Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of the Peruvian Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

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Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I thought I’d left Transylvania behind with the Halloween season. Wrong. I’ve arrived back here on business: To destroy forever the curse of the evil count, Dracula. For some reason, I just feel like now is the time to revisit what may be the single most divisive game in the entire NES library. Maybe it’s because I finally feel like my game review chops are up to tackling a title that’s been called a masterpiece, an all-time classic, a pioneering action RPG, a mindless grindfest, a needlessly cryptic waste of time, and the black sheep of the entire Castlevania series. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Either/or.

Welcome to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest or Dracula II: Noroi no Fūin (“Dracula II: Seal of the Curse”) as it was called upon its initial 1987 release for the Famicom Disk System. It was converted to cartridge for export to North America the following year and the two versions are largely the same, the exceptions being some seriously dodgy translation work, the loss of the disk format’s built-in save functionality (adequately replaced by 16-character passwords), and some very welcome improvements to the soundtrack made possible by the NES cartridge’s larger memory capacity.

I’ll be reviewing the North American version here, since it’s the one I grew up with. Yes, not only did I have this one as a kid, it was actually the first Castlevania game I ever played. Ironic, considering that it’s also the sole entry from the franchise’s first decade that attempted to deliver anything other than a relatively straightforward action-platforming experience. While not representative of what the series as a whole was about at the time, it was very much the sort of game I was looking for in 1988. Other non-linear action titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II ate up a disproportionate amount of my gaming time during those bygone elementary school years and turn-based RPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy would soon join the rotation. While I’m all about the fast-paced, high stakes action romps these days, the less patient person I was thirty years back appreciated that games like Simon’s Quest rarely imposed any sort of final game over or other significant penalties for failure. Another key consideration was that I didn’t have anywhere near the staggering variety of software to choose from that I do today. A new game I can complete in single evening is a boon to me now, but it would have been a disaster back when birthdays and Christmases were the only guaranteed opportunities to expand my meager library of cartridges.

Simon’s Quest put players back in the boots of Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire and hero of the original Castlevania and its many retellings. In fact, this is the only one out of the five total sequels starring Simon to actually continue his story rather than being a remake or reimagining of his debut outing. Talk about an influential release! Anyway, the story this time goes that Dracula has been destroyed, but the vanquished vamp has somehow managed to lay a potent curse on our boy Simon from beyond the grave. Unless he can gather five parts of the count’s body (each of which is hidden in a different monster-infested mansion somewhere in the Transylvanian countryside), return the pieces to the ruins of the castle where the first battle took place, and use them to resurrect his arch-enemy and defeat him a second time, Simon is doomed to weaken and die in short order.

So does this one still hold up all these years later? Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls, because the truth of the matter of far from that simple. Simon’s Quest is one hauntingly beautiful, sublimely atmospheric cluster of dull design decisions.

First, the good. Noriyasu Togakushi’s pixel art and Kenichi Matsubara’s music are both superb and I consider Simon’s Quest to be right up there with Nintendo’s own Metroid as a successful early attempt to convey a real sense of isolation and dread through savvy use of limited hardware. Of course, no Castlevania is a true horror game in the sense of being out to disturb players on a deep emotional level or even frighten them out of their wits. Konami wouldn’t explore that option until 1999 with Silent Hill. Instead, Simon’s Quest is a delightfully spooky experience, much like the classic Universal and Hammer monster movies that inspired it. An oppressive gloom lingers over the blasted moors, tangled forests, dank swamps, and crumbling graveyards that make up Belmont’s Transylvania. The addition of a day and night cycle to the game world adds to this eerie ambiance and also impacts the gameplay. Enemies are more durable by night and the shops and other buildings in town are all shuttered. After all these years, the world of Castlevania II remains one hell of a mesmerizing place to get yourself lost for a few hours.

It’s only when you start to dig into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll actually be doing during that time that the many cracks in the game’s foundation become apparent. For starters, it doesn’t seem to value its players’ time very highly. You’ll need to make sure to collect plenty of the hearts dropped by defeated enemies, as these function as both experience points that go toward boosting Simon’s maximum health and currency for buying items from merchants. Unlike in Metroid or Rygar, for example, where all key items and upgrades are acquired through exploration alone, Simon is also required to pay out at regular intervals if he wants to advance. A primary example of this are the oak stakes that you need to purchase inside the mansions in order to retrieve Dracula’s body parts from the otherwise unbreakable orbs encasing them. These stakes are single-use items, so that’s a mandatory fifty heart expenditure per mansion. By the time you reach the stake merchant, you’ll either have the necessary cash or you’ll be forced to spend a few minutes walking back and forth whipping the same respawning skeletons over and over to earn it. Neither of these two alternatives is fun or even interesting in any way and this entire business of grinding hearts to buy gear is pure busywork; a sort of time tax artificially imposed on the player in an effort to pad the gameplay time out. Even the day/night cycle I praised above contributes to this at times. Imagine you’ve been patiently saving up 200 hearts for a whip upgrade only to have night fall just when you’re about to reach the town. Hope you enjoy camping out waiting for a shop to open like an unemployed game console fanboy on launch day. The Legend of Zelda handled this aspect much better by allowing Link to visit shops to purchase helpful items while never actually requiring him to do so in order to complete his quest.

We also have to consider the infamously cryptic puzzles and poor quality translation. There are a few instances where the player is expected to perform some very specific, very non-intuitive actions to progress and the in-game advice provided in these instances is simply too mangled to serve its intended purpose. This means that players who haven’t been tipped off about these potential bottlenecks in advance will almost certainly be stymied. I used good old Nintendo Power magazine back in the day. Thankfully, ready Internet access means that you don’t need a magazine subscription to enjoy the game anymore. You can even download fan-made re-translation hacks if you’re serious about not cheating by consulting a walkthrough. Still, no game should ever require outside assistance to make progress and the official English language release of Simon’s Quest absolutely does.

All of these tedious and confusing elements could be forgiven if only the core gameplay was up to par with the other Castlevania titles. It never comes closes, however, and this is Castlevania II’s fatal flaw for me: It’s an action RPG built around some truly pathetic action. Simon himself controls much like he did in his first outing, barring a few minor tweaks like a slightly faster attack speed and the tendency to fall off staircases if he takes a hit while climbing. Fair enough. The problem is that shockingly little care seems to have been taken to insure that level layouts and enemy placement provide a fitting challenge for our whip-cracking hero. In the first game and most of the sequels that take their cues from it, every platform, every pitfall, and every monster that appears feels meticulously planned to pose a specific challenge to the player. The level design here consists primarily of flat stretches of ground sparsely-populated with listless enemies that rarely pose much of a threat due to their slow movement and simple patterns. The classic medusa head baddies, for example, don’t even fly in their characteristic sine wave formations and instead drift ever so slowly toward Simon in a straight line, practically begging to be swatted out of the sky. The levels also rarely bother to combine the combat and platforming together to build richer composite challenges for the player. Leaping over a hole or two with nothing else around to complicate matters isn’t exactly compelling stuff. The jokes that Simon’s Quest has the nerve to serve up as bosses merit particular scorn, too. There are only three of them in the entire game, including Dracula himself, and all can be easily defeated on the first try with a bare minimum of thought or effort. Most mansions don’t have any boss to fight at all! That whole routine with the oak stakes I mentioned above? That’s the climax waiting for you at the end of most of them. Thrilling.

Advocates for Simon’s Quest frequently claim that it’s similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in that it gets picked on merely for being different from its more successful predecessor. Nonsense. What betrays this false equivalence is that Zelda II’s action is some of the most exciting and addictive to be found anywhere in the NES library and its level and enemy design actually help rather than hinder it. Link’s movement and swordplay are both exhilarating and the areas he traverses are formulated to constantly push players to focus and hone their skills as they explore. Although it still has its share of cryptic riddles, it’s overall an 8-bit action RPG done right and the difference between the two games is, fittingly enough, day and night. So while it may be easiest to illustrate some of Castlevania II’s more glaring faults by comparing it to the original, simply using something like Zelda II instead is sufficient to show that those faults are still present in any case.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a brooding, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action RPG that I can’t really recommend to anyone who isn’t a compulsive Castlevania completionist or looking to relive a cherished part of their childhood. If you really love the promise it represents, it did serve as the inspiration for at least eight future Castlevania releases with RPG elements (starting with 1997’s Symphony of the Night) and any one of them would make for a much better time. On the NES specifically, I’d direct you toward either of the Zelda titles, Crystalis, Rygar, Metroid, The Battle of Olympus, or Willow. As much as I wanted to play my beloved contrarian card on this one, I’d honestly rather hit Deborah Cliff with my head to make a hole than slog through this quest again.

Bucky O’Hare (NES)

I knew I should have taken that left turn at Space Albuquerque.

What’s this? An under-the-radar Konami action game based on a short-lived American anthropomorphic animal toy line? I’m getting major Moo Mesa flashbacks here, guys. Yes, Bucky O’Hare is another of the countless critter-themed media properties that made doomed attempts to hitch themselves to that sweet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cash train back in the early 90s. In all fairness to its creators, Bucky isn’t a Turtles clone in the truest sense. Writer Larry Hama and artist Michael Golden first conceived of the title character in the late 70s and he made his print debut in 1984 courtesy of the now defunct Continuity Comics. This first run of Bucky books was brief, however, and the series then went dormant until 1991, when producers seemed willing to roll the dice on anything that showcased talking animal characters in action roles. The syndicated cartoon Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars lasted a single season and Hasbro supported it with an equally brief run of vehicles and action figures. More importantly for me, Konami released two separate video game adaptations in 1992: An arcade-exclusive beat-‘em-up and the NES action-platformer I’m reviewing today. After this second burst of activity, Bucky and friends went silent again and haven’t been heard from since.

I’ve never read the comic books or watched the show, but I’ll sketch out the premise as best I can. Briefly, Captain Bucky O’Hare and the crew of his spaceship The Righteous Indignation are tasked with spearheading the resistance against a marauding interstellar empire of evil toads. It’s Looney Tunes meets Star Wars. Or perhaps a furry retelling of Blake’s 7, minus the downer ending. Bucky’s allies include Jenny the psionic cat, trigger-happy Deadeye Duck, AFC (Android First Class) Blinky, and a human boy genius from Earth named Willy DuWitt. The game’s simple plot opens with the four sidekicks mentioned above getting captured by the toads and Bucky on a mission to rescue them.

The NES Bucky O’Hare has a long-standing reputation as a “hidden gem” on the system and I was expecting quite a lot from it as a late period release from my favorite classic developer. It’s often described as Konami’s spin on their competitor Capcom’s Mega Man series and this comparison does hold true to a point. Similar to how most Mega Man titles begin by presenting you with a menu of eight stages that can be attempted in any order, Bucky’s level select screen allows you to choose between four planets (creatively dubbed Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow). Each planet has a distinct theme (fire for the Red planet, ice for the Blue, etc.) and a different ally imprisoned on it. Completing a planet unlocks the ability to switch to the newly rescued character at any time using the Select button. There’s a constant incentive to do this, as each member of the crew has his or her own primary attack and special power. Bucky, for example, fires straight ahead and his power is an appropriately hare-like super jump that allows him to reach high platforms the other characters can’t. Deadeye has a triple spread shot (with limited range, sadly) and can climb up walls using his special ability. On a mechanical level, this option to switch between any of the characters in your party on the fly functions much like the weapon switching in a Mega Man title. All your characters still share a common health meter, though, so don’t go thinking you switch them out just to absorb more hits in a pinch.

These first four opening levels didn’t just meet my high expectations, they blew them clear out of the water! The music is catchy, the graphics are among the best on the system, and the amount of sheer creativity packed into each and every screen practically beggars belief. Each planet is broken up into numerous distinct sub-areas with their own gameplay gimmicks. The Red Planet opens with a section where you leap over pits of fire while shooting at enemy toads and dodging bits of molten rock bursting from both the pits themselves and the volcanoes in the background. Next is a cave where boulders have to be pushed into magma floes to allow for safe passage. After that, a vertical segment where you have to outrace streams of fast-moving lava while descending a shaft. Then comes a series of leaps between tiny platforms over a fiery chasm while dodging the arcs of flame that periodically rush up from below (shades of the fire level from Life Force here). Survive that and there’s another vertical section of moving platforms and spiked walls. The final platforming section forces you to alternate between leaping over a giant rolling green sphere and riding that very same sphere to safety over a sea of deadly spikes. Only after all that do you reach one of the game’s excellent boss fights against…the green sphere, which opens up to reveal that it’s actually a laser-shooting vehicle piloted by one of the toads. This is all just one level! Long-time gaming aficionados will recognize the influence of the game’s director, Masato Maegawa, who left Konami to co-found Treasure just few months after finishing his work on Bucky O’Hare. The same sense of joyful experimentation and endless novelty that later informed classic Treasure releases like Dynamite Headdy and Gunstar Heroes is very much evident in the level design here.

The only real complaint I can muster about the first half of Bucky O’Hare involves the way that the various special powers of the heroes are utilized. You need to hold down the fire button in order to charge these abilities up first and then release it to trigger them. The downside to this is that your character is stuck standing in place during the entire process. Any experienced Mega Man player will be familiar with the way the Blue Bomber can freely charge up his Mega Buster while continuing to run, jump, and climb around the stage as normal. You don’t have that sort of flexibility here and it can be detrimental to the flow of platforming and combat alike to have to stop dead in your tracks for several seconds at a time whenever you want to use a special ability.

This control quirk is annoying, but hardly a deal breaker. If it was the only mark against the game, we might just have a top ten NES action contender on our hands here. Tragically, Bucky O’Hare has one other flaw that’s a bit tougher to gloss over: Its entire second half. It’s here where the Mega Man influence takes a back seat and the game reveals that it also pulls double duty as Konami’s take on Battletoads.

Immediately after clearing the fourth planet, The Righteous Indignation is captured by a colossal toad mother ship and Bucky is forced to gather his crew all over again so they can escape together. Obviously, this twist is purely repetitive from a story standpoint. You literally just got done saving these exact same good guys from these exact same villains. It also regresses the gameplay by stripping away most of the cool special abilities you spent the better part of the last hour unlocking and then expecting you to do it all over again. The remainder of the game takes place entirely within this toad ship, with no further allowance made for player choice when it comes to the stage order.

Most troubling of all, the art direction and level design both take a sharp turn for the worse at this point. The unique themes and colorful environments of the four planets give way to what feels like an endless expanse of drab industrial corridor studded with a downright silly amount of spikes and other instant death traps. It’s the old “Why doesn’t Dr. Wily just build his whole fortress out of those spikes?” gag made real. From here on out, it starts to feel increasingly redundant for Bucky and friends to have a health bar at all outside of the boss fights. You’ll either trial-and-error your way past all the insta-kill garbage littering a given portion of a stage or you won’t.

This isn’t to say that Bucky O’Hare is too difficult. It isn’t. In fact, it resembles a modern game in its reluctance to punish players in any way. You’re given unlimited continues, checkpoints every couple of screens, and even a password system. At no point will you ever be forced to repeat a section of level you’ve already completed. No, the real problem is that these later stages are entirely too rigid for their own good. There’s a general over-reliance on forcing the player to tackle each little obstacle course just so. This zero tolerance policy toward imperfect play means no real breathing room; no support for improvisation, close calls, and other happy byproducts of player spontaneity.

I don’t want to risk leaving you with the impression that Bucky O’Hare makes for a bad overall experience. If my disappointment reads as extreme over the last few paragraphs, it’s only because things started off so damn strong. Those first four levels are some of the coolest the NES would ever see, the five playable characters allow for varied approaches to many of the challenges, and the usual Konami glitz and polish is always a draw unto itself. It fumbles a bit in its second half, ultimately falling short of becoming one of my personal favorites, but I still recommend checking it out, especially if you have the means to do so without paying the heavy premiums it typically commands on the secondary market. It’s a fine game, just a couple hare-brained decisions away from being a masterpiece.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its checkered “black sheep” reputation. Dracula X is very much a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy whip the Vampire Killer in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely, good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case.

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Where Dracula X really steps out of its predecessors’ shadows and starts making a name for itself is in its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.

The Goonies (Famicom)

Sloth love Konami!

Most arcade veterans are familiar with Nintendo’s PlayChoice-10 machines. Introduced in 1986 and based on modified NES hardware, the PlayChoice-10 was an influential early take on the same modular “multi-cade” concept later adopted by SNK for their iconic Neo-Geo MVS cabinets. Arcade operators were able to install up to ten separate games on a single machine which players could then freely select between on the fly, hence the name. The PlayChoice-10 proved to be an efficient quarter muncher as well as a highly effective advertising vector for Nintendo, since all 52 of the games released for the platform were also available for purchase as NES cartridges. Except for one, that is: Konami’s enigmatic Goonies.

Not that the game itself was at all unusual. It’s a fairly straightforward old school platforming adaptation of the 1985 kids’ adventure film that focuses on lead Goonie Mikey Walsh dodging traps and enemies as he scours a series of maze-like underground levels in search of pirate treasure and his kidnapped friends. No, what had me stumped was the fact that I’d never in my life laid eyes on the home version. None of my friends had a copy. It was nowhere to be seen in catalogs or on store shelves. There wasn’t even the briefest mention of it in Nintendo Power or any of the other gaming magazines of the time. Copies of Konami’s 1987 follow-up The Goonies II (which I reviewed last fall) were everywhere, but you’d have had better luck getting info on Jimmy Hoffa out of the Loch Ness monster than I did tracking down the original Goonies on the NES.

Of course, it’s common knowledge these days that Goonies did receive a cartridge release…in Japan. As an American kid in the 1980s, however, I didn’t know a Famicom from a rom-com. That’s why even today, with the mundane truth of the matter a search engine click away, holding this little hunk of plastic and silicon in my hands still feels special. It’s not just a game cartridge, it’s the key to a decades-old enigma. Kind of like old One-Eyed Willy’s treasure map, now that I think about it.

Now that I’m able to examine the game at my leisure with more experienced eyes, I think I understand why this one never came home here. Goonies very much looks and sounds like an early Famicom release, similar to the initial run of “black box” NES titles circa 1985. Sprites are small, backgrounds are plain, and the soundtrack is sparse. Considering that Nintendo typically limited its licensees to no more than five total NES releases per calendar year, it’s no surprise that Konami would choose to put its best foot forward in North America and lead with more viscerally impressive titles like the first Castlevania and ports of cutting edge arcade games like Gradius instead. If I’d been calling the shots at Konami back in 1986, I’d have given poor Goonies the shaft, too.

It’s a shame, because the game is undeniably great fun. There are a total of six stages beneath the Fratelli hideout for Mikey to explore. The first is only a couple screens wide, but subsequent ones are increasingly sprawling affairs with dozens of screens divided up into distinct sub-areas. Scattered throughout each stage are a number of a sealed doors that hold kidnapped Goonies, keys, healing potions, and slingshots that temporarily upgrade Mikey’s default kick attack to a handy projectile. How do you open these doors? With the bombs that you get from killing the giant mice, of course. Just like in the movie! In a nice touch, the exact contents of each door are randomized every time you play, so there’s no one ideal route that’s guaranteed to net you the Goonie and all three keys needed to move on to the next stage.

Naturally, you’re not just running around collecting all this stuff unopposed. In addition to the explosives-laden vermin mentioned above, Mikey needs to avoid bats, ghost pirates and a host of stage hazards like flamethrowers, waterfalls, and falling stalactites. Trickiest of all are the two Fratelli brothers, Jake and Francis. These gangsters can’t be permanently defeated, only stunned, and they chase Mikey through the levels tenaciously while attacking with their guns and…music. Yes, Konami actually found a way to turn actor Robert Davi’s penchant for opera singing into an attack in a Famicom game. Amazing.

These traps and enemies are formidable, but Mikey’s health bar leaves you with considerable room for error. What you’ll truly learn to dread is the stage timer. Lacking any way to predict with certainty where all the Goonies and keys are hidden, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough time to potentially canvass the entire stage and still reach the exit afterward. If you dawdle, backtrack, or get yourself lost even a little in one of the larger levels, the result is usually a slow death by the clock. This matters because Goonies does not include a continue feature and every one of your starting lives is a therefore a precious resource.

To help even the odds, there are a host of hidden inventory items that will permanently enhance Mikey’s abilities when collected. Among them are a raincoat that negates waterfall damage, a set of headphones that muffle Jake’s singing attack, and many more. In general, each item provides passive immunity to one type of hazard and the more you acquire, the more recklessly you can haul ass through the stages to maximize your available time. The only problem is that these treasures tend to be well-hidden indeed. I didn’t stumble across a single one over the course of my first few playthroughs. You need to stand in very specific, seemingly empty portions of each stage and then input equally specific button combinations that vary for each item in order to make that item appear. For whatever reason, Japanese game designers around this time were quite enamored with this “do precise yet inexplicable things to make invisible loot appear” mechanic. Namco essentially built an entire game around it with their Tower of Druaga. Me, I’m not a fan and as nice as these goodies can be to have, I’m glad they’re not required to beat the game.

That’s really all there is to The Goonies. It’s a short, relatively basic little action title with a presentation that’s clean and appealing, if minimalistic. With only six stages, most players will be able to reach the ending screen for the first time after an hour or two. The game does loop in true arcade style at that point and start to throw faster and more numerous enemies into the mix, but the core experience remains the same. Although it doesn’t seem like much on paper, I actually prefer this one over its more complex and famous NES sequel. Famicom Goonies doesn’t waste your time with tedious first-person wall hammering marathons or an unnecessarily confusing level layout. Better still, the limited lives available here mean that precise platforming actually matters, unlike in Goonies II where Mikey can resurrect himself on the spot indefinitely and it often makes more sense to run right through the tougher enemies instead of standing around trying to kill them. I don’t deny the sequel’s more compelling aesthetics or sense of whimsical mystery. I simply prefer the original’s higher stakes and the constant driving tension the timer imparts.

No matter which of the two you favor, though, I think I speak for us all when I express how grateful I am that Konami was given the Goonies license in the first place. In their capable hands, mild-mannered asthmatic preteen Mikey Walsh got to kick bipedal mice to death, pilot the Vic Viper into outer space, meet King Kong, go to hell, and rescue a mermaid. Let me tell you, people, they do not make movie adaptations like they used to.

Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (Super Famicom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just tell ’em Rat Boy sent you.

Antarctic Adventure (Famicom)

Hey, look, it’s Penta! You all know Penta, right? Konami’s famous penguin mascot? The star of awesome games like Yume Penguin Monogatari, Parodius, and Konami’s Ping Pong? Man, Mario and Sonic have nothing on old Penta here.

Okay, okay, so you most likely have no idea who this little guy is. I don’t blame you. Virtually none of his games were published in North America (the 1984 ColecoVision port of Antarctic Adventure is the only exception I’m aware of) and his star was definitely waning after 1988 or so. Still, I’ll wager he’s quite the nostalgic figure for Japanese gamers of a certain age. Not Pac-Man nostalgic, mind, but maybe Q*bert tier.

The original 1983 version of Antarctic Adventure for Japanese MSX computers was Penta’s gaming debut and this Famicom port from 1985 was one of Konami’s earliest releases on a Nintendo system. It’s also a minor personal milestone for me, as this is the last of the reviews covering the 21 new games I picked up at last October’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo! I suppose I could have gotten through them all much sooner if I hadn’t sprinkled in another 25 from my general backlog. Still, that’s not a bad turnaround, if I may say so myself.

Given the subject matter and the era in which it was released, you might expect Antarctic Adventure to be an early platforming game. Not even close. What we have here is an old-school arcade style rally racing game with a “behind the car” view, very similar to Pole Position, OutRun, or Rad Racer. The only real differences are that the “car” is a pudgy waddling bird and the standard racetrack is replaced by an endless stretch of polar ice. It seems that little Penta is hell-bent on sprinting his way along the entire length of the Antarctic coast in order to visit a series of ten research stations belonging to different countries. Since the game has no proper story that I’ve been able to track down, I suppose you’re free to imagine any motivation you please for this strange avian odyssey. Maybe Dennis Hopper planted a bomb on Penta and he can’t stop or he’ll explode. Maybe he’s being chased by John Carpenter’s The Thing. Anything goes!

Each of the ten legs of Penta’s marathon play out about the same. You’re given a set distance in kilometers to traverse within a time limit. If you make it before time runs out, it’s on to the next course. If you don’t, the game is over. There are no extra lives or continues. You just keep running for as long as you can in order to rack up as many points as possible. Once you reach the 10th research station, the game starts looping back at stage one with the time limits for each course decreasing on each successive loop. There’s no true ending as such. Penta just keeps on sprinting like a bird possessed until he can’t anymore. Rather grim when you look at it that way.

Of course, there have to be some obstacles set up between Penta and the finish line or it wouldn’t be a proper game at all. Instead of other cars or roadside barriers like in most racers of this vintage, Antarctic Adventure’s courses are littered with ice holes, crevasses, and overly friendly seals. Touching any of these hazards will halt Penta’s forward movement and stun him for a brief time. The solution is to either run around or jump over them, with the caveat that the grinning seals popping out of the ice can’t be jumped. In cases where many obstacles are packed closed together, it’s possible to slip up once and then get “ping ponged” between multiple ones, losing a ton of time in the process. Thankfully, there is one “power-up” of sorts that can help in avoiding these dreaded occurrences: Picking up a flashing flag equips Penta with a tiny helicopter propeller that can be activated by rapidly pressing the B button mid-jump. This lets him fly right over any holes and crevasses in his path for a few seconds before it runs out. You still can’t bypass the dreaded seals this way, though.

Beyond this, the only other things to look out for are the fish and flags of various colors that award bonus points when collected. Antarctic Adventure is an extremely basic and repetitive game, a holdover from the tail end of the arcade Golden Age. This extends to the art and music. Penta is cute and the overall look of the game is clean and colorful, but the scenery is just ice, ice, and more ice. Visual differentiation between stages is limited entirely to the occasional switch from a blue sky to an orange one. The score consists of a single classical piece (Émile Waldteufel’s “The Skater’s Waltz”) that plays over every race and a few brief incidental fanfares; about one minute of music in total.

With its simple gameplay and bare bones presentation, Antarctic Adventure isn’t going to make many “best of the Famicom” lists. As any Atari fan can tell you, however, simple is far from the worst thing a game can be, and this one is a very competent example of a time trial racer circa the early 1980s. If you enjoy similar titles, you’ll almost certainly enjoy Konami’s more lighthearted interpretation. You’ll probably find yourself wanting to move on to something more substantial after thirty minutes or so, but it’ll be a fine thirty minutes. Plus, if you really want more, the 1986 MSX sequel Penguin Adventure greatly expanded on the core gameplay with shops, branching paths, boss fights, and multiple endings. Penguin Adventure was also the first game designed (in part) by the famous Hideo Kojima. Say what you will about penguins, at least they don’t talk your ears off about nanomachines or whatever while you’re just trying to play a video game.

Godspeed, Penta. Here’s hoping Mascot Heaven has an all-you-can-eat sardine bar.