Section Z (NES)

Time to go commando!

I’ve been putting Section Z off for a long time now. I knew three things about this 1987 shooter going in: First, its 1985 arcade forerunner was the start of Capcom’s loose “jetpack trilogy,” which also includes Side Arms and Forgotten Worlds. Second, this home adaptation was radically redesigned à la Tecmo’s Rygar, ballooning from 26 linear stages (designated A through Z, naturally) to a full 60 arranged in a maze-like fashion. Finally, there’s no way to record your progress. The Famicom release utilized the Disk System add-on and allowed for saving directly to the floppy. Unfortunately, Capcom opted not to follow the example set by other North American FDS-to-cartridge conversions like Metroid and Castlevania II, which replaced the disk saves with passwords. The entirety of NES Section Z has to be finished in one go.

In other words, I needed to wait until I had both a big chunk of free time and nothing better to do with it than sit around playing Nintendo and mapping out a tangle of alien-infested corridors on paper. Home sick with a nasty cold? Perfect!

The main reason I was so keen to give this one a try is the groundbreaking role it plays in Capcom’s early NES history. Like all their pre-Mega Man output for the console, Section Z got its start in arcades. Unlike 1942, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and the rest of their relatively faithful ports, however, this Section Z makes no attempt to replicate the design specifics of its predecessor. Apart from the core conceit of a man with a jetpack zipping around vaporizing space aliens, it’s an entirely new game. This same approach would grace us with the all-time classic NES interpretation of Bionic Commando the following year.

Your ultimate goal in Section Z is to guide a lone Earth soldier on his journey to destroy the evil Balangool empire and its leader, L-Brain, before they overrun humanity. Your gun-toting astronaut hero goes unnamed in the arcade, but on the NES he was dubbed Captain Commando as part of an ongoing attempt to create a mascot character based on the Capcom name itself (in reality a portmanteau of Japan Capsule Computers Co., Ltd). This effort peaked in 1991 with the release of the side-scrolling beat-’em-up Captain Commando, although it’s highly doubtful the hero of that game is really intended to be the same Boba Fett-looking fellow you control here.

Hunting down L-Brain is no mean feat thanks to the complex arrangement of the game’s 60 numbered sections. The bulk of these short (one to two minute) stages terminate in multiple exits, each of which will send the good Captain to a different destination. Barring the distinctly cheaty option of using a pre-made map, there’s no way to tell which section an exit connects to short of trying it out. It could just as easily warp you back to an area you’ve already visited as take you someplace new. Section 8, for example, has exits leading to sections 5 and 11. Your trial and error exploration (which ideally includes careful note taking) will eventually uncover a few exits that are colored red instead of the usual green. These lead to the game’s major boss fights, but they’ll be sealed and deadly to the touch until you can find and destroy a power generator mini-boss.

Thankfully, this all isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. Section Z is really more like three mazes comprising 20 stages each than one colossal 60 stage labyrinth. The bosses at the end of sections 19 and 39 function as points of no return. Once you defeat them, you’ll never have to worry about being sent back to an earlier section again if you die and continue. Continues are also unlimited, so you won’t lose out on any progress made as long as you don’t switch off the game entirely. You’ll need all the developer leniency you can get toward the end, where the correct path can even include invisible secret rooms that are revealed by firing at seemingly empty areas of the screen.

The shooting action itself is pretty typical horizontal auto-scrolling fare. Captain Commando’s primary distinction is his ability to fire his gun right or left as needed using the A and B buttons, respectively. It may not seem like much, but it’s a nice change of pace from the planes and spaceships common to this style of game, which are usually limited to aiming in whatever direction the screen happens to be scrolling. Enemy placement takes the Captain’s offensive flexibility into account, so be prepared for foes to enter from either side of the screen at any time. While things can get pretty hectic, there are no one one-hit deaths in Section Z. The Captain comes equipped with a generous energy counter which starts out at 20 and can be permanently increased by defeating bosses. Most enemy shots only deduct one point of energy. Physical contact is much more dangerous, resulting in a loss of five energy and a trip back to the start of the current section.

There’s a handful of power-ups available: A laser, an upgradable triple shot, and a temporary shield. What’s great about these is you can keep them in your inventory and equip them as needed with the Select button. Saving a shield for the boss fights obviously works wonders. There are also powerful super attacks the manual calls missiles. These are clumsy to use and rarely worth the trouble. You activate them by pressing A and B simultaneously, which will cause the missile to appear in the center of the screen. You then need to fly over and touch the missile to actually trigger it. This costs four of your energy points and can be difficult to manage at all when you’re being swarmed by bad guys (i.e. when you need it the most). I ignored these for the most part and don’t regret it.

Section Z looks better than average for a 1987 release. The backgrounds are colorful and the enemy sprites are competent takes on the usual random assortment of tiny killer robots. Captain Commando himself is the real standout with his oversize spiky rifle and Star Wars-inspired armored space suit. Très badass. The music is high quality, too. Strangely, though, the tracks recall something you’d hear in a ’60s spy movie. It sounds more like Captain Commando should be smuggling classified documents out of the Soviet embassy than blowing away alien invaders. I kinda dig it.  The only real downside to this soundtrack is there’s not much to it. You’ll be listening to the same three loops for more than 90% of the adventure.

Was Section Z for the NES worth the four hours or so it took me to puzzle my way through? Well, I reckon it wasn’t the worst way to spend a sick day. It’s a mechanically solid shooter with a unique pseudo-adventure game structure and pleasing presentation. That said, its length clearly works against it on a blind playthrough. You’ll see the same modest selection of backgrounds and enemies over and over, listen to the same three songs for ages, and do a metric ton of button tapping due to the regrettable lack of a thumb-friendly auto-fire feature, all without the ability to divide the quest up into multiple play sessions for convenience. While there’s certainly some satisfaction to be found in making your own map and taking L-Brain down for the first time, I can see this version of the game being much more fun to revisit with prior knowledge of its convoluted layout. The presence of a save feature alone makes the Famicom Disk System edition a better starting point, provided you have the means to run it.

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Metroid: Rogue Dawn (NES)

As I made abundantly clear last week, I quite enjoyed my most recent playthroughs of Nintendo’s immortal Metroid. So much so that I was left craving more NES Metroid goodness. The only problem? There isn’t any! Unlike fellow iconic heroes Link, Mega Man, and Simon Belmont, sci-fi badass Samus Aran never saw another outing on the system of her “birth.” The second and third Metroid adventures were reserved for the Game Boy and Super Nintendo, respectively, leaving NES fans to wonder for decades what might have been.

Until 2017, that is, when a large team of talented collaborators (Grimlock, Optomon, snarfblam, Parasyte, Kenta Kurodani, DemickXII, M-Tee, MrRichard999, RealRed) released Metroid: Rogue Dawn, by far the most ambitious ROM hack of the original game to date. The bullet points here should pique the interest of any veteran space hunter: Entirely new art, sound, and story elements, added power-ups, a save feature, a Super Metroid style auto-map, and more. I’m pleased to say that while it’s not without its minor hiccups, the end result is tremendous fun and does indeed feel like a genuine lost sequel.

I say sequel, but Rogue Dawn actually goes the prequel route and bases its events on the backstory detailed in the first Metroid’s instruction manual. The player controls the mysterious Dawn Aran, a figure the developers hint has some close connection to Samus. Whether she’s supposed to be a long-lost relative, a clone, or something else entirely is left deliberately obscure. A good call, if I do say so myself. Ambiguity is highly underrated. What we do know for sure about Dawn is that she’s no angel. She’s a space pirate operative acting on orders from none other than recurring series antagonist Ridley. Her mission: To acquire a Metroid specimen from the Galactic Federation research team on planet SR388 by any means necessary. This “play as the villain” angle holds much appeal for me. It goes places no official release from Nintendo ever would while still remaining true to the established narrative.

Experienced players should be able to dive right in and start plumbing the depths of SR388 with ease, as Dawn runs, jumps, and shoots just like Samus. Mostly. One notable difference is that she starts out equipped with the Maru Mari (Morph Ball) and Long Beam. No more having to make due with a pathetic stream of gunfire that hardly extends more than an arm’s length in front of you. The total number of additional power-ups you can eventually attain through exploration remains the same, however, as the Morph Ball and Long Beam pickups have been replaced by Metroid II’s Spring Ball and Super Metroid’s Wall Jump! These two new movement abilities alone have massive implications for the overall flow of the action. Being able to rebound off any wall in particular makes negotiating vertical passages a cinch. A final inventory tweak I really love: You’re no longer forced to choose between the Ice Beam and Wave Beam. You can now equip both simultaneously and their effects stack.

Rogue Dawn’s level design has also been infused with fresh ideas. There’s a much larger number of unique screens here than in Metroid proper and they tend to connect in more intricate ways. It’s common for a given screen to be divided up by walls, creating two or more distinct routes through the same section of map, a technique almost never seen in the original. SR388’s environments aren’t all cramped underground tunnels linked by doors, either. You’ll traverse portions of the planet’s surface (some of which sport gorgeous weather effects), underwater areas with modified movement physics, the interiors of your own pirate spaceship and the Federation research vessel, a Metroid hive, and possibly even some downright strange hidden zones if you’re fortunate enough to stumble onto them.

In profiling Metroid, I repeatedly stressed that, for better or worse, the game has a rather stern 1986 vintage mindset and eschews any sort of overt player guidance. Rogue Dawn opts for a more modern approach. Your general goal is still the same: Defeat two sub-bosses in order to open the way to the final area and boss. The difference is that the presence of an in-game map with major equipment upgrades and boss encounters already pre-marked makes it borderline impossible to get yourself lost for any significant period of time. I’m already on record as being no fan of developer hand-holding like this. I prefer to figure things out on my own. That said, even I can’t claim to have found all of Rogue Dawn’s “quality of life” updates so unwelcome. Being able to save your game at any time through a menu is much less cumbersome than relying on a password system, for example. Better still, you start each new play session here with full energy and the recharging stations seen in most official sequels that top off your health and missile supply are scattered liberally about the map. Endless enemy farming to refill your reserves is now a thing of the past.

I found the new graphics and music to  be superb across the board. The high degree of visual detail reminds me more of Super Metroid than its 8-bit ancestor and the neon-like effect produced when splashes of bright color pop out out from the stark black backdrops recalls Sunsoft’s first NES Batman game. High praise indeed. The score by Optomon really took me by surprise in the best possible way. I came down against his compositions in Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, judging them too dainty for the furious on-screen action, but there’s no denying that he gets what makes a Metroid game tick. These tracks are tense, eerie, and, above all, atmospheric. Eat your heart out, “Hip” Tanaka!

What about those “hiccups” I mentioned above? Well, I have two primary issues with Rogue Dawn. One relates to an especially quirky aspect of its level design and the other to its boss battles. While I adore the layout of the game world in general and even consider it an improvement on the source material in some respects (like the larger, more exciting final area), there are several locations where passages inexplicably wrap around themselves in an endless loop if you don’t pass through them in just the right way. The effect is similar to The Legend of Zelda’s Lost Woods or the escape tunnels on either side of a Pac-Man maze. While this sort of surreal navigation gimmick can work just fine in the context of a fantasy world with magic or an abstract single-screen arcade game, it’s fundamentally at odds with the more grounded feel and sense of place vital to a Metroid title. It’s so jarringly video gamey, in fact, that it instantly shatters any sense of immersion I’ve managed to cultivate each and every time it crops up.

My disappointment with the boss fights stems simply from the realization that they’re same as they ever were, for the most part. Sprites have been re-drawn, of course, but the distinctive attacks and behaviors of Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain are unmistakable. There is a fourth boss unique to Rogue Dawn and I certainly commend the team for that. It’s just a shame that the enemies you face are the one aspect of the base game that’s seen the fewest changes.

Leaving aside those few out-of-place warp corridors and recyled bosses, it should be clear by now that Rogue Dawn is a most extraordinary fan game. It’s easily the current high water mark for NES Metroid hacks in general and seems likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. If you’re the type that considers the game it’s based on to be too difficult or confusing, you may well find it superior to Nintendo’s own work. While I wouldn’t go that far, I can’t deny that this is one case where going rogue paid off big. Make like Dawn Aran and pirate yourself a copy today.

Metroid (NES)

Space bikini is best bikini!

Sometimes I think I was made to chronicle the arcane oddities time forgot. When my task is to focus on one of the the all-time capital G Greats, I always seem to come down with a vicious amalgamation of stage fright and writer’s block. This is never more true than when tackling one of the Holy Trinity of world-shaking Nintendo titles that came out in that golden year between the Fall seasons of 1985 and 1986: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid. There’s just no way I’m going to say something no one ever has before about a game that immediately became its very own genre upon release and is still spawning acclaimed imitators like Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge more than three decades later. Still, my continuing mission is to review each and every game I complete and I recently wrapped up a couple playthroughs of Metroid, so damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

In the interest of accuracy, I should first qualify that statement about Metroid founding its own genre. I’m very much aware that space hunter Samus Aran didn’t emerge fully-formed from the Nintendo R&D1 design team’s collective brow like Athena (the goddess, not the terrible SNK game). Pitfall! had introduced the world to exploratory platforming in 1982 and games with shooting combat and persistent character upgrades are older still. Metroid’s genius was taking almost everything that was hot in gaming circa 1986 (running, jumping, shooting, exploration, character progression) and synthesizing it all into one exceptionally palatable dish served with a garnish of slick graphics and house composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka’s brooding score. It felt so fresh to so many that any retroactive quibbling over whether it really was or not is ultimately petty.

Metroid opens in the vague future year 20X5. A ruthless band of space pirates led by an entity known as Mother Brain have attacked a Galactic Federation research ship and stolen samples of a newly-discovered life form with powerful energy absorption abilities, the Metroids. Left to their own devices, it’s only a matter of time before the pirates succeed at weaponizing the Metroids and bring all of galactic civilization to its knees. In desperation, the Federation sends ace bounty hunter Samus on a last-ditch solo mission to infiltrate the subterranean fortress planet Zebes and neutralize the Metroid threat. It won’t be easy. Zebes is a sprawling maze teeming with hostile creatures and Samus starts out with very little in the way of equipment. Its deadly corridors must be scoured with care in order to acquire the many power suit upgrades necessary to eliminate the two space pirate lieutenants, Ridley and Kraid, which will, in turn, reveal the way to Mother Brain’s inner sanctum.

Of course, no discussion of Metroid’s story would be complete if it didn’t address the big twist. Reach the end in under five hours and the mysterious masked hero Samus is revealed to be…a woman! This is hardly big spoiler material 33 years on, but the most interesting thing about it for me personally is that I have no specific recollection of discovering it. I certainly owned the game back around the time of its North American release. I sank so much time into it, in fact, that I was still able to track down every item within a couple of hours during my most recent play session despite not having touched it in decades. Combing through all those detailed memories, however, there’s nothing remotely approximating the standard anecdote about being shocked or blown away by Samus’ gender reveal. Was I just some uncommonly open-minded ten year-old that didn’t see a lady video game hero as all that unlikely? Beats me.

As with the first Legend of Zelda, certain elements of Metroid have proven contentious for fans of its many sequels and imitators. To put it bluntly, this game doesn’t hold your hand. At all. From the instant you hit Start on the title screen, you’re plopped down into the Brinstar, the game’s main hub area, with nothing but a paltry amount of health, a weak gun that can’t hit anything more than a couple inches distant, and your wits. You get no built-in map feature, no helpful NPCs to point you in the right direction, no hints whatsoever really. The manual does an admirable job of detailing the controls as well as all the items you can find and enemies you’ll encounter, but that’s all. Your choices are to either march off and get yourself lost in a perilous environment or to get hold of somebody else’s pre-made map (i.e. cheat).

Compounding the potential bewilderment, level structure here is open to a downright anarchic degree. Most Metroid-likes, while proudly billing themselves as open and non-linear, actually prefer to subtly nudge the player around by gating large chunks of their worlds off behind conspicuous barriers that require specific upgrades to pass. Metroid doesn’t care. Once you acquire the bombs and at least a few missiles early on in Brinstar, you can technically go anywhere and do anything, with the lone exception of taking on Mother Brain herself. If you want to wander into an area filled with ultra-tough critters that can take you out in a few seconds flat, you won’t be stopped. You won’t even be warned.

It’s not hard to imagine how players accustomed to more in the way of so-called signposting could be frustrated to no end by these design choices. Resisting the urge to fly into full-on “kids these days” mode like the crotchety old man I am, I will say that Metroid is a product of its time, made by and for old-school adventure game players. From that vantage point, getting lost and confused, dying a lot, methodically probing each and every dead for secret passages, and creating your own maps by hand aren’t bugs, they’re features. If, like me, you’re the type that gets a major rush from finally finding the correct hidden route to a boss or power-up after what feels like an eternity of fruitless searching, Metroid’s a game for you. If you’d prefer a handy flashing arrow directing you to your next objective, you’re gonna have a bad time.

This isn’t to say that all of Metroid’s flaws are subjective. Replenishing Samus’ lost health is a major pain. She starts her adventure with a maximum health of 99 and can eventually increase that to almost 700 by collecting energy tanks. For whatever reason, though, every time you continue your game, be it after a death or via password save, you’re only given a measly 30 units of health, barely enough to a withstand a couple of hits. The only way to regain health, aside from locating another of the rare and finite energy tanks, is to farm weak enemies for healing pickups. These drop inconsistently and most only restore five points at a time. It requires the forbearance of an 8-bit saint to sit there and grind all the way back to full energy in the late game.

There are also some instances of cheap damage to contend with. Many areas of the game are linked by doors and Samus is unable to move during the panning screen transition that occurs whenever a doorway is entered. Her enemies have no such restrictions and will continue to move around and deal their damage during these brief interludes. Getting followed through a doorway by a strong baddie while your energy reserves are low is a virtual death sentence. It would have been a small thing to render Samus temporarily invulnerable while she’s immobilized in this way. As it is, it stands out as sloppy.

While these rough patches are very much real and worth noting, I don’t feel they detract in any meaningful way from what Metroid achieved back in the mid ’80s or what it still has to offer the most patient of modern day enthusiasts. Its stark environments, eerie soundtrack, and general lack of clemency foster a profound sense of player immersion. You really do feel like a lone warrior stranded deep behind enemy lines on an uncharted alien world. Every element of the design and presentation supports this singular vision of claustrophobic dread and isolation. This quality is what made Metroid one of the very first truly atmospheric console releases and the effect remains as potent as ever when the game is approached as intended today. It’s also what sets this debut entry in the franchise apart from its successors, all of which relied on more linear progression schemes, auto-maps, and NPC hints to soften that hardcore edge some. I can’t say there’s anything strictly wrong with such measures, though I do liken them to adding a net to a perfectly good trapeze act. Crotchety old man, remember?

If you take away one thing from all this, let it be that Metroid is an instant classic, an enduring design landmark, and a must-play video game, provided you have the correct temperament for it. Gamer, know thyself.

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

I’ve covered several noteworthy clone games over the years, going so far as to label some of them (Master of Darkness, Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest) particularly shameless copycats. Being brazen is one thing, but Sega’s 1991 Master System release Golden Axe Warrior is the first such game I’ve encountered that takes things a step further. Its makers were seemingly so intent on proving anything Nintendo could do, they could do better that their work reads as downright defiant. The way Sega painstakingly duplicates even the most peripheral elements of The Legend of Zelda here has all the earmarks of a rebel stance.

Now, I realize that throwing around loaded terms like “clone” and “copycat” can raise some red flags. Just to be clear, I’m don’t believe that a lack of originality is some sort of mortal design sin. Innovation is praiseworthy as a general thing, sure, but I’m here for a good time and Golden Axe Warrior is a decently fun take on the Zelda formula. I can even find it in my heart to cut Sega some slack in light of their circumstances at the time. Nintendo had spent the better part of the past decade leading up to this game’s release using every dirty trick and strong-arm tactic in the book to push third party game developers and retailers away from the Sega brand. This resulted in the Master System being all but frozen out of the two biggest game markets in the world at time: North America and Japan. I’d have a golden axe to grind under such conditions, too.

Most classic gaming devotees will rightly surmise that Golden Axe Warrior is based on the Golden Axe series of fantasy beat-’em-ups that started in the arcades back in 1989. The basic scenario presented here is overall quite faithful to the first arcade game’s: The wicked giant Death Adder has overrun the land. You assume control of (and name) a young hero orphaned by Death Adder on a quest to vanquish the tyrant. Oddly, while all three iconic protagonists from the arcade title make brief cameos in Golden Axe Warrior, none of them are playable.

So, how exactly does Golden Axe Warrior mirror Zelda? You have the overhead view, of course. The flip-screen scrolling. Similar sword and shield-based combat. A health meter represented by tiny red hearts. A sprawling overworld dotted with trees and rock formations, many of which conceal cave entrances. Nine magic crystals that must be gathered from nine separate underground dungeons filled with locked doors and simple puzzles before you can enter the tenth and final dungeon to face Death Adder himself. Upgrades within each dungeon that allow you do things like illuminate dark areas and travel over water. Did I miss anything? Yup! Golden Axe Warrior actually goes so far as to knock off specific oddball Zelda enemies. It includes its own take on the tube-shaped Like Like critters that gobble up your character and steal his items, for example. Hell, even the money making game and those obnoxious door repair jerks make appearances! I never thought I’d see the day a Zelda-inspired game would bother porting over the friggin’ door repair guy, but here we are. It’s this whole added layer of unnecessary copying that makes me think Sega was hoisting a big virtual middle finger at their arch-rivals.

Again, I’m not trying to imply that Golden Axe Warrior isn’t worthy of your time. It handles the majority of these familiar elements with grace and even exceeds Zelda itself on a couple fronts. It looks much nicer for one thing, owing to the Master System’s superior color capabilities. The world building and storytelling are also much improved. Hyrule, as presented in the first Legend of Zelda, came off much more like trackless wilderness than a proper kingdom. The lands you visit in Golden Axe Warrior are dotted with actual settlements and the NPCs dwelling in them generally have more copious and useful dialogue to dispense than their NES counterparts. A few towns you’ll discover will be ruined and strewn with corpses; a rather elegant way to reinforce the threat of Death Adder and his minions.

Slick as the majority of Golden Axe Warrior is, the combat constitutes a major stumbling block in my book. While the swordplay is superficially very similar to Zelda’s, the devil is in the details. Your weapons all seem to have a shorter reach than Link’s sword and they also cause less pushback to enemies. Consequently, I found it much more of a pain to get close enough to deal my damage without taking any in return. This is exacerbated by the fact that your ranged attack options are limited to magic spells and you can’t really afford to waste your limited magic power on cannon fodder baddies when it’s your only means of opening many locked doors and secret passages. The fighting in Golden Axe Warrior was mostly just an annoyance for me. The precise spacing and timing required is simply way too finicky for a game in this style. Either more sword range or some extra projectile weapons like the boomerang, bow, and wand from Zelda would have smoothed things out significantly.

Once you do eventually adapt to this exacting combat, Golden Axe Warrior reveals itself to be one of the more accomplished Master System releases of its kind. I’ll certainly take it over Compile’s Golvellius any day. At the same time, though, it could have been so much more. Its developers placed such a high premium on replicating Nintendo’s seminal effort that they essentially forgot to make a Golden Axe game! Virtually none of the memorable scenes or mechanics from the beloved beat-’em-ups are represented here. Imagine if you could play as Ax Battler, Tyris Flare, or Gilius Thunderhead instead of some blank slate nobody. Perhaps you’d be able to switch between all three heroes as needed to make use of their unique weapons and spells. What about getting to kick ass mounted on some of the fantastic beasts you can saddle up and ride in the arcade? Even booting around those weird little gnome thief dudes to refill your health and magic would have been something. An adventure game that made a bona fide attempt to hybridize Golden Axe and Zelda could have been a real knockout entry in the genre with a far more wide-reaching legacy.

Alas, poor Golden Axe Warrior. Scion of a proud line, it got so carried away trying to beat the enemy at their own game that it lost its very identity in the process.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rygar (NES)

Always leave ‘em smiling!

Ah, good old Rygar! I actually owned this one growing up, so it feels great to finally give it another look. Like catching up with an old friend. Originally released as Arugosu no Senshi: Hachamecha Daishingeki (“Warrior of Argus: Extreme Great Charge”) in 1987, the game we know in the West as Rygar is a radical reworking by Tecmo of their own 1986 arcade title.

The arcade Rygar was a straightforward “run from left to right” action-platformer and a great one by the standards of the time. This was mainly due to the lead character’s unusual weapon: Some sort of serrated shield on a chain called the diskarmor that lashed out to smite enemies before returning to Rygar yo-yo style. It didn’t make much sense, but it was just so cool. To this day, I’ll always drop a few quarters into a Rygar machine given the chance.

The Rygar I’m looking at today is a whole other story. The main character and his cool weapon are still present, except now it’s in the context of an exploration-based action adventure seemingly inspired by Metroid that also includes some light RPG elements.

Rygar takes place in the fantasy realm of Argool, described as “prosperous” and “holy” in the instruction manual. One day, a monster king named Ligar attacks Argool with his minions (the manual calls them “animalized men wriggling eerily,” which is just amazing) and swiftly subjugates everyone, including the “five legendary Indora Gods.” Yeesh. Some gods they turned out to be. In desperation, the people pray for the savior that prophecy states will appear “when the peaceful land is covered with EVIL SPIRITS.” Their prayers are answered when the great warrior Rygar of Argus rises from the dead and sets out to save the day.

In this case, saving the day means wandering Argool searching out the five sacred treasures needed to access Ligar’s flying castle, each of which is guarded by a different boss monster. This is mostly done in a side-scrolling style reminiscent of the arcade original, though there are also three areas of the game that employ an overhead view of the action where Rygar can move and attack in four directions as well as jump in eight.

Regardless of the perspective, you can expect to be under attack from various monsters the majority of the time. At first, your inclination might be to avoid as many baddies as possible, but fighting everything you can really is the way to go. Killing monsters earns you experience points that go toward improving two important statistics: Tone and last. I can only assume that these odd names are the result of awkward translation, as “attack” and “defense” would have been much better choices. Higher tone means enemies die in fewer hits and increasing last earns you a longer health bar.

The pause screen also displays a third value: Mind. This is the equivalent of magic points and is boosted by collecting star icons dropped by defeated foes. Mind points can then be spent as needed on three different spells that either improve Rygar’s offensive abilities temporarily (Power Up, Attack & Assail) or restore lost health (Recover).

Similar to other open world action games of the time, much of Rygar consists of locating doors to new areas and then exploring those areas as thoroughly as possible. Whenever an obstacle is encountered that halts your progress, you’ll need to backtrack after making a note of it (mental or otherwise) so that you can return once you’ve acquired the inventory item needed to proceed. These progression items include a grappling hook, a pulley, and a crossbow.

Borrowing a page from The Legend of Zelda, hints are provided by old hermits found tucked away in remote locations. Unlike in Zelda, these old beardy dudes are shirtless and super buff. Their dialogue ranges from fairly useful to completely pointless (“Fight! Fight! Fight!”), but at least it generally makes sense, giving Rygar a leg up over some of its less coherent peers. It’s the visuals here that always stuck with me, though. These cavernous chambers with their lime green brick walls, unexplained angular shadows, and giant, half-naked old men squatting atop narrow pillars that tower over Rygar’s tiny sprite have to be one of the more surreal sights the NES library has to offer, and that’s saying a lot.

While I’m on the subject, the artwork in Rygar is generally good for a 1987 game, if a little inconsistent. The character sprites are the clear highlight. They’re very detailed and the designs of the numerous grotesque monsters do not disappoint. The big exception is poor Rygar himself, who would have really benefitted from some actual facial features. Backgrounds include some nice details, particularly on the stonework, but several areas suffer from drab coloration, including one stage that seems to utilize gray and black exclusively. I’m playing this on an NES, Tecmo, not a Tiger LCD handheld. The soundtrack by Michiharu Hasuya similarly has its ups and down. I found some of the tunes a bit on the droning side and others, like the stirring cave theme, to be real gems.

Rygar is not a long game, nor is it a difficult one once a fair amount of experience points have been gathered. Players with an understanding of the stage layouts can easily reach the end in an hour or two, depending on whether they want to take the time to level Rygar up to maximum power along the way or not. New players learning the game as they go, on the other hand, will require considerably more time and may consequently experience some frustration due to the game’s lack of a battery save or password feature. This is one of those games like Blaster Master that was responsible for a lot of parental nagging back in the day over consoles being left on overnight.

Putting my own personal nostalgia aside as much as possible, I still find Rygar to be an excellent example of an early non-linear platformer on the NES. This is primarily due to two factors: How well the Rygar character himself controls and how the designers smartly avoided shoehorning in tedious gimmicks. Rygar’s movements are smooth and precise. His jump is a bit on the floaty side, but his ability to bounce on top of enemies to stun them and gain some extra height in the process is pretty neat. The diskarmor is also as awesome as ever here, with satisfying sound effects and real sense of weight behind it due to the way most enemies are pushed backward on contact. The difference in handling between the agile Rygar and the stiff, awkward hero of Clash at Demonhead really makes the latter game seem amateurish. Best of all, you won’t find anything blatantly extraneous here like the wretched first-person segments from The Goonies II or Castlevania II’s currency grinding. Rygar wisely keeps the focus exclusively on the platforming, combat, and exploration, making it a stronger game overall than any of these three. I suppose if you’re going to take inspiration from Metroid, it pays to do it right.

As far as problems go, I already touched on the lack of a save function and the way the challenge suffers once Rygar himself levels up enough to become an unstoppable force that his enemies just can’t compete with. Another missed opportunity is the rather weak boss encounters. Only one of them even moves around to any significant degree. The rest, including final boss Ligar, either stand in one place lobbing shots at you or shuffle around the arena so slowly that they may as well just stay put, too. Levels are much more about the journey than the destination thanks to these disappointing fights. I don’t think these flaws come close to dooming the game. Just be prepared for a slightly odd downward difficulty curve as things get easier the further you progress.

Sadly, the Rygar series never really went anywhere from here, unless you count the barely remembered attempt at a reboot on the PlayStation 2 in 2002. At the very least, the reimagined Rygar’s success on the NES served as an auspicious precedent for Tecmo and they would go on to pursue a similar approach with Ninja Gaiden, which became an all-time classic action-platformer as opposed to the mediocre beat-’em-up it was in the arcade.

Quibbles aside, I recommend Rygar highly to anyone with an interest in early console action-adventure games and/or wriggling eerily.

King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (Famicom)

Next up: Ping pong in Hong Kong!

What do you get when you combine the worst King Kong film with the best Famicom developer? Konami’s King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (“Megaton Punch of Fury”) from 1986. Based on the critically panned film King Kong Lives, this is an overhead view action game where the player guides Kong through nine interconnected levels in an effort to rescue his mate Lady Kong, who’s been kidnapped by the military.

Popular culture as a whole has seemingly agreed to just forget about the 1976 King Kong remake from Paramount, but it was a pretty big hit at the time. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, later founded his own short-lived film studio and was clearly banking on lightning striking twice when he put out the much lower budget King Kong Lives (also known as King Kong 2) a decade later. Did it pay off? Roger Ebert probably said it best: “The problem with everyone in King Kong Lives is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”

While this is right on the nose for the most part, I can say that the scene where the injured Kong gets an artificial heart implanted via crane was memorably strange. How exactly does one sterilize a crane? Kong’s also pursuing a lady gorilla this time around, having learned the important lesson that bestiality is not the solution to any of life’s problems. Some real positive character development for our hero there.

Ikari no Megaton Punch makes the best of a bad situation by smartly jettisoning all the tedious human characters from the movie and focusing on what audiences wanted in the first place: Non-stop giant ape mayhem. After a short cut scene where a distraught Kong breaks out of his prison and heads off to rescue his girl, it’s smashing time.

While the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective might remind NES vets of Jackal, King Kong 2 is a slower-paced and much less linear experience. The goal of each stage (“world”) is simple: Survive enemy attacks long enough to find the room containing the boss monster and defeat it. This will give you one of the eight keys needed to open the final door in world nine and rescue Lady Kong. The door to the boss room usually won’t be sitting out in plain sight, however, and that’s where the destructible scenery comes into play. Every screen is cluttered with buildings, rocks, trees, and other objects that Kong can destroy with his punches or by jumping on them. You’ll want to pulverize everything you can, even if you’ve already beaten the current world’s boss, since the many hidden rooms revealed this way are also where you find important power-ups and the doors leading to the other worlds. World two, for example, has doors leading to worlds one, three, four, and five. This complex and occasionally confusing network of warps between worlds means that you can effectively explore them and gather the eight keys in any order you wish, although the higher numbered worlds do have more difficult enemies and are probably best saved until after you’ve collected some health and ammo upgrades.

Ammo? Well, before you get too excited over the idea of King Kong brandishing a machine gun, I should clarify that your projectile attack in this game is rocks. These fly in a grenade-like arc and explode upon hitting the ground. Kong can carry a maximum of twenty at the start of his journey and each upgrade you collect will increase that by ten. You switch between your standard punch attack and rocks by pressing select. My advice would be to save these for the bosses, since a rapid fire stream of rocks will take out any of them very quickly.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay here. You smash everything in sight to find secret doors and occasionally fight a boss. It’s simple, but fairly satisfying. The sound effects help out a lot by lending a distinct sense of power to Kong’s punches and stomps. Seeing the screen shake and hearing a nice robust crunch as you level an office building really makes you feel that much more like an unstoppable beast. Not bad for a fairly early Famicom title.

Another mechanic that reflects the source material pretty well is how tough Kong is. You’re under constant attack by hoards of enemies on almost every screen, but Kong can soak up so much punishment that the tiny tanks, helicopters, and other foes feel so many gnats to him. As a giant movie monster simulator, Ikari no Megaton Punch is miles ahead of poor Godzilla’s sorry 8-bit outings.

You don’t just fight military vehicles in this game, though, and that’s where things get downright odd. Many of the enemies you’ll encounter have absolutely nothing to do with the King Kong mythos and are just there because video game adaptations in the 1980s could get away with anything as long we the end result was playable. World three looks like it was ripped straight out of The Guardian Legend, complete with alien blobs and fanged mouths pursuing you. Then there’s the vicious attack ducks from world eight and the flying scallop boss. Yes, this is a game where King Kong punches a scallop. I’m not about to hold any of this against Konami, though. The film was stupefyingly dull and I’ll take killer bivalves over a bored Linda Hamilton just staring at you for half the game any day.

Although you’re given limited lives and no continues with which to complete King Kong 2, I didn’t find the difficulty level to be particularly high overall. As mentioned, Kong has so much health that the common enemies will have a hard time bringing him down and the bosses aren’t too bad as long as you have enough rocks to pelt them with. In addition, collecting keys and certain power-ups will fully heal you and grinding health drops from the easier enemies when you start to get low is yet another survival option. The biggest threats to your progress by far are bottomless pits (which kill instantly) and getting lost when you forget which doors lead to which worlds. Thankfully, not every world has pits. Just be extra careful in the ones that do.

Ikari no Megaton Punch isn’t a spectacular game by any means. As a vintage Konami title, it’s competent enough to dump a couple hours into with no regrets, but it’s a bit too cryptic, unfocused, and repetitive to join the ranks of their many timeless classics. The movie’s fate as a box office bomb was also sealed well before the localization process would have wrapped on the game, likely explaining why it never left Japan.

If you’re on the lookout for solid English-friendly Famicom titles or you’re a Konami fanatic hunting for deep cuts to sample, King Kong 2 definitely beats a nosedive off a skyscraper. The movie? Eh. Flip a coin, maybe.