GAME REVIEWS

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Magical Chase Conundrum



Everyone cares what everyone else is buying, playing, liking, and disliking, so the quality, rarity, and cost of the US version of Magical Chase are Turbo topics that are never dropped. Those who are actually interested in the TG-16 for its games as opposed to the ephemeral delight that can be had from stocking trophy cases with chips and boxes can't help but monitor the escalating price of the cartoony shooter. Reactions to the madness have varied. Some people wave their fists at their computer screens in anger, some roll their eyes in disdain, some shake their heads with great somberness, some scoff at the ludicrousness of it all. All share in the disgruntlement, but there hasn't been as much commiserating among the ranks as one might expect. Instead, accusations regarding the motivations people have in defending or defaming the game are hurled about. Some who aren't fond of it claim it garners more attention than it deserves due to its perceived rarity and that owners of the card would never make themselves look the fools by slating a game they spent wads of cash on. Some who adore it claim the title wouldn't receive a shred of the criticism it does if it weren't available only at bloated prices. A point occasionally lost in the tussling is that there are a good number of folks who genuinely like, dislike, or are indifferent to the thing.

As is made quite clear in the review of MC that I've posted on this site, I've cast my lot with the not-enamored-of-it crowd. Any ulterior-motive accusations would prove baseless in my case, as I do own the US version of the game and I've lauded other expensive TG-16 products. Besides, attributing my dislike for MC to cost- or collector-inspired disgust would suggest I'm utilizing some sort of structured reasoning in arriving at my verdicts on Turbo titles. Certainly, the zany opinions I've been passing along here for years should serve to dismiss that notion.

While the reasons behind my status as a non-fan are of the pure, no-hidden-agenda kind, I definitely do have some fond recollections of my experiences involving the chip. It was quite the memorable morning that saw me brave a snowstorm to pick the damn thing up at the post office (true story). Understand I would will my way through torrential downpours, lava showers, massive earthquakes, and asteroid strikes to get hold of the meanest Super Momotarou Dentetsu-caliber TurboChip; there was no way I was going to let a few fluffy flakes cause my Magical Chase to stand idle in a musty parcel-filled backroom. Once I managed to bull my way back home, I powered the game up and played right through it. I believe I've even revisited it a few times since then. But sessions with the card aren't prominent in my memories; the act of acquisition is what stands out--and certainly not just for the brutal-blizzard aspect.

Witch hunts held to find and belittle ill-intentioned, non-Turbo-playing Magical Chase owners have never resulted in any late-night knocks on my door. The mobs have let me be--and for good reason, I would say. My copy has not gone unplayed, and I think my status as a "true TG-16 fan" has been solidified by now. I do believe that the "joy" I've derived from obtaining and owning the game is somewhat different in nature from the elation felt by any given materialistic collector who spends a significant amount of cash merely to acquire and display a highly sought-after trinket. To be sure, the path I traveled to MC ownership was anything but identical to the routes traversed by most cash-flinging game gatherers. But the fates of our respective copies, as well as the reasons behind our respective purchases, might not differ a great deal.

People like to have some sort of end in sight for any activity they take on or task they lay out for themselves. Video-game collectors, be they of the passionate, "just hand me the damn chip" player type or the mint-condition-box-hunting hoarder sort, set particular benchmarks for that very reason. A common aim to strive for in recent years has been the acquisition of the entire library of US Turbo titles. It wouldn't do just to strive to obtain all the enjoyable games that are available for the system, as there is no set enumeration of said games. And it wouldn't do simply to target all the games produced by a particular well-regarded company, as that in most cases wouldn't make for a lengthy quest or one of much challenge. Perhaps most importantly, few if any other people are undertaking such endeavors. So procurement of the full set of officially released US titles is the typical goal to shoot for, as set-in-stone parameters exist, the journey will not be of the unchallenging or inexpensive sort, and other people sure would like to achieve it too.

Plenty of reasons are presented by would-be Turbo monopolists to explain their chip-and-disc-nabbing adventures. Their motivations certainly have no relevancy when it comes to my own PCE-related escapades and don't incite much reaction at all from me these days, but I can't help but be concerned about the mental well-being of any poor fellow hunting only for stateside releases. It's disturbing to think of the outstanding titles that are disregarded in favor of products purchased simply because there are other folks out there who really would like to own them.





Magical Chase vs. good PC Engine games

Of course, the above-displayed screen columns serve more to poke fun at Magical Chase than to make any sort of significant point (and I'm sure there are those who'll howl that they prefer the MC puff-monster to the Spriggan dragon mecha anyway). There are very few nutcases around who have shunned the entire PC Engine library as they've gone about their US-grail crusades. Yes, most Turbo players today have the good sense to embrace a quality title regardless of its hemisphere of origin. But common sense is a damnable thing for some. With it comes awareness that the Japanese version of MC can be had for relative pocket change--an inconvenient fact for those who are in pursuit of the US rendition but swear by the "I simply want the chance to play the game on real hardware" mantra (and let's not BS around regarding the swapping out of colored blocks for wooden bridges in a single level).

I'm not out to judge anyone. After all, if our meritoriousness as "true TG-16 fans" were evaluated on the frequency with which we give each of our games a go, my grand collection would likely be the first to be declared the property of an unworthy owner. Life simply doesn't afford me the time to pay regular visits to individual members of my library. I'm sure that the same holds true for many other true-blue Turbo players. And so my Magical Chase and quite a few other Magical Chases have nice, tidy homes where they're cherished and appreciated--and by and large left to rot.

But again, people have their own specific reasons for wanting to own the game. At this point, they could be looking to utilize it as a colorful Christmas-tree ornament for all I care. But I do find one regularly presented explanation rather disingenuous: that owning the entire US library would fulfill some sort of childhood dream. Sure, obtaining all 138-odd Turbo titles seemed quite the out-of-reach proposition for many an allowance-saving, lawn-mowing teenager back when said titles could actually be found on store shelves. But it was also a notion that any mentally stable young gamer wanted absolutely no part of.

Let me share something with you about most of us back-in-the-day "true TG-16 fans." We didn't sit around dreaming of a glorious future in which we would be able purchase all the slop that NEC was serving up to us. We were frustrated and angry. We knew about the brilliant games that were being released for the PC Engine in Japan. And we knew that we were never going to get localized releases of most of those games despite the occasional false-hope-inspiring magazine blurb.





Some people dreamed about owning the games on the left.
Yeah.

Oh, sure, I was curious about each and every lame-looking US release I would come across screens of while perusing game mags. Sure, I wanted to give every one of 'em a try. I'm always up for finding the good in games, even in hunks of chip-waste. But I really would've appreciated the chance to look for good in Parodius rather than in TaleSpin. Those who differed with me on the matter... well, I doubt such people actually existed. Let's cut the crap. If I'm mistaken and there really were some young lads back then who fantasized about one day owning the likes of the ever-elusive Timeball, well, I offer my condolences that they didn't receive the psychiatric aid they so desperately needed at the time.

There are many folks who present more-reasonable-on-the-surface lines of reasoning in explaining their every-game-or-bust journeys, who stick to their "I shall play it" guns and who truly aren't scumbags more interested in burnishing their games than in playing them (or smarmy resellers looking to do some flipping). I do think there's something about the quests undertaken by these particular people that makes said quests nobler than a sudden, whimsical bored-rich-man's acquisition. It's nice that the objects of the pursuits will actually be played, even if hardly at all in a lot of cases. And most of these collectors of purported integrity will complete their missions only after significant stretches of time have passed. Long waits for something can lend to appreciation for said something. With all of that said...

Call me cynical if you will, but I don't believe there's much difference in motive here. These pursuits are not about playing Magical Chase and its pricy cohorts on real hardware. They're not about fulfilling childhood dreams. They're idiosyncratic in nature. The act of acquisition is what matters here.

Look, I'm not trying to bash any well-intentioned collectors. I myself have already laid out cash to obtain all of the officially released US titles, and I intend to acquire every PC Engine game I possibly can. There isn't any stirring or significant reason for me to do so. Sure, I play each and every game I get. In fact, I play just about all of them through to their ends. And I do work on a web site with the expressly stated goal of providing burly opinions on every Turbo title around. But there are other means by which I can enjoy the games and garner the information I need on them--means I'm not averse to. The fact is I enjoy adding the real deals to my library. It didn't start out that way, and I'll leave the deep psychoanalysis regarding the transition and the true inspiration for my PCE-related activities to the experts. I just know that collecting is fun for me.

And I know all about unobtainables. US Magical Chase? It's small potatoes compared to the Akiyama Jins and Kid's Stations standing between a PCE extremist and his ultimate goal. Yet I've never felt the slightest bit of frustration over the unlikelihood that I'll ever acquire such mythical exist-only-in-whispers-and-heavily-guarded-glass-cases releases. The reason is that these games were out of my reach to begin with. Each first-time glimpse I had of such titles encompassed an accompanying price tag featuring a number beyond my counting capabilities and credit-card limits.

For longtime Turbo fans, that wasn't the case with Magical Chase. It wasn't the case with Dynastic Hero or Super Air Zonk or Terraforming. These titles were available at affordable prices for well over a decade. Other people--typically bored dipshits with superfluities of cash on their hands--made these games virtually unobtainable, which not only makes many old-timers extremely mad but also makes them want to acquire the entire US library even more.

I'm sure that the idea of having a complete collection seemed nice to a lot of Turbo veterans during the lengthy period that it was a valid possibility. One of these years, or one of these decades, some of them might even have followed through on the notion. Completion clearly wasn't of the utmost importance, though; it was a fancy. Only when others (particularly of the asshole variety) made it something much harder to accomplish did it suddenly take on some significance.

The sad thing is that there's an endless cycle at work here. As more and more people grow angry and find their fires for a complete collection fueled, more and more money-loaded psychos will appear on the scene in search of highly desired oddities to toss in with their other on-exhibit novelties. Everyone cares what everyone else wants and thinks and does.

Of course, it's very easy for me to call for some perspective here. I already own US Magical Chase. If my library were devoid of it, would I be angry about the situation? You bet I would be. But perhaps that's the point right there: I've never been known for rationality. You don't want to be like me.

And if you're one of the people in search of a tower-themed-backdrop-hosting MC and I've got you pegged all wrong, if the motivating factor in your case is of a variety I simply haven't considered, well, I wish you luck in your endeavor. Maintain hope. And look at it this way: you stand a much better chance of one day getting that MC than I do of acquiring any of the Kid's Station discs. Rejoice!

And now I should stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking and doing. My time would probably be better spent playing some of those games on my shelves. You get a single guess as to the one I definitely will not be pulling from the ledges today.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Martial Champion


~ MARTIAL CHAMPION ~
Konami
Super CD-ROM
1993

Like most other fighting games of its day, Martial Champion shamelessly imitates Street Fighter II in matters of mechanics and aspects of presentation. Unfortunately, its scufflers are far less agile and know far fewer moves than their SF2 counterparts. Some of them, however, are proficient with weaponry: a swashbuckling ruffian charges headlong with a scimitar, an oddball mystic pokes about with a polearm, and a kooky kabuki performer flails away with a fan. The novel aspect of the affair is that instruments such as the aforementioned ones can be taken from and utilized against their respective owners. Sadly, this "hook" fails to make the action any more engaging than it would be sans sword-or-staff swiping.



While it has a very unrefined feel about it, MC isn't at all difficult. Your computer-controlled opponents typically put up such little resistance that you shouldn't have any trouble repeatedly grabbing them and slamming them to the ground or simply hacking them up when you have a weapon in hand. Revving the difficulty all the way up does serve to make the beleaguered battlers a bit more respectable, but even then, using a speedy character will enable you to butcher your way through the ranks sans much hardship.


But while the fighters here are hardly the most talented combatants you'll ever come across, they're likably eclectic in design, and their championship runs typically conclude in amusing fashion.


And while MC fails to deliver visuals at the level of, say, Fatal Fury 2's, it does feature bright, nice-looking backdrops.


I don't hate Martial Champion, but there are quite a few fighting games for the PCE that are far superior to it. Flash Hiders has a comparably wacky cast and flaunts a similar visual style but plays a great deal better. Konami might've produced a winner in MC had they polished up its gameplay, made it more difficult, and provided more moves for players to make use of. Sadly, the designers failed to do right by the fine characters they came up with.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Moto Roader MC


~ MOTO ROADER MC ~
NCS/Masaya
Super CD-ROM
1992

Like a lot of other folks who became acquainted with it back in the day, I have very fond recollections of the old racing game Super Sprint. There was something quite charming and cool about microscopic cars speeding about compact single-screen courses. And in one of the most astounding instances of game-related serendipity, a friend of mine was able to obtain a "free" copy of the NES version as he and I were trekking home from school one afternoon. (He spotted a plastic bag tucked away in a bush and found the cart stashed inside. We asked no questions, sought no owner, and suffered no crises of conscience--we simply ran away with the thing. Ah, the memories of virtue-less youth...) I did actually play the game every now and then, but I don't remember much about those sessions. The context is what matters here.

Moto Roader MC is a Super Sprint rip-off that joined my collection sans such cool context. I hadn't spent afternoons in arcades being delighted by its small-car action. I hadn't found it stowed away in foliage during a school-day jaunt. But I had read lukewarm reviews of it, and I had spent a bit of good cash to obtain it. And I was quite ready to scrutinize it, as I wasn't particularly thrilled that it had deviated from the play style that its highly enjoyable predecessors feature in order to assume a single-screen Super Sprint-ish look.


MC does stay true to its roots in that it incorporates combat elements into its action; it's a "shoot and swerve" sort of driving game. It controls fairly well for a high-speed, highly compressed racer aside from its cumbersome turbo-switch-based weapons-activation system, which serves to dissuade players from initiating hostilities and leaves them in the unenviable position of praying that their opposition also takes a passive approach. In addition to your missile-blasting, bomb-tossing foes, you'll have to deal with scattered track elements (like ice patches, speed boosters, and sludgy stretches) that can affect your car's performance.


The game isn't visually impressive but does offer vast variety in course design. You can race for glory in areas as disparate as a standard event park, a shoreside dirt tract, a Wings of Wor-esque giant-face-plated industrial zone, a gargantuan-monkey habitat, and the psychedelic domain of a scantily clad chick, while cows, swimmers, waddling birds, and other tiny onlookers observe the action.



You've gotta be as precise as possible when maneuvering your vehicle, but the races have a very random air about them. You might practice to the point where you're a fantastic driver and an utter expert on the course layouts, but if your unruly adversaries arbitrarily opt to bash you around or pelt you with projectiles, your chances of winning will be virtually nil. Sometimes, you'll be able to zip along unharassed and pull up to the finish line in good standing, but such worry-free runs are possible only if your opposition is in a benevolent mood. The quite-out-of-your-hands feel of the affair can be frustrating, especially when you're bumping and banging your way along on the more ridiculous courses, among which is a dusky dungeon with "warp points" that are sure to prove disorienting (and not in a "welcome challenge" sort of way).


Modest ending scenes constitute poor prizes for persisting through the available groups of tracks. The opening cinematics are just as unimpressive.


Should you decide you've had your fill of getting slammed and shot in the main racing competitions, you can partake in some silly soccer-esque mini-games...


...or just ditch the disc for good. MC simply isn't a whole lot of fun and rates as a huge disappointment considering how enjoyable its HuCard predecessors are. If you one day happen upon a hidden copy while on a homeward jaunt from work or school, leave the damn thing alone. Go home and play one of the other Moto Roader games--or just revel in great memories of Super Sprint.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

NES Games That Died with Honor


We elitist, obnoxious Turbo fans have often chuckled to ourselves while listening to our SNES-adoring chums boast of how there are no other questing experiences more rewarding than a trudge through a Chrono Trigger junkyard, of how there's no more-bounteous wellspring of spine-tingling drama than a Zelda 3 block-pot puzzle, and of how a slowdown-ridden tour of The Alien Wars is the sole means by which one can arrive at the pinnacle of blast-'em-up action. But let's give our spinning-room-addled buddies a break and focus instead on their forerunners, the NES hangers-on who may not be as entertainingly discombobulated as their Snerd progeny but who are certainly just as fiery and zealous.

These are the good fellows who will to this day tell you that 16-bit machines offer nothing that features the caliber of gameplay and the level of challenge that can be found in the NES' classics (never mind that the only "challenge" usually presented by such "classics" revolved around overcoming the god-awful "gameplay"). Yes, thanks to these in-denial "old schoolers," we live in a world where Super Mario Bros. 3 is often proclaimed the "best game of all time," where detritus like Astyanax is not only considered acceptable but also occasionally called "excellent," and where Blaster Master is hilariously labeled an "underrated gem" despite the fact that it has appeared on all seven million "underrated gems" lists that have been composed since 1989. All we can do is shake our heads pityingly as these well-meaning but overly wistful veterans of the Power Pad hail their over-the-hill favorites and pine deep down for the days of clunky controls and chunky protagonists.

I feel I must note here that I, unlike the aforedescribed NES loyalists, am completely immune to the effects of nostalgia. Blissful memories of times gone by have absolutely nothing to do with my love for undeniably great Turbo games like Ys Book I & II, The Legendary Axe, and Deep Blue.

And no pangs of yearning or periods of reflection ever result in us sagacious, good-taste-possessing Turbo fans waxing nostalgic for the era of NES dominance. Those are days we'd just as well forget, as it's rather difficult for us to come up with fond recollections of material we considered crap to begin with. Certainly, there were sporadic otherworldly feats to appreciate. How Sunsoft managed to coax its Journey to Silius cartridges into producing music reminiscent of the legendary Ys Book I & II soundtrack is a mystery even the wisest pundits have yet to unravel. And while Mad Dog and Scorpion hardly could have stood toe to toe with Guy Kazama, there's no doubt that the original Contra laid some potential-heavy groundwork for brilliant then-yet-to-come run-and-guns like Hard Corps and Shattered Soldier.

But while we Turbo players were able to appreciate the all-too-rare instances that NES carts flukily or accidentally presented something of merit, we sought more than the occasional mystifying miracle and the odd workable concept. Sure, a few of the games were tolerable (if only barely) when nothing better was available, but even the majority of those were abruptly gutted and rendered obsolete by the subsequent generation's superior products. Indeed, when the slaughter finally commenced, most NES "legends" offered feeble resistance and died quick, bloody deaths.

It was a fitting fate for those pseudo heroes. But a handful of noble stalwarts put up ferocious fights until the tides of Turbo might could no longer be repelled. And those are the carts we will pay homage to today.

Note now that I offer no apologies for the, erm, underrepresentation of these games visually in this article. I have neither the time nor the desire to revisit NES junk these days... even the junk that actually could have been considered good.

In the unlikelihood that I suffer a lapse of sanity so severe that I choose to revive an NES game, chances are quite slim that my selection would be of the hack-and-batter sort. Powering up an NES action-platformer was always akin to begging for trouble, as the general shittiness of 8-bit-era leap-and-swipe controls couldn't possibly be overstated. Yet the system hosted what was truly the original king of the sub-genre, a title that actually thrived on its jump-and-lash gameplay.


~ CASTLEVANIA ~
Slain by The Legendary Axe

Castlevania caught the eye of many a player with its cast of horror-story-based bosses. Screenshots conveyed the inherent coolness of these creatures but gave little indication of their true ferocity. Scythe-tossing Death routinely massacred even those who were skilled enough to reach him with a triple-shot boomerang in hand, and the incarnation of Count Dracula featured here, a two-form fireball-hurling nightmare, stood as one of the period's stoutest final bosses. Legendary stage stretches preceded the end-level showdowns. You needed cunning and skill to survive the axemen-patrolled corridor of torture and the famous fleamen-infested clock tower. Players were treated to heavenly musical tracks while trekking through monster-laden hallways stocked with concealed treasures. But it was the surprisingly solid gameplay that enabled this pioneering champion to stand proudly alongside the greatest games of its kind.

The Turbo's own hack-and-slash mega-masterpiece, The Legendary Axe, helped itself to basic aspects of the Castlevania play system and added tighter controls and larger, far more impressive creatures to battle--creatures that weren't all painted with the NES' trademark purplish-pink hue. But one of Castlevania's early-days peers experienced better luck than it did in the area of adversary artwork and traveled a more comprehensive route with its elements of adventuring.


~ METROID ~
Slain by Shape Shifter

Perusal of the game's awesome enemy-illustration-loaded instruction manual sufficed to get plenty of players amped up for the Metroid experience. Indeed, foes like the spiny, hulking Kraid and the relentless, life-sucking Metroids themselves did not disappoint upon being encountered. Protagonist Samus Aran could acquire a variety of cool weapons with which to dispatch the formidable creatures she confronted. The helmeted heroine had to do plenty of poking around in order to find said weapons, however, as the world of Zebes was absolutely enormous; it wasn't uncommon for players to expend hours at a time simply roaming the grounds in search of new items. Some corridors couldn't even be accessed unless Samus made clever use of her weapons and abilities. Exploration runs and experimentation sessions took place amidst a tense climate largely brought about by the game's audio. Most memorable of the aural elements were the spine-chillingly eerie track that permeated Kraid's lair and the creepy, burbly sounds made by the prowling, vicious Metroids.

Despite a shocking post-last-fight twist, Metroid failed to feature the sort of drama prevalent in action-adventure descendent Shape Shifter, and as cool as its creatures were for their day, they were eventually dwarfed by next-era giants. Nonetheless, the game delivered on its promise of atmospheric adventuring, and it wasn't the only successful sci-fi-themed title the NES would see.


~ THE GUARDIAN LEGEND ~
Slain by Spriggan

An action-RPG/shooter hybrid for a system that struggled simply to achieve success in any given genre, The Guardian Legend seemed destined to flop from the get-go. Somehow, Compile managed to load it up with enough memorable melodies, interesting weapons, and impressive boss creatures that it wound up being a high-quality product. Its vertically scrolling blast-'em-up segments were surprisingly fast and extremely challenging at times--which is not to say that the strips came close to delivering the sort of chaos found in PCE Compile gems Gunhed and Spriggan, but hey, the "super-powerful" SNES was never able to pull off that level of action either. Labyrinthine subsections asked players to do little more than bust up blocks while hunting for new items and entryways, but they made for simplistic fun and contributed a degree of depth to the affair.

Not all journeys to be taken on the NES were quite as basic in nature. One adventure game in particular was stunningly ambitious.


~ ULTIMA: QUEST OF THE AVATAR ~
Slain by Anearth Fantasy Stories

Avatar kicked off with perhaps the most magnificent title-screen tune I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. The track commenced with surprisingly powerful NES-style fanfare and cycled through a number of melodious hooks before returning to its opening bursts (those wanting to hear more were delighted to discover that a gorgeous extended version ran during the end credits). The soundtrack scored another winner with the rich, hope-inspiring Bard's Song. But it was the unusual nature of the adventure itself that made the game so remarkable. Your character class was determined not by a routine series of clicks but by your responses to a soothsayer's ethics-involving queries. Whether you were adjudged a mighty fighter or a humble shepherd, you had to embark on an open-ended quest to become the paradigm of virtue. You were granted the freedom to proceed as you wished, but with that freedom came the constant temptation to cheat, steal, and kill. Avatarhood was within your reach as long as you did right by your fellow men, turned the other cheek when confronted by miscreants, and performed as many charitable deeds as you possibly could. And of course, you had to remember to rid the land of monsters while going about your do-gooder business.

That final element of monster massacring is what ultimately caused Avatar to drag at times. Experience points and gold were rendered superfluities rather early in the quest, meaning most fights were nothing more than time-consuming annoyances--annoyances that could not be fled from lest your character's valor come into question. The PCE's Anearth Fantasy Stories is similar to Avatar in that it begins with an intriguing class-determination exercise and possesses a greater number of distinctive play features than the typical adventure game, but it incorporates aspects of strategy into its battles to keep them interesting for the long haul.

While Avatar succeeded in spite of its scrum-related issues, one NES dungeon crawler actually flourished thanks to its respective combat elements.


~ SWORDS AND SERPENTS ~
Slain by Dragon Knight II

When a buddy and I sat down with S&S for the first time, we were confronted almost at once by a green, odd-looking, ghoulish fellow. This wasn't some meager couple-of-pixels sprite we're talking about here. It was a large, well-rendered, animated creature. And it busted out a switchblade.

"HEY! THOSE ARE ILLEGAL!" my law-abiding chum cried.

I cared not for the legal implications of the action; I was just blown away by the fact that it had happened at all. S&S's creatures were very cool in design and would've impressed even as static entities, but the beasts were constantly in motion, and the animation frames were not put to use merely for mundane events like the wrinkling of a brow or the waving of a sword: one sinister mage's staff actually morphed into a serpent. And it certainly didn't hurt that the music that accompanied the lively fight scenes was quite intense.

S&S fared well even outside of its skirmishes, as its mazes were loaded with neat treasures to happen upon, and up to four players could partake in the looting at once. But there's no doubt that its combat scenes were what truly made it worth checking out. Of course, as cool as its dynamic demons were, they were hardly able to hold a candle to the gorgeous girl-fiends of Dragon Knight II. And when boiled down to their essences, the battles were actually little more than button-mashing festivals. There were other NES games that took more-refined approaches to combat, among which was gaming's finest representation of pugilism.


~ MIKE TYSON'S PUNCH-OUT! ~
Slain by Asuka 120%

Memorable design-wise, talkative between rounds, and granted charmingly ridiculous names, Punch-out's caricatural pugs will forever be viewed as the most likable champions of video-game boxing. It was easy to get caught up in the delightful cartoonishness of the whole affair, to root for the small-in-stature-but-large-in-heart hero, to chuckle as his manager bestowed upon him advice riddled with not-so-subtle Nintendo endorsements, and to smile as the two of them hit the streets during Rocky-esque training sequences. But what really made Punch-out special was that it was a truly magnificent test of hand-eye coordination. You could go ahead and grin as King Hippo belched his way to defeat, as Great Tiger performed his ring-around-the-boxing-ring magic act, and as Soda Popinski drank himself into a stupor. But you couldn't expect to get by the likes of Mr. Sandman, Super Macho Man, and Iron Mike himself unless you were willing to work on your timing and develop your skills.

And if you expected much in the way of visual variety, you were setting yourself up for disappointment. As marvelously diverse as the pugilists were, character-model redundancy plagued the proceedings. For super-fast fighting action and lovably quirky combatants sans the "switch a head, swap a palette" shenanigans, PCE fans can turn to the system's own Asuka 120%. But there was one more arcade-style sports game for the NES that actually achieved excellence.


~ TECMO SUPER BOWL ~
Slain by Final Lap Twin

The original Tecmo Bowl was highly entertaining but is largely looked upon now as a mere preamble for its tremendously successful sequel. TSB retained the fast, amusingly unrealistic action of its predecessor and lopped atop the foundation of fun the entire lineup of at-that-time NFL teams along with their respective rosters and the 1991 league slate. As players delightedly romped through seasons full of utterly ridiculous and insanely enjoyable 70-56 shootouts, the game kept track of an assortment of stats and provided league leader boards for perusal. With the foreknowledge that some would desire a touch of fanciness amid the stat-gazing and touchdown-trading, Tecmo put together lots of brief cinematic sequences to depict important plays and significant events. They didn't skimp when it came to minor graphical elements either: defenders would huff and puff in efforts to catch their breath after an opposing player would dash through their ranks for a score.

Of course, the TG-16 has its own quality sports games that deliver unexpected extras. Final Lap Twin, for instance, offers a full-fledged RPG mode in addition to standard driving competitions. To give some scant credit where some scant credit is due, though, I must note that the NES hosted a great action-adventure game that itself blended a number of styles.


~ ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK ~
Slain by Blood Gear

Zelda II took on elements typical to traditional-style RPGs (overhead-view overworld exploration, an experience-point-based strengthening system) and merged them with sidescrolling hack-and-slash scenes to produce an interesting and ultimately successful mixture of genre-specific components. Those who had an easy time traipsing to victory in The Legend of Zelda were in for quite a surprise here. The Adventure of Link was a true ball-buster; its enemies, especially the armor-clad Ironknuckles and blade-tossing Bird Knights, were sturdy and relentless. They also often employed chicanery to get the best of you: statues would suddenly come to life and gigantic blobs would drop down from ceilings unexpectedly. Fortunately, Link had developed his sword-wielding skills while on sabbatical, and he was capable here of performing such useful maneuvers as a downward blade thrust. There was room for players to utilize wit and resourcefulness in circumventing challenges (were you at a locked door and out of keys, you could simply transform into a fairy and fly through the keyhole). The labyrinthine palaces were memorable for their haunting music; their devious layouts; and the cool bosses they housed, the coolest of which was Link's shadow come to life (though even that one would hardly stand a chance if pitted against the mechanical heavyweights featured in the PCE's similar-in-play-style Blood Gear).

The Legend of Zelda was quite good in its own right and stood unchallenged for eons as the system's premier adventure game. Then SNK came out of nowhere and unleashed an action-RPG masterpiece of their own that seemed poised to give the old champion a good walloping.


~ CRYSTALIS ~
Slain by Ys Book I & II

Crystalis reminded many of the original Zelda with its overhead-view action and focus on maze traversing, but it was superior to its antecedent mechanically, as its hero was speedy and adroit and able to pull off techniques beyond the capabilities of slow-footed Link. The game boasted its own memorable overworld theme and presented players with tasks and puzzles far more interesting than Zelda's "push a block/bomb a wall/burn a tree"-based conundrums. Hitching a ride on a dolphin was a great deal more enjoyable than taking a brief straight-line rafting trip, and the list of diverse incantations the protagonist was capable of casting easily trumped Zelda's one-trick spell book. Also noteworthy was the plot SNK came up with, which went well beyond the usual save-the-princess fare.

Of course, Crystalis had little time to pat itself on the back for boldly butting heads with a classic. It was abruptly mauled by 16-bit adventure games that were able to match it mechanically and provide plot points far more stirring and memorable than its own. Its eventual competition aside, it was ultimately rather irritating, as it forced players to hike through redundant maze stretches, deal with annoying aerial enemies, and switch weapons every few seconds. Still, it's worth remembering and commending for the ways it made adventurers use their noggins to proceed. And it wasn't the only NES game that presented interesting puzzles.


~ SHADOWGATE ~
Slain by Mami Inoue

Shadowgate certainly wasn't short on good brainteasers to tax players' minds with, but what really made it so very memorable was its uncanny ability to establish certain effective climates and then successfully diverge from them based on the particular demands of given scenes. It owed its atmospheric flexibility to its incredible soundtrack, which shifted effortlessly from remarkably eerie numbers to exciting themes of adventure. The fact that Castle Shadowgate housed a number of interesting (and often highly dangerous) creatures, including a riddle-posing sphinx and a fang-bearing hellhound, contributed to the journey's general airs of unease and suspense. And as you might expect in a game loaded with tricky puzzles and fearsome beasts, there were numerous ways for your character's quest to come to a rather gruesome end.

The game itself hardly suffered an ignoble fate. It convincingly battered its own Turbo CD successor and, in truth, made mincemeat of all the PCE's point-and-click-based adventures. In fact, some say it still lives on today...

I suppose all of these games live on in a fashion. Honor them as you would a cracked Super CD or a busted TurboChip. That's not to say you should actually play them, of course; let's not get crazy here. In fact, if you really want to be blown away by something from the NES era, you'll have to haul the Sega Master System out of its dusty tomb and play the incredible Phantasy Star. Heck, do that right now and leave this NES stuff where it belongs: in the past.