Soldier Blade (TurboGrafx-16)

Our world can be a terrifyingly uncertain place. Saving it from aliens, though? That’s simple. With this in mind, let’s escape to 2092 and join the heroic SIA (Special Interception Air force) as they defend Earth from the invading Zeograd Army in Soldier Blade for the TurboGrafx-16.

Developed and published by Hudson Soft in 1992, Soldier Blade caps off a de facto trilogy of 16-bit Star Soldier sequels that began with 1990’s Super Star Soldier and continued the following year with the deceptively named Final Soldier. It boasts quite the sterling reputation, with some fans proclaiming it the finest vertical shooter available on a platform teeming with them. I don’t think I have the experience under my belt yet to confirm or deny that. I can say that it’s my personal favorite Soldier title by a good margin, however. It’s no quantum leap over its predecessors, but it is the best looking, best sounding, and best balanced of the three.

These games aren’t known for their complexity or innovation. No frills arcade style shooting is the order of the day, and Soldier Blade stays true to form throughout its seven moderate length stages. There’s a streamlined power-up system in effect that revolves around three shot types: Red bullets (the default), blue lasers, and green energy waves. Collecting an icon of the corresponding color will switch you to that type and snagging multiples of the same color in a row will raise your current weapon’s level, to a maximum of three. Keeping your level up is key, since it pulls double duty as your health. As long as it’s sitting at two or better, taking a hit will downgrade your firepower one step instead of killing you outright.

An interesting new wrinkle is the way Soldier Blade handles its bombs and option drones. Final Soldier combined these two functions into a single item. Soldier Blades takes this a step further by implementing a sort of grand unified power-up scheme. The last three weapon icons you’ve collected are kept in stock as bombs. The most recently acquired one also trails your ship and functions as an option. When needed, you can sacrifice your active option to trigger a powerful bomb attack. Unlike in Final Soldier, the type of attack produced isn’t always the same. Rather, it’s tied to the color of the option sacrificed. Green is a massive homing orb, for example, and blue a gigantic sustained laser blast. Additionally, expending an option in this way has the potential to alter your primary shot, which will automatically be set to match the color of the next one in the rotation. In essence, there’s only one type of pickup in Soldier Blade and it governs all aspects of your offense and defense. Elegant!

Above all, what elevates Soldier Blade above the previous two Star Soldiers for me is the goldilocks quality of its difficulty balancing. Super Star Soldier felt like more of an ordeal than a game at times, even with the unlimited continues common to the series. The terminally laid-back Final Soldier embraced the opposite extreme. Soldier Blade gets it just right. I’m never frustrated or bored at any point during a playthrough.

Beyond that, all the elements at play here, familiar as they are, have an extra layer of refinement to them. Boss encounters are deeper and more dynamic, with each mechanical monstrosity having several distinct parts that need to be taken out over the course of the fight. I especially love how the last boss shows up as early as the first level to take a few potshots at you before retreating. Lord knows it’s rare for a shooter of this vintage to put any kind of effort into establishing an antagonist like that, but Soldier Blade goes the extra mile. The same can be said for the graphics and music. Sprites are detailed and colorful, backgrounds showcase some superb parallax scrolling effects, and the soundtrack rocks so hard that I had to make a concerted effort not to focus too much on it as I was playing lest I crash and burn.

My only real gripe with Soldier Blade’s gameplay is that your main weapons don’t really perform that differently under normal conditions. Whether you’re using the bullets, lasers, or energy waves, your shot pattern starts out narrow and then gradually expands to cover a wider forward arc. Thus, they’re largely interchangeable. The only noteworthy exception is the bullets, which also fire behind you when upgraded. I would have preferred more variety. Better yet, they could have kept Final Soldier’s awesome weapon edit mode. Oh, well. As it is, the selection is at least adequate.

Soldier Blade doesn’t revolutionize the genre, nor does it need to. It’s a brilliantly polished gem of an overhead shooter: Fast, smooth, addicting, and one hell of a looker. Hudson Soft seemingly learned all the right lessons from past installments, resulting in a quintessential Star Soldier experience slick and well-paced enough to entertain veterans without scaring off newcomers. Perfect for any time you’d rather be struggling against another planet’s monsters for a change.

Crisis Force (Famicom)

When I want to really treat myself, nothing satisfies quite like new old Konami. It’s a testament to the studio’s once unrivaled prowess that they were able to captivate audiences worldwide throughout the ’80 and ’90s despite so many of their finest titles never making it to market outside Japan. It was a true embarrassment of riches.

Take Crisis Force here. This 1991 vertical shooter is one of the best of its kind on the Famicom…and only the Famicom. As a high-quality regional exclusive with a late release date and no requisite language skills, you can expect to pay upwards of U.S. $85 for a used copy today. That may not seem too outrageous. It’s slightly less than the inflation-adjusted price of an NES cartridge circa 1991, after all. The Famicom is generally an affordable system to collect for, however, and any game approaching the three-figure threshold is a major outlier.

In Crisis Force, one or two players assume control of teen siblings Asuka and Maya as they repel an Atlantean invasion force attacking Japan. Yes, this is the second game I’ve covered this year (the other being G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor) where the mythic lost continent rises from the sea to threaten humanity. You’d think getting sunk by the gods once would have taught these jerks better manners. Anyway, Asuka and Maya happen to be the last living descendants of Mu, another hokey made up civilization, meaning that they alone can pilot the powerful Aurawing craft and save the day.

Based on that description, it’s clear the developers drew from the same “ancient aliens” well that produced Gradius’ iconic moai head enemies. A better point of comparison might actually be stage five from the NES port of Life Force, as Crisis Force’s Atlanteans share a similar Egyptian flair. Some even fire hieroglyph-embossed laser beams at you! Big points for style there.

Attaining victory requires you to conquer seven levels of increasingly hectic aerial combat, a task that should take roughly forty minutes. Provided you don’t run out of lives and have to start burning through your three continues, that is. It’s a fairly average runtime for the genre. The difficulty, at least on the default setting, tends toward the forgiving. This is one of those shooters where your weapon power-ups double as ablative armor. Get hit while your main gun is upgraded and you’ll be docked firepower in lieu of a life. When you do die, the game is kind enough to respawn you on the spot with a fresh stock of super bombs rather than busting you back to a checkpoint empty-handed.

The highlight of Crisis Force is the mighty Aurawing itself. It can morph between three functionally distinct forms at will. These let you direct the lion’s share of your fire forward, backward, or to the sides as needed. Each of the three primary forms has it own bomb type, as well. Of course, the enemy and stage design are very much planned around your offensive flexibility. I like to think of it as a gentler take on Toaplan’s Hellfire.

There’s also a temporary fourth ship transformation triggered by collecting five of a specific power-up icon. If there’s a second player along for the ride when this occurs, both on-screen Aurawings will merge, leaving player one in the driver’s seat. This uber-Aurawing is invincible and dishes out massive damage, but the strict time limit makes it tough to maintain for more than thirty seconds or so. A key strategy is to collect four of the necessary transformation orbs and then hold off on grabbing the last one until it’s time to confront a boss.

Konami opted to use their custom VRC4 memory mapper chip to enhance Crisis Force’s visuals. The results speak for themselves, with the parallax scrolling backgrounds in particular standing out as some of the flashiest on the platform. About the only other Famicom shooter that can give it a run for its money in the graphics department is fellow VRC4 wunderkind Gradius II. The soundtrack is a not to be underestimated, either. My heart was pounding right out of the gate thanks to one of the most energetic opening level themes I’ve ever heard. That percussion!

If it wasn’t for the occasional patch of slowdown, especially in two-player mode, Crisis Force would be a virtually flawless example of the formula that made Konami such a juggernaut in the 8-bit era: Six or seven concise, action-packed stages polished to a mirror sheen and crowned with as lavish a presentation as the hardware will allow. In this regard, it rates right up there with the likes of Castlevania, Contra/Super C, Jackal, and Life Force. If you’re into that sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to step up and give those pushy Atlanteans what for. Soggy bastards have it coming.

Twinkle Tale (Mega Drive)

Twinkle, twinkle, little game,
Too bad your cost is a shame!

Much of the world recalls Sega’s Mega Drive/Genesis console as a massive success. One of the few exceptions is the company’s own home turf, Japan, where is was vastly outsold by both the Super Famicom and PC Engine. A lingering side-effect of this domestic underperformance is the sky-high prices some of the more popular Japanese Mega Drive exclusives command decades later. Such a one is my subject today, the 1992 run-and-gun shooter Twinkle Tale. With original copies currently selling for $400 and up, this is yet another case where I’m content to thank heaven for flash cartridges.

Twinkle Tale is the product of ZAP Corporation, a relatively minor outfit that dealt primarily with the MSX and other Japanese home computer platforms. Their only work to see release here in North America was the decidedly average TurboGrafx-16 spaceship shooter Dead Moon. Twinkle Tale ended up being ZAP’s swan song. That’s unfortunate, as it’s an overall solid take on the genre. Fans of better-known titles like Mercs, Shock Troopers, and Pocky & Rocky will find much to appreciate here.

Set in the enchanted world of Alpherion, Twinkle Tales stars the apprentice wizard Saria. One day, her master Olof sends her on an errand to the fortune teller Raza. Upon Saria’s arrival, Raza delivers the alarming news that a fellow magician by the name of Gadou has raised an army of monsters and is already in the process of using it to abduct Olof and the rest of the masters in hopes of harnessing their combined power to summon an unstoppable demon from hell. This leaves the inexperienced Saria as Alpherion’s last hope. Fortunately, Raza gifts her three powerful pieces of magic jewelry to serve as weapons against Gadou’s minions.

She’ll need all that firepower and more. The nine stages ahead are no joke. They teem with opponents large and small, as well as falling rocks, flame geysers, and other environmental hazards. Avoiding all this nastiness and fighting back effectively requires you to manage Saria’s zippy movement, her three main weapons, and a limited inventory of screen-wide “super bomb” spell attacks simultaneously. Even with a health bar that gradually expands from three hits at the start to a full eight by journey’s end, it’s not easy. Continues are also limited, but at least the game is pretty generous when it comes to doling out extra lives.

Apart from just not getting hit, the key to success is choosing the right weapon to take on a given enemy type or formation. Saria’s arsenal consists of three tried-and-true shooter archetypes: A strong, narrow straight shot, a slightly weaker spread shot, and a homing shot that deals the lowest damage of all. Each can be enhanced a total of twice with power-up icons, although every hit from an enemy will then lower the current weapon’s power level a step, to a minimum of one. It’s a simple system that still allows for fair amount of strategy. For example, there’s the classic dilemma of whether to save a level three weapon for a boss battle or to risk using it to fend off lesser enemies on the way to said boss.

With its cartoon fantasy aesthetic and frantic overhead view action, Twinkle Tale is frequently likened to Natsume’s Pocky & Rocky. While superficially apt, this comparison ultimately does Twinkle Tale no favors. It suffers from a couple of significant drawbacks that prevent it from reaching the same heights as its Super Nintendo rival. For starters, it’s a single-player only experience. As any arcade veteran will tell you, run-and-guns like this are akin to beat-’em-ups and tournament fighters in that they tend to feel incomplete without a buddy battling away by your side. The lack of such a feature here is therefore baffling.

I also would have appreciated more depth to Saria’s moveset. Pocky & Rocky allowed for projectile deflecting melee swipes and evasive slides in addition to the basic running, shooting, and bombing. These sorts of extra maneuvers make for a more interesting playthrough by enabling the designers to include enemy patterns and attacks that wouldn’t be fair if the player’s defensive options were restricted to standard eight-way movement. Their omission is understandable in light of the Mega Drive’s default three-button controller, however.

These limitations don’t ruin Twinkle Tale by any stretch of the imagination, even if they do keep it out of the running for the title of best 16-bit run-and-gun. It looks and sounds wonderful, with the pulse-pounding FM synth music being a particular highlight. Saria controls well and mastering her three weapons is great fun. So long as don’t mind having to go it alone and can avoid paying a fortune for the privilege, the challenge of delivering Alpherion from evil should prove quite the welcome one.

The Guardian Legend: Secret Edition (NES)

Compile’s 1988 action RPG/shooter hybrid The Guardian Legend is the quintessential NES sleeper hit. A brilliantly crafted tour-de-force by any measure, its relative complexity and the sheer audacity of its genre-bending antics prevented its titular robot heroine (also known as Miria in the Japanese release) from attaining household name status alongside the likes of Mario and Mega Man. It never received an official sequel and, given the dissolution of Compile in 2003, it likely never will.

Regardless, this once forgotten title has managed to constantly grow in stature over the years. Like Technōs’ River City Ransom, it gradually transitioned from a niche oddity to a mainstay on many enthusiasts’ top ten lists. It’s certainly an important game for me, seeing as my first playthrough back in 2017 ignited a love affair with old-school shooters that burns brightly to this day. So when I heard there was an unofficial ROM hack of the game available called The Guardian Legend: Secret Edition that includes all-new level layouts, bosses, and other surprises for veteran players, I was instantly intrigued. Better still, it was made by my personal favorite creator of NES fan games, Chris “Optomon” Lincoln, who took his online handle from one of TGL’s boss enemies. This sucker has got to be amazing, right? Well, yes and no.

As the name implies, Secret Edition frames itself as a sort of remixed version of the original game. The plot here is the same as it ever was: Naju, an artificial planetoid loaded with vicious alien life forms, is discovered to be moving through deep space on course to Earth. It falls on a the Guardian, a “highly sophisticated aerobot transformer” in a red bikini, to save Earth by infiltrating Naju and activating a sequence of ten self-destruct fail-safes. And yes, they straight-up called her a Transformer in the manual. Pretty gutsy. Nobody tell Hasbro, eh?

Gameplay is split more or less evenly into two distinct modes. One is a sprawling Legend of Zelda-inspired maze dubbed “the labyrinth” where the Guardian roams about on foot fighting enemies, collecting items, and searching for clues on how to access the various sealed self-destruct mechanisms. The other is a series of 22 vertically scrolling “corridor” sections. The corridors serve the same general purpose as Zelda’s dungeons, except they play out similarly to other Compile-made spaceship shooters of the time. Think Zanac, Gun-Nac, Aleste, etc. Unlike the protagonists of those games, however, the transforming Guardian can serve as her own spaceship!

Now that we all know what Secret Edition is based on, we can consider how well it fares as its own experience. Let’s start out positive. Optomon absolutely delivered everything he set out to. Secret Edition features a completely new labyrinth layout, new enemy arrangements in the corridors, new boss fights, new puzzles, and even a handful of genuine surprise moments. Fighting some formerly corridor-exclusive enemies in the labyrinth, for example. What a trip that was! All these modifications come across as well considered and are undoubtedly well implemented on a technical level.

On to the buzzkill. Despite seemingly checking off every box a quality Guardian Legend ROM hack should, Secret Edition is hobbled by its own overarching design philosophy. To wit, it is oppressively difficult for much of its runtime. Powerful enemies fill the screen at all times, bosses dish out insane damage, and key upgrades to the Guardian’s defense and offense are withheld until much later than usual. This iteration of Naju is basically a madhouse. The fact that I, a guy who regularly whips through the vanilla game in an evening without breaking a sweat, still found Secret Edition’s approach too obnoxiously brutal to enjoy really says it all. Optomon’s intention here was to create “a challenge for those who had mastered the original game.” Mission accomplished, I guess. I was challenged. That doesn’t mean I’ll be back for more. There’s stimulating and then there’s just overbearing.

Hell, this hack wants you dead so badly that it can actually have unintended side-effects. See, The Guardian Legend includes a little-known programming bug that will trigger a crash the instant the player’s score would exceed 9,999,999. Fortunately, it isn’t an exceptionally tough game by NES standards. It’s not exactly easy, mind you, but most players should be able to eventually complete it with a score well under this maximum if they’re patient and willing to put in the practice. Secret Edition is a whole other story. More frequent deaths coupled with an overall increase in high point value foes makes hitting the cap a real possibility for many. If that happens, you’re looking at either reverting to a much earlier password save (assuming you have one recorded) or starting over altogether. Nice.

On the whole, The Guardian Legend: Secret Edition is simply one big missed opportunity. It’s thoughtfully crafted, technically sound, and totally inaccessible to the vast majority of people who might stumble across it. I can only imagine how many more players a work like this could satisfy if it hadn’t been custom tailored for a vanishingly small cadre of shooting game savants. Perhaps saddest of all, it remains the closest thing we have to a true Guardian Legend follow-up on the system. There are no other hacks out there I’m aware of that so much as attempt to rework the game on this scale.

If there’s a silver lining to all this, it would have to be that Optomon clearly learned a lot from this early experiment in ROM hacking. Later notable NES projects he contributed to, such as Castlevania: The Holy Relics, Metroid: Rogue Dawn, and the original homebrew platformer Rollie, all present their players with a much more reasonable challenge and are better for it. After all, if you’re going to channel all that hard work and talent into a piece of entertainment, it should probably be one your audience can stomach.

Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy (Super Nintendo)

Despite covering Wai Wai World 2 just last week, my thirst for comical Konami mayhem is yet to be fully sated. Parodius to the rescue! These manic parodies of the developer’s own Gradius saga always make for a fun time. What’s not to love about blowing away cartoon penguins, scantily-clad ladies, and God only knows what else on your way to the final confrontation with the Great Octopus?

Today, I’ve chosen 1992’s Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy for the Super Nintendo. This is a port of the 1990 arcade shooter Parodiusu Da! Shinwa kara Owarai e (“It’s Parodius! From Myth to Laughter”), which is noteworthy for being the only Parodius game to score an official release outside Japan. In Europe, to be precise. It’s a real pity Konami didn’t take a chance on a North American version. It likely wouldn’t have sold all that great, but its characteristically Japanese sense of humor could well have led to it becoming another treasured cult classic here, similar to The Legend of the Mystical Ninja. Oh, well.

As I detailed in-depth in my earlier review of one of Non-Sense Fantasy’s sequels, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius, the concept here is as basic as it gets. Parodius games are auto-scrolling horizontal shooters functionally identical to Gradius. They differ from their parent only in their aggressively goofy tone and the addition of a few new temporary power-ups gained by collecting TwinBee style colored bells. The series as a whole is profoundly consistent in this regard; so much so that anyone who’s logged significant time with any other Gradius or Parodius title could dive right in and start enjoying this one without missing a beat. The exact level layouts and enemy patterns vary, but the core mechanics and control scheme are universal.

The primary thing separating one Parodius outing from another is the ship selection. Non-Sense Fantasy includes four protagonists: Tako the octopus (son of Takosuke from the very first Parodius), Pentarou the penguin (son of Penta from Antarctic Adventure), and the Vic Viper and TwinBee ships from Gradius and TwinBee, respectively. Each has their own unique set of weapons. Tako, for example, can equip the Ripple Laser from Life Force, Pentarou sports the Photon Torpedo and other gear from Gradius II, and so on.

While allowing for some extra replay value, these four definitely pale in comparison to the eight playable heroes provided in the next game, Gokujō Parodiusu – Kako no Eikō o Motomete, or the downright insane sixteen available in Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius. For this reason alone, I’d advise you to tackle the franchise in chronological order if at all possible. It’s far more satisfying to see your options expand in the sequels than it is to work backwards and feel like you’re losing out on all that variety.

Apart from their sturdy Gradius foundation, the other major reason to play any Parodius game is, of course, the gags. Non-Sense Fantasy delivers a steady stream of slapstick absurdity throughout its ten stages. Want to fly through a traditional Japanese bathhouse or a giant pachinko machine? Want to battle a pirate ship with a live kitten’s head mounted on it or a Godzilla-sized Las Vegas showgirl? This game has you covered. The soundtrack consists mainly of bizarrely orchestrated snippets from famous classical works. These compliment the crazy visuals surprisingly well, probably because I recall so many of the same pieces featuring in Looney Tunes shorts and the like back in the day.

Like its more straight-laced inspiration, Non-Sense Fantasy doesn’t hesitate to pose a stiff challenge. The slightest contact with an enemy, bullet, or environmental obstacle is usually enough to cost you a life and send you back to most recent checkpoint sans all your accumulated ship upgrades. Thankfully, those checkpoints are numerous and you benefit from unlimited continues. As long as you’re reasonably determined and patient, you should be able to squeak by any trouble spots sooner or later. It’s a fairer shake than you’ll get from most other 16-bit shooters, that’s for sure.

Simply put, Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy is a winner. In addition to being a well-designed action game with a pedigree that can’t be beat, it’s an accurate arcade port and a real charmer. Unless you happen to dislike Gradius specifically or shooters in general, I’d say you’re virtually guaranteed to get a kick out of it. The worst I can say is that it doesn’t offer nearly as much ship diversity as subsequent series entries, nor does it really do anything gameplay-wise they don’t. I suppose its English localization is also a tad rickety in spots, although seeing your character exclaim “All light now!” or “Lock me, baby!” when using the megaphone weapon is so funny in its own right that I can easily forgive this oversight.

Besides, how could I not recommend a game that lets me select an image of boobs or a crotch to accompany my initials on the high score table? Such class! How this never became the genre standard is beyond me.

Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō (Famicom)

Who’s up for some more obscure Japan-exclusive Konami weirdness? 1991’s Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Jō (“Wai Wai World 2: SOS!! Parsley Castle”) for the Famicom is the one and only sequel to 1988’s Konami Wai Wai World. Wai Wai World 2 shares the same basic premise the original (which I covered back in 2017): Characters and settings from various Konami action hits of the ’80s collide in a decidedly wacky crossover event. Think of it like a platforming take on their better-known Parodius shooter series.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just more of the same, though. The first Wai Wai World was a fiercely challenging Metroid style exploratory platformer. Wai Wai World 2 takes things in an entirely different direction with its linear progression and greatly reduced difficulty. The game as a whole seems heavily inspired by the previous year’s Akumajō Special: Boku Dracula-kun (aka Kid Dracula), a cutsey spin-off of the Castlevania series. Anyone’s who’s played Kid Dracula should recognize not just this art style, but also many of the fine details of moving and attacking.

The plot involves Konami World coming under threat from a villain called Warumon. Confusingly, he seems to be no relation to Dr. Warumon, the recurring antagonist from the TwinBee games. Anyway, Warumon captures Princess Herb and her home, Parsley Castle. In response, the benevolent scientist Dr. Cinnamon dispatches his latest android creation, Rikkuru, to save the day.

In addition to his short range energy blasts and jet-powered double jump, Rikkuru can use his transformation circuit to assume the forms and powers of five different Konami heroes. You’re prompted to choose three out of these five heroes at the start of your playthrough, which limits Rikkuru’s transformation ability somewhat. This, along with a couple of branching stage paths along the way, is presumably meant to enhance the game’s replay value.

Your five potential teammates are Simon Belmont from Castlevania, Bill Rizer from Contra, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon, Getsu Fūma from Getsu Fūma Den, and Upa from Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa. Each has his own signature attack. These generally either inflict more damage than Rikkuru’s regular shot, have better range, or sport some other miscellaneous special property. Upa’s magic rattle retains its ability to change enemies into helpful platforms, for example. The real standout here is Bill. His machine gun can be aimed in four directions and its bullets travel the full length of the screen. It’s clear the game as a whole was not balanced around this, as he makes mincemeat out of anything in his path, including the final boss.

The obvious power of these hero characters is limited by their temporary nature. Rikkuru must acquire a specific power-up icon before he’s able to transform. Once he does, he only has sixty seconds in which to enjoy his new abilities. Taking damage while transformed will shave five seconds off that. On the plus side, the timer can be extended by picking up the same health kits that would normally refill Rikkuru’s health meter. It’s also quite common to come across another transformation item before your first one has expired, meaning that you can simply change form again the very instant you revert. In practice, it’s easy to spend the majority of your time transformed if you so desire.

The majority of Wai Wai World 2 is made up of side-scrolling action-platforming with a heavy emphases on combat. There few surprisingly few instant death pits or other serious environmental hazards to negotiate. You mostly walk forward, blow away bad guys as they come into view, and grab any helpful goodies you can until you reach a stage boss. It’s a rudimentary take on the genre that never reaches a Mega Man, let alone Ninja Gaiden, degree of intensity. Ones gets the impression that this was made with younger gamers in mind, similar to many of Capcom’s Disney-licensed releases of the period.

Every area you visit is based on a specific Konami title, primarily the same ones the playable cast is drawn from. They all look great and really capture the essence of their source material. Much of the soundtrack consists of slightly tweaked versions of iconic tunes from these same games. A few levels break from the norm and adopt an entirely different mode of play. There are shooter segments based on Gradius and TwinBee, a Road Fighter-inspired overhead vehicular combat trial, some sliding block puzzles, and even an homage to arcade mainstay Frogger. Although brief, these interludes are well-made and serve their purpose by preventing the rather basic main gameplay from growing monotonous.

Wai Wai World 2 is fine for what it is: A short, simple, slight experience that pays duly gleeful homage to a host of Konami classics. It’s briskly paced, controls well, and supports two-player simultaneous play. There’s a lot to like about it. I can’t help but miss the last game’s open-ended design, however. Sure, it was rough around the edges and punishingly difficult in spots, but the player-driven progression and sprawling, secret-packed stages really made you feel like you were inhabiting all these eccentric video game realms. There was a genuine sense of adventure there, whereas the sequel comes across more like a guided tour or an on-rails amusement park thrill ride. A hypothetical third entry in the series that combined the best aspects of both its predecessors could have been an all-time Famicom great.

We never got that perfect Wai Wai World game. What we’re left with instead are two distinct, largely worthwhile takes on the same kooky concept that we’re free to enjoy on their own terms. I guess I can live with that.

Gate of Thunder (TurboGrafx-16)

Having recently experienced an excellent action-platformer (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood) and an iconic RPG (Ys Book I & II), I’m understandably eager to continue my exploration of the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 CD-ROM library. Given the system’s reputation as a shooter fan’s paradise, 1992’s Gate of Thunder seems like a natural choice. It was, after all, a pack-in title for the deluxe TurboDuo version of the hardware here in North America, sharing a disc with Bonk’s Adventure, Bonk’s Revenge, and Bomberman. If that’s not the best selection of software ever bundled with a game console, I couldn’t tell you what is. It was certainly a long-delayed step in the right direction. Sure, the TurboDuo was far too late and too pricey to salvage the TurboGrafx brand in this part of the world, but at least anyone who did buy in at that point got more to show for it than a measly copy of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones.

Gate of Thunder comes to us from developer Red Company, makers of the beloved Bonk series of mascot platformers and its spin-off, Air Zonk, which I consider to be one of the finest horizontal shooters available for the TurboGrafx. In other words, I had every reason to look forward to this one, and I’m pleased to report that Gate did not disappoint. It delivers just about everything you could want in a 16-bit shoot-’em-up: Blistering action, powerful weapons, intimidating bosses, exotic backdrops, flashy pyrotechnics, and a driving soundtrack. It’s also a shameless copycat so desperate to associate itself with Technosoft’s Thunder Force III that Red couldn’t be bothered to leave “Thunder” out of the title. Bit of a bad look there.

You play as space cop Hawk, captain of the Hunting Dog space fighter, out to defend planet Aries from the private armada of interstellar crime boss General Don Jingi. It’s hinted in the cutscenes that Hawk might have some sort of personal vendetta against the baddies, since he’s prone to brooding over a locket containing a picture of his (dead?) family. I’m sure the nameless hero of Konami’s Axelay can relate. Hawk is aided throughout his seven stage crusade by his partner, Esty, who periodically swoops down in her own Wild Cat ship to dispense power-ups. This is strictly a one-player game, so you never get to control Esty directly. I guess it’s still nice that they put some thought into to where all these helpful icons actually come from. Most other games don’t bother.

Like its Technosoft namesake, Gate of Thunder is a fast-paced affair. This is no cautious checkpoint shooter in the R-Type mold. Aggression is your best friend here, a fact emphasized by your ability to respawn in place after a death and continue the fight uninterrupted. The overall flow of the action is exhilarating and seems to effortlessly straddle that thin line separating challenge and frustration.

The Hunting Dog’s default attack is a simple straight-firing blue laser. Collecting those color-coded power-up orbs I mentioned grants access to two additional primary weapons: Green waves that fan out to deal slightly less damage over a wider area and the red earthquake, which deals immense damage to targets situated above and below you. Your ability to toggle between these three shots at any time forms the basis for much of the game’s strategy beyond the usual bullet dodging and enemy pattern memorization common to virtually all shooters. In general, the laser is best against most bosses, waves are for swarms of weak foes, and the earthquake makes short work of those pesky ceiling and floor targets.

Grabbing a second power-up corresponding to a particular weapon will upgrade it to a more powerful form. After that, every subsequent icon of that color will instead cause a huge energy wave to sweep across the screen in classic super bomb style. You do need to exercise some caution, however, as a death will strip you of your currently equipped weapon, with the exception of the laser, which can only be downgraded.

Rounding out your arsenal are an incredibly important shield that allows you to withstand three extra hits, a secondary homing missile weapon, and a pair of Gradius-inspired “option” satellites that flank your ship and mirror your primary shot. You’re able to manually pivot your options around to fire behind you when necessary, although rear assaults aren’t terribly common.

The blazing speed of the gameplay is complimented by Nick Wood’s relentless score. One could argue that the Red Book audio is the only thing here that truly required the CD medium. That’d be missing the mark in terms of criticism, though, as this sort of early ’90s instrumental hard rock is simply ideal to wreck aliens to.

There’s no mistake about it—from its visual design to its controls and weapon system, Gate of Thunder really is just Thunder Force III with real wailing guitars replacing the synthesized ones. If you were somehow able to swap entire levels around between the two games, I reckon the effect would be seamless enough that a player unfamiliar with the originals wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. That said, I’m not complaining! Ripping off an all-time great pretty much perfectly is a win in my book. In the context of a genre as traditionally no-nonsense and gameplay-driven as the auto-scrolling shooter, imitation can indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. Love Thunder Force III? Well, here come Red Company and Hudson Soft to essentially double its length while introducing no real flaws of note. I’ll take it, thanks.

If you must insist on something with more in the way of creative vision, you could skip over Gate in favor of its fantasy-themed pseudo-sequel, Lords of Thunder. Me, I’m not so hung up on innovation that I can’t recognize the entertainment potential in accurately recreating a masterpiece, even one that isn’t technically your own.

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?