Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Nintendo)

Prevailing circumstances as of late have me feeling the urge for steady, reliable gaming comfort food. The way I see it, there’s no better mental refuge than the blistering run-‘n-gun action of Konami’s Contra. So escape with me now to a simpler time when “see alien, blast alien” was I needed to know and all I wanted to do.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Contra Spirits in Japan) is actually the fourth entry in the long-running saga. Its immediate predecessor, Operation C for Game Boy, apparently doesn’t count for numbering purposes. More proof that handhelds are the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of the game industry; no respect at all. Misleading title aside, Contra III is noteworthy for being the franchise’s first appearance on a 16-bit home console and boy, did its developers not want you to forget it. This was one of those hyperactive early SNES releases that pulled out every newfangled hardware trick in the book as it practically screamed, “Look at me! Bet your NES or Genesis can’t do this!” Transparencies? You bet! Scaling effects? Hell, yeah! Dizzying background rotation? You know it! The shock and awe were very real back in 1992, I assure you. But has its nature as a technical showpiece for a thirty year-old machine badly dated it or does the timeless Contra gameplay shine through strong as ever? That’s what I’ll be looking to determine.

Story-wise, we get a basic rehash of the previous three games. 27th century Earth is again besieged by the extraterrestrial menace known as Red Falcon and it falls on strapping commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean to save humanity’s collective bacon for a fourth time. Curiously, the North American version’s instructions would have you believe you’re playing as Jimbo and Sully, two distant descendants of Bill and Lance. This stems from a misguided attempt to keep continuity with NES Contra’s botched English manual, which inexplicably shifted the action from the year 2633 to 1987. Best to ignore this whole timeline debacle, I say. They’re Bill and Lance.

That’s enough said about plot. At the end of the day, these games are about blowing away alien scum with cool guns. The classic machine gun, laser, flamethrower, and spread shot all make a return here, as does the homing weapon from Operation C. There’s also an entirely new option in the form of crush missiles, which are devastating at short range. Skilled use of the crush gun is vital if you hope to wreck bosses quickly. Finally, you start each life with a single super bomb in your possession that will deal heavy damage to every foe on the screen when triggered. Although you can potentially accumulate up to nine of these, I wouldn’t count it if I were you. The traditional one-hit Contra deaths are in full effect, after all.

At least you’re no longer guaranteed to lose everything when you inevitably bite the dust. Contra III introduces the ability to carry two weapons at once and toggle between them at will. Your death will only result in the loss of whichever gun is currently in use. This allows for a neat little bit of extra strategy without bogging things down. You could opt to carry a spread gun for use against widely spaced groups of weak enemies along with crush missiles for more durable single targets. Or you might choose to limit yourself to the default machine gun for the majority of a stage in order to preserve a stronger backup weapon for the boss at the end. Good stuff.

Hit start on the title screen and you’re immediately taking the fight to Red Falcon, dashing through a grimly gorgeous ruined cityscape as you gun down waves of enemy foot soldiers. After a few screens of this, you’ll encounter the first of Contra III’s many direct callbacks: A reprise of the iconic boss fight against the jungle base from the original Contra. Destroy it, though, and the level simply continues without fanfare, revealing it to have been a lowly speed bump of a mini-boss this time. The statement is clear: This isn’t last generation’s Contra. Before the stage concludes for real, you’ll have also commandeered a tank and used it to destroy a second well-defended base, defeated another minor boss, platformed your way through the fiery aftermath of a bombing raid, and finally faced off against a colossal turtle alien that sends a torrent of flying insects at you and can discharge laser beams from its maw.

This opening act establishes the pattern for all of Contra III’s side-scrolling sections: A chain of constantly shifting dynamic action set pieces and escalating mid-boss encounters culminating in a jaw-dropping clash with a larger-than-life ultimate antagonist. Each is almost an interactive Hollywood blockbuster unto itself, an impression only bolstered by the sumptuous art and bombastic musical score. Without a doubt, these levels are marvels and really must be played to be believed. All four of them.

You heard right. Contra III contains a paltry four of the very best stages the series would ever see, supplemented by two of the very worst. The latter utilize an overhead view and it’s here where the game’s emphasis on pushing Super Nintendo hardware gimmicks whips around and bites it square in the ass. These overhead levels rely heavily on the system’s famous Mode 7 graphics feature, which allows for the smooth scaling and rotation of a background layer. Mode 7 was used to brilliant effect in F-Zero and Pilotwings, where it enabled the close approximation of true 3-D environments without the need to render polygons. That’s not what we get here. Instead, we’re stuck maneuvering sluggish, tank-like versions of Bill and Lance over downright ugly pixelated terrain. The directional pad is used exclusively to move straight forward and back in this perspective, with all lateral movement accomplished via the roundabout method of rotating the background itself with the two shoulder buttons. If this sounds goofy and awkward and not particularly fun, that’s because it is. While previous Contra games also experimented with alternate viewpoints for some of their stages, it was always to better effect than this.

Contra III’s overhead portions were sufficiently eye-catching in an era when a low-res spinning background could pass for high-tech wizardry. Playing through them now, they’re positively abominable, the absolute inverse of their sublime side-scrolling counterparts. They’re not even passable filler, as stripping them out and replaced with nothing whatsoever would result would in a stronger product. Their relative brevity is the closest thing they have to a saving grace.

Does this make this Contra III a bad game? God, no. It is a maddeningly inconsistent one, however. It’s all peaks and valleys, melting your face off with its unbridled awesomeness one minute and then giving you ample cause to wish you were playing almost anything else the next. There are more peaks than valleys to be sure, but four legendary levels still aren’t a lot to hang an entire game on. I love it, just not quite as much as I love the original and Super C on the NES or Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, all of which benefit from a healthier ratio of quality content to dross. Contra III is tantalizingly close to perfection. If only its creators had doubled down on its strengths as opposed to diluting them with Mode 7 mediocrity….

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

 

It’s well documented by now that I adore Konami’s Ganbare Goemon cycle of adventure-tinged action games. It all started back in 1992 with the previously Japan-exclusive franchise’s international debut as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo. I was instantly captivated by Mystical Ninja’s quality gameplay and irreverent take on traditional Japanese folklore. But what about all the other Goemon titles I didn’t even suspect existed back in those hazy pre-Internet days? Talk about a goldmine! Thus, I’ve recently branched out and began exploring the frizzy-haired bandit’s more obscure outings. Well, obscure to us Americans, anyway.

Next up is 1989’s Ganbare Goemon 2, the third entry in the saga and the follow-up to the wildly successful Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū from 1986. Note that this game is not to be conflated with its own Super Famicom sequel, 1993’s Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu, which I already reviewed a while back. Confusing, I know. Special thanks to Stardust Crusaders for the unofficial English translation. The game would have still been beatable without it, but a good portion of the jokes would have been lost on me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 doesn’t stray far from the template Karakuri Dōchū established. It functions in most respects as a direct extension of its forebear, albeit with fewer rough edges and a handful of non-trivial upgrades. Your general goal is still to guide Goemon on a slapstick odyssey across medieval Japan while fending off its many hostile denizens with swings of his mighty kiseru pipe. The trip is still structured as a succession of massive overhead perspective stages, most of which require you to find three hidden gate passes before a time limit expires in order to move on. You still collect money and patronize various inns, shops, and mini-games along the way.

The most significant new addition by far is Goemon’s literal partner in crime, the chubby weirdo Ebisumaru. Finally! If you ask me, it’s barely a Ganbare Goemon game without Ebi. He’s the yin to Goemon’s yang. The chocolate to his peanut butter. The Luigi to his Mario. His inclusion here allows for the two-player simultaneous play that would be present in almost every future main series installment. He also provides what little Ganbare Goemon 2 has in the way of plot. The opening depicts the two thieves sitting in jail and Ebisumaru mentions to Goemon that there’s supposedly a great treasure hidden inside the remote Karakuri Castle. Determined to claim it, they promptly break out of their cell and the first level begins.

As nice as the two-player support is, I might just appreciate the boss fights more. One of Karakuri Dōchū’s few major letdowns was its total lack of such climactic encounters. It feels wrong somehow for an action game to end with the player simply strolling through a doorway unopposed. There’s no shortage of bosses here. In addition to providing extra challenge and drama, they’re an ideal showcase for the developers’ strange and anachronistic sense of humor. Expect a sumo robot, a giant peach, and more to come between Goemon and his prize.

A third key improvement over Karakuri Dōchū, at least in my eyes, is Ganbare Goemon 2’s markedly less brutal difficulty. You get continues this time! More specifically, you get a rather novel interactive continue screen where you must mash a button in order to prevent Goemon from being lowered into a boiling cauldron. Pretty amusing when you consider that the historical Ishikawa Goemon actually did meet his end this way. I’ve always been of the mind that funny games shouldn’t impose overly strict penalties for failure. If the player is forced to repeat the same sections too frequently, the relaxed anticipation of the next gag or crazy scenario soon gives way to annoyance. That never bodes well for comedy.

What does benefit the mood is all the extra personality on display here. Karakuri Dōchū was surprisingly down-to-earth in light of how madcap these games would become in the 16-bit era and beyond. Ganbare Goemon 2 is where the lunacy starts to ramp up in earnest. For example, the last game’s simple interstitial cut scenes of Goemon distributing his stolen gains to the poor à la Robin Hood are replaced by a sequence of increasingly unhinged comic vignettes. My favorite sees Goemon and Ebisumaru donning frilly dresses and doing their best saucy cabaret dance, complete with gratuitous double pantie flash at the end. Gee, thanks, guys. Keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky spin on Super Mario Bros.’s “your princess is in another castle” schtick, too.

Personally, I wouldn’t rank Ganbare Goemon 2 among its powerhouse publisher’s all-time best. At least not so far as general audiences are concerned. The sound and visuals are merely adequate. The combat and platforming are similarly serviceable at best, with the noteworthy drawbacks of iffy hit detection and some borderline unreactable enemy spawns along the screen edges. Strictly as a standalone game, it’s alright; a pleasant enough diversion, if not an instant classic akin to Castlevania or Contra. It is a nigh indisputable improvement on its immediate predecessor, however, and a must-play for dedicated Ganbare Goemon fans. Two-player mayhem, proper boss fights, an overall less stressful journey, and a greater emphasis on the absurd are nothing to sneeze at. All these enhancements were important building blocks for the ever grander and more manic escapades to come. Though not quite there yet, Konami was very much on the right track with this one.

Esper Dream (Famicom)

I’ve devoted considerable time over the years to working my way through the bevy of console adventure and RPG titles published by Konami in 1987 alone. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest had all come out the year prior and collectively hooked millions of Famicom owners on the sort of exploration and stat-heavy games which had previously been exclusive to much pricier home computers. Realizing the public’s appetite for such works was virtually endless, Konami pumped out a good half-dozen over the next calendar year. Some of these (Castlevania II, The Goonies II) would later make their ways overseas, while others (Dragon Scroll, Getsu Fūma Den, Majou Densetsu II) would never see release outside their native Japan. Another in this latter category is Esper Dream, a whimsical and surprisingly tough overhead action RPG for the Famicom Disk System. Special thanks to Mute for the English fan translation that allowed me to make sense of this one.

Your player character in Esper Dream is a young boy with a name of your choice who happens to be an esper. That is, an individual with psychic powers, aka ESP. He’s sitting at home reading one night when a girl materializes from the open storybook and introduces herself as Lottie. She’s a resident of Brick Village, part of the magical world inside the book, and was sent by its mayor to enlist the boy’s help. Seems monsters are running amok and have abducted the mayor’s daughter, Alice. Naturally, our silent protagonist agrees and follows Lottie into the book. A psychic kid and a fantasy quest to rescue a girl? It’s two classic Japanese media clichés for the price of one!

Upon arrival in Brick Village, the mayor hands you a suit of flimsy armor and your first weapon, a water pistol. It’s about as effective as you’d think. He also gives you an important hint about which of the game’s main areas you should explore first. Though you can technically access them all from the very start via doors scattered around town, you’re only asking for trouble if you ignore the intended order. This may be a pastel fairy tale wonderland, but the enemies won’t hesitate to curb stomp an underleveled pre-teen.

The five interconnected regions you must conquer all have their own themes, ranging from mundane fields and swamps to crystal palaces and gigantic chessboards. Each has multiple maze-like indoor dungeons which hold important treasures and your primary targets: The five boss monsters who are causing all the trouble. Keep an eye out for more villages along the way, too. They contain shops and helpful NPCs you can’t afford to skip.

Being an RPG, Esper Dream requires plenty of repetitive combat in order to accumulate the cash and experience points needed to see your hero to the end. Clashes with monsters all take place in claustrophobic single screen arenas where your character’s options are fairly limited. He can walk and shoot his gun in the four cardinal directions as well as activate whichever psychic power he has equipped. Fights typically end when one side or the other is wiped out. However, it is possible to flee the arena early if you can locate and destroy the one randomly determined exit tile along the screen edge. The most interesting thing by far about this whole system is how battles are initiated in the first place. Esper Dream is an early example of an RPG where all potential enemy encounters are visible to the player beforehand, here in the form of footprint icons. Similar to the more famous Earthbound, you’ll never be surprised by an enemy and can avoid many unwanted scraps by bobbing and weaving around them.

Now’s as good a time as any to address those psychic powers the game is named for. Turns out they’re fundamentally no different from stock RPG magic. The first you’ll gain is the damaging Psi Beam projectile, which remains your most useful tool throughout. As you level-up, you’ll unlock six other abilities which let you do things like boost your defense, heal damage, and teleport back to town. They all draw on a limited pool of EP (Esper Points?) which function like common Magic Points. As with the game’s combat, it’s an oddball peripheral element of this psi system that actually manages to stand out. Certain shops give you the option of buying new powers early instead of waiting until you reach the appropriate experience level. It’s unique, albeit also expensive and largely pointless.

Esper Dream has a lot going for it aesthetically. On top of a quality Kinuyo Yamashita score, it shares the same kooky art direction as Ai Senshi Nicol, King Kong 2, and other overhead view Konami games from this period. It eschews the grit of a Castlevania or Contra in favor of bold primary colors, surreal landscapes, and a motley grab bag of cartoon enemies. Pelicans, ladybugs, chess pieces, and moai statue refugees from Gradius routinely show up to run your day. If they weren’t so good at it, you’d almost think this was a game for little kids.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now in passing, Esper Dream is hard. Opponents frequently outnumber you and love to rush you down relentlessly or hang back lobbing projectiles at your slow-moving boy hero. Some even abuse an unavoidable full-screen “flash” attack that automatically removes a large chunk of your health if you don’t kill them fast enough. That’s extra bad news because killing anything fast is no mean feat. Your guns are some of the most feeble weapons I’ve had the misfortune to wield in a game. The strongest of the available three, the bazooka, still requires dozens upon dozens of shots to take down a single late game baddie. That’s no exaggeration; feel free to count them if you like. This is why the Psi Beam is so important. It’s the only attack worth a damn in the back half of the game! Your armor options, with the exception of the Barrier Suit found in the depths of the final area, are similarly inadequate given the amount of punishment you’re subject to. Adding insult to injury, HP and MP recovery items are costly and are only sold in one shop. Said shop isn’t located in Brick Village, either, which is the one town you’re able to warp to easily. The game obviously isn’t impossible. Once you know to stock up on recovery items, save often, and put your trust in Psi Beams rather than your puny guns, you can indeed finish it. I can’t help but feel, though, that the opposition you’ll face in last few area is just too oppressive for the game’s own good. It sucks much of the fun out of things and conflicts with the setting’s cheery tone.

Despite this frustration, I didn’t wind up hating Esper Dream. In fact, I’d say it merits a qualified recommendation. The presention is appealing, progression isn’t overly cryptic by the standards of the day, and the first half is exactly the lighthearted romp you’re primed for at the outset. If you’re an experienced, patient gamer, you should be able to weather the oddly intense turn it takes in the final stretch and come away mostly satisfied. While it’s not about to dethrone Getsu Fūma Den as my favorite of Konami’s ’87 RPG bumper crop, it is ultimately more dream than nightmare.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES)

Two hundred. As in two hundred vintage games completed and reviewed since I kicked off this crazy endeavor in January of 2017. Did I think I would reach this point? Not as such, no. At the same time, however, I never once considered calling it quits. I’ve been having way too much fun for that. Though I’ve covered a few old favorites along the way, it’s mostly been a roller coaster ride of fresh discoveries. I’ve branched out into new genres, new franchises, and new console libraries. I’ve dipped my toe into import games, fan translations, and ROM hacks. I’ve taken on long-forgotten obscurities, works of towering importance, and everything in-between. I’ve learned countless facts about the histories of the games I love and the people who made them. Most gratifying of all is the personal growth I’ve experienced. My confidence as a gamer and writer has increased exponentially with the practice.

On an occasion like this, only the best will do. That’s why my subject today is nothing less than my favorite game for my favorite system: Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Now, before I get into the game proper, I should clarify that just because I’ll proudly proclaim Castlevania III my favorite NES game, that doesn’t make it The Best NES Game. The very idea there could be such a thing is ridiculous on its face. With hundreds of candidates, a select few of which exert a profound influence on the hobby to this day, no one could possibly hold up to sustained scrutiny. No, Castlevania III is simply the NES game I jive with the most; the one that feels like it was made with me in mind, despite my eleven year-old self being a relative unknown in Japan circa 1989. Get comfy, y’all, because this is gonna be a long one.

Castlevania III’s introduction frames it as a prequel to its predecessors, a conceit which was actually rare among video games of the ’80s. Set in 1476, over two centuries before Simon Belmont first took up the holy whip in the original Castlevania, it stars his ancestor Trevor on a desperate mission to save Europe from the ravages of Dracula. Along the way, Trevor can join forces with a trio of playable helpers: Sypha the sorceress, Dracula’s prodigal son Adrian “Alucard” Tepes, and acrobatic rogue Grant Danasty. Savvy readers will note that this game’s plot forms the basis for the Castlevania animated series which began airing in 2017, although poor Grant has yet to make an appearance therein as of this writing.

Like most Castlevania games made before 1997’s Symphony of the Night, Dracula’s Curse is a traditional 2-D action-platformer with a campy horror theme and an emphasis on meticulous play. These “Classicvania” entries aren’t as fast and twitchy as something like Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden, nor as free and loose as, say, Super Mario Bros. The stalwart vampire hunters you control walk slowly, can’t alter the trajectories of their short jumps in mid-air, and have a primary whip attack with a significant wind-up delay built in. Enemies tend to be quicker than you, dish out heavy damage, and can easily send you flying back into a bottomless pit with the slightest touch. To survive, you need to keep a cool head as you draw on your knowledge of enemy movement patterns to plan and time your moves flawlessly. You can’t act too fast or too slow, since panic and hesitation are both penalized. It’s a demanding, arguably harsh design philosophy. Nevertheless, once I’m fully into the groove, smoothly striking down one undead monstrosity after another as I make inexorable clockwork progress toward the stage boss, I’ve become lost in the sort of transcendent flow state only a genuinely great game can induce. This utterly absorbing high stakes action is what brings me back to the 8 and 16-bit Castlevanias time and time again.

While the epitome of the above blueprint in most respects, Dracula’s Curse also happens to be the direct  follow-up to the very different Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Fan opinions on Simon’s Quest are all over the place and hotly debated. For what it’s worth, I consider it a sorry excuse for an action RPG. Regardless, it did introduce the concept of exploration to Castlevania and paved the way for Symphony and its successors a decade later. Dracula’s Curse honors this legacy, albeit in a limited fashion. A handful of literal branching paths dotted along the way ensure you’ll only ever see a maximum of eleven out of the game’s sixteen total levels during a single playthrough. After vanquishing the first boss, for example, you’re presented with a choice: Continue on your way to Dracula’s castle or take a detour up the nearby clock tower, where a potential ally awaits.

The helper mechanic is similarly crafted, in that it both empowers the player through meaningful choice and adds to the game’s longevity. Only one of Trevor’s three sidekicks can travel with him at a time. Thus, if you want to play around with everyone’s unique skills and earn every possible ending, including the extra challenging solo Trevor one, you’ll need to beat the game four times. It’s worth doing, as each character has his or her own advantages. Trevor is a carbon copy of his descendant Simon, with an upgradeable whip and the same five limited use sub-weapons, i.e. the dagger, axe, cross, holy water, and stopwatch. Sypha has a trio of elemental spells which can swiftly obliterate the toughest of foes. Alucard can transform into a bat and fly for a brief time, allowing for numerous platforming shortcuts. Finally, Grant’s exceptional agility lets him move faster, jump better, and climb any solid wall like a medieval Spiderman.

With multiple protagonists, multiple routes, and a more difficult second loop for those few who’ve mastered the first, Castlevania III is almost endlessly replayable. Finishing every stage as every character is a Herculean task. Hell, I’ve been playing regularly for years now and I’m pretty sure I haven’t done it! It’s a testament to the development team’s ingenuity that this handful of seemingly simple additions to the first Castlevania’s formula was able to benefit Dracula’s Curse so much. Moreover, they realized this added depth without recourse to the backtracking, grinding, and cryptic progression requirements that dogged Simon’s Quest.

It helps that the level themselves are brilliant. There’s no finer example of this than the Sunken City, which cleverly subverts Castlevania convention to grand effect. Everything plays out as you’d expect until you reach the boss, a flying serpentine skeleton. As soon as the fight starts to turn in your favor, he turns tail and runs! This triggers a trap which causes the water throughout the stage to begin rising steadily. You then need to stave off drowning and constant fishman assaults as you race through the remainder of the City in pursuit of the boss. It’s a tense, dynamic level unlike any other in the series.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to spotlight Castlevania III’s magnificent soundtrack, the result of a collaboration between Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto. It elevates the baroque rock sound the franchise is famous for to the zenith of what the hardware is capable of. Above it, in fact, as the Japanese edition includes a custom memory mapper chip, the VRC6, which adds another three sound channels to the console’s innate five. The graphics are appealing as well. They stick to the same colorful 8-bit Gothic style as the previous games while incorporating some lovely animated background tiles. That said, the game’s score neatly surpasses its visuals as a pure artistic achievement. With or without the VRC6, Castlevania III’s music is good. So good I own it on vinyl, something I can’t say about any other NES game.

Now that I’ve gone and mentioned Castlevania III’s Japanese incarnation, Akumajō Densetsu (“Demon Castle Legend”), I know some of you are expecting me to go into detail about how generally superior it is to the subsequent international versions. Not only does it have enhanced music, it’s easier, too! You take less damage from most enemies, Grant’s regular attack is a full-screen knife toss instead of a short range stab, and Trevor and Sypha’s best sub-weapons are more readily available. This is obviously the one to get, right? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint all you Akumajō partisans out there, but I honestly find it to be the inferior option. Sure, several characters are stronger. At the same time, the playable cast as a whole is less balanced. Grant’s ability to strike from any distance without using up ammunition combines with his supreme mobility to make him extremely powerful. Powerful enough to completely trivialize some of the game’s most treacherous segments. Similarly, making Sypha’s devastating lightning magic more common indirectly reduces the utility of Trevor, as he has comparatively little to contribute so long as you have the means to flood the screen with massive homing lightning orbs at will. Beyond these much-needed balance tweaks, Dracula’s Curse features improved spritework and animation. Several of the bosses (including Dracula himself) have also had their attacks changed in order to make them harder to dodge, which in turn renders those fights more exciting. Even the decision to up enemy damage output ultimately plays to the series’ primary strength: Measured, exacting play with little tolerance for sloppy mistakes. Akumajō will no doubt take a Castlevania novice much less time to finish. The price it pays for this up front ease is decreased player investment. Completing Dracula’s Curse for the first time is the culmination of a mighty struggle, unlimited continues and passwords notwithstanding. The intensity of that struggle produces a corresponding catharsis. Akumajō Densetsu demands less, produces less in the way of true satisfaction, and, with its abbreviated path to mastery, will see veterans returning less in search of those elusive one-credit clears and no death runs. A fine game on its own terms, it doesn’t quite have the polish or the legs of its American and European revisions.

As much as I fawn over Castlevania III, no iteration of the game is perfect. If I had to summarize its Achilles’ heel in one word, it’d be “Alucard.” Later promoted to bishōnen demigod for Symphony of the Night, he’s an abject mess of a character here. His attacks (which the manual humorously dubs “balls of destruction”) are so feeble that attempting combat with him at all is an exercise in masochism. He often fails to down basic bats and skeletons in a single hit, with bulkier targets like axe knights and bone pillars requiring a dozen or more, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to land them all. Oh, and did I mention this is a best case scenario? The balls require upgrading to reach their maximum potential, akin to Trevor’s whip. If they’re this weak at full power, imaging trying to kill anything when they’re still in their default state. It gets worse. Alucard can’t equip any sub-weapons apart from the stopwatch and he’s the only member of the group who can’t attack at all while climbing stairs. Madness! This effectively limits him to flying around in bat form, making him feel more like a power-up for Trevor than a hero unto himself. You’ll see a high ledge you want to get to as Trevor, switch over to Alucard real quick to fly up, and then switch right back. What a loser.

To make an absurdly long story short, I adore Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. A quarter of its character roster may be borderline unplayable, yet it excels on so many other fronts that I find myself revisiting it more frequently than any other title on the platform. When I first encountered it back in 1990, all I knew was that it seemed super cool and super impossible. Returning to it in 2017 with some patience and determination on my side was a revelation. I discovered what I can only describe as the most Castlevania of old school Castlevanias. It serves up the most stages, the most characters, the most room to grow as a player, the most…Castlevania. To me, it represents a high water mark that’s never been met, let alone exceeded, by any of its sequels.

Ironically, this masterpiece for the ages would prove disastrous to the career of its director, Hitoshi Akamatsu. After serving as project lead for the entirety of the NES trilogy, he was demoted by Konami brass on account of Castlevania III’s supposed poor sales relative to their licensed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Relegated to working in a Konami-branded arcade, he soon retired from the industry altogether. A fine how-do-you-do for a visionary who graced video gaming with one of its most beloved sagas. I don’t know about you, but the next time I whip some vampire ass, it’ll be for Akamatsu-sama.

Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genres, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen, a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (Famicom)

 

I know I’m not going to make many new fans by saying so, but I don’t really care much for babies. They’re loud, frequently smelly, and terrible conversationalists to boot. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. Konami’s intrepid superbaby Upa is a major exception. Ever since I first encountered him as one of the playable “ships” in the comedy shooter Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, I’ve admired the little guy’s can-do spirit. Taking down a hostile alien armada with a barrage of pacifiers and milk bottle missiles? That’s my kind of infant. Take notes, slackers.

After an introduction like that, it was only a matter of time before I checked out the character’s 1988 debut, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (“Bio Miracle – I’m Upa.”) This bright, bouncy, deceptively tough platformer was originally designed for the Famicom Disk System accessory. Konami also re-released it in 1993 as a regular Famicom cartridge with remixed music and a new easy mode option. This was all strictly in Japan, of course. Perhaps decision makers of the time thought us gaijin would shun a literal baby game and that more overtly macho Konami offerings like Contra and Castlevania were the way to succeed on the NES? If so, they may well have been right. It’s still our loss, however. Upa kicks as much ass over the course of his adventure as the musclebound Bill and Lance or Simon Belmont and he doesn’t even need to walk to do it!

As the story goes, Upa is the young prince of a fantasy kingdom. One day, the goat demon Zai escapes the jar in which he’d been imprisoned and kidnaps all the kingdom’s inhabitants, except for Upa. All seems lost until Upa is given a magical rattle by a fairy and crawls off to save the day. This requires braving the hazards of seven worlds, each of which is sub-divided into three stages. It’s thus a fairly lengthy quest that sees Upa traversing a whole host of bizarre landscapes, including ones made up entirely of candy, school supplies, computer circuitry, and dairy products.

The core gameplay is relatively simple. One button makes Upa jump (no mean feat when you haven’t figured out how to stand upright yet!) and the other shakes his rattle. Any regular enemy touched by the rattle instantly inflates like a balloon and begins to drift toward the top of the screen. It’s at this point that things get interesting. Once a baddie has been rattled, Upa can use it as a floating platform to reach higher elevations or to cross gaps wider than his regular jump permits. He can also shove the foe in any of five directions. This is essentially a more versatile take on the weaponized Koopa shells from Super Mario Bros. Shoved enemies can be used as weapons against their fellows, though they can also damage Upa if they happen to rebound off a surface and strike him instead. Mastering both applications of the rattle is required if you want to make any significant progress in Bio Miracle.

As I alluded to above, this simplicity doesn’t equate to ease. For a game with such an adorable premise and hero, it sure isn’t afraid to test your platforming mettle. Upa can’t withstand much damage and his path forward features no shortage of precarious pits. Moreover, continuing the game after you’ve run out of lives places you back at the beginning of the current world, not necessarily the specific stage you died on. This degree of difficulty isn’t exceptional by the standards of the platform, mind you. It just goes to show that not every baby game is actually for babies.

Roughly once every world or two, the regular platforming action is broken up by a novelty stage of sorts. This will be either an underwater section with the kind of “tap the jump button to paddle” controls you’d expect or a free-roaming zone where Upa must dig (or, more accurately, munch) a path for himself through the layers of a gigantic cake. These not only do a fine job of adding variety, they simultaneously relieve some player tension, as the lack of falling hazards makes them significantly easier than the usual levels.

Regardless of type, most stages conclude with a boss battle. All of these, including the final scrap with Zai, function more or less the same: Upa will need to rattle the steady flow of regular enemies entering the arena and then use them as weapons against the boss. The late game relies on increasingly cramped or treacherous screen layouts to make this a taller order than before, similar to how Super Mario Bros. 2 tweaks the fights against Birdo as it goes on.

Now that I think about it, numerous other elements of Bio Miracle make me suspect its creators were big fans of SMB2’s original 1987 incarnation, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Both share a pastel color scheme, cheery carnival style music, a fanciful setting free from the constraints of realism, an emphasis on defeating enemies by hurling them at one another, those digging stages, and more. Not that I’m complaining here. Bio Miracle is certainly no mere clone, seeing as how Upa controls nothing like a Mario or Doki Doki Panic character. It’s more akin to the burst of quirky action-adventure/RPG titles Konami put forth in the wake of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda and Metroid. The influence is clear, yet it never lacks for its own personality or creative spark.

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa is a winner; another of the seemingly endless jewels in the crown of mid-’80s Konami. Its only conspicuous omission is any sort of save feature, which you’d think would be a given on the Famicom Disk System. Sadly, Upa himself would never enjoy top billing again. He was a playable part of the ensemble cast in 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō and a couple of those Parodius games I already mentioned. Beyond that, he’s effectively joined Penta the penguin in defunct Konami mascot limbo. At least his first and only turn in the spotlight endures and should appeal to anyone who appreciates lighthearted platformers in the Super Mario tradition. Assuming they’re not bothered by the sight of a baby falling to his death on a bed of spikes, that is. Hmm. Maybe there was more than one reason this never came out over here….

Castlevania: The Holy Relics (NES)

Whew! I’m back from another Portland Retro Gaming Expo! The biggest classic video gaming event on the planet makes for an intense weekend, to say the least. It’s always well worth it, though. I actually took the plunge this year and tried dressing up in costume for the first time as my favorite NES hero, Simon Belmont. I went with the grotesque, buffoonish interpretation of Simon from the Captain N: The Game Master cartoon because that’s just the way my sense of humor works. I’m only interested in embodying the most despised versions of beloved characters. Good times.

While the Expo is over, the show must go on. In my case, that means a weekly game review. What better choice under these circumstances than an underexposed gem starring my boy Simon? And one I played for the first time at a past PRGE, no less? I’m talking about Castlevania: The Holy Relics, a notably ambitious 2017 ROM hack of Castlevania by Optomon , with additional graphics work by Setz, Bit-Blade, Dr. Mario, and Boneless Ivar. You may recognize the Optomon name from other first class fan projects I’ve covered, such as Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries and Metroid: Rogue Dawn. If so, you already know this is going to be something special.

In order to to understand why Holy Relics is a such a fascinating take on the standard hack, it helps to think of it as some parallel universe’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. What if, rather than infusing open level design and RPG elements into Castlevania’s divisive 1987 sequel, Konami had kept it a traditional action-platformer and incorporated elements of their arch-rival Capcom’s Mega Man instead? The result is a style of Castlevania play which simply doesn’t exist in any official form. If that doesn’t do a better job piquing your curiosity than yet another set of super challenging remixed stages, I don’t know what would.

The events of Holy Relics are set in 1693, two years after Dracula’s defeat in the first Castlevania. A set of powerful relics looted from the Holy Land by avaricious crusaders four hundred years prior has fallen into the hands of a necromancer named Lord Ghulash, who’s used them to plunge the land into darkness once more. It falls on Simon Belmont, champion of Transylvania, to recover the relics from their demonic guardians and vanquish Ghulash.

There are a six stages on offer, as per normal. Before the action even begins, however, the game hits you with its first major alteration in the form of a level select screen! Yes, you’re free to play through the first five areas in any order you choose before moving on to the final confrontation. You’re also allowed to choose a single relic to take with you whenever you begin a stage. You start with the cross already in your possession and gain another option with every boss you defeat.

These relics are no mere plot MacGuffins or symbolic tokens of success like the glowing orbs bosses drop in the base game. On the contrary, they’re mighty tools that each break the fundamental rules of 8-bit Castlevania in their own way. The mug, for example, allows you to replenish Simon’s health on demand. The crown temporarily powers-up his whip to an absurd degree, enough to take out bosses with just three hits. The bag awards massive bonus points for killing enemies, making it easy to rack up loads of extra lives. Relic activation is mapped to the Select button and is limited by the number of special blue hearts you can manage to acquire in a given stage. Usage restrictions aside, the overwhelming power of the relics makes them as vital to Simon’s success as his familiar whip and sub-weapons. So many ROM hacks are about cranking the difficulty up so high that experienced players feel like newbies again. It’s rare to find one that’s more about upgrading the protagonist into a complete beast.

Speaking of the sub-weapons, a couple of them have received potent tweaks, too. The axe now travels at a shallower angle which covers more space horizontally at the expense of some arc height. This boosts its versatility greatly. The throwing dagger has also been given a huge shot in the arm. It’s now an oak stake that deals a hefty triple the damage with only the minor drawback of slower flight speed to compensate. The enhanced axe and stake so clearly outclass the other options for me that I found myself cursing whenever I accidentally picked up the boomerang or holy water. How’s that for a shakeup?

The levels themselves are completely divorced from anything seen in the source game. The vast majority of hacks still take place in recognizable remodels of Dracula’s castle. You have the familiar entryway, underground waterway, clock tower, etc. Holy Relics tosses this all out the window in favor of diverse outdoor and indoor locations populated with a blend of reskinned and functionally new enemies. It throws its players yet another curve ball by transplanting the idea of locked doors from Vampire Killer, the obscure Castlevania entry for Japanese MSX computers. Every stage has a pair of doors obstructing Simon’s progress which require keys to open. These keys are never too far away or tricky to find, though the search often forces you to take a slightly more circuitous route than you might otherwise have.

Collectively, such sweeping changes to the structure and mechanics of vanilla Castlevania are a lot to take in. The redrawn graphics and a soundtrack featuring a mix of original tunes and covers of songs from later games also adds to the surreality. Fortunately, for all its radical reinvention, Holy Relics still comes across as Castlevania through and through. Simon’s short, stiff jumps are unchanged, as is his whip’s characteristic delay. Skillful play remains a matter of patience, timing, and grace under pressure, so veteran players won’t be left floundering.

Of course, any experiment this daring is likely to have its rough edges. In terms of negatives, I’ve already touched on the obvious one: The insane strength of most of the relic powers. Although it’s fun to play Superman on occasion, you shouldn’t need me to tell you why the ability to hoard dozens of lives, turn invincible at a moment’s notice, or slay the most fearsome opponents with three whip cracks can be a tad much. Simply put, smart relic use breaks the game. It’s technically optional, sure, but that’s cold comfort when these items serve as the game’s namesake and primary draw. In addition, the locked doors add little to the experience. The levels here aren’t long or complex enough for key hunting to blossom into a proper puzzle solving exercise, so it’s really a trifle at best. Finally, the visual design of the final boss is quite goofy. He doesn’t look like he could successfully intimidate the average Animal Crossing resident, let alone a Belmont. Bit of an anticlimax there.

If you’re of a mind to forgive its glaring balance issues and the occasional strange aesthetic choice, I think there’s a very good chance you’ll agree with me that Castlevania: The Holy Relics is the single best fan-made twist on Konami’s legendary classic to date. Nothing else comes close to matching its scope, inventiveness, and replay value, not even Optomon’s own excellent Chorus of Mysteries. It’s pure comfort food for the old school Castlevania lover’s soul; a digital holy relic that’s earned itself a permanent spot on my NES altar.

Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!
Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire!