Contra III: The Alien Wars (Super Nintendo)

Prevailing circumstances as of late have me feeling the urge for steady, reliable gaming comfort food. The way I see it, there’s no better mental refuge than the blistering run-‘n-gun action of Konami’s Contra. So escape with me now to a simpler time when “see alien, blast alien” was I needed to know and all I wanted to do.

Contra III: The Alien Wars (Contra Spirits in Japan) is actually the fourth entry in the long-running saga. Its immediate predecessor, Operation C for Game Boy, apparently doesn’t count for numbering purposes. More proof that handhelds are the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of the game industry; no respect at all. Misleading title aside, Contra III is noteworthy for being the franchise’s first appearance on a 16-bit home console and boy, did its developers not want you to forget it. This was one of those hyperactive early SNES releases that pulled out every newfangled hardware trick in the book as it practically screamed, “Look at me! Bet your NES or Genesis can’t do this!” Transparencies? You bet! Scaling effects? Hell, yeah! Dizzying background rotation? You know it! The shock and awe were very real back in 1992, I assure you. But has its nature as a technical showpiece for a thirty year-old machine badly dated it or does the timeless Contra gameplay shine through strong as ever? That’s what I’ll be looking to determine.

Story-wise, we get a basic rehash of the previous three games. 27th century Earth is again besieged by the extraterrestrial menace known as Red Falcon and it falls on strapping commandos Bill Rizer and Lance Bean to save humanity’s collective bacon for a fourth time. Curiously, the North American version’s instructions would have you believe you’re playing as Jimbo and Sully, two distant descendants of Bill and Lance. This stems from a misguided attempt to keep continuity with NES Contra’s botched English manual, which inexplicably shifted the action from the year 2633 to 1987. Best to ignore this whole timeline debacle, I say. They’re Bill and Lance.

That’s enough said about plot. At the end of the day, these games are about blowing away alien scum with cool guns. The classic machine gun, laser, flamethrower, and spread shot all make a return here, as does the homing weapon from Operation C. There’s also an entirely new option in the form of crush missiles, which are devastating at short range. Skilled use of the crush gun is vital if you hope to wreck bosses quickly. Finally, you start each life with a single super bomb in your possession that will deal heavy damage to every foe on the screen when triggered. Although you can potentially accumulate up to nine of these, I wouldn’t count it if I were you. The traditional one-hit Contra deaths are in full effect, after all.

At least you’re no longer guaranteed to lose everything when you inevitably bite the dust. Contra III introduces the ability to carry two weapons at once and toggle between them at will. Your death will only result in the loss of whichever gun is currently in use. This allows for a neat little bit of extra strategy without bogging things down. You could opt to carry a spread gun for use against widely spaced groups of weak enemies along with crush missiles for more durable single targets. Or you might choose to limit yourself to the default machine gun for the majority of a stage in order to preserve a stronger backup weapon for the boss at the end. Good stuff.

Hit start on the title screen and you’re immediately taking the fight to Red Falcon, dashing through a grimly gorgeous ruined cityscape as you gun down waves of enemy foot soldiers. After a few screens of this, you’ll encounter the first of Contra III’s many direct callbacks: A reprise of the iconic boss fight against the jungle base from the original Contra. Destroy it, though, and the level simply continues without fanfare, revealing it to have been a lowly speed bump of a mini-boss this time. The statement is clear: This isn’t last generation’s Contra. Before the stage concludes for real, you’ll have also commandeered a tank and used it to destroy a second well-defended base, defeated another minor boss, platformed your way through the fiery aftermath of a bombing raid, and finally faced off against a colossal turtle alien that sends a torrent of flying insects at you and can discharge laser beams from its maw.

This opening act establishes the pattern for all of Contra III’s side-scrolling sections: A chain of constantly shifting dynamic action set pieces and escalating mid-boss encounters culminating in a jaw-dropping clash with a larger-than-life ultimate antagonist. Each is almost an interactive Hollywood blockbuster unto itself, an impression only bolstered by the sumptuous art and bombastic musical score. Without a doubt, these levels are marvels and really must be played to be believed. All four of them.

You heard right. Contra III contains a paltry four of the very best stages the series would ever see, supplemented by two of the very worst. The latter utilize an overhead view and it’s here where the game’s emphasis on pushing Super Nintendo hardware gimmicks whips around and bites it square in the ass. These overhead levels rely heavily on the system’s famous Mode 7 graphics feature, which allows for the smooth scaling and rotation of a background layer. Mode 7 was used to brilliant effect in F-Zero and Pilotwings, where it enabled the close approximation of true 3-D environments without the need to render polygons. That’s not what we get here. Instead, we’re stuck maneuvering sluggish, tank-like versions of Bill and Lance over downright ugly pixelated terrain. The directional pad is used exclusively to move straight forward and back in this perspective, with all lateral movement accomplished via the roundabout method of rotating the background itself with the two shoulder buttons. If this sounds goofy and awkward and not particularly fun, that’s because it is. While previous Contra games also experimented with alternate viewpoints for some of their stages, it was always to better effect than this.

Contra III’s overhead portions were sufficiently eye-catching in an era when a low-res spinning background could pass for high-tech wizardry. Playing through them now, they’re positively abominable, the absolute inverse of their sublime side-scrolling counterparts. They’re not even passable filler, as stripping them out and replaced with nothing whatsoever would result would in a stronger product. Their relative brevity is the closest thing they have to a saving grace.

Does this make this Contra III a bad game? God, no. It is a maddeningly inconsistent one, however. It’s all peaks and valleys, melting your face off with its unbridled awesomeness one minute and then giving you ample cause to wish you were playing almost anything else the next. There are more peaks than valleys to be sure, but four legendary levels still aren’t a lot to hang an entire game on. I love it, just not quite as much as I love the original and Super C on the NES or Contra: Hard Corps on the Genesis, all of which benefit from a healthier ratio of quality content to dross. Contra III is tantalizingly close to perfection. If only its creators had doubled down on its strengths as opposed to diluting them with Mode 7 mediocrity….

Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to fire up Gunstar Heroes. Granted, I never owned Sega systems growing up and have only been seriously exploring their libraries for the past three years or so. Still, this frenetic side-scrolling run-and-gun has been a mainstay on virtually every “best of the Genesis” list drafted since its release. In addition to being a masterpiece in its own right, it led to a long string of further cult classics by the developers at Treasure. After all, it was the management at Konami’s refusal to greenlight Gunstar Heroes which prompted the small team there who would become Treasure to strike out on their own in the first place. Thankfully, the project eventually attained the backing of no less than Sega themselves, who published it in 1993.

Any gaming history buff would be hard pressed to cite a more confident debut effort. Giving free reign to a group who’d previously worked on the likes of Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super Castlevania IV resulted in an explosion of unbridled creativity with plenty of experience and discipline to back it up. Gunstar Heroes is the rare action game that’s all things to all players: Approachable by those of practically any skill level, simple to pick up yet nuanced enough to reward repeat playthroughs, badass and cute. It’s no exaggeration to say Treasure set a new high water mark for an entire genre here.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot of Gunstar Heroes involves a group of elite warriors, the Gunstars, who once saved the planet from a rampaging super robot known as Golden Silver. Unable to destroy Golden Silver permanently, they took the four gems that powered it and hid them throughout the world, leaving the robot’s inert body sealed away on the moon. Years later, an evil empire has set out to gather the gems and revive Golden Silver. These villains have also managed to brainwash one of the Gunstars, Green, to use a pawn against his former comrades. It now falls on the Gunstar twins, Red and Blue, to stave off Armageddon once more with the support of their sister, Yellow, and scientist mentor, Dr. Brown. Why is everyone in this world named after colors? Beats me.

One or both of the twins (depending on whether you’re utilizing the two-player simultaneous mode) will need to blast through seven stages to overthrow the Empire. The first four can be taken in any order you wish, while the final three function as an extended linear finale that sees the Gunstars pursuing the baddies into space. The levels themselves are a healthy mix of traditional run-and-gun platforming and more experimental fare. One of the latter is an auto-scroller where you speed through a series of underground tunnels on a moving platform that can alternate between clinging to the floor or ceiling as needed in a manner reminiscent of the gravity flip mechanic from Irem’s Metal Storm. Another is structured like a board game. Tossing a die on each of your turns moves you a random number of spaces toward the end boss, with each space along the way representing a different mini-boss or opportunity to score some healing and weapon power-ups. The only dud in the bunch is stage six, which is presented as a spaceship shooter with eight-directional movement. It’s far from a great one, however, and drags on far too long. Gradius or Thunder Force this is not.

Complimenting a largely fantastic crop of levels is one of the more interesting weapon systems in any game of the era. At the outset, you’re prompted to select your default shot from a total of four: Force is the typical machine gun type with average power, Lightning is the deadly but slow-firing laser, Chaser is the homing shot with reduced damage, and Fire is the short range, high power option. Fortunately for those of us who hate hard choices, this only affects which one you start the game with. The other three are still obtainable via colored icons scattered throughout the stages.

Four guns based on common shooter archetypes doesn’t seem too impressive…until you begin experimenting with their various combinations. See, you can carry two guns at a time. Swapping between them is possible, but the more interesting option is usually to equip both at once! Want a homing flame shot? Try Chaser with Fire. Machine gun laser? Force and Lightning. You can even combine a weapon with a duplicate of itself to get an enhanced version of its standard shot. If you don’t feel like doing the math yourself, that’s sixteen additional guns to play around with. They’re all effective in their own ways, too. There’s no need to worry about screwing yourself over by picking up the “wrong” weapon.

And there’s more! The Gunstars come with their own repertoire of hand-to-hand combat moves. They can grab and toss foes, block attacks, deliver sliding kicks and flying tackles, you name it. It all makes for one mind-boggling arsenal. The sheer number of meaningful choices open to you from moment to moment is exhilarating.

Boss battles in Treasure games are the stuff of legend. Gunstar Heroes is where that legend took root. Here they began to popularized their signature technique of using multiple small sprites moving in unison to convey the impressive of one massive enemy with silky smooth animation. There are over two dozen of these guys to take down and no two behave remotely alike. Many have multiple distinct phases or forms for you to deal with. The most famous by far (and rightfully so) is Seven Force, the transforming robot piloted by Gunstar Green. True to its name, it can assume seven distinct forms over the course of one marathon battle. My sole regret when it comes to the Seven Force fight is that it happens relatively early on. They should have saved such a tour de force for the final act. It’s no coincidence that the most memorable opponent in Treasure’s later Mega Drive release Alien Soldier was a similar shapeshifting menace called Valkyrie Force.

Perhaps my very favorite part of this formidable package is just how approachable it all is. Gunstar Heroes forsakes the arcade roots of Contra and other pioneering run-and-gun titles by giving its protagonists rather generous health pools to rely on in place of the more common one-hit kills. Factor in the unlimited continues and difficulty modes ranging from Easy to Expert and you have yourself a game that can be enjoyed by almost anyone. As much as I adore Contra, its unforgiving nature means I need to occupy a certain highly focused headspace to get the most out of it. Not so with the casual-friendly Gunstar Heroes. I can throw it on whenever and have a grand time.

Is there anything about it I would change? Well, I already mentioned the mediocre space shooting section. There’s also one slightly disappointing facet of the game’s otherwise flawless control scheme. Whenever you start a new session, you’re required to pick between a free shooting style that lets you literally run and gun and a fixed one that locks you in place while firing, allowing you to better deliver sustained damage to enemy weak points. Ideally, of course, you would be able to toggle between these two settings on the fly. You’re able to do so in the 16-bit Contra games as well as the aforementioned Alien Soldier. As presented here, though, it’s a one time exclusive choice. Bummer.

Apart from that, Gunstar Heroes is a bona fide game for the ages. An interactive master class in 2-D action design, it proved to the world at large that the name Treasure was no idle boast. It’s packed with lighthearted charm, slick visuals, and one of the finest soundtracks ever composed for the system. Is it the best run-and-gun on the Genesis? That’s a toughie. If I were somehow forced to pick one and only one to play for the rest of my life, the shorter, more intense Contra: Hard Corps would probably win out. Barely. Good thing I don’t foresee that happening. So if you’re like me and have been dragging your feet on this one, consider fixing that soon.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Bloody Wolf (TurboGrafx-16)

Now that’s what I call a relatable ending.

After losing myself in the intricate turn-based RPG Live A Live last week, I wanted something nice and basic to ease me back into the action groove. What could be more straightforward than a military-themed overhead run-and-gun?

Though relatively rare today, these games were inescapable throughout the ’80s and early ’90, their popularity fueled by the big screen bloodbaths of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and countless other uber-macho action icons. Key titles such as Taito’s Front Line (1982), Capcom’s Commando (1985), and SNK’s Ikari Warriors (1986) codified the template: A hardass super soldier (or possibly two, if you have a buddy with a second quarter to spend) stomping through the jungle, ruthlessly gunning down legions of hapless mooks. Sometimes he’s out to liberate P.O.W.s or take out a world threatening megaweapon. Other times he’s taking on the enemy because, hey, what else are enemies for?

In 1988, developer Data East threw their green beret into the ring with yet another take on this crowded subgenre: Bloody Wolf, also known as Narazumono Sentō Butai Bloody Wolf (“Rogue Combat Squad: Bloody Wolf”) in Japan and Battle Rangers in Europe. I’m thinking this original arcade release must be pretty scarce here in the U.S., since I’ve never actually encountered the cabinet in the wild. That’s why I’m reviewing the much more common TurboGrafx-16 port from 1990 instead.

TG-16 Bloody Wolf adds an extra stage and expands most of the others, albeit at the cost of the arcade’s two-player functionality. That’s a tradeoff I can live with. The real loss, however, is the new English translation. Arcade Bloody Wolf’s script is a sublime catastrophe which includes perhaps my favorite mangled video game line of all time: “Get you the hot bullets of shotgun to die!” Mmm. That is some primo stuff right there. The home version swaps it out for “You’ll make a nice target for this gun!” Weak.

Bloody Wolf tasks you with rescuing your kidnapped president from behind enemy lines. There’s no hint anywhere as to who your antagonists are supposed to be. The instructions simply refer to them as a “berzerk military unit” led by a “crazed General.” Maybe it’s supposed to be a coup attempt of some kind? All that really matters is there’s two of you and hundreds of them, so you’d best get shooting!

Wait, two? Didn’t I say this was a one-player game? I did and it is. At the outset, you’re expected to choose one of the two strapping commandos shown on the title screen. He’ll then serve as your primary character, although you’ll still end up controlling both heroes as the story plays out. You even get to name these guys. Their default handles are Snake and Eagle, but that’s no fun. I named the one with hair Will after myself and the bald one…Baldo. Guess I wasn’t feeling very creative that night.

Gameplay-wise, Bloody Wolf doesn’t break the mold in any major way. Your primary weapon is a pea shooter rifle with endless ammo that can be temporarily upgraded to a shotgun or bazooka via pickups obtained from crates and rescued prisoners. In addition, you start with a secondary attack in the form of grenades. These can later be powered-up or swapped out entirely in favor of a flamethrower or flash bombs. Finally, there’s your trusty combat knife, which is automatically used in place of your main gun whenever a bad guy is within shanking range. Redundant as this last option seems, some armored foes are bulletproof, so getting in close to stab them may be your best bet.

Taking a page from Ikari Warriors, Bloody Wolf also allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles in order to create even more carnage. Bizarrely, these aren’t tanks or other common weapons of war. Rather, they’re Harley-Davidson style motorcycles you use to run your adversaries down. It’s as effective as it is hilarious. Sadly, these have a very limited supply of fuel. Enjoy them while they last.

The one slightly unorthodox thing here is your characters’ ability to jump, a feature more closely associated with Contra and other side-view run-and-guns. Hell, even the Harleys can jump! They don’t need ramps to do it, either. They just spontaneously levitate when you tap the button. I love it. A few levels and boss fights incorporate rudimentary platforming, though this aspect of the game comes across as a mere novelty, by no means co-equal with the combat.

In light of its arcade roots and hardcore two-man army premise, you might expect Bloody Wolf to offer up a fierce challenge. If so, you’d be wrong. Your characters enjoy the mercy of a health bar rather than the usual one-hit kills. Body armor, medicine, and sketchy sounding “muscle emphasis tablets” can all either restore lost health or lengthen the bar itself. On top of this, the eight short stages include frequent checkpoints and continues are unlimited. This makes for a smooth, low pressure play experience from start to finish. I can see this being a point of contention for those who bought the game at full price and weren’t expecting to race through it in a couple of hours. Me, I found it pretty fun to be able to kick back and casually exterminate the opposing force on my mystical leaping motorbike.

While neither a historically important work like Commando nor a must-play masterpiece like Jackal or Shock Troopers, Bloody Wolf is a successful arcade conversation and a thoroughly competent example of its kind. It looks fine, sounds fine, and delivers precisely the sort of no frills testosterone-drenched thrill ride you’d expect. If all you’re looking for an excuse to switch off your brain and take in the interactive equivalent of a vintage Chuck Norris flick, you can do a whole lot worse.

Will and Baldo, I salute you!

Pocky & Rocky (Super Nintendo)

Yo, Adrian, I did it!

Natsume’s 1992 overhead run-and-gun Pocky & Rocky (or KiKi KaiKai: Nazo no Kuro Manto“Mysterious Ghost World: The Riddle of the Black Mantle”) is a most unlikely entry in the Super Nintendo library. Other than Konami’s Legend of the Mystical Ninja, it’s tough to cite any other games on the system so thoroughly steeped in Japanese culture and mythology. It has all the earmarks of a Super Famicom exclusive, yet Natsume insisted on bring it to the world at large anyway.

Now that I think about, Pocky & Rocky’s existence on any platform seems like a long shot. It’s a follow-up to Taito’s 1986 arcade game KiKi KaiKai, which doesn’t seem to have made too great an impact on launch. Obligatory Famicom and PC Engine ports aside, Taito themselves mostly allowed the property to lie fallow for the next five years or so before handing it off to Natsume. However this arrangement came to be, it worked out great for gamers. Pocky & Rocky is a high quality title in virtually every way. It’s a must-play for shooter enthusiasts generally, as well as anyone who appreciates cute characters and snappy two-player simultaneous action.

The story centers on Shinto shrine maiden Pocky. She’s approached one day by her friend Rocky the tanuki, who tells her the local yōkai (spirit creatures, translated here as goblins) are running amok for no apparent reason. The two promptly set out to discover the cause of the chaos and put a stop to it.

With a setup so heavily steeped in Japanese religion and spirit lore, it’s remarkable how little of Pocky & Rocky was altered for foreign audiences. The lead characters had their names changed (from Sayo-chan and Manuke, respectively) and Rocky is described as a raccoon in the English instruction manual rather than a tanuki. I suppose Natsume didn’t want to get sidetracked into a full description of these fox-like East Asian canids and their role in regional folklore. I can’t say I blame them. Beyond that, what you see is what you get. As with the aforementioned Legend of the Mystical Ninja, the vast majority of non-native players back in the ’90s had no idea what kappa, tengu, or tsukumogami were and just had to take all this weirdness at face value. That sense of whimsical befuddlement largely persists today, despite the West’s increased exposure to yōkai-related media over the intervening decades.

The titular duo’s journey to the stronghold of the sinister Black Mantle is split up into six stages. While this may not seem like much, most of them are fairly lengthy, consisting of several visually and mechanically distinct areas. For example, the second level starts out with a relatively open bamboo forest and later confines the heroes to a tiny river raft, forcing you to adapt your play style accordingly. Most stages also have two bosses to contend with. Although Pocky & Rocky is still a short game by objective measure, it never comes across as deficient due to its hectic pace and the wide variety of enemies and environments on display.

Both player characters handle similarly, though there are a handful of minor differences. As either Pocky or Rocky, you can run and shoot in eight directions, execute an evasive slide, and perform a short range melee attack that primarily serves to deflect weaker enemy projectiles. You also have a limited number of super bombs for when the going gets rough. Pocky’s bombs deal more damage, albeit to a concentrated area, making them ideal for boss fights. By contrast, Rocky’s less powerful blasts are better against enemy groups, as they always cover the entire screen. One final tool in your arsenal is the special defensive abilities activated by holding down the melee attack button for a few seconds. Pocky will spin around and Rocky will transform into an invulnerable stone statue, just like Tanuki Mario in Super Mario Bros. 3. I never did find a reliable use for either of these moves and tended to forget they existed during my playthrough. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with them.

Two power-ups are available to enhance the heroes’ standard shots. One is a fireball that travels straight ahead and deals extra damage. The other is a spread shot. Both can be upgraded by collecting the same color orb multiple times. You’ll lose shot power as you sustain damage, however, so don’t get too cocky. Other helpful items to look out for include an energy shield, extra bombs, health replenishing sushi rolls, and the rare temporary invincibility pickup.

As far as nitpicks go, I can only muster a couple. You’ll recall I mentioned how melee attacks can be used to swat away some enemy projectiles. This is actually a core move in your repertoire and damn near required at many points. The catch? It’s not at all obvious which of the many projectile types can be deflected and which will pass right through your swipes and damage you. It’s pure trial and error with your character’s life on the line. This could have been easily fixed by giving all deflectable objects a bright outline of a specific color. I also view the limited shot power-ups as a missed opportunity. The fireball and spread shot both work fine and it’s nice they can be upgraded. Still, we could have also had a piercing weapon, a homing one, a boomerang, a charge shot, etc. The more ways to mow down baddies in a game like this, the better, right?

Regardless, Pocky & Rocky is a delight. The arcade style shooting is brisk and accessible, the setting and characters overflow with personality, the artwork and music are superb, and it shines brighter still with a second player along for the ride. It’s not easy by any means, especially solo, but unlimited continues keep the frustration in check. Heck, when it comes to multiplayer run-and-guns on the Super Nintendo, I’d even give it the edge over the more celebrated, less consistent Contra III: The Alien Wars. Unfortunately, authentic cartridges are tough to come by for less than $100 these days. Think that’s bad? Its 1994 sequel, Pocky & Rocky 2, commands around three times as much! This is another of those cases when I’m forced to recommend you play these games via…well, let’s just say “thriftier” methods, if possible.

We haven’t seen a new Pocky & Rocky adventure since 2001’s Pocky & Rocky with Becky for the Game Boy Advance. Natsume has opted instead to focus primarily on its popular Harvest Moon series of farming simulators. Understandable as that is, I still hold out hope that a resurgent interest in classic gaming can one day lure the plucky priestess and her furry friend out of retirement for another bout of frenzied yōkai thrashing.

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis)

Aw, yeah! Robo-high five, baby!

There are a select few gaming franchises I have to make a serious effort to not binge my way clear through in one insane, thumb blistering marathon. Foremost among these is Konami’s Contra. Practically synonymous with the side-scrolling run-and-gun genre for the past 32 years and counting, Contra is renowned for its tight controls, breakneck pacing, and blink-and-you’re-dead challenge, all wrapped-up in a bombastic “commandos versus space aliens” scenario stitched together from the greatest action movies 1980s Hollywood had to offer. Addictive as it is, I’ve found that diving into an unfamiliar Contra title is best treated like bringing a bottle of exceptionally fine wine up from the cellars. Konami doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, after all.

My selection today is the sixth entry in the series, 1994’s Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis. It’s noteworthy for being the first installment to make its way to a non-Nintendo console. More significantly, it was also the first to make any substantial changes to the design template established by the 1987 original. Unless you count the wretched Contra Force from 1993, that is, which many don’t, as it was an unrelated project that had the Contra name slapped on it in a desperate bid to help sales. Previous Contras presented players with a gauntlet of linear platforming stages, each of which featured a hoard of cannon fodder bad guys throughout and a big boss fight at the end. In addition, they would typically include a couple levels utilizing a pseudo-3D or overhead view, presumably as palate cleansers-cum-graphical showpieces. Hard Corps introduced branching paths and multiple endings to this formula, heavily emphasized bosses over regular enemies, ditched the alternate viewpoint gimmick entirely in favor of 100% side-view action, and added character selection to the mix with four diverse heroes to choose from. Each character even had his or her own exclusive arsenal of four special weapons.

It’s been speculated that many of Hard Corps’ most ambitious new features were an attempt by the development team at Konami to outdo another specific Genesis run-and-gun shooter some of their former co-workers were involved in creating the year prior for Treasure: Gunstar Heroes. If so, this was one rivalry gamers everywhere should be thankful for. Do all these innovations make Hard Corps the ultimate Contra experience, as a vocal fan contingent maintains to this day, or is the simpler approach of the early games ultimately more enjoyable? Let’s find out! But first things first: It’s pronounced “hard core.” Got that? If I never hear anyone talk about “Contra: Hard Corpse” again, it’ll be too soon. Yuck.

The events of Hard Corps are set five years after those depicted in Contra III: The Alien Wars. That’s 2641 A.D. by my reckoning. Mysterious terrorists steal a sample of alien cells from a government lab and the world is in for no end of apocalyptic mad science mischief unless the Contra team can stop them. Said team includes two humans, Ray and Sheena, with average capabilities and fairly balanced weapons. Ray deals a bit more damage with his guns and Sheena is slightly more nimble, but the pair generally function like the traditional soldier protagonists from the older games. Rounding out the playable cast are a couple of oddballs, Brad Fang the cyborg wolfman and Browny the robot. Brad is bigger and slower than the rest and several of his weapons have a shorter range. He makes up for these deficiencies by dealing out massive damage and by being a wolf in shades with a chaingun for an arm named Brad. Browny (aka the Model CX-1-DA300 Combat Robot) is the smallest and cutest squad member. His double jump and jet-assisted gliding make him the best at dodging attacks and platforming in general. His only true weakness is that his weapons (with one exception in the bizarre electric yo-yo) aren’t as damaging as his teammates’.

I love how Hard Corps implemets these characters. Every aspect of their design serves a clear purpose and comes across as very well thought-out. Ray and Sheena have just enough variation to make them distinct from one another, yet they both still adequately represent the classic Contra hero. Meanwhile, Browny and Brad are geared toward newcomers and experienced players, respectively. Browny’s unmatched evasive abilities make him the easiest to learn enemy patterns with. Once you have those patterns down and feel more confident getting in close to the opposition, that’s when Brad’s overwhelming point-blank power can truly shine. I’m a Browny man, myself. Given the choice,  I’ll always pick a character who can double jump. Who doesn’t love double jumping in games? It’s one of those little things that just feels so good.

The action itself initially feels similar to what series veterans are used to. You arrive in a devastated cityscape and immediately begin sprinting from left to right blasting every rampaging robot in your path and shooting down flying pods to score weapon power-ups. Typical Contra stuff. You then defeat the level boss and are presented with your first choice between two courses of action: Pursue your fleeing enemy or return to headquarters as ordered? The option you select will determine which completely different version of stage two you end up visiting next. There aren’t a ton of these decision points included. In fact, there are only four; just enough to ensure you’ll only ever see between four and seven of the game’s twelve total levels during any single playthrough. Four characters, twelve stages, eighteen weapons, five final bosses, and six endings adds up to a massive amount of content for a Contra game. You can play through the original and see everything it has to offer in around twenty minutes. The same holds true for most of its sequels. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with Hard Corps and, while I did complete every stage and see all the endings, I still have a long road ahead of me if I ever hope to achieve this with every character.

The stages are hit and miss for me. A few of them, like the opening one and a couple of the final areas, feel almost fully fleshed-out. The majority, on the other hand, are only there to give the boss fights a backdrop to play out against. Even though standard action-platforming, avoiding environmental hazards while blowing away hoards of minor baddies, forms the bedrock of most Contra titles, it barely factors into Hard Corps at all. Similar to another game I reviewed recently, Treasure’s Alien Soldier, this is very much a “boss rush” game. There are nearly forty of the suckers spread out between the various levels and many of them have multiple forms or phases you’ll have to have to contend with before they finally go down for the count. Regular foes show up in brief spurts as you traverse the tiny bits of terrain between boss arenas, but they feel like novelties here. You know they only represent a short breather before it’s back to the real meat of the game.

More so than anything else, a given player’s willingness to embrace this unorthodox gameplay structure seems to be what ultimately determines how highly they regard Hard Corps relative to the rest of the series. Although I prefer a bit more in the way of conventional levels between my climactic encounters, at least the bosses here are, almost without exception, some of the very best seen in any action game of the period. Not only are there dozens of them, no two look, move, or slaughter you the same way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and descriptions. Many are intimidating, others strange, and a few are downright absurd. The simple desire to see what flavor of whacked-out monstrosity the designers have in store for you next is a powerful incentive to keep playing. Whatever you think of boss rush games in general, the high degree of creativity on display here is undeniable.

As is the difficulty, of course. You can’t talk about Contra without mentioning that it takes considerable focus and patience to excel at. All deaths are of the one-hit variety and continues are limited. This isn’t a game anyone should expect to beat on their first try. Or their second or third, for that matter. Success all comes down to observation and memorization. Every enemy has a set pattern you’ll need to learn in order to get by unscathed. As long as you’re continuously studying these patterns and applying what you’ve learned, progress will come. The mistake too many players make is assuming that because the series consists of big, loud action games, they must also be dumb somehow. Wrong. The Japanese version of Hard Corps actually adds a health bar and allows for unlimited continues. If a mindless iteration of the game is what you want, it fits the bill. I consider it a major overcorrection that fatally undermines the final product. NES Contra with the thirty lives code is easy. Hard Corps with endless lives plus a health bar is plain silly. It’s infinitely more rewarding to simply take your time and master this one the old-fashioned way.

It should be crystal clear by now that this is a brilliant work on multiple fronts. It has all the polish one would expect from a ’90s Konami release, with colorful, well-drawn graphics, high energy music, and crunchy, satisfying sound effects. It has a ludicrous amount of variety for a 16-bit action game. Best of all, it has the tried and true adrenaline-pumping intensity shared by all Contra outings worthy of the name. There’s always something to shoot and something to dodge as you sprint to the finish. My only real complaints are fairly trivial. For example, the limitations of the standard three-button Genesis controller resulted in the same button (A) being assigned multiple context-sensitive functions. The one you end up activating depends on whether you’re also pressing the fire button at that moment. If you’re not shooting, A switches your weapon out for the next one in the rotation. If you are shooting, A toggles your firing mode between the usual free setting where you can run and shoot simultaneously and a fixed setting which locks your character in place to allow for more precise aiming. Triggering an unintended effect when you hit A in the heat of battle can prove very hazardous to your hero’s health and makes me acutely aware how much Contra III benefited from the Super Nintendo’s six-button pad.

Petty gripes like this are hardly dealbreaker material, however. Contra: Hard Corps is an indisputable run-and-gun masterpiece as well as one of the best games available for the Genesis overall. Is it my personal favorite Contra? No. Of the ones I’ve played, I think I still prefer the NES ports of the original and Super C with their longer stages and more extensive platforming. Hard Corps is a damn close third at present, though, edging out Contra III due to its abundance of meaningful gameplay options and blessed lack of cheesy Mode 7 interludes. Whatever you do, don’t let its hardcore reputation put you off. You don’t really want to go to your grave never knowing the divine awesomeness of Brad Fang, do you?

Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one. Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis)

I feel strongth welling in my body. That can only mean I’m ready to challenge another entry in a certain famously ferocious run-and-gun platforming series. It’s been almost a year and a half since I last stepped into the steel shoes of stalwart medieval beardo Sir Arthur and set out to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin from her demonic captors in the NES version of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It only makes sense to now move on to the best-known home port of that game’s direct arcade sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (aka Daimakaimura, “Great Demon World Village”). I’m referring, of course, to the celebrated Sega Genesis conversion.

Genesis Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, much like its contemporary Strider, was merely licensed from Capcom. The hard work of developing and publishing it was shouldered entirely by Sega themselves. Although it may seem like Capcom got the better of this arrangement, both games turned out to be flagship system sellers for the Genesis in its primordial pre-Sonic days. The ability to deliver credible home translations of cutting edge 1988 arcade titles to gamers in 1989 was the crux of the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign, after all. One look was all it took to know that nothing like this would be coming to your NES. It certainly didn’t hurt that this iteration of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was programmed by future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka and not the same trash tier contract developer (Micronics) that “blessed” NES Ghosts ‘n Goblins with its stiff controls and jerky scrolling.

This franchise has never been known for its radical re-invention, meaning that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ gameplay will feel immediately familiar to veterans of other installments. Knight Arthur must run, jump, and shoot his way through a total of five side-scrolling stages. He’ll then be told to go back and do it all over again on a slightly higher difficulty and using the one special weapon the final boss is vulnerable to before finally being treated to a proper ending. As stated in my Ghosts ‘n Goblins review, this notion of forcing the player to complete every stage twice in order to truly finish the game was arguably funny in a sadistic way the first time around. Strip away the nasty surprise angle, though, and all that remains is some rather blatant padding.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing in the way of innovation here. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts marks the first appearance of the golden armor power-up, which allows Arthur to charge up and unleash devastating magical attacks which vary in effect based on the specific weapon he has equipped. It’s important to not let this awesome new power go to your head, however, since the golden armor itself doesn’t provide any more protection from damage than its mundane counterpart. One hit will still strip it away entirely, leaving poor Arthur to carry on fighting in his undies until he either happens across a new suit of plate or takes a second hit and crumbles into a pile of bones. Probably that last one.

Additionally, Arthur has gained the ability to lob his weapons up and down instead of just left and right. As a default move, this has an even greater impact on the flow of the action than the sporadically available magic attacks and tends to be the one feature advocates for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as the high point of the saga cite most often when justifying their preferences. My own heart may belong to Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo and its double jump mechanic, but I can’t deny that Arthur’s extra offensive coverage here makes the vertically scrolling portions considerably less harrowing than usual.

Lower difficulty is actually a running theme throughout Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Not only do you have added angles of attack and magic on your side, there are also fewer stages and more checkpoints than in Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. With unlimited continues to work with as well, this is an ideal starting point for players new to Sir Arthur’s exploits. Just remember that this reduced challenge is strictly relative to those other two games mentioned above. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is still a vicious meat grinder of an action-platformer and countless ignoble deaths are inevitable as you painstakingly put in the practice needed to memorize and master each segment of the quest.

Presentation-wise, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the Genesis conveys the essence of its source material well, but not flawlessly. The most obvious visual downgrade comes courtesy of the console’s smaller color palette when compared to Capcom’s CPS1 arcade board. Fair enough. There’s also a general loss of graphical detail on the Genesis, particularly in the backgrounds. This is likely a consequence of the limited space available on the home version’s modest five megabit ROM chip. The arcade release had around three times the memory to work with. It’s still an attractive game, as Naka and company clearly made excellent use of the resources available to them in 1989. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better this one could have looked if they’d been able to take advantage of the more advanced chips which would become commonplace in Genesis cartridges later on in the ’90s. We probably wouldn’t have had to lose out on the arcade’s snazzy intro sequence depicting the minions of main antagonist Loki (Lucifer in Japan) harvesting the souls of Princess Prin Prin and the rest of the kingdom’s hapless citizens, for example. Things are rosier on the audio front, thankfully. The Genesis’ FM synth sound chip is fairly similar to what Capcom was using in the arcades at the time and little, if any, of the original’s spooky ambiance is lost.

Whether at home or in the arcade, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a class act of a sequel that stays true to its pedigree while improving on its predecessor in virtually every way. Expanded attack options bring new depth and flexibility to the combat, platforming is enhanced by more varied and creative stages with dynamic hazards unique to each, and the higher fidelity art and music are bursting with added charm. Its primary flaws are the same two subjective ones which dog every GnG title: The fierce difficulty and the need to loop the game in order to see the true ending.  Given that I’m largely reconciled to those, my only major beef with the game is its length. Fun as they are, five stages make for pretty slim pickings. Just one or two extra would have gone a long way toward making this one a viable contender for series MVP in my eyes. Lacking this, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts would itself be improved on in turn, but remains a must-play for fans of the Genesis and vintage Capcom action fare alike.

Alien Soldier (Mega Drive)

Hmm. Ninety-two deaths. I might need just a little more practice with this one.

Can you believe it’s taken me this long to dive into a Treasure game? This celebrated development house was founded in 1992 by a group of frustrated former Konami employees tired of spending their time working on endless samey sequels to long-running franchises like Castlevania and Contra. Led by Masato Maegawa, they set out reinvent themselves as gaming auteurs with a focus on original scenarios and innovative, frequently idiosyncratic mechanics. The newly-minted Treasure made good on these aspirations right out of the gate with their 1993 debut release, the acclaimed Mega Drive/Genesis run-and-gun Gunstar Heroes. Numerous quirky hits like platformer Dynamite Headdy and spaceship shooter Ikaruga would follow in the years to come, cementing Treasure’s reputation as a veritable wellspring of cult classic action titles.

By 1994, Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis platform was on its last legs as a hot commercial prospect. The 32-bit Saturn and PlayStation would both be on the market by year’s end and the development community at large was shifting its focus accordingly. Treasure designer Hideyuki Suganami realized that this was his last chance to craft the ultimate Mega Drive run-and-gun game of his dreams. His goal was to push the system’s Motorola 68000 processor to its limits with massive sprites, blazing fast action, and bombastic pyrotechnics. The end result was 1995’s Alien Soldier, and the game’s goofy title screen tag line perfectly encapsulates Suganami’s design philosophy: “Visualshock! Speedshock! Soundshock! Now is the time to the 68000 heart on fire!”

Sounds badass, right? If you were a North American Genesis fan back in the day, you may be wondering why you never heard about this one. It’s probably because Alien Soldier wasn’t given a standard cartridge release here and was only available to play via the Sega Channel, a subscription-based game download service that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, leading to its unceremonious cancellation in 1998. This exclusivity  was apparently taken so seriously that Treasure added a region check function to the game’s code. Try to boot up an imported Japanese or European copy in your North American console and all you’ll be greeted with is a terse error message. ProTip: Use Game Genie code REBT-A6XN, REBT-A6XR, RECA-A60R to spoof your way past the region check in the Japanese NTSC version. You’re welcome.

In Alien Soldier, you play as Epsilon-Eagle, a hella fierce cyborg bird man who’s out to…do something. I think. To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really make heads or tails of this game’s story. It’s supposedly set in the distant year 2015 on a planet called either A-Earth or Sierra, depending on whether you’re playing the Japanese or European release. There are these artificially created mutants with superpowers and the ability to exist as parasites within human and machine hosts. Some of these creatures unite to form a terrorist organization called Scarlet and devote themselves to the extermination of regular humans. The leader of Scarlet is Epsilon-Eagle, until he’s deposed in a violent coup led by another mutant named Xi-Tiger. During this conflict, Epsilon-Eagle is wounded and flees into “the time-space continuum” to preserve himself, leaving the even more ruthless Xi-Tiger in charge of Scarlet. This process also splits Epsilon-Eagle into two separate beings somehow, one good and one evil. The good half of Epsilon-Eagle hides itself inside the body of an unnamed boy being used as a test subject in a laboratory where children with exceptional abilities are experimented on. Xi-Tiger tracks Epsilon-Eagle down and ends up killing one of the boy’s friends in the process. This causes the boy to fly into a rage and morph himself into the form of Epsilon-Eagle in order to get revenge on Xi-Tiger and Scarlet. Got all that? Basically, add a splash of X-Men and a dash of Akira to a heaping helping of good old-fashioned mad gibberish and you have Alien Soldier.

Though obviously not a proper sequel to Gunstar Heroes by any stretch of the imagination, Alien Soldier does share some significant gameplay elements with it. A few of the weapons function similarly, players are able to toggle between two different control setups (one allows for firing while moving and the other offers eight-way stationary fire), and one particularly goofy enemy from Gunstar shows up for a rematch here. The creative influence of Gunstar’s memorable transforming robot boss Seven Force is also strongly felt in what I found to be Alien Soldier’s most lengthy and difficult segment.

What truly sets Alien Soldier apart from Gunstar Heroes (and most other action games) is its unconventional structure. What we have here is an extended “boss rush” pitting Epsilon-Eagle against more than thirty of the largest and most intimidating freaks ever seen in a 16-bit game virtually back-to-back. There are brief interludes between many of the boss encounters where the player can swat down some easy cannon fodder enemies in order to replenish Epsilon-Eagle’s health reserves and possibly nab a weapon upgrade or two, but these rarely last more than a minute or so and it’s a huge stretch to liken them to the fully fleshed-out stages you’d blast your way through in a Contra game. They’re more akin to breathers or palate cleansers, really. This format, coupled with the game’s overall gonzo sci-fi theme, suggests to me a much flashier take on Capcom’s misunderstood NES gem Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight.

Taking down each boss is a remarkably technical business, far from the mindless shoot and dodge affair you might expect. At the outset, the player must choose the starting equipment for Epsilon-Eagle. Only a maximum of four of the game’s six guns and be carried at any one time and each has its own balance of speed, power, range, and ammo capacity. Beyond that, some enemies are weak, resistant, or completely immune to one or more of your weapons. There’s no one ideal loadout with which to take on the whole game, so tough choices must be made. It’s a smartly designed system. My only complaint stems from the way weapon switching is handled. Opening the menu doesn’t pause the action, meaning that Epsilon-Eagle is always stuck standing in place for a minimum of a second or two every time he needs to switch guns. It’s obnoxious at best and fatal at worst in the midst of a pitched battle.

Epsilon-Eagle’s movement options are also notably complex. He can run and jump, of course, as well as swap between the free and fixed weapon firing schemes mentioned above at will, halt his jumps at any point to hover in place for as long as desired, reverse his gravity and run along the ceiling (a la Irem’s Metal Storm), transform enemy projectiles into health pickups with a melee attack called the Counter Force, and perform an invincible dash maneuver known as the Zero Teleport. Because both Epsilon-Eagle and his foes are so large, skillful use of the Counter Force and Zero Teleport in particular are vital for effective evasion. Oh, and don’t forget that the Zero Teleport also doubles as a fiery super attack that can wreck many bosses in an instant, but only as long as Epsilon-Eagle is at maximum health.

It’s a lot to get a handle on and Alien Soldier doesn’t go out of its way to ease the player in, starting out intense and only getting crazier as it rolls on. The saving grace here is the lower of the game’s two difficulty settings, which allows for unlimited continues and passwords for every stage. Newcomers are able to practice all they want here before they consider challenging the “Superhard” setting, where continues are strictly limited and there are no passwords.

Is it ultimately worth the time to learn the ins and outs of Alien Soldier’s intricate take on run-and-gun combat? Hell, yes! Between the huge character sprites, beautiful backgrounds, pulse-pounding soundtrack, and buttery smooth combat, it really is a technical marvel on the humble Mega Drive. While controlling its oddball avian protagonist effectively takes practice, the sense of accomplishment attainable by executing a flawless series of parries and teleports to annihilate a once-imposing boss monster without suffering so much as a scratch in return really does justify the effort.

Alien Soldier’s one glaring flaw in my eyes is simply that its plot is simultaneously over and under-written to ludicrous extremes. The rambling opening text crawl devotes an eternity to detailing a near-incomprehensible conflict between Epsilon-Eagle and Xi-Tiger, only to then have Xi-Tiger bite the dust in level nine and Epsilon-Eagle proceed to keep on kicking the asses of assorted crazy robots and monsters across sixteen additional stages with the player having no clue about the whys and wherefores of it all. This may seem like an odd thing to focus on when I’ve personally deployed so many variants on the “Nobody plays actions games for the story” excuse over the years. Bear in mind, however, that this line is usually used to hand-wave away simplistic or clichéd storytelling. “Rescue the princess,” “halt the alien invasion,” that sort of deal. These setups may be boring in and of themselves, but they at least get the job done. Here, the chaotic stew of half-baked and non-existent plotting just makes it next to impossible to cultivate any true understanding of what your chicken-headed hero is supposed to be doing or why after the one-third mark.

Still, I’ll concede that this likely won’t trouble you for long. You’ll be too busy wondering exactly two things: What sort of demented monstrosity the game can possibly throw at you next and what tactics you’ll need to kill said monstrosity. Puking insect man? Sure. Big-nosed phallus monster shooting wasps out of its butt? Okay. Werewolf cowboy on a robo-horse? Why not? Alien Soldier is far too focused on its slick, savage journey to spare much thought for the destination. Approach it with that same mindset and you’re in for some of the most stimulating hardcore action gameplay ever devised.

Now, would you mind passing me the Tums? My 68000 heart is killing me.

Metal Storm (NES)

My thumbs hurt. Also, my soul. Oh, Irem.

There are numerous NES games from the console’s twilight years in the early 1990s which were poor sellers in their day, but have since attained an ironic sort of fame within the classic gaming community as “hidden gems.” Some of the most ambitious and lavishly-produced titles for the system debuted around this time, only to flounder in the face of stiff competition from the flashy new 16-bit systems. Such a title is 1991’s Metal Storm, the cult classic sci-fi run-and-gun published by Irem and developed by their subsidiary, Tamtex. Not even a 12-page cover story in Nintendo Power was enough to put Metal Storm over with the public when the fabled Super Nintendo was just around the corner.

While it’s heartening to see these long-neglected classics finally find the audiences they’ve always deserved, there’s a corresponding downside rooted in that most bastardly of sciences, economics. Simply put, games with high quality and low production runs are destined to become prohibitively expensive sooner or later. Though a far cry cost-wise from Taito’s Little Samson (which madmen are currently paying close to $1100 for in loose cartridge form at the time of this writing), Metal Storm is still the single most expensive video game I own. I shelled out $100 for my copy at a convention and, though I don’t really regret it per se, I also don’t see myself spending that much on any one game again in an era of affordable flash carts.

However you end up playing Metal Storm, you’re in for a unique experience on the system. Side-scrolling NES action games were a dime a dozen, so Irem wisely chose to give this one a twist to set it apart from the pack: Your character can control gravity at will! Far from being just a superficial or situational gimmick as it was in Shatterhand or Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage, every aspect of the level layout and enemy placement here is is painstakingly planned around the fact that you can swap between walking along the floor and the ceiling at a moment’s notice. As in Capcom’s Bionic Commando with its grapple arm platforming, it’s this total commitment to an innovative core mechanic that elevates the game above the majority of its peers and makes it well worth playing today.

Metal Storm places you in the cockpit of the M-308 Gunner, a rifle-toting humanoid robot which looks just about as close as it legally can to something out of Gundam or Macross. It’s the year 2501 and Pluto has been fitted with a humongous Death Star-like laser cannon intended to protect the solar system from invasion by hostile aliens. Predictably, the computer system controlling the laser has gone haywire. Neptune has already been vaporized and it’s only a matter of time before Earth gets the axe. With the laser’s self-destruct mechanism jammed, all of humanity is counting on you to fight your way past the Pluto base’s copious defenses and initiate the self-destruct sequence manually. Welcome to old-school gaming, soldier, where every princess needs rescuing and every computer is the HAL 9000.

While the story here may not be anything to write home about, the graphics sure are. You may not be inclined to think much of them at first based just on screenshots. The backgrounds can arguably be somewhat garish at times due to how many of them consist of abstract, vaguely mechanical patterns rendered with just a few bright colors in what I can only call a patchwork quilt style. I was occasionally unsure if I was supposed to be blasting my way across a space station or an oversized sofa from the 1970s. Once you actually see the game in motion, however, you’ll quickly realize that the draw here is the fluid character animation and liberal use of parallax scrolling. This latter technique (in which multiple layers of background graphics appear to scroll by at varying speeds in order to simulate depth) is not a default capability of the NES hardware. Regardless, Metal Storm utilizes a mapper expansion chip inside the cartridge working in tandem with memory bank switching techniques to showcase convincing parallax effects on virtually every stage. It really is eye-catching for anyone accustomed to the look of other games on the console.

Things aren’t quite so striking on the audio front, unfortunately. The soundtrack is middling at best, suffering from overly short music loops and a shortage of really standout songs, apart from perhaps the first level theme. Sound effects fare better, with some great explosions and an absolutely perfect “bwoop” when you execute a gravity flip. I couldn’t tell you why this action should bwoop specifically, but trust me, it should.

There are twelve total stages to tackle and a boss fight after every even-numbered one. Clear them all and you’re treated to a standard “boss rush” where you must defeat the previous six guardians again back-to-back before you can finally engage the self-destruct device and roll the credits. The stages themselves are actually all fairly short and leave you very little room for error. Similar to the player ships in most auto-scrolling shooters, your mech doesn’t have a health bar and will explode instantly upon contact with an enemy, projectile, or stage hazard. Additionally, you won’t be revived on the spot if this occurs like you would in other run-and-gun games like Contra. Instead, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. If you’ve ever played Irem’s Super Nintendo debut from later in 1991, Super R-Type, you know this rather strict system all too well.

If all this has you concerned that Metal Storm might be too punishing to be enjoyable, you needn’t worry. While it’s true the stages require some memorization and tight execution, you’re given unlimited continues with which to practice them, as well as passwords after every boss fight. There’s also a very useful selection of power-ups available. The most common and important of these is the armor, which allows you to withstand one additional hit before exploding. There’s also an energy shield that blocks bullets and damages any foes that touch it, a gun upgrade that makes your laser rifle shots more powerful and able to penetrate walls, and a “Gravity Fireball” that renders you invincible mid-gravity shift. You can only benefit from one of these last three abilities at any given time, however, so picking up a gun icon while you already have the shield active, for example, will cause your shield to vanish. Thankfully, the armor upgrade isn’t exclusive in this way. I suppose a greater variety of power-ups might have been nice, but I do have to give the designers credit for making each one we do get both functionally unique and powerful.

With these tools to level the playing field, experienced run-and-gun players should be able to clear Metal Storm in a handful of hours…on its normal setting. Do this and you’ll be given a special password and instructed to “Try a game for experts.” Hoo-boy. Lemme tell you, they had a real master of understatement on staff there at Tamtex. I was looking forward to a little more difficulty after the relatively forgiving main game. What I got was the Ninth Circle of NES Hell. The majority of life-saving power-ups have disappeared, the bosses have all-new dirty tricks, and the regular enemy placement is so outright fiendish as to evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and sparse checkpoints which were manageable before are now the very bane of your existence and level memorization graduates from useful to strictly mandatory on a second-to-second basis. If I wasn’t the sort of obstinate bastard who can’t let go of a self-imposed challenge, I’d have certainly quit in disgust around the midway point. Metal Storm on the expert setting is what people who’ve only heard of Ninja Gaiden imagine that game to be. It is doable, barely, but I didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to. Maybe you will.

Expert mode aside, I can unreservedly recommend this one to 8-bit action fans. The control is spot-on, the level design is inventive, and no two enemies test your maneuvering and shooting skills in quite the same way. Above all else, the gravity shift mechanic elegantly and unobtrusively informs every move you make. Mastering it over the course of the journey genuinely feels like fun rather than work. This, latter day game designers, is how you do a tutorial.

Oh, what a feeling when we’re blasting on the ceiling!