Power Blade 2 (NES)

Halloween has really spoiled me. Filling my Octobers with appropriately ghoulish games is the easiest thing. There’s such an abundance of worthwhile candidates, in fact, that I usually don’t know where to begin. On the other hand, quality vintage Christmas games are all but nonexistent. Sure, some publishers were known to put out pared-down holiday-themed demos of their regular retail titles for promotional purposes. Think Christmas Lemmings or Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams. When it came to true standalone works, however, Elf Bowling and similar shovelware trash was the rule. Something like the mediocre Santa Claus platformer Daze Before Christmas was about as good as it got, despite being only marginally more entertaining than a head start on your next tax return.

I do get it. The archetypal video game is rooted in epic conflict, not peace on Earth and good will toward men. Fair enough. It just means I’m going to have to cheat a little. Hence, I’m resorting to Die Hard rules with 1992’s Power Blade 2, a stock NES action-platformer than just happens to be set on Christmas Eve. Yippee-ki-yay.

As you’d expect, Power Blade 2 (or Captain Saver, as it’s known in Japan) is the sequel to the previous year’s Power Blade. Nova, the 22nd century’s premier boomerang chucking muscleman, returns. This time, he’s going up against the Delta Foundation, a shady corporation that’s blackmailing the U.S. government with a newly-developed super cyborg. They’re threatening to sell this technology to the nation’s enemies if Uncle Sam doesn’t shell out by New Year’s. Nova’s boss has a better idea: Sending him on a clandestine mission to eliminate the Delta Foundation by infiltrating and torching all of their heavily guarded research facilities. On Christmas Eve. I guess that makes Nova a bit like Santa, except the bad kids get large scale industrial sabotage in place of coal.

Power Blade 2 is a frustrating case for me. I love the original and the majority of its mechanics were faithfully carried forward, including Nova’s tight movement controls, his ability to attack in eight directions, the cool metal armor that grants extra powers, the stage select feature, and the overall excellent graphics and sound. What’s missing is the wide open level design. Instead of having you explore each area in search of both the boss’ hideout and the key to open it, Power Blade 2’s six stages are presented as a linear series of cramped corridors. While there’s nothing strictly wrong with that latter style, it does forgo most of what set Power Blade apart from Mega Man, Shatterhand, and countless other sci-fi side-scrollers on the system.

I wish I could say this conventional approach was a trade-off of sorts, but there’s honestly nothing that special about Power Blade 2’s levels. They’re alright, if a tad too reliant on slow auto-scrolling and one-hit death hazards. Fundamentally, though, they’re nothing I haven’t seen done before, and often better, in that same teeming mass of 8-bit releases I mentioned above. A net loss all-around.

Fortunately, there is an upside. The single temporary armor suit item from Power Blade has been greatly expanded upon here in the form of four different suits that act as permanent additions to Nova’s inventory. The Newt Suit lets him climb along ceilings and walls, the Wet Suit improves his underwater mobility, the Rocket Suit grants flight, and the Patriot Suit comes with a pair of orbiting shield satellites that automatically position themselves to block enemy projectiles. These perks don’t come free. You must earn the suits by defeating mecha-dragon mini-bosses stationed in the first four stages and their usage thereafter is tied to a battery power gauge. Still, these suckers are all highly useful and fun to boot, even if they don’t make up for the rote level design.

A final noteworthy change is the increased difficulty, which I can see alienating some fans. Power Blade was rather forgiving by NES standards. Nova could withstand a lot of punishment and instant death scenarios were uncommon. Power Blade 2 ups the ante considerably with its deadlier environments and more cunning enemy placement. At least the passwords and unlimited continues remain to take some of that edge off.

Although I have a hard time viewing Power Blade 2 as anything other than a downgrade, that doesn’t mean I regret the time I spent with it. It is a Natsume/Taito co-production, after all. Competent by most any measure, it merely lacks the strong creative identity of its predecessor. It’s a less interesting, less approachable, less “Power Bladey” take on Power Blade. Not even Kinuyo Yamashita’s musical score is quite on par with the one she contributed to the last game. Adding insult to injury, it’s a rare and expensive cartridge. An authentic copy will run you upwards of $400 as of this writing.

Underwhelming and overpriced as it is, there’s one thing no one can take away from Power Blade 2: It’s the absolute best Christmas game on the NES. When Nova destroyed the evil mastermind behind the Delta Foundation and rode off into the sunrise on his hoverbike to the tune of Silent Night as snowflakes began to fall, I practically fell over laughing. Now that’s what I call the reason for the season!

Cadash (TurboGrafx-16)

Baarogue the Destroyer is ravaging the peaceful kingdom of Deezar. He’s kidnapped Princess Sarasa and spirited her off to his lair in Castle Cadash, where he plans to conduct a magic ritual to join with her and gain ultimate power. The king of Deerzar summons four heroes and implores them to rescue his daughter before all is lost. Fighter, mage, priestess, and ninja brace themselves for the trials ahead as they set off for Cadash.

If you think this sounds like the most generic setup for a fantasy epic imaginable, you’re not wrong. What made this 1989 release from Taito remarkable wasn’t its stock plot or equally conventional side-scrolling gameplay, but rather its format: Cadash was an action RPG for the arcades! Your adventurers explored dungeons, racked up experience points to level up, spent money at inns and shops, the works. Some dual screen cabinet configurations even allowed you to do all this with up to three friends at once. It stood out in a sea of spaceship shooters and Double Dragon style beat-’em-ups, that’s for sure.

This 1991 home conversion for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 was the game’s first. It’s also widely considered to be its best, seeing as the later Genesis edition omits two of the four playable characters for some reason. Commendable as this arcade accuracy is, however, it doesn’t quite make up for the TG-16 port’s lack of substance relative to most of its console native contemporaries. Cadash is ludicrously short by genre standards. Its five interconnected dungeons can be conquered in about a hour, give or take. For this reason, it’s a rare example of an RPG with no form of save feature. There’s simply no need.

What little longevity Cadash has is derived from its four mechanically distinct heroes. The fighter and ninja are your close and long-range physical combatants, respectively. The fighter’s heavy armor and shields theoretically compensate for all the extra hits he’ll be taking. Personally, I found the ninja’s “hang back and lob shuriken” approach much more pragmatic and fun. The mage and priestess are both given magic to offset their relative lack of weapon proficiency. In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, the priestess specializes in healing and protection spells while the mage prefers to wreck fools with fireballs and lightning bolts. Pity the controls make playing as the two spellcasters unnecessarily frustrating. You select a spell by holding the attack button down as a series of icons slowly cycle by. Releasing the button when the icon corresponding to the spell you want is displayed triggers that spell. Good luck managing this while a humongous boss monster is whaling on you! I can’t help but feel a more elegant approach was possible, especially since the Select button goes wholly unused.

A curious aspect of this iteration of Cadash is its total lack of extra lives or continues in single-player. If a lone hero runs out of hit points, the game is over. Contrast this with the co-op mode, where either player can spend gold to revive a fallen partner. This gave me considerable pause at first, since it seemed like it would make a solo playthrough one hellishly difficult ordeal. Imagine my surprise when the exact opposite turned out to be true. I completed Cadash twice with two different characters (the ninja and priestess) and never once died. My secret? Grinding, baby! The arcade Cadash forces you to cope with some very strict time limits. It makes sense there. What arcade owner wants some punk hogging a machine for hours on a single quarter? The home versions ditch the timer, so you’re free to cut down droves of easy enemies at the start of a dungeon and power your character up well beyond the point of common decency. Sporting? Not at all. Effective? Hell, yes.

As an undistinguished action RPG with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime better suited to the arcade than the home, Cadash doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. On the plus side, the graphics are crisp and colorful, the music is decent, and any kind of two-player simultaneous functionality is always a rare boon in a game like this. One final thing I enjoyed was the text by Working Designs. For those unacquainted with the company, they handled English language translation and localization duties on behalf of numerous Japanese game publishers between 1991 and 2004. Their work is controversial within the classic gaming community due to their tendency to insert absurd gags and anachronistic pop culture references into their scripts at every opportunity. Some find this relentless goofiness compromises authenticity and dulls the impact of serious moments. Others get a kick of out of filthy innuendo and fossilized O.J. Simpson jokes. Depending on the game, I could go either way. I think it works in this context. Cadash has so little story to begin with, and what is present is pure cliché. Having the villain name check Carl Sagan in his pre-fight monologue may be ridiculous, but you can’t accuse Working Designs of undermining great drama here.

Ultimately, I can recommend this one for a quick burst of casual monster bashing, particularly if you can rope a second player into it. It’s likely too brief and basic to hold your attention for long, though, and it’s hardly worth the mad sums authentic copies command on the secondary market these days. Keep those expectations in check and you should be fine. Cadash is here for a good time, not a long time.

Little Samson (NES)

Happy anniversary to me!

Three years ago to the day now, I began writing reviews for every game I completed. This proved so enjoyable that I soon committed to producing at least one per week going forward, a goal I’ve handily exceeded. An achievement such as this calls for something extraordinary. I’ve chosen a game that fills NES aficionados everywhere with a heady mix of wonder and dread: The deceptively humble-sounding Little Samson.

This 1992 action-platformer was the third and final game to come out of the short-lived studio Takeru/Sur Dé Wave. I covered their debut, the quirky Famicom exclusive Cocoron, last year. Takeru’s roster consisted largely of former Capcom staff, and their years spent churning out hits like Mega Man and Strider made them highly adept at side-scrolling action. Sadly, Little Samson’s excellence in this capacity is often eclipsed by its monstrous price tag. How bad are we talking here? Try $1200 to $8800 as of this writing, depending on condition and completeness. This makes it the single most expensive regular licensed retail release for the system by a wide margin. The current runner-up, The Flintstones – Surprise at Dinosaur Peak, goes for slightly more than half what Little Samson does on average. This game’s reputation as an ultra-rare prestige piece is so well established that even playing it for free via EverDrive, as I did, felt like being down in the classic gaming equivalent of a world-class wine cellar, reverently dusting off some priceless vintage.

What makes Little Samson specifically the crown jewel of so many licensed NES collections? We’ll likely never be 100% sure. It’s universally agreed that its publisher, Taito, didn’t produce very many copies. There may have been as few as 10,000 manufactured, although the precise number is unknown and possibly lost to history. This relative scarcity is also evident with other Taito games of the era, like Panic Restaurant and the aforementioned Surprise at Dinosaur Peak.

Then there’s the matter of its oddly Biblical name. The game itself, known as Seirei Densetsu Lickle (“Holy Bell Legend Lickle”) in the original Japanese, has nothing at all to do with religion. It’s been speculated American NES owners shunned Little Samson at point of sale based on a general aversion to “Bible games,” which, regardless of anyone’s personal theological beliefs, do tend to be pretty dang terrible.

Finally, let’s consider that human psychology can be a lot messier than any rarified laws of supply and demand would have you believe. Hardcore collectors of anything have a tendency to be highly competitive. In light of this, the NES collecting ecosystem practically demands there be something situated right where Little Samson is in the pricing hierarchy. The jump in dollar value from three digits to four is more than enough to turn heads and demonstrate a high degree of personal commitment to the hobby, yet Little Samsom remains far more attainable than, say, the five-digit beast that is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships cartridge. Perhaps, to paraphrase Voltaire, “If Little Samson did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”

So how’s the gameplay, already? Glad you asked! At its core, Little Samson is an archetypal NES action game in which a team of four diverse heroes must overcome a series of side-scrolling stages filled with enemies and death-defying leaps in order to save their fantasy kingdom from an evil overlord. The twist is you’re able to swap between the four protagonists at any time in order to draw on their various special abilities. Or at least you are after you’ve completed the four short opening levels, each of which is intended to serve as an introduction to a specific hero.

Samson (aka Lickle) is the de facto leader of the bunch. He has decent health and movement speed, can climb walls and ceilings, and attacks by tossing bells straight ahead. He functions as your jack-of-all-trades, best used when none of his comrades would be significantly more effective.

Kikira the dragon’s mediocre health is offset by several potent assets. She’s able to fly for short periods, has steady footing on icy surfaces, and can charge up her fire breath for extra damage.

Gamm the golem is a huge, slow target who can barely jump. To compensate, he has a massive health pool, takes no damage from spikes, and can aim his powerful short range punches vertically as well as horizontally.

K.O. the mouse is tiny and fragile, the polar opposite of Gamm in many ways. Despite this, he’s anything but useless. His Metroid style bomb attack is the most powerful in the game, assuming you can keep him alive long enough to exploit it. On top of this, he moves fast, jumps high, clings to walls, fits into the narrowest of passages, and can walk on water. Walk on water? Maybe this is a Bible game after all….

All four members of your team have separate health bars. As in Konami’s first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, swapping out a badly wounded hero before he or she bites the dust is always best practice. One caveat: If anyone beside Samson does die, they’ll stay dead until you run out of lives completely and use a continue. The one exception is if the character died with a healing potion in their inventory, in which case it can be used from the pause menu to revive them. This does unfortunately lead to situations where it’s easier to burn through the rest of your lives on purpose so you can continue with a full party than it is to struggle on with a diminished roster.

In less skilled hands, the teamwork mechanic that defines Little Samson could have amounted to a mere gimmick. The developers’ genius lies in the way every aspect of the level and enemy design synergizes with it. As you play, you’re constantly prompted to consider the ideal way to tackle the obstacles in your path. For spikes on the floor, is it better to fly over them with Kikira, walk across them with Gamm, or use K.O. or Samson to scamper across the ceiling? While there’s often more than one solution, determining which is your safest bet hinges not just on the placement of the spikes themselves, but on which foes are lurking nearby and whether a given party member is worth risking now versus saving for the upcoming boss fight.

Speaking of the boss encounters, this same intriguing dynamic is present there, too. Do you want to try to keep your distance and wear them down with Kikira and Samson, brawl with Gamm, or engage in the high risk, high reward venture of getting in close enough to deploy K.O.’s bombs without taking damage? This is quality game design, pure and simple.

Not only is the content here finely crafted, there’s a good amount of it. Twenty-two stages to be exact, although you won’t find all of them on your first go due to their branching structure. Just be aware that Little Samson is one of those games that terminates your playthrough prematurely and denies you the true ending if you opt for the easy difficulty mode. Thankfully, unlimited continues and a password system keep the normal setting quite reasonable.

Little Samson’s graphics and sound form a interesting dichotomy. Its sprites and backgrounds are truly sumptuous by NES standards. Seeing this degree of fine detail realized under the strict color and resolution limitations of a machine engineered in 1983 to run Donkey Kong is downright inspiring. I’ll go as far as to say I’ve never seen another Famicom or NES game that looks better than this one. Approximately as good in its own right, sure, but never flat-out superior. Then there’s the music, which is…fine, I guess. That is, the songs themselves are well done. How they’re used is the issue. Instead of having the music selections tied to the levels themselves as in most games, the individual heroes have their own themes which play whenever they’re active. The problem inherent in having just four main background tracks in a lengthy game is exacerbated by some characters being less suited for general use than others. I hope you like Samson’s theme in particular, because you’re likely to be listening to it around half the time. On the plus side, the endgame areas do eventually break free of this rut with some distinct tunes of their own.

To my delight, Little Samson proved itself a prime example of a hyped-up trophy title that also happens to rank among the better games available on its native platform. The limited soundtrack is the only remotely disappointing thing about it. Charming characters, lush visuals, and masterfully designed action make it worth seeking out by any means necessary. If emulation or flash cartridges aren’t your bag and you’d prefer a more affordable “real” copy, consider Seirei Densetsu Lickle. It’s the same game at 1/8th the cost.

Disappointing sales notwithstanding, this was one hell of a swan song from Takeru. If a little sticker shock is what it takes to attract the audience it always deserved, that’s fine by me.

Time Diver: Eon Man (NES)

What a cordial end screen. Good luck to you, too, Taito.

This week’s review marks another first for me. I’ve looked at various unlicensed and fan-made games before, but Time Diver: Eon Man was never formally released at all. Its planned 1993 launch was cancelled at the last minute by publisher Taito. I’m talking “after it got its own Nintendo Power feature” last minute, too. Apart from an obscure version circulated in Asia in 1994 by a mysterious outfit known as Nitra, Time Diver would have been lost forever if a supposedly finished English language version hadn’t leaked to the Internet.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, most sources list Atlus as the developer behind this one. The available documentation actually supports crediting A.I, who originally intended it to serve as a sequel to their own Wrath of the Black Manta (aka Ninja Cop Saizou) from 1989. In an insightful interview with GDRI, former A.I artist/planner/producer Shouichi Yoshikawa described the project as “understaffed” and, frankly, it shows.

Of course, I’m getting a little ahead of myself with that last statement. It does bring me neatly to the ethical quandary that is reviewing any unreleased media, though. How fair can my critique be to the creators when their work was never properly presented to the public in the first place? At the same time, Time Diver: Eon Man is a game that exists. You can easily go play it right now if you wish. A review of it therefore serves a practical purpose for a classic gaming community hungry for insight into which lesser known titles are worth their time. I suppose you should feel free to take what I say here for what it’s worth and try not to hold any negatives against the parties involved. Deal?

Time Diver: Eon Man is a side-scrolling action-platformer with a science fiction theme. Not exactly a revelation on the NES, I know. The titular Time Diver is Dan Nelson, an unassuming college student in 1993 Los Angeles. After a close call with a group of high-tech assailents, Dan learns that he and his ancestors are targets of the criminal organization Romedrux, who are sending assassins back in time from the year 2052 in hopes of erasing Dan’s unborn son Kane from history. Kane is destined to invent a miraculous device that predicts and prevents virtually all crime, so it makes sense that Romedrux would want him out of the way. In order that he might save the future, Dan is entrusted with another of Kane’s inventions: A suit that allows him to travel through time and harness a number of handy superpowers as…the Time Diver. It’s basically Terminator with a dash of Minority Report. I’ve heard worse.

While this time hopping plot is packed with potential, Time Diver ultimately doesn’t capitalize on it very well. What we get here is notably short and lacking in diversity; five average length stages, four of which are “peaceful” and “devastated” versions of 1993 and 2052. That leaves Dan’s excursion to 1882 as the sole stab at a historical setting, and he spends most of it in a nondescript cave area that could have been culled from any given 8-bit game. To their credit, A.I did attempt to inject some replay value by making the stage order random. With this little content to work with, however, the feature amounts to a trifle at best.

Core gameplay doesn’t stray far from the expected. Dan has to run, jump, and punch his way past a procession of thugs and environmental hazards on his way to each stage’s end boss. He controls well and can execute a useful rebounding jump kick that functions like the wall jump from Sunsoft’s NES Batman. He also acquires a selection of special powers that draw on the limited stock of “arts” points displayed on the lower right of the screen. These allow Dan to do things like shoot energy waves, freeze time briefly, and tunnel through the ground in some stages. Most of his foes are nothing special. They wander back and forth, shoot straight ahead every few seconds, and so on. The platforming gimmicks are more fun to deal with, even if they’re also well-worn genre staples for the most part. Spikes, moving platforms, flame jets, and Mega Man style disappearing blocks all make the rotation.

One area where Time Diver does manage to stand out is its deranged boss encounters. These guys are nothing if not memorable. Two of them are killer football players for no apparent reason. Another is a shapeshifting rock monster that attacks Dan by shouting out brightly colored text reading “Wow Wow” that travels across the screen as a deadly projectile. Still others lash out with screen-filling appendages so jagged and pixely I thought the game might have been glitching on me. I’m not sure what any of this is supposed to mean, I’m just glad it’s here to add some much-needed life to the proceedings.

Time Diver’s presentation is the epitome of a mixed bag. Its origin as a Black Manta sequel is reflected in its penchant for sparse backgrounds and hideous sprite art. This would have been nothing less than embarrassing alongside other late period NES releases like Kirby’s Adventure, Mighty Final Fight, and Taito’s very own Little Samson. Such underwhelming visuals may well have contributed to Time Diver getting the axe. It’s a real pity when you factor in the superb soundtrack by Tsukasa Masuko (Megami Tensei, Dungeon Explorer), which is by far the game’s most distinguished feature and deserves to be more widely heard than it ever will be wedded to a canceled product.

So, is Time Diver: Eon Man an unjustly quashed lost classic? Definitely not. Although much worse stuff did make it to retail over the course of the NES’ life, I still think Taito made the right call in terminating this one. They were regularly releasing much stronger material throughout the early ’90s and Time Diver would have been the odd man out. The version available for download isn’t despicable by any means. If you can forgive its brief runtime, shoddy graphics, and wholly derivative gameplay, what remains is adequate enough for a short play session. Difficulty is low and continues unlimited, so clearing it in a reasonable amount of time shouldn’t be an issue. Keep your expectations modest enough and you may even come away mildly pleased with its excellent music and outré boss designs.

As for me, I’m with Romedrux. Time Diver: Eon Man doesn’t belong in our timeline.

Kick Master (NES)

It boggles my mind that I still haven’t played every action-platformer on the NES. Even after all the Castlevanias, Ninja Gaidens, Contras, Mega Mans (Mega Men?), and second and third string outliers like Power Blade, Kabuki Quantum Fighter, and Whomp ‘Em, the system’s side-scrolling well is apparently bottomless. Not that I’m complaining. Far from it. Nothing feels more right to me than running, jumping, and fighting my way through screen after enemy-filled screen rendered in the unmistakable audiovisual palette of Nintendo’s 8-bit icon. This is, and always will be, my home. Welcome.

My subject today is Kick Master, developed by KID (Kindle Imagine Develop) and published exclusively in North America by Taito in 1992. Kick Master was created by the same team responsible for the first NES G.I. Joe title the previous year and it shows on multiple fronts. Both are highly ambitious games packed to the gills with innovative features. They also share a near-identical art style characterized by the bold, arguably garish use of unorthodox background colors like pink, purple, and red in many stages.

Our story is set in the stock medieval fantasy kingdom of Lowrel. An evil wizard named Belzed has sacked the monarch’s castle with an army of monsters, killing the king and queen and kidnapping their sole heir, Princess Silphee for…wizard reasons. The writers didn’t actually give Belzed any explicit motivation for all this mayhem, so we’re left with another case of “save the girl because it’s a video game.” Answering the call are Macren, a knight, and his brother Thonolan, a talented martial artist and the youngest man to ever be awarded the title of Kick Master. Macren turns out to be quite useless, as he’s immediately dispatched in the opening cutscene by the very first enemy the pair encounter. I never played Kick Master much back in the day, but I vividly recall Macren’s touching last words to Thonolan: “My steel is no match for these creatures. Only with your great kicking skills can we hope for victory.” Oh, man, what a line. How my friend and I used to crack up over that one. They really don’t write ’em like they used to.

Fortunately, poor bereaved Thonolan has more than enough tricks up his, uh, pants leg, I guess, to finish the fight against Belzed solo. His can perform three different kick attacks at the start of his journey and his skill set can eventually be expanded to an astounding ten kicks and twelve magical spells. This deluge of options is what really distinguishes Kick Master from its genre contemporaries. A traditional action-platformer of the period might give the player a single primary attack and maybe a sub-weapon or two as backup. Kick Master puts even the average Mega Man entry to shame with the sheer amount of moves Thonolan can pull off. Combining button presses with different directional inputs makes such a wide moveset possible on a standard NES controller. There’s also the very thoughtful inclusion of in-game “demo of kicks” accessible from the options menu that displays the commands required for each one.

The magic spells run the gamut from healing and elemental attacks to an energy shield that guards against enemy projectiles, wings for temporary flight, and more. The most useful spells by far are the life restoring ones and the almighty earthquake spell that freezes all enemies on screen (including bosses!) in their tracks for a brief period, allowing Thonolan to kick their teeth in unopposed. It should always be remembered that the magic points these spells cost to use are a precious commodity that isn’t automatically restored between levels. Try to conserve as much MP as you can for the finale.

But how does Thonolan gain all these abilities in the first place if he only starts the game knowing three basic kicks? Magic spells are easy. You either find them laying around the stages or obtain them from defeated bosses. To learn new kicks, however, Thonolan will need to gather experience points and level up. That’s right: Kick Master is an action RPG. Kind of. Maybe. I think. With no exploration, NPC interaction, or other hallmarks of the RPG genre, it’s honestly tough to say whether Kick Master counts as one or not. Good thing that sort of fine distinction is really only important to the major league pedants among us. In any case, every 1000 experience points earned will raise Thonolan’s level, up to a maximum of seven. Each level increase unlocks a new kick in addition to raising Thonolan’s maximum health and MP ceilings.

If this was any other game, simply killing enemies would be sufficient to level Thonolan up on its own, but Kick Master opts to let its freak flag fly yet again by reprising one of G.I. Joe’s stranger design quirks: Power-ups that burst out of enemies and fly around the screen. Every baddie you destroy explodes into a geyser of multiple pickups that arc through the air in various directions and then quickly plummet back down, where they’ll be lost for good if they reach the bottom of the screen before Thonolan can grab them. Some of these grant experience. Others restore lost health or MP. There’s even a skull and crossbones icon that actually takes away health if you’re not paying close enough attention and grab it by mistake. This makes combat a two-step process, with Thonolan constantly alternating between kicking enemies and then leaping up into the air in hopes of catching as many helpful bonuses as possible before they disappear. This gets exceptionally chaotic when multiple enemies are attacking simultaneously, since you’ll find yourself killing one and then rushing to collect whatever good stuff you can while still dodging the others. If you focus exclusively on killing everything on screen as efficiently as possible, you’ll miss out on too much experience and magic power and be stuck with an underpowered hero in the late game. This mechanic thoroughly dominates Kick Master’s gameplay from start to finish. Whether you appreciate the risk/reward dynamic it represents or consider it a pace-killing annoyance will depend on your individual temperament. I was gradually won over by it despite finding it awkward at first.

One thing I never came to appreciate was the eighth and final stage, Belzed’s Haunted Tower. Being a tower, it contains the game’s only vertical sections and Thonolan is subject to instant death if he touches the bottom edge of the screen at any point in his ascent. Pretty normal for this type of stage, right? There wouldn’t be any problem to speak of if it wasn’t for two specific moves in Thonolan’s repertoire. His Sliding Kick and Flying Kick both propel him forward some distance and they’re very easy to execute by mistake, leaving you to watch helplessly as he glides to his doom off the closest ledge. You’ll need to train yourself not to touch the left or right sides of the directional pad at all when performing jumping and crouching attacks unless you’re absolutely sure you’re nowhere near a drop. Since no other area in the game requires this type of precision, you’re far more likely to die from a botched kick in this stage than from the enemy attacks or platforming challenges proper. Until you eventually adapt to it, it turns what should be a thrilling climax into a tedious, frustrating farce. Unlimited continues and passwords to the rescue, I suppose.

Apart from a final stage that’s difficult for all the wrong reasons, I consider Kick Master to be another winner from KID. Though it certainly has no shortage of elements that won’t tickle every player’s fancy, including the unusual color choices for the backgrounds and the focus on constantly grabbing falling power-ups in mid-combat, it’s indisputably a clever take on a crowded genre. The stages are detailed, varied, and showcase some fantastic boss battles, the soundtrack hits every rousing high fantasy note it should, and Thonolan’s exhaustive arsenal of moves and magic push the NES controller to its practical limit while giving players maximum flexibility in deciding how they want tackle each and every challenge. Those who master the main quest can even attempt two bonus hard modes available via password. It really is a total action-platforming package.

Like most third party NES games that came out during the Super Nintendo’s reign, Kick Master sold poorly, making it both obscure and expensive today. Worst of all, we never got the crossover sequel where Thonolan teams up with the NES’s premier Punch Master, Steve “Shatterhand” Hermann, to pulverize untold amounts of bad guy ass Crippled Masters style. I wanna live in that timeline, dammit.

Shadow of the Ninja (NES)

Take that, stupid purple guy!

Natsume’s 1990 action-platformer Shadow of the Ninja gets something of a bad rap. Or at least it did for years. Also known as Yami no Shigotonin Kage (“Darkness Worker Shadow”) in Japan and Blue Shadow in Europe, Shadow was frequently dismissed as a poor man’s Ninja Gaiden clone in its day. It’s since won itself numerous defenders and is now cited by many NES devotees as one of the console’s premier “hidden gems.” To find out why, let’s delve into what exactly Shadow brings to the table and what really differentiates it from Tecmo’s better-known classic.

Right off the bat, one thing Shadow of the Ninja doesn’t do is ape Ninja Gaiden’s groundbreaking cinematic storytelling. The setup for your adventure is as basic as they come. It’s the year 2029 and some evil jerkwad named Emperor Garuda has taken over the United States. Not being big Garuda fans, two ninja warriors named Hayate and Kaede have arrived at his stronghold in New York City to take the mad dictator down by hacking and slashing their way through a total of sixteen enemy-packed stages.

You can choose freely between the two protagonists at the start of a single player game, though both control identically, so there’s no real reason to go with one over the other unless you strongly prefer a blue or orange ninja outfit. The practical reason for the inclusion of two heroes is to allow for simultaneous two-player cooperative gameplay. This was an extremely rare and coveted feature in action games of this vintage. If you’ve ever wished you and a friend could play a game that’s like Contra except with a focus on close range combat over gunplay, this is the title for you.

Hayate and Kaede’s default attack utilizes a katana for rapid short range slicing. You can opt to exchange the sword for a kusarigama (chain-sickle) if you happen across one in an item box. The chain-sickle offers improved range as well as the ability to attack upward, with the important caveat that it has a blind spot directly adjacent to your character where it will pass right through foes harmlessly, so you’ll need to maintain a minimum of a inch or so of distance from whatever it is you’re swinging at. Picking up multiple copies of the same weapon in a row will upgrade its range. Taking more than a couple hits of damage is enough to strip you of this upgrade, though, so make sure to use the extra range to its best effect if you want it to last.

Your character can also acquire limited supplies of shurikens and bombs for projectile attacks. Unfortunately, these replace your regular weapon completely until they’re exhausted, which makes it tricky to save them for boss fights. The ability to switch between projectiles and your main weapon with the select button would have been a nice addition.

Finally, holding down the attack button button charges up a sort of super lightning move which damages all enemies on these screen. Since this also costs you a whopping 50% of your maximum health, however, I never once found a good use for it. Looks cool, though.

The action does indeed resemble Ninja Gaiden superficially. Breaking down the rules reveals some very interesting differences, however. Ninja Gaiden’s mechanics are calculated to drive the player forward at a constant breakneck sprint: All stages are strictly timed and virtually all non-boss enemies can be dispatched with a single strike, but also have the potential to re-spawn instantly in order to punish player hesitation or backtracking. Shadow of the Ninja turns this formula on its head, and the result is a much less frantic gameplay experience. There are no time limits here and enemies don’t re-spawn at all, though the majority of them are tougher, requiring multiple hits to take out. Instead of clinging to walls like Ryu from Ninja Gaiden, Hayate and Kaede are able to grab onto the underside of certain platforms. Suspiciously, Ryu would later gain the same ability in 1991’s Ninja Gaiden III. Hmm.

There are five main bosses to defeat and a couple of mini-bosses. They all have fairly basic patterns and shouldn’t take you too long to come to grips with. I did like a couple of their designs quite a bit, like the animated suit of samurai armor that breaks into pieces and then re-forms itself periodically and the martial artist who starts out fighting you alongside his pet bird, only for the two of them to then merge into a weird man-bird hybrid thing as the battle progresses. There’s something you don’t see every day, at least. My only complaint? Several of the bosses have deceptive health meters. I struggled with the last one in particular for quite a bit because I wasn’t actually sure if my attacks were having any effect or if there was some trick or hidden weak point I was missing. I ended up taking a lot of unnecessary risks and damage experimenting. Joke’s on me, though. It turns out 80% or so of his health is just invisible and the meter doesn’t start visibly racheting down until you reach that final 20%. I hate this sort of nonsense.

With the ability to play through stages slowly and methodically, you might expect Shadow of the Ninja to be a much easier game than Ninja Gaiden. It is…mostly. Your ninja has a generous health bar that can be replenished by killing bosses and grabbing healing items. There are also no one-hit kill hazards anywhere in the game. Even falling into a pit, the bane of Ninja Gaiden players everywhere, only results in a small amount of damage and your ninja reappearing at the pit’s edge. And here I thought Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past invented that! The only thing preventing Shadow from being a total cakewalk is that you’re given just six lives with which to complete the whole game, with no possibility to earn more. Even with the limited lives, a couple hours of practice will likely be enough to see you through to the end of this one.

The game is very much a winner on the presentation front. Character sprites aren’t exceptionally large or detailed, but this works to the game’s benefit by insuring ample space on screen for two players at once. Backgrounds are more impressive and show off some slick animated effects for a NES game. The driving rainstorm in the first level and the burning cityscape in level five both struck me as particularly gorgeous. The tunes are prime examples of the sort of frenetic hard rock style numbers NES action-platformers are famous for. They also sound eerily similar to the ones in another Natsume game from around this time, Shatterhand, due to both using the same in-house sound driver created by Iku Mizutani. I can’t get enough of the song that plays over the ending cut scene after you vanquish Emperor Garuda. It’s just so profoundly triumphant. I want to set it up to play every time I come home from work, right when I step through the door. Righteous.

Shadow of the Ninja absolutely deserves its latter day reputation as an overlooked classic. Like a lot of early Natsume games, it’s not the most original of creations. The Contra and Ninja Gaiden influences are obvious enough (even of the latter are overstated), but you can also spot level design elements and enemies taken from the Castlevania and Mega Man franchises, too, if you look closely. What actually matters at the end of the day, though, is how well all these disparate elements work together, not where each one came from, and Shadow of the Ninja is a game that just works. It’s a pity it never got to become an ongoing series. A sequel was very nearly released for the Game Boy, only to be bought out and rebranded late in development by none other than Tecmo themselves, who hastily replaced Hayate and Kaede with Ryu Hayabusa and rebranded it Ninja Gaiden Shadow.

Dang. I guess the moral of the story here is: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Power Blade (NES)

You’re totes welcome, bruh.

Now this is more like it! After the numbing grind of Dragon Warrior, I was craving some classic side-scrolling action. Power Blade did not disappoint.

It easily could have. The original build of the game, titled Power Blazer, was developed by Natsume and published for the Famicom by Taito in 1990. The game starred a dumpy little fellow named Steve Treiber. Armed only with a boomerang and a permanent scowl, Steve’s mission was to shut down the Brain Master, a supercomputer in charge of running everything on 22nd century earth which has, of course, turned rogue. With its robots run amok scenario, stage select feature, and even Steve’s bright blue helmet, Power Blazer reveals itself as a shameless Mega Man cash-in. Only without the lovable protagonist. Or all the cool weapons to collect. Or the brilliant level design. In fact, the only thing in all of Power Blazer actually worthy of its inspiration is the kickass musical score by Kinuyo Yamashita, who’s best known to NES fans for her work on the original Castlevania under the alias James Banana.

All considered, it’s amazing anyone at Taito was even considering Power Blazer for localization. At least one person saw some potential in it, however: A former Nintendo employee at Taito’s U.S. branch named Randy Studdard, best known to gamers at the time as the author of the Captain Nintendo stories which appeared in several early issues of Nintendo Power magazine and went on to inspire the well (if not always fondly) remembered cartoon series Captain N: The Game Master. He took it upon himself to effectively redesign Power Blazer from the ground up in order to create Power Blade. The NES version released in 1991 has new stages, new gameplay objectives, and a new hero, Nova, who’smuch more than just a simple sprite swap. The end result of all these changes is a vastly superior release that’s as much Randy Studdard’s as it is Natsume’s. Power Blade wasn’t just altered by the localization process, it was saved by it.

Of course, the most famous bit of Power Blade trivia involves its cover art. Artist Michael Winterbauer was contacted by lawyers representing none other than Arnold Schwartzenegger, who believed their client’s likeness had been illegally appropriated for the portrait of Nova that appears on the box and cartridge label. Fortunately, Winterbauer was able to provide reference photos proving he had used himself as a model instead. I was also surprised to learn the origin of the name Nova. According to Randy Studdard, he named the character after his brother! Somewhere out there in the real world there’s a dude named Nova Studdard who lent his name to a boomerang tossing Nintendo hero. That’s pretty dang great.

Power Blade retains Power Blazer’s basic “shut down the rampaging computer” plotline, but adds another sci-fi cliché to the mix: Aliens, who hijacked said computer in an effort to conquer humanity. In the year 2191, only one man has what it takes to fight his way through six different enemy-occupied sectors and recover the data tapes necessary to access the Master Computer Control Center and put an end to the alien menace. That man is Nova. He’s sporting a flattop, shades indoors, and muscles for miles. Also, the most hilarious fist-pumping running animation ever, which I adore, even if it does undercut his icy action hero image a little. Nova’s weapon is the boomerang. Why on earth would you want to fight off an army of killer robots with a boomerang? According to the manual, no other weapons exist “because war has been abolished.” Hmm. Interesting choice of a holdover. Maybe old-school kangaroo hunting is big in the future?

Fortunately, Nova’s boomerang is more than a match for the challenges ahead. He can fire in eight directions, similar to the heroes in Contra. This represents a major upgrade over Steve from Power Blazer, who was limited to just left and right. There is one limitation to bear in mind, though: The power bar. This empties each time you shoot and automatically refills when you lay off the button for a second. Since the boomerang will only be able to travel its maximum distance if the power meter is full, tapping the fire button as fast as you can is only effective against point-blank targets. This creates an interesting dynamic where the further away you want to engage your enemies from, the longer you’ll have to wait between shots. What’s more important to you: Safety or damage output?

There are also several power-ups to enhance the boomerang’s damage, maximum range, and fire rate. The coolest of these by far is the metal suit which allows Nova to survive three extra hits and transforms his boomerang into the titular Power Blade: A deadly energy blast that can shoot through walls. The metal suit will disappear once those three extra hits have been sustained, but it’s a big help (not to mention a lot of fun) while it lasts.

The first six stages of Power Blade can be completed in any order. The goal of each is to locate a friendly agent who will provide Nova with the key needed to access the boss’ room, then actually find and defeat said boss, all before time runs out. The friendly agents and their keys are yet another new addition not present in the more straightforward Power Blazer. The redesigned stage layouts themselves feature a number of branching paths intended to facilitate this exploration aspect of the game. Anyone wary of getting lost can rest assured that none of the areas in Power Blade are anywhere near as complicated as Metroid or the like. Rather, there are just enough side passages to intrigue players and reward their curiosity with some extra power-ups without turning navigation into a chore or forcing use of a map. It’s a tricky balancing act Power Blade pulls off admirably.

There you have it. Complete all six sectors and you’re off to kick alien ass in the final stage, which isn’t really much more challenging than the ones before it. Which brings me to my one major disappointment with Power Blade: The lack of difficulty. Of course, not every game needs to be a major struggle to beat. It’s a big world out there. There’s a place for easy titles just as there’s one for soul-crushingly punishing ones. Power Blade may have taken this a step too far, though, and again it all comes back to that redesign during localization. Nova was given a fancy new metal suit power-up and the ability to fire boomerangs in any direction, but he’s still up against the same old enemies from Power Blazer which were created to challenge the much wimpier Steve Treiber character. Nova’s foes literally aren’t designed to be a match for him and it shows. Unless you’re a complete newcomer to the genre, I’d recommend at least playing on the Expert setting. This shortens your time limits and adds a knockback effect to enemy attacks. Nova’s still a total beast, but it’s better than nothing.

Power Blade isn’t the most original game by any means. It mostly just does a lot of the same things earlier NES action-platformers did. Don’t mistake that as a condemnation, however. While it may not be novel in the least, it is as rock solid as our boy Nova’s pecs. Even if none of the individual elements represented here are best-in-class, all are above average for the system. The graphics are bright and colorful, the soundtrack is packed with epic earworms (we have a Castlevania alum to thank for it, after all), the control is tight and responsive, and the level design is well thought out. Sure, Power Blade will feel uncannily familiar if you come to it after playing all the more famous NES classics first, but I’d argue that’s fine given its overall high degree of polish and playability. It’s 8-bit comfort food, pure and simple.

Like a boomerang, I’ll be coming back.