Willow (NES)

Not bad, except for that 8-bit Kevin Pollack. *shudder*

Looking back on the NES library, it’s kind of remarkable how few games really attempted to copy the formula of Nintendo’s 1986’s smash hit The Legend of Zelda. There were no shortage of games riding Super Mario’s platforming coattails but overhead fantasy action-RPG titles never took the console as a whole by storm. SNK’s brilliant 1990 release Crystalis is probably the system’s best-known Zelda protégé and FCI’s 1986 port of Hydlide is sometimes considered to be a “Zelda clone” but this assessment is very much in error, as Hydlide was originally a 1984 release for Japanese computers and likely a Zelda inspiration itself.

One company that did take up the challenge was Capcom, who unleased their NES version of Willow into the world in 1989. Capcom actually released two games based on Ron Howard and George Lucas’ cinematic collaboration, the other being an arcade exclusive action game that played like a more colorful iteration of their Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. I remember that this NES release was pretty well hyped over the course of several issues of Nintendo Power magazine at the time but I never actually played it before this week. It was definitely a pleasant experience and I now count this one right alongside Sunsoft’s Batman in the elite class of licensed NES games worth a damn.

I always enjoyed Willow as a film. It wasn’t until years later that I picked up on the fact that it wasn’t exactly a critical darling at the time of its release. The screenplay was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (a mock prize awarded to “the worst in film”) and it was even compared to the infamous Lucas-produced stinker Howard the Duck. Freaking Howard the Duck? Really? That’s just low, man. In reality, it’s a very fun ride featuring likable leads (Warwick Davis is the man), stellar production, thrilling action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects. It also had those goddamn brownies. Those two were just wretched. Still, it’s far from the worst thing going. Oh, well.

The first thing you need to do to enjoy Willow the NES game is forget about all that stuff I just said, because it has basically nothing in common with the movie. Oh, all the main characters are here and your overall goal is still to overthrow the wicked Queen Bavmorda but the plot as a whole is completely new. It’s actually a little surreal if you’re familiar with the source material to see all these elements seemingly mixed-up Mad Libs style. I’ve seen some speculation that Capcom simply took the Willow license and slapped it onto another, unrelated fantasy game that they were already planning or working on. I haven’t seen any concrete confirmation of this but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. At least they did make the effort of recreating a couple key scenes from the film, such as Willow’s multiple failed attempts to transform the sorceress Fin Raziel back into a human from animal form and the bit where Madmartigan is accidentally dosed with a love potion and falls for the villainous Sorsha.

If you’ve played any overhead action-RPG game before, you’ll be able to hit the ground running here. You move Willow around in eight directions with the directional pad, swing your sword with the B button, and activate whatever magic spell you currently have selected with the A button. You also have a shield which works passively to block frontal attacks as long as you’re not in the middle of swinging your sword. You’ll also find a host of other items that you need to progress the plot but these work automatically from your inventory and don’t need to be manually selected or equipped. Starting out in your home village of Nelwyn, you’re given your first sword and spell along with some basic advice and instructed to head north to the next town.

Willow is not a particularly complex game. In fact, I already pretty much covered everything you need to know above. The forests, mountains, and caves of the world have some twisty maze-like sections that might take some wandering to find your way through but the progression as a whole is very linear, lacking the open world exploration, puzzle solving, and secret finding elements of Zelda. Being told by one NPC that you need to go speak to another in order to get the item you need to move on is about as deep as it goes.

You’ll discover new swords and shields to equip along the way but, with the exception of one sword that has the special power of being able to harm ghost enemies, the only thing that’s different about these is that some have better attack and defense ratings than others. The game does make an interesting attempt at an encumbrance system with its weapons, as each sword has a minimum strength rating needed to use it properly and Willow will attack very slowly if he uses a sword that he’s too weak for. What this really amounts to is that each sword has minimum character level associated with it. If your new weapon is too slow, just put it away until you gain a level or two and then try it again. I don’t know that this adds any actual fun to the proceedings but it is different at least.

The magic system is pretty well handled. You have the usual handful of utility spells for things like healing, exiting dungeons instantly, and “fast travelling” between towns you’ve previously visited as well as attack spells that will freeze, damage, or even destroy enemies outright. There’s also a couple oddball spells in the mix, including one that transforms Willow into a slime monster for disguise purposes and another that will change strong enemies into weaker ones. Since most enemies can be dispatched by Willow’s sword fairly easily, I found myself saving most of my magic points for healing and travel. It is nice to have options, though.

Willow shows off some very impressive graphics and music. The color palette makes fine use of greens and earth tones without becoming too dark or muddy, sprites for Willow and his foes have a lot of detail, and there’s even a pretty fabulous effect when fighting enemies outdoors where every tile of the map will “come alive” and start to animate as if everything is blowing around in a windstorm. Very unique. Another visual highlight are the well-drawn facial portraits displayed for every speaking character in the game. Songs loop a lot and more of them would have been nice but the ones we get are all composed and executed very well, as you would expect from Capcom. The theme from the final dungeon, Nockmaar Castle, is particularly awesome.

In terms of criticism, I do wish that Willow had just a little more going on in it. There are no real branching paths, secrets to discover, or puzzles to unravel during your quest. It’s just a linear trek from point A to point Z. It’s a fun enough trek but it could have been so much more. There’s also a lot of repetition in terms of scenery, almost as if the developers tried to pad out the game some by just sort of “stretching” the game world as a whole. You’ll see a lot of identical screens copied and pasted over and over. There are even occasional instances of the exact same empty screens placed right next to each other. There’s no proper justification for something like that.

Willow might not have depth on its side but it does have accessibility and personality to spare. The mechanics here are very solid and there are no glaring gameplay flaws to speak of. It’s a worthy entry in the genre and very much worth playing for action-RPG fans, even if it does play third fiddle to Zelda and Crystalis on the NES. Best of all, you can’t actually hear the brownies talk this time.

Life Force (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contra (NES)

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My first time beating Contra legit solo. For an all-time classic, the ending is pretty weak.

It’s still right up there with Castlevania for me in the “short but satisfying Konami masterpiece” category, though. It took me only about a half hour but I wasn’t bored for a single second of it! A good reminder that not every game needs to cram in enough play time to qualify as a second job.

It also makes me reflect on cheat codes as inspired game design. Contra features the most well-known code in all of gaming. Contrary to popular belief, though, it didn’t debut it. The code first appeared in the NES port of Gradius the previous year. The ability to multiply your starting lives by ten turned Contra into a game that anyone could play and beat and its inclusion alone makes the NES version a superior achievement over the arcade original, despite the graphical downgrade. In addition, making this difficulty modifier a “secret” cheat code only added to the schoolyard cool factor at the time. Other great action platformers left their mark but Contra is the one that every kid who played games in the 80s is virtually guaranteed to remember and it’s due in large part to that legendary code.

(Originally written 3/8/2017)

Phantom Fighter (NES)

Qing of the hill, baby!

Phantom Fighter is a 1988 title from obscure developer Marionette and publishers Pony Canyon and FCI. It’s a side-scrolling beat-’em-up action game based on the 1985 Hong Kong horror-comedy film Mr. Vampire. The movie, about a Taoist priest named Master Kau and his bumbling assistants battling a type of Chinese “hopping vampire” known as jiangshi or kyonchi, was a huge hit and touched off a bit of a hopping vampire craze throughout East Asia. Think of it as the Ghostbusters of its milieu. The game was retitled and Master Kau was renamed Kenchi for the North American release in 1990.

In Phantom Fighter, you guide Kenchi and his trusty assistant through eight stages, each representing a different town under siege by kyonshi. Each town contains a variety of buildings, parks, graveyards, and caves where you’ll battle the undead and be rewarded with scrolls (currency used to purchase new kung fu moves at training halls), special weapons such as a magic sword and mirror, and the three jade spheres that you must gather in order to open the way to each town’s final boss.

Fights against kyonshi are always one-on-one, reminiscent of those in games like Street Fighter, although Phantom Fighter is strictly a single player experience, so perhaps Konami’s Yie Ar Kung Fu is a better comparison. You and your foe each have a health bar on the side of the screen and whoever runs out of health first loses. Dying will result in the loss of all special weapons acquired and half of your total scrolls but continues are unlimited and you are given passwords whenever you run out of health or complete a level, so there’s no need to worry about losing your progress. Kenchi starts the game with only the most basic control options: Punch, kick, walk, jump, and crouch. All of these capabilities can be upgraded multiple times at the training halls, however, and it’s satisfying to see Kenchi’s feeble starting punch grow to take the form of a lightning-fast flurry of blows that can drain a kyonshi’s health bar in an instant by the game’s end.

Each building you enter will contain one or two kyonshi to defeat at the start of the game but that increases to a maximum of five by the time you reach the final stage. You’ll need all the attack upgrades you can get because you can only restore lost health by leaving the building you’re in and visiting a temple. This means that you’ll need to defeat all of each building’s kyonshi occupants in one go to reach the end and claim your reward, since destroyed ones will respawn each time you exit and return.

Those are the basics but Phantom Fighter does have a couple very odd gameplay quirks. The strangest is the fact that you have to successfully answer a trivia question each and every time you want to enter one of the training halls to learn new moves. That’s right: This is a fighting game with quiz show elements. That’s got to be a first. Even the questions themselves are weird. Half of them are related to the game’s premise and involve the various strengths and weaknesses of kyonshi as derived from Chinese folklore. This makes some sense at least but then the game starts asking you things like “What’s the name of George Bush’s dog?” All the questions are multiple choice and there’s no penalty for getting them wrong, so if you pick the incorrect answer you’ll just have to try again until you get a question right and are allowed into the training hall. This element of the game is just baffling to me. I honestly have no idea what it was intended to add to the experience. It’s not challenging, interesting, or even funny. What were the designers thinking? Is it just pure padding? I suppose I’ll never know.

There’s also the matter of “Conshi the baby kyonshi.” This diminutive vampire is non-hostile and you can recruit him to join your fight by using a special item, the bell. Once you recruit him, Conshi will replace Kenchi as your playable character in the fighting scenes for as long as you can keep him alive. This sounds pretty promising until you realize that Conshi really, really sucks. Like every other kyonchi in the game, he can only hop around slowly and jab with his outstretched claws for very little damage. It’s awkward and ineffectual and seems more like a bad joke than anything else. I suppose if you find the game to be too easy and want an extreme challenge, you might appreciate the chance to try to win with Conshi. In any other circumstance, you should avoid this little dope. It’s just not worth the effort to get him on your side.

Phantom Fighter is a true mixed bag in terms of graphics and sound. Kenchi and his foes are large and animate very smoothly for an 8-bit game. The character sprites do suffer a bit from a lack of color and detail, however. This is likely due to the backgrounds, which are highly detailed and clearly where most of the NES’s limited on-screen colors were utilized. The music has a very stereotypically Chinese vibe and is decent while it lasts. That is to say that the tracks are short and there aren’t very many of them. You might enjoy them for a bit at first but they’ll probably wear on you over time.

Control is mostly functional but has some serious problems. Attacks seem to have a slight delay to them. This can be adapted to but remains consistently obnoxious throughout. Jumping and jump attacks in general are also poorly implemented. It’s tough to get off the ground when you want to and to get your air attacks to execute on cue. Thankfully, there are only two airborne enemies in the entire game, both bosses, so I suppose it makes sense that polishing the aerial combat wasn’t a big priority.

I had a little bit of fun with Phantom Fighter but I can’t recommend it very highly due to its one fatal flaw: The overwhelming monotony. When you get right down to it, there’s only one enemy in the entire game that you’ll be fighting over and over and over again. There are different flavors of kyonshi with varying degrees of speed, health, and damage output but they all fight the same way: They hop forward at you with their arms outstretched comically. That’s it. All you have to do is avoid their claws (the only parts that will damage you) and employ some basic hit and run tactics to take them down. Either anticipate the arc of their hop and let them jump right into your punches and kicks or run up to them as they land, smack them, and run back. Then do it a couple hundred more times. That’s the entire game right there. I understand that fighting kyonshi is game’s main draw but surely the designers had no shortage of other creatures from Chinese myth that they could have used as inspiration to spice up the gameplay. Unfortunately, they didn’t make that effort and no amount of trivia questions or grinding for scrolls can disguise the sad fact that this title plays more like a proof of concept or a demo for a full game than a finished project. It’s also overly long given its lack of real content. Eight levels is far too many when you’re tasked with fighting the same foe the same way the entire time.

Much like mediocre Chinese takeout, Phantom Fighter will hold you over for a short while but you’ll likely find yourself craving something more substantial very quickly.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES/Super Nintendo)

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Despite being on vacation, I still got a little road trip gaming in this last weekend. It’s been a long time since I really gave this one a go but it’s amazing how fresh in my memory it remains and how quickly I’m still able to zip through it.

I’m not really going to do a whole review on Super Mario 2, since it is one of the best selling and most ubiquitous games ever made. I also won’t go into its full history: How it started out as an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic and was modified to include Mario and friends because Nintendo was concerned that the original Super Mario 2 released in Japan was too hard for non-Japanese gamers, and so forth. All this has been covered in so much detail so many times before.

What I will say is that I love this game. It was the subject of a lavish writeup in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine. I received that first issue in the mail for free back in 1988 on account of previously subscribing to the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter, which NP was intended to replace. I poured over every page of this issue for months before I actually played the game, so I guess I was just programmed to love it. Yay, corporate propaganda!

Brainwashing aside, SMB2 is just a fabulous game. The vibrant colors, surreal landscapes, bouncy music, and well-rendered character sprites all put the original to shame, and while it clearly played differently, with an emphasis on picking up and throwing objects and enemies instead of stomping and shooting fireballs, I was used to different. I first controlled Mario back in Donkey Kong, which was nothing like the next game he was playable in, 1983’s Mario Bros., which was in turn nothing like 1985’s Super Mario Bros., and so on. The way you defeated enemies was completely different each time in those games, so why not again here? Shades of my Zelda 2 review here but I really miss the Nintendo that wasn’t afraid to go back to the drawing board for each new game in a series. And no, controller gimmicks don’t count.

Perhaps most ingenious of all, SMB2 gave you four playable characters to experiment with, each with their own unique style of jumping, running, and lifting objects. Not that I ever wanted to be anyone other than Luigi. Once I got a handle on the sort of insane mobility his superpowered jumps allowed for, the other three just felt hobbled. Princess Toadstool (yes, Toadstool not Peach; I’m a rebel) gets talked up a lot, but she doesn’t come close to matching the green machine’s jump distances horizontally or vertically and she’s slower to pick stuff up, too. Make mine Weegee.

At the end of the day, the SMB2 we got over here is a superior game to the Japanese original in virtually every way. It’s got more polish, more charm, and way more variety. The only thing that the Japanese sequel (known as The Lost Levels) can offer is a high degree of difficulty. Other than that, it barely qualifies as a sequel at all and is more like a lazily-made expansion pack of new levels for the first SMB.

So it seems that cynically targeting ads at children works and sometimes a little bit of condescending cultural chauvinism can be a good thing.

Wow. Those are actually pretty terrible lessons for me to end on. Let me try that again…

…Uh, yay, Luigi!

Clash at Demonhead (NES)

So meta!

I’m off to spend the a few days vacationing in Astoria, Oregon tomorrow (Goonies never say die!) but I still had time to play through one more game last night: Clash at Demonhead for the NES! Clash was developed and published by Vic Tokai and debuted in Japan in 1989 under the title Dengeki (“Blitz”) Big Bang! I feel like I’m super late to the party on this game since I can recall Clash being one of the earliest NES titles to develop a reputation as a cult classic for the system back in the early days of the retro gaming Internet, along with River City Ransom and a select few others. Better late than never? Not always….

Clash at Demonhead is a side-scrolling action-platform game with an open-ended level layout and exploration elements, similar to Nintendo’s celebrated Metroid and Tecmo’s NES version of Rygar. You guide secret agent Billy “Big Bang” Blitz (does he work in porn in his spare time?) through an utterly mad world of rejected googly-eyed Mega Man enemies and hostile cartoon animals in an attempt to stop a group of weirdo terrorists from blowing up the entire world with a “Doomsday Bomb” for reasons so ridiculous that I won’t spoil them for you here. In order to defuse the bomb, you’ll need a total of six medallions held by the game’s various bosses (“governors”) and that means scouring the game’s 42 interconnected levels (“routes”) in order to find them all. It’s a lengthy quest for a console game of the time but thankfully there are passwords (accessed through an item sold at the shop) to save your progress.

Bang has a pretty robust moveset to start out. He can walk, jump, crouch, and shoot straight ahead as well as being able to swim around in bodies of water and climb on certain walls. Various special consumable items you’ll be able to purchase from a shop as the game progresses will add new movement options, such as flying around on a jetpack or even swimming in lava thanks to an armored “super suit.” While the ability to shoot your gun upward would have been nice, the control options you get are not bad at all.

Oh, and there’s also a magic system.  That’s right: This game has robots, ray guns, doomsday bombs, and a bearded mountain hermit who teaches you magic. There are five abilities in total and they include shrinking to fit through narrow passages, levitation (which is honestly a little redundant when you consider that the jetpack is so easy to acquire), teleportation to warp instantly from level to level, and more. It’s just too bad that you’ll probably want to save all of your limited magic points (“force”) for teleporting. The other powers are kind of neat but nothing can compare with the massive convenience of being able to cross the entire map in an instant without needing to traverse a half-dozen stages or more in-between.

The first thing you’ll notice when starting up Clash at Demonhead is that the game is bright, colorful, and very peculiar. The story, setting, and characters are clearly intended to be a simultaneous parody of and homage to a style of comedic action anime that was well-established in Japan at the time but was virtually unknown in the West prior to the international debut of key breakout series like Dragonball and Sailor Moon later on in the 1990s. Certainly, the game’s distinctly non-anime North American box art is a good indicator that the publisher was aware how little experience most of us had with this sort of thing. I get the feeling that a lot of people who first encountered this game around the time of its release would have been pretty intrigued by its wacky, characteristically Japanese style. Clash doesn’t take itself seriously at all. The game’s setting is pure lunacy and resembles the planet Eternia from He-Man and the Master of the Universe far more than it does earth as we know it, character designs and animations are exaggerated and slapstick, and dialog breaks the fourth wall. There are even some play elements that seem to subvert and mock video game clichés, like a boss battle you can’t win and a totally optional sidequest and boss that rewards you with…absolutely nothing. Combine all this with the fact that non-linear adventure style games like this were slim pickings on the NES at the time (despite the success of Metroid in 1986) and it’s easy to see why Clash’s nostalgia factor is so potent for a lot of people. It would have been very a very memorable title indeed.

Unfortunately, with me having no nostalgic ties to the game, Clash at Demonhead just comes off as sort of…well, bad. It’s bad. It’s a bad game. There, I said it. Now that you’re sufficiently incensed, I’ll explain. It all comes down to three things for me: The stiff controls, the wonky mechanics, and the subpar presentation. For starters, the core action-platform gameplay, the thing you spend the entire game doing, just doesn’t feel very good due to how Bang controls. His walking, jumping, and shooting feel awkward and occasionally unresponsive. His hit box also seems like it’s significantly larger than his actual sprite. In fact, many enemies and projectiles also seem to have strange hit boxes and you’ll often find yourself taking damage from things your eyes are telling you that you shouldn’t be. Water in this game is also surprisingly hazardous, despite Bang’s ability to swim. As in many games, being submerged in water will cause your health to slowly drain away to simulate drowning. So far, so good. Unlike in any other game I’ve ever played, however, this process starts the instant Bang’s head dips below the waterline, which happens automatically whenever you jump into a body of water unless you execute a rather tricky double jump off the surface, which is tough to pull off consistently. There’s no “breath holding” period, the damage just triggers instantly even if you immediately bob back up to the surface. You can get around this by wearing a diving suit but it seems strange and counterintuitive to require one just to negotiate the water’s surface safely.

It also should be noted that Clash at Demonhead looks and sounds pretty terrible for a 1989 release. The graphics are colorful to be sure and Bang himself has a ton of cute animations (like a panicked expression when slipping and sliding on ice) that add a lot to his character. I really like the way that wearing a diving suit or a jetpack will cause his sprite to actually change both in and out of cut scenes. Sprites on the whole, though, are on the crude and ugly side just like the simplistic and highly repetitive background graphics. Many enemies, especially flying ones for some reason, also suffer from choppy animation which can make attacking and avoiding airborne targets more iffy than it should be. While we’re on the subject of repetition, Clash at Demonhead’s shrill score is just godawful. When people complain about how the music in old video games was just a bunch of discordant blips and bleeps, it’s not Final Fantasy they’re talking about, it’s Clash at Demonhead. The track that plays in the final enemy stronghold as you’re on your way to defuse the Doomsday Bomb is one of the most atrocious attempts at music I’ve ever heard in my life. I actually stopped what I was doing for a bit just to marvel at the sheer incompetence on display, which is not what most composers are really aiming for, I think. Even if you think that comparing a smaller project from a third party developer like Vic Tokai to something like Metroid is unfair, Rygar by Tecmo, another game with a similar overall design that came out two years prior, looked, sounded, and played leagues better than Clash at Demonhead. It may be weird and it may be funny but under the hood, Clash is all flash.

I will credit Clash at Demonhead with one thing, though: It did inspire me to take my “retro gaming” to a whole other level. While playing, I first attempted to simply remember which of the game’s 42 routes was which, since the in-game map screen shows the overall layout but doesn’t display the route numbers, except for the routes that you’re immediately adjacent to at any given moment. So when I got to the point where a character told me that my next objective was on route 27…Well, let’s just say I spent entirely too much time wandering around trying to remember which one that was again. I consulted the manual only to find that there was no map at all there, just a suggestion that you draw your own and label the routes yourself. I almost hopped online to quickly search up a complete route map but then I found myself thinking: Back at the time this game came out, I probably would have just taken then manual’s advice and made my own. So that’s what I ended up doing instead. Now I have my very own hand-drawn, physical map of Clash at Demonhead on a piece of lined paper. It may be ugly but it works and it’s mine. I can barely remember the last time I drew my own map of a video game and I found the whole exercise to be oddly engaging. I suppose it made me feel a little more like an active participant in the exploration aspect of the game.

If you’re looking for game in the Metroid mold, Clash at Demonhead is still going to be very far down on my list of recommendations but I did manage to have some fun with the crazy setting and characters, the humor, and the process of exploring the game world. It’s very rough around the edges and by no means an essential experience but I’d say that if you like your games weird and you can get it cheap, you might as well give it a go.

As for me, I’ll be waiting for you in my desert fortress on route 33!

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth (NES)

You know, I think I love you, too, game.

Welcome to Wurm: Journey to Center of the Earth (also known as “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space” in Japan), that rarest of beasts: The game with four distinct modes of play and two terrible titles. What an overachiever! Wurm was brought to us in 1991 by lesser-known publisher Asmik and way lesser-known developer Cyclone System. It’s a crazy smorgasbord of vertical, horizontal, and first-person shooter with a dash of side-scrolling run-and-gun thrown in and cinematic cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden’s as the finishing touch. This places Wurm firmly in the quirky NES shooter hybrid camp with Xexyz and The Guardian Legend. While its gameplay doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardian Legend, I found myself charmed and a little taken aback by its somber and surprisingly mature story.

In Wurm, you play as Moby, a young woman with neon green hair almost as strange as her name, who captains the VZR-5, a super high-tech tank with a giant drill on the front that can dig through solid rock but also hover, use a variety of weapons, and even transform into a jet. According to the manual, this vehicle is also the titular “wurm,” but it’s never referred to as such in-game. Moby and the rest of the VZR-5 crew are burrowing deep into the earth’s crust in order to investigate the cause of a mysterious series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that are devastating the surface. She’s also searching for traces of the four earlier VZR ships that were dispatched on the same mission but never returned. Among the crew of these lost ships was her father, Professor Banda, and her love interest, Ziggy. Moby’s a pretty badass “Lady Protagonist” (as the instruction manual describes her) and she proudly sports the same ludicrous green hair/red swimsuit combo as Samus Aran in the first Metroid and the star of the obscure FVM game Time Gal, so she’s okay by me. She soon finds herself exploring a surreal underworld filled with hostile creatures and getting wrapped up in an ongoing war between rival subterranean races.

Wurm consists of five “acts” separated by major plot developments. Each act contains three to five distinct levels that add up to grand total of twenty levels for the entire game. You start the game in a horizontal shooting mode where you guide your tank from left to right, blasting enemies and using your drill to tunnel through walls that otherwise would block progress. Pressing up and the A button will engage hover mode and allow you to leave the ground and fly freely, but this will consume more of your limited fuel. Allow the fuel gauge to run out and you lose. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find additional fuel in the form of pickups from destroyed enemies, so I actually never ran out once during my playthrough. My advice: Engage hover mode right away at the start of each of these stages and never look back. The ground is for losers. You’ll later gain the ability to transform into a jet, which is faster and has its own distinct set of weapons to use but consumes even more fuel and doesn’t have a drill. I found the jet to not be worth the trouble despite looking cool and stuck with the tank in hover mode but it is nice to have options to keep things fresh. Unlike in most shooters, you can take multiple hits and you have a regenerating health bar in the form of your shield meter. If you find your shields getting low, you’ll want to slow down and let them recharge a bit before you’re stuck staring at the game over screen.

Eventually, the screen will start to shake and you’ll transition to a first-person boss fight against a single giant foe. You’ll need to dodge left and right to avoid the enemy’s attacks (or try to shoot its projectiles out of the air before they reach you) while also concentrating your return fire on its weak point. But that’s not all: You’ll also take breaks from the shooting periodically to access a menu where you can converse with the different VZR crew members, who will each offer their advice on how to defeat the boss. This reminds me of the back-and-forth between the different bridge crew members in an episode of Star Trek and really is a standout gameplay element in Wurm that I can’t recall seeing in any other action game of the time. You need talk to your crew in order to restore health points lost during the battle and to raise your possibility percentage. You can’t actually kill the boss and end the fight until your possibility rating reaches 100%, no matter how much you blast away at it prior to that. Talking to some crew members will increase your possibility percentage while speaking to others who might dispense bad or discouraging advice will leave it unaltered or even decrease it. In the end, it takes a combination of lots of accurate shooting and consulting with the right NPCs to bring the boss down. Very unique!

After defeating the boss, Moby will decide that it’s time to leave the VZR and explore some nearby caverns on foot. This leads to yet another gameplay mode where you control Moby directly as she walks and jumps around a side-scrolling level searching for clues to the mysteries of the underworld and lost crew members from the previous VZR missions. During these segments, she can defend herself with a pistol (that has limited shots, so be careful) and a mean roundhouse kick. Anyone who’s played 1988’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode for NES will recognize the similarities here right away. Moby animates and controls just like Golgo does in that game, which is no coincidence, as both projects involved a ton of input from designer and artist Shoichi Yoshikawa. Your robot sidekick in Wurm is even named G-13. Cute. In fact, Yoshikawa himself still maintains to this day a bilingual website devoted to chronicling the story, characters, and oddly elaborate philosophy of Wurm. Pretty cool, if not also a bit strange.

Just when you think there can’t possibly be more, Moby will return to the VZR and suddenly overhead shooting sections are added to the mix! These play out similar to the side-view ones in that you’ll fly around blasting enemies and drilling through walls until you reach a boss. You can still transform between your hover tank and jet forms in overhead mode but the VZR’s ground-based tank form is off-limits here.

So that’s how the game is structured, with the play style continually cycling through these four modes while you encounter new NPCs, plot twists, enemies, and weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. It’s a lot to describe and indeed a lot to take in for new players. Unfortunately, Wurm does fall a bit into the “jack of all trades, master of none” category, as none of these four gameplay styles is a truly extraordinary example of its kind. The horizontal and vertical shooting sections are the best of the lot but they’re really just adequate and a far cry from greats on the system like Life Force or Zanac. The on-foot sections with Moby are by far the weakest, as they feature only five total enemy types to encounter and none of them pose much of a threat or are particularly fun to fight. Wurm is a fairly easy game. I was able to complete it for the first time in about three hours and I was by no means rushing. The levels simply aren’t all that punishing when compared to similar ones in other games of the period. You also get unlimited continues and a password for each act in case you want to take a break and return to the game later.

Wurm looks great for the most part, especially in the anime cut scenes and first-person segments with their large, well-detailed boss monsters and animated backgrounds. Cut scene artwork is heavily recycled throughout but what we get is very well-drawn and expressive. I absolutely love the cheesy 80s/90s sci-fi anime look of everything. The game’s soundtrack is a real treat, too. It really drives home the strange and alien atmosphere of the game’s setting. It sounds exactly like what getting lost in a monster-filled ancient ruin 200 miles beneath the earth should sound like, if that makes any sense.

What really elevates Wurm for me, though, is the storyline. It’s high-minded, tragic, and nuanced in a way that I’ve never seen attempted on the console before. It’s also plenty corny, to be sure. This is anime people fighting against an empire of underground monster men, not Shakespeare. Without spoiling too much, however, I will say that Wurm’s gutsy plot twists and hauntingly ambiguous ending really stuck with me. By the end of this game, not all of your comrades have made it and you’re left to wonder if the surviving characters will be able to learn from the catastrophic mistakes of the past before it’s too late or if history is doomed to repeat itself. Wurm is a title with a message and with subtext that touches on the world outside the game. For all its bombastic sci-fi shenanigans and dodgy dialog, it’s earnestly trying to communicate something important to the player and, in my case, it succeeded. If anything, this is even more uncommon and more interesting than an NES game that combines four gameplay styles into one and it’s the ultimate reason why Wurm gets a high recommendation from me.

If you like shooters, games with brave big-haired Lady Protagonists, and stories that aspired to be more than the usual kid’s stuff before it was cool, you owe it to yourself to give Wurm a go. Just don’t judge it by its awful North American cover art. Jesus.