King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (Famicom)

Next up: Ping pong in Hong Kong!

What do you get when you combine the worst King Kong film with the best Famicom developer? Konami’s King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (“Megaton Punch of Fury”) from 1986. Based on the critically panned film King Kong Lives, this is an overhead view action game where the player guides Kong through nine interconnected levels in an effort to rescue his mate Lady Kong, who’s been kidnapped by the military.

Popular culture as a whole has seemingly agreed to just forget about the 1976 King Kong remake from Paramount, but it was a pretty big hit at the time. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, later founded his own short-lived film studio and was clearly banking on lightning striking twice when he put out the much lower budget King Kong Lives (also known as King Kong 2) a decade later. Did it pay off? Roger Ebert probably said it best: “The problem with everyone in King Kong Lives is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”

While this is right on the nose for the most part, I can say that the scene where the injured Kong gets an artificial heart implanted via crane was memorably strange. How exactly does one sterilize a crane? Kong’s also pursuing a lady gorilla this time around, having learned the important lesson that bestiality is not the solution to any of life’s problems. Some real positive character development for our hero there.

Ikari no Megaton Punch makes the best of a bad situation by smartly jettisoning all the tedious human characters from the movie and focusing on what audiences wanted in the first place: Non-stop giant ape mayhem. After a short cut scene where a distraught Kong breaks out of his prison and heads off to rescue his girl, it’s smashing time.

While the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective might remind NES vets of Jackal, King Kong 2 is a slower-paced and much less linear experience. The goal of each stage (“world”) is simple: Survive enemy attacks long enough to find the room containing the boss monster and defeat it. This will give you one of the eight keys needed to open the final door in world nine and rescue Lady Kong. The door to the boss room usually won’t be sitting out in plain sight, however, and that’s where the destructible scenery comes into play. Every screen is cluttered with buildings, rocks, trees, and other objects that Kong can destroy with his punches or by jumping on them. You’ll want to pulverize everything you can, even if you’ve already beaten the current world’s boss, since the many hidden rooms revealed this way are also where you find important power-ups and the doors leading to the other worlds. World two, for example, has doors leading to worlds one, three, four, and five. This complex and occasionally confusing network of warps between worlds means that you can effectively explore them and gather the eight keys in any order you wish, although the higher numbered worlds do have more difficult enemies and are probably best saved until after you’ve collected some health and ammo upgrades.

Ammo? Well, before you get too excited over the idea of King Kong brandishing a machine gun, I should clarify that your projectile attack in this game is rocks. These fly in a grenade-like arc and explode upon hitting the ground. Kong can carry a maximum of twenty at the start of his journey and each upgrade you collect will increase that by ten. You switch between your standard punch attack and rocks by pressing select. My advice would be to save these for the bosses, since a rapid fire stream of rocks will take out any of them very quickly.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay here. You smash everything in sight to find secret doors and occasionally fight a boss. It’s simple, but fairly satisfying. The sound effects help out a lot by lending a distinct sense of power to Kong’s punches and stomps. Seeing the screen shake and hearing a nice robust crunch as you level an office building really makes you feel that much more like an unstoppable beast. Not bad for a fairly early Famicom title.

Another mechanic that reflects the source material pretty well is how tough Kong is. You’re under constant attack by hoards of enemies on almost every screen, but Kong can soak up so much punishment that the tiny tanks, helicopters, and other foes feel so many gnats to him. As a giant movie monster simulator, Ikari no Megaton Punch is miles ahead of poor Godzilla’s sorry 8-bit outings.

You don’t just fight military vehicles in this game, though, and that’s where things get downright odd. Many of the enemies you’ll encounter have absolutely nothing to do with the King Kong mythos and are just there because video game adaptations in the 1980s could get away with anything as long we the end result was playable. World three looks like it was ripped straight out of The Guardian Legend, complete with alien blobs and fanged mouths pursuing you. Then there’s the vicious attack ducks from world eight and the flying scallop boss. Yes, this is a game where King Kong punches a scallop. I’m not about to hold any of this against Konami, though. The film was stupefyingly dull and I’ll take killer bivalves over a bored Linda Hamilton just staring at you for half the game any day.

You’re given limited lives and no continues with which to complete King Kong 2, but I didn’t find the difficulty level to be very high at all overall. As mentioned, Kong has so much health that the common enemies will have a hard time bringing him down and the bosses aren’t too bad as long as you have enough rocks to pelt them with. In addition, collecting keys and certain power-ups will fully heal you and grinding health drops from the easier enemies when you start to get low is yet another survival option. The biggest threats to your progress by far are bottomless pits (which kill instantly) and getting lost when you forget which doors lead to which worlds. Thankfully, not every world has pits. Just be extra careful in the ones that do.

Ikari no Megaton Punch isn’t a spectacular game by any means. As a vintage Konami title, it’s competent enough to dump a couple hours into with no regrets, but it’s a bit too cryptic, unfocused, and repetitive to join the ranks of their many timeless classics. The movie’s fate as a box office bomb was also sealed well before the localization process would have wrapped on the game, likely explaining why it never left Japan.

If you’re on the lookout for solid English-friendly Famicom titles or you’re a Konami fanatic hunting for deep cuts to sample, King Kong 2 definitely beats a nosedive off a skyscraper. The movie? Eh. Flip a coin, maybe.

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The Goonies II (NES)

The Goonies ‘r’ good enough for the NES…barely.

Most everyone who was a kid at the time would agree that 1985’s The Goonies is a pretty great movie. It combined slick production design, a classic adventure storyline about hidden pirate treasure that would make Robert Louis Stevenson proud, and that rarest of things: An ensemble cast of child actors that didn’t suck. And Sloth. Sloth is the man. Considering that I just recently got back from a vacation to Astoria, Oregon where I toured the shooting locations and even went out to the Cannon Beach overlook with a replica of the doubloon coin from the film to reenact one of the scenes…well, I guess you could say I’m a fan.

So when Konami released their game The Goonies II in 1987, I was all over it. Unlike a lot of others who played this one back when it came out, I wasn’t confused by the name. Many thought that the game was supposed to be based on an upcoming sequel to the movie, but I had actually played Konami’s earlier Goonies game in arcades before, and the resemblance between the two is unmistakable. These days, the existence of this original Goonies game for the Famicom and its limited arcade release in North America is common knowledge, but it was easy enough to overlook at the time. Of course, Konami had also released a third Goonies game for the MSX computer system in Japan, so I guess we should be thankful that they didn’t call this one The Goonies III and really mess with our heads.

Coming off The Legend of Zelda and Metroid, I was primed for more games that combined action with exploration and secret hunting. Goonies II fit the bill, and I spent countless hours bombing and hammering every nook and cranny of the Fratellis’ hideout looking for hidden passages and items.

That’s why it’s really tough for me to overcome my nostalgic attachment to this game long enough to admit that it’s actually pretty bad.

This time, the Fratellis (the family of crooks that pursued our heroes in the movie) are back and they’ve kidnapped all your fellow Goonies as well as Annie! Who’s Annie? The mermaid, of course. You remember her, right? Yeah, even before you’ve made it past the title screen, you’ve already been given your first hint of how downright weird this game can be. Brace yourself, because you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Starting up the game, things seem fairly promising. A nifty chiptune version of the beloved “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” song by Cyndi Lauper kicks in and you find yourself controlling Mikey Walsh in traditional side-scrolling platformer style. Your task is to explore the Fratellis’ maze-like hideout and rescue all six of your missing Goonie pals plus the inexplicable Annie. Everything looks and sounds decent by 1987 standards, Mikey controls pretty well, and his main weapon, a yo-yo, is fun to use. These action scenes aren’t exactly great, but you’re probably having an okay time battling snakes, spiders, and the occasional gangster.

It’s only when you step inside one of the numerous doors scattered around the hideout that things start to go south fast. Surprise! Goonies II is also a first person point-and-click adventure game like Déjà Vu or Shadowgate! A really half-baked and boring one. Using a menu of basic commands, you can move between screens, punch walls to reveal hidden items, and use a small selection of tools that you find during your quest (a hammer to uncover secret doors, a candle to light up dark areas, and so on). This had the potential to be interesting stuff but, unlike in the similarly-structured games mentioned above, there are no true puzzles to solve, cool locations to see, or even entertaining text descriptions of your actions to read. Just the exact same plain square rooms, where you’ll be expected to robotically run down your list of commands trying each one before moving on. There’s nothing whatsoever challenging or stimulating to be found in these portions of the game. It’s just doing every possible action in a given room before moving on to the next. See a blank wall? Try the glasses. No result? Punch the wall. Still nothing? Try the hammer. Now do the exact same thing with every other wall in the game. Every. Other. Wall. Even when this repetitive and agonizingly slow process does actually result in finding a hidden passage or item, you don’t get the satisfaction of feeling clever or accomplished. What else were you going to do? Not hammer that wall?

You’ll occasionally meet with an NPC character in one of these rooms, and they’re simultaneously one of the best and worst things about Goonies II. The best because they’re usually utter weirdos spouting hilarious badly-translated gibberish and the worst because they almost never do or say anything useful. There’s a surprising number of generic old people, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an Eskimo, and a superhero called Konamiman (who starred in two Wai Wai World games on the Famicom), among others. At least Konamiman will heal you when you visit him, so he’s okay by me. The others will mostly do stuff like tell you that the room you’re currently in that warps you to another part of the map is a warp zone (really!?) or declare “It’s fun to play The Goonies 2!” Brilliant.

So the first person segments are a wretched slog, but even the platforming segments have issues that become apparent as you play on. For starters, there’s absolutely no challenge to be found. Oh, there are plenty of ways to die. Enemies, bottomless pits, lava, all that stuff. There’s simply no incentive not to die a lot, since you can instantly continue from the same screen you lost your last life on as many times as you want. You lose any expendable items like keys and bombs that you might be carrying, but these drop all the time from random enemies, so you’re constantly picking up more. Combine this with the fact that some of the late game foes can take a dozen or more yo-yo hits before they finally go down and you have a game where you’ll be sorely tempted to just plow right through enemies heedless of the damage sustained just to save time getting from point A to point B. Not exactly riveting stuff.

How about the fact that the map system is just plain bizarre? There’s actually two maps of the hideout, labeled as “front” and “back.” You transition between the two sides by passing through certain doors and reaching a given destination usually requires taking a specific series of doors, going back and forth between the two sides multiple times in the process. If all this sounds stupidly baffling and unintuitive in the abstract, I can assure that it’s just as bad in practice. I played Goonies II so damn much as a kid that I can still complete it without a map or a walkthrough by my side to this day, but unless you did the same, count on getting very lost very fast.

Did I mention there are no bosses? Because there aren’t. Not one.

And the last straw? The very worst thing of all? No Sloth.

Sigh. Despite it all, I still can’t make myself hate The Goonies II. It filled a void at a time when complex adventure style games were still few and far between on the NES. It’s got some great music and it’s very, very strange. It may even qualify as an influential title. I’ve always suspected that Mike Jones, the hero of Nintendo’s later StarTropics games, was inspired by Konami’s take on Mikey Walsh. The names, the red hair/blue shirt combo, the yo-yos. Both of them even hail from right here in the great Pacific Northwest. If it’s some of kind of coincidence, it’s a wild one.

Konami was doing a lot of experimenting with integrating RPG and adventure game elements into its platformers around this time. If you’re interested in what happened when they (mostly) succeeded at it, I’d say to check out Getsu Fūma Den. It’s pretty great. If you want a good Goonies game specifically, check out the original one for the Famicom. It has all the strengths of Goonies II’s action bits while also being much more accessible and challenging.

But The Goonies II? I feel like I’m babysitting, except I’m not getting paid.

Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.

For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.

What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.

Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.

Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.

Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.

Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.

One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.

You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.

While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best-looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching and scaling effects used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.

Sound effects are solid but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.

Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?

All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly-paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.

So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

April O’Neil’s mullet game is fierce indeed!

I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Not since Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Battletoads have I taken on such a divisive, “love it or hate it” title.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, it’s background time. TMNT is a single player action platforming game with exploration elements that was released in 1989 by Konami. Outside Japan, the game was published by a pair of Konami front companies: Ultra and Palcom. This was done in order to get around Nintendo’s strict restrictions on the number of games a third party developer could release for the NES in a single year. Strangely enough, the relationship between the two companies was so good during this time that this arrangement had Nintendo’s tacit approval, which I’m sure must have sown some serious resentment among other, less favored NES developers.

The Turtles themselves were created in 1984 by independent comic book artist/writers Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird as a parody of the new wave of grim and gritty urban superhero comics by the likes of Frank Miller. Eastman and Laird’s wry comics relied on the contrast between the forboding Gothic cityscapes, hardboiled dialog, and intense violence of those works and the most absurd set of protagonists the writers could imagine: Teenage mutant ninja turtles! The result was pretty great, but its appeal was largely limited to well-read comics fans savvy enough to appreciate the joke. In 1987, one of the defining (and least likely) moments in the history of children’s entertainment occured when this obscure niche property had its violent and satirical edges filed off and became a smash hit cartoon series, spawning the terrapin merchandising empire we’ve all come to know.

I never was much of a Turtles fan as a kid. I think it hit just a little too late for me, since my interest in toys and action figures peaked around ages 5-8 in the era of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Thundercats. By the late 80s, I was all about the video games.

This original TMNT title by Konami was not only their first ever appearance in a video game but also the first piece of Turtles-related media to ever hit Japan. They must have been very confused, because this is one strange game and most of the characters you encounter don’t seem to have been taken from the comics or the cartoon. In fact, the lack of recognizable enemies is a common point of criticism from dedicated Turtles fans. While I can sympathize to a degree, this “weird random enemies” factor is easy enough to justify as a product of the times; an NES thing. Certainly it didn’t prevent me from enjoying Sunsoft’s Batman or Capcom’s Willow and I’m more of a fan of those films than I am the TMNT cartoon.

The plot of TMNT is actually pretty dynamic for an action game of the time. In the first stage, you start out looking to rescue your extraordinarily kidnap-prone reporter friend April from mutant baddies Bebop and Rocksteady. After that, she tells you that the Foot Clan is going to blow up a dam and flood the city. Save the dam and you return home to discover that your ninja mentor Splinter has been kidnapped, and so on. It’s not exactly profound stuff, but it’s more than the single simple goal you’re given to last you through most 8-bit games.

Each of TMNT’s six stages except the final one consists of two gameplay modes: A overhead view of the city where you travel around on foot or by Turtle Van looking for buildings and sewers to explore and a side view action mode for indoor areas. You can switch between the four turtles at any time in both modes and each has his own supply of health. The golden rule here is that it’s always better to switch to a different turtle rather than allowing your current one to run out of health. “Dead” turtles aren’t gone forever, since the game states that they’ve actually been captured by the enemy. Most stages have spots where you can rescue a captured turtle, but it’s usually in a difficult part of the stage that’s off the main path, so you really want to avoid having to do this if at all possible.

The overhead segments aren’t particularly exciting, despite the presence of some simplified combat with a few basic enemy types (foot soldiers and steamroller type vehicles). They mostly exist to link together the various buildings, sewers, and tunnels where the real action takes place.

Once indoors, your turtles can jump, crouch, and swing their signature ninja weapons straight ahead, up, or down. You can also find various sub-weapons in the form of ninja stars, boomerangs, and the almighty magic scrolls. These will extend your attack range greatly but have limited shots. As a nice touch, however, your boomerang shots won’t decrease if you catch each one on the rebound. Since balance within your party is an issue (one I’ll address in more detail below), these sub-weapons are very important for the turtles with weaker primary weapon attacks. One final important pickup is the health restoring pizza. When you find a pizza, make sure to use it well by switching to a turtle with low health before grabbing it. Remember its location, too, since pizzas and other items will replenish when you exit and re-enter an area and “farming” these items as needed makes your quest much easier.

Overall, I really like the action in these side-view portions. They control a lot like those in an earlier Konami title I played recently: The 1987 Japan exclusive Getsu Fūma Den for Famicom. The Turtles walk slower and jump higher than Fūma does in that game, but the overall feel is very similar. This also extends to the large gallery of grotesque enemies that re-spawn readily and often take multiple hits to kill. In fact, you can think of TMNT as a whole as a bit of a spiritual sequel to Getsu Fūma Den, except without the clunky 3D mazes. It also has some striking visual similarities with yet another past Konami game: The Goonies II. Some of the building interiors resemble those in Goonies II, the map on the pause screen is similar, and the boomerang weapon handles almost identically.

One thing that takes some getting used to is the jumping controls. A light tap will make your turtle do a short hop and holding the button down will make them go into a somersault and gain much more height at the expense of precision. Once you’ve mastered doing the right jump in the right situation, the platforming becomes quite managable but if you somersault when you should be doing the hop (or vice versa), you’re going to have a bad time.

I also really liked the graphics and sound in TMNT. Instead of trying to make it look like the cartoon show, the artists opted for a grittier style that more closely resembles the comics. Nothing in this game in cute, that’s for sure. It’s quite a difference from the more colorful style adopted for later Turtles games like the well-known arcade beat-’em-ups. They even packed in a lot of nice little details, such as each turtle being a different shade of green. The music is all original, with the exception of a couple second riff on the cartoon’s main theme that plays when you defeat a boss. It’s excellent stuff and even has a bit of a funky side, much like the tracks in The Adventures of Bayou Billy, also by the same composer.

So why is this game so controversial? I already mentioned the lack of callbacks to the cartoon but the main gameplay related reason lies in its similarity to yet another earlier title: Blaster Master by Sunsoft. Yes, TMNT has a big world with branching paths and lots of exploration coupled with plenty of deadly enemies and limited lives and continues. Lose all your turtles and you can continue exactly twice from the start of the current stage before you have to start the game over. Thankfully, the same sort of approach that works well in Blaster Master also works in TMNT: Take it slow and methodical while keeping your strength up by farming health and weapons whenever you get low. It definitely works. I got kicked back to the title screen twice during my six hours with the game and I was only able to finally make it through the hell that is the final stretch of the Technodrome and defeat Shredder after spending a good chunk of time loading my whole party to the brim with magic scroll sub-weapons. Still, it’s a tough game and this sort of patient and cautious playstyle probably didn’t appeal to many young TMNT fans who picked up this game around the time of its release hoping for some lighthearted instant gratification.

I don’t believe in holding a game’s difficulty against it, however. Some games are harder than others and that’s okay. I do have a couple more serious issues with TMNT, though: The party balancing and the boss encounters.

To put it bluntly, Michaelangelo and Raphael are dreadful without a decent sub-weapon. They have almost no reach with their main attacks. Leonardo has more reach at least, though his power is mediocre. Leo’s okay. At the other end of the spectrum, Donatello is a veritable reptilian WMD with his bo staff. He has the best power and reach by far. His strikes are the slowest, but even this doesn’t matter all that much, since he still kills tough enemies faster overall due to all his power. I suppose in MMORPG terms, you’d say he has the best DPS (damage per second) combined with the best range. The only real question I have is why? What was the thinking behind designing Don this way and making Mike’s nunchaku both short range and weak? I just don’t understand how this could have been seen as good design, even in the abstract. Oh well. Bottom line: Always make sure Mike and Raph have plenty of sub-weapons on hand or you’ll regret it.

And the bosses? Well, they’re just not very intimidating or fun to fight, with the sole exception of the Technodrome in level five. Shredder himself is one of the easiest final bosses ever and even some of the common enemies in the later levels are significantly more dangerous than he is. It’s a missed opportunity to be sure, though at least the stages themselves are long and difficult enough that you still get a nice sense of accomplishment from finishing them.

For me, this just makes TMNT a flawed game, not a generally poor one. In fact, I think it’s quite good, with solid action and satisfying challenge coupled with very nice overall presentation. Sales figures and critical reception at the time of release support me on this. TMNT won Nintendo Power magazine’s “game of the year” award in 1989 and even became a pack-in game with the NES in Europe, effectively replacing Nintendo’s own Mario!

So where did all the hate come from? While I don’t doubt that not everyone loved TMNT back in the day, I largely credit one James Rolfe for its current pariah status. Rolfe is a filmmaker and YouTube personality best know for his series The Angry Video Game Nerd, in which he plays the title character. TMNT was the subject of the one of the earliest AVGN episodes back in 2006, in which the Nerd character railed against the game (particularly the second level, the dam, which is actually the shortest and perhaps easiest of them all) and coined the salty catchphrase “Cowabunga? Cowa-fucking piece of dog shit!”

Of course, the Angry Video Game Nerd is a fictional character and Rolfe clearly intends his work to be slapstick entertainment and not formal criticism but, with AVGN being one of the first big YouTube breakout series focusing on retro gaming content, it turns out that even a fictional angry nerd’s opinion can be highly influential. The end result of all this is a former game of the year condemned to infamous stinker status. Curse you, Internet Gaming Hive Mind! If only I had a proper flesh and blood archenemy I could shoot ninja scrolls at instead of you.

Jackal (NES)

Smoke ’em if you got ’em, kiddos!

After pouring almost thirty hours into a sprawling epic like Seiken Densetsu 3, I needed to unwind with something a little more…straightforward. So I figured why not go back to the Konami NES well for another short-but-sweet action romp? This time, it’s the 1988 port of Jackal.

Jackal started out as a 1986 arcade release called Tokushu Butai Jakkaru (“Special Forces Jackal”) in Japan and Top Gunner in North America. In this overhead run-and-gun action title, players control an elite group of Green Berets (including the hilariously named Lieutenant Bob) driving heavily-armed jeeps on a POW rescue mission deep behind enemy lines. Who’s the enemy exactly? Beats me. Now move out, soldier!

Just like in Contra, Life Force, Castlevania, and almost every other Konami action game of the period, you’ll fight your way through exactly six levels of tenacious enemies, each culminating in a unique and challenging boss battle.

Fortunately, your vehicle is up to the task. One hit from the enemy will do you in but your ride is remarkably quick and responsive, so any deaths feel like your fault and not the programmer’s. You have two weapons at your disposal, both with unlimited ammunition. Pressing B will fire your machine gun straight up toward the top of the screen and the A button launches slower but more powerful hand grenades in whichever direction your jeep is currently pointing. At first, the limitation of only being able to shoot your machine gun upward in a game with eight-directional movement may seem strange or annoying but it’s actually quite helpful, since it allows for a limited form of strafing and lets you fire at foes while moving away from them. You also have have one final offensive option: You can run over foot soldiers with your jeep, smooshing them like bugs. It’s pretty awesome but make sure not to ram into enemy vehicles or you’ll lose a life.

But what about those POWs? Each level contains numerous small buildings and targeting them with grenades will allow the prisoners inside to rush out through the hole created. Stop your jeep next to the building long enough for them to climb on board before continuing on your way. Eventually, you’ll reach a helipad area where a chopper is waiting to evacuate your extra passengers. Each POW you successfully extract will earn you major bonus points and you’ll want all the points you can get, since they’re how you earn those all-important extra lives. You can also rescue special “officer” prisoners that will upgrade your grenade attack to a faster rocket. The rockets can then be upgraded twice by rescuing more officers, increasing their blast radius drastically. At least until you die and go back to the standard grenades. Try not to do that.

Jackal is a challenging game but not overwhelmingly so, at least not until its real meatgrinder of a final stage. Lives and continues are limited but I had an easier time with this one than I did with most of the other big Konami NES titles like Contra and Castlevania. You probably won’t beat it on your first go, but it should yield with a few hours of dedicated practice. It’s a short game and can be finished in thirty minutes or so once mastered. The game will loop after the last level, though, so you can play on to try for a high score if desired.

The music in Jackal supports the bombastic 1980s military action movie theme perfectly with rousing heroic melodies over punchy martial percussion. It reminds me of The A-Team and that’s a very good thing. Graphics are clean and functional, but definitely not as detailed as they are in other games of the period. This is mainly due to the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective combined with the fact that your on-screen avatar represents a vehicle and not a person. In fact, the POWs and enemy infantry fighters you see on the battlefield are only a few pixels tall. Background also don’t stand out much and tend to consist of monotonous repeated ground tiles much of the time. On the plus side, everything runs well and slowdown is very limited, even during two-player simultaneous play.

I had a ton of fun with this one. I’d never actually played Jackal before this week, but I already love it. It’s not my favorite overhead run-and-gun game, that honor goes to SNK’s amazing Shock Troopers for the Neo-Geo, but it’s likely the best on the NES. Certainly it’s miles above the hot garbage that was the NES Ikari Warriors releases. It’s too bad we never saw a sequel for any platform. Maybe the standard military theme didn’t pack the same wow factor that Contra’s military versus aliens one did. Maybe it’s because Chuck Norris style “rescue the POWs” movies were starting to become passe right around the time Jackal hit homes.

In any case, I salute you, Jackal. Especially Lieutenant Bob.

Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo)

You can ring my beeeeeeell. Ring my bell.

In 1985, Konami released the first TwinBee game to arcades. As far back as the first entry in the genre, 1962’s Space War, shooter video games almost invariably featured science fiction or military themes and tended to be presented in as realistic a fashion as the hardware would allow. TwinBee broke with convention by opting for a cartoon aesthetic, embracing bright pastel colors, adorable little spaceships with white-gloved Mickey Mouse arms, and a whimsical power-up system that involved juggling and collecting colored bells. The game was a huge hit, mainly in Japan, and would inspire numerous direct sequels as well as its own sub-genre of lighthearted shooters (“cute-’em-ups”) that includes Sega’s Fantasy Zone and Success’ Cotton.

By 1994, though, the arcade style shooter’s mainstream popularity was on the decline. What was hot? Mascot platformers! Mario and Sonic were raking in cash at an astonishing rate and it seems like everyone wanted in on that action. Since the robot bee ships from TwinBee already had tons of personality, a colorful world to inhabit, and even the requisite limbs needed for platforming, it must have seemed like a natural fit to someone at Konami because they released Pop’n TwinBee: Rainbow Bell Adventures that same year in Japan and Europe.

I played the Japanese version, since I don’t have the necessary equipment to run European PAL video format games properly. I understand that the publisher opted to remove all the game’s dialog rather than translating it from Japanese for the international release, however, so at least I’m not missing out on anything in that department.

The story of Rainbow Bell Adventures may leave you with a bit of deja vu. The maniacal Dr. Warumon is attacking with his army of EvilBee robots. His good guy counterpart Dr. Cinnamon must fight off the invasion with his own TwinBee ships, piloted by his youthful assistants Light, Pastel, and Mint. So yeah, it’s pretty much Mega Man. Dr. Warumon even looks just like Dr. Wily in a Halloween vampire cape. But it’s just an excuse to zip around collecting bells, so I’ll give it a pass.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up the game is that it represents the colorful TwinBee style well. The graphics are crisp and bright, the music is bouncy, and everything is just as cute as can be. There are even high-pitched anime style voice clips for your ship. Everything has that impeccable polish you would expect from 1990s Konami. Rainbow Bell Adventures is not a perfect game overall by any means, but I can find no real flaws at all in the art and music.

You start out by picking between three characters. You have TwinBee (the blue one), WinBee (the pink one), and GwinBee (the green one). They’re differentiated by two factors: Rocket charge time and punch charge time. Your rocket will launch you forward when fully charged, a mechanic which seems to have been lifted directly from Konami’s own Rocket Knight Adventures, and your charged punch takes the form of a projectile attack that will deal huge damage to enemies and is mostly useful against bosses, since common enemies just don’t require that much damage to take out. WinBee has a fast rocket charge and a slow punch charge, GwinBee has the inverse, and WinBee is the default character with equal charge times for both. In practice, I found that WinBee’s quick rocket boosts made her the best character for traversing standard stages and GwinBee’s fast punches made him a natural boss wrecker. I didn’t end up using poor TwinBee much, since he fell into the common “jack of all trades, master of none” category. You’re able to change characters each time you die and lives are unlimited, so there’s no need to worry about being stuck with a setup that doesn’t suit you.

The platforming itself is fairly standard, aside from the rocket dynamic. You can kill most enemies by jumping on them or by punching them. Being a TwinBee game, you still power up by collecting colored bells from defeated foes. These will grant abilities like melee weapons to extend your punch range, a gun for attacking distant targets, temporary invincibility, and more. Your collected bells fly up into the air and scatter whenever you take a hit but you’re able to re-collect a few of them if you’re quick about it, similar to how you can recover some of your dropped rings in Sonic the Hedgehog. Bosses are large and impressive looking but not too tough to deal with. Just dodging their simple attack patterns and landing four or five charge punches will send even the final boss packing in short order. They’re a bit tougher than your standard Mario or Sonic opponents, but not by much at all.

One interesting option is two-player simultaneous play. The bad news here is that it’s kind of a mess. The game’s camera will only track player one, so player two has to stick close by or do their best to fumble around until they finally find their way back onto the screen or die trying. More fun is the battle mode, which is certainly no replacement for Street Fighter II or Mario Kart in terms of competitive play on the Super Nintendo but is amusing enough in short bursts.

The goal in each of the main game’s 35 stages is either to reach the exit or to defeat a boss. Taking a cue from Super Mario World, many of the levels have multiple exits, each leading to a different stage. Unlike in Mario World, all exits are shown on the map screen that you can access by pausing the game, so these branching paths don’t constitute secrets in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, the design of these levels is really Rainbow Bell Adventures’ fatal flaw. They’re sprawling, frequently labyrinthine, and wrap around themselves in Pac-Man fashion, so reaching any side of the level boundary will bring you back around to the opposite side. Rather than conveying any true sense of place, they come off as bland abstract mazes composed of the same few background tiles repeated over and over in arbitrary fashion. They’re also lacking the big “set piece” moments that levels in other Konami platformers of the period were known for, like the swinging chandeliers and rotating rooms of Super Castlevania IV or Contra III’s insane missile riding sequence. There are a few different stage themes (ice, cave, water, and so on) but only a few and each repeats often. To make matters worse, enemy variety is pretty lacking and most enemy types appear in most levels. The end result of all this is that the stages in Rainbow Bell Adventures just sort of blur together into a single inchoate mass with all the flavor of a bowl of cold oatmeal. It looks great and controls acceptably but it’s really tough to recommend a platformer with such weak level design. That’s the linchpin of the whole genre, after all!

Rainbow Bell Adventures isn’t a truly awful title. Rather, it’s a lot like another Super Famicom platformer I played recently that never came out here in North America: Super Back to the Future Part II. Plenty of surface charm masking a thoroughly average game. Konami made a good call by not bringing this one over, since Rainbow Bell Adventures simply isn’t up to the nearly superhuman standards of their other 16-bit releases on the Super Nintendo around this time. Or the Sega Genesis, for that matter. If you can get it cheap or you’re an obsessive TwinBee superfan, you might as well give Rainbow Bell Adventures a try. General audiences can do much better.

Life Force (NES)

It’s 2017 and I figure it’s about damn time I complete a Gradius game for once. Luckily, I snagged a copy of Life Force at a local game store a couple weeks back, so I can finally make it happen!

Life Force (sadly unrelated to the completely gonzo film of the same name about nude space vampires ravaging Britain) is the NES port of the arcade game Salamander. Salamander was conceived as a spin-off of the established Gradius series of horizontal scrolling shooters that would incorporate a number of new features: Faster gameplay, a new power-up system, simultaneous two-player gameplay, and a mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling.

As a port, Life Force retains some of these features (like the multi-directional scrolling and two-player action) but its slower speed and traditional Gradius power-up system make it feel less like a spin-off and more like a sequel. It might seem like a strange choice to “Gradius-ify” Salamander like this but I think it makes sense on a few levels. First off, getting a two-player simultaneous shooter with so many things going on at once running on the NES at all in 1987 was likely something of a programming marvel, so having it also scroll at the same speed as the arcade original may have been a near technical impossiblity. In addition, the original Gradius was also one of Konami’s best-selling titles to date on the system, which would make emphasizing the resemblance between Life Force and it seem quite sound from a business perspective. But I’m just speculating.

In terms of story, it’s about what you would expect. A gigantic planet devouring alien named Zelos is headed for the world of Gradius and only you, piloting your super cool Vic Viper space fighter, can infiltrate the hungry colossus and administer some impromptu laser surgery to save the day. Also, in a nifty Ultima reference, player two gets to fly the “Lord British space destroyer.” Cool.

Basic stuff but at least whatever weirdo they enlisted to write the English manual text had fun with their version, which begins: “In a remote quadrant of the universe there was hatched a hideous creature. His proud parents, Ma and Pa Deltoid, named their only son Zelos, which in alien lingo means ‘one mean son of a gun.'” Wow.

Gameplay is classic Gradius. Shoot baddies to rack up power-up capsules and points to earn extra lives. Each capsule you collect will highlight one of the choices on your power-up menu. These include speed boosts, missiles, “option” satellites to double your firepower, a force field, and more. When the power-up of your choice is highlighted, simply press the button to cash in your stash of capsules and activate it. Try not to die or you can kiss all those awesome power-ups goodbye and it turns out that being slow and nearly defenseless is not a particularly great strategy. This is easier said than done, though, since one touch from any enemy or part of the stage background will do you in.

It’s a very careful and exacting style of play that demands a mix of steady hands, quick reactions, and lots and lots of stage memorization. This is further emphasized by the limited lives and continues available. This is definitely not for everyone, since you really do need to approach a Gradius game “right” and there’s not a lot of room to just mess around and play things fast and loose. Due to its nature as a two-player game, though, most of the stages in Life Force do have forks and branching paths, so there is some variation in how you can approach these stages.

Life Force has six stages in total, which was sort of the magic number for Konami back then (see Castlevania and Contra) and they are impressively varied. Several are in keeping with the giant space monster theme previously established and feature cool icky details like living flesh walls that “grow” in at you and killer blood cells. Other stages are completely different and vary things up with asteroid fields, walls of erupting fire, and even an inexplicable Egyptian temple. Each level is capped off by a boss. These guys look amazing but are honestly real pushovers in that they utilize only very basic attack patterns that never vary. After making your way through a brutally difficult stage, fighting these slow, ineffectual bullet sponges will feel like a vacation.

Life Force looks and sounds just as great as its pedigree would imply. Visual highlights include the third level with its towering columns of rushing flame that will wipe out anything in their path, friend or foe, and the huge boss characters. The high-energy music sets the mood perfectly, although it can occasionally cut out a bit when there’s a lot of weapons fire going on. Life Force’s greatest accomplish is probably how smoothly it manages to run. There is some occasional slowdown but not nearly as much as you might expect when the screen is filled with animated backgrounds and two player’s worth of missiles, lasers, and option satellites even before you factor the enemy ships in!

The game isn’t totally perfect. I already mentioned the slowdown and the feeble bosses. However, if you have the patience to come to grips with the demanding playstyle that the series is known for, there might be no better way to spend a half hour of gaming time that blasting your way through Life Force. It’s a short game but another triumph of quality over quantity from Konami’s Golden Age. Like Contra and Castlevania, it’s a finely polished, exquisitely cut gem of a game. And one mean son of a gun.