RollerGames (NES)

Donald? Is that you?

Konami really were miracle workers back in the day. Case in point: 1990’s RollerGames, in which they managed to take a short-lived cross between roller derby and pro wrestling that also included dance numbers and a pit of live alligators and somehow turn it into an even stupider NES game. That takes vision.

I have no recollection at all of the RollerGames television show that debuted back in 1989. Looking up clips in preparation for this review, it’s clear that I was missing out. It’s a prime slice of vintage cheese that certainly couldn’t exist as it did in our present jaded age. If you’re looking for an old school “sports entertainment” companion piece to G.L.O.W. and the golden age WWF, look no further. It also drew big ratings. Despite this, several of the producers still managed to go bankrupt and the show abruptly vanished from the airwaves after only one season.

RollerGames’ brief moment in the sun was somehow still enough to inspire not just one, but three game adaptations, all of which were doomed to reach the general public after the tv show itself had already been consigned to the pop culture memory hole. Williams put out a pinball table and Konami released two completely distinct video games. The arcade RollerGames was a straightforward attempt to replicate the roller derby action of the show. Since it relied heavily on powerful arcade hardware to dynamically shift the player’s view of the track around during play, however, it was clearly unsuitable for conversion to the humble NES. Instead, Konami (in the paper-thin guise of their front company Ultra Games) took things in an entirely different, much less sane direction and gave us this off-kilter platformer/beat-’em-up hybrid where your favorite prime time derby heroes strap on their skates to do battle with terrorists.

Yes, it seems that the sinister criminal organization V.I.P.E.R. (Vicious International Punks and Eternal Renegades) has joined forces with three “evil” derby teams and abducted RollerGames league commissioner Emerson “Skeeter” Bankhead. Oh no! Not Skeeter! Only members of the three remaining “good” teams have what it takes to rescue their boss. Why? According to the manual, “the CIA and FBI lack the speed, cunning, and sheer brute force for this job.” Huh. Well, I suppose I never have seen them do much in the way of skating, so…fair enough.

Naturally, I love this premise. It’s stupid in the best possible way and one of the high points of the whole package. RollerGames isn’t a top tier NES title by any means, but everything it does well stems directly from this decision to not even attempt to be a proper roller derby game. While I’m on the subject, just imagine how much more fun all those terrible WWF games for the NES could have been if they’d abandoned all pretense of delivering a realistic ringside experience and just had Andre the Giant fight an attack helicopter. Alas.

You’ll start out in RollerGames by choosing one of three teams, which functions as a character select. The three available characters are based on the Holy Trinity of beat-’em-ups: Ice Box of the T-Birds is the strong and slow one, Rolling Thunder of Hot Flash is the weak and fast one, and California Kid of the Rockers is the balanced one. In theory, the game’s mixture of platforming and hand-to-hand combat should mean that all the characters are viable, but do yourself a favor and avoid Ice Box. The jumps in this game are far deadlier than the brawling and he really struggles to clear some of the tricker obstacles. Thankfully, you’re able to change characters any time you lose all your lives and use a continue, so you’ll never be stuck using a character you don’t like all the way through the game.

RollerGames has a total of twelve stages, with the action unfolding in the sort of 3/4 view typical of post-Renegade brawlers. Most of the time, however, you’re not engaging in fisticuffs, but instead skating over, around, and through a bevy of environmental hazards that function as sadistic obstacle courses. The threats placed in your path can be divided up into two broad categories: Stuff that kills you outright (pits, bodies of water, spikes) and stuff that will just knock you down and deplete a small chunk of your health on contact (barrels, oil slicks, flamethrowers). Your character’s health bar is quite large, so you’re able to make quite a few missteps around lesser dangers before the cumulative damage does you in. It’s the instant kill stuff that you really need to worry about, since none of the stages in RollerGames have checkpoints. Fall in a hole and you start the whole stage over from the beginning. At least the stages themselves are fairly short and the continues unlimited.

Every now and then, usually around twice per stage, you’ll reach a point where the scrolling halts for a time and you transition into a “fight scene.” Here, the movement controls that you use in the rest of the stage are temporarily replaced by new ones that handle more like a standard beat-’em-up and you’ll have to fight off several waves of enemy skaters before you’ll be allowed to move on. Combat is fairly basic, with typical punches and kicks, a jumping kick, and a “hair pull into throw” attack straight out of Double Dragon. You also have a lunging super attack activated by pressing A and B simultaneously that deals extra damage, but can only be used three times in a given stage. Most of the game’s boss fights also take place in this mode.

Just to add a little more variety, the game also includes two highway stages, which are auto-scrolling affairs where your character has to navigate a hazard-strewn roadway on the way to the next main stage. Other than not being able to set the place yourself, these don’t really play that differently from the normal platforming segments. They do end with some rather odd boss fights, though: A huge vehicle shows up and hurls projectiles at your character until it just sort of gets bored and leaves. You can’t actually attack these guys. You just dodge the crap they chuck your way for an arbitrary amount of time and then you win. That’s a new one on me!

Like I mentioned above, RollerGames is far from a perfect action game. The biggest issue by far is that the gameplay is wildly unbalanced. The designers clearly went out of their way to throw many different types of challenge at the player, but only one type (the insta-kill pits and spikes) ultimately matters and ends up defining the experience. The non-lethal obstacles in the platforming sections are nuisances at worst and the beat-’em-up combat is extremely simple and easy, with brain dead enemies all too happy to repeatedly march face first into your hero’s waiting fists.

Another aspect of the gameplay that seems to annoy many (at least based on other reviews I’ve seen) is the control. Specifically, the loose, slippery movement. Your character can’t really stop or turn on a dime, nor can they accelerate to full speed instantly. Many jumps also require just the right amount of momentum, otherwise you’ll over or under-shoot your landing and pay for it with a life. Basically, every stage here feels like the ice level from most other platformers. While I understand the frustration stemming from this, I also recognize that it’s what sets RollerGames apart from the crowd and hesitate to call it an outright flaw. Your characters are supposed to be zipping around on skates, after all, so it’s only fitting that the movement reflects that. Even if it is defensible as a design choice, the resulting learning curve is steep and you can expect to die a lot at first.

As unbalanced and awkward as it can be, RollerGames still packs a lot of charm into one dirt cheap cartridge. Beyond just the glorious absurdity of roller skating through a jungle dodging giant piranhas, the visuals and audio both demostrate a level of quality befitting a world class developer. There’s some very good use of color and the character sprites are large and detailed, with the exception of the distinctive blank faces seen in many other 8-bit Konami titles like Castlevania and Contra. The music is also above average thanks to some catchy melodies and punchy drum samples. If you don’t mind putting in the time needed to master its finicky controls, this one is more than worth its current Starbucks latte asking price.

Besides, why just skate or die when you can do both?

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The Magic of Scheherazade (NES)

Ladies! Ladies! If you could please form an orderly line, that’d be great.

What would you say if I told you that Square’s legendary Chrono Trigger wasn’t the first Japanese RPG to feature an epic time travel storyline and a cast of colorful characters that could pool their abilities in battle to unleash devastating combination attacks? Welcome to The Magic of Scheherazade from oddball developer Culture Brain! It may be the most ambitious 8-bit console RPG ever made. Whether this ultimately works to its benefit or not depends on your point of view.

Arabian Dorīmu Sherazādo (“Arabian Dream Scheherazade”) was initially released for the Famicom in 1987 and then altered significantly for its 1989 debut in North America. The simple music of the original was expanded into something more on par with other releases from the latter half of the NES’s life cycle and many of the character sprites were re-drawn with smaller eyes, presumably to de-anime them some for us gaijin. We definitely got the better game over here. The score is a clear upgrade and I greatly prefer the new character designs. Your turban-clad hero looks rather cool in the North American version, whereas his Japanese counterpart’s manic grin and bulging eyes came across less “cute and cuddly” and more “I’ll swallow your soul!”

As the game opens, we’re informed that the peaceful land of Arabia has been attacked by demons commanded by the evil wizard Sabaron. A brave descendent of the legendary magician Isfa steps up to challenge Sabaron, but he is defeated and his sweetheart Princess Scheherazade is abducted, as are her father and three sisters. Now nearly powerless and suffering from amnesia, the hero (whom you name) must journey across the land and rebuild his strength by vanquishing demons, recruiting allies, and traveling back and forth between multiple time periods with the aid of an adorable blue cat creature named Coronya the time spirit.

Even though the action is supposedly set in a real place, don’t come expecting any sort of geographical, historical, or cultural accuracy. Setting the game in “Arabia” is strictly an excuse to bring in some of the trappings of the classic Arabian Nights stories like genies, scimitars, and flying carpets in place of the usual Western European fantasy iconography. Apart from that, the world and characters are as divorced from reality as they are in any JRPG.

Arabia isn’t a single large, open world as per most games in the genre. Instead, it’s divided into five chapters. Each chapter plays out like a little self-contained mini-RPG, complete with its own towns, overworld, dungeons, and big boss demon at the end. One feature I found quite cool is the way that character progression is tied into this chapter system. Your hero can only gain a maximum of five levels per chapter, which helps insure that the challenge of defeating each boss can’t be completely negated through grinding. Beat the boss and the next chapter starts automatically. There’s no way to backtrack to previous chapters, so it’s technically possible to miss out on some items and spells. Nothing necessary to complete the game is skippable, however, so there’s no need to stress out too much.

Speaking of decisions not worth stressing over, you’ll also have to pick one of three character classes for your hero at the start. The fighter is best at dealing close range damage with swords, the magician is better at ranged attacks with magic rods, and the saint is pretty much terrible at both and should only be considered if you want to render the game extra challenging. Thankfully, you can change your class at any time by visiting the mosque in town and paying a small monetary fee. You’ll actually need to do this at least once in order to complete the game, since several quests require you to be a particular class.

Every chapter of your quest includes at least one mandatory trip through time to the area’s past or future. The time travel element doesn’t come off quite as awesome here as it does in the later Chrono Trigger, mainly due to the fact that MoS’s graphics are quite limited by comparison and every era you visit tends to look about the same as a result. There are no dinosaurs or space ships awaiting you here. Instead, Arabia retains its medieval look even across thousands of years. The game does still use the premise to interesting effect on occasion, though. At one point, I recieved an important clue about what to do next by an NPC who presented it as something I’d already done in the past. Since my character then needed to travel back in time to actually do it, that means that he had, in a sense, already done it. Weird, man.

Including Coronya, there are a total of eleven other characters that will join your party over the course of the adventure. Collectively, they have to be the biggest collection of freaks and weirdos you’ll encounter outside of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. There’s a robot, a shrimp, a glass bottle with arms and legs, a jack o’ lantern, a flying squirrel, and so on, with nary a single regular human being in the lot. Unfortunately, none of them are really all that interesting apart from their visual designs and conceptual gimmicks. MoS is still an early JRPG, after all, and doesn’t go out of its way to provide reams of dialogue and rich characterization. You’ll usually just recruit a given character in order to progress past a specific obstacle to your quest that only they can bypass and then forget about them as they spend the rest of the game just filling out a menu slot in battle and not saying or doing much of anything. In this sense, they almost function more like “key items” than characters in a story.

The gameplay represents an attempt to combine two of the biggest Famicom sensations of the time: The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Quest. This means that we get overhead view real time action RPG combat existing side-by-side with menu-driven turn-based fighting. This is what I was alluding to above when I said that the game’s extreme ambition can be both its greatest strength and weakness. Most of your playing time is spent in the overhead “Zelda mode.” This is where you’ll be exploring the world, talking to NPCs, and doing the bulk of your fighting with sword and magic rod. In contrast, the “Dragon Quest mode” only crops up for occasional random battles, the frequency of which varies from uncommon on the overworld to fairly regular inside caves and dungeons.

This highlights my biggest problem with the game: The turn-based battles are really not essential to your progression in any way and come off as an afterthought at best and a pace killer at worst. I realized pretty early on that you never actually need to bother with them at all. In fact, you’ll be better off in the long run if you don’t. See, the real time combat is a relatively simple and safe way to harvest experience points and money since most enemies are easy to mow down quickly with minimal loss of health. The enemies in turn-based mode take much longer to fight due to all the menu navigation and will often use poweful magic attacks to deal out large amounts of damage and nasty status effects to your party members, requiring you to expend more magic points and healing items to recover your strength. Since defeating enemies in both modes provides you with the exact same rewards (experience and money), there’s no practical reason to not immediately run from every turn-based fight, as they’re just a much slower, more resource-intensive way to accomplish the exact same thing. It’s a real pity, too, since the designers obviously put a lot of work into these battles. There are a ton of characters in your party to experiment with and using specific combinations enables the use of those special team-up attacks I mentioned. You can even hire mercenary troops in town to fight alongside your main party members. It’s deep and interesting and yet still totally pointless in the end. Too bad.

You know what, though? That’s not going to stop me from recommending this game in a big way. It has so much going on for such an early console RPG that it’s almost unbelievable at times. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the universities where you can take classes to learn about proper magic use and combat tactics, the casinos, the pre-Dragon Quest III inclusion of a sort of day/night cycle with the solar eclipses, haggling with merchants, the ins and outs of the magic system, etc. I would be here writing all day if I really wanted to detail every little nuance of this sprawling title. It even has a great sense of humor, though some of the jokes can verge into trollish territory. For example, a character in one town asks you if you’re ever afraid of monsters. If you answer yes, he basically says “I suppose you’d better call it quits then, huh?” and you get an instant game over on the spot! Good thing you have unlimited continues and passwords.

The Magic of Scheherazade is another example of a game like ActRaiser that’s considerably better than the sum of its parts by virtue of its unique blend of seemingly incongruous gameplay elements, its overarching charm, and its sheer verve. It’s not a great action RPG or a great turn-based RPG, just a great experience that no NES enthusiast should miss out on.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some pressing princess business to take care of. Truly a hero’s work is never done.

Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

The Adventures of Bayou Billy (NES)

Love, Cajun style. Tastes like crawdaddies!

In 1988, Konami released an ambitious multi-genre action title for the Famicom called Mad City. The game followed ragin’ Cajun vigilante Billy West on a mission to rescue his absurdly buxom girl Annabelle from the ruthless New Orleans crime boss Godfather Gordon. While he may incidentally share a name with the famous Futurama voice actor, it’s obvious that Billy’s appearance was deliberately modeled on the title character from the then-popular Crocodile Dundee movies. They just relocated the main character from Australia to Louisiana, swapped out the crocodiles for alligators, and threw in tons of that good old 8-bit violence.

It worked. Mad City was a pretty fun experience, if also a bit on the short and easy side. When it came time to release the game in North America the following year, things had…changed. Rumors persist that this was due at least in part to the booming video game rental market in America. Nintendo and other game companies had lobbied Japanese lawmakers to effectively make the practice of game renting illegal there, while U.S. courts had decisively rejected their efforts to do the same on our side of the Pacific. Owing to this, it’s thought that some developers made the international releases of their games more difficult specifically so that gamers would be unlikely to be able to finish them as a weekend rental and would therefore be more likely to purchase the game outright.

Whatever the truth of this little conspiracy theory, there’s no doubt that numerous NES releases were altered so as to be significantly more difficult than their Famicom counterparts, none moreso than our version of Mad City: The Adventures of Bayou Billy.

As stated, Bayou Billy is a multi-genre game. The tv commercial featured a rubber alligator wrestling doofus portraying Billy who promised “hand-to-hand combat with drivin’, shootin’, and, of course, zappin’.” Of course. It was sold as a Konami caliber combination of Double Dragon, RoadBlasters, and Operation Wolf. In other words, a sure thing. Right?

Let’s start with the beat-’em-up action, since it comprises five out of the game’s nine stages. You start out in the bayou, naturally, and must plow through waves of Gordon’s men and the occasional pissed-off gator. Billy has a basic punch, kick, and jumping kick at the beginning. He can also pick up and use weapons if he can manage to disarm certain foes. It won’t take you long to realize that these levels really don’t play much at all like they do in other games. Enemies recover very quickly from being hit and are able to retaliate almost immediately, so you can’t just mash the attack buttons to lock a baddie in place and repeatedly pummel him until he goes down. What will happen instead if you go toe-to-toe is that Billy and the enemy will take turns trading hits. This is a problem because most enemies require a good seven or eight hits to put down and so does Billy! The bottom line is that trying to play Bayou Billy like a normal beat-’em-up will invariably get you killed off on the first or second screen.

So what are you supposed to do instead? The best option I found was a very patient, methodical hit-and-run strategy. Typically for this style of game, enemies won’t initiate attacks unless they’re lined up with Billy on a horizontal axis. If you approach them on the vertical, fire off a quick punch or kick as you pass, and keep on going, they either won’t have time to retaliate or their counterattack will whiff. Just keep moving, pick your moments, and slowly grind them down. Fortunately, you don’t have a time limit. Later brawling stages introduce different enemy types and new weapons (like the almighty whip that lets you strike rapidly from a distance), but this basic strategy still applies through the end of the game. It’s kind of a drag, honestly.

How about the next mode, the first-person gallery shooting? Well, it’s actually quite cool. You’re able to use the Zapper light gun or aim with the controller and everything is smooth, precise, and decently challenging. Enemies rush onto the screen and you do your best to gun them all down before they can pop a shot off at you. Eventually, you’ll get to battle a big bullet sponge boss before moving on to the next stage. There are even power-ups like health packs, screen clearing bombs, and temporary invincibility. You have limited ammunition, but your stock of bullets will only decrease when you miss a target. As odd as that is, it does mean that you generally don’t need to worry about running out of bullets as long as you exercise some minimal trigger discipline and don’t just try to spray the whole screen. Everything here looks, sounds, and plays just fine. These shooting sections, all two of them, are the high point of Billy’s adventures.

On the opposite end of the quality spectrum are the game’s two back-to-back driving levels. If Billy wants to save Annabelle, he has to ride his rickety jeep all the way from the swamps to Gordon’s mansion in New Orleans and he’s in for one hell of a bumpy ride. The basic gameplay is similar to Mach Rider, minus all the freedom of movement and fun. The biggest issue by far is that the roadways in the NES version of the game are only about half as wide as they are in the Famicom original, giving you almost no space to maneuver your vehicle and leaving you stuck in what amounts to a narrow corridor the whole time. Almost as detrimental is the fact that Billy’s health bar has now gone AWOL, making these driving sections the only part of the game where you’re subject to one hit deaths from hazards. Both levels are long, and between the time limit, the various hostile air and ground vehicles attacking you, and the static obstacles in the form of rocks and poles, you can expect to die early and often. Repetition and memorization will eventually see you through to Bourbon Street, but I exhausted my limited lives and continues several times over here before I was finally able to squeak past. These two stages are easily the most difficult and obnoxious stretch of the entire game.

I was very disappointed by The Adventures of Bayou Billy and not just because the game was made more difficult than Mad City. I firmly believe that no respectable game reviewer will ever hold a game’s challenge level against it as such. Konami also altered one of my favorite games of all time, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, with the same goal in mind and I’ll defend that one anytime. It’s perfectly fine for a game to be demanding as long as it’s also rewarding. Bayou Billy is not rewarding. Other tough titles I’ve enjoyed recently (Silver Surfer, ActRaiser 2) present a steep learning curve, but really open up to the player once that initial hurdle is overcome to reveal a fair amount of satisfying gameplay under the surface. Not so with Bayou Billy. You can adapt to the boring moveset and repetitive, time-consuming avoidance tactics of the brawling stages and even to the white-knuckle gauntlet that is the driving section, but there are no hidden depths waiting to reveal themselves to you at that point. It’s simply a superficial experience that gets easier without ever getting good. The two shooting gallery portions are solid enough for what they are, but they can’t carry the whole game. Not even close. Mad City made the right call by keeping the challenge low and the pace brisk, insuring that the player would be too occupied with novelty and spectacle to dwell on the lack of substance.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll add that the graphics and music are pretty sweet for the hardware and definitely up to the high Konami standard. Beyond that, the most enjoyable things about Bayou Billy are probably the game manual and box, which is never a good sign. Whoever was in charge of writing the instructions really gave it their all in terms of selling the whole cornball Cajun bayou theme. Damsel in distress Annabelle is described as “a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Ellie May Clampett” and “a three time cover girl for the glamour magazine – Swamp Digest.” Even the common thugs you fight are given punny names like Tolouse L’attack and the murderous scuba diver Jacques Killstow. My favorite of all is the cover art, which depicts Billy with the body of a super buff Crocodile Dundee and the head of…Jim Varney!? That’s right, there’s a ripped Ernest P. Worrell brandishing a giant knife right on the front of this game. Now that’s my idea of an awesome action hero! Know what I mean, Vern?

ActRaiser (Super Nintendo)

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You don’t step to the big G.

Here we have the legendary ActRaiser from developer Quintet and publisher Enix. This idiosyncratic hybrid action-platformer/simulation outing from 1990 was the first of six Quintet releases for the Super Nintendo and still seems to be the best known of the bunch by far. It made quite a splash back at the time of its release due to its innovative gameplay structure and some amazing graphics and music for an early 16-bit title. Since I picked up a copy of the very different ActRaiser 2 recently, I wanted to go back and experience the original again before I tackled its more obscure sequel.

The premise of ActRaiser is straightforward: You’re God and you have to save the world from Satan. Old Scratch has been wreaking havoc all across the land ever since he wounded you in a great battle and forced you to retreat to your heavenly palace and sleep for several centuries to heal your wounds. Now you’re finally awake again and it’s time to clean house. Of course, we’re talking about an old Nintendo game here, so the publisher was compelled to change God to “the Master” and Satan to “Tanzra” for the international release in order to avoid any controversy. Make no mistake, though: You are absolutely a sword swinging, ass kicking Yahweh in this game. It’s not often that you get to say that.

As mentioned, ActRaiser sports an unusual gameplay structure that I have yet to see replicated anywhere else, including in its own sequel. You start out controlling the Master (technically a stone statue animated by the Master’s spirit, but close enough) in a very traditional side view action-platforming style. The Master’s moveset in this mode is limited. He can run, jump, and swing his sword. Later on, he’ll gain the ability to perform some limited use magical attacks that can deal heavy damage and are best saved for boss fights. Defeating the first boss will transition you into the game’s other mode: Simulation.

ActRaiser’s simulation mode presents you with an overhead view of the planet below your hovering sky palace and tasks you with guiding your tiny human followers in six different regions and protecting them from rampaging monsters while they rebuild their civilization. It’s important that they spread and multiply, since a bigger population nets you a bigger health bar for the action stages. You don’t control the Master himself during these segments, but rather one of his servants: A tiny, cherubic angel with a bow. This portion of the game is often compared to SimCity, Civilization, and other such “god games,” but I’m not convinced that these comparison are very accurate or useful. Unlike in those games, you have very little control over what your people build and how they develop. Instead, your responsibilities are mainly limited to using your various acts of god (lightning, earthquakes, and so on) to clear away obstructions and indicating which section of empty map your followers should colonize next. The rest is basically automated. This wouldn’t be very engaging on its own, so each of the six simulation maps also includes several monster lairs that will constantly disgorge a stream of flying baddies to harass your followers and smash up their newly built real estate unless you keep your little angel buddy busy zipping around the map and shooting them down as they spawn. Thankfully, you don’t have to do this indefinitely. Once you can direct your people to build over a monster lair, they’ll seal it up and stop the flow of enemies from that lair permanently. Seal up all the lairs and you can then take on a second side-scrolling action level before returning to your sky palace and moving on to the next region.

Once you’ve pacified all six regions, it’s off to hell (aka “Death Heim”) to confront Satan/Tanzra himself. After you re-fight enhanced versions of the six main bosses back-to-back in a classic boss rush, that is.

That’s pretty much all there is to ActRaiser. It may sound like I’m selling it a bit short, but it’s just not a very deep game for the most part. Both gameplay modes would be hard to recommend to anyone as standalone experiences. The action segments are short, simplistic, and devoid of any real challenge. They were actually made considerably easier here than they were in the original Japanese release. The simulation mode allows for little in the way of choice or customization, outside of the option to use natural disasters to raze older structures so that your followers can rebuild higher capacity ones in their places and increase your total population. You couldn’t even lose the game in simulation mode if you wanted to. Your angel avatar can’t die and even allowing the monsters to kill off your entire population (or doing it yourself with lightning and earthquakes) will only set you back a bit temporarily until it rebounds.

So why then is this game considered to be such a timeless classic by so many gamers, myself included? Why would I want to revisit it at all? The real brilliance of ActRaiser and the secret of its lasting appeal is the unique synergy between its two halves. It’s all a matter of pacing. Switching back and forth between a frantic hack-and-slash combat stage and a slow, methodical town building exercise doesn’t seem like it should work at all, but somehow it just does. The result is a game that’s deeply relaxing to sit down and play without ever becoming boring.

The grand faux-orchestral score by Yuzo Koshiro reflects this dynamic perfectly, lending epic bombast to the action scenes and calm serenity to the simulation mode. Koshiro is a game music legend and is on record as saying that ActRaiser represents some of his best work. I’m not included to argue.

There’s one more excellent reason to play ActRaiser, though it’s a little less tangible than the genius pacing and stellar presentation. It’s that certain special touch that Quintet also brought to several of their other Super Nintendo classics like Soul Blazer and Terranigma: Profound ideas presented in a beautiful, understated way. ActRaiser is by no means as densely written and story driven as Illusion of Gaea or Terranigma, but there are still some lovely little moments scattered throughout. Ask anyone who’s played this game about the dying man in the desert and they’ll know just what you mean. Nintendo of America’s heavy-handed alterations also couldn’t completely erase ActRaiser’s explorations of spiritual and religious themes, as in the game’s ending, which offers up the notion that the best god of all might just be the one that nobody needs. Oh, and you get to stab the devil right in his big stupid face.

Amen.

Konami Wai Wai World (Famicom)

Getting high with a penguin? That’s our Goemon! *laugh track*

At long last, it’s time to take on Konami Wai Wai World! Before Marvel vs. Capcom, before Super Smash Bros., before…uh, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, I guess, there was this ambitious 1988 attempt to combine characters from no less than eight separate Konami properties into a single Famicom crossover extravaganza. The name turns out to be quite fitting when you’re dealing with so many playable characters, since “wai wai” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for a loud, crowded area. I’ve been dying to play and review this one for a while, but I wanted to do the same for at least one game in each series represented here first.

Oddly enough, there was also a more obscure altered version of this game released for Japanese mobile phones in 2006 that replaced a few of the licensed characters (King Kong and Mikey) with ones actually owned by Konami. I’ll be reviewing the original Famicom release here.

As our journey begins, Dr. Cinnamon (creator of the ships from the TwinBee games) summons the superhero Konami Man and tells him that Konami World is in crisis. An alien invader has kidnapped six of the land’s mightiest heroes and is holding them prisoner. Only by rescuing the six captives and joining forces with them can the day be saved. Dr. Cinnamon also sends his sexy gynoid robot creation Konami Lady along to help. Ew. Hope the old creep hosed her off real good first.

These two characters play identically, allowing for two player simultaneous action. This feature is quite rare in an open-ended game with exploration elements like this and is a big point in Wai Wai World’s favor if you happen to have a friend around that might want to join in. Your starting characters only have basic punch and kick attacks initially, but can gain the ability to shoot lasers and fly by locating special items later on in the game. If your entire party is ever wiped out, Konami Man and Konami Lady will both be revived back at the lab automatically in lieu of a game over.

Dr. Cinnamon’s lab serves as your main hub and contains three numbered doors. The doctor himself resides behind door number one. He can heal your party, dispense passwords that allow you to take a break and continue your game later, and give you tips about the various characters and their special abilities. His brother Saimon is also here and will revive your dead party members in exchange for 100 bullets each; bullets being the game’s combined currency and special weapon ammunition. If you’re playing the game in the original Japanese as I did, here’s a tip: The last two options on Dr. Cinnamon’s menu (character resurrection and password generation) are the only ones you really need to know.

The second door contains the main level select screen. Six stages are available at the start, one for each of the six kidnapped heroes. You’re not free to complete them in any order you want, though, as some stages require a specific character’s special ability to access. This seems at first like a bit of a missed opportunity for a more open, Mega Man type level structure, but the challenge does increase substantially in the latter half of the game, so it would seem to be the designers’ way of implementing a smooth difficulty curve. Fair enough. The third door leads to the final two levels. It can only be opened after you’ve rescued the entire main cast from their respective stages.

Except for the penultimate one, the various stages in Konami Wai Wai World are presented in standard side-scrolling action platforming style and each is based a different game series specific to the hero you’ll find there. The characters you’ll need to rescue (in the order I did it) are: Goemon (Ganbare Goemon), Simon Belmont (Castlevania), Mikey Walsh (The Goonies), King Kong (King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch), Getsu Fūma (Getsu Fūma Den), and Moai (Gradius). Every character except for Fūma is locked in a cage when you first encounter them, so your first task in most levels is to locate the key. These keys are usually guarded by bosses, although a couple are just laying out in the open ready to be collected.

Each character you rescue joins your party permanently, and you can switch over to controlling them at any time. They each have their own unique attacks and health meter, making this aspect of the game seem a bit like a dry run for Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game the following year. As mentioned, dead characters can be resurrected back at home base, but this is costly and you’re far better off keeping a close eye on the life gauge and switching out to a healthier hero before your current one kicks the bucket.

In addition to a primary melee attack and a ranged sub-weapon that must be found hidden elsewhere within their respective stages, the characters also have various special abilities and quirks. Mikey, for example, can fit through small passages that the other characters can’t. Kong can jump higher than the others and destroy some breakable walls with his ranged attack, but he’s too large to fit through certain tight spaces. Picking the correct character for a given section of a level can go a long way in alleviating the game’s difficulty, so be sure to familiarize yourself with how each one handles. Each character even has their own theme song that plays whenever you have them selected, so the game’s background music is tied to the character you’re controlling rather than stage you’re currently on. Pretty cool.

Beyond the sub-weapons for the eight main characters, some levels also have other important items, like armor that boosts your whole party’s defense or a cape that lets Konami Man and Konami Lady fly by holding down the jump button. Some of these appear in tantalizingly unreachable locations quite early on in the game. Be sure to make note of exactly where so that you can return and collect them later when you have the necessary capabilities. You should also be on the lookout for doorways in a few of the stages that will take you to optional bonus games you can play in order to hopefully garner a few extra bullets. These take the form of various games of chance involving dice, cards, and a slot machine.

Once you’ve liberated all the kidnapped heroes, you can finally open the third door in Dr. Cinnamon’s lab and take on the final two stages. Level seven is, surprisingly, an overhead shooter stage that you can choose to play through as either TwinBee or the Vic Viper ship from Gradius (or both, if there are two players). This was actually my favorite part of the whole game. The amount of work that went into just this one level must have been tremendous. There are multiple backgrounds and enemy types, an awesome boss, and a complete power-up system with shields, options, shot upgrades, and even the bell juggling mechanics from TwinBee. In essence, the designers implemented the complete framework for a competent vertical shooter game just for this one stage. The sheer excess of it all is a sight to behold.

Survive the shooter portion and you’re off to the final platforming stage for a climactic showdown with the alien invaders. I won’t spoil it for you here, but one bit of advice: Try to make sure that either Konami Man or Konami Lady is still alive after the final boss fight. Their flight ability may come in handy.

Konami Wai Wai World naturally sounds like a Konami fan’s dream come true. By and large, it delivers the non-stop action and fanservice it promises, although there are some regrettable design decisions that you should be aware of going in. The biggest one is the scrolling. For whatever reason, the screen in the platforming sections refuses to start moving until your character is quite close to the edge. You need to be something like 4/5ths of the way over on a given side before the scrolling kicks in. Because of this, you’re constantly encountering enemies that pop up right in your face, giving you very little time to react. Expect to eat a lot of extra damage due to this.

Echoing the later TMNT yet again, there’s also very little in the way of balance within your party. Some characters are extremely useful. Goemon’s pipe attack is swift and can strike enemies above him, King Kong’s punches hit like a speeding truck, and Simon’s whip is slow, but has great reach and his boomerang crosses can damage enemies multiple times. Poor Mikey, on the other hand, has short range on his main attack and an unremarkable sub-weapon, too. You’d never actually want to use Mikey in combat unless you were desperate and had no other choice. It’s always a pity to discover that a favorite character isn’t represented particularly well in a crossover like this.

Another major annoyance is the cost to resurrect dead characters. The price (100 bullets) is pretty manageable early on when you only have a few characters on your team. If you manage to get your party wiped out in the late game, though, you’ll find out the hard way that grinding out 400-600 bullets at a stretch drags the game to a screeching halt, since enemies only drop them in increments of five.

On the plus side, the game looks very nice. The stage backgrounds and bosses in particular are phenomenal in most cases. There are also a ton of different creative enemy designs, with each stage having its own unique assortment of baddies. The music is mostly lifted whole cloth from earlier Konami titles, but with stone cold classic tracks like Castlevania’s “Vampire Killer” and the overworld theme from Getsu Fūma Den, you’re not likely to mind all that much.

Konami Wai Wai world isn’t the most balanced game around and the shoddy scrolling and occasional bouts of forced currency grinding can try your patience at times. For old school Konami fans, though, it’s absolutely worth checking out. This is a game where Mikey Walsh can battle demons in hell and Simon Belmont can jump into the cockpit of the Vic Viper and blast off to fight aliens. I just can’t stay mad at a game like that, even if some of the more obnoxious bits do make me scratch my head and ask: Why? Why?

Vice: Project Doom (NES)

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With cool, dry wit like that, I could be an action hero!

I just got back last night from the 2017 Portland Retro Gaming Expo. It was a grand time, as always. It’s just a pity that it only comes along once a year. I even got to meet Q*Bert creator Warren Davis! I left the convention center with 21 new games in tow, including many I’ve wanted to try out for years. The current plan is to complete and review them all before PRGE 2018 rolls around. I’m off to a good start already, because I managed to complete Vice: Project Doom during the train ride back to Seattle.

Vice: Project Doom (Gun-Dec in Japan) was developed by Aicom and published by Sammy in 1991. It’s a side-scrolling science fiction action-platformer with some minor overhead driving and gallery shooting elements.

You control Detective Quinn Hart. He’s a square-jawed, hardboiled, tough-as-nails action movie cop through and through and he’s got the pithy one-liners to prove it. He even looks like Mel Gibson on the NES box cover and Bruce Willis on the Japanese one. In the actual game? Steven Seagal during his skinny years, slick black ponytail and all. Way to cover all your bases there, guys. Quinn’s task is to investigate and shut down a shadowy conspiracy by aliens posing as humans and using a front corporation to…get rich selling drugs. That’s right: It’s Steven Seagal versus alien drug dealers. There are also some side characters in the form of other cops helping Hart with his investigation, one of which is identified in the manual as his love interest Christy. You’ll have to take the manual’s word for it, though, since the game itself isn’t exactly long on romance. The plot unfolds in the form of cinematic cut scenes sandwiched between the levels and these do a serviceable enough job depicting the various twists and turns in the story, even if some of them might raise more questions than they answer. Why do these aliens want our earthling cash so badly, anyway?

At its core, Vice: Project Doom is an action platformer that owes a lot to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden and Sunsoft’s Batman. You wouldn’t know that from the opening level, though, which throws you a curve ball right out of the gate by starting you off with some overhead view driving action. It looks a bit like Spy Hunter, but plays more like a fast-paced vertical shooter in the vein of Zanac or The Guardian Legend. It’s not nearly as substantial or satisfying as those Compile classics, though. After blowing away a simple boss and watching the subsequent cut scene, Hart will leave his red Ferrari behind and set out on foot.

These side-scrolling levels are where the game hits its stride in more ways than one. Hart proves to be quite the nimble fellow. He can jump high, run at a decent clip, and even run while crouching, which is a great ability that I wish more games like this had. Being able to continue advancing forward while ducking under enemy fire really helps to minimize stop-and-go and keep the pace up.

Hart’s default attack utilizes a “laser whip” that functions as the standard sword type weapon. It lacks range, but is fast, requires no ammunition, and can even hit things above and behind you on the backswing. You’ll likely find yourself using the whip the majority of the time. Pressing select will also let you cycle through two additional weapons: A magnum revolver and hand grenades. These extend your attack range, though they have limited shots and don’t strike quite as fast as the whip. In practice, I found myself using the whip the majority of the time and saving the highly damaging grenades for tricky boss fights. The magnum proved to be surprisingly wimpy, doing no more damage than the whip and only reaching about halfway across the screen. Dirty Harry Callahan would not approve.

The stages themselves closely resemble ones from a Ninja Gaiden game, right down to the frequently gruesome backgrounds and the bizarre menagerie of enemies that occasionally detract a bit from the dark and serious tone that the rest of the game is aiming for. I mean, the first stage alone has you facing Chinese hopping vampires and pumpkin-headed ghosts that toss boomerangs. Stages are visually appealing and nicely varied, even if you’ve probably seen their like many times before. They’re also fairly challenging at times, although never overwhelmingly so. Detective Hart can absorb a lot of punishment and defeated foes will frequently drop health replenishing food and drink. Most of your deaths will likely be the result of falling (or being knocked) into bottomless pits. You have unlimited continues at your disposal, however, so even the trickiest section will yield to some trial and error before too long. Really, the best and most exciting option is to keep moving forward and powering through each stage whipping down everything in your path. There’s little need for caution or subtlety, but it’s plenty fun.

You’ll need to be a little more strategic with the bosses. As you might expect, they can do a lot more damage than the standard enemies and their health meters are just as long as Hart’s. Thankfully, each one (except for the final boss) only has a couple attacks at their disposal, so they shouldn’t be able to slap you around for too long before you pick up on their patterns. In terms of design, they’re pretty cool. The opening level’s mutant rat man that throws giant steel girders (that you can leap onto and run across) makes a strong first impression and the remainder are also quite memorable and fun to take down.

Just when you think you have Vice all figured out, it switches gears yet again and briefly becomes a first person auto-scrolling gallery style shooter reminiscent of the Taito arcade classic Operation Wolf. Enemies rush onto the screen from both sides and Hart must blast them with bullets and grenades before they can shoot or stab him. There’s no light gun support here, but your cursor handles reasonably well with the NES controller’s standard directional pad. Like the two driving levels, these two shooting stages are very short and very easy.

Aside from a few forgivable flaws, Vice: Project Doom is a very high quality action game. While the superb graphics showcase some sweet parallax scrolling effects and make great use of the NES color palette, the soundtrack is strictly mediocre. None of the tunes stand out in any way and they can even verge into droning territory at times. The story is also a bit of a mess, with stilted dialogue and an ending twist that makes less sense the more you think about it. Finally, the driving and shooting levels, while competently programmed and quite playable, aren’t nearly as fleshed-out, challenging, or stimulating as the side scrolling main game. In fact, it helps if you just think of them as short mini-games or bonus rounds that act as palate cleansers between the real stages rather than as fully-fledged extra gameplay modes.

Even without these half-baked segments, Vice still packs in a full game’s worth of tight, fast-paced action platforming and pulls it off with a deliciously doofy ’90s cyberpunk cop flourish. It’s too bad that it had the misfortune of being an 8-bit game released around the same time as the 16-bit Super Nintendo, and by a second string publisher to boot. It may not have set the gaming world on fire, but it’s never too late to say no to drugs by smacking the hell out of some no good space aliens with a laser whip. You have the right to remain exploded, punk.