Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (Famicom)

1987 was quite the experimental year for Konami. Chunsoft’s Portopia and Dragon Quest had recently touched off a mania for adventure and role playing games that persists to this day among the Japanese public. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda and Metroid were setting new standards for action-adventure gameplay on consoles. It was a digital gold rush and Konami wanted in. Following in Metroid’s footsteps, they produced a total of four side-scrolling action-adventure/RPG titles for the Famicom over the course of the year. Of these, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest and The Goonies II are both well-known to NES owners, while Getsu Fūma Den and my subject today, Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious (“Evil Castle Legend II: Great Demon Bishop Galious”), never left Japan. I’ll be using the English fan translation by Manipulate for convenience here, but this one should be playable in the original Japanese with a minimum of outside help.

Like Castlevania II and Goonies II, Majou Densetsu II is an adventure-infused sequel to a previous pure action release. Knightmare: Majou Densetsu wasn’t a side-scrolling platformer, however, but an overhead shooter released for MSX computers in 1986. Talk about a departure! The only other example of this I can cite offhand is Konami’s own Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures from 1994. Knightmare was about Popolon, a warrior out to rescue his lover Aphrodite from the demon Hudnos. Majou Densetsu II reveals that this was all a ploy by Demon Bishop Galious to distract Popolon while he somehow kidnapped the soul of Popolon and Aphrodite’s unborn future son, Pampas. Yes, you read that right. I’ve recovered plenty of princesses before. I’ve even been a bad enough dude to rescue the president. But saving some weird spirit baby that doesn’t technically exist yet? That’s a new one on me, Konami. Congratulation, I guess.

Popolon and Aphrodite (Venus in the fan translation) must act in tandem this time to recover their spawn-to-be. You can swap between the two at will and they each have their own health bars as well as slightly different innate abilities. Popolon is a bit better at jumping, for example, and Aphrodite can survive longer underwater. Both rely on a short range sword attack to deal with the castle’s many monstrous inhabitants, supplemented by a selection of arrows and other projectile weapons that consume ammunition with each use. Despite the experience meter along the top of the screen, there’s no leveling these two up as in a true RPG. Instead, all permanent power boosts are derived from items found or purchased. The only purpose experience serves in this game is healing. Every time you manage to fill the meter, the active character’s health will be completely restored. Managing this becomes an important strategy in the tougher levels, where it may be advantageous to hold off on killing monsters for a bit if your health is already full so as to not waste a refill.

Speaking of dungeons, there are a total of five and they’re all accessed from the starting area of the castle, which functions as a hub and contains the all-important password dispensary and resurrection room. They have to be completed in a set order and most have some sort of complicating gimmick that makes this easier said than done. These detrimental effects are nullified by specific inventory items, provided you can find them. I never was able to locate the “magic wear” that prevents the fourth level from scrambling my controls, so I was forced to adapt and complete it with my directional inputs reversed. That was something.

One highly unusual game mechanic encountered in the dungeons is boss summoning. Simply reaching the final chamber isn’t enough to trigger a battle. Only after you’ve performed a sequence of button presses specific to that boss will it actually appear and give you the opportunity to kill it. You’re given these codes by NPC characters tucked away elsewhere in the maze. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across the code before you get to the boss room and things will play out like they would in any other game. If not, you’re going to have to head back the way you came and do some more searching around. So you might say this flourish adds either nothing or more backtracking on a case-by-case basis. Either way, it didn’t impress me.

Although I compared this game to Metroid above, its fantasy theme, stiff controls, and exceptionally cunning puzzles also suggest a simplified take on Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer. This venerable series of Japanese RPGs is best known in the West for the NES port of its fourth entry, Legacy of the Wizard. Another key element Majou Densetsu II shares with these early computer action RPGs is its relentless difficulty. It’s by far the most challenging of the four similar Famicom games Konami published in 1987. Dungeon layouts are fiendishly abstruse and key items are well hidden, making death about the only thing you’re likely to come by easily. These punishing design choices are compounded by the frankly absurd omission of a proper continue feature. This is one of those games that forces you to enter your most recent (32 character!) password each and every time you die just to keep playing. You’ll be returning to the hub for new passwords often and likely using them multiple times over the course of a single play session. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy oversight by Konami and enough to give me traumatic Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead flashbacks. Nobody deserves that.

Riled up as this password debacle got me, I still wouldn’t call Majou Densetsu II fatally flawed. It looks decent (apart from the excessively blocky environments) and we get a couple of great Kinuyo Yamashita themes to accompany the action. It’s ultimately no more engaging than the other games in its class from the same period, though. Metroid, Zelda II, Rygar, Faxanadu, Battle of Olympus, Castlevania II, Goonies II, and Getsu Fūma Den all have better visuals, smoother action, and are generally more user friendly and approachable. As with Legacy of the Wizard, I can only recommend Majou Densetsu II if you’re actively interested in a more hardcore take on the genre. It may not be good for your blood pressure, but there’s a certain visceral satisfaction to be found in overcoming its sadistic roadblocks to finally reach that ontologically confounding hypothetical baby.

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Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

My quest for ever more obscure Konami content continues. If these last few years spent covering at least one vintage console game per week have taught me anything, it’s that there’s seemingly no end to this powerhouse publisher’s Japan-exclusive deep cuts. This week, it’s Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (“Phoenix Chronicles: Gaou’s Adventure”), a strange and incongruously silly little action-platformer based on one of the most serious and critically-acclaimed manga epics of all time.

It would be absurd of me to attempt to weave a proper introduction to the life and works of the late Osamu Tezuka into the preamble of a game review. Whole books have been written on the “father of manga” and the immense impact of his four decade career on world culture. What follows is simply the bare minimum needed to understand this Famicom game’s origins. I encourage anyone with an interest in visual storytelling to make their own acquaintance with this amazing artist’s legacy.

Best known for his more child-friendly series like Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Janguru Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Tezuka considered the more mature Hi no Tori (Phoenix, lit. “bird of fire”) to be his life’s work. He would labor on it steadily from 1967 all the way until his death in 1989, producing a a total of twelve volumes in the sadly unfinished saga. Hi no Tori’s scope is tremendous. It follows numerous characters over a period of thousands of years, from ancient Japan to the far-flung interstellar future. The running theme is the quest for the mystical bird of the title, whose blood is said to confer immortality. Hi no Tori has strong Buddhist themes. Eternal life is often seen as a mixed blessing or even a curse, particularly when it’s sought as an easy way to cheat karma and escape the wheel of rebirth.

Gaou no Bouken is based on the fifth Phoenix volume, Hō-ō (Karma). More specifically, it seems to have been intended to piggyback on the animated film adaptation of Hō-ō released one month prior. I actually sat down and watched the film in preparation for this review. Wow, was it a doozy; a heart-rending tragedy about two men (one a naive young woodcarver with big dreams, the other a murderous bandit) drawn together by an inescapable fate of their own making. Bracing, thought-provoking, and beautifully animated, Hō-ō just about moved me to tears. I was astonished I’d never heard of it before.

How on earth do you adapt material like this to the Famicom? If you’re Konami, you essentially don’t. You put out a typically lighthearted 8-bit side-scroller in which Gaou, the one-armed ex-bandit and master sculptor, journeys across space and time to recover the missing pieces of his lost phoenix statue by throwing chisels at dinosaurs. The tonal dissonance between this game and its literary/cinematic inspiration is surreal to say the least. A bit like discovering someone made a Grave of the Fireflies tournament fighter.

That’s not to say Gaou no Bouken is bad per se. It has the excellent graphics and catchy tunes you’d expect from Konami as well as a couple of novel gameplay features. As a platforming hero, Gaou doesn’t come off so impressive at first. He can’t jump particularly high and his chisel weapon is adequate at best. The real hook here is his ability to place blocks adjacent to himself by pressing down and B together. These can be used as steps to reach higher platforms or as impromptu barriers to hold advancing enemies at bay. If your reflexes are quick enough, you can even save Gaou from a fatal plunge by deploying a block directly beneath him when he’s in mid-leap. You technically have a limited supply of blocks available, but I never found myself running low, especially since defeated enemies are transformed into new blocks that add to Gaou’s stock when collected.

The second major twist here is the level structure. Eight of the game’s sixteen stages take place in the present. Well, Gaou’s present of 8th century Japan, anyway. The remaining eight are divided up into past and future sub-sets. Travel between time periods is accomplished via secret doors. These are usually uncovered by using your chisels to destroy the bits of scenery concealing them, though you may occasionally need to push a large object aside or destroy some terrain directly below you by holding down and jumping on it repeatedly instead. While this hardly constitutes exploration on par with The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, it does add a welcome scavenger hunt element to the proceedings and makes Gaou no Bouken feel like more than just sprinting from left to right sixteen times over.

The differences between time periods are primarily aesthetic. The backgrounds in Gaou’s native Japan are presented in a style reminiscent of classical Japanese paintings. An inspired and attractive choice. The past and future are much more standard Konami fare, with the future areas looking like they could have been lifted straight out of Contra, for example. Your goal in every stage is to reach the end and claim a piece of the phoenix sculpture. This requires either fighting a boss to the death or making your way past a bombardment of falling stones, rockets, or other hazards to reach the statue piece sitting on the far side of the screen.

Interesting as it is, this open level progression means Gaou no Bouken lacks anything resembling a traditional climax. The ending scene triggers instantly when you collect the final phoenix piece. As this could potentially happen on a number of individual stages, there’s no true final area or boss to serve as the ultimate test of skill. It’s actually possible to end the game on a stage which doesn’t include a boss fight. In that case, you just walk right, grab the final piece of the statue, and win. It feels abrupt and rather hollow.

Combat is another underwhelming facet of Gaou no Bouken. As stated, Gaou fights by hurling an unlimited supply of chisels at his foes. These have decent range and can be fired upward in addition to right and left. They get the job done, no doubt, but they’re the only weapons available. There are a handful of power-ups to refill or enlarge Gaou’s health bar, confer temporary invincibility, and award extra lives and bonus points, but nothing that changes up or enhances his offense in any way.

Gaou no Bouken is a ultimately a competent platformer built around a pair of neat gimmicks. Fans of Konami’s mid-’80s output in general should be able appreciate it for the breezy romp it is. It’s also highly importable, with no Japanese text appearing after the title screen. That said, it’s still unlikely to be mistaken for one of the company’s best efforts. Jarring estrangement from the source material, shallow combat, and the absence of a proper finale all mark it as the quickie contract work it is. I do have it to thank for introducing me to one of the better movies I’ve seen in a quite some time, however. I certainly can’t say that about many other games.

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemented these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well-thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?

Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

 

Sometimes all you want is for a game to be mean to you again.

One of the very best things about classic gaming, at least from the perspective of the average busy adult, is just how concise these old titles can be. In most cases, game makers of the past had no other choice. From the primordial dawn of the hobby on 1960s university mainframes all the way up to the widespread adoption of CD-ROM technology roughly three decades later, every byte of precious memory counted. Skilled programmers were still able to realize RPGs and other intricate games featuring dozens or even hundreds of hours of play time, but this often meant embracing a more modest audiovisual presentation to save on disk or ROM space. For fans of these more cerebral offerings, the tradeoff was well worth it. Action gamers, on the other hand, had an insatiable fondness for spectacle that often placed the developers of their favorite releases in an unenviable position. How could they consistently dazzle their audiences with the most detailed backgrounds, the biggest characters, the smoothest animations, and the most adrenaline-pumping tunes, all while still leaving room for, well, a game?

The enduring legacy of all these thorny compromises is a pantheon of tight, polished 8 and 16-bit thrill rides that experienced players can blaze through in well under an hour. Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Gradius, Mega Man, and many, many more, including my personal favorite, Castlevania. It’s only after you’ve played through one of these masterpieces countless times that their brevity begins to work against them. As pleasant as it invariably is to kick back and whip my way through Simon Belmont’s iconic 8-bit vampire hunt, I’ve long ago reached the point where the challenge, even on hard mode, is deader than Count Dracula himself. Who can you turn to when your favorite hardcore action game just isn’t beating you down like it used to? The ROM hacking community, of course!

Hacks dedicated to furnishing veteran players with ferociously difficult new takes on old favorites are a dime a dozen and the first Castlevania specifically is one of the most frequently remixed NES titles. So why am I focusing on Overflow Darkness? Because this 2011 effort by Luto Akino is more than just your typical “Castlevania on steroids” with some extra pits and enemies sprinkled in. It’s tricked out with gorgeous new artwork, level design as well thought-out as it is brutal, and some clever tweaks to core gameplay mechanics.

Unlike Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, which I reviewed last October, Overflow Darkness doesn’t attempt to add any new characters or lore to the series. The scenario here is exactly the same as in the base game: Dracula is terrorizing the countryside and a whip-wielding warrior named Simon Belmont is out to destroy him. The only change is to Simon’s appearance. Instead of his original brunette locks, he’s sporting the long red hair from his 2001 Castlevania Chronicles redesign. While I’ve never been a fan of ginger Simon and was pleased when he reverted to a more traditional look for his most recent showing in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I actually don’t mind it here. Chalk that one up to the relatively simplicity of NES sprites, I suppose.

Speaking of sprites, it’s not just Simon that’s been re-drawn. Several of his familiar enemies have also been given professional quality makeovers, including Medusa, Death, and Dracula. Surprisingly, these new sprites are improvements  in virtually every instance. Dracula’s demonic second form in particular is exponentially more menacing here than the bright blue “cookie monster” that confronts you at the end of vanilla ‘Vania. The new background tiles are just as impressive. The rather basic underground waterway at the start of level four, for example, has been re-imagined to great effect as a flooded catacomb packed with skeletal remains. None of the new art in Overflow Darkness stands out as the work of an amateur, which is just about the highest compliment ROM hack visuals can receive. Don’t expect anything so brilliant on the audio front, however. The track order has been swapped around, but it’s still the same Kinuyo Yamashita score we all know and love.

Pretty as Overflow Darkness is, it still wants you dead. Badly. The new stages here are all markedly more difficult than anything in the regular game, deluging the player with a near-constant stream of flying bats and medusa heads while placing durable enemies like bone pillars and axe knights in close proximity to death pits. It’s common to face off against several enemy types simultaneously on very precarious footing and some stages even open with Simon already under attack from multiple angles. Think fast!

Bosses have also been given a shot in the arm. The fight against the familiar giant bat at the end of stage one now takes place on uneven terrain with a hoard of smaller bats fluttering onto the screen from both sides. I lost several lives to this encounter, which is humbling to say the least. There are a couple of all-new bosses, too, and they have a habit of lurking at the top of the screen and showering Simon with projectiles, limiting the usefulness of the overpowered holy water sub-weapon in these battles.

Ruthless as these stages are, Overflow Darkness does play fair. Unlike T. Takemoto’s infamous Kaizo Mario World trilogy, the challenge isn’t predicated on tricking or teasing the player with deliberately absurd trial-and-error setups. It’s fundamentally the same precise combat and platforming as the “real” Castlevania, just with far less allowance for sloppy play. There’s considerable inventiveness packed into some of these new level layouts, too. The second stage contains a multi-tier “stair maze” that forces Simon to travel and up and down repeatedly across the same few screens in search of the door to the next section. Areas like this will push your reflexes and pattern recognition skills to their limits, especially since Simon loses a full quarter of his maximum health with every hit sustained from the very beginning of the game.

Yet another, more subtle layer of added difficulty is derived from the way item drops have been adjusted to be stingier than usual across the board. Remember how easy it was to score whip power-ups in the regular game? If you died and restarted with the weakest leather version of the whip, you always seemed to find a replacement upgrade an instant later from the very first candle you stumbled across. Well, forget about all that! According to Overflow Darkness, whip upgrades from candles are for the weak. Instead, you can only really count on obtaining them from random enemy drops and these can prove maddeningly elusive if luck isn’t on your side. The bottom line is that you’re going to become very adept with that puny starting whip, whether you like it or not. Sub-weapons and shot multipliers for them are also more scarce. Oh, and remember the large hearts that would increase your ammo count by five when collected? Overflow Darkness reduces this to two. The idea here seems to be to force players to rely more on deep mastery of Simon’s innate capabilities and less on exploiting power-ups. Although it can come off a bit heavy-handed and I certainly wouldn’t want to play this way all the time, it is a bracing change of pace from the default “melt everything’s face off with triple holy water” strategy most Castlevania players fall back on.

The takeaway here should be that Overflow Darkness is simply the best at what it does. Its stylish graphics, quality level design, and eye for fairness make it the current gold standard in extreme difficulty hacks of Castlevania 1986. There are other hacks available (Chorus of Mysteries, The Holy Relics) that are much more creatively ambitious, aiming to re-work the source material into something approximating a whole new entry in the series. These are well worth your time, but if all you’re really craving is a viable “super hard” mode for one of your favorite NES games, Castlevania: Overflow Darkness is the real deal. It’ll whip your ass and make you like it.

Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

Shootin’ at the walls of heartache! Bang! Bang!

Meet Nicol. He’s a 14 year-old boy genius that’s invented a new interdimensional transporter with the help of his girlfriend, Stella. This breakthrough attracts the attention of Gyumao, an evil alien cow demon (don’t look at me like that, it’s in the manual) from the Dairasu star system. Viewing the transporter as a potential means of galactic conquest, Gyumao sends biomonsters to steal it and kidnap Stella so that he can use her as leverage to extort Nicol into revealing the device’s secrets. What he didn’t count on is that Nicol is not just your everday warrior. He’s a love warrior, dammit. That’s totally better.

Unlike so many of the games I cover, Ai Senshi Nicol (“Love Warrior Nicol”) can’t claim any sort of storied development history or lingering impact on the hobby. This 1987 Famicom Disk System exclusive simply came and went. Don’t mistake its one-off status as a reflection of its quality, however. It’s titles like this one, Arumana no Kiseki, and Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa that made Konami the FDS’s undisputed third party MVP.

Colorful backgrounds, charming spritework, and jaunty music all unite to make a strong first impression. Nicol’s bulky ray gun, skin-tight body suit, and goofy alien adversaries evoke a swashbuckling retro ’50s sci-fi vibe that I really dig. The bright, cartoony visuals are similar to those of King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch, Esper Dream, and other overhead-view Konami games of the period. They stand in stark contrast to the grittier ones seen in their popular side-scrollers like Contra and Castlevania. I find this early diversity in house styles fascinating, since it was mostly the side-scrolling titles that were chosen to receive NES localizations and consequently came to define the company’s 8-bit aesthetic for so many gamers outside Japan. Digging into the Famicom side of things feels a bit like unearthing a whole new cute Konami I never knew existed.

Nicol’s search for Stella plays out over seven sprawling overhead levels. Each holds three giant diamonds (parts of the stolen transporter, supposedly) that Nicol must locate and destroy before he can move on to the next world. Some of the diamonds are guarded by boss monsters. Others are laying around unguarded in out-of-the-way spots and finding them is the only real challenge. Consisting of a few dozen interconnected screens apiece at most, the levels in Ai Senshi Nicol are large enough to make exploration interesting and rewarding without requiring players to break out the graph paper and get mapping. Each also has its own unique background graphics and compliment of enemies to fight, although many of the baddies in the later levels are really just tougher versions of ones that came before with some cosmetic alterations.

The action here is very much of the pick-up-and-play variety. Nicol can walk, jump, and fire his gun in eight directions. Beyond that, the only other thing you’ll need to manage are his limited supply of Cosmo Balls, which damage every enemy on-screen and are triggered with the Select button. Try to save them for use against boss monsters. The general flow of the game is similar to the previous year’s King Kong 2 in many ways, albeit far less cryptic and difficult. Nicol benefits from numerous kindnesses that Kong didn’t: More straightforward stage layouts, unlimited continues, a save feature, and, most interestingly, no instant death pits. Taking a spill into a pit will instead see Nicol plunging into a basement of sorts beneath the main stage. He’ll then have to fight his way to a staircase in order to climb back up to where he fell from. Ironically, these basement areas tend to contain some of the most useful hidden items, making Ai Senshi Nicol one of the few platformers ever made where it’s actually in the player’s best interest to fall down every possible hole.

The ongoing hunt for secret power-ups is vital for making your trip through the game as painless as possible. In addition to more Cosmo Balls, you can find Metroid-like energy tanks to expand Nicol’s health bar, permanent boosts to his gun’s power, range, and fire rate, and special clothings items (Astro Wear, Astro Pants, Power Shoes) to enhance his defense and speed. Once you’ve managed to upgrade Nicol’s health and weapon some, the game becomes much easier. Perhaps even a touch too easy. Given that this is a Japanese console game from the mid-’80s, though, many of these key items are invisible until you happen to shoot some seemingly empty corner of the screen. Call it the Druaga Effect. Best practice is to constantly blast away at the air in front of you as you explore. Unfortunately, Nicol’s ray gun doesn’t come equipped with an auto-fire feature, so your thumb is in for quite the workout if you’re not using a turbo controller.

Ai Senshi Nicol isn’t Konami’s best work for the Famicom. As a pure action experience, it’s no match for the sheer intensity of a Contra or Gradius. The need to constantly fire your weapon or risk missing out on useful upgrades also grows tedious very quicky. That said, an undistinguished vintage Konami release is still anything but average and I had a good enough time with this one to play it all the way through twice before sitting down to write this review. The setting and characters are instantly likable, the presentation is top-notch, and the controls are tight and responsive. As an added bonus, all of the game’s text is already in English, making it an ideal import pick. Give this love warrior a chance and I’ll wager he’ll win your heart, too.

Hey, Stella!

Gradius II (Famicom)

Shot the core, back for more.

I’ve grown into a huge Gradius fan over the last couple of years. Much to my surprise, as a frustrating adolescent experience with the arcade original put me off the series for decades. Ever since I set my reservations aside and ended up having a blast with the Gradius spin-off Life Force in the summer of 2017, however, I’ve been hooked on laying waste to those Bacterian scum in my trusty Vic Viper starship. I’ve gone back to finish the original Gradius and even took a delightful detour into the Parodius sub-series of comedic shooters. Now it’s finally time to move on to the first true numbered sequel with Gradius II. As a nice little bonus, I get to play this Famicom port, which is famous for being both one of the most technically impressive games for the system and one of its highest profile Japanese exclusives.

The Famicom Gradius II is the epitome of the bigger, louder, faster, harder approach to sequel design. Experienced players will recognize many of the same level concepts, power-ups, and enemies from Gradius and Life Force, just presented with a greater degree of intensity and audiovisual polish than ever before. It’s not a perfect re-creation of the arcade game, which was one of the most cutting edge cabinets out at the time, but it’s a sight to behold nonetheless. Konami relied on a custom memory mapper chip called the VRC4 to push the Famicom beyond its normal limits for Gradius II. Spectacular as the end result is, the VRC4 itself may have also limited the game’s distribution. In stark contrast to the “anything goes” Famicom scene, Nintendo prohibited third party developers from manufacturing their own cartridges and custom mappers for the NES. Whether this technical limitation was the sole reason Gradius II never saw an international release is an open question, though it seems likely to have been a significant factor at the very least.

That’s the real world backstory. What’s going on in the game? About what you’d expect. Planet Gradius is in peril once more and you’re the only pilot that has what it takes to save your world from the bloodthirsty Bacterians and their new leader, Gofer. Yes, the villain here is actually called Gofer, which has to be one of the least fortunate evil alien overlord names in sci-fi history. I like to picture him down at the local space bar crying into his space beer about how nobody respects him. Meanwhile, across the table, an equally inebriated Doh from Taito’s Arkanoid nods morosely.

The conflict plays out over a total of seven stages. Even though this is only one more than Gradius featured, the stages here are considerably longer on average. A “perfect” playthrough clocks in at around 26 minutes, versus the original’s 16 or so. Many of the individual areas you’ll visit are clearly meant to be amped-up takes on ones seen in previous entries. Gradius II’s opening stage has you dodging between colossal solar flares straight out of Life Force, for example, and level four is a murderous moai head gauntlet patterned on the first game’s. Thankfully, the level roster isn’t made up entirely of callbacks. I particularly enjoyed Gradius II’s Alien-inspired second stage, which is sporting phallic bio-mechanical skulls straight out of an H.R. Giger airbrush painting and “facehugger” baddies that spring from their eggs to assault the Vic Viper.

The classic Gradius power-up system is in full effect here. Certain enemies drop orange orbs that you can collect and then cash in to purchase upgrades for the Vic Viper. New to this entry is the ability to customize the upgrade menu itself at the beginning of each playthrough. Every weapon from Gradius and Life Force is available, along with some new ones, but the catch is that you can’t take them all with you. Four different sets of armaments are available, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses. Do you prefer the more damaging straight laser from Gradius or the extra screen coverage of Life Force’s wider ripple laser? How about missiles that travel along the ground, double missiles, or exploding bombs that deal heavy splash damage to anything nearby? Double shot or tail gun? No one weapon set imbues the Vic Viper with flawless 360 degree firepower, so choose wisely. I really loved this addition. It allows for multiple play styles and encourages players to re-play the game in order to experiment with new ways to tackle old challenges. It’s no wonder that this weapon selection mechanic was retained and deepened in later sequels.

Not only are there more weapons to choose from, some of the returning ones have also been enhanced. The laser weapons can both be strengthened by purchasing them twice and the iconic option satellites are even more formidable here. Not only can you finally have up to four options at once just like in the arcade (NES Gradius and Life Force limited you to two), but picking option on the menu again after attaining all four will cause your entire complement of satellites to rapidly rotate around the Vic Viper, granting you even more effective protection and concentrated firepower for a limited time. Right on!

I have to mention how much Gradius II’s bosses impressed me. There are a ton of them (you fight a grueling five in a row during a tense and memorable “boss rush” segment in stage five), they all look fantastic, and each one is wholly unique in terms of its behavior. I didn’t find Gradius or Life Force to be all that impressive in this regard, so this represents another huge leap forward for the series. Oh, and if the idea of squaring off against five bosses back-to-back sounds intimidating, you can rest easy knowing that this is the first home port of a Gradius game to allow for unlimited continues to balance out its longer, more challenging stages. It’s a welcome change for me after just recently reckoning with NES Gradius’ ruthless zero continues policy.

As much as it pains me to say, Gradius II does have a lone non-trivial flaw: The slowdown. The copious weapon fire emitting from the Viper itself (especially when multiple options are involved) combines with the large number of enemy sprites to lag some portions of the game significantly. I found myself mentally nicknaming the second half of stage three “the purple crystal slowdown zone” due to the way the plethora of fragmenting space rocks in your path cause the hardware to chug as you blaze a path through them. It’s not a constant issue by any means and some players may even appreciate the occasional bit of extra “help” dodging all those enemy bullets. Still,  it does have the potential to bog down some otherwise top-notch action.

With its jaw-dropping VRC4-enhanced presentation, varied stages, expanded power-up scheme, thrilling boss encounters, and generous continue system, Gradius II is undeniably a triumph and is a top contender for the single best side-scrolling shooter on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. About the only thing it doesn’t have going for it is the two-player simultaneous play from Life Force, but this is understandable in light of the processing strain a single Gradius II player imposes on the humble Famicom. It’s a genuine treat, right up there with Sweet Home and Holy Diver on my personal short list of the greatest Japan-only releases for the platform. I definitely plan on revisiting this one in the future. Unless the Bacterians vaporize us all first because I dared to insult the mighty Gofer. In which case, my bad.

Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

Back in 1983, Konami published a little arcade game called Roc’n Rope. Directed by a promising rookie designer named Tokuro Fujiwara, Roc’n Rope is a single screen “climb to the top” platformer in the Donkey Kong mold with a twist: The player’s avatar, a tiny explorer in a pith helmet, is unable to jump and instead has to ascend the playfield by using a grappling gun which fires a rope that can latch onto the undersides of platforms. I’ve been a fan of this one ever since it debuted. It’s clever, cute, and a lot of fun. It’s not at all a common cabinet, but I’ll always drop a few quarters in given the opportunity.

As for Fujiwara, he left Konami for Capcom later that same year, going on to become one of the industry’s most most influential designer/producers. His Ghosts ‘n Goblins series needs no introduction and he’s also been closely involved with almost every other major Capcom property. I’m talking Mega Man, Street Fighter, Resident Evil, the works. In 1987, he revisted the “wire action” concept introduced in Roc’n Rope with the arcade Bionic Commando, better-known by most for its brilliant 1988 NES adaptation.

What many don’t know is that Konami took their own stab at a Roc’n Rope successor in 1987 with no input from Fujiwara. The result was Arumana no Kiseki (“Miracle of Arumana”) for the Famicom Disk System. While it’s not quite the must-play masterpiece NES Bionic Commando is, Arumana is a one-of-a-kind thrill ride that will appeal to fans of other Konami side-scrollers.

A single glance at Arumana’s cover art tells you everything you need to know about its story. This is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not even remotely subtle about it, either. The game’s hero, one Kaito, is straight-up cosplaying in his khaki safari shirt and brown fedora. The plot sees him out to restore life to a vaguely Indian village by retrieving a stolen magical gem called the Sanka…er, the Arumana. Baddies included turbaned Thuggee lookalikes and snakes. There are booby-trapped ruins aplenty and even a minecart segment. It’s enough to make me wonder if all this “homaging” is the reason we never saw an NES conversion of Arumana. LucasArts’ lawyers would have had a field day.

Kaito’s quest for the Arumana unfolds over the course of six stages, which seems to have been the magic number for Konami around this time, going by Contra, Castlevania, Jackal, and others. Stages are moderately large and scroll in all directions, though they’re laid out in such a fashion that the way forward is generally pretty obvious. That said, be on the lookout for the occasional false wall or floor that can be broken with the spiked ball weapon to reveal power-ups and shortcuts. Breaking walls in this manner actually becomes necessary to progress in some of the later areas.

On the subject of weapons, Kaito has a generous six at his disposal. There are no hard choices to be made here, either, as he can potentially carry all six at once, cycling between them as needed with the Select button. Throwing knives and a pistol provide basic forward firepower, bombs and spiked balls arc downward, the bola travels diagonally upward, and the rare and precious red orb instantly damages every enemy on the screen. The most interesting thing to me about this system is that all these weapons have limited shots. This means that Kaito has no innate free attack option and a careless player could theoretically fire off everything and find themself completely defenseless. Though it’s unlikely to ever happen due to the frequency with which the game throws ammo of various types the player’s way, Arumana is one of the few action-platformers where such a thing is even possible.

Of course, as alluded to above, the real defining feature of Arumana no Kiseki is not a weapon at all, but Kaito’s grappling line. Pressing up and the B button simultaneously causes it to shoot out at a fixed upward angle and anchor itself to any solid surface. Kaito can then shimmy his way up or down the line as needed. You can only have one line in place at a given time, however. The previous one will disappear the instant you press up and B again. Although Kaito can jump, his puny Simon Belmont-esque hops are woefully inadequate for the great heights he’s expected to negotiate almost constantly. Simply put, the game is designed in such a way that the grappling line must be mastered completely in order to see Kaito through to the end.

There’s a lot to love about Arumana no Kiseki. Its swashbuckling Indiana Jones trappings, brazen and shameless as they are, work to set just the right adventuresome tone. The in-game artwork is great by 1987 standards, keeping with Konami’s early Famicom house style of realistically-proportioned faceless human characters. The level design is excellent throughout and each stage’s end boss presents a unique challenge that’s suitably intimidating and satisfying to conquer with the correct weapons and tactics. The difficulty also feels about right to me, similar to other tough-but-fair Konami hits like Contra. Kaito’s default five-hit life meter is neither too generous nor too stingy and he’s given three lives and three continues with which to tackle all six stages, with the possibility of earning extra lives through score and 1-Up pickups.

I’d be remiss I didn’t single out Kinuyo Yamashita’s music for special recognition. The Famicom Disk System add-on included an extra sound channel for wavetable synthesis. Support for this feature varied greatly from game to game, but few would ever use it as extensively and artfully as Yamashita did here. She programmed a total of ten distinct wavetable instruments for use in Arumana no Kiseki and the results speak for themselves. Heck, even before you take the expansion audio into consideration, the melodies here are every bit as good as the ones she created for Castlevania or Power Blade. My only regret is that there apparently wasn’t room on the disk for more of them, as the six stages share three background tracks between them.

Sadly, few things in life are truly perfect. Even Indy had his obnoxious  sidekick cross to bear on occasion. Arumana’s metaphoric Short Round is the awkward and occasionally glitchy implementation of its central platforming mechanic. Kaito’s grappling line deploys slowly in contrast to the zippy bionic arm of Rad Spencer, making it difficult to escape some of the faster enemies. What’s more, the physics of it are just plain strange. Here’s an example: If you wanted to anchor your line as high up on the screen as possible, you’d obviously want to fire it off at the apex of a jump, right? Wrong. The line will somehow move up and down the screen along with Kaito as it extends, so you instead want to fire it off a split second before you jump. That way, you can try to match up the instant the line actually attaches to the wall with the high point of the jump. That’s just bonkers. You can definitely get used to it, but the learning curve is steep and it never really feels right. It’s also possible to deploy your line in such a way that Kaito clips through the wall and dies instantly when he climbs up it. This doesn’t happen all the time, just often enough to be frustrating and make you wish that Konami had done a little more fine tuning before they shipped this one.

Play control angst aside, I’ll still recommend Arumana no Kiseki to any 8-bit action lover with the patience to adapt to its quirks. It’s a mostly successful attempt to infuse Rock’n Rope with elements of Castlevania and it makes excellent use of the FDS hardware. It deserves to be remembered as more than just Bionic Commando’s weird distant cousin. Ironically, it’s also miles above the godawful offical NES Temple of Doom adaptation put out by Tengen and Mindscape. That game should prepare to meet Kali…in hell!