Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (Famicom)

 

I know I’m not going to make many new fans by saying so, but I don’t really care much for babies. They’re loud, frequently smelly, and terrible conversationalists to boot. Frankly, I don’t see the appeal. Konami’s intrepid superbaby Upa is a major exception. Ever since I first encountered him as one of the playable “ships” in the comedy shooter Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, I’ve admired the little guy’s can-do spirit. Taking down a hostile alien armada with a barrage of pacifiers and milk bottle missiles? That’s my kind of infant. Take notes, slackers.

After an introduction like that, it was only a matter of time before I checked out the character’s 1988 debut, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa (“Bio Miracle – I’m Upa.”) This bright, bouncy, deceptively tough platformer was originally designed for the Famicom Disk System accessory. Konami also re-released it in 1993 as a regular Famicom cartridge with remixed music and a new easy mode option. This was all strictly in Japan, of course. Perhaps decision makers of the time thought us gaijin would shun a literal baby game and that more overtly macho Konami offerings like Contra and Castlevania were the way to succeed on the NES? If so, they may well have been right. It’s still our loss, however. Upa kicks as much ass over the course of his adventure as the musclebound Bill and Lance or Simon Belmont and he doesn’t even need to walk to do it!

As the story goes, Upa is the young prince of a fantasy kingdom. One day, the goat demon Zai escapes the jar in which he’d been imprisoned and kidnaps all the kingdom’s inhabitants, except for Upa. All seems lost until Upa is given a magical rattle by a fairy and crawls off to save the day. This requires braving the hazards of seven worlds, each of which is sub-divided into three stages. It’s thus a fairly lengthy quest that sees Upa traversing a whole host of bizarre landscapes, including ones made up entirely of candy, school supplies, computer circuitry, and dairy products.

The core gameplay is relatively simple. One button makes Upa jump (no mean feat when you haven’t figured out how to stand upright yet!) and the other shakes his rattle. Any regular enemy touched by the rattle instantly inflates like a balloon and begins to drift toward the top of the screen. It’s at this point that things get interesting. Once a baddie has been rattled, Upa can use it as a floating platform to reach higher elevations or to cross gaps wider than his regular jump permits. He can also shove the foe in any of five directions. This is essentially a more versatile take on the weaponized Koopa shells from Super Mario Bros. Shoved enemies can be used as weapons against their fellows, though they can also damage Upa if they happen to rebound off a surface and strike him instead. Mastering both applications of the rattle is required if you want to make any significant progress in Bio Miracle.

As I alluded to above, this simplicity doesn’t equate to ease. For a game with such an adorable premise and hero, it sure isn’t afraid to test your platforming mettle. Upa can’t withstand much damage and his path forward features no shortage of precarious pits. Moreover, continuing the game after you’ve run out of lives places you back at the beginning of the current world, not necessarily the specific stage you died on. This degree of difficulty isn’t exceptional by the standards of the platform, mind you. It just goes to show that not every baby game is actually for babies.

Roughly once every world or two, the regular platforming action is broken up by a novelty stage of sorts. This will be either an underwater section with the kind of “tap the jump button to paddle” controls you’d expect or a free-roaming zone where Upa must dig (or, more accurately, munch) a path for himself through the layers of a gigantic cake. These not only do a fine job of adding variety, they simultaneously relieve some player tension, as the lack of falling hazards makes them significantly easier than the usual levels.

Regardless of type, most stages conclude with a boss battle. All of these, including the final scrap with Zai, function more or less the same: Upa will need to rattle the steady flow of regular enemies entering the arena and then use them as weapons against the boss. The late game relies on increasingly cramped or treacherous screen layouts to make this a taller order than before, similar to how Super Mario Bros. 2 tweaks the fights against Birdo as it goes on.

Now that I think about it, numerous other elements of Bio Miracle make me suspect its creators were big fans of SMB2’s original 1987 incarnation, Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. Both share a pastel color scheme, cheery carnival style music, a fanciful setting free from the constraints of realism, an emphasis on defeating enemies by hurling them at one another, those digging stages, and more. Not that I’m complaining here. Bio Miracle is certainly no mere clone, seeing as how Upa controls nothing like a Mario or Doki Doki Panic character. It’s more akin to the burst of quirky action-adventure/RPG titles Konami put forth in the wake of Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda and Metroid. The influence is clear, yet it never lacks for its own personality or creative spark.

Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa is a winner; another of the seemingly endless jewels in the crown of mid-’80s Konami. Its only conspicuous omission is any sort of save feature, which you’d think would be a given on the Famicom Disk System. Sadly, Upa himself would never enjoy top billing again. He was a playable part of the ensemble cast in 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō and a couple of those Parodius games I already mentioned. Beyond that, he’s effectively joined Penta the penguin in defunct Konami mascot limbo. At least his first and only turn in the spotlight endures and should appeal to anyone who appreciates lighthearted platformers in the Super Mario tradition. Assuming they’re not bothered by the sight of a baby falling to his death on a bed of spikes, that is. Hmm. Maybe there was more than one reason this never came out over here….

DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (Super Famicom)

Having just weathered the savage trials of Milon’s Secret Castle, I figured I may as well stick around and see what was next on the agenda for Hudson Soft’s bubble shooting wunderkind. Secret Castle had been a strong seller. The box cover of the North American version boasted “over 3/4 million sold in Japan.” It’s surprising, then, that Hudson allowed the character to lie dormant for an entire decade after his 1986 debut. He would finally re-emerge on the Super Famicom in 1996’s DoReMi Fantasy: Milon no DokiDoki Daibouken (roughly, “Milon’s Heart-Pounding Great Adventure”).

Much has changed. Beyond the drastic audiovisual upgrade that comes with the leap from early period Famicom to late period Super Famicom, our boy Milon is now operating in an entirely different genre! If you’re one of the many who loathed Secret Castle’s cryptic exploratory approach, you’ll be please to hear that DoReMi Fantasy is damn near its polar opposite: A simple hop-and-bop platformer in the the Super Mario tradition. I admit, I didn’t know what to make of this at first. I’m weird enough to have rather enjoyed Secret Castle for what it was, warts and all. Would this radical shift prove to be an overcorrection on Hudson’s part? Fortunately, any doubts I had dissolved on contact with the tidal wave of sheer charm that is DoReMi Fantasy.

The game opens with a lovely cut scene of Milon and his woodland pals frolicking on a sunny day. Next thing you know, some creepy horned demon guy named Amon appears and abducts Milon’s fairy friend Alis. Whatever Amon wants her for, Milon is having none of it. After a quick trip home to bid farewell to his parents, he’s off to rescue Alis with the help of his magic bubble blower. It’s a simple setup executed well, a tendency that really defines DoReMi Fantasy as a whole.

Milon has 43 linear stages to tackle, organized into eight distinct worlds based on a mix of common (forest, water, ice) and uncommon (food, toy) themes. The levels themselves are typically straight dashes to the exit, although you will occasionally come across a locked door that requires a key to open. Most also contain a star and Milon will need to collect all the stars in a given world before he can battle its end boss and move on. Fortunately, they’re usually either right out in plain sight or just slightly off the main path, so I never got hung up star hunting.

The action is pure pick up and play. Controlling Milon is responsive, accurate, and should feel instantly natural to anyone with 2-D platforming experience. As before, the endless supply of bubbles he blows are his sole method of defeating enemies. DoReMi Fantasy seemingly takes inspiration from Taito’s Bubble Bobble this time, however, as the bubbles merely trap the bad guys instead of destroying them outright. Milon will then need to touch the bubbled foes to defeat them for good. He can jump on most enemies without receiving damage, but this will only stun the opposition for a moment as he bounces off. This technique is occasionally useful for reaching higher platforms and crossing certain gaps. That’s about all you need to know. Milon does gain a handful of new abilities as the adventure progresses, such as swimming and creating ladders made of music notes at specific spots, but their usage tends to be highly situational. Running, jumping, and bubbling are your true bread and butter throughout.

While Secret Castle was deceptively intense beneath its cutesy façade, DoReMi Fantasy dials down the difficulty big-time. The common enemies never seem to grow too numerous or aggressive and the platforming hazards, though nicely varied, are far from deviously placed most of the time. Extra lives are plentiful and Milon is a durable little fellow to boot. He’s able to withstand three hits before losing a life, with his current health level cleverly indicated by the color of his clothes. Oh, and there’s a password system to record your progress this time. Thank God. The only real difficulty spikes are a couple of the later boss encounters. The anthropomorphic sun and moon you face at the end of world six both deploy some tricky attacks, for instance. Still, most will likely find DoReMi Fantasy to be a tad easier than Super Mario World and drastically less challenging than stuff like the Donkey Kong Country trilogy or Plok. I was able to finish my first playthrough without running out of lives and needing to continue at all, something I can almost never manage with an entirely new game.

I realize I haven’t made the strongest case for DoReMi Fantasy thus far. A dry rundown of its plot and rules paints a picture of a reasonably lengthy game with solid fundamentals and an easygoing approach to challenge. And that it is. Yet this isn’t actually why you should play it. Not in the main, anyway. Fact is, you’re much more likely to be won over by the designers’ supreme attention to detail in bringing Milon’s world to life than by anything directly related to the level design or play mechanics.

Just look at Milon himself. Every move he makes is smoothly animated and packed with personality. He teeters on the edge of platforms, bugs his eyes out during long falls, grits his teeth as he charges his super bubble attack, and does his best to hold onto his hat in windstorms. His enemies are nearly as lovable. The all have unique shocked or dismayed expressions for when they’re stunned or trapped in a bubble. Half the fun of the game for me was seeing what sort of hilarious face each new baddie would pull when I stomped or bubbled it. Even the platforms themselves are memorable here. Milon trods colossal cakes (ideally avoiding the equally colossal silverware carving them up), the growing noses of Pinocchio lookalike puppets, and my personal favorite, adorable mice that poke their heads out of holes in the walls. Aww. All this is accompanied by a lush, diverse score courtesy of Bomberman composer Jun Chikuma.

I’m not about to tell you that DoReMi Fantasy is the ultimate 16-bit platformer. The gameplay here is highly competent from top to bottom, but only just. It doesn’t showcase anything on par with the cool power-ups and hidden levels of a Super Mario World or the speedrun-friendly movement physics of a Sonic the Hedgehog. What I will tell you is that fans of cute games specifically are pretty much guaranteed to be delighted by its top notch presentation. It’s also a great choice for genre neophytes, younger gamers, and anyone else interested in a brisk, low pressure experience to unwind with. It’s plain to see why so many have praised it as the redemptive sequel to the opaque and grueling Secret Castle.

Sadly, Hudson never would follow up on this bold new direction for the character. Milon’s next outing, which doubles as his last to date, was the obscure 2006 puzzle game Milon no Hoshizora Shabon: Puzzle Kumikyoku for the Nintendo DS. The company’s eventual extinction in 2012 and the subsequent transfer of its intellectual properties to Konami would seem to render any future Milon releases extraordinary unlikely.

Farewell, brave bubble boy. There’s a spot at Gaming Valhalla’s kiddie table with your name on it, I’m sure.

Mountain King (Atari 2600)

One thing I’m genuinely thankful for is being just old enough to remember the first half of the 1980s. I got to bask in the warm, mercenary glow of He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, and the rest of the finest half hour toy commercials humankind has ever produced. And that’s not all! The Garbage Pail Kids? New Coke? Music on MTV? I was there, man. I was there.

Above all, I had the privilege of growing up more or less in tandem with video games as a medium of popular entertainment. My earliest memories are inextricably bound up with the height of Pac-Man Fever and the debut outing of a plucky little barrel jumping carpenter named Mario. I recall being quite disappointed when my parents rejected both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong as prospective names for my new little sister. Why even ask me then, guys?

It’s because I’ve been in love with games since the heyday of Atari that I feel I can fully appreciate what made Mountain King such a standout when it was released in 1983. Originally programmed by Robert Matson for a small startup company called E.F. Dreyer Inc., CBS Electronics acquired the rights to this quirky little platformer and published versions of it for most of the 8-bit consoles and home computers of the era. I’ll be looking at the Atari 2600 edition today because it’s the one I actually owned at the time.

Mountain King’s claim to fame was that it was a video game…with music. Really. Two short passages from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s 1875 work “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” to be specific. The game’s ad copy leaned hard into this, too. A portion of the sheet music is reproduced on the back of the box and the ridiculous commercial jingle proclaims “When you play Mountain King, music is everything.” In a little touch almost too quaint to be real, the commercial also displayed the text “actual game melody” on the screen as the tune played, as if to reassure a disbelieving tv audience that such a feat really was possible fourteen years after we landed a man on the friggin’ moon.

Ah, but I kid. While Mountain King is obviously not the first game in history to include music, it does more than just bleep out a simple public domain tune. In fact, the way its primitive soundtrack pulls double duty as a game mechanic proper was legitimately pioneering. I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s start at the beginning. I’m told it’s a very good place to start.

The star of Mountain King is an unnamed explorer character out to recover a priceless golden crown left behind by an ancient civilization from its resting place in the depths of a diamond mine situated beneath the titular mountain. Thanks in large part to Indiana Jones and David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, dashing explorers were the premier stock game heroes back then. It was khaki and pith helmets as far as the eye could see.

Not that you can make out any of your avatar’s wardrobe here. The graphics are basic even by 2600 standards, with a tiny stick figure hero traipsing around on a series of stark lines representing platforms and ladders. The nicest thing I can say about the visual presentation is that the game boasts smooth(ish) eight-directional scrolling. This sort of performance is quite rare on the limited hardware and likely only possible because of the additional 256 bytes of expansion RAM that came bundled inside the cartridge, a feature CBS Electronics billed as RAM Plus. Oh, and the animation on the explorer himself isn’t half bad. I enjoy how he (or is it she?) throws his arms up and shrugs his shoulders at you whenever you press up on the joystick and there’s no ladder nearby for him to climb. He’s giving you a little sass. It’s cute.

The quest for the crown is a timed exercise (between three and eight minutes total, depending on the difficulty setting) divided into three distinct phases. First, you must collect 1000 points worth of the diamonds that are scattered about the mine. The small diamond piles are worth a mere 25 points apiece, so it’s far more efficient to focus on hunting down the hidden treasure chests instead. Each chest is good for a cool 260 points, but the catch is that they’re only visible when illuminated by your flashlight beam. The bottommost level of the mine is especially rich in treasure. Tread carefully, though, as it’s also home to a giant spider that will trap you in its web and then devour you if you’re unable to escape in time via joystick waggling.

After you’ve gathered the requisite diamonds, things get interesting. Your next task is to locate a magical flame spirit that’s needed to enter the temple where the crown is housed. The spirit is located at a random spot in the mine and, like the treasure chests, is invisible unless you happen to be shining your light on it. It’s here that the much-vaunted music kicks in to help you out. When the tune starts up, you know you’re on the right track. The closer you are to the flame spirit’s hiding place, the louder it becomes. When the volume peaks, that’s when you want to start using your flashlight. It’s this musical scavenger hunt aspect that really captured imaginations back in the day and ultimately justified all the promotional hype. The effect stood out as genuinely innovative and fascinating. For once, players had an incentive to do more than simply tolerate the noises emanating from their game machines. It still has the potential to be absorbing and a tad eerie if you’re willing to look past the crude graphics and embrace the proper mindset.

Mountain King saves its very best for last, however. Present the flame spirit to the ghostly skull that guards the temple at the bottom of the mine and you can finally enter and don the crown. At this point, the music kicks into high gear and the game becomes a frenzied sprint to the finish. You’re given a scant 60 to 90 seconds (depending on the difficulty level) to exit the temple and carry the crown to the perpetual flame that burns on the very top of the mountain. As if all the frantic running, jumping, and climbing this requires wasn’t challenge enough, the mine is also suddenly swarming with fast-moving cave bats out to snatch the crown away. If you fail to reach the peak before time runs out or if a bat manages to touch the crown, things are reset to square one and have to repeat the entire cycle of diamond gathering, spirit hunting, etc. On lower difficulties, you might have enough time left on the main clock to recover from this setback. If you only have three or four minutes in total to work with from the outset, however, good luck. This climactic race to the top is a real barn burner of a finale, artfully emphasized by the calmer gameplay preceding it. Every missed jump and close brush with a bat is enough to make your heart skip a beat. Losing the crown is agony. Actually making it all the way to the top with your prize in tow is downright cathartic. Of course, this is an old school score attack game, so there’s no true final victory. Your reward for winning the crown is starting a fresh loop on a higher difficulty ad infinitum.

That’s Mountain King. Very simple by modern standards, it’s nevertheless remarkably involved for a 2600 title. Alongside Pitfall 2, it was one of my first experiences with a video game that extended beyond the borders of a single screen. While not a true adventure game by any means, its intriguing scenario involving lost treasure, eldritch spirits, and a subterranean temple fired my nascent imagination and primed me for more elaborate exploratory games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, not to mention tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not quite the forward-thinking masterpiece Pitfall 2 is. The diamond collecting interludes are pretty dull compared to the rest and smack of padding. Still, when Mountain King works, it really works. Following those faint notes in the dark and then scrambling like mad to reach the mountaintop before the clock or those damned bats can foil your run are both as fresh and compelling as they ever were. This is a thoroughly unique entry in the vast 2600 library and a must-play for anyone with an abiding interest in the system. You don’t have to be a fellow ’80s kid to appreciate it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

Shocking confession time: I’m a lifelong video gamer that’s never played a Sonic the Hedgehog title.

Well, that’s not technically true. I obviously played through this debut entry just recently, as I’m reviewing it right now. I can also very clearly remembering trying it out at department store demo kiosks back around the time of its release in 1991. It’s really more accurate to say that my experience with the Sonic games before present was limited to the very first area (Green Hill Zone) of the very first game. For all intents and purposes, Sega’s Blue Blur passed me by.

My ignorance stems from a combination of past circumstance and personal prejudice. Owning multiple current generation game consoles and a steady supply of games for them was considered quite the extravagance for a kid in the early ’90s. Most of us were forced to pick a side in the 16-bit wars and stick with it through thick and thin. I chose the Super Nintendo over the Genesis, as did most of my friends at the time. Familiarity with the NES had a lot to do with my decision. The other major factor was, believe it or not, the abrasive tone Sega adopted in most of its Genesis marketing material. Even when I was in middle school, all that in-your-face ’90s ‘tude and “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” rhetoric seemed so desperate and insecure to me. A real winner doesn’t need to talk trash, right? I never would own a Sega console and it wasn’t until 2017 that I would begin my long-overdue reassessment of the Genesis library in earnest and discover that I’d been missing out on a treasure trove of fantastic software. Much better late than never!

But where to even begin with a game this high profile? The development of the original Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the most storied of all time and if you told me an entire book had been written on the subject, I’d be inclined to believe you. Most of my audience has certainly already played it themselves and formed their own opinions. This isn’t some deep cut or one-off experiment, it’s a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. I might as well review pizza or sex while I’m at it. All I can really do is keep things simple and relate my own personal experience as one man very late to a very crowded party.

In terms of backstory, Sonic came about precisely the way you’d expect him to. Sega wanted to increase their share of the console market and the most obvious way to do that was to create a mascot character to rival their competitor Nintendo’s star system seller, Mario. Sega’s reigning mascot since the Master System days was a Monchhichi-looking jug-eared creeper named Alex Kidd that had proven himself incapable of moving ice cream in the Sahara, so they literally went back to the drawing board with a company-wide art contest. Naoto Ohshima was the winner with his contribution: An anthropomorphic hedgehog that drew inspiration from Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, and Michael Jackson. Initially dubbed Mr. Needlemouse (yes, really), he was eventually rechristened Sonic based on the game design team’s expressed desire for an extremely speedy hero that would set their work apart from the Mario titles. Another of Ohshima’s submissions, a rotund human character based on Teddy Roosevelt, was adapted into the hedgehog’s arch-enemy, the mad scientist Dr. Robotnik (aka Dr. Eggman). All that was left were a few last minute design tweaks at the insistence of Sega’s American branch that cost Sonic his prominent fangs and rather disturbing scantily-clad human girlfriend and voilà: A superstar was born!

All Sonic needed now was an actual game to headline. The project was entrusted to the newly-minted Sonic Team, made up of seasoned developers with prior experience on Sega classics like Altered Beast and Phantasy Star. It would be a platformer, of course, and focus on the conflict with the evil Dr. Robotnik, who’s been rounding up Sonic’s animal buddies and transforming them into robot minions to expand his twisted machine empire. This sort of saccharine “save the nature” setup may seem trite today, but it still felt fresher than yet another princess and was very in keeping with the environmentalist themes in contemporary children’s entertainment, as exemplified by Captain Planet, FernGully, and the like.

The game features a total of eighteen stages divided up evenly into six differently-themed Zones. Right from the start of the first Zone, the unique approach to level design that defines the classic Sonic series is apparent. The landscape is packed with ramps, loops, and spring-loaded bumpers that Sonic can use to build up speed. Picking up and maintaining speed obviously helps him reach the end of the stage quicker. It’s also useful for accessing higher portions of the map, as the playfields in Sonic games tend to feature a lot of verticality, with high, low, and sometimes middle routes to them. Higher paths require more momentum and skill to reach and stay on, but reward the player with more bonus items and fewer obstacles on the way to the goal. Every Zone culminates in a fight against Robotnik, piloting one of his attack machines. While none of these battles are very involved or challenging, they are all at least completely unique, which is more than I can say for the Koopa Kid encounters in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, for example.

The interesting (and divisive) thing about the Zones in this first game is that only the odd-numbered ones (Green Hill, Spring Yard, and Star Light) follow this iconic template. The even-numbered Zones (Marble, Labyrinth, and Scrap Brain) are all laid-out in a much more linear fashion with few branching paths or opportunities to build up speed. Labyrinth Zone in particular is infamous for actively bogging Sonic down by setting most of the action underwater. Many fans consider these slower-paces Zones to be Sonic 1’s Achilles’ heel, as they don’t play to Sonic’s strengths as a character and feel like they could have been lifted from another, more traditional platforming game entirely. I won’t dispute this, but I will add that they’re still some pretty fine levels by genre standards. I even enjoyed the much-maligned breath holding mechanics the underwater sections, which force Sonic to negotiate corridors filled with traps and enemies to reach air bubbles before he suffocates. What can I say? I’m weird.

Controlling Sonic himself is deceptively easy. By that, I mean that although the game only uses the directional pad and a single button for jumping, it has a physics engine of sorts that makes knowing exactly what will happen when Sonic jumps off a curved surface at particular angle with a specific amount of momentum behind him something that only comes with time and much practice. The level design is great about placing tantalizing shortcuts and helpful items seemingly just out of reach in order to encourage players to think outside the box and continually experiment with new ways of navigating the same terrain. These prizes are all attainable with enough inventiveness and persistence. The end result of all this is a platformer that, while outwardly downright simplistic when compared to most of its contemporaries, is actually so far advanced over the majority of them that it isn’t funny. It’s honestly brilliant.

These movement physics are so robust that you probably won’t mind that you don’t get much in the way of power-ups. There’s temporary invincibility, an energy shield that grants Sonic an extra hit, and “speed shoes” that make the already zippy hedgehog haul even more ass. That’s it. These are all useful for the obvious reasons, but they’re a far cry from the radical transformations that Mario was pulling off left and right. What you’ll be picking up more of than anything else are the gold rings littering every stage. Collecting 100 of them will result in the expected extra life, but their more immediate purpose is safeguarding Sonic from death. As long as Sonic is carrying at least one, contact with an enemy or stage hazard will cause him to drop all the rings he’s carrying instead of dying on the spot. At that point, he’ll have a brief window of invincibility during which he can try to re-collect as many dropped rings as possibility before they bounce off the screen and vanish. If this sounds overly forgiving, keep in mind that the designers want you to feel confident pushing your luck and experimenting with the lead character’s speed

Which brings me to what surprised me most about the game: You’re never really required to go fast. Contrary to every stereotype and bit of marketing hype, it’s not only possible to play a slow, methodical game of Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s advisable for newcomers unfamiliar with where each Zone’s hazards are placed. Going fast isn’t the object of the game as much as it’s an added reward for long-term mastery. The levels themselves impose no time limits. There is still a timer, but it’s an ascending one with no purpose other than log how long it takes you to finish a given level and subtly encourage you to strive for ever lower personal bests. There’s no tangible reward for fast clear times, either, only the thrill and satisfaction of performing well. This approach makes Sonic, along with Doom a couple years later, one of the earliest popular precursors to modern online speedrunning culture.

The graphics and sound here are delightful. The cartoony art style plays well with the system’s strict color limitations while the large sprites and smooth animations are packed with detail and personality. Sonic reacts to events in the game, whether he’s expressing boredom through his finger-wagging idle pose, balancing himself precariously on the very edge of a platform, or flailing his limbs in alarm as he zooms down a water slide. These may seem like small details, yet they were much more than we were used to from our stoic pre-Sonic platforming heroes and made a sassy, too-cool-for-school demeanor the new norm for years to come, for better or worse. And by worse, I mean Bubsy.

Masato Nakamura’s score is proof positive that the poor Genesis catches way too much flak for sounding like broken-down robot farts. This is some of the smoothest, grooviest, most instantly lovable 16-bit music ever made. The theme from Green Hill Zone somehow manages to flood me with nostalgia despite the fact that I’ve barely touched the game before. That’s what I call inspired.

If I had to name something about Sonic the Hedgehog that left me completely cold, it’d be the bonus stages. Finishing a level with more than fifty rings in your inventory plunges Sonic into…I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be. Some kind of alternate hell dimension filled with giant fish and birds where he’s bounced around like a ball bearing inside a spinning candy-colored pachinko machine? The point of this madness is to last long enough to obtain one of the six Chaos Emeralds floating at the center of the stage without touching an exit tile and ending the bonus round prematurely. What do these Chaos Emerald do? What’s your incentive to repeat this process six times in a single playthrough? Just a slightly modified ending scene. Yeah, I’m good, thanks. At least the bonus areas serve one other, genuinely useful purpose, however: Picking up fifty rings inside one will earn you a continue. By default, the game ends for good when you run out of lives, so you’d be advised to at least try racking up one or two continues even if you don’t care about the Emeralds. I just wish these sections could have even half as been as fun to play as they are trippy looking.

After nearly 28 long years, I can finally state with confidence that I was wrong to dismiss this series just because of some tacky commercials and my own unquestioned biases. Though a little rough around the edges, Sonic 1 is a remarkable achievement for its time, mechanically and aesthetically. It remains its ability to charm and captivate to this day and deserves every bit of its overwhelming success. Future installments would iron out the level design kinks, introduce new fan favorite characters, and implement a Spin Dash maneuver to allow for even speedier movement, among other improvements, but if someone tries to tell you that Sonic’s first outing is overrated or doesn’t hold up, that’s no good!

Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16)

Bang your head!

By the tail end of the ’80s, console gaming was all about the mascots. Super Mario games were the single richest goldmine the industry had stumbled on to date, with three of the top five best-selling games of the decade being Mario titles. Hell, if you remove Duck Hunt from consideration on the basis that it owes the majority of its popularity to having been bundled with the first Super Mario Bros., fully 80% of that top five list is taken up by Nintendo’s mustachioed Mickey Mouse of gaming. Hudson Soft and NEC, Nintendo’s biggest rivals in the Japanese market, wanted in. Their search for a profitably appealing face for their PC Engine system eventually led to them partnering with developers Red Company and Atlus to release the first PC Genjin game in 1989.

The name they picked for their new big-headed caveman character was actually quite clever. “Genjin” means something along the lines of “primitive man” and the “PC” supposedly stood for his fictitious species name: “Pithecanthropus Computerus.” It’s mostly meant to serve as a not-so-subtle plug for the console itself, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Here in North America, where the PC Engine is called the TurboGrafx-16, all this wordplay would have been lost in translation, so we instead know the character as Bonk and his debut outing as Bonk’s Adventure.

Why a caveman? Beats me, but while it may seem like a strange choice in isolation, the gaming scene was actually teeming with troglodytes around this time. In addition to the many licensed Flintstones games, we had Joe & Mac, Chuck Rock, Big Nose the Caveman, Congo’s Caper, Caveman Games, Prehistorik, Adventures of Dino Riki, Toki, and more. Next time you think of a stereotypical old school video game hero, remember that club-swinging dudes draped in animal skins were almost as common as ninja and Rambo clones. It was just one of those things.

As expected, Bonk’s Adventure is a side-view platformer in the Mario mold. They’re not subtle about it, either: Bonk is out to rescue a princess named Za from the hulking reptilian monarch, King Drool. At least the princess here is some kind of plesiosaur-like dragon creature and not a buxom blond lady. I guess I can award partial credit for that. The game consists of five rounds and each round is further sub-divided into anywhere between one and seven distinct levels, making for a grand total of 22 stages. While the majority of these only require Bonk to survive a gauntlet of enemies and environmental hazards in order to reach the exit, each full round concludes with a memorable battle against a large boss character.

Fittingly, Bonk’s major contribution to the platforming genre is the way he uses his oversized Charlie Brown noggin to smash through every obstacle in his path. Simply jumping onto enemies like Mario does will only result in Bonk himself taking damage. The preferred method is to either jump up into foes from below, nail them with a standing head butt when grounded, or press the attack button in mid-air to perform a headlong diving attack. The dive attack is my favorite of the three because each successful hit will automatically propel Bonk back up into the air, allowing accurate players to chain together a series of consecutive strikes without needing to touch ground in-between. It’s very satisfying and makes many of the boss encounters much easier. Beyond just bashing hostile critters, Bonk can also use his freak dome to aid in stage traversal. He scales walls by using his huge teeth of all things, which makes mine hurt just thinking about it. Additionally, tapping the attack button repeatedly while airborne will make Bonk spin, slowing his descent and effectively allowing him to glide right over long stretches of hostile territory. This last ability is just as useful as it sounds, possibly too much so. The option to skip huge sections of many levels in this way can really hobble the game’s challenge if you let it, similar to the cape power-up from Super Mario World.

Speaking of power-ups, the offerings here are pretty slim, which is one of the game’s few significant missteps. Bonk can find fruit and hearts to restore lost health, but meat is the only item that really changes up the gameplay. Chowing down on a hunk of tasty meat will boost the power of Bonk’s dive attack, allowing it to stun any nearby enemies when his head impacts the ground. Eating a second piece (or a single giant piece) will render Bonk invincible and able to charge straight through the opposition. The bad news here is that all abilities derived from meat consumption are temporary. There are no persistent power-ups present in the game other than the occasional health bar extension. This feels like a missed opportunity to me. Gaining new abilities in a game like this feels rewarding and the player’s innate desire to hold onto them for as long as possible encourages skillful play in a very elegant, natural way.

My final gripe with Bonk’s Adventure involves the lack of a run feature. With the way efficient movement in so many post-Super Mario platformers is predicated on managing your character’s momentum from moment to moment, this is the sort of thing that you don’t really appreciate until it’s gone. Here, the fact that Bonk is limited to a leisurely walk when traveling along the ground only serves as more incentive to abuse the glide ability in hopes of reaching the level exit just a little more quickly. I eventually got used to the fact that I couldn’t run, but it never stopped feeling like I should be able to.

Although its sequels would provide much in the way of expansion and fine-tuning, Bonk’s Adventure is still an excellent platformer in its own right. The action is as fun as it is unique and the TG-16’s famously colorful graphics allowed the artists to bring their hyperactive cartoon take on prehistory to life in grand style. The level design both rewards player curiosity with its abundance of hidden bonus rooms and makes use of some truly unique settings and scenarios. Midway through the first round, for example, Bonk gets swallowed by a humongous dinosaur and has to navigate its innards by swimming through the beast’s stomach bile and avoiding its surly (but oddly cute) intestinal parasites. Can’t say I’ve seen that one before. At the same time, the game is also a case study in how to handle a mascot launch right. Bonk himself is as likable as his creators were banking on. It should come as no surprise that he would go on to star in multiple direct Bonk’s Adventure follow-ups and a shooter spin-off series (Air Zonk) on the TurboGrafx as well as cross over to the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Amiga.

Unfortunately, Hudson Soft is no more and NEC has long since exited the gaming sphere. This leaves Bonk in limbo. He hasn’t starred in a new game since 1995, unless you count the horrid looking 2006 mobile phone release Bonk’s Return, which, frankly, you shouldn’t. It remains to be seen if Konami (who owns the rights to the Hudson back catalog at the time of this writing) will ever see fit to resurrect everyone’s favorite headbanging hominid hero.

Here’s hoping you really can’t keep a good (cave)man down.

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

One entire class of video game that’s all but extinct these days is the celebrity vanity project. For the purposes of this review, I’ll go ahead and define this as any game that stars an idealized version of a real world celebrity and depicts its subject engaging in a variety of fantastical exploits unrelated to his or her day job. The celebrity in question is almost always a musician or athlete, as actors who appear in games are typically just lending their likenesses to various fictional characters as opposed to portraying themselves. I remember games like these serving as a constant source of befuddled amusement for my friends and I throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Who actually wanted to platform across alien planets as the members of the band Journey or punch mummies as Shaquille O’Neal? Even in a much less jaded age these titles were seen as punchlines rather than viable gaming options by most and usually proved to have much less of a built-in audience than their deluded creators anticipated. It certainly didn’t help that some prominent examples (looking at you, Shaq-Fu) were saddled with gameplay every bit as dire as their tortured premises.

This widespread consumer contempt combined with skyrocketing development costs neatly explains why the classic vanity project has become a thing of the past in recent years. Most gamers who experienced the trend in its heyday would agree that this is a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. If pressed, though, many of those same individuals would also agree that there’s one shining exception to almost every common criticism leveled above; one silly 16-bit ego trip which beat the odds and remains a well-loved part of countless childhoods: Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. Both of them, really, but I’ll be looking at the home console version for the Genesis today and not the completely distinct arcade release it shares its name with.

What does this 1990 platformer with light beat-’em-up elements have going for it that its pilloried peers don’t? How about Michael freakin’ Jackson for starters? A ferociously talented singer, songwriter, dancer, choreographer, music video pioneer, and occasional movie star, he was still holding fast to his position as the one and only King of Pop. While perhaps just beginning to see the slightest dip in stature compared to his peak in the mid-80s, it would be several more years before his many personal eccentricities and some shocking criminal allegations would truly begin to overshadow his musical accomplishments. Let’s be frank here: Shaq may be one of the best centers the NBA has ever seen, but you’d never mistake him for the coolest man on the planet. It anyone could present himself to the world as a nigh-omnipotent musical superhero with a straight face and get away with it, it was M.J.

There’s also the fact it was made by Sega themselves. More specifically by a scrappy little internal development team then called AM8. You probably know them better by the moniker they adopted for their breakout release the following year and have stuck with ever since: Sonic Team. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jackson was working with the very best in the field to bring Moonwalker to fruition, as no other group of developers had a better grasp of the Genesis hardware in the platform’s early days.

The game’s story is a straightforward adaptation of the one featured in the “Smooth Criminal” segment of the 1988 Moonwalker film. Michael must use his magic dance powers to rescue children who’ve been kidnapped by the evil drug kingpin Mr. Big (memorably portrayed in the movie by a frenzied Joe Pesci rocking shades and a topknot). Since this is a video game, the number of endangered kids has been upped from three to at least a hundred scattered across a total of fifteen stages. The stages themselves have fairly open layouts and scroll both vertically and horizontally, so there’s a bit of a scavenger hunt element involved in locating all the hostages tucked away in the countless hiding places that dot each map. After doing so, Michael is able to trigger a boss fight (with a little help from Bubbles the chimp!) and then move on to the next area. In essence, it’s a more free-roaming take on Sega’s own 1987 arcade title Shinobi.

Opposing Michael are Mr. Big’s gun-toting thugs as well as a few other baddies who are clear references to other Jackson projects. You have bandanna-clad street thugs right out of “Beat It” or “Bad” and some “Thriller” zombies. Rounding out the rogue’s gallery are a handful of ornery dogs, birds, and spiders. That’s about it. All considered, there’s a distinct lack of enemy variety in Moonwalker. Even the boss encounters at the end of each stage tend to pit Michael against either a large number of standard foes attacking from all sides, a powered-up version of a regular enemy, or both. I’m not counting the final confrontation with Mr. Big himself, as it takes the form of a tacked-on and thoroughly awful first-person space shooting section for some reason. If you’ve ever wondered how Wing Commander would have turned out if it had been dropped on its head as a baby, here you go.

Although you’re not furnished with that great a variety of threats to smack down, the combat itself is still a lot of fun. Instead of normal punches and kicks, Michael’s attacks are made to resemble some of his most iconic dance moves. Every elegant wrist flick and high kick emits a shower of glittering pixie dust which looks harmless, but hits like a ton of bricks! The contrast between how feeble these assaults appear and the way they cause enemies to go blasting off into the sky or ricocheting between the floor and ceiling like human pinballs is absolutely hilarious and never seems to get old. Nailing an enemy while airborne is pretty wild, too. They shoot down to the ground in a split-second and land flat on their faces like they’ve just been whacked by a giant invisible mallet. Priceless.

Holding down the attack button will cause Michael to perform an invincible Spin Attack at the cost of some of his own health. The longer he spins, the more health is lost. Spinning in one place long enough to consume 50% of his maximum health will unleash Michael’s ultimate weapon: The Dance Attack, in which he launches into one of a variety of different dance routines and every enemy on-screen (including dogs and spiders!) is compelled to join in. Most regular enemies are killed instantly at the dance’s conclusion and bosses will sustain a large chunk of damage. A special move that costs this much energy to use would be useless in most games, but the makers of Moonwalker generously made it so that each child rescued restores up to 50% of Michael’s lost health, meaning you can actually get away with using the Dance Attack fairly often if you like.

This is really about all there is to Moonwalker’s gameplay. It’s a short game with a single basic goal to accomplish and it boasts a relatively small number of unique enemies and ways of dispatching them. Michael does have one other special power in the ability to temporarily transform into a giant flying robot that shoots homing missile and laser beams. Yes, really. He accomplishes this by catching a shooting star which appears under certain special circumstances. Unfortunately, this doesn’t impact player progression as much as you’d think it would. Since Robo-Jackson can’t rescue hostages and any enemies he destroys will tend to re-spawn right away, there’s not much point to transforming in most levels except to rack up some extra points. High scores don’t seem to award any extra lives or other benefits, either, so it really doesn’t amount to much in the end. Looks cool, though. It would have been nice if some more permanent power-ups had been included, like hidden health bar extensions or extra weapons. Finding and holding onto these would have added a bit more intrigue and strategy to the proceedings.

Okay, so the gameplay isn’t really best in class. The upside is that it’s supported by some of the best graphics and music the early Genesis library had to offer. The character sprites for Michael and his enemies are large for the time and feature very smooth animation, befitting a game built around replicating flashy dance routines. The soundtrack consists of instrumental versions of Jackson standards like “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Another Part of Me,” and more, all rendered to the utmost quality the console’s FM synth sound chip is capable of. Every track is remarkably listenable in this format and just as likely to get stuck in your head for hours as the album versions. Moonwalker’s audio and visuals may not seem revelatory nearly three decades on, but it’s important to remember that the Genesis was the first 16-bit game console to hit the market outside of Japan and games like this one, Strider, and the pack-in Altered Beast were jaw-dropping to an audience primarily acclimated to the NES and Master System. Home games with such lush presentations simply weren’t an option before this unless you were willing and able to dive into comparatively expensive niche computing platforms like the Amiga. Even for kids like me who opted to stick it out for two more years waiting on the Super Nintendo, there was still some envy involved whenever one of those ubiquitous “Genesis does…” ads would pop up. It was a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Moonwalker is strictly all style, no substance. It certainty does lean that way, however. As far as platformers go, it doesn’t offer anywhere near the length, breadth, or depth of a Sonic or Mario and there’s little incentive to keep playing after you’ve cleared it once. In retrospect, it’s easy enough to point out that it would have benefited greatly from the addition of more enemy types, better boss fights, more power-ups, and some hidden areas or other secrets to discover. That said, there’s nothing wrong with a simple arcadey punch-up and this one has far more charm than most, thanks to those amazing tunes and the goofy-cool crotch grabbing antics of its unlikely action star. If you come across anyone claiming it’s a bad game, just tell ’em I said their hearts are full of greed and they have doo-doo in their souls.

The Goonies (Famicom)

Sloth love Konami!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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