Legendary Wings (NES)

What’s human race ever done for me, huh? Buncha freeloaders!

Over the course of this past summer, I somehow managed to acquire not just one, but two new games about scantily-clad muscle dudes with angel wings that fly around blasting robots and aliens. I wasn’t trying for this or anything. It just happened. Really.

First up is Legendary Wings, Capcom’s 1988 NES port of their own 1986 arcade shooter/platformer hybrid. Strangely, this was a North American exclusive and Legendary Wings (aka Aresu no Tsubasa, “The Wings of Ares”) wouldn’t see a proper home release in its country of origin until 2006, when the arcade original was included in the first Capcom Classics Collection.

The game centers on two warriors who are bestowed “wings of love” by the god Ares so that they can defend the earth from Dark, an alien supercomputer that has recently turned against humans after years of helping them. Exactly where this computer came from, why it was helping us, and what made it change its mind and start rampaging is never explored. Still, what more can you really expect from a thirty year-old shooter? At the very least, this setup works to prepare players for the blending of mystical and science fiction elements that defines the game’s visuals. Battling ornate stone colossi and mythic creatures like dragons alongside spaceships and laser cannons is a bit less jarring with some lead-in.

The warriors themselves originally consisted of two named characters, Michelle Heart and Kevin Walker. Here on the NES, it’s two anonymous male figures in thigh-high boots and matching briefs. Seems Capcom either judged Michelle’s teeny red bikini to be too spicy for Western eyes or they just didn’t want to squander limited cartridge memory on two distinct player sprites. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Kevin and his twin brother, Kevin 2: The Quickening. I’m going with that last one.

This version of Legendary Wings draws a lot of comparisons to Konami’s beloved spaceship shooter Life Force and it’s not hard to see why. Both are arcade ports from major publishers that hit the console around the same time and feature two-player simultaneous play through a mixture of vertically and horizontally scrolling stages. The horizontal levels in the arcade Legendary Wings were basic platforming exercises in which your heroes gave their flappers a rest in favor of slowly trundling along the ground, climbing ladders, and jumping gaps Donkey Kong style. Here, they’re re-imagined as much faster airborne auto-scrolling segments in the Gradius tradition. While I do find this to be a huge improvement in terms of keeping the action brisk and engaging, it also makes those Life Force comparisons all the more difficult to avoid. This is unfortunate, because while Legendary Wings is a well-made, appealing game in its own right, it’s also no match for Konami’s classic.

Legendary Wings’ shortcomings are primary the result of spreading a small amount of high quality content paper-thin over a rather lengthy game. The adventure is divided up into five areas, with each consisting of an outdoor overhead stage followed by a side-view stage set inside a palace. Unusually for the genre, each area also contains two optional side-view stages. The first of these is an enemy-filled “danger” level that players are forced to fight their through if they don’t manage to avoid being sucked in by the giant robot heads that appear on the ground at the mid-point of each overhead stage. The other is a purely beneficial “lucky” level that contains no enemies at all, only a large cache of bonus points, power-ups, and extra continues. Lucky stages are revealed by destroying specific ground-based enemies with bombs and then deliberately getting sucked into the holes that appear in their places. That’s a grand total of fifteen action stages and five hidden bonus rooms, around twice as many as you would find in most other shooters.

There’s a good reason why games of this kind typically aren’t this long, however. A successful scrolling shooter is very much reliant upon sustained novelty. Constantly subjecting players to new hazards and enemy patterns keeps them on the edge of their seats as they struggle to comprehend and adapt in order to make progress. By the time you’ve passed the first of Legendary Wings’ five areas, though, you’ve pretty much seen everything it has to offer in the way of enemy variety. At the end of every overhead level, you fight a fairly easy dragon boss. In every palace, an equally easy (if more imposing) giant cyborg battleship. Later incarnations of these two may have more health or fire more projectiles at you, but if you’ve beat them once, you know all you need to know in order to do it again and again. The dynamic learning process that makes these sorts of games so addictive is well and truly finished before the halfway point is reached and the experience as a whole suffers for it. I appreciate that the developers wanted to get experimental with this one, but a tighter, more varied six to eight stage layout would have been preferable to the sprawling mass of sameness we got.

Of course, this is still Capcom we’re talking about, so the game does have its charms. You can even tell that some of the same personnel who worked on Legendary Wings were also busy making Mega Man 2 in their off hours, as the tiny drill enemies that emerge from the walls are exactly the same in both releases! The graphics here are colorful and well-drawn and the music is high quality, although I do wish that all five of the palace stages didn’t share the same background track.

One side effect of the limited enemy variety mentioned above which some players may actually see as a positive is that Legendary Wings is a rare example of an extremely easy shooter. The arcade game featured the standard one-hit deaths, but the NES version allows you to potentially survive multiple blows at the cost of one level of weapon power each. Even better, if you can collect enough power-up icons to upgrade your weapon to its maximum level of five, you’ll enter firebird mode. Once this is achieved, your shots will deal massive damage and you can withstand three extra hits before being downgraded. These three extra hits are also replenished every time you collect an additional power-up while in firebird form, so if you’re careful it’s not that difficult to stay at maximum power indefinitely and tear through the entire game with minimal fuss. You also look way cooler as a firebird, which is always a plus. Using this ability to its fullest, I was able to complete a no death run of Legendary Wings during my very first play session, which is just crazy. I’ve never been able to do that in any other shooter I’ve played, not even ones I’ve devoted much, much more time to.

Still, unless you’re on the lookout for easier-than-average shooters specifically, Legendary Wings is far from an essential title. It has the baseline level of technical competence you’d expect from Capcom and essentially nothing else. Beyond its eternal rival Life Force, the NES also plays host to Gradius, Gun.Smoke, Zanac, Gun-Nac, and The Guardian Legend, among other generally superior options. Factor in the Famicom library or other hardware platforms entirely and Legendary Wings dips even further below par. Looking at it that way, its lack of a Japanese release might not be so mysterious after all.

Stay tuned for the next installment of my winged weirdos double feature, where things are about to get phallic!

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Mega Man 3 (NES)

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

A Mega Man double feature? Why not! After trouncing Dr. Wily yet again in Mega Man 2, I guess I was just hankering for more of that sweet, sweet elder abuse. And, hey, doing two reviews of such similar titles back-to-back means a lot less need to cover gameplay and story basics. Talk about a win-win!

That’s not to sell Mega Man 3 (or Rockman 3: Dr. Wily no Saigo!?, “Rockman 3: The End of Dr. Wily!?”) short. Sure, the basics are familiar: Destroy eight robot masters in any order you choose and steal their signature weapons in preparation for the final showdown with Wily. Along the way, however, it does more for the ongoing storyline of the series than any other sequel by introducing us to two new supporting characters that would become beloved staples.

The first is Mega Man’s robo-dog sidekick Rush, who replaces the relatively generic platforming assist items like the Magnet Beam from previous games with his ability to transform into a jet, submarine, and more. He still serves the same basic functions these earlier bits of gear did, making the tougher jumping sections more manageable and hard-to-reach items less so, except now with 100% more cute pupper. Advantage: Rush.

The other new character is Mega Man’s older brother and frequent rival, the red-clad Proto Man. Also known as Blues in Japan (where Mega Man is Rock), he wears shades and a kicky scarf, so you just know he’s too cool for school. He’s also the epitome of the lone wolf anti-hero archetype and that means that the writers get to play around with the whole “Is he friend or foe?” angle when it suits them. I never was quite clear on what exactly makes him Mega Man’s brother, though. Is it because they were both built by Dr. Light? It seems like that would make most of the robot masters in these games Mega Man’s siblings. The subtleties of robo-familial relations clearly elude me.

The biggest innovation on the gameplay front is Mega Man’s new slide maneuver, which propels him along the ground at high speed and simultaneously lowers his hit box so that he can pass through small gaps and better evade some attacks. Personally, I can take it or leave it. The move has potential, but the level design doesn’t always do the best job of encouraging it. Aside from a couple of noteworthy instances like the spike traps in Needle Man’s stage, it was all too easy for me to forget the slide was there at all. Although I’m sure it’s vital for speed and no-hit runners, the later Mega Man X spin-off series did a much better job overall of making dash type moves like this into an indispensable part of every player’s arsenal.

Speaking of arsenals, Mega Man 3’s assortment of robot master weapons is decent. The Shadow Blade and Magnet Missiles are a lot of fun and the Search Snake and Hard Knuckle both have their uses. The rest either have few advantages over the standard buster weapon (Needle Cannon), are far too awkward for their own good (Top Spin, Gemini Laser), or verge on being literally unusable (Spark Shock, which doesn’t deal any damage at all except to select bosses). With around 50% quality options, I’d say that your loadout is about average by franchise standards

I’d played Mega Man 3 before, back around the time it was first released in 1990. I never did complete it then, but I remember being quite impressed by some of the robot master stages and I find that this still holds true today. Its best levels manage to impress on every front with intriguing themes supported by excellent art design and a variety of distinct gameplay challenges throughout. Gemini Man’s stage, for example, opens on the surface of a crystalline alien planet. The player must brave a series of daring leaps over bottomless pits while simultaneously fending off air and ground enemies. The action then moves underground into a set of rainbow colored caverns filled with destructible eggs containing odd flying tadpole creatures. Next up is a penguin mini-boss before things culminate with a long stretch of water-filled terrain that’s best negotiated with the aid of Rush. It’s a lot to take in for an 8-bit Mega Man stage and others, like Snake Man’s, are similarly ambitious. They’re not all this exceptional, sadly. The ludicrously named Hard Man was stuck with yet another forgettable cave/mine stage in the Guts Man mold. On balance, though, the standouts more than make up for the duds.

The one thing I didn’t play far enough to pick up on when I was younger is how quickly Mega Man 3 starts to lose its mojo after these eight opening stages. This was the first title in the series to experiment with extending the play time by throwing in some extra levels and bosses between the initial set of eight and the ones inside Dr. Wily’s fortress. Unfortunately, they went about doing it in the least interesting way possible by leaning heavily on recycled content. After defeating the new robot masters, you’re tasked with defeating copies of the eight from Mega Man 2. These are situated two apiece in slightly modified versions of four of the same stages you just completed. The game effectively comes to a grinding halt while you slog through four familiar levels containing no original content whatsoever. Unless you haven’t played Mega Man 2, I guess. It’s a drag. Just as regrettable are the Dr. Wily levels themselves once you finally do reach them. They may well be the shortest and easiest in the whole series and make for one hell of an anticlimax. The good news is that later games would learn from this whole debacle and settle on much more interesting ways to length the Blue Bomber’s adventures, such as the Dr. Cossack and Proto Man sections in Mega Man IV and V, respectively.

This abrupt dropoff in quality seems tough to account for at first, but knowing a bit about Mega Man 3’s troubled history goes a long way toward explaining it. Akira Kitamura, director of the first two games and original creator of Mega Man, left the company shortly before development began in order to join several other Capcom veterans at Takeru, a short-lived game studio best known for creating NES ultra rarity Little Samson. Conflict sprang up between his replacement and other members of the team over the proper direction to take the series, which finally resulted in lead artist and character designer Keiji Inafune taking over as head of the project mid-stream. All considered, it’s a testament to the tremendous ability of Capcom’s staff at the time that the final product still turned out as great as it did.

And make no mistake, Mega Man 3 is great. The core jump and shoot gameplay is as compelling as ever, the majority of the stage and enemy design is inspired, the new characters remain fan favorites to this day, and the score by Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita comes out swinging with one of the most glorious title screen themes in all of gaming and rarely lets up from there. A disappointing final act knocks it out of consideration for best in the series, at least for me, but it’s still easily superior to most other action-platformers past or present.

If you still haven’t played it…well, rush.

Mega Man 2 (NES)

Sweet ending! Too bad this is the last we’ll ever hear of this little blue robot boy. I rather liked the cut of his jib.

I never dreamed I’d find myself defending Mega Man 2. Why would I need to? It’s still the best-selling entry in the entire 100+ chapter series and widely hailed as not just one of the best games available for the NES, but one of the best ever made. It’s a pure triumph of the form, an unimpeachable masterpiece. Right? Look around online, though, you may well get the impression that any aspiring gaming hipster worth his artisanal beard wax is practically required to cite a Mega Man other than this one as the series high point. All the better if he can throw some shade Mega Man 2’s way for being “too easy” or “unbalanced” while he’s at it.

As it turns out, being the franchise’s golden boy has its dangers in a social media saturated world where everybody seems to be striving to deliver the next attention-getting hot take. Whatever it is you happen to love, there’s someone ready, willing, and able to explain to you in great detail how it’s both overhyped and overrated. Welcome to the future! No refunds.

Okay, okay. No more hyperbole from me. I know full well that not everyone who hesitates to kneel at the altar of Mega Man 2 is some cynical troll or vacuous poser stereotype. Even so, the pushback against it is very real and that’s what inspired me to give it another look. It’s been several years since my last playthrough, after all. Over that period, I’ve experienced a great many other games (including other Mega Man ones) for the first time. Looking at Mega Man 2 with fresh eyes here on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary, does it still hold up or do its detractors have stronger arguments than I anticipated?

What’s most amazing to me in hindsight is that there very nearly wasn’t a Mega Man 2 at all. Director Akira Kitamura and his team very much wanted to do a sequel, but the original hadn’t sold well enough for the producers at Capcom to approve any funding for such a project. They eventually agreed that they’d release the game only if Kitamura and company worked on it pro bono in their free time. Four months of twenty hour days later and Rockman 2: Dr. Wily no Nazo (“The Mystery of Dr. Wily”) was complete. Despite this insane and largely uncompensated workload, artist and character designer Keiji Inafune recalls it as the best time he spent with the company. No matter your opinion on the final result, it’s certainly remarkable that a team of around eight people working in their spare time were able to deliver one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time in a mere four months.

Like every other main series installment, Mega Man 2 centers on mad scientist Dr. Wily attempting to take over the world with an army of destructive robots. In response, his good counterpart Dr. Light dispatches his own creation, Mega Man, to put a stop to Wily’s schemes. Later sequels would often throw in bit of token misdirection at the onset meant to imply that Dr. Wily wasn’t the one responsible for the conflict that time around, but long-time fans know better. It’s always Wily. Apart from that, the first game’s ending really said it all: “Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace!”

The gameplay formula over the course of the series is as simple and dependable as the plots. The child-like Mega Man doesn’t seem like much at the outset, with just a basic arm cannon weapon available. He doesn’t stay this limited for long, however, as every time he defeats one of Wily’s lieutenants (which typically number eight in total and are dubbed “robot masters”), he permanently gains access to that robot master’s special weapon. Crucially, players are free to choose the order in which they take on the robot masters and their corresponding stages. This choice is more than just a minor novelty because each master has a crippling weakness to one specific special weapon. This means that players have a sort of ad hoc difficulty selection at their fingertips predicated on whether or not they choose to play through the stages in the optimal order dictated by the boss weakness chain or not. Once all the robot masters are defeated and Mega Man himself is fully powered-up, it’s a time for the climactic final assault on Wily’s stronghold.

Anyone that comes to Mega Man 2 after experiencing the first game will notice some striking differences right away. The art style itself remains very much the same, as it would in all six Mega Man NES releases and the much later, deliberately retro styled Mega Man 9 and 10. Even so, the doubling in cartridge memory allows for numerous enhancements to the overall presentation. These include a fancy intro sequence, detailed and frequently animated backgrounds that put the original’s solid color ones to shame, and the first appearance of the colorful map screens displayed between Wily fortress stages.

Beyond the purely cosmetic, Mega Man 2 introduces the now-standard compliment of eight robot masters in place of the original’s six, as well as a handy password feature that complements this added length. Its platforming mechanics have been tweaked, too. Mega Man feels a bit less slippery here and new physics have been implemented that affect how he controls in underwater sections. The stages themselves are more varied and complex, with many sporting elaborate hazards like the gauntlet of fatal laser beams that rapidly close in from off-screen in Quick Man’s lair. Mega Man 2 also marks the first appearance of fan favorite item the energy tank. These can be hard to come by, but allow for full health refills on demand, making them invaluable for tough boss fights. You know they have to be good when they have their own line of real world energy drinks named after them.

Of course, no discussion of the advancements Mega Man 2 brought to the series would be complete without a mention of Takashi Tateishi’s immortal score; a Murderers’ Row of funky, driving techno-rock earworms which some have collectively dubbed the greatest 8-bit soundtrack ever created. Is it? Quite possibly, after a fashion. For one thing, it’s remarkably consistent. Other favorite composers of mine like Naoki Kodaka, Junko Tamiya, and Tim Follin have certainly crafted equally superb tunes for the same hardware, but virtually every single beat and melody in Mega Man 2 is a beast. It really is all killer, no filler here. Another point in its favor would be that most of these other amazing chiptunes I alluded to above date from after 1988. Timing matters, and for an entire generation of NES kids, the ubiquitous Mega Man 2 was probably more likely than any other single title to be their first exposure to genuinely great video game music. In terms of quality, consistency, and impact on both gaming fans and the industry itself, it’s tough to point to any other soundtrack on the system that can outshine this one. Damn tough.

So far, what I’ve outlined is an all-around bigger, shinier, more complete take on an already groundbreaking action classic. What could there possibly be to complain about? Well, it all seems to boil down to three primarily factors: The lack of difficulty, the supposedly poor balancing of the robot master weapons, and the relative simplicity of Mega Man’s core move set when compared to some of the later series entries.

This is certainly not a particularly punishing game by the standards of the time period and genre. When compared to the first Mega Man, for example, Mega Man 2’s platforming hazards and boss encounters have been toned down significantly. This is true even before you factor in the presence of the new energy tank items and, in the international release, the addition of a new, easier difficulty mode (somewhat misleadingly termed “Normal”) accessible from the title screen.

Closely tied to the difficulty issue is the question of weapon balance. Mention Mega Man 2 to almost any current or former NES enthusiast and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the almighty Metal Blade. No other weapon in the series’ long history has made so strong an impression on players, for better or worse. It can be rapid fired in every direction, inflicts massive damage on almost all targets, pierces multiple enemies with a single shot, and has effectively unlimited ammunition. The rest of your arsenal just can’t compete. Metal Blade is essentially an additional easy mode on top of the already existing one in a game that really needed neither. Plus, how ironic is it that the ultimate destructive force in a world of futuristic laser-shooting sentient robots would be a hand-tossed circular saw blade straight out of Home Depot?

Finally, some fans of later Mega Man releases love to point out that the titular hero here lacks some default abilities present in those installments. Specifically, he can’t slide along the ground or hold down the fire button to charge his arm cannon for extra damage. With much of the stage design and enemy encounters in those sequels being designed around the new abilities, it can understandably be jarring to revisit Mega Man 2’s simpler movement and combat.

These are substantial, well-reasoned critiques to be sure and I wanted to do my best to acknowledge them in a fair and respectful manner. Having hopefully accomplished that, I’m now going to explain why none of them amount to much.

Yes, Mega Man 2 is easy, even on the so-called Difficult setting. That is to say, it’s easy for me as a die-hard that’s been playing these games since they debuted. I’m so steeped in 2D action-platforming at this point that there’s no Mega Man game I can’t waltz through in single play session if I buckle down and focus, not even one completely new to me. But is it reasonable for me to come down on Capcom for not designing this game around my skill set? Hardly. I can sleepwalk through Mega Man 2 now. Thirty years ago, not so much. Everyone has to start somewhere and Mega Man 2 is (and likely always will be) the ideal entry point to the series for players new to the character or to the genre in general. That’s a vitally important niche to fill, despite what some über hardcore types would have you believe. Besides, if the game really is too easy for you, this is where the modular nature of a Mega Man game’s difficulty can be put to best use. Try playing through the game without using energy tanks, or without the Metal Blade, or with only the default buster cannon, or even with limited lives. There’s likely more potential challenge lurking here than you might think.

How about the Metal Blade? Is it unbalanced? Potentially game-breaking, even? Hell, yeah, it is! Here’s a little secret I’m going to let you in on, though: Balance, in non-competitive gaming at least, isn’t necessarily all that important and can sometimes even be a detriment when it results in an generally unexciting assortment of options. Know what else isn’t at all balanced? The spread gun in Contra. Not to mention the sword (also known as the dagger or knife) in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. These are famously the only weapons you want in their respective games and are inseparable in the minds of gamers from the series that introduced them. In that respect, they’re legitimately iconic. People have the Contra spread gun icon hanging on their walls! This gambit doesn’t always pay off, naturally. I criticized the otherwise excellent NES Bionic Commando for having only one great gun. The difference is that nobody starts raving about how awesome the rocket launcher in Bionic Commando was the second the game comes up in conversation. It’s overpowered, but not unforgettably so. The Metal Blade, like the spread gun, is both. It’s the definitive special weapon of the series and Mega Man 2 is more memorable, indeed better for its inclusion. Oh, and using it is completely optional. Almost forgot that bit.

The preference for the slide and charge shot maneuvers is understandable, as these mechanics can be a lot of fun in the games in which they’re present. That said, there’s also a certain elegant simplicity to Mega Man in his original “jump and shoot man” form, particularly for those same new players I mentioned above. In any case, the fact that this game wasn’t designed with these abilities in mind obviously means that they’re in no way necessary to tackle the challenges here and their absence detracts not one bit from enjoying what’s present. In a game built around them, they’re fine. In Mega Man 2, they’re frankly neither here nor there.

Whew! Enough apologetics, already! Look, whether or not this is the best Mega Man game ever made is ultimately down to the individual player. With virtually every main line entry being a world class action-platformer in its own right, there just aren’t many wrong opinions to go around. What I do maintain is that Mega Man 2 is the greatest Mega Man game ever made, both from an artistic standpoint (befitting its status as a passion project) and in terms of the sheer magnitude of its influence on the hobby. The original was laden with potential, if also rough around the edges. As the first fully-fledged entry in the franchise, Mega Man 2 is pure promise fulfilled; a landmark release that can never be truly replicated. The remainder of the series is fundamentally iterative. If Mega Man 1 is the video game equivalent of John Glenn orbiting the earth, Mega Man 2 is Neil Armstrong walking on the moon: One small step for a (Mega) Man, one giant leap for gamerkind. The later titles? Well, they’re more along the lines of Alan Shepard golfing on the moon: Still remarkable achievements and well worth your attention, but you can’t convince me the same degree of magic is still present.

So, while the whole “everlasting peace” thing may not have panned-out, Mega Man 2 has achieved something almost as impressive: Everlasting relevance.

The Goonies (Famicom)

Sloth love Konami!

Most arcade veterans are familiar with Nintendo’s PlayChoice-10 machines. Introduced in 1986 and based on modified NES hardware, the PlayChoice-10 was an influential early take on the same modular “multi-cade” concept later adopted by SNK for their iconic Neo-Geo MVS cabinets. Arcade operators were able to install up to ten separate games on a single machine which players could then freely select between on the fly, hence the name. The PlayChoice-10 proved to be an efficient quarter muncher as well as a highly effective advertising vector for Nintendo, since all 52 of the games released for the platform were also available for purchase as NES cartridges. Except for one, that is: Konami’s enigmatic Goonies.

Not that the game itself was at all unusual. It’s a fairly straightforward old school platforming adaptation of the 1985 kids’ adventure film that focuses on lead Goonie Mikey Walsh dodging traps and enemies as he scours a series of maze-like underground levels in search of pirate treasure and his kidnapped friends. No, what had me stumped was the fact that I’d never in my life laid eyes on the home version. None of my friends had a copy. It was nowhere to be seen in catalogs or on store shelves. There wasn’t even the briefest mention of it in Nintendo Power or any of the other gaming magazines of the time. Copies of Konami’s 1987 follow-up The Goonies II (which I reviewed last fall) were everywhere, but you’d have had better luck getting info on Jimmy Hoffa out of the Loch Ness monster than I did tracking down the original Goonies on the NES.

Of course, it’s common knowledge these days that Goonies did receive a cartridge release…in Japan. As an American kid in the 1980s, however, I didn’t know a Famicom from a rom-com. That’s why even today, with the mundane truth of the matter a search engine click away, holding this little hunk of plastic and silicon in my hands still feels special. It’s not just a game cartridge, it’s the key to a decades-old enigma. Kind of like old One-Eyed Willy’s treasure map, now that I think about it.

Now that I’m able to examine the game at my leisure with more experienced eyes, I think I understand why this one never came home here. Goonies very much looks and sounds like an early Famicom release, similar to the initial run of “black box” NES titles circa 1985. Sprites are small, backgrounds are plain, and the soundtrack is sparse. Considering that Nintendo typically limited its licensees to no more than five total NES releases per calendar year, it’s no surprise that Konami would choose to put its best foot forward in North America and lead with more viscerally impressive titles like the first Castlevania and ports of cutting edge arcade games like Gradius instead. If I’d been calling the shots at Konami back in 1986, I’d have given poor Goonies the shaft, too.

It’s a shame, because the game is undeniably great fun. There are a total of six stages beneath the Fratelli hideout for Mikey to explore. The first is only a couple screens wide, but subsequent ones are increasingly sprawling affairs with dozens of screens divided up into distinct sub-areas. Scattered throughout each stage are a number of a sealed doors that hold kidnapped Goonies, keys, healing potions, and slingshots that temporarily upgrade Mikey’s default kick attack to a handy projectile. How do you open these doors? With the bombs that you get from killing the giant mice, of course. Just like in the movie! In a nice touch, the exact contents of each door are randomized every time you play, so there’s no one ideal route that’s guaranteed to net you the Goonie and all three keys needed to move on to the next stage.

Naturally, you’re not just running around collecting all this stuff unopposed. In addition to the explosives-laden vermin mentioned above, Mikey needs to avoid bats, ghost pirates and a host of stage hazards like flamethrowers, waterfalls, and falling stalactites. Trickiest of all are the two Fratelli brothers, Jake and Francis. These gangsters can’t be permanently defeated, only stunned, and they chase Mikey through the levels tenaciously while attacking with their guns and…music. Yes, Konami actually found a way to turn actor Robert Davi’s penchant for opera singing into an attack in a Famicom game. Amazing.

These traps and enemies are formidable, but Mikey’s health bar leaves you with considerable room for error. What you’ll truly learn to dread is the stage timer. Lacking any way to predict with certainty where all the Goonies and keys are hidden, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough time to potentially canvass the entire stage and still reach the exit afterward. If you dawdle, backtrack, or get yourself lost even a little in one of the larger levels, the result is usually a slow death by the clock. This matters because Goonies does not include a continue feature and every one of your starting lives is a therefore a precious resource.

To help even the odds, there are a host of hidden inventory items that will permanently enhance Mikey’s abilities when collected. Among them are a raincoat that negates waterfall damage, a set of headphones that muffle Jake’s singing attack, and many more. In general, each item provides passive immunity to one type of hazard and the more you acquire, the more recklessly you can haul ass through the stages to maximize your available time. The only problem is that these treasures tend to be well-hidden indeed. I didn’t stumble across a single one over the course of my first few playthroughs. You need to stand in very specific, seemingly empty portions of each stage and then input equally specific button combinations that vary for each item in order to make that item appear. For whatever reason, Japanese game designers around this time were quite enamored with this “do precise yet inexplicable things to make invisible loot appear” mechanic. Namco essentially built an entire game around it with their Tower of Druaga. Me, I’m not a fan and as nice as these goodies can be to have, I’m really glad they’re not required to beat the game.

That’s really all there is to The Goonies. It’s a short, relatively basic little action title with a presentation that’s clean and appealing, if minimalistic. With only six stages, most players will be able to reach the ending screen for the first time after an hour or two. The game does loop in true arcade style at that point and start to throw faster and more numerous enemies into the mix, but the core experience remains the same. Although it doesn’t seem like much on paper, I actually prefer this one over its more complex and famous NES sequel. Famicom Goonies doesn’t waste your time with tedious first-person wall hammering marathons or an unnecessarily confusing level layout. Better still, the limited lives available here mean that precise platforming actually matters, unlike in Goonies II where Mikey can resurrect himself on the spot indefinitely and it often makes more sense to run right through the tougher enemies instead of standing around trying to kill them. I don’t deny the sequel’s more compelling aesthetics or sense of whimsical mystery, I simply prefer the original’s higher stakes and the constant driving tension the timer imparts.

No matter which game you prefer, though, I think I speak for us all when I express how grateful I am that Konami was given the Goonies license in the first place. In their capable hands, mild-mannered asthmatic preteen Mikey Walsh got to kick bipedal mice to death, pilot the Vic Viper into outer space, meet King Kong, go to hell, and rescue a mermaid. Let me tell you, people, they do not make movie adaptations like they used to.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (NES)

Unfortunately for Phoebe Cates fans, there would be no Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the NES.

I fell in love with director Joe Dante’s Gremlins back when it came out in 1984. I read the storybooks, fiended for the sugary breakfast cereal (that I can still sing you the commercial jingle for), and, of course, played the mediocre Atari 2600 game. Who doesn’t enjoy this deranged mishmash of holiday movie, family comedy, and creature feature? Small town loser Billy Peltzer recieves a fuzzy little critter called a mogwai for Christmas. His new pet, Gizmo, comes with some strange stipulations. Most importantly, he can’t get it wet and must never feed it after midnight. Seeing as it is a movie and plot needs to happen, it’s not long before every rule is broken, resulting in a hoard of green, scaly monsters overrunning the town.

Gremlins had a profound influence on me. More than any other single film, it nudged me toward a lifelong fascination with horror. It may have only been rated PG, but so were Jaws and Poltergeist. Standards for this sort of thing were very different before the MPAA introduced the controversial PG-13 rating later that same year, largely in direct response to parental complaints about movies like Gremlins.

Six long years later, Dante made Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a drastically different sequel that few were asking for and fewer still appreciated. This time, Billy and Gizmo must contain a gremlin outbreak in a New York City skyscraper owned by an eccentric billionaire. The horror elements were gone entirely, replaced with amped-up slapstick comedy reminiscent of a Zucker Brothers production. While the first Gremlins had its silly side, a sequel where Hulk Hogan appears as himself to break the fourth wall by yelling at the projectionist’s booth is just not scary. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. These days, Gremlins 2 is often cited as a cult classic and, while it’s not an important film to me personally like the original, I can certainly appreciate it for the ridiculous live action cartoon it is.

Which brings me at last to this little-appreciated 1990 NES adaptation by Sunsoft. Gremlins 2 follows it’s source material fairly closely by placing players in the metaphoric shoes of Gizmo himself as he battles his monstrous kin over nine action-platforming levels inside Clamp Center. What sets Gremlins 2 apart from most other platformers of the era is that the action is depicted from an overhead perspective rather than the more typical side-scrolling viewpoint.

Right away, that may set off some alarm bells. Pinpoint jumping through sprawling obstacle courses of pits, moving platforms, conveyor belts, and electrified spikes…from an overhead view? Gizmo’s pathetic starting weapons, tiny thrown tomatoes of all things, also don’t inspire much confidence in the new player. Fortunately, the team at Sunsoft made a series of smart choices that keep the experience fair and fun. Most crucially, there are no instant kill hazards in the game. Even falling into a pit will only cost Gizmo a portion of his health bar. He also starts out with a balloon item in his inventory that will automatically negate one pitfall completely. More balloons (as well as health refills, extra lives, and weapon power-ups) can be obtained by visiting the shops in each stage. Confusingly, these are operated by Gizmo’s former owner Mr. Wing, who’s supposed to be deceased at this point in the story. Oh, well. At least he’s helpful for a dead guy.

The jumping mechanics themselves are tailored to be as forgiving as possible. Momentum is never needed to make any jump in the game, as Gizmo covers the exact same distance in the air when leaping from a standstill as he does with a running start. Because of this, it’s often best to simply jump in place and then use the directional pad to steer Gizmo to his landing site. It isn’t necessarily intuitive to anyone accustomed to Super Mario style physics, but it does come in handy once you get used to it.

You’re not stuck hucking tomatoes for long, either. Gizmo receives regular attack upgrades every few stages, usually after defeating a big boss gremlin. The equally innocuous seeming matches, paper clips, and pencils all turn out to be formidable weapons in the hands of your fearless mogwai ninja.

Finally, Gremlins 2 includes unlimited continues and a password system. The result of all this is a great example of the “tough, but fair” design philosophy in action. Making it through some of the lengthier stages on a single health bar is no joke, yet the player is always given the tools needed to make it as long as they don’t throw in the towel. Many other Sunsoft games on the system (Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, Fester’s Quest) are much less generous and impose stiff penalties for failure, so anyone who isn’t a fan of those efforts will be glad that Gremlins 2 takes its cues from their less harsh NES version of Batman instead.

On top of these gameplay basics, Gremlins 2 looks and sounds superb. Gizmo and the variety of evil gremlins he goes up against are all recognizable from the source material. The same goes for the locations you’ll visit, such as the spooky set of Grandpa Fred’s House of Horrors. There’s even a handful of cut scenes thrown in that recreate key moments from the film. These are beautifully drawn and animated, although they’re also worldless and far too disjointed to tell a coherent version of the movie’s story on their own.

Naoki Kodaka’s famous “Sunsoft sound” makes a welcome appearance here. His NES soundtracks are celebrated for their funky melodies and liberal use of sampled bass notes to produce a much richer, more full-bodied sound than we typically hear out of the hardware. After reviewing four other Kodaka NES scores in the last year or so, I’m running out of ways to say they rule. I will add that the insane slap bass breakdown in Gremlins 2’s stage three theme is totally unprecedented on the system and really demands to be heard by chiptune enthusiasts.

The bottom line is that this is not just the rare old movie license game that’s worth a damn, it’s also a unique and inventive action-platformer on a system overflowing with them. True, it makes for a short, relatively simple playthrough. So do Sunsoft’s better-known Batman and Journey to Silius, however, and Gremlins 2 is easily their equal. Like the movie that inspired it, it’s currently enjoying a well-deserved second life with modern audiences after going overlooked and underappreciated in its day.

Whatever you do, though, never, ever play it after midnight.

Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (Super Famicom)

Eh. Save the city. Trash it with an out-of-control giant robot. Those are basically the same, right?

I couldn’t find enough good things to say after my most recent playthrough of Konami’s Super Nintendo cult classic The Legend of the Mystical Ninja last summer. This colorful multiplayer platformer remains one of the crown jewels of the system, as fresh and funny now as it was back in 1992. Without rehashing too much from that review, Mystical Ninja was the fifth installment of a long-running series of humorous action games based on the exploits of Japanese bandit folk hero Ishikawa Goemon. It was also the first to be released in North America. We wouldn’t see another Ganbare Goemon adventure until 1998 on the Nintendo 64. In the meantime, we missed out on all three of Mystical Ninja’s Super Famicom sequels.

When I got the urge to revisit the series recently, I decided to pick up right where I left off with Mystical Ninja’s immediate follow-up, Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu (“Let’s Go Goemon 2: Very Strange General McGuinness”). It was a great choice, as GG2 is a textbook example of a successful sequel. It takes the already proven core gameplay of the previous title and smooths over its few rough spots while packing in still more in the way of depth and variety. Most important of all for a Goemon game, the irreverent Saturday morning cartoon take on Japanese myth that made the last installment stand out so much to Western audiences remains in full effect.

As our story begins, Goemon and his loyal parter Ebisumaru are enjoying some well-earned vacation time on the sandy beaches of Okinawa. Their repose is soon interrupted by a former foe, the clockwork ninja Sasuke. He’s not here to fight the heroes this time, however, but rather to deliver a warning: The eccentric foreigner General McGuinness has invaded Goemon’s home town of Edo with his army of equal parts ruthless and adorable bunny men. McGuinness is determined to Westernize the country and, adding insult to injury, he’s also taken a shine to Goemon’s main squeeze Omitsu and spirited her away to his flying fortress. This outrage clearly cannot stand, so the trio set off on a cross-country journey to give the barbarians the boot.

After this opening cut scene, you’re presented with a welcome sight: A character select screen! Prior games had the first player automatically controlling Goemon and the second player controlling Ebisumaru when applicable. Here, you can choose freely between Goemon, Ebisumaru, and Sasuke. In addition, they each have their own unique abilities based on a system of tradeoffs common in action-platformers: Goemon is the average, well-rounded fighter with no particular strengths or weaknesses, portly Ebisumaru boasts great attack power at the expense of jumping ability, and petite Sasuke is the comparatively weak high-jumper of the group.

Of course, I went with my main man Ebisumaru! Loosely modeled on another celebrated outlaw from history, Nakamura Jirokichi (also known as Nezumi Kozō; “Rat Boy”), he’s long been my favorite Gonbare Goemon character. What’s not to love about a flamboyant, gluttonous wannabe ladies’ man that sends his enemies flying over the horizon with a single swipe of a paper fan? Anyone who manages to stand out as the comic relief in a 100% comedy-oriented game series has to be doing something right in my book.

There have been a few key changes to the level structure, as well. Ganbare Goemon 2 is still primarily a side-scrolling platformer, except now it’s no longer divided up into distinct chapters that the player must tackle in a set order. Instead, each level appears as a colored dot on a stylized map of Japan that functions just like the world map from Super Mario World. As in that game, this means that the player is frequently offered a choice of which stage to visit next and not every stage necessarily needs to be cleared in order to reach the end. Furthermore, most levels can be freely revisited after completion and some contain hidden alternate exits that open up new paths on the world map when found.

Although the 3/4 view town segments from Mystical Ninja are still present here, they’ve been reimagined so as to be a much less prominent part of the gameplay overall. You’ll still want to visit towns often in order to chat up the locals (keep your eyes peeled for cameos from other Konami heroes), buy power-ups from the shops, and play some of the seemingly endless selection of mini-games, but you’ll no longer have to worry about fighting for your life while you’re at it. Other than the odd pickpocket looking to make off with a chunk of your cash, the kill-crazed pedestrians that swarmed you in the last game are nowhere to be found here. I’ll take less stressful shopping over that any day.

The biggest change by far comes via the introduction of fan favorite Goemon Impact. Apparently, the gang over at Konami must have figured that this series just wasn’t quite Japanese enough yet, because they gave Goemon and crew their very own skyscraper-sized sentai robo to ride around in. One that looks like a humongous version of Goemon himself and cruises around on roller skates shooting exploding coins from its nostrils. Naturally.

Each of the game’s three giant robot sections are divided into two distinct phases. The first sees you piloting Impact from a side-view perspective through an auto-scrolling obstacle course of enemy buildings and vehicles. You don’t really have to worry about dying here. The point is more to smash up as much of the scenery as possible in order to earn bonus health and ammo for the real fight to come against one of McGuinness’ mechs, which is presented from a first-person cockpit view.

These first-person battles are, unfortunately, one of the game’s few low points for me. They play out a bit like the boxing matches in a Punch-Out!! game, with each enemy robot having its own pattern of attacks to learn and counter. That seems promising until you factor in the sluggish controls. You can raise Impact’s arms with the L and R buttons to block attacks, but this action is quite delayed. So much so, in fact, that fast reactions are largely removed from the equation. If you don’t know exactly what’s coming and when, you’re in for a bad time. Impact’s punch attacks also rarely seem to come out as quickly as you might prefer. I think I see what the designers were going for with this setup. Impact is a huge machine, so making him somewhat unwieldy conveys that organically through the controls themselves. The problem is that the resulting focus on trial-and-error memorization over split-second judgement calls isn’t very engaging. You’re extremely unlikely to defeat any of these guys on your first try, no matter how good you are. At least the game’s unlimited continues and battery save feature mean you can practice all you want without fear of losing any progress.

I wouldn’t worry too much about this if I were you, though. Sure, they didn’t quite hit this aspect of the game out of the park on their first try, but it is only three levels we’re talking about and Impact still makes for some awesome 16-bit spectacle. Any first-person action on the system that predates the Super FX chip and isn’t a complete train wreck has to count for something.

Besides, the primary focus of the game is still right where it belongs: On the platforming. Ganbare Goemon 2 showcases both more and more diverse platforming stages than its predecessor. There aren’t as many here as there are in Super Mario World, for example, but there’s more than twice as many as in Mystical Ninja and each one seems to have a unique gimmick of some kind. These include vehicles the heroes can pilot (similar to the ride armors from Mega Man X), an auto-scrolling stage on the back of a flying dragon, and crossing a sea of hot cooking oil on the backs of oversized tempura shrimp. It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re under no obligation to make sense. Two player simultaneous play also makes a comeback, along with the welcome ability for one player to literally carry the other in order to make the trickier jumps more manageable.

Mystical Ninja was one of the best looking early releases on the platform and this sequel ups the ante even more with larger character sprites and more detailed backgrounds. The results are phenomenal. I’m more divided on the soundtrack, some of which strays a bit from the classical Japanese shamisen and bamboo flute style of the last game by incorporating more rock, swing, and the like. On one hand, this can be seen as a direct reflection of the game’s central theme of Western influences forcing their way into a traditional Japanese setting. That’s neat. On the other hand, these more modern sounding tracks simply aren’t as distinctive when compared to others on the system. In either case, the compositions and instruments remain consistently great, so it’s not exactly the end of the world.

In short, Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu is yet another tour de force from the creative powerhouse that was Konami. It manages to correctly key in on the mixture of offbeat humor and thrilling platforming that made Mystical Ninja tick and serve up more of the same while simultaneously moving the series forward through the introduction of a playable Sasuke and the mighty Impact. A few of its more experimental elements would benefit from fine tuning down the line, but this installment of the Gonbare Goemon saga still holds up today as an eminently satisfying action romp that you don’t need to be able to understand the Japanese language to enjoy.

Just tell ’em Rat Boy sent you.

Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest that includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible that Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes that render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses that will reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.