Batman: Return of the Joker (NES)

Down with the clown!

It’s been an eternity since I last treated myself to a Sunsoft game. Almost ten whole months! How am I even still alive? Pity I chose to break my dry spell with Batman: Return of the Joker, though. I was primed for another Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, or, well, Batman: The Video Game. Unfortunately, while the Caped Crusader’s second NES appearance is an audiovisual tour de force, it falls well short of its predecessor in the gameplay department.

After churning out four successful adaptations of director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman film for various gaming platforms, it was only natural that Sunsoft would want to keep their superheroic win streak going for as long as their licensing agreement held. They released Batman: Return of the Joker in December 1991, six months before Burton’s own big screen follow-up, Batman Returns, hit theaters. How does the Joker manage to come back here from his fatal plunge off the top of a cathedral at the end of the first movie? Beats me! Despite a subtitle that heavily implies otherwise, there was no effort made to connect the events of Return of the Joker to the those of Batman ’89. All we’re told in the instruction manual is that Joker is stealing a bunch of precious metals, some of which can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction, and only the Dark Knight can put a stop to it. Talk about a lapse in creativity. They could have gone way over the top here and blessed us with a resurrected cyborg, ghost, zombie, or clone version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hell, I’m not much of a comics fan at all and even I know the writers of these stories have dreamed up hundreds of ways to bring back dead villains over the years. Just pick one, guys!

The first things you’ll notice upon booting up the game are its phenomenal graphics and sound. Batman and his foes tower over their counterparts from most other NES games and the backgrounds are bursting with detail, animation, and even parallax scrolling. It’s tough to overstate just how much Sunsoft managed to accomplish with ancient hardware here. Add a few more colors to the mix and this could pass for 16-bit. And the music? It’s Naoki Kodaka working his usual thumping bass magic and it’s as spectacular as it is in almost every other Sunsoft release of the period. For what it’s worth, I’ll take the music from the two NES Batman games over anything that’s been composed for the character’s live action outings. If looks and a killer soundtrack were everything, Return of the Joker would be a top ten game on the system for sure. I think you can pretty well guess where I’m headed next after a line like that….

Like Batman: The Video Game, Return of the Joker is a side-scrolling action-platformer. Primarily, at least. Two of its thirteen stages are half-baked attempts at auto-scrolling shooters where Batman dons a jetpack and does his very best impression of the Vic Viper from Gradius. I’ll come back to these later, but trust me when I say they’re way less awesome than they sound. The majority of the action is of the run-and-gun platforming variety and it’s here that the game’s flashy graphics are revealed to be its Achilles’ heel. The practical drawbacks of pushing humongous multi-sprite characters in 256 by 240 pixel resolution are formidable and they’re only compounded by the relatively modest processing power of the NES. A more cramped screen means insufficient space for the intricate stage layouts and acrobatic wall jumping segments that made the first NES Batman such a standout. There’s no wall jumping at all here, in fact. It’s been replaced by a Mega Man style ground slide so vital to your progress that I didn’t even realize it was in the game at all until I’d already finished it once. That’s just the start, too. Double his size and Batman loses a corresponding measure of agility. He feels distinctly weighty and ponderous here, similar to other massive protagonists like Rick from Splatterhouse or Astyanax. Even his enemies suffer from the screen crunch. Space (and presumably performance) issues usually prevent more than one or two of them from appearing at any given time.

The cumulative result of all these compromises is a hero who isn’t particularly fun to control traversing a series of quite basic levels. In other words, general mediocrity. The typical stage in Return of the Joker goes something like this: You walk forward over a mostly flat section of ground, hopping over the occasional pit or other simple stage hazard. Every few steps, a lone bad guy pops into view on the edge of screen and starts shooting at you. You may or may not take a hit, depending on whether you’ve already memorized the enemy placement for that area. You fire back. He explodes and you continue walking. Sometimes the screen scrolls automatically or you have to travel vertically for a bit, but these same general design principals hold true throughout. Yay?

I can’t say much for the combat itself, either. Batman has lost his punch attack from the previous game and relies entirely on various guns this time. I can’t complain about this on principle since I’m no comics purist. What I can complain about is the four weapons on offer not being balanced very well. Killing stuff seem to take forever unless you’re using the crossbow’s explosive charged attack. If you want to save yourself a ton of hassle, especially on the boss fights, keep this sucker on you at all times.

Speaking of the bosses, they’re actually my favorite part of the game. While it is a bit strange how Batman’s normal health bar is replaced by a six-digit numeric counter during these engagements and he can suddenly withstand many more hits that he can at any other point, the fights themselves are intense and demand pattern recognition and good timing. Some of them can drag a bit if you’re not packing a strong weapon (i.e. the crossbow), but these battles are still the highlights of an otherwise underwhelming adventure.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the bosses are those two shooter stages I mentioned above. There’s absolutely no substance to them. You fly forward for a short while, blow away a few easy enemies, and that’s it. They just end. No boss or anything. If the platforming levels are basic, what does that make these? Unfinished? The Game Boy version of Batman: The Video Game included a similar flying level where you piloted the Batwing and handled it much better than this. Return of the Joker’s jetpack sections are right up there with first-person mazes from Fester’s Quest as a contender for the uncoveted “most pointless gameplay flourish in a Sunsoft title” award.

By no means is Batman: Return of the Joker some total 8-bit train wreck. Sure, as the sequel to one of the very best licensed games of all time, it’s a major disappointment. As a competent piece of run-and-gun fluff that pushes the humble NES graphics processor to its limits, however, it’s worth dumping a couple hours into for the spectacle alone. It’s a decent enough ride and the short stages, unlimited lives, and passwords keep it as stress-free a one as possible. It warrants a recommendation, albeit a lukewarm one. Holy missed opportunity, Batman!

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Gremlins 2: The New Batch (NES)

Unfortunately for Phoebe Cates fans, there would be no Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the NES.

I fell in love with director Joe Dante’s Gremlins back when it came out in 1984. I read the storybooks, fiended for the sugary breakfast cereal (that I can still sing you the commercial jingle for), and, of course, played the mediocre Atari 2600 game. Who doesn’t enjoy this deranged mishmash of holiday movie, family comedy, and creature feature? Small town loser Billy Peltzer recieves a fuzzy little critter called a mogwai for Christmas. His new pet, Gizmo, comes with some strange stipulations. Most importantly, he can’t get it wet and must never feed it after midnight. Seeing as it is a movie and plot needs to happen, it’s not long before every rule is broken, resulting in a hoard of green, scaly monsters overrunning the town.

Gremlins had a profound influence on me. More than any other single film, it nudged me toward a lifelong fascination with horror. It may have only been rated PG, but so were Jaws and Poltergeist. Standards for this sort of thing were very different before the MPAA introduced the controversial PG-13 rating later that same year, largely in direct response to parental complaints about movies like Gremlins.

Six long years later, Dante made Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a drastically different sequel that few were asking for and fewer still appreciated. This time, Billy and Gizmo must contain a gremlin outbreak in a New York City skyscraper owned by an eccentric billionaire. The horror elements were gone entirely, replaced with amped-up slapstick comedy reminiscent of a Zucker Brothers production. While the first Gremlins had its silly side, a sequel where Hulk Hogan appears as himself to break the fourth wall by yelling at the projectionist’s booth is just not scary. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. These days, Gremlins 2 is often cited as a cult classic and, while it’s not an important film to me personally like the original, I can certainly appreciate it for the ridiculous live action cartoon it is.

Which brings me at last to this little-appreciated 1990 NES adaptation by Sunsoft. Gremlins 2 follows it’s source material fairly closely by placing players in the metaphoric shoes of Gizmo himself as he battles his monstrous kin over nine action-platforming levels inside Clamp Center. What sets Gremlins 2 apart from most other platformers of the era is that the action is depicted from an overhead perspective rather than the more typical side-scrolling viewpoint.

Right away, that may set off some alarm bells. Pinpoint jumping through sprawling obstacle courses packed with pits, moving platforms, conveyor belts, and electrified spikes…from an overhead view? Gizmo’s pathetic starting weapons, tiny thrown tomatoes of all things, also don’t inspire much confidence in the new player. Fortunately, the team at Sunsoft made a series of smart choices that keep the experience fair and fun. Most crucially, there are no instant kill hazards in the game. Even falling into a pit will only cost Gizmo a portion of his health bar. He also starts out with a balloon item in his inventory that will automatically negate one pitfall completely. More balloons (as well as health refills, extra lives, and weapon power-ups) can be obtained by visiting the shops in each stage. Confusingly, these are operated by Gizmo’s former owner Mr. Wing, who’s supposed to be deceased at this point in the story. Oh, well. At least he’s helpful for a dead guy.

The jumping mechanics themselves are tailored to be as forgiving as possible. Momentum is never needed to make any jump in the game, as Gizmo covers the exact same distance in the air when leaping from a standstill as he does with a running start. Because of this, it’s often best to simply jump in place and then use the directional pad to steer Gizmo to his landing site. It isn’t necessarily intuitive to anyone accustomed to Super Mario style physics, but it does come in handy once you get used to it.

You’re not stuck hucking tomatoes for long, either. Gizmo receives regular attack upgrades every few stages, usually after defeating a big boss gremlin. The equally innocuous seeming matches, paper clips, and pencils all turn out to be formidable weapons in the hands of your fearless mogwai ninja.

Finally, Gremlins 2 includes unlimited continues and a password system. The result of all this is a great example of the “tough, but fair” design philosophy in action. Making it through some of the lengthier stages on a single health bar is no joke, yet the player is always given the tools needed to make it as long as they don’t throw in the towel. Many other Sunsoft games on the system (Blaster Master, Journey to Silius, Fester’s Quest) are much less generous and impose stiff penalties for failure, so anyone who isn’t a fan of those efforts will be glad that Gremlins 2 takes its cues from their less harsh NES version of Batman instead.

On top of these gameplay basics, Gremlins 2 looks and sounds superb. Gizmo and the variety of evil gremlins he goes up against are all recognizable from the source material. The same goes for the locations you’ll visit, such as the spooky set of Grandpa Fred’s House of Horrors. There’s even a handful of cut scenes thrown in that recreate key moments from the film. These are beautifully drawn and animated, although they’re also worldless and far too disjointed to tell a coherent version of the movie’s story on their own.

Naoki Kodaka’s famous “Sunsoft sound” makes a welcome appearance here. His NES soundtracks are celebrated for their funky melodies and liberal use of sampled bass notes to produce a much richer, more full-bodied sound than we typically hear out of the hardware. After reviewing four other Kodaka NES scores in the last year or so, I’m running out of ways to say they rule. I will add that the insane slap bass breakdown in Gremlins 2’s stage three theme is totally unprecedented on the system and really demands to be heard by chiptune enthusiasts.

The bottom line is that this is not just the rare old movie license game that’s worth a damn, it’s also a unique and inventive action-platformer on a system overflowing with them. True, it makes for a short, relatively simple playthrough. So do Sunsoft’s better-known Batman and Journey to Silius, however, and Gremlins 2 is easily their equal. Like the movie that inspired it, it’s currently enjoying a well-deserved second life with modern audiences after going overlooked and underappreciated in its day.

Whatever you do, though, never, ever play it after midnight.

Fester’s Quest (NES)

Hey, you were expecting maybe Jason Frudnick?

Richard Robbins had a dream. Literally. One night, circa 1989, he dreamed that he was playing a video game called “Uncle Fester’s Playhouse” based on the Addams Family characters. Instead of laughing this off come morning like a normal person, Robbins reacted as if he’d been the recipient of some divine inspiration and promptly dedicated himself to making this Uncle Fester game a reality. His day job as a producer for the U.S. arm of game publisher Sunsoft helped just a bit, I imagine.

Created by cartoonist Charles Addams for the New Yorker magazine all the way back in 1938, the Addams Family was conceived as a clan of macabre eccentrics satirizing popular notions of the wholesome, all-American nuclear family. A 1964 tv sitcom adaptation brought the Family to mainstream prominence, but their cultural relevance may well have been at an all-time low around 1989. This was still two years before the first big screen movie would come along to reinvigorate the franchise.

Regardless, Robbins pushed ahead and managed to convince the late Charles Addams’ widow to give her blessing to his little passion project through a protracted series of long distance phone calls to France. His higher-ups at Sunsoft Japan were even harder sells. He later recounted in an interview that they “were extremely skeptical and gave me a real hard time. They really questioned who would care about this really old weird TV show.” It’s a fair enough question. The proposed game wouldn’t even star either of the main characters from the show, Gomez and Morticia, and the bald, rotund creepy uncle character Fester was hardly traditional action hero material.

Finally, and against all odds, funding and an extremely short development window were approved. Another Sunsoft U.S. employee, Michael Mendheim, would serve as lead designer in addition to providing the game’s cover art in the form of an excellent likeness of actor Jackie Coogan, who portrayed Fester in the tv series. The finished release, titled Fester’s Quest, would go on to sell just over one million copies. This was quite a remarkable showing for a third party NES game, especially one that was never released in Japan.

It all sounds like a picture perfect lovable underdog success story, except for one little detail: Fester’s Quest is widely reviled by gamers. This is one of those rare titles like Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game that’s treated as a pariah online despite being popular in its day. To find out why, let’s delve into the actual game.

Fester’s Quest is an overhead view run-and-gun action game that takes numerous design cues from the similar segments in Sunsoft’s earlier NES title Blaster Master. This is no accident, as the same development team worked on both games. Robbins himself was even the one responsible for Blaster Master’s famously absurd mutant frog storyline.

The plot here is almost as strange as that. As seen in a rather cute opening cut scene, it involves an alien spaceship that descends on New York City one night and promptly begins abducting its inhabitants. Now it’s up to Fester to take up his musket and spearhead a rescue mission while the rest of his kin provide material support along the way in the form of various weapons and power-ups. Uncle Fester versus space aliens. That’s really what they went with.

Most of the action takes place in what appears to be a suburban neighborhood that’s been overrun with aliens. There are two types of buildings to be found here: Smaller brown houses that each contain an Addams Family member with a helpful item to dispense and larger gray structures that each hold one of the game’s boss monsters. You can’t just visit these locations in any order you want, however. Hedges, fences, and other obstructions effectively partition this “overworld” into discreet sections, imposing a strict linear progression on the player. In order to travel between different sections of the map, Fester has to descend into the sewers at various points and negotiate a series of narrow underground tunnels before reemerging in the next part of town. Eventually, you’ll reach the final stage inside the alien mothership itself.

Fester’s primary means of combatting the aliens is his gun, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the one from Blaster Master. It can be upgraded multiple times by collecting blue power-up icons from enemies and fires in a variety of patterns determined by its current power level. Because most of these shot patterns involve bullets that move in awkward wave-like or circular fashions that make it difficult to actually hit foes, it’s advisable to upgrade to the maximum power level at the very start of the game and to stay that way indefinitely. This is easier said than done, unfortunately, since enemies will also drop red power-down icons that will lower gun power one level if touched. Avoiding these red icons certainly doesn’t add any fun to the game, though it is a whole lot less punishing than Blaster Master’s habit of downgrading your weapon automatically each and every time you took damage. Later on, Fester can acquire a secondary weapon in the form of a whip provided by Morticia (uh, kinky?) and this also has its own upgrades and downgrades to fuss over. The whip is much more powerful than the gun on a per-hit basis, balanced by a limited range and slower attack speed.

Aside from his two main weapons, there are numerous other items to collect. Keys open doors, light bulbs illuminate the dark sewers, money buys health restoring franks from hot dog stands, and vise grips cure the annoying slowing effect of certain enemy attacks. The really important items are the potions, homing missiles, and nooses. Potions come in healing and invincibility varieties (the utility of each being obvious), homing missiles automatically seek out and deal heavy damage to enemies, and nooses summon the family butler Lurch to instantly obliterate all non-boss enemies on the screen. The intelligent use of these four key items will make Fester’s adventure much more manageable. Each is only available in a limited quantity, but defeating a boss will replenish Fester’s stock completely. In a pinch, revisiting the house where you received your initial batch of a given item will also top off your supply.

Nothing here sounds all that bad so far, apart from maybe the weapon downgrades. So where do the real problems start?

Let’s start with the health bar. At the very beginning of the game, Fester can only withstand two hits before dying. He’s also a very slow-moving character and has a tough time escaping from any enemies that manage to get too close to him. To make matters worse still, many aliens require a ton of shots to kill unless Fester’s gun is fully powered and they tend to respawn almost immediately when destroyed. You can locate a pair of hidden health bar extension later in the game, thankfully. The instruction manual will even tip you off as to where to look for one of them. Until you get your mitts on at least one of these bonus hit points and some healing potions, though, it’s going to be tough going for your pasty protagonist.

The second major issue involves what happens when you eventually do run out of health. Fester’s Quest has a continue feature and the game keeps tabs on inventory items, weapon upgrades, and bosses defeated. As long as you don’t power off the console, that is. The bad news is that continuing places Fester back at the first screen of the game. Since everything is arranged along one winding path, this can mean having to spend a considerable amount of time slowly marching through the exact same series of streets and sewers again just to take another shot at clearing the bit that actually killed you. After being defeated by the fourth boss, I was not exactly thrilled to spend upward of twenty minutes just trekking back to his door for a rematch.

Speaking of the bosses, Fester’s Quest forces you to trudge through an out-of-place and completely pointless first-person maze before you battle each of them. These mazes feature no hidden loot to find (with one key exception), no enemies to fight or traps to avoid, and not even a time limit. At least they’re easy to solve using the classic “all left turns” or “all right turns” methods. These mazes have to be one of the most baffling vestigial elements I’ve ever encountered in a game. I can only assume that the designer intended to do something with them, but ultimately ran out of time.

One final thing that holds Fester’s Quest back from greatness is its lackluster and repetitive environments. I hope you like endless interchangeable suburbs and sewers, because that’s a good 90% of what you’re in for here. By the time you reach the final level inside the alien ship, it’ll hit you that this is the first new set of background tiles you’ve seen since you first started out.

So, yes, this is one flawed game. Largely owing, I suspect, to its rushed development cycle. Even so, there remains much good be found in Fester’s Quest. It was brought to us by many of the same people behind Batman, Blaster Master, and Journey to Silius, after all.

For one thing, the boss battles are quite cool. Just like in Blaster Master, each boss looks intimidating and has a ton of health, but also follows a fairly simple pattern that lets you take it down with ease once you’ve mastered it. The initial sense of panic experienced when facing each new boss sets the stage for some exhilarating victories and increased confidence as the game progresses.

The presentation has its high points, too. While the environments are indeed bland, the design and animation of the aliens was handled much better. I also thought the portraits of the various Addams Family members looked quite nice. The soundtrack was provided by by Naoki Kodaka, the genius responsible for the driving, bass sample-heavy “Sunsoft sound” that characterized most of the company’s output at the time. There aren’t a lot of tracks here, but what we do get is superb. I particularly love the cheesy digitized orchestra hit included in the game’s rendition of the the classic tv theme song.

Best of all, Fester’s Quest as a whole presents a very satisfying challenge to the player. The difficulty is rather front-loaded due to the lack of health and items at the start, but persevere past that speed bump and the mid-to-late game turns out to be much more enjoyable. With a bit of extra health and some smart application of your inventory, Fester’s Quest is very much beatable with a minimum of frustration.

Is Fester’s Quest some kind of misunderstood masterpiece or NES hidden gem? Absolutely not. Often, when the term “underrated” is thrown around, it’s in the context of wanting to champion something. That isn’t my intention at all. Much like Silver Surfer, this is a merely an okay-ish NES game that I managed to enjoy. It has the baseline level of Sunsoft production quality that would have almost certainly been lacking in an LJN or THQ joint. It’s also unrepentantly weird as hell in every aspect of its concept and execution, which might just make it the most authentic Addams Family game adaptation ever in light of all the thoroughly pedestrian platformers that followed in the wake of the films. If you enjoyed the overhead stages from Blaster Master, it’s worth checking out. Only in the context of the ludicrous amount of vitriol spewed at it online does it make sense to call it underrated.

Me, I’ll only go so far as to say that it’s not altogether ooky.

Journey to Silius (NES)

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You’re terminated, fucker!

I’ve been on a bit of a Sunsoft NES kick over the last couple weeks, playing through Batman, Blaster Master, and now 1990’s Journey to Silius, all for the first time. What a ride it’s been! I never completed any of these games back when they came out, but I did at least play Batman and Blaster Master briefly. Journey to Silius, however, I’d never tried at all before yesterday. That’s too bad, because while I don’t think it can match Blaster Master for sheer scope and creativity, it’s definitely on the same level as Batman in terms of being a short-but-intense action game with top-notch presentation.

It’s pretty well-known by now that Journey to Silius (also known as Raf World in Japan) was intended to be a licensed game based on the 1984 film The Terminator. It was even previewed in Nintendo Power magazine under the Terminator title. I don’t believe it’s known exactly why the license was pulled, but the financial costs to Sunsoft, the six year gap since the first film’s release, and the then-upcoming sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day often feature in speculation. It’s really too bad, as the official Terminator games that were released later in the 1990s were not well-received at all and better name recognition could have driven many more sales for the game we know as Journey to Silius, which remains to this day as obscure as it is excellent.

Forced to come up with a new story for the game, what Sunsoft gave us is this: In the future, the earth is so overpopulated that everyone is migrating to space colonies. Protagonist Jay McCray’s father, a scientist working to build a colony in the Silius star system, is killed in an explosion. The incident is ruled an accident, but Jay discovers a message from his father that reveals that he was actually murdered by terrorists intent on sabotaging the colony project for some reason. Jay vows to get revenge on the terrorists and complete his late father’s work. This is all presented in an opening scene when starting the game, but there is no further plot development or even a real epilogue, so it all seems very underdeveloped and forgettable. So just do what I do and pretend you’re Kyle Reese or John Connor fighting Skynet. It works a lot better.

Incidentally, my pet theory is that the setting of the game was supposed to be the Sirius star system, but that this was corrupted to “Silius” due to the sort of L/R confusion that crept in when many early Japanese games were translated into English. Other famous examples being “conglaturations,” “victoly,” etc. I can’t prove it, but it makes sense to me.

Journey to Silius is a side-scrolling run-and-gun style game that is often compared to Mega Man. Jay’s control options are fairly basic: He can run, shoot his gun forward, and crouch. There are five levels total and they are presented in a strictly linear fashion, with no stage select as in Mega Man. Defeating bosses in the first four levels will earn you a new special weapon to use. Jay starts out with a pistol and shotgun and then acquires a machine gun, homing missiles, laser, and grenade launcher as he progresses. Every weapon except the pistol has limited ammunition and they share a single ammunition gauge, unlike in Mega Man where each weapon has its own supply of energy. This makes special weapon shots very precious and best saved for bosses. Luckily, the pistol is sufficient to deal with most regular enemies.

One interesting quirk in Journey to Silius is the way that Jay jumps. He has momentum in the air, which means that he can’t completely negate his inertia and steer himself back the way he came if he’s jumping forward or backward. You have more control over his jumps than you do Simon Belmont’s in Castlevania, for example, but less than you do over Super Mario or Mega Man’s. He also can’t fall straight down off ledges, since he’ll drift in the direction he walked off the ledge as he falls. It takes some getting used to but you can eventually adapt to this more realistic jumping style.

Graphics and sound are above average across the board in this game. As befitting a game meant to evoke the dark future setting of the Terminator films, the art direction in general is very grim, with ruined cityscapes and labyrinths filled with killer robots. Indeed, all of your enemies are robots of various types, but there’s a great deal of variety among them. Bosses are huge and can fill the entire screen or even multiple screens in one memorable case. The Journey to Silius soundtrack is legendary for good reason, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many more people have heard these tunes than have played the game itself. The signature “Sunsoft sound” is in full effect here, with pumping bass samples and amazing percussion driving the very heavy score.

Journey to Silius can be pretty tough going. While the game is short and can be completed in about half an hour, you’re only given twelve lives with which to do so. You have three lives to start and three continues and there is no way to find or earn more, which seems to be a trend in Sunsoft NES games. These guys just hate the concept of the 1-Up. In addition, levels two, three, and four are very long indeed, easily twice the length of an average stage in most other games. The final level breaks with the standard established to that point by blindsiding you with an auto-scrolling gauntlet of traps and pits that demands you be both precise and rapid in your progress as opposed to the more cautious and deliberate pace that works best for the previous four stages. Don’t think you can count on health drops from enemies, either, as these are exceedingly rare and restore only a small amount when they do show themselves. They’re so scarce, in fact, that you can go several levels at a stretch without seeing a single one and they can’t be “farmed” from respawning enemies, as there are none to be found in this game. You’ll need to become very adept at memorizing the positions of the enemies and traps in each level and conserving your health and ammunition if you want to stand a chance.

There are some outright flaws to be found here, too. Vertical sections where Jay has to make leaps of faith onto lower platforms are pure trial-and-error, with no way to know what hazards are awaiting you or how to maneuver yourself to avoid them and this feels pointlessly unfair. There’s also an annoying quirk in the boss fights where you lose control of Jay the instant the boss is defeated but any projectile attacks headed your way at that instant stay active and can damage or even kill you while you’re stuck standing in place unable to dodge. I’ve had to re-fight several “dead” bosses because they’ve succeeded in killing me with these parting shots while I’m at very low health. It sucks.

Minor quibbles aside, Journey to Silius is a great action platformer. It doesn’t have the length or depth of a Mega Man, the frenetic multiplayer action of a Contra, or the epic storyline of a Ninja Gaiden, but it does have gorgeous art, responsive controls, incredible music, and substantial challenge going for it. Now go play it before I have to travel back in time and make you.

Blaster Master (NES)

My second successful amphibian rescue of the summer! What an odd trend.

This is, of course, Sunsoft’s legendary Blaster Master from 1988 and let me tell you, it is one remarkable experience. There’s so much going on here for an 8-bit action game that I hardly know where to start.

How about with the famously goofy story? Jason Frudnick is your typical high school kid with a pet frog named Fred. One day, Fred leaps out of his tank and hops out into the back yard, with Jason giving chase. Fred winds up landing on a box of radioactive materials that just happens to be laying around in the yard for some reason and instantly grows into a giant mutant frog before promptly dropping down a huge hole in the ground nearby. You with me so far? Jason continues the chase by leaping down the hole after Fred. At the bottom, he discovers a futuristic battle tank that he decides to use to combat the hoards of mutants who inhabit the subterranean world and rescue Fred from the clutches of their leader, the evil Plutonium Boss.

Yeah, even for an old NES game, this is some high silliness. There’s a reason for this, sort of. Blaster Master started out in Japan as “Super Planetary War Records: Metafight.” The plot was very anime-inspired and involved an alien warlord invading the peaceful planet Sophia III and a lone warrior named Kane repelling the invasion. For whatever reason, Metafight sold extremely poorly in Japan, so Sunsoft decided to change the story completely for the international release and we got Jason and Fred instead. Ironically, the game sold like hotcakes here, so Sunsoft opted to ditch the Metafight idea completely and make the frog-centered plot the official series canon in all regions going forward. Even the corny novelization released as part of the Worlds of Power series is considered official lore, which frankly blows my mind.

But on to the game! Blaster Master is a hybrid of two gameplay styles: You get side scrolling platform action with elements of exploration and backtracking (similar to Metroid) interspersed with overhead run-and-gun action stages where you navigate mazes searching for each level’s boss and defeating it in order to earn the tank upgrades you need to continue your quest. There are eight interconnected levels total, each with its own unique music and visual style. The overhead dungeon levels all play out with Jason on foot, while the side-view sectons mostly have you piloting the tank. I say “mostly” because you can exit the tank at any time by pressing the select button, but you’ll rarely want to since Jason is much weaker and less mobile on foot. More on this later, though.

In terms of graphics and sound, Blaster Master was the absolute state of the art on the NES in 1988. Backgrounds and characters are extremely well-drawn, with the boss monsters in particular being some of the largest and most well-detailed ever realized on the console at the time. Sound effects are all on-point and the music flat-out rocks and can be heroic, sinister, and even heavy at times. If you want to know what speed metal sounds like played on an NES sound chip, check out level seven’s theme and throw up those horns.

If I had to describe Blaster Master’s gameplay in one word, it would be “intense.” This is a long game and will probably take an average player roughly three to four hours to complete, but only if that player already knows what they’re doing and where to go. If you factor in time needed to learn the controls, explore the levels, and practice fighting some of the trickier bosses, that time can triple at least. And there is no way to save your progress in this game. No passwords, no save files, no nothing. Did I mention the limited lives with no way to earn more? Lose them all and it’s game over. It took me a total of three five hour play sessions to finally complete the game, although the first two didn’t end because I ran out of lives, but rather because I ran out of time. I’m too old to stay up past midnight on a work night gaming these days. Needless to say, the combination of a long, complex game, no saving, limited lives, and tough opposition means that you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. You need to be thorough and cautious, carefully clearing out enemies from each level without taking too much damage on your way to the boss. In fact, damage is doubly deadly in the overhead stages, where each hit taken depletes both Jason’s health and weapon power. Just a few hits from common foes can degrade your gun from a screen clearing laser tsunami to a puny peashooter in a matter of seconds, and power-ups that restore weapon energy are much rarer than ones that restore health. It’s been said that this makes Blaster Master a game that gets harder and harder the more you do poorly at it. My advice? Take it slow and take every enemy seriously. If you’re rushing in this game, you’re probably also losing at it.

Another factor that keeps this game consistently tense is how the developers deftly use psychological conditioning to keep you outside your comfort zone. One example of this is level five, the underground sea. Having beaten the first half of the game, the player naturally begins to feel confident, only to be confronted with a lengthy section where the fragile Jason is forced to leave the safety of his tank to swim through narrow underwater passages swarming with enemies. You don’t know how long you’ll be stuck away from the safety of your armored vehicle and you feel extremely vulnerable as a result. Another example is the wall climbing upgrades that you acquire in levels six and seven. Both allow you to navigate to new areas, but they also change the way your tank controls drastically, as it now clings to almost any surface and you have to completely relearn how the platforming works after having mastered one style of movement for over 80% of the game. You can bet the final two levels are filled with deadly traps designed to prey on your instinctive reliance on the old controls. Again, the player’s confidence is expertly built up and then strategically undermined. If your palms weren’t sweating before these twists are introduced, they sure will be after.

Blaster Master is not a game for the impatient or the easily frustrated. It’s unashamedly tough and demands practice, dedication, and serious focus from players. It’s a high pressure experience by design and under no circumstances should the player sabotage that by abusing glitches and emulator save states if they want the full effect. If you love a good challenge and are willing to invest the time, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most riveting action gaming of the 8-bit era.

Do it for your boy Fred. I’m sure he’d do the same for you if frogs could drive tanks.

Batman: The Video Game (NES)

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This is easily the most satisfying clown murder I’ve had all week.

Continuing this week’s trend of games based on ’80s movies, I played through Sunsoft’s (very loose) 1989 adaptation of Tim Burton’s Batman for the first time. Well, I suppose technically it’s called “Batman: The Video Game,” but nobody calls it that. That would just be silly.

I’ve heard a lot over the years about how this is one of the best games ever made for the NES. Is it true? Well, while I liked it, I wouldn’t go quite that far….

There’s undoubtedly a lot to like about Batman. The music is amazing and matches the offbeat brooding action vibe of the film, the graphics are well-drawn, characters animate extremely well for a console game of this era, and the play control is superb.

Batman is an action platform game and is divided into five stages. Each stage has multiple platforming sections and a boss fight, with the exception of the final stage, which has only one platforming section, but two bosses.

Batman’s move set consists of a jump, a punch attack, and three ranged weapons with differing attack properties: The batarang is short range and powerful, the spear gun’s less powerful shots can travel across the entire screen, and the oddly-named dirk splits into three projectiles when fired. Each ranged weapon consumes a different amount of your ammunition per shot. You can carry up to 99 bullets at once and they’re replenished fairly regularly by enemy drops, so you’ll rarely run out. As cool as these ranged weapons are, most enemies are easily dispatched with your fists, so while they make make some sections of the game a little easier, your guns are rarely necessary.

Batman’s most important technique is the wall jump. Similar to other games like Ninja Gaiden, you can rebound off walls to reach higher sections of the level. This is far from an optional mechanic. In fact, it’s arguably the game’s central gimmick, with the last level serving as a wall jumping final exam of sorts. If you haven’t perfected the technique by then, you’ll never even get a chance to lay eyes on the Joker.

It all sound great, but there are a few problems. Primarily, the game makes very poor use of the source material. The few cut scenes present between levels are a waste, as they don’t come close to telling a coherent version of the film’s story and most are only a few seconds long. None of the game’s locations are recognizable and neither are any of its enemy characters other than the Joker himself. If I had to describe the overall feel of the stages, I’d say they’re like leftover layouts from Ninja Gaiden were populated with leftover enemies from Contra. It feels very much like a generic NES sci-fi action game with a Batman sprite pasted in.

The difficulty curve is also awkward. Batman took me about four hours to complete for the first time and nearly three of those were spent in the last level. The first 80% of the game really is a breeze, but the final clock tower level feels about as hard as all the previous ones combined. To cap it off, the Joker can deal a lot more damage than any other boss. Most hazards in the game will deplete 1/8th of Batman’s health bar on contact, but the Joker’s gun will shave off 3/8th. A relatively easy game with a solitary super tough level just feels lopsided. At least continues are unlimited.

Leaving aside the generic trappings that largely waste the license and the strange difficulty balancing, Batman really is a fun ride and reminds me of a successful cross between Shatterhand and Ninja Gaiden. It’s absolutely the best game for the NES…where you play as Michael Keaton.

Batman: The Video Game (Game Boy)

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Decided to play through Batman for Game Boy real quick this morning before checking out of the hotel for the final day of Crypticon. It’s still a pretty fun little platform/shooter hybrid, but I had forgotten in the 25 years or so since last playing it what a steep difficulty jump the last level and boss are. The auto-scrolling platform navigation is stressful (as intended, of course) and the damn Joker takes like a billion hits.

I’m really glad they used small sprites that work well in the Game Boy’s native resolution instead of making the common mistake of going with NES-like proportions that make the action appear too zoomed-in. It’s a short experience, with only four levels, and I would have particularly loved at least one more Batwing flying level, although I understand why they only included the one, since they were trying to follow the rough plot outline of the movie for the most part.

Still pretty enjoyable, though. Especially for coming out so early in the system’s life. Go, Sunsoft!