Holy Diver (Famicom)

“Holy Diver
Sole survivor
You’re the one who’s clean”

Wait, didn’t I already review Holy Diver? Well, kind of. I jotted down a few quick paragraphs to commemorate the occasion when I first completed it a year ago, but I’ve really wanted to go back and give it the more detailed treatment it deserves ever since I started collecting my game writing together in blog form this past July. What better time than now?

This is a very special game for me. See, it was around this time last year that it hit me: I had several hundred games filling my shelves that I hadn’t really played. Such a waste! What was even the point? Was I a real gamer or just a misguided hoarder of dead plastic? Enough! I made a resolution then and there to play through at least one game a week for the next year. But where to start? My mind immediately fixed itself on a little cartridge I picked up at the 2016 Portland Retro Gaming Expo a few months prior….

Now, I love me some metal. More specifically, I love me some 80s metal. I’m talking eyeliner, unfortunate perms, studded leather, gratuitous shredding, and soaring, operatic vocals about demons and wizards and shit. I’m talking Maiden, Priest, Ozzy, and my all-time personal metal deity: The late, great Ronnie James Dio. When I got word a few years back that there was a 1989 Famicom release called Holy Diver and that it was inspired by some of my favorite acts, to the degree that the game itself was named after Dio’s classic 1983 album, my interest was piqued. It was even from Irem, the makers of classics like Moon Patrol, R-Type, and Metal Storm. Holy Diver had every indicator of a true diamond in the rough. Or, perhaps, a rainbow in the dark? It had to be mine.

I’d also heard that the game was a tough one, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I was all fired-up to attack my game backlog head-on, so I popped Holy Diver into my console, hit that power button, and never looked back. True to its reputation, it wasn’t easy. Not at all. I spent one entire evening trying and failing to get past the utterly fiendish level four boss. I refused to give up, however, and my devotion to the cause of Holy Magic Justice eventually saw me through. In the year since, I’ve completed a total of 75 additional games, 60 of them for the first time ever. I’ve also written what collectively feels like a novel’s worth of reviews and reflections on each and every one. So much for a game a week! It’s been the single best gaming year of my life so far and it all started with Holy Diver.

Enough about me for now. Let’s focus on the game. Holy Diver is a side scrolling action platformer in which the player controls a heroic young wizard named Randy. In the year 666 of the World of Magic, the Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire, launches an attack against the reigning King Crimson, Ronnie IV. Before being overrun by the Black Slayer’s forces, Ronnie entrusts his two young sons, Randy R. and Zakk W., to his faithful servant Ozzy and sends the three of them to safety in another dimension with the hope that they can someday return and restore light to the world.

The next seventeen years are hard for Randy, Zakk, and Ozzy, but they continually train and devote themselves to the cause of Holy Magic Justice. Meanwhile, the Black Slayer’s power continues to grow. Now, with Ozzy having passed away and Zakk mysteriously disappearing, Randy sets off alone to retrieve the magical relics of the King Crimson family needed to vanquish Black Slayer once and for all.

This story is, without a doubt, the stupidest thing and I love it. So much. An epic high fantasy saga starring Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, King Crimson, and Slayer? Yeah, sign me up for that and do it yesterday, please. Naturally, Irem was careful not to make direct use of the likenesses or songs of any real world musicians, but the game still manages to wear its influences on its sleeve with this backstory. When reviewing a Famicom exclusive release, I’ll often express some regret over the fact that players outside Japan never got to experience it back in the day. In Holy Diver’s case, though, I’m glad. There’s simply no chance that any of its ludicrous heavy metal name dropping and warped religious imagery would have survived the transition to the NES intact. It’s far better, I think, to experience this one as its creators intended. Luckily for us, the use of English for all the game’s text (apart from the rōmaji level titles) makes it extremely approachable for non-Japanese players.

You’ll often see the gameplay in Holy Diver likened to that of a Castlevania title. At a glance, it’s easy to see why. They’re both side scrollers with an overarching horror theme and Randy looks an awful lot like Simon Belmont with long hair and a cape. Superficials aside, it won’t take Castlevanias veterans long to realize that Holy Diver is a whole other beast at heart. The classic Castlevanias were balanced around the characteristic short, fixed Belmont jump arc and the whip with its relatively slow attack speed and lengthy startup time. Randy’s jump is much higher and floatier, not to mention steerable in the air. He’s also much quicker on the draw with the fireballs he shoots as his primary attack, although they still only reach about a third of the way across the screen. The action as a whole is faster and more fluid, resembling Konami’s Getsu Fūma Den more than any other single game I can recall, albeit with more of a focus on ranged combat thanks to Randy’s arsenal of spells.

There are five of these spells in total and each one costs between two and twenty magic points per use. Magic is selected via a pause menu similar to Zelda II’s and you toggle between the currently equipped spell and Randy’s standard shot with the select button, echoing the way you deploy your missiles in the original Metroid. Randy starts the game with Twin Fire, which doubles the power of his normal attack and extends its range to full-screen. Defeating the bosses at the end of each of the first four stages will grant Randy a new power. Blizzard freezes streams of lava solid to allow for progress through some stages and also immobilizes weak enemies temporarily. Breaker fires a single piercing beam of magic that’s slow, but devastatingly powerful. Overdrive summons a pair of spinning orbs that will orbit Randy for a time and shield him from enemies and their projectiles. Finally, Thunder deals heavy damage to every enemy on the screen in exchange for a ton of magic points. All of these abilities are extremely useful and they remain so right up until the end of the game. In terms of design, this is no small feat. Just ask any Mega Man fan about all the pointless weapons they never get around to using.

You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for important items in each of the six stages that can enhance Randy’s abilities even further. There are containers to extend maximum health and magic points, 1-Ups, a bracelet for breaking certain blocks, high jump boots, a vitally important staff that will cut the cost of most spells in half, and even a power-up that will briefly morph Randy into a flying, fire-breathing dragon.

You’ll need all the help you can get, because the enemies in this game do not mess around. Almost without exception they’re tougher, faster, and less predictable than their counterparts in most other platformers. Take the flying skulls that are Holy Diver’s equivalent of the medusa heads from Castlevania. They’re not only swifter and more numerous, they’ll actually reverse direction after they pass by Randy and make a beeline straight for his back. Then there are the bouncing critters that fire a constant stream of damaging projectiles across the screen toward Randy at semi-random altitudes, require a dozen hits to destroy, and will retreat as Randy advances in order to stay just outside of his standard fireball range. Or the golems in the later stages, common enemies almost as tough as bosses that are better avoided altogether if at all possible. Proficiency at Holy Diver is mainly a matter of figuring out all the ways each enemy can wreck you and which spells are best at wrecking them first. That, and not running out of magic points. At least continues are unlimited!

As relentless as it is, I really do love the sense of character progression that’s built into the game. The early stages can be tough going, since Randy’s health and magical abilities are at their weakest. Around the second half of stage four, the balance starts to tip a bit more in his favor and it continues to do so right up to the very end. By the time Randy reaches the sixth and final stage, he not only has his full complement of spells, but effectively about four times the health and eight times the magic points he started with. You go from feeling like a harried underdog to a battle-hardened wizard king that can go toe-to-toe with the very worst of the demon horde. It’s an interesting approach that seeks to combine the permanent character growth of an open-ended game like Metroid or The Legend of Zelda with the strictly linear level structure of a Contra or Ninja Gaiden and it works well here. In addition to making the player feel like a badass, it also allows the designers to go wild in the later levels and subject Randy to a torrent of the toughest foes the game has to offer while still keeping the nature of the challenge fair.

The visuals and audio in Holy Diver are both a real treat. Where Castlevania was a horror platformer with a style inspired by old Universal and Hammer horror films, Holy Diver stays true to its heavy metal roots by doubling down on the demonic. The first stage is a sinister cathedral dominated by a large cross with a skull and serpent mounted on it. Stage two’s name translates as “Hell of Entrails” and it certainly looks the part, with the fetuses encased in the walls being a particularly gross touch. There’s also a crucifixion scene later and even a pentagram on the menu screen. The level of detail on the sprites and backgrounds is excellent by 1989 standards, resulting in a very strong and cohesive dark fantasy atmosphere. The score is as heavy and driving as you would expect, though the enjoyment is hampered a bit by the fact that several of the stages share background tracks. What we get sounds good, but a unique song for each stage would have been nice. You’ll likely be spending a good amount of time on each one, after all. The sound effects used for Randy’s spells are also worth singling out for praise. Each magic has a distinct and full-bodied sound that lends it a real sense of power.

It should be obvious by now that Holy Diver is an extremely well-designed and presented action platformer worthy of its pedigree. In fact, it’s one of my personal favorite Famicom games. If it has any real flaw apart from its limited soundtrack, it’s a highly subjective one: The level of difficulty is high from start to finish and not every player will want to invest the time needed to overcome it. It’s not the most fearsome game out there by any means; both Battletoads and Blaster Master took me more time to learn. I still had to put in multiple lengthy practice sessions before I was able to fight my way all the way to the Black Slayer, though. I’d say that if you’re determined, patient, and have a good amount of action platforming experience under your belt already, Holy Diver is a tiger you need to ride. If not, it may just leave you feeling like you’ve gotta get away.

Holy Diver has earned itself a permanent spot in my gaming rotation. As an unapologetic love letter to all things classic metal and one hell of an 8-bit thrill ride, it inspired me to get off my ass (metaphorically speaking) and make with the playing and writing about games already. Since then, I’ve blown my New Year’s resolution out of the water and I’m just getting started. Thanks, Irem.

Now bring on year two of that backlog!

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Conquest of the Crystal Palace (NES)

Sit, Ubu, sit! Good dog!

It’s time to get obscure again. Here’s Conquest of the Crystal Palace from 1990. Published by Asmik, this one was actually one of the first titles developed by Quest, who would later garner much more critical and commercial attention with their work on the Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle games. Don’t come expecting any sort of strategy RPG experience here, though, because Conquest is yet another NES side scrolling action platformer.

This one casts the player in the role of a teenage boy named Farron. One day, Farron’s trusty dog Zap starts talking to him! Sadly, this doesn’t kick off the chilling 8-bit adaptation of the Son of Sam murders that we’ve all been waiting for. Instead, Zap explains that Farron is really an exiled prince who’s been living in hiding since infancy from the demon Zaras, who took over his kingdom and killed his parents. Now that Farron has come of age, it’s time for him to liberate the Crystal Palace from Zaras and reclaim his birthright by walking from left to right through a total of five stages and slicing up every monster along the way with his trusty sword.

Before he sets off, Farron is offered the choice of one of three different magic crystals that will alter his standard abilities in various ways. One increases maximum health, another boosts jump height, and the third allows for a projectile fireball attack. The two powers you don’t choose are available for purchase later on in shops, though, so don’t agonize too much over this bit.

Farron also isn’t alone on his quest. Zap will accompany him throughout the game and, when activated, will dash back and forth across the screen attacking any enemies in sight. This can be useful, particularly during battles against the bosses laying in wait at the end of each stage, but the player must use Zap sparingly, since he has his own separate health gauge that tends to deplete fairly quickly due to the kamikaze nature of his attacks. Make sure to hit up the shops for some healing dog chow as needed. This “boy and his dog” angle is Conquest’s central gameplay gimmick and arguably its most noteworthy feature overall.

The other standout element is the game’s art style. Ignoring the feeble attempts at Westernized character portraits in the instruction manual, this is a distinctly Japanese take on a fantasy world. It’s really quite remarkable how little the original release, Matendōji (“Demon Heaven Boy”), was altered during the localization phase. The character designs, level decor, and even music are all unmistakably East Asian. They even left the kanji text on the weapon select menu and map screen intact! Many games on the Famicom went for this sort of style, but few among them saw release in North America for obvious reasons.

Apart from this, Conquest comes off as a fairly average entry in its field. Pass through a gauntlet of enemies, pits, and other hazards until you reach the big boss. If you still have enough lives and health remaining to kick his ass, it’s on to the next stage. If not, there are unlimited continues. Each stage also features a couple appearances by the shopkeeper Kim, who seemingly spends her time just standing around monster infested hellholes waiting for little samurai boys to happen by so she can try to sell them dog food. Hey, it’s a living! Silly as the old “suspiciously convenient magical merchant” setup is, I like Kim. She’s probably the closest thing this game has to a real character. She’ll get irate if you try to buy items you can’t afford, elated if you buy a ton of stuff at once, and even dons glasses and a suit and tie to dispense hints in the form of an anachronistic “QNN” tv news report. Her overall design and facial expressions are also super cute. Yay, Kim!

There are a few disappointing aspects of the game that I feel are worth mentioning, too. The control is a bit weird as it relates to jumping attacks, since attacking in mid-air will abruptly cancel your jump and cause you to drop prematurely. This can be a killer if you’re trying to leap across a gap and cut down an airborne enemy simultaneously. That sort of manuver might be your bread and butter in Ninja Gaiden, but Farron is clearly no Ryu Hayabusa.

Attacks in general also feel a bit weak. That’s not to say that they are weak. They definitely get the job done. There’s even an undocumented super sword move for Farron triggered by mashing left and right on the D-pad while attacking that can destroy bosses in seconds once mastered. At the same time, they lack a certain oomph that would make them really satisfying to land. Though this is likely a very subjective response to certain aspects of the animation and sound effects, I rarely felt like I was truly kicking monster ass no matter how well I was doing.

Finally, I didn’t much care for the pacing of Conquest’s final stage. The entire level is filled with dozens of identical falling lava hazards that force the player to halt and wait for an opening in their pattern before proceeding. They’re not hard to spot, the pattern is always the same, and the lava doesn’t even do very much damage. It really seems like the designers are forcing you to stop moving every few steps just to artificially lengthen a very short game. Not cool.

On balance, Conquest of the Crystal Palace’s charms do outweigh its annoyances. It’s absolutely worth a look for anyone that enjoys NES action titles enough to be digging deep into the library for these sorts of second and third string oddballs. It’s just too bad that breakout star Kim never got the spinoff adventure she deserved.

Woof.

Mega Man (NES)

Fight, Mega Man! For everlasting peace…and at least a hundred sequels!

Everyone’s favorite childlike robot warrior for justice that isn’t Astro Boy is turning thirty this month. Damn, I feel old.

That’s right: On December 17th, 1987, Capcom released the original Rockman for the Famicom. The game’s NES release and lead character were famously rechristened Mega Man by one of the company’s U.S. executives, Joseph Maric, just because he thought Rockman sounded “horrible.”

The story of Mega Man is set in the far off year “200X” and revolves around two scientists, Dr. Thomas Light and Dr. Albert Wily, who are colleagues working in the field of advanced robotics. After Light invents revolutionary humanoid robots with near-human intelligence, Wily, tired of being upstaged, snaps and reprograms six of his rival’s most powerful creations to aid him in a scheme for world domination. Dr. Wily overlooks Dr. Light’s humble lab assistant robot Rock, however, who is imbued with a strong sense of justice and volunteers to help put things right. Knowing that the authorities are ill-prepared to stand up to Wily, Dr. Light reluctantly modifies Rock for combat, equipping him with a “mega buster” arm cannon and the unique ability to assimilate and use the special weapons of other robots he defeats. Thus super fighting robot Mega Man is born!

By any name, this is one of the single most influential game releases of all time and a cornerstone of the action platforming genre. Like a lot of other players, I was introduced to the series via its best-selling entry, Mega Man 2, and never actually played through the original until now. Because of this, I can only imagine what a revelation it must have been to a 1987 audience. You have the ability to play the first six levels of the game in any order, you can absorb the special powers of defeated bosses as a form of permanent character progression, and there’s a “rock, paper, scissors” system of boss weaknesses that can be exploited using those very powers. The one megabit cartridge memory limitation on this first game may have resulted in only six of these “robot masters” to pick from instead of the eight that would become the series standard, but the sense of openness and possibility must have still been intoxicating for gamers accustomed to strictly linear level progressions and heroes that had all their abilities set in stone at the start or relied on inconsistent temporary power-ups to access them. The freedom to complete stages and acquire weapons in any order empowered the player through a sort of organic difficulty selection. Newcomers looking to ease into the action could go through the stages in the “correct” order, using each new weapon to take down the boss weak to it in sequence, like pushing over so many dominoes. Veterans could opt to change up the order up any way they saw fit, knowing full well that the robot masters would be much harder to defeat with Mega Man’s standard gun.

Looking beyond the core gameplay, there’s a level of audiovisual polish and charm on display here that was unmatched on the system up to that time. Mega Man himself has a standout design with his instantly iconic silhouette and dynamic facial expressions. Little things like the way he blinks his eyes when standing idle and grimaces when hit by an enemy attack don’t seem like much now, but you need look no further than other high profile NES heroes of the time to see that the ante was really being upped here. Simon Belmont didn’t have even eyes to blink! This extraordinary level of characterization extends all the way down to the most common enemy robots, which are set apart from their cannon fodder counterparts in other games with little touches like their googly, old-timey cartoon eyes. If there’s one shortcoming that stands out in Mega Man’s graphics retrospectively, it’s the relative sparse (often solid color) stage backgrounds in this entry when compared to future games in the series. Again, it’s likely that we can chalk this up to memory constraints.

The music was also made a much higher priority here than in most other contemporary games. Early NES releases often made due with a couple of short loops stretched out to cover an entire game. While some of those loops (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda) may have been so well executed that the player didn’t mind most of the time, Mega Man stands out alongside Konami’s Castlevania as one of the first games for the platform that really tried to put a fuller soundtrack front and center by providing a unique background song for each and every stage. It’s no accident that Mega Man is known as Rockman in Japan or that he has a robot “sister” named Roll. The first Mega Man’s tunes aren’t the best of the franchise on average, but the standouts like “Cut Man,” “Dr. Wily’s Castle,” and the ending theme can still go toe-to-toe with the very best the console has to offer.

So I’ve covered who Mega Man is and why his first outing was such a game changer. How does it hold up today? Very well, I’m pleased to say. Certainly, it has a few nagging issues. A couple of the stages (like Guts Man’s) are simply too short and seem to peter out right when they’re getting started. Others (like Elec Man’s) are artificially lengthened with recycled sections used in a cut-and-paste fashion. Mega Man’s movement feels just a little slippery to me, as well, and it’s clear that they dialed back the momentum on his running in future installments to correct for this. The weapons could have used a bit more fine tuning, too. The items you’ll get range from overwhelmingly powerful (Thunder Beam) to moderately useful (Ice Slasher, Rolling Cutter, Fire Storm), to outright trash (Hyper Bomb, Super Arm). In all fairness, though, weapon balance would remain all over the map in most of the sequels, too. Finally, many fans also consider this first game in the series to be one of the most difficult to complete. I can see where they’re coming from, since this is the only installment that has no password or save feature and also lacks the “E-tank” items that allow the player to refill Mega Man’s health on demand. Difficulty is tempered somewhat by the overall shortness of the individual stages and the game as a whole, as well as the fact that continues are unlimited. For anyone with prior Mega Man experience, the challenge is best described as moderate. New players may want to start with Mega Man 2’s easy mode (the traditional entry point for the series) before giving this one a go.

The cynical take on all this would be that we’re dealing with an outdated relic here; that the original Mega Man doesn’t do anything its many sequels don’t also do and do better. That’s fair enough. It’s certainly not a judgement I can dispute objectively. On the flip side, Mega Man is also a scrappy little game that manages to pull off everything its bigger, more refined sequels did with a fraction of the resources to draw on. Like a debut album from a favorite band, it may be a bit raw and rough around the edges, but the key ingredients are all present and there’s a real sense of unbridled enthusiasm and experimentation on the part of the creators that still comes through after all these years. This is a not just a franchise entry, it’s an ambitious passion project that a tight-knit group of very gifted people was really, really excited about, and it shows.

Mega Man was not a strong seller for Capcom. Many over the years have speculated that this had something to do with its infamously hideous cover art. You can count me as a skeptic there. After all, “bad box art Mega Man” was strictly a North American phenomenon, and the game apparently didn’t perform all that great in Japan, either, where it was much less of an eyesore on store shelves. I think another explanation proposed by series co-creator Keiji Inafune in interviews is the more plausable one: Prior to 1987, Capcom was known to the gaming public entirely for its arcade titles and home ports of the same. The Mega Man project was intended to be the company’s first go at creating a native console game, and it represented a bit of an unknown quantity to prospective buyers as a result. Thankfully, ecstatic word of mouth from the few who did take the plunge was enough to get a sequel approved, then another, and another, and another…all the way up to yesterday as of this writing, when the upcoming Mega Man 11 was officially announced. Although I’m a little leery about the move away from pixel art to 3D models for the main series, I still can’t wait to see how the Blue Bomber’s 130-something’th outing pans out.

Until then, here’s to Mega Man: The most prolific character in video game history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer robot.

Totally Rad (NES)

Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.

Meet Jake. He’s a most excellent early 90s California skater dude with a righteous babe of a girlfriend named Allison. Like most teenagers back then, he spends his spare time hanging out at the circus learning sorcery from a freaky-looking leprechaun man named Zebediah. Good thing, too, because he’ll need all his gnarly magic skills if wants to rescue Allison and her dad from the evil warlord Edogy and his army of subterranean monster people. Just another day in Nintendo Land.

Welcome to Totally Rad! This 1990 action platformer was brought to us by Aicom and Jaleco. I really enjoyed the last Aicom NES game I played through, Vice: Project Doom, so I was pretty excited to give this one a go.

The game published internationally as Totally Rad started out as Magic John in Japan. The two releases are virtually identical except for one thing: The mass quantities of bodacious period ‘tude packed into Totally Rad’s every in-game cut scene and square inch of instruction manual text. Doe-eyed anime hero John became Keanu Reeves clone Jake and John’s girlfriend Yuu got a full Valley Girl makeover to become Allison. Only the magician Zebediah’s appearance was left untouched, resulting a very odd (and slightly creepy) clash of art styles. Many commenters have come down pretty hard on the game over the years due to what they perceive as the desperate unhipness of it all. I’m not entirely convinced that this is warranted. Just look at this excerpt from the introduction booklet:

“Edogy decides that he wants to kidnap Allison’s dad, a professor and the smartest guy on the West Coast – except that Allison’s dad lives near the Hollywood Freeway, takes the Hollywood Freeway to work, works near the Hollywood Freeway, and basically hardly ever leaves the Hollywood Freeway and, as it happens, Edogy has this major public transportation advocacy thing and there’s no way he’ll get anywhere near the Hollywood Freeway. So he kidnaps Allison instead, figuring that Allison’s dad will be lured away from the Hollywood Freeway long enough to save his daughter. Turns out he was right.”

There’s four whole pages of this. Four! Someone at Jaleco was clearly taking the piss in a big way when they localized this one. Once you realize that all the cowabunga corniness on display here was likely a deliberate skewering of pop culture trends of the time as opposed to a misguided and patronizing attempt to appeal to “the kids,” it becomes a whole lot more enjoyable in my opinion.

Firing Totally Rad up, you’ll notice right away that it’s an extremely colorful, borderline garish game. Hot pink and lime green are everywhere, and the later levels verge on psychedelia with their pulsing rainbow hues. These acres and acres of bright primary color make for quite the change of pace if you’re coming from more muted NES offerings like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. I don’t even think the Super Mario Bros. games on the system take it this far. I can see this game’s art style being a bit “love it or hate it,” but I’m leaning toward the love camp. The sprites and animations are high quality, befitting a late release on the system. The backgrounds are appealing, as well, with some good use of parallax scrolling here and there. The true graphical highlights, though, are the humongous boss monsters you’ll encounter at the end of every other stage. Not only are they well-drawn and animated, the designs themselves are strikingly outrageous and grotesque. Level two builds to a confrontation with what appears to be a thirty foot tall humanoid reptile sporting a pink mohawk, tight leather pants, and platform heels. Yowza.

The audio is decent, if not quite on the same level as the flashy visuals. The score by Kazuo Sawa (River City Ransom, The Battle of Olympus) is not exactly Wyld Stallyns worthy. It’s not awful and sets the tone well enough, I suppose. I just don’t find the majority of it to be particularly catchy or memorable. At least the song that plays over the opening cut scene sounds suspiciously like the famous saxophone riff from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” That always gives me a chuckle.

On to the gameplay. As Jake, you run and jump from left to right through a total of ten side-scrolling stages. Your primary attack is a rapid fire magic blast from Jake’s hand. Holding down the attack button for a few seconds instead of tapping it will charge up your shot to deal some extra damage. Every stage has a boss of some kind at the end, with every even-numbered one culminating in a conflict with an especially massive screen-filling baddie.

It seems pretty bare bones until you pause the game. Doing so brings up a menu containing a dozen different magical abilities that you can activate at any time. Each one costs a variable number of magic points from the gauge located at the top of the screen, next to Jake’s health bar. There are healing spells, elemental attacks that damage every enemy on the screen, a time stopper, a shield for temporary invincibility, and, most interestingly of all: Spells that will transform Jake into three different animal forms. These alternate forms allow the player to tackle the stages in several different ways. The eagle can fly by tapping the jump button, the lion can jump 50% higher and is immune to all damage while jumping, and the fish allows for swimming in the game’s requisite water level. The only downside to the animal transformations is that Jake can’t cast any other magic (such as healing) until he returns to human form. You can change him back to normal for free at any time, but reassuming animal form will then require a fresh expenditure of magic.

You’ll need to manage your magic intelligently if you want to do well, since there are no power-ups of any kind in the stages themselves. The only way to restore lost health is with magic and the only way to refill your magic is to either die or complete the current stage. Jake can usually manage five or six castings before running dry, so choose wisely.

It’s an interesting take on a power-up system, that’s for sure. The closest comparison would probably be Mega Man, if you started the game with all the robot master powers and they all shared a single power meter. Every stage hazard and boss fight can be made much easier with the application of the correct magic, but limited castings force the player to prioritize each threat in order to determine which ones are spell-worthy and which are better handled the old-fashioned way with Jake’s basic run-and-gun abilities.

On the downside, there are some glaring balance issues with the magic that become apparent as you play. The lion form damn near breaks the whole game with its combination of high damage output and invincibility on demand, and the eagle also has the potential to trivialize many of the stages with its flight capability. Despite these hiccups, Totally Rad’s magic system succeeds in adding enough depth and replay value to elevate it above the bog standard NES action title. It earns a recommendation, even if you don’t get as big a kick out of the absurd plot and dialog as I do. The fact that cartridge copies are still dirt cheap at the time of this writing is also a plus.

Copacetic.

Magical Pop’n (Super Famicom)

Pop’n and lock’n!

Dang. There are cute games, there are really cute games, and then there’s Magical Pop’n. This 1995 action platformer is bristling with weapons-grade preciousness and comes to us courtesy of developer Polestar and publisher Pack-In-Video. Neither of these defunct outfits are exactly household names, and that might be part of the reason why Magical Pop’n was never officially released outside its native land. It’s a real pity, because I feel quite confident declaring that it would be remembered as a much-loved classic by Super Nintendo fans worldwide if it had been. Instead, it’s never seen any sort of re-release or sequel and original copies command insane prices in the hundreds or thousands of dollars on online auction sites. Thank the pixilated gods above for reproduction cartridges!

Magical Pop’n is the tale of an adorable little princess named…nothing, actually. Hey, it’s still better than Prin Prin. Anyway, the Princess sets off to retrieve a magic gem of supreme power that’s stolen from her father’s castle by the wicked Demon King and his minions in the opening cut scene. Her journey takes her through six very large levels filled with branching paths and secrets.

For a little kid, the Princess has some serious moves. She can run, jump, crouch, crawl and slide along the ground, and perform a number of sword attacks from these different positions. She also starts out with the ability to shoot beams of light at her foes in exchange for a few magic points, which are represented by star icons. Along the way, she’ll find and learn five types of new magic, as well. Most magic spells serve a dual purpose, functioning as both supplementary attacks and as a means of bypassing specific stage obstacles. The magical chain, for example, can be used to strike enemies and as a grappling hook to swing from certain outcroppings in Bionic Commando style. There are even magical desperation attacks that you can trigger with the select button. These will usually damage all enemies on screen in exchange for consuming significantly more of your magic points than normal. All of these moves are easy to execute and flow together very naturally, so the combat and platforming both feel great.

Levels include a city, a forest, mountainous caverns, a castle in the clouds, and more. Each one allows for a good amount of exploration and falls somewhere between Super Mario and Metroid in terms of openness. Their structure is linear in that you can’t revisit a stage after you’ve defeated its final boss, but still open enough that using a new magic ability acquired in a given stage will often allow you go back and access areas of that same stage that were sealed off or out of reach when you passed by them the first time. Doing this is the key to finding hidden treasure chests that will refill your health and magic, grant you extra lives, and even expand your health meter permanently with extra hearts. There are at least two bosses to battle in every stage, and some of the later ones have three or more. These fights are pretty fun, and while each stage’s final boss is suitably large and impressive looking, some of the sub-bosses reappear (with minor upgrades) in later stages. This sort of enemy recycling is pretty common in these sorts of games, however.

As an action game, Magic Pop’n is sheer joy. It’s fast-paced, presents plenty to see and do, and gives the player a ton of options for varied approaches to the battles and other challenges at hand. Once you pick it up, you’ll be hard pressed to tear yourself away until all six stages have been conquered.

There’s still one thing that manages to impress even more than the gameplay, though, and it’s the insanely adorable presentation. This is obviously a late release for the system. The animation on the Princess and her adversaries is silky smooth and rendered with tremendous attention to detail. I love the way she covers her face with her hat when crouching, bounces on her butt after a long fall, pinwheels her arms and looks panicked when perched over a ledge, the list goes on and it’s all so freakin’ cute. The number of distinct animation frames puts this one nearly on par with a 2D game on a 32-bit console. The brilliant use of color bears mentioning, too. Magical Pop’n almost has the look of a PC Engine game with its super bold and bright palette, and that’s a style I just adore.

Then there’s the game’s real claim to fame in its day: The Princess talks! Veterans of the 16-bit era might be recoiling at this prospect already, hellish memories of Bubsy the Bobcat or even (shudder!) Awesome Possum flooding their minds. Let’s just say that most early experiments with chatty protagonists in platforming games were wretched, nails-on-chalkboard failures. Against all odds, Magical Pop’n pulls this trick off, too! The Princess is voiced by Japanese media personality Ai Iijima, who provided a separate voice clip for just about every action the Princess takes and even speaks the name of the game on the title screen. The voice samples are all clear sounding, thoroughly charming, and somehow never grow tiresome or obnoxious. I particularly like the “Yatta!” (“I did it!”) when finding an important item and her “Majikaru Bomba!” super bomb attack. The music is also excellent, with memorable melodies that start out peppy and upbeat in the earlier stages and grow increasingly heavy and driving as you near the final conflict with the Demon King. It reminds me of Little Nemo: The Dream Master in that sense. I guess I’m just a sucker for soundtracks that have a progression of sorts that mirrors that of the game as a whole.

Magical Pop’n is by no means a very challenging game. There’s a generous health bar, plenty of life-replenishing candy and cakes be found, no instant death hazards in the stages, plenty of chances to earn extra lives, and unlimited continues. Some might see this as a negative. Me, I’ve been playing so many tough games lately that I found it to be a breath of fresh air. Now, I enjoy the whole do-or-die, “eye of the tiger” hardcore gaming struggle routine as much as the next person…Oh, who am I kidding? The next person’s got nothing on me there. Still, I need look no further than classics like DuckTales or Super Castlevania IV to appreciate that there’s a place for relatively forgiving games that you can just kick back and breeze your way through when you’re not feeling quite so intense. Magical Pop’n fits that bill nicely.

One final thing I can thank this game for is introducing me to the fascinating individual that was Ai Iijima, the voice of the Princess. Her journey took her from teenage runaway and abuse survivor, to adult video sensation, to bestselling author and mainstream media superstar, to an abrupt retirement and a lonely death by pneumonia as a recluse at the young age of 36. Hers was a singular and remarkable life, partaking in more dizzying heights and desperate lows than most of us will never know. Along the way, she also breathed life into one of the most lovable little heroines to grace the world of gaming. Magical indeed. Rest in peace, Your Highness.

Double Dragon (NES)

“Fifty thousand? You got fifty thousand on Double Dragon!?”

Technōs Japan had a groundbreaking hit on their hands with the first entry in their Kunio-kun series, 1986’s Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun. Also known as Renegade outside Japan, it introduced a crucial element that other martial arts themed action games of the time lacked: The ability for characters to maneuver around the stage both horizontally and vertically in their ceaseless quest to pound the ever-loving crap out of each other.

When it came time to craft a follow-up, producer/director Yoshihisa Kishimoto wanted to push the genre even further while also insuring that the setting and characters would be more palatable to an international audience than the rival Japanese high schoolers plot of the Kunio-kun games. The end result was an even bigger smash in the form of 1987’s Double Dragon.

Introduced here was the now-standard ability to pick up and wield enemy weapons. Even more significant, however, was Double Dragon’s titular two player simultaneous gameplay. As much as we think of games like this as natural multiplayer experiences today, kicking street punk ass side-by-side with a buddy was a new and electrifying concept at the time. Of course, two players at once also meant twice the quarters for arcade operators. It was the start of a beat-‘em-up boom that would persist well into the next decade.

The story was set in a post-apocalyptic future New York City after a nuclear war has resulted in the breakdown of law and order among the survivors. The action follows two initially unnamed twin martial artists (later dubbed Billy and Jimmy Lee) as they take to the streets to rescue their shared love interest Marian from her abductors, the Black Warriors gang.

Home conversions for every console and computer of the time were inevitable. Some were pretty good and some were just dismal. The best-selling, most influential, and weirdest of them all was this one for Nintendo’s flagship machine. I never played it much back in my youth, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I saw it featured prominently in the very first issue of Nintendo Power magazine.

I might as well lead with the bad news: The trademark two player cooperative gameplay of the arcade original is nowhere to be found on the NES. This was presumably done for performance reasons. In other words, to keep the game running at a reasonable pace. Whether this was really due to insurmountable technical limitations or programmer inexperience is debatable when you consider that both Double Dragon II and III on the NES do allow for simultaneous play. At least the designers actually went so far as to tweak the storyline in order to justify the second Lee brother’s absence as a playable character. In video gaming’s most shocking heel turn since Donkey Kong Jr., it turns out that a jealous Jimmy is behind Marian’s kidnapping in this version and poor Billy is on a dual mission to rescue his sweetheart and put an end to his brother’s evil ways once and for all. Pretty dark there, guys. Or I guess it would be if Jimbo wasn’t alive and a good guy again in all the sequels. Oh, well. I still appreciate the effort.

Technōs threw in multiple new gameplay elements in order to (hopefully) make up for the loss of the game’s signature feature. The most obvious is Mode B, a rather crude stab at an early head-to-head fighting game for one or two players. There are six selectable fighters on offer, but each combatant isn’t allowed to choose from them independently, so all fights are “mirror matches” where two differently colored version of the same character square off. With its awkward movement, stiff controls, limited moves, and only six possible matchups, Mode B is certainly no Street Fighter II. It is, at the very least, curiously forward-thinking. Here you have a port of the game that had set the gold standard for martial arts action in its time anticipating, albeit in a very limited capacity, the next title that would come along and do the same thing three years later.

In terms of the main game, a simple experience system has been implemented. Billy starts out with a single heart icon below his health bar and only basic punch and kick attacks. Every 1,000 experience points earned by attacking enemies adds another heart and another move to Billy’s arsenal, up to a maximum of seven. This addition is, again, more interesting than it is enjoyable, as it’s clearly a forerunner of the RPG/brawler hybrid playstyle that would be much more fully realized later on in Technōs’ own River City Ransom. Here, it mostly just functions as a time sink. Since the player has a much better chance in the later levels with a full repertoire of moves, it makes the most sense to run down the timer grinding out experience in the early stages by repeatedly punching and kicking weak enemies without finishing them off for as long as possible. This does add a few extra minutes of uneventful padding to a very short game, but that’s about all.

There are four stages total, just like in the arcade. They’re very similar to their original designs, broadly speaking, though stages three and four have been lengthened via the addition of some seriously dodgy platforming segments. Like the rest of the new material in this port, they fail to add anything of substance to the core game. Billy’s jump kick works fine as an attack, but it’s terrible for leaping over pits and onto moving platforms. It has a small arc, requires pressing two buttons at once, and seems to be slightly delayed. Here’s a tip: Resist your natural instinct to compensate for the short jump distance by waiting until you’re at the very edge of a gap before trying to leap over. Not only is the aforementioned delay a threat, being anywhere near the edge of a platform also seems to suck you inexorably down to your doom somehow. Once you get used to avoiding those edges and inputting your jumps a split second before you would in most other games, you can pass these sections relatively easily, but that learning curve is a killer. A particularly annoying one, I might add, when you’re only given three lives with which to complete all four stages.

If it sounds like I’m down on Double Dragon, I’m really not. Even as a single player experience, it’s still a damn fine action game for its time. While the various extra features may not amount to much, punching, kicking, headbutting, and elbow smashing your way through an endless conga line of dumb thugs is timeless fun. Billy has a ton of moves at his disposal once he’s fully leveled up and most of them are quite effective. This allows you a lot of freedom to experiment with taking out the opposition in different ways. A great game with a bunch of odd, superfluous junk grafted onto it is still a great game.

Double Dragon’s soundtrack is rightly remembered as one of the highlights of the system’s middle years. The songs themselves are taken straight from the arcade, but they sound even better played through the NES sound chip. Except for one rather discordant track that plays at the start of the third stage, everything here is legitimately iconic. The graphics are pretty sweet, too. Characters animate well and show a decent amount of expression on their faces as you pummel them senseless. While the backgrounds could have benefitted from a bit more detail and some additional colors in many spots, this was one of the best looking 1988 releases for the console overall.

If you just want the best possible Double Dragon experience on the NES, I would direct you toward Double Dragon II: The Revenge. It has the cooperative play that made the series famous and ditches the tedious experience point system in favor of simply giving you all your moves at the outset. The horrid platform jumping is still there, but two out of three ain’t bad! The original is still an ass-whooping good time, though, and is arguably the more essential experience for NES aficionados due to its greater impact on the fan culture surrounding the console as a whole.

Besides, a little fratricide never hurt anyone, right?

Shatterhand (NES)

I came; I saw; I shattered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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