Friday the 13th (NES)

The time has come to realize my destiny as a true innovator. Brace yourselves for this one, folks: I’m going to review the Friday the 13th NES game on Friday the 13th! Now I know how Neil Armstrong felt.

Okay, so it’s not exactly original. I guess the Halloween lover in me just wanted an excuse to get a head start on next month’s annual spooky game roundup. This’ll do.

There’s a good chance you’re already familiar with this infamous Atlus-developed take on the classic slasher saga. LJN published it exclusively here in North America in February of 1989, between the seventh and eighth movies, and it’s been a magnet for negative buzz ever since. Ask anyone with a knowledge of the NES library beyond Mario and Zelda to rattle off some crappy licensed games and Friday the 13th will usually be at or near the top of the list. For three decades now, it’s been universally panned as confusing, frustrating, and a host of more profane things to boot.

Or has is? Over the past few years, a sustained effort by admirers of the game to re-frame it as a misunderstood survival horror pioneer has gained considerable traction. This led to officially licensed toys modeled on archpsycho Jason Voorhees’ garish NES color scheme and a hilarious callback to the same in IllFonic’s much better received 2017 Friday game. Could these fans have been right all along? Did critics and the general public alike dismiss Friday the 13th merely for being ahead of its time and refusing to conform to conventional action game stereotypes?

The debate surrounding this one may be complicated, but at least its plot isn’t. Hockey mask-clad murder machine Jason is running amok at Camp Crystal Lake. A team of six teenage camp counselors must band together to defend themselves and their fifteen young charges from Jason’s onslaught. If Jason does manage to slaughter either all six counselors or all fifteen kids, the game is over. In true slasher movie fashion, “killing” Jason once won’t be enough. He needs to be put down a total of three times over three consecutive days to end his rampage for good.

Friday the 13th isn’t based on any specific entry in the film franchise. That said, savvy horror buffs will spot some obvious nods here and there. The opening animation with the knife penetrating the mask is clearly based on the poster for The Final Chapter and the gameplay itself incorporates several ideas from Part 2. One thing that stands out as odd is the choice of protecting children from Jason as a primary goal. Jason never killed kids on the big screen. The MPAA and other movie rating boards hated the series enough as it was. There’s no way the studios would have antagonized them that blatantly. Although all child death in the game takes place off-screen, it’s still arguably the bleakest concept ever broached on the NES. Kudos to Atlus and LJN for pushing that envelope, I guess.

In terms of mechanics, Friday the 13th is a sort of strategy/action hybrid. Controlling one counselor at at time and switching between them as needed, the player is tasked with scouring the camp for hidden items required to defeat Jason while also responding in a timely manner to the maniac’s unpredictable attacks on the other characters. Jason’s murder attempts on the kids and non-active counselors in their cabins are frequent, perhaps too frequent, and he can show up on the trails to interrupt your exploration in a more direct way, too. This makes time management the most crucial component of the game. You need to figure out how to the get the stuff you need and then make it happen fast. Unless you’re able to get your hands on more powerful weapons early, the best you can hope for is to drive Jason off temporarily, knowing full well he’ll always return and eventually whittle your beleaguered team down to nothing.

Gearing up for battle is no mean feat. As if Jason’s constant harassment wasn’t enough, the only real help the game provides is a hint to try lighting all the fireplaces in the larger cabins. If you can accomplish this with a single counselor, you will indeed be rewarded with a flashlight that reveals secret doors in the cave area. Beyond that one helpful tip, you’re on your own. Learning the ins and out of staying alive long enough to fight back is a protracted trial-and-error process. For example, you’ll soon catch on that not all camp counselors are created equal. Mark and Crissy are vastly better at running and jumping than the rest of the crew, so it’s best to not bother using anyone else for exploration and item gathering. The optimal plan is usually to focus on obtaining the best equipment for Mark and Crissy while stationing the other, more disposable teens as close to the kids as possible so they can act as cannon fodder to repel Jason attacks.

I believe this strategic bent, sketchily-documented as it is, constitutes much of what Friday the 13th’s defenders are responding to when they feel compelled to stick up for it. I say that because it can’t possibly be what passes for action here, which is frankly terrible. Traversing Crystal Lake from a side-view perspective fending off an endless supply of birds, wolves, and out-of-place zombies is wholly unsatisfying in itself. I get why the designers wanted to include some non-Jason baddies. The big guy would rapidly lose his mystique if he had to serve as sole obstacle to your progress. This is a far cry from Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden caliber combat, though. It’s shallow, stiff, and more of a rote chore than anything else.

Fighting on the trail may be dull, but it’s a picnic compared to taking on Jason inside the cabins. These encounters utilize an over-the-shoulder third-person view reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! sans any degree of polish or charm. You dodge Jason’s swings and fire back as best you can until he flees or one of you dies. This is doable with a little practice on the first day, when Jason is relatively slow. All bets are off after that, as the masked marauder grows exponentially quicker over subsequent days, eventually becoming nearly impossible to evade. Suddenly, the game’s insistence that you go inside to protect the defenseless kids from Jason makes sense. If they weren’t a factor, venturing indoors at all after day one wouldn’t be worth the risk.

So, apart from those few cool strategy bits, Friday the 13th is cryptic, punishing, and hamstrung by some truly wretched combat. It would tough to recommend to anyone if it wasn’t for one thing: It’s damn effective survival horror! Yeah, I was surprised, too. Turns out the scramble to prepare for the final showdown with Jason while simultaneously enduring his relentless assaults is laden with genuine tension and an atmosphere of impending doom so thick you could cut it with a machete. As with any proper entry in the genre, you need to play cautiously and exercise good judgement when it comes to managing healing items and other limited resources.

Most important of all for a game based on one of cinema’s premier monsters, Friday the 13th does its villain justice. Jason’s sprites are large and imposing by 1989 standards. He can show up just about anywhere at any time to ruin your day, accompanied by an appropriately startling musical sting. He can kill off one of your hapless counselors in just a few hits and is effectively invulnerable to anything less than the strongest weapons. In short, he lives up to the hype. This makes it immensely satisfying to finally turn the tables on him. As a devotee of the film series, I can’t deny that Friday the 13th is fundamentally faithful to the spirit of its source material. That’s more than I can say for most old licensed games.

By no means is Friday the 13th a world-class NES release. I’d wager few outside its hardcore following would even rank it among their top hundred games for the system. I maintain it’s miles above true LJN-published travesties like Uncanny X-Men and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure, however, and worth a fresh look next time you’re in the mood for some 8-bit terror. You may end up hating it, but things could always be worse. You could be watching Jason Goes to Hell.

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Milon’s Secret Castle (NES)

I was braced for some serious punishment when I stepped through the gates of Milon’s Secret Castle. There’s certainly no shortage of other commentators out there eager to denounce this 1986 side-scrolling action-adventure from Hudson Soft as one of the most agonizing times you can have with your NES short of cramming your unmentionables into the cartridge slot. Its bad reputation didn’t start with the Angry Video Game Nerd series this time, either. Early Internet semi-celebrity “Seanbaby” Reiley was dumping on Milon as far back as the late ’90s. Now that I’ve finished it, I find myself reflecting on what blessed lives these folks must lead if something like this is anywhere near the bottom of their digital shit lists. I’m reminded of the naifs who’ll tell you very matter-of-factly that Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made when it’s not even within spitting distance of being Wood’s worst, nevermind the worst. Have these sheltered souls even heard of Monster a Go-Go!? Psyched by the 4-D Witch? Things? I doubt it.

That’s not to say Milon’s Secret Castle (aka Meikyū Kumikyoku: Milon no Daibōken, “The Maze Suite: Milon’s Great Adventure”) is any sort of misunderstood masterpiece, only that it falls into the same class as stuff like Silver Surfer and Fester’s Quest. These are all indisputably flawed games, perhaps even clunky ones, that are still worth learning if you’re patient and relish a challenge. Are they underrated? Sure, but only in light of the absurd amount of abuse hurled at them. In a less hyperbolic climate, they’d be considered pretty okay-ish. I suppose there’s comparatively little entertainment value in an assessment like that, though.

So who’s Milon? He’s a young boy from the modestly-named land of Hudson. All of his countrymen rely on music to express themselves, but poor Milon is apparently tone deaf or something, since he alone lacks this ability. Despondent, he sets out on a journey to find others like himself. He soon comes across Castle Gardland, which has been invaded by the warlord Maharito. This fiend has stolen the people’s musical instruments and imprisoned Queen Eliza within the depths of her own castle. Milon volunteers to save her and is given an enchanted bubble blower by the castle’s magician to use as a weapon against Maharito’s demons.

With “secret” right there in the title, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Milon’s quest revolves around discovering the many hidden passageways and items tucked away throughout the castle. Doing this will gradually reveal the lairs of seven boss monsters. Defeating them and obtaining the crystals they leave behind will power-up Milon and, eventually, open the way to Maharito’s inner sanctum.

Virtually everything in this game is presented as a secret, regardless of how illogical that can be at times. Whenever Milon enters one of the castle’s sprawling multi-screen rooms, for example, he won’t be allowed to leave until he discovers the hidden exit. You’d naturally expect him to be able to exit at any time via the same doorway he just entered through. Silly you with your common sense. The go-to method for revealing all these secrets is to shoot up as much of the scenery as possible with Milon’s bubbles. This will uncover hidden doors, money needed to acquire items in shops, honeycombs that expand Milon’s health bar, and more. The instruction manual tells you this much.

What the instructions don’t see fit to mention is that Milon can also shove certain blocks aside in order to discover doors hidden behind them. In fact, you can’t progress past the very first section of the game without doing this. Worse yet, Milon has no dedicated pushing animation, so it’s possible a player may actually attempt this out of desperation only to give up after not holding the D-pad down quite long enough. It took me nearly an hour to get past this classic beginner’s trap, which is easily more time than I spent on any of the game’s later puzzles. This total failure on Hudson’s part to provide basic information on a key gameplay feature is what led to the infamous “Getting Started” feature in Nintendo Power’s Classified Information column, a space typically reserved for advanced strategies and esoteric codes.

Whether you chalk it up to ignorance or malice, I believe this single egregious blunder is responsible for countless bad first impressions of the game over the years. Once I finally figured it out (and roundly cursed the team at Hudson’s mothers when I confirmed the problem wasn’t on my end), the rest of the journey was relatively smooth sailing. I quickly fell into a rhythm of scouring each new room for hidden stuff, finding items, and taking down bosses. I still died a ton, of course, as the enemies infesting this castle don’t mess around. They attack relentlessly and respawn almost instantly when destroyed. Milon also doesn’t enjoy any significant post-hit invincibility window, so baddies can quickly pile on loads of damage if they manage to make contact. You have unlimited continues, thankfully, although they don’t kick in until after you defeat the first boss for some odd reason. This keeps the game beatable in spite of its non-stop brutal combat. Alas, no save or password system is provided. You’ll nèed to tackle this one in a single sitting.

Setting its cryptic structure and formidable difficulty aside for the moment, Secret Castle’s dismal reputation among NES enthusiasts is also likely due in part to the quirks of its release schedule. Its Famicom debut in late 1986 came a mere handful of months after The Legend of Zelda and Metroid put console action-adventure/RPG games on the map. It thus predates Tecmo’s Rygar, Konami’s Castlevania II, and most other third party efforts in that vein. Its release on the NES nearly two full years later effectively robbed it of its head start and left it looking somewhat primitive next to the competition at a time in gaming history when the state of the art was advancing at lightning speed. Call it the Hydlide Effect.

I’m not about to tell you that Milon’s Secret Castle is as great as its first party predecessors or the majority of those more sophisticated post-1986 takes on the same concepts I just mentioned. The fierce challenge and need to constantly probe every square inch of the environment for secrets simply won’t appeal to everyone. Its lack of a save feature can also represent a daunting time commitment to newcomers, a gaffe that was remedied by the welcome addition of passwords to the 1993 Japanese Game Boy port. What it does have to offer is cute, colorful graphics in that timeless flat early NES style, a catchy (if limited) soundtrack, and a lovable protagonist with a whimsical and intriguing world to explore.

I guess I can’t help but root for this plucky, bubble blasting kid. He’s an outsider and an underdog, both in his own native fantasy world and NES fandom at large, but he never lets it bring him down. It doesn’t matter if he’s getting dissed and dismissed for his musical incompetence or his supposedly crappy first game; that happy-go-lucky grin of his can weather any storm. Why hate when you can be like Milon?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famicom)

The fools! They said I was mad! Mad! Well, I’ll show them! I’ll achieve both endings in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Two full playthroughs! And it will be the more difficult Famicom version with its extra levels and enemies! Then we’ll see who’s mad! Ahahahahaha!

Whew! Sorry. I don’t know what came over me there. Just had to get that out of my system, I guess. I’m alright now. Really.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 work Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an awful lot going on in and around it for a short novella. This tragic tale of an upstanding London physician that seeks to free himself from his base, “evil” impulses through means of an experimental chemical concoction has seemingly attracted as many interpretations over the years as it has readers. There’s the classic psychological take, of course, which posits that Jekyll’s stubborn insistence on denying and suppressing his shadow side rather than healthily integrating it into his greater personality was his ultimate undoing. Many also cite it as condemnation of rigid Victorian social mores, where an outward façade of performative respectability frequently masked the messy reality of the human condition. It’s also been approached as an addiction allegory, a commentary on the British class system, a symbolic representation of the relationship between England and Stevenson’s native Scotland, and more.

It’s enough to make you wish you could reach back through time and interrogate the author himself in order to determine what he really had in mind. In that same vein, I’d love to be able to ask the uncredited development staff at Advance Communication Company what they were thinking when they birthed their 8-bit adaptation of Stevenson’s opus onto the Famicom over a century later in 1988. In its own bizarre way, their Jekyll Hakase no Houma ga Toki (“Dr. Jekyll’s Hour of the Wandering Monstrosity”) is almost as difficult to pin down as its literary inspiration. Houma ga Toki (which I’ll refer to using its North American title from this point on for simplicity’s sake) is a truly a game unlike any other for the system. This isn’t just because it’s a case of a 20th century Japanese video game developer drawing on 19th century English language literature for inspiration, either. This happened more often than you might think. Two completely unrelated games based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer hit the Famicom in 1989 and consulting detective Sherlock Holmes also made multiple appearances on the platform. No, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is special because it’s the earliest example I can cite of a developer attempting to use the medium of gameplay itself to depict a conflict taking place within a fictional character’s psyche. Despite its very real flaws and horrendous reputation online, the mere fact Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of all things pioneered techniques which would make critical darlings of titles like Silent Hill 2 and Celeste decades later is worthy of acknowledgement and, I dare say, respect.

As usual, though, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. At first glance, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to be that most common of things: An 8-bit side-scrolling action-platformer. The plot focuses on Henry Jekyll’s attempt to make his way across town on foot from his laboratory to the church in order to attend his own wedding to his fiancée Millicent, an apparently mundane task that will still end up taxing the player’s skill and patience to a prodigious degree. Incidentally, this notion of Jekyll having a love interest named Millicent is a clear reference to the 1920 silent film version by Paramount Pictures. This is the only instance I spotted of a callback to any other specific prior adaptation of the tale.

To reach the church, Jekyll has only to walk from left to right across a total of six stages representing different parts of town. These include a village, parks, a graveyard, and several different street scenes. These stages themselves are the reason I recommend you skip the 1989 North American version of the game altogether and stick to the Famicom original. For unknown reasons, publisher Bandai opted to remove two entire levels from the NES release and fell back on lazy repeats of the village and cemetery areas to pad the final product out to an acceptable length. That’s a full third of the game gone! Most speculation I’ve see about this change centers on a specific lady character who appeared in the cut levels and would beckon Jekyll into her home to restore his lost health off-screen. It’s thought Bandai staff may have been concerned this would be perceived as an illicit sexual encounter and consequently run afoul of Nintendo of America’s strict family friendly content guidelines. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. Why would this necessitate removing whole stages instead of just the offending character? Why would it be a problem at all when Nintendo had already famously included a virtually identical suggestive healing scenario in their own Zelda II: The Adventure of Link? We may never know for sure. In any case, avoid the butchered NES release at all costs.

No matter which version you’re playing, you’ll find Dr. Jekyll’s walk in the park to be, well, no walk in the park. There’s a veritable mob of relentless enemies standing between him and wedded bliss. In an amusing twist on the usual action game formula, the majority of them are not out to harm Jekyll per se. Instead, most of the threats he’ll encounter simply annoy the good doctor. He’ll be forced to confront obstacles like pushy pedestrians, bratty kids with slingshots, defecating birds, pesky insects, ill-tempered dogs and cats, a gravedigger carelessly tossing clots of dirt over his shoulder, and a terrible singer who fills the screen with hazardous musical notes. Most of these deal little to no damage to Jekyll’s health meter and instead fill up a second “stress” meter on contact. Maybe it’s because I use public transportation a lot in real life, but I find Jekyll’s struggling to keep his temper in the midst of his boorish neighbors to be extremely relatable. Play as Jekyll is completely defensive in nature, with the player striving to reach the end of the level while ducking or jumping over hazards and taking on as little stress as possible. There’s no fighting back, apart from the option to use the doctor’s cane to swat the occasional stinging bee out of the air. When the stress meter inevitably fills up completely, Jekyll will fall prone and assume the form of his alter-ego Hyde.

The Hyde half of the game bears much more resemblance to a conventional action title. That said, it remains deeply odd in its own way. The setting shifts from a sunny morning in jolly old England to a darkened wasteland of dilapidated ruins populated by vicious monsters. The instruction manual refers to this place as the World of Demons and careful observation reveals it has the exact same layout as the normal London of Jekyll, just redrawn in a more menacing style and scrolling in reverse from left to right. Think of it as a twisted mirror image, not unlike Edward Hyde himself. I can’t help but wondered if this World of Demons and its inhabitants is intended to be a real place or if these levels are simply a symbolic representation of Jekyll’s “inner demons.” I lean toward the latter interpretation, but it will likely remain a mystery indefinitely unless one of the game’s anonymous creators steps out of the shadows for an interview someday. The screen scrolls automatically for Hyde, which is potentially quite dangerous. If he should ever reach the spot in the World of Demons corresponding to where Jekyll transformed, he’ll be killed instantly by a bolt from heaven, as this apparently represents evil triumphing over good. Before this can happen, he’ll want to kill as many demons as possible. Each one destroyed will lower the stress meter and emptying it completely will trigger the return to Jekyll form and the world of daylight. Playing as Hyde is therefore all about killing as much as possible as quickly as possible. Hyde has two attacks at his disposal: A basic short range punch and a boomeranging fireball attack called the Psycho Wave that can be tricky to aim at times, but is a much stronger option overall. You’ll also need to make sure you minimize contact with the enemy while you’re blasting away, since all damage in the World of Demons is deducted from the health meter and if it runs dry, the game is over.

This regular cycling between passive avoidance and furious aggression is what constitutes the core of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. You persevere the best you can as poor put-upon Jekyll, getting pestered, bullied, and literally shit on (in the case of those birds) at every turn until you just can’t take it anymore and unleash your raging id in the form of Hyde to rampage all the pent-up stress away. Just make sure Hyde never gains the upper hand for too long or you’ll regret it. All bets are off in the sixth and final stage, however. Here, the rule prohibiting Hyde from outpacing Jekyll is suspended and it becomes an all-out race to the finish. Whichever persona reaches the church in their version of reality first is the victor and the player then receives one of two different endings.

If you’ve never actually played the game before and don’t recognize it from its appearances on countless “worst of the NES” lists, you may well come away from my introduction and summary thinking it sounds pretty fantastic. Unique and varied gameplay? Intriguing themes? Wicked sense of humor? Formidable challenge? These are all present, to be sure. Jekyll and Hyde even looks and sounds the part thanks to some nicely detailed graphics and an atmospheric score by Michiharu Hasuya (the only individual confirmed to have contributed to the game) that lend both the light and dark versions of London considerable presence. It’s only when you sit down with controller in hand and attempt to actually enjoy all of this that cracks start show and the game gradually unveils its own hidden evil streak.

First, we have glaring control issues that leave each character hobbled in his own blatantly unnecessary way. Dr. Jekyll is undoubtedly one of the slowest characters in gaming history and far too much of the challenge stems from the fact that he can never manage more than a stiff waddle regardless of how much mayhem there is to dodge in his immediate vicinity. Now, I do feel I understand and appreciate the intent of the Jekyll gameplay. The developers are deliberately baiting you, trying to make you feel just as harried and irritated as your defenseless avatar. You “win” these sections by not taking the bait and remaining cool and calm as you patiently navigate the maze of enemies and hazards in your path. To excel as Jekyll, you have to think like Jekyll and retain your composure in the face of every setback. I get it, but it’s still no excuse. I’m confident this idea could have still been effectively realized even if Jekyll were able to move around at an acceptable pace. His agonizing slowness smacks of padding and not an essential design element. On the other hand, Hyde’s weakness is not his speed, but the clunky way the game restricts him to moving about within a limited area. There’s a sort of invisible wall running down the center of the screen which confines Hyde to the right side at all times. This is not only arbitrarily constricting, it also leads to bad outcomes in the few areas where it’s necessary for Hyde to leap over holes in the ground. If he should bump into the unseen barrier while in the air, it can funnel him straight down into the gap.

Terrible enemy placement is another constant problem. The Jekyll sections are guilty of overusing one specific baddie to the point of absurdity: The Bomb Maniacs. These jerks appear in droves in every single stage to plant bombs right in the doctor’s path. The bombs themselves deal by far the most health and stress damage of anything in the game and their blasts must be evaded at all costs. To do this, Jekyll will usually need to turn around immediately and trudge back the way he came. The result of all this is an already ludicrously slow protagonist being bogged down even more. It’s sometimes possible for minutes to go by with the screen not advancing so much as an inch as a fresh Bomb Maniac continually appears the instant the previous one’s bomb finishes exploding. Adding insult to injury, the explosions themselves are as deceptive as they are devastating due to having hit boxes massively larger than their on-screen graphics. Jekyll can be standing inches away from the blast and still receive damage. Again, the Hyde levels have their share of sloppiness, too. Fast moving flying enemies can sometimes spawn in right behind Hyde when he’s near the top of the screen, leaving him effectively no time to dodge them.

This all obviously comes off as highly inconsiderate and amateurish design, but the restrictive movement and nasty enemy placement aren’t even the game’s biggest flaws for me. No, what hurts it more than anything else is simply that’s it’s terrible at communicating its own rules. Similar to Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, this a game that’s impossible to pick up and enjoy without a thorough understanding of its many unorthodox mechanics. This, along with the bandwagon effect, are the primary reasons for its exaggerated infamy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t a Super Mario Bros. style experience where you can just shove that cartridge in, power on, and start having fun. No, you need to read the instructions first. It wouldn’t be so bad if the ones provided were competently done. Unfortunately, even the official manual omits key information.

Take Jekyll’s cane, for example, which is often dismissed as being useless except for swatting bees. The cane’s actual use goes completely unremarked upon in the manual. In fact, you can whack pedestrians with it in order to increase Jekyll’s stress level. Why would you ever want to do this? Because there are times when it can actually be beneficial or even necessary to transform into Hyde, as successfully completing a Hyde section of the game refills the health meter and clears away all enemies and obstacles that were on the same screen as Jekyll when he initially transformed. Similar confusion surrounds Hyde’s punch. It seems at first like it’s simply a weak attack that’s completely superfluous in light of the Psycho Wave. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that the punch is primarily a defensive tool. It can deflect many enemy projectiles if timed properly. This application is so obscure and non-intuitive that I didn’t even stumble across it until after I’d already completed the entire game twice! Perhaps most negligent of all, there’s no indication anywhere in the North American instructions that the standard rule about Hyde not being able to progress further than Jekyll no longer applies in the final stage. There’s no logical reason the player should expect this to be the case, so you would think it to be at be least be worth mentioning. Nope. Without knowing this, it’s unlikely most players would ever encounter the final boss as Hyde and receive the better of the game’s two endings. Just awful. To its credit, the manual for the Famicom version does at least hint at how to achieve the Hyde ending, although it does an equally poor job of explaining the cane and punch.

Want to know the strangest fact of all regarding this case? I quite enjoyed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! Enough to recommend it to any patient, open-minded gamer up for a challenge. Despite what you may have heard, the more complete Famicom version is a long way from being from the worst option available for the system. Sure, it’s needlessly opaque and it burdens its players with some profound balance and control issues. If you somehow manage to make peace with all this, though, you may just find yourself won over by its creepy mood, quirky humor, and groundbreaking take on the psychological themes of its source material. Imperfect as it is, somebody behind the scenes was working from a vision and it shows. After all, only Jekyll can reach the final stage of the game, yet he must ultimately accept the duality of his existence and enlist the help of Hyde in order to achieve the best ending. Carl Jung would be proud. If anything, I’d classify this one as an acquired taste and place it in the same “weird, maddening fun” box as Fester’s Quest and Silver Surfer. It probably won’t be your cup of tea, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying a sip.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is equal parts trick and treat, so on that note: Happy Halloween to one and all! It’s going to be a long next 364 days….

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same action mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its black sheep reputation. Dracula X is a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy Vampire Killer whip in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case?

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Dracula X really steps out of its inspiration’s shadow and starts making a name for itself with its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.

Karnov (NES)

Hell, yeah! Time to talk about my boy Karnov!

There’s no foolproof method for designing a great gaming mascot. For every Kirby or Mega Man that successfully scales that lofty peak, the mountainside below holds the desiccated corpse of a doomed Alex Kidd or Rocky Rodent. While there are no guarantees, there does exist what we might call a set of best practices built up around the commonsense notion that an appealing protagonist should be some combination of cool, sexy, and cute. If players want to be, do, or own a plush toy of your hero, you’re probably on the right track. Enter Jinborov “Karnov” Karnovski, an obese balding Slav with a serious aversion to shirts who lays waste to all those around him with his deadly breath. Everything about this pitch is less “awesome video game mascot” and more “highly unpleasant bus commute.” Regardless, Karnov became the mustachioed face of the Data East Corporation in the wake of his self-titled arcade debut in 1987. He went on to be a playable character in all three of the Fighter’s History games, a boss in Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja, and even a non-unique recurring enemy in the absurdist beat-‘em-up Trio The Punch – Never Forget Me…. Why a fire breathing Russian? Beats me. For whatever reason, the staff at Data East seem to have had a general fascination with Russian themes and characters around this time. They also released the underrated auto-scrolling run-and-gun Atomic Runner Chelnov in 1988, which starred Karnov’s cousin as a nuclear-powered superhero seemingly inspired by the Chernobyl disaster. Seriously.

Leaving out his many later ensemble and cameo appearances, this NES port of the original arcade game by Sakata SAS is probably where most gamers made their acquaintance with the big guy. It sold fairly well and was one of those perennial second string options for the system. Karnov was always there, waiting patiently on the sidelines for me and my friends to finally get bored with Mario and the rest of the A-listers. When that day finally came, I discovered that the game is essentially an action-platformer in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins tradition. The goal is to guide Karnov (described in the instruction manual as “a one-time circus strongman with a unique talent for shooting fireballs”) through a total of nine stages in an effort to recover the undefined Lost Treasure of Babylon from an evil dragon named Ryu.

What I didn’t learn until almost thirty years after its initial release is that Karnov on the Famicom is another title like Magical Doropie/The Krion Conquest which includes a full in-game story told through cut scenes that was completely excised when it was localized for release outside Japan. Whether this decision was made to save money on a translation was or was due to the nature of the story itself, I can’t say. Since it involves Karnov being the spirit of a dead man directed by God to return to Earth and stop a plague of demons in order to atone for the evil deeds he committed in life, it’s possible Data East didn’t want to risk running afoul of Nintendo of America’s ban on religious content in NES releases. At least the way Karnov begins every stage by materializing from a lightning bolt makes a lot more sense to me now. That always seemed like quite the trick to pick up from circus work.

If there’s one word that best describes Karnov’s approach to the genre, it’s “odd.” Your hero’s floaty moon jumps belie his flabby physique. The background music (the one and only piece of it you get up until the final boss battle) seems to be some sort of off-kilter carnival jingle. Enemies include flexing bodybuilders, dinosaurs, and curiously pensive-looking fish men. Karnov isn’t full-on Monster Party bonkers or anything, but its weirdo cred is above reproach.

On the downside, odd isn’t always the best way to go about implementing basic game mechanics. Take the inconsistent air control, for example. You can steer Karnov mid-jump no problem, but drop down off a ledge or ladder and you’re suddenly limited to watching helplessly as he slowly plummets straight down into waiting hazards. In other words, the method you use to get airborne determine how much control you have once you’re there. Huh? When it comes to being different in the worst possible way, however, it’s the hit detection that really takes the piroshky. Karnov is liable to take damage from enemies and projectiles that make no visible contact with his sprite. Either he, his opponents, or both seem to have outsized hit boxes which render any sort of precise evasion a total crapshoot.

There. Now that my spleen is sufficiently vented, allow me to walk things back a bit. There’s actually a lot to like in Karnov once you’ve made your peace with its more irritating quirks. Decimating baddies with a torrent of flame breath feels great, even more so once you’ve upgraded to a double or triple shot attack by collecting red orb power-ups in each stage. There’s a respectable amount of variety and ambition on display across the game’s nine stages, too. One sees the burly Karnov donning an adorable set of swim fins to cross the Black Sea. Another takes place entirely in the sky and requires liberal use of the temporary flight power up to navigate. Most levels also feature branching paths to explore, allowing for a bit of extra replay value. For a “walk to the right and kill the boss” exercise, there are also a surprisingly large number of items laying around the stages for Karnov to collect. These include a handy portable ladder, bombs, boomerangs, a shield for blocking attacks, and magic glasses to reveal still more hidden goodies.

Karnov has something of a reputation as a bad game. The copy I picked up at the Seattle Retro Gaming Expo earlier this summer even came with “BAD” written across the front of the cartridge in permanent marker by a previous owner. I laughed so hard I just had to take it home. Well, I’m here to tell you that Karnov is not bad. Oh, the music and hit detection are wretched, no doubt. Thankfully, though, they’re balanced out by the satisfying shooting action, wide selection of power-ups, creative stage design, and bizarre art direction. It’s a decidedly average mid-’80s side-scroller that’s worth the paltry asking price so long as you’re aware of its mixed bag status going in. If nothing else, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing the hobby to the least likely mascot in its decades-long history and my personal sentimental favorite. Karnov as a character was considered strange enough in his day, but such a resolutely unpalatable goon serving as the figurehead of a major game publisher in the 21st century is pretty much unthinkable.

Above all, I love me an underdog.

 

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.

ActRaiser 2 (Super Nintendo)

He’d damn well better live forever after everything he’s been through!

ActRaiser was a hit for Quintet and Enix, with surprisingly strong sales in all markets. This includes North America, where it was feared we coarse gaijin were all about the action and would be reluctant to embrace the game’s slower-paced simulation segments. This was emblematic of the shocking amount of cultural chauvinism present among Japanese game companies at the time. The ironic fact that the Japanese mania for RPG and sim games was sparked by classic Western-developed titles like Ultima, Wizardry, and SimCity in the first place was apparently lost on the leadership at Enix and many other major publishers. That the Super Nintendo saw as many great international RPG releases as it did is a bit of a miracle in light of this pervasive prejudice.

All this is to say that 1993’s ActRaiser 2 is a very different beast than its predecessor and it’s precisely because it was developed with this philosophy in mind. Gone completely are the menu-driven simulation maps from the first game in favor of a deeper, more challenging action-platforming experience. This change was not well-received by most, to say the least. It’s not uncommon online to see fans of the first ActRaiser hurling outright abuse at ActRaiser 2. They’re not simply cold on the game, they’re still mad about it. There’s a real sense of personal betrayal that still comes through almost a quarter century later.

Robert Jerauld, a former producer at Enix USA, had this to say in a 2014 interview: “ActRaiser 2 – This was one of my first – and most important – mistakes in my career. At the time, I was convinced that players wanted action…I pushed Enix away from retaining the sim part of ActRaiser and toward a more challenging action title. I made that decision because I believed I knew what the consumer wanted…I removed the soul from ActRaiser and that was a really tough lesson to learn, but it’s one that has really helped me along the way.”

So that’s it, right? Game’s a disgrace. It sucks. Case closed.

Not quite.

The way I see it, “black sheep sequels” come in a couple distinct flavors. The first either alters or discards much of what made the earlier installments in the series so beloved and is just a godawful excuse for a video game in general. For a good example of a legendary turd like this, look no further than the dire Rastan Saga II, the follow-up to Taito’s Conan the Barbarian-inspired arcade classic. It not only lacks the tight controls, thrilling action, and grand audiovisuals of its predecessor, it’s generally one of the worst side-scrollers ever made and would remain so under any other name.

The second type also gleefully slaughters series sacred cows, but still manages to be an all-around quality title on its own merits in spite of it. Zelda II, anyone? It’s in this latter category I would place ActRaiser 2. It’s simultaneously a failure as a sequel to ActRaiser and one of the best action-platforming titles for the Super Nintendo.

The plot is once again as simple as can be: Satan/Tanzra is a back with an army of hellish minions and it’s up to God/the Master to take up his sword and vanquish the Prince of Darkness yet again. The twist this time is that Tanzra’s seven main demon lieutenants are each based on one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth) and this is reflected in their forms and in the various nasty ways they plague the Master’s helpless subjects. The gluttony demon, for example, sends a hoard of monster ants to steal all the food, leaving the people to starve. There are also some nice touches taken from classic literature. The final encounter with Tanzra depicts him partially encased in the ice of a frozen lake, mirroring Satan’s predicament in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The level structure of ActRaiser 2 is fairly open. You can guide your sky palace over the map and complete the game’s stages in any order you want, but your angelic assistant will suggest a particular order that will make for the smoothest difficulty curve. While the choice is yours, I would recommend first time players take the angel’s advice and complete the stages in the “correct” order to minimize frustration.

Once you’re actually in control of the Master, the first thing you’re likely to notice is he’s very, very slow. Dude makes Simon Belmont look like Carl Lewis. There is a way to get around faster and it involves the second thing you’ll probably notice: Your brand new set of shiny angel wings. Tapping the jump button a second time while in the air will launch the Master into a forward glide. Don’t overdo it, though, because there’s no end of deviously-placed enemies and hazards designed to prevent you from abusing your wings to rush through the stages. In order to avoid this, you can halt a glide in progress in several different ways. Tapping the jump button a third time will simply drop the Master straight down, pressing down and attack will launch him into a sharp dive with his sword held out that will deal triple the normal attack damage to foes in the way, and holding up will cause him to slowly drift to the ground and is great for nailing precise landings. You’ll need to master glide cancelling if you hope to get past the game’s many pinpoint platforming challenges, since continuing a standard glide all the way to the ground will cause you to momentarily lose control of the Master and probably skid right into a waiting enemy or death trap.

The changes to the controls don’t stop there. The Master can now swing his sword above and below him and he carries a shield that can block projectile attacks originating from both straight ahead and above. Magic has also received a major overhaul. Instead of selecting a single spell to use at the start of each level, you charge up your magic by holding down the attack button and releasing it when the Master starts to flash red. This will produce one of seven different situational effects depending on whether the Master is standing, crouching, gliding, and so on.

It’s honestly all a lot to take in. For a character in a 16-bit action game, ActRaiser 2’s Master is about as complex as they come. This is in stark contrast to the last game, where his moveset was incredibly basic: Just run, jump, sword, and a single magic option. Here you have upwards of sixteen different actions available to you at any given moment and each one is useful at one point or another. This essentially means the game has one hell of a learning curve to it, which I believe is a major factor contributing to its reputation as one of the most difficult action titles for the system. It is a tough one, no doubt. The enemies are numerous and can take many hits to dispatch, while the stage layouts demand your gliding and jumping be on-point at all times. Even so, a lot of ActRaiser 2’s challenge is front-loaded into the first couple of hours, when the player is still coming to grips with the elaborate control scheme. Once you start getting the hang of how to advance with caution, attack, defend, and (most importantly) use your wings, the game really does open up and become a lot more approachable. You still have some rather fiendish stages to reckon with, but a little confidence in the Master’s abilities goes a long way. There’s also an easy difficulty mode for new players. Just be aware you won’t be able to access the final stage or see the ending if you’re playing the game on easy.

One thing even the most embittered fan of the first game can’t deny is that ActRaiser 2 looks magnificent. The level of detail and animation in the character sprites represents a high water mark for any Quintet game, rivalled only by Terranigma. The stage backgrounds are true works of art, very nearly as far above the original ActRaiser as that game’s were above its NES contemporaries. If I had been shown this game and told it was a 1995 or 1996 release for the system, I’d probably have believed it. It looks that good. The audio doesn’t fare quite as well. Many sound effects seem to have been directly recycled from the first game and returning composer Yuzo Koshiro’s score is very technically proficient in that it features high quality samples and intricate arrangements, but it lacks the stirring melodies that made tracks like “Fillmore” and “Birth of the People” so unforgettable the first time around. Still, the soundscape isn’t terrible here and easily exceeds the average game. It’s just not up to the sky high standards set by the visuals.

By the time I’d made my way through all fourteen stages of ActRaiser 2, I was convinced I was dealing with a true misunderstood gem of an action game. It’s true that the loss of the simulation mode from the original results in much less in the way of immersion and quality narrative. These segments may have been simplistic and easy, but observing your followers from a bird’s eye perspective as they prospered under your protection and working miracles to reshape the very land itself really did help the player get into the role of a benevolent deity. These story elements are still present in the sequel, but with no reinforcement from the actual gameplay, they’re window dressing and nothing more. Although the action here is challenging, thrilling, and nuanced, the Master could just as easily be any old musclebound fantasy warrior and it wouldn’t affect the experience all too much. The lack of sim interludes also affects the pacing, since it doesn’t allow for the first game’s hypnotic sense of rhythmic yin-yang flow between contrasting play styles.

All that being said, I still feel compelled to judge ActRaiser 2 on the basis of what it actually is instead of what it was never really intended to be at all. What we have here is an extremely high quality action-platformer with a wholly unique feel to it. It’s deliberate, exacting, very technical, and a total blast to play once you’ve mastered its fundamentals. Seeing it all the way through confers that feeling of exhilarating accomplishment only a truly demanding game can, which is one edge it has over its older sibling. As a nice little bonus, it’s also one of the prettiest Super Nintendo games you’ll ever lay eyes on.

ActRaiser 2 may indeed be a child of a lesser god, but it’s more than worthy of salvation.