Final Mission (Famicom)

This lousy game may have kicked my ass eight ways from Sunday, but that is still one stunning end screen.

I was pouring through the vendor booths at last June’s Seattle Retro Gaming Expo when I came across a boxed copy of Natsume’s 1990 Famicom shooter Final Mission being sold by none other than local convention mainstay and YouTube personality John Riggs. Looking at the screenshots on the back of the box, I recognized it right away as none other than S.C.A.T.: Special Cybernetic Attack Team! I remembered quite enjoying this one back around the time of its 1991 North American NES release and the price was right indeed, so I happily snatched it up. I thought I was setting myself up for a pleasant stroll down memory lane. Alas, what I actually received was a swift kick to the gaming gonads.

And yes, they actually called this one S.C.A.T. over here for some reason. As in animal feces. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall at that localization meeting. They must have known how childishly absurd this title was, since the 1992 PAL release went by Action in New York.

Final Mission is essentially Natsume’s take on the “flying man” side-scrolling shooters that Capcom popularized over the late ’80s with their loose trilogy of Section Z, Side Arms, and Forgotten Worlds. Instead of controlling a spaceship or other vehicle that always faces (and shoots) in the fixed direction it’s travelling, players assume the role of an airborne commando with a rifle that can also turn around and fire backward as needed. The arcade version of Forgotten Worlds went so far as to incorporate a rotary dial control that added full 360 degree aiming to the mix. This sort of functionality is out of the question on the Famicom, of course, but Natsume did equip the heroes of Final Mission with a pair of orbiting satellite guns that can be locked into position as needed, allowing for a similar degree of versatility at the expense of a little added complexity.

The story centers on…wait for it…evil aliens attacking the Earth and two super soldier types named Sergei and Frederick being the only dudes bad enough to strap on rocket packs and take the fight to the enemy. Being a straightforward shooter, the plot wasn’t anywhere near top priority here, although the cut scenes supporting it are home to by far the best graphics the game has to offer. Seeing the aliens obliterate New York City Independence Day style in the opening is as spectacular as it is discomforting in hindsight. On a lighter note, the heroes in S.C.A.T. were changed to Arnold and Sigourney, complete with new character portraits clearly modeled on their Hollywood inspirations. How I pine for the days when video games were still considered silly children’s toys and were small enough potatoes that designers could conceivably get away with this sort of thing. Remember when Spiderman, Batman, and Godzilla all made unauthorized cameos in Revenge of Shinobi? Good times.

Not that it really matters, I thought. I came here for that familiar action. Diving in, however, I quickly discovered that Final Mission is not the same breezy thrill ride that S.C.A.T. is. No, this original iteration of the game is a brutal taskmaster packing more than twice the challenge factor of its non-Japanese counterparts. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult Famicom or NES games I’ve ever played! Your characters start out with a mere three units of health, half as much as in S.C.A.T., and the health restoring power-ups that appeared in each one of S.C.A.T.’s stages don’t exist anywhere in this version. Final Mission’s protagonists suffer on the offensive front, too. All weapons seem to deal less damage and taking even a single hit will cause you to lose any equipped special weapon and be downgraded to the pathetic default pea-shooter. Oh, and I hope you have strong thumbs because only one special weapon (the laser) has any kind of auto-fire capability in Final Mission, whereas all guns benefited from this kindness in S.C.A.T. With each of the game’s five levels being exceptionally long by genre standards and lacking any sort of checkpoints, scraping through one under these conditions always feels like a miracle. At least you have unlimited continues that start you back at the beginning of the current stage. Final Mission would verge on being legitimately unplayable without them.

Still, I’ve made it through a lot of shooters over the past couple years, including some fairly challenging ones. So what if Final Mission wasn’t the low-pressure nostalgia trip I was hoping for? Fair enough. I was still hanging in there and enjoying it alright for the ultra-hardcore experience it is. Until level four, that is, when any goodwill it had built up with me was abruptly and irreparably dashed. Never in all my years has a single horrible stage so completely soured me on a game. Most of this level consists of a lengthy trip up the aliens’ space elevator on the way to the climactic assault on their orbiting home base. What this means for the player is around four solid minutes of being swarmed from all sides in front of a very busy, very fast-scrolling background. Throughout this ordeal there’s frequently so many enemies and obstacles filling the screen at once that heavy sprite flicker kicks in, hiding some hazardous projectiles from view completely and combining with the rushing background to form a hellish vortex of headache-inducing visual chaos. I mean it, too. My head was throbbing after just a few minutes of staring at this mess and that agony, combined with the hardware-pushing glitchiness of it all, kept me stuck here for the better part of two hours losing countless lives and power-ups to barely visible bullets. By the time I finally clawed my way to the top and overcame the level’s marathon three phase boss battle, I had long since resolved to never touch Final Mission again. The design of this stage is so bad it borders on the abusive and I would have quit long before actually seeing it through if being a stubborn bastard didn’t have its drawbacks. In case you were wondering, this same level does exist in S.C.A.T., but with extra health, more powerful weapons, and fewer enemies to contend with, the player is much more likely to make it through either on or not long after their first try.

The fifth and final level mercifully backs off on the eye-straining visuals and veers back into saner territory. It remains utterly savage, of course, just not for all the wrong reasons. By that point, however, it was far too late to win me back. I genuinely wanted to like Final Mission. It looks good, the heavy rock and funk-infused score is Contra composer Kiyohiro Sada’s personal favorite out of all his works, and most levels feature a nice mix of vertical and horizontal scrolling sections with seamless transitions between the two. It even allows for two-player simultaneous play. If it wasn’t for that one intolerable elevator stage, it would be an easy recommendation to experienced shooter fans looking to test their limits on the Famicom. As it stands, though, S.C.A.T. is where it’s at.

Just don’t quote me on that out-of-context. Please.

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Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Take that, stupid purple guy!

Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“Darkness Worker Shadow”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.

Right off the bat, one thing that Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.

You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished that you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.

Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.

Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.

Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move that damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.

The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to re-spawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t re-spawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.

There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. That’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint is that several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last boss in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point that I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out that 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.

With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought that Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.

The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers that NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.

Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity that it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Power Blade (NES)

You’re totes welcome, bruh.

Now this is more like it! After the numbing grind of Dragon Warrior, I was craving some classic side-scrolling action. Power Blade did not disappoint.

It easily could have. The original build of the game, titled Power Blazer, was developed by Natsume and published for the Famicom by Taito in 1990. The game starred a dumpy little fellow named Steve Treiber. Armed only with a boomerang and a permanent scowl, Steve’s mission was to shut down the Brain Master, a supercomputer in charge of running everything on 22nd century earth that has, of course, turned rogue. With its robots run amok scenario, stage select feature, and even Steve’s bright blue helmet, Power Blazer reveals itself as a shameless Mega Man cash-in. Only without the lovable protagonist. Or all the cool weapons to collect. Or the brilliant level design. In fact, the only thing in all of Power Blazer actually worthy of its inspiration is the kickass musical score by Kinuyo Yamashita, who’s best known to NES fans for her work on the original Castlevania under the alias James Banana.

All considered, it’s amazing that anyone at Taito was even considering Power Blazer for localization. At least one person saw some potential in it, however: A former Nintendo employee at Taito’s U.S. branch named Randy Studdard, best known to gamers at the time as the author of the Captain Nintendo stories that appeared in several early issues of Nintendo Power magazine and went on to inspire the well (if not always fondly) remembered cartoon series Captain N: The Game Master. He took it upon himself to effectively redesign Power Blazer from the ground up in order to create Power Blade. The NES version released in 1991 has new stages, new gameplay objectives, and a new hero, Nova, that’s much more than just a simple sprite swap. The end result of all these changes is a vastly superior release that’s as much Randy Studdard’s as it is Natsume’s. Power Blade wasn’t just altered by the localization process, it was saved by it.

Of course, the most famous bit of Power Blade trivia involves its cover art. Artist Michael Winterbauer was contacted by lawyers representing none other than Arnold Schwartzenegger, who believed that their client’s likeness had been illegally appropriated for the portrait of Nova that appears on the box and cartridge label. Fortunately, Winterbauer was able to provide reference photos proving that he had used himself as a model instead. I was also surprised to learn the origin of the name Nova. According to Randy Studdard, he named the character after his brother! Somewhere out there in the real world there’s a dude named Nova Studdard that lent his name to a boomerang tossing Nintendo hero. That’s pretty dang great.

Power Blade retains Power Blazer’s basic “shut down the rampaging computer” plotline, but adds another sci-fi cliché to the mix: Aliens, who hijacked said computer in an effort to conquer humanity. In the year 2191, only one man has what it takes to fight his way through six different enemy-occupied sectors and recover the data tapes necessary to access the Master Computer Control Center and put an end to the alien menace. That man is Nova. He’s sporting a flattop, shades indoors, and muscles for miles. Also, the most hilarious fist-pumping running animation ever, which I adore, even if it does undercut his icy action hero image a little. Nova’s weapon is the boomerang. Why on earth would you want to fight off an army of killer robots with a boomerang? According to the manual, no other weapons exist “because war has been abolished.” Hmm. Interesting choice of a holdover. Maybe old-school kangaroo hunting is big in the future?

Fortunately, Nova’s boomerang is more than a match for the challenges ahead. He can fire in eight directions, similar to the heroes in Contra. This represents a major upgrade over Steve from Power Blazer, who was limited to just left and right. There is one limitation to bear in mind, though: The power bar. This empties each time you shoot and automatically refills when you lay off the button for a second. Since the boomerang will only be able to travel its maximum distance if the power meter is full, tapping the fire button as fast as you can is only effective against point-blank targets. This creates an interesting dynamic where the further away you want to engage your enemies from, the longer you’ll have to wait between shots. What’s more important to you: Safety or damage output?

There are also several power-ups to enhance the boomerang’s damage, maximum range, and fire rate. The coolest of these by far is the metal suit that allows Nova to survive three extra hits and transforms his boomerang into the titular Power Blade: A deadly energy blast that can shoot through walls. The metal suit will disappear once those three extra hits have been sustained, but it’s a big help (not to mention a lot of fun) while it lasts.

The first six stages of Power Blade can be completed in any order. The goal of each is to locate a friendly agent that will provide Nova with the key needed to access the boss’ room, then actually find and defeat that boss, all before time runs out. The friendly agents and their keys are yet another new addition not present in the more straightforward Power Blazer. The redesigned stage layouts themselves feature a number of branching paths intended to facilitate this exploration aspect of the game. Anyone wary of getting lost can rest assured that none of the areas in Power Blade are anywhere near as complicated as Metroid or the like. Rather, there are just enough side passages to intrigue players and reward their curiosity with some extra power-ups without turning navigation into a chore or forcing use of a map. It’s a tricky balancing act that Power Blade pulls off admirably.

There you have it. Complete all six sectors and you’re off to kick alien ass in the final stage, which isn’t really much more challenging than the ones before it. Which brings me to my one major disappointment with Power Blade: The lack of difficulty. Of course, not every game needs to be a major struggle to beat. It’s a big world out there. There’s a place for easy titles just as there’s one for soul-crushingly punishing ones. Power Blade may have taken this a step too far, though, and again it all comes back to that redesign during localization. Nova was given a fancy new metal suit power-up and the ability to fire boomerangs in any direction, but he’s still up against the same old enemies from Power Blazer that were created to challenge the much wimpier Steve Treiber character. Nova’s foes literally aren’t designed to be a match for him and it shows. Unless you’re a complete newcomer to the genre, I’d recommend at least playing on the Expert setting. This shortens your time limits and adds a knockback effect to enemy attacks. Nova’s still a total beast, but it’s better than nothing.

Power Blade isn’t the most original game by any means. It mostly just does a lot of the same things that earlier NES action platformers did. Don’t mistake that as a condemnation, however. While it may not be novel in the least, it is as rock solid as our boy Nova’s pecs. Even if none of the individual elements represented here are “best in class,” all are above average for the system. The graphics are bright and colorful, the soundtrack is packed with epic earworms (we have a Castlevania alum to thank for it, after all), the control is tight and responsive, and the level design is well thought out. Sure, Power Blade will feel uncannily familiar if you come to it after playing all the more famous NES classics first, but I’d argue that’s actually a good thing given the game’s high level of polish overall. This is 8-bit comfort food, pure and simple.

Like a boomerang, I’ll be coming back.

Shatterhand (NES)

I came; I saw; I shattered.

Now that the (thoroughly disappointing) Adventures of Bayou Billy have come to an end, it’s time for me to treat myself a little. I’ve earned it. Luckily, I have something special I’ve been saving for just such an occasion.

I have fond memories of Natsume’s 1991 action platformer Shatterhand. I was one of the relatively few who played it back around the time of its release and it impressed me enough back then that I just had to grab a copy when I spotted it at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo last month.

Shatterhand started out as Tokkyū Shirei Soruburein (“Super Rescue Solbrain”) in Japan. This was a licensed game based on an action tv series of the same name that centered on masked sci-fi superheroes fighting crime. Power Rangers type stuff, basically. Since the game came out several years before Power Rangers mania swept the West, however, there was no way that publisher Jaleco was going to stick with the Solbrain characters for the international release.

Instead, Shatterhand is the story of Steve Hermann. A decorated cop from the Bronx in the not-so-distant future of 2030, Steve loses both his hands in a violent clash with cyborg terrorists working for the nefarious organization Metal Command. While recuperating in the hospital, Steve is approached by a representative of the top secret government agency L.O.R.D. (Law and Order Regulatory Division) and offered a brand new pair of cybernetic hands, the strongest in the world, in exchange for his help taking down Metal Command and its leader, General Gus Grover. Steve naturally agrees and is given the codename Shatterhand to protect his identity as he sets off to save the world with his bare hands.

Wow. That whole spiel is so early ’90s direct-to-video action movie that I can practically see the weathered VHS cover in my mind’s eye. Steve even sports a lime green vest and some sweet wraparound shades in-game. The whole package is like a little pop culture time capsule and I absolutely love that sort of thing.

As for the game itself: You punch all the things and all the things explode.

You want more? Oh, fine. There are a total of seven stages in Shatterhand. The first is a basic introductory level where you’re encouraged to experiment with the controls and get accustomed to the general feel of the game. After that, you’re taken to a level select screen where you can play through the next five stages in any order you like before the final confrontation with General Grover in stage seven.

Steve has all the standard NES action game moves. He can run, jump, crouch, and deal out rapid fire punches both on the ground and while airborne. The way the punching is handled is quite slick, actually. Tapping the attack button will produce three quick jabs, perfect for dispatching weak enemies, before Steve will automatically switch over to throwing haymakers that are a bit slower, but deal twice the damage and are better suited to taking down anything still standing after the initial jab flurry. It’s a great way to elegantly map both attacks to a single button without the need for directional inputs or the like. Oh, and you can punch enemy bullets and missiles right out of the air harmlessly if your timing is good enough. Rad.

In addition, Steve has the ability to cling to the chain link fences that appear in the backgrounds of most levels and use them to boost himself up to higher platforms or as perches from which to attack hard-to-reach enemies. Get used to taking advantage of this because it’s Shatterhand’s take on the “special movement ability” that most every platformer has, similar to the Ninja Gaiden wall grab or the DuckTales pogo jump, and you’ll be expected to scale fences under increasingly precarious conditions as the game progresses.

As it is, this setup doesn’t sound bad, but it doesn’t sound particularly amazing, either. Until you consider the satellite robot system, that is. Scattered throughout each level are icons with Greek alpha and beta letters on them. Collecting three of these will summon a flying robot companion that will fight at Steve’s side by mirroring each of his attacks with one of its own. These guys can be damaged by enemy attacks and eventually destroyed, but they can potentially stick around for quite a while if you manage their movements and attacks skillfully. Each of the eight possible letter combinations will result in a different robot. For example, the alpha/alpha/beta bot fires a poweful laser beam while the beta/beta/alpha one has a built-in flamethrower. Other helpers bring swords, boomerangs, grenades, and more to the party. What’s more, collecting the same combination of letters again while your first bot is still active will cause Steve and his satellite helper to merge temporarily, granting Steve invincibility and superpowered fireball punch attacks until a timer runs out. If you can manage to transform right before you reach a stage’s boss, you can usually wreck your hapless opponent in seconds flat.

This power-up system is really what secures Shatterhand’s place as a top ten NES action game for me. The variety it presents to the player is deep without ever becoming overwhelming. You can stick to a single favorite companion for the whole game, try to determine which of the eight is best-suited for each of the stage layouts, or even opt for a hardcore no bot run with just your fists. The choice is yours.

Shatterhand has a pitch-perfect “Goldilocks” level of difficulty coupled with a managable length. This combination lends the game a superb sense of flow that drives the player forward at all times. Steve can withstand eight hits before losing a life, which is enough to encourage a bit of risk taking without allowing the player to slack off completely and cruise along on auto-pilot. Each level features its own unique environments and hazards and is just long enough to provide a decent challenge without wearing out its welcome. Losing all your lives will send you back to the start of a level, but continues are unlimited.

I really can’t heap enough praise on this one. It has the crisp, detailed graphics and advanced sound design you’d expect from a late period release, solid level design, pinpoint accurate controls, a brillant power-up system, and a way cool (if also way dated) premise and hero. If Shatterhand has one major flaw, it’s that you’ll likely find yourself wishing there was a lot more of it to appreciate. It didn’t garner the attention it deserved at the time of its release due to most Nintendo fans being hypnotized by their shiny new Super Mario Worlds and F-Zeros, but its appearances on countless “NES hidden gem” lists in the years since have at least given it a new lease on life here in the far-flung, killer cyborg ravaged 21st century.

Abadox: The Deadly Inner War (NES)

Another day, another big explosion to fly away from.

This time, it’s courtesy of Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. It may not be a horror game, but at least it’s still really gross. This 1989 shooter comes to us from developer Natsume (before they struck gold with their Harvest Moon series of cutesy farming simulators) and publisher Milton Bradley.

Though mainly remembered today for its classic board games, defunct toy giant Milton Bradley played an interesting bit part in early video game history. Most notably, they released the Microvision in 1979. A full decade before the Game Boy, this black-and-white handheld system was the first of its class to play games on interchangeable cartridges. It did not sell well.

But I digress. Abadox has a bit of a mixed reputation among NES fans, mostly due to being seen as a blatant clone of Konami’s excellent Life Force. If you think I’m here now to defend it from these unjust charges, you’re way off. In fact, Abadox mirrors Life Force pretty shamelessly. Flying into a colossal planet-eating alien to save the galaxy? Check. Six stages that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling? Check. Climactic escape sequence after defeating the last boss where you have to weave between gaps in the walls at high speed? Check yet again. Even some of the background elements like the giant teeth that jut out of the walls at you in the first stage are lifted straight from Life Force.

While there isn’t a lot about Abadox that’s original, it does have its strengths. The core shooting mechanics are solid and the positively disgusting enemy designs and detailed sprites and backgrounds do a much better job actually conveying the premise of flying through the innards of a giant alien than Life Force’s ever did.

Here’s the setup: the year is 5012 and the planet of Abadox has just been attacked and devoured by an alien menace known as Parasitis. The Abadox space fleet mounts an attack on Parasitis, but is wiped out. The sole survivor is Second Lieutenant Nazal, who was late to the battle thanks to spaceship engine trouble. To save the galaxy and avenge his fallen comrades, Nazal must don his armored spacesuit and attempt to fly inside Parasitis and destroy it from the inside. Oh, and also Princess Maria of Abadox was on board a hospital ship swallowed by the alien, so you need to rescue her, too. Thank goodness! I was running pretty low on motivation with that saving the universe and avenging the loss of my entire home planet angle, but now that there’s a total space babe involved, sign me up!

The game opens on the surface of Parasitis and you even fly by the gore-soaked wreckage of your defeated space fleet on the background. On the way through this stage, you’ll pass by teeth and a creepy animated tongue with deadly drool dripping onto it before reaching level two: The throat. This is the first of the vertical scrolling stages, but unlike in almost every other overhead shooter ever made, Abadox starts you off at the top of the screen and has you proceeding downward. While it’s handled well and reinforces the “diving into the belly of the beast” scenario, this downward progression is unfortunately the only unique twist to the gameplay found here.

The rest of the action consists of bog standard 8-bit shooter stuff. You start out slow and almost defenseless, with a puny “pea shooter” gun. Certain enemies will drop power-ups when defeated. These include speed boosts, weapon upgrades, rotating satellites that surround you and block enemy attacks, and a shield that lets you survive contact with a bullet or two. One touch from an enemy or wall will blow you up, which strips away all your power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint immediately after the last boss you defeated. Thankfully, each stage has a mid-boss halfway through that doubles as a checkpoint. Once you beat it, you won’t get sent back all the way to the start of the level upon death. You’ve probably seen all this before. It’s Gradius 101.

Unlike a lot of shooters for the system, Abadox does provide unlimited continues, so you’ll never have to start over from the beginning of the game when you die unless you choose to. This makes it a good choice for those that really hate forced restarts, although it does come at a price: Some of the stage layouts and enemy placement can be claustrophobic and chaotic to a downright fiendish degree. If you thought building your strength back up after being sent back to a checkpoint in Gradius was hard, Abadox takes it to a whole other level. The game does technically give you the power-ups necessary to squeak by in these cases, but much memorization and messy trial and error will be needed to figure out the ideal path.

At least the end level bosses are all pretty easy once you do finally reach them. They tend to be stationary and fire only in fixed patterns that leave obvious safe spots in which you can park yourself while you blaze away at them. At least they look really icky and cool, just like the rest of the game. Ironically, the mid-bosses are much more fun and challenging to fight. They move around a lot more and their shots often track your position, forcing you to do the same.

Ultimately, Abadox is no classic. It brings all the typical space shooter stuff to the table and handles it adaquately, but the balancing could use some work. The unlimited lives thing seems more like a workaround than anything else, intended to cover for a lack of experience planning out stages and enemy patterns in a harmonious fashion. Even with limited credits, a well-balanced shooter is just more fun because you don’t need to get yourself blown up dozens of times before you figure out exactly how to limp to the next checkpoint. Abadox also suffers from some technical hiccups. There’s slowdown at times, which is to be expected, but the sprite flicker is more problematic. I was occasionally blown up for no apparent reason because the screen was so crowded with sprites that an enemy bullet glitched out and went invisible. That’s always a bummer.

The game’s real saving grace is its spectacularly grotesque pixel art. Strictly speaking, this might be the goriest game for the NES and it’s all very well drawn. The fact that all the blood and guts belong to killer aliens and not any human characters is probably the only thing that got it past Nintendo of America’s notoriously strict content guidelines. The music (by Kiyohiro Sada of Contra fame) is also praiseworthy, but only to the degree that it’s present. Abadox’s soundtrack is extremely short for a 1989 release and three of the game’s six stages share the same background music.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly out of a space monster’s colon with a princess in tow…well, you’re one freaky individual. I guess you could try Abadox, though.

Ninja Gaiden Shadow (Game Boy)

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Never piss off a ninja, chump.

Just got done playing through Ninja Gaiden Shadow on my lunch break. This one was developed by Natsume as a Game Boy follow-up to their decent NES title Shadow of the Ninja, but Tecmo bought the publishing rights at the last minute and released it under the Ninja Gaiden name in 1991 instead. Anyone who’s played Shadow of the Ninja will note the similarities here, as your character uses a grappling hook to hang from ceilings as he did in that game instead of clinging to and jumping off of walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden is better known for.

The cut-and-paste nature of the switch is also made apparent through the lack of another Ninja Gaiden staple: Plot twists and cinematic cut scenes during play. All you get is a brief pre-game intro stating an evil dude in a cape (named Emperor Garuda) is wreaking havoc and Ryu the ninja needs to stop him. That’s it.

Thankfully, the action is pretty good. Ryu can run, jump, duck, slash with his sword, use his grappling hook to latch onto the underside of certain platforms, and fire off a limited-use diagonal fire attack. The fire attack is the only secondary weapon you can employ in this game, unfortunately. Due to the motion blur that obscured fast moving objects on the original Game Boy’s screen, moving and attacking is much slower here than in any of the main series games and you will sometimes feel like you’re playing underwater Ninja Gaiden. That said, the control is solid and the stage layouts are pretty nice, incorporating both horizontal and vertical scrolling and sporting a few nifty set pieces like dark areas and a sequence where you must outrun a rising tide of lava.

Graphics look good for the system, with some nicely-drawn backgrounds and sprites. The sprites are a decent size without falling into the common Game Boy trap of being too large to allow for a decent field of view around your character. The music is fantastic and perhaps the best aspect of the game’s presentation overall. There are several remixes of classic Ninja Gaiden tracks and they sound excellent on the Game Boy. In fact, they ironically sound much better than the godawful versions Tecmo blighted the world’s ears with in Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for Super Nintendo. Ugh.

There are only five levels and five bosses in the game and the difficulty is very forgiving due to the combination of short levels, unlimited continues, and the relatively small number of enemies and tricky jumps when compared to the NES titles. Even players relatively unskilled at action platformers will probably be able to complete this one in an hour or less. Replay value is minimal. If I had purchased the game for full price back in the day, I might have been a bit disappointed at this, but if you can pick it up for significantly less today, it’s not a bad time killer on a bus commute, plane ride, or the like. Just don’t expect it to play like the NES Ninja Gaiden titles or add anything to the greater storyline of the series.

Ninja vanish! *poof*