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.

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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.

Clock Tower (Super Famicom)

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Three Japan-exclusive horror games in a row? Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all!

This is 1995’s Clock Tower from Human Entertainment, also known as Clock Tower: The First Fear when it was later re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation, PC, and the Bandai WonderSwan of all things. Like many of Human’s other non-sports titles (Monster Party, Kabuki Quantum Fighter), Clock Tower is an odd duck. To my knowledge, it’s the only point-and-click adventure game developed for the Super Famicom. These sorts of games were typically confined to home computers with native mouse support and while you would occasionally see one ported over to a game console, most famously the NES version of Manic Mansion, creating one from scratch for a Nintendo system must have been a hard sell indeed. Weirdest of all in my book: This isn’t one of the several dozen games that support the Super Famicom mouse accessory that came out in 1992. Huh.

While this original Clock Tower title has never been officially released outside Japan in any of its various incarnations, all of its sequels have. Clock Tower 2 for the PlayStation was rather confusingly retitled simply Clock Tower outside of Japan, but make no mistake: These are two distinct games. Thankfully, I’m able to enjoy the Super Famicom original thanks to a fan translated reproduction cartridge.

In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted from a Norwegian orphanage by wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, along with three of her fellow orphans, Anne, Laura, and Lotte. Soon after arriving at the Barrows mansion, Mary, the woman escorting them, leaves to go fetch the master of the house. Noticing that Mary is taking an unusually long time to return, Jennifer volunteers to go find her. Before she can travel far, however, Jennifer hears screams from behind her and rushes back to the foyer only to find it dark and empty, her three friends having seemingly vanished into thin air. Jennifer is now left all alone in the cavernous old house, mystified as to who or what is stalking her and her companions.

The first thing you’ll notice once you take control of Jennifer is that this is a true point-and-click game. You have no direct control over Jennifer’s movements with the directional pad and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to direct her what to walk or run toward and what objects to interact with. You can also press the X button to cancel your last issued command and bring her to a standstill if you change your mind once she’s underway. You’ll have plenty of time to think it over while en route, too, because the second thing you’ll notice is how absurdly slow Jennifer moves. Despite being under mortal threat at all times, she shuffles down long hallways like she’s leisurely perusing the exhibits at an art gallery. If you need to take a quick bathroom break while playing, just have her climb a flight of stairs, which takes the better part of a full minute on its own. You can double tap the button to make her run, but this will rather perversely deplete her color-coded stress meter, basically this game’s version of health, even if she’s not running away from any specific danger.

You’ll want to keep her stress level at a minimum because it directly affects her ability to survive attacks by the mansion’s hostile residents. If Jennifer is under assault, her portrait in the lower left corner of the screen will flash, indicating “panic mode.” When this happens, mashing the action button as fast as possible can save her, provided her stress is not already in the red. Once the immediate threat has passed, you can lower the stress level by resting, which is triggered by standing still in a safe area for a period of time. Make sure to do this as needed, as there are no weapons or attacks available in Clock Tower. Other than panic mode, Jennifer’s only other form of defense is hiding from a pursuer. There are several hiding spots scattered throughout the mansion, but they’re not always guaranteed to work. If you successfully hide, your attacker will wander off and Jennifer will be free to do more exploring. If it doesn’t, it’s game over. Rather generously, though, there are unlimited continues in Clock Tower and they automatically put you back in the room where you died, so progress is never lost. I suppose this is one less thing to worry about, although it can bleed away a little of the game’s all-important tension if you stop to think about it too much.

Most of your play time is spent exploring the various rooms of the Barrows estate, collecting inventory items, and using them to solve puzzles that will allow you to progress to new areas and advance the story. Actually, calling them “puzzles” might be a bit of a stretch in most cases. I know this is a difficult balance to strike for any game like this. Too much abstruseness and you end up with the sort of “moon logic” scenarios that many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of stuff. I get that. I would argue that Clock Tower swings the pendulum a bit too much in the opposite direction, though. Does a gap in the floor with a wooden plank standing right up against the wall alongside it really constitute a puzzle? Unfortunately, it’s par for the course here. There’s nothing in the way of thinking demanded. If a door is locked, just keep looking around until you find the key in a box or sitting on a desk or what have you. Pesky insects in your way? Keep checking rooms until you happen on some bug spray. This is probably Clock Tower’s biggest missed opportunity for me. It has enough well-executed horror (pun very much intended) to still be worth your time, but some properly satisfying brainteasers would have made it much more of a total package as far as games in this genre go. Perhaps the designers were afraid of alienating a console audience that may not have had much exposure to similar titles?

Between the complaints about the gratuitously slow movement and shallow puzzles, it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on Clock Tower as a whole. Let’s correct for that a bit, because it really gets a lot of other things very right.

First and foremost, the sheer sense of atmosphere is practically unmatched on the system. It’s right up there with Super Metroid in its ability to pull you into its world with a one-two punch of sumptuous locations and brilliant sound design. Every room of the mansion is packed with eerie detail and has its own unique identity. Furthermore, all that detail is never allowed to get in the way of the gameplay due to the smart decision to have the cursor change shape from an arrow to a box whenever it passes over an object that you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered that they almost look like digitized photographs. Music is saved only for important locations and circumstances. Most of the time you’ll all alone with the sounds of creaking doors, distant screams, and Jennifer’s footsteps, which is great way to emphasize that looming threats can strike from anywhere at any time and to lend them even more impact when they finally do.

Then there’s your nemesis, the infamous “scissorman.” This deformed maniac has the uncanny ability to appear when and where you least expect him, eager to put an agonizing end to Jennifer’s exploration of the mansion courtesy of his giant pair of shears. He isn’t the only fiend you’re up against, but he’s easily the most persistent and memorable of them all. Evading this pint-sized unstoppable freak is half the fun of Clock Tower. Most of the remaining half is trying, usually in vain, to anticipate his next appearance. It really does feel like an interactive slasher movie.

Clock Tower also has a decent amount of replayability. This is welcome indeed, as it’s a very short experience. The first trip through will likely take you an hour or two, but once you know how the game is structured, you can get that down to a half hour easily on subsequent sessions. The game employs a few tricks to keep these replays interesting. Key items and even some rooms within the mansion will switch places randomly, the exact item you need to locate in order to open the way to the final part of the mansion can vary, and even some plot elements and story scenes might only appear on some playthroughs. There are also nine different endings to discover and the game will keep track of which ones you’ve already seen. It won’t tell you exactly which actions you’ll need to take and which events you’ll need to witness in order to achieve each ending, however, so experimentation is encouraged. These endings are short but fairly varied. Depending on what actions you take, Jennifer could meet an untimely end, wind up a sole survivor, or successfully save some of her friends.

Viewed strictly as a game, Clock Tower is extremely limited. As an interactive horror experience, it’s not to be missed. The game’s director, Hifume Kono, makes no secret of the fact that his goal was to make a game based on his favorite scary movies, particularly those of Italian auteur Dario Argento. The plot and characters of Clock Tower borrow extensively from Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, right down to the name and look of the lead character Jennifer. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores that the prog rock band Goblin contributed to several Argento films. Kono has also stated that the scissorman was inspired by the famous hedge clipper massacre scene in the 1981 slasher flick The Burning. That makes two references to The Burning in two consecutive game reviews for me. How weird is that?

If you have any love for slasher movies, adventure games, or gorgeous 16-bit pixel art, you need to make time for Clock Tower.

Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (Famicom)

Aww! Impending doom has never been so adorable!

I wanted to keep the October spook train rolling, but needed a bit of a palate cleanser after the complex, innovative, and seriously intense Sweet Home. Splatterhouse to the rescue!

Namco introduced the original Splatterhouse to Japanese arcades right around Halloween time in 1988. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up with light platforming elements, its primary claim to fame was being one of the first truly gory releases by a major publisher. In the game, college student Rick, aided by a possessed “terror mask” that grants him superhuman strength (and bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the one worn by cinema’s most famous homicidal ice hockey enthusiast), must rescue his missing girlfriend Jennifer from the army of bloodthirsty ghouls inhabiting a creepy old mansion. He accomplishes this by walking to the right and…splattering things. In a house. Who says there’s no such thing as truth in advertising?

The first Splatterhouse was an incredibly basic game, even for the time. More or less Irem’s Kung-Fu Master by way of a Cannibal Corpse album cover, it was the (figuratively) eye-popping 16-bit graphics and (literally) eye-popping carnage that put it over the top and made it a fondly-remembered hit.

A console game was inevitable. The only problem? A faithful recreation of the arcade smash was all but impossible on the most popular home system of the time, Nintendo’s aging 8-bit Famicom. The solution? Cuteness. Tons and tons of cuteness. Rather than attempting to copy the arcade Splatterhouse’s gruesome and gritty look, Namco instead embraced what the Famicom did best: Bright colors and squat “super deformed” characters. The result was 1989’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. It was not just the only original Splatterhouse game ever produced for a Nintendo system, but also the first in the series to come out for any home console, predating the better-known arcade port for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 by some eight months.

In the Japanese language, “wanpaku” is a word indicating naughtiness, particularly of a childlike and innocent nature. Think Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson and you’ve got the gist of it. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as the game exudes a charming irreverence that perfectly complements its wacky art style.

As the game begins, we see a short establishing scene of Jennifer mourning at Rick’s graveside. How he ended up dead despite surviving the first game is a bit puzzling at first, but it all makes sense by the end. Next thing you know, a bolt of lightning strikes Rick’s grave and he pops out good as new, terror mask and all! Jennifer rejoices, but only briefly as a second bolt hits the adjacent grave and resurrects the Pumpkin King, who is (unfortunately) not Jack Skellington, but rather a giant flying jack-o-lantern. The Pumpkin King grabs Jennifer and flies off, leaving Rick to grab his trusty axe and give chase through seven levels of side-scrolling mayhem.

Like its predecessor, Wanpaku Graffiti is a very simple game. One button makes Rick jump and the other swings his cleaver. There’s also a shotgun weapon with limited ammunition that appears as an occasional pick-up and candy and hamburgers that restore health, but that’s all. All you need to worry about is running to the right, whacking any enemies that get in your way, and jumping over pits, spikes, and other hazards.

One new element here is the experience system. The game keeps track of the enemies you kill, and hitting a certain threshold (displayed in the upper left of the screen) will extend Rick’s health meter by one bar. It’s a nice addition that encourages aggressive play by rewarding you for engaging with the enemies instead of just sprinting past them.

Speaking of sprinting, in most Splatterhouse games, Rick is a very slow, lumbering sort of character to control. The first thing series veterans will notice is how zippy he is here by comparison. The little dude can really move! He doesn’t even need to stop running to swing his weapon. Since almost every enemy that isn’t a boss can be defeated in one hit, this means that you can slice through a whole line of foes while dashing forward at full speed if your timing is right. This feels really awesome and nimble Rick is one of the best aspects of Wanpaku Graffiti’s gameplay. The only downside is that he can be a bit slippery and tough to stop on a dime once he gets going, so you will need to slow down on occasion for some of the more platforming-heavy sections.

The levels are based on classic horror locales, starting with the graveyard where our story opens and moving on to a demonic church, a lakeside camp, a haunted mansion, and more. They’re filled with jokey references to famous horror movies, and these are another of the game’s strongest aspects. There are parodies of a lot of the iconic things you might expect, like Alien, The Exorcist, and The Fly, but there’s also a couple that are less obvious. Take the Diamond Lake level, for example. It’s clearly a reference to Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th series, but our hero already looks like Jason Voorhees, so who are they going to get to fight him? Imagine my delight when the end level boss turned out to be Cropsey, the killer from the 1981 cult classic summer camp slasher The Burning! That is some next level horror nerd shit right there. Just about made my night.

Wanpaku Graffiti is a quick and relatively painless experience. You only get five lives before it’s game over, but you’re given a four digit password at the end of each stage, so being forced backwards is never an issue. Levels are short and easy, making it a title that the average player can blow through in an hour or two without much fuss. There are a couple brief hidden levels that you can access via secret doors and beating both will unlock a special extended ending, but these don’t add much to the overall length. Personally, I think this was a great call. Like Monster Party for the NES, Wanpaku Graffiti is more about basking in the off-kilter humor and getting to see what crazy thing the designers have in store for you next than it is mastering finicky mechanics and memorizing challenging level layouts. Getting stuck for hours on a tough bit only to finally make it through might be satisfying in some action titles, but here it would only kill the momentum and give the jokes time to wear out their welcome.

Wanpaku Graffiti might not be the best platformer for the Famicom, or even its best horror-themed one, but I do think it’s the most…Halloweeny. The breezy gameplay and spooky-cute art and music perfectly nail the intoxicating mixture of morbid imagery and unapologetic silliness that makes this my favorite time of year. It’s the gaming equivalent of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash or Linus van Pelt waiting up all night for the Great Pumpkin. The enemies will even disgorge candy like piñatas when you bash them. It’s also a great choice for anyone looking to get into Japanese imports, since almost all the game’s text is already in English. It’s short, simple, and the controls are a tad loose, but I can just about guarantee you’ll be too busy eagerly anticipating the game’s next trick or treat to mind one bit.

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and rpublished by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive.

Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game that’s front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize that Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure that the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times from the first screen of the game onward.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescos, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only time where you can potentially control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures that everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations that would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by 80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. Without the dynamic action beats of something like Castlevania to support, it’s fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience that somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that the high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its strongest titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….

Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

I finished, but I’ve only just begun!

It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!

I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu 2, but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.

Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. Furthermore, the audio is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.

This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.

The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.

Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialog for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.

As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me, but the option’s there if you really want it.

It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant, but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.

The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.

I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.

Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.

Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself, but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.

Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with cliche JRPG plots, characters, and dialog. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.

I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.

I just feel sorry for all those sweet little rabites.