Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on archpsycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

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Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu (TurboGrafx-16/NES)

Martial artist, comedian, stuntmaster, director, producer, and pop singer extraordinaire, renaissance man Jackie Chan is a legend in his own time. Here in the 21st century, he’s indisputably one of the most famous men on the planet.

This wasn’t always the case outside Asia, however. Despite enjoying massive success there since the late ’70s, Chan was a obscure figure in America until 1996, when Rumble in the Bronx finally landed him a surprise theatrical hit. Ultra hip Quentin Tarantino types who made it a point to keep tabs on what was hot in Hong Kong had long been enthralled by his star turns in Drunken Master, Police Story, and countless others. The rest of us? Not so much.

What I’m getting at is that it should be no surprise developer Now Production and publisher Hudson Soft’s action-platformer Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu was destined for cult status here. I recall ogling some very impressive screenshots of both the 1990 NES and 1991 TurboGrafx-16 versions in magazines of the time. Sadly, it was just too much of an unknown quantity to roll the dice on when I had new Mario and Zelda outings on the horizon. More adventurous gamers took the plunge and were treated to slick combat with a slapstick twist every bit worthy of its big screen namesake. I’m eager to make up for lost time.

Given that the two versions are quite similar, I reckon I can break with my usual practice here and cover both in a single review. In terms of which one edges out the other, I have to award the gold to the TurboGrafx release. It incorporates a number of enhancements beyond the obligatory visual upgrade. The majority of the levels have been tweaked for the better somehow, whether that means more regular enemies, new mid-level bosses, or the occasional section that was completely redesigned to be more interesting. It’s also a tad more difficult, which is a plus for me. NES Action Kung Fu is still a fine game all-around, but it pales ever so slightly before its 16-bit counterpart.

The premise here is as simple as it gets. Jackie is out to rescue a kidnapped lady named Josephine from an evil sorcerer. The only odd thing about this setup is Josephine’s ambiguous relationship with Jackie. The NES instruction manual describes her as his sister, while the TurboGrafx one insists she’s his girlfriend. There’s no in-game dialog to clarify things, so take your pick, I guess. As long as it’s strictly one or the other, I’m fine with it. In any case, it’s evident Hudson’s license was limited to Chan’s name and likeness, as Action Kung Fu isn’t based on any particular film of his. Rather, everything takes place in a wacky cartoon variant of the stock mythic China setting.

Jackie’s adventure unfolds across a total of just five stages. Thankfully, each is notably lengthy and includes multiple visually distinct sub-sections. The total amount of content is therefore equivalent to around eight or nine stages in most other side-scrollers. Levels are primarily based on familiar archetypes like fire, ice, water, mountain, sky, etc. It’s nothing too special on paper, but the difficulty curve is smooth throughout and each stage manages to strike a fine balance between combat and platforming while utilizing both horizontal and vertical scrolling to good effect.

Controlling Jackie feels precise and his attack repertoire is varied without being too complex. He has his regular punches and kicks, of course, and these can be used while standing, crouching, or jumping. He can also engage distant foes via a limited use Street Fighter style fireball called the Psycho Wave. No relation to the one from Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, I presume. He starts out each life with five Psycho Waves in reserve and can replenish his stock by performing well at the many mini-games hidden in each level or by grabbing the “bonus jades” dropped by vanquished enemies. Finally, Jackie can supplement his innate abilities with several special kung fu moves obtained by hitting frogs he encounters and collecting the orbs they vomit up. Random as that seems, it’s apparently a joke based on an overly literal interpretation of frogs as traditional symbols of prosperity in Chinese culture. The more you know. Anyway, these strikes deal heavy damage, offset by the fact that they can only be used a set number of times per pickup.

Difficulty-wise, Action Kung Fu is no pushover, yet remains approachable for the average player due to the rigorously fair way it handles damage. Jackie starts out with only five lives standing between him and game over, but there’s ample opportunity to earn more, provided you can score consistently well in the bonus rounds. You have a real chance to make each life last, too. Jackie can withstand a full six hits before he’s defeated and there are no instant death scenarios in play. Spikes, lava, and falls off the bottom of the screen will all either deal one point of damage to Jackie or force him back to an earlier part of the level. More generous still, health replenishment is available through mini-games, food items barfed up by frogs (yum!), and bonus jade accumulation.

The all-important X factor that ties this whole package together and renders it more than the sum of its parts is the sheer affable charm baked into the art and music. Going with a “chibi” look for Jackie meant the artists were able to paint a ton of expression onto his pixelated noggin. The happy-go-lucky grin he flashes you in his idle pose, the determination on his face as he struts through a level, and even the bug-eyed shock of his death animation make him one of the most likable platforming protagonists you’ll ever meet. Nailing the actor’s trademark goofy-tough screen persona like this on such simple hardware, especially without recourse to cut scenes, is genuinely impressive. They had a lot of fun with the enemy designs, as well. I loved the rocket-propelled turtles from the third stage, a clear reference to the Gamera movies. Topping it all off is an awesome soundtrack by Masakatsu Maekawa, who put in a lot of great work over the years on various Namco and Hudson properties. The music is another area where the TurboGrafx lords over the NES, with punchy bass lines situated front and center on the majority of the tracks that propel you forward like nobody’s business.

True to the cinematic icon that inspired it, Jackie Chan’s Action Kung Fu is highly accomplished and endearing to boot. It’s not the longest or most feature-rich game in its class, but it is exactly the lighthearted treat its creators intended. The closest thing to a real gripe I can muster? Gathering the 100 bonus jades needed to refill Jackie’s health and Psycho Wave power on the TurboGrafx takes too long when most enemies only drop one at a time and you forfeit your current stock with each death. You face the opposite problem on the NES, where a 30 jade threshold is arguably too easy to hit. Something in the 50-60 range would been the ideal compromise, I think. That’s really small potatoes, though. Pick this one up and you’ll be having far too much of a blast waling on defenseless amphibians and saving your sister/girlfriend from a wicked kung fu wizard to sweat the details.

Hameln no Violin Hiki (Super Famicom)

Looks like I inadvertently set myself up for a manga double feature. Unlike Osamu Tezuka’s Hi no Tori last week, Michiaki Watanabe’s Hameln no Violin Hiki (“Violinist of  Hameln”) is far from a world-famous critical darling. Don’t let the manga’s relative obscurity fool you, though, because I found this 1995 Super Famicom puzzle platformer/child abuse simulator by Daft to be much more interesting and successful than Konami’s take on Hi no Tori. Note that I played it with the unofficial English patch by J2e Translations, although the game is still pretty self-explanatory without it.

Hameln no Violin Hiki made its print debut in 1991 in the pages of Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan. If you’re like me, you probably had no idea Enix (now part of Square Enix) even had a hand in the manga game. Turns out their Gangan Comics imprint is still active today, so they must be doing something right. The gist of the series is that everything takes place in a vaguely European medieval fantasy world where music has magical powers. The central figure is the violinist himself, a self-centered wandering “hero” named Hamel who travels the land with his two sidekicks, a teenage girl named Flute and Oboe the talking crow. Their ultimate aim is to defeat the Demon King Chestra and his assorted evil cronies. Chestra’s name keeps with the music motif, too, as the Japanese rendering of “King Chestra” is “Ō Chestra.” Cute. I can’t say this sort of thing is really my cup of tea, but I’ll give its creator credit for not just serving up more ninja or giant robots.

What makes the Super Famicom Hameln no Violin Hiki so compelling is its unique style of puzzle platforming. The player controls Hamel and the computer-controlled Flute and Oboe follow along automatically. Hamel’s repertoire of moves is quite basic. He has modest jumping ability and attacks enemies by firing deadly notes from his oversize violin. The level design makes it clear early on this won’t be enough. There are stone barriers, high platforms, beds of spikes, and other seemingly impassable obstacles between Hamel and the exit of each stage. Enter Flute and her many costumes!

Yes, if Hamel wants to swim, fly, climb walls, cross spikes or do pretty much anything other than walk forward and shoot, he’ll need to instruct Flute to don one of sixteen humiliating costumes and then employ her as a beast of burden to physically carry him wherever it is he needs to go. She might need to dress up as a duck to cross a lake, an eagle to fly, a monkey to climb, etc. There are also some walls that can only be bypassed by having Hamel lift the protesting Flute over his head and hurl her so as to smash through the obstruction. All the while this is going on, poor Flute will be pulling a variety of shocked, pained, and indignant facial expressions. Conceptually, of course, this is all horrible. In the actual game, the cartoony animation of Flute and the sheer absurdity of her various sports mascot style getups renders it utterly hilarious. Hamel’s callous in-game treatment of his young ward also does a much better job of conveying his nature as a selfish jerk than standard cutscenes or dialogue would.

Thus, the typical stage involves Hamel taking the lead on order to clear out as many  enemies as possible and then summoning Flute in order to bypass any obstacles that require the use of a particular costume, all before the timer runs down. While you can never control Flute directly, you can tap a button to have Oboe instruct her to either stand in place or do her best to follow Hamel. This comes in handy for situations where Hamel and Flute need to trigger switches at the same time. Both characters need to reach the level exit in order for you to proceed. This isn’t as a big a challenge as it seems, due to the fact Flute can’t be killed by enemies or environmental hazards like Hamel can. Touching them will only result in the loss of some money (unless you bought the wallet accessory in the first town) and negatively impact her mood. Keeping Flute as happy as possible grants you access to bonus stages where you can stock up on extra lives. The game provides unlimited continues, however, so missing a bonus stage because she ended up getting knocked around too much is no real tragedy.

This gameplay is unlike anything else I’ve played on the system. Given your main hero’s reliance on a transforming sidekick, I suppose its closest antecedent would be David Crane’s A Boy and His Blob: Trouble on Blobolonia for the NES. Start with Crane’s game, up the combat and kiddy cruelty quotients significantly, and presto: You’ve made Hameln no Violin Hiki! The setup works very well in general here, as the levels are good about feeding you a steady drip of new costumes and ways to use them throughout. The lovely art and music are also worth mentioning. I’ve already praised the character animation for its scope and expressiveness and there’s no shortage of painterly backgrounds for it to play out against. As expected for a game with an overarching musical theme, a great deal of care was lavished on the score, too. It’s expansive and very catchy. You can argue that Daft cheated somewhat by basing many of the tunes on existing classical pieces, but it’s not as if it doesn’t fit the material.

So in terms of both its core gameplay and overall presentation, Hameln no Violin Hiki is the real deal: A bona fide Super Famicom hidden gem that’s long been rightly prized by savvy import enthusiasts.

Now that we’ve established that, kindly allow me to serve up a last minute buzz-kill by making you aware of this game’s two major flaws. First and foremost, it’s a very late example of a lengthy console release that doesn’t include any sort of save or password feature. Though fairly common in the ’80s, this design choice was downright archaic in 1995. While it’s great that the game’s four chapters (called “movements,” as in a symphony) each have a lot of content, having to push through them all in a single sitting can still be an unwelcome commitment. A complete playthrough of Hameln no Violin Hiki takes the best speedrunners over an hour. A more typical player will require anywhere from two to four, depending on how much prior experience they have. By this point in the history of gaming, there was simply no good excuse for a setup like this.

Hameln no Violin Hiki’s second failing is a purely narrative one. Despite apparently building to a final showdown with Demon King Chestra, the adventure actually culminates in an underwhelming tussle with another of his many lieutenants, followed by a cliffhanger ending teasing a sequel that would never be. I guess if you care how everything works out in the end, you can just go read the manga? Weak. Enix could have at least given us Hameln no Violin Hiki 2: Flute’s Revenge. Lord knows she earned it.

Hi no Tori Hououhen: Gaou no Bouken (Famicom)

Bird is the word!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total 8-bit train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one. Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

One entire class of video game that’s all but extinct these days is the celebrity vanity project. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go ahead and define this as any game that stars an idealized version of a real world celebrity and depicts its subject engaging in a variety of fantastical exploits unrelated to his or her day job. The celebrity in question is almost always a musician or athlete, as actors that appear in games are typically just lending their likenesses to various fictional characters as opposed to portraying themselves. I remember games like these serving as a constant source of befuddled amusement for my friends and I throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Who actually wanted to platform across alien planets as the members of the band Journey or punch mummies as Shaquille O’Neal? Even in a much less jaded age these titles were seen as punchlines rather than viable gaming options by most and usually proved to have much less of a built-in audience than their deluded creators anticipated. It certainly didn’t help that some prominent examples (looking at you, Shaq-Fu) were saddled with gameplay every bit as dire as their tortured premises.

This widespread consumer contempt combined with skyrocketing development costs neatly explains why the classic vanity project has become a thing of the past in recent years. Most gamers who experienced the trend in its heyday would agree that this is a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. If pressed, though, many of those same individuals would also agree that there’s one shining exception to almost every common criticism leveled above; one silly 16-bit ego trip that beat the odds and remains a well-loved part of countless childhoods: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Both of them, really, but I’ll be looking at the home console version for the Genesis today and not the completely distinct arcade release that it shares its name with.

What does this 1990 platformer with light beat-’em-up elements have going for it that its pilloried peers don’t? How about Michael freakin’ Jackson for starters? A ferociously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, music video pioneer, and occasional movie star, he was still holding fast to his position as the one and only King of Pop. While perhaps just beginning to see the slightest dip in stature compared to his peak in the mid-80s, it would be several more years before his many personal eccentricities and some shocking criminal allegations would truly begin to overshadow his musical accomplishments. Let’s be frank here: Shaq may be one of the best centers the NBA has ever seen, but you’d never mistake him for the coolest man on the planet. It anyone could present himself to the world as a nigh-omnipotent musical superhero with a straight face and get away with it, it was M.J.

There’s also the fact that game was made by Sega themselves. More specifically by a scrappy little internal development team then called AM8. You probably know them better by the moniker they adopted for their breakout release the following year and have stuck with ever since: Sonic Team. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackson was working with the very best in the field to bring Moonwalker to fruition, as no other group of developers had a better grasp of the Genesis hardware in the platform’s early days.

The game’s story is a straightforward adaptation of the one featured in the “Smooth Criminal” segment of the 1988 Moonwalker film. Michael must use his magic dance powers to rescue children that have been kidnapped by the evil drug kingpin Mr. Big (memorably portrayed in the movie by a frenzied Joe Pesci rocking shades and a topknot). Since this is a video game, the number of endangered kids has been upped from three to at least a hundred scattered across a total of fifteen stages. The stages themselves have fairly open layouts and scroll both vertically and horizontally, so there’s a bit of a scavenger hunt element involved in locating all the hostages tucked away in the countless hiding places that dot each map. After doing so, Michael is able to trigger a boss fight (with a little help from Bubbles the chimp!) and then move on to the next area. In essence, it’s a more free-roaming take on Sega’s own 1987 arcade title Shinobi.

Opposing Michael are Mr. Big’s gun-toting thugs as well as a few other baddies that are clear references to other Jackson projects. You have bandanna-clad street thugs right out of “Beat It” or “Bad” and some “Thriller” zombies. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery are a handful of ornery dogs, birds, and spiders. That’s about it. All considered, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety in Moonwalker. Even the boss encounters at the end of each stage tend to pit Michael against either a large number of standard foes attacking from all sides, a powered-up version of a regular enemy, or both. I’m not counting the final confrontation with Mr. Big himself, as it takes the form of a tacked-on and thoroughly awful first-person space shooting section for some reason. If you’ve ever wondered how Wing Commander would have turned out if it had been dropped on its head as a baby, here you go.

Although you’re not furnished with that great a variety of threats to smack down, the combat itself is still a lot of fun. Instead of normal punches and kicks, Michael’s attacks are made to resemble some of his most iconic dance moves. Every elegant wrist flick and high kick emits a shower of glittering pixie dust that looks harmless, but hits like a ton of bricks! The contrast between how feeble these assaults appear and the way they cause enemies to go blasting off into the sky or ricocheting between the floor and ceiling like human pinballs is absolutely hilarious and never seems to get old. Nailing an enemy while airborne is pretty wild, too. They shoot down to the ground in a split-second and land flat on their faces like they’ve just been whacked by a giant invisible mallet. Priceless.

Holding down the attack button will cause Michael to perform an invincible Spin Attack at the cost of some of his own health. The longer he spins, the more health is lost. Spinning in one place long enough to consume 50% of his maximum health will unleash Michael’s ultimate weapon: The Dance Attack, in which he launches into one of a variety of different dance routines and every enemy on-screen (including dogs and spiders!) is compelled to join in. Most regular enemies are killed instantly at the dance’s conclusion and bosses will sustain a large chunk of damage. A special move that costs this much energy to use would be useless in most games, but the makers of Moonwalker generously made it so that each child rescued restores up to 50% of Michael’s lost health, meaning that you can actually get away with using the Dance Attack fairly often if you like.

This is really about all there is to Moonwalker’s gameplay. It’s a short game with a single basic goal to accomplish and it boasts a relatively small number of unique enemies and ways of dispatching them. Michael does have one other special power in the ability to temporarily transform into a giant flying robot that shoots homing missile and laser beams. Yes, really. He accomplishes this by catching a shooting star that appears under certain special circumstances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t impact player progression as much as you’d think it would. Since Robo-Jackson can’t rescue hostages and any enemies he destroys will tend to re-spawn right away, there’s not much point to transforming in most levels except to rack up some extra points. High scores don’t seem to award any extra lives or other benefits that I could see, either, so it really doesn’t amount to much in the end. Looks cool, though. It would have been nice if some more permanent power-ups had been included, like hidden health bar extensions or extra weapons. Finding and holding onto these would have added a bit more intrigue and strategy to the proceedings.

Okay, so the gameplay isn’t really best in class. The upside is that it’s supported by some of the best graphics and music the early Genesis library had to offer. The character sprites for Michael and his enemies are large for the time and feature very smooth animation, befitting a game built around replicating flashy dance routines. The soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Jackson standards like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Another Part of Me,” and more, all rendered to the utmost quality the console’s FM synth sound chip is capable of. Every track is remarkably listenable in this format and just as likely to get stuck in your head for hours as the album versions. Moonwalker’s audio and visuals may not seem all that revelatory nearly three decades on, but it’s important to remember that the Genesis was the first 16-bit game console to hit the market outside of Japan and games like this one, Strider, and the pack-in Altered Beast were jaw-dropping to an audience primarily acclimated to the NES and Master System. Home games with such lush presentations simply weren’t an option before this unless you were willing and able to dive into comparatively expensive niche computing platforms like the Amiga. Even for kids like me who opted to stick it out for two more years waiting on the Super Nintendo, there was still some envy involved whenever one of those ubiquitous “Genesis does…” ads would pop up. It was a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moonwalker is strictly all style, no substance. It certainty does lean that way, however. As far as platformers go, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the length, breadth, or depth of a Sonic or Mario and there’s little incentive to keep playing after you’ve cleared it once. In retrospect, it’s easy enough to point out that it would have benefited greatly from the addition of more enemy types, better boss fights, more power-ups, and some hidden areas or other secrets to discover. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple arcadey punch-up and this one has far more charm than most, thanks to those amazing tunes and the goofy-cool crotch grabbing antics of its unlikely action star. If you come across anyone claiming it’s a bad game, just tell ’em I said that their hearts are full of greed and they have doo-doo in their souls.

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.