Konami Wai Wai World (Famicom)

Getting high with a penguin? That’s our Goemon! *laugh track*

At long last, it’s time to take on Konami Wai Wai World! Before Marvel vs. Capcom, before Super Smash Bros., before…uh, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, I guess, there was this ambitious 1988 attempt to combine characters from no less than eight separate Konami properties into a single Famicom crossover extravaganza. The name turns out to be quite fitting when you’re dealing with so many playable characters, since “wai wai” is a Japanese onomatopoeia for a loud, crowded area. I’ve been dying to play and review this one for a while, but I wanted to do the same for at least one game in each series represented here first.

Oddly enough, there was also a more obscure altered version of this game released for Japanese mobile phones in 2006 that replaced a few of the licensed characters (King Kong and Mikey) with ones actually owned by Konami. I’ll be reviewing the original Famicom release here.

As our journey begins, Dr. Cinnamon (creator of the ships from the TwinBee games) summons the superhero Konami Man and tells him that Konami World is in crisis. An alien invader has kidnapped six of the land’s mightiest heroes and is holding them prisoner. Only by rescuing the six captives and joining forces with them can the day be saved. Dr. Cinnamon also sends his sexy gynoid robot creation Konami Lady along to help. Ew. Hope the old creep hosed her off real good first.

These two characters play identically, allowing for two player simultaneous action. This feature is quite rare in an open-ended game with exploration elements like this and is a big point in Wai Wai World’s favor if you happen to have a friend around that might want to join in. Your starting characters only have basic punch and kick attacks initially, but can gain the ability to shoot lasers and fly by locating special items later on in the game. If your entire party is ever wiped out, Konami Man and Konami Lady will both be revived back at the lab automatically in lieu of a game over.

Dr. Cinnamon’s lab serves as your main hub and contains three numbered doors. The doctor himself resides behind door number one. He can heal your party, dispense passwords that allow you to take a break and continue your game later, and give you tips about the various characters and their special abilities. His brother Saimon is also here and will revive your dead party members in exchange for 100 bullets each; bullets being the game’s combined currency and special weapon ammunition. If you’re playing the game in the original Japanese as I did, here’s a tip: The last two options on Dr. Cinnamon’s menu (character resurrection and password generation) are the only ones you really need to know.

The second door contains the main level select screen. Six stages are available at the start, one for each of the six kidnapped heroes. You’re not free to complete them in any order you want, though, as some stages require a specific character’s special ability to access. This seems at first like a bit of a missed opportunity for a more open, Mega Man type level structure, but the challenge does increase substantially in the latter half of the game, so it would seem to be the designers’ way of implementing a smooth difficulty curve. Fair enough.

The third door leads to the final two levels. It can only be opened after you’ve rescued the entire main cast from their respective stages.

Except for the penultimate one, the various stages in Konami Wai Wai World are presented in standard side-scrolling action platforming style and each is based a different game series specific to the hero you’ll find there. The characters you’ll need to rescue (in the order I did it) are: Goemon (Gonbare Goemon), Simon Belmont (Castlevania), Mikey Walsh (The Goonies), King Kong (King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch), Getsu Fūma (Getsu Fūma Den), and Moai (Gradius). Every character except for Fūma is locked in a cage when you first encounter them, so your first task in most levels is to locate the key. These keys are usually guarded by bosses, although a couple are just laying out in the open ready to be collected.

Each character you rescue joins your party permanently, and you can switch over to controlling them at any time. They each have their own unique attacks and health meter, making this aspect of the game seem a bit like a dry run for Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game the following year. As mentioned, dead characters can be resurrected back at home base, but this is costly and you’re far better off keeping a close eye on the life gauge and switching out to a healthier hero before your current one kicks the bucket.

In addition to a primary melee attack and a ranged sub-weapon that must be found hidden elsewhere within their respective stages, the characters also have various special abilities and quirks. Mikey, for example, can fit through small passages that the other characters can’t. Kong can jump higher than the others and destroy some breakable walls with his ranged attack, but he’s too large to fit through certain tight spaces. Picking the correct character for a given section of a level can go a long way in alleviating the game’s difficulty, so be sure to familiarize yourself with how each one handles. Each character even has their own theme song that plays whenever you have them selected, so the game’s background music is tied to the character you’re controlling rather than stage you’re currently on. Pretty cool.

Beyond the sub-weapons for the eight main characters, some levels also have other important items, like armor that boosts your whole party’s defense or a cape that lets Konami Man and Konami Lady fly by holding down the jump button. Some of these appear in tantalizingly unreachable locations quite early on in the game. Be sure to make note of exactly where so that you can return and collect them later when you have the necessary capabilities. You should also be on the lookout for doorways in a few of the stages that will take you to optional bonus games you can play in order to hopefully garner a few extra bullets. These take the form of various games of chance involving dice, cards, and a slot machine.

Once you’ve liberated all the kidnapped heroes, you can finally open the third door in Dr. Cinnamon’s lab and take on the final two stages. Level seven is, surprisingly, an overhead shooter stage that you can choose to play through as either TwinBee or the Vic Viper ship from Gradius (or both, if there are two players). This was actually my favorite part of the whole game. The amount of work that went into just this one level must have been tremendous. There are multiple backgrounds and enemy types, an awesome boss, and a complete power-up system with shields, options, shot upgrades, and even the bell juggling mechanics from TwinBee. In essence, the designers implemented the complete framework for a competent vertical shooter game just for this one stage. The sheer excess of it all is a sight to behold.

Survive the shooter portion and you’re off to the final platforming stage for a climactic showdown with the alien invaders. I won’t spoil it for you here, but one bit of advice: Try to make sure that either Konami Man or Konami Lady is still alive after the final boss fight. Their flight ability may come in handy.

Konami Wai Wai World naturally sounds like a Konami fan’s dream come true. By and large, it delivers the non-stop action and fanservice it promises, although there are some regrettable design decisions that you should be aware of going in. The biggest one is the scrolling. For whatever reason, the screen in the platforming sections refuses to start moving until your character is quite close to the edge. You need to be something like 4/5ths of the way over on a given side before the scrolling kicks in. Because of this, you’re constantly encountering enemies that pop up right in your face, giving you very little time to react. Expect to eat a lot of extra damage due to this.

Echoing the later TMNT yet again, there’s also very little in the way of balance within your party. Some characters are extremely useful. Goemon’s pipe attack is swift and can strike enemies above him, King Kong’s punches hit like a speeding truck, and Simon’s whip is slow, but has great reach and his boomerang crosses can damage enemies multiple times. Poor Mikey, on the other hand, has short range on his main attack and an unremarkable sub-weapon, too. You’d never actually want to use Mikey in combat unless you were desperate and had no other choice. It’s always a pity to discover that a favorite character isn’t represented particularly well in a crossover like this.

Another major annoyance is the cost to resurrect dead characters. The price (100 bullets) is pretty manageable early on when you only have a few characters on your team. If you manage to get your party wiped out in the late game, though, you’ll find out the hard way that grinding out 400-600 bullets at a stretch drags the game to a screeching halt, since enemies only drop them in increments of five.

On the plus side, the game looks very nice. The stage backgrounds and bosses in particular are phenomenal in most cases. There are also a ton of different creative enemy designs, with each stage having its own unique assortment of baddies. The music is mostly lifted whole cloth from earlier Konami titles, but with stone cold classic tracks like Castlevania’s “Vampire Killer” and the overworld theme from Getsu Fūma Den, you’re not likely to mind all that much.

Konami Wai Wai world isn’t the most balanced game around and the shoddy scrolling and occasional bouts of forced currency grinding can try your patience at times. For old school Konami fans, though, it’s absolutely worth checking out. This is a game where Mikey Walsh can battle demons in hell and Simon Belmont can jump into the cockpit of the Vic Viper and blast off to fight aliens. I just can’t stay mad at a game like that, even if some of the more obnoxious bits do make me scratch my head and ask: Why? Why?

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Silver Surfer (NES)

The bad news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon. The good news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon and finished first.

This is, of course, the infamous Silver Surfer, designed by Software Creations and published by Arcadia Systems in 1990. If you believe the Internet hype surrounding this title, it’s one of the most maddening, scrote shreddingly impossible games ever made and was probably birthed directly from the unwashed bunghole of Satan himself. If you’re a more reasonable sort and actually familiar with the genre, you’re more likely to see it as a pretty average 8-bit shooter bolstered somewhat by incredible music and a singularly strange sense of style.

It’s also only the third non-Japanese game I’ve reviewed, a natural consequence of my primary focus on the 1980s and 1990s, during which Nintendo and Sega lorded over the North American gaming market the majority of the time. This one comes to us out of the U.K., just like the two games from Rare I reviewed over the summer. I’m looking to cap off the month of October with my first review of a U.S. developed title, though, so stay tuned for that.

Like several others I’ve played recently (Life Force, Axelay, Abadox), Silver Surfer is a hybrid horizontal and vertical scrolling shooter. In the opening cut scene, the Surfer is summoned by his boss, the arch-villain Galactus, and told that unspecified parties from “beyond” are going to destroy the entire universe and that only the “Cosmic Device” can stop them. Somehow. The Surfer’s mission is to recover the six pieces of the Device, each of which is currently in the hands of a different villain. Honestly, it’s all very vague. I’ve never been a comic book guy and I came away from this game knowing exactly as much about the Silver Surfer and his supporting cast as I did going in: Zero. Good thing I don’t play shooters for their stories!

Starting the game proper, you’re faced with a level selection screen, and can thus choose to play the initial set of five levels in any order you prefer before advancing to the sixth and final one, the Magik Domain. Each level is further subdivided into three distinct sections (two horizontal scrollers and one vertical), giving you a grand total of eighteen stages to complete. Be aware that once you pick one, you’re committed. There’s no going back to the level selection screen until you beat the boss, even if you die or use a continue.

Silver Surfer’s gameplay is based very closely on the well-known Gradius/R-Type model: Shoot down everything you can and try your best to avoid touching anything that isn’t a power-up, since the slightest contact with an enemy or a piece of the level architecture will cost you a life and send you back to the last checkpoint stripped of all your precious upgrades. Some degree of level memorization is required, since lives and continues are limited and you’ll have to restart from the beginning if you mess up too much. It’s a demanding, no-nonsense design philosophy to be sure, and while it’s not to everyone taste, it isn’t inherently unfair or unfun. It took me about eight hours of intense practice before I was able to clear Silver Surfer for the first time and I enjoyed myself quite a bit for most of it. There’s something very satisfying about the learning process that’s built into a game like this. Each stage starts out utterly bewildering and seemingly unwinnable, but as I study the patterns and apply what I’ve learned from each death, everything slowly falls into place and the next thing I know, I can routinely finish it with more lives in stock than I started with. Then I get to move on to the next stage and start the process all over. Again, I’m not saying that this type of game is for everyone. If you’re the type that doesn’t like having to pay close attention to every aspect of the game as they play or that gets angry or resentful when they lose, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping any game like Silver Surfer.

The main point I’m driving at with all this is that despite its scary reputation, Silver Surfer really isn’t any tougher to complete than the games that inspired it. If you can manage a Gradius or an R-Type, you’re more than capable of handling anything that Silver Surfer can throw at you.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. One thing that holds Silver Surfer back a bit is the meager selection of power-ups at your disposal. The Surfer’s standard shot is a silver ball that travels forward in a straight line. You can rapid-fire these by tapping the A button. Picking up “F” icons will make the shots more powerful, which is vital for success, but the attack itself never changes in function or appearance. Forget about all the crazy lasers, homing missiles, and plasma waves that you can acquire in other games. It’s just you and your balls. Um. Moving on….

You can also acquire option orbs that will fly alongside the Surfer and mirror each of your shots. These are by far the most important items in the game, as they multiply your damage output and can be manually repositioned with the B button to fire ahead of you, behind you, below you, and more. Once you get hold of one, do your damnedest not to die and lose it. Oddly, the Surfer can utilize two orbs at once in the overhead view stages but is limited to just a single orb in the side view ones.

Next, there are bombs (represented by a “B” icon) and these will allow you to instantly destroy all non-boss enemies on the screen with a press of the select button. These can and will save your bacon, so try not to forget about them or get so obsessed with conserving them that you lose a life when you could have hit the panic button instead.

Lastly, there’s a red “S” power-up that will boost the Surfer’s movement speed and a silver “S” that grants an extra life.

These power-ups definitely get the job done, but they’re not very flashy or fun in and of themselves. I really would have preferred more attack and defense options.

Another issue is the Surfer himself. He’s a very large character by shooter standards, easily twice the size of a typical on-screen avatar if not more, and he moves abnormally slow as well. This makes level memorization all the more important, as you’ll usually need to know exactly where an enemy or other hazard will appear if you want to have any chance of being able to avoid it or get into position to shoot it down. The aforementioned speed boost item also appears all too rarely. Treasure it while it lasts.

These gripes are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but one common complaint about the game absolutely rings true: You’re going to be jamming on that fire button. A lot. Silver Surfer commits the cardinal shooter sin of expecting you to be blazing away with your weapon constantly while not giving you any kind of automatic fire option. One tap equals one bullet. I must have some kind of superhuman thumb power to have survived eight hours of this game over two days unscathed. If you’re prone to hand cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, or similar, do yourself a favor and try a turbo controller. It may be cheating, but it’s better than the alternative if pain would be an issue for you.

The other thing that the Internet absolutely gets right about Silver Surfer is the copious praise heaped on its magnificent soundtrack. We have the legendary Follin brothers, Tim and Geoff, to thank for fifteen of the most mindblowing minutes of music to ever be crammed into a tiny 8-bit cartridge. It’s pure prog rock sorcery and reminds a bit of the band Dream Theater’s output, which is a very good thing. The arrangements are incredibly intricate and far, far ahead of what almost anyone else was attempting on the hardware. The sound is so rich and full that it’s difficult at times to believe that these tunes are actually coming out of an unmodified NES. The songs are not just great by ancient video game console standards, they’re simply great and worth seeking out even if you never play the game.

One element of the game that’s not often commented on is the borderline psychedelic visual style of many of the stages. Possessor’s level has you flying through outer space past what appear to be lime green busts of H.P. Lovecraft perched on Doric pedestals while cannons fire an endless stream of deadly exploding heads up at you. The Magik Domain sees you battling flying top hats, a giant lobster, and the single strangest enemy I’ve ever seen in a video game: An undead elephant head suspended by hooks driven through strips of its flayed flesh. The elephant head drips deadly snot onto a mirror. In space. That’s just…mental, man. I am in awe. Whatever dismembered Hellraiser elephant’s backstory is, I bet it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the Surfer’s. Maybe I should start reading comics after all.

Can I recommend Silver Surfer? For general audiences, probably not. It just doesn’t provide enough instant gratification to make it seem worthwhile to anyone lukewarm on the genre. For old school shooter enthusiasts? Absolutely. While it’s not full-featured or refined enough to rank as an all-time classic, it’s still an exhilarating, satisfying challenge bundled with some of the oddest visuals around and music that’s guaranteed to rock your face off. You can do better on the system, but you can also do a whole lot worse. As usual, the lesson here is to think for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on hearsay or YouTube videos or even reviews like this one. If a game looks interesting, pop it in and take it for a spin! You never know what “bad” games you might end up having a great time with.

Unless you’re that poor space elephant. He wasn’t having a great time at all.

Abadox: The Deadly Inner War (NES)

Another day, another big explosion to fly away from.

This time it’s courtesy of Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. It may not be a horror game, but at least it’s still really gross. This 1989 shooter comes to us from developer Natsume (before they struck gold with their Harvest Moon series of cutesy farming simulators) and publisher Milton Bradley.

Though mainly remembered today for its classic board games, defunct toy giant Milton Bradley played a small but interesting role in early video game history. Most notably, they released the Microvision in 1979. A full decade before the Game Boy, this black-and-white handheld system was the first of its class to play games on interchangeable cartridges. It did not sell well at all.

But I digress. Abadox has a bit of a mixed reputation among NES fans, mostly due to being seen as a shameless clone of Konami’s excellent Life Force. If you think I’m here now to defend it from these unjust charges, you’re way off. In fact, Abadox mirrors Life Force pretty shamelessly. Flying into a colossal planet-eating alien to save the galaxy? Check. Six stages that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling? Check. Climactic escape sequence after defeating the last boss where you have to weave between gaps in the walls at high speed? Check again. Even some of the background elements like the giant teeth that jut out of the walls at you in the first stage are taken straight from Life Force.

While there isn’t a lot about Abadox that’s original, it does have its strengths. It’s a solid shooter and the positively disgusting enemy designs and detailed sprites and backgrounds do a much better job conveying the premise of flying through the innards of a giant alien than Life Force ever did.

Here’s the setup: In the year 5012, the planet of Abadox is attacked and devoured by an alien menace known as Parasitis. The Abadox space fleet mounts an attack on Parasitis, but is wiped out. The sole survivor is Second Lieutenant Nazal, who was late to the battle thanks to spaceship engine trouble. To save the galaxy and avenge his fallen comrades, Nazal must don his armored spacesuit and attempt to fly inside Parasitis and destroy it from the inside. Oh, and also Princess Maria of Abadox was on board a hospital ship swallowed by the alien, so you need to rescue her, too. Thank goodness! I was running pretty low on motivation with that saving the entire universe angle, but now that there’s a total space babe involved, sign me up!

The game opens on the surface of Parasitis, and you even fly by the gore-soaked wreckage of your defeated space fleet on the background. On the way through this stage, you’ll pass by teeth and a super creepy animated tongue with deadly drool dripping onto it before reaching level two: The throat. This is the first of the vertical scrolling stages, but unlike in almost every other overhead shooter ever made, Abadox starts you off at the top of the screen and has you proceeding downward. While it’s handled well and reinforces the “diving into the belly of the beast” scenario, this downward progression is unfortunately the only unique twist to the gameplay found here.

The rest of the action consists of bog standard 8-bit shooter stuff. You start out slow and almost defenseless, with a puny “pea shooter” gun. Certain enemies will drop power-ups when defeated. These include speed boosts, weapon upgrades, rotating satellites that surround you and block enemy attacks, and a shield that lets you survive contact with a bullet or two. One touch from an enemy or wall will blow you up, which strips away all your power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint immediately after the last boss you defeated. Thankfully, each stage has a mid-boss halfway through, so once you beat it, you won’t get sent back all the way to the start of the level upon death. You’ve probably seen all this before. It’s Gradius 101.

Unlike a lot of shooters for the system, Abadox does provide unlimited continues, so you’ll never have to start over from the beginning of the game when you die unless you choose to. This makes it a good choice for those that really hate forced restarts, although it does come at a price: Some of the stage layouts and enemy placement can be claustrophobic and chaotic to a downright fiendish degree. If you thought building your strength back up after being sent back to a checkpoint in Gradius was hard, Abadox takes it to a whole other level. The game does technically give you the power-ups necessary to squeak by in these cases, but much memorization and messy trial and error will be needed to figure out the ideal path.

At least the end level bosses are all pretty easy once you do finally reach them. They tend to be stationary and fire only in fixed patterns that leave obvious safe spots in which you can park yourself while you blaze away at them. At least they look really icky and cool, just like the rest of the game. Ironically, the mid-bosses are much more fun and challenging to fight. They move around a lot more and their shots often track your position, forcing you to do the same.

Ultimately, Abadox is no classic. It brings all the typical space shooter stuff to the table and handles it adaquately, but the balancing could use some work. The unlimited lives thing seems more like a workaround than anything else, intended to cover for a lack of experience planning out stages and enemy patterns in a harmonious fashion. Even with limited credits, a well-balanced shooter is just more fun because you don’t need to get yourself blown up dozens of times before you figure out exactly how to limp to the next checkpoint. Abadox also suffers from some technical hiccups. There’s slowdown at times, which is to be expected, but the sprite flicker is more problematic. I was occasionally blown up for no apparent reason because the screen was so crowded with sprites that an enemy bullet glitched out and went invisible. That’s always a bummer.

The game’s real saving grace is its spectacularly grotesque pixel art. Strictly speaking, this might be the goriest game for the NES and it’s all very well drawn. The fact that all the blood and guts belong to killer aliens and not any human characters is probably the only thing that got it past Nintendo of America’s notoriously strict content guidelines. The music (by Kiyohiro Sada of Contra fame) is also praiseworthy, but only to the degree that it’s present. Abadox’s soundtrack is extremely short for a 1989 release and three of the game’s six stages share the same background music.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly out of a space monster’s colon with a princess in tow…well, you’re one freaky individual. I guess you could try Abadox, though.

Axelay (Super Nintendo)

Good thing he didn’t end up needing his cool space helmet to breathe or anything.

For me, 2017 will be remembered as the year I got into shooter games. The Guardian Legend, M.U.S.H.A., Life Force, and now Axelay. I tended to avoid these titles in the past because of their reputation for extreme difficulty and samey premises. “You’re a spaceship; shoot all the other spaceships.” Yawn. I dismissed the whole genre as simultaneously intimidating and dull.

What a mistake that was! It turns out that there are few things as exhilarating as pulling off a perfect series of pinpoint maneuvers through a hail of enemy bullets and sending a screen-filling boss down in flames. A great shooter is an addictive blend of pattern recognition and quick, precise reactions under pressure. Losing yourself in the flow of a well-designed stage is nothing less than mesmerizing. Yes, I reckon it’s pretty great how tastes mature over time.

Axelay is a vertical/horizontal shooter developed and published by Konami in 1992. In many key ways, it can be seen as an unofficial follow-up to their 1986 release Salamander (Life Force). The alternating overhead and side-view perspectives, dynamic stages that change shape around you (and can trap you if you’re not careful), and sections where you must blast your own narrow passages through dense destructible material blocking your progress all seem like clear callbacks. You even fight the exact same iconic fire dragon enemies from Salamander in Axelay’s fifth level.

Before I go on, though, let’s get the whole pronunciation thing out of the way. Is it “axe-lay?” “Axel-ay?” Something else? Well, supposedly the Japanese pronunciation would be something like “ak-su-rei” so…beats me. Whatever you call it, you’re probably close enough.

Anyway, the game’s story is about as bare bones as you’d expect. The peaceful solar system of Illis is under attack by the relentless Armada of Annihilation. The tiny Illis space fleet has been all but exterminated and only one ship remains: Axelay. There’s also some implied backstory and motivation for Axelay’s unnamed pilot: He carries a locket with a picture of his wife and kids inside. Who’s the Armada of Annihilation and why are they attacking? No idea. I couldn’t even tell you if they’re supposed to be humans or aliens or what. Good thing you won’t have the presence of mind to wonder too much about it while they’re attacking you from all sides.

Axelay’s graphics, sound, and level design are all first class, but the main way it differentiates itself from the rest of the shooter pack is its weapon system. Unlike in almost every other game in the genre, there are no power-ups to collect during gameplay, unless you count the extra lives earned from high scores. Instead, you select a loadout of three special weapons before starting each stage and can freely cycle between them at any time. Choosing the ideal arsenal for each stage will make things go much smoother. Getting hit by enemy fire will disable your current special weapon and getting hit again after all three have been knocked out will result in your death. This might sound overly forgiving at first, but keep in mind that colliding with an enemy or any part of the level architecture will destroy your ship instantly. Some special enemy projectiles, such as homing missiles, can also take you out in one shot. In practice, I found that I rarely died after losing all of my special weapons. Most of the time, it was kamikaze attacks and crashes that did me in.

One interesting consequence of this system is that you’ll often return to the action after losing a life more powerful than you were before, since each new ship comes with a full new compliment of special weapons. This is the polar opposite of most shooters, where death usually strips you of all your accumulated upgrades and leaves you in a very vulnerable position. If you’re fully powered down from taking heavy damage and relying on your super weak backup gun, death can almost feel like a relief, provided you have plenty of extra lives in stock.

You’ll also unlock a new special weapon to pick from after completing each of the first five levels. You begin with only three weapons and three slots to place them in, which means that no variation is possible initially. If there’s one major complaint I have about Axelay’s design, it’s this lacking early game arsenal. Despite going out of their way to implement a system that allows for customization of your loadout, there’s very little variety in how you can approach the first half of the game and some of the late game weapons can only be used in one or two levels. Granted, some of the weapons you unlock later are very powerful and might not be balanced for the easier early stages, but adding in a few more weapons total and giving you five or six to pick from at the very start would have really given this setup much more breathing room, so to speak.

While it’s obviously somewhat a matter of taste, Axelay might be the single best looking shooter on the system. Backgrounds are gorgeous and enemies (especially bosses) are drawn and animated extremely well. The visual flourish that the game is best known for has to be the stretching and scaling effects used in the background of the vertical scrolling stages to make it appear like you’re flying high over the curve of the horizon. While this does look cool, it’s ultimately more of a gimmick than anything else. It only affects the gameplay to the extent that it can make maneuvering near the top edge of the screen a little dicey at times. Passing through a narrow gap in a section of wall without crashing as it appears to be stretching and warping, for example, can be a good bit trickier that it would be otherwise.

Sound effects are solid, but it’s the score by Taro Kudo (of Super Castlevania IV fame) that really carries the game in the audio department. The theme for the second stage in particular (“Tralieb Colony”) has to be one of the best tracks you’ll find in any Super Nintendo game. The entire soundtrack perfectly nails the combination of soaring heroism and looming menace that a “lone pilot against an entire fleet” scenario calls for. Don’t even get me started on the masterful final boss battle theme, which is spread out over three increasingly eerie and pulse-pounding tracks.

Like a lot of shooters (and classic Konami action games in general), Axelay is fairly short at six levels. On the plus side, it doesn’t artificially stretch out the experience by recycling backgrounds and enemies, so the action stays fresh and surprising throughout. Replay value comes mainly from simply trying to make it all the way to the end due to the fact that continues are limited. You can adjust the number available from as many as six to as few as two via the difficulty setting in the options menu. Speaking of which, you should probably also use the options menu to set your missiles and primary gun to the same button. You’ll want to blaze away with everything you have all the time anyway, so why not hold down one trigger instead of two?

All-in-all, I had a fantastic time with Axelay. It’s truly one of the top tier shooters for the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Scrambled Valkyrie might have slightly better horizontal stages and Space Megaforce slightly better vertical stages, but Axelay still manages to do a damn fine job blending both into one seamless experience, just like Salamander did years prior. It delivers perfectly paced combat that’s fast and frantic with nary a hint of slowdown. The console as a whole will never be as well known for its shooters as its contemporaries, the Genesis and PC Engine, but this one can stand tall with the very best of the best from its era. Some of the talent behind Axelay later left Konami in order to found legendary game development house Treasure and it definitely shows in every aspect of the production here.

So load up those weapon pods and go tear the Armada of Annihilation a new one, who or whatever they are.

Life Force (NES)

It’s 2017 and I figure it’s about damn time I complete a Gradius game for once. Luckily, I snagged a copy of Life Force at a local game store a couple weeks back, so I can finally make it happen!

Life Force (sadly unrelated to the completely gonzo film of the same name about nude space vampires ravaging Britain) is the NES port of the arcade game Salamander. Salamander was conceived as a spin-off of the established Gradius series of horizontal scrolling shooters that would incorporate a number of new features: Faster gameplay, a new power-up system, simultaneous two-player gameplay, and a mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling.

As a port, Life Force retains some of these features (like the multi-directional scrolling and two-player action) but its slower speed and traditional Gradius power-up system make it feel less like a spin-off and more like a sequel. It might seem like a strange choice to “Gradius-ify” Salamander like this but I think it makes sense on a few levels. First off, getting a two-player simultaneous shooter with so many things going on at once running on the NES at all in 1987 was likely something of a programming marvel, so having it also scroll at the same speed as the arcade original may have been a near technical impossiblity. In addition, the original Gradius was also one of Konami’s best-selling titles to date on the system, which would make emphasizing the resemblance between Life Force and it seem quite sound from a business perspective. But I’m just speculating.

In terms of story, it’s about what you would expect. A gigantic planet devouring alien named Zelos is headed for the world of Gradius and only you, piloting your super cool Vic Viper space fighter, can infiltrate the hungry colossus and administer some impromptu laser surgery to save the day. Also, in a nifty Ultima reference, player two gets to fly the “Lord British space destroyer.” Cool.

Basic stuff but at least whatever weirdo they enlisted to write the English manual text had fun with their version, which begins: “In a remote quadrant of the universe there was hatched a hideous creature. His proud parents, Ma and Pa Deltoid, named their only son Zelos, which in alien lingo means ‘one mean son of a gun.'” Wow.

Gameplay is classic Gradius. Shoot baddies to rack up power-up capsules and points to earn extra lives. Each capsule you collect will highlight one of the choices on your power-up menu. These include speed boosts, missiles, “option” satellites to double your firepower, a force field, and more. When the power-up of your choice is highlighted, simply press the button to cash in your stash of capsules and activate it. Try not to die or you can kiss all those awesome power-ups goodbye and it turns out that being slow and nearly defenseless is not a particularly great strategy. This is easier said than done, though, since one touch from any enemy or part of the stage background will do you in.

It’s a very careful and exacting style of play that demands a mix of steady hands, quick reactions, and lots and lots of stage memorization. This is further emphasized by the limited lives and continues available. This is definitely not for everyone, since you really do need to approach a Gradius game “right” and there’s not a lot of room to just mess around and play things fast and loose. Due to its nature as a two-player game, though, most of the stages in Life Force do have forks and branching paths, so there is some variation in how you can approach these stages.

Life Force has six stages in total, which was sort of the magic number for Konami back then (see Castlevania and Contra) and they are impressively varied. Several are in keeping with the giant space monster theme previously established and feature cool icky details like living flesh walls that “grow” in at you and killer blood cells. Other stages are completely different and vary things up with asteroid fields, walls of erupting fire, and even an inexplicable Egyptian temple. Each level is capped off by a boss. These guys look amazing but are honestly real pushovers in that they utilize only very basic attack patterns that never vary. After making your way through a brutally difficult stage, fighting these slow, ineffectual bullet sponges will feel like a vacation.

Life Force looks and sounds just as great as its pedigree would imply. Visual highlights include the third level with its towering columns of rushing flame that will wipe out anything in their path, friend or foe, and the huge boss characters. The high-energy music sets the mood perfectly, although it can occasionally cut out a bit when there’s a lot of weapons fire going on. Life Force’s greatest accomplish is probably how smoothly it manages to run. There is some occasional slowdown but not nearly as much as you might expect when the screen is filled with animated backgrounds and two player’s worth of missiles, lasers, and option satellites even before you factor the enemy ships in!

The game isn’t totally perfect. I already mentioned the slowdown and the feeble bosses. However, if you have the patience to come to grips with the demanding playstyle that the series is known for, there might be no better way to spend a half hour of gaming time that blasting your way through Life Force. It’s a short game but another triumph of quality over quantity from Konami’s Golden Age. Like Contra and Castlevania, it’s a finely polished, exquisitely cut gem of a game. And one mean son of a gun.

Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth (NES)

You know, I think I love you, too, game.

Welcome to Wurm: Journey to Center of the Earth (also known as “Vazolder: The Underground Battle Space” in Japan), that rarest of beasts: The game with four distinct modes of play and two terrible titles. What an overachiever! Wurm was brought to us in 1991 by lesser-known publisher Asmik and way lesser-known developer Cyclone System. It’s a crazy smorgasbord of vertical, horizontal, and first-person shooter with a dash of side scrolling run-and-gun thrown in and cinematic cut scenes reminiscent of Ninja Gaiden’s as the finishing touch. This places Wurm firmly in the quirky NES shooter hybrid camp with Xexyz and The Guardian Legend. While its gameplay doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardian Legend, I found myself charmed and a little taken aback by its somber and surprisingly mature story.

In Wurm, you play as Moby, a young woman with neon green hair almost as strange as her name, who captains the VZR-5, a super high-tech tank with a giant drill on the front that can dig through solid rock. It can also hover, use a variety of weapons, and even transform into a jet. According to the manual, this vehicle is the titular “wurm,” but it’s never referred to as such in-game. Moby and the rest of the VZR-5 crew are burrowing deep into the earth’s crust in order to investigate the cause of a mysterious series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that are devastating the surface. She’s also searching for traces of the four earlier VZR ships that were dispatched on the same mission, but never returned. Among the crew of these lost ships was her father, Professor Banda, and her love interest, Ziggy. Moby’s a pretty badass “Lady Protagonist” (as the instruction manual describes her) and she proudly sports the same ludicrous green hair/red swimsuit combo as Samus Aran in the first Metroid and the star of the obscure FVM game Time Gal, so she’s okay by me. She soon finds herself exploring a surreal underworld filled with hostile creatures and getting wrapped up in an ongoing war between rival subterranean races.

Wurm consists of five “acts” separated by major plot developments. Each act contains three to five distinct levels that add up to grand total of twenty levels for the entire game. You start the game in a horizontal shooting mode where you guide your tank from left to right, blasting enemies and using your drill to tunnel through walls that otherwise would block progress. Pressing up and the A button will engage hover mode and allow you to leave the ground and fly freely, but this will consume more of your limited fuel. Allow the fuel gauge to run out and you lose. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find additional fuel in the form of pickups from destroyed enemies, so I actually never ran out once during my playthrough. My advice: Engage hover mode right away at the start of each of these stages and never look back. The ground is for losers. You’ll later gain the ability to transform into a jet, which is faster and has its own distinct set of weapons to use but consumes even more fuel and doesn’t have a drill. I found the jet to not be worth the trouble despite looking cool and stuck with the tank in hover mode, but it is nice to have options to keep things fresh. Unlike in most shooters, you can take multiple hits and you have a regenerating health bar in the form of your shield meter. If you find your shields getting low, you’ll want to slow down and let them recharge a bit before you’re stuck staring at the game over screen.

Eventually, the screen will start to shake and you’ll transition to a first-person boss fight against a single giant foe. You’ll need to dodge left and right to avoid the enemy’s attacks (or try to shoot its projectiles out of the air before they reach you) while also concentrating your return fire on its weak point. That’s not all, though: You’ll also take breaks from the shooting periodically to access a menu where you converse with the different VZR crew members, who will each offer their advice on how to defeat the boss. This reminds me of the back-and-forth between the different bridge crew members in an episode of Star Trek and really is a standout gameplay element in Wurm that I can’t recall seeing in any other action game of the time. You need talk to your crew in order to restore health points lost during the battle and to raise your possibility percentage. You can’t actually kill the boss until your possibility rating reaches 100%, no matter how much you blast away at it prior to that. Talking to some crew members will increase your possibility percentage, while speaking to others who might dispense bad or discouraging advice will leave it unaltered or even decrease it. In the end, it takes a combination of lots of accurate shooting and consulting with the right NPCs to bring the boss down. Very unique!

After defeating the boss, Moby will decide that it’s time to leave the VZR and explore some nearby caverns on foot. This leads to yet another gameplay mode where you control Moby directly as she walks and jumps around a side scrolling level searching for clues to the mysteries of the underworld and lost crew members from the previous VZR missions. During these segments, she can defend herself with a pistol (that has limited shots, so be careful) and a mean roundhouse kick. Anyone who’s played 1988’s Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode for NES will recognize the similarities here right away. Moby animates and controls just like Golgo does in that game, which is no coincidence, as both projects involved a ton of input from designer and artist Shoichi Yoshikawa. Your robot sidekick in Wurm is even named G-13. Cute. In fact, Yoshikawa himself still maintains to this day a bilingual website devoted to chronicling the story, characters, and oddly elaborate philosophy of Wurm. Pretty cool, if not also a bit strange.

Just when you think there can’t possibly be more, Moby will return to the VZR and suddenly overhead shooting sections are added to the mix! These play out similar to the side-view ones in that you’ll fly around blasting enemies and drilling through walls until you reach a boss. You can still transform between your hover tank and jet forms in overhead mode, but the VZR’s ground-based tank form is off-limits here.

So that’s how the game is structured, with the play style continually cycling through these four modes while you encounter new NPCs, plot twists, enemies, and weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. It’s a lot to describe and indeed a lot to take in for new players. Unfortunately, Wurm does fall a bit into the “jack of all trades, master of none” category, as none of these four gameplay styles is a truly extraordinary example of its kind. The horizontal and vertical shooting sections are the best of the lot, but they’re really just adequate and a far cry from greats on the system like Life Force or Zanac. The on-foot sections with Moby are by far the weakest, as they feature only five total enemy types to encounter and none of them pose much of a threat or are particularly fun to fight. Wurm is a fairly easy game. I was able to complete it for the first time in about three hours and I was by no means rushing. The levels simply aren’t all that punishing when compared to similar ones in other games of the period. You also get unlimited continues and a password for each act in case you want to take a break and return to the game later.

Wurm looks great for the most part, especially in the anime cut scenes and first-person segments with their large, well-detailed boss monsters and animated backgrounds. Cut scene artwork is heavily recycled throughout but what we get is very well-drawn and expressive. I absolutely love the cheesy 80s/90s sci-fi anime look of everything. The game’s soundtrack is a real treat, too. It really drives home the strange and alien atmosphere of the game’s setting. It sounds exactly like what getting lost in a monster-filled ancient ruin 200 miles beneath the earth should sound like, if that makes any sense.

What really elevates Wurm for me, though, is the storyline. It’s high-minded, tragic, and nuanced in a way that I’ve never seen attempted on the console before. It’s also plenty corny, to be sure. This is anime people fighting against an empire of underground monster men, not Shakespeare. Without spoiling too much, however, I will say that Wurm’s gutsy plot twists and hauntingly ambiguous ending really stuck with me. By the end of this game, not all of your comrades have made it and you’re left to wonder if the surviving characters will be able to learn from the catastrophic mistakes of the past before it’s too late or if history is doomed to repeat itself. Wurm is a title with a message and with subtext that touches on the world outside the game. For all its bombastic sci-fi shenanigans and dodgy dialog, it’s earnestly trying to communicate something important to the player and, in my case, it succeeded. If anything, this is even more uncommon and more interesting than an NES game that combines four gameplay styles into one, and it’s the ultimate reason why Wurm gets a high recommendation from me.

If you like shooters, games with brave big-haired Lady Protagonists, and stories that aspired to be more than the usual kid’s stuff before it was cool, you owe it to yourself to give Wurm a go. Just don’t judge it by its awful North American cover art. Jesus.

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

DSC_7469~01

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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