Keith Courage in Alpha Zones (TurboGrafx-16)

Ah, Keith Courage. There’s likely no more despised whipping boy in all of classic gaming than this nondescript sword wielding pre-teen. Bubsy the Bobcat, perennial punchline that he is, still hasn’t been the target of as much heartfelt vitriol over the past three decades. Why is that? At first glance, the original PC Engine version of Keith’s one and only adventure, 1988’s Mashin Eiyūden Wataru (“Spirit Hero Wataru”), is that most ubiquitous of things: A mediocre anime-based platformer from a C-list developer. Japanese gamers were practically downing in quickie contract works like this during the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were the equivalent of the ever-present Hollywood movie cash-in games that littered my own childhood. Pretty worthless for the most part, sure, but nothing worth holding a grudge over.

That’s how it was in Japan and would have been here, too, if it hadn’t been for one fateful decision by NEC, the electronics giant that co-created the PC Engine itself in conjunction with Hudson Soft. In early 1989, they were gearing up for the system’s big summer launch in North America as the TurboGrafx-16. It must have been clear to everyone involved that they had their work cut out for them. Sega was on track to roll out their 16-bit Genesis the very same month. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s NES still maintained its iron grip on the hearts and minds of America’s children. NEC needed to pair their new machine with a true killer app in order to have any real chance of breaking through. I’m talking a stone cold instant classic. A Mario slayer. What they ultimately bet the farm on was our boy Keith. Yikes. It’s like the NES had shipped with Karate Kid or Total Recall.

Yes, most gamers who picked up a TurboGrafx-16 during the first two thirds of its three year run were introduced to their expensive next gen console by an utterly unremarkable throwaway title by Advance Communication Company of all people. Not the arcade quality spaceship shooting of Compile’s Blazing Lazers. Not the four-player fantasy epic that was Atlus’ Dungeon Explorer. Not even Hudson’s own established mascot Bomberman. When the system predictably failed to take off, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones was condemned to go down in history as not just a bad game, but the game so bad it sank the TurboGrafx. Say what you will about Bubsy, at least he never had the weight of an entire gaming platform’s future resting on his furry shoulders.

That’s the boilerplate version of the tale, anyway. Now for the fun part! Is this really so wretched a game? Did it bury the machine it was bundled with? And before we can tackle those big questions, just who is Keith Courage and what the hell is an Alpha Zone?

Well, the instruction manual informs me that Keith Courage is an agent of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens for Earth) and he’s out to save the world from B.A.D. (Beastly Alien Dudes), the invading force of evil aliens that killed his scientist dad. Ugh. Could the middle-aged marketing geniuses behind this localization have possibly been further off the mark with this dreck? Kids in the ’80 were into awesome heroes like the Masters of the Universe and the Thundercats fighting against the likes of the Decepticons and Cobra. N.I.C.E. and B.A.D. would have come off as corny and patronizing to a first grader. The buff, lantern-jawed adult version of Keith created for the manual and cover is equally laughable when you consider that he’s still represented in-game by the same exact sprite of nine year-old Wataru. In fact, nothing about the whimsical cartoon fantasy world of Mashin Eiyūden Wataru was altered to fit the new story and character designs given in the manual. Yeah, I totally buy that this goofy smirking kid is a badass warrior on a mission to avenge his slain father.

As for the Alpha Zones, that’s just what the manual calls the game’s seven side-scrolling stages. While nominally distinguished by simple themes (Fire Zone, Glacier Zone, etc), these all play very similarly in that each one is split up into two distinct halves. First comes a rather drab and empty Overworld area, where an achingly slow-moving Keith marches from left to right and swats puny basic enemies to earn the money needed to purchase power-ups in shops. You then transition to an Underworld section that sees Keith hopping into a giant robot called the Nova Suit for a spate of faster-paced, more challenging combat that culminates in a boss fight.

In other words, what we have here is a much hated platformer from Advance Communication Company that alternates between two jarringly different gameplay modes. One is slow and boring while the other focuses on constant combat against trippy monsters. Oh, and it features music by Michiharu Hasuya. Hmm. Maybe they should have just gone all the way and called this one Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Courage.

Okay, okay, so maybe that’s not entirely fair. The similarities between Keith Courage and ACC’s infamous NES stinker are interesting for sure (the two were released a mere four months apart), but the former is admittedly much less of a confusing mess overall. Keith Courage presents a more traditional action gaming experience and benefits from a far greater share of nostalgic defenders willing to stand up and declare it an underrated gem. That said, both halves of the game are still plagued by some egregious design flaws in my eyes.

The Overworld areas are devoid of anything resembling thrills or challenge and seem to exist exclusively to lengthen the play time through cash grinding. Adding insult to that injury, the shops themselves aren’t exactly filled with exciting gear. The sword upgrades for the Nova Suit are a must for sure. Apart from them, the only other items on offer are limited use projectile weapons called Bolt Bombs and these are largely underwhelming. You’ll quickly learn not to waste your money on them. Playing as Keith here may not be anywhere near as frustrating as navigating the streets and parks of Henry Jekyll’s London, but it’s just as tedious in its own special way.

The Underworld is a bit better than that, at least. The Nova Suit can run fast and jump high, while the enemies you face off against are a lot bigger and showcase some pretty outlandish designs at times. You’ve gotta love the dudes that are giant revolvers with faces or the Frankenstein monster heads with no bodies, just limbs sprouting directly out of their humongous craniums. Once the novelty of these critters and the initial exhilaration of simply being able to move around at an acceptable speed wears off, however, it’ll dawn on you that these Underworld areas repeat themselves quite a bit. You get the same couple of alternating music tracks, the same background tiles (recolored occasionally, at least), and the same baddies and insta-death spike hazards over and over. Leaps of faith are also a regular annoyance, since Keith is tasked with making his way downward to the boss waiting at the lowest point of each level. You’ll frequently have to cross your fingers and hope there’s not a bed of spikes lurking just out of view as you drop from a ledge. Your chances are about 50/50 in my experience. Hooray for unlimited continues, I guess.

The mushy cherry atop this failure sundae is the lackluster presentation. Keith Courage’s Overworld graphics are closer to an NES game’s than what Sega brought to the table in their own debut Genesis pack-in, Altered Beast, and the Underworld’s are no great shakes, either, with their overreliance on recycled assets and plain black backgrounds. At least the music’s alright. Not exceptional in any way, mind you, merely competent.

Having now laid out all the evidence, is Keith Courage in Alpha Zones truly a bad game? Yes. Yes, it is. I wouldn’t single it out as excruciatingly awful or anything like that. It’s not even close to being the worst thing I’ve played on my PC Engine in the past year. I’d rather run through Keith Courage another ten times over than touch War of the Dead again, for example. Even so, there’s nothing about it I can actively recommend over the dozens, if not hundreds of more polished and exciting 16-bit action-platformers. The localization is absurd, the pace drags, the combat is shallow, the level design is barely there, and it can’t even bring the eye candy. Keep in mind that all this is coming the guy who did end up recommending Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde to fans of crazy experimental fare.

Did Keith single-handedly throttle the nascent TurboGrafx-16 in its crib, though? Hardly. NEC’s management missteps were legion throughout the life of the system. They failed to beat Sega to market, refused to bring over many of the PC Engine’s best releases, hesitated to match their competitors’ marketing budgets…the list goes on. They were consistently their own worst enemies and that extended far beyond the choice of a resoundingly weak pack-in game.

So leave poor Keith alone. He didn’t kill your favorite console. He’s not a bad boy, really, just a touch slow.

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Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16)

Bang your head!

By the tail end of the ’80s, console gaming was all about the mascots. Super Mario games were the single richest goldmine the industry had stumbled on to date, with three of the top five best-selling games of the decade being Mario titles. Hell, if you remove Duck Hunt from consideration on the basis that it owes the majority of its popularity to having been bundled with the first Super Mario Bros., fully 80% of that top five list is taken up by Nintendo’s mustachioed Mickey Mouse of gaming. Hudson Soft and NEC, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the Japanese market, wanted in. Their search for a profitably appealing face for their PC Engine system eventually led to them partnering with developers Red Company and Atlus to release the first PC Genjin game in 1989.

The name they picked for their new big-headed caveman character was actually quite clever. “Genjin” means something along the lines of “primitive man” and the “PC” supposedly stood for his fictitious species name: “Pithecanthropus Computerus.” It’s mostly meant to serve as a not-so-subtle plug for the console itself, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Here in North America, where the PC Engine is called the TurboGrafx-16, all this wordplay would have been lost in translation, so we instead know the character as Bonk and his debut outing as Bonk’s Adventure.

Why a caveman? Beats me, but while it may seem like a strange choice in isolation, the gaming scene was actually teeming with troglodytes around this time. In addition to the many licensed Flintstones games, we had Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, Big Nose the Caveman, Congo’s Caper, Caveman Games, Prehistorik, Adventures of Dino Riki, Toki, and more. Next time you think of a stereotypical old school video game hero, remember that club-swinging dudes draped in animal skins were almost as common as ninja and Rambo clones. It was just one of those things.

As expected, Bonk’s Adventure is a side-view platformer in the Mario mold. They’re not subtle about it, either: Bonk is out to rescue a princess named Za from the hulking reptilian monarch, King Drool. At least the princess here is some kind of plesiosaur-like dragon creature and not a buxom blond lady. I guess I can award partial credit for that. The game consists of five rounds and each round is further sub-divided into anywhere between one and seven distinct levels, making for a grand total of 22 stages. While the majority of these only require Bonk to survive a gauntlet of enemies and environmental hazards in order to reach the exit, each full round concludes with a memorable battle against a large boss character.

Fittingly, Bonk’s major contribution to the platforming genre is the way he uses his oversized Charlie Brown noggin to smash through every obstacle in his path. Simply jumping onto enemies like Mario or Sonic do will only result in Bonk himself taking damage. The preferred method is to either jump up into foes from below, nail them with a standing head butt when grounded, or press the attack button in mid-air to perform a headlong diving attack. The dive attack is my favorite of the three because each successful hit will automatically propel Bonk back up into the air, allowing accurate players to chain together a series of consecutive strikes without needing to touch ground in-between. It’s very satisfying and makes many of the boss encounters much easier. Beyond just bashing hostile critters, Bonk can also use his freak dome to aid in stage traversal. He scales walls by using his huge teeth of all things, which makes mine hurt just thinking about it. Additionally, tapping the attack button repeatedly while airborne will make Bonk spin, slowing his descent and effectively allowing him to glide right over long stretches of hostile territory. This last ability is just as useful as it sounds, possibly too much so. The option to skip huge sections of many levels in this way can really hobble the game’s challenge if you let it, similar to the cape power-up from Super Mario World.

Speaking of power-ups, the offerings here are pretty slim, which is one of the game’s few significant missteps. Bonk can find fruit and hearts to restore lost health, but meat is the only item that really changes up the gameplay. Chowing down on a hunk of tasty meat will boost the power of Bonk’s dive attack, allowing it to stun any nearby enemies when his head impacts the ground. Eating a second piece (or a single giant piece) will render Bonk invincible and able to charge straight through the opposition. The bad news here is that all abilities derived from meat consumption are temporary. There are no persistent power-ups present in the game other than the occasional health bar extension. This feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gaining new abilities in a game like this feels rewarding and the player’s innate desire to hold onto them for as long as possible encourages skillful play in a very elegant, natural way.

My final gripe with Bonk’s Adventure involves the lack of a run feature. With the way efficient movement in so many post-Super Mario platformers is predicated on managing your character’s momentum from moment to moment, this is the sort of thing that you don’t really appreciate until it’s gone. Here, the fact that Bonk is limited to a leisurely walk when traveling along the ground only serves as more incentive to abuse the glide ability in hopes of reaching the level exit just a little more quickly. I eventually got used to the fact that I couldn’t run, but it never stopped feeling like I should be able to.

Although its sequels would provide much in the way of expansion and fine-tuning, Bonk’s Adventure is still an excellent platformer in its own right. The action is as fun as it is unique and the TG-16’s famously colorful graphics allowed the artists to bring their hyperactive cartoon take on prehistory to life in grand style. The level design both rewards player curiosity with its abundance of hidden bonus rooms and makes use of some truly unique settings and scenarios. Midway through the first round, for example, Bonk gets swallowed by a humongous dinosaur and has to navigate its innards by swimming through the beast’s stomach bile and avoiding its surly (but oddly cute) intestinal parasites. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. At the same time, the game is also a case study in how to handle a mascot launch right. Bonk himself is as likable as his creators were banking on. It should come as no surprise that he would go on to star in multiple direct Bonk’s Adventure follow-ups and a shooter spin-off series (Air Zonk) on the TurboGrafx as well as cross over to the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Amiga.

Unfortunately, Hudson Soft is no more and NEC has long since exited the gaming sphere. This leaves Bonk in limbo. He hasn’t starred in a new game since 1995, unless you count the horrid looking 2006 mobile phone release Bonk’s Return, which, frankly, you shouldn’t. It remains to be seen if Konami (who owns the rights to the Hudson back catalog at the time of this writing) will ever see fit to resurrect everyone’s favorite headbanging hominid hero.

Here’s hoping you really can’t keep a good (cave)man down.

Ninja Spirit (TurboGrafx-16)

Ninja ghost wolves running through an acid trip. That’s one way to end your game, alright.

Time for a good old-fashioned ninja rampage! I’m pretty sure I need to get at least one of these in every few months or else run the risk of developing a fatal vitamin N deficiency. So, in the interest of my health, this is Ninja Spirit or Saigo no Nindou (“Last Nindo Road”) for the TurboGrafx-16. As a very accurate 1990 port of the 1988 arcade game, it’s everything you’d expect from an Irem action-platformer: Well-made, addictive, and tough as nails.

The player controls the ninja Tsukikage, also called Moonlight in the English instruction manual (although “Moonshadow” is a more accurate and fitting translation). His mission is one of vengeance: To take down the evil sorcerer that murdered his father. Strangely, Tsukikage also seems to be some sort of shapeshifter, since he assumes the form of a white wolf in the game’s opening and closing cut scenes. The manual doesn’t elaborate on this at all, though, and it never factors into the actual gameplay. Way to squander a perfectly good werewolf ninja setup there, Irem. You almost made it into my annual spooky games roundup next month.

Tsukikage may not be able to lay into the legions of enemy ninja with his teeth and claws, but he’s more than well-equipped enough for the seven stage journey ahead. Ninja Spirit’s most noteworthy gimmick is the four deadly weapons carried by its hero at all times. There’s no need to rely on sporadic item drops like in Contra, Ghosts-‘n-Goblins, or other similar games of the period. Instead, you can freely swap between sword, shuriken, kusarigama (chain sickle), and grenades via the Select button. Each has its own balance of attack speed, range, and power. The two melee weapons (sword and sickle) are also capable of blocking the countless enemy projectiles hurled your way. Progress in the game is largely based on correctly identifying which tool is best suited for the portion of the stage you’re currently on and then deploying it with adequate skill. It makes for a satisfying blend of problem solving and execution, all in real time, and it succeeds in setting Ninja Spirit apart from similarly-themed titles like Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden.

That’s not to say that there are no traditional power-ups to be found. You can grab red orbs that boost your current weapon’s power, pink orbs that clear the screen of enemies, yellow orbs that equip you with a revolving flame shield, and the coolest by far: Blue orbs that summon what the manual calls “Alter-Egos.” These are shadowy, indestructible duplicates of Tsukikage that trail behind him and mirror his every movement and attack. You can have up to two Alter-Egos at once and this will obviously boost your survival chances considerably in addition to looking hella rad. It’s an idea so great that Tecmo knocked it off shamelessly in Ninja Gaiden II for the NES.

Another way that Ninja Spirit sets itself apart from similar titles is by placing a heavy focus on combat over platforming. Most of the time, you’re just trying to use all of the goodies mentioned above to survive a constant enemy onslaught as you stroll from left to right in search of the next boss battle. Your opponents bombard you from all sides simultaneously and simply do not let up. There are some sections where it literally rains enemy ninja! There are only a couple of jump-heavy areas in the game and they’re comparatively easy due to Tsukikage’s ability to leap almost the entire height of the screen, similar to the title character from Taito’s The Legend of Kage. That said, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the few platforming challenges on offer is an anti-gravity area where you can switch between walking on the floor and the ceiling at will, a mechanic that would later form the basis of its very own Irem release, Metal Storm.

As expected from a game all about fighting off swarms of foes, Ninja Spirit isn’t easy. You do have a difficulty select mechanism available, however. You can choose to play on either the original arcade setting, where Tsukikage dies in one hit, or in PC Engine mode, where he can withstand up to five. And yes, it is referred to as PC Engine mode, even in the TurboGrafx-16 edition. Manual aside, the game itself seems to have received little to no localization, with even the between-stage title cards still being presented in the Japanese. While PC Engine mode is indeed easier, it should be noted that many of the stronger enemies can still end you with one hit, so the actual difference between the two settings isn’t as great as it may initially seem. Thankfully, continues are unlimited and checkpoints frequent, so you never have to fear forced restarts regardless of the game mode chosen.

I’ve mentioned the clever weapon system, the flashy power-ups, the non-stop action, and the flexible difficulty. I may as well add that the game looks and sounds very pleasing, with huge, imposing bosses, some gorgeous backgrounds, and a score that hits all the appropriate mystical chanbara movie notes. The only black mark on the presentation is some occasional sprite flicker, but this is mostly apparent during the explosive boss death animations and doesn’t detract from the gameplay itself.

It sounds like an almost perfect arcade style action experience and it very nearly is. Alas, the game’s finale is marred by one of the most egregious game design choices I’ve ever encountered. Tsukikage needs to jump off a ledge and free fall several screens in order to reach the final boss’ chamber. No big deal, right? Wrong. As he’s falling, dozens of sword-wielding enemy ninja are rising up out of the abyss all around him. Touching one is instant death, even in the more forgiving PC Engine mode, and they have too much heath to reliably kill in the instant between when they enter the screen from below and when they impale poor Tsukikage. What are you supposed to do? Experiment at random, dying over and over, until you finally stumble on the one narrow safe spot when no ninja will spawn beneath you for the duration of the descent. In this home port of the game, where you have unlimited credits and a checkpoint at the top of the ledge itself, this is merely a pace killing annoyance to first-timers. Can you imagine reaching this section for the first time in the arcade version, though? After you’ve already dumped a fortune in change into the cabinet to get that far and you know that the ending is waiting just beyond this last absurd obstacle? Rude.

Despite ending on a cheap and sour note, the first 95% of Ninja Spirit is pure hack-and-slash bliss and comes highly recommended to any TurboGrafx or PC Engine enthusiast. I wouldn’t advise paying too high a premium for it, as experienced players will probably be able to power through to the end in an hour or two thanks to the unlimited continues. Avoid that pitfall and you’re in for an awesome ride. A ride that would be brave Tsukikage’s last, as Ninja Spirit never received the sequels its shadow warrior contemporaries from Tecmo and Sega did. This is one dog that was put to sleep well before its time. What a howling shame.

R-Type (PC Engine)

Bye Bydo!

It’s been a few months now since a game really forced me out of my comfort zone with its difficulty. That game was Metal Storm on the NES back in April. More specifically, its torturous expert mode. This time around, it’s groundbreaking horizontal space shooter R-Type. Savvy readers will spot the connection right away: Irem. Of course, not all of this once-prolific studio’s releases were hellish ordeals. Their Daiku no Gen-san (Hammerin’ Harry) series of cutsey action-platformers are all very approachable, for example. Still, classic Irem games, especially the shooters, have a well-earned reputation for their meticulous, memorization-heavy designs and willingness to make the player pay dearly (and literally, in the arcade) for the slightest mistake.

The original 1987 release of R-Type carved-out a niche for itself in arcades as the tougher, grittier successor to Konami’s genre-defining Gradius. As one of countless games over the years to draw inspiration from Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s designs for the Alien films, R-Type wasn’t afraid to expose players to some shocking grotesqueries by the standards of the time. It didn’t exactly shy away from the warped Freudian sexuality that so informed Giger’s work, either. The towering Xenomorph-like Dobkeratops boss from stage one in particular has become the series mascot and the phallic nature of his deadly lashing “tail” is unmistakable. Don’t even get me started on the stage two boss, which resembles nothing less than a colossal mound of conjoined vulvae being repeatedly penetrated by another large, snake-like alien monster. Goddamn.

Beyond just being hard as nails and vaguely transgressive, R-Type’s level, enemy, and power-up design all felt fresh and intriguing. Many of its firsts were copied so swiftly and so widely that they’re easy to take for granted in hindsight. You know that one level you see in so many shooters that consists entirely of an extended boss fight with a humongous multi-screen battleship bristling with gun ports? R-Type all the way, baby! Even a feature as seemingly vanilla as being able to hold down the fire button to charge up your primary shot and deal extra damage had to get its start somewhere. That somewhere is R-Type.

R-Type’s true pièce de résistance, however, is the Force. An inspired evolution of the simple trailing “option” satellites from Gradius, the Force is an indestructible orange orb that enhances your ship’s offensive and defensive capability in a variety of ways. Mastering its many applications is mandatory if you hold out any hope of weathering the looming bio-mechanical onslaught in one piece. When summoned, the Force can be attached to either the front or back of your ship, where it will provide enhanced firepower in that direction and serve as a shield that blocks enemy projectiles and damages foes on contact. You’re also free to launch the Force across the screen at any time at the press of a button, where it can hang out and fight independent of your main ship until you choose to recall it. Factor in the ability to equip the Force with three different special laser types (the name R-Type being a reference to these “ray types,” according to the developers) and you have one of the most versatile and fun weapons in gaming history, so much so that it blurs the line between conventional power-up and trusty sidekick. Picture a loyal puppy that just happens to be able to decimate a hostile space fleet for you on its way to fetch the paper.

What’s R-Type actually about? Well, the title screen says it best: “Blast off and strike the evil Bydo Empire!” That’s it, really. It’s just you and your R-9A Arrowhead fighter against an armada of alien creeps. Later games in the series added a bit more backstory about the Bydo being human-created bio-weapons that got out of control, but if you’re hoping for anything complex and thought-provoking that you’ve never encountered in a shooting game before, I’m sorry to be the one to disappoint you. Though R-Type has both style and substance in spades, its story is a non-starter.

With its heady blend of killer art direction and visionary game design, numerous home ports of R-Type were inevitable and, fortunately for fans, these conversions are almost all considered to be excellent by the standards of their respective systems. Even the ZX Spectrum, a platform that can boast just slightly more processing power than my belly button lint, is host to an decent version of R-Type. The most highly-regarded of them all is generally considered to be this 1988 PC Engine port by Hudson Soft, which is frequently hailed as the first must-have title for the console. It came so close to replicating the art and sound from the arcade cabinet that they couldn’t even fit it in all on one HuCard! Japanese gamers had to settle for buying the first four stages on one card (dubbed R-Type I) and the final four on a separate one (R-Type II, not to be confused with the game’s proper sequel) three months later. A password system allowed players to swap cards mid-playthrough without resetting their scores. North America caught a real break for once when advancements in data storage capacity allowed for the whole game to fit on a single card in time for its TurboGrafx-16 debut the following year.

It’s tough to overstate just how great this PC Engine iteration looks, sounds, and handles. There is a minor downgrade in graphical detail, some sprite flicker here and there, and the parallax background effects are absent, but many screens still border on being pixel-perfect tracings of their arcade counterparts. If the visuals are almost imperceptibly weaker, Masato Ishizaki’s menacing score is arguably improved by the move to the PCE sound chip. Although the audio quality is a bit less crisp and clean here, I really love the way the instrumentation has been tweaked to make tracks like the stage six theme much punchier overall. The controls in this version are also enhanced courtesy of the built-in turbo fire feature that comes standard on almost all PC Engine pads. Beats pounding your fingers numb, that’s for sure.

The only significant compromise evident is the reduced vertical aspect ratio. Rather than redesigning the stages to account for the move to standard definition televisions, the designers opted to add a bit of scroll to the top and bottom of the playfield. The obvious downside to this is that it can sometimes serve to hide enemies along the floors and ceilings that are all too willing to lob shots at you from off screen. It’s not a constant or insurmountable problem, but it is one more thing to keep on top of in a game that’s already packed with them.

PC Engine R-Type is undoubtedly a spectacular home port of an arcade legend. With a rearranged soundtrack, a handy auto-fire function, and even a new boss enemy unique to this version, it may well be superior to its source material. Should you play it? Let me put it this way: Do you enjoy hard games? I sure hope so, because R-Type isn’t just hard, it’s “kick you apart and ship your broken ass all the way back to the title screen in disgrace” hard. The R-9 is incredibly fragile and losing a life sends you back to a previous checkpoint with all power-ups removed. Strict stage memorization is necessary to get anywhere, since you always need to know exactly which portions of the screen are deathtraps and what position your Force should be deployed in at any given moment. It’s a slow-paced, rigid “survival shooter” that rewards caution and surgical precision over quick reflexes; the polar opposite of a chill “zip around and blast all the baddies” game like Blazing Lazers.

In addition, whereas the arcade release leaned heavily on its combination of addictive gameplay and hardcore challenge to entice players into compulsively purchasing continue after continue, “credit feeding” the game like this isn’t an option on the PC Engine. Here you’re given three credits with which to clear all eight stages. Run out of lives and you start over from scratch. Few gaming experiences are more viscerally agonizing than finally reaching one of the brutal later levels for the very first time, getting wiped out almost instantaneously, and devoting the next half hour to clawing your way back to the point you left off only to get blown up again like before, repeating the same cycle over and over. On the plus side, I suppose I am really good at those first six stages now.

Well-earned venting aside, R-Type is utterly brilliant and nowhere more so than here on the PC Engine. I’m certain I’ll revisit it someday, even if the rush I experienced from killing the final boss was based more in simple relief than triumph. Draining as it is, it’s also a certified classic, a cornerstone of its genre, and great fun when it’s not grimly grinding your very spirit beneath its flinty heel. Will I be moving on to the sequels? Yes. Yes, I will. Just…not right away. I need a breather.

Dungeon Explorer (TurboGrafx-16)

I’m attacking the darkness!

When the TurboGrafx-16 had its North American debut in October of 1989, it made sense for NEC to include at least one fantasy adventure title in the launch lineup. Since the system’s first true “Zelda clone” (Neutopia) wouldn’t see release in Japan until the following month, the honor went to Dungeon Explorer, a slick variation on Atari’s multiplayer arcade classic Gauntlet from developer Atlus. Launching with a game that supports up to five players simultaneously also gave NEC an opportunity to promote their TurboTap accessory. One of the TG-16’s most panned features was its single controller port and the TurboTap added four more, provided you were willing to shell out for it. It was the $20 solution to a wholly self-made problem.

Dungeon Explorer takes place in Oddesia, a medieval kingdom under siege by what the game refers to as aliens. I’m honestly not sure if these monsters are supposed to be actual extraterrestrials or if the whole “aliens” thing is just a translation quirk, but I do know that their leader has the most metal name ever: Natas, King Satan. Hardcore. To stop the aliens, the king dispatches your hero(es) to hunt down the Ora Stone, a off-the-rack magic MacGuffin with the vaguely-defined power to either save or doom the kingdom, depending on which side gets hold of it first. Where’s the Stone? In one of the land’s many monster and trap-filled underground dungeons, of course, so you’d best start exploring!

As you may have surmised, Dungeon Explorer doesn’t devote a lot of time to deep lore and complex characterization. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on simple pick-up-and-play monster blasting. Once each player has selected a character class at the tavern where the game begins (or entered their ten letter password to continue a previous play session), the entrance to the first dungeon is just one screen away. The few NPCs you encounter have little to say and, with no monetary system in place, the town areas are reduced to mere backdrops in the absence of the inns and shops that genre fans are accustomed to.

While the plot, characters, and setting are bland indeed, Atlus’ decision to emphasize action paid off with a total of ten unique playable character classes (eight available from the start and two special ones unlocked through play). Each has their own strengths and weaknesses that are based on the starting distribution of four key stats: Attack (the power of your main shot), Agility (movement speed), Strength (hit points), and Intelligence (magic power). The Elf, for example, is a bit of a glass cannon with his combination of high Agility and low Strength. These abilities aren’t set in stone, either. Every dungeon boss you defeat drops a crystal that will raise your hero’s level and permanently increase one stat of your choice when collected. This enables some interesting strategic decisions over the course of the quest. Do you double down on your chosen hero’s strengths or try to mold him or her into a more well-balanced character by shoring up a weakness? Giving the player total control over character progression in this way was a smart choice, as it allows for multiple playthroughs with the same class to potentially feel quite different.

Beyond the four primary stats, each character class also has two magic spells available, one designated white (defensive) and the other black (offensive). These spells are fueled by single-use potions of the corresponding color that appear at preset spots in the dungeons or as random drops from enemies. This mention of potion-based magic is yet another little detail that will have the Gauntlet fans out there nodding their heads. There are twelve spells in total, meaning that most are usable by more than one class. That said, no one class shares both of its spells with another.

That’s really all you need to know to jump in and start clearing out some dungeons. The rest is pure overhead run-and-gun mayhem. You can fire rapidly in eight directions and you’ll need to, since enemies by the score pour out continuously from destructible “generators” in each area. Fight your way past them all, grab any power-ups you come across, and defeat the dungeon boss to level up. The king or another helpful NPC will then point you in the direction of the next dungeon so you can do it all over again. It’s an appealing formula and it’s very easy to fall into that same “just one more level…” groove that’s funneled so many quarters into Gauntlet cabinets over the years. Adding more players to the mix definitely ups the fun factor, though I ironically find it slightly easier to make progress solo. Players can block one other’s movement and attacks, so unless you and your partners have some rock solid communication and teamwork skills, you may end up unintentionally making your collective job harder.

Things are a tad uneven on the presentation side. The graphics are nothing to write home about and Dungeon Explorer is easily the least visually striking of the TG-16 launch games. This was somewhat unavoidable considering its design. You can’t very well expect huge characters and loads of detail when you need to accommodate up to five players on a single screen. Beyond that, however, there’s a general overreliance on muted earth tones that downplays the console’s vivid famously color palette to no real benefit. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Tsukasa Masuko’s incredible chiptunes. Every song is great, but standouts like Cherry Tower and the title theme manage to be equal parts regal, serene, and downright eerie. This is hands down some of the best non-CD music that would ever grace the system. Fans of Masuko’s work on the Megami Tensei series will not be disappointed.

Although its drab artwork won’t turn any heads and it’s not at all original in terms of its gameplay or storytelling, Dungeon Explorer as a whole is a smartly-designed, compelling fantasy action title. Mowing down wave after wave of baddies while that majestic soundtrack blares never seems to get old and the huge selection of playable heroes combined with the flexible character advancement makes for tremendous replay value. It’s a must-have for TurboGrafx fans and also represents a huge milestone for Atlus in North America, being their first indisputably high quality release here. The company’s earlier Karate Kid and Friday the 13th adaptations for the NES were…less well-received, to say the least. I still question NEC’s decision to go with a lone controller port, but at least they gave TurboTap owners something worth getting excited over with this one.

Hail Natas!

The Legendary Axe (TurboGrafx-16)

Love those diegetic credits!

A point of endless debate among TurboGrafx-16 fans is whether or not a better pack-in game would have bolstered the system’s lackluster performance in the North American market to any significant degree. Though I’m skeptical (to say the least) that any one game could have “saved” the TG-16, there’s no denying that the day one launch lineup in 1989 was exceptionally strong and included such heavyweights as Blazing Lazers, R-Type, and Dungeon Explorer. Regardless, NEC chose Keith Courage in Alpha Zones as the pack-in. I’ll give Keith Courage the more detailed look it deserves in due time, but suffice to say that it suffers from severe pacing issues that hold it back from being a top tier action-platformer.

The most popular candidate for an alternate pack-in is probably The Legendary Axe. Originally published by Victor Interactive Software in 1988 as Makyō Densetsu (“Demon Legend”), Legendary Axe is a no-nonsense hack-and-slash fantasy side-scroller reminiscent of Taito’s Rastan with a Castlevania twist. I recently reviewed a very similar game, Astyanax for the NES. This is no coincidence, as both games were designed by Tokuhiro Takemori of Aicom. In the modern parlance, we might call Astyanax a “spiritual sequel” to Legendary Axe.

The star of the show here is Gogan, a stock barbarian type who resembles a ginger-haired Tarzan in his fur loincloth. His quest is to rescue his childhood friend and love interest Flare, who’s been spirited away by the diabolic cult leader Jagu for use as a sacrifice. Gogan wields the magical axe Sting as his sole weapon across the game’s six stages. Fortunately for him, he can power-up Sting along the way, making it more than a match for the most vicious of opponents.

The game’s English title really is the more fitting one, since the proper use of Gogan’s axe is its defining mechanic. Just like in Astyanax, a power bar at the top of the screen determines the strength of each of your attacks. It resets to zero after every attack (successful or not) and then automatically begins recharging. Thus, there’s a classic “risk versus reward” setup in place where biding your time for a few extra seconds between strikes results in more damage to Gogan’s foes. Of course, this is often easier said than done and there are times when you’ll be swarmed from all sides and forced to rely instead on unleashing a quick flurry of weaker blows to survive.

Mastering Legendary Axe is a matter of learning each enemy’s behavior and placement in a given stage so that you can respond to its appearance with the correct attack. Some, like the bears and gorillas, are powerful, slow-moving, and take forever to kill with weak strikes, so instead keep your distance while you charge up fully. Others, like the fragile bats and butterflies, require no charging at all, so just mash away!

There are three types of axe upgrade available. These are obtained either by destroying stationary idols you come across or, less commonly, from a defeated mini-boss. One type allows Gogan to swing his axe faster, another increases the rate at which the power bar recharges, and the final, most import one actually lengthens the power bar itself by one level, to a maximum of four. Very few enemies in the game can withstand a level four axe strike. Be careful, however, as losing a life will lower your axe power by one level. There’s usually an idol not too far from your last checkpoint where you can regain it, but dying twice in quick succession can really set you back and hurt your chances in the later stages.

While the barbaric fantasy theme and combat invoke Rastan, it’s the platforming in Legendary Axe that betrays its Castlevania influence. Gogan is susceptible to some severe knockback each time he’s damaged and the placement of enemies and instant death pits is cunningly calculated to exploit this weakness. Lives and continues are limited, so falling deaths are the thing most likely to send you back to the title screen. Always look before you leap. Running out of health is also a concern, naturally, but health refills appear in every stage, so you have much more room for error in this regard.

The gameplay here is a real treat. The controls are tight, the stages are well-designed, and every enemy type represents a unique challenge. Most importantly, the power meter management keeps your head in the game and prevents the action from stagnating, all while not being overly complicated in itself. Though you almost certainly won’t make it to the end on your first attempt, the overall brilliance of the design lends it an addictive quality that offsets the agony of defeat. The only potential stumbling block for some players is the emphasis on stage memorization. Don’t come expecting to play Legendary Axe “fast and loose” and still do well.

Much was made of the game’s graphics back around its release, particularly its large, detailed sprites. The colossal final boss Jagu specifically was held up as quite the revelation in a time when the NES was still top dog. The art and animation remain pleasing, but the visual element that holds up best these days is the striking use of color. The sprites and backgrounds are positively vibrant and really showcase the console’s impressive palette. The music by Jun Chikuma (best known for her work on the Bomberman series) is just as delightful as the visuals. She managed to seamlessly merge her typical jazzy style with grandiose, blood-pumping melodies suited to the game’s savage sword & sorcery aesthetic. It almost shouldn’t work, yet every single track here is a real earworm.

So is Legendary Axe the rightful TurboGrafx pack-in title, robbed of its birthright by corporate incompetence? Critics at the time sure seemed to think so. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine declared it to be their game of the year across all platforms. Although I wouldn’t go so far to call it the game of 1989, I can’t deny that it’s a much more appealing and consistent action-platforming package than Keith Courage. It’s earned its status as one of the cornerstones of the system’s library, even selling well enough that an unrelated game, Ankoku Densetsu (“Dark Legend”), was retitled The Legendary Axe II in North America in an attempt to piggyback on its success. Could Legendary Axe have given the Turbo the boost it would have needed to surpass the Sega Genesis in North America like its counterpart the PC Engine did in Japan? Hell, no. There were far too many factors in play at the time for any one title to accomplish that. Still, I can’t exactly fault a game for not being magic, and this one is a class act that easily stands the test of time.

So go play it, okay? Don’t make me axe you again.

Blazing Lazers (TurboGrafx-16)

I’d say they should come up with some other way to end these things, but, man, flying away from the big explosion just works, you know?

It’s the dawn of a new gaming era for me: I finally got my hands on a PC Engine! Special thanks are due to the staff of my neighborhood game store Pink Gorilla for giving me a great deal on mine after the first one I ordered from Japan turned out to be a dud. Happy outcomes like this are why I always prefer to shop local. Now I can finally take the plunge into the single biggest non-Nintendo/Sega library of classic 16-bit console games!

A complete history of the little Engine that could (and its international counterpart that couldn’t) would easily fill a good-sized book. I’ll spare you all that in favor of the basics. The console debuted in Japan in 1987 and was a collaboration between prolific game developer Hudson Soft and electronics giant the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). It was pitched as the first “next generation” 16-bit rival to Nintendo’s smash hit Famicom, despite the fact that only the Engine’s custom dual graphics processors sported a true 16-bit architecture. Technical quibbles aside, this tiny powerhouse (the base unit itself is scarcely larger than a CD jewel case) had the good fortune to hit the scene a full year before Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis and was the Japanese public’s first exposure to 16-bit visuals on a home console. With that kind of head start and robust support from third party publishers like Namco and Konami, the PC Engine quickly became a force to be reckoned with in its homeland. Though it never managed to become top dog, the PCE proved itself a worthy rival to both the Famicom and Super Famicom and occupies much the same place in the hearts of Japanese gamers that the Sega Genesis does over here. Hudson and NEC’s platform was perceived as a little more edgy and mature than Nintendo’s offerings and it took more risks, like when it pioneered console games on optical media with its CD-ROM drive add-on all the way back in 1988.

Unfortunately for us non-Japanese, it took two long, absolutely crucial years for the PC Engine to complete its North American makeover into the TurboGrafx-16. This foot dragging cost it its entire head start on the Genesis, as well as most of its lead on the Super Nintendo. On top of that, a true perfect storm of misguided and anemic marketing, a mediocre pack-in game, a lack of quality titles selected for localization, and countless other corporate blunders both large and small resulted in a great console that was essentially dead on arrival. The TG-16’s showing over here was so dismal that a planned European rollout was cancelled entirely. Proof positive that no piece of gaming hardware succeeds or fails exclusively on the basis of its inherent technical merits.

Of course, all this is ancient history. What matters now is that I get to play all these cool “new” games, and I already knew going in that I wanted to start things off with none other than 1989’s Blazing Lazers. This was one of the launch titles for the system in North America and was heavily featured in gaming magazines at that time. The screenshots were jaw-dropping and reviewers waxed rhapsodic over the game’s arcade quality graphics and non-stop, slowdown-free space shooting action. I was spellbound by one aspect in particular: The ultra-flashy “Field Thunder” weapon that fills fully half the screen with snaking, enemy-annihilating lightning bolts. You just didn’t see pyrotechnics like that on the NES. In a way, you can say I’ve been waiting patiently for nearly thirty years now to finally electrocute some uppity space aliens. And you know what? It was worth it.

Knowing what I do now about the people behind Blazing Lazers, I’m not surprised. This is a Compile shooter through and through. Key personnel Masamitsu “Moo” Niitani, Koji “Janus” Teramoto, and Takayuki “Jemini” Hirono are all present and accounted for here, so players of Zanac, Gun-Nac, The Guardian Legend, and the Aleste series as a whole will be able to jump right into Blazing Lazers without missing a beat. Just like in those games, the vertically-scrolling stages are quite lengthy by genre standards, the player is treated to a near constant stream of power-up orbs that fuel a variety of devastating weapons, the programming is rock solid with no performance hiccups evident even when the action is at its most chaotic, and there’s an overall more relaxed approach to difficulty when compared to most other shooters. If you know the Compile house style as well as I do, I can review Blazing Lazers for you in three words: Aleste for TurboGrafx.

Compile’s shooting games are an acquired taste to be sure and they do have their critics. These are drawn primarily from the most hardcore of genre elitists, who find the stages too long, the weapon upgrades too plentiful and overpowered, and the lack of one-hit deaths (damage usually weakens or removes your ship’s special weapons before it kills you outright) too generous. I, on the other hand, can’t get enough of them. While games emphasizing memorization and pixel-perfect movement have their place, Compile’s works are different in a very specific, very special way. They’re the fast-paced shooters you can kick back and chill with. The closest comparison is probably something like Super Castlevania IV. Detractors will point out that it’s extremely easy when compared to many other games in the series, almost mindlessly so at times, and they’re not strictly wrong. Depending on my mood at the moment, I might even find myself agreeing with them. Ultimately, however, I don’t choose to play Castlevania IV over a more demanding installment. Not as such, anyway. Instead, I play an intense game when I’m in the mood to buckle down and focus and a breezier one when I don’t have quite as much mental bandwidth to go around. Compile’s shooters may not put up much of a fight before the last couple stages, but their loose, reactive style makes them almost hypnotically relaxing. They’re some of the best experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hands.

What more can I say about Blazing Lazers specifically? Well, let’s address the oft-repeated assertion that it’s based on the 1989 Japanese sci-fi action movie Gunhed. Even Wikipedia parrots this old chestnut with the utmost confidence. Not that I blame them, really. The game’s Japanese title is Gunhed and the film studio Toho is credited right there on the opening screen. It seems like an open and shut case. Except I’ve actually sat down and watched Gunhed and I can confirm that absolutely nothing from the film is referenced in this game. The movie’s honestly a bit of a mess and centers on a group of weird and mostly obnoxious scavengers in the post-apocalyptic future who visit the ruins of an old factory on an island looking for a valuable super element called, I kid you not, “Texmexium.” There’s also something about a machine uprising, some scrappy orphan kids that live in the factory, and the titular Gunhed itself (which is a tank-like vehicle, not a starfighter). Take almost everything James Cameron put out in the ’80s, extract all the craft and most of the production value, toss what’s left over in a blender and you get Gunhed. My best guess is that publisher Hudson Soft simply licensed the name and slapped it on this already mostly finished game because, hey, why not? Certainly, no one familiar with the cinematic Gunhed could seriously entertain the notion that the game we know as Blazing Lazers was ever intended to be some kind of adaptation or sequel. You may as well declare that it’s based on Disney’s Mary Poppins at that point. The North American manual simply states that you’re defending the earth from the undescribed Dark Squadron and that this entails destroying their “8 Super Weapons.” It’s as basic as a game premise gets and I suppose it gets the job done, even if it doesn’t address the big issue that plagues so many of these games: If the enemy force is even remotely susceptible to being taken out by just one of our earth ships, how big a threat can it really be?

The game’s nine stages are an odd mixture of roughly 50% bog standard starfields and space stations and 50% whatever kooky stuff the designers thought would look neat. This latter category includes an organic level where you fight exploding brains, an Egypt-like desert area with missile launching pyramids, and a truly surreal flight through a field of giant multicolored bubbles. As weird as that last one would be in isolation, Konami’s Gradius III also included an almost identical rainbow bubbles level when it came out just five months later. I don’t know what was in the water supply in Japan circa 1989, but I want some.

The control is everything you could ask for in a game of this kind. One button shoots and the other deploys your limited supply of screen clearing bombs. Movement is precise and responsive. You’re able to toggle between five different ship speeds at any time using the Select button, although I didn’t really bother with the lower settings. Most of the stages are very open and don’t feature walls or other environmental hazards, so I generally didn’t feel the need to inch along slowly and carefully.

In terms of weaponry, you have four primary shots to choose between, each represented by a different Roman numeral icon. I already mentioned the awesome Field Thunder. Fully powered-up, it’s essentially a gigantic lightning broom that you sweep the entire upper half of the playfield with at will. I’m a fan. The other options are the standard pea shooter (which upgrades to fire in up to five directions at once), laser crescents that spread out in a ever wider fan pattern, and a series of rings that orbit your ship and provide protection in lieu of extra firepower. Upgrades for all these are acquired either by collecting the same numeral multiple times or by grabbing the purple “gels” that some enemies drop. Be careful: Getting hit will downgrade and eventually remove special weapons entirely, leaving you scrambling desperately for a replacement before you bite the dust.

There are also four support items, indicated by letter icons. Similar to the weapons, you can only benefit from one of these at a time. The (S)hield prevents most damage for the limited time it lasts, the (H)oming Missiles are a powerful supplementary weapon, the (M)ulti-Body is a standard “option” type satellite ship that mirrors your shots, and (F)ull Fire enhances each of your main weapons in a different way, such as by making your Field Thunder blasts automatically home in on foes.

There’s one final important mechanic in Blazing Lazers that bears mentioning and it also happens to be the source of my only real complaint about the game. I’m referring here to the semi-secret “special lives.” Normally, losing a life sends you back to the start of the stage or to a mid-stage checkpoint. Unless you’ve earned yourself some special lives, that is. Each one you accumulate allows you to continue gameplay once from the exact point you died with no break in the action. This is obviously the more desirable option, particularly in the final 1/3 of so of the game, where the difficulty finally starts to ramp up some. So how do you get these special lives? The instruction manual won’t tell you. In fact, it doesn’t so much as hint at their existence. Nothing like an important, wholly undocumented game mechanic, huh? It turns out that the secret involves the rare “cycling” power-ups that shift between displaying different symbols in rapid succession. Instead of collecting these right away, try either shooting them a bunch or waiting for them to reach the bottom of the screen. This will cause them to transform into flashing orbs that will turn one of your regular stock of lives into a special life when collected. You’re welcome.

Still, you know you’re dealing with a legendary game when the only thing I can think to complain about is a slightly dodgy instruction manual. Blazing Lazers is a true classic. Its crisp, colorful artwork still holds up today, as does its high energy music. It also nails all the key performance and play control elements needed to make maneuvering your ship around the screen showering everything in sight with hot plasma death feel fantastic from start to finish. Arcade gods might be disappointed that it’s not out to curbstomp you into oblivion as quickly and efficiently as possible like an Irem or Toaplan game, but the way it eases players in with its frantic-yet-forgiving action makes it an ideal entry point for newcomers. It’s the sort of shooter that makes new shooter fans, and that’s pretty dang important for a niche genre.

After such a strong start, I can’t wait to see where my PC Engine will take me next. Here’s a hint: It’s someplace sleazy. Very sleazy.