Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (Famicom)

Murder was the case that they gave me.

Sometimes it’s good to branch out a little. I’m normally pretty content with my platformers, run-and-guns, action RPGs, and shooters. Okay, so “absurdly content” is more like it. Of the over 130 games I’ve covered in detail prior to today’s subject, there’s been only a handful that didn’t center on real time action of some kind. The most recent of these outliers was Chunsoft and Enix’s groundbreaking console RPG Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). It was in that review almost a year ago now that I briefly touched on Dragon Quest lead designer Yuji Horii’s first major success: Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (“The Portopia Serial Murder Case”), a point-and-click adventure game first published for home computers in 1983 and later converted to the Famicom in 1985, where its popularity exploded. Since then, I’ve known that I would take on Portopia itself at some point.

Why? Because it’s completely unknown here in the West despite being one of the most influential games to ever appear on Nintendo’s 8-bit machine. I’m not exaggerating, either. For an entire generation of Japanese gamers, Portopia was a Super Mario or Legend of Zelda magnitude revelation. Clones started popping up almost immediately and the Famicom library as a whole is packed to the gills with menu-driven adventure games, many of which share similar detective mystery themes. Nintendo themselves eventually got in on the act with their Famicom Tantei Club series and celebrity game designer Hideo Kojima credits Portopia as the inspiration for his own Snatcher and Policenauts. Pre-Internet NES owners were largely oblivious to this trend, as none of these text-heavy titles were picked for localization in their day with the sole exception of Hudson Soft’s bizzaro fantasy epic Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom for some reason. The closest thing we had here in North America was the occasional port of a domestic computer adventure game like Maniac Mansion. It wasn’t until the era of the Nintendo DS that heavily Portopia-inspired properties such as Phoenix Wright and Jake Hunter (Tantei Jingūji Saburō) would find themselves a home outside Japan. I’m thankfully able to experience Portopia myself courtesy of the excellent fan translation by DvD Translations.

As with the later Dragon Quest, Horii’s masterstroke here was to start with a genre that was already popular in the small world of early 80s computing and bring it to Famicom owning millions. This involved making some clever tweaks to the user interface in order to ease the transition from a full keyboard to a two-button Famicom pad. The computer version’s text command line is gone entirely, replaced by a menu containing every valid command and a cursor to allow for interaction with people and objects in the game world via those commands. Anyone familiar with ICOM Simulations’ MacVenture titles (Déjà Vu, Uninvited, and Shadowgate) will know the routine. As an aside, actually seeing Portopia’s menu system in action makes me understand at long last what Konami was getting at with those strange first-person adventure segments in The Goonies II. They were consciously attempting to hybridize their first Goonies release with Portopia and doing it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. After thirty long years, beating up on helpless NPCs to progress in Goonies II (also necessary during some of Portopia’s interrogation scenes) finally makes some degree of sense! These bits still aren’t very fun, but at least I get them now. Hallelujah!

In case you’re wondering, the name “Portopia” itself comes from Port Island, a large man-made landmass in the Kobe harbor that was officially opened to the public with a massive festival called Portopia ’81. It was (and is) quite the tourist magnet and triumph of Japanese engineering, so it would have seemed like a cool place to set a mystery story around this time. In the game, the player assumes the role of a seasoned police detective dispatched to investigate the apparent suicide of Kouzou Yamakawa, a wealthy bank president found stabbed to death inside a locked room in his mansion. Of course, nothing is ever that open-and-shut in a tale like this and it doesn’t take you long to determine that Yamakawa was actually the victim of foul play.

Now, when I say the player assumes the lead role in Portopia, I mean it. The game’s silent protagonist goes entirely unseen and unnamed throughout. For all intents and purposes, it’s you on the case. I love this choice, myself. It’s inherently immersive and takes advantage of the interactive medium to present the mystery in a way that just wouldn’t work in a detective novel, where the central figure obviously needs to be described to the audience in some fashion. You’re provided a Watson to your Holmes in the form of your junior detective colleague Yasuhiko “Yasu” Mano. Yasu is mainly there to provide exposition about your surroundings and backstory on the murder victim and the suspects. There turns out to be quite a lot to for the two of you to mull over as you delve into the sordid details of the not-so-innocent victim’s murky past. This is a classic whodunit in the Agatha Christie tradition with all the red herrings and surprise revelations that implies. As a mystery lover myself, I couldn’t help but notice that it bears a striking resemblance to one Christie work in particular. I won’t say which one, just in case you also happen to be well-read in the genre. While a lot of its beats are familiar, Portopia’s storyline actually works as a mystery yarn. Its ultimate solution is fair and the journey is even peppered with those seemingly irrelevant little details and apparent throwaway lines that only assume greater importance in hindsight. I love that trick.

So far, we’ve established that Portopia is a historically important release with a nifty plot. How is it as an adventure game? In a word, rough. Portopia leaves much to be desired aesthetically. The graphics are decidedly crude and unappealing and I’m not just saying that because it’s an old game. For my money, there’s actually a tremendous amount of graphic design skill that goes into making the pixel art for a game as primitive as Pac-Man or Donkey Kong truly timeless. In contrast, Portopia’s in-game art looks like I could have contributed to it, and that is most definitely not a compliment. As far as the soundtrack goes, all I can really say is that I’d critique it if I could. Enix didn’t see fit to include so much as a quick jingle for the title or end screens, just a handful of basic Famicom sound effects dotting a vast sea of stony silence. Conflict between the game’s extensive script and the severely limited space on early Famicom ROM chips likely explains why we didn’t get any music, but I’d venture to say that the graphics could have still been much better drawn if the necessary care had been taken.

Portopia’s frequent game design sins also bear mentioning. While its mystery plot plays remarkably fair by literary standards, its puzzles chuck the point-and-click rulebook out the window with wicked abandon. Numerous plot-crucial bits of evidence are invisible, requiring the player to click small, seemingly empty areas of the screen more or less at random in order to progress. Even worse, one puzzle late in the game that involves finding a secret in a sprawling Wizardry style first-person maze is so cunningly oblique that it comes across as hateful. Suffice to say that the method required to reveal said secret is completely unlike the ones used to investigate literally every other area and object in the game. As much as I generally advise against playing any game with a walkthrough by your side, Portopia’s more hair-pulling moments are so absurd that one could easily argue it cheated first.

Capping this all off, there’s no password or other save mechanism built into the game. It’s short enough that you can beat it in mere handful of minutes once you already know the steps necessary, but if you’re working it all out the first time, expect to devote hours to the task. I hope you’re good at taking down notes in the event you need to break your playthrough up into multiple sessions. In fact, old-school paper note taking is encouraged in general, since adventure games of this vintage weren’t known for their user-friendly in-game journal futures.

What we’re left with here is a great game with no great gameplay in it. In a sea of simple early Famicom arcade ports, platformers, and puzzle games, Portopia was a watershed. A gritty murder mystery set in an authentic modern Japan! Real characters! Plot twists and shocking revelations! Unfortunately, precisely none of this initial thrill is reproducible in 2018. There’s still a solid detective story to be had here if you feel like digging for it, but shoddy presentation and some egregiously unfair puzzles make the total package less of a whodunit and more of a whocares.

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Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of the Peruvian Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

I thought I’d left Transylvania behind with the Halloween season. Wrong. I’ve arrived back here on business: To destroy forever the curse of the evil count, Dracula. For some reason, I just feel like now is the time to revisit what may be the single most divisive game in the entire NES library. Maybe it’s because I finally feel like my game review chops are up to tackling a title that’s been called a masterpiece, an all-time classic, a pioneering action RPG, a mindless grindfest, a needlessly cryptic waste of time, and the black sheep of the entire Castlevania series. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment. Either/or.

Welcome to Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest or Dracula II: Noroi no Fūin (“Dracula II: Seal of the Curse”) as it was called upon its initial 1987 release for the Famicom Disk System. It was converted to cartridge for export to North America the following year and the two versions are largely the same, the exceptions being some seriously dodgy translation work, the loss of the disk format’s built-in save functionality (adequately replaced by 16-character passwords), and some very welcome improvements to the soundtrack made possible by the NES cartridge’s larger memory capacity.

I’ll be reviewing the North American version here, since it’s the one I grew up with. Yes, not only did I have this one as a kid, it was actually the first Castlevania game I ever played. Ironic, considering that it’s also the sole entry from the franchise’s first decade that attempted to deliver anything other than a relatively straightforward action-platforming experience. While not representative of what the series as a whole was about at the time, it was very much the sort of game I was looking for in 1988. Other non-linear action titles such as The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Rygar, and The Goonies II ate up a disproportionate amount of my gaming time during those bygone elementary school years and turn-based RPGs like Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy would soon join the rotation. While I’m all about the fast-paced, high stakes action romps these days, the less patient person I was thirty years back appreciated that games like Simon’s Quest rarely imposed any sort of final game over or other significant penalties for failure. Another key consideration was that I didn’t have anywhere near the staggering variety of software to choose from that I do today. A new game I can complete in single evening is a boon to me now, but it would have been a disaster back when birthdays and Christmases were the only guaranteed opportunities to expand my meager library of cartridges.

Simon’s Quest put players back in the boots of Simon Belmont, vampire hunter extraordinaire and hero of the original Castlevania and its many retellings. In fact, this is the only one out of the five total sequels starring Simon to actually continue his story rather than being a remake or reimagining of his debut outing. Talk about an influential release! Anyway, the story this time goes that Dracula has been destroyed, but the vanquished vamp has somehow managed to lay a potent curse on our boy Simon from beyond the grave. Unless he can gather five parts of the count’s body (each of which is hidden in a different monster-infested mansion somewhere in the Transylvanian countryside), return the pieces to the ruins of the castle where the first battle took place, and use them to resurrect his arch-enemy and defeat him a second time, Simon is doomed to weaken and die in short order.

So does this one still hold up all these years later? Buckle your seat belts, boys and girls, because the truth of the matter of far from that simple. Simon’s Quest is one hauntingly beautiful, sublimely atmospheric cluster of dull design decisions.

First, the good. Noriyasu Togakushi’s pixel art and Kenichi Matsubara’s music are both superb and I consider Simon’s Quest to be right up there with Nintendo’s own Metroid as a successful early attempt to convey a real sense of isolation and dread through savvy use of limited hardware. Of course, no Castlevania is a true horror game in the sense of being out to disturb players on a deep emotional level or even frighten them out of their wits. Konami wouldn’t explore that option until 1999 with Silent Hill. Instead, Simon’s Quest is a delightfully spooky experience, much like the classic Universal and Hammer monster movies that inspired it. An oppressive gloom lingers over the blasted moors, tangled forests, dank swamps, and crumbling graveyards that make up Belmont’s Transylvania. The addition of a day and night cycle to the game world adds to this eerie ambiance and also impacts the gameplay. Enemies are more durable by night and the shops and other buildings in town are all shuttered. After all these years, the world of Castlevania II remains one hell of a mesmerizing place to get yourself lost for a few hours.

It’s only when you start to dig into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll actually be doing during that time that the many cracks in the game’s foundation become apparent. For starters, it doesn’t seem to value its players’ time very highly. You’ll need to make sure to collect plenty of the hearts dropped by defeated enemies, as these function as both experience points that go toward boosting Simon’s maximum health and currency for buying items from merchants. Unlike in Metroid or Rygar, for example, where all key items and upgrades are acquired through exploration alone, Simon is also required to pay out at regular intervals if he wants to advance. A primary example of this are the oak stakes that you need to purchase inside the mansions in order to retrieve Dracula’s body parts from the otherwise unbreakable orbs encasing them. These stakes are single-use items, so that’s a mandatory fifty heart expenditure per mansion. By the time you reach the stake merchant, you’ll either have the necessary cash or you’ll be forced to spend a few minutes walking back and forth whipping the same respawning skeletons over and over to earn it. Neither of these two alternatives is fun or even interesting in any way and this entire business of grinding hearts to buy gear is pure busywork; a sort of time tax artificially imposed on the player in an effort to pad the gameplay time out. Even the day/night cycle I praised above contributes to this at times. Imagine you’ve been patiently saving up 200 hearts for a whip upgrade only to have night fall just when you’re about to reach the town. Hope you enjoy camping out waiting for a shop to open like an unemployed game console fanboy on launch day. The Legend of Zelda handled this aspect much better by allowing Link to visit shops to purchase helpful items while never actually requiring him to do so in order to complete his quest.

We also have to consider the infamously cryptic puzzles and poor quality translation. There are a few instances where the player is expected to perform some very specific, very non-intuitive actions to progress and the in-game advice provided in these instances is simply too mangled to serve its intended purpose. This means that players who haven’t been tipped off about these potential bottlenecks in advance will almost certainly be stymied. I used good old Nintendo Power magazine back in the day. Thankfully, ready Internet access means that you don’t need a magazine subscription to enjoy the game anymore. You can even download fan-made re-translation hacks if you’re serious about not cheating by consulting a walkthrough. Still, no game should ever require outside assistance to make progress and the official English language release of Simon’s Quest absolutely does.

All of these tedious and confusing elements could be forgiven if only the core gameplay was up to par with the other Castlevania titles. It never comes closes, however, and this is Castlevania II’s fatal flaw for me: It’s an action RPG built around some truly pathetic action. Simon himself controls much like he did in his first outing, barring a few minor tweaks like a slightly faster attack speed and the tendency to fall off staircases if he takes a hit while climbing. Fair enough. The problem is that shockingly little care seems to have been taken to insure that level layouts and enemy placement provide a fitting challenge for our whip-cracking hero. In the first game and most of the sequels that take their cues from it, every platform, every pitfall, and every monster that appears feels meticulously planned to pose a specific challenge to the player. The level design here consists primarily of flat stretches of ground sparsely-populated with listless enemies that rarely pose much of a threat due to their slow movement and simple patterns. The classic medusa head baddies, for example, don’t even fly in their characteristic sine wave formations and instead drift ever so slowly toward Simon in a straight line, practically begging to be swatted out of the sky. The levels also rarely bother to combine the combat and platforming together to build richer composite challenges for the player. Leaping over a hole or two with nothing else around to complicate matters isn’t exactly compelling stuff. The jokes that Simon’s Quest has the nerve to serve up as bosses merit particular scorn, too. There are only three of them in the entire game, including Dracula himself, and all can be easily defeated on the first try with a bare minimum of thought or effort. Most mansions don’t have any boss to fight at all! That whole routine with the oak stakes I mentioned above? That’s the climax waiting for you at the end of most of them. Thrilling.

Advocates for Simon’s Quest frequently claim that it’s similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in that it gets picked on merely for being different from its more successful predecessor. Nonsense. What betrays this false equivalence is that Zelda II’s action is some of the most exciting and addictive to be found anywhere in the NES library and its level and enemy design actually help rather than hinder it. Link’s movement and swordplay are both exhilarating and the areas he traverses are formulated to constantly push players to focus and hone their skills as they explore. Although it still has its share of cryptic riddles, it’s overall an 8-bit action RPG done right and the difference between the two games is, fittingly enough, day and night. So while it may be easiest to illustrate some of Castlevania II’s more glaring faults by comparing it to the original, simply using something like Zelda II instead is sufficient to show that those faults are still present in any case.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is a brooding, immersive experience that will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s also a notably poor excuse for an action RPG that I can’t really recommend to anyone who isn’t a compulsive Castlevania completionist or looking to relive a cherished part of their childhood. If you really love the promise it represents, it did serve as the inspiration for at least eight future Castlevania releases with RPG elements (starting with 1997’s Symphony of the Night) and any one of them would make for a much better time. On the NES specifically, I’d direct you toward either of the Zelda titles, Crystalis, Rygar, Metroid, The Battle of Olympus, or Willow. As much as I wanted to play my beloved contrarian card on this one, I’d honestly rather hit Deborah Cliff with my head to make a hole than slog through this quest again.

Bucky O’Hare (NES)

I knew I should have taken that left turn at Space Albuquerque.

What’s this? An under-the-radar Konami action game based on a short-lived American anthropomorphic animal toy line? I’m getting major Moo Mesa flashbacks here, guys. Yes, Bucky O’Hare is another of the countless critter-themed media properties that made doomed attempts to hitch themselves to that sweet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cash train back in the early 90s. In all fairness to its creators, Bucky isn’t a Turtles clone in the truest sense. Writer Larry Hama and artist Michael Golden first conceived of the title character in the late 70s and he made his print debut in 1984 courtesy of the now defunct Continuity Comics. This first run of Bucky books was brief, however, and the series then went dormant until 1991, when producers seemed willing to roll the dice on anything that showcased talking animal characters in action roles. The syndicated cartoon Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars lasted a single season and Hasbro supported it with an equally brief run of vehicles and action figures. More importantly for me, Konami released two separate video game adaptations in 1992: An arcade-exclusive beat-‘em-up and the NES action-platformer I’m reviewing today. After this second burst of activity, Bucky and friends went silent again and haven’t been heard from since.

I’ve never read the comic books or watched the show, but I’ll sketch out the premise as best I can. Briefly, Captain Bucky O’Hare and the crew of his spaceship The Righteous Indignation are tasked with spearheading the resistance against a marauding interstellar empire of evil toads. It’s Looney Tunes meets Star Wars. Or perhaps a furry retelling of Blake’s 7, minus the downer ending. Bucky’s allies include Jenny the psionic cat, trigger-happy Deadeye Duck, AFC (Android First Class) Blinky, and a human boy genius from Earth named Willy DuWitt. The game’s simple plot opens with the four sidekicks mentioned above getting captured by the toads and Bucky on a mission to rescue them.

The NES Bucky O’Hare has a long-standing reputation as a “hidden gem” on the system and I was expecting quite a lot from it as a late period release from my favorite classic developer. It’s often described as Konami’s spin on their competitor Capcom’s Mega Man series and this comparison does hold true to a point. Similar to how most Mega Man titles begin by presenting you with a menu of eight stages that can be attempted in any order, Bucky’s level select screen allows you to choose between four planets (creatively dubbed Red, Green, Blue, and Yellow). Each planet has a distinct theme (fire for the Red planet, ice for the Blue, etc.) and a different ally imprisoned on it. Completing a planet unlocks the ability to switch to the newly rescued character at any time using the Select button. There’s a constant incentive to do this, as each member of the crew has his or her own primary attack and special power. Bucky, for example, fires straight ahead and his power is an appropriately hare-like super jump that allows him to reach high platforms the other characters can’t. Deadeye has a triple spread shot (with limited range, sadly) and can climb up walls using his special ability. On a mechanical level, this option to switch between any of the characters in your party on the fly functions much like the weapon switching in a Mega Man title. All your characters still share a common health meter, though, so don’t go thinking you switch them out just to absorb more hits in a pinch.

These first four opening levels didn’t just meet my high expectations, they blew them clear out of the water! The music is catchy, the graphics are among the best on the system, and the amount of sheer creativity packed into each and every screen practically beggars belief. Each planet is broken up into numerous distinct sub-areas with their own gameplay gimmicks. The Red Planet opens with a section where you leap over pits of fire while shooting at enemy toads and dodging bits of molten rock bursting from both the pits themselves and the volcanoes in the background. Next is a cave where boulders have to be pushed into magma floes to allow for safe passage. After that, a vertical segment where you have to outrace streams of fast-moving lava while descending a shaft. Then comes a series of leaps between tiny platforms over a fiery chasm while dodging the arcs of flame that periodically rush up from below (shades of the fire level from Life Force here). Survive that and there’s another vertical section of moving platforms and spiked walls. The final platforming section forces you to alternate between leaping over a giant rolling green sphere and riding that very same sphere to safety over a sea of deadly spikes. Only after all that do you reach one of the game’s excellent boss fights against…the green sphere, which opens up to reveal that it’s actually a laser-shooting vehicle piloted by one of the toads. This is all just one level! Long-time gaming aficionados will recognize the influence of the game’s director, Masato Maegawa, who left Konami to co-found Treasure just few months after finishing his work on Bucky O’Hare. The same sense of joyful experimentation and endless novelty that later informed classic Treasure releases like Dynamite Headdy and Gunstar Heroes is very much evident in the level design here.

The only real complaint I can muster about the first half of Bucky O’Hare involves the way that the various special powers of the heroes are utilized. You need to hold down the fire button in order to charge these abilities up first and then release it to trigger them. The downside to this is that your character is stuck standing in place during the entire process. Any experienced Mega Man player will be familiar with the way the Blue Bomber can freely charge up his Mega Buster while continuing to run, jump, and climb around the stage as normal. You don’t have that sort of flexibility here and it can be detrimental to the flow of platforming and combat alike to have to stop dead in your tracks for several seconds at a time whenever you want to use a special ability.

This control quirk is annoying, but hardly a deal breaker. If it was the only mark against the game, we might just have a top ten NES action contender on our hands here. Tragically, Bucky O’Hare has one other flaw that’s a bit tougher to gloss over: Its entire second half. It’s here where the Mega Man influence takes a back seat and the game reveals that it also pulls double duty as Konami’s take on Battletoads.

Immediately after clearing the fourth planet, The Righteous Indignation is captured by a colossal toad mother ship and Bucky is forced to gather his crew all over again so they can escape together. Obviously, this twist is purely repetitive from a story standpoint. You literally just got done saving these exact same good guys from these exact same villains. It also regresses the gameplay by stripping away most of the cool special abilities you spent the better part of the last hour unlocking and then expecting you to do it all over again. The remainder of the game takes place entirely within this toad ship, with no further allowance made for player choice when it comes to the stage order.

Most troubling of all, the art direction and level design both take a sharp turn for the worse at this point. The unique themes and colorful environments of the four planets give way to what feels like an endless expanse of drab industrial corridor studded with a downright silly amount of spikes and other instant death traps. It’s the old “Why doesn’t Dr. Wily just build his whole fortress out of those spikes?” gag made real. From here on out, it starts to feel increasingly redundant for Bucky and friends to have a health bar at all outside of the boss fights. You’ll either trial-and-error your way past all the insta-kill garbage littering a given portion of a stage or you won’t.

This isn’t to say that Bucky O’Hare is too difficult. It isn’t. In fact, it resembles a modern game in its reluctance to punish players in any way. You’re given unlimited continues, checkpoints every couple of screens, and even a password system. At no point will you ever be forced to repeat a section of level you’ve already completed. No, the real problem is that these later stages are entirely too rigid for their own good. There’s a general over-reliance on forcing the player to tackle each little obstacle course just so. This zero tolerance policy toward imperfect play means no real breathing room; no support for improvisation, close calls, and other happy byproducts of player spontaneity.

I don’t want to risk leaving you with the impression that Bucky O’Hare makes for a bad overall experience. If my disappointment reads as extreme over the last few paragraphs, it’s only because things started off so damn strong. Those first four levels are some of the coolest the NES would ever see, the five playable characters allow for varied approaches to many of the challenges, and the usual Konami glitz and polish is always a draw unto itself. It fumbles a bit in its second half, ultimately falling short of becoming one of my personal favorites, but I still recommend checking it out, especially if you have the means to do so without paying the heavy premiums it typically commands on the secondary market. It’s a fine game, just a couple hare-brained decisions away from being a masterpiece.

Final Mission (Famicom)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famicom)

The fools! They said I was mad! Mad! Well, I’ll show them! I’ll achieve both endings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Two full playthroughs! And it will be the more difficult Famicom version with its extra levels and enemies! Then we’ll see who’s mad! Ahahahahaha!

Whew! Sorry. I don’t know what came over me there. Just had to get that out of my system, I guess. I’m alright now. Really.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 work Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an awful lot going on in and around it for a short novella. This tragic tale of an upstanding London physician that seeks to free himself from his base, “evil” impulses through means of an experimental chemical concoction has seemingly attracted as many interpretations over the years as it has readers. There’s the classic psychological take, of course, which posits that Jekyll’s stubborn insistence on denying and suppressing his shadow side rather than healthily integrating it into his greater personality was his ultimate undoing. Many also cite it a condemnation of rigid Victorian social mores, where an outward façade of performative respectability frequently masked the messy reality of the human condition. It’s also been approached as an addiction allegory, a commentary on the British class system, a symbolic representation of the relationship between England and Stevenson’s native Scotland, and more.

It’s enough to make you wish you could reach back through time and interrogate the author himself in order to determine what he really had in mind. In that same vein, I’d love to be able to ask the uncredited development staff at Advance Communication Company what they were thinking when they birthed their 8-bit adaptation of Stevenson’s opus onto the Famicom over a century later in 1988. In its own bizarre way, their Jekyll Hakase no Houma ga Toki (“Dr. Jekyll’s Hour of the Wandering Monstrosity”) is almost as difficult to pin down as its literary inspiration. Houma ga Toki (which I’ll refer to using its North American title from this point on for simplicity’s sake) is a truly a game unlike any other for the system. This isn’t just because it’s a case of a 20th century Japanese video game developer drawing on 19th century English language literature for inspiration, either. That happened more often than you might think. Two completely unrelated games based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hit the Famicom in 1989 and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes also made multiple appearances on the platform. No, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is special because it’s the earliest example I can cite of a developer attempting to use the medium of gameplay itself to depict a conflict taking place within a fictional character’s psyche. Despite its very real flaws and horrendous reputation online, the mere fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all things pioneered techniques that would make critical darlings of titles like Silent Hill 2 and Celeste decades later is worthy of acknowledgement and, I dare say, respect.

As usual, though, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to be that most common of things: An 8-bit side-scrolling action-platformer. The plot focuses on Henry Jekyll’s attempt to make his way across town on foot from his laboratory to the church in order to attend his own wedding to his fiancée Millicent, an apparently mundane task that will still end up taxing the player’s skill and patience to a prodigious degree. Incidentally, this notion of Jekyll having a love interest named Millicent is a clear reference to the 1920 silent film version by Paramount Pictures. This is the only instance I spotted of a callback to any other specific prior adaptation of the tale.

To reach the church, Jekyll has only to walk from left to right across a total of six stages representing different parts of town. These include a village, parks, a graveyard, and several different street scenes. These stages themselves are the reason that I recommend you skip the 1989 North American version of the game altogether and stick to the Famicom original. For unknown reasons, publisher Bandai opted to remove two entire levels from the NES release and fell back on lazy repeats of the village and cemetery areas to pad the final product out to an acceptable length. That’s a full third of the game gone! Most speculation I’ve see about this change centers on a specific lady character that appeared in the cut levels and would beckon Jekyll into her home and restore his lost health off-screen. It’s thought that Bandai staff may have been concerned that this would be perceived as an illicit sexual encounter and consequently run afoul of Nintendo of America’s strict family friendly content guidelines. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. Why would this necessitate removing whole stages instead of just the offending character? Why would it be a problem at all when Nintendo had already famously included a virtually identical suggestive healing scenario in their own Zelda II: The Adventure of Link? We may never know for sure. In any case, avoid the butchered NES release at all costs.

No matter which version you’re playing, you’ll find Dr. Jekyll’s walk in the park to be, well, no walk in the park. There’s a veritable mob of relentless enemies standing between him and wedded bliss. In an amusing twist on the usual action game formula, the majority of them are not out to harm Jekyll per se. Instead, most of the threats he’ll encounter simply annoy the good doctor. He’ll be forced to confront obstacles like pushy pedestrians, bratty kids with slingshots, defecating birds, pesky insects, ill-tempered dogs and cats, a gravedigger carelessly tossing clots of dirt over his shoulder, and a terrible singer that fills the screen with hazardous musical notes. Most of these deal little to no damage to Jekyll’s health meter and instead fill up a second “stress” meter on contact. Maybe it’s because I use public transportation a lot in real life, but I find Jekyll’s struggling to keep his temper in the midst of his boorish neighbors to be extremely relatable. Play as Jekyll is completely defensive in nature, with the player striving to reach the end of the level while ducking or jumping over hazards and taking on as little stress as possible. There’s no fighting back, apart from the option to use the doctor’s cane to swat the occasional stinging bee out of the air. When the stress meter inevitably fills up completely, Jekyll will fall prone and assume the form of his alter-ego Hyde.

The Hyde half of the game bears much more resemblance to a conventional action title. That said, it remains deeply odd in its own way. The setting shifts from a sunny morning in jolly old England to a darkened wasteland of dilapidated ruins populated by vicious monsters. The instruction manual refers to this place as the World of Demons and careful observation reveals that it has the exact same layout as the normal London of Jekyll, just redrawn in a more sinister style and scrolling in reverse from left to right. Think of it as a twisted mirror image, not unlike Edward Hyde himself. I can’t help but wondered if this World of Demons and its inhabitants is intended to be a real place or if these levels are simply a symbolic representation of Jekyll’s “inner demons.” I lean toward the latter interpretation, but it will likely remain a mystery indefinitely unless one of the game’s anonymous creators steps out of the shadows for an interview someday. The screen scrolls automatically for Hyde, which is potentially quite dangerous. If he should ever reach the spot in the World of Demons that corresponds to where Jekyll transformed, he’ll be killed instantly by a bolt from heaven, as this apparently represents evil triumphing over good. Before that can happen, he’ll want to kill as many demons as possible. Each one destroyed will lower the stress meter and emptying it completely will trigger the return to Jekyll form and the world of daylight. Playing as Hyde is therefore all about killing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hyde has two attacks at his disposal: A basic short range punch and a boomeranging fireball attack called the Psycho Wave that can be tricky to aim at times, but is a much stronger option overall. You’ll also need to make sure you minimize contact with the enemy while you’re blasting away, since all damage in the World of Demons is deducted from the health meter and if it runs dry, the game is over.

This regular cycling between passive avoidance and furious aggression is what constitutes the core of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. You persevere the best you can as poor put-upon Jekyll, getting pestered, bullied, and literally shit on (in the case of those birds) at every turn until you just can’t take it anymore and unleash your raging id in the form of Hyde to rampage all that pent-up stress away. Just make sure Hyde never gains the upper hand for too long or you’ll regret it. All bets are off in the sixth and final stage, however. Here, the rule prohibiting Hyde from outpacing Jekyll is suspended and it becomes an all-out race to the finish. Whichever persona reaches the church in their version of reality first is the victor and the player then receives one of two different endings.

If you’ve never actually played the game before and don’t recognize it from its appearances on countless “worst of the NES” lists, you may well come away from my introduction and summary thinking that it sounds pretty fantastic. Unique and varied gameplay? Intriguing themes? Wicked sense of humor? Formidable challenge? These are all present, to be sure. Jekyll and Hyde even looks and sounds the part thanks to some highly detailed graphics and an atmospheric score by Michiharu Hasuya (the only individual confirmed to have contributed to the game) that lend both the light and dark versions of London considerable presence. It’s only when you sit down with controller in hand and attempt to actually enjoy all of this that cracks start show and the game gradually unveils its own hidden evil streak.

First, we have glaring control issues that leave each character hobbled in his own blatantly unnecessary way. Dr. Jekyll is undoubtedly one of the slowest characters in gaming history and far too much of the challenge stems from the fact that can never manage more than a stiff waddle regardless of how much mayhem there is to dodge in his immediate vicinity. Now, I do feel that I understand and appreciate the intent of the Jekyll gameplay. The developers are deliberately baiting you, trying to make you feel just as harried and irritated as your defenseless avatar. You “win” these sections by not taking that bait and remaining cool and calm as you patiently navigate the maze of enemies and hazards in your path. To excel as Jekyll, you have to think like Jekyll and retain your composure in the face of every setback. I get it, but it’s still no excuse. I’m confident that this idea could have still been effectively realized even if Jekyll were able to move around at an acceptable pace. His agonizing slowness smacks of padding and not an essential design element. On the other hand, Hyde’s weakness is not his speed, but the clunky way the game restricts him to moving about within a limited area. There’s a sort of invisible wall running down the center of the screen that confines Hyde to the right side at all times. This is not only arbitrarily constricting, it also leads to bad outcomes in the few areas where it’s necessary for Hyde to leap over holes in the ground. If he should bump into that invisible wall while in the air, it can funnel him straight down into the gap.

Terrible enemy placement is another constant problem. The Jekyll sections are guilty of overusing one specific baddie to the point of absurdity: The Bomb Maniacs. These jerks appear in droves in every single stage to plant bombs right in the doctor’s path. The bombs themselves deal by far the most health and stress damage of anything in the game and their blasts must be evaded at all costs. To do that, Jekyll will usually need to turn around immediately and trudge back the way he came. The result of all this is an already ludicrously slow protagonist being bogged down even more. It’s sometimes possible for minutes to go by with the screen not advancing so much as an inch as a fresh Bomb Maniac continually appears the instant the previous one’s bomb finishes exploding. Adding insult to injury, the explosions themselves are as deceptive as they are devastating due to having hit boxes massively larger than their on-screen graphics. Jekyll can be standing inches away from the blast and still receive damage. Again, the Hyde levels have their share of sloppiness, too. Fast moving flying enemies can sometimes spawn in right behind Hyde when he’s near the top of the screen, leaving him effectively no time to dodge them.

This all obviously comes off as highly inconsiderate and amateurish design, but the restrictive movement and nasty enemy placement aren’t even the game’s biggest flaws for me. No, what hurts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde more than anything else is simply that’s it’s terrible at communicating its own rules. Similar to Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this a game that’s impossible to pick up and enjoy without a thorough understanding of its many unorthodox mechanics and that, along with the bandwagon effect, are the primary reasons for its exaggerated infamy. This isn’t a Super Mario Bros. style experience where you can just shove that cartridge in, power on, and start having fun. No, you need to read the instructions first. This wouldn’t be so bad if the ones provided with the game were competently done. Unfortunately, even the official manual omits key information. Take Jekyll’s cane, for example, which is often dismissed as being useless except for swatting bees. The cane’s actual use goes completely unremarked upon in the manual. In fact, you can whack pedestrians with it in order to increase Jekyll’s stress level. Why would you ever want to do this? Because there are times when it can actually be beneficial or even necessary to transform into Hyde, as successfully completing a Hyde section of the game refills the health meter and clears away all enemies and obstacles that were on the same screen as Jekyll when he initially transformed. Similar confusion surrounds Hyde’s punch. It seems at first like it’s simply a weak attack that’s completely superfluous in light of the Psycho Wave. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that the punch is primarily a defensive tool. It can deflect many enemy projectiles if timed properly. This application is so obscure and non-intuitive that I didn’t even stumble across it until after I’d already completed the entire game twice! Perhaps most negligent of all, there’s no indication anywhere in the North American instructions that the standard rule about Hyde not being able to progress further than Jekyll no longer applies in the final stage. There’s no logical reason that a player should expect this to be the case, so you would think it to be at be least be worth mentioning. Nope. Without knowing this, it’s unlikely that most players would ever encounter the final boss as Hyde and receive the better of the game’s two endings. Just awful. To its credit, the manual for the Famicom version does at least hint at how to achieve the Hyde ending, although it does an equally poor job of explaining the cane and punch.

Want to know the strangest fact of all regarding this case? I quite enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Enough to recommend it to any patient, open-minded gamer up for a challenge. Despite what you may have heard, the more complete Famicom version is a long way from being from the worst option available for the system. Sure, it’s needlessly opaque and it burdens its players with some profound balance and control issues. If you manage to make peace with that, though, you may just find yourself won over by its creepy mood, quirky humor, and groundbreaking take on the psychological themes of its source material. Imperfect as it is, somebody behind the scenes was working from a vision and it shows. After all, only Jekyll can reach the final stage of the game, yet he must ultimately accept the duality of his existence and enlist the help of Hyde in order to achieve the best ending. Carl Jung would be proud. If anything, I’d classify this one as an acquired taste and place it in the same “weird, maddening fun” box as Fester’s Quest and Silver Surfer. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying a sip.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is equal parts trick and treat, so on that note: Happy Halloween to one and all! It’s going to be a long next 364 days….

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)

*sniff* I’m not crying. You’re crying!

Jaleco’s Avenging Spirit is a game fraught with contradiction. It pairs a cutsey art style with one of most grim, depressing plots of its era. It’s a highly creative, even innovative release from a “me, too” publisher. It’s an expensive title for the Game Boy, a system renowned for being dirt cheap to collect for. Finally, and to its greatest detriment, it’s widely ignored despite being one of the most interesting and varied action-platformers available for Nintendo’s old gray brick.

Avenging Spirit began its (un)life as a 1991 release for Japanese arcades under the title Phantasm. This name was changed for the international versions, most likely in order to prevent confusion with director Don Coscarelli’s horror film series of the same name. It was the creation of CP.BRAiN, an obscure and long-extinct development studio founded by former Aicom designer Tokuhiro Takemori (The Legendary Axe, Astyanax). Strangely, this 1992 Game Boy conversion is the only home port it would ever receive, despite the arcade cabinet’s colorful visuals being much better-suited for the 16-bit systems of the time. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on the game’s length (just six short stages) as the reason Jaleco went the handheld route instead of pitting Avenging Spirit against the likes of Super Mario World and Sonic 2. This is pure conjecture, however.

The adventure kicks off with a very well-rendered cut scene of a happy young couple strolling arm-in-arm. Their bliss doesn’t last long, as they’re quickly confronted by a pair of pistol-packing gangsters. The girl is abducted by the thugs and her boyfriend is shot dead on the spot when he tries to intervene. Yikes! I’m scratching my head here trying to think of another Game Boy title that goes from zero to cold blooded murder in about thirty seconds flat and coming up short. Jaleco certainly showed some nerve with this one. It turns out that we haven’t heard the last from this unnamed boy character. The game’s pervasive tonal whiplash kicks it right away as he regains consciousness in a laboratory only to discover that he’s taken on the form of a classic Halloween sheet ghost, doofy grin and all. As it happens, the girl’s father is a scientist specializing in “ghost energy” and the crooks that kidnapped his daughter are looking to extort him for his research. Rather than letting such dangerous knowledge fall into the wrong hands, the scientist has summoned the boy’s spirit in order to convince him to embark on a rescue/revenge mission. In order to do that, though, the harmless little ghost boy is going to need a new body. Or ten.

Yes, Avenging Spirit is the original game about creepily possessing the bodies of your enemies and using them as sacrificial pawns to further your own violent agenda. Eat your heart out, Super Mario! On his own, the ghost is limited to drifting around the stage slowly and he can’t even do that for very long. He has a spirit energy meter that depletes rapidly any time he’s not possessing a host. Run out of energy and it’s game over. Fortunately, you’re provided unlimited continues to work with, so exploring the levels and trying out different approaches is never penalized too harshly.

Every non-boss enemy in the game is playable and no two are exactly alike. Each has a unique way of attacking and a different distribution of standard variables like maximum health, walk speed, and jump height. An odd few even have miscellaneous special abilities like flight or invisibility. Most of the fun here comes from “test driving” as many different enemy characters as possible and discovering which ones best suit your play style. Of course, there will also be those times when you lack the energy reserves to be choosy and are forced to latch onto the closest available victim.

The design of all these foes is where the developers’ strange sense of humor was apparently given free reign. Beyond the typical gun-wielding mafioso types you’d expect, you also square off against ninja, robots, dragons, wizards, vampires (in boxer shorts!), and baseball players. Say what you will about these criminals, but they’ve got the workplace diversity thing down pat. Every level thrown new types into the mix, insuring that the core gameplay is never permitted to stagnate. While some hosts are very clearly stronger options than others, I’m not inclined to take this a flaw. Instead, I think it’s best viewed as an on-the-fly difficulty select for players. Playing through a given stage as a fast, durable, rocket-shooting robot certainly makes for a much easier time than controlling a standard flunkie, but a skilled player familiar with the ins and outs of that stage may still opt for the latter in the interest of maintaining challenge.

If the gameplay can be said to have a major weakness, it would be that the movement of the on-screen characters is a bit on the slow and floaty side. This is sadly a common issue shared by many Game Boy platformers and seems to be largely intentional. The LCD screens on most Game Boy models are famously prone to distracting motion blur whenever fast-moving objects are displayed. Smart game designers would typically compensate by slowing the action down a touch when compared to a similar game for a home console. At least it doesn’t come off any worse than usual here and it shouldn’t affect your enjoyment much if you’re already accustomed to the more leisurely pace of Game Boy titles in general.

Other than that, Avenging Spirit is everything you could want in a portable 8-bit platformer. It looks great, sounds great, and packs an uncommon degree of depth and replay value courtesy of its huge roster of playable characters. It’s also one of the earliest examples I can cite of the “enemy ability hijacking” mechanic. Its most obvious forerunner is Capcom’s Little Nemo: The Dream Master from 1990, although the far gentler Nemo relied on befriending cute animals with candy rather than spectral body snatching. It would be another two years before HAL Laboratory took the disturbing imagery to a whole new level in Kirby’s Adventure. Eating your enemies alive to gain their powers? Now that’s brutal.

Personally, what fascinates me about this one is its chaotic mish-mash of tones. I was obviously exaggerating for humorous effect with the Kirby thing just now, but I was not at all kidding when I noted that Avenging Spirit’s storyline is resolutely bleak. The main character is effectively sent on a post-homicide suicide mission and there is no happily ever after for him. Whether he succeeds or fails, it’s made quite clear that his spirit is fated to fade away in a relatively short time. The best he can hope for is to save his girlfriend before that comes to pass and even this outcome is not a given. If you fail to find all three of the keys hidden in out-of-the-way rooms over the course of the game, you’ll be unable to open the door where the girlfriend character is imprisoned at the end and she’ll be killed when the enemy base explodes! There are therefore two possible endings, both of which are legitimate tearjerkers in their own ways. Outside of the cut scenes, though? 100% chibi style cartoon mayhem where vampires in their underwear battle killer baseball players. The game’s creators have essentially mashed up the script for The Crow with the visual design of Caspar the Friendly Ghost and I’m in awe of the result. The surreal dissonance of it all amounts to one of those truly singular gaming experiences for me. It lingers in the mind long after you’ve powered off your console.

In other words, Avenging Spirit is haunting.