High School! Kimengumi

HighSchoolKimeguni

This cover says both nothing and everything about the game.

 

High School! Kimengumi (J) [T+Eng]000

We’re gonna dance the night away! (cheers to Nick P and Aya H for their English translation)

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Adventure

RELEASE DATE: 12/15/86 – (JP)

 

High School! Kimengumi isn’t the first Japanese-only Mark III game I’ve reviewed (that would be Great Baseball), but it’s definitely the kinkiest. Based on the popular mid-80s manga/anime of the same name, you play as a pink-haired high school girl named Kawa Yui (a pun for “kawaii” or “cute”), whose seeking payback on a gang of lecherous boys called the Kimengumi for pinching her butt. Not exactly politically correct material in today’s “let’s all get offended over everything” society, but hey, at least you play as the girl and not one of the Kimengumi members?

 

High School! Kimengumi (J) [T+Eng]002

It could be worse: you could be forced to play as Gilbert Gottfried over there.

 

Kimengumi is an adventure game, so you won’t be moving from left to right or beating up hordes of pimply teens on the way to destroying the Kimengumi. Instead, you search the different rooms of the school and look for items that might help you in your quest. Like most adventure games, the items that make the most difference are the most ridiculous: a rope to tie up the Kimengumi members; a love letter to distract one of the boys; chalk to stun the punks and nerds that loiter in the rooms; a harmonica to make the headmaster of the school fall asleep. Not every item is useful, but every item is guaranteed to cause something strange and hilarious to happen, if used in the right place.

 

High School! Kimengumi (J) [T+Eng]005

The headmaster gets drowsy when he hears the Harmonica Blues.

 

Each of the fifteen rooms in the school are available to search from the outset – daunting, perhaps, for gamers used to playing more linear affairs. The game gives you absolutely no direction as to where to go or what to do, so it’s up to you to experiment. Thankfully, the items you need in each room look larger and bolder than other items, making them easier to identify. What proves more difficult than finding the items is figuring out where and on whom they need to be used. Your menu only has a few actions to choose from – Take, Use, Throw, Talk, and Back, all of which are self-explanatory – but even if the right item is selected next to the right person in the right room, the action won’t always work. The rope, for example, must be used when you’re as close to a Kimengumi member as possible. Otherwise, a text screen will appear saying, “The Rope can’t be used here,” even when it can and must be used right there.

At its core, Kimengumi is a beginner’s adventure game made frustrating by clunky mechanics and lack of direction (the latter could be because the game was only released in Japan, and thus, English/French/Spanish readers don’t have access to a translated manual for the game). The game progresses thusly: search the high school for certain items, find the boys, get their attention, tie them up, and then your green-haired friend, Uru Chie, will come in and kick them off the screen – and presumably, out of Kawa Yui’s life. If you know what you’re doing – i.e. you rely too heavily on an FAQ – you can beat this game in ten minutes. On the flip side, if you don’t utilize an FAQ at all, you might never figure out what to do and turn off the game in disgust. My recommendation is to use an FAQ sparingly: enough to get you through the aforementioned foggy points, but not enough for you to race through the game.

 

High School! Kimengumi (J) [T+Eng]003

Wake up that poor sick monkey, then hog tie ‘em – proper revenge for busy hands.

 

Even if adventure games aren’t your cuppa, you owe it to yourself to luxuriate in Kimengumi‘s spectacular graphics and atmosphere. This is one of the most attractive 8-bit games I’ve ever seen. The sprites are large, detailed and full of personality, while the high school is painstakingly rendered. It’s the little things: the picture of Beethoven scowling in the music room, the skeleton in the lab, the sleeping headmaster at his desk, and the hilarious animations of the Kimengumi, both before and after they’re caught by Kawa Yui. Sega went all out in recreating both the characters of the manga and the high school itself in stunning detail – so much so that I wish the game worked slightly better as a whole.

 

High School! Kimengumi (J) [T+Eng]006

Look at the tiny drawers on the desks and the wheels on the chairs!

 

I’m not surprised that Sega didn’t bring High School! Kimengumi out of Japan. The manga/anime never ventured beyond their shores (except for France – does that count?), so nobody outside of Japan would have known who these characters were or why they should have cared about the game. Then again, Sega brought a lot of much crappier, blander games to both the States and Europe – games that required little to no translation, and thus, very little effort to bring over. They should have taken a chance on this frustrating, but endearing high school romp – if only to diversify their lineup and to further distinguish themselves from Nintendo.

 

C+

Astro Warrior

Astro WarriorJP

               Fighting Things In Space: The Game!

 

AstroWarriorUS

                Fighting Oversized Pretzels: The Game!

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 12/14/86 – (JP)

                                     1986 – (US)

 

1986 was still pretty early into the Mark III/Master System’s lifespan, yet the system had already garnered some non-traditional shoot-em-ups. Fantasy Zone was a deep shooter masquerading as an epileptic nightmare for children, while F-16 Fighting Falcon was a first-person computer flight sim shoved onto an 8-bit cartridge (not quite a shoot-em-up, but it tried, God bless it). Astro Warrior, however, is rooted so deeply in early shmup tradition that it stumbles over its own classicism. With the exception of the sharp graphics and stupendous framerate, the game plays like it sprang straight from the antiquated loins of the SG-1000.

 

Astro Warrior (U) [!]001

To be fair, the SG-1000 would have balked at this amount of action on-screen. And by “balked,” I mean, exploded.

 

Early shoot-em-ups gave the player very little: sparse backgrounds, the same repeating enemies, few levels or power-ups. Astro Warrior adheres very strongly to this less-is-more tradition, while making a few transitory concessions – like large bosses – along the way. Your spaceship travels vertically and is equipped with a rail-thin laser to help you deal with the various baddies. The bad guys are your standard “early shmup” shapes – triangles, circles, squiggles – and they bounce around the screen in various patterns for your amusement. You do have weapon upgrades that look like ships and could be mistaken for an enemy, if you’re not careful. Upgrades increase the power and width of your laser, help your ship move faster, and also provide you with two helper ships that straddle your side. The helper ships have the same weapon as you, fire when you fire, but they can’t be killed. They’re great to have alongside you while you fight, but they might make the game a little too easy. Then again, if you die, they die with you, so perhaps it all evens out. The helper ships, along with the large bosses that would become a staple in the shmup genre, are the only real features in Astro Warrior that hearken to the time of the game’s release in 1986.

 

Astro Warrior (U) [!]003

“Captain’s Log: Today was my birthday. I feel older than ever.”

 

None of what I mentioned in the last paragraph is bad, per say. Simple, yes, but the game moves at a quick pace and it plays well enough. The main problem is the levels, or lack thereof. After you beat the third level, you might think to yourself, ‘Alright, Astro Warrior is starting to pick up speed’ but alas, the fourth level repeats the first level with harder enemies. The game has only three unique levels – Galaxy Zone, Asteroid Zone, and Nebula Zone – before it repeats itself. Even for the time, this lack of content is a gyp, and Sega knew it. Consider: Astro Warrior may have been released as a single cartridge in Japan and the States, but Europe only saw the game on a combo cartridge, Astro Warrior & Pit Pot. And, as if to apologize for initially releasing the game by itself, Sega later re-packaged Astro Warrior with Hang-On in the States.

 

Astro Warrior (U) [!]004

                                           Well, it’s about time.

 

Astro Warrior isn’t a poorly developed game, but an inconsequential one that feels out of place on the Master System. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the game started out as a late SG-1000 title before being pushed to Sega’s new 8-bit console. And compared to all the progressive games Sega was churning out at the time – the aforementioned Fantasy Zone, Alex Kidd in Miracle World, Pro WrestlingAstro Warrior is a small step backwards to Sega’s early arcade roots. Good enough for those robust gaming warriors who love collecting points, skippable for everyone else.

C

 

Sapo

                The best version of Astro Warrior.

 

Sapo Xule SOS Lagoa Poluida (B) [!]000

That is indeed a frog ship fighting with some old boots.

 

For those that love their shoot-em-ups starring frogs underwater, take a gander at Sapo Xulé: S.O.S. Lagoa Poluída or “Smelly Feet Frog: S.O.S. Poisoned Lagoon” (thanks Wikipedia!). Sapo was a retooled version of Astro Warrior for the Brazilian audience (released in 1996!) starring Sapo Xule, a popular comic character in Brazil. The gameplay remains exactly the same, but the main ship, enemies, bosses, and backgrounds are all modified to resemble elements of Sapo’s world. Worth playing if you like well-done hacks.

Ashura / Rambo: First Blood Part II / Secret Command

Ashura

                           ASHU-RAAAAA!!!

 

Rambo

Warning: actual gun used in game may not be as strong.

 

Secret Command

I’m sorry, Europe. This cover is third place.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Action/Shooter

RELEASE DATE: 11/16/1986 – (JP)

                                     1986 – (US)

                                     10/87 – (EU)

 

The age of the overhead beefcake shooter began with Ashura, or as American Master System homeboys remember it, Rambo: First Blood Part IIor, as European Master System lads may remember it, Secret Command. It’s the first game encountered on the Sega journey thus far to have a unique name for each territory, though the actual changes between versions are cosmetic (minor graphical tweaks to the main character and some different music). Given that, I’m going to focus this review on Rambo – because I’m American and because Secret Command and Ashura are names that evoke very little in my mind.

 

Ashura (J) [!]000

                              Feel the heat.

 

Yeah, Rambo… he’s got a pair I can get behind. His name evokes the lone wolf, the soldier who’s too good at war, and thus, can never escape exotic deathscapes. He’s the perfect video game hero. Even if Sega wasn’t trying to channel Stallone in Ashura, the original Japanese Mark III version, the main character more than looks the part. He’s all guns blazing (red bandana flying) against an army of presumably corrupt government scum. The only way out is to keep fighting until you meet your own bloody end or surrender and wish you were dead.

If you’ve dabbled in Ikari Warriors, SNK’s Rambo-esque franchise that also kicked off in 1986, you know what Rambo‘s about. You control Rambo, moving him slowly through fields, villages, jungles. Soldiers come at you unceasingly, and they both move and shoot faster than you. The majority of soldiers drift aimlessly, spewing bullets that look like tennis balls in miscellaneous directions, while the occasional sniper, flamethrower-er, rocket spewer, and grenade launcher appear throughout each level to liven things up. Despite your all-encompassing pectorals, one hit is all it takes to fell poor Rambo. All that time in the gym for nothing.

 

Secret Commando (E) [!]000

“Rambo, behind you! In the bushes!… WHAT?! I’m not yelling! I’m helping!

 

Rambo might be greased up, but he’s not naked: he’s armed with an M-60 machine gun and arrow bombs that decimate entire areas. The machine gun is solid, but the trick is aiming it in the right direction. Those rascally soldiers never stop moving and often walk in awkward zig-zag directions, forcing you to shoot multiple times in their general direction and hope the bullets hit. The arrow bombs can take out multiple guys at a time, but they’re best used against huts with glowing rooftops. Blow up the huts and you’ll free a prisoner, allowing them to bless you with additional arrow bombs or screen-clearing explosions. There aren’t any bosses, per say, until the final round. Rather, the end of each round is a barricade, where soldiers and grenades are hurled at you, like a child throwing toys during a temper tantrum. Eventually, the barricade will glow, which means it’s time to launch an arrow bomb. Do so and progress to the next level. Oh, and pat yourself on the back too. You’ll need some encouragement before each subsequent round.

Even though Rambo almost always works alone, as The Legend of Zelda taught us, it’s dangerous to go alone. Take a friend through the sultry Nicaraguan landscape, so you can double-team the never ending suppressors of the people. Otherwise, your lives will run out faster than a yak in heat, and there’s no continues (unless you’re playing with an additional person, in which case, there are continues up until the second level). Don’t even think about trying to stick quarters into the Master System. Rambo is a fight you’ll have to win the old-fashioned way: all at once.

 

Rambo - First Blood Part 2 (U) [!]000

A shirtless prisoner celebrates a premature freedom dance before a stray bullet cuts off his party.

 

Even though Rambo is tougher than eating sushi off of Stallone’s bare abs without laughing, I can’t deny that the game fulfills some small testosterone-driven part of my being. People that think these games are repetitive, bang-bang, shoot-em-up are correct, but they’re missing the point. For a certain generation raised on ridiculous 80s movies, how cool was it to play as Rambo in a game that didn’t completely totally suck? Ikari Warriors for the NES sucked. Pretty much every Schwarzenegger game on every console sucked. Sure, Contra was and is great, but Contra was a tribute to 80s action without quite being the real thing. And while I’d prefer to play as a pixel-perfect Arnold fighting off T-1000s with a sawed-off, I’ll take Stallone bare-chesting it through the woods with unlimited rounds of pain.

 

B-

Alex Kidd in Miracle World

AlexKiddMiracleJP

It’ll be a *miracle* if Alex gets out of this brawl alive.

AlexKiddMiracleUS

Alex looks like Chucky with an oversized fist.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Platformer

RELEASE DATE: 11/01/86 – (JP)

                                     1986 – (US)

                                     09/1987 – (EU)   

 

Full disclaimer for those who may not know: I’m a life-long Nintendo fan. I grew up on the NES and the SNES and believe the early Mario games are some of the greatest games ever made. As a kid, I knew nothing about Sega’s Master System and even less about the console’s sort-of mascot, Alex Kidd. Part of that was Sega of America’s fault. Master System advertising in the States was nonexistent compared to Nintendo’s. Why else would I have wanted an NES, aged 4, unless I saw dozens of commercials showcasing blurry clips of Super Mario Bros. during my cartoons? As I grew older and pored over vintage gaming magazines, Alex Kidd came into my periphery. I learned that he was Sega’s go-to character prior to Sonic, and that he starred in a handful of games, many of them with different play styles. I also learned that, once Sonic entered the picture and proved to be a huge success, Alex Kidd was all but forgotten by the company. Not, however, by those who grew up with Alex, and to this day swear his adventures are ::gasp!:: better than Mario’s. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would encourage Nintendo fans to give Alex Kidd a non-biased playthrough, if only to experience a refreshing, inventive platformer that plays like what Mario would become, rather than what he was in 1986.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V2

                            You got this, Alex.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World is the inaugural game in the series and was obviously created to counter Nintendo’s own wildly successful Super Mario Bros. The two games play nothing alike, though. Super Mario Bros is a run-and-jump arcade platformer, designed for Mario to propel through the levels as quickly as possible (while still rewarding those who search for secrets). Alex Kidd slows down the action, encouraging cautious movements and thorough observation. The game’s adventure elements and occasional non-linear exploration were downright forward-thinking, compared to Mario‘s intense, but straightforward progression. Indeed, Alex Kidd may have emerged as Sega’s response to Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom hijinks, but there was no question that the former was more ambitious in its goals than the latter.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V6

The King sorta looks like the main guy from Adventure Time. You know… Captain What’s-His-Name?

 

You play as Alex, a monkey-like child with large ears, fluffy sideburns, and an affinity for rice balls. Alex is brought away from his studies in “Shellcore” to rescue his brother, Egul, and the Princess Lora from the evil king, Janken and his disturbing-looking cronies, Rock Head, Paper Head, and Scissor Head. The story is one of the least memorable aspects of the game, and at times, it seems like Sega’s trying too hard to build a mythology around Alex and the world he inhabits (preparing him for future games, perhaps?). Then again, Mario’s “rescue the princess” plotline was pretty one-note, and Nintendo continues to recycle it for the majority of their mainline Mario games, so who am I to judge?

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V1

Alex Kidd is brought to you by the letter 7

 

As Alex journeys through Planet Aeries (the “Miracle World” from the title?), he’s equipped with only his fist, enlargened by years of Shellcore smackdowns. His fist is powerful, but has a short reach, which makes defeating enemies a burden at times; Alex is a one-hit-and-he’s-dead type of fella, so if you’re going to punch an enemy moving toward you, be certain that you’ll connect. Your best bet is to find and equip the bracelet, a power-up that enables Alex to punch projectiles – shock waves of fist – through the air, obliterating everything it touches.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V3

             Good ol’ rock. Nothing beats that!

 

Alex uses his fist for everything: from RPS matches, to punching through blocks and power-ups, to getting chicks (presumably). Blocks, in particular, are everywhere in Alex Kidd and provide every range of service, from platforms to power-ups to hiding little Grim Reapers that chase and kill you. The best blocks, though, are the ones with money sacks in them. As in real life, money in Alex Kidd makes your earthly toil a whole lot easier. Collect as many sacks as you can, so that when you reach a shop, you can buy power-ups, vehicles, and extra lives.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V5

When Alex gets that crown, he’ll fulfill his dream of becoming a Russian Orthodox priest.

 

Shops appear at the beginning of a level, every three or four levels. Whatever a particular shop is selling is usually a good indicator of what you’ll need in the level ahead. Vehicles and extra lives are immediately accessible once you buy them, but when you buy a power-up, it goes into your item selection screen rather than being equipped automatically. The power-ups range from throwaways like the Cane of Flight that helps you fly across the screen for a limited time, to the essential Teleport Powder which grants you invisibility for about ten seconds. The idea of amassing multiple power-ups to have at your disposal whenever you wish is an ingenious one that Nintendo would later borrow for Super Mario Bros. 3. The vehicles, too, are novel, even if they don’t work as well as they should. The Sukopako Motorcycle is fast and helps you break through rocks and enemies, but touch the wrong block or brick and it disintegrates. The best vehicle is the Peticoper, a foot-propelled helicopter that shoots missiles, but it too will go down with one hit if you hit the wrong blocks.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V4

Perhaps it is now that I’m playing with power?

 

Unlike Mario’s stilted level-by-level progression through the Mushroom Kingdom, Alex’s journey through the Planet Aeries feels smooth, thanks to a world map that highlights your progress. Planet Aeries’ landscape is more colorful and varied than the Mushroom Kingdom, with no two levels resembling each other. Mt. Eternal has Alex progressing downwards through a mountain and into a body of water, then swimming his way out. The Blakwoods is a dense forest where monkeys throw seeds at you. Radaxian Castle is a puzzle-filled, non-linear maze, while the Kingdom of Nibana forces you to ride your Peticopter through dangerous red-orbed filled skies. Boss fights are a mixture between straightforward attacks and rock, paper, scissors battles. The latter, in particular, are ridiculous best 2-of-3 matches with Janken’s minions whose heads are literally shaped by their love of rock, paper, scissors. Again, for 1986, the sheer variety of levels on display is astounding, especially when compared to Super Mario Bros’ repeating levels.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V8

Not even Teddy Roosevelt can handle Alex’s skillz

 

As usual, a game’s success boils down to how well it plays, and Alex Kidd plays pretty well. The game isn’t as fast-paced as the original Mario, which I prefer, but it’s not trying to be. As the lack of a time limit indicates, Sega encourages the player to immerse themselves in Planet Aeries without feeling rushed. At first, I was annoyed with how slippery Alex Kidd controlled, but once I started taking my time through the levels, success came more readily. Not easily, though. Nothing about Alex Kidd in Miracle World is easy: from the one-hit kills to the lack of continues to the precise platforming sections that take advantage of Alex’s inherent slipperiness. You’ll have a helluva time getting through the game in one sitting, but such was the case with most games back in the day.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World (UE) (V7

Not quite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ underwater dam territory, but close.

 

Alex Kidd in Miracle World was supposed to be “the one” for Sega: the breakout hit that would propel the company and its fledgling Mark III/Master System to Nintendo-like popularity. Despite what seemed like perfect timing, Alex Kidd never rose above “cult classic” level. Super Mario Bros. and the NES had Japan and America swooning, and Sega didn’t have the wherewithal to penetrate Nintendo’s dominance with the Master System. And while I would argue that Alex Kidd in Miracle World deserved better – both in 1986 and today – Super Mario Bros. is so ingrained within my being that I can’t help but view Alex as a lesser substitute. Alex Kidd took risks with the platforming genre when it debuted in 1986, but what did that matter to those of us who had fallen in love with the euphoric heights of Super Mario Bros? For millions of gamers, including myself, Mario defined platforming. Everything else was second best.

B+

 

World Grand Prix

WorldGrandPrixJP

                                 Olivetti-approved.

 

WorldGrandPrixUS

        Sega continues to spare no expense.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Racing

RELEASE DATE: 09/21/86 – (US)

                                     1986 – (US)

                                    11/1987 – (EU)

 

There’s only so many ways one can design an 8-bit racing game: a glowing city-scape here, sharp turns there, and aloof AI everywhere. But even with such a limited template, the quick shiftin’, ’round the world hedonism encountered in World Grand Prix felt very familiar. After some brief sleuthing, I discovered World Grand Prix is a loose update of GP World, one of the few decent SG-1000 racing games. Good news, everyone? Sure, especially if you lived outside of Japan and didn’t own an SG-1000, which is pretty much everyone. The upgrade is mostly graphical, though Sega did tweak the time qualifications for passing a course and added the ability to soup up your car. Most importantly, like its predecessor, World Grand Prix offers up steady arcade thrills for common folk and racing fiends alike.

 

World Grand Prix (U) [!]000

                                             To Holland!

 

Once you’ve picked a difficulty, you’re off and racing. Button II gives you gas, Button I stamps the brakes, and pressing ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ on the D-pad will shift your gears. Like GP World, you’re not racing against anybody or anything, except a time limit; the other cars are on the track to make you crash and be a nuisance, nothing more. Each track has a qualifying time. Complete the race before the time is up and you’ll move on to the next race and acquire some points. The faster you complete the race, the more points you receive. Once you acquire a hundred points, you’ll be whisked away to The Make-Car-Go-Faster Shop and given the option to purchase additional acceleration, handling, or a stronger engine. Stick with the acceleration and engine. The game already controls tight enough without the handling, and the more speed you can acquire before the later races, the better.

 

World Grand Prix (U) [!]002

                                      The Alps! (I think)

 

World Grand Prix doesn’t have much in the way of options. Despite Sega’s stance on including two-player in all of its games, the option to play against another is strangely absent here (not that that’s a big loss – alternating two-player is one of the biggest shams of early gaming). Three difficulty levels and an edit mode are all you get, but given the game’s 1986 release date, it’d be strange to expect much more. The edit mode is exactly the same as the one found in GP World. Tracks are constructed with the limited amount of pieces the game gives you, and unless you connect the track’s two ends, you won’t be able to drive on it. It’s ok, but just like in GP World, you can’t save your creations, so there’s little point beyond curiosity.

 

World Grand Prix (U) [!]003

This was my bland custom track. Steady as she goes.

 

If you’ve ever test-driven Hang-On on the Master System, you’ll know what to expect from World Grand Prix. Save for the slightly heavier car physics found in World Grand Prix, the two games play almost identically. Some might say the similarities between games is just Sega spinning its wheels (zing!), but I would argue that World Grand Prix improves upon Hang On. The latter has sloppy handling and doesn’t compare to the majesty of riding an actual motorbike cabinet in the arcade. The former has tighter controls and is an update to a technically inferior SG-1000 game that nobody played. Neither game would wow audiences today, and in fact, one could make the case that both are quite sterile and average. But if you gotta cruise to Paris at 300 kilometers-an-hour, do it in a car that you can “trick” out. Jay-Z would want it that way.

 

B-

 

World Grand Prix (U) [!]001

                                             Ball so hard.

Spy Vs. Spy

SpyVsSpy

    I really feel sorry for the crabs in this situation.

 

SpyVsSpyUS

   Wow, a surprisingly good Master System cover.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: First Star Software (port by Sega)

GENRE: Action/Puzzle

RELEASE DATE: 09/20/86  – (JP)

                                     1988 – (US)

                                     08/87 – (EU, Card)

 

Plenty of games bore me, frustrate me, annoy me, but there’s something about Spy Vs. Spy‘s limited, tedious gameplay that sends me into a Trent Reznor-certified downward spiral. It happened with the NES version, and it’s happened with this Master System version.

You play as a white-coated spy searching for five items in a series of dimly lit rooms. The items include a key, a passport, cash, documents, and a briefcase. The briefcase is the most important item: without it, you can only hold one item at a time. Once you collect all of the items, find the airport (signified by a door with two airplanes) and jet away to the next series of rooms.

 

Spy vs

                          Leaving on a jerkplane…

 

Your enemy, the black-coated spy, is looking for the same items. The game always starts the two spies in the same room, leaving you one of two options: pound the crap out of the other spy until he dies; or run away and begin searching for the items immediately. The screen is split up into two sections, with the top half monitoring your actions and the bottom half monitoring the actions of Mr. Black Coat. While you’ll mostly be focusing on your spy, it’s good to be able to see what the other one is up to, especially if he’s laying down traps. Both spies have access to traps – bombs, springs, guns, etc. – that can be set in strategic areas in each room. Should a spy trigger a trap, they’ll die immediately and have to wait about ten seconds before they’re regenerated. During this time, the dead spy’s half of the screen turns black, and the living spy can rob them of their stuff, if they search the room where the spy was killed.

 

Spy vsSpy1

                              He got what he deserved.

 

That’s Spy Vs. Spy in a nutshell, but let me guide you through a stage, perhaps one of the earlier ones so we don’t get lost (later levels have an insane amount of rooms scattered among several floors). Both spies start off in the same room. Unless you want to take out the enemy spy immediately, walk away to a different room, then check your map. Any room on your map with a dot on it has an item. Go to a dotted room, find the item, but remember, you can only hold that one item until you find the briefcase. Let’s say you collect two items, cash and a key in that order, but you do not have the briefcase. The black-coated spy can enter a room and steal the key you just picked up, even though the key appears in your item collection screen. I hate this and it happens all the time.

 

Spy vsSpy2

  Doesn’t the black spy kinda look like a rabbi?

 

Let’s say you collect a briefcase with every item and you’re off to the airport. You open the airport door and are greeted by a thug who punches you against the wall, killing you. The thug was not placed there as a trap by the black spy, he’s completely the game’s doing. In the meantime, while your screen is black and you can’t do anything, the other spy comes along, steals the briefcase, and walks out the same door where the thug is no longer there. Complete and utter bull crap. How are you supposed to know that there’s a brute behind the airport door that can kill you if you open it? You don’t, it’s a chance you have to take because you need to complete the level to progress. I hate this and it happens all the time.

 

Spy vs Spy3

    The white spy pleas for death from beyond the game.

 

Some cheapness aside, every feature of Spy Vs. Spy works – the traps, the collecting of items, taking down the other spy – assuming you like the style of play being offered to you. I don’t. I hate searching for the items. I hate searching for the briefcase to be able to hold all of the items. I hate the convoluted stage layouts past stage 3. I hate the time limit. I hate getting caught in a trap. I hate setting traps. The only aspect of this game that gives me any sense of release is punching/kicking the other spy until his ghost floats up to heaven. Everything beyond the brawling is unwanted tension and anxiety that increases with each passing level. Every level is the same tired trap-and-collect shenanigans, repeated over and over with an increasing amount of rooms that are frustrating to navigate, despite the presence of a map. If I never encounter Spy Vs. Spy again on some other chrono-gaming journey, it will be too soon.

 

D-

Action Fighter

Action FighterJP

                       Tailgaters are just the worst.

 

Action FighterUS

             Not pictured: any action or fighting.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Action/Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 08/17/86 – (JP)

                                     1987 – (US)

                                     08/87 – (EU)

 

The overhead vehicular combat sub-genre didn’t see many games: Spy Hunter for Arcade/NES, Super Spy Hunter for NES, Action Fighter for Arcade/Master System, and, uh, that’s about it? I know there were more, but these are the ones people remember, the ones that made an impact, however slight. The lack of games is understandable, given the limited nature of the genre. Driving and shooting certainly doesn’t lend itself to wild interpretation, which explains why Action Fighter isn’t much more than an alternate take on Spy Hunter. Not a bad thing, certainly, and Sega does mix it up with the ability to transform your vehicle throughout the game. Indeed, the transforming vehicles give Action Fighter the little personality that it has, but the insane difficulty and lack of varied level design hamper the overall fighting of action.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]000

Better believe I’ll sink three submarines for President Reagan.

 

You begin proceedings in Anycity U.S.A. on a motorbike. The traffic around you is lunchtime heavy – not constricting enough that you can’t get around other drivers, but clustered to the point where you’ll eventually have to do some evasive maneuvering. Luckily, you have your trusty motorbike machine-gun mount to take out any unnecessarily slow or obnoxious drivers. You can control how fast you go with the D-pad, a la Spy Hunter, but remember, you’re on a motorbike. One tiny hit from another motorbike or a car and you’re pavement meat. The upside of being pavement meat is that, as long as the timer’s running, you can die as often as you want. The timer counts down from 1,000 seconds, you’re not penalized time when you die, and you begin fairly close to where you crashed. Sounds unreasonably fair, doesn’t it? That’s because Action Fighter is balls-to-the-wall difficult, particularly in the air (I’ll touch on the flight portions later). Even with the ability to die as much as you want within the time limit, you’ll be hard-pressed to get past the first or second level without cheats. Sega wanted players to be serious about fighting action.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]004

            In the future, we’ll live in perfect blue buildings.

 

Motorbikes are flimsy and crash easily, which is why you should transform into a car as quickly as possible. Transforming is as easy as collecting the letters A, B, C, and D, which are scattered along the road as you drive. Collect all the letters, your bike will become a snazzy sports car, and you’ll have double the fire-power. Those ambulances in your way won’t know what hit ‘em! Once you collect additional letters E and F, your car will turn into a jet, and Action Fighter will morph from overhead vehicular combat to mediocre shoot-em-up.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]006

                          I’ve never wanted anything less.

 

At first, I was in awe of Action Fighter‘s shoot-em-up portions. I love the rush after your car transforms into a jet, of leaving the shackles of the ground for the freedom of the sky. I loved how the clouds have layers, so that when you fly into them, a piece of the cloud covers up portions of your jet. I love how you catch glimpses of the city roads where you were just driving. But the actual shooting portions? Ugh. Ugh on a stick, with ugh juices dripping onto your hand. At first, it seems like a standard mid-80s shmup. Enemies rush at you, drop some projectiles off in your face, you shoot them or they fly away. Then you fight helicopters, planes, missiles, all of which take at least three hits with your standard weapon, the weapon you leave the ground with. This is annoying, not because challenge is bad, but because there’s so many waves of enemies rushing at you, one after the other. You’ll be lucky to destroy one plane in a group of five because of how beefy the planes are against your weapon. And after those five planes have left, five more take their place. Only when you get the P power-up does your weapon upgrade and all of the aforementioned airborne foes go down with one hit.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]007

Just stay over on your end of the screen, Mr. Missile, and we’ll get along great.

 

Collecting the power-up is the way to go, but you still have to avoid all the projectiles and the enemies themselves. The bullets are white, which doesn’t do you any favors when you’re soaring through white clouds. And not only do the enemy copters and planes have rapid movement, but ground bases a la Xevious spew projectile pellets at you too. And the worst part? The levels just keep going. You’ll fight the same swarms of enemies time and time again with little change. When you finally reach the boss, you won’t care about playing anymore, but you’ll fight it anyway ’cause it took for-freaking-ever to reach them.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]002

    The aforementioned boss that I totally beat out of spite.

 

There are five levels total, which sounds like a small amount. Trust me when I say five levels is more than generous: each of them are long enough and difficult enough to ensure you’ll be fighting action for quite some time. The levels themselves are broken up into land/air portions. Level 1, for example, begins in the city, but ends in the air, while Level 2 begins in the air and ends in the city. The scenery switcheroo is nice, but somewhat perfunctory, given that the level layouts and designs barely change. If you’ve played the air portion in Level 1, you’ll know what the air portion in level 4 looks like.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]003

          Flying over cities is always a nice change of pace.

 

Action Fighter didn’t start off so monotonous, though. The original arcade version gave the players the option to play with five vehicles throughout the course of the game – car, helicopter, motorbike, dirt buggy and jet ski. Instead of separate levels, you’re on one huge map that gets uncovered with the more map pieces you find. While enemies are constantly barraging you, there are no bosses until the end of the game. Instead of a time limit, you have a fuel gauge which has to be monitored constantly. Run out of fuel and it’s game over. Quite a different title, all told, but both versions share an unwavering brutality that would offend all but the most steadfast of gamers.

 

Action Fighter (UE) [!]005

              Tanks in a city? That would never happen.

 

Take away the monotony and devious difficulty, and there’s a shell of a decent game in Action Fighter. But seriously, friends, Action Fighter is really hard. Given the amount of action the game levies at you, you’re in a constant state of anxiety and readiness. It’s good to be somewhat tense while playing a shmup, but the ridiculously long levels leave you feeling exhausted by the end. My recommendation: play with one of these codes, beat the game, then if you still have more fight left in ya, come back and try the game without a code. You’ll see whether or not that hair on your chest is legit.

C

Black Belt

Black BeltJP

                       Yes, I would like to play this.

 

Black BeltUS

                                Er, but I’ll pass on this one.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Beat-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 07/20/86 – (JP, as Hokuto no Ken)

                                     1986 – (US)

                                     08/87 – (EU)

 

Black Belt is otherwise known as Sega’s response to Nintendo/Irem’s Kung Fu for NES. Both games are early beat-em-ups that center around stereotypical martial artists plowing through waves of stereotypical Asian enemies that don’t know when to say when. Both games started out with different titles and protagonists, but contained the same side-scrolling beat-em-up action: Kung Fu was originally Spartan X, a tie-in for a Jackie Chan film, while Black Belt was called Hokuto no Ken or “Fist of the North Star,” based on the anime’ of the same name. What separates Irem’s creation from Sega’s, then? Kung Fu is light and fast-paced, as if it was meant to be beaten quickly (given its original arcade status, it probably was). Black Belt, however, is more methodical and forces you to consider how you attack the absurd amount of mid-bosses and bosses the game throws at you. I personally prefer the straightforward action of Kung Fu, but for an early console-only beat-em-up, Black Belt has a surprising amount of moxie.

 

Black Belt (UE) [!]002 Hokuto no Ken (J) [!]000

       One and the same, give or take about 1,000 awesome points.

 

Black Belt begins like any other beat-em-up: men without shirts come at you, you kick/punch them away, they break apart into tiny chunks. This fist/foot connection continues until you come to your first mid-boss, an axe-thrower who doesn’t want to die after one punch (how selfish). Avoid his axes, hit him four times, he explodes, and you get some bonus points. More shirtless men run towards you, you kick them, then the next mid-boss, a staff-wielding dynamo. This back-and-forth continues until you’ve felled four mid-bosses, each with specific attacks and weak points. Then, as if four mid-bosses wasn’t enough, the end boss appears. He’s a dandy named Ryu, and you can’t hit him unless he’s in the middle of an attack; when he’s just moving around, your attacks go right through him. His attacks have greater range than yours and are stronger than yours by at least a two-to-one margin. He’s one of the hardest beat-em-up bosses I’ve ever faced, and he’s only the first main boss out of six on Black Belt (never mind the mid-bosses you’ve yet to face in future levels). After about eight times or so, I gave up without beating Ryu. Call me a quitter who just wants to go home and be a family man, but nobody deserves that much frustration.

 

Black Belt (UE) [!]000Hokuto no Ken (J) [!]001

Traditional Asian setting is fine, but apocalyptic landscape is finer.

 

Which is a shame ’cause Black Belt has potential of sorts. While the stages are full of the same repetitive punch/kick nonsense critics of the beat-em-up genre hate, the mid-bosses inject the game with much-needed strategy and timing. If you don’t analyze the mid-bosses’ attack patterns and react accordingly, you risk destroying yourself. On the flip side, though, even if you flail your limbs akimbo, you’re bound to hit them a couple times. The main bosses, however, require Super Saiyan levels of skill and patience. There’s Ryu, who I already mentioned, then Gonta, the Sumo Master who will decimate your life bar by jumping on you, and Oni, a Ninjitsu Master who will duck at every attack you throw at him. The only way to hit him? Punch his mask while he’s attacking you. No thanks. Black belts should be achieved through hard work and gumption, not cheap hits.

D

 

Black Belt (UE) [!]001

                              Riki, please lose that number.

Pro Wrestling

 

Pro WrestlingJP

FUN FACT: In Japan, Pro Wrestling was known as Gokuaku Doumei Dump Matsumoto and consisted of entirely female wrestlers.

 

ProWrestlingUS

I mean, the original Mega Man box art is bad, but at least I can laugh at it…

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Sports/Wrestling

RELEASE DATE: 07/20/86 – (JP)

                                     1986 – (US)

                                     08/87 – (EU)

 

What did wrestling fans hope to see in 8-bit wrestling games? Both the Master System and the NES only had a D-pad and two buttons to work with, so extravagant move-lists were out. Playing as your favorite television wrestlers would have been great, but licenses cost money and, strangely, only the crappiest companies could afford them. Rich graphics, solid mechanics, and a two-player mode might be all a wrestling gamer could ever hope for. Then again, Pro Wrestling has all of these and it’s still not a very good game. Sega hides a lack of content behind a pretty presentation, in hopes that players won’t notice they’re repeating the same matches over and over.

 

Pro Wrestling (UE) [!]000

           Is a body attack different than a body slam?

 

Choose from one of four tag-teams on the menu screen: The Great Maskmen, Orient Express, The Crush Brothers, and the Mad Soldiers. The wrestling teams are stereotypical, yes, but they’re also exaggerated and comical, particularly with their over-sized melon heads. Each wrestler can punch and kick their way to victory, but the best way to take out an opponent is to knock them on the ground, fling them into the ropes, and take down a large chunk of life with a special move, like a Karate Kick or a Flying Head Butt. All of the wrestlers have three specific-to-them special moves, but thankfully, the intuitive control scheme doesn’t change between teams. Buttons 1 and 2 are punch and kick respectively, while the special moves are always performed either when your opponent is lying on the mat or after they’ve been tossed into the ropes. Two of the four teams can climb the turnbuckle to perform certain moves, and chairs do eventually find their way into later matches, but otherwise, Pro Wrestling doesn’t venture too far into outlandish theatrics.

 

Pro Wrestling (UE) [!]001

                               That’s double ya butts.

 

Pro Wrestling does a great job at capturing the spectacle of over-the-top wrestler entrances. Once the actual wrestling begins, though, the game takes several elbow drops to the groin. You only have three minutes to pin one of your opponents or the game’s over. Even if you have more health than the other team, once those three minutes are up, you’re back to Round 1; all those hours in the gym and busted thumbs were for naught. The worst part about Pro Wrestling, however, is having to fight the same opponents for ten rounds before you take the belt. That’s right: after you beat the first tag-team, you don’t automatically move on to the next. You have to fight a team for ten rounds or up to thirty minutes each. The difficulty doesn’t increase as the rounds progress, either. I used the same basic moves on the same opponents round after round, and they went down every time. Cool, I guess, but how about some challenge? Lastly, the two-player mode is ok, but it’s limited to one three-minute round. After the overabundance of one-player wrestling, I would have liked to have the option to keep fighting a friend past the scant three minutes.

 

Pro Wrestling (UE) [!]002

      Is the ref even paying attention to my poor luchador?

 

Was it even possible to make a good 8-bit wrestling game? Perhaps not, and I think wrestling fans knew this and were ok with it. They took what they could get, knowing that their “sport” was going to be tarnished in some way. Pro Wrestling is probably one of the best 8-bit wrestling games around, and even it is marred by tedium. If Sega had thrown a couple more tag-team wrestlers in, expanded the two-player mode, and scaled the one-player mode back, Pro Wrestling would be shorter, but it would be purer. Better to provide a compact, richer experience than to hide a lackluster product behind neon lights, big heads, and luchador masks.

 

C-