Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar (Genesis)

Sucks to be you, humanbeings!

I may have spoiled myself when it comes to shooters on the Genesis. I’ve only played two so far: Compile’s excellent M.U.S.H.A. last July and now Technosoft’s Lightening Force: Quest for the Darkstar, better known as Thunder Force IV. Based on how many discussions online seem to revolve around which of these two is the all-time best for the system, I’m clearly on a roll. Of course, that could just mean that it’s all downhill from here….

Though now most closely associated with the Sega’s 16-bit console, the Thunder Force series got its start on Japanese home computers in 1983. The original Thunder Force was a relatively slow free-roaming overhead shooter. It wasn’t until 1988’s Thunder Force II that gamers would be introduced to the fast-paced side-scrolling action that would define the series from that point forward. It’s this entry from 1992, however, that’s generally considered to be the high point of the saga as well as one of the greatest horizontal shooters of all time.

Set in the 22nd century, the Thunder Force games chronicle the ongoing war between the Galaxy Federation and a tenacious armada of evil cyborgs called the ORN Empire. The ORN are led by a rogue bio-computer called Khaos that wants nothing more than to eliminate all us inferior humans and only the crew of your lone Fire LEO-04 “Rynex” space fighter can save the day. Insert my standard “nobody plays shooters for their stories” spiel here. That bring said, you may still be wondering what this “Quest for the Darkstar” business is all about. Well, it’s simple: Damned if I know! I played this game from start to finish, read the instruction manual from cover to cover, and I still couldn’t tell you what this subtitle is supposed to mean. Considering that the marketing genius who retitled the game for release in North America wasn’t even aware that there’s no E in “lightning,” are you really that surprised? In fact, I think I’m just going to call this one Thunder Force IV from here on out.

Much like its off-the-rack story, a simple summary of Thunder Force IV’s gameplay features reads a tad dry if you have any experience at all with similar games. As a title comprised of roughly 1% novelty and 99% peerless execution, my greatest challenge by far in formulating this review has been to somehow convey a fraction of the excitement in store here for perspective players without being able to physically shove controllers into their hands and point them at the tv. I’ll do my best, of course, but do bear this in mind.

There are ten total stages separating you from the end credits and you actually have the option of playing the first four in any order you choose. Each has a climactic multi-phase boss fight waiting at the end and there’s invariably at least one mini-boss to dispatch along the way, too. While the action in Thunder Force IV primarily scrolls from left to right, most stages also have a few screens worth of vertical space to them. In practice, this means that there’s a high route and a low route open to you, each with its own hazards and power-ups. Knowing where the worst baddies and best goodies are in each stage can make your mission considerably easier, so be sure to explore when you can. You might even find yourself fighting different mini-bosses on occasion, depending on the route you take.

Your ship has two weapons by default: A forward-facing Twin Shot and a rear-facing Back Shot. You can upgrade these to more powerful versions (called the Blade and Rail Gun) by collecting power-up icons, as well as acquire three additional special weapons with their own unique properties: Snake launches missiles above and below you that are great for taking out targets on the walls and ceilings, Free Way shoots a wide spread of missiles in the opposite of whichever direction your ship is currently moving, and the coveted Hunter fires off a stream of homing energy shots that negate the need to aim completely. You can cycle through your full arsenal of weapons at will. Just be aware that losing a life while you have a special weapon equipped will remove it from your inventory, so sometimes it’s better to keep certain items (like the overpowered Hunter) in reserve as you make your way through a stage if you know there’s a really tough boss waiting for you at the end.

Other helpful items you’ll encounter are 1-ups, a shield that allows your ship to absorb three extra hits before being destroyed (effectively equal to three extra lives and therefore the most desirable pickup in the whole game), and the Claw. The Claw is Thunder Force’s equivalent of the Option satellites from Gradius and takes the form of two spheres that orbit your ship and provide some extra firepower while also blocking enemy bullets. Once you reach the game’s halfway point, the Claw gets upgraded and from that point on also grants you access to the ultimate weapon: The Thunder Sword. Each use of the Sword requires several seconds of charging time, during which you’ll have to refrain from firing your other weapons. Once unleashed, however, it deals insane damage to anything in front of you, even taking out bosses in just a few shots. Mind that recoil, though! Few things are more embarrassing than getting shoved back into a wall and exploded by the force of your own super attack.

True to the series’ reputation, the action in Thunder Force IV is fast and furious. So much so, in fact, that if you’re used to more restrained horizontal shooters like Gradius and R-Type, it’ll probably take some getting used to. I personally had to re-train myself to not hang back so much, since the enemy placement here takes into account the fact that you can shoot behind you as well as straight ahead. My first play session consisted largely of cursing as I was repeatedly annihilated by fast-moving foes entering the screen from the left. When in doubt, keep toward the center.

Fortunately, your ship handles like a dream, so I was able to do much better once I finally got used to the fact that I could be attacked from any direction at any time. Instead of relying on power-ups to regulate your speed, you have a manual throttle that cycles between 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% of maximum with the press of a button. You can even hold down the button to adjust speed in increments of 1% at a time. This latter feature is equal parts cool and silly. I highly doubt that there’s some elite pro strategy out there that only works at precisely 47% speed or whatever, but it never hurts to have options, right?

That’s Thunder Force IV. On paper, anyway. Like I said, you’ve probably encountered a lot of these same mechanics before. The X factor here is the positively blinding degree of polish. The difficulty is the epitome of tough-but-fair and the gameplay is so fast, so fluid, and so well-balanced that I could scarcely tear myself away. Normally when I finish a game, I’ll switch it off and begin gathering my thoughts so that I can eventually commit them to writing as I am now. The first thing I did when I reached the end of Thunder Force IV was go right back to the title screen and do it all over again. The painstaking care and attention lavished on every aspect of the experience is awesome to behold and the game as a whole is anything but generic.

It also looks flat-out majestic. The graphics make such deft use of the system’s limited color capabilities that you could easily believe that you’re looking at a Super Nintendo game the majority of the time. Many of the stage backgrounds utilize multiple layers of parallax and line scrolling to create the impression of considerable depth and blazing speed. The oceans of the water planet Strite in particular have to be seen in motion to be believed, as do the undulating river of lava in the caverns of Desvio and the massive sandstorms raging across the surface of Daser. The game’s bosses are as colossal and pants-crappingly imposing as you could hope for, but even the smallest sprite is rendered with tremendous attention to detail and smoothly animated. These would be considered best-in-class visuals for the Genesis in 1995, never mind 1992. The only downside to all this eye candy is the slowdown. Not even that famous Motorola 68000 “blast processing” can hope to keep pace with everyone going on at once in Thunder Force IV, at least not all of the time. Thankfully, these instances of slowdown are only sporadic and don’t hurt the overall experience. If anything, they can save your bacon during some of the more hectic encounters. Think of it as “bullet time.”

In terms of quality, Thunder Force IV’s soundtrack is easily in the same league as Genesis titans like Streets of Rage 2 and the Shinobi and Sonic titles. I praised M.U.S.H.A. for its take on aggressive FM synth heavy metal and much of what Thunder Force IV brings to the table is in that same vein. There are clear echoes of acts like Megadeth, Dokken, and Judas Priest here. This is especially evident in the game’s most famous number, the thrilling stage eight theme “Metal Squad,” which has to be one of the single most impressive pieces to come out of the 16-bit era as a whole. Thunder Force IV’s music does have more to offer than just breakneck shredding, however, as evidenced by the airy, jazzy vibe of tunes like “Space Walk” and “Great Sea Power.” Beyond the undeniable brilliance of this score, it’s also a bona fide embarrassment of riches. The full soundtrack is well over an hour long, which is significantly longer than a full playthrough of the game. There’s not just a boss theme, there’s a theme for every individual boss. Each of the game’s four difficulty settings has its own ending music. The high score screen has a distinct track for when you register your initials for the top score as opposed to any of the lower slots. There’s even an entire ten bonus songs, something like 25 additional minutes of music, that don’t play over the game proper at all and are only accessible through the sound test in the options menu! What’s more, these omake (“extra”) songs are also better than 99% of what you’ll hear in other Genesis releases. The brilliance is literally overflowing, to the degree that the composers almost come off a bit cocky. Who cooks up an entire extra game’s worth of top tier material just to hide it in an options menu, you know? You can certainly argue that other music on the Genesis is as great at this, but I defy anyone to make a case that it gets better.

If case I somehow haven’t made this abundantly clear: Thunder Force IV is an unabashed masterpiece of a 16-bit shooter. Hell, it may even verge on being too good, considering all the unfavorable comparisons it has the potential to engender. If you have any affection at all for scrolling shooters, you’d be crazy not to give it a go. Other than some non-crippling slowdown, it has no noteworthy flaws whatsoever. I suppose I could make a case for the final boss, Khaos, being a bit too easy to take down, but that’s just so much grasping at straws, honestly.

Tragically, the series seems to have fizzled out for good in the wake of 2008’s Thunder Force VI for the PlayStation 2. Technosoft themselves are long defunct and Sega, who currently holds the copyrights for all their creations, has demonstrated no desire to deploy the Fire LEO on any new missions.

I never thought I’d find myself this sad over a lack of additional hardships.


Wonder Boy in Monster World (Genesis)

I’ll never forget you, either, uh…Sherry? Shelly? Damn.

Ever since I looked into the origins of the Adventure Island series back in December, I’ve been meaning to give a Wonder Boy game a proper go. The history of Wonder Boy and its various offshoots is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but here are the basics: Both series had as their starting point the original Wonder Boy, a 1986 arcade platformer by Westone. After that first entry, the two diverged drastically. Wonder Boy’s official sequels adopted an exploration-based adventure style inspired by games like The Legend of Zelda, while Adventure Island’s mostly stuck closer to the simple run-and-jump action of the arcade original.

Complicating matters further, 1991’s Wonder Boy in Monster World is both the fifth game in its franchise overall and the third in the Monster World sub-series, which explains its ludicrous Japanese title: Wonder Boy V: Monster World III. There was also a version released for NEC’s PC Engine Duo/TurboDuo (The Dynastic Hero) and a super strange Brazilian Mega Drive edition (Monica’s Gang in the Monsters’ Land) that replaced key members of the game’s cast with licensed characters from a long-running Peanuts style comic strip. The rabbit hole is deep indeed.

Despite its convoluted release history, the game itself is actually quite straightforward and approachable. Wonder Boy in Monster World is a side-scrolling fantasy action adventure romp in which the player assumes the role of a blue-haired silent protagonist named Shion who sets out to defend Monster World from an invasion by…monsters. The bad kind, I suppose. That’s all you get in the way of story, so just grab your sword and get moving.

Monster World itself is divided up into a number of discreet regions surrounding the castle town of Purapril, which serves as a hub linking them all. There’s no zoomed-out map screen to navigate between locations like in Zelda II or the like. Rather, the entire game is one interconnected series of side-scrolling areas. There’s a forested land populated by elves and fairies, a jungle, a desert, an undersea realm, and so on. Each of the lands you visit is home to a town with the usual shops and chatty NPCs as well as a monster-filled dungeon you’ll need to fight your way through in order to further your quest. The different areas of Monster World have to be tackled in a prescribed order dictated by the designers, however, so you can’t just wander off anywhere you please from the get-go. For example, you’re not able to venture underwater without the magic trident found in the jungle dungeon and the heat of the desert will prove fatal unless you’re wearing the magic boots from the undersea dungeon. Progression is thus strictly linear, though you can backtrack and use new abilities to track down hidden treasure chests in previously unreachable corners of earlier levels. In fact, you’ll need to do this at one point before you’ll be allowed entry to the volcano dungeon.

Shion himself controls about as you’d expect. One button jumps, another swings his weapon, and a third activates any spells or items mapped to it through the pause menu. The weapons themselves come in two flavors. Swords are the better defensive option since they can be be paired with shields, while spears offer a bit more range at the cost of greater vulnerability. Movement is precise and responsive, although you may have some difficulty coming to grips with Shion’s pathetic walk speed. I honestly thought I was missing something at first when I noticed how slowly I was moving. Surely there had to be a run button or something, right? Wrong. You can eventually acquire new boots that will speed you up a little, but it never really felt like enough to me and I was annoyed by the slow pace all the way up to the end.

Once you’ve adapted to your “young man” protagonist’s crippling arthritis, the combat and light platforming and that make up the bulk of the game are actually pretty decent. There’s a good variety of enemy types and patterns to reckon with and the game generally rewards patience and precision over mashing the attack button and hoping for the best. If there’s one thing that I would add to the formula, it would be the ability to swing your weapon above and below you instead of just straight ahead, as engaging enemies from these angles is often a pain if you’re low on magic.

Speaking of which, your magic is mostly used to damage enemies through various means (fire, lighting, etc) without the need to get close. There are also spells to temporarily bolster your defense and weapon damage as well as a Return spell that warps you to the most recent inn you stayed at. Each spell has a set number of uses allocated to it rather than drawing from a shared pool of magic points, so you never have to worry about forgoing use of some magics just so that you don’t lose access to others. I appreciate systems like this because they encourage the player to find good uses for every spell instead of just focusing on a handful of optimal ones. That said, Return in particular is a godsend because you can only save your game at inns and dying forces you to re-load your last save, erasing all progress you’ve made since. If you find yourself at death’s door deep in a dungeon, it’s always better to cut your losses and warp out than to die and forfeit any items or gold acquired since you entered.

Rounding out the gameplay are the helper characters. Most towns you visit will include one brave resident that will volunteer to accompany Shion into the local dungeon. There’s a fairy, a dwarf, a baby dragon, and more. Each is useful in their own way. The dwarf, for example, helps you locate secret passages and the dragon attacks enemies with his fire breath. These guys remind me in many ways of the familiars from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s a pity that they’re just not implemented all that well here. Each is only available to use in a single dungeon and, though their abilities are nice to have, they’re in no way crucial to your success. In fact, you can complete dungeons solo with little to no extra trouble. Perhaps if it were possible to retain your stable of helpers throughout the game and switch between them at will or to have them gain new abilities over time, this could have been a really standout feature. As it is, it just feels like an afterthought that doesn’t really impact Shion’s journey all that much in the end.

Graphically, Wonder Boy in Monster World is no powerhouse. The visuals here are only a slight step up from those in the previous entry in the series, and even if Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap was one of the best looking Master System releases ever, I still expect more than this out of the 16-bit Genesis. The bright colors and cartoony character designs are certainly not without their charms, however. Even the most imposing boss monster still has a doe-eyed cute factor that’s through the roof. The music by Shinichi Sakamoto is generally pleasing without approaching greatness. I found myself enjoying the more low-key numbers like the Purapril Castle and undersea themes quite a bit. Very soothing.

Can I recommend Wonder Boy in Monster World? Not really. Nothing about it (other than maybe your hero’s sloth-like stride) comes off as outright terrible, yet not a lot stands out as exceptional, either. If you’re in the market for action adventure games on the Genesis specifically, Beyond Oasis, Crusader of Centy, and Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole are all better places to start your search. This game’s more advanced Mega Drive sequel Monster World IV is also a great option, provided you can either read Japanese or track down one of the English language re-releases for the Wii, PlayStation 3, or Xbox 360.

Sorry, Shion. You’re no wonder, boy.

Ghostbusters (Master System)

Bustin’ makes me feel…okay, I guess.

Today, I’m tackling Activision’s venerable first adaptation of the Ghostbusters series. Originally designed by Pitfall creator David Crane and published for Commodore 64 and Atari 800 computers in 1984, the game was eventually ported to every other major home computer system and game console of the era. The version I have is the Sega Master System port from 1987. Believe it or not, this is my first reader request title! My awesome compadre Cenate Pruitt actually mailed me his childhood copy of Ghostbusters all the way from Decatur, Georgia. He describes it as “literally the first video game I ever owned.” Rest assured, I’ll take great care of it.

According to David Crane, he was able to finish programming Ghostbusters in a mere six weeks by cannibalizing gameplay elements from another project he was already working on. This scrapped project was a vehicular combat simulator called Car Wars that was inspired by the 1981 board game of the same name by Steve Jackson. Why do I bring this up? Because it puts Ghostbusters in the same category as another famous title that was based on a Steve Jackson tabletop game at one point in its development. I’m referring to none other than 1997’s Fallout, which was originally intended to utilize the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system. I’ll bet you never suspected that Ghostbusters and Fallout had a shared origin, eh? Video games are weird.

Anyway, while Ghostbusters sold like crazy and is considered a classic in early computer gaming circles, the console versions have not fared so well. This is owing to the dreaded NES port by Bits Laboratory, which suffers from putrid visuals, incoherent text, and the presence of the infamous “stairs level” that requires you to ascend over twenty floors of a high-rise by rapidly mashing a button to walk, all the while being unable to shoot at the ghosts swarming you from every side. The stairs are rightly remembered as one of the most incompetent and infuriating segments in any game and they cast a long shadow over Ghostbusters’ reputation to this day. Suffice to say, I was feeling a tad apprehensive as I waited for the cartridge to complete its long journey across the country. I’m pleased to report, however, that Ghostbusters for the Master System isn’t really terrible at all! Yay!

Start up the game and you’re immediately informed that you’re “the proud owner of a new franchise.” Right away, this tells you that the Ghostbusters you’ll be controlling here aren’t supposed to be Peter, Ray, Egon, and Winston, but rather just some nameless jobbers instead. That’s kind of a bummer. I suppose it may have something to go with the actors’ likenesses not being part of the license issued to Activision, but that’s just speculation on my part.

You’re next told that “the bank will advance you $10,000 for equipment” and ushered into a shop menu. This is where the game first shows its Car Wars heritage, as your first major decision will be which of four different vehicles you want to start out with, ranging from the $2000 economy model through the $12,000 sports car. The trademark Cadillac ambulance/hearse from the movie is also an option, of course. More expensive cars are faster and can hold more ghostbusting gear, which you also need to purchase separately after you’ve chosen your ride. You’re able to select from several different grades of proton beams, ghost traps, ghost detectors, and more, with the more expensive models having enhanced features. The high capacity traps, for example, need to be taken back to headquarters for emptying much less frequently than the standard model, but cost much more. You’re essentially dumping more cash up front with the hope of making up the difference later in the extra time your improved gear can potentially save you.

After you leave the store, it’s time to start the game proper. Ghostbusters is fundamentally an odd sort of business simulation/driving/shooter hybrid. A single screen overhead map (presumably representing New York City) is used represent the different areas that players can visit. There’s the shop, Ghostbusters HQ (where ghost traps can be emptied and proton packs recharged), and the “Zuul building” where the game’s final confrontation takes place. Over the course of the game, ghosts will continually stream into the Zuul building, which slowly fills up a “PK energy” bar at the top of the screen. The player’s initial goal is to have at least $10,000 on hand when the PK meter is finally full. Provided this monetary threshold is met, the Ghostbusters can then enter the Zuul building itself and battle the final boss, Gorza. If the $10,000 minimum isn’t met in time, it’s game over.

How do you actually go about earning the necessary funds? That’s where the numerous other unnamed buildings on the map come in. From time to time, one or more of them will flash red, indicating a ghost infestation. At that point, you’ll need to drive to that building and bust every ghost there you can. Then you’ll repeat this process as many times as possible before time runs out, interspersed with the occasional return to headquarters for equipment servicing or to the shop for buy more gear.

The driving is presented from an overhead view. There’s not much to do in these sections other than avoid crashing into other cars or roadblocks. Both types of collision will cost you in terms of money and time. You do have the opportunity to make a little extra cash on the way if you’ve purchased a “ghost vacuum” accessory for your vehicle, since these can be used to suck in and capture the occasional wandering specter with no better place to spend its afterlife than a Manhattan roadway.

Once you arrive at a haunted building, you’ll need to capture the ghosts there via a single screen mini-game that involves placing a trap on the ground and then alternating control between two Ghostbusters in order to herd the airborne spirits together over the trap with proton beams before triggering it and hopefully snaring them all in one go. Failure will result not just in lost income, but lost time, as the ghosts will “slime” one member of your three man man crew, and he’ll remain out of commission until you return to HQ.

That’s about it for the majority of the game. It’s just “drive to building, bust ghosts, repeat.” The only wild card is the dreaded Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, who can actually destroy whole buildings when he appears. Each time this occurs, you’re forced to pay a hefty $4000 fine. Though this is annoying, it at least serves its purpose of insuring that the player can’t just stop playing and wait out the timer as soon as they hit the $10,000 mark.

Assuming you have the requisite cash to enter the Zuul building when the time comes, the gameplay shifts to a more action focused style for its three part climax.

First, you’ll need to safely guide at least two of your Ghostbusters into the building’s front door, which is guarded by the bouncing Marshmallow Man. This isn’t generally too difficult as long as you take note of his movement pattern and dash past once he leaves you a gap.

Once you’re inside, it’s time for the dreaded stairs. Thankfully, this bit isn’t bad at all here. For starters, there are only around seven floors to climb, as opposed to over twenty on the NES. There’s also room to dodge and maneuver, and the movement itself is handled in a sane manner with the directional pad instead of via kooky Track and Field style button mashing. Best of all, you can shoot proton beams in order to take out any hostile ghosts in your way. I actually found the stairs level to be a real high point of the Master System version. It’s a well-presented, fair challenge.

Get at least one Ghostbuster to the top of the stairwell, and it’s time for the showdown with Gorza. No, not Gozer. That’s a totally different ancient god of destruction, apparently. Gorza himself walks back and forth horizontally along the top of the screen shooting lightning while two stationary hellhounds on either side shoot fireballs. The goal is to dodge attacks while shooting Gorza with proton beams until his health bar is depleted. There’s no health bar for you, of course. Instead, each hit you take costs you one of your three Ghostbusters and restarts the battle. Kill Gorza and you’ve beaten the game. Fail three times and you start over. Personally, I found a head-on attack far too risky, as the lightning blasts are fast and cover a wide area. Instead, staying to the side and dodging the slower fireballs while shooting diagonally at Gorza is the way to go.

Once you beat the game once, you’ll be given a password that allows you to re-start with the same cash total later. This feature does make the game a bit easier on subsequent playthroughs, I guess, but there’s not really much need for passwords in a game that runs for twenty minutes at most from start to finish.

Which brings me to Ghostbusters’ primary flaw: Its length. Since the bulk of the game (everything outside the Zuul building) runs on a short timer, you couldn’t really spend more than about twenty minutes on a successful playthrough even if you wanted to. You can certainly fail along the way and have to start over from scratch, but once you know what you’re doing and how to beat Gorza, there’s nothing else for you to do other than pile up more and more money by looping the game with passwords. It’s in this sense that Ghostbusters most feels like what it really is: A 1984 computer game. Game design standards shifted at an incredible rate in the 1980s, after all. Whereas the primary difference between a typical PS3 and PS4 release involves the former being just a teensy bit less pretty, “previous gen” back in the day could easily encompass every advance that took place between a pair of titles as different as Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. In other words, Ghostbusters’ three year journey to the Master System was longer than it seems.

Other than its absurd brevity and a lack of musical diversity (I hope you like the theme from the movie, because it’s all you get), Ghostbusters is a fun little game on the Master System. The graphics are colorful, the simulation mode presents some interesting strategic choices for how to approach your moneymaking, and the shooty bits are actually competent, unlike on the NES. It may not hold your interest for long, but it’s an impressive package considering that it was originally churned out in six weeks by one guy. If you only play one version of David Crane’s Ghostbusters, make it this one.

Oh, and if anyone else wants to send me any free games, I suppose that would acceptable. Yeesh. The sacrifices I make for you people.

Shinobi (Master System)

Only a ninja can stop a ninja!

I never had a Sega Master System growing up. I never knew a single person who did. Not one. Poor Sega never had a chance in the mid-1980s console market, at least in North America and Japan, where the god-king Nintendo lorded over all it surveyed. Although the Master System (also known as the Mark III) sold like crazy in South America and portions of Europe well into the 21st century, it was virtually invisible outside those far-flung markets. It’s a shame. The system hardware was quite advanced for the time and it was capable of displaying significantly more colorful and detailed graphics than the NES.

While technical superiority is nice, even the most powerful console is ultimately dependent on its software library. This turned out to be the Master System’s Achilles’ heel. Nintendo’s strict exclusivity policies meant that best and brightest game companies of the time were essentially forbidden to venture anywhere near it if they wanted a ride on that sweet NES money train. Superstar developers like Capcom, Konami, Enix, and Rare knew which side their bread was buttered on. Many of these same parties would later grow disgruntled with Nintendo’s anti-competitive, control freak ways, which was great news for Sega’s follow-up console, the Mega Drive/Genesis, but by then it was far too late to salvage the Master System in any market that had not yet fully embraced it.

This lack of third party support meant that Sega themselves had to do the lion’s share of the work propping the Master System up in the U.S., primarily with conversions of their own popular arcade games. It’s only fitting, then, that the first Master System game I’d ever play would turn out to be Sega’s own port of their 1987 arcade smash Shinobi.

Applied to a person, the Japanese “shinobi” essentially means “one who sneaks” and is used synonymously with the better-known term ninja. Deadly masked ninja warriors were everywhere in the 1980s. Well, everywhere in the media, that is. We had ninja movies, ninja tv shows, ninja action figures, ninja comics, and, of course, ninja video games. A side scrolling action platformer, Shinobi was one of the first games to put you in the shoes of one of these relentless shadow warriors. It was essentially a variation on (or, less charitably, a clone of) Namco’s Rolling Thunder from 1986, just with the pistol-packing James Bond style superspy replaced with a shuriken tossing ninja master named Joe Musashi.

Joe is tasked with rescuing the kidnapped children of his ninja clan from their abductors, the sinister terrorist organization Zeed and its leaders, the Ring of Five. At least in the arcade version. The Master System manual identifies the kidnap victims as the children of unspecified “world leaders.” Either way: Bad guys stole the kiddos, so go ninja the hell out of stuff until that’s all sorted out. Works for me.

The game includes fourteen regular stages filled with hostages to rescue and generic thugs to mow down, interspersed with boss battles against the Zeed head honchos and culminating in a final showdown with the imposing Masked Ninja. Joe starts out able to throw an unlimited amount of shuriken and take out close range targets with his punches and kicks. Rescuing specific hostages in each stage will upgrade his arsenal to a gun and sword for long and short range engagements, respectively. There’s also the matter of Joe’s ninja magic, which is essentially a “panic button” usable only once per level that will clear the screen of all regular enemies and deal heavy damage to bosses. Most stages feature a dual level battlefield with enemies and hostages placed both along the ground and atop walls and other high structures. Joe is able to freely transition between the two levels by holding up or down on the directional controls in conjunction with the jump button, and picking the right moment to do this in order to get the drop on enemies is a key part of the strategy. Between stages, there’s a short bonus game where Joe must fend off waves of enemy ninjas from a first person view and is rewarded with an extra life if successful.

Shinobi is a rather deliberately paced affair, which helps to set it apart from many other ninja action games. Experienced players can rush through it very quickly, but it often pays to stop for a second and think through the ideal way to approach a specific cluster of waiting enemies. The Master System version sticks very closely to the arcade blueprint for the most part, but there are a few drastic changes worth mentioning.

A health meter replaces the one-hit kills that Joe was subject to in the arcade. This cuts down on the difficulty somewhat, though not as much as you might expect, as it was balanced out by removing the ability to continue after a game over. Like the NES version of Double Dragon, this is a game you have to complete in one go or not at all. Luckily, your health gauge can be extended to allow Joe to absorb more damage, which brings me to the next major change: The hostage rescue system.

Unlike in the arcade, you don’t need to rescue all the child hostages in a stage in order to move on. You should still grab as many as possible, though, because there are many more potential rewards for doing so in the Master System port, including the previously mentioned maximum health increases, healing, and cool new weapon upgrades like bombs, knives, nunchaku, and a spiked chain. While these power-ups persist from stage to stage, they’re all stripped away the instant you die even once and rescued hostages never reappear to be collected again. This can be downright brutal late in the game. Making it all the way through the final stage on the puny default health bar can be done, but I don’t envy anyone making the attempt. I managed it…once.

Finally, the ninja magic has been heavily downgraded on the Master System. So much so that it’s almost worthless. It still functions as before, but you’re unable to access it by default like in the arcade. Here it replaces extra lives as your reward for winning the bonus stages. If you do manage to obtain some, there’s also a new and highly obnoxious restriction to deal with: You must defeat ten enemies in a given stage before you’ll be permitted to actually use any ninja magic you may have earned. I honestly cannot fathom the reasoning behind this change. By the time you’ve killed enough enemies to activate your magic, you’re likely nearing the end of the stage anyway. The game also treats boss fights as their own separate stages, so there doesn’t seem to be any way to use magic against them at all. At least stockpiled ninja magic doesn’t go away when you die like all the other power-ups. Blah.

Shinobi looks pretty good on the Master System. At least when it’s standing still. The sprites are large and detailed and there’s some great use of those bright colors the console is known for in the various stage backgrounds. Animation does suffer quite a bit, however. This is particularly noticeable when defeated enemies simply blink right out of existence because there are no frames included of them crumpling to the ground like they do in the arcade. This may seem like a small thing, but the visual feedback on your attacks really contributed to the original version’s satisfying feel. Just imagine Super Mario Bros. with the goombas Mario stomps vanishing on contact without being comically flattened first. It just ain’t right. The vertical scrolling whenever Joe leaps up or down between the different levels of a stage is also jarringly choppy for some reason. A game really shouldn’t look like it’s glitching out every time you just want to jump up to a platform. Even though a dip in overall quality coming from the System 16 arcade hardware was inevitable, I’m still inclined to expect better than this from Sega. They didn’t even include an ending! Instead, winning the game nets you the exact same game over screen that losing it does. Huh?

As for the audio…well, there’s no nice way to say it: The original Shinobi’s catchy soundtrack is essentially butchered here. You get a single short music loop that plays over every regular stage. The bonus rounds and boss fights each get their own track for a grand total of three songs, but that’s still 95% of the game during which you’re expected to sit there and listen to the same tinny tune. It’s borderline torturous. For what it’s worth, there are supposedly also higher quality versions of these same three songs included on the cartridge, though they can’t be played back unless you have the special FM sound expansion board that was produced exclusively for the Japanese version of the console.

Shinobi on the Master System has some real flaws. It doesn’t look or sound as great as it should and the super cool ninja magic has been watered-down to the point of total superfluousness. On the plus side, the addition of a health bar and persistent power-ups makes the gameplay a lot more forgiving from moment to moment, while the lack of continues and potentially massive disempowerment that each death brings tends to makes the player more cautious and focused on surviving over the long term. Ideally, you want to be able to make it all the way to the end of the game on your first life so that you never have to deal with losing your health and weapon upgrades. It makes the whole experience a lot more “consoley,” if that makes any sense, without requiring any major changes to the stage layouts and enemy placement that fans were already familiar with from the arcade. Though not perfect, it still stands head and shoulders over any other home port and remains the best way outside of an arcade to experience Joe Musashi’s first adventure.

Now that I’ve finally toppled the Zeed syndicate, I’m really looking forward to seeing where my exploration of the Master System library will take me next. Hiyaa!

Strider (Genesis)

Huh. I was expecting a bigger boom.

Get those torches and pitchforks ready, because that pretty much sums up my impression of Strider as a whole. After hearing so many Genesis aficionados talk this one up as one of the greatest games of all time over the years…I just wasn’t feeling it.

Just on the off chance that anyone is still reading after my last paragraph, here’s a little background. Strider started out as an ambitious cross-media collaboration between Capcom and manga publishing house Moto Kikaku. The comic series launched in 1988 and the first Strider game reached arcades in early 1989. There was also a Strider game for the NES released later in 1989, although this was an independently developed title that emphasized Metroid-like exploration and has little in common with the better known arcade action game that we’re looking at now.

The arcade Strider was a visual marvel for its time, with huge, detailed character sprites and intricate backgrounds that took full advantage of Capcom’s cutting edge CP System arcade board. Breaking away from the more deliberately paced, grounded action of earlier arcade action-platformers like Rolling Thunder and Shinobi, Strider sported an acrobatic lead character and embraced spectacle and eye-popping “set piece” action sequences in a big way. It gobbled up a whole lot of quarters, and ports for home computers like the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum sold like crazy, compromised as they were. It was the 1990 port for the Sega Genesis that really stood out from the crowd, though. Packed into a massive (for the time) 8 megabit cartridge, Genesis Strider set the benchmark for home ports of arcade games. Everything you remembered from the arcade was here. Sure, there were a few missing frames of animation and the color palette was a tiny bit muted, but unless you were somehow looking at the two games running side-by-side, the effect was almost perfect.

In Strider, you take control of Hiryū, the youngest ever member of the Striders to attain the top “Special A-Class” ranking. The Striders are a shadowy paramilitary mercenary ninja group in the dystopian future of 2048 and they’ve sent Hiryū to Russia on a mission to assassinate a dude called the Grandmaster, who seems to be some sort of evil wizard in a cloak who wants to destroy the world. Simple, but it works.

That same simplicity extends to the core gameplay. One button jumps and the other swings Hiryū’s high-tech plasma sword, the “cypher.” Being a ninja, he can also cling to and climb along walls and platforms as well as perform a nifty ground slide maneuver that also doubles as a supplementary attack. Finally, there’s a selection of power-ups that can increase the range of Hiryū’s sword attacks, extend his health meter, grant temporary invincibility, and summon robot sidekicks to assist with taking out enemies.

There are a total of five levels of side-scrolling action platforming for you to tackle, each with its own boss at the end. Several stages also have mini-boss battles along the way. This is where the problems begin for me. While there are technically five levels, it’s really more like four levels followed by a “boss rush” where you re-fight all the previous bosses in sequence before taking on the Grandmaster himself. It was normal for games from the period to be fairly short, but this just seem egregious to me. A final boss rush after just four levels? A Mega Man game would have put you through eight robot masters and at least a couple Dr. Wily stages before you had to re-battle everybody again. You have to earn this kind of thing, man.

At least those first four levels are pretty damn great. In particular, Strider has one of most memorable opening stages in action gaming history. Hiryū soars in his hang glider over an onion-domed Russian city of the future before dropping down onto the rooftops to slice and dice his way through a hoard of fur hat-clad soldiers and flying attack robots and it just gets more and more bombastic from there, building to one of the kookiest boss battles ever conceived against what appears to be the entire Russian parliament. There are so many nice details on display in just this one stage. I love the way that some of the hapless enemy soldiers will even panic and try to run away as they see your bloodthirsty ninja killing machine rushing toward them. Simply inspired. This same level of quality and innovation also suffuses the next three stages, with upside-down anti-gravity combat, dinosaur riding, and more. The final challenge might be a copy/paste bore but I really can’t say enough good things about the first 80% of Strider.

The small number of stages is one thing, but the more pressing issues I had with Strider are focused on the controls and frequent performance hiccups. For a Special A-Class ninja, Hiryū isn’t really all that quick or manuverable. Rather than dashing, he trudges forward at a pretty relaxed pace and his extremely floaty jumps don’t quite work like you’d expect them to. You can’t actually steer Hiryū in the air and instead have to make due with a more “realistic” jumping system similar to Castlevania’s, where you’re limited to leaping straight up or in a fixed arc to the left or right. This type of movement works great with the less open level design and more deliberate pacing of a Castlevania game, but the Belmonts aren’t supposed to be ninjas. In Strider, I found myself constantly wishing that Hiryū’s movement was faster and more responsive than it actually is. At least the game’s long-awaited true sequel, 1999’s Strider 2 for the PlayStation, would address these control issues.

Performance is a whole other can of worms. There ain’t no Genesis “blast processing” in effect here. This game’s framerate chugs. Bad. Expect major slowdown and sprite flicker to rear their ugly heads anytime things get chaotic. In other words: Pretty much all the time. Sometimes the action will even pause itself entirely while the system struggles to keep up. The battle with the level four boss in particular is pretty much ruined by slideshow-like levels of slowdown. You know this stuff is bad when even someone like me that’s used to playing Super Nintendo is noticing it. Sound glitches exist as well, with the sound of your weapon attack seeming to cancel out most other effects entirely.

I did still enjoy Strider. The intriguing characters and setting, gorgeous in-game art, innovative level design, and iconic soundtrack (the third one by Junko Tamiya in as many weeks for me) are all as cool as they ever were. It’s also an important game on at least two fronts. The arcade original was one of the first examples of an over-the-top “extreme” action game, and later titles like Devil May Cry, God of War, and Bayonetta all share its creative DNA. This Genesis port in particular was a system seller when it came out early in the console’s life. Before Sonic the Hedgehog and even before the Super NES, Strider was the ultimate “you can’t do this on Nintendo” game that made 8-bit console owners sit up and take notice.

Buzzwords suck, so I won’t call Strider “overrated.” It may be that I’m simply spoiled by later Genesis action-platformers like Shinobi III and Rocket Knight Adventures. Without a personal nostalgic attachment, however, I do see it as a title with more historic import than great fun to offer.

It’s still the only way you can fight a tyrannosaurus and a robot King Kong at the same time, though. Don’t go underestimating that.

Rocket Knight Adventures (Genesis)

I met an opossum wearing goggles once. No rocket, though.

1993’s Rocket Knight Adventures from Konami is a celebrated game that won’t be much of a revelation to anyone who grew up playing the Genesis/Mega Drive. For someone like me, though, who stuck with Nintendo hardware all through the 80s and 90s due to a combination of established love for the NES and what I saw as Sega’s obnoxious “extreme” marketing, discovering that I missed out on titles like this is both slightly disappointing and highly exhilarating.

RKA is the story of Sparkster, a brave young Rocket Knight who must defend the opossum kingdom of Zebulos from attack by the pig Emperor Devligus of the Devotindos Empire. Aided by the rogue rocket knight Axel Gear, the Empire has kidnapped Princess Sherry because only she knows the way to break the seal on the Pig Star (pretty much the Death Star from Star Wars with a pig snout on it), which was captured centuries ago following a destructive war and sealed away by the first king of Zebulos. Axel also gravely wounded Sparkster’s mentor and father figure Mifune during his treacherous turn, so our hero has a personal stake in the fight as well. All of this information comes from the manual, as there’s no backstory presented in the game. There are some rather adorable cut scenes between levels that advance the plot to its conclusion, though.

As I aside, I do find myself wondering why pigs almost always have to be the bad guys in these cartoon animal worlds. I think they’re pretty cool. Maybe it’s an Animal Farm thing? At least Konami also gave us a pig hero in their 1982 arcade shooter Pooyan, so hooray for equal time. Hmm. I wonder if anyone’s come up with a fan theory that Rocket Knight Adventures and Pooyan take place in the same fictional universe? If not, I’m totally calling dibs on that one right now.

Ahem. Anyway, like a lot of Konami’s flagship titles at the time, Rocket Knight Adventures is a side-scrolling action-platform game. Mostly. As a nice change of place, Sparkster will occasionally take to the skies with his rocket pack to engage in some shooting action reminiscent of Gradius. Controls are simple but still nuanced, which is always a key to success in any game of this kind. One button makes Sparkster jump and the other will attack with his sword. The sword attack has more range to it than you might expect, as each swing will also fire off an energy blast that can travel about 2/3 the length of the screen.

Sparkster’s rocket pack is what really takes the action to a whole other level, though, since it enhances both your attacks and movement in a variety of ways. Holding the attack button down for a couple seconds will charge it up and releasing the button will unleash it. If Sparkster is standing still, he’ll spin rapidly in place and deal heavy damage to anything nearby. If you’re holding down a directional button, he’ll blast off at high speed in that same direction with his sword held out in front of him. You can use this to attack foes, reach high platforms and items, and even ricochet off walls like a bullet to attack from unexpected angles. Sparkster is mostly invincible while executing a charged rocket attack but that doesn’t mean that you can get away with abusing them. Each level has its share of pits, spikes, traps, and other environmental hazards, so if you’re just rocketing around recklessly, you will regret it. Learning exactly how and when to unleash Sparkster’s charge attacks is the key to doing well and the process is so, so fun.

There are seven levels total for Sparkster to traverse. This may not seem like a lot but each one is fairly long and is broken up into several unique locations and action set pieces. There are also around sixteen bosses battles spread throughout the game. These are all unique, too, and have multiple phases and attack patterns to deal with. In fact, RKA doesn’t rely on padding or asset recycling of any kind, which is really unusual for an older game. Instead, every stage utilizes 100% original enemies, obstacles, backgrounds, and music. To cap it all off, the stage designs are masterful thrill rides brimming with invention and represent one-time superdeveloper Konami at its very best.

This game looks gorgeous and a big part of that is the art direction. The choice to depict a whimsical world populated by cute animals reminiscent of Golden Age Disney cartoons means that the designers were able to focus on big, bold primary colors and didn’t need to stretch the system’s limited palette too thin by struggling to depict more realistic characters and settings. The characters are drawn full of personality and their animations are smooth. To pick just one example, Sparkster looks so, so adorable fighting off enemies while hanging upside down from his tail in true possum style. The music follows suit by perfectly complimenting the blend of cute visuals and intense action. You know you’re in for some unforgettable tunes when both Michiru Yamane, famed for her work in the Castlevania games, and Mr. Silent Hill himself, Akira Yamaoka, both contributed to Rocket Knight’s score.

Rocket Knight Adventures is not terribly difficult, though it does require some practice and knowledge of the level layouts to complete. The game has four difficulty levels to choose from. The first three are all very managable and seem to vary mainly in the amount of damage that Sparkster takes from enemies and hazards. The fourth (Very Hard) starts you out with only one life and kills you after one hit from anything. Definitely not my cup of tea but it’s nice that they included a mode for those players who enjoy playing a game over and over and over (and over!) until they’ve completely mastered it.

This is the part of the review where I try to find something negative to say about the game in the interest of fairness and objectivity. I’m normally pretty good at this but here I’m kind of stumped! Rocket Knight Adventures is one of the very finest action games I’ve ever played and it has no noteworthy flaws to speak of. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the best of Konami’s 16-bit action-platformers. Yes, even better than stuff like Super Castlevania IV and Contra III: The Alien Wars. With those games, great as they are, I can still find a few non-trivial faults if I look, such as the overpowered nature of Simon Belmont relative to his enemies in Castlevania IV or Contra III’s mediocre overhead view levels. Rocket Knight Adventures has no such weak points. It’s about as close to perfection as a game realistically gets and it’s a bit of a bummer that I haven’t been playing it ever since it came out.

I guess sometimes it is worth doing what Nintendon’t.

M.U.S.H.A. (Genesis)


Oh, yeah. She just looks thrilled at the prospect.

I thought I’d take a little break from platformers this week, so I decided to give Compile’s acclaimed 1990 shooter M.U.S.H.A. a shot. It’s been a while since I played a shooter, with the most recent one being another Compile classic, The Guardian Legend, back in February. It’s no coincidence, since I just can’t get enough Compile goodness. For me, they made the absolute best overhead shooters of the 8 and 16-bit age and I’ve always had a preference for overhead (vertical) shooters over side view (horizontal) ones. I think they just feel more “open” somehow; like I have more space available on the screen to maneuver, even if I actually may not.

(By “shooter,” of course, I mean the classic “fly around in a little spaceship and blast all the other spaceships” experience, not a first person shooter, but you probably already knew that.)

Anyway, Musha is part of the long-running Aleste series, hence its Japanese title, Musha Aleste. In the West, M.U.S.H.A. was presented as the contrived acronym for “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor,” but it’s really just supposed to be the Japanese word for “warrior,” so I’m just referring to the game as Musha from here on out.

Plots aren’t the most important feature in an old school shooter by a long shot, and Musha’s is no exception. It’s the future and an evil supercomputer named “Dire 51” decides to go all Skynet and take over the galaxy. With a name like that, humanity really should have seen it coming. The last hope lies with the Musha team and all five of them set off to save the day. Hilariously, your four teammates get blown up immediately after the opening cut scene, leaving your character Terri (“valedictorian from Air & Space University”) to do all the actual fighting. I’m guessing she’s the only one who paid attention at giant robot pilot school. Hope all those keggers were worth it, guys.

There are seven levels of carnage on offer in Musha and each one is an archetypal Compile meatgrinder of high speed enemies punctuated by a mini-boss fight at around the halfway marker, except for the final level, which is a brutal gauntlet featuring a grand total of four bosses.

Luckily, you have some decent weaponry to take it all on with. Your primary shot travels straight forward and is pretty puny to start out. Thankfully, you can upgrade it to fire a spread of up to four projectiles at once if you can stay alive long enough. There are also three special weapons for you to pick up: Missiles that carpet bomb a wide swath of the screen in front of you, a laser that projects a constant stream of damage straight forward, and a rotating shield that can block enemy bullets and damage foes on contact. These special weapons can also be upgraded three times with additional pickups. Somewhat unusually for the genre, they also supplement your primary shot rather than replacing it. Special weapons also act as your armor, since you can survive one hit while equipped with one, but this will cause you to lose it, so you’d better scramble for a replacement fast!

Three special weapons doesn’t sound like a lot for a game of this kind but you also have a final means of attack: Options. These are tiny satellites that orbit your primary ship and fire in tandem with your main gun. You acquire options by shooting the “chip carriers” that you encounter in each level. These will then disgorge glowing chips that you’ll need to catch as they fall toward the bottom of the screen. Every three chips obtained will grant you an option. You can only have a maximum of two option satellites active at a time, but extra ones are stored away for later and will automatically deploy to replace any active ones destroyed by enemy fire. These options are very versatile weapons since they can be instructed to fire in six different patterns at any time. They can shoot ahead of you, behind you, in spread patterns, and more. You can even instruct them to break away from you and seek out enemies to attack but sending them out on their own and unprotected can result in them being destroyed at an increased rate. Choosing the right option formation for the right part of each level is key to success in Musha.

One final interesting control facet is a manual throttle. You can pause the game and press left or right to adjust your ship’s movement speed. This comes in handy in a variety of ways. You can slow down to maneuver accurately in tight quarters or speed up to better dodge enemy missiles. Since being either too slow or too fast is a perennial problem in shooter games, this unusual option really is one of those “Why doesn’t every game have this?” features.

So the gameplay is awesome and surprisingly deep but how about the rest of the package? The graphics are well drawn and there’s a lot of awesome parallax scrolling effects going on in the stages that confer a spectacular sense of depth and speed, but the real standout visual element is the wild stage and enemy design. Where else are you going to fight a giant space pagoda bristling with cannons or a flying battleship with a huge Japanese Noh theater mask face? As nice as this game looks, though, nothing can compare to Toshiaki Sakoda’s godlike soundtrack. The Sega Genesis catches a lot of flack for its older FM sound chip’s weakness relative to the Super Nintendo’s audio hardware and Musha definitely does have a lot of that twangy Genesis synth guitar that a lot of chiptune afficianados are so down on. Any weaknesses in the instrumentation are completely superseded, however, by the sheer epic radness of the thrash metal-inspired compositions. There are not a lot of Genesis soundtracks that I’d really want to pump up the volume on, but this is one of them. As of now, it’s my own personal favorite musical score for the system.

As far as downsides in Musha, there are a couple minor quirks, but no serious flaws. There’s a little slowdown when the screen gets extremely crowded, though it’s not that common or that severe. It would have also been nice to be able to change your option satellite configuration while the game is paused, similar to how you adjust your ship’s speed. Six potential configurations are a lot to cycle through during a hectic fight, especially if you’re trying to divide your attention between your ship at the bottom of the screen and the text at the top that shows your current option setting.

Now for the elephant in the room: Original Musha cartridges are expensive as hell. As a genre, only RPGs seem to rival shooters for hyper-inflated prices on the secondary market. If you’re not prepared to drop $200 or more, you’re probably out of luck. I played Musha on a $10 reproduction cartridge because 100% of the game for 5% of the price sounded like a great deal to me. I’m a player first and no serious collector by any means. As a general rule I’ll never pay more for an old game than I would for a new one. I figure that if I can’t get an original copy of the game for $60 or less, I’ll either find a cheaper way to play it on my console (like a repro or a flash cartridge) or just play something else instead. But that’s just me. If you want to shell out for a “real” Musha for your collection, more power to you. The point I’m driving at here is: If you love quality vertical shooters, you owe it to yourself to play Musha somehow. It may just be the best of its class on the Genesis, which is a system renowned for its abundance of great shooter titles.

Just do yourself a favor and take really good notes at Air & Space University.