Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Are video games art?

It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.

As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.

Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.

With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.

To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.

Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.

Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:

“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”

This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.

Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.

The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.

April fools! This game is shit, y’all.

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.

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

For a simple PC Engine shoot-’em-up, 1991’s Final Soldier is a surprisingly tricky game to write about. Produced by Hudson Soft and developed by Now Production, it’s the third entry in Hudson’s flagship Star Soldier line of vertical shooters. Upholding series tradition, it served as the centerpiece of that year’s Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, a long-running (1985-2006) annual high score contest the company used to promote its latest games. It’s well-designed, attractively presented alien blasting. It’s…well, it’s more Star Soldier. See what I mean? Only one paragraph into this review and I’m already running short of material.

When dealing with a franchise this consistent, I’m probably best off adopting a Mega Man approach. That is, getting the boilerplate stuff out of the way as quickly as possible so I can focus instead on the subtle tweaks that make a specific installment ever so slightly different from what came before. Here goes!

Final Soldier has a classic space shooter plot, in that it’s short, sweet, and confined entirely to the instruction booklet. Time travelling aliens called the Gader’el are attacking 23rd century Earth and the experimental Dryad fighter craft is humanity’s last line of defense. Its mission encompasses seven lengthy stages set in a variety of conventional video game locales, such as outer space, the ocean, and a futuristic city. Each zone has a pushover mid-boss and a tougher end boss, except the final one, which is an extended running battle against the ultimate baddie and its swarm of minions. Nothing special, but kudos to the developers for not padding the finale out with a lazy boss rush like so many other shooters of the era.

The weapon system is where things get interesting. The Dryad has a machine gun type main shot by default and this can be swapped out for energy waves, lasers, or a flamethrower by picking up icons of the appropriate color dropped by defeated enemies. Grabbing multiple same colored icons in a row will level-up your current weapon, increasing its area of effect and damage. Upgraded weapons also double as armor, since getting hit while wielding one results in a loss of firepower in lieu of instant death. Missiles and Gradius style option pods round out your arsenal, which is a pretty typical one by genre standards. Final Soldier’s ace in the hole is the Set-Up menu accessed from the title screen. Here, you can change the properties of the energy wave, laser, flamethrower, and missiles (though not the machine gun for some reason). The three modes available for a given weapon have a profound effect on its operation. For example, the normal straight laser shot can be swapped out for a chaotic torrent of blue bubbles. This effectively ups the number of unique weapons in the game from a modest five to a generous thirteen. Even the option pods have a nifty secondary function: You can sacrifice them as needed to trigger a full-screen super attack.

Another factor that differentiates Final Soldier from earlier Star Soldier outings is its relative ease. Super Star Soldier pushed my patience to the limit with its grueling, glitchy last area. Someone behind the scenes must have felt the same way, because there’s nothing remotely comparable here. Final Soldier’s default difficulty setting will be a cakewalk for any experienced player. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a more casual “kick back and blaze away” experience and reminds me of some of my favorite Compile-developed shooters in this regard. If you’re a fellow Gun-Nac or Space Megaforce fan, you’ll be right at home. Besides, I can always throw Super Star Soldier back on if I want an ass kicking.

So there you have it: Final Soldier is the same tried-and-true Star Soldier formula with a deeper than average weapon system and a relaxed approach to challenge. Between its crisp graphics, high energy music, silky smooth control, and viscerally satisfying shooting action, you really can’t go wrong with this one. While I wouldn’t rank it at the very top of the PCE heap with Air Zonk and Blazing Lazers, it’s still a highly competent work with no outstanding flaws. Pity it was destined to be the “lost” Star Soldier game back in the day, having never been ported to the North American TurboGrafx-16 like its predecessor, Super Star Soldier, or its sequel, Soldier Blade. Sequel? Why, of course! You didn’t think this was the final one, did you?

U.N. Squadron (Super Nintendo)

Hey, Super Nintendo fans: Are you ready for the sort of pulse pounding, face melting action that could only come from the most extreme intergovernmental organization on the planet? That’s right, I’m talking about the United goddamn Nations! So strap in, punks, because they’re coming at you with all 193 member states and at least as many ways to kick your ass in their official video game adaptation, U.N. Squadron!

Yeah, so Capcom’s 1991 horizontal shooter U.N. Squadron has nothing at all to do with its real world namesake. It’s based on the manga Area 88, about mercenary jet pilots operating out of the war-torn and wholly fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom of Arslan. Given Area 88’s obscurity outside Japan, a new name for the international editions made sense. I only wish they’d arrived at a more viscerally appealing one. The name is all that’s been changed, too. This isn’t one of those cases where licensed elements were stripped out of a game wholesale. The Area 88 characters and the eponymous air base itself are still present in U.N. Squadron.

In most games of this type, such details wouldn’t really matter. U.N. Squadron, however, uses its license to justify a number of clever design choices which set it apart from its contemporaries. For example, the first thing you’re expected to do is pick your character. Each of the three playable pilots has his own special ability. Shin Kazama is able to power-up his plane’s main gun the fastest. Mickey Scymon can carry the most missiles, bombs, and other limited use sub-weapons. Last, and definitely not least, my main man Greg Gates recovers from damage twice as fast as the rest. Be advised that once you choose, you’re committed for the duration of your current playthrough. In general, the durable Greg is ideal for beginners, Shin shines at the intermediate level, and Mickey is hard mode.

After you’ve settled on a pilot, you next need to choose your plane and its special weapon loadout. The manga’s mercenary premise is represented brilliantly here by an in-game economy based on your performance in battle. Every target you destroy and mission you complete earns you cold, hard cash in addition to the standard points and extra lives. You’ll want to scrape together all the blood money you can in order to afford better planes and more powerful weapons over the course of your campaign. I love the thorny strategic tradeoffs baked into this shop system. Loading your jet up with as many added weapons as possible will increase your odds of survival, but you’ll lose every penny sunk into them if you’re shot down anyway. Similarly, upgrading your ride from the default Crusader, which has no particular strengths to speak of, to a more capable craft like the Tomcat or Thunderbolt can be helpful in the mid-game. At the same time, doing so may prevent you from ever being able to afford the very best plane, the million dollar Efreet.

You now have a pilot, a plane, and an arsenal. Would you believe you’re not making decisions yet? U.N. Squadron also works in a tactical map screen that doubles as a mission select menu. You’re given a fair amount of leeway when it comes to which order you want to tacked the game’s ten stages in, apart from the first and last ones, which are fixed. Complicating things further, a few map markers represent mobile air or sea units advancing on Area 88. If they make it there, you’ll be forced to fight them off regardless of your personal preference.

All this player choice cropping up in what’s typically an extremely straightforward style of game is emblematic of a Capcom tradition that dates back to the 1986 NES port of Commando: Heavily retooling an arcade title with an eye toward bolstering the home version’s replayability. U.N. Squadron’s arcade iteration from 1989 had traditional linear stage progression and restricted each pilot to his own signature aircraft. If it wasn’t for the loss of arcade’s two-player feature, this deeper Super Nintendo release would be superior in every way.

Of course, these fancy options need to be in service of some quality shooting action or the whole production would be in vain. I’m happy to report that U.N. Squadron doesn’t disappoint, delivering some truly remarkable gameplay and level design. Controls are precise and responsive. The six planes and eleven special weapons are all effective in their own ways and fun to experiment with. The various areas you battle in have distinct visual identities and their unique topographies actually inform your tactics. Enemy patterns are diverse. Bosses are huge, deadly, and immensely satisfying to take down. As if this all wasn’t enough, it also boasts audiovisual pizzazz to spare and runs significantly better than much of its early Super Nintendo competition, putting the likes of Gradius III and Super R-Type to shame in the framerate department. Simply put, this was Capcom at their peak, doing what they did best. Cracking stuff.

Difficulty-wise, U.N. Squadron is simultaneously fierce and forgiving. You’re quite unlikely to finish it on your first try, as considerable trial-and-error is required and you’re limited to just three continues. Your saving grace is the damage system. Unlike in most shooters, you won’t be blown out of the sky by a single stray bullet. Rather, you have a sort of conditional health bar. Taking a hit will put you into a special danger state for a few seconds. If you get hit again while in danger, you’re toast. Survive the danger period, though, and your health will recover to slightly less than what it was before you took that hit. You can’t repeat this cycle forever, sadly, since four or five consecutive hits will deplete the bar fully and leave you in danger indefinitely. Still, that’s four or five more hits than I’m used to being able to brush off in these games. It helps.

Any way you slice it, this is a top shelf shoot-’em-up, one of the best ever made for the SNES. Even the most strident of genre snobs, who never hesitate to give the console grief for its pokey CPU, generally hail U.N. Squadron as a masterpiece. In a perfect world, it would have been the start of a magnificent series. Instead, its legacy is limited to a lone arcade pseudo-sequel, the obscure Carrier Air Wing. About the only complaint I can muster is that it’s yet another case of a vintage shooter with no true built-in autofire for your main gun. Either game developers back then were all in bed with the turbo controller manufacturers or they vastly overestimated their audience’s fondness for incessant tapping. Oh, well. I suppose if any game is worth a little finger pain, it’s this one.

Gun-Nac (NES)

Pulverizing your enemies: The true reason for the season.

Ho, ho, ho! Merry Compilemas! Time for another present to myself in the form of a “new” offering from one of my most appreciated developers. I had so much fun with Compile’s formative classic Zanac back in December of 2017 that I decided to make returning to this particular well a Christmas tradition for as long as possible. This year, I’m unwrapping 1990’s Gun-Nac for the NES. It’s yet another vertically-scrolling shooter in the time-tested Zanac/Aleste mold. There’s one key difference this time, though: Gun-Nac is a “cute-’em-up” that sees you repelling an invasion of adorable animals and prosaic household objects instead of the usual alien armada.

If you’re inclined to believe the English instruction manual, Gun-Nac takes place in a faraway “synthetic solar system” called IOTA Synthetica, where a mysterious cosmic force is causing all sorts of  unlikely things to spring to life and attack the populace. You control maverick space ace Commander Gun-Nac in his bid to to save the day. Given that you never see Commander Gun-Nac himself, you may suspect something was lost in translation. Sure enough, the extended cutscenes in the Japanese original reveal the story was meant to be set in our own solar system and star a lady magician in the garb of a Shinto shrine maiden who summons her high tech spaceship with a spell. I’m not sure why this rather charming element was removed. It reminds me of how my last Compile Christmas selection, Space Megaforce, also ditched its pilot characters, Raz and Thi, in favor of another unseen protagonist. It’s almost like whoever was in charge of localizing these titles was actively striving to keep them as bland as possible for some reason.

Oh, well. On to the blasting! Gun-Nac is made up of eight stages. Nine, if you count the hidden “area zero” accessible by setting the sound test in the option menu to five, which enables the level select function. Per usual for Compile, they’re all quite lengthy and most include at least one mid-boss in addition to a final boss. The wacky theming starts off strong with a cratered lunar surface where killer bunny robots deploy heat-seeking carrots against you. Weird as that is, there is context for it. In China, Japan, and other parts of Asia, the “face” on the moon is thought to resemble a rabbit, an association that’s influenced mythology and art for centuries. The more you know. Later stages pit you against paper products, money, and other absurd threats.

The action itself is pure Aleste. Your ship can cycle between four speed settings at will, equip five primary shot types represented by numbered icons, and carry four flavors of limited use elemental super bomb for emergencies. Gathering power chips will enhance your primary gun and the wing item bulks up your ship, allowing it to withstand an extra hit before it’s destroyed. One entirely new addition is money bag pickups, which you can exchange for various ship upgrades at between-level shops. These resemble fast food establishments, except they vend death rays and explosive ordinance instead of burgers and fries. Gotta love that smiling girl at the counter with her paper hat and name tag.

When it comes to this tried-and-true formula, I essentially have no complaints. Gun-Nac is a prime example of the Compile house style. It and its fellows are among my most treasured gaming memories for good reason. They’re invariably fast-paced and hectic, with pinpoint-accurate controls and little, if any, slowdown. On top of this, you get a plethora of exciting weapons to wield and a relatively forgiving design that allows for a much less punishing play experience than is typical for the genre. Some critics have claimed these games are too easy, too samey, or that their levels drag on too long. Allowing for personal preference, this is all fair enough. Certainly, Gun-Nac is notably easy on its default difficulty setting. I was able to complete it on my very first attempt without needing to continue even once. Good luck pulling that off in Gradius or R-Type! For me, however, auto-scrolling shooters just don’t get any better. If you’ve enjoyed any of the studio’s similar works (Zanac, The Guardian Legend, Power Strike, Blazing Lazers, Space Megaforce, etc), I can virtually guarantee you’ll like this one, too.

There is one thing that disappointed me about Gun-Nac, although it’s unrelated to the gameplay proper. Despite being billed as Compile’s take on the cute-’em-up subgenre, it doesn’t seem the design team was prepared to fully embrace the unbridled insanity that usually implies. Comparing Gun-Nac’s art and sound direction to that of cutsey staples like TwinBee, Parodius, and Fantasy Zone reveals it to occupy an awkward middle ground between them and the typical “straight” shooter. Some stages (like the previously mentioned rabbit-infested moon) are as kooky as can be. Others are decidedly restrained. In fact, the further you progress, the more things start to resemble an average Aleste game. The final stage is a stock metallic techno-fortress that features no oddball enemies at all, only common spaceships and gun turrets. It’s as if Gun-Nac’s creators couldn’t agree on what sort of tone to aim for. That, or they happened to have a bunch of leftover sprites and background tiles laying around from other projects and opted to cobble together another game out of them.

Gun-Nac may be aesthetically disjointed, but its familiar, masterful action still succeeded in making my already blissful holiday season that little bit brighter. I can’t think of a better note to close out another amazing year of gaming goodness on. It’s been a true blessing to have had the opportunity to explore another 59 vintage games with you all over the past twelve months. I have some important milestones coming up in 2020, including the biggie: Review #200, which will focus on my all-time most beloved game for my favorite console. Until then, Merry Christmas and a sincere thanks to each and every one of you.

Dragon Fighter (NES)

Well, last week’s review was a bit of a wash. Konami let me down for once with their dud of an RPG, Dragon Scroll. Fortunately, I can rely on another of my all-time favorite developers to deliver a dragon game worth playing. I’m talking about Natsume. Much of their early ’90s output flew under the radar initially, only to ascend to cult status years later within the classic gaming community. Most people with an abiding interest in the NES today hardly need to be told that Natsume greats like Power Blade and Shatterhand are worth seeking out. These gems are hidden no more.

Despite this, nobody ever seems to talk about my subject today, 1990’s Dragon Fighter. Why is that? It’s possible Dragon Fighter’s North American publisher, SOFEL, underproduced or undermarketed the game when they brought it out here in early 1992. Authentic copies command ridiculous prices at auction, which seems to lend credence to the notion that there just aren’t that many in circulation. Its cover art certainly didn’t do it any favors, either. The titular sword-swinging hero looks less like Conan and more like a musclebound version of David “Ross” Schwimmer from TV’s Friends. It’s pretty gross.

In all seriousness, I may never know for sure why Dragon Fighter appears destined to remain the forgotten Natsume NES title. I do know it’s a successful hybrid of two popular genres and a damn fine time overall, however. That’s good enough for me.

Your objective is to deliver the once peaceful land of Baljing from the oppression of the warlock Zabbaong. To this end, you assume the role of a warrior statue animated by the power of Baljing’s divine protector, the Dragon Spirit. Standard fantasy stuff, really. Kudos to Natsume for not trying to shoehorn a princess in there, though. There are a total of six stages the Fighter needs to survive before the final showdown with Zabbaong in the skies above Mount Gia. Each is wholly unique, with its own backgrounds, enemies, and music track. The designers resisted the obvious temptation to pad things out by recycling some of this content into “new” levels, leaving Dragon Fighter to stand as a fine example of a short game done right.

At first blush, Dragon Fighter presents as a typical hack-and-slash exercise. The first stage deposits you in an icy wasteland teeming with wolfmen and killer snowflakes. Naturally, you’ll start mowing them down with your primary weapon, a sword. As you do this, you’ll notice a gauge below your health bar gradually filling up. The manual dubs this the “metamorph meter” and once it’s at least 50% filled, it’ll start flashing. At any point thereafter, you can hold up on the directional pad while jumping to transform into a flying dragon. This not only powers you up, it instantly and seamlessly changes Dragon Fighter’s genre! Whereas before you were playing an action-platformer, you’re now operating in a Gradius style auto-scrolling shooter mode.

In addition to being unbound by gravity, your dragon will have one of three powerful breath attacks. These are a triple spread shot, a downward arcing fire bomb, and homing fireballs. The one you get depends on the current color of the Fighter’s armor. It starts out green (spread shot) and can be changed to red (bomb) or blue (homing) by picking up letter icons placed along your path. The Fighter’s human form can also fire off a charged projectile attack with a similar effect, although baddies defeated this way won’t count toward the metamorph meter. If you want my advice, stick to blue whenever possible. Your dragon’s one weakness is that it can only face (and shoot) to the right. Homing shots work wonders against anything that manages to get behind you.

Like all good things, your time as a dragon must end sooner or later. The metamorph meter steadily depletes with use and only kills with the sword can refill it. You’ll either be forced to revert to human form when you run out of meter or you’ll change back voluntarily before then (by pressing down and jump) in order to conserve it. The need to manage this precious resource adds a welcome degree of strategy to Dragon Fighter. Levels aren’t timed and they all feature endlessly respawning enemies. This means that if you want to progress slow and steady, always taking the time to keep your metamorph meter charged, you can. This is probably the best way for novices to approach the game, as you’re only given four lives with which to complete all six stages. More advanced players can skip the enemy farming and press ahead at a steadier pace. If you’re a real master, you can even try to tackle entire levels as a human. It’s always at least possible. This strategic cycling between the hero’s two forms allows Dragon Fighter to stand out some among the endless sea of 8-bit side-scrollers. The way each represents an entirely different play style without the game as a whole feeling disjointed is a testament to the quality design work Natsume was doing around this time.

Things are equally commendable on the audiovisual side. The starting area makes a great first impression with falling snow, glittering ice crystals, and a color-shifting aurora borealis in the background. Later ones showcase similarly impressive moving backdrops, such as waterfalls, massive machines, and the rushing clouds of Mount Gia. Sprites tend to be modest in size (in order to allow plenty of room for your dragon to fly around in), but make up for it by being quite well animated. Kouichi Yamanishi’s score utilizes the same superb in-house sound engine as his one for Shadow of the Ninja and the results are every bit as intense and memorable. Stage three’s theme, “Into the Depth,” ranks among the best ever composed for the hardware, in my opinion.

True to its pedigree, Dragon Fighter is a the epitome of a B-tier action game on the NES. It can’t quite match the intricate level design of a Castlevania, the blistering pace of a Ninja Gaiden, or the variety of a Mega Man, yet it commits no major design sins and has an identity and a charm all its own. While it hasn’t replaced Shatterhand as my personal favorite Natsume release, it’s very much on par with their Power Blade, Shadow of the Ninja, and S.C.A.T. for me. If you’re at all interested in exploring the system’s library beyond the realm of top ten lists, I encourage you to make time for Dragon Fighter. Provided you don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the privilege, that is. I’d better be getting a real dragon for that kind of money.

Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

It’s been a while since I checked with my favorite follicly challenged cave boy, Bonk. I’m also overdue for my classic shooter fix. Air Zonk to the rescue! This 1992 release (also known as the downright unpronounceable “PC Denjin Punkic Cyborg!/PC Denjin/Completion○/Clear×” in Japan) is Red Company and Hudson Soft’s attempt to reimagine their successful mascot platformers as a side-scrolling “cute-’em-up.” Whereas Bonk strolled around his prehistoric world wrecking uppity dinosaurs with his massive cranium, his futuristic counterpart Zonk is a cyborg who flies around shooting them.

Zonk’s most important upgrade wasn’t his rocket thrusters or bombs, but his cocky Sonicesque swagger. He was famously part of a last-ditch effort by NEC and Hudson Soft (under the joint Turbo Technologies banner) to rescue their struggling TurboGrafx-16 in North America, where the Genesis and Super Nintendo were eating its lunch. He became the sass-infused mascot for the then-new TurboDuo revision of the console. Realistically speaking, no amount of radical ’90s ‘tude was going to undo years of major missteps in a cutthroat market. This shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against Air Zonk, however, which is one of the most enjoyable and technically impressive shooters on the system.

The story supplied in the manual is serviceable. Perennial series antagonist King Drool is out to conquer the world with his robot army. The only thing standing in his way? “Cool, sunglass-wearing warriors lead (sic) by Zonk.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the original King Drool, still alive somehow in the far future, or one of his descendants. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. The important thing is that Zonk and company have five very long, very strange stages of slapstick aerial combat ahead of them.

Yes, them. Air Zonk’s most interesting gameplay feature is easily its friend system. Destroyed enemies will leave behind smiley face icons. Collect enough of these and a big smiley will appear that summons one of Zonk’s buddies to fly alongside him and provide some extra firepower. If you can manage to collect a second big smiley in that same level, Zonk and his pal will merge together into a hybrid form with a unique attack and gain temporary invincibility. Ten different friend characters effectively means ten additional special weapons above and beyond the eight Zonk can equip by himself. Truly a staggering arsenal by genre standards. You get to decide at the beginning of each playthrough whether to let the game choose your friend character for each round or if you’d prefer to do it yourself. You can even opt to go solo, in which case Zonk will employ automated helper drones instead.

Between all these offensive tools and each stage containing multiple discrete segments and bosses, there’s more to Air Zonk’s gameplay than you might expect. Better still, it’s all exquisitely presented. Its soundtrack is a contender for the best to ever grace a HuCard format game, so much so that it arguably beats out the CD music in its own sequel, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. These tunes are upbeat, driving, and as densely packed with memorable hooks as any of their era. The visuals are no slouch, either. Artwork is crisp, bold, and makes striking use of the TG-16’s vibrant color palette. It also needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Many of the backgrounds showcase multi-layered parallax scrolling, despite the fact that it isn’t a built-in feature of the hardware and no doubt required much hard work on the programming side to implement this well.

I could praise Air Zonk’s audiovisual excellence all day. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make some effort to convey how bloody weird it is, though. While it’s bright colors and cartoon style do recall cutesy shooters like Fantasy Zone and TwinBee, the game’s whole aesthetic really skews more bizarre with a side of the grotesque than it does conventionally sweet and adorable. Take one enemy you counter early on in level five. It appears to be a hovering elephant skeleton with glowing red eyes. In a moderately eccentric game, that would be odd enough. Not here. The artists went ahead and added some sort of deformed green head with bulging bloodshot eyes to the top of the skeleton. Still not satisfied, they gave that head a tumor-like cluster of tinier heads sprouting from it! I had to pause and stare at this thing for a good minute or so the first time I encountered it, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be looking at. That’s just one example of the insanity on display, too. Zonk fought alongside a sentient baseball, got transformed into a milk squirting man-cow creature, and more. Hell, the Japanese version has him producing exploding turds (each wearing its own pair of matching Zonk shades!) by holding the fire down button long enough. Alas, these are replaced by bombs overseas.

So far, what I’ve been describing is a 16-bit shooter fan’s dream come true. Wildly varied action? Spectacular graphics and sound? A sense of humor that’s unhinged in the best possible way? Sign me up for all that! Sadly, Air Zonk does stumble in one important area: Difficulty balancing. Relatively chill for the majority of its run time, its fifth and final stage is a real bastard, with five waves of regular enemies broken up by no less than nine boss fights. Nine! Getting blindsided with this near R-Type degree of brutality is off-putting for sure. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a game’s final level should be its toughest, but making it far and away tougher than the rest of the lot combined is pushing the principle entirely too far. A more reasonable idea would have been to break this marathon finale up into two separate stages with a checkpoint in-between. Thank heavens for unlimited continues, eh?

Unfortunate as it is, Air Zonk’s last minute Jekyll and Hyde turn wasn’t enough to put me off it altogether. It still earns a hearty recommendation on the strength of its unbridled creativity, technical prowess, and bounty of meaningful play options. My only true regret is that we never got the Bonk/Zonk crossover we deserve. Imagine these two joining forces across time, with Bonk handling the platforming duties and Zonk the shoot-’em-up mayhem. It’s only the most obvious collaboration since chocolate and peanut butter, guys. Yeesh!