is just what the doctor ordered. Fair enough. A more substantial criticism that I can level at Gunman’s Proof would be that some of its peripheral elements feel poorly implemented or even unfinished. There’s an out-of-place arcade style scoring system, for example, that really adds nothing at all to the overall experience. Most (though not all) of the treasure you find in the dungeons has no practical use and instead merely contributes to a score bonus that’s tallied up after you defeat that dungeon’s boss. I had accumulated nearly 40,000,000 points this way by the time I finished the game. Yet, since there seems to be no in-game rewards of any kind for hitting score milestones, it’s tough to care. Forty million? Four hundred million? A trillion? So what! There’s also a monetary system in place, complete with sizable cash rewards doled out by the town sheriff for taking down each of the Demiseed bosses, despite the fact that there’s very little available to buy other than cheap, rarely needed health refill items. I ended the game with maxed-out cash simply because the designers neglected to include anything to spend it on.

It’s tempting to say that Ganpuru: Gunman’s Proof should have been given just a bit more time in the oven so that the development team could fine-tune the difficulty and flesh-out the ancillary mechanics some. Realistically, however, it was late enough to the party already. While the Super Famicom remained a viable platform for new releases slightly longer than the Super Nintendo did, 1997 was still pushing it. As it is, I’m amply pleased by its crazy cowboys-and-aliens plot and exuberant, trigger-happy twist on a sometimes overly familiar gameplay formula. It’s not really deep or refined enough to rate as a true lost classic for the system like Seiken Densetsu 3 or Terranigma, but players who prefer their adventure games on the wacky side will relish any time spent with this one.

As for me, well, let’s just say that I’m not quite ready to ride off into the sunset just yet. Seems there’s another Old West town in dire need of my services. See you again soon, pardner.

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Strip Fighter II (PC Engine)

Witness the world’s saddest high score!

Since I’m still diving into my brand new PC Engine console, I figure I may as well reach even further outside my comfort zone by simultaneously reviewing my first unlicensed title and my first adult game in the infamous Strip Fighter II.

Strange as it seems, the notion of a somewhat shady “unofficial” game release for a console wasn’t always with us. The first widely-adopted home system on the market, Atari’s VCS/2600, came with no specific licensing requirements or other checks placed on third party publishers. Anyone willing to pony up the dough to manufacture and market cartridges could put out their own Atari games. This policy led to such a glut of low quality software that the resulting damage to consumer confidence is often cited as a major contributing factor to the precipitous decline in Atari’s fortunes after 1982. It fell on Nintendo as the next major player in the gaming sphere to institute the more rigid top-down content control measures that have defined console libraries ever since.

This new order spawned its share of resisters who were willing to risk potential legal consequences in order to release games without paying the requisite fealty (and fees) to the console manufacturers. Many NES aficionados have at least a passing familiarity with the prolific Color Dreams and their Christian-themed incarnation Wisdom Tree, for example. What was left of poor Atari’s home games division went so far as to steal the patent information for the NES console’s 10NES security lockout chip and use it to publish several unlicensed titled under the Tengen name.

Another industry tradition with deeper roots than one might expect is the adult (that is, pornographic) video game. These, too, date back to the golden age of the VCS and the earliest mass market home computers. The fact that developers and consumers alike were so intent to realize sexually explicit content on hardware that was literally incapable of displaying realistic human forms says a lot about us. To paraphrase Jurassic Park: Porn, uh, finds a way.

Since mainstream console manufacturers generally don’t like to be associated with outright spank material, unlicensed and adult games go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Though not all unlicensed games showcase racy content, a large proportion of adult titles produced for the console market have been unlicensed.

The undisputed kings of video game sleaze in early 90s Japan were Hacker International. Founded by former music producer Satoru Hagiwara, Hacker distributed dozens of adult titles for Nintendo’s Famicom and NEC’s PC Engine under a host of brand names, including Games Express and Panesian. A handful of their games even made it to the North American NES, albeit in very limited quantities.

The formula was a simple, efficient one: Churn out a barely competent effort in a popular genre as cheaply as possible and then “reward” players for sticking with its sub-par gameplay by periodically flashing a set of cartoon breasts at them. Whether the subject matter is gambling (AV Poker/Peek-A-Boo Poker), puzzles (Soap Panic/Bubble Bath Babes), or fantasy adventure (Lady Sword), you always know what you’re in for. As Hagiwara himself stated in a 2011 interview: “None of the games were all that interesting content-wise…Because they were weak games, a lot of them went down the adult track — we called them ‘semi-adult.'” I appreciate the candor. Regardless of your opinion on Hacker, you certainly can’t call them deluded or pretentious.

Bearing the Games Express name like all of their PC Engine output, 1993’s Strip Fighter II was, obviously, Hacker International’s stab at a head-to-head fighting game. No genre was bigger in the years following Capcom’s worldwide sensation Street Fighter II, so it was really only a matter of time. How is it? Well, you just heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, didn’t you? It’s terrible. Probably the single worst game I’ve reviewed to date, though in fairness, I’m not really the masochistic type and typically stick to material with a stronger pedigree and some measure of positive buzz about it.

I hardly know where to begin sketching out the problems with this one. Let’s start with the playable fighters themselves. There are a paltry six of them in total and, as you might expect, they’re all scantily-clad women. As difficult as that should be to bungle, none of them demonstrate much in the way of personality and their visual designs skew more buffoonish than sexy. One dons an oversized bird headdress and fires off inexplicable energy blasts from her backside, another is a stocky wrestler with a rainbow afro that assaults the opponent with her giant breasts, and so on. The “best” of the lot (like bland Chun-Li clone Yuki) are really only so by virtue of not being notably grotesque.

Choose a fighter from this sorry lot and you’ll soon realize that the combat mechanics leave just as much to be desired as the roster. Jumps are floaty, executing special moves feels highly inconsistent, and there are times when I swear the game just starts dropping controller inputs left and right, leaving me standing there defenseless. By no means am I the sort of fighting game pro that’s going to sweep any tournaments, but I’ve picked up enough in the way of fundamentals over the years to know what’s on me and what’s a matter of shoddy programming, so I can say with confidence that Strip Fighter II’s controls and core gameplay lack anything in the way of care or refinement. The result is choppy, slow, and painfully awkward. It almost goes without saying that amateurish stuff like inescapable re-dizzy attacks are also present. Just a sad mess, really.

In theory, the game supports the six-button controllers that were released in conjunction with the PC Engine port of Street Fighter II. This would be a cool selling point, except for the fact that, in yet another hilarious feat of self-sabotaging laziness, the characters’ weak, medium, and strong attacks all use the same animations, just displayed faster or slower as needed. Quality, thy name is Games Express.

The closest we get to a redeeming feature is the fact that the art and music aren’t the worst on a purely technical level. More frames of character animation, some moving backgrounds, and a wider variety of sound effects might even have nudged this one into average territory. No such luck, however.

“But what about the porn?” I hear you asking. Actually, I take that back. Why not give my audience some credit, right? I’m still going to tell you, though. Winning a match in single player mode will result in the game displaying one of six topless lady pictures. Yes, again just six. I suppose they are fairly well-rendered for the time, especially when compared to their Famicom counterparts, although they only show up on screen for a little less than ten seconds, which it seems to me would make it awfully difficult to put them to their…intended use. Oddly, these nude women seem to be unrelated to any of the game’s selectable fighters. A dirty Street Fighter clone where your defeated opponent has to strip down does seem like the obvious angle to run with, but who am I to question the pixilated titty virtuosos at Hacker International? Note that you’ll only be “treated” to these naughty interludes when playing in single player mode. If you actually want to challenge a friend like the fighting game gods intended, then it’s no boobs for you. It does feel weird to be earnestly criticizing a game for being stingy with the porno, but I’m finding that everyday standards break down fast in the world of unlicensed schlock.

The bottom line is that there’s no pressing reason to bother with Strip Fighter II, especially not for the triple digit prices that physical copies are going for these days. Devoid of any fun factor, it’s a minor curiosity at best. The trashy characters and their questionable special moves are amusing for around ten minutes, tops, which is also about as long as it will take you to triumph over the brain dead A.I. and see all the “goodies” on offer. There’s not even a final boss or a proper ending scene. Nothing ages worse than early generation adult games and this tepid cash-in was no great shakes even in its prime. Some sources online insist on referring to it as a Street Fighter parody, but that’s giving it entirely too much credit.

As for Hacker International, they eventually shed their bad boy image in 1995 when they changed their name to Map Japan and began releasing officially licensed games for the Japanese PlayStation to no great success. They finally folded in 2001, with Hagiwara citing stiff competition and his own waning interest in games as reasons why. Their catalog of 8-bit smut endures today as one of the gaudier footnotes to console gaming history; a kitsch monument to a unique chapter in the complex interwoven sagas of technology, industry, and human sexuality. For better or worse, we’ll never see its like again.

Just kidding. It’s totally for the better.

Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (Super Famicom)

Nothing to see here, folks. Just your average, everyday flying baby.

There are easily dozens of Japanese video game franchises that have never seen an entry published in North America. Many are based on obscure anime and manga licenses with zero overseas recognition factor. Others might be packed with the sort of adult content that tends to get American moral watchdog groups up in arms or be deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture. If there’s a single such series that the average retro gamer has probably at least heard of, it would have to be Konami’s Parodius line of surreal “cute-‘em’-ups.” Even as far back as the late 1990s, I can recall screenshots circulating online along with breathless descriptions of pitched battles against penguin armies, hostile corn on the cob, kitten-headed battleships, scantily clad dancing showgirls, and more. Frankly, I’m amazed it took me this long to dive into the series.

Parodius started its run on Japanese MSX home computers with Parodiusu: Tako wa Chikyū o Sukū (“Parodius: The Octopus Saves the Earth”) in 1988. As the name hints, Parodius is a parody of the legendary space shooter Gradius and its many sequels. This is neither the time nor the place to go into a ton of detail on the Gradius games. Suffice to say that the original Gradius from 1985 is probably the single most influential horizontally scrolling shooter ever made. Like Double Dragon, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Bros., or Doom, it wasn’t the first of its kind, but it had just the right combination of groundbreaking new features and fortuitous timing needed to become emblematic of an entire genre for decades to come.

A total of five proper Parodius titles were released before the series fizzled out in 1996. The one I’m looking at today is the fourth entry, 1995’s Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius (“Chatting Parodius Live”) for the Super Famicom.

Parodius games aren’t known for their complex plots and this one is no exception. An introductory cut scene (presented in a super grave, melodramatic style right out of a Gundam anime) depicts a mob of angry chickens, moai heads, and other classic series baddies flying toward the earth while ominous music plays. In a nice touch, all the player characters from previous games that were omitted from the roster this time around have also joined up with the enemy fleet to get revenge for being snubbed by the developers. It’s up to your sixteen heroes to stop them.

You heard right: There are sixteen playable characters available here, each with their own unique suite of weapons and power-ups. In addition to series staples like the Vic Viper and Lord British ships from Gradius and the TwinBee and WinBee ships from TwinBee, you can also select from a motley crew of penguins, cats, fairies, babies, octopuses, and even dancing stick figures riding paper airplanes. Though the variety can be a tad bewildering at first, experimenting with all these different “ships” in order to suss out which best suit your personal playstyle is a big part of the fun. Genre savvy players will also notice that many of the characters have weapon loadouts intended to mimic those from other, non-Konami shooters. Mike the cat’s armaments are patterned on the ship from Taito’s Darius, for example, while infant Upa’s were inspired by Seibu Kaihatsu’s Raiden. It’s no wonder that the credits at the end of Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius enthusiastically declare “We love shooting games!”

A couple months back, I played through Konami Wai Wai World for the Famicom, a 1988 game that anticipated later crossover releases like Super Smash Bros. by combining a ton of different Konami characters and settings into a single fanservicey package. Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is essentially the same idea, except presented as a shooter instead of a platformer. This applies not just to the playable cast, but to the game’s eight stages as well. While the stage themes in other Parodius games tended to be based on whatever wacky concepts caught the developers’ fancies, the ones in this installment are different in that they’re mostly spoofs of other Konami games and franchises. You’ll find yourself blasting your way through levels based on Gonbare Goemon (aka Legend of the Mystical Ninja), TwinBee, Gradius III, Xexex, and even the light gun shooter Lethal Enforcers and the Tokimeki Memorial high school dating simulators. The sole level that doesn’t seem to be based on a specific Konami game is the first, which instead has a penguin disco theme, complete with a rousing remix of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” complimenting the action.

What’s the deal with the title, though? How does live chatting factor into all this? Well, the cartridge includes a special expansion chip, the SA1. Beyond boosting the console’s processing speed considerably, the SA1 also enables data compression. It’s this latter feature that allowed the developers to cram a massive amount of digitized speech samples into the game. These take the form of a running gameplay commentary by a very excited old Japanese man. In his opening speech at the start of the game, he identifies himself as Tako, the octopus hero of the first Parodius. I’ve heard that his dialog is mostly a mixture of gameplay hints, corny jokes, and mocking you whenever you lose a life. Personally, I can’t understand a word of it and generally turn the commentary track off in the options.

Gameplay is mostly textbook Gradius. You’ll fly from left to right, shooting down waves of enemies on the way to the stage boss and keeping your eyes peeled for the all-important power-up capsules. Collecting these cycles through the various upgrades listed on your power-up bar in turn. Once the upgrade you want is highlighted, you can cash in your capsules to equip it, which then starts the whole process over again. Getting hit and losing a life removes all your active power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint earlier in the stage. Also present are the gold bell items from the TwinBee series. Picking these up gives you bonus points. If you shoot the bells repeatedly first, however, they’ll change to a number of different colors that each grant you a temporary boon instead. These include invincibility or a single-use screen clearing bomb attack. One last thing to watch out for are the hidden fairies, which are revealed by shooting at seemingly empty parts of each stage. There are 70 of these in total and collecting them all will unlock a stage select feature. A two player option is available, although it’s sadly not simultaneous and involves the players alternating turns whenever one of them loses a life.

These are the basics, but Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius goes above and beyond by providing the player with some very extensive option menus. In addition to customizing the button layout, you can choose how many lives you start with, whether you’ll respawn instantly when you die or be sent back to a checkpoint, and even whether you want to manage your power-up bar yourself or have the computer purchase upgrades for you automatically. Best of all are the many difficulty options. Play ranges all the way from childishly simple on the lowest settings to a downright hellish ordeal on the highest. I started out using the default settings and found it to be a very happy medium. The action was just hectic enough that I had to pay attention and focus, yet not so crazy that I had undue trouble making progress once I did. Unusually for a game of this kind, the cartridge even includes a save battery so that it can keep track of your option settings, high scores, and fairies collected between sessions. The combination of so many distinct player characters and so many meaningful ways to tweak the gameplay itself results in an unprecedented degree of replay value for a shooter of its time.

Between its sheer depth and breadth, the sterling audiovisual polish you’d expect from Konami, and the pure weirdness factor, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius is easily the best shooter I’ve played to date on Nintendo’s 16-bit machine. The only thing that comes close to holding it back is the slowdown. Even with that SA1 chip working overtime, there’s often more action taking place on screen than the hardware can easily juggle. While the framerate doesn’t chug as often or as badly as it does in, say, Gradius III and Super R-Type, it’s still a far cry from silky smooth much of the time. Apart from that annoyance, this is a remarkable game that every classic shooter fan should experience, either in this original incarnation or via one of the later enhanced ports to the PlayStation, Saturn, or PSP.

With everything it has to offer, I know I’ll be revisiting Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius regularly to try out new characters, new strategies, and higher difficulties. Plus, it’s the only game where I can nuke a skyscraper-sized anime schoolgirl with homing missiles. So far.

Holy Diver (Famicom)

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

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

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

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some 80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a 1989 Famicom release called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or, perhaps, a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

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

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side-scrolling action platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world.

The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now bring on year two of that backlog!

Magical Pop’n (Super Famicom)

Pop’n and lock’n!

Dang. There are cute games, there are really cute games, and then there’s Magical Pop’n. This 1995 action platformer is bristling with weapons-grade preciousness and comes to us courtesy of developer Polestar and publisher Pack-In-Video. Neither of these defunct outfits are exactly household names, and that might be part of the reason why Magical Pop’n was never officially released outside its native land. It’s a real pity, because I feel quite confident declaring that it would be remembered as a much-loved classic by Super Nintendo fans worldwide if it had been. Instead, it’s never seen any sort of re-release or sequel and original copies command insane prices in the hundreds or thousands of dollars on online auction sites. Thank the pixilated gods above for reproduction cartridges!

Magical Pop’n is the tale of an adorable little princess named…nothing, actually. Hey, it’s still better than Prin Prin. Anyway, the Princess sets off to retrieve a magic gem of supreme power that’s stolen from her father’s castle by the wicked Demon King and his minions in the opening cut scene. Her journey takes her through six very large levels filled with branching paths and secrets.

For a little kid, the Princess has some serious moves. She can run, jump, crouch, crawl and slide along the ground, and perform a number of sword attacks from these different positions. She also starts out with the ability to shoot beams of light at her foes in exchange for a few magic points, which are represented by star icons. Along the way, she’ll find and learn five types of new magic, as well. Most magic spells serve a dual purpose, functioning as both supplementary attacks and as a means of bypassing specific stage obstacles. The magical chain, for example, can be used to strike enemies and as a grappling hook to swing from certain outcroppings in Bionic Commando style. There are even magical desperation attacks that you can trigger with the select button. These will usually damage all enemies on screen in exchange for consuming significantly more of your magic points than normal. All of these moves are easy to execute and flow together very naturally, so the combat and platforming both feel great.

Levels include a city, a forest, mountainous caverns, a castle in the clouds, and more. Each one allows for a good amount of exploration and falls somewhere between Super Mario and Metroid in terms of openness. Their structure is linear in that you can’t revisit a stage after you’ve defeated its final boss, but still open enough that using a new magic ability acquired in a given stage will often allow you go back and access areas of that same stage that were sealed off or out of reach when you passed by them the first time. Doing this is the key to finding hidden treasure chests that will refill your health and magic, grant you extra lives, and even expand your health meter permanently with extra hearts. There are at least two bosses to battle in every stage, and some of the later ones have three or more. These fights are pretty fun, and while each stage’s final boss is suitably large and impressive looking, some of the sub-bosses reappear (with minor upgrades) in later stages. This sort of enemy recycling is pretty common in these sorts of games, however.

As an action game, Magic Pop’n is sheer joy. It’s fast-paced, presents plenty to see and do, and gives the player a ton of options for varied approaches to the battles and other challenges at hand. Once you pick it up, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away until all six stages have been conquered.

There’s still one thing that manages to impress even more than the gameplay, though, and it’s the insanely adorable presentation. This is obviously a late release for the system. The animation on the Princess and her adversaries is silky smooth and rendered with tremendous attention to detail. I love the way she covers her face with her hat when crouching, bounces on her butt after a long fall, pinwheels her arms and looks panicked when perched over a ledge, the list goes on and it’s all so freakin’ cute. The number of distinct animation frames puts this one nearly on par with a 2D game on a 32-bit console. The brilliant use of color bears mentioning, too. Magical Pop’n almost has the look of a PC Engine game with its super bold and bright palette, and that’s a style I just adore.

Then there’s the game’s real claim to fame in its day: The Princess talks! Veterans of the 16-bit era might be recoiling at this prospect already, hellish memories of Bubsy the Bobcat or even (shudder!) Awesome Possum flooding their minds. Let’s just say that most early experiments with chatty protagonists in platforming games were wretched, nails-on-chalkboard failures. Against all odds, Magical Pop’n pulls this trick off, too! The Princess is voiced by Japanese media personality Ai Iijima, who provided a separate voice clip for just about every action the Princess takes and even speaks the name of the game on the title screen. The voice samples are all clear sounding, thoroughly charming, and somehow never grow tiresome or obnoxious. I particularly like the “Yatta!” (“I did it!”) when finding an important item and her “Majikaru Bomba!” super bomb attack. The music is also excellent, with memorable melodies that start out peppy and upbeat in the earlier stages and grow increasingly heavy and driving as you near the final conflict with the Demon King. It reminds me of Little Nemo: The Dream Master in that sense. I guess I’m just a sucker for soundtracks that have a progression of sorts that mirrors that of the game as a whole.

Magical Pop’n is by no means a very challenging game. There’s a generous health bar, plenty of life-replenishing candy and cakes be found, no instant death hazards in the stages, numerous chances to earn extra lives, and unlimited continues. Some might see this as a negative. Me, I’ve been playing so many tough games lately that I found it to be a breath of fresh air. Now, I enjoy the whole do-or-die, “eye of the tiger” hardcore gaming struggle routine as much as the next person…Oh, who am I kidding? The next person’s got nothing on me there. Still, I need look no further than classics like DuckTales or Super Castlevania IV to appreciate that there’s a place for relatively forgiving games that you can just kick back and breeze your way through when you’re not feeling quite so intense. Magical Pop’n fits that bill nicely.

One final thing I can thank this game for is introducing me to the fascinating individual that was Ai Iijima, the voice of the Princess. Her journey took her from teenage runaway and abuse survivor, to adult video sensation, to bestselling author and mainstream media superstar, to an abrupt retirement and a lonely death by pneumonia as a recluse at the young age of 36. Her’s was a singular and remarkable life, encompassing more dizzying heights and desperate lows than most of us will never know. Along the way, she also breathed life into one of the most lovable little heroines to grace the world of gaming. Magical indeed. Rest in peace, Your Highness.

Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (Famicom)

Why anyone would want this brat back always confused me.

I figured that after playing through Clock Tower, I might as well take on the other weird old Japanese game in my collection where you play as Jennifer Connelly. This is 1987’s Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (“Maze of the Goblin King”) from Tokuma Shoten. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s based on Jim Henson’s cult classic children’s fantasy film Labyrinth from the previous year.

Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl named Sarah Williams who makes the perfectly understandable mistake of wishing that her little brother Toby would disappear. Her wish is unexpectedly granted by Jareth the Goblin King, memorably portrayed by the late David Bowie and his rampaging crotch bulge. Jareth tells Sarah that she has thirteen hours to reach the center of his enchanted maze before Toby transforms into a goblin forever. For me, this movie has it all: Catchy musical numbers, the campy, vampy Bowie at his best, and magnificent production design based on the fantasy art of Brian Froud brought to life through stunning puppetry from Henson and company at the height of their powers. Unfortunately, critics and audiences at the time of Labyrinth’s release disagreed, and the film only made back half of its budget during its initial theatrical run. At least in the U.S.

An obscure act being “big in Japan” is a cliché in the music world. Tom Waits even did a whole song about it. Well, it turns out that it applies to movies, too, because Labyrinth attracted a rather large following across the Pacific. I’m glad it did, because this Famicom release is not only a fantastic game, it’s one of the best film-to-game adaptations of its era.

The gameplay in Labyrinth is difficult to pigeonhole. The closest direct inspiration is probably Atari’s arcade classic Gauntlet. Players guide Sarah through thirteen overhead view maze levels searching for pieces of the key needed to free Toby from his cell in the Goblin King’s castle, all while enduring attacks by an endless stream of respawning monsters. While getting hit by enemies will lower Sarah’s health, it will also slowly deplete on its own. This is because the thirteen hour time limit that Sarah has to rescue Toby also functions as her health and every hit sustained drains away precious seconds from the timer. There are certain items scattered throughout the labyrinth that can restore a bit of lost time, but if the clock runs down, it’s an instant game over. There are no extra lives and no continues. At least Sarah can throw rocks to defend herself from the goblin hordes. The enemies reappear as fast as you can defeat them, though, and the clock is always ticking, so it’s usually a better idea to just keep moving and avoid unnecessary battles as much as possible as you navigate the mazes.

These are some serious mazes, too. You have areas that wrap around on themselves, ones that scramble your directional controls around so that even basic movement becomes a challenge, teleporters, shifting scenery, one-way stairs, false exits that send you all the way back to the start of the level, and more. Labyrinth isn’t quite the hardcore headscratcher that something like Adventures of Lolo or Legacy of the Wizard is, but you’ll still need to bring some significant brain power to bear if you hope to make it to the end. This mixture of puzzling level layouts and non-stop frantic action, all under a strict time limit with no second chances, really makes for an intense, memorable gaming experience.

Thankfully, Sarah isn’t alone on her quest. The Wiseman provides encouragement and warps you between the game’s various stages. He’ll also dispense permanent upgrades to Sarah’s offense and defense in exchange for the special coins hidden around the labyrinth. The adorable Worm appears in most stages and sells useful items. Finally, there are Sarah’s three stalwart companions, Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus. Picking up hearts and music boxes will allow Sarah to call one of the trio to aid her in fending off the game’s many enemies for a time.

As much as I love the core gameplay, the most remarkable thing about Labyrinth to me is what a great job it does representing its cinematic source material. Old school gamers are no strangers to licensed games that happily ignore just about every detail of the property they’re supposedly based on. If the games in question turn out good enough, like Sunsoft’s 8-bit Batman releases, this doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw. It always represents a bit of a missed opportunity, though. Labyrinth gets this right. Every major character from the film serves an important role in the gameplay. The Wiseman and Worm provide advice and useful items, Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus help out in combat, and even Jareth himself will appear periodically to rapidly drain your all-important timer. This attention to detail even extends to little things like how the hot-blooded Sir Didymus will rush ahead of Sarah, eager to confront the enemy, while the slower and more cautious Hoggle will trail behind her. The various stages are based on locations from the movie, as well. You’ll visit the Oubliette, the Hedge Maze, the Bog of Eternal Stench, The Enchanted Forest, and more. Even the ballroom where Sarah and Jareth share a dance is represented here. The music follows suit, with almost every track being an excellent chiptune rendition of a song from the movie. Even if you don’t already know these melodies, you’ll still probably agree that the soundtrack is great by the system’s standards. This is still a Famicom game and various technical and practical limitations prevent it from faithfully re-creating every single scene from the film, but I can’t think of another contemporary licensed title that does a better job of capturing what made its inspiration worth adapting in the first place.

Simply put, Labyrinth is one hell of a game and there’s nothing else quite like it for the console. It challenges your reasoning and reflexes in equal measure and does it with style. I’d call it a certified lost classic. There is one potential stumbling block for some players, though. You see, this game is tough. Really tough. Even if you have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing and where to go, a full playthrough of Labyrinth will likely take you a good two hours or so. If you don’t already know the correct path through the game’s levels, you have virtually no chance to complete the game on your first run due to the strict time limit. It’s going to take multiple attempts before you get it all down. The enemies in this game are also utterly relentless and will attack you from all sides constantly. Even if you’re not moving around and scrolling the screen, they just keep pouring in at all times. Compounding this mess, Sarah has a lengthy stun period each time she’s hit. If she gets cornered by multiple strong enemies, they can easily lock her down in place and rapidly deplete your precious time. Did I mention you only get one life? Running out of time 90 minutes or more into a session can be pretty heartbreaking, so the best advice I can give is to figure out which enemies in each area are the most dangerous and take advantage of the game’s programming to get around them. Just walk away from the enemy until it’s off the screen and this will cause it to disappear and hopefully be replaced by a less dangerous foe. This doesn’t always work, especially against the faster enemies, but it’s usually better than the grisly alternative. Once you learn the levels and become proficient at evading the more powerful monsters, the game does get a lot more manageable. Just be patient and keep at it.

I played this one using the original Famicom cartridge, which did present some challenges. Learning which line in the shop menu corresponds to which item being one of them. It’s doable with a little experimentation, but there is a fan translation available online (and on reproduction cartridges) if you’d rather save yourself the slight hassle. As a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy the game’s dialog, which I imagine would be very helpful in understanding the plot if you’ve never seen the film.

If you enjoy puzzles, mazes, high stakes action games in general, or just the classic movie it’s based on, you owe it to yourself to check out Labyrinth for the Famicom. It reminds me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power. What power? Power of voodoo. Who do? You do. Do what? Remind me of the babe.

King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (Famicom)

Next up: Ping pong in Hong Kong!

What do you get when you combine the worst King Kong film with the best Famicom developer? Konami’s King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (“Megaton Punch of Fury”) from 1986. Based on the critically panned film King Kong Lives, this is an overhead view action game where the player guides Kong through nine interconnected levels in an effort to rescue his mate Lady Kong, who’s been kidnapped by the military.

Popular culture as a whole has seemingly agreed to just forget about the 1976 King Kong remake from Paramount, but it was a pretty big hit at the time. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, later founded his own short-lived film studio and was clearly banking on lightning striking twice when he put out the much lower budget King Kong Lives (also known as King Kong 2) a decade later. Did it pay off? Roger Ebert probably said it best: “The problem with everyone in King Kong Lives is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”

While this is right on the nose for the most part, I can say that the scene where the injured Kong gets an artificial heart implanted via crane was memorably strange. How exactly does one sterilize a crane? Kong’s also pursuing a lady gorilla this time around, having learned the important lesson that bestiality is not the solution to any of life’s problems. Some real positive character development for our hero there.

Ikari no Megaton Punch makes the best of a bad situation by smartly jettisoning all the tedious human characters from the movie and focusing on what audiences wanted in the first place: Non-stop giant ape mayhem. After a short cut scene where a distraught Kong breaks out of his prison and heads off to rescue his girl, it’s smashing time.

While the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective might remind NES vets of Jackal, King Kong 2 is a slower-paced and much less linear experience. The goal of each stage (“world”) is simple: Survive enemy attacks long enough to find the room containing the boss monster and defeat it. This will give you one of the eight keys needed to open the final door in world nine and rescue Lady Kong. The door to the boss room usually won’t be sitting out in plain sight, however, and that’s where the destructible scenery comes into play. Every screen is cluttered with buildings, rocks, trees, and other objects that Kong can destroy with his punches or by jumping on them. You’ll want to pulverize everything you can, even if you’ve already beaten the current world’s boss, since the many hidden rooms revealed this way are also where you find important power-ups and the doors leading to the other worlds. World two, for example, has doors leading to worlds one, three, four, and five. This complex and occasionally confusing network of warps between worlds means that you can effectively explore them and gather the eight keys in any order you wish, although the higher numbered worlds do have more difficult enemies and are probably best saved until after you’ve collected some health and ammo upgrades.

Ammo? Well, before you get too excited over the idea of King Kong brandishing a machine gun, I should clarify that your projectile attack in this game is rocks. These fly in a grenade-like arc and explode upon hitting the ground. Kong can carry a maximum of twenty at the start of his journey and each upgrade you collect will increase that by ten. You switch between your standard punch attack and rocks by pressing select. My advice would be to save these for the bosses, since a rapid fire stream of rocks will take out any of them very quickly.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay here. You smash everything in sight to find secret doors and occasionally fight a boss. It’s simple, but fairly satisfying. The sound effects help out a lot by lending a distinct sense of power to Kong’s punches and stomps. Seeing the screen shake and hearing a nice robust crunch as you level an office building really makes you feel that much more like an unstoppable beast. Not bad for a fairly early Famicom title.

Another mechanic that reflects the source material pretty well is how tough Kong is. You’re under constant attack by hoards of enemies on almost every screen, but Kong can soak up so much punishment that the tiny tanks, helicopters, and other foes feel so many gnats to him. As a giant movie monster simulator, Ikari no Megaton Punch is miles ahead of poor Godzilla’s sorry 8-bit outings.

You don’t just fight military vehicles in this game, though, and that’s where things get downright odd. Many of the enemies you’ll encounter have absolutely nothing to do with the King Kong mythos and are just there because video game adaptations in the 1980s could get away with anything as long we the end result was playable. World three looks like it was ripped straight out of The Guardian Legend, complete with alien blobs and fanged mouths pursuing you. Then there’s the vicious attack ducks from world eight and the flying scallop boss. Yes, this is a game where King Kong punches a scallop. I’m not about to hold any of this against Konami, though. The film was stupefyingly dull and I’ll take killer bivalves over a bored Linda Hamilton just staring at you for half the game any day.

You’re given limited lives and no continues with which to complete King Kong 2, but I didn’t find the difficulty level to be particularly high overall. As mentioned, Kong has so much health that the common enemies will have a hard time bringing him down and the bosses aren’t too bad as long as you have enough rocks to pelt them with. In addition, collecting keys and certain power-ups will fully heal you and grinding health drops from the easier enemies when you start to get low is yet another survival option. The biggest threats to your progress by far are bottomless pits (which kill instantly) and getting lost when you forget which doors lead to which worlds. Thankfully, not every world has pits. Just be extra careful in the ones that do.

Ikari no Megaton Punch isn’t a spectacular game by any means. As a vintage Konami title, it’s competent enough to dump a couple hours into with no regrets, but it’s a bit too cryptic, unfocused, and repetitive to join the ranks of their many timeless classics. The movie’s fate as a box office bomb was also sealed well before the localization process would have wrapped on the game, likely explaining why it never left Japan.

If you’re on the lookout for solid English-friendly Famicom titles or you’re a Konami fanatic hunting for deep cuts to sample, King Kong 2 definitely beats a nosedive off a skyscraper. The movie? Eh. Flip a coin, maybe.