Comical Machine Gun Joe

Comical Machine Gun Joe

                                      It’s a hoot!

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Shooter

RELEASE DATE: 04/21/86 – JP

 

I think Comical Machine Gun Joe is supposed to be a lighthearted take on the static shooter genre. For starters, there’s the title, a mish-mash of words that is supposed to recall old gangster names from the Prohibition era, particularly Machine Gun Kelly. Then you have the main character, a purple trench coat-wearing, gritted-teeth type of bloke who shoots anything that comes across his path, including pigs and giant spiders. The stages range from typical mid-80s action movie locales like Harbor and Downtown to strange vistas such as the Graveyard and my favorite, Fairyland. It’s clear that Comical Machine Gun Joe doesn’t seem to take its hard-edged premise seriously, but the overwhelming difficulty will shut down the smiles real fast. Unless you’re a stone-faced ne’er-do-well with masochistic tendencies to spare, don’t plan on moving past the first couple levels.

 

Comical Machine Gun Joe (Japan)003

Great stage design, but good luck getting here without cheating.

 

Machine Gun Joe starts with Joe at a Harbor. Joe is smoking a cigarette, waiting for life to get on with it. Boats float gently by the dock. Wind blows the smoke back into his face. It’s quiet – presumably too quiet. One by one, thugs appear. He doesn’t recognize any of ‘em. It doesn’t matter. Joe pulls his machine gun and unloads at what he sees, cigarette firmly in mouth. Joe is locked into a horizontal stride across the bottom of the screen. He can venture to the left, to the right, and he can jump surprisingly well for a white guy, but he can’t move forward. Luckily, his trusty machine gun bullets move forward for him.

Thugs appear from all sides: in front of Joe, to the side of Joe, and on the top of buildings in front of Joe. Joe shoots in any direction, including diagonally. Once the Thugs start venturing out three at a time, in numerous directions, hold your finger on the trigger and never let go. The Thugs die easily, but once dead, they throw a miniature doll-like version of themselves that can attach itself to Joe if he’s in the doll’s path. The doll slows Joe down once attached to him and can only be gotten rid of by jumping three times.

 

Comical Machine Gun Joe (Japan)002

                     Joe: “Get off me, ya moochers!”

 

The dolls are annoying, sure, but they can be avoided easily. More importantly are bullets: stay out of their way. One stray bullet kills Joe – or rather, makes him slither off the screen, like some sort of hip, Mafia-affiliated snake. Unfortunately, the Thugs’ bullets come strong, fast, and seem to psychically know where Joe is going to stand rather than where he’s standing at the moment. If you manage to overcome a certain number of thugs, the boss, “El Doba” will appear and unload round after round towards Joe. A couple bullets in El Doba’s wherever will disintegrate him into a skeleton, then it’s onwards to the next bullet-ridden showpiece.

 

Comical Machine Gun Joe (Japan)000

                      El Doba likes to boogie with the pigs.

 

Then there are the pigs and spiders: bit players in this bang-bang-shoot-em-up, but still worth talkin’ about. Pigs stroll casually across the screen during firefights in any given level. Once shot, they squeal off the screen (unharmed, mind you) and release a bomb that latches onto Joe. The bomb will detonate and kill Joe unless he flings it forward onto the screen by jumping. The bomb will explode whatever it touches, thus making it an effective way to clear out a screen full of enemies at once. Giant spiders will emerge once the bomb has detonated and will ricochet any bullets that hit its person, including those of the enemies. I view the spider as a giant middle finger atop a game that’s already unloading scores of F-bombs.

 

Comical Machine Gun Joe (Japan)004

The night ends with Joe face down in the streets, slitherin’ like a snake, wishin’ he’d never been born.

 

Comical Machine Gun Joe would probably achieve the lighthearted effect it’s striving for if the game wasn’t so inordinately difficult. El Doba’s stream of bullets are almost impossible to move around. Later stages compile so many enemies on screen that the game becomes more of a fight to avoid bullets rather than unleashing hell yourself. I understand that the game only has six stages (granted, six stages that repeat), and Sega wanted to make sure that the player got their monies worth by not beating the game in ten minutes (totally doable to beat the game in ten minutes, by the way, if you throw on the Invulnerability code), but I still feel some perspective should have been applied. Joe is just one man in one trench coat with one machine gun. You know how hard it is to stay positive – comical, even – when faced with legions of gun-toting maniacs, bomb-throwing pigs and invulnerable spiders?

 

C-

My Hero / Seishun Scandal

MyHero_JP

I prefer the Japanese title Seishun Scandal or Youth Scandal.

 

My HeroEU

Then again, you really can’t argue with fists against faces.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Coreland (port by Sega)

GENRE: Brawler

RELEASE DATE: 01/31/86 (JP)

                                     1986 (US – on Sega Card)

                                     1987 (EU – on Sega Card and Cartridge)

 

My Hero, huh? More like “My Poor Shlub who can’t protect himself or his girlfriend to save his life.” Of course, if I were to hold the “can’t protect girlfriend” attribute against the protagonist of My Hero, that would disqualify pretty much every male protagonist in the beat-em-up genre from being considered a hero. The problem with My Hero is that the main character is called a hero from the outset before he’s been given a chance to prove himself. When the game starts proper and hordes of mohawked thugs come after him, one lone punch sends him reeling. One punch! The easy thing to do would be to call the guy “My Zero” and move on, but that’s not really fair. The protagonist isn’t calling himself a hero. The game is making a bold statement, perhaps echoing what his girlfriend might say once he eventually rescues her. How presumptuous: both to assume that the girlfriend would utter some cliche’ phrase like “My Hero!” upon rescue, and to saddle the “hero” tag onto a guy who may or may not stop at nothing to save his beloved.

 

My Hero (UE) [!]001

                   This is the best your hero can do.

 

But My Hero isn’t an in-depth case study on people, their relationships, and how they respond to kidnapping situations. It’s an early beat-em-up, and a bad one at that. It places you in the role of a guy who has to take on the world of Mohawk Gangs with two attacks: a punch which doesn’t work and a jump kick which works some of the time. The Mohawk Gangs have a limitless supply of thugs, while you are just one guy who has to “overcome against all odds.” Unless, of course, you’re brought down by these magical death punches, which happens more frequently than it should. As I mentioned previously, your punch doesn’t work at all. Use it, and you will die because the enemies’ punches will overlap yours. Now, if the thugs just came at you from the front, the game would be over quickly. You could jump kick the lot of them, regardless of their number, and make it to the end in a few minutes. No, the problem lies in the dual attack: thugs in the back, thugs in the front. Which group will you focus on? Once the thugs swarm you, it doesn’t matter what direction you’re jump kicking towards, one of them will get a punch off and you’ll be waylaid.

 

My Hero (UE) [!]000

Those mohawks must give them superhuman fists! Street logic at its finest.

 

My Hero supposedly has three levels which repeat ad infinitum once defeated, but I couldn’t get past the first stage. This poor heroic shlub has no life bar and no real way to protect himself outside of jumping like a clown across the city boardwalk. Even then, there’s no guarantees that some cretin won’t just land the right jab to your shin and knock you out of commission while you’re jumping. Early beat-em-up My Hero might be, but even Irem’s Kung Fu Master (released the year prior in 1984) included a life bar which allowed you to absorb a few hits. No, My Hero is Sega showing that they have no idea how to handle the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre in 1985. Given the newness of the genre, I can’t blame them for not knowing what they’re doing, but I can blame them for releasing the game at all. A valiant first attempt, My Zero is not.

 

F

SegaDoes Podcast Episode 13: Wonder Boys A Go-Go!

 

Welcome to lucky (unlucky?) Episode 13, friends.

We’ve got quite the October feast for you today, a veritable symphony of SG-1000 and Mark III/Master System titles: F-16 Fighting Falcon, Great/Super Tennis, The Castle, Gulkave, Ninja Princess/The Ninja, Super Tank, Champion Kendou, and the ever-lovable Wonder Boy.

Listen/download the podcast here or on iTunes.

No, there’s no need to thank us. Unless your manner of thanking comes in the form of fat checks, in which case, yes please, and you’re welcome.

As always, thank you for listening, and feel free to leave any comments in the comment section below. Your comments will be read on the next podcast, so make your insults and slanders clever and witty lest you sound like a fool.

 

-DC

 

Champion Billiards

Champion Billiards

Bored, determined, and terrified: the three game faces of alley pool.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Compile

GENRE: Sports

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

I know billiards are considered a sport, but I’ve always seen it as more of a drunken pastime. A way for hip twentysomethings and grizzled bikers alike to congregate in bars, slosh back a few beers with friends, and forget their earthly troubles. In other words, pool is just as much about a certain atmosphere as it is about the game itself. Sure, you could play eight-ball in a well-lit room of your house, surrounded by friends sipping red cups filled with Dr. Pepper, but that puts the kibosh on pool’s contemporary, seedy charm. Unsurprisingly, Champion Billiards isn’t able to recreate the dive bar/pool hall feel one associates with the game, but it does possess an otherworldly vibe that accentuates the game’s otherwise straightforward nature.

Indeed, Champion Billiards succeeds because it’s so simplistic. There’s no options to play 8-ball or 9-ball, no maneuvering the physics of the tables, no Marlboro-sponsored pool sharks for you to contend with (unless you play against a friend and they happen to be a Marlboro-sponsored pool shark). If you want to make up a story for Champion Billiards, you could say that you’re an up-and-coming cue junkie, hungry for power, money, and all the 8-balls you can handle. In reality, you control a glowing colorful cue ball via cursor, and you hit other balls into the pool table’s side pockets – that’s it.

 

Champion Billiards (Japan)000

                               The Illuminati, of course.

 

Even more than a physical game of pool, Champion Billiards is easy to pick up and play, but it’s the game’s design and aesthetic flourishes that keep you from growing bored. For instance, the constantly moving power meter at the top of the screen controls the speed and force of your hit. Hit too hard and you might sink a ball, but you also might sink yourself. Hit too slow and the other balls will laugh at you, but you’ll be safe. You start off each level with six shots. Use all six shots without sinking a ball and your cue ball shatters into dream dust on the table. And speaking of tables: each level presents a fresh table design. None of that standard green-colored, corner side-pocket snoozefest here. Some tables lack walls, while others have raised portions in the middle that affects the direction the balls move; only champions need apply. The backgrounds deserve mention too: images of disembodied old man heads, floating pool lingo written in cursive English (I guess it’s pool lingo – “Glidin”?), and all-around trippy colors, accentuated by the SG-1000’s minimalist color palette, makes for a surreal pool journey unlike any other.

Well, almost any other. If SegaRetro is to be believed (and they usually are), Champion Billiards is actually the first in Compile’s “Lunar Pool” series. If you’ve played Lunar Pool on the NES, you’ll see the similarities immediately: the trippy music, the squealing cursor, the “Is this really pool?” questions that arise in the back of one’s mind. Champion Billiards has the edge for me, though. Lunar Pool‘s “pool on the moon” theme is innovative, but I enjoy the whatever-the-hell-we-feel-like-doing design of CB just a bit more (Floating old man heads, Compile? Really?). I think Lunar Pool tightens the series’ style and gives it focus, but the freewheeling looseness that Champion Billiards has is very refreshing – especially when compared to the other stale entries in Sega’s “Champion Sports” line.

 

Champion Billiards (Japan)001

“And with one shot remaining, Texas Slim shakily lines up the cursor with the purple jawbreaker.”

 

Champion Billiards succeeds as a pool game because Compile seems to understand that straight virtual pool just isn’t very much fun. Without the literal background noise of the bar, the feeling of friends close by, a cold beer giving you confidence in your skills, the pool cue in your hand, the crack of the balls against the table, what you’re left with in most virtual pool games is a blank background, a standard table, standard 8-ball games, some cheesy music (or no music at all), and maybe a computer opponent designed to piss you off. No thanks: I’ll take Champion Billiards physics-driven disco insanity any day.

B+

Wonder Boy

Wonder Boy

 

Without knowing the series history, one might view the original Wonder Boy as an innocuous early platformer and nothing more. You play as Tom-Tom the caveman, and your objective is to save your girlfriend, Tanya, from the clutches of the evil cave-dwelling overlord, Drancon. Tom-Tom runs, jumps, throws hatchets, collects fruit to prevent his vitality meter from depleting, and rides skateboards that hatch from eggs. He’s the most enduring and energetic caveman in all of gaming this side of Bonk (sorry Joe, and to a lesser extent, Mac), but where he went after this, no one could have predicted.

 

Wonder Boy (UE) [!]001

             Should… should I be offended? (Master System)

 

If Tom-Tom sounds suspiciously like Master Higgins from Adventure Island, well, that’s because Tom-Tom is Master Higgins from Adventure Island. While the Wonder Boy games were published by Sega, Westone Bit Entertaniment (known as Escape during this time) held control over the source code which allowed the game to be published on different systems. Details are murky as to how Hudson Soft obtained the rights to Wonder Boy during this time. Perhaps Westone licensed out the code or perhaps they had a contract with Hudson alongside their Sega alliance. Either way, Adventure Island on the NES was the result of this partnership.

 

Adventure Island

Tom-Tom’s really let himself go for this adventure.

 

The most obvious change between Adventure Island and Wonder Boy was the substitution of Tom-Tom for Master Higgins. Higgins’ ball cap and round visage were adopted from one of Hudson Soft’s then-spokespersons, Takahashi Meijin, to give the game some distinction from Wonder Boy. There were other changes between the two games as well, but they were mostly cosmetic and didn’t affect gameplay. And as those who grew up with the NES and SNES can attest, Adventure Island would become one of Hudson Soft’s most succesful series, in large part (in my opinion) to the goofy look of Master Higgins.

Wonder Boy‘s transformations wouldn’t end there. Beginning from the sequel, Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Westone would begin to mess with the series, resulting in platforming and adventure games with light RPG elements. This experimentation yielded several games, including a completely different series called Monster Land that would intersect with the Wonder Boy series whenever Westone felt like it (see Wonder Boy V: Monster World III, which is not a joke). Since this review is covering just the first game and not the entire series, I’ll leave the history for now. I just wanted to briefly touch upon the series fascinating, confusing chronology, because it gives a different perspective on the fun, but simplistic first entry. For an overview of the entire sprawling shebang that is the Wonder Boy series, please read the Wonder Boy entry over on Hardcore Gaming 101.

 

Wonder Boy (UE) [!]000

Nothing but blue skies and red-haired girls from here on out (Master System).

 

Wonder Boy‘s hop-and-boppery somewhat resembles Super Mario Bros, but the game has enough to distinguish it from the era’s golden prince of platforming. The vitality meter, located at the top of the screen, is perhaps the most unique feature of the game. As you run through a level, the meter dwindles, especially if you trip over a boulder or fire in your path. Vitality can only be recovered by eating copious amounts of fruit, but the game provides enough fruit for a small country to get diabetes, so no worries there. Wonder Boy can only be hit once unless he’s riding a skateboard. Skateboards both propel you through a level and count as a second hit. Eggs scattered throughout the stage are the way to obtain power-ups, like the skateboard. Fairies, which grant temporary invincibility, will also be hidden in eggs, along with the occasional Grim Reaper who lingers behind you and drains your vitality meter, like the ripe bastard he is. Creepy-looking bonus dolls can also be collected in every stage. If you collect them all in the Master System version, an additional world will be unlocked.

 

WonderBoy

         “Takin’ my girl, D? Imma hatch you!”

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Escape (port by Sega)

GENRE: Platformer

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

Unsurprisingly, the first Wonder Boy began its life in the arcades before being ported to both the SG-1000 and the Master System. And while the Master System goes out of its way to be an ace arcade port, including extra levels, different environments, and an entirely new boss, the SG-1000 version feels like Sega placating the remaining fans of the system with a rushed, bewildering port.

 

Wonder Boy (Japan)002

               My sentiments exactly, Tom-Tom.

 

In fact, I would argue that Wonder Boy shouldn’t have been ported to the SG-1000 at all. Forget the washed-out graphics or the awkward controls. The system just can’t handle a fast-paced scrolling game, where the main actions are running and jumping, often at the same time. Choppy movement indeed rules the day here. The game’s playable (in a extreme test of will, I actually beat it), but you’ll wonder why you’re bothering, especially since the Master System version is so much better. Enemies literally appear right in front of Tom-Tom as he’s running along, fruit is relatively scarce, and hatchets lost as a result of death are rarely seen again. The arcade game’s thirty-two stages have been cut down to five, and the skateboard, fairies, and dolls have been extracted altogether. Coupled with the difficulty and the port’s minimalist aesthetic, the SG-1000 Wonder Boy is just above LCD-handheld status in terms of playability: not bad enough that you can’t see what’s happening, not good enough to be considered a full-length experience.

 

Wonder Boy (Japan)004

 Tom-Tom and Tanya proceeded to marry atop Drancon’s bloated corpse.

 

WonderBoyJP

That’s “Super Wonder Boy” for those of you in Japan.

 

WonderBoy

SPOILER: The snails really are the scariest part of Wonder Boy.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Platformer

RELEASE DATE: 03/22/87 (JP)

                                     1987 (US/EU)

 

Compared to the SG-1000 port, the Wonder Boy on the Master System is a whole new world. Every aspect of the arcade has been restored and then some. Skateboards, fairies, and dolls have returned, along with vibrant graphics that look better than just about anything the NES ever produced. The game has three additional worlds, each with four stages, for a grand total of forty stages. Sega was finally starting to understand the difference between a straightforward, no-frills arcade port, and a console port that gave the player more value for their buck. Both the arcade and the Master System versions have an abundance of jungle, cave, and water levels, but the Master System adds a desert, a waterfall, and cloud-based environments. Unfortunately, the controls remain slippery and sometimes difficult to manage, but they don’t detract from Wonder Boy‘s overwhelming charm.

 

Wonder Boy (UE) [!]002

         I think it’s safe to say that Tom-Tom is “shreddin'”

 

WonderBoyJP 

                     I’m beginning to notice a trend…

 

WonderBoy

          Well, I guess nobody saw this coming.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Escape (port by Sega)

GENRE: Platforming

RELEASE DATE: 12/08/90 (JP)

                                     1991 (US/EU)

 

Wonder Boy also saw a decent Game Gear port in the early 90s, though it was renamed Revenge of Drancon in the States and given an ominous looking cover; presumably to remake Wonder Boy with an early 90s Sega “edge.” The game is the same as the Master System version, albeit with slightly fuzzier graphics (dat blurry Game Gear screen), less enemies, and unless I’m crazy, more slowdown; Tom-Tom just doesn’t seem to be on his running A game, as he is in the Master System port. All the extra levels and features are here, though. For gamers who like their screens small and their batteries exhausted, you could do worse than Wonder Boy.

 

Wonder Boy000

      This is a screenshot of Wonder Boy on Game Gear.

 

I’m not sure if it’s the excitement of playing a Master System game that feels like a Master System game (as opposed to an SG-1000 game with fancier graphics), but Wonder Boy is a joy to experience. The game pays homage to Super Mario Bros, while adding in a prehistoric style and non-stop, light-hearted feel that’s all its own. The controls could be tighter and the levels could have a tad more variety, but that’s if you’re looking for things to complain about. After the games I’ve played, Wonder Boy is an out-and-out blessing.

 

C SG-1000

A- - MASTER SYSTEM

B - GAME GEAR

Champion Kendou

ChampionKendou

            Ain’t no bamboo hiiigh enough!

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 simultaneous

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Er… “sport”?

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

Alright, kendo fans, I know you’ve been clanking your bamboo swords together in anticipation for this one. The question that’s on your minds: does Champion Kendou accurately probe the subtle depths of the martial art? Well, for those who may not know what kendo means (like myself prior to this review), the word “kendo” means “Way of the Sword,” while the practice of kendo itself is “a Japanese form of fencing with two-handed bamboo swords, originally developed as a safe form of sword training for samurai.” Champion Kendou does throw two presumably Japanese gentlemen into an arena, complete with armor, bamboo swords, and spectators. Beyond that, your guess as to whether the SG-1000 does kendo justice is as good as mine.

Like the other Champion games on the SG-1000, there are menu options you need to select prior to wielding your bamboo sword. Two of these options are in Japanese and affect how the match is fought. Both options place the fighters in the ring, but the second option displays a power meter underneath each fighter, while the first option shows a string of white kanji-filled dominoes underneath the fighters. To be honest, I’m not sure what the dominoes represent. I thought they might unleash specific moves once selected, so I tried scrolling through them as the characters fought with the joystick. The dominoes did not comply with my tactics, so I did the best I could, which is to say, not very good at all. There are also six levels of difficulty for you to choose on the menu screen. The higher the difficulty you select, the more you should probably know about kendo (and how to control your player) before fighting your opponent.

 

Champion Kendou (Japan)002

       No wonder I’m getting destroyed, my guy can’t see!

 

To me, Champion Kendou plays like an unwieldy sword match where neither fighter really knows what they’re doing. The object seems to be to hit your opponent in a sensitive spot in order to knock them down and take down their power meter, but how one discovers this sensitive spot is a mystery. When you begin the match, your player moves of his own volition. You can guide him backwards and forwards slightly, but he never stops moving. Button 1 and Button 2 both seem to block and attack, but Button 2 has the stronger of the attacks. The longer you hold down Button 2, the greater the knock on the head to your opponent, but the more power you remove from your own power meter. The joystick also seems to correspond to the direction and nature of the blocks and attacks, but I couldn’t figure it out completely. Nor could I figure out the best time to block or hit. Each button press on my end was a guessing game, in hopes that I could get beyond Round 1.

 

Champion Kendou (Japan)001

                           It’s a dark day for kendo fans…

 

Champion Kendou might be a good game for those willing to wrestle with its supposed intricacies, but given Sega’s track record with these Champion titles, I’m willing to bet the game is average at best. Champion Kendou has strange, clunky controls, and unless you’re a kendo disciple, I’m not sure why you would bother. But like the mahjong or tsumeshogi games I’ve tackled already, Champion Kendou was never released outside of Japan, and thus, wasn’t meant for an American honky such as myself. Perhaps in 1986, this game was a revelation for kendo fans. If indeed this was the case, who would I be to tell them they’re wrong?

C-

Super Tank

Super Tank

This tank might be super, but does it compare to Garry Kitchen’s?

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Shooter

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

Super Tank made me ask the question, “Why am I playing this?” more times than I’d like to admit. I mean, I knew why I was playing the game. I agreed to review every game on every Sega console, and by gar, I’m stickin’ to it. Rather my question digs at Super Tank‘s reason for being: why was this game ever released? The sludgy controls, faded denim graphics, and half-working mechanics hearken back to the SG-1000’s beginnings, not its surprisingly solid latter years.

In Super Tank, you control a tank whose “super” status is faulty at best. Its “powers” range from shooting directly in front of him (button 2), to shooting in any direction (button 1), to launching missiles that may or may not fly and land in the direction you point them (both buttons). These attacks get the job done, for the most part, but you can never fire fast enough to satsify the oncoming enemy military. Tanks, helicopters, mechs and other assorted vehicles will never stop coming. If you make a point to destroy every enemy you see on the screen at any given time, ten more will emerge to take their place. I suppose that’s war, but the problem with this onslaught is that there’s no reason for it. If you wanted to, you could move your tank past the enemy forces and progress to the boss with little trouble. There’s no objectives and no time limit. So unless you want to keep firing at the same repeating tanks, at some point, you’re probably going to get fed up and move on.

 

Super Tank (Japan)001

                         This here’s your boss.

 

Along with vehicles, there are also ground fortresses that fire at you. All of these fortresses can be destroyed, though some of them, once destroyed, will reveal a secret pathway to an underground base. In the base, there are tight corridors with stationary weapons and mechs to take out. Once you reach the end of the base, you’ll receive power-ups that increase the width and fire of your traditional attack. The power-up will stay with you until you die, even into the next stage, so it’s totally worth it to seek out these bases; particularly if you’re going to try to play the game through, as Sega intended.

 

Super Tank (Japan)000

I wonder what would happen if I launched a missile underground…

 

I made it to stage five before my tank lost whatever super abilities it may have had (i.e. I lost all my lives and there were no continues). The amount of enemies and projectiles on-screen was just unbelievable. And the fact that Sega expects you to destroy all that junk when the controls don’t allow for easy maneuverability is strange. You’re not a sleek starship cruising through the ethereal galaxies. You’re a tank rumbling through thick sand, deep rivers, and impenetrable forests. And when you’ve got all of Iraq or Libya or whoever it is we’re fighting against here coming against you, the lone representative of freedom (presumably), it’s just not going to end well.

 

Super Tank (Japan)002

Everything on this screen can hurt you, except for the water and the gray squares.

 

Super Tank is one of those rare games that goes beyond mediocrity and into meaninglessness. No game should allow you to bypass entire stages just so you can reach the boss, fight it, then move on to the next stage. Why not construct a game entirely of boss fights if you’re going to allow the player to do this? And why should a player want to bypass a game’s levels? As far as Super Tank is concerned, I didn’t want to have to fight fifty billion (approximate number) waves of tanks, helicopters, mechs. I saw an out. I took it. I continued into the game, not because I enjoyed it or even wanted to play it, but because I wanted to probe what little depth the game had. To see if, like Optimus Prime and the gang, there was more to Super Tank than meets the eye. But no, every level is the same waves of nonsense, repeated until you lose all your lives, get to the boss, or turn the game off. Goodnight, Super Tank. There will be no encore.

D-

 

Point of interest: Super Tank began its life as the Japan-only arcade game, Heavy Metal. While I’d like to testify to Heavy Metal‘s qualities, good or bad, I was unable to find a playable version. Judging by Hardcore Gaming 101’s writeup of Heavy Metal, however, both games are incredibly similar mechanically, though Heavy Metal‘s levels are more varied in their design.

Ninja Princess / The Ninja

Ninja Princess

I don’t think anyone should be allowed to fight without shoes.

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Action

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

“Ninja Princess: feminist warrior raging against the male oppressors or just another chick in drag?”

The answer to such a ridiculous rhetorical question is, of course, neither. The Ninja Princess of the title, Princess Kurumi, is a member of the aristocracy who gets dethroned by one of her trusted advisors. In response to this outrage, she dresses up as a ninja and goes after the traitor to reclaim her castle. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have an advisor, but I’d certainly be pissed if, say, my cat kicked me out of my house and declared it theirs. Can you imagine the litter?!

Let’s say we were to go all “2014” analytical on this game made in 1986: Ninja Princess would likely be used as an example of strong females in gaming. Princess Kurumi might have a good cry after her home is taken away, but who wouldn’t? She picks herself up, puts on ninja garb, and goes for it. So yeah, Kurumi is a strong female, but Ninja Princess is not a political statement. Like so many other female character-driven games hyper-analyzed until I couldn’t possibly give a damn, Ninja Princess is just a good game that happens to have a female protagonist, the end.

 

Ninja Princess (Japan)001

Ol’ Purple over there is actually jumping off that roof. Look at him go!

 

The style of play is top-down horizontally scrolling action, a la Gun.Smoke, Commando, and Ikari Warriors. Since you’re a Ninja Princess (who, by the way, looks nothing like the traditional ninja portrayed in every other game), naturally by mid-80s game logic, your enemies are other ninjas. The enemy ninjas are multi-colored for your convenience: different colors have different attack patterns. Some ninjas jump from rooftops, others imitate rocks, and still others appear ghostlike and chase you down. The ninjas put on a tough front, but if you jam your thumb on the attack buttons and move out of the way of their attacks, your Highness will be fine.

Enemies will occasionally drop scrolls that increase your attack power from standard throwing knife to Omega Shuriken status. The shuriken are broader and can take out several enemies with one hit, so there’s no reason not to upgrade. Button 2 allows you to attack in any direction, while Button 1 is only a forward attack. I’m not sure why you would ever use Button 1 over Button 2, but hey, we can’t all be ninja princesses! Button 1 and Button 2 pressed at the same time will cause Kurumi to disappear in mid-air for a couple seconds. Disappearing can be tricky to pull off, but when executed properly, it will allow you to avoid enemy attacks. Every level ends with what appears to be a witch boss, who twirls a magical baton around her person in a fast and circular (and possibly Satanic) motion. Getting past her requires you to spam your attack as quickly as possible in her face. The witch dies, bonus points are obtained (or not), and Kurumi is one step closer to regaining her castle.

 

Ninja Princess (Japan)000

Nobody likes cheerleading witches. They’re all peppy and evil.

 

What distinguishes Ninja Princess from more repetitive SG-1000 action games is the variety of level layouts and the strong sense of progression. Before you begin a level, a map of the surrounding area is displayed, showing you how close you are to the castle, and ultimately, the end. As you move further into the game and on the map, the environments shift from forest to village to castle outskirts to the castle wall, and finally, into the castle itself. This might seem like a small point to some, but this dedication to detail immerses you in the game’s story. Compared to previous SG-1000 action games, Ninja Princess‘s twelve (or so) stages feels like an actual journey instead of a meaningless three-stage loop.

 

Ninja

Princess Kurumi is actually Bruce Lee! A shocking twist!

 

The Ninja

Cover sponsored by Schoolhouse Rock’s “Say Yes to Violence” division

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Action

RELEASE DATE: 11/08/86 – JP

                                     1986 – US

                                     11/87 – EU

 

But why would Sega release Ninja Princess for the SG-1000 when they had a perfectly good Mark III in need of some solid games? That’s a fair question, but to answer it, we need to travel back in time by exactly one year. Ninja Princess actually began life in the arcades in 1985. The core gameplay, characters, story, and environments are all the same, save for sharper graphics and a couple arcade-only levels. When Ninja Princess was brought over to U.S. arcades, the game’s name was changed to Sega Ninja, but every other feature of the game was exactly the same including the presence of Princess Kurumi as the protagonist. Later in 1986, however, Kurumi received a mysterious sex change and reappeared as a male in The Ninja for the Master System. One might think this was just a Western retooling for the States, since the majority of gamers in the U.S. at the time were – supposedly, statistically – young males. But The Ninja saw an ’86 release in Japan as well, despite the presence of Ninja Princess on the SG-1000, and a release in Europe in 1987 where gamers were none the wiser about Sega’s transgender shenanigans.

 

Ninja, The (J) [!]000

            Congratulations, Mr. Ninja, it’s quadruplets!

 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Ninja. It plays exactly like Ninja Princess – top-down action scroller, two attacks, one weapon upgrade, lots of enemy ninjas with scores to settle – but instead of playing as the colorful Princess Kurumi, you play as Kazamaru, a nameless, faceless soul. Now, male characters, female characters, I don’t really care what sex I play as. What I want is personality from my protagonists, and Kazamaru has no discernible personality. As far as I could tell, he’s just another dude rescuing a woman from distress. Now, I don’t care that the man-rescues-woman-and-defeats-all-evil trope is the plot of The Ninja. I just prefer Princess Kurumi’s story of upheaval and reclaiming of a kingdom more.

 

ninja_26 oocities

The entire village welcomes Kazamaru with open blades (thanks to oocities.com for the screenshot).

 

Whereas Ninja Princess feels like Sega crafted it for an all-encompassing audience, The Ninja feels like Sega jumping on the Western action hero bandwagon in order to appeal to… the select few in the States who bought a Master System? A group of macho males that would never play a game with a woman as the main character? I know these types of guys existed then, and they probably exist today. But to think that Sega was so concerned about the sex of the main character that they reworked an entire game just to accommodate for this supposed audience? That’s both admirable and sad.

NINJA PRINCESS: B+

THE NINJA: B-

Gulkave

Gulkave

                            Gradius! - er, Gulkave!

 

PLAYERS: 1-2 alternating

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: Sega

GENRE: Shoot-em-up

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

Gulkave, you generous, infuriating bastard of a shoot-em-up. Thirty stages, eight bosses, unlimited continues, unlimited death. Without the continues, only the nimblest of warriors would get past the second stage. Without the constant death, nobody would want to get past the second stage. And thirty stages? Eight bosses? Modern shoot-em-ups should be so giving. Gulkave is more about content than creativity, but the game’s relentless pace keeps one motivated until the end.

Gulkave begins like any other horizontal shmup circa 1986. You’re a starship in the depths of space, and your goal is to shoot down streams of enemies with varying movement patterns. There are about a couple dozen enemies you’ll encounter throughout the course of the game. They range from: little red balls that follow you but don’t shoot at you, to green boogers that won’t attack you unless you attack them, to white orbs that travel along the top and bottom of the screen and shoot out a stream of bullets, etc. There are also eight bosses, otherwise known as The Eight Fortresses of the Gulbas Empire (patent pending). The fortresses appear at the end of every third or fourth stage and have several pieces that need to be destroyed before they’re officially toppled. You have a life meter entitled “Barrier” that allows you about three or four hits, depending on if your ship absorbs a bullet or an entire enemy. It’s sweet that Gulkave allows you more than one hit before you explode, unlike other shumps, but such kindness doesn’t make the game any less forgiving. If anything, a life bar makes the game expect more from you.

 

Gulkave (Japan)002

                   A Gulbas fortress in action.

 

Despite my best efforts and research on the Internet, I’m still not entirely sure how Gulkave‘s power-up system works. Power-ups take the form of shimmery cubes, and they emerge from the occasional enemy (their emergence always seems to be random). Shoot the cube to release an icon with the number 1, 3, or 5. Collect the icon and your weapon might upgrade. Sometimes your laser stream will upgrade from one to two beams. Other times, your beam will shift to a spread weapon, or worse, stay the same. None of the numbered icons are consistent with what they do to your original weapon, in other words. You could collect a “3” that turns your pea-shooter into hot spread fire, or you could collect a “3” that keeps the pea-shooter in its current weak state. You’re at the mercy of the Gulbas Empire.

 

Gulkave (Japan)003

The spread weapon is the best in the game. Keep it for as long as you can.

 

The in-game progression is confusing, as well. Notice the horizontal bar that’s divided into squares at the bottom of the screen. The bar seems to be titled “FIRE,” though from what I can see, it has little to do with your weapon/upgrade. When you begin a level, the furthest-left square is highlighted. As you progress through a level without dying, the highlighted square moves further along the bar to the right-hand side, as if the bar simulated your progress through the level. Once you die, however, the highlighted square shifts all the way back to the left, even though you don’t start the level at the beginning. When you die, you’ll begin the level around the area of your death, despite the bar showing otherwise. The trick with the bar, then, seems to be to not die through the entirety of a level, so the highlighted square can shift all the way from the left to the right. But how does one not die once throughout an entire level? Doesn’t Sega know that Gulkave is incredibly difficult? The mystery of the horizontal bar doesn’t need to be solved in order to finish the game, but I really want to know what happens when the highlighted square reaches the farthest right. Do you get lots of bonus points? Does your starship turn into a giant cat and produce rainbow trails through the sky? Does Gulkave declare you “The Master of Shooting Things” before exploding in your SG-1000? The Gulbas Empire has many secrets, it would seem. If you know what happens or you have some speculative theories, please leave a comment below.

 

Gulkave (Japan)004

                 Perhaps Act 7 is a good place to die.

 

Confusing, frustrating, addicting: all good shmups possess at least two of these traits. Gulkave has all three. While I wish the game had a bit more personality or better power-ups, I can’t deny the sheer volume of stages the game provides. And because Gulkave is a no good sonuva that taunts you with periods of success followed by utter chaos where you lose all your lives, you’ll want to make sure the game is good and beat before you put it down.

B

The Castle

The Castle

             This ain’t your dad’s SG-1000 game.

 

PLAYERS: 1

PUBLISHER: Sega

DEVELOPER: ASCII (port by Sega)

GENRE: Adventure

RELEASE DATE: 1986

 

The year is 1986. Peter Gabriel’s “So” is conquering the airwaves with its blend of pop-funk and world music. “Top Gun” is teaching audiences everywhere that bromance is a real concept. And I am one-year-old, unable to speak, but extremely capable of pooping in my pants.

Meanwhile in Japan, Sega quietly releases the last SG-1000 cartridge ever, The Castle. As is common with games released towards the end of a system’s lifespan, The Castle does not resemble an SG-1000 game at all. Yeah, the game’s slow like other SG-1000 games (by design, sure, but still slow), and it has that same limited color palette that all SG-1000 titles have, but its large size and non-linear structure point towards the future of gaming rather than Sega’s simplistic arcade-based past.

 

Castle, The (Japan)000

                       Beware the elephants of March…

 

In The Castle, you play as a prince who must rescue a princess from The Castle’s dark, cavernous walls. There are one hundred rooms to explore within the Castle and you must explore all of them. Within the rooms are keys of various colors, little trinkets that give you bonus points, and various enemies, like knights, wizards, and other castle-oriented folk. The keys are the most important thing to collect because each room has at least one locked door. Often you will have to backtrack if you don’t have the right key for the right door, but thankfully, The Castle gives you a map fairly early on. The map doesn’t tell you the locations of any keys, but it does highlight your progress and let you know where you’ve been.

 

Castle, The (Japan)001

The map is telling me that I have many rooms left to explore.

 

The prince of The Castle is weak, in terms of attack power. If he so much as touches an enemy, he’ll die. He does, however, have an amazing jump where he levitates in the air for a couple seconds, a la’ Bomb Jack or Princess Toadstool from Super Mario Bros. 2. The prince’s jump is your key to navigating throughout the game. But you might notice that the prince – heck, every character in the game – moves like geriatrics. This is intentional on the developers’ part. The entire game is paced slowly to allow you to grow accustomed to the power of the prince’s jump and the movement patterns of the different enemies. This deliberate lack-of-speed sounds strange in concept, but it works really well in practice. And whenever you want to speed the game up (like when you’re stuck on a lift), press Button 1 to make the game move faster.

If The Castle sounds at all familiar, that’s because it’s the prequel to Castlequest, the oft-derided NES game where you explore a castle, collect multi-colored keys to unlock multi-colored locked doors, and all-around get lost and feel helpless. I hated Castlequest when I first reviewed it some three years ago. The game has a looser feel that makes it difficult to discern where to go and what to do. The Castle isn’t necessarily simpler, but it does feel more streamlined and focused. In Castlequest, you don’t need to explore every room, thus you can waste keys by entering certain rooms. In The Castle, however, every room serves a purpose, even if it’s just to give you more keys.

 

Castle, The (Japan)002

            Look at all those keys. Truly, I am a rich man.

 

The Castle isn’t the deepest adventure compared to other 1986 non-linear outings like Metroid and Legend of Zelda, but it’s still a fantastic game. I couldn’t stop collecting keys. So many keys! So many colors! I had to get them all, even if it meant several untimely deaths at the edge of a spike or between a moving platform and a wall or by grazing a knight as I slowly leapt over him. Amassing large quantities of keys while exploring the one-hundred rooms of the castle satisfied the obsessive-compulsive collector/explorer within my soul. The SG-1000, God bless it, probably doesn’t deserve a game this fulfilling, but Sega – proud parents that they were, I suppose – felt led to give it one anyway. The Castle is both an excellent game in its own right, and a powerful testament to what Sega could do with incredible limitations. All Sega fans should give it a shot.

A-