Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit plan or motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those that master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

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G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (NES)

Um, what’s with the centerfold poses, guys?

At first glance, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero might not seem like it has much in common with the last NES title I played through, Fester’s Quest. Consider this, though: Both are run-and-gun action games based on licensed properties, both were the product of an American lead designer heading up a Japanese team, and both never received a Famicom release.

Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Fester’s Quest was an obvious rush job and deeply flawed as a result, G.I. Joe benefits from all the polish one could hope for. Designed by Ken Lobb of Killer Instinct fame and the same Japanese team that would later be known as KID, G.I. Joe was published by Taxan in 1991.

The G.I. Joe toy line itself dates back to 1964. Joes were the original “action figures,” the term coined by their makers at Hasbro in an effort to avoid scaring off particularly insecure little boys with the dreaded “doll” label. The earlier generations of figures leaned heavily on realism as a selling point and featured weapons and uniforms modeled closely the ones used by actual U.S. military forces. This approach seemed quaint at best post-Vietnam, so the toys were relaunched in 1982 as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” with a large helping of comic book and science fiction elements added to the mix. Instead of regular servicemen, G.I. Joe became “America’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.” The cartoons produced by Sunbow between 1983 through 1986 stood tall alongside Master of the Universe and Transformers as one of the defining Saturday morning action staples of my generation.

Fans of those original cartoons will no doubt notice right away that this NES adaptation is actually based on the much less iconic follow-up series from DiC Entertainment that ran from 1989 through 1992. As a result, some character designs are radically different than the ones you may remember. Most of the Joes remain recognizable, but I wouldn’t have known who poor Cobra Commander was even supposed to be here if the cutscene dialogue hadn’t told me. Lacking his trademark blue hood or mirrored helmet, he looks more like a Power Rangers villain than anything resembling his more familiar self.

The game proper is a side-scrolling action platformer with a simple premise: General Hawk has ordered the G.I. Joe team to take the fight to the enemy by launching a series of seek and destroy missions against six hidden Cobra bases around the world. At the start of the game, there are a total of five playable heroes to choose from: Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘n Roll, Captain Grid-Iron, and Blizzard. Upon reaching the sixth and final mission, Hawk himself also becomes playable. Each mission has a designated team leader that’s automatically along for the ride, but players are otherwise free to choose any two of the remaining Joes from the roster to fill out their three man squad.

The choice of team members to bring along on a given mission isn’t just cosmetic, as every Joe has their own strengths and weaknesses. Duke is the typical all-rounder with average stats across the board. Snake Eyes can jump the highest and his ninja ki projectiles don’t consume any ammo. Rock ‘n Roll is packing the best gun. Captain Grid-Iron has the strongest melee attack. Blizzard can shoot through walls. General Hawk is a bona fide superhero that excels at everything and can even fly thanks to his jet pack.

Each character’s abilities can also be enhanced via the persistent power-up system in place throughout the game. Picking up gun and chevron icons scattered around the stages will upgrade the active Joe’s weapon power and stamina, respectively. These upgrades remain in effect indefinitely, provided the character doesn’t die. As in Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you can switch between your three Joes at any time via the pause menu and each one has their own independent health bar, so swapping out a heavily injured teammate before they kick the bucket and lose all their power-ups to is an important technique to master if you hope to keep your party strong.

Every mission, with the exception of the final one, is divided into three distinct stages. The first is a standard run-and-gun affair that sees you infiltrating a Cobra base. The second is set inside the base itself and takes the form of a more free-roaming maze type area where your task is to plant a number of bombs at specific points (designated by large check marks on the walls) and then reach the exit before time runs out. Finally, there’s another run-and-gun stage in which your Joes must escape the base before the bombs detonate. This makes for grand total of sixteen stages in the entire game and each of them has a boss fight at the end. This is quite a lot of content for game of this sort, especially when you consider that none of the boss enemies are recycled. There are even passwords given out between missions in case the player needs to take a break and finish up later.

With six playable characters, the team management element, the strategic power-up system, and the large variety of levels and bosses, it’s clear that G.I. Joe has ambition to spare. It’s execution that puts it over the top, though. The music and graphics are both above average, the control is rock solid, and the cut scenes are even a little funny at times. I loved the boss who greets you with “O.K., so my men were not so hot, but I will blow you away, Joe!” What an optimist!

There are many great touches in the level design, too. Enemies lurking in the foreground of the jungle stage will leap into the screen to engage you, missiles firing from the distant base in the background of the Antarctic stage will eventually reach your character, and the bases themselves house three different types of Cobra vehicle that you can commandeer and wreak havoc in, each with their own unique on-board weapons and ways of maneuvering.

Many of the boss encounters also go above and beyond in terms of creativity. Take the battle against Cobra Commander’s right hand man Destro, for example. After you destroy his flying vehicle, he attempts to turn tail and run. The formerly single screen fight then transitions seamlessly into an auto-scrolling section where you must continuously attack the fleeing Destro while leaping over bottomless pits and dodging his return fire. It’s a real tour de force of an 8-bit showdown.

G.I. Joe even manages to include more in the way of replay value than you might expect. Beating it presents you with a password for a “second quest” where your three Joe team is reduced to two and the locations in the Cobra bases where you need to place your bombs have all been shuffled around. Beating that enables yet another playthrough where not only are you still limited to two Joes, but the enemies are all able to dish out and absorb twice as much punishment as before.

As far as downsides go, there are a few. I already mentioned the fact that the game is based on G.I. Joe circa 1991 and not the more beloved 1980s version. Consequently, a lot of most popular heroes and villains from the original cartoon are missing in action. Don’t expect to see the likes of Scarlet, Roadblock, Major Bludd, the Baroness, Sgt. Slaughter, Zartan, Serpentor, or Storm Shadow here.

On the gameplay side, a constant annoyance is the way that item drops are handled. If a defeated enemy leaves behind a health or ammo refill, it immediately begins bouncing all over the screen in an erratic fashion. If the item happens to bounce away from your character, it can easily disappear off the edge of the screen or down a pit before you have a chance to grab it. Why such an obnoxious behavior was programmed into an otherwise excellent game is beyond me.

Then there’s Blizzard. Blizzard is terrible. His ability to fire his gun through walls doesn’t come in handy nearly as much as you might hope. There’s really no reason to add him to your team unless it’s the Antarctic mission and you have no choice due to his leader status.

Make no mistake, however: Any complaints I can muster against this game hardly begin to detract from all it accomplishes. With its slick presentation layered over a near-perfect union of quality, quantity, and variety, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is everything NES enthusiasts could ask for in an action platformer.

A lot of gamers missed the boat on this one back on 1991, but now you know. And knowing is half the battle!