E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Toilet Kids (PC Engine)

Are video games art?

It’s a question that’s been bandied about for decades now. Late film critic Roger Ebert famously disputed the notion, stating in a 2007 online debate with writer Clive Barker, “I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist…Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.” Ebert’s position is easy to dismiss as the product of contrarianism or outmoded sensibilities. It does make a certain degree of sense in light of the unilateral nature of a non-interactive medium like film, however. Consider a production like 1980’s The Shining. Master cinematographer John Alcott’s eerie, claustrophobic framing of the Overlook Hotel elevates a series of otherwise ordinary sets and exteriors into what feels like a proper character deserving of top billing alongside Nicholson and Duvall. If we were to somehow grant each and every viewer of The Shining the ability to pan and zoom the cameras in real time, Alcott’s award-winning art would be obliterated in an instant.

As for me, I’d always been a “rose by any other name” sort with little stake in the controversy. Whatever they are, video games have been a source of fascination and joy for me for as long I can remember. Surely that’s enough? This all changed recently when I encountered one singularly rich and challenging work.

Published exclusively in Japan by Media Ring Corporation, 1992’s Toilet Kids for the PC Engine may appear to be that most unexceptional of things: A basic vertical shooter that takes heavy cues from Namco’s Xevious. Some have gone so far as to call it a crude, low-effort clone of a nearly decade-old classic. Well, what if I told you that Toilet Kids, despite being one of the worst-reviewed PC Engine releases, is actually a complex, uplifting synthesis of psychology, philosophy, and mysticism?

Toilet Kids is ostensibly the story of a small boy (and his girl counterpart in the two-player simultaneous mode), who finds himself sucked down the loo during a late night bathroom run. He’s then compelled to pilot a flying toilet in hopes of liberating a magical land from a motley array of feces flinging opponents. Disembodied penises spray urine, hippos emerge from the rivers to belch caustic clouds, and reindeer fire triple spread volleys of poo pellets. Our hero’s only defenses over the game’s four notably short stages are a charge shot effective against airborne foes and short range bombs for the grounded ones.

With a premise like this, it’s plain to see why Toilet Kids has long been dismissed as so much juvenile schlock. Predictably, there are few, if any, who have undertaken any real analysis to determine why the game’s creators seized on such scatological subject matter in the first place. This is an oversight I intend to correct here and now.

To begin with, the choice of a young child as protagonist is, in this context, an obvious allusion to Sigmund Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Freud described this as a five stage process beginning in early childhood. Each stage culminates in a conflict of sorts, the successful resolution of which contributes to the formation of a healthy personality. Conversely, failure to cleanly resolve a psychosexual conflict can result in neurosis. In particular, I direct your attention to the anal stage, the second of Freud’s five. The conflict here is toilet training itself. A child able to balance the instinctual eliminatory demands of the body with parental and societal expectations of self-control is primed to become a confident and productive adult. Trauma at this stage gives rise to so-called anal-expulsive and anal-retentive types instead.

Freud’s various theories have, of course, been widely challenged. Regardless, his was one of the most influential minds of both the 19th and 20th centuries. Even people unacquainted with formal psychoanalysis are familiar with terms and concepts like the id, ego, Oedipus complex, Freudian slip, and so on. The central narrative of Toilet Kids dovetails too neatly with the Freudian line for it to be mere coincidence.

Having now identified Toilet Kids’ central theme as the nascent personality’s struggle for self-realization, an enigma still remains: Why focus on the anal stage? What’s so important about bodily waste that the developers saw fit to literally plaster almost every screen of the game with it? To answer this, I need to shift gears from modern Western psychology to ancient Eastern philosophy. Specifically, to Taoism. This Chinese school of thought is predicated on the existence of the Tao, or Way, a sort of intangible natural order that shapes and directs the manifest universe. By studying the Tao and conducting his or her life in harmony with its operations, the practitioner can achieve enlightenment. Because it is effectively omnipresent, Taoist writers make a point of emphasizing that the Tao dwells even in objects and places shunned by most people. Take this except from Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu as translated by Burton Watson:

“Master Tung-kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘This thing called the Way – where does it exist?’
Chuang Tzu said, ‘There’s no place it doesn’t exist.’
‘Come,’ said Master Tung-kuo, ‘you must be more specific!’
‘It is in the ant.’
‘As low a thing as that?’
‘It is in the panic grass.’
‘But that’s lower still!’
‘It is in the tiles and shards.’
‘How can it be so low?’
‘It is in the piss and shit.'”

This identification of the Tao, the most revered divine power, with the discarded and reviled has direct parallels in another esoteric discipline of old: Alchemy. Though the practice is nowadays typically associated only with the fabled conversion of lead into gold, the medieval alchemist believed that all matter was endowed with a spiritual spark and contained within itself the seed of its own perfection. The most storied example of the alchemical process is no doubt the philosophers’ stone, a miraculous substance which could, among countless other things, cure any disease and confer immortality. The creation of the stone was a years-long endeavor beginning with the selection of the correct prima materia (“first matter”). In the ultimate expression of the transformative principal mentioned above, this raw material was rumored to be a lowly, commonplace thing. I think you see where this is headed. Yes, the alchemists would often begin their experiments with flasks of urine or dung. Perhaps they reasoned that something so viscerally disagreeable held the most room for improvement and thus the final product would be all the more sublime for it.

Having now reached the conclusion of this exercise, I feel I’ve arrived at a reasonably complete picture of Toilet Kids as an artistic statement. Its young hero’s journey is an archetypal psychodrama of becoming as told through the metaphor of a bare bones PCE shooting game. His triumph over the enemy’s excremental onslaught represents nothing less than the alchemic transmution of his own base elements into something altogether more rarified, in accordance with the most subtle yet powerful of universal laws.

The dictionary defines art as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” While Toilet Kids may not rate as beautiful or appealing for most of you, I trust you’ll now agree that its significance is anything but ordinary.

April fools! This game is shit, y’all.

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Famicom)

 

It’s well documented by now that I adore Konami’s Ganbare Goemon cycle of adventure-tinged action games. It all started back in 1992 with the previously Japan-exclusive franchise’s international debut as The Legend of the Mystical Ninja for Super Nintendo. I was instantly captivated by Mystical Ninja’s quality gameplay and irreverent take on traditional Japanese folklore. But what about all the other Goemon titles I didn’t even suspect existed back in those hazy pre-Internet days? Talk about a goldmine! Thus, I’ve recently branched out and began exploring the frizzy-haired bandit’s more obscure outings. Well, obscure to us Americans, anyway.

Next up is 1989’s Ganbare Goemon 2, the third entry in the saga and the follow-up to the wildly successful Ganbare Goemon! Karakuri Dōchū from 1986. Note that this game is not to be conflated with its own Super Famicom sequel, 1993’s Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu, which I already reviewed a while back. Confusing, I know. Special thanks to Stardust Crusaders for the unofficial English translation. The game would have still been beatable without it, but a good portion of the jokes would have been lost on me.

Ganbare Goemon 2 doesn’t stray far from the template Karakuri Dōchū established. It functions in most respects as a direct extension of its forebear, albeit with fewer rough edges and a handful of non-trivial upgrades. Your general goal is still to guide Goemon on a slapstick odyssey across medieval Japan while fending off its many hostile denizens with swings of his mighty kiseru pipe. The trip is still structured as a succession of massive overhead perspective stages, most of which require you to find three hidden gate passes before a time limit expires in order to move on. You still collect money and patronize various inns, shops, and mini-games along the way.

The most significant new addition by far is Goemon’s literal partner in crime, the chubby weirdo Ebisumaru. Finally! If you ask me, it’s barely a Ganbare Goemon game without Ebi. He’s the yin to Goemon’s yang. The chocolate to his peanut butter. The Luigi to his Mario. His inclusion here allows for the two-player simultaneous play that would be present in almost every future main series installment. He also provides what little Ganbare Goemon 2 has in the way of plot. The opening depicts the two thieves sitting in jail and Ebisumaru mentions to Goemon that there’s supposedly a great treasure hidden inside the remote Karakuri Castle. Determined to claim it, they promptly break out of their cell and the first level begins.

As nice as the two-player support is, I might just appreciate the boss fights more. One of Karakuri Dōchū’s few major letdowns was its total lack of such climactic encounters. It feels wrong somehow for an action game to end with the player simply strolling through a doorway unopposed. There’s no shortage of bosses here. In addition to providing extra challenge and drama, they’re an ideal showcase for the developers’ strange and anachronistic sense of humor. Expect a sumo robot, a giant peach, and more to come between Goemon and his prize.

A third key improvement over Karakuri Dōchū, at least in my eyes, is Ganbare Goemon 2’s markedly less brutal difficulty. You get continues this time! More specifically, you get a rather novel interactive continue screen where you must mash a button in order to prevent Goemon from being lowered into a boiling cauldron. Pretty amusing when you consider that the historical Ishikawa Goemon actually did meet his end this way. I’ve always been of the mind that funny games shouldn’t impose overly strict penalties for failure. If the player is forced to repeat the same sections too frequently, the relaxed anticipation of the next gag or crazy scenario soon gives way to annoyance. That never bodes well for comedy.

What does benefit the mood is all the extra personality on display here. Karakuri Dōchū was surprisingly down-to-earth in light of how madcap these games would become in the 16-bit era and beyond. Ganbare Goemon 2 is where the lunacy starts to ramp up in earnest. For example, the last game’s simple interstitial cut scenes of Goemon distributing his stolen gains to the poor à la Robin Hood are replaced by a sequence of increasingly unhinged comic vignettes. My favorite sees Goemon and Ebisumaru donning frilly dresses and doing their best saucy cabaret dance, complete with gratuitous double pantie flash at the end. Gee, thanks, guys. Keep your eyes peeled for a cheeky spin on Super Mario Bros.’s “your princess is in another castle” schtick, too.

Personally, I wouldn’t rank Ganbare Goemon 2 among its powerhouse publisher’s all-time best. At least not so far as general audiences are concerned. The sound and visuals are merely adequate. The combat and platforming are similarly serviceable at best, with the noteworthy drawbacks of iffy hit detection and some borderline unreactable enemy spawns along the screen edges. Strictly as a standalone game, it’s alright; a pleasant enough diversion, if not an instant classic akin to Castlevania or Contra. It is a nigh indisputable improvement on its immediate predecessor, however, and a must-play for dedicated Ganbare Goemon fans. Two-player mayhem, proper boss fights, an overall less stressful journey, and a greater emphasis on the absurd are nothing to sneeze at. All these enhancements were important building blocks for the ever grander and more manic escapades to come. Though not quite there yet, Konami was very much on the right track with this one.

Ufouria: The Saga (NES)

NES owners in the so-called PAL regions (Europe and Australia) missed out on scores of amazing games back in the day. Final Fantasy, Mega Man 6, Ninja Gaiden III, all four Dragon Quests, the list goes on. All this wanton deprivation did have its silver lining, though, since there was also a small selection of excellent PAL releases which never made it here to North America. Among them was Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga, a refreshingly wacky take on the Metroid-inspired exploratory platformer.

Originally published in Japan as Hebereke (a term denoting slapstick drunkenness), 1991’s Ufouria served as the public’s introduction to a group of cutesy mascot characters who would go on to star in a total of ten games. A few of these characters received name changes or visual alterations in the PAL version. The penguin-like lead hero Hebe became a snowman named Bop-Louie, for example. Most of the wider Hebereke series is exclusive to Japan and consists of puzzle games. Despite debuting as a side-scrolling action-adventure, no further entries were ever made in this same vein.

The plot here is a simple yet strange one about four friends who fall into a mysterious crater and find themselves separated and lost in a surreal world, questing for a way home. The localized title Ufouria seems to be based on these four playable characters, whom you swap between regularly over the course of the adventure. As in virtually all games of this kind, exploration is periodically rewarded with new abilities, most of which allow you to access previously unreachable sections of the world. In Ufouria, many of these abilities take the form of new characters rather than equipment.

At the outset, you control Bop-Louie, who has a fast walk speed and an aversion to water. Before long, you stumble on his orange lizard buddy, Freeon-Leon. Leon’s been stricken with amnesia and actually attacks Bop-Louie but, after a short battle, snaps out of it and joins your team. While a slow walker, he’s a much better swimmer and won’t slip on ice. This same process is later repeated when you encounter the long-jumping ghost Shades and underwater specialist Gil. In addition to their innate advantages, each character can also learn a new move or two from items. Bop-Louie can climbs walls once he acquires suction cups, Gil can spit out bombs, and so on. They’ll need all the help they can get to gather the three far-flung keys needed to open the way home.

All their scavenger hunting won’t go unopposed, of course. Both common mooks and tougher bosses show up to harass the four friends. Combat in Ufouria feels very much inspired by the Super Mario games in that your two main modes of attack are jumping on top of foes and hurling stuff at them. These methods compliment each other, as some baddies will leave behind throwable items when stomped. This is how the majority of boss fights play out: The boss itself will be stomp-proof, requiring you to pelt it with objects dropped by its minions. Annoyingly, you need to remember to hold down on the directional pad whenever you land on an enemy, otherwise you’ll take damage instead of dealing it. I’m not sure why this isn’t automatic, but at least it doesn’t take too long to become habit.

One noteworthy feature of Ufouria is its extremely forgiving design. NES action-adventure games are known for their convoluted layouts, cryptic puzzles, and a general lack of in-game guidance. That’s not a condemnation, merely an observation. I love me some opaque head-scratchers like Legacy of the Wizard, after all. Sunsoft, on the other hand, practically bends over backwards here to make sure you’re never without some sort of clear direction. The auto-map highlights the locations of every key item. When in doubt, head for the colored dots. Couple this with the fact that the majority of enemies aren’t particularly fast or aggressive and Ufouria makes a good starting point for players new to the genre. The one glaring exception to this user friendly approach is the health system, which sadly borrows the most tedious trick from Metroid’s playbook. Whenever you continue your game, be it after a death or by inputting a password, you start with a bare minimum amount of energy and must either mindlessly grind out dozens of kills for small healing pickups or expend a precious limited-use healing potion to recover. It’s as needlessly cruel as ever, even if Bop-Louie and crew will probably bite the dust a lot less often than Samus Aran.

What makes Ufouria worth experiencing regardless of your skill level or any minor gripes like the ones mentioned above is its killer combination of kooky art direction and rocking Naoki Kodaka chiptunes. Befitting its Japanese title, the visuals have an anarchic, off-kilter sensibility. Think “Hello Kitty on a week-long bender” and you won’t be far off. This is hammered home as early as the first screen transition, which sees Bop-Louie climbing up what appears to be a rope or vine. His means of ascent is then quickly revealed to be a tendril of drool emitting from the slack mouth of an hovering disembodied purple face. Welcome to Ufouria! If you harbor any fondness at all for games in the Monster Party mold that keep you guessing throughout with their madcap creative choices, Ufouria is a must-play. As far as the soundtrack goes, it’s prime Kodaka. Not only are the compositions themselves top-notch, the Sunsoft sound team’s characteristic use of meaty bass samples lends them a full, rich tone you simply couldn’t get from any other company’s 8-bit offerings. Unless special audio expansion chips were employed, that is. I loved this approach in Journey to Silius, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, and Batman: Return of the Joker and I love it just as much here.

I really dig Ufouria. Its endearing style, easygoing action, and quality Sunsoft production make it a prime example of a comfy, rainy day afternoon sort of adventure; one you can throw whenever you have a few hours to spare and don’t feel up to anything too demanding. Our oft-neglected pals across the pond hit the jackpot for once with this one. Good on them.

Atomic Runner (Genesis)

What a verbose fellow.

You could always count on old Data East to bring the weird. From the house-sized hamburgers and ferocious attack pickles of classic Burgertime to the borderline Dadaist stylings of the obscure Trio The Punch: Never Forget Me…, the late lamented studio’s staff delighted in surprising gamers with singular characters and scenarios. Hell, their most prominent mascot was Karnov, a fat, shirtless, flame belching man with a handlebar moustache. Love you, buddy. In the case of Atomic Runner, however, they may have taken things a step too far.

See, the original 1988 arcade release, Atomikku Ran’nā Cherunobu – Tatakau Ningen Hatsudensho (“Atomic Runner Chelnov – Fighting Human Power Plant”), starred a Russian coal miner (and cousin of Karnov!) who gained atomic superpowers after surviving a nuclear accident. This was a mere eighteen months after the very real, very tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. A segment of the public was purportedly none too pleased to see such a terrifying catastrophe repurposed as silly action game fodder so quickly. With “Cherunobu” and “Power Plant” right there in the name, it’s not like Data East could play innocent, either. Whoops.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this 1992 Sega Genesis port was kitted out with an entirely new story. Not only was it scrubbed of Chernobyl references, it no longer includes any mention or Russia or nuclear power. Chelnov the Atomic Runner is the now an ordinary man who derives his amazing abilities from a high-tech suit designed by his scientist father. He must use them to overcome the Deathtarians, a group of freaky monsters who claim to be the original inhabitants and rightful owners of Earth. As if saving humanity wasn’t motivation enough, the Deathtarians also murder Chelnov’s dad and kidnap his sister in the opening cut scene. Rude. As the text on the map screen commands, let’s go go!

First, I should take a moment to acknowledge that this version of the game is a rare example of an arcade-to-home conversion that’s superior to its source material in every respect. Each level’s layout has been faithfully copied over with the added benefits of drastically improved pixel art, catchier music, and the ability to remap the controls however you see fit. The team behind this one really went all-out and I commend them for delivering the definitive experience.

At its heart, Atomic Runner is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter, not all that different from countless others. You move from left to right through a total of seven increasingly tough stages shooting down or avoiding waves of minor enemies, collecting weapon power-ups, and squaring off against a big boss every now and again. The real hook is the main character’s means of transport. Rather than employing a spaceship or airplane with smooth, cursor-like eight-way movement, he obviously runs along the ground. This one change to the standard formula has profound implications. Dodging enemy fire is far more difficult when you have gravity and jump arcs to consider. Falling to your death is a distinct possibility, too, with some pinpoint jumping between platforms and the heads of enemies necessary to clear certain tricky sections. It’s intense, frankly bizarre at first, and definitely ensures you won’t mistake Atomic Runner for the likes of Thunder Force.

As a novel twist on a personal favorite genre by a respected developer, I fully expected to love Atomic Runner. Sadly, things didn’t shake out that way. There are isolated things I like about it, sure. The outré enemy designs, the lush parallax scrolling backgrounds with their “ancient aliens” theming, the funky tunes, and the bombastic final showdown atop the Statue of Liberty are all right up my alley. The one thing that truly stuck in my craw and dragged the whole affair down several notches was the control. Chelnov does three things over the course of his alien slaying marathon: Run, jump, and shoot. That’s simple enough, but the devil’s in the details. First off, he’s only able to run to the right. If you want to reposition him closer to the left side of the screen, you’re limited to holding left or crouching, which will cause him to stand still while the screen itself continues to scroll. This is a wholly arbitrary restriction that serves no purpose I can see except to make it harder to evade threats and impossible to grab power-ups that end up behind you. Thus, you’ll die more often and hopefully drop more coins into the machine. To get an idea of what it’s like, imagine trying to dodge bullet salvos in Gradius if the Vic Viper couldn’t fly left. It feels bloody awful! Most galling of all, Chelnov can run left…during boss fights. So the designers did actually add backpedaling to the game, it’s just reserved for those few encounters. Another senseless annoyance is the need to press a button to toggle the direction Chelnov faces. Foes enter the screen from both sides, so you’ll be doing this a lot. Why not use dedicated buttons for firing left and right as in Capcom’s Section Z for the NES, which would still leave one for jumping? Beats me. Manually changing Chelnov’s facing takes more getting used to and will trip you up more often in tense situations, so I suspect it again comes down to maximizing the arcade cabinet’s cash flow.

Atomic Runner is a frustrating near miss for me. There’s so much to appreciate here on the presentation side and its hybridization of the auto-scrolling shooter and run-and-gun platformer still feels fresh over three decades on. Above all, it has that wacky Data East mojo in spades. If they’d just updated the arcade’s punishingly clunky control scheme to something more user friendly, it could have become part of my regular rotation.

Poor Chelnov. He ran all that way and still came up short.

Air Zonk (TurboGrafx-16)

 

 

It’s been a while since I checked with my favorite follicly challenged cave boy, Bonk. I’m also overdue for my classic shooter fix. Air Zonk to the rescue! This 1992 release (also known as the downright unpronounceable “PC Denjin Punkic Cyborg!/PC Denjin/Completion○/Clear×” in Japan) is Red Company and Hudson Soft’s attempt to reimagine their successful mascot platformers as a side-scrolling “cute-’em-up.” Whereas Bonk strolled around his prehistoric world wrecking uppity dinosaurs with his massive cranium, his futuristic counterpart Zonk is a cyborg who flies around shooting them.

Zonk’s most important upgrade wasn’t his rocket thrusters or bombs, but his cocky Sonicesque swagger. He was famously part of a last-ditch effort by NEC and Hudson Soft (under the joint Turbo Technologies banner) to rescue their struggling TurboGrafx-16 in North America, where the Genesis and Super Nintendo were eating its lunch. He became the sass-infused mascot for the then-new TurboDuo revision of the console. Realistically speaking, no amount of radical ’90s ‘tude was going to undo years of major missteps in a cutthroat market. This shouldn’t be viewed as a strike against Air Zonk, however, which is one of the most enjoyable and technically impressive shooters on the system.

The story supplied in the manual is serviceable. Perennial series antagonist King Drool is out to conquer the world with his robot army. The only thing standing in his way? “Cool, sunglass-wearing warriors lead (sic) by Zonk.” I’m not sure if this is supposed to be the original King Drool, still alive somehow in the far future, or one of his descendants. I guess it doesn’t matter much either way. The important thing is that Zonk and company have five very long, very strange stages of slapstick aerial combat ahead of them.

Yes, them. Air Zonk’s most interesting gameplay feature is easily its friend system. Destroyed enemies will leave behind smiley face icons. Collect enough of these and a big smiley will appear that summons one of Zonk’s buddies to fly alongside him and provide some extra firepower. If you can manage to collect a second big smiley in that same level, Zonk and his pal will merge together into a hybrid form with a unique attack and gain temporary invincibility. Ten different friend characters effectively means ten additional special weapons above and beyond the eight Zonk can equip by himself. Truly a staggering arsenal by genre standards. You get to decide at the beginning of each playthrough whether to let the game choose your friend character for each round or if you’d prefer to do it yourself. You can even opt to go solo, in which case Zonk will employ automated helper drones instead.

Between all these offensive tools and each stage containing multiple discrete segments and bosses, there’s more to Air Zonk’s gameplay than you might expect. Better still, it’s all exquisitely presented. Its soundtrack is a contender for the best to ever grace a HuCard format game, so much so that it arguably beats out the CD music in its own sequel, Super Air Zonk: Rockabilly-Paradise. These tunes are upbeat, driving, and as densely packed with memorable hooks as any of their era. The visuals are no slouch, either. Artwork is crisp, bold, and makes striking use of the TG-16’s vibrant color palette. It also needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. Many of the backgrounds showcase multi-layered parallax scrolling, despite the fact that it isn’t a built-in feature of the hardware and no doubt required much hard work on the programming side to implement this well.

I could praise Air Zonk’s audiovisual excellence all day. I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t also make some effort to convey how bloody weird it is, though. While it’s bright colors and cartoon style do recall cutesy shooters like Fantasy Zone and TwinBee, the game’s whole aesthetic really skews more bizarre with a side of the grotesque than it does conventionally sweet and adorable. Take one enemy you counter early on in level five. It appears to be a hovering elephant skeleton with glowing red eyes. In a moderately eccentric game, that would be odd enough. Not here. The artists went ahead and added some sort of deformed green head with bulging bloodshot eyes to the top of the skeleton. Still not satisfied, they gave that head a tumor-like cluster of tinier heads sprouting from it! I had to pause and stare at this thing for a good minute or so the first time I encountered it, wondering what the hell I was supposed to be looking at. That’s just one example of the insanity on display, too. Zonk fought alongside a sentient baseball, got transformed into a milk squirting man-cow creature, and more. Hell, the Japanese version has him producing exploding turds (each wearing its own pair of matching Zonk shades!) by holding the fire down button long enough. Alas, these are replaced by bombs overseas.

So far, what I’ve been describing is a 16-bit shooter fan’s dream come true. Wildly varied action? Spectacular graphics and sound? A sense of humor that’s unhinged in the best possible way? Sign me up for all that! Sadly, Air Zonk does stumble in one important area: Difficulty balancing. Relatively chill for the majority of its run time, its fifth and final stage is a real bastard, with five waves of regular enemies broken up by no less than nine boss fights. Nine! Getting blindsided with this near R-Type degree of brutality is off-putting for sure. I certainly wouldn’t dispute that a game’s final level should be its toughest, but making it far and away tougher than the rest of the lot combined is pushing the principle entirely too far. A more reasonable idea would have been to break this marathon finale up into two separate stages with a checkpoint in-between. Thank heavens for unlimited continues, eh?

Unfortunate as it is, Air Zonk’s last minute Jekyll and Hyde turn wasn’t enough to put me off it altogether. It still earns a hearty recommendation on the strength of its unbridled creativity, technical prowess, and bounty of meaningful play options. My only true regret is that we never got the Bonk/Zonk crossover we deserve. Imagine these two joining forces across time, with Bonk handling the platforming duties and Zonk the shoot-’em-up mayhem. It’s only the most obvious collaboration since chocolate and peanut butter, guys. Yeesh!

Majyūō (Super Famicom)

October is here at last! All hail the triumphant return of long nights, creeping fog, and, best of all, horror gaming! As is my custom during this most morbid of months, I’ll be taking on five spooktastic titles for a variety of systems. There’s a malevolent mix of obscure oddities and well-loved standards headed your way, all united in their shared fixation on ghosts, demons, zombies, and other manic manifestations of the macabre. Let the terror commence!

First up is Majyūō (aka Majyuuou, “King of Demons”), a 1995 Super Famicom action-platformer by KSS. Who’s KSS? No one could blame you for asking. Primarily an anime production company, they also managed to turn out a half-dozen Japan-exclusive games to no great success before their 2005 bankruptcy. Majyūō has acquired a reputation as the standout KSS effort and presumably had a limited print run in its day. Accordingly, you can expect to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning a vintage copy. A saner option as of this writing is the authorized 2018 re-release by Columbus Circle at around $60.

The central figure in Majyūō is pistol-packing family man Abel. One Bayer, a former friend of our hero, sold his soul to demons, murdered Abel’s wife, and then kidnapped his daughter to serve as a sacrifice to revive the demon king, Lucifer. What an ass. Now Abel, with a weird assist from the spirit of his dead wife in nude pixie form, is out to storm the very gates of Hell and get his daughter back before it’s too late.

Not a bad setup, honestly. Bonus points for going darker than usual in a Nintendo game with the whole murdered spouse/human sacrifice angle. I would have preferred a little more mid-game development, however. All the plot elements here are concentrated at the beginning and end. Even when Abel comes face-to-face with the traitorous Bayer for the last time, no words are exchanged. I suppose this terseness does keep Majyūō accessable to a non-Japanese audience. I made use of the Aeon Genesis fan translation patch because I could, not because it was necessary.

Abel’s demon slaying odyssey is a compact one, made up of six modestly sized stages. In truth, it’s closer to five capped off by a low effort boss rush. This is undoubted the game’s biggest sticking point for me. Platforming fans in the mid-’90s had already grown accustomed to much longer adventures. Super Castlevania IV, for example, had over three times this amount of content to plow through and didn’t have to skimp on the quality to get there. Poor Majyūō is nearer to the original NES Castlevania in this respect.

Apparently aware that length was going to be an issue, Majyūō’s designers settled on another method of extending play time: Demonic transformations. Taking a page from Go Nagai’s Devilman manga, Abel can merge with the souls of vanquished boss monsters (represented by colored gems) in order to assume three different human-demon hybrid forms. Utilizing all three before reaching the fifth stage of a given playthrough will unlock a superpowered fourth transformation required to see the better of the game’s two endings.

Note that you don’t need to transform if you don’t want to. Beating the whole game as a puny human is definitely possible. Abel’s default health and damage output leave a lot to be desired, as do his stiff, plodding movements. On the plus side, he does have a robust moveset which includes a double jump, evasive roll, charged super attack, and descending jump kick. The various demon forms just happen to do all these same things better, making them a difficulty select of sorts. In light of this, it’s a bit odd that the best ending is reserved for Abel’s most powerful incarnation rather than his least.

Try as they might, I don’t think these alternate forms succeed in making up for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it run time and often clunky action. That leaves the presentation to hopefully take up the slack and earn Majyūō a mild recommendation. Thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. The vision of Hell the artists conjured up here is a memorable one, sometimes for unexpectedly silly reasons. Take my favorite level, the speeding demon train. As if the very idea of Hell having its own rail system wasn’t strange enough, this particular train is loaded with explosive crates marked “danger.” Who’s in charge of that? The Abyssal Safety and Health Administration? Oh, and some infernal joker spray-painted “fuck” onto the side of one of the rail cars, so the underworld has its own population of cheeky graffiti taggers, too. I don’t know if the creators intended their implied world building to be this absurd and I don’t care. I’m too busy being delighted. The remainder of the stages skew more normal. Well, normal for Hell, anyway, with plenty of fire, ice, fleshy organic corridors, etc. They’re complimented by some suitably deranged enemy designs and up-tempo action tunes. The weakest links are the sprites for Abel, which are small and lack detail. He looks more like an NES protagonist than a SNES one.

As an action-platformer in the Castlevania mold, Majyūō never rises above average and occasionally struggles to get there. It’s criminally short and the combat isn’t as fluid or fun as it could have been, major flaws that are scarcely mitigated by the cool premise, trippy artwork, and ability to transform Abel himself. If I’d paid full price for this one back in 1995, I’d have regretted it. If I’d paid a king’s ransom in the present day, I’d have really regretted it. Fortunately, getting to play it for free is another story altogether. This is a prime example of a game that had to wait patiently for the age of flash cartridges and emulators to finally come into its own. You may end up damned to Hell for your brazen software piracy, but at least you’ll know what to expect when you get there.