Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi (Genesis)

It’s Thanksgiving! Time to stuff the turkey, mash the potatoes, and sharpen the shurikens because I’m continuing my arbitrary tradition of November ninja gaming. Well, not completely arbitrary. I am thankful for ninja. You are, too, if you know what’s good for you.

This time, I’m checking back in with Sega’s Shinobi series. Specifically, 1990’s Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi, the second of three unique installments created for the Genesis. Shadow Dancer’s release was sandwiched between those of two much better remembered masterpieces, The Revenge of Shinobi and Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, seemingly dooming it to perpetual footnote status.

It’s easy to see why, frankly. Revenge and Shinobi III both strove to transcend the basic gameplay of the 1987 arcade original, adding a health bar in place of one-hit deaths, expanding your ninja hero’s arsenal of moves, and upping the complexity of the level design. By contrast, Shadow Dancer serves as a humble continuation of the old school Shinobi tradition. This means those one-hit deaths are back. Ditto the comparatively limited moveset and bite-sized stages. The result is a far less ambitious title that can be completed in roughly half the time as either of its Genesis “big brothers.” About twenty minutes or so, once you get the hang of it.

Before I go on, I should clarify that Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi is in no way synonymous with the 1989 arcade Shinobi sequel called simply Shadow Dancer. Confusing, I know. Suffice it to say that the Genesis game is no port. It shares no art, sound, level layouts, enemies, or even plot points with its namesake. The only elements common to both are a ninja and a dog.

A dog? That’s right. Shadow Dancer’s sole twist on the established Shinobi formula is giving your ninja (who’s either recurring protagonist Joe Musashi or his son Hayate, depending on which region’s manual you’re reading) a canine companion to wreak havoc with. This good boy’s name is Yamato and he comes in handy throughout your quest to save New York City from the evil cult Union Lizard. Union…Lizard? Sounds more like a progressive rock outfit to me. Whatever.

The fight against Union Lizard plays out across five rounds, with each consisting of two compact action-platforming stages followed by a boss battle. The exception is the last round, which features only a single longer-than-average level leading up to its boss. Generally speaking, your goals in a given area are to rescue any hostages present and then reach the exit before time runs out. Between rounds, you’re free to indulge in a brief mini-game of shooting other helpless ninja in the back as you freefall down a skyscraper. Take out enough and you’ll win some extra lives. Continues are limited, so it’s always worth giving these bonus rounds your best shot.

Joe/Hayate’s core moves are largely the same as they were in the 1987 Shinobi. He can walk, crouch, and jump, of course. Jumping can also be used to transition between higher and lower platforms if you hold the appropriate direction. The single context-sensitive attack button will trigger a sword swipe or kick if an enemy is within range and a shuriken toss if not. Ninja magic returns as well, allowing you to fall back on a screen clearing elemental barrage once per stage.

A final button directs Yamato. Hold it down to ready him and then release it when you want him to charge forward and latch onto into the first enemy he comes in contact with. If successful, the foe will be temporarily immobilized. That’s your cue to swoop in and take them out before they can shake free. You need to time these assaults carefully, however, since Yamato can take damage. If he does, he won’t be killed. Rather, he’ll shrink down to puppy size and be useless for a time. It’s weird, alright, but I get why the development team didn’t want digital doggie death on their consciences.

I found myself enjoying Shadow Dancer more than I expected to. I can’t deny that it earns its obscurity. It’s almost criminally short for a 1990 home console exclusive and a major step backward in terms of scope from the envelope pushing Revenge of Shinobi. The graphics and music are similarly a downgrade, albeit still above average for the time and hardware. All that said, the first entry in the saga remains a timeless classic in my eyes and this is essentially more of it with an appealing animal sidekick thrown in for good measure. Definitely give it a look if that sounds promising to you. My main criticism is actually that Yamato should have played an even bigger role the action. He disappears completely whenever a boss shows up, turning what could have been the ultimate showcases of your cross-species teamwork skills into standard solo affairs. Such a missed opportunity! If you’re gonna have a gimmick, I say lean into that sucker.

Welp, that’s another Ninjavember on the books. Until next time, Dear Reader, may all your turkey be moist and all your kills stealthy.

Phantasy Star (Master System)

I’ve long wanted to give the Phantasy Star series a go. And when I say “long,” I mean it. Gaming magazines of the early ’90s are how I first became aware of Sega’s premier take on the turn-based RPG. I was fascinated by their colorful blending of sword & sorcery iconography with the spaceships and laser guns of pulp science fiction. This same genre-bending approach is what kept my eyes glued to cartoons like He-Man and the Master of the Universe and Thundercats for much of the ’80s. Cool as the games looked, however, they were never quite enough to get me to defect to non-Nintendo hardware at a time when most young gamers were expected to settle on a single machine and stick with it for the long haul. No way was I rolling any dice when my Mario and Zelda were on the line.

That accounts for the lack of Phantasy Star goodness in my now depressingly distant childhood. What about the current century? Well, there’s no sense in sugar-coating it: I was avoiding having to map the original Phantasy Star’s dungeons. One thing I knew was that this game is packed with dozens of those old-school Wizardry style first-person mazes where everything looks alike and there’s no built-in map. Since my preferred approach to older games is to dive in with nothing but the original instruction booklet by my side and figure the rest out on my own, there was no way around having to meticulously fill a notebook with hand-drawn floor plans for these suckers. So I put it off, year after year.

No more! I finally took the plunge, and I must have fifty pages of twisted little corridors set down in ink to prove it. What I discovered was a technical marvel on the Master System and a respectable start to a legendary fantasy saga, albeit one with gameplay that’s best described as archaic, even by the standards of 1987.

Phantasy Star is a straightforward revenge story at heart. The opening cutscene introduces us to heroine Alis Landale, whose brother, Nero, is murdered in the streets by troops under the command of the tyrant Lassic. Alis swears on the spot to avenge Nero and overthrow Lassic. What follows is an extended multi-planet scavenger hunt for the allies and equipment needed to take down the most powerful man in the Algol star system, which I only learned today is a real place situated approximately 93 light years from Earth. I suppose this gives Phantasy Star the edge over its contemporaries in terms of realism. I defy you to point out Dragon Quest’s Alefgard on a star chart.

Any RPG fan will recognize the broad strokes of Phantasy Star. Town and wilderness exploration uses the customary zoomed-out overhead perspective, while the dungeons are depicted exclusively in first-person. Alis and friends are subject to a steady stream of random monster encounters whenever they venture outside town walls. These clashes serve as your primary source of the money and experience pointed needed to power-up the group. Leveling up, talking to NPCs, acquiring key items, and solving ever larger and more convoluted dungeons will eventually see the party ready to take on Lassic himself.

One thing this dry rundown doesn’t account for is just how utterly spectacular everything here looks relative to other 8-bit RPGs of the period. Sega assigned a virtual dream team of top talent to this project and it shows on each and every screen of the finished game. Some of this stuff could pass for early PC Engine graphics. The first time you approach one of the squat NPC sprites to initiate a conversation and the screen transitions into a detailed full-body portrait of the speaker instead of displaying a basic text box, you know you’re not playing Dragon Quest anymore. An even more striking effect for the time was the monsters having attack animations. Seeing a colossal squid-like enemy flailing its tentacles at the party or one of the dragons breathing fire would have been jaw-dropping to players on launch day. The crowning glory in this regard has to be the dungeons themselves, which feature stone corridors that appear to smoothy scroll around you as you traverse them. It took the programming genius of none other than future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka to pull off a 3-D effect of this caliber on the Master System. In its own way, Phantasy Star is part of the same flashy Sega tradition as Hang-On, Afterburner, and other high-octane “super scaler” arcade cabinets of its era. It may be slow and menu-driven, but it still manages to showboat like nobody’s business.

The game’s setting also does a lot to set it apart from its more traditional fantasy peers. There are swords here, yes, but also laser swords! The Star Wars influence is obvious from the opening sequence, which depicts Lassic’s soldiers clad in some very familiar white armor. One of the three inhabited planets you’ll visit, Motavia, is a desert teeming with hostile Jawa analogues (alongside some Dune sandworms for good measure). These little flourishes are largely cosmetic. You don’t actually get to pilot any spaceships, for example. They merely act as fixed warp points from one self-contained section of overworld (“planet”) to another. That said, strong visual design like this can do a lot to engage the player’s imagination and make the whole affair feel far less generic. Phantasy Star absolutely succeeds on that front.

I’m glad I love Phantasy Star’s aesthetics so much, because its moment-to-moment combat and exploration are honestly kind of a drag. Ironically, this seems to be a direct side effect of the design team’s overarching emphasis on visual flair. Those cool animated monsters I mentioned? There’s no way the Master System was going to be up to the task of rendering more than one of them at a time. Thus, every encounter consists of your party squaring off against a single enemy type. This one limitation hinders the game’s combat system tremendously. Phantasy Star’s most prominent competitors, Dragon Quest II and Final Fantasy, both allowed for countless enemy formations made up of multiple monster types. Some baddies there had abilities specifically designed to compliment those of their allies, echoing your own party’s dynamics and giving you more to consider over the course of the average battle. Combat in Phantasy Star gets old fast. Once you’ve fought a given monster, you’ve fought it. Nothing new is going to come along to recontextualize that same fight the second, third, or fiftieth time.

Similarly, smooth-scrolling 3-D dungeons that looked better than anything the competition could muster were a great selling point. Are they any fun, though? I certainly didn’t think so, especially since I was expected to conquer dozens of them. Even as a D&D lover who enjoys drawing a map or two on occasion, that’s way too much to ask. If you’ve seen one of Phantasy Star’s bare stone corridors, you’ve seen them all. Unless you find altering the shade of the masonry from blue to green to be truly transformative, that is. With everything looking the same, getting hopelessly lost is inevitable unless you’re either mapping every square of every maze religiously or you’re content to cheat and use somebody else’s guide. The thing is, you wouldn’t need to resort to either of these unpleasant alternatives if only the game’s designers had gone with the plain old utilitarian overhead view for dungeons. They opted to turned heads rather than prevent headaches.

I can definitely see how Phantasy Star won so many Master System players’ hearts with its offbeat setting and sheer presentational pizzazz. Sega pushed the hardware big time with this one, producing one of the foundational Japanese console RPGs. As for me, I’d much rather play one of its higher tier NES rivals. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are dowdier, sure, but at least they don’t bore me to tears or give me hand cramps. Looks aren’t everything. Thankfully, I feel like I’ve gotten my series homework out of the way and am now fully equipped to one day move on to the trio of Phantasy Star sequels on the Genesis, all of which feature more robust combat mechanics and easier to navigate dungeons. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?

The Revenge of Shinobi (Genesis)

Can you believe it’s been over two-and-a-half years now since I’ve treated myself to a Shinobi outing? I did take a look at the tongue-in-cheek spin-off Alex Kidd in Shinobi World last Fall, but that game, while not without its charms, hardly counts. Time to remedy this with 1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi.

Revenge is the third entry in the series and the first to be developed specifically for a home console, as opposed to the arcades. Although not a launch title for the Genesis in North America, it’s remembered as a highlight of the system’s critical first year. Before the Super Nintendo hit the scene, it served as a vivid demonstration of Sega’s cutting edge 16-bit technology. This was no accident. Director Noriyoshi Ohba has stated in interviews that The Revenge of Shinobi (or The Super Shinobi, as it’s known in Japan) was intended from the start to showcase the new hardware’s strengths. Large sprites, multi-layered backgrounds, and Yuzo Koshiro’s sublime FM synth soundtrack collectively achieved their intended effect. One look at a commercial or even a magazine ad was all you needed to know that this one wouldn’t be coming to your humble NES.

Historical context is nice. A ninja game that’s a blast to play in the here and now is nicer. Since I was never a “Sega kid” growing up, it’ll be interesting to dive in and see if Revenge fits the bill.

Ninja master Joe Musashi is back. Unfortunately, so are his arch-foes in the Zeed crime syndicate. Now going by Neo Zeed, their agents have mortally wounded Joe’s master and kidnapped his lover, Naoko. This calls for one thing and one thing only: Revenge. Can Joe take down Neo Zeed and save Naoko before it’s too late? With two possible endings, that depends entirely on you.

Clever? Hardly. It’s clear what kind of guilty pleasure ninja movie vibe Ohba and company were aiming for, however, and I can’t fault them on that account. This is a game that proudly wears its pop culture influences on its sleeve, often to an absurd degree. Joe’s in-game resemblance to martial arts star Sonny Chiba is undeniable, for example. He also squares off against such luminaries as Batman, Spiderman, The Terminator, John Rambo, and Godzilla! Shockingly, Sega had no legal right to use any of these famous characters. The very idea of one of the world’s largest game publishers including this much stolen intellectual property in a marquee release is unfathomable today. It’s truly a testament to the Wild West nature of the ’80s game biz. Most of this offending character art was altered in subsequent revisions, so be sure to seek out the original for the most brazen, over-the-top boss fights possible.

Joe’s journey has been streamlined somewhat this time. There are no kidnapped children, time bombs, or other secondary objectives strung along the way, just eight stages of rock hard action-platforming to survive and eight bosses to kill. You get a solid lineup of level themes, encompassing an old-fashioned Japanese village, an airship interior, a busy freeway, various urban and industrial locales, and more. Many of these areas have their own environmental hazards to negotiate, such as the freeway’s speeding sports cars and the airship’s doors, which have a bad habit of popping open as Joe draws near and sucking him out mid-flight for an instant death. The only stage I didn’t end up enjoying was the very last one, a trite trial-and-error maze composed of countless identical doors. I know sewer and water levels get a bad rap, but does anyone out there actually like door mazes? I can’t imagine so.

The flow of the action here should be familiar to fans of arcade Shinobi. Joe Musashi isn’t exactly the swiftest ninja around with his measured walk and floaty moon jump. In other words, the breakneck “dash-and-slash” approach of a Ninja Gaiden is right out. Instead, it’s all about adopting a precise, methodical approach to threats.

All attacks are mapped to a single context-sensitive button. If an enemy is in melee range, pressing it will prompt Joe to lash out with sword swipes and kicks. If not, he’ll toss one of his shuriken blades. Unlike in the arcade, his shuriken supply is finite. Running out of ammo when facing a boss is something to avoid at all costs. Try to kill as many regular enemies as possible with melee strikes and keep an eye out for breakable crates containing bonus shuriken and other goodies.

Another new twist is the double jump. If you’ve played other platforming games, you’re likely already acquainted with the concept. Tap the button a second time during a jump to miraculously rebound off thin air and gain some added hang time. Might as well hoist a middle finger or two at physics while you’re at it. This technique is absolutely vital for success in Revenge of Shinobi. Too bad it’s a pain to pull off. There’s seemingly only a split-second near the apex of Joe’s first jump during which the command to initiate the second one will be accepted. Many of the game’s most frustrating moments are the result of just barely missing this strict input window and having to watch Joe plummet to his doom. It would almost be funny if your opportunities to continue after game over weren’t limited. A welcome addition on the whole, this feature really should have been made more user-friendly.

Your saving grace against the finicky controls and overall steep challenge is Joe’s potent ninja magic. There are four spells to choose from, each useful in its own right. You’re encouraged to choose wisely, since magic can only be used once per life. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across the rare hidden pickups that grant extra charges, that is. Your options are a fiery blaze that damages all on-screen opponents, a lightning shield that temporarily nullifies damage and prevents knockback, a jump booster, and my personal favorite: A suicide attack. Yup, you can cause Joe to explode and lose a life. Why would you do such a thing? Well, it deals heavy damage to foes. More importantly, it allows Joe to start his next life on the spot with a full health bar. There’s no break in the action and no getting sent back to the last checkpoint like usual. If you’re at death’s door near the end of a tough section, the sacrifice can be worth it to seal the deal and guarantee progression. It’s not often you see such a grim idea molded into a compelling game mechanic. I approve.

In fact, I approve of The Revenge of Shinobi in general. Its final stage is a bit of a letdown and its double jump one of gaming’s roughest, but these missteps don’t come close to torpedoing this slick, stylish Sega classic. The later years of the Genesis would see it exceeded by faster, glitzier, more full-featured action-platformers, including its own direct sequel, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master. Are those games going to let you huck shuriken at Batman and Godzilla, though? I think not.

Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap (Master System)

I’ve had quite the run of pure action games lately. Think I’ll pump the brakes over the few weeks with some more thoughtful adventure and RPG fare. First up is one of the Master System’s most acclaimed titles, Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap.

This 1989 Westone production is a direct sequel to 1987’s Wonder Boy in Monster Land. In the event you weren’t already aware of this, the game is keen to remind you. It commences with a playable prologue in which you reenact the climax of Monster Land. As Tom-Tom the Wonder Boy, you once again storm the castle of the MEKA Dragon and slay the beast. This time, however, it manages to curse you upon its death, transforming you into a lowly Lizard-Man and simultaneously stripping away all your cool equipment and health upgrades. In other words, it’s back to square one as you’re forced to scour the land rebuilding your power and hunting for the legendary Salamander Cross, the sole artifact capable of restoring your human form.

Dragon’s Trap would hardly be a true Wonder Boy game without a convoluted release history. It made it to the TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 as Dragon’s Curse, the PC Engine in 1991 as Adventure Island (not to be confused with the Hudson Soft series of the same name that was itself a Wonder Boy spin-off), the handheld Game Gear in 1992, and the Brazilian Master System in 1993 as the comic-licensed Turma da Mônica em o Resgate (“Monica’s Gang in the Rescue”). Most recently, a 2017 remake for multiple platforms was widely praised for modernizing the art and music without altering the classic gameplay.

I chose the Master System original as my introduction because I’m the kind of guy who likes to go right to the source when possible. If you do the same, take my advice and keep a second controller plugged in and close by. One of the Master System’s most unfortunate hardware limitations is a pause button situated on the main unit rather than the controller. Thankfully, Dragon’s Trap includes a workaround for this: You can use controller two to access the in-game menu instead of having to get up and walk across the room every time. Why this godsend of a workaround goes undocumented by the game’s official manual is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, after vanquishing the MEKA Dragon, the newly-cursed Wonder Boy is free to start his odyssey in earnest. This entails venturing off from a central hub town in order to locate the game’s five main dungeons and defeat the five boss dragons who make their homes therein. It’s side-scrolling exporatory platforming in the usual Metroid mold. As in most such games, the journey isn’t 100% non-linear. Some areas of the world can only be reached using specific special movement abilities gained in other areas. No matter how good a player you are, you can’t just march to the final dragon’s castle and retrieve the Salamander Cross first thing.

What makes Dragon’s Trap stand out some is the way its central dilemma, the shape-changing curse affecting Wonder Boy, doubles as character progression. The hero gains most of his new abilities not from equipment found or purchased, but from unlocking new monster forms. The starting Lizard-Man has a ranged fire breath attack. After you defeat the next boss dragon in the sequence, you become the tiny Mouse-Man and can now cling to certain walls and ceilings. Next comes underwater specialist Piranha-Man, followed by master swordsman Lion-Man, and finally aerial ace Hawk-Man. Early on, you’ll be stuck in whichever form you happen to have been cursed with most recently. Later, you’ll discover specific rooms where you can swap between them as needed.

This isn’t to say there’s any shortage of equipment to acquire, only that most of it provides basic boosts to Wonder Boy’s attack and defense stats rather than wholly new abilities. Interestingly, the game also implements a third stat called charm, which exists as a safeguard to prevent you from simply grinding out a ton of gold up front and buying all the best gear straightway. Charm is based primarily on your current items equipped and merchants won’t sell you their best stuff if it isn’t high enough. It essentially means you’re forced to go through several intermediate grades of weapon and armor before you can invest in the top of the line.

The action in Dragon’s Trap will feel familiar to anyone who’s played its predecessor or its Genesis sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster World. Walking has a slightly slippery “ice level” feel to it at all times and combat consists primary of short range short thrusts supplemented by a handful of limited use spells. This combination of loose movement and precise attack timing definitely qualifies as an acquired taste. While healing potions and extra heart containers help, the last few dungeons are still brutal. I actually found the final third of this one tougher than the dreaded Zelda II, mostly due to the lack of extra lives. One death in a dungeon is all it takes to ship you all the way back to town.

Although it nails most of the adventure fundamentals admirably, there are a handful of areas where Dragon’s Trap isn’t as fleshed out as it could be. Underwater terrain is uncommon, so Piranha-Man doesn’t enjoy the same prominence as the other animal forms. While I’m on the subject, Lion-Man’s gimmick (an improved sword attack) also feels like a missed opportunity. He is a lion, after all. Were fangs, claws, roaring, and pouncing not inspiration enough? Lastly, a wider selection of friendly NPCs would have gone a long way toward making this iteration of the Monster Land/World setting feel more lived in. Apart from the cute nurse at the hospital, everyone else you encounter is either an enemy or a cigarette smoking pig that runs a weapon shop.

Provided you’re up for a challenge and can learn to love its finicky combat, Dragon’s Trap will delight. The shapeshifting mechanics are genuinely clever, as is the level design, and it features some of the best graphics and sound on the system. I’ve played a couple other Master System games in the genre (Golden Axe Warrior, Golvellius) and this is far and away the best of the three. It’s close to being the best of its series, too, only being edged out by the phenomenal Monster World IV. If you’ve been searching for a Master System fantasy quest on par with the best the NES has to offer, look no further. This here’s the real deal, and I ain’t lion, man.

Oof. That last one was bad even for me.

Beyond Oasis (Genesis)

What happens when key contributors to the legendary Streets of Rage beat-’em-up series try their battle-scarred hands at fantasy adventure? Perhaps unsurprisingly, you end up with 1994’s Beyond Oasis, or The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light, as it’s known outside North America. Legend of Zelda infused with combo attacks and fighting game style special moves? I can go for that.

Beyond Oasis is the product of Ancient, the development house founded by game music virtuoso Yuzo Koshiro and his mother Tomo Koshiro. Ayano Koshiro, a prolific graphic designer and Yuzo’s sister, worked on the art. Talk about a family affair! I’ve previously covered games made by newlyweds (The Battle of Olympus) and a pair of brothers (Plok), but this takes the dynamic to a whole new level. Unlike so many of the smaller studios I touch on, Ancient still exists as of 2019, with its most recent output being some music tracks for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Whoever coined that company name sure nailed it.

In Beyond Oasis, you play as Prince…Ali. I wish I could say Prince Thor, like I could for the Japanese or PAL releases. Alas, someone on the North American side must have just adored a certain animated blockbuster, so say hello to your precious Prince Ali. I suppose he does wear baggy white pants and use a magic item to command helpful spirits, so I get the thought process. It’s still dumb. Anyway, Ali is treasure hunting one day when he comes across a golden armlet. When he dons it, the ghost of the wizard who created it appears and begins furiously dumping exposition. Turns out there’s a matching silver armlet made in ancient times by the ghost wizard’s evil counterpart and prophecy states that if one armlet is unearthed, the other will be, too. The wizard implores Ali to use the gold armlet’s power to seek out and defeat the bearer of the silver one before the kingdom of Oasis comes to ruin.

This obviously entails wandering the land, slaying monsters, and exploring puzzle-filled dungeons, all from a 3/4 overhead perspective. There’s nothing wrong with a game utilizing a familiar template for accessibility’s sake, of course, so long as it’s able to stake out a claim on its own identity. Beyond Oasis manages this on two fronts with its visceral take on combat and its inventive spirit companion system.

The fighting has a robust, “chunky” feel to it compared to most other adventure titles. Ali’s strikes are impactful. They stun lock enemies in place and continuing to mash the attack button after that will automatically turn them into flashy multi-hit combos. There are also special attack commands. One example: Quickly tapping the directional pad toward an enemy, then away, then back again before pressing the button will produce a flip attack. This move is great because it can hit targets at all altitudes. Since the game takes the enemy’s height relative to Ali into account, he might otherwise need to crouch to hit low profile foes like snakes or jump to reach flying ones. It’s unusual for an overhead action game to incorporate realistic positioning to this extent. Sadly, it doesn’t always pay off. Hitting airborne enemies remained a total crapshoot throughout my playthrough. Needless to say, they had no such trouble against me.

The weapon system is also offbeat for the time. Ali uses a basic dagger by default and picks up various swords, bows, and bombs along the way. In contrast to the dagger, the vast majority of these supplemental weapons are limited to a set number of uses before they break and disappear. This results in a constant inventory turnover as old gear falls apart and is replaced by fresh finds. Fans of 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be right at home. While weapon deterioration in games has its detractors, I didn’t mind it in this case. Ali’s dagger is perfectly adequate most of the time, so it hardly feels like the end of the world whenever one of your swords breaks.

Satisfying as the brawling generally is, it’s the four spirit companions who join you along the way that truly define Beyond Oasis for me. Their many special powers have applications both in and out of combat. Take the fire spirit Efreet, who can incinerate the opposition with punches and explosive blasts as well as melt ice blocks and light torches to open up new paths. In other words, these guys double as potent weapons and mandatory puzzle solving tools. Progression in the later dungeons often requires you to swap back and forth between different helpers in quick succession.

Two factors complicate this process. The first is Ali’s magic meter, which will gradually deplete as long as a spirit is active. Second, summoning a given spirit to begin with isn’t as easy as picking a name or icon off a menu. Instead, you need to use the armlet on some appropriate portion of the environment. For Efreet, that might mean a bonfire or lava pool. For Dytto the water spirit, you obviously want to keep your eyes peeled for water. I was continually surprised by how much ingenuity went into implementing this mechanic. I didn’t discover until quite late in the game that you could call Dytto by using the armlet on slime enemies, presumably because they’re wet. You can even synchronize your armlet activation with the fiery explosion of one of your bombs to summon Efreet. Clever stuff!

The art and music are a baffling mixed bag. This is one of the best looking Genesis games I’ve seen overall, bursting with bright, bold colors and large, well-animated character sprites. The one downside to all this detail is that many non-boss enemies appear over and over in color-swapped variants throughout, again echoing beat-’em-ups of the period. As in those games, it represents an acceptable (if unfortunate) memory saving compromise. The music, of all places, is actually where Beyond Oasis falls flat. This soundtrack, while extensive for a cartridge game, is universally low energy and devoid of memorable hooks. It simply doesn’t fit with the swashbuckling tone established by the graphics and gameplay. Who would have guessed the great Yuzo Koshiro would underperform like this on a project so close to home? The score was the one thing I came expecting to heap the most praise on. A rare misfire indeed.

Despite drab tunes and a few recurring gameplay snags (imprecise collision detection, the occasional awkward platform jumping section), Beyond Oasis makes for an easy recommendation. It introduces several welcome new ideas to the standard console dungeon crawling formula and looks great doing so. I also appreciate that the main quest isn’t padded out merely for the sake of extending total play time. It took me about seven hours to complete on my first go-around and I gather experience can bring that down significantly; a perfect length for a game of this kind. It’s right up there with Westone’s Monster World IV in my book when it comes to superlative action-adventure romps on Sega’s 16-bit machine. Too bad it’s only ever received one sequel in the form of 1996’s The Legend of Oasis for the Saturn.

Final score: Seventy-five golden camels out of a hundred. Strong as ten regular games, definitely!

Ninja Gaiden (Master System)

Thanksgiving season is here again. For me, that means baking, quality time with friends, and savage ninja mayhem. Yes, this is the time of year when I inevitably find myself scaling walls and hurling deadly shuriken at evildoers of all stripes, usually in a video gaming context. I’m especially partial to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden saga for this, having already covered the NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden Shadow on Game Boy.

As far as I knew back in the ’90s, these four home titles and the arcade beat-’em-up were the full extent of the franchise. I had no idea that a sixth game, also dubbed simply Ninja Gaiden, was produced exclusively for Master System owners in Europe and Australia. This was the second entry (after the Natsume-helmed Shadow) to be developed by a party other than Tecmo themselves. Master System Ninja Gaiden is the work of SIMS (Soft development Innovation Multi Success), a joint enterprise spun off from Sega and the more obscure Sanritsu Denki. Regular readers of mine may recall them as the creators of the Castlevania-inspired Master of Darkness. The two works are quite similar in that they’re respectable action-platformers which capture the broad strokes of their source material, yet neglect many of the finer points that made the originals true greats.

Like its predecessors, this Ninja Gaiden stars blue-clad killing machine Ryu Hayabusa. He returns home to his village one day, only to discover it’s been attacked and razed by a mysterious enemy force that slaughtered everyone present and made off with a sacred scroll detailing the clan’s ninjitsu techniques. This scroll must be recovered, since the secrets it contains could endanger the entire world if misused. There’s also the matter of revenge. You really don’t want to cross a guy who slays building-sized demons for a living.

It’s a promising setup that SIMS ultimately doesn’t deliver on. The NES games were famed for their lavishly animated and scored story interludes, dubbed “Tecmo theater.” The cutscenes here are paltry in comparison, consisting of static images with the same short music loop accompanying every one. The storytelling itself also fails to engage. It’s a straightforward trek from location to location fighting assorted villains in pursuit of the missing scroll. There are no twists and no familiar characters other than Ryu himself. The new characters that appear make no impact and aren’t even given proper names, as if the writers knew you probably wouldn’t remember them anyway with a plot this perfunctory.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately. Although there are some important caveats I’ll get to shortly, much of the Ninja Gaiden gameplay formula comes through loud and clear in the seven diverse stages presented. Ryu’s movement feels correct and he fights with his customary Dragon Sword and array of mystical sub-weapons. His core moveset sees some some interesting tweaks in this installment. While he retains his Ninja Gaiden III ability to hang from the undersides of certain ledges, his signature wall climbing has been replaced with a Super Metroid style rebounding wall jump. The most dramatic new addition is a super attack performed by pressing both buttons at once. This will instantly destroy all regular enemies on screen in exchange for a hefty chunk of health. Finally, he can now move while crouched, which is occasionally useful in tight quarters, if less flashy than these other maneuvers. All this allowed SIMS to include new movement-based challenges not seen in previous games and they made the most of the opportunity. There’s a bigger emphasis on pure platforming here than in any other classic Ninja Gaiden.

I just wish it didn’t come at the expense of the combat. The enemies in this game are routinely designed and placed in ways that make me suspect the SIMS team didn’t really understand what made the action on the NES so compelling. It was, in a word, flow. The opposition was oppressive, with swift baddies constantly swarming Ryu from all angles. The only way out was to cut a path through as efficiently as possible. The mechanics supported this. Ryu could eliminate almost any foe with a single swing of his sword. Assuming a perfectly-timed sequence of jumps and attacks, it was possible to literally sprint through the game. It made for an unparalleled 8-bit adrenaline rush. This isn’t what you get on the Master System. There are far fewer opponents to dispatch and they tend to be either slow-moving or stationary damage sponges when compared to their NES counterparts. Taking that constant pressure off players while simultaneously forcing them to stop moving over and over to dole out multiple hits to the same enemy really blurs the line between Ninja Gaiden at its blistering best and watered-down Castlevania with a ninja.

I don’t want to come off too negative here. MS Ninja Gaiden has a lot going for it. Most prominent are its bright, clean graphics, solid soundtrack, and intricate platforming scenarios. It controls well and its dialed down intensity may actually appeal to those who find the NES games overwhelming. Not only do you enjoy the unlimited continues common to most Ninja Gaidens, you don’t even lose your sub-weapon and its ammunition when you die. This led to me discover a strange quirk of the sub-weapon system that effectively breaks the game wide open. If you can manage to raise your ammo count to the maximum of 999, it will never again decrease, effectively granting you unlimited shots thereafter. I’m not sure if this is intentional or a bug. In either case, it makes an already relaxed ride pure child’s play if you choose to exploit it.

SIMS’ interpretation of Ninja Gaiden may not represent the series at its slick, brutal apex, but it makes for a satisfying playthrough nonetheless. It’s easily one of the better action-platformers to grace the Master System. Pity it happened to debut in 1992, after the console had already been discontinued in North America and Japan. So give it a go sometime. Turkey Day or no, you’ll be thankful you did.

Ghostbusters (Genesis)

Another enchanted Halloween season is drawing to an end and I’m already preemptively sad. At least I’ve made the most of it. My last four weeks have been packed with costumes, haunted houses, and horror flicks. Go big or go home, as they say. And I still have time for one more ghoulish game review. This one is a special request from reader Mike Payne, who wanted me to tackle Ghostbusters on the Sega Genesis. Considering that my last reader request was Ghostbusters for the Master System, I’m noticing a odd trend here.

Genesis Ghostbusters is a very different beast than its 8-bit predecessors. It’s a wholly original work by Sega and Compile, as opposed to yet another port of David Crane’s 1984 Commodore 64 game. Great news if you’d rather gargle broken glass than drive around town dodging traffic and struggling to save up enough money to enter the “Zule building” again. Your task is to guide the Ghostbuster of your choice through an original plot that’s implied to take place between the first and second films. Paranormal activity is spiking around New York City and it seems to be linked to pieces of a mysterious stone tablet that the Ghostbusters have been discovering at various job sites. As the true meaning of the tablet becomes clear, the initially elated Ghostbusters learn that what’s good for business may not always bode well for life on earth.

Don’t expect too much from this story. While I appreciate the effort on the developers’ part, it’s rather predictable and overly reminiscent of the first movie’s. The dialog is also a missed opportunity. It’s dry and utilitarian with none of the witty banter one would hope for. It’s a serviceable justification for six stages of side-scrolling action-platforming, but only just.

Three of the four original Ghostbusters are playable here: Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler. They’re all represented by instantly recognizable big-headed caricatures of the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. The lovingly-rendered receeding hairline on bobblehead Bill Murray is hilarious to me for some reason. Unfortunately, Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore isn’t seen or referenced anywhere. I’m not sure what the deal is with that. Winston appeared in the other two Ghostbusters games released around this same time on competing platforms. These were adaptations of Ghostbusters II specifically, however, so perhaps it all comes down to some arcane quirk of the license?

Each of the three characters is mechanically distinct, being built around a specific distribution of speed and durability. Peter is the balanced one, Ray the plodding tank, and Egon the swift, fragile glass cannon. You’re locked into your initial pick for the duration of a given playthrough, so make sure you like the way your guy handles before you progress too far. I inadvertently made the journey harder on myself by going with Egon straightway. His low health makes him better suited for experts. Newcomers are advised to use Ray instead. No regrets, though. I wanted to pay my respects to the late, criminally underrated Harold Ramis. Not to mention Egon is such a great character. It’s not often you see a total nerd presented as a strong, confident hero. He was very much written against type, especially by the standards of the day. Go, Egon!

Progression is fairly open, with the initial set of four stages able to be completed in any order. These range from a small suburban house to a downtown high-rise under attack by the famous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The goal of each level is to defeat (and ideally trap) a set number of mini-boss ghosts in order to unlock the door to the big boss’ room. Larger levels like the high-rise contain more boss encounters and reward your efforts with a correspondingly bigger cash payout.

Insuring a healthy cash flow is paramount because of the shops you’re able to visit between levels, which are stocked with a bevy of healing items and equipment upgrades. Using the shields and weapons you acquire in this fashion eats away at a limited pool of energy. Try not to get so carried away buying fancy new gear that you forget about upgrading the energy bar itself or you’ll constantly be running low on juice when you need it most. Be sure to zap any helpful green Slimers you encounter, since they drop health and energy refills.

This is a sound enough outline on paper and Ghostbusters nails the execution fairly well. The controls are fluid and well-suited to the run-and-gun style action. Your character can fire his unlicensed nuclear accelerator in any of six directions. He can even move and fire while crouched; always appreciated in a hectic game like this. My only real gripe with the engine involves some instances of dodgy collision detection here and there. Clearing the flame columns in the burning house without taking damage is way tougher than it looks.

The wide variety of boss monsters is a major highlight. They all have unique attack patterns and can get pretty wild conceptually, often resembling things you might see in the Real Ghostbusters cartoon show more so than the films. If there’s one downside to this approach, it’s that a few of them don’t seem like they belong to any version of this particular fictional universe. Take the fire dragon straight out of Life Force or the Little Shop of Horrors-inspired carnivorous plant, for example. The game insists these are ghosts. Color me skeptical.

Level design manages to deliver the satisfaction of exploring open layouts without going overboard and forcing confused players to resort to mapping or checking guides. Every environment has its own theme and obstacles, most of which make for a good time. I especially loved trying (and mostly failing) to dodge the Marshmallow Man’s giant fists as he punched through the walls of the high-rise. I was finally able to reach the top and blast him square in his dumb face. Revenge sweeter than s’mores! The big exception to this is that burning house level. It utilizes a darkness mechanic, meaning you’re forced to use night vision goggles to see your surroundings. Problem is, the goggles are consumable items and each pair only lasts a couple minutes. If you make the mistake of venturing deep into the level with only one or two pairs of goggles in your inventory, you’re as good as dead. You’re free to exit and return to the shop to buy more goggles…provided you can find your way back to the front door in the pitch dark with enemies all around. It’s a pity, as the actual contents of the stage are fine. It’s strictly the tedious visibility gimmick that torpedoes it.

Ultimately, this take on Ghostbusters is in the same boat as Daft’s Super Back to the Future Part II for me. Here we have a beloved blockbuster movie series finally being graced with a decent video game adaptation after years of ignoble misfires. Is it truly great? Nah. It didn’t need to be. A competent side-scroller elevated ever so slightly above par by charming depictions of familiar characters and situations still felt great to beleaguered fans. It was the first Ghostbusters game they could simply like and enjoy for what it was without tacking on a whole laundry list of qualifiers and regrets. It doesn’t need to go toe-to-toe with Genesis titans like Revenge of Shinobi, Gunstar Heroes, and Rocket Knight Adventures to be worth acknowledging and it remains a largely pleasant experience for lovers of the franchise.

Thus concludes another spooky game roundup. Rest assured I’ll be back again in eleven short months with a fresh batch of classic gaming tricks and treats. As for you, dear readers, may all your Halloweens be as much fun as collecting spores, molds, and fungus.

Thunder Force III (Genesis)

Thunder! Thunder! Thunder Force, hooooo!

I was so bowled over by Technosoft’s Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar) when I first encountered it last March that I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to revisit the saga. Hell, that was over ninety reviews ago now! I’m more than ready to strike another blow against the vile ORN Empire and Thunder Force III seems like the perfect way to do it. Destined to be overshadowed by its sequel in the years to come, it was nevertheless a huge point of pride for Genesis owners back in 1990. As perhaps the flashiest, most adrenaline pumping horizontal shooter ever to grace a home system at that point in history, it was well received indeed. So much so that it’s one of the few examples of a console original that was later adapted for arcades (as Thunder Force AC) rather than vice versa.

Don’t expect too elaborate a setup here.  Thunder Force games are about dazzling the player with explosive action. Those nerds deep lore and rich characterization weren’t cool enough to get invited to this party. All you need to know is that the evil ORN and their mad bio-computer leader Khaos are continuing their genocidal war on humanity. They’ve deployed a colossal battleship called Cerberus and set up cloaking devices on five planets in order to mask the location of their main base. In response, the Galaxy Federation sends out their most advanced ship, the Fire LEO-03 Styx, on a mission to take out the cloaking devices, Cerberus, and finally ORN HQ.

It’s a tall order. Fortunately, the Styx comes prepared for all eight stages ahead. Unlike the many side-scrolling shooters that take their cues from those grueling classics Gradius and R-Type, Thunder Force III doesn’t start you out slow and weak or take all your weapons away and push you back to a checkpoint every time you mess up. You always have access to four different speed settings and your two default weapons, the forward-facing Twin Shot and rear-facing Backfire, which are strong and versatile enough to take down anything in your path. The focus is on keeping the pace brisk and the player feeling empowered and in control of the situation; a defining feature of the series.

That’s not to say death carries no sting. There are a whole host of useful upgrades to the Styx which can be lost on defeat: Five special weapons that you can cycle between as needed, a shield, and a pair of shot multiplying helper satellites called Claws. Even in this regard, however, Thunder Force III is more merciful than the vast majority of its peers. Only your Claws and currently active special weapon are stripped away when you lose a ship. While some hardcore shooter fanatics may scoff at this degree of leniency, I think it adds a nice risk/reward dynamic. Equipping a powerful weapon like the heat-seeking Hunter makes you more likely to survive the trickier stretches of a level, yet you’ll lose both the weapon and a life if you still manage to slip up. Is it worth potentially not having access to the Hunter when you reach the boss? That’s your call.

The levels themselves make for great rides. Sure, they’re all based on stock archetypes like fire, water, ice, and caverns, but it’s the execution that excels. Each planet has its own menagerie of enemies and environmental hazards to keep you on your toes, all brought to life through spectacular graphics and masterful high energy music. As in Thunder Force IV, the soundtrack truly goes above and beyond the call of duty, with individual themes for each stage boss. Speaking of those bosses, they’re probably the only element here that could be described as underwhelming. Their attack routines are quite basic and they wither quickly under sustained firepower.

What else can I say about this one? It’s an utterly brilliant spaceship shooter and a perennial must play for enthusiasts of all stripes. I mentioned way back in my review of Thunder Force IV that the formula really does comes across as pure boilerplate on paper. These games are legendary for their blazing fast action, top notch audiovisuals, and general approachability. Their innovative structure and mechanics, though? Not so much. They really must be experienced firsthand for their appeal to be fully understood and appreciated. I’ll add that you ideally shouldn’t emulate me by checking out IV before III. Thunder Force IV is a prime example of the “bigger, badder, better” school of sequel design, triumphantly doubling down on everything its predecessor did right while simultaneously addressing its one true shortcoming by upping the complexity and challenge of the boss fights. It’s also a good deal tougher than III overall, with more levels and trickier enemy patterns, meaning that tackling the two in order results in a much more natural difficulty curve across games.

Oh, and one last thing: Under no circumstances should you play Thunder Spirits, the Super Nintendo port of Thunder Force AC, in place of Thunder Force III proper. It suffers from severe slowdown issues that render it drastically inferior to the real deal on the Genesis. This is one of those rare cases when Ninten just don’t.

So what are you waiting for? Climb aboard your starship and head for the skies. You owe it to yourself to come sail away with the Styx.