Castlevania: Overflow Darkness (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ai Senshi Nicol (Famicom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, Stella!

Gradius II (Famicom)

Shot the core, back for more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arumana no Kiseki (Famicom)

Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 of honor 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 Peru’s 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.

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 localization 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. Adventure games like Simon’s Quest had legs.

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 re-imagining of his debut outing. 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 spooky 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 eerie, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action game 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 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.