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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

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Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (Mega Drive)

Whoa, what’s this? A 16-bit action RPG? From Sega, no less? How have I never heard about this one until just recently? Probably because 1992’s Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (literally, and rather redundantly, “Fighting King: King Colossus”) is a text-heavy Japan-exclusive release. Not even the 2006 English fan translation by M.I.J.E.T., professional as it is, seems to have been able to drum up much awareness of it in the West. It’s our loss. King Colossus is good fun while it lasts with the caveat that its strict linear progression and single-minded action focus may leave some fans of the genre wanting more.

A major selling point for King Colossus in Japan was its director, manga artist Makoto Ogino. He’s best-known for his long-running Kujaku Ō (“Peacock King”) series. Dude’s all about the kings, I guess. Kujaku Ō has received multiple video game adaptations of its own over the years, some of which (SpellCaster, Mystic Defender) would see release outside Japan. Do actually you need to know anything about Kujaku Ō to understand King Colossus? No. The latter seems to have been a wholly original, self-contained project. I’m just dropping some trivia here for my fellow oddballs who enjoy following these little creative breadcrumb trails.

King Colossus casts the player as a strapping orphan lad (with no specific default name) who’s apparently been raised in a shack in the middle of the woods by a grumpy old hermit. A routine errand to retrieve a sword owned by said hermit from a nearby blacksmith brings our sheltered protagonist into conflict with the cult of the Dark God Gryuud, whose twisted servants have seized control of the land and are ruling it with the proverbial iron fist. Anyone remotely acquainted with basic fantasy clichés can see where this is going. Could it be that our hero has a special destiny related to his shrouded origins? One that makes him the only man capable of sorting out this whole Gryuud situation? The game doesn’t go out of its way to show fans of the genre anything they haven’t seem before and the broad strokes narrative feels perfunctory at best. One point in King Colossus’ favor, at least for me, is that its world has a gritty pulp swords and sorcery edge to it. We get dark gods, human sacrifice, pit fighting, and plenty of other trappings that would be right at home in a classic Conan yarn. You won’t find any cutesy monsters or wacky anime hijinks here.

If the storytelling favors style over substance, the gameplay goes to even greater extremes by remorselessly paring away every shred of the standard overhead action RPG formula that isn’t beating up on bad guys and leveling up. There’s no overworld to explore, no towns, no currency to collect or shops to spend it in, and the gear you’ll acquire is limited to weapons, armor, stat-boosting magic jewelry, and healing herbs. King Colossus teases you with glimpses of a world map on occasion, but this is more akin to the stylized level diagrams that appear between stages in Castlevania or Ghosts ‘n Goblins than a real navigation tool. Instead of gathering clues and forging your own path, you’ll be ushered directly from dungeon to dungeon with none of that pesky thinking required.

The dungeons themselves don’t offer much in the way of puzzles and are primarily “hack your way to the boss” affairs with a side of basic platforming. At least the combat itself is fairly well-realized. You’re able to bring the pain with an assortment of swords, spears, axes, chains, crossbows, and magic staves. Each weapon type has its own distinct feel and is quite useful against the enemy horde, with one glaring exception: Swords. The swords are bloody awful in this game. They have virtually no reach, which makes getting close enough to land a hit with one a significant, yet completely unnecessary risk. This flaw would be easier to overlook altogether if the game’s plot didn’t make such a big deal out of one specific magic sword with a special connection to the main character’s backstory. You go on a quest to get it, another quest to power it up, and you’re still likely to let it sit in your inventory unused. If I wanted to be a real highfalutin’ game critic for once, I could totally call ludonarrative dissonance on this one. In the interest of not asphyxiating on my own farts, however, I’ll stick with declaring it a missed opportunity.

There’s a small selection of magic at your command, too; five spells in all. You have a couple of direct damage dealers, an energy shield, a utilitarian warp back to the start of the current dungeon, and, most importantly, Time Stop. Time Stop makes for an auto-win against pretty much anything, allowing you to pile hit after hit on the defenseless opposition. It even works on bosses! Take it from me: Whenever you’re given access to a time stopping power that works in boss fights (Kick Master, Astyanax), you save all your magic points for that if you know what’s good for you. Strangely, you have access to all five of your powers from the very start of the game. While you do earn more magic points as you level-up, making it possible to cast spells more frequently, you’ll never learn an entirely new one. Instead, your character growth is purely numeric, which is another missed opportunity in my book. Fighting your way through dungeons feels about the same at level twenty as it does at level one.

Those last four paragraphs may read like one huge extended windup before I finally come down hard on King Colossus and tell you that it’s just not worth your time. Hardly! Sure, the story is trite and the RPG gameplay has been simplified to the utmost. Thankfully, though, the core hack and slash dungeon delving still makes for a decent enough ride on its own and the game’s breezy pacing suits it well. After all, the obvious upside to never having to wonder where to go or what to do next is that you’re effectively guaranteed to always be making steady progress. You can even save at any time, a rare luxury in a console game of the era. Basically, King Colossus knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t overstay its welcome. As previously stated, it also gets major bonus points from me for managing to look and sound every bit the part of a grim saga from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself. The soundtrack in particular strikes just the right balance of eldritch mystery and pulse-pounding danger, proving (as did Golden Axe, Alisia Dragoon, and Gauntlet IV) that the Mega Drive sound chip could be as effective a delivery vehicle for blood and thunder fantasy anthems as it was for the heavy metal of MUSHA or the techno of Streets of Rage 2.

So King Colossus earns a moderate recommendation. It won’t exactly strain your brain, but it is a game that knows what’s best in life: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their pixels!

Golden Axe Warrior (Master System)

Taste the rainbow…of death!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)

Just beat it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master of Darkness (Master System)

Another bloodsucker bites the dust!

Picture this: It’s 1992 and the Castlevania series is already a well-loved action gaming mainstay, with six successful installments released for the NES, Super Nintendo, and Game Boy in as many years. The only problem? You’re Sega and Castlevania developer Konami won’t touch your Game Gear handheld system with a ten-foot enchanted whip due to being locked into a restrictive (and dubiously legal) exclusivity deal with Nintendo. What do you do? You make your own Castlevania…with blackjack and hookers!

Well, almost. There’s technically no blackjack in Master of Darkness, but since the game is set in 1890s London and references the notorious Jack the Ripper killings, the hookers are at least strongly implied. I’m playing the 1993 European Master System port here, since I don’t own a Game Gear. These consoles share very similar hardware and most sources agree that the two versions of Master of Darkness are largely identical, apart from the smaller field of view in the portable version. Also known as In the Wake of the Vampire and Vampire: Master of Darkness in Japan and North America, respectively, the game was developed by SIMS, who also delivered competent Master System takes on Ninja Gaiden and Disney’s Aladdin. So far, so good.

Our hero for this outing is one Dr. Ferdinand Social, psychologist and early Ouija board adopter. He’s just kicking back and channeling the spirits of the dead one night (as you do) when the board issues a dire warning: “Killer…vampire…go to Thames…caution…in the wake of…D R A C U L A.” Not being one to question his parlor games, Social grabs his trusty knife and heads to the waterfront to begin his hunt for the Ripper. Right out the gate here, I’m struck by the fact that not only did Sega produce an undeniable Castlevania clone, they even elected to retain Dracula as the main villain! That points to either a complete lack of creatively or some great big brass balls. I’m going to be charitable here and assume the latter.

Although I kid, the opening cut scene really does do a fine job of selling the eerie atmosphere and Victorian setting, with the moving Ouija planchet and animated blood dripping from the vampire’s fangs being particularly nice touches. Master of Darkness makes excellent use of the Master System’s expanded color palette (relative to the NES) and is a great looking 8-bit game generally. I immediately took a liking to Dr. Social as a protagonist. Not only does he have a pretty sweet name, he resembles Austin Powers with his shaggy haircut and powder blue suit. Groovy, baby! The music is also high quality and suits the mood, though the melodies themselves aren’t all that memorable and perhaps loop a bit too often due to the game’s penchant for lengthy stages.

Regrettably, a pleasing presentation is really all Master of Darkness brings to the table. In terms of overall design, it’s as pure a knock-off as they come. Social fights exactly the sorts of zombies, skeletons, bats, and hopping hunchbacks you’d expect him to, all leading up to a climactic battle against a teleporting, fireball chucking version of the Count. He collects some very familiar feeling sub-weapons by attacking the floating objects that dot almost every screen (masks here instead of candles, at least). He smashes trick walls to find healing items. He visits a clock tower, where he leaps around on giant swinging pendulums. And you just know he climbs a ton of stairs. So many stairs. All games take inspiration from what came before, but Master of Darkness rivals The Krion Conquest with the sheer scope and shamelessness of its borrowing. It’s practically a tracing of a Castlevania game. The only Belmont-ish thing the good doctor doesn’t attempt is wielding a whip. Instead, he starts out with a nearly useless pocket knife that he can (and should) swap out for a sword, cane, or axe. Each of these offers either more reach, more power, or both and all are viable options. For some sick reason, however, the designers seem to delight in hiding at least one copy of the puny default pocket knife in every stage, often in spots where it’s very easy to grab it by accident as you’re going about your monster slaying business. Rude.

Still, a copy of a great game still has the potential to play great, right? Isn’t that what really matters? Sure. It’s just a pity that Master of Darkness doesn’t duplicate the expert level design or thrilling challenge of Konami’s offerings. It’s as if SIMS managed to capture the broad strokes while omitting the fine details that draw everything together into a pleasing whole. Take Dr. Social’s ungodly durability, for example. He may look the part of the frail academic, but he soaks up punishment like the Terminator. Social has an eight unit health bar and most enemies take off less than a full unit on contact. That’s sixteen hits or so right off the bat, between 2-4 times as many as Castlevania typically allows for. Healing items are also far more common in Master of Darkness, so much so that it often seems there’s a handy potion served up to you after every couple of screens. This obviously makes combat a cinch and the logical thing to do in this case would have been to focus on making the platforming aspect of the game more intricate and risky to compensate, right? Apparently not. Instead, they went in the opposite direction and made legitimate stage hazards like bottomless pits quite scarce. We end up with what feels like an invincible hero numbly hacking his way through a series of thoroughly safe (albeit spooky) locales on the way to his inevitable victory.

It’s not so much that every game should be so demanding that it makes you want to tear your hair out. More that single-handedly challenging the Prince of Darkness and his armies of the night should feel at least a little daunting. Not once during my playthrough did I get the impression that the odds were against me. No, I actually felt sorry for Dracula! That chump did not know who he was messing with when he pissed off Dr. Ferdinand Social. I died a few times due to botched jumps, but always managed to rack up enough extra lives to keep me going all the way to the end. I actually had to restart the game after finishing it and kill off Dr. Social on purpose just to see if it even offered continues (it does, unlimited ones). Master of Darkness is a game that lot of players are going to complete in a single short session without having to try much and that would have been a bummer for anyone that payed full price for it back when it came out. Hell, it remains a potential bummer for anyone paying the prices it still commands today.

Master of Darkness is by no means an unpleasant time. It’s plenty stylish and it controls just fine. There’s simply no dynamic tension here. It’s a walk in the park. Or a stroll along the Thames, I suppose. A sequel really had the potential to tighten things up and add a sense of urgency to the proceedings while also breaking away from the source material more to establish its own identity. Unfortunately for Dr. Social, growing discontent in the game developer community led to the rapid deterioration of Nintendo’s once ironclad exclusivity policies as the 1990s wore on. Sega would get their first official Castlevania game in 1994 with Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, robbing Master of Darkness of its raison d’être and relegating it to obscure oddity status forevermore.

Stay tuned, boys and ghouls, for the chilling finale of my October gaming frightfest: A game so fearsome, so maligned, that its mere mention strikes terror into the hearts of man and monster alike. Also, uh…I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Or something. You get the idea.