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 implemented 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 8-bit 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 that 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 small production runs that are known to be of high quality 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 that 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 as that 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 that 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 all that 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. This is balanced out by the fact that they 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 that 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. Beyond that, there’s 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 that it evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and lack of checkpoints that 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 that 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!

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa (Arcade)

 

Wait, how do these guys get their shirts on over their horns? Suspension of disbelief shattered! 0/10! Worst game ever!

Like countless others in my age group, I spent an ungodly amount of time and quarters at arcades in the ’80s and ’90s. These days, I’m pleased to say not much has changed. I’m fortunate the greater Seattle area has an abundance of retro arcades (or “barcades”) packed with the same classic video and pinball machines I remember. The usual suspects like Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter are a given at establishments like these, of course, but it’s not often (at least outside of a large gaming expo) that I encounter an entirely unfamiliar arcade title. When I do, it’s just as rare for that obscure game to leave a strong impression. A lot of them never got much traction for a reason, you know?

The stars must have been in perfect alignment when I walked into Coindexter’s on Greenwood a couple weeks back, because I had no idea Konami’s 1992 run-and-gun Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa existed and it turned out to be some of the most fun I’ve had with a new machine in years. It didn’t take me long to realize why, either: C.O.W.-Boys is Sunset Riders 2!

Well, not technically. C.O.W.-Boys is based on the short-lived children’s cartoon/toy line which debuted earlier that same year. I never watched the show myself, writing it off as yet another attempt to cash-in on the “crimefighting anthropomorphic animals” craze at the height of Turtlemania. They’re cowboys who are literally cows! So clever, guys. Apologies if I’m dumping all over anyone’s cherished childhood memories here, but I was so over this formula at the time.

Fortunately, there’s an actual game lurking beneath the derpy license and it’s a blast. If you’ve played the 1991 cult classic Sunset Riders before, the resemblance is unmistakable. What else would you expect with Konami being contracted to develop a second four-player action game for arcades set in a cartoon version of the Wild West so hot on the heels of the first? C.O.W.-Boys is more than just a re-skin, however, and improves on Sunset Riders in a number of major ways.

Each player assumes the role of one of four lawmen, er, lawbulls, I guess: Cowlorado Kid, Dakota Dude, Marshall Moo Montana, and Buffalo Bull. Their mission: Rescue stock damsel in distress Lily Bovine from the Masked Bull and his gang of crooks. This requires you to complete a total of seven stages scattered across Moo Mesa. Unusually for the genre, you can choose your next destination on a between-stage map screen. The first and last stages are always fixed, but you can tackle 2-6 in any order you like.

The basic gameplay here will be instantly familiar to veterans of the more famous horizontal run-and-gun institutions like Contra and Metal Slug: One button jumps, the other shoots in any of eight directions, and the joystick handles the aiming and character movement. The one unique maneuver in your arsenal is the stampede charge, activated by pressing both buttons at once. Charging across the screen horns-first is useful for clearing some obstacles from your path and stunning many enemies. Just be careful not to run headlong into a bullet or other hazardous object by mistake. There are also the requisite power-ups, acquired by blasting flying chickens as they pass overhead in each stage. Why these unfortunate fowl are so well-armed is beyond me. It clearly doesn’t pay off for them. Items dropped include more powerful shots, single-use screen clear attacks, a horseshoe that orbits your character for a time and damages any enemies it touches, and even health refills and the occasional 1-up.

These last two items should be your first clue that C.O.W.-Boys is a quite the soft touch compared to most of its peers. One-hit deaths, virtually a given in given in titles like this, are replaced by a health bar. With three hits per life, three lives per credit, and the possibility of healing and 1-ups, this might be the least “quarter munchey” arcade run-and-gun of all time. I was able to complete several of the stages without dying at all on my first go and the difficulty really didn’t escalate at all until the final stage. I can’t rightly complain about saving so many quarters on my way to the end, though I do have to wonder if this extremely generous design was the best choice from an arcade owner’s standpoint.

C.O.W.-Boys may be easy, but that certainty doesn’t make it dull. The levels are all unique and inventive, with no shortage of engaging “set piece” moments like the bouncing railcar ride in the Mine and the dynamite-rigged buildings you can detonate in Cow Town. There are even occasional interludes where what have to be the world’s strongest eagles swoop down to lift your characters into the air and the nature of the action shifts entirely to resemble an auto-scrolling spaceship shooter. The boss fights are another highlight. Every boss has a robust pattern with multiple ways of moving and attacking and these patterns are readily sussed out with a bit of observation. This allows these battles to fall comfortably into the “tough, but fair” bracket. Each is hectic and stimulating in a way that satisfies rather than frustrates. The bosses even have their own health bars! This certainly would have been a welcome addition to Sunset Riders.

Graphics and sound are top-tier Konami all the way. The cartoon show’s creator supposedly worked very closely with the game development team and it’s evident in the detail and overall polish lavished on the art and animation. Despite only coming out a year after Sunset Riders, C.O.W.-Boys took advantage of upgraded hardware to really push its visuals to a noticeably higher level. I might not care for any of these absurd characters, but there’s no denying they look amazing here. The music is by Michiru Yamane, best known for her work on the Castlevania series. While the tunes here are nowhere near her best, they’re perfectly servicable Western-inspired numbers which fit the setting like a glove. Also worth mentioning are the large number of high quality speech samples throughout. Every boss seems to have something silly to say and it’s all very clear for the time.

Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa was a case of love at first sight for me. It’s easily as colorful and charming as Sunset Riders with the same tight and addictive core gameplay. What’s more, C.O.W.-Boys has more power-ups, better boss fights, and more interesting levels than its predecessor. Lower difficulty also makes it more appealing to newcomers, though this may come at the expense of lasting appeal to the hardcore crowd.

It’s a right shame that C.O.W.-Boys was never ported to any home console or computer. Was this due to the terms of the license? The cartoon’s cancellation? A perceived lack of appeal outside the U.S.? Beats me. I just know this game is currently the second best reason to visit Coindexter’s, after their grilled Nutella, marshmallow, and graham cracker sandwiches. Mmm.

Guerilla War (NES)

I destroyed capitalism forever! Yay!

The most interesting thing to me about politics in video games (or anyplace, really) isn’t what we see, but what we don’t. Whose viewpoints and experiences are absent? Who doesn’t get to be the hero? Take Taito’s 1985 arcade shooter Sky Destroyer, in which the player assumes the role of a Japanese pilot during World War II tasked with scuttling the dastardly United States Navy in his A6M Zero fighter. Sky Destroyer was ported to the Famicom later that same year. The NES? Yeah, not so much. Turns out way more people over here still remembered Pearl Harbor 32 years ago. Contrast this with Capcom’s 194X series, which presented the exact same scenario with the nationalities reversed and received numerous Western releases over the years.

That brings me to today’s game: Guevara by SNK, an arcade overhead run-and-gun from 1987 in which the player guides none other than Cuban Revolution poster boy Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself on his 100% historically accurate mission to singlehandedly storm Havana and overthrow U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Baptista. Well, not really singlehandedly. That would be ridiculous. Ideally, you also have a second player kicking ass as Fidel Castro. You can safely ignore any bourgeoisie so-called “history” book that claims the Revolution was brought to fruition over a span of two years through the combined struggle of thousands. I can personally attest that it only takes about forty minutes tops for two fired-up Marxist supermen rocking infinite hand grenades and even more infinite facial hair.

Guevara was, simply put, a gung-ho commie take on the company’s better-known Ikari Warriors series. SNK even used photographer Alberto Korda’s famous portrait of Che in promotional materials for the game. This was far too spicy for Cold War America. It would be like having Ivan Drago KO Rocky at the end of the third act! It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that the 1989 NES port was altered, barely, to become Guerilla War. The protagonists are now unnamed, as is the island nation they’re liberating, though the bearded fellow in the introduction still resembles a young Castro and the map shown between stages obviously depicts Cuba.

The changes to the home version also extend to the gameplay and here they’re much more substantial. The arcade original used the same custom rotating joystick that the Ikari games did, which allowed players to move and aim their weapons independently. With no way to implement this feature on a NES controller, the heroes in Guerilla War are limited to firing in whichever direction they’re currently facing. While this sounds like a major downgrade, the developer’s smartly chose to compensate for it by boosting the speed of the action overall. Factor in the smaller character sprites necessitated by the hardware shift and the player is much better equipped to dodge enemy fire here than they were in the arcade, which correlates to a reduced dependency on the precise aiming afforded by the rotating joystick. Savvy decisions like this were what really elevated an arcade port over its peers back in the era when perfect 1:1 conversions weren’t an option.

Guerilla War’s gameplay is best summarized as “NES Ikari Warriors done right.” The Ikari trilogy is often derided as the worst of the worst in terms of run-and-gun action for the platform. They’re slow, stiff, poorly-coded, and ugly as sin to boot. Somebody must have flipped a switch at SNK headquarters around 1989 because that was when their 8-bit home releases started to see a major uptick in quality that would result in less borderline unplayable trash like Athena and Ikari Warriors and more gems like Baseball Stars and the masterful Crystalis. Guerilla War is no Crystalis, but it still represents a humongous leap forward for the publisher. The gameplay is not revolutionary by any means (how’s that for irony?), but it is the anti-Ikari: Fast, fluid, and fun.

Anyone who’s played Capcom’s Commando or any number of similar military-themed bloodbaths from the 1980s before will know what to expect: You control a soldier that’s been dispatched to the jungle (always the jungle) to square off against an entire enemy army. Your default tools of the trade are a rather sad “pea shooter” machine gun with bullets that can only travel about half the length of the screen before vanishing and hand grenades that you can toss in an arcing trajectory to take out enemies behind cover. Killing special red-clad enemy soldiers and blowing up specific bits of the scenery will reveal power-up icons that upgrade your machine gun to something more powerful when collected, like a rocket launcher, spread gun, or flamethrower. These upgrades are lost if you die, though, and it only takes one hit from an enemy to make that happen. Making a guest appearance from the Ikari series are the teeny, tiny tanks that your character can commandeer for some extra firepower. Seriously, they’re like the size of shopping carts. They’re also about as durable, since it will only take a couple of enemy bullets to wreck your ride and leave you hoofing it like a chump again. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One aspect that is fairly unique to this game are the hostages. It seems your capitalist pig-dog foes have captured tons of your fellow patriots and left them tied-up on the battlefield in strategic locations. Touching hostages will rescue them and net you a cool 1000 points apiece, while accidentally (or “accidentally”) shooting them will reduce your score by 500. It’s a good thing that the points don’t matter that much, since I ended up blasting a lot of hostages due to the way they’re often cunningly placed to lure the player into the enemy’s ambushes. Sorry, comrades.

Guerilla War is a simple game, then, and fairly mindless. There are ten stages in total before the climax, a gloriously absurd battle against Baptista himself as he dances back and forth across the roof of El Capitolio chucking explosives at you. Simple shouldn’t be conflated with bad, however. The programmers really pushed the NES as hard as they could in order to put as much chaos on the screen as possible throughout. It’s not unusual for eight or more enemy soldiers to be blasting away at you simultaneously. The downside to this is that sprite flicker is rampant, so it can be tricky to keep tabs on everything during the really crowded engagements. At least slowdown is not nearly as prevalent. The pixel art itself didn’t wow me. Sprites are small and show only minimal detail. In fairness to the creators, it should be noted that this seems like more of a deliberate choice to keep the emphasis on packing as much action as possible onto the screen rather than evidence of a lack of skill or effort. The music has the right tempo and energy to support the game’s constant action, though I didn’t find any of the melodies to be memorable standouts. It’s competent, but definitely no match for the same composers’ later contributions to Crystalis.

If there’s one aspect of Guerilla War that might bring it down in the eyes of some gamers, it’s the complete and total lack of challenge. Although enemies are everywhere and you die in one hit, you’re provided with unlimited continues that start your right back on the spot you died with no break in the action. It’s just like playing the arcade machine with an unlimited supply of quarters. You’re guaranteed to see the ending as long as you just keep plugging away, even if Che and Fidel are taking a dirt nap every other step. Love it or hate it, this is definitely a “kick back and chill” sort of run-and-gun. If you’re looking for more of a “grit your teeth and focus” one, I’d recommend Konami’s Jackal with its limited continues. Given that other games offer a similar experience with more demanding requirements, I’m fine with Guerilla War doing its own thing.

As long as this lack of challenge doesn’t irk you, you really can’t do better than Guevara/Guerilla War for a casual pick-up-and-play Rambo simulator on the NES. The fact that you also get to witness such a topsy-turvy Leftist take on the jingoistic “one many army” trope is just a bonus.

Viva la retrolución!