Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (Super Famicom)

Eh. Save the city. Trash it with an out-of-control giant robot. Those are basically the same, right?

I couldn’t find enough good things to say after my most recent playthrough of Konami’s Super Nintendo cult classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja last summer. This colorful multiplayer platformer remains one of the crown jewels of the system, as fresh and funny now as it was back in 1992. Without rehashing too much from that review, Mystical Ninja was the fifth installment of a long-running series of humorous action games based on the exploits of Japanese bandit folk hero Ishikawa Goemon. It was also the first to be released in North America. We wouldn’t see another Ganbare Goemon adventure until 1998 on the Nintendo 64. In the meantime, we missed out on all three of Mystical Ninja’s Super Famicom sequels.

When I got the urge to revisit the series recently, I decided to pick up right where I left off with Mystical Ninja’s immediate follow-up, Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (“Let’s Go Goemon 2: Very Strange General McGuinness”). It was a great choice, as GG2 is a textbook example of a successful sequel. It takes the already proven core gameplay of the previous title and smooths over its few rough spots while packing in still more in the way of depth and variety. Most important of all for a Goemon game, the irreverent Saturday morning cartoon take on Japanese myth that made the last installment stand out so much to Western audiences remains in full effect.

As our story begins, Goemon and his loyal parter Ebisumaru are enjoying some well-earned vacation time on the sandy beaches of Okinawa. Their repose is soon interrupted by a former foe, the clockwork ninja Sasuke. He’s not here to fight the heroes this time, however, but rather to deliver a warning: The eccentric foreigner General McGuinness has invaded Goemon’s home town of Edo with his army of equal parts ruthless and adorable bunny men. McGuinness is determined to Westernize the country and, adding insult to injury, he’s also taken a shine to Goemon’s main squeeze Omitsu and spirited her away to his flying fortress. This outrage clearly cannot stand, so the trio set off on a cross-country journey to give the barbarians the boot.

After this opening cut scene, you’re presented with a welcome sight: A character select screen! Prior games had the first player automatically controlling Goemon and the second player controlling Ebisumaru when applicable. Here, you can choose freely between Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke. In addition, they each have their own unique abilities based on a system of tradeoffs common in action-platformers: Goemon is the average, well-rounded fighter with no particular strengths or weaknesses, portly Ebisumaru boasts great attack power at the expense of jumping ability, and petite Sasuke is the comparatively weak high-jumper of the group.

Of course, I went with my main man Ebisumaru! Loosely modeled on another celebrated outlaw from history, Nakamura Jirokichi (also known as Nezumi Kozō; “Rat Boy”), he’s long been my favorite Gonbare Goemon character. What’s not to love about a flamboyant, gluttonous wannabe ladies’ man that sends his enemies flying over the horizon with a single swipe of a paper fan? Anyone who manages to stand out as the comic relief in a 100% comedy-oriented game series has to be doing something right in my book.

There have been a few key changes to the level structure, as well. Ganbare Goemon 2 is still primarily a side-scrolling platformer, except now it’s no longer divided up into distinct chapters that the player must tackle in a set order. Instead, each level appears as a colored dot on a stylized map of Japan that functions just like the world map from Super Mario World. As in that game, this means that the player is frequently offered a choice of which stage to visit next and not every stage necessarily needs to be cleared in order to reach the end. Furthermore, most levels can be freely revisited after completion and some contain hidden alternate exits that open up new paths on the world map when found.

Although the 3/4 view town segments from Mystical Ninja are still present here, they’ve been reimagined so as to be a much less prominent part of the gameplay overall. You’ll still want to visit towns often in order to chat up the locals (keep your eyes peeled for cameos from other Konami heroes), buy power-ups from the shops, and play some of the seemingly endless selection of mini-games, but you’ll no longer have to worry about fighting for your life while you’re at it. Other than the odd pickpocket looking to make off with a chunk of your cash, the kill-crazed pedestrians that swarmed you in the last game are nowhere to be found here. I’ll take less stressful shopping over that any day.

The biggest change by far comes via the introduction of fan favorite Goemon Impact. Apparently, the gang over at Konami must have figured that this series just wasn’t quite Japanese enough yet, because they gave Goemon and crew their very own skyscraper-sized sentai robo to ride around in. One that looks like a humongous version of Goemon himself and cruises around on roller skates shooting exploding coins from its nostrils. Naturally.

Each of the game’s three giant robot sections are divided into two distinct phases. The first sees you piloting Impact from a side-view perspective through an auto-scrolling obstacle course of enemy buildings and vehicles. You don’t really have to worry about dying here. The point is more to smash up as much of the scenery as possible in order to earn bonus health and ammo for the real fight to come against one of McGuinness’ mechs, which is presented from a first-person cockpit view.

These first-person battles are, unfortunately, one of the game’s few low points for me. They play out a bit like the boxing matches in a Punch-Out!! game, with each enemy robot having its own pattern of attacks to learn and counter. That seems promising until you factor in the sluggish controls. You can raise Impact’s arms with the L and R buttons to block attacks, but this action is quite delayed. So much so, in fact, that fast reactions are largely removed from the equation. If you don’t know exactly what’s coming and when, you’re in for a bad time. Impact’s punch attacks also rarely seem to come out as quickly as you might prefer. I think I see what the designers were going for with this setup. Impact is a huge machine, so making him somewhat unwieldy conveys that organically through the controls themselves. The problem is that the resulting focus on trial-and-error memorization over split-second judgement calls isn’t very engaging. You’re extremely unlikely to defeat any of these guys on your first try, no matter how good you are. At least the game’s unlimited continues and battery save feature mean you can practice all you want without fear of losing any progress.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this if I were you, though. Sure, they didn’t quite hit this aspect of the game out of the park on their first try, but it is only three levels we’re talking about and Impact still makes for some awesome 16-bit spectacle. Any first-person action on the system that predates the Super FX chip and isn’t a complete train wreck has to count for something.

Besides, the primary focus of the game is still right where it belongs: On the platforming. Ganbare Goemon 2 showcases both more and more diverse platforming stages than its predecessor. There aren’t as many here as there are in Super Mario World, for example, but there’s more than twice as many as in Mystical Ninja and each one seems to have a unique gimmick of some kind. These include vehicles the heroes can pilot (similar to the ride armors from Mega Man X), an auto-scrolling stage on the back of a flying dragon, and crossing a sea of hot cooking oil on the backs of oversized tempura shrimp. It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re under no obligation to make sense. Two player simultaneous play also makes a comeback, along with the welcome ability for one player to literally carry the other in order to make the trickier jumps more manageable.

Mystical Ninja was one of the best looking early releases on the platform and this sequel ups the ante even more with larger character sprites and more detailed backgrounds. The results are phenomenal. I’m more divided on the soundtrack, some of which strays a bit from the classical Japanese shamisen and bamboo flute style of the last game by incorporating more rock, swing, and the like. On one hand, this can be seen as a direct reflection of the game’s central theme of Western influences forcing their way into a traditional Japanese setting. That’s neat. On the other hand, these more modern sounding tracks simply aren’t as distinctive when compared to others on the system. In either case, the compositions and instruments remain consistently great, so it’s not exactly the end of the world.

In short, Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu is yet another tour de force from the creative powerhouse that was Konami. It manages to correctly key in on the mixture of offbeat humor and thrilling platforming that made Mystical Ninja tick and serve up more of the same while simultaneously moving the series forward through the introduction of a playable Sasuke and the mighty Impact. A few of its more experimental elements would benefit from fine tuning down the line, but this installment of the Gonbare Goemon saga still holds up today as an eminently satisfying action romp that you don’t need to be able to understand the Japanese language to enjoy.

Just tell ’em Rat Boy sent you.

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Monster World IV (Mega Drive)

Too real, genie. Too real.

Back in February, I played through the fifth game in Westone’s Wonder Boy series: Wonder Boy in Monster World. Regrettably, I was none too impressed by that game’s flat presentation, unexceptional level design, and achingly slow combat. Among the options I presented in passing for a more satisfying action-adventure experience on the Genesis/Mega Drive was WBiMW’s Japan-exclusive sequel, Monster World IV. I’ve since acquired a lovely English-translated reproduction copy of this superior sequel, so I figure this a fine opportunity to give it the detailed treatment it deserves.

Monster World IV is the sixth and final game in the series, though it forgoes the Wonder Boy name completely, owing to its new protagonist, the green-haired Asha. A simple switch to Wonder Girl in order to maintain brand recognition seems like the obvious way to go. I suppose marketing departments work in mysterious ways.

One day, Asha hears voices on the wind fortelling doom for Monster World. Being the hero type, she promptly takes up her sword, bids her family farewell, and sets out from her remote village to help however she can. Arriving at a monster infested tower in the wilderness, she defeats its guardians and discovers a magic lamp housing a sarcastic genie that swiftly whisks her away to the bustling capital city of Rapadagna. Here the true nature of the threat to Monster World is slowly revealed.

As in previous series entries, the focus here is firmly on side-scrolling dungeon exploration and amassing the ever-larger reserves of gold needed to upgrade your hero’s arms and armor along the way. That being said, I’m happy to report that Monster World IV brings with it significant play control enhancements that make this process more fun that ever before. Like Shion in the previous game, Asha can jump, climb ropes, swing her weapon, and block incoming attacks with her shield. New to this installment, she can also dash and execute upward and downward sword thrusts similar to the ones seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. These additions alone result in platforming and combat that’s faster and more strategic than ever before by series standards.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also Asha’s pepelogoo to consider. Pepe who now? Well, it turns out that pet pepelogoos are are all the rage in Rapadagna. Asha encounters hers not long after arriving in the city and the two are inseparable after that. These insanely adorable rabbit/cat hybrid critters fly through the air by flapping their ears and are basically Pokémon before Pokémon was a thing. They may not look it, but they’re also the Swiss Army knife of dungeon exploration. Asha relies on hers to double jump, glide, flip switches, sniff out secret doors, act as an improvised platform, and much more.

Between Asha and her newfound friend, there’s so much to master that you’ll likely barely notice that the magic system from Wonder Boy in Monster World wasn’t carried forward. Really, it’s no great loss. You still have your magic lamp to return you to town instantly when you’re low on health in a dungeon and the remainder of the offensive spells from the last game are less necessary due to you having more attack options available by default this time around.

In other good news, the dungeons in Monster World IV have been reworked with an eye toward enhancing both their length and complexity. Some of the longer ones can easily require an hour or more to complete and proper puzzles (most of which revolve around creative pepelogoo use) play a much bigger role than before. This is a dramatic improvement over the short, simple dungeons of WBiMW, which derived most of their challege simply from being packed to the gills with tough enemies and high damage traps.

Of course, I have to mention Monster World IV’s stupendous graphics. These are some of the lushest backgrounds and best-animated sprites ever to grace Sega’s 16-bit machine. This might be the most Super Nintendo looking Mega Drive game I’ve ever encountered, if that makes any sense. The use of color is so sublime that the results seem almost too vivid for the hardware. There’s even one spellbinding sequence that appears to make use of a Mode 7 type background scaling effect! I’m guessing that it’s actually accomplished via sprite scaling, similar to the pseudo-3D objects in classic Sega arcade games like Space Harrier, but it still took me by surprise. Great stuff.

There’s some equally great art direction informing all this technical wizardry, too. Monster World IV makes use of a whimsical Arabian Nights fantasy setting, replete with flashing scimitars, flying carpets, and the aforementioned genie of the lamp. In this way, it recalls Culture Brain’s The Magic of Scheherazade and anticipates WayForward’s Shantae. While it’s a fairly standard hero’s journey tale at heart (albeit one with some genuinely amusing dialog throughout and a nice twist toward the end), I appreciate the effort made to give it a unique visual identity when compared to the rest of the series.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, there’s a lot to love about this one and I throughly enjoyed my time spent in Asha’s pointy-toed shoes. There are a few caveats worth mentioning, however. Nothing dealbreaking, at least not for me, but certainly worth being aware of up front.

For one thing, I found the music by Jin Watanabe to be a uniquely frustrating case. The quality of the audio itself is impeccable. These are some of the best sounding instruments I’ve ever heard on the console. Again, they’re practically Super Nintendo caliber. Unfortunately, all this production is wasted on some very limited compositions. The choice was made to have most of the game’s music tracks be based on variations of the main theme. I’m not against musical leitmotif as such. Used judiciously, it can link two scenes together emotionally in a manner both subtle and powerful. Look (or rather listen) no further than Quintet’s Terranigma for proof of that. Here, though, It just comes off like the composer was too rushed or indifferent to come up with more melodies and that’s a shame. It’s not bad, mind you. They just could have done so much more with this pristine FM synth quality.

On the gameplay side, Monster World IV is just about as linear and streamlined as an adventure game can get before it ceases to be an adventure game entirely and falls instead under the action-platformer umbrella. There’s only one town, Rapadagna, and it contains the entrances to all of the game’s dungeons in one central hub room. Furthermore, you must visit each of these dungeons in a proscribed sequence and each becomes permanently inaccessible after you defeat its boss. In short, there’s no sequence breaking, no side questing, and no backtracking. The only difference between this and setup and, say, Super Mario Bros. is merely that you have the option to stroll through town between stages to hit up the shops for some new equipment or see if any NPC dialog has changed. Still, as stated in rapturous detail above, Asha’s adventure is so well-designed and excuted that you probably won’t mind that it takes place entirely on rails. Probably.

For my money, Monster World IV is Westone’s masterpiece. It’s far and away the high point of the series, handily surpassing even the excellent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap. Non-Japanese gamers got the short end of the stick yet again when we were denied this one back in 1994. If you’re not a physical media die hard like me, an official English language version is available as a download for the PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360. At least it is at the time of this writing. Online game distribution being as fickle as it it, there may again come a time when the good old fan translation is the only game in town. In the grand scheme of things, that’s one of the best things about retro gaming: When the big publishers let you down, the fan community swoops in to save your butt like a true blue pepelogoo.

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 piloted 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.

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.

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. 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.